I wrote this short in a free-writing exercise. The scenario was in my head but the title wasn’t. I asked people to read it and leave a comment suggesting a title, which I chose on Jan 31, 2019. Thanks to everyone who participated!
“Babe, I’m home!”
With a bang that rattled the windows, the front door slammed shut. My wife’s voice rang through the kitchen. The walls were paper-thin; I could have heard her from anywhere in the house. Damn late aughts constructions–like little shoe boxes built from papier-mâché, all thrown up so close together each block in this suburb was like its own self-contained fire hazard.
My elbow collided with the bronze tchotchke on the night stand. Some kind of antique knick-knack–a bronze lamp–Mel had picked up a flea market we visited together on one of our first ever dates. I swore under my breath, righted it. The cut on my hand was still bleeding.
“You need to hide,” I whispered urgently.
The woman in our bed blinked at me with her overlarge brown eyes. “Hide?”
“Get in the closet!” I gestured toward the door, shooing her inside. As a Jewish girl growing up in a Midwest town where nothing more exciting than the prom king marrying the prom queen ever happened, the irony of me shoving this woman into a closet wasn’t lost.
“Babe?” Melinda’s voice rang out again, closer this time. Footsteps on the carpet, which covered the stairs all the way up and ran into our bedroom. The carpet. I was still dripping blood, directly into the beige low-density pile. I cursed again.
“Hey–Mel!” I called back, my voice slightly strangled.
I closed the closet door. It caught on the bed-sheet she had wrapped around herself to hide her nakedness, so I forced it shut.
I reached the door just as the knob was turning.
“Jess?” Mel’s broad, brown face, usually lit by a smile, was full of furrows. “You alright?”
“Yes!” I said. Then in my best sheepish wife voice, I held up my hand. “Do we have any Band-Aids?”
Mel’s eyes fixed to the blood dripping down my wrist in a thin red line. “Oh, Jess!”
Mel fixed me up, then insisted on making me a tea before she went out again.
“Don’t you have to meet Dave in like–” I glanced pointedly at my watch “–less than 15 minutes?”
“It’s fine,” Mel said, missing the obvious cues I was giving. Flop sweat on my lip, eyes that wouldn’t stay focused in one spot. Maybe she’d chalked it up to the cut. It ran deeper than what I thought, and Mel had swapped the XL Band-Aid she’d grabbed for the gauze and a cotton pad. She hadn’t even asked how I’d done it; the custom-order furniture business I’d been running out of our garage for the past two years provided the perfect cover. The number of times Mel had come home to find me bleeding, stuck with splinters in various body parts, bruised and covered in sweat, numbered easily among the hundreds with (and this I was proud of) only one trip to the hospital so far. We always joked that we were meant to be–the home-DIY-junkie-turned-carpenter, and the registered nurse. It did really seem like that, in the beginning. The meant to be. That’s what made everything that had happened since–everything that was happening now–so much worse.
Maybe Mel caught the trail of psychic runoff from my thoughts because she turned her large grey eyes up to mine and smiled, one of those so full of longing and inconsolable sadness that it’s meant to break your heart, because what else could it do.
“I just thought it would be good for us to spend a little bit of time doing something normal,” she said softly, waving her open palm toward the tea I was nursing.
“Before you go back to your Mom’s for the week, you mean?” I hated the bitterness in my voice, but I couldn’t find anything in me to soften it.
“Jess–” Her voice caught on something. It sounded breakable.
“I know, I know.”
Mel took a breath, a more solid place to speak from. “We agreed we’d keep working. This is only temporary. I need to deal with my pain, and I don’t want every second we spend together to be a reminder of your–”
She didn’t need to say that last word: guilt. It hovered over us both like a miasma, something rotten. It hadn’t been as bad as that–I mean, it had, for Mel. For me it was only ever just messages. A cute girl I’d been friends with in college who had just come out. I DMed her just to say congratulations, then we started chatting about other things, and before I knew it…yes. There was a flirtation there, and I admitted it. But not soon enough. Not before Mel found it.
That might have been the end of it–something we could have worked through–and then the second thing happened. It was a ticking time bomb, buried under the shared experiences, the joys and fights and all the foundational layers and walls Mel and I had spent the last two years building around our relationship–just waiting to break through. There had been a time, right at the beginning of me and Mel, the same as with any other new relationship where you haven’t quite decided if you’re both all in–though apparently, Mel had decided, it was her and Jess all the way.
I didn’t know that. I was still strung out on a different ex–and sure, Mel was so shiny and new and I thought yes, maybe, this is it, but there was still a part of me holding back, a part of me that whispered it was still too early to tell. I had been out drinking and I’d taken a girl home that night. It didn’t matter, and things between Mel and I got serious soon after, and I never mentioned it because it didn’t matter but then the messages between me and that friend from college happened and a week later, this one-night stand, this total blip on the radar–whose name I didn’t even remember–Lana? Ilyana? Something like that–chose that time of all times to track me down on social media and message me.
It was like reverse kismet. The timing couldn’t have been worse. I didn’t even remember who she was at first until she told me: the date, the place, everything we’d done with and to each other in that one night. Mel knew right away that had been in the time of me and her and that had been it. There was no reasoning with her. Chalk it up to the fiery Latina temper if you want, but I’ll tell you I’ve never seen a fury as cold as Mel’s. She was stone cold, methodically filling up the two duffel bags she laid out with everything she needed to get out–to get out of our house-–
Scrape of chair legs against the kitchen tiles. “Anyway, I should go.” Mel stood, grabbing her jacket. “Try not to do too much with that hand, okay? Let it form a scab. If it’s hot to the touch tomorrow, call me and I’ll come look at it.”
I tried on a half-smile, just to see if I could. It settled over my mouth like it was a size too small but I made it fit. “You sure? I could just call an ambulance, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.”
Mel’s back was to me; her shoulders came up in a defensive hunch. My heart sank, but on a sigh Mel turned to face me.
“I want to come,” she said. She reached for my hand and it was like the sun peeking out, the first tentative rays, after a week’s worth of nonstop rain.
She didn’t kiss me goodbye, but I didn’t need her to. The look of hope in her face had been enough.
I floated up the stairs, my hand throbbing in time to the rapid beat of my heart.
I pulled the closet door open.
The woman was still there, huddled under the sheet. She blinked up at me sleepily through the longest lashes I’d ever seen.
“Alright,” I said. My best commanding tone. “Now that my wife’s gone, you’re going to tell me just who the hell you are.”
“I’m here to serve you, I told you that.” Her face was implacable.
“Here to–what does that even mean?” I blinked and sputtered, unable to formulate a coherent thought. “One second I was looking at my hand, and then next thing I knew, a naked stranger was in my room! How do you explain that?”
She had taken me completely by surprise. That stupid antique lamp–made from finely-etched bronze–on the bedside table had an impractically narrow base. It was Mel’s, of course, and for sentimental reasons I had allowed it to stay on the night table even after she’d left, though I’d been determined to pitch it for years and had said as much to Mel several times after she had first put it there.
I had been carrying a lop-sided pile of laundry when I knocked into the thing. I dropped the laundry and caught the lamp, but the angle of my hand was awkward and the joint between the handle and the main body of the thing bit into the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. I had yelped when it cut into me, snatching my hand away, but not before its spout, like the spiny tail of some deep-sea creature, had scraped up the back of my hand, drawing a thin, bloody welt there, too.
“It took your blood to bring me here,” the woman said, as if guessing my thoughts. Her heavy-lidded eyes were half-closed, though whether in amusement or boredom I couldn’t tell.
“You’re telling me you came out of that lamp?” I countered, glaring at her. “Do you know, if my wife had found you here, that’s one excuse I never would have thought to try. ‘Hey honey, no need to lose it, really. This random naked stranger wrapped in our bedsheet is actually a freakin’ genie.’”
The woman gave me a lazy smile. “Your wish is my command,” she drawled.
I snorted. “Well I wish you would get back in your damn lamp.”
The smile widened. “Is that all?”
“And that my wife would come back,” I snapped.
“I require an exact quota.”
The hair stood up on my arms. Why was I even talking to this person? I needed to find my phone and call the police, now. It just hadn’t seemed as dangerous a situation, before Mel showed up, finding a naked woman in our bedroom. I hadn’t been alarmed, just startled. There was something about nudity that made a person less threatening.
Nervousness made me flippant. “Let’s throw in a bucket of KFC while we’re at it, then.”
One of her brows, full and thick, arched kinetically. Another flash of that irritating smile. I turned back toward the closet door, sure I had dropped my phone on the bedside table when I’d knocked over the lamp.
It wasn’t on the table where I’d left it.
I whirled back on the woman. “Hey what do you think you’re–”
The sheet from the bed lay in a rumpled heap on the closet floor.
The closet was a two-by-five foot cell. She couldn’t have gotten past me without considerable elbowing and awkward shuffling, and I would have noticed if she’d dropped the sheet.
The front door slammed, windows rattling. Small niggle in the back of my mind–need to get someone in to fix that, or add a spring to the door.
“Babe! Hey, sorry,” Mel called from downstairs. “I told Dave to rain-check. I felt back leaving you here on your own like that.”
The heavenly smell of something greasy and deep-fryed wafted up the stairs.
“Jess?” Mel called again. “I thought I might as well get us dinner–how do you feel about popcorn chicken? We haven’t had it in ages, so I thought, why not…”
I headed downstairs in a daze, following the sound of Mel’s voice. The cut in my hand throbbed then–once, twice, and a last, a third time.