Lisa Marie was on the front porch in the dark when Donna arrived. She only knew she was sitting there because the headlights splashed across her as Donna pulled into the drive. The smoke from Lisa Marie’s cigarette wafted to her on the night breeze as she got out of the old Buick and followed the broken stone path to the little house’s porch. As her eyes adjusted to the dark she saw the ash tray on the table next to her, almost overflowing with ash and butts.
“You came,” Lisa Marie said, her voice watery.
“Of course I did.”
“Jerry had stayed the night, anyway. He’s good with them.”
Donna heard the way the panic tilted her voice up slightly, and patted the air.
“He won’t say a thing. You know he hated him. Maybe more than I did.”
In the dark, all Donna could make out was some sort of movement from Lisa Marie. She could figure out on her own it was a head nod. With expert precision Lisa Marie crushed out what remained of her cigarette and reached for the pack to light another.
Donna was cut off by a car engine. Coming down the street, a few houses away. Headlights off. It slipped easily into the driveway and then Cindy was slowly closing the door of her car and hustling toward them.
“I’m sorry,” she huffed. “There was traffic on the bridge. At this hour. Can you believe it?”
Donna heard Lisa Marie drag and blow. “Bob?”
A puff of air on her face as Cindy waved a hand. “He could sleep through a bomb going off in the house. He didn’t wake up from the phone ringing or me getting ready. If I’m not back by the time his third alarm goes off he’ll just think I went to work.”
A moment of silence as they all contemplated what came next. And then Lisa Marie took a big breath in – with her cigarette or without Donna couldn’t tell – and let all the air out in hitches and shakes.
She led them through the house with the front lights off. For the most part the neighborhood would be sleeping, but Donna knew Lisa Marie was thinking of old Mrs. Carrington across the street and a house down. The woman had reached the age where sleep happened when it wanted and didn’t happen when it didn’t. Lisa Marie often told them she sat in the front window of her house the way a spider sits in the middle of the web. Watching.
So Lisa Marie left the lights off until they had reached the kitchen. With a smooth hand she found the switch on the wall, and Donna and Cindy were faced with the entire scene for the first time.
Lisa Marie looked the worst they had ever seen her. Her lip was split. Teeth stained with blood. And no amount of concealer would completely cover up the bruise forming around her right eye. It was practically swelled shut.
Worse than her face were her arms. Scratches all up and down the left arm. An ugly bruise forming on the right. Purple. Swelling. In the rough shape of a hand circling her bicep.
Worse than her arms was her neck. Rising up above the collar of her night shirt came bruises the same shade as her eye and her arm. Swelling. Wrapping all the way around.
Cindy crossed herself and lifted her eyes to the ceiling as she muttered something.
Donna got out her own holy words.
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“I made steaks,” she said. A mess of pots and pans were still on the stove. “It was our anniversary today, remember? So I made steaks, and he said he wanted his medium-rare. But when I put it in front of him he said it was medium. He hadn’t even cut it into it.”
There were two steaks, along with mashed potatoes and corn and some bread and butter. Donna had to work to find them all, like puzzle pieces scattered over a pile of broken wood from a kitchen table and set of chairs that had been bashed in. There was gravy and blood on the walls.
Lisa Marie was fumbling for another cigarette. Outside, in the dark, she had been a stone. Now she was back in the kitchen and the lights were on and her great resolve was beginning to break. She gave up trying to light the cigarette and looked at Donna with freshly watering eyes.
“Maybe if I had cooked it rare…”
Donna didn’t let her get anything more out before pulling her close and squeezing her tight. So tight the words couldn’t come. Tight enough, she hoped, that the thoughts couldn’t come either. Lisa Marie let her arms dangle to either side of her but leaned into Donna nearly hard enough to make her lose her balance. She wept into her shoulder, the tears soaking through Donna’s blouse. Cindy waited patiently nearby, watching, but after some indescribable amount of time she looked at Donna, and then pointedly looked up at the clock.
Time did not stop for grief.
“Lisa Marie…Lisa Marie, look at me. Look at me.”
Donna held her at arm’s length, her hands resting gently on her shoulders, and she waited until Lisa Marie had pulled herself together enough to look into her eyes.
The most wonderful shade of brown with the smallest flecks of green. Those beautiful eyes were supposed to draw in the man of her dreams, an actor, a prince. Not a lazy piece of shit who kept getting fired from his job for not showing up and got his car repossessed while she was driving it.
“You are going to repeat after me,” Donna said. She waited until she had gotten the smallest nod from Lisa Marie before continuing. “This is not my fault.”
“This is…not my fault.”
“This is not my fault.”
Lisa Marie stood up a little taller. “This is not my fault.”
“He made me do this.”
“He made me do this.”
“I’m glad he’s dead.”
Lisa Marie winced, and Cindy gave her a disapproving look, but Donna knew. She knew.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” came in a whisper.
“I couldn’t hear you.”
Lisa Marie set her jaw, and Donna saw the spark she was looking for. “I’m glad he’s dead.”
“Good. Now, show us the body.”
It was on the other side of the kitchen. There was a little step down into what Lisa Marie had always referred to as the Mud Room, even if the space was no more than three feet by three feet. A door to the driveway was on the other side, the curtains drawn. The basement stairs started between, wooden and splintered and creaking.
In a sprawled out puddle was Jim. Blood covered all nine square feet of the Mud Room floor. Splattered the kitchen tile and the walls. Worst of all, it was dripping down the stairs. Cindy reached over the body and flicked on the light. The blood had gotten two thirds of the way down. The air reeked of iron.
On the kitchen floor in front of the fridge, sitting in the middle of its own small puddle, was a steak knife. Surrounding it were all the letter magnets and pictures that had been up on the freezer. It was easy to piece it all together. The steak was ‘overcooked.’ Jim started taking his negative emotions out the only way he knew how. Lisa Marie grabbed her steak knife. Or maybe she had never put it down. He started choking her, up against the fridge, knocking everything off.
Then Lisa Marie had used the knife.
Driving him toward the Mud Room.
He was lying face down. She was unable to see how many times the knife had gone in. She wanted to see, wanted to count exactly how many times her friend had driven it deep, taking back her life.
She wished she could have seen the look on his face.
Cindy was examining the scene, her eyes bright and her chin set. They had seen that look on her plenty of times, usually before cooking for the church or setting about some project.
It was the look of a woman setting about important work.
“First, the body,” Cindy said, rolling up her sleeves. “Other circumstances I’d say we should move him to a bathtub, but looks like most of his blood is already on the floor so I guess that’s a moot point. Lisa Marie, did Jim have a hack saw?”
Lisa Marie looked between her dead husband and Cindy and nodded. “Out back. In the shed.”
Cindy nodded. “I’ll find it. Meanwhile, you two gather up all the cleaning supplies you have in the house. Bleach. All the bleach you have.”
All the bleach Lisa Marie wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. But Cindy, coming back in with a small bundle of sharp tools wrapped in a towel, patted Lisa Marie’s arm and told her not to worry.
“We take care of the body, we can clean up the rest in the day,” she said. “No one was coming, right?”
Lisa Marie nodded rapidly. “Right.”
A knock on the front door. A rap so small they almost didn’t hear it. They all froze, Donna and Lisa Marie holding bloody rags in gloved hands and Cindy with the saw poised just above Jim’s right elbow.
The rap came again.
And then a voice.
“Lisa Marie? Hello?”
Lisa Marie’s eyes went wide, and she mouthed, Mrs. Carrington.
Nosy bitch, Donna mouthed back. Between the three of them she was least covered in blood and bruises, so she quickly peeled off the gloves, dropped the rags in the sink, and walked cautiously to the front.
There were no red and blue lights coming through the front windows. That was a good sign. Donna was still convinced she would open the door and find not only Mrs. Carrington, but also the local finest. Guns drawn. Ready to run in.
Donna opened the door in the dark. The moon had risen. Mrs. Carrington was hunched on the front. There was no one else on the porch, or the lawn, or the street.
“Hello?” Donna asked.
Mrs. Carrington tried to look past Donna. “A little late for a party, don’t you think?”
“Can I help you with something?” she answered, closing the door a little.
“Maybe. Maybe not. I heard noises earlier this evening. Awful noises. Coming from here.”
Donna’s spine stiffened, grew cold. “Is that so?”
“Just so,” Mrs. Carrington said. “I almost called the police. Then the noises stopped, and I thought, well, just like every week. Then I saw you pull up. And your other friend, too, with the headlights off. She shouldn’t be driving like that.”
“I’m sorry, what was the point to this visit?”
Mrs. Carrington stared at her. Donna stared back, trying to seem both casual and frightening. Fear was crawling up her back. Why was the old woman here? She must know something. And if she knew something, she’d say something. Maybe not tonight. But tomorrow. Eventually. The whole town would know. Everything would come out. Everything would be ruined.
Suddenly, Mrs. Carrington smiled. “There was, actually. I have all this laundry bleach and I don’t need it.”
“Yes. You see, I was going to donate it to the church, but then I saw Cindy’s car and thought she could bring it for me.”
Sure enough, sitting on the porch behind Mrs. Carrington was three two gallon jugs of bleach. Also a canvas shopping bag, filled to the brim with rags and old shirts.
“She can bring these to the church for me, can’t she?” Mrs. Carrington asked. “Or, maybe, she can use them. Yes, maybe you three should take them home. So if they don’t show up at the church, I won’t mind at all.”
“Um…thank you.” It was all Donna could figure out to say.
Mrs. Carrington’s eyes twinkled in the dim moonlight. “Don’t mention it.”
The old woman passed through the bleach jugs and toddled down the stairs, gripping the railing. When she reached the bottom she turned ever so slightly, the moonlight reflecting off her glasses.
“You know, there used to be a Mr. Carrington.”
Donna carried the jugs and rags into the kitchen and set them down on the counter. From where the knelt on the floor Cindy and Lisa Marie looked at her with questioning, frightened eyes.
“We don’t have to worry about Mrs. Carrington.”
The work was done by dawn. The house reeked of bleach but the floors and walls were clean. The table and chairs were brought out to the wood scrap pile. The magnets and pictures were cleaned and put back on the fridge.
Jim was in pieces, buried under the floor of the shed. If anyone asked, he’d taking a new trucking job the day before. He’d be back in a week.
Lisa Marie took ibuprofen and some of Donna’s Xanax and went to bed.
Donna arrived home around seven, an hour after dawn. Jerry was sitting outside, smoking, in a scene so similar to the beginning of the night she feared it was somehow repeating. He met her at the car.
“Hi,” he said.
“The girls are up. I have bags packed for them, they don’t know it. I figured, if we needed to, we could leave town for a few days. If we don’t, we can go get pancakes. What do you think?”
She gave him an exhausted smile and shrugged.
“Let’s start with pancakes, and see what the day brings.”