“The Coldest Room in the House”
by Lon Prater
She’d tried to leave him in a blizzard once, hoping the wind and snow would fill in her footsteps the same way her own creeping indifference had filled in the holes that years of frustration had gnawed into her heart. It was so much like a hollow winter day, this business of being married to a driven man.
She married young, then declared herself a failure at fertility just in time to save their barren bank account. Eventually, eventually–the depression set in. Every day, they would get up and go to work, every day there would be a phone call or text at precisely 11:15 and another at 4:30. Every day they’d come home to an empty house and quietly lead their separate lives. One kiss on the cheek before packaged dinners, another before bed.
“Honey,” he called from the master bathroom, and she pretended not to hear him.
It had gotten so easy to do over eighteen years and four affairs (three for him, one for her). Why, now that he was dead of a heart attack, toppled over sideways at the kitchen table, cock in hand, porn lighting up the screen of his laptop, why was it so hard now to blot out his voice?
In her day job, she was a “sanitizer” in a large federal office not far from D.C. She took the photocopied papers requested by reporters or the odd citizen and stripped out whatever classified information was not to be shared with the public. Freedom of Information Act be damned. Why could she not take a big black pen and indelibly mark through the worst years of her life, especially now that they were supposed to be over? Why could she not make Martin just another state secret everyone agreed never to talk about?
“Honey? Have you seen my tie?” he called. “We’re going to be late.”
Maybe you’re going to be late, she thought, remembering the time or two that she had been late, and how they’d stared together with fear and hope at a pee-stained wand, silently begging it for an answer they could live with, come what may. And their prayers had been answered in the time-honored way: not with what they wanted, but with the bare minimum they needed to get by. They survived with promotions instead of children, thereafter neatly avoiding pets and friends with children the way a germaphobe avoids handshakes.
What would he look like, if she went now into the bedroom, the coldest room in the house? She’d slept on the couch the last night, alone again, and in the morning, hearing him shuffling about had not seemed so odd in the lingering torpor of an Ambien and Stoli nightcap. She lay there knowing she didn’t have to go to work because she was on leave. She listened to him cracking his knuckles, going through his morning ritual of snot-blowing and mouthwash gargling. The light was off in the bedroom, but she thought she could see his shadow through the cracked open door, hunched on the bed, reaching down to tie his shoes. She couldn’t remember now which of them had been the one to demand the expensive room-darkening blinds and curtains, but now she was grateful for them.
“Honey? Bernsy? You out there, doll?”
Bernie, she thought. Short for Bernice. Bernsy rhymes with Guernsey and every day for eighteen years I hated it and you knew I hated it, because it sounds like a cow and even so you called me that–
It was petty, she knew. But small things added up over time. They wore larger, more permanent things down, like waves lapping over and over against a rocky coastline.
She’d lost count of how many days it had been. Days that were supposed to begin her new life without Martin. Yet he was still there every morning, gargling and blowing his nose. Still there in the evenings. He never passed through the front door, never left the bedroom. One second it was quiet and the next he was calling out to her from the darkened bedroom.
“What’s for dinner?” he’d asked last night. She’d heard the thunk of him kicking the well-scuffed oxfords off of his feet and into the closet, the same as he did every evening when he came home from work. There were brown polish marks on the wall, built up from years of routine; she couldn’t remember exactly how long ago she’d stopped cleaning them.
She did not dare go into the bedroom to get a change of clothes, not even during the day when he was supposed to be gone.
Bernie had ached for him to just leave her for so long. And now that he was supposed to be lying in state three rows down and four across on the north facing side of the Albemarle Mausoleum, now that she knew that was exactly where he was–she’d seen his parched body, hovered over his cold cheeks and stayed to watch the workers crank their machine into position and slide him into place–now she felt the unfairness of it all. Her desire to see him out of her life, her desire to hold on to him. Their mutual disaffection weighed her down like a palpable thing.
Was that what had held them together so long? The shared weight of their unhappiness?
That night when she’d left, barefoot in the snowstorm, heated by her own shame and anger at his first betrayal–funny how much easier to handle they became, with practice–that night, he’d come after her. Lured her back inside with pleas and sobs. But something in his eyes said, If you leave again, I will not follow.
And she hadn’t left again, unless you counted her fling with Werner.
But that was another long, indelible black mark in her life. We can admit to there having been an affair, but all names and dates and tears and joy must be obliterated before the information can be released to the public.
“Honey? Do you hear me?” He was standing just behind the door now, she could tell from how near his voice sounded, and his aggravation at being ignored came through in every syllable.
She heard the floor creaking beneath him, watched the upside down frosting of the white stucco ceiling shift overhead. For a moment she felt disoriented, as if she were the one upside down and flying over a white-capped sea. But the feeling passed when he called out to her again.
She thought about moving out of this place. Just leaving. Having a company come pack up her things. She wondered if anyone still packing up after 6 p.m. would notice his presence. She wondered if Martin would miss her when she left, or if he’d simply fade away and disappear like some Hollywood special effect. More to the point, she wondered if he’d find a way to follow her wherever she went.
If she held her breath, concentrated on slowing the savage beat of her heart, she could hear him standing behind the bedroom door, breathing.
She stood and launched herself for the vodka, but at some point she’d emptied the bottle. Or maybe he had. Do ghosts drink? She’d have to leave this place, she knew. At least long enough to buy more alcohol.
A loud, pulsing tone jolted the bottle from her hand. It fell to the hardwood floor, crashing into hundreds of thousands of glittering splinters. She looked around for the phone. She hardly used it, a cell phone was all she needed, but Martin had insisted on keeping a landline. It’s the only way 9-1-1 can find you, he’d declared. Do you want to call them for help and they don’t know where you are?
Bernie wanted to call them for help. Call a priest or a shrink or a reality show host. Anyone who could help her cope with the overwhelming blackness that had engulfed her, fed on her, left her with an indifferent husk of a heart too run down for any proper grief. No help would come, she knew. She moved toward the pantry where she kept her broom and dustpan, tiptoeing around the blast radius of the glass like a soldier of the Afghan war.
In the pantry she found an inch or so of Martin’s bourbon and she drained half of it in one swift, burning gulp. She stood there with her sweating forehead against the cool doorframe until the heat seeped through to her fingers and toes. Black Label, she thought. White words on a black label.
When she returned to the mess of the vodka bottle, there was no sign it had ever been broken. It sat there on the marble countertop next to her Ambien prescription, mocking her mutely.
“Honey, are you okay?” her dead husband called from the cool darkness of the bedroom. She imagined the ceiling fan over him, blades swooping in slow, languid circles, scooping more cold air down onto the bed.
“I’m still not talking to you,” Bernie said. Her voice sounded ragged, like some TV chef had hacked notches into her vocal cords with a serrated blade. “You son of a bitch, why are you still here?”
Bernie heard him sigh and it was like a dam breaking. “You can’t just delete eighteen years of your life, Bernsy. You can’t–”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” She slammed the broom and dustpan against the wall, strode back to the pantry and emerged with Martin’s bourbon. She turned the bottle upside down over her open mouth till it was empty, spilling some on the clothes she had slept in. She swung the bottle down in a vicious arc and let it smash against the floor in the same place the broken vodka bottle had been.
“And besides that, neither can you! You can’t make the hurts you caused disappear. You can clean up the messes, but there’s still something broken when it’s all said and done.” She sobbed, hating herself in that instant for her weakness. “And for God’s sake, stop calling me Bernsy!”
There was nothing but silence from the bedroom. For an uncountable number of seconds, Bernie thought she had exorcised him with her tears and booze. Her breath came in angry puffs, and try as she might she could not get it under control. The room swam around her.
“I hate you, I hate you, I hate you so much,” she told him, and it felt so good to finally say it, to let it out into the light of day uncensored.
After a long pause, during which she smelled the alcohol that had soaked her shirt (and under that, the vodka she had drunk last night coming out of her pores), she looked down at the sharp disaster of black-labeled bourbon and scarred wood beneath her feet, not feeling the silver needles of glass or the cuts they’d made in her tender skin but watching the fine bright threads of red slowly unspooling from where they’d cut her. In the silence that followed, her heart languidly collapsing upon itself, she heard him sit down heavily on the hope chest at the foot of their bed. Automatically, she opened her mouth to tell him not to sit on her damned hope chest, and why did she even bother calling it that anymore, she had no hopes, only blankets that too thin and worn to fight off the bedroom’s chill.
Before she could get out the first shrill word–for she knew she’d sound shrill, and hated herself for that as well–she heard him getting up from it all on his own. Even in death, his response was as Pavlovian as hers. He gave a little gust of a laugh as if they’d shared a joke.
Bernie grabbed the broom and dustpan and set to cleaning up the mess.
“I–I could help you with that,” he said. His voice trembled.
She looked up, remembering in that instant that the phone had rang so many eternities ago, only once. She thought of a phone ringing constantly over the eons; how would that kind of noise erode the world around it? And who would have called her and let the phone ring only once?
“I don’t want your help, I want you to leave.” She felt a burden lifting from her heart as she said it now, finally. Too many years too late. She looked down at the pile of glass she’d swept into the dustpan, but neither glass, nor broom, nor dustpan could be seen. The wooden floor was as unscarred as her naked white feet. “And if you don’t leave, I will.”
“You’re bluffing,” he said.
She went to the living room windows and pushed back the curtains, opening them wide. Outside, the sky was a wash of grey-green more like a North Atlantic winter sea than the middle of May had any right to be.
“You need me,” he said. “You don’t understand.”
She snorted and headed for the window over their kitchen sink. It hadn’t been opened in years, and fought her with everything it had to remain closed. After some grunting and a choice word or two, she declared victory, even though two houseflies zoomed into the house as soon there was room to fit beneath the frame.
The flies buzzed around her twice and then went through the darkened crack of the door into the bedroom.
“I want you to go. Whatever you are, Martin, whatever we were, you are now dead, and it is time for me to move on.”
“Move on,” he repeated with a half-chuckle. “You really don’t get it, do you, Bernsy?” The door creaked open a little more and she thought she could see the crease of his suit pants in the reflected light from the living room window. But when she looked that way, the window was shut tight again and hidden behind stone-colored curtains.
“What is there to understand? I am free of you at last. Or I would be, if you’d just stay dead like any decent husband would.”
“You’re the one who’s called me back, Bernsy. I was already at peace. Your need for someone to hate–it called me back.”
“Then it should be no problem to send you away again, for good. Because. I. Don’t. Need. You.”
“If I go, you’ll never find your way.”
“I’m happy to be lost without you then. And I’d be happier yet if you’d get lost, yourself.” She managed not to giggle at her own choice of words. “I want you removed from my permanent record, Martin. I want you to have never existed in my life. The time we had together was awful and I never lived, and now it’s time I started.”
The door opened even more, and she thought she could make out the toe of one of his brown socks, tapping the floor like it often did when he explained something so slowly to her that he might as well have just called her a fool.
“Bernsy, I outlived you and I’m sorry I made you so miserable while you were alive,” he said, and the words thudded upon her ears in a way she knew she would never be able to blot out of existence. His voice seemed to snag on something and he had to clear his throat and take a deep breath before he continued. “I’m sorry you were so sad you killed yourself with pills and alcohol, I’m so sorry–”
Bernie tried to will his words back into his mouth, to sanitize them with her denial.
“And you have haunted me with your–your bitterness every day since. I moved on. I sold this house. I remarried. I had children. And you have followed me everywhere I went until the day I died. It wasn’t even in this house! I haven’t lived here in eleven years.” He stopped. Bernie thought he must be catching his breath to spew more foul lies, and so he did.
“And even when I thought it was all over, the big fireworks finale, you still haunt me, your hatred has called me back.” He sighed. “Look. I carried you around with me a lot farther than I ever should have, out of some sense of duty or morality. Even when it cost me my second marriage and the chance to watch my children grow up. Yeah, I died alone in my apartment jerking off to the internet, but at least I lived for a little while, after you.”
Bernie let his words glub-glub into the still air of her house like booze pouring from a bottle, like drops of water in a hidden cave. He could spill an eternity of words out into the world, and she’d never believe him. She had to hold onto that.
“If you are able to forgive, honey, I can help you move on,” he said. “I don’t want it to end this way for you, in spite of it all.”
Bernie crumpled down onto the couch and glared at the bedroom door. “It’s over,” she said, her voice dripping venom. “I’m done listening to you and I’m not going anywhere with you. You’ve done enough to ruin my life, and I wouldn’t go anyplace with you if you were the last man alive. Or dead for that matter.”
She imagined the way his head bobbed when he gave in to her, then blotted that image from her mind. She needed more Ambien, and more Stoli, and less Martin. Blotting him out of her life was the only way she could ever be happy.
She found the pills and vodka waiting right where she’d left them, and suddenly it became very still in the house. She watched the cool darkness deepen behind the bedroom door, knowing Martin was finally gone from her life, finally and forever. She felt the pills and booze working in her, drawing a thick black line through all that Martin had said, through all the heartache he had caused.
Darkness washed over her and it was some time before she awoke to hear Martin start up with his gargling in the master bathroom. Bernie scowled. How she hated him. Hated him enough that she’d finally got up the nerve to leave him once and for all. Now here he was, back again to torment her. Damn that man, she thought. Damn him straight to hell.
He called her from the bedroom. “Honey?”
Bernie refused to hear him. He could haunt her forever if he wanted, but she’d never let him wear her down.
Lon Prater’s work has appeared in Writers of the Future, IGMS, and the Stoker-winning anthology Borderlands 5.