He sat in his car, a hundred yards from her house, thinking about what had happened. For the past four days now, that was all he had thought about. What she had done. At first, it had made him furious, but by the second day the fury had cooled into determination and begun to assume a shape. He had molded that shape, kneading it, pressing and forming it, and now he was ready to act.
Nobody would notice his car parked among all the others on her quiet street in the original residential neighborhood in Rawlings, Montana. The houses were old—fifty years, even a hundred—two stories set on narrow lots separated by fences. Running alongside the fences were driveways of broken concrete or pea gravel or tire ruts on grass leading to one-car detached garages in the back.
He cracked the window to let out the cigarette smoke. One leg tapping rapidly, he was oblivious to the sweet aroma of the turned soil from the gardens that edged the front porches up and down the block. In the purple twilight of a mild late April evening, he did not notice the white, pink, and yellow petals of the daffodils, chrysanthemums, peonies, and tulips all around him.
Here on Harkins Street, there were no light poles. The close-set houses, some only ten or fifteen feet apart, provided ample illumination. He glanced at the house sitting back from the curb to his right. On one side of the large spruce tree in the front yard was a metal swing set; on the other, a trampoline with netting around it to keep the kids from tumbling out. He looked up at the second story. It was dark; the kids must be asleep. An indistinct yellow glow came from the side of the house, near the rear on the main floor. He guessed it was the kitchen. That would be the parents, sitting at the table, exhausted after getting the kids to bed. They wouldn’t hear anything.
He looked down the street toward her house. The last car had left more than fifteen minutes ago. He pulled his phone from his jacket pocket to check the time: 10:03 pm. He lowered his window halfway and flicked his cigarette out, watching it bounce once and then roll a few inches and come to rest on the pavement, the grey smoke snaking into the night air and then disappearing.
He got out of the car and closed the door softly. The lock didn’t catch. He leaned his hip into the door and it clicked almost silently. For a moment he stood there, looking up and down the block and listening. A pickup truck approached. The driver saw him and steered out into the middle of the street to give him room. As the bright twin cones from the truck’s headlights swung away from him, he turned back toward his car, as if he were checking to see whether he had forgotten something on the front seat.
After the pickup rumbled past, he looked and listened again. He picked out the tiny scratching sounds of two squirrels chasing each other around the base of an oak tree in a yard across the street. He heard the rustling of new leaves on a quaking aspen twenty yards in front of him in the narrow strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. But he saw no one and heard nothing to cause him any concern. He was alone on the street.
He walked around the front of his car, his finger tracing a line in the fine layer of dust on the warm hood, crossed the grass strip, and stood on the sidewalk. His hands in his pockets and his head bowed slightly, he walked toward her house. A gentle breeze carried the sound of recorded music from the top floor of a boxy, ugly tan-brick house. In the next house, blue and red lights from a widescreen flickered across a front room.
He stopped, her house just across the street. Although the eight or ten cars that had been parked in her driveway and along the curb had left, the house was still lit brightly on both floors. He looked around one more time but saw no one. He stepped between two parked cars, crossed the street, and approached her waist-high wooden fence. He pushed the gate open, the spring creaking softly. He followed the flagstone path, then climbed the five concrete steps to the painted wooden porch.
He opened the dented white aluminum storm door and stepped up to the window in the navy blue wooden door. He peered inside, then glanced over his shoulder once more. Seeing no one on the street, he tried the knob. He smiled, relieved to find it unlocked. He opened the front door slowly, stepped into the house, and gently closed the door behind him.
He stood on a worn oval-shaped braided wool rug, the blue, green, yellow, and red braids faded with time and use. He closed his eyes and breathed in the air, still moist from all the students, still heavy with the scents of their sweet lotions and perfumes and the cheeses, dips, coffee, and wines.
He opened his eyes. Before him was the wide staircase, made of heavy, dark wood ornately turned. The balusters were polished, but the handrail was dull, the surface scratched and nicked. His eyes followed the stairs to the second floor, which was lit by a single light in the hallway.
He glanced to his left, into the living room. The inside wall was dominated by a wide brick fireplace, painted white but stained grey above the firebox by decades of smoke. The room was crammed with mismatched furniture: sofas, loveseats, armchairs, and cherry dining-room chairs. Side tables, hassocks, and metal TV trays were scattered about, all of them covered with glasses, cups, china dishes, and plates.
To his right was the dining room, with an ornate cut-glass chandelier from another era and a heavy, dark dining table with thick legs. At the far end of the dining room was the doorway to the kitchen. He heard what he took to be the sound of running water.
He walked into the dining room, over the old carpet with flower patterns and ragged fringes around the four sides, past the dark table. He paused in the entryway to the kitchen, glanced behind him, and listened. He was confident they were the only two in the house.
She was washing dishes, her back to him. Her hair was wavy, grey mixed with brown. She wore a grey wool blazer over a red turtleneck knit top. Her jeans were black, her socks red. She wore no shoes.
She did not hear him.
When he stepped onto the old linoleum in the kitchen, it creaked, startling her. She turned to face him, her eyes wide.
It took him a moment to realize that she was weeping. She turned off the faucet and faced him again. “You scared me.” She wiped at her eyes with a finger. “What are you doing here?”
He did not respond.
She gathered herself and stood up straight, her posture defiant. “What do you want?”
His voice was soft and unforced. “To give you one more chance to fix this.”
She raised her chin. “And if I don’t?”
He held her gaze. “What you did was wrong.”
She shrugged, becoming more comfortable in a familiar role. “Wrong?” She almost smiled. “That wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I don’t think you realize what is happening here.”
She tilted her head slightly. “Tell me what is happening here.” Her jaw was high. “Explain it to me.”
His expression was determined. “We’re way past that now.” He paused. “I explained it all before. No more talking. It’s time for you to make it right.”
She shifted her weight. “And if I don’t?”
“Then I have no choice.”
“You always have a choice. You could, for example, take responsibility for your actions. You could move on.” She shook her head, as if arguing with him were futile. “But I imagine that isn’t your style. That would be a foreign concept to someone like you.”
He advanced a few steps. She stepped back until she bumped into the counter, which was covered with dirty dishes and glasses. Her eyes fixed on his, she moved her right hand tentatively across the countertop. Her fingers wrapped around the black wooden handle of a long bread knife.
When he saw the blade coming at him, his left hand came up quickly. Grabbing her wrist, he stopped her tentative thrust. He twisted her wrist, pulling her trunk and head downward. She cried out and the knife fell to the floor.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, his voice angry now.
“You’re going to kill me? Over this?” She lost her composure and began to weep again, out of control.
He maintained his grip on her wrist, then twisted it sharply. She cried out once more, her upper body bowed over.
“You didn’t get back to me,” he said.
Through the pain and the fear, her speech was high-pitched and halting. “You know … very well why I didn’t.”
He tightened his grip again and twisted her wrist once more. Something in the wrist gave way.
She screamed in pain. “Do it, then.”
“Last chance,” he said.
As he twisted her wrist again to draw her arm behind her and spin her around to face the counter, her left hand came up quickly and she scratched at his neck with three fingernails. He flinched, more in surprise than in pain, drawing his right hand up to his neck. He inspected his hand for blood, but the scratches were too shallow. He drew the hand back and hit her hard across the side of her face. She recoiled, her trunk sending glasses and plates crashing onto the linoleum. Then she fell forward and sank to the floor.
Still conscious, she reached out, grabbing at his leg, but her hands had no strength. He pulled his leg back, breaking her grip easily. He bent down and lifted her, her legs swinging weakly in the air. Gathering her up, encircling her arms, he hoisted her onto his hip and carried her out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
She tried to kick him, but her legs bumped harmlessly against the dark table. He stood in the foyer, looking up the staircase. He shifted her body, her legs still swinging but slower now, and tightened his grip on her waist. He stepped onto the staircase.
He heard her breathing, faint and shallow, as he climbed the stairs. She didn’t scream but moaned softly as he paused briefly on each of the thirteen steps. Finally, his breathing labored, he stood on the pale green carpet in the hallway. He lowered her to the floor and looked at her, but her eyes, half-shut, did not focus on him.
He looked down the staircase toward the foyer and the front door, then reached down and picked her up again from her waist. He tried to get her to stand but her knees buckled. He took a deep breath, gathering his strength. Reaching under her armpits from behind her, he pulled her up to her full height, her toes barely touching the carpet. He adjusted her position so that she was centered over the broad staircase.
He grunted as he pushed her off the landing. When her face first hit a step, he heard a single cry of pain, but then she made no more sounds, except for the rumbling and slapping as her limbs and her head thumped against each of the steps. She came to rest with her face and shoulders on the braided rug in the foyer.
He walked down the steps, careful not to touch the handrail or the wall. He stepped over her legs, which extended up to the third step. Lifting her blazer, he saw her chest rise and fall softly beneath her red turtleneck and smelled the faint aroma of fresh perspiration.
He picked her up again by the waist. It was easier this time because now her limbs did not move at all. Once again he carried her up the thirteen steps and lifted her to her full height. Her head was slumped forward, her chin on her chest, her arms and legs limp. Once more he thrust her out over the staircase. Her head hit the steps with a muffled thud and she tumbled down. This time, her body came to rest on the staircase. She looked like she was swimming down the stairs, her right arm dangling over a step, her left arm behind her, by her hip.
Again he walked down the staircase, stepping carefully around the body. Standing on the braided rug, he placed two fingers on her neck. There was no pulse. He waited another moment, studying her red turtleneck, which now did not move. He lowered himself to one knee and placed his ear to her mouth. There was no breath.
He stood up straight and walked to the front door. Using his jacket to turn the doorknob, he opened the wooden door, then shouldered the screen door, which had not clicked shut when he entered the house three minutes ago. He wiped the doorknob with his jacket as he secured the wooden door, then pushed the screen door shut, the air hissing as it escaped from the pitted aluminum closer. He rubbed at the push knob with his jacket, then turned and descended the five concrete steps. He followed the flagstone path, opened the gate, and walked down the block toward his car, his hands in his pockets and his head slightly bowed. He heard no unusual noises and saw no one.