He had lain down beside her an hour ago. He’d been too afraid to wrap an arm around her; she’d looked so frail in her silk nightgown. Instead, he had moved the duvet up to cover her shoulders and lain still on his back next to her. He had tried to force his heartbeat to become as still as hers but succeeded only in falling asleep.
He awoke in a blurred and disorientating jolt to the sound of incessant pounding against their front door. Early-morning sunshine pressed against the curtains, enveloping the room in a light-pink glow absent of warmth. His phone sat switched off on the bedside table.
He sat up on the edge of the bed, back curved and shoulders hunched forward. The taste of microwaved pizza between his teeth. He looked over his shoulder at her. She was still resting on her side, facing the wall. Her long, gilded hair fell across the pillow. He wished he could sleep as deeply as her. She was the only one who’d ever been able to sleep through his snoring. She was, always had been, kind of perfect like that.
He walked barefoot from the bedroom down the hallway, passing framed photos of their wedding day and hiking holidays in the years after. The pounding became more erratic — loud enough to wake the dead, or at least those who slept like them. He jogged the rest of the way, afraid the noise would disturb her. She’d been through so much. She needed rest.
He plucked his shirt off the sofa and pulled it on inside out. He managed to at least button his jeans before opening the front door. They lived on a quiet suburban street with catalogue houses and manicured front yards. Only a handful had lights on at this hour of morning.
‘Jesus, William,’ he said to the heavyset and greying man standing stiffly on his front stoop. ‘Lisa’s sleeping.’
William stared at him. Anger, shock and fatigue all bled into a ruddy face aged by sunken lines and liver spots. His hands were squeezed into pudgy fists by his sides.
‘Nick, where is Lisa?’
Nick blinked then looked at his father-in-law properly. His black suit and white button-up were rumpled, and his jawline grey with days of growth. Nick couldn’t remember ever seeing William not clean-shaven.
‘Sleeping, like I said.’
‘Christ.’ William glanced over his shoulder. Nick followed his gaze to the white sedan parked beside the curb. He could see Joanna, his mother-in-law, watching them from the passenger seat. Her face was pressed against the window; a smudgy ball of wide eyes, round cheeks and full lips.
Nick rubbed his tired eyes. ‘What the hell’s going on?’
‘You can’t be fucking serious,’ William snapped. He looked ready to lunge at Nick and drag him down the driveway. Then he sucked in a long and visibly forced breath and said, relatively calmly considering the words that came out, ‘Lisa’s dead, Nick. She’s been dead for three days.’
Nick stared at him, dumbfounded. Three days? He had been with Lisa three days ago. He had brought her home from hospital, made her chicken soup and let her fall asleep on his lap while watching a Disney flick. What was that movie called? he thought. Lion King? No, it was one of her favourites. Mulan?
Nick’s eyes refocused on William. He smiled sleepily. ‘I remember,’ he said calmly. ‘We watched Pocahontas. She loves that movie. We always sing the songs together.’
‘What the fuck,’ William mouthed. His hand, held behind his back out of Nick’s sight, waved hurriedly to Joanna.
‘And for dessert we shared a Twix,’ Nick added absentmindedly. He heard a car door open. Joanna was getting out. She looked upset (not the upset that requires tissues; the upset that needs to be held back, preferably by two or more people). Nick took a step back into the house. This felt wrong. He should be sleeping next to his wife, not vouching for her vitality. ‘What is this, William?’ he asked. ‘Why are you here?’
William placed a hand gently on Nick’s shoulder. The weight and warmth of it unnerved him. He moved his shoulder away.
‘We just want to bury our daughter,’ William said. ‘Please, Nick. We know how hard it is to say goodbye but this . . . what you’re doing . . . it isn’t right.’
Nick searched William’s eyes. He was lying. He knew he was lying. Why the hell was he lying? Nick grabbed the door. ‘She just needs to sleep,’ he insisted before slamming it shut.
The pounding started again, almost immediately, accompanied by William’s shouting. Nick backed away from the door into the living room. Joanna’s voice quickly muffled her husband’s.
‘Nick, you bastard,’ she screamed through the timber. ‘Give me my daughter.’ Her shriek made him jump slightly. ‘Give me back my baby!’
Nick’s eyes fixated on the door as he listened to William calm Joanna down and convince her to leave with the promise of returning soon. He crept up to the bay window by the front door and peeked out around the curtain. His in-laws were standing by their car staring at the house. Nick felt as though they were looking right at him.
What’s wrong with them? he thought as they finally got into the car and drove off. I should’ve just let them see her. No, he corrected himself. They were acting crazy. They thought she was dead. How could they think she was dead?
That last thought followed him down the hallway as he walked silently back to the bedroom. He closed the door and gratefully breathed in the floral scents of Lisa’s perfume and their crisp, washed linens. They smelled of home and all the peace and security it encompassed. He removed his shirt and jeans and slid under the duvet.
‘Who was that, darling?’ he heard Lisa mumble sleepily.
‘Your parents.’ He wrapped one arm around her and rested his face in strands of her long hair.
‘Did you invite them in?’
‘It wasn’t the best time.’ Nick hesitated. ‘They were a bit . . . off.’
‘Can you blame them?’ he heard her say. ‘Their daughter just died.’
Nick reeled away from her. He propped himself up on one elbow and studied the side of her face not buried in pillow. Her eyes were closed and her unmade lips partially open. The upper lip revealed a hint of white teeth.
‘I feel like some tea,’ he said while pulling his jeans back on. ‘Do you want one?’
He didn’t hear a response.
That afternoon, dense, grey clouds blanketed the sky and drenched their house in rain. Nick stared at the ceiling from beneath the covers as the rain drummed beats into his head. He shivered and rolled onto his side. He tucked his knees up to his stomach and squeezed his hands between his thighs. As he stared at the gloomy outline of the bedroom door, he recalled the times he had woken cold in that house. Lisa had always possessed a sixth sense when it came to him. Without really waking, she would roll over, drape one arm over him and press her body up against his back. Within minutes her warmth, her touch and the sound of her breathing would soothe him back to sleep.
Nick shivered and waited with his back to his wife.
She hasn’t moved from that position all day, he thought. She’s just a heavy sleeper though. She always sleeps like the dead. Dead.
He inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. ‘Damn central heating,’ he muttered. ‘Never works.’ He tried to wriggle himself deeper into the blanket. Closer to her. ‘Baby,’ he whispered. ‘Baby, are you not cold?’ He reached behind his back and felt for Lisa. ‘Jesus, you’re freezing.’ He rolled over to face her. ‘Are you okay?’
He stared at the back of her head. The rain intensified. He could hear nothing else.
‘Come on.’ He pulled the covers away. ‘You’ll be back in hospital tomorrow if you stay like this. And I’ll be in the bed next to yours.’
Nick lifted Lisa up out of bed. She was lighter than he remembered — their wedding night; that summer in Greece; those nights he’d pretended to throw her into bed. She had felt real back then. Now she was like a toy; something you could touch and see and smell, but with nothing on the inside. A hollow rendition of his wife. Holding her to his chest, he carried her down the hallway to the bathroom. The plastic chair Lisa had sat in during her worst days throughout the treatment was still inside the shower. He turned the tap on, waited until the water was hot, then sat her down in the chair.
He made sure she wasn’t directly under the spray; just splashed her face, arms and legs with water. She seemed incapable of holding herself up, so he kept one hand on her at all times. Steam slowly cloaked the bathroom. It fogged the mirror and brought with it the fusty smell of wilting flowers.
Nick lifted her chin to check her face. Her eyelids were slightly ajar but he could barely see the pupils behind them. ‘Hold on, baby,’ he said reassuringly. ‘We’ll get you warm.’
He removed her nightgown, manipulating her body on the chair as needed. He tossed the wet nightgown aside and pulled her and the chair closer to the water. He splashed and rubbed hot water over her breasts and stomach. His hands passed, without flinching, over the bruised and venous parts of her body. Greyish grime ran off her swollen feet, swirled for a second or two around the drain then disappeared.
As he had done countless times in the months prior, he set about washing Lisa’s hair. After rinsing the shampoo out, he grabbed the conditioner. He lathered it between his palms while singing in a soft, melodic voice.
‘I feel it there beyond these trees. Or right behind these waterfalls.’
He massaged the conditioner into her hair and scalp, moving her head tenderly with his hands.
‘Can I ignore that sound of distant drumming, for a handsome sturdy husband, who builds handsome sturdy walls, and never dreams that something might be coming?’
He pulled the shower head from the wall and brought it around behind her to rinse out the conditioner.
‘Just around the riverbend.’ His voice caught on the last note. ‘Just around the riverbend.’
He replaced the conditioner for shower cream. He continued singing as he rubbed it over her body. It smelled of jasmine and coconut. ‘I look once more — just around the riverbend — beyond the shore, somewhere past the sea.’ He massaged the places where he thought her muscles must ache — the parts of her body most swollen from bedrest.
He got on his knees behind her and leaned her forward in the chair to clean her back. Her head hung down low around her chest. Wet and matted hair stuck to her pale face.
‘Don’t know what for. Why do all my dreams extend, just around the riverbend?’
‘Just around the riverbend,’ he heard her finish for him.
His face felt odd at first. Then he realised he was smiling. His hands were covered in soap, so he let the tears well and fall.
‘Should I choose the smoothest course,’ he sang, rubbing her shoulders. He watched the back of her head, eagerly awaiting her reply.
‘Steady as the beating drum.’ Her voice came clear and beautiful to his ears.
‘Should I marry Kocoum?’ he continued, rubbing the cream into her lower back.
‘Is all my dreaming at an end?’
His laugh was quick and joyous. ‘Or do you still, wait for me, dream giver?’ he pressed her, rushing the words a little.
‘Just around the river . . . bend,’ she sang for him, drawing out the last, high note in a voice that might’ve challenged Judy Kuhn.
He turned her chair around, leaned in and kissed her on the lips. The hot water cascading over them tasted salty on his tongue. He felt her kiss him back, softly at first then harder. He felt her lips wet and warm against his. He held the back of her head and kissed her with the desperation he’d felt on their first date. As if she’d disappear if he let go too soon. Then he tasted something he shouldn’t have. Something metallic.
She was smiling at him when he pulled away, her eyes still barely open. Dark blood bubbled through her white teeth and seeped out from the corners of her gaping mouth. He could taste it on his own lips as he rubbed his tongue over them.
Dead. The thought struck him in the chest.
Moving very slowly, he cupped one hand under the water to collect a pool. He splashed it across her face, then carefully wiped the remnants of blood and bile away before cleaning himself. Somewhere in his head a thought sparked, then fizzled and retreated back to its corner to cower in the dark. He leaned in and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
‘Let’s get you back to bed.’
The banging on their front door started again a few hours later. This time Nick didn’t get up. He stayed in bed with his arms wrapped around her. He could feel her cold flesh against his own. He shivered next to her with his knees tucked up behind her legs. She felt so frail. So malleable.
After a minute or two the banging stopped. The house fell still with a stifling silence.
Nick stared into the back of Lisa’s head. His breath left warm, invisible smudges on her cold, pallid neck. He heard glass shatter and gathered her into him. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the sounds outside their bedroom. He nuzzled his face deeper into the back of Lisa’s neck and whispered, ‘I won’t let them take you.’ Her body collapsed into his. Her arms folded under the pressure of his hold. ‘I promise.’ He didn’t notice how shallow his own breathing had become. He didn’t notice the stench of rot that enveloped them.
The bedroom door swung open and smacked against the wall. The two police officers got halfway inside before stopping. William and Joanna made it as far as the doorframe.
‘My God,’ William said.
They all covered their noses and mouths. The room smelt of chicken left to cook in the sun. One officer gagged on the air before composing himself. ‘He wasn’t kidding,’ he muttered to his partner.
‘Nicholas Caldwell,’ the other officer said firmly. ‘Release the body and get out of the bed, slowly.’ His hand fidgeted with his holster.
Nick held his breath and didn’t move.
‘Just get him off her,’ William demanded. ‘He’s not sane.’
The two officers moved forward tentatively. They looked at one another. The officer on the left gave a short nod and slowly pulled back the covers.
Joanna’s sobs broke the horrified silence. She stepped into the room but still gripped the doorframe with one hand. ‘Look at her. Look at my baby.’ Her sobs became wails. ‘Do something!’ she screamed.
Nick’s pink and goose-bumped skin looked effulgent beside Lisa’s pale flesh marred by bruises where blood had started to pool. Patches of wet, reddish discharge had congealed into gelatinous gunk that now stained the sheet around her. He had her pressed against him; one arm under her, the other draped over her chest. His fingers tightened instinctively around her shoulder.
‘Get him off her!’ William shouted.
The two officers glanced at each other. Once again, the left officer moved first.
‘Help me with him, won’t you?’
Nick felt them tug on his arms and legs. He squeezed his body tighter around Lisa. ‘I won’t let them,’ he said to her.
‘I am, I am.’
‘Forget his legs, help me with his shoulders.’
They pulled him across the bed. He dragged Lisa with him. More blood, foamy and translucent, seeped from her mouth.
‘Shit! Watch her body. Get him off her.’
‘I can’t breathe.’ The officer started gagging again.
‘What are you doing? Help me with his arms; it’s like a fucking vice.’
Together they wrenched Nick’s arms from Lisa. He wrapped his legs around her instead.
‘Goddammit. Hold his arms, I’ll get the legs.’
‘No!’ he screamed as the officer tried to twist and pull his legs.
They wrestled with him but couldn’t break his hold. Nick clung onto Lisa with all the strength he had left. He had never been described as big or burly, but those muscles which had once provoked laughter around long-forgotten pub tables were firing off with no fear of expiration. It was too much for both officers who were now also dry retching on Lisa’s musk. One officer swore in frustration and reached for his pistol.
‘Please stop this, Nick.’
The officer paused with his hand on the grip. Joanna had stepped completely into the room and was staring imploringly at her son-in-law. William reached out as if to pull her back, then let his arm drop and stepped forward to stand beside her.
‘Please, Nick,’ Joanna pleaded again.
Joanna and Lisa had always sounded alike to Nick. For a moment he thought it actually was his wife begging. He relaxed just long enough for the officers to pull him from Lisa. They fell in a tumbled heap on the floor.
Lying on his back, entangled in strangers’ arms, Nick felt something clawing at the inside of his chest as if it were suffocating. She hasn’t woken up, it was shouting. How has she not woken up yet? Panicking, he tried to scramble back onto the bed. One of the officers dived on top of him, pinning down all but one arm. He squirmed and reached for the bedframe.
‘Lisa,’ Nick moaned. It was long and deep and clung to his throat.
‘Get her out now,’ ordered the officer on top of Nick. His partner quickly lifted Lisa up.
Nick stared up at her from the floor, his face contorted into something alien by the fear and desperation. His skin flushed and the veins in his neck bulged as he strained to touch her with his free hand.
Lisa’s head lolled over her shoulders. Her eyes opened as her head fell back. The ends of her hair lightly stroked his fingers as thick blood the mulberry red of Syrah wine dripped from her mouth onto his outstretched hand.
Nick stared into Lisa’s eyes properly for the first time in days. Hazy and opaque, they saw no part of the husband below them. Nick felt the thing which had clawed and screamed for air inside him fall quiet. It retreated to the depths of him, curled up and dissolved, leaving behind an obese emptiness that swallowed what fight he had left.
His head fell to the floor. A hand held it down as he wept, howled and remembered.
Lisa was alone. He had left her alone for five minutes to get something from the vending machines. He’d told her five minutes, then they would watch the movie together. She’d been alone for five minutes. She was supposed to be getting better. The doctors had said. The nurses had said. She was supposed to be getting better. But when he came back her eyes were shut, her mouth open and she wasn’t breathing. He had a Twix in his right hand. They were going to share it. They were going to watch the movie and she was going to get better. He wasn’t going to be left alone.