by Veronica McDonald
Barbara sat in Martin's armchair with her back to the door, the fire in front of her gently crushing photographs with pointed, red flames. She put a hand over her mouth, bit her fingers, and waited for ugly tears, for rage, for a rush of emotion to pull her into the fireplace with the photos. Something built up inside, forced her throat closed, but never surfaced. Then it subsided altogether, sucked away, tight and hot, until it was gone. She pressed back further into the chair, and waited.
A scratching at the front door made her skin prickle. Martin's fingernails. They stopped, and started again, wandering in painful procession towards the knob. Barbara closed her eyes and envisioned his gnarled hand fingering the brass, his forehead bumping against the wood panels. She sung to herself, picking up pieces of a song she'd learned as a little girl, but she couldn't remember the words and only parts of the tune. The rest fell silent to the sounds of Martin at the door.
The hinges cried out. Boots shuffled across the floor, falling heavy and slow. Barbara heard Martin scraping through the darkness, knocking over frames, glasses, books, searching for her. Smoke curls formed in the fire – tiny, lost souls escaping from the photographs. The lace of her wedding dress and the brightness in his eyes flew away in a spark and joined the night.
The artery in her neck throbbed, and she put a finger there. Something rattled deep in Martin's throat. His utterances struggled against the saliva building in his mouth. Barbara imagined thick spit falling down his chin, like a trail of slime from a snail. But she wouldn't take her eyes from the fire. She wanted to move closer, though her skin burned with the heat. She forced her hands to stay in her lap and gripped the pleats of her skirt.
Martin's hand -- calloused and gentle, usually shaking – crept in the corner of her eye, steady, as it gripped the armchair. His fingers were tense and strong as they moved to her shoulder, pausing when they grazed her cotton dress. They tightened and pulled her from the chair.
Barbara bit her bottom lip as Martin tugged her over to him. She bit down harder, until her lip bled. He pressed her against him, and she felt his hands through her dress, frigid, penetrating, like the snow swirling through the door. He moved his mouth to her ear. She could smell him now. Cheap wine over whiskey, masked in tobacco. A woman's perfume and soaped-skin, with the tang of blood. The stench of him repulsed her, but she was fascinated by it, haunted. She couldn't stop breathing him in. Hot air pushed its way into her ear in mumbles and groans.
The grit of his crooked teeth slid against her earlobe. He bit down, gentle as if he didn't know he was doing it. Then harder. He's all teeth. She wondered where his lips had gone, the lips that once kissed her rough and steady until she melted into them. The teeth found the throbbing heartbeat. Spit dripped down the nape of her neck and collarbone, then onto the threads of her dress.
"He's dead," her mother told her once, rubbing tears from Barbara's cheeks with fingers wrapped in tissue-paper skin. Barbara stood barefoot in the grass, rays of sun burning her puffed face, as her mother finished hanging rose-colored sheets on the clothes line. "Can't change a dead man. That man is dead on the inside. Nothing you can do, but leave him."
Blood pooled on Barbara's lip and ran down her chin. I'm dead, too. She touched his gaunt cheek. Like snow and ice. Like cold ash. All the life burned out of it, sucked away into the mouth of night. Bloodshot eyes locked on hers, staring at her, past her, through her. A moan gurgled behind his teeth. She pulled him closer. If he's dead, I'm dead, too.