Originally published in Suspense Magazine.
“Doris is back in the hospital, too. She’s never been right since the fall—poor bugger. And her husband Ralph is absolutely useless, isn’t he, Derek? We took her some flowers last week, and she looked so pale. It’s a real shame,” Patricia said, finally sucking in some air.
Neither Ted nor Vera knew who Doris was or why they were being updated on the stranger’s health.
Ted glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and noted it was approaching midnight. “Can I get you anything else to drink, or do you need to be getting home?” he said, punctuating the sentence with a fake yawn.
“I’ll have another one of these, please,” Derek said, holding his empty tumbler out defiantly. “You not drinking, Ted?”
“No, gave up a long time ago, Derek,” he said as he collected the glass and turned to Patricia. “I shouldn’t really, not with the medication. Oh, to hell with it. Perhaps just a little drop of that sherry then, please,” Patricia said.
“Of course,” Ted replied, wishing he had been firmer when he had the chance. “Vera, could you give me a hand, please?”
Vera almost leaped out of the couch and followed Ted into the kitchen. As soon as Derek and Patricia were out of eyeshot, Vera mimicked placing a noose around her neck and faked a raspy choking sound.
“Thanks again for having us. Even though you’re new to the area, everyone already speaks so highly of you around here,” Patricia shouted from the lounge. “I can see why!”
Ted launched into a little dance then, hopping from one foot to the next and extending both middle fingers in the direction of Patricia and Derek. “It’s our pleasure,” he shouted back, then formed a makeshift machine gun with his hands and peppered the lounge with imaginary rounds. “Feels like we’ve known you for ages.”
“What do we do?” his wife hissed at him,
Ted angrily slooshed the liquor into the glasses, creating little puddles on the kitchen bench. “What the hell were you thinking?” he replied with a new question. “What are these halfwits doing in our front lounge?” he continued to spit out the questions, hammering the ice pick into the depths of the freezer with unnecessary force.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Vera shrugged. “She’s our neighbour; she just invited herself. Besides, I told you—she’s a Rotary member and said she would put in a good word us.”
“Is it us—are we too nice? Do people think we have nothing better to do in retirement?”
Vera looked at her husband; he looked tired—red eyes, pale skin, and his wrinkles looked even deeper under the stark kitchen light. “Look, we’ll have these drinks, and then we’ll usher them out, okay?”
“Fuck the Rotary. And fuck Doris, whoever she is,” Ted spat, picking up the drinks and marching out of the kitchen.
“So, how did you two wonderful people meet?” Patricia asked as she took the glass from him.
“I’ll let Vera answer that one. It’s a long story, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to stay awake,” Ted said as he let himself fall back into the couch.
Derek and Patricia gave a little snigger and turned their attention to Vera. Ted wondered if they were stupid or ignorant or a dangerous cocktail of both.
“It’s not long at all, and rather uninteresting really. Ted was a detective on the force, and I worked in forensics for fifteen years. We discovered we had so much in common and, well… we’ve been together nearly thirty-five years now.”
“So sweet,” Patricia said. “Isn’t it, Derek?”
“Yes, dear,” he replied. “A detective? Wow, that must have been—”
“We met at a church dinner dance, didn’t we, Derek?” Patricia interjected, giving her husband a gentle elbow. “He was dancing with Katie Duvall at the time—she was a whore. Anyway, we looked across at each—”
It was a skill Ted had developed over the years—the ability to tune people out. Patricia’s pollution of their lounge with her limited vocabulary and tedious account of her and Derek’s first encounter was becoming white noise. He found himself studying Derek’s face. Broken red lines on the cheek and nose, yellow tinge to the eyes, brittle white hair—signs of too much drinking. His body language suggested years of oppression—his spark gone. He didn’t need to draw on his old skills as a detective to figure out why Derek was likely to be such a heavy drinker. He moved his attention to Patricia then. Her lips continued to move, but there were no supporting hand or facial gestures to support her little monologue. It indicated she didn’t find it interesting either—as though it was the only tale she had to tell, and she’d done it a million times before. Her make-up was caked across her chubby face—thick, really over the top, and that suggested the two of them didn’t get out much; that this would be a highlight of their social calendar and most likely to be discussed in-depth at the next Rotary meeting.
He didn’t know how long he had zoned out for, but finally, her voice began to filter through again. She was talking about their children now and their tedious jobs and irrelevant lives. One was a lawyer and the other a doctor. She went on to tell them what cars they both drove, where they lived, where they vacationed, and how big their houses were. He looked across to his wife to try and get her attention.
Vera could feel the twitch in her eye; she sometimes got it when she was overly tired, and the more she tried to stop it, the worse it seemed to get. She struggled with superficial conversations, and this one was testing her resolve to the max. She had no idea what Patricia was rattling on about; she just wanted to rest her eyes and get her house back. The clock indicated it was twenty-five past one in the morning. She continued to nod to Patricia’s beat but wasn’t sure how voluntary the action was anymore. It was getting ridiculous. But Derek and Patricia were slumped way back into their sofa, with no indication they were planning to leave soon. Out of nowhere, a little giggle emerged from Vera’s lips, one that attracted a fleeting scowl from Patricia. Vera’s vision had turned blurry, making it look as though Derek and Patricia had merged with the couch so that only their faces extended from the leather. The voice that now emerged was a deep, slow-motion drawl—how she imagined a couch would speak. It was a comical sequence, but at the same time quite terrifying. Briefly, their guests had quite literally become part of the furniture—forever part of their front lounge.
“Tell them about our new car, Derek. She really is a beauty, guys. Would have to be for the price we paid,” Patricia said, moving on to the next topic.
Suddenly, Derek sprang to life, as though re-animated. He rubbed his hands together excitedly and said, “Oh, she is a beauty alright. Fill us up, Ted, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
The vein in Ted’s temple was knocking out a hefty beat, and that was never a good sign. “Of course, Derek,” Ted replied. “Vera?”
And they marched together into the kitchen.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” Ted hissed. “How do we get rid of them? It’s John and Theresa all over again,” he said, before splashing some more of the booze into the bottom of the glasses.
Ted grunted. “I wish I still drank—could do with some anti-venom for these imbeciles.”
“You don’t need it. Calm down, Ted; they will be gone in thirty minutes. Once we are in, we are in—we can start to distance ourselves then and mingle with the more interesting people.”
She was right; drink had been a previous crutch for both—and that didn’t turn out well, both losing their jobs. He still couldn’t believe his deputy ratted on him.
“Why is it so important to you anyway?” he asked.
“Because I have little else, Ted,” she said, carrying two of the glasses through. He sighed and followed her in to find Patricia out of the couch, scrutinizing the many photographs displayed in their glass cabinet.
“Are these your children?” she said, extending a long bony finger towards a frame on the second shelf.
There was a pause. The longest of the night. And then Vera said, “No, Patricia.”
“Oh, sorry, I just assumed,” Patricia said. “Any photographs of your children?”
“So, Derek—about this car of yours. Please tell us everything,” Ted resignedly said as he sank into his chair.
The distraction technique worked. Derek seemed to have an endless amount of information about their new car, enough to keep him going for an impossibly long time. Just when it looked as though he was going to finish, he quickly moved on to the next bit of detail. To Ted, it was as interesting as listening to a car manual being read out loud. “Any chance of a top-up?” he finally finished.
“Oh no, were you barren?” Patricia suddenly fired.
Vera’s right eye began to twitch even more profusely, “Not being rude, Patricia, but it’s not something I feel comfortable talking about right now. Besides, it’s late, and I think—”
Patricia took a sip of her recently replenished sherry. “Nothing to be ashamed of, Vera. God works in mysterious ways.”
“Okay, I think we need to call it a night,” Ted said, rising from the chair.
“Oh, no—I didn’t mean to offend,” Patricia quickly tried to rectify. “It’s just he made a choice for you, and you can only play the hand you are dealt.”
“Did you bring a coat?” Ted quickly added.
“But we haven’t told you about Brazil yet,” Derek added concernedly.
“Ted, it’s okay,” Vera reassured. “We had two children, Patricia. Two girls. They died—car crash on the freeway on the way to the movies.”
There was a tightening across her chest, one that she used to get on a daily basis—her supposed best friend, Anita—driving under the influence. Four kids dead, but she survived.
“Oh, my goodness. I am so sorry,” Patricia said, reaching for her husband’s hand. “Me and my big mouth.”
“Honestly, it’s fine, Patricia. It was a long time ago,” Vera said, standing. “But I am very, very, tired now and—”
“How did it happen?” Patricia asked. But then quickly followed with, “Oh, sorry—that’s a bit tactless, isn’t it?”
Ted looked at her with mouth wide open, before commenting, “It is a touch tactless, yes, Patricia. I really do think it’s time you left now.”
“I don’t think we would feel right leaving now,” Derek chirped in. “Patricia was just interested. Can we tell you about Brazil now? Put the sadness behind us,” he offered hopefully. “Fill the glasses, Ted, good chap, and we’ll move on.”
Ted considered his response carefully as he studied Derek’s hopeful face. He could feel the adrenaline surging through him. The vein in his head was going ten to the dozen, and his fingernails were digging into his palms.
“No,” Ted said firmly. “It’s after three in the morning, and we want to go to bed,” he continued. “Thanks so much for coming, and I am sure we will see you around.”
“We are not leaving like this, Ted. We’ve upset you and want to put it right.”
“You should never go to sleep on ill-feeling,” Patricia affirmed, nodding for extra effect.
Ted found himself wondering if their combined skin would be enough to reupholster the couch.
Vera finally cracked. “I don’t think Ted’s asking anymore,” she said. “We would both like you to leave now.”
Ted smiled across to his wife. Well delivered, he thought; firm, and not over the top. But when he turned his attention back to Patricia, her face suggested that she’d attempted a discreet fart and got more than she bargained for.
“Vera, I have a lot of sway in the community,” Patricia countered, raising her chin slightly as if to elevate her importance. “Not just in the Rotary, but I have friends everywhere,” she continued, sniffing at the air and folding her arms tightly like a spoiled child. “It would be much better if this ended on a good note.”
The ticking time bomb in Ted’s head was dangerously close to detonating. Vera looked across at him, and she knew it, too. It was supposed to be a fresh start. They would make a new home for themselves here, try again to put all the hate and grief behind them. The rotary would have allowed them to embed themselves in the community and extend on the early groundwork they’d already done.
But she did not like to be manipulated, not one little bit. The stupid bitch had her over a barrel.
“Okay, let me refill those glasses for you,” Vera said. “Oh, we should have a group photo, too,” she added enthusiastically. “Ted, get the Polaroid.”
Ted knew what that meant.
“Yes, good idea,” Patricia said. “And again, I didn’t mean to offend.”
“And then we can play a game—break the tension,” Vera added excitedly.
Patricia turned to Derek and smiled. “Oh, that sounds like fun, doesn’t it, dear? What did you have in mind?”
Already, the pulsating vein in his head was beginning to ease. He pulled out the top drawer of the cabinet and reached inside for the camera.
“Okay, gang. Cuddle up on the couch, and I’ll set it up,” he announced.
Ted placed the camera on the table and made sure they were all in the shot before setting the timer and rushing over.
As soon as the camera flashed, he went to retrieve the photo and began waving it in the air.
“Actually, Ted—that doesn’t help at all,” Derek added. “You can actually ruin the photo that way.”
Ted ignored the bore and made his way to the kitchen only to pause when he got to the glass cabinet—or the trophy cabinet, as they sometimes called it. He studied the photograph of John and Theresa—good people, he reminisced, but it was as though they had decided to make them—as grieving parents—a pet project. It was relentless; they just wouldn’t leave them alone, even after endless requests. After serving them both with some chamomile tea one summer evening, he caved both their heads in with a shovel. Ted thought Vera would be angry, but when she came home, she just got on with it. She did what she was best at and wiped the scene clean. Ted visited their house after dark and made it look like a break-in; carried each plastic-wrapped body a fair distance in the light rain before positioning them on their lounge room floor. It was quite a buzz, first for a while.
Any compassion and empathy they had, died with their children, making them outsiders in a conventional word. It wasn’t a quick process by any means—the descent into darkness—but the world wasn’t set up to handle people with dead kids, and slowly and surely, they began to disconnect. Their vendetta properly kicked into gear after John and Theresa—pre-meditated violence against anyone they bore a grudge against. It helped detract from their grief. There was no getting away from it; they had come to love the adrenaline surge. And they were good at it.
Soon there would be a new photograph to add to the collection: Vera’s boss, Ted’s leaching brother, Vera’s supposed best friend, Ted’s deputy at the station, and the many others that they felt wronged by over the years.
Vera collected Derek and Patricia’s glasses and followed her husband through to the kitchen.
Ted grabbed the ice pick from the counter and watched as Vera reached inside the kitchen cabinet. She rummaged through the many containers of homemade chemicals she’d concocted over the years, finally pulling out the roll of clear plastic. She had hoped they would not be opening the special cupboard for some time—if ever again. But they tried. They really tried.
“I love you, Ted,” she said.
“I love you too, dear,” he replied. “We have to stop being so damned nice, though.”
They held hands as they walked through to the lounge, Ted with the ice-pick up his sleeve and Patricia with the roll of plastic tucked into her arm. “Who’s heard of murder in the dark?” she asked, her finger hovering over the light switch.