It always rained when I was alone.
A summer storm gathered off-shore, and though I told myself it was still miles away, that didn’t stop the new French windows from rattling. They were beautiful in the Show House; opened wider, left less to the imagination than any windows I’d ever seen. Now I had them, and I couldn’t close them tightly enough. I kept checking the burnished latches in my daughters’ rooms upstairs. Re-locking, re-tucking, half-mother, half-warden. I was wearing a path on the new ivory wool carpet, but couldn’t see it yet. My footprints would appear later, with enough time and close attention, like the shape of things only visible from the sky.
In between bed-checks, window checks, gutter checks, I sat in my plaid den, biting my nails in front of movies I all ready knew the endings to. I let myself worry during the commercials. Every flash and boom in the sky was an assumption: that the lightning would find whatever was metallic and brittle in me.
When my nails were gone, I folded laundry, sorted mail. Distraction. The knitting of my life. In the background, Hugh Grant carried Sandra Bullock through traffic so she could go to the bathroom. I couldn’t find the scissors—art project? School poster?–so I opened the Neiman’s package with my teeth.
The white tissue unfurled: three floral bathing suits and the pink silk nightgown I’d ordered to surprise Sam. Or surprise myself. Something. I stood up, pulled off my tank top and shorts and pulled it on without bothering to close the shutters. The bodice was tight but the silk brushing against my legs was almost intoxicating after my cottony week. I fell into it like a hotel bed, allowing myself.
At three I woke up writhing on the sofa, clutching at the spaghetti straps. The nightmare again: someone sitting on me, hands at my throat, trapped screams. I stumbled into the bathroom, splashed water on my face. I lifted my head to the mirror, still dripping, and saw only the nightgown: wrinkled and knife-pleated, drenched in sweat. There was no possibility of returning it now.
In the kitchen I wrestled with the childproof cap on the bottle of Xanax while the wind picked up, flinging small branches on the new tin roof above me. Bronze with flashes of green, the roof was beautiful but noisy. The price you pay, I was told too late. The squirrels thought it was a slide; the rain, a timpani. The new skylights were even louder: a drum solo at the top of the stairs. I swallowed the pill and started to cry. I was not the kind of person who could live in a noisy house.
I should have been happy. The renovations were nearly complete. The shifting estimates, the money tussles, all behind us. They’d installed the new skylights the day before and all the dark corners of the house were flooded with light. Sam hadn’t seen it yet; he was off somewhere again, gone three or four days—I couldn’t remember which– to somewhere. Golf outing, conference, convention. They all involved sport masquerading as business. His clients’ names blurred together in my memory the same way the names of the hotels did. He told me, but I couldn’t absorb the information. Was that a true telling? I never really grasped where he was or who he was with. I knew all I needed to know: that someone was serving him steak and fetching him fresh towels, and I was home sorting his socks.
Now the contractors were gone, too. No men, no one to blame.
A hard noise made its way through my sniffling. I looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. I heard it again. With each breath, I replaced negative thoughts with positive ones. I actually say them out loud. I stood at my farmhouse sink in the house that was never a farm and spoke into the new curved faucet. “People don’t break into houses on nights like this”, I stated calmly. “It’s the storm. It’s the wind. It’s squirrels on the new tin roof,” I said. Squirrels on the new tin roof. Something snapped, then shattered. Not squirrels, I knew in my bones. Not branches, not wood, tin or metal. Glass. Broken.
The portable phone blinked on the other side of the room. I tiptoed across the new hickory floor. The tongue and groove was silent, but my limbs rattled in their sockets. I had the phone, but not the scissors. They were not in their glass holder with the markers and pens. My eyes darted as I moved past the laundry room, the closets, the table in the hall. Later, I will kick myself remembering the weapons I walked by, the point of a pencil, heavy vase, bug spray. As I walked up the stairs, the broken glass sound stopped, and my body relaxed. One moment to last a week. I will have to dig back to remember it.
The room at the top of the stairs is filled with my oldest child’s stuffed animals. Like my husband, she can’t give anything away. Some of the fuzzy beasts could fit in a pocket, others are bigger than she is. That is why, when I first looked into the darkness, I think He is a giraffe. Or a bear, holding a cub. A cub dressed in my daughter’s nightgown.
My thumb squeezed the talk button on the phone, but there was no dial tone. The lack of it, the absence of sound filled the room. The plush zoo muffled our sharp breathing, my heart pounding. It was beyond intimate: past sharing a bathroom, past putting your child’s bloody finger in your mouth. He stared at me. I stare back, steady eyes, chattering teeth. Regret, meet fear. Fear, meet regret. My sleeping six-year-old daughter, I will think later, looks oddly comfortable draped in His arms.
I dropped to my knees and utter the only fearless words I have ever spoken:
“ Take me,” I say. “Take me instead.”
I am ashamed to admit I wasn’t completely relieved when He did.
“My purse is in the bedroom,” I whisper to Jamie. As He folds the blanket around her, she wakes up to see her mother taken away in lingerie. A picture worth a thousand hours in therapy. Those are my last words: My purse is in the bedroom. Not ‘take care of your sisters’ not ‘I love you.’ Does she even know how to use the cell phone in my purse? Is ‘send’ one of her vocabulary words?
I will question it all eventually. My motives, my judgment. Can you doubt the movement of a hand as it pulls away from the flame? But for now it is done. The decision has been made, the goodbyes spoken.
She does not scream. She does not speak, or follow. She is a solemn, thoughtful child who sleeps as deeply as she thinks. I learn later that the scissors were on her desk, next to her homework. Completed homework. It’s possible she just goes back to sleep. A dream, she will think until she wakes up and finds me gone. My youngest child, a small tiger of a girl, might have leapt on His back. My middle daughter could have split atoms with her scream. It seems He had chosen the right one.
I am heavier than Jamie, and I cannot be carried. I give enough resistance that He is dragging me, which seems to feel right to us both. We have determined who is in charge, and who is protesting. Down the steps, my own Berber carpets scratch my ankles, my own arrangements of roses choke me with their hopeful scent.
Had He taken one look at me in the nightgown, glistening with sweat, my breasts heaving with fear, and decided I was worth more than a six year old? If He thought in that moment, that split-second when we sized each other up, that I was sexy, shiny and precious, something of value, He was in for a surprise. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had an actual sexy thought. Purchasing the nightgown didn’t count—it was shopping. Later I would wonder if He’d simply heard something forceful in my tone. If I knew, maybe I could replicate it; then the children, the contractors, the world, would listen to me.
He duct-taped my mouth, pulled me up the long driveway to the street. I let Him. That seems impossible now. But I was half naked and wet and I’d bitten off the only weapons I had. The wind whipped my hair, wet slaps against my lips, cheeks. Debris dug into my bare feet: Shards of wood and tin, bent nails, fiberglass clippings, everything they intended to clean up tomorrow. It hurt, and I was suddenly furious. Not at the builders, not at Him, pulling on my arm. No. I was angry at my husband. For being gone. For insisting on the cheaper skylights that popped open like a compact, for decreeing that we did not need an alarm system on the second floor, just the first.
In all things, I blame the husband.
“ How can it be possible,” Sam says one morning, as my daughters sniffle over his burnt waffles, “that I am always the one who is wrong?” But he is. It is so clear to me, and so opaque to him.
If I had an affair, stole from the neighbors, bludgeoned my children for spilling juice, it would be his fault. He knows I have panic attacks; that I am always afraid. And still he travels, still he leaves me, still he pooh-poohs the alarm. I am so angry at my husband I could wrestle him to the ground. But this man at my side? No. Him, I have apparently been waiting for. All the fear and panic of my life was because I expected Him to come. And this, all this anger toward my keeper, and not my taker, is even before I know the truth. That our home was chosen because of my husband, and not because of my daughters.
That Jamie was selected not because she was Sam’s meekest, but because she was Sam’s favorite.
He will tell me this later, the why and the how and the where. I will know everything except when. The answers will satisfy me without pleasing me in the slightest. But in the moment, there is only long wet driveway, open car door. The streetlight above us is dark and so is the car’s interior. We are in shadow; part of the rain; we do not exist. He pushes me in. Gently, but still a push. This is it, the true crime, what all my obsession was preparation for. I was walking down the aisle of my fear. Graduating. The scars will be a diploma in my hand.
The seats are soft and warm against my wet legs. I am astonished by what I think: That it is not nearly as bad as I imagined. And that for the first time in fifteen years of marriage, the tables are turned: Sam will not know where I am.
In the car, He tells me I can peel off the duct tape. I wonder if He is too squeamish to do it, the same way I can’t bear to rip off the girls’ band-aids. Do we have that in common? I work the corners off gingerly, trying not to pull the small blond hairs around my lips. I tear the last section off and air floods my lungs, as if my nose couldn’t pull in enough. I picture my daughters in their beds, mouths open in their sleep. I try not to imagine anything crawling in.
He binds my hands and feet with rope, then asks if it’s too tight. Yes, I decide to say. He slides his finger between the rope and the softest part of my wrist. It reminds me of how I tested Rexie’s dog collar before she ran away. He pulls his finger out, does the same on my left wrist. Same outcome. He does not loosen the rope. There are tests for everything. Some of us shake formula onto the inside of our wrists, blow on hot pizza. Others pull on handcuffs, buy extra duct tape, put chairs under doors. He wants me to believe my comfort counts.
I am not shaking anymore; the Xanax, or something, is working. I am calm enough that my eyes consider escape. I look around the car for weapons. There is nothing on the seats, nothing but mud at my feet. I hope it is mud, and
not blood. I shiver, adding it up: dirty floorboards, cut feet. Metal. Puncture. Germs. My feet start to sting and my whole body shudders again. In my Land Cruiser there are baby wipes in the glove box, hand sanitizer in the seat pocket. He will not have these safety nets. My teeth rattle. If He doesn’t kill me, I am going to die of lockjaw.
Do you need a blanket? He asks. Of course he would have this in the trunk: blankets, garbage bags, tape, rope. There, is I shiver with certainty, a shovel and axe there too. I think of the trunk open, picture the contents. Still life of death.
Tears run down my cheeks. I need a tetanus shot, I whisper. He blinks slowly. His skin is darker than mine; his voice lightly tinged with accent. It is possible he will not understand words like tetanus. He inhales deeply, turns on the car, slides the heating control from blue to red. My feet start to warm.
He looks at me again. I am shaking. It is 80 degrees but I am shaking as I always shake when I have my panic attack. He takes off His button-down shirt, hands it to me. Underneath, his r t-shirt is thin and old, like the last t-shirt in the bottom of your drawer.
I lay his shirt across my lap; it smells familiar, of lime. I continue to cry, remembering being pregnant, always cold, my back hurting, and Sam oblivious, never offering a blanket.
I see that He is not a person without manners.
He pulls out into the street. I look back at the house. The nightlights glow pale blue inside three of the smallest windows. The large ones are dark. This is how my house looks when I am not in it.
Did I say a prayer as we left, ask God for what I was owed? I don’t remember. My head was filled with detail: an obsessive obligation to remember everything, to not disappoint the police, to be the best witness. The small picture has always taken my mind off the big picture. The car is a Cutlass, maroon velour interior, fifteen years old. He looks Latin, is about six feet tall. I stare at his hands and wrists, arms flexing on the wheel. No tattoos or distinguishing marks. Like me, He could be anybody. There have been hundreds of people in my house, muddy boots, crumpled work gloves, saw dust-y hair. Some arrive at dawn; the subcontractors, closer to ten. Each day I come home to their evidence: coffee cups, cigarette butts, sticky bakery papers from their donuts. Their DNA crumpled underfoot. They have held the keys to my front door, opened my refrigerator and my mailbox, leaving their Gatorade and their bills: handwritten, stained from the job. I remember some of them, not all. But none of them look like Him.
I think of Jamie still in her bed, the description I did not have to give: the freckle on her ring finger, the small scar on her chin. A framed school photo I could have handed the police: the clenched smile, a stranger’s version of her. Do my daughters know what I look like? Can a child know that I am tall? Can
they conjure a crayon word for my hair? There they go, to the box of 64, pulling out ‘Wheat’, drawing me: all arms and legs, no good head on my shoulders. They will find the phone, I tell myself. They must.
It is quiet on the turnpike. A few trucks, a few cars. A small parade of oddballs who travel in the middle of the night instead of sleeping. The broke, the desperate, the hopped up on caffeine. We join them.
As He passes a truck on a curve, He asks why I did not come upstairs sooner.
What? I ask, not understanding.
Didn’t you hear me walking on that damn roof?
I thought you were a squirrel, I say.
He turns back to the road. A car filled with teenagers passes us as if we were innocent. They assume husband/wife, brother/sister. There is no radar for what we are.
I am calm enough to be annoyed by His roof question. A hearing test, graded. I have failed to exhibit the proper amount of homeowner curiosity. Was there another taunt coming—why didn’t you go the knife drawer instead of the phone cradle? Don’t you keep mace in the house? I look at Him, driving, and want to start a fight. I want to say that good burglars scouted their territory, learned things: man gone, alarm disabled, tin underfoot. The moment of break-in, after all, was just a moment. A heat, a burst of decisive grace. All the long hard work went before; anyone knows that. Even I know that. Sam’s words suddenly ring in my ears: It isn’t a competition, he always says. But it is, Now, I have to prove myself better than a burglar.
The exits on the turnpike are numbered by the miles between them. If you are an adult who is not tied up, not on Xanax, not bleeding from rusty nail wounds in your feet, it is simple to do the math. But you have to know where you start to know where you are. I do not. It is one of the things Sam hates about me—I don’t ever have the numbers he needs. What time did you leave? How much rain did we get? His mind is like a newscast, fixed, while mine fills constantly, replenished with softer things: colors, textures, smells. I know the police will want the Sam things.
The exit sign marked ‘36’ is green and wet ahead of us. I have passed it dozens of times, never taken it. He turns on his blinker, and I imbue the act with meaning: He is civilized, considerate. A lesser criminal, surely, would just have swerved. The cloverleaf curves all the way around, counter-clockwise. I am leaning in his direction. The edges of the tires squeal. Something new to consume me: the possibility of a blow-out.
Your husband is gone a lot, He says.
My cheeks burn. Salt in wound. Why doesn’t He just say that I’m old, tired, ruined? I bite my tongue, wish for the duct tape back.
Four nights last week, He adds. Alcohol on the fire.
I sigh deeply, look down. Game over; he has done his homework. But how hard was it? Could anyone watching me know this? Maybe you didn’t have to count cars in the driveway, watch Sam’s newspapers and golf magazines pile up on the marble counter. There was me taking out the garbage, sweeping sidewalks, shoveling snow. There was my false cheerfulness at dinner time, the father-tickles, the father-roughhousing the girls needed at night. The detached father-words I sometimes said after working all day, ‘Girls, not now.’ How deep I had to dig to remember them, from my own father, gone so long now. And I wonder: Did my body, juggling the mail and my briefcase, wiping the dogs feet, doing the dishes, through the window, up the road, through the high-speed binoculars in his nondescript Cutlass look to any thief, kidnapper, murderer, like a woman’s whose husband was gone? I could feel the difference; was it possible that with enough insight, or a big enough zoom lens, you could see it? That was the kind of enhancement the FBI needed: look, there, go in tight, see that? Right there, on her shoulders, it’s not doctor appointments, parent/teacher conferences, deadlines at work no, blow it up more, Lieutenant, look, don’t you see? It’s the weight of the world.
I start to cry. I feel His eyes on my tears. He has given me something to cry about. Perhaps the other women He’s abducted have cried too. I lift my bound hands and wipe my nose and cheeks. He watches me, does nothing.
What can He do? This is not my car, with Kleenexes in the front visor and napkins in the back pocket. He has the things he needs, not the things crying women do.
He pulls to the shoulder, along a grove of trees. I should be afraid: Murderers always choose trees. But He just looks at me. It has been a long time, but I know what it means when a man watches you cry: He is waiting, afraid to ask, but wanting to be told. I tell.
My daughters are alone in the house, I sniffle. We are out of cereal and milk. That is what I unload: shopping worries, list thoughts.
They’re too young to use a gas stove, I continue. It’s new and complicated—even my husband can’t remember which knobs work which burners. And the new microwave has a lot more buttons than the old one. I pause and He blinks slowly. Can He sense what I didn’t say: The kitchen was designed for me. Not children. Not husbands. It is, finally, what I wanted. What I needed. The distraction of planning, buying, then having, using. Polishing, shining, admiring. It is my car. I also neglect to tell him this: That like a car, I cannot give away the keys. The combination of fire and heat and children terrifies me. That I fully imagine them going off to college without learning how to strike a match.
You have a pantry, he replies.
It is an odd word to hear on a man’s tongue. I wonder about the origin of it, the root.
I consider the pantry, the layout of food: The granola bars are on the highest shelf so is the cereal. I have laid out my own kitchen to ensure my children’s starvation. Was there anything they could they reach? Water bottles? Juice boxes under the sink? I imagine them downstairs, socks on wood floor, slipping, climbing, no parent, no phone, no food. The heavy silver doors of the Sub-Zero refrigerator taunting them. I think of the mushrooms sprouting on the bases of our oak trees out back, the wild onions growing near the creek, and am suddenly terrified that they will eat them.
They are babies, alone in a house, I cry. They don’t have a phone, they don’t know the neighbors, they don’t know how to cook. They can’t pour milk. You have to let me make a phone call, I sniffle. Please. Begging, already. No shame.
They’ll be fine.
Please call my mother-in-law and tell her to come get them, I say. Call from a pay phone.
I have to think for a moment: are my in-laws home? They live a few blocks away but travel constantly, offer to help, but don’t really want to. When I invite them to the kids’ birthday parties, they always have plans. Perhaps a kidnapper could break their reserve.
When I was a child, we packed our own lunches, He says to the window.
Not when you were six.
A six-year-old can make a sandwich.
I shake my head. I see the knives, the glass jars, the difficulty of packaging. No, I say. Our first argument. I am losing.
My husband won’t be home for three days. They’ll starve.
Your husband will be home in the morning.
He’ll be home in the morning.
He says it with certainty. He knew Sam was gone, knew which daughter slept where. What else does He know? The question sends fingers of panic along my spine. He has been watching. The blueprint of our house is just a shell; He can’t know what it really holds. He hasn’t studied my architecture, the answers to my lost password questions, my mother’s hidden maiden name. No. There are some secrets Sam and I still trust to each other.
No, I have his itinerary, I say stupidly.
I have his wife, He says, and pulls back onto the slick highway, tires spinning, flying for a moment, before we reconnect with the road.
I have been married to Sam for one-third of my life. I consider this one of those facts you pull out of a drawer every New Year’s Eve when you take stock of your life, knowledge too frightening to contemplate more often, like spending 40% of your life sleeping, or that women over 30 have a better chance of being struck by lightning than romance. A marriage like ours creeps up on you, like middle age, like a beer belly, unnoticeable for a long time until one day, suddenly, there it is. An accomplishment, but not quite a monument.
The last five years have been a blur of soccer uniforms, Girl Scout cookies, unmatched socks. A messy collage of life, and now, I am torn out of it. I am leaving town alone for the first time since my youngest daughter was born. I can see the headline now: It took a kidnapping for me to realize how much I needed a vacation.
My life wasn’t always an assembly line. Sometimes, before I fall asleep, I remember the days when there were choices in front of me, instead of a long list. Some of the choices were agonizing, some of them frightening, but others
delightful. Decadent. There were lists at the office, perhaps, but none in my head, no going through the motions, no have-tos, just want-tos, and might-want-tos. It made the moments before sleep different. It made sleep optional. It made dreams definite. That feeling, I am fairly certain, is gone for good. That is the part you don’t want people to know when they ask you what it’s like to be married for so long. You can explain the miracle of children, the Christmas-card version of your life. But how do you explain the absence of possibility?
My children have a hard time understanding events that occurred before they were born, and so do I. I squint at the photos of my younger self like a detective. Who is she? What would she have done, where would she have gone? I can barely remember those days, let alone explain them. And yet there is much to explain. It will take two days deep into Exit 36 before I begin to focus on the larger worry, something beyond my children being unfed, or how it might feel to have a knife at my throat, or a bullet in my head. It would be okay if He knows, but what it They know?
I picture my children going through the house, searching closet by closet for food, phones, warm clothing. They will cuddle in my t-shirts, wear my perfume. They will ransack my closet before the police.
What if they find it first?
The Box underneath my shoeboxes is a can of worms, but they will open it like it was a gift. How can I undo the damage if I am not there to explain?
As if I know how to do it, where to begin.
I know I have to start practicing.
But how do you tell your daughters about the men you loved who weren’t their Daddy? When they say, ‘If I had been born to you then, would I still be me?’ How on earth do you tell them no?
No, you would be a different person, you would have a different life. We all would. And who is to say if it would be better or worse? But different is always worse to a child.
And always, always, better to an adult.
We drive for what feels like an hour, but could easily be less. Rain stretches things out. There is no clock in the car, no moon in the sky. I could ask, don’t. My feet are warm, the mud or blood has dried. Later I will ask him for more, not now. He has already said no to loosening my wrists and calling my mother-in-law, and I don’t want all the no’s at once.
I glance at the instrument panel, the blue flashes of information. 60 mph. The gas tank is full, the fluid levels and engine temperature, normal. The Cutlass, though old, has been recently serviced. But I still don’t trust the tires. The occasional spin and hydroplaning worries me. There isn’t that much water on the road; we haven’t been drenched by a single truck. The tires must be bald in places.
I have been the kind of person who had to drive on bald tires, and I don’t want to do it again. The velour seats after so many leather years take me back: I took out the window at the wet trees and remember being a young girl with an old car. Using the emergency flashers more often than the turn signals. Begging strangers for a jump, having only a dollar to put in the tank. The first responsibility, and it was too large.
Are we going much further? I finally ask. It is a child’s question. Because, I clear my throat, the tires are bald.
Don’t worry about the tires, He says. A response you would give to a child.
I hang my head. We go around a curve in the woods and a scene unspools: the car could spin, tires with no grip, leaving the ground. We fly down a gully, twisting in the air, and land against a boulder, upside down in a creek. Through the gash in the windshield, water seeps in. I am trapped: my hands and feet are bound. In my version He cannot save me; He has a gash in His head, and I have to watch us both die.
Tears again. I have no sleeves of my own, only skin to use. I bury my wet eyes in my bound hands.
The tires aren’t that old, He says. I hear the weary confusion in his voice. I am being taken to an undisclosed location, to await an uncertain fate. And I fret over the safety of the tires?
This isn’t your car, I sniff. You have no idea how old they are.
How do you know?
You drive it like someone else’s, I say.
It is true and we both know it. The tires squeal but not because of his tentative driving. He doesn’t know the car’s limitations, and I don’t know His.
Relax, He says quietly. Nothing will happen.
The words frightened people always hear from the non-frightened. They never give me comfort. Not when my father used them on his deathbed, not when my nurse used them during labor. They are not meant to comfort me, they are meant to shut me up.
If the tires blow out, only one of us will be able to open the door and walk away.
We’re almost there, He sighs. Five minutes.
I am quiet.
Here is something they don’t put on the label of the prescription bottle: you will need more than Xanax to get through a kidnapping. You will need words of comfort. You will need a warm blanket in the dark motel room, salt on the take-out fries, free cable TV.
And you will need company.
An area resident for fifteen years, Kelly has set nearly all of her fiction in Philadelphia and its suburbs. She balances her writing with her role as Chief Creative Officer of Tierney Communications, Philadelphia, and her role as mommy. She lives in Rosemont with one husband, three children, a dog, a cat, a hamster, and all the laundry that doesn’t get done because she’s always writing.