House on Fire
C. J. Booth
John surveyed the backyard. The barbecue had been over for hours. The neighbors had left. Kids were gone. Summer barbecue detritus littered the grass. Evidence of a good time. Beer cans, a few wine bottles, streamers from kiddie poppers, soggy napkins and paper plates.
The top of the barbecue remained propped open, the bottom smoldering with blackened and wet-ashed briquettes.
And then there was his wife, Diane.
She remained where she’d been since everyone had left, on the bench seat of the picnic table, oblivious of the drizzle, or just considering it inconsequential.
And then there was the knife.
John let her stay where she was when it had started to sprinkle but he didn’t take his eyes off of her. Now that it was raining with more insistence he went to open the backdoor twice, maybe three times, to retrieve her.
Each time he started, he stopped.
Through the gridded window, he watched her. His wife was spinning the knife now. The rain had soaked her through. Her breasts showed through her summer blouse. Her dark hair, hair he had so admired when they were dating, had fought the rain and lost. Matted strings draped her shoulders and played down her face. Rain or tears, John couldn’t tell.
Either way it was obvious she didn’t care.
But, he knew seven months pregnant she shouldn’t be out in the rain. Being July, it was still nearly 80 degrees but even so, rain is rain.
Tears are tears.
John opened the door and stepped out, ignoring the water that ran down his neck. He approached his wife. If she heard him she didn’t acknowledge him, until he stood next to her shoulder.
Diane addressed him without looking up. She fingered the knife, running on her index finger along the sharp edge. She didn’t break the skin.
“You knew and you didn’t tell me, you bastard.”
He didn’t say anything.
He shifted position, glanced back at the house and tried to keep his voice level.
“Come inside. It’s raining.”
She didn’t answer right away, then muttered, “Fuck off.”
He thought about moving to clean up the backyard, straighten things out. Clean up the easy things, that is. Dealing with Diane and what she’d heard was going to take some time and he had no idea how to do it.
Evidence of a good time. Their first get-together with the neighbors since he and Diane had moved in. ‘A summer barbecue,’ she’d said. ‘Let’s have a barbecue, meet the neighbors. It’ll be fun.’
Fun. Until that real estate bitch started talking to Diane.
John put his hand on her shoulder. She flinched and jerked her shoulder aside.
“Don’t touch me.”
John reached out again but she wasn’t finished. “I’m never going in there again, you bastard.”
She still would not look at him. But now the hilt of the knife disappeared in her hand. “You fucker.” It was whispered but he heard it.
Involuntarily, he moved back a few feet.
“Diane…” He didn’t want to whine, but he was out of his element. Still, he tried. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a great house. We got a great deal. We…”
The knife point sliced into the table inches from his thigh.
“We got a great deal!” she cried. “You’re sick! You think I’m going to raise my child in a death house! You think I’m going to live in there?”
She stared straight at him now and smiled. That unnerved him more than anything.
“You knew and you didn’t tell me! You were going to let me raise a child in there? What kind of sick fuck are you?”
She stood now, steadying herself against the picnic table. She flicked the hilt of the knife and watched it wobble back and forth.
Then almost whispering, “I’m not going in there again. How would you believe I would even set foot in there again?”
She sensed a tiny kick and stroked her belly, remembering a shared moment, remembering an embrace, a feeling. Her face broke with a distant tenderness. Maybe he had just known part of the truth. Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe they could just get rid of the house, even at a loss. Maybe it would be all right again.
Maybe she could explain it.
“It’s a death house, John. It’s alive with death. It’s like the house is on fire. It’s telling us we shouldn’t be here. We should never have been here. We’ll all be hurt if we stay. It isn’t right for the baby. It isn’t right for me. Or you.”
She sounded tired. “Do you understand me?”
He seemed to waver. Then it was gone. “Diane. It’s a good house. We can make it a good home. Just come inside.”
“Goddammit John, you knew about it! The agent told me so. You knew it and you didn’t tell me. If you had loved me, you wouldn’t have let me live in there. What’s wrong with you?”
He returned her stare until she had to look away.
“God, I don’t think I know you.”
He spoke as if to a recalcitrant child. “Come in and lie down. You’ll feel better. It’s raining for crissakes.”
The anger, the hurt, resurfaced. “No! You’ll pack my stuff and send it to my mother’s.”
“Diane. I’m not going to do that. You’re not leaving.”
She shoved him back a step.
The hardness returned. “She was stabbed, you bastard. A woman was stabbed in our house, in our bedroom, there was blood on the walls, and you want me to feel better, lie down in our bed…”
Her eyes widened with a sudden understanding. She gasped and doubled over.
He moved to grab her arm and she whirled away.
Her voice was a wheeze. “Oh God! We bought all their furniture when we got such a great deal on this house. Our bed! That’s our bed! She was murdered in our bed! Dear God, you knew someone had been murdered in our bed and you never told me. Oh God…”
She remained doubled over, cradling her belly, as she staggered away from him to the garage. She fell against the door. It slammed back against the wall, then slammed closed.
He heard the car start and he couldn’t move. Above it all he heard the shrieks. Life sucking, heaving shrieks. He heard them until the car turned the corner.
John closed the barbecue, gathered up the remaining utensils and a few of the empty wine bottles. Finally, he released the knife from the picnic table.
In the kitchen, he threw the trash away and just stood, listening.
It was a quiet house. It was not a house on fire. It was not keeping anyone away.
He loved this house.
He moved down the hall to their bedroom. From the doorway, it looked the way it always looked. There might have been an incident here at one time. But, you couldn’t tell now.
And, there was never any blood on the walls. Because she was strangled not stabbed.
He should know.
Copyright C.J. Booth 2012