Don't Wake Mommy
Note: There are slight differences between the audio version and the text version.
There are no lights on in the house.
I keep the headlights off as I ease into the driveway, slowly coming to a stop so the brakes don’t squeak. I ease the car door open, and a soda can spills out, creating a racket that could wake the dead. Biting my lip, I pick up the can and wait for the neighbor’s dog to erupt. To my surprise, I notice my neighbor’s car is missing. They must have taken the dog with them.
There are still no lights on in the house. I crack a smile as I walk toward the front door.
After fumbling for a few seconds, I find the right key and ease the door open. As I enter the house, I’m acutely aware of the new fragrance that I’ve brought home. It’s probably a good idea to dump my clothes before heading to bed. Of course, if Stacey or Karl have decided to sleep downstairs tonight, then I’m screwed. Nevertheless, it’s a risk I’ll have to take.
The soft rippling glow of the fish tank guides me on my way to the basement. I stop to move a toy conspicuously placed at the top of the basement stairs, listening to hear if anyone is downstairs. The only sound is my own heartbeat as it threatens to burst from my chest. Light barely trickles past the first few steps, so I pull out my cell phone to guide my way.
Scattered pillows are the only signs of Karl and Stacey, so I head to the laundry room, stepping through a minefield of LEGOs. By the time I reach the laundry room, I’ve taken off everything but my underwear. I set my keys, wallet, lighter, and cellphone on top of the dryer. Once my clothes are in the washer, I grab a dirty bathrobe, drop my things into the pockets, and head back upstairs, guided by the friendly light of my cell phone screen. As I round the corner, I hear a familiar voice.
“Daddy, what are you doing?” Stacey asks.
Damn. I forgot to check their pillow fort.
“Nothing sweetie. It’s late you should go to bed.”
Stacey stands and wobbles over, rubbing her eyes and blinking at the light from my cell phone. I see Karl asleep in the corner, buried by an army of stuffed animals.
“Why are you downstairs Daddy?”
I thought of a thousand excuses to use if Shannon had caught me, but I hadn’t considered the possibility that I would have to explain myself to a child. My mind reels as I try to conjure any legitimate excuse for why I was in the basement at two in the morning. Of course, there was no legitimate excuse.
“Checking for monsters, honey. I thought you might be down here so I wanted to make sure it’s safe.” I reach out to her, signaling a hug.
She smiles and sprints toward me. I pick her up in one swoop and hold her tight. The normal sensations of warmth and love are noticeably absent, instead replaced by something hollow and corrosive. Guilt.
I give her a kiss and set her down.
“You can rest easy tonight. I’ve checked for monsters. You’re all clear down here.”
I pause for a moment, pretending to be listening to something upstairs.
“Wait. What’s that?”
“What’s what?” she asks.
“I better go investigate. Could be monsters. You better hurry to bed or they might come looking for you.”
She runs back to her pillow fort, and protectively gathers stuffed animals around her. I grab my things and start back up the stairs, but not before she implores, “Daddy?”
“Don’t wake Mommy.”
I almost chuckle at the thought.
“Of course, sweetie. Good night.”
A few moments later, I’m back on the main level. I shut my cell phone, but not before the cat scares the shit out of me. I want to kick the stupid bastard across the room, but it’s not worth the risk. Of course, he follows me all the way upstairs, weaving between my legs, trying to trip me with every step. I reach the top of the stairs and take a deep breath. Almost home free.
The comfortable silence is broken by a growling beast belched from the underworld aka the cat. Of course, he's planted himself right in front of our bedroom. I rush over to grab him, but he hisses at me before scurrying away. It’s a miracle I haven’t killed him yet.
Knowing the cat, Karl's lizard is probably on the loose again which means I better be careful where I step. LEGO bricks are nothing compared to a horned lizard.
The door to our bedroom is shut, of course. Closing my eyes to focus, I twist the knob while simultaneously lifting the door up to open it. If I wasn’t careful, the door would cry like a wounded animal when it swung open. Once I have just enough room, I let go of the door and slip inside.
I expected to hear Shannon's light snores, but the fan is running too loudly for me to hear anything other than white noise. I don’t dare to look her in the face to see if she’s awake. If she hasn’t said anything by now, she’s asleep for sure. I close the door, and lie flat on the ground.
Alright, you damn lizard. Where are you?
Using the dimmest setting on my cellphone’s flashlight, I scour the floor, looking for any trace of the lizard, careful not to let any light spill on Shannon. The path to my side of the bed looks clear aside from bins, shoes, and Christmas presents for the kids. I turn off my cell phone and stand up. Wherever the lizard was, he was safe for now. I could always find him in the morning.
Moving with all the grace I could muster, I take off my bathrobe, slide onto the bed beside her, and pull the sheets carefully over my body. Then, I realize Shannon is staring straight at me. Her ice-blue eyes paralyze me, her breath burns my face, and her mouth looks ready to swallow my soul.
I had prepared for this moment all night. I had coached myself dozens of times on the drive home, but now that the moment has finally arrived my mind draws a blank. Her continued silence only makes it worse. I have to say something. Anything.
“I know. It’s late.”
I wait for her to respond, but her dead-pan expression continues. I try not to look away, but I know she can sense my guilt.
“I was driving. Nowhere in particular.”
Her eyebrows furrow.
“Listen, Shannon. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking the worst. I haven’t exactly been open lately. I just...needed to clear my head. I spend all day sending emails looking for work and all night waiting to hear back. I just needed some...perspective.”
She lets me continue.
“I owe you an apology. I haven’t thanked you for all that you’ve done over the past few months. I’ve taken you for granted and that stops now. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. Take the kids to school, clean the house, walk the cat, whatever.”
Now, for the pièce de résistance, I look deep into her eyes.
“I love you. I’m sorry I don’t say it enough.”
My heart races as I wait for the words to sink in. She blinks. She hasn’t said a word this entire time. Hit me, yell at me, do something!
She turns to look at the bathroom, stares for a few seconds, then looks back at me.
“Can you say something?”
She looks at the bathroom again.
“Dammit Shannon, what’s the matter?”
Finally, she sits up and points to the bathroom.
“Is something in the bathroom?”
She nods. What could be so important at a moment like this?
The last time Shannon had mysteriously sent me to the bathroom, I discovered a pregnancy test with two pink lines. This time, I know that's not a possibility because we hadn't been intimate in months. Truth be told, this was probably the longest conversation we've had in the same amount of time. After years of being married, you find yourself talking less and less until you just exist together, roommates that share a last name.
I slide out of bed, still anxious about the lizard running loose somewhere, and carefully tread to the bathroom. I flick the light switch and take a quick glance. Nothing appears out of the ordinary. Then I notice a small piece of paper, Shannon’s favorite stationery, on the sink.
The note read:
I’m sorry to leave you like this. I tried so hard, but every day is worse than the last. Please know that I don’t blame you.
Tell the kids I’m sorry.
Sorry for what?
At that moment, I notice a pungent, sweet smell lingering in the air. It tastes metallic. I search the bathroom again, and this time I notice something in the bathtub. Through the opaque white curtain, I can vaguely make out a shape. I pull the curtain back and there lies Shannon, wrists slit, in a pool of her own blood.
My wife is dead.
The bathroom door slams shut, and the lights go out.
“Shannon?” I hear myself whisper.
I know she won’t answer.