Excerpt

“Come Up”

Brian Evenson

August 19, 2021 
The following is a short story from Brian Evenson's new collection The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell. Evenson is the author of over a dozen works of fiction. He has received three O. Henry Prizes for his fiction. His most recent book, Song for the Unravelling of the World, won a Shirley Jackson Award and was a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction and the Balcones Fiction Prize. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts.

1.

In late June, Martin’s wife dove off the dock behind their house and into the lake and never came up again. At the time, Martin was sitting on the patio, lazily reading. She walked past him, smiled shyly, and padded barefoot down the dock. Having already returned to his book, he did not see her dive off, only heard the splash.

How much time passed before he realized something was wrong? A minute, maybe two. He was reading, still reading, but his mind kept catching on something and soon couldn’t thread the words into sentences. What was wrong? It was, somehow, too quiet. Marking his place with a finger, he looked up, saw the empty dock, the placid, smooth waters of the lake beyond.

“Kat?” he murmured.

There was no answer. He half rose from his chair and craned to stare at the glass doors leading back into the house. No sign of movement within. He walked onto the dock, the wood hot under his feet. Nothing to see there either. Just the surface of the water stretching away from him toward the pines on the other side.

“Kat?” he called again, louder this time. Dropping his book, he started looking for her in earnest.

At first, he hoped she simply had left him. The thought, anyway, crossed his mind—she had, as he would tell the police a few hours later, left him before. He was, he admitted to the police, a philanderer—they would discover this on their own once they started talking to his wife’s friends, he reasoned, so better to admit it from the outset—and she periodically got fed up.

These other women meant nothing to him, she knew that. Besides, it had to count for something that he had paid her the consideration of not sleeping with her close friends. Mostly.

“But we were getting along well,” he told the two officers. “I wasn’t cheating. It makes no sense that she would have left now.” Besides, every time she left it had been after screaming at him. This time there had been no screaming. Usually, she wanted to demonstrate forcefully that she was leaving, and tell him why. She would scream and throw things and pack her bags and only then go. But last he had seen her, she was wearing a bathing suit and sauntering to the end of the dock with no indication that everything wasn’t all right.
 The police shined their flashlights at the dock. They shined them into the water, the flashbeams quickly lost in the murk. They came into the house and looked through his wife’s things, asked him if anything seemed to be missing.

“No, nothing,” he said.

“Let me ask you,” said one of the officers, a paunchy man with a shaved head, “what sort of life insurance did you have on her?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s just, in cases like these—nothing missing, wife vanished, husband a philanderer—she’s usually murdered, and it’s usually the husband.”

There had been times when Martin wanted to strangle his wife, sure, but he thought better of telling the officers that. It was like that in every marriage, wasn’t it? There was always a time when you wanted to kill your spouse—certainly there had been more than a few times when she wanted to kill him. But he didn’t want the officers to misunderstand.

Instead, he said, “The normal amount of life insurance. I didn’t kill her.”

“What’s the normal amount?” the officer said.
“I didn’t kill her,” he said again.
“Nobody’s saying you did,” said the second officer, the one with hair. “I loved my wife,” he said.
 “There, there,” soothed the second officer.
 Eventually they sent for a diver, who found nothing. The water was too cloudy, he explained. He couldn’t see more than a few feet, and the lake was exceptionally deep.

“If she’s actually down there,” he said to Martin and the officers, “she may never come up again.” His scuba mask pushed up on top of his head looked to Martin like a nascent second face, staring upward. “Or, who knows, maybe she will. But I’m not going to find her. We’ll have to wait for the body to come up on its own.”

By we he means me, thought Martin.

The officers hung around after the divers left, but in the end weren’t sure what, if anything, to do with—or to—Martin. They would file a report, they finally decided. Had there been a crime? If things had happened just as Martin claimed then no, there hadn’t been.

“But what happened to her?” asked Martin. “What do you think happened to her?” said the bald officer. “If we get any leads, we’ll let you know,” said the second officer. He was to call them if he remembered anything that might be relevant, no matter how small. Anything at all. If his wife turned up, dead or alive, he was to call them too. Probably that went without saying, the second officer said, but he was still saying it.

“And above all, stay in the area,” the bald one said. “Don’t go anywhere.”

2.

He might have sought a little physical consolation with one of the women he had cheated on his wife with, Mindy or Megan or Sue or Ally and so on and so on, but he had seen enough true crime shows to know this was a bad idea. He hadn’t killed his wife, he knew he hadn’t, which is why he must do absolutely nothing more to give the police of this backwater town the impression he had. He had to be careful, more careful than he had been when his wife was alive. People were watching him now, and they’d already decided he was a murderer. They would try to make anything he did the proof of it.

Which was why, later that evening, when he discovered that the bottle of sleeping pills prescribed to him was inexplicably empty, he wasn’t sure it would be wise to call the police. He tried to remember his wife’s expression as she ambled onto the dock. Had her eyes drooped, had her gait been more erratic than usual, had she been herself? He wasn’t sure. At most, he was sure she had seemed relaxed. But was she too relaxed? He couldn’t say. He hadn’t been paying enough attention at the time. He hadn’t known it was the last time he would see her.

He tried to remember his wife’s expression as she ambled onto the dock. Had her eyes drooped, had her gait been more erratic than usual, had she been herself?

If he gave the police the empty bottle of pills with his name on it, would they think, Poor man, his wife committed suicide? Or would they think, The fucking husband drugged her and then drowned her?

Probably, he was almost sure, the latter. In the end, he kept the information to himself. He scraped the label off the bottle and disposed of the bottle in a trash can on the edge of the municipal park. I am doing exactly what I would do if I were guilty, he thought as he was doing this, and yet he did it anyway.

They had moved to this house because of his wife. She had grown up near it, in the area that, according to the police, he was now not allowed to leave. The move had been one of the conditions of her forgiving him for a series of dalliances: they would leave the city and move to what was basically a village on the edge of a muddy lake, to a place she was known, a place where, if he cheated, everyone would inform on him.

Even here, he had cheated, though he had been careful not to cheat with friends of hers. She had found out, they had fought, they had separated briefly, they had come back together. That was, he had come to believe, how their marriage worked. She (so he often told himself to keep from feeling guilty, even though he wasn’t sure he believed it) liked the drama of it. These other women meant nothing to him, she knew that. Besides, it had to count for something that he had paid her the consideration of not sleeping with her close friends. Mostly. The one time he hadn’t, she knew nothing about. At least, he didn’t think she did.

He was alone in the house. Her friends, even the one he had slept with, avoided him. Obviously they thought he had killed her and they told others, or maybe the police did. Soon, whenever he went into town to buy groceries, everyone stared at him. He wasn’t imagining it, at least he didn’t think so. He kept to himself. It was safer. They hadn’t been here long enough for him to have his own friends. At best everybody else treated him like a stranger, at worst like a murderer.

Why are you acting like a murderer? he asked himself. Ignore them. You have nothing to feel guilty about.

But he was lying to himself. He wasn’t a murderer, of course, that was true, but he had a great deal to feel guilty about: the way he had treated her, how he had cheated on her. And there was, now that he had discovered the empty bottle of sleeping pills, the nagging suspicion that perhaps she had killed herself, and killed herself because of him.

Without his sleeping pills, he had trouble sleeping. He would lie in the dark, staring at the ceiling, his mind racing. He needed the pills—he’d been taking soporifics of some sort or another since he was a teenager, his prescription shifting each time he built up a resistance to whatever drug he was on. He needed to go to the doctor and ask for a new prescription, but the bottle had been full; he wasn’t due for a refill for weeks. What if the police spoke to his doctor and he mentioned how he, Martin, seemed to have gone through his sleeping pills suddenly very quickly, maybe even too quickly? Wouldn’t they see this as evidence that he drugged and drowned his wife?

Did he miss his wife? Of course he missed her. But it was hard to grieve when he didn’t know what had happened to her, wasn’t even sure if she was dead.

No, now that he’d gotten rid of the empty pill bottle without telling the police about it, he had no choice but to pretend he still had his sleeping pills. He would have to tough it out.

He paced the house, back and forth, back and forth. Twenty times a day he would walk onto the dock and stand there looking at the water, searching for changes in color, irregularities, clues of any kind. But it was just water, inscrutable, illegible. Back in the house he tried to read but was too tired to read, the words slipping out of his mind nearly as rapidly as they went in.

The house was isolated enough that most days he didn’t see anyone. Of course, if he wanted to see someone he could. He could walk or drive into the town center and see other humans walking around, laughing and chatting and going about their business until they saw him and fell silent. That being the case, why would he want to see anyone? They didn’t want to see him, so why would he want to see them?

Besides, still unable to sleep, he was so tired that half the time he wasn’t sure what he was saying. His mouth was moving, and words were coming out, but what did they add up to? What if he said something people took the wrong way? As revealing something even though there was nothing to be revealed? No, better to talk to nobody.

He wasn’t healthy, he knew. Something was wrong with him. Maybe more than just one thing.

He filled his car with groceries, everything he would need for the next few weeks. He would keep to himself until then, not leave the house, then it would be all right to refill his prescription of sleeping pills. After that, he told himself, things would return to normal.

What was normal?

Did he miss his wife? Of course he missed her. But it was hard to grieve when he didn’t know what had happened to her, wasn’t even sure if she was dead. He didn’t know if he should be angry at her for leaving or distraught over her suicide or despairing because she had suffered a freak accident—struck her head after diving off the dock, say, or becoming entangled in something (what?) below the water’s surface.

There was just a hole, a void where his wife had been. You couldn’t feel anything about a void. All you could do was try desperately to keep it from swallowing you.

He walked from the house to the dock and back again. He listened to the water lap against the shore. He waded in, sometimes in his clothes, sometimes not, and felt the water move against his legs, somehow thicker than he remembered. Was some water thicker than other water? As soon as they were beneath the water, he couldn’t see his legs at all. It was as if they were gone, swallowed. Anything could be under the water, just inches from you, and you wouldn’t even know it was there.

Come up, he told her in his mind, come up, but nothing changed.

The police came back, knocking on his door until he opened it to them. They looked quizzically at him, taking in his unshaven beard, his filthy hair.

“Can we come in?” they asked.
“Have there been any developments in the case?” he asked.
The one with hair shook his head. Doing so shook his hair too.

“Not per se. We have a few questions for you. Nothing serious. Can we come in?”

“Can’t you ask them here?”

The two officers exchanged a glance. What did it mean, that glance?

“Is there anything you’ve remembered that might be of help?” the one with hair asked.

Clearly, thought Martin, they don’t really have any new questions. They just want to come in. Why do they want to come in so badly? he wondered.

“No,” he said.

“Nothing at all?”

“No,” he said again.

“Is there anything you’d like to get off your chest?” asked the bald one.

They were trying to catch him off guard, Martin realized. Catch him tired, in a moment of weakness. But his whole life was a moment of weakness now. He couldn’t talk to them, not while he couldn’t sleep.

“No,” he said, “no.” And closed the door.

Come up, he told her in his mind, come up. And then said it aloud to make sure she heard.

He lay in bed staring into the dark, seeing nothing. He must have slept just a little, even without the pills. Or maybe he was half-awake and half-asleep, asleep enough anyway to dream or imagine he dreamed. He heard the door to the patio slide open and slide closed again, followed by the damp slap of her feet crossing the tile floor. He heard her stop just outside the bedroom door and then, even though the door never opened, he sensed her on the other side of it, on his side, gliding slowly across the carpet toward him. On the carpet, her feet didn’t make a sound. There she was, in the darkness reduced to a dim looming shape, just above him. And then she pulled back the covers and slid into the bed, beside him.

He held very still. He could hear her breathing but couldn’t sense her ribs rising despite her lying next to him. Perhaps she was breathing very shallowly.

What happened to you, he said, or thought he said.
What do you mean? she asked.
One minute you were there and the next you weren’t. Where did you go? I’m right here, she said. What makes you think I ever went anywhere at all?

He did not know how to respond to this, and so he said nothing. And then she reached across the bed and draped her arm over him. He felt the blanket growing damp against his chest, rapidly soaking through. He sensed her face close to his, and then her lips touched his and his mouth began to fill with water.

Wake up, he told himself, wake up.

3.

He awoke in the shower fully clothed, water pouring over his head. He was choking, uncertain how he had gotten there. Why was he fully clothed? Hadn’t he just been in bed? He stripped off his sodden clothes and left them heaped on the floor. He dried off, turned off the bathroom light so as not to wake his wife, then opened the door to the bedroom.

The bedroom was very dark. His eyes seemed to be having difficulty adjusting. He fumbled across the darkened bedroom, shuffling cautiously until he touched the dresser. He felt its top drawer into existence and opened it, but what was inside felt wrong: smooth, slick. His wife’s underthings, he suddenly realized: he was standing before the wrong dresser. The room he was imagining in his head slid to one side. He sidestepped once, then again, then a third time, until he was sure the dresser in front of him was his own. But I was sure the first time too, he thought, and I was wrong.

He opened the top drawer and reached in, felt the familiar fabric. He slipped on a pair of briefs. By now, his eyes had adjusted enough that he could just make out the shape of the bed. He moved toward it until his shins touched the side rail.

He pulled the covers back and slipped beneath them. His wife rustled beside him, gave a soft moan.

What is it? she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”

Where were you? she asked.

“I’m right here,” he said. “I never went anywhere at all.”

She gave a little moan but said nothing further. Soon he could hear her breathing, slow, regular. For once, even without the pills, he felt sleepy too.

Only as he drifted off did he remember his wife had vanished, was probably dead, probably drowned.

Just as he soon will be. Not the next night, nor the next, nights when he again awakens in the shower, sputtering, fully clothed, no idea how he got there, but the third night, yes, that will be his last. The night when, his dead wife, increasingly persuasive, says to him, Honey, showers are nice, but to relax, really relax, there’s nothing like a long, long bath.

A bath, he answers, dully.

Sure, she says, then gives a little shrug. Or a swim, she says. She turns and leans toward him, and despite the darkness he can see her clearly, the fine bones in her face, her white full teeth, her hair undulating impossibly back and forth in the air. She leans closer and touches him, just with the tips of her fingers, then pulls away. He doesn’t feel them, the fingers, but where they have been his skin is damp.

I know what’s good for you, darling, she says. Trust me.

He isn’t sure how long it has been since he had anything to eat. Hours at least, maybe days. He isn’t sure how long it has been since he felt rested. His thoughts flit everywhere at once. He has difficulty holding any single thing in his head.

And then finally, something does hold: Yes, a bath sounds nice.
 Or maybe even a swim.

_____________________________________________________________________

Used by permission from The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (Coffee House Press, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Brian Evenson.




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