“Is he asleep?” Mitch asked Judy as she came down the stairs, changing the channel once again as the judges on the cooking competition relieved themselves for a moment of the responsibility of choosing a winner by throwing to a dizzying commercial. Judy shot his back a vitriolic glance as she moved to the fridge.
“Yeah,” she said. No thanks to you, she thought. “You want a beer?”
“Need you even ask,” he said, not anymore bothering to put on the high-class accent that used to be part and parcel of the joke, but that he now took as implied. As a matter of course. You know how it goes. Et cetera, et cetera.
Judy rolled her eyes as she peeled off the caps to two bottles with the bottle opener on her key-ring. She threw the curved caps into the trash and then settled down on the grey faded love seat next to Mitch. The grey, mid-century love seat that was the first piece of furniture they’d bought together, back when he’d first moved in right after college. Back when she’d gotten pregnant. Back when he’d asked her to marry him because she’d gotten pregnant. Back when asking a girl you’d gotten pregnant to marry you was a matter of course. Part and parcel of the joke.
Mid-century modern, they’d called the love seat at the store. It was faded now, seeming sickly and bloodless, the seat cushions smoothed and smothered to a sagging sad sigh.
“Thanks,” Mitch muttered, reflexively. He didn’t take his eyes off the screen. Judy watched the side of his face. His unmoving face, his glassy eyes, glazed over with the play of the drama on the TV. His beard, a few days old, shone golden in the soft light of the living room and the technicolor glow of the TV.
She liked him with a beard, he looked handsomer. Especially now that his face had become so thin, so gaunt. When they had first met his face was round and his cheeks were rosy, but now his cheeks had retired, leaving in their place a bleak hollow — even in rest deep shadows loomed there, nurtured by his now-prominent cheekbones. His jawline was jutting and prominent, too. And his eyes seemed rounder, too, set deeper in his skull, dark circles meandering and winding unforgiving under them. His eyes, though they had always been a stannic navy blue, seemed darker now, without their sparkle, without a joke dancing mischievously behind them. The only noticeable blemish on his face was the small round scab, the crusted blood surrounded by pink puckered skin, that he’d received yesterday, on the right-hand corner of his wide forehead.
Judy sighed. What had time done to him? She decided that she would cry later that night, alone, after he’d fallen asleep. Cry for this wispy husk of a man sat next to her. This tired, thin man whom she still loved more than life itself.
“You’re doing it again,” Mitch said.
“I’m sorry,” Judy said, turning her eyes to the TV. She wasn’t really sorry. She would never be sorry for looking at Mitch. If she could, she would spend hours just looking at him. But he didn’t like that. He didn’t like being watched.
Welcome to my world, she would sometimes think, recalling the irksome feel of men’s eyes slinking slimily and predatorily over her body in public. She would sometimes think this, but she would never say it to him. Her meaning would be lost on him, she knew. Besides, she wasn’t a stranger to Mitch. Hers wasn’t the dispassionate and hungry and creeping gaze of the stranger lurking down the street. She loved him. It was different, the work her eyes were doing — looking and admiring and remembering.
She thought about the way he used to look at her, and how much she loved it — his big smile, his cool eyes melted by his warm feeling toward her, how they would become soft and deep. How they opened up for her, when he was happy and had a beer in one hand and her in the other. She loved this amorous openness, how he would allow her to touch him, lean into him, rest her head on his shoulder. He never allowed that anymore.
No, not since Brady died. She knew, even though he would never admit it, that a certain hard part of him blamed her for it still, for falling asleep. Even though it hadn’t been her fault. Sometimes babies just die, the doctor had explained to them in a lowered voice following his stiffer, clinical words — both times in a warm tone, but intending the second explanation to run like honey down a sore throat. And it had been a long time before she successfully explained this to herself, before she stopped blaming herself, absolved herself of the guilt of Brady’s death. She had done her best, and she had fallen asleep. But Mitch hadn’t gotten to that point. Not yet. He probably never will, thought Judy.
No, he didn’t allow that. At least, that is, and so far as she knew, he didn’t anymore allow her his openness.
She looked back at him, watched the tendons in his neck, his neck that had become so thin — it used to be so stalwart, so sturdy — work to down the beer. She could tell, by the pinching of the skin around his eyes, that he knew she was watching him again. But she didn’t look away. She felt there growing within her a combativeness — the urge to get into a fight with him just to make him talk to her, look at her. Look at her in the way that he looked at the thin brunette waitress at the truck stop yesterday. The girl he smiled at so much, the girl for whom he left that hefty tip. “Just being nice,” he’d said when Judy gave him a questioning look. He’d said without looking at her, without taking his eyes off the girl’s beautiful figure gliding across the room, busing tables with the ease of a ballerina performing a much-rehearsed move, smoothly and inevitably as a wave crests. But Judy knew that that wasn’t why he’d left the tip. Judy knew.
“Why don’t you look at me anymore?” Judy asked, ignoring the voice in her mind that told her she ought to know better, she ought to go easy on him. That it was just that he was much too tired from work. I’m tired too, she thought.
Mitch downed the remaining half of his beer, leaned forward, without looking away from the TV, and placed the bottle down carefully on the ground next to the leg of the love seat. “I look at you all the time,” he said, leaning back into place, his eyes still glued to the screen.
“No,” Judy said. “You don’t. Not in any meaningful way.”
He turned then. He turned just slightly, and looked at Judy. It was a flat look. Meaningless. Stubbornly meaningless, in the way are a child’s movements performing what is asked of her, performing perfunctorily what she doesn’t want to do but what she must. Judy felt herself growing hot under her shirt, angry. She felt heat rising up her chest, her neck. She wouldn’t cry for him tonight. She wanted to spit in his face.
“You’re pathetic,” she hissed.
He turned to face the TV again. So did she, even though she didn’t want to. She wanted to tell him to go away, to leave, to go and fuck the waitress from the truck stop. But she didn’t. She just watched the drama play out dumbly, predictably before them on the television.
She and he kept their eyes on the TV, even as something heavy tumbled and knocked its way down the stairs behind them.
“I thought you said he was asleep,” Mitch said. Flatly.
“He was when I left him,” she said. “No thanks to you,” she said, realizing then that she had forgotten to close and lock the door behind her before she came down thinking only of how little Mitch, sat in front of the TV, had helped. But she wouldn’t move. She would punish him with stubbornness. And so she sat staring straight in front of her, as if engrossed irrevocably in the TV program.
“You forgot to lock the door, didn’t you?” he hissed.
She felt his eyes on her, his hot glare hitting her like a desert wind. She didn’t look at him, she didn’t move. She wouldn’t help him. Not today. She didn’t care how tired he was. She didn’t care.
A man, the man they’d picked up yesterday, his legs bound at the ankles and his arms bound at the wrists with white cable-ties and silver duct tape covering his mouth, crawled into the living room on his elbows. From the corner of her sight Judy saw that his forehead was a bleeding gash. No doubt from the fall down the stairs, Judy thought. That’s what you get.
Mitch sighed and got up with his empty beer bottle in his hand.
“You know,” he said to the bound man who craned his head, his big, confused watery eyes up to look at Mitch. “Usually our clients want their target delivered to them alive, for reasons my wife and I don’t care to know.” He knelt down before the man and cupped his chin in his hand. “But this time, we didn’t get any such instructions. No, none. Not for a pedophile like you.” He smashed the bottle against the leg of the love seat — Judy’s grip around the neck of her own still-full bottle tightened and she cursed internally as she fought the urge to look down at the damage the smash had undoubtedly wrought on the wood of the love seat’s leg — and stabbed the sharp, ragged neck into the man’s neck. Judy saw in the corner of her sight the man flop around like a suffocating fish, spewing blood and guttural choking sounds.
“Fucking pervert,” Mitch spat at the dying man as he straightened up, and, after a second’s deliberation, kicked him in his stomach. The man stopped convulsing. Mitch settled back down next to Judy, who pointedly remained motionless.
“I’m not going to clean that up,” she said, flatly, keeping her eyes on the TV. No way in hell was she going to clean that up.
Not today. She didn’t care.
Alisha Mughal has had work appear in Noble / Gas Qtrly and Empyreome Magazine. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and currently resides in Ontario, Canada. She was born in Pakistan. Find her on Twitter: @alishamgl