There she was, a half block down, locking up for the night.
She wore a gray, woolen trench coat and a knit hat that tied under her chin—just a few sprigs of blond hair poking out. She hadn’t seen him yet, and as she fought to tug the key out of the lock, the vacancy in her face broke something inside of him.
She looked shattered.
He called her name.
She glanced back at him.
She was in a dark place. He could see that instantly. Would’ve bet money she’d been fighting tears all day. He reached her and put his arm around her.
They walked together down the sidewalk.
There were a handful of people out, locking up shops, walking home from work.
He asked how her day was and she said, “Fine,” in a voice that undercut the meaning of the word.
They moved catty-corner across the intersection of Sixth Street.
Theresa said, “I can’t do this.”
There were tears in her voice now, her throat clogged with emotion.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“But not here. Not like this.”
“Can they hear us now?”
“If we aren’t careful. Speak softly and stare at the ground. There’s something I didn’t tell you last night.”
Ethan hooked his arm around her waist, pulled her in close, said, “Hang on a second.” They went past a streetlamp on the corner that Ethan knew housed a camera and a microphone. When they were fifty feet from the lamp, he said, “Were you aware there’s a microchip in the back of your leg?”
“It’s how they track you.”
“Do you have one too?”
“I just had mine removed. Temporarily.”
“I’ll explain later. I want to take yours out. It’s the only way we’ll be able to really talk.”
Their house stood a little ways down the hill.
“Will it hurt?” she asked.
“Yes. I’ll have to cut you. We’ll do it in the chair in the study.”
“It’s a blind spot in our house. The only one. The cameras can’t see us there.”
Her lips curled into the tiniest smile. “So that’s why you always want me in the study.”
“Sure you can do this?”
“I think so. Are you up for it?”
Theresa drew in a deep breath, blew it out.
“I will be.”
Ethan stood under the archway between the kitchen and the dining room, staring at Ben, who sat at the table, swallowed in a big coat with a blanket draped over his shoulders. The only sound in the house was the squiggle of the boy’s pencil across a sheet of paper.
“Hey, buddy,” Ethan said. “How goes it?”
Ben didn’t look up from his drawing.
“What are you working on there?”
Ben pointed at the centerpiece of the table—a crystal vase holding a bouquet of flowers that had long since succumbed to the interior cold. Cast-off, colorless petals wilted on the table around the base of the vase.
“How was school today?”
“What’d you learn?”
This snapped Ben out of his concentration.
It was an honest slip—a holdover from Ethan’s life before.
The boy looked up, confused.
Ethan said, “Never mind.”
Even inside the house, it was cold enough for Ethan to see his son’s breath.
The rage came out of nowhere.
He turned suddenly and walked down the hallway, jerked open the back door, crossed the deck into the yard.
The grass was yellowed, dying.
The row of aspen trees that separated their property from the neighbor’s had dropped their leaves practically overnight.
The floor of the woodshed was still littered with scraps of bark and chips of pine from last year’s load. Prying the ax out of the flat-topped splitting stump, Ethan had a vision of Theresa out here, chopping firewood alone in the cold, him still in suspension.
He stormed back into the house, dark energy riding on his shoulders.
Theresa was in the dining room with Ben, watching him sketch.
“Ethan? Everything okay?”
“Fine,” he said.
The first strike split the coffee table down the middle, its two sides caving inward.
“Ethan! What the hell?”
Theresa in the kitchen now.
“I can see…” Ethan raised the ax. “My son’s f**king breath inside our f**king house.”
The next strike devastated the left half of the table, fracturing the oak into three pieces.
“Ethan, that’s our furniture—”
He looked at his wife. “Was our furniture. Now it’s heating fuel. There a copy of the paper lying around?”
“In our bedroom.”
“Mind getting it?”
By the time Theresa returned with the Wayward Light, Ethan had broken the coffee table into small enough pieces to put inside the stove.
They wadded up sheets of newsprint and stuffed them under the kindling.
Ethan opened the damper, lit the paper.
As the fire grew, he called for Ben.
The boy appeared, sketchpad under his arm. “Yes?”
“Come draw by the fire.”
Ben looked at the butchered coffee table.
“Come on, son.”
The boy took a seat in a rocker beside the woodstove.
Ethan said, “I’ll leave the door open for you. When that fire gets going, add another piece.”
Ethan looked at Theresa, cut his eyes toward the hall.
He grabbed a plate from the kitchen and followed her back to the study.
Locked them inside.
The light coming through the window was gray, weak, and fading.
Theresa mouthed, “You sure they can’t see us in here?”
He leaned in, whispered, “Yeah, but they will be able to hear.”
He sat her down in the chair, touched his finger to his lips.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a slip of paper, which he’d folded thirty minutes ago at the station.
Theresa opened it.
I need access to the back of your left leg. Take off your pants and turn over. I’m sorry but this is going to hurt a lot. You have to keep quiet. Please trust me. I love you so much.
She looked up from the note.
Reaching down, she began to unbutton her jeans.
He helped her slide them down her thighs, something inescapably erotic as he tugged them off—the impulse to keep going, to keep undressing her. Was after all their f**k chair.