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Short Story

Strangers

Until the trespassers appeared and forever altered Kathleen and Ed Beckman’s past and present lives, the couple had never considered divorce. If asked, Kathleen would have said her marriage was immutable. Ed, after thirty-four years of simmering satisfaction, hadn’t given an alternative a moment’s thought.

It had been an autumn afternoon when Kathleen spotted the frail old man and two middle-aged women loitering in the yard, the man pointing his cane up at the second floor of the house. Ed, operating the woodchipper beside the compost heap, hadn’t yet noticed the visitors, and the trio, despite the noise, didn’t appear to have noticed him. Kathleen put the rice on simmer and stepped out onto the deck. “Can I help you?” she said.

For some years afterwards, Kathleen wished she hadn’t looked out the window and seen the three figures walking beneath the kitchen window, there through the thin grass newly raked clean of leaves. Things might have been different. For one thing, the rice wouldn’t have burned, and so badly that she ended up tossing the scorched pot—only the first of so many losses incurred over the weeks and months that followed: the serenity of their home, the unbroken plain of the concrete floor in the cellar, the body bags carried up the steep steps, followed by Kathleen and Ed’s inability to remain in the house, in their marriage, and in the molds which they now felt had to be shattered.

Kathleen and Ed had lived in the house for thirty-two years at the time. They’d brought up three children, though their kids had long since moved away, out of state, where they were raising children of their own. Despite Kathleen and Ed’s long history on Moss Street, when they were told there were bodies buried under their cellar, they spent the night in a motel in town, then the next day and the next, until a team found and brought up the bodies and took them away. The cellar’s scent was exactly as Ed expected it would be when he went down, afterwards, to view the damage. Within a week, he had a crew fill the hollow with rebar and cement. The new patch took forever to cure, a prong of rusted steel protruding like a knuckled digit, perversely, and sparking as he wore it down with an orbital sander. He hid the patch with a large rug and for a day or so afterwards, considered the grisly episode over.

But the house no longer felt theirs. The old man’s story and his confession—of lives lived here before theirs, of the people who had been born in this house and died in it, and even murdered and hidden here—weighed down the house so completely that it felt impossible to lay claim to it. They didn’t realize it yet, but they were already dispossessed.

The old man passed away a scant six weeks after his confession there in their yard, about the time Kathleen and Ed’s arguing became nearly incessant. Neither doubted their ability to overcome nearly any personal tragedy, but the tragedy of the murders held a power that crumbled them. Without the former innocence of the home—the carefully selected furniture, the artwork on the walls, the workshop in the garage, and especially the memories created there—who were they, and who were they together? Everything felt tainted, as though the house had lied to them all of these years behind those cheery coats of yellow paint, as though ghosts had always inhabited their home but had been ordered silent until that moment the three strangers showed up in their garden. Only the cars felt untainted, and Ed was in his often, driving down long country roads blasting morose music that made him feel like his was a shared suffering.

They agreed on the necessity of keeping the house’s history from the children and grandchildren; they didn’t want the pall to spread over their children’s memories of growing up there. To escape the house, Kathleen and Ed announced they were moving, the house too big for them; a truth, in its way. They donated or tossed nearly everything, both of them feeling surprised that they were releasing the house and their possessions and, ultimately, each other. The children seemed over-relieved to not be gifted with any of the furniture.

Within a year of the divorce, Kathleen took up with a man from the neighboring town. She kept her own apartment, had her hair cut short and bleached white, and took frequent excursions. Ed stayed a bachelor in a townhouse. The complex had a courtyard pond that was graced by wood ducks his first year there, sparking a new and abiding interest in birding. He and Kathleen might never have seen each other again were it not for the Christmas get-togethers that were hosted in a rotation of their children’s homes. Usually they met at an airport, rented a car together, and arrived whole.

“Hello Edward,” Kathleen said, pulling her suitcase up to this year’s rental.

“Kathleen,” Ed said. He folded the car’s manual he’d been studying. There’d been an issue with releasing the parking brake the Christmas before. “You look well. Let me give you a hand with that.”

Their names of affection had fallen away that first year apart, even the Eds and the Eddies, the Kathy and Kats. Ed popped the trunk of the rental with a practiced touch on the key fob, then placed her suitcase beside his own. Hers looked new. They talked about the kids and the grandkids on the short drive to their eldest son’s place, the address already entered into the sedan’s GPS. Ed had been waiting for hours.

“Is this the year we tell them?” Kathleen said.

“The house?”

“Us. The big D,” Kathleen said, rubbing her wedding ring. “I almost couldn’t find it, this year.”

“Forgot,” Ed said, holding up his bare fingers.

They hadn’t intended to omit the truth to their children for nearly ten years, but it was easier than explaining their split, the reasons for which were still amorphous and inexplicable, tied together with the lie of the house and of the bodies that had sat, minutely rotting, under the concrete in the cellar where Ed and Kathleen’s own children—it was dreadful to consider it, even after all these years—had played ping-pong. To give an answer at one end would be to unearth the whole miserable tale and drag the children’s memories into that pit. No. Not this year, either.

They arrived in time for Christmas Eve dinner. Grandchildren, thankfully too big to sit on their laps, ran about with the metabolism of hummingbirds while Kathleen and Ed ate in the company of those they loved. Theirs was an easy ruse. The kids saw them only at Christmases, and if one made a rare visit at another time of the year, like Kathleen’s seventieth birthday, it was easy enough to play the part of a couple for a weekend. When the kids called, Kathleen was always at the gym, or shopping, should they wish to speak to her; Ed was taking one of his naps if Kathleen was asked to hand the phone to him. The small fibs joined together into faithful lies. Besides, their kids were too busy with their own lives to notice those around them, just as they themselves had been ignorant of what had lain beneath their feet.

Kathleen watched their youngest daughter spoon-feed her son. The boy had woken one morning after a high fever to a still as-yet-unrecovered-from state of paralysis in his arms. Kathleen thought she remembered that he used to play in the cellar quite often, driving his little wooden trains under the ping-pong table while she folded laundry on top, kids’ clothes on one side of the net, hers and Ed’s on the other. But no, the house had been sold long before he’d even been born. It must have been one of her sons.

Her daughter looked up and pointed an empty spoon at her. “Tell us more about Puerto Rico.”

“Puerto Rico?” Ed said.

“Did you bring photos?” their son asked, pouring more wine.

“Lost. The camera,” Kathleen said. “At the airport.” It was another fib, though she rather wished the camera had disappeared. In their hotel room, Royce had talked her into posing in that way for his blunt silver Pentax. She knew she was far too old for such nonsense, yet had done it anyway.

“What was your favorite, dear?” Ed said. “In Puerto Rico.”

“Oh. Well. So much to choose from.”

Ed nodded. “There was so much to choose from.” He didn’t say it meanly. It was simply the next line in the ongoing dialogue that had kept everyone, including themselves, safe. Ed nearly felt that he had been there with Kathleen, driving to visitor centers and vista points, swimming in the hotel pool, sitting on the beach watching the waves roll in under vast sumptuous clouds.

Kathleen had not yet told Ed about Royce proposing to her. Moving in with Royce would complicate things. And news of a decade-old divorce would seem doubly out of the blue for the kids. She wasn’t sure what Royce would think of her, either, if he knew about this long charade. Only she and Ed knew their lines.

Ed drank too much that night. Eggnog-free eggnog, as he called it. They lay together in the bedroom they’d been assigned, together of course. Once a year it was like this, hearing the others in the house place presents around the Christmas tree for the kids before turning in, then Ed and Kathleen whispering in the dark. To speak of themselves, of how they were really doing, required darkness and closeness, the essentials of confession. Ed turned on his side and, under the covers, placed a hand on Kathleen’s breast. She hitched up her nightgown; Ed knew the motions. Once a year they did this with one another, quietly. As though.

“Remember the two women?” Kathleen whispered, afterwards. The old man, that murderer, had vanished from her memory. But the two women remained, endlessly walking through the yard, past the wilting flowerbeds and the old spider-webbed playhouse and the enormous pile of rotting mulch that each year went green with the odds and ends of her cutting board: potatoes, tomatoes, and squashes that insisted on life.

“Like nuns,” Ed said.

She nodded into his shoulder. “I wish they’d told the police, you know? About their suspicions from years before. I wonder if the homeowners before us sensed—”

“No.” Ed closed his eyes and returned to considering the surgical scar he’d felt on Kathleen’s side. She’d said nothing about it; he’d asked nothing. Whatever they’d taken out of her—if that’s what it was—he hoped she was fine now. He would miss her, were she gone for good. The thought was like a little breath from an old life he was no longer certain he had lived.

Kathleen, beside him in bed, did not mention how she thought his legs had thinned; they’d once been stock strong. He didn’t walk as much, perhaps. She also didn’t tell him how, several months ago, she’d driven to Moss Street and sat in her car across from their old house. The front had been landscaped. Modern silver house numbers hung against an exterior of stained wood; not a single splash of warm mustard-hued paint remained. Large new windows had been installed that seemed as much for looking into the house as from it. Her eyes went straight through the house to the backyard, deeper than she remembered—they must have added to the house. Beyond, where the compost pile had once steamed, she saw black netting thrown over the cherry trees in full fruit. She had forgotten about the trees and instantly felt as though she had abandoned them. Ed had planted them their first year there. She kept her foot on the brake, then released and drove off, but circled the block again, wondering if she’d been staring at the wrong house. But no, this was their former home.

In bed, Kathleen brought up one of the pillows from the floor and tapped Ed’s forehead. He obliged, even in near-sleep, and allowed her to tuck a second pillow beneath his raised head. The marriage-saver, she’d once called that snore stopper. She settled back into bed and thought of that house that had been theirs, but now with those large windows, a flower-bordered walk, looking as peaceful as any house she could imagine. She wondered if she had been too hastily convinced of the power of the house’s monstrous history to permanently infect their simple anodyne life. She listened to Ed breathe. It was too late to ask him what he thought, and, besides, she already knew there was nothing to be done. She should get her sleep. The grandchildren would rise before dawn and she and Ed would be awakened to the sound of others’ glee.

“Strangers” first appeared in Orange Blossom Review.

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