BY ALLIE LAHN
Copyright is held by the author.
THE LIVING room was a disaster zone, Mark concluded, and took stock of the chaos. Red plastic cups and stained wineglasses decorated the mantelpiece, and had been deposited on nearly every surface. Someone had turned down the stereo volume to almost-off, but the soothing, melodious voices of long-dead crooners could still be heard. It had been a good party, but it was winding down now and Mark was glad. He looked forward to crawling into bed beside Janelle, holding her for a bit and feeling her warm breath on his neck while they drifted off to sleep. They were both drunk, and that meant cleaning up the house could wait until morning.
Jeff was slumped over on the couch, head bent dejectedly towards the half-full glass tumbler that he held in his hands. Mark ventured over cautiously, prompted by a faint stirring of compassion for his sad-looking buddy. The remaining guests were milling about in the kitchen; the clink of glasses and riotous, too-loud laughter signaled a late-night toast to either themselves or the entertainment earlier that evening- specifically, the latest in a series of abysmal community centre plays, which Mark had been forced to attend. Mark loathed the theatre and didn’t think Janelle cared for it much, either. But one of the idiotic women in her book club, claiming to be an artist of some kind, had turned all the wives on to the idea of a “couple’s night out”.
The nights were torture for Mark and the other husbands; inevitably, the performance would start off well, gradually deteriorating into gloomy melodrama as the actors — not actors, but bored high school teachers and self-doubting divorcees — devolved into histrionics and the vainglorious pontifications of pitiable creatures, woefully insecure in life and love. There was enough in that for a play and a half, Mark thought wryly. As it happened, one of their own was represented in the play that evening, Spring Awakening, as Ms. Professor Bonebreaker. Mark and his friends had had a laugh about that, drinking and smoking huge spiced cigars in the den.
As the only unmarried member of the book club (and an artist, no less!), Professor Bonebreaker seemed to the ladies to emit a mysterious air of romantic possibility, which, for them, had been systematically buried in the first few years of marriage. To the men, she seemed pinched and domineering, sexless. At least that was the resounding consensus, though Mark had the idea that a few of the men were secretly enamoured of the Bonebreaker.
He remembered a few weeks ago, how the conjured image of the Bonebreaker’s dark, severe bangs and thin lips, superimposed on Janelle’s face, kicked his routine, somnolent thrusting into overdrive. The result was a confused, earth-shattering climax that left them panting and clutching at each other in the black pitch of the bedroom. He had rolled off her, self-satisfied and more in shock than in disgust, as the angular features of the Bonebreaker softened into the full, generous lips and familiar wide-eyed gaze of his wife. Janelle’s fingers had traced a dazed and delicate pattern along his ribs; blissfully happy, he pretended to be asleep. After only a few minutes, she had sighed resignedly and rolled onto her side, their bodies cooling in the sweat-streaked sheets.
Lost in thought, Mark resumed wandering about the living room. He stopped, shot a look of displeasure at a purple stain between the couch and side table — it would have already begun to set into the carpet. He asked Jeff, still on the couch, if he was okay, then kneeled down beside the couch to get a better look at the stain. It looked like it had spread already, the mottled carpet resembling a massive bruise extending underneath the couch. He thought angrily of the women in the kitchen, feeling sure that whoever was responsible knew exactly where the wine had spilt, but was simply carrying on at the party as if nothing had happened. Jeff started to say something, but stopped halfway through when he realized Mark was hardly listening anyway and, for some reason, was staring intently at something on the floor.
“Did you hear anything I just said?” Jeff said, pronouncing his words carefully, looking right at Mark this time. Mark, still distracted by whatever was on the floor, paused and sighed before standing up again beside the couch. “Come sit here with me,” Jeff said. He balanced the glass on his knee with one hand and tapped the seat beside him with the other. This struck Mark as odd, but he walked around the table and sat down on the couch. He wanted to go into the kitchen to get something for the stain, but his friend seemed to need him, and was acting so strange that he didn’t think he should leave him alone.
“Mark, you and I have been neighbours for . . . what is it? Four years now?”
“Five years, then.” Jeff’s mouth formed its predictably wan smile, but something glittered in it that made the usual smile almost unrecognizable, nearly malicious.
“And would you say that, in five years, we’ve become something more like close friends, rather than neighbours? Our wives are friends, our children are close in age, go to the same school,” Jeff said, flashing those sharp white teeth again. Mark felt uneasy, craning his neck a little to hear what was going on in the kitchen. He thought he might want a beer for this, whatever Jeff was getting on about.
“And you do think, Mark, that we’ve all got on real well, especially the two of them.” He gestured with his glass to the kitchen, where their wives were still yukking it up. He thought he could hear the Bonebreaker’s shrill, bleating laugh, and resolved to recall that sound, the next time she tried to weasel her way into another of Mark’s sexual fantasies. He grimaced slightly, eyeballing the tilt of Jeff’s glass and still stewing about the stain.
“Sure, buddy,” he said distractedly.
“Look, Mark.” Jeff laid a hand on his friend’s knee, prompting rapid-fire alarm bells to go off in Mark’s head. Mark wanted to hit Jeff, or to run, but he just sat there. Jeff’s tone dropped to a whisper. At some point, the album playing on the stereo had ended.
“You know, I read somewhere that the Chinese are notorious for something called ‘live-plucking.’ Do you know what that is, Mark?”
Mark shook his head.
“Well, they pin them down between their legs like this — the geese, that is,” Jeff said, clamping his knees around an invisible bird. “The down — that’s the feathers on the chest, primarily — well they just tug and rip at it while the bird is still alive and struggling hard to get free. And there’s no doubt, the goose can feel every tug.” Jeff leaned back into the couch, folding both hands in his lap, apparently waiting for Mark to comment.
“What good is that? To pluck it while it’s still alive, screaming and panicking.” Mark wondered aloud. He wished suddenly that he was very, very drunk.
“Well the down grows back every six weeks or so. So look at it a certain way and you get more bang for your duck, if you know what I mean.”
Mark did, but he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable, watching as a slow, strange smile distorted the familiar face of his friend. “It’s inhumane, is what it is,” Jeff said, nodding as if to convince himself of the thing. “It’s no secret,” he said, “that the Chinese are some hard-bred motherfuckers. Totally desensitized to violence. They kill dogs, too. Especially the stray ones, and eat them. And no one bats an eye.”
Mark gaped at Jeff; he was about to ask him why the hell they were talking about it, when everyone who had been in the kitchen started filing into the room.
“Well,” Mark said to no one in particular, and stood with his hands clasped, trying in vain to forget the morbid look on Jeff’s face. The guests found their coats and, amid exuberant offerings to host and slurred thanks, Mark and Janelle found themselves alone in the house.
In the weeks after the party, Mark and Janelle saw little of Jeff and his wife. There wasn’t anything to it. They just stopped calling. The couples exchanged waves every now and then, or chatted briefly during the odd run-in at the grocery store or in the street. Mark hardly noticed a change, and then, six months had come and gone. It happened all the time. In the 10 years that he’d been married, friends had drifted in and out of his life. Friendships that had afforded pleasure, but were fostered by convenience, fell away with a sort of benign regularity. It was not so with the stain. Mark had tried everything to get rid of it, but it was no use. Eventually, he gave up, and decided to rearrange the furniture in the living room. Janelle returned from work, nodded her approval, and things went on much as they had before.
Mark came home one day to find Janelle at the kitchen table, eyes red and her face wet with tears. He took her hand, and, brow knitted with worry, he let her tell him.
She wiped her palms on her jeans, gathering the words together. “Marcie was raped,” and her face fell, white and bug-eyed, in the way faces change when the unspeakable is uttered aloud. Marcie. Why couldn’t he remember that name? “She was leaving the theatre, late. She had stayed after rehearsal to practice with another actor . . . ” Janelle trailed off.
Mark squeezed her hand.
“How could this happen?” she said. They waited, let the question hang heavy in the kitchen.
Of course there were no real answers, Mark thought. This was something people said when confronted with monstrous acts, unexplainable horrors. Janelle wiped her face, looked at him helplessly, searching her husband for strength. The name, Marcie, turned over in his stomach like a cold stone, and he realized that he knew this woman, this victim — had imagined himself with this woman. Harmless fantasizing — he firmly believed that. He would never cheat on Janelle, and he/they were happy. And the key to it, he knew, was that unhappiness is never an excuse to cheat. If you were happy once, you can be happy again, the old man had said. And that phrase had stuck with him, throughout his own marriage, and through everything they had survived. So they would sit quietly in the kitchen for a while, needing each other and nothing else, like in the beginning of their relationship.
Mark got up to put on a pot of coffee, and they waited in comfortable silence, listening to the slow drip of the coffeemaker. They talked a little, warmed to conversation over steaming mugs. Janelle would call Marcie first thing tomorrow; offer to drive her to the hospital, to the police station, to wherever she needed to go. Or just to be there, whatever she wanted. There were other things to discuss, too — therapy, for one, and filing a police report. It was important to present all of the options gently, they agreed, because you never could predict how a victim might behave in these situations. Reluctance to come forward, guilt, crippling fear. It was possible that she would be resistant to seek therapy, to engage the law. By the time the coffee was cold, they counted themselves lucky; the rape was a horrific and senseless tragedy, but they could be thankful that it hadn’t happened to them.
In the middle of the night, Mark jolted awake. His mind was already reeling, crowded with quickly departing shadows — the nebulae of a nightmare. He looked over at Janelle, and, taking care not to disturb her, slipped quietly out of bed. In the kitchen, he poured a glass of water and leaned against the counter, breathing raggedly and riding out the tightness in his chest. He tried to recall the nightmare, but the shadows had long retreated. Though some small, odious part of it felt lodged, niggling in a remote corner of his brain. An impression; a vague prodding sensation, phantom and insistent, at the base of his skull. Mark complied with the jabbing ghost-finger, and found himself moving, almost involuntarily, across the kitchen floor and into the living room.
All of a sudden, he was standing behind the couch. Seconds later, he was actually pushing the couch; gritting his teeth while manoeuvring the heavy piece of furniture along the carpet. He stopped, focusing his gaze on the part of the floor where the couch had been. A flash of something, white as bone picked clean and sun-bleached, slashed his vision. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
There, on the carpet, was the stain; it was enormous, bigger and blacker than he remembered. As though his eyes had been cruelly tricked by the shadows, the stain appeared to be expanding, thickly spilling out over the carpet. The effect was hideous; somehow, the purple wine stain had morphed into something unmistakably liquid. Rooted to the spot, Mark gawked helplessly as the stain rolled slowly over his toes. The sensation of the warm, sticky liquid on his skin confirmed what Mark already knew to be true; that he was locked into some bizarre, stress-induced state of altered reality. Standing in his own living room, he might as well have been on the moon. Shadows flickered across the walls in unfamiliar shapes and sizes; the furniture heaved and rumbled. He could feel the blood at his feet just beginning to clot, and Mark, opting to do something that he hadn’t done in years, prayed to God that he was wrong about a person.