It was Christmas. The tree was up in the living room, presents and wrapping paper and bulbs and lights were scattered here and there in prep for the big day.
Mal Cooper was getting more than a little annoyed. "Where is she!" he said out loud. His wife Eileen was only going out for, as she put it, "about an hour... would you look after Tony?" Tony was their six-year-old, home from first grade for the Christmas break. Mal, an exec with Mylar Electronics for 14 years, was now an ex-exec. The 00's were good, but the bubble burst and it's been lean times. Mylar, and hence, Mal, were early casualties of peace.
As a result, Mal was home a lot these days, making calls, trying to hook on somewhere else. And, being home a lot made him constantly "available" for yard duty, handiwork duty, and babysitting duty.
It was probably the anxiety of being not only out of work, but possibly out of a career that kept him from enjoying this extra time with his wife and child. Oh, he enjoyed time with Tony, taking him to school and picking him up, teaching him to ride his bike, teaching him to draw. But it wasn't helping the boy's well being when there was the constant tension between his parents.
Their long term troubles have only been exacerbated by this crisis period, this extra time together.
Like now, today, he gets a call for an interview... and she's late! He's faced with the prospect of dragging his kid into an office with him. That's a nifty first impression. But he was going to have to do it if she didn't get home soon.
His annoyance was building. He was taking her lateness personally. She didn't bother to call, just assumed he was going to bum it in the house all day again.
He was fast reaching the "fail-safe point". He had to give himself a half hour what with traffic to make it down to Universal Dynamics out in Northridge. So he told Tony to get his shoes and jacket on. Sorry, the Lego fort would have to wait.
Where the fuck was she!
As Tony dressed with the usual molasses speed of a six year old, Mal stared out the window that overlooked the driveway... as if that would conjure up his wife's red Lexus to roll up the street, and cause the garage door to pop up.
Nothing. No sign.
He knew she was going to the gym, then to the grocery. No way that takes three hours. She could've done any number of things she likes to do in her travels: the old book shop, the video rental store, coffee with her running buddy Abby.
Mal didn't like Abby - the nosey, the needy. Mal didn't like a lot of Eileen's friends. Another source of tension.
Goddammit! Why does she do this crap!
Of course, this wasn't always the way he felt about Eileen. She was always the "love of his life", whom he worshipped from afar in high school... and finally was able to win 10 years later at a class reunion.
But now, ten years after that, what with reality setting in and all, they were at each other’s throats a lot. They regularly pushed each other’s buttons, deliberately or not.
They got into therapy about a year ago. Mal calls it the weekly "war room". It's where Eileen feels free to berate him for his insensitivities, temper, and general lack of an excuse for living. At least that's Mal's interpretations. He takes the same weekly opportunity to vent about her lack of support, lack of sensuality, and general over-reaction and exaggeration of his short comings.
He thought, maybe he'd give Abby a call. It was worth a shot. He picked up the phone receiver - no dial tone. My God! The phone was out of order! But he'd just gotten a call a couple of hours ago for the meeting!
Then he remembered... the phone bill. It was past due, but he'd gotten an extension till... yesterday. He'd forgotten, she'd forgotten... yet another weight on his shoulders to deal with. It did explain - maybe - why he hadn't heard from her. She would usually call when she was real late, at least to check on Tony.
But then Mal remembered his iPhone... one of the vestiges of perks he enjoyed. It was always on, as it was today. She would have called that number. It hadn't rung.
He hooked the zipper of Tony's leather jacket.
"Are you mad to mommy?" asked Tony, who could also pick up on when Mal was upset. And he was usually upset about Eileen.
"Uh, no, why do you say that?"
"Because you have a mad face."
"I just... don't know where she is."
"She went to the store. But she doesn't take that long at the store," said Tony, joining in the speculation.
As he hustled Tony to the car, keeping his eye on the street for a last minute reprieve from that Lexus, Mal was starting to get a little worried.
Angry, hurt, resentful or whatever he might be toward her right now, he knew deep down that she was not thoughtless. She would have called if she was going to be this late.
Yet she hadn't, at least not on the hand-held. A thought suddenly struck Mal.
Maybe she couldn't call.
And if something happened to her, nobody else could either.
There had been a lot of car jackings in the area, and she was slight. And attractive. And drove that damned red Lexus that nobody could miss.
A number of scenarios raced through Mal's mind. They had had words even that morning before she left... average "words", to be sure, but the little, niggling, energy draining little conflicts that added up, like pixels in a newspaper photo that are insignificant on their own, but, together, en masse, create a very big picture.
For whatever reason, as he drove off down their street - hoping for her to pass them en route home, Mal was having all these crazy thoughts about something being wrong. And what if something had gone wrong?
He tried to think rationally. It's not like she's been missing for eight hours or a day. Even with as much crime as there is in the news - including their own "safe" neighborhood, it was still one of the more remote possibilities.
It had never entered his mind before that anything would happen to her. Obviously people get into accidents everyday. But in that situation, unless she was unconscious, surely someone, like the police, would phone. Or send someone out to the house since the phone was disconnected.
But if she was kidnapped... obviously, she couldn't call. Maybe some crazy had her at gunpoint, forcing her to drive to some remote location... or forced her into the trunk... and, subsequently, raped her. Killed her.
Why were all these thoughts racing through his head! He was on his way to the meeting, but he drove by the neighborhood grocery, quickly scouring the parking lot as he did. Tony did too. "I don't see the Lexus," said Tony.
Well, they didn't really make a close examination. He still had to make it to the meeting.
But his mind was not on the meeting. It was if he was now convinced that her being merely an hour late was without reasonable explanations, like someone lose track of time, or going on an extra errand. Now his thinking was getting catastrophic: it was if the only possible explanation was violent accident, or foul play. Even the less sensational, but still semi-morbid in-between possibilities of flat tire, engine trouble, dog bite... they weren't even considered.
And as he zeroed in all these terrible scenarios, his son was all the while asking questions about, "How do they put those giant letters up on the buildings?" "Would you die if you touched the sun?" Mal tried to answer each one thoughtfully, to cover up his concerns and to not take them out on his son in the form of impatience. But he also tried to answer each one so as not to precipitate more questions.
But the portion of his brain that is in charge of rational thought was pumping out enough electricity to keep him on the road to his appointment... enough rational thought to tell him, it's more than likely that she's okay so go on and get this job.
By the time he arrived at the business tower, his mind was shutting down. He started to drive into the exit driveway at the parking structure... he could barely comprehend the instructions of the attendant. He was totally preoccupied. What if he returns home and there are cops waiting for him - to tell him his wife was dead? He imagined the horrible reality of getting that news... but how do you "imagine" reality? Imagining something may conjure up a terrible feeling... but how would he handle the reality... the very possible reality? "She was the love of my life!" he could hear himself saying. "It can't be happening!"
Tony was meanwhile asking a million questions about how elevators work and how do they build tall buildings.
The receptionist at Bradury&Co. was happy to keep Tony entertained in the foyer, and Mal battled to keep the thoughts about Eileen's whereabouts to the back of his mind.
He battled to keep focused on the meeting at hand, and he thinks he did well.
Afterwards, he rescued the receptionist who was gamely fielding Tony's questions about God and why plants are green. He dragged Tony away from the her bowl of mints, gave a noble friendly nod to the two other guys who he figured to be his competition, and off they went.
On the drive back, Tony insisted they go through the parking lot of the supermarket and look for Eileen's car.
Shit! Never mind murder, or accident, or forgetting the time. Was she fucking around? No, not at Christmas. But then, why not. He dismissed it almost immediately, but almost immediately built on it that particular fantasy.
Mal's reasoning was starting to return to him. "Let's see if she's home first... then we'll go looking for her."
Yeah, it finally occurred to him that he had conjured up these fantastic scenes of murder precisely the way a hypochondriac turns headache into brain tumor. He was almost convinced that he, indeed, was going to see her again.
He imagined seeing her again, and he became as manic as he had been depressed. He had just taken himself through a wholly imaginary ride... which made even their most vehement arguments seem absurdly petty... a waste of precious time together. Maybe this was the tonic he needed, to put their mundane conflicts into perspective. After all, it wasn't so far fetched... people do get killed in accidents, murdered, traumatized. And it's often sudden, random, inexplicable... yet we still take our lives and loved ones for granted. He increased the speed as his anxiety grew.
A profound philosophical breakthrough was now obsessing Mal as he cruised home, obsessing him as much as the terrible thoughts before had. He regretted all the ways he needlessly hurt her. His petty sensitivities, jealousies, hurts that he took out on her. Indeed, he had taken her for granted. She was a wonderful woman - beautiful, gifted, admired by others... yet he had inflicted pain out of his own selfishness. He desperately wanted her back now. He wanted to start all over, and love her properly. And in so doing, he was sure she would love him properly. In any case, he would take the initiative, forgive her her flaws. As Thomas Jefferson once said, a mate is like a prized, well constructed harpsichord... one would not discard it, and ignore its overall beauty, because of one or two flat keys.
It was now as if his wife really had narrowly escaped from awful fate. He felt like he'd been given a second chance, every way as real seeming as if he really had experienced such a near miss. He was going to love her as a love of ones life should be loved. The woman he pined for, and never felt worthy of... the woman he had won, and felt such triumph in doing so.
They pulled onto their street... and into the driveway. Mal's mouth was dry as he punched the garage door opener key. Both his and Tony's eyes were fixed on the garage as it was slowly revealed by the large rising door... to reveal... the red Lexus in its usual spot.
She was home.
They flew into the house. Eileen opened the door at the sound of Tony's pounding. She was bewildered when Mal gave her the biggest hug. He felt like George Baily coming home from his encounter with the angel in "It's a Wonderful Life". For that moment Mal felt true revival as he hugged his woman. Shopping bags from Nieman's, Sack's and Target were evidence of her whereabouts. She always overbought, especially in the holidays.
Perhaps it was her bewilderment that she didn't hug back with much intensity. Perhaps she was waiting for his usual angry retort in such circumstances. "Where the hell were you!? I had to drag the kid to this meeting..." were not outrageous predictions in this case. But this time, Mal was a different man. A reformed man.
Tony was the first to start babbling about, "We didn't know what happened to you..." and Mal filled her in on their getting, uh "concerned"... and gave most of the credit of real worry to Tony. "You were worried about me, Tony??" she said with glee, as if it were another confirmation of his love for his mother. She hugged the boy with great relish.
"I thought you were going to take out the trash?" she blurted as Mal plopped in an easy chair. It was about the first words out of her mouth. The mouth attached to that face in an expression he perceived to be one of loathing. Of age old disappointment in her decision to marry him.
The euphoria vanished from his being before it began. "I forgot, okay?" He said it in that annoying voice.
"Never mind, I'll do," she said. "Don't let me disturb you."
"I'll do it."
"Please, don't. I don't want to have to pay for it!"
"You're not paying for it. I'm fine."
Tony tried to block out the typical vitriol by becoming engrossed in "Rocky and Bullwinkle". But soon a knock on the door came, and Tony was whisked off to spend the night at a friend's. Mal and Eileen put on their best "perfect couple" faces as they greeted Mrs. Claremont and Stevie, a friend from school. Eileen gave Tony his little suitcase, and only one of several instructions before he zoomed off out the door to join his friend.
Now Mal and Eileen were alone. As he resumed his chores and lugged the plastic enclosed trash to the trashcan outside, he was aware of his failure to keep his own promise. He almost had to laugh at how that glee at seeing the car in the garage was, within minutes, vanquished. He was back to taking her for granted. It was all back to normal.
Apparently what he was learning from this experience was merely that he had a vivid imagination. Maybe they were just simply doomed as a couple. He thought maybe it would all be better once he started earning money again, but when he was flying high with a great salary, expense account and vacations, they were nevertheless arguing nonstop.
It was the money, or more precisely, the lack of it, that precipitated their next spat, soon after he returned from the garbage bins. "The phone. What happened?"
"I thought you were going to pay it." Mal said, probably beating Eileen to the same sentence.
"No, you had made the arrangements. I didn't know it was due yesterday."
"Yep, and they just pulled the plug."
"Well, we've got to have a phone. God, I can't take this stress... I can't be responsible for everything."
"Nobody asked you to. And where the fuck were you anyway? I told you I had the interview. I had to drag fucking Tony with me."
"'Fucking Tony'. Uh huh. Nice."
The argument progressed and escalated quickly to their usual recording.
"It always gets around to being my fault, doesn't it?" Mal was into his favorite button pushing mode.
"I know you think you're the center of the universe, but I wasn't talking about you. I was talking about me."
"You always say you're talking about you, but it always gets around to your misery being my fault."
"I'm so sick and tired of this same damn discussion! I can't stand it!"
"Here we go again," Mal with all sarcasm he could muster. He knew now the argument was going into ballistic mode, and there was no coming back to a rational discussion. This was the core of all conflict between them, no matter how minuscule the point of origin. It's why there's so much concern about Muslims and Jews acquiring nuclear devices. They would be tossed almost as soon as manufactured.
"Oh, I can't stand to hear that whining voice!" Eileen had already reached her threshold.
"Jesus, you can't wait to get to this point... it's like you're just waiting for the excuse." It's almost a plea from Mal, not wanting to believe she has such contempt for him.
"You give me plenty," she says. Then, "Why do you stay here... you don't like me."
"You say these hateful things, then you twist it to somehow I'm the one who doesn't like you!"
They are going now, like a well oiled machine.
"Dammit, just shut up! Stop it! Stop it!" she is furious now. Livid. It's like all the resentments she holds for him are bubbling over like a volcano.
"What brought this all on?"
"You did! Ten years of you!" She was really boring in now.
He was getting furious himself, filling with contempt which was composed mostly of fear and hurt. The early part of their marriage was indeed marred by his jealousy of her ex-loves... but despite his maturing from such behavior, she never seemed to forget.
There were, of course, good times, loving times... but during these clashes, she was so glib at recalling ugly moments that seemed to condemn the entire 10 years of marriage as, for her, a hellish nightmare. He had let her down, misrepresented himself somehow. Disappointed.
Those attributions galled him, zapped him hard every time they were repeated.
The clash escalated to as bad an explosion as they had ever had - this less than an hour after his opening the garage door and feeling such gladness at the presence of her car.
Now she was so bitterly frustrated at his sarcastic words that she flung a book at him. He was furious - and, not a little afraid. "I hate this marriage! I don't want to see your face again!"
"Get out! Get out!" She screamed, and grabbed for something else to throw - his beloved iPhone. It glanced off his head, and smashed into bits against the wall. He fell into the tree as he dodged the missile.
He lunged at her, and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Let go of me! I hate you!" He was enraged, his mind was blank. He smashed her against a wall, her head slamming hard. Mistletoe hanging above dropped on her head as the wall vibrated with the jolt. His hands were around her neck... he squeezed hard at the same time he kept slamming her head against the wall.
Soon he realized she was limp. She was unconscious. She was dead.
His scream was probably blood curdling. He held his wife's lifeless body in his arms, trying pathetically to retrieve her consciousness. The phone didn't work... the hand held lay in shards. He was frantic.
He hadn't heard Abby pounding on the door. She had been concerned about the disconnected phone. She imagined something horrible had happened, so she rushed over... in time to hear the awful scream. She called the police from a neighbor's house.
They found Mal on the floor, holding his wife, sobbing, utterly devastated. He had indeed had his "second chance" when he had walked in the door. But there was no third chance for him, for them.
"This isn't happening," he pleaded. "She was the love of my life!"
* * * * *
(c)1993, 2009 Robert P. Illes