Every breath is dense and calculated tonight. I exhale only when alleycats play their trashcan tunes or when the screech of tires skid by. If they are accompanied by sirens, however, I hold the musty air in as long as possible, until the wailing goes faint in the distance. The scattered beams of light being reflected off of shattered window panes keep startling me. My head tells me that it is just headlights sweeping by as they cascade down the road. Some part of myself still remains convinced that it's searchlights come to drag me away though.
Amid the dust and cracked asbestos tiles is the ever so slight smell of fresh bread. It's as if the abandoned and graffiti-covered concrete walls had once been infused with the scent to attract in customers. The old counter creates the perfect alcove for me to hide within. Intricate designs of cartoonish blue-frosted cakes and cherry-topped cupcakes are laser etched into it on either side of the words "Italiano Dolci." In its prime, the shop must have been quite the humble and quaint piece of Heaven, the kind of shops we used to enjoy in a past life. As for now, it may as well be a corpse left to decay under the sod.
The cuffs feel tight and heavy around my wrist. There is a jagged piece of steel that keeps embedding itself into my wrist, almost like someone had tried to smash them off in the past and only managed to shave off a piece of metal instead. I suppose bashing them on the cement won't work well for me either then. It would make too much of a cacophony anyway.
I know I won't be sleeping tonight. Hell, if I hadn't been sleeping last night I would have seen everything. Or was I sleeping at all? No, no I can't do this to myself. I can't start to doubt myself. I know it looks bad, I know. I cannot for the life of me remember getting home last night, I was drunk, genetic trends are against me, and all logic points to me being the ideal suspect. I couldn't have done it though. I don't have it in me, and besides, I harbored no hatred or resentment towards her. Just because I can't remember that doesn't mean I'm guilty. Does it? No, of course not. At least, I don't think.
I loved Loraine. I still do. She was — she is the only woman I will ever love. I remember back when we first started dating. We would go on long car rides to nowhere in particular on summer days. It was back when all I could afford was a crappy old station wagon. The check engine light was nearly always on and the wood paneling underneath the peeling forest green paint was scratched to oblivion. Even the windows had to be cranked down by hand and there was no air conditioning. We didn't care though. We'd just drive with the windows down until it felt right to stop. We would find little cafes or bakeries to sit in, nice ma and pa stores, where we were always treated like old friends by the gracious owners. They offered us coffees and cakes, all hand-ground and handmade, for pennies more than the chain shops. We always left sizable tips after inevitably asking which way to head to get back home.
Even days filled with lightning and wind gusts were a treat with her. I would joke and call them my "Rainey days." We would lay my old down feather comforter on the floor and stack up our pillows in a squishy heap against the bottom of the couch. We watched old reruns of our favorite shows and made-for-TV movies from our youth, then ordered Chinese food from our favorite local shop. I even proposed to her on one of those days. I hid the ring inside of a container of white rice and asked her to dish me out some. It wasn't anything extravagant or over the top, but it was charming. It matched her personality perfectly.
I admit that after the wedding, the heat between us did dissipate a little, but that wasn't either of our faults. We weren't kids fresh out of college anymore, we were adults with jobs and responsibilities. Sometimes that meant late nights, but nearly without fail each day it meant excess stress. The stress didn't come without reward, however. When we were able to spend weekends away. They were always full of simplistically elegant romance. We never wanted for anything, and if ever there was something that we passed by that she liked or I thought she should have, I had money enough in my pocket to pay for it. We even soon decided that we were ready for our family to get a little bigger. Two months later, she had a noticeable bump in her belly.
I surprised her one day when she got home from work. I was a sweaty mess with painted caked eyebrows and a sore big toe from dropping a full bucket of spackle on it. Her silly grin and slight giggle at my idiotic "Tah-dah!" made it all worthwhile though. I explained how I painted the room canary yellow because I wasn't sure if it was a boy or girl yet, and how I thought about going with olive green or burgundy but thought they weren't calming enough and were too aggressive for a nursery. She kissed me to shut my blabbering up, then scratched some dry paint off of my cheek while I blushed. It was like things were back to how they used to be again like we were kids again.
She went through the pain of delivery, the joy of seeing her newborn son, and then the slow horrible realization that the air was void of any crying. I watched it all, helpless to do anything but clench my fist, grind my teeth, and comfort her. We didn't speak to each other much after it happened. We were never quite the same. It wasn't like we didn't love each other anymore, it was more like we were too hurt to think about it and we just reminded each other too much of the pain.
We both had our own ways of coping. She threw herself into her work. There were no more weekend dates, no more late night romances, and many many more long nights. I truly do regret turning to whiskey for comfort. All the money I would have spent buying her gifts started going to that, and once I realized that she wouldn't be at home waiting for me after work anymore, I started going to the bars instead. I never stopped loving her though, not through any of it. When I saw her, she didn't look like a world-worn aging workaholic woman to me. She looked like the same radiant, young, and simplistically charming girl that I fell for. Some part of me will always remember her like that, the other part of me is cursed to picture the last time I saw her every time she crosses my mind.
I was out late during her last night. Worked wrapped up as usual around seven and, being a Friday night, I figured it was as good a time as any to get lost in a bottle of whiskey. Loraine usually didn't come home from work until about eleven, but I knew that on that night, in particular, she would be out even later. The thought of going home to an empty house was just too painful for us both I guess. I dropped the car off in front of the house and walked a few blocks up the road to the local liquor store.
I had become a regular there, and as soon as I walked in, the scruffy wrinkle-faced man behind the counter grabbed a bottle of Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon for me. "Not tonight, Jay. I'm celebrating." I pulled out my wallet as I continued speaking. "Give me the Maker's Mark this time." He looked at me questioningly, not saying a word. I knew what he was wondering. I smirked slightly in a saddened way. "It would be my son's first birthday today."
He closed his eyes for a brief second and nodded gently before heavy-handedly pushing my wallet back toward me. "On the house." The smell of smoke attached itself to his three staccato words. It seemed as if the words lingered in the air a moment before rapidly falling to the ground. I smiled graciously, nodded, and left without either of us breaking the silence again.
I scrapped the blood red wax off with my keys and started drinking as I walked. By the time I got to Franklin Park, a fourth of the bottle was already gone. The park sits right on this hill overlooking the town, with our house directly in the middle. Loraine and I used to picnic there during the long summer days when we were engaged. What would become our house always stuck out to her. She would point it out from time to time, commenting on how it looked so full of life since it was in the center of everything. She said it was like the world revolved around it, and nothing else seemed to matter other than what was going on right there. None of it could ever draw her eyes the way the house could, she would say. It's funny, when we ended up buying it a month or two into our marriage, we found out it had been abandoned. After all that time that she spent describing metaphor after metaphor how full of life it was, it was really dead inside all along.
I downed the bottle over the course of my stay at the park. I just sat there, not numb but wishing to be, with my legs outstretched in front of me for hours. Occasionally, not thoughts of a child lost, no, but rather thoughts of how depressed and hollow she had gotten since would get to me. A tear would begin to well up as I thought of her fading vibrant and bright smile, which has been so far gone that I can scarcely remember the last time I saw it now. I'd close my eyes tight and take a big swig, then shake my head from side to side as if sadness could be shaken off like fleas. After I emptied the bottle, I vaguely remember getting overwhelmed by emotion. It's mostly a blur, but without more alcohol to calm me, I think I fell into a sobbing fit and at some point and shattered the bottle on a nearby bench. I have no memories of the rest of the night after that.
I woke up, my head between lain in a puddle of drool on the kitchen table next to my outstretched right arm. I rubbed my eyes and squinted to try and stop as much light as possible from contributing to my throbbing migraine. I called for her but got no answer. I called again, asking if we had any Tylenol, but again got no answer. I walked out into the living room, where she spent almost every Saturday morning now working from home on her laptop since the office itself was closed.
I saw a shoe sticking out from the side of the couch and, not expecting anything to be attached to it, went to pick it up. I dropped to my knees, unable to speak and trying desperately to shake her awake without even realizing it. Her face was swollen and bruised so that it looked as if she wouldn't be able to open her left eye. Her nightgown was ripped in parts and soaked in blood. I lifted her into my arms and sobbed loudly into her limp shoulder for a while before I was able to compose myself enough to make the call. I can't recall if there was any blood on me before I found her, but my shirt was soaked through by the time the police arrived.
Seventeen. They counted seventeen stab wounds to the torso. No signs of forced entry. No signs of a struggle, like she wasn't expecting it. No signs of sexual assault or missing cash and items. No one else in the house other than myself.
They didn't believe me. They didn't believe that the boy who would drive hours out of his way just to see her smile couldn't have done this. They left the door to the squad car open a crack after they cuffed me. Just a crack. They went back inside as forensics rolled up, making sure the crime scene was properly preserved and evidence collected according to protocol. I ran. I never turned around, just ran as if I could escape reality and wake up in bed next to her again if I was fast enough.
I don't know how they didn't see me. It was just like a street magician trick, they were all so focused on where all the action seemed to be that they completely missed what was happening right in front of them. I knew I couldn't go into any of the main streets. The blood-stained clothes and cuff bound hands would have surely alerted many bystanders whom, I have no doubt, would have alerted the authorities who were probably already on my trail. I stuck to alleyways as much as possible but had to make a few mad dashes across streets or over fences and through backyards at points. After what seemed like centuries of thoughtless escape, I came across an alley between a restaurant and a bank. I stopped a moment, breathing heavily but not seeming to take in any oxygen. As if one event triggered the other, sirens became audible as soon as my legs ceased to move. It could be that they were wailing all the while and that I had simply been too caught up in my pursuit of an alternate reality to notice until then. Nevertheless, it frightened me terribly.
I almost instinctively lifted the lid to the nearby dumpster and threw myself in, closing it behind me. I must have disturbed somethings lunch with my actions, because it wasn't long before I felt a scurrying up the length of my leg, across my chest, and under my arm. I couldn't see what it was because I was pulling down on the lid so hard for fear of it swinging open that only a small amount of light was able to seep in. I assume from the long tail that I felt rub against my cheek from time to time that it must have been a rat, but in all truthfulness, it didn't matter much to me at the time.
I rested my head on an old styrofoam takeout box, taking a moment to gather my thoughts. That was when reality started to sink in. I had to bury my face in mounds of rotting eggplant parmesan and tiramisu to muffle my sobs, which I tried to keep as silent as possible. First I wept for my lost love. I wept for the lost privilege of ever seeing her smile again. I wept for the lost nights spent with her in my arms. But all too quickly, I began to weep for the realization that I could have caused all of this.
Losing her seemed a fate more unbearable than that of Sisyphus and Tantalus. The notion that I could have been the cause of her demise caused something within me to snap. With tear stained cheeks, I felt a tail rub against my arm and grabbed out in its direction. I felt a scruffy mass in my hand which was soon accompanied by the sharp pierce of teeth between my thumb and pointer finger. I squeezed as hard as I could, continuing to cry as I did so, until the teeth ceased to penetrate any further into my hand, and something wet began to run down my fingers.
I let go of the heap, never feeling its presence again. I suddenly became very tired, as if I were in Oz traveling through the poppy fields with Dorothy. The styrofoam became my pillow as I drifted off. I dreamt in bursts of color and sounds that must have been from the previous night. A gray splatter as I heard my own staggering footsteps. A sudden white flash before fading to ocean blue as a door creaks open. I heard a voice, no, I heard her voice whimpering something about "down" and "relax." Maybe it was "just sit down and relax" or "just relax, put that down." Even in my heightened dream memory, it was hazy. After that, everything went black for a while. Eventually, from top to bottom, almost as if it were dripping in, the black became a deep scarlet and a horrid gurgling scream rang out.
It was enough to startle me awake. I was sweating profusely and for a moment forgot where I was. I cracked the cover open ever so slightly to find that the sky was dark and quiet now. I knew that I wouldn't be able to hide out in a dumpster forever, so I decided that perhaps under the cover of night I would be able to find a more comfortable a well-suited place to stay for a while.
I climbed out just as a homeless man was making his way by with a bag of empty bottles and cans. He stopped and looked at me with a scabbed over face and bloodshot eyes. For a moment I thought he would scream for help or run, but he barely seemed to notice me. He glanced at me once as he passed, not seeming to mind me much, before slumping over against the wall a few feet away. He put his head down and seemed to be trying to sleep, using the bottles as a bed. A glimmer of silver caught the light as his tattered jacket flopped open. It appeared he had a serrated knife in his jacket pocket. Judging by his apparent lack of teeth and overall appearance, I guessed that he was probably an addict of some sort, most likely crystal meth. He probably spent his days mugging the unsuspecting in these alleyways with that knife of his, but that was none of my concern at the moment.
I walked nervously for a ways, always keeping my head on a swivel, before coming to a building with a busted out back doorway and shattered windows. That is how I found this place. I thought about finding somewhere else since the doorway could easily be looked through, but decided that this was probably the best and safest shelter I would be able to find. I tipped an old table onto its side and decided to block the doorway partially with that. That was when I saw the counter and decided it was perfectly out of the line of sight of any windows.
The echoes of my dream are constantly ringing in my head. If only I could remember more of what she said or even the context in which she said it. I keep thinking back to the early days, the road trips, the thoughtless love, the perfection of her touch, and the "Rainey days" that we both cherished so much. Could we be so broken now that we could be driven to take up arms against each other? Could I be so broken? Could I have murdered her? I must say with the heaviest of hearts that I will never know. All I know is that things will forever be different now. Now I must live with the guilt of having killed her even if I did not. Now the once great eternal flame of her radiance has been reduced to scattered dying embers of her memory. Now every raindrop on the pavement screams her name and echoes my doubts of being that same love-struck and harmless boy that I once was.