This story is by Lynne Miller and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Bill stared at the plate without seeing his dinner. He couldn’t stop thinking about Laura, the only woman he’d ever loved and now Laura was gone. The divorce was finalized yesterday but the relationship had crumbled years ago.
In hindsight, Bill realized he had been slow to spot the warning signs. His mind traveled back to the year he and Laura had lived together in West Springfield.
Laura working extra shifts at the hospital. “We need the money,” she’d said. While it was true, money was tight with Bill not working, work provided Laura an excuse to be somewhere other than with him.
Laura staring at him as though she were looking through him, thinking about something else or someone else. Bill couldn’t figure out what was going through her mind. At least when they’d fought, Bill knew where he stood. Radial silence was harder to understand. His beautiful, beloved wife had become a sphinx. Bill shut his blue eyes and fought back tears. The chicken pot pie sat untouched on his plate. He rose from the chair and looked around. Dirty dishes piled in the sink, unopened mail cluttered the counter, the curtain that hung crookedly from the window. Like Bill, the kitchen was a disaster, a far cry from the tidy place he and Laura had shared.
Housework became Bill’s responsibility after he lost his job at Price Rite and he’d gone the extra mile to keep their apartment spotless. He even learned how to cook. When Laura came home from work, she could count on a decent home cooked meal and she had seemed to genuinely appreciate his efforts.
“Bill, this is the best margherita pizza I’ve ever had,” Laura said, holding a slice and gazing at him with respect. “I can’t believe you made it yourself. You should open a restaurant.”
Then the tide turned. Weeks stretched into months and Bill, unemployed and discouraged, stopped applying for jobs and got hooked on video games. One time Laura walked in, catching Bill unshaven and in pajamas, his husky 6 foot, 4 inch frame draped along the couch. Before he could so much as say “Hi hon,” Laura had marched into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her.
The memory made him cringe.
“God, I screwed up,” he muttered.
The sound of scratching from inside a wall broke the silence. A squirrel or mouse? Bill punched the wall with his fist, ignoring the pain. He opened the fridge and grabbed a Heineken.
On TV, a news anchor babbled about climate change. Bill couldn’t focus on the story but the sound of the reporter’s voice was vaguely comforting. He didn’t feel all alone even though he was. He chugged the beer.
A commercial touted the effectiveness of an anti-depressant drug.
“May cause suicidal thoughts,” warned the voice on TV, listing the drug’s side effects.
Suicide had been Uncle Ted’s exit strategy. When Bill was in eighth grade, his uncle had died suddenly. Bill’s mother never told Bill exactly how her brother had died, but he had overheard her whispering with Dad.
“They found him unconscious in his car right in the garage,” his mother whispered. “Carbon monoxide. How could Teddy do that?” She broke down in sobs.
If I croaked, who would care, Bill thought. Laura wouldn’t go to his funeral. Bill’s parents and older brother would show up, of course, and they’d be sad for a while but they’d get over it. Mom, Dad and Dan were strong, they had friends, jobs, hobbies, reasons to go on living.
The more Bill thought about death, the more the idea appealed to him. If he were dead, he wouldn’t be heartbroken, maybe if heaven existed, they’d welcome him, and heaven would be an improvement over this miserable existence. Shit, even hell would be preferable to this.
Bill belched. Shambling to the bedroom, he opened a dresser drawer, reached under a pile of boxer shorts and removed a framed photograph. He gazed at the image of his younger self. Not handsome not ugly, tall, neatly trimmed coppery hair, smiling and happy. The Bill in the photo wore a black tuxedo, and stood beside Laura, blonde and gorgeous in a long white shimmering brides gown. Bill’s wedding day had been the happiest day of his life. He couldn’t believe he’d found a bride as classy as Laura.
“I’ll always love you, baby, no matter what,” Bill whispered. He raised the picture to his mouth and kissed Laura’s image. Tears trickled down his cheeks.
Thoughts of death returned.
He’d use a gun. Bill knew how to use firearms. All the hours spent firing rounds at the shooting range had taught him how to shoot.
But Bill didn’t own a gun. He’d sold the Glock when he and Laura were hard up for money. He’d have to buy a secondhand weapon and fresh ammo at the gun shop.
Suddenly a rustling sound came from the window, then Laura’s high-pitched scream. “Don’t do it, Bill,” He ran to the window but the fire escape and street below were empty.
“Laura, where are you?” Bill yelled.
The phone jolted him.
“Bill, it’s been a while, I hope everything’s okay,” his mother, Helen, said in her characteristically brisk voice.
“Mom, everything’s fine,” Bill lied.
An awkward silence. Bill knew his mother wasn’t buying it. She knew him better than anyone and Bill wasn’t a gifted liar.
“Are you working?” Helen asked.
“I’ve got a job delivering packages,” Bill lied again.
Bill pictured his mother squinting, not believing a word of what he’d said. The last time he’d seen his mother was a month ago when he’d helped his parents declutter the basement. They’d been so grateful for his effort packing boxes of stuff to donate or discard. Bill helped them whenever he could.
“Why don’t you come to dinner on Saturday?” Helen said. “Maybe I can get your brother and Eileen to come, too.”
Bill rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted was to see his parents and Dan, the investment banker who drove a Porsche and lived in a gorgeous house with his gorgeous wife in Pittsfield. Bill just couldn’t face them and pretend everything was terrific.
Then he remembered the guns. Dad kept a stash of Smith & Wessons, Colts, even a couple of old Remingtons in the basement. I wouldn’t have to buy a gun, I could just swipe one of Dad’s and he’d never miss it, Bill thought.
He imagined driving to the forest preserve, the loaded weapon by his side. He’d park the car, walk into the woods and listen to the soothing sounds of nature. With any luck, he’d see a deer or two. Bill always felt peaceful surrounded by trees and wild critters, far removed from the noise and hustle of modern life. The forest would be a fitting place to end it. He’d go late in the afternoon on a weekday when he was unlikely to encounter anyone.
If everything worked out, the birds and deer would be the last creatures to see Bill alive. The gunshot would shatter their peace and put Bill out of his misery. The way Bill saw it, a few moments of excruciating pain in the head followed by peace was better than living with a broken heart.
Bill had never felt more clear-headed. Holding the phone, he strode to the kitchen and dumped the chicken pot pie in the trash.
“Mom, I’d love to see you and Dad,” Bill said, trying to keep his voice steady.
“What time should I come? What can I bring? Dessert? Wine?”
The doorbell rang. “Mom somebody’s at the door, I’ve gotta go,” Bill said.
He went to the door, opened it and his jaw dropped. Laura stood in the hallway, smiling tentatively,
“Laura, baby, you came back,” Bill whispered. He moved toward her, his arms opening to embrace her.
Alarmed, the woman took a step backward,
“Um, my name is Janice and, I, uh, just moved into 2B, and, um, I was wondering if I could borrow a hammer.”
Bill dropped his arms and stared at Laura, not understanding the terror in her eyes.
“Laura…” he said, stepping toward her.
The woman bolted down the stairs.
“Goddamnit, Laura, come back here,” Bill screamed, grabbing her left arm.
“Get your hands off me!” she screamed, yanking her arm away. She ran down the hallway to 2B. Bill stared at the woman, whose hands shook as she opened the door and slammed it shut. He strode to the apartment, twisted the doorknob but it was locked.
He pounded on the door.
“Laura, honey, give me another chance,” he shouted.
An elderly woman poked her head out of 2C, then a stout man in pajamas appeared in the hallway. They glared at Bill, who was sitting on the floor, his back against the door, knees bent, staring into space, images of Laura flooding his mind.