This story is by K.M. Hotzel and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Robert stands tall in the door, handsome and well-groomed, his suit slightly wrinkled from wearing it all day. He looks at her, smiles at her, but Elisabeth gets the sense he is elsewhere. Not really here, not quite present.
A prick of sadness, like a needle stuck in a pincushion, shoots through her heart and she presses her hand against her chest, her fingers grazing the scar. She inhales a shuddering breath, remembering how things used to be. Back before…
She drops her hand into her lap and forces a smile. It quivers in the corners. No point in dwelling on the past.
Unsteadily, she arrives at his side and reaches for his hand. He smells of cologne and whiskey and unvented rooms, scents she intimately knows to be him and not.
As her fingers touch the back of his hand, he retracts it. His head turns towards her, the smile diminishing ever so slightly as their eyes meet.
“The reservation at Veni, Vidi, Vici’s is at eight,” Elisabeth says, nervous tension causing her stomach to bubble and churn. “They asked me if I wanted the usual for our anniversary.” She hesitates the length of an inhale, the time she permits herself to collect her courage and hold on to hope. “We’re going, right?”
He nods and turns away. “Of course,” he says over his shoulder, reaching for the door. “I haven’t forgotten.” He gestures to her, waves her off, then leaves the room.
Elisabeth watches him go. Like so many times before, she feels the world around her shift becoming something else without him. However, the effect isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, the world grew dimmer when he left, turned gray and dreary. Nowadays, it slightly brightened and warmed.
And yet she still loves him.
She stares at the door, waiting for him to return, her eyes tracing the swirls in the wood, the curves and the lines like fingers on a surface, wondering why she can’t let go.
A minute passes. She hears the hinges creak at the end of the hallway, hears the door slam against the wall, then crash into the frame.
She drops onto the chair and puts her head into her hands. Her heart is heavy, and she feels like crying. Yet, there are no more tears left.
Only guilt and regret and remorse.
“I think we should get divorced. I’m tired of being afraid of you.”
Her head snaps up. She hadn’t heard him enter. She blinks, staring at him, stunned and dumbfounded, unable to process what he said. Until suddenly the room cools. Goosebumps spread across her forearms as his words make landfall, slamming into her with the destructive force of a hurricane.
“I can’t—” Robert says when she doesn’t answer. “I don’t love you anymore. I want this–us–to be over.”
Elisabeth blanches. “What?” is all she manages, releasing the word on a deflating exhale, uncomprehending how he could do this to her after everything–after what he had put her through, after all she had given up to be with him.
“Let’s not make this any more complicated than it has to be.” He slips past the closet, keeping the bed between them. “It’s over.”
“I see.” She sinks deeper into the chair, disappointment draping over her like a shroud. She shakes her head in little imperceptible motions. “Why?”
“You know why.” He slides his fingers between neck and knot, loosening his tie. “Since the accident, things…” He trails off, casting his gaze out the window, past the barren trees cutting into the twilight.
Elisabeth’s face freezes. Her eyes widen and her jaw slackens.
Not once have they spoken of the accident since it happened.
“What do you mean?” The words wobble in her throat, precariously teetering on the verge of panic. She feels herself sway, the room spin, the world tilt off its axis. She holds on to the corner of the dressing table.
“Things haven’t been alright since, have they?” He lets out a sigh and leans heavily against the dresser, hands curling over the edge. “If it hadn’t been for what happened–if I didn’t—” He cuts himself off and shrugs.
Elisabeth sits up straight, the world suddenly snapping into focus.
It’s like déjà vu. The worst day of her life again.
“So, you want a divorce?” she says through gritted teeth.
“Yes, Liz. I want you out of my life. I can’t stand–this—” He gestures at her, the house, the neighborhood, at the both of them. “You and me any longer.”
“Why?” she asks, even though she can guess the answer. “Why now?”
“Because she’s dead. Murdered.” His hands fly up, exasperation tightening the muscles in his jaw.
“Who? Andrea?” Elisabeth shakes her head, the bitter taste of betrayal lingering in the back of her throat.
“Don’t feign ignorance. I know what you did to her.”
“Do you now?” Her shoulders tremble, anger curls itself tightly around her midsection, even though it shouldn’t after all this time.
“Quit pretending.” He sets his fist on the counter, the tendons on the knuckles white and protruding. “I know you killed her. I just never thought you would.” He lets out a bitter laugh. “Never thought your jealousy would get the better of you. But it did, didn’t it? You killed her. After I told you, we were over.” He speaks faster, the words spilling forth like water gushing from a broken dam. “Suddenly, she dies. Dead from a heart attack. At age 25. Tell me, how is that normal? How is that not your doing?”
“You haunted her. Probably killed her in a fit of wrath.”
“What? That’s not true.” Elisabeth jumps from the chair. It screeches across the spotless white tile, knocks against the dressing table. “How can you even think that?”
“Oh, Liz. I know you better than you know yourself.” He runs his hand through his short cropped hair. “You have—” He pauses as if to look for the right word. “Changed. You’re not you anymore.” His gaze zeros in on her, hard and sharpened with anger. “I’d hoped you’d move on. But you haven’t, and I can’t do this any longer. I can’t wait for you to see the light. I don’t want to live like this any longer. With the vengeful ghost of a wife.”
Elisabeth falls back into the chair. It’s just like on their 25th anniversary. They had a similar fight. One that ended a life.
She clutches her hands in her lap, attempting to keep calm.
Perhaps it’s time, she thinks, watching him perched against the dresser.
Silence lingers between them, heavy with unspoken words and accusations lingering in the shadows.
Eventually, Elisabeth speaks. “Sure, I knew about Andrea. I knew about the two of you long before you told me. How could I not? You weren’t particularly inconspicuous.” She swallows, waits, lets her revelation sink in. “But her death is your doing.”
“How could you?” He punches the counter hard enough for the picture frames to shift and rattle. “Monster.”
“You’re misunderstanding. I’m not the monster,” Elisabeth says, her voice betraying nothing of her turmoil. “You are.” She exhales a juddering sigh. “But I’m at fault too.” Sadness dulls her eyes as sorrow settles into the wrinkles around her mouth. She rises to her feet. “I should’ve let you go.”
She gazes at him, tender and longing, while he stands immobile, enraged, twisting and rolling his jaw.
Elisabeth crosses the bedroom, halting in front of her nightstand. “What do you remember about the accident?” Keeping him in her sights, she pulls open a drawer and retrieves an orange envelope. “It was my fault. I lost control of the car.” She shrugs. Her lips quiver. “Or perhaps I did it on purpose. I don’t know.”
Fury wafts off him, spicy and scorching.
“Over our anniversary dinner, you told me you wanted a divorce. I begged you to reconsider. You said no, told me not to make a scene in the middle of the restaurant.” She pauses, her fingers tightening around the envelope, crumpling the edges.
A flicker of recognition flashes across his face.
“Since you had a few drinks–I suppose to muster the courage to tell me–I drove home. It was raining. The roads were slick. We were arguing. I was crying.” She returns to the dressing table, empties the contents of the envelope. “Next thing I remember, I wake up in the hospital.” Pictures spill across the counter and she reaches for a piece of paper. She unfolds it, smoothing the creases before placing it on the table. A death certificate. “You didn’t.”
His features fade, become less defined.
“And then you visited Andrea.” She pulls out a memento of his she has kept, pours salt over it and lighter fuel, then ignites it. “I think it’s time for you to move on. Time for me to let go.”