It didn’t have to be this way.
I put a couple of tiny dots of glue on the safety band before I screwed the cap back on. That way Ray would think he was breaking the seal when he opened the bourbon. I inspected the bottle for sediment, then gave it a vigorous shake.
I carefully washed and dried the mortar and pestle before returning them to the back of the cabinet. My hands only shook a little bit.
After weathering over thirty years of marriage, a windfall was going to be our undoing. Or maybe the marriage really ended when I moved into the guest room to escape my husband’s snoring. I wallpapered the room in tea roses and covered the satin comforter in throw pillows. Sunlight filtered in through lace curtains. The bed was always made, there was no dirty laundry on the floor, and the room always smelled like orange blossoms. I was happier than I had been in years.
When I no longer had to sleep next to a buzz saw, I found myself waking refreshed and energized. I started going for morning walks, and I was no longer exhausted when I got home from work.
My husband never wanted to go out and do anything, so I started looking for evening classes to occupy my time. Weaving, leather working, glass blowing. My current passion was pottery.
As my horizons expanded, Ray’s narrowed. He complained about all the money I was spending. Meanwhile, he would go to the liquor store and drop a hundred bucks on bourbon and beer. I tried to talk to him about going easy on the booze, but he ignored me. He spent most of his time drinking and watching old football games, or drinking and stewing over things that had happened at work.
I was too embarrassed to put out all the empties with the recycling. I had to drive them across town to a couple of different recycling centers.
Sometimes when I was driving him crazy, he would go out to his workshop and sit in the ugly recliner I had banned from the house. He would drink and page through the girlie magazines he thought I didn’t know about. (Like I cared anymore.)
Once when he was drunk, he decided he needed to build a little table to sit next to the recliner. He nearly lopped off a finger. I had to take him to the ER and stand there and listen while the doctor lectured him about not mixing alcohol and power tools. He didn’t listen to the doctor, either.
When we received the money, we were both giddy. For a few days, I remembered why I had married him. Then the arguments started.
I wanted the both of us to retire early. I was sick of the nine to five grind, and I knew he was, too. I wanted to sleep in every day, and read two novels a week, and learn to cook Thai food. As long as we were careful, we could stretch the money until our retirement benefits kicked in.
Ray wanted to buy a cabin next to a lake. I was not opposed to cabins. There was one a few hours away that we rented frequently. I had spent many happy hours there, sitting on the deck enjoying the fresh air and listening to the birds sing while I read a trashy novel. Ray would sit on the dock and drink beer while he pretended to fish. It was peaceful.
I was perfectly happy renting. Ray had decided that he needed to own his own cabin. I guess taking care of one house wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to double the burden.
The last straw was when he put in an offer on a property without telling me. Luckily, he was a cheapskate, so the offer was rejected. He confessed when he was blind drunk. I almost killed him that night, but he was too wasted to even realize how angry I was.
Ray thought that the money was more his than mine, since our uncle had been his blood relation. But I was the one who read those deadly dull military histories to Uncle Earl every Sunday afternoon, while Ray stayed home and watched football and drank beer. I was the one who gagged while I cooked liver and onions for Earl every Sunday night. I was the one who trimmed his gnarly old man toenails. He called me the daughter he never had.
Earl left the money to both of us.
Really, I would be doing Ray a favor. He had become bloated and clumsy. His eyes were always bloodshot and his skin had developed an unhealthy pallor. He constantly had a scowl on his grizzled face. I would be putting him out of his misery.
I gave the bottle another shake. He still had a chance. If he drank in moderation then the drugs wouldn’t kill him. If he downed the whole bottle in one evening, though. . . .
The basement door opened behind me. I was so startled I almost dropped the bourbon. Ray froze in the doorway.
“I thought you’d still be at the craft store,” he said.
“I wasn’t at the art supply store. I was Christmas shopping for both of our families,” I said tersely, before I remembered that I had planned to be nice.
He looked at the bottle of booze in my hand and the roll of red ribbon on the counter.
“You caught me,” I said, forcing myself to smile as I held out the bottle. “A peace offering. There’s a whole case in the trunk of my car. Merry Christmas!”
I had reasoned that a woman who was planning to kill her husband wouldn’t buy him a whole case of expensive liquor first. Hopefully the police would see it that way, too, if there were any questions.
He looked at the label and raised his eyebrows. “Wow! The good stuff. Thanks.”
“What were you doing in the basement?”
There was nothing down there but my workshop, or as my husband called it, the “graveyard of hobbies past.”
“You caught me, too,” he admitted. “I was installing your Christmas gift. It should be properly ventilated now.”
My heart started to race. “You got me a kiln?” I squeaked.
“I figured it was just a matter of time until you got the kiln and the wheel and whatever all anyway,” he said snidely.
I threw open the basement door and hurried down the stairs. A fit of conscience niggled at me. Maybe I should switch the doctored bottle with one of the pristine ones. I could take a few days to reconsider my plan.
Because I was distracted, I didn’t see the fishing line strung across the stairs. I went down hard, cracking my forehead on the edge of one the steps, then sliding sideways and rolling the rest of the way down. I grabbed at my loom to try to break my fall, but it tipped and knocked into the shelving unit loaded with blown glass ornaments and pottery vases. Somehow the heavy boxes I kept on the bottom shelf were gone, so the unit was top-heavy. It teetered a couple of times, pottery and glass rolling off and shattering around me, then toppled and pinned me to the floor.
There was a sharp pain in my chest. I couldn’t draw breath. I couldn’t move my legs. I blinked away blood from the forehead gash.
Ray descended the stairs more slowly. He stopped halfway down to untie the line and tuck it into his pocket. He continued down a few more steps, then sat and studied me.
“Help,” I tried to say, but my voice was barely a whisper.
“I kept telling you to clean up down here. You should have listened.”
He was still holding the bottle of bourbon. He unscrewed the cap and took a deep swallow.
“Oh, that’s good. Smooth.” He closed his eyes and took another drink, savoring the flavor before he swallowed.
I managed a shallow breath, but it sounded wheezy. The room was starting to spin.
“You know, with the life insurance I’ll be able to buy a boat, too. I’ll have to find a property with a good dock. Or maybe even a boat house. Imagine that.” He took another drink. “A boat house,” he said, shaking his head in wonder.
I was fading fast. The room was going dim, and Ray’s voice sounded like it was coming from far away.
“Guess I’ll head upstairs now,” he said, standing. “Now that the hard part is done, I have to drink until I pass out so I can tell the police I didn’t hear you fall. . . . Why are you smiling?”