Excerpt from Wendy Corsi Staub’s
THE BLACK WIDOW
On Sale 2/24/15
“Some things,” Carmen used to say, “just don’t feel right until the sun goes down.”
It was true.
Bedtime stories …
Turning on the television …
Putting on pajamas …
All much better—more natural—after nightfall.
There are other things, Alex has since discovered, that can only happen under cover of darkness. They’re far less appealing than the ones to which Carmen referred, but unfortunately they’ve become increasingly necessary.
Alex opens the door that leads from the kitchen to the attached garage, aims the key remote at the car, and pops the trunk.
It slowly opens wide. The interior bulb throws enough light into the garage so that it’s unnecessary to turn on the overhead fixture.
Not that there are any windows that might reveal to the neighbors that someone is up and about at this hour …
And not that the crack beneath the closed door is wide enough to emit a telltale shaft of light …
Even if it did, it’s not likely that Hester Toomey will be up at this hour and sitting in her usual spot on her porch across the street.
But still, it’s good to practice discretion. One can’t be too careful.
Mrs. Toomey notices everything.
Alex removes a square-point shovel from a rack on the sidewall. The steel blade has been scrubbed clean with bleach; not a speck of dirt remains from the last wee-hour expedition to the remote stretch of hilly forest seventy miles north of suburban Westchester County.
Into the trunk goes the shovel, along with the rake used for clearing the ground of fallen leaves and the headlamp purchased from an online camping supply store.
Now comes the hard part.
Alex returns to the house with a coil of sturdy rope and a lightweight hand truck. Stolen from a careless deliveryman who foolishly left it unattended behind the supermarket, it’s come in handy. Alex is strong—but 150 pounds of dead weight is …
Well, not dead yet.
The figure lying prone on the sofa is out cold, courtesy of the dissolvable pill dropped into booze-laced soda.
Rohypnol—the date rape drug—is no longer prescribed in the United States and thus harder to come by. But Alex wisely stocked up during a trip to Mexico when it became apparent there would be a need for it.
In Mexico nobody asks questions.
When this is all over, and he’s back in my arms, maybe that’s where we’ll go.
But now is not a time to daydream about the future. There’s a lot to do before the sun comes up.
Alex carries the glass of spiked soda to the kitchen, dumps the remaining inch or two of liquid into the sink, and washes it down the drain. The glass and the sink are scrubbed with bleach and the glass returned to the cupboard alongside colorful plastic sippy cups and baby bottles that are ready and waiting …
Then it’s back to the living room. Dozing on his favorite chair, the black cat lazily opens one eye.
His name is Señor Don Gato, from a childhood song a foster mother sang years ago in a cozy little home that reminded Alex of a gingerbread cottage. That particular foster mother loved cats and was always taking in strays. Stray cats, stray kids …
Yet for some reason, she didn’t want to adopt me.
“It’s time for our guest to go now,” Alex informs Gato.
Not a twitch of movement from either the cat or the guest.
Under Gato’s watchful gaze Alex rolls the hand truck over to the sofa and unfurls a length of rope. The end whips through the air, toppling a framed photo on the end table. It’s an old black-and-white baby photo of Carmen, a gift from Alex’s mother-in-law the day after their son was born.
“El niño mira justo como mi Carmen,” she had said, and then translated in her heavily accented English for Alex’s benefit: “He looks just like my Carmen.”
On that day, gazing into the newborn’s face, all patchy skin and squinty eyes from the drops the nurses had put in, Alex couldn’t really see it.
But as the months passed, the resemblance became undeniable. Strangers would stop them on the street to exclaim over how much parent and child looked alike. At first it was sweet. Soon, though, Alex started to feel left out.
“He looks like you, too, sweetie,” Carmen, ever the supportive spouse, would claim. But it wasn’t true.
“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“No—he has your blue eyes, see?”
“All babies have blue eyes,” Alex pointed out, “and he has your face. Everything about him is you—even his personality.”
The baby had been so easygoing from day one, quick to smile, quick to laugh …
As their son grew into a boy, he loved buildings and music, even learned to play the guitar like …
He was nothing like you.
Alex leaves the photo lying facedown on the table.
Carmen—even baby Carmen— doesn’t need to witness what’s about to happen.
I know you wouldn’t approve, Carm. But you’re not here, and I have no choice. It’s the only way.
Five minutes later Alex is in the car heading north on the Taconic Parkway. The cruise control is set at five miles above the posted limit—just fast enough to reach the familiar destination in little over an hour, but not fast enough to be pulled over for speeding.
Even if that were to happen, nothing would appear out of the ordinary to a curious cop peering into the car. Alex would turn over a spotless driver’s license and explain that the sleeping person slumped in the passenger’s seat simply had too much to drink. No crime in that statement, and quite a measure of truth.
Three hours later the first traces of pink dawn are visible through the open window beyond the empty passenger seat as Alex reenters the southbound lanes. All four windows are rolled down and the moon roof is open, too, despite the damp chill in the strong west wind on this first day of March.
Some distance ahead, taillights glow in the dark. Twin red orbs, exactly parallel, that remind Alex of—
No. Stop. Don’t think of that.
Alex hits the gas pedal hard—a necessary risk in order to pass the other car. But as soon as the disturbing red taillights have given way to a distant glare of headlights in the rearview mirror, Alex slows to a speed that won’t attract police radar.
The radio is set, as always, to a classic rock station. Real music—that’s what Carmen always used to call it.
None of that techno-electro-hip-hop-pop crap for us, babe. Just good old-fashioned rock and roll …
Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” opens with a powerful electric guitar; eerie, wailing, lyric-free vocals from Robert Plant.
The fresh air and the music make it better somehow. Easier to forget throwing shovels of dirt over the wooden crate that contains a still unconscious human being. Easier not to wonder what it would be like to regain consciousness and find yourself buried alive.
Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe it never has, with any of them. Maybe they just drift from sleep to a painless death, never knowing …
But that’s not very likely, is it?
Chances are it’s a frantic, ugly, horrifying death, perhaps clawing helplessly out of the box only to be crushed by the weight of dirt and rocks, struggling for air …
Alex reaches over to adjust the radio, turning the volume even higher in an effort to drown out the nagging thoughts.
Sometimes that works.
Other times they persist, refusing to be ignored.
Not tonight, thank goodness.
The voices give way to the music, which shifts from Led Zeppelin to the familiar opening guitar lick of an old Guns N’ Roses tune: Sweet Child of Mine.
Singing along—screaming, shouting—to the lyrics, Alex rejoices. There is no more fitting song to punctuate this moment. It’s a sign. It has to be. A sign that everything is going to be okay after all. Someone else will come along. Another chance. Soon enough…
THE PERFECT STRANGER
On Sale Now
Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.
Saturday, June 1
Sixty Is the New … Oh, Who Am I Kidding? Sixty Is Old!
I can’t recognize a single musician on the cover of Rolling Stone, I can’t remember my user names and passwords if they’re not saved in my laptop or phone, I can’t see a blessed thing without my bifocals, and if they’re not on my head, chances are I have no idea where I left them … Still, faced with the prospects of old age and senility—or not sticking around long enough to grow old and senile—I’ll take the prior.
—Excerpt from Meredith’s blog, Pink Stinks
About to climb into her side of the bed she shares with her husband, when he’s not up in Cleveland tending to his elderly mother, Meredith Heywood winces and reaches back to rest a hand against her spine.
The ache is even worse now than it was before she took a hot bath, hoping in vain that it would relax her muscles. An entire Saturday spent working in the yard—followed by a few hours hunched over her laptop, writing about the garden she just planted—had been inarguably good for the soul. But for her middle-aged, cancer-tainted, bones … eh, not so much.
“Why don’t you wait until I get home to do the planting?” Hank had asked on the phone this morning when she told him of her plans. He’d always liked to do things with her—and for her. Now, more than ever.
It’s not just her illness; he was laid off from his job as an airline mechanic a few weeks before they got the news that her cancer has spread.
It’s almost been a relief to have him away. When he’s here, he hovers, trying to take care of her.
There was a time when she enjoyed that kind of attention. That was in another lifetime: a younger and thus occasionally emotionally insecure lifetime that was, at the same time, a physically self-sufficient and healthy lifetime.
A lifetime before cancer.
“I can’t wait until you’re back to do the garden,” she told Hank. “It’s getting too late.”
“It’s not even summer yet, Mer.”
Had he really interpreted her statement to mean that it was too late in the season?
Or maybe …
Was that really what she’d meant, in a momentary lapse with reality?
Too late … too late …
Those two words have taken on a whole new meaning now.
“We usually get the vegetables in over Memorial Day,” she pointed out to Hank. “That was last weekend.”
They’d been planning to do it then, but Hank’s mother took a bad fall the Thursday before, and he had to jump into his truck and head to his hometown. He’s been there ever since, trying to convince the most stubborn woman in the world that at ninety-three she’s too old to live alone.
“I can handle the planting,” Meredith assured him when he mentioned that it may be at least a few more days before he gets his mother acclimated to her new nursing home and cleans out her condo so the realtor can list it. “It’s going to rain for the next couple of days, so this is the perfect time to get the seedlings in.”
“Why don’t you call the kids to help you?”
“Maybe I will,” she lied.
Their daughter and sons, all married and scattered within an hour or so drive of this small middle-class Cincinnati suburb, have their hands full with jobs, young children, household obligations of their own. She wasn’t about to bother any of them to come help her.
Especially since …
Well, they don’t know yet that her cancer has returned a third time and spread. And she doesn’t want them to suspect anything until she’s ready to tell them. No need for anyone to worry until it’s absolutely necessary.
Only Hank is aware of the truth. He’s having a rough time with it.
“There are so many things we’ve been waiting to do until I retire,” he said one night a few weeks ago, head in hands.
“We’ll do them now.”
“Now that I don’t have a job and we’re broke?”
“We’re not broke yet. Don’t worry. You’ll find another job.”
“Where? Not here. And how can we move, with—” He cleared his throat. “I mean, you need to be near your doctors now that …”
Now that it’s almost over.
But he didn’t say it, and Meredith, who has spent decades finishing his sentences, didn’t either.
She just assured him, “You’ll find something here. Some other kind of work.”
“With decent pay? And benefits? If I don’t find something before our medical insurance runs out ... I can’t believe this is happening to us.”
“Not just to us. Teddy’s in the same boat, and with a baby on the way,” she pointed out. Their firstborn, an accountant, lost his job and health care last year and has been struggling to keep a roof over his family’s heads and food on the table. Hank and Meredith have been giving him whatever they can spare—but that’s now gone from very little to nothing at all.
“Yeah, and then there’s my mother …” Hank was on a roll. “No long-term care insurance and she can’t keep living alone. And of course I get sole responsibility for her since my brother fell off the face of the earth.”
Hank’s only sibling stopped speaking to both him and his mother after a family falling out years ago.
It would have been easier if the old woman hadn’t fallen last weekend, accelerating the need to get her out of her condo and into the only available—though not necessarily affordable—facility.
Easier, too, if Hank’s mother wasn’t so damned adamant about staying in Cleveland. They could have moved her to Cincinnati years ago to make things easier on Hank—though certainly not under their own roof. Even if Meredith were healthy enough to be a caregiver—as opposed to facing the eventual need for one herself—her mother-in-law is downright impossible.
“She’s never living with us, no matter what happens,” Hank said flatly many years ago, when his mother was widowed shortly after their engagement. At the time, Meredith found the statement unduly harsh and started having second thoughts, wondering what kind of man would say such a thing.
That was before she got to know his mother—in small doses and from a distance, thank goodness.
“She’s probably going to live to be a hundred,” Hank says frequently—and dismally.
He’s probably right. But whenever he brings it up, Meredith duly points out that he’s lucky to have her, having lost her own mother when her kids were young, and now facing her own mortality at this age.
“I know. I just … I’m worried about having to deal with her while I’m trying to find a job, and worrying about health care … In the end, it always comes down to money we don’t have. Story of our lives, right?”
Money? In the end it comes down to money?
He doesn’t realize what he’s saying. That’s what she told herself. She knew he was just stressed, knew he loved her, knew that deep down his priorities were straight. He’s only human.
But—being only human herself—she couldn’t help saying, “Hey, you can always push me off a cliff and collect on my life insurance policy now instead of later. I mean, I’m a goner anyway, right? Why not put us both out of our misery—the sooner the better?”
His jaw dropped. “What kind of thing is that to say?”
“I’m sorry. I was kidding. Come on, Hank. Look at the bright side.”
To his credit, he didn’t say, “What bright side?”
If he had, she might have broken down and cried.
Instead, he’d hugged her and apologized. “I just want to make sure that we do everything we ever said we were going to do. No more putting things off—not because I don’t think you’re going to be around, but because … well, I don’t like to waste time. That’s all.”
Right. Because she doesn’t have time to waste.
Why dwell on the past when you can focus on the future?
That was the title of an optimistic blog post she wrote back when she was in treatment, still assuming she was going to beat this disease.
The piece was met with a mixed reaction from her followers, depending on their stage of the disease. Those who were in remission shared her mind-set. Those who were not—those with very little future left—didn’t want to think about what might lie ahead. They found comfort in reflecting upon happier times.
Now I get it. Now I’m sorry, so sorry. I wish I could have told some of them…
But it’s too late.
Too late … too late …
Meredith arches her back, stretching, trying to work out the kinks as a warm breeze flutters the peach and yellow paisley curtains at the window.
Through the screen she can hear only crickets, a distant dog barking, and the occasional sound of traffic out on the main road. The houses in this neighborhood may be of the no frills, cookie-cutter architectural style, but they’re set far apart on relatively large lots.
It was the quiet, private location that drew Meredith and Hank here well over three decades ago, when they were living downtown in a one-bedroom apartment with two toddlers and an oops baby on the way. This seventeen-hundred-square-foot house—with an eat-in kitchen, three bedrooms, and one and a half baths—seemed palatial by comparison.
They felt like they’d be living in the lap of luxury and promised each other they were going to grow old here.
But they’d outgrown it by the time the kids were teenagers with friends coming and going at all hours, and the house was showing wear and tear.
With three college tuitions looming in the near future, they couldn’t afford to add on or buy anything bigger. Not on Hank’s salary and what little she made working at a local daycare.
Somehow, they survived the old plumbing and wiring and constant repairs; the crowds of kids, the lack of privacy and closet space. Eventually their sons and daughter moved on, and although their finances aren’t terrific—thanks to the economy and a series of bad investments—at least Meredith and Hank grew back into their house.
It may be shabby, but it’s home.
Now, the mere idea of growing old anywhere at all … that in itself is a luxury.
“Ouch,” she says aloud, wincing again as she rolls her shoulders.
It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than stretching, a hot bath, or even lying down on the memory foam mattress they splurged on last September when Macy’s had a sale. That was when she was assuming their old, saggy mattress was causing the dull ache in her back. Hank’s back ached, too.
“I think it’s from giving the grandkids horseback rides,” he said, “not the mattress.”
“Well, I haven’t given anyone horseback rides. Trust me. It’s the mattress.”
The pricey new one was their early Christmas present to each other, along with the bright, cheerful paisley bedding and curtains that at least made it look like springtime in here all winter long … even after she found out the memory wasn’t going to cure her hurting bones. Nothing was.
She wishes now that she’d allowed her doctor to prescribe something for the pain during her last visit, but she was afraid she’d become dependent.
“That’s crazy,” Hank said when she told him. “Why would you think that?”
“You hear stories—all those celebrities addicted to prescription pain medication … and some of my blogger friends have had issues, too.”
Hank shook his head. “Next time you go, let them give you something. Why suffer?”
Suffer—such a strong word. Especially since she isn’t truly suffering. Not yet, anyway.
There will be plenty of time down the road for Percocet or morphine or whatever it is that doctors prescribe in the final stages …
Plenty of time—please, God, let there be plenty of time.
She’s not against pain medicine, but even now, while they still have insurance, their prescription plan isn’t the best. Her medications have already cost them a fortune out of pocket—and a lot of good they did.
Plain old ibuprofen might help, but Hank must have packed the Advil they keep in the master bathroom medicine cabinet. She just looked for it and it wasn’t there. She’s too tired to go hunt for another bottle.
What she really needs right now, as much as, if not more than, medication, is a good, stiff shot of Kentucky Bourbon. There’s plenty of that downstairs, courtesy of living a stone’s throw from some of the world’s finest distilleries.
In the old days—well, in the few years’ window after the kids were grown but before Meredith got sick—she and Hank spent some deliciously decadent weekend afternoons with fellow empty nester friends, sipping their way along the Bourbon trail that lies in the bluegrass hills south of Cincinnati.
She was never a big drinker; just a social one. But that came to a complete halt after her breast cancer diagnosis, when she became hypervigilant about everything she put into her body. She lightened up a bit after five years in remission, but last year a routine test betrayed a resurgence of microscopic cancer cells in her remaining breast tissue, and she went right back on the wagon. Not a drop of liquor, no soy products, only organic fruits and vegetables …
I don’t know about that, one of the other bloggers commented on a post where Meredith outlined her stringent habits. What good is being alive if you sacrifice all the fun stuff?
I’m just trying to improve my odds. To each his own, Meredith wrote back.
The blogger—that’s right, now she remembers, it was Elena—Elena wrote back: My mother was a health nut who did everything right, and she was hit by a train before her thirtieth birthday. I did everything right, and I was diagnosed with cancer right after mine. I have to admit: I’m sick of being good.
Meredith understood how Elena felt. But she hoped Elena understood why she herself wasn’t—isn’t—taking any chances.
Certainly not now that the cancer has metastasized to her bones. But of course, Elena doesn’t know about that.
“How long do I have?” Meredith asked the oncologist matter-of-factly when she first got the news.
“Don’t jump the gun, there,” said the doctor, a straight shooter. “It’s a relatively small spot, and we’re going to treat it. Radiation, chemotherapy …”
Yes. She knows the drill.
They treat it until everything stops working, and it continues to spread.
That, she suspects, is where they’re headed now. A few weeks ago, the morning after an idyllic Mother’s Day spent cooking outside with Hank and the kids and grandkids, the doctor gave her some discouraging test results, then told her they’re going to try this current treatment—which she knows is basically her last hope—a little longer and take some more tests to see whether it’s working.
She has a feeling it isn’t.
All those needles—God, how she hated needles, even when they were lifelines—endlessly poking into her, delivering medication, drawing blood … all for what?
There are no more lifelines.
She’s been doing her best to prepare herself for what lies ahead—if not in the immediate future, then at some point down the road.
Sooner or later she’ll be told to call hospice and get her affairs in order.
Even then, she knows, many doctors aren’t able—or perhaps aren’t willing—to provide a time frame.
She’s seen it happen to her online friends time and again, and now it’s going to happen to her. Maybe not this year, maybe not even next, but eventually this damned disease is going to get her.
She’s privately told one or two of her online friends of her situation, but not everyone. Eventually she’ll have to write an official blog post about it. The moment it goes live, she’ll become that person—the doomed friend everyone rallies around.
I’m not ready. I don’t want to be her. Not yet. I want to be me for as long as I can.
There’s only one way to do that: pretend this isn’t really happening.
The lyrics to an old Styx song—one she and Hank used to listen to on vinyl back in their dating days—keep running through her head.
You’re fooling yourself … you don’t believe it …
She’ll get through her days staying busy so that she won’t have to dwell on the future—and get through her nights the best she can.
Right now she’ll have to settle for over-the-counter pain relievers without the courtesy of Bourbon to numb the pain in her back—or the disquieting, morbid thoughts that sometimes strike at night, especially when she’s here alone.
With a sigh, she leaves the lamplit bedroom and flicks on the hallway light. As she makes her way to the stairs, she hears a whisper of movement below.
“Hank?” she calls.
Of course not. He’s in Cleveland. She spoke to him a half hour ago on the phone, although …
He could very well have just said he was in Cleveland. Maybe he was really on the road, headed home early to surprise her.
“Hank! Is that you?”
Absolutely still, poised mid-flight with her hand on the banister, Meredith is enveloped in complete silence.
“Is someone there?”
And yet—she did hear something before. Or perhaps it’s more just a sensation of not being alone in the house …
Or did you just imagine it altogether?
For a long time she stands there, listening—one moment certain she can feel someone there, the next, certain she’s losing it.
Just last week she blogged about this very scenario. Not about things that go bump in the night, per se, but about getting older and potentially senile.
That entry stemmed from Hank’s report that his mother suspected her neighbor—a distinguished widowed professor—of sneaking into her condo in the wee hours, trying on her clothes and taking perfumed bubble baths in her tub.
Her blog entry was written entirely tongue in cheek, as so many of them are. Even during the darkest days of her cancer treatment, she’s always managed to find a humorous angle.
She’d started the blog at the suggestion of her therapist, who knew she’d dreamed of graduating college and becoming a writer before marriage and motherhood set her on a different path. Even the title of the blog page—Pink Stinks—is meant to be an irreverent poke at the breast cancer awareness movement.
Determined to keep her latest diagnosis to herself, she wrote a blog post last week about the inevitability of aging and the many signs—now that she’s past her sixtieth birthday—that the process is well under way.
That post was greeted by a barrage of positive, amusing comments from her regular followers and a couple of newcomers who have since stuck around. Someone—who was it?—said that she was wise and had a tough outer shell, like a turtle, and turtles are known for their longevity—So I’m sure you’re going to live a good long time!
From your lips—rather, fingertips—to God’s ears, Meredith wanted to respond to whoever wrote that, but of course, she didn’t.
Standing on the stairway, listening for movement below and wondering if she should go back to the bedroom for the baseball bat Hank keeps under his side of the bed, she mentally composes the opening of a new blog post she’ll write tomorrow.
So there I was, armed and dangerous in my granny nightgown …
Oh, geez. She really is losing it, isn’t she?
And her taut posture as she stands clenched from head to toe, clutching the railing, isn’t helping her back pain.
Either turn around and go to bed, or go downstairs, get what you need, and then go to bed.
Meredith opts for the latter. She flips a wall switch at the foot of the stairs, then another in the living room, and the one in the dining room, reassured as she makes her way through familiar rooms bathed in light. As always, she notices not just the threadbare area rug, the worn spots on the furniture, the chipped paint on the baseboards, but also the clay bowl Beck had made in Girl Scouts, the bookshelf lined with Hardy Boys titles Hank had handed down to his sons and newer picture books Meredith had collected for the grandchildren, the faint pencil marks on the doorjamb where they marked their growing kids’ height over the years …
It’s a good house. It’s been a good life here.
Whenever Hank talks about selling it now, she shakes her head. “This is home. I don’t ever want to leave.”
In the kitchen cabinet where she keeps her daily vitamins and the medications prescribed to keep cancer at bay for as long as possible, she finds a bottle of drugstore brand painkillers.
Having left her glasses upstairs on the nightstand, she can’t quite make out the label. It looks to her like they expired last year, but they’re probably fine. Fine, as in safe to swallow, if not as effective as they might have been.
She takes three, just in case they’re less potent. Washing them down with tap water, she wonders how long it will take before the pills ease the tension in her muscles.
It really is too bad she can’t take something stronger.
Not medicine. Just a nip of something that will warm her from the inside out, and let her sleep.
She glances longingly at the high cupboard above the fridge where they’ve kept the booze since their firstborn, Teddy, reached high school.
Ha. As if keeping the stash out of arm’s reach would deter him and his friends from getting into it. It didn’t work, they discovered belatedly, when Hank realized that one of their offspring—by then, all three were in college—had replaced the contents of a bottle of Woodford Reserve with iced tea.
Still, they were good kids, Meredith remembers as she sets the empty water glass into the sink. Spirited, but good. She’s blessed to have watched them grow up and give her grandchildren—three grandsons so far between Teddy and Neal and their wives, with another little stinkerdoodle on the way this fall.
That’s what Meredith calls her grandchildren, just as she always called her own children: a nice batch of stinkerdoodles.
Everyone is hoping for a girl this time.
Everyone but her. Secretly, she worries about passing the cancer gene to a new generation.
Men get breast cancer, too, one of her blogger friends pointed out when she wrote about that concern.
True. But it’s not nearly as common.
She can’t help but worry about the health of her daughter and future granddaughters. She’s been warning Rebecca that she needs to do self-exams and start her yearly mammogram screening in another couple of years.
Beck, of course, waves her mother off. She’s too young and full of life to worry about illness.
So was I at her age. I never thought something like this could happen. No family history …
You just never know. Oh, well …
It’s been over a year now since Beck married Keith. They’ll probably be starting a family too, soon.
Meredith has so much to live for. If only …
Shaking her head, she turns off the light and leaves the kitchen, never noticing the cut screen on the window facing the newly planted garden out back, or the shadow of a human figure lurking in the far corner.