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GUTS - 3

by Gretchen Lavender 2 months ago in fiction
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The Night Of & The Morning After

GUTS - 3
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

The Night Of

It doesn’t get cold here, not really. We have a winter, but it’s not like the ones they get down south. Up here, you might need a jumper at times, but beyond that you will be mocked by Queenslanders if you don a beanie, or a pair of gloves. It’s not fair, I suppose, if you’re a person who feels the cold.

My children never seem to. Kelly ran through the wet grass of early mornings here, barefoot and scrambling over the hills, apparently impervious even to the stones and bindies reaching for her feet.

As soon as I lay down in the bed, I started shivering. My hair was damp, the house felt cold, and my body was shaking. I was exhausted, and my eyes kept closing as my brain tried desperately to fall asleep. I didn’t have long, but I needed whatever bit of rest I could snatch from this night. Again and again, I failed to sleep. Every time my breathing grew even and my heart rate began to slow slightly, a noise leapt out of the night and my eyes would fly open. Every minor creak, every groan of the house, every change in the humming of the fridge, and my heart resumed thumping erratically against my ribcage. For a minute or so the adrenaline held my eyes open, but each time it wore off and my body would collapse again. A hundred times at least, I did this, until I thought I would cry, or scream, or lose my mind.

Finally, without realising it was happening, I fell into a half-sleep. It was peaceful, and I landed in a dream that I was in a car, traveling smoothly along a wide road, with an uneven grassy verge separating my lane from the oncoming traffic. There was no noise, landscape passing by silently, a hot morning sun pouring in through the windscreen. I felt calm, as though I was traveling towards some happy event, with no cares weighing me down. Before I knew what was happening, a car traveling along my dream highway in the opposite direction suddenly and silently veered sharply, lurched drunkenly down the verge keeping us apart, and hurtled straight towards me.

I woke up in a panic. My alarm was going off, and the ugly reality of my life slammed into my head along with a pounding headache and an overwhelming sense of impending disaster. I sat up, and held my head in my hands, tears of frustrated exhaustion tumbled out of my eyes and spread across my face as I rubbed my the burning sockets. My breaths were gulping, my eyes refused to open, glued shut by tiredness. My chest felt like a hollow drum and my skin vibrated as I looked around me at the darkened room. Slowly, as though dragging my carcass through molasses, I pulled myself up out of bed. I did only my normal morning things that I always did upon awakening. I brushed my teeth, I combed my hair, I pulled on my bathrobe and slippers.

I emerged into the dead silence of the house. The door to Kelly’s room was still closed. I listened to the sound of the clock ticking for a moment, then stepped slowly out of my bedroom. Walking down the hallway my arms felt weighed down, as though I was dragging a sack of lead weights behind me. The early morning light was grey, the temperature in the house had an edgy chill to it that it didn’t have when the house was full of people. I moved through the living room, watching my own shadow reflection on the dark television screen, a smudged version of myself. I walked into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. I avoided looking out the huge windows, and focused on doing the things I do every morning. I made coffee. I set the table for breakfast, with two places. I lay out the ingredients I would have used to make a cooked breakfast. The bacon, the eggs, the tomatoes, the bread. I stood leaning against the breakfast bar, sipping black coffee until I felt I could face it.

Then I walked over to the sliding door, and clicked the lock open. It was time to find my husband.

The drums of war throbbed in my temples. I imagined I was looking for him, as though I had no idea where he was. The wind was lashing the trees, whistling through the ghost gums. I saw lights on at the house at the bottom of the hill, the little cottage that was occupied by a former exotic animal breeder from South Australia. He kept eighty acres of land, much of it overrun with his enormous birds. Emus, ostriches, a cassowary in a very sturdy pen. Dozens of harmless specimens roamed free around the land, a world of heavy wings thrumming in the air, of long legs loping across the grass. The old man had moved to the property a few years ago, and he seemed to be expanding his collection of creatures. Tall chain-link fences zig-zagged across his land, aviaries with roofs, a man-made dam. I saw the smoke rising from his chimney, I could smell the woodfire on the wind. My mind was racing, yet perfectly calm. I screamed Greg’s name as loudly as I possibly could, over and over. I felt it tearing at my throat. I watched the cottage with its lights on. After several loud screams I watched more lights come on in the cottage. I heard, on the wind, the sound of the heavy front door banging shut. I saw the old farmer stop in his driveway and look around. I screamed again, and watched his distant form turn to face me. I stood now at the hilltop, and I let all the emotion hit me. I pictured floodgates opening in my mind. I landed hard on my knees on the red pebbles. I lurched back up and ran down the hill, imagining I was hoping to find him alive, squashing down the reality that I was desperately confirming that he was dead. I threw myself into the river, I turned him over, I opened his eyelids and pounded on his chest. I hauled myself up, and ran frantically back up the hill, stumbling and staining my nightdress with grass and mud. At the doorway, I stopped. I leaned down to achieve the right angle, and thumped my head hard into the white paint of the doorway. The cut on my forehead sprang back into life, bleeding afresh and smudging the blood onto the paint. I pushed my slippered feet backwards in the pebbles, leaving gouges behind as though my feet had slid out from under me. I resumed my stumbling run, reaching the phone in the kitchen with the sliding door left wide open.

My hysterical, shaking, exhausted voice blared down the phone line to a calm triple zero operator. I begged for help, I cried, I wailed. She spoke reassuringly. It’s alright ma’am, help is on the way. Please wait at the top of your driveway, the ambulance is coming.

I stood on the red pebbles of our hilltop courtyard, and watched the ambulance workers picking their way carefully down to the creek and back up again. I knew I needed to appear distraught, but I struggled. I thought of Greg and felt nothing. The lack of sleep made my eyes sting, and an irresistible urge to vomit took hold of me, my knotted stomach raging against the truth of what I had done. I made no attempt to resist it, and landed hard on my knees on the pebbles, the minimal contents of my stomach landing on the concrete lip that ran around the courtyard. The third ambulance officer, who had been waiting by the ambulance, saw me fall and jogged his way over to me. He knelt beside me, and placed a soothing hand landed on my back, rubbing in circles as he spoke.

I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Wrigley. For your loss.

My loss. I lifted my head far enough to see down the hill, and watched as the uniformed men carried the stretcher with the remains of my husband on it. It was a hypnotic scene. The bright, warm morning was coming to life around us and the empty shell of Greg was pale, streaked with water and mud from the creek. I rose slowly to my feet with the help of the outstretched hand of the man beside me. I glanced at his name, stitched onto the blue uniform. Cody. He was young, in his twenties, with an awkward nose and dusty blonde hair, cut short.

Thank you, I managed, as I regained my footing on the ground. He stayed with me as his colleagues loaded my husband into the ambulance. A police car crunched slowly and quietly up the brutally steep driveway. It had rained just after dawn, and the officer driving revved the engine as the sedan struggled to gain purchase in the pitted and muddy surface. Finally, it leapt clumsily over the top of the driveway, and rolled smoothly along the flat ground in front of the four car garage that sat in between our house and the driveway. Greg’s boat was nestled inside, along with his motorbike, his gym, and his workshop. My car sat in the bay nearest to the house, though it was still a hundred metres or so across rocky ground. We had no real grass, except that which covered the hill that descends to the creek. I suppose all the other land areas around our house see too much vehicle and foot traffic for grass to take hold in the stony ground.

Cody the Ambulance Officer gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and traipsed slowly over to his fellows. They slammed the door of the ambulance, and departed quietly. Two police officers were strolling towards me. 

‘Mrs. Wrigley,’ said the female one, a stocky blonde woman in her forties, with intelligent eyes and a firm handshake.

‘Yes,’ I said, shaking the offered hand, and marveling at the strength in her fingers, ‘I’m sorry I’m so disheveled.’

She glanced down at the puddle of vomit with grim amusement, and smiled at me. Her smile was a tactic, a trick. It immediately set me at ease, which must have been her intention, and the efficacy of the trick set my teeth on edge.

‘Don’t concern yourself, we see much more disheveled people than you.’ She glanced down at the creek and sighed. ‘I’m so very sorry for your loss. Constable Ridge and I have been sent to look after you.’

She meant to give me the impression that she was a lowly officer, sent to babysit a widow for a few minutes, as a matter of formality. I had the distinct feeling that she was the senior, called in to sniff for anything amiss.

I folded my arms over my quilted dressing gown. I readied myself to repeat the story I had prepared earlier, setting it in place in my mind to ensure I gave no discrepancies.

‘I understand,’ I said quietly, my head tilting unevenly in my exhaustion. She noticed at once.

‘Let’s go inside, Mrs. Wrigley. You look like you could use a cup of coffee.’

I nodded absently, and turned to lead this woman and her partner into my home. At the door I turned and said, ‘I’m sorry, but my common sense has just kicked in. Before we go inside, could I see your identification?’

She smiled broadly.

‘Of course, it’s important you know who is in your home.’

They were heavy, just like my primary school teachers has told us to check for. Detective Wakefield, and Constable Ridge. She kept her hair in a sensible ponytail. She wore no make up. Her nails were trimmed neatly, and unpolished. Her uniform was spotless. She was a meticulous person. I felt for a brief moment as though she would judge me as frivolous. A woman who focusses on her dress size and her eyeliner, who has never held a job and wears heels during the day. Then I remembered I was in my pyjamas, with a dressing gown and slippers, that my hair strongly resembled a rat’s nest and I smelled faintly of vomit. Surely, if I invited any emotion, it was pity.

Inside the house, we sat around the small table in the dining nook set just between the main living room and the kitchen. The formal dining table was in the next room, it doesn’t usually see much use, but at the party last night we’d had all twelve seats filled. The children had been billeted out to friends houses, ostensibly to allow the grown ups to have a good time in peace. No one knew the real reason I had sent them off, nor why I had arranged a party to begin with. It had been the best way to ensure that Greg would be drunk, and unsuspecting.

We all three clutched mugs of black coffee. I suppose police officers must drink a good amount of coffee. And if you wish to avoid all the calories that come with excessive milk consumption, as I did, you had best get used to drinking it black, and sugarless.

Inside my head, I sifted through my thoughts. I imagined plucking out the lies. I wrapped them in wool, in my mind it was the burgundy my mother used to sew winter clothing. I pictured swaddling the lies, muffling them, burying them in a warm, dark place, a quiet cache of hushed secrets. Inside my mind, they did not exist. Not while this woman was in my house. I arranged my face in a display of exhaustion and bewilderment. I let my eyes fill with tears, and daintily rubbed the heel of my hand into them.

She had a notepad. Detective Wakefield flipped through it, as though skimming it for detail. Written down were the sentences I’d screeched at the triple zero operator.vThis was a performance. I would have bet my life she knew every word on those pages already. She cleared her throat.

‘The last time you saw your husband was around one in the morning?’

‘That’s correct,’ I said. ‘I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but the last of the guests had just left, and I was tidying up, so one a.m. is my best guess.’

She nodded, and took a long sip of her coffee.

‘How long would you say it took you to tidy up?’

I sighed. ’I’m not certain, it was mostly abandoned cups and glasses. I loaded the dishwasher, I did a quick vacuum and mop. I threw out leftover food and wiped down the table. I would suppose it took about forty-five minutes?’

‘And Mr. Wrigley had had a considerable amount to drink?’

‘Oh, yes. I was nudging him to slow down all night. He goes weeks without drinking at all, but when he does drink he doesn’t seem to know how to stop.’

‘What was he drinking?’

‘Rum, mostly. Rum and cokes, I think he had some of the vodka shots the other men were doing, but I can’t swear to it. I spent most of my time with the girls.’

‘The girls?’

‘Yes, four of my friends were among the guests, and my sister too, so I spent most of my night on the front patio with them.’

‘And what were you drinking?’

‘Wine, mostly. White wine, I don’t like red. Though I did have two long island iced teas, when Franny was making them early in the evening.’

‘So everyone was quite tipsy?’

‘Yes. It was planned to be a relaxing night, so most of the guests had caught taxis to and from.’

‘No one left their car here?’

‘No, it’s a bit of a hike to have to come back the next morning and collect a car.’

‘Yes, and that driveway must be difficult at the best of times.’

‘It certainly is.’

She was writing in the little book. I was not concerned. I had not changed a single detail, because everything I had said so far was the gospel truth, give or take the position of some elements in the timeline. I drank my coffee quietly, and lifted my feet onto the chair so that my knees were pressed into my chest.

‘After you’d finished tidying up, you went to bed?’

‘I had a shower, and changed for bed. Then I went outside to say goodnight to Greg.’

‘He was still outside?’

‘Yes, he had some music going and was in a lounge chair near the barbecue. He often enjoys some solitude out there.’

‘At two in the morning?’

‘The kids weren’t here, you see. He knew we didn’t have to get up early this morning and so he saw no need to come to bed before he felt ready. I think he was enjoying not being rushed.’

‘And he was still drinking?’

‘I couldn’t say how many he’d had while he was out there, it may have only been the one he was holding when I said goodnight. Or it may have been six. I can’t know, I’m sorry.’

‘No, that’s alright. The medical examiner will solve a few of these mysteries for us.’

Small alarm bells began ringing in my head. I had not consented to an autopsy. The plan was for this to be ruled accidental. A creeping sense of dread loped silently into a corner of my mind, and settled in.

‘Of course,’ I said.

Her questions were maddening. They seemed to go on forever. My limbs had turned to rubber. What’s his name, his date of birth, your name, your date of birth, are you married, you live here together, what happened last night, where are the children, what happened last night.

Does he often drink a lot, do you often go to bed separately, what happened last night, is it usual for him to be absent from the house first thing in the morning.

Yes, yes, yes, I thought to myself. I answered honestly. When you tell a lie, always include as much of the truth as possible. It’s a lesson we all need to learn more than once. Yes he has regular nights where he drinks to excess but often goes weeks without a drop. Yes, he usually stays up later than me. Yes, he’s often in his gym first thing in the morning. All true. All verifiable. The children would answer them the same way.

‘Mrs. Wrigley, you are thirty years old, is that correct?’

‘Yes,’ I answered.

‘And Mr. Wrigley, he had just turned forty?’

‘Yes, that was the occasion for the party last night.’

‘I see here that your children are fifteen, eleven and seven?’

‘Yes.’

‘Mrs. Wrigley, When you met your husband, he was twenty-five and you were fifteen?’

‘Yes.’

I had the nagging feeling that this was going somewhere I didn’t want it to. Constable Ridge sat silent as a statue, drinking his coffee and watching his boss work.

‘You became pregnant at fifteen?’

‘I was sixteen by the time Kelly was born, she was born on April 24th, 1978. We were married the January before she was born.’

‘I must say, that is unusual.’

My face felt hot. Nobody had commented on mine and Greg’s beginning in years. People who knew us had gotten used to it long ago, and when I met new people I simply let them think I looked younger than I was.

‘I was married with my parent’s permission, and according to my own wishes.’

‘I don’t doubt it, but still. You were extremely young to begin all… this.’

She gestured at the house around us.

‘This is all I ever wanted,’ I replied. ‘I was lucky to find it so young. Without wasting my time on other endeavours first.’

She studied my face carefully, and took a long time to answer.

‘You’re well-spoken, Mrs. Wrigley. You finished high school?’

‘Two years early, in an accelerated program for equivalency. I was determined to finish before Kelly was born. Forgive me, but how is any of this related to my husband’s accident?’

Her unwavering gaze made me feel uncomfortable. I was certain that that was the point, and so I met it, staring back with clear eyes and a steady face.

‘It’s impossible to tell which details will be relevant in any investigation, Mrs. Wrigley, and I’m simply casting the net wide. I’m sure you understand. You never wanted to go to university?’

I looked at her in confusion.

‘Excuse me?’

‘It’s just that you seem like an intelligent person, you never wanted to go to university, pursue a career of your own? It can be hard to be held back in a more traditional role.’

I fixed her with an icy stare.

‘No. I never wanted to go to university.’

I said nothing more, and let the silence hang in the air between us. I still had not heard Constable Ridge say a word. Finally, she spoke again.

‘I’m sorry if this is all a bit intrusive, Mrs. Wrigley, but we have to understand what happened whenever someone dies.’

I held her in my gaze a moment longer, and finally softened my face, back into the grieving widow mask.

‘Of course. I’m grateful for any efforts you spend on my husband’s death, Detective, but I’m afraid I am a little confused. Is this routine for an accident?’

She smiled ruefully.

’It’s impossible to tell what is an accident, and what is not, until an investigation has taken place.’

I frowned.

‘I don’t understand, the guests were all gone, is there some indication that he committed suicide?’

She didn’t answer, instead staring slightly over my shoulder, out the sliding glass doors.

‘Mrs. Wrigley, how did you injure your head?’

‘I fell,’ I answered simply. ‘When I saw Greg I tried to get back to the house quickly, to the phone, and I tripped in the courtyard.’

I tipped my head towards the door frame, where the messy smudge of blood was decorating the white paint, inside and out. 

She nodded.

‘Do you have someone you can call to come and be with you?’

‘My sister.’

‘We’ll wait here while you call her.’

I made my way slowly into the kitchen. I picked up the telephone and pretended to have a conversation with Samantha. This time I had no trouble acting distraught. Even though I was talking into silence, with a finger secretly pressed down on the cradle, I recounted to the dead air how my husband had fallen, and drowned, and how I needed my sister to come to me now.

A few minutes later, I returned to the table. Detective Wakefield stood up.

‘I think we have everything we need for now. Thank you for your time. And again, I’m sorry for your loss.’

Her chair scraped across the floor as she stood up, and Constable Ridge followed her like a lower-ranking puppy. They placed their own mugs in the kitchen, a small sign of good manners. I saw them out of the house, and then watched from the kitchen window as their car navigated the driveway, and disappeared.

I had known she would notice the cut on my head. Greg’s final gift to me, a suspicious wound to raise questions. She couldn’t see my other injuries, and my hunched over stance and folded arms would look simply like a grieving woman attempting to not throw up again. I could still feel his hands on my ribs, holding me up against the wall. It was the day before yesterday, but it would take time to heal. My head he had injured during our final struggle. For the rest of my life I will be grateful that I finally came out of one victorious.

The clock on the wall in the living room was ticking. I stood staring out the kitchen window for a long time. No one needed me, so I didn’t move.

I was alone.

fiction

About the author

Gretchen Lavender

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