winner of the 2020 breakwater fiction contest
"Clear, concise, and creepy: what more can you ask of a short story?"
Nico always leaves the window open, even in winter. Even in the rain. Precipitation slips through the warped mesh screen, puddles on the sill, sometimes wets the carpet until it smells of mold.
It’s been fourteen years of this, and by now Gemma knows better than to ask him to close it. An escape route for the germs, Nico claims in a lilting tone, as if it’s just a joke—after all, they are both reasonable people, rational enough to understand that’s not actually how it works. Still, he keeps airing out the house anyway.
He is afraid of particles that can’t be seen—invisible microbes, imagined bacteria—but when news breaks of the murder, Nico lifts one shoulder in a half-shrug. “It’s not like it happened on our street, right?”
Gemma stares. “Six miles away, though. The next town over.” She’s already devoured every online article she can find, spent the morning reading and re-reading on the edge of a kitchen chair while her husband researched bleach dilution measurements for Streptococcus pneumoniae and Listeria monocytogenes. “I mean, what if they don’t catch him?”
“It’s probably one of those marital things. Domestic disputes, or whatever. No one’s coming after us.”
“Actually, they’re saying it was a break-in.” Gemma waits a beat too long for a reply. “Did you hear me? Middle of the night, they said. The poor woman had her doors locked and everything.” She reads aloud from the phone in her hand: “‘Multiple stab wounds. Clear signs of forced entry.’ What if we’re dealing with some kind of deranged serial killer? The whole town could be in danger until they find him.”
Gemma glances up the stairs at the second floor, toward the room meant for a nursery. A tiny square space painted gray: not the dark slate of a storm, but velvety and light, like baby elephant skin. They keep it empty even now, just in case Nico changes his mind, and today she feels a strange relief instead of the usual yearning—in times like these, with murderers just wandering loose in the neighborhood, it would be one more person to protect. No way. No thanks. She thinks she might have said it out loud—No, thank you—but Nico never looks over. He is bending at the waist, biting his bottom lip in concentration, his eyes trained on the funnel. Pours. Shakes to mix. Tightens the spray bottle top.
“Don’t worry so much, love. We’re safe here, okay? We really are.” He coats the counter with a second layer of solution and begins to scrub in slow, deliberate circles.
For nearly a week, Gemma tries to sleep but can’t. Every noise—a creaking board, a revving engine, a siren in the distance—hammers her heart into the mattress until it feels like she, herself, is a living drum. She buys the loudest box fan she can find and cranks it to the highest setting before bed in an effort to drown out all the sounds.
She doesn’t remember how to breathe.
At the store, everyone she passes looks threatening: The man with his hood drawn tight. The woman with a nose sharp as a blade. The school-aged girl who reminds her of Rhoda from The Bad Seed. When a voice bursts over the loudspeaker to ask for a cleanup in aisle six, Gemma startles and drops the lettuce on her shoes. Quietly, she bends down to retrieve it, puts it back in the crisper, and selects a new one. The iceberg is wrapped in plastic, yes, but Nico would worry for weeks if she brought the tainted head into their house.
She sits idling in the driveway much longer than she needs to. The groceries piled in the trunk will start to sweat soon—she knows she should get them inside before they reach room temperature, or else Nico will throw everything away and the entire shopping trip will be for naught. Still, Gemma waits, dreading the post-shopping ritual that always takes place, until she remembers that at any moment the murderer might yank her car door open and drag her out by the hair. Even the ritual is preferable to a slit throat.
Nico is already snapping on a pair of gloves as he greets Gemma at the door. He takes the bags from her and unloads the food, inspecting each item carefully before arranging it in the fridge. Label-side out. Everything nestled atop fresh paper towels.
“Did you wipe down the cart this time?” he asks, and Gemma starts to lie but changes her mind. Maybe the truth will do him some good, like forced exposure therapy, which he’d tried once or twice but abandoned. This has gone on long enough.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “They were out of wipes today.”
He freezes, and then lifts his chin and draws several deep, intentional breaths. Nico changes his gloves without a word before moving on to the pantry purchases. He sprays and scours the outside of each box: top, bottom, all four sides. Gemma knows his evening shower will be hot enough to scald.
Later, Nico installs an extra deadbolt although Gemma never asked him to. She leans up to press her mouth to his, a gesture of appreciation, of longing, and he turns his face so that her lips can only graze his cheek.
She should have known better. He doesn’t kiss back during cold and flu season.
They haven’t kissed in months, in fact, and she marvels that she didn’t see this coming.
On that first night in their new townhome—fourteen years ago, a few weeks shy of the wedding—she had felt the December chill seeping through the screen and stood to latch the window, automatically, as anyone would. Nico had stiffened on the couch; although, back then, he still tried to pretend he wasn’t bothered. They watched another twenty minutes of ER without incident. And then Gemma sneezed.
She did it properly, remembered to tuck her face down into the crook of her elbow like she was taught in grade school. Hardly an errant droplet anywhere. But he leaped to his feet and lunged for the window, lifted it with both hands, breathed deeply toward the snow swirling outside.
In his haste, he had thrust aside the throw blanket they’d been sharing, so that now a swath of floral fleece draped across her chest like a backward cape. Gemma tightened it around herself, a superhero in reverse.
“You’re letting the blizzard in,” she complained. It was the pre-marriage phase of slinky camisoles and lounge shorts rather than cozy sweatpants, satin and lace rather than polyester, and the thin fabric clung to her thighs, icy and naked beneath the blanket.
“Sorry, love. I’m just a little warm.”
But even after the temperature in the living room dipped low enough to turn her fingers numb, even after the thermostat read 59 in blue accusatory numbers, Nico begged her not to close the window. Gemma did it anyway. She would not be controlled. He had looked at her as if she’d just admitted to a torrid affair and, betrayed, left the room.
Shortly after that—mid-season, right when she’d become truly invested—they had to stop watching ER. Nico kept mysteriously developing symptoms that mirrored whichever episode they’d seen last, and the medical bills began to eat into their honeymoon budget although every test came back Normal. Normal. Normal.
There were other things that gave Gemma pause in the days leading up to the wedding: The way he washed his hands until the skin around his knuckles split and dried into patchy scales. The way he put his toothbrush in the dishwasher each night before bed. The way his eyes went wide in the restaurant booth when a nearby toddler vomited suddenly into her father’s cupped hands.
“You know, I might not be the parenting type.” Nico laughed, but as he stared down into his steaming bowl of pasta, his fork began to shake.
Of course you are, she had thought then. You will change your mind.
He was tender and kind and good, and he tried to change in other ways, too. He scheduled appointments with a therapist. He dutifully swallowed his yellow capsules, and then white ones when the yellow ones caused a rash, and then green ones when the white ones made his penis limp.
People stayed when they were battered. They stayed when they were betrayed. Surely she should stay when his greatest fault was only that he wanted to keep healthy.
She adjusted her veil.
The lack of sleep catches up with her at last. Finally, finally, Gemma feels herself drifting off, the whirring white noise of the box fan obscuring everything but her impending dreams. Suddenly, a thought occurs to her in the dark. “Nico,” she murmurs, “I don’t think you ever closed the window.”
Under the covers, he rubs her arm reassuringly. “It’s closed.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so, love. If you’re worried, just go double-check.”
Gemma imagines a ski-masked man slicing into the mesh screen and then into her flesh, slashes in the shape of stars, blood pulsing from open wounds, and her heart begins to hammer anew. She is resentful of it, the way his fears have dictated all the details of her life for fourteen years. The least he can do now is let her get some rest. “You’re the one who always opens it,” she hisses in the dark. “You go fucking double-check.”
When he slides out of bed, Gemma puts her foot in the warm spot where his body used to be. She falls asleep before the sheets turn cold.
It is almost sunrise by the time she realizes Nico is missing. At first, in her hazy, half-lucid state, she is not concerned. He’s probably in the bathroom. Sanitizing the toilet the way he does each time, a half-cup of bleach poured into the bowl afterward, a heavy spray of Lysol above and below the rim. She waits, eyes still closed, blissfully alone, sprawling spread-eagle in the extra bed space.
When he does not return, Gemma knows, of course, that it must be a panic attack. She rolls lazily to her other side and peeks at the recliner in the corner, where he often huddles in the middle of the night, rocking back and forth, back and forth, buried beneath his weighted blanket, whispering comforting phrases to himself. But the chair is empty.
A strange pit settles in her stomach. She peels back the covers and starts for the bedroom door, dread anchoring each step until it feels like she is moving through some paralyzing dream, running in place to escape a monster. As she turns the knob, Gemma thinks again of knives and screams and slash marks. But there is no blood at the bottom of the stairs—just Nico, his feet splayed upward, his neck grotesque, his head twisted into the ground.
Gemma opens her mouth. When no sound escapes, she turns away and stumbles toward the bedroom, grabs woodenly for her phone, presses three numbers she has never pressed before in quite this succession. What’s your emergency? a voice asks from much too far away. She cannot get the words out at first, but once they come, they trip over each other and repeat themselves until, jumbled, they begin to lose all meaning: He fell he fell he fell he fell he fell.
The operator is calm. He gives instructions she’d rather not follow—Lean in close and Listen for breath—and she tells him Yes, okay, I am, even though she is still standing near her bed with the door locked, trembling so violently she can feel it in her core. She worries her stomach will rattle right out of her body. Gemma considers if this is possible, wonders about it for so long the operator has to say her name over and over and over before she hears him.
At his insistence, she tiptoes to the stairs again. Top step only, at first. Down one. Down one more. Cautiously, bracing herself, as if Nico is playing a terrible trick. She prepares for him to spring to his feet and wrap her in a hug of glee and apology. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he will say. “We’re safe here. We really are.” She will swat at him, and he will catch her wrist and pull back a bit and ask, “Love, did you remember to wash your hands?”
Gemma imagines this while peering down at him through slitted lids. She needs to look somewhere else, anywhere else, and so her eyes dart to the throw pillows in the living room, the bills on the kitchen table, the thinning carpet, the curtains.
The window is closed. He had remembered after all.
In her ear, the operator repeats a set of instructions, asks if she’s listening. Yes, yes, I’ve checked, there’s nothing, Gemma says aloud, but she is thinking how horrified Nico would be to have his face so close to the floor, where all those dirty feet have been.
Because the detective refused to remove his shoes during his first visit, Gemma does not invite him inside when he shows up a second time. They talk on her porch instead. She answers all the same questions she answered seventy-two hours ago.
“It’s a routine investigation,” the detective says. “No need to get defensive.”
He watches her in the way they must always watch suspects: coolly, one eyebrow cocked above a smirk masked by sympathy. “His funeral was yesterday,” Gemma seethes. She can tell her face is flushed and blotchy and hot, even standing there in the snow, and for a moment she is grateful for the gusts of winter air.
“As I’ve said, my condolen—”
“This is inappropriate.”
His composure falters. “What’s inappropriate is the length of time between when he died and when you finally called for help.”
“I was asleep. The box fan was on, full speed, and I didn’t hear him fall. How many times do I need to say it?”
“As many times as it takes for you to get your story straight.” The detective snaps his notebook closed. “If you happen to remember how your husband’s blood magically ended up in the kitchen—far, far away from the stairs—and how it came to be so carefully wiped clean before the examiner arrived, do let me know.”
“I told you, I don’t—”
It is his turn to interrupt. “I’ll be in touch.”
“I hope you’re spending this kind of energy finding the actual murderer in our town!” Gemma calls after the detective as he crunches down the driveway. He doesn’t turn around. “It’s been what, two weeks since that woman died? And you’re worried about an accident?”
His taillights are blurred in the distance by the time she remembers: Nico was sanitizing the chef’s knife after dismembering a rotisserie chicken, the water too hot, the dish soap too slippery, and he had nearly lost his pinky at the first knuckle. It dangled from itself as if on a hinge.
“We should go the hospital,” Gemma had insisted, practically dragging him by the elbow toward the door.
“You know what kind of diseases they’ve got in the ER? It’s a Petri dish.” Nico was already pouring hydrogen peroxide over his skin and down the drain, the streaming water tinged a rusty pink. “Plus, I’ve got to take care of this mess.”
Thick red pools oozed past the rounded edge of their granite, dripped down the cabinets, seeped across the floor. She helped him with the butterfly bandages and gauze. He mixed up a fresh dilution of bleach.
“Let me do it,” Gemma begged. “You’re hurt.”
It was a futile request—she never cleaned quite right. Nico had scrubbed and scrubbed, stood back to assess his work, and then lowered himself into a crawling position and scrubbed some more, until his knees were bruised, until his wrists were stiff. He would be devastated to learn he’d missed a spot.
When the detective is gone, Gemma eats dinner without washing her hands first. She coughs without covering her mouth.
She remembers how to breathe.
It’s not the inflexibility of the handcuffs that surprises her—it’s the cold. They feel like ice against her wrists, much different from the furry purple ones she’d tried with Nico in the very, very beginning, back when he still deemed her clean enough to kiss.
He had made a trail down her neck, sloppy and moist. Lingered over her left collar bone. Pressed his lips into her heart. Everything in the air was mint and wax and flame and sweat, the candles he’d lit flickering shadows against his face. “You look dangerous,” she’d said, but he was gentle, as always. They had not even showered afterward—just fallen asleep with the sheets still wet.
Some of the neighbors emerge to watch, several in robes and slippers, a few clutching their partners by the elbow, all of them stricken to think such a spectacle could happen on their street. Gemma wants to scream toward the gathering crowd: Go back inside. A killer is still out there and none of you are safe. But the detective’s palm is flat against her skull and he is ducking her head beneath the roof of his cruiser and her voice would only disappear into the wind.
After living in a home where the grout has been bleached white with a toothbrush, the holding cell feels especially filthy. Gemma sits gingerly on one of the hard, flat benches that run the length of the walls, but two women—one with a neck tattoo, the other with a half-shaved head and a black eye—loom over her wordlessly until she stands and drifts away from them, toward the other prisoners lingering near the door. There is an absence of time: No clocks. No windows. She might have been here for thirty minutes or three hours; likely the latter, as she’s fought the urge to pee for quite a while now, though Gemma has the distinct impression that the others would not appreciate it were she to relieve herself.
She eyes the toilet in the corner. Aluminum, crusted with dried feces and surrounded by a pool of vomit, poorly-aimed. Gemma makes a silent vow to keep these horrors to herself, to not utter a word of this to Nico, before she remembers that she will never utter another word to him again. She is always remembering this—abruptly, confusedly—at the most inconvenient times, like when she pulls out her phone to text him something funny, or when she brings groceries into the house and forgoes the gloves.
“Shouldn’t be too long,” slurs the drunk blond next to her. “You’ll get yer bail hearing in what, like…a day or so? Not more’n two. ‘S how it happened for me last time.” She leans in closer and closer until Gemma can smell her breath: puke and whiskey and a wisp of garlic. “Whatcha in here for?”
Gemma studies the floor. The grief swells through her limbs and electrifies the hair along her neck, her perfectly straight and intact neck, nothing twisted or broken about it at all. “I killed someone.”
“It was an accident, but it was my fault. He fell down the stairs because I told him to close the window, and it was dark, and—”
“Shut up. I mean it. You never learned nothing from TV? You don’t admit to shit in here. You didn’t do a fucking thing. Blink twice if you understand.”
Gemma only blinks once, but the woman does not appear to be in a position to count accurately. When she stumbles off to drink from the water fountain above the toilet, Gemma stares down at her own hands: still stained with ink from booking, though Nico would assume it was dirt no matter how much she protested. He’d want her to wash and wash and wash until her skin was raw, until her fingerprints had peeled into unrecognizable patterns, until she was no longer identifiable even to herself.
“Not guilty,” says Juror Number One.
“Not guilty,” the rest of them agree, each in turn.
They are partially right. She is only guilty of feeling free.
She’s heard about it dozens of times, of course, just like everybody else—from the news droning on in the background, from the headlines blazing across her computer screen, from idle gossip at work. But Gemma has never paid attention to the details, and now she struggles to remember. A scarf. A vacuum cord. Isn’t that what all the celebrities use? She eyes the staircase, and her gaze slides from bottom to top, slowly, the opposite of his trajectory. It’s the way she always looks at it now, as if she can reverse the world by tracing it backward in her mind.
She tests the knot. Weighs the heft in her palms.
Lets it unravel. Sets it aside.
Gemma doesn’t prefer the second floor these days, but now she gingerly climbs her way to the empty nursery. She waits in the doorway, considers the images that flash to life in the blank space like hesitant bursts of possibility: crib rails and rocking chairs and receiving blankets, loveys and sippies and binkies. The powdered smell of dry diapers. The sound of a lullaby, faint and familiar, unsettling. Almost beautiful.
Gemma strains to hear. She sings along in her head. She crosses the room and lifts the window, even though it’s February, just enough to feel the goosebumps prick her skin.
Melissa Bowers currently writes from California, though she will always be a Midwesterner at heart. She is the first-place winner of The Writer magazine’s personal essay contest, a multi-prize winner of the 2019 Larry Brown Short Story Award, and a finalist for the 2020 Lamar York Short Fiction Prize as well as the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has also appeared in Writer’s Digest and HuffPost, among others, and is forthcoming in The Boston Globe Magazine. Find her on Twitter @MelissaBowers_, or read more at www.melissabowers.com.