|Posted by Aaron Dries on September 20, 2012 at 1:00 AM|
Prologue: An Evening in Washington State
July Twenty-Eight, 2007
The house was a moonlit carving in the dark. There were no chirping crickets, no birdsong—just winter silence. The sigh of trees. Stacy Norman slept inside, unaware of her role in The Forgiveness. She’d been chosen because she appeared innocent, but she would suffer because she’d committed the unpardonable crime of kindness.
Her murderer had appeared at her doorstep two months earlier, asking if a particular family lived there. Stacy had smiled at him and told the tall, deep-voiced man no. “Not much help to you, am I? Good luck, though,” she said, and closed the door, catching a quick glimpse of his smile.
This was the first of three visits he would pay to her house. The second was to scout for hiding places, surveying turns and locating the stairs, accumulating all the information he would need to make the third visit a simple, problem-free affair.
A breath of air through the house, coming from an open window somewhere—it had nothing to do with their entry. Stacy’s murderers had used the key under the doormat, which they had discovered on visit number two. Stacy would suffer because she was kind, but she would die because she was trusting.
The tinkle of ladles, suspended from the kitchen range.
It was a small, rented house on the outskirts of Preston—redbrick exterior and shingled roof that trembled when the winds blew hard. It was a long commute to work at the architecture firm in Seattle, but Stacy knew it was worth it. There in Preston she had privacy and silence, which was enough for her.
She used to be afraid of living alone but not anymore. The solitary life grew more and more inviting with each passing year, loneliness wearing thin. She didn’t own the little redbrick house, but that was okay. Renting taught her the value of patience, of working towards what you want. One day she would live in a home that she herself had designed, paid for and was proud of. It, too, would be on the fringe of a city surrounded by trees. And silence. Just the way she liked it.
Clocks ticked in the living room. Photographs of Stacy’s family back in Maine lined the walls, faces trapped under glass. A dog-eared copy of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues was bent over the arm of a chair. She was fifty pages from finishing.
Her diary sat on the desk in the study, an eagle feather marking her place. Her father had slipped it into her suitcase the day she had left home to study in Seattle. That had been six years ago.
Danny stayed over last night, read one entry. At first I didn’t want him to, but I gave in. Not to him, but to my damn hunger. I know that sounds stupid. Hunger. But I don’t know any other word for it. I’m not making excuses—it was nice. He was rougher than I like but what the hell, right? He made me coffee in the morning. I think I’m falling hard. I don’t know if I want that.
Stacy Norman, the pretty architect who walked the homes of others in her mind, who no longer feared the dark. Stacy who knew that time was short but life was long—that it was okay to be in love, but dangerous to fall. Stacy Norman slept with the knowledge that the world would be the same tomorrow: hard and lonely. She could live with that.
The two men were under her bed. They knew what time Stacy returned from work, what time to hide.
Once her breathing had slowed and sleep had snatched her away, they crawled out from under their hiding spot, Stacy’s gentle snores the soundtrack to their achievement. Their hearts were beating fast, excited. A little frightened. Stacy was their first.
Not a fingerprint was left behind; there were no stray hairs curled up on the floor. Not a trace. Just their heavy imprints on the carpet, disappearing in slow motion. They were careful. The musk of sweat-on-dried-sweat radiated from them. They both needed to piss.
Their breathing in the dark.
The man who had knocked on Stacy’s door and asked about the family was tall and thin, but full of wiry strength. His comrade was short and solid, a little overweight. Fitting under the bed had been a struggle. The tall man straightened up, looking enormous below the room’s low ceiling, stepped forward and flinched when his kneecap popped. The sound shattered the silence. Whatever control they thought they had, disappeared.
Stacy opened her eyes, bolted upright, the mattress creaking under her weight. She wasn’t afraid. The old house groaned at night and the trees outside often played music against the gutters. When she’d first moved in, such sounds would send her running from room to room, armed with a hand-me-down frying pan and her cell phone, searching for intruders who were not there. True, Maine had its fair share of trees, gutters, old redbrick houses—and intruders too—but this was the city. Her parents had cautioned her about home invasions and suburban drug crime in their thick, New England drawls. So when she heard those sounds in the night she often heard their voices too.
Stace, you got to keep the house bolted tight. Tight as a robin’s asshole.
“Jesus, Dad!” They had laughed.
Yessum, always ask who’s knocking before you go and open up that door.
Maybe we should get you a gun for Christmas.
“Ha, yeah right. There’s a spirited idea. No thanks, I think I’ll settle for the usual Sears socks and Barnes & Noble gift cards if that’s okay with you.”
Once Stacy had learned the intimate noises of her new home, her decision not to get that gun and to leave that spare key under the back door mat was a very deliberate one. She refused to live in fear anymore.
Stacy Norman would die because she was proud.
In the dim light she saw two white faces bleed out of the darkness. One smiled and the other looked sad. In the fleeting moment between seeing them and the pinprick stab of the needle in her neck, she recognized the faces for what they were.
Greek dramaturgical masks.
Comedy and Tragedy.
* * *
Five days passed. In North Bend, near the Snoqualmie region in upper Washington State, the shorter of the two men walked out of the house and dropped to his knees. He dug his fingers in the lawn, churning soil until its scent ran sweet. All of his life had been spent either tending to the land or farming animals. The smell of earth was home to him. He was gasping, eyes red from crying.
The trees shivered in the wind, their uppermost branches scratching at the grey belly of the sky. It was a bitter morning.
He was dressed in a bloodied apron, his cheeks smeared with grime.
A few minutes passed by and he heard the rear screen door slam behind him. Slow, deliberate steps drew close. He heard singing, soft and out of tune.
“‘Got me a wayward girl, cute as a bee. See-sawin’ across the universe and ending up with me…’”
The footsteps stopped behind him and the short man felt someone touch his shoulder. It was a soft, smooth hand, one which hadn’t spent its life tending to fields and farms. Rather, other more delicate matters. Now they both had calluses. They had been working on the girl for five days straight.
“‘…Packed our bags in two battered cases. Shot out of town past a sea of shocked faces…’”
There wasn’t enough light in the yard for the sun to cast the tall man’s shadow, but his friend, still on his knees, felt it over him anyway. They stood that way for some time, the tall man continuing to sing. Soft rain started to fall.
“‘…Down a road leadin’ home, just me and this girl. Who travelled the universe so I can show her my world…’”
Morning cartoons blared from inside the tall man’s house. There were no more screams.
“‘…Where people ain’t happy with the luck of the draw. Where the sick and the sad have drawn up next door. My old street ain’t a street no more. Just a place for the mad to live without law…’”
Stacy had been a little lamb, a thin mess of blood and bone wrapped in a woolen sweater. The tall man stopped singing and smiled. His tongue slid over his lips—they were dry and broken. His body was alive with tingles. He even felt dizzy.
He wanted to say the name out loud but didn’t dare. She was an architect, just like him. He had redesigned her for his purposes, for The Forgiveness.
Her name had a texture, a flavor to it, innocent but stern. Chocolate turning to charcoal.
Phlegm rattled in his throat and he forced the sticky wad down.
The two men were surrounded by trees, which didn’t judge or stare. This was the glory of inanimate things—you could always escape from them. People were harder. In a way, the trees were their allies. They could conceal certain things. Even them. They would have to be careful.
Rats swarmed among the bushes at the end of the yard. The glimmer of black eyes, tawny fur camouflaging with the deadfall. They chirped and squealed in their high-pitched way—it was painful to hear. Stacy’s cries had been easier to listen to; the tall man didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because he was grateful to Stacy for her sacrifice, and for the rats he felt nothing but disdain.
Vermin—disgusting little things. Those bastards could chew through anything with their razor teeth, and worse, they were too stupid to fear the traps he’d set, or the poisoned bait he left in the dankest corners of his house. He could hear them scurrying behind the walls at night, so close they might have been chewing inside his head. He had no idea how they had gotten in. Rats were sneaky.
The tall man’s hands weren’t shaking because of the cool, morning weather. They shook because he was excited. He could still remember the number of eyelashes Stacy had, and how they had felt in the hollow of his palm after he’d plucked them out. One by one.
“She suffered,” said the shorter, more solid murderer. His breath smelt of nicotine gum. Of the abattoir.
“Yeah.” The tall man had a faint Southern lilt to his voice, softened by his years in Washington State.
“I never thought you could feel so downright horrible.”
The taller man handed his friend a cigarette and a fifty-cent lighter that he’d bought at Ken’s Gas and Grocery in town. He didn’t smoke himself and had bought the Camels because he knew his comrade, his friend, would need them. Today more than any other time.
Bloody, soil-stained fingers held the cigarette over a wisp of flame. The shorter man spat out his gum and took a drag. He felt his lungs fill with smoke, held it. The tingle that reminded him of what a fool he’d been to quit in the first place. The short man paused and looked at the rats among the trees, waiting for nightfall, and exhaled. He thought of his wife back home in her bed. His knuckles hurt. Arthritis.
“Don’t worry,” the tall man said in his muddled accent. He lifted his hand and swatted a mosquito. A red star in the palm of his hand. He should have worn the bug dope, it was that time of year. “Next time will be less messy.”
* * *
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