I would do anything for her: anything. If it would help her, if it would save her, I would walk through fire – I would die for her – I would kill myself. I would kill anyone. For my beautiful Ann-Marie, I would do whatever I had to.
This, they tell me, is the problem. This is why she left me, why my beautiful Ann-Marie ran away: I love her too much.
The apartment's empty. That's fine. It's not like I don't know how to be alone.
Her smell still lingers – and I breathe deep before I fall asleep, nestled in the memory of her closeness – but her clothes are gone from the closet, her treasures are gone from the shelves. That's fine. They were nothing: items, fripperies. They were hers, and she loved them, but they don't matter.
The apartment's empty of her, the sounds of her living and moving and breathing; when I open my eyes she's not there, and I can't watch her, can't touch her. That's fine. Fine. It's not like I can't live without her; I managed fine before I met her, right? I managed fine when she went to the bathroom or took a shower. If I can do five minutes without her, I can do a lifetime. I don't need her.
Her purse is missing, her shoes aren't there beside the door –
I managed fine when she went out for work or groceries or her girls' nights out, but that's a lie. The familiar, aching fear shoots through me when I see the empty space beside the door, settles in my stomach and clenches my gut. Fear, not for myself, but for my beautiful, perfect Ann-Marie: visions of car crashes, muggers, rapists. She tries to run, to flee. Her toe catches between the bars of a drainage grate, breaks, splits the skin. It twists, catches: she's caught. She stumbles and falls, pulling against the strain of her semi-severed flesh; her face hits the street, splits open; she's crying, helpless, tears mixing with her blood, salt in the wounds –
I fumble for my phone, call her. I try ten times, ring for ring for ring, but she doesn't pick up. She's not going to. That's fine – fine. Of course she's not answering – it doesn't mean anything – she's got caller ID, after all. It doesn't mean anything. It's fine.
I call Lita instead.
She picks up on the second ring: “George?”
“Yeah – hi – you seen Ann-Marie lately?”
A long silence, a muffled noise on the other end of the line. Then I hear Lita blowing smoke against the receiver. “Give it up, honey.”
“You don't understand –” – visions of her wrist, broken from the fall, cold and clammy and unnaturally twisted, the fingers twitching occasionally but not obeying her commands; with the other hand she tries to loose the squelching wet mass that is her broken toe from the grate, but can't; her eyes are wide and bright with pain and fear, hopeless, helpless, despairing; and the man she was fleeing is walking slower now, sure, confident, and laughing, laughing. I grip the phone harder. “Is she there with you?”
Lita's fingernails click against the plastic, resonating in my ear. “Why, you wanna come see her? She's not here.”
“I just –”
“You gotta stop calling her, George. She can report you, you know.”
I take a quick breath, then a deep one, and let it go. The hard knot of fear in my stomach is unraveling, and I release it with my breath. Lita knows I tried to call Ann-Marie; that means Lita's seen her. She's probably there right now.
“I just wanted to make sure she's all right,” I say. My voice sounds small, even to me.
“She's fine,” says Lita. “Not that it's any of your business.”
I sleep fitfully, dreaming of my Ann-Marie. My dreams are half memory: the softness of her hair against my hand, the quick upward tilt of her head when she sees me. Her eyes are dull, afraid and uncaring. She half-crouches, her hand on the door for balance, struggling with her shoes; and I go to help her, to hold her up and help her stand and keep her fingernails from bending back and snapping off against the hard stiff wall of the shoe when she fights with it – and I remember that she brushed off my hand, angry, but in the dream she sinks down and looks away when I touch her arm, quiet, acquiescent. And I know she'll stay, this time. But then the dream shifts, changes, and she's gone after all.
When I wake in the night, smothered by the heavy darkness of our thick winter blanket, my eyes slide over to her side of the bed out of habit – wanting to look at her, touch her, be sure she's there – and find it empty. I panic, freeze for an instant, listening: did she go to the bathroom? I stay where I am, remembering her anger the last time I followed her out of bed; but the apartment is silent, dark, empty. Even the tenants upstairs are sleeping.
I sit up, grab the alarm clock from the nightstand: it's late. Her side of the bed hasn't been slept in. Where is she? I try to think: is she at the bar with her friends? Did she go out tonight? It's late – shouldn't she be back by now?
My phone's halfway open already by the time my hand freezes, because I remember: she's not coming home tonight. Or ever.
And I can't call her.
The image of a semi-truck crashing into her, brakes squealing, as she crosses the street: she looks up, headlights shining bright as panic in her eyes, but it's too late to move. Sixty thousand pounds of metal and plastic and cargo slam into her chest, burst open her ribs, send her flying – trailing blood in the air – until she skids limply across the rough asphalt, scraping open what's left of her skin, eroding the bones that are exposed; and the truck hurtles over her, crushing her spine, before finally jerking to a halt above her. The driver, scared or malicious, reverses back over her again; again and again, forwards and back, he grinds her down into the road beneath his wheels, flattening her, breaking her; and her brain is still intact, her eyes are still bright, her labored broken breath is hissing with agony – but I can't call her.
I can't even call Lita, not now, not in the middle of the night. She's the last tie I have to Ann-Marie – she still picks up her phone when I call, doesn't she? – so I can't lose her. Can't scare her off.
I glare at the fuzzy red LEDs on the clock, willing it to be morning. But the digits are obstinate, unmoving; it isn't even four yet. I have to make it through the rest of the night. Somehow, I have to fall asleep again.
I take Ann-Marie's pillow and squeeze it tightly to my chest, clinging to it like a kid with a teddy bear. I realize I'm shaking, maybe even crying a bit – how am I supposed to sleep when I can see her dying in front of me, her blood congealing into the tire's tread, her spine snapping again and again under the pressure? It's so real. I hug the pillow tighter, reminding myself I can't call her no matter what, can't make sure she's all right. Can't give in to temptation.
Even her smell is almost gone, by now.
The night crawls on, second by second; the truck moves forwards and backwards across her, again and again. I squeeze the pillow as tightly as I can, and try to forget I ever cared about her.
It's not working.
My days are empty, full of hours I don't know how to fill. I still do the same things, more or less – work, sleep, eat, dishes, groceries – but the time I spent watching Ann-Marie is left empty, unused.
Her income was always steadier than mine, and without her I'm living off of ramen and TV dinners. I can be in and out of the store in less than half an hour, loaded with tasteless calories: quick to make, quick to eat, quick to clean up. It doesn't matter; it's just food. The time I spent watching Ann-Marie chop vegetables goes to waste.
I should be working, I know, in this extra time. Instead I stare blankly out the window, restlessly tapping my fingers against my legs, waiting for the empty hours to pass.
Instead of watching Ann-Marie I think about her. I remember her perfect, delicate fingers; and I worry that she'll slice them open, cut them off, when she cooks by herself. The knife could slip out of her hand; the decisive chop with which she carved up bell peppers could sever the tendons of her wrist, and when she tries to regain control her grip could close around the blade rather than the handle; her palm could be slashed into ragged dangling strips of flesh, the blood pooling up and running out, making the knife too slippery to hold –
But I don't call her. Instead I call Lita, once a week.
She was always Ann-Marie's friend, not mine. Really, I could never stand her. I still can't. I hate our little conversations, hate the way she talks, the things she says, that irritating click of her painted nails on the phone.
But she still picks up when I call.
She hardly tells me anything. She doesn't want me to know any details about Ann-Marie's life. That's fine; it doesn't matter. I don't need to know. I don't care. I just need to know if she's okay.
Lita figures if she tells me that much, once a week, I'll stay in line.
Every time I brush my teeth or take a shower my eyes sweep over the broken lock and the place outside the door where I sat, silently, whenever Ann-Marie had a bath. I'd sit there and listen to the sounds the water made when she moved. One time the sounds stopped, and I was afraid she'd fallen asleep – and she might slip into the water, and breathe it in, and when it bubbled up in her lungs she'd drown – and when the door wouldn't open I hurled my weight against it, and broke the lock. My Ann-Marie screamed when I came in. She was surprised, she said, but she sounded scared or hurt, so I went to make sure she was all right; but there was nothing there to be scared of.
She told me never to come in like that again when she was bathing – maybe she was upset, but I was so relieved to see she was all right that I hardly noticed. I did what she asked, anyway. I still sat outside the door and listened, just to be sure, but I didn't surprise her by coming in again.
Somehow the lock never got fixed, but that didn't really matter; it was only us living here, after all.
Ann-Marie's in trouble.
I know this, suddenly, the way I knew when we lived together – when she went out and the door shut behind her and I knew I'd never see her again, something would happen, she'd never come home; she'd be hurt, she'd die; and the last I'd have to remember her by would be that final creak and slam of the door. With that same certainty, that same fear, I know my Ann-Marie is in trouble now.
It's 11:14; she'd be at work now. Her coworker, I can't remember his name, the guy with reddish hair and the beard, the one she used to tell those funny stories about – I must have heard the peanut story a dozen times – he's going to kill her.
His cubicle is right near hers, and they're always swapping anecdotes. He's always talking to her, looking at her, leering at her; he always wanted her, my beautiful Ann-Marie. I know he did. She turned him down, of course she did, because of me – but today he's just going to snap; he can't take it anymore. She's so beautiful, so perfect; she's everything he ever dreamed of. He's going to drag her out behind the building on their lunch break and force himself on her, leave rough bruises all over her fragile skin – and if she doesn't submit to him he'll smash the bottle of whatever he's drinking against the wall, and he'll take the glass shards and cut out her eyes, flay her arms, slit her arteries – he'll cut the areolae from her breasts, to keep as macabre medallions of his conquest – and she'll die like that, in fear and pain – but he'll take her before the blood loss does, the spiteful bastard, exulting in the sight of her stripped and bloody and broken body all riddled with holes beneath him.
My breath catches in my throat, knowing this, seeing it – my fists are shaking with hatred and fear – and I call Ann-Marie at work.
No caller ID there. She actually picks up, and answers, and I hear her voice for the first time in months.
In my head I'm running through the familiar script: Where are you? Who's with you? Is everything okay? Baby, that guy who works with you – you know, what's-his-name with the peanuts – stay the hell away from him. I'm fucking serious, okay? Don't you fucking go near him. But I haven't heard her voice in months, and it shocks me out of my terror.
I'd do anything for her – and she doesn't want me to call her, doesn't want me to talk to her, doesn't want to hear my voice ever again. I hesitate a long moment, wonder if she can hear me breathing, and finally hang up.
And call Lita.
“She's doing fine,” she says. “Just peachy.”
“No,” I say, “no, she's not. Can you call her at work for me? Look, there's this coworker – peanut guy – you know peanut guy, right? He's going to hurt her, listen to me, you've got to call her and warn her – she won't listen to me – I can't call her – but it's an emergency, Lita, you've got to call her, he'll kill her –”
“Don't even start this shit with me, George.”
“You're not listening to me – she's going to die –”
Lita sighs, blows smoke, clicks her nails against the phone: the familiarly grating sounds of Lita. “Okay, hon,” she says, “do you really need me to spell it out for you? One: you're a crazy bastard and everything you say is a lie. Two: threatening her isn't going to bring her back. Three: Toby doesn't even work there anymore. Four: I'm not going to help you violate your restraining order. Five: the crazy bullshit calls have got to stop. I'm not calling her, you're not calling her, you're not calling me with this crazy bullshit anymore. Six: even if she died, it wouldn't make any difference to you. You're so not invited to her funeral.” She takes a deep breath, a drag on her cigarette, and blows more smoke at my ear. “I don't know how I can make this clearer for you, but even if you were right – even if Toby came back right now and shot her dead, for some inexplicable reason – it still wouldn't be any of your business. Got it?”
Confusion and panic fight for dominance, and in the end confusion wins. I listen to dead air for a while, trying to figure out how to respond; eventually my brain switches tactics, and I say, “You're a good friend, Lita.”
“No,” I agree. “Not mine.”
Toby – his name was Toby. Toby Manchester. I remember his name now.
I look him up: he's living two states away now, and he's married to a woman named Rachel. They've got two kids – Lexie and Toby Jr. – and they're both working full-time. I have to admit it doesn't look likely.
All the same, I call Ann-Marie one more time, a few days later – just to hear her voice, just to be sure she's still alive. I hang up as soon as she answers.
When I'm rinsing off the fork from my cup-noodle dinner, my eyes brush across the potted lavender plant Ann-Marie forgot to take with her when she went. It's dead now, stiff and brown and shriveled. I didn't water it enough; I didn't bother watering it at all, at first.
It's still sitting where she left it, by the window. I should've gotten rid of it as soon as it withered, but I didn't. I still can't bring myself to throw it out.
It would be blooming now, I realize.
“Look,” says Lita, “this is getting embarrassing. Not that it wasn't before, of course.” Smoke. “I can't keep having her ex call me.”
I feel numb. Lita wants to cut Ann-Marie out of my life, even the empty shell of her that's left. Even just the knowledge if she's alive. But I can't lose her. I can't.
“Listen,” she says, “I haven't told you this, and maybe I shouldn't, but I'm hoping it'll help you give up. She's been seeing someone. Guy named Joe. He's a plumber.” Her voice is too fast, but she stops herself there. More carefully, she says, “They're engaged, actually.”
“Who is he?” My voice cracks.
I can almost hear her shrug. “Shouldn't matter to you. Look, Georgie, I'm just saying: she's moved on. You should, too. Get over her.” She snorts a little, almost laughing: “I'd tell you to find someone new, but there's not a girl in the world I'd wish you on.”
“Who is he?”
“You gonna calm down, or do I have to call the police?”
I quiet down, fight against the panic. It's a struggle to keep it down. I feel like I'm going to vomit. My knuckles are white on the phone, but my voice is calm, quiet, not shaking. Not shaking. “No. No, it's fine.” She belongs with me, but it's fine. She's not mine. She can do what she wants. It's fine. “I'm just worried. Does he check out? He – what if he – I'm just worried he might hurt her.”
Visions of a stranger with her, plumbing her, hurting her. Joe's a wife-beater, a liar, a manipulator. A serial killer. When he's had his fun with her he'll tie her up in his basement, torture her, drive nails into the soles of her feet; he'll flay her alive; he'll butcher her like a pig. He'll stuff her corpse and keep it there, a doll, a trophy, the star of his collection. My perfect, precious Ann-Marie, one of fifteen murdered wives, with glass buttons instead of eyes.
Lita just laughs. “You're one to talk. You hurt Ann-Marie more than anyone else.”
That stings. It was meant to. Lita's a right asshole sometimes, and I'd never put up with her shit if I didn't need her. But she's all I've got left.
“Look, honey, you know what your problem is?” Click-click-click. “You don't trust her. You never did.”
“I'd trust Ann-Marie with anything –”
“Yeah, sure. Just not herself.” Click-click-click-click-click. “You were always watching for her to screw it up somehow. Trying to protect her from the whole world, when you were the worst thing in it. You didn't even let her put on her shoes without watching, for chrissakes, like she was gonna strangle herself with the laces or something.” Click-click-click. “She's stronger than you think. She doesn't need you to protect her.” Click-click. “You ever think about letting her make her own mistakes? She's a person, Georgie. She's not your pet.”
I struggle to move my tongue, to push past the lump in my throat, but my voice cracks again anyway. “When's the wedding?”
“Doesn't matter. You're not invited.”
“I'm done with this,” says Lita. “Don't call me again.”
I can't find Joe.
I don't know his last name, where he met her, what he looks like, anything. All I know is a plumber named Joe, and that's not enough. I don't know who he is.
I don't know if he's safe.
I can't find him.
I find myself watching the phone five minutes out of ten, wanting to call Lita, wanting to call Ann-Marie. I spend more time watching the phone than I ever did using it.
It occurs to me that maybe Joe's not even real; maybe Lita made him up, just so she'd have an excuse to stop talking to me. Maybe she and Ann-Marie made him up together.
Not calling. Not calling. Not calling.
Watching the phone.
Who the fuck is Joe? I can't find him.
Months later, I call Ann-Marie's extension at work again. I want to tell her – I don't know. I just want to talk to her again. To hear the sound of her voice.
She doesn't answer.
Instead, it's a girl named Kelly. Some voice I've never heard before.
And Ann-Marie is gone.