When she was twenty-one, Mrs. Voss visited a tarot reader at one of the Arts and Culture festivals that a local ladies’ society used to hold on the shore of Lake Michigan some weekends in early summer. The day had been tremendously hot for the season. She can’t remember the future, but she remembers the heat: the sleeveless aubergine blouse she wore, the sweat plastering it to her spine, and the cards sticking to the tarot reader’s wide, brown, ring-heavy fingers. He made a cross on his velvet tray and announced the cards’ names in a tone of sterile surprise, as though they were friends encountered in an unexpected place—the funeral of a casual acquaintance, or a train station on Sunday morning
She thinks of it now, thirty years later, as she sits at her kitchen table in a quilted housecoat, sorting the contents of her new tenant’s wastebasket. The wet heat of that summer afternoon seems like something she dreamt; it’s January in Chicagoland, and her venerable three-story Victorian catches a bad wind from the north. The vinyl tablecloth, usually tacky as spilled cola, has gone brittle with the cold. She lays out her tenant’s detritus—the drugstore receipts and trifold bus schedules, index cards, a carbon-paper Hold Mail form never filed with the post office—and struggles to keep it from sliding away.
But still she thinks of the tarot, because like any divination, her wastebasket excavation tells her only what she already knows.
The Post Office form: her tenant hails from Los Angeles. Bus schedules: “I threw a dart at a map,” she’d told Mrs. Voss, “and caught a bus to the place where it landed.” Index cards: the tenant had also admitted that she taught comparative literature. Mrs. Voss runs her finger over lists of fairytale motifs and classifications, animal husbands, wives with secrets.
Sighing, she turns to the ghosts.
“What do you make of it?” she asks, getting up to pour another cup of coffee.
The first ghost perches in his usual spot on top of an aluminum bookcase, empty but for three or four cookbooks that once belonged to Mrs. Voss’s mother. He wears his favorite pea coat, khaki wool, the sleeves dripping phantom puddles onto her marbled linoleum. His eyes glow red.
She’s a student, he says promptly. Look at her suitcase. She doesn’t travel much but she intended to when she bought it. She thought she was going to write a book, present at conferences, take a job somewhere glamorous and cosmopolitan. For some reason her plans have changed.
Mrs. Voss brings her coffee back to the table and sets it between two stacks of receipts, careful not to spill. As she settles into her chair, straightening the robe across her breasts, she glances at the second ghost, who hovers at the back door.
This is how they’ll catch you, the dead woman says, all bitter satisfaction. The light from a streetlamp cuts through her on its way through the door’s lace-covered window. She is skeletally thin, her pink nails like talons at the tips of her fingers. Her name was Victoria Lee, but she went by Tori. You’re going to unravel, Pearl Voss, once someone starts shifting through your garbage.
Tug, tug, says the first ghost, whose name was Saul. He taps an immaterial fist against the bookcase. I almost unraveled her.
“Yes, and look where it got you,” Mrs. Voss mutters. The viciousness of the dead, their smug self-assurance, always catches her off guard. It’s worst when the two of them are together.
Sometimes there’s a third ghost, another former tenant: Gunther Olson, a pharmacist at the drugstore down the street, who appears in his black work slacks and a gray sweater. He lived here longer than either of the others, moving in before Tori Lee and leaving shortly after Saul. But he rarely shows himself now. Mrs. Voss isn’t certain that he’s dead. Just moved back to Chicago proper, she supposes—trickled into the city like water down a storm drain. That’s the way of it. Snowmelt runs into the lake, people run into the city.
Especially the ones you’d prefer to keep close.
It all goes to show, Mrs. Voss thinks, you can’t be too careful about who’s sleeping under your roof.
She was reluctant to take another tenant—had put it off until the last possible moment, until the bills spilled out of the tidy paper wallet she’d bought to contain them and the gas company began to leave ominous voicemails invoking the fifteenth of March. And even then, she only advertised the third floor, a long, irregular space with a low ceiling and deep dormer windows. The second floor, Tori Lee’s and then Saul’s apartment, she keeps like a museum, dusting around the boxes of computer cords and soundcards and God knows what else. She even set a Christmas card on the mantle when it arrived from a college friend who hadn’t heard the news.
But the third floor had belonged to Gunther, who isn’t dead, as far as Mrs. Voss knows. He’s simply gone. This made his bed fair game.
Mrs. Voss had posted the ad from one of the ancient donated Macintoshes at the public library. By the time she reached home, wet through with slush and the stink of bus diesel, there was already a message on her voicemail. Karolin Dupre, from California. Karolin paid the first month’s rent with a check drawn on a Chicago credit union, a starter with a handwritten address and a marbled background in slick, primary red. When Mrs. Voss saw it sitting on her counter, she mistook it for a raw steak.
“You seem to have left in a hurry,” she’d said, folding the check and tucking it into a plastic coin purse.
“There was an accident,” Karolin replied. And that was all she would say.
A Los Angeles address. A bus schedule from Nebraska. Notes for teaching a scrap of English folklore, a story called “Mr. Fox.”
Curiosity, Karolin had written—quickly, smudging the blue ink with the heel of her hand. Rewarded, or punished?
The ghosts fade gradually, like spilled milk soaking into carpet. Mrs. Voss listens to the wind gather in the alley. Then, no more violently than if she were batting a fly, she sweeps the table clear. The papers scythe and pinwheel their way to the floor. The tablecloth crackles with static.
January stretches into February. The sky feels low and thin, like someone has placed the city in a vacuum jar and started pumping out the air. The wind comes not at all or in sudden, solitary gusts that wrench shingles from garage roofs. An hour’s thaw one Tuesday afternoon washes the previous autumn’s leaves from the gutter, as though they’ve just fallen from a species of oily fossilized tree.
One morning, before she heads to her job tending the register at a Half Price Books, Karolin stands over the sink in Mrs. Voss’s kitchen, eating dry cereal from the bag. It’s an arrangement Mrs. Voss as tacitly cultivated. She remembers when Saul and Gunther would join her for breakfast, one or the other leaning on the aluminum bookshelf for the sake of space, talking animatedly about computers or botany—Saul’s and Gunther’s hobbies, respectively. Mrs. Voss never pushed herself to contribute to those conversations. It was enough to hear the cheerful gravel of male voices as she sipped her coffee and nibbled at a hard-boiled egg. And if it meant keeping a closer eye on Saul—and a closer eye on Gunther keeping a closer eye on Saul—then so much the better.
Karolin has come in from the alley, where she was either taking a phone call or pursuing a terse, fragmented argument with herself. She still wears her plush mercury-blue coat, unzipped; the tip of her nose is red. A leaf has caught in the crisp wolf-colored hair over one temple. It dangles gruesomely, like a flayed skin.
“Have you noticed,” she says suddenly, the way other people would say I’ve just noticed, “all the angels on this block?”
It takes Mrs. Voss a moment to realize she means the statues. It’s true, there must be three or four of them in half a mile, starting with the magnificently bitchy Saint Michael in front of the Catholic Church—nearly one hundred years old, shaking the shaft of a decapitated spear at the knot of serpents beneath his feet. There’s a saccharine thing of plaster and wire in a neighbor’s yard, and then a pair of bronze wings atop a granite pedestal near the drugstore where Gunther worked.
“Makes you feel watched. Or tattled on, like they’re going to go running to daddy.” The young woman frowns at a handful of sugared oats and marshmallows. “Want to know my least favorite story about angels?”
“I suppose,” Mrs. Voss says doubtfully. Theology is hardly her strong suit. She knows guardian angels and avenging angels—enough to know that neither are Biblical—and the angels at the nativity, and the one who holds a flaming sword at the gate of Eden. In her experience, angels offer little to dislike.
She crushes the thought, pushing her thumb through her egg’s shell with an airy crackle.
“It’s Lot,” Karolin says. “Lot, who invites a pair of angels to stay the night at his house, because he hears they plan to sleep in the city square and he knows it isn’t safe.”
“What city in this?”
“Sodom. The infamous city of the plains.”
“A bad neighborhood, one imagines.”
Karolin smiles—an odd smile, unfolding from the top of her mouth, like she needs to pull strings to get it assembled. “Right. Makes the West Side look like a retirement community. Now do you want to hear the story?”
Impatience. It leaves a bad taste on the back of Mrs. Voss’s teeth. Saul and Gunther were never impatient with her—not while they were alive, at any rate. Tori Lee, the old bitch, she had galloped on with her tabloid gossip and piecemeal local history, the boring interminable exploits of her boring interminable family, whose names she expected Mrs. Voss to keep sorted. Karolin’s impatience stings more, perhaps because it seems well-intentioned. Slicing her egg, Mrs. Voss tries to picture her tenant at the lecture podium: the coat replaced with wool and tweed, the wolfish hair brushed into a bun. A bit of lipstick on the cracked marionette mouth. Lip gloss, perhaps; Karolin can’t be much past thirty, for all her performance of world-weary exhaustion.
“You called it your least favorite,” Mrs. Voss says.
“Yes. I don’t know.” Karolin rubs at her jawline. “Maybe I’m missing something. Almost certainly I am. But anyway, in the middle of the night, Lot wakes and finds a mob of Sodomites hammering at his door. They want him to bring out his guests, who they may or may not know to be angels, so they can have their way with them.” She pauses for effect, or to lick a line of sugar from her thumb. “Instead, Lot offers to fetch his virgin daughters.”
“For a rapist mob.” Karolin turns and rinses her sugary fingertips under the faucet. “What the hell, right? Who makes that kind of trade?”
Who indeed. But more to the point—and if Tori Lee were here, hovering before the door like a vicious curtain, she would certainly ask—who looks at statues of angels and contemplates rapist mobs?
“Did they take it?” Mrs. Voss raises a coin of egg to her lips. “The mob, did they accept his offer?”
“No,” Karolin says. “No, they were all struck blind.”
A sharp crack echoes in the alley: an icicle breaking off a next-door neighbor’s fence. Before Mrs. Voss can say anything about divine intervention or averted crises, Karolin sighs.
“I had a dream last night. I mean a nightmare. And not only last night; I guess you’d call it recurring.” Drying her fingers one-by-one on the tea towel, not meeting Mrs. Voss’s eyes. “I dream that I open the door here, onto the alley, and there’s a mob on the other side. All of them wearing masks—foxes, horses, birds. Or maybe they have animal heads.”
“It must be those fairytales you’re reading.”
Immediately, Mrs. Voss wants to shake herself for saying something so stupid—at once too ignorant and too knowing.
But “Maybe it is,” says Karolin Dupre. She catches sight of her reflection in the window and snatches the dead leaf from her hair.
It isn’t the fairytales, though. Because one afternoon, as she shifts briskly through Karolin’s bag of recycling, Mrs. Voss finds one.
A horse head. Or a wolf. It shouldn’t be so hard to tell, Mrs. Voss thinks, carrying it into her parlor, where the light is better. The mask has a predator’s eyes, forward-facing, curved rather than round. But the nose is long and broad, the eyelashes formed of black wire stuck into the gray-yellow newsprint. The thing has an awful smell, richer and wetter than rotting paper.
She holds it up to the lamp, turning it this way and that. Nothing seems to be written on it. No word of warning or explanation.
Strange, that that’s where her mind should go—warnings and explanations. Of what?
What has Karolin Dupre done?
She’s stopped going to work, Mrs. Voss knows. Three days in a row starting on Thursday; three missed shifts, one on a weekend, and that can’t bode well for her continued employment. What she does instead, well, that’s a bit harder to work out. She thumps down the stairs every morning, scarfs down her sugary cereal, then thunders back into the attic apartment. Once there, she must barely move. Mrs. Voss doesn’t hear her footsteps.
So. What has she done?
Another thought treads on the heels of the first, and Mrs. Voss finds her fingers slipping on the lamp chain as she tugs it dark: What if it’s for you?
What the hell. She needs a drink.
She stumbles into the kitchen, tosses the mask on a chair and crouches at the cabinet below the sink. Bleach, vinegar, household cleansers in clouded plastic and rusting tin—there, in back, the bottle of brandy. Her glasses are in one of the cupboards, too high to reach without a stool, so she dries a mug from the dishrack, splashes liquor over the bottom.
Standing at the faucet, Mrs. Voss sips her lukewarm brandy and tries to think.
There were boys, weren’t there, who used to mill about the sidewalk out front? She never saw much of them, but she heard their cackling and their skateboard wheels. Saul would stand on the porch and talk to them sometimes, trading baseball trivia, laughing at the rude pictures they drew on the pavement. She sees even less of them these days—suspects they’re all indoors with videogames. Would they play such a prank on her new tenant? Are they angry that there is a new tenant?
Mrs. Voss grimaces. Well, they’re not alone.
It has been easy with Tori Lee. She was old when she moved into the second-floor apartment, old and dying of some operatic lung condition. The coughing woke Mrs. Voss regularly at midnight and three in the morning, hours she associated with witchcraft. But the money was worth it—the pearls and the silver and the oxycodone in the dresser, not the paltry checks Tori Lee’s nieces sent every month—and she’d planned to let nature take its course. Tori Lee had spoiled that plan, griping after skipped pills and a missing bracelet. Only for a moment, though; the pillow was right there.
A hired company took care of the closets, and Mrs. Voss cleaned out the dresser, and Tori Lee’s nieces had her buried in the oldest section of Holy Angels cemetery, where the graves predated statehood.
She hadn’t wanted to lose Saul—not in that way. Saul with his morning monologues over toast and eggs, the neighborly banter, the easy laugh. Saul, also and unfortunately, with the keen observation, the passion for minutiae. The stray thread tugged until it unraveled.
Afterward, she’d had to pay a young man with a landscaping business to load a pair of hard-shell suitcases into his truck, dump them in the river north of the airport. Gunther took off not long after—no warning, no explanation, just the last month’s rent on her counter.
No, she thinks, gasping a little as the brandy burns against her tonsils: None of this is what she wanted. So it’s no good punishing her, is it, with wolf heads and wolf-headed strangers under her roof?
The counter lurches beneath her hand. A vibration ripples through the air, as though something heavy has come crashing to the floor in the next room, but there’s no sound—only the cold wet thudding behind her ribs. Mrs. Voss turns with a question poised on her lips, but it isn’t Saul seated at the table.
“It is not so, it was not so.” The pharmacist practically shimmers with health, like a traveler just returned from a more hospitable climate. Color in his cheeks, collar open and sleeves cuffed low on his forearms, showing bands of brown skin dusted with clear white hairs. Is that what you’ll say, Mrs. Voss? Do you always believe your own story?
“I don’t know what you mean.” She sets the coffee mug in the sink.
Gunther scoffs. But Tori Lee, standing at the back door, raises her pink-taloned hands and chuckles—a laugh like broken glass.
Not to worry, Pearl Voss, she says. There are more secrets in this house than yours.
That evening, Mrs. Voss carries the mask upstairs. She is surprised at herself: it isn’t like her to bother her tenants. Certainly she never set foot on the third floor when Gunther Olson lived there.
But then, he hadn’t given her reason.
The skylight over the uncarpeted landing illuminates a disaster scene, like footage from the wake of a hurricane: naked linoleum littered with beer cans, notebooks, boxes from feminine hygiene products and T.V. dinners, clouded-amber graham cracker sleeves, a spent lighter. A suitcase stands on the topmost step, the expensive rollaway that Saul had first noticed, its zippers open and its gray lining hanging out like a drawn man’s stomach. Mrs. Voss steps around it and firmly knocks on the door.
For a moment, nothing. Then a dry ululation. “Come in.”
The door swings into a gasp of arctic cold. Mrs. Voss shudders, jaw snapping like a mousetrap. Something is terribly wrong—the heater vents are blocked, or else a window is broken. But nothing obvious strikes her eye.
A beige space heater stands on the floor by the bed, where Karolin huddles in her mercury-colored coat. She cradles an empty Jim Beam bottle between her thighs. At the sound of the door closing, she sits up and peers out of the coat’s fur-lined hood.
“Heh,” she says, blinking slowly. “You’re not what I was expecting.”
Mrs. Voss folds her arms around herself. She feels the vibration of her shivering muscles under her own palms, like putting her hand against a car engine. The sensation makes her want to vomit.
“What were you expecting?”
The younger woman barks out another laugh, a cheerless crackle visible in the frigid air. She rocks back on the bed and drags a pillow over her face. Mrs. Voss notes black mascara stains on the diamond-patterned case, and darker spots that may be saliva or blood.
What the hell. She wishes the ghosts were here—yes, even Saul the Unraveler, even Tori Lee and her shriveled, poisonous mouth—someone who might know where to begin with this hopeless fairytale errand. Gingerly, she sits on the edge of the bed, both legs to one side of the space heater, and rests the mask on her knees. “Miss Dupre. Please. Tell me what this is.”
“Don’t know what it is.”
“Look at it.”
Karolin lowers the pillow. Her cheeks are shiny, burnt-looking, the skin beneath the eyes almost translucent. “I don’t know,” she says, pronouncing each word with exaggerated distinctness. “I found it behind the headboard.”
“Was it put there for you?”
“Only if you put it there for me.” She bares her teeth. “Did you?”
Mrs. Voss shudders. Karolin’s breath smells like sugar and rot. “You dreamt it. What does it mean?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
She ponders this. Could Karolin be telling the truth? That would make the mask—what?—some curious breed of dead letter. Recipient not at this address. Please return to sender. And there’s the rub. What manner of creature would she find, if she could trace the mask to its maker? What manner of creature went sticking its thumb into Karolin’s dreams, to emerge with such a black and juicy plum?
Mrs. Voss sets the mask on the floor beside the space heater. It wobbles a little, balances on one cheek, as though the ghostly lupine-equine is cocking its head at her. She glares at it as she sits up and plants her hands on the mattress on either side of her body. Of one thing she is certain; she refuses to leave this apartment as ignorant as she entered.
“Tell me about Los Angeles, then.”
Karolin flops back on the bed with a grunt. “My advisor wanted to have an affair,” she says—flatly, like this is the most boring story in the world. “We had drinks one night after a meeting and he got handsy in the parking lot. Acted bewildered when I pushed him off. A few days later, before I could get a handle on that particular crock of shit, I had a scary moment on the sidewalk in front of a frat house. Twice in one week, because fuck me, that’s why.” At last a bit of animation: she punctuates this pronouncement with a fig thrown at the ceiling, or perhaps God. “Christopher, of course, had nothing to say about any of it.”
Christopher. So that was her man’s name. Mrs. Voss amends her guess about the vulgar gesture’s recipient. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“I mean, I’m sorry he wasn’t more understanding.” She looks down at her hands and is briefly taken aback by the blue nails pressed into the red and orange lozenges of the bedsheets. She had forgotten the chill. “How did the accident happen?”
Too bold? Karolin’s eyes open and she raises her eyebrows—almost a look of apology. “He was drunk,” she says, sounding surprised to hear herself answering. “He drove drunk and missed a curve in the foothills. The whole car was on fire before the paramedics could get him out.”
Mrs. Voss licks her lips. Her next words are a whisper.
“Why was he drunk?”
The sound Karolin makes, deep in the back of her throat, is nearly a growl. It changes as the air rises in her mouth, becoming a wet, scornful huff. Like Tori Lee preparing to spit a bit of lung out with her usual inanities. But no, the comparison is unjust: Mrs. Voss would like to imagine Karolin is choking on something she carries much deeper than her viscera.
“We argued. I was trying to talk to him and we argued.” She doesn’t close her eyes but she turns her head, hiding her face in the coat’s hood. “It happens. It wasn’t my fault.”
Mrs. Voss looks down at the mask beside her feet. Then what was? she wonders.
She tries to put it out of her mind. She tosses the mask in the garbage, buries it in coffee grounds and used tissues, and doesn’t return to the third floor. Karolin’s trash becomes less and less informative; she starts to leave the house for ten, twelve hours at a time, coming home in the dark stinking of ashtrays and cheap beer. The job at Half Price Books is long gone.
Still, the rent check doesn’t bounce. February turns into March and the gas company doesn’t shut off the heat. Mrs. Voss thanks God for little favors.
Then one day, dusting the second floor apartment, she finds a notebook. It’s pressed behind the radiator on the landing, as though someone tried to discard it on their way out the door. The notebook is a spiral-bound slab of cheap, wide-ruled pages with rounded corners, the kind you can buy for a quarter at the supermarket. The pages are scrawled in ballpoint, blue ink between the paper’s thick blue lines.
In the dream, Mrs. Voss reads, I’m following him as he rides to the edge of town on a pure white horse. He wears an old-fashioned suit. The road is brick and gravel, lined with brick houses. There are gaps and stops, like cuts in a film, where I can’t remember walking. At the edge of town, there is a field, and in the field, and there are figures in masks with animal faces. Or maybe they aren’t masks. What they are, I can’t even describe. But he gets off the horse. He takes off his jacket and drapes it over the horse’s back and sets his hat on top. He kneels and unties his shoes. The people in masks watch, standing in their strange half-circle. There’s a cold wind. Then he comes to them.
Mrs. Voss sits on the armchair in the second-floor living room. She has just finished polishing the sideboard, the one piece of furniture that’s worth the wax. The smells of citrus and almond oil and the physical exertion usually settle her mind, but now her hands shake as she reads.
I don’t know how to describe what it is that happens. Not a murder, at least not that I see, although I look away long before what seems to be the end. Not a rape, at least not in the ordinary sense. The whole thing is so damnably silent. The masked people touch him and their—The word “hands” is crossed out, but no other word replaces it—raise purple welts on his skin. Then the skin starts to rip. His wrists are bound to two stakes in the earth. I see it when his left arm tears off, the sudden slackening of the rope. Sometime after that that I turn away.
A blank page. Mrs. Voss flips through the leaves until the blue ballpoint resumes. The pages in this part of the notebook feel soft and faintly greasy, as though something has rotted between them.
Whatever it is keeps happening. I called it silent, just now, but that isn’t quite right. I can’t hear anything like a human voice, no moan or grunt or even labored breathing. But I hear a wet, squishy, meaty sound, unattended by anything else. A little while later, it falls silent. Truly silent. I look up and there’s nothing. Just corn a bit less than knee high.
She closes the notebook. The ghosts sit on the couch across from her like a pair of awkward visitors. A stain has appeared on Tori Lee’s nightgown, black and foul, dribbling down between her pendulous breasts. Saul’s left eye gleams more dully than the right, an effect not unlike a dead headlight.
“She’s guilty of something,” Mrs. Voss says. “She won’t admit to killing him, but she knows she hurt him. Or she let him be hurt.”
Karolin this, Karolin that. Karolin’s fairytales and trash. Tori Lee rolls her head, an exaggerated flopping motion that makes her look like a gruesome like a rag doll. Karolin is boring.
Saul shushes her with a hand on her forearm. She flings it off.
Take another look, he says to Mrs. Voss.
She frowns at the greasy thing in her hands. “What?”
It isn’t Karolin’s handwriting.
She blinks, uncomprehending.
You saw it on her lecture notes, he says. Almost plaintive, the closest to plaintive she’s ever heard from the dead. On the checks every month. The heel of her palm always smears the ink.
He’s right. She remembers the index card, the notes on “Mr. Fox.” She opens the journal at random and traces a clean, round g, a craggy capital a.
What if none of it happened the way she remembers?
Victoria Lee had been dying when she moved into these rooms. That cough, brutal, Wagnerian. But Gunther, separated by only a thin attic floor, had never complained of it. Indeed, he was saint-like in his patience. Sometimes when Mrs. Voss came up with the tea, she found the pharmacist already seated at Tori Lee’s bedside, reading aloud from a library book or shaking the lumps from the quilt.
The cough had grown worse—steadily, rapidly. Spots of blood floating in the bottom of the teacups.
“It is not so, it was not so,” Mrs. Voss says. She’s surprised by the sadness in her own voice. “Is that what you’ll say, Gunther Olson?”
He emerges from the shadow of an overburdened bookcase. Gunther, glowing with health. Cheeks pink and lightly stubbled, breath humming through his broad, handsome nose. He grips something in his right hand: a plaster cast of a horse’s head, eyeless, tongueless. His fingers trace the empty sockets.
She was a monster, he says. The things she would say, as you and I sat at her bedside. Didn’t you listen? Or maybe you never put the pieces together. She had a daughter, you know. Wouldn’t have guessed it from the way the nieces handled everything. But that’s because the daughter wouldn’t speak to her anymore, not after the things dear Victoria’s husband used to do when he’d had a couple of drinks. He casts a scornful look at the ghost in her stained nightgown. She had to be ended.
Murderer. Tori Lee smirks, the smugness thick as cordial.
But Mrs. Voss shakes her head.
When the old woman was done away with, there came the other man. The annoyingly observant Saul. Picking through the bins, their bins, hers and Gunther’s, professing a passion for recyclables. . . . Every time Mrs. Voss flavored Saul’s coffee with something from a clouded plastic bottle beneath the sink, she had worried the signs would be obvious. Most of all to a pharmacist.
What if they were?
“You let me kill him,” she says. “You helped me kill her, but you let me kill him.”
He stands behind Saul, left hand extended, as though the touch the hair of the man he loved. But at the last moment his hand falls, and he offers an eloquent shrug. He was going to unravel us both.
Mrs. Voss feels the heart sink in her belly, and she does a surprising thing. She laughs. It feels like coughing, but it’s laughter. She covers her face with her hands and laughs until her chest aches, and then she lowers her hands and clutches her ribs and laughs until she can feel it in the sides of her skull.
At last she catches her breath.
“So you’re no better than me,” she says.
He looks down at the thing in his grip.
Mrs. Voss sits straighter, squaring Gunther’s notebook in her lap. Such a flimsy shovel, she thinks, to bury the secret of one’s damnation. “I was going to ask why she and I are haunted. Why we are punished, when we did so little, and others do so much worse. But we’re not haunted, are we? We’re not.”
Gunther lifts the mask to his face. Not as though he is putting it on, but like a man burying his face in a pillow when he has learned something too terrible to be borne. His eyes disappear into the field of shadowed plaster. Only his teeth are visible in the tongueless mouth, white as bleach.
That evening, Karolin thunders down the stairs, coiling a scarf around her neck. Mrs. Voss is finishing a crossword at the kitchen table, nursing a glass of brandy.
“I have to tell you something,” Karolin says. Late nights and a liquid diet are taking their toll; her face is wasted, anemia-pale, angry blemishes along her jaw. Bags beneath her eyes, a half-healed cut on her hairline from a drunken stumble.
Mrs. Voss caps her pen and sets the newspaper aside.
“Christopher isn’t dead.” She wraps her arms around her stomach, instinctive protection of the vitals; a last animal reflex the guilt and alcohol hasn’t drowned. “The accident didn’t kill him. When the ambulance arrived, the car was engulfed in flames. It burned his face—burned everything. His nose. His eyelids. He melted like butter . . . ”
It hangs there, the final consonant of her confession. Mrs. Voss says nothing. Finally Karolin looks away, turns her wasted face to the window.
“I couldn’t bear to look at him. I couldn’t.”
“So you threw a dart at a map,” says Mrs. Voss, “and caught a bus to the place where it landed.”
Karolin sighs. Her grip on herself tightens, a strange, lonely embrace.
“We were badly matched,” she muses, “I can see that now, but not half as badly as some couples who still love each other. That’s the thing I can’t get out of my head.”
“I won’t tell a soul.”
Maybe, Mrs. Voss thinks as the brandy warms her tongue and Karolin resumes her flight into the chill evening, maybe there was always an alternative. The wife could have kept Mr. Fox’s secrets. Lot could have ignored the knock.
Satisfied with her resolution, Mrs. Voss stands and shuffles to the kitchen door. She cracks it open—for a moment, she thinks, to let in a bit of fresh air. And there beneath the street light stands the gathered mob, their animal eyes glinting in the cold.