“I don’t want to,” Joe said, and he started pacing back and forth.
We’d come on holiday to this town on Cape Cod, highly recommended by our next-door neighbors in Milford back in England. Personally, I would have been much happier to go to Newport, or the Hamptons I’d heard so much about. It was about time we spent some money on ourselves. Of course, Joe saw it differently. A timeshare in a town without even a cinema and no beach of its own worked for him. I always went along, in the end. Sometimes it’s a shame what marriage will do to you. And now I needed to calm him down.
“It’s all right, Joe. Just a thought. Seemed a nice idea at the time, but we can stay right here for the whole two weeks.”
“I mean, what a waste to take a timeshare and then go gallivanting about somewhere else,” he said.
“I was only thinking of the one night, dear. A nice long drive to see the sights and then up to Rockport, where I’m told there’s a wonderful artist’s colony. You know how I like to draw. But forget it, now. What would you like me to get you for your tea?”
If it sounds as if I cater to him, it’s just that Joe’s a nervous type. He needs to feel secure wherever he is or he gets into one of his moods. And I make sure that doesn’t happen. Otherwise, off he goes on a walkabout. It’s his nervous condition driving him. He’s only fifty-six. But there you are. We’ve been together since we were seventeen. So that’s been the way of it.
I mark the change in things when we were seven days into our timeshare. I’d just finished the washing up and Joe was reading in the lounge chair out on the front porch, an old kerosene lamp for light. I could hear crickets, masses of them. The kitchen window looked out over a grove of trees and through them I could see the glint of the small pond nearby. There was a crescent moon.
I was hanging the towel over the rack when Joe called to me. I went to the front door and he was standing on the porch looking out, his eyes dark in the moonlight.
“What is it, Joe?”
“I saw something,” he gestured vaguely with his right hand, “over there.” He was pointing to the road that ran past the house, an unpaved stretch of gravel. You could always hear someone in a car miles before they showed up.
“Looks fine to me,” I said.
“It is now,” he answered, and then he rubbed his hand across his face and sat down again and picked up his book, reading on where he’d left off. I looked at him and then back out to the road.
“An old BBC production of ‘As Time Goes By’ is coming on that public television station they have. I’ll call you when it starts,” I told him. I gave him a light pat on the shoulder and went back into the house.
The show had been on only ten minutes, maybe less, when Joe leaned forward in his armchair in the living room and rubbed his hand across his face again and said, “I don’t feel so well, Jeannie. I’m going to bed.”
I didn’t want to miss the rest of the program—it was one of my favorite episodes—and getting him ready for the night usually involved my help one way or the other.
“Why don’t you just lie down on the sofa here,” I said to him, pointing to the one that stretched across the back wall. “I’ll just put that quilt over there on you and you can rest a bit. Maybe you’ll feel better. It’s early yet, you know.”
“All right,” Joe said, and obediently he got up and went to the sofa and lay down, his head on a cushion. I covered him up and went back to listen to what Lionel was saying, even though I could probably have recited the dialogue myself if someone had asked.
When the show ended I shut off the television. “A good program, that,” I said out loud, still smiling over the verbal parries between the characters. But Joe didn’t hear me. He was fast asleep. I felt he was better off staying that way than my waking him.
I got ready for bed and shut off all the lights but I didn’t go into the bedroom. It was so still in that place, in a nice way. Sitting out on the porch in my robe for a little while with a small nip of brandy seemed a good idea, and so I did just that. I’d been there maybe a half hour and was just thinking it was time to turn in, when a movement out on the road caught my eye. It was still early enough for people to come walking by, it being a Saturday night, but with that gravel I’d hear their footsteps loud and clear. Whatever this was made no sound.
I stood up and almost started to walk down the steps and check it out, but then felt that would be a foolish idea. It was the wind, I thought, or a creature in the brush. Maybe what Joe had seen before. We were only a half mile from the center of town but it felt as isolated as a cottage on the moors back home. But there was nothing to be afraid of around that timeshare.
I looked at the empty road one more time and then went inside and was closing the front door behind me when it was nearly torn off its hinges and I was knocked down flat by something I couldn’t see. Winded, but the adrenalin going too fast for me to feel afraid right off, I twisted my head to look up. I felt an excruciating pain in my left shoulder as I did, but I was able to catch a glimpse of my attacker. The ambient light from the crescent moon left him in shadow, but I could see the eyes, glittering black eyes.
“What do you want?” I said, my voice little more than a whisper.
He didn’t say a word. He was gone. I didn’t have the wits just then to think how strange that was—I was just glad he wasn’t there.
“Joe,” I croaked out. I could see him on the sofa, the dark mound of quilt over him, and it was obvious he hadn’t moved. All that noise, the door crashing in, hadn’t disturbed him in the least.
Feeling just a bit of irritation, I pushed myself up, leaning on my good shoulder, and finally managed to stand, out of breath but intact as far as I could tell. Faint moonlight came through the door frame, along with a cool breeze. Well, I thought, any bugs or mosquitoes that felt like coming in were going to find a welcome mat. Nothing I could do till morning.
Later, the sheriff who ran the small community asked me why I didn’t call the police right away. I couldn’t say. It never occurred to me. Going to sleep was all I thought about. That’s the best I could tell him. My description wasn’t much help, either.
“Beady black eyes,” repeated the sheriff. He looked at me. “Not a lot to go on,” he observed.
Joe was properly upset on my behalf, for a little while. His breakfast was late, my having to contact the sheriff’s office and all, and that worried him. But eventually I fed him and he settled down. “Sorry you got hurt, Jeannie,” he said.
“Going for a walk,” he told me mid morning. He walked through the plastic hanging over the front door as if it had always been there. Dear, dear Joe.
Before noon the carpenter arrived to fix the door. Turned out it just needed some repair to the jamb that held it. The door itself wasn’t even scratched. I expected the owners of the timeshare to pick up the cost, but it turned out the agreement left the tenant in sole charge of all disasters that might occur while the tenants were in situ. That reminded me how seldom I read the fine print. Even if Joe had wanted to go with me to Rockport, after the carpenter’s bill we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Back home, charging the earth to people when they’ve had a crisis happen wouldn’t be the way of things. In for a penny, in for a pound, I had the carpenter reinforce the hinges and add a metal brace to the door jamb, and made sure a locksmith put in a first-class deadbolt. Anyone trying to crash through in the future would break a bone or two.
“What about the windows?” Joe asked me a few days later.
“What about them?” I said.
“Anybody can get in through the windows. There’re too many to fix. And the back door, too.”
Those were more words than he’d said at once in quite a while. I knew he’d been thinking about it a lot. This nervous condition of his left him a bit of a mystery. It was like he had his own agenda, now and then, and while it made no sense to me, it was perfectly clear to him. But I know what a good marriage is all about. You adjust. Things are always changing. You just have to accept it.
It was day ten, and we only had four days left before we had to return home to Milford. We woke up to rain, a heavy rain that kept on for hours. By mid-afternoon the road was more like a river than anything else.
“We’re on our own, Jeannie,” Joe said behind me as I stood on the porch. I nearly jumped out of my skin, not hearing him coming close like that.
“Yes, we are, but we’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” Joe said, staring at the road.
I could only sigh. “Tell you what, I’ll go make us a cuppa,” I told him.
“No. Don’t want any tea,” he said, and with that he sat down in the wicker chair and put his book on his lap and just stared out at the road again. “I like the rain.”
“Well, can’t say I join you on that one. Not when it’s supposed to be holiday time.”
“You know, Jeannie, you complain a lot.”
Where was that coming from, I wondered. “You need tea,” I told him. “I’ll be back with it and some of those scones I got at the shop down the road. Not real ones like we’re used to, but heated up with a bit of jam, they’ll do.”
He didn’t say anything more so I left him there and went inside.
The kitchen was really a converted sun porch with a tin roof. The rain hammered down, louder than anywhere else in the house. I didn’t mind. It kept my thoughts away from all the things I didn’t want to think about, like Joe’s behavior or the strange burglar. Only he hadn’t been a burglar. He hadn’t been anything like that. I knew the sheriff wasn’t going to find my attacker. Knew it in my bones.
When I had the tea ready I couldn’t hear the rain anymore. Sunlight filled the kitchen. I took everything out on the porch.
But Joe wasn’t there. I set the tray down on the small wicker table that held the lamp and looked around. The grass out front was still wet but the gravel road looked dry already. I heard cicadas then, a sign of high heat coming. The sky was hazy, and I realized I was already perspiring. The sudden changes in weather on Cape Cod beat home by miles. I bent down to pick up the tray, thinking we’d be a lot cooler eating inside the house, after all.
The next moment I was sailing off the porch and the tray bounced down the steps, scattering the food and cups in all directions. I remember thinking it was a pity, since I’d used the two cups I’d brought with me, real china, and they were likely to be smashed to bits.
I landed hard this time, harder than before. I felt a sharp pain in my right leg, or maybe it was my ankle. For a minute I couldn’t see anything, my face mashed into the soaking grass. When I did move enough to turn over, there was no one there. Whoever had grabbed me and pushed me off the porch was gone.
“Joe! Joe!” There was no answer. All I heard were those cicadas, and above me the round circle of the sun filtered through the haze.
I started to get up but the pain in my ankle stopped me. I’d twisted it, I was sure. I wasn’t going anywhere without help.
Just then I heard the sound of tires on the gravel and there coming around the bend in the road was the sheriff’s car. I was so glad to see him that for a second I felt tears rising, but that wouldn’t do at all. Bearing up, that’s the right way.
“Hello? What happened to you?” the sheriff called out, and in another second he was helping me up.
“It was him,” I said.
“Who?” the sheriff asked. “That guy who was here three nights ago? Back again, in broad daylight?”
“Night, day, what difference does it make!” I shot back. “What are you doing here?” I rubbed my ankle. It wasn’t swollen, and I’d begun to think maybe I hadn’t twisted it after all, just bruised it. My sun dress was dripping wet and pieces of grass were stuck all over me.
“Mmm,” the sheriff said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, more sharply than I intended. “Don’t you believe me?”
“It’s not that, not at all,” the sheriff said, looking away toward the road.
“I’m going in and make my tea again,” I said, interrupting him.
“What about your ankle?”
“It hurts, but it’s not wrenched, thanks be to small favors. Anyway, I need to get something ready for Joe when he gets back, wherever he’s off to.”
“Well, now, that’s why I’m here, as it turns out. We want a word with Joe ourselves.”
“What for?” I asked, hearing the high pitch in my voice.
The sheriff glanced up at the sky and then back at the road, and then at the smashed crockery on the ground.
“You sure you were pushed off the porch, that you didn’t just fall?”
“Of course I am,” I said, feeling irritable. “I know the difference between a stumble and a hand on my back.”
“You and your husband get along okay?”
“What kind of question is that?” I said, surprised and not a little put out. What was the sheriff on about? Our marriage is our business, not his.
“Why don’t I help you pick up this stuff and you can tell me more about Joe.”
I bent down and picked up two pieces of a broken teacup, the lovely deep blue pattern with the gold rim. I’d carried the two cups and saucers, so delicate they were, on the plane knowing I wouldn’t find the real thing around the timeshare. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes.
“Seems to me more important to find out who pushed me off the porch,” I said, watching the sheriff gather the other pieces and set them on the tray, which he placed on the front steps, off to the side. Birds were already pecking at the scones that had rolled to the edge of the yard.
“So where is Joe now?” the sheriff asked.
“I have no idea. I left him to make the tea and when I brought it out on the porch he was gone. Then I felt it was too hot out here and started to lift the tray and tea things to bring them back into the house when I got pushed.”
“Uh-huh,” was all he said.
Just then we both saw Joe coming along the road. It was slow going. He’d stop and smell the wildflowers or lean over the bank to look at some creature that might be passing by. A real nature lover, Joe is.
“He looks all right to me,” said the sheriff.
You don’t have to live with him, I said mentally. “His walks calm him down,” I said. “And if I get some tea in him he’ll stay that way for awhile.”
“Right,” said the sheriff. “Well, I’ll leave now if you are sure you’re all right.”
“All right? I just got attacked on my own porch. Are you going to do something about that? It’s the second time. You have some kind of criminal element out here and we need protection.”
“That could be so,” said the sheriff. “Tell you what. I’ll have my deputy drive by later, have him check how things are.”
“Well I don’t see how driving by the house is going to help me if that attacker returns.”
The sheriff turned away just as Joe reached the porch steps. He looked more tired than usual. The sheriff gave him a greeting and a smile. It occurred to me the sheriff had never smiled at me, not once. Joe did have a way with him, charm is what my friend Rosalind back home called it. “And charm isn’t something you understand, Edna. Not your fault, not at all. It’s just your way is a little more, well, negative, isn’t it, dear? It’s just how we’re made, isn’t it.” Rubbish, I say.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Joe said as he settled himself on a porch chair. “Is tea ready?”
I looked down at the tray filled with broken china. I left it where it was and went up the steps and through the door that had been repaired and into the kitchen. Joe wanted his tea, and so I’d make him some tea. I took a mug from the cupboard and threw a teabag into it. A box of them had been left by whoever used the timeshare before us. I didn’t feel like brewing fresh leaves all over again. The water is supposed to be brought to a full boil but this time I got tired of waiting and poured it out as soon as it heated up. The milk went in last, though I knew Joe would be able to tell. A good cup of tea, he said, always needed the milk to be put into the cup first. Well, that’s if you haven’t been pushed down your own steps and nearly broken your leg. I added the sugar and a little something to relax him. Then I brought the tea out through the door to the porch.
“The tea’s in a mug,” Joe said in surprise.
“Yes. Just drink it up. Tastes just the same as in a cup.”
“No, it never does, Edna. But okay.”
He fell asleep before he’d finished it.
I sat awhile looking out at the road. The only flowers we had in front were some day lilies, but they were starting to fade. The pictures of the timeshare made it look like a garden, but they’d been taken in the spring when most of the bushes around the house were in bloom. Now they were just green leaves.
“We get what we put into life,” Rosalind was always saying. What does she know. I put in plenty and got back just about nothing at all.
“Ever thought you’re a bit of a martyr, Edna, no offense?” Rosalind had said once. “I mean, Joe has never made you work. My Harry had me out at the salon before Charlie was five. Not that I mind. It’s a blessing to have something to fall back on and I love what I’m doing. But you’ve never had to work a day in your life.”
“Housework is work,” I told her, “and looking after Joe a full-time job.”
“How can that be, when he’s gone out to the pit ten hours a day?”
Rosalind didn’t have a clue about what was what. She liked her job cutting hair, and she had the three children and Harry to take care of, and her house showed it. It was always in some kind of chaos and in need of a good cleaning. No time, Rosalind had said. And it’s clean enough, she’d added. No dust bunnies or dishes in the sink and the beds are always made.
I watched a convertible go by with two people in it laughing together. They’d be better off keeping their eyes on the road. I looked up at the sky. Another rainstorm threatened. We’d had as much rain as sun since we got here. May as well have stayed home if it was going to rain all the time.
Joe sighed. I looked over at him. In sleep he looked ten years older than he was. He’d been considering early retirement but I didn’t think it was the best idea he’d ever had. Still, he didn’t seem to have the energy he used to. Our holidays were never all that special, but this one should have been, given we’d come so far to enjoy it. But it wasn’t the case, now. I knew it wasn’t going to be, either.
The rain started all of a sudden and came down in sheets. The sound on the tin roof over the porch was like hail, but Joe didn’t stir. I couldn’t see three feet out from me. The wind picked up and I could smell the salt in the air.
I let Joe stay out there. If the storm didn’t wake him up I was fine with letting him sleep some more.
The television guide said a repeat of my favorite show was coming on, early this time. I could make myself a real cup of tea and enjoy watching it and no one bothering me at all. But I’d no sooner settled myself in the chair when the door swung open in a sudden burst of wind. I hadn’t closed it all the way. I got up and saw then the sheriff’s car pass by. It had to be that deputy. No stopping and getting out in the rain and asking how I was. Just driving past. Lot of good that does, I thought. Anyone trying to attack me would have clear sailing.
Then I saw he had stopped. He got out of the car, a lot taller and thinner than the sheriff. I watched him pull his hat brim lower and make a run for the porch.
“Mrs. Hoddington?” he shouted over the storm. “I’m Jim Halloran, Sheriff’s deputy. Just making sure you’re all right. This storm’s a real winner. You’re my last check before I head back to town. How’s Mr. Hoddington?”
How was Joe? What difference did that make? I was the one who’d been attacked, and twice, at that. Before I could answer the deputy had gone over to Joe where he was sitting in that lounge chair and said something. Then he started shaking him. Joe didn’t respond. The deputy looked up at me, and he had an odd look on his face. He pulled out his cell phone but with the rain on the roof I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Then he came over to me.
“I’ve called for some help,” he said.
“Help? For what?”
“Mrs. Hoddington, I’m sorry to say your husband is dead.”
I looked at him like he was daft. He had to be.
“Joe sleeps a lot,” I said.
“No, ma’am, he’s definitely dead.” The man looked at me like I was a bug under a microscope. It wasn’t true. He couldn’t fool me.
We both stood there in the rain. Five minutes later the sheriff came and two more deputies and an ambulance. They took Joe right out of the chair, blanket and all. The sheriff told me I was to come with him. I didn’t say no. Maybe finally they’d take my statement about what happened on the porch when I got shoved off it.
Only that wasn’t what he did. It wasn’t what happened. He said after keeping me in a room without air conditioning for over an hour that they were going to test to see if Joe had been poisoned.
“Poisoned!” I said. “Not likely. Only person who touches his food and drink is me. No one else.”
The sheriff liked that answer and smiled at me.
“Well, then, that works for me,” he said. He put me in a jail cell and told me I was being arrested for doing away with Joe.
At first I was so mad I was beside myself. But then I thought it over. They were wrong, but it all made sense to me. Whoever had pushed me twice had poisoned Joe. Simple as that. The sheriff might not see it that way, but I knew.
It worried me for a while that I didn’t feel a lot of grief. Almost forty years together. When I got back home I’d have to ask Rosalind about that. She’d give me an honest answer. It didn’t seem natural, but I couldn’t pretend I was sorry I didn’t have to take care of him anymore.
My solicitor showed up. Lawyer, he corrected me when I called him that. A short, young man who’d just finished his education. He talked his lawyer talk and I didn’t understand a word. I knew that the law he knew was based on the law back home, but they run it inside out, if you ask me. He said he could make a deal and I would only be in prison fifteen years. I told him to go away.
There’s another thing about Joe I should mention. His work, it was a hard job. I couldn’t argue that. When he’d come home he’d be covered in gravel dust and just looking gloomy. He would start to perk up as soon as he took a shower and sat down to his tea. I know he hated what he did for a living. But if he didn’t work, I’d have to, and that just wasn’t right. He asked sometimes, if maybe I’d think about taking on a job so he could cut back on his hours. I always would get upset until he changed his mind and said I didn’t have to. So he did have a heart, Joe did. He respected my wishes. I’ll give him that.
I asked the sheriff when he came by my cell if he was looking for the person who’d finished Joe off but he just looked at me in a strange way and didn’t answer. A doctor came by, a psychiatrist, and asked me some questions. I told him about the two times someone had attacked me and about Joe’s needing me to take care of him all the time. He wrote something down in his notebook and I asked what he’d written. Persecutory delusion, he said. When I asked him what that meant he told me I had a problem understanding what was real and what wasn’t and nothing had happened to me at all, except that Joe was dead. He said that would be his report to the sheriff and the judge when it came to a hearing on my case.
After he left I lay down to rest. I felt so tired. There I was in a foreign country and Joe was gone and I didn’t know anyone. I couldn’t even call anyone because they wouldn’t let me phone up Rosalind since she was so far away it’d cost too much. I had a baby for a solicitor and a doctor who couldn’t see past his own uppity nose.
The timeshare had been nothing but trouble from the beginning.
Regina Clarke has degrees in English Literature and has also spent time as a writer in high tech, an interim path that has often perplexed her, though she is sure more than one of her characters has origins in that unique world. Recently she had a short story published in Subtle Fiction and another published in A Twist of Noir. One of her science fiction stories has been accepted for publication by Bewildering Stories. Currently, she is a finalist in the ongoing SCRIPTOID Screenwriter’s Feature Challenge.
© 2012, Regina Clarke