Julia felt like she might throw up, but in a good way. The celebratory steak dinner did somersaults over the cannoli cake in her stomach Austin had treated her to after the good news. By the fourth ring her sister, Ann Marie, finally picked up.
Julia skipped over the traditional greeting and blurted, “My story is getting published!”
She could feel the excitement spilling out of her mouth like champagne bubbles.
“What? That’s awesome! Which story?” Ann Marie asked.
“You haven’t read this one yet. I want everyone to read it when it’s published. I can’t believe this is finally happening! I had a video conference with the publishing company earlier today, and everything is finalized.” Her sentences ran together, the speed of her voice skipping over any punctuation marks.
Her sister cut her off when she stopped for a breath, “ Well, congrats! I can’t wait to read it. Can I have a little sneak preview?”
“No, sorry,” her pace was slower now. “I wish Mom was still around. She was always reading my stories as a kid and encouraging me.” The phone line filled with silence for a moment. “I’m sure she’s happy for me wherever she is. I’m going to call Dad and tell him the news.” Her voice was back to the happy rambling pace.
“Okay, love you! Congratulations again, let’s do dinner this week to celebrate! Bye.
The next morning Julia Wright was in the morgue. The driveway of the Wright’s home was packed with cars of friends and family members. Ann Marie arrived three hours after her brother in law, Austin had called her. She had gotten into her car while still on the phone with him, but after he hung up to call others, Ann Marie leaned over the steering wheel and cried in her driveway for the next two hours.
When Ann Marie stepped into her sister’s house, eyes red with tears, she was immediately hugged by aunts, uncles, cousins, and finally by her father, Ray. His usually strong warm hug, was weak and his entire body could be felt trembling underneath his argyle sweater. They sat on the couch in the too small living room filled with too many people. Condolences were given, shock expressed, and whispers of “I hope they do a closed casket,” spread around the room like wildfire. Soon everyone had left except Aunt Meredith, Ann Marie, and Julia’s father.
Ray excused himself to go find Austin who had disappeared outside hours ago. Ray mumbled something about Austin being too young to know how to plan a funeral and offering help. Which left Ann Marie and her Aunt Meredith sitting in silence on two ends of the same couch. Aunt Meredith made a sucking sound with her teeth, forcing Ann Marie to look her way. “I never did understand why people ran so early in the morning. I, well I, she wouldn’t, how about I make us some coffee? I think they have one of those fancy keurig things in the kitchen.”
Ann Marie nodded at her wrinkling old aunt who probably had never run a day in her life. She would even tell her to pour her a glass of wine (which she hadn’t touched in years) if it meant it would get her aunt out of the room for a few minutes. A hit and run. My sister, who was always afraid she would die from cancer like mom. What a joke.
The floorboards in the doorway from the kitchen to the living room creaked as Aunt Meredith came back in with two cups of coffee in matching mugs shaking slightly in each hand.
“I’ll be damned if you disrespect my daughter like that!” Ray’s voice could be heard yelling through the walls to the backyard. Aunt Meredith froze in the doorframe. From down the hall the back door slammed, and Austin came down the hall his feet stomping so hard the walls shook. When he got to the living room he looked up and saw Ann Marie and Meredith. His cheeks grew red enough to match his bloodshot eyes, and his teeth ground against each other in an effort to keep the tears back.
The back door slammed again for Ray, and Austin picked his keys up off of the coffee table and went out the front door. His car engine turned over just as Ray entered the living room his eyes looking around with an almost wild glint to them.
“I’ll go make another cup of coffee,” Aunt Meredith said looking at her brother with a wary glance. She set the two cups down on the coffee table and then waddled back into the kitchen. A mustache of sweat beginning to form on her upper lip.
Ray jumped a little as his daughter rested a hand on his shoulder to guide him to the couch. He collapsed into the middle seat and put his head in his hands.
“I can’t believe it,” he said to the floor. “He is still going to publish Julia’s story.” A few tear drops fell from the end of his nose to stain the light blue carpet. He looked up at his living daughter, “He is going to make money off of her even with her being dead. Dead!”
He is going to make money off of her even with her being dead. The words echoed in Julia’s head all night long and well into the next morning.
The sun had set before Austin turned down his street to the house he had shared with his wife. The driveway was empty now. He walked up the steps knowing his house was nothing but a shell. Julia wasn’t there, and she never would be again. She was at the morgue. Her body bruised and mangled. She didn’t look like his wife when he had been called in at 7:37 a.m. earlier that day to identify her. He opened the fridge in the dark. He hadn’t eaten anything all day, but he shut the door after seeing his wife’s leftover box. Half a sirloin steak and a few asparagus spears were in there. She had ordered the same thing on the night he proposed to her years ago. Was that really last night when we had gone out to celebrate her book?
Austin hadn’t taken his phone with him when he left the house. He looked at it now, laying on the floor in the living room with the lights turned off. He had multiple missed calls from friends and family, but there was one number that was not saved to his contacts. He clicked on the voicemail.
“This is Dr. Parks from the Giddeon County Morgue. If you could give us a call back, we have some urgent information from the autopsy results to share with you.”
He called back only to get a machine that told him the office hours were from Monday to Friday from 8:00am until 5:00 p.m. and on Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00p.m. From his position on the floor he looked under the coffee table at the front door. His wife’s running shoes were not in their normal place on the small piece of tile, and he thought about them in a ziplock back in a box at the morgue.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but when he opened his eyes the room was filled with light. His phone was ringing in his hand. It was Ann Marie. He sent her to voicemail and pushed himself up from the carpet. His back hurt, and he had to wipe drool off of his cheek. He wandered into the kitchen and heated up his wife’s leftovers on the only clean plate in the house. He sat down at the table and stared at the food. The smell of garlic seasoning and butter wafted to his nose. He stood up knocking the chair over and threw up in the sink all over a pile of used coffee cups. Then he carefully put the steak and three spears of asparagus back in the plastic to go box and put it in the fridge.
He called Dr. Parks back who asked him if he wanted to come down and see her while he explained, or if he would rather hear the news over the phone.
“Phone,” Austin said. He took his first sip of coffee and swished it around his mouth to cover up the taste of vomit.
He listened as Dr. Parks explained the bruising along the back of his wife’s spine, and the welts consistent with the width of a tire.
“Strangely, though none of those appear to have been the cause of death. There is no break in her neck or internal bleeding in her organs. Do you remember the gash on your wife’s forehead?”
Austin dumped his coffee in the sink, “Yes, from hitting the pavement.”
“Well, yes and no. That trauma was the cause of death, but the wound is not consistent with road rash. As a matter of fact it appears to be a few hours older than the other wounds. The bruising from the tire and bumper are post mortem.”
The empty cup slipped from his hands and shattered in the sink, destroying two others in the process.
He was back on the carpet in the living room when his phone rang again. It was a New York number.
“Hello?” Austin answered his face staring at the space where his wife’s shoes should be.
“Hello, this is Mrs. Trumble from Black Dog Publishing. Is Mrs. Wright available?”
“How did you get this number?” Austin asked sitting up from the floor.
“Oh, well, Mrs Wright called us a few days ago saying her old number might be out of service soon, so she added this number as a backup. I called her number this morning, but there was no answer. Is she available?” The woman’s voice sounded almost like a recording. She was good at her secretarial job.
Austin took a shaky breath. He couldn’t bring himself to say that his wife was dead, “No, she isn’t available right now. Can I take a message?” He shut his eyes with shame.
“Yes, we just wanted to let Mrs. Wright know that the final digital version is finished for her last read through. We are going to send a copy through to her email, and we here at Black Dog Publishing just wanted to congratulate her personally.”
“Thank you,” his voice was bland as he ended the call.
He pushed himself up off the floor and walked down the hall toward their bedroom. The bed was still unmade. Julia’s side of the sheets carefully pushed off toward the middle like she did every morning when she went for a run so as not to wake him up. Her pajamas tossed on the floor, so close to the laundry basket, but not quite making it. He walked to the small desk where her laptop sat. He knew her password because they shared the laptop. He went to her gmail account where the login information was automatically saved.
Ann Marie was pacing back and forth in her kitchen. She had gone to the Liquor Cabinet and bought a bottle of whiskey. It sat on her counter, daring her. The doorbell finally rang, and she tucked the bottle away under the sink.
“Hey Dad, come on in,” she said, opening the door. “I really didn’t think either of us should be alone right now.”
Her dad gave her one of his normal hugs. She was glad to feel his sturdy arms around her again. She pulled away, “Can I get you something, Dad?”
He walked into the dining room, “What I’d really like is a good stiff drink, but I know you don’t have any of that here. Water’s good.”
Her phone pinged when she walked into the kitchen. It was the tone set for email alerts. She told the office she was on bereavement leave, but they just couldn’t resist sending her emails. She walked into the dining room and set the water down.
“Why don’t you go grab a deck of cards, Dad? We can play a round of something before dinner’s done. Nothing fancy, I’m just cooking a lasagna. Gunna take the leftovers over to Austin tomorrow.”
Her dad’s eyes darkened. “Austin, I used to think that kid had some common decency.”
Ann Marie walked into the kitchen. Her dad was still on about Austin and the book. She secretly sided with Austin. Her sister would still want her work published even after her death. It had been her life’s dream.
She set a plate out and began shredding parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top of the lasagna. Her phone pinged again. This time it was a text message. She set the cheese down and opened her phone to see a message from Austin.
She quickly went to her email.
Ray had shuffled the cards ten times over before he walked into the kitchen. “You need some help in here? I thought we were playing cards.”
He froze. His daughter was pacing around the granite island in her kitchen. A bottle of whiskey on display in the center, unopened, but there. He put an arm on her shoulder.
“Hey now,” and he pulled her in for a hug, patting her hair.
She pushed back.
“You know why I started drinking?”
He started, but she cut him off.
“Because Mom died.”
Ray knew his daughter. She was sweet and vulnerable, but she had a mean streak when she drank. He hadn’t seen her this pissed off since her twenties before she started going to meetings. He looked at the bottle again to make sure it was still factory sealed shut. Then he reached for it to take it away.
Ann Marie’s cell phone landed next to his hand on the bottle with a clang that made him jump. He picked it up and saw a forwarded email and opened the attachment.
My mother didn’t die of cancer like we were led to believe. Sure she had cancer, and it probably would have killed her eventually, but the process was sped up. She was murdered by her own husband.