Trigger warning: domestic abuse
The streetlight casts a dismal halo above the slumped figure, catching sharp glints of light in the misting rain. His coat clings to thin shoulders, the collar flopped in damp resignation on his neck. The evening November rain is so fine as to be invisible, present as only a chilly mist, but soaking all the same. Home, always tinged in his mind with a slight tang of bitterness he feels guilty about, but couldn’t prevent, is a few blocks down, past the nice part of town, but at least out of the rain. Bereft a car-there’s something wrong with the brakes and the battery is always dead-he trudges past the manufactured neighborhood on his way home, pale golden light spilling from the wide windows, premature Christmas lights glittering. This cluster of houses triggers helpless anger, because these houses, these facades, what were they besides a box with lights? Grotesque jack-o-lanterns mocking the ideal of a home without bitterness. But isn’t it only jealousy that triggers this hatred of these boxes? Jealousy, that he had to walk, humiliated and ashamed, down the sidewalk with fading chalk drawings, dim streetlight to dim streetlight, to the slummy apartments that are his home, while those box people look on from their boxes.
Sometimes he thinks of killing them, sometimes he doesn’t.
Practiced in the art of locking away these thoughts with the promise that someday, someday soon, he and Annie become box people, in a house grander than these, more beautiful, far away from his shame, he placates the familiar seething jealousy. Almost home now. A neat white picket fence, an imitation almost inciting his poisonous hatred again, marks the end of this neighborhood. The apartments are beyond. The apartments don’t associate with the box families and the box people refuse to acknowledge their existence, which was fine with him, he couldn’t stand them, all those Brets and Amandas and their toddler children with meaty hands and greed etched into their fat faces, but their indulgent, horrible parents coo over it and call it adorable, but really-a sting in his hands shuts that red thought off. Wincing, he unclenches his hands, blood and scabs ground under his bitten nails, the scarlet crescent moons oozing again. Aware of how close he is to the apartments, John brushes his hands on his coat.
Their apartment, marked by a singular window in a brick wall underneath three stories of other single windows, is oddly dark. Annie’s shift ended at four, he remembered because she practically begged Harper, the prissy twenty-four-year-old medical student who’s in charge of the nurse’s schedules, for a somewhat normal shift, taking on three extra night shifts in return. The word punishment would be more accurate; Harper resented anyone challenging her judgment. In turn, John resented her because she represented the positive trend which invariably ended in another box person, perhaps not at the moment, but one day. Her stable prospects scared him, scared him that he wouldn’t be able to catch up. No matter who resented who, Annie should be home by now. For the briefest moment, a desperate anger and fear flares underneath his ribcage. This isn’t a mistake? No, this is his apartment. Annie is his wife. He is real. But that fear is there, unquestionably there, as much as his consuming obsession with those box people is.
His hand trembling from the cold-must be the cold, he fumbles for the key and enters the apartment through the low alcove the right of the window, irritated by the pounding base music from the overhead compartments and the wailing of some child. Proud of their little corner of the dump, Annie kept the apartment spotless, but now the small room presents an ominous void with furniture poking blacker shadows into the darkness, Flicking the light switch, John blinks in the florescent light and another shard of terror seizes his chest. This is his apartment. For a second, he wasn’t convinced. When he joined the box people it would be different; he wouldn’t ever doubt his existence again, evidence of his reality would be sprawled in front of him for the world to see.
When Annie and him became box people. This is her dream too. Or his dream for her. All those dreams are the same when it came down to it.
“Annie?” he calls, the empty room pressing on his voice.
“Annie?” John asks shrilly, the fear creeping back, screaming Annie is a conception of his fevered imagination, this is an abandoned apartment complex, and maybe he never existed at all. Shivering as if the rain had finally permeated his skin and was freezing him from the inside out, he dodges the deep shadows to reach the tiny bedroom at the end of the cramped kitchen.
A breathy snore punctures the taut silence.
John pauses in the doorway, light falling on either sides of his silhouette onto his sleeping wife, the terror gripping at his throat vanished like a forgotten nightmare. Annie’s a chaotic sleeper. Many nights he’s been battered by her flailing limbs, her arm falling over his face and her muttering hot against his ear. He loves her. This is a steady truth, same as the truth that without her, he would have blown his brains out years ago. He doesn’t waste time dwelling on how much he loved her or composing grand gestures; he just wishes they could spend more time together, not a few tired hours in limbo between jobs.
John smiles tenderly at the sprawl of blankets and messy hair, suddenly loving her with a desperation that hurt his chest, like he couldn’t love her enough before he lost her. He didn’t know why he’s certain Annie’s going to slip through his fingers one day, but the reality of her seems so fragile, tugging on the reality of everything. If they had a box house nothing would change; he would never lose her.
Massaging his tight throat, he leaves to finish dinner for her, the half constructed, pitiable casserole left on the countertop. After putting it in the dingy oven, John rests his elbows on the counter and holds his head in his hands, exhausted. The globs of charred cheese baked onto dry chicken after he removes it from the oven irked his insatiable rage against their way of life to roar back in, his frantic love for Annie only able to chase it away for a second. Squeezing a metal fork and the edge of the grass dish-his hand comically clad in an old pastel cooking mitt-savagely, his hate working up to the surface, his face hot and his desire to scream rising, but his mouth is frozen, jaw set too tight, but he hated them, he hated that he had to become them become real, to have the right to exist, hated himself for hating them, hated everything about the world, hated-
“John? John, are you okay?”
With a start, he glances down to his clenched fists, veins taut over his knuckles. Breathing deep, he turns. His wife leans against the battered refrigerator, old sticky notes with odd inside jokes they put up there sometimes. Her shoulder rubs one with the message, Mexican Poutine, and it peels off, falling to the floor. Wearing one of his t-shirts over her scrubs, hair sticking out any which way, she looks like a hungover teenager, slightly sheepish, a little ashamed, very tired.
“I’m sorry I didn’t make dinner, I just kind of fell asleep,” says Annie with a shrug and a laugh. “Thanks for making dinner. Did you just get home? You look cold, bring gloves tomorrow for your-” her brown furrows and she reaches for his hands, still. “-oh, look at your poor hands.” Turning one over, she frowns as she runs a finger down the constantly irritated line of cuts. “John,” is all she says in a small, disappointed voice.
Irritation pricks at his temper. Was it her place, an anxiety maniac, to judge how his obsessions? Immediately racked with guilt, he brushes her hands off gently and kisses the corner of her lips, “it’s nothing, Annie, I slipped on my way home-all this damn rain-and cut up my hands a little.” Closing the white lie by balling up his fists, John smiles apologetically.
“You slipped? Slipped and cut up your hands in the pattern of your fingernails?”
John doesn’t understand why she can’t see this anger, this hatred, fuels his determination to move them out of this apartment, into a better life, so she could one day live up on that hill with the box families. Why can’t she see it? Working to speak around the fury choking him, John manages that he’s just stressed out about work. Trapped in a job he’s held for the last decade, with no prospect of promotion, his job isn’t stressful: it was infuriating. So, he tried not to dwell on his dull sentence of working for perhaps five more years with people he despises before a better opportunity is offered. As Annie’s face sets, he steels himself for her common fallback, where she asks him, in a falsely offhand way, how his father is, and he says back in the same casual fashion, I haven’t heard him, while Annie scrutinizes him for any traumatic remnants of his father’s relentless goading. He hung his head, not out of shame; rage was working across his face, working at his jaw, trying to scream free.
Annie’s tone is soft though, maybe this was a change, an attempt to move on from their old argument on the vestigial tics left over from his childhood. “Listen, I love you John, but maybe you should see a therapist. I’m worried about you. You shouldn’t . . . shouldn’t be so unhappy all the time.”
His head snaps up. “See a therapist? There’s nothing wrong with me Annie! I’m fine, I’m not unhappy-when have I acted unhappy?” His voice is shrilling, but he’s helpless to stop it. “I’m tired, that’s all. Besides, we can’t afford a therapist. A therapist!” He flings his hands up, hurt breaking through disbelief, the words gaining volume. “There’s nothing wrong with me!”
The scream sends Annie flinching back.
John watches her pale with disgust. Recognition spears his anger, deflating it like a balloon, and in the dull, rubbery shards, he remembers a steamy August afternoon where the box houses were only a glittery heatwave and an unfathomable despair filled him, provoking a desperate anger and fear, a crazed, consuming longing beneath it all, Annie remarked on how hot the houses perched on the shiny plastic lawns looked, and, ravaged by longing, he couldn’t take it.
And he had hit her.
Not hard, not a sucker punch to the gut, or a roundhouse kick to the face, but a darting, almost guilty, slap to her face. They stared at each other, Annie’s cheek flushed, John’s eyes fixed on the rosy index finger mark fading beneath her eye. Horrible, horrible guilt yawned open in his chest, more wretched and awful than his fascination with the box people. Then they, mostly he, had gone to the dreaded therapist, in that room reeking of stale perfume and burnt out candles, fading floral wall paper giving way to swollen bulges of plaster, but the unearthing of emotions he invented to satisfy the therapist was worth it because Annie didn’t leave him, acted as it never happened, only sometimes her eyes took on that haunted, terrified look. Now, he’s fixed, cured, whatever you want to call it.
Annie’s tiny cringe wrenched open a swamp of shame and awfulness, shutting him up effectively. For a fleeting second, he almost wondered if she had done it on purpose to needle him, to remind him that he was human garbage, but the sting of tears and sick feeling in his stomach force that thought away. He looked out the tiny window which provided a glittering view of the gentle rolling hill where the box people lived, distant, but a beacon of hope and hatred.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly, gathering her close, her still tousled hair poking his face. “I didn’t mean to shout. I just think that I’m okay, we’re okay. Are we okay, Annie?” Her head nods against his chest. “I love you, Annie,” chokes out John, crying a little now, more afraid than ever he would always botch loving her. He would give her a house like the ones on the hill, but theirs wouldn’t be a box, there would be life and love and sticky notes scrawled with nonsensical words because no matter what, this was for her, this was his dream for her. Without this dream, what was he?
Annie giggles, muffled by his still damp coat, “love you, too, but you’re getting my face all wet.”
Realizing his hands were clamped around her, gripping fistfuls of her shirt, John laughs too, sniffling, and releases her.
Annie slips his coat off, laying it on the pewter counter. “Oh, look at the Christmas lights. Up there on those houses.”
He doesn’t look, but he smiles absently, getting plates for the casserole. “They’re pretty, I saw them on my way home.” He adopted a light British accent, an old joke between them, but he was suddenly breathless, his heart beating too loud. “Do you wish for a house like that, madame?”
Annie shrugs. “Not really.”
The kitchen falls silent for an endless second, the Christmas light twinkling obstinately, and he’s caught in the terrible, shallow beauty of those houses, the sheer weight of his obsession crashing down upon her dismissal, thrown before him in a gaudy wreck, showing what his hate and fury cannot conceal. A need to be inside those houses, to be the one looking out and judging beatifically as the workers in their wet coats shuffle by, to be inside the fake picket fence. The bareness of this powerful desire, stripped of the grand illusion of the question of reality, anger, and the idea of loving Annie forever, strikes a darker and more terrible fear into his heart, a black terror trembling on the wing of madness. This greed, pure greed is all he is, and she dismissed it with a shrug.
Rage filling him up to the bursting, boiling, and the glass dish is a cool relief as he seizes it, whirling, and smashes it against the back of Annie’s head. Her shriek rises above the glorious crash of glass. Annie falls to the floor. Grabbing her arm, he yanks her from the counter, screaming back at her.
“John! What are you doing?” she shrieks, her hands scabbing against the counter desperately, blood soaking her hair into dark spikes. “What the actual-”
Yelling over her, John kicks at her ribs, losing his fragile footing and slamming into the refrigerator, sticky notes sifting free. Instead of falling off her vantage point on the counter, her shoulders hunch over her ribcage and she hauls herself up with more fervor. Sobbing, she strains to reach the silverware drawer, throwing it open with a clatter of cheap metal, the drawer coming off the runners. She fumbles for a knife, but John, shoving off the fridge, flings the casserole dish at her. The deep thud against her shoulder blades reverberates, thrumming through the air for a second too long as Annie’s knocked sideways into the sink.
“Why don’t you want to leave?” he screams.
Annie finds a dirty ladle in the sink and throws it, chunks of last night’s dinner splattering their faces. Dodging into the over-extended drawer, the sharp corners digging into his side, John launches a punch, part of him only observing, out of body, blinking to tether his body and his floating subconscious back together, to line the planes of existence up again, but part of him is cawing in triumph, relishing the way his punches and kicks cause movement, fear, and ripple the world.
Through her hysterical tears, understanding blinks on in Annie’s eyes. “The houses? I just . . . the Christmas lights!” The absurdity infuriates her. Annie shoves off the sink, triggering the facet with an errant hand, and sprints for the door, hitting the arm of the couch and rebounding in desperate dive.
“It was all for you!” shrieks John as he snatches up a butter knife from the drawer and lunges after her, slipping on the wet floor, meeting her eyes as she half turns to his scream, fingers inches from the door, before he buries the knife in her chest.
The butter knife, barely sharp enough to cut bread whirs as the serrated teeth catch on flesh, the sheer force of John’s leap forcing it into her chest. Annie utters a soft little cry of surprise, fingers lightly spasming around the handle imbedded in her shirt. She topples into the door, sliding down, agonizingly slowly, the wooden façade of the door. Finally, propped against the door, she fixes a glassy stare on John. Her eyes are clear and lucid, but the light is fading.
Methodically, John sits beside her. Together, they stare out the tiny window, out into the cold night, as the Christmas lights twinkle on eaves and front lawns of the box houses.
“I did this for you,” repeats John quietly, loving her so much, but somehow losing her. “I was going to buy you a house like that. All for you.” The glorious moments of existing fade and he realizes fearing oblivion is pointless, nothing is real, terror of that is futile. They’re the box people, their lives contained within compartments stacked on compartments, never enough to escape the confines of their own walls.
Gray now, Annie leans her head against his shoulder, “I’m tired, I think I’m going to take a nap. Please tell Harper I can’t take the night shift.” She’s silent for a long time before murmuring, “so . . . tired . . .” but when she falls asleep, she doesn’t move at all.