I closed the front door behind me, shutting out the winter chill. I hurried to the bathroom, opened the glass door to the shower, turned the water on, and stepped in fully dressed. The water soaked into my clothes, and I finally stripped down. Still undecided as to whether I was going to wash said clothes or burn them, I picked up a bar of lavender-scented soap. The water turned a pretty, sudsy pink as I scrubbed at my hands. I watched the bloody run-off circle the drain.
As the water cleared, so did my thoughts. I came down from the adrenaline high and made a plan. After my shower, I’d bag up my clothes and throw them out. Trash pickup would be the in morning and then they’d be gone forever. When I was sure that my body was free from every speck of blood spatter, I stepped out and dried off. I pulled on my sweats and got to work.
My stained clothes went into a trash bag that I retrieved from the kitchen. I bleached my shower and threw the cleaning supplies in with my clothes. The bag was done up in a triple knot and deposited in the trashcan. I moved the can to the curb. Then I moved on with my life.
The neighbor’s TV was on so loudly that I, sitting in my own living room, couldn’t hear the soap opera I was trying to watch. It was not the first time the neighbor’s TV intruded on me, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. I pulled on a terrycloth bathrobe (no self-respecting woman would go outside in just her pajamas!) and slid my feet into a pair of slippers. I went next door to ask Mrs. Vick to turn it down. It happened every December, and always —always— when my soaps were on.
I rang the bell once and then used my key to enter. Mrs. Vick used a walker and had given me a key so should wouldn’t have to get up. The doorbell was merely a courtesy. Mrs. Vick, wearing her traditional parrot-green house dress, was settled in her easy chair. She was a ninety-seven year old woman with wispy purple hair. She wore huge, thick glasses that made her eyes look bulgy but didn’t seem to really help with her vision all that much.
“Your TV volume is too high again,” I said loudly. Mrs. Vick looked at me blankly. I pointed to the TV and then to my ear. Mrs. Vick didn’t say anything. I looked for the remote. I found it on top of a large-print Agatha Christie novel that was sitting on the coffee table. I held it up and dramatically pressed the lower volume button. “Is your hearing aid battery dead again?”
Again, Mrs. Vick didn’t respond. I took the hearing aid out of her left ear and fetched a replacement battery from the drawer in the kitchen. I popped the new battery in; then I placed the tiny device back in her ear. She barely moved.
“I’m making banana bread later. I’ll bring some over tonight.” I locked her door on the way out.
Back at my house I went straight to making the banana bread. My soaps were over and there was no point in watching daytime talk shows. I checked my fridge for eggs; I didn’t want to run to the grocery store, but I would if I needed to. I had a full carton; that was a relief. I preheated my oven and started peeling bananas.
Later that afternoon I had three loaves of banana bread cooling on the counter. I took a shower and dressed properly. When the bread was cool enough, I wrapped one loaf in plastic. With tennis shoes on instead of slippers, this time I cut through the yards instead of going down the drive to the sidewalk.
There was an unfamiliar car parked in Mrs. Vick’s driveway. It was black and almost obscenely shiny. I hesitated, worrying about interrupting her with visitors. I went over anyway. I figured that, if nothing else, company would be an excuse for me to leave quickly. Conversation with Mrs. Vick was always one-sided and awkward. I buzzed the doorbell. Oddly, it was opened almost immediately. A tall man in a suit stood before me holding a notepad.
“I’m looking for Mrs. Vick,” I said. “I brought her some banana bread.”
“When was the last time you saw her?” The man eyed me up and down while we spoke. It gave me the creeps.
“This morning,” I replied.
“Did you bring her banana bread this morning?” It struck me as an odd question. Why would I bring her banana bread twice in one day?
“No, I’m bringing it now. I bring her some every Christmas. Well, not on Christmas-Christmas, just like for Christmas. On the 23rd, which doesn’t have a proper name like Christmas.”
“Why the 23rd?” asked the man. I thought it was rude. Who questions how someone gives a gift? Who was he to question me at all?
“That’s the day I make banana bread. Is Mrs. Vick here?” I tried to peer around him into the house.
“Oh, she’s here alright. Been in the same spot for a decade according to the medical examiner.”
“Medical examiner?” I repeated.
“She’s dead. Mummified body’s in the living room. So I find it rather interesting that you saw her this morning.”
“That can’t be. What kind of sick joke is this? And who are you?” This was crazy, just plain crazy.
“I’m Detective Martin, and no one’s joking here. You said you bring her banana bread every year. How long has that been going on?”
“This year would be ten years. I make banana bread on the 23rd. Three loaves. One for me, one for my sister, and one for Mrs. Vick. I bring it over here and leave it on the kitchen counter for her.”
“You don’t find it odd that she never eats the bread?”
Of course she ate the bread. I pushed past the weird man into the house. Mrs. Vick was just going to have to explain to him that she wasn’t dead and that she loved the banana bread. But Mrs.Vick’s desiccated body was propped in her recliner.
The detective gestured to the kitchen counter. Nine loaves of moldy banana bread sat there, untouched. But what really unnerved me was the bloody message scrawled on the white blanket covering Mrs. Vick’s lap. It was just one word: