Bill was at the foot of the stairs, in a state of obvious agitation.
"Bi-ill", she called back in a mocking voice. "I'm getting ready for work. You know I'm walking today. I have to leave in 15 minutes. Can't this wait?"
"No, it can't wait. What the hell is sitting behind the recliner?"
"Behind the recliner?!"
She came down the stairs quickly. Sandy did everything quickly. That was her thing. Today was the only the third day this spring that was nice enough for her to quickly walk the 7.5 miles to work. Quite a hike for someone nearly 70 but still, something that she didn't take on during winter or on really rainy days. It was only one bus to her work, something that was a major factor in picking the house they had lived in for the last 19 years, and she had her car so, if she didn't walk, it still worked out quickly and efficiently.
"What are you going on about, Bill? You sat in the recliner last night to watch your sports. You broke it?"
"I'm not going on about anything, Sandy. And I didn't break anything. I'm asking you to look at what's sitting behind the recliner and tell me what is going on."
Bill went over to the recliner and pointed at the metal object that sat there. It was about 4 feet tall, cone shaped, like a pine tree, with a base about 2 feet across and tapering to a slightly rounded point at the top. All around the outer surface were indentations, like footholds for rock-climbing leprechauns.
Sandy turned to him with a blank expression on her face. "I don't understand."
"Well, neither do I," said Bill. "That's why I got you down here. There's only two of us living here. I know I didn't put it there, whatever the hell it is, which leaves only you. So, what the hell is it?"
"No, Bill, I mean, I don't understand what you're talking about. I don't see a thing."
Bill studied her for a few seconds. "Oh, well, that's really cute. What did you do, stick it there in the middle of the night and now you're going to try to scare the shit out of me? Look me straight in the eye and tell me you don't see anything there, Sandy."
Sandy looked him straight in the eye. She had an expression of sheer earnestness on her face, mixed with a little fear. "Bill, I'm not sure what kind of game you're playing, but I don't have time for it. I'm going to be late for work. I don't see anything there. When I get to work, I'll call the doctor. Maybe that new blood pressure medication he put you on is causing hallucinations. But, right now, I've got to go."
With that, she turned on her heel, ran back up the stairs, collected her backpack that had been prepared the night before, put her walking sneakers on, tied them carefully, zeroed the timer on her watch, and was gone, without a goodbye, all in less than 5 minutes, leaving Bill glaring at the mysterious thing behind his recliner.
He thought back to the fast ones she'd pulled over the last year. There was that trip she'd booked to Alaska, telling him about it a week before departure and making it sound as if he'd been the one who came up with the idea. Sure, he enjoyed the trip, but planning the thing had nothing to do with him. Then there was the dishwasher and the blender and how many other things that appeared in the kitchen, her spreading glowing praises on him for his generosity and foresight and him knowing bloody well he had nothing to do with any of it.
The major reason he didn't object was because he was not supposed to object to things, to exert himself, or get overexcited. The quadruple bypass, done nearly 12 years ago, was at or near the end of its serviceable life. This had been made clear to him when it was done. It was also made clear that, barring any major advancements in medical procedures, it could only be done once. Keeping that in mind, he slowly and cautiously moved the recliner ahead and went closer to investigate the object. What the hell was it? Some kind of advertising thing? He pushed and pulled and tried to lift it, but it wasn't moving. He got down to investigate and couldn't see any screws holding it, but it was not going to move. Finally, he sat down on the couch to evaluate the situation. After about 10 minutes of contemplation, he called his only friend, Artie.
Sandy made the walk to work in near-record time. She was very pleased with this. This was only the third walk of this season. Last year, during the good weather, her goal had been to walk 60 times and to do it, at least once, in less than two hours, what she called record time. She achieved the record three times, making it each time in 1 hour and 58 minutes. The 60 walks, however, eluded her. She got to 59 and the weather broke and that was that. Never one to be disappointed, she congratulated herself on the earnest fortitude she'd shown and set her goals for this, the new walking season. Making only her third walk of the year in 2 hours and 7 minutes was exhilarating and helped to cement all her feelings about herself.
When she got in the building, she went through the motions of making the obligatory greetings to her 2 co-workers, then settled her jacket and walking sneakers in the closet, put on her working sneakers, tied them carefully, then went into the office/showroom she'd worked in for the last 42 years. It was once a bustling little taxidermy shop, an enterprise that allowed the founder to keep his daughters in whatever illicit drugs they needed, while he spent his days sitting behind a desk in a tiny alcove off the office/showroom, glad to be away from his loathsome daughters and hateful wife, leaving the room only when called upon to answer some work-related question, whereupon he would dispense abuse upon whatever fool had disturbed his peace, rant and rave about everyone 'getting their ducks in a row', then return to his solitude, occasionally coming out at the ends of days to scream at Sandy, demanding that she turn over the cash that had come in that day, her refusing, knowing full well that it would be spent on the useless daughters while unpaid bills piled up on her desk. She was a curious mixture of a stealthy determination that rubbed certain people the wrong way, and an uncanny ability to endure the most extreme criticism that came because of it.
When the founder of the business died, it was taken over by one of the ex-employees, who brought the thing back from the edge of extinction. Once a going concern, the taxidermy industry had been declining steadily. Groups like Greenpeace and PETA had slowed the enthusiasm for all violence against animals. Married women, seizing the day, began to make dead heads hung on the wall an obscene thing that had to end. Mix that with the more local problem of the endless embezzlement of funds that had gone into feeding the daughters' habits, and the new owner had a rough go ahead of him. Through all that, he relied on Sandy's knowledge and abilities, and admired many of her talents, but carried on the tradition of abuse, sometimes sitting all day at his chair, sewing this or stuffing that, ranting and raving about her to whoever would listen, or to no one at all when he was alone, while she sat quietly at her desk, not twenty feet away, enduring it all. Enjoying it, really. It meant she had control.
She uncovered her beloved old electric typewriter. All attempts to get her to do invoicing, bookkeeping and correspondence on a computer had failed. She finally condescended to going online to apply for the obligatory government permits for the handling and shipping of animal skins that were to be turned into ornamental objects, but only because there was no alternative. Either she did it, or, nearly 40 years of service or not, she had to go. Going was not an alternative. As far as she was concerned, she would work there for the next 40 years.
Over her desk, she kept what her fellow workers called 'the wall of death', where she displayed the carefully-clipped newspaper obituary notices of everyone who'd ever worked at the taxidermy shop, prominent customers, lodge owners, association bigwigs and even the guy who'd once played DJ music at a Christmas gathering of local big-game hunters. She saw this as a charm of sorts, like a shaman collecting bits and pieces that are symbolic of grand moments in life and putting them into a bundle. Every day, she got to gaze on the fools who had succumbed to the weakness of death. Why couldn't they understand? People don't have to die. With a strong enough will, endless determination and careful planning, no problem is insurmountable, not even dying. She was in near-perfect health. She had no aches and pains, never got seriously ill. Even nearing 70, she could outwork anyone, male or female, who'd ever come to work there, hauling enormous frozen polar bear hides, alone, in from the outside cooler and down the stairs to the skinning/fleshing room, then climbing into the garbage dumpster and stamping down the refuse, because it wasn't efficient to get it dumped when it wasn't completely full, then going into the office and doing all the complex and confusing paperwork necessary to get the hides shipped in and the finished work out of the shop.
Later in the morning, when there was a lull in her schedule, she was on the phone to Bill's doctor, informing him of the sudden change in Bill's behaviour and asking him to call Bill and possibly get him in. At the same time, Bill was greeting Artie at the door to his house. The two had known each other for decades and had once worked side by side in a car dealership, prepping new cars for sale. They were nearly the same size years ago, but Artie got rear-ended in an auto accident at some point, leaving him with chronic whiplash-related neck pain, and the nerve blockers he took had caused him to balloon up to over 300 pounds. Bill was glad he had, at least, not succumbed to that fate, though they had both lived through massive heart attacks and felt at least some kind of a bond because of that. Bill greeted him enthusiastically.
"Artie, you are not going to believe what I'm going to tell you."
After her 2 co-workers left at the end of the day, Sandy finished up some paperwork, set the phones to transfer to her own home, set the alarm and took the bus home. After 19 years of taking the same bus from the same shop to the same house, she was, like most things, indifferent to the entire process and interacted with the driver and fellow passengers only when necessary.
When she arrived home, it was to find Bill sitting disconsolately on the couch, facing the recliner, which had been pushed back into position. A bed sheet hung over the offending tree-like object.
"What did you do?" he asked. "Did you promise him money? Sex? Have you and him become partners now? Have the two of you been having it off under my nose? Was it him that snuck in here last night after I was asleep and put the thing there? You can tell me. I don't care anymore. I'm leaving tomorrow morning, so there's no point in not just spilling your guts."
Sandy just looked at him and shook her head. "Who the hell are you talking about?"
"Who. As if you don't know. Artie came over here today. I'm sure you knew I'd call him. Who else could I call? Amazingly, he couldn't see the damn thing either. That's quite a trick. How'd you do it?"
"Honestly, Bill, you're starting to scare me. I called your doctor today. Did he not call here and ask you to come in?"
Bill hesitated. "Yeah, he called here. And, yeah, he did suggest I come in. I suggested he come here instead and see for himself that I was telling the truth, but he doesn't do house calls. Convenient, no? Hey, do you think I should call the cops? They do house calls."
"OK, Bill, I'm going to start supper. When we're done eating, I'll call my boss and tell him I won't be in tomorrow and you and I will go to the doctor together."
"Why don't you call your boss and ask him to come over and look at that thing? Or have you got to him too?"
Sandy just shook her head sadly and went into the kitchen, putting Bill's madness out of her mind while she turned some nice fresh greens into a salad, and grilled expensive, super-lean steaks under the broiler, the old-fashioned way. She'd carefully lined the oven with tinfoil to make sure none of the splatter from the steaks marred the sides or bottom. When she was done, the tinfoil would be discarded and the grill that the meat sat on would be taken out and cleaned thoroughly before she would consider the meal over.
She heard a loud, repetitive banging noise from the living room but ignored it. She was sure Bill was acting out his new mania in some bizarre fashion. It was when she heard a groan and a thud that she turned the broiler off and set the salad to the side, although the greens would surely wilt with any kind of interruption and she had no idea how the steaks would turn out. When she got to the living room, the recliner was, once again, pulled out and a baseball bat lay on the floor beside it. Bill was on the floor as well, clutching the left side of his chest, his face flushed, his breathing shallow and labored. She'd seen this all 12 years ago. She told him to relax, then went to call an ambulance. Within minutes a fire truck arrived, quickly followed by an ambulance that carted Bill off, racing through suburbia to get him to the downtown trauma centre, Sandy following in her own sedan, Bill's SUV being far too expensive on gas for her to drive.
It wasn't even a close call. He was dead by the time they got him in the ambulance, though parts of his body didn't know it yet. When he stopped breathing enroute, they made some efforts to revive him, but they'd seen enough bad ones to know this guy was not coming back and let him go before they reached the hospital.
Sandy took the news with her usual stoic calm. She returned to the house, turned the TV on and sat in the recliner, went to the menu and selected a 24-hour news program. While the announcer droned on about some new disease that had just erupted in China, she put down the remote and picked up the phone. She dialed, then focused on the news while she waited for it to be picked up.
"Artie," she said, when she heard a male voice on the other end. "Thanks."
With that, she hung up the phone and reached back to give the thing behind her an appreciative rub, then picked up the remote and turned up the volume on the TV.