Too early for spring, you couldn’t trust such blinding-white sunshine in mid-March. And the smell of damp earth thawing, reviving—too soon.
Abigail was feeling light-headed. Unreal.
A seismic sensation, as if the very earth were shifting beneath the wheels of her car, on the familiar drive home.
Staring ahead, dismayed—blocking the road was a barrier with a jarring yellow sign: detour.
Rarely elsewhere than in her car did Abigail address herself, and usually in an exclamatory/exasperated tone. If anyone had overheard she’d have been mortified.
Three quarters of the way home and now she’d be forced miles out of her way. For these were country roads that intersected infrequently, unlike urban streets laid in a sensible grid. She would get home later than she’d planned and have less time to herself before her husband returned from work.
That dreamy interlude, preparing a meal with care, for just herself and her husband. A fireside dinner, with candles.
And she had good news to share with Allan, which she would keep for just the right moment.
Darling, guess what!
The lab report?
Not totally unexpected news. Not after months of treatment. But exhilarating nonetheless—for in a year of medical news not invariably good, even mildly good news was welcome.
One by one, with robotic precision, the vehicles ahead of Abigail turned left onto a smaller road. She wondered at their docility—she was tempted to drive around the damned barricade.
Her house was less than a mile away. Should she take a chance? No impediments or construction were visible in the road.
You had to resent the non-negotiable nature of detour: ask no questions—no one to ask—simply follow the signs, trusting that they will lead you to your destination.
Was ignoring a detour illegal? Was it dangerous?
What a strange thing for Mom to do! Getting a traffic ticket, a summons, the first in her lifetime . . .
She was not an impulsive person.
For thirty years she’d lived in the same house in the suburbs five miles west of Stone Ridge, New Jersey, with her husband and, while they’d been young, their several children; thirty years, the unvarying route on North Ridge Road. In all those years she’d driven into the surrounding countryside only rarely and had little knowledge of the network of back roads. She could not recall ever encountering a detour or, if she had, how inconvenient the detour had been.
She’d hoped to have more time to herself in the house, in the kitchen, which was her favorite room, before her husband returned from work. Though possibly Allan was already home, for he’d become semiretired the previous year. His schedule now varied from week to week, as he was needed at the firm.
Her husband’s custom was to recount his day to her in detail: what he’d done at the office, how much (or how little) he’d accomplished, with whom he’d had meetings, or met for lunch, or spoken on the phone. There were ongoing narratives—names that had become familiar to her over the years, though she’d met only a few of her husband’s colleagues; rivalries, alliances, sudden rifts, feuds, tragic developments, startling consequences. In these accounts, Allan was invariably the protagonist: the center of the narrative.
Though Abigail did not always listen closely to his reports, she took comfort in hearing them. Impossible not to feel a wave of tenderness for the man who, through the years, from the very start of their marriage, solemnly recited to his wife the banalities of his life, as a child might recite the events of his life to his mother, secure in the knowledge that anything he did, anything he said, because it was his, would be prized by her if not by anyone else.
In exchange, Abigail told her husband of her day, more briefly. For she was the wife, and she had a dread of boring him.
As a young woman, indeed as a girl, Abigail had learned to shape herself to fit the expectations of others. If there was a singular narrative of her life it had the contours of a supple, sinuous snake, ever delighting in its contortions and in the shimmering, iridescent camouflage-skin that contained it.
Even as a mother! Perhaps as a mother most of all.
Crucial not to let them know. How frightened you are, how little you understand. How astonished you are that they have survived.
For nothing is so flimsy seeming as a human infant. Soft-skulled, soft-eyed, with such tiny lungs, you fear it might collapse with wailing.
“Damn!”—her car was bumping, jolting. A fierce winter had left the narrow country road in poor condition, potholed and rutted. Following a line of other vehicles, Abigail was forced to drive unnaturally slowly, gripping the steering wheel with both hands. A throbbing pain had begun at her temples, the sensation of unreality deepened.
Surely, the detour would double back soon? You had to surmise that a detour describes a half-rectangle around an impassable road, the object of which is to lead back to that road, on the other side of the blockage. But Cold Soil Road seemed to be leading in the opposite direction from North Ridge.
She should call Allan, to tell him that she’d probably be late, but her phone was in her handbag, out of reach in the back seat where she’d carelessly tossed it.
In late afternoon the sun was unnaturally bright. The sky resembled a watercolor wash of pale oranges, reds—too “pretty” to be real—and of a particularly banal prettiness, like calendar art. Deciduous trees that only the previous week had been skeletal and leafless were now luminous with tight little greeny buds.
Too soon!—Abigail felt a frisson of alarm, dread.
Cruel to awaken the dead, in spring. More merciful to let us sleep.
From Cold Soil Road her car was shunted onto a narrower country road that seemed to have no name, or at least not one she could discover. No choice but to follow the detour signs, with resentment and mounting unease, though a left turn should have been followed by a right turn, to begin to complete the (rectangular) figure of the detour, and not this slow curve leftward into the countryside.
Traffic was sparse on this unnamed road, all in the other direction, strung out along the detour like dispirited bedouins. Worse, after so much jolting, the steering wheel of Abigail’s car seemed to be loosening; each time she turned it the car responded less immediately, as if she were driving on ice.
At last, at a curve, she turned the wheel with no effect at all—the car continued forward, off the road and in the direction of a shallow ditch. Panicked, she pumped the brakes, but this too had little effect.
Something struck her forehead, as if in rebuke. She heard a murmur of startled voices at a distance, witnesses to her folly.
She cried in protest: No! It was not her fault, something had happened to the steering wheel.
The front wheels of her car were in the ditch, the rear of the car remained on the roadway. The windshield had seemed to fly back toward her, striking her forehead. She was sobbing with frustration, dismay. What had happened to the steering wheel? And the brakes—useless.
Much effort was required for Abigail to extricate herself from the tilting car. Pushing the driver’s door open, climbing out into the road, panting. Her heartbeat was erratic, like her breath. She’d been so taken by surprise! Her balance had been affected, she walked as if on the listing deck of a boat.
A vehicle approached, she waved frantically for it to stop but the driver seemed not to see her, continuing past without slackening his speed. The vehicle’s windshield shone with reflected sunshine, she could not see the driver’s face.
Calling after in a pleading voice, “No, wait! Please don’t leave me . . . ”
Her handbag had been left in the back seat, and she could not bring herself to climb into the car. Fortunately the ditch was fairly shallow, the front wheels were submerged in less than a foot of water but the water smelled brackish, foul; she did not want to wade into it, still less did she want to grope around where water had begun to seep inside, with a hoarse gurgling sound as of occluded breath.
Peering through the side windows she couldn’t see her handbag; she guessed that it had been flung onto the floor. No, she couldn’t retrieve it, not her cell phone, not her wallet. The key was still in the ignition, she couldn’t bring herself to retrieve that, either.
In the interim, another vehicle had passed, driving imperturbably on despite the sight of Abigail and her car partway in the ditch.
She climbed back onto the roadway, trying to hold herself erect, unswaying. She understood: it was crucial not to give an impression of drunkenness, or injury. (Was her face bleeding? A stranger would not wish to bloody the interior of his car.)
Her fingers gingerly touched her throbbing forehead and came away unbloodied, but her nostrils felt loose and runny—was her nose bleeding? She dared not touch it for fear of injuring herself further.
But what had happened to her left shoe? She was standing in just one shoe; on her left foot was a light woolen sock, soaked from the ditch.
Miserably she looked around on the roadway to see whether the shoe was there—but no, of course it was inside the car, no doubt on the floor in the front, which had begun to fill with water.
No choice but to make her way, limping, half-sobbing, along the road, in the direction of a nearby house; she would ask to use the telephone. This was not an unreasonable request though she was looking disheveled, and her damned nose was leaking blood.
Now! You must prove yourself.
A curious sort of anticipation overcame her. Almost euphoria.
Most of her life she’d been waiting—for what, she hadn’t known.
As a bright and curious girl-child, waiting for her true life to begin. As a restless but shy adolescent, waiting for her true life to begin. Before she’d met the man she would marry, waiting for her true life to begin. And then, in the months before she’d married this man, waiting for her true life to begin. Before she’d had her first pregnancy, and her first baby—waiting for her true life to begin. And now that the children had grown and gone away—waiting for her true life to begin.
Something meant for me alone. Just—for me.
That has been waiting for me to arrive.
Because I have not been in the right place until now.
But now—am I in the right place?
It was comforting to see that the house she approached wasn’t a derelict farmhouse like others in the area but one that resembled her own: a dignified colonial of wood, brick, and fieldstone; not new, in fact probably at least a hundred years old, but beautifully restored and renovated: roof, shutters, and windows replaced and the clapboards freshly painted creamy white, which suggested that the property owners were affluent like Abigail and her husband, who lived, Abigail calculated, about three miles away—if you took not the circuitous detour but a straight path.
Gravel horseshoe driveway, spacious front lawn with evergreen shrubs; several acres bordered by tall oaks; at the rear, a barn converted into a three-car garage.
Abigail’s heart lifted! Whoever lived in this house would not be suspicious of her but would recognize her as a neighbor. Possibly they knew her, and, yet more possibly, knew her husband. Possibly they had been guests in the R__s’ house, and would be grateful to return their hospitality.
Before ringing the bell Abigail dabbed at her face with a tissue, which came away stained with blood; she used another tissue to wipe her damp eyes, and to blow her nose, cautiously. (Yes, it was bleeding.) With a stab of guilt she recalled having heard the front doorbell in her house ring not long ago, and having stood very still waiting for the ringing to cease and whoever it was to go away from the door; for none of her or Allan’s acquaintances would have rung the doorbell without first notifying her that they were coming, and no one who rang the doorbell without first notifying her was anyone she’d have wished to see.
A second time she pressed the bell, politely. She would not press insistently, for such an act would signal aggression, a kind of threat. Nor would she knock loudly on the door, and frighten or antagonize whoever might be inside, listening somewhere in the interior of the house.
Rehearsing what she might say, with an apologetic smile—Excuse me! I am so, so sorry to bother you but I was following the detour and I’ve had a little accident, my car is in a ditch! If I could use your phone to call my husband . . .
She might have said call Triple A, or call a garage, but she preferred call my husband as this phrase indicated not only the likelihood of a nearby household but the stability of a lengthy marriage. And she would give her address, to establish her identity as a fellow property owner, with all that this entailed in Bergen County, one of the most affluent in the state.
For a confused moment not remembering: Was it Ridge Road? North Ridge?
Ringing the doorbell again, listening for a response. None.
Her forehead throbbed, her nose was leaking blood. If only she’d brought her damned phone!
Despite the prematurely balmy air she was shivering. The sole of her left foot ached, she’d stepped on sharp stones.
Then recalling: there was surely a side entrance to the staid old colonial, a door that led into a small vestibule, and then into the kitchen.
Limping, favoring her shoeless foot, she followed a flagstone path around the side of the house, and there indeed was another entrance. And here too was a doorbell, which she pressed with more confidence—in her own home she understood that whoever pressed the buzzer beside the kitchen door was likely to be familiar with her household: the delivery man, or the gas-meter man, or a friend; those who rang the front door were likely strangers, about whom a homeowner would naturally feel wary.
Are you hiding in there? Please—if you are hiding—I only need to make a phone call, you are under no obligation to help me further . . .
I am not injured. I am not bleeding! I promise.
I am your neighbor.
But no one came to answer this door, either. Abigail shaded her eyes to peer through the window: there was the vestibule with coats, jackets, and sweaters on hooks, boots on the floor, exactly as in her house, and a doorway opening into a kitchen. Bars of sunshine fell slantwise on a tile floor not unlike her own, a deep russet brown. And, on an overhead rack, copper utensils hung shining.
“Hello? Hello? I—I’m in need of—help . . . ”
It seemed to her that she was being observed. A surveillance camera eye, somewhere overhead. On the doorframe, a discreet notice like the one beside the kitchen door of her house: These premises protected by Achilles Home Security, Inc.
Then she realized: whoever lived here surely kept a spare key outside somewhere, beneath the welcome mat, or beneath a flower pot or urn, as she did.
The key to this house wasn’t beneath the welcome mat, Abigail discovered, which was reasonable: keeping a key in such an obvious place was inviting a break-in, as her husband had warned. Better beneath a flower pot, an urn, or a wrought iron chair or table in a nearby courtyard, a little distance from the door and not as likely to be discovered by an intruder, though in this case Abigail was thrilled to discover the key within minutes, beneath an ornamental urn just a few feet away.
Managing then to unlock the kitchen door, and stepping inside, into a warm, yeasty-smelling interior, which felt welcoming to her; she had no fear that an alarm would ring, as indeed no alarm rang. Though certainly she was ill at ease, and would stay in the house only long enough to make a telephone call; she would then return to her incapacitated car and wait for help, and would not inconvenience anyone if she could avoid it.
“Excuse me? Hello? Is anyone here? I—I only just need to make a phone call . . . ”
Her voice trailed off, uncertainly. She stood very still, listening. (Was the floor creaking overhead? Was someone upstairs, also very still, listening?) After a moment she decided no, only just a distant sound of wind in trees, an airplane passing overhead.
Her mouth had gone dry with anticipation. Her heartbeat, triggered by the accident with the car, continued rapidly, with a kind of exhilaration.
So long waiting—for what?
But where was the telephone? Abigail expected to see a wall phone in the kitchen, in the approximate place where it hung in her own, but this kitchen did not precisely resemble hers. The counters were olive, while her counters were, less practically, white; the deep aluminum sink was in a different location, and so were the Sub-Zero refrigerator and the ovens set in the wall (as in her kitchen, there were two ovens, one on top of the other). Close up, the tile floor did not so closely resemble the tile floor in her house but was of a darker hue.
Looking so intently for a telephone had caused the light-headedness to return, as well as a curious fatigue mixed with anxiety, as if, even as Abigail understood (of course!) that she was trespassing in a private household, and had no right to be here, and was behaving very strangely for a person who valued privacy as she did, nonetheless she felt a strong impulse to lie down somewhere, in some quiet place where she would trouble no one, and no one would trouble her; and when she was rested, and thinking clearly again, she would complete the task for which she’d entered the house of strangers . . . Though for the moment the very concepts phone, call, husband had passed out of her consciousness.
She knew her name, though: Abigail R__. And the address of the house in which she’d lived for thirty years—she was sure she could recall it, if required.
However, as long as she was in this (unfamiliar) house, and no one seemed to be home, and she was certainly disturbing no one, she reasoned that she might as well use the bathroom, as she’d been needing to do since the accident. She winced at the loud sound of the toilet flushing, and the groan of old pipes, an echo of the pipes in her own house, which needed replacing. She took her time washing her face with cool water, dabbing at her bruised forehead and blood-stippled nose with wet tissues. A strong smell of lavender soap lifted to her nostrils, a scent that brought comfort.
The children in this household, too, had grown and gone away, she thought. For you could not have luxury soap in a downstairs bathroom if there were children in the house, you could have only utilitarian soap, and even this they’d leave filmy with the grime of their hands. Impossible, too, to have such delicate linen guest towels.
And so there was something sad, bittersweet in the soap scent.
Wincing, too, to see her face close-up in the bathroom mirror—often she was mystified that she looked so unlike herself, instead resembling one of her older female relatives; though in the eyes of the world, she supposed, she was—still—an attractive woman, well-groomed, poised, cultured. Her skin was still relatively unlined, her hair thick and glossy. She had not the courage, for instance, to dress other than expensively, as she would never have dared appear in public without judicious makeup; her daughters, who’d scorned makeup when they were young, would have been appalled to see their mother without it even in the privacy of her home.
She wiped her hands on a linen hand towel as discreetly as she could and returned the towel to its proper place as neatly as she’d found it.
Thank you! I am so grateful. I will not stay long, I promise.
Continuing now through the downstairs of the house looking for—exactly what, she couldn’t recall. But she would recognize it when she saw it. A small item. A small item placed on a table . . . Unsteady on her feet, and indeed the floorboards of the house were uneven, a characteristic of older houses, like basements—“cellars”—with oppressively low ceilings that could never be raised.
Giddiness increased, unless it was faintness. The sensation of unreality grew like waves lapping about her legs. She was hesitant to lean forward and lower her forehead to her knees to increase the blood flow into her brain, for she feared the action might make things worse, and she would fall in a dead faint and be discovered by strangers and reported to the authorities.
Had to lean against walls. Against the backs of chairs. She seemed to know the way—somewhere. Feeling the need to go upstairs, surrender her pride and crawl on hands and knees up the (carpeted) staircase, out of breath and wincing in pain.
At the top of the stairs, resting for several minutes before heaving herself to her feet. Almost there, she consoled herself. Wherever it was, she needed to go. She’d have to conserve her strength, dared not squander it heedlessly; once she’d slept for an hour she was certain to feel much better, and to know what to do next.
Someone she’d meant to contact—a husband? Her husband?
His name had fallen away, his face was a blur. His name—well, she would know his name, to which her own name was attached . . .
With the instinct of a blind creature she staggered into a room containing a bed. At the top of the stairs, first right. It was a large room—it was a large bed. Her trembling hands managed to pull back a satin comforter so that she could fall into the bed with a shuddering sigh—every bone in her body dissolving, disappearing into the most exquisite sleep; and when she opened her eyes she found herself staring at a ceiling less than eight feet above her head, unless it was a low-hanging cumulus cloud. She smiled at the sight! Her brain was well rested, a kind of balm had washed over it.
The bed was so large she felt dwarfed within it. The sheets were of exceptionally good quality but dampened by her sweaty sleep for which she felt chagrin; she reasoned that if she had time she would change the sheets, and no one would be the wiser.
She lifted herself onto her elbows, staring. Where was she? This was not a bedroom familiar to her yet it felt familiar—spacious, with pale rose (silk?) wallpaper, and attractive furnishings that looked like family heirlooms. One of them was a massive mahogany bureau atop which a row of framed photographs had been placed with loving attention.
For you are securely in the world only if there are such photographs of loved ones to testify to your existence, and your worth.
From the bed, however, Abigail could not make out the faces in the photographs. Some were very likely older relatives, others were children. But all were hazy with light reflected from the windows, unnaturally bright for a late afternoon in March.
Here was a rude surprise: Abigail’s clothes had been removed from her body!
Strangely, she appeared to be wearing a nightgown. Neither familiar to her nor unfamiliar: a nightgown of soft flannel in a pink floral pattern, which fitted her naked body loosely.
She blushed hotly to think that someone had dared to undress her while she’d been asleep, and had put a nightgown on her, as one might prepare a child for bed, or a hospital patient; she’d given no consent for anyone to touch her, still less to remove her clothing. That she’d been undressed—and dressed—without having awakened suggested that she’d been sleeping very deeply, perhaps for a longer period of time than she’d imagined.
“Hello? Is someone here?”
Her voice seemed to reverberate in the air close about her.
On her feet, shakily. Bare feet on a carpeted floor. Even the light woolen socks had been removed by whoever had dared to undress her.
While she’d slept her heartbeat had slowed. Now it was rapid again, painful. All her senses were alert.
She must escape! Must find her clothes, dress, and slip from the house. Whoever had dared touch her might return at any moment.
Shuddering to think it might have been a he. A stranger, daring to strip her naked as she lay oblivious in sleep profound as death.
She searched for her clothing in the room and could not find it, though her single shoe lay on the carpet beside the bed as if it had been tossed down. She thought—But just one damned shoe is useless!
In fact, this was not true. Had she not climbed out of her car and walked along the roadway and entered this house wearing but the single shoe? She could do it again if necessary.
Another surprise: when she tried the bedroom door, the doorknob was loose in her fingers.
Though the doorknob turned and turned, it did not open the door.
She pulled at the doorknob.
Panicked she called out, “Hello? Hello?”
Rapping on the door with her fist. “Hello? Is somebody there? I—I’m in here . . . I’m upstairs, I’m here.”
She pressed her ear against the door. Beyond the rapid beating of blood in her ears she could hear—something . . .
Voices? Footsteps? A door opening, closing? The ordinary sounds of a household, at a little distance.
Desperately she struck her fists against the door. Calling out, crying—Hello hello hello! Let me out!—until her throat ached, her voice was cracked and hoarse.
Was she being kept captive?
Of course, it was likely a mistake of some kind. A misunderstanding. She, Abigail R__, closely resembled another woman, perhaps. This other woman was the one intended to be captive.
Standing near the mahogany bureau, still she couldn’t make out the faces in the photographs. No matter how she squinted, the faces inside the frames—adults, children—remained out of focus, hazy with light.
And the view from the second-floor windows: tall trees, mostly leafless, a landscape that was still sere and bleached from winter, though beginning now to revive; since trees surrounded the house there was no visible horizon, all was foreshortened.
Yet, when she looked more closely, she saw that the scene was flat and unconvincing, like a stage set; trees, grass, sky, an overly bright sun all at the same approximate distance from her, lacking depth.
The wave of dizziness intensified. Was she flat as well, in this landscape?
When had “perspective” come into human consciousness?—she tried to recall.
Medieval art was strangely flat, there was no illusion of depth. Human faces lacked expressions, as if the artists of the time did not see the plasticity of the normal face. Children did not resemble children, but rather stunted adults.
She pressed her flushed face against the windowpane, trying to see at a slant—a corner of the barn, which had been converted into a garage; a glimpse of the country road where her car was stranded a quarter-mile away, front wheels in a ditch.
Oh, why had she abandoned her car so quickly! She should have tried to free it from the ditch. If she’d rocked the car forward and back, forward and back, gaining momentum by degrees, as a more confident and skilled driver might have done, she might be home by now. Instead, she’d given up at once, defeated.
Instead, she was trapped in a stranger’s house. Only a few miles from her own house, captive.
Her bladder ached sharply, as a child’s bladder might, in animal panic.
A bathroom adjoined the bedroom, Abigail went to use it, hurriedly.
Here was a spacious, white-tiled bathroom that was clearly in frequent use. Thick towels hung on racks, slightly askew. There were two sinks, neither entirely clean. A mirror just perceptibly spotted. Electric toothbrushes (two), a twisted tube of toothpaste, hand lotion, a hand mirror, a hairbrush, combs (two), cuticle scissors, tweezers . . . At least two people used this bathroom. Abigail lifted the hand mirror and saw, yes—it was a silver mirror, heavy in the hand, ornately engraved but in need of polish.
Mirrors ran the length of the bathroom, in panels. In each mirror a wraithlike figure in a shapeless gown stared at Abigail aghast.
Then she saw the bathroom had a second door, which might lead into another bedroom, or a hallway; but when she seized the knob to turn it, she discovered that it was locked.
She could have sobbed. The doorknob turned but to no avail.
Stumbling back into the bedroom, Abigail saw to her astonishment that a stranger had entered the room in her absence. At first she could not see his face clearly—it was blurred, like a smudged thumb. He must have unlocked the door—the door with the broken doorknob—for there appeared to be no other way into the room. And what was he carrying? A heavy cut-glass vase of dazzling white flowers that exuded a pungent fragrance—gardenias.
“Why, darling! What are you doing out of bed?”
He was startled, alarmed. Genuine concern, an undercurrent of dismay and exasperation.
“And your feet—bare.”
Abigail was sure she’d never seen this man before. He had thick, white, gnarled-looking hair, a low forehead and a broad, flushed face; he wore a dark pinstripe suit that fit his stocky figure somewhat tightly, a white shirt and a necktie, polished dress shoes. He set the vase onto a bedside table: he’d brought the bouquet of white flowers for Abigail.
How powerful, the sickly sweet smell of gardenias! Abigail felt dizzy, dazed as if ether had been released in the airless room.
Stunned speechless as the stranger addressed her worriedly: “Please go back to bed, darling. Do you want to catch pneumonia again? Next time might be fatal. And what if you’d fallen, when no one was here!”
“But I—I—I don’t belong here . . . ”
“Bare feet! For God’s sake.”
He would have led Abigail forcibly back to the bed but Abigail shrank from him, rebuffing his hands, preparing to scream if he touched her—but he did not touch her; instead, unexpectedly, he shrugged and turned aside, as if Abigail’s behavior had offended him.
“Ah, well. It’s just good that I’ve come home. I never know what—what in bloody hell—I will discover.”
He laughed, harshly. Clearly he was disgusted. But he was also dismayed. Yanking off his necktie, and hanging it in a closet on a rack of other ties; Abigail could see that these were expensive designer ties. His back to her, oblivious of her, matter-of-factly he removed his suit coat, and hung it carefully in the closet; removed his white dress shirt, his trousers, and his shoes, to change into more comfortable attire—red plaid woolen shirt, khaki trousers, moccasins.
A heavy sigh. “Jesus Christ. I never know.”
Abigail stood staring, astonished. This stranger was changing his clothes right before her eyes, with the casual disdain of a husband. Almost, she was moved to apologize, for clearly there was a profound misunderstanding between them.
To Abigail’s greater astonishment the white-haired man proceeded to recite to Abigail, in grim detail, his day: an early-morning conference call with clients in Tampa and Dallas; a lunch meeting at the club with ___, ___, and ___; much of the afternoon spent at his desk, going over accounts with ___; then, on the phone with ___; then, another conference call, with clients in San Diego and Houston.
Abigail interrupted: “Excuse me!—but I want to go home . . . ”
The white-haired man ceased speaking. A coarse red blush deepened at the nape of his neck. All this while he’d been standing with his back to Abigail, stiff and unyielding, refusing to face her. Abigail sensed that he was very angry; he had not liked being interrupted during his report, which had seemed to him important, and should have impressed his listener.
“I—I said—I want to go home. . . . You’ve locked me in here, I don’t belong here, I want to go home.”
Abigail was shivering violently. The sensation of faintness deepened. She said, stammering: “You—you have no right to keep me here! It’s against the law to keep me against my will! I never consented. I don’t know you. I had an accident on the road but I’m not injured—I don’t need any medical care—I’ve been able to rest and I’m ready now to leave—I want to go home.”
“Darling, you are home. Please just get into bed.”
Gently, grimly the man reasoned with Abigail. He was several inches taller than Abigail and at least thirty pounds heavier, his breathing audible. He might have been appealing to a neutral observer—he was being the most reasonable of men.
Abigail protested: “I—I am not home. I don’t know who you are. This is wrong—this is not my home . . . ”
“Of course this is your home! You’re just very tired, dear. It’s time for your medication.”
“No! No medication!”
Abigail’s voice rose in alarm. The white-haired man dared not press the issue.
“It’s a mistake. I don’t belong here. There was a detour. At North Ridge Road . . . ”
Buoyantly these words came to Abigail, precious as a life jacket to one drowning in treacherous waters—North Ridge Road.
Other words she’d lost, could not retrieve, somehow these crucial words had returned to her, which she was sure would impress her captor.
“Detour? I didn’t notice any detour, darling. You haven’t been out, what would you know of detours and road conditions? I’ve been out. I’ve never heard of any North Ridge Road—I think you must mean Northanger Road. But that’s nowhere near here, that’s over in Hunterdon County.” The man spoke patiently, and with an air of sorrow. Though white-haired, he wasn’t elderly; probably in his early sixties. You could see how disconsolate he was. How close to despair. How bitterly he blamed her.
And how awkward Abigail was, in the flannel nightgown that fell billowing to her ankles and would have tripped her if she’d dared to push past her captor and escape out the door.
But no: she seemed to recall that there was no escape through that door, at least for her.
No escape!—her captor insisted that she return to bed as if she were ill. As if the fault were somehow hers, that she was in this predicament and he was obliged to be with her, overseeing her. For of course she could not be trusted to be alone. For of course she had proven that, with her behavior. Insisting that of course she was home, this was her home, it was upsetting to him, as it was to their children, when she demanded to be allowed to go home, for she was only just tired, and she was only just confused, and had not taken her afternoon medication; but she should be comforted to know—she was home, this had been her home for thirty-two years.
Abigail protested: “But—you are not my husband! This is ridiculous.”
“It is ridiculous. Of course I am your husband, and you are my wife.”
For a long painful moment they stared at each other. Each was trembling, furious.
The thought came to Abigail—You have hurt this man’s feelings terribly. What if you are mistaken? What if he is your husband?
The sensation of faintness deepened. Vertigo, in the brain.
A mistake, some sort of mistake, but whose fault? Abigail could not comprehend.
More likely, Abigail thought, that the man with the gnarled-looking white hair and wounded, peevish face was intended to be her husband, but had been poorly chosen for the role; and that she, Abigail, the wife of another man, had been cast as his wife, just as poorly.
Just as the house in which she found herself, this very bedroom, was intended to replicate, or to actually be, her bedroom, and her house—yet was not.
Abigail recalled that dreams are inaccurate in small, baffling ways. Why?—to understand, one would have to understand the human brain, which is beyond comprehension.
A small mistake can be a cataclysmic mistake. Once such a mistake has been made, who can unmake it?
Why didn’t they send better actors? Abigail had to laugh.
And then: if they’d sent better actors, she would never have realized. A captive, and the “husband” the captor, the keeper of the key, and she, the “wife,” would never have realized.
“You are very tired, dear. And, you know, darling—you are not well . . . ”
Silently, she demurred. Yes. No. But yes—she was very tired.
For the man had the advantage, obviously. He must have a key to the door, for he had dominion over the house. As the roles had been cast, to the male has gone the dominant role; it would be futile for Abigail to protest, so late in her life. If the stranger confronting her would not acknowledge the imposture, if he continued to behave belligerently as if Abigail were indeed his wife of thirty-two years, there was little that Abigail, his captive, could do about it.
A weariness had settled over Abigail like a fine mesh net.
With the forced affability of a husband who is moved to magnanimity in the face of a sullen and unreasonable wife, the man reverted to the (familiar, comforting) subject of his day at work: conference calls, meetings, a luncheon. He spoke of his plans for the next day, and the next; reciting more names, a litany of names, ___, ___, and ___. For if you are a man among men you are securely in the world only if there are such witnesses to testify to your existence, and your worth.
In this way, beating Abigail down as one might beat down a defenseless creature with a broom, not injuring the creature but (merely) beating it down, down, wearing it down; the captive swayed on her (bare) feet, very tired now, faint-headed, weakened as the fine mesh net tightened about her. When had she eaten last, she could not recall. When had she slept last, she could not recall. When had she drawn a deep breath of fresh air, the kind that fills the lungs to capacity and thrills the soul, she could not recall. When had she heard her own name enunciated, what name was hers, she could not clearly recall. Perhaps she was anemic, her blood would require an infusion. Perhaps her brain had begun to dry out, crumble like clay. Perhaps she could no longer chew and swallow solid food, soft-blended food would have to be provided by her captor or captors or she would perish.
The exasperating certitude with which the white-haired man spoke made Abigail realize that she’d lost such certitude herself. In the accident perhaps—her forehead slammed against the windshield.
That was it: the beginning. Her fingertips touched the swollen bruise, sensitive between her eyebrows as a third eye, yet unopened.
She’d misplaced crucial words. She’d left her handbag behind, and the small electronic device with which (she knew! she felt this so strongly) she could have summoned her true husband who would have annihilated this impostor. She’d lost the key to—something. What, she wasn’t sure. In a shadowy region of her brain these crucial words resided but she could not locate the region, and if she did she could not have opened the door, which was locked, or its doorknob sabotaged so that it turned uselessly in the hand. Now she recalled that she’d been seeing signs in recent days, weeks: the faces that mirror your own face, familiar faces that behave in unfamiliar ways; faces whose expressions you must decipher in order to decipher your own condition; those faces that have been smiling, alert, admiring through your lifetime but have now (inexplicably) ceased to smile. When these faces betray alarm, dread, pity, you shrink from being seen by them and you no longer wish to see them.
She cried how she hated him!—why didn’t he let her die.
Pushed his hands away, screamed at him not to touch her even as he protested: “But I love you! My darling wife, please . . . ”
Now he did advance upon her. Clumsy, weeping. As an older man might weep, unpracticed in tears. His arms in the woolen shirt around her, Abigail in the flannel nightgown smelling of her body. She was not without shame—shame would cling to her to the last.
Holding her tight. Holding her as a drowning man might hold another person, desperate that she not escape. Abigail could not breathe; this person was squeezing the breath from her. Arms against her sides, bound tight. As together they staggered toward the bed, fell heavily onto the bed. The physical reality of another’s body is always a shock—size, density, heat. His tears wetted her face. She had not the strength to break free. Until at last too exhausted to resist she lay beside her captor, weeping with him, in deference to him, her brain blank, annihilated. Her eyelids were too heavy to keep open and so what bliss, to surrender to sleep; what bliss, the sweet-sickly dazzling-white smell of gardenias that pervaded the room entering her nostrils, flowing up into her brain like ether precipitating the most delicious sleep in the arms of the stranger.
His arm over her, heavy, comforting.
“My darling wife! I will never abandon you.”
Something was pressing on her chest. An opened hand, a sweaty palm. Terror of suffocation.
Waking abruptly, to glaring light. Was it another day, a morning, or was it the same day, interminable? Had she endured a night?
But sleep had bathed her raw aching brain. She could think more clearly now.
Here was the shock: beside her in the rumpled bed lay the man—the man with the gnarled-looking white hair, the stranger intended to be her husband, on his back, open-mouthed, asleep, breathing deeply as a drowning man might suck at air.
Stunning to Abigail, to realize that she’d slept beside her captor. Hours of oblivion, shame.
In her sleep she had not known. Yet she must have known. Could not have not known.
Again it came to her: how large, how solid, how purposeful, how real, a (masculine) body beside a (female) body, horizontal in bed.
In the night the man must have pulled off the red plaid shirt—his fatty chest was exposed in a thin, strained undershirt. Beneath the satin comforter his lower body might have been naked. (She could not bear to look.) On the carpet beside the bed lay the man’s shirt, trousers that looked as if they had been flung down.
The white hair was disheveled. The face showed strain, fatigue. Coarse hairs sprouted on the jaw. The eyelids quivered. A whistling sound in the nose. Oh, she’d been hearing that whistling in her sleep, it had insinuated itself in her sleep, in her dreams, a bright red thread of mercury, a poison seeping into her brain. Abigail shrank from the man, in revulsion of his damp, perspiring body, and in dread of waking him. A despairing thought came to her, like a reversed prayer—Will I have to kill him, to be free?
An unnatural light shone through windows overlooking a flattened landscape, a bright-blue papier-mâché sky. Piercing laser-white of spring sunshine, from which there is no escape.
And the sweet, poisonous smell of gardenias—this too clung to bedsheets, pillow, her hair, which was matted and wild about her head as if she’d been a captive not for less than twenty-four hours but for many days.
On her (bare, tender) feet!—carefully easing out of the bed. Scarcely daring to breathe for fear that the impostor-husband would awaken suddenly.
She must escape her captor.
She must act quickly, immediately.
She must not allow her captor to take the advantage again. To wake, to overcome her.
Rapidly her thoughts careened along a roadway to an unavoidable destination: she would break the vase over the man’s head as he slept, cracking his skull and rendering him helpless; the blow might not kill him, for Abigail had no experience committing so desperate an act, no sense of how much strength might be required to execute it; nor did Abigail want to hurt another person, even an adversary. Even a poorly cast actor meant to be her husband.
And if she rendered her captor unconscious and helpless, where would she find the key? In a pocket of his trousers? In a drawer somewhere in the room? She had no idea.
Absurd, she could never hurt another person. Not Abigail R__! She had neither the will nor the strength.
He was not to be blamed, perhaps. As blameless as she. As confined.
But she was trembling with excitement, adrenaline flooded her veins like liquid flame. So long as the man slept she had a chance to escape. So long as he possessed no consciousness of her she was free of him. In a closet she discovered women’s clothing, she snatched at a jacket, at slacks, a soft jersey fabric that would be warm against her bare legs, a pair of shoes sturdy for running.
On the bed amid rumpled sheets the white-haired man continued to sleep heavily. His breathing was irregular and hoarse, painful to hear. In his nose, the thin whistling sound that grated against Abigail’s nerves.
For some minutes as in a curious trance of lethargy Abigail regarded the impostor-husband with mounting rage. Obviously, he was the one who’d undressed her. Apart from Abigail he was the sole actor in this preposterous and haphazard drama in which she’d been confined. He had gazed upon her naked body, he had dared to touch her, commandeer her. He had dared to lock her in this room, and he had dared to overwhelm her with his superior weight, his very anguish, he’d dared to force her to lie docile in his arms, too weak to resist. All that he’d done, he had done to her.
Waking from her trance as if someone had snapped their fingers to rouse her, Abigail stealthily lifted the heavy cut-glass vase and carried it into the bathroom, removed the flowers, and, as quietly as she could manage, poured out the water; breathing calmly, thinking calmly, silent on bare feet, she returned swiftly to the bed where her captor lay sleeping, and not giving herself time to think she raised the vase high over her head and brought it down hard on the skull of the slumbering man. He was wakened instantaneously, gave a high shrieking cry, thrashing, bleeding profusely, as with fearless hands Abigail again lifted the vase as high as she could and brought it down a second time against his skull . . .
Wanting to cry in triumph—It isn’t my fault! You took me captive! I didn’t choose this. You will survive.
Quickly then, Abigail adjusted the white silk comforter to hide the ruined, blood-glistening face. The body had convulsed, and had ceased twitching.
She knelt beside the man’s discarded clothing. Searching pockets, frantic to find a key.
Hastily she pulled off the blood-stained nightgown. Hastily she dressed. Threw on clothes. No time to spare, shoving her (bare, tender) feet into shoes that fit, or nearly. In the other closet she discovered, in a pocket of the dark pinstriped suit coat, a key chain—keys; to her sobbing relief one of them fit the bedroom door, and allowed her to open it with a single assertive twist of the knob.
Now she had only to retrace her steps. Hurriedly down the stairs, through the kitchen and out the rear door, into fresh cold bright air, no one to observe, no one to call after her, now running in the awkward shoes of a stranger, panting, out to the road, and along the road a quarter mile or so to her car that was exactly as she’d left it the previous day—front wheels in a shallow ditch, rear wheels on the road.
In a haze of exhilaration, running in bright cold air. After the confinement of the bedroom, after the stultifying embrace of the captor-husband, what joy to draw air deep into her lungs.
So relieved to see her car, Abigail laughed aloud. Though it was shamefully mud-splattered. Her husband would be astonished, disapproving. What have you done, Abby! I just had that car washed. A white car, impractical. After a little difficulty, she managed to open the door to the driver’s seat, managed to climb inside. There, the key in the ignition!—just where she’d left it.
Would the engine start? Abigail shut her eyes, turned the key. Her luck held.
Now, the task of rocking the car forward and back, forward and back, grim, dogged, determined to get the front wheels free, until at last the wheels began to gain traction, borne by momentum. White exhaust billowed up behind. The wheels strained, but took hold. Out of desperation, Abigail succeeded.
With a final jolt the car was up on the road. Four wheels, solidly on the road. Abigail could breathe now. Her eyesight was clearer, her lungs clearer now. If only she’d had more faith in herself the day before—she would be home now, and safe.
Driving back in the direction of North Ridge Road. At least, she believed that she was driving in the direction of North Ridge Road.
Several miles, passing few vehicles. She wasn’t seeing detour signs. Yet, the landscape seemed familiar. And there was North Ridge Road, abruptly.
Again, the barricade and the jarring yellow sign: detour.
Again, no one in sight. No crew repairing the road, no impediment beyond the barricade that she could see. She calculated that she was less than a mile from her house and so, impulsively, she drove around the barricade, and continued on North Ridge as she should have done the previous day. The sun was still unnaturally bright, luminous. Budding leaves were just perceptibly greener than the previous day. Her heart was suffused with hope, in minutes she would be home.