Before his disappearance, Doug and I had made love twice a month like clockwork. We had decided that for us to have a successful marriage we had to keep the passion alive, even though scheduling sex for every other Saturday night was the least passionate thing I could think of. Still, it had a comforting kind of rhythm. By our schedule, we were still almost a week away from Sex Night, but I had missed him too over the last week when I’d been living with a stranger who told stories and communed with nature.
I returned his kiss. Doug peeled off the towel. I wrapped my arms around him and laid my head on his shoulder. But something wasn’t right. He wasn’t right. This wasn’t the body I remembered. Doug had never been overweight. He’d been a competitive swimmer in college, and his suburban-dad activities of mowing the lawn and coaching soccer had kept him in relatively good shape. Now his body had returned to the form it had been when we had met almost twenty years ago. His abdomen was as well-defined as a bodybuilder’s and his upper arms, which had begun to sag, were now so thick it would have taken both my hands to encircle them. My fingers running over his back caught on the raised form of a scar where none should’ve been. I pushed away and circled behind him. A jagged welt ran from his left shoulder to a few inches above his right hip.
“The dragon,” he said. “That son of a bitch had claws the size of bastard swords. I got this one from Drouga, the leader of the northern barbarians, but after I defeated him single combat, we became blood brothers.” Doug turned to show a second scar that ran less than an inch from his right nipple across several ribs.
“Doug,” I said, “you need to see someone. Talk to someone. You must’ve been kidnapped and tortured, and your mind’s made up these dragons and barbarians to cover up what you’ve repressed.”
Doug sighed. He picked up his t-shirt and pulled it over his head. “I knew you wouldn’t want to believe me. I thought about lying to you and the kids. I really did. But look at the evidence, Meghan. Do you think terrorists put some magical potion on my face to make me grow two weeks worth of beard in twenty-four hours? How did they make my scars look months old? Not to mention what terrorists would want with an insurance adjuster in the first place. Think, Meghan. Wrap your logical brain around the evidence. It really happened. I want you to believe me. I need you to believe.”
I headed for the bathroom.
“You just showered,” he said.
“Well, then, I’ll shower again.”
A week later, Calvin announced he wanted fencing lessons. He stood in the middle of the kitchen so that I couldn’t continue preparing dinner until he moved. His arms were crossed and his chin was raised as if he was challenging me to a duel.
“I don’t even know where there are fencing lessons,” I said and opened the fridge to pretend that the next ingredient I needed was there instead of the pantry behind him.
“Tampa.” He widened his stance.
“Calvin, that’s a forty-five minute drive. Who is going to chauffeur you back and forth?” I grabbed a jar of mustard and set it on the counter. I didn’t know how mustard could possibly contribute to lasagna, but the eggs and cheese were already out.
He could’ve argued that since I teach 10th grade math I had plenty of time during the summer. But instead he said, “Dad.” He smiled slightly as if to say, “Round one: Calvin.”
“Your father works ten hours and more a day. What makes you think he would be willing to drive you to Tampa and back every week?” I tried to slide past him on the counter side, but he side-stepped. I refused to make further attempts to dodge him so I stepped back, my hands lifted in surrender.
“He said so.” He grinned. Point and match.
This was the first time my son had smiled at me in months. I wished I could feel happy about it.
When I confronted Doug that evening, he seemed confused by my anger.
“I know it’s a lot of gas, but you’ve been saying for months, ‘If only Calvin would do something.’ You didn’t seem to care what. What’s wrong with fencing?”
“It’s useless. It’s so impractical.”
Doug looked at me. We both knew this had nothing to do with the impracticality of fencing. I would’ve been overjoyed if Calvin had announced he wanted to try out for cheerleading or play miniature golf every day.
Calvin had held out as an observer of his brother’s and father’s excursions for almost a week, but now all three of them set off into the wilderness every night. They came back muddy to the knees and smiling. I’d even caught Calvin laughing a couple of times at something Doug had said. I knew Doug was telling his stories to them. Timmy had been going on and on about sword fighting chimeras and gorgons.
“It encourages violent behavior,” I tried.
“I think anything that can help channel Cal’s emotions is a good thing. He’s bottled-up, Meghan. Learning to fence might keep him from exploding.”
I nodded because he was right.
Doug’s fantasies were taking over our family. I could admit that this might be having some positive effects. But I still didn’t like it.
“Let me just get my toothbrush out of the bathroom,” Doug said.
The next Wednesday was the first lesson. I made spaghetti for Timmy and me and listened to him talk about smugglers with more realism than any eight year-old should be able to.
“And I would make a pact with Captain Harry One-Eye. He lost his left eye in a poker game. He bet it against Maude the Maid, but she had four twos, and he only had a full-house. She keeps it in a bottle behind her bar.”
“Maude owns a tavern?”
“Nah, it’s a brothel.” Timmy looked around to make sure Calvin hadn’t returned. “Mom, what’s a brothel?”
“A place where women live together and play poker.”
“That’s what I thought.”
After dinner, I took the garbage out. The golden orbs appeared as I put the lid back on the trash can. They floated over the driveway mocking me.
“Sons of bitches,” I said. I waved my arms at them to indicate they weren’t wanted, although my flailing might’ve confused them since you use the same motion to flag down cars for help.
When my gesticulating had no effect, I headed toward the garage. I was looking for a weapon. A shovel. A rake. Something to chase their glowing asses back to Saelinas. All the pointy tools were trapped behind piles of boxes and the kids’ bikes. I grabbed a can of bug spray and returned to the end of the driveway shooting it in front of me. “Take that! Stay away from my family, you golden assholes!”
I sprayed until the can was empty, and I was coughing from inhaling the pesticide. Still, they hovered. I imagined they looked hurt. That they were drooping, not as perky as they had before I had done my best to give them cancer.
“Take that,” I whispered.
That night it was my turn to wait on the bed while I listened to Doug give Calvin pointers. “Use your wrist. Fencing is an art of agility, not strength.”
Doug looked sad and tired when he saw me. I hadn’t thought about it, but the weeks since his disappearance he had appeared more alive than he had in years. It was only when he looked at me that he seemed to slump back towards his old self.
Doug went into the closet to hang up his jacket and change into something more comfortable. He hadn’t had a chance to change out of his work clothes before driving Calvin into Tampa, but neither of them would hear of me taking Calvin instead. “Cal did really well for his first time. I think he might have natural talent.”
“Doug, I need to know the truth.”
Doug came out of the closet and joined me on the bed. He held my hands and looked me in the eyes. “When have I ever lied to you?”
“Please,” I said.
He hung his head. “I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t think it was worth it. The pain it would cause you.”
My heart thudded. I closed my eyes. Finally. Doug would explain all the things I couldn’t.
“I was weak. It doesn’t mean I love you any less. I should’ve told you when you first asked. It’ll never happen again. I swear.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Queen Estira. I knew she was evil, but, Meghan, she was so beautiful.”
I threw his hands back at him and stormed into the bathroom. I locked the door. Fuck him and his toothbrush. I turned on the spray too hot so that I had to whimper to stand it. I thought about Doug’s scars, the smoothness of the skin my fingers had traced, the different way he moved. Over the last few years, Doug had begun to stoop, as if each year weighed him down further. Now, that burden had been lifted. He laughed more and barely seemed tired when he came home from work. It was as if he had brought back a part of his magical world to suburbia and had dumped his old baggage onto me. Why did Doug get a fairy tale world while I got Calvin’s bitter stares? I didn’t even get to read Timmy stories any more; he always wanted Doug. Why not me? What was so special about Doug?
I closed my eyes and leaned my forehead against the wall. I found myself picturing a woman with black hair hanging past her hips and lips as red as poison. She looked into my eyes as if she had never wanted anyone else.
“Kiss me,” she said as she ran her fingernail over my nipple.
I touched myself as I surrendered to her command.
After all my talk about the unbearable humidity of the mangroves, I couldn’t ask to join their walks. I’d been trying to convince Timmy and Calvin that the bug bites and scratches weren’t worth a little quality time with their father.
I only began waiting for their return on the darkened porch out of curiosity. I wanted to know what exactly Doug was filling their heads with. My fingernails tapped against the stem of my wine glass, and I leaned against the rail to hear the tail-end of Doug’s nightly story as they came trudging out of the woods.
They went over to the spigot beside the house to wash the mud off their rubber boots. Timmy asked some question I didn’t hear.
“I would’ve,” Doug said, “but there were dwarves standing guard.”
“Dwarves?” I could hear the curl of Calvin’s lip.
I smiled. That’s my boy.
“Dwarves can be very upsetting,” Doug said.
Any response the boys made was lost under the noise of rushing water.
Very upsetting, I silently agreed.
The next week the golden orbs were back. I stood at the screen door watching them. I wanted to scream and throw things. I imagined myself with an épée in my hand saying, “On guard.” I wanted a gun or one of Timmy’s lasers. Poison gas buttons. Even another can of bug spray.
I’d put Timmy in front of the TV with enough ice cream to make him sick. That way I could be sure he wouldn’t go outside. It seemed pitiful that my only weapons to keep my family together were sweets and carcinogens.
I needed an expert. I turned to the yellow pages. First, I found myself staring at exterminators. I picked up the phone, but I couldn’t make myself believe they would be able to help me. These weren’t some exotic species of firefly. These things, God help me, were the portal to another world. After a little flipping I found the address of an occult store on the other side of town.
I drove there the next day. From the outside, it looked just like a one-story house in need of a power washing and the attentions of a weed whacker. I wouldn’t have thought it was a store except for a small sign hanging from the mailbox notifying me that Visa and Mastercard were accepted.
The store was nothing more than the converted front room of the house. The door jingled behind me and a wide-hipped woman wearing a caftan ducked through the curtain separating the room from the rest of the house. I could hear the sounds of a morning talk show playing behind her.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
I looked around at the bookshelves containing titles like Drowsing for Beginners and Oil and Brews. Jars in another case held dried herbs labeled Elderberries, Wormwood, and Mandrake.
“I hope so,” I said. “I have a problem with some orbs.”
“Golden,” I specified. “They come on Wednesday nights and hover over my driveway.”
Her eyes lit up. “What time on Wednesday?”
I had a vision of a mass of blousy women with scraggly hair congregating on my driveway and chanting. The homeowners’ association would have a fit.
“Midnight,” I said. “How do I get rid of them?”
“One should never look down on the gifts of the goddess.”
“I understand, but how do I get rid of them?”
“Why do you want to?”
I opened my mouth to explain what they had done to my husband, but all I could think of was: they made Doug grow a beard.
“They’re a menace,” I said. “I’m afraid they’ll destroy my family.”
“Is that what you’re really afraid of?”
“They’re tearing us apart.”
“Maybe the orbs are not the problem. Maybe it’s your refusal to accept the gift you’ve been given.”
I thought about talking to this woman as if she was my therapist: It’s like they’ve all joined a cult without me. No girls allowed in the playhouse. Then I looked at her vapid but sincere smile. She was a charlatan who believed in the miracle cure she was peddling.
I picked up a large, transparent rock from a table labeled Crystals. “I’ll take this one.”
The next Wednesday Calvin had a fever and even though he still wanted to go to Tampa even Doug’s laissez-faire style of parenting wouldn’t drive him there.
To keep Doug in the house and away from the driveway, I made up a story about a date to see a movie with a friend. “Will you stay here in case Calvin needs anything?” I asked.
“I was going to take Timmy over to play with Georgia, but it might be better if he stayed here with you.”
“I’ll take the garbage out on my way.”
“Have a good time.”’
I felt nauseous as I walked down the driveway. My throat was sore and tight as if I had swallowed a knife. I wouldn’t be gone long. They’d barely miss me. I put the bag in the can, and the orbs materialized.
I was going to get my family back. I stepped into their golden light. It faded around me. I hadn’t gone anywhere. I screamed and kicked the garbage can, overturning it and spilling its contents into the street. I’d been rejected by a bunch of garbage orbs.
“Meghan?” Doug called. He came out the side door and jogged down the driveway. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I thought I saw something, but it was just my imagination.”
Doug’s face was covered in lather. A swath of beard was gone from his left cheek.
My look was a question.
“I thought it was time to come home,” he said. “I’ve decided I don’t need you to believe me. I promise I won’t talk about Saelinas anymore. It’ll be like it never happened.”
I touched Doug’s bare cheek and drew him close. I observed our suburban corner of the world over his shoulder. The night smelled stagnant. Down the street, someone turned off a car engine. The streetlights painted sallow halos on the asphalt. A phalanx of trash cans stretched along the curb. They looked like identical toy soldiers standing guard over our lives, encasing us in a protective suit of normalcy. Making sure nothing infected us and none of us managed to fight our way out.
Emily Kissell lives in Maine where she spends as much time hiking mountains as possible. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications, including The Rose & Thorn E-zine, Kalliope, and GlassFire Magazine. Her novel, The Fair and the Free, is available on Amazon.
Featured image via Marie