By E.K. Rivera
Arthur's thirty-fifth birthday passed quietly, with a little cake, a little wine, and a dream of killing his wife. Nothing too fancy or too bloody, just lovingly slipping his hands around her slim, pretty throat and choking the life out of her.
"You know you want to", a voice had whispered to him, and Arthur found himself smiling as his Frannie died in his hands. Then there were hands around his own throat, steel nails ripping through his skin, sending blood gushing out madly. Arthur awoke, trembling.
Something was in the bedroom, lurking in the shadows, waiting to kill him. Or to kill Frannie.
He had been told to kill Frannie. But why? There were no answers in the night air, only the warm, even breathing of the woman lying next to him. It was only a nightmare. Arthur draped his arm over Frannie's waist and curled himself around her body, shivering as he slipped back into sleep. The feel of icy fingers still played about his throat, but the warmth from Frannie's body drove his fears away. By morning, Arthur didn't remember the deadly vision.
But he remembered that he was thirty-five.
"Rise and shine, Artie!" The toe of Frannie's shoe on his backside jolted him awake. She was back from her morning jog and as bright and unwelcome as the sun. Arthur moaned and clutched his tingling buttocks. Just once, it would have been nice if he could be the one kicking her behind.
"Out of bed, sleepyhead!" Frannie called out as she made her way to the shower. "The day's not getting any younger."
Neither am I, thought Arthur. He stared at the bedroom ceiling, listening to Frannie argue with herself as she showered. She had been doing that for almost a month now, but Arthur still wasn't used to hearing her shouting in the bath.
Arthur sighed. If he had known Frannie was insane, he wouldn't have married her. He oozed out of bed and shuffled towards the bathroom.
It was too early in the morning to face the fact that he was now thirty-five. Only five short years to forty and what was his life? He was an overweight accountant married to a personal trainer: no kids, no promotions, and no prospects for the rest of his life.
He flexed his hand, feeling how weak and old it seemed to have become overnight. Once upon a time he had dreams of what he'd become and how important he'd be. Somehow, his life didn't resemble any of his dreams in the least. Where had Arthur gone wrong? He opened the
bathroom door just as Frannie stepped out of the shower.
"'Morning, honey!" she said, planting a wet kiss on his cheek as she reached for a towel. Arthur grunted and stared at his wife as she wiped herself down.
"So how's it feel to be thirty-five?" Frannie asked, oblivious to the glowering look her husband was giving her. Arthur grunted again. His hands clenched involuntarily, desperate to strangle something.
"Oh, it can't be that bad," Frannie continued, bending over and wrapping the towel around her head. "It's been a month since I went around that bend and I'm fine."
Arthur didn't respond. The back of Frannie's neck glistened, beads of water still clinging to her smooth nape. His hands spasmed again.
For Frannie, turning thirty-five had been as effortless as her morning jog. Or her evening yoga. Or her Saturday Tae Kwon Do class. Frannie looked and acted like she was still in her twenties and Arthur didn't. He felt like lunging for her throat.
"Don't be late for work," Frannie said cheerily, kissing him as she went out the bathroom door. Arthur slammed it shut. The bathroom was still steamy and humid from Frannie's
shower. Just the way he hated it.
I told you she was wrong for you, said a little voice in his head. Arthur agreed. They really had nothing in common. Frannie liked to move. Arthur didn't. He liked quiet and sleep and cheeseburgers. Frannie preferred tofu and a steady diet of garrulous talk shows. The only things they ever had in common were the deaths of their respective parents at the same hospital, on the same night.
It had been the night of Arthur's twenty-ninth birthday. His parents were driving him back to his apartment after an evening of fine dining and arguing. They were stopped at a red light and Arthur's father was paying more attention to his wife than the traffic light.
"You're twenty-nine," Arthur's mother was saying, "and you're not married yet?"
Arthur had grunted in reply. He wished his mother would spontaneously contract lockjaw.
"Grandchildren!" she continued, waving a ringed finger at her son. "When are you going to give me grandchildren?"
Arthur grunted again. The light had turned green but his father only coughed nervously, absorbed in his wife's ranting. Arthur gritted his teeth as he watched cars pass them.
"Dad," he said, "the light's green. You can go."
The car began to inch forward.
"George, don't you move this car," warned Arthur's mother.
Arthur's father slammed down on the brakes.
George slowly started the car again.
"Now, Martha," George said, looking at his wife, "don't be so hard on the boy."
"Dad! Look out!" shouted Arthur.
"One moment, Arthur," George had said.
"Really," Martha had fumed, lighting a cigarette. "At this rate, we'll be dead before we have grandchildren."
That's when the cab had crashed sidelong into George and Martha's car.
Arthur had only received a mild concussion and was released into the hospital's waiting room. That's where he met Frannie. Her mother had suffered a heart attack in a nearby restaurant and Frannie was just waiting for the bad news. Maybe it had been the concussion, but when Arthur had learned why Frannie was there, he had felt an immediate connection to her.
"Our parents have brought us together," he had said, "Like an arranged marriage." A little voice inside his head told him that it was the concussion talking, that he barely knew this girl, that she wouldn't be the type to give him children. Despite the nagging voice and his head-injury inspired words, Arthur and Frannie did get married little over a year later. And it had been kind of nice for those first years as they comforted each other and negotiated their new lives. Awkward, yes, but nice.
Now it wasn't so nice.
An image of him strangling Frannie came and went. Arthur began to unbutton his pajama top. His life with Frannie felt like a massive mistake.
"I told you so."
Arthur jumped. Someone had just spoken.
While he was alone.
In the bathroom.
He shook his head, confused. It must have been Frannie.
"Frannie?" he called out.
Dead silence. Arthur sighed. He must have been hearing things. Old age did that sort of thing to people. Arthur shuddered at the thought.
"If you think being thirty-five is bad, try being dead."
"Yah!" Arthur screamed. He jumped again and pressed his back to the bathroom wall. Cold shivers raced up and down his spine. That wasn't Frannie. That wasn't him talking to himself. A chill wind brushed Arthur's face. Something was in there with him.
"Who's there?" he whispered. A tube of toothpaste rattled on the sink, then exploded, spraying minty slime on the bathroom mirror. With momentous effort, Arthur forced his gaze towards the mirror. He screamed with horror at the image that he saw trapped there.
"Hi, Artie. It's your mother."
It was his mother, dressed in the same leopard skin print dress she had died in, a large gaping wound cutting across her face and extending back over her skull. Arthur was almost certain he could see part of her brain. Next to her stood Arthur's father, grinning sheepishly. The front of his rumpled brown suit was stained deep red. He raised an arm in greeting, though the hand was partially severed. Arthur moaned, not knowing where he could run to get away from the
"You can't run anywhere, Artie," his mother informed him. "We're here whether you like it or not. And we're very disappointed with you."
This was a dream. This was a nightmare. It had to be the tofu cake Frannie had made the night before. It was all her fault.
"That's right!" his bloody mother said brightly. "This is all Frannie's fault. And do you know what you have to do? Kill her!" The world spun around Arthur in a sickening way. He was going to faint, and when he woke up, this would all have been just a bad dream.
"Don't you faint on me, Artie!" An icy grip yanked him towards the mirror.
Arthur nodded dumbly, his eyes bulging in horror at the close-up view of his dead parents. His father seemed embarrassed to be bleeding there.
"Now listen, son," Martha hissed. "I may be dead, but I still want grandchildren, you hear me? And this woman, this Frannie, will not give them to me! Who ever heard of a wife being on the pill?"
"Now, Martha," George interjected, placing his partially severed hand on Martha's shoulder. She smacked it away and George's hand went flying off.
"Don't you 'Martha' me!" she shrieked. "Maybe you like being stuck in hell, but I don't want to spend the rest of eternity there!"
"Hell?" said Arthur weakly. He had wished his mother there often enough when she was alive, but he really hadn't meant it.
"Yes. Hell." Martha sniffed. "Only people with grandchildren go to heaven. We didn't have grandchildren when we died."
The icy grip that held Arthur's throat shook him.
"You kill that woman, re-marry, and get me grandchildren!" Martha yelled. Arthur was thrown back against the bathroom door. It seemed okay for him to faint now. As darkness took him, he heard a little voice saying, "And don't forget to clean up this mess!"
"Artie? Artie!" Something was shaking him, slapping him. With a shriek, Arthur shot up, ramming his head into Frannie's chin. She winced with pain. Arthur blinked. He shot a quick glance towards the mirror. No dead parents.
"You okay, Artie?" Frannie asked, rubbing her chin. "I tried to call you at work, but your secretary said you hadn't come in, so I came back. Why were you lying on the bathroom floor?"
"I fainted," said Arthur, rising woozily to his feet. Still no sign of his parents. It must have been a hallucination. Frannie helped him into their bedroom.
"Why'd you faint?" Frannie asked. Arthur gave her a worried look, wondering where she'd commit him if he told her what had happened. Behind Frannie's head, Martha grinned evilly.
"Look out!" yelled Arthur, pulling Frannie towards him. His mother disappeared. Frannie pushed herself away, confused.
"What? What was it?" she asked. Arthur looked wildly about the bedroom. From a corner, his father waved a bloody stump at Arthur in a friendly way.
"I ... I ..." Arthur stuttered. His mother reappeared behind Frannie. She pointed at Arthur's wife, then drew a ringed finger across her own bloody throat. Arthur fell back onto the bed, cringing. Frannie sat next to him and pressed a hand to Arthur's head. Martha leered over Frannie's shoulder at Arthur.
"You're burning up, Artie," Frannie said. "It must have been that cake last night. Too much sugar or something." Arthur began to protest as his mother mimed choking Frannie. Frannie clamped a hand over his mouth.
"No getting up for you," she said, oblivious to the horrified look in Arthur's eyes. "I'll call your boss and I'll cancel the rest of my appointments today. I've got to take care of my Artie." She kissed him lightly on the forehead then went out the bedroom door. Arthur tried to scream for her to come back, but his mother's chilly hand clamped down on his mouth.
"Artie, Artie, Artie," Martha said, her fetid breath filling his nose. "When are you going to be a man and kill your wife? You're thirty-five, you're at that same dead end job you were at five years ago, and you have no children. You're not getting any younger and I'm not getting any more alive. Just kill her already and get a new wife."
"You should do what your mother says," George said listlessly from the bedroom corner.
"Kill her by the time we come back," Martha said sternly.
She nodded Arthur's head for him, then kissed his forehead with icy lips. A second later, Arthur's parents were gone.
"Feeling better, Artie?" Frannie asked. She was sitting on the bed by Arthur's side, a steaming bowl of soupy tofu in her lap. Arthur nodded listlessly, feeling worse thanks to Frannie's concoction. If only he had known she couldn't cook, he wouldn't have married her. Then his mother wouldn't want him to kill her.
Kill Frannie. His one and only. Over the years there had been times he had wanted to bash her head in or squeeze the breath out of her, but those were just passing fancies.
"Why don't we have kids, Frannie?" Arthur asked, propping himself up. Frannie frowned at him.
"Why would we want children?" she said coldly. They'd had this discussion before and it usually ended poorly. Arthur persisted: his wife's life and his sanity seemed to ride on the outcome.
"Is it such a bad idea?" said Arthur," I mean, a baby would be nice. To care for and ..."
"And psychologically scar for the rest of its life?" said Frannie. She put the bowl of soup down on the nightstand and balled her hands into fists, as if she wanted to punch something. Arthur put a hand over one of her fists. Her hand spasmed beneath his.
"You don't know that," persisted Arthur. "I think you'd make a great mother, Frannie. And kids are what we leave behind, you know? A part of us that goes on after we're gone." Arthur felt a chill go down his spine as he spoke the words, but he continued.
"I mean," he said, putting an arm around Frannie, "isn't that why we got married?"
Frannie lifted Arthur's arm from around her.
"I was under the impression that you married me because you loved me," she said. Arthur said nothing. Frannie sighed and looked off into the far corner of the room.
"Having children shouldn't be about preserving yourself," she said, addressing the corner. "You can't have kids and expect them to be you. You can't live through them."
"That's not what I meant," said Arthur. Frannie ignored him.
"I can't have kids just to please someone or make someone feel more alive or to keep death away," she continued. "That's not what it's about." The room seemed to grow colder and colder to Arthur, but his parents were nowhere in sight. For some reason, he couldn't help but stare off into the far corner of the room, too. He saw nothing there.
Arthur put a hand on his wife's shoulder. She shivered and blinked, as if coming out of a trance. A tear slid down her cheek and she wrapped her arms around Arthur.
"I'm sorry, Artie," Frannie mumbled, "but I can't have kids. I can't be like my mother."
"And what was so bad about your mother?" Arthur asked, hugging Frannie. He shot another worried glance towards the empty corner. Something cold and malevolent that he couldn't see seemed to be lurking there.
"My mother ..." said Frannie. "She doesn't ... didn't ..."
Arthur kissed the top of her head. He remembered the first time he had held Frannie in his arms, the night her mother had died. She had been so vulnerable, so beautiful. If only she hadn't needed a hug, he would never have fallen in love with her.
"Okay, honey," he said, rocking her gently. "No kids. Forget I said anything."
"What?" Martha's bloody face screamed at Arthur. He yelped and flung himself away from the enraged wraith. Frannie tumbled to the floor.
"Jesus, Artie!" Frannie shrieked, "What the hell are you doing?"
"I could ask the same thing, Artie," said his mother, looming behind Frannie. Arthur gaped at the both of them.
"I can explain," he began.
"Grandchildren! Is that too much to ask?" his mother yelled.
"Why'd you throw me? Are you nuts?" his wife yelled.
"Yes!" said Arthur. "No! Don't!" Arthur grabbed Frannie's hand and yanked her hard down onto him. Martha fell out of her lunge towards Frannie and through Arthur's bed. Frannie shoved herself away from Arthur.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" yelled Frannie. Behind her, George appeared.
"Get down!" shrieked Arthur, flinging a pillow at his dead father. The pillow struck Frannie in the face. She grabbed it and threw it at Arthur's head.
"That's it!" she yelled. "You can just take care of yourself!" She snarled out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. George shook his head and sat down on the bed by his son. Arthur cringed.
"Oh, don't worry about me," George said, beginning to pat his son's knee with his bloody stump. He stopped and put the stump behind his back.
"I'm not like your mother," George continued. "Don't tell her, but I like your Frannie. She's got spunk." Arthur nodded dumbly.
"It's just your mother really wants, you know," said George, "another bundle of joy. And we obviously can't have one, so ..." George shrugged and raised his eyebrows at Arthur.
"But ... but ..." Arthur stuttered.
"I know, she's a little extreme, but what can you do? Your mother gets lonely easier than most people." George sighed again and stared off into space, as if lost in thought. Arthur could hear Frannie shouting downstairs. She had probably called a friend to complain about Arthur. He didn't blame her. For all her many, many nagging faults, Arthur's self-doubt wasn't that easy to live with either.
"Arthur?" Arthur turned his attention back to his father.
"You know how marriage is 'til death do us part'?" asked George. "Well, in the long run, that's optional. You don't have to part when you die. I didn't."
"But you went to hell, Dad!"
George stared at Arthur, unblinking. Arthur gulped, and looked away. It was the same stare his father used to give Arthur when he was being serious. Arthur had forgotten the strong effect his father's stare had on him and he suddenly realized he missed his father dearly.
Downstairs, Frannie continued her shouting.
"Dad ..." Arthur started. George waved the rest of Arthur's comment away with his stump.
"Don't worry about us, son," said George, rising from the bed, "At least we've go each other."
"George!" Martha's voice boomed out. "We're leaving! Artie! Finish that tramp!" Father and son looked at each other and sighed.
"Remember what I said, Arthur," George said. "'Til death do you part'? It's optional." George waved "good-bye" with his stump and disappeared.
Arthur groaned and fell back onto the bed. The house was silent. Frannie must have gotten off the phone. Arthur bit his lip, lost in thought. Maybe his father was right. Maybe some things were more important that placating his dead mother.
For all her faults, Arthur loved Frannie. She was the first person he had ever met who didn't want him to be smarter or richer or more good-looking. All she had wanted from him was his presence. So what if she couldn't cook or if she kicked him the morning or if she called him "Artie" though he hated being called "Artie"? She was his wife and that meant something, children or no. He was thirty-five, damnit: he might as well start acting like an adult.
Arthur rose from his bed, determined to set things right with Frannie. The bedroom door opened. Frannie entered and stared at him.
"Frannie," Arthur began, going towards her.
"Back off!" Frannie slapped him hard across the cheek. Arthur took a step away from her, shocked. The look in Frannie's eyes was hard and distant.
"I hate you," she continued, her eyes as cold as the bedroom. "You're a good-for-nothing loser in a dead end job who doesn't know what he's doing with his life. I hate you." She slapped him hard across the cheek again.
"I wish you were dead."
Then Frannie was gone, the bedroom door slamming behind her.
The fingers on Arthur's right hand began to twitch, spasming until his hand was clenched into a fist. His fingernails dug deep into his flesh until they found blood. Someone was whispering, chanting, "You bitch. You bitch. You bitch. You bitch," over and over. The voice was strained and insane, growing louder and louder in Arthur's ears, tearing out of his throat until the words lost meaning and became a frustrated, savage howl. Then nothing.
The blood and pain in Arthur's right hand was warm and comforting. He licked his bleeding palm, the metallic taste cutting his tongue like a knife, a taste as sharp and satisfying as a blade across Frannie's throat.
Arthur heard the little voice in the back of his head say, "You know what to do". And Arthur could see the dull red image of his wife, struggling for breath as he choked the life out of her.
"Wake up!" Frannie's shoe connected with Arthur's tailbone, jolting him out of sleep. He glared at her through a dull, red haze. He didn't know where she had slept the night before. He didn't care. He had dreamt all night of her dying in his hands.
Frannie was already stripping out of her jogging outfit, tossing her clothes wherever she pleased. Her sweatshirt smacked Arthur in the face.
"Good-morning," he snarled, pushing himself up from the bed.
"It wouldn't be if we had kids," she shot back. Arthur frowned.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what I said," Frannie growled. "I don't want kids, Artie!"
"I said forget it, so just forget it!"
"I can't be like my mother, Artie!" Frannie continued. She had stripped down to her underwear. "I can't be like her, Artie!"
"It's a good thing she's dead, then" said Arthur, "or I'd have to kill you both." Frannie shot him a nasty look.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what I said," Arthur answered. They stared at each other in silence, Frannie in only her underwear and Arthur in a growing rage. Frannie blinked and walked away.
"I'm taking a shower," she informed Arthur.
The bathroom door shut with a bang. The noise was as cruel and sharp as her hand across his cheek. Goddamn bitch. She hadn't even apologized for striking him. But she'd be sorry now.
Arthur rose from his bed, looking past the bloody leer on his mother's face. The vision of him strangling Frannie came back to Arthur, her eyes bulging horribly out of her red, terrified face.
In the bathroom, Frannie was shouting incoherently, the sound of her voice mixing harshly with the angry rush of water in the shower.
Arthur eased the bathroom door open, a whiff of steam puffing out towards him. She'd be in the shower, naked and vulnerable and ready to die. Arthur slipped into the bathroom.
"Artie!" Frannie shrieked. "What the hell do you want?"
Frannie was still dressed in her underwear, a mad, distracted look in her eyes. Without a word, Arthur grabbed the back of her head and rammed it towards the mirror. Frannie put her hands up, blocking her head. She swung a hand back, smacking Arthur's face. He grabbed her hand and twisted it behind her back, dragging Frannie out of the bathroom as she kicked and screamed.
"Don't want to have kids?" he snarled, tossing her onto their bed. "Don't want to be like your mother?" Arthur lunged towards her.
"No!" Frannie howled. She kicked Arthur in the gut. He stumbled back, clutching his stomach.
"Bitch!" he snarled, lunging again at her pale, quivering body.
"I said 'No!'," Frannie cried, kicking Arthur in the chest. He crashed onto the ground with Frannie on top of him, punching him again and again in the stomach. Arthur's hate vanished in the sobering light of pain. Somehow, this wasn't what he thought killing his wife would be like. In the back of his head, Arthur heard a little voice say, Oh shit.
Frannie hauled Arthur to his feet, shoving him against a wall. Her eyes were wild and animalistic, her teeth gleaming sharply in her open, panting mouth.
"No kids!" she screamed. She punched Arthur in the face.
"No mother!" she howled. She punched Arthur in the face again.
"No you!" she snarled, punching him in the crotch. Arthur moaned to the ground, clutching himself. Frannie towered above him, her face red, her eyes bulging horribly at Arthur. No, this was not what Arthur had in mind. She had wanted him dead. His Frannie had really, truly, and sincerely wanted him dead. She was going to kill him. Right here. Right now. And she was going to enjoy it.
A chill gripped Arthur's heart as he struggled to get away. Frannie stomped her foot on Arthur's right hand. He screamed with fear and pain. Frannie began laughing maniacally.
"Remember, Artie?" she asked, giggling. "'Til death do us part'?" Froth bubbled from between her crazed lips.
"Well this," she cried, "is where we part!"
Arthur shut his eyes, waiting for the killing blow. Frannie screamed, then nothing.
Arthur opened his eyes. Frannie stood above him, her face a mask of hate and frustration.
"Shut up! Shut up!" she yelled at a space above Arthur. "I don't want to kill him!" Arthur blinked. Frannie continued her tirade to the empty air.
"I don't care, Mother! He's my husband! I can't kill him!"
The pale form of Frannie's mother frowned at her.
"But Frances, look at him. Can't you see he's no good for you? He tried to kill you!"
"Well, he didn't!" Frannie shouted back. "And I don't care if you think he's pathetic: I love him!"
"But really, Frances, what kind of father would he be to your children?"
"How many times do I have to tell you?" Frannie howled, "I don't want to have children!"
"You know you killed me when you said that in the restaurant, Frances." Her mother sniffed back ghostly tears.
"You didn't die because I didn't want children! You had a heart attack!" Frannie stamped her foot angrily, then shot Arthur a nasty look.
"What?" she yelled. Arthur was laughing hysterically. Between convulsions, he finally spluttered out, "It's your mother! You're talking to your dead mother!"
Frannie gasped and backed away from him, startled at his uncanny realization. Arthur got to his feet painfully, still chuckling. His parent reappeared before his eyes, Martha glowering. Arthur ignored her and hobbled over to Frannie.
"She wants grandchildren, right?" Arthur asked, not needing Frannie's nod to know the truth. "And she thinks I'm totally wrong for you and wants you to kill me and re-marry." Frannie nodded again. She wrapped her arms around Arthur, needing someone good and alive to hold. Arthur winced, but put his arms around Frannie, too.
"My parents are doing the same thing to me," he informed Frannie. "That's why I, well, you know."
Frannie nodded, glaring over at her mother and believing every one of her husband's words.
"Where are they?" she asked. Arthur pointed to the far corner.
"Mom's over there," Frannie said, pointing to the other corner.
Arthur cleared his throat and looked directly at his frowning, bleeding mother.
"Mom," he said firmly, "Frannie and I do not want to have children. I'm sorry if you don't like the idea or Frannie, but I happen to like the idea and I happen to love Frannie, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Frannie turned to the other corner.
"Same goes for me, Mom," Frannie said. "I'm sorry you're dead and all, but this is our life so please butt out." She hugged Arthur as her mother scowled.
"And," Arthur added, looking from corner to corner, "this may not be the best time to do this, but Mom and Dad, this is Mrs. Fenchurch, Frannie's mother. Mrs. Fenchurch, my parents: George and Martha Dent."
Arthur watched silently as his father waved his stump to the other corner of the room. Arthur looked over and stiffened. Before there had been nothing. Now a pale, displeased woman stood there, scowling. Frannie stifled a shriek with Arthur's chest. In the other corner she saw two bloody people, a smiling man and a grimacing woman.
"So, you wanted my son dead," said Martha, strutting over towards Mrs. Fenchurch. Frannie's mother made an advance of her own.
"My Frances not good enough for your pathetic son?" Mrs. Fenchurch sneered. George shuffled meekly between the two women.
"Now, now," he said as they growled towards each other. Arthur and Frannie slunk quietly out of the room, hand in hand.
"No children?" Arthur whispered to her with a smile.
"No children," Frannie whispered back with a smile of her own.
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