It happens all the time. There’s a noise in the night. A frightened wife wakes her husband.
With a whispery hiss, “Mike!”
And a shake of the shoulders, “Sweetheart!”
Not a mumble from his mouth or a snort from his nose.
Under normal circumstances, Mary would be delighted at such repose. Her man needs his rest. Most surgeons sink Challenger Deep into sleep whenever they’re not on call, especially the older ones.
Sunrise will begin Mike’s first day off in two straight weeks of 24/7 emergency medical care. It’s no surprise that he’s dead to the outside world, submerged in the watery depths of a healthy dreamscape. He’ll resurface in the morning a new man with a juicy morning monster poking through the sheets.
Mary’s arrhythmic heart, exacerbated by a lifelong panic disorder, is still skipping beats at what she had just heard (or thought she heard). Wisely, she takes several slow, deep breaths. Gaining control. Oxygenating.
It wouldn’t be right to wake him, she reminds herself. Besides, dear, it’s very likely you imagined the whole thing. In thirty years of a happy marriage, she’s sent her darling husband on more than a few empty house searches. He never complains. He never condemns. He always returns, in a fatherly and comforting way, with a warm drink and a patient pat to her silly head. Have you taken your meds? he sometimes dares to ask.
Sitting arrow-straight on a Sealy Posturepedic mattress, Mary thinks pleasant thoughts and her rigid muscles start to relax. When she was a child, her mother would allay teeth-chattering fears and discourage potential nightmares with a bible verse. Philippians 4:8, “…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Tonight, she chooses the lovely category.
She watches Mike for a moment longer, a trim man with graying temples and chiseled biceps. Men twenty years younger don’t look as good. Every surgery he performs is a one to two-hour arm workout and it shows.
The extra-large numbers on the digital clock turns Mike’s hospital pale skin to a hypoxic blue. Her handsome, life-saving vampire rarely soaks in the sun but he’s got a good package and, thankfully, he’s still breathing, with a high-pitched nose whistler on the inhale, followed by a passive puhhh from between a pointy beak of lip flesh on the exhale—the procheilon, the knowledgeable doctor calls it, thus diminishing one of his sexiest features to a boring, anatomical term. “Yeah?” Mary once teased (she spread her legs and pointed down, seductively stroking herself with a painted index finger), “…and this whatchamacallit—this curious protuberance above MY lips—is called a clitoris. Kiss it and see what happens.”
Sexual thoughts. Yes. The “whatsoever things are of good report” category. If there be any praise. Think. On. These. Things. To dispel the darkness and a feeling of impending doom.
But the sound and rhythm of Mike’s respirations (whistle—puhhh—whistle—puhhh) mimic a hospital ventilator. This disturbs Mary afresh.
Their bedroom door opens to a long hallway that passes four rooms and terminates at the other end of the house.
Where there are stairs.
Carpeted stairs with enough padding to mask the footfall of any intruder, clumsy in the dark or not. But—BUT there’s also a dependable creak on the landing. Can’t miss it. At which point, only the head and shoulders of the ascending one are visible.
Where turns the corner to a second set of steps. At that point a face becomes apparent upon the final approach.
Unless the corpse is wearing a shroud (puhhh). Dropping clods of dirt and worms. Scratchy voice of the deceased drawing nigh, louder with every step. Closer, closer.
Who’s got my golden arm… WHO’S GOT MY GOLDEN ARM…
That children’s story is now a Halloween classic, but it still scares the piss out of her. What exactly?
THE COMING. Death on the march. A veil kept afloat like a Kleenex over a rotting face. Puhhh . . . Puhhh . . . Puhhh
Young Mary, Old Mary, paralyzed by fear, legs unable to run. Whenever a figure in the act of stealing her breath leans so close, brittle pieces of grave hair tickle her face and the stench of decay invades her nostrils, causing her to gag. She tries to scream but can’t make a sound any louder than Mike’s booger whistle. Nobody hears. Nobody knows.
There’s only the yellow woman. Staring at her. Puhhh…
Mary forces herself to concentrate on the dim hallway, extra long and narrow at the witching hour. A single nightlight, somehow sinister, is smothered by the encroaching darkness, an orange ember barely bright enough to reveal the shadow of a head and shoulders TURNING on the landing (crrr-e-a-k), or the positive identification of a face COMING up, up, up the stairs.
The inexplicable sound chilling her blood had floated upstairs from downstairs. Or stumbled. Or skipped with a lunatic’s grin. Or skittered on all fours across the ceiling. Or sank as it rose, a balloon filled with blood.
Get control over your thoughts, Mary. Listen to your mama. Believe the Bible. Whatsoever things are lovely.
Almost six hours ago, they were snuggling on the couch, munching salty popcorn. Her poor husband looked like he’d lost a fight, both eyes blackened and bloodshot, but Mike insisted anyway on watching a National Geographic special about life at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. He was excited about the fish.
The nightlight in the hall is a goldfish. How evil can that be?
Ever since he crossed the line of middle age, Mike has obsessed with the health and restoration of human eyesight. The humble man could be a shirtless model on the front cover of Men’s Health magazine (Sizzling Past 50) but became unbecomingly glum several days after purchasing his first pair of reading glasses. As for Mary, she fell more in love (if that’s even possible) when she caught him wearing the readers for the first time, black plastic frames from Walgreens perched on the end of his nose—a smoking hot grandpa, still slamming in the bed, shooting stars.
Victor Vescovo, God bless him, spent several hours in one of the deepest places on earth—the Challenger Deep—almost seven miles below the surface of the ocean, one mile deeper than the tallest peak on the planet is high.
Pitch black. Cold. Alone.
Water pressure one thousand times stronger than the surface will pop a human brain like a grape.
Mary banishes the sudden image of Mike’s eyes exploding out of their sockets, reading glasses shielding empty holes, scanning the obituary for his own name. The devil’s hour plays evil tricks on the mind.
Vescovo went down, all the way down, in The Limiting Factor. Mike scratched his head at the name of the submarine and joked, “It would’ve been more appropriate to name it the USS Big Balls. Now there’s a brave man. Damn.”
“What monsters lie beneath?” Mary had thought out loud.
Mike sighed before he answered—probably because he’s married to a woman with a troubled history and a series of not-so-sexy ICD-10 codes tattooed to her forehead. She’s always been haunted by monsters, all of them supposedly imaginary.
“Well, Mariana,” he said, changing her name with a playful wink and a mouth full of popcorn, “maybe monsters the kind that will save human eyesight, fish with eyes so big as to somehow capture light in an abyss where there is no light—the stout blacksmelt, for example—just look at those eyes! They’re just begging for dissection!”
“I love you, Mike.”
“I love you, too, Mariana.”
“And I forgive you.”
“For spitting a piece of corn kernel in my eye.”
Earlier Mike had stripped out of his green scrubs and showered with a bar of soap just as green before slipping into a pair of gray sweatpants and a faded Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt. Even flaccid, the man sported a bulge. Mary was sure it still tasted of Irish Spring.
“May I go down on your sea cucumber?”
“As long as you don’t have teeth like THAT!”
He pointed to an abyssal anglerfish. The Black Sea Devil.
Panic seized Mary’s heart, revving her pulse. She put one hand to her throat and twirled a strand of silky hair with the other.
“You okay, super ass?”
“Mike . . . who . . . I mean what do you see in the face of that creature?”
Sensing the sudden shift in her temperament, Mike guided Mary’s mind to a better place.
“Well, honestly, she’s not really my type, but I’d say there’s a striking resemblance to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi if both were genetically combined in a laboratory setting—minus the bright headlamp, of course.”
Mike is a virgin conservative and laughs heartily at his own jokes. Mary, in turn, plays along.
“I see what you’re saying! I’ve never been more afraid in all of my life!”
The sonorous voice of the National Geographic narrator was saying something about fading to black. Something about passing through Dante’s levels of hell, Vescovo sank down from the surface (epipelagic zone), 200 meters down (mesopelagic zone), 1000 meters down (bathypelagic zone), 4000 meters down (abyssal zone), 6000 meters down (hadal zone) where sunlight cannot penetrate. “But in the impossible blackness of darkness, a light has come. A fishy acolyte with a single flame of bioluminescent bacteria clustered and flickering at the end of a rod…”
A light in the darkness? It turns out that the Black Devil is darkness with a light, luring its prey. And, just like that serpent of old—Satan himself —the stomach of this fish from hell will stretch to accommodate larger kills.
Mary couldn’t shake the terrifying vision of the yellow woman 11 kilometers below—same face, same beady eyes, same razor-sharp teeth —in the form of a fish swimming toward them and possibly entering their house through the television screen. She squeezed Mike’s hand, warning him, needing him.
An innocent five-year-old at the time, Mary first met the yellow woman back in the seventies. Well, she didn’t really meet her. She saw her. In a photograph.
One rainy afternoon, a toasty warm school bus delivered Mary safely in front of her childhood home. That was when she still liked the color yellow, before she received a secondary diagnosis of Xanthophobia. She remembers running straight into her mother’s arms.
Sharing her only daughter’s excitement, she opened the white envelope with a smile. Fourteen bright-eyed children in colorful clothes. Huge smiles. Combed hair. Milk white teeth. Standing on a bleacher, three rows, smallest to tallest. Their teacher—prim, proper, and forever single as a nun—stood off to one side, behind a black sign with white magnetic letters: Ms. Baily’s Kindergarten Class 1973.
There was nothing strange about the picture until Laurie Best drowned in a lake. She was Mary’s best friend. Whenever they’d play kick ball (their favorite game), Laurie would always say, “I’m a Best, yes, but I’m not the best, no.” True, Laurie (Ree Ree) wasn’t very talented at kick ball, but her sweetness made up for any lack.
Ree Ree didn’t make the first grade. Mary never thought she’d stop crying. Her baby heart shattered into pieces and never fully recovered.
One evening, her mother knocked on the bedroom door and handed her daughter the envelope containing the class picture and offered some comforting words about how Laurie is forever happy in heaven. “Go on, Mary. Look at Laurie’s face. She’s still smiling, baby. Please try to remember and dry your tears. You’re still living. So is your best friend. She’s just moved away.”
After her mother left the room, Mary withdrew the picture, slowly, and with reverence.
There was an extra person in the photo. A yellow woman. Jaundiced as a person with end stage liver failure. Her eyes were dead. Her teeth were sharp and one or two were broken.
She . . . It . . . the yellow woman . . . was holding Laurie’s hand.
Mary screamed like she was on fire. Her mother came running.
“MAMA LOOK!” She pointed to the yellow woman, who, this time had changed her position in the picture and was pointing an unusually long index finger at Laurie—Laurie with dead eyes—Laurie who was no longer smiling—Laurie who was bloated—lake water spewing from her nose and mouth in rusty splatters and streams.
“I thought you said Laurie was still smiling! I thought you said she was in heaven!”
“What are you screaming about, Mary? Baby, baby…”
Hyperventilating, “The yellow woman! Don’t you see her?” Frantic Mary was scratching a hole in the photograph with her fingernail where Ree Ree’s face was supposed to be.
“Where, darling? The yellow what?”
“Right THERE!” Jamming her little finger into the putrid face.
“Honey… baby… sweetheart… you’re scaring me!” Mary’s mother was crying and pulling her child close. “It’s just your class picture. It’s your precious Laurie still smiling at you.”
Mary accepted the offer of a tissue and dissolved the delicate paper with an ocean wave of salty tears. A minute or two later, when she was brave enough to take another look, Laurie was gone. The yellow woman had taken Ree Ree’s place on the bleacher, having squeezed tight into her best friend’s clothes, ripping them. She cradled a blood-red kick ball in her arms that was stamped with an expiration date mocking Laurie’s last name and her date of death: BEST if used by July 1st.
Mary was assigned to a psychiatrist.
Mary was drugged for the rest of her life.
Numbed. Changed. Almost convinced that she’d already suffered a mental breakdown before the meltdown. Dr. Fitz explained how she was already broken before she broke. Inside, out.
She pops a pill, repeats the mantra: The yellow lady isn’t real. In her early fifties, Mary’s still reminding herself, still drugging.
But she has Mike.
She kisses her husband on the forehead. He stirs.
She kisses Mike’s open mouth, sucks his pointy procheilon. He says mmff.
She gives his sea cucumber a squeeze—once, twice, thrice —and it starts to grow.
Mike finally opens his heavy eyes, yawns, and stretches with a groan.
Mumbles, “Baby, I’m not just a piece of meat. I have emotional needs, too.”
“You and your jokes!”
“Listen, if you’re gonna take me to paradise at an ungodly hour, let me pee first.”
“Okay . . . but will you do me a favor?”
Mike forces himself to say, “Sure.”
“Will you make your usual rounds? I thought I heard something earlier.”
“Of course. I’m your brave protector and home inspector. But let it be known—because you took advantage of a comatose man and have my phallus standing at attention, if I happen to stab anyone unintentionally with this hard thing, I can’t be held responsible.”
“I better be the only one you stab with that monster, USS Balls!”
Mike exits the bedroom naked, too hard to piss, and enters the long hall. Same old routine.
Mary closes her eyes to a sea of floaters—Mariana Trench lanternfish zipping and zanging behind heavy lids —surrendering to exhaustion with a renewed sense of well-being in the deepest depths of the night. Aided by an earlier dose of Seroquel partnered with a dirty martini, she falls asleep almost instantly.
As Mike’s bare feet creak on the landing.
As Mike’s heading down.
Mary dreams. In the darkest hour.
Of another photograph.
Mike in an underground cave. Wearing a miner’s helmet with a guiding light much like the black sea devil’s deadly glow of luminous bacteria. The blistered arm of the yellow woman is draped around her husband’s shoulder. She is showing her teeth, sharp and jagged as broken needles. A swollen coffin head is cocked to one side and her filmy tongue is hanging out. She’s crossing her eyes and clutching her chest.
Mary squirms in her sleep, trying to warn, trying to wake. She punches at the yellow woman’s ashy, flaky head, but her fists are slug slow and ineffectual as boxing underwater.
Blind but sensitive as a tripod fish, Mike feels his way along the cold banister of the lower stairwell until he lands in the quiet depths of the house. Checking every room, every closet, every crevice a man or a monster might hide.
Nothing. Always nothing.
The double garage is closed.
The front and back doors, check. The windows, yes. Locked.
The alarm system is live. A message reads, “Ready to Disarm” which means that it’s already armed. If tripped, a wicked noise will follow that is loud enough to wake the whole damn world down to its knickers while silently alerting the authorities at the same time.
All is well. As usual. At least downstairs.
He microwaves a cup of chamomile for Mary. Listens to the house, silent as the steeping tea.
Mike ascends. Creaks on the landing. Turns the corner. Reveals his face.
With a fleeting feeling. Excessive salivation. Nausea.
Utter dread washes over him at the tippy-top of the second set of stairs and then it’s gone, fast as a burp.
Eager to return to the comfort of his bed, Mike checks three rooms and two bathrooms—all empty.
Finally, he enters the master bedroom. Mary is fast asleep. Good, he thinks, though slightly disappointed by the cancelled romp.
No big deal. He’s no longer hard. It’s too cold.
Strange thing though. He doesn’t remember their bedroom freezing his USS Balls off. But that’s what happens—that’s the sad, uncomfortable consequence when a naked man is foolish enough to leave the warmth of a woman who’s waiting and wanting him underneath a heavy quilt, hot as fire, on a winter night.
When Mike peels back the covers, he realizes that his bladder’s still begging for relief. He’d forgotten to pee.
Ten seconds later, he enters the huge master bathroom—the only room he’s neglected to check. Automatically resuming his search (because she’ll ask), he opens a walk-in closet big enough to house a small family. Again—no maniacs, no molesters, no murderers. That’s what he’ll tell her with confidence, calming the soul of the woman he loves.
A smaller room encloses a Kohler power flush toilet. The purpose of the water closet is to guard a person’s privacy and contain foul odors.
Which hasn’t been successful this time. The exhaust fan is on. Mary, Mary, poor Mary, must’ve had the shit scared out of her.
The scent, however, is curious. Something else. What?
No, no, no—fish. Bacterial vaginosis?
Bleu Cheese. A house salad drizzled with rotten, liquefied flesh?
Something sweet and repulsive at the same time. Candida?
No. Funeral flowers. Embalming fluid?
Sickly perfume on dead skin. Detritus sinking down, down, down into the hellish abyss of the 3 a.m. hour, feeding whatever monster lies beneath.
Mike reaches for the handle, pauses…
An icy ocean wave of bubbles travels up his spine and fizzes into his skull when he hears the jingle of a handle and a flush.