The old woman arrives at their home on an evening ill with February’s bile. The dirt road from town is ridged with mud and slicked with mouldering leaves and the remains of all those hoary, earth-bound insects that cannot survive the indifference of winter.
Édgar and Lyle watch the polished, black town car strain up the hill and shudder to a stop at the low fence that runs their property’s perimeter. Lyle jogs over to greet his mother and Édgar sucks at his teeth as he watches his partner kiss the woman on each cheek, pay the driver, and, arm linked in hers, walk her up the porch stairs.
Hester Deneuve has not aged in the nine years Édgar has known her. The acclaimed food writer is preserved by the Chesterfields she smokes after dinner and by the decades cloistered in her potpourri-scented apartment, wrapped in jaundiced shawls, attended in her work only by a toothless whippet named Ishmael. But Ishmael finally died and Hester, shaken by this brush with mortality, decided the time had come to venture north to be with her son and begin work on her memoir.
“Let me see you, Édgar.” She affects an absurd accent to say his name, as she always does. Once, a few years back, he worked up the courage to tell her that she didn’t need the accent. But she only waved a hand, stubbed out her cigarette on a nearby coaster, and embarked on an account of a recent summer sojourn in Patagonia. She had never felt so at one with another culture, you see.
Édgar leans down and Hester takes his face in her hands.
“It’ll just be a few weeks,” she says, patting his bearded cheek, “and I’ll be back on the road.”
“We’re always happy to have you.” Édgar smooths his beard flat against his skin again. “It’ll be good to have someone else in the house. I’m always telling Lyle that we’ll start hounding each other if we’re alone for too long.”
The town car finally drives off. Somewhere behind the cloudbanks the sun falls away and the birches that line the dirt path tighten and groan in anticipation of the coming cold.
The house is always overstuffed with the refuse of Lyle’s sculpting materials. One musky summer he constructed a portrait of his late father out of the teeth of deer he found along the roadside; Édgar still picks chipped bone from between the couch cushions, but Father, Hunter, Resurrectionist sold at auction for a small fortune. For the past year and a half Lyle has been at work on a new project—a political statement of some kind, though Édgar knows Lyle hates it when “statement” is used to describe his art. For the first few months it was made of wax and used needles he found outside the high school; then he spent a winter collecting bits of bailing twine; for the last few weeks he has taken to melting the wax with a Bic lighter. He tells Édgar that the sculpture is in the process of becoming—that if he works hard enough, it will make itself known.
“It smells in here,” Hester declares, “like incense and old sex.” She directs this statement at Édgar, who masks his irritation with a practiced smile. For the past eighteen months, the beds of his fingernails have been tacky with the residue of all the wax he has picked out of the rug; his socks and shirts and underwear all reek of paraffin no matter how many times he puts them through the washer.
“Come,” Lyle says to his mother. “Come in. I’ll show you how it’s taking shape.”
Lyle takes Hester, arm still linked in hers, through the dining room and into his studio. It occurs to Édgar, as he watches Lyle close the door behind himself, that he’s never seen any of his partner’s work before it’s finished; he’s only ever been in the studio while Lyle is between projects. Lyle has always claimed that this is because he’s afraid of letting Édgar see his imperfections. Édgar knows that it’s healthy for couples to have aspects of their lives that aren’t shared—still, he can’t help but to think that Lyle is hiding some part of himself.
Édgar stands alone in the hall, listening to Lyle speaking softly, wondering if he should move close enough to hear. Just as he steps forward, angling his ear toward the room, the studio’s door swings open and Hester comes out, laughing at something her son has just said. Lyle closes the door behind her and declares:
“Let’s drink! To Mother’s safe arrival. And to a few weeks of smooth writing.”
Édgar knows Hester saw him coming to the door. She senses his insecurity as keenly as an owl hears a vole scuttling through the underbrush. Édgar smiles his fraying, practiced smile.
“Of course,” he says. “I’ll just get the wine glasses from the hutch.”
Édgar does not deserve the piano. He thinks about this every time he sits down to compose. Lyle bought it for him after they moved into the house. He said it was the selfsame piano on which Edwin Fischer performed his seminal recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Lyle was so giddy with excitement when he told Édgar this that Édgar couldn’t help but to kiss him and laugh with him at the good fortune of finding such a storied instrument. But now, whenever Édgar touches a key, he only feels the burden of Fischer’s dexterous fingers and Bach’s impossibly heavy ghost waking under the lid.
Tonight, like most nights, he only finds the time to compose after dinner, after the housework and dishes are done and Lyle’s invoices and shipping slips are catalogued and filed. The dishwashing was especially tedious this evening; Hester came into the kitchen under the pretense of helping, but instead inventoried every fingerprint and smear he’d left on their copper-bottomed pots.
Édgar pushes this from his mind and plays the opening line from the piece he’s working on—an oboe concerto commissioned a few months back. His only commission in recent memory. He tries to push this thought away, too.
There’s something wrong with the line, but he can’t figure what it is. It’s too simple, too obvious; he’s retreading melodic ground, though he doesn’t know who exactly he’s stealing from. He plays the line again, this time in a major key. It sounds tinnier, somehow, false.
As the last chord fades out, Édgar hears something above him. It’s a quiet but insistent sound, a gentle thumping against the ceiling. Their bedroom is directly above his study.
He stands on the piano bench, balancing himself with a hand against the wall’s chilled plaster, and tilts his ear toward the ceiling. The thumping continues and with it Édgar recognizes the sounds the bed makes when he and Lyle are fucking: the headboard rasping against the walls; the weary squealing of the mattress.
He slips up the stairs, bypassing the two near the top that groan with any weight. The door to the guest bedroom is slightly ajar, and Hester is sitting at her desk, earbuds in, typing at her laptop. He approaches his bedroom, listens at the door. Lyle’s inside: Édgar hears the soft, desperate sounds he makes as he gets close to coming: the ragged tempo of his breathing, the needy grunts.
He tries the handle. The door is locked.
Anxiety tightens in Édgar’s chest even though he knows that there can’t be anyone else in the house—who would be, at this time of night?—and yet he can’t stop himself from knocking once, twice, and again. The room goes quiet. Footsteps.
Lyle opens the door.
Lyle is naked except for the towel around his waist. He sits on the edge of the bed and crosses his legs. His chest and cheeks are flushed with recent exertion. The bed is still made, but the quilt bears telling indentations.
Édgar’s heartbeat stutters.
He strides across the room and throws open the closet doors. He starts rifling through the suits and button-down shirts on their hangars.
“What’re you looking for?”
Édgar peers out from the closet. Just clothing inside, nothing more.
“Were you just jerking off?”
Édgar opens the door to the bathroom adjoining the bedroom. He draws the shower curtain open. The showerhead drips. This room is empty, too.
“I thought I heard—thought I heard something.”
“I was actually just coming to get you,” Lyle says. “See where you’d gone to. You ready for bed?”
Édgar turns the handle as far as he can to the right, pressing his weight into it, but the showerhead still leaks. Once. Twice. Again.
“Don’t worry about that now,” Lyle says, sliding his hands around Édgar’s waist. “We can fix it in the morning.”
Édgar knows that when Lyle says we he always means you. He almost says this, but decides better of it. Lyle presses his lips to Édgar’s neck and the prick of his thick beard is an unwanted thing, a small aggression.
Édgar pushes past his partner and returns to the bedroom. The windows are locked, the bed still made. The room is empty but he feels that it isn’t; he feels that there is someone else inside.
For the next few days, Lyle slips into one of his creative stretches. He spends his waking hours in his studio, only opening the double doors to slouch into the dining room and pick at the food Édgar leaves for him there.
One of these days, when Lyle has cloistered himself away all afternoon, Hester finds Édgar in the kitchen. When he sees her standing in the doorway, he nearly drops the rolling pin he’s using on the crust for his quiche. He checked the house in the morning, before Lyle woke, for signs an intruder. Every door was locked, every window sealed for the winter.
“Butter or Crisco?” she asks.
Édgar looks down to the pastry. He wonders, bitterly, if there’s a right answer to this question.
“Crisco’s easier on his stomach, you know.”
Édgar presses down too hard with the rolling pin and the soft dough smears across the countertop.
“I’m surprised he’s never told you that.”
Édgar scrapes the dough off the countertop with the edge of his cupped hand and forms it back into a ball. Lyle is only a dozen feet away, through the open dining room and locked behind his studio’s door. Does he hear his mother? Is he so lost in the dream of his work that he can’t hear them, or does he choose not to?
Hester raises her plucked, line-thin eyebrows in response to Édgar’s silence and shuffles into the kitchen. She presses the pad of her thumb into the freshly reshaped ball of dough.
“It’s too soft,” she says. “You need to chill it another half hour before it will roll out without sticking. Which is good timing, because I need your help.”
“Yes. Come upstairs when you’re done.”
Édgar wraps the pastry in cellophane, unties his apron, and follows Hester. He planned to do more work on the concerto after getting the quiche in the oven—he is close to getting the last of the opening movement down on paper, if he can just get a few straight hours with it—but he knows that he if refuses her there will only be more snide comments, more unwanted digits dug into his pastries.
“I need your eyes.” Hester gestures to the desk when he enters the guest bedroom. There are six stacks of notecards on the desk, each at least a foot high.
“Yes. These”—she takes a few of the cards from one of the stacks and spreads them flat across the desk—“are my notes. Wine tastings, restaurant openings, competitions. I need them all organized chronologically for one of the memoir chapters. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be.” She hands Édgar half a stack of the cards.
It’s an odd request, but certainly not an unpleasant one given some of the interactions he’s had with Hester. The cards are covered in her scribblings; some have dates in the corners, others he places to the side. After ten minutes, he’s only made it through a third of the stack. Hester has stopped working entirely and simply watches him work.
“Why do you compose?” she asks. She crosses her hands in her lap and watches him through cat-eyed lenses.
“Music, Édgar. Why do you compose music?”
In the nine years he has been with Lyle, this is the most personal question Hester has ever asked him. She asks it in the same tone of voice she might use to give a cab driver directions and Édgar knows that she is mocking him, that she brought him up here to sit on the cold floor in front of her so she could belittle him and his work.
“Is there a correct answer to this question?” he asks, knowing that if he looks up from the notecards and into her waxy face he’ll lose this sudden, simmering nerve. “What do you want to hear? Because I love it? Because I need to, or else I’d die?”
“Do you?” she replies. “Do you love it? Can you live without it?”
She is mocking him—how could she not be?—and yet there’s an edge of need, of curiosity, in her voice that makes him look up from the notecards.
“Do I need to have a reason?” he asks. “Isn’t it enough to know that I do it?”
Hester breathes in through her nose. She takes one of the notecards off the top of the stack and considers it.
“Your pastry should be chilled,” she says, her tone affectless again. “You can’t leave it in too long, or you’ll never get the quiche done on time. And you know Lyle likes to eat at six.”
Édgar pries himself awake, jolts upright in bed. It is still night and the room is veiled and hushed with shadow. Lyle is there, chest rising and falling, asleep. For a long moment Édgar sits perfectly still, willing his heart to slow, listening. There’s a light on somewhere in the house; he sees it dimly beneath the closed door.
Then, a noise—the pinging of glass touching glass.
He pulls himself out of the sheets, presses his heels to the cold, wood floor. He tells himself that it’s probably just Hester, cleaning the parlor and drying the dishes so she can lord it over him in the morning. But he knows this isn’t true; he knows from the way the spit sours in his mouth that he doesn’t believe this. Hester is asleep down the hallway, snoring, enveloped in the blank and dreamless night.
From the railing of the upstairs hall, he sees that the light is on above the stove; the single bulb casts a small, yellowed halo. He crouches, watching from between the wooden rails.
A stranger moves through the dusky room, just beyond the radius of the light. They walk quickly, sure of where they are going in the near darkness. For a moment they disappear into the dining room, out of Édgar’s line of sight, and he waits and waits to hear the creak of their footsteps, to see them come back again.
He knows he should go back to the bedroom and lock himself in and dial the police but some heavy, liquid thing in his mind holds him there; there’s no fight or flight, no adrenaline; he is lacquered to the floorboards, all instincts painted shut.
The stranger flits back into the kitchen. They pass through the light. They’re holding a dishtowel and a wine glass. They raise the glass to the light, looking for watermarks. Their hands are strange—ceramic smooth. When they turn to go back to the dining room Édgar catches, so briefly, the outline of their face.
The stranger is someone he knows but he doesn’t know who; their lips, their eyes, their nose are all so familiar—more familiar than memory, more familiar than reality—any yet there is a formlessness to their features that resists knowing.
The sight of the intruder cracks open his fear again and in some wild, mindless rush he stands and barrels down the stairs and the hall, into the kitchen. He smacks his palm flat against the wall, searching for the light switch. The overhead lights come up and he blinks in the brightness, head swiveling as he searches and searches for someone who is no longer there. The dining room is empty.
All of the wine glasses are lined up on the table. They glimmer, dustless, newly-polished.
Édgar sleeps restlessly for the rest of that night and when he wakes, sweating, he is alone. He finds Hester in the kitchen, boiling water for her oolong. Lyle is locked in his studio again.
His morning is consumed by thoughts of the intruder. He works into the afternoon scouring the house. He starts in the root cellar, picking between bins of onions and sweet potatoes with a flashlight in hand; he searches the foundation’s dark, stone crevasses. There is one space that is just wide enough to fit his head and torso into; he pushes in, past wet, splintering wood, watching blind, segmented creatures burrow deeper into their decaying world. When he has finished with the basement, he goes through each closet, each bathroom, each bedroom; he takes a stepladder and opens the attic, sliding into the crawlspace on his stomach, peering between the dusty rafters; he beats cobwebs away with a ruler; and still there is nothing in the house but unattended emptiness, nothing, nothing at all.
It has grown dark by the time he realizes that he’s made no progress on his work for the day: his piano is untouched, the shower is still leaking, and the only food is what’s left from yesterday. He goes to the kitchen. Hester has left four mugs in the sink, all ringed with tea stains. In the refrigerator, the Saran-wrapped quiche is collecting moisture. The salad he made yesterday has wilted, the arugula limp under the weight of candied walnuts.
Édgar peers out of the kitchen, across the dining room. The door to Lyle’s studio is still closed. He realizes that this is the one room he has not yet investigated; Lyle has been working for almost two days straight.
He slips across the dining room, careful to avoid any incriminating footfalls, any creaking of the floorboards. With his ear to the door’s cold paint he hears only silence. Is Lyle even in the room? Édgar leans his weight against the door, slow, until he feels the resistance of the deadbolt on the other side. Where does Lyle go when Édgar can no longer see him?
He retreats upstairs, to the guest room. Hester sits at her desk. The laptop’s screen lights her face.
“Have you seen your son today?”
Hester pulls the computer’s screen down, partway shut.
“You look awful,” she says. “You’ve ash on your face and shit in your hair. Where’ve you been?”
“He’s been in there for almost two days.” Édgar scratches at his face, wiping at the grime from the root cellar and attic. “Has barely eaten. Hasn’t said more than two words to me. This isn’t like him.”
Hester closes the laptop. Then she pulls her glasses off and places them, folded, onto her lap.
“How would you know what is or isn’t like him?” she asks. “When was the last time you really talked to him?”
“Excuse me?” He has always known that Hester resents him, despises him, even; but she has never been so openly caustic.
She stares, waiting on a response that isn’t coming.
She asks, after a moment of chill silence: “Do you know why I started writing, Édgar? Do you know what happened to Lyle’s father?”
“He’s only told you some of the story, then.”
The wind gusts, rattling the ill-fitting windows in their frames. Édgar feels the house shift ever so slightly; he steadies himself with a hand against the wall.
“When I was eighteen I married a drunkard and a bigot. William Deneuve. That fool. Slept with half the women in the city and eventually skipped town with one of them. Left me and Lyle by ourselves. That’s probably the story you heard.”
Édgar says nothing. He’s listening to Hester but he senses the stranger in the house, even now.
“Well, the part Lyle probably didn’t tell you is that William came back three months later. Found him sitting on the doorstep after I picked Lyle up from school. Of course, Lyle was happy his father had returned—he was so young, eight or nine. But I wasn’t happy about it. Not just because I’d realized that my life was better without that man, but because I was never convinced that the man who came back was William at all. He was different, somehow. Gutted. He told me that the woman he’d left with took him for all he was worth, and he was changed now. Repentant.”
She gives a single bark of laughter. Hail whispers against the windows.
“But I would never mistake hollowness for repentance. Emptiness for remorse. So I got a second job. I was working at Bell Atlantic at the time, but that was just enough to pay the bills. I knew that if I was going to get Lyle and myself out of that house, into another state, into another life, I’d need more money. So I picked up a part time job writing about restaurants for the local paper. It wasn’t much but it got me free food and a little extra cash. And it was enough. Enough to get away from the man in my husband’s flesh. The impostor. Eventually, it was enough to build a career out of.”
Édgar’s mouth has begun to taste of metal. Lyle has never told him this version of the story—in fact, Lyle has said very little of substance about his father. He knows Hester is probably lying, doing everything she can to drive him away and get under his skin, but what does he really know about Lyle’s past—about Lyle—about that closed door and that silence behind it—?
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I had a reason for starting to write. Motivation in the hapless form of William Deneuve.” She looks at Édgar over the rims of her glasses. “Lyle also has his reasons for locking himself away from the world.”
“What?” he spits. Édgar steps into the dusked-down room and stands at the foot of the unmade guest bed. “What are you implying? That he’s hiding? From what, exactly? From me?”
Hester only nudges her glasses higher onto her nose and slowly swivels her chair away from Édgar, back to her desk.
“After everything I do for him—all the cooking and paperwork and cleaning, all the goddamn work I do to keep him going—how dare you—”
“All I’m saying,” she interrupts, “is that you find a lot of ways to do anything but compose music. You candy walnuts. You steam clean the carpets. You martyr yourself with chores. I’m saying you shouldn’t be so resentful of Lyle, just because he’s driven in his work.”
There’s a noise behind Édgar—the twisting of a doorknob?—and he spins around but the long, dark spine of the hallway is empty.
Édgar shakes his head. As he starts to settle his anger, to find a response for Hester’s attempts to rattle him, he sees that the wall opposite the bed has been covered in her notecards. Hundreds of them, pinned into the wallpaper in perfect rows, from the vaulted ceiling down to the floorboards.
“You finished it,” he says, incredulous. “How did you read them all without me? How did you get them up so high by yourself?”
“By myself?” Hester laughs. Her eyebrows furrow with amused confusion. “I wasn’t alone. You were here.”
Édgar’s heartbeat feels arrhythmic. He leaves the guest room, heads back toward the bathroom. He might be sick. He pushes into his bedroom and hears the dripping showerhead—the showerhead, the damn showerhead—and he throws open the door to the adjoining bathroom.
There’s someone there, in the tub. Naked. Curved arms and bent knees; a monstrosity of angles. The showerhead drips once, twice. Again. The water splashes against the stranger’s forehead. Édgar looks at the intruder’s face—focuses on it, really focuses—and he begins to see it clearly. He traces his lips with a thumb as he recognizes his own lips on the other man’s face; he runs his palms over his forehead, eyes, and cheeks as the intruder pulls himself upright in the tub. Édgar stands face to face with himself.
The intruder doesn’t seem to notice Édgar. He dries himself with a towel, takes some of Édgar’s neatly folded clothes, and begins to dress himself. Boxers, button down, jeans.
Édgar knows he should run downstairs, pound on the door to the studio, tell Lyle there is an intruder in the house. But he is filled with that same heaviness, that fear that shuts him inside himself. He watches as the other man buttons the last few buttons, combs his hair, and leaves through the bedroom.
Édgar listens to the stranger traipse down the stairs—how brazenly the other moves through Édgar’s home, not caring who sees or hears—and a sudden protectiveness wells in his chest. Lyle is just downstairs, unaware of the danger in their own house. And Édgar hasn’t said anything to him this whole time, even though he has known, even though he has felt the weight of the other pressing in around them, sealing the windows and bolting the doors—
He runs through the bedroom, tripping over his own feet, and stumbles into the hallway, catching himself on the railing. The studio is open, and Lyle is gone. The stranger is nowhere to be seen; the dining room is empty, the kitchen and hall are still and dark.
“Lyle, where are you? Someone’s broken in. There’s someone else inside.”
Édgar goes into the studio through the dining room, padding softly. The room is dark and smells sharply of burnt wax and Lyle’s body odor. Édgar flicks the light on.
The studio is a mess. Chipped wax litters the floor and is pressed into the rugs; bits of twine and string are tacked into the walls; Lyle’s tools lay scattered about, discarded. In the center of it all is the sculpture. It’s a boy, a teenager, sat in a chair. He’s laid his arm down in his lap, palm upturned, and just under the translucent, wax flesh, Édgar sees veins made of needles. The boy’s mouth and eyes have been formed by melting the wax again and again; his eyes are deep wells, blackened around the edges; his mouth is cavernous, insatiable.
The sculpture is haunting and lovely, and yet—(how he hates to admit this, despite his appreciation, despite his love)—Édgar resents it. He resents it because there’s a line of music playing over and over in his head that will always sound false; he resents it because it is affecting and beautiful and all he can think about is how long it will take him to pick the wax out of the rug, to air the room of its stench, to fill the pinprick holes in the walls.
Footsteps. Édgar turns. Behind him, the stranger is setting the dining room table for three. He’s wearing a blue-checkered apron. He places long-stemmed wine glasses at the corners of the placemats, sets out forks and salad forks and wicked little knives; he brings Édgar’s quiche out of the kitchen balanced on an oven mitt.
“I’m still here,” Édgar says to the impostor, to no one.
The stranger uncorks a bottle of Monastrell and pours it down the neck of a decanter.
“Why aren’t you listening? Why don’t you hear me?”
In a burst of desperation, Édgar picks one of Lyle’s calipers up off the floor and flings it at the sculpture. A sharp edge sinks into the boy’s skull, just below the eye.
In the dining room, the intruder looks up, as if, from across some unbridgeable expanse, someone has called his name.
Lyle pulls the caliper out of the sculpture and brings it down again and again; he doesn’t stop until the sculpture’s face has been cratered completely. He only lets the tool fall when the boy’s face is unrecognizable, utterly inhuman. He stands in a waste of splintered wax, delicate as snow.
In the dining room, the impostor has finished setting the table. Hester has come downstairs, and Lyle joins her. They seat themselves in front of their empty plates; they chat idly. Édgar screams and screams their names with all his throatless rage but they don’t look over, they don’t even stop talking.
He watches the impostor cut a slice of quiche for himself. He raises the bite to his mouth. Those perfect, smooth lips part and he takes the quiche onto his tongue. He swallows to fill the absence inside himself that can never be sated, that can never be whole.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 65, September/October 2016.