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Eryk Pruitt
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sixteenths.jpg
Art by Betty Rocksteady 2015

SIXTEENTHS

by Eryk Pruitt

 

          You always loved her arms.

          Slices of ivory wrapping themselves around you. Sharp, jagged shoulders around which you could run your tongue as you made love. Skin untouched by time or elements, save for one pocked indentation from a TB shot she'd received when but a child. The other with a tattoo of a small heart and dagger, the lone scar of youthful indiscretions.

          You'd recognize her arms anywhere.

          You recognize one of them now, in the bottom of the box, wrapped in butcher's paper. Like the others, brief spots of freezer burn the only damage. Severed neatly just below the shoulder and above the wrist. Scant traces and spatter of blood inside the box, as if prepared by someone skilled. Someone with experience. Someone who had done this several times before.

          After all, it is the Sixteenth.

          Your calendar on the wall has the same date circled each month. Flip through from April, flip back from it. Pick up the discarded calendar from last year. All the same. The center of the month – whether it be a Thursday or a Monday or a Saturday – all circled in red, so not to let you forget. So not to catch you unawares.

          And every month, on the Sixteenth, a new package arrives.

          You carefully lift out the arm, still swaddled in butcher paper. These guys were good. It had mostly thawed, but you still feel a coolness to the skin, especially at the center. She couldn't have been in the box longer than a day. You carry that piece of her across the threshold, through to the kitchen, and out the back to the garage.

          To the cooler you bought nearly eleven months ago today.

          That was when you finally got the gumption to sell her car. Oh, you held onto it as long as you could. First, keeping it gassed and oiled and wiped free of any smudge on the off-chance she may return. Then, still out of habit or routine, well after you'd realized she never would. After the fourth Sixteenth had passed.

          The month before you'd realized the freezer in the kitchen just wasn't going to cut it.

          So you sold her car and made room for this one, the one in the garage. Longer than you are tall, deep enough to hold ten of her. And every time you lift open the door, frozen vapor exhales a heavy sigh and you stand there a moment and count. Count.

          Why not call the police and tell them? Why, indeed. That first time you called them, they sat there in your own living room and couldn't be more smug. You spent most of the time with your head in your hands, but could still feel them smiling. You could feel them laughing. You could hear them say I told you so, even if they didn't say it.

          "This isn't proof that she is dead, sir," said the one who sounded like he was from around here. He pointed with the little plastic evidence baggie, before he realized he was doing it. "Does your wife have any reason to want to leave you?"

          You'd opened your mouth to respond, but nothing flew forth.

          The other one said, "We can file the report, sir. But she needs to be gone at least forty-eight hours before we can classify her as a missing person. That would make it the, uh—" He inspected his notepad, then his wristwatch.

          "Eighteenth," said the other one.

          They came again the second month. This time, they found you more upset.

          "Now do you believe me?" You'd jumped up and down. For the past thirty days, you'd only spoken to them in irrational tones. "You know who's doing this. You know exactly who."

          The local one shook his head. "We've questioned Mr. Ilitch," he said. "We've searched every property he owns. We've searched them twice. Nothing ever turns up."

          "He told us he would do this," You'd told them, over and over. "He warned us and still..." You lifted your head and looked up at the two officers. "I shouldn't never have listened to you two."

          And neither should you have when the officers stood to leave, the one not from around here stuffing that baggie into the pocket of his suit coat. You leapt between them and the door.

          "Where are you taking her?"

          The cops looked at each other, then the local one said, "This is evidence, sir. We'll be taking it back to the station."

          "Can't you let me keep her here?" you asked. "I promise... I promise, I'll take care of her."

          The other officer used his arm to clear enough room for the two of them to pass. He assured you they would take plenty good care of her. He assured you they would do their best.

          And along came the next month and with it the Sixteenth and that morning, another box on your front stoop.

          That time, you didn't bother with the police. Never would you again.

          You run your hand along all the packages, each tightly wrapped in butcher paper, then cellophane. Each positioned just so. For that arm went here, between these five smaller packages and that larger one. And on the opposite end of the freezer, you leave room for another of similar length.

          For there would certainly be another.

          You close your eyes and the freezer door at the same time. You rest your head atop it for a bit before remembering where you are, then quickly stand and check your watch. You push yourself away from the deep freezer and walk to the kitchen to wait by the phone.

          The kitchen.

          You still feel her here. As if she still stands before the stove, boiling water or baking cakes or whatever she finds necessary to make their dinner. Can smell the flour in the air from her homemade pastas or the fresh eggs she'd crack to make something chocolate. Something chokes up in your throat and it wasn't those aromas.

          You hear things too. Arguments mostly. You hear them throughout the day. Things you used to think so important then that weren't, as well as things that were.

          "I'm not going to throw that away, honey. I need to keep it."

          Or "I'm not drinking two-percent milk, I don't like the taste of it."

          Or even "There's a reason you're supposed to change your oil every three thousand miles and it's absolutely irresponsible for you to ignore it."

          Or even still, "Honey, it's none of our business. I think we should stay out of it."

          "I think we should just tell the police you didn't see anything."

          Sometimes you hear her answer back. Out of nowhere, you're doing the laundry or running the treadmill or anything at all around the house and suddenly hear her. As if standing somewhere in the room, where she'd been the entire time.

          "There are too many holes in that shirt. You should throw it away."

          Or "I'm only doing this because I want us to be together a long, long time."

          Or even "We're not making enough money right now and that's an expense we should cut out of our budget."

          Or even still, "Someone has to stand up to these people. Think about if it was us and how we would want somebody to speak up."

          Sometimes, you get so angry. You shout until your chest threatens to burst and rear back a fist to punch a wall, you get so heated up. Then you stop and remember weren't nobody there to begin with. It's just you.

          You and a bunch of voices.

          Much like that moment here, you sitting in the kitchen and waiting. Waiting. You check your watch and that second hand ticks up top and like clockwork, the phone rings.

          It rings again.

          It rings a third time and you pick it up.

          And just like every other Sixteenth at six-thirty sharp, no one speaks into the phone. You hold the phone closer to your ear, but still nothing. Only silence.

          You realize you'd forgotten to breathe.

          In the past, you'd shouted into the phone. You'd screamed and pleaded and bargained. You'd offered nearly everything you had and then some if they'd just put her on the phone. If they'd only give you some sign that she was okay or if she'd already gone to Glory or anything, just say anything at all, but no response ever, save silence. Maybe a stuttered breath somewhere.

          You'd resigned yourself to it.

          Now you answer and meet the silence with silence. You are long past wondering if she still lived. You are long past wondering anything anymore. Anything except what you'd find in that box when it next arrived the Sixteenth. You lean back your head, meeting the kitchen wall. The one she'd painted yellow the summer before... Before.

          When suddenly they speak.

          "You no longer call the police," says a voice. Man's voice. Older man with a foreigner's lilt. Voice that tickles your ear like hairs from a moustache. "You have learned your lesson."

          Something in your throat prevents you from speaking.

          "Too bad it took you so long to learn it."

          The hot sting in your eyes embarrasses you. Once, you thought only of murder. Of vengeance. Your every thought started and ended with you lighting a match and setting fire to the entire world and hoping you managed to burn this bastard down. But two months ago you received her right thigh in the mail and all the hate in the world drained straight out of you.

          They had no name for what replaced it.

          "How much longer?" you whisper.

          "By my calculation," says the man on the phone, "we're looking at another eight months."

          And then the line disconnects.

          You sit fast in your chair for an eternity. Two eternities. Hold that phone just inches from your mouth, your ear. Can't put it down. Can't put it away just yet. Hang onto it.

          Listen as if the man may again speak. Listen hard.

          Hear jays shouting back at forth at each other out in the yard. Hear the neighbor coming home from work and his pickup shuddering quiet. Hear a stillness which opens up a canyon inside you, your home, and everything you've ever known to be true.

          Then hear her voice.

          "Why do you do this? Why do you tolerate it?"

          The hand holding the phone falls limp at your side. Your shoulders slump. Every last breath quits your body and he feel yourself a shell of anyone she'd recognize. A wrong number.

          "Why don't you move? Leave this behind?"

          You stare at the linoleum. The place where she spilled frying oil that birthday you'd insisted on chicken. The spot on the wall where she'd thrown a wine glass at you, but missed. The brown spot on the ceiling that neither of you could ever explain, yet often made stories about from where it came. All those things in the kitchen that remind you of her and every day when you see them, your heart breaks all over again.

          You look at all of those things and more before answering:

          "I'm not leaving here without you."

          And you turn the calendar to the next page.






Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and cat Busey.  His short film Foodie won several awards at film festivals across the US.  His fiction appears in The Avalon Literary Review, Pulp Modern, Thuglit, Swill, and Pantheon Magazine, to name a few.  In 2013, he was a finalist for Best Short Fiction in Short Story America. His novel Dirtbags was published in April 2014 and is available in both print and e-formats. A full list of credits can be found at erykpruitt.com.

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