By Christine Eskilson
When the alarm blares at 6 a.m., I wrap myself in my bathrobe, thrust my feet into sheepskin slippers, and scurry to my kitchen window for a glimpse of him. I’ve cherished this morning ritual for the past six months. George, still upstairs in our bedroom, jabs his stubby finger at the snooze button to steal a few more minutes of sleep. George has no idea why I spring out of bed so easily these days, or why sometimes he’ll catch me humming Fleetwood Mac or Hall & Oates as I vacuum behind the living room sofa.
“Hormone replacement therapy,” I explain when he looks at me a little too long with his goggle eyes. George just grunts; anything that smacks of a “woman’s issue” is not in his canon.
He also has no idea what I’ve been putting in his coffee for the past four weeks.
I stand in front of the sink, piled with the dirty dishes George conveniently forgot to wash last night, to peer across a strip of grass into the house next door. His house. The lights are off, but my timing is not. Within seconds I glimpse a shadowy figure moving through the first floor and into the kitchen. Switches are flicked and buttons are pressed as he prepares the morning espresso and scans a laptop. I watch him closely, my kitchen still dark because I don’t want to disturb him. He knows I’m here. Occasionally he glances toward my gingham café curtains, a half-smile on his full lips. I savor the stubble on his chin and the tightly muscled chest beneath his T-shirt.
Do you believe in love at first sight? I never did, not until he moved next door. But I knew from the beginning that we were meant to be together. For us, it’s just a matter of how and when.
He leans down from the chrome stool at the kitchen island and swings a small body up and onto the mottled green granite. Alyssa has risen early for daddy-time before he leaves for the day. He lets her strike the laptop keys while he pours apple juice into a sippy cup. Although I shudder at what havoc a determined three-year-old could wreak on a computer, I remind myself that she’s his daughter. Not mine. Not yet.
George and I never had children. It wasn’t in the cards for us. Early on I went to a fertility specialist who told me there was nothing wrong with my system. George refused to go. He’s always hated doctors and tests. At the time I was furious that he wouldn’t accept medical intervention, but it’s worked to my advantage lately when he complains about stomach pain and blurred vision.
George also wouldn’t consider adoption, even when I showed him pictures of babies stacked up in orphanages around the world. He said you’d never know what you’re getting, as if a child was the chef’s choice special at the restaurant we go to for special occasions.
I would have been a good mother. I’m so grateful for the second chance I’ll have with Alyssa. I’ve done my part. Now there’s only one thing standing in the way.
She saunters into the kitchen next door and opens the stainless steel refrigerator. A yawn contorts her pretty face as she waves off the coffee cup he offers and pulls out soy milk for her chai latte. Alyssa bangs her cup on the island in a bid for her mother’s attention. Jillian, as usual, focuses on herself. She steams the milk as she talks to him with increasingly animated gestures, probably complaining again about his long hours at work, even though those long hours pay for her renovated kitchen and shiny new car. Occasionally she brushes her hand across Alyssa’s blonde curls, as if the little girl is a puppy to be petted.
His broad back is to me so I can’t see his face, but I know he’s thinking what I’m thinking. It’s almost over and soon we’ll be together, with Alyssa, in a new home far, far away.
I hear a loud groan from upstairs, and I leave him to hurry to the bedroom.
George lies half-on and half-off our bed, his face bright red and contorted. Pools of sweat darken the front of his plaid pajamas.
“Can’t—can’t breathe,” he gasps. “Call 911.” His body jack-knifes twice on the comforter as one hand clutches for the pillow sham. He slips from the bed and sprawls on the floor.
It’s amazing what you can find on the internet. I could have gone for the Glock 17 with the ultimate refinement in laser sight technology or the lightweight steel knife with the handle in baby blue, fuchsia, or white. Instead, I opted for more subtle means. The poison I’ve been slowly introducing in George’s coffee worked exactly as the webpage said it would.
I tighten the belt of my robe and kneel beside him on the rug. George’s eyes are wide open, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. A driblet of saliva runs down his chin. I search for a pulse, first on his wrist and then at his neck. His skin is still warm but there is no beat of life.
I stand up and dress quickly. Although usually I would think more about my clothes before going next door, making sure a scarf or turtleneck masks the slight crepe of my neck, today my time is short.
I dash downstairs and grab a red fleece vest to guard against the cooling autumn air. Once I go next door and tell him George is gone, he can put his plans for Jillian in motion. Then I can return to “discover” George, make the hysterical call for help that will prove futile, and play the grieving widow.
“My first husband died suddenly,” I picture telling the new neighbors in the gated community we’d move to in Phoenix, Dallas, or Charlotte. “Around the same time his wife passed, too. We were lucky to find each other and make a new family together.”
No one answers when I knock on the front door. He must still be in the kitchen, so I ring the bell. Trembling in anticipation, I pick up the folded Wall Street Journal on the porch.
The door opens, and he stands in front of me, Alyssa trailing behind clutching her cup of juice. Although I want to throw my arms around him and feel his body hard against mine, I simply hand him the paper.
“There’s good news today,” I say, using a signal I know he’ll understand.
At first, he looks puzzled but then his face relaxes. “Thank you, Mrs. Daugherty.” His smile is friendly yet impersonal, giving no hint of what has passed between us.
Over his shoulder I see Jillian coming down the hallway. Her long blonde hair is tucked behind her ears. She’s holding miniature green overalls and a pink flowered shirt.
“Miss Lissie,” she calls. “Time to get dressed, sweetie.” Jillian puts down the clothes and holds out her arms. Alyssa runs to her with a giggle and grabs at her yoga pants.
“Who’s at the door, Mike?” Jillian asks as she pulls off Alyssa’s Frozen II nightgown.
He turns away to tell her. “It’s just Mrs. Daugherty from next door. She brought us the paper.”
“Thank you again,” he says to me. Then gently, so very gently, he closes the door in my face.
Christine Eskilson received honorable mentions in the 2012 Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction Contest and the 2012 Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Annual Writing Contest, third place in the 2017 WNBA Annual Writing Contest, and first place in the 2018 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Contest. That story, “The Sisters in the Museum,” can be found in the BWG anthology Untethered (2018). Other of her stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies.