He had to think, his story had to be accurate, it had to be convincing, there was no room for error. He had gone over it so many times. He had acted it out. Most importantly, he knew there had to be anguish, pure uncontested grief. He would need to put all thoughts aside and try to feel. He stopped long enough to ask himself, “How might it feel if I actually cared?” It was difficult for him to answer. He thought about their dog, Rusty. He had really liked Rusty. He had loved coming home from work and having Rusty greet him with an excited “I really missed you. Wanna play?” welcoming. It was so unconditional. He would focus on Rusty, which would make him sad. But then again, maybe not, after all, that had not been in the plan. He hadn’t expected that unconditional love to turn on him. He hadn’t expected Rusty to try to protect her.
Silent in thought, he heard water running. Running to the back door, he looked out and saw both of them floating. The pool water overflowing had now soaked the entire backyard. Their bodies touching, trying to flow into the yard. Trying to get home. Even in death, Rusty protected her.
Now no one would ever be able to make out that there had been a prized garden. Mud, a slitty mess of roots and flower petals, mulch, and Miracle-Gro, bubbled past. Marcus looked in disbelief; how had he forgotten to shut off the water. Thinking he hadn’t remembered it being on. Marcus continued to watch, waiting for the perfect moment when both bodies would free themselves and float by him. It would be the perfect opportunity to look as if he had tried to save her. Not wanting to get too wet, but just wet enough, he thought he’d tiptoe in and grab them but realized how calculated that would seem. So he went for it, feet first into the still flowing water. It was dirtier than he could have imagined. His hands were getting tangled in the roots of so many flowers, her flowers.
Flowers that had been her pride and joy. She had been preparing for the garden walk. This was the year she had finally been invited to show off her garden. After all of the years she had spent digging, planting, weeding, and feeding. They had called her and asked if she would consider sharing her garden for this year’s walk. Grabbing hold of her arm, Marcus thought he had never seen her so happy.
Now she was so stiff. He thought about how she hated the water. Something had happened to her that she would never talk about. But she really hated water, any water. The ocean, lake, even the bath, she always took a shower. A shower that was never longer than five minutes, even on the days she washed her waist-length hair.
She especially hated the pool. She had been so angry when he had told her that he was having a pool installed. So much of her garden would have to go, for a pool she knew he would never use. But it was such a perfect plan, who would even question it. And now he was spitting dirt and bits of her beautiful garden as he dragged her. Pulling her out of the water was more challenging than he had expected. As stems of hollyhock and primrose had not only wrapped themselves around her but seemed to root themselves, pulling at her as hard as he was. Rose petals clung to her neck and face, and the ivy, too, had wrapped itself around her cocoon-style. At the same time, a waterlogged Rusty somehow still managed to stay by her side, her loose hand resting almost as if glued on his swollen head.
After what seemed like hours, he was no longer pulling. But managed to drag her out of the water and lay her at the bottom of the stairs.
He was out of breath and angry as he left her there and stumbled up the stairs. Lunging forward, he felt something or someone trying to pull him back. Marcus was never one to believe in spirits. He left that fascination to her, often using it to his advantage, but now even he was spooked. Marcus pushed his way inside, not caring that his water-soaked shoes and clothes left a trail of mucky water through the house. In the den, his den, he took a highball glass off the bar, filling it four fingers full of scotch. Then he allowed himself to sink into his Lazy Boy, a gift she had surprised him with on a birthday or some other occasion. She was good at that, surprising him with gifts that made him comfortable or were just indulgent. He sat there, clothes wet, dripping until he was startled out of the momentary relaxation by the sound of knocking. At first, thinking it was the front door, he prepared himself by throwing a bit of scotch in his eyes in an attempt to look like there were tears. The knocking did not lead him to the front door but instead to the back yard where he discovered her body hitting against the steps. Looking at her body, he appreciated all of the flowers clinging to her, so he didn’t have to see her face. He began to reach for her but stopped himself. He wasn’t sure what he should do. Using the toe of his shoe, he pushed her away and went back inside the house. He ignored the phone that had started to ring. He let it ring, waiting for it to stop. A few minutes later, it was his cell phone that began to ring. The caller id displayed her dad. He let it go to voicemail. Another Scotch seemed appropriate as Marcus refilled his glass.
Marcus tried to remember how long he had been sitting there. As a public figure, no one questioned his need for privacy, not even her father. Why would anyone expect anything different? What famous writer/actor didn’t need their privacy?
It was more than that. Marcus always thought that the seclusion would make it easy. There would be no one nosing around, no one eavesdropping, and no neighbors. It was the no neighbors that he was most grateful for right now. Thankful that the water wasn’t running into a neighbor’s yard. He didn’t expect it to be running down the side of the house and into the street.
As he continued to sit there in the Lazy Boy she had given him as a gift, he looked at his phone, at the flashing notification of a voicemail. He knew he couldn’t wait too much longer. He would need to report it, the accident. Somehow all of the months, years of planning, he had neglected to write that part into the script and now was having difficulty coming up with something off the cuff. He got up and paced. He walked the house and opened the closet. She had been such a minimalist that there was not much that was even hers. What was there lacked fashion. She had been so simple. The room, their room, had been void of passion for years—the act of love as dull as she had become to him. Yet in the photographs that sat on her dresser, there was beauty in her plainness. A beauty that he had allowed himself to forget. Slamming his fist down on the dresser top, made the frames and all that that they stood for fall this way and that.
No, he would not let himself feel remorse; he had tried for years. He had wanted to make her understand. She was not the woman he deserved to have on his arm stand by his side. Her beauty did not command the stares of strangers, the awe as she walked into a room. He needed so much more as his talents became more in demand. He walked over to the French doors that opened to the balcony. She had sat on the balcony every morning, rain or shine, drinking her cup of chai. She explained, “It fills me with joy.” Sometimes when she said that, she’d cock her head just so, and he’d remember what he saw in her. He’d remember why he had asked her to spend her life with him. She’d giggle softly and say, “Just like you did.” Looking out into the yard, all he saw was that once again, he had obviously forgotten to shut off the water again. Now the water was literally bubbling up all over. In a rush to go turn it off, he turned a little too fast and tripped on the chair, her chair. He winced and then took off running back down the stairs and out into the backyard, what was left of it. As he opened the back door, he couldn’t believe how much water there was. It had begun to seep onto the floor. His eyes scanned the yard. One would never know there was a pool and definitely no indication of a garden. There was no sign of her or Rusty. Headfirst, he jumped in. Working his way through the remains of what had been hers. He swam to the pump house to turn the water off, only to discover that not only had the switch been broken, but the on/off handle was gone. In a panic, he swam back.
Back into the den, he poured himself another Scotch and sank back into the chair, the Lazy Boy that had been her gift to him. For a moment, dripping wet, he thought he might imagine himself drowning only to find hours later that he had passed out. Going to the window facing the front of the house, he glanced out, worried that he could see that twilight had already let itself in.
As he heard the sirens in the distance, he made his way back to the kitchen, a bit intoxicated, perhaps more than he had hoped. Standing in the kitchen, surprised that he could still be dripping wet, he reached for his phone, knowing he couldn’t wait any longer. He called her dad. There was no need for acting as he waited for him to pick up on the other end. He was sobbing, not because she was gone or because of what he had done. He was afraid of how it looked, fearful of what people might say, genuinely emotional, also feeling the effect of the scotch.
“Avery, I’m not sure how to say this. I’m not even sure what this is or what to say. I’ve been passed out for…she was in the garden… now it is… nothing. The yard…there is nothing left but water, way too much water. I just don’t know, but somewhere she must be… I was passed out; I am so sorry…” he gasped in between sobs.” God help her. Oh my God, my love is gone.” He dropped the phone and let himself sink down to the floor as if he was a victim. He couldn’t bear to hear his voice, the sorrow that would come from the depths of his soul. He had not thought about it, but it had broken him too.
The sirens grew louder, a warning and reminder of what he would need to do. And so once again, he went back out. He dove into the still flowing water. As if desperate to find her in what was left of the sunset.
They would find him frantically doing just that.
Avery hung up, numb trying to comprehend what had just transpired. What was Marcus saying? He went to his study and sat down at his desk, fingering the papers he had neatly piled into stacks. He knew that someday the time would come when the letter she had written and sent just weeks prior would need to be opened. In the flowery cursive writing that was a style only hers, the back of the envelope read, “Do not open until I’m gone.” Avery’s hands shook as he reached for the sterling silver letter opener that had been his wife’s gift to him. A pointless piece of metal whose expense had only caused him anger. Yet, here it was, still on his desk, and it was what he chose to use to open such an important piece of mail. Tears ran down his cheeks before he could even get the paper out of the envelope that housed it. He could tell she had been careful in placing it inside. He chose to be just as careful, taking it out. He did not allow a quick process in unfolding it and began to let himself hear her words as he read.
So, Daddy Dearest, if you are reading this, I must be gone. Remember when Mom had that “accident,” and at the chapel, you reminded me not to fret; it had been her time, and for that, we could not mourn. We could not question. That it had been the right of the Universe, of God, of Jesus himself, to choose her time. And you were good with that. For years, it was just us, and we took care of one another, sometimes you seemed to forget Mom even existed. I will tell you now, I had a difficult time with that.
When I met Marcus, that too was good. We took care of one another. But for years now, he has not been well. We have not been well. His work. His popularity, the pressure he puts on himself for his fans, his success. But don’t mistake this for what it isn’t. He was always good to me. I did not lack shelter, food, plants, trips to exotic gardens. The rest I gave to myself and those I shared something special with. There was never a moment that I was afraid or didn’t understand the possibilities. I wonder now if that was how mom felt.
So, I know you love me, Daddy. I love you too. I know it will be difficult to place me in the ground, but I need to know that you will not question. That you will be as supportive and protective of Marcus as I was for you. For he knows not what is right from wrong. Even after all these years, all this time, I never said what I think I knew, that you too had a difficult time knowing right from wrong.
So I put it in your hands to make it right. Be there for him and keep him free.
As for me, do not fret; it had been my time, and for that, you shall not mourn. You must not question. It is the right of the Universe, of God, of Jesus himself, to choose my time.
I ask that you watch over me as they prepare me for my final destination. I know you will hear my words and make sure it is me who is being put to rest.
All my love,
signed with a flowery heart
Avery had tried to forget. All these years later, he had tried to make right what had been so wrong and tried to forget. Now, in his old and shaking hands, she too said goodbye too soon. He stood up, unsteady on his feet, and walked to the bookshelf where sat a cut-glass decanter. Another of her extravagant gifts to him. He poured himself a glass of scotch. He would wait until morning to reach out to Marcus but booked his flight so that he’d arrive first thing. He was sure that there would be an investigation; he knew how it worked.
When the paramedics and firemen arrived, Marcus did not even hear them. They had set up their spotlights; he could see them through the murky water. They had already found her body. Surely as they spanned the lights across the now lake of a backyard, they weren’t expecting to find Marcus. He was coming up for air when they saw him and dove in to get him. It was a bit confusing what happened next. Marcus didn’t really want to remember. They took him by ambulance quite against his will, he remembered that. They hooked him up to too many machines and IVs, and for a bit, Marcus wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. He tried not to talk, and that worked. The fear of talking made him cry. He asked about her. He remembered to do that and Rusty. Did they see Rusty?
He woke up in a hospital bed, a police officer outside the door. The nurses tried not to giggle as they took his vitals. He was afraid to ask questions. Instead, playing the role he most loved to play, he could not disappoint a fan and charmed them instead with a joke or two. When they left the room, he could hear them talking. There was too much noise for him to make out any details. Alone he got himself up to get his clothes out of the small closet next to the small empty bathroom. On further examination, he was not sure if he wanted to put them on. They were all covered in slime, which, now dried, not only made them dirty and smelly but stiff. However, he didn’t like the hospital gown he had been dressed in either. As he stood contemplating for a minute, his agent came bouncing through the door. A cleaners bag folded across his arm. He picked at the dirty clothes and carefully dropped them one by one in the trash can. The conversation was more formal than Marcus would have expected. Making him uncertain of how to play the role. What exactly does one act like when they’ve just found out someone they were supposed to have loved unconditionally was dead? Theo air-kissed each cheek (Marcus always hated that) and handed him the cleaner’s bag.
“So very chic,” pointing to the police guard. “Couldn’t have those crazies all over my favorite client, now could I?” Marcus stared at him for a minute as if he didn’t understand any of it. “Hurry up and get dressed. You’ve been released.” Marcus nonchalantly took off the hospital gown and let it drop to the floor. He stood exposed for a bit longer than he’d like and not long enough for Theo. “You’re one lucky man,” Theo continued,” Someone did a lot of work to have you released so quickly. I sure wish it had been me.” Marcus ruffled Theo’s hair, causing a grimace, and finished dressing.
“I’ve arranged for an escort; they will take you out through the basement. No one should be there and then off to the funeral home. I’ve made arrangements to have her taken to Rocky’s. They are the best! Known for their post mortem cosmetic surgery. I was sure that’s what you’d want.” He didn’t wait for an answer but knew Marcus well enough to know that his silence meant he’d nailed it.
The police officer radioed ahead. It wasn’t long before several officers and hospital staff arrived. They surrounded Marcus as they walked him down the hall, down the freight elevator to the basement laundry room, shielding him as they walked. The door to the outside loading dock was open, and an unmarked car awaited.
Avery arrived early, taking a cab to the house. The news blared on the radio as the reporter in monotone read from what was obviously a script. “Details were unavailable regarding the tragic accident that occurred at Marcus Adler’s home, sometime yesterday.”
“Poor man, wonder what happened,” the driver couldn’t help but comment. “I love his movies.” Avery, for the first time since Marcus’s call, wanted to scream. Yell, he found it difficult to control himself, and as he gave the driver the address, he was sure he yelled it. They hadn’t mentioned her once, not once. It sounded a bit too familiar.
As they pulled up to the drive, yellow police tape surrounded the property. At this point, Avery was sure it was just to keep people out. It didn’t matter much. There was nothing left.
Avery couldn’t believe the devastation. There was nothing left of the front yard. His heart sank, just imagining what the backyard would look like. All of her gardening; she had been so proud of herself, learning each name and what flowers would do well together. What soil it needed, how much light. He paid the driver, who was quite apologetic, and made his way to the front door. He didn’t bother ringing the bell; he knew that there’d be no one home. He was grateful that there wasn’t a lone paparazzi hiding somewhere outside but secretly surprised by the absence. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the keyring that had been hers, beautiful sterling silver and turquoise with rose quartz, a gift he had given her years before the “accident.” She had cherished it as if it was all he had ever given her, all he had ever done.
When his daughter had given him a key years ago, he knew it was the only place it belonged. Now, as he stood at her front door, he wondered if she knew he’d use it in a moment like this. The house was a mess, certainly not the way she would have left it. He picked up along the way. Taking a deep breath, he tried to smell her, but all he could smell was scotch and muck. As he made his way through the house to the back door. Looking out over what was a pile of broken twigs and roots, flowers and bushes, drying up among the mud, it looked a lot like the remains of the floods featured in National Geographic magazines. The only difference was this had been hers. As he looked out to the property line behind the pool house, he was sure he saw them, both her and her mother. Hand in hand, heads bowed. What was it that made men commit such crimes? Worse yet, how did they get away with them. Live with them. He turned to go inside, shaking his head. One didn’t actually live with them, he thought. One just learned to exist.
Rocky’s was housed in an old plantation-like mansion. One would never even know it was a funeral home until they stepped inside—Rocky himself was a walking, talking Ken doll. Not a hair out of place, not a flaw in his skin. A smile that showed just the correct amount of teeth met Marcus at the door, extending a hand and reaching out to place his other hand on Marcus’ shoulder. He expressed his deepest condolences. Marcus bowed his head with thanks while he forced himself to remember his character.
“Theo brought in some photos. I’d like to go over them with you.” Rocky continued as they walked into his office. “Now we’ve cleaned her up and prepped her, just waiting for your instructions.” He paused, trying to get a read if he should continue. “If you are up for it, we can go see her first, and you can let me know what you would like.” Rocky toyed with a manila folder on his desk. “Would you like to discuss the details first?”
Marcus raised an eyebrow, questioning. Rocky moved the folder across the desk and opened it so Marcus could see. He was a bit taken aback, yet he could feel the excitement growing inside him. He was looking at a variety of facial choices and breast sizes. Marcus ran his hands across the pictures, his fingertips circling the photos that most aroused him.
Rocky watched as he had done many times before. “Might I suggest, a bit more natural, not too large but just enough. “He moved some of the photos on top and showed Marcus some ideas. “Do you want a complete facial, nose, eyes, cheeks, lips, as well? Theo said he wasn’t sure.” Marcus looked up. How did Theo know? Why was he getting involved? He pointed to a breast size that was a few sizes larger than her own yet perfectly round. They looked nice, soft, what they should have been, what he should have had.
“Can I see her first? I mean before I decide on the rest.?”
“Of course, whatever you wish,” Rocky stood first, and Marcus followed. The room was cold and sterile, nothing like he had imagined. In the middle of the room, on a stainless steel table with casters, she was lying. She always hated stainless-steel. It was too hard. For a second, he thought he felt something, perhaps a bit of remorse. He was even a bit embarrassed for her laying there naked, so exposed. There were long surgical cuts down her torso. Rocky interjected, “The autopsy” Marcus nodded. “Makes it a bit easier for the implants,” he continued raising a breast to show Marcus the incisions had already been made. Marcus looked at her, knowing how she could be anything and anyone he chose. People would comment at the funeral. He knew that. They would see how beautiful Marcus Adler’s wife had been.
“You can do makeup, right?” Marcus wanted to know.
“Ah yes, beautiful makeup. Our makeup artist is among the best.”
“That’s what I want. I want her to have new breasts and wear makeup, lots of makeup. Bring out her features and make her beautiful. And her hair. Can you do her hair? “Marcus was getting excited as if directing a performance while Rocky took notes.
“What do you think, blond or red?”
“Blond, make it blond, and extensions. Add some extensions.” Marcus paused. He moved closer to her; reaching out, he touched her hand. It was softer than he expected, pliable. He looked at the dirt caked into her skin, under her nails. He lifted it, showing Rocky.
“Can you do these too? Clean them up? Make them soft and perfect. Red nail polish, a manicure?”
Rocky continued to make notes, looked up. “Consider it done, Mr. Adler. The next time you see her, you won’t even recognize her.”
Marcus looked at him, contempt permeating, remembering his character. He had just lost his wife. “I just want her to be able to cross over in style. Do you understand?”
“Of course.” “Would you like to pick out a casket? Will you be bringing her clothes or should we supply them? “Rocky showed Marcus a clothes rack full of dresses and suits and such.
Respectfully, Marcus perused the rack of clothes, “Thank you, I’ll bring her something to wear.” They walked out together, Marcus going back one more time to look at her. He leaned over, surprising even himself as he kissed her one more time on the lips.
There were more choices than he expected when it came to caskets. He picked mahogany with a pink satin lining. He thought it looked comfortable; it was the least he could do. They went back to the office to discuss prices.
Marcus said it wasn’t a concern. “Only the best for her.” They shook hands, and he escorted Marcus back outside to the waiting car.
Avery sat in the Lazy Boy, a glass of scotch in his hand. He had been lost in his own guilt-ridden memories and spilled a bit on himself, startled when Marcus came in. Starting to stand, Avery reached over to place the glass on the wooden end table. Marcus stopped him.
“No need to get up,” he said, putting a hand on Avery’s shoulder as if to hold him down. As if they belonged to some exclusive club. They apologized to one another, and then there was silence. Neither man was able to talk. Words did not exist for the act or the emotion. After a bit, they could hear the birds in the backyard singing their hearts out as they feasted on what they had discovered to be an endless assortment of worms and grubs.
Avery spoke first. “She knew. You are aware of that, correct? She saw it coming.” Marcus shook his head. Avery reached in his pocket and fingered the letter she had written. He thought about it briefly. All he could do was carry out her request. He got up and, putting his arm around his son-in-law, all he could say was, “You never learn to live with it; it learns to live with you.”
Silence followed. There was so much they wanted to say to one another, but neither had the courage.
The following day, Avery was up early. He made coffee and breakfast for the two of them before asking Marcus for directions to Rocky’s and if he could use her car. Marcus suggested they go together, but Avery knew he had to go alone. He politely declined the offer. Driving over, Avery felt overwhelmed with the coincidences. It was deja vu’ as he drove up to the building—a feeling he would prefer not to re-experience. Rocky’s had been the name of the funeral home he had used for her after “the accident.” It had been a young new mortician, and Avery had a lot of clout. Thinking about it now, he hadn’t really expected it to be so easy. It had been a brilliant idea, and what a gift it was that he would be giving this young mortician. Avery wondered like he had so many times over the years, what had become of him?
Shortly after the funeral, he had left town. Avery never knew where he went. Never once did he imagine that he’d go clear across the country. Now, after so many years, he wouldn’t still be practicing, would he? He didn’t really expect it to be the same mortician. However, when he walked into the funeral home, it was as if he was stepping back in time. When the mortician greeted him at the door and reached out to shake hands, it was like a Dick Clark moment. This man introduced himself as Rocky had not aged. He looked exactly the same as he had so many years before. They exchanged niceties. Avery felt sure, or perhaps hopeful that he didn’t remember. They were awkward and brief with each other, the conversation forced. Both of them trying to skirt the reality of knowing one another. They talked nonchalantly for a bit before Avery asked to see her. Rocky was glad to oblige, but it was a bit awkward. It was more than uncomfortable.
Avery asked to be left alone. She lay in the casket, dressed in a beautiful Allegra Versace dress, her short brown hair now covered in long blond strands, pulled up in a semi bun with extensions hanging down her face. Avery couldn’t believe her breasts, embarrassed they were the first thing his eyes were drawn to. He was guilty, understanding why. Rocky had remembered the craft and done well. After all, why shouldn’t he? He had learned from the master. She had so much makeup on, he hadn’t even recognized her at first. Seeing how he had changed her brought a memory that incited pain. He reached over and softly brushed the hair away from her face. He let his hand rest on her lips, hoping that this wasn’t real. That like when she was little, she would kiss it. She had done so so many times at her funeral when she stood by him so brave, holding his hand. But she didn’t move. He picked up her hand, but it was not hers. It was clean and manicured. Where was the dirt under her nails? He couldn’t remember her hands and nails ever being so clean. Even at their wedding, she had dirt under her nails. For some reason, always so proud boasting she had the hands of a “working girl.” Her wedding ring was missing; Avery made a mental note of that. He reached into his pocket again, fingering the letter she had sent him. His hands were still holding onto it when he left her.
Rocky was waiting for him when he came out. “Do you know who I am?” Avery asked. Rocky nodded; they walked in silence back to the office.
“After all these years, I thought I was free,” Rocky began. “It was you who got me started doing implants and cosmetic surgery, and after doing your wives, I couldn’t bear to live there anymore. I couldn’t bear to see you around town, which I knew was inevitable, something I could not handle. I moved here, so I could start over. I used your concept of everything you taught me and believed I could give myself a fresh start. It’s incredible how many people want that service. So Marcus Adler is your son-in-law? If he’d have been your son, I’d say apples don’t fall far from the tree.”
Avery looked at him with contempt. It would have been easier if he could have said no. Avery thought about it for a minute before letting it go. Nothing would have been different, really; she would still be gone. They talked. Rocky had to admit he was grateful for the education, instruction, and training. Avery felt only remorse. For now, he understood it was not only the act but then afterward what he had done, what they had done. He had been so guilty of that. Avery pulled his hand out of his pocket, still holding onto the letter. Carefully he unfolded it and read aloud to Rocky the part he needed for him to hear.
“I ask that you watch over me as they prepare me for my final destination. I know you will hear my words and make certain it is me who is being put to rest.”
A tear ran down Rocky’s cheek as Avery could actually feel pieces of himself break. “Leave the boobs. I’ll give him that. I think that’s what she’d want me to do, but this is my daughter.” Avery’s hands began to shake as he pulled out his wallet. Opening it, he took out a photograph. He waited a few seconds, examining it before handing it to Rocky. “Do you remember her?” Rocky shook his head. This was when she was happiest in the garden, making things grow. Rocky looked at the photograph of a grown woman, but he clearly remembered that little girl, so brave and strong. She had been so full of belief standing there with her daddy. “This is who she is,” choking a bit on his words, Avery pointed to the picture, “who she was. Let’s make it right, both of us. All of us. Her hands, take off the polish and let her play in the dirt one last time.” “I’ll bring you some dirt from her garden and clothes from her closet, something she’ll be comfortable in.” Avery got up and left without even saying goodbye.