New Short Story: “I See Monsters,” Part VI

If you’re just joining us, where have you been? Go read previous posts! If you’re TIGHT with Joshua and Caleb already, here’s Part VI.

* * *
“I See Monsters”
By Sara Dobie
Part VI

By the following night, the imposter was my addiction. I rolled free from the casket and stretched my cold hands to the sky, knowing that tonight might be the night—the night when I would kill him and put him out of the misery of exams and a dying mother. Our unknown intimacy was comforting in the way a pleasant portrait was comforting. You never touched it, but you knew it was there, hanging above your mantle for only you to admire. You also knew that if you wanted, you could tear the masterpiece down and toss it into a fireplace, because it was your masterpiece. This was how I felt about Joshua. He was my masterpiece of frail humanity, and tearing him down would eventually be the best part of my admiration.

When I arrived in his back yard, the balcony spotlight focused down into the garden below. I snuck around to the front of the house to deter detection, and my bomber jacket got caught on the head of a marble cherub by the front doorstep. I pulled the black leather free and pet the pleasant statue on the head, as if to say, “You have no place here, my friend.” My palms felt the cold, dead edge of the Angel Oak on the side of the house, and as I began to climb, I heard a sound utterly unfamiliar at the Church Street address. I heard the sound of laughter, but it was not from the pleasant baritone throat of Joshua. It was a female voice, and the sound made me climb the withering tree with irritable fascination.

From my view straight into the kitchen, I realized she had just arrived. The front door was still cracked, and the young woman had a camel coat on her shoulders. To my dismay, I saw Joshua had only recently arrived, as well. He wore a black dress coat over a black dress shirt with jeans, and there were brown paper bags on the counter to his back. If I had woken but fifteen minutes earlier, I thought, I may have caught him outside. In hindsight, the woman would have arrived in the midst of my enjoyment. She would have ruined my moment with Joshua, and that made my missed opportunity less of a regret—more of a relief.

“Hey,” said this unwelcome female, and the volume of her voice made me notice his kitchen window was cracked. I imagined, as a college gentleman, Joshua was trying to lessen the smell of old beer and perhaps stale pizza. I had nothing to base this on. I had never seen Joshua open a beer or eat a pizza. However, my mind was developing a personality for the young man I knew but through a pane of glass.

“Hey,” he said, and his voice sounded different. The night before, I had become familiar with the voice of the lonely imposter Joshua. On that night, I did not need to become familiar—I was already familiar with that voice. It was the voice of my Nathan, and I assumed the difference in lilt and delivery was due to none other than the female in his presence. “You brought a bottle.”

“Yeah. I know what you like,” she said, holding up a paper bag.

“Thank you.” Slowly, he leaned in and kissed her. It was a hesitant motion, for both of them, as if this was an intimate gesture once practiced but lost over distances of time.

She pulled away first, handing him the bottle of wine like a piece of garlic or a cross. “How are you doing?”

“I’m happy you’re here.”

“I know. Me, too,” she said, and I realized she was beautiful. This girl was not beautiful in the way magazines told you women were beautiful. She was not skinny. She was not blond. She was soft and curvy with dark red hair, pulled up into an artful bun on the back of her head. She wore heavy eye makeup that suited her skin and pale lips that Joshua had wanted to kiss. She was older than Joshua but by only a few years; I could tell in the way she carried herself around this man who would have been considered a heartthrob in teen circles. “Wine?”

“Yes.” He smiled at her, and I realized he had just appraised her in the same silent way I had from my tree. “Come in. I just got back from shopping, so nothing is cooking yet.” He laughed, and I watched her trepidation turn into admiration.

“Same old Josh,” she said. She took the bottle back. “I’ll open the wine. You get the food going. I miss your cooking.”

As Joshua took off his suit coat and the woman threw her camel jacket onto furniture in a living room I could not see, I saw the white blur of Caleb overtake this young woman’s legs.

“Caleb!” she shouted, reaching down to rub the bothersome mutt on the head. “He’s so big!” She laughed, and I was not sure who loved her more—Joshua or the dog. The woman stood up and walked past a busy Joshua in the kitchen. He was pulling mounds of colorful vegetables, pasta, and freshly prepared tofu from the plethora of Whole Foods bags on his counter. The woman reached around him and opened a drawer, pulling a corkscrew from the depths of silver and black utensils. So she knew her way around his home.

“Tell me stories,” she said, freeing a bottle of red wine from its paper sack.

“We need music first.” He turned away from my window to look at her, and even from behind, the look of him was gentle. The look of him was harmless. The look of him was happy.

“Fine. Jesus.” She rolled her eyes and disappeared near her coat. But I saw him smile when she wasn’t looking, down into a colander overflowing with basil, onion, and red pepper. I watched his hands move. I watched the tap water flow over his skin and onto the vegetables in the sink. He dried his hands on a towel and thoughtlessly threw the fabric over his shoulder, then shook the excess hydration from the veggies. By the time he moved to open the bottle of wine for his female companion, there was music from the living room. She stepped back into my view and put her hands on her hips. “Well?”

“Little bit of Ray-Ray. Nice,” he said.

Ray Lamontagne, a young vocalist who sounded as if he’d spent thirty years smoking cigars with a jazz band in New Orleans. He was akin to Ryan Adams, so I already had an idea of what Joshua’s music collection looked like—acoustic guitar-heavy blues with a sad, soft touch that only previous heartbreak could inspire. The song she’d chosen seemed misplaced, almost too sentimental for the unexplained tension in her shoulders: “Let It Be Me.”

“Hey, come here, you have something…” Joshua said over the music, pointing at her face.

“What?” She stepped forward, and he again tasted her mouth. She pulled away much faster this time.

“Josh. You said dinner.”

“I know.” He turned back to the tofu. “I’m making dinner.”

“Yeah.” And she watched him like she knew what he was thinking. Like she knew his bedroom was covered in old laundry. Like she knew his mother was dying. Like she knew him intimately, or at least had before they had somehow gone wrong. “Wine?”

“Over there. You mind pouring me a glass?”

“Of course not. You are cooking me dinner.” She smiled, and she glowed in an immaculately damaged light. The woman poured two glasses, setting one to the right of the colander. She took a step back, dodging the dog that hovered beneath her dress. She leaned against the windowsill facing the porch. “So do I have to ask?”

“About what?”

“Josh.”

He looked back at her, and I wished I could see his eyes.

“Your mom’s dying, isn’t she?”

He looked down at the vegetables and slowly cut through the bare basil leaves. “Yeah.”

“Is that why I’m here?”

“No. That’s not why you’re here.”

“Okay. Then, why am I here?”

“Look. Jen.” He put the knife down and turned toward her. “You’re here because I want you here. Not for sex. I just—you always make things better. And today I need things to be better. So I don’t want to talk about my mom. Or my sister. I want to pretend things are okay. If only for…a bottle of wine.” He chuckled and looked down at the floor. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah.” Jen nodded. “Just don’t wreck me.”

“Only in the bedroom.”

* * *

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