By the time he felt he was falling, Eric knew he had screwed up. His hand shot out to meet the concrete and it broke his fall.
“Fuck!” he cried, cradling the bloody mess to his chest. “Oh my god.”
The hand was scraped and bleeding, and there were two long slivers of glass right below his index finger. Using the light of his phone, he grimaced and pulled them out. With a groan, Eric’s foot lashed out and kicked a garbage can, the one with the lid that tripped him. “Who the hell leaves a garbage can out in the road?” He kicked the can again, causing it to bounce off of the concrete and fall over. When he stood up, he kicked the lid and watched it ricochet into the grass.
“Hey, can I help you?” A voice called from the yard. When Eric looked up, he saw a man in his mid-thirties step onto the illuminated porch.
“No, I’m fine, thanks,” Eric said tersely. He didn’t want to draw anyone into his problems, even if they were as simple as a few scrapes and cuts. And throbbed smartly.
“Well can you go somewhere else? You’re scaring my kids,” the man told him matter-of-factly. He looked nervous, and Eric saw two small heads peeping out from behind some curtains.
“Your kids can go fuck themselves!” Eric yelled suddenly, kicking the trash can again violently. Turning and running away seemed childish, but he did it anyway. He wasn’t followed. If it had been his street, the man would’ve known Eric. Just a few streets over and they were strangers. Eric would have to change his route, because he certainly couldn’t come running past that house again. The guy might call the cops.
It was all Audrey’s fault, anyway. Eric had to leave the house any time an argument started. Tonight they had been doing simple, mundane things, and it still resulted in a fight.
Eric had been watching his wife make a lemon meringue pie, badly. It wasn’t her fault, she complained. It was the eggs. Ever since he had been buying the pasteurized eggs, the meringues were never fluffy enough, Audrey said. He took care of the dinner dishes, but watched her try and beat egg whites and vanilla into little phallic peaks. She wasn’t a very good baker, but she was trying to make her mother’s recipe. Even if it turned out terribly, Eric vowed to try a piece and compliment her all the same.
“This is ridiculous,” Audrey declared, after fifteen minutes had only produced the wimpiest of peaks for the meringue. “Why do you keep buying pasteurized eggs when I told you I can’t make meringues with them?”
“They’re safer, I read somewhere,” Eric told her. “Less risk of getting salmonella.”
“These are getting cooked, it’s not like we’d be eating them raw,” she grumbled, whipping the hell out of it one last time as though to scold him. Eric watched her spread it over the hot filling, sealing it at the edges meticulously before putting it in the oven.
“I’ll get ones that aren’t pasteurized next time,” he promised.
“You told me that the last time I tried to make my mom’s recipe,” Audrey reminded him, glaring over a whisk. “And how many times do I have to tell you that my mother used regular, old-fashioned eggs?”
That had been last week, and she had not stopped going on about “regular eggs” the entire time she baked. And, he dimly recalled, the week before that. He didn’t understand why this was so important to her, for the meringue to taste exactly like her mother’s. It wouldn’t no matter what. When he had told her every day at work was uniquely different, she got upset and said baking was nothing like an autopsy.
Eric was just a coroner’s assistant, but he had gotten the hang of things quickly. He drove the van to and from scenes, picking up the bodies, and assisted the coroner in autopsies. His shift rotated, and occasionally he had to suffer being on call, like tonight. Audrey had lost her job a few months ago, so he volunteered for as much overtime as he could stand.
Watching her push the pie in the oven from the corner of his eye, Eric reached over for the mixing bowls. Audrey had promised she would clean up, but he was already finished with the dinner dishes.
“No, I’ve got it,” Audrey protested, watching him dunk the bowls in the soapy water.
“It doesn’t matter, I’m already here,” Eric told her.
“If I said I’m going to do them, I’m going to do them,” she insisted, her expression darkening, moving over to the sink. “I need to watch the oven anyway.” It was like a storm was brewing in her, and soon she would start to crackle with electric fury.
“What is your problem?” As soon as it came out that way, accusatory and demeaning, Eric regretted it. Audrey’s eyes welled with tears too quickly and her mouth became a thin angry line.
“Nothing is wrong with me,” she spat, “and fuck you for suggesting it.”
“I’m sorry, Aud. I—“
“Shut up,” Audrey interrupted. “Get out of the kitchen, I have things to do. Just…get away from me.” She maneuvered him by hip away from the sink, plunging her powdery hands into the hot water.
Eric stood there for a second, before she glared at him. He retreated with a mumbled ‘Jesus Christ’ out of the kitchen.
“What was that?” Audrey called after him, angrily. It was a bad habit he had, continuing the argument by himself almost out of earshot.
“I’m going for a run!” Eric yelled back, heading to the door. He thought maybe it would help clear his head.
Obviously Eric had been wrong about that. Now his hand was bloody and sore, and he just wanted to kick something. If he went back into his house, he would yell at Audrey and they would rehash a fight over something as insignificant as dishes. It was driving him insane. Instead of heading up the steps to deal with his volatile wife, Eric detoured to the garage. Last year he had purchased a home gym, absolutely sure it would motivate him to work out. Now it mostly sat at the back of the garage by his workbench and stereo. Eric didn’t even go to clean up his hand; he picked up a napkin from the bench and clutched it while pulling out the weights. The roll of duct tape made a screech as he used a strip to bind the napkin to his palm. With the makeshift bandaid in place, Eric turned on the stereo, making sure it was loud enough to block out noise from upstairs. Audrey was crying again, and trying to get involved wasn’t going to help.
Using his uninjured hand, Eric picked up one of the heavier 15 lb weights, beginning to curl it inward. When he couldn’t go anywhere else without an argument, Eric liked to hang out in the garage. There was an old threadbare recliner on the opposite side, with a lamp set up in case he wanted to read. He squirreled away the self-help books his friends gave him beneath the foot rest that popped out of the recliner. Unless Audrey sat in it and pulled the lever—which she would never do—she wouldn’t find any of his books.
After a few sets of curls with the uninjured arm, Eric put the weight away and thought about crunches. By that point his hand was throbbing, and he decided it would be better to properly clean it off. The napkin and duct tape treatment had left angry red splotches and stopped the bleeding, but he’d need to get some ointment on the cuts. Eric turned the radio off and padded up the steps into the kitchen.
The first thing he noticed was the burning smell. A window was open to waft out the reek of it, and he saw a crumbled mess of pie thrown in the trash.
“Before you start, just don’t,” Audrey said somewhere behind him. “And work just called. They need you to drive the van.” That was code for needing to pick up a body.
Audrey couldn’t phrase it any other way and she shuddered to think about corpses. She had been the one to discover her grandfather, after he’d had a heart attack and fallen down the stairs. Eric would be the first to admit that death wasn’t pretty, but it must have been very traumatic to discover a loved one that way, with limbs bent at unnatural angles. Ever since, Audrey tried to stay as far away from death as possible.
“I wasn’t going to, Aud,” Eric told her. With a sigh, he went into the kitchen to pull the first aid kit out. Even on his knees and half-plunging into the cupboard under the sink, he could still feel Audrey behind him. Judging him, most likely.
“What have you got on your hand?” she asked. He knew it.
“A bandaid until I could come upstairs,” Eric said, waving the question off. “I fell on my run, nothing too serious.” Audrey didn’t say anything after that. She just stood there and watched him clean up. By the time he was done, she had retreated to the living room. That was her space, and he didn’t dare trespass. “I’ll be back,” he called, craning his neck and watching her pick up tissue balls. She didn’t respond and he didn’t expect her to. Eric tried to convince himself that the splotchy cheeks and permanent installation on the couch was part of her healing process, but she wasn’t even going to therapy like they’d agreed.
The drive to the scene was surprisingly short. His text from Mark had the address and it was at Blevins Lane, the same street where he’d tripped over that trash lid. The job was not at that house though, thank Christ. Eric kept thinking about the two peeping pairs of eyes. Those kids didn’t deserve to have a coroner’s van at their house anytime soon. Instead it was a little ranch house tucked into the corner, where Blevins met Mulberry. Eric pulled the van up onto the curb, trying to get as close as possible. At least this house didn’t have any stairs, it was always awful trying to get a body up or down stairs. The rule of thumb for an apartment building was that, if the body was above the first floor, it was guaranteed to be at least 200 lbs and difficult to move.
A patrol car was the only thing parked in front, which wasn’t unusual for natural-looking deaths. If it was a homicide, usually it was messier and needed police investigators. That in itself was a blessing, because Eric was definitely not up to a messy homicide. Last April, some students got into a fight over rent, and after bashing the other guy’s head in, he chopped him up into parcel-sized pieces and tried to bury him beneath the gravel of a parking garage. The bags of bits had slumped down one end of the body bag like an orange in a sock. His occasional partner in scene pick-ups, Mark, had vomited twice. Hopefully it would be something simple—and someone who wasn’t overweight. It was nothing to pick up a scrawny teenage suicide, but a 350-lb guy in the bathtub? An awful hour-long struggle. Even more grief if there were juices.
Mark’s car pulled up on the opposite side of the street, just as Eric was pulling out the gurney.
“Being on call on a Saturday night is a total buzzkill,” Mark complained as he jogged over. “Sam was just about begging me to give her a spanking when I got that text.”
“I thought you were going to tie her up and make her wait till you get back,” Eric joked. Mark and Samantha into some of the kinkier bedroom things. He and Audrey had tried a few things like that. The time Eric had brought home fuzzy handcuffs, they both ended up laughing so hard he worried one or both of them would fall off the bed.
“What about you?” Mark asked. He knew things had been tough for the two of them lately.
“We’re…getting better,” Eric offered. “It just takes time.”
“Did you try the egg thing? It works, trust me,” the other man assured him. “When you’re trying to put a bun in her oven, you need all the help you can get, right?” He could tell that Mark was going to rehash all of the factoids that he had collected recently, but they walked into the house and were greeted by an awful stench. “Why didn’t I get a job at the mill like my daddy told me?” Mark mourned when they saw the body.
“Holy shit,” was all that Eric could say. It was a little old lady’s home, all right. And she looked to be about 90 lbs wet. But she was bent over the couch in an awful angle, and…where was most of her foot? If it was a homicide, they would have the investigators on the scene. Not just two patrol officers, albeit mildly green-looking ones. “What the hell happened?” he asked them.
“Take a look around,” the younger cop replied, scowling at the musty living room. He pointed at something in the corner. A cat. The big orange thing was looking lazily at them, before finally it deigned to come over and inspect them.
“It walked in the blood,” Mark grimaced. There were red streaks on the white carpet, mixed in with puddles of piss and little turds.
“The cat ate her?” Eric asked faintly. The same cat that was rubbing on his leg? It meowed at him, plaintive. He shooed it with his foot, noticing the matted blood in the ginger hair.
“Looks like it,” the older cop said. “If they’re hungry enough, pets will eat their dead owners. I’ve seen it before. German Shepherd ate an old man’s hand and gnawed on an arm before we found ’em.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Mark protested faintly, “can’t you just let us get to work?” Eric looked over and saw that the other man was a little pale. Apparently his friend didn’t want to contemplate the gruesome downside to having “man’s best friend” around.
“What happens to animals that eat their owners?” Eric asked, curious.
“They get taken in by family, usually,” the older cop told him. “If they can’t, then they go to a shelter. The shelter obviously doesn’t share the grisly details, so they have a better chance of getting adopted.” At that, Mark looked faintly green around the gills.
“Mark, go look in the bedroom for medication to log,” Eric suggested, trying to take his mind off of it. “I’ll find a sheet and wrap her, then you can just help me bag her up after that.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark agreed, obviously relieved.
By the time Eric got home that night, it was pretty late. Even with the relatively easy time of lifting and bringing the body back to the morgue, they’d had to document and inventory a big bag full of pills. It seemed that granny had been a pill-seeker, as some of the bottles came from different doctors. Although at that age, there were worse things to be into. They all had their quiet little obsessions.
Audrey was asleep on the couch, snoring gently in front of the television. It was some cheesy tearjerker, he imagined. Tiptoeing past her, Eric entered the kitchen. The first thing he did was go to the fridge, closing his fist on a beer and setting it on the counter. Then he grabbed the carton of eggs and pulled it out. Not even daring to turn on the light, Eric basked in the glow of the open fridge and fingered an egg from the carton. Striking the cool, smooth shell on the countertop, he carefully cracked it in a complete circle before applying pressure with his thumb. It split open, and he tipped it into his open mouth. Despite having eaten a raw egg regularly for a few weeks now, the first taste was always off-putting. It slithered down his throat, with the bubble of the yolk popping on his teeth. Mark said that eating a raw egg would enhance his potency, but he would actually have to have sex to test that theory. After reading up on it, with fitness nuts screaming the benefits of raw egg consumption on their blogs, Eric had decided to give it a try. He didn’t notice anything different, but if not now, then maybe in the future.
Clutching the broken shell, Eric lobbed it into the trash can and washed his hands, before cracking the beer and taking a swig. It took care of the somewhat slimy aftertaste.
“What are you doing?” Eric turned, seeing Audrey standing before him. Her naked legs were beautiful, even moreso when she turned on the light.
“Grabbing a beer before I crash. Work tonight was a killer,” Eric offered.
“Ha ha,” Audrey said, rolling her eyes.
“Aud, I wanted to apologize tonight for what I said.” Even though it was something little, he knew that the little things were especially important to her now. And he shouldn’t have lost his temper like that.
“It’s all right,” Audrey told him, waving her hand dismissively. “I wanted to apologize too. I’ve been flying off the handle lately.”
“Does that mean I don’t have to sleep on the couch?” he joked. He was happy to see a smile flicker across her face.
“No, you don’t have to. I’m going to clean up down here and I’ll join you upstairs, okay?”
“All right,” Eric agreed. He chugged the rest of the beer and tossed it, before going over to kiss her on the cheek. They would probably have a fight tomorrow, but who cared? What mattered was the now. Surprisingly, she turned her head and returned the kiss, pulling him to her with both hands. Eric liked the feel of her svelte body pressed against him, conforming to him in all the right places until heat pooled behind his navel.
“Go get a shower before you get in bed,” Audrey said, making a face. “You smell like dead people and I don’t want it on the sheets.”
“Just one of them tonight,” Eric teased, unsuccessfully dodging the slap to his ass.
“Shower, Eric. Now.”
Happy to oblige, Eric trotted up the stairs. He paused for a minute at the first door on the right, looking at the unused baby room. Had Audrey been sitting in here again? They had pulled up the carpeting, when the gobbets of rust-colored stains would not come out. Audrey had miscarried their son on that floor, only four months into the pregnancy. Maybe putting in new carpet and changing up the room would help. That would be a good project to do next, he decided, staring at the empty blue room. Eric would bring it up with Aud tomorrow, unless there was another meringue involved. And more complaints about the eggs.
When he exited the shower, Audrey was already in bed and fighting to keep her eyes open. Eric smoothed her soft brown hair as he slid into bed.
“You didn’t have to wait up for me,” he told her, amused.
“I know. I wanted to. And I was thinking…”
“Hm?” Eric asked. That could go either way. Was she thinking about the baby? Or about their fight? Maybe now was the time to suggest they try again.
“Let’s try again, but with something small. A starter project, maybe. Do you like cats?”
“Hell no,” he said immediately, jumping up. “Anything but a cat.”