Jill entered the tall apartment building. It had been around for decades, without much updating to it. She had to go up three floors to get to her place. Her high heels hit the concrete floor as she entered, echoes announcing her presence. The groceries in her hands felt heavy enough to burst through the sacks. Perhaps it had been a mistake to visit the salon before buying food, because she always had to look her best when getting her manicure, but the combination of high heels and heavy groceries made her wonder if she would get blisters on her feet. After all, the nearest bus stop was three blocks from her place, and with the car in the shop, it was the only means of transportation she had left. She didn’t think it should have been all that unusual to bring groceries with her on the bus, but that day everyone must have agreed to make her look like a fool.
On the way home she had stopped three times after getting off the bus to set down the bags and examine her hands. One of the nails broke during the trip home, and there were creases where the plastic had bit into her hands. One time, a dog had come over, sniffing her food, and she had to clumsily chase it away without tripping. Her husband always told her to wear shoes with wider heels, but she thought they looked ugly. If only he had stayed home today like he had said he would. Then he could have gone shopping, or taken care of the baby.
Jack was a great husband and she knew she should not complain, but he sometimes acted strange around the neighbors, as if he did not trust them. One time he told her he thought the woman above them had drilled a hole through their ceiling and was spying on them. Most of the time, his theories were so funny, she had to stop herself from laughing. She still was not sure if he was serious or if he was joking. She suspected that the time he had sustained a concussion in football as a teen still affected him. But all of this had not stopped him from being a good husband and father.
Maybe it was because she was thinking of him that she began feeling it. When she on the last set of stairs before getting to her place that she realized something was wrong. It was too silent. There was a tenseness in the air. She chastened herself for getting so worked up over nothing. She was imagining things. Yet she couldn’t help but feel something had happened. Her steps became slower, more languid the closer she got, as if wading through water. Her heartbeat was the only thing that sped up. Even these warning signs, though, could not prepare her for what she saw when she arrived on her floor and saw her apartment ahead of her. With a gasp, she let go of the groceries, food spilling everywhere.
Jill looked at the crime scene, all emotions numbed. The blood that stained the floor cruelly held her gaze. How could that have been her favorite color? She idly twisted her curly hair, thinking that it was nothing like the color of blood, even though she had been called red headed all her life. The man who had died, her neighbor, was middle aged, only a little bit older than her husband who had first asked her out when she was still in high school and he in college. She wondered if her life would come to such an abrupt stop when she reached this man’s age. What would people think of her? She was nothing more than a housewife, although her mother would have told her that it was nothing to be ashamed of. Who would remember her if she died right now? Her son was too young still; her husband would obviously remember her, at least until he remarried. She did not have many friends, since she had moved here up in the northeast to be with Jack. Her father always complained about that in the family reunions she could attend, saying that she was turning into a liberal Yankee.
Through the far apartment window, she saw the falling orange leaves. The police were telling her to leave now, that there was nothing to see, but their words were like butterflies, slow but elusive. How silly they were. There was plenty to see. She shivered.
“Ma’am, please allow us to conduct our investigation. If you want, we can assist you with your groceries.” She looked down at the bags, one yellow at the bottom from the broken eggs, and then back at the man in the uniform. He must have taken that as a nod, because he looked over at a reporter and told him to help her. Vaguely, she saw him resist, but he soon gave in and started collecting her bags as well as the food that had fallen out. Annoyed, he nodded for her to lead him to her apartment, but she wanted to continue looking through the open door, past the yellow tape. In the back of her mind, she knew it was morbid, but that part was not in control at the moment.
This man, James something, had been her neighbor for about a year. He was single and apparently never had been married. Her husband always commented that a man his age should have settled down a long time ago, that he must be hiding something and that she should stay away from him. She had not been so suspicious of James, and sometimes had pleasant conversations about nothing with the man. Not that they had ever been close friends, although today she had trusted him with…
Jill swore and ran into the man’s apartment, breaking the yellow tape and ignoring the yells of the police. “My baby! My baby!” Where was he? If he were…she would never forgive herself. Panting, she rushed to the crib that she had left with James when she went out. She looked in, but there was nothing inside. Where was he? The police grabbed her arms and pulled her out, forcefully. She struggled. She did not care about not disturbing the crime scene. They only got her out with a big struggle, leaving her crying. She slumped against the wall and put her face in her hands. Someone came over and tried to comfort her, but she ignored him. The tears flowed between her fingers.
Later, she was in her apartment. The reporter had brought in the groceries and then had taken the opportunity to interview her. Each question had provoked more tears. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? The police then told her they would do everything they could to locate her baby, since they had found no other body except that of her neighbor. These had been the longest hours of her life. Now they were all gone and she was picking at a bowl of macaroni and cheese mixed with tears. She heard the door open. Getting up, she tried to prepare to tell Jack the bad news. He had not answered his cell phone all day. She didn’t think she would be able to without becoming a total mess. She had cried for hours after getting home, and the tears had recently dried up, but rainstorms threatened to fill up the empty riverbeds of her face again.
When he came into full view, Jill gasped. “Jason!” Her son was alive! She ran over to Jack and took her son from his hands. “How, where was, when, I was so, what?” The cog that linked her mouth and mind stopped functioning. She could not believe it. Even though her son was frowning, his face looked as if it were glowing, the most beautiful sight in the world. She imagined that he was happier now that he was with his mother. She stared into those blue eyes, her hours of grief healed in the instant they blinked. She stood there with her son for several minutes, crying, ignoring everything around her, including her husband.
“Honey,” Jack eventually began, his tone not reflecting her delight. “Why did James have our baby?”
Jill still couldn’t speak, though, and his words sounded like another language. She looked her baby in the eyes. “Honey. I came home early and heard Jason crying, but it did not come from our apartment. When I realized that James had him…like I always said, I never trusted him, and I thought he had…or you and he…”
“Poor James!” Jill exclaimed, snapping back to reality at the mention of her deceased neighbor. “You do know what happened, right?”
“Why would I know what happened?” Jack said defensively. Then his cheeks colored. “Oh, that. Yeah, it’s a real tragedy. Good thing I got Jason out of there before it happened.”
“Wow, I hadn’t even thought of that. Here I was, sitting at home, worried sick, and you protected our son the whole time. You really are a great husband and father, Jack.” Jill looked at him earnestly.
Jack scratched the back of his head, forcing a smile. His sandy blond hair was reflected in their son, who burped at that moment. Jill turned to her husband. “Jack, why are there dark spots on your pants?”
Jack looked down at his pants and looked like he had woken up from a strange dream. “I…went to check on the car in the shop, honey. Behind the counter, they were showing highlights of the game last night on the TV, so I leaned in to get a better look. I guess it was pretty dirty, or greasy, because after, my pants were like this. Worse, even.”
“How is the car, dear? You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through today without that thing, and all to come home to this.” Tears started trickling down her face, and she tried to wipe them, but with Jason in her arms, she had a bit of trouble, having to shift the baby. Jack came over and hugged her, wiping the tears away as if it would erase all the pain. Jill looked at him and pouted. “Promise me this will never happen again, dear.”
“What do you mean? I can’t stop people from dying.” Jack avoided looking into her eyes.
“Just promise. Please.”
“Fine. You won’t have to suffer through this any more.”
Later that night, Jack got up and went to get a snack. Jill watched him go, pretending to be asleep, but in reality she was wide-awake. The day’s events had taken a lot out of her, yet she could not fall into darkness’s forgetful embrace. She was relieved her son was fine. She felt bad that James had died. But there was something that weighed down on her mind more than anything else, and she had no idea what to do about it, or if she should tell anyone about it. Sometimes she wished she didn’t know Jack so well.
This day had brought so many surprises, and Jill did not know how to handle them all. Sure that Jack was occupied for the time, she quietly picked up the phone receiver. She needed to get this off her mind, and perhaps it would be best this way. What was someone to do in this kind of situation? Maybe she should wait until he was at work the next day. But she would not be able to sleep with this on her mind.
Her fingers trembled as she pushed each button. Who knew three numbers would be so hard to punch in? When a voice came through, it felt glaringly loud. She looked up and glanced around, hoping Jack hadn’t heard her. It didn’t look like he had, so she began whispering into the receiver.
“Hello. My name is Jill and I have some information on a murder committed today…”
“Miss, there is another number you can call to help the police in solving a crime. We deal in emergencies.”
“But this is an emergency. You see, I am in the same house as-”
Jill dropped the phone as she felt his hand on her shoulder. It bounced on the floor a few times before stopping, and then the only sound in the room was the static noise coming from the receiver, almost making out understandable words.
“Jill,” Jack whispered. “That was not a good idea. Not good at all.”
He spun her around and in the dim light, with a faint green glow from the phone buttons, she looked into the face of her husband. Except he was not her husband anymore.
This was the face of a murderer.