Maybe this is on me, Liz Kendall thought as she tried in vain to breathe. A little bit, anyway. For sure, it was mostly the fault of her ex-husband, Marc, and his terrifying temper, but she could see where there might be a corner of it left that she could claim for herself. Taking responsibility for your own mistakes was important.
It was Marc’s weekend with the kids, and he had brought them back late. Except he hadn’t really brought them back at all. He had left them outside, in his car, and had come inside to tell Liz that they were going to grab some dinner. You know, since it was already so late and all.
Liz had surprised herself, speaking up for her rights and the kids’ routine, reminding Marc (which he knew damn well) that tomorrow was a school day. She had been overconfident, was what it was. She had lost the habit of victimhood somewhere, or at least temporarily mislaid it. Forthright words had spilled out of her mouth, to her own astonishment as much as Marc’s.
But Marc had some words of his own once he got over the surprise, and the argument had moved through its inevitable phases: recrimination, rage, ultimatum. Then when there was nowhere left for it to go in words alone, it had moved into actions, which speak louder. Marc had grabbed Liz by the throat and slammed her backward into the counter, sending the bags of groceries she had laid in for the kids’ return cascading down onto the tiles.
“I’m going to fix you once and for all, you fucking bitch!” he roared into her dazed face.
Now she was down on the floor among the spilled foodstuffs and Marc was kneeling astride her, his teeth bared, his face flushed with effort, his wild eyes overflowing with hate. As Liz twisted in his grip, trying to open a passage from her windpipe to her lungs, she glimpsed a box of Lucky Charms on her left-hand side and a bottle of Heinz malt vinegar on her right.
Egyptian pharaohs sailed into the afterlife in reed boats piled with all the treasures they’d amassed in their lives. Gold. Jewels. Precious metals. In heaven, Liz would have condiments and breakfast cereal. Great, she thought. Wonderful.
Darkness welled up like tears in her eyes.
And that was when the iceberg hit.
It hit her from the inside out, a bitter cold that expanded from the core of her body all the way to her skin, where it burned and stung.
She saw her hand, like a glove on someone else’s hand, groping across the floor. Finding the vinegar bottle’s curved side. Turning it with her fingertips until she could take hold of it.
Her arm jerked spasmodically, lifting from the ground only to fall back down. Then it repeated the motion. Why? What was she doing? No, what was this rogue part of her doing on its own behalf? Now that it had a weapon, why wasn’t it even trying to use it?
A wave of glee and fierce amusement and anticipation flooded Liz’s mind as though her brain had sprung a catastrophic leak and someone else’s thoughts were pouring in. Stupid. Stupid question. She was making a weapon.
Three times is the charm. With the third impact, the bottle smashed on the hard tiles. The vinegar seeping into her lacerated skin made Liz’s dulled nerves twitch and dance, but it was a dance with no real meaning to it, like that strange event she had seen once when she picked Zac up from his school’s summer bop: a silent disco.
She drove what was left of the bottle into the side of Marc’s face as hard as she could.
Marc gave a hoarse, startled grunt, flicking his head aside as though a fly or a moth had flown into his eye. Then he screamed out loud, reeling backward as he realized he was cut. His hands flew up to clutch his damaged cheek. Pieces of broken glass rained down onto the floor like melting icicles after a sudden thaw.
Some of them had blood on them. Liz’s stomach turned over when she saw that, but it was as though some part of her had missed the memo: satisfaction and triumph rose, tingling like bubbles, through her nausea and panic.
That surge of alien emotion was terrifyingly intense, but in other ways normal service was being resumed. Liz’s arms dropped to the floor on either side of her as though whatever had just taken her over had flung them down when it was done. The prickling cold folded in on itself and receded back into some hidden gulf whose existence she had never suspected.
Liz sucked in an agonizing sliver of breath, and then another. Her chest heaved and spasmed, but the sickness of realization filled her quicker than the urgent oxygen, quicker even than the overpowering smell and taste of vinegar.
What she had just done.
But it was more like what someone else had done, slipping inside her body and her mind and moving her like a puppet. She hadn’t willed this; she had only watched it, her nervous system dragged along in the wake of decisions made (instantly, enthusiastically) elsewhere.
Liz tried to sit up. For a moment she couldn’t move at all. It felt as if she had to fumble around inside herself to find where all her nerves attached. Her body was strange to her, too solid and too slow, like a massive automaton controlled by levers and pulleys.
Finally she was able to roll over on one elbow, her damaged hand pressed hard against her chest. She watched a ragged red halo form on the white cotton of her T-shirt as the blood soaked through, conforming sloppily and approximately to the outline of her fingers. A year-old memory surfaced: the time when Molly had painted around her hand for art homework with much more exuberance than accuracy.
Marc lunged at her again with a screamed obscenity, one hand groping for her throat while the other was still clamped to his own cheek. But he didn’t touch her. Didn’t get close. Pete and Parvesh Sethi from the apartment upstairs were suddenly there on either side of him, coming out of nowhere to grab him and haul him back. For a few seconds, the three men were a threshing tangle of too many limbs in too many places, a puzzle picture. Then Pete and Parvesh put Marc down hard.
Pete knelt across Marc’s shoulders to pin his upper body to the ground, facedown, while Parvesh, sitting on his legs, took his phone out of his pocket to request—with astonishing calm—both a police visit and an ambulance. Marc was raving, calling them a couple of queer bastards and promising that when he came back to finish what he’d started with Liz he’d spend some time with them too.
“Lizzie,” Parvesh shouted to her across the room. “Are you all right? Talk to me!” From the concern in his voice, she thought maybe he had asked her once already and she had missed it somehow in the general confusion.
“I’m fine,” she said. Her voice was a little slurred, her mouth as sluggish and unwilling as the rest of her. “Just . . . cut my hand.”
But there was a lot more wrong with her than that.
“Pete,” Parvesh said, “have you got this?”
“I’ve got it,” Pete grunted. “If he tries to get up, I’ll dislocate his shoulder.”
Parvesh stood and walked across to Liz. Marc struggled a little when he felt that his legs were free, but Pete tightened his grip and he subsided again.
“Fucking queer bastard,” Marc repeated, his voice muffled because his mouth was right up against the tiles. “I’ll fucking fix you.”
“Well, you could fix your trash talk,” Pete said. “Right now, it doesn’t sound like you’re even trying.”
“Let me see,” Parvesh said to Liz. He knelt down beside her and took her hand in both of his, unfolding it gently like an origami flower. There was a big gash across her palm, a smaller one at the base of her thumb. Parvesh winced when he saw the two deep cuts. “Well, I guess they’re probably disinfected already,” he said. “Vinegar’s an acid. But we’d better make sure there’s no glass in them. Have you got a first aid kit?”
Did she? For a second or two the answer wouldn’t come. The room made no sense to her, though she’d lived in this house for the best part of two years. She had to force herself to focus, drag up the information in a clumsy swipe like someone groping in the dark for a ringing phone.
“Corner cupboard,” she mumbled. “Next to the range, on the right.”
It was still hard to make all her moving parts cooperate—hard even to talk without her tongue catching between her teeth. She thought she might be drooling a little, but when she tried to bring her good hand up to her mouth to wipe the spittle away her body refused to cooperate. The hand just drew a sketchy circle in the air.
When your own body doesn’t do what you tell it to, Liz thought in sick dismay, that has to mean you’re losing your mind.
Parvesh got her up on her feet, the muscles in her legs twanging like guitar strings, and led her across to the sink. He ran cold water across the cuts before probing them with a Q-tip soaked in Doctor’s Choice. They were starting to hurt now. Hurt like hell, with no fuzz or interference. Liz welcomed the pain. At least it was something that was hers alone: nobody else was laying claim to it.
Marc was still cursing from the floor and Pete was still giving him soft answers while leaning down on him hard and not letting him move a muscle.
“The kids!” Liz mumbled. “Vesh, I’ve got to go get the kids.”
“Zac and Moll? Where are they?”
“In Marc’s car. Out on the driveway.” Or more likely on the street, parked for a quick getaway. Marc wouldn’t have had any expectation that he was going to lose this argument.
“Okay. But not bleeding like a pig, Lizzie. You’ll scare them shitless.”
Parvesh was right, she knew. She also knew that Zac must be getting desperate by now, only too aware that the long hiatus with both of his parents inside the house meant they were having a shouting match at the very least. But she had made him promise never to intervene, and she had made the promise stick. She hadn’t wanted either of her children to come between her and Marc’s temper. In the years leading up to the divorce, protecting them from that had been the rock bottom rationale for Liz’s entire existence.
Whatever happens between him and me, Zac, you just stay with your sister. Keep her safe. Let it blow over.
Only this didn’t seem like something that was going to blow over. Liz could hear sirens whooping a few streets away, getting louder: repercussions, arriving way before she was ready for them. When she still didn’t even understand how any of this had happened.
The iceberg. The alien emotions. The puppet dance.
The room yawed and rolled a little. Liz went away and came back again, without moving from the spot where she stood. One of the places she went to—just for half a heartbeat or so—was the Perry Friendly Motel. A suspect mattress bounced under her ass as Marc bounced on top of her and she thrust from the hips with joyous abandon to meet him halfway.
Okay, that was weird. That was nearly twenty years ago. What was she going to hallucinate next? A guitar solo?
The next thing she was aware of was Parvesh applying a dressing to her hand, bending the pad carefully around her open wounds. “What did he do to you?” he asked her, keeping his voice low so the conversation was just between the two of them.
Liz shook her head. She didn’t want to talk about it because that meant having to think about it.
“You’ve got bruises on your throat. Lizzie, did he attack you?”
“I’ve got to go out to the kids,” she said. Had she already said that? How much time had passed? Could she make it to the street without fainting or falling over?
Parvesh tilted her head back very gently with one hand and leaned in close to examine her neck.
“He did. He tried to throttle you. Oh Lizzie, you poor thing!”
Liz flinched away from his pity as if it were contempt. She had tried hard not to let anyone see this. To be someone else, a little bit stronger and more self-sufficient than her current self. And since she had moved into the duplex, she had felt like it was working, like she had sloughed off an old skin and been reborn. But here she was again, where she had been so many times before (although something strong had moved through her briefly, like the ripples from a distant tidal wave).
“How did it happen?”
“It’s his weekend. I was just . . . unhappy because he brought the kids back so late. I told him not to.” The kids. She needed to make sure they were okay: everything else could wait. Liz headed for the door.
But she still wasn’t as much in command of her own movements as she thought she was. She stumbled and almost fell. Parvesh caught her and sat her down on one of the chairs. She noticed that there was a dark streak of blood across the blue and yellow polka dots on its tie-on cushion.
The back of her head was throbbing. Putting a hand up to feel back there she found a lump like a boulder, its surface hot and tender. When Marc knocked her down she must have hit the tiles a lot harder than she thought. Another wave of nausea went through her but she fought against it and managed not to heave.
More talking. More moving around. The kitchen floor was still rising and falling like the deck of a ship. Liz lost track of events again, feeling around inside herself for any lingering traces of that presence. Her interior puppetmaster.
The outside world came back loudly and suddenly with the kitchen door banging open and then with Marc bellowing from the floor for someone to let him up because he was being assaulted and illegally restrained.
“So what happened here?” another voice asked. A female voice, calm and matter-of-fact. Liz looked up to find two uniformed cops in the kitchen, a woman and a man. She closed her eyes immediately, finding that the light and movement were making the nausea return.
Marc was talking again, or yelling rather, swearing that he was going to sue the Sethis for every penny they had. Pete told him to make sure he spelled their names right. “It’s Mr. Queer Bastard and Dr. Queer Bastard. We don’t hyphenate.”
“Her husband attacked her,” Parvesh said. “That guy over there. Him.”
“Ex-husband,” Liz muttered automatically. She opened her eyes again, as wide as she dared. “The kids. My kids are . . .”
“We’ve got an officer with them right now, ma’am,” the lady cop said. “They’re fine. Is it okay if we bring them around by the front of the house? We don’t think it’s a good idea for them to see this.” She nodded her head to indicate the smears and spatters of blood all over the kitchen floor, on the side of the counter, on Liz and on Marc.
Marc was sitting up now, his back against the fridge. The Sethis had retired to the opposite corner of the room but the man cop, whose badge identified him as Lowenthal, was standing over Marc and a paramedic was kneeling beside him, holding a dressing pad to his face. Blood was oozing out from under the pad, running along its lower edge to a corner where it dripped down onto Marc’s shirt. It didn’t make much difference to the shirt: you couldn’t even tell where the drops were landing on the blood-drenched fabric.
The lady cop talked on her radio for a few seconds. “Yeah. Bring them through the front door and find someplace where they can sit. Tell them their mom and dad are okay and someone’s going to be with them soon.” She slipped the radio back into the pouch on her belt and looked at everyone in turn. “Suppose we run through this from the beginning,” she said. “What exactly happened here?”
“She ripped my face open with a bottle!” Marc snarled.
“A vinegar bottle,” Liz added unnecessarily. The lady cop turned to Liz and gave her a hard, appraising look. Her badge read Brophy. A nice Irish name. She didn’t look Irish. She was blonde and wide-faced like a Viking, with flint-gray eyes. Maybe cops got Irish surnames along with their badges. Except for Lowenthal.
“Are you saying this is true, ma’am?” Officer Brophy asked. “You assaulted him with a bottle?”
“Yes,” Liz said.
“Okay, you want to tell me why?”
I can’t, Liz thought bleakly. I don’t even understand it myself.
“He was on top of me,” she said. “Choking me.” It was absolutely true. It was also irrelevant. That wasn’t why she’d done what she did; it was only when.
“Can anyone corroborate that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Parvesh said. “We saw the whole thing. We live upstairs. We heard the noise through the floor and ran down. The kitchen door was open, so we let ourselves in, and we saw Lizzie on the floor with this man—” He nodded his head in Marc’s direction. “—on top of her. She’s Elizabeth Kendall and he’s her ex-husband, Marc. Marc with a c. He had his hands around her throat. We were so amazed that for a moment we couldn’t think of what to do. We just shouted at him to get off of her. But he didn’t stop. He didn’t even seem to hear us. Then Lizzie grabbed the bottle up off the floor and swung it, and that was when we stepped in. Am I missing anything, Pete?”
“That’s how it went down,” Pete agreed.
“Look at her neck,” Parvesh told Officer Brophy, “if you don’t believe us.”
“I didn’t touch her,” Marc yelled. “They’re lying. She just went for me!”
Officer Brophy ignored Marc while she took up Parvesh’s invitation. She walked across to Liz and leaned in close to look at her bare throat. “Could you tilt your chin up a little, ma’am?” she asked politely. “If it doesn’t hurt too much.”
Liz obeyed. Officer Lowenthal whistled, short and low. “Nasty,” he murmured.
“How’s the gentleman looking?” Brophy asked the paramedic. She shot Marc a very brief glance.
“He’ll need stitches,” the paramedic said. “They both will.”
“You just got the one ambulance?”
“Yeah. The other one is out in Wilkinsburg.”
“Okay, then you take him. Officer Lowenthal will accompany you, and I’ll follow on with Mrs. Kendall. Len, you ought to cuff him to a gurney in case he gets argumentative.”
“I’ll do that,” Lowenthal said.
“This is insane!” Marc raged. “Look at me! I’m the one who’s injured. I’m the one who was attacked.” He swatted away the paramedic’s hands and pulled the dressing pad away to display his wounds. The eye looked fine, if a little red. The semi-circular gouge made by the bottle ringed it quite neatly, but there was a strip of loose flesh hanging down from his cheek as though Liz had tried to peel him.
“That does look pretty bad,” Officer Lowenthal allowed. “You just hit him the once, ma’am?”
“Once,” Liz agreed. “Yes.” And hey, she thought but didn’t say, that’s a one in my column and a couple of hundred in his, so he’ll probably still win the match on points even if he doesn’t get a knockout.
She shook her head to clear it. It didn’t clear. “Please,” she tried again. “My children. I can’t leave them on their own. I haven’t even seen them yet. They don’t know what’s happening.”
The two cops got into a murmured conversation that Liz couldn’t catch.
“Well, you go on in and talk to them,” Brophy said eventually. “While we get your husband’s statement.” Ex-husband, Liz amended in her mind. Took the best part of two years to get that ex nailed on the front, and nobody ever uses it. “They can ride with you to the hospital, if you want. Or if you’ve got friends who can look after them . . .”
“We’d be happy to do that,” Parvesh said.
“. . . then they can stay here until you get back. Up to you. You go ahead and talk to them now while we finish up in here.”
“I’m making a lasagna,” Pete said to Liz, touching her arm as she went by. “If they haven’t had supper, they can eat with us.”
Liz gave him a weak smile, grateful but almost too far out of herself to show it. “Thanks, Pete.”
“I was attacked with a bottle!” Marc said again, holding fast to this elemental truth. “She shoved a bottle in my face!”
“You told us that,” Officer Lowenthal said. “But she missed the eye. You got lucky there.”
“I’m filing charges. For criminal assault!”
“Okay,” Brophy said. “We’re listening, sir. Tell us what happened.”
Liz got out of there. She didn’t want to hear a version of the story where she was the monster and Marc was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The trouble was, if she told the truth she had to admit that there had been a monster in that kitchen. She had no idea where it had come from, or where it had gone when it left her.
If it had left her.