HALLOWEEN CHALLENGE HONORABLE MENTION
I don’t know when exactly Alan began to disappear, but I remember when I first noticed. It was pizza night.
I’ll eat anything, especially when pregnant, but Alan’s a picky eater. We’d both just come off long shifts and I was too tired and hungry to be Mrs. Nice-Wife. So when I asked Alan to choose a topping, and he replied with a long pause and a shrug, my instinct was to get annoyed.
“Honey, just tell me what you want,” I moaned, closing my eyes and sinking deeper into the couch pillows.
“I’m good with whatever.”
Any other time, I’d be happy to see Alan shed some of his rigid attitude to life, but now was not the time to attempt personal growth. Now was the time for stuffed crust.
He nodded. “… Sure.”
“Yeah? Sure sure? You’re not going to get pissy when it comes and say you really wanted ham?”
“I’ll be fine.”
I swallowed my frustration and tried to sound supportive. “Are you okay?”
I hesitated for another moment. Then my stomach growled and I ordered pepperoni. No complaints.
The second time I noticed something strange was while scrolling through recent pictures, looking for a cute one of our dog Shrimp to show my new colleague. Travelling back in time, I watched Alan’s expression grow more alive. It was a gradual shift, and I hadn’t picked up on it. When confronted with the evidence, it was clear. In old pictures, he smiled. Never a big smile, but he made the effort. In recent pictures, the smile had disappeared. He didn’t look sad or worried. No frowns, no downturned corners of the mouth. He had adopted a sort of blankness. A mask, devoid of emotion. As if he was asleep with his eyes open.
One day he canceled a long-ago planned trip with friends. When I asked him about it, he said he just wasn’t in the mood. I tried to get more out of him, but that was all I could manage.
He started moping around the house. I’d suggest something fun, a movie, a walk, and he’d just shrug and say he wasn’t up for it.
Then he called in sick at work.
I remember actually being happy about it. He could take some time for himself. Probably for the best, considering his mood. He’d lie on the couch, catch up on Netflix, grow a beard, and then snap out of it in time for our upcoming anniversary.
I don’t know what he did while I was at work. Considering the amount of dog shit in the yard, I can only assume it wasn’t walking Shrimp. At night, I’d wake up and he’d be lying there, staring at the ceiling.
Days passed, then weeks.
It was annoying when I became responsible for every little household task, and had to cancel family plans without a proper reason. I didn’t enjoy having to go to doctor’s appointments alone. His lack of excitement about the baby kicking left me sad and worried. Mostly, though, I started getting angry. There’s few things I hate more in life than folding laundry. It’s not exactly more fun when you’re crying.
At some point I stopped trying to understand. There’s only so much empathy you can muster before you throw up your hands. I had asked him again and again what was wrong, and he kept insisting it was nothing. I had asked him to please go see a therapist. He’d nod, stare off into the distance with empty, unblinking eyes, and ignore my request.
I kept waiting for things to get better; they kept getting worse.
I was like a frog in a pan, oblivious to the temperature increasing, one degree at a time. I hit my boiling point on our anniversary.
Alan and I have never been a particularly romantic pair. Sure, we buy each other thoughtful gifts, and keep up with our ‘I love you’s. But we react to anything overly sentimental or gooey with an immediate imitation of vomiting. For our fifth anniversary, though, I went a little overboard. Candle-lit steak dinner, champagne (just one glass for me), Chet Baker on the stereo. Shrimp distracted by a bouquet of bones from the butcher’s. I wore a dress that, considering the amount of fabric it used, was way overpriced.
My gift was a heavy leather-bound set of The Lord of the Rings. It was Alan’s favorite book, and the editions he had were paperbacks, falling apart from his annual re-reading.
Alan gave me cash. He pulled it from his wallet after I gave him the books. He moved his steak around on the plate for a bit, then he went to bed. It was nine o’clock. He left the books on the table.
I threw back my champagne, then took Shrimp over to my friend Diana’s.
Over several bottles of wine for her, and a pot of herbal tea for me, I told her the story. She responded by consulting her crystals. I asked her not to, but she insisted. According to her, Alan’s soul was disappearing. I have a lot of admiration for people who can say things like that with a straight face. But it was as good a way to put it as any. I went home the next morning, determined to either snap him out of it, get him to a doctor, or get a divorce.
I walked in and called his name. No answer. Shrimp needed to eat, but I decided he could wait, and went to look for Alan.
I found him upstairs, in the bathroom. Stood naked in front of the mirror, a kitchen knife in his hand. There was blood on the blade.
“Alan?” I tried to catch his eye in the mirror, but he kept staring at himself. “Alan, honey?”
His eyes shifted. Found mine. “Sarah. Hi.”
“What are you doing?”
“I wanted to see. To make sure.”
“See what, baby?”
“See if I was really… hollow.”
Part of me wanted to go to him, to tear the knife from his hand, to wrap him in my arms and hold him, just hold him until he felt better. Until he was back to being my Alan. Another part wanted to run and never look back.
“What do you mean?”
“Most of my life, I’ve felt… empty. I thought—I hoped—it might be some fault of perception. I hoped I was wrong. So I pretended to be whole, and waited to find out if I was.”
As he talked, tears sprung up in my eyes. I’d known about this, but I’d always thought it was just a blue mood he’d get lost in now and then. In fact, it was what first attracted me to him. Dark and broody.
“The older I got, the more of me disappeared. Like rats, abandoning a sinking ship. I tried everything I could think of. Work. Diet, exercise, meditation.” He looked at me. “Love. Whatever I did, I still felt like all this…” he waved a hand over his body, “…it only went skin deep. I started to think I was right all along. And it terrified me.”
I couldn’t bear to see him this way. “What did you do, baby?”
“I just wanted to see.”
He turned, then, and showed me the ragged gash in his lower belly, cut carelessly, imprecisely.
Sobs began to wrack my body as I took in the sight of it. The slit ran all the way across his belly and hung upon like a mouth. But while the edges were splattered with red, nothing was pouring out. No blood, no guts. There were only a couple of crimson drops scattered on the white tiles.
“Oh my god, baby, what did you do?”
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s not. Obviously. But, look.”
He gripped the edges of the gash and pulled them apart. There was nothing there. Only a void. A deep, infinite darkness.
This is when I lost my mind for a while.
I sank to the floor and stared into the void. Cold spread out from it, like long fingers. It touched me. Crawled across my skin and made the little hairs stand up. I was overcome with an inexplicable desire. I wanted, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, to climb in. To wrap myself in Alan’s skin. Forget about him, about work, Shrimp, the baby. Forget about everything and just sleep.
I reached for the gap. As my hand drew near, the tips of my trembling fingers began to freeze.
Just then, I heard barking. Shrimp needed to eat.
I drew back my hand. Forcing my eyes away from the void, I scrambled to my feet. Breathing hard, I retreated downstairs, to the kitchen. With numb fingers, I dumped some kibble in a bowl, then grabbed my cigarettes. For a minute, I stood there smoking and shaking, as the feeling slowly returned to my hands. Alan joined me, wearing his boxers. He grabbed a cigarette. Inhaled. I watched as smoke poured from the slit in his stomach.
He saw me looking. “So, what do you think, doc?”
Medically speaking, I didn’t know what to think. I did have a question. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear the answer. Still, I had to ask. “Alan, do you love me?”
He took his time to consider his answer. Which was answer enough. “I want you to be happy.”
A hole opened up in my heart. Before I could fall in, I filled it with concrete. I lay a hand on my stomach, and wiped the tears and snot from my face with my sleeve. “I’ll patch up the cut. I can do it here, no need to go to the hospital.”
“Okay, but what about—”
“Never tell anyone. Ever. I’ll know. I always will. But I won’t tell a soul. You will do the same.”
“But don’t I deserve—”
“What? Alan? What do you deserve? You’ve gotten this far. You can keep going. We can keep going. I can’t do this alone, Alan. I need you, even if you’re faking it.” I stabbed out my cigarette in the remains of yesterday’s take-out Chinese. “Go lie down on the couch. I’ll get my bag.”
Alan went back to his life. He worked, he walked the dog. Birthday parties, dinners, and sonograms. He played the part. Still, at night, he stared at the ceiling.
We became strangers, sharing a house.
When Ginnie was born. I realized I’d been hoping for something to change once Alan locked eyes with his child. That hope was quickly shattered. He showed no interest in her beyond meeting her basic needs.
It wasn’t the life I’d hoped for, but I made it work.
Then the final nail was hammered into the coffin of my happy family dream. That day, chaos started early. I’d overslept and was rushing to get ready for work. Shrimp had eaten something not meant to be digested, and had been throwing up all morning. Alan thought he’d be fine, I wanted to err on the side of caution and take him to the vet. Then the baby cried out.
Ginnie, a year old and suddenly walking around and climbing everything, had fallen from the couch, hitting the standing lamp on her way down. A sharp edge had slashed her arm, from elbow to wrist.
I rushed to her side, Alan following at his own languid pace.
There was blood, but only a little. Ginnie was curiously quiet. She stared at her arm, a stoic look on her little face.
When I examined the wound, I realized why. Beyond the neat slit in her skin lay nothing but that familiar void. Welcoming. Cold.
I sat down hard and took Ginnie into my arms. I held her close.
Behind me, I heard Alan begin to cry. I could only wonder where he was getting the tears.
Chris Kok is an enigma, wrapped in a contradiction, stuffed inside an éclair. He teaches songwriting but prefers to write fiction, himself. He is Dutch but writes mainly in English. Chris lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands with his wife, their newly acquired puppy, and two suddenly grumpy cats.