I had just finished shaving half my face when the phone rang. A voice identifying itself as Commander Duckworth of the Santa Fe Highway Patrol was calling “with heartfelt condolences,” it said, to inform me that my wife and two children were dead.
I’m not a man given to strong emotions and Colette often accused me of being cold. I did nothing when I heard those words; the phone didn’t drop from my hand. I didn’t gasp out or cry. I didn’t fall to my knees and scream animal sounds. Time is supposed to stop when you hear words like that. I had a floating sensation and I recall the ball of ice forming in my guts. Beyond that, my mind was clear. I asked questions. I received answers from the voice on the phone, which, if I had to guess, belonged to a man of kindness, a man not much like me.
They were flying back from Florida in a small plane owned and piloted by my next-door neighbor Brent Daniels. Brent’s wife Morghan and I had to stay behind because of our jobs. She owns a dress shop downtown and it was prom season. I was overwhelmed with the semi-annual summer inventorying at the store. It was vacation time so my kids Billy and Jeanette were out of school. Brent’s flex-time job at the college where he’s an IT administrator allowed him to schedule his off-time easily. It was the first time any of my family had gone on one of these mini-vacations of his.
I like numbers, especially statistical probabilities, things like that. I’ve never been good with people. My wife was the one who read books. She told me there’s a German word that doesn’t have an equivalent in English. Schadenfreude means “harm-joy,” literally. I have been leery of flying in planes all my life, and I was ashamed for feeling anything even remotely like relief at not being inside that plane and watching my whole family die in front of me.
It seems strange to recall that I went back into the downstairs bathroom to finish shaving the other half of my face. I usually don’t like to look at my face although Colette always thought me a handsome man. The image of my face looking back at me was a look I had never seen before but I saw myself with a brilliant clarity that made me dizzy from the intensity of my own stare. I closed my eyes and felt my forehead touch the mirror glass. Most of the rest of the day is a blank. I’m not sure of the events of the days immediately after.
There is only one occurrence that stands out clearly. I heard a woman’s scream coming from the Daniels’ house next door. It was one long, piercing cry that broke the early-morning stillness. I heard a door slam and then pounding on my front door. I rushed to open it knowing that Morghan had just been informed of the same news. She rushed past me, as if she were looking for something, her eyes smeared and wild. Her hair was teased up in back as if she had been fixing her hair. She ran into my kitchen and turned around. She was in shock and needing someone, anyone, to comfort her. I opened my arms to her, despite my habit of avoiding emotional displays.
She walked slowly to me, her eyes big with the horror of the tragedy we shared. Then the look on her face changed in an instant as if the muscles of her face were being cinched together, tightened into a mask. Morghan’s full, pretty face was transformed in a split-second into a fox face—narrowed, twisted, teeth bared.
“This is for your slut wife,” she said. She spat in my face.
She brushed past me without another word. I heard my front door bang open so hard the crescent of decorative glass shattered. Moments later, the door of her house slammed shut. I remained exactly where I was, spittle dripping from my chin, fixed to my floor like a man surrounded by sleeping snakes he’s afraid to disturb. Back in some abyss of time, the world turned and it was no longer dawn but morning and the familiar smell of piñon smoke folded around me.