As Long as We Both Shall Live – JoAnn Chaney

September 3, 1995 Madison, Wisconsin Her life would be so much easier if she’d never gotten married. It was a terrible thing to think, but the truth is never nice. That’s something her mother always said, that there are pretty lies and ugly truths. And the truth is that her life would be easier without Matt. Oh, she loved him, she couldn’t deny that. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Love’s got teeth, it’s got claws, and once it hitches you to a person it’s so tough to rip yourself free. Marriage, she thought, might just be a crock of shit. And while she might complain about her husband, and sometimes she actively hated him, he was still better than every other man she’d ever dated. And maybe that was love. The body’s chemical reaction to finding a person who irritates you less than everyone else. Janice thought all these things even though it had only been a year since she walked down the long linoleum-floored hallway of the Windsor Creek Community Rec Center, clutching a thin handful of wilted roses as she entered the small, windowless activity room they’d rented for two hours. Janice’s mother was the only one who took pictures of the wedding, even though she’d had her reservations about the whole thing, said she didn’t trust Matt, he didn’t seem like a good guy, but she’d still snapped pics on one of those disposable cameras you could buy at the drugstore and drop off to be developed once they’re all used up. Only one picture came out good enough to frame. In it, Matt and Janice are standing together, holding hands, and there are a few signs taped up on the wall behind them—notices about kids at the pool needing to be accompanied by an adult and wiping down the exercise equipment after use—and a cheap office clock, the hands stuck at 12:05 for the rest of eternity. Janice is looking at Matt in the photo, her veil puffing out around her shoulders like a cloud, and she’s smiling.

Happy. Matt’s smiling, too, but he’s not looking at his bride. His face is turned away from her, his eyes are almost closed, as if she isn’t there at all. A handful of people had attended the ceremony, and it didn’t last long since the pastor had a funeral booked right after and had to leave, and when Janice had heard that she’d almost canceled the whole thing. She thought it was a bad omen to have the pastor marry them and then rush off to bury someone else, but they’d already put a nonrefundable deposit down on the room and had paid for the sheet cake from Aldi, and she couldn’t walk away from that kind of money. And a year after her wedding, when her mouth is full of blood and her eyes are burning from the gasoline fumes and she can’t stop shaking from the pain, Janice will remember the old saying—money makes the world go round—and she’ll think that if she’d only been able to wash her hands of that lousy two hundred dollars her whole life would’ve been so much different. You see, just about one year into her marriage to Matthew Evans and less than twelve hours from this moment, Janice will be dead. CHAPTER TWO It was almost two in the morning and she should be at work, the graveyard shift at the old folks’ home where she worked the front desk, answering incoming calls and helping out with any resident emergencies. Her boss had asked her not to call it the graveyard shift. Morbid, Jesse called it.

Most of these people have one foot in the grave already, we don’t need to remind them of it. Jesse wouldn’t look at her when he spoke, but only down at his hands. He was a strange guy, retired army, in his thirties and still living with his Irish mother, walked everywhere because he didn’t own a car. But he was a nice guy, too. Shy, quiet. I should’ve married a man like you, she said once, jokingly, and Jesse hadn’t said anything, just went outside to smoke one of his filterless cigarettes. She watched him through a window, saw him take a few puffs and then grind the butt out on the trunk of an oak. “I’ll be a little late today,” she’d told Jesse earlier when she called the home. He’d answered on the second ring, although there’d been a long pause between him picking up the receiver and the sound of his voice, as if the movement had happened in slow motion. But that was Jesse for you.

He moved like he was wading through a vat of warm molasses. Some people thought he was a few eggs short of a dozen, but he was just thoughtful. “I have some personal business to deal with.” “Is this about that husband of yours?” “Maybe.” “Who’s going to cover for you?” “Can’t you do it?” Janice had asked. “Jesse, this is important. I just need an hour. Maybe two.” He sighed, and she’d known then he would cover for her. “Ms.

Ruby’s already been asking for you,” he said. “I know you’re sneaking her food in the middle of the night. She’s not supposed to eat outside of mealtimes.” “It’s toast,” Janice said. “And it’s not so much that she’s hungry. She’s lonely, needs someone to talk to.” And now a part of her wished she’d just gone to work, strolled in right on time and punched the clock. She’d probably be in the home’s kitchen right now, dropping white bread into the toaster and fishing a small plate out of the cabinets to take to Ms. Ruby of room 217, who called the front desk nearly every night complaining that she was hungry and couldn’t she just have a slice of toast, sourdough bread, light on the butter? “Is there some sort of trouble?” Jesse had asked. “Anything I can help with?” “It’s no big deal,” she’d said lightly.

But it was a big deal, it was always a big deal if the man you’ve been married to for only a year was sleeping with another woman behind your back. Woman? Maybe it was women, she didn’t know. What she did know, or at least suspect: he did it while she was at work, earning money to support his ass while he was in school, because he’d said it was too much for him to hold a job and go to college, so she was the one who worked twelve-hour shifts at the Magnolia Senior Citizen Home so Matt could stay home and spend his free time studying, even though she was trying to finish her degree, too. She had a job, she went to class, she cooked and cleaned and kept their lives in order while her husband spent most of his time sleeping and flipping through books and complaining about his life. That was one thing she’d come to learn about marriage with Matt—she got the short end of the stick, if she got any of the stick at all. “I’ll see you later tonight.” And now here she was, crouched on a curb across the street from their rental house, half-hidden behind the bumper of some neighbor’s car. Two hours she’d been there, her ass mostly asleep from the sidewalk and the muscles in her legs prickly and stiff, watching. Waiting for something to happen. And there’d been nothing except the steady glow of lights in the window.

No signs of movement. She’d kissed Matt good-bye, laid her hand on the back of his neck and pulled him close, lightly touched her lips to his, and then let him go like not a damn thing was wrong—she should’ve majored in theater, she thought—and left, got behind the wheel of the old Chevette they shared—the shit-vette is what Janice liked to call it when it would crap out, usually at the most inconvenient times and only when she was behind the wheel—and drove away like she was heading into work, but instead she’d just parked on the next block over and walked back to a spot she’d already picked out. And for the last two hours there’d been nothing but the chirp of crickets from a nearby bush and the hum of the streetlights and the irritating rub of the moist, sweaty waistband of her pants against the small of her back, and Janice had started to think that maybe she was just crazy, that Matt wasn’t cheating after all, that she’d imagined the smell of unfamiliar perfume on her pillow and the tangle of blond hairs she’d hooked out of the shower drain. And the strange phone calls, let’s not forget those, the sound of light breathing coming through the receiver and then the vicious click in her ear—but maybe it was nothing, people dialed the wrong number all the time— A car pulled to a stop in front of their house, idling for a moment before the headlights flickered out and the puttering engine shut off. It was red and small, cute, and it was a woman who climbed out from behind the wheel, just as cute and small as her car. She was wearing a romper, for god’s sake, thin blue cotton with white flowers scattered over the fabric. It was something a toddler would wear. And this woman, whoever she was, took a few steps toward the house—she’d parked so she was blocking the driveway, Janice noticed, and that, maybe even more than the fact that this woman was here to have sex with her husband while wearing a child’s clothes, infuriated her—and Matt flung open the front door, came down the steps in that light, quick way he had, his arms hanging loosely at his sides so his hands flopped around his hips, like he was in midconvulsion. She’d always thought it was a ridiculous way for anyone to come down stairs, especially a man like Matt, who normally moved with such ease, but she’d always felt guilty for thinking it, because she loved him, and when you love a person you make all the excuses for them. You see past everything that’s wrong and foolish and stupid and make it work.

But now, watching Matt pull the girl close and kiss her, right on the mouth, one of his hands snaking around her back and roughly squeezing one of her ass cheeks before leading her inside the house, Janice realized she was done making it work. Once they went inside the house, she walked to the shit-vette and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, trying to catch her breath. She felt sick to her stomach, and actually opened the car door and leaned out, retching weakly onto the pavement, although nothing would come up except a bit of yellow, foul fluid and saliva. “You knew what he was doing,” she said. The sound of her own voice startled her, and she jerked away, rapping her knuckles against the steering wheel hard enough that she gasped out loud from the pain and clutched her hand to her chest. “Quit acting surprised, you knew what was going on this whole time.” Yes, but it was one thing to suspect what Matt had been doing, and another to actually know. And now that she knew for sure—no denying it, Matt was a douchebag supreme, an unfaithful POS—what was she going to do? Because she couldn’t ignore this now. If she didn’t do anything, if she kept on pretending things were normal and let Matt do whatever he wanted, didn’t that make her guilty, too? Couldn’t you even say she was aiding and abetting Matt’s cheating, that she was just as much a part of his indiscretions as he was? Or maybe that was just stupid, because women ignored this sort of crap all the time. They looked the other way.

Turned the other cheek. Pretended like nothing was happening. And maybe in five or ten years this would all be normal, Matt with other women would just be another thing—not unlike the way he got his socks stuck in moist little balls when he peeled them off his feet, or the spiky hairs he left all over the bathroom sink after he’d shaved. Just one more thing about him she’d have to accept. But here was the question: Could she accept this? Or, the better question: Was she willing to accept it? The image of the gun Matt kept hidden in the table near their front door swam to the surface of her mind. She hadn’t given it much thought, but she was thinking about it now, wasn’t she? You’d better believe it. Matt had called it a Saturday night special, as if giving it some cutesy name made it easier to accept, because he’d seen the fear on her face when he brought it home and the way she didn’t want to hold it. We don’t have a dog, so we need a gun. That’d been Matt’s argument, and she’d gone along with it. Easier just to let him keep it than to argue, even though she was against guns.

Guns hurt people, she argued. They killed people. She’d always been against gun violence, but he wouldn’t listen. Better to be safe, he said, and it’d sat in that drawer in the months since then, until she’d practically forgotten the snub nose and the dull, metallic gleam of it. But now. Now she couldn’t get the image of it out of her head. So here’s the thing: she could accept his cheating, just like she’d accepted so many other things, but a year would become five years and that would turn to ten which would turn to twenty, and then she’d be middle-aged. At forty-five would she be willing to accept she’d spent so long with a man who was a cheater? But it wouldn’t just be the cheating at that point, she thought. In twenty-some years she’d have a laundry list of reasons to hate Matt, and him sticking his dick wherever he wanted would just be the cherry on the top of it all, and how would she feel then? She’d probably want to kill him. She imagined getting out of the car and driving over to their house now and going inside—it wouldn’t take long—pulling open the drawer in that table and picking up the gun.

She’d never actually held it, but she could imagine the weight of it in her palm, the oily, smooth metal under her fingers. She imagined pulling the trigger. “So what are you going to do?” she said. She caught a look at herself in the rearview mirror and found she couldn’t look away. Her face was ashen and drawn, her eyes sunken into her skull. It was the way she looked when she was sick. A man had once told her she had eyes that were amber colored in a certain light, beautiful, nearly gold—but there was nothing beautiful about them now, she thought. They were the eyes of a crazy person. A lunatic. “What are we going to do?” she said, looking right into the mirror.

Square into her troubled gaze. She’d always talked to her reflection like this, as if it was a friend in the mirror instead of herself, as if she were two instead of only one. “Right now. What are we going to do, right now?” CHAPTER THREE August 28, 2018 Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado There were patches of dappled shade along the trail, pools of dark cast by the overhanging pine branches and arms of jagged rock, spots where the temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. Marie was stopped in one of them now, shifting the straps of her backpack to ease the weight digging into her shoulders. It wasn’t hot out—not that it was ever really hot at this elevation, at least not compared to most anywhere else. But it was late summer now, they’d been hiking the entire day, the sky was clear and blue, the air was damp and muggy since there’d been so much rain over the last few weeks —the most the state had seen in recorded history, in fact—and Marie had been slick with sweat for the last five miles or so. The sweat was bad enough by itself, dripping out of her scalp and running down her face and the back of her neck, but to make it worse her knees were aching, especially the left one. It felt like a tiny, throbbing sun had replaced the cartilage behind her left kneecap, radiating awful pain when the bones ground together. The doctor had said cortisone injections would help, but the thought of a long needle sliding into her knee was enough to set her teeth on edge and she’d decided to pass.

For now. If the pain kept getting worse, she might give it a shot, no pun intended. So she’d been forced to make frequent stops to rest her knee, despite Matt’s obvious impatience. He’d sigh and walk ahead, tap his foot and make little mouselike noises in the back of his throat so she’d know how irritated he was, how he wished she’d get the lead outta her ass, as he so elegantly put it, but she ignored him. She’d gotten good at ignoring her husband over the years. “Are we in a hurry?” she asked as she stooped over, massaging her kneecap and grimacing. Matt was farther up the trail, his back to her. “Matt? Did you hear me? We got an appointment or something?” He turned. His cell phone was in his hand. It seemed like phones had gotten smaller and thinner over the years, but Matt insisted on getting the biggest, the one that made it look like he had a book pressed to the side of his head when he made a call.

Go big or go home, that’s what Matt liked to say. He’d built up an arsenal of those kinds of phrases over the years, he used them with his sales team and at home, too. She hated them all. Step up to the plate. Reach for the low-hanging fruit. Consider your biggest opportunity. “No service out here,” he said. “Do you need to call someone?” “No.” He shot her a look she wasn’t sure how to decipher. “I was just checking.

” This trip had been his idea to begin with, although she’d been the one to make all the arrangements. She’d chosen the location and decided the details, but he’d been the one to first bring it up. A spur-of-the-moment trip into the mountains, sleeping in a romantic cabin at night, hiking through the gorgeous park during the day—she’d jumped all over it, because when was the last time Matt had suggested anything like this? Never. Family vacations had been one thing—he’d always found the time for those, especially when the girls were little—but when was the last time they’d gone anywhere alone, as husband and wife? She couldn’t remember. They’d driven up late on Sunday, avoiding the weekend tourist rush, and had rented a private home that backed up to the forest and had one hell of a view. There wasn’t all that much to do in the town itself—you couldn’t exactly call Estes Park a hub of exciting goings-on, not unless little ice cream shops and antiques got your motor running—but Marie had enjoyed it so far, she always did like coming up here. Matt had never been, although over the years she’d come plenty of times with the girls and for overnights with friends, and sometimes even for a day trip alone, plenty of water and sunscreen in her pack, to hike one of the trails or take a rock climbing lesson. There was something about the outdoors, something about the tall, scraggy trees and the impossibly blue sky. And there was the quiet. Not that it was exactly quiet, with the sound of birds and humming insects and the whoosh of the river, but it was different.

Out here, quiet was good, the silence wasn’t something that could drive a person crazy the way it did at home, when she always had the TV on or her phone blasting music. At home, silence was something to be afraid of and she tried to get rid of it. She’d tried to explain it to Matt, who just seemed confused. Silence, noise, chaos—it was all the same to him. It was always all the same to him. Like this: there’d been a half-dozen elk outside their front door this morning, taking slow, deliberate bites from a shrub and watching Marie take photos with unimpressed eyes. They’re just deer, he’d said. Elk, they’re elk, she’d said. Isn’t it neat? It’s not as if we see elk every morning at home. But Matt hadn’t been interested.

He’d spent the night before in the cabin’s kitchen, carefully organizing their gear, stuffing the packs full of the granola bars and water and sunscreen they’d bought in town the day before. He’d been full of nervous energy yesterday, and he’d made her nervous, too— enough that she’d hardly enjoyed the tour they’d taken through the Stanley Hotel or their leisurely walk down Main Street. During dinner Matt confessed he was excited to go out hiking the next morning, he was looking forward to getting outside and stretching his legs. They’d started early and had spent the entire day on the move. Around lakes and up steep trails and down hills, only stopping to take photos of wildlife and to eat a quick lunch of tuna dug out of foil pouches with plastic spoons. They’d planned this to be their last hike of the day, even though they’d had to get back in the car and drive to the other side of the park to get to the trailhead, but the view from the cliff at the top was incredible. Not to be missed. Once they’d parked, Matt had spread the map out the car’s hood, looking it over and tracing the jagged, zigzag path with his finger as hikers went by, shooting them curious looks as they passed. He hadn’t always been like this. When they were first married he’d been different.

Easier. Almost … laid back. They’d flown to Las Vegas to get married, a little over an hour from the tarmac at Denver International, and then they were on the Strip, standing in front of an Elvis impersonator and repeating their vows. And years later, when they’d gone on vacation with the girls, camping and fishing and to theme parks, Matt had been the spontaneous one while she’d been the planner, the one who budgeted the money and prepared meals and made sure the gas tank was full and the plane tickets had been purchased. Back in those days Matt had been—fun? That didn’t seem the right word for it, but it was also the perfect word. He’d been fun and she’d been the stick in the mud, and now it seemed their roles had reversed. But they were both getting old, maybe that was it. And when people got older they changed, didn’t they? Years ago she’d been the one wound tight as a drum, but she’d come to accept how things were, and that put her at peace. Part of that was having the girls—Hannah and Maddie, both of them away at college now, starting their own lives—because there was nothing like kids to help you realize how unimportant everything else was. The other part of it was age.

She’d matured over the years, she’d grown up. Tried to think before she acted. Plan things out. That’s how getting older worked. You got patient. You got wise. “All right, I’m ready,” Marie said, slowly straightening up. They should’ve slept in, she thought. Taken it slow. Woke up late and had omelets and mimosas and then come out, but it was another case of them not seeing eye-to-eye on things.

She wanted some time to relax, Matt wanted to get out. And as usual, Matt had gotten his way. “Good, let’s go,” Matt said. He was already on the move, fifteen feet ahead, his boots planting confidently on the loose gravel. They’d always been an outdoorsy family—hell, you couldn’t live in Colorado and not be outdoorsy—but she suddenly wished she were back in the cabin, parked in front of the television with her feet propped up on the coffee table, sipping a glass of red wine. She was tired, she was hungry, and she didn’t want to do this. Not anymore. “We still have a ways to go before it gets dark, don’t we?” “All right,” she said. She took a small, shuffling step, and then another. It didn’t seem right that her knee hurt this damn bad, not when she exercised every day—she ran at least four miles every morning, did yoga three or four times a week.

She was in the best shape of her life, her body as tight and taut as it’d ever been, but that didn’t keep her stupid knee from acting up, especially on days like today, when there was sure to be rain. Her knee always ached when there was moisture in the air, she’d said that to Matt during the drive into the park. “I’m coming.” Matt didn’t answer, and he might not have heard her at all. He was too far ahead, walking, his hands flopping loosely at his sides. Marie grimaced again and rubbed her knee. It felt like it was full of sand, or broken shards of glass. A couple went by in the opposite direction, on their way down to the trailhead, and one of the women gave Marie a sympathetic smile as she passed, then looked back at Matt, the ghost of a frown creasing her forehead. There was something about that man, the woman thought—but she shook it off. It’s nothing, she told her girlfriend when she asked what was wrong.

A chill, that’s all. A goose walking over my grave. But less than two hours from now she’ll see that man again, coming down the trail, huffing for breath and shouting for help. My wife, he’ll say. I think she might be dead.

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