An excerpt from In Sickness and In Slaughter, coming 2022.
Eugene learned that the first time she came home like this. He was just so desperate to wash it all away that he sprayed her from top to bottom, painting the walls and floor of the bathroom with diluted blood, the brains sticking in the drain holes like spaghetti sauce in a colander. His beautiful wife ended up sitting in a half-inch of reddish slurry.
So he refined his methods and, over the years, he’d only gotten more efficient and thorough. He became an expert in a skill he could barely understand.
It was two in the morning. Alice lay, inert, unconscious, nude, and blood-soaked in the tub, yet again. Eugene stood over her, surveying the mess, working out his game plan, aghast at the sight of her and gagging at the smell, watching both of them from a safe distance to protect his brain from the trauma. He wanted to run away or go to bed or cry or jump out of the window, but instead, he took a shaky breath.
No time for that, he told himself.
Alice needed him.
Eugene fished the kit out from its hiding space behind the cleaning supplies under the bathroom sink. From this, he removed the clothespin, which he clamped over his nose, and the bandanna, which he tied around his head and over his mouth. Then he slipped on the elbow length rubber gloves and took the wide-tooth comb in hand.
“Let’s make you good as new,” he told his passed out wife.
Though his nose was cinched tightly shut, Eugene knew well the humid stench of sweet rot that steamed off of her, and imagined curls of it creeping under his bandanna, slithering across his tongue. He coughed, steeling himself; he didn’t want to go near her. Still, he lay down a folded towel on the hard tile, knelt on this and bent over Alice, placing his hand at the top of her back and shoving her forward so that her breasts slapped against the top of her thighs.
What Eugene did next, he did out of body. Dissociation was the only way to endure this.
He combed through Alice’s hair as if she had lice, collecting the brain bits—a significant amount of them this month—in a gloved hand and depositing them in the bathroom trash can. Though he tried not to think of whose skull they’d been scoured from, he inevitably did. An animal? He hoped so. Most likely human, though. Woman, man, child?
He shook his head. Don’t think about it, Eugene.
As he worked through her hair, Eugene thought of all the times he ran his fingers through its warm waves, or tucked a lock behind her ear. How alien each familiar strand felt to him now, how grotesque. It took fifteen minutes to strip it all clean. Then he was on to the next step.
He unfolded her heavy body and eased her mouth open, sliding floss between her teeth—lovely, straight teeth, and she had a dazzling smile to match. Now, he flicked out stringy shreds of tissue, which he also collected in his gloved palm. Then he scrubbed vigorously under her nails with a brush, ran a cuticle tool under her nails, scraping out more tissue. Was this skin? Guts? He couldn’t tell and didn’t want to know.
Then, finally, he sprayed her with a soft surge of warm water. Pink streamed off her, little rivers of it, coursing across the basin of the tub toward the drain at her feet. He scrubbed her wet skin with the loofah—skin he’d traveled often with his fingers and lips—until every trace of the blood was gone. He rinsed the tub and filled it with warm, soapy water, and bathed her and washed her hair, and only then—when she was polished clean and looked herself again—did Eugene remove the clothespin and bandanna.
The room smelled of her soap and, faintly, of that humid stench and a hint of wet dog. He’d blame it Frieda, as usual. He went to the window and popped it open to let the evening breeze air out the room.
Alice was leaning back against the tub, eyes closed, wild hair tamed by water; its sodden curls clung to her, seductively tracing the side of her neck, her collarbone, the curve of her breasts. He sat down on the toilet and just looked at her, so helpless in the bath. So calm.
His best friend and lover.
She was such a beauty. In all the years he’d known her, Alice had complained about her size—that she was too big, too hippy, too sturdy, not feminine. Not like her sisters, anyway, who were slender and delicate. But Alice was delicate to him; tall as she was, Eugene was still half a foot taller. And her body? Perfect, in his opinion. It reminded him of one of those Renaissance beauties, with their rounded, soft curves, like Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The ideal of womanliness and sensuality. The comparison didn’t exactly offend her, but she didn’t like it either.
He drained the tub and lifted her out carefully and laid her on towels he’d strewn across the floor, then padded her dry.
How helpless she looked now, cleaned of the gore that had, an hour ago, made her so terrifying. She was pale and drawn now, like someone sick with flu, barely breathing. He took her vitals—blood pressure, blood sugar, oxygen levels—finding all of them abnormal. His throat tightened. This took so much out of her, and Eugene feared it had gotten worse each month. There was nothing for him to compare it to, no reference he could turn to for answers. It was all guesswork. What was next? How long could this go on? Who knew.
He leaned over her, kissing her lightly on the forehead, whispering “I love you,” with every ounce of strength he had.
Her wounds were minimal this month. She had a few superficial scrapes and cuts, but he’d avoided looking at the gash down the length of her arm. He barely touched it while cleaning her, refused to acknowledge its existence. Now, he forced himself to.
It was about three inches long and a half-inch deep. Alice healed with supernatural speed, but this one would take more time than usual. He had to close it up, but first—
A gag pulled at the base of his throat.
He put the gloves back on. Grabbed a set of tweezers, drew these slowly to the wound, fingers trembling.
Dr. Eugene Mayhorn knew what the insides of people’s bodies looked like, what the inside of Alice’s body was supposed to look like. He should’ve seen slippery, glistening, pinkish tissue, but he didn’t.
The skin was sliced clean, as if by a knife; the gash gaped open like a mouth, sucking air. And, poking up from its depth—from inside Alice— stark against her silken white skin—
A tuft of soft black fur.
It was the same shade as her hair.
Eugene didn’t want to go near it, not even with gloved fingers, but of course he had to hide it back inside her body and out of sight. He took a deep breath to steady his hand, but it still shook.
She’s unnatural… run away… run away… Once voice told him.
Toughen up. She’s your wife! cried another. Treat your patient!
Eugene looked at the wound from the corner of his eye, which leaked a hopeless tear. It trailed down his cheek, settling, salty and warm, in the crook of his mouth. He forced his arm to move, the hand and its tweezers getting closer, but he gagged again.
He stopped to breathe, slow and steady.
Eugene shot his arm toward the wound again. With swift, frightened movements, Eugene tucked the fur back into the gash, tucking it under Alice’s torn skin, smoothing down any stray hairs.
He collapsed on the floor next to her, leaning against the toilet, feeling faint and clammy. He ripped off his glasses and sat with his sweating forehead in his hands, shuddering and fighting the urge to vomit or run from the bathroom and then the house, leaving Alice to face this horror alone.
He shook his head. That wasn’t an option.
From his secret bag, Eugene pulled out a suture kit he’d pilfered from work. He changed into surgical gloves, took up needle and suture, and closed the wound expertly. The fur vanished and she was a normal woman again, who’d cut her arm in some random accident. She wasn’t strange, nothing was wrong. Nothing at all.
He dressed Alice in her favorite silky pajamas and carried her to their bed; he pulled the quilt up to her chin and kissed her on the cheek, the forehead, softly on the lips, and told her again that he loved her and blessed her with dreamless sleep.
She’d be unconscious for at least ten hours, maybe more.
As usual, that gave him just enough time to finish up.
There was a blood trail from the kitchen—where she’d collapsed—to the entry hall and out the door and the walk path; it disappeared into the grass. One broken window. She’d shattered the wooden garden ducks, which was a shame, because they were Eugene’s favorite. A few strips of grass had been torn up.
The damage wasn’t too bad this time. Small mercies.
He pushed through exhaustion to mop up the blood, sweep the glass shards from the floor and board the window. He tossed the ducks’ broken Wellington boots into the trash and stamped down the torn grass. He stuffed a black garbage bag filled with bits of brain and guts and skin and a bloodied loofah into the trash can. When it was all done, Eugene stood on his front steps and stared into the quiet night.
Had anyone seen her this time? Where she’d come from? Where she’d returned when it was over? No one had yet—they were so far out in the boonies here—but eventually, their luck had to run out. At the thought, Eugene’s knees buckled and his head spun; he grabbed the door frame and steadied himself, listening to the crickets and the sounds of small nocturnal animals, flitting through the brush.
Eugene’s anxiety would shift now, from dread of the inevitable, to the fear of being caught. He turned his eyes to the stars. Before Alice got sick, he never prayed, but in the past few years, he’d made it a regular habit. Who else was he going to talk to?
“Please, Lord, cure my wife,” he begged. “And if you can’t, help us endure another month. And prepare me for the next full moon.”
Something flitted through the brush and he looked down at the yard, seeing nothing. He said goodnight to God and went inside.
It was 4 a.m.; Eugene’s hunger was catching up with him. He was always too nervous to eat dinner on the night of one of her episodes. In their dark, echoing kitchen, he watched a frozen dinner revolve in the microwave for five straight minutes, then thumped down into the basement. He set it on the TV tray and dragged it over to his leather club chair, where he sat down heavily. He flicked on the light and his TV, and started up a DVD of Three’s Company.
The theme song began. Eugene dropped back against his comfortable chair, staring down at the sad TV dinner, its cellophane limp with moisture, and went through everything he’d done that night.
Hair, teeth, nails… clean the bathroom, air it out…the house, the yard…fix damage… Beg God…
The steps flashed by in a blur, the memory of the night he’d just passed looking like the memory of two dozen other nights just like this one. Eugene didn’t know how many more times he could do it, especially since he didn’t know how many more times there would be.
‘Til death do us part.
Eugene had said the words twenty years ago and he’d meant them. He still did. But after what he’d done, he had to wonder: did whomever wrote that vow have this nightmare in mind?
Alice was starting to notice the effect it was having on him. He was jumpy, strained, and she’d caught him screaming into a pillow once or twice. This part of the ritual was meant to release that tension, so he could be normal in the morning. Or close to it, at least.
So, by the light of the flickering TV, with steam seeping from his dinner and his wife asleep two floors away, Eugene dropped his face into his hands, ripped off the lid he’d kept over his sadness and fear and anger and disappointment, and bawled until his dinner was stone cold.
Scrambled eggs with ham, for protein. Homemade rye toast, to settle her stomach. Detoxifying asparagus, drizzled with hollandaise, and a glass of grapefruit juice.
The detoxifying foods were very important to Eugene. Whatever toxins and germs and bacteria she’d picked up the night before had to be flushed out. It couldn’t be good for her. Could it?
It was shortly after noon. Eugene was whisking hollandaise with his sleeves rolled up, wearing one of Alice’s pink aprons over his shirt and slacks. The crying the night before had fortified him for the light of day and he was anxious to see Alice and clandestinely assess her condition.
But first, he had to know if last night’s episode made the news. It usually did.
On the small TV on the counter, a commercial flashed, and then the local news jingle began. Eugene felt a sharp pain in his chest as he drizzled in the last of the butter and whisked feverishly.
“Breaking news overnight,” said the noon anchor, a wafer-thin woman with unmoving blond hair. Seeing as she delivered the bad news every morning-after, Eugene had come to hate her face. “A body was found early this morning, an apparent victim of the mysterious beast stalking Ides Neck. Sibyla Stern has been on the scene all day. Sibyla?”
Eugene set down the whisk with a shaking hand, gripped the edge of the counter, cold sweat pricking his armpits, forehead, the small of his back.
According to Miss Stern, the body—or, rather, pieces of it—was discovered by a fly fisherman, on the banks of the Savage River, shortly after dawn. She noted that the mysterious beast had stalked the peninsula for five years and had claimed over sixty victims thus far. This time, remains were scattered over 4,700 square feet. A string of large intestine had been found draped in a tree, a liver sat atop a tree stump. Identification of the victim was not possible at this time. Forensics was on the scene.
The police chief appeared, side by side with an animal control officer, for the usual comments. Eugene smelled burning meat; he flopped the ham steak from the skillet to a plate. The footage switched from the chief to Sibyla, standing a safe distance from the river; small figures milled about behind caution tape. Eugene heated butter in a fresh skillet, picking up an egg to crack as she finished up her report.
“…potential break in the case,” the reporter said.
Eugene smashed the egg against the counter and its slippery contents oozed across his palm. He listened raptly, viscous egg dripping onto the counter and the floor.
“Local residents claim there may be a witness to what happened here last night, howev—”
Alice’s footsteps were at the top of the stairs. She came down, steps creaking, Eugene’s heart shooting into his throat as he hastily picked up the remote with his egg-smeared hand and switched off the TV. He tried to limit her exposure to news of the Ides Neck Beast as much as possible. Who knew what it could trigger, deep inside her mind?
He was on the floor, sopping up raw egg, when she appeared.
“Good afternoon,” she said sleepily.
“My darling!” he cooed, smiling brightly as if nothing at all had happened—last night or this morning—and he didn’t feel, in that moment, like vomiting in the kitchen sink. “Your breakfast is almost ready.”
She made her way to the kitchen table, silk robe billowing behind her. He finished cleaning and cracked two new eggs and scrambled them, hoping to God she couldn’t see the sweat trickling along his hairline.
A witness, a witness, a witness, a witness…
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Okay, I think. Very tired and I have one of my migraines.”
She sat down and rubbed her forehead, squinting her eyes against the afternoon sunlight streaming in the window. He quickly drew the shade. Alice blinked painfully.
“It happened again, didn’t it? I blacked out.”
Eugene slid wet eggs in next to her ham, lined up a half dozen asparagus and enriched them with hollandaise, and brought this and her grapefruit juice to the table. He sat next to her and put a hand on hers; it was cool and clammy to the touch. Her blood sugar was still low; he pushed the grapefruit juice toward her. She sipped.
“Yes, my darling, but don’t worry about that now. Eat, and you’ll feel much better.”
“Nightmares, too. Awful.” She shook her head, as if willing the images to slip out from her ears. “Just awful. I wish the doctors could tell me what th—”
“Don’t think about that now.” He rubbed the back of her hand. “A good meal, some time in your studio, maybe a nice walk together… That will chase the dark thoughts away.”
“Yes, that sounds nice,” she said, and slowly, she ate.
And slowly—or maybe Eugene imagined it—her cheeks grew pink and her eyes brightened. She spoke of other things. The nightmares were fading. Eugene alone knew they weren’t actually nightmares, but memories of the horrors she’d inflicted the night before. And if she knew what she’d done… Well, Eugene didn’t want to think about it.
Now was the time of detox and recovery and routine, before it all started over again. Eugene would force himself to soldier on, but this time it would be harder. When Alice went into her studio, he’d find that news story online somewhere and figure out just how worried he needed to be.
What had the witness seen? Though more crucially—did this stranger even believe his eyes when they saw a fanged beast, with its hunched back and razor-sharp talons, ripping part flesh and bone as if it were paper? Did he believe it when that beast transformed into a nude woman, with Renaissance curves and flowing hair, stumbling as if intoxicated down Kingthorpe Road, dripping blood like breadcrumbs to their front door?
With any luck, the witness would think he’d gone mad. For that matter, Eugene wished he’d gone mad, too. Or maybe he had, and he just didn’t know it.
That would explain a lot.