That was the story Marc gave the police. Nora thought this was a clever embellishment, this addition of a bodily function. Did he come up with it before or after? He must have smiled when the idea arrived. His cold heart must have fluttered.
Did he push her? What better way to kill someone and get away with it? Plan a trip to the Grand Canyon, or the Dover cliffs, or the Mayan ruins—this world abounds with fatal attractions—then pick your moment. You could pretend to take a picture before barreling down; or you just stand there shoulder to shoulder, as if admiring the view, then take a step back and give a good nudge. Nothing to clean up or lug away, no anxious wait for toxicology. Nothing to do but call 911 and feign shock. Seeing him this morning, big as life in Blue Streak Coffee, made Nora woozy. It was his voice she recognized first, deep and easy, unchanged in thirteen years. Behind him in line, she studied his backside—the fine fabric of his burgundy shirt, the tan cargo shorts, his well-muscled calves. When he turned to put a dollar in the tip jar, she saw the slight bulge above his eyebrows, the long straight nose, and she flinched. There he was. The man who killed her best friend.
"Marc," she said.
He wheeled around and looked at her, and she watched his puzzled expression morph into pleasure. Charming as ever, this one.
"Nora," he said, grinning. Veneers, she thought.
"What are you doing here?" The words came out more aggressively than Nora had intended, so she punctuated them with a hard, bright smile.
"Same-same. Looking at property."
"We're not going to get another mall, are we?"
He laughed, though she had not been kidding. "No. This is residential stuff—I'm checking out a couple homes for a buddy who's in Greece." He paused, scanned her up and down. "What's up with you? You look great."
It was true she appeared younger than her years. Of course, she worked on it, kept her weight down, her heels pumiced, her arms as firm as nature allowed. Nothing drastic, just steady effort. It did not feel like vanity so much as decency, taking care of the real estate she'd been handed—great legs, ample breasts, a face you didn't have to hide behind. Sheer luck, all of it. A favor you didn't forget.
"I'm okay," said Nora. "I live on Alta Vista now."
"Editing. It pays better."
"Are you married?"
"Was." Kurt, Nora's husband, had died in a plane crash.
She shook her head. "What about you?"
"Two boys," he said, looking pleased.
Nora knew this. She also knew that his wife was a yoga instructor and that they lived in San Diego, where he sold commercial real estate. Through the Internet and updates from Joanie, a longtime friend, Nora kept tabs on Marc. Joanie still lived in Santa Cruz, but she and Marc were friends on Facebook, and so she saw his posts. When Nora visited Joanie they sometimes pulled up his profile page and clicked through the photos. Annika, Marc's wife, was blonde and lithe and looked a good deal younger than her husband. Julie died in September 2001. Marc married Annika in March 2003. Eighteen months, Nora concluded, must have seemed like a decent interval.
"When are you leaving?" Nora asked, again too abruptly.
"Tonight. I like driving at night—no traffic." He hesitated, calculating, then beamed at her. "Hey, how about dinner? Are you free?"
Recoiling, ready to say no, Nora reconsidered. This could be interesting. She'd watch his face, his every move. A consummate liar, he stood no chance tonight.
"Sure," she said. "What time?"
Nora pulled into the cracked driveway of her house, a brown-shingled 1960s bungalow draped with Monterey pines. She had moved into it when Kurt died, no longer wanting to live in the larger home they'd been happy in.
A first-time bride at the age of thirty-nine. That's life for you, finally stumbling on Mr. Right and losing him six years later. Most would agree that a quick death is better than a slow one, but Kurt's last seconds, in a small plane over the snowy mountains of Montana, had been spent in terror, and there was no consolation in that. Her bitterness stayed with her for months, until she was somehow able to get the upper hand, to wrest it into a box and out of sight. There it sat, she imagined, in the top of the bedroom closet, a constant companion to her husband's ashes. She and Kurt had never discussed final wishes, and as she could not scatter to the wind what little she had left of him, she would keep his remains, as well as her rancor, as long as she lived.
Nora opened the front door and stepped inside, gratified as always by the well-ordered space she lived in. The rooms were furnished like a doll's house: a sofa, a chair, a bed, a desk. There were a few nature photos on the walls—mossy forests, shimmering mountain lakes—and one savage philodendron that stealthily traveled the length of the windowsill as if looking for a way out. Nora was especially fond of the kitchen, built like a jewelry box, everything cleverly tucked away. A pocket bathroom separated the two small bedrooms, one for sleeping, the other for working.
Nora made coffee with the French roast beans she had just bought and sat down at her desk to work. It was a good distraction, honing someone else's words, and absorbed her almost as much as the creative writing she used to do.
She had spent too many years writing short stories and personal essays, most of which wound up in obscure literary magazines before falling into the oblivion of online archives. Recognition was scant, payment even scarcer, and so she was forever indebted to a teacher she met at the Santa Cruz Bookshop who steered her in a more gainful direction. This man did occasional editing for wildlife organizations and told her the pay was decent, the work steady. He was right about the money (better than you might expect), but the best part was the incidental knowledge, the wondrous glimpses into a world otherwise hidden. There was no practical value in assimilating this earthy information, no reason Nora needed to know that mayflies are the only insect with paired genitals—two penises for the male, two gonopores for the female—but the accumulation of these secrets became their own reward, layering her days with tenderness, the sense of herself as a breathing, pulsing participant. Here she was shifting paragraphs, changing syntax, while the world acted upon her in countless ways. She understood this now, could perceive the edifice, if only in fleeting pieces. Like every living thing, she was at risk, an evolving organism with limited control—maybe less control than anyone knew.
The article she was presently working on contained new research on parasites and the ways they alter the biology of their hosts. It was commonly believed that creatures flock or herd or school to better defend against predation—the safety in numbers theory. Possibly not, at least not in the case of brine shrimp. These creatures, Nora learned, were invaded by a tapeworm that turned them a tantalizing red, then urged them to swim as a group, making them easy prey for flamingoes—only in the body of a flamingo could this worm complete its life cycle. And brine shrimp were not the only creatures managed by wily invaders; all sorts of animals fell victim. There was a parasite, nicknamed "Toxo," designed to reproduce in the body of a cat. To get there, it worked its way into rats and made them attracted to the smell of cat urine—bye-bye rat. Humans too were infected by this organism, about a third of the population in fact. Most of us were not noticeably impacted, but this latest study linked toxoplasmosis with certain mental disorders and even suicidal tendencies. How schizophrenia benefitted a one-celled parasite, Nora could not conceive, but given the diabolical complexity of life on earth, she assumed the damage was not incidental.
Nora worked until 4:00, then drew a bath and gratefully lowered herself into the steaming water. Normally she would have taken a shower, but today she wanted a nice warm soak, time to drift into her past, to bring Julie back to life.
Her family came from Golden, Colorado and moved to Santa Cruz when Julie was twelve. The first time Nora noticed her was during show and tell in their sixth grade classroom. Most of the children had brought in things they'd found, interesting rocks or shells; one boy brought in a picture of his pet cockatoo—live animals were not allowed in school. Julie brought in a picture she had drawn, a polar bear standing on a lone ice floe, three white mountains in the distance. The bear was looking over his shoulder, and with just two dark spots, an eye and a nose, Julie had managed to make him appear bemused. Around his neck was the only splash of color: a striped scarf waving in the wind. The class had learned about polar bears the week before, how hard it was for them, out there on that ice, trying to find enough food for themselves and their cubs, and this bear, with his jaunty scarf, tugged at their hearts. The teacher, clearly impressed, gushed over the picture; the students merely stared at it, acknowledging their lesser skills (evidenced by drawings that hung from the classroom walls).
It would have been easy to despise a pretty new girl brimming over with talent, but Julie was hard to shun. After telling the class which brand of pencils she used and where to buy them, she invited anyone who was interested to come to her house and draw as a group. Her mother, she assured them, would furnish snacks. Nora gaped at Julie, charmed not only by her artless generosity, but by her long brown braid, her knee-high boots, her denim vest embroidered with small red horses, the earnest way she spoke. Was it that very next day they began walking to school together, talking for hours on end? It was like falling in love, Nora realized years later, swift and unstoppable. From nothing to bedrock.
Most of the time they hung out at Julie's house, which was filled with artwork in various stages of completion and smelled like oil paint and potpourri. Her father was a high school art teacher; her mother owned a business, American Yuletide. For three months each year, she traveled around the country buying USA-made Christmas decor, which she sold to retail stores. One of the bedrooms in the house served as her office, and it was always overflowing with cheerful samples: pinecone owls, tiny birch bark canoes, rabbits whittled from wood, fat red gourds turned into Santas. Nora loved the time she spent in Julie's home, not just because of the treasures it contained but because the air was not thick with worry. Julie's parents, absorbed in their own pursuits, were polite and permissive, and Julie in turn gave them no trouble. It was as if the three of them had struck a deal, had agreed on a policy of non-interference, a home without punishment. Nora's house was different. Her brother was a sixteen-year-old alcoholic and her mother, a reluctant divorcee, worked long hours and seldom smiled. There was enough money, the place was reasonably clean, but you didn't want to be there.
On rainy winter days, Nora would sometimes pull out the photo albums in her office and study the years she had shared with Julie, from peacoats to hot pants, from Peter Frampton to Janet Jackson, from Toyota Corollas to Dodge Ram pickups. Together, combining theories, testing strategies, they made their way through school and beyond. Peering at pictures of her vanished friend—waving from the Giant Dipper, sunning on the beach in a gold bikini, disco dancing on her wedding day—Nora wondered what Julie would look like now. Would her eyes be hooded, her lips thinned, and if so, would she have altered them? At forty-eight, would she be broad or lean, fit or not? Nora could see them taking a yoga class together; discussing travel plans, their latest blood work, the pros and cons of cosmetic surgery.
Nora leaned back in the tub, gazed through the window at a pine branch and the gray sky beyond. The sun was gone, absorbed by a thickening fog.
The best thing about Julie, the thing that Nora missed most, was that she never talked rot. She meant what she said, hit the marrow every time. One clear morning when they were walking along the foamy shoreline, Julie casually remarked that she and her boyfriend Josh had had sex the night before. "The full version," she added. She and Nora were seventeen at the time.
Nora stopped, gaped. "Wow," she breathed. "How was it? Worth the wait?"
Julie shrugged. "It was okay. Pretty good." She cast her gaze over the sun-spangled ocean. "Scale of one to ten, I'd give it a seven."
Nora considered this. "Maybe it'll be better next time. Maybe you'll reach ten."
"Oh, I already have," said Julie. "Lots of times."
Nora stopped walking. "With who?"
"With Josh," Julie said. "Heavy petting."
Julie knew her own mind, better than anyone Nora had ever met. One evening, stretched out on the twin beds in Julie's dorm room (they had both gone to UCSC), they started talking about life after college: what sort of work they saw themselves doing, what their homes would look like, what dog breed they might own.
"How many kids do you think you'll have?" Nora asked.
"None," Julie said. "Zip."
Nora sat up on the bed. "Why not?"
Julie thought about this a moment and said, "I guess because I can't imagine wanting them."
Nora did not have much time to get ready after her bath. Without thought, she pulled an outfit from the closet—blue blouse, linen pants—and quickly dressed, then ran a brush through her short blonde hair and applied a bit more blush, a fresh coat of lipstick. She reached for perfume, decided against it, slipped on a pair of sandals. For a few seconds she paused before the mirror, making sure there was nothing obviously wrong. Mirrors were crude tools, useful only for thwarting embarrassment—trailing slips, smudged mascara, spinach in the teeth; you couldn't ask any more of them. Mirrors were not eyes.
Marc and Nora had agreed to meet at Johnny's, a seafood place on the harbor. He hadn't been there, he said, but assured her he would find it. Nora drove carefully, slower than usual, observing the trees and pastel-colored homes, the streets overhung with power lines. Her stomach was tight, but she felt oddly calm, as if she were being directed to this assignation and knew there was no point in resistance.
She crossed the river, turned right onto San Lorenzo. Already some of the trees were turning; soon the town would empty out, would lose its brightly clad tourists and return itself to the locals.
In the beginning, there were no red flags. Nora began recalling their lives together years ago: Marc and Julie met at one of his open houses (Julie had wandered in, more curious than interested), and right away they hit it off, chatting about the home and its amenities, the advantages of the west side, what they liked best about living in Santa Cruz. At last she admitted that she was not a serious buyer, more a passerby, but Marc didn't care; he was already smitten, understandably so. Julie was a stunner—long wavy hair, shimmery brown eyes, a smile you wouldn't believe, and she carried that beauty with no effort at all, like she didn't even know it was there. Nine months later they were wed.
Everyone thought Marc was good for sensible Julie, that he loosened her up, made her laugh more often. Nora agreed. Marc was entertaining and certainly smart enough, and just the fact that Julie loved him gave him credence. Julie had been managing the grant program for the City Arts department, but seeing how much Marc enjoyed selling property, and how lucrative it was, she soon got her own real estate license and prompt employment in the company Marc worked for. As it turned out, Julie had a knack for the business and became one of the firm's top agents.
Nora drove reflected on that brief, glorious era, when they were all in their early thirties, partying every weekend, certain that life would only get better. For a second she could see Marc clearly: his close-set eyes, his modest lips, his jaw more sharp than square. She could not say what it was about his face that made it attractive. Maybe his appeal had nothing to do with his features and depended instead on the expression he wore, the satisfaction he seemed to exude, as if he were pleased with himself for no particular reason and pleased with you as well. And who didn't enjoy his wit, his fabulous mimicry? People hung around him, smiles at the ready, eager to hear whatever he offered.
Joanie was the ringleader back then and her spacious, messy beach house was where they gathered, to drink and smoke, talk and laugh, deep into the night. Joanie was on her second husband and seemed content, but Nora could tell she had a crush on Marc, albeit a harmless one. Even now she sang his praises, remarking on how well he had aged, how handsome his sons were.
Nora had never shared her suspicions about Julie's death, not with Joanie, not with anyone—what was the point? Her evidence was anecdotal, inadmissible, a rusted key in a vacant lot. And Joanie would not believe her anyway, would likely consider Nora a monster herself for suggesting such a thing. That's where people made a mistake—they kept ruling out the unimaginable.
Nora pulled into a parking space at the restaurant and sat for a moment, her heart beating fast. The sense of calm had gone away, left her on her own. She had no idea how she would act, what she would say. Before today, she had not seen Marc, had not spoken with him, since Julie's memorial service. In a quiet, stricken voice he had told her he was moving to San Diego, that staying in Santa Cruz would be too difficult. "I can imagine," Nora said. He gave her a hug and she stiffened in his arms, wondered who was waiting in San Diego.
Nora crossed the parking lot, bracing herself with the sharp salty air, and walked into the restaurant, glad to see it was not yet crowded. Marc wanted to be on the road by 8:00, and so she had made an early reservation. The host, a willowy blonde on blood red heels, showed her to a table alongside the window. Marc was not there yet; lateness was a habit of his, Nora remembered, for which, because of his charm, he was always forgiven.
She ordered a Grey Goose martini and spun it slowly on the cocktail napkin, admiring the pleasant room with its wood-paneled walls and view of the harbor. Below the hulking fog, every slip held a boat, and she spent a few moments reading the whimsical names: After Taxes, Pier Pressure, Seize The Bay, Aloan at Last. She took another sip, glanced at the door, frowned.
It happened during one of those raucous parties at Joanie's house. People were all over the place, out on the deck, sprawled in the living room, clustered around the neon-lit bar Joanie's husband had built. At some point the ice ran low and Marc offered to fetch more. Julie, lounging on the sofa, lovely in her bulky green sweater and black stirrup pants, regarded him dubiously.
"Are you okay to drive?"
"Absolutely," Marc said. He got to his feet and attempted to demonstrate his competence by walking a straight line across the braided rug. Nora, seeing his slight stumble at the end, rose from her chair. "I'll drive," she announced, though she was feeling flushed herself from two glasses of wine.
Christmas, five days away, made for a festive drive through the neighborhood. Icicle lights hung from the houses; reindeer and sleighs sprang from rooftops. One yard in particular blazed with cheer: palm trees wrapped in shining red ropes, elves hammering inside a shop, a doe and her fawn drinking from an ice blue pool, a big balloon Santa, waving at cars. "Oh wow," Marc murmured, and his warm boozy breath wafted Nora's way; it was not unpleasant. He turned to her, his face aglow in the sea of light.
"Can we to stop a minute?"
Nora pulled to the curb and turned off the engine, and for several moments they sat admiring the colossal effort.
"See the nativity scene?" Marc said, pointing. "The guy must have spent weeks on this."
Nora nodded. "And a fortune."
They had not sat there long before Marc reached over and laid a hand on her thigh. She looked down without surprise. It was not unusual, a hand on a thigh. Bodies took their chances—you couldn't blame them. Sometimes you got in the middle; sometimes you looked the other way.
It wasn't, Nora reasoned later, an act of total betrayal. There was touching, kisses. There was his mouth moving across her neck and collarbone, between her breasts. There was the hot damp of her jeans under his palm. There was his breath, and hers, coming faster.
At last she broke away, straight-armed Marc back into his seat. "This is crazy," she said, trying for a tone that would make light of the event, strip it of any consequence. She drew a fresh breath, turned the key and pulled away from the curb. Marc regarded her profile, then slumped back where he belonged. "Yeah," he murmured. "Crazy." They drove to the store without another word.
A drunken misstep, that's all it was; she had, after all, come to her senses. Still, the event sickened her, proved how common she was. There were some people for whom integrity was a reflex, people who cleanly avoided what did not belong to them, and then there were those for whom goodness was a daily challenge. Nora knew which group she fit into.
Two weeks passed before she and Marc saw each other again, at Joanie's "New Year's Dissolution" party. Nora was ready for this meeting, was anxious to be done with it, to restore herself and Marc to their rightful places. Their trifling blunder would have no purchase; everything would be as it was.
He was in the kitchen, his back to her. "Hello, Marc," she said.
He turned around. "Hey there, you."
Before offering the customary hug, Nora met his gaze with a clear message, a look of shame and reproach and resolve. It never happened, this look made clear, and it would never happen again. But instead of returning this appeal with his own abashed regret, Marc answered with a different message: a wink and a sly grin.
Her face hardened. What did it matter that the error would not be repeated? Her pardon had been denied. She was now and forever his dirty little secret.
Would he ever tell Julie? Nora's heart sped up as she pictured a tell-all evening, Marc roused into righteousness, blurting his misdeed, taking her down with him.
Five stupid, sweaty minutes and here she was: chained to a creep.
Nora had finished her martini and was contemplating another when Marc arrived at the table. She had been gazing at the harbor and his appearance startled her.
"Sorry I'm late," he said in a rush, pulling out the chair. "Damn GPS took me for a ride."
"How often do you come up here?"
He sat down heavily, his cologne overwhelming the table, and Nora drew back, jarred by the proximity. Age was gaining on him: pouches under the eyes, cheeks starting to sag, three deep creases in his forehead. She looked a little higher and saw a perfect line of hair plugs.
"Not very often. Once a year or so."
All those years and not once had he tried to see her. Guilty bastard. "Do you ever see Julie's folks?" Nora asked, trying to keep the accusation out of her voice.
"I don't," he said, his voice apologetic. "I should. How are they?"
"Fine. He's retired, but Alexis still has her business."
The server arrived and Marc pointed at Nora's empty glass. "Another?"
"Why not?" she said with a shrug.
Marc looked up at the server, a thin boy with a goatee. "I'll have a Stoli over."
The boy darted off and Marc looked around the room approvingly. "Nice place. Good food?"
"It's okay." Marc picked up the menu and Nora noticed his wedding band, embedded in the skin around it. Everything about him seemed bigger now, though she wouldn't call him overweight.
"How's the real estate business?"
He lowered the menu and gave her a rueful smile. "A lot better than it was."
Nora nodded. "That must have been a wild ride for you guys."
"It was." He put down the menu. "Do you want an app? Want to split some crab cakes?"
"Think I'll get the sea bass. What about you?"
"Just a Caesar."
Nora wasn't very hungry after the crab cakes and two martinis. She barely touched her salad and did not care that the lettuce had rust spots and the croutons were hard as bullets. Marc, on the other hand, dispatched everything on his plate—the fish, the mashed potatoes, the skinny green beans, even the parsley. When he finished, he pointed his fork at her plate and told her that Barbie ate more than she did.
They talked about Santa Cruz and the ways it had changed; they talked a little about the work Nora did, the extraordinary things she learned. For several minutes Marc told her about his family and Nora pretended to listen. She did not want to hear about Annika and the boys.
"My husband died," she said. "A plane crash."
Marc's eyes widened. "Wow. I'm sorry."
"Something we have in common," she said. "Unfortunately." She looked at him squarely. "I miss him. I miss them both."
"I do too." And he did look miserable just then, his face long and sad. He had changed; he wasn't even funny anymore. Nora wondered if he ever regretted what he did, if he ever looked at Annika and wished she were Julie.
Regret. Guilt. Did people like him even feel these things? If he knew what Nora knew, about him and Julie, would he even care?
First off, Marc had never been a nature lover; his idea of a vacation was a long weekend in Las Vegas. The fact that he wanted to spend several days camping in Bryce Canyon came as a big surprise to Julie, who wasn't, by the way, keen on the idea. Julie was afraid of two things: German shepherds and high places. Would she have gotten that close to a cliff? And then there was the trouble at work. Julie was outperforming Marc and he resented her for it. He wound up changing companies and getting into commercial properties, but she still brought home more money. Their private life wasn't good either. For one thing, Marc wanted kids and Julie didn't. This was a problem that wouldn't go away. And then there was their sex life, or lack of it: Julie told Nora that Marc had no interest in making love, that he barely looked at her anymore. Nora didn't say what she was thinking: that if a thirty-seven-year-old man with a gorgeous wife loses his sex drive it's because he's parking in another lot—in this case a lot in San Diego, where he headed twice a month, supposedly on business.
And there was something else Julie mentioned, some sort of hot water Marc and a couple of his associates had gotten themselves into. She wished she'd never found out about it, Julie told Nora. Marc no doubt felt the same way.
As Nora was thinking about a way to prod Marc, to see if he would talk about Julie's death and if the details would differ now, he began speaking, his eyes fixed on the table.
"I didn't... I never heard her. I was looking at the map. When she didn't come back I got out and started looking for her. I kept calling her name. I ran all over that place, calling for her." His voice choked. "It was too dark by then."
This was true. Julie's body was not found until the next morning.
He paused, shook his head. "We were going to start fresh. No more messing around, no more lies. That's why I wanted us to get away. I wanted us to be someplace different so we could see what we wanted. We were going to get counseling." He swung his gaze back to Nora. "We were going to have a baby. That's what we were celebrating. We'd just left the restaurant."
His eyes were misted over now and bloodshot. She looked back up at his hair plugs, his fleshy, sagging cheeks. She almost felt sorry for him.
It was all plausible. At the age of thirty-six, Julie may finally have decided to have a baby, if only to save her marriage; and whatever problems they were having in the bedroom may very well have stemmed from Marc's business worries; and maybe, spurred by courage or champagne or both, Julie had gotten too close to the edge.
And then there was "Toxo." As long as she was looking at this from every angle, the fantastic could not be disregarded. If a tiny bug could hijack our will to live, maybe it could turn us against others, too. It was possible that Marc had not acted alone and could never account for what he had done.
Nora was a reasonable woman; she allowed for these alternate worlds. But people had to keep moving, had to build their arguments and live by them. The truth was up for grabs.
She looked at Marc, her face suffused with sympathy, and reached across the table, placed her hand on his arm. "You poor dear," she murmured, and just as the gratitude softened his puffy eyes, she delivered a wink and a sideways smile. Just a little something for the road.
Title image "Looming in the Dark" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.