Til Death Do Us
By: Tyler Miller
The box arrived Thursday morning without any kind of label. It was small and plain, and Kenny Perkins left it on the edge of his desk until just before noon. When he finally opened it—he heard a wispy scratching from inside the box as he did—he discovered his wife’s severed finger and her wedding ring.
The severed finger lay shriveled like thin leather. Kenny could see the bone through the dull, translucent skin. The fingernail had grown long and jagged, its tip still that hideous shade of magenta Selma always wore. Now it looked more like blood. The final knuckle bent upward, pointing directly, accusingly, at Kenny.
Kenny set the box on the desk, stood and went to the door. He opened it softly.
“Yes, Mr. Perkins?”
“Julie, the box you brought in this morning, it didn’t have any address on it. Did you notice who left it?”
His secretary shook her head. “It was at the door when I opened up. Is there a problem, Mr. Perkins?”
“None at all.”
He shut the door.
It’s not her’s. It can’t be. This is a sick joke, that’s all.
He took a pen from his drawer and poked it into the box. A thick, roiling gurgle tumbled through his gut. The finger shifted. He saw the ring clearly. One large diamond in the center, four smaller rubies at the corners.
He’d proposed to Selma Nolan on July ninth of 1997. They were married that November. Eight years later, he killed her. He was careful. He planned every detail. Her body was never found. She had, as all the news reports pointed out, simply vanished. And no one had ever known the truth.
Kenny stared at the box. Stared at the ring.
The next day the call came.
“Did I get your attention?”
Kenny knew immediately. “How did you—”
“Are you sure you want to talk about this over the phone?”
“Where do you want to meet?”
“There is a little diner on the west end of town. Edna’s.”
“I know it.”
“Be there. Eight o’clock.”
“How will I know you?”
“I will know you, Mr. Perkins.”
And the man hung up.
He’d loved his wife. Thought she was The One. Knew it. For seven years they lived—he’d believed—happily. Later this blissful period seemed to Kenny hazy and surreal, like a fugue he’d stumbled through unable to awake.
Seven years that crashed to an end when their daughter was born.
Kenny steered the Escalade into the school parking lot. Kyra leaped up from the grass waving her arm and ran to the car.
Kyra thrust her Hello Kitty backpack onto the floorboard. Her bright red tennis shoes clumped atop the pack, kicking Hello Kitty squarely in the eye.
“I hate school,” Kyra said.
Selma’s most beautiful feature—aside from her long, luxurious legs—had been her eyes. They were a rich, haunting blue, the color of evening sun atop the ocean. Kenny’s own eyes were blue flecked with tiny shards of green and almond.
Kyra’s eyes were a dull, muddy brown.
“Polly Poirer is a nasty twit,” Kyra spat.
“I thought you two were friends.”
“That was last year, Dad. We’re not friends anymore.”
Nobody saw anything. Nobody even suspected. Mr. Perkins is not a person of interest in this case. That’s what they said. I was the grieving husband. Lost. Confused. Angry. It was perfect.
“Daddy, you’re not even listening.”
“Sorry, sweetheart. What were you saying?” He steered out of the lot, past the flaggers and onto the street.
“I was saying that Polly stole my journal and showed it to everyone. She showed it to Alan.”
“And what did he think of your journal?”
Kyra folded her arms across her chest and huffed.
“You don’t ask Alan Millhouse a question like that.”
He’d noticed Kyra’s eyes the day they brought her home. And he’d known. Two blue-eyed parents. One brown-eyed girl.
It broke his heart.
For almost a year he lived with the knowledge of Selma’s betrayal. And in all that time she acted like she didn’t know. That she didn’t know that he knew. She thought he was a fool. That he was just going to let it stand.
But he wouldn’t.
“You know,” Kyra said. “Some days I just want to kill her.”
There was only one customer in Edna’s diner.
He wore a faded gray jacket pulled tight around narrow shoulders, the collar tipped up over his neck. A tangle of salt and pepper hair swept over his forehead above a ridiculous pair of black Raybans, the kind Bob Dylan used to wear indoors.
Kenny sat down quickly. He looked the man over. Didn’t know him.
“Who are you?” he said.
“You killed your wife, Mr. Perkins.”
Kenny’s stole a glance at the waitress behind the counter.
“I told her you wouldn’t be ordering anything.”
“My wife disappeared. If you have information about where she went—”
“Bullshit,” the man said. “You put her in a hole under the falls. You choked the life out of her and stuffed her in that hold and left her there to rot. ”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well then you won’t mind at all if I have a talk with the local PD. Tell them I might know where they can find a certain missing woman. I hear the case is still open.”
Kenny had considered this. But if the man wanted to turn Kenny over to the law, he’d have done so already. Whoever he was, the man wanted something else.
“You’re not going to do that.”
Raybans leaned back. “Don’t try to outsmart me, Mr. Perkins. You think you’re pretty clever, but you’re not. I’ll have that little chat with the PD, don’t think I won’t. If I see fit.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you want?”
“Fair enough.” Raybans folded his hands on the table. “Murder, Mr. Perkins. Murder, plain and simple.”
“I didn’t murder my wife.”
“You misunderstand me. I’m not talking about your wife.”
Kenny understood. He shook his head. “No.”
“Yes, Mr. Perkins. You see.”
“You’ve done it once before. Maybe more than once.”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t know what you’re—”
Raybans slammed his hand down on the table. The salt shaker jolted, tipping over and spilling little white crystals across the counter. The waitress looked up from the coffee pot, waited, and then went back to changing filters.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t kill her,” the man said, his teeth clenched. “I know what you did, remember? I dug up her body, remember? I cut her finger off her hand. You know what I used? Pruning shears. The one’s my wife cuts roses with. Don’t fuck with me, Mr. Perkins.”
Kenny coughed into his hand, holding back a thin film of bile. He wanted something to drink. Something strong enough to burn out the sick in his throat.
“You want me to tell you more?”
Kenny shook his head.
“What do you want?”
“I told you.”
“No. I won’t do it.”
“You will. Or I’ll have that chat. And your daughter can spend the rest of her life visiting Daddy down in Walla Walla.”
“Evidence? You sure of that, Mr. Perkins?”
He’d been sure. For seven years. Totally, completely, unerringly sure.
“Who?” Kenny said at last.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Raybans said. “You already know her.”
The man leaned forward.
They talked for some time.
Kyra held up the book.
“Not tonight, honey.”
Her face drew down into a pout, her muddy brown eyes dour and weepy.
He loved her. She wasn’t his—he knew that—but he loved her all the same.
“Just one chapter.”
Kyra clapped her hands. Kenny sat beside her on the bed.
Kyra picked the books they read together every night. Currently, they were reading The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a choice Kenny found rather morbid for an eight-year-old girl. But her reading level was advanced, as her teachers often pointed out.
Teachers like Ms. Kingsley.
“Here, Daddy. Where I marked it. In Dr. Jekyll’s letter, remember? He said he hadn’t drank the potion for two months.”
Kenny found the page. “I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling for freedom: and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught. My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring.”
“Do you read this kind of stuff in school? Like in Ms. Kingsley’s class?”
Kyra frowned. “Ms. Kingsley was last year, Daddy.”
“I know, sweetheart. Did Ms. Kingsley read you books like this last year?”
“No. She only read…nice stories.”
“You really liked Ms. Kingsley, didn’t you?”
“She’s my favorite. Ever and ever.”
Kyra’s new teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, was stern and frumpy and chilly as arctic night. Kyra didn’t care much for Mrs. Jenkins.
“Does Ms. Kingsley have a husband?”
Kyra shook her head. “She doesn’t go on dates. She said so.” As if this were the only reasonable and proper way to be. “Read the story, Daddy.”
When the story was over, Kenny kissed Kyra’s head and pulled the blanket up to her chin.
“No nightmares, babycakes?”
In his own bed, he couldn’t sleep. He thought of Kyra at Show and Tell. Parent Day. The Halloween Carnival. One image after another, and in all of them the sweet, smiling Ms. Kingsley flitted through like a morning dove, landing, perching, singing sweetly and bringing joy to all the little children. Kyra’s favorite teacher. Ever and ever.
He couldn’t do it.
What he needed, he thought as he drifted into fitful sleep, was a magic drought, like Doctor Jekyll.
Something to release Mr. Hyde.
Kenny trudged five miles through the overgrown trail that wound from the back of the house through the woods to Guy Haines Falls. The last time he’d been here was seven years ago. With Selma.
Guy Haines Falls plummeted three hundred feet into a deep blue pool. Selma once said the sunlight glinted off the tumbling water and looked like diamonds. Kenny put the shovel on the ground and took off his boots.
He’d buried Selma in the hollow behind the falls.
He left his boots and shirt, but he took the shovel. He hissed when he stepped into the icy water. With long slow strokes he paddled to the end of the pool. Closing his eyes, he slipped under the falls and gripped the rocky ledge of the hollow.
He hoisted himself up.
At the back of the hollow was a narrow crevice in the rock. Seven years ago, he’d packed that crevice with dirt and rocks. Inside it lay Selma. What was left of her.
With the end of the shovel, Kenny stabbed at the thin membrane that closed the crevice. He bent and twisted. The rocks came loose. The mud slid free. Like a gaping mouth, the crevice opened. Kenny knelt and peered inside.
He reached inside. A creeping prickle goosed his flesh.
She’ll grab me and yank me in with her. To be with her forever.
But there was nothing there. Only rock and dirt and damp.
No. She has to be there. She can’t be gone. She MUST BE—
She was gone.
Frantic, angry, he snatched up the shovel and flung it into the falls. He paced across the ledge. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t fair. He tore at his hair. He kicked the rock wall. Finally, deflated, he sat on the ledge and cried.
When he swam back to the shore, the man was there.
“You’re following me.”
“Did you really think I’d leave her there?” Raybans said.
“Fuck you,” Kenny spat.
He wished now he had the shovel, but it had sunk somewhere in the pond.
“She’s been more…properly buried.”
“You’re sick. Sick and twisted.”
“Says the pot to the kettle. There’s only one way out of this.”
“I’m not a murderer.”
“I’m not sure your wife would agree. Or the police officers I’ll be calling if you don’t do what you’re told.”
“I’m not killing her. You can forget about it. Turn me in if you want. I won’t do it.”
“It’s your choice, Mr. Perkins. It doesn’t matter either way to me.”
“The hell it doesn’t.”
Kenny waded out of the pool and reached for his boots.
“Either way, I get what I want. That’s what you need to realize. This isn’t about what you want, Mr. Perkins. It’s what I want. And I get what I want. Guaranteed.”
Kenny pulled on his boots. On the ground he spotted a thick, hand-sized rock. He stared.
“I see what you’re thinking.”
“It’s what I would be thinking too. And it’s not a bad idea.”
Raybans drew his hand from his coat pocket. A snub nosed revolver dangled from his hand.
Kenny looked away.
“You have a choice to make, Mr. Perkins. You’ve done it before, so it should be easier the second time around. Or you can choose jail. For the rest of your life.”
“Who are you?” Kenny said.
“An angel of justice? Maybe the devil himself?”
“The devil cuts deals.”
“Not this one.”
The man put the revolver back in his pocket.
“You have three days.”
The devil in Raybans turned and disappeared into the woods.
“You’re sure I won’t be interrupting anything? I don’t want to spoil your dinner.”
“I live by myself, so don’t worry. A little company isn’t gonna kill me,” Ms. Kingsley said over the phone.
Kenny nearly choked.
“Besides, if it’s about Kyra, I’ll do anything to help. You’ve got a wonderful little girl there, Mr. Perkins. She’s one of my favs.”
“You are Kyra’s fav,” Kenny said, trying to keep his voice even. He closed his eyes and squeezed the phone.
Ms. Kingley let loose a giddy, girlish laugh. “Come on over anytime, Mr. Perkins. Me and Betty Crocker will be waiting for you.”
He pictured her standing with one round hip up against the counter, a slender hand stirring a slow-cooked stew (did Betty Crocker make stew?), the strands of her youthful blond hair dangling at the edges of her neck, a stream of sunlight hazy in the kitchen window. Young, kind, exuberant, laughing, loving Ms. Kingsley. Kyra’s favorite. Ever and ever.
He hung up the phone and ran to the bathroom and threw up his breakfast. And yesterday’s dinner. And some of yesterday’s lunch.
When it was over, he flushed the toilet, wiped his face, and rinsed out his mouth.
Staring at his haggard reflection in the bathroom mirror, he knew it was true. The day he killed Selma, he vomited up three days’ worth of food. He was going to do it.
No. But it surely echoes.
Ms. Kingsley opened the door smiling. An oven mitt gloved her right hand. She was still dressed in her school clothes, but she’d unbuttoned the top of her blouse and washed the makeup off her face. She smelled young and fresh, like flowers blown by a warm wind in spring.
“Kenny! Come in. I was just pulling Ms. Crocker out of the oven.”
“You shouldn’t flatter. My mother was a wonder in the kitchen, a regular Paula Dean. But she passed all that to my sister. Me on the other hand, put me in an apron and hand me a spatula and I’m a wreck. I’ll tear apart the kitchen, but there’s never anything edible when I’m done.”
She laughed, a sweet little bark that drilled into Kenny’s ears and jolted something just below his navel. For a moment, he thought he was going to puke again. He gagged and coughed into his fist.
She led him down a hallway and into the kitchen. A steaming plastic oven tray sat on the counter. Vegetables and cheese and what looked to be small chunks of chicken.
“You have a wonderful house,” Kenny said.
“It’s too big. Some days I feel like all I do is work all day and come home and clean all night.”
“I was surprised to hear you live here all alone. Pretty girl like you.”
Ms. Kingsley sighed. “Actually, I am married, although it’s just common law. Eight years. Doesn’t seem that long until you say it.”
“You never tied the knot? Officially?”
“We’ve never seen the need.” She stabbed a knife through the thin membrane encasing her dinner. Steam poured out. “Not that we have anything against marriage.”
With Selma, there had been time to plan. Time to ponder all the possibilities, the how and the when and the where. There had been time to navigate all that could go wrong. Here and now, with Ms. Kingsley (Mrs. Kingsley, apparently), there was no time at all. There was just the act, the doing of it, and a prayer that it wouldn’t all fall apart.
“What was it you wanted to ask me about?”
Mrs. Kingsley tossed her oven mitt on the counter. Lifting the oven tray by her fingertips, she deposited it on a plate. Daintily she tore the plastic off the top of the tray and crumpled it into the trash. From a drawer, she removed a fork and spoon. The silverware rattled as the drawer slid shut.
“I just had a question or two,” Kenny said. His mind raced. He had no questions.
She’ll know. She’ll realize something’s wrong. She’ll see that look on your face, black and full of murder. She’ll scream. And scream. And scream.
“Shoot,” Mrs. Kingsley said.
“I just wanted to know…”
The words trailed off as he glanced about the kitchen. Nothing here you wouldn’t find in any other kitchen in America. Normal, everyday kitchenware.
The set of kitchen knives in the wooden block. Two steps away, and then a knife in the hand. Three more steps and he’d be beside her. She wouldn’t have time to do more than gasp before he plunged the blade into her. The air sucking out of her, and yank the blade back. Thrust. Out. Thrust. Out.
But so much blood.
Less obvious was the cutting board beside the knives. Two hands to hoist it up, and then close the distance fast and bring it down on the skull. She might get an arm in the air, and then there’d be the loud cracking snap of bone. Hoist the board again as she cried out. She wouldn’t get a second chance to scream.
Blood again, though. And her skull—her pretty face—collapsed and sunken.
Beside him on the counter lay a thick dish towel, least likely of all. Wrapped around each hand and…
“Kenny? Mr. Perkins? You don’t look so well.”
Selma’s face had risen unbidden in his mind, not as she had been for so much of her life—dusky, tan, beautiful—but as she was at the end: eyes bulging, wet hair whipped in a frenzy, a trail of bloody spittle running along her chin. And he remembered how he’d watched the life fade out of sight, the way you watch a balloon drift higher and higher until, finally, it disappears from view.
Selma. My devil has been long caged.
“You’re not gonna be sick, are you? The bathroom’s just down the hall.”
“Just need to sit down.”
“Here. Chair right behind you.”
She stepped forward, reaching for the chair. He dove for her. At first she thought he was passing out. She tried to grab him, to hold him up. And then she realized the truth.
He grabbed her by the waist and threw her. She crashed against the counter, her lower back jarring against the lip. A startled yelp burst out of her.
Kenny stepped in and punched her in the abdomen. The wind whooshed out of her. She collapsed, landing on her knees. A string of spit dangled from her mouth. In one quick motion he swung behind her, straddling her. He snatched at the dish towel. With two swift twirls he cinched it into a short length of rope.
And slipped it around her neck.
He rode her, yanking so hard her head bent back against his belly. Her eyes bulged, glaring up into his. Her hands snatched at the rag. A bright pink fingernail snapped off in the cloth. She heaved forward, and he stepped with her, keeping her firmly against him.
The devil come out. I hear him roaring.
Her face turned red, then blue, then purple. Her mouth opened, and he could see down her throat, the tongue and the jiggling glottis. Her hands slapped at him weakly now. Finally, they fell away. Her legs danced. A familiar smell filled the air.
Kenny waited, waited. He counted to one-twenty. Then he let her go. Her body slumped. Her head landed with a sickening smack against the floor.
He didn’t know he was crying until he dropped the towel beside her body. She was dead.
He’d done it (again).
Mrs. Kingsley’s lifeless bulging eyes glared at him. I’m Kyra’s favorite. Ever and ever. Who’ll be her favorite now?
He turned away.
He pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his hand and wiped the surface of everything he’d touched. Counter. Chair. Cutting board. He stepped over Mrs. Kingsley’s body, wiping as he went.
Out of the kitchen and down the hall. Had he touched anything here? No. He didn’t think so. He looked twice, just to be sure.
And he saw the pictures.
“What?” he whispered. “No no no no.”
The pictures showed Mrs. Kingsley and, Kenny surmised, her common law husband. Mrs. Kingsley, young and sweet and innocent (and recently dead), and beside her
No no no no
the man in the black Raybans.
Kenny leaned forward, peering. There was no mistake.
What the hell is going on here? He blackmailed me to murder his wife?
The front door opened. A clopping of boots echoed down the hall.
“I just hope she’s okay,” came a voice. One Kenny recognized instantly. “When she called, she sounded so scared. She said the guy had been out in the lawn for over an hour.”
“Let me go first,” said another voice.
They were in the hall before Ken could move. The policeman, gun already drawn. Behind him, the man in the black Raybans. Except now his face was bare.
“Freeze!” the cop shouted. “Hands in the air! Now motherfucker!”
Kenny raised his hands.
“On your fucking knees! Now!”
Kenny saw the man—now without his Raybans—and the hot surging glee on his face.
“On your god damn knees!”
Kenny saw it all clearly. Saw how perfect it was. The real perfect crime.
“Hands on your head! Do it now!”
Perfect, except he didn’t know the why.
“You killed her? You did it?” the man without the Raybans said.
Kenny put his hands on his head.
“Stay back,” the cop said. “Just stay back.”
Why? Why did you make me kill her?
“You did it?”
The man without the Raybans stepped forward into the light.
And when he did, Kenny saw something he hadn’t noticed in the pictures. He stared into the man’s eyes and found his answer.
The man’s eyes were a dull, muddy brown.