He had seen her around for months, but first gathered up the courage to speak to her the day he found her sunbathing on the roof of the apartment complex.
“You’ll catch cancer doing that,” he said.
“I hope I do,” she said.
He immediately asked her out.
At dinner, she ordered the meat loaf smothered in gravy with a side of sliced bologna and turtle cheesecake and ate it all grimly.
“Do you really think it will work?” he asked. She looked very slim, as if the processed meat slid right through her.
“It might be collecting in my heart,” she said. “I could look perfectly happy until it happened.”
“That’s how it was with my aunt. But wouldn’t you rather not be part of some sad statistic?”
She sliced a thick triangle of bologna. “You’re a statistic either way,” she said. “You were saying, you took up diving?”
He’d hired a boatman who didn’t remark on all the bloody meat he brought with him in a cooler, and only frowned and looked away when he dumped the contents of the cooler into the water and went in after. “I thought for sure it would work,” he said. “But I didn’t get so much as a nibble from a grouper, let alone a shark.”
“Maybe it was the wet suit. You could try it somewhere warmer, where you can have more flesh exposed. Some place tropical, lots of falling coconuts.”
He considered this. It would cost him another month’s salary, but what was the point of making money if not to spend it? He wasn’t the type who hoarded funds to eventually give to his children, who didn’t exist at the moment, and if they ever did, would probably live in a society where currency had no meaning.
The odds were good.
“I would love to see you again,” he told her at the end of the night.
“Seems likely,” she said, lighting her next cigarette with the last. She offered him another drag, but he passed it up. Too easy.
They were newlyweds when the carnival came to town. They walked to the fairgrounds holding hands. She sipped alternately between a soda and a beer as he considered the different rides. A kiddie roller coaster worked its way around a track in low dips. Children ran in and out of a fun house, with two-way mirrors and slanted floors. Towering above it all, a creaking metal contraption threw its passengers from one side of a metal bench to the other while they shrieked, holding a single padded bar for safety.
“That one,” he said.
She frowned up at it. “I’ll stay here.”
“Come on, it will be fun. And you never know.”
She held his soda while he waited his turn for the metal tower. A family of four was ahead of him, and when it came time to board, the five of them were seated together on the bench.
“When I was a little girl, one of these flew off its rails at the highest point,” the mother said. “It went thirty feet before landing on top of a batting cage.”
Her children were shoving each other and screaming.
“I told them the story, but kids don’t care. They kept saying they wanted to ride the thing that looked like a fidget spinner, and finally I was like, whatever.”
“Tell me more about the accident,” the man said.
“Did anyone die?”
The ride groaned, shuddering as it lifted from the ground. “I’m going to be sick,” the mother said.He slid to the edge of the bench, felt the edge of his body press into the open gap between the seat and the bar. But he couldn’t make himself do it on purpose.
The man felt his heart beating. He slid to the edge of the bench, felt the edge of his body press into the open gap between the seat and the bar. But he couldn’t make himself do it on purpose. Far too common. And so the ride progressed without incident, and other than the pleasure of the mother screaming for her life beside him, there was no fun in it.
His wife was sitting on the bench where he left her. It was a filthy bench, a kind of corroded old iron which had been painted a thousand times and covered with all manner of carnival detritus. She was running her hands across the metal and licking her fingers.
“How was it?”
“Fine.” He was in a sour mood. “Let’s go.”
They watched the children running around: children with runny noses, with cotton candy and balloons, with strange raised rashes. “I wonder if any of these kids have measles.”
“Is measles still even a thing?” he asked.
“More often than you’d think.”
She waited until they were standing on their porch to get into it. “It would have happened years ago if you weren’t so precious about it,” she said.
He gritted his teeth, but couldn’t ignore the bait.
“Is this about my diet?”
“It’s much easier for men who eat meat,” she said.
“Hard liquor. Processed cheese. You have such an ego.”
“At least I am trying to ascribe some meaning to it.”
She scoffed. “You just want to be on the news.”
After she went in, he stood under the dead oak tree for another hour, waiting for a heavy branch to fall on him.
They preferred to make their own improvements on the house rather than calling a contractor, though she liked the idea of strangers having an extra key. He insisted on doing all the painting. She tried halfheartedly to trip over a few loose plywood boards and at one point sampled a bit of the paint, but gave up and returned to the couch.
“You all right?” he asked, holding the ladder with one hand as he leaned over the stairwell to get a spot almost out of reach.
“It’s difficult,” she said. “I always thought once I started really trying, it would be easy.”
He came down off the ladder. “It was never going to be easy,” he said.
She wouldn’t look at him. On TV there was a report of a fire, twenty miles away but growing. Two hundred homes were in danger. The report showed firefighters working their way across smoldering brush.
He felt her tense up.
“I need to go,” she said. She went into the bedroom and came out in a beautiful red dress, a thin one that caught the sunlight and turned her shadow golden.“Everything is special,” she said, the word ugly in her mouth. And she was gone.
“Wait,” he said. “Don’t do this. It should be special for you.”
“Everything is special,” she said, the word ugly in her mouth. And she was gone.
He didn’t hear from her after that, and though there was no report, he knew it had worked. He thought that would be the end of it and mourned in a quiet way, using a broomstick to drape her clothes into the lower branches of the old dead oak tree.
But that wasn’t the end of it, not quite. A few weeks after the fire was contained, the city investigators found a woman’s body near the worst of it, a perimeter of gasoline proof enough that she had played some part. They showed an aerial view on the news, and though her remains had been removed, it was possible to see theiroutline in the clearing, arms spread in the center of a charred halo of accelerant.
The reporter describing the scene fell silent, and when her voice returned it was choked with emotion. “It’s almost beautiful,” she said, stammering off script. “The way she’s so perfectly presented. It’s so unusual. Stunning, really. Investigators will be studying this for years to come.” The man reached forward to touch the screen. The ashes of flesh and wood, the outline of her body seared into the earth. It was the most beautiful death he had ever seen. She would have hated it, hated it!
Excerpted from Tiny Crimes. Used with the permission of the publisher, Catapult. Copyright © 2018.