Near hysterical laughter bubbles from my lips as I scrub my white sneakers. I can’t stop thinking about Lady Macbeth. I’ve spent the last few days attacking the stain — bleach, dye, even white-out. But the rusty color always bleeds through.
How did the blood get past my protective covering? The image won’t leave my mind: the blade in my hand as the red liquid oozes from that man’s wound. Not the first time for me, of course, but I swear it will be the last. It has to be.
“Marlena?” My husband knocks at the bathroom door. “Dinner’s ready. Are you coming down?”
“Yes,” I stammer. I have to open the door, but I don’t want him to see. My gaze falls to the hamper. Filled to the brim. Perfect. I shake the water from the sneakers and thrust my arm into the mound of clothes, removing the top layer.
“Honey? Do you need help?”
Jeff’s been good to me since I took leave from work. Told everyone I was sick. He’s manned up. Gets the kids to school. Dinner on the table. He shouldn’t have to deal with this. I shove the shoes into the hamper and replace the clothes. Jeff rattles the door handle. I dry my fingertips on my robe and pat my hair down before opening the door to confront his concerned expression. “You’ll try to eat something tonight, hon?”
I nod and attempt a smile. It mustn’t be too convincing because he pulls me into his arms and squeezes hard.
Dinner is manageable. Our little twins burble about their day at school. They don’t seem to notice my hand shake when I reach for my knife. Jeff covers my silences, telling jokes and asking the kids about their homework. Homework in elementary school. Times really have changed.
After the meal, Jeff steers me to the recliner and settles the kids by the coffee table with some puzzle books while he washes up. He switches the television to a home gardening show. I hardly notice when the cat jumps on my knees, at least not until her contented clawing becomes painful. When I shift position, she hisses and runs off.
My daughter Jo beams at me, “Don’t pretend you don’t like her, Mom. We know you’re really a cat person.”
“Yeah,” Troy pipes up. “We’ve seen you cuddling with her at night when you think no one is watching.”
Oh my. Jeff’s got the kids in on “Operation Cheerful.” I wonder if that man — the dead one — was anything like Jeff. Did he have a family? A wife? Kids? How can I keep doing this? Blood and kids don’t mix. Love and death. It doesn’t make sense anymore.
The image of those sneakers flashes through my mind. I should have tossed them right after… but I hadn’t noticed the stain until I came home that night.
“Kids?” I jump at Jeff’s voice from the doorway. “Time for bed. Go clean your teeth.”
They pack up their books and drag themselves upstairs to their bathroom, while Jeff kneels beside me. “Maybe you should get ready for bed too?” He takes the remote and turns off the television, offering a hand to help me up. “I’ll be right there.”
I brush my teeth, trying to ignore the hamper in the corner. It’s no use. Replacing the toothbrush its holder, I plunge my hands into the clothes, feeling around for the shoes.
I’m almost relieved. Almost. I shove my hands deeper, up to the elbows now, fingers extended.
Panic sets in. I grip the edges of the basket and tip the contents on the floor, spreading the laundry around me on the tiles.
“Looking for these?” Jeff stands in the doorway, stained sneakers in his hands.
My breath hitches. With my back against the wall, I slide down to the floor and bury my head against my knees.
Pressure at my elbows. He’s wrapped his long fingers around my arms and is tugging my hands from my face. When he grips my fingers tightly in his, I squeeze my eyes shut. “Honey? Look at me. Please?” He’s not going to let me go. I finally look at him. His brow is furrowed, concern etched into every pore. He nods to the floor beside him and I can’t help but follow his gaze.
To the sneakers.
“That’s what this is all about?”
I choke back a sob.
“Oh, honey.” He wraps me in his arms and drags me to him, shielding me from everything.
I sniffle into his shirt, my tears soaking the fabric. “That man is dead. Forever. He might have had children. I couldn’t stop thinking about Jo and Troy. What we’d do if anything ever happened to you. I don’t think I can do this anymore. It didn’t used to bother me, but now…”
Jeff wipes my tears with the pads of his thumbs. “Of course you don’t have to keep doing it. There are plenty of other specialties.”
“I know, but then I’d be a failure.” I hiccup through my tears. “Like all those old guys said when I started. Don’t let a woman do a man’s job. She’ll only have a family and give up.”
Jeff shakes my shoulder, firm but gentle. “Listen to me. You’ll never be a failure. Not to us.” He nods his head in the direction of the kids’ rooms. “What do a bunch of crusty old doctors know? Surgery’s not for everyone. Just find something you love and we’ll support you.”
And suddenly everything snaps into focus. The sneakers don’t matter. The grumpy old surgeons don’t matter. What matters is staring me right in the face. Something I love. It’s right in front of me. And in those rooms down the hall. I lean into my husband’s chest and wrap my arms around his neck as he holds me close.
“We’ll figure this out together,” he whispers against my hair.
“I believe you.”
Kaleigh Castle-Maguire has taken the fiction writing certificate programs at both UCLA and Stanford. She is shortly to commence an MFA in fiction writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an avid reader and writer of flash fiction and has been published in Every Day Fiction, Six-Minute Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Writers Type, Delta Women, Black Petals Magazine, Tough Lit, and Midlife Collage. She is currently at work on two YA novels in the speculative fiction area. She is an active member of SCBWI, RWA and AWP. You can follow her on the web at kcmaguire.com.