2:10: “Death By Installments”, by Jaime Rosen

2:10: “Death By Installments”, by Jaime Rosen

The water in the swimming pool was cold and blue-crystal as it closed above Stockard’s head. Here sound was magnified but distorted, and his ears were tantalized by the enlightenment that seemed to stand just out of reach. Still, there was nowhere else he would rather be than here, insulated from the stresses of the world beyond the surface, the threats, the headaches, the deadlines and the responsibilities. Here, if only for a few minutes at a stretch, he was free, his head was clear.

But all that went away when he pulled himself up to the concrete around the pool. The humid air hit him with all the weight of the world as he broke the surface, and every step of bare feet across burning cement brought him closer to the duties of husband and doctor. By the time he reached the sliding glass door that led into the living room, the safe haven of the pool was almost forgotten.

Marjorie was lounging on the couch with a drink in her hand — scotch or whiskey, he couldn’t be sure. She had on a gauzy grey and silver robe and her green-streaked blonde hair tumbled over her shoulders in artful disarray. She didn’t bother to turn around when he came in.

“Marjorie,” he said.

“Hello, Stockard.” Still she didn’t turn around, choosing instead to flip through the fashion magazine resting on her mostly bare lap. “Drink?”

“No, thank you,” he replied. “I have to go to the office.”

“Alright.” He watched her take a drink from the tumbler in her hand. “Remember we have a dinner party at the Ericssons’ at nine. Don’t be late.”

“I won’t.” He didn’t bother to close the door.

———•———

The office, as he called it, wasn’t much to speak of. Marjorie was accustomed to the finer things in life, and Stockard refused to charge more than his patients could afford, so there was nothing left over to spruce up the workplace.

Just after sundown his first patients started to trickle in, starting with a kid, a boy no more than twelve with a shock of blood red hair that half-hung in front of his dead eyes when he forgot to brush it out of the way. It was the ones like this that really got to him.

“Playing hockey again?” Stockard asked as he sewed the boy’s left pinkie back on. “Haven’t I told you to be careful when you do that, Geordie?”

The boy nodded silently.

“You have to wear all your equipment because otherwise one of these days you won’t be able to find a part that gets cut off, and then I won’t be able to fix you up again.”

Geordie swallowed. “I know. But the guys wanted to play and I’d left my gloves at home, and…” Stockard met his eyes and the boy stopped. “I’ll be more careful next time,” he said, apologetically.

“Good.” He tousled Geordie’s hair with a latex-clad hand and smiled. “Good as new, kid. Now I don’t want to see you again until it’s time for your check up, okay?”

Geordie nodded again, and Stockard sent him out with a lollipop.

When the kid was gone Stockard pulled off the gloves and closed his eyes, rubbing them with his knuckles and watching the patterns on his eyelids jump in response. It wasn’t much, but at least it was a bit of a break.

“Doctor Ketter?”

The voice made him jump.

“Uhm. Yes?”

“I just wanted to say I was really impressed with how you treated that boy.”

She was beautiful, with eyes like sea foam and a way of carrying herself that just spoke to him on some visceral level, even when she was just standing in his doorway. He knew her beauty wasn’t the sort that would show up in pictorials or on video cassettes, and that he would never be able to convey it with words to tell someone else about it. But that didn’t change what she was, which was beautiful.

He could also tell she was the sort who would be one of his patients, not one of his wife’s friends. His wife would never associate with the dead. She barely accepted what he did for a living.

All these things passed by, fragmented, in the time it took him to draw breath for his reply.

“Thank you.” He extended his hand to her. “Mrs…”

“Julie,” she said. Her eyes locked on his hand but she didn’t take it, and it hit him like a fist.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for a fresh pair of gloves and snapping them over his hands. “I’m very sorry.”

She smiled, shaking his rubber grip with her cooler-than-room-temperature one. “Actually, it was kind of nice. I find it a little annoying that wherever I go people always put at least one layer of latex between themselves and me.” She let go of his hand and their eyes met momentarily, before he shifted his to the door.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he began, “how exactly did you…”

“Get in?” She laughed, a sound fuller and brighter with life than he had ever heard from Marjorie. “The same way everyone else does. Through the door. With no receptionist out front anyone could walk in, no questions asked. So I did.”

He nodded.

“That’s why I came in, too. Because I saw you had no one working up front and thought you might need help.”

“That’s very kind of you, Julie.” He wanted to run his hand through his hair, but remembered where it had been and stopped. “Unfortunately, federal law forbids…”

“… the undead from holding down interpersonal service jobs. I know. But I’m not asking for a job. I’m offering to volunteer.”

Stockard thought for a moment. There was nothing forbidding volunteers, and he hadn’t been able to find any living people willing to take the job. Not ones he would have trusted, anyway. And she was one of them herself, after all. “Alright. You can start tomorrow. Work begins at sundown and ends at sunrise. If you want I can show you the ropes tonight, but I have an engagement at nine so I’ll have to close up for a few hours.”

“Sure.” She smiled at him. “Thanks.”

———•———

The Ericssons.

There was a couple Stockard wished he had never met. But his wife absolutely adored Gillian Ericsson in that superficial, underlying-cattiness sort of way she had. They shared two of the same stylists, so there was always a little unfriendly friendly rivalry between them when it came to appearance — and most everything else.

David Ericsson was a boor and a bore and Stockard could barely stand his company. He was also a broker, which only made matters worse in Stockard’s eyes. As a doctor, he spent enough time with the underprivileged and the dead to know what sort of havoc the brokers’ financial machinations created. People who were numbers on a spreadsheet for men like David Ericsson walked through Stockard’s door every night, made of very real flesh and bone.

Leaving their coats with the butler, Stockard and Marjorie were greeted in the hallway by Gillian Ericsson. Her hair was cut just below her jawline and dyed an unnatural red, and her black gown tapered to her ankles leaving her barely enough freedom to walk. He could feel Marjorie tense at his side. In her azure dress and tumbling blonde-green hair, she clearly felt one-upped.

“Marjorie, darling!”

“Gillian!”

They exchanged phantom kisses and faux plastic hugs.

“Stockard.”

He took her hand — she wore elbow-length gloves, naturally. She always wore gloves to any parties he attended, but had either the decency or the fashion sense for them not to be rubber. “Gillian,” he said.

“You must speak to David tonight. He has some absolutely fabulous information for you.”

Probably another spiel to entice him into the world of ‘proper financial development.’ “Thank you, Gillian. I will. If you’ll excuse me.” He bowed slightly and slipped away to join the rest of the party.

Not that the rest of it was much better. The guest list was, as always, composed entirely of fashionably well-off couples with whom Stockard felt no connection. He only found himself invited to these events because the government paid a handsome salary to anyone willing to run a clinic like his, and because his wife absolutely needed these for their marriage to survive. Although why he wanted it to survive he wasn’t quite sure.

“Stockard Ketter!”

He turned and saw Joviah Tetsch heading for him.

Joviah Tetsch was a record executive and he and his wife had a dead butler, making them, after Stockard, the most liberal of the partygoing regulars. Nobody else would even let the dead into their homes. Somehow, Joviah imagined this made the two of them kindred spirits.

“Stockard Ketter,” he repeated, shaking Stockard’s hand. “How are you?”

“Pretty well. Yourself?”

“Fabulous. Fabulous. So how’s business? You must be making a killing.” That was what these people thought of as ‘zombie humour.’ And everyone made the same jokes every time.

“Well, I sewed a kid’s finger on just before I came here.” Joviah’s rum-red face went a little white, and Stockard suppressed a half-smile. But just like that, the executive was back on his conversational feet.

“That must have been murder.” He laughed and drained his drink.

“How’s business for you?”

Joviah seemed to swell slightly. “Fabulous. Fabulous. We have an album coming out that should be huge, massive, earth-shaking. I’m talking CD, DVD, VCD, minidisc, netcasting — we’re even doing a limited edition vinyl, and there’s talk of a live tour to follow it up.” He tried to drain his drink, realized he already had, and went off in search of the bar. “10:17. Remember that name.”

Stockard decided not to.

———•———

Julie was already in the waiting room.

“How did you—”

“Get in?” She smiled. “Trade secret. I picked it up in a past life.” Her smile was faded but beautiful, like an old photograph.

When they closed for lunch she came to the back room to watch him eat his sandwich.

“How was your dinner party?” she asked after a few minutes.

He swallowed a mouthful of tuna salad. “Wretched. I can’t stand any of the people at those things. I only go because of Marjorie, and to be honest I can’t stand her either.”

“Marjorie’s your wife?”

“Yes.” He fiddled with the gold band on his ring finger. It always snagged on his gloves. “She’s not a bad person. We’re just very… different.”

Julie sat on the chair opposite him. “Not many people will marry a doctor,” she said. “Not one who runs a place like this.”

He laughed. “I’m afraid she didn’t know what she was getting into.” He took another bite of his sandwich. “All she knew was how much I was going to make. If she’d realized what my job would actually require… well, she might have thought twice.”

“Do you regret it?”

“What, my job? Or my marriage?”

“Both.”

Stockard thought. “This is the job I have to do. I’m needed, and I can’t turn away from that. As for my marriage.” He stopped. “As for my marriage, I did what I thought was right. Marjorie was beautiful and I thought she’d see things my way. I was wrong. I wish I hadn’t been, but I was.”

“That’s not really an answer.”

He finished his sandwich. “No, it isn’t.”

———•———

In a few days it would be too cold for him to retreat to the pool. Marjorie had suggested, when they first bought the house, that he should have a building constructed around the pool so they could use it year round, but Stockard had refused. He didn’t want the pool to be just another part of the house. It was his escape, however partial and brief, and he wouldn’t give it up that easily. So he accepted the limits placed on him by Canadian seasons and restricted himself to using it for less than half the year.

And now, in the waning days of an Indian summer, he found that he was retreating to it more and more often.

Someone once told him that the pool was a tool of regression, a representation of the womb. But Stockard disagreed. The womb was liquid, yes, but it was warm, claustrophobic, filled with the presence of another person. What he liked about the pool was the exact opposite. It was cool, cold really, and empty, an expanse of alienness that reminded him of nothing pertaining to other people.

“You can’t keep going out there like that,” Marjorie said. “It’s too cold and I don’t want you catching one of those awful diseases from the zombies you work with. You might not care about your health but you could at least have the decency to care about mine.”

Stockard shrugged and finished toweling himself off in the doorway. “It’s still warm out,” he said. “I give you my guarantee as a doctor that I won’t get sick.”

Marjorie snorted. “Your guarantee as a doctor? Maybe if you were a real doctor that would mean something.”

He started to say something, then stopped, and she turned on her heel, tossing her hair over her shoulder.

“We’re having a party on Sunday, and I won’t have you ruining it by getting sick.” She stopped at the edge of the hallway. “And don’t forget that we’re playing tennis with Michael and Christina tomorrow at the club.”

———•———

One day, two years ago, Michael Rigby had decided to bond with Stockard, and so he told the doctor all about the affair he was having with his secretary. His third, in fact — affair and secretary.

“I love it,” he had said. “No nagging, no whining, no saggy tits and drooping ass. You should see this chick, Stockard. She’s absolutely dynamite. And the best part is there’s no responsibility. I get all the sex I could want and if she gets unhappy, who cares? Just transfer her to another department and she’s out of my hair and I’m into the next one.”

Stockard didn’t know why the ugly bald man had told him this. He didn’t want to know, hadn’t wanted to know about the affair in the first place. He wasn’t disgusted by the affair — who Michael Rigby slept with and when was none of his business — but by the attitude about it. It was so dismissive, demeaning, and callous that he actually avoided the Rigbies for the next five months, even more than the rest of his wife’s circle.

———•———

It was a hard court, the surface a not-quite-right green colour. Stockard wasn’t sure of the score, but he knew he was losing — and Marjorie was happy, or at least gave that appearance.

“Coming at you,” Michael Rigby said as he served the ball. Stockard’s return went into the net, and suddenly they were all walking off the court.

“What a marvelous game,” Marjorie enthused. “You two are simply spectacular.” Christina Rigby beamed at the compliment, and her husband snickered a little.

“Good try, Stock,” he said, extending his hand for Stockard to shake. “Can’t win them all.”

You can,” Marjorie interjected, eliciting laughs.

“We must do this again before fall really starts,” Christina said.

“Absolutely.”

Stockard stuffed his racket into his case and kept his mouth shut to avoid saying something stupid, like “How’s the affair going, Michael?” or “So, Christina, caught your husband cheating on you lately?” He wanted to say something, anything that could smack them across their antiseptic white grins, but he wouldn’t let himself. He couldn’t deal with the repercussions, not right then.

So he gritted his teeth and tossed in a couple of words of nothingness and got back to the car with Marjorie.

“Would it kill you to be social?” she hissed, drawing the seat belt across her shoulder and around her waist.

“I was.”

“Like hell. You hardly said two words the whole game. People are starting to talk, Stockard.”

He turned the key in the ignition. “About what?”

“About us. About ‘trouble in paradise.’ They’re talking about our marriage being shit.”

Their eyes met.

“It is,” he said.

“I know that. Hell, I don’t even care — but we can’t afford to have them talking about it. I can’t afford it. I’m scrambling just to keep us on people’s guest lists.” She stopped to smile and wave at the Rigbies as the car pulled out of the parking lot, then turned back to him. “You may not care about those parties. You’d probably be happy if we were never invited to another one. But I care. You can’t just take my life and ruin it like that!”

“You’re right,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I’ll be good.”

———•———

Over the last two nights Julie had transformed the back room of the office into her own room. Essentially what that entailed was a cot she could rest on during the day, some clothes, and two cardboard boxes filled, from what Stockard could tell, with a variety of books. Proust lay next to Austen. Anna Karenina sat on top of Carrie. Cookbooks and home repair manuals mingled together indiscriminately.

“Interesting selection,” he commented, pulling a book out at random. Caring For Your Baby.

“Stupid, mostly,” she said, snatching the book from his hand and putting it back in the box, which she closed. “I guess I can’t let go of the past.”

He nodded. That wasn’t uncommon with the dead, he’d learned, and he thought it was understandable.

“Anything you want to talk about?” he asked.

“No,” she said too quickly. There was a pause, and then she turned to face him. “Maybe some other time. Right now you have patients to deal with.”

It turned out to be a busy night. There’d been some gang violence — the anti-dead attacks of the Southern US and parts of Europe were less common in Ottawa, but growing — and lots of work had to be done.

Most of the victims were men in their late teens and twenties and required minor repairs, but the young and old were mixed in as well. Just as the office was about to close a couple brought in a young girl, probably about ten or eleven.

“What happened?” Stockard asked.

“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “We just found her like this on our steps. She’ll be alright, won’t she?”

Stockard looked at the child. No. “There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “The damage to her head is too extensive. Even if I could bring her back, she wouldn’t be who she was. But there’s nothing I can do for her. I’m sorry.”

If the dead could cry there would have been tears on the woman’s face. Her husband — Stockard noticed the ring he wore — put his hand on her shoulder.

“She’s gone,” he said. “Finally. We should be thankful her ordeal is finally over.”

The woman put her face in her hands and groaned, a sound which spiked the hairs on Stockard’s neck. The grief of the dead always chilled him.

“I’m sorry,” Stockard repeated. “You should… You should take her to the morgue.” They had the facilities to deal with the twice-dead.

She looked up at him, and he felt like her grey eyes could see through their film and into his soul. “She was our daughter,” she explained. “We…it was…in our sleep. All of us. Carbon monoxide. To lose her now, after all of this…” Her husband put his arms around her and led her away while Stockard went to the phone and called for a hearse to take them to the morgue. It was only when he put the receiver down that he wondered where Julie was.

After the long black car took the family away and Stockard closed the office, he found her in her room, curled on the cot. She was facing the wall, which left her back to him. He could see the outline of a shoulder blade pressing against her blouse.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Because if you need to talk, I—”

“Shouldn’t you be going home to your wife?”

“Well, I suppose I should, but if—”

Get out!” She turned just long enough to hurl a book she had had in her hands at him. He ducked it and it fell limply to the floor. Caring For Your Baby.

———•———

The party they hosted was just as bad as any of the parties he hated going to himself. Guests milled about the house interchangeably, in every room on the ground floor and most of the second floor as well. If he hadn’t closed up the pool that morning when he got home from work, they would have surrounded it as well, but that private area of his home, at least, was safe.

The first person to speak to him was Joviah Tetsch, with his artificial garrulousness oozing from every opening.

“Stockard!” he said genially, gripping his forearm. “Fabulous party. Fabulous.”

“Thanks.”

“Look, Stockard, I want to tell you about a hot new property we’ve got. They’re going to be huge. Massive. Earth-shaking. We’re talking CD, DVD, VCD —”

Stockard let his eyes roam for a moment while he tuned Tetsch out. “That’s great, Joviah, but I have to go take care of something,” he lied. “I’ll track you down and you can finish telling me about it later.”

David Ericsson bumped into him in the hall.

“Stock!” he said too enthusiastically. “I have some excellent tips for you if you want to start up a portfolio with me. Don’t want to wake up dead broke, do you?” Zombie humour.

“No. Tell you what — just let me go take care of something and I’ll be right back.”

Before David could respond, Stockard had slipped into the clutching throng of partygoers. The front door was in another hall and to get there he would have to make it through the dining room and what seemed like an ever-growing mass of bodies. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Michael Rigby with his wife, Christina.

“Stockard. Great game the other day.”

“Thanks. You won, right?”

Michael Rigby bared his teeth in, more or less, a grin. “Yep. So, how’s the zombie business?”

Stockard shrugged. “How’s the mistress?” he responded.

On his way through the dining room a middle-aged man with thinning bleached hair pulled him aside. “Stockard,” he said. “I love what you’ve done with the place. How much did it cost you?”
“Enough.”

The man laughed. “I bet. I heard the damnedest thing the other day. You see—”

“Look. I don’t know your name or who you are, and frankly I don’t want to be here. Excuse me.” Stockard left the blonde man standing there with his mouth half-open.

He dodged the rest of the milling guests and slipped out the door and into the driveway. He wasn’t sure quite what he was doing but he knew he was going to have to deal with the results very soon. He also knew that part of him had been planning this for some time, because his car keys were in the pocket of his dress pants, where they had no business being.

The autumn air inside the car was as cool as the air outside, and Stockard decided not to turn the heat on. The cold would keep him focused.

———•———

The key to the office was on the same ring as the car keys so he had no trouble letting himself in even though the office was technically closed that night. He still wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, but whatever it was he knew he had to do it here.

The hallway was dark except for a sliver of light at the very end. Julie’s doing, probably a night light or the light in her room slipping through a not-quite-closed doorway. Stockard slipped the keys back into his pocket and, guided by that one shaft of light, made his way to his own room, where he turned on the light and shut the door. No reason to attract would-be patients only to disappoint them.

He busied himself with the forms and folders that required his personal attention. There was always a backlog of those, and this was a chance to make a dent in the pile that took up half of his desk. Maybe if he could have brought some of it home it wouldn’t add up so much, but Marjorie made sure his time at home was kept occupied. Besides, she wouldn’t want him bringing home anything from the office, just in case. So he had to cram it all into the rare down time he had at the office.

After about half an hour there was a knock at his door.

“Stockard?” Julie asked, opening the door.

“Come in.”

She settled in the chair across from him. She obviously hadn’t expected him to show up at the office — he hadn’t expected himself to show up at the office — and the red nightgown she wore leant her slightly bluish skin a fascinating hue.

“I thought you were at a party,” she said.

‘I was. I left. I had a… change of heart. Besides, I’m more use here than I could ever be there.”

She smiled. “I hope you didn’t burn all your bridges.”

Her smile was contagious. “Let’s just say I may have raised the price of gasoline single-handedly tonight.”

“Alright then,” she said, getting up. She stopped at the doorway, hesitating.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” she said.

And then the words came out of her in a rush. “I was pregnant when I died. I guess that means I still am, I guess. She would have been a girl. I know that. And beautiful. But my boyfriend didn’t — didn’t like the idea. Of being a father. We had a fight. A big one. And when I woke up I was dead, my baby was dead, and he was gone. I’ve never forgiven him. I’ve never forgotten it. And I’ve never forgiven myself. So that’s… that’s…”

He went to put his hand on her shoulder to console her, not mindful of the bare skin of his palm, and then his hands were around her and she was melting into him, taking both of them to the floor. Her mouth was cooler than Marjorie’s, and he marveled at her taste.

Eventually the motion detectors turned off the lights and they lay together in the dark and silence for what seemed like a lifetime, her cool skin pressing into him.

“You could get sick,” she said, eventually.

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. He knew the chances were better that he would than that he wouldn’t, but worry couldn’t change the odds.

Another lifetime went by.

“You’re still married.”

“In name only. She’d never take me back even if I wanted her to. Not now.”

“So now what?”

“Now I sleep, and you let me hold you.”



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