Respectable people assume that they can perceive the danger in a place proportional to the level of rust and decay afflicting the objects inhabiting a property. Barbed wire, warped and twisted into a rats’ nest of tetanus; corrugated iron, bleeding down rust from the bullet wound of a screw hole; rusty nails sprouting out of a fence post, looking to them—and by them I mean respectable people—like lethal metal weeds, physical manifestations of the pain and suffering that surely must reside in such a downtrodden place. But the fallacy contained within such assumptions occur because people want to compartmentalize their danger. Danger is a place, Danger is dangerous people. When really, both you and I know that danger is everywhere. It’s in people’s refrigerators, in their baby formula, in their priests and schoolteachers. Danger prefers to dress up nice and say good morning, to not call attention to itself; it is a paragon of respectability.
But what they also fail to recognize is that the most dangerous kind of danger dwells within them, in the assumption that they can rely on the trappings of society and propriety to keep them safe rather than on themselves. It is an advice column, a therapy session. A suicide prevention hotline. The neighborhood watch group. Danger is weakness. It is atrophy. Decay—yes—but of the self. Danger is Darwinian; it is divine.
You want a confession? I’ll make you a confession. This was not about revenge; this was about justice, and not any of that eye-for-an-eye bullshit. It was about somebody getting what’s due, repaying a debt, so to speak. In the moral universe there are times when a person has to cut off a part of herself, to kill a part of herself, in order to fulfill what is good and right in the world, to restore an equilibrium, and that is how you know you’re doing the right thing, because you are making a sacrifice.
Well, I’m sure you know by now that he was traveling to the Philippines so often it was like he was commuting there. Head of an NGO needs to keep up relations with the locals, maintain community support and secure a continuous flow of donations. That was his justification anyway. But, you know what? The bed was getting cold with him gone all the time, and one of those times he waited just a little bit too long to respond when I asked him what was on his itinerary, his answers just a little too vague, his voice a little too high in the telling of it.
So I did what any wife of the head of an NGO would do, what with all that time I had on my hands with him gone all the time, and I looked up how to install monitoring equipment on our computers and internet traffic. Kept the equipment in my lingerie drawer, knowing he’d never bother to take a peek in there. People are generally morons when it comes to technology, but he had the proper precautions in place, randomly generated passwords sent to his cell phone which was password protected in and of itself. Still, I suppose he figured I didn’t have enough suspicious tendencies to run actual surveillance on him, and it’s not like he had to worry about me hiring a private eye to follow him around the world; we didn’t have that kind of money. Or maybe he simply assumed my mind was as ineffectual as my law degree, framed as it is in Norwegian spruce and mounted on the wall of the foyer—purely decorative.
I don’t ever want you to have to work again, he’d said after the baby we’d tried to have together was stillborn, alive until the very moment he was born. People don’t think that happens here anymore, but it does. Miscarriages, sure, people are aware of those, but carrying a baby all the way to term, having to go through the whole ordeal and be ready and waiting, only to have fate respond with on second thought, I think we’ll pass.
I wasn’t good for much for awhile after that, as you can imagine. I managed to graduate but didn’t attend the ceremony; it seemed so full of false promises. For years, I brooded around writing bad poetry, but eventually it evolved into half-way decent poetry and I published a few collections. Troy encouraged all of this, claiming to prefer to grieve through his newfound charity work, and sure enough, he worked his way all the way up to the top. Take as much time as you need, he’d said. You should never have to work again.
You know what men think they have over women? Gravitas. You ever hear anyone describe a female as having gravitas? No. You know why? Because we all know it’s a lie, and we couldn’t even pretend. You’ve been Tasered I’m sure, right? Police Academy and all. Ten bucks says you screamed like a girl and crumpled to the floor in a fetal position, am I right?
Try getting tazed in your pelvis every two minutes for 36 hours straight, try getting torn up from the inside out from your ass to your clit as you shit onto the bed and vomit repeatedly in front of your spouse while some nurse chimes, That’s perfectly normal, in the background. You think you’re better than us because you think you’d handle it better than we do. You see us writhing and screaming and think, Woman, hold it together. Men have an imagined sense of dignity; women know that dignity is a made up thing, that it is absurd.
Anyway, he made enough money from real estate back in the day and the NGO stuff more recently to buy us a model home in a development with precision trimmed lawns and hedges and those god-awful lilies of the Nile. But it’s what I wanted because both real beauty and true ugliness made me ill. For instance, a crumbling sidewalk section with serpentine cracks pointing every which way out of the crater of a pothole once drove me to an outright sobbing fit while out for a run one day through the neighborhood. Step on a crack / break your mother’s back. Peonies, I also couldn’t stand the sight of, so fragile when damp, so fleeting. I had to have something both plain and perfect to live in or I would sublimate entirely and be gone. Vapor.
When I was a kid, my folks, they wanted me to avoid the houses at the margins of the neighborhood when it was time for trick-or-treating, the ones with torn and disintegrating improvised curtains, bent-up blinds, and broken glass scattered on porches for days on end, daring someone to give a damn. But that’s because my folks were confusing the signs of danger with evidence of exhaustion.
There was this one house around the corner that was always perfectly composed no matter what the season. Had a real flagpole, pristine American flag, impeccable grass, fountain always on, always clear of debris, and tasteful, timely decorations for all the seasons and holidays—no plastic, no flaws. That was the only house that I couldn’t bring myself to approach on Halloween, cheerful as it was with its magazine-cover arrangement of miniature pumpkins and gourds on the doorstep. Even then, I had the intuition to know that life was messy, and to spend that much time on appearances meant that the people who lived there were compensating for something, were lacking in something that was necessary for decency to thrive.
Now, I’m telling you all this from memory, but the thing about memory is that it comes in degrees. First there is the memory of a thought that you have had. That has the least impact to you as a human being, so it’s on the lowest rung. It is a reflection of a shadow. Then you have the memory of something you have seen which you know to be fiction, such as a film or a television show. This is distinguishable from the memory of something seen which you know to be real, such as a nature show, a news segment, or a history program. When you see the historical footage of a man being shot in the head execution-style in Vietnam, you know that man to be dead, really and truly, in a way that could not affect you if that man were an actor in a film. Then on top of all that, you have real life experience, where you are both physically present and a witness, and the images that you have access to, both real and imagined—for we know eye-witness accounts to be tremendously flawed—from such an event is often inseparable from the self; the self is made up entirely of the accumulated conglomeration of these images.
So what I’m about to tell you, you can imagine it, sure. You can picture it in magnificent Technicolor detail, examine it with a mental microscope or what have you. But it’s not going to have the same impact as seeing it for real; it’s not going to change you or become a part of you because your mind’s eye is comparatively dull, as if suffering from cataracts or macular degeneration.
So here I’m thinking about what I’m going to find on this monitoring equipment, which you know had to be a slow process for me to even use. I’m a poet, not an IT guy. I’m thinking he’s got a mistress maybe, or even a separate family. More likely, he was looking into sex tourism. Heading over for some Cambodian prostitutes in some foreign red-light district where he thinks he’s outside the realm of the authorities—of you guys. I was preparing myself for all of it, or at least I thought I was. Sometimes you can be worse than right; you can consider what you think to be the worst scenario imaginable, and then it turns out to be even worse than that, and you learn what it means to be a fool.
All I had was logs, transcripts at first, but what I found made me have to get more sophisticated equipment to record what he was doing on the screen, so I could see it in real time. So yeah, he’s chatting online with Filipino madams, that I had almost expected. We didn’t really do it anymore, not since he’d been gone so much, so that was plausible. But there he was, ordering up children. Boys, some as young as five. Babies. He was gone all the time half-way around the world to be with—to mess with—somebody else’s babies. And I could see them there on the screen. They had them all lined up against a cement-block wall, hanging on to their binkies and blankies and everything, so he could choose. They were real, more real than our dead child, who would’ve been the same age as some of them by now but who only existed in my imagination and so was merely a fragment of a thing.
And tell me, Lieutenant, what would you have done in such a circumstance? You’re married, I can see. What would you do if you caught your wife on the nanny cam with the neighbor’s kids? Tell me, would you call the authorities? You’d pound her straight to hell, wouldn’t you.
People think they’ve got choices, but sometimes it seems like we’re all just stuck in a colossal Rube Goldberg machine. Don’t even get to pick which way we fall. What’s the sane response to insanity? What can your conscience do when faced with the unconscionable? Exhibit A, Lieutenant. You’re looking at her.
So yeah, he came home from work the next day and I didn’t say a thing. I mean literally, I didn’t say a word to him when he came in the door. I brought out handcuffs, which he assumed was part of something kinky I’d gotten myself up to, and he played along. I blindfolded him, all the while, never saying a thing. Brought him into the basement, handcuffed him to the metal folding chair which I’d chained to one of the support poles down there. He knew something was up by then—we only used the basement for storage, and it was not a welcoming place to be—but it was too late for him to do anything about it, and I still hadn’t said a thing. I never did, though he went on and on about how sorry he was, and how it was because he was sick from the loss of our child. That’s why I eventually duct-taped his mouth shut; he didn’t get to explain. There was no explaining that. I never said a goddamned thing.
You basically know the rest. I transformed him into the little girl he seemed to want to be. I took his blindfold off, made him watch me do it. Sure, I drugged him up first—I was after justice, not anything sadistic. But I made him watch because I was really in top form, so serious, so composed. Gravitas. Turns out it’s an actual thing. Who knew?
He was down there like that for three weeks before you all found him, and nobody would’ve ever suspected a thing in that house, looking like a catalogue inside and out. But I guess I forgot to lock the basement door one day when the cleaning crew was due to come by, though I suppose you could psychologize and say I subconsciously left it open intentionally because I wanted to get caught, to show the world what a monster he was. I’ll leave you to your theories, but I do know that the world will judge me to be a monster right along with him, that they’ll say we were a freak show of a marriage, and that’s fine. Like I said, sometimes you have to kill a part of yourself to do the right thing, and maybe that makes you a monster, maybe not.
The one thing I do regret, that I feel very badly about indeed and will take to my grave, is that the cleaning people had to see what they did, because it was real, and those are the things that once seen cannot be unseen. But you? You’re only hearing about it. Ambulance had already taken him away before you got there. Sure, you’ll see the pictures, but then you’ll go home to your wife, kids, maybe give them an extra tight squeeze tonight, smell their hair and hold the scent of them in your lungs a little longer than usual. But you’ll sleep well tonight. You’re gonna be just fine.
About the Author: Marléne Zadig wanted to be an astronaut but she studied ecology in the Kenyan bush and then became a writer, mother, and teacher instead. Her short fiction made Longform’s Top 5 list of Best Fiction in 2015 and has appeared or is forthcoming inJoyland, Slice Magazine, Green Mountains Review Online, Blunderbuss Magazine, The Adirondack Review, and elsewhere. She’s a 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award nominee, a 2015 Best of the Net finalist, and the runner-up for the 2015 Fulton Prize for Short Fiction. She lives in Berkeley and online at marlenezadig.com.