In those few minutes between Leo’s departure and the knock at the door I return to the kitchen to clean up but find myself sat back at the table, tired and heavy. Pale sunlight streams through the window above the sink and bathes my face. Refracted through the glass pane, that light is bright and warm and in this moment it’s almost possible to convince myself this is all I need. This husband, this life, this house.
I should be grateful for everything I have, not angry for what I don’t.
The house around me is staggering in its beauty. Or, it will be when it’s finished. A grand old thing fallen into disrepair that I’ve been renovating since the day we moved in. It started out as a hobby and a passion project and then somewhere along the way became a kind of medication. But drugs lose their effectiveness over time, don’t they? We build up a tolerance, a resistance. Eventually, they stop working altogether.
Now, the house is an excuse for isolation, a reason to absent myself from the world. There’s never any time to meet an acquaintance for coffee because there’s always a skirting board to replace. There’s never a weekend free to take a little vacation because I’ve paint arriving at the hardware store for the study. Nothing ever gets finished. Every room is a work- in- progress.
We both know what’s really going on but this has been a long, slow process. For all his endless perfections, Leo never figured he would have to deal with my problems. He doesn’t know how to, and since I’ve become so very good at faking it, most of the time there’s no need for him to do so. I’m so used to hiding my anxiety that he has no idea how stressful I find it simply going to get groceries. He doesn’t know I sometimes stop my car before I reach the house so I can scream or cry to reset myself before pulling up with a big smile. I keep eye drops in the glove compartment, wet wipes and makeup. I’m not sure if he’s worked out that if I didn’t have to leave the house to teach my class, I probably wouldn’t at all.
The way I see it is that we have a finite capacity for dealing with stress. It doesn’t matter if that capacity is overfilled by one huge trauma or lots of little ones. Once we’re over it then we’re in trouble. After that point, we can’t cope.
Leo’s a good man and this Jem is not the Jem he signed up for, not the Jem he married, the Jem to whom he planned to spend the rest of his life as husband. We’re both suffering, and it’s unfair on him that I’m suffering more, that I need so much more than him. He’s still Leo. He’s still the exact same Leo I fell for, who I said ‘yes’ to without a second of hesitation. He hasn’t changed one single bit. My biggest fear is that one day he’ll realise he doesn’t recognise me, that he doesn’t know me.
I’m doing everything I can to wear the mask of the me he wants, not the me I am.
Ours is the only house on the end of the single- lane of asphalt. The previous owners told me that there had been a plan to build more houses, to make a little suburb. It was all a scam, apparently. Some elaborate tax fraud scheme by the developers. I’ve never looked into it so I’m not entirely sure it’s true. I don’t care. The house is isolated, which is what I wanted then, because I wanted peace, I wanted space for the children to play. This Jem is so grateful for that Jem’s thinking, because this Jem couldn’t deal with neighbours, couldn’t fake all those smiles, all that small talk.
How are you today?
Awful, how are you?
Uh, I’m, uh . . .
If you go left at the intersection there’s a long stretch of highway that leads to the interstate. I’ve been that way maybe half a dozen times in the five years we’ve been here. Leo has travelled the world twice over in the same time I’ve covered twenty square miles. I’ve become the ultimate homebody. I make endless excuses. I tell him things like, ‘Everything I need is right here,’ and it’s been for ever since he’s tried to get me out of the county. He’s long since given up trying to get me to go travelling with him, to join him on one of his many business trips.
Leo knows what I’m doing with the house – or not doing – of course. He doesn’t say anything but it would be pointless if he did. What could he even say? I’d just deny it, rationalising my actions so well I’d end up believing my own lies. He wants the house finished because he’s desperate for me to try new things. New things are not all they’re cracked up to be in my experience. There is safety in familiarity. There is sanity in routine. I need both.
Which is the only reason I still work. Thankfully, I work for myself so there’s no boss to answer to, no one to fire me for not fulfilling my obligations. Thinking of work reminds me I need a shower. I’m still sweaty and dishevelled from the early morning class I taught, but I don’t stink – I hope I don’t stink – and after an hour of intense bending and stretching I am always exhausted. The uneducated think yoga is easy, but when you do it right, you feel it in a way that no other workout can match. You can feel it for days. Not just in your legs or your arms or whatever you’re working on, but everywhere. Every muscle. Every sinew. I’m merciless with my pupils. I’m a monster. I delight in that role and they take my class because that’s what they need me to be for them. And it is a role. That monster isn’t me. It’s me in a scary mask. I feel sorry for those who take my class and then have to rush off to the office or back home to make breakfast for a brood of screaming kids.
With Leo gone, our house is devastatingly silent.
Then the knock at the door destroys that quiet.
A firm knock from a strong hand.
I’m quick to answer because I think it’s going to be Leo. I don’t for a second consider it might be anyone else. If I did, I would stay at the kitchen table, not moving, not breathing. I can’t answer the door to strangers. I don’t even remember the last time I tried.
As I hurry along the hallway, I picture Leo with his heart beating fast, cheeks a little flushed having dashed back because he’s forgotten his passport or his currency or some letter or document or purchase order. It’s a loud knock because he thinks I’ll be in the shower and I won’t hear otherwise. That’s why he didn’t call ahead. He’s left the car running so he doesn’t have his house keys on his person. They’re dangling from the steering column.
I’m shaking my head as I make my way into the hallway, smiling to myself because I can’t quite understand how Leo can be both so switched on, so clever, and yet so forgetful and disorganised. He’s a walking contradiction and I adore him all the more for it.
There’s a second knock, harder than the first. Leo’s thumping the door with the meaty part of his fist.
‘All right, Mister Sommelier,’ I call. ‘I’m coming, I’m coming . . . ’
I make a series of orgasmic moans that grow increasingly louder as I draw closer to the door because I’m feeling silly and I want him to smile, despite the obvious stress he must be feeling at forgetting whatever it is he’s forgotten.
‘I’m coming,’ I cry out as I turn the handle and pull the door open to reveal not Leo but two serious individuals in dark suits.
One man. One woman.
The fresh organic tomatoes I picked earlier weren’t as red as my resulting face.
My mouth is a desert. My throat is stripped raw by sand.
‘I’m, uh . . . ’
‘Coming?’ the serious man asks.
‘Sorry,’ I manage to utter, forcing air up through my constricted windpipe. ‘I’m sorry . . . about that. I thought you were someone else.’
The serious woman reaches a hand beneath her jacket and withdraws a leather folding wallet that she flips open in an effortless gesture. She’s done the exact same motion a thousand times at least, I’m sure. I glimpse a holstered gun.
‘I’m Agent Wilks,’ she proclaims in a strong, assured voice.
‘With me is Special Agent Messer. We need to speak with you about your husband, Mrs Talhoffer. May we come inside?’
A Knock at the Door
They ask for your husband. They just want to talk. THEY’RE LYING.
Your husband isn’t who he says he is, say the people at your door.
Come with us.
Don’t trust them, says a voice on the phone. Run.
Who would you believe?
In this terrifying first psychological thriller by bestselling author T.W. Ellis, one woman goes on the run and is forced to question everything she held dear…