She knelt on the floor beside the body. Not to see if it was dead, she knew that already, but because something terrible inside her drew her down for a closer look.
The blood had stopped flowing. It lay in perfect stillness on the white tile floor, a glistening scarlet halo around the upper torso of the dead woman. The dress was white, too, or had been before the knife went through it. The knife now lay on the floor beside the body, oddly inconspicuous amid a gory miscellany of flatware and small utensils; every implement was as wet and as red as if it had been dipped in crimson paint.
The door of the dishwasher hung limp on broken hinges, pointing downward toward the body as if in mute apology. Three of the four small plates in the lower rack had slid from their places and lay in an untidy stack, facedown, where the cutlery rack had been before it had fallen to the floor. Like everything else within arm’s reach, the rack and the plates in it were liberally splashed with blood.
She looked at the body, at the blood, at the knife. She thought she ought to feel something, anger, pity, remorse, anything, but no feeling came. Nothing except a fine buzzing that hummed in her ears and danced all over her body, as though an electric current ran through her skin. She did not seem to be able to move.
For how many minutes she remained kneeling, numbly gazing at the dead woman, she did not know.
Neither did she know how long he had been standing in the doorway to the hall. She had not heard him come. His presence had crept into her senses gradually, through the buzzing, until there came a moment when she knew, unsurprised, that he was there.
She tried to look up, but she did not want to see his face; her eyes instead found his hands, and that somehow was worse.
He started to say something, but only a voiceless whisper came. He stopped, cleared his throat, tried again, and this time spoke. But what she heard was a thin, pinched travesty of his voice, the ghost of his voice.
It said, “Do you have any of the blood on you?”
For some reason the pedestrian practicality of the question offended her. The flicker of anger broke through the buzzing paralysis, or at least loosened it slightly. He was cool? So would she be.
“There’s a little on my skirt.”
“Stand up before there’s more of it.”
She stood up. Too suddenly, for the room heaved; she put out a hand to steady herself.
“Don’t touch that!” he cried.
She snatched her hand back from the countertop, half-expecting to see a bloody handprint on the white surface. Like Lady Macbeth! she thought wildly. Then reason reasserted itself. “Don’t be absurd. My fingerprints are all over this kitchen. All over the house.”
He made a motion in the air in front of his face, as though to clear something away. “Of course,” he said. “I, Yes, of course.”
There was a silence. She could no longer look at the body now that he was there.
“I think you had better leave,” he said.
“Yes,” she replied, still not meeting his eyes. “Yes, I believe it’s time.” She moved stiffly, carefully, toward the back door.
Julia Robinson softly opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom and looked in. She saw tumbled covers on an empty bed, and an empty chair by the window. Startled, she stepped into the room and said sharply, “Tita?” There was no one there. Julia turned and walked quickly down the hall to the bathroom. The door was open, the room empty. “Tita?” she called back down the hall, louder this time. No answer.
She hurried toward a narrow door, flung it open, and fairly shouted “Tita!” as she ran up a flight of uncarpeted stairs. The attic was a wide, low space tucked under the eaves, with four dormer windows peeking out at the treetops, one on each side of the house. Julia moved swiftly past stacks of cardboard boxes, an ancient set of golf clubs, and a standing rack of off-season clothes swaddled in plastic bags. She arrived at the area around the dormer at the back of the house, where a space had been cleared and a tiny, shabby living room created. A child’s dresser supported a rag doll, obviously long retired, and an array of seashells; a sagging bookshelf held the annals of Narnia and Oz; beside an armchair of faded maroon stood a floor lamp in the dated trendiness of the sixties. In mingled exasperation and relief Julia looked down upon her daughter, asleep in the armchair.
Elizabeth Robinson, once and forever nicknamed Tita by a fond aunt, was ten years old. She had very short ginger hair, an elfin face lightly freckled, and a slowly abating case of the flu. She very rarely did what she had been told not to do, and for a moment her mother was completely puzzled. Then she saw the ballpoint pen resting in the slack fingers of Tita’s right hand, and she understood. There on the floor, where it had fallen, was the spiral notebook, opened and folded back; the heading on the exposed page was from the attic. Below was half a page of neatly written lines, the first of which began with the notation 1:04 Monday. Julia glanced at her watch. It was 1:47.
She felt a rush of guilt; she should have checked on Tita earlier; the child had been here most of an hour. Well, at least she’d remembered to turn on the little space heater. Julia switched the heater off and gathered her daughter in her arms, murmuring in a voice too low to wake her, “Come along, Chiquita, back to bed, whooo! You’re getting heavy, in another year or two I won’t be able to do this, mmmm, that’ll be a shame, won’t it. . . . It’ll be a bigger shame if you’ve made yourself worse. . . . Next time when your silly mother says you can sit by the window with your notebook, she will be sure to specify your bedroom window. . . .”
He sat on the floor, feet drawn up, head between his knees, arms wrapped tightly around his legs. He was on the floor because his legs had refused to support him another moment; he had his head between his knees so that he did not have to see.
Every few minutes his stomach revolted, but he had already vomited, painfully and thoroughly, in the hall, and now the spasms were only dry heaves. He waited until they stopped, and then he waited some more. It felt like an hour; it might have been four minutes. Finally, the fear of discovery grew greater than the horror of the task, and he began, with the help of the doorjamb, to struggle to his feet.
He found that his teeth were chattering, and he clenched them. It seemed to strain every muscle in his face and neck, but the chattering stopped, and from that minuscule victory he drew a feather’s weight of courage. Still holding the doorframe, he bent to pick up the sheets he had dropped.
Clutching them hard against his chest, he forced himself to look at the disaster that lay on the floor, splashed like a crimson insult across a space heretofore impeccably white. It was vulgar, melodramatic, remote from anything she would have done or worn in life, an alien intrusion on her style. After the eternity of minutes he had had to get used to it, it still did not seem real.
The blood had grown darker and was beginning to thicken. If it dried, it would be harder to clean up. He moved his stiff legs and slowly approached the body. He pulled a single sheet out of the bundle of pale colors he carried and dropped it into the pool of blood beside the corpse. His hand hovered over the dishwasher rack that had come to rest almost on top of the wound in her back; he needed to push it back onto the door of the dishwasher, then close the door to get it out of the way. Simple enough, if only he could get his fingers to overcome their revulsion and actually touch the sticky red surfaces of metal and rubber. Before he could summon the will for it, an unwelcome thought came to him. Getting the dishwasher out of the way would be easy enough, he could do that in two seconds with one hand. But what about the body?
He would get blood all over himself.
He tried to think. Something like cunning, unfamiliar to him, stole across his mind. He stepped back to the kitchen table, laid the remaining sheets on it, and began to take off his clothes.
When he had stripped completely, laying his clothes across the table and his shoes under a chair, he again picked up the sheets and returned to the body. Without giving himself time to think about it, he reached for the dishwasher rack, shoved it back onto the sagging door, lifted the door, and closed it.
He knelt on the sheet he’d already dropped onto the pool of blood. His mind, which seemed no longer to belong to him, kept noticing color. The sheet he knelt on was a paisley print, a delicate blue and pink over which the dull red was slowly creeping. He dropped its mate over the blood on the other side of the body. The sheets ruined the color scheme, he thought absurdly, then wondered if this judicious detachment was what is called shock. The red and white might have been overly dramatic for her, but the darkening paisley transformed the scene into a common, ugly mess. How she would have hated it! He took a third sheet, flowers, this one, the color of peaches, and began to wrap it around the still-supple corpse.
She was as warm as a living soul. It would have been easier for him if she had been stiff and cold. As it was, the feel of her was too familiar, the flesh soft under his touch, as it had always been.
He slipped his arm under her waist and gently rolled her over onto her back. He was unprepared for her face.
Her eyes were open. Blood smeared her right cheek and temple where she had lain in it; blood was drying in her hair and in her eyelashes. He cried aloud and dropped her. Her left arm fell across his thighs, just brushing his penis.
Two things happened in two consecutive split instants: in the first, his body’s attempt at the unthinking, primeval reaction; in the second, his mind’s shrill veto. In a rush of horrified, irrational modesty he struck at her arm with the back of his hand, trying to knock it away without touching it, as one would a spider crawling across one’s bare skin. He caught his breath on a sob, smothering panic with reserves of will he did not know he possessed, and continued his work with the sheets.
When at last she was completely enveloped, arms wrapped to her sides, dreadful face covered, he slid his right arm under her shoulders and his left under her knees and stood up. He took a step.
Memory, sudden as pain, struck his mind and slid into his heart like an oiled knife. With brutal Proustian clarity the hotel room materialized before him; he was naked; he was carrying her to the bed; she was laughing. He could feel the carpet beneath his bare feet, hear the Fifth Avenue traffic muted through the window.
He sank to his knees, pulled the awkward cloth-wrapped figure into a hopeless embrace, pressed his face against it, and wept.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Crooked Heart by Cristina Sumners. Copyright © 2002 by Cristina Sumners. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.