Just before tucking him into bed, Marie taped Jackson's right eye closed. “There,” she said, rubbing his sealed eye with her thumb. “All done, Doctor.”
“Thank you.” Jackson Byrd wasn't a medical doctor, of course. Ever since successfully defending his dissertation nine months ago, he'd insisted upon the title. Indeed, he wore his doctorate like a bauble round his neck.
Marie, truth be told, was getting a bit tired of it. “You're welcome.”
Jackson curled up on his side and drew his knees inward while Marie pulled the covers up to his neck. “Maybe tomorrow...”
“You need to be patient.” She patted his good cheek, the cheek that he could still move properly. The cheek that still lifted when he smiled. “The doctor said you're getting better every week.”
“It's depressing, though.” Jackson looked at his dresser as he spoke. The drawer pulls looked like eyes staring into the dimness of the room. “I see the way people look at me when I smile.”
“You're a handsome man, Jackson.”
“I spilled my coffee down the front of my shirt today. Right in the middle of class.” Jackson pictured his words floating from his mouth half-formed and lopsided. He missed the sharpness of his speech, the crisp precision fully functioning lips and teeth and tongue allowed him.
“Plenty of people spill coffee.” Marie looked distractedly around the bedroom for the soiled shirt; wondered if it was too late to coax out the stain.
“People aren't interested in flawed individuals. They only want perfection.”
“Imperfections in another person remind people of their own. That frightens them.”
“I just want to get on with my life.”
She watched him for a moment before bending down and presenting him her cheek, which he kissed somewhat sloppily and completely perfunctorarily. She crawled into bed beside him and kissed the back of his head. “Jackson?” She wrapped her left arm around his body.
He wanted to sleep. He just wanted to sleep and wake up to normal. “Hmmmm?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
He studied the ripples in the sleeves of the fuzzy pink housecoat his mother had bought Marie as a wedding gift. Marie hated that housecoat. Jackson knew that. But Marie was still bound up in shoulds and oughts. She hadn't yet found her own two feet to stand upon. In fact, Marie was downright malleable. “You said you were going to give all that up, Marie.” It surprised him, actually. Their relationship. He was a numbers guy. Marie was...
“I heard something. After you left for work this morning. When the contractors were ripping out the drywall.”
“A mouse,” he suggested. “It's an old house, Marie.”
He sighed. Jackson had met Marie in Philadelphia two years ago. Back then, she was Madame Marie, sitting in a South Philly storefront, adorned with the tools of the trade. He stood on Schley, watching her shuffle a worn deck of tarot cards, her long red fingernails flashing. And it was then, perhaps that he'd fallen in love. “Do you remember,” he said now, “Sedona?”
“Yes.” She laughed. “People didn't find me strange there. There were people like me all around.”
He nodded. They'd gone to Sedona for their honeymoon. Place was full of nuts. Under pretence of a job interview, he'd cut the honeymoon short. He'd promised her Paris, once he received his doctorate. “I believe in numbers, Marie. I believe in proofs and theorems.” He rolled over to face her. “I believe in Euclid and Pythagoras and Fibonacci.”
“They're all dead.” She offered that mysterious smile he'd grown to dread. “So you do believe in ghosts.”
“I believe in their work. Their words. Their legacy. What they have left behind.”
She sighed. “I hate it here.”
“It won't be long.” Another of his promises unkept. They'd moved into an old ramshackle house close to Temple so that they wouldn't have the added expense of a commute. “I'll move up quickly. Do some research. Publish something. Then we can move. Wherever you like.”
“Why numbers?” she asked, rekindling the old argument.
“Whole societies have been built upon numbers.”
“Shored up with words,” she amended.
“Words are inefficient.”
“You and your numbers. You don't see half of what I see.”
“You see nothing,” Jackson said. “No more talk of ghosts. Ghosts,” he went on, breaking his own mandate, “are merely manifestations of your own mind.”
“Created for what purpose?”
“Unresolved issues. Guilt, perhaps at something done or not done.”
“There was a man yesterday, sitting on the curb just outside the house. He exposed himself to everyone who walked by.”
“A pervert. Did you call the cops?”
“Maybe he just wanted to be seen, Jackson.”
“More of your New Age junk.”
“Don't you want to be seen? I mean, really, really noticed?” She held his eyes and he felt an accusation in her stare; felt as if she were seeing clear through to his soul. “Each of us wants to be seen for who we really are,” she whispered. “We just go about it in different ways.”
He shook his head. He was surprised that he'd married Marie. Even embarrassed, he supposed. His colleagues' spouses were all well-educated. Marie was...He felt himself flush. At last week's holiday gathering, Marie had pulled a pack of Tarot cards from her bra and begun shuffling them, right in front of the department chair.
“Maybe you should get a job, Marie.”
But Marie didn't respond. She'd fallen asleep.
Jackson rolled back over and allowed himself to drift off too.
* * *
He awoke to a scent. Chocolate and peppermint layered with vanilla. The room felt suddenly cold and still. Who was there? What was there? Without even breathing, he opened his eye just enough to peer through the veil of his eyelashes. The silence was terrible.
He moved his good eye about the room. A person—no, a figure, clothed in white—stood at his dresser, silently rifling through his paperwork: papers to grade; his doctoral certificate; his latest research project. He opened the eye a bit more, felt the strain of the other eyelid struggling to open beneath the medical tape.
“Marie?” He whispered, poking her back, feeling the solidity of his wife through her pink housecoat. He reached up and tore the tape from his eye. Wide-eyed in the dark. “Honey?”
The figure looked at Jackson before turning towards the door and disappearing down the hallway.
* * *
The following morning, after her husband had left for the college, Marie stepped outside of the house and sat on the curb. Eventually, a man appeared, the same man, in fact who spent his days exposing himself to passersby. “Here's your key,” he said, tossing it to her.
“Thanks.” Marie took a long drag from her cigarette and balanced it upon the curb. She reached into her bra and brought out her tarot cards.
“You think it worked?”
Marie chuckled and began shuffling. “He called the agent today. House goes on the market tomorrow.”
“You think I can stop pretending to be a pervert now, Marie?”
Marie leaned forward and kissed her brother on the forehead. “Thanks, David. You can go now.”
And David stood and faded off into the distance and was never seen in those parts again.
For the Scriptic.org prompt exchange this week, Jordan at http://thepuddingnyc.
blogspot.com gave me this prompt: Without even breathing, he opened his eye just enough to peer through the veil of his eyelashes. The silence was terrible.