Nick of Time
His red breast is silk in the sun. I chop vegetables, watching the robin on my window sill. My gaze drifts to the newspaper, askew on the table. Bold headlines slice like a dagger and my knife clatters to the floor as I remember other shiny blades of a long gone autumn.
He was our football icon - his muscular body writhing through the pack. Long, powerful strides and Michael was away, the ball a pawn in its master’s grasp. The girls cheered - green and red pom-poms rustling, hips swaying and short skirts flipping up over skimpy underpants. He’d be a pro – fame, fortune, fans. Everyone was sure. The hero flashed perfect teeth and teenage hearts thudded. I stayed at the back as usual, small and unnoticed, then incredulous as Michael approached.
"Mind if I sit here?"
Mind? Like did I mind winning a million dollars? It was a mistake, a joke. Shrivelling into my grandstand seat, my words came out staccato.
"No, sh…sh..ure." And he was next to me. Shower fresh after the game, he smelled of musk sweets. Strong legs, dilated vessels with blood flowing free. His heat filtering through pores warmed my thigh. Vibrant colours and a confident crowd all around me in the stadium but with my mousey hair and dowdy coat, I gloated, You can keep your million dollars.
"Miranda, isn’t it?" he asked, "I’ve seen you at school." He flicked his blonde fringe from his green eyes, the emerald sea under blue sky. My heart leapt a victory dance, ignorant that underneath the superficial glitter, emeralds cut deep.
Like children’s photos with Santa Claus, we cherish first dates. So it was for our picnic. A blanket of dandelions, gurgling water smoothing stones and cotton wool clouds rushing over for a look. Like Michael’s fingers, water tickled our toes, the coolness bathing my soul, then lost in the heat of lust. Chicken, mayonnaise and tomatoes from the basket, even linen napkins and long-stemmed glasses.
"To us." He chinked his glass against mine, dipping his magnificent head. Leaves and trees were distorted through frosty, straw-coloured wine. He lowered his glass to his mouth and I saw the verdure no more. Only his flawless face.
Michael carved funny face patterns in our apples -sad, happy, dopey caricatures – knife skills matching his football prowess. I laughed and threw back my head. Perhaps it was the wine though.
"Let me try," I giggled, reaching for his Swiss army knife.
He slapped my hand. "Nobody gets to use my knife," he said, smiling and tweaking my chin like grandpa used to.
Shadows lengthened, his velvet lips brushed my cheek. Then he walked away, his slim hips swaggering in faded jeans. My body tingled like fizzing lemonade and I swung the picnic basket from my arm all the way back home.
My wardrobe strewn on the bed – unlucky soldiers on a battlefield. I decided I looked slim in the black dress for my afternoon at Michael’s house. The girls were at the bus stop, minus their pom-poms this time. Eyes burnt my back as I strutted by and heated whispers scalded my pricked ears.
"What’s he see in her?" But there was no pain, only triumph and I hummed softly. I rang Michael’s doorbell and quaked - a rose in a storm.
Our fairytale: "Miranda, Miranda, your majesty." My prince smiled, bowing in mock virtue. "I was afraid you wouldn’t come."
I shrugged. Could hardly say I was late because of the clothes dilemma. Hot currents shot up my arm as he clasped my hand.
Family photos in frames, bills in a pile, magazines in a rack and flowers on curtains – it could have been any suburban living room. With Michael it was paradise. My knees trembled, my pulse raced as he pulled me next to him on the lounge. Wine cooled on the coffee table and – only later would I understand the terrible implication - rows of knives gleamed on a white towel.
"Beautiful, aren’t they?" he said, stroking a decorated ebony handle. "I’ve just cleaned them." Then he jumped up, clapping once. "And now for the show."
Michael was in the garden, marking an ‘X’ on the oak trunk and beckoning me. I obeyed, a curious puppy. He paced back, counting silently, turned and faced the tree, tongue out, brow furrowed. Tendrils of wispy hair were feathers in the breezy afternoon. A glance at me - his audience, then his knives were majestic arcs, slicing chill air. Thwump, thwump, one by one they found their mark.
Much of his grace was in motion. I saw him that way as blind love doesn’t see the other falling as swiftly as a house of cards.
He smiled and squeezed my arm. I clapped his performance - an equidistant star pattern of blades around the pink ‘X’.
"Five out of five," I cheered, like at the football field.
"Your turn now, Miranda."
"Me? I couldn’t hit a tree if it was an inch away," mouth gaping like a hooked fish.
"No silly, your turn to be the ‘X’." Shaking his index finger, eyebrows thick, knotted hoods.
He’s kidding, but sweat leaked from my armpits, clammy arms clamped across my chest and my stomach churned. "Don’t you trust me? You saw. I never miss." He’s serious. Stroking my face now, sweeping my curls behind my ears, head cocked to one side. Blood and a dozen conflicting thoughts bounded in my brain.
"No, Michael, please, no." Pleading now, backing away from him. His eyes were downcast, I couldn’t refuse. Don’t end everything, before it’s even started. I shuffled over to the trunk, an unwilling assistant. God, you must be crazy, and praying that a real God was watching over me.
Michael wasn’t smiling anymore. Eyes glazed, fierce in concentration, he cast his weapons. I feared I’d pee my pants. Please not now. Not in front of him. I squeezed my eyes shut, limbs rigid, frozen. Red, orange and gold autumn colours faded to black – a deep hole. No escape.
It seemed like hours, but it was over in minutes. I opened my eyes onto the living world and me still a part of it. Autumn had returned, but the colours were dull hues, tinged with grey. At least I didn’t have a knife sticking in my eye and Michael was beside me, ruffling my hair and laughing, tugging my steel body away from the tree. "See, told you I never miss. You were scared, right?" Lips trapped mine before I could answer and fear dissolved like aspirin in water. You’re so stupid, Miranda. He said not to worry. But like fog snaking through a valley, unease shrouded my spirit.
"You were fantastic," he said, pouring us cokes. In his bedroom, Michael’s football trophies lined a special shelf. They sparkled like his knives - like my admiring eyes. "I’ll be rich from this game one day," he told me. I dared to picture our comfortable future – sumptuous, with a wealth of love.
Time had stood still, now it moved again as magenta sky heralded dusk.
School was tedious - like watching paint dry. No words came, my history essay a jumbled jigsaw in my head. I doodled sketches of Michael on the blank page and checked my watch, seeing every five minutes pass.
"Fifteen minutes detention, Miranda." Punishment for daydreaming and the Raleigh Woods bus chugged off without me, farting brown smoke in my face. Added punishment.
Panic, jogging, then running, breathing fast, legs aching and slowing. Will he wait for me? I paused, head dropped to catch my breath. Dense clouds brought an early dusk to the woods, silence hanging over purple light. Heavily pregnant air was trapped under a canopy of bottle green foliage. Wild lavender and thyme bordered the path, their scents strong in my flared nostrils. A rustle behind me. I jumped, whipping around, a hand against my leaping heart.
A squirrel, cutting across my path, its tiny paws laden with acorns. I set off again, drawing my coat around me, warm and secure – like Michael. Where is he? Crashing through the carpet of leaves, a deer rushed by – an elegant shopper hurrying home before the storm.
I saw him as the first raindrop fell, leaning against the No Fishing sign. He whittled a stick with his knife, his foot tapping rhythmically, his brow furrowed. He looked up, his frown transformed into a smile.
"Where were you? I was worried." Upon me now, arm across my shoulder.
"…missed … bus…," struggling to breathe normally.
"Never mind my princess, you’re here now," and his tongue sought the crevices of my mouth, a silken, urgent snake. Rain tumbled - diamonds sprinkling my eyelids and then a white explosion as lightning traced its vein across black sky.
I ignored nature’s warning.
"Let’s get out of this storm. Quick, I want to show you something." He dragged me after him, laughing, stumbling over fallen boughs and slipping on moss.
Thunder stalked us to a rocky outcrop. We escaped its fury in a narrow tunnel, dark and dry. It was so narrow we had to walk like crabs and Michael lit a candle.
"Don’t worry, it gets wider soon." Clutching his coat tails and colliding with him as we reached the cave.
"What do you think? Great, isn’t it? It’s just for us." His eyes danced in the flickering light, hair sleeked back, sweat like honey and citrus fruit. Michael removed his coat and urged me down next to him, spider-web fingers trailing my thigh. My hair plastered to my face, mascara smudging down my cheeks, trembling in clothes stuck to my body. I must look dreadful. But he didn’t care and on the warmth of Michael’s sheepskin coat we made love on the dank cave floor.
Michael wanted to carve our names on the wall.
"Then we’ll be here forever." He’s flicking open his smallest blade and rubbing my forearm. "Looks like a good place. Just a few drops, Miranda. Mine and yours together."
Lurching away from him, eyes wide, my hand flying to my mouth, not believing what I think.
"Blood? You want to carve our names in blood? You’re crazy."
Fingers touching – petal-soft and the river of uncertainty is dragging me under. I fight but the current is too strong.
"I thought you trusted me?" Frowning and eyes glaring, pin-head yellow lights.
"Yes, but…" I flagged, strength waning.
"I won’t hurt...promise." He’s gripping my arm, knuckles white and cold. The pressure hurt me surely more than the actual cut.
There on the cave wall: ‘Michael + Miranda’, carved in a heart shape. I thought it a macabre ritual for the 21st century but history repeats, so they say. Though prehistoric man confined his drawings to hunted animals. Didn’t he? Suddenly I wanted to be home, and alone.
My gallant cavalier accompanied me to my doorstep. I returned his tender kiss but like our cave candle, the flame waned, working against the elements, then sputtered. But there was no wind, only the cyclone whirling inside me.
I needed a lot of courage to break it off with the handsome prince that waved his magic wand and bewitched me. The pom-pom girls were wide-eyed.
"Give up Michael? You’re crazy, Miranda." And for a long time I wasn’t
sure whether I was overreacting. But now, staring at Michael’s picture
under huge, black headlines, I’m convinced it was the right decision.
HUSBAND MURDERS WIFE IN KNIFE FRENZY
As I rub the tiny scar on my arm, the robin red breast wings away from
my window-ledge, graceful and free, and goosebumps prickle the nape of
my neck where Michael’s fingers once stroked.