Dead Stars by Rebecca Jones-Howe

devil3His wife had been a terrible singer. He’d have dreams about her voice, her banshee shriek shaking his skull, spreading the fissure cracks wide open. He’d lay awake thinking of her, sweat spilling onto the sheets, fingers tracing over to the side of the bed she used to occupy. He never let himself drift the whole way over. Something about doing so seemed wrong. He’d lay in the dark, stirring in the heat of his own fear. Once again, his thoughts were pushed aside with the vision of his decaying wife crawling out of the river, siren-calling from hell.

He got out of bed and felt for his robe on the floor, shrugged into the sleeves before stumbling through the dark into the kitchen. He pulled a beer from the fridge and red wine from the cabinet. The beer was craft-brewed, darkened bitter stout, the sort the consoled him. The wine came in a box, its plastic spigot caked with juicy red.

Outside, summer’s dry heat gave way to cooler air. The worn trail of dead grass led down to the flooded riverbank, where the wooden ramp down to the dock the shifted with his steps. The lone Adirondack chair sitting at the dock’s end always looked so singled out, so suspicious, placed more to the left than the center. Its sun-weathered wooden surface invited him. The screws were loose but the chair still supported his weight when he sank into it. He set the box of wine beside his bare feet, clenching his toes as he opened the beer. Its deep bitter taste loosened his limbs, allowed him to draw a breath.

His wife would have hated the beer, would have criticized him for drinking it. He whipped the cap into the water, tried to skip the metal over the surface. The river wouldn’t allow for creativity. It pulled at the debris, sucked the metal in. The current pulled away, but he pictured the cap sinking down, deep down.

Every summer was the same, the river overflowing the beaches, its surface slurping at the dock. Careless swimmers could get caught in the undertow, could wind up a long distance elsewhere. It wasn’t uncommon for dead animals to wind up caught between the docks that lined the bank. Once there had been a horse, its lifeless body clinging to the edge of their dock, chunks of its black coat picked off by fish.

It always bothered him how dead creatures floated, were made an example of. There’d been a picture in the newspaper of them removing the horse. People wrote letters to the editor complaining about the shot, how disturbing it was, how nobody needed to see it. He always thought about how much better things would have been if the horse had just sunk to the bottom of the river, its failure left unknown.

Turning the spigot, he poured wine into the river, the sound of it hitting the surface almost too syrupy sweet. Boxed wine had been his wife’s favourite. It was cheap and always provided her with enough fodder to sing. The wine was her invitation. She’d drink more than she needed to put on a show for him.

“Somebody made a joke about Yoko Ono today,” he said. “It was in poor taste. I didn’t laugh, but I wanted to.”

The mild jokes were as close as he could ever get to being honest with her. The tension slipped slowly from his limbs. He brought the opening to his lips and took another sip, thinking of the things she’d tell him, her ridiculous aspirations of fame.
“All I really wanted was to do drunk karaoke. People would have liked that. We could have made friends, ones with similar interests.”

Taking the wine again, he turned the spigot and fed her another drink, the currents pulling at the alcohol. He leaned forward and gathered a breath, the river smelling dank, smelling of rot and dead dreams.

He’d never blamed himself for not saving her. He only believed she haunted him because he had the ability to do so.

He took another sip, appreciated the comfort of the beer, only to linger too long on the memory of her mocking him for his love of it. She used to say that his opinion didn’t matter, that there would always be somebody out there to disagree with him.

Whenever she said that, it always made him want to tell her the truth.

Was it bad? He wondered, always wondered. Even now, he couldn’t say it, how worthless her dreams were. He couldn’t save her from them. It was why he preferred the dreams he woke from, the dreams where she came back.

Dumping more wine to the water, he thought of her performing for him that one last time, putting on a show for him. That was the night she fell in, drunkenly waving for him, reaching for him, and he stood on the dock at a loss for words, her screams echoing as the tide pulled her away. Even though they found her a couple of miles downriver, he still pictured her body sinking to the very bottom, lingering beside the dock. He leaned back in the chair, the wood creaking like her voice used to.

He reached over to the bare side of the dock where the other Adirondack chair used to rest. His fingers slipped through the chilling air, grasp coiling, gripping, clinging tight to nothing. The moonlight caught the reflection of his wedding ring. It fit tighter than it used to, was often hard for him to take off at the end of the day. It was usually the nights when his fingers were swollen when he’d wake up under her influence.

“I’m tired of feeling like the devil,” he said.

On nights like these, the stars looked like a reflection of the bottom of the river.

devil3

Rebecca lives and writes in Kamloops, British Columbia. Her work has appeared in PANK, Pulp Modern and Punchnel’s among others. Her first collection of short fiction, Vile Men, will be released in 2015 from Dark House Press. She can be found online here.

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