There are things I’ve never told you. Things I’ve never told anyone. Things I remind myself to keep hidden lest they destroy everything. Lest they destroy us.
There are things.
The air is thick with uncertainty. Fog. Clouds. The whisp of cold air that foreshadows frost.
The cabin is small, claustrophobic. Was it always this way and we just never noticed before?
Weary from the drive, you pull open the stove. I look through the cupboards for whatever we left last time.
Something by the door catches my eye. There is blood on my left boot. Dark red. Almost dry.
You pile pine needles in the stove. Put the sticks to serve as kindling on top. You place two dry pieces of wood on top of the kindling.
I can already see the roaring fire in my mind’s eye. I can smell the bit of smoke that always comes into the room, no matter how quickly we shut the stove. I can feel waves of heat from the future moving through the cabin.
It will be warm soon. Warm enough to take off my hat. Warm enough to remove the jacket that somehow managed not to get any blood on it.
The cabin seems like it could keep secrets, but I dare not whisper them. I dare not speak aloud the dark places I’ve been to. Or say how I hope never to return there, even as I know I will.
I wet a paper towel and wipe the blood from my boot. I open the garbage can to drop it inside, but hesitate.
You head into the bathroom and close the door. I open the stove and place the paper towel inside. It burns quickly. The dark blood bubbles, liquifies, and is gone. The fire’s already good. It will burn for many hours. The paper towel is ashes now. Vaporized blood particles that can never be collected, let alone traced.
I exhale and realize I’ve been holding my breath.
I’ve been careless before. But I’ve gotten away with it. Perhaps this time as well.
Assuming I left no footprints. Assuming I left no traces. Assuming the sense memory kicked in and I remembered what I was doing.
You emerge from the bathroom. Fresh. Ready for anything.
Or so you think.
I don’t mention the boot. I don’t mention the blood. You’re not ready for that.
“I love being up here in the snow,” you say. And I nod. “It’s so pure and calming,” you say.
I nod again. It is pure. And calming. Or maybe it’s just that you’re pure and calm.
I don’t belong here. I’m far from pure. And nowhere near calm.
I open my mouth to tell you. Confess everything. Let it all tumble out at once. Risk losing you to gain back myself.
But instead I get a pan from the cupboard. I find oil in a cabinet. And I chop the vegetables we brought with us in a bag from your favorite market in the city.
I’m caught in my thoughts while slicing a carrot. I’m not concentrating on the task at hand, so I don’t move my fingers fast enough. And the sharp knife slices into my finger.
There’s no pain. But there’s something primal about the way the drop of blood pools.
I should be used to blood by now, but I’m mesmerized by the sight.
Just before it drips into our food, I grab a paper napkin and wipe the blood away.
You are curled in your favorite chair in the cabin, the one we lugged up here in the back of a borrowed truck. You’re caught up in the paperback you brought with you.
I think of the pleading. And the promises.
I think of the job I’ve chosen that pays for this cabin and our life in the city. The job that takes a little chunk of my soul every time I complete an assignment.
I glance again at my left boot, now visibly free of blood. I’m getting sloppy. Maybe have been for a while. I should get new boots and burn these.
That’s the best way to escape. That’s the best way to keep us together. To keep us happy, in the warm cabin where we can believe we are pure and untouchable.
I place a bandage on my finger and imagine the knock on the door. I know one day that knock will come. I can see already the look of disbelief on your face as you piece together all the parts of my life I’ve kept hidden from you.
I close my eyes and run through my mental Rolodex. The smell of the woods where no one could hear their screams. The one in that alley in Dorchester. The one who nearly escaped (and the way his neck sounded when I twisted it). I think of the fear on each face. And how that fear sometimes gave way to resignation. Or relief.
Reviewing my past work, I tell myself again that I have a moral code. That I only accept assignments where the target deserves to die. I assume the moral high ground that lets me make that judgement.
I once believed I lived on that moral high ground. But no more. Still, I cling to the idea that I have moral superiority. It’s the only way I know.
I sharpen the knife and call out “I hope you’re hungry.” You nod, lengthening your gorgeous neck, showing your smooth skin.
I think of other blades slicing into other skin. Of blood. And bleeding out.
I bring the pan to our wood stove and cook on top of it. “Five minutes,” I say.
“Smells great,” you answer.
I look at the door. Listen for the knock I fear is coming. The knock I’ve waited years to hear.
But it won’t come tonight. Tonight’s a reprieve. A time to be thankful for the country air. For time with you.
A little longer to keep my secrets.
Alex M. Stein is a Los Angeles-based writer, filmmaker, and lover of the Northern Lights. His work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines and he was recently awarded an Art of Creative Unity award from the International Human Rights Art Festival. He will be spending November in the Eastfjords of Iceland, working on a multimedia storytelling project called Echoes of Iceland (which you can follow at EchoesofIceland.com).