Have you ever seen such loathing in someone’s eyes that you know – just wordlessly know – that they are going to kill you?
When his wife’s eyes followed Lin from the kitchen all the way to the living room, unrelenting, unblinking, the certainty that one of them was going to die before tomorrow sank in.
After near two months of being quarantined together, this was almost a relief. He inhaled the stale air between them to steady himself – hands shaking with rage as much as fear – and walked deliberately to the bedroom.
He wondered if he was making a fatal mistake, trapping himself in a corner. Sealing his own tomb as he closed the door. Outside, he heard his wife pacing and ranting for about a minute
before her voice faded away.
He imagined her sending ominous texts alluding to the heinous deeds her spouse from hell was pushing her to. Damning words that would ensure her murdered husband was met with justice. He would be so lucky, of course. She was smarter than that. He wondered if she would be smart enough to evade suspicion were anything to…well, befall him.
The blame would not be entirely hers. Lin himself had been harbouring murderous feelings of late, feelings that had had time to coalesce into diamond-hard intent only a laser could cut through.
Intent that surely had made itself felt in the nuances of his words or stares; for neither of them were the subtle kind. It was just one the many ways they were ill-matched.
Being trapped together for weeks on end had only served to make them realise that they were never meant to inhabit the same happy household for more than a few days at a stretch.
Their bond had been fraying for some time now, over a multitude of trivial things they somehow could never agree on. But if he had to pinpoint a particular incident, he would most likely say this:
“It began with the toaster.”
He imagined explaining it to his friends (or more likely the police). “Marisa, you see, has a thing for arranging objects and furniture A Certain Way, and any deviation is considered a serious oversight. In an act of compromise we had, over the years, defined these…I’d call them territories. In which one or the other has the last word on these things.”
He drew a long breath. Why were his hands shaking again? “Can’t be the smoking. I had my last cigarette nearly a month ago, and I’ve been fine. Stress, more like.
Anyway, for example: the bookshelf is my territory. I decide if it needs tidying or dusting – well, once in a while she sneaks in some dusting and thinks I don’t know it. As long as she doesn’t rearrange anything, it’s fine. The dining area is also mine.
The living room portion and the kitchen is hers. That’s where our troubles began, as they tend to. The kitchen. Where the sharp things are.”
At this point, whoever was investigating the incident would probably be glaring at him in a way that indicated they were not interested in the intricacies of a couple’s domestic turmoil. Or maybe they would be. This was murder, after all. There was drama to be had. Heck, they might be recounting the story to their mates and families for years to come.
“It began with the toaster, you see,” he muttered softly, barely realising that he had begun talking out loud. “Marisa places the toaster atop the big oven she uses for her pastry side business – places it just so: on the far right, aligned with the very edge of the oven top.
“I had used the toaster earlier and had taken care to put it back correctly – just so. Alright, maybe not to the 90-degree precision her standards demand…maybe it was leaning a bit towards centre rather than far right…but would you believe how upset she was? She edged my Funko Pops out of place the other day when she decided to dust my bookshelf. Did I complain even a little?”
From there, it had all “gone tits up”, as a late uncle of his would say. The argument moved rapidly from the disarrangement of household items to a list of faults and foibles that must have been waiting for this opportune moment to be heard in all their righteous glory.
He began pacing a U-shape around the bed. Recalling vividly the memory of the loathing in Marisa’s hardening face as she had marched away, only to return with an empty wine bottle that she proceeded to smash against the nearest wall before barrelling toward him, the harpy scream blending with his own equally high-pitched exclamation of terror. Knowing full well he would be the one to come out looking bad, he drove an elbow right into her face. Let her show her victim’s bruises to the world, he thought. Just let me live to regret it.
“You should’ve seen the look on her face, tuan,” he would have said to the hypothetical cop. “She was going to gut me like a fish! Over misplaced kitchen appliances!”
That had been two days ago. He had spent a sleepless night worrying about that broken wine bottle, which he realised had disappeared without him noticing where to. At some unholy hour he dragged himself out of bed to check the trash. There was no bottle to be found. And so it continued to haunt the back of his mind, jagged edges twisted into a grinning maw.
He had dared to entertain the hope that things might get better since then. He could dare all he liked, of course. The death of their marriage was imminent. His own death only slightly less so.
Yesterday he had called his sister Shu Yi about the possibility of moving in with her temporarily while he and Marisa decided whether or not to officially call it quits. Shu Yi herself was divorced, and the only questions she asked were practical ones, such as “Will you split the bills with me?”
Following that phone call, he had packed a bag. It lay tucked beneath his underwear drawer like a survival kit. He had been looking forward to the end of the lockdown curfew to move out (preferably quietly, in the night), but he was on the verge of saying “to hell with it” and risk the hand of the law rather than the madness of his wife.
He was about to check on it again, wanting the assurance of its bulk, when something struck his mind abruptly and made him go “Fuck!” He had left his phone outside.
Somewhere in the living room. Where the monster that until recently had been the woman he married waited to make her move. The monster he had, if truth be told, had a hand in making.
“Alright, no big deal,” he muttered as he opened the door, gently.
He was surprised by how dark it had gotten. How long had he been anger-walking about the bed?
He thought of turning on the lights, then thought better of it. He could just about see the tip of Marisa’s foot from the corner where he stood.
He inched closer, telling himself he was not afraid of her (or the sudden violent outbursts that had become more frequent in the past two years). When he saw that the ‘foot’ was in fact the corner of that ugly beige throw rug he had always hated, he sighed in relief. That was when he heard a sound coming from somewhere behind him.
From the kitchen, where the knives were.
Don’t let her know you’re afraid, said one voice in his head, while the other one said There is something terribly wrong with Marisa. You’ve known it for ages.
“For fuck’s sake. Marisa was fine before all this. I was fine before this.”
What about the time she drove a knife into the wall, two inches from your hand?
Or insisting you give her your phone passcode, long before the lockdown began?
“I changed the passcode weeks ago. Also, are you rhyming now? Jesus.”
I’m just saying – fuck the quarantine. The virus isn’t going to kill you. Not if she gets to you first.
There it was: his phone, lighting up in the dark like a beacon at sea. The light came from a message alert. It was Jo, his general manager at work and confidante after hours. It seemed their last after-office beer together had happened in some long-ago halcyon age.
Before he could read the text, a sudden burst of thunder split the sky and made him drop his phone. “Shit.” He dropped to his knees to reach for it, then remembered that she was still behind him and quickly looked over his shoulder. Marisa was gone.
Had he imagined her there? Was she simply stewing in the spare bedroom where one of them now occasionally slept after one row too many? Or was she standing in the shadows with the gleam of something sharp he would not catch until it was too late.
Get into a corner. Back against the wall. So you can see her coming.
No, stupid, that’s just trapping yourself.
“Shut up,” he hissed at his clashing inner voices.
That’s exactly what you yelled when you destroyed the ice tray.
He shook his head ruefully at the memory of five days ago, when he had bashed the container vindictively against the floor after Marisa complained he was scooping out ice cubes too loudly. The admittedly small, silly complaint ended up being the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel. A second later there were ice cubes and shards of cheap brittle plastic all over the floor.
She stood there with hands on hips. “Oh, very grownup reaction. Are you going to break something each time y – ” He had kicked what remained of the ice tray toward her then, and moved in her
direction with balled fists. She suddenly went quiet, glaring but impotent for the time being. She had even – if he recalled correctly – flinched.
He had considered it such a victory, being able to scare her, that he happily cleared the mess of the floor. Making as much noise as he could doing it, naturally.
The vivid scene faded away as he realised how quiet the air had become.
Too quiet, despite the distant rumble of more thunder. Above, the ceiling fan had come to a halt.
Power’s dead, said the slightly more annoying of the shoulder angels. Or demons, more likely.
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
He looked down at his phone; the battery was at a worrying 15%. You’re in shit, said demon number two.
No, it’s alright, he asserted. This is not a crisis. Be reasonable. The fuse box was just outside. He could have the power back on in seconds. He slid towards the door,
cursing the loud click of the knob.
“Lin…?” Marisa’s voice, hesitant, calling his name as if they hadn’t each been envisioning the other’s gruesome death.
He chose not to answer, instead inching closer and closer to the fuse box. He reached out to lift the lid, ran over the knobs while wishing he had not waited for an actual blackout to get acquainted with them.
“I just want to talk, Lin.”
Really? You never got around to talking much before.
“Lin, get in here. Now.” Then, as if she was adjusting her strategy: “Please.”
He squinted into the dark. There she was: the beautiful, petite woman a small part of him was still in love with, silhouetted against the curtains. Her hands were not visible. This was less than reassuring.
“Just a second, babe,” he croaked. “Gotta get the power back on.” He fumbled and felt sweat trickle steadily down his back. Where was that buggered switch?
“That’s not important.”
“Sure it is.” He checked his pocket for his phone. 15% was enough for an important call or two. That was the state of his life now – an increasingly finite amount of room for redemption, and for the saving of his marriage, which was fast becoming a fight for life. “Just…stay there.”
But she wasn’t staying. She was coming closer, closer, the outline of her still cloaked in darkness. His hand moved from the uncooperative fuse box to the shelf where they kept the tools. He prayed that the box would not snap loudly when opened. His prayer was answered. His hand slid beneath the lid and found what he needed.
“What are you doing, Lin?”
“Goddamn fuse switch won’t work with me.” He kept his tone light.
“But you’re not doing anything to the fuse box. I can see that.” She was getting closer. the whites of her eyes were now visible. “Are you lying to me, dear?”
“Lying? Why would I be lying?”
“What are you hiding?”
He snorted with false sarcasm. “Potato chips. In the room.”
The wide unblinking eyes darkened, and he briefly regretted the jibe, knowing how much she hated snacking in bed with a religious fervour. His hand tightened on the hammer.
“Lin, be reasonable.”
“Yes. Let’s be reasonable. I don’t want to fight anymore, Marisa. Not tonight.”
“Neither do I.” He thought he saw her right arm tense. Her right hand doubtless gripping a weapon of her own.
Before he could say anymore, another deafening boom of thunder made his vision go white for a half second. Then presence of mind returned, and he took advantage of the disorientation to slam the door shut. Marisa tried to open it. He immediately threw his weight against it.
“Lin, what are you on about? Open the door!”
“I can’t, babe, it’s stuck!” He jiggled the doorknob frantically for effect.
“What do you mean, stuck?” Some of the venom was creeping back into her voice. He could already hear the insinuation forming: that if he had done things correctly – done things her way, whatever it was – the door would be (miraculously) free of mysterious malfunctions.
“Open the door, Lin.”
“I know you can.”
“Didn’t you hear me? It’s stuck.”
Her next words were ice-cold. “I heard you fine. I saw you fine. I saw you push the door shut.”
His heart thundered in his chest, almost as deafening as the storm. “It must have been an accident. I’m sorry. I was shocked by the noise…Come on, babe.”
“Bullshit. Don’t ‘come on, babe’ at me.”
She threw her weight against the door then – she was terrifyingly strong at times like these, and it took all his own strength to keep the barrier between them. The barrier between life and a kitchen knife in the side.
“Maris – ”
“Open the door or you’ll regret it.”
“Alright. Alright.” He hefted the hammer, reassured by its weight if nothing else.
“Are…are you holding anything?”
“What?” A moment’s pause. “What would I be holding, silly?”
Before he could reply, his phone vibrated insistently. Some sixth sense told him to dig it out. It caught on a stray thread in his pocket, then clattered onto the floor. The preview flashing on the screen showed another message from Jo. Three words caught his eye: Lockdown is lifted!
“Lifted,” he whispered, hardly daring to believe it. But Jo was not one to share news without cross-checking it ten times over. It’s over, then. Angels of mercy! His cramped fingers finally let go of the hammer. “Lockdown is lifted,” he said loudly enough for his future ex-wife to hear.
“Really?” Her voice came out small, strangled – and sane once more.
“Whatever you were about to hit me with, put it down.” He grinned madly as he flung the door open and declared: “I’m moving out first thing tomorrow.”
That was when he saw the broken bottle in her hand.