Ed had always trudged dutifully through life. The years wore on, his hair thinned. He bought glasses. He stopped eating meat. Now, inevitably, he was approaching the mile marker that signaled it was more than halfway over. If anyone asked whether he was happy with how things turned out, the question would have caught him by surprise. Unhappiness has a way of creeping up so the change is imperceptible.
Two weeks before his birthday, Ed returned from Australia on his first-ever business trip. His wife Ruby, a corporate lawyer, knew her way around New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and St. Louis. Her firm once sent her to Dubai. She unfailingly returned with souvenirs for their 12-year-old daughter, Maryanne, who joyously greeted her mother at the door after each trip with shouts of “Mom’s home!”
Ed rarely left the San Francisco suburbs, so he never had the chance to be missed. He often spent whole days without leaving the house, working behind the closed glass doors of his home office like a turtle in an aquarium. That was until Ruby got sick of supporting his writing habit and forced him to take the “real” job at a publishing house.
The flight from Melbourne arrived late on a Thursday afternoon. Ed’s suitcase was the last to come out at baggage claim, and he got in a cab just in time to land squarely in rush-hour traffic. The cab crept along the choked freeway for a few miles before giving up, rolling back on its tires as it crawled to a complete halt.
“We’re going to be here a while,” the driver said. The picture on the back of the headrest said he was Dabir, from Ethiopia.
“Looks like it.” Ed leaned back in the cracked leather seat and stared out the window, watching the fog descend over thousands of glowing taillights. He put a hand in the pocket of his jeans, groping with his fingers. He grasped a small jeweler’s box, and smiled.
Maryanne had asked for opal earrings, her birthstone. So Ed spent the better part of his last day in Australia going from store to store, searching for the perfect pair. A young, attractive salesgirl finally helped him decide on a set, which he admired now in the motionless cab. The stones had a blue tint and gleamed with flecks of fire in the light.
He’d bought opals for Ruby too, as a surprise. Hers, stashed in Ed’s briefcase, were a classic, pearly white. Ed placed a hesitant hand on the briefcase laying on the seat beside him, but didn’t open it. He pulled his hand away and abandoned it in his lap. Ed let his head fall back, lulled to sleep after the 15-hour flight by the cab’s inching progress and the eventual promise of his own bed.
Ed stuck his key in the lock, whistling a jingle from a TV commercial as he opened the door into his brightly-lit front hall.
“Oh hey, Dad,” Maryanne said, looking up from homework spread on the kitchen table.
Ruby appeared from down the hallway in khakis and a loose sweater, with wet hair fresh from the shower. Ed was surprised. She usually blow-dried her hair and put on makeup so quickly that he rarely saw her in her natural state.
“I didn’t expect you so early,” Ruby said, running a hand over her hair. “Welcome back.”
She was thin and pale, her body all angles. She had aged since their marriage, but gracefully – a few wrinkles and scattered streaks of gray.
Ruby sat down next to Maryanne, examining the homework over her daughter’s shoulder. As she checked Maryanne’s answers, she used her sleeve to rub a nearly invisible smudge off the granite countertop. The dark gray stone was already so shiny it reflected the fluorescent lights above in perfect, glowing circles.
“How was the trip, Dad?” Maryanne swung around in her chair to face her father.
“Great.” Ed selected a bottle of unflavored sparkling water from the refrigerator. “You wouldn’t believe the animals they have over there. I saw kangaroos and emus on the side of the road. And an echidna. Have you ever seen an echidna?”
Maryanne shook her head.
“It’s sort of a cross between a porcupine and an anteater. It eats like this.” Ed stuck out his tongue and pulled back his lips, slurping imaginary ants from the air.
Maryanne smiled and rolled her eyes.
“Ed!” Ruby scowled.
“Well, it was a different experience, anyway,” Ed continued. “I missed you though, kid.” He gave Maryanne an awkward punch on the shoulder.
Maryanne grimaced and looked at the floor. She twisted a strand of frizzy, brown hair around her finger.
“Here, I brought you girls something,” Ed said.
He laid the two small boxes on the table. Maryanne and Ruby each looked at him and then reached for one. Ed grinned as he watched them from the other side of the table.
Maryanne opened the box and smiled, revealing two rows of purple braces. “Opals! Cool. Thanks, Dad.”
Ruby opened hers and frowned. She picked up the earrings and held them close to her eyes, examining them.
“These aren’t going to work,” she said, dropping them back into the box.
Ed’s smile faded.
“The stones are too big for my earlobes. You know I have narrow earlobes.”
Maryanne still was fiddling with her present, trying to free the earrings from the cardboard holder inside the box. She looked from her mother to her father. Her fingers faltered.
“Thanks though,” Ruby said. “Very thoughtful gift.” She got up from the table and walked back down the hall, leaving the earrings in their box.
Ed turned to his daughter. “Go ahead and try them on,” he urged.
Maryanne looked down at her gift for a moment, avoiding eye contact. “That’s OK,” she said finally. “I have narrow earlobes, too.”
She slid off her chair and followed her mother down the hallway.
Left alone in the kitchen, Ed remained standing in front of the two boxes. The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. The refrigerator hummed and a large, wooden clock on the wall by the oven ticked hesitantly, the second hand lurching forward in tiny, jerking movements. The blinds were open, but the world outside had disappeared into blackness. All Ed saw was his own face reflected in the glass.
He reached out and picked up the boxes. One by one, he closed them and put them back into his pocket.
Maryanne had been about seven when Ed first realized she liked Ruby better than him. It was his own fault, he supposed.
Ed had agreed to a baby with as much enthusiasm as Ruby. It was back in the early 90s, six months after their beautiful blue-sky wedding in Golden Gate Park. Ed was brimming with the potential to become a brilliant and renowned writer, and Ruby was his muse. The baby came after an easy pregnancy. Three weeks later, Ruby went back to litigating for a six-figure salary. She worked late nights and spent weekends at the office, just as she had before the pregnancy. Ed was left home alone with Maryanne.
Ed had never experienced anything as infuriating as the baby’s wailing. It pounded into his brain until he could barely remember his own name. Even after she quieted down, the sound rang in his ears so vividly he would get up to check on her every few minutes. He couldn’t write. So he hired a series of live-in nannies. The nannies changed, fed and put Maryanne to bed, while Ed finished his one and only novel (which was met with mediocre reviews and tepid sales). Every night when Ruby came home, Ed saw her look in at him through the glass doors of his fishbowl office. He felt her resentment grow.
Ed didn’t blame his wife for their daughter’s choosing sides, but he couldn’t help but think Ruby played a part. He suspected she told lies about him.
There was the day, several years back, when Maryanne asked for a puppy for Christmas. Grinning with eager excitement, she approached Ruby armed with a Wikipedia printout on the breed she had determined would best fit the family – a golden retriever.
Ed hadn’t overheard their conversation, but he saw Maryanne come back looking dejected.
“How did it go?” Ed asked. “Are we getting a puppy?”
Maryanne looked at him with something as close to hatred as he had ever seen in her then nine-year-old face. “Mom said we can’t because you don’t like dogs.”
Ed was taken aback. He’d always considered himself a dog person. True, he hadn’t actually owned a dog since he was a child, but he certainly didn’t dislike them. He opened his mouth to protest, and Maryanne looked at him expectantly. But he found he didn’t know what to say.
Ed wanted to ask Ruby about the dog conversation later that evening. When he approached her, she was sitting alone and motionless on the couch, staring at a spot to the left of the flickering TV. Her eyes were unfocused, and her expression was pained. She was entirely unaware of Ed’s presence, and he had the feeling she would shatter if he so much as touched her. He went into his office and closed the door.
Then there was the evening last year when Maryanne asked him if he’d wanted kids. The question came with no warning, while Ed was washing dishes after cooking one of his handful of go-to dinners – grilled cheese. Ruby was away on a business trip.
Ed turned to look at his daughter, soapy water dripping from his sponge onto the floor. She was bent over her homework at the kitchen table.
“What makes you ask that?”
“Nothing. Just wondering.”
“Were you talking about it with your mother?”
Maryanne didn’t answer, but Ed thought her silence was suspicious.
“Maryanne, you are what I’ve always wanted most in the world. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
She smiled at him and nodded, but the question left him feeling uneasy for weeks.
On the night he returned from Australia, Ed unpacked his suitcase in the guestroom where he’d been sleeping for the past few months. He told Maryanne it was because the mattress was better for his sore back. They rarely had guests so the room was essentially his, but in the mornings Ed left it looking as if he’d never been there. The few toiletries he needed, and a couple sets of pajamas, were tucked neatly in a single dresser drawer. Ruby’s porcelain cat figurines marched across the top of the dresser, unhindered by so much as a man’s razor or deodorant.
Ed stowed his suitcase in the closet and wandered toward the master bedroom, where a crack of light spilled from under the door into the dark hallway. Ed pushed the door open and found his wife undressing. Maryanne was sitting cross-legged on the bed talking about something that made Ruby smile.
Both turned to look at Ed when he came into the room.
“What are you girls talking about?” he asked.
“Oh nothing, just silliness,” Ruby said, turning her back to him as she rummaged through a dresser drawer.
Ed studied his wife’s back. Angry red lines from her bra straps marked the bare skin.
“I’m feeling a little less stiff after the trip,” Ed said. “I think I might start sleeping in here again.”
Ruby put on a T-shirt before she turned to look at him. “You snore.”
Ed glanced at Maryanne. She was looking down, picking at a stubby nail speckled with chipped, purple polish. Lately Ed had been trying not to snap at his wife in front of Maryanne. He’d noticed she had started to become sullen and withdrawn whenever they bickered. Sometimes he didn’t even realize he and Ruby weren’t behaving like a normal married couple until he saw his daughter’s reaction.
“Anything new to report since I left for my trip, honey?” Ed asked her.
Maryanne shook her head, but didn’t look up.
“She got asked to the school dance.” Ruby said it to her reflection in the mirror, while gathering her long hair up off her neck.
“Really? They have dances in seventh grade?” Ed looked at his daughter and tried to imagine her dancing with a boy. But he couldn’t get past the features he still saw as childlike – Maryanne’s skinny legs and knobby knees, the freckles on her nose, her braces and frizzy hair.
“Mo-om!” Ruby stretched the word into two syllables with teenage annoyance.
“So what’s this young man’s name?” Ed asked.
“Ben.” Maryanne rolled her eyes and fell back onto the bed, as if uttering his name in front of her parents had nearly killed her.
“What’s he like?” Ed prodded.
“Well,” Ed said quietly. “A date to the school dance. Imagine that.”
The next afternoon, Ed fell into conversation with Roy Baxter in the break room at work. It was already 2 p.m., and Ed couldn’t think of a single productive thing he’d done that day.
“How’s it going?” Roy asked, passing Ed the cream and sugar. Roy drank it black.
“Oh it’s alright,” Ed said, turning the watery coffee a shade lighter. “I’m tired, ready to go home. I’m turning fifty in two weeks, can you believe it?”
“Oh man, the big five-o.” Roy gave him a sympathetic grimace. “I hit it three years ago.”
“Oh yeah? Do anything special?” Ed stirred his coffee.
“I took up shooting. Got a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, and a membership to the shooting range over in Daly City. It changed my life, I swear.”
“Shooting? Had you been before?”
“I went as a kid all the time with my folks. There’s nothing to it. Come by the range with me some time.”
“I don’t know.” Ed sipped the disappointing coffee.
But he drove by the range on his way home that night, even though it was twenty minutes out of the way. He found the neon “Guns and Ammo” sign and parked in the orange glow it cast over the dark parking lot.
Only one man sat behind the counter. He glanced at Ed, and then proceeded to ignore him in favor of a burly man in a denim jacket. Ed hovered around the display cases, casting sidelong looks at the metal inside.
Finally the burly man disappeared through the doors at the back of the store and into the firing range. The salesclerk grudgingly turned his attention to Ed, acquiescing to show him a .44 Magnum. The clerk laid the gun on the top of the display case, and with a wave of his hand, invited Ed to do what he pleased. The nonchalance amazed Ed, who had been raised to fear guns. He ran his hand over the cold metal, feeling a tingling thrill of excitement in his stomach.
Ed had to shoot it. The salesclerk took his ID, but didn’t ask if he knew how to handle a gun. Ed considered asking the clerk to go back into the range and give him a few pointers, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit his helplessness. So he put on the earplugs and eye protection handed him, and ventured into the back room.
The first shot sent a jolt of electricity through his arm and down his entire body. After that he couldn’t stop. He spent an hour pumping bullets toward the paper target. By the time the range closed, Ed’s arms were Jell-O but there was more than one hole in paper man’s chest and several just inches above his head.
Ed returned the next night, and the next. The sessions at the shooting range became his catharsis. They seemed to placate the emptiness he had begun to feel almost regularly while driving home from work. He found his index finger was twitching by four o’clock, anticipating the relief that would come with curling around the trigger and releasing an explosion so powerful it left his hand vibrating. He always returned home more satisfied than he’d felt in years - at least since he and Ruby had stopped having sex.
In a way it was just like sex. Ed hid the shooting sessions from his wife the way he would have hidden an affair, if he’d ever had the courage to begin one. He told her he was playing poker with some of the guys from his office. He couldn’t imagine Ruby, raised as San Francisco-liberal as he had been, would approve of his new hobby.
Ed ordered a .44 Magnum as a birthday present to himself. The purchase solicited a raised-eyebrow from the clerk behind the counter, and Ed thought he detected a brief look of respect in the man’s eyes. But it was gone in a flash.
“Sign here.” The clerk pushed a thick stack of paper at him. “Here, here, here and here. We’ll do a background check tomorrow.”
The 10-day waiting period ended the night before Ed’s birthday, and he left work early to pick up his gun. It was all black - a model called the “Stealth Hunter.”
On the way home, with the new gun locked safely and legally in the trunk, Ed practiced what he would say to Ruby. “It’s to protect you and Maryanne, just in case,” he said aloud, signaling as he changed lanes. Then, “It’s just something fun to do with the guys on the weekend, no big deal.” Lastly, “It’s my birthday and I’ll buy what I damn well please!”
Ed pulled into his driveway and parked. The motion-activated light came on, and he popped the trunk and walked around to the back of the car. He stood there for a moment, considering the bulky gun case. It was so big – really much bigger than necessary. He flipped the latches and opened the case. He glanced back toward the house, where light shone from the family room window. He slipped the gun into his pants pocket, pulling his jacket down to conceal the bulge. Maybe I just won’t tell her after all.
At least he was home early – Ed figured that would win him points. Usually he didn’t get home from the range until after nine, but tonight he’d left work so early it wasn’t even six o’clock.
It had taken Ruby a week to notice Ed was coming home late after his “poker games.” But when she did, she began waiting up for him, putting away her magazine just before he walked in and fixing him with a silent glare. Her nose twitched like a rabbit’s, and Ed imagined she was sniffing him for signs of beer, cigars or women. He doubted she knew what gunshot residue smelled like.
A black SUV with tinted windows was parked on the street in front of Ed’s mailbox. He paused halfway up the front path, staring at his warped reflection in the paint job of the unfamiliar car. The gears of his mind began turning slowly, searching for a bit of information that was just out of his reach. He stood there several minutes before the realization began to make itself known, slowly, piece by piece.
And then the image was there in Ed’s mind. It was his wife, naked, with a tall, muscular man – the type who would drive a black SUV with tinted windows. Rage boiled up inside him for the first time in a while. It wasn’t even the idea of an affair that made him so angry. It was the fact that she might be doing it in their house - that she didn’t even care enough to try and hide it. Anyone could see that monstrosity parked out front.
Ed was up the front path in a second, and arrived on the porch without realizing how he got there. He shoved the door open, letting it bang against the wall inside. He heard noise coming from the family room, and half ran to meet it.
He burst into the room with his mouth open – he had no idea what he was going to say, but he felt something boiling up from inside his throat.
There, in the glow of the antique lamp on the cherry-wood end table, stood his wife. Her pale pink Calvin Klein dress, the one with the matching jacket, was pushed up toward her waist. Her face was wet, red and contorted. Her body was bent forward at an awkward angle, one hand clutching at the lace doily on the end table, ripping it.
A shirtless man had one arm wrapped around her, pressing a knife against her throat. His other hand was tugging at the zipper of his jeans. Maryanne, wide-eyed and terrified, was lying on the couch – hog-tied and gagged with electrical tape.
All three turned to stare at Ed as he barged into the room. He stared back. He didn’t see relief in either Ruby or Maryanne’s faces – their expressions of panic barely changed as they registered his presence. Ed was not the one who would save them, their eyes said.
Ed startled the man with the knife, but as the man looked Ed up and down, a slow smile crept over his face. He took a step toward Ed, dragging Ruby with him. He removed the knife from Ruby’s neck and extended it out in front of him, twitching it slightly back and forth as if testing the air. The blade glinted softly in the romantic, lampshade light.
Ed’s skin prickled with sweat. His neck and armpits grew hot. All he could hear was the blood pounding between his temples.
He put his hand in his pocket. The gun was still loaded. He clicked the safety off with his thumb.
The man took another step forward, knife outstretched.
Ed pulled the gun out slowly, raising it carefully to the level of the man’s head. Ruby and Maryanne’s eyes went wide.
The man froze. He unwrapped his arm from Ruby, unfurled his fingers, one by one, and let the knife fall with a muted thud onto the plush, white carpet. Ruby dropped to the floor beside it. She scrabbled like a beetle on all fours to the opposite wall, where she huddled in a corner, sobbing softly.
The man took two steps back. Ed took a step forward. His hands were shaking almost imperceptibly. The metal of the small machine was warm, damp and slightly slippery with sweat.
Ed pictured the paper outline peppered with bullet holes from the shooting range. He saw the holes that dotted the space just above the paper man's head, hovering there like a harmless halo.
Ed sucked in his breath, and fired. Once, twice, three times. He had to lower the gun each time as the man began to sink down toward the floor, but each time he hit his mark. Four, five, six times. The man crumpled against the wall, and didn’t move again. Blood seeped from him into the carpet, and the dark stain crept, inch by inch, out into the room.
The pounding in Ed’s head quieted and he could hear muffled screaming. He put the gun down and ran to Maryanne. Ed peeled the tape off her mouth as carefully as he could, but it still left a red mark. She was convulsing, sobbing so hard she was gagging. He tried to hold her but she yanked away.
“You killed him.” Maryanne was staring at the body on the floor. “You killed him.”
Ed left Maryanne and went to Ruby, helping her gently to her feet. “Did he hurt you?”
Ruby’s head twitched slightly to the left. Her eyes were on the body.
“It’s OK,” Ed said. “It’s OK. He’s gone. He can’t hurt you now.”
Ruby turned to look at Ed. As he stared back into her eyes, he felt like it was the first time she had really looked at him in years. Ed watched his wife’s eyeballs flick back and forth over his face, and he imaged her noticing the gray dots of stubble on his jaw and the lines that spread outward from the corners of his eyes. His skin tingled under her scrutiny as he awaited her verdict. When her gaze returned to meet his, she pulled back slightly from his embrace. Her face registered something new, something he hadn’t expected. He thought it was fear.
As they stared at each other, their daughter rocked back and forth on the couch.
“You killed him. You killed him. You killed him.”