In the Frank Nagler prequel, in progress, Frank and his wife Martha have to face her leukemia. It had been in remission. Here they face the fact that her condition might have changed.
“The neighborhood hummed with window fans and a few air conditioners. The cool scented air of May had never arrived; June instead brought parched lawns, aching for rain, brown before their time. The city imposed water restrictions.
Nagler sat in the hot Impala at the end of his driveway and listened as the engine grumbled to a stop and then filled the air with the pings and clicks of cooling metal, that sound then overwhelmed by the buzzing of a million unseen insects driven into a copulating frenzy by the unseasonable heat. Fuck or die, he thought, smiling. The insect’s life. He smirked and shook his head: It’s actually fuck and die. Brutal. All that life and death at the same time.
Our killer has been too quiet, he thought. Two weeks since the last death and still no answers. The city awoke each new morning expecting the newspaper headline to scream out ANOTHER DEAD WOMAN. COPS BEFUDDLED.
Instead the day’s news was the heat. Sidewalks broiling, heat waves rising like sin from soul-melting concrete. Tempers flaring, fights spilling out onto sidewalks. Fire hydrants flooding the streets with dark puddles and splashing feet; the soft jazz of stoops on hot nights, transistor radios and wine in brown bags, tossing empty beer cans toward the open trash can, only to miss and smile as the tin rattled along the curb. Passion in alleys, sweating lust and a woman’s soft cry and her man’s grunting thrusts; a city on fire, dry caverns baking under heat no one can explain, a smolder waiting a spark, an instant of fear that becomes conflagration.
It’s coming, Nagler knew as he stepped into his dark house. It’s all going to ignite at some unexplained moment for no reason, and we’ll all burn.
A radio played softly in the dark house.
She would read into the night, the radio on to fill the hollow of the big house; a voice, Nagler knew, because he was out on the streets, staring into alleys for a killer. He would call and worry sometimes when she didn’t pick up. But he knew her days – hours in hot classrooms chasing four-and-five-year-olds immune to the heat – could be hard.
He slipped out of his shoes and outer clothes in the kitchen so not to disturb Martha. In just his boxers, he reached over to turn off the radio.
Martha had a sheet tucked at her waist, her hair covering her bare back.
Odd, he thought. She usually wore a t-shirt, claiming middle-of-the-night chills when he yanked the blankets away.
When he pulled down the sheet to get into bed, he was surprised to see that she was naked.
“Hey you. Take off your boxers and then lay next to me,” she whispered.
“Okay.” It had been weeks as the murder case became more intense, since they had even laid skin-on-skin, one or the other falling asleep.
He brushed the hair away from her face and shoulder and they kissed. He ran two fingers across her breasts and then drew a line toward her waist.
She broke off the kiss and shifted positions, wrapping her leg across his stomach.
“I have to see the doctor tomorrow,” she whispered into his neck. “The last test came back….” She exhaled. “Came back.”
He didn’t have to ask what it said; he hollowed out, numb, a scream circling his brain, his heart still.
“What can I do?”
He kissed her hair, then again, buried his face in her hair at her neck and pulled at her shoulder as if he could cover her, create a shield, absorb her silent pain.
“Tell me about the park, about the wet cool grass on your back when I sat on your hips. Tell me about the sweet aroma of wild roses and the petals.”
Martha rolled to her side and held his face in her hands.
“Tell me about walking home when we were seven and you had this confused look on your face when I took your hand, and I laughed and said ‘Oh, Frank, it will always be yours to hold.’”
She kissed him and pulled his arms around her back.
“I want to remember touch and taste, your tongue in my mouth, fingers dripping chocolate ice cream on my chin, what it felt like that first time you took off my blouse in the old bog as we wondered standing naked if anyone could see us. That look on my mother’s face when I brought you home that first time, you in ripped at the knees jeans and an old sweatshirt, the shadow of the workers ghetto in your eyes, and then her smile, and mine.”
Martha sat up and pulled her knees to her chest and rested her head there, staring at Frank, who laid back stunned to silence. It was that day, the one he had avoided thinking about, the one they both knew lurked in the darkness, that had been blinded by the light of her recovery years before; the one they feared on that day they celebrated with laughter and silent hope her remission, wrapped and lost in the soft bedding of her grandmother’s room.
“I thought…” he said.
“It’s easy to think that,” she said. “A luxury, but not a guarantee.” She smiled softly into his torn face. “This is the guarantee.” She brushed his eyes with a finger and pressed it into his lips. “Everything else is a gamble, Frank, dear Frank. We gambled with time and for a while came out ahead.”
He tried to speak.
“Hush, my love. I want to remember how it feels to be with you, how alive. The salty taste of you on my fingers, on my lips, the things we laughed about, the tears of stupid teen-age fights.”
She rolled over to him again and smiled.
“To remember this, just this, you and me and that great big world out there and how we ran into it yelling, telling it to catch up, thinking it never would.” She closed her eyes tightly and forced out tears. “I want to hear the morning lark, the robin sing and sparrows twitter in the bushes. I want to see the sun and you squinting hopelessly toward the horizon. But that night is coming and the only bird I will hear will be the nightingale, announcing darkness. Not yet, but it will come, one last darkness.”
She settled into his shoulder and drifted to sleep, leaving him to stare at the dark ceiling, the hum of night leaking through open windows.
He brushed her hair against her back and wept as his fingers held long strands.”