I didn’t want to go back to his apartment. I didn’t want to go home. But it was dangerous to stay in Virginia. How soon would his ex’s body wash up on the banks of the Dan River? How soon would the local news air video feed from traffic cameras showing us dumping the suitcase over the bridge? How soon would Danville police track down his car?
He fell asleep at the wheel twice. The first time, he claimed he was only looking down at the dashboard, checking his gas levels, checking his speed, checking the time—it was almost dawn, but the sun had yet to rise. I wondered it would ever again. We belonged in the darkness, the shadows. The light of the sun would reveal the blood on our hands, permanently stained. No soap, no water would wash it away. We’d go through our daily lives carrying our shame like a scarlet letter. Anything we’d come in contact with would spread the mark—a hand shake here, a passing of papers there. It would spread like a plague until the whole of the earth was consumed. Maybe that was where original sin came from—Adam and Eve’s disobedience passed down through the generations. We were they reincarnated, repeating the cycle, bringing down the curse of death, just so he could keep the fruit of his loins. I doubted even God would save us now.
When he fell asleep the second time, his foot went heavy like lead on the gas pedal. The engine moaned as the dial on the speedometer passed ninety. I beat my fist on the steering wheel and honked the horn to jolt him back to consciousness. I wouldn’t risk a third time. As soon as we crossed back into North Carolina, we would find a cheap motel, pay cash so we couldn’t be traced.
Super 8 has a first floor room available on the back side of the motel, facing a construction lot containing a dormant tractor and mounds of clay piled ten to twenty feet high. It was the perfect place to lay low. Instead of pulling up in front of the room door, he parallel parked into three spaces in an empty corner of the parking lot on the edge of the construction zone, right next to one of the taller clay mounds. With the age of his car, passersby would think it had been parked there unnoticed for weeks, maybe months, possibly abandoned. It wouldn’t appear to belong to a guest staying at the motel—a guest police might be looking for.
The ceiling in the bathroom was peeling—crumbs of plaster swept behind the door. A faint brown ring lined the porcelain siding of both the toilet and the bathtub. There was a layer of smudge on the mirror, similar to his murky windshield, but I didn’t need to see my reflection to know I looked terrible. Deprived of sleep, the bags under my eyes weighed my face. I struggle to lift my neck. My body was heavy, as if I were sinking, drowning under the surface.
I pulled his oversized sweatpants over my hips, turned off the light, and stepped over the large stain on the carpet just outside the bathroom door—probably from a drunk hooker’s vomit, or pee. This was no hotel of luxury. This was a place where people disappeared from the grid—the cheating husbands, the drug addicts, the “honorably” discharged civil servants, the criminal scum dodging the cops. We were the latter. If we were lucky, the place had bedbugs too. We’d need them to corroborate our story about his mattress and box spring anyway. If one of his neighbors ever asked, we could roll up our sleeves, lift our shirts, and reveal the raised red welts on our arms and backs, where the tiny critters feasted on our flesh.
I worried for Stephan, however. Already tucked into the bed closest to the closest, Stephan lay still, curled under the covers, sleeping with his thumb in his mouth. He didn’t deserve this punishment. He didn’t deserve to lose his mother; he didn’t deserve to lose his father, either. No child should have to suffer the blunt consequences of his parents’ selfish decisions.
“Why’d you kill her?” I could barely hear my own voice. He stepped out of his shoes, kicked them toward the dresser on which the TV sat. “I mean, it couldn’t have been just because she took Stephan,” I added.
“Why not?” He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it onto armchair by the window.
“I don’t know. I guess . . . I thought there was something more.”
She’d taken their son, erased him from Stephan’s life for almost a year and a half. That was his motive. No one would’ve blamed him if he hunted her down, found her sitting alone on a park bench in a small rural town—isolated from witnesses, yards away from the children playing on the swings—and snapped her neck. But I couldn’t wrap my brain around why he killed her after she’d come back, after she’d brought their son back. Without any persuasion or prying from him, she’d picked up the phone and promised to come home. Why go through killing her after she’d already fixed her wrong? Did she threaten to take Stephan again? Or was it much for him, seeing everyday how big Stephan had gotten, knowing he would never have those memories of watching him grow? He couldn’t forgive her for taking what she could never return?
It was much easier for women to forgive a lover’s wrong than it was for men. Maybe the man I dated before him never forgave me for aborting our baby, either. Maybe he dreamed of killing me too. And just as Stephan’s mom couldn’t save herself, my obsession with becoming a mother now wouldn’t bring back the child I’d killed. What would he do to me if he learned of my past? After tonight, I knew at least one of us was capable of murder, but would I make the mistake of provoking him to kill me? Would I stoop down to the level of his ex—of my past self—and snatch a child from a father again?
I leaned over the bed Stephan lay in and kissed behind his ear. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered. I prayed he would never have to remember this night, or anything that happened before. I turned around just as his father pulled the curtains shut, but I caught a glimpse of the pink sky in the distance, behind the mounds of clay outside the window. The sun rising would signify a clean slate for us, a new beginning—all of our guilt buried in the night, the dark depths of the river, floating downstream, hopefully to larger bodies of water and eventually feeding out into the Atlantic Ocean, past local, state, or federal jurisdictions, past territorial waters, and out of our lives forever.
But even as he slid into bed behind me and pulled his sweatpants down to my knees, my eyes wandered to the remote control lying on the nightstand, and I couldn’t help but think about pressing that power button, changing to one of the local stations, and waiting for the top of the hour breaking news report, between the weather and traffic . . .
Grisly discovery made in suitcase washed ashore . . .