By Kevin Tasker
Eugene toddled into his house in the forest carrying sixteen grocery bags. Five bags hung from each wrist and he clutched three in each hand. His wrists had gone numb but his fingers were enflamed with pain. He looked down at them with satisfaction, seeing how twisted and pale they’d gone under the pressure of the bags. He was seventy-two years old, but his hands were those of a thirty-year-old. Eugene imagined his son had hands like this, wherever he’d ended up.
He liked to think Alex had a family and a house with clean-smelling rooms like this one. It was too painful to think that things had turned out differently. People changed. People grew up. One day, he knew, a letter would arrive showing that this was true. Every morning, Eugene took his coffee out to the porch to wait for it. His wife, Harriet, refused to join him.
“Oh, gosh, Gene,” she said, coming up the basement stairs with a laundry basket. “You have got to stop doing this. Look at your hands.”
Eugene grinned as he huffed into the kitchen. His body was bent with the weight of the bags and his breathing had become ragged.
“I. Got. It,” he said.
He deposited the bags onto the countertop and stepped back, proudly massaging his fingers.
“You don’t prove anything by doing that,” Harriet said, but Eugene saw she was smiling.
When she’d gone upstairs, Eugene removed two boxes of Peanut Butter Oreos from the nearest bag and hid them behind the microwave.
“What was that?” Harriet asked, reappearing behind him.
“Don’t you worry,” Eugene said.
“Oreos?” Harriet asked.
“Nope,” Eugene said. “What would give you that idea?”
Harriet unpacked the bags, humming. Feeling had come back to Eugene’s hands, but he was still massaging them. When he shut his eyes, he could hear bacon frying in a pan as Alex, still a healthy, clear-eyed boy, mashed Swamp Thing and Batman action figures together at the table. The arrests hadn’t happened yet. If he kept his eyes closed long enough, maybe they never would.
“Hey, where’s the dish soap?” Harriet asked.
Eugene opened his eyes. He was about to defend himself by saying they had enough to get through next week, when he saw a man slipping in through the back door.
Though the man was wearing a white plastic mask that bore no human features, Eugene could see his bloodshot eyes beneath it.
“Harriet,” he said, stepping in front of his wife. He hardly had time to register the hammer before the man was bringing it down against the side of his head.
A black spot blossomed in the corner of his vision as he sprawled onto the counter, knocking groceries to the floor. Dimly, he heard the milk bottle explode against the tile.
The man with no face dug in Eugene’s pocket and retrieved his wallet. Then he left the room.
The black spot had engulfed half of Eugene’s vision. His right side was numb, but his left hand moved on its own volition. Eugene watched it hopefully, the way you might watch an infant taking its first steps. His hand faltered once on the counter before skittered to the knife drawer.
The man with no face had come back. He had Harriet’s purse slung over his shoulder and he held a piece of rope in his hands.
“Don’t!” Harriet screamed as Eugene charged him.
The knife vanished into the man’s stomach. Eugene registered pain between his shoulder blades, but it was far away. He kept pushing on the knife until the man was against the wall. His hand did all the work, he would tell himself later. He wasn’t even there at all.
When it was over, he knelt in front of the man, lifting one of his wrists to take his pulse. It was there, if faintly. Harriet had the kitchen phone and was beginning to dial. She stopped when she saw Eugene reaching for the mask.
“Wait,” she said.
“It isn’t him,” Eugene said.
He trusted this notion. Had to trust it.
“I know,” she said, “I know. But let’s just wait.”
“I can’t wait,” he said.
“Please,” she said. “Just. Please. Until they get here.”
“It isn’t him,” Eugene repeated. The black spot consumed all of his vision except for the sight of the man without a face slumped against the wall.
“I know,” she said again.
The man murmured as if in the midst of a pleasing dream.
Then he was silent.
Harriet set the phone down and came to her husband.
In three days, his vision would return.
By then, the hole would be dug behind the garage and the man without a face would be buried inside of it. Eugene would never ask his wife if she had looked beneath the mask before she buried him. He could tell from the way she squeezed his hand in the night that she hadn’t.
Each morning from then on, they drank their coffee together on the porch in the bright cold light, waiting for the letter to arrive.