Dirt Dead Dulcie

When it was done he shut the back door behind himself. The house eerie in its quiet, only the whirring of appliances: the refrigerator, the sputtering heat, the croak of the dishwasher throwing loose Tupperware around. He called out, once, voice half-raised. Just her name — Dulcie? — but she didn’t call back. In the bathroom he ran the shower until the tub was white again. The shower tiles clean as ever, except for one white square shattered concave. The echo of its terrible crack replayed cruelly in his mind. Like a fishbowl thrown against the ground. A skull breaking open like a purse.

With his eyes closed he washed his face in the sink. Once off, the faucet continued to drip. Bad pipes. Leaking windows. New fences and weatherproofing. They’d been working on the house for two years but you could hardly tell. Only the hammer was inside, wiped clean. He hid it under the sink. On the thigh of his jeans, a poppy of red had bloomed and darkened, and he stripped them off to throw in the trash. Outside the frogs were calling out to each other, neighbourhood cats were starting fights. And the light in the bathroom was flickering, half-dead. The house a dark cavern in her absence. He gripped the sink, counting himself through the spell. Inhaling and exhaling as if it was something he had to concentrate to do. All the while the house settling. Anticipating her return.

He’d never been good at leaving. Never broke up with anyone, no matter how bad. But Dulcie could leave over anything, insisting this time was final, that she’d never come back, etc., over the smallest infraction. She played it so well, a woman finished, unable to forgive. Yelling just enough, crying the right amount. Someone always came to pick her up, some guy in a truck or woman in a car, all of them half-shadow through car windows, impossible to recognize. He would spend the days cleaning, the nights brooding. Never moving her things. Because she always came back — though once she stayed away for three weeks, it was only a matter of time.

He hadn’t decided to kill her. Never fantasized or planned. It had come over him all at once, like finally understanding a joke that had been told to you for years.

He scrubbed her off in the hot shower. A storm of mould clung to the ceiling among amoebic water stains — a dark carpet of rot he wanted to push his finger into. It seemed no matter what they fixed in the house, something else would fall apart. Stains of red fell from his skin, slinking towards the drain. Then he was thinking of Dulcie, of the cold, solid dirt in the garden, and scrambling out of the shower to throw up in the sink.

The doorbell rang at midnight. He’d made sure to shut the porch lights off, but now they were on again, illuminating the windows. For some time he stood in the long hallway that led to the door, considering the shadow that moved behind the stained glassed panel. The familiar impatience, the clicking sound of her tongue. Again, the doorbell. His body remained still in the darkness of the house until she called from outside. He wasn’t sure if she was real, her fist hitting the glass panel. Her voice saying his name.

When he opened the door she was as bad as he remembered: face dented and bruised as a dropped apple, blue lips split in a bloodless seam. Still her eyes glittered as if she felt no pain.

Did you miss me? asked Dulcie. She reached out and he flinched away; she laughed because that was just like him. When she touched his wrist, her fingertips were cold. A dagger of panic cut through him. Her freckles pushed into her eyes as she smiled. One of her front teeth was broken, a jagged white shard left clinging to her gums.

You turned off the heat?

No, he told her. It’s on.

I’m freezing in here.

She slouched onto the sofa, kicked her feet up on one arm, like she was only coming home from work at the end of a long shift. In the kitchen he turned the oven on, feeling more than ever that they were acting out a kind of play. He had been so certain of their ending, of the way out. But here they were like before. Out the kitchen windows their garden lay blanketed by night, empty flowerbeds infested with weeds, the concrete patio pathetic and bare. When they’d bought the house, they talked of a long, oak table. Benches with waterproof pillows and twinkling lights strung overhead. When he looked back into the living room, Dulcie was turning her wedding ring around and around, the silver catching the dim kitchen light on cue. He knew what she was going to say.

I feel much better now, said Dulcie. But I’m —

You’re hungry, he finished.

When she sat up, time sprinted forward. The plum of her eye flattened and vanished. Dulcie cocked her head at him, as if surprised.

In the kitchen she severed a bell pepper in two. Chopped an onion furiously. He stood nearby, watching her work. The identical slices she made with the knife. The perfect sections of potato split apart from each other. He held out his hand below the counter. A moment later, her elbow nudged the garlic and it fell into his palm.

When she was done she spread it all out on a baking sheet and tossed it in oil. He opened the oven door at exactly the right time. She wiped her hands on her apron, the hem shimmering around her calves. He reached into a cupboard.

Do we have any … she began.

But he was already pouring her a drink. When he passed it to her, her bottom lip came together healed, leaving no scar. Then the top one did the same. Her eyes were alight with knowing. The hole where her tooth should have been looked into him like an accusing black void.

They wasted some hours on the sofa, watching television, how they always did after a fight. Behind the screen, some of the wallpaper was flaking like skin. Dulcie caught him twice mumbling a punch line before the characters on screen could and scolded him for spoiling it. She ate as if she had not in week, hardly pausing to chew. A fly spun through the air. He handed her a napkin before she could ask. She swallowed her drink, and he watched the sunken curve of her forehead push outward, reforming into place.

They sank towards each other. A force different from gravity, her body and his pressed hip-to-hip. He did not know how to stop wanting it even when he hated her, and was a little afraid. He put a hand on her thigh and she held it. Rested her head on his shoulder and in moments fell asleep. He watched the rest of the show on mute, recalling every line. As if in dance, he turned his mouth to Dulcie just as she woke, remembered where she was and turned her mouth to him. Her front tooth whole again behind parted lips.

He knew, but he did not stop her. The press of her mouth as familiar as a migraine. Dulcie touched his chest as if she intended to lay them both down, and he pulled away as all the lights of the house cracked off at once. The heater, television, fridge and dishwasher, too – all noise and warmth sucked from the air.

Goddammit, said Dulcie.

He could not see her. Her hand withdrew from his chest and he missed it instantly. The cushions moved as she stood. Everything liquid in his body sank knowingly, pooling weight at his feet. He thought, maybe, if he stayed exactly where he was, he could stop it all from happening.

Hey, said Dulcie, from somewhere behind him. Will you flip it? I can’t pee in the dark.

His body moved, obedient. The room so known to him that even without light he anticipated which floorboards wheezed underfoot. He opened the back door to the garden and frigid winter air pushed into his face. Carefully he descended the wonky porch steps onto the grass, no light to guide him. The breaker was on the right side of the house, past the bare dirt patches in the grass he could only just see. As he crossed them his feet sank awkwardly into the loose soil, but he did not jump or panic. He took the next step and his foot came free. It was only Dulcie, he told himself. Harmless as a bug. Not the woman inside, repairing herself, but dirt dead Dulcie, lip split, swollen eye, caved-in skull.

And the other, beside it. Dead just the same.

He walked into the tool box as he approached the breaker, metal clanging inside. He shoved open the breaker’s cover. Flipped each switch into its right position. Moths were flinging themselves against the kitchen windows despite their darkness. At last the house lights came to life and the moths flurried harder. All around him were ghosts: the neglected garden, the boxes left outside, labelled for donation, covered in years of mildew. The bicycle he’d bought Dulcie their first Christmas, ridden twice and never again. Slowly he bent down to the toolbox, opening the lid to find the hammer once more in its rightful place.

Just to the right, two Dulcies lay in the ground as if tucked in for a long nap.

Inside, the new Dulcie was washing her hands in the sink, the toilet still flushing behind her. She touched her hair in the mirror, put every strand where it belonged.

You left, he said, and his wife let out a low, one-syllable laugh.

I could never leave you, Dulcie said to him in the mirror. Remember?

He remembered. The mascara-stained promise, the ebony curse of her affection. The bones of him sanded down by time. Please go, he said, but it was too late. His body knew its next move, its next line. The hammer already raised above his head to strike.

He threw up in the sink again when it was done. Her body sunk in the tub like a cut marionette, the same as before. He went out to the garden to dig until he couldn’t anymore, his shoulders burning with effort. He packed her in gently. Went inside, shut the back door. It was eleven again, the house whirring its usual noises. He could see the oven’s clock, the kitchen counters bare, food not yet prepared. Her glass once more waiting in the cupboard. Everything as it was. He called into the house for her and the house said nothing back.

The bathroom, though, had not turned back. The house laughing at him, probably, as he once more washed out the tub with the shower head. Went about his cleaning. He knew when it was midnight because the doorbell rang. Down the hall, the shadow of his wife moved through the stained glass panel in the front door, waiting to be let inside.

Emily Pegg‘s short fiction has appeared in Funicular, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Dalhousie Review, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. In 2023, her story “Trick Walls” was named runner-up for the Jacob Zilber Short Fiction Prize. She currently resides in Vancouver, BC, where she is working on her first novel.