Washing the dishes had always been his wife’s job. Now that Laura was confined to her bed 24/7, the mantle of responsibility had passed to David. He hated it. It was just one more reminder of how alone he was, how sick his Laura was, how different his life had turned out from his childhood fantasies. Now, 10:06 Thursday night, he stared forlornly at the stack of plates, cups, and pans he’d been dreading all day. David had made a habit of putting the chore off until the precarious heap threatened to come crashing down. Of course, that only made it worse. This would be a long night.
Slowly, David raised his hand to the faucet and started the hot water. He spared one last glance out the window above the sink before a rising cascade of steam blocked his view. Foggy night, he observed as he began wiping down plates. The water scalded his knuckles at first, but with each dip into the basin, the grimy liquid got cooler and cooler. The steam stopped rising, and in the mist-covered window David could just make out his hazy reflection. I look awful, he thought, not bothering to glance up for a proper look. As I should. He couldn’t sleep anymore, not with Laura’s pained breathing coming from the pillow next to him and that sickly, bitter odor floating in the bedroom. He couldn’t bring himself to sleep elsewhere either. That felt like a betrayal, like giving up on her.
A moan sounded from upstairs, causing David to look up at the ceiling. He was almost used to Laura’s sleep talking. It happened every night. Another reminder.
He let his eyes drop back to his menial task. The water was cold now, littered with small bits of unidentifiable food. The fogged window had cleared, and a pale face, not David’s, leered from behind the glass.
With a shout David dropped the glass he’d been washing and stumbled away from the sink. The other face, white as ivory, stared. Its eyes were like two points of crimson flame sunk deep within the bruised recesses of its skull. Its cheeks were hollow and stretched tight across the bones of its languid visage.
David stood transfixed against the far wall of the kitchen, trembling before those gleaming eyes as he wondered frantically what this thing was, what he should do. Let it in, of course. Yes, that’s what I need to do…
David began approaching the window. His hand reached for the latch. Then he froze. Why? Why would I do that? He backed away, but before he’d taken more than a step a white hand slapped against the window pane. The pale flesh was positively ghastly as it squashed against the transparent barrier. The fiery eyes in their deep sockets burned brighter.
Once more, David took an inexplicable step toward the face in the window, then winced. The fallen glass, now shattered, crunched beneath him. His foot stung. The pain sliced through his consciousness like a knife, and suddenly David was aware of how dark it was in the kitchen. Had the light bulb burned out? There was a fog in his mind, like he’d just woken from a dream, and he tried to dispel it by shaking his head. “No,” he said aloud to the ghost. “You can’t come in.”
The face pressed even closer to the pane, its features distorting as they were pushed against the glass. Its colorless lips slowly parted.
David’s eyes grew wide, and he backed away, this time with more deliberation. “No, no, you can’t come in!” He almost tripped as he turned his back on the apparition. “Go away!” He made purposely for the other end of the house. What to do? This can’t be real! No, it isn’t! I just…I just have to forget about it. Yes, that’s it. Ignore it, and it’ll go away. He reached the front entryway and made for the front door. Yes, that’s what I should do. Ignore it, forget it, open the door and it’ll go away. His hand was on the doorknob, feeling its cool metal beneath his sweaty palm. He began to twist. Yes, open the door…
The brisk night air whistled in through the dark crack. A pale shape stirred in the blackness beyond, reaching.
“No!” David shouted, slamming the door shut again. What am I doing? I should go to bed. The thought made his stomach turn. The stink of the sickroom, the sound of haggard breathing, the moans of the ill. But that thing wouldn’t be there. Yes, to bed it was.
He limped up the stairs, his injured foot leaving dark tracks in his wake. He could already hear Laura’s pained wheezing. Sleep, he thought. That’s all I need.
As far as the doctors could tell, Laura’s condition wasn’t contagious. A small comfort, thought David as he settled down next to her. She stirred just a little as his weight upset the bed. How long can it go on? he wondered. Although no one had any idea what disease Laura had, it was showing all the signs of being terminal. On his last visit, the doctor said it was only a matter of time before she topped taking food.
It had started months ago, sometime in December. Laura was driving home by herself late one night when she saw a man run in front of her car. Laura swerved to avoid hitting him, spun out on a patch of ice, and crashed into a lamppost buried in a snow bank. The car was wrecked, and Laura walked the rest of the way. When she finally got home, she was terribly weak and shaken. Everything had gone downhill since then.
When asked about the man who caused the accident, she’d only said, “He disappeared.”
David wasn’t sure when, or if, he fell asleep. There was only a dark stretch, the stink of the bedroom, Laura’s breathing. Cold. Something brushed David’s cheek, startling him awake. A chill draft sent his skin crawling, and he looked toward the bedroom window. There was Laura, her shoulders heaving, her breath painfully ragged, staring out into the night.
“Laura?” he called softly. Then he cried out in pain. Clutching his warm, sticky neck, David collapsed on the bed, twisting around to see—
He tried to shout again, but his throat muscles constricted, choking out his voice. Above him loomed that pale face from the kitchen. Dark red dripped from its loathsome lips as they parted, revealing a set of stained teeth and a pair of bloody fangs.
David hated doing the dishes. It reminded him how lonely he was now that Laura was dead. She didn’t survive that night.
“She was sleepwalking,” David had told the coroner. “She opened the window, and I guess the chill was too much for her.” But David didn’t really believe that. He was careful to thoroughly wash his blood-stained neck, hiding the wounds on his aching throat with a high-collared shirt in order to avoid the questions he was afraid to answer.
He had said nothing during the funeral, afraid his tongue would betray him, label him mad. He even avoided eye contact so the graveside mourners wouldn’t see the horror in his expression, the same blackness that consumed his dreams, and guess at what he was hiding. Instead he stared down toward the street, his hollow gaze fixed on a lamppost awaiting repair, crooked from where a car had struck it. Over where it began, he thought.
Now David stood over the sink, numbing his mind with repetitious scrubbing, every once in a while reaching up to massage his sore throat. But the monotony wasn’t enough to drive the torturous thoughts from his head. Did I want her to die?
With a frustrated sigh he tossed the half-washed plate back into the slimy water. Enough. He turned his back on the sink and strode from the kitchen, pausing for a moment in front of the stairs. No, not up there. I’ll never go up there again. Instead David continued out the front door, not bothering to close it, and down the street. Fresh air, that’s what I need. He wandered, not paying attention to his path as it carried him out of town. He didn’t care where he was going, how long he was out. After all, there’s no one at home to miss me.
David continued like that until something rose up and caught his shins, sending him sprawling in the dew-moist grass. A tombstone. The cemetery. Straight ahead, Laura’s grave, and two thin figures watching him. One was dark except for its white face, and the other pale and feminine. “Laura,” muttered David. Of course. But the other one was there, too, and under its fiery glare David started to scramble backwards until Laura held out her skinny arms, beckoning him closer.
“Don’t run. Come to me.” Gone were the traces of sickness from her voice, the raspiness, the weakness. Her words now rang with gentle clarity and desire.
“Yes,” answered David, rising slowly to his feet. “Yes.”
It was cold, and the stink of decay floated in the air, but David didn’t notice. Welcoming arms awaited him, and the promise of sweet rest. A restoring sleep, warm arms—
But the arms were cold, and at their frigid touch David snapped awake, completely aware of everything—where he was, the stink, the dark figure with the pale face that loomed over his shoulder.
With a cry David turned to face the object of his nightmare, throwing off his dead wife’s chilling grasp, but too late. Icy panic seized him, and for a moment he struggled to escape the approaching fangs. But then there was calm. Laura’s cold hand stroked the back of his neck as the pale ghost latched onto his throat.
“Soon,” she whispered in his ear as he felt his life slowly drain away. The pain was barely there, fading with each passing second, and the night grew darker and darker…
Just before everything vanished completely, David smiled grimly. No more dishes.