This Is How You Will Die

by Danny Goodman

In the morning, Karen found the note on the floor just outside the apartment. She had only been gone for an hour and looked around for some sign of who had left the note, as only tenants had access to the hallway. There was nothing, save for the snow tracked inside by her boots. She wondered if anyone had seen her leave, watched her walk across the avenue.

Karen took the note inside, closing the door slowly and with care. She slid the lock into place without exhaling. She stared at the detail taken with each stroke of black ballpoint: this is how you will die. The only sound in the apartment came from the bedroom as Richard took swift, shallow breaths. Karen sat on the couch, note gripped tightly between thumb and forefinger. The tips of her fingernails became white from the pressure.

She remained that way for some time. Her heartbeats grew erratic as she stared at the small square of yellow paper. Richard stirred in the bedroom. He called out to her, but she didn't respond.

The force of his feet planting on the hardwood shook the apartment. She wondered how long he'd been awake.

“Goddammit, Richard,” Karen whispered loudly.

“Did you hear me?” Richard asked, walking into the living room. “I was calling you.” He tucked his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt.

“Stop moving. Please.” Karen tried to be stern.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Richard ran a hand over his bald head.

Karen pulled him onto the couch. She pointed at the note and mouthed What is this? as he grabbed a blanket from the back of the couch.

“It's cold in here,” he said. “Why are you dressed?”            

“Do you see what this says?” Karen let her voice rise above a whisper.

“Just somebody's idea of a joke.” He seemed, to her, uninterested.

“How the hell do you know that? It was in front of our door. Who could've gotten into the building?”

“People get in. It's not rocket science.” Richard's voice was deep and full of sarcasm. Karen wanted to smack him. Of course, she knew she couldn't. He bruised so easily now.

“Why do you have to make me feel stupid?” Karen asked, sliding away from Richard. There was room between them. “Someone left a death threat on our door.”

Richard stood and walked into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, pulled out eggs, soymilk, cheese, bread. He lined up each item on the countertop. He shivered and closed the door.

“I'm making an omelet. Want one?” Richard used a mixing bowl, and the sound of wire whisk meeting porcelain tinged in Karen's ears. It grew louder before he was finished.

“Richard, please.” She hoped her eyes matched her concern.

“What do you want from me?”

The moment consumed her, and she ran over to Richard, gripping his hand and pulling it away from the stove. She pushed his fingers apart and placed her own in the created space.

“Please don't do that.” She squeezed his hand and felt a slow, rhythmic heartbeat.

“What?” His cheeks wrinkled in confusion.

Karen couldn't remember the last time the two of them, in unison, smiled. “What if the apartment blows up?” she said.

“Are you serious?”

Karen let go and walked back to the couch. She picked up the note and held it in front of her. She pointed at the words. Richard left the ingredients on the counter, came to her and kissed her forehead. She nestled her head against his neck. His skin felt cold and stretched.

“I think we should call the police.”

“Oh, Jesus. Are you kidding me?” He pushed her head off his shoulder and stepped back. “Some asshole's playing a prank. End of story.”

“You don't know that.” Karen shook her head. “You don't.”

Richard stared at her, and she felt herself growing shaky and hot.

“I'm turning the heat off,” she said, banging her hand against the thermostat. “It's awful in here.”

“You know I'm cold.” Richard sat on the couch and hugged his blanket.

“It's too much,” she said, clicking the switch to off.

A clang of metal rang in from outside. Karen went to the window and looked out at 9th Avenue. She could still see her footprints at the crosswalk, leading somewhere inappropriate. She leaned her forehead against the glass, cold seeping through her pores.

Across the avenue, above Le Grainne Café, she could see his window. It was closed now, curtained, but she pretended he was there, looking back at her. Her body tightened, excited. Her breath clouded the glass.

Then, Richard's body pressed up against her. His hands were icy, like the window. Karen felt him harden as he wrapped his arms around her waist. His fingers tickled her skin. He took her hand and guided it down the front of his sweatpants.

“You have goosebumps,” he said.

Karen pulled her hand back and shook her head. “We can't,” she said. She shifted her eyes and spoke as if she could see him. “The note, Richard.” She turned and faced him, her hands on his shoulders. They were smaller than they used to be. His muscles, too, had all but melted away. She looked at him and wondered if he would make it through the winter.

“Doesn't the possibility of death make it all the more exciting?” He smiled from the corner of his mouth.

“Please don't say that, please.” Karen took a step back, and Richard followed.

He adjusted his sweatpants and blanket and returned to the couch. When he looked at her, his eyes glassy and a bit sunken in, Karen felt muted, something resting on her chest and head like a heavy coat.

“It would just be nice to be with my wife once in a while,” Richard said. His voice cracked.

He sounded to Karen, at that moment, like he was a teenager again. She thought she might tell him then about the affair. It was his right to know. After twelve years of marriage, she had forfeited her right to that type of secret.

“I'm trying, Richard,” she said, taking a seat beside him, letting her leg drape over his. “I am. It's just difficult.” she kissed his cheek.

He tasted different, smelled different, and she tried, each day, to ignore it. She couldn't leave him, not like this, not now. He was dying, after all. Whatever she felt, whatever impulses pushed at her insides, she knew, at the center, remained her responsibility to Richard.

“What would you have me do?” He eyed the note when he spoke.

In the space between his breaths, Karen wanted to say something to fix her husband.

“We should call the police,” she said. “There's nothing else to do.”

Richard found his cell phone and walked into the bedroom, leaving the note with Karen. She picked up the table then smacked it against the floor. Her hand throbbed. Outside, she could hear voices growing. The curtains across the avenue remained still and undisturbed. Karen wished the window and glass were not so clear. The wind howled down 9th Avenue.

“They said not to worry,” Richard said, coming out of the bedroom. “They'll look into it, they said.”

“What is that, look into it?” Karen slammed the note onto the table. “What happens to us in the meantime?”

Her voice pulled tight, she hit the tabletop again and again. The old legs teetered and wavered, finally gave way. Afterwards, the apartment was still. Karen could hear Richard's breathing, fast and fitful. He pulled his blanket tight around his body.

“I'm putting the heat back on,” he said, moving to the thermostat. “It's too damn cold.”

Karen stared at the broken table on the floor and scooped up the note. She read over in her mind and noticed how pronounced and familiar the black words seemed against such a bright background. Each time, she focused on a different word: this, how, you. Suddenly, she found that Richard was standing in the kitchen, watching her. He looked petrified. There was something else, too, something new: he knew. She had broken him and the cancer had broken him and soon, so soon, he would be dead. She crumpled the note in her hand and wished the words had never existed. Richard needed them to, she knew. He shivered as heat flowed back into the apartment. There was a distinct smell to the heat, and Karen wondered if it had always been there. It reminded her of winter, of the wind and snow and iciness just outside the window.

Tossing the note back onto the oak, Karen went to Richard. She settled her body into his, pulled him close. Richard opened his blanket and covered her shoulders. There was warmth there. Karen thought to ask if he wanted to finish making breakfast, but she couldn't speak. Instead, she leaned into her husband and believed, for a moment, he was holding her up.