16 - Portraits of Faceless People

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As promised, Liz returned that evening with a grease-stained cardboard box half-full of pepperoni pizza, and four fat slices of birthday cake, the crumbly white interior speckled with drops of color. The frosting had gone stiff and stale, its off-white surface cracked like scorched earth. 

Even if it had looked more appetizing, Nat could not imagine feeling hungry. The silence, which had been companionable when alone, was awkward now every time it settled between them. It filled with the anticipation of unspoken words. 

"How was the party?" Nat asked, finally, nudging the pizza box to the far edge of the table. 

"About what you'd expect," Liz responded cryptically. She gestured toward the photos and papers still scattered around the table. "How was your thing?" 

Nat hesitated. She wanted to tell her everything, to divulge her findings and let the words spill over, giving shape to the horrors that had been brewing in her head. But she stopped herself, feeling that Liz would not understand. 

This was not the first time they had ever gotten hold of a dead person's belongings. It was, in fact, their primary mode of acquiring things to sell: Old people died and left behind their collections, their hoarded treasures, and they were there to swoop in and deliver them to a new home. Like an afterlife for used furniture, reincarnation for housewares.

But this was the first time the death had been so grisly, so violent.

It was a distinction that mattered to Nat, but she knew it wouldn't make a difference to Liz and so she kept her mouth shut, not wanting to start a fight over Liz's impatience with her wife's irrational superstitions. 

Instead, she said, "Still trying to figure it all out, I guess." 

It was not precisely a lie, but she felt that uneasy squirming in her gut when she said it all the same. The uneasy silence crept back into the room, like a spreading, living thing. 

Liz opened the refrigerator to peer inside, moving things around. She stood that way for a while, bathed in the light from the fridge, before at last pulling out a milk carton. 

"So I was thinking," she said, setting the half-gallon jug on the counter, "about our dog situation." 

Nat froze, that guilty place down in her belly doing a frightened swoop. 

"I know a guy," Liz continued, now standing on her toes to reach for a glass in a high cabinet. "This taxidermy specialist I met through the museum. I was thinking, I'll give him a call this week and see about scheduling an appraisal or something. See if he has any ideas about how old that thing is, at least." 

"Okay." Nat tried to find some enthusiasm in her voice, but her mind kept flashing back to the photograph, the family posed for a Christmas portrait, the dog standing watch in the back of the scene. How long ago was that picture taken, she wondered? Had Anthony been planning, even then, on ending their lives? "Great."

Liz poured herself a glass of milk and lifted it to her nose, sniffing it before taking a tentative sip. She made a face, spitting it out in the nearby sink, then holding the glass out at arm's length as though it might explode. "What the fuck?" 

"What's the matter?"  

Liz turned on the faucet, dumping her glass of milk down the drain and catching tap water in her cupped palm, drinking it awkwardly in an effort to wash the taste from her mouth. She picked up the milk jug, squinting at the expiration date. "We just bought this. I don't get how it could have gone bad already." 

She swung the milk jug in Nat's direction, holding it out for her to take. 

"Does this taste sour to you?" 

Nat leaned back in her chair, reflexively. "I believe you. I don't need to try it." 

Liz frowned, sniffing the milk carton, and then shrugged. "Bad batch, I guess. Or they got the labels wrong. Probably the supermarket trying to get rid of their shit by pawning it off on us." 

Liam might have left it on the counter, Nat thought, thinking that was a much more logical explanation than a supermarket milk conspiracy. The kid had probably poured himself a bowl of cereal, left the milk on the counter, then put it away a few hours later.

She started to say as much, but caught herself. The words, half-formed in her mouth, tasted accusatory; as sour as the milk. 

Instead, she rose from her chair and crossed the small kitchen, coming up behind Liz -- who was now dumping out the rest of the milk down the sink, watching it swirl down the drain in a bluish-white spiral -- and wrapping her arms around her midriff. 

"Forget the milk," Nat said, softly, resting her chin on her wife's shoulder. "Come to bed with me." 

"Already?" Liz dropped the now-empty milk carton in the sink, shut off the water. "It's early." 

"That's the point." 

Hopeful. Needy. She realized, after she'd said it, how desperately she needed to be held; how important it was to feel safe. 

Liz hesitated, the smiled, tilting her head to rub her cheek against Nat's forehead, planting a whisper of a kiss somewhere in her hairline. "Go get ready. I'll be just a second." 

"Okay."  

Liz started packing pizza and cake into the fridge, and Nat began down the hallway to the bedroom, feeling oddly self-conscious about being watched by the portraits that hung there. 

Other people had family photos on their wall; Liz had portraits of people without names, who may or may not have existed outside the walls of the painter's imagination. Paintings cribbed for Liz's private collection, pieces she had purchased for the store and been unable to part with. 

One had gone crooked, sliding sideways on its hanger, and Nat paused to straighten it: A framed watercolor of a girl on a swing, against a pastoral backdrop. She wore a blue dress and wide-brimmed straw hat, her face turned away from the viewer.  

Nat felt Liz come up behind her, and some tension in her at last began to uncoil. She leaned back into her wife's touch, aware that they were blocking the hallway and not caring because, in the moment, they were the only people in the world, and it did not matter what they did. 

For the first time since the afternoon, Nat did not think about Anthony Rivera and the ruined, bloody mess he had made of his family. And that night, cradled in her wife's arms, she did not have any nightmares. 

Those wouldn't start until later. 

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