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One Of The Dead

Mark SaFranko

When Natalie proposes a much-needed vacation from the endless New York winter, I jump at it. She’s always the one who hatches exotic ideas.

Two weeks in paradise; that’s our plan.

__________

And so we’ve arrived in this staggeringly beautiful country, small though it is, with its translucent blue-green sea, sand the color of bleached flour, and lush tropical vegetation. Of course there’s also a volatile and dangerous interior, far from the pristine beaches, where tourists fear to venture.

For the first few days we do nothing but lounge on the beach. I never give the office a single thought. Between margaritas and shave ice, if I’m not dozing or reading a paperback — no e-reader for me since I find them too utilitarian and therefore too much like work — I enjoy watching the other tourists, especially the beautiful, wealthy variety. The water is as warm as a bath. When I begin to sweat I dash into the surf and bob in the waves, my face tilted to the sky. Natalie warns me about getting sunburned.

“Don’t forget how sensitive your skin is, darling.”

My wife is the solicitous type, but I’m too lazy to give a damn. Everything feels too good — the sweltering air, the hard, bright light, the simple fact that I don’t have to be at my desk in the morning.

My erotic impulses have been jolted to life again. There is, I’m convinced, a correlation between torpor and libido. I desire damned near every female who passes on the horizon.

My wife, too.

“Shall we?” Her voice breaks into my reverie. “How about a shower and some dinner? We can try that authentic Szechwan place I read about….”

“Sure. Just give me a minute or two to find the motivation.”

On the way through the hotel lobby to the elevator a newspaper headline catches my eye.

 

FEVER CLAIMS SECOND LIFE; WIDER OUTBREAK FEARED

 

I stop and start to read. I’ve just glimpsed the words “method of transmission” when I feel a tug on my trunks.

“Come on, slowpoke. I’m starving.”

__________

In the morning I’m awakened by shouting in the hall outside our suite. Some kind of argument is going on — or so I think. It seems to be between two men who don’t speak English. I have the idea that they’re employees of the hotel, though I have no proof of it. And maybe it isn’t an argument at all, maybe it’s just an animated conversation; in this country it’s not always easy to know the difference.

The angry hollering is accompanied by a loud thud, followed by the sound of shattering glass.

Then utter silence. I wait to hear something else, footsteps, but there’s nothing. It’s as if whoever was out there vanished into thin air, like ghosts.

I glance at my wife: her eyes are still shut. I envy her ability to sleep through anything. It’s a facility I’ve never had.

While waiting for the fracas to resume, my eyes wander around the bedroom, with its cheerful salmon-colored walls and potted plants, and I have the strange impression that something about me has changed from the day before. But what? It’s probably just my imagination.

Beyond the drapes the sun is burning high in the sky, just like it was when we arrived. Natalie groans and opens her eyes. As she rolls over I catch a whiff of her hot, stale breath.

“Why are you tossing and turning?”

“Was I?” She always blames me for waking her up.

It’s already hot, even with the air conditioner puffing full blast. I whip the sheets off my body. On my left calf there’s a spot of blood.

“What the hell’s that,” I hear myself say.

“What?”

“Look.”

Natalie pushes herself up on an elbow and tries to focus.

“Mm. Probably a mosquito bite,” she murmurs, and falls back on the pillow.

“I don’t remember being bitten.”

“I got attacked myself last night. Those little so and so’s love me. I had to brush an army of them off my clothes before we came inside. Maybe I didn’t get them all.”

I’m annoyed at her, though I know I shouldn’t be. I pull a tissue out of the box on the night stand, reach down, and try to rub off the coagulated blood. When I do, there’s an angry red welt that’s painful to the touch.

 

It’s true. I’ve been bitten.

__________

I’m sunburned after all. I should have listened to my wife and been more careful. Instead of the beach, we drive aimlessly around the island. This purposelessness is incredibly pleasurable. After the boutiques and galleries, we find ourselves at a swarming outdoor bazaar. This is the kind of scene I find interesting and Natalie doesn’t. What she can’t seem to grasp is that I’m not looking for anything, just at what’s there.

I park our rented car at the side of the road. Natalie decides that she’ll duck into a nearby café and check her email while I stroll through the bazaar. There’s no point, she says, in looking at piles of junk.

The bazaar is mobbed with shoppers. Parrots and monkeys chatter and cavort in the trees overhead. I take my sweet time walking past the rows of tables with their stacks of miscellany. It’s nothing if not an exotic swap meet, a flea market, featuring everything from coffee beans to crude musical instruments, clothing to fresh produce from the local farms. The atmosphere is made more interesting by the Babel of tongues.

I’ve just finished thumbing through a stack of old magazines and postcards when through a space between tables our eyes meet briefly and the world stops dead on its axis.

It’s her.

It can’t be, but…it’s her.

Marrie.

I blink, and she’s gone, disappeared into the stream of market-goers.

I drop whatever I was holding. Could it really have been her? No — it makes no sense.

Because Marrie is dead.

There has to be some mistake. I only thought I saw what wasn’t really there.

It’s only now that I realize my heart has stopped beating. I grab onto the table for support. When it starts up, I see her again, up ahead.

I begin to jog towards her. I feel the others looking at me now, they must think that I lifted something from one of the tables. I don’t care. Everything about this woman matches the Marrie I knew — her height, the color of her hair, the way her haunches move when she walks — everything.

Sweat erupting from every pore of my body, I finally catch up to her. In profile there’s no difference either — more proof. The fine, straight nose, the thin, arching brow, the lower lip that’s fuller than its counterpart — it’s all her. It’s Marrie. She’s aged ten years, but I’d know her anywhere. Anywhere.

Beneath my shock is a wisp of anger. Just as I’m about to say something, I realize that she’s not alone. Her companion is a muscular, bald black man with a gold pirate’s hoop hanging from the ear that I can see. I notice that their hands touch, leaving no doubt that they’re connected. This is the second shock.

Now what? Whatever happens, I can’t allow her to get away, not a second time.

They stop at one of the tables near the outer border of the bazaar. Marrie reaches out and handles some kind of vegetable that’s long and green and leafy. I linger at an adjacent table and pretend to be interested in the cheap, handmade jewelry laid out there.

Marrie’s man says something to her.

“Si, I think so,” she answers.

The voice I sometimes still hear in my dreams has come to life here, in this most unlikely place, a rancid junk market in a third-rate country. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand. Nothing matters except for not letting her out of my sight.

The man reaches into the pocket of his baggy cargo pants, hands over some money, and picks up the vegetable stalk. He and Marrie move on. Soon they’re beyond the tables and marching across a dusty parking lot. Just as they reach their vehicle, a beat-up, plum-colored Renault, the man shouts a few words. Marrie nods, and he turns on his heel and trots back towards the bazaar.

Luck is on my side. He’s forgotten something.

Marrie climbs into the passenger’s seat of the Renault. I wait until the man is out of sight, then move closer and try to peer through the mud-caked windshield.

She’s primping herself in the mirror attached to the sunshade. It’s all Marrie, every little gesture. My heart splinters into a thousand pieces.

I glance over my shoulder, to make sure that man isn’t on his way back. Then I go around to the open passenger’s window.

At first she doesn’t realize that I’m staring at her. When it finally registers, she looks at me and the hint of a smile appears on her face.

“Do you need something…?”

Of course she speaks perfect American English. Because it’s her.

“Marrie.”

I imagine that I see a tremor pass through her body. She cups her brow and looks at me, harder.

“Do I know you?”

I keep waiting for her to recognize me. Because she must.

“Yes,” I whisper in a quavering voice.

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so.” For the first time, she appears uncertain.

“I’m sure of it. Twelve years isn’t all that long, is it?”

She turns back to her image in the mirror.

“What are you doing here, Paul? How did you find me? Did you follow me or something? With that mustache, I hardly recognized you.”

“No. I wasn’t looking for you. I never looked for you. From the first day I assumed that you were dead. This — today — was by chance. I just happened to be walking through the bazaar when I saw you. It was a stroke of sheer luck….”

“I didn’t think you liked to travel to certain places.” She seems to be talking to herself.

“I thought you were dead,” I repeat. “All this time I thought you were dead.”

Marrie shakes her head again, her unkempt tresses more lovely than ever. Back in New York she was never less than perfectly maintained, and this new, careless look — shorts, sandals, diaphonous blouse — makes me want to enfold her in my arms, even if I should hate her for what she’s done. Because it’s obvious now that she thought she escaped — from our life, from everything. From me.

“I can’t talk to you about this,” she says curtly, “not now. Deaven will be back in a minute. You’d better go, Paul.”

“I don’t care about him. He means nothing to me.”

“Oh, Paul.”

“What about me? I was — I am — your husband! I need to know what happened. I need to know everything. You owe me that — you owe me at least that.”

“I don’t owe anything to anyone.”

It’s true. I’m impotent in the face of those words. Nevertheless, she appears to be thinking it over.

“But if you have to know, meet me tonight at the Black Rooster. It’s on the other side of the highway. Now go. Please. He’s on his way back.”

__________

“What in the world happened to you?” says Natalie when I appear at the café, where she’s curled into a rattan chair, an American magazine open on her lap. She looks at me as if she’s never seen me before — or as if I’m not the same person.

“Sorry. I got involved in checking out some watercolors and completely lost track of the time. You know how I am….”

From the tight expression on her face I see that she’s miffed that I stranded her for so long. But I can’t be concerned with that now.

We drive back to the hotel, change into our swimsuits, and head out to the beach. I force myself to pretend as if nothing’s happened, but the truth is that I’m in shock. I whistle. I talk without stopping. I tell my wife about the other gewgaws I saw on the stands of the bazaar, even though I know she’s not interested.

Facing the turquoise sea in the swelter, I feel odd; my mind is elsewhere. Elsewhere is the past, well over a decade ago. The date was the eleventh of September….

Though we’d known each other for a few years, Marrie and I had been married only a short time. We weren’t old, but we weren’t kids anymore. It was a good place to be in life. And we had one anybody would envy, or so I thought: an apartment in a choice neighborhood of Manhattan, we made money in our careers, we traveled. We had great sex. We were in love. Really in love. We talked about having kids at some point in the future. What we had was meant for the long haul.

If it were up to me alone, I would have said that Marrie and I were ecstatically happy together…except for the occasional feeling that something was wrong. What it was, I didn’t know. I never knew. From time to time I fretted over it, but all I had was a cloudy presentiment, which might amount to nothing more than a case of superstitious insecurity over how charmed our lives had been.

Marrie worked on the seventieth floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. She never complained of feeling dissatisfied or stifled or anything like that. Was there a problem I was blind to? There must have been — and I never saw a thing.

Once or twice she talked vaguely about living a “different kind of life,” but it wasn’t clear to me what that life was since she was never specific. And what human being doesn’t dream of living a different kind of life at least once in a while? Naturally I always assumed that a “different life” would have included me — why wouldn’t it?

What comes back to me now is that she kissed me that morning while I was still in bed and half-asleep. I’d watched her dress, then rolled over and tried to sleep for a few more minutes. There was something strange about that kiss….It was, for lack of a better word, mournful.

Later that day I thought I understood why it felt so sad. But it turns out that I was wrong — I didn’t understand at all.

As with so many of the other victims that day, Marrie’s remains were never identified. But I made my assumptions, as all of us survivors were forced to.

For a long time afterwards, I was nothing more than a somnambulist. After a few years of existing in a stupor, the cloud over my head slowly dissipated. I came back to life — at least in a manner of speaking. Through a mutual friend I met Natalie. But I could never get over Marrie and what happened to her. You don’t ever forget something like that, it’s with you every single day for the rest of your life. Because of the nature of the disaster that took her life, because of the lack of closure, it’s impossible to ever know whether the person who died was your one true love, if there is such a thing — the prism through which you view the memory of her is too distorted. But when a true love dies, part of you dies with her. Part of me died on 9/11.

To be granted even a glimpse of a second chance at life and love was a miracle. That’s what Natalie had given me.

She’s dozing, oblivious to what courses through my brain. I decide not to say anything to her about Marrie. There’s no point. Why inflict pain on her? She saved my life and I care for her, even if it’s not the same as what was there for Marrie.

What remains is the question of how everything went down. All these years later, at a point when I never even dreamed I would have to consider something like this, a range of scenarios begins to take shape in my mind.

When Marrie got to her desk that day, something must have made her leave the building before the first plane struck, otherwise she wouldn’t have survived. No one from the high floors made it out alive. It could have been anything that pulled her out: a prescription from the pharmacy in the bowels of the building…a book she decided she needed from the Borders down there…a cup of designer coffee from one of the shops over in the World Financial Center. Or maybe she needed to take a walk outside in order to think through some work problem. 9/11 was, as everyone knows, a magnificent day to be out of doors.

Or maybe she never even got to her office in the first place. Maybe she decided to blow it off altogether. I didn’t speak to her that morning after she left the apartment, so how would I know anything for sure? Assuming, that is, that she would have told me the truth. I understand now that’s an unsafe assumption.

Because I didn’t know Marrie at all, I realize that now.

But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that she seized the opportunity presented by the great disaster to disappear. Forever — at least she thought it would be forever. Because she was violently unhappy with something — me, among other things. That’s clear now, too. She’d wanted to get away, even before those towers crumbled into heaps of smoldering, twisted refuse.

And so what I’ve believed all along, from that horrible day forward until just this morning, was false.

Marrie is not one of the dead.

__________

Another day at the beach. I go along with Natalie’s suggestion that we have dinner at the hotel.

When she’s in the shower I grab the car keys and slip out. Natalie would never understand what I’m about to do and I don’t expect her to. I’ll worry about explanations later.

Setting out for the Black Rooster, I begin to feel strange, very strange, as if my insides have been blasted out by an electrical current. I’m weak. Lightheaded. Dizzy. Something’s off — but what? I can’t remember ever feeling like this before.

When I can’t find our rendezvous, I begin to panic. I cruise up and down past the now-deserted bazaar, but where Marrie told me to look there’s nothing except for irregular rows of ramshackle, pastel-colored huts.

What was it she said?

“Meet me at the Black Rooster….”

Did she lie to me again?

For some reason, her words echo ominously in my brain. Maybe it would be better if I quit, forget I ever saw her, and went back to the hotel and Natalie.

But I don’t. When I’m just about to give up, I spot the sign, which is like a red explosion in the black tropical night. How had I missed it earlier?

My head throbs, and the asymmetrical sprays of hard yellow light from the windows of the dive do nothing but exacerbate the pain.

There are only a handful of vehicles in the lot. The surroundings — husks of cars, a dead wash machine and refrigerator — speak of another world. What would Marrie be doing in this pit, after the life we had in New York?

I don’t see the filthy Renault. The thought that she’s not inside is enough to make me weep.

I walk in and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. The Black Rooster is a real piss-hole, all right, complete with sawdust and crushed mollusk shells on the floor, and the stench of urine and feces in the dank air. The few patrons, men mostly, drop their conversations when they see me.

No Marrie. I hear a hiss — they’re whispering about me. I’ve been had again.

My heart falters. Then I see her at a table in the corner.

She looks exactly like she did earlier in the day. There’s a drink in front of her. As I make around the tables, I feel as if I’m mired in quicksand. Those few steps are like a hundred miles.

“You came,” she says emotionlessly. “I was beginning to wonder.”

I drag out the empty chair, which feels as heavy as a dresser. Before I sit, I look around again: no sign of the man she was with at the bazaar.

For a long moment we take each other in. After all this time, it seems almost ridiculous to say anything.

“So…you’re alive after all. That’s what I wanted to say earlier, when — ” I’m furious, frothing at the mouth.

My beautiful dead wife is mystified. “What are you doing here, Paul?”

“I — I need to know what happened.”

She smiles sadly, even condescendingly. Whatever afflicts me is making Marrie seem unreal, an apparition. An image in a nightmare.

“It’s not easy to explain.”

“Why not? I came all this way….You talk about it to him, don’t you? Don’t you talk about it to Deaven?”

Marrie shakes her head. Suddenly compassion is visible in her blue eyes, which haven’t changed at all in the years I’ve not seen her. “You’re sick, Paul. Don’t you know that? You’re very, very sick.”

What she’s saying is probably true. But I don’t want to acknowledge it, don’t want to hear it, even.

My rage gives way to supplication. “I’ve never stopped thinking about you. I just need to know why you’re here. Tell me, and I’ll leave.”

“What difference will it make? Will it change anything?”

“But I have to know! Goddamn it — I have to know!” I smash the table with my fist, causing Marrie’s drink to slosh over the sides of the glass. Her expression changes. She’s very earnest now.

“A fever is ravaging the island. Haven’t you seen the papers? They don’t know how many people have it.”

The headline in the hotel lobby comes back to me. The bloody mosquito bite. The bizarre argument in the hall outside our suite. All the other things that have made no sense since I arrived on this accursed island.

“You’re sweating all over, Paul. You have it. You have the fever.”

There’s no denying it — my body is on fire. The barroom walls undulate, melting into mutating shades of crimson, until whatever is left is bathed in blood.

When I try to focus on Marrie again, she’s gone. There isn’t even a glass on the table.

It’s finished. She won’t be back. I’ll never see her again in this lifetime or the next. My eyes suddenly flood with burning tears.

The other patrons drill holes into me with their eyes as I stumble out the door into a balmy night that feels as frigid now as an icebox.

Where’s the car? I lurch around the few other vehicles and debris, frantically searching for it.

“Ay! Ay!”

Voices. It’s directed at me, whatever they’re saying.

“Ay!”

I stop and turn. Marrie’s husband, or whoever he is, is right there, his gold earrings like flares in the moonlight.

But it’s not just him: there are more in the shadows, a mob, closing in on me, until they have me surrounded. The night erupts with the fiery coruscations of knives, machetes, swords.

The cold blades penetrate my body, ice into fire.

Before long it will be me who is one of the dead.

2 Comments

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  1. Azeri says:

    Riveting!

  2. Mary Dearborn says:

    The underlying feeling of menace, danger, and an illness that might or might not be all in Paul’s head–all these are there from the opening words. Truly a chilling story. The voice is amazing–the combination of exquisite control and no control at all.

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