Title: Behind You
Author: Carly M. Duncan
Author: Carly M. Duncan
Purchase at AMAZON
When a mysterious attack lands Heather in the hospital on the brink of death, her family rushes to her side. Through an inconvenient maze of shadowed memory and family secrets, Heather can trust only herself to discover if her husband, parents, sister or aunt tried to kill her. During the course of their own narratives, each character confesses to their various crimes of passion, envy and ignorance, weaving Heather's mystery into an untraditional tale about seizing the opportunity to start over.
I do a bad thing to myself. When contemplating death I always consider my own sadness, devastation and defeat at losing a potential someone. I imagine the pain and the wreckage. I test what it might feel like to experience such heartbreak. I dream up the words I wish I had said and, also, what I might say in their honor.
I never think I’ll be the first to go. If I did I wouldn’t be forced to reflect on my own potential misery. It’s utter torture and I don’t know why I do it. I must be a masochist, though that label should warrant me more invincible, fearless and probably angrier.
Why would I put myself through the imaginary emotional journey of loss? Why force the looming and possibly non-existent future pain? Does the contrast between happiness and sorrow somehow, sickeningly, make me feel more alive? Or do I believe I’m preparing myself for future grief, as though building up a tolerance for pain might save me from myself later?
I do this a lot. I imagine a shattering loss and once I reach a certain level of true despair, I somehow force myself back to reality and mentally slap myself across the face for walking down a path that I didn’t have to wander in the first place. Afterwards, though, the imaginary misery always lingers and I’m left wandering through various realities for the rest of the day, inexplicably inconsolable.
As a twenty-seven year old woman and a Columbia educated social worker, I should have both a natural and learned understanding of the human condition. In my own life, I’ve experienced minor forms of sorrow, and in my career I’ve both caused and mended various types of suffering. I should be able to manage my own head better.
My job isn’t one that you fantasize about having when you’re young and everything seems possible, when you refer casually to dreams in passing conversation and actually believe in the potential that they can become true. I fell into my career as an adoption counselor by mere chance and pure coincidence, the way most of life’s twists and turns grab you. While attending Columbia I did what most good students approaching graduation do and scrambled to find internships anywhere I could. An internship led to certain comforts and certain comforts led to friendships, and certain friendships led to employment opportunities, and, throughout that whole meandering course, life happened. Today, I find myself performing a job I never hoped for in a field I never pursued, both crushing dreams and providing joyful occasions for strangers daily.
Each and every day I meet or speak with families who are either hoping to adopt a child or who must, for some reason, put their own child up for adoption. Sometimes my days are dangerous and sometimes they’re incredibly beautiful, but I suppose it’s like anything else. My days are rewarding, but I wouldn’t say they’re always joyful.
At first, the way I felt (worn, withered, sad) at the end of every day left me in a reeling depression that would last through the night and into part of the morning until I could force myself to begin a new day. Each day, I reset myself like a Broadway actress preparing for her next scene. I would wake up, tell myself that the day proposed something potentially life changing and, in that way, I exchanged my doomed state into one full of hope and positivity. I remember being oddly impressed at how quickly I could determine my own feelings, even when I felt compelled to change them. When I wanted to, that is.
Eventually, the burden of the lives I affected each day wore down the way something initially new and glistening turns into something faded and hardly worth noticing. My effect, my presence, it meant something, but I became removed from it in a way that I assumed was healthy for my occupation.
After growing up in Connecticut and going to school at Columbia, living and settling in New York City was always an assumed reality. Within my field, the city is a place that I know I can help dramatically, a place I feel that I know I will make a difference. Ironically, it’s also the perfect place to change lives, while also remaining completely forgettable. On my very best days, I’d like to think I bring some glimmer of light to the darkest streets of New York City.
I returned home for the day and immediately made my way to the bathroom. I was in the shower when thoughts of future unhappiness overcame me. My imagination has a knack for the dark and twisted. I started thinking about how destroyed I’d be if my husband suddenly passed away. Our marriage is just three years old so, to be clear, this is a fear not a fantasy.
Steven is a dear, kind, patient man who is as dark and brooding as he is thoughtful and selfless. He’s a perfect paradox: my exact opposite as well as my exact clone (again, the perfect paradox).
He’s tall and strong. In many ways, I think what most attracted me to him was that I felt immediately protected. He has a terrible stubborn streak and many times we don’t agree, but those moments of conflict are the times when I think we are at our very best, testing each other and growing. On the days when I feel numb to the world, he is capable of making me feel alive.
Before we met, I considered myself a self-sufficient person and I was both prideful and judgmental about it. (As in I judged others who were happily part of their own duo and, in my imagination, could not function independently.) I didn’t have any attachments, which meant I also did not have any burdens. I thoroughly enjoyed being free, lonely and free. I thought I could live that way forever.
Honestly, I did.
After I met Steven, he taught me how to be a good teammate. Sometimes, I would know when I was being trained. Other times I hardly noticed. I got schooled big time when I made plans in our calendar without wondering if he had other plans. I was shamed when I brought home food for myself, not considering whether or not he’d be home. I was ridiculed when a trip to the store only produced items I, myself, was in need of.
Steven literally trained me. I became his teammate over time and without noticing. Before I knew it, I was a “we.” I considered someone else. One day, at the drug store I wondered if Steven was low on his deodorant and it was in that single moment it hit me, “I’m a team player now. Look at me thinking of someone else besides myself!” It was a big step for me and was the first time I agreed with myself to never say never.
As a direct result of my commitment to Steven, I have become utterly terrified of losing him. Nearly every day I worry intensely over a life I’d be forced to live without him. It is a completely realized (and some would say unwarranted) fear, and I can’t ditch it. I’ve tried. My psychiatrist has tried too, prescribing a pill as a solution here or there, but nothing has done the trick.
As I linger beneath the heat of the steamy water, I could feel it all. In my mind, I could receive the news of loss. I could feel my break down. I could imagine my funeral outfit (an expensive black suit with a skirt and dark tights) and how moved everyone would be at my words of love and memory. I could conjure up a very specific void and experience the depths of loneliness. I could envision my lost state, my inability to function, my wounded soul. And then I could see my own eventual recovery.
As if waking from a dream, I abruptly stop myself. I’m horrified at the darkness my mind could envelope. What makes me think that I would out-live him? Why would I imagine such events and why would I take my daydream so far? How could I be so focused and entertained by imaginary and self-inflicted pain?
In the middle of berating my own self-centered nature, a nature I thought I had lost completely, I hear a crash. Specifically, I hear the sound of a window shattering. Or what sounded like a window shattering as filtered through the sound of water spilling over my head and the bathroom vent, which is working tirelessly to free the room of the steam I’m building.
The neighbors are usually loud and my building often bustles with activity (especially around seven o’clock when people are arriving home from work, walking dogs and settling in for the night), but the sound I heard felt different. It bore the burden of dread.
For a moment, I feel a bit dizzy and I’m not completely sure that what I heard wasn’t imagined. If I try, I can force myself to consider that it was part of my daydream, that I hadn’t truly heard anything at all. I pause and hear nothing more, so I proceed, thinking that I had invented a noise. It was probably something that happened on the street below the apartment.
I turn the water off and grab my towel from the other side of the glass shower door. I dry myself off and listen for more, but I don’t rush. I’m completely calm.
I have a bad habit of remaining calm even when I shouldn’t be. At work, my co-workers welcome my stoic, rational manner because I’m a constant source of Zen for them. I can hear their problem and approach the steps to fix something before it becomes an emergency. My mother envies my tranquil nature, mostly because she possesses none of it. Sometimes my even ways can frustrate Steven, which I completely understand, but can’t help.
I listen, but there isn’t anything else, so I stand. I wait. Though I’ve tried to convince myself that I’d imagined the sounds or that my dear city is responsible for them, I’m scared. I can’t think of the last time I’ve been actually scared. I wait, assuming that I will hear something soon. My beating heart seems to be vibrating visibly beneath my skin. I know that I should act accordingly based on the dread I felt only seconds earlier and, more than that, I know that I should be wearing clothes for whatever is next.
Because I am a prude (even as a married woman and even though no one is home), I brought my clothes into the bathroom to change before I exited. I begin to dress, thankful that I can at least obtain the illusion of even a mild shield (in the form of clothing) before I leave the bathroom.
Another noise. This time, it is the sound of my cell phone ringing from its place on my bed just outside of the bathroom door. The sound sends chills through me because the ringing phone provides an obvious sign that someone is home. It’s an indication for whoever is out there that someone is home, someone is in the way, someone who should be harmed.
The need to survive suddenly kicks in and before I can notice it, my hands are opening all of the bathroom cabinets and drawers searching for…I don’t know what, really. Unless I’m going to try to drug someone to death with probably-too-old-to-be-useful medications from past surgeries and a brief bout with depression, this room has very little to offer in terms of self-defense.
As I plan for an attack and for my defense strategy, I realize, once again, I have sprinted down a path of peril when I might not need to. Why would my first instinct turn to danger? Why do I feel so worried and unprotected in my own home? I stop searching for weapons and listen again. Now there are footsteps, but not sneaky sounding ones. They sound like my husband’s.
The truth is, I could imagine anything from behind the safety of the bathroom door. I really could. I have full-blown scenarios ready for it all; the villain’s back story, the best way for me to escape the building unharmed, who I will call first and where I will go. I know the neighbors whom I’d rely on for a helping hand and the others who would want all of the details but none of the involvement. I wonder if I’d be able to locate the closest police station if I had to. I think of what use a police station might be. I can play out every situation in my mind. My imagination is dense. Reality could be so very different.
What’s probably happened is that Steven has come home. He’s a klutz. He probably knocked over the gorgeous blue four-foot tall vase in the entryway. We really ought to have moved it by now. Nearly every guest who enters our apartment for the first time comes dangerously close to destroying it. It’s awkward for everyone involved each time, yet provides an entertaining conversation starter during social gatherings.
It’s sad because I loved that vase. When I bought it, I thought it made us seem sophisticated to have such an ornate but worthless piece in the entryway. I suppose, now, I will have to research new types of décor, but one thing is for sure, I’m absolutely not helping him clean up his mess. I keep track of things like that, his messes versus mine.
He doesn’t think I’m home yet because I’m early and I’m closer to the other end of the apartment, so he didn’t hear the shower running and hasn’t seen any sign of my presence. I’m easily unheard, especially if he is not expecting me. In fact, he’s probably the one calling my cell phone to tell me about his little accident with my favorite four-foot tall vase.
I open the door and run to my phone a few feet from the bed. The movement seems dramatic and desperate, but I do it quickly. I answer the call, but it’s too late. The caller’s patience has expired. Only the word “blocked” blinks back at me as I try to catch who has called.
I call my husband’s name out loud to let him know I’m home. I’m actually quite anxious to hear about the mess he’s made, and I want to let him know I’m around before I scare him and he breaks something else that I love.
I step through the bedroom door and am only a few steps down the hallway when I smell an odor that seems familiar, but not one that is native to our home. The smell is faint, but I can’t identify it immediately, and all of a sudden my previous panic has returned. Something isn’t right.
I pivot instantly to return to my bedroom where I left my phone. I need to speak to Steven right now, if only to set my meandering imagination at ease.
As I pass through the threshold of our bedroom, I feel something cold and sharp against my skin, like I’ve accidentally come into contact with dry ice. It’s a specific sensation, but that’s how it feels. Cold overtakes me, my vision begins to blur and I realize that I hadn’t dried myself off completely from my shower. My clothes cling to me and I feel suffocated as the room spins.
My entire body feels weak, like it might fail me at any moment. I weakly pull my hair back across my shoulders and look down to find that I’m not covered in water at all, but in blood. It seems to be dripping from my core.
There’s someone behind me, a presence I can feel, but I’m too helpless to glance backwards, and I notice that I’m slowly sinking to the floor. I’ve lost control, and as my mind rapidly paces to make sense of what has occurred, I try to commit the oddities and the feelings to memory.
It’s becoming harder and harder to catch each breath and just as I decide I may need to rest my eyes in order to conserve some energy I hear my name, “Heather.” It’s only a faint whisper.
The darkness slowly overtakes me and as much as I try to keep track of my thoughts only one stands out was I fade into the black. I think, “I have to figure out who killed me.”