A Peek Behind the Curtains
That’s how Joe explained what happened to Mr. Pink.
Susan sat on the opposite end of the couch as Joe and stared at the living room curtains that covered the large picture window. The old, faded beige color didn’t even match the furniture. She almost laughed. Up until a week ago they’d been an enormous, musty old blanket he’d picked up at a garage sale. Joe’d fallen in love with the tribal Fleur de Lis design, and while she was out of town on business, decided said blanket would make awesome window coverings.
Sage and sulfur hung in the air, the results of Joe’s most recent “cleansing,” which, according to him, was necessary after Mr. Pink’s murder. The house smelled as bad as the curtains looked.
“What am I looking for, Joe?”
“You can’t see them?”
“I see the ugly blanket you bought,” she said. “You hemmed the edges, added a thing, and made curtains. What can I say? You’re a wizard in the home ec department.”
“Look,” he said, springing off the couch. He smoothed the curtain and pointed. “Here.”
His finger traced one of the patterns, a wide V shape, between the Fleur de Lis swirls and called it a beak. Above that, the top of the Fleur de Lis formed a vaguely heart-shaped hump that indicated the rest of the head. Jammed above the beak and in the head were two dark spots: the eyes. The outer curves of the Fleur de Lis made up the creature’s wingspan.
“It’s a bird of prey of some sort,” Joe explained. “Mr. Pink was swatting that stupid mouse toy—you know, the one with the catnip—and it went under the window. He ran after it, disturbing the curtains, and when he came out again, this bird exploded off the curtain and snatched him up. It flew around the living room with the cat, pecking …”
Joe dry heaved and, clutching his stomach, sat back down.
“Okay, Joe,” Susan said, twisting around to stare at him. “Maybe that outline could be construed as a bird’s head, but do you really expect me to believe it came alive and ate my cat?”
“What are you saying?”
“You never liked Mr. Pink.”
“No, but I’d never kill him.”
“I didn’t say you killed him. Maybe you just forgot to shut the door.”
“Jesus, Susan, is that what you think of me?”
“You haven’t been right since your mom died,” she said. “Every little thing sets you off.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Joe said.
He rose and stalked off down the hallway, shoulder muscles shifting with each step. His fingers clenched into fists, the knuckles popping like firecrackers. Joe slammed the bedroom door and the bed squeaked when he flopped on it. Susan shot him the bird.
The curtain rustled in her peripheral vision.
She looked back and it stilled. The air conditioning wasn’t running and none of the other windows were open, so it shouldn’t have moved.
It didn’t move. Joe’s story is still fresh in my mind and I’m grieving over Mr. Pink. That’s all it was. It was just my imagination.
Susan stood and turned toward the bedroom and spun back. The curtain had moved again, she was sure, and she’d glimpsed a face staring at her. Looking directly at the hanging fabric, though, it was gone. She stepped toward the window, twisting her head this way and then that way, trying to recapture the angle. Joe’s bird kept taking her focus, the way the head peaked and curved outward and—Yes! There!
The bird’s head formed strong cheekbones and just above the bird’s eyes were two smaller spots that resembled the soft fur of an animal’s nose. The bird’s beak was a sharply pointed chin here. The face’s eyes, just dark spots on the fabric, seemed to follow her movements. The crown of the head was narrow and pointed, coming up off the Fleur de Lis’s tip. It wasn’t quite human, but it wasn’t completely inhuman, either. It almost looked feline …
“I wouldn’t touch it.”
Joe’s voice startled Susan, and she yelped, whirling on him. She poked him hard in the chest and did it again, all without saying a word. He put his hands up and backed away.
“Hey, after Mr. Pink,” he said. “That looks dangerous. A lion of some sort?”
“Goddammit, Joe, just drop it. I don’t want to hear anything else about Mr. Pink or this stupid curtain.”
“No,” he said.
“I said no. Listen to me, Susan, after what happened, I went back to the house where we bought the blanket.”
“I’m sure they were delighted to see you.”
“The lady didn’t seem to mind,” Joe said. “As a matter of fact, she asked me what happened.”
“Don’t do that. You always do that.”
“It pisses me off.”
“Everything pisses you off.”
Joe’s eyes widened and Susan held up a hand to stop his next verbal bowel movement. He swore and grabbed her shoulders, finger digging furrows into her flesh. Susan shrieked and latched onto his wrists as he threw her across the room onto the couch. She landed askew, one leg on, the other off, and bounced. Joe yelled and punched the curtain, his fists billowing the fabric into exaggerated parachutes that floated back into place.
His fist struck the face and this time the parachute didn’t straighten, but sucked Joe’s hand in until he screamed. The curtain darkened with blood.
“Help me,” he begged.
It’s eating him, Susan thought and shoved herself off the couch, forgetting Joe’d just thrown her there. She wrapped her arms around Joe’s midsection. Joe put his foot on the low sill and his free hand against the wall. She pulled as he pushed. His hand came free and they fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs.
“I told you,” he panted. “It’s dangerous.”
Susan gained her feet and dragged Joe to the bathroom sink. Under warm water, she examined him, and found individual wounds ringing his wrist, as if the face had a circular mouth with wide-set, independent teeth.
Well, why not? A curtain just tried to eat Joe.
She wound an old washcloth around his wrist and tied it off. Joe winced and prodded the makeshift bandage with a finger.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You should go to the hospital and have that looked at.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Take down that curtain,” she said.
“Are you sure that’s smart?” he asked, holding up his wrist.
“No,” she said. “But you’re bleeding through the towel and I can’t stitch you up.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll go. But before I do, listen to me. The lady said that old thing I bought was a Native American Love Blanket. The tribe’s medicine man would imbue it with properties to remove obstacles on the path to true love.”
“So you’re saying it’s a marvelously magical murdering piece of American history?”
Joe stared at her for a long moment before finally shrugging. He left the bathroom and collected his car keys from the peg in the kitchen. Susan trailed along after him, tried to smile as Joe gave her one last look before leaving through the back door.
Susan withdrew the chef’s knife from the wooden block on the counter and removed the broom from its spot in the pantry. Thus armed, she approached the curtains on her tiptoes, her cheeks burning with embarrassment, a stark contrast to the claws gouging her midsection. She imagined the people in the audience calling her a plethora of choice names and screaming at her to run the other way. But in real life, when you faced the apparent silliness of the supernatural, it was different. You never ran away, but rather sought the logical source, if only to prove to you’d set aside those childhood fears.
Love was the same way: silly and frightening, yet people stayed in bad relationships for no reason other than to be with someone. And if a person happened to get out of a bad relationship, he or she couldn’t wait to jump into the next one. At that point, Susan figured it was no longer about being with someone, but more what’s wrong with me? Why do all my relationships fall to pieces? Why am I always left holding the bag with no bottom? That tunnel vision squeezed out the obvious, which was the other half of the failed relationship was in the same boat, struggling up the same shit-colored creek, with just as many paddles.
Joe had cut the blanket into four separate panels—one for each pane of glass—and she swept aside the second. It rippled and swayed, and otherwise acted the way a curtain should. Nothing hid behind it, nothing bulged from the fabric itself. She did the same to the third and fourth panels and was rewarded with the same results. Susan turned to the blood-soaked first panel, the one Joe had punched. The one that had bit him. She held the knife up, ready to slash the curtain to ribbons, and jabbed with the broom.
The curtain hung, limp and dead, as it should.
Susan moved closer and twirled the curtain around the broom handle, twisting the two together. She pushed the curtain out of the way and stared at the window. With its hand-sized hole and dried blood, it reminded her of a trap she’d seen in a movie: Joe’s hand had gone through the glass to the wrist and the jagged glass had caught it when he tried to pull it back. They’d used blades in the film, but the result was the same, except the glass had eventually given up.
Several knife cuts near the rod brought the panel down and Susan tossed it behind her. She repeated the process with the other three panels until only jagged edges remained. The upside down peaks and valleys fit perfectly for this relationship. Joe hadn’t even asked her if she liked the blanket, much less whether she wanted it as a curtains. And were curtains not one of those couple decisions, something mutually agreed upon since it was for their house?
Susan turned and came face to face with the sheared pieces of blanket. They’d risen from the floor like ghosts. She screamed when they reached for her and struck with the knife, again and again, even as it grunted and lurched forward. Warm blood poured over her fingers and the knife, buried in the cloth, jerked out of Susan’s hand. The blanket collided with her and bore her down. Her head bounced off the floor hard enough that her vision dimmed and a hasty breath expunged whatever air she’d had left in her lungs.
The love blanket landed on top of her, settling on the upper half of her body, including her face. It was far weightier than two minutes ago, and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t dislodge it. It continued to press down, preventing her from taking in air. Her hands slapped at the weight and met denim, leather, hair.
Her heart, the mythical source of love, pounded in her ears as air, the proven necessity of life, was denied.