By Rich Larson
“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson is a horror story about a woman whose husband returns from the frozen Canadian North Territories, obsessed with texts he discovered there.
The bite mark was wine-red on anemic-white, crenellating Kristine’s bare shoulder. She moved the strap of her nightgown when Noel stumbled into the kitchen, drawn by the sizzle and clank of the frying pan, so he would be sure to see it.
“Morning,” she said, sliding the sausages onto a paper towel.
“Hey.” Noel stopped short, still scratching at the wiry hair up his belly. He frowned. “Did I do that?”
“No,” Kristine said dryly. She dabbed at the grease. “Somebody else. While you were gone I cheated with a…a hyena.”
Noel came closer, whispering one finger along the ruined skin. Shook his head. “Shit,” he said, wrapping her waist. “Désolé. I didn’t mean to.”
“Good,” Kristine said. She tipped her head back for a kiss. “I don’t mind it,” she decided, plucking at his hand. “See? We match.”
“Yes. Lucky.” Noel held up his broad hand, two of the fingers still scarred purple from frostbite. “What do you call it? An accent color?”
Kristine laughed, and gave him a small shove towards the white table. Noel sat down in his old spot, like he’d never left, while she doled out sausages and toast with margarine. The small kitchen was still crammed full with gleaming wedding gift appliances.
“So finally you had someone to laugh at your jokes?” Noel asked, sawing with his knife.
Kristine smiled. “What?”
“Hm. Yeah.” She watched Noel sniff at the sausage, like he’d been rescued off some island instead of from the YEG airport late last night. “And he always ate the leftovers.”
Noel laughed, warm like an electric blanket, and she wished she’d told him the night before. But there had been no space for words, just skin and sweat in a bed that had been too big for too many weeks, and she’d waited this long, hadn’t she?
“I’m going to start on the transcription today,” Noel said, chewing.
“Already?” Kristine asked. “You aren’t going to, I don’t know, warm up for a day? Relax?”
“It’s not so warm here either, Krissy.” He nodded towards the sliding door, half frosted over, and the pinwheeling flakes beyond it. “It’s snowing.”
“Warmer than your igloo in NWT,” Kristine suggested. “I have to run a few errands. Unless you wanted me to stay and help you. With, you know, the bilabial sounds.” She leaned forward and pressed both her lips against his. They felt dry.
“I didn’t sleep in an igloo,” Noel said when they broke, but grinning. “All right. I’ll wash up. Leave the plates.”
Kristine went to the pristine bathroom, which would not be pristine for long now that Noel was back. She’d almost missed seeing his bristles in the sink. She turned the shower on, hot. The mirror fogged fast. She retched a few times over the toilet, but nothing came up, so she stepped inside the shower. After, while the curling iron was heating up, she rummaged a tube of concealer out of her vanity drawer. She shook it as she eyed the bite mark, debating.
She put the concealer back. The mark was somehow like a checked box, a reminder that Noel was real and he was home and he loved her to death, and it was nothing like the cuts up her legs she’d hidden in high school.
When she passed through the kitchen, keys jangling in her fingers, Noel was already swallowed up between Bose headphones, the noise-cancelling kind. His face looked thin and sharp and his eyes were tracking across the laptop screen, left, right, left, right.
“Don’t work too hard,” Kristine said, once she’d tugged one of the headphones down.
“I would never,” Noel said. “Thank you for breakfast.”
He brushed crumbs off his lip before he kissed her good-bye, but the sausages were still sitting on the plate, uneaten. Kristine handed him a Tupperware container on her way out the door.
Her shoulder throbbed while she was getting cash from the ATM. It throbbed when she pushed through the Grade 5/6 portable doors to pick up the worksheet she’d forgotten to photocopy, it throbbed when she shivered in the meat section of Superstore, trying to remember if Noel liked minute steaks, and it throbbed when she returned home to find him still at the table with his face sickly awash in laptop light. He’d forgotten he cooked Sundays.
“Hey, Mister Linguist, have you even moved?” Kristine asked, opening the fridge freezer. Cold billowed out as she put the steaks in, then fished for an ice tray.
“Buy me a catheter,” Noel said. He gave a wan grin. “This is great shit, Krissy. Come. Listen.”
“I don’t speak Inuktitut.”
Noel laughed, and said it wasn’t Inuktitut, and then the room was quiet except for the crack-pop of ice cubes into a ziplock. Kristine wrapped the bag in a wet cloth, still watching Noel watching the screen, and held it against her shoulder.
“All right,” she said. “Show me.”
“Come.” Noel slipped the headphones from around his neck and held the ice against Kristine’s shoulder while she put them on.
The feedback volume made her jump.
“Sorry.” Noel dialed it down with a practiced finger. Kristine repositioned the headphones and listened. It was a low guttural wail, broken up by a sort of huffing. When she listened harder she could hear an uncanny melody.
“Nice. What is it?” She looked to the screen, where the spectrogram was showing the noise slither along, pitch black, undulating through the grayscale background. It made her think of ultrasounds.
“Throat-singing,” Noel said. “Beautiful. I tried it, when I was up there. Very difficult.” He turned the volume up slightly. “This is just the icing, though. You know, for when I get tired of the interviews. There are so many stories. Some of them, never heard in English. Never.”
Kristine watched him maneuver the mouse through his crowded screen, over IPA charts and reference logs. He pulled up another audio file. The throat-singing was replaced by an old man’s voice and a dialect that Noel said was all but extinct. She sat in his lap and they pushed their heads together, each using one side of the headphones, and listened.
Noel’s cheek scratched her cheek and his arms ended up around her, but with the ice trickling on her shoulder she couldn’t feel warm, and it wasn’t the time.
It happened in the night. Noel’s knee was keyed between her knees, his arm was over her arm. They’d fucked again, not so frantically this time, and Kristine was still awake when Noel plucked her hand out from under the covers. She turned in the dark and saw his eyes were not quite closed.
“Hey,” she said, moving back against him.
He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. He brought her hand up to his face slowly, deliberately, with his thumb at her wrist. In the quiet Kristine could imagine the sound of her pulse against his skin. He opened his mouth and kissed his way along her arm, teeth skimming her, making her shiver.
Kristine half-smiled. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin. He gnawed at her wrist-bone, tickling her.
“I’m so glad you made it home,” Kristine said. “I’m just. You know. I was scared shitless, when I heard about the storms. When you called.”
Noel bit down, playful.
Kristine winced. “Easy, boy, I don’t need another one.”
Noel’s teeth pressed harder, deeper, so she could feel each individual crown.
“Noel, stop. You’re getting spit on me. Stop.”
Noel pulled back a moment, tracing the indented skin with his finger, and then he bit down again, not playful, a sudden sharp snap like an animal.
“Ouch!” Kristine jerked away. “Noel! Don’t!”
“Don’t what?” Noel asked thickly. Kristine slapped the light on, exposing the purple bags under her husband’s eyes, the sharpness of his cheekbones somehow more pronounced. “I just want…” He trailed off.
“Can’t you leave the transcription for like, a day?” Kristine demanded.
“Everything’s still fresh,” Noel said. “I’m, you know, I’m zoned.”
“You’re being weird. Really fucking weird.”
“You’re being dramatic.”
Kristine went to the bathroom, flicked the light on. She ran cold water over her arm. Her reflection in the mirror looked pale and sick. She prodded her stomach.
“Come on,” Noel groaned from the bed. “You don’t need a Band-Aid, Krissy.”
“Can’t you shave?” Kristine demanded, coming back. “Unpack? Call your dad to tell him you’re back so he doesn’t call me again?” The fresh mark was blooming on her arm, and when Noel saw it his expression was something she didn’t like. Kristine put her other hand overtop to hide it.
“I didn’t know he called you,” Noel said.
“I’m going to sleep in the study. Just for tonight.”
“I’m sorry. Look. I’m sorry.”
“You hate the hide-a-bed.” Noel rolled up and out of the covers. He scratched at his neck. “I’ll go,” he said. “Are there pillows?”
“In the linen closet,” Kristine said.
She stopped to get them on their way to the study, and then held them against herself while the hide-a-bed unfolded with a creak and a clunk. Noel took the pillows without smiling. He tossed them onto the bed.
“Good night,” he said.
Kristine needed a swim, so she left early in the morning with the sky still dark and didn’t even open the study door, just exchanged a good morning/good-bye with Noel’s half-asleep voice. Exhaust was billowing on the cold roads like a fog as she drove, one hand on her swim-bag. She dialed her mother at a stoplight. A voice thick with sleep or Valium answered on the fifth ring.
“Hi, honey, what is it?”
“Hi, Mom.” The light lanced green through the clouds of exhaust and Kristine drove. “I just had a question about the thank-you notes, I’m still finishing up and—”
“Noel’s back, isn’t that right? Give him my love. Hugs. How’s his frostbite?”
“I will,” Kristine said. “The thank-you note for Uncle Carrow, I can’t remember his girlfriend’s name. Was it Sheryl?”
“No. Carol? No. Hell, I can’t remember either.”
“Noel’s acting different.”
There was a staticky pause, and then her mother’s voice came edged with a sigh.
“What do you mean?”
“Just, I don’t know,” Kristine said, and she didn’t, not quite. “Doing weird things. Not eating. Yesterday after breakfast he didn’t eat anything all day. He’s, like, he’s obsessing over his transcription. Won’t talk to me.”
“Well, he’s driven, you know—”
“Not like that.” She dropped her indicator and turned into the Glenora parking lot, still mostly empty of cars.
“—and it’s a good thing. It really is.” Another pause. “A lot of things might be or look a little different now. All those little things that were nice, you know, endearing, a lot of those things look different when you realize it’s for the rest of your life.”
“It’s not a honeymoon is over thing, Mom,” Kristine said, putting the car into park. “It’s been over for a while.”
“I mean, your father, my God. He had his days. Weeks. Years. But it was all worth it. I never once thought of leaving him. And Noel’s a good man. A really good man. It’s all about compromises, isn’t it? People thinking marriage is supposed to be easy? Makes me laugh. It’s all about sacrifices. There were things I wanted to do, plenty of things…”
“I’m not talking about leaving him, Mom, I’m just saying he’s acting funny and I don’t know why.” She turned off the engine and fumbled the key into her coat pocket. “This thing with the storm…”
“Sharon. It was definitely Sharon, and half his age, too. Maybe a prostitute. Look, honey, just stop worrying. He hasn’t even been back for a week. Go for a swim, you’ll feel better.”
“Thanks,” Kristine said, hefting her bag. “Bye. Love you.”
She swam longer than she’d meant to, churning up and down the lane until the water felt bathtub warm, and so she went to the school with her hair still hanging wet wires and the toothed trace of swim-goggles around her one eye like a sucker scar. But she did feel better, even though Elijah and Braden had to be sent off to the principal for the third week running.
Noel didn’t answer her text, or the second one. She tried not to worry about it. She fixed a smile to her face as she climbed the stairs to the apartment, went down the hallway that always smelled like weed and Febreze, and keyed open their door. It was dark inside again. Kristine flicked on the lights and checked the bare sink. No dishes. She opened the fridge. Nothing touched.