On Tuesday, the woman in the apartment below Laurie’s kills her husband. It happens sometime around four, when Laurie is sprawled out on the couch, wearing sweatpants and Jimmy’s T-shirt, watching a re-run of Oprah. There’s a loud thump, and the wet bag of frozen peas slides off her shoulder as she stretches to get the remote. There’s another thump, and then another and another and another. Laurie turns the volume up each time, annoyed because it’s The Sound of Music reunion episode and she wants to hear Leisl talk about her crush on Captain von Trapp. She doesn’t find out that Mrs. Seven-Oh-Two has bashed in her husband’s head until the police knock on her door at six o’clock.
“Oh, my God,” she whispers when she’s told, leaning against the doorframe. The rough wood grates against her shoulder, prodding at a mottled bruise and sending a punch of pain across her chest. She rights herself, standing as tall as she can, hunched with an arm draped around her middle. Her other hand clutches the now useless bag of thawed peas. The bag sweats profusely, drips and drips and drips to the floor, and the shorter of the two officers stares at it like it holds the answer to a woman suddenly killing her husband. Laurie jerks her arm back, putting the bag out of his sight.
“Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?” the tall officer asks. He has a notepad and a pen, poised and ready, and he looks down at it rather than at her. She breathes a little easier.
At the time, Laurie hadn’t really found the sounds strange; she’d been too irritated. Her shoulder had ached, even hours after she’d been slammed into the refrigerator—Where’s my wallet? Where is it, Laurie? You take it?—and all she’d wanted was Oprah and a bag of something so cold it’d burn against her skin. But seven-oh-two had never disturbed her before. The fights and the sex and the laughter from the people around her are a white noise she’s long since tuned out, even as the fear that they can hear her constantly pulls at her mind. She’s always been so cautiously silent, so ready to bite through her bottom lip than to scream, but when she sobbed into the carpet, trying to shut up or else, she’d never thought about seven-oh-two. She’d never heard a peep from them. No sound had ever rose through the floor, swelling in her own home like an echo, a thump, thump, thump over Julie Andrews.
The taller officer is now looking up from his pad, waiting for his answer. Even if Laurie had more time to think about what ordinary means, she’d never be able to properly put it into words, not in a way this man would understand.
“There were banging noises,” she finally says, “but I didn’t think much of it.”
“They weren’t suspicious, then?” the shorter officer asks. His eyes are narrowed at her like she’s some suspect on Law & Order, all because she’s hiding a bag of peas from him. But for all he knows, she was cooking dinner when they knocked at her door. That’s what she’ll tell him if he asks.
“I didn’t think it was my business.”
The officers then ask her for times—when exactly did you hear the first bang? the second? the third? the fourth and fifth and sixth one you ignored? that seventh killing blow?—and all she remembers is that the loudest thump had happened as Liesl was talking about her spread in Playboy. She doesn’t say that, though, because she can already see that they haven’t found her particularly useful.
At six thirty-five, Jimmy steps off the elevator. Laurie sees him immediately because the door’s open and she’s still hovering near the threshold, surrounded by the nosy onlookers that had descended as soon as the officers left. These are people from her floor, from the building, who she has never spoken to, has never taken notice of any more than they’ve seemed to notice her. But they’ve seen her now, and they ask for her name—I’m Laurie, hi—and where she works—I don’t, but my husband does, in a warehouse—and where she’s from—you wouldn’t have heard of it—and if she knows Mrs. Ferguson—who?—and why the police talked to her if she doesn’t know Mrs. Ferguson, the murderer from seven-oh-two.
Eventually, she loses the group’s focus, but she still stands at the door, watching these people speak with an admirable ease. She tries to say something—does anyone watch the Today Show?—but her lips move like a fish, popping quietly as they part. She’s soundless, an echo no one’s noticed.
Laurie crosses her arms and forces herself to look at her neighbors rather than the hallway’s ratty green carpet. A brunette girl, the one with the big nose and plunging top, smiles when their eyes meet. Laurie glances down and focuses on a crusted cigarette burn, just for a second or two. Baby steps are important, she knows, and when she looks up, ready to maybe smile back at the girl, she sees Jimmy approach the group. His eyes are wide and his hair is wild in a way that means he’s been picking at his scalp. His obvious stress stresses her, and she takes a step back into the apartment.
As Jimmy reaches their door, the young guy with the missing front tooth says, “I heard one of the cops say they think it was an abusive situation,” and an older woman, the one from down the hall, responds, “Mrs. Ferguson’s lawyer better get a sympathetic jury.”
Jimmy smiles limply at their neighbors before he closes the door. Their voices are still perfectly clear, even as he asks, “You OK?”
“I’m fine,” Laurie says. She glances at the TV, at Entertainment Tonight, and desperately wants to curl up on the couch and flick the station over to the local news. Instead, she gives Jimmy all of her attention. “I guess you heard what happened?”
“There are cops everywhere downstairs.”
Jimmy stares at the closed door like he can see the policeman and their neighbors outside. He can still hear them, of course, the way they speak over each other, still meeting in the hallway. They’re talking about abuse and whether or not it’s right to beat a man to death if he roughs a woman up.
Jimmy’s stock-still. He doesn’t even do that thing that does, that unconscious clenching of his fists, moving his fingers like they constantly ache. Laurie thinks she should try to comfort him, to wrap an arm around his waist, to bury her face in his shoulder and whisper, it’s OK, it was an accident, I forgive you, but she stays as still as he does. The space between them is a pocket of stagnant air she doesn’t want to breathe in. She doesn’t want to get closer to Jimmy, though she knows it’s awfully easy to cross a couple of feet in a couple of seconds.
She makes sure to avert her eyes, to watch Brad Pitt hawk cologne through a scratched screen instead of focusing on either Jimmy or the door.
“Why do you have peas?”
“I was going to make dinner soon,” she replies, and her shoulder aches with every syllable of her lie. She waits for his nod before crossing over to the kitchen. Laurie tears open the bag with a knife and ignores the way Jimmy takes in a breath so deep it’s almost a gasp.
The next day, after Jimmy leaves for work, Laurie finally puts on the news. The murder is the lead story and Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson’s pictures are shown every few minutes. There’s video of Mrs. Ferguson; she walks between two officers, different than the ones from yesterday, and her head is hung low. Laurie only vaguely recognizes either of the Fergusons—maybe the dead husband had walked up the steps behind her, grumbling as she struggled with groceries and a limp—but she has to take deep breaths to calm herself for reasons she’s not entirely sure of.
The landline rings as the news is about to turn into a soap opera, and she looks at it, anxious. It’s either Jimmy or her mother, because everybody else has Jimmy’s cell number, even their few friends and the bill collectors. She answers it, hoping it’s not Jimmy because she doesn’t want to do whatever it is he needs her to do right this instant, hoping it’s not her mother because she doesn’t want to hear about how her father is constantly rolling in his grave, how she’d buy a plane ticket to the city if she could.
But it’s not Jimmy or her mother; it’s a reporter. The thought of giving an interview flashes through her mind—oh, yes, I heard some noise and I ignored it and, oh, did you hear that the husband was abusive?—before she hangs up, not having said a word.
Around two, Laurie decides to leave the apartment. She doesn’t usually, not unless she’s going to the store, pre-approved list ready, but she’s probably the only tenant who hasn’t passed through the seventh floor yet. She knows Jimmy’s been down there a couple of times; he hadn’t been gone long enough for anything else.
When she gets there, the floor is empty, no residents or police or reporters, but seven-oh-two’s door is covered in thick strips of yellow. She leans on the stretch of wall near seven-oh-one and stares at the door for twenty minutes, wondering and imagining. That she’d turned the TV’s volume up over a man being killed isn’t so astonishing anymore, but she stops that thought before it goes too far.
There’s a wide window near the elevator. It’s streaky with dried cleaner, but she can clearly see the dull brick building across the street, the old gallery that’s being renovated into apartments, and there’s a hint of skyscrapers on the horizon. She’d been so ready to explore it all when she’d turned eighteen, wearing that dull ring Jimmy had bought at a pawnshop, feeling invincible with him at her side, even though they’d only been together for five months. She’s always been small, but he used to make her feel so big.
Laurie glances at seven-oh-two and wonders if there’s a way to get back to eighteen. Through the window, the sky looks especially beautiful today. It’d probably look better if she went outside, but it’s been a while since she’s just been outside to be outside, since she’s been allowed to take a walk around the block without a task and a time limit.
When she goes back to the apartment, after staring out the window next to seven-oh-two’s door for close to an hour, wondering if this was the same view Mrs. Ferguson had saw yesterday, she settles on the couch and watches The View. It’s a very special episode, and Whoopi Goldberg urges her to just get out now.
Jimmy calls off work the next day. He goes out and buys her gifts—flowers and chocolates and ointment and an honest to God icepack—and whispers promises into her hair. “Never again,” he says. She knows she loves him a little less than she had yesterday.
Laurie thinks he tries to cry, and she appreciates the effort. She kisses Jimmy in return, pretends it doesn’t hurt when he scrapes his teeth over her collarbone, and ignores the phone when it rings. If it’s her mother, she’ll call again soon enough; if it’s another reporter, well, Laurie doesn’t have much to say.
They spend the day together, sprawled on the couch. He lays his head in her lap, holding the remote as she runs her fingers through his hair. He turns the channel too often, completely ignores the reruns of Three’s Company she watches every day, and he’s quick to skip past the news channels. She doesn’t stop him because it doesn’t matter; she already knows what’s happened. She can’t stop thinking about it. It constantly runs through her mind—how did little Mrs. Ferguson manage to hit her husband so many times? did she sedate him first, put poison in his peas?—but she doesn’t say anything.
For the first time, Laurie is confident that she doesn’t have to say anything. The nervous tension in the line of Jimmy’s shoulders comforts her, and, at least for a few hours, she isn’t even scared of him.
When he goes out to pick up dinner—don’t even look at the kitchen tonight—Laurie runs into the bedroom. She doesn’t care if her footsteps are loud; seven-oh-two won’t mind.
There’s a beach tote in the closet she hasn’t used in over three years. There’s still sand caught in the trim, and she ignores the grit as she pulls open the top dresser drawer. She grabs a dress her mother bought her ten years ago. And then a shirt. And then another, the one closest to her fingertips. And that’s all she can manage. She’s gasping, desperately inhaling, and her heart is beating hard, harder than ever. Tomorrow, she’ll put some more clothes in the bag—and then more and more, slowly, a few times a week, so Jimmy doesn’t notice—but she needs to stop now.
Today is good, she thinks as she sits on the couch, putting her shaking hands under her thighs. Her bag sits under the bed, far behind the heavy cotton skirt. She feels the potential she felt when she was eighteen and leaving for the city with a smile and a new last name. She thinks that maybe she wants to go out into the world, to find something bigger than being a housewife in a city where no one notices you until you make them. Maybe she’ll stand up for herself, maybe she’ll go further than the grocery store down the block, maybe she’ll find out what the city really has to offer. And later, when the evening news says that Mrs. Ferguson killed her husband for an insurance policy, Laurie will spend the rest of the day in bed, holding her new ice pack on an ache she can’t quite find. But her bag will still be under the bed, waiting for a new shirt every other day.
Elizabeth Howey is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she received her BA in literature and fiction writing. She hopes to someday obtain an MFA, but in the meantime, you can find her sweeping at Disney World.