Denton was nothing if not a success in life. After a brief struggle in his twenties he succeeded in finding an audience for his work, which included novels and stories and screenplays, two of which were purchased by Hollywood. He had fans, many of them adoring, all over in the world. He realized that he didn’t always appreciate it because he’d been lucky so early in life: pretty much everything had gone his way, starting with his acceptance at Princeton, where he studied writing and literature at the feet of Nobel Prize winners, all the way up to his nomination for a National Book Award. He never even troubled himself with the notion that most truly great artists were the product of painful lives full of humiliation and rejection because he wouldn’t have understood it.
Occasionally there were clouds on the horizon of Denton’s blue sky, mostly in the form of disturbing dreams in which he somehow got separated from his wife. But when he awoke and saw Ashley’s lovely blonde head in slumber on the adjacent pillow, he let out a sigh of relief—it was just a dream, nothing to fret over. His world was still intact. In a matter of minutes the kids would be up and about, and Denton’s charmed life would resume its normal rhythm.
Sometimes he thought nostalgically of all the women he’d had before Ashley, and there’d been quite a few. Then he sighed over the flirtations he’d survived—at writers’ retreats, conferences, on promotional tours, even online—since he married his wife fifteen years ago. He could easily have allowed them to proceed further than they did, but common sense prevailed in the end. Anyway, none of those women were half of what his wife was, so it didn’t matter. But what man on the face of the earth didn’t occasionally suffer a pang of regret over lost opportunities?
Maybe, he mused, closing his eyes again, one day he’d permit himself to take advantage of one of those enticements. If nobody caught on, who would it hurt? He’d reached the age where he deserved a little more adventure and a little less duty. After all, wasn’t that a perk of becoming a winner in life?
When he climbed out of bed a few minutes later, it was to a tweet that his latest novel was nominated for a prestigious literary prize. Denton couldn’t wait to Google himself and read about his newest triumph.
A week later the author got a call that his mother had suddenly taken ill and been rushed to the hospital. Denton was shaken. The news was completely unexpected, and his father was thin on details. Since he lived at a formidable distance from his family, there was nothing Denton could do but await further word and hope for the best.
He retreated to his study and tried to work, but he was much too distracted to accomplish anything. Over the years he’d developed the invaluable facility of compartmentalizing his life, but now the walls of his cocoon had been penetrated. His mother wasn’t that old, and she’d never had any serious health issues in the past. Worse, the doctors couldn’t seem to figure out the problem.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine as soon as we get the correct diagnosis,” his father assured him, and he in turn reassured Ashley and his children.
There was no reason for Denton to doubt what he was being told. His father wasn’t an alarmist. Soon, he was sure, he’d be hearing that his mother was in complete recovery.
The next morning the phone rang when Denton was drinking his coffee and flipping the pages of the Times. On the other end was the uncharacteristically doleful voice of his father.
“She’s gone,” he whispered hoarsely.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”
“She passed away this morning at seven-fifteen . . .”
Denton dropped the phone. His mother, next to his wife his staunchest supporter, was no longer among the living.
Denton forgot where he was, who he was, and what he was doing. It was the first truly terrible thing that had ever happened to him.
Even though Denton was eventually able to get back to work, he felt as if he were operating without a limb. With time, he figured, he would regain his equilibrium. After all, people died every day, didn’t they? Death was merely part of the process. Life had to go on.
Denton’s book was denied the prize it had been nominated for. He was devastated by the rebuff, perhaps because of his increased sensitivity over the terrible things that had recently happened. It felt so unfair—his book had deserved to win. He’d read the work of his competitors, and it couldn’t hold a candle to his. On top of everything, the publishing industry underwent a crisis and one of the nation’s great bookstore chains—Denton’s biggest customer—went belly up. He was convinced nevertheless that he’d weather the storm, as he had in the past. Optimism had been built into him.
But that naïve assumption made what happened next utterly unexpected and inexplicable: his new novel was rejected. “There’s been a shift in the whims of the marketplace,” Gerhardt, his agent, explained, and what Denton had done with his latest offering—striking out in a different, more darkly experimental direction—was deemed too risky for his publisher’s sales team.
“Anna”—Denton’s longtime editor—“could hardly get through it. She turned thumbs down,” Gerhardt added. “Trust me, I did everything I could short of begging. I’m really sorry, my friend. Maybe the next one—if you bring it a little closer to earth? And it might be wise for you to run your ideas past me first, hm?”
“Well, aren’t there other publishers?” demanded Denton.
“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with Anna,” said the agent. “I don’t think the book works, and it’s probably not worth trying to fix.”
It was the first time Gerhardt or Anna Knox had ever rejected anything from Denton, and the author was indignant. After all the money I made those bastards, he couldn’t help thinking. As far as his “next one” was concerned, it wasn’t like he could just pop a novel out in a week or two. It took months, years, of planning and writing and revising and polishing before he let a manuscript out of his hands. These non-creative types were idiots! He resolved to find a new agent and a new editor, but when he sent out feelers, the response was shockingly lukewarm.
Denton was bewildered and depressed. How could someone with his track record suddenly become persona non grata? It made absolutely no sense.
He was at a loss for what to do. He decided that he’d keep Gerhardt and Anna on the line until they could be safely jettisoned. But despite his extensive efforts, Denton couldn’t find replacements for his erstwhile champions.
He’d been in a deep sleep when the din broke through: bumps, thumps, and crashes, and finally the ugly sound of shattering glass. For a few seconds he lay there in disbelief. He couldn’t begin to comprehend what was happening on the other side of the bedroom door.
When he heard a plaintive moan, he leaped out of the bed, which he saw was empty. Where was his wife? He fuzzily remembered that Ashley had gone out with some friends for drinks earlier in the evening.
He threw the door open and fumbled for the hall light. When he flipped it on, he saw that Ashley lay crumpled in a heap at the foot of the staircase, a billowing pool of dark blood framing her head. In her hand was the shard of a drinking glass.
He hurtled down the steps, calling his wife’s name. There was a dumb glaze over her blue eyes.
“I don’t know what happened,” she whimpered. “I thought I was walking into the bedroom . . .”
Denton’s brain was bleary from sleep. He didn’t know what to do. He tried to make Ashley sit up, but she couldn’t. Instead, her body began to convulse and her skin turned purple. Denton’s ten-year-old son Wes ran down the stairs—he’d been asleep too—and immediately began to cry. “What’s going to happen to Mom? What’s going to happen?”
Denton sent the boy for towels to stanch the flow of Ashley’s blood, then ripped a blanket from the sofa to wrap her in. He and Wes ferried her out to the car, and they set off for the hospital. It was only later that Denton realized that he should have summoned an ambulance instead.
Denton’s wife was diagnosed with a severe concussion. Her scalp, which had sustained a deep, long, jagged contusion, was stapled back together in the emergency room. She remained in the hospital for two days.
Afterwards, she wasn’t the same person. She took a disability leave from her job as a mid-level executive for a communications company and spent the entire summer convalescing on the backyard deck, a blanket draped over her shoulders, the remnants of shock and daze in her eyes. Specialists were consulted, but it seemed that nothing could be done for Ashley except make sure she was comfortable and continued resting. Concussions could be tricky, insidious things that could have dire consequences down the road.
One afternoon after he’d managed to struggle through his pages for the day, Denton cracked a beer and dragged a chair next to his wife’s. Whenever he could, he tried to keep her company.
“I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time,” whispered Ashley, looking out over the perfectly groomed lawn. “But until now I haven’t had the strength.”
“About what.” Denton was hopeful that she might announce that she was finally ready to return to her job. He wanted the house to himself again.
“I know you’ve been seeing Renee.”
Denton’s brow furrowed. He had no clue what she was talking about.
“Seeing . . . who?”
“Renee. I know all about it.”
Denton could do nothing but stare at his wife, and wait for her to tell him that she was pulling his leg for some bizarre, unfathomable reason. And that would have been odd enough, since Ashley had never been a practical joker.
By now he thought he understood who she was referring to. Renee was a thirty-something neighbor with long black hair who lots of men looked at and, no doubt, coveted. But if Denton was ever one of them, and he was from time to time, he would never even have considered making a move on her. You didn’t do that in the type of suburb—much too insular for comfort—where Denton and his family lived.
“I’m not seeing Renee,” he countered evenly. “What in the world would give you that idea?”
Ashley shook her head with a sadness born of stubborn conviction. “You don’t have to lie to me, Christian.”
“But I’m not lying.”
They went back and forth like this, until Denton for the first time had the disconcerting sensation that something might be seriously wrong with his wife. That tumble down the stairs had scrambled her brains, all right. He’d been warned by her doctors that there might be long-term ramifications, and this delusion was proof.
The problem was that he didn’t know what, if anything, to do about it. Nevertheless, he continued to proclaim his innocence.
The staples were removed from Ashley’s scalp and after a few months she did go back to her job. Whenever Denton asked, she maintained that she was feeling better and better, “nearly all the way back” to normal, but the distance in her eyes belied her words.
He was grateful to reclaim his old routine. Weeks passed, then months. One morning in late November Ashley was unable to get out of bed. She pointed weakly at her temple.
“Oh . . . oh . . . my head is splitting,” she stuttered, then fell back in a swoon.
Denton stood over her and touched her shoulder.
“Ashley! Ash . . .”
She was unresponsive. His pulse began to pound like a kettle drum in his ears. He tried again to rouse his wife, but to no avail.
He reached for the phone and dialed 911.
Later that afternoon Ashley died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Despite the doctors’ warnings, not once did Denton think it would actually come to pass. The most difficult thing for him was that he’d lost his wife twice—the first time when her personality disappeared after her fall, and now forever.
Denton’s first concern was his two kids, but he also knew that he was in need himself. How was he going to deal with the rest of his life? It was his wife, who, despite her demanding job, guided their children, who gave him the space he needed to work, who made all of their lives possible.
He couldn’t imagine what he must look like standing beside the coffin, except for a mass of confusion and shock. He couldn’t cry. He felt nothing but numbness. Grieving so soon after Ashley’s death was impossible. All he was capable of was noticing that there were many people at the cemetery, most oddly a pair of men in dark clothes and sunglasses whom he didn’t recognize. They didn’t introduce themselves or offer condolences, which was also unusual. He wondered vaguely who they might be, but after a few moments completely forgot their presence.
The voice on the phone belonged to one Detective Pomono. Denton had never heard it before and didn’t recognize the name. What would a policeman want with him? So few days after his wife’s death he still didn’t feel like talking to anyone except for his kids.
“I’d like you to come in to headquarters,” Pomono suggested. His tone was gruff. It conjured someone who worked under cars in a garage.
“What for?” asked Denton. Maybe there’d been some crime in the neighborhood that had slipped his notice in the madness of the past couple of weeks?
“It’s better face to face,” countered the detective.
“Well—okay,” Denton agreed, suddenly mindful of his civic duty. But he didn’t much care for the cop’s evasiveness and insistence when he was in such a low state.
“Can you come now?”
“You mean right now?”
Yes, that’s what Pomono had in mind. Denton was annoyed, but he felt it was better to clear this nuisance out of the way sooner rather than later. There was still so much business to attend to in the wake of his wife’s passing.
Pomono was a nondescript, middle-aged man with a substantial paunch, a drooping walrus mustache, and a weak chin—not at all what Denton imagined him to be. His tie was stained and one of the buttons at the bottom of his Oxford shirt was undone. In person he seemed much less threatening than he did over the phone.
He showed Denton into a room marked “INTERROGATION.” Why was he being ushered into a place usually reserved for suspected criminals?
“Have a seat, Mister Denton.”
Pomono sat across the table and began rambling—about the flat tire he had yesterday, to what he craved for lunch, to the lousy weather. Denton quickly grew impatient. He had no time to waste, especially with someone who seemed to have nothing better to do.
Then the conversation took a pinwheel turn. Suddenly Pomono wanted to talk about Denton’s wife—Ashley. As if on cue, another cop walked in and grabbed the last empty chair. He was introduced as Detective Brody. Suddenly the room seemed much too crowded.
“Is there anything you’d like to say to us,” Pomono said, peering at Denton earnestly.
There was a long silence in the tight gray box.
“Mister Denton, your wife was in to see us before she died.”
Denton was stunned. “What the hell are you talking about?”
He’d had no inkling whatsoever. An ominous feeling stole over him as swiftly as a streak of lightning across the night sky.
Brody reached into his jacket and produced a small cordless tape recorder. He fumbled it on, and the ghostly voice of Ashley rippled through the chamber.
“ . . . then I felt his fingers in the small of my back. The next thing I knew, I was flying through space. I still can’t remember what happened next . . .”
Denton’s eyes widened. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing: on the tape Ashley was accusing him of pushing her down the stairs. It was her suspicion that her husband had tried to kill her. He’d changed, there were other women in his life, and he didn’t want her around anymore. The police should know all this, in the event something worse happened.
Denton felt himself go cold. This was insanity; he had to be trapped in a nightmare, and soon he would wake up from it.
He shook his head. Enough. The smelly little room was spinning around him. He didn’t want to hear any more. But he felt he had to defend himself.
“At the end, I didn’t know who Ashley was anymore. You have to understand, she wasn’t the same person I married,” he protested.
“That’s because you tried to do away with her.”
“What? No! She didn’t know what she was saying on that tape. There must have been a blood clot in her brain—don’t you see? She was ill, she couldn’t help herself. And now it’s all . . . this!”
He gestured with disgust at the recorder. The cops kept staring at him, waiting for more.
“Why would I want to get rid of Ashley? We were happy together,” he pleaded.
But Pomono and Brody weren’t having it. They argued the opposite, that Denton was bitterly dissatisfied, and that his wife had found out about his other, secret life, the other women, which made things worse. They kept going over and over the same ground, trying to get him to admit to something, until Denton himself began to half-believe that he might have committed some transgression and didn’t even realize it.
No, no, no, he kept saying, but in the end they refused to listen. He challenged them to prove that he’d ever cheated on his wife. They said they had more than enough evidence. And it was a motive. After what seemed like days of grilling, he was read his rights and handcuffed.
Christian Denton was under arrest for the premeditated murder of his wife.
Denton sat in his prison cell, thinking. There wasn’t much else to do in a prison cell but think, endlessly think. When the police seized his computers, they discovered that he’d visited dating and porn sites, scores, even hundreds of times, and this evidence was used against him, even though it was never proven that he’d acted on any of his fantasies. He had been sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of his wife and he still couldn’t process it. The worst part was that his own children had been unable to plead his case. Under oath they could not testify that their father had not killed their mother since they hadn’t personally witnessed what happened. Their inability to help him in his hour of need had obviously signified something to the jury.
But amongst this plague of thoughts, the single thing Denton could not get out of his mind was how the luck of a man could change so perfectly in the blink of an eye. Maybe it had all started going downhill when his mother died, but it didn’t really matter now. The only thing that did was that at some point the invisible train of fate had begun moving in the wrong direction.
Denton thought of himself as a good person. He’d been a lucky man too once upon a time, but he’d always been a good person. He’d really never done anything wrong in his life, and yet for some reason a terrible calamity had befallen him. It was a profound mystery, one that he didn’t think he would ever understand in this world. He’d tried praying, but so far it hadn’t helped. What he needed above all was someone who would listen to him, and, more importantly, believe him.
There were always shouts and cries of rage from different corners of the prison. Everyone inside seemed to be angry about something, and now Denton understood why.
He slid off his bunk and slammed his fist into the wall, shattering all of the bones in his hand.
He began to weep. Outside the bars, the sun seemed to have slipped away, extinguishing once and for all the blue refulgence of twilight, leaving him in utter darkness.
Mark SaFranko started writing at a young age. He attended schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His mundane working life has consisted of a multitude of jobs: political risk analyst, dating advice column ghostwriter, freight loader, teacher, landscaper’s assistant, deliveryman, truck driver, clothes salesman, astrologer, short order cook, fast food worker, bank clerk, proofreader, bar musician, government pensions clerk, brewery worker, reporter, telephone solicitor, stock clerk, and chauffeur, among others. His goal in life is to avoid further such mundane work.
His novels include Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial and 13E Note Editions, named one of Virgin France’s Favorite Summer Reads of 2009), No Strings (Thomas & Mercer and Black Coffee Press, named one of Blackheart Magazine’s best books of 2012), The Suicide (Honest Publishing, named one of Foyles Best Novels of 2014), Lounge Lizard (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press), God Bless America (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press) and Dirty Work (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press). They have collected rave reviews and a cult following in Europe, especially in France and the United Kingdom. His stories have appeared in more than 70 magazines and journals internationally, including the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In 2005 he won the Frank O’Connor Award from descant magazine for his short fiction. He was cited in Best American Mystery Stories 2000 and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Forthcoming titles include the noirs The Suicide and One False Step in France, and a new Max Zajack novel called Nowhere Near Hollywood in the United Kingdom. He has also been named the writer in residence at the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France for the fall 2018 semester.
Mister SaFranko is also a playwright; his plays have been seen in many New York venues as well as in theaters in both Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and Cork, Ireland. In 1992 his one-act play The Bitch-Goddess was selected Best Play of the Village Gate One-Act Festival in New York. As an actor he has appeared both onstage and in several independent films, including Inner Rage and A Better Place, as well as a featured role in truTV’s Forensic Files and several commercials. A songwriter and composer, his music is available through iTunes and other online stores. He is also a painter.