White Night

White Night

By Venice Buhain

Long after the television stations had signed off and Peter's books stopped being interesting, Joanna remained awake. She rested her head against the high back of the leather upholstered arm chair and blankly stared like a doll. Sleep evaded Joanna as if it were allergic to her and the sun was not ready to wipe away the night. The synthetic illumination of the floor lamp gave the formal living room an unhealthy jaundiced tinge. Shadows on the floor looked as if they had been painted in place. Joanna closed her eyes as a respite from the incessant light, but the imprudent electric illumination still forced its way into her brain.

If she could have, she would have blocked the intruding light without engulfing the cavernous room in darkness. Joanna was quite familiar with how darkness could sometimes hide reality away with the only remaining thing being that which etched itself into memory. She knew that her memory of the house was sometimes faulty, and the first thing that she had asked Peter, her partner in greatness for six months, after they married was to move to a new house, so that she could restart with new memories of the life that they would spend together. However, they had come to the conclusion that would be logistically impossible for the present. She pressed her eyelids with her long fingers, but the blackness was brighter than any light that she had ever seen. She tried to count sheep, but her sheep refused to cooperate, wandering in and out of the field of vision of her mind's eye. One particularly nasty black sheep stuck out a mocking tongue at her; if sheep could express thought, this one would have smiled evilly.

Shaken, she uncovered her face and caught her reflection in the brass pendulum of the grandfather clock. Her round face was haggard and distorted by the rocking disk; the slightly upturned nose seemed of pig like proportion. Her natural blondness turned into a bright yellow in the swinging brass image. As it passed her face, even the blue blackness of the hallway behind her was tinted yellow by the brass. She grew tired of waiting for it to hypnotize her into sleep.

Upstairs, Peter slept soundly in moonlit darkness. When they first married, he would join her vigils and try to cajole her into sleep, but after he started to fall asleep to his own lectures, he reluctantly decided to let Joanna deal with her insomnia alone. He had told her that he felt quite guilty about not being with her during the late hours of the night, and Joanna appreciated his sensitivity. After all, it was one of the many things that she loved about him.

Her new husband Peter truly was a treasure. When she closed her eyes, she could imagine the soft pouting lips touching hers. Peter's soft voice and gentle nature matched perfectly with her first impression of him in that San Francisco tavern soon after she had left England for good. She first saw his reflection in the bar mirror, the golden curls, electric blue eyes, and young face a complete contrast to the dark greens and burgundy of background of the tavern interior. The reflection had been studying her with such quiet intensity, Joanna had thought momentarily that she was looking at herself. That night, Peter had not worn his wedding ring and did not mention a wife; however, his wife had been so unsupportive, it would not have been entirely honest for him to call her a spouse. Joanna knew that first night how much Peter's first wife had hurt him. She could tell by studying the smug triumphant smirk in the pictures from Peter's wallet after he had fallen asleep satisfied and exhausted. She could tell by watching the sleeping innocent face which barely revealed his forty two years. Much later he told Joanna hesitatingly, almost tearfully, that his wife had started divorce proceedings twice, but had ended the process both times. Joanna decided that his wife had not only been unpleasant, but a hurtful California flake who did not deserve the charming Adonis. She knew from that first day without his saying that he agreed with her; she could read it in the watery blue eyes.

The sound of the upstairs toilet flushing reminded Joanna that she was not the only one awake in the house. She never faulted Peter for not telling her initially about his teenaged son James. They could not have known that they would be married three years after first they had met. Joanna knew that Peter was concerned about how she would feel about dating a man with a son only a decade younger than she was. Joanna heard pounding steps and a faintly buzzing radio. A distant telephone rand and was silenced by a muffled chattering. James could have had almost anything he wanted: Peter adored his son. Joanna noticed under light of the motel marquee that crept in through the window on the first night that she and Peter spent together that most of the pictures in his wallet were of James. James was also the main reason why Peter ultimately refused to move to a new house. She loved how affectionate a father Peter was.

Peter also displayed his affection on the wall of their living room; along side of his volumes of books were pictures of James, on the walls and on the shelves. Joanna insisted when they first married that Peter remove those that included his first wife. Rather reluctantly, he took down the pictures of a happy child, with blonde hair like his father and smiling blue eyes that echoed the color of the ocean, in the ecstasy of being cradled in his mother's arms. Peter's obvious sentimentality as he removed the evidence of his first wife endeared Joanna to him. Joanna had not seen those pictures since Peter took them down, but she knew that they were in a new display in James' room. Only high school pictures and portraits taken during drama productions remained in the living room, the images of James disguised made an eerie gallery of artificial relatives. She often complained to Peter that the pictures were staring at her, although the eyes never looked straight at her, but seemed to look at things in which Joanna's reflection would seem the most distorted: in the brass pendulum of the clock or the polished oak of the bookshelves. However, Peter never let her move the photographs; some concession had to be given to his son. So the pictures kept catching slide glances at her.

She wished that the real James would look at her that way. From under the black shell of his permanently black clothes and dyed black hair poked his baby face and his blue eyes, piercing like reluctant lasers, only burning because they had to. The baby face always pouted at her, like a renaissance cherub with a heavy burden. Like his father, James looked at things intensely. Often Joanna would break the stare by blinking her own eyes behind her tinted spectacles and laughing in that way that Peter loved. Peter would gently take Joanna's hand and pat it reassuringly. With a gentle laugh, he would then tell James to stop scaring his stepmother.

What's done cannot be undone. The hoarse whisper came out of the ether and cut through the silence of the night. The first sound that Joanna had heard seemed to come from all over the room. It washed over her like liquid nitrogen and froze her in the leather seat. She would have sworn it came from a back corner of her mind, yet she knew her eardrums felt something. The only thing that dared move was her heart, which pumped faster and harder. Yet, although her limbs refused to move, the individual flecks of dust which swirled in the lamplight became more obvious as she strained to hear the ethereal voice.

What's done cannot be undone. Say it! Joanna jumped up, broken free of the strangle hold that her body imposed on itself, when she heard the words again, and she trembled at the intensity of its command. Her feet sank into the plush of the carpet and the hair on her body rose, like that of a cat getting ready to pounce. Joanna scanned the living room and the James' pictures seemed to make a stop motion film.

Come on. Say it, "What's done cannot be undone." The voice found a body in the pictures on the wall and for the first time, the black and white pictures seemed to stare directly at Joanna. So clear in Joanna's mind was the blue of James' eyes. It seemed to be only color in the collection of photographs. Each pair of blue eyes stared down at her disapprovingly. She rushed toward one of the photographs on the wall next to the grandfather clock to grab it and smash it into pieces so that the hoarse whisper could end its taunting. It showed James smirking coyly into the camera and covering part of his face with a black bowler hat.

What's done cannot be undone. The voice was clear this time and hit Joanna's ears as she placed her hand on the picture frame. It seemed so right that it came from the picture itself. She could just make out two eyes and a nose in the blackness of the bowler hat. Joanna gasped and whirled around to meet two startled eyes and a nose illuminated by the small yellow light of a cordless phone floating in the dark hallway.

The hallway was so dark, she could barely make out the black clothes of the vampiric shape before her. The only other feature apparent from Joanna's angle was the red can of soda in the figure's hand. James shook his head and wordlessly bounded up the stairs.

Slowly, it dawned on Joanna what James must have been doing. She chided herself for not recognizing the words from Macbeth. James knew nothing of her past and he was just reciting the words over the phone, probably to help a classmate. She giggled a bit. Her overactive imagination had always been her problem. Her acting coaches at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts had always taken note of it. She had once been an actress who ought to recognize her Shakespeare.

"How bloody obvious," she laughed aloud dropping once again into the leather chair. Her bell-like sound bounced off the high ceiling of the living room and settled in a dusty corner shadow. Joanna could see the laugh stirring up the dust and chased it out of the darkness into the yellow lamplight. It seemed to Joanna that the laugh danced out from her lips, up the chimney, and over the roof. Upon her fantasy, she covered her mouth and muffled the sound.

"I'm just tired," she murmured in order to have the visceral sensation of sound. As the sound died, she could hear once again the faint mumbling of James' voice. Although she knew that it had to come from his upstairs bedroom, it seemed to emanate from the pictures in the living room, culminating in a negating silence. The individual Jameses in the pictures seemed to be holding a genteel conversation about tea and drowning, and it sounded like cats wailing to Joanna.

Joanna longed to release a blood curdling scream in order to interrupt the obliterating silence, but she did not dare. She watched the picture of James glance sideways at her and she could imagine that it winked at the other photos. Joanna reasoned that Peter would not have heard her if she did scream, because he slept like a baby through everything. However, she wanted to believe that he was having a nightmare in sympathy.

Covering her mouth, she let out a repressed moan. This cleared her mind for one moment and she stopped to think. She knew that her imagination was getting the best of her, like it always had, and she decided in an instant to let Shakespeare do the imagining for her. She walked to the Peter's leather bound volumes, all the while noting each individual thread from the rug beneath her feet as she walked.

The leather from the book felt as comforting as Peter's hand. Peter had written the introduction to this edition of Shakespeare, and she somehow took comfort in the fact that Peter reached out to her, even when he physically could not be there. She knew that when she began to read the introduction, she would be comforted by the soft soothing voice of her husband that she would hear in her mind's ear. But as she started to move Macbeth from its resting place, she noticed the hair.

The strand was carefully stretched across the volume, plastered on both ends to the books on either side and to the volume itself. Obviously, someone had put it there to test some theory and to trap her. The black hair was barely visible against the black leather of Macbeth; but now that Joanna noticed it, it had become the most dominant feature of the room. Joanna wondered what other traps she might have set off.

She glanced around the room furtively at the eyes in the photographs which were undoubtedly witnesses. It was only then that she noticed the fine threads of hair securing the picture frames scattered around the living room. As Joanna backed away from the traps that lined the walls, she could almost feel a fine gossamer of hair between the soles of her feet and the plush carpet of the living room. She almost could feel the hair as fine as spider's web brush against her back as she backed out of the brightly lit living room and deep into the dark hallway.

Joanna's pupils dilated as they adjusted to the light. In the daytime, the walls of the hallway were muted shades of pale, which unfortunately adopted the colors of ambient light at nighttime. The walls surrounded Joanna in their eerie windowless darkness. She fumbled through the blackness to the literal light at the end of the tunnel, the blue light streaming in through the kitchen window. Joanna headed toward it like a drowning man for the surface. She entered the kitchen like an actress stepping on to a lit stage, her feet reacting with shock to the cold tile of the floor. Looking down to the cold floor, she finally noticed Macbeth in her hand.

She raised the book to her face in disbelief. She could barely believe that she had set off the carefully set trap. Someone obviously knew her well enough to know that she would forget about the book in her fright. And if someone could predict that, she shuddered to think about what else that person could know about her.

On the spine, the black hair remained plastered, a visceral reminder of the living room behind her. The evidence of the trap remained in her hand, and she could hear the pictures were screaming their alarms in the room down the hall. All that Joanna could think about was undoing the damage that had already been done. She had to replace the book and the strand of hair.

She searched through the kitchen drawers for a proper adhesive, but realized that all the glue was probably in a desk in the living room. Joanna knew better than to look for it in there; there was no way of telling what traps were set there. Clutching the book, Joanna strained to think clearly about what was happening and what she had to do. She could imagine that the blue light that streamed through the window and an audience watched her every move, and she dramatically stood still. The only available adhesive was her own blood; she knew from experience how sticky blood could get. Grabbing a paring knife with a sharp point, she stalked back single mindedly to the bright living room like a moth toward a bug trap.

At the edge of the living room, she paused. Behind her was the engulfing tunnel and in front of her was the spider web, like trap. She trod carefully over the carpet to Peter's bookcase. She replaced Macbeth and tenderly pierced the tip of her finger. Surprisingly, the point on her fingertip caused little pain. The maroon almost looked black in the yellow lamplight. She smoothed the drop of blood onto the spines of the books surrounding Macbeth. As she did so, she tried to reason out the trap.

She knew that James had set it. There was no one else who could have logically set a trap like that. James was a bright child, but she could not think of how he could have guessed at the truth behind his mother's death. Peter, in order to protect his son from nightmares, had not even told him where the body had been found. And Joanna had been careful to leave no clue and to make it look like a suicide.

"It wasn't just me," she protested to the pictures on the wall. "Your father wanted me to do it." Joanna could tell what Peter wanted. Without having to say anything, they knew how to make each other happy. Their bond of love made words superfluous. Anyway, he had left enough clues for her. Whenever he talked about his wife, he had talked about her in past tense. She could read all his clues, as she knew that he could read hers. The question which now frightened her was whether or not James had the same ability. She strained for a logical explanation.

Logic ended with a slight pop as the living room went black. Joanna felt the darkness like a thunderbolt.

She stood still as the darkness congealed into vague shapes in the moonlight. She spotted the floor lamp in the corner, perfectly still as if to mock her. Joanna normally would have laughed; light bulbs burn out all the time. Her internal laughter faded as a section of darkness formed itself into the black shape of a person.

The dark figure moved through the room silently like cat. It circled around her slowly as if it also had been afraid to make the first move. Joanna could see it, even as it stalked behind her. It grew in size to the height of the cathedral ceiling and melted into the wall. A car passed outside the window.

Joanna idly wondered if the stalker had been a figment of her imagination. Her imagination assured her that it could not invent anything so frightening. She shivered as she grew cold, the only thread of warmth sliding down her hand and dripping onto the plush carpet.

Joanna was up the stairs in an instant, headed toward the bathroom. As she hit the light switch, her world was attacked by flickering white light and cacophony. The bright white paint and white marble of the bathroom reflected the harsh fluorescent and blinded her momentarily. She looked down at her hands and saw the paring knife in her right hand and her left wrist slit. She felt the congealing blood adhering her fingers together. Her right hand was also covered in blood, leaving handprints along the white walls that she touched. Strangely, Joanna felt no physical pain.

As the bathtub filled, the water curdled, mixing itself with dripping blood and turning a ridiculous shade of bright pink. Now, she knew that James heard, the roar of the faucet and the fan was too loud; she wondered if Peter would also hear. She stopped the faucet and dipped her left wrist into the cold water. She watched the blood dance eerily as it streamed out of her wrist, into the water, and disappeared into it. As the water stilled, a face looked back at her. Its wide open eyes were filled with terror and pleading. Its pink skin unnaturally blushed.

Joanna screamed, not caring who heard her. She felt her voice echo through the bathroom louder than the fan, travel through the ventilator shaft, and fill the world with its volume. Joanna plunged her other hand into the icy water.

Her wrists were grabbed and she felt herself being pulled into the cold water. Slowly, it dawned on Joanna that the screams which filled her head were not hers. They seemed to come from outside, an alien noise that flooded her ears and threatened to obliterate her senses. She closed her eyes in an attempt to keep her sanity by shielding one of her senses. Even as she felt her head being pulled under the water, the screams did not diminish. They only felt as if they were getting louder.

Opening her eyes, she saw the face of Peter's first wife as she last saw her, blue and stiff, eyes unseeing. Her black hair floated in front of her face and danced like waving arms calling for attention. Joanna tried to pull her arms away. so that she could push herself off and float to safety. She felt as if she were being sucked out of her body out the top of her head. The face of Peter's first wife softened as it turned to look at Joanna. The face smirked triumphantly.

"Where is she now? What, will these hands never be clean?" Peter's first wife winked and opened her mouth as if she would laugh, but it came out like a scream.

Joanna felt herself being pushed away. The water evaporated. The hard porcelain of the bathroom softened into upholstered leather. The pale features of Peter's first wife hardened into the baby face of James. The pale face peeked from behind the darkness and the blue eyes reflected the moonlight.

"Jesus, what is wrong with you? I thought that someone was trying to kill you down here." James held both of her wrists close to her face. She noticed the whiteness of the unmarked skin.

Joanna was at a loss for words. She started to laugh.

James shook his head as he walked away, his black clothes and black hair making a shadowy camouflage as he staked silently up the steps. "Just try to get some sleep, Joanna. And don't laugh so loud. You might wake Dad."

Copyright 1996 by A. Buhain
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