What could winter do but instill in him a deeper longing for her? Though the bitter cold was nothing compared to the frost that encased his heart, he could not help but shiver. The fire burning in the hearth did not cast the warmth that he sought, and the flames darkened the features of his face with shadows. So tired, so worn, so lined with grief was his appearance that the picture upon the fireplace mantle bore little resemblance to him, though they were in fact the same person.

The man in photo was happy, carefree. And the man that swayed slightly as he stood felt the complete contrary.

The only window in the room was fogged, though it was evident that it hid a dark night devoid of stars. A street lamp cast a frosty glow upon the glass, and the father clock that stood ticking in the corner revealed the late hour. A dog could be heard barking in the distance, and a car drove by, its headlights making eerie patterns upon the ceiling that vanished as the vehicle went around the corner. Then, all was quiet.

He did not stir for a moment, but stood still, staring at the hearth as the fire within popped and snapped. A glass of scotch was in his hand, and his limb's unconscious movement caused the golden liquid to swirl, forcing the light that went through the glass to become minute fragments upon the wall. He closed his eyes, releasing a harsh sigh that caused his body to convulse involuntarily. Once again, memories ravaged his thoughts, and once again he fought to keep them at bay.

And the scotch was helping. He drained his glass, setting it upon the nightstand by the crimson recliner. That's her favorite chair, he thought, and then corrected himself aloud, "Was her favorite chair." His voice was slurred and thick with intoxication.

Drawing his azure robe closer around him, he staggered out the door of the study and went into the dark hall, the whites of his eyes bloodshot and red. He rubbed them to clear his vision, and blinked several times. Yes, he was drunk, but who was there to care? No one... not any longer.

He had taken the bottle from the wine rack earlier that evening with no other intention other than to get wasted. Shot after shot came, and each time he drank he prayed that the liquid would become like the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness that flowed through the Land of the Dead. Its water produced a loss of memory in those who drank of it. Often called the River of Oblivion, the shades of dead who tasted its waters forgot about their past lives on earth.

Drink and forget, drink and be at peace.

But he could not. She would not let him.

Down the hall he swaggered, toward the room he hadn't entered since... it happened. For four months he'd given the doorway a wide girth. He feared it, knowing that beyond the door terrible events had taken place. The black aura that surrounded threshold sickened him, reminded him of his grief... and of Death. He tried to push his fear into the back of his mind, ignoring the voice inside his head that screamed coward. He could not look within the room. He could barely look upon himself in the way he had been able to four months ago.

Four months ago.

Four months ago- when the stains of her blood on the wall and floor were plainly visible. Four months ago, when he beheld his hands and viewed the hands of a guilty man. Four months ago, he cradled the figure of his beloved, freshly dead, her warm body turning cold and stiff with rigor mortis as the hours flew by like moments, hanging hazardously to the threads of time...

Four months ago.

He stumbled and leaned against the wall, all his senses and emotions numbing, save a peculiar determination that kept him slightly sober. He knew what he was doing, and knew that until he did it, he would find no peace, no rest.

Stopping, he turned and faced the entrance of the room. He stood before the door, its mahogany wood gleaming with varnish and a particular vehemence that set a chill within his bones. He could still feel the dark presence of desecration and doom, of terror and of lingering death. The golden handle flashed at him, daring him to open the door and release the horrors that had been waiting for him. It dared him to relive the anguish and agony for a second time. But his fear had been dulled by the warmth of the scotch, and he twisted the knob viscously and-

-flipping the switch, dropped his briefcase on the floor, briefly wondering why the room was so dark. The "Hey, sweetie" died upon his lips as he stared at the scene unraveling before him. A woman stood in front of a mirror in the far side of the room, her previously closed eyes fluttering open. She saw his image reflected upon the polished looking glass, and swiveled around to face him, a stricken expression upon her face. Her eyes were wide with shock and dismay; her pupils dilated, searching in vain for means of escape. Her long black hair, silken and wavy when she brushed it, was plastered with against her perspiring forehead. She still had on the clothing she'd worn that morning- a wrinkled and unkempt fuchsia gown. At breakfast, she'd told him she wasn't feeling well, and he hadn't bothered to ask what was wrong. She'd seemed bright and cheery enough, though she'd been suspiciously distant and aloof. But he had shrugged it off, not caring really, pecking her on the cheek and telling her that he'd be late coming home; there was a meeting with a client that he had to take care of...

Now, there was no smile, no warm greeting, not even the stoic expression that had caused him to cancel a few 'appointments' to suppress any more suspicion on her part. He played the role of a good husband, took her out dancing, and (hopefully) caused any doubt of him to dissipate. But now... now there was only a cold fear, a terror that gave her blanched face the look of a hunted animal. His eyes questioned her as he lowered his gaze and glared at the black, cold metal in her hand He looked at her, back at the gun, and then to her face once more. He recognized the firearm immediately.

"Renita? Where'd you get that?"

But even as he asked the question, he already knew the answer. His brown eyes narrowed and darkened as his anger took the place of concern. Renita's lips quivered as she watched him. She sank down upon the queen-sized bed, cradling the pistol in her hand. Slowly rocking back and forth, she mumbled indecipherably to herself. And he... he hadn't thought why she had the goddamn gun in the first place. He was furious because he knew what she had to have done to come across it.

He should have been more careful he had a feeling something like this would happen. But never in a million years would he have thought that she'd ever have reason to doubt anything he told her. But unfortunately, her beauty did not impede her intelligence, and it was apparent that she'd actually gone through an investigation to prove him innocent... or guilty. There could be no other explanation for her coming across that pistol. It was in a goddamn locked drawer in his study. I should have bought as safe, he thought, and stashed the photos there.

It was too late for the 'should have done's; from the hatred stemming from her eyes, he accurately concluded that Renita had condemned him.

But his pride took the better of him, and his shame turned to anger.

"Renita, answer me when I talk to you. Where'd you get that gun?"

Renita kept her eyes averted from his, but not because she was afraid of him, no. She was being defiant, ignoring him, and he knew it. His emotions were strong. Yes, he loved her, and yes, he was furious. He may have been in the wrong, but Renita needed to learn her place. He overshadowed her, and he did not like having to ask more than once for something. Because if he did and still didn't get what he wanted, he took it what he desired by force.

The fact that he'd won her out of sheer spite for her father was beside the point.

He pressed his lips into a thin line and tensed his fists. Through clenched teeth, he barked, "Answer me, woman!"

His patience with her was slowly ground away as the moments ticked by. Still she refused to answer. He stalked towards her, itching to hurl her across the room. Never before had he felt an urge to comment such an act of violence as he did then, especially toward Renita. He loved the woman. She was his wife.

But how dare she look in his files... and she took his pistol... What the hell did she think she was doing?

The panicky look returning to her face as he advanced, she raised the gun and directed it towards him. He hesitated for a moment and continued his onslaught, crying out indignantly, "Why you conniving little who-"

"Don't move any closer." Her voice cracked and trembled as she spoke. "Don't move, Michael. Don't make me do it."

A momentary flash of rage almost caused him to charge on despite the danger. She threatened to kill him, to kill him. But he stopped, noting the sincerity in her voice. Then a confused and irritated expression diffused across his face, and he relaxed his fists, lowering them to his sides. Another emotion- fear - crept inside him as well.

"Renita, give me that."

Her hand quivered, and the gun jerked violently. "Stay back. Don't make me hurt you Michael. Don't make me."

"Okay. All right, I'm going to stand right here." He held his palms slightly upward as a sign of resignation. "Now tell me. What are you doing with my pistol?"

"You know what the hell I'm doing with it!" she shouted. "Don't ask stupid questions!"

Michael winced. Trying to assume the most persuading voice he could, he said, "Renita, let's talk about this. I know you're upset. But you don't want to hurt me, so put the gun down."

"Oh but God, if I could, I would. I would hurt you, Michael. Like you've hurt me." Renita choked as she tried to check the sob rising from her chest. She blinked violently as she tried to hold back the tears. "God, I wish I could do it. Do you understand me, you lying bastard? I wish could kill you. Right, now."

Michael sighed with frustration, running his hands through his chestnut hair. "Look, baby. We got to talk about this. But before we can, you've got to put the gun down. Now!"

"Don't yell at me like that!" Renita shrieked. Her eyes were ablaze with her own inferno. "Answer me this: who is she? And don't lie to me. You're in no position to lie anymore."

Michael lowered his gaze and stared at the lamp on the nightstand. Should he tell her the truth? Or should he lie? He did love the woman and did not want to hurt her, but with the barrel of imminent death staring at his temple he was left with no other option.

"Answer me, goddamnit!"

Michael took a breath and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "Shanté."

"Shanté? Your secretary? That skimpy little slut?"

He confirmed this by averting his gaze.

"I knew it. I knew it all along," she said softly. "You though I'd never figure it out, but I knew. I just never had any proof. But you can pretty much guess how I came across that. And this." She stared at the weapon in her hands, allowing the tears to flow down her cheeks. "Ten years, Michael. I've wasted ten years of my life for you. I've wasted my youth, my love, my hopes and dreams. All on you. But it ends now."

Shaking, she got off the bed and stood, raising the pistol once more.

Michael, frightened now, said quickly, "Baby, you know I never meant to hurt you. I've always loved you. We can work this out." His eyes darted around the room. Now he was one claimed by the threat of impending danger, the prey.

"Don't give me that bullshit," Renita sobbed. "Goodbye, Michael."

"Don't do it Renita. God, woman, please. Don't do it." His entrails twisted with fear as he pleaded with her.

She gave a heart-wrenching sigh. "I didn't want you to remember me like this, Michael. I wanted... God I wanted more."

And then, to his astonishment, Michael saw her raise the gun to her forehead. A wave of relief passed over him and then a sick lump of dread as he realized what she was doing. Michael, forgetting his promise to stay where he was, sluggishly lurched forward just as the gun went off. The blast thundered in his ears, echoing in his mind long after the sound had ceased to vibrate within the room. He managed to catch Renita's slowly crumbling body as she fell, her slim form limp in his arms. The pistol hung in her lifeless fingers for a moment before dropping to the floor with a dull thud.

Michael stared in horror at his wife. Suddenly, he was on his knees, cradling her fragile body close to his own. Never had she seemed so.. so beautiful. Almost as if in one last final attempt to spite him, the gods had graced her with a beauty that seemed almost immortal. The pain that he had seen etched into her face only a moment before was gone, and she appeared at peace. A strange longing penetrated the dull shock that controlled him, and he contented himself with tracing the outline of her eyelids, her lips. He felt as if he'd let something precious, something priceless, slip from his grasp and fall; a precious jewel he'd permitted to be eroded by the constant beatings of storm and tide. A once in a lifetime opportunity that he'd let pass by. When his fingers trailed to her neck they came back to him coated with blood, sticky and a shade of red that was almost black. His satin shirt became soaked in it, but he was too numb to care. He didn't feel anything. The anger, the fear, the shame, the guilt- all of those emotions had dissipated.

Ignoring the gaping hole in the side of her head, he adjusted the strands of hair across her face. She can't be dead, he thought dumbly. Oh God, what have I done?

"Renita?" He whispered her name, like a prayer. "Renita?"

He shook her body gently. Her head lolled to the side, making the sight of death impossible to ignore. A strangled noise caught in his throat, and he felt an unfamiliar substance behind his eyes. He felt it crawl down his cheeks and drop from his chin onto her gown. They were tears.

۵ ۵ ۵

And he had allowed himself to weep, something he never did, something his father never permitted him to do. In a way it was funny, it took a hole blown in the side of her head for him to appreciate Renita more.

In the world of business, life, and love, you couldn't shed tears for the ones you stepped on along the way. You had to crush to get what you wanted. Despite the fact that your gain was at the expense of others, when you triumph you must celebrate.

Perhaps that's why Renita had been so appealing to him. Not only was she stunning, she had a father that disapproved of any man that walked into the threshold of his home. Michael loved being presented with a challenge, and in the end, he'd gotten what he came for, hanging his trophy upon the wall for the world to see as it collected dust.

And was that all she was to him, a prize? No, but perhaps if he'd valued her as much as she was worth, she'd still be alive.

Never did he think that he'd need her. There were plenty to share his bed, but even the unfaithful Odysseus pined for sweet Penelope as the goddess Calypso ravished him.

The door swung wide and he stepped through the threshold of the room, switching on the lights. He blinked away the spots clouding his vision. The stains of on the carpet had been expertly cleaned, and the room was devoid of any blemish whatsoever. But they were still visible to him, all of the bloody impressions that she'd left behind, and as long as he stayed in that wretched place they would haunt him and lead him to an early grave. But he could not help but linger. Shuffling over to the bed, he smoothed the spread and kneeled to touch the spot on the carpet where he'd lain with Renita's body until-

-he heard the sound of someone knocking in the background, violently bringing him back to reality. The rapping of the door came to him again, this time accentuated by the ringing of the doorbell. Gently laying Renita's body to the side, he stood, his joints protesting his movements. Blood and all, he hoarsely called out, "I'm coming!" as he made his way to the door and wrenched it open, a wild, glazed look in his eyes as he glared at the one who dared interrupt his final moments with his wife.

"Sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but there have been complaints- Jesus Christ, what happened here?"

The deputy standing in the doorway stared at him, noting his bloody shirt and hands with shock. He looked Michael over twice, and as he did so, the man's eyes narrowed with suspicion and his mouth thinned into a straight line. Drawing his weapon from it's holster, the deputy said, "Okay buddy, don't move a muscle. Put your hands up where I can see them. And keep 'em raised." He reached for his dispatcher with the other hand and spoke into it.

"Officer requesting back-up at 2345 Oliver Road. We've got situation here over here. I repeat, paramedics and back-up at 2345 Oliver Road. Over."

A soft chirrup of crickets was audible and a neighbor's dog barked. This is the second the time tonight a gun's been aimed at me, Michael thought. But aloud he said, "It's alright, officer." The weariness was evident in his voice.

The deputy made no reply other than to motion for him to retreat farther inside the house. Backing away from the screen door, Michael sighed and pressed his palms against the egg white colored wall, knowing very well that once he removed his hands a gory handprint would remain. This is insane, he thought. He felt insane... and powerless, hopeless... so goddamn tired.

"It's alright officer," he repeated. He felt his arms wrenched backward, the cold sensation of metal handcuffs around his wrists sent chills down his spine. "My wife has just committed suicide."

"You have the right to remain silent." The deputy was giving him the Miranda warning. "Anything you say may be used against you in the court of law. You have a right to attorney. If you cannot afford one, an attorney will be provided for you..."

In the distance, Michael could hear the wail of nearing sirens...

...and he looked up from the clean carpet, devoid of any stain or blemish. A wretched sigh tore through him and he stared around him weakly. "Why me?" he murmured, to the One who claims Supreme Authority. Grief and anger reared upon inside of him and boiled over, frothing and bubbling into a raging sea of bitterness. "Why me!"

The mattress groaned underneath him as he aggressively stood, almost as if the bed were alive and writhing with demonic creatures that wished to devour his flesh. His hands covered his ears, willing the wisps of the past to cease taunting him, but his will was not enough. Whispering harshly in his ear, they forced him to remember. He struggled with his thoughts as his mind was penetrated with memories: the police station, the investigation, the funeral, watching his only love being lowered into the rotting pit that they had dug as her grave. He remembered his wife's mother, Rosie, shrouded in black. Her face was puffy and red as the wind whipped her ebony hair into her face. Hugging his jacket close to his body, he had just said, "Amen," when she'd walked over to his place beside the reverend of the church and slapped him.

"You murdered my child. I know you did, you sick son of a bitch. Rot in hell."

Yes, everything was coming back to him in a mad rush. The force of it all sent him reeling from the room like a madman, bursting into the study.

With a strangled cry, he swept off the contents of the side table, the lamp and glass falling the floor and splintering into pieces that glinted menacingly. He turned upon the mantle and brought down the photograph that had lingered there, destroying its frame by smashing it on the table. He stared with growing hatred at the man captured within the picture, the woman standing beside him in her lovely white dress. For four months had she been deprived of sun and wind, her flesh decayed- no longer the beautiful bride that he had sworn to love and to cherish ten years ago. No. That woman was dead.

As a final act of violence, he threw the picture within the flames. The fire licked the paper eagerly, the edges curling away as they blackened, red-hot holes searing through the white smiles of the adoring couple. Michael's knees buckled and he fell, sobbing, to his knees, crying out pitifully for the last time, "Oh, God. Why me?"

۵

Turning the key into the lock, Michael tested the security by twisting the knob and pressing his weight against the door. He'd drop of the key at his real estate agent's office on his way to the new apartment.

He took the steps two at a time and walked down the driveway, the cold gray sky sympathetic with the gloom that surrounded him. The trees in the front yard swayed as the wind pressed against their trunks, yet they stood firm, moaning their disapproval as the wind persisted. Michael's breath came out in a puffy of frost, though it really wasn't that cold. As he walked by the rose bushes, planted by the goons that lived in the house before he and Renita moved in, though they were carefully tended by her, he noticed without any particular emotion that the weeds were choking the flowerbed. The magnolia tree standing not far from the house had petals scattered all around its base, mixing with the dried leaves of hibernating trees. He kicked at a few loose stones on the pavement, looking around for the last time at the wretched place that had been his home for over a decade.

He opened the car door and lugged himself inside, slamming the door shut. He turned the heater on and rubbed his hands together before placing the key into the ignition. The engine roared to life, and he shifted the gears into reverse, backing out of the drive. The house looked so forlorn, all the love that the couple inside it had shared was gone, stripping it of any life it once had. It pleaded with him to return, its dark windows sad and empty.

But how could he continue to live in a place that kept reminding him of her? No, he'd never be able to forget her, he realized that, but he could still push her into the far corners of his mind...

Wheels screeching on the asphalt, he turned quickly and sped away from the house. And he never looked back.