The house was dead when he came home. No lights, no noise, even a little chilly in the early spring dusk. Pete Kothkis stood in the entryway, peering in to the house with a slightly confused smile. Maybe they dipped out to the store for a bit and just didn't say anything? No, he'd had the car…her mom, maybe? He shook his head, tossing his bag on the couch, snapping on lights and looking in the kitchen and hall in a half-hearted search.
Not that he minded the silence, it was refreshing from the normal buzz when he came home, but it was unexpected. No Amanda trying to pick up, with a kiss by the door. No Christian bopping about underfoot, or Jamie bouncing and shrieking for a hug. He leaned in to the fridge, fishing out a pop and snatching up a bag of chips before slumping back in to the couch. It'd been a long bloody day.
Pete watched the TV without seeing, munching absently as he considered what to do. Really, he should put some time in on his report, but it was honestly nothing that wouldn't keep until later in the week. The new position was proving both more and significantly less demanding then his old one. More quality, less quantity, in a way, but that was honestly how Pete liked it. Not so rushed, taking time-
His hip suddenly pulsed with the beat of some forgotten pop song.
He fumbled for the ringing device, having to stretch out to get the pants pocket unfolded enough to fish the phone free. He saw the smiling face of his wife from the screen, and grinned, tapping it on.
“Hey babe, where are you guys? I was just about to call.”
“Oh, so you're home already?”
Pete chuckled, tucking the phone against his neck and rising to slowly walk and pace around the room. She'd always ribbed him about it, but he could never just sit on the phone and talk, it felt…odd. “Yeah, I figured you were with your mom or something, going-”
“I'm…not with mom, Pete.”
“-with…what? Who then?” He stopped, stock still. Something in her tone, in the tiny sigh she'd given put him immediately on edge.
“…It's not important, Pete. I…oh god. I'm sorry, Pete. I can't…I just can't do this anymore.”
He moved his hand uselessly in the air, seeming to try and pull understanding from vapor. “Can't do what? Amanda, I don't…I'm not following here, what's going on?” Even as he asked, a sick, sticky realization was trying to crawl in to his awareness.
She continued almost as if he hasn't spoken. “I know you try, Pete, and you're great, and you love the kids…but…Pete, it's not enough. You don't make the time for me, for us, you work so much, and you never get back until late. It's been going on six months since you touched me like you used to. I can't just live on memory and life support. I'm a human woman, Pete, not a plant you can just water from time to time and call it good.” The anger was seeping in to her voice, making it quick and sharp.
He glared at the wall, breathing deep and slow, biting back venom. “Are you joking me. I work for US. I work to keep US alive and afloat. You think I like coming home in time to basically put the kids to bed, too exhausted to do much of anything? Shockingly, I don't. I don't get what the hell you're revved up about, but I think we need to talk about this, face to face at the very least.”
There was a sob in her voice now, along with the rage. Lordy. “NO! No more talking, and discussing, and working things out. You're not going to change, I know better now. I thought I loved you, and I think I do, but I can't…my heart is bleeding out to you, Pete, and nothing coming back. It's like I'm pouring my feelings in to a sieve, and it all just runs away. Did you really care about me, Pete, or was I just a fun time that got out of hand? You wanted me so bad you had to go and marry me to seal the deal? Was that it?”
Her voice was laced with bile and festered anger, yet he still stared, blank, at the wall. His voice, however, simmering and tight, betrayed that bland mask. “Why is all this happening now? You could have TOLD me this, I ask you what the hell is wrong almost daily! You just keep letting it simmer and simmer, and then explode on me like it's somehow my fault you won't talk? I don't know what you're thinking, but we need to at LEAST talk this out face to face.”
“No, no, no, no more talking, or letting you put your sticky fingers in my head. I…I've found someone else, Pete.” His heart dropped like a stone in a frozen lake, even the sickly expectation of it hadn't helped. She kept on through his silence. “He loves me, Pete, truly, and the kids, too. You took six years of my life, Pete. You bled me out for all I had, and didn't give me anything, anything-”
“Amanda, where are my children.” It was barely a question. He knew, but had to hope. He was willing to ignore the unfairness, the one-sided, petulant whining if this one, single question was different from his expectation. He started walking again, slowly.
“Pete…I can't leave them there, with you. You…you're not even there, Pete. You wouldn't even be able to put them on the bus in the morning. You're a picture to them, and not much more. They're safe, and will be until the trial, but I'm not letting you see them, Pete. I can't…I can't trust you anymore. You've hurt me too much, I just…” She dissolved in to sobs, gasping in to the phone.
The sudden, explosive laughter brought those sobs up short.
“Hurt you? Oh wow…me, hurting you? Honey bunny, I don't think you understand that term.”
“You have not clue at all what I gave up for you, what it took every day to be the very best husband and father I could be, do you? I mean…wow.” He loosed another gale of laughter, shaking his head and starting to walk down the hall. “This…wow. Baby, I'm stunned, really I am, I don't mean to laugh, I just…you have no fucking clue, do you? At all?”
“This…this is what I'm talking about, Pete, these games you play…it's not healthy, it-”
“Dearheart, I don't think you have a clue. Listen, babe, I hate to yank you out of the speech I'm sure you've been mentally reviewing for weeks when you insisted everything was fine, but I have a question for you, if you'll indulge me.” He tucked the phone against his neck again, swinging open the basement door and starting down the steps.
“…don't talk down to me like that, Pete, I'm not goin-”
“You will listen to every word I have to say.”
He could almost hear her freeze and stare at the phone. He smiled a easy, empty smile, tasting her confusion over airwaves. Now, finally, maybe she was understanding that the situation had changed.
“When we got together babe, I loved you more then anything in the entire world. I mean anything, and I don't think you ever fully got that, not all the way. Then, when we had kids…well, I hate to admit it, but they took the forefront. Harsh, I know, but I think that's how it's supposed to be, even if you seem to think my every waking moment should be in devotion to you.”
“That is NOT what-”
“ANYWAY. I gave up a lot for you, the smoking, the swearing, all those goodies, but I don't think you fully understand the…sacrifice I made to be with you.” He crossed the basement, the gloom of the bare bulbs showing just enough to move the old bookcase safely, sliding it along the dusty floor. Have to sweep down here, sometime. “Do you remember, way back when we first got together, there was that thing in the news about…oh, what was it, the red ghost, or the red phantom or something?”
Silence stretched across the phone line.
“Still there babe?”
“Oh good. Remember, you had me walk you home those few times because there was a murder a couple towns over? Always homes, never any real struggle, nothing broken in to, so they were thinking that this phantom was snatching people on the street and making them drive home with him? You were so scared, and I'm sorry I laughed, but I mean…it was cute, really.”
He reached low, listening to her breathing turning ragged as he fished out the loose bricks. Was this other fella right there, offering moral support, or did she excuse herself to rip his heart out in private? Kids probably not with her, maybe mom? No…Kathy, probably. Worth a stop, at least. “Some things are automatic, babe. You don't think, it's just…needed, and you do it. Washing hands, tying shoes, automatic. It takes no thought at all to do, but a ocean of focus not to. Every single day, every one, I made the choice not to be automatic. Because I loved you, I chose not to.”
Pete grinned, pulling the duffel bag from the wall with a uneven clank. He fished inside, pulling the thick, smooth curve of the linoleum knife free and tapping the point. “I'm…I can't believe you would do this. And take the kids, no less. Wow. I just…do you get it now baby? Do you understand what I'm telling you now? Is it sinking in?”
Her breath was coming too fast, sobs choking in “Oh god…oh my god…I…I'm gonna call the cops, Pete, Y-you aren't…I won't…I won't let you do…oh god, Pete…”
“Call 'em babe, please. Please. I'll be gone, but I want you to feel good baby, I want this to be easy for you now. You know me lovey…remember, you kept commenting how I fit in anywhere, I can talk to anyone? I have that open, trusting face people love, people really love to listen to me. Trust me. Believe me.” His smile was honest amusement as he pulled up his shirt and secured the harness, dropping the knives, needles and other helpful bits to their places. “Didn't you ever wonder why they stopped right around when we got together? And you decided to just toss me to the wind, like nothing. Garbage. Wow.”
“Pete, keep a-a-away from me, I…oh god, Pete, don't, you're scaring me, please…”
“Honey-bunny, you don't understand that term. You're going to be checking under your bed for me. I've never felt such a whipsnap of devotion…as much as I loved you, it's gone to the same amount in the polar opposite direction. I don't think you could just pass it off as 'April fools' anymore, even. I'm still trying to wrap my head around how you could do this.” He shook his head in disappointment, adjusting it as he took a practice throw with a knife. Rusty, need to practice. Still, like a bicycle, never really forget.
She was just sobbing now, blubbering something threatening, maybe.
“I'm going to get rolling baby, let you call the cops and such, maybe get a quickie from your new boy, just to take the edge off, right? You know why they called it the phantom? Because a couple witnesses said they saw him, and he looked so white it had to be a ghost, or a mask. Ain't that a scream.” He laughed, hefting up the bag, forgoing the normal gloves and mask that was normally required. Just a gentleman on the way to the gym, officer. “I would have let you go. You hurt me, but I would have let you go…but you had to try and take the whole pie, snatch it all from me. Don't worry babe, the kiddle-biddles won't ever know any more than you tell them.”
More moaning and crying now, something about keeping away from the kids, maybe.
“Sweetheart, you may love them enough to steal them, but I love them enough to kill for them. See you in a couple weeks, babe. Tell your new boy I said hi…or, you know what, never mind. I'll tell him myself.”
He hung up, then crushed the phone against the wall even as it chimed again, slamming it over and over in blank-faced rage, leaving the splintered heap on the floor. He locked up, unplugged the power strips behind the TV and computer, and stepped out on the porch, heading for the car.
The Red Ghost inhaled the night.