She did live alone and on the outskirts of town. Not that she had to remind them, so Liz directed the little joke at herself: "I can't watch a murder movie and then drive home. I'd be too frightened to get out of the car."
"I can't watch one and stay home," Sigrid said. She looked at a grinning Steve. "Didn't you get anything else?"
He shook his head. The three old friends were sitting in Sigrid and Steve's living room, the women on opposite ends of the sofa, Steve across from them on a chair near the big window.
On the TV screen a woman was driving in a quiet dark car, her face half-lit from the dashboard lights. Liz felt the first physical indication that what was about to happen on the screen was too much for her, a hot weakness that started at her feet and threatened to rush to her head. She stood up.
"I'm kind of tired. I think I'll call it a night." She looked at her friends. She had known them a long time. They had all gone to college together and at various times for years afterwards had been roommates, mostly she and Sigrid - Siggy they called her - but Steve had popped in from time to time to room, chastely, with one or the other. Then a few years ago Siggy and Steve looked at each other as if for the first time. Six months ago Liz had saluted them with champagne at their wedding.
Siggy stood up beside her. "Don't you dare leave. We'll make some coffee." She cast a glance at the grinning Steve. Liz thought his grin was more of a smirk, an unbecoming one that made his close-set eyes look even closer. In college she and Siggy used to joke that he missed being good-looking by a fraction of an eyeball. Even now when Steve did something that reminded Liz of one of their old jokes about him, she would catch Siggy's eye, an affirmation, she believed, of their steadfast friendship.
Liz felt as if the movie's sound were following her through the open dining room and into the kitchen. It was magnified even more by the vision in her mind of Steve's grinning face, and below his grin, that stupid T-shirt with the words "Bite Me" written across the chest. He knew she would be here tonight so getting a movie she couldn't handle hadn't been a mistake. Since she'd been teaching the late afternoon Tuesday class she'd been stopping off here on her way home for dinner and a visit. She would have preferred to visit with just Siggy but tonight was the first time Steve's presence really bothered her. Still she didn't want to show her irritation. If she were not here Siggy would watch the damn movie. She might mention later how terrible it was, but it wouldn't keep her awake at night listening for noises at the window.
Liz reached over the kitchen sink, slid the window closed.
"Are you afraid someone's coming in?" Siggy asked. She pulled the faucet toward her and filled the coffee pot.
"Oh I'm sorry." She reached back up to open it.
Siggy touched her on the shoulder. "I'm teasing. Leave it alone."
"You see, I didn't even watch the movie and I'm paranoid." She took two brown mugs and one chipped blue one from the cupboard and set them on the counter. Her own cupboard held a matching set, but then she didn't have a husband who often drove to work with a cup of coffee, and later, forgetting the cup, let it roll from the open door and smash onto the asphalt as Siggy said Steve did. "He won't get a thermos cup," she said. "I guess he likes breaking cups too much."
Steve had his own stories he told in retaliation.
It still surprised Liz that marriage divulged behaviors that years of rooming with Siggy and Steve never showed. Although none of the stories could hold up to the surprise she felt when they told her of their relationship. By that time it was well under way, had been for some time. She had felt both dumbfounded and deceived, dumbfounded in thinking how naïve she was not to realize that passion could arise out of a long, platonic friendship and deceived thinking of all that had occurred behind her back. She hadn't been sure of how to act around them at first, all that touching and long eye-to-locked-eye contact, but as time passed things became more comfortable. At the wedding Liz had said to them, "At least you guys won't have to worry about me not getting along with your spouses. Now all I have to do is find someone who will fit in."
The sound from the other room increased, shuffling and heavy breathing noises as if someone were running or doing God knows what. Unpleasant images formed in Liz's mind. An ex-boyfriend once told her that this imaginative tendency was nothing more than self-indulgence, a ploy to get people to coddle her. "And I'm not going to do it," he said. But he didn’t know a sensitive nature when he saw it and she’d told him so. Fortunately she'd found people in her life who did.
She glanced at Siggy and their eyes met. Siggy turned toward the doorway. "Steve. Would you please turn that down?" She turned back to the coffee maker and switched it on. "I don't know why he's being such a jerk tonight."
Siggy's tone seemed apologetic, but Liz thought she heard a hint of insincerity. She wasn't sure so she didn't say what she was thinking: He was always good at being a jerk when he felt like it. This new reluctance to say what she thought surprised her. But you couldn't expect a person to believe her husband was a jerk, although in the past she and Siggy had at times referred to Steve in worse ways.
The movie's volume stayed up. Siggy motioned them to the breakfast nook. "We'll drown him out." She switched on the radio, sat down, and laughed. The weather announcer's voice from the radio and the mournful music from the television made an odd mixture of sound.
Liz sat in the chair closest to the wall and forced herself to smile. She hoped they weren't going to get into some childish game. She had long grown tired of Steve's games. Once when she and Siggy were rooming together in a house in a not-so-nice neighborhood, they had ventured out onto the porch one hot summer night, drinking iced tea and talking, and Steve had parked his car down the street, come up beside the house, then jumped out, scaring them so bad Liz had almost fainted, and Siggy, in a reflexive action, had thrown her glass at him, nicking him in the head. When they realized it was him, Siggy screamed, "You asshole," and the two women had gone in the house, mumbling more obscenities, and leaving him to deal with his bloody head.
"Maybe I should just go on home," Liz said.
Siggy reached her hand across the table toward Liz. "Don't. He'll get tired of sitting in there alone."
As if Siggy's remark were prophetic Liz sensed Steve's movement beyond the kitchen doorway. She glanced into the dining room and saw his reflection on one of the windows. The Creeping Charlie hanging from a hook in the ceiling swayed as Steve brushed against it on his way towards the bedroom. If he was going into another room why didn't he turn the movie down? She felt exasperated. A siren sounded outside.
"I think the coffee's ready," Siggy said. She stood up, one hand suddenly rising in an awkward movement as if she were swatting at a bug. Liz started to say something, then was caught by the movement near the doorway.
The man's arms were extended, his eyes, nose, and lips were smashed on his face by the pressure of the nylon stocking over his head. It was Steve; Liz knew it was him, but she couldn't stop herself from jerking backwards in her chair. Her feet moved beneath her, but she couldn't get up. There was a rushing sound in her head as if she had pressed a seashell against her ear.
"Damnit Steve!" Siggy yelled. "What in the hell are you doing! Is that a good pair. . ."
He rushed forward, grabbed Siggy by the arm, dragging her with him as he brought his face close to Liz's. Her feet caught hold, propelling her up and backwards against the wall. Her chair crashed to the floor.
Steve's distorted face leered closer. Liz tried to move away but the wall was unforgiving against her back.
"Stop it!" she heard her own voice yell. She brought her hands up to hide her face.
"Liz, it's okay. Look." Siggy held the nylon in the air. Liz stared at it. Her head shook. The noise in her head was breaking into popping sounds, tiny explosions near one ear.
Siggy lowered the nylon. "Damnit Steve. This was a good pair." She put her hand inside of it. "Look what you did to it. And you scared the shit out of Liz." She turned back to Liz, her fingers fanning the hole in the nylon. "Are you okay?"
"Did you see her feet run?" Steve asked.
"Damn you," Liz said.
Siggy stared at Steve, her lips pinched together, but Liz saw the smile forming. Steve looked back at Siggy.
"Her feet went ninety, but she still sat in the chair."
Siggy leaned toward Steve, her smile breaking into a grin. She grabbed his arm, hugged it to her chest, and pressed her face against his shoulder. Her own shoulders shook.
"You bastard," Liz said, but her eyes were on Siggy.
Siggy raised her head, but continued hugging Steve's arm. "Oh come on Liz. It was kind of funny."
Liz stared at her friend's grinning face. Now I know why the two of you got married, she started to say. You're both jerks. But before she could say it, a woman's voice called out from the television in the living room. It sounded amazingly like her own voice had sounded to her ears a moment ago, but what struck Liz more was that within the voice she detected a certain tone of frailty.
Frances Kerridge's stories have appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Ascent, Santa Monica Review, and Redbook. She lives in the Sierra Nevada backwoods where there is no cell phone signal.