Ashley Burnett’s last piece for The Toast was about a superhero breakup.
My husband was too far away to hear me, but I said it anyway: “I don’t think we should knock.”
I watched him as he stumbled through the tall grass, past the gilded gates that led up to the mansion. I hurried after him, but didn’t run, and kept near the lime trees that lined the path. My nose stung with their scent.
“It’ll be fine. I’m sure this happens all the time,” Joe slurred as he made his way to the door. He ran his fingers along the parked cars in the driveway, his hands leaving oily marks, then jolted up the steps and knocked. He couldn’t keep completely still and was swaying a little, his legs just a bit folded underneath him.
My fingers found my hair and I brushed out my bangs and fixed my collar. “What’s taking them so damn long?” Joe said and pounded on the door. “Hello? Hello?”
“Stop that. It’s a big house, give them some time.”
“This isn’t a house. This is a mansion.” He said it slowly, like I couldn’t pick up the distinction.
We waited a few more minutes in silence, but Joe grew impatient and started walking back towards the car. “These damn rich people,” he yelled, kicking the trunk of one of the lime trees. I could’ve sworn a lime plopped to the ground, but perhaps I added that. “I mean, they can’t even call a truck for us?” He stuck his hand in their fountain next and started splashing the green water out onto the grass.
While he was halfway back to the car, I was still standing by the door. Something kept me on their steps, my hand poised to knock once more—maybe they’d know my knock was different from his.
Joe was sitting in the car when the door swung open. A middle-aged woman stood in its frame, her eyes heavy-lidded and fixed on me.
“Yes?” the woman said, the deepness of her voice shocking. “What do you need?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but our car won’t start,” I explained, enunciating every word so she would know I was sober. “Could we use your phone? We wouldn’t have bothered you, but you’re the only house around for miles.”
I nodded dumbly and pointed out my husband fiddling with the radio. “My husband, Joe. He’s trying to get the car to start again.”
“Tell him to come inside. You can use my phone,” the woman said, her hands tightening around her robe. “I’m surprised he left his wife alone to knock on the door of a stranger’s home.”
“Well, he was with me at first,” I said, the words coming out a little too fast.
“So then he’s impatient?” the woman asked. It seemed like it should have been a joke, but she didn’t laugh. “I’ll be in the living room. Hurry.”
I ran back to the car and roused my husband from the passenger seat. He’d fallen into a light sleep.
“About time,” he muttered under his breath. I helped him up and nearly dragged him into the mansion. The door shut behind us with a loud click, but I barely noticed under the weight of him.
“The phone is over there,” the woman said and pointed out a landline in the corner of the room. “Go ahead,” she said, nodding towards my husband.
“I’d just like to thank you so much,” I told her over the sound of my husband yelling into the phone. He hadn’t thanked her at all. “Not a lot of people would open up their home to a stranger.”
The woman’s eyes crinkled and she had the barest hint of a smile. “Of course. Would you like a drink?”
I nodded and settled down onto the divan. “I’m Sally by the way—I didn’t mention that earlier. My husband’s name is Joe.”
The woman nodded as she poured some wine into a glass. She didn’t pour any for my husband. “Funny. My name is Sally, too,” the woman said and placed the glass in front of me. She didn’t look like a Sally.
“They can’t send anyone up until tomorrow. They say it’s too late to be driving on those skinny little ledges,” Joe spat out as he took the seat next to me. He reached for my wine glass and drained it.
Sally watched him curiously, her smile gone and her eyes narrowed. “You two can stay here if you like. It’s just me in the house and there are plenty of rooms.”
“Just you?” Joe challenged. “But what about those cars outside?”
“They’re all mine,” Sally replied. “I collect them. Would you rather sleep in one of those?”
Joe ignored her and turned to me. “Well, what do you say, Sally?” Joe asked, twirling the stem of my glass between his fingers. “Should we?”
I nodded. “Thank you, Sally,” I said, turning back to look at her. She was still staring at my husband.
My husband laughed. “Your name’s Sally, too?” He was laughing an absurd amount and the drink was shaking in his hand. “Small world.”
Sally crushed her mouth into a thin line as she watched some of his wine slop onto the carpet. “Do you mind having separate rooms?” she asked me.
I could feel my husband looking at me, but I didn’t turn. “Sure. That’s fine.”
She smiled. “You look tired,” she said to my husband and he nodded, although he was still glaring at me. “You can take the room upstairs.”
Without saying goodnight, he stumbled away. We could hear his erratic footsteps echo through the living room. Finally they stopped and we heard him slam the door of his room like a child.
“Would you like any wine?” Sally asked me, picking up the glass he had taken. With a napkin, she wiped the rim of the glass where his lips had touched.
“No, I’m fine. I didn’t really want any,” I lied.
She shook her head and poured herself a glass. “Your husband is an interesting man,” Sally said. “A character.”
“People say that a lot.”
She took a sip. “I imagine they do.”
“Where will my room be?” I asked, changing the subject. Sally was drinking her wine slowly, her heavy-lidded eyes almost closed. She finished the glass before she spoke again.
“You’ll take the den. It’s down that hall and to the left. But you aren’t sleepy, are you?”
“No,” I said and sat up straighter. “Not really.”
“How long have you been married to Joe?”
“Seven years this September,” I replied. I drank from the glass in front me, although I didn’t remember Sally pouring me another one.
“That’s quite a while. You look very young.”
“We got married right after college,” I said. “We wanted one last summer to ourselves and then we got married in the fall.”
Sally nodded. “A novel idea.”
“I thought so at the time,” I blurted out. I put down the glass and used my other hand to cover my mouth.
“He’s changed a lot,” I said through the gaps between my fingers. This time I picked up the wineglass and drank some more.
“I thought so.”
She nodded slowly and drank more wine. I didn’t remember her pouring out more. “I see it all the time. Do you know how many couples pass through here?”
“Many. Many, many, many. Why, I remember the first couple that passed through here.”
“Who were they?”
Sally’s mouth curved. “Me and my husband.”
Sally lay back onto the couch and closed her eyes, her glass resting against her stomach. “The same thing that happened to you.”
“What do you mean?” My head felt very dizzy and it seemed to me that there were pieces of our conversation that I’d missed somehow.
Sally didn’t answer. She was so still and peaceful I thought she might have fallen asleep. She didn’t stir until a black cat jumped up onto the arm of her couch and then leapt onto her stomach.
“Oh, Cole,” she said, her eyes snapping open. She was frowning. “He always chooses the exact moment I’m about to fall asleep.”
I laughed and said, “Perhaps we should both go to bed.” I looked down at my glass and noticed I’d finished all my wine. “You said it’s down that hall, right?”
I waited for a response, but Sally was fully absorbed in petting the cat. I eventually excused myself, although she didn’t hear, and made my way to the den.
Like the rest of the mansion, the bedroom was sparse and painted a light gray. It almost looked like no one had ever been inside. That strange untouched quality made me decide to lie on top of the blankets instead of underneath them, as messing up the sheets seemed to go against the very nature of the room.
I had just begun to fall sleep when I heard the door creak open and felt a soft thud as something landed by my foot. Peering out into the darkness, I saw a slim cat studying my face with expectant eyes. My hand popped out of the blanket and groped the bedside table for the lamp’s switch.
“Aren’t you a cutie,” I mumbled as the light fizzled on and the cat came into view.
He was ginger-colored, with big ears and slanted eyes. His ribs were visible, too. The cat curled up by my head and meowed straight into my ear. I let my hand pull at his fur and thought idly of how it was the same color as my husband’s hair.
“Good night,” I said to the cat. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“How did you sleep?” Sally asked the next morning as she strode into the living room, loosening a towel that had been wrapped around her hair. I’d been sitting on the couch for an hour waiting for Joe to get up.
“Very well, thank you,” I said. She sat down next to me on the couch and began rubbing her hair with the towel, errant flecks of water falling onto my thigh. “I never mentioned it, but your home is lovely.”
“Thanks. My husband chose most of the décor. He had an eye, you could say.”
She finished drying her hair in silence and then disappeared into the kitchen, coming back with a plate full of toast, juice, and bacon.
“You have a cook?” I asked as I nibbled at a piece of bacon. I hadn’t smelled anything cooking.
I didn’t press any further.
Sally smiled and I followed the direction of that smile to see the cats sauntering into the living room. Cole jumped up onto her lap and the ginger cat leaped onto mine.
“This one is so beautiful,” I said, stroking the cat behind his ears. “Where did you get him?”
“Same place I got Cole.” She motioned for me to take a sip of the juice.
“Does this have alcohol?” I asked as the cat rubbed against my stomach. “It tastes…”
“You can have him, if you want. I can’t handle two cats.”
I looked down at the ginger cat and he looked back up at me, his eyes wet and unblinking. “How long have you had him?”
“Not long,” Sally replied. “Will you take him?”
I don’t know why, but I said, “Okay.”
We continued eating in silence, Sally watching me with her hooded eyes. Joe was still asleep.
Satiated, I sat back against the couch and Sally said, in a voice that seemed even deeper than her normal tone, “You know, your husband left earlier. Before you woke up.” She stretched out on the couch like one of the cats. “The car’s engine was working, but he didn’t know if it would give out again so he took it into town himself.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? How am I supposed to get home?” I asked, alarmed. The cat meowed in my arms.
“You can borrow one of my cars,” Sally replied. I opened my mouth to protest but she smiled and trained her half-lidded eyes on me. “I don’t want you to argue with me. It’s too early for that.”
“I just can’t believe he’d go without me. Maybe I should phone him?”
“I doubt he has access to a phone. Reception is spotty all around the mountain.”
I shook my head and tried to think of some other way to reach him. The cat kept meowing in my arms and each time he did, my thoughts seemed to become more muddled.
Sally smiled. “Let’s see which car you should take.”
She rose and led me out to the driveway with Cole at her feet. “He’s taken with you, isn’t he?” Sally asked as she glanced over her shoulder at the cat in my arms.
The cat purred and planted his face against my neck. “Is it very far to town from here?” I asked. “Maybe I could just meet him there.”
“Oh, by the time you get there he’ll be gone. Here, how about you use this one,” she said and tapped one of the vintage cars with the palm of her hand. It was one of the cars that Joe had wiped his oily hand on earlier, but now it was free of any prints.
I was dazed but still thanked her as I let the cat crawl into the passenger seat.
“It was my pleasure,” she said through the car’s open window. “I hope you have a nice ride.”
“Thanks again, Sally.”
Sally smiled. “You know, it’s a funny thing. My name isn’t really Sally.”
I nodded despite the strangeness of what she was saying—it seemed to be another joke she didn’t laugh at. “You didn’t look like a Sally,” I whispered as the cat brushed against my foot. I nudged him away and he obeyed.
The woman said nothing but smiled a brighter smile than I had ever seen before. I started the car and drove away, leaving the windows rolled down. The smell of the lime trees in bloom no longer stung my nose.
As we drove, I turned to look at the cat as he sat in the passenger seat, his eyes fixed on me.
“I think I’ll call you Joe,” I told the cat. “Would you like that?”
The cat meowed in response.