It was the night of Melody and Samuel’s 30th anniversary when she tripped and fell down the stairs, cracking her neck on the fifth step down. As the rest of her tumbled to the floor, her neck contorted further and further out of place until her torso was pressed to the ground and her empty eyes stared at the gaudy secondhand chandelier in the living room. She had just put on her nicest yellow dress and curled her salt & peppered hair for the evening. By the end of the night her efforts would have led to a ruined head of hair and a crumpled yellow dress at the foot of the bed they hadn’t dirtied in a year. But her new black pumps weren’t made for walking. That was clear now.
Samuel wasn’t home to witness the fall. He sat in his office, biding his time before making the long drive home. He was excited for the evening. His annual orgasm was just a few hours away, and his balls hadn’t been bluer since senior prom. He and Melody’s unspoken contract regarding the arrangement had been going on for almost eight years now, but neither of them seemed to mind. Neither had gotten better looking since they’d known each other, and neither still had the energy to do it spontaneously. A year seemed like a reasonable amount of time to wait, to regain the energy lost from last year’s endeavor.
Still, Samuel liked his office more than his home anyway. The flame he once held for Melody hadn’t disappeared, but relocated. The passion he put into organizing floral bouquets and penning poetry for his wife now went towards his craft. These days, he was more interested in raising the dead than charming his wife.
His interest in death was what brought them together in the first place. Their affair began in one of Vermont’s largest funeral homes, Ferdinand’s, just after college. They were hallway acquaintances in school; they passed each other enough times on the small campus that brief eye contact and a mutual half-smile became the norm when in one another’s vicinity, despite the fact they had never spoken a word. After graduation, Samuel was granted an apprenticeship under the 12th most respected mortician in the state. Melody’s sister had just passed from an unfortunate encounter with a bolt of lightning, and her family was browsing Ferdinand’s extensive coffin selection. They shared uncomfortable pleasantries, skirting around the dead elephant in the room. When the inevitable subject came up, the remorse planted itself across Melody’s face. Her eyes struck Samuel, two hazel cannons bursting with questions. Samuel wasn’t a stranger to this—his customers wore their grief on their sleeves—but in this moment, he wanted nothing more than to say the perfect thing, to say exactly what Melody needed to hear.
“There is an unrealized beauty in death that people seem to miss. In the stillness of body and mind, there's a certain... grace. One that no one looks close enough to find. With death comes a peace that cannot be seen by the average eye. There is silence and simplicity in it—no changes of heart, no movement of body or soul. Just permanence. Tranquility.”
They proceeded to find the nearest janitorial closet and have loud and unforgiving sex for thirty minutes.
That initial lust carried them for many years of what would appear as a conventionally satisfying marriage. He lost the apprenticeship at Ferdinand’s for obvious reasons, but this turned out to be a blessing—he was more interested in taxidermy anyway, a trade handed down by his father. With a few loans and plenty of ambition, Samuel opened his private taxidermy practice: Samuel’s Angels Taxidermy. Melody began a non-profit organization to spread awareness of lightning strike-related injuries: Three Strikes & Yer’ Out! The two were happy that they could spend their days separately achieving their goals, and at the end of the night they could take their workplace frustrations and channel them in athletic and pleasurable ways.
The unfaltering tides of time slowly eroded their seemingly unlimited sex drive. To Melody, the love that remained outside the bedroom was solid, but nothing to write home about. Her attitude toward Samuel was one of positive indifference—he was sweet, but not too sweet. He was sensitive, but opaque. He didn’t belittle her, but he didn’t empower her. He was there, but he wasn’t there.
Samuel, on the other hand, was consumed by his love for Melody. While his business was struggling, while he was still perfecting his craft, he had nothing but her affection. That was his livelihood. He was no musician, but he tried to write her songs like his mother had for his father. He never felt they were good enough, so most of his lyrics wound up crumpled and soggy in the bottom of the trash bin. If she seemed distant, he would distance himself —he couldn’t risk appearing overbearing. He always acted in response to what he thought she needed. Always trying to yin her yang.
Three Strikes & Yer’ Out! maintained consistently average attendance and impact, but Melody never gave up on the organization. The morning of her and Samuel’s anniversary, just hours before tripping down the stairs and snapping her neck like a twig, she had booked the local rec center to host the annual Shocking News conference for the 15th year in a row. Melody knew consistency, but she didn’t know much about growth. She didn’t care much about it—she was helping people, and that was enough.
Samuel wasn’t of the same mindset. Once his taxidermy hobby became artistry, his drive for greatness became insatiable. He began to spend all his time in the office: dead cats and dogs became his nighttime company while Melody slept miles away in their suburban home. His care went towards fiddling with pet corpses, perfecting the eyes, the teeth, the paws. He stopped writing songs for his wife.
And this is how things were for a long time. Neither Samuel nor Melody seemed to mind. Anniversaries became more of a tradition, less of a celebration. Once a year, they could watch a rerun of their marriage’s Greatest Hits. It became routine.
When Samuel walked through his front door to find the corpse of his wife gathering dust on the floor, he didn’t say a word. He laid himself onto the floor and touched the top of his head against hers. From above, the two resembled a young couple cloud-watching. The difference was that one laid on her stomach with smog cloaking her pupils, and the other could not stop sobbing.
It took all Samuel’s strength to lift Melody onto his shoulders. He was not a particularly strong man. Melody was small, but the emotional weight felt like an elephant on Samuel’s back. But he wiped the tears away with his sleeve and proceeded out the front door.
Once he set Melody down in the passenger seat of his car, he reached over her and secured the seat belt into its slot. He tugged at the shoulder strap to ensure it wasn’t too tight, and then at the waist strap in case it had pinched any skin. She had always been very sensitive to pain.
After she was in place, he took a long look at his wife. She was sitting upright with perfect poise—she always scolded him for slouching, but he couldn’t help it. Aside from a head facing the wrong direction, Melody looked like a queen. How did Samuel end up with someone like her?
He gently put his hands over her backwards ears and, with utmost delicacy, twisted her head back to its proper place. The tiny pops and cracks weren’t enough to make him shiver; he had heard them all before in his work. When she was turned back around, Samuel couldn’t help but smile at his beautiful wife. He thought she might have smiled back.
Samuel started the car and turned on the radio. He had to shuffle around a few different stations before finding something Melody would like—she was big on oldies. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., the whole Rat Pack. If he tried to show her anything remotely modern, she would just plug her ears and bust out her rendition of “Come Fly with Me,” like she was in musical warfare and only Sinatra & Friends were in her arsenal. In this moment, “Love Me or Leave Me” was on the air at just the right time. One of her favorites. Their nighttime drive was scored by the lively brass section, a contrast to the newborn silence coming from the happy couple.
By the time they reached Samuel’s Angels, the tired buzz of the strip mall was fast asleep. The only sign of life was the small liquor store two doors down, its neon light flickering to the beat of the music. As he got Melody out of the car and onto his back, Samuel glanced through the window of the liquor store. The stout, balding man behind the counter glanced back. The parking lot was empty, aside from the lone man with his unmoving wife draped around his shoulders. Samuel managed a friendly nod from where he stood, then turned and walked straight into the taxidermy shop. The man nodded back. What a lovely lady, he thought.
Samuel gasped in relief as he set Melody onto his work table. Lifeless beasts around the room had their eyes fixated on her. A turtle’s mouth was slightly agape in permanent surprise. On the shelf, a cockeyed chicken and squirrel sat together in silent judgement. He couldn’t help but look around and feel his creations staring through him at his beloved. Even his proudest achievement, an elegant fox with its front paw raised as if posing for National Geographic, seemed glued to the specimen now gracing the table. Her gaze was green with envy.
Samuel always began his process with a moment of silence. He would kneel before the table with one hand grazing the creature’s face, the other hovering over the scalpel. The ritualistic beginning lasted a minute, but this one felt like an eternity. His tears dripped onto the concrete floor. He wanted to weep out loud, but he wasn’t sure how soundproof his underground workroom was from the street above. He did not want to alarm the liquor store man.
Samuel brought himself to his feet and sat himself before Melody. He always started with the face. He picked up the scalpel and mentally outlined his path. As he brought the knife to Melody’s jawline, his eyes met hers. He began to shiver. Her stillness made him hyper-aware of the chaos in his wrists, the dancing of his fingers. He couldn’t grip the knife any longer—it grazed her cheek as it dropped to the floor. How long had it been since he told her he loved her? Since he bought her flowers? Since he kissed her?
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The memory of her voice made him whimper. He could not live without her. He wished he had known this earlier. He wished he had told her.
“I will never leave you.”
He picked up the scalpel.