The second place story in the 7th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Hannah Lewis’s “Beth’s Hour” takes this year’s theme of customs in a new direction by asking, as our judge pointed out, “What happens when something seemingly harmless becomes fatal? And, even more importantly, what happens when all you want to do is protect the one you love from shame and embarrassment (and maybe even injuring herself)?” We hope you enjoy our second place story.
The watch’s steady beeping wakes me immediately, as it should. As it always does. I don’t have time to process my being awake, or how thirsty I am, or how badly my neck aches, because Beth is already pulling off the sheets.
To some, 3 a.m. is the witching hour. As a child and into my teens, that’s what it meant to me. My mother had always been obsessive about the Devil’s influence over supernatural and morbid phenomena–so much so that she had forbidden anyone from coming out of their rooms between the hours of 3 and 4 a.m.. It didn’t matter how badly you needed to pee or how much your stomach was growling; no one was to move throughout the house–not even from their beds, preferably. It never bothered me or my sisters. The rule didn’t feel unfair because it had always been a given, and Satan’s hold on the clock hands would end soon enough.
But starting a few months ago, 3 a.m. was Beth’s hour. That’s what it means to me now.
The sleepwalking started a year into our marriage, a few weeks after we moved into the new house. Beth’s doctor and sleep specialist can’t pinpoint exactly why she unconsciously drags herself out of bed at the same time every night despite all of the medication and treatment attempts. Her body has clearly settled into a routine.
And this routine will not be interfered with. Even closing the bedroom door doesn’t stop her from sleepwalking; it just makes her angry. It had gotten to the point that I had to prevent her from doing her damndest to pull off the door handle in a zombie-like state of rage. Eventually, Beth’s screaming and hitting at me woke her up from what she describes as the worst, most traumatic nightmares she has ever had. After that, we decided that it would be best to leave her sleepwalking as uninterrupted as possible.
Beth wasn’t concerned because there aren’t any stairs in our home; so if it was just walking aimlessly around before coming back to bed, she felt that she would be fine (and she still thinks that’s all she does). I was concerned because of what I was soon greeted by in the early mornings before work: mysterious bruises and cuts on Beth’s body, an oven set to 500, glass on the floor, overturned chairs, and a few knives missing from the block then found in couch cushions or in the overflowing toilet bowl. That was when I stopped wearing ear plugs to bed (I could get used to her snoring), and began diligently watching my wife in the night to make sure she didn’t hurt herself.
She just doesn’t know I do–or what she does, for that matter. She would feel terrible if she did. In my mind, Beth doesn’t need to be stressing over what she does in a state that she cannot control.
“Did I wake you up last night? At all?” she asks me in the morning, as she always does. A blanket still wrapped around her shoulders, she clenches a hot cup of coffee in her hands and lets the steam rise up to graze her face.
“You didn’t bother me.” I say. Not a lie.
Usually, she lets this pass. But today, she says, “That’s not what I asked you.”
I give her a teasing smile. “I slept like a baby, I promise. Don’t worry about me.”
Beth heaves a theatrical sigh and throws her legs over the edge of the bed. “Listen, I know I’m the worst to try and sleep next to. No, I am! All of the getting up and coming back into bed. . . It has to wake you up.” She looks to the ceiling, eyes shining in the sunlight coming through the window with its newly-drawn curtains. “I just don’t want this to be that irritating thing I do that you ignore for years and years until you can’t take it anymore.”
“Never.” I kiss her forehead.
“And then you’ll make us sleep in separate bedrooms,” she says in a faux cry.
“Nope.” I kiss it again.
“And then the divorce!”
“Two Christmases for the children.”
“I’m sure James and Phoebe would appreciate that.”
“Marcus and Florence.”
She scoffs and makes her way down the hall. “I could be convinced by Marcus, but I will not curse my baby with a grandma name!” she calls out to me.
The truth is, I really don’t mind getting up with her every night. I don’t mind following her clumsy gait and watching her guide herself along the wall with her slender fingers. I don’t mind flushing for her after she uses the toilet, or shutting off the faucet that she leaves running after rinsing off her hands. I don’t mind gazing at her when she stands in front of the mirror for a few minutes with her eyes open but unfocused–her soft but strong body draped in my white t-shirt and posed in a way that makes her look like the subject of a Renaissance painting. I don’t mind moving the pillows and cat toys out of her path so that she doesn’t step or trip on them. I don’t mind shuffling along the kitchen counter, gently guiding her searching hands away from the dishes and appliances. I don’t mind holding the chairs down that she grabs and pushes at. I don’t mind putting my hand up against the spot on the wall (marked by a hole I made with a tack) so that her twenty-two repetitions of hitting her head there are met with a softer surface. I don’t mind holding my arms out under the glass of water that she gets for herself, just in case she drops it or misses the counter after taking her two sips. I don’t mind catching the delicate things that she decides to pick up and toss to the side. I don’t mind sitting on the couch next to her, reading a chapter of my book while she stares at the ceiling and mumbles all sorts of nonsense. I don’t mind guiding her to the most open space–the area between the couch and the dining table–so that the lazy MMA match she has with the air doesn’t result in disaster. I don’t mind noting when the clock hits 3:45 and holding her gently by the hips, guiding her back to the bedroom instead of spending the next fifteen minutes watching her stress over not knowing where it is anymore. I don’t mind putting the blankets back over Beth, setting the next alarm for 8:00, and holding her until then.
Maybe I’ll tell her about all of this when it is a thing of the past. For now, my job is to protect and not worry her. And I feel lucky to have that job.
We do it again the next night–our little custom, the dance unknowingly but perfectly choreographed by Beth. The hall, then the toilet, the faucet, the mirror. Then to the kitchen, where she reaches for everything but disturbs next to nothing. The chairs, the spot on the wall, and the two sips of water. I stop an unlit candle and a ceramic ashtray from hitting the floor. We sit together. I hold her hand as I read. She whispers gibberish to herself, then kicks and punches at the air. Then back to bed.
And again the next, and again, and another time, each one a mimicry of the nights passed. I don’t ever mind.
Then, one Friday, Beth comes home early from work with a bottle of wine. A “thank you” and early birthday gift from her deskmate.
“It’s cheap, but I’ll settle for drinkable,” she says.
Neither of us drink often. In fact, I don’t remember when I last indulged. Maybe some at the Christmas party, and certainly not enough to even get me tipsy. But tonight, I agree to it, because it’s just Beth.
She takes the bottle in her gentle hands and gives a generous pour to each of our typically decorative glasses. When we were gifted them at the wedding, there had been six in the set. Now, of course, there are four. Beth doesn’t remember where the missing two could have gone.
“To. . .” she says, raising her glass, a radiant smile plastered onto her face. I love this woman.
“I don’t know. How about. . . to now.”
Beth and I chat about meaningless things for a while, and then make our way to the living room. She shuffles through the dusty collection of DVDs in the cabinet, making a comment about how she “can’t believe we kept this random shit when we moved in” before gasping. Season five of Project Runway falls into my lap. “We have to,” she says. “This playing in the background is what got me through my senior thesis.”
I oblige. By the start of episode three, I am incredibly invested–most of the credit going to the empty bottle on the table next to us. We eventually dig around for the scotch we know we stuck somewhere, and are successful in our search. We watch and drink, laughing at and critiquing the show’s designers while having no valid fashion experience of our own.
When my eyelids start to flutter closed with the rolling credits of episode six, a fleeting rush of adrenaline tells me that something isn’t right. The routine isn’t there. I need to set my alarm for 3 a.m..
But it’s just that: fleeting. My head is crowded, yet everything is disconnected. I can’t even dream of moving, much less getting up for my watch. I am attached to these cushions, and my eyes won’t open again. I feel Beth crawl over to me, sloppily kiss my cheek, and stumble off of the couch. “Bed,” I think she says. “I’m’na goda bed.” That same rush hits me, but it’s weak. She’ll be fine.
And then there’s sunlight.
I fly off of the couch.
My head is pounding and–God, everything hurts–but I don’t let myself think until I check on Beth. I run as fast as I can to the bedroom, everything around me still seeming to move in slow motion.
Finally, my tunnel vision can settle on her. The blankets aren’t on, but she’s there and sleeping peacefully, a light snore escaping from her lips. I notice that she’s only in her underclothes when I examine her for bruises or anything more serious. I breathe a sigh of relief; she is perfectly fine. There isn’t even any redness on her forehead. At least, I can’t see any in the dark.
I leave her to her slumber and return to the rest of the house to assess the damage.
But, oddly enough, there is no running faucet, no broken glass, nothing left on, no overturned chairs. At a glance, not a thing is out of place. She didn’t do enough to wake me, after all.
I begin to relax more, even chuckling a bit to myself. As the panic passes, the hangover presides. It’s not a comfort, but it’s not a terrible change, either. I start the coffee, taking a few minutes to think about how much–or how little–I’ll be able to get done today. Maybe I’ll do a load of laundry. I’ll wash the sheets, too. And later, if we feel up to it, Beth and I can go out to that new Indian restaurant like we’ve been talking about doing.
The doorbell rings. I’m not thinking about much of anything on my way to answer it. I stop for a moment to unlock the door from the inside, but realize it was already unlocked in the first place. We must have forgotten about it last night.
When I open the door, I’m greeted by a police officer. Suddenly, a little past the bushes and to the right, I can see the flashing red and blue lights.
“Morning, sir. I’m officer Gavin Turner with the Wernersville Police Department. I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, no. I just got up.” I struggle with what I’m supposed to say to a uniformed man at my door. “Joel Dauphin. Is everything. . . okay?”
When I try to peer past the bushes, the officer holds up his hand. “I need to ask you and anyone else in your home to not leave until we are done here. At this point, the property is still an active crime scene.”
“What happened? Is anyone hurt?”
“Mr.–Dauphin, was it? Could you spell that?” Officer Turner whips out a notebook and starts scribbling on it.
I’m struck with a hint of irritation through the blood pumping faster and faster in my ears. “D-A-U-P-H-I-N. What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, that was D-A-U-P-H-A-N?”
“I-N. Gotcha. Could you answer a few questions for me?”
I nod. Pain shoots down my neck.
“Did you know Ms. Joanne Bershire?”
“Did I know her? Yes; she’s our neighbor.”
“And in the past few hours, have you noticed any unusual activity in the area? Anything strange or out of the ordinary?”
Yes. “No. I’ve been asleep, sir.”
“Anyone else in your household? Partner, kids, anyone?”
Beth. My Beth. “Just my wife. She’s still sleeping.”
“Okay. Do you have any cameras on your property that would get a view of Ms. Bershire’s?”
Oh, God. “No, sir.”
Turner closes the notebook. “Alright. We’ll be here for a while longer–few hours, tops. We’ll keep you updated with any information we can give you. In the meantime, if you think of anything unusual about the past few hours–even if you think it might be irrelevant–please let us know.”
I nod again and press the heel of my hand into my temple. “Well, am I allowed to know if something is wrong with Joanne?”
“As I said, I can’t give much information at this time.”
“Please, could you just tell me if she’s okay?” I’m begging, now. We saw Joanne last week when she walked a homemade pie to our house. She hadn’t even given it to us for a reason; she was just that kind of old woman.
Turner sighs. “Again, I can’t say much at this point, but. . . I wouldn’t be expecting any good news.”
When he leaves, my head is spinning. I stand at the door for a good thirty seconds before the ding of the coffee machine tells me that the pot is full. I make my way over. Maybe, after coffee, I’ll be able to think clearer. I take out two mugs; one for me, one for Beth.
But the coffee maker is right next to the knife block. And the handle of the largest one–the butcher knife, the one we never use–is sticking out in the wrong direction. I lift the handle to remedy this, but drop it back in its place immediately.
Because I was not met with the glint of silver. My eyes saw red.
I wonder if I’m going insane, so I lift it again. My stomach lurches. Red.
Again. Coated in shiny, rusty red. Even the hole for the butcher knife blade is rimmed with it. I can feel the bile crawling up my throat. When I look down to the counter and the floor, I can see more of it. Not a lot, but it’s there. Tiny droplets lead a path to the door I was just standing at.
“Did I wake you up last night?” I hear behind me.
I turn to Beth. She is still in her underwear, opening the fridge and taking a few seconds to find the orange juice. So unaware.
“No,” I say. Not a lie.