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The Finest in Crime and Suspense Short Fiction

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The Price
by Eric Rutter

It starts when Jane says, “I’ve been thinking about turning myself in.”

I say “starts,” but this isn’t the first time she’s said that. She’s done it I don’t know how many times over the years. Usually it’s just out of the blue, like this time: We’re driving home from the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning and she just blurts it out. Her tone says she’s been thinking about it a while.

I don’t say anything, I just drive. Sometimes she drops it if I don’t respond. Other times we’ve talked it through, sometimes at length but never really seriously. Just, you know, letting her get it out of her system. But there’s that tone in her voice this time. I can tell she’s not going to drop it. So I’m not surprised when she looks over at me and says, “Ever since last year.”

I say, “Your cancer?”

She says, “Yeah.”

It takes me a while to think of something to say. “I guess that would make anyone think. Look back over their lives.”

“I realized I might die without ever . . . paying for it. I can’t stand the idea.”

I can feel her waiting for me to respond. So I say, “You aren’t going to die.”

Immediately I regret it. I know she knows what I mean: Her last tests showed no sign of cancer in her colon. Mind you, the doctors never say you’re cured, they just say you’re cancer-free, and if you stay that way a certain number of years, maybe five, you have no better chance of getting cancer than anyone else. But that clean test result was only four months ago. More important, Jane’s seventy-two years old, like me. It’s stupid to tell a seventy-two year old they’re not going to die. If someone said that to me, I’d laugh.

But the main reason I regret saying it is because it sounds like I agree with what she’s saying, that turning herself in before she dies is a good idea.

So I say, “Having cancer, going through that, it just stirred up feelings in you. Regrets. Everybody has regrets.”

She says, “Not like this.”

 

Jane and I don’t spend that much time together anymore. Maybe if we did I would have known this was on her mind.

Married people don’t spend as much time together as single people think. Especially old married people. Jane and I have been married fifty years. When she retired a year after I did and we found ourselves at home together all day, we started putting some space between us. I mean more than before. She got more involved in her charity work, I started spending more time at the senior center and in my workshop in the basement. Plus she started getting up earlier and I started getting up later. Now we mostly see each other at dinnertime. Also we don’t sleep in the same bed. I moved into our daughter Lisa’s bedroom just a couple of years after she moved out. That was … Jesus, twenty-two years ago.

When Jane was getting her cancer treatments there were some nights I slept with her because she asked me to. She never talked about turning herself in then. Was she thinking about it all that time? While we were in bed together? While she was on the operating table, waiting to get put under?

I’m afraid to ask. I want her to forget about it. But the next day at dinner she says, “What would you do if I turned myself in?”

I play it cool. “Are you still thinking about that?”

She doesn’t reply.

I say, “There wouldn’t be any point in doing it, you know.”

“Yes, there would.”

“It wouldn’t fix anything. It wouldn’t bring him back.”

That quiets her. But not for long.

She says, “I’ve been carrying it around for so long. I don’t want to take it to my grave.”

“You think confessing will take the weight off? It won’t. You’ll feel just as bad sitting in a cell.”

“No. I’ll be free. Free of it, finally.”

“Bullshit. You’ll be worse off. A prisoner. You’ll feel worse than you do now. A lot worse.”

Her face says she doesn’t believe it.

I can feel my pulse quickening, anger starting to rise in me. “Christ, we’ve been free and clear for fifty years. You’re not going to throw that away. Nothing’s changed.”

She says, “You never want to own up to it? Never pay for it?”

“We’ve been paying for it all our lives!”

She quiets again.

But I can tell she isn’t convinced. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023. The Price by Eric Rutter

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