Star Signs

It all started with a chocolate bar, I tell my wife.

What kind? she asks. I tell her I don't know, although we ascertained early in the investigation that it was a Coffee Crunch.

She prefers something with nuts in it. She's on the back deck, her long, silky legs propped up on a little plastic table, her butt stretching the nylon ribbing of the lawn chair. I tell her how the stalker's obsessions soon moved on to ordering taxis the victim did not need, calling in sick on her behalf when she was perfectly well, picking up her dry cleaning and leaving it with Reception at work.

Everyone you deal with must be crazy, says my wife as she rolls her empty glass across her cheek. Get me a refill, would you? No wonder you've got a funny view of the world.

While I'm inside I check the cupboards to see if she's set anything aside to defrost, then I put a pack of chicken under the running tap.

How was your day? I ask when I'm back outside. From above, I can see her dark roots coming back in.

How much longer you going to be on days? she answers. It's odd not having to tiptoe around so I don't wake you up. Do I look burnt? She shifts her chair so the sun hits her other leg.

Her face is as bright as a blood orange.

How did he know what kind she liked? Wonder how many kinds of chocolate bars there are?

The stalker followed her onto the bus, watched her eat candy, saw her read the Province, knew which stop she got off at, what time she quit, the laundromat she used, what time she went to the gym, her days off. He thought he loved her, I say.

Love. In my wife's mouth the word is as smooth as soft butter going on bread, as if it's nothing to get excited about.

I sit down on the other chair and look across the back lawn to the neighbour's fence. He watched her, I say. Knew every move. Planned to be one step ahead.

I must say, she says. I think most of these women ask for it.

My wife brings out her rant about victims every chance she gets. Another reason I don't tell her about drunks in alleyways, women beaten in their own homes, children we have to tear away from mothers who scream how much they love them even though everyone's seen the bruises.

Chocolate bars. Dry cleaning. A day off. I can't see what she had to complain about, says my wife. What law covers chocolate bars? She leans over and scrabbles through the heap of magazines under her chair. You hungry?

She uses a copy of Martha Stewart Living as a fan. Her bangs loft up and down with the breeze. Her forehead is shiny with sweat.

You using sunblock?

I'm not the one with cancer in my family, she says. What will he get? She's turning the pages of the magazine now, running her teeth across her bottom lip.

Depends on a lot of things. If he's done it before. How good of a lawyer. She read the horoscopes, you know. That's how he planned what to do.

From the horoscopes? She sounds interested for the first time.

He read it first thing every day, same one she did. He'd plan whatever would suit to fulfill what was predicted.

What was her sign?

When I tell her she says, Wonder what his was? They might have been compatible, ever think of that?

Every Tuesday my wife goes out to a movie with Marlene from next door. Tonight they go to see Castaway although they've both seen it already.

After I've finished in the kitchen and ironed a shirt, I sit in front of the TV with the sound turned off. Newsworld shows a picture of the man which must be at least ten years old, but I recognize his mouth. Then they show the victim's apartment building, the ambulance retreating down the street. No lights flashing. I sit through that newscast, the business and weather, some damn thing about ballet. When the news comes on again, they've dubbed him the Star Crossed Stalker - a blue banner flashes it below his picture.

In the car after we'd picked him up, he'd leaned forward until I could feel his breath on my neck. It's not a good day for travel, he said.

Fucking nut case, said my partner. You believe in that stuff?

My wife does, I told him. She also believes in flying saucers and Bigfoot, and that one day the Wheel of Fortune will call and ask her onto the show.

I'm planning my retirement around the expectation of a major lottery win, said Bill.

So who's crazy? the guy in the back said. He soon settled down when I gave him a look in the rearview mirror.

I'll never know what make women tick. My mother was more involved with the minds of her patients than the lives of her kids. When I wanted to join Beavers she said I'd have to learn to read the code of conduct myself as she did not believe in organized religion.

My sister was so full of secrets, if I got too close, if I touched her, God forbid pricked her, she'd burst all over, like a balloon, and wouldn't I feel sorry.

The women I know read the tabloids and watch shows like Survivor, but they don't have a clue what's going on in the real world.

The kid with the horoscopes was in a new job, her first place away from home. She kept a little box full of washing instruction labels under the sink. In her address book her parents were listed under both M and D. A pink flowered scrapbook next to her bed was full of fortune cookie fortunes. The most recent one said, Your life will bring unexpected change.

I know all the rules about messing with evidence, but I couldn't help but pick it up.

When the news rolls around again, the Star Crossed Stalker is still top story, but this time they show a picture of the girl. I'd have never recognized her from what we found on her kitchen floor. But in the photo she's soft and fat and her eyes are filled with a hopeful gleam, as if anything might happen, and she'd be glad of it.

When my wife comes home I pretend to be asleep. I hear her clatter around in the bathroom, humming something or other I can't recognize. I'm lying on my side, one hand under the pillow beneath my head. I hold the little slip of paper I took from the girl's scrapbook, as if it just might make all the difference.

About the author:

Lois J. Peterson's short stories have appeared or are upcoming in the Paumanok Review, Southern Ocean Review, Breakfast All Day, Room of One's Own, Lichen, and Snow Monkey, among other print and online journals. She's the editor/publisher of the print journal WORDS (