COLD SPOTS by Susan Buffum
Julia frowned as she slung the bag of groceries onto the counter, nearly knocking over the vase of red roses, baby’s breath, and ferns that had been delivered that morning, a Valentine’s Day gift from her husband, then turned, hugging herself. “Adam! Did you turn the central air up again?” That man was impossible to live with, she was beginning to think as she strode across the room and into the hallway of the condo, stopping at the thermostat to check the temperature. Sixty-six. With her face etched with grim determination, she bumped it up to seventy and was satisfied to hear the flow of air from the ceiling vents abruptly stop. “That’s more like it. This place feels like a freakin’ meat locker!”
She returned to the kitchen and began unbagging the groceries. Tonight, they were having a lovely fish dinner whether he liked it or not. She was tired of red meat. He didn’t especially like fish, but if they were going to be married he’d just have to learn that she was not going to clog her arteries with fat. He was just going to have to suck it up and eat tofu and more fresh vegetables and fruits. She was also gluten intolerant. Although she had mucked all the gluten-laden products from his cabinets she’d noticed that there was once again boxes of assorted pasta and cereals on the shelves. The pantry was overdue for another cleaning out, but she’d have to wait for him to leave the house.
Leaving the house. She snorted with annoyance as she stashed juice and bottled water in the refrigerator. Adam seemed to have grown roots in the basement the past few weeks. He’d told her he was working from home. He had a small office down there between the laundry room and the mechanical room. The rest of the space was a sort of family/game room and a large storage closet. She didn’t like the basement and hardly ever went down there, except to do the laundry. There was a chest freezer in the laundry room. She’d opened it once, looked in disgust upon the frozen pizzas, burritos and other assorted bachelor foods, all rimed with frost from having been in there so long, then slammed the lid down in disgust.
A short time later, as she loaded the washing machine, she made a mental note to ask him again to empty the freezer and unplug it. They didn’t need it. She preferred to cook with fresh ingredients. Turning to leave the laundry room, she thought she saw Adam’s shadow in the game room. “You really need to empty this out,” she said as she stepped into the room. There was no one there, but she could hear his voice in his office. He seemed to be arguing with someone. That certainly was no way to woo customers, she thought as she headed toward the stairs to the first floor.
“I don’t understand why they want to reopen the case,” Adam said, distress in his voice. She stopped, her right foot on the first riser. Who was he talking to? “Virginia was declared dead. It’s been eight years since she disappeared. What’s to investigate? If she was still alive don’t you think she would have come home, or at least contacted me somehow? Nick, come on, you must be able to do something to put an end to this nonsense. Why disturb the past? Why bring up all that pain and suffering again? My wife vanished without a trace. It devastated me. I’ve only recently remarried. I’ve moved on. I just don’t understand why that Detective Goff can’t let sleeping dogs lie. You tell him he’s tearing my heart open all over again! You tell him he’s making me bleed!”
She bit her lip. He was talking to his lawyer, Nick Buoniconti. He was talking about her, Virginia, his second wife. He’d come home from work one summer evening to find the condo door unlocked, the windows open, as if she was letting in the summer breeze. He expected to find her in the kitchen, taking the steaks she had been marinating overnight out in preparation for him grilling them on the patio. Virginia had not been in the house. Her car had still been in the garage. There had been no sign of a disturbance, a struggle. The neighbors, when questioned had not heard anything unusual. Virginia had simply disappeared.
It had been thought that she’d run off with the man who did maintenance work for the complex. There’d been rumors that he was an over-friendly sort who was always watching the women, finding opportunities to make small talk with them. Adam had found that three thousand dollars had been withdrawn from the joint savings account. A teller had come forward and told the police that Mrs. North had come into the bank a week before her disappearance and withdrawn the money. She’d looked a little nervous, but when asked if she was taking a trip she’d replied that, yes, she was going away, but she hadn’t said where she was going. The teller said Mrs. North’s last remark was, “I just need to get away,” before she stuffed the money into her purse and left the bank.
Poor Adam, how he had suffered with his wife missing and his being under suspicion for a while, after the police had gotten nothing from the maintenance man. That man lived with his mother in a trailer park on the outskirts of town. She had attested that, while he may have been friendly with the ladies, he never would have done anything with them, he wasn’t like that at all. Why, he’d never even dated! If truth be told, he had a phobia of the naked female body. Why, he couldn’t even look at the ladies in their tiny bathing suits at the complex pool. He averted his eyes! They could verify that with anyone there! And they had.
She’d met Adam, she recalled as she climbed the stairs to the first floor, about two years ago. It was at the Paradise Club. She’d been having a cocktail with a co-worker after work and he’d come up to the bar and asked if he could buy them both a drink. Alison had had to leave. She had a husband waiting for her at home. But she had stayed, and he’d bought her a couple more drinks. They’d moved to a small table and chatted about this and that. He’d walked her to her car, asked if he could see her again, maybe take her to dinner or a movie? She’d agreed to a movie. He’d told her right up front that his wife had disappeared six years ago. He’d said she might come back, one never knew, but he was lonesome and needed a friend. They had dated for nearly a year, and she had spent the night only after the seventh anniversary of Virginia’s disappearance had passed. Three months later, he’d given her a ring. Two months ago, they had married.
“Brr!” she said as she climbed the staircase to the second floor where the bedrooms were. “There is definitely something wrong with the central air in this place! I’ll have to call the maintenance man tomorrow.”
She went into the bedroom thinking that she’d take a quick shower, put on fresh clothes. He liked it when she looked pretty. It was hot out. Shopping had made her feel like a wilted flower under a relentless summer sun. Stripping off her capris and t-shirt, she went into the bathroom, closing the door. She dropped her bra and panties into the hamper. She’d put on clean underwear when she dressed before going downstairs to start dinner.
A nice warm shower was just the thing. She had pinned up her blonde hair, but it got damp from the spray anyway, especially when she held her face under the shower head. Turning off the water, she slid open the shower door a crack and reached for her towel on the bar beside the door. “What the…!” Had he turned the central air up while she was in the shower? That man was impossible! The bathroom felt frigid as she briskly toweled herself dry and then wrapped the towel around her body. She was covered in goosebumps!
Stepping onto the bathmat, she shot a glower at the closed bathroom door, shaking her head, a slow burn of anger warming her blood, but not her body. She stepped to the counter and looked at the fogged over mirror, rolling her eyes. “Great,” she muttered. “Just great!” As she reached for the hand towel to use to scrub away the fog, the fog began to dissipate from the glass. “Well, that’s…” she began, but stopped. How could that even be possible? The air was still humid although chilled.
She studied the mirror. Slowly, her eyes became visible through the misty coating on its surface. She blinked, leaned a little closer over the counter. What was wrong with her eyebrows? Hadn’t she just had them waxed? They seemed thicker to her, darker. She lifted a corner of the towel to rub her right eyebrow then blinked, not once, but twice. The towel was still partially over her right eye, yet in the mirror she could see her entire eye. Both of them. They stared back at her without obstruction. She glanced sideways, lowering the towel and then looked back into the mirror. Her nose was now visible. Was her nose that long? No. She had a short nose. What in the world was going on with this mirror? Why was it so distorted? As she stared at her reflection, her reflection emerged more from the fog. Thin lips! She’d just gotten Botox three weeks ago! Her lips were plump and lush! Was she having some sort of allergic reaction all of a sudden? Is that why her lips were deflated looking, and everything seemed so off, so cold…so damn cold!
Julia jumped, gasping. The woman’s voice had sounded as if she was speaking right into her left ear. Her head turned, but there was no one there. “Too much heat and sun,” she rationalized, pulling the towel more firmly around herself. She glanced into the mirror and was relieved to find her own face there. “I need something to drink,” she murmured as she opened the door and stepped out into the bedroom. The bedroom felt much warmer and she relaxed, the goosebumps diminishing.
“Julia? Are you home?” It was Adam calling up the stairs.
“I’ll be right down! I’ll start dinner in a few minutes!” She had put on her underwear and was stepping into jeans. Even though it felt warmer to her, she couldn’t trust him not to nudge the temperature control down again to sixty-whatever! Grabbing a long-sleeved t-shirt, she pulled it on over her head, slipped her feet into her slippers. They were fleece lined and toasty.
“Can you come downstairs to the game room first?” he called as she stepped out of the bedroom into the upstairs hall.
“I want to show you something,” he said, his voice sounding distant. He was already on his way down to the basement.
With a sigh of annoyance, she started down the stairs. Maybe he had a Valentine’s Day surprise for her? Perhaps that elliptical trainer she’d been wanting so she didn’t have to pay fitness center fees? Halfway down the stairs she hit what felt like a solid wall of cold air. “This is ridiculous! I’m calling Tom!” she cried. Tom was the maintenance man. Maybe he could look at the central air system, or at least recommend a reputable repair service.
She continued down the stairs, feeling as if she was walking on the polar ice cap. For a fleeting moment she thought she saw a puff of vapor as she huffed another sigh of exasperation before starting down the basement stairs. The central air system was definitely screwed up. There shouldn’t be all these cold spots throughout the condo! There was something wrong. Something very wrong about that! “What do you have down here? A surprise for me?” she asked as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
On the kitchen counter, the water in the vase of roses froze solid, expanding and shattering the glass, the shards of glass tinkling softly on the tile counter.