Dedicated to my friend Eric R.
Todd was the happiest man on the block. Maybe the happiest in the entire development, or for that matter how about the state? That was certainly possible. He looked over at Claire, asleep in the watery moonlight. A full moon hung near the horizon, its lower limb just grazing the top of the slat fence surrounding her back yard. Todd half-expected, half-wished for a tomcat ambling across moon's the white face. That would make things perfect.
Todd was 36 years old, Claire a few years older. He guessed her age at 40ish, though he'd never asked, and she'd never volunteered the information. She was his next-door neighbor, and the fence supporting the moon separated his property from hers. Claire's husband was away on business, Buffalo this time, Claire had explained with a shake of the head. He'd be gone four days.
Todd eyed the engagement ring, wedding band and anniversary ring on the third finger of her left hand, curled limply against her right cheek. He felt alternately jealous, disturbed and guilty about those rings; he was intruding upon a 15 year old, solid marriage. All the years Claire had laid in this bed alongside Carl, well that just made his chest ache. A week ago he'd sat down at the dining room table and calculated the number of times Carl had probably done with Claire what he had done with her tonight. The number had left him staggered, disheartened and depressed. Experiencing some disheartenment now, he reached over and gently brushed the back of his fingers against hers. She stirred and murmured unintelligibly. Then she turned on her side away from him and tucked the covers up to her chin.
It had started so unexpectedly. Todd was an insurance adjuster and one afternoon he'd headed out with four claims to investigate. The first and last claims were both roof damage caused by the series of violent thunderstorms two nights before. The 3rd claim was also weather related, a tree down in the back yard and a damaged garage. To his surprise, he recognized the address. He should, it was right next door: Carl and Claire Langley, the insured. Brand new to the development, Todd had seen his neighbors a few times, but hadn't yet introduced himself. Claire, huh? He liked that name.
Gingerly pinching the bedclothes with his fingertips, Todd exposed her bare shoulder. She stirred and shifted uncomfortably, muttering again. But Todd waited her out, and then slid the bedding down and uncovered her right arm, her waist, and finally the rise of her hip. He let the bedclothes settle and took pleasure in observing her naked upper body. A shame she hadn't turned toward, instead of away from him; she had such beautiful breasts.
At 3:35 P.M., on the afternoon of August 17th, Todd pulled his company car into the driveway at 1335 Clement Drive and turned off the engine. Mrs. Langley was home, evidenced by her powder-blue Audi parked before the garage and the open front door. He performed his usual pre-inspection activity in the car, and then got out, following the driveway to a set of flagstones set between the driveway and front walk, and crossed over. Claire answered the ringing doorbell in a matter of moments.
"Good afternoon, neighbor." He grinned deprecatingly and motioned to his own house next door. "I'm Todd Corliss. I'm your insurance adjuster also, and I'm here to look at your damage?" He raised his eyebrows expectantly, and tried not to show how embarrassed he was. Later, it seemed impossible that he hadn't been knocked out by her grace and charm, if not by her looks. Her smile made his smile falter slightly.
Oh, my God ... how did I miss that horrible scar on her right cheek? It was hidden at first by reflections on the storm door glass, and then by the edge of the doorframe as she held it open. It was only when she smiled and extended her hand to shake his, necessitating a step down to join him on the stoop, that her injury began evident. He realized the scar didn't only deface her, but whatever event had inflicted it had also mauled her right ear. Barely half remained, and what did remain was unnerving to look at. As was her slightly drooping left eye.
"Glad to meet you finally, Todd. My husband Carl planned to invite you over for the game tomorrow night. Are you a Steeler's fan?"
Todd couldn't immediately find his tongue. She grinned again, lopsided due to the scar. It was actually two scars, Todd saw, separated by half an inch of shimmering white skin; between the two, they ran from her jaw line to the roots of her hair just above the temple. Todd felt momentarily sick at his stomach. Claire laughed.
"Would you like a glass of water?"
Todd blinked in confusion. "Excuse me?"
"I'm used to people's first reaction to my face." She touched her fingertips lightly to her left cheek, not self-consciously, but almost unconsciously, Todd felt, as though reminding her it was there.
"I'm ... no ... I'm not..."
"Of course you are," Claire said, laughing again. "Everyone is the first time they see me. I can't believe no one filled you in, warned you about the ogre lady next door." She crossed her eyes and bared her teeth in a comedic grimace, clawing the air with her free hand. Todd almost stepped back, feeling a momentary, thoughtless revulsion. She laughed at his resulting expression.
"It was an auto accident, 15 years ago. We'd just flown back from our honeymoon in the Caymans, and were heading home from the airport. A man cut us off on a curve and Carl lost control in the rain and we slid sideways into the guardrail. It was the guardrail that did this to me, surprisingly. Somehow we hit it just right and the rail peeled up like a banana skin and punched right through my window. Since we were going backwards at the time, you'd think it would get the left side of my face rather than the right side. Not that it really matters, though, right?"
The question, the entire explanation, had a well-worn and practiced quality to it. Todd wondered how many times she had allayed a new acquaintance's discomfort with this easy demeanor and matter of fact storytelling. It had certainly worked on him. His heart had calmed and his blood pressure dropped from the danger zone. His reaction had been the same as seeing pictures of children disfigured by harelips or facial deformities in a magazine. He felt thoroughly ashamed of himself.
"My face and ear weren't the only victims of the railing unfortunately. It decided I'd look better without a right breast, and neatly amputated it in a stroke." She made a downward slicing motion with her right hand that made Todd wince. "When it got to my stomach, it decided I was better off without children and neatly scooped out my uterus like a big spoon and deposited it neatly on my lap. I was not a pretty sight, believe me."
Todd realized her knew Claire Langley, or knew of her, anyway ... as everyone did in the tri-state area. Her accident and horrible disfigurement had dominated the news for months, especially the marathon surgeries to reattach her amputated right breast, and to undo the carnage inflicted upon her midsection. He remembered hearing that rescue workers had indeed found her uterus sitting neatly in her lap, as though removed by a surgeon. And although surgeons had saved the breast, and had somehow replaced her uterus, Claire's days of being a prospective mother were over.
"Would you like to come in?" Claire asked.
From right out of nowhere, shocking in the circumstances, a thought came into Todd's mind: What I'd like to do, Claire, is make love to you.
"Yes, thank you very much." He stepped past and into a small foyer laid out mirror image of his. He realized the entire floor plan was a mirror image. Smiling, she led him down the long hallway to the living room, decorated nicely in powder blue overstuffed furniture consisting of sofa, chair and loveseat—the walls were painted a matching baby-blue color, which should have be ugly, but wasn't--and into the brightly illuminated kitchen. For the first time he noted her clothing in detail. She wore a simple white sleeveless top tucked into blue Capri's, a black belt at the waist. On her feet were thin black sandals. Her fingernails and toenails were both a pale shade of pink. Her dark blonde hair brushed the back of her neck and was just the perfect length to frame her oval, nicely featured face. Prior to the accident, she must have been a strikingly attractive woman, he thought. She was still attractive, in profile, and he was quickly becoming accustomed to her post injury features. He loved her slightly bobbed nose and her emerald green eyes. Her lips, at one time, would have invited kisses the way pollen invited busy little bees. He felt like a busy little bee himself. Yet totally, unexpectedly at ease with this woman.
"Can I ask you a question?" He lost track of the question as he caught the hint of something peripherally, and then snapped to the right and focused in. "What... ?" He blinked in confusion and stepped past her, closer to the window.
"Well, my goodness," she said. "Look at that."
Todd nodded dumbly. In the back yard were a man and woman. The woman stood with her arms crossed loosely over her chest and her head cocked interestedly; the man wrote busily on a white lined pad of paper inside a thin, folded over leather notecase. Todd looked down at the notecase under his arm. The man wore a blue suit identical to his own, and the woman, though her face was turned away and features obscured by her dark brown hair, wore the same sleeveless white shirt and dark blue Capri's as Claire.
.... There is more of this story ...