To the Left of Death: An Excerpt

Enjoy this preview excerpt from To the Left of Death by Susan Quilty.

Day One

Not many people expect their day to include murder. Homicide detectives. Medical examiners. Judges or criminal lawyers. I guess hitmen and serial killers, too. But not most people. Not the ones who shy away from death. Not even those of us who already know its shadow.

There’s a finality to death. However it happens. Whether it comes as a welcome release, a choice, or an unexpected tragedy. There’s no second chance. There’s no coming back. That’s hard for those left behind to accept. Even harder to accept after murder. At least in my experience.

Murder hadn’t crossed my mind that morning. Not once. Or not that I remember. To be honest, I don’t know what I was thinking that morning. But I wasn’t thinking about murder. Looking back—recreating—I was probably thinking about clouds.

It had been dark that week. Cold and damp. Everyone had been talking about the rain. Worrying over it, as if it were important. Or maybe just making conversation. Like people do. Finding common ground in the mundane.

I worry more about the climate in my own head. There are winds in there that can churn their way into a hurricane, leaving me stuck in the eye of the storm where it’s dark and quiet as gusts swirl just out of reach. When that storm kicks up, the other people in my life—friends, acquaintances, a husband—all exist on the other side. Separated. Distant.

I do my best to not see the storm. To not let it take me away. 

That morning, the bed was empty. George had stumbled downstairs before I woke up. He uses the automatic setting to have his coffee waiting first thing, like clockwork. It’s a very normal way to start the day. He drinks his coffee in front of the news, hits the treadmill or goes outside for a thirty-minute run, then heads back upstairs for his shower just as I’m leaving for work.

It’s his routine. A normal routine for a normal man.

Sometimes when I think about George’s normalcy, his discipline and easy manner, I feel small and brittle. Fragile. Yet somehow soft and oozing, too. Seeping into the cracks of other people’s schedules. Other people’s plans.

Sometimes I marvel at being married to a man named George. It’s such a grown-up, sensible name. Not a husband name I would have daydreamed about in junior high. Not a Dominic or Tristan or Shane.

Sometimes I marvel at being married at all.

I had my own morning routine by then. Each weekday began with a vintage-style dress, a coordinating cardigan, and ballet flats. A uniform of sorts. An outfit that felt nothing like the real me, but entirely like my teacher persona. I’d tell myself the look was ironic, a quiet rebellion. I might not have planned on being a teacher, I’d tell myself, but I could have fun with it. With dressing up and playing the part.

When it came time to choose a grade, I’d thought third wouldn’t be so bad. An age when kids were firmly rooted as kids. The baby years left behind but not yet teetering on the verge of teenage angst. Not yet struggling against real problems.

It didn’t take long to realize that I’d been wrong.

That morning, I wore a white dress with a blue floral print, a blue sweater, and white flats. Something was missing, so I added a thin, red belt for that pop of color. It was the kind of kicky detail fashion magazines might recommend. If I ever read them. Or if I were the kind of person to use words like kicky without irony.

It’s easy to recreate that moment in my mind. To imagine pulling that dress from the closet and unfolding that sweater. I can still feel the material when I close my eyes. The softness of the cotton, the thick plastic of the buttons. The stiff vinyl belt that wouldn’t be the only red on my dress by the end of the day.

I picture myself that morning and think that was the day that changed me—that irrevocably set me apart from everyone else—but that may not be entirely true.

Even before that day, I knew I was different.

When I wasn’t at school teaching, or at home grading papers, I was dropping ecstasy at an underground rave. I was draped in neon clothing and light-up jewelry that was so out, it was in. I was dancing in a throng of sweaty bodies and feeling a crush of flesh blotting out the impending storm.

Except I was never actually there. Not at the rave or anywhere else. I was really at home, in front of the TV, curled up on the couch and eating ice cream while George dozed beside me. But I was only partially watching the show. The rest of my mind was at that rave, or bungee jumping off an iron bridge, or standing on the upper wall of an abandoned parking deck, or racing 100 miles an hour on the back of a motorcycle. I was lost in the past or in my own imagination. I was anywhere but sitting on that couch where I was dying day-by-day and slowly getting fat.

Other people feel the same way—they must—but those people were hidden in my suburban life. Or maybe hidden in plain sight. Either way, I didn’t see them.

The people I knew talked about TV and movies, parenting and bills. Some would rant about sports, and most would joke about not having time to finish a book. They seemed content beneath their complaints and middle-class exhaustion. They seemed to be getting enough out of life or were resigned to getting as much as they were.

They weren’t the teenage outcasts I’d left in my ancient past or the dark-and-twisty friends I’d planned to make in New York.

Still, I imagine they had their own personal storms. Demons, ghosts, issues. So many euphemisms for personal pain. It’s an unspoken misery for most people, but I would catch a glimpse of it from time to time. Pick up clues that others were struggling, too. Coping in their own way. There’s a kinship that springs up occasionally. As if people naturally gravitate toward those who are equally broken. Underneath. But that wasn’t discussed. Not directly. Not in the suburbs where life revolved around soccer games and work commutes.

It could hurt to feel broken in that kind of setting. To feel so out of place.

Though it was easier when I was drinking.

There’s something soothing about holding a wine glass, a rocks glass, or even a beer bottle in a pinch. Something safe and happy. It’s like a modern-day shield. Stemmed glasses are best, cradled in the hand and carried throughout gestures, like cigarettes were once used to punctuate conversations. And are still used, in some circles, where the notion of healthy lungs hasn’t quite caught up to the vices of daily survival.

Alcohol is more widely accepted than cigarettes in my circle. It functions as a common way to pass an evening. Or an afternoon. It breaks down barriers and draws people together in a self-medicated haze.

Continue in To the Left of Death…

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