TO THE LAST DROP

by Mikel Leon Stevenson


She asked him, "Why don't you try writing something new for a change?"

"This is new," Martin said without looking up. His fingers had been poised over the keyboard so long they ached. His eyes were glued to the cursor which had gone belly up on page eleven of a story he had picked at for a month. Martin thought of the cursor as the blip of a cardiac monitor, and this story's vital signs looked bad; death was emanate. It was just a matter of when to pull the plug.

"You know what I mean a fresh idea, something brand new, from scratch." Regan paused to blow steam from her coffee mug, but it wasn't coffee she cooled. Instead, the mug contained a potion of Regan's own device -consisting of hot cocoa, sugar, marshmallow cream, sugar, whip cream, sugar, and just enough General Foods, International Cappuccino spooned in to justify calling it coffee. To Martin the smell alone was enough to wake the dead, and each time she blew a breath across the top of that mug he cringed. Martin listened, as she sucked the top layer of melted goo off the foaming mixture. After several attempts to suck up some of the brown liquid from beneath the head of foam, which now slopped down the sides of the mug, she lowered the cauldron, licked marshmallow from her lips and continued her suggestions.

"What I mean is, you always start writing from something you started long ago. It's no wonder you get stuck. All those old ideas are stagnant. Forget that old stuff. Start with something new." Again Regan raised the elixir to her lips and slurped. Only this time when she lowered the drink of death, she set the mug down on Martin's antique roll top desk. Although he still faced the computer screen -through the corner of his eye- he could see the curdling beverage as it pooled into a ring on the mahogany desktop. He looked back to the throbbing cursor. It bleated on and off like the veins in his head and the pump in his chest. Regan was talking again, he was sure of it, because her lips moved, and her hands gestured. That's why she had sat the mug down. Regan couldn't talk without her hands, especially when she had a point to make, and she evidently had just that. Martin could no longer hear her over the lub-dub beat of his computer's heart, which now beat out a duet with the drum in his head.

He looked over to the woman's babbling lips. They seemed to speed up, as did the throbbing of his head. Her hands gestured and pointed accusing fingers, scolding fingers. He glanced back to the cursor. It was beating. Beating . . .

He turned back to her lips. They were also beating. He slowly raised his right hand from the keyboard and placed a nervous finger to the pumping vein just below his right ear.

It wasn't a vein, actually, but an artery. The carotid. Martin knew this from research he had done on a book. The pace had picked up now, faster and faster, as did Regan's vibrating lips. Now they buzzed in just a blur. Martin looked back at the cursor. Even the speed at which that little rectangle flashed seemed to increase. Perhaps even the computer was intimidated.

That voice. That voice. What happened to it? It used to utter encouragement as sweet as a Siren's song. But no more. Now it cut him like a knife. Sure he hadn't written anything for a while. Sure the bills had piled up. With no stories going out, no money came in. But, art wasn't something you could rush. Art came when it came. Why couldn't she see that?

The voice had stopped. There was another sound instead. Martin didn't have to look up from his screen to know what it was. It was the tink-tink-tinking sound of silver against stoneware; it was the mug. She was stirring it again. She must have questioned him. It didn't happen often, but when it did, she demanded a response. Regan didn't need much interaction to keep a conversation going, just an occasional, yes dear, or uh huh, or sometimes nothing more than a nod of the head on a ten second interval, would be enough to keep her going. But sometimes Martin would have to come off auto-pilot long enough to actually say something. This was one of those times, because he heard the, TINK-TINK-TINK- signal. She must have asked a question, and he had let the auto-pilot answer with either one of its nods, or maybe even a uh-huh or God forbid, a yes, dear. TINK. She was waiting. TINK! He would have to speak now. TINK!! He would even have to think about what he said.

"Are you Listening?" TINK-TINK-TINK- Regan asked in a firm voice. She had set her mug back down, not in the same sticky circle, but over a few inches changing the ring of glop into a figure eight design. When Martin finally looked up at the woman she held the silver spoon like a judge's gavel, getting ready to send out another blast of tinks, however she saw that he finally looked up at her. She reached over to his desk and probed through a pile of bills with the sticky spoon, today's pile, not to be confused with yesterday's pile now in the trash can under the desk. She tossed the spoon into her mug with a splash, picked up an envelope and waved it at him. "It's from the bank. How long do you think we can keep ignoring them?" Regan reached over to the pencil cup and grabbed the letter opener, knocking over the little cup as she did. An avalanche of pens and pencils rolled across the desk. Some came to a stop as they rolled across the figure eight of tacky nectar left by Regan's mug. Others rolled off onto the floor. She never noticed. Martin looked up from the pencils on the floor, to the mess on his desk, to the overturned pencil cup. Regan repeated her question with a scream, "Are you listening to me!"

"No." Martin said as he reached for his own coffee cup setting beside the computer. It was black coffee, Maxwell House, no sugar, no cream, just a little bitter the way he liked it. It was the one thing Regan always got right.

"No?" Regan asked alarmed, or perhaps slightly amused. She probably didn't like the answer much, but at least it would let her know that her husband was off auto-pilot.

"No," he repeated, as he sipped his coffee and looked at her over the rim. She stared at him. There was a glint of light in her eye which matched the light reflected by the stainless steel letter opener she ripped the envelope with.

The letter opener -a gift from Martin's agent- was fashioned after a little dagger. It was a fitting gift for one who made his living writing murder mysteries.

After the bill was open she tossed the opener into the mess on the desk. Martin looked quickly down at the thing and pulled his feet back. It might have bounced off onto the floor, from the way she tossed it. It might have bounced right off and embedded itself into his bare foot. But it didn't. It just lay there, stuck in the muck, along side the pencils and pens.

God, she was such a slob. How had he lived with her for twelve long years without killing her? Martin thought how he should grab that little dagger and plunge it deep into her wicked heart. How many times had he thought of doing just that? Or even something less delicate like that big, serrated knife in the kitchen, sawing her slowly with the jagged edge. But he was a coward. Texas carried the death penalty and one bitch, more or less, wasn't worth frying for. But he had murdered her many times in his heart.

Martin had just begun itemizing the tools he had on hand in the garage when he heard sniffling. He looked back up to Regan, who was now crying. This was new. As far as Martin could remember he had never once seen Regan cry. The woman was a stone, crying was contrary to her nature. But that stone had finally crumbled. Her entire body shook from sobbing. For one fleeting second he almost felt sympathy for the woman. But it was short lived. She threw the envelope back onto the desk and reached for her mug with shaking hands spilling even more of the mess onto the desk and floor. Again Martin pulled back his feet, this time not from the thud of the little dagger, but from the hot bubbling tar in Regan's mug.

"You don't care" she screamed. "We could go to Hell in a hand basket, and that'd be OK with you!" She sipped the brew. Then her shakes seemed to calm some. Martin took another sip of his coffee. When he looked up she had changed. She grinned at him over the top of her mug. There was an evil look in her eye. "How's your coffee?" she asked.

He looked at his cup a minute, then back at her. "Regan," he said. "There's something I want to talk to you about. I want a divorce."

Regan choked on her coffee and spit it out. The spray dotted Martin's computer screen, not to mention his face. He pulled a handful of Kleenex from a box on the desk and wiped first the screen, then his face. Then he reached over to clean the mess her mug had made on the desk.

Like a wild woman Regan grabbed the letter opener and plunged it into the desk a quarter an inch from his hand. "LEAVE IT!" she screamed. Martin drew back his hand. He looked at her as if she was crazy. He reached again to clean the mess and she screamed, "I said Leave it!" Regan slammed down the mug against the desk missing his fingers by an inch. When the mug hit the hard surface of the desk it shattered in an explosion of coffee and stoneware. Only the handle was left intact, as it clung to Regan's closed fist. She opened her hand and let it fall to the desk. A trickle of blood seeped from her knuckles. "A divorce won't be necessary," she said calmly. "You see, I've poisoned the coffee."

The biting taste of Martin's black coffee rose in his throat. It was bitter all right. What had she put in it, arsenic? Strychnine? Perhaps a little Drano? He was filled with rage. He stood up and reached for the letter opener which was still stuck in the desk. He wrenched it loose and pushed it deep into her belly. Regan doubled over, blood soaked through her nightgown. She clutched her abdomen then fell to her knees. Martin reached down, pulled the little dagger from her belly, then repeatedly stabbed her in the throat and chest. Rage completely overcame the man as he screamed and cursed with every jab of the weapon. With each puncture he cried out for the twelve miserable years he had taken it and kept his mouth shut. Over a decade of cleaning up after her and listening to her nag. Finally the letter opener struck Regan's shoulder and the bone broke it into. Then there was silence.

She reached up toward him with a trembling bloody hand. The expression on her face was priceless. She actually looked surprised, even a little hurt. Well, of course she was hurt -she was Swiss cheese. She was trying to say something, but when she opened her mouth to speak only a bloody bubble inflated and burst over her lips. Then Regan fell forward into the last mess she'd ever make. Her hands were balled into fists, except for a solitary index finger, which pointed to a puddle of blood, as if to scold him one last time.

The rage left Martin, and panic set in. In his heart he knew she had gotten what she deserved. Perhaps there was such a thing as justifiable homicide. But he wasn't sure merely being a slob justified what he had done to his wife.

But the poison. Suddenly he felt weak. He leaned forward against the desk. Before he realized what his hands were up to, he saw that they had reached for Kleenex. God Kleenex! Even with Regan dead on the floor, in a lake of blood, even with Drano, or God knows what, coursing through his veins, all he could think of was cleaning up some coffee stains. Perhaps Regan was right. He did have a tidiness compulsion. He looked down at her bloody corpse and cringed from the cramp in his gut. The thing he hated most, was dying at her hand. Then he saw her broken mug laying there. He refused to allow her the last laugh. Martin slipped his fingers through the handle of Regan's mug. It fit like brass knuckles only instead of knuckles, a sharp jagged edge protruded. He looked at himself in the mirror over his desk and spoke aloud. "I won't give her the satisfaction." Martin drew his fist down across his neck slicing the Carotid artery with the sharp edge of the broken mug.

Blood flew across the mirror and the desk. He fell into his office chair and stared at Regan's bleeding body at his feet. I wonder how long it will take. I gashed that artery pretty good. Probably won't take long. Probably won't take long at all. Martin looked again down to his dead wife. Her right hand still pointed an accusing finger. Just out from that finger was what first looked like scribbling, but he could see it was letters. Words. A note. Regan had scribbled something into her own blood before she had died. He couldn't quite make it out. Martin strained his eyes trying to read Regan's last words, but he was so weak. His vision blurred. He looked over and saw his glasses on the desk. They had actually managed to avoid the blood bath. How nice. If he could just reach them. Martin stretched forward for his glasses. He could just barely touch them with the tips of his fingers. He put them onto his swollen face and looked back down to read the bloody cryptic message below. The words she had scrawled into the blood puddle read,

POISON. MY CUP. NOT YOURS!

© 1995 Mikel Leon Stevenson


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To the Last Drop, 11 June 1997