A red stain on the carpet was not what Harold expected the morning Susan left. He imagined her packing quietly in the night, wearing slippers instead of sandals, leaving the apartment door unlocked because even the sound of the latch against wood might wake him. The signs were clear enough. Among the missing: her green suitcase with the broken zipper, her cherry wine rack, the set of hand-carved wooden cooking spoons. This led Harold to believe Susan's departure was well planned. Still, when Harold recalled the days and weeks before she left, he could point to nothing specific�just a general feeling, a slow gathering of emotions, like the onset of a cold.
But this red stain? If Susan had spilled something—wine, perhaps—she would have cleaned it immediately, obsessively, the same way she washed her hands each morning for two full minutes. The same way Susan scrubbed the Formica countertops to a high sheen, erasing all evidence of Harold's lunch and the sweaty prints his fingers left after exercising. On an early date, Harold dipped his tie in the lobster bisque. Susan produced a small vile of Tide which she mixed with ice water. Harold relished the way she dabbed his tie with the tip of her napkin. Susan leaned into him, her curls unfolding into Harold's neck, the smell of Tide and perfume mixing together. That night Harold put a drop of laundry detergent on his pillow before climbing under the sheets.
Harold crouched over the stain in the living room, carefully inspecting it. Molasses? Ketchup? It didn't have any particular odor. It was deep red, almost beautiful, the edges of the stain forming a set of sherry-colored lobes on the beige carpet.
In Susan's absence Harold spent his days the usual way. He sorted the mail, placing envelopes into labeled bins: one for himself, one marked "Susan" in case she returned. He arrived at work on time, careful not to spill the news among coworkers. Harold disliked gossip. In the evenings he jogged. He washed bugs from the car's radiator and dusted above the refrigerator. While organizing the medicine cabinet Harold noticed a round burn mark beside the toilet. He pressed his finger into its lumpy center. It couldn't be…Harold didn't smoke, and neither did Susan. But there it was. Seated on the toilet, Harold imagined extinguishing a cigarette on the drywall, flicking the butt into the toilet and flushing.
Harold continued to be wary of the red stain. He ate alone after work, cooking spaghetti with store-bought sauce or heating a frozen dinner in the microwave. Occasionally he'd pause while chewing to gaze at the stain before returning to his meal. In the mornings he was careful always to step around the stain, not directly on it. And he did not think of cleaning it.
Harold was aroused by a recurring fantasy of Susan bending over the stain, wiping the carpet fibers with a toothbrush dipped in solvent. Harold was embarrassed. It began with his tie at the seafood restaurant. Then, watching Susan clean up after him—crumbs, toenail clippings, smudges on the mirrors or handprints on the stainless appliances—captivated Harold, excited him, and Susan in return played the game. When Susan first moved from the suburbs into Harold's fastidiously organized downtown apartment, they shared stuffed crab and Chenin Blanc on the balcony. Susan was surprised when Harold ran his fingers along her neck and said her skin reminded him of fabric softener. She giggled when asked if he could watch her fold laundry. Susan soon purchased a maid's outfit from an online catalogue that she wore just for him. Harold kept a bottle of Windex on their nightstand.
With time Harold became so accustomed to looking at the stain, so familiar with each curve and dimple, that he began to notice small changes in its character. On Monday the vaguely brown leftmost ear had extended slightly, reaching toward the sofa. Tuesday was particularly alarming: the southern flank had softened, the ridges of each curve having grown shallower. Because the stain was not liquid, this could not be explained. Harold measured the blemish carefully with a ruler: twelve inches in diameter.
Twelve inches on Tuesday became twelve and a half inches on Wednesday, and Harold paced anxiously, re-measuring, also noting that the color seemed to have faded over the last several days, though he understood this to be a natural process. He was continually troubled by the origin of the stain, the possibilities, and always the urgent question: was it blood? Susan's disappearance had been sudden. What if she had injured herself? Or worse. He called the local police and asked to speak to the forensics department. He was disappointed when the officer took his information then told him his request was "highly irregular" and said Harold would be "contacted by someone from our office."
Harold scanned the white pages looking for any information. Susan Cline. Her listing hadn't changed. It was still the number they shared at their apartment. Then the phone rang. It was an employee of the apartment complex. She informed Harold that a resident on the bottom level—a woman who recently moved in—had violated the animal policy (two animals maximum and no more than thirty-five pounds combined) and all apartments were to be inspected. Harold wondered if they were cats. He hated cat hair.
On his way to work he passed the offending apartment. A foul odor, which he assumed to be animal stench, wafted through the hallway. Harold heard a faint but distinct mewing, then a shuffling sound and an end to the mewing. He pictured Susan rushing through the dirty apartment, scrubbing and polishing in her blue plaid outfit, her sandy hair tucked in a tight bun. He could almost smell the ammonia.
The day of the inspection Harold covered his stain with aluminum foil and masking tape, careful to preserve the edges, which were growing brittle and prone to cracking, making measurements difficult.
That night, a knock on the door, which Harold believed to be the apartment employee, called him from the television. Instead a uniformed police officer stood in the hallway next to another man in a suit with a badge hanging from his neck.
"You Harold Schmidt?" the officer asked.
Harold told them he was, and he showed the two men into the living room. Harold asked if they would like coffee, but the plain-clothed detective said they would not. The detective studied Harold skeptically; the other searched the three rooms of the small apartment.
"Very clean place you got here Harold," the officer said after returning to the living room.
"This it here?" the detective asked, pointing at the browning stain beside the couch. "Why's it covered with tape?"
Harold told them it was so the—ah, evidence—could be preserved. The men asked if Harold had been in contact with Susan. They asked if he took prescription medication. Harold said no to both. The investigator sighed and knelt on the carpet in his grey suit pants, dabbing a Q-tip into the stain. Harold's heart raced. The detective soaked the Q-tip in a vile of liquid then brought it to his nose and sniffed.
"Harold, this is what we call a food and beverage stain," the detective said.
The officers were quick to leave, but Harold was unsatisfied. He asked if they might "test the sample." The detective said he would send it to the crime lab as soon as they returned to the station so they might know Susan's preference in condiments. The door shut and Harold heard laughter rolling down the hall.
The next several days were especially difficult. Continued measurements of the stain produced varied results. Some days it seemed to expand; on others it contracted slightly. The color and texture were always in flux. He moved the couch to get a better angle, and discovered two new stains, one yellow and one white, as if bleach had been poured on the carpet in deliberate sabotage. Who would do this? Harold considered the possibilities. They rarely had company.
The bleach stains reminded Harold of the bleach accident some weeks earlier, which, Harold believed, was not entirely his fault. On a Sunday morning Susan had put on her maid's outfit. She was striking, the blue fabric complementing her crisp blue eyes, a bow of white lace tied neatly at the waist. Harold watched from the couch as Susan arranged cleaning products in the kitchen, lining them all up and smiling at Harold over her shoulder. Then she exited the apartment and rang the doorbell. Harold opened the door. Susan spoke in a sultry voice: "I heard you have a kitchen that needs cleaning." She glided over the carpet, wagging her hips at Harold. The moment was all too much. Harold lunged and pinned Susan to the countertop, pressing his nose into the deep blue pleats covering her breasts. Together they sprawled on the counter, overturning window cleaner and wood polish, bathroom tile spray, minty-smelling toilet balls, and a jug of bleach with a loose cap.
Afterwards Susan discovered she now had one dark eyebrow and one glistening white eyebrow, and a nick of hair stained yellow on the same side. Harold said it was the most beautiful she'd ever looked. He kissed her white eyebrow tenderly. Susan pushed him away. She stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom, alternately cupping one hand over the good eyebrow and one over the white one, as if trying to decide which version of herself she liked better. Susan walked to the kitchen and emptied all the cleaning products into the sink. Harold watched in horror as chemicals bubbled down the drain.
Later, Harold noticed the maid's outfit missing from the top drawer of Susan's dresser. At dinner, when Harold mentioned he'd found a better tailor, an expressionless Susan rattled the ice in her Coke glass and said "Oh yeah, that's nice Harold, really great for you" and Harold smiled and told her yes, it was great. But even so Harold sensed a change in Susan—a certain limpness in her embrace, a dullness in the way she looked at him. Her lips, a degree cooler maybe. And Harold was troubled by pockets of dust appearing around the house. In the bookshelves, at the base of kitchen appliances, along the maple slats of their bed.
When the hallway was again quiet, Harold left for the grocery store. He returned with two bulging plastic bags of cleaning supplies. He mixed all the products together in a large metal bowl, though he knew the instructions specifically warned against this. He then set the bowl next to the stain on the carpet. Wearing thick gloves he poured the liquid over the stain and set to work with a plastic scrubber. The stain turned from dark brown to hot pink, then still lighter pink as Harold scrubbed furiously. He bore down into the carpet with his hands, shaking at the shoulders, his eyes filling with tears that added to the liquid pool on the carpet. When Harold finished he soaked the detergents up with a towel. Then he collected himself and sat on the sofa, staring at the slightly off-white soggy patch of carpet.
The next morning the stain was mostly the memory of one—it would have been difficult to find the area of carpet unless you were Harold.
Harold crunched his cereal, occasionally glancing at the living room floor, half expecting to see the stain reappear in vibrant red.
Returning from work, Harold was met by a white envelope tacked to his door. He opened it immediately. It was a note from Susan, painfully brief: an explanation was owed. She was happy. He must not judge her. They would meet by the building's entrance in the morning. Nine O'clock.
As Harold folded the note he discovered a dark red smear on the back. He rubbed it with his thumb. It was all too familiar. He considered phoning the authorities but could only picture the laughing detective.
Harold made his preparations. He wet cotton and dusted the lampshades and the blue vase in the living room. He dusted under the electric mixer in the kitchen, behind picture frames and along the inlet vent to the heating and cooling system. He also cleaned the tops of the curtain rods. Those were especially hard to reach. Dishes were washed and the sink thoroughly dried. Counters were scrubbed. Mirrors polished. When finished Harold topped it all off with a bottle of cleaner placed strategically on the countertop. Beside it he left a roll of plush paper towels.
Sleep was elusive and Harold rose early the next morning. After necessities of shower and food he made finishing touches to the apartment. Then he took his position on the sofa and breathed deeply. He checked his watch. He waited.
Eight fifty. Harold locked the door and walked downstairs past the rank cat apartment. He waited by glass double doors, looking outside at nothing in particular, stretches of empty pavement and more buildings. Most residents had already left for work and there was no traffic through the entranceway. Harold re-checked his watch. Three past nine. Susan was never late. Five minutes more and the waiting became unbearable. His palms sweat. He chewed the insides of his lips.
Harold was drying his hands on his pant legs when a door opened behind him. A cat stepped out and loped down the hallway in his direction. Harold shooed the cat back down the hall. As he approached the open door he noticed broken glass across the floor. Feeling something might be wrong, he knocked gently but no response. He stepped quietly into the dark room. Clumps of cat litter and clothes mixed together on the carpet. Beside an end table lay a heap of trash—torn magazines, paper plates, ash trays and empty cereal boxes. The windowsills were all grime and dust. In the kitchen, a woman with her back to Harold faced the warm light of an open window.
The floor creaked and the woman turned. She was a pretty girl with gold crinkles of hair and lovely eyebrows, one almond, the other pearly white.
Her lips spread a thin smile.
BIO: Elliot Sanders lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Missouri, a place with more cows and chickens than people. His fiction can (or will soon) be found at PANK, JMWW, War, Literature & the Arts, Echo Ink Review, Foundling Review, and Punchnel’s.