The hospital suggested that Nate take two weeks off. He spent the first three days after the burial isolated on his property, planning how he would keep up the place without his secret being discovered. The Smiths – the couple who cooked and cleaned for him – had separate quarters outside the house and would not ask questions. But now he had to hire a nanny to care for his son full time and it would be risky to have someone wandering around the house while he was working. The woman might get curious about any locked doors.
Nate toyed with the idea of renting an apartment in Manhattan, but with his private practice temporarily closed, what excuse would he have to make frequent trips to New Rochelle to see Irina?
A solution finally presented itself. He would make up a story about why the secret room needed to remain closed, and install a special alarm that would sound on his cell phone in case anyone tried to open the door.
Having dealt with his dilemma, Nate headed to Manhattan to see his family. His parents lived in Charleston, North Carolina, and were staying with Mr. Foster’s sister in her expansive penthouse on Park Avenue. When Nate entered, the housekeeper—an elderly woman who had known him since he was a child—greeted him with a sad smile and offered her condolences.
Nate thanked her, kissing the woman’s withered cheek, and, following the sound of crying in the distance, headed toward the living room.
It was there, on his mother’s lap, that he truly saw his son for the first time, his small head coated with blond hair poking out from the blanket that swaddled him. That noisy creature had caused him the biggest loss of his life, but when he got closer and saw those familiar dark blue eyes, he smiled in spite of himself.
He was not alone.
Irina had been the center of Nate’s world—Nate’s parents were well aware of this. They were worried about the strong façade their son had been displaying. In order to keep an eye on him they suggested they would help him with the baby during his leave of absence. When Nate objected, the Fosters ignored him and said they would arrive in New Rochelle two days later. In the end, Nate warmed to the idea. If he could find a way to divert his mother’s curiosity from a locked room, he could easily divert anyone else’s.
He used the following days to interview nannies around the city, and settled on a Mexican woman in her fifties named Dolores Gonzales. When his parents arrived, Nate led them and Dolores to the locked door on the second floor and said, “This room is a small tribute to my wife and it should remain closed at all times. I’m keeping Irina’s personal belongings here, and it helps me to sit in here alone once in a while. Please don’t ask me questions about it or ask to be let in. There’s nothing that could be of interest to anyone in there but me.”
Everyone seemed to accept his story.
The Fosters woke early every day around 7:30 A.M. to help Dolores with the newborn. They were also up in time to see Nate’s new morning ritual before breakfast in which he would pluck a single lily from a hallway vase and plant it at Irina’s headstone. He would then bow his head in silence, fully aware of his parents’ eyes on him, then return to breakfast as though he hadn’t left.
Nate’s parents ate it all up. They were glad to see Nate managing his grief so eloquently, and commended him on the sweet nanny he had chosen to take care of Joshua. Having seen enough, they decided to leave.
“Let us know if you need anything, and we’ll be back,” his mother said.
“Thank you.” Nate kissed his mother’s cheek and hugged both his parents. “Don’t worry. Josh and I will be fine.”
One quiet night in late October, Nate sat alone, eating dinner, watching the moonlight cast its silver glow over the centenary oaks in his yard. It had been six months since Irina’s death and he felt as old as those trees. He finished some work in his study and when Dolores and Joshua were in bed he armed himself with a pillow and a duvet and moved to his new room.
He opened the transparent acrylic cover, as he furtively did every night, and stared at Irina, lost in eternal sleep. He meant only to sleep on the small bed by the window, knowing his beloved wife was near him. But this time, when he touched her hair, the pain struck him so hard that he could not bear to see her there.
He took Irina in his arms and carefully embraced her. The cold, rigid body shrunk his heart, bringing tears to his eyes. He kissed her cheek, trying to ignore the smell of the wax that kept her intact, and then tucked her back into her bed.
Much better, he thought, as he wrapped the coverlet around. It looked as though they had returned from a party where she’d had too much wine and fallen asleep still fully dressed.
Nate admired Irina’s still form for a moment and then lay at her side. He told her what he had done at work, how fast Josh was growing up and how much he still loved her. As he approached her face, he noticed her hair still held the scent of the shampoo he had used to clean her and suddenly realized that something was missing. For maintenance, a body mummified with the technique he’d used needed a brushing of Vaseline every couple of weeks to avoid any cracking. But it was a technique used in a museum. He could do better for his wife. Nate jumped up, opened the wardrobe and started to look inside Irina’s necessaire.
He picked an expensive moisturizer and noting there was no acid in its formula, tested it on the new skin of Irina’s forearm. There was no change in its color and the soft fragrance cut through the smell of the wax. He repeated the procedure on the visible parts of her body and then sprayed some perfume into her hair. Nate kissed his wife again and smiled. Now the skin had her smell. With his face nestled in those red locks, Nate slept more soundly than he had in months. The following morning when he woke up, he realized the weight of his body had fractured Irina’s arm.
Winter of 2008
Three years passed by in a blur, and Nate had managed to maintain both his professional and social life as normally as he could. But his mental state regarding Irina’s death remained akin to that of a mad man. He never again removed his wife from her pedestal, but every night he would kiss her forehead and talk to her.
Nate was determined his son should know how wonderful his mother had been. So he kept photos of Irina everywhere and hung two big posters of her in the house, one in the living room and the other in Josh’s room.
The boy learned to say “mommy” before saying “daddy,” and on his third birthday, also the anniversary of Irina’s death, Josh pointed at the sky and told his father, “Dolores said Mommy lives up there. Is she one of those stars, Daddy?”
Nate had drunk a little too much. After staring blindly at the stars for a moment, he turned to Josh. “No son. Do you want to see your Mom?”
Nate opened the secret room and approached the acrylic box, holding Josh in his arms. “This is your mommy. You see how pretty she is?”
Josh looked at the woman lying in front of him and recognized her from the pictures. “Mommy,” he repeated. “Is she sleeping?”
Nate smiled. “That’s right, son. She is dreaming of you.”
Nate told Josh that his mommy had become sick and that they were there to visit her. For a moment, Nate believed his own story. He had just tasted the feeling of being part of a full family unit. Later in his room, however, he realized the absurdity of what he had done. Josh was no longer a baby. He would remember that visit and it might even cause him psychological damage. Worse, he might also speak about it to others.
Emily is right. I’m losing my fucking mind!
On the following day, Nate took his son into the garden, and told him his mother had been taken to the hospital. He hoped Josh would forget about their visit to the locked room and he would then be able to tell him Irina had gone to heaven. To prove it, he would show Josh her grave.
But Josh knew that the room he had visited was two doors down from his own, and he knew exactly where Mommy was. The first indication of trouble came two days later, when Nate returned home from work and found the nanny in a panic.
“Dr. Foster, I’m worried about Joshua. Maybe you should take a few of his mother’s photos out of the house. He is becoming obsessed! Today he ran to the storage room door where you keep your wife’s belongings and said, Mommy is sleeping in here.”
Nate’s blood froze. “I think you’re right, Dolores. I’ll do that tomorrow.”
Nate tried to convince Josh that his mother was not in that room. But the boy insisted on going in there again. The situation spun out of control when Nate’s mother called Dolores, asking about her grandson, and the nanny told her what was happening.
Mrs. Foster talked to Josh over the telephone, and after hearing, “Mommy is sleeping in a glass box” and “Mommy is wearing a shiny dress” she realized what Nate had done. After all, how would Josh know what dress Irina had been buried in?
The Fosters paid Nate a surprise visit the next afternoon.
“What happened?” Nate asked, as he opened the front door. “Something wrong with Aunt Carol?”
The straightforwardness of his father’s answer caught Nate off guard. “No, son. Before this explodes into a big mess, we want you to tell us what you did with your wife’s body.”
After a week of struggling with his parents, Nate agreed that for Josh’s sake, he would give Irina a proper burial.
“At the cemetery, son,” his mother begged. “Not here.”
“Absolutely not. If I do this, Mom, there’s no way I can undo it. If you don’t trust me, just know that the…” Nate trailed off, as if it hurt him to utter the next word, “the body will be preserved for years. But without proper maintenance it will look more like a wax doll than a person. I don’t want to see her like that.”
Mrs. Foster was horrified. She had been a good Christian her whole life, and to hear her son speak so scientifically about death drew the breath right out of her. She merely nodded at her son’s pleas, too weak to add another word, and the decision was made. Dolores and the Smiths were given the entire weekend off. Mrs. Foster took care of Josh and Nate, and Mr. Foster returned Irina to her burial site.
Two weeks later, Nate overdosed on sleeping pills.