Our Lips Are Sealed

By Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Robyn’s wine glasses look back at her from the hutch.

Some are hand-painted, some have colored glass, none are alike. She’s spent years collecting them, and there is a design, it seems, for each of her moods—petunias for impetuous, polka dots for playful, tropical birds for chatty, autumn leaves for sorrowful.

That is, when she drinks. She isn’t supposed to anymore. Her husband despises it when she drinks.

But, oh! How the glasses beckon. What good is having wine glasses if you are never going to drink out of them? If she didn’t have this collection, she would never need to keep drinking.

Well, that isn’t exactly true, because there are days like today, ones that dawn after nightmare-plagued sleep, ones that begin with shooting pains in her wrist and bruises on a swollen knee (last night, she was in the basement, so she must have hurt herself there). Then she was late getting out of the house, not only because she couldn’t move fast due to the pain, but because half of the pair of new earrings Bill had given her for their anniversary—filigree-threaded peacock feather “eyes” she’d selected from her favorite catalogue—was missing, and her twenty-minute attempt to find it was in vain. At work, a migraine headache incubated while people mosquitoed around her desk: get a pen cup for my (gangly daughter who failed everywhere else so she’s coming to work here)! File these fax confirmations! Order more (not everybody carries them) gold paper clips! When she got home, the cat, Lee-Lee, projectile vomited and couldn’t move her back legs. Bill, whose life revolves around their cats, rushed Lee-Lee to the emergency clinic.

Now, Robyn waits for another bad news phone call.

She knows where Bill keeps his wine—in the basement, behind a coat rack draped in the oilskins of his long-ago commercial fishing days. He probably thinks she’ll never find the bottles there—in his defense, they are well-concealed—but he also isn’t aware that his dry wife needs things to fill her time, and one of those things is brooming the cobwebs from dark corners. Which was what she’d been doing when she’d found his stash.

She could, once again, swipe one of the inexpensive bottles; Bill is only an occasional wino, so he doesn’t go down there often. She always replaces whatever she’s consumed before he even notices.

But you’re not going to drink tonight. She watches the phone fail to ring.

She hears a honeyed voice say, “One glass won’t hurt anything.”

Startled, she looks around the room. Who the hell said that? She’s the only one at home. She listens.

“It’ll make you feel better,” coos the voice.

The voice doesn’t repeat.

No, you just thought that, and you said it aloud. You’re hearing yourself talk. Boy, you really need that drink, don’t you?

Her mind made up, she goes to the basement.

 

AFTER THEIR LAST CAT, a Maine Coon named Barrett, had died of hyponatremia, Bill swore he wasn’t getting another one—it was too sad, he said, when it died. And everything died; there was no getting around that. “If you have asthma, you can get one of those designer cats with the dander-free fur and not have to take your Claritin,” he said after they seated Barrett’s headstone in the pet cemetery in the woods behind their house. “But nobody makes a cat that’s impervious to death.”

Of course, a few months later, when Bill was working on his motorcycle in his friend Brian’s garage, a stray calico started to visit every day. The slight creature was emaciated, and Bill felt sorry for her, so he brought her food.

Everything had been fine until about a week after he finished the repairs.

“Brian called today.” Bill sawed at the honey-stung chicken Robyn had made. “He said that little cat that’s been following me around is sittin’ there every day outside the door waitin’ for me.” He stuck a square piece in his mouth, chewed, and reached for his glass of wine.

He was using her favorite glass, her clear one, crystal and bearing no design.

“I’m thinkin’ we’re going to have to take her in.”

She looked at her own glass of water, then back at him. “I thought you weren’t going to get another cat.”

“Brian says she looks like she’s dying. She’s got no fur, and she’s way too skinny. I feel responsible. I was feeding her.” He reached for the bottle of Lyeth Cabernet and poured.

Robyn set down her fork. “Why can’t he feed her? She went to his house, not ours.”

But he didn’t answer, and two days later, Bill brought her home and named her Kali: Multi-colored Destroyer of Worlds—Lee-Lee for short. Lee-Lee was sick with worms and was allergic to fleas, so she was hairless in some places; it was like petting warm, raw chicken skin. Of course, Lee-Lee’s needs came before Robyn’s—it didn’t matter that there were blankets Robyn would rather keep hair free; if Lee-Lee wanted to sit on them, she could. Lee-Lee got the best food and strictly organized mealtimes. Lee-Lee liked TV, so if she seemed entertained while she sat on Bill’s lap, there was no changing the channel, and Bill wasn’t going to get up even to answer the telephone—and some nights he even favored sleeping in the chair with Lee-Lee instead of going to bed. Lee-Lee had eyes that Robyn swore were like those of a snake’s: small, narrow, and…penetrating.

Still, Lee-Lee had a sweet innocence—she was kitten-esque, even though the vet had insisted she was full-grown and estimated her age at eight years old. Lee-Lee played with toys, rolled in catnip, and sometimes raced around the house for no reason. When Bill was out, Lee-Lee wasn’t bad company. She watched Robyn wash dishes, sat on the floor at Robyn’s feet during episodes of Long Island Medium, and although she ran away when Robyn wanted to pick her up, sometimes in a still moment, she let Robyn pet her.

All in all, they got used to each other, Robyn and Lee-Lee. Most of the time, things were peaceful.

 

AN EMPTY WINE BOTTLE on the basement stairs almost sends Robyn tumbling to the concrete floor.

It is her lunge for the railing that spares her, she thinks afterward as her lungs burn in panic. She slumps on the bottom stair and envisions herself, dead, her neck corkscrewed, her tongue a bloated worm, her eyes glassy.

She shudders. As if in response, the drained bottle clunks down another step and lands beside her.

The bottle’s appearance confuses her. It’s a Tisdale Pinot Noir, her pilfer of choice because it’s easy to get at the liquor store two miles down the road. She always, always, gets rid of the evidence in a conveniently-located drainage ditch at the bus stop a mile beyond the shop, and she never, ever violates the replace-the-wine-you-took-from-Bill’s-rack-within-twenty-four-hours-so-he-doesn’t-notice-it-missing rule. Where did this bottle come from, then?

Last night.

You drank last night.

She remembers the Tropical Bird Glass, and one of her socks—the right one, yes—bunched up at the toes; the elastic was shot, so it slouched. She was talking to someone on the phone, and her left ear was hot and sore.

Regardless, the bottle shouldn’t be around, let alone out in the open where Bill can see it or she can trip on it.

She hears the breathy whistle of the heating system, indicating the heating system has kicked on. Bill hates it, because every time it happens, it startles Lee-Lee.

Robyn thinks it sounds like a mournful ghost.

The sound is always louder in the basement. That’s right. She was talking on the phone and she had to turn up the volume because of the noise. Who did she call? After a few voicemails she’d left for some people who didn’t pick up, she called…her former co-worker Al. He’d been lucky enough to get out and relocate himself to Raleigh. Was that where? Or was it someplace else in North Carolina? She remembers thinking how lucky he was that he’d also lost twelve pounds because the weather was better and he didn’t have a desk job anymore. Right. She remembers Lee-Lee, running to hide down behind Daddy’s rack of oilskins, making a nest in his oversized boots because she just loved the smell of her Daddy! and because the “ghost” had once again startled her.

Robyn sets the bottle upright against the railing and rises to her feet, enduring every pain in her knee, her wrist, and now, her back and upper arms. She makes her way over to the wine rack and discovers that there are no more Tisdale bottles. She stands there, puzzled. Had she really had the balls to just drink his last bottle on there and not re-stock it?

That can’t be right. She crouches down, grimacing at the hot squeeze of her damaged knee, and shoves the flaps of Bill’s oilskins aside for a closer look.

It’s true; there are no more Tisdales. The only bottles available are his premiums, his hundred-dollar-gifts from wealthy charters. If she drinks one of these? There is no way she’ll get away with it.

Something glints beneath one of the empty cradles.

Her earring!

Gasping in pain when she fully kneels, she jimmies her fingers beneath the cradle to wrench the delicate filigreed piece free.

She isn’t sure when Bill will be returning, but something tells her she needs to get to the liquor store, replace what she drank, and buy a bottle for now.

She struggles to her feet and returns to the stairs, groaning as she leans down to grasp the empty by its neck. Is she sure this is what she needs to do? Is she sure there isn’t a bottle she’s missed?

With much stiffness, she crouches to peer over in that direction.

A hulking shadow startles her. She drops the bottle, bolts up the stairs, and slams the door.

It takes a moment to process what she’s seen: the oilskins. The way he has them on the coat rack. It wasn’t a shadow of anything. It was just the oilskins.

Silly girl, she thinks. You’re an idiot!

Her palm stings. She opens her fingers. Beneath is the missing earring, mangled, its feather quills cock-eyed like those on a dead bird.

wine-glasses-empty-white-glass-large

WHEN SHE RETURNS FROM the liquor store, her wine glasses gleam in the dining room light. Which one should she choose? Definitely not anything spirited, because she isn’t happy right now despite being on the cusp of her favorite evening activity. She certainly isn’t feeling impetuous, or playful, or chatty. She’s…

Sad? She should choose the glass embellished with autumn leaves; that’s her sorrowful favorite.

“You’re anxious,” says the honeyed voice from earlier.

Robyn closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. It’s her own voice she’s hearing. She’s definitely speaking aloud; that’s all. Anxious means the all-black glass. In its mirrored finish, she can see herself, her face distorted like one of those clocks in that Dali painting, a replica of which hangs in her hall.

Still, no need to keep spooking herself. Her first instinct was the Autumn Leaf Glass, and so the Autumn Leaf Glass will be her companion. She’s going to get this liquid into her stat and then call someone, anyone, some friend she hasn’t caught up with in awhile. It’s the Saturday before Christmas. Someone will be home, and maybe, even, someone will be tying a small one on while he wraps gifts.

Robyn whisks the glass to the wine bar, fills up, and fetches her cigarettes, ashtray, and cordless handset. She settles in the head seat at the dining table and wonders who she can dial. She used to know all the numbers, but realizes suddenly there are some she doesn’t recall.

She sips, revels in the pinot’s warm tang on her tongue.

“Come now, you don’t need to talk to anyone.”

It’s the voice again. Robyn definitely knows this time that wasn’t from her own mouth—hers is still holding her precious first sip.

“No, she doesn’t.” That’s another voice—this one melodious, soothing.

“She can talk to any one of us any time she wants.” That voice is female, high-pitched, nasal.

It came from the hutch.

She scrutinizes the collection, and she catches a flutter. She opens the beveled glass-paned door.

“See, now doesn’t that feel so much better?”

The voice she’s been hearing is coming from Black Mirror Glass.

The glasses are talking.

She instinctually swallows the wine she’s been savoring; it plummets down the wrong pipe and she chokes. When her esophagus clears, fat, purple drops fountain into the air.

“Easy, easy! You can drown in a glass of water, and wine’s liquid too, you know.” The melodious, soothing voice comes from Polka Dot Glass.

Robyn closes her eyes. “I am not hearing this. I am not hearing this!”

“You are.”

She opens her eyes.

“We miss you, Robyn. You just don’t visit with us as often,” says a reserved voice from across the room: Snowflake Glass. “I miss our time together, our hot baths, our Kindle books.”

“Oh, stop it, there, Frigid,” peals Polka Dot. “She likes me best ’cuz I make her feel young. She always wants to do something childlike after she’s been drinking from me.”

Robyn covers her ears. This is a fucked-up dream, that’s what this is. She focuses, counts to ten, and grabs the phone.

“Forget the phone,” says Black Mirror. “You can’t remember those numbers ’cuz you haven’t dialed ’em in a long time ’cuz no one wants to talk to you. You talk too much truth when you drink out of Petunia, and you spent way too much time with her in the spring.”

“Don’t you listen to Black Mirror!” says Petunia. Her voice is the high-pitched nasal one. “He makes you do bad things. Like last—”

The front door slams; Bill is home.

“Robyn!” He’s clearly been crying; his eyes are swollen.

Robyn inhales; her stomach lurches.

He motions to her wine. “Are you kidding me?”

“I just…I just…poured it—I…I was only going to have a sip. I was nervous. I swear…”

“What did you do?”

“You know it’s hard! I just can’t stop drinking just like th—”

“No. To Lee-Lee!”

The glasses in the cabinet tinkle against each other like distant wind chimes.

Robyn’s wrist sears; her knee throbs.

“What?”

His voice trembles. “Lee-Lee has severe internal damage. They’re keeping her overnight, but we’re going to probably have to put her down.”

The news hits Robyn full in the chest. “What—I don’t understand—”

“Broken ribs. Twisted intestines. Internal bleeding.” He steps closer. “Damage that can only be caused by…” He seizes her arms. “What did you do? What did you do to her?”

“I didn’t—”

“You never liked her! What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“You did!”

In the silence, the heating system makes its spectral wail.

Robyn suddenly remembers.

She was downstairs in the basement, glass in hand, and Lee-Lee was assessing her with those snaky eyes. Robyn drained her glass and started for Bill’s wine rack only to stumble on the loose sock and stub her toe; the phone had gotten stuck in her earring, so she hung up amid ridiculous promises that she’d fly down to visit Al. Lee-Lee was still staring at her. Robyn reached the wine rack only to realize there wasn’t another bottle, and so she gripped the empty, knowing she needed more, and the store, it was only two miles away, she could do that, even loaded she could do that, and she stumbled to the stairs. Then she saw the oilskins, and it reminded her of a person, a hulking shadow in the corner guarding Bill’s wine bottles. It spooked her and she clambered to get away from it, and the heating system ghost wailed, and Lee-Lee was startled and bounded up the staircase and—

—Robyn tumbled down the stairs, and Lee-Lee was somehow in the path. Did she crush her? Knock her? Fall on her? There had been that MOO-OW! sound that cats make, and…

Now Lee-Lee is going to die. Lee-Lee is going to die because, like Bill said, everything dies, and there’s no way of getting around it.

“You disgust me.” He lets go of her arm and storms out of the house, slams the front door.

“It was an accident!”

He doesn’t hear her. His car is already roaring out of the driveway.

The house is silent. She looks at her glasses.

“I’m going to smash you!” She storms up to the hutch. “I’m going to break you all!”

From behind her, Autumn Leaf Glass’ brittle voice says, “Just one more sip before you do that?”

She envisions Bill, Lee-Lee in his arms.

She knows how this will end.

“One more glass won’t hurt anything.”

Her mind made up, she reaches for the bottle.

 

Kristi Petersen Schoonover really does have a collection of wine glasses, but she keeps them in a locked cabinet so they can’t make trouble. The first chapter of her novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. She holds an MFA from Goddard College and has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies. In her spare time, she volunteers at The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk as a Gallery Guide. She and her husband live in the haunted woods of Connecticut, where she still sleeps with the lights on.

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