1 Ryan Latta “Smoke and Mirrors” “Will you bring me some M&Ms,” she asked him. “What kind?” There wasn't even a hint that the request wore on him, and she loved it. “Peanuts of course. Not a small bag either, I want the big bag.” She said this with a bit of perkiness to her voice. She couldn't help it, every time she asked him for something, he would try to get it for her. She didn't see it as being spoiled, she saw it as training him. If she could train him to take care of her like this, they would have a great relationship. This was simply a test. One of many he endured to be with her. She knew that most men would have a tone of agitation in hearing such requests, but he never did. It was too perfect, and too exciting to hide. He had passed again. “Okay babe, I'll see you soon.” She met him at the door when he got home, and simply extended her hand to get the candy. He laughed at her, “Nope. Not until you give me a kiss.” In response, she jokingly gave a peck on the cheek as a part of a game that they played with each other. She thought she was better than him, but tonight he won. He took the bag out of his pocket, tore the corner open, and ate one. Still chewing, “I guess you just don't want these bad enough then.” The flag was raised, an agreement was reached, and a kiss ended the M&M war. She took her prize to the couch, and he took his briefcase to his study. She heard the familiar sound of the secret key opening the forbidden door to his office. He kept his office locked, even when he was inside of it. She wasn't allowed inside. He worked at a cigarette company, and said that he was given a lot of information that was considered company secrets. Eventually she accepted that he wasn't the one keeping the secrets, it was the company, and it was embodied by his office. The small part of her that was still annoyed by this, was usually put into a submission hold by the knowledge that she could tell her friends about the 2 Ryan Latta locked office. She would tell them that she still hasn't been inside, and they would be amazed at how strong she was, and strong her relationship was to endure such secrets. She was over halfway through her bag in a few minutes. Her cravings hadn't stopped, and Robert hadn't come out of his office yet. The stupid patch wasn't doing its job, and she needed candy, popcorn, chips, salad, ice cream, milk shakes, ham sandwiches, and chocolate to keep her cravings down. Lots of chocolate. She hated to admit to her friends that she wasn't as strong as they thought. She hated to admit that she had simple human flaws. She hated to admit that she pulled a cigarette from its hiding space, lit it, and enjoyed the best smoke she had in two months. She wouldn't have had to admit it, except that in the middle of her nicotine-induced orgasm, her husband was standing in the room with eyes that showed disappointment with such firmness that she was crying before the cigarette made it to the ashtray. Before Robert had a chance to say anything, she was in the bedroom with the door shut. She knew he could hear her, she wanted him to. “How long have you been hiding this from me?” The question stung, even if it was muffled by a door. Her only response was to cry harder. “You want to start smoking again? Fine! Then start, but don't hide shit from me!” He sounded angry, she felt terrible for lying. “You should feel bad! I've done everything I can to help. I buy you candy, I steal from work, I make sure that we sit in non-smoking sections in restaurants and bars to keep you from even being around it, and you still started again!” Maybe she didn't deserve him, maybe he was right. After a moment he said, “You know I love you right?” “You hate me!” were the only words she said, before exploding into tears. When she looked up from her tear soaked pillow, he was standing there. He must have come in 3 Ryan Latta when she started crying started again. He sat next to her. “No I don't hate you. I love you. I'm sorry I yelled at you. It was just upsetting to see you smoking after you promised that you'd quit. It's alright though, we'll just try again.” Her defenses melted away as he spoke. “You really still love me?” Her voice was still shaking. “Yeah, give me a kiss.” She ran to the bathroom, leaving her husband waiting in bed. She needed to make sure she looked good. The puffiness, the messy hair, the wrinkled clothes, the smell of tears. All she saw was ugly, but in a matter of minutes had covered it up enough. She couldn't stand the thought of looking like that for her husband, or anyone else. If she had known that this night would be the last night of sex together, she would have pressed for a little more out of him. It was make up sex, so it was good, better than average even, but not the kind of sex to end the relationship with. “Seven out of ten,” “Survey says, 'Eh,'” “It's over time and the home team loses,” “Finishing that cigarette would have been nicer,” were not the descriptions she wanted. She slept well that night, being held by the man that could break her heart with a look, and save her from that same villain. She woke up early. She was full of energy. A test in their relationship had just happened and they both passed. They tested each other, and their feelings were stronger than this little fight. She was so excited she had to do something. She went to the bathroom to look in the mirror. Damage control. A little makeup, a little work on the hair, and she had the situation contained. He was going wake up to a girl that looked pretty in her pajamas. She was walking down the hardwood hallway from their bedroom. She thought that they were so perfect together, that even as she was sneaking away from him this very moment, that his breathing 4 Ryan Latta was somehow setting the pace for her steps. Almost like a cosmic pat on the back. They were meant to be together. She was going to treat him to a wonderful morning. She was going to sort the newspaper ahead of time. Comics and local for her, sports and business for him. She was going to get things ready to make a great breakfast. She was going to be the perfect wife. As she passed the door to the office, there was the squeak. She looked at the floor to find the spot, but something caught her eye. The door. It wasn't shut, not completely. He must not have pulled it too the night before. The small wall of air from her frame must have pushed it ajar. It was always shut. Always. Now it was open. Now she only had to take one step. Just one. It was a test. She took one last breath as an ignorant wife, and she was inside the office. She found the light switch, and shut the door just before she turned the light on. It was a disappointingly simple office. She hated the way it looked, so like a man, so common. Almost as if he had brought his cubicle home. She looked at the bookshelf first. Going through the desk would be far more entertaining, but decided to save the best for last as she looked through the training manuals on his bookshelf. She sat in his chair behind his desk and turned on his computer to see what goodies he had. His computer's background picture was of her, and she smiled. It even had her name on it, which made her laugh. There was a folder with her name on it, and when she opened it there were lots of various files. Some didn't make sense, but others had things like birthdays, addresses, and simple things like that. Others had things like blood type and recent medical history. The more she read the more confusing it became. He knew everything about her. If he wasn't married to her, he would be one of the best stalkers she had heard of. She thought it would be a great story later. She leaned back in the seat to think about this for a second, and noticed something new. Against a wall was a small refrigerator, and on top of it was a small brown bottle sitting on a cloth table 5 Ryan Latta napkin, and some syringes. When she went over to look at the bottle, the fumes from it made her dizzy and lightheaded. She felt like she was a detective, solving a case like on television. It wasn't until she opened the mini fridge that things changed. Inside was a test tube rack full of blood. Each one had a date on it. Each one had, “Abbie Ekman,” on it. Her name. Her blood. She slammed the door shut, and ran over to the computer. Even though there were some tears already in her eyes, she began to read through his emails to see if there was something to put it all together. When she did find an email with what she wanted, it was from before they were married and it was a time line of her relationship. It asked things like: when he would ask her to quit smoking, start using patches to keep from smoking, and finally start smoking again. She was sweating by now, and as the pieces fell into place, as she saw the toppled bottle on the refrigerator, and blacked out. She was laying in bed, and Robert standing at the foot of the bed watching her. He was dressed in a suit. She couldn't move, whatever was in that bottle hadn't worn off. His eyes didn't show disappointment, anger, or anything for that matter. He was just a man staring at her. The cold stare made her uncomfortable. The man said, “This letter will explain everything. Please understand that I love you, and I'm sorry,” and placed a letter on the bed side table next to her. He didn't look back when he left the room. She laid in bed crying until she could move finally. Then she just stayed still. She didn't know what to do. She went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, but didn't fix anything. She held the note in her hand, and read it. “My name isn't Robert Ekman. Most of what you know about me is a lie. I work for the cigarette company doing field research on anti-smoking products. As a part of my job, I have to get close to my assigned patient and conduct a series of tests. You were my first. My job was 6 Ryan Latta to marry you, so that I could have the access I needed to you. I had to convince you to stop smoking and give you all those products. Then I had to report on when you started again. The products are made by our company to make your addiction stronger. The only way to test is to do it unofficially. I fell in love with you. I am so sorry I've done this to you.” One week had passed. One silk robe with oriental patterns from Nordstrom's, a pair of slippers from Brookstone's, a coffee cup that has a picture of a goldfish saying, “Life Sucks,” half filled with three sugars and one cream, and the Sunday paper. She was all that was missing from this morning. Sure, she was there in her robe and slippers, sipping her coffee, and looking at the newspaper, but she wasn't paying attention. Even if the cat were in her room now, peeing on her one suitcase full of clothes, she wouldn't have paid attention. She was well into the local section of the paper, in the middle of an article she couldn't tell you the title of, in a paper that she couldn't tell you the main headline of. She had been reading between all those small charred bits of toner for the past week. What she was doing was trying to swallow the reality that things were better now. They were better, sitting in a friends house full of toys and cat urine with K-Mart appliances and clothes. Better with budget family sized super coffee, leaky plumbing, and interior style that best portrayed spoiled fruit. She never liked reading the paper. Not until she married to Robert. His routine rubbed off on her, and eventually she found it a part of her routine as well. Now it was a ritual that had no meaning, like a lost religion. Instead, she was recalling what it had been like those last few days with him. She was a legend that nobody would believe. She had learned a lesson that nobody would teach, and been sent in front of the firing squad for no crime at all. Maybe she was still in shock, and that was why she couldn't hate him. It had to be shock. 7 Ryan Latta She put her paper down on the table, the few tears that fell had bled through several pages that she had stared at already. Why couldn't she hate him? He lied to her about everything for two years. He drugged her and took her blood while she slept. He was a liar and a freak and he deserved to die, but she couldn't hate him. All she could do is miss him, and wish she could say that she understands and is ready to accept him anyway. Even if it was a part of his job, there was something sincere and wholesome about the way he cared for her. Maybe his manuals trained him to be a perfect husband, or maybe he really loved her. She wanted to believe he loved her. She put her head down to cry, but stopped something stopped her. An article in the paper described a suicide of a local business man that was still young, worked for the cigarette company, and was found at his home near where she had lived. It said the police found a note with the body. The phone rang, and she knew it was for her.