the surrogate wife
The woman went on a long journey to visit her sister. The sister was critically ill, in another country, and it was understood that the wife would not return for several months, maybe even a year.
In her absence, the husband hired a housekeeper. At first, the housekeeper only worked two days per week, and spent the night elsewhere. But they became more comfortable together, and the husband offered her a larger salary and her own bedroom and bathroom in the opposite wing of the house.
She moved in and shortly took over all of the housework, even tasks she had not done before and wasn’t explicitly being paid to do, such as buying little treats at the specialty store and fixing the husband a drink after work. They soon became accustomed to this new arrangement.
The housekeeper quit her other jobs and, when she wasn’t out shopping, spent all her time in the house. She became so comfortable that she began inviting friends over, at first just for coffee, and then later for brunch in the main dining room.
Occasionally, she and the husband slept together, but it always seemed like an accident. She brushed too close to him when she brought him a little glass dish of ice cream after dinner, or reached past him to loosen the tie holding back the curtains.
After eight long months, the wife returned unexpectedly. Her sister’s health had dramatically improved. The wife let herself in with her key and was surprised to discover the housekeeper watching daytime television while she dreamily dusted the wife’s porcelain bell collection.
Neither woman had been aware of the existence of the other. The housekeeper was nothing if not discreet; she didn’t ask a question unless it was necessary for the completion of some task. Nonetheless, she had made some assumptions about a man living alone—namely, that his wife had disappeared or died—and it made sense to her that he wouldn’t have taken the time to remove the artifacts of their life together. He’d never seemed troubled by his circumstances, and so she hadn’t, either.
Now, though, the wife seemed more than alive as she stood in the hallway with her suitcase, slowly unwinding a silk scarf from her long, elegant neck, and slipping off a pair of chunky but stylish heels. (What kind of woman, in this day and age, wore heels on an airplane?) She appeared unruffled by the intrusion of a stranger in her living room. (A beautiful stranger, the housekeeper allowed herself.)
The wife introduced herself to the housekeeper, complimenting the state of the house, which was spotless and gleaming, and retired to her bedroom (their bedroom, the housekeeper now realized) to lie down.
A commercial for dog food was on the television, and the housekeeper snapped it off. The husband was still at work. A leg of lamb was thawing in the refrigerator.
What had changed? Very little. Or everything, depending on how you looked at it.
The housekeeper turned a decorative couch pillow two degrees to the left and returned to the kitchen to start dinner.
All afternoon, as she prepared to roast the meat, as she dressed the baking dish with garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary, as she washed and prepared the potatoes, the housekeeper fretted. There, in the center of the home, were the kitchen and living and dining rooms, split between the wing containing the master bedroom (where the missus was, presumably, doing some fretting of her own) and the wing containing the housekeeper’s room, which had been formerly (and, it would seem now, would most likely be restored in the near future to) the guest room, on the opposite end of the house, where the husband had lain in bed with her sometimes even overnight before the return of the heretofore unmentioned wife.
Well. Mentally, she scrolled through her contacts and former clients, wondering who might take her back when she found herself on the street with little more than a bag of clothing and a few weeks of severance pay.
In the end, though, she needn’t have worried. The wife was standing at the front door with a drink when her husband came home, and if he was dismayed by her sudden presence, nothing in his reaction betrayed him.
The wife made a big fuss over the housekeeper’s elaborate dinner, and insisted that she eat with them, going so far as to get up herself to set an extra place at the table. The wife had a skill for this sort of thing, it seemed.
She didn’t seem threatened. In fact, quite the contrary: she began sending the husband and the housekeeper on little errands together. The grocery, the dry cleaner’s. He had never done these things before her reappearance, but with the wife’s blessing—encouragement, even—he didn’t seem to think it odd to accompany the housekeeper from one place to another, when he was home and had the time, or to assist her with certain difficult tasks around the house.
It became apparent that the husband and wife had season tickets for the symphony and the theatre. He hadn’t attended in her absence, but now they began going out every weekend.
He was happy, or unhappy. Neither woman could tell.
The wife had a migraine one weekend and bowed out of a concert. She lent the housekeeper a dress and pulled her hair up with an ornate metal clip. She applied nail polish skillfully to the housekeeper’s roughened fingers. The housekeeper and the husband sat through the first two concertos but left at intermission.
That spring, all three of them packed for a long vacation. The wife had booked a series of transatlantic cruises, and the husband had arranged to work remotely. The housekeeper was indispensable, according to the wife, and she had arranged for a comfortable suite.
At the last minute, though, the wife found herself unable to travel. The reason wasn’t really important. The husband and the housekeeper acted properly dismayed, despite the wife’s reassurances. In all honesty, the housekeeper would rather have stayed behind, though she couldn’t have said why; she had never left the country and felt far out of her depth.
The wife had arranged for a car to take them to the cruise port. She stood on the porch and waved as her husband and the housekeeper drove away. She didn’t go back inside until the car had disappeared from view. Every few days, she opened the mailbox and found a glossy postcard from one or both of them, and she collected these in a pile on her desk until they returned.
One day, when they’d been gone for a couple of months, the wife noticed that the wooden shelves of her display cases were covered by a fine layer of dust. She couldn’t remember the last time she had touched them.
Delicately, the wife lifted one of her porcelain bells. As the dust motes fell in slow motion through a shaft of sunlight, they glittered and shone, and she had never seen anything so beautiful.
Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks. Her most recent chapbook of short fiction, Orchard City, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press. Browning’s fiction and poetry have appeared in The Broadkill Review, Mojave River Review, Four Way Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Threepenny Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Watershed Review, Superstition Review, Santa Ana River Review, The Homestead Review, Belle Ombre, Newfound, South 85 Journal, Sou’wester, Belletrist Magazine, The Stillwater Review, and elsewhere. Her work has also appeared in anthologies including Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence from White Pine Press.