Paper, Platinum, Stone

📅 Published on March 18, 2021

“Paper, Platinum, Stone”

Written by Christa Carmen
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.57/10. From 7 votes.
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On what would have been our fiftieth anniversary, I bought you a marble headstone.  Stone is the recommended gift for ninety years of marriage, but my being around another forty is a gamble for which the odds are too long.  Gold is the traditional gift for fifty years together, but you’ve no use for a gold necklace or earrings.

I walk across the cemetery, still not entirely sure how to explain my recent purchase.  You’ve been gone for twelve years, and though I’ve visited your grave each April, I never felt the need to mark the occasion with a headstone before.  It must be the sentimentality that comes with getting older.  That, and the fact that you’ve been on my mind constantly over the last few weeks.  A particularly sweet-smelling book, or the feel of dryer-warmed sheets against my face, and you are there in the room with me, close and yet maddeningly out of reach.  As our fiftieth anniversary drew nearer—a poignant reminder of the time I’ve spent alone—memories of you were as abundant as the pollen coating the deck rails and windowsills in spring.

Grief is an unending process, a lengthy decay of the weight-bearing pillars of your soul, and my grief for you has been as complex as the most baroque of architectures.  I thought picking out a headstone would provide some measure of closure; instead, it has triggered that decay to progress with a newfound flourish.

The cemetery where you are buried is empty of other visitors.  A light breeze disturbs the boughs of a nearby copse of pines.  As I approach the spot now marked with a glittering black marble marker, memories—pleasant, bitter, and otherwise—swirl through my brain like frantic birds.

“Hi,” I say as I kneel, because it feels strange not to say anything.  I run a finger along the numbers depicting the too-short years of your life.  The grass around the marker is patchy and uneven.  The groundskeeper must have realized his blunder, for seeds, like oblong insects, pepper the upset dirt.

“Happy anniversary,” I continue, and gesture at the marker.  “If you’re still around and haunting this cemetery, you’re likely surprised by the addition.  I suppose fifty was a number I simply couldn’t ignore.”

There is no answer, of course.  Had this been a movie, the lonely widower in an abandoned graveyard would have been answered by a murder of cawing crows.  As if to punctuate its resistance to macabre cliché, the sun emerges from behind a cloud and bathes the cemetery in light.  “I know you always found my adherence to the ‘rules’ of consumerist-driven anniversary gifts funny,” I say, “but there were at least a handful of years you played along, so I figured maybe you’d humor me this one too.”

I pause, thinking my next statement through before I say it, as if I’m not free to sit here and ramble all day. “Everyone deserves to be remembered, I think.  To not disappear as if they never existed.  Even someone like you, my sweet.  Even someone who’s done the things you’ve done.”

I believe this is true, but the moment I speak it, I feel a glut of anxiety in my stomach.  Who am I to deliver you pardon?  To excuse your innumerable lies?

I change the subject.  “This headstone is probably the nicest gift I ever gave you.  It’s the most expensive, at least.  Unless you count what I offered up the last time we spoke.  On our twentieth anniversary in ‘91.”

I stop, suddenly feeling truly stupid.  Why am I sitting here talking to a rock?  I lean on one hand, preparing to rise, to leave whatever dirt my heels kick up where it falls.  But my muscles clench before I can fully stand.  There is one last question I want to pose.  It’s not really for you—like I said, I’m talking to a rock—but one I need to ask myself.

I think I knew the answer to it once, long ago.  When your transgressions were still far in your future, and ever farther in mine.  It’s not; how could I not have known?  I asked myself that one already.  It isn’t even; did I worry you’d planned the same fate for me?  I asked myself that one too, though it hardly mattered.  A rustling sound comes from somewhere behind me.  I stiffen, and this time I do climb to my feet.

A young man carrying an impressive flower arrangement makes his way along a footpath.  He smiles sadly at me as he passes, as if we share a secret or are joined by loss.  How to convey with just a look that I do not deserve his smile?  Whomever he is visiting is surely worthy of his sorrow; whomever he grieves for could not have hurt him the way you hurt me.  Easier to just return the gesture, let him believe he understands my purpose in this place.

Looking down at your marble marker, the question returns, setting my soul on fire, filling my limbs and face with heat.  Before I can ask it, I need to be certain I’ve overlooked nothing, to go over everything again.  I sink to the ground once more and lean my back against your headstone.  Crossing my legs at the ankles, I close my eyes, picture our old house on Theodore Street, and let thoughts of earlier anniversaries overtake me.

* * * * * *

We have nothing but each other during our first year of marriage, so when you ask what I want for an anniversary gift, I choose something inexpensive.  “Cigars would be perfect,” I say before planting a kiss on your lips.  “They qualify as paper, and those little Brevas are only ten cents apiece.”  You twirl away from me when I try to kiss you again.  “Maybe you’ll even smoke a few with me,” I tease.

“That depends,” you say, smiling devilishly.  “If you butter me up with a really wonderful gift, I could be convinced.”

I keep my expression inscrutable, though I know you’ll adore the flowers hidden on the top shelf of the bedroom closet.  I had them hand-crafted from the pages of your favorite novel, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

When I do give them to you, at dinner that evening, I do so without preamble or fanfare.  I simply sweep them from the chair beside me and hold them under your pretty little nose.  Your eyes widen in surprise, then narrow as you try to determine what it is you’re seeing.  Slowly, you lift your hand, take the wire stems from mine, and risk a tentative sniff.

“Are they…made from a book?”

I nod, and tell you which one.  Your mouth falls open before curling into a smile.  “What a wonderful gift!  I guess I’m going to have to smoke one of those cigars with you after all.”

As it happens, however, we make love after dinner, and stay between the sheets rather than venture out onto the balcony.  The cigars lay forgotten on my dresser until a blistering evening at the end of July, when I wake to the smell of smoke, and find you holding one between elegant fingers on the moonlit back porch.

It is midnight; you’d still been out when I’d gone to bed.  One of the women from your office celebrated a birthday at a nearby bar.  I can’t remember the colleague’s name, but I’m not the suspicious type.  I’ve always been fine with you doing your own thing.

“What are you doing out here?” I ask playfully.  You continue staring off into the distance.  The end of the cigar glows like the eye of a monster peering out from the gloss of a Hollywood screen.

“Celebrating,” you say finally, just when I’ve started to wonder if something is wrong.

“Oh,” I respond.  “Still in a festive mood after the party?”

A small, strange smile spreads across your face.  You pry your eyes from the distant houses to look at me, and for a second, I feel like I don’t know you at all.

“Just a job well done.  Nothing all that exciting.”

I shrug, thinking you are drunk and waxing philosophical.  “Okay, then.  I’m going back to bed.  Goodnight.”

You say nothing in return, but in the morning, when I go outside, the butt, stained with a ring of peach lipstick, lies crushed on the otherwise pristine deck.  The ashes look like the remnants of a small but destructive fire, and though I can’t put my finger on why, it concerns me that you’ve discarded it so unceremoniously, with so little regard for the mess you’ve made.

I sweep the cigar into my hand and go back into the house.  I mean to throw it into the trash, but it ends up in a box atop my bureau instead.

* * * * * *

We’ve been married fourteen years when you casually mention moving.  You claim it was my idea to leave Theodore Street, but that simply is not true; I smile and pat your hand.  “If you need a change, darling, who I am to insist otherwise?  We can contact a realtor this afternoon.”

I say “we,” but I mean “you,” since I am swamped with work.  Besides, you are better at things like this.

“If we are going to move,” I chime in helpfully from the doorway later, when you’re on the phone with Sandy from RE/MAX, “we might as well go all out, like Chicago or Milwaukee.”  You look at me like I’m crazy and wave me away.  I hear you telling Sandy Foxborough sounds lovely, and that we’d love to check out other towns south of the city.

When we leave Boston for Brockton, I’m still miffed we didn’t try for something farther.  What’s the point of moving if you’re not going to make a truly fresh start?  Still, you seem buoyed by the one-and-a-half acres and spacious garage, and we are putting the finishing touches on the new house—laying rugs and hanging planters—when I realize our fifteenth anniversary is a mere three days away.  I have to search several bookcases to find where you’ve shelved Emily Post’s Etiquette; chapter twenty-two relays that the traditional gift for year fifteen is crystal.

I consider new glassware, photo frames, candlestick holders, and a crystal clock for the mantel.  Ultimately, I decide that simpler is better, and choose a Waterford vase.  It’s in the center of the table and filled with yellow roses come April 7th, when you arrive home after a long day of work and an overdue trip to the market.  You squint in confusion, then smile, but the smile turns to panic, the emotions rippling across your face like swells beneath a sea.

“Is today…?  Oh, god, it is.  I can’t believe I forgot.  I’m so sorry, Steven.”

I go to you quickly and wrap you in my arms.  “No need to apologize.  All is forgiven.  I know how busy you’ve been lately, how much the new job has taken out of you.  The only thing I want this year is for you to be happy.  Maybe once things settle down, we can take a vacation together.”

When you pull away, there are tears in your eyes.  “Oh, Steve, do you really mean it?  That would be wonderful. I know I said I was okay with moving, but it’s been hard to get situated.  You’re with the same company, and travel so much for work anyway, so it’s been easier for you.  A vacation would be such a welcome distraction.”

There you go again with your inexplicable insistence that it was me who wanted to move.  You’re emotional enough, however, so I do not point this out.  You go to the table and run your fingers over the vase.  “It’s beautiful.  I really love it.  And what a unique pattern!”

“It’s an extra-large, deep-cut style,” I explain.  “It makes the vase really durable.  And subsequently, a little heavy.  If it cuts too harsh a line for you, I can take it back and get something more delicate.”

“Absolutely not.  It’s staying right where it is.”  You pause.  “In fact, when these roses lose their luster, I’ll replace them with the paper ones from our first anniversary!”

I smile and give you a kiss, but this, of course, is not what happens.  Life has a way of separating you from your best intentions.  We never went on that vacation.  We were too busy, too tired.  You were right, I did travel a lot for work, and when I was home, we never really mustered up the motivation to go away.  The vase made its way from the table to a kitchen cabinet, and from there to the floor of a crowded hallway closet.  That’s why I was surprised when, approximately ten months later, I saw a glimmer that turned out to be the Waterford vase beneath the bathroom sink.

Wondering if you knocked it over in the closet and stowed it here to hide a crack, I hold it up for inspection.  The vase is indeed splintered down the center, but it’s hard to make out the extent of the damage due to the square-cut pattern.  I draw the vase closer, trying to determine if there is colored light refracting from the glass or…is that blood caught in the zigzag fractures and the grooves between the squares?

Startled, I almost drop the heavy glass piece but manage to steady it with my left hand.  As I peel my right hand from its base, several strands of hair, the ends matted with bits of flesh, come away with my clammy fingers.

And yet, I say nothing to you about the vase.  The next time I look for it, it’s gone.  I think about it in relation to other gifts I gave you: the cotton sheets you threw away, claiming you must have stained them with your period.  Leather gloves that look to have gone through war.  Lace lingerie that disappeared from dresser drawers and silver knives from kitchen cabinets.  I spend the next five years making excuses for your behavior.  Until the truth is discovered like a corpse beneath a cover of leaves, and there are no more excuses that can be made to fit.

* * * * * *

At noon on our twentieth anniversary, the door to the courthouse slams shut behind me.  The mass of reporters outside is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

“This way, Mr. Gardner,” your lawyer waves at me from the other side of the metal detector.  I place my wedding ring and keys in a basket and step through.

“How are you today?” he asks as I follow him down the corridor.

Is this a serious question?  I mumble that I’m fine.  We go up a flight of stairs and down another corridor, stopping outside the doors of a room far removed from any hubbub.

“I understand you wish to speak to Marisol alone, but given the charges, you must understand that we cannot grant your request.  There are officers stationed at the end of the hallway—” he gestures, and I see the men, beefy as professional wrestlers, “and as head of Marisol’s legal team,” he continues, “I’ll be in the room the entire time.  I trust you’ll be able to carry out whatever business you have with her in my presence.”

I stare at him blankly.  Whatever business I have with you?  Does this imbecile realize I am your husband of two decades?  “I understand you’ll be in the room.  I trust, however, that you will allow us to converse without unnecessary interference.”

The lawyer sighs and gestures toward the door as if he’s already regretting this arrangement.  I push it open and step inside.  My jaw drops when I see you.

You are sitting at the far end of a large conference table, your dark brown hair pulled into a bun.  Your face is drawn and extremely pale.  Your lips are dry and bloodless.  You are wearing a bright orange jumpsuit like something out of a crime drama, and your hands are shackled together and folded in your lap.

“Hi,” I say as I sit, because it feels strange not to say anything.  You stare at me, your face a mask of hatred that I just can’t understand.  “Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t look well.  Are you eating what they’re providing?”  You do not answer, but your mouth grows more pinched, as if you’ve swallowed something rank.

“This isn’t my fault, you know,” I say quietly, trying to sound understanding.  “I’ve been as supportive as possible, even now, and I never gave the police anything on you.”

Your green eyes narrow as your mouth moves, but I can’t hear the words you’ve spoken.

“What was that?” I ask, leaning forward, cursing the length of the table.  The only two chairs have been positioned as far away from one another as possible.

“I said ‘it is your fault.’  We both know that.  Though there’s no point in saying so now.”

I frown and place both hands on the table, struggling to quell their trembling.  “Honey, I know you feel like everyone’s turned on you, but staying angry at me will get you nowhere.  I can’t help that police isolated cells from a cigar near one of the victims that matched your DNA.  There were drivers’ licenses taped to the insides of the pottery I got you for our ninth anniversary, and victims’ teeth wrapped in the wool scarf I gave you for our seventh.  I had to let them search the house.  You know they had a warrant.  I even hid the Waterford vase, wanting to help you any way I could.”

“Yes, you did hide it.  In my hope chest.  How very helpful of you, darling.”

Your voice is spiked with bitterness, but also a splash of resignation; you know there is no way around the evidence that ensnares you.

“I love you,” I say.  “I’ve always loved you.  And I’ve only ever tried to support you.  You wanted to move, I agreed to move.  I had no idea you were putting distance between yourself and your crimes.  I traveled for work and gave you your space.  I never asked questions.  I bought you a gift for every anniversary, something thoughtful I believed you’d like.”

You seem as if you want to speak.  There is something like outrage on your face.  But you can’t hold onto your indignation, and your features reclaim their defeated air.

“Are we through here, Steven?  I’d like to be taken back to the jail.”  You pause, curiosity suddenly transforming your face, turning you into the woman I married.  “Why did you want to see me in the first place?”

It’s a reasonable question, but I have a good answer for why I wanted to visit you in this depressing place.  I stand and step toward you, then look back at the lawyer, but he is immersed in the contents of a file.  As I walk toward you, I slip the wedding ring off my finger.  Without it my hand feels unfinished, an amorphous, alien thing.  When I reach your chair, I hold it out with a wistful smile, remembering when I first donned it.  An incredulous laugh escapes your lips, and I realize you think I’m asking you for a divorce.

“No,” I say, hurt you’d think I’d ever abandon you, let alone in your time of need.  “I’m giving you this as a reminder of my love.  Your platinum anniversary gift.”

You pull your handcuffed wrists closer to your chest.  “I don’t need your ring.”

“But I want you to have it.  The etiquette book practically demands it, and it’s bad luck to break with tradition.”

I reach out, grab your hand, and slip the ring onto your thumb.  It’s a little loose, but I trust it won’t fall off.  You stand so abruptly you upset your chair.  “We’re done here,” you tell your lawyer.  He looks up, startled, and nods.

Despite your brusqueness, you don’t look at the ring or move to take it off your finger.  A wave of satisfaction washes over me.  Your lawyer picks up the phone from the desk against the wall.  A moment later, the officers from the hallway come to escort you through the courthouse.  I imagine you exiting out the back, avoiding reporters and victims’ families, to a windowless van marked “PRISONER TRANSPORT” idling beside the curb.  But your departure from the room marks the occasion of the last time I ever saw you.  The last time I gazed upon a face I regarded almost every day for twenty years.

Of course, I see you frequently on television and in newspapers, your downcast eyes and perpetually slumped shoulders plastered beneath the gruesome headlines.  “Epicene Eviscerator,” “Monoclinous Murderer,” and “Vicious Vixen” are names with which the media alternately christens you, due to the ruthless nature of your crimes and your indiscriminate method of selecting victims.

The name that sticks, however, is one I can’t help but be fond of, for it encompasses your relationship with me within its otherwise brutal connotations.  While every anniversary card you ever gave me was signed, “Your loving Marisol,” even I started to think of you as the Butcher Bride of Boston.

* * * * * *

I shift where I sit, my back aching against the marble.  The sun has sunk considerably, and the cemetery is steeped in lengthening shadows.  Groaning, I sit forward, turn onto my knees, and attempt to commit to memory the image of your headstone, framed by rows of other monuments.  It will likely be the last time I ever look upon the scene.

Massachusetts has not had the death penalty since 1947, but your cancer was as fatal as any electrocution or injection.  When the news broke that you’d died, media outlets ran an endless parade of features, rehashing the details of your crimes for a new generation of consumers.  My phone number has been unlisted, my identity obscured for so long, that I didn’t have to worry about reporters calling or sending emails.  There is nothing new to say anyway, or perhaps, nothing I’d want to share with them.  No one’s curiosity warrants my pain.  No one else deserves our secrets.

The young man whom I saw earlier passes again, having concluded his visit with the dearly departed, arms empty of vibrant flowers.  It is another reminder of the approaching evening and that I’ve come here for a purpose.  Another reminder of duties beyond those of your grief-stricken, loving husband.

The request for cigars, the bloodstained sheets, the leather gloves I returned to your Accord’s compartment time and time again.  The crystal vase I’d stashed in a blackout, only to be given the opportunity to hide it again.  The platinum wedding ring belonging to one of my victims that so resembled my own, a ring that I placed, like a nail in a coffin, upon your elegant, restrained hand.  All of it forms the answer to a question I’d known I’d pose again: would there come a time in which I’d be permitted to return to my old ways?

Satisfied now, that the answer is yes, and that the time for it is now, I bow my head—in case you’re still around and haunting this cemetery—and bid you fond farewell.

“Enjoy your last anniversary gift,” I say, feeling sentimental all over again.  “And I hope you won’t forget the other presents.  I put so much thought into every one.”

Rating: 9.57/10. From 7 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Christa Carmen
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Christa Carmen

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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1 month ago

i don’t get it

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