By the time Marylou Ahearn finally moved into the little ranch house in Tallahassee, she’d spent countless hours trying to come up with the best way to kill Wilson Spriggs. The only firm decision she’d made, however, was that proximity was crucial. You couldn’t kill someone if you lived in a different state. So she flew down from Memphis to Tallahassee and bought a house on the edge of Wilson’s neighborhood. Doing so had been no problem, because she had a chunk of money left from the government settlement as well as her retirement and social security. She furnished her new place quickly with generic “big warehouse sale” furniture. Back in Memphis she rounded up a graduate student couple she’d met at church—a husband and wife who both needed to give their spectacles a good cleaning—to house-sit, and then she transferred her base of operations to Tallahassee, informing friends only that she’d be taking an extended vacation.
Completing her task in Florida, unfortunately, was taking a while. Every morning when Marylou and her Welsh corgi, Buster, left their house at 22 Reeve’s Court and set out on their walk toward Wilson Spriggs’s house at 2208 Friar’s Way, Marylou chanted to herself: Today’s the day. Today’s the day. Today’s the day he’ll suffer and die. Every morning she fully believed that by the time she’d walked the three blocks to Wilson’s house she’d have figured out how to do him in, despite the fact that she’d been setting out on this very walk a few times a day for the past two weeks and it was nearly May and the best method and right time had yet to present themselves.
She tried to spur herself on with angry thoughts. Would she feel better after she’d killed him? Darn tootin’. She didn’t expect to go around giddy, not after all that had happened, but she expected to feel relieved, to have a sense of accomplishment, like when, fifteen years ago, she’d stepped out the doors of Humes High School, never to have to spoon-feed Chaucer to tenth graders again. It must be a good sign that she was now living in a neighborhood where the streets were named after Chaucer’s characters. The Canterbury Tales had returned to mark this next big passage in her life.
It didn’t help that the walk to Wilson’s house was so pleasant. Canterbury Hills was once a suburb of Tallahassee; but the city, moving northward, had swallowed it up, and it was now spoken of by Realtors as Midtown. The homes in Canterbury Hills, mostly ranch houses from the fifties and sixties, weren’t as stately as the houses in her Memphis neighborhood, but they all sat on spacious lots full of flowering shrubs and well-tended flower gardens, shaded by live oak trees; and Marylou enjoyed looking around so much that she was always rattled when she found herself standing, again, in front of the evil yellow house where Wilson Spriggs lived with his daughter and her family, so rattled, in fact, that it took her a minute to reenter the murdering frame of mind.
She would stall in front, while Buster sniffed around in the grass, and stand beneath the magnolia tree that bloomed with fantastically white blossoms, hoping that Wilson himself would pop up in front of her and ask to be killed, please, and hurry up about it. When this failed to happen, she hoped to at least be struck either with the courage to storm the house or with a clever idea about how to sneak in undetected.
But she was struck by neither courage nor inspiration, and by the time she got back home she was so hot and weak and discouraged she had to lie down and rest.
In the evenings, after she’d eaten some dinner, usually a fried egg and slice of toast, a kind of Chaucerian meager repast, she’d hook Buster’s leash to his collar and they’d walk over to Friar’s Way again. Sometimes she saw a gray Volvo turn into the driveway of the yellow house or a navy blue minivan pull out of it, but she was never close enough to make out who was actually in the car. One time she saw a middle-aged man in a grungy black T-shirt—must’ve been the son-in-law—mowing the grass in the front yard, but he refused to look up at her; and one time she saw a girl and a little white dog running down the driveway. It was like they, the Spriggs family, were purposely keeping their distance from her—but how could they, when they had no idea she was nearby and looking to get even?
The whole being-in-limbo thing, the looking-to-get-even thing, was getting old. She was growing weary of wanting to kill Wilson, of imagining herself killing him; she was itchy to actually do it.
At first all the planning to kill Wilson had been, well, she had to admit it, fun. The idea started forming in her mind six months earlier, right after she’d stumbled across the article about Wilson Spriggs on the Internet. She’d been googling “Dr. Wilson Spriggs,” as she did every so often, without ever finding anything recent about him, and one day there was a link to a little piece in the Tallahassee Democrat about Dr. Wilson Spriggs helping his teenage grandson Otis Witherspoon win a science fair prize. As she read the article, which had an accompanying picture of Otis holding the blue ribbon he’d won at the Leon County Science Fair for his poster about the upside of nuclear power, she knew she had to do something, that Grandpappy Spriggs could not be allowed to go on living the way he had been, untouched by his cruel deeds.
Marylou and her former husband Teddy had recently stopped corresponding, so there wasn’t anyone she could talk to about how she felt when she found the article. She began to scheme all by herself. She didn’t tell another soul what she’d decided to do, and she wrote nothing down, but she made the plot she was hatching into a story in her mind, a horror story, like that wonderfully dreadful old movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
In the summer of 1958, when Helen was five, she and Teddy had gotten a babysitter and gone to see that movie at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Memphis. Teddy had howled with derision all the way through it, as did most of the audience, some of whom began throwing their popcorn at the screen, but Marylou thoroughly enjoyed it, trashy and badly made as it was, especially the scenes of the giant (much taller than fifty feet) vaguely annoyed-looking heroine, Nancy Archer, stuffed into an unexplained bikini top and miniskirt like Jane of the California desert, scooping up a police car and throwing it, tearing apart electrical towers, ripping the roofs off buildings, slapping her weaselly husband and his tarted-up girlfriend and their drinking buddies across the bar like so many pesky insects.
After she’d found the article about Wilson Spriggs and gotten swollen up with rage all over again, she remembered the fifty-foot woman. She and Nancy Archer were sisters in some strange way, sisters who were involved in parallel stories. They had both been poisoned by radiation; they both desired to get even with a man who’d done them wrong. Unlike Nancy Archer, Marylou hadn’t been touched by a giant hairy alien hand, but she’d swallowed a deadly radioactive cocktail and she was walking around, very much alive. Marylou wasn’t fifty feet tall, but the radiation she’d swallowed had surely given her supernatural powers. If she only knew how to use them! She could be the Radioactive Woman! She really didn’t like the word woman, though, because of the way her grandmother used to say it: “ whoa-men.” So she thought of herself as the Radioactive Lady. Close cousin to Nancy Archer and the Wife of Bath—lusty, powerful, ready to get hers.
Of course, the radiation she’d swallowed had made her sick. Weak. Anemic. Dizzy. Prone to headaches. Bleeding gums. And because she’d swallowed it, she’d killed Helen. After Helen’s death she’d had to focus her anger somewhere, and since the government of the United States as a thing to hate was too unwieldy, and all the idiots who got caught up in cold war paranoia—the morons who devised and funded and carried out the radiation experiments—were too numerous and anonymous to collectively despise, she focused her hatred on Wilson Spriggs.
She used to hate herself as well, hence the need for electroshock therapy, but these days, whenever her thoughts drifted again toward blaming herself, she steered them in another direction—toward the fact that she did not know what she was doing when she swallowed the poison. She was young, she was pregnant and vulnerable, she was ignorant, she was naive, she was a hundred million other things; but the fact remained that she did not know, because she was tricked. Wilson Spriggs had instructed his minion to trick her into drinking poison, and now, finally, when she and Wilson were both old and he was least suspecting it, she was going to play a deadly trick on him.
But exactly what sort of trick should she play?
For a time she daydreamed about a much younger, fifties- looking version of herself, looking like pre–alien encounter Nancy Archer in a black-and-white film, clutching a fluffy white pillow to her ample bosom, tiptoeing in a slinky dress and high heels toward an old man in his bed Wilson had aged while she, miraculously, hadn’t—but when she tried to imagine the ensuing struggle, she turned back into a frailish old lady and it seemed too risky.
She entertained another fantasy that was just as delicious as the Nancy-with-a-pillow fantasy. She would sneak up behind him with piano wire (whatever that was) and garrote him. However, the thought of his old head rolling on the ground, blood gushing, eyes staring, was so hypnotically alluring that whenever it popped into her head she forced it away by singing a hymn, as she was afraid that even allowing herself to imagine such things meant she was teetering on the line between avenger and sicko. Same with stabbing him. She didn’t want to enjoy herself too much.
She considered poisons. Poisoning him, in some ways, would be the ideal revenge, because it was so tit-for- tat. You could find anything on the Internet these days. She’d googled “how to poison someone” and got more than enough information. She was thrilled, and horrified, to discover that you could order chunks of radioactive uranium ore “for educational and scientific use” from amazon.com. There would be a nice symmetry in poisoning him with the same stuff he’d given her, but she had no idea how to go about forcing him to ingest a chunk of rock, so she crossed radiation poisoning off her list.
One of the most appealing methods of poisoning was described in a book she’d read to Helen years ago, when Helen was sick, a Nancy Drew book, the one set in Hawaii, The Secret of the Golden Pavilion. In that book, Nancy receives a lei from one of her enemies, a lei made with purplish black funereal orchids, and hidden among the flowers are tiny tacks “soaked in poison.” She couldn’t get this image out of her head, the image of a wizened old man with a garish lei around his withered neck, being poisoned while simultaneously looking frivolous and stupid. Of course, it would be impossible to make such a lei and force someone to wear it. What did it mean to “soak tacks in poison”?
As far as poisons went, given her in-and-out time frame and lack of round-the-clock access—in other words, she wasn’t his long-suffering wife—it seemed like putting antifreeze in something sweet would be the best option. But after more research, she had to admit that, on the whole, poisons weren’t such a hot idea, because they were all readily detectable these days, not like the good old days when someone at the coroner’s office would write “heart failure” on the death certificate and be done with it.
And now, here she was in Tallahassee, so close to her quarry, but she couldn’t decide. She and Buster walked up and down Canterbury Hills and her thoughts went round and round. What about “accidentally” running over him? Knocking him down stairs? An “accident” like that might not kill him, though, and injuring him just wouldn’t be the same. She could push him off a cliff! Were there any cliffs in Tallahassee?
Canterbury Hills was certainly hilly, and the hills were much bigger than any hills in Florida had a right to be, but there was nothing resembling a cliff, not even any large rocks. She did see a Merchant’s Lane, and a Nun’s Drive, and Cook’s Circle, Prioress Path, Knight’s Way, but no Wife of Bath anywhere. Where the hell was the Wife of Bath? Did somebody have a problem with the Wife of Bath? Bath. On TV, people were always killing people by drowning them in a bath. But how would she happen to be there when he took a bath? What about a swimming pool? She enjoyed swimming, but she was no Esther Williams, and even a man in his eighties could probably fight her off.
And so it went, until, one evening, when she and Buster arrived at the yellow house on Friar’s Way, she spotted an elderly man watering a flower bed in the side yard and felt a jolt in her brain like electroshock therapy, but instead of knocking her out, it woke her up and set her tingling. Was the old man Dr. Wilson Spriggs? The devil himself? This old man, who might be him, who surely was him, didn’t glance Marylou’s way. Arrogant prick. He was standing sideways, near the bottom of the sloping driveway. She could see only his profile, but it was him, all right; she recognized his insolent slouch. “The very one,” she muttered to Buster, who was too busy nosing at some dried poop to care. She’d seen this man twice before, once on the happiest day of her life and again on the worst day, and he’d been a jerk both times. Memories of those two times wouldn’t leave her. Even electroshock therapy hadn’t dulled them.
The first time she met Wilson she was three months pregnant with Helen, in 1953, when she was visiting the University Hospital OB clinic for her first checkup, and she’d just been told, by the older doctor with a crew cut who’d just examined her, that everything with the pregnancy looked fine and that she was past the danger stage when miscarriage was common. She was only twenty-three, but she’d had two previous miscarriages, and those first few months she was pregnant with Helen she could barely breathe she was so worried. (Years later she’d wondered if they’d chosen her as a subject for their experiment because of those miscarriages, because they thought that she’d probably lose this baby, too, so it wouldn’t matter what the radiation did to it. But after the hearings in Washington she read that they’d just chosen the eight hundred women at random—all poor and powerless, though; they’d made sure of that by conducting their study at a clinic with a sliding fee scale.)