Head Over Heels: Cozy Mystery Short Fiction By Jason Washer
Jason Washer, author of Head Over Heels, lives in rural New Hampshire. His work has appeared on the No Sleep Podcast, in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Theme of Absence, and in the anthology In Darkness, Delight: Fear the Future.
Mary was afraid to stand up.
The library’s roof was steep, and she didn’t trust the slates to hold if she got back on her feet. She waited, unable to move, and sure she would fall if she tried. The frigid gray afternoon threatened snow and had grown darker than when she had come out onto the roof an hour earlier.
How in God’s green had an entire hour passed without a single patron coming in? Ripley wasn’t a metropolis, but it was big enough that someone somewhere should have come in for a book by now. And at this point, stuck on the roof, she didn’t care what they were reading. Grisham? Take two. King? Here’s the latest, keep the lights on while you read. Romance or baseball or even Plato, she no longer cared what the citizens chose to read, only that they come in to read something, and quickly please, before she froze to death.
How in God’s green had an entire hour passed without a single patron coming in?
And where was Peter? Surely he must have noticed her absence from the checkout desk by now. If he had decided to leave early she was in real trouble. He was diligent, for a volunteer; but there wasn’t a paycheck keeping him in the building. Only an over abundance of time and a love for either books or Mary herself, she still wasn’t sure which, even all these years later. She hoped it was the books, but if somehow it was her he still wanted, and not the books, she would happily throw herself all over him, once she was back in from the cold.
Mary imagined Peter putting on his brown coat with the fur collar and leaving, and tried not to cry. If someone didn’t find her soon she would be out here all night. She fought her rising panic with a series of deep breaths.
She would have to save herself.
The attic window was twenty feet away.
Clutching the book to her chest she slid away from the lip of the roof and repositioned herself so she faced the window. The open attic window was only a short crawl up the steep attic roof. She could do this, she thought, and then realized that it had grown dark and the sky was black with an approaching winter’s storm. Shit.
Where the hell was Peter? And how had she been so stupid? She should have left the book where it lay on the edge of the roof. Of course, it wasn’t just any book, but she should have known better.
She still had some feeling in her hands, if not her feet, and after wedging the book against her chest so it wouldn’t fall she managed to pull herself up the slope of the roof a little bit. She could do this. A foot at a time she pulled herself up the roof. At the halfway point between the edge of the roof and the window she rested for a moment, and then reached her frozen and almost numb hands out again for purchase on the roof.
She slid back down, her tenuous grip on the roof lost. She quickly calculated her chances for survival: the odds were not in her favor, but instead lay with the cold asphalt parking lot below. When her feet were a foot from the edge of the roof she somehow slowed and stopped, thanking God and Jehovah and silently cursing Peter again.
“Safe,” she said aloud. “I’m safe.”
She started climbing back up the roof.
She stopped, every few feet, to rebalance the book so it wouldn’t fall. Soon enough, although she didn’t know how long it had taken, she was within a body’s length of the window. A shadow moved. Her heart leapt.
The attic light turned on, and then Peter’s face appeared in the window, squinting out into the dark.
“Peter, help me!”
“Peter, please, call 911.”
“My god, what are you doing out there? Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m freezing, Peter. Please, just call them.”
He poked his head out over the roof, looking around, and then down at Mary. “It’s not safe out there. What were you thinking?”
She took a deep breath. She had known he wasn’t bright when they had met, years before. This wasn’t a surprise. He just needed clear instructions. She needed to explain this to him the same way she had explained how to reshelve books. Step by step, and slowly. She couldn’t feel her hands anymore, and her face was numb from the cold.
“There was a book on the roof.”
“A book? On the roof?”
Oh sweet dumb beautiful Peter. “I came out to get it.”
“And you can’t get back in?”
“Yes! Exactly. I need help getting back in. Please Peter, listen to me. Go downstairs to my desk and dial 911. Tell them I’m on the roof and need help.”
Peter nodded, finally understanding, and disappeared from the window. Mary felt snow falling on her neck, and her thighs burned from the cold where they pressed against the slate roof. Ten minutes later Peter reappeared in the window.
“Did you call them Peter?” She was having trouble forming words now, the cold slurring her speech.
“I forgot to ask you…”
Oh dear sweet stupid Peter. She should have never slept with him last year on her birthday. Of her many regrets in life, this one ranked high. “Ask what Peter?”
Mary nodded, taking a deep breath, “The book. Yes.”
“Why was it on the roof?”
“Please call 911, Peter,” Mary pleaded.
“But why was there a book on the roof? And what was it?”
“I’m real cold, Peter. Please.”
Peter nodded, not moving away from the window.
“Oh for Chrissakes, Peter,” she slurred, her mouth frozen. “It was your book: ‘Falling in Love, Again. A Guide to Reconciliation for Divorced Couples.’ I was reading in my office and got mad, and I threw it out the window onto the roof.”
“My book? I’m flattered, Mary. I didn’t think you’d read it. I had hoped you would.” Peter smiled.
“Please go call. I can’t feel my hands. I’m very cold.”
“I’ll go call,” Peter said, leaning back from the window and then sliding it closed.
Mary watched him walk away from the window. After a moment the attic light shut off.
Mary wept, tears freezing to her eyelashes. She reached a hand up to her eyes to wipe them away and then the book slipped, and slid halfway down the roof. After a few minutes she heard the library’s front door opening, and then feet crunching in the snow.
“Mary?” Peter called to her from below.
“Did you call?” she asked, her words slurring now from the cold.
“Storm’s coming and the fire department will be forever with all the cars off the road. I’m gonna get a ladder from my dad’s place. It’ll be quicker. He’s got a twenty footer. Hold on, okay?”
“Peter!” Mary cried, “Go call! 911! Please!”
“I’m going to go to my Dad’s, and get the ladder. Be right back.”
Another hour passed, the falling snow gradually accumulating on top of Mary. She realized with a sudden clarity that no one would be coming out to the library in the storm, and that Peter wasn’t coming back with help for her anytime soon. She imagined him stuck in the snow on the side of the road, or down an embankment. Or worse yet what if he was leaving her up here to punish her?
The divorce had been contentious, and then he had spent so much time trying to win her back, but it had been so many years ago. She wouldn’t allow herself to think it of him. He was probably stuck in the snow. He would have come back by now if he wasn’t. Someone would have, she was sure. She was on her own and was going to die on the roof if she didn’t get down. The moment between the realization of her death and her decision to let go was instantaneous, so much so that even as she slid down the cold roof toward the asphalt below she couldn’t quite remember if she had let go so she wouldn’t die, or let go so that she would.
“Falling in Love, Again: A Guide to Love and Reconciliation for Divorced Couples” was published by a small Canadian press in Ontario, and was written by Peter ten years earlier, following a rancorous and contested divorce. The main issue in the settlement had been the dog, Captain. All other issues had resolved amicably: the bank accounts were split evenly down the middle, she kept the main house and Peter kept the summer place, and she kept her work friends and he kept his academic ones.
But the dog, Captain, a hundred and forty pound Bull Mastiff blind in one eye and chronically gassy, couldn’t be decided. Neither was willing to part with the Captain’s company. Unable to come to a mutually satisfying decision they went to a mediator who suggested split custody, a week at Peter’s and then a week at Mary’s place, but Peter wasn’t willing to forgo holidays away from the dog, not even on occasion, so he had countered with a plan to jointly purchase a new home, each of them occupying a floor with Captain free to travel between them. It wasn’t long after this suggestion that Mary and then Peter retained attorneys, and ditched the mediator.
Mary’s attorney came out of her corner swinging, demanding both houses, and full custody of Captain, and then Peter’s attorney, under his very specific direction, had countered with a plan to reconcile, for Captain’s wellbeing, and for all legal entanglements and strategies to be dropped by both parties. Peter, the lawyer made it known, was willing to reside alongside Mary in either of the residences, for the duration of Captain’s life, plus another hundred years, pursuant to the subsequent adoption of another Bull Mastiff to be named Captain Two.
Mary’s attorney immediately filed for a restraining order requiring Peter to stay three hundred yards away from Mary, as well as for full custody of Captain, and possession of both properties and all bank accounts. Peter fired his attorney and representing himself in court agreed to all demands.
Mary’s attorney immediately filed for a restraining order requiring Peter to stay three hundred yards away from Mary, as well as for full custody of Captain…
In the aftermath of the divorce, while living alone in a tiny studio apartment and subsisting on a diet of boiled pasta, he wrote “Falling in Love, Again.” The book launched with an initial print run of five hundred copies, no marketing budget, and immediately fell into obscurity and remainder bins where it would have stayed if hadn’t been discovered by a book reviewer in a second-hand shop in Boston following her own divorce. She loved the book’s message of unrequited self-love, and persuaded her editor at the Globe to run a glowing review, and soon Peter was on television screens all over America.
“And five, four, three, two, we’re on.”
The makeup girl ducked out of the shot and the host started introducing Peter, “…Peter Mathieson, author of ‘Falling in Love, Again’ with us today, and we couldn’t be happier. Peter, Welcome.”
“Thanks Marla, I’m happy to be here.”
“Can you tell us how the idea for the book came about.”
Peter smiled back at Marla Thomason, distracted by the gold filling in her right molar. He had never noticed it on television before, in all the times he had watched “A.M. New England.” Marla, despite her regional fame, had reached out to him personally the week before, having read his book following her own divorce last year.
“I wrote the book out of desperation,” Peter said, still smiling. “To save my marriage.”
“I see. And how did that go? Did you win her back?”
“We’re good friends, and getting closer every day.”
“But you’re not together?”
“I’m playing the long game here, Marla.”
“So you’re not reconciled?”
“We’ve become very friendly, and all signs are pointing to a happy reconciliation in the near future.”
Mary changed her mind.
In the same moment that she gave up and allowed herself to start sliding down to the edge of the roof she changed her mind. She didn’t want to die. Not alone on the roof. Fuck no.
Best case scenario she would break an arm or a leg, maybe both, and worse case she’d crack her skull open and die. Or even worse she’d crack her skull open and live her days out on a ventilator, a living corpse, gathering dust.
She dug her nails into the frozen slate roof to try to slow her descent, losing three fingernails in an instant but not slowing. She was going to fall. What had she done? And for what? In a moment of latent rage she had flung the book out the window. Who could have blamed her for it? He had even dedicated “Falling in Love, Again” to her, to get one last dig in at her after the divorce. Well it worked. She had seen the dedication, opened the window, and without a second thought had flung it out the window and onto the roof.
It had felt good, at first, to be rid of the book. To get some petty revenge on her obsessive ex-husband. But as the afternoon ticked on she kept glancing out the window. The book had just sat there, mocking her. And what would the library director say when he saw a book on the roof? Would her explanation for her peeve be good enough to satisfy him, or was she doomed to be fired for willfully destroying library property? She never knew with Mr. Barnes how he would react to something from day to day.
She would either get a droll laugh from him after she explained what she had done, or she would be fired with malice. She had no idea and might just as easily have flipped a coin to decide her fate. Mary crawled out onto the roof for the book— she would control her own fate, thank you very much. And she wouldn’t let her ex-husband take one more thing from her, and certainly not her job.
She stopped sliding, miraculously, her blouse stuck on a piece of jagged trim at the edge of the roof. She balanced belly down along the edge of the roof, staring down at the parking lot. Thank God. It was too far, and the asphalt was too hard. She carefully turned her head, her eyes following the roof back up to the open window. Twenty feet up.
The book. Shit. She turned back to the parking lot, her eyes scanning over the thin layer of snow, searching. It wasn’t down there. She tucked her chin down to her chest, checking that the book hadn’t somehow stayed lodged under her. No. Not down in the parking lot. Not jammed under her chest. She slowly turned her head, being careful not to lose her balance, her eyes following the incline of the slick roof until they reached the book, the yellow cover peeking out from under the accumulated snow, lodged at the midpoint of the steep roof, almost exactly where it had landed when she threw it out the window.
She started carefully back up the roof, inch by inch, knowing that any large or unbalanced movements would send her back down the roof, and to the parking lot below. Ten minutes to get up the first foot, and then another ten to maneuver her body back around so she was facing the window, crawling up the roof.
She eventually reached the book, stuffing it down the front of her blouse this time in hopes of hanging onto it. The snow was falling steadily and starting to stick to the slate roof. During the library renovation five years ago she remembered director Barnes going around and around with the general contractor about how much insulation to put into the ceiling. Barnes kept insisting that there was no need for the added expense, that a standard 4 inches of fiber roll insulation would bring them to a R15 rating, and the general contractor kept insisting on six, to reach an R19. Ultimately the contractor had won, the end result being that the library roof didn’t leak very much heat, and the snow tended to accumulate on the roof, until it would eventually come down in great sheets once the weather warmed a few degrees. Mary said a quick prayer that the weather wouldn’t warm until she was off the roof. Fucking Barnes.
At the midpoint of the roof, halfway between the sharp edge of the roof and the attic windows, she decided to rest. Just for a few minutes. She wondered what time it was. Judging by her fatigue it had to be the middle of the night. Two or three o’clock in the morning. She briefly wondered if she had hypothermia, if that was the cause for her exhaustion, but she quickly pushed the thought from her mind. It didn’t matter why she was tired. The only salient point for her to remember was that if she fell asleep on the cold roof, she would die. She had to stay awake.
She raised her hand to her mouth and bit down hard into her raw and nailless finger tips.
Screaming out in pain, wide awake now, she abstractly wondered if anyone could hear her. She started back up the roof to the window again.
By the time she reached the attic window she had vowed to herself that if she survived her time on the roof she would forget about the book, forget about Peter, forget about all of it, and move on. The past was just that, and she would let it be. She promised. If only she could get off this roof. No more calls to Peter’s voicemail, complaining about the book. No more late night texts, or late night deep dives into his social media accounts. They were done, and he could live his life however he liked. And she was done with him, she promised. If she got off the roof she wouldn’t lose another minute thinking about him.
The window was just above her, but to reach the windowsill and push it open she would need to get up onto her knees. She didn’t think she was ready for that. She had grown very comfortable with her close up view of the slate an inch below her nose. And besides, she didn’t even know if she could bend her knees anymore, and she was very very tired. She considered shutting her eyes for a few minutes, to regroup. Ninety seconds even, just to rest.
She knew it was a mistake, but she couldn’t stop herself.
She opened her eyes, thinking she was saved. Peter had come back.
“Thank goodness, you’re here,” the words coming from her frozen lips didn’t match the input from her mind. “Thank goodness,” had come out from her frozen lips “Ang oodness.”
He wasn’t there. She had woken from a dream, thinking he was back to save her, but he wasn’t. And she realized then that her eyes were still closed, and that she was still dreaming.
This time she didn’t bother responding, or opening her eyes. Fool her once. If she was going to die she was at least comfortable, and no longer cold.
“Mary? Grab my hand.”
He was a persistent dream. She forced her eyes open, half expecting to wake within another dream. Peter’s hand dangled in front of her. She wasn’t dreaming. He had finally come back for her.
“You have to grab my hand Mary, please hurry. It’s cold out here.”
She still wasn’t sure why she had slept with him again last year, but she had. After their divorce he had waged a ten year campaign to win her back. First there had been the book, and then he had started volunteering at the library, and finally last year on her birthday she had given in and slept with him. He had worn her down.
And then, not even a week later, he dumped her.
After a ten year campaign to win her back.
After lawyers and mediators.
After a New York Times bestseller.
After she had given in and gone back to him.
“I just love you too much to date you again, Mary,” he had insisted, over Starbucks coffee. Not even lunch. He told her over coffee. “It’s not fair to you, and I just can’t. You deserve so much better than me.”
She tried to raise a hand to meet Peter’s, but it wouldn’t move. Concentrate. Just raise your hand up. Shit.
“Can’t,” Mary said, shutting her eyes again, giving up.
“Mary, you have to. Hold on to me.”
Her eyes opened a crack, and she saw Peter take her hand, and begin to pull her up. He almost had her up to the window when she embraced him with what was left of her strength.
“Peter, never let go.”
“I won’t Mary, but you have to come in now.”
“Hold me Peter, please. Never let go.”
Peter held her, the upper half of his body dangling out the window. Mary locked her arms around him, braced her feet against the slate, and pulled Peter out the window.
They fell together, tumbling over each other as they slipped down the roof. The book flew out from Mary’s shirt, falling down to the parking lot ahead of them. Peter went off the edge of the roof first, head over heels, and Mary followed behind him.
The book was soggy but still legible when Barnes, the library director, arrived in the morning and found them in the parking lot. He was a staid and practical man, and spent a few seconds taking in the scene before kneeling down to pick up the book. He brushed the snow from the pages, which had fallen open to the dedication:
With all my love. I can’t wait for the day to come when we fall in love again.
P. Barnes stared at the page for a long time before tucking the book under his arm, and walking up the steps into the library. He would reshelve it, and then call for an ambulance. There was no hurry.
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