Three short stories I wrote for anthologies and/or writing contests. The second two are published, the first one might be a good start for my next book . . . see what you think!
Pieces of pine cone clatter to the deck like tiny brown hail, and I make a little visor with my hand and look up. Squirrels. A strong breeze makes the eighty-foot-tall pine trees in my backyard sway. Normally, I’d enjoy a sunny fall day, but it’s time for him to come home. My gut always churns the closer it gets to half past five. It’s sad, really.
My husband’s silver Audi purrs into the garage and stops. Steps scrape across the cement floor of the garage, into the house and up the stairs to our bedroom where he will exchange shirt, tie and slacks for sweatshirt and faded jeans. A few minutes later, glasses will chime against one another as he withdraws his favorite snifter. He’d given up mixing his Scotch with anything years ago. ‘Ruins the experience,’ he’d told me; his large hands cradling his sipping snifter like a Faberge egg, his eyes closed in heavenly appreciation as he stuck his nose as far into the glass as possible.
At first the ritual was cute. Then tiresome. At present, it’s disgusting.
The knot in my gut tightens. Five years ago, I’d been so sure.
I’d been positive he was the One. The man I’d waited for, biting my nails to the quick, negotiating with myself about blended family-statistics and deplorable outcomes. He was the one I’d wrung my hands over, wrestling with whether to raise my kids alone or gamble on another marriage. I’d picked one loser, what if I did it again?
Tears seep from my eyes. I slap them away. Despondent is not a typical emotion for
me, but last week’s therapy session had been rough. The counselor’s words still ring in my ears:
“Caroline, I’m asking you what you want. Not what Martin wants. Think about what it is in you that is afraid to confront his destructive behavior.” My counselor’s earnest eyes had held mine. I’d looked away. He’d continued, “I don’t usually recommend specific actions, Caroline, but Martin’s anger issues are escalating. The primary concern is your family’s safety, now. I’m recommending you approach him for a separation unless he agrees to get help.”
I stare at the deck. It could use a good power washing. A squirrel leaps from a pine tree—a tiny, furry aerial acrobat—and lands dazed and still. It scuttles away after a few seconds.
The door from the kitchen squeals open, then bangs shut. I cross my arms.
“Caroline? Mind if I join you?”
The question is rhetorical. We both know it. I fake-smile at him. He fake-smiles in return and sips his Scotch.
“Gorgeous afternoon,” he says, extending the snifter toward our backyard like a toast. “Who wouldn’t love this view?” Martin relaxes against the railing. A light breeze ruffles his wavy, black hair. Like a kiss from God, the setting sun halos his profile briefly. I drop my head and watch my hands fidget with each other. He studies me, blue eyes squinting. “What now?”
My heart slams against my ribs. I take a deep breath. I have rehearsed this moment a hundred times.
“Could you, I mean, do you mind if we talk a few minutes?”
His jaw twitches. The manicured eyebrows signal his distaste. “What about?”
He stalks to the chair opposite me and drops into it. The full-to-the-brim snifter—which I’m positive is a huge faux pas for relevant, in-the-know whiskey connoisseurs—tips. Scotch splashes out of the glass onto his pants. He curses softly.
I stifle a sigh. “About us.”
The pleasant façade evaporates. His lips curl into a snarl. “I am sick to death of talking about us! You and your damn lectures. Don’t you have anything better to do, Caroline?” His Adam’s apple bobs with the downing of more Scotch. I don’t care if his anger spikes. It is time. It is beyond time.
I clear my throat. “Not exactly an us anymore, is there?” Martin’s glare pins me to the chair as if I were a defiant child. I picture my counselor’s kind face, and jut out my chin. “As you know, I’ve been seeing a counselor, and—”
He snorts. “I just got home from work, Caroline. Give me a break.”
My lower lip quivers. I bite it hard, and continue. “The counselor has suggested a trial separation until you get help.” There. I’d said it. I lower my gaze to the deck. Leaves flurry around us in spastic spirals.
His eyes bug out and glue themselves to my face. A muscle twitches in his jaw. I refuse to meet his gaze. There is no winning with my husband in a stare-down. Instead, I stare at a squirrel five feet from the deck railing on a limb. The squirrel’s onyx eyes hold my pale-green ones, and I feel reassured. Blond strands flit across my face. I tuck them behind my ear.
“Separation?” His voice is deadly calm. “You got somewhere to stay?”
I am prepared for this reaction. “I’d like you to move in with a friend until we can sort things out.” Brave. I give myself a mental pat on the back. Even though the words came out a bit warbley, I couldn’t have uttered them at all without the support of my therapist.
Martin chokes on his unbelief. “Are you kidding?” Dramatic pause. “You want a separation? You leave.” He drains his glass and stomps into the house, banging the door behind him so hard I think it might fall off its hinges. “You have a hell of a nerve, that’s for sure,” he yells.
I hear significant clinks. More Scotch. That’s the answer, honey, I think wearily. The words ‘hell of a nerve’ run through my mind. My lips curve into a smile. ‘Nerve’ is exactly what I need. I send up a quick prayer, though, just in case my ‘nerve’ lands me in the hospital. Martin does not like being challenged.
The door jerks open, slams shut. Martin clomp-clomps back to his chair with his freshly anointed drink. I massage my temples. He mimics the action and makes a rude mouth noise. I drop my hands.
“Martin, I want you to consider a support group, and deal with the drinking.” My fingers grip the arms of my chair. My hands are ice-cold.
That stare again. I look away. He takes a long drink and scoots the chair in the opposite direction with an angry scuffle of his feet, like a disgruntled child. Amber splotches spill from his drink and spot the deck. His back muscles flex through the worn fabric of his favorite sweatshirt.
Anger zips through me. “I have two kids to think about, remember? The kids you promised to love like your own when you proposed? How can you expect me to leave!”
He rises from his chair and turns. His eyes grow hard and opaque. I feel I should make a mad dash to somewhere, anywhere; to escape, but don’t. Martin slowly lifts his fist and makes a point of showing it to me, his glare punctuating the threat. I hold my ground, but inside, I have all the sturdiness of pumpkin pie filling. After a gesture that symbolizes throwing me away like a piece of trash, he stomps into the kitchen, grabs the Scotch bottle and goes upstairs. I hear a door slam, then a click. He’s locked me out of our bedroom again.
The next morning, a relentless sun stretches bright fingers through the window, prodding me awake. I stretch, blink, and rub my lower back. My phone rings. With one hand I staunch a pounding headache, with the other I grope for my cell.
“Caroline? That you? What’s the matter?”
I sigh and yawn at the same time. “I slept on the couch. Didn’t get much sleep.”
“Did you do it? Did you talk to him?”
My lips won’t budge.
“Of course you did,” my neighbor, Louisa says. “As usual he responded like a jerk, or you wouldn’t be sleeping on the couch. Am I right?”
I push myself and walk into the kitchen. Advil would be nice. Wasn’t there Advil in the kitchen? My eyes feel like sandpaper. “Yeah. He wasn’t exactly delighted, but the message was delivered.”
I stoop to the medicine shelf and experience a mini-celebration when I spy the Advil right away. I put the phone on speaker and pull out a bottle of water from the fridge.
“We’ve talked about this, Caroline.” Her voice bounces around the kitchen.
I gag a little on the pills. Probably shouldn’t have taken three all at once. “Yeah, I realize that.”
“Is he still there? It’s practically nine o’clock. Did he go to work today or did he take
another sick day?” I steal a quick glance over my shoulder and take the phone off speaker.
“I don’t know if he went to work or not.” I peer around the door and up toward the master bedroom. The door is partially open. “I think he went to work.” My light cotton blouse is wrinkled and I desperately need a shower. I rake my fingers through my hair, and adjust size six, navy slacks that are now too big for an anxiety-thinned size four.
“So are you ready yet?” Caroline asks, in her best cop-voice. Louisa is the handiest of neighbors. She’s an undercover detective. Drugs, mostly, I think.
“Maybe.” I walk to my refrigerator and study the appointments scrawled on the dry erase board. “Tonight the kids have plans with my mom. I’ll…I could…just act normal, see what happens.”
“Obviously, he’ll think you’ve already forgiven him and moved on.” She grunts her disapproval. “Like you usually do.”
I flinch at her words.
She continues, softer, “Sorry.”
“I’m ready now, Louisa. I really am.”
She heaves a relieved sigh. “Thank God, Caroline. This is getting ridiculous.” She pauses. “I can make this happen.”
“I know. Things have to change.” The coffee mug I pull from the cabinet is the color of prunes. Why had I not noticed that before? I put it underneath the spout of my Keurig.
“Oh, they’ll change, alright.” She muses darkly. “He’ll have a hard time believing a cruiser has shown up.” After a beat of silence, she continues, “Seriously, Caroline, I … never thought…well, I hoped things would get better, but…” She sighed. “I know the plan started out as a fantasy – a joke, but now…you…” Her words trail off and stop.
Tears sting my eyes. The Keurig blurps and gurgles. I pull the mug from the machine and watch the sun disappear behind a cloud through the window over my sink. “Tonight should work,” I murmur. “The kids have an after-school thing, then they’ll be with Mom. I’m supposed to pick them up around eight.”
“Okay, good. If all goes as planned, Martin will be escorted from your home with strong suggestions to find somewhere else to live for a while. If he argues or, worse—assaults—well, then…he’ll enjoy a few nights in lockup.”
My coffee burns the inside of my mouth. I jerk the mug away, and hot coffee splatters on my hand.
Louisa continues, “Have you figured out what you’re going to say? To set him off?”
“Doesn’t take much. After a couple of drinks, I could read a page from the Bible and he’d still go off on me. I’ll figure it out, don’t worry.”
“It’s not him I’m worried about!” Louisa exclaims. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” She pauses. “Caroline, are you absolutely sure?”
I gaze around my small kitchen. The white cabinets that still bear scars from thrown plates, one after the other. My hand involuntarily falls to my hip bone, where one of the plates had landed on its edge exactly right, and chipped the bone. It had ached for weeks. What was it I’d done that time? I cock my head. Oh yes. I’d bought the kids something or other he’d disapproved of. Usually about money, wasn’t it? My shoulders droop as I rack up my husband’s transgressions like billiard balls on a pool table.
“Is there a choice, Louisa? When I think of all the times he could’ve given me a concussion, or worse, hurt the kids. He just loses all control and throws things. It’s crazy.”
She blows out an exasperated breath. “It’s only a matter of time, girl! And the kids are next. What does he usually throw, anyway?”
“Anything he can touch. After the typical two huge glasses of whiskey on an empty stomach, I try to stay out of his way.” I blow on the coffee, then sip. “Which only makes him madder. There’s no logic to this.”
“The patrol cops will detail all of it in the report. Odds are he’ll get hauled off for the night and given an ultimatum: jail or a program.”
A silence hangs between us. I listen to her breathe. Finally, she says, “Look, I know this could be dangerous, Caroline. It’s a risk. He could really hurt you this time.”
“It’d be worse for things to continue as they are.” I drop my head to one shoulder and close my eyes. “He won’t leave, he won’t get help, and I can’t imagine why he expects me to uproot the kids. They are plugged in here, they have a life.” I chuckle sadly. “They do, but I don’t.”
“Five-thirty,” Louisa states, rehashing the plan we’ve tossed around for months, as if by repetition safe passage is assured. “He arrives home and goes straight to the bar by the kitchen…at six-fifteen a patrol car will show up, responding to a domestic disturbance call that I’ll arrange. They’ll bang on the door, hard. Hard enough to interrupt his rage, hopefully.” Her tone is sobering. “Is that the plan, Caroline?”
I drain my mug, thunk it down on the counter and wipe my mouth. “I have no choice. I have to do it.” Too late, I hear the whisper of soft steps behind me. I barely have time to slide the phone into the front pocket of my jeans before two strong hands grip my shoulders.
“What exactly is it that you have to do, Caroline?”
The sour stench of last night’s binge assaults my nose. Frantically, I piece together my side of the phone conversation, grateful I’d taken the phone off speaker. You can do this, Caroline.
I take a deep breath, and turn around. His grip on my shoulders loosens.
I think about the kids. Do it for them. I force my lips into a semblance of a smile. “It’s nothing. Just something I’m not excited about doing.” My shrug is nonchalant. “Ready for coffee?”
His hair is oily and slicked flat against his head. Bloodshot eyes study
my face suspiciously. I reach for his favorite mug and stick it in the Keurig. “How are you feeling?” Experiencing the tiniest urge to vomit, I force the bile down. Thank God my back is to him. I reach for the Hazelnut Creamer he loves.
What was it Louisa had said? Act as if I’d forgotten and forgiven? Like I always do? I frown.
I clear my throat, lean against the counter while the coffee gurgles. “By the way, will you be home at the usual time tonight?”
“I’m home at five-thirty every, single, freakin’ day. Why would that change?” I thrust a steamy mug of coffee into his outstretched palms, and watch ghostly spirals stream across his face like snakes from the netherworld. I do not remind him of the missed dinners over last-minute ‘late meetings’ or the numerous business trips that take him away for days at a time. I remind him of none of this. Today, I must cloak the trembling of my hands, my heart, and reel him in like a fish.
His eyes slit. “Yesterday you were kickin’ me out.”
“Maybe I have new perspective today,” I quip with a smile.
“Glad one of us does.” He sips the coffee.
I look past him to the den beyond. My gaze lands on different objects perched on end tables or bookcases, most of them less than a year old. He’d broken everything else. He never seemed to remember the vases or sculptures flying through the air, punching holes in the walls, breaking windows. Always, remorse; no memory.
There’s a limit, Martin. Everyone has their limit.
I calculate where he should stand. Where I should stand. The words that should fall from my mouth like precise, well-articulated stones meant to hurt, not heal. I imagine the objects on each coffee table or end table flying through the air and shattering the window, putting another dent in the wall, or perhaps in me. I wonder why I persist in displaying all the lovely things I’ve collected when my husband is hell-bent on using them as weapons.
Outside, the sun emerges from behind the cloud.
My smile is bright—too bright—when I look at him. “Let’s plan something special. Something you’ll like.”
“Yeah?” He shrugs, unconvinced. “Okay. Whatever.”
“Okay, then. When you get home, after you’ve had your cocktails, let’s talk about it.”
His expression radiates confusion. Eventually, he retreats up the stairs to get ready for work. I walk to the deck and pull out my phone to update Louisa. Squirrels cling to madly flapping branches, tails twitching in the wind.
“It’s set,” I say, simply, when she answers.
“When he gets home. That too soon?”
“No, no,” she assures me. “Sooner the better, far as I’m concerned. Look, I’ve got something…it’s busy today…”
“Of course.” My stomach squiggles and churns. Am I really doing this? Is she? “Call me when you can talk?”
Then she is gone, along with my bravado. I stick a fingernail between my teeth.
Somehow, I manage a hearty wave as Martin trots to his car to go to work. I make it through the day doing insipid things like making Christmas lists two months early and doing a load of towels. I cannot bring myself to write down any of the things I’m going to say, I’m hoping they will just…come to me. Like Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ speech.
I walk from room to room, seeking to quell the tangled mish-mosh my stomach has become, and end up slumping in a chair in the den, planning out my every move on a piece of printer paper I’d slid from the printer. I study the rough outline I’ve made of the den: a childish drawing with stick figures and the placement of things. Little footsteps tracing his predicted trail as I pepper him with inflammatory war-starters. Closing my eyes, I picture the scene. Fresh from work, clomping through the house loosening his tie, chattering away as always as he pours the damned Scotch to the brim, expecting me to hang on his every word and ignore the fact that he’s launching his inner beast for another nightmarish evening.
Tears squeeze from the corners of my eyes. Drops land on my scrawled artwork. The den is approximately fifteen by twenty, a nice-sized room with the requisite couch and matching chairs. A coffee table in front of the couch, two end tables beside the chairs and on either side of the couch. A fireplace with a white, embellished mantle upon which I’ve placed carved, wood candleholders with sage green pillar candles. Martin won’t grab those, I decide, because they won’t do much damage. He likes drama. The bigger the better.
“I’m going to give you all the drama you can stand, tonight, Martin,” I whisper. I feel as if I’m dissolving into my own anxiety. Therapy buzzwords run through my mind: abuse, victim, helplessness. Boundaries. But the plan is now propelled by its own momentum, by the sheer force of all that has gone before. I am merely a cog in a series of wheels set in motion by the words I will hurl at my husband when he arrives. Like shoving a snowball down a snow bank.
“Oh God,” I moan, pulling my knees up tight against my chest. A wave of nervous fear washes over me. My cell rings. I snatch it from my back pocket. “Hello.”
“Hey. Wanted to touch base. How’re you doing? We still doing this?”
“What do you think?”
Pause. “Well, I think if we weren’t, I would’ve heard something before now. He’ll be there soon, right?”
“Should be,” I said, glancing at the clock. “About fifteen minutes.”
“Your kids still out of the picture until eight?”
“Martin hasn’t had any last-minute schedule changes?”
“Nope.” My heart hammers my ribs. Drops of sweat sprout at my hairline.
“Okay then. Plan on six-fifteenish for the grand finale.”
“Got it.” We end the call. In an insane burst of vanity, I walk upstairs to my bedroom and put on lipstick. The bright-red lips accentuate the bloodlessness of my face. I frown and add blush to my cheekbones. If I was going out with a bang, I might as well look good, I think, morbidly. A glass of milk sounds good. It always calms my stomach. With a sigh, I head toward the kitchen.
My husband’s Audi chugs up the driveway. I freeze. The garage door rises. His car pulls in. The driver’s side door slams. His steps clack-clack on the cement floor, up the steps to the kitchen door.
I curse. I hadn’t had time to make it to the milk, so my stomach is a wreck. Turning to the sink, I grab an apple from a bowl and a knife from the drawer and start peeling. Do the things, Caroline. Be calm. Do the housework-y things. It’s just an hour, now. In an hour, he will be counting the cost of his drinking, maybe even admitting to being an alcoholic. In an hour, he’ll be angry, but repentant. He will have to change. Won’t he? I shake doubts from my brain.
The door squeals open and slams shut. I hear the slight jangle and clank of his shoulder bag as he places it on the kitchen table. I’m so nervous I’m dizzy. My fingers clench the counter for balance.
Martin draws close, leans in, tentatively pecks me on the cheek. After a brief stop at the fridge, he goes into the bar and pours his Scotch. I take several deep, clandestine breaths.
Semi-paralyzed in front of the sink, my thoughts run rampant. I had to get him into the den. How? Think, Caroline! Yes, yes, I’d covered that base. I’d mentioned to him before he left for work that we should make time for a chat.
I unclench my fingers from the counter and wipe my palms with a tea towel. Will he think it strange that I haven’t started dinner? Maybe. I’ll suggest we go into the den before dinner for our ‘chat’ and that will explain why it’s not underway. I glance at the kitchen clock. Five twenty-five. Martin’s steps recede upstairs, and I hear him rummage about in his dresser. He will be downstairs in five minutes. Plenty of time, Caroline.
I am dying to call Louisa, but…should I? I rip out my phone and text instead. She doesn’t answer. Where is she? She should be on pins and needles like I am, right?
I slip the phone back inside my pocket with a sigh. Martin returns with an empty glass and refills it.
Neutering my emotions as best I can, I smile and say, “Want to have our chat in the den, honey?”
He’s already taken a drink of the refill, and his eyelids have begun their descent into the never-never-land vagueness that accompanies his drinking. I have to be careful, I know. The baiting should take place before the end of his second drink, or I don’t have a prayer of making this work.
Martin lifts the snifter with glee. “Sure, honey!” He takes a long drink, stumbles slightly, laughs. “Since when do you ever come up with anything I like, huh? Isn’t that what this ‘chat’ is about? Something I’ll like?” More laughter. I stride toward the den. He follows.
I whirl around, my arms crossed. Let the discord begin. Now or never, Caroline. He’d begun to sit in one of our chairs, but when I remain standing, he does, too.
“What do you mean by that, Martin?”
Befuddled, he shrugs. “You don’t care about what I like.”
“It’s just the opposite, Martin.” I take a step closer, edge him next to the end table which held the item most likely to break the large window I’d selected as my backdrop. “You don’t care about what I like, or anything that has to do with me. You’re an uncaring bastard, especially when you drink.”
Martin looks around the room like he’d been sucker-punched, and pulls his chin into his chest. “What?” His expression darkens. He guzzles the Scotch, wipes his mouth. “I thought you had something special to…”
“I do. But first, let’s talk about how you always expect dinner to be ready the minute you walk in the door, but pass out drunk before you even get that far. Let’s talk about how many times you’ve disappointed the kids with broken promises.”
“Wait a minute,” he croaks. “What the hell is this?” He takes a step toward me. I slide around a little to the right, he follows suit which puts him exactly in the right spot. Inside, I smile and glance over my shoulder. The window is directly behind me. On the end table beside him is a heavy, bronze sculpture of a stallion on a wooden base.
“Can’t I ever come home and just enjoy myself in peace, Caroline?” He drains the rest of his drink. I have to make a move now, or he’ll pour another refill. He’ll be too wobbly after that.
I try to channel my inner bitch. The problem is, I’m just not a bitch. It doesn’t come naturally to me, though my husband might debate this assessment. Finally, I blurt the worst criticism I can think of to pierce his fragile ego. “What about me? When do I get to enjoy myself?” I huff in disgust, and mutter, “I sure picked the wrong guy when it comes to sex.”
Martin puts his glass on the end table. Spaces his feet apart like he’s readying for a boxing match. Frowns at me. “You have problems with our sex life?” His voice drops to a sinister level.
My grating laughter borders on hysteria. “Are you kidding? What sex life?” After a pause, I continue, “Not once, Martin.” I take a step toward him. “Not once have I enjoyed it. How could I? You’re a drunk! And not a stiff drunk, either.” I chuckle at the bad joke.
His arm reaches slightly to the left. His fingers curl around the horse’s neck.
You’ve got him, Caroline. I hear the chime of the clock in the kitchen. Six o’clock. Ohmigosh, fifteen more minutes! It’s too soon, too soon!! Slow it down.
He hasn’t yet lifted the horse off the table, but he’s thinking about it. “Martin, you need help. You’ve needed help a long time.”
He makes a rude mouth noise. “Who are you to judge me? The princess of self-pity. All you do is complain. Why don’t you get a job? Do something productive?” He grunts. “You’re worthless, Caroline.”
My brow beetles. Martin seems…lucid. What happened to the vacant look, the signs of la-la-land? My eyes graze the clock. Six-oh-five.
“I’m worthless? You’re the one who comes home every night to your damn Scotch! You’re the one who’s late or gone without a hint of explanation. The reason I feel worthless is your fault.” I rush toward him, murder in my heart. All the pent-up rage, sorrow, fear come crashing out. Suddenly, I’m the attacker instead of the attacked.
Martin laughs. Big, bombastic belly laughs. He grabs hold of my toothpick arms, easily fending off my feeble attempts. I’m so mad I’m spitting nails, plus the plan Louisa and I had so painstakingly crafted is blowing up in my face. Eventually, I quit trying to land a punch and wrench out of his grasp. My breath comes in great, gasping heaves. I cannot believe how out of control I am.
Six-twelve. Any moment the cops will bang on the door. Martin will have no choice but to go with them, but first…proof of violence? I glance at the stallion sculpture. Martin is nowhere near it now. I run over and pick it up.
“What are you gonna do with that?” he barks.
“What do you think?” I grasp the heavy sculpture with both hands.
In three strides he is by my side. He jerks the stallion from my grasp. I cry out as its molded, windswept tail slices through my palms like a knife. I notice Martin is wearing transparent latex gloves. Why is wearing gloves?
“I always liked this sculpture,” he murmurs.
I run and stand in front of the window in the den. “Throw it,” I yell. “Isn’t that your favorite thing to do after you get home? Intimidate your wife with whatever’s within reach? Go ahead. I dare you!” I dance around in front of the window like a deranged marionette.
He holds the piece lightly, testing its heft, then rares back and throws as hard as he can. I duck. The sculpture misses my head by mere inches. The satisfying crash and tinkle of glass I hear guarantees all the proof I need. I scoot away before shards find their way into my skin.
Three loud bangs erupt at the front door. “Police! We got a call!”
From my spot on the floor in the corner beside the fake palm, I glower at Martin. His face is a thundercloud. He stalks to the door and jerks it open. “No problem here, Officers.”
“Yes, there is!” I scream, racing into the hall and waving my arms. “There is! He just tried to kill me with…” I run into the den, motioning them to follow. They scamper after me with wary glances at Martin. “…there!” I continue, triumphantly. “He tried to kill me with that stallion statue and I barely got away. Look!” I point at the broken window, shards of glass still dropping from the starburst-shaped hole.
Martin stares at me sadly. Shakes his head. “Check the sculpture for prints, Officers. Mine won’t be on it.
My brow furrows. What?
“He’s an alcoholic,” I persist, “I’ve tried everything but he won’t leave and he won’t get help. This kind of stuff happens every night!”
The policemen eye each other, their hands resting on the butt of their guns. Domestic violence calls are tricky, I knew, and the cops are careful. Louisa prepared me for this. The two cops, one short and squat, the other older, tall; edge in closer. Why aren’t they hustling Martin out to the car? My overloaded brain fizzes and foams, but nothing makes sense. One of them approaches me and smiles.
“Caroline, is that right?”
I nod. “Yes, but, he’s…the one who…”
The officer nods in understanding. “These incidents are always messy. We’ll sort it all out, ma’am. Right now, though, you might want to come along with us so we can clear this up.”
“What? Me? No! I have to pick up my kids at eight. I have to be here for them! It’s not me! It’s him!” I point at Martin. He lifts his palms and rolls his eyes at the cops in the universal body language that communicates ‘no clue what she’s talking about’. His raised hands are gloveless. Didn’t he have gloves on? And why does he seem perfectly sober?
A light knock on the door, then Louisa appears. “Everything okay in here?”
One of the cops nods. “Everything’s secure.”
The other cop, walks over to Louisa and displays the stick drawing I’d done earlier. My face grows warm. I must’ve left it on the desk. Louisa pulls it from his hands, stares at it for several seconds, gives it back to him. “Put it in the report.” Avoiding my shocked stare, she cocks her head toward Martin and directs a question to the cops. “You check his drink?”
“Yeah. Not booze. Tea, I think.”
I gape at Martin. He smiles the thinnest of smiles.
Louisa’s voice is kind. “It’s just for the night, Caroline. We’ll figure all this out. Won’t we, Martin?”
Martin holds her gaze. “I’m sure it’ll all work out just fine, Detective.”
My head whips from one to the other. How did he know she was a detective? They hadn’t met! Had they?
Like Border Collies herding a spooked sheep, the policemen nudge me outside. I look back. Louisa and Martin are silhouetted inside the doorway.
“Louisa!” I scream. “Louisa!”
She walks onto the porch and calls, “Don’t worry, Caroline. I’ll make sure Martin picks up your kids.” Continuing down the stairs and onto the driveway where the cruiser sits, she leans in. One of the cops rolls my window halfway down. “Caroline, when we joked about this plan of yours, I didn’t think you were serious. No one in their right mind would think something like that could actually work, but you did.” She rose, stretched. “And here we are.” She pounds the top of the car twice. The cops bobble their heads and gun the vehicle.
“No!” I scream, looking over my shoulder through the back window. “No!”
As we pull away, I watch Louisa stride to the porch and approach Martin. She pats his shoulder. Why? In a blinding flash of illumination, I demand to know who had called in the disturbance.
“Detective Louisa Albright, ma’am. She heard you yelling and carrying on from next door. She requested we pick you up for psychological eval before someone got hurt. It’ll be alright, ma’am. No harm done but a broken window. Hopefully your husband won’t press charges.”
Lila stopped at water’s edge to pick up a shell and stuff it in the pocket of her windbreaker, shivering a bit in the dawn breeze. The sun peeked above the ocean, a dull gray today, instead of blue-green. She shaded her eyes and looked up. The ominous-looking clouds stubbornly refused to budge.
Once a year she made the trek to this beach; a white-sanded, cocoon of a place. It had become a ritual. This was the fourth year. She picked up another shell and rubbed its surface with her fingers, observing the pearlized interior when she turned it over. This one, too she slipped into her pocket. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a sand crab scuttle sideways.
Five years ago, her family had buried her twin sister, and she’d felt like a limb had been amputated. To this day, she lived with phantom pain.
Walking the beach where they had shared so many happy times helped. Her hands nestled against the seashells in her pockets. The sun’s warmth began to seep through the chill.
She jerked the band from her wrist and secured her wild, whiplash beach hair. She smiled at the memory of her sister doing the same thing on this very beach.
After shaking her fist at God the first few months, she had settled into a barter tone with Him. She asked Him to tell her sister how much she was missed, and let her know she’d never forget her. Not ever. Then she tentatively asked if she could somehow communicate with her, and promised that she would attend church regularly if He would consider this. Her cheeks had turned bright red at the request. She never brought it up to Him again.
Her sister Kyla had been everything she was not. As if someone cloned her in reverse. Where Kyla was extroverted, daring,and popular Lila was shy and bookwormish. The differences became most obvious in college. Kyla pledged a sorority and became a sought-after date for fraternity functions, and Lila shunned the Greek community and spent weekends in the library or drove home.
She was not jealous of her sister, but did sort of depend on her to prop her up in social situations. They talked of trading places sometimes, to play a joke on some of Kyla’s boyfriends, but Lila was horrified at the thought and did not care to participate. Now she wished she had. Since Kyla’s death, Lila wished she had participated in a lot of things. The memories would have been good company.
The sun had burned off the clouds, and she could feel the sweat dribbling down her back. She’d been walking for hours, her growling stomach cautioned. She turned and calculated the distance back, and decided to find a fast food place. She planned a dip in the ocean after lunch to cool off, and an hour or two in a beach chair with her journal and a pen. Chronicling the day was a ritual, too.
As Lila trudged through the sand toward a beach exit to the boardwalk, she noticed a shoe perched on top of one of the slats of the gate. She stood motionless as memories washed over her.
“Lila, look at these! They’re perfect!” Lila examined the rainbow-colored, sequin-encrusted flats she’d found in Belk’s shoe department. She caught herself before she blurted out her immediate thought about the shoes, which was that she would not wear them in a million years; and responded with a neutral, “Oh, wow!”
The shoe atop the gate was the same shoe.
Lila remembered the last time she’d seen that shoe. Her mother had asked her to pick out what Kyla would have wanted to wear for her funeral, and Lila had sobbed her way through selecting coffin attire for her sister. She had torn the room apart looking for Kyla’s beloved princess slippers. She’d only found the left shoe, and didn’t think her sister would have appreciated being buried with an unclad foot, so she had no choice but to choose another pair.
Lila had carefully saved that one shoe, though. In fact, it resided in a box containing several of Kyla’s favorite things on a shelf at the top of her closet.
Lila shook her head, told herself thousands of people lost shoes on the beach every day, and this was a way to alert the owner. That was all.
But she checked the size anyway. 7B.
She checked whether it was the right or left shoe, too. The right.
She wrestled with taking the shoe as a memento, or leaving it there for the owner to retrieve. The shoe was incredibly worn, so if the owner returned, would they really want it back? She sighed and decided she would think about it after lunch.
Two hours and a full stomach later, she still had not made up her mind about whether to take the shoe, but returned to the site to think about it some more. When she arrived, she was surprised to see a sun-bronzed young man with a surfboard under his arm contemplating the shoe. Lila hung back a bit, watching.
He reached for the shoe and let his fingers trail its contours, lost in thought. He bowed his head and closed his eyes for a moment, then, perhaps embarrassed, quickly glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. His gaze landed on Lila and he stared a long moment, then grinned and shrugged. Lila smiled back and walked over.
“Nice shoe,” she said. “Do you know who the owner is?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I do.”
She raised her eyebrows at him. He sighed, planted his surfboard in the sand, and motioned for her to join him on the boardwalk.
“Lila,” she responded; and grasped his hand.
“Y’know, I am surprised that shoe is still there,” Chad said. “I put it there years ago. It belonged to a friend of mine, a girl I was dating. She’s gone now.”
Lila felt a chill run up her spine. She whispered, “What happened?”
Chad leaned back on his hands and turned his head toward the ocean. The waves were higher now, and the breeze had picked up. The yellow flag had been raised. “I talked her into surfing. She didn’t much want to, but I’d been teaching her to surf a little, and she said okay. Waves were rough, but not too bad. A pretty good day for the board.”
He paused. Every nerve ending in Lila’s body vibrated like a tuning fork.
“Well, she had on those shoes. Called them her princess slippers. My nickname for her was “Princess,” because of those shoes. She kicked them off, grabbed my board and slid into the water, clothes and all. While she was out there, the tide came in and sucked one of her shoes off the beach. When she came back in, she found out her shoe was gone and threw a fit. A big one, right there on the beach in front of everybody. Of course, it was all my fault.” He smiled at the recollection. “I was crazy about her, but she moved on, things didn’t work out. Her shoe washed up on the beach a few weeks later, and I put it on the gate as a – well, I don’t know – maybe I thought she might come back for it. I kind of lost track of her until I read about her funeral a few years ago.” He leaned toward her, a puzzled look on his face. “You look exactly like her!”
Lila swallowed, a tear making its way slowly down one cheek. She rose and picked up the shoe, hugged it to her chest. Chad furrowed his brow.
“Did Kyla never tell you she had a twin?”
She extended her hand to him. His expression was priceless.
“Let’s walk,” she said.
The Toad Lady
The storm finally blew over and sunbeams pierced the clouds like splashes of gold in a muck of pea soup. It had been raining on and off for two weeks, and the entire town of Toad Suck smelled slightly of mold.
The mood in Cleo’s Cafe was grumpy, but like the weather, seemed to be clearing. Billy Barnes, a regular at Cleo’s every day around 4:00, scraped back his stool from the counter, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and declared that afternoon’s fresh-baked scones a real triumph. Yep, almost as good as a few years ago, he thought, and glanced at a framed photo of a gorgeous young woman holding a tray of danishes conspicuously placed on the wall behind the counter. He patted his paunch appreciatively, picked up a toothpick, and winked at the picture.
Cleo’s Grocery and Cafe was a well-known, historical landmark in Toad Suck, Arkansas, a community of 2367 hardy souls who didn’t mind drenching humidity every summer and blood-sucking hordes of mosquitoes. Because the town was located on the Arkansas River, the inevitable tendency to groundwater accumulation created the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Toad Suckers had no choice but to endure the occasional buzzing black cloud all summer.
They put up with it because the river was a big attraction for river floaters and fishermen and such and without it Toad Suck would probably not exist; nor would it boast the Toad Suck Festival, a huge annual spring event that brought in hundreds of thousands in revenue to the tiny town.
The bell over the Cafe’ entrance clanged. Billy shifted the toothpick to the other side of his mouth, observed the man with friendly interest, and invited him to sit beside him with his eyes.
“Hey there,” Billy said, extending a calloused hand, “how are ya today? New around here?” The man smiled and shook hands with Billy.
“Name’s Billy. Billy Barnes. Passing through or stayin’?”
“Passin’ through,” Rob said as he pulled out a stool and took a seat. He turned over his coffee cup and nodded at the young woman behind the counter.
“I heard about this town, Toad Suck, and some kind of story about a woman and a festival…the Toad Suck Festival, right? Where people bring in toads and race them?” He smiled and sipped his coffee. “Thought it would be interesting to see the town.”
Billy smiled broadly. Adrenaline coursed through his aging veins as he anticipated a willing listener. “Well,” he said, and indicated the picture on the wall with a nod, “the story is all about that woman up there on the wall.”
“Oh yeah,” Billy said. “I was one of her best customers!”
“Mind telling me the story?”
And so Billy Barnes got up from his stool and indicated the man should follow him over to a table in the corner, where he began; as many times before, to tell this story:
“When she took a job at this here Café, and settled in to live in the little apartment behind this place, people scratched their heads. Couldn’t quite figure out what drew her to Toad Suck, what with all that youth and beauty and talent. But stay she did, and she worked right here in this room. ‘Course it’s been redone some, because there was a fire, but I’m gettin’ ahead of myself. Her name was Lynette Blackwell, and she could make scones and pastries and such better than anything I have ever tasted, and that’s a fact.” Rob quietly pulled out a pad and pen. Billy didn’t seem to notice that the man was taking notes, and he relaxed into the pleasant memories. He could still hear her voice…
“Bye now, y’hear? Ya’ll don’t forget that tomorrow I’ll be baking up some fresh cherry danishes, and maybe some fried peach pies. Be sure and bring your friends, now,” Lynette said. She gave Billy her cheeriest smile, waved, jiggled her bosom at him, and turned back to washing dishes behind the counter of the charming country café in a detached converted garage behind Cleo’s Grocery.
She was such a pretty little thing; shiny, brown hair and strong young legs that she liked to show off, which accounted for a pretty brisk business at Cleo’s Café. The owners of Cleo’s, Ron and Louise, hired her even though they were a little suspicious because they never could get her to tell them much about her past. After a while, didn’t matter at all though, because that girl could bake like nobody’s business. The whole town smelled like a French pastry shop every afternoon.
Before long, Lynette asked Ron and Louise if she could wear a toad costume in the Café while she was baking in honor of the upcoming Toad Suck Festival. They agreed, but Louise grumbled about how revealing her costume was. Since Ron was pretty excited about all the new customers she was bringing in, he was not concerned about her skimpy costume. Money was money.
When the annual Toad Suck Festival came around in the spring, Lynette baked extra in anticipation of the event. She’d decided to take her melt-in-your-mouth danishes and her toad costume and plop herself down in the Cleo’s Grocery and Café booth she’d convinced Ron to sponsor. Her booth was real popular, especially when she exited and bent over to refresh her collection of goodies. Toad Suckers cluck-clucked over the revealing toad costume, but they didn’t cluck too much because she was making Cleo’s a fair amount of money; plus she was drawing out-of-town business as well. All in all, Toad Suckers felt pretty honored that Lynette had chosen their town to bless with her considerable assets.
Soon people were showing up from Little Rock and Bentonville and El Dorado with cameras in search of the “Toad Lady.” Arkansas Magazine contacted Cleo’s for an interview. Lynette became an official local celebrity and Ron and Louise doted on her like proud parents.
Lynette began wearing a different toad costume every day. Ron and Louise agreed to allow her to flounce about in the skimpy – albeit rather adorable – toad costumes because their profits were now through the roof. They even had a “Toad Lady Inside, Hop On In!” sign made with a big red arrow pointing to the back of Cleo’s Grocery that led to the entrance of the Café where Lynette busily pushed dough into quaint shapes and hefted trays into the oven. When she fully committed to the toad theme by fashioning frog-shaped pastries, she felt somewhat blissfully centered, as though she had stumbled on to her very purpose in life. Lynette was well on her way to pastry heaven, theoretically speaking.
During an especially busy day, her phone jangled in her pocket. She let the call go to voicemail. For one thing her hands were dusty with flour and she had been sneezing through flour clouds all morning. The call could wait.
Finally, she heaved the last tray of toad danishes in the oven, reminded herself to make sure she set the timer, swept her hair out of her face (which was charmingly encrusted with bits of dough), and returned the call. Through the pastry bits and the inevitable face-dusting of flour, one could not really tell, but she turned sheet-white as she listened. She stumbled to a chair in the corner behind the counter, and buried her face in her hands.
She’d hoped the nightmare on the other end of the call was behind her. Her mind raced toward hypothetical conclusions, each one bashing into the other. Her stomach began to heave and she felt slightly dizzy, and then…blackness as she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.
A couple hours later Ron sniffed something burning, and saw smoke curling in under the door. Ron caught Louise’s eye over the produce section – the cabbages and the turnips – and they instantly mind-melded the same thought: impending doom. They had been married long enough to share one mind, so no words needed to be spoken at that moment.
As one, they raced to the Cafe. Louise glanced knowingly at Ron as if to say, “I told you this couldn’t last. Besides, her costume is ridiculous.” He sighed as he ran, having heard this at least four hundred thirty-seven times before.
They slid to a stop before the Café and jerked open the door. There was no one at the counter. Smoke and tiny licks of flame spiraled out of the huge twin ovens. Ron glanced meaningfully at Louise and she correctly interpreted the glance as, “Call 911! Now!” and ran to the phone.
Ron batted through the smoke to turn off the ovens, and tripped over something blocking his way behind the counter. He squinted through the smoke, peered at the obstruction and screamed, “Oh my God! Lynette!” He reached down and picked up her inert form, toad costume and all; staggered out the door into the grocery office, and deposited her on the couch. He knelt beside her, patted her face, and tried to ignore the awkwardly splayed long, muscled legs begging for his appreciative gaze. Legs, he soon discovered, that were attached to an attractive, toad-costumed corpse. He hung his head and cried.
After a few minutes, he rose, slapped the tears from his face, located an extra tablecloth to cover her, and walked from the room.
Billy paused for a sip of coffee and locked eyes with the stranger taking meticulous notes. Rob paused, pen in mid-air, and regarded him for a long moment. Billy pointedly stared at the notes on the pad. Rob reached into his pocket and slipped out a hundred dollar bill. Smooth as a whistle, Billy palmed the bill, tucked it into his shirt pocket, and resumed his story.
The whole town turned out for Lynette’s funeral. The Toad Suck Festival Committee showed up all decked out in toad hats, and people left all manner of toad figurines and such at the door of the Café. Odd though, that Ron and Louise could not find one single family member to mourn her passing. She was buried not too far from Cleo’s Grocery and Café, and her gravestone read “Here lies the Toad Lady of Toad Suck. She is now baking with the angels.” The stone was dyed to a greenish hue in honor of her high calling. Looked a little like mold, but still, it’s the thought that counts.
That evening, the toadsong seemed louder than usual. Everyone commented on it.
After the smoke cleared (so to speak), folks were shocked to find out that their Toad Lady had worked as a lady of the evening for a good ole’ boy out of Memphis that ran a group of gals over in Mountain Home. No one would have been the wiser, except for an unsolved murder case over there that got re-opened because police found one of her shoes. A green, high-heeled shoe, stuck deep in mud, right where the good ole’ boy from Memphis had been fished out from the lake real bloated and real dead. Truth be told, nobody much cared that this fellow turned up dead; he was mean and used those gals, but justice would take its course.
Ron and Louise and the Toad Suck Festival Committee decided unanimously that something had to be done to protect the town’s reputation. So a plan was hatched.
They went to her little apartment, looking for potential evidence that would implicate her in the murder. The place was neat as a pin, but smelled real moldy, they noticed. After a bit of searching, darned if they didn’t find the mate to the shoe the police found! After a hushed, secret meeting they decided to take most of Lynette’s wordly goods and bury them in the woods. A couple of burly Toad Suckers skulked through the night with two big trash bags full of clothes and shoes and make-up and such and buried them good and deep. Detectives that came around askin’ questions later couldn’t find enough evidence to convict the dead girl, so they left. The town heaved a sigh of relief.
Now here’s the part that everybody clammed up about when those detectives came snoopin’: as the body was being prepared for burial, examination revealed a condition known as “syndactyly,” or webbed feet; and behind Lynette’s ears were small openings that appeared to be gills.
Billy paused and shrugged as he anticipated Rob’s reaction. Rob put his pen down, crossed his arms and stared at Billy. Neither spoke for a long moment.
“You think she was part toad…is that what you’re saying?” Rob said.
Billy looked Rob in the eye. “She loved those toad costumes. She was right pretty in ‘em. And toad danishes? Why would she bake those?” He pointed at the rows of toad danishes, now quite famous, poised alertly on shelves behind the counter; a duplication of Lynette’s efforts. “Everyone knew she loved to swim; she could swim like a fish! And her place…well, folks said it always smelled real moldy in there, like pond scum.” He shrugged again, and looked out the window.
Rob stifled a grin. Billy had saved his ace in the hole for last, though, and proceeded to wipe the grin off the stranger’s face. “Remember that shoe they found?” Rob nodded.
“Well, one just like it was found floating in the river during last year’s festival. The left one. Same size, same color. When it was fished out, the toads on the banks of the river kicked up a fuss like you wouldn’t believe. Inside the shoe was a little toad figurine stuck way down at the end.”
“Great story,” said Rob, thinking he had at least a week of verification and research ahead of him, but already outlining the article he’d planned for Southern Living Magazine. “Thanks for your time,” he said and abruptly rose. Billy dipped his head in acknowledgment and tilted in his chair on its back legs as he watched the stranger leave.
After the door banged shut, Billy smiled and muttered to himself, “Can’t believe every single one of them dang writers that come through here believe all that crap.” He pushed himself up off the chair, grinned at Lynette’s picture, fingered his shirt pocket, and went home a happy man.