This short story started life as a writing exercise – those of you who have read Stephen King’s “On Writing; a memoir of the craft” may recognise it. It’s a little over 4,000 words long, and takes 10 – 15 minutes to read. It’s pretty dark, so if dark isn’t your thing, look away now!
Rob sipped bourbon as he sat in the bar revising his quarterly sales report. Every so often he was distracted by shrieks of laughter from across the room and he glanced over. ‘Girls’ night out,” he murmured to himself.
One girl in particular, a quiet girl, caught his attention. She had placed herself in the corner, under a light fitting. She smiled rather than laughed, and she was attractive rather than beautiful. Her sleek brown hair shone; her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires displayed in a jeweller’s window.
Rob was packing up his laptop as the girls started to leave. The quiet girl went to the bar. Rob saw the barman frown and ask her something. She responded merrily, and the barman served her a measure of spirits, but the frown didn’t leave his face.
Rob went to the bar, ordered bourbon. He jerked his head in the direction of the quiet girl. The barman shrugged.
“That’s her last. She’s had enough. Don’t want her getting into trouble on the way home.”
Rob nodded. “Should I offer her a lift do you think, Sam?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. Takes a while to get a cab this time of night.”
“Ah, another night owl,” exclaimed the girl as Rob approached. He smiled.
“Not really. But I felt like some company. My name’s Rob, by the way, Rob Carter.”
“Nice to meet you, Rob.” She offered her hand. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “I’m Maureen.”
They didn’t date often before Rob proposed marriage. Maureen had caught her man.
Rob’s family and friends were delighted.
When he told his mom, she squeezed his arm hard and her eyes moistened.
“She’ll take good care of you, I can tell. I’ve worried about you, Rob, trying to look after yourself all on your own in that house.”
“I don’t do that bad, Ma! Besides, I’m hardly expecting Maureen to have my slippers warming and my dinner on the table; it doesn’t work like that these days.”
His dad winked.
“Good looking girl you got, son. Well done!” He leered at Rob, took another six-pack out the fridge and handed a can to him. “Cheers!”
Maureen told her mother in the kitchen of their pokey apartment.
“He seems nice enough, I s’pose. So did your father when I married him. Ha! Men!” Her mouth hardened. “Move over, gal, I wanna mop that bit o’ floor.”
Maureen bit her lip. Dad had vanished when she was fourteen. Her mom had never explained where he’d gone, or why.
Rob and Maureen were happy during the first few months of their marriage. Rob enjoyed being cosseted; Maureen enjoyed their affluence. They went to plays and concerts, and they dined in good restaurants. Maureen always left the choice to Rob.
“I love going out with you,” she said once to Rob, “but these places are so different from anything I’m used to. Please – you choose for me. Look after me, Rob.” And she clung on his arm and looked at him with glowing eyes.
Rob liked to finish these evenings with love-making, but to his surprise it was anti-climactic. It wasn’t that Maureen was unwilling; far from it, she was eager and she tried hard. And Rob could tell that she was trying. If he held back for long enough, she would ‘climax’; she was faking.
Still, there’s more to marriage than four bare legs in a bed. Rob may have worked a little later in the evening; Maureen may have started drinking a little earlier in the day; but they would have said they were happy together.
It was shortly after their anniversary that they had their first real row.
“Why are you late?”
It had been a brutal day in the office. Rob had faced criticism from his boss and moaning from his subordinates.
“Why are you drunk?” he countered.
They had shouted. Half concealed resentments spilled out, and, as the quarrel escalated, disappointments became vocal.
“And you’re frigid!”
Everything went quiet.
Then Maureen picked up the bottle of wine with which she’d been entertaining herself, and lashed out.
Fortunately for Rob – and for Maureen, come to that – he was quick, and took the bottle on his shoulder rather than his temple.
What followed was technically rape, in that it was non-consensual.
Afterwards, they sat amid torn clothing, arms around each other, kissing, touching tenderly.
“I did,” she said. Tears oozed from under bruised lids. “Do it again.”
They went to bed. Rob soon fell asleep. As Maureen lay on her back, listening to his breathing become regular and gentle, images of her father drifted into her mind. She shook as she remembered his whisky-breath, the way he punched and kicked her mother. She sought sanctuary in earlier memories. Holding his hand, sitting on his lap. She remembered his voice telling her stories. She slept.
Maureen couldn’t believe it when she missed a period. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. Should she use the ‘morning after’ pill, or welcome the child? She’d never thought of having children, and Rob had never said anything.
When Maureen missed a second period, she told Rob. He was thrilled. Within a fortnight the spare bedroom had been transformed by a design consultancy. The walls were delicate cream, with a frieze of animals. The carpet was soft green. The Moses basket was natural varnished wood, hanging from an elegant stand.
“I know you’ll want to breastfeed,” Rob said, “but I hope you’ll let me join in and bottle-feed sometimes. Perhaps we could share the night shift?”
“I’m not dead set on breastfeeding. Of course you can join in.”
Together they chose a chair for the nursery, a high-backed wooden chair with upholstered arms and seat, and they stood it in the corner, close to the cot. Rob imagined himself sitting there with the baby crooked in his arm, enjoying the closeness of this new life that he had helped to create.
“Should we be spending all this money on the house?” Maureen spoke sharply.
Rob raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not a problem, you know. This quarter’s bonus will cover it.”
“Will we still be able to afford the Bahamas in May? You know how much I want to go.”
Rob did some rapid mental arithmetic.
“Don’t worry, Maureen. Your vacation’s safe!”
“It had better be.”
After dinner, Rob retired to his study. Perhaps he should get out his trade directories and look for some new prospects?
As the weeks passed, Maureen’s moods swung wildly between tenderness and violence. At home Rob spoke less often, for fear of saying the wrong thing and prompting an outburst. At work, though, the prospect of becoming a father had energised him. He’d identified several possible large accounts and was chasing them enthusiastically.
“I’m going to be late this evening, darling,” he said to Maureen. “That company – Harrisons, you know, the one I told you about?”
“I’m entertaining their Purchasing VP to dinner.”
Maureen had thinned her lips.
“What’s his name?”
“The VP’s a woman, darling. I told you, remember? Jenny Lightfoot. She’s fifty, with a cast-iron permanent wave and she uses her handbag like an offensive weapon.” He chuckled. Maureen did not.
Jenny had proved to have a formidable head for bourbon, but by eleven o’clock the deal was done. A contract for a full year with an option on two more years, a total of three million bucks. Rob was humming as he climbed into the cab.
The lights were off in his house.
“Better be quiet,” he muttered, even as he wondered whether Maureen would be awake. He would love to tell her the good news. A deal like this would enable them to travel somewhere really exciting once the baby was a little older. He fumbled cheerfully with the key and stumbled inside.
He didn’t know it was a rolling pin that hit him, just that it hurt. He lunged forwards, taking two more blows, the second and more painful on his collarbone.
“You bastard! I can smell her perfume on you. You low-life scum, you’re no better than the rest of them!”
He struggled with her, trying not to hurt their unborn child, and eventually pulled the rolling pin from her.
“It’s bourbon you can smell, you stupid bitch.”
The slap to his cheek made him cry out and clutch his face.
“Never, ever call me that again!”
He slumped against the wall, struggling to clear the whisky fog, listening to her footsteps steadily climbing the stairs. He felt too exhausted to follow. The bedroom door slammed. After a while, carefully and quietly he went to the nursery and sat in the new chair.
What the hell was he going to do?
Next day, Maureen refused to discuss the fight. She talked brightly through breakfast. Rob would have wondered whether he’d dreamed it, if it weren’t for the large bruises on his arms and collarbone, and the gash on his cheek from Maureen’s ring.
For the next few months, until the baby was born, Rob was extremely careful. He scheduled no evening meetings, and he showed Maureen the email from his boss that confirmed the dates when he would be away for the sales conference. Indeed, he gave her details of the hotel so she could ring them and check that he was there, and not with another woman.
And when their daughter was born, Rob suggested they named her Irene. He didn’t care whether Maureen got the point or not.
Perhaps she did. At all events, there were no more fights for a few months. There was no more sex, either.
Irene was four months old when Rob met Charlene. It was just a physical thing. No commitment either way. The relief was tremendous.
They took to meeting once a week, on Tuesday afternoons, in a hotel. It was fun. Rob didn’t dare imagine the consequences if Charlene ever demanded more than fun; or if Maureen were to find out.
But Maureen didn’t feel any need for proof. Suspicion was justification. One Tuesday Rob came back cheerful and relaxed.
“Did you pick up those holiday brochures? We might plan our European trip tonight if you like. It’s going to be a great bonus this quarter!”
“No. Sorry. I’ll look on line – there’s more choice there anyway.” She wandered across to him. “What’s that odd sweet smell?”
“I can’t smell anything. Perhaps it’s the chemical plant I went to this morning?” Rob was surprised Maureen could smell anything above the eau de parfum that she always wore.
Maureen wrinkled her nose but said no more while Rob prepared a bottle of formula for Irene. As he sat down, cradling Irene in the crook of his left arm, and offering her the bottle with his right, Maureen said, “You’ve been with another woman, haven’t you?”
Without waiting for an answer, she picked up a half-full bottle of wine, stamped across the room and swung it viciously at Rob’s head. It caught him a glancing blow, stunning him briefly. Irene released the teat from her mouth and wailed. Panic-stricken, Rob looked around for somewhere he could safely place her.
As Rob tried to stand, Maureen hit him on the left shin. The bottle broke. The pain was intense, disabling. Rob cradled Irene in his lap and curled his body over her. He cringed at the thought that the next blow would be to his head, and then Irene would be defenceless.
“Look at you!” exclaimed Maureen. “You’re pathetic!” She slammed the jagged end of the broken bottle hard onto Rob’s right hand, and left him to whimper, to look after himself and Irene as best he could.
The next day, limping and with his hand bandaged, he consulted a lawyer.
“Hm. You want a divorce with custody of the child. That’s not common, you know. Has your wife been unfaithful?”
“No. At least I don’t think so.”
“Have you been unfaithful to her?”
Rob coloured and kept silent. The lawyer shook his head.
“You’d have a mountain to climb, an absolute mountain. We could try, but it would be very expensive and the chance of success – what, one percent maybe?”
As Rob left the office, the lawyer tutted to himself. ‘You meet some selfish bastards,’ he thought. ‘Wants to have his floozy and keep the baby too. I don’t know.’
Rob was frightened as he opened his front door that evening, but Maureen greeted him tenderly. She took his coat, poured him a bourbon, gave him a quarter hour to relax, and then suggested he might enjoy feeding Irene.
Irene was in her sweetest mood. After drinking half the bottle of formula, she was much more interested in playing. She reached out her little arms to Rob and smiled and dribbled and blew milky bubbles.
Maureen came and stood behind Rob. He tensed, expecting a blow, but Maureen massaged his neck.
At last she said, “I’m sorry about yesterday. It won’t happen again.”
Of course, she wasn’t telling the truth.
Of course, Rob believed her.
He and Charlene continued to meet for sex on Tuesdays but it was becoming less frenetic. Increasingly there was gentleness, even tenderness. One afternoon, as Rob left the bed to get dressed, Charlene said “Would you mind talking for a bit? I know you’ve got to get back to work; I won’t take long. Promise!”
Rob smiled at her and climbed back into bed.
“I can’t help noticing the bruises – and sometimes the cuts – on your body, Rob. I know you don’t play sports, so what’s going on?”
Rob’s pulse beat loudly in his ears. He felt chilled. He sat silent.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Rob. I want to help you.”
“You can’t. Nobody can.” Tears squeezed from Rob’s eyes, and he started to sob. Charlene gentled him.
“It’s alright to cry, Rob. It’s okay, everything’s okay. You can tell me.”
So he did. He told her everything, and she was okay with that. There was no horror, no emotional storm – no violence – just calm, lucid acceptance. And when he’d finished he wept again, this time for relief.
It took twelve difficult months for the divorce to come through. Rob found it almost impossible to testify about Maureen’s violence, but Charlene and the lawyer made it clear that he had no choice. If he didn’t testify, he would not get custody of Irene. He testified.
Maureen denied it. Perhaps she was too shrill, or perhaps Charlene’s testimony about the injuries on Rob’s body swung it, but he was awarded custody.
For the first time in a year, Rob entered his own house. Maureen had packed. Irene sat in her pushchair in the hall.
“I’ll give you one last chance,” said Maureen. “You let me stay, and I’ll say no more about all this.”
Rob gestured at the door.
“Get out of my house.”
“You’ll regret this.” She hissed the words, then spat at him. Irene started to cry.
An old black pick-up juddered round the corner, Maureen’s mother at the wheel. Stony-faced, she climbed out. She was holding a shotgun, pointing it at Rob.
“I oughter blow your brains out, runnin’ out on my Maureen. And if you ever come near her again, that’s just what I’ll do.”
The two women threw suitcases into the trunk, and zigzagged away in the pick-up.
The letters started soon afterwards.
The first was a single word.
Rob gazed at it. Should he do anything about it? Was there, indeed, anything he could do about it? After a momentary hesitation, he screwed it up and threw it in the bin.
“Wife-beater,” said the next, and, “Child-stealer” the third.
The fourth read “You’ll burn”. Rob frowned as he pulled out the accompanying newspaper cutting. It was a photograph of a recent fatal fire. He took it to the police. They weren’t helpful. Rob pulled strings in City Hall, and the police ‘investigated’ which is to say they dusted the fourth letter for prints. There were none. Surprise, surprise, the sender had worn gloves.
Perhaps the police were right not to be concerned because there were no more letters.
“Is something the matter, Rob?” asked Charlene, as they enjoyed spring sunshine in Central Park one Saturday afternoon.
“No. That is, did you notice that woman over by Bow Bridge?”
“The one in the head-scarf? Can’t say I did. Do you know her?”
“No.” He pulled a face. “Did you think she was a bit like Maureen?”
“Same height and build, I suppose, but she was a much older woman, Rob.” She slipped her arm in his. “That’s all over, Rob. You’re free now. You can focus on your lovely little girl, and I shall stand by you for as long as you want me.”
“I think I want you beside me forever,” said Rob.
“I don’t think you know that yet, Rob. There’s no rush.” She seemed about to kiss him, when Irene, in her buggy, blew a raspberry.
They laughed and strolled on, content.
Spring passed inexorably to the heat of summer. The day was breathless. Rob was collecting Irene from Seedlings Academic Playschool, fastening her into her car seat. He heard running feet approaching, just as he latched her harness, and then he felt a shattering pain in his hip.
Half in, half out of the car he fought to climb out, to slam the door, to protect Irene. Another blow struck the same leg as he made it outside. He scarcely recognised Maureen, snarling, malevolent, wielding a baseball bat. The next blow was aimed at his head. He flung himself sideways. The bat struck the car, denting the roof.
“I’m going to get you!” Maureen was gleeful. She twirled the bat like a drum major’s mace. Rob hobbled to place himself between Maureen and the car door. Maureen swung viciously, and the bat smashed into Rob’s chest. He dropped.
He couldn’t say how long the blackness lasted. Later he remembered a few seconds where the sound of a siren drowned his efforts to tell the paramedic about Irene in the car, before the blackness again.
He opened his eyes to sunlight. A monitor beeped rhythmically beside him. Saline solution dripped into a cannula in his wrist. His chest felt tight, but he realised he was breathing okay. His left leg felt numb. The door opened softly.
Charlene walked across to the bed and put her hand on his. “Thank God,” she said, and then “Irene’s okay, she’s fine.” Rob did his best to smile as the blackness took him again.
In fact, the actual damage could have been worse. A half dozen broken ribs, a punctured lung and some dramatic bruising to his left leg was the extent of the injuries. He had been lucky. The security guard at the playschool had restrained Maureen, and the school’s administrator had re-started Rob’s heart before the paramedics arrived.
Rob was discharged from hospital five days later, two days after Maureen was committed to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center. The news of her incarceration was a profound relief.
Irene had become very clingy after the attack on Rob; “Goodness knows how much she saw and understood,” said Rob to his mother. She shuddered.
“I nearly lost my boy. I always said Maureen was a nasty piece of work. I hope Irene doesn’t inherit her viciousness.”
“Of course she won’t, Mom. She’ll inherit your sweetness of nature through me.”
Rob’s mom smiled at him. “You must stay with us until you’re properly better.”
Gradually the pain of the injuries eased.
“You should get out and take some exercise, son.”
Rob felt his pulse skip a beat. He hadn’t been outside on his own since the attack. OK, so Maureen was under lock and key, but there was still her mom and that shotgun. He felt cowardly, but he couldn’t face it, not yet, not now. Perhaps if he weren’t on his own?
“How about you join me, Dad? Walk off some of that beer belly.”
Rob’s dad caught the hesitation, and the look of apprehension.
“Yeah! Great idea! Shall we do it straight away?”
Rob was pre-occupied throughout the walk. He felt as though somebody had tied a target on his back. He ached between his shoulder blades.
“Could we go back to the car now? I’m feeling tired. First time out; big day! But not much energy, I’m afraid.”
“Do it again tomorrow, son?”
“You gotta date, mate.”
As his dad drove them home, Rob kept looking in the door mirror. Was that Maureen’s mother’s old black pick-up he could see? It was lurching and weaving through the traffic. He flinched and stared straight ahead as it pulled level with them at some traffic lights. When the lights changed, the pick-up turned right.
Gradually the fear eased, but it didn’t disappear. Still, after a few more days he found he could go outside on his own.
Three weeks after the attack, he returned to work. “Just half-days for the first week,” instructed his boss, “and if you’re finding it too tough, take another week. We can’t afford to have you keel over. You’re the only person Harrisons are really happy to deal with.”
At noon he took a cab back to his house. As he put the key into the lock, he noticed that the door knocker was tarnished. “I’ll have a coffee then come and clean that,” he thought. He didn’t have the energy to tackle even such a small task without a sit-down first.
The house felt dirty; everything was covered with dust. He was going to have to find a cleaner. Maureen had organised that during their marriage. It was odd. Despite the divorce and the attack, she still felt present in the house. She’d arranged the pictures. She’d chosen the wallpaper for the living room. Rob sighed. Her touch was on everything. Perhaps he should just have the house deep-cleaned, the decoration refreshed and then sell it. Buy somewhere else. Start again with Charlene.
He picked up the bourbon, then put it down again, instead making a black coffee, and sitting down in front of the TV. He flicked channels and was just in time to catch the local news.
“Breaking news from the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center!” The journalist stood outside the secure hospital. “Fire broke out in the wing holding the most dangerous patients. Twelve appliances and eighty crew are fighting the blaze, and more are on their way. There is an unconfirmed report that some patients escaped in the confusion. The Center have refused to confirm or deny this report.”
A roiling plume of smoke could be seen in the background.
“The Center have, however, told us that the evacuation of staff and patients proceeded in an orderly fashion with only minor injuries. A further bulletin will be issued at one thirty this afternoon, and we will be covering that. In the meantime, it’s back to Arnold in the studio.”
Rob switched off the TV. His skin crawled. It wasn’t the pictures or the wallpaper. It wasn’t the evidence of her choices in the furniture. They weren’t what had made him feel she was present. It was her perfume. Subtle, understated, elegant. He could smell it. He could smell it right now. Surely it wouldn’t have clung to the furniture over a period of months?
But she was in Kirby Forensic. Unless the report was right, and she’d escaped.
No. That would be too unlikely. The TV company were probably misinformed. Besides, even if she’d escaped, how the hell would she have laid her hands on that perfume in the Center? Unless…
Had there been a bottle of it on her dressing table? He hadn’t been sleeping in the main bedroom since returning to his house after the divorce.
He thought, “I should go and look. Set my mind at rest” but he didn’t move. His legs felt drained of strength. He looked at the fire-irons; he could take the poker. And yet he didn’t move, he couldn’t move. His breathing came fast, his pulse raced. He was shaking too much to stand.
He heard footsteps, her footsteps steadily descending the stairs. Still he sat. He heard splashing. Maureen’s perfume became overlaid with the stench of gasoline.
Her footsteps were quiet on the living room carpet.
At last he moved. He sprang to his feet and turned towards her. She dripped gasoline from her sodden clothes. She splashed gasoline from the five gallon jerrycan she carried.
She put down the can, and she smiled at Rob.
“Time to burn, Rob,” she said.
The click of her lighter was the loudest noise Rob had ever heard.