The Leak

Plop.

Plink.

Plop.

Plink.

It was the most infernal sound, and he found it to be grating on his nerves.

Plop.

Of course it was a silly thing to be mad about, it was a a slow leak after all. That was something to be grateful for, right? That the sound wasn’t constant? Hadn’t he been trying to do that sort of thing at one point in his life? The whole “gratitude practice is good for the soul” thing? He should be grateful it was a slow leak.

Plink.

He grated his teeth, feeling his jaw pop as he scrubbed enamel against enamel. He was grateful he still had teeth. Hard to believe after all this he still had his teeth.

Plop.

He wanted to throw his hands up in exasperation, Screw this gratitude nonsense, he felt his arm muscles cramp at the thought of movement, I’m miserable.

Plink.

Even thinking, now, had become exhausting. He felt himself giving up on thinking, blinking back sleep. He hadn’t been mentally strong enough to maintain his gratitude practice before, either. Funny, as back then he had definitely had an easier task set before him. Now he was retroactively grateful for the car (even with a parking ticket!) and the yard that had trees perfectly set apart for his hammock (even if the neighbor had a yappy dog!) and the well that had fed into his home crisp, clean water (even if he’d had to dig the new one only one year into living at his new house!). What he wouldn’t have given for a car to drive him back to that yard and a tall glass of water from that well. At least I’m growing as a person now.

Plop.

He felt around in the darkness, trying to find something that would indicate that the ground around him had changed since the last time he had performed this exercise. Just dirt. Always just dirt. At least it’s not too cold down here. See! I’m getting better at this gratitude thing already. He was fairly certain, approximately 85%, that he was in a cellar. The room was dark and cool and if he ever got out he was fairly certain, about 70% so, he’d find that he’d been living next to a lifetime supply of potatoes.

Plink.

Of course it wouldn’t hurt to get that leak fixed given all the precious goods in the cellar. Like me he thought, giving up on searching the ground around him. He relaxed his muscles again, lying limp on the ground.

Plop.

He almost felt the light hit him before he could see it, only the tiniest sliver from the upstairs like usual. He could hear the old wooden steps giving slightly under the weight of the person making their way down them, descending into his hell.

Creeeaaaak.

Creeeeaaaak.

Plink.

Creeeeaaaaak.

He hoped this was the food time. He hadn’t yet been able to figure out what determined when he got fed. (He was about 30% sure he was being fed every three days, maybe less.) The figure walked across the dirt floor, their footfalls making muffled thumps as they stirred up the flooring.

Plop.

He struggled to hold still, his heart still quickening as it had the first time he’d experienced this torture.

Scoosh.

In a cloud of dust the tray slid in front of him from under the small slit in the front of his crate.

“Eat.” The voice was soft, almost like that of a concerned caregiver. He’d spent (what he assumed was) many moons trying to figure out this voice. He was 95% sure his “caretaker” was a woman, though one could never be sure these days. She was always so quiet, encouraging him to eat the stale bread or cold porridge quickly.

Thunk!

He was startled from his thoughts, she’d kicked the bloody crate! “I don’t hear you eating.” Frantic whispering, here was the fear he had heard in this voice so many times before. What are you afraid of? He wanted to yell at her, but he sensed that if he did he might never eat again. So he ate.

Plink.

Plop.

Scoosh.

“I’ll come back soon.” She whispered, he heard the sadness in her voice. He placed his hand up on the crate, trying in desperation to feel a human connection. Any human connection. “Please…” he croaked, his vocal chords cracking under the weight of the word. He had never spoken to her and the breeze she created as she ran away from him took him aback. Is she afraid of me? He felt the tears come then, the hot, sticky mess of tears. He had stopped crying so long ago, but now the tears were coming again. He tried to stop, best to conserve water, but they just kept pouring out of his eyes. His body racked with sobs as he tried to push down the welling —

Plink.

The scream escaped him, a deep guttural, animal sound. “Are you afraid of me? Come and face me you coward! Come and see what I have become, you monster!” He threw himself against the sides of his crate, something he hadn’t done in what he was sure was months. He had stopped throwing his weight into the boards because the broken ones were replaced whenever he went to sleep. But now, in this moment, he no longer cared. Replace the damn boards, he thought, it won’t matter if I smash myself into a pulp. He had finally snapped.

Plop.

Plink.

Plop.

Plink.

Upstairs, the girl sat on her bed, sobbing. She didn’t dare tell her father that her puppy had spoken to her. He would be so mad- he’d told her repeatedly to stop going down there to feed him. But she had loved her puppy! Even if she didn’t get to take him outside or play with him like the other kids in her class. She’d loved him because he was hers. But then, he’d started screaming. He’d screamed and screamed. He didn’t sound like the other kids’ puppies. He sounded more like Daddy. She had been sitting on her bed, crying and shaking and listening. It had been hours before the screaming and thumping had finally stopped. She didn’t dare go check on her puppy. But she knew she still had work to do, so she ran into the kitchen and washed off his plate. He was bad to slobber on the plate, so she had to be extra careful when she washed it or the sticky residue would stay. She knew that today, especially, if Daddy saw the slobbery plate in the kitchen she would be in so much trouble.

Thunk.

Crack.

She lay on her bed, waiting. The feeling in the pit of her stomach wasn’t a fun feeling. She heard his truck pull into the drive way, saw the headlights shine through the front window and through the crack between her door and its frame. She’d laid down an hour or two before, placing a cold washcloth across her tiny puffy face the way her mother used to. Her mother had left right before they’d gotten the puppy. Daddy had said that Mommy had found a new family she liked better, so she left them. The kids at school said Daddy probably killed her mother. She’d argued with them, but they said that the court didn’t have any proof so they couldn’t take him to jail. The thought choked her up and she struggled to even out her breathing again.

Creeeak.

Her door creaked open a fraction more, she could hear him breathing. “Good night, Punkin’.” He said softly, closing the door behind him. He scratched his beard, blinking back sleep. Things had been hard for them since her mother had left. His little girl had come home one day absolutely bawling about how the kids at school had said he was a murderer. He hadn’t been surprised, all their parents were a bunch of blabber mouths prone to exaggeration. Still, it had wounded him to have his little girl upset over such a thing. He sighed deeply, If only she knew how hard I worked to get her mother to stay.

Creeeak.

He closed the door behind him and turned to head toward the kitchen, fairly certain he heard the sink dripping. Thinking of his wife had reminded him of her hobby. She’d been a bit of an eccentric when he’d met her. He had told everyone that’s what he loved about her. How totally weird she was. But he hadn’t known. He’d found out just how weird maybe three years into their marriage. At that point they’d just moved into this house. He couldn’t understand why she’d been so smitten with the place. Still, he’d been happy to get it for her. Happier still to build her a shed out back for her hobby supplies. Of course, when she’d said workspace he assumed she’d be painting. So his mockups for the shed had featured huge windows to let in the light and a beautiful bay window with a seat in it, gazing out into the woods behind the house. She had laughed, told him she didn’t want a mini-house, she wanted a shed. If she’d wanted something other than a shed she would have said so. He’d been inclined to indulge her. Should’ve built it the way I wanted it. The sound of water dripping didn’t appear to be coming from the sink after all. He headed toward the cellar door, feeling his stomach turn in knots.

Plop.

The sound was most certainly coming from down there. He cautiously made his way down the stairs. When he’d finished the shed, she’d been so happy. She pranced around the house, happier than he’d ever seen her. She filled it quickly with ungodly things. At first they had seemed harmless, a shovel or rake. Maybe she wants to start a garden. Then the items became more alarming, with handcuffs and huge plastic tarps entering the shed. Still, he’d chosen to believe that maybe she was going to be making sculptures. Idiot. She’d carried on, collecting her supplies piecemeal in that way for months. He realized now it was less suspicious this way. Less likely to raise eyebrows. Sure doesn’t hurt she picked a little house in the middle of the woods. He had been fiddling with the pipe when he noticed it. The little wooden crate in the back corner. He walked over to it, kneeling down to look at it. One of the boards appeared to be cracked a little from the inside. He pulled off a board.

Plink.

The wooden box was slowly falling away as he worked. She’d started “collecting” the next year. She’d left for a long weekend, “I’ll just be out with the girls! You don’t want to come, it’ll be lots of squealing and talking about how boring our husbands are.” He’d laughed, told her to have fun, and then left for work. She must’ve packed up the car after he’d left, making sure to have all the things she’d need. When he’d gotten back home from work on Monday morning there had been the sound of activity in their cellar. “Dear, everything alright?” He yelled down the stairs. The cellar gave him the heebie-jeebies and she had known. It was perfect. “Oh yes, Love! Just working on a project!” He’d told her he’d have dinner ready soon and had left her to it. Should’ve gone down those stairs that day. Now he could see the dirty rags in the box, Probably her last “project”. He kept working, the sound of water that had brought him down here slowly melting into the background as he became absorbed in his thoughts.

Plop.

He’d slowly figured it out. She was slick, but she had left clues around the house. It was like she wanted him to figure it out. So he’d be afraid of her. But he’d never felt afraid of her. Thinking on it now, he figured that was why she had gotten pregnant. If she couldn’t make him afraid for himself, then perhaps a child would work. But it hadn’t gone to plan. A few months in she’d become bedridden, struck with terrible nausea that kept her in bed all day. She’d been so horrible the whole time. She’d become violent with him, but what had hurt him the most were her words. She’d blamed him for this horror that had befallen her. He’d bore the weight of her onslaught, keeping a smile on his face for the people at the supermarket when he ran his weekly errands. He’d taken off so much work to take care of her because she insisted no one else could come to the house. He didn’t have to ask — he already knew why. When the baby had finally, mercifully arrived he had felt this immense relief. Finally everything could return to normal, or as close to normal as they had ever been. She was just too full of hate, then. She didn’t get better, she got worse. It had taken him a while to dismantle part of the wooden crate, it was a rather large one and, fool that he was, he’d only been using his pocketknife to pry out the nails.

Plink.

Now he could see that the pile of rags in the crate still had something in them, something fleshy. “Wha-,” he pulled at a few more boards that had been fixed to the ground, causing the structure to flop over on one side. The man was bloodied terribly, like he’d been in the worst bar brawl of his life. Is there a pulse? Please, God, let there be a pulse.

Plop.

The ambulance arrived almost half an hour later. “We just had to be in the middle of nowhere,” he’d sighed. It wasn’t until after he’d called the ambulance and applied what medicine he could to the man’s wounds that it occurred to him. They’d want to know how this happened. How had this happened? She’d been gone for so long, how was this man still even alive? That’s when Stefanie, his sweet Punkin’, poked her head around the doorjamb. “Hi Daddy,” she said, eyes cast down. Oh my God. Is this her puppy? Has my kid been keeping a man trapped in my basement? A man her mother brought here? Did she know? He tried hard to keep his composure. He’d told her to stop taking food downstairs to her “puppy” because he had assumed she was using it as an excuse to eat outside mealtimes. He most certainly had not thought it was because she was keeping a prisoner in his cellar. “Hi Punkin’, is there something you want to tell Daddy?” She padded across the living room toward where he had been crouching and he scooted up a bit, using the furniture to block her view of the dying man. She fell down into his lap, looking absolutely heartbroken. “I know you said I should stop feeding my puppy but he gets so hungry and would whine when you weren’t here so I’d feed him and today he got so mad after I fed him he kept screaming and crying and breaking things and I didn’t know what to do and then he got really quiet and -“ She fell into sobs, curled into his chest. Oh my God, Punkin’, what has your mother done to you? What sick monster leaves a man in her family’s cellar and then leaves them with him? He kissed her forehead, “Oh sweetheart, don’t worry about him. I’m going to make sure he’s ok and then we’ll get you another puppy that you can take outside. Would you like that, Punkin’?” She sniveled, wiping the snot from her face with her forearm, and nodded. “Yeah.” She sounded so small, so totally at a loss. How could I think this child has any evil in her? He smiled, “Go back to your room now, I’ll come get you after the doctors come get your puppy.” She nodded, slowly getting up and padding back to the safety of her bedroom. Because she does.

Weeeooooeee-

He woke up, shining white lights overhead. “Oh God, I’m dead. Wait – I’m dead! My prayers have been answered! Sweet, merciful death has finally taken me!” He went to throw his arms up overhead, only to find his wrists were restrained. My goodness, I hadn’t expected that Heaven would have chains and I can’t imagine why I’d be sent to Hell. He looked down at himself, starch white sheets and what appeared to be a hospital wristband. “Shit.” Just then the nurse that had been busying herself at the foot of his bed laughed, “Y’know, most folks are pleasantly surprised to find out they aren’t dead. You’re quite the character, Mr. Ridgeby. You musta got some sort of story to tell.” She patted his foot, “But I reckon’ that one can wait for a while, you got a whole lifetime ahead of ya. Why don’t you rest up a bit here and I’ll have the doc come check ya over. You are Mr. Ridgeby, ain’t ya? We were pretty sure we ID’d you correctly but none of your kin have come to verify it’s you. Seems you been gone a heck of a long while and they all figured you t’be long dead and in the grave.” Calvin, Calvin Ridgeby, was taken aback. “They forgot about me?! Assumed I was dead and moved on! Unbelievable. Unimaginable. Unforgivable.” He frowned at the nurse, who looked quite surprised at his outburst, “Miss, I am, believe it or not Calvin Ridgeby. Please send a message to my family posthaste that they can kiss my inheritance goodbye, those thieving rodents!” He was pretty sure, say 95%, that his family had partied as they stole the money from his bank accounts. The nurse smiled and nodded politely, making a swift escape from his room. Calvin Ridgeby, his friends called him Cal, was back from the dead and out for blood. “Someone let me out of these restraints!” He pulled on them, the strain causing one of the velcro restraints to give.

Rrrrriiiip.

“Mr. Hedgewood, would you please explain to us, again, how a missing man came to be in your living room?” Harrison Hedgewood, a man that most of his neighborhood had come to know as a kind-hearted single father, repeated his statement. He’d told them over and over how his wife must have left the man there. That he’d come to suspect near the end of their marriage that she had been up to no good. How his suspicions had ended their marriage. He’d explained that his daughter must have found the man, taken him food and water, and kept him as a pet. He’d explained the crate set-up in the cellar, how he had refused to go down there and his wife had known it. How, as a single father, he couldn’t beat his daughter’s bus when she got home from school. Though most parents of latch-key kids worry more about things happening to their kids, not this. The cops kept looking for inconsistencies in his story, he knew that. He also knew they wouldn’t find any, because he was telling them the truth. Between retellings he kept asking about his daughter, where was she? Was she ok? They weren’t grilling her were they? She was so young, so small. Surely they wouldn’t hold her at fault for any of this? He was so frightened for her, that’s what made the detectives feel more like his story was the truth. They were slowly coming to the decision that he was likely innocent in all this. Or at least, mostly so. They weren’t inclined to put away his daughter’s only caretaker. They would probably let him off easy. Especially since Mr. Ridgeby’s statement never mentioned a man at any point. Only the young woman that had abducted him. In his half-starved delirium they were fairly certain the mother’s voice giving way to the girl’s would have gotten past him easily. They were rather concerned about the mother, though. She’d seemingly vanished into thin air. There were simply no records to indicate where she might’ve gone. The detectives had grilled him on this, too. But Mr. Hedgewood, according to all accounts, had long-suffered his wife’s torments and had been all too glad to see her leave. Most of the townspeople said he’d probably murdered the woman. “Check for her grave!” Someone had shouted outside the police station. They had checked for a grave on the property and had come back with graves. Seems the Mrs. Hedgewood had been very busy indeed, giving the detectives more motivation to find her. Poor Mr. Hedgewood, upon seeing a picture of one of the corpses, had seen his police-station issue breakfast a second time.

Thump.

The shovel had hit something other than dirt again. The forensics people were having a field day. They’d come from an office in one of the bigger cities near the little podunk town where the Hedgewood’s had made their home. “Y’know, I have a hard time believing that he didn’t know these were all here.” One of them said, dusting dirt off a skeleton they had found beneath one of the gardens in the backyard. “I dunno, they were all under garden plots or flower beds. Your wife starts tilling the earth for tomatoes, would you question it? Or would you eat the tomatoes?” Returned a second worker, readjusting their blue baseball cap as they bent down to snap a photo. The first shrugged, and the two kept working. It appeared they had a long day ahead of them.

Click.

Calvin Ridgeby had been trapped in the hospital for what he had considered far too long a time. It was this opinion that had begun to turn all the nurses against him. They’d stopped coming to check on him except when they did the rounds, his call button becoming all-but ignored. This was likely why no one noticed when Calvin Ridgeby, a man of still great worth, had begun to experience an accelerated heartbeat. Upon further examination it appeared he’d begun to have an anxiety attack of some sort. The hospital psychiatrist was unsurprised to hear this, more unsurprised still to find the hospital nurses had begun to neglect a patient suffering from a slew of mental issues. No one could quite figure out what had set him off. “The poor man was disturbed, and frankly had every right to be.” The psychiatrist had said, shaking his head as he finished his part of Mr. Ridgeby’s charts. “Too bad he won’t make it to court.” The detective had shrugged, giving Mr. Ridgeby an unceremonious send-off. As everyone finished breaking down the room, a nurse noticed that Mr. Ridgeby appeared to have ripped out one of his IVs. The liquid was falling to the ground beside his bed.

Plink.

Plop.

Plink.

Plop.

The Devil’s in the Details

The smell of pastries filled the kitchen and slowly drifted out the window – opened just a crack so as to let in the late Autumn breeze. Cinnamon rolls today – he had once expressed his love for them over breakfast and now his grandmother, Anette, made them for him weekly. He hadn’t the heart to tell her that he was now foundered on them, full of a lifetime’s worth of cinnamon, dough, and icing made with so much sugar that he was sure the fluids inside him had all turned to a sickeningly sweet syrup long ago. Still, the intention behind the cinnamon rolls made him force a smile and enthusiasm when she placed them – hot and ready – on a plate before him. Today they would be a welcome treat, given that the breeze was just on the sharper side of cold and he could feel the cold slowly starting to seep into him. Mr. Henrickson, the old man across the street, waved pleasantly to him as he walked over. “Hello Todd- how’s the weather treatin’ ya?” Todd smiled pleasantly and shrugged. Mr. Henrickson nodded in appreciation, “Mmm, m’old bones can’t hardly take too much of this sorta weather anymore. Y’think you might be able to rake the leaves for me once you get done with your grandma’s yard?” Todd nodded slowly, he didn’t mind terribly helping out Mr. Henrickson as he was always more than willing to help out when Todd needed an extra pair of hands (and sometimes when he didn’t) getting the yard-work or other chores done. In the time he had been living on the street with his grandmother Todd had noticed that Mr. Henrickson’s spirit, not unlike Anette’s, had slowly been fading. Indeed, Todd already knew that both of them were meant for a short time left on Earth, and the knowing made him feel heavier. Mr. Henrickson watched Todd’s face, perhaps the old man could see something in Todd’s gaze that let him know what the sprier creature was thinking, but he didn’t hazard a word about it. Instead he nodded, twitching his mustache for emphasis, “Thanks so much, Todd. Y’know we were all getting quite worried for dear Mrs. Martin before you came to visit. You’ve really, erm, given a character to the place that it seemed to be missing.” Todd snorted, closest thing to a compliment he was likely to get and he had come to appreciate the way the people on Mrs. Henrickson’s lane showed their appreciation. After all, the circumstances had been a bit difficult for all of them to understand, and he honestly had been impressed with how quickly they had all accepted their new realities.

Todd had just finished packing the last of Mr. Henrickson’s leaves into a giant orange trash bag – one of the ones made up to look like a Jack O’Lantern, as horrible and degrading as that was – when Anette opened the screen door that led out from the kitchen cellar; the door making a screeching sound fit to wake the dead, “Todd, dear, do come in! I can feel the cold seeping into my old bones already. Surely you’ve had enough for today.” Todd nodded humbly and carefully walked across the road, and stepped nimbly over what was left of the vegetable garden. He would need to help Anette finish bringing in what was left of those veggies soon, and grease the hinges on the screen door, too. “I made your favorite treat!” She grinned, her gummy smile that always warmed him to his core, “I’ll let you sneak one before we have dinner proper, then you can go wash up while I set the table.” She winked at him, indeed they were truly co-conspirators on this one, and led him into the kitchen where she set a plate before him covered in a mound of icing, under which Todd presumed there was a piping hot cinnamon roll. He gestured his appreciation and set to work eating the warm treat, letting the goo of the icing drip from the fork she’d set next to the plate. He whistled softly, hoping Anette wouldn’t notice as Honey came lumbering in, slick, oily slobber falling from his jowls. Todd held a small morsel of cinnamon roll down to the hound who happily lapped it from his fingers. Anette, never one to miss a beat, wagged a wooden spoon above the pot where she was mixing some delicious smelling concoction, “Don’t spoil Honey’s dinner, Todd! You know how too much sugar gives him a belly ache. Why, the last time you snuck that poor hound too much sugar I thought for sure his howls were going to call up the Devil himself!” Todd bristled at Anette’s euphemism, but settled back into his chair quickly as she continued to stir the pot on the stove. Having finished his pre-dinner, Todd stood up from the kitchen table – stooping slightly so as to not scratch the ceiling with his horns – and shambled into the washroom where Anette had already set out towels for him to use to clean up.

Once the bath had come to a good rolling boil, steam filling every crevice of the washroom, Todd slipped lazily into the bath. Indeed, it had been a long day and was sure to be an even longer night. His current work orders would be tough to fill given the limited amount of time he had left to make his monthly quota. He’d need to work double-time. Sighing he sank deeper into the tub and focused on loosening the tight feeling in his aching limbs, careful not to scratch the acrylic siding. Todd had started to doze off slightly when Honey came lumbering through the door frame, having nosed the door open (an annoying trick Anette had taught him). Honey plopped a small bowl into Todd’s outstretched claws and then turned tail and ran, knowing that whatever news Todd was about to receive it would likely be unwise to stay in the room. Todd turned the mouth of the bowl toward his face and gazed deep into the dark goop that lined it, “Yes, what is it?” He growled lowly, hoping that Anette wouldn’t hear the strange tongue with which he spoke. “You’re behind on sales for this month, Butterball.” Todd rolled his eyes, this nickname never failed to insult him deeply, yet the undertones of jealousy in how all the other demons said it made him smile a little in satisfaction, “I know what my numbers are.” He was all too aware. He had precious little time left to make the most of his month. “You don’t want to be demoted to cross-roads, do ya? Better start planting some seeds of bad ideas in some heads!” Todd resisted the urge to roll his eyes, “I’m on it.” He hissed, waving his hand over the bowl and erasing the image of the demon staring back at him. His long night had just gotten longer.

Having finished helping Anette clean up after dinner, Todd walked with her into the sitting room. She would likely crochet for another hour or so before retiring for the evening. He placed a note in her lap, “Have to go to work. Be back by tomorrow for dinner.” Her face crumpled a little when she read “tomorrow,” but Anette wasn’t one to complain or ask too many questions. She just nodded and patted his face, “You be a good boy, Todd. Keep the boss happy. I’ll make you something special for dinner when you return.” Todd nodded, fighting back the urge to just plop down on her sitting room floor and listen to her tell him stories of her youth. He hunched himself over and was halfway out the front door when Anette hopped from her seat so fast he thought for sure she had broken a bone on impact, “Wait right there, Toddy! You can’t leave without your dessert!” Todd nodded and waited for the old woman to shamble back through her house to the kitchen, Honey fast on her heels. Todd couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Most people would’ve been running from a Hound of Hell sobbing for their life, Mrs. Martin was likely going to ask the thing to take the cinnamon rolls to Todd since she was so slow moving these days. Indeed, Honey came bounding back through the house with a paper bag filled to the brim with a stock of cinnamon rolls that would be replenished the next week. Anette yelled her goodbyes as she shuffled back in from the kitchen and Todd carefully closed the front door behind him, making sure he had latched all the locks as he left. Good thinking, Anette, he thought to himself, They never can resist your baking.

Find the Prompt That Inspired This Text

Tired

“I’m tired.”

“You’re always tired.” Michelle didn’t even look at me past her newspaper. I sighed, signalling that I had heard her and I could only resign myself to agree. I was always tired. Like most of the 20-somethings with dead-end jobs and a crummy apartment on the poor side of town. I was tired of working all day only to get back home and feel like I hadn’t done anything. I was tired of coming back to an apartment that was falling apart. I was tired of looking in the mirror each morning and seeing so much misery.  Most importantly, I was tired of the sad back-and-forth Michelle and I shared. It’s not that we didn’t still like each other, but we’d already grown old in each other’s presence.

“Perhaps we should go to the park tomorrow?” I asked, maybe I would feel better if I got some fresh air.

“Nah, I have to go into work early tomorrow. Shanon’s sister is getting married so I’m covering for her.” Michelle cast her newspaper into our recycling bin. “Besides, it’s allergy season.”

I turned my attention to my eggs, which were apparently burning up in the frying pan, “Well, would you like to do anything fun at all this week?”

Michelle growled, “Don’t do this. You know I want to spend time with you, it’s not like I’m dying to work extra shifts. Though we’ll need to money if you keep ruining all of our food with your terrible cooking.” She stormed from the room, presumably to go get ready for another one of her busy days without me. I stared down at my burnt breakfast, I was weirdly empathising with the egg.

“Perhaps I’ll go to the park by myself, then.” I slid the egg onto a plate, I might as well eat it.

Happy Birthday

I licked the marshmallow fluff off my fingers. “You know this is rather unconventional.” I said, grabbing the mixing bowl from the counter. “I know, but I’d so much rather have fudge for my birthday than cake. Besides, it’ll just be us so I don’t see any problems with it.”

I rolled my eyes, “I told you we could invite people over. You insisted we just stay in and watch movies on Netflix. That was not my idea and you don’t get to pin it on me.”

She laughed, “I know that, silly. I hate cake anyway, so I’m not sure what we’re even arguing about.”

I shrugged, “I’m just making sure we all remember whose idea this was.”

“Well, next year I’ll let you throw me a huge dinner party. But this year isn’t special enough for that kind of thing.”

“What? This is so a very special year. You’ve been able to drink legally for a whole year.”

She stuck her tongue out, “Yes and it’s been horribly exciting, but hardly worth celebrating.”

I decided it was best not to argue anymore and focused on making the fudge she had requested. She was horribly infuriating, she would never let me be romantic or do anything charming for her. She was always so against me doing anything really nice for her. Some days I didn’t mind that she wasn’t a romantic, but other days I just wanted to be her prince charming.

That’s when I heard the knock at the door. Max, I told you to come tomorrow. Not today you idiot! “I’ll get it, you focus on making your fudge perfect.” She shrugged and continued working while I answered the door. “Hello birthday girl! I brought you a ton of squash.” Karen looked up in surprise, “Hey Max. I have to admit I’m a little surprised to see you here.”

“How could I miss my favorite girl’s birthday? I know, I know. You told Robbie over here not to have anyone over but I just couldn’t resist bringing you one of your favorite dishes.”

“Max, you really shouldn’t have. But I really do appreciate it.” Karen moved in for a hug and laughed, “I hope you don’t mind fudge, because we didn’t make any cake.”

Max just laughed and walked over to where our little food project was almost finished. I was furious. I cannot believe he had the audacity to come over here when I told him not to. It’s not like I wasn’t very clear with my instructions! I wasn’t mad with Max so much as I was mad that my plans were ruined. He would undoubtedly discover the pie in the back of the fridge I was saving for tomorrow’s surprise party. And he would undoubtedly eat it. Then I would be without pie and in a real bind. Not to mention I was horrified by the thought he might blurt out what we were doing tomorrow. He wasn’t very good at subtleties.

When I finally regained my composure I realized that I might not have anything to worry about. “Y’know, I always wanted to be a vet when I grew up. Now look at me, I’m twenty-two and I’m what my parents refer to as a starving artist.” Karen laughed, “Though I can’t imagine I’ll starve with all this food in the apartment.” As long as she’s the one leading the conversation maybe it will be fine. 

After an overly long evening listening to Max and Karen banter about any number of topics I mentioned that it was perhaps time for Max to go home. “Well, I can’t go home before midnight! It’s rude to duck out on a person’s birthday. I won’t have it.”

“Max, don’t be silly. You’ll be too tired to drive home at midnight.” Karen said, still laughing.

“I am not and will not. I’m sticking with you two for a while yet.” Max said, stomping his foot down with finality.

I rolled my eyes but let it drop, after all it was Karen’s birthday and I decided if she was having fun my plans didn’t need to be focused upon.

The Date

I walked up to her door and rang the doorbell. I had been rehearsing what I would say all week. I told my friends I wasn’t ready to go on a date yet but they insisted. So there I was ringing a complete stranger’s doorbell on a Friday night when all I could think about was how the cat was probably ripping up the curtains.

Then she opened the door.

She was much prettier than I expected her to be. I mean, we were already in our thirties and hardly any good women are single in their thirties. But there she was. She smiled and asked me if I intended to just stare at her all night or if I was ready to go. I laughed because I must have seemed awfully stalker-y and probably a little creepy. Just standing there. I honestly was mortified that she’d felt the need to say something.

We drove in silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say and she didn’t know how to work the radio. So there we were, in total silence. I was busy panicking thinking about all the awful things she was probably thinking about me. I thought we would never get to the parking lot. And then we were there. Suddenly I felt myself begin to do that nervous-sweating thing my mother always told me was gross. My mother had been very supportive about it. I believe she said something like, “You’ll never find a woman that will love you if you keep doing that.” That probably explains why I was tempted to shove my date out of the car and drive away.

“Aron, are you going to park the car?” She asked, her worry lines showing. “Oh-Yeah, absolutely. I was just trying to find the prime parking real-estate. Y’know. I’d hate to make a pretty girl like you walk any further than she had to.” I must’ve seemed completely unhinged because she just nodded and turned back to her cellphone. I pulled into a parking spot close to the entrance, the empty parking lot implying an empty restaurant. Crap. There won’t be enough people to be distracting. I’m going to have to talk to her. I began panicking again. “Aron, are you going to turn off the car?” I snapped back into reality and killed the engine.

~~~

He was acting really spaced out but I wasn’t terribly worried about it. In fact I was rather thrilled to have a date that wasn’t watching my every move like I was under a microscope. He was making things too easy. I glanced at my phone as we walked through the parking lot, “Are you still watching the Supernatural marathon?” I quickly shot off a reply, “Yeah, it just got to one of my favorite parts.” Emily was such a great alibi. She always felt like texting and it was easy for me to use her as my witness. I had text her earlier letting her know that I’d cancelled the date I had with this Aron guy in favor of having a night to myself. Emily didn’t argue with me over it, she was a “single woman for life” and had offered to come over and make it a girl’s night. I’d told her the dog was enough company.

We were escorted to a little table near the back of the nearly empty restaurant. It was kind of disappointing actually, that the place was almost empty. I had spent a good part of my day applying makeup and putting on the wig. Not to mention the dress I had picked out special for the occasion. It would, of course, need to be burned so it was very bothersome only a few people would ever get to see how absolutely lovely I looked in it. This night was hardly any fun at all. I was actually considering bailing when he finally started talking, “So, what is it you do for a living again?” I tried not to roll my eyes, “I work as a waitress at the diner on main street. The really old-fashioned looking place.” I was running out of professions to claim that I had which is why I resorted to saying I was a waitress. Don’t judge me.

“That sounds lovely,” -liar- “Maybe I can stop by sometime and you can show me the good stuff on the menu.”

I nodded, “Yes that sounds nice.” Then I can choke on my own vomit.

“I’ve always wondered, are people really as bad at tipping as they say?”

I shrugged, “It wouldn’t be so bad if wait staff got paid without accounting for the fact people are supposed to tip.”

“That sounds awful. Y’know, I’ve got a friend in HR in my office. I could arrange for him to interview you. You seem very smart and I bet you would like it there.” His face was contorted like he was genuinely concerned for me. I was almost regretting the disguise, clearly I was too pretty.

“That sounds very nice. I’ll have to make sure to give you my email.”

At this point the food reached our table. I was silently thanking the heavens for sending me an excuse not to talk anymore. He was making my head hurt. Calm down, he’s only making small talk. Soon this will all be over. I coached myself. This night was dragging on a lot longer than usual. Normally these middle aged guys did their best to show how much fun they could be by taking me to amusement parks and to concerts. I always got a nice token to remember them by on these adventures.  This date really sucked. There was no fun to be had in this quiet little restaurant. So I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. He hadn’t seemed at all bothered and had even asked the waitress if she would be so kind as to get us some wine to go with our meal. I grabbed the cork. Better than nothing. 

~~~

She was acting kind of distracted and she kept checking her phone. Not that it really bothered me. I’d just left mine at home. I really should quit assuming people will want to talk to me when we go out. Everyone always has their phone anymore, dummy. Get your act together. I sighed and resigned myself to eating. The wine was wonderful, as per the usual. The waitstaff here knew me. Owning a restaurant has its perks. Cynthia, our waitress, came back over to ask if there was anything else she could get us. “No, but I have to ask – Why is the restaurant so empty tonight?” Cynthia shrugged, “There’s some big celebration being held down at Emma’s restaurant tonight. They’re doing free desserts, even if you just walk through the door. It’s ridiculous.” I nodded, at least this wouldn’t be a thing. The restaurant had experienced some hard times before but I wasn’t mentally prepared to do any firing this year. I had come to really like all of my staff. I looked across the table at Sara. She seemed to be enjoying the food. I wondered how she would feel about the dish. I had considered taking it off the menu a thousand times but people always begged me not to. It was a favorite and I respected the opinion of my diners. “How is it?” I asked.

“Fine. I would have preferred if it had a little more zing to it, but it works very well with the wine you ordered.”

“Thank you. I try to make sure the food and the drink work well together.”

“Oh, so you’re into food stuff?” She asked, looking a little incredulous.

“Well, I have familiarized myself with fine dining. I’ve tried to make it my business to know.”

She looked very unimpressed, “You must’ve traveled all over trying new dishes.”

I was a little hurt by her tone, “Yeah.”

~~~

He was so incredibly annoying. I prefer when they don’t talk too much but that’s all he seemed to want to do. He was probably a divorcee. They always want to talk. I’m convinced that after you live with a woman too long you start to act like one. All the feelings and such nonsense. I shoved the food down my throat, I hadn’t really cared to taste it. “Are you ready to leave?” I asked hastily, it was probably too pushy but I wasn’t really worried about the second date. “Yeah, let me get the check.” He said as he waved the waitress over, “Can we get the check?” She laughed, actually laughed. His face must have told her that wasn’t appropriate because she stopped, “Oh — You were being serious!” She glanced over at me and a look of recognition came over her face. Then my phone buzzed. “OMG! I need to come over to your place right away!” I sighed, This is rather inconvenient. How do I imply I don’t want guests without tipping her off? “Now really isn’t a good time. Is it an emergency?” He looked over at me, “Are you ready to go?” “Yeah, yeah. Let’s go to the park.” I said, glancing back at my phone. “Ok?” he said, striding through the restaurant like he owned the place or something. Men.

I have never been so grateful to be in my park. Turtle Park has always been very poorly lit and the turtle pond in the middle gets deep enough in the middle to easily drown Sasquatch. Or, for that matter, to hide an idiotic middle aged man. I grabbed his hand as we walked into the park, this was the easiest part. It was always the same. Guys never notice if you walk behind them, I don’t think they care as long as they’re the ones dragging you. It’s on my long list of things I hate about them. As I began to slow my steps so I could casually move behind him he slowed down too. I have never been more frustrated. “What are you looking at?” He seemed genuinely interested in why I had slowed down. I’m looking for a good place to stab you, idiot. “Oh, I thought I saw a squirrel! I guess it’s gone now.” He nodded, “Yeah, they’re wily things.” I waited for him to speed back up but he just wouldn’t. Normally I would be leading him toward the pond but things were not going as planned. I had to improvise, “Hey, what’s that up there?” I had seen some movement ahead of us. He was so excited he started moving faster to look and I quickly took the opportunity to stab him. Right in front of a freaking old lady on a park bench!

~~~

I looked up from the sweater I had been knitting for my dog, Toto. He loved his old red sweater so much I had decided to make him a new one. I’d been so busy knitting I hadn’t noticed how late it had gotten when suddenly a couple came down the walkway in front of me. The poor fellow’s face fell into a frown and tears came bursting from his eyes. It took me a moment to realize he had a knife sticking out of his back. The young lady that was with him stared at me like she was the one that had walked onto a murder scene. Before I could move she had grabbed the knife out of his back and had run away. I asked the young man if he had a phone on him. He would be the only young person without a cellphone. I told him I’d be back and I walked toward the phone booth outside the park.

Pros and Cons

Clara pushed the door open just enough to allow herself into the room. The floor creaked as she sauntered into the kitchen and put the grocery bags on the kitchen table.

“Thomas!” she yelled, peaking through the open doorway to the living room.

“What?” Thomas asked, moving into the doorway.

“Are you ready to work on dinner?” Clara asked as she began emptying the grocery bags onto the table.

“Clara, I told you I needed a little while to process this.”

“You’re not going to get more used to the idea if we don’t talk to each other.” Clara said as she threw a can of beans at him.

“I need space to think about it. This is new territory for me and I’m not really clear on what I’m doing.”

“Well, you could always ask for advice. There are plenty of people that have gone before you.”

“Clara, this isn’t something you can just brush off! I told you I needed space.”

“Thomas,” She said, turning to face him, “you don’t need space. You need to make a decision.”

“Well, I’m not ready to make this decision.”

“Well, what do you need to do to get ready? Because I’m waiting for your decision.”

“I was going to make a pros and cons list and think about all the–”

“Oh my God, Thomas! A pros and cons list? Is this so difficult for you?”

He sighed, she had never been good at empathizing with him. That was one of the cons. “Look, Clara, I’m just not much of a relationship person. I like my space.”

Clara sat down at the table, her expression had changed to one of exhaustion. “Let’s make a pros and cons list, then.”

“Clara, I’m really not feeling like doing this tonight.”

Her eyes were pleading, “Please. Can we please just do this.”

“Fine, Clara. Pro: I’ll finally be in a relationship like a normal human being.”

“Con: You’ll have to actually pay attention to the other normal human being.”

“Pro: I’ll finally have someone to take with me to all the formal events I attend.”

“Con: You’ll always have to invite me.”

“Pro: I’ll have someone to bring me soup when I don’t feel good.”

“Con: You’ll have to take someone soup when they don’t feel good.”

“Pro: You’ll be happy.”

“Con: Your friends will get even less of your time.”

“Pro: I won’t be alone.”

“Con: You won’t be alone.”

“Clara, I’m really too tired for this. Can I just call you tomorrow?”

Clara stood up from the table, “I don’t think you need to Thomas. When you’re ready call me. I won’t push you anymore.”

She strode toward the door, feeling his eyes on her back. “You can keep the food.” She said as she pulled the door behind her.

He listened as her car started up and she was gone. He sat down at the table and placed his head in his hands. He didn’t know if she understood the kind of turmoil he was going through. He had been alone for so long now he didn’t know if he could figure out how to not be alone.

The Letter

I hadn’t noticed it before I got home, the letter stuck to my shoe. Assuming that it was just a receipt I removed it unceremoniously. Then I noticed it was a folded piece of paper. Curiosity forced me to open it. The beautiful handwriting told of the precious time it had taken to pen the letter. I felt terrible – I didn’t even know where it came from. As I sat there totally lost I began to read what it said:

 

Beautiful,

I know you told me not to write, but I have to tell you this: I love you.

 

The rest of the page just said “I love you” over and over until the words were no longer legible.