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The Business of Husbands and Wives

By Ophelia Crane All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

But never forget to make dinner...

Potatoes.  That's what she had forgotten.  Gary liked potatoes in his stew.  She had made the mistake of leaving them out only once.  She had to wear sunglasses whenever she left the house for about three weeks after that.

She pushed the cart along through the grocery store, quickly making her way to the produce aisle.  She had managed to get everything else - carrots, celery, Worcestershire Sauce, onions, garlic.  Everything else that would go in the stew, she had at home - except the potatoes.

She found the potatoes relatively quickly.  The vegetable stand held about nine or ten big bags of Idaho potatoes.  It was good that they were from Idaho.  Last week, they had been out of the Idaho type and she had been forced to buy the regular white ones.  That got her a kick in the ribs.  All things considered, the attack on her that time wasn't so bad.  She would have gotten worse if she had come home empty-handed.

She grabbed the bag of potatoes and put them in her basket, then took a moment to review her list.  She was certain she had everything for dinner, fairly certain anyway.  It was better to review the list before she left.  She couldn't afford to forget anything.

As her eye ran over the list, she felt someone staring at her.  She looked up and immediately saw Mary Grant and her two children standing in the aisle.  Mary had been staring at her with a look on her face that was unreadable.  Upon being caught staring, however, Mary averted her eyes and turned to her youngest child who was sitting in the front of the basket, banging a sippy cup against the handle.

It was to be expected.  The town was far too small.  Everyone in town knew everyone else, which meant that they knew everyone's business whether they wanted to know it or not.  Just the same, she smiled and waved to Mary Grant.  "Hi there!"

Mary looked up as if seeing her for the first time and waved back, feigning a smile.  "Hello, there, Vivian!  How are you?"

"I'm well, thank you.  Did you get my message?  I left it with Bob last night."

"For dinner, right?  Oh, yes, he told me earlier.  I was gonna call you  when I got done shopping."

"So, will you be there?"

"I can't, sorry.  We usually go to visit my mother on Tuesdays."

"Yes, of course.  Well, maybe next time.  Good seeing you."

She walked away, pushing her cart to the register.  It was just as well.  Mary Grant and her family were really too good to have dinner with them, anyway.  

At the checkout, she waited in line behind a woman with short red hair.  Without seeing her face, she already knew it was Ms. Maple, her daughter's math teacher.  She lived about three houses down from her.  As far as she knew, she lived alone.  She was very social however.  She often saw her outside talking to the other neighbors or spearheading community events.  And every night, the lights were on in Ms. Maple's house up until around ten o'clock when she went to bed.

She only knew the last handy little fact about her because she used to walk their dog past her house at night before she turned in.  It had become her escape from Gary when he came home tired from work, or if he'd been drinking.  Every night, Ms. Maple's lights were on at nine thirty as she walked past towards main street and they were out by the time she walked past on the way home around ten.  Every night except one night two weeks ago, that is, when Gary beat her so badly she ended up in the hospital.  When they were done with her, it was around eleven o'clock.  She took a cab home and noticed that Ms. Maple's house lights were still on.

Ms. Maple only had a few items, so she didn't take very long at the register, which was good.  It was getting late. The checkout girl moved quickly for both her and Ms. Maple, which was very good.  Gary liked his dinner on the table by five.  It was already three o'clock.

They didn't live far from the store.  In fact, if she ever had half a mind to, she could just as easily have walked to the grocery store instead of wasting the gas on driving.  If Gary wasn't so impatient, he might have understood that.  She felt the sting of bitterness well up in her throat.  She pushed it down and focused on the task at hand.

At home, it was quiet.  She took the groceries into the kitchen and set the bags on the counter, then went to work.  Gary liked his dinner on the table by five - no later.  She had to get busy and soon.  She set about choosing the big sauce pan and filling it with part water and part beef stock, then set it on the stove to simmer while she chopped the vegetables.  She had only gotten about halfway through the first potato when she heard the front door open.  Her heart jumped and her mind swung madly with momentary puzzlement. 

"Mom?"

The sound of her daughter's voice washed over her and she sighed with relief.  "I'm in the kitchen."  She turned back to her potato.  Her daughter, Emily, walked in and kissed her on the cheek.  Then she went to the refrigerator and fished out the orange juice.

"Stew tonight?  Great." There was no enthusiasm in her voice.  She was fourteen now and had little enthusiasm for anything that was outside of her own teen universe.

"You don't have to eat it," she responded.  "How was school?"

Emily uttered a noncommittal grunt, the sound of orange juice pouring into a glass filled the silence.  "It was school."

"Ah, I see.  I thought you were going over Gina's after school.  What happened to the big sleepover?"

"I'm still going.  I just came home to get my overnight bag."  A silence fell between them like a sudden vacuum.  Then Emily said: "But I don't have to go.  I mean, I can stay home if you want me to."

"No, no.  You and Gina have been planning a sleepover for a while now.  You should go.  It's important to stick to your commitments."

Another silence, then; "Gina's mom makes a great meatloaf.  Maybe you should come with me, you know, just for dinner?"

She tossed in the potato she'd been chopping and glanced over her shoulder at her.  Emily's arm was still in the cast and would be for another month or so.  Already the cast was covered with the marker graffiti from all her friends at school.  She wondered silently what she told them happened to her arm.  Whatever it was, it wasn't the truth.  After fourteen years living with Gary's particular temperament, Emily knew better than to tell on him.

"I'll be fine.  You go on and have fun tonight.  Okay?"

Emily said nothing more and left the kitchen.  She was too young to understand.  Some things couldn't be helped, no matter what you did about it.  Her father's temper was one of those things.  The sound of Emily moving around upstairs faded off into the background and once the sound of the front door opening and closing echoed through the house, her focus was back on the task at hand.

After another fifteen minutes of chopping, she was ready to put in the meat.  She put the lid on the simmering pot, set aside her chopping knives, and took off her apron.  She was going to have to go to the basement for the rest of the ingredients.

The basement's pantry was filled with a variety of spices - many of which she only used for special occasions.  She had grown particularly proud of her spice collection and her knowledge of them.  She often times imagined herself being the holder of the widest selection of spices on the eastern seaboard.  The fantasy of bringing a camera crew down into the basement to show them her wall to wall shelves filled with tiny containers of all different scents and hues was a constant source of happiness for her. Of all the happy thoughts she sometimes had when things were particularly bad, being a world famous spice scholar was high on her list.  She could just picture Mary and Bob next door sitting side by side in their armchairs, mouths agape as the world got to see the greatest collection of spices right in her basement.

"We never knew she was so amazing," they would say.  "She was just a nobody.  Little more than one of those homeless people you ignore on the street, even.  Who knew her life was worth something?" They would call the other neighbors and tell them to "turn on channel nine!  You'll never guess..." 

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of pounding on the wall behind the pantry.  Gary had built the wall and the room behind it years ago as a way to store all his tools during the winter months and keep her things separate from his.  He always liked keeping his things separate that way.  She listened to the pounding for another few seconds, then made her way to his tool room, spices still in hand.

Gary's tool room took up the rest of the basement and was separated from the rest of the world by a single door.  The pounding held so much force that it shook the fragile drywall so that tiny bits of white dust fell from the frame.  She opened the door and walked in.  Gary's tools were right where he always kept them - hanging on hooks on the wall in meticulous state of neatness.  Each tool was arranged by size from smallest to largest all along the north wall.  Some of the tools that he had yet to find space for were sitting on top of two of his three large tool boxes.

Her attention was drawn to the source of the pounding.  Gary hung from the ceiling opposite the tool shrine on the north wall - his arms bound over his head, hooked into a makeshift meat hook that she had acquired a few days after getting out of the hospital.  His legs were bound as well and his mouth was taped shut with duct tape.  He glared at her angrily, his legs swinging madly as he struggled against his bonds.

"Was that you making all that noise?" she asked him.  He bellowed at her. The sound that would usually ring in her head for days was stopped short by the tape.  She could almost make out what he was screaming, however, and that made her shake her head at him.

"You know I don't like it when you curse.  There's really no point to all that racket anyway.  No one can hear you down here."  She looked down at the spices in her hands thoughtfully, then back up at him.  "I'm making your favorite tonight.  Stew.  I was just getting the spices for it.  I was going to try something different this time.  Maybe just a dash of ground clove?  What do you think?"

Again he uttered something muffled, two short words that he might have spat at her if he wasn't bound.  She sighed.  "Fine, be that way.  It's about time I get the meat anyway."

She walked over to the tool wall and located the axe - his largest and least used tool.  In the winter months, he sometimes used it to chop wood for their fireplace, but lately, he'd grown lazy and let the logs pile in the back. She was going to have to have it all hauled away once everything had been done.  Yet another task that he would leave for her to clean up in the end.

She approached him, carrying the axe.  "I want you to know something before I do away with you," she said to him.  He looked up at her in silence, fresh sweat breaking out on his forehead.  "I loved you, you know.  I think in some ways, I still do.  I know it's not a popular thing to say, but...well, I understand that I'm as much to blame for what you've done to me as you are.  You see, Gary, at first I was afraid to leave...now...well, now I just take my licks as part of my penance for being your wife."

She paused thinking briefly on the days when she thought about just leaving.  The days when he threatened to hunt her down, to hurt her friends, her parents - anyone who dared help her.  She could say that she was frightened of what he might do and no one would have blamed her.  He might have found her and killed her and everyone she loved in the end, but he never could have taken away the decision to leave.  In a strange way, it occurred to her that not having to make that decision was why she stayed.  It was one thing for her to suffer, but for anyone else to...it was little consolation in the end.

"Whether I liked it or not, I chose to stay with you, knowing you weren't going to change," she went on. "So...after a while I didn't really mind what you did to me.  I probably deserved everything I got, I mean, I knew who you were when I married you.  Had you not touched Emily..."

She trailed off, thinking of that night he put her in the hospital.  They always made so much noise when he was drunk.  It was a wonder Emily never woke up before then, but she had.  She had and she tried to stop him.  No one had ever tried to stop him.  Not ever.  She knew how thin the walls were upstairs, how her screams could be heard all through the night and how everyone in the whole neighborhood knew - everyone.  Emily had been the only one to do something.  Gary turned on her and threw her across the room, breaking her arm.  When she saw what he had done, she hit him across the jaw...hard.  That was when he beat her so badly, she lost consciousness.

"Well," she said as she tightened her grip on the axe, "what's done is done.  Right?"

As she lifted the axe, she saw his anger turn to horror.  His eyes were suddenly large and round, like hers had been so many times when he raised his fists to her.  It was the first time she had ever seen him that way.  And it made her smile.

***

Mary had just sat down in front of the television when the knock came at the door.  She sighed, heavily as the theme music of their favorite show played on the television.  Her husband, Bob, looked over at her wearily, his hand hovering over the popcorn on the end table between them.  She rolled her eyes at him as she got up.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get it.”

She walked around her chair and towards the door, glancing at the clock on the wall as she passed by – eight o’clock.  Who would be knocking at this hour?

To her surprise, it was her neighbor, Vivian. She stood in the yellow shade of their porch light, a Tupperware container in hand and a smile on her face.

“Hi, Mary,” she said cheerily.  “How are you?”

“Fine,” she said, doing her best to feign a smile back.  She wasn’t successful.  “We were just sitting down to watch television.”

“Oh,” she said, her smile changing to a sheepish sort of surprise.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t notice the hour.  I won’t hold you.  I was just wondering if you wanted some of the dinner I made tonight.  Gary hasn’t made it home yet, and…well, I didn’t want this to go to waste.”

She handed her the container and Mary took it automatically.  “Oh, well, thank you, Vivian.  That was very thoughtful of you.”

“Yes.  It’s Gary’s favorite – beef stew.  Please, tell me how it is.  I was trying something new tonight.  Fresh beef,  just chopped today, in fact.  Organic vegetables, fresh spices--”

“I’m sure it will be fine.  Thanks, Vivian.”

"I have more you know, if you'd like seconds, there's plenty." She glanced down the street at Ms. Maple's house thoughtfully.  "By the way, do you think Ms. Maple might want some? "

"I'm sure she would love some, Vivian," said Mary politely.  "That would be very nice of you."

At this, she smiled and blushed a little.  "I guess it is a little late for a welcome wagon.  She has lived here for a while."

"Better late than never."

She nodded and there was a strange glint of understanding in her eye.  "Indeed.  Well, I'll leave you to it."

"All right. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know how it is."

Mary closed the door and walked back into the living room, container in hand.  “Who was that?”

Mary sighed.  “Vivian Wilson from next door.  Seems her husband didn’t come home tonight.  She wanted to share her leftovers with us.”

He scoffed.  “Let’s hope he stays away.  I was getting tired of getting woken up in the middle of the night with the two of them.”

Mary said nothing as she took the container into the kitchen.  It was a shame what Gary Wilson did to his wife.  A damned shame.  But her mother had always taught her to stay out of other people’s business – especially the business of husbands and wives.  She started to put the container in the refrigerator when she heard Bob call from the living room.

“Hey, why don’t you warm that up?”

“Bob!  You just ate!”

“So, I’ll eat again. Come on.  There’s enough for two helpings, probably.”

She looked at the brown, chunky liquid and shrugged to herself.  There most certainly was.

***


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