Cradles the Brain: A Book of Short Tales

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I've Been Waiting for You

The thunder breaks through the silence, rattling her skull. She lies in bed, the covers pulled around her head. She shivers despite feeling warm. The rain pounds the windows of their bedroom, like the soundtrack of a horror movie.

“Bill,” she twists to face him, still wrapped in her blanket, “Bill.” Reaching over, she shakes him by the shoulder. His snoring stops. “Bill!” she yells. She sits up, leaning over him.

His eyes snap open. He looks at her, a hand clutching his blanket. “What, Ramona?” he whispers.

“Do you think this storm is ever gonna let up?” She grabs the edges of her blanket and holds them to her chest, looking like a nun.

Bill scoffs. “That’s what you woke me up for?” He rolls over, away from Ramona, and huffs out a breath.

“Bill, I’m scared.”

“It’s just a storm.”

“But it’s so loud. I can’t sleep.”

“Sounds like someone else I know.”

Ramona sighs, passing this off as his crankiness. “I’m going to make a cup of tea.”

His only answer are snores. She slides her feet to the floor and stands on her slippers. Painfully, she walks to their bedroom door, a hand on her sore lower back. She opens the door with a creak and quietly closes it behind herself. Walking down the hallway, the thunder cracks. She gasps and holds a hand to her chest. She feels it beat from within. The lightning strikes, illuminating the hall. Shadows dance around her for a brief second. A figure stands in the doorway to her left. The breath catches in her throat, and she falls against the opposite wall. The thunder pounds against the roof again and soon after the lightning turns dark night into day for only half a second. The figure is gone. Only a shadow toying with Ramona.

She shakes her head and scuttles forward, shuffling her slippers on the dark wood. Gripping the banister with an iron grip made of porcelain, she steps down onto the first step. The thunder rocks the house, making her almost miss the step. She catches herself and curses under her breath.

One foot after the other, she makes it down the stairs into the parlor. Around the corner and into the kitchen, she flicks the light switch. Nothing. She curses under her breath again and walks into the kitchen, sliding along the tile. After lighting a few candles, she lights a burner on the stove and sets a small pot of water on.

She stares out the window, arms crossed against her chest. Narrow eyed, she looks at the barn across the property. Thunder shakes the house.

God’s bowling again and I don’t like it!

She shivers. A bolt of lightning strikes down, hitting a tree only thirty feet in front of the house. The crack reverberates through the house. Ramona gasps as she watches the tree catch fire. The torrential rain beats down on the flames but doesn’t fully put them out. Ramona gawps with a hand to her cheek for a few minutes, just until the water begins to boil.

She pulls out a teabag, heavily scented of peppermint, and plops it into a mug. Pouring the water into the mug she finds herself trembling.

No news to watch since the damned power is out. No light to read to.

She huffs as she sets the pot back into the cupboard.

Sitting in the living room, she watches the storm.

The sun rises as she clutches her cold and empty mug to her chest and thinks. The clouds have passed, letting the sun shine upon all of the wet grass and leaves.

A rustle from up the stairs startles her. Bill smiles at her from the landing. His veiny hand grips the banister with white knuckles. He slowly slips his foot down each stair.

Ramona gets up from her seat, setting her mug aside. Halfway up the stairs, she takes Bill’s hand. They make it down together and walk to the kitchen.

“Eggs?” Ramona asks, opening the fridge.

Bill nods and clears his throat with a cough.

As the eggs sizzle, Ramona takes a second to sit across from Bill at their small table. She looks down at the red and white plaid table cloth and up to Bill. He’s staring out the window at what Ramona guesses is the burnt tree. She stands and stirs the eggs one last time before shutting off the burner.

She serves him his eggs and orange juice and sits across from him with her coffee and toast.

He smiles at her. “Thank you, dear.”

She smiles back, crows’ feet crinkling next to her green eyes. “You don’t have to say thank you.” She takes a sip of her coffee. Her tan skin lightly contrasts with her liver spots. Setting down her mug, she says, “What do you say we go to the thrift store today?”

Bill swallows the piece of egg he had been working on and nods. “Sounds great. I’ll break out the piggy bank!” They both giggle.

After breakfast, Ramona washes up in the shower while Bill shaves his scraggily face at the sink. Ramona dresses in a modest cream colored dress that brings out her tan skin, and Bill wears a flannel tucked into deep brown corduroys.

Afraid they might decide to purchase something large, Ramona and Bill opt out of walking and take the pickup instead. Bill drives slowly down the street, listening to the purr of his ’83. Ramona bops her head in the passenger seat as the radio plays Pretty Woman. She clutches her white purse in her lap, occasionally using it as a drum. Her red lipstick highlights the smile on her face. People on the street wave as they pass. Ramona and Bill are commonly known in town as being the longest married couple, as well as for being the owners of the fastest growing garden shop in town.

Bill parks in front of the store and gets out. He opens the door for Ramona and helps her down. The front of the store is old wood, weathered and bleached by time. The plate glass windows are decorated with painted pumpkins and falling leaves. Bill opens the door for Ramona and she enters, taking in the scent of dusty paper and cloth. Racks of donated clothes greet her. Bill follows her inside and points to a dress peeking through the rest of the clothing.

“Look at the pattern on that one,” he says in a low voice.

Ramona smiles. “You know blue isn’t my color.” She giggles. Grabbing the dress, she pulls out just the skirt of it and holds it up to herself.

“I think it would look lovely.” He takes the dress from her and sets it in a cart, yanking it free of the others on the rack.

She sighs with a grin and shrugs her shoulders. “Alright, but I don’t think these broad, farmer’s shoulders will look right in those frilly straps, but you’re the one stuck looking at me.” She belly laughs and follows him past the clothing.

Bookshelves and china cabinets tower around them, funneling them through the store. They pause in the book section, picking up a few paperbacks.

Continuing on, Ramona spots something. “Ooh, Bill! They have the seasonal items out!” She lightly claps her hands together and grabs his wrist. “Let’s go have a look!” She lets go and scurries over.

Bill smiles and follows her over, pushing the cart. He parks it off to the side, diving in for a pile of gag vomit. He slings it over so it lands just in front of Ramona’s hands. She squeals, ending it with a laugh. “Reminds me of our fourteenth anniversary.” She cackles, and a woman nearby glares at her unbeknownst to Ramona. Bill squirms. “Aw, this is cute,” she says, picking up a sparkly pumpkin. Bill nods, and Ramona places it in the cart.

Bill gasps. “Look, Ramona!” He holds up a witch’s face over his. “Masks! I haven’t seen these since I was a teenager.”

Ramona giggles and gently takes the witch. “Aw, this is cute.” She turns it over in her hands. “I bet you Vicky would have loved this.” Ramona pouts and looks to Bill.

Bill smiles. “She’ll be out of college soon and back to see us.”

She nods and sets the mask down. “I think we should leave it for another trick or treater.”

Bill gasps. “Oh my. I have to get this one.” He pulls free a white mask. High, arched eyebrows thinly frame cheery eyes supported by plump cheeks. Red lips curve up and open to display two square teeth. A bulbous, red nose ties it all together. He places it over his face, widening his eyes and moving them from side to side.

Ramona huffs. “Take that off!” She shudders.

Bill laughs. “Aw, it’s not so bad!” He sticks his tongue through the smile and waggles it.

“Are you really going to buy that thing?” she asks.

“I think it’ll be fun to have around.” He removes the mask and sets it in the cart.

Ramona sighs and rolls her eyes. She combs through the rest of the Halloween décor with less fervor.

At the check stand, the cashier looks over the mask before entering the price. “Ooo, creepy.” She giggles and tells them their total. “Have a great day!”

Ramona’s chest is heavy as they leave the store.

Sitting in the passenger seat, she looks over at Bill and says, “You know I hate clowns.” She crosses her arms and stares out the window in silence the entire drive. Bill rambles on in explanation of the mask’s cheery demeanor brightening the house.

Ramona gets out of the truck before Bill even parks. She stomps into the house.

Bill follows a few minutes after. He enters quietly, slowly closing the door and latching it behind himself without a sound. Slipping on the mask, he creeps upstairs.

Ramona pulls the skirt of her dress up and lowers her underwear. She sits down with a sigh.

Bill enters their bedroom and tip-toes to the bathroom. Ramona having not latched the door, Bill is able to press the pads of his fingers against it to peer in. Ramona balls up toilet paper. Bill shoves the door inward and yells.

Ramona screams, clutching the chest of her dress. Bill laughs, slipping the mask to the top of his head, like a hat.

Ramona cries out. She looks down and sees the skirt of her dress has fallen into the toilet. “Get out!

Bill’s eyes widen. He grabs the doorknob and quickly exits, frightened but exhilarated. Plans form in his mind.

Ramona gets out of her recliner, setting her book aside. Worry creases her face as Bill hasn’t come home from fishing with his close friend, Carl. He had promised to be back by three, and as Ramona glances at the clock, it reads five forty-two. She enters the kitchen and pulls out the kettle. A process done without thinking, Ramona makes peppermint tea to soothe her nervous stomach. Looking out the window, she wonders if she should be more concerned.

Suddenly a face pops up in front of her. Ramona screams and drops her mug. Hot tea sloshes and splatters everywhere as her mug shatters in the sink. The face laughs at her, frozen in a smile. Tears stream down her cheeks. She hears Bill cackling outside as she picks up the broken ceramic.

Before he can get inside, Ramona locks herself in their bedroom.

Her eyes continuingly swivel. Sweat constantly sits in every fold on her body. Even as he sits across from her, she finds herself terrified, trembling even. When he leaves, she searches for it, tearing up the house, but can never find it. He’s been gone more often, but with one thing on her mind, she rarely notices. His deep, raspy laugh haunts her, echoing in her mind through night and day. That bucktooth smile has been burned into her nightmares, crawling through every crevice in her mind.

“I’m home!” Bill calls as he enters the front door, a lottery winner’s smile on his face. Ramona gasps, even though she’s two rooms away. He hustles into the living room, rounding the corner abruptly. Ramona sits in her recliner, her dark grey hair pulled back in a loose braid. Her eyes bore into his, but her lips quiver.

“What’s the matter?” His smile falls into a frown.

Ramona shakes her head. “Nothing.” She goes back to her book.

Bill shrugs and leaves the room, headed to the kitchen. His mouth curls back into a smile as he opens the fridge. His phone vibrates, and he pulls it from his front shirt pocket. He reads the message, his smile widening. Bill closes the fridge with a thump, provoking Ramona to jump, dropping her book. Bill sets his phone on the counter and pumps his fists a few times. He walks back into the living room.

“Well, I’m headed out. Carl has a broken sprinkler and wants me to come by and fix it.” He gives a small wave and steps out.

“Wait.” Bill stops and walks backwards a few steps. “Carl, the fifty-seven year old man, can’t fix his own sprinkler?”

Bill shrugs. “I don’t know.” He scoffs and exits the room.

Ramona carefully listens to him walk out of the house and back out of the driveway. She jumps out of her seat as soon as he’s gone. Snatching up her truck keys, she rushes to the door.

It sits on the shoe rack, smiling up at the ceiling. Three months of keeping that mask from her and Bill has finally slipped up. She snatches it, the mask having no power without his presence, and steps out.

A light dusting of snow covers the dead leaves of the past fall. In her slippers and pajamas, Ramona gets in her truck. The grey sky booms with thunder. A crack of lightning splits the clouds above her as she backs out of the driveway.

She drives the way to Carl’s, not seeing Bill’s truck on the drive or parked out front. With a grunt, she speeds past his house.

Seeing the ass-end of his truck, Ramona slows down. She watches as he turns down an alleyway. She drives past and makes the next turn. As she approaches the next street over through the alley, her mind races. Rounding the corner to turn left, she spots Bill. He holds a bouquet of roses, her favorite. She smiles. He turns into the building he had been walking in front of. A motel.

Her heart sinks, putting a foul taste in her mouth. Rage fills her as a woman she recognizes enters soon after him, coming from the same alley Bill had parked in.

A car honks from behind Ramona. She stomps the gas and whips her truck into traffic.

Trembling she drives home, passing familiar places filled with memories of her and Bill.

I always knew Becca was a whore, but with my Billy? Carl and Frank and Jerry and Tim and God knows who else aren’t enough for her?

Tears form, but she looks beside herself before they escape. The mask stares back at her. She grits her teeth, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Pulling into the driveway, dust billows around her truck as she barely stops before the garage door. She snatches the mask by shoving two fingers through the eyes. Slamming her door, she huffs out a breath of dirt. The tan skin on her face boils red. She throws open the front door, leaving it ajar. A cold wind pushes her into the house, biting through her pajamas and onto her broiling skin.

A beep startles her. She looks on their counter, spotting Bill’s phone. Wondering why he would have left it home, she realizes what a rush he was in to leave. Holding the mask, she stands staring at the phone.

A piece of paper falls onto the tile with a little flutter. Ramona looks down at it, seeing Bill’s curly handwriting. She bends down, her fingers pinching the paper. Drawing it close, she reads,

I’m leaving you for Becca. I’ll be back tonight for my things.

Signing it with a heart above the “i” as he usually does for her, Bill must have done it out of habit or spite.

Tears freely flow over her cheeks. She sobs, bringing a hand over her mouth. She turns over the mask, her eyes locking into its. Something in her mind clicks. She feels it, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Muscles suddenly tense, Ramona stomps her way upstairs.

In the mirror, Ramona makes eye contact with herself. She gives a reassuring nod and rips the tie out of her braid. Unthreading her hair, she lightly brushes it. The dark grey hair leads down the length of her back. She spins it into a bun and clips it in tightly. Tearing off her pajamas, she breathes like a bull waiting to be released. She shoves on a t-shirt and work jeans and slips on sneakers. Over her shirt, she pulls on a grey flannel. Looking in the mirror, she looks like she’s getting ready to do some gardening.

The mask sits on the counter. She hooks it with two fingers again and uses her other hand to extend the elastic strap. Pulling on the mask, she feels its strength. The strong aura it puts off soaks into Ramona. Narrowing her eyes, she nods at her own reflection.

The cold air can’t penetrate Ramona’s furious heat. Holding an oil lamp, she searches the tool shed. Shears glint with the orange flame, catching Ramona’s eye. She yanks these off of their hook and exits the shed. Snatching a lawn chair from the porch, she parks it beside her truck, in Bill’s parking space.

Scenes flood her mind: Bill gripping Becca’s hips as they kiss just as he used to with her. Him leaving the house every chance he got without Ramona’s attention. Her trembling as she sleeps, terrified of the man beside her.

A specific memory comes back.

She lay asleep until someone grabbed her arm. The hand pinned it down. Ramona tried to scream, but a hand gagged her. Her wide eyes could not see through the thick darkness. She heard a shuffle as the person moved. They straddled her, the weight of their body crushing her small frame.

Whispering, the person said, “Just go along with it.”

Ramona slightly relaxed as she realized it was Bill. He let go of her mouth and leaned forward. A click of the chain on Ramona’s bedside light revealed a smile she knew all too well.

She opened her mouth to speak when Bill covered her mouth again. He whispered from behind the mask, “Go along with it.”

She struggled from under him, squirming. He covered her mouth with more force, pressing her lips into her teeth until it hurt.

Her eyes gazed up to him in awe. He let go of her arm and caressed her face with the back of his fingers.

The chipmunk-like face stared back at her. She shot her arm out and smacked the mask up and off of his face.

He grunted, his true face exposed. Lines and wrinkles gave his face hard shadows in the soft light. He narrowed his eyes at her.

“Look at you, mood killer.” He shoved himself off of her and left the bedroom, taking the mask with him.

Ramona laid shaking, sweat seeping out onto her pajamas. She cried into her hands that night, all the way into morning.

Ramona’s grip tightens on the shears. She sets the oil lamp beside herself, casting the orange light upwards. The darkness frames her as the flickering glow gives the mask its own aura. Ramona’s face is hidden in darkness.

She scans the road over and over, listening to a light wind rustle the bare branches of the trees around her. Replaying memories in her mind, rage clouds her head, like steel wool cradling her brain.

Headlights show, fluttering her heart. They pass, keeping her in her seat. She looks down at the oil lamp and bends down, slowly snuffing out the flame. Her eyes slowly adjust after looking at the lamp. No moonlight reaches her through the thick cloud cover. Sitting in darkness, she waits.

Bill loads up in his truck, a flush over his face. The sun has gone down, and he prays Ramona has gone to sleep. He knows things won’t be easy with her, but is willing to make the sacrifice for Becca. He nods and starts his truck.

A white face stares at him, illuminated by his headlights. Bill cries out, a hand on his chest. The man smiles through a thick white beard, his nose a beet red from the cold. This man raises his hand slowly and points to Bill. He laughs, loud enough for Bill to hear over his truck. It’s deep and raspy. A chill runs down Bill’s spine. He contemplates yelling at the homeless man but decides to wait for him to pass.

The man finishes his fit, his face returning to its original slack state, and walks off. Bill quickly turns out of the alleyway, almost trembling. He turns his heater on high and hopes the feeling of dread in his gut will go away.

Ramona laughs, soon joined by a harsher, deeper laughter. She cackles along with this laughter, holding her belly. Tears stream down her face as she laughs from behind the mask. The laughter grows louder and louder until she sees headlights. The laughing ceases, and her face falls slack. The headlights turn into their long driveway, creeping down the gravel. Ramona grips the shears with the force to shatter a diamond. She glares at the headlights as they approach her.

Bill bumps along their gravel driveway. Seeing no lights on in the house and Ramona’s truck in the driveway, he assumes she’s asleep. With a sigh, the trembling feeling fades.

Pulling in next to Ramona’s truck, he slams on the breaks. Someone sits in his driveway. Anger floods him. He pushes open his door, leaving the truck on. His headlights illuminate the stranger.

Ramona waits.

Bill approaches the sitter, finally noticing the mask. He shakes his head, thinking Ramona must have set up this dummy.

Ramona adjusts her head to look directly at him.

Bill jumps, fear finally biting into his brain.

I’ve been waiting for you,” Ramona says, just loud enough for him to hear. Her voice comes out raspy, her throat sore.

Bill leans away, back towards his truck.

Ramona quickly stands, snatching his arm. She holds the shears to his cheek, running them gently down it over and over again as she speaks. “Is this the hand you used the write the note?”

Quivering, Bill asks, “What is this?”

Ramona tightens her grip, shaking him. “That’s not what I asked!” Bill tries to step away, but Ramona keeps a firm grip, her nails digging into his wrist. “Answer me,” she whispers.

The glint of the shears distracts Bill’s eyes. He looks over. Ramona lets go of his wrist and slaps him across the face, sending him to the ground. She grabs him by the back of his neck and lifts him up. Grabbing the same hand again, she asks, “Is this the hand you used to write the note?” Her eyes reflect the light of the headlights slightly green, as if they are glowing with their own malevolence.

He nods.

Ramona nods back. “Good. Good.” She picks up her knee, resting her foot on the bumper of his truck, and stretches his arm out across her thigh. She raises the shears high with her right hand, clutching his arm with her left, and drives them into his wrist, the blades delving deep. Blood sprays up his arm.

Bill screams. He pulls his arm back, but Ramona pins it against her leg. She digs the shears deeper and drags towards his body, moving them in a sawing motion. Blood runs over his arm in rivers.

Making eye contact with him, she asks, “Is this what you wanted? To drive me mad and leave me?!” She shouts from behind the mask. Bill screams, tears running down his face. “Oh.” Ramona gasps. She stops and yanks the shears from his arm. A gentle, blood soaked hand lightly clasps his cheek.

In shock, Bill doesn’t move. His knees have locked him into place.

Ramona drags her fingers down his face, leaving streaks of blood from his forehead to his chin. She whispers, “Is that the tongue you used to kiss her?” Strikingly fast, she plunges her fingers into his mouth. He gags and pulls away. Wrapping a leg around him, she shoves him to the side and into the front end of his truck. He feels the rumble and heat on his back, even through the pain of his mangled arm. Her forefinger and thumb clamp onto his tongue, the nails burying themselves in the flesh. The taste of copper fills his mouth.

She slams her knee into his gut, pinning him into the truck. Using his right arm, he shoves her back. She snatches his hand and twists his arm downwards. With the hand gripping the shears, she lifts up and drops her elbow onto his. The satisfying crunch sends a shiver down her spine. He cries out, his legs finally buckling. She shoves him into the front end, keeping him upright.

She breathes heavily as she digs into his mouth again. He snaps his mouth closed on her fingers, breaking the skin. He grinds down on them. Ramona brings the shears up and smashes them into his front teeth, releasing her hand. Blood sprays the mask and runs down his chin.

He looks to her, defeated.

“Well, that takes care of that.” She giggles and forces her fingers further into his mouth. She grips his slimy tongue and forces the shears in. Opening them, she stretches his mouth open. Bill screams, trying to form words around Ramona’s hand and her tool. With a snip, half of Bill’s tongue is severed from its place. With another, Ramona pulls it out. Bill’s shriek fills the tense atmosphere.

She laughs, waggling it in his face. Stroking it upwards on his face, she makes slurping sounds.

“Is this what her tongue felt like on your skin, Billy boy?” She cackles in his face.

His mouth continuingly fills with blood. He swallows, over and over again, feeling as if he is drowning. Pain screams across every receptor in his brain. Tears steadily flow from his eyes. He gurgles in his own blood.

“Aw, don’t cry.” She wipes under his eyes with the tongue. “It’s only forty-nine years of marriage and commitment you threw away.” The mask smiles at him, unfaltering. He catches a glimpse of her eyes from under the mask.

Blood flows freely from his arm, dripping into the gravel.

She laughs in his face. “Aw, Billy, your perfect smile is no more.” She sighs. Looking down, she gasps. “Perfect.” Looking back to him, she says, “Here, hold this.” She shoves his tongue back into his mouth. Its coldness repulses him. With rough hands, she unbuckles his belt and tears his pants and underwear down to his ankles. Crouching down, she snips the shears in the air twice, the crisp click now muted with thick blood.

“I really don’t want to touch this as I know where it’s been but,” she lifts his penis up, “I gotta do what I gotta do.”

Bill clenches his thighs together, too late. Ramona thrusts the shears between them, the blades stabbing into the thick muscle of his thighs. She constricts her hand around the handles, crunching through the skin of his scrotum. His balls drop into her hand, the place they were now spewing blood. She stands, holding them up to his face.

“These just got nasty with age.” She shakes her head and laughs. Like spiking a football, she throws them onto the ground with a splat. Then she takes her boot and stomps on them, grinding them into the gravel.

Bill’s eyes roll up. He falls forward as he loses consciousness. Ramona moves aside, letting his body fall. She looks at the front end of his truck, seeing the blood contrasted against the light blue paint.

Blood pools around Bill, trickling through each jagged rock.

Ramona sighs and walks past his truck. She ambles down the driveway, the shears still dripping in her hand.

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