Black Petals Issue #93 Autumn, 2020

Not the Man I Married
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Justin Alcala: A Horse for Us All-Fiction
Matthew Penwell: Bless Be Him-Fiction
Shiloh Simmons: Coffin Birth-Fiction
John Cox: Don't Teach Cats Latin-Fiction
Ken Hueler: I, Said the Fish-Fiction
R. A. Busby: Not the Man I Married-Fiction
Jude Clee: Notes from a Bathroom Stall-Fiction
M. W. Moriearty: Scarecrows-Fiction
Robert Masterson: Sharper Than She Ever Imagined-Fiction
Michael Steven: The Mirror-Fiction
Kevin Hawthorne: The Song-Fiction
Marlin Bressi: The Man on the Box-Fiction
Terry Riccardi: Winter Hunt-Fiction
Stephen J. Tillman: Angry Tammy-Flash Fiction
Andreas Hort: Pay the Price!-Flash Fiction
Sam Clover: Piety and Parm-Flash Fiction
Deisy Toussaint: Parasite in the Shadows-Flash Fiction
Outnumbered-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Mickey Sloan: Basement Beldam-Poetry
Daniel G. Snethen: Grandmother Screamed-Poetry
Daniel G. Snethen: Pumpkin Tanka-Poetry
Daniel G. Snethen: Yellow Death-Haiku
Theresa C. Gaynord: The JuJu Man-Poetry
Theresa C. Gaynord: The Widow Paris-Poetry
Theresa C. Gaynord: Funeral at the Louisiana Bayou-Poetry
Theresa C. Gaynord: The Old Hag-Poetry
Loris John Fazio: Halloween Prayer-Poetry
Marilyn Lou Berry: My Darling, My Sustenance-Poetry
Chris Collins: Nature-Poetry

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Art by Londyyn Thomas 2020

NOT THE MAN I MARRIED

by R. A. Busby

 

He was not the man I married.

I don’t mean like those ladies on Divorce Court who complain to Judge Lynn that their high school quarterback hubby went fat and bald. Charles had been a star player, but the years since his last touchdown had treated him pretty fair. My cheerleader days weren’t coming back anytime soon, though.

No, when I say that, I mean it literally. He was not the man I married.

The day it happened, I found myself in the middle of eating dinner. I call it dinner like there was silverware involved, but it was just me and Bella watching Hallmark Channel and finishing the baby’s Spaghetti-Os so I wouldn’t have to wash more dishes. Because Charles wasn’t due until Monday, I hadn’t exactly prepared a fancy feast.

I can still see that fork of mine frozen in midair between the plate and my mouth. Since then, I’ve found that these moments where your memory pauses like a broken DVD are when things usually get decided.

I heard the front door slam shut, and then he was beside the couch before I even had time to ask myself why or wherefore.

“Came back early,” he said. “Daddy’s coming in Tuesday.” He glanced about the kitchen. “House needs cleaning. Especially the downstairs. What the hell you do here all day besides watch TV?”

And it was right then that something went ‘ping’ in my head as I looked at his face, and I knew in a flash that this man wasn’t Charles. He might look like Charles, but he wasn’t.

My first thought was to grab a gun. Charles had guns, naturally—what warden wouldn’t?—but he kept them in his room out of the little ones’ reach. There was a kitchen drawer full of knives, but I reconsidered that plan right quick. This man didn’t look surprisable.

          My fork clunked into the bowl, and I backed up deep into the sofa cushions. On the TV, a handsome flower shop owner wrapped a bow around a perfect romantic bouquet for his ladylove.

“Darlene?” He snapped his fingers under my nose. “Get it done soon, baby.” He turned to Bella at the far end of the couch, her feet gathered close in. “What the hell you doing down here so late? Go on. Get.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Bella whispered, scuttling out of the kitchen.

          With that, he put down Charles’ keys and phone on the table, hung up Charles’ jacket, headed up to Charles’ room, and shut the door with a small click of the lock.

The moment he was truly gone, I dashed upstairs, but the kids were safe, little Charlie with his arms wrapped around Baby Yoda, and Bella with her coppery hair spread across the pillow. He hadn’t come in here, whoever he was.

Whatever he was.

#

Charles and the children and I lived on a large property halfway up the mountain range near ____, a desert city whose name I won’t mention. The place had been in his family for decades, and honest, I never dreamed I’d be living in a house so grand. Hell, I’d’ve been happy for a doublewide.

I’d known from forever that Charles’ people had money. Their men had run the prison since the get-go, each son taking the place of his daddy. I wasn’t aware being a warden made you so much long green, but I suppose you could add that to the shit-ton of other things I didn’t know.

Although the facility was surrounded by layers of chain-link topped with silver swoops of shining razor wire, the real fence was the desert. In all directions, nothing grew but creosote and sagebrush. In places, the bare bones of the land rose from the dust in hills bleached beige and wrinkled as the backs of ancient albino elephants. It wasn’t the same prison that housed men like O.J., but it’d been built along the same lines. In summertime, the temperature soared beyond a hundred eighteen, and folks opened their car doors with oven mitts.

It was almost summer now. The days trembled on the verge of it. Down the long thirty-mile stretch of road where our dirt drive ended, the air danced and shimmered as lithe as a dream of water above the black asphalt.

Out here, of course, it was Charles and me. And the children.

When he started courting, I shouldn’t have been surprised. He had money, and I had pretty, and there are worse foundations for a marriage, I guess. He could’ve had the pick of anyone, so when he sent flowers, held my elbow to guide me as we walked, called all the time, and texted at the wee hours to see if I was okay, I really did feel as if I was Cinderella.

He said he’d never loved any woman like he loved me, especially since his first wife had fucked him over so bad. We’d gone to the same high school, her and I. She was a ginger girl with a cloud of copper hair, but she was real quiet, even mousy, the kind of person who turned in science reports in neat plastic covers.

She’d been crazy, Charles told me. A slut. She’d up and disappeared out of the blue, not so much as taking her own baby. Finally, he pulled strings to have their marriage dissolved or annulled or whatever you call it when your wife runs off with her side piece and no one knows where.

It’d be easy to say he wed me because he needed a mama for Bella, or I wed him because Mama’s disability and my Big Box job didn’t buy more for dinner than five-for-a-dollar Happy Fun Ramens, and both of those would be true. The fact is, though, the man I married danced with me in a real restaurant and murmured that God gave him a woman who could heal his broken heart. We said our vows a few weeks later with only Mama and his father in attendance. He wasn’t big on friends.

Almost as soon as we tied the knot, I came up pregnant. When Mama drove me home from the hospital and helped me into bed, she swore she’d watch the baby, but when I woke up, she was gone and the house was silent except for the murmur of voices coming from Charles’ study downstairs.

He was talking to his father. I’m a fool, but not always, and I knew Charles hated the man like poison. For the longest time, he tried to please that mean bastard, but his daddy’s goalposts were forever on the move and anyone but Charles could see it was a lost cause. He almost cried about it once, his blue eyes red with unshed tears, the day he asked me to marry him.

Even early on, though, I understood it was best never to interrupt the men if they were talking. Don’t trouble trouble, as my mama often said.

“Goddamned shame,” the old fart was saying. “Y’know, a man with a girl-baby’s just life’s ultimate bitch.” He chuckled.

Charles fell silent for a moment. “Yes, Daddy.”

“You feed her and school her and pay for her little fancy furbelows, and for what? For some other fella to come along and stuff her holes fulla cock. You figured that out already, though, didn’tcha?”

Charles kept silent.

“Well,” said Daddy at last. “You did better this time around. Maybe. Got a boy out of it at least.”

But it had been a tough birth. Ultimately, the doc took Charles aside and explained that if I had more babies, it’d kill me. When I got home, I found my room empty of his belongings. In my absence, he’d moved to the large bedroom at the end of the hall, a grand suite with a view of the prison.

“I did it for you,” he said, “so I can have some peace and quiet. And you can stay near the kids.”

I apologized again. I slept like a rotisserie chicken, tossing and turning and plagued by scream-dreams. One of the last ones I’d had, I came awake to Charles shaking me by the shoulder. The bright glare of the security lights outside streamed in the windows and glinted off the barrel of his gun.

“You need to not be crying out at night, Darlene,” he said. “I’m worried about you. It’s not safe for a woman to be screaming around a shooting man.”

He was always so careful.

#

That evening after the fake Charles came home, I lay alone and awake. Whoever that man was, he’d not emerged, and the kids hadn’t stirred. Out of habit, I alarmed the security system and turned on the outside lights just as the real Charles would want me to. At that witching hour when the sounds of the house seemed to settle around us like a weight, my mind jibbered and jittered with whims and megrims.

The more I wound my thoughts about, the more I guessed that whoever that man down the hallway might be, he surely had Charles’ permission to do this. He must have. For one, this explained why Charles’ phone and keys and jacket were in his hands. If I’d figured out anything about the man I married, it was that you never want to take what’s his. You don’t even want to try.

So, maybe it was a test. He’d done this fucked-up switcheroo with Charles’ by-your-leave, coming home early maybe to surprise me, see what we were up to. Hell, maybe the fake Charles was even a by-blow of Daddy’s. That last I thought most likely, given that this man didn’t merely resemble Charles; he looked exactly like Charles, right down to the wedding ring.

I did not want this man in the house. I didn’t want him down the hall with Bella and little Charlie between me and him. My door had to remain open at night for the littles, and of course, if the real Charles came home to find my bedroom closed and locked against him with another guy around--well, I suppose I don’t need to say much more about that, now do I?

But what if this man was an inmate, a Ted Bundy, a Scott Peterson, or a psycho like Ed Kemper who’d shoved his mama’s tongue and larynx down the kitchen disposer ‘cause he grew sick and tired of her bitching?

I guess I could have texted someone for advice, but who? In the Lifetime movies, the woman always has a best coffee friend, but apart from the ladies at church, who were mostly for inquiring whether crock pot liners were on sale at Dollar Giant, I didn’t really have anyone. Besides, since Charles got all my texts on his own phone anyway, I might as well just save my breath. Not for the first time, I wanted Mama alive again, but to be honest, I’m not sure what guidance she could’ve given.

I wished the real Charles would tell me what to do.

#

Up until the moment I found that thing in the basement, I kept my mouth shut. It was always the best course of action. Go along to get along, Mama always said. I got up and made the kids’ breakfast and Charles’ coffee and pretended this was just a day. The new man took his morning cup black like Charles, and slid his keys in his left inner pocket like Charles, and when he came home in the evening, he speared his meat by turning the fork tines downward the same way as him.

I have to admit he was impressive. He’d gotten all the details right. All except for one. When he ate, and sometimes when he talked, he clapped his lips together in a soft plip that felt somehow raw and fleshy, a sound that made you think of holes and orifices. It made me shudder.

Daddy was coming that afternoon. Although I never said much to the man besides “Want some peas, Daddy?” or “Here’s the remote, Daddy,” I knew if anyone could tell true from fake, it was him. I wanted to witness that second he clapped his eyes on the new fellow wearing his son’s hat. Maybe we’d have more than usual to say to each other, him and me.

While the kids played outside, I cleaned out the basement in kind’ve a rush, not taking time to do more than air the place out and change the sheets. With its giant-screen TV, game consoles, and custom-made neon signs like “Iron Bar Bar” above the liquor rack, the downstairs had never been my territory. Off the main area with its pool table and one-man bath lay a guest room kitty-corner from a tall oak bookcase, a room with a thick door designed to keep out sound. Along the east wall, a narrow glass-block window let in a strip of light.

After a quick swipe of the bathroom to clean off the inevitable piss-mist on the walls and toilet, I changed the sheets and added another pillow for Daddy. As a final touch I shifted the smaller TV nearer on the credenza so he could see the screen from the bed, then called it a done deal.

I pushed the door closed a bit hard and jumped back as the bookcase gave a threatening wobble. It butted right up against the intersecting wall, but the concrete below it was uneven, raised a little in a broad ridge that reminded me a bit of a nearly worn-down speed bump, so the heavy-loaded bookcase sat just a bit off true. Some years ago when Bella went through her climbing phase, I’d waited until Charles had his dinner and a piece of homemade pie before asking him would he please mind bolting the case to the wall if he had some free time. He hadn’t done it yet. My husband is a very busy man.

As I said, the basement never was my territory, but now it had become his. The fake Charles’. I heard him down cellar sometimes, moving below in the darkness, rooting in the damp and musty black, his brusque, angry tread audible even against the concrete of the floor Charles had poured all by himself to make the place into a proper man-cave after his first wife left.

The new one shut himself down there in the shadows, and the kids and I understood better than to turn that basement knob or touch the door. We gave it a wide berth. Nevertheless, I could feel him behind it, sense the dark force of his pacing to the low pulsing sounds of explosions and screams from Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption.

But often there would be just a brooding silence. For hours, it would be quiet down there. It was a loud silence, if you know what I mean, a silence that lingered in the corners of the kitchen and puddled in the angles of the room. I tried drowning it with the TV, the stereo, the sound of the kids playing, but that silence roared down the hall so our laughs and chatters all lost air and fell flat down, and the silence remained.

Now and then, I caught Bella looking at the basement, her eyes big, her arms wrapped around her knees hugged close to her chest. Little Bella, with her hair that lovely color of copper like her mama’s. I think she knew. To this day, I think she knew.

“I had the dream again, Mommy,” she said the morning after the fake Charles came. “The monster one. It was almost up the stairs.” She stared at the basement again.

He was silent down there now. Sleeping. Dormant. After all, I thought, it must be tiring to be Charles. I mean, if you ain’t Charles, you’ve gotta give it some practice. There’s so many details to mind: how to tap the remote against the arm of the couch with your left hand, how to flick your wet fingers at the bathroom mirror and leave little spots all over the glass. I guess after a while it might want to linger down there where it could just relax and unbuckle its face. To regenerate.

But still, there were signs. Little tells, as they say in poker.

“You see something, Darlene?” fake Charles asked one night, laying aside his fork (tines down, of course) and staring at me over the remains of his tuna casserole. He’d picked out all the mushrooms and heaped them in a pile on the side of his plate exactly like the real Charles always did.

“No, baby,” I murmured, and turned my eyes to my food. Just like that, the room felt ten degrees colder. Little Charlie grabbed at his big-kid sippy with Patrick Star on the outside and took a gulp of milk. Bella’s fork stopped halfway to her mouth the way mine had the day fake Charles first came home.

“Good,” he said. And then he pressed his lips together.

Plip.

#

Done with the bathroom at last, I poured the dirty toilet water in the sink. Outside, the air had begun to press and shimmer with heat even though it was still early morning, and just as soon as I got back from the mailbox, I’d be asking the kids to come inside. Down the end of the drive leading to the highway is a bank of mailboxes for the houses around here. The mail had slipped my mind yesterday--things were happening like that more and more--and I thought I’d better grab it before Daddy’s arrival made me forget again.

The breeze from the passing cars on the road stirred my hair as I unlocked the box, and just as I reached in, I saw him.

It was Charles. He was riding shotgun in a red Ford headed down the mountain toward____, one arm resting casually on the open window. The morning sun glinted off his sunglasses, and that’s what caught my eye. For a moment he turned and his eyes met mine. Then he moved on. I ran down the highway waving my arms, but the truck never stopped. The driver didn’t even hit the brakes.

Now I knew.

Charles was testing me.

He wanted to be sure of us, to do a quick little drive-by, and hadn’t expected me to be getting the mail at that hour, that was all.

Like I said, he was always so careful.

#

The man we met at the airport wasn’t quite the Daddy I remembered. Three or four years past when he retired to a senior home in Green Valley, he’d been old but vigorous, sharp, and piss-mean.

This one was still mean. But sharp? Not so much.

The attendant wheeled him down the security corridor. In the chair was a shrunken, weary version of Daddy who blinked at the sunlight and could hardly see, a Daddy with the air let out.

Twice on the way home he called my girl by her mama’s name till Charles told him to shut up, but it didn’t stop Bella from coming in that night with another dream of that monster stomping up the stairs. At dinner, Daddy’s food dribbled halfway down his shirt-front. Charles hissed, “Clean him up, for Chrissakes,” but he needn’t have whispered. The old man couldn’t hear shit. He spent the week before the incident propped upright in his basement room with the TV turned on full. With the door closed, though, you hardly heard a thing, thank God.

But before he left for the airport, while the kids were watching SpongeBob and I was hefting his suitcase into the back of the truck, Daddy grabbed me with an abrupt strength I hadn’t known was still in him. His bony fingers dug into the meat of my upper arm between the muscles, and I bit my lip not to cry out. With a few quick breaths, his clouded eyes sought out my face and Charles’.

“Who the fuck are you?” he rasped, looking from one to the other. “Who the fuck are alla you?” Then Charles loaded him into the seat and he was gone.

It turned out we didn’t have much to say to each other after all.

#

I took a broom downstairs.

I’d wanted to do a better job down there now Daddy had left. A bit like locking the barn door after the horse got stolen, I know, but it needed doing. Since it was so damn dark, I waited until the light sat right in the morning to let in a shine through the strip of glass block and went to work cleaning, starting with the guest bedroom, which still held a lingering tang of old man smell.

I ran a Swiffer over everything, the TV, the game console, and began sweeping the whole basement once the dusting was done. That’s when I saw it.

Between the bookcase and the guest room in a corner usually hidden by the door I’d just closed, I spotted a dust bunny. I poked at it with the broom and swept out a quantity of dirt, but the bunny remained fixed to the floor. I recalled for a minute how Mama’d called them ghost turds or slattern’s wool, and that might’ve made me smile except there was something about this side of the basement that always set me off-kilter. The uneven concrete, maybe, the sense that the earth was lifted the wrong way beneath your feet. I dashed the bristles at the dusty clump again, and it still didn’t budge.

I turned on a desk lamp, the bright kind with that white light, and aimed it at the corner.

The thing was fully embedded in the concrete, poking up from the grey, uneven surface like a sidewalk weed, a few little tufts that had probably gotten slicked down when the floor was laid and then popped back up over time as it dried. They’d attracted cobwebs and a quantity of dust and sat there covered to invisibility by the powdery dirt I’d just brushed out.

With the desk lamp throwing my shadow against the wall in stark-edged relief, I knelt to the concrete and took the little tuft of hair between my fingers and stared at it. In the white light, the coppery red hairs shone out like blood.

#

Upstairs, I spent a long time staring out the window down the dusty expanse of our drive, not seeing it at all. I was thinking of how baby Charlie’s stroller would rattle against the rocks until we got to the asphalt of the highway, me holding onto Bella and steadying an overstuffed backpack and my old purse across my shoulder.

          If this were a Lifetime movie, now would be when the woman’s best coffee friend would take her hand and exclaim, “Oh, honey, you should call the police.”

          That was funny.

          How can you go to the police when he was the police?

Yeah, sure, I could explain he wasn’t the man I married, but I could see the side-eye they’d be trading the minute my words were out. Why, that man would just stand up there in the court with his hand on the Holy Bible and declare, “Your Honor, I do solemnly swear and affirm that this woman’s a crazy-ass bitch,” and who was the judge to believe? Me, or the guy he camped with every September during dove-hunting?

          Besides, those papers with phrases like term life insurance this and determination of ownership that, or acquired or jointly held property and fiduciary responsibility he’d told me to sign to keep things safe might mean a thing or two to a judge even if they sounded like gibberish to me. Hell, I don’t need a law degree to understand it boiled down to “You ain’t gettin’ shit.”

          For myself, I could care less. Been poor before, and I’m not likely to forget how it works.

The kids, though. That was another thing.

If they came with me, what could I give them? The inside trick of using free McDonald’s ketchups to flavor bowls of Happy Fun Ramen? Knowing which plasma places gave the best Oreos? Shit. All I had to offer was a future of yard sale clothing and meth neighbors.

Not like he’d let them go. Not by a long shot. And without me, what would happen to them?

I stared out at the drive, still imagining the bang of the baby stroller on the dirt, then on the asphalt. The Lifetime friend said, “But honey, you can take the car!”

That was funny too. He’d gotten the kind with DriveLink or RoadBuddy or whatever you called it that sends that info to an app right on your phone so you know exactly where to send the cops if someone’s jacked your truck.

The Lifetime coffee friend in my head fell kinda quiet after that.

He would surely follow us. It was easy enough to imagine him at the wheel, the chrome grille flashing in the sunlight, the tires throwing up a fan of dirt and rocks as they skidded to a stop behind us on the soft shoulder of that long mountain road. He would be wearing those sunglasses, the reflective ones like the guy in Cool Hand Luke.

          And if he took those glasses from his eyes, what would I see?

          What would I see when all the masks were off?

But Bella’d had another monster dream. She’d cried, her head buried in my arms. I looked at the glow of her hair in the lamplight a very long time.

Afterwards, I went back in the basement. I angled the light at the corner again and stared and stared at the concrete, the bookshelf, the ever-so-slight rise in the floor like a worn-down speed bump. The tuft of hair springing up at its head like a guilty weed.

And then she told me what to do.

#

That Friday when he came home, put his phone and keys down, and went looking for me, I was in the basement bedroom. I’d set the TV back in its place in the far corner and said I thought Daddy messed up the settings, but I didn’t want to break things trying to make them right.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, and pressed his lips together. Plip.

When his back was turned, I stepped out of the room and pushed the door shut with a quiet click. He barked a command, but his words were swallowed by the sound of the loaded bookcase crashing down to block the entrance, all eight feet of solid oak.

Didn’t take more than a shove to do it, what with that uneven concrete.

The funny thing is, I could almost feel the case being lifted from the bottom there for a second as if something was pushing upwards from below.

The gnarled, mangled sound of shouting was coming through, but only if I stood right near. For many minutes, I sat on the floor and listened to him quite calmly and rationally. In a low, soft voice, I explained to him what I’d found out. What she’d told me.

I said I knew he wasn’t real.

He slammed against the door over and over, but each time, it wedged the bookcase harder into the corner. His claws scabbered and skittered but could get no purchase. The wall shivered, but it held. Behind it, I heard his curses raging, growling, pleading, murmuring, and bursting out in howls so vicious I could tell his teeth were biting every word like an animal. Like the dark thing he really was.

When it was night, I walked upstairs and shut the basement door softly. From the front hall closet, I took the backpack I’d stuffed with Bella’s things and mine and unfolded Charlie’s stroller. With some effort, I managed to get him inside and covered up. It was going to be a long walk.

Bella was silent. She’d been that way since she told me the monster had been in her room. Right by her bed. Then it had reached for her.

Those were the last words she said to me.

#

Even at midnight, the black tar holds the heat of the day. It rises up from the surface in a pulsing wave.

In my mind, I can see him raging, the dark thing, throwing the television at the wall, clawing at the glass block window, tearing the bed apart, raving and howling with no one to hear him. When he found me, he whispered, he would kill me and eat me. He would suck the marrow from my bones. He would begin, he said, with my cunt.

By then, though, he might be terribly thin. And thirsty.

#

          Along the dark highway we walked all night as the black tar exhaled its pent-up heat. The moon stared down with its white, unblinking eye. God’s security light. His camera. The fence of His desert.

          We let the stroller go a while back. They’ll find it, but maybe not right away. In the darkness, the sound of the oncoming cars and the twinkle of lights made us conceal ourselves in the scrubby cover of creosote and joshua trees like tiny bunnies, but by the time the sun rose, we were too tired to hide. We kept walking.

          First a single car passed, then another. Above the mountains loomed God’s other eye, angry and yellow.

The breeze from the cars whirled around our heads and covered our hair in greyish-brown dust the color of rabbit fur. I lifted my eyes from the unvarying tar of the road, the mile markers, the rocks. I stared at the drivers as they passed.

          I see them behind their windshields. At first, they wore sunglasses over their eyes, the mirrored kind, but now they’re off. They’re off, and I can see.

          Every one of them has Charles’ face. Every single one.   

          The face of the man I married.

 

THE END

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Art by Londyyn Thomas 2020

An award-winning literature teacher and die-hard horror fan, R. A. Busby is also the author of "Bits" (Short Sharp Shocks #45), the upcoming "Street View" (Collective Realms #2), and a recently-completed horror novel. "I was always instructed to write about what I know," she states, "and I know what scares me." In her spare time, R.A. Busby watches cheesy Gothic movies and goes running in the desert with her dog.

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