An Alto for the Choir
by Hillary Lyon
forgot to top off the oil in the car. So on that long
trek back to the family homestead, on that long, lonely stretch of highway on a cloudless
August afternoon, the engine of a beautiful and otherwise perfectly preserved 1978 sapphire-blue
Camaro seized, and died.
Cathi got out of the muscle car and
kicked the front tire. “Stupid car,” she muttered, as she dug through her purse
for her phone. She scrolled through her contacts, looking for the 1-800 number for AAA
roadside service. Nada.
“Excuse me, miss,” said a voice from
out of nowhere. “Need some help?”
turned to find a cowboy-hatted, toothpick-chewing officer standing by the car. He adjusted
his mirrored sunglasses and crossed his tanned arms.
uh, yeah,” she answered. He was a deputy or something,
so of course he would help her. Or so Cathi assumed.
a beauty!” The officer said, not waiting for her
to elaborate further. He obviously referred to the car, not her, because he lovingly looked
the Camaro up and down. “This your machine? Don’t usually see a gal driving
something of this caliber.”
“Ah, no, it belongs to my husband.” Cathi then scoffed, and said, “Ex-husband,
“Uh huh,” the deputy replied thoughtfully. “You sing? Soprano,
“What?” Cathi was taken aback by this
odd question. “Sorta, I mean, I sang alto in my high school choir, but what does
that have to do with anything?”
The deputy arched his shoulder and spit out the toothpick. “Ma’am, you’re
not the legal owner of this vehicle. It’s been reported stolen, and that means you’re
in a heap of trouble. Grand theft auto, in fact. That’s a felony.”
“What? No! Derick wouldn’t do
that to me!” Her voice rose with her panic.
“Well, he would, and he did.
Gonna have to take you in.” The deputy casually
tipped his hat back. Cathi couldn’t read his expression.
only now that she looked for the deputy’s car. There wasn’t one. “Where
did you come from? I mean, where’s your car?” Cathi asked.
“Don’t need a car out here.” The
deputy replied, pulling out a new toothpick from his shirt pocket. He jammed it in
his mouth and smiled. “But you need to get in line.” He pointed to a spot over
Cathi’s right shoulder. She turned to find a line of dirty, jumpsuited convicts toiling
away in the middle of the road.
“Where did they—” Cathi began. The
deputy roughly shoved her toward the group, who parted to make a place for her.
“There you go, missy, a perfect fit next
to the tenors.” The convicts began humming, and in spite of herself, Cathi joined
On that particular stretch of highway in the back country, the one that the old
folks called the “singing highway,” a new voice joined the chorus. The superstitious
will tell you the humming you hear when you drive on a moonless night is the mournful moaning
of convicts who worked the road—worked until they died. Though the more pragmatic
will say the hum results from the grooved pavement, made so rainwater easily sloughs away,
and shake their heads impatiently at the absurd idea of a ghost choir.
|Art by Hillary Lyon © 2018
For twenty-five years—more
than half my life—I bowed to Duncan’s whims, gave in to his arguments, and
gave up on trying to compromise on anything. He was stubborn—as his mother gleefully
told me when we were newly engaged. No, I should’ve told her, he was a bully. Subtle
in his methods; if he’d been a woman, folks would have called him manipulative. He
was a master in the art of gas-lighting. I suspect he learned it at his mother’s
had enough. He always promised me whatever he thought would shut me up—a ski trip
this winter holiday, for sure! A visit to my aged aunt in the Midwest, just as soon as
he finishes this project at work! A new car when we get our tax return! That gorgeous pearl
ring for our tenth anniversary—the one in the MOMA catalog!
anniversaries later, still no ring. But what he did give me was a trip to Vail. Well, he
went to Colorado with his “business associate” Camellia. I got to stay home.
So when he returned, two weeks later, with a new found
love of raw oysters, I asked if he’d found any pearls embedded in those slimy globs.
You know, for my promised anniversary ring. He laughed, as much at my question as at my
new hair-cut. Loves to make me cry. A real keeper, this guy.
Seeing my tears, he had an uncharacteristic moment of
remorse. Or did he? He suggested we should go out to eat, to a nice place. Dress up and
get an Uber. I know what he’s doing: Get me out in public and drop bad news in my
lap—see, if we’re in a nice, crowded place, he knows I won’t make a scene.
He’s done this before.
He even lets me choose the restaurant—this really
bleeps my radar. I pick Chauncy’s, the most hoity-toity seafood restaurant here in
this congested, cement-smothered city. I expected him to argue for some place cheaper and
less posh, but he doesn’t. Now the needle of my internal alarm is in the red. I make
a reservation for Friday night.
Date night comes and finds us seated at a table covered
with an imported Irish linen cloth, little silver salt-and-pepper shakers, and a single
flickering candle in a tasteful cut-crystal holder. Would have been romantic if we still
loved each other.
He insisted on ordering oysters
for our appetizer, smiling at me as he did so. It was either his “I know a secret
smile,” or his “I’m going to educate you on the finer things in life
you sad little lumpkin” smile. Actually, both smiles are the same smile.
Oysters came with a fresh basket
of warm bread and chilled butter. Duncan dove into the platter of oysters, sucking them
down one after the other. Did he even taste them? I took a crusty roll and a
bit of butter. The butter knife had an ornate, weighted handle. I never
understood why butter knives had such dull, rounded tips. Shouldn’t a knife
have a sharp end?
Lost in this train of thought,
I didn’t notice Duncan was in distress until he slammed his fist on the table, knocking
over both his glass of Merlot and the burning candle. Jeeze, set the place on
fire, why don’t ya? I slapped out the fire, which did burn the table cloth, as
he fell over backwards in his antique Chippendale chair. I think I heard it
crack as he hit the floor. Between the ruined table cloth and the broken chair,
how much was this dinner going to cost us?
wife that I am, I rushed to his side, waving the concerned waiter away. “He’s
choking!” the white-coated teen exclaimed. “Yes, I know,” I said, feeling
calmer than I’d ever felt in my life. I reached up to the table and grabbed what
was handy—the butter knife. “We have to open his airway,” I said to the
flailing waiter. “You go call for an ambulance, while I take care of him.”
The server ran off in a blind panic.
Duncan looked into my eyes. He was terrified; for the
first time in his life, he had no control over anything. “Not to worry, big guy.
I’ll fix you right up.” I held his head back by the hair with one hand, and
with the other wielding the butter knife, I dug into his throat. “Gotta get some
air in there,” I said as he clutched at my arm. “Let go of me, that hurts
and you’re going to leave a mark,” I hissed under my breath, so that the other
diners couldn’t hear.
I shoved and twisted that dull
butter knife—there was more resistance than you’d think, what with the skin
and muscle and tendons and blood—all that blood. All over the restaurant’s
plush carpet. It will cost a fortune to clean. I wonder if it would be more economically
feasible to just re-carpet the dining room.
And there it is! The source of all this drama: A pearl,
misshapen but beautiful. As big as your thumbnail, too. How could he ingest something that
size, that solid, and not know it until he choked? But that’s Duncan: Always in such
a thoughtless hurry. I held the blood-wet pearl up to Duncan’s unfocused eyes. “Looky
here,” I whispered close to his ear
as his consciousness faded, “a pearl for my anniversary ring. At last!”
I put my napkin over his face to spare the other diners
his expired gray countenance, grotesquely twisted in agony as it was. Death ain’t
pretty. But my new ring sure is!
|Art by Hillary Lyon © 2019
Always Use Protection
rhythmic thumping was a distraction, and I hate driving while distracted. It’s
dangerous. On the radio, I found a station doing their “70’s Sunday Rock
Block,” now playing Heart’s Barracuda. I turned it up.
* * *
that evening, I’d pulled into a mega-chain gas station, found a free pump on
the end farthest away from the mini-mart. Involved in pumping gas, I didn’t notice
the youngish man come up behind me until he spoke.
“Hey, ah, excuse me
miss,” he spoke shyly, massaged his hands in apparent anxiety. Big brown puppy dog
eyes, brows knitted together in supplication. “Could you be so kind as to give me
a lift to the next town over? My ma is sick in the hospital, it’s a real emergency,
and I got no way of getting there—got no car, ya see.”
could I say no? He looked so pathetic. “Sure.”
* * *
Miles down the highway, he put his calloused
hand on my right thigh and squeezed. I moved my leg impatiently, hoped he’d get the
message. He just squeezed harder, hard enough to leave a bruise. I hate bruises; they’re
temporary tattoos of abuse. I don’t want them to disfigure my body.
radio station was playing Rick Derringer’s Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo. I
slapped his hand.
“Listen, slut,” he growled, sliding
his offending hand up under my skirt, “there’s a scenic pull-off a couple miles up the road. Pull in there.”
if I don’t—”
He grabbed my throat and
squeezed. “You got no say in the matter, whore.”
I took the next exit, parked
at the deserted scenic look-out.
* * *
the car off,” he muttered hoarsely, “and get in the back seat.”
“Can I at least leave the radio on?” The station was now playing Blue
Öyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. One of my all-time favorites.
didn’t say no, so I left the ignition turned on to power the radio. As I opened
my door, he grabbed my arm and made a show of patting his denim jacket pocket,
insinuating he had a knife or gun there.
Now it was my turn to play
pathetic. “At least let me get some protection, Okay?”
he answered getting into the backseat. “Just get your skank ass back here.” I
reached into the pocket of the driver’s side door and grabbed my little
pearl-handled two-shot derringer. It was a gift from my grandmother, who’d
given it to me when I left our little town for the big city. “A lady always
needs to have protection,” she’d told me.
opened the car’s back door and found he’d already taken his pants off and was
stroking his sexual assault weapon. Are you kidding me? Whatever happened to romance.
“Get in here, bitch,” he hissed.
I leaned into the back seat and gave him my
most lascivious look, licked my lips, and—
him in the gut.
* * *
popped the trunk and retrieved my tool bag, another gift from my beloved granny. Pulled
out my roll of duct tape, which has numerous practical uses, like silencing a crude mouth
and binding invasive hands. And my wrench, just in case something needs to be turned.
blood loss and impending shock made my passenger docile, so it was easy to tape
his mouth shut, and his hands together. I then led him to the back of the car
and ordered him into the trunk. He whimpered. “Don’t worry,” I reassured him,
“the trunk is lined with plastic, so you won’t soil it with your blood. Now.
He resisted a bit, so I shoved my little pistol
against his scruffy neck, right under his jaw. The little gun only held two bullets, and
I’d already spent one a couple of weeks ago. But that’s a story for another
time. Point is, he didn't know it was empty.
he refused to get in, so I impatiently turned him towards the shadowed maw of trunk,
and hit him in the back of the head with the wrench from my kit. After that, all I had
to do was push him in. I slammed the trunk shut and got back in the driver’s seat.
* * *
I’d spent more summers
than I could count at my grandmother’s little homestead, miles outside of the city.
It was during those long, lazy summer days that she’d showed me how to butcher hogs,
and any other miscellaneous, malevolent critter that crossed her path. “A gal’s
got to be self-sufficient, and know how to protect herself.” Wise woman.
said I was the most like her, much more so than my other siblings. When she
passed, I inherited the little old farmhouse, and the small barn. A barn that,
decades before, gran had converted to her workshop.
I was headed now, as the radio station finished playing Heart’s Barracuda,
and next started Elton John’s All the Girls Love Alice.
* * *
I opened up the workshop,
put on my gran’s leather apron, thick black rubber gloves, and plastic splatter-proof
goggles. Safety first! as granny always said. Like any considerate host, I helped
my guest out of the trunk. As he was confused, I gave him a shove in the right direction,
and he stumbled into the glaring florescent light of the workshop.
even have to tell him to lie down on the enameled metal table in the center of
the room. Like a lamb to the slaughter, he just knew. Or he was so drained, he
needed to rest. Probably the latter, seeing how much blood he’d lost.
There was a boom-box on the worktable behind me. I turned it on to that 70’s
station, and Aerosmith’s Back in the Saddle boomed out into the otherwise
My sweet old grandmother
taught me so many things that I still use in my everyday life. For instance, one of the
more practical pieces of advice she gave me back in the day was—
passenger groaned and attempted to sit up. He rolled his eyes, and with a
thunk, his head fell back heavily onto the cold metal table.
start with the bone saw.
|Art by Hillary Lyon © 2019
Until the Ice Melts
The ice pack on Kaylene’s
wrist slid off and landed on the kitchen’s dirty linoleum floor
with a sickening plop. The ice inside was mostly melted already,
but she’d hardly noticed; she’d been too distracted thinking about her situation,
and how to change it. Danny’d always had a temper, but his fuse was getting shorter
and shorter—especially where she was concerned. Dinner’s not ready when he
wants it? Shove. Pork roast too greasy? Plate hits the wall. Rolls are burned? Slap. Laundry’s
not folded and put away? Punch in the ribs. Something had to give.
But this was the first
time he’d hurt her where anyone else would notice. Oh, once when he said she wasn’t
spending enough time with the kids, she countered that she had to work so they could to
pay the rent—and as she walked away, he grabbed a fistful of her brassy red hair
and yanked. He threw the bloody hank in her face and laughed. Not so pretty now,
he’d hissed. She wore her hair up in a loose bun for months after that, until the
spot healed and the hair grew back. But even then none of her co-workers had noticed her
It’s not like she
had friends she could confide in; he’d made sure of that, for years. Old high
school gal pal Tina called when she was in town visiting family? Never got the message.
Christmas card from her favorite cousin Miranda in Omaha? Card was shredded and shoved
in the garbage before she saw it. Email invitation from Terri at the new mother’s
group about a girl’s night out? Deleted before Kaylene had a chance to read it, as
were many of her email messages.
her daughters had grown up and left the home, Kaylene thought her relationship with Danny
would renew itself. She hoped it would return to what it had been in high
school: passionate, romantic, the two of them so in love there was no one else
in the world. But what Kaylene had considered teenage passion matured into
controlling, adult abuse.
Her baby sister had
warned her; Danny had a reputation among the underclass girls for being sexually
aggressive, and mean when he didn’t get what he wanted. When he was a junior,
his then-girlfriend, a petite freshman named Juanita, showed her track coach
bruises on her breast where Danny’d mashed her because she refused to go all
the way. The coach took this information to the principal; Danny was confronted
and kicked out. He spent his senior year attending a rival high school.
Kaylene met him their senior year at a dance held
after the last football game of the season. He crashed the party, along with several of
his new buddies, looking for trouble. With her natural red hair, she was easy to spot in
a crowd; he made her his target, swooping in and doing his best to sweep her off her feet.
He’d been kicked out of her high school for fighting, he bragged, when he was
defending the reputation of a mentally-disabled student. When he graduated, he
told her, he was going to enlist in the Marines, or maybe become a Navy SEAL
team member, or an Army Ranger. He flexed his biceps. Kaylene was impressed by
his fearless, macho posturing as only a naïve teenage girl could be. He wanted to
do her because she was a symbol for the school that unceremoniously dumped him. In his
over-heated little brain, seducing and abandoning her would be the equivalent of fucking
over the entire school. Best revenge. Ever.
if she got knocked up? Not his problem. She should’ve been more careful.
But it did turn out
to be his problem. For as much of a bastard as Danny was, his parents were basically good
people. They badgered him into doing the right thing. Kaylene and Danny both graduated
in May; they married in June.
He didn’t join
the service; instead he worked as an assistant grease monkey at a neighborhood
garage; a job his older brother finagled for him. Kaylene, with her parent’s
help, went to secretarial school and got a decent position with a local
insurance agency. After their first child, Ariel, was born, the second daughter,
Jasmine, quickly followed. The ensuing years were a blur: work, kids’ school, work,
short summer vacations, work, stressful holidays, work, kids’ school, work. And
then all of a sudden, it was over; the girls were grown and moved out.
Yet now Danny was more
angry than ever.
Tonight, Kaylene had
suggested—had the audacity to suggest—that maybe they, the two of them,
could dress up a bit and go out to dinner. Nothing fancy, just a happy hour and
half-price appetizers down at Bergie’s Bar and Grill—where they’d had their
wedding reception so many years ago. Danny never acknowledged their anniversary,
so why, he demanded to know, start now? Why, he growled, getting in her
face, celebrate something that aboso-fucking-lutely ruined his life? Kaylene
teared up and turned away—and when she did, he grabbed her wrist and twisted,
fracturing the bones. When she cried out, he shoved her against the fridge.
“Better put some ice on that,”
Danny’d chortled as he walked out of the kitchen. She did, and while the ice numbed
her pain, she came to a decision. Kaylene patiently waited until the ice melted in the
zip-lock baggie, and then rose from her flimsy kitchen table to pull a carving knife from
the solid wooden block on the cluttered counter. A wedding gift from her old bestie, Tina,
who told her it would almost certainly come in handy someday. That “someday”
Hiding the blade behind
her back with her good hand, Kaylene found Danny into the bedroom. He was cleaning up,
smoothing his graying blonde hair, splashing on cheap cologne, getting ready to go out—without
her. His thin gold wedding ring was in his wooden change bowl on the dresser. Kaylene crept
up behind him. Their eyes met in the mirror. Danny squinted and smirked.
“Oooo, wassa matter,
poor widdle Kaylene has a boo-boo?” Danny snickered. “Kaylene wanna say sowwy
to big hunky Danny for being such a goddamn worthless little piece of—”
she interrupted without emotion, “today wants a present, and gets a present.
One she picked out for herself.”
The knife plunged. One, two three, four, five—and
so on to nineteen. One deep jab for each year of their miserable marriage. When she was
done, Kaylene sat on their bed and smiled; she’d worry about clean up later. Right
now, she was going to dress up and then go down to Bergie’s—half price appetizers
and discounted Mexican beer! After all these years, she finally had something to celebrate.
Red Velvet, White
both of my ample breasts to adjust them in my new red velvet bikini bra. I turned
sideways and grinned: I liked what I saw, and was certain my boyfriend of six
months, Robbie, would like it even more. He was always so appreciative
of my fun-time outfits; telling me on many occasions that being with me was
“such a luxury”—words every new girlfriend loves to hear.
is going to be the best Christmas Eve ever! I gleefully promised myself. I grabbed
my hairbrush and ran it through my long wheat-blonde hair; hair so shiny it
looked like satin, in the right light. And I always made sure the right lights
are on whenever Robbie comes over.
When Robbie comes over, I mused, he’ll
get two delightful Christmas presents. I opened the center drawer
of my dresser and pulled out a flat box wrapped in jolly holiday paper. The lid was wrapped
separately, for easy opening. I lifted off the top to admire the gift inside—a shiny
switchblade, which opens with the press of a hidden button. He once mentioned how cool
it would be to have one, but those knives were illegal to buy in this state. It so happened,
though, that my Aunt Bertie lives in Arizona, where they are legal, and she was more than
happy to buy one for me. I paid a little extra to get Robbie’s initials engraved
in the handle.
And what would Robbie give me for Christmas? It was
too soon—way too soon—for an engagement ring. But maybe something along the
lines of a real gold bangle bracelet, or an eye-catching necklace—something that
said, taken. I set the boxed gift aside. Now, to pick out just the right lipstick—
came an insistent knock at my front door, interrupting my lipstick picking. Probably
old Mrs. Grady from across the hall, I predicted. Always needs help with
her TV settings, or wants to borrow some little something—
The knocking continued, more urgent now. I glanced at the clock
on my nightstand. It wouldn’t be Robbie, he wouldn’t be here until 7, and it
was only 6:30. He was never early. I snatched my chiffon kimono off the bed, threw
it on over my sexy Santa suit, and clutching it together with one hand, opened the front
door. It was Robbie.
“Well,” I said,
surprised but happy. “Somebody couldn’t wait to see what Santa brought
‘em.” I smiled and ran my tongue across my lips. I let the kimono fall open.
“Get your bad self in here, you naughty elf!” I stood aside, posing with a hand
on my out-thrust hip, allowing him into my apartment. He pushed his way through
without even looking at me. Puzzled, I closed the door and watched as he threw
himself down on the sofa.
I sashayed around the sofa, positioning myself
right in front of him. In a sultry, sing-song voice, I crooned, “Hey, handsome, time
to open presents!” I let the kimono slide off my shoulders and land in a soft pile
around my feet.
respond right away—but when he finally did, he hoarsely muttered, “We have to
talk—” Not what a girl wants to hear on her first Christmas with her brand-spankin’
new boyfriend. I swallowed hard, but smiled brightly to cover my growing anxiety.
honey,” I said warily, sitting down on the opposite end of the sofa.
is—I haven’t been honest with you. There’s something going on in my life—and
I need to let you know about it.”
Robbie looked away
from me and into some vague scene on the other side of the den. “You know, I’m fond
of you—” here he sighed dramatically, “but—there’s someone
else—who’s been in my life a long time—we have a history—our families
have known each other since we were little kids, and—”
my arms defensively, and opening the calendar in my head, recalled all the days and
nights he suddenly canceled our dates, or was inexplicably unavailable. Our
get-togethers always revolved around his schedule, not mine. The color rose hotly
in my cheeks; how could I have been so stupid?
“. . . hard enough for
me to come over here—to tell you in person.” Before
continuing, he straightened his back and thrust out his chin. “I made this
mess, and I’m going to fix it.”
“What?” I hadn’t
heard half of what he’d been saying, because I knew it
wasn’t good—but I had the gist of it. Anyway, what was the point of hearing
these poisonous details? On Christmas Eve, too, when we should’ve been drinking
champagne, eating the little quiches I’d baked for the occasion, and romping—
a long, nerve-deadening silence, Robbie finally turned to look me in
the eye, and blurted out, “I’m engaged.”
“Since when?” was all I could
manage to mumble. I felt sick to my stomach.
before I met you.” He turned away from my disbelieving stare. “I
always meant to tell you, I really did, but things were so—so delirious
with you. I couldn’t. Being with you was like being high—we were wild
out the window of my small apartment as his words rushed out. The
falling snow outside, I realized, looked very much like static falling across
Mrs. Grady’s TV screen when the tuner was out of sync. It dawned on me that I
would need to make a serious adjustment to right this situation. Like an unthinking automaton,
I rose from the sofa and walked towards the bedroom, while Robbie prattled on. “.
. . and being with my fiancé, with Denise, is—well, she’d seem plain and boring
to you—but she grounds me.”
I stopped at the door, and looking
over my shoulder, softly said, “We must exchange gifts.
It’s Christmas Eve—didn’t you tell me it’s tradition in your family
to open one special present on Christmas Eve?” As I disappeared through the shadowy
doorway, Robbie called out.
“We don’t have to do
that—it’s probably not a good idea.” He was determined
not to follow me into the bedroom, because he was weak, and we knew what that would
lead to. But, damn, I did look delicious in that freaky Santa bikini. He grabbed
a throw pillow, and put it over his growing bulge. “Look, I didn’t get you
anything, but maybe—” Maybe, I knew his hedonistic side urged, maybe
just one more tumble between the sheets. A sort of carnal fare-thee-well; I’d
heard of other guys doing that when breaking up—
returned with that slim box wrapped in festive paper. “Here, this is for
you.” I didn’t meet his eyes. He took the gift, opened the box, and I could
tell by his expression he was thinking, was this some sort of joke? He
picked up a silvery tube of lipstick nestled in the padding within. He tossed
both the box and lipstick onto the floor. Before he could comment, I snuggled
up next to Robbie, and held up the polished wooden handle of my Christmas surprise. He
barely noticed; his mind now being on other things—mainly, getting me into bed one
last time. He leaned in close to nuzzle my neck, smell my hair. He inhaled deeply, relaxed,
and closed his eyes in anticipation. Before he could suggest what we both knew he would,
I pushed the small button on the device in my hand. In the blink of an eye, a sharp, slender
blade clicked open and I slipped that keen assassin between his fourth and fifth ribs,
right underneath his sternum. I pulled it out just as quickly.
a panic, Robbie stood up unsteadily, intent on making his escape out the
front door. He failed and stumbled, crashed into my Christmas tree, and crushed
some of the presents I’d placed beneath it. Furious at the mess he’d caused,
and full of righteous indignation, I stood over him, baring my teeth. I looked
down on Robbie as he rudely bled out all over my hand-crafted Christmas tree skirt
and assorted presents for my nieces and nephews. I wiped the blood-smeared switchblade
clean on my bikini bottom, then waved the knife like a fairy-godmother waves her wand,
breaking the spell of intoxicating infatuation I’d been under, once and for all.
I bent over, close to Robbie's blanching face, and said through a smile that was more of
“Now it’s my turn to open
up a present.” I ripped his shirt front open, popping all the buttons, baring his
trembling, leaking torso. The switchblade in my hand glittered colorfully beneath the Christmas
tree’s blinking lights. “Let’s see what Santa brought me—”
|Art by Hillary Lyon © 2020
Blood Will Bloom Like a Watercolor
always wears red because, get this, she says it is the color of extreme artistic
passion and sensual power, and besides, it hides the blood. I keep telling her,
forget all that other nonsense, if you really want to hide the blood, you have
to wear black. All black, head to toe. But she loves the garish color, says it
brings out her true self, or something. She’s a drama queen, so I don’t argue.
We met in a
watercolor class at the local community center, of all places. The class was
listed in the spring catalog under Self-Improvement & Continuing Education.
Forty dollars for a four-week course, not including the cost of supplies. Though the class
was only about half full, she sat next to me each week and made snarky comments under her
breath about the assignments. I couldn’t help but snicker, because the assignments
were lame, and her sense of humor was wicked. I enrolled in the class for a little
me-time and socialization, she enrolled because her therapist recommended it. She’s
not crazy, she’s just a little tightly wound, as my grandma would’ve said.
Girlfriend just needed something calming to do, something to help her get centered. Like
we all do, at one time or another. Don’t you judge her.
Anyway, we became
friends—fast. Had lots in common. I love old Tarantino flicks, so does she. I
love spicy food like jerk chicken and jalapeno poppers, so does she. I love
refurbishing old furniture I find at yard sales, so does she. Well, she likes
to go yard-sale-ing with me, and likes to hang out while I work. I love the music of Shawn
Colvin and Puddles Pity Party and Journey, and she’s an absolute fan-girl, as well.
I get a kick out of spit-balling various ways to kill my husband, and she does too.
I refer to her as Girlfriend, doesn’t mean we’re lovers, so get your mind out
of the gutter, you swine. We’re just really close, that’s all. Twin-sister
close. Sometimes, she finishes my sentences, helps me find the right word when I have a
brain freeze. I mean, I swear, it’s like she can read my mind. So that’s how
I knew it would be totally cool to toss out ideas in regards to offing my lying,
no-good husband. I brought the idea of his death up as a kind-of joke—like, ha
ha, what if his plane crashed on the way back from that conference in
Chicago—and she read between the lines, right away. She laughed, but I could
see in her eyes, she took me seriously. Girlfriend argued that innocent people need
not die just to get rid of one sorry bastard.
We were in the backyard. I was sanding
down an old end table, sweating and headache-y from the south Louisiana heat and humidity.
Couldn’t work in the cool shade of the carport, since that’s where husband
parked his precious Mercedes, and he didn’t want any saw-dust or paint-splatters
or grungy tools to contaminate the aura of his parking space. I drove a “gently-used”
Cherokee, because that’s a much more practical vehicle. I parked on the street. Anyway,
that afternoon Girlfriend sat on the ground behind me, whisper-singing “Don’t
Fear the Reaper.” She’s better than a radio, really. Always seems to know just
exactly what type of music I’m in the mood for, and hums or sings softly to me. At
this particular time, I was not paying much attention to her music—which was rude
of me, I know, but I was on a rant about my worthless husband.
me toward the end of the work day, I tell her. After I’ve already got dinner under
way. Says he’s got to go on a business dinner, can’t be helped, and he’ll
call me when he starts home. Sounds thoughtful, right? Except when he phones later,
the caller i.d. never fails to read something like “Teasers Gentlemen’s Club”
or “Bushwhackers” or “Blue Moon Motel.” See, he has to use the
phones at those places because he always “forgets” his cell phone. Leaves it
on the dresser so I can’t call him at the office or wherever and bother him. The
secretaries already know to tell me he’s in a meeting when I call—whether he
is or not. Another fun fact: It’s not unusual for him to leave his wedding ring out
on the dresser, too, in full view. Of course, he always has to “work” on weekends,
as well. Ironically, he’s the one who suggested I take a class, or
something—anything to fill my time and make friends. To get me out of his thinning
You’d think, with all his hard work,
we’d be rolling in dough. If that’s the case, why do I have to clip coupons
and buy everything at discount outlets and yard sales? Because, he told me on his third
tumbler of imported scotch one night when he was actually home for dinner, he works hard
to earn money, so it’s his. I can get a job or whatever, if I want my own
money. What a sweetheart, right? Don’t think he understands how marriage works. I
stay home and take care of the house, do laundry, pay the bills, fix the meals, and all
that jazz, but he doesn’t see that as work. I am convinced that he thinks I’m
his mother. Not his housekeeper, though, because then he’d have to pay me.
time while I’m venting, Girlfriend listens thoughtfully, tilting her head this way
and that. Like a good dog trying to decipher her master’s mood and message. And
when I finally say, most days I’d like to kill him to get free of this
living-death-marriage, she says, well, why not? You could divorce him, she says,
but where’s the fun in that? Plus, she points out that if I’m a widow, then
everybody will be kind to me and bring me casseroles and run errands for me.
Everyone worries and cares, at least for a while. But if I divorce him, well—who
gives a damn about divorcees? They’re so common these days. I had to agree. Girlfriend
did make some good points.
So, we start coming up with murder plans, just for fun.
It was like a game, you know, to pass the time on a lazy afternoon. At one point, Girlfriend
leans back on the grass and gives me a cat-ate-the-canary smile. She looks me in the eye
and licks her lips. I have the perfect way, she tells me. Look, you have this big, beautiful
swimming pool right here in your own backyard. Got a tall wooden fence all
around. Enormous trees sheltering this space, making it really private and
secluded. How about, next time he comes home drunk—which will be the next time
he comes home—after he passes out, you slit his throat. I’ll help you drag his
fat ass into the pool. Then we get in your car and split for somewhere west.
Like Texas or Arizona or California. Hell, maybe we’ll just go down to Mexico.
Lots of really good spicy food there, she adds.
I look up from wiping
down the end table, and smile.
* * *
The very next night,
sumbitch husband stumbles blind-drunk into bed, already snoring like a gored ox
before his head hit the pillow. Too out of it to undress, big surprise.
Girlfriend pops up out of the shadows in the closet and helps me
undress the slob. Don’t know how she does it—always being right there when
I need her—but I’m glad she does. It’s like she’s magic, or something.
I don’t question; I just accept. Anyway, we pull off his shirt and shoes, tug off
his socks and pants. It’s like undressing an ogre. A cigarette-stinking, booze-sweaty,
under-bridge-dwelling ogre out of a scary fairy tale, who still wears tighty-whiteys. Girlfriend
asks me, what kind of male wears tighty-whiteys after they’re over the age of
twelve? I sigh and tell her, the kind whose 76-year-old mother still buys their
underwear for them, that’s who. And gives it to them for Christmas. Girlfriend
peels off the offending undies, grimacing as she does. The whole scene is like
something out of a black comedy.
Hubby-troll was so blotto I could smash cymbals next to his fat head and he wouldn’t
hear it, much less wake up. Girlfriend says to me, hey, here ya go. She hands me a filleting
knife, one from the wooden block in the kitchen. How’d she get that so fast? I wonder
but don’t ask; I just take. The blade is long and thin and really, really sharp.
I like it.
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. That’s it. I create three
fluid strokes with that delicate filleting knife across his flabby throat, like a calligraphy
brush across rice paper. I’m done and he’s bleeding out like the clichéd stuck
pig—which is what he is. Who’d have thought the old fart had so much blood
in him? I remember reading something like that in Shakespeare, in high school lo! these
many years ago. Well, William didn’t use the word “fart” in Macbeth,
but the sentiment is the same. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of blood, though my
mother always said, where blood’s concerned, it always looks like there so much more
than there actually is. I don’t know about that. His blood soaked his pillow and
all the sheets, and through the mattress. Plus blood leaking, slopping all over the
carpet, seeping down to the pad. Ugh. Think of how much bleach and how many
buckets of warm soapy water and hard-scrubbing and—wait a minute. This is not
going to be my mess to clean up, I realized, and that made it easier not
to care. Exactly, Girlfriend giggled, shaking her head in agreement and
flashing her devil-may-care grin. About time, she added, you saw how much better
life is going to be, now that you’ve finally decided to take action. Nothing
worse than whiner who won’t shit or get off the pot.
Back to business.
Girlfriend said for me to grab his feet and drag him off the bed, which I did. He slid
off the mattress easily. She tried to grab him under his arms, but he was so slick with
blood, her grip kept slipping, and she kept dropping him. Thunk, thunk, thunk. His head
hit the floor, again and again and again. It was ridiculous; I couldn’t help but
laugh at her efforts. Never mind, I said to her. I’ll take it from here. You go slide
open the patio door.
Jeez, the mook must’ve
weighed over 300 pounds. No wonder he recently bought new clothes. Nothing more unattractive
to strippers and office skanks than a fat man in tight clothes, no matter how much money
he throws at them. I had to stop twice, to catch my breath and give my arms a rest. I was
in good shape, but I can’t haul 300 pounds across the house in one fell swoop. Girlfriend
kept urging me on, though, gently reminding me I had to be on the road before dawn.
I drug the ogre-man through the den and out the patio
door. Under the moonlight, the trail of blood he left behind looked like nothing more than
a very long skid mark, which could be a metaphor for my marriage to that big goon. I lugged
him over to the edge of the pool, and rolled him in. Splish. There was a bit of blood still
in him, and it blossomed in the water like a dark and lovely flower—it reminded me
of watercolors spreading on a canvas. It was inspiring. What an interesting
painting this scene would make. Maybe I should take a photo, for future
Girlfriend interrupted. Just study the scene. Later, you can paint
it from memory. Matter of fact, you can do a whole series of murder-scene paintings, she
encouraged. Think how stunning the subjects will appear, portrayed in watercolors. Consider
the contrast of a harsh, violent act rendered in the soothing, blurred softness of watercolors.
It will probably make you famous, and then you’ll have your own money, to spend how
and when you like.
She was right. I
washed off the patio, so there’d be no blood to draw flies and other unsavory critters.
I changed out of my black jeans and t-shirt, and into a gorgeous, sleeveless red satin
dress with gold flowers embroidered along its Mandarin collar—an expensive, sophisticated
dress I’d bought for an office Christmas party that we never attended. With my black
hair and pale skin, the vivid color made me look like a movie star. Or a vampire, which
is equally glamorous. I threw my black clothes into a plastic bag. I could burn them later,
or better yet, wash them and donate to a church charity. I like that idea. I’m all
With my bags previously
packed and already loaded into the SUV, I locked up the house and hit the road. Girlfriend
stayed behind, preferring to lurk in the shadows of the now-empty house. So, she wasn’t
with me on my long trek across the country. She didn’t appear like magic in the car’s
passenger seat, or across from me in a diner’s vinyl booth—mainly because she
doesn’t exist. But then you knew that, didn’t you? Don’t you judge me.
Baked in the Cake
1 box German chocolate cake mix
1 cup water
1 bottle (1 oz) red food color
granulated rat poison
2 tablespoons unsweetened baking
1 tub store-bought frosting
* * *
“Happy birthday, Momma,” I said in saccharine
tones as I placed the sheet cake on the kitchen table before her. “I made your favorite,”
I added, carving out a generous slice for her, and slid it onto a balloon-themed paper
plate. She clapped her hands with glee. She speared a big chunk with her fork, and shoved
it greedily into her mouth. “Aren’t you gonna have some?” She mumbled
through a mouthful of cake, dropping crumbs form the corners of her lips.
“Nah, you know I don’t
like the taste of red food coloring.”
“This was your Daddy’s favorite, too,”
she informed me, as if I didn’t already know. “I always brought him a home-made
red velvet cake when I’d go visit.”
“How’d you get it past the guards?”
“Well, of course, they’d
get a slice first, to be sure I hadn’t included any ‘contraband’ like
a giant file like they use is old cartoons,” I added. She laughed at that.
“So you brought a cake
every time you visited, what, like once a month?”
“Uh huh.” She cut off another big
chunk of cake. “And he ate it up like it was the best thing in the world.”
She looked off into an undefined distance. “Well, almost the best thing.” She
chuckled, remembering some private joke between her and Dad.
“Like conjugal visits?”
hon, we weren’t allowed those!” She put the cake in her mouth. “But your
Daddy was smart, oh! so smart—” she giggled like a wicked schoolgirl. “He
figured out a way for us to—” Her eyes glistened with the memory. Glistened!
I had to bite my lip to hide my revulsion.
“And thus, I was conceived.”
laughed out loud at that, open-mouthed, showing all the world a wet mouthful of blood-brown
red velvet cake. She slapped the table and began to cough. Guess a bit of cake went down
the wrong pipe. I walked over to the fridge to get her a glass of milk.
was smart, I’ll grant you that,” I said putting the cold glass down in front
of her. “But not so smart as to evade arrest.”
* * *
that night, I heard her gagging and retching in our bathroom. We lived in a tiny, two-bedroom,
one-bathroom house in a seedy part of town. So much for Dad’s notoriety bringing
us fame and fortune. Not even any offers for book deals.
I watched from the doorway until finally
she noticed me out of the corner of her eye. “Oh, honey, help me. I feel so awful.”
She looked so pathetic, slumped on the dirty tile floor by the toilet. So thin
and pale. Cadaverous. No wonder Dad thought she was hot.
“You likely picked up a bug doing your
‘good Samaritan’ gig teaching those felons how to read,” I suggested,
helping her stand.
“But those poor young men need attention, and
to feel like someone cares about them—” she countered, defensively. My God!
She was a prison groupie. I always suspected Dad wasn’t her first. Or her
last. I walked her back to her bed and tucked her in. “I’ll open up a can
of chicken soup,” I said looking at her frail, helpless form—a predator’s
* * *
1 can chicken noodle soup
1 can water
2 heaping tablespoons granulated rat
1 teaspoon garlic salt
* * *
“Here, now drink this all
up, Momma,” I encouraged, handing her a mug of the chicken soup. “You need
to stay hydrated.” I watched her take a sip. “I added garlic salt to give
it some flavor. Plus, the salt will make you more thirsty, so you’ll drink more.”
I pushed her elbow, so as to move the mug of soup closer to her mouth.
She looked at me with adoration.
“Sometimes,” Momma whispered hoarsely, “when I look at you, at your
eyes, I swear I see your Daddy staring back at me.”
“Drink up, Ma.” She slurped the
broth and noodles. I stood beside her bed, arms crossed, until she was done. “Now,
you get some sleep,” I said, taking the empty mug from her. I slapped off the
bedroom's light-switch. “Go to sleep.”
* * *
morning I went into check on Momma, like any dutiful daughter would. And there she lay,
cold and gray and not moving, not an inch.
Now it was my turn to clap my hands with
glee. I skipped out to the ratty old storage shed, grabbed the can of gasoline
I kept in there, just waiting for the day. For today.
I splashed that pungent accelerant all through our shoddy
shack of a house, starting with Ma’s bedroom. From the top drawer of my dresser—my
underwear drawer, where I keep my trinkets, like my collection of men’s wedding rings
(Mom calls them my ‘souvenirs’)—I pulled out a stale pack of 20 year-old
cigarettes. A brand they don’t even make anymore, but it was my Dad’s favorite.
This pack, in particular, was my Dad’s last pack; the one the prison warden gave
him, so he could have one final earthly pleasure before he was marched off to meet Old
pulled out a cigarette, lit it with a match from the box of kitchen matches, and took a
deep, nauseating drag. Nasty things, cigarettes; they’ll kill ya. I laughed out loud
at that, and tossed the lit cigarette onto Mom’s gasoline-soaked bed.
Whoosh! I was out of there like
a jackrabbit. Gear packed and already in the car, I was a block away when in my
rear-view mirror, I saw the whole place go up in flames like a glorious funeral
pyre. Our lousy wood-frame house turned out to be good for something, at last.
the first stoplight, I dug through my coat pocket for
the long list I’d spent years composing. The Internet is a wonderful thing, if you
know how to use it. I’d collected the names and addresses of cops, detectives, witnesses,
judges, jurors—a whole small town’s worth of complicit folks, folks who needed
to be punished for what they did to my Dad, and by extension, to me. I had my work cut
out for me, but that was okay, I love a challenge, and—I was my father’s daughter,
Hearts in Retrograde
Sheryl pulled on the elbow-length black rubber gloves
and smiled at her reflection in the mirror. Perfection! Combined with the knee-length white
doctor’s smock, buttoned at the left collar bone, and the indigo-tinted oval glasses,
she was a dead-ringer for a mad scientist from a 1930’s horror movie. Sheryl pulled
her mousy brown hair back into a smooth, tight ponytail to complement the look. The object
of her desire, Jerry, would be impressed! He was a big fan of the old school shockers,
anything starring Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, or Boris Karloff.
On her way out, she stopped short.
The heart! She skipped back to her dressing table and opened her grandmother’s
jewelry box. It was a beautiful thing, this little heart-shaped coffin,
hand-crafted polished mahogany trimmed with silver filigree. The lock on the lid
was broken long ago, as the old woman lay dying and Sheryl just had to
get to her hands on Grandma’s onyx ring before the rest of the family appeared.
The ring she currently wore beneath the rubber gloves, causing an unsightly lump on her
left index finger.
pawed through the jewelry, growing more and more inpatient, and—there it was! A ruby-red,
cloisonne heart-shaped pin, about the size of a silver dollar. Sheryl pinned the brooch
to her smock, over her own beating heart. Now her look was complete. She dumped the contents
of the jewelry box on the dresser, and shoved the box into her black doctor’s bag,
where it nested among many mysterious and sharp, stainless steel things.
* * *
“Get a load of crazy over there,”
Albert nudged his friend with his elbow. Jerry had his back turned, scooping punch
into a red plastic cup. He looked over his shoulder. Albert snickered, “Do you
think she forgot this is a community college Valentine’s dance? She looks more
like a Halloween goth nightmare that—”
“Stop it,” Jerry interrupted. “She’s
not so bad, just, ah, unique. And kinda cute, in her way.” He took a sip from his
red plastic cup, and frowned. “This potion needs a kick.” He reached inside
his blazer for his flask, but Albert grabbed his wrist.
“Nah, bro,” Albert giggled. “I
dosed it myself.” He crossed his arms and shook his head with smug satisfaction.
“This party’s about to get wild. Get these losers out of their comfort
shoulders sagged. “You just had to make sure they don’t have this party again—ever—didn’t
you? Why do you always have to sabotage everything?” Albert turned to Jerry and grinned,
but before he could say anything, an arm in a long black rubber glove reached
between them and snagged Jerry’s cup of punch.
“Hey, I don’t think you want that,
it’s—” Jerry started, but it was too late. Sheryl had chugged the whole thing.
Albert slapped his hand over his own mouth to muffle his laughter. Tears leaked
from the corners of his eyes.
Great, Jerry mourned
internally. Now she’ll freak out. Because I’m
a nice guy, I’ll babysit her the whole evening, until it wears off. So much for romance.
Damn you, Albert.
my bag, Albert,” Sheryl commanded as she handed it over. “Jerry and I must
dance! This is my favorite song, and he’s my favorite guy.” Jerry actually
blushed, though under the colored disco lights, it was hard to tell.
“I don’t want to
guard your purse, you—” but Sheryl was out of earshot, dragging Jerry onto
the dance floor. “Fine,” Albert hissed. Sheryl's black bag was heavy, and
lumpy. He couldn’t pry it open; there was a small lock keeping its contents secret
Two very attractive young ladies—twins, maybe—both
dressed in red velvet, sidled over to the punch bowl. With luscious, glossy cherry lips,
they both smiled broadly at Albert. One twirled a strand of her long blonde hair, while
the other leaned forward and whispered, “You should never sample your own product.”
They looked at each other and laughed manically before melting into a fine red mist.
Albert looked down into his empty
cup. When did I drink this punch? Don’t remember doing that.
“Hey!” Sheryl shouted
over the dance music, to a distracted Albert. “Your turn.” She snatched her
doctor’s bag and roughly grabbed Albert by the arm. She’s really strong
for such a little thing, Albert thought. Must be the drugs. Sheryl led him
not to the dance floor, but away from the party, and out through a side door.
They were in a narrow linoleum
tiled hallway, lit by a single sad light fixture. “In here,” Sheryl directed.
She opened the door to a small classroom.
“First, kiss my ring,”
Sheryl ordered, holding her left fist in Albert’s face. He obediently kissed the
lump under her glove. Is she a dominatrix? Well, this is kinky, Albert mused.
“Now, lie down on the floor,” Sheryl commanded as she
pointed to an area in the center of the room. An area lined with black plastic garbage
No wonder Jerry likes her, Albert decided, she’s
into all kinds of crazy grown-up fun. “Hey, when did you put those—”
Albert began, but with surprising force, Sheryl pushed him down. Albert saw stars when
his head hit the hard floor. Before he could sit up, she jabbed a loaded hypo into his
neck. The stars returned, exploded into fireworks. Albert heard metal clinking,
clanking against metal. The edge of the knife was cold, the actions of the
wielder, confident and quick. For Albert, the stars winked out, one by one, and
were soon no more.
* * *
Jerry still lingered by the punch bowl
table, looking lost. He perked up when he saw Sheryl walking his way. She
does look pretty cool, Jerry thought to himself. Like a super villain in
an old movie. She raised her tinted glasses. When their eyes met, they both
you two go?” Jerry asked with a tinge of jealousy in his voice.
“Don’t you worry
about that!” Sheryl chirped. “I have something for you . . .” Jerry noticed
she carried a wooden heart-shaped box in her black-gloved hands; a box that dripped something
dark and syrupy. He also noticed she’d added wine-red splotches and streaks to her
smock—what a perfect outfit! So creative! I wonder how she dresses for
Halloween? I’d love to see that! She held up the box to Jerry, like a
supplicant with her dearest offering. What’s this? Chocolates? For me? Jerry
He took the box, a little embarrassed. “Hey, Sheryl, I didn’t
get you anything, I didn’t know if you’d—”
She touched a slick, gloved finger to
his lips, leaving a coppery-tasting wet smear. “Sshh. Just open it, lover boy.”
Sheryl leaned close enough to Jerry to breathe in his ear, sending a delicious
shiver down his spine. “We’ll share.”
With an MA in
English Literature from SMU, Hillary Lyon founded and for 20 years acted as
senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. Her speculative,
horror, and sci-fi stories have appeared in numerous print and online publications such
as Night to Dawn, Tales from the Moonlit Path, Sirens Call, and Theme
of Absence, as well as in multiple anthologies. She is also an illustrator for
horror/sci-fi, and pulp fiction sites.