(trigger warning domestic violence)
My husband was a mean man that was certain. Duke held my head over the toilet and asked me once more.
“Did you eat it?”
“Liar!” he spat at me.
“I swear it, Duke!”
I felt his meaty hands grip my neck. He began to choke me until I got sick. I coughed and spewed until the pink substance came up and into the toilet.
“I knew it!” he laughed so hard until he nearly fell over from his glee.
“It was only one bite of Danny’s birthday cake,” I said, finally able to breathe.
“My little piggy. Go clean yourself up.”
I felt sick again but not for the same reasons as a moment ago.
“It was a joke! Don’t go getting all emotional.
I said my husband was a mean man.
I had dinner on the table and a smile on my face. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Rathbone, sat at the table. He was a kind man, and we always looked the picture of perfection.
“This was a mighty fine meal you made, Lucy,” he said, looking at me. “I brought some brownies, here have one.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t.” I smiled, recounting what happened in the bathroom an hour before.
“Go on. There are walnuts. I made them myself.”
I looked at Duke.
“Yeah, but not too much.” he winked. “I can’t have my wife looking like one of those cows at the county fair.”
“Can I have one, too?” our son asked. I had nearly forgotten he was there; my mind had been so far away.
“One,” Duke said sternly. “You already had leftover birthday cake.”
“That reminds me. Go inside my jacket, Danny, there is a present for you.”
“Oh, Mr. Rathbone, you didn’t have to.”
“I did too. It isn’t every day a boy turns ten.”
Danny ran to the older man’s jacket and pulled out a box of bullets. My forehead wrinkled immediately.
“Next to it, you will find a hunting rifle. Your very first and I’ll help teach you how to use it. I had the same one at your age.”
“I don’t want Danny to have-”
“Oh, I like that!” Duke interrupted.
“Danny is only ten,” I spoke up.
“He needs to learn how to use one, so when I take him hunting, maybe he will hit something other than the ground. It will teach him how to be a man.”
I was more concerned than these two, and with Duke, in support, I knew there was no reason to say anymore. His word was final.
I didn’t want to take any joy from my son because he was so excited to learn how to hunt with a real rifle. I was less okay. All I could see was him injuring himself or worse.
I was too ill to finish even one bite of the brownie that sat in front of me.
Duke walked over to me and kissed my cheek, and as he did, he pushed the plate with the brownie away from me.
Duke’s cell phone rang. “It’s work. If you all will excuse me,” he said, walking out.
Mr. Rathbone was showing Danny where to load the gun and talking to him about the proper way to store the firearm. He looked over at me. “Say, Danny, do you think you can grab my tackle box in my garage.”
Danny ran out of the house as quick as lightning.
Mr. Rathbone looked over his shoulder and then looked at me, smiling. “Mrs. Calohan, it isn’t just for Danny,” he lowered his voice. “It’s for you too.”
“Oh, I have no idea why that would be.”
“I’m not stupid. I see how he treats you.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. Would you like any leftovers to take home?”
“No, tell me, did you eat today?”
“I’m sorry?” I was growing uncomfortable.
“You’re a good lookin’ woman, Lucy. If I were about thirty years younger..”
Duke came in just then.
“Sorry about that. It looks like I have to leave for Boca Raton day after the Fourth of July.”
“Too bad, I thought we were going to take the boat out to the lake for the entire weekend.”
“Mr. Wimbly wants me to be there for that meeting. You remember the one.”
I didn’t, but I just nodded.
Mr. Rathbone said goodbye and winked at me as he left, leaving the rifle next to me and the casing of bullets on the table.
I went to get ready for bed, and Danny stayed up with Duke as Duke talked to him about their next hunting trip. It was part of the reason I was still around because there was some good left in Duke because he was an amazing father to Danny. He was never cruel towards him. It was night and day with me compared to Danny. Part of me envied his ignorance.
I had thought of leaving numerous times, but I was always afraid of the alternative. The thought of Duke and the nasty divorce that would fallow. I knew he had connections. He had plenty of them, more than I. Duke would often threaten to take Danny and disappear.
It was something I knew Duke would do because he was cruel to me in every way possible. I often thought that if I were dead, he’d die too because I kept him alive. If he didn’t’ have me as his punching bag, he’d be lost.
There were so many moments I wanted to kill myself; I had even figured out how I’d do it; pills I kept hidden under the mattress. I had stolen a strong prescription of sleeping medication; it would only take a few to put me out for good because I was never one for chemical substances. I couldn’t even take Tylenol without getting an upset stomach, but I always worried about my son. I worried that Duke would turn on him, and right now, he still had me to kick around, so he didn’t have to turn on Danny.
I stood looking at myself in the mirror in the dim light of the night I looked almost pretty for once. I had become a bit chunkier in the last few years, and Duke didn’t like bigger women. He had made me try every diet known to man. I often starved myself just to fit in a simple pair of jeans. I had begun to hate the way I looked, and the way I felt about myself only became mirrored by the way Duke treated me. Part of me felt like I had made my bed, so I may as well lay in it.
I had chosen Duke over another guy in the early stages of dating. He wasn’t as handsome or as well off. Duke had a future in sales and the other guy- what was his name? Andrew. Yes, Andrew, I thought as a warm smile crossed my face. It had been so long since I was that young girl with so much hope.
Duke came into the bedroom and smiled at me.
I cringed because I knew that look.
“You look pretty.”
Duke came up behind me, kissing my neck. He smelled like old spice, and part of me wanted to throw up again how I hated that smell. Before Duke, I had never given it a second thought, but if I had never to smell that cologne again as long as I lived, I’d die happy. I let Duke do things to me that most women would be self-conscious. I never wanted Duke to feel like I rejecting him because the alternative was way worse.
The next morning I got him and felt a bruise in my knee. He had been more rough than usual last night.
I had to get up an hour or so every morning to look like the image on a magazine cover and get Duke and Danny’s lunches ready. I went to shower and shave so that I was smooth for him. I had to be the embodiment of perfection at all times. I had even had to undergo breast augmentation for the fact that Duke didn’t like the fact my breasts were not perfect. I had had a nose job as well, and several lip injections. The nose job wasn’t because I had been ugly; it was from Duke punching me in the face one night because I had sassed him.
I looked at myself in the mirror, how different I looked in the daylight compared to the dimness of the night lights. I looked like a bleached blonde sex doll. So I showered and put on something nice.
Duke was in a rush this morning because he had a meeting scheduled at the last minute.
I had his lunch ready, and his toast was on the go. He kissed me on the cheek and then asked me what was going to be for dinner.
“Meatloaf and roasted red potatoes,” I said without thinking of whether or not I even had all of the ingredients.
“Great,” he said and rushed out the door.
Meant I had better check the pantry.
It was time for Danny to go to school, so I put him on the bus with his lunch. I made him and Duke the same sandwiches every morning. They were a lot alike, and part of me cringed at the thought that he could end up like his father.
I was standing in the kitchen looking through the cans of sauce and calculating how much gravy I’d need when I heard something that made me take pause.
“NO!” it was a blood-curdling scream.
I looked out of the kitchen window. Maybe I had heard things. I heard another scream that sounded more like a man. I realized it was coming from the direction of Mr. Rathbone’s home.
I quickly went out of my side door and went over to Mr. Rathbone’s property. I knocked on his side door. I couldn’t hear anything.
“Mr. Rathbone, are you okay?”
I heard nothing. I noticed the side door to his house that lead to his basement was open. The first thing I noticed when I went inside was the smell.
Something awful was coming from the basement. I began to worry that something had happened to Mr. Rathbone. He was older and moved a bit slower than he used to.
I saw the light spinning around and around in the basement. It circled until I saw what looked like blood splatter.
I went further into the basement. The lamp was broken, and it went on and off like a strobe light. I couldn’t quite see anything, but then I felt something.
I looked up and realized that something was dripping onto my face.
I touched my cheek with a strange certainty that it as, in fact, blood.
I worried that it was Mr. Rathbone’s blood, but I knew it was not deep down.
For some reason, I found myself curious as to what was on the darker side of the basement.
I moved slowly as they did in a horror movie. As I got closer, I saw photos of what looked like women and maybe men tied up and cut in various ways. I didn’t understand what I was looking at.
I didn’t want to know.
“Lucy?” I heard the voice behind me.
I turned in terror to see Mr. Rathbone wild-eyed and bleeding from his forehead. He had a large butcher’s knife at his side. Then I noticed his arm looked injured as well.
“Oh my god, Mr. Rathbone, what is all this? What did you do to your head? Are you okay?”
His demeanor calmed as he looked at me.
“What are you doing in my house, Lucy?”
“I heard screaming.”
He looked down at the knife he wielded at his side and then back at me.
“What did you see?”
“I don’t know honestly.” I began to realize that something was indeed wrong and not only with Mr. Rathbone.
“Let me get cleaned up and I’ll make us a cup of coffee.” He said as casually as he had always been.
“Do you need a doctor?”
“No more than you do at times,” he said wrily, and I knew what he was referring to.
“I think I better be going. I’m glad you are okay.”
“Lucy, nothing is ever what it seems.”
I somehow knew his meaning, but I was too afraid to move. I just wanted to be out of Mr. Rathbone’s house.
“No, “ I feigned a smile. “It isn’t.”
I walked back towards the top of the basement stairs and towards the real world, whatever that meant.
Mr. Rathbone just watched me. There was no malice in his eyes as he watched me. I was afraid of what I had seen. Was I overreacting? Maybe it wasn’t what I thought. I was sure I had heard someone scream moments before, and I knew the screams were not from Mr. Rathbone. What in god’s name was he doing in that house? I honestly did not want to know.
The Fourth of July came soon enough, and that meant fireworks and parades. Duke was abnormally agitated on the morning of the holiday, and he was in one of his moods. I hated these moods. He got unusually cruel when he was anxious.
That afternoon, we took Danny to the parade in town, and I noticed someone watching me from the corner of my eye. When I looked up, it was Mr. Rathbone. I got sick to my stomach as he approached the three of us.
“Hi there, Danny. Have you had any practice with your new rifle?”
“Not yet, dad said he plans to take me when he gets back from his trip.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Rathbone smiled and looked up at me.
“Tell me Duke, when will you be back from your trip?”
I felt sick.
“Hoping by as early as Sunday evening. I hate these trips during the holidays. Long layovers make me crazy. But at least I can use the company credit card on something other than bud light.” Duke laughed.
“Well, I” ll be sure to look out for your family while you are gone.”
“Have a nice day.”
I didn’t want to know what that meant.
One of Danny’s friends, Kyle, came up to us then.
“Danny, do you want to come with me and mom and dad to the fireworks? We have the best seats to watch them.”
“Can I?” Danny asked Duke, not me.
“Oh, I guess. Kyle, do your parents know?”
“Yeah, mom said it was okay.”
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Callohan. Is it okay if Danny joins us? It is all Kyle has been talking about.”
“I supposed it is okay. Be on your best behavior, Danny. I don’t want any bad reports from Kyle’s mom and dad.”
“I promise, dad!”
Danny was gone in seconds. In a way, I was glad he was going to be gone. I had not been much in the mood for entertaining after what I had seen earlier in the week in Mr.Rathbone’s basement.
After the parade, we went home for a bit since the fireworks would be an hour or so off. I had to finish packing Duke’s overnight bag.
“Did you put in my black socks?”
“Yes, and a few pairs of white socks, too, just in case.”
“Is this wrinkled?”
“Oh, I can iron it.”
“You can’t iron this material, what the fuck is wrong with you? If it weren’t for me, you’d be the dumbest woman on the planet. Guess it is a good thing you married out of your league.” he chuckled.
I had had it with him, and before I could self check myself, my mouth spoke for me sealing my fate.
“What did you just say?”
“I said, screw you! You are a pig!” tears welled up in my eyes.
Then I felt the sting of the back of his hand.
I fell to the ground and hit my head on the bedpost.
All it did was make me angrier.
“I hate you!” I spewed my Venum.
“What did you say to me?”
He didn’t let me answer.
I felt it instead, as he grabbed me by the back of my neck and dragged me into the hallway and towards the stairs. I could see the lights of the fireworks that had now begun in the distance. I thought of all the freedom they represented. I only wished for mine, for the death that I was sure would come if he threw me down the stairs.
The fireworks were louder, and I felt him pull me towards the balcony overlooking our family room. Then I heard one of the most booming fireworks I had ever heard in my life. It was so loud it lit my ears on fire.
I heard a loud thud behind me.
I turned around to see Duke had been shot straight through the forehead. He was dead on the spot.
I looked at him, and then I looked around in terror.
I looked downstairs and realized that Mr. Rathbone had shot Duke. The rifle he had given Danny was in his hands.
He said nothing; he walked up the stairs and pulled me close to him as I cried. I was scared to death of what had just happened to me. I was also afraid of Mr. Rathbone, and yet I was grateful he had saved my life.
“Are you okay? Can you walk?”
I nodded tears, still streaming down my cheeks.
“I’ll take care of the body.”
“What?” I was confused, “But shouldn’t’ I call the cops?”
“No. The town idiots didn’t hear anything. They will assume the gunshot was part of the light show. We need to get him out of her before Danny gets home.”
“Won’t they come looking for him?”
“He was going away on business. Shit happens. They will think he had a mistress.”
I didn’t know why I let him do what he did, but he threw Duke over his shoulder like it was nothing for a man of his age and carried him outside and went towards the side door that leads into his basement. He laid Duke inside and stood just outside the door in the dark of night. Lights from the fireworks gave him an almost supernatural look.
“What do I do?”
Mr. Rathbone put Duke’s body inside his house and came over, wiping a tear from my cheek, smiling tenderly. He shrugged.
“ Some of us have different needs, Lucy. I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine. Lucy consider this your Independence Day.”
With that, he went inside slamming his door.