Whodunit

She strikes the match. A spark of light ignites the end of the cigarette perched between her lips.

“I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” he says. “It’s not ladylike.”

“What do you know of being a lady?” She blows into his face, laughs when he inhales and coughs for air.

She needs something to laugh at. After the week they’ve had. Police in and out. Guests confined to their rooms. Bodies in bags wheeled through the rotating doors.

It’s the first day she doesn’t see a news van camped outside her hotel. She’ll savor this moment of peace and quiet.

“Why do you think he did it?” he asks.

She shrugs, takes another drag. “Why does any husband kill his wife?”

“But Maria, too?”

She closes her eyes. She will choose to ignore the pain in his voice at the mention of the second floor maid. Especially since she’s not supposed to know about the affair. As far as he, the authorities, the hotel guests, and the rest of the staff are concerned, Maria was strangled after she walked in on the man finishing off his wife.

And that’s how she wants to keep it.

—Nortina


 

Fright Night Fridays:  Every Friday night, dare to venture into something spooky, something paranormal, something suspenseful, something that would surely give you a fright. Are you brave enough to stick around?

Widow

She stares at the blaze reflected in the pond.

“What have I done?”

Emergency personnel will arrive soon. A fire of that size can’t go on unnoticed. She needs to disappear.

She cups her hands, sinks them beneath the surface, and splashes water on her face to wipe away the soot, but she feels she’s only smudged it deeper into the soft tissue of her skin, darkening her complexion to that of a solider in camouflage deployed to the South Asian jungle. He aims his rifle at the half-naked boy holding the grenade and debates whether to shoot, or let them both die.

She coughs into her arm, a dry, raspy cough that constricts her lungs. Smoke inhalation from staying inside too long, lingering by the crib in the nursery. She could’ve at least taken the baby. It never asked to be here, but then, it never asked to stay either.

And it was so much easier to escape without the burden of having to quell a crying child.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a story with a hidden message. This is kind of a stretch, but I would say my hidden message is “between the lines,” meaning let the reader figure it out. What did our protagonist do that would force her to run away, and can you speculate why she did it?  By the way, the title is also a clue. 😉

A Town Called Oceanview | Part 2

Continued from “Lost” …

Introductions

“Welcome! Welcome!” an elderly woman approaching them called. She was wearing wool socks, no shoes, and a pink floral dress—or it could’ve even been a nightgown, for her massive bosom hiked it up high enough that it became indecent for someone her age to wear a dress that short in public.

She looked older than death itself; her face covered in wrinkles, her eyelids sagging low over her eyes—it was a wonder she could even see—her gray hair frayed and stringy, thinning at the temples and behind her ears. She was barely taller than five feet and morbidly obese, at least three hundred pounds or more. Her skin was a dark, leathery brown, as if she had spent too many years tanning in the sun, and it folded in ripples down her arms and legs. As round as she was, she reminded him more of an English bulldog than anything remotely human.

And yet, even on swollen feet that clumped against the hardwood floor like cinder blocks—shoes probably didn’t fit her anyway—she still moved at an unbelievably fast pace and had her thick arms wrapped around his neck in a tight bear hug before he could get out of dodge.

He hugged her back, not to be rude, though he wasn’t sure of the occasion. Did he know this woman? Grandmother? Great-grandmother, perhaps? Or was it common practice to embrace a total stranger upon greeting in this mysterious town called Oceanview? He strained to catch a clarifying glace at the girl next to him, who had been so captivated by the painting and the story of the lost fishing vessel.

“Oh, I see you’ve already met Bess,” the old woman said after she released him. Bess was a stark contrast to the old woman. She towered over her, and almost met him at eye level. Her ivory skin pulled tightly over her bones. She wore a white tank top, and her broad shoulders poked so far out they looked as if they would pierce right through the skin. Despite looking thin and frail, there was still a ray of light behind her eyes, and her sunshine gold hair cascaded down her back in waves.

“I hope your trip wasn’t too painful?” The woman was saying.

He raised an eyebrow. “Painful, ma’am?”

“Birdy, I don’t think he remembers,” Bess whispered.

“Remembers what?”

“No matter.” The woman clasped her hands together, and a low echo reverberated off the walls. The room had amazing acoustics; he suspected it once was a gymnasium before being converted into what he could only assume was a visitors center. “Sometimes it’s easier to forget.  Like my husband used to say: The ‘how’ is not always important, it’s the ‘what you do with it’ that takes the cake.”

“That’s an interesting phrase,” he said.

“Thank you. I’ve really come to cherish it in my old age, especially when dealing with some of the more distressing realities of life that I can’t control.” She was silent for a moment, and she and Bess exchanged tight-lipped looks in front of him. They seemed to be having a conversation solely with their eyes. Bess’s eyes widened, her brows arched, as if pleading to say something, to share some secret information that would help get his head out of this fog that only seemed to get worse with the women’s vague revelations. However, “Birdy” stood firm. She squinted her eyes and furrowed her brows as if scolding Bess for being so naive. Then she turned to him with a wide grin he would have mistaken for genuine if he hadn’t just witnessed the tense staring contest.

“By the way, my name is Lady Byrd, but you can call me Birdy.” She stretched out her hand to shake his, and he willingly took it, but when he opened his mouth to introduce himself, he froze.

He hadn’t the slightest clue who he was.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt was kind of . . . meh . . . Anyone else feeling a little uninspired by these last few prompts? I decided to deviate today, to regain that energy and enthusiasm I had at the beginning of the challenge. Ok, ok, let me stop complaining. Knowing me, I’ll probably end up writing that “list” story anyway, just because my mind won’t stop trying to figure out how to turn such a lame prompt into an interesting story. It will most likely come to me in the middle of the night like most of my stories. Until then, I hope you enjoyed part two of Oceanview! 

The Lord Will Keep You

Bacon sizzled and popped in the pan. Leslie hovered over the stovetop, watching the bacon’s translucent pink transition to a deep, crispy red. She forked the strips out of the pan and onto a plate lined with a paper towel to trap the grease.

She cracked half a dozen eggs into a bowl, scrambled them with the same fork she used to flip the bacon, and poured them into the hot pan. She cooked robotically, not fully aware of her own movements, working on muscle memory alone.

She hadn’t slept at all the night before, tossing and turning until almost four in the morning, while next to her Antonio lay completely still but for the rise and fall of his chest under his heavy breathing. She envied how quickly he descended into sweet slumber, mere moments after kissing her goodnight and laying his head down on the pillow.

She had to coax herself into sleep. After hours of fruitless efforts to get comfortable, she clicked on the lamp by the bed and retrieved her Bible from the top drawer of the nightstand. God was keeping her up for a reason, and she desired to know why.

She opened the Bible to her favorite psalm, 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help / My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. / He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber / Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep…

She stopped, prayed, “Lord, why have you kept me awake? Why do you refuse to grant me sleep while you work on my behalf?”

She didn’t expect a response. He rarely answered her prayers, especially when she question His motives. She used to be embarrassed by that. She’d been saved since her undergraduate years in college, nearly three decades, but she had never heard the voice of God.

It was on their second date, when the conversation had turned to salvation and whether or not they both had a relationship with Jesus Christ, that Antonio assured her there was nothing wrong not being able to hear His voice. He doesn’t always speak to you, she remembered him saying. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, like butterflies in your stomach when you talk to your crush. When He wants you to do something, it’s like you get dizzy, and you can almost see yourself doing it in your head. Some would call that a premonition, but it’s not; it’s the Holy Spirit leading you. “That’s how I came to give my life,” he’d told her. “I saw myself walking to the altar even before I did it.”

She waited for that feeling, that vision, to see herself fast asleep, and then to lie back dizzy, pull the covers up to her chin, and actually sleep. But God startled her that night, His voice like thunder filling the room.

“Keep reading.”

And she could hardly keep the Bible steady enough to read, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She laid it across her lap, stuttered through the words as she read aloud. Her ears still rang from hearing him for the first time, and her voice sound minuscule in comparison, like those squeaky little cartoon chipmunks she used to watch on television as a child. But she kept reading as instructed, whispering low to herself the entire psalm, down to the last two verses.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul / The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

And as if by the snap of His mighty finger, she was asleep.

Antonio’s cold hands curled around Leslie’s shoulders, jolting her back into the present.

“Morning, beautiful.” He kissed her neck.

She shuddered out of his embrace. “Honey, your hands are like ice.”

“That’s because I don’t have you to keep me warm.” He wrapped his arms around her waist, rocked her side to side, and slipped one hand underneath her blouse to caress her stomach around her belly button. She closed her eyes, rested her head on his shoulder, and he dipped down, lightly pressed his soft lips against hers. After twenty years of marriage he could still swoon her off her feet.

“Ugh, get a room!” Tony said from the kitchen table behind them.

“Watch who you talking to, boy,” Antonio snapped. “And last time I checked, every room in this house belongs to me. Unless you want to start paying the mortgage.”

Leslie hadn’t even noticed the boys were already at the kitchen table waiting to be served their breakfast before school. Tony slumped in his chair. He returned his attention to something on his phone’s screen. Leslie hated they’d even bought him one. He was a teenager, growing more and more distant from his family, and a cell phone only expedited that, but he needed a way to contact them whenever there was an emergency. She was reluctantly forced to compromise. At least she could still control his minutes. Limited text messages and no phone calls after 7 PM.

Next to him Gregory wrote in a thee-subject spiral notebook. Across the page he had written out the multiplication table, up to 20. He had a math test that day, and she was proud to see him studying. She wished Tony would follow his little brother’s example, since he was at the moment failing History.

“Boys, make sure you have everything together for school. Breakfast will be ready in a minute.” Leslie cut the heat off the eye of the stove and stirred the eggs with a whisk. Some of it had begun to stick to the pan, and she sighed in frustration.

“You ok, sweetie? You seem tired,” Antonio said.

“Couldn’t sleep.” She thought to ask him if he had heard anything last night. Those two words God had spoken had been so loud, so clear, but while she could barely contain her heart, pounding through her chest, Antonio didn’t even flinch. The message was meant only for her. If God had wanted her to share it, he would’ve woken Antonio too.

“Here, go sit down. I’ll finish up.”

Leslie couldn’t help but chuckle. Breakfast was ready, all that was left was dividing it onto four plates, but if Antonio thought he was helping, she wouldn’t refuse him. Chivalry was far from dead when it came to their relationship. She only hoped her boys would inherit their father’s same kindness and respect toward women.

She sat next to Gregory and smiled. “Ready for your test?”

He closed his notebook and stuffed it in his bookbag on the floor. “I think so.”

Leslie nodded. “Confidence, sweetie.” She turned to Tony across. “Put that phone away at the breakfast table.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Keep rolling your eyes like that, and they’ll get stuck there.”

He sucked his teeth. “Whatever.”

Leslie stood and was about to reach across the table to pop him in the mouth, but she heard a loud crash behind her. She spun around. Antonio was no longer standing in front of the stove. She rushed around the kitchen island and found him on the floor unconscious, the hot pan on his shoulder next to the oven, the scrambled eggs split all over his chest.

“Oh my god!” She fell to her knees, cradled his head in her lap. She slapped his face repeatedly. “Come on. You’re alright, you’re alright.” She swiped the tears from her cheeks. “No, you’re alright. Come on. Come on!” she pleaded.

“Mom?” Gregory and Tony had followed her. They stood at the corner of the stove next to the fallen frying pan. She looked up at her youngest son, and all her fear transferred into his eyes. They curved downward like almonds and welled up with tears.

She shook her head and pushed his legs back. “Call 9-1-1!”

“I-I don’t—” He looked over his shoulder at his brother behind him.

“Tony!” Leslie screamed. “We gave you that phone for emergencies like this!”

He scrambled to tug his phone out of his front pocket, suddenly tight around his hand. He finally ripped it out but dropped it on the floor. Leslie snatched it up. On her third try, she got the operator—the first two times, her fingers moving too fast, she dialed 9-0-1-1 and 1-1-2-9.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“Get me an ambulance!” She panted heavily, tried to swallow back the sobs and mucus building at the back of her throat. Her voice faded in and out as she tried to speak, her chest bouncing in rythm with the fluttering of her racing heart. She was too flustered even to remember their address. “It’s my husband,” she stammered

“Ma’am, try to calm down. Can you tell me if he’s breathing?” His voice was steady, smooth. He spoke at the same level as he had when he first answered, not raising even half a decibel. He was probably used to this, trained on how to handle frantic callers like her, deescalating as much as he could over the phone before the police and paramedics arrived.

Leslie squeezed two fingers against Antonio’s neck, but she couldn’t feel a pulse. The phone fell from her ear, and she fell facedown across Antonio’s stiffened chest. “Please, God! Please don’t take him from me!”

And again, He answered her. Two times in under six hours after twenty-seven years of silence.

“Remember what you read.” He was preparing her for what was to come, a trying of her faith in Him, like when He commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Could she trust Him to be her only source after the love of her life was taken away from her? Job tore his clothes, fell prostrate to the floor and worshiped Him when he lost everything. Could she do the same?

The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away…

 No, she couldn’t accept it. “Not this, God. Anything but this!” She prayed unceasingly, knowing He wouldn’t change His mind, but she continued anyway, while Tony and Gregory stood over her, frozen, and watched. Their lives were about to change catastrophically, and while she knew that all things worked together for the good to them that loved Him, in that moment, as she prayed and prayed for Antonio’s healing and deliverance, she wasn’t sure she could say with tenacious zeal that she truly loved God over the man who lay dying in her arms.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt comes from Lisa Cron and asks us to investigate a turning point in our protagonist’s past. This was the perfect opportunity to explore more backstory for my NaNoWriMo novel, “Lost Boy.” Last month, I used the April A to Z Challenge to plan out the novel. If you missed it, read it from the beginning here

A Town Called Oceanview | Part 1

Lost

He couldn’t breath. He took quick sharp inhales back to back, but couldn’t catch his breath.

His stomach was flung to the back of his throat, and pressure built in his head as if he were hanging upside down. He looked out the small, circular window and saw the earth spinning. The sky in the ocean, the ocean in the sky, the land between in a winding, twisting, blurry streak of green, black, and shades of brown, spinning into the center of his sight, and disappearing as if going down a drain.

An invisible force thrust him back into his seat, and he grabbed tightly onto the armrests as his body stretched in opposite directions. In his ears a piercing echo, like an engine blown, like a thousand screams, like a countdown to detonation, like a tumbling descent from the heavens.

He braced himself for impact, for certain death, as the sound increased in volume, and he peeled back his lips from his chattering teeth in an attempt at one final call for help from an unseen God.

Then total silence, total darkness. He felt he was still falling, but in extreme slow motion, conscious but unable to change his circumstance. He was suspended between time and space—freefall in limbo. He heard voices in the distance trying to break through the barrier. They were muffled at first, but grew louder and clear the closer they came, bouncing around him like a ripple in a wave underwater, until finally the burst through the bubble.

“Interesting story, isn’t it? A crew of fishermen lost at sea over thirty years discover a small island and build a town.”

He was standing in front of a framed painting of a large schooner against a black sky in the middle of the ocean being tossed to and fro by the winds and the waves. The plaque underneath read: The Net on its maiden voyage, mid-October 1869.

The source of the voice that broke him from his trance stood next to him. She had her hands behind her back, admiring the painting. He scanned his surroundings and realized he was in a small museum, one that depicted the apparent history of whatever town he’d found himself in. Mounted on the walls were more paintings, each one representing a point in the timeline. He assumed he stood before the first, since behind him was an entrance door that was closed off by a velvet rope.

He turned to the woman who was now smiling at him.

“I’m sorry.” He hesitated. He couldn’t remember why he was there, or how he had even gotten there. It was as if he’d been picked up and put somewhere he didn’t recognized. He wondered if he should tell her this. How crazy would he sound to her?

“I’m feeling kind of hazy. Could you tell me where I am?”

Her smile slowly faded away. She lowered her eyes to the floor and said, “Oceanview.” He waited for details—Oceanview, California? Florida? Which ocean was viewable—the Atlantic, Pacific? But she offered no explanation. Her smile returned, a little weaker, and he tried to smile too, despite being helplessly confused, but when he looked into her eyes, he saw a hint of fear and perhaps even sadness, and he wondered if there was something more dire about this Oceanview that she was unwilling to reveal.

—Nortina

Up Next: “Introductions” …


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt from Julie Duffy invites us to take a second look at a story we’ve written in the past. I have so many stories I could return to and write from a different angle, but I decided on this story, which I haven’t looked at since writing it back in 2014 for a fiction writing class and later posting it here. While it started as a short story, I actually want to serialize it (When I first wrote it, I was thinking “ABC’s next Lost” ). So here’s part one. I hope you like it. 🙂 

Princess Horror Story

It never ends well in movies, but Solanda’s knuckles lightly rap on the door and nudge it open. She pokes her head inside.

“Hello?”

No answer. There’s something deathly quiet about this neighborhood. Gated community, grandiose homes that can fit six of her studio apartments inside, but not a sound. As a writer of horror, she notices such things.

The guard wasn’t at the entrance when she pulled up and keyed the code her boss had given her into the pad. The wrought iron gate swung back, beckoning her inside, and when it closed behind her, there was a hollow metal echo that made it seem permanent, as if she’d been sealed inside, cut off from the rest of the world forever. An idea for a new book, perhaps? She hasn’t gotten many lately.

She drove down the street, gawking at the size of the houses—most of them at least three stories high—the spacious, immaculate lawns a color green she’d never seen before in her life, not even in photoshopped images. At every house the grass was cut in the same diagonal pattern. She wondered if the neighbors all used the same landscaper.

Stepford mowers, she brainstormed, would that even sell?

Only one thing was missing: trees. Not even a stump in sight. And with the absence of trees, there was no steady swish of leaves rustling in the breeze. In fact, there was no breeze at all. Everything was still, as if time itself were frozen.

A stranger wonders into a quiet neighborhood. Too quiet No sign of human life. The solitude drivers her to the brink of insanity. No. Unoriginal. She remembers a Twilight Zone episode with a similar premise.

She steps one foot inside the house. Her stomach twists into knots. She swallows hard; the back of her throat sticks together like Velcro, and she can hear the saliva travel down her esophagus. She should turn back. How important is this job to her, anyway. She can think of better things to do on a Saturday afternoon than sip imaginary tea with a clan of spoiled brats in a princess gown made of cheap, itchy fabric, with ruffles that balloon out whenever she sits in a chair made for a five-year-old. She’d rather not beg overly rich, yuppy parents for a tip they don’t think she deserves because “anyone can put on a blond wig and a blue dress and call themselves an ice princess.”

If it was so easy, why didn’t they do it themselves instead of calling Princess-2-Princess Tea Party?

The door slams behind her, and it’s the same noise as the front gate—the hollow echoing sound that rattles her to her bones. She surprises herself at being so bold as to enter without being invited in, and now she fears she can’t leave. She’s become a character in one of her stories.

But she was invited, or at least, the company she works for was. Temporarily, she assures herself, until the book deal, until she can get over this writing fog she’s had since finishing her debut novel, a thriller about three teenagers who accidently kill a girl in the woods when they assume she’s a ghost.

It’s been two months since she’s sent the final draft to her agent. She’s emailed him only twice just to see how things were going, if he approved the changes. Neither received a response. She knows these things take time, but she’s starting to grow impatient, and the extended wait has hindered her ability to write anything new. No-talent-having reality TV stars can publish a crap book that sells millions quicker than the most prolific authors, surely he can take a few minutes out of his day to tell her if her shit is good or not.

But she won’t stress herself about it. She’s here to pick up a new dress for the job. She took this gig for a reason, even though she hates kids. To distract herself from the fear of rejection, of worrying over when her next meal will be if she isn’t signed with a publisher by fall. She quit her corporate America job five years ago to be a full-time writer, and her depleted savings account shows it. Last night her dinner was beef flavored Ramen noodles and a peanut butter sandwich, no jelly. She’s the definition of a starving artist.

She hugs herself as she cautiously walks into the living room. It’s freezing. That’s the problem with these big houses, she thinks, people want to show off all their wealth, but they have nothing to occupy the empty space, to make it feel like a warming, welcoming home, or to, at the very least, block the draft blowing down from the vents in the ceiling.

She hears something crunch underneath her foot. She squeezes her eyes closed, praying she didn’t just step on and break a $500 crystal vase or a gold plated picture frame. She lifts her foot and looks down. A piece of ceramic, it looks like, broken off from an overturned clay pot holding an elephant-ear plant. Dammit. She must have knocked it over when she slammed the door. She rights the pot, but half of the soil has already fallen out. She tries to wipe it up, but instead it seeps deeper into the fibers of the plush white rug, which looks expensive, probably an animal in a previous life. Will the owner be expecting her to pay for it? That would be it for her. She can’t risk it.

She rushes for the front door and nearly dislocates her shoulder trying to yank it open. It doesn’t budge. Instead of the deadbolt, she finds a key hole. She’s locked inside. Behind her, padded footsteps hit the carpet, and she knows she’s caught.

In that moment a new title comes to her: “Blood Princess.” One of Disney’s most beloved—maybe the gullible Belle, or naïve Cinderella, or perhaps the meek and docile Snow White—goes rouge after finding her charming loyal prince in bed with the hag from a neighboring kingdom. She massacres everyone in the castle in a fit of rage and disappears to become one with the enchanted dark forest.

Shit. Total shit. She has to find a new side job before she starts rewriting all the Grimm fairytales.

“Excuse me, miss?”

She turns around to face the owner of the home. He’s shorter than she expected. His mohawk making up for at least two inches. He wears thick rimmed glasses and a silk floral short. A measuring tape is draped over his shoulders and a sewing needle bobs in his mouth as he speaks.

“You’re here for the Princess Tiana dress?”

She hesitates. Has he noticed the stain on the carpet yet? He doesn’t seem to care that she’s broken in, but maybe he left the door ajar for her. It’s best to just roll with it. She nods her head.

“Well, come on! I don’t have all day. I’m in the back.” He spins around and waves for her to follow him. He sways his hips as he walks throw the living room, stepping over the fallen plant in the middle of the floor as if it wasn’t even there. “You will die once you see this dress.”

She wonders how true his statement could be.

Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt from Bea of The Busy Muse, “A Mysterious Situation,” may or may not have a typo. I went the typo, because who wants to visit a boring customer when a costumer makes for a much more mysterious tale…

New Beginnings (Buried Series conclusion)

I didn’t want to go back to his apartment. I didn’t want to go home. But it was dangerous to stay in Virginia. How soon would his ex’s body wash up on the banks of the Dan River? How soon would the local news air video feed from traffic cameras showing us dumping the suitcase over the bridge? How soon would Danville police track down his car?

He fell asleep at the wheel twice. The first time, he claimed he was only looking down at the dashboard, checking his gas levels, checking his speed, checking the time—it was almost dawn, but the sun had yet to rise. I wondered it would ever again. We belonged in the darkness, the shadows. The light of the sun would reveal the blood on our hands, permanently stained. No soap, no water would wash it away. We’d go through our daily lives carrying our shame like a scarlet letter. Anything we’d come in contact with would spread the mark—a hand shake here, a passing of papers there. It would spread like a plague until the whole of the earth was consumed. Maybe that was where original sin came from—Adam and Eve’s disobedience passed down through the generations. We were they reincarnated, repeating the cycle, bringing down the curse of death, just so he could keep the fruit of his loins. I doubted even God would save us now.

When he fell asleep the second time, his foot went heavy like lead on the gas pedal. The engine moaned as the dial on the speedometer passed ninety. I beat my fist on the steering wheel and honked the horn to jolt him back to consciousness. I wouldn’t risk a third time. As soon as we crossed back into North Carolina, we would find a cheap motel, pay cash so we couldn’t be traced.

Super 8 has a first floor room available on the back side of the motel, facing a construction lot containing a dormant tractor and mounds of clay piled ten to twenty feet high. It was the perfect place to lay low. Instead of pulling up in front of the room door, he parallel parked into three spaces in an empty corner of the parking lot on the edge of the construction zone, right next to one of the taller clay mounds. With the age of his car, passersby would think it had been parked there unnoticed for weeks, maybe months, possibly abandoned. It wouldn’t appear to belong to a guest staying at the motel—a guest police might be looking for.

The ceiling in the bathroom was peeling—crumbs of plaster swept behind the door. A faint brown ring lined the porcelain siding of both the toilet and the bathtub. There was a layer of smudge on the mirror, similar to his murky windshield, but I didn’t need to see my reflection to know I looked terrible. Deprived of sleep, the bags under my eyes weighed my face. I struggle to lift my neck. My body was heavy, as if I were sinking, drowning under the surface.

I pulled his oversized sweatpants over my hips, turned off the light, and stepped over the large stain on the carpet just outside the bathroom door—probably from a drunk hooker’s vomit, or pee. This was no hotel of luxury.  This was a place where people disappeared from the grid—the cheating husbands, the drug addicts, the “honorably” discharged civil servants, the criminal scum dodging the cops. We were the latter. If we were lucky, the place had bedbugs too. We’d need them to corroborate our story about his mattress and box spring anyway. If one of his neighbors ever asked, we could roll up our sleeves, lift our shirts, and reveal the raised red welts on our arms and backs, where the tiny critters feasted on our flesh.

I worried for Stephan, however. Already tucked into the bed closest to the closest, Stephan lay still, curled under the covers, sleeping with his thumb in his mouth. He didn’t deserve this punishment. He didn’t deserve to lose his mother; he didn’t deserve to lose his father, either. No child should have to suffer the blunt consequences of his parents’ selfish decisions.

“Why’d you kill her?” I could barely hear my own voice. He stepped out of his shoes, kicked them toward the dresser on which the TV sat. “I mean, it couldn’t have been just because she took Stephan,” I added.

“Why not?” He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it onto armchair by the window.

“I don’t know. I guess . . . I thought there was something more.”

She’d taken their son, erased him from Stephan’s life for almost a year and a half. That was his motive. No one would’ve blamed him if he hunted her down, found her sitting alone on a park bench in a small rural town—isolated from witnesses, yards away from the children playing on the swings—and snapped her neck. But I couldn’t wrap my brain around why he killed her after she’d come back, after she’d brought their son back. Without any persuasion or prying from him, she’d picked up the phone and promised to come home. Why go through killing her after she’d already fixed her wrong? Did she threaten to take Stephan again? Or was it much for him, seeing everyday how big Stephan had gotten, knowing he would never have those memories of watching him grow? He couldn’t forgive her for taking what she could never return?

It was much easier for women to forgive a lover’s wrong than it was for men. Maybe the man I dated before him never forgave me for aborting our baby, either. Maybe he dreamed of killing me too. And just as Stephan’s mom couldn’t save herself,  my obsession with becoming a mother now wouldn’t bring back the child I’d killed. What would he do to me if he learned of my past? After tonight, I knew at least one of us was capable of murder, but would I make the mistake of provoking him to kill me? Would I stoop down to the level of his ex—of my past self—and snatch a child from a father again?

I leaned over the bed Stephan lay in and kissed behind his ear. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered. I prayed he would never have to remember this night, or anything that happened before. I turned around just as his father pulled the curtains shut, but I caught a glimpse of the pink sky in the distance, behind the mounds of clay outside the window. The sun rising would signify a clean slate for us, a new beginning—all of our guilt buried in the night, the dark depths of the river, floating downstream, hopefully to larger bodies of water and eventually feeding out into the Atlantic Ocean, past  local, state, or federal jurisdictions, past territorial waters, and out of our lives forever.

But even as he slid into bed behind me and pulled his sweatpants down to my knees, my eyes wandered to the remote control lying on the nightstand, and I couldn’t help but think about pressing that power button, changing to one of the local stations, and waiting for the top of the hour breaking news report, between the weather and traffic . . .

Grisly discovery made in suitcase washed ashore . . .

—Nortina

Catch up on previous installments:
Buried
Screaming
Motherhood
Accessory
Drive
To Live
Murderer
Body
Odor
Ringer

A to Z Challenge 2016 Theme Reveal

“She’s talking about her 26 dead husbands again,” the front desk nurse said as I signed my name into the visitor’s log of Cedar Retirement Home.

“She’s up to 26 now?” When I was 10, Grandma only had three husbands. As the years went by, the number only increased, going deeper into her past, each husband dying a bizarre tragic death. In college, I created an Ancestry.com account and found only one marriage certificate. Her last, and according to records, her only marriage, was to Pawpaw.

Grandma only waved it off when I confronted her. “You think I got the imagination to make all this up at my age?” she asked. “They ain’t make no effort to keep up with black folks’ records back then. My own birth certificate says I’m a boy and my name is Warren!”

Grandma had a habit of exaggerating the truth. She once told me Mama was a dumb kid until she was five. She’d dropped Mama on her head trying to pull a ham out of the oven, and her IQ jumped 100 points. Now Mama’s a neurosurgeon, “knockin’ on brains and making other dummies smart too.”

Cedar Retirement was the perfect home for Grandma and her outlandish stories. With my busy Flight Attendant’s schedule and Mama living in New Orleans, Grandma was often lonely. I could only visit her once a week, and in the time between, she harassed neighbors and unfortunate citizens from the city’s white pages with tales she most likely pulled from her daytime soap operas.

While the other residents of Cedar Retirement were much too far gone to understand, she enjoyed their audience.

The wanderers in colorful fuzzy socks whose minds permanently resided in the early 1900s.

The Vietnam War veterans who invited nervous visitors to knock on the steel plates in their chests.

The newcomers who’d convinced themselves they were only visiting, doing ministry work for the church.

The stroke victims whose numb left sides left them with the ability to utter only a few words—Grandma said they were the best listeners; they never interrupted.

“Well, you’re just in time,” the nurse said, laughing. “She’s going through the whole alphabet.”

Grandma sat in an armchair nearest the entrance door. Four other seniors huddled around her, as if listening to campfire stories. She called me over when she saw me standing in the lobby.

“Meg, sweetheart,” she sang, “pull up a chair. Did I ever tell you about my first husband, Andrew?”

—Nortina


Are you joining the A to Z Challenge this year? Come back April 1st to read 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths, inspired by my “Black Widow” story!

Buried (Buried Series)

I hadn’t thought about what we would do once we crossed the border into Virginia. Truthfully, I didn’t think we would ever reach this point—that eventually he would come to his senses, or I would. Instead, we subconsciously watched ourselves perform like actors in a suspense film, screaming for us to stop, stop and face the consequences, call the police before it was too late. But when we still stuffed the body into the suitcase, when we still put it inside the trunk of his car, when we still took her sleeping child along for the ride to unknowingly witness his own mother’s disposal, our subconscious stared on horrified, unable to tear eyes away.

The Virginia border was just under two miles ahead, and I had to think fast of what we would do next. Would we try to find a park near the highway where we could bury the suitcase, or would we just pull onto the shoulder and find a spot in the woods? Even if we did find a place to bury her, what would we use? I didn’t think to ask if he had a shovel before we left, but why would he even need one? He lived in a second floor apartment, he had no yard,  he barely left home unless he was going to work. Where else could we easily find one? Going to the store to buy a shovel this late at night would only raise suspicions—not to mention it was unlikely we would find a hardware store open 24 hours.

Why was the decision left to me? He didn’t weigh out his options with me before he moved her into his apartment. He didn’t consult me before he decided to end her life. But he pushed all the responsibilities of eradicating the problem down onto my shoulders. I couldn’t stand on my own two feet underneath the weight. Eventually my knees would buckle, and I would fall forward face first into the ground, inhaling dirt, and in the end, when he no longer required my quick mind to hide his shame, he would bury me right beside her.

As we approached the “Welcome to Virginia” sign, he turned to me. “Well?”

I shrugged. “Maybe we could hide it somewhere in the woods on the side of the road.”

“Are you shittin’ me?”

“What?”

“What happened to ‘we can’t just toss it. You’ll get caught’?” he asked in a nasal voice, mocking me.

“Better here than in the lake behind your apartment where someone’s sure to identify her!”

He shook his head and returned his attention to the road. A pair of signs notifying us of an upcoming split in the highway passed overhead. Ignoring them, he pressed his foot down on the gas pedal, and we lurched forward. He turned the volume on the stereo as high as it could go. The speaker vibrated against my leg and the windows rattled as if about to shatter.

I checked Stephan in the rearview mirror. He was still sound asleep. Was it possible that he was deaf? I couldn’t remember if I’d seen a hearing aid in his ear. Maybe he never had one. Maybe his mother kept it a secret. Jobless, she couldn’t afford doctor’s visits, had to pretend he just wasn’t listening to her—children that young had short attention spans. Or maybe she’d become so vindictive she’d allowed his father to believe Stephan didn’t like him, didn’t want to be near him, when in actuality he couldn’t understand him, couldn’t connect with his voice, match it to his first memory of his father long forgotten.

Maybe I could convince him that we should add Stephan to my insurance, schedule an appointment with an audiologist sometime next week when everything settled.

The fork in the road was slowly coming into up, and he was still driving a steady 70 miles per hour.

“Are you gonna pull over?” I asked.

“I don’t know where I’m going!” he snapped.

I read the sign above our lane. We wanted to go to Danville, but this sign was leading us down a business route. Anything “business” would take us right into the heart of town—the last place we wanted to be with a dead body in the trunk.

I pointed to the sign for 58. “Take the exit!”

He swerved at the last minute, treading across the grass, almost clipping the exit sign with his side mirror.

We merged onto a two lane highway, as empty as the last. There were no street lamps, and the trees on either side of the road created a pitch black barrier that narrowed as we drove along. I watched him drum his fingers on the dashboard and steer with the other hand, screaming along with track, “All these things I hate revolve around me  . . . Just back off before I snap!” My brain shook against my skull, and I covered my ears, expecting to feel blood ooze through my fingers from all the noise.

“Do you think you could turn it down? Please!”

“So are you gonna tell me what we’re doing?”

“I don’t know! Just keep driving!” I smacked the dial with my palm. Finally in silence, I laid my head against the window. The forest outside was peaceful, undisturbed. I wanted to disappear behind the curtain of leaves, lie amongst the shrubs, let the cool breeze sooth my exhausted mind and rock me to sleep.

“Why can’t you make a fuckin’ decision?” he groaned. “You said you would help me.”

“I didn’t tell you to kill her!” I banged my forehead against the glass. The music was gone but the headache pressed on, squeezing against my temples. I looked up and perked when I saw the yellow diamond: BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD.

It wasn’t ideal, but it could work. We wouldn’t have to get our clothes dirty, or scrape our arms on branches, or leave behind our footprints in the dirt for someone broken down on the side of the road and waiting for the tow truck to get curious and follow them right to the makeshift grave. All we needed was the arm strength and the prayer than no car would pass by as we pushed the suitcase over.

The headlights illuminated the sign: DAN RIVER — JAMES LESTER TRAMEL BRIDGE.

“Stop,” I said, tapping the window. “Stop right here!”

He braked hard and jerked the steering wheel right, nearly colliding with the guardrail.

“Smoothly!” I whined.

“What the fuck are we doing?”

“We’ll throw it in the river,” I told him.

“The river?”

“Do you have a better idea?”

He sighed. “I just want this shit to be done.”

“Well let’s hurry up before a car comes.” I checked on Stephan once last time before following him to the trunk.

The smell of rotting flesh had permeated inside, and the whiff nearly knocked me out when he lifted the lid.

He covered his nose with his forearm. “You take the one with the sheets,” he said through his sleeve. He extended the handle to the larger suitcase and pulled it out. It hit the ground with a loud thud, and the wheels, unable to properly roll under the weight of her crumpled body inside, scraped against the pavement like chalk on the blacktop.

He dragged the luggage behind him, and just as he was about to heave it over, I shouted, “Wait! It might float.”

“Dammit, woman!”

“We gotta figure out how to weigh it down.” I moved the other two suitcases around and patted the inside of the trunk in the darkness, feeling for a weight, or crowbar, or maybe even the tire jack, anything that would sink the unlikely coffin down to river floor.

“Didn’t you say better here than back home?”

He was using my own words to mock me again. Before I could rebut, he pushed the suitcase over the edge and stormed toward me. I backed out into the highway, held out my arms. I was next. Without the sun, water temperatures were much cooler at night, maybe even freezing. This was how it would end for me. Death by drowning or hypothermia, whichever came first. I turned toward the eastbound lanes, anxious to see a pair of headlights, a witness. How soon would they get here before he hauled me over his shoulder, dumped me into the black abyss?

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I dropped my arms.

“Get in the damn car,” he said then snatched the second suitcase out of the trunk and tossed it into the river.

—Nortina

Next:
New Beginnings

Catch up on previous installments:
Screaming
Motherhood
Accessory
Drive
To Live
Murderer
Body
Odor
Ringer

VisDare: Captive

“Water,” she whispers harshly, her voice sounding as if someone, invisible to me, is pressing a forearm against her throat, making it hard to breathe.

I run upstairs, two at a time, get a glass from the cupboard and hold it under the faucet.

Mama and Deddy said I was only imagining things. “The end of a dream, is all,” Deddy said. “Like when you dream your alarm is ringing, and it wakes you up.”

But I knew the scratching under the floorboards weren’t tree branches hitting the side of the house. I knew those soft cries—“help, somebody”—wasn’t the wailing wind blowing through the crack in my windowsill.

There is a girl in our basement. She’s been here three months.

She drains the glass in two gulps, holds it out for me to refill it. The dirt caked around her eyes and cheekbones crack and peel as the muscles in her face revive.

“How’d you get in here?” I ask, searching for burrows between the walls and floors where she might have dug her way through, like the rats we set traps for.

She points to the top of the stairs, and I turn to find Deddy standing by the basement door left ajar.

“You just too curious, boy.” He slams it shut, locks it from the outside, leaving us in darkness.

—Nortina


12ced-5346021c4b91a1e58920693712960d2aWritten for VisDare, a weekly challenge to craft a story based on the provided photo in 150 words or less—or more, as is always my case… 😉