by Dennis Lowery
IMPORTANT NOTE: The following version is made available for my advance readers, final revisions and edits may change this slightly in the published version.
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Mama… mama, she had cried and cried each time. In the mornings after he had gone to work and her mama was still in bed. Sometimes dried blood from her mouth stuck the pillowcase to the side of her face. She shook her mama… mama… as tears and snot dripped from her lip onto her chin.
She’s not bad for a vegetable, this — being an orderly — could be a fun gig. Tony thought and scanned to see if anyone was looking. No. Nice tits, he cupped her breast then squeezed hard.
Sometimes she’d wake up… hurting, but tell me, “Get ready for school Lisa, and I’ll make you breakfast.” But more and more I’d make my own, and she would still be in bed when I got home.
“Want to go outside? Yeah? Okay.” He knew she could walk if led, even would repeat movements if they got her started… they had told him the orderlies worked her to keep up muscle tone. Tits squishy, but not bad, he thought. I can tone them — her — up differently.
We lived in one of those nice older neighborhoods — solid middle-working-class — where everyone smiled at each other with a nod as they got their mail or backed out of their driveways. Knew each other’s names. Houses only 15 feet apart… but everyone in their own world.
Not many — if any — care… she’s just another lockup crazy, Tony thought about his coworkers. He took her behind the hedges that ran farthest from the main building, under the trellis heavy with vines that scattered the sun’s rays. His head swiveled — watching — as he pulled the waistband of her sweatpants away from an almost flat stomach, mushroom white and just a bit paunchy, and slipped his hand inside.
My step-father — he made me call him daddy, dad as I got older — liked that. Everybody around us was like head nod okay… you’re normal. But not. Just smile and wave. And no one knew the truth.
He slipped his hand between the two buttons he’d undone on her shirt and found a nipple. Did she twitch? Nah, no way. He tweaked it hard, took his hand out and re-buttoned her sweater.
I cried at night when I heard the sounds, the thumps, and grunts. But not like those when I used to stay at Kathy Merrick’s — I was 13 — before things got really bad. My step-dad stopped that — the stay-overs — then, the bruises you know. They might see them. But the few times sleeping over at Kathy’s, in the night I heard the thumps and grunts and asked her. She said, rolling her eyes, “Every Friday night.” But Mr. and Mrs. Merrick looked happy the next morning as we had breakfast. My mom and step-dad never did.
Asshole, Tony thought and waist-high, out of sight, flipped off his supervisor’s back. Bitch, he gave her a double bird then patted the vegetable on the shoulder, leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Got to take you back inside, but I’ll see you… later.”
It wasn’t sex. I didn’t know husbands could rape their wives, but that haunted, damaged look in mama’s eyes next morning….
* * *
“Afternoon outside time, let’s try it again,” Tony whispered in her ear then led her off at an angle, behind the tall hedges near the back of the open area dotted with benches and tables. His hands went in her pants, and he took her hand and used it to stroke his crotch. The shadows from clouds passing under the sun flickered in her eyes.
My step-dad always said real men don’t call someone to come fix things. Mama would — until she couldn’t — look at him pulling his tools out and one time said, “Maybe we should, so it stays fixed.” Then he hit her. Next morning, I was on my own off to school, mama was still in bed when I got home that day.
* * *
Tony stopped as he passed her with the next room’s dinner tray… nothing like what he would bring her, there were rules about hers. “Hey, I read your file — not supposed to, it’s just for the doctors — but you know how charming I am. The girl in records let me peek. Some shit you did, huh? But that’s not you now.” He rubbed against her shoulder. “Tonight, I’m a show you what the girl in records likes… I’m gonna give it to you.” He set the tray with bits and bites of uneaten food on the arm of her chair and reached for a quick feel. A call came from outside the door. “I’m coming,” damn bitch is running me again, he muttered as he turned to reply to his supervisor. He looked back, and she was still, unmoved, in the chair and leaned forward as he raised the tray, “I’ll see you tonight.”
* * *
It — everything — got worse then. My step-dad would come home from the garage he worked at — a body shop that fixed cars in accidents — and I swear you could see the crazy come into his eyes. Standing there, thick, hairy forearms crossed asking my mama, “Where’s my fucking supper?”
I think after a while she gave up what she had in her to fight back, or had none left. Like a torn bag you didn’t notice had lost most of all it once held, and you realize too late it was empty. Everything had leaked away.
Empty just when I needed it most.
One day I came home from school and saw from the bus there were police cars — three or four — and an ambulance where Ivy, the street I lived on, intersected 4th. At the alley behind the row of shops and that hardware store, I’d been in with my step-dad a few times. I got out at my stop and went into the house to ask mama if she knew what had happened.
She wasn’t home.
* * *
They wouldn’t let me see her. “You shouldn’t honey,” they told me. So, when we buried her, I tried to remember how pretty she was. Had been. But I couldn’t. And that hurt.
‘They’ never found who killed my mother.
People we — I — barely knew, head-nod-and-wave neighbors, for a few days would when they saw me… would tell me how sorry they were and ask if they could do anything… maybe some meant it.
For a while after — my step-dad brought him home — we had a dog. I loved Buddy, and he loved me back. One night my step-dad had been drinking since he got home and kicked Buddy, hard, and he growled. The next morning Buddy was gone. He was maybe the only thing that loved me other than mama.
With mama gone my step-dad turned to me. And it was worse than just bruises from him yanking me by the arm and screaming. “Don’t you give me that look or I’ll…!” But there was no or I’ll… he always did. It got awful.
The night I turned 16, he caught me coming out of the shower and dragged me to his room. The whole time all I could think of was that I was trapped on the other side of Kathy Merrick’s wall. Inside I screamed to not feel the thumps and hear his grunts.
I woke up the next morning, and the blood from my mouth had pooled and dried, the pillowcase stuck to my face. At breakfast, I tried to eat… he was watching me. As soon as he left, I vomited.
* * *
I was good at hiding it — what was happening — happened — to me. I was ashamed and thought everything was my fault.
That feeling stopped when I found it.
I wasn’t supposed to touch his toolbox unless he asked me to bring it to him. And never to open it.
Then I needed to, and I did.
* * *
His master key snicked in the lock, and Tony slipped into her room just before midnight. It was like high school and his two years of college. The drunk or drugged girls, they — most of them — didn’t fight. Most wouldn’t remember him… and if they did, they never talked. He felt the twinge of a guilty flash that faded as his cock twitched. Just like back in school. In the dim light, he saw her on the bed. He clicked on his flashlight. The yellow cellophane he had wrapped over the lens cut its glare, and he set it pointed toward her, on the nightstand next to the bed.
Her eyes moved, and she stared at the new orderly. “Want to hear a story?”
“Shit, what!” Tony stepped back. “They said you were nothing but a vegetable.”
“Catatonic — some form of it — is what they thought,” Lisa side-eye studied him, “but something happened today, you stirred me.” Her brows pulled down tight with a twitch and flare of nostrils. “Do you want to hear a story?” louder this time.
Tony glanced over his shoulder at the door, his mind seeing beyond and down the long hall to the night watch. A noise — any sound — could bring on a bed check, and he’d never be able to explain what he was doing there at night and in her room. Her mouth opened, and he quickly said, “Yes,” and put a finger to his lips, “Yes.” She lay there motionless on her pillow staring at him. He sat down and eyed her back, wondering if he could do it fast enough. “What’s the story?”
“I was ashamed and thought everything was my fault,” she told him what looped in her head every day since she’d been caught and convicted, then institutionalized. “That feeling ended when I found it. I wasn’t supposed to touch his toolbox unless he asked me to bring it to him. And never to open it. Then I needed to, and I did.” She paused, and her eyes shifted to the ceiling. “It had that black tape, you don’t see any more I guess, least I haven’t. I think it’s kind of plastic-looking now, what my step-dad called friction tape. It felt like tacky cloth, black as tar and had a smell to it.” Her eyes slid back to him. “I had decided to leave, get away. My suitcase latch had jammed, and I snuck to the kitchen. He kept his toolbox in the closet mama had used as a pantry. I lifted the case of beer — Hamm’s 12-ounce cans, with the bear I used to laugh at in the commercials when I was younger — off it, knelt and opened to find a screwdriver. I lifted the old hammer — round on one end, it had a funny name — that sat on top he had brought home one day from the shop. Someone — my step-dad, I guess — had wrapped the handle halfway up its length in that sticky tape. The tail end of it flapped as I picked it up.”
“Hey,” Tony got up, “I’m gonna lea–”
“I’ll scream — I can scream, and will.” Her eyes were wide now, locked on his. He sat back down.
“The tape curled over my finger. I tugged it free, and spirals of it pulled from the handle. Underneath the tape was something… writing that had been scratched into the wood. I turned it to hold it up to the light so I could read the one word. A name.” She licked a dry lip and saw his eyes follow the moist pink tip. “Want to know whose?”
Tony nodded and leaned closer. Now was the time. He could do it, he could get the pillow out and over her face. No one really cared — she had no family; no kin and she was a criminal — they’d say she died in her sleep. His hand spider crawled to the pillow, slowly.
Lisa licked her lips again, and he paused. “Mary. My mother, they had told me, had been beaten to death. He did it, he killed my mother, Mary. And… and he hurt me…. I took it — the hammer — upstairs, and his drunken snoring stopped when I hit him. A few more swings and he stopped breathing.” She blinked, “and now you hurt me… want to hurt me more….”
Tony gathered a fistful of the pillow. “I guess it’s a good thing there ain’t no hammers around.” He pulled the cushion from under her head.
Lisa’s hand shot up with a fork and buried it in his throat and pulled out. “And I bet you’ve hurt other girls and women.” She brought her other hand up and clamped over his mouth as he gurgled, choking on blood and stabbed him again. And again.
* * *
It was early, and the detective would much rather be pulling into Pete’s Coffee Shoppe on Elm Street. Saturday mornings they had fresh raspberry muffins, his favorite. He got out next to the two uniforms standing beside their patrol car. “The blue and red are pretty on the fall leaves, but how about you turn ‘em off.” The sergeant leaned through the driver’s window, and the lights went out. “They inside?” the detective cocked a thumb at the building.
“Yes, sir, the M.E. and two CSI guys.”
Just inside the lobby, a short woman wearing khakis and a dark blue blazer with security insignia on a lanyard around her neck motioned to him when she saw the badge on his hip. “This way detective.”
He followed her past the receptionist, operator, and front security, past the side office, a security watch post, down a long corridor sprinkled with offices to where it t-boned into an even longer hallway of — they didn’t call them cells — rooms. At the intersection, off to the left was an open door. A placard next to it said: Utility Room | Janitorial. “In there?”
“Yes sir,” the woman stepped to one side just outside the door.
“Shit…” His foot slipped, and he looked down at the smear on the sole of his Cole Haan’s. He took three steps into a large room with racks of storage shelves either side against two walls and saw a tall man wearing a blue windbreaker with CSI in gold letters on its back. “Dammit, Ted.” Bending at the knee, turning it up, he pointed at the bottom of the shoe and cocked a thumb back the way he had come. “Tent-mark any splatter or blood drops.”
“Watch where you step, Frank.” The gangly man shrugged bony — despite the jacket — shoulders. “It’s too freaking early on a Saturday, and I got a new guy.” He nodded toward a round-faced blond-haired blue-eyed man that looked too young to drive. A forensics camera around his neck, he gawked at the medical examiner kneeling by the body. Standing next to the M.E. was a man in a shiny suit, sharp-creased pants, gleaming shoes. The overnight shadow of a heavy beard stood out on his white face.
Frank rubbed his own gray-stubbled chin. “You the facility director?”
“Yes, Dr. Morton… Isaac.” He shook the detective’s hand and nodded down at the body. “It’s one of our new orderlies.”
With creaky knees, Frank squatted next to the M.E. “What you got, Henry? And don’t say, dead man, okay.”
Henry smiled, “Good morning Frank.” He pointed at the ragged punctures and rips in the body’s throat. “COD… he bled out… cause of death.” He rotated his hand to angle the index finger three inches to the right. “Murder weapon.”
Frank rolled his eyes, teeth closed on his lip.
“Cutlery,” Henry said.
Frank bit harder.
“Looks like a fork….”
“Okay, okay Henry that’s enough. Can I?” Frank made a pulling gesture with his right thumb and forefinger.
“Sure. We have the murder weapon position and body pics.” He pulled out a plastic evidence bag and surgical gloves from the kit at his side and passed them to the detective.
Frank unzipped the bag and then slipped on the gloves. Carefully, he pulled the fork out of the body’s throat. It was sticky with congealed blood. He held it up to the light squinting, “Got something on the handle, can you…” Henry pulled out and clicked on his pocket Maglite, bringing its sharp cone of light up and onto the fork.” Looks like a name…” Frank glanced up at the director. “Isaac, what’s the orderly’s name?”
“Tony Benedict…” the director replied as he bent down, even paler in the flashlight’s beam.
“Tony.” Frank read on the fork. “Someone scratched it on the handle.”
A sharp clack of shoes entered the utility room. Frank saw the directors head swivel up, and then the man straightened and half-turned toward the security supervisor in the blazer.
“Sir,” the woman looked at the director, “the bed check and headcount has been completed… one missing. Lisa Jaeger.”
Frank grunted at the name, “The White Widow,” he shook his head remembering the news from two decades ago, “shit, I thought she was dead.”
“Payback is a bitch, and the bitch is back.”―Stephen King, End of Watch
# # #
NOTE FROM DENNIS
What you just read was the pre-publication version of the story. It will go through another proofreading for final revision before I publish. As an advance reader, I ask that you please let me know what you think of the story (via email to Dennis@DMLowery.com). Good — reasoned — feedback is how writers can fine-tune a story, I’d appreciate yours.
Lisa Jaeger is the Lisa from The Crossing… BALL-PEEN occurs many years later after that story’s events. More episodes with The White Widow are to come.
Here’s what some readers had to say about The Crossing:
“OOOHH HELL YEAH!!!! Loved it. Awesome!!! Exciting, with unexpected twists and turns. —SPOILER PART OF COMMENT REMOVED — Thanks for this very satisfying story, Dennis, I really enjoyed it!”–Nina Anthonijsz
“Oh man! You really got me with this one. Could not stop reading and had no clue about the twists and turns of the story.”–Susan Lewis
“That’s good. But now I have to know about the white dress! I’m on the edge of my seat. Nice writing. Keep it up. I’m hooked.”–Brenda Church
“Nicely done! I really liked how ‘The Crossing’ turned out Dennis. That was–Dan
goodstory. Glad you were able to make something out of just a photograph… a credit to your talent.” Syes
“I just finished reading it. Love the twist… hehe… in the story. You always have the best surprises!” –Debra Dayton “Delightfully unexpected!–Bobbie T
Delicioussuspense in a short story that peeks beneath the surface, & exposes the depths of revenge. I devoured it in 25 minutes and read it a second time in one sitting.”