Photo by Will on Unsplash:

Back to Part Three


Story by Mel Carriere

If done gangland, drive-by style, the physical act of tossing a stylus out the window was not difficult. Still, it felt a little sleazy, a little stalker-like. Ross had already figured out where Natalie lived – not hard to do online, these days, but definitely the work of a stalker. He felt slimy the whole time he was investigating it. The real problem was keeping her from finding out about his nocturnal visit. If the lady saw his pretty pink pen in her yard, she would know exactly who left it there. Pink lightning didn’t strike twice. The culprit would be exposed, and what an outrage there would be when Natalie told their coworkers what a scuzzbag he was.  

     Ross had expressed these concerns to Father Max, and the priest told him it didn’t matter where he left it, as long as it was on her property. Throw it in a bush, bury it in the dirt. Stick it in a pile of steaming dog shit if you can. If that cursed amulet wound up on the grounds of her home, he would be rid of it, even if it traveled somewhere else later.  

     He found Natalie’s neighborhood in the dark, then drove around her block a couple times, hoping she was sleeping, and not looking out the window. He saw a big pickup in her driveway and figured her husband must be back from his business trip. Great, thought Ross. If he catches me he’ll come out and kick my ass.  

     Fortunately, there were no lights on in the two-story house, at least none that were visible from the street. Or was that fortunate? Had someone doused the lights so they could look out the window better? Come on Ross, how many people are peeking through their drapes at this hour? Just get it over with and go home.  

     After his third tour around the block, Ross gathered his courage. He pulled up next to a large bush in Natalie’s front yard and got out. There was a Toyota 4-runner parked by the sprawling plant that partially concealed his own car from view. Natalie had told him she had a Toyota, but Ross had never seen her in it. Most likely this one belonged to her. At any rate, using the 4-runner for cover, he tossed the stylus into the innards of the big shrub. And that was that for him and the stupid pretty pink pen, or so he thought. Ross went home and tried not to think about Natalie anymore, though he knew the more you try not to think about something, the more you think about it.  

     Inside the unlit interior of Natalie’s house, Ross’s obsession was laying wide awake in her bedroom, staring up at the ceiling. Steve had come home from his trip, and the bastard still hadn’t remembered her birthday. Natalie had not brought it up, telling herself that would be childish on her part. All the same, his thoughtlessness gnawed at her, and she kind of gave Steve the silent treatment through dinner.  

     At first he didn’t notice, being so busy yacking about the usual crap that happened to him out on his rounds – stupid numbnuts employees who didn’t do their jobs right, stupid numbnuts managers who didn’t make their employees do their jobs right, the same stuff Natalie had heard a thousand times before. But tonight, Steve’s rant was getting on her nerves like it never had before. While he rambled on complaining about others, she couldn’t help thinking, yeah like you’re so perfect you son of a bitch. Yes, so irate was she that the naughty words son of a bitch actually soiled the sanctified innards of her prim and proper grandmother’s mind.  

     At one point Steve wondered why he wasn’t getting the captive audience he was accustomed to, the attention he deserved. Usually, he was so focused on what he was saying that the atmosphere around him never even colored his mental landscape. But he should be getting at least a uh huh, or a head bob, or some acknowledgement of the efforts he made as the main breadwinner for this family. 

     “What bitch bug crawled up your butt tonight?” he asked Natalie. 

     Natalie sprung from the table and took her half-finished plate to the kitchen. She didn’t like the b word thrown her way, even playfully, and tonight she wasn’t in a mood to tolerate it. She dumped the food in the garbage, left the plate in the sink, and started upstairs.  

     “Where you going?” 

     “I lost my appetite. I have a headache. I’m going to bed.”  

     Ha ha, that old feminine excuse of a headache, thought Steve, but he didn’t laugh for long.  

     Steve finished his own dinner, grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down in the family room at the back of the house to watch TV. He doused the lights in the dining room first, because overhead lights really bothered him. He only turned them on in the first place because Natalie didn’t like to eat in the dark.  

     He turned on Netflix so he could binge The Office. Steve could really relate to toxic offices, though he wouldn’t acknowledge he was a significant contributor to them. The show typically gave him a lot of laughs, as it does for a lot of bad bosses, who are too inwardly focused to see themselves in the mirror there. But as Steve sat in the dark, nursing his Bud Light, he was not paying much attention to what was happening on the screen. He found his thoughts turning away from himself and toward his wife Natalie, for a change. Most of the time, he relished this freedom from her female chatter, but if she wasn’t getting on his nerves flapping her gums about nothing, something must be up. What was wrong with her tonight? 

In her haste to get away from her selfish, clueless husband who had dropped the B-bomb on her in his joking, passive aggressive, hey what did I say? kind of way, Natalie had left her phone sitting on the kitchen counter. When Steve went into the kitchen for another beer, feeling a little sulky and butthurt that his wife had not been waiting by the door for him with her tail wagging, he saw it sitting on the counter. He began to tickle the stubble on the bottom of his chin.  

     Steve had never questioned his wife’s fidelity. It wasn’t that he thought her incapable of taking a lover, it was more a question of – when she already had the best, meaning him, how could she possibly upgrade? Besides, Natalie never cheated when she was young and hot, so why would she start now, pushing sixty and getting, well, you know, a little saggy in places? It wasn’t like the dogs were drooling over her anymore.  

     Nonetheless, he found her behavior this evening odd. In the past, when he came home from his road trips, she was pawing on him like an abandoned puppy. She cooked his favorite food, slobbered all over him with kisses and hugs, and couldn’t stop bombarding him with questions. The same questions she forgot the same answers to since the last trip, and were really annoying for him to answer over and over again. But that wasn’t really the point, was it? The point was she was thrilled to see him.  

     Why was it so different tonight? Where had that bitch bug crept in from?  

     Natalie’s phone looked up at Steve from the counter, the glow off its blank face taunting him. Boy, have I got a secret for you, it seemed to say. Are you man enough to handle it?  

     Steve had never gone snooping around his wife’s phone before. Though technically, since he paid the phone bill, it was his property. He should be able to snoop into it if he wanted to.  

     He picked up Natalie’s cell and held it at arm’s length. At first he didn’t touch the screen, as if giving it the opportunity to spit out its dark truths voluntarily, before he tortured it for them. He turned the phone over in his hand, for no reason whatsoever except it seemed the thing to do. This could be Pandora’s box here, unleashing every evil upon the world when its lid was opened. The cold device really looked like an instrument of doom – black and featureless but luminous, like the obsidian mirror ancient Aztec sorcerers used for divination. Did he really want to eat this forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge?  

     Steve decided it was too late to stop. He had already plucked this ripe fig, and it was going to rot somewhere, either on the ground or in his belly. He pushed the button on the side of the phone and the screen lit up.  

     If anybody was going to know what was going on with Natalie, Steve knew it was Donna – that meddlesome, tiresome, bothersome sister of hers. Those two girls shared all their secrets. They wouldn’t queef without clearing it with one another first. Finding Donna on this phone should be easy enough. Natalie probably wasn’t clever about giving her contacts cryptic names, like Steve did. Her conversation thread with Donna would most likely be listed under the name Donna. Pretty vanilla if you asked him, but what did you expect from a mail-lady? Natalie probably wouldn’t delete any incriminating texts either. He supposed he loved his wife, but she wasn’t all that bright, poor thing. He was the real brains in this outfit, after all.  

     And behold, just like he thought, there she was, Donna, in all her flabby, middle-aged glory. Her thoughts and advice were probably as flabby as her face was starting to be. Steve couldn’t believe he got drunk and tried to make a move on her one time, long ago, at a family party. He must have been really, really plastered. She did look kind of good back then, and at least she hadn’t tattled, but now Donna was just a saggy old bag that no man would bother with, even shit-faced to the gills. But if Natalie had secrets, Donna would know.  

     Steve started his search at the most logical place, the end. If Natalie had confessed something to her sister that was heavy enough to put her in a bad mood tonight, it should show up late in their conversation.  

     A pair of flashy, candlelit, sparkling gifs gleamed in the stream of messages, but Steve paid scant attention to them. Happy Birthday? Must have been Donna’s birthday. What did he care? Like that old bag really needed another birthday.  

     As he scrolled further up the list, Steve’s finger froze in place. His eyeballs turned into ice cubes, fixating upon words that could not exist in his world. They were not part of the physical laws on Planet Steve, where all heads bowed to his glory.  

     Did you give Ross his present back yet? What the hell did that mean?  

     Natalie responded to this message five minutes later, saying: I’m still thinking about it.  

     For all his macho posturing, Steve Andersen was not a violent man. He loved to brag, he loved to strut about with his chest stuck out, and yeah, he loved to browbeat people. In his opinion, people needed that because they were stupid. Yet, contrary to speculation among Natalie’s friends and relatives, he had never struck her. He did not intend to strike her now. What he intended to do was get to the bottom of this situation and then maybe – no, probably, strike whoever this motherfucker Ross was.  

     Steve stomped up the steps with Natalie’s phone in his hand, wielding it like a hammer. He didn’t bother to knock gently upon their bedroom door, but flung it open as loudly as he could without knocking it off the hinges. Natalie, who had not been sleeping, sprung up in bed.  

     “Who is Ross?” he shouted before she could protest this rude invasion.  

    It took Natalie a minute to get her bearings. She had been lying there awake – her insomnia had advanced to the point where she wondered if she would ever sleep again, but her head was still enveloped in a murky cloud of grogginess. This scene was so uncharacteristic of Steve it made her wonder if it was one of those visions you get on the back of your eyelids, just before you sink into slumber.  

     When Natalie didn’t answer right away, Steve held her phone up, as if that might give her a clue.  

     “Who is Ross?” he repeated, louder this time.  

     “What is this all about? Is that my phone? Were you…”  

     “Oh, don’t try to turn this around and make me look like the bad guy. Who is Ross, and why the fuck is he giving you presents?”  

     Natalie leapt out of bed, pole vaulting over her usual meekness. Steve’s shitty behavior the last couple days wouldn’t let her cower in the sheets while he raged. Steve loved to rage, and she always tolerated it, but now he was raging at her. She practically leapt across the floor and stuck a finger straight in his dome. In her fury, she could see the cracks in it. Despite the way he loved to preen and strut, Steve’s face was sagging with age. For the first time she realized how insipid he had become.  

     “I’m through with you swearing at me! If you calm down, you big beast, I’ll tell you who Ross is. If not, I don’t think I owe you any kind of explanation!”  

     Defiance was not something Steve was used to. Not at work, and certainly not at home.  

     “Who is this Ross guy giving you presents, and why do you even have to think about giving them back to him?” 

     This wasn’t the first time Steve had discovered men giving Natalie presents. Sometimes bouquets of flowers showed up at their door, from secret admirers. Occasionally, she had received love notes in the mail. One time, some heartsick waif had showed up on their doorstep, begging to see her. That had been a little much. You know I’m Natalie’s husband, right? Steve had told him. The little runt’s eyes had gone wide, as if he couldn’t conceive of such an idea in his lonely, pathetic universe. He had backed off the porch in a rush, almost stumbling down the steps. Boo! Steve shouted after him, and the poor little loser sprinted off to his car.  

     That had all been good fun, back when his wife was young and hot. Steve could understand why all those lonely horn dogs had been infatuated with her, but he took their attention for just that – harmless puppy love, misguided obsession.  

     On the other hand, this one smelled different. For one thing, this Ross had not come sniffing around here. He had never accidentally bumped into Natalie in the supermarket, his car never did laps around their block to try and get a look through their window (little did he know).  

     This time around, What really got Steve’s goat was that he had never heard of anybody named Ross. In the past, Natalie always told him about guys who hounded her at work. She thought they were more silly and sad than threatening, but she wanted to prepare her hubby in advance for the day the dogs came sniffing around to pee on their fire hydrant.   

     What really enraged Steve now was that his wife had never mentioned Ross to him, and this meant she was hiding the mother fucker. She was refusing to answer his questions, too.  

     Natalie flung open the closet door. Steve leaned over her there, as if his angry shadow alone could inspire obedience.  

     “Keep your distance!” she shouted, pivoting around from a carrying bag she was stuffing clothing into.  

     “What the hell are you doing?”  

     “What does it look like, Steve? I’m leaving. I’ve tolerated being your wife for nearly forty years, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, but now I think it’s time to do something for me.”  

     “Oh, so you’re running off with your Ross?”  

     “Ross is married, Steve. He loves his wife, really, truly loves her. You’re an idiot. But you can’t explain things to idiots that already have their idiot minds made up. Get out of my way!”  

     “Be my guest,” said Steve, and swept to the side so Natalie could move around him with the carrying bag. “Here’s your phone!” he said, but she ignored him and kept going, fearing that touching something he touched might produce enough magnetism to draw her back.  

     Natalie danced down those steps feeling lighter than ever. Most of the time, walking that stairway felt as hopeless as marching out into a prison yard. Unlike Lot’s wife, she did not look back, because she knew Steve could turn her into a pillar of salt with his slick tongue. He would remind Natalie how he had struggled and slaved for this family, implying that her own contributions, though important, could easily be replaced by someone else. He would tell her how she would never find anyone else as good as him, especially at her age for Christ’s sake, and how she would be completely lost in the cruel world without his guidance. The bad part was that his slick devil’s tongue always persuaded her. His seductive words caused her to envision the ideal of a husband, rather than the reality. If she looked back at him, she might walk back up those stairs to that smug son of a bitch, then endure his silent gloating about having his way once more.  

     Natalie didn’t know what the future would bring – whether she would go back to Steve or not, but he had to at least be taught a lesson. She had to worry him a little, in order to make him get his shit together. Not that he cared all that much about her – he certainly had someone else to snuggle up next to, but the cheap bastard did care about his money. He definitely didn’t want to split any assets with any ex-wife. Well, she would give him a kick in his big fat assets, where it really hurt.  

     Natalie flew out of her prison cell without looking up. She knew that some tender memento – a family picture taken in better times, including a more humble, more affectionate Steve, might stay her feet. She ran toward the street still wearing only slippers, then slammed the door behind her. If she left the door open, or hesitated enough to put on shoes, the bastard would charge down and reel her back in. No matter, she could get shoes anywhere.  

    The chill of the concrete tingled Natalie’s thinly clad heels as she reached the sidewalk. Here, she sensed something bumpy through her scanty soles, something smooth and round that caused her tractionless feet to lose their grip upon the earth. Natalie fell backwards and after that, felt nothing.  

Read Part 5 (Final Installment) here:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *