“Steve Loved Her to Pieces” Dark Fiction by Robert Kostanczuk

It was at Fatello’s that he let her know.

Over a plate of chicken cacciatore, Steve informed Greta that he really liked her.

“I love you to pieces,” he smiled.

A forkful of meat, diced tomatoes and red bell peppers was about to enter his mouth.

Greta was melting into a warm state of mellow.

“That is just so nice of you to say,” she said, awash in the sweep of the moment.

Her eyes began misting up. She fought the urge to babble away with a stream of I’m-so-happy declarations.

“How’s your ravioli?” Steve asked as his smile grew ever wider.

It was a smile that almost seemed too radiant for a discussion of doughy food. Steve thought his query about his date’s dinner would make for a considerate and caring interjection.

He was precise and prepared on dates.

Greta eagerly acknowledged that her meal was fantastic.

“You know something, I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like you for quite some time,” Steve assured.

Easing back into his chair, he straightened out the knot in his tie while awaiting a response.

“That means a lot to me,” Greta said.

She was deeply serious about the reply. The night was becoming truly magical. The restaurant was oh-so classy. Greta was in her best dress; classic black, fabulously feminine — with long sleeves that flowed into frilly lace at her wrists.

The background music was Dean Martin. As the swank strains of “Volare” wafted across tables, Steve continued with words of endearment.

“I do indeed love you to pieces; if I could, I would rest your heart in the most exquisite jewelry box on Earth — your heart is like a fine diamond … sparkling, and radiating warmth.”

Steve smiled, and even chuckled a bit.

It was something akin to an acknowledgment of corniness — but his eyes seared with a focused intensity.

With each flowery accolade, Greta sank deeper into emotional surrender.

Steve raised his glass of fine red wine in a toast.

“To my Greta … your heart would glow outside the confines of your exquisite body,” he said with the most earnest of gazes.

“That’s really, really amazing … you have such a way with words,” said Greta. Steve’s poetic nature was intoxicating and pleasantly unsettling. His mention of her “exquisite body” was actually making her blush.

She loved his sharp, dark, thin eyebrows.

When he emphasized a point during conversation, the eyebrow on the right would shoot up like a diagonal exclamation point.

“I like your teeth — there, I said it, and I’m not sorry,” Steve gushed. “They’re so white and perfectly aligned. Dental offices should proudly show pictures of those type of teeth in the waiting room! Yes, display an image of them in the finest of frames.”

Greta burst into laughter. She laughed so hard that the wine she was drinking shot through her nose.

It all was flattering, and endearingly silly.

A small wave of embarrassment rolled in.

The lyrical verbiage continued.

“And those eyes, those eyes; they would float like blue starbursts around your face, if they could just pop out of your head,” Steve rattled on in locomotive fashion. “I hope I’m not going overboard.”

Greta thanked him for the thoughts, but didn’t verbalize her feelings that the accolades were getting to a peculiar point. A discomforting ambience was descending.

“ … And oh yes, your hands … your hands belong on display in an art museum,” Steve continued with ongoing hyperbole.

“Your hands are like fine porcelain; I’m not just saying that.”

It was the “not just saying that” assurance which eased Greta back into bliss; he really did mean all he said — don’t be cynical, she told herself.

He merely has a poet’s streak, she told herself.

“Oh, one other thing,” Steve added. “Those legs — your legs. Excuse me for being bold, but those are sleek little limbs that should be separated from your body and shown as a full-page ad in one of those oversized fashion magazines.”

Greta loved the attention, but harbored the growing impression her boyfriend was getting a little too personal.

“Like I said, forgive me, but I do just love you to pieces,” Steve repeated.

He made the pronouncement with a shrug of the shoulders that implied helplessness over Greta’s charms.

Steve’s gaze suddenly swung to the left, where a waitress was taking care of another table.

Steve smiled back at Greta, then subtly gave another look to the left.

The target of attention was attractive, with blonde hair that playfully drooped over one eye.

Steve took note of the svelte figure and what he thought was the cutest upturned nose.

His distracted disposition was not lost on Greta.

“Pardon me,” Steve said to the waitress after she took the order at her table. “I know you’re not serving us, but is there any way we can get a little water?”

The waitress paused with the pitcher of water she was carrying.

“Sure,” she said, smiling.

 “Really sorry to bother you, but our own waitress has been away a while,” Steve added as water was poured.

“Not a problem,” the waitress said, acknowledging Greta with a look, and Steve with a longer look.

As his server walked away, Steve spoke.

“Thank you … uh … your name is?” he asked with a detectable sense of urgency.

“Marietta,” came the reply.

She barely looked back while answering, but did give a quick wave bye.

Steve took a sip of water. He savored well-groomed ladies, and this one certainly fell into that category, right down to the impeccable manicure.

Steve was a details man.

The thought of making a play for Marietta somewhere down the line had already nestled into his mind.

“Water, hydration is so important,” said Steve, raising the glass in a half toast.

He smiled. Greta did too, although she was a bit unnerved by his veiled flirting with the waitress. But Steve started to talk again; that got her mind off of it.

“How much do you like Italian food? I like it a lot.”

“Me too,” she said.     

Steve was mentally sizing up his latest source of social interaction.

She was not unattractive, he thought — maybe a bit chunky, but not bad. Taking a last bite of the chicken cacciatore, Steve tried not to be too obvious with his attention to her hair. There was a conclusion reached after the discreet perusal: The hairdo was cropped nicely around the shoulders, but the color was mousy.

The eyes, however, were a savior. They were the color of a clear summer sky. They accented plump cheeks that were fairly child-like … even adorable, Steve conceded.

Her smile — infectiously vulnerable — was another selling point.

For her part, Greta had assessed Steve quite a while ago. He was lean and handsome, with clean, angular facial features. Tidy black hair impeccably groomed. A knack for dressing well. Expensive suits were the norm, like the charcoal pinstriped number he donned tonight. When animated — which was often — his eyes took on a delightfully devilish air.

A rapscallion, to be sure.

It was all quite appealing, and perhaps enticingly dangerous, to Greta, an administrative assistant at a law firm.

He was an up-and-coming commodities broker.

They were both in their early 30s. This was their fourth date. It was dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant, then home.

“I had a great time,” Greta said as Steve pulled his car up in front of her apartment building.

They exchanged innocuous pleasantries. They kissed in Steve’s stylish Volkswagen Passat.

“I’ll see you soon then?” Greta asked hesitatingly.

The thought flashed across to her that maybe she was being too forward.

Steve answered quickly: “I’ll see you sooner than you imagine.”

The announcement was made with a wicked flash of his eyes.

Greta was happy, though not quite sure about what he meant by “sooner than you imagine.” She stepped out of his car and into the brisk autumn dark. Steve drove away.

Her head was still swimming in an emotional high.

“I can tell you really like this guy,” her brother, Walt, told her by phone the next morning.

“Yep, I do. He’s very nice, and I guess I partly like him because he’s, he’s … mysterious.” The word she was searching for finally drifted in.

“How mysterious is he?” questioned Walt.

 “You sound worried,” Greta replied.

“Not necessarily. But ‘mysterious’ sometimes isn’t good,” offered the sibling.

Walt had a way of cutting through clutter. He was a no-frills blue-collar guy — a mechanic at the city garage.

Greta loved her brother, but wasn’t about to overanalyze aspects of her relationship. She was merely waiting for Steve to call again.

That night, she headed to the kitchen for a snack when something caught her eye. A small envelope had been slid under her door. It was a thank-you card. Inside, it read, “Love you to pieces, Steve.”

She opened the door. No one in the hallway.

Greta’s emotions were mixed. Odd, yet so nice.

She pondered why he didn’t just phone her.

Later, while trying to fall asleep, Greta mulled her history with Steve.

They had met at a bar she had gone to with her girlfriend. He was there by himself, in a suit, his tie loosened. Steve explained that he was unwinding after a hard day of handling a couple of irritable clients.

In the beginning, the banter was superficial … jobs, favorite foods, the weather … .

Substance entered the picture when Steve Jerrosyk took a photo of his mother from his wallet.

“She’s a lovely lady; you look a lot like her,” Greta Stepprenek said, taking the photo and raising it close to her face.

This was the moment Greta and Steve connected.

They would definitely date, that was for certain.

They were sitting close to one another at the bar, and commenting on the basketball game that glowed on the big screen in front of them. The photo of Steve’s mom was the icebreaker.

“She has a big heart; it should be displayed in a trophy case,” Steve said as Greta continued to scan the picture.

Steve’s mother had short salt-and-pepper hair. She wore a faded floral-patterned house dress. A sweet-looking lady with a wisp of a smile. Nothing flashy. The only thing that really stood out were her fingernails. They had a deep red polish on them.

The color really didn’t go with the simplicity of the dress and hairdo. But it was no big deal to Greta; the image reflected warmth, family and home

She handed the photo back to Steve. The motherly image helped win over Greta’s affection.

“I’d like to meet her sometime,” she enthusiastically told Steve.

He appeared noncommittal about such a meeting.

“Yeah, maybe,” Steve said in a dispassionate tone.

He tucked his mother’s photo away while glancing up at the TV.

Steve’s indifferent attitude bothered Greta slightly, but she still liked him a lot.

Steve and Greta would end up exchanging phone numbers. Steve bade his new friend goodnight with an affectionate squeeze of her shoulder.

“I’m not going to let you out of my sight too much,” he winked.

Greta had no trouble recounting that touch of the shoulder while drifting off to sleep. The memory was something to embrace. The only damper was the conversation she had just had with her brother.

Greta happened to mention to him that Steve told her his mother’s heart was so kind, it should be put in a trophy case.

“Trophy case? Didn’t he also tell you he loved you to pieces, and that your hands were so pretty they should be in a museum?” Walt asked in bewilderment. “It’s bizarre.”

Greta reacted with a flash of anger: “Not true, not true; he’s just being nice … poetic.”

Getting to sleep was harder with the tense exchange rolling around her head.

In the middle of the night, Greta was awaking from a fitful period of sleep when she saw a shadow in the bedroom doorway. After closing her eyes and then refocusing them, the shadow was seemingly closer to her bed.

It bent over her.

She thought she saw an arm extend from the dark mass. Then, a glint of sharp light broke forth.

A knife, it was holding a knife, she thought.

Terror tingled across her body.

Greta jerked up into a seated position. Heart pounding, she shut her eyes, as if to make the moment go away.

Steady, hollow breathing could be heard.

It was not hers.

She waited for a few more seconds — eyes tightly shut.

Then, she looked around — and listened.

This time, nothing. Amazingly, the intruder was gone.

Was it an illusion?

For a minute, she scanned the bedroom, listening for anything, including footsteps. Still nothing.

She figured it was just a dream at the edge of her semiconscious state.

In the morning, Greta noticed the deadbolt lock on her apartment door was not locked, although the doorknob lock was in place.

There was only momentary concern. Greta had the bad habit of only turning the lock in the doorknob into its proper position. Once or twice she had even forgotten to set any kind of lock on her door for the night. The specter she thought she saw was a fading memory.     Everything seemed secure in her apartment.

Life went on.

But there was no call from Steve that day.

Or the day after. Or the day after that.

Although he had come to her place to pick her up on dates, he had only actually stepped inside her apartment once — on the first date.

Greta tried phoning him after not hearing from him, but just got an invitation to leave a voice-mail message.

It hurt.

Still, after three days of no contact, she kept holding out hope. It wasn’t as if they were in what could be classified as a serious relationship, so maybe — she thought — he was merely keeping things loose.

Walt heard a rumor that Steve had moved out of the area. Greta wasn’t quite sure what to think.

Her thoughts drifted back to the time when she was trying to get a better handle on the guy who had won her over.

It was a day or two after the first date.

He had mentioned where he lived; had given his address to her.

She knew he had money; she was just curious how much. She wanted to check out his house, so drove there.

It was a Victorian, in a ritzy subdivision.

On this particular moonlit night, the house was dark as Greta sat across the street from it in her car.

Why was she even here?

She couldn’t answer; the reasoning for the excursion was lame.

Suddenly, a car pulled up in front of the house. It was Steve’s Passat.

In the dim light, Greta could see that Steve had gotten out and opened the passenger-side door.

Someone small and frail looking was leaving the vehicle.

The person was slightly hunched over. It looked to be a woman.

Greta figured it was Steve’s mother, although the person exiting the car appeared to be older and weaker than Steve’s mother should have been.

She wasn’t that old, but maybe she had been sick; Greta felt she had figured it out.

Up the walkway went Steve, ushering the woman along.

It was not all that far to the grand, arching front door.

The path was ornate, as it was laid with red brick and lined with finely trimmed pine bushes.

Steve place his hand on the lady’s lower back, as if to guide her.

Then, she stopped, turned her head, and seemed to say something to Steve.

A few seconds passed.

Steve appeared angry, seemingly throwing harsh words her way.

The woman backed away.

To Greta, it seemed the woman was almost cowering.

Steve, half hidden in the shadows of a tree, continued raining down words.

Greta rolled down her car window to hear better.

By then, any conversation had faded into a washed-out blur.

Steve grabbed the woman by her upper arm — firmly.

And he led her away.

All this was happening while Greta wondered if she was too close — if she would be spotted by Steve.

She slid down in the front seat a bit.

As Steve and the lady approached the doorway, Steve appeared to swivel his head back toward the street.

Greta’s heart sank.

Steve never stopped moving, and turned his head back around.

Greta didn’t think she’d been seen.

She waited until Steve and the woman entered the house.

She was about to drive away when yelling shot out from the house.

It was so loud, and it was angry, and it was Steve.

Though muffled, Greta thought she could make out the words, “You’re stupid. You’re useless.”

She drove off, attributing Steve’s rough behavior to a bad day — the kind of day everyone has.

Recalling such an awkward, uncomfortable episode did not lessen Greta’s affection for the man.

But she promised herself she would not dwell on Steve’s absence from her life.

The next morning came and went, as did the evening, without hearing from him.

Despite not wanting to obsess on him, she found herself sinking into depression as the hours without contact from him passed in a slow, grinding way.

So it was with great joy that Greta took a phone call from Steve exactly seven days after his absence from her life had started.

He apologized for the length of time apart from her, saying overtime at his job had drained him..

He now wanted to see a movie, but asked that she drive since his car was not available because of engine work.

Greta complied, and happily showed up at his place.

She rang the doorbell at the side of the large oak door on the weekend of the movie date.

“Hi, good to see you, come on in,” beamed Steve, wearing a preppy black cardigan sweater.

“Come into my parlor,” he smiled, placing a hand on Greta’s shoulder.

“You have a parlor?” she asked in bemused wonder.

“Indeed I do,” he said, leading her into a small, but exquisite, sitting area that was awash in crimson.

A leather chaise lounge, an antique lamp, a hanging tapestry depicting medieval images — all were colored a rich red.

The room’s tone enveloped the senses.

Greta sat in an armchair.

Steve sat on an ottoman next to her.

“I just wanted to take a break before we head out to tell you much I appreciate your company,” he said.

“I feel the same,” she said.

Over Steve’s right shoulder hung a framed photo of his mother.

In it, she word a babushka and a shy, vulnerable smile.

“Ah, you noticed my mom’s photo,” Steve blurted. “She’s so old-school with the babushka and that tattered winter coat she just won’t give up.

“Sometimes I wish she’d be more hip. Those old-world ways drive me crazy at times,” he laughed, more out of aggravated bewilderment than fond humor.

Stymied as to a reply, Greta chose a diplomatic comment.

“Well, your mother seems nice.”

“Yeah, nice,” Steve said, staring into space.

“Maybe I pick things apart too much; maybe I’m too critical,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

Greta was encouraged by the softer introspection.

“I need to dissect and analyze … compartmentalize. That makes me feel like I have control in my life,” Steve said, looking directly into her eyes.

Greta merely nodded as acknowledgment of the dollop of self-analysis.

“I need to dissect,” he repeated, giving Greta’s knee an affectionate, but decidedly firm squeeze.

She was slightly shocked by the strength of the squeeze. It bordered on hurting.

“Excuse me, I need to use your bathroom before we leave,” Greta said, eager to move away from the parlor.

Steve said it was down the hall, second door on the left.

On her way to the bathroom, Greta caught sight of a bedroom to the right, with the door open and nightstand lamp on.

The soft glow of the room pulled her in.

Somehow, she knew she was meant to enter.

Greta noticed something sticking out from underneath the foot of the bed.

Inching closer, she could tell it was the corner of a shoebox.

    Kneeling down, she hurriedly pulled the box to her. The thought of Steve walking in on her was petrifying.

When the shoebox was opened, the interior revealed a ball of aluminum foil. She peeled open the ball to find small, glossy bits of something. Picking up one of the specks, Greta discovered it resembled a fingernail.

False fingernails maybe? They were polished with a fading color, perhaps a dark pink or scarlet.

She felt a natural texture on the surface of what she held.

Then, Greta accidentally dropped it.

Skimming the floor with the palm of her hand to feel for it, she knocked it under the bed.

“Crap!” she muttered.

Panic set in.

    Refocusing attention on the box, Greta quickly counted a half dozen — perhaps eight — dime-sized objects.

Each had a dull sheen that looked like nail polish.

She picked up one of the bits from the box in her fingertips.

It had short, delicate shreds attached.

There was a slight moistness.

“My God!” Greta gasped.

The shreds seemed to be flesh. She rolled the strands between her fingers.

They were indeed skin — they had to be.

She returned the bit to the shoebox. Her fingertips that had held the strange little piece were glistening with red in the light from the lamp.

Taking a closer look, the dreaded realization that it was blood came into focus.

It descended like a lead weight.

The swell of thunder could be heard rumbling across the darkened sky in the world beyond the claustrophobic realm of Steve’s home.

Mouth agape in horror, Greta caught sight of a crumpled-up piece of white paper tucked inside a corner of the shoebox. Spreading the paper apart, a godforsaken thing could be seen.

The tip of a finger appeared before Greta’s eyes. It was complete with fingernail and shredded skin tissue, apparently severed at the top joint.

Greta drew her head away, hoping this was all a sickly illusion. However, there was handwriting on the paper which was undeniably real.

Drawing the paper closer to her eyes, Greta noticed the outline of a tiny heart, which was drawn in pencil.

Above the heart was writing. It said: “I love you to pieces … always.”

Steve’s mother flashed through Greta’s mind. Scrambling to her feet, she tried to gather herself.

She needed to get out of the bedroom, and out of Steve’s house.

Disoriented from waves of terror, Greta frantically attempted to concentrate on her escape.

As she quickly moved to the bedroom doorway, Greta’s vision locked onto an antique chair by the side of a dresser. Underneath the chair was another shoebox.

Greta did not want to inspect it more closely, but she couldn’t keep herself from stepping toward the chair. Bending down, she eased the box from beneath the chair.

Scrawled across the shoebox’s lid in cursive writing was one word: Marietta.

Suddenly, and with welcomed clarity, Greta knew exactly how she would make her way to her car — fast.

Striding with firm purpose down the narrow, but quaint, hallway, she would tell Steve in the parlor that she wasn’t feeling well — it was the flu perhaps — and that their planned date would, regrettably, have to be postponed.

And that is exactly what she told him.

“So sorry,” said Steve with a particularly chilly glance. “But you need to take care of yourself.”

  Greta feared that he didn’t believe her.

  He kissed her — a little peck on the cheek — and said bye at the front door.

Greta, in turn, said bye, sneaking a quick look at him to judge the expression on his face.

It was cold, dead.

Not turning back anymore, she walked as calmly as possible to her car at the curb.

Starting the engine, Greta looked toward the front door, but was startled to see Steve much closer to her, standing — hands nonchalantly in pants pockets — on the grass parkway just a couple of feet from the front of her vehicle.

He smiled a weak smile.

Greta hurriedly drove off. He was supernatural — demonic — she thought.

She had no idea how to handle the nightmarish situation engulfing her.

Go to the police? Greta didn’t want to get involved.

Formally, and quickly, break off the relationship with Steve? Probably, with a short-as-possible phone call.

Whatever solution came, it would have to wait.

She was on her way home now. Greta just wanted to get home.

But she believed Steve was staring at her as she pulled away.

Staring a hole through her. That’s how it felt.

Robert Kostanczuk won first place for “Best Personality Profile” in a 1992 competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Indianapolis chapter. Robert’s “Lizzie Borden Versus Belle Gunness” appeared in Suspense Magazine (Spring 2020 issue). Burial Day Books published his supernatural piece “Fatsy Noodles” in 2021. Twitter: @hoosierkos

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