I’m sitting here at Saffron’s kitchen table, sipping some of her delicious Italian Merlot, when it hits me: we’ve got really similar taste! She’s got this clock on the pine wall in the shape of a tea cup with delicate pink roses painted on it.
And we own the same brand of dishwasher, a stainless Kenmore, and it’s the exact discontinued model that holds two rows of utensils. And look – she’s even got a wooden spice rack with a swan painted on it! (Mine’s got an owl).
The kitchen curtain is sheer blue with a white eyelet ruffle and a pattern of boats on a lake. (So pretty! It really lets the light in!) My kitchen curtain is similar but with a lighthouse design. What are the odds of that?
It’s got to be a sign.
And this adorable cat! He must be Saffron’s — he’s so friendly — the tag on his collar reads Arnold. I wonder when she got him. (I’ve got the big orange guy on my lap right now, and he’s purring like there’s no tomorrow).
Part of me wishes she was here right now. Saffron Sinclair. (Such a classy name! Like Marilyn Monroe!) I’d love to meet her under different circumstances, instead of just seeing her do the weather on Channel 8.
We’ve got so much in common, Saff and me.
But it’s a Saturday morning, so that means she’s working the anchor desk, and she won’t be back for a few more hours.
I pour more wine and stretch my legs. Stiff and sore from the long drive up here, like fifty-eight miles. But I’ve been here before, so it wasn’t that hard to find even in the dark, even without checking my GPS: you just head up Route 3 all the way to Holderness, and then turn right onto Enchanted Shore Road, slamming your Jeep over almost a mile of deep ruts until you finally arrive at this secluded place on Squam Lake.
My headlights slashed across a grove of white birches. As I skidded over some loose gravel, there it was: the old log cabin, dark against a red smear of sunrise, and the peaceful lake beyond.
I almost couldn’t breathe for a minute.
I pulled in behind Tom’s BMW, parked in his usual spot, in front of the woodshed.
The brisk wind ruffled the pines; a cold sting pierced the air. I crept up to the sagging porch. The spare key lay hidden beneath the green lantern on the porch table, same as always.
And as I slipped the key into the lock, my mind clicked back to the beginning.
Was four months ago I first met Tom Tanner. Mid-October—I’d just moved to New Hampshire and was getting settled into my new place when I happened to hear he’d be doing a reading at a bookstore in Henniker. (I’m a huge fan of his stuff. You’ve probably heard of the The Last Victim, right?) Anyway, he’d just come out with the latest in the series and I couldn’t wait to meet him.
I lit cone of white sage incense to purify the air and then made myself up really nice: took extra time with my makeup, even ironed my new jeans that I recently got at the thrift shop. (I’ve always had this thing about dressing up). It was only like fifty degrees out but I wore my high-heeled sandals because they were the only decent shoes I could find.
Got there late; the place was packed. (He’s a legend!) I stood in the back of the room, my senses taking it all in. Tom was even better looking in person. Chiseled face. Shaggy brown hair. Soulful eyes that looked up from his laptop and out at the audience. His voice, scratched from too many cigarettes, as he read about Lukan and Devlin, two best friend werewolf-sleuths who solve murder mysteries when they aren’t out killing and bloodletting.
(It’s a really cool series; you fall for the characters and want to know what happens to them. Except for one little thing that was kind of bothering me. A character flaw, you might say. I wanted to ask Tom about it, but I was nervous about raising my hand).
After the reading, everyone jostled into position to get their books signed. I was near the end of the line, and when it was finally my turn, “Jamey, with an E-Y,” Tom didn’t even look up, he just took the book from me and scribbled,
To Jamey from Tom. Thanks for being a fan.
I cleared my throat. “So, um, about Lukan. He just doesn’t cut it for me. I mean, how come he kills people without any remorse? At least Devlin has a conscience—he feels really bad even when he has to kill a small animal.”
Tom’s gaze cut like razor blades, like how dare I criticize his perfect writing? But then his eyes moved from my face to my strawberry hair to my fitted sweater.
“Lukan is complex, certainly,” Tom said to my breasts, “Some of the greatest protagonists are morally ambiguous, wouldn’t you agree? I think it makes them more compelling, when characters strive to overcome their indelible flaws.”
“That’s so interesting,” I said, bending closer and lowering my voice to a whisper, “Because I’m writing a novel and I really appreciate your wisdom.” (OK, not exactly writing it; a lot of the story is still in my head and I’ve got maybe twenty pages so far. But I’m serious about becoming a writer. It’s really what I want more than anything).
Tom’s face softened; dark gold flecked his hazel eyes. He raked long fingers through his messy hair. He reached for his paper cup, found it empty.
“Fancy a coffee?”
And just like that, we were huddled in a corner booth at the back of the café, beside an overflowing trash can, eating stale blueberry scones. Tom touched my arm, my shoulder; Jamey, Jamey, what a pretty thing you are, I could stare at you forever. He made my head feel funny – like drinking too much vodka.
Every now and then I caught the gleam of Tom’s gold wedding band, so shiny I knew he polished it. Often. (How bold he was!)
He had such a complicated face, too: parts of it good-looking, parts of it not; like two halves that almost didn’t fit; it all depended on your angle of vision, and the lighting in the room, but mostly it all came together as handsome.
He pretty much talked non-stop: how he taught writing at Plymouth, married a too-beautiful woman with boundless ambition, no kids, they drain the life from you, don’t they? They steal your focus; I have to always be writing, writing, never enough time to write. Seems every day a whole week goes by.
He did, eventually, come around to ask about my story. (Deep down I knew he couldn’t be interested in me, Jamey—not really. Not as a whole person, anyway. But the attention! It felt so good!)
Just then a young woman slunk past our booth for like the third time: mocha skin pulled tight across her cheekbones; black lines smudged under swollen eyelids. A wounded beauty, her black tee read: Danger – High Crime Area. She clutched a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich between torn fingernails. She kept stealing glassy-eyed glances at Tom. He wasn’t having any of it; he wouldn’t acknowledge her even in his side vision.
He dismissed her with a slight flick of his wrist. The sting of it felt sharp and inevitable, like watching a large crack spidering across your windshield.
I wanted to care about her. I did care, for like four seconds, as I watched her disappear down the dark hallway. I hoped she was going to be okay.
And then I moved right back under the heat of Tom’s spotlight.
“Um, it’s called ‘The Man with a Ghost in his Eyes’ and it’s about this guy Robert Pritchard who sweeps a girl named Fern off her feet and then really breaks her.”
“Cool title,” he said, tapping his long fingers on the table as if it were a keyboard. A tiny smirk lurked in the corner of his mouth. A few lines etched his face; I pegged him at least thirty-five, maybe forty–but I’m not that great at judging age.
“Robert Prick’s Hard. Hmm. Has that sort-of British, old poet ring to it. Is he a loser or just a pretentious fuck?”
“Neither,” I said, startled. I studied his strong chin, the dark stubble on his face—and wondered how scratchy it would feel between my thighs. “He’s…morally ambiguous.”
“Touché.” He turned to me, smiling, still tapping. “So. Who’s this Fern character?”
I felt out of breath, like I’d been running. “A very…complex girl. Spent months in a locked ward in Jersey. But you’d never know it. She’s sweet and gullible, and really kind, too, except when someone crosses her.”
“A girl with unfulfilled dreams, then.”
I nodded. “She’s had kind of a tragic life—been through some tough things. But she’s young. She’s trying to do better. Recover. Take chances.”
Tom’s fingers danced wildly across the table, a vigorous piano solo. “She’s arcing. Arcing is good. Now: as you build her character, make sure you know everything about her. Her whole back story. Every detail, down to the kind of toilet paper she wipes with. The last thing she tossed in the can. What birth control she’s on.”
“S’all right here,” I said, tapping the side of my head, and immediately felt stupid.
“Great. I keep track of my own characters with old-fashioned yellow sticky notes taped on the wall.” Tom paused, then, “God, your eyes are cerulean!”
He went on about how he created Lukan partially based on a “wicked slimehole” he knew as a child growing up in Freeport, Maine. Guy used to torture stray cats for fun—no, I’m dead serious! But he took absolute tender care of his elderly mother for years! I witnessed him sobbing at her funeral; he was utterly broken by her death. Such a paradox! Like how he digs deep into the minds of each character and sometimes even projects his own self into them in order to get to know them intimately.
“In a way, yes! So…Robert hurts Fern. She’s devastated.”
“Buried in grief.”
“She loved him, right? She trusted him.”
“She thought he was committed—”
“—but he wasn’t, because when you get right down to it, all men cheat. It’s really kind of cliché.”
“He wasn’t like other men she’d known.”
Tom fake yawned.
“He was like forty-six and she was sixteen—”
“Whoa! Now you’ve piqued my interest. A little.” He went back to his finger tapping. “But I’m still not invested. I want to feel her pain. What makes Fern a sympathetic protagonist? You said she’s sweet, gullible and yet maybe a bit dangerous. Why?”
I didn’t want to tell him. It didn’t feel right to give away so much of her so soon. And the story just wasn’t ready yet; it felt too unfinished, even though most of the plot was already there, in my mind, like a scolded child lurking in a dark corner.
My hands were sweating. I pressed them into one large fist.
“She—Fern. Well, she never…sleeps. I mean…never.”
“The girl who never sleeps!” Tom’s fingers froze mid-air. His mouth formed a perfect “O.” Something flashed behind his ash-colored eyes; a searchlight in a forest. After a few moments, his wide eyes focused back onto my face and he whispered, your beauty moves me like night-blooming jasmine as he slipped a warm hand onto my knee.
Later, at the cabin, wedding portraits screamed at me from all directions and I tried to duck beneath their rage. The cabin was furnished with such care, with such a feminine touch. Her strong presence pulsed like a heartbeat; it made me feel like a criminal.
(I swear I didn’t know it was Saffron; that came later).
I leaned against the bedpost, naked, seeking some neutral detail to make me feel welcome there, however small. I spotted dust balls beneath the bed, soft as tiny pillows. Suddenly exhausted, I sank into the mattress, realizing he hadn’t once asked about me. My age. My last name. I’d shared parts of my story, but he hadn’t offered to read it.
But in that moment, it really didn’t matter. I’d already crossed a threshold. It was like walking out onto the lake, blindfolded, and feeling the ice cracking beneath my bare feet.
As Tom covered me with kisses, I wasn’t sure if I was the prize or he was. Still, I didn’t resist, not one tiny bit, when he pulled me into thick downy quilts and reached to my soul with his tongue.
After that first encounter, he wanted to see me more and more often; he’d text me little messages every day. I was his dove-eyed girl who makes love like a goddess. (As if I was the only girl who he’d ever said that to).
Sometimes I even had to look up a word. You’re my eternal inamorata. But I played right into it, played by his rules, tossed out my better judgement right along with my morals, starved for as much of his attention as I could get.
One rule was to keep our conversation mostly to writing—his writing. (He never asked about my story again). His personal life was off-limits, and he was not interested in mine. Let’s keep this light and fun.
Mostly, we went to motels. Now and then we’d meet at the cabin. And on a few occasions, he’d invite me to campus, where I’d wander dreamily, pretending to be just another student. In his office, I’d sit in front of stacks of his typed pages, touching them, wishing I could write like that. (I hadn’t written one single word since we met). Often, he’d ask me to read some of his chapters aloud, especially dialogue, so he could hear if it sounded “organic” to the character.
But one day, several weeks into our relationship, things took a terrible turn.
Morning dawned unusually hot and bright, more like July than mid-November. Tom texted he had the perfect afternoon planned and to be ready at noon; by three I was still waiting, pacing, biting my nails. I took a second shower, scouring away any lingering dirt, scrubbing with a loofah until it felt like there was one less layer of skin.
I leaned my face against the sweating mirror and hated what I saw. How could anyone want that? A hard lump of a forehead, eyes knitted too close together, nose too narrow, an upper lip that almost doesn’t exist. So ugly!
I just couldn’t wash myself clean enough.
I squeezed a tiny blemish on my chin until it bled.
When I finally began to accept that Tom wasn’t coming, I spied his black BMW convertible pulling up to the curb. I raced outside, my heart singing. He still wants me!
Tom was wearing baggy shorts and dark sunglasses, and a wrinkled gray polo shirt with a tiny blackbird insignia on the pocket. His hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. So handsome! The ashtray spilled over with butts; he flicked his lighter again right after he pecked my cheek. His favorite band, Aerosmith, was blaring from the radio. I wanted to talk, but didn’t want to yell above the music.
I caught a strong whiff of body odor; odd that he hadn’t showered.
I dutifully handed him my phone and he locked it in the glove compartment. No cell phones when we’re together, so we can fully focus on each other. I beamed my good-natured and uncomplaining smile, just the way he liked it, and tucked my thin cotton dress beneath my bare legs. In the back seat was an overstuffed backpack and a white wicker lunch basket with two bottles of wine sticking out. He had gone to so much trouble!
I felt special. Loved, even.
“Found a new place,” Tom said, “think you’ll like it.” He checked his watch, then stepped on the accelerator; we sped away from the dusty city and headed west, up into the hills, along winding, country roads, Tom leaning into the curves like a race car driver.
We eventually came to a high, narrow road, lined with the skeletons of golden trees. After about a mile or so, he slowed the car to take a right turn into a hidden entrance that led to a forgotten cemetery.
It was as tranquil as any I’d ever seen, with overgrown fields, walking paths and rambling stone walls. Clusters of ancient granite headstones, shaded by marble pillars. Old stone benches rested upon colorful carpets of fallen leaves.
“Wow,” I breathed.
As the car idled, he turned to me. “Could really use your help, Jamey. Something I’m working on. A particular scene.” His eyes held no expression; they matched the flat gray of the headstones.
“Sure.” I didn’t know if we were going to read the scene together or what, but I was up for it. Maybe he’d even be open to hearing some of my ideas this time.
We spotted an enormous, majestic tree, high on a knoll, still holding onto most of its bronze foliage. When I mistakenly called it an oak, Tom muttered between clenched teeth: it’s an American Beech. That sudden knife in his voice —it sounded like Bitch! — it felt like it could physically cut me.
I couldn’t figure out why he was so angry. I spread out a flannel blanket and we sat there, side by side but not touching, surveying our silent audience. We opened the wine and Tom served chunks of something that looked like pink flesh. I fought a wave of nausea before he told me what it was – smoked salmon. I’d never eaten that before and told him so. Tom grumbled under his breath, you’re so fucking provincial.
I blinked, hard, to keep from crying; I drank more wine. I rubbed my temples to try to soothe my shooting headache; birds were screaming in impossible octaves somewhere high in the trees, a silvery ring of noise.
A little later, when I tried to nuzzle into Tom’s arms, he wormed away. He lit another cigarette and blew smoke rings.
“You ready?” His face was a gathering storm. “So. Devlin’s fallen in love with a woman he met at a bookstore.”
“Catriona.” (She’s one of my favorite characters. Strong, resilient, ambitious. And a great singer, to boot).
“Right. But Lukan is sick over it. He wants Cat to want him. But she won’t pay him any mind. Lukan’s getting desperate; he’ll do anything to capture her love.”
“Lukan could never be in love.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because his soul is dirt.”
The low rumble of Tom’s anger. “He’s got some good qualities!”
“No – no, he doesn’t. And Catriona knows it. He just mimics other people so it appears that he’s got some good in him. Besides,” I added, “Cat would never betray Devlin.”
Tom stood up, fuming. I could see spreading armpit stains. His back muscles strained against the polo shirt. When he turned toward me, chest heaving, I saw the bird insignia stretch out like a raven taking flight.
His voice bellowed with rage. “Tell me! Now! What would Lukan do? What action would he take?”
I had to get the answer right.
The mosquitoes were in full attack mode. Tom’s cigarettes weren’t even keeping them away. I swatted my arm and shivered.
“Well, you said it yourself. Capture her love. So…he’d probably have to take her by force. Because I sure don’t…see it unfolding any other way.”
I held my breath. I caught Tom’s expression – and cringed. He looked so strange! His forehead appeared impossibly long, cheekbones high and sharp — his hair all straggly and matted; eyes narrow slits; they glittered greenish-yellow. Without warning, he snatched me up and threw me head-first into the thorn bushes behind the beech tree.
I yelped; pushed my hands forward to break my fall — and rolled sideways, banging my left shoulder on a tree root. My dress bunched up above my waist. He was on me in a second, pounding into me, a crazed animal, viciously cruel. I screamed for him to stop – I tried to scratch him but he held down my wrists. He kept on slamming into me; a low growl sounded from his throat.
Hot strings of saliva slipped down the back of my neck.
I turned my head and vomited onto some red leaves, curled up like tiny withered hands. I must have blacked out, for the next thing I knew I was sitting up, my back pressed hard against the tree bark. Dizzy. Hurting. Head pounding.
My vision slowly came back into focus. Tom was wiping the cuts on my palms and knees with antiseptic wipes. He looked like Tom again. So gentle now. A caregiver. He offered me a bottle of water. I took a tentative sip. I turned my face away so he wouldn’t see my tears.
I tried to gauge how far we were from town. For a second, I thought about bolting to the car. But I knew the keys were in his pocket.
Tom saw me trembling. He pulled a sweatshirt from the backpack and handed it to me. It had a heavy perfume odor, like lily of the valley. He asked me to stand, and when I did, painfully, he sprayed me with bug spray, from my ankles to my wrists, and it stung all of my cuts.
“Babe, I’m sorry, it’s the stress – look, I had a difficult call with my publisher today and they want to put the series on pause. They think the market’s over saturated. They want something new.”
I didn’t reply. Nothing could ever justify what he had done to me. I started pulling the sweatshirt over my head; saw it had something written on the front in bold letters.
I turned it over and read:
WBRQ Channel 8 – We Know Weather!
The truth detonated like napalm. Ohmygod. I’d caught glimpses of photos of a blond woman in the cabin, but I’d never looked too closely. I wanted to keep his wife blurry; fuzzy around the edges. Just another blonde with gauzy features and a bright smile.
It made it so much easier that way.
“Your wife is…Saffron?”
A slight nod. Indifferent.
“Oh, no.” I clutched my stomach. I thought I might vomit again. How could it possibly be her? She was so…so nice! She had helped me!
My knees buckled. I tried to pull in a breath. It hurt so bad I wondered if a rib was cracked. Tom moved towards me. “You mean so much to me, Jamey, I hope you know that?” He held me out at arm’s length. “You do know that, right?”
I wouldn’t answer.
“Don’t be upset! Look – we have this special, spiritual thing together and that never needs to change.”
Special and spiritual? Was he insane? I forced myself to search the wild map of his face. His eyes looked normal again. He actually believed what he was saying.
“Take me home,” I said. “I want to go home. Now.”
The misted light drifted below the tree line. Tom sighed, fishing for something in the backpack. He calmly extracted a thick roll of silver duct tape.
I backed away. No, no, no. I squinted at the ground, looking for something. A rock? A large branch, maybe. Anything!
“There’s nowhere to go, Cat.”
From the looming shadows, he took a menacing step forward. I kneed him in the groin, hard. As he bent over, groaning, I bolted, but he caught my hair, wrenching my head backwards.
And his savage growl left no doubt who I was really dealing with.
This time, I didn’t scream. I didn’t struggle. I knew it would make things worse. And it was dark now, but for the sick-yellow glow of Lukan’s eyes.
In that moment of pure terror, with fangs sharp enough to crush bone pressed against my slender neck, I decided the only way to survive might be to figure out the answer to one simple question.
What would Catriona do?
I went completely limp.
“That’s right, Cat. That’s better.” Lukan dragged me back to the tree, and started ripping strands of duct tape with his canines. He taped my legs and arms tight against the trunk. His breath stank like rot. He started to rip off another long piece, and I prayed it wouldn’t cover my mouth. No, no, please not my mouth!
The wind rustling in the trees sounded like sad music. I starting humming a melody I’d learned as a child — my uncle used to sing it to me, to calm me down — about ants disappearing into the earth. I tried to make it as melodious as I could.
Sweet little ants crawl down the tree, down the tree, into the ground, into the ground, where no one can see, those sweet little ants, go down the tree, it’s just you and me, dear, it’s just you and me.
Lukan tilted his head and listened. When I finished the song, I spoke in a much deeper, husky voice (thinking that Catriona being so brave and strong-willed would have a voice like that).
“I do care about you Lukan. More than you can ever know. But…this! This is not the way to my heart.”
He let go of the duct tape. His breathing slowed. For an agonizing moment, I witnessed the yellow glimmer fade from his slitted eyes. Then Lukan stuffed everything into the backpack, prowled down the hill and leapt into the BMW. When I heard the car peel out onto the dirt road, only then did I let myself sob.
I writhed and twisted through spikes of white-hot pain to work myself out of the tape. After staggering in the dark for what seemed like hours, through the constant slaps of angry branches, two fiery halos of fog suddenly danced in my direction. Then the sound of a car approaching threw me into a panic, thinking Lukan had returned to finish me off.
I slid down into the roadside ditch, through a pile of crumpled beer cans, kicked off a thin lid of ice, and pressed myself down into a cold layer of dirt, the weight of it so safe and familiar, like an old, heavy blanket.
The car braked; I could feel it’s hot breath. Doors opened, closed; two shadowy figures approached with flashlights. I lifted my chin and read Robertsville Police on the quarter panel.
The cops were very kind to me. At the station, I told Officer Bartz I smelled something burning. He grinned, Now, don’t you worry, it’s just the coffee, I hope you like it stale and bitter, and brought me a steaming mug, and a crumbled peanut butter cookie. He handed me some clean sweatpants he had in his locker.
His partner typed my name into the computer.
“Wait, no way — you’re her?” When I nodded, he gave a low whistle and shook his head. Bartz leaned forward, squinting at the screen from his standing position. His eyes widened a bit, before he turned to me.
“Jamey. Help us sort out why you were staggering down a dark road in the middle of the night; barely dressed, covered in abrasions and bug bites?”
My head felt like it had been shoved through a log splitter. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. So, I made up a story about arguing with a girlfriend after we left a nightclub in Concord. “She made me get out of the car.”
Bartz seemed concerned. “Can we call someone for you?”
The sad truth was the only person I could call was Tom, and that was out of the question. Or, I could call Dr. Phillips, my psychiatrist, but she wouldn’t want to be disturbed so early. After a quiet chat with his partner, Officer Bartz offered to drive me home.
We drove in silence for the first several miles. I could feel him itching to say something – and I knew what it was. I cleared my throat. “It’s okay – ask me whatever you want.”
Bartz searched my face. “How are you coping after all you’ve…I mean, I know some time has passed, but no one should ever have to endure something like that.”
“I’m better. I mean, as well as can be expected, I guess.” (He had no idea; how could he? And how could I possibly explain how damaged I really felt inside: and that I’d just suffered yet another brutal trauma and was probably in shock?)
“I admire your resilience, Jamey, I really do. I don’t know if I could…come back from something like that the way you have.”
I studied him for a long moment, in profile. Receding hairline; a broad, gentle face – generous nose, full lips, a slight double chin. How sweet he was, how genuine. And (sadly) so very unlike the men I am typically attracted to.
“Heard that bastard got out on a technicality. He ever try contacting you?”
“Um, no. He didn’t. He can’t. He’s…a ghost.”
I nodded. “House fire. About four months ago.”
Bartz chewed on that information for a while, before he pushed out a long breath.
“Yeah, well. Karma’s a bitch.”
When we got to my apartment complex, Bartz drove around the buildings a couple of times, scanning the surroundings. “You feel safe here, Jamey?”
“Think so. Seems like a good neighborhood.” I was so touched that he had asked.
“My neighbor, Nelly Walston, she’s real nosy and always clucking on about who’s coming and going. Anyway, she had a small fire in her kitchen the other day, but I smelled the smoke before she did and called the fire department.”
“That nose of yours again! It saved the day.” He laughed. “It’s good that you’re vigilant.”
“You’re the one who’s good, Officer Bartz. Thanks for going so far out of your way,” I said. “Means a lot.”
“Name’s Denny.” He pressed his card into my palm, don’t hesitate to call if you need anything, or if you just want to talk, then helped me to my apartment door, asked me if he could go inside first to make sure everything was safe, then sounded the all-clear once he did a thorough check.
Denny shook my hand like it really meant something to him. Like I mattered as a person. I locked the door, and double bolted it. I lit some cinnamon incense for protection, then slowly lowered myself into a lavender Epsom salt bath to help soak away the pain.
I never heard from Tom Tanner again. Not for three whole months. No texts, no calls, nothing. It was a huge relief, and I slowly started to feel almost normal.
Until a few days ago, that is. I was nursing a raging head cold, lounging in my PJ’s, drinking some lemon ginger tea with honey. Around 7AM, I turned on the TV, and there was Saffron, hosting a new show called Awake 603.
(I was so excited! I thought it must be a promotion; I was so proud of her!)
But then her first guest walked into the studio.
And many of our viewers might not realize this, but our very special guest for this inaugural Valentine’s Day show also happens to be my own wonderful and charming husband. Everyone, please welcome, novelist Tom Tanner.
Thunderous applause. Tom strode on stage like a movie star, dressed in hip jeans, leather boots and a black dress shirt opened at the collar. He even gave a little bow to the live audience of mostly overweight, middle-aged women, causing them to giggle and titter.
He sauntered over to Saffron and she offered her cheek. A glance passed between them that wasn’t exactly loving. Something was off; her body language was tense.
And she looked so tired! But — she was good at hiding it with makeup. A real professional. (I so admire that!)
“Before we get started, I need to explain to our audience and also to our many viewers at home — that my dear husband hasn’t even told me anything about this latest project of his! So — we’re all in for a special treat today!”
More excited clapping. “What’s it about, Tom? Do tell!”
“Yeah, this one’s radically different from The Last Victim series. Something new and fresh for the fans,” he explained, “it’s called The Girl Who Never Sleeps.”
I dropped the remote. My headache flared.
Murmurs of interest from the audience. Saffron seemed pleased by their reaction. “Intriguing title. Tell us more!”
“So, the main character is this teen girl named Fergie. She’s kind of a head case, but super sweet. She’s young, vulnerable, but unfortunately gets swept up by this much older, depraved dude named Rob Pritchard.”
Saffron’s mouth dropped open. She quickly recovered. “Pritchard? Um, wait, this sounds like—” But Tom didn’t notice, he just kept droning on about Fergie, how she falls so deeply that she does dangerous things in the name of love.
“Yeah, this Pritchard fellow is a really bad apple.”
Saffron interrupted. “Tom, wait, could this character of yours possibly be based on Robert Pritchard, the serial killer, by chance?”
It was Tom’s turn to falter. He blinked a few times, then opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“And Fergie! You must mean Fern, right? Fern Jameson? Wait — I think she calls herself Jamey now. Yeah, she was his ‘Last Victim,’ so to speak. She was also the only one to survive.”
Tom looked stunned. “Uhh…” was all he could say.
Saffron’s face was a jumble of thoughts. “You must remember the case, Tom. Back when we first met!” She looked out at the audience, “In Trenton, where I got my start in television.”
Aware of their rapt attention, she went on. “Y’all probably remember this one; it’s really horrific. I was actually the first reporter on scene to break the story of her rescue – I even met the poor girl and gave her some water — it was all over the news, oh – what’s it been now, about seven years!”
Tom threw Saffron a look that made me shiver. With just a few words, she had stolen his thunder and made him a fool. But she continued, confidently, “Sixteen-year-old Fern Jameson was abducted by Pritchard. He kept her caged like a dog for months before he decided to bury her, alive, in the cage.”
A loud intake of breath from the audience. Saffron stood and moved toward them, taking time to let them fully digest what she’d just said, and to build the dread. She leaned toward the front row and quieted her voice.
“He’d packed the earth pretty tight. But– there was some kind of animal hole near her mouth, like a gopher would make, and she used it as her air source. Somehow, she was able to keep breathing for four whole days until she was dug up.”
A collective gasp. Saffron waited another beat.
“That’s why she never slept. She was afraid the hole would fill with dirt.”
The camera zoomed in on two women in the second row as they burst into tears.
“Wow. Fern. Haven’t thought about her in quite a while.” Saffron walked back to her seat, sat down. She saw the look of scorn on Tom’s face. “Wait – did she contact you?”
His face flushed; he studied his fingernails.
“She did? Why didn’t you tell me?” She leaned in close and whispered almost into his ear (but the mic was on so everyone still heard her say it anyway): “Don’t you remember? The restraining order I had to take out on her?”
The camera went close on Tom’s face as he mouthed the words, “that was her?”
An uncomfortable silence expanded in the studio, like an overfilled balloon.
The show finally cut to a commercial break.
And that’s when I knew that the time had come. Time to completely erase Tom Tanner from my life, once and for all, so that I could finally, and fully move on.
It was time to make things clean.
When I first pushed opened the cabin door, Saffron’s valentine card blared like warning lights at a train crossing. It had to be a foot high, straddling half the kitchen table, heart-shaped and god-awful red, edged with white lace like pieces of gauze stuck to a bloody chin.
And giant neon block letters that read: TO MY BEAUTIFUL WIFE.
Annoyed, I picked it up, then decided that wasn’t so good an idea. (Now my fingerprints are on it. But I’ll deal with that later).
Tom was snoring, so he never heard me creep to the edge of the bed. I lifted his right wrist and used the cuffs I’d plucked from Denny’s belt to handcuff him to the bed post. Then I shot some Ketamine powder right up his nose. (Dr. Phillips is always pushing that nasty stuff on me; I’ve got plenty on hand, just had to crush up a few pills). He snorted it mid-snore; it took him a few seconds to wake up and realize who was standing there.
He bolted upright, then fell over sideways, hanging off the bed by his wrist.
“You are going to pay for what you’ve done,” I announced, head high, feeling so powerful for standing up for myself for a change. (Dr. Phillips would be so proud of me for taking charge!)
“Take these cuffs off me right now you crazy fucking bitch!”
From the corner of the bedroom, I dragged the full-length mirror across the floor and set it beside the bed. “Tom, look! Who do you see? Look closely now! I think you’ll recognize him!”
Tom thrashed around, smashing his left fist into the mirror, spraying the room with tiny shards of glass. I backed up a bit. “Now, now, it’s not Lukan,” I said patiently, as if coaxing a difficult toddler.
A string of obscenities exploded from his mouth, so real, so twisted with hate; I
could see them uncoil and slither around in the air. I tried to grab psycho-fuck but it wiggled out of my grasp.
“Think now, my love. If I’m The Girl Who Never Sleeps, then who might you be?”
He’s still enraged, but this time there’s no Lukan to protect him.
Nope. It’s just pathetic old Tom.
“If you tell me, I might let you go.”
The Ketamine was kicking in big time. Tom’s eyes were clouding over; he blinked and shook his head to try to stay conscious. Then he let out a long, pitiful wail, like a dying wolf coming to terms with his fate.
“I’m the fucking…man,” he said quietly.
“The Man. With. A…gohhhst.”
Tom tried to spit at me, but his lips were numb and it leaked all over his chin.
“The one…wite thay. Een the fugging meewrr. Een my…eyes.”
I gave him a good hard minute of applause. He deserved it!
“Bravo! Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
There is only one important detail I still have to work out.
What to do with poor Arnold. I mean, here he is, rubbing between my calves like I’m his only friend on this whole planet. If I toss him outside, he’ll go feral really quick, and that’s no kind of life for a house cat. Besides, I’d hate to think of him getting lost in the freezing cold woods out here. He’s such a big, sweet boy.
So, I’m thinking I’ll just take him with me. Maybe, after things settle down, I can drop him at a shelter with a note. (I’d love to keep him, but my landlord told me there’s a strict no-pet policy).
Other than that, I think I’ve got everything pretty much covered. I even turned Tom’s favorite Aerosmith album up pretty loud for him. (It’s playing Janey’s Got a Gun, which is kind of ironic because it sounds like they’re singing Jamey. And I don’t own a gun, but I just saw Tom’s got a shotgun in the closet and there’s no way he can get to it).
Every so often there’s a thunka-thunka-thump coming from the bedroom, almost like he’s trying to keep a beat to the lyrics.
Anyhow, it’s time for me to finish this and get back on home. And after hunting around for some newspaper, it occurs to me that the damn valentine will work just fine.
I stride over to it and knock it down flat. Then I pick it up and start ripping. The lace comes off in one long strip, but the card is thick as leathery skin. I try to tear it into pieces but only manage to pull off a couple of red chunks.
And now it reads:
TO M BEA T WIFE
I think on this a bit, and it really all makes sense. That’s why Saffron looked so tense the other day. Those dark circles under her eyes meant something far more sinister than lack of sleep.
And this card is a sign that I’m doing the right thing.
No time to waste, so I finish tearing it up into what looks like a pile of bloody meat.
I flick Tom’s gold lighter and the lace catches quickly. Then I head over to the bedroom door and carefully light the gasoline-soaked paper logs.
The thunking noise is slowing down, like a drum solo coming to its end.
(I remembered to set his vintage record player on automatic repeat. I figure Tom will get to hear his favorite songs at least one more time).
Soon everything will be clean. (There’s just nothing cleaner or purer than fire!)
So, I guess it’s time for me and Arnold to go. I slip Tom’s lighter into my jeans pocket as a memento, because I’m a sentimental girl. Then I tuck Arnold under my arm like a football and we make a run for my Jeep.
And as the flames rise hotter and higher behind us, I can already feel the clean heat melting the frozen lake of my heart.
Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and Monadnock Magazine. She finds inspiration in the brisk wind along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.