Alice sat at church, shrunken into the pew. She was hiding bruises. Rick, a pillar of the church, looked pious and nudged her to smile at people.
He left in his car right after the service was over, leaving her and the kids standing beside the SUV with not even a backwards glance. She felt small; she was a bitter disappointment to him. She wasn’t worthy of his attention. She sat and cried silently after strapping the kids in and turning on the movie.
Alice ran into Cindy unexpectedly on the way home. She was driving down the street, and Cindy honked from right behind her. Alice pulled over and Cindy got out and they stood around talking for awhile, until the kids got fidgety. Then Cindy suggested they go to her house for some coffee and cookies. The kids decided the issue.
The kids loved Cindy’s house. Cindy let them slide down the banister, Cindy let them run and slide with their socks on the marble floor, Cindy let them scream and shout in the rotunda. Cindy fed them soft drinks and cookies.
Alice and Cindy sat in the kitchen while the kids amused themselves with Bill’s Xbox. Alice felt happy for the first time in a long while. Cindy felt protective and angry. Alice had revealed her bruises and told Cindy some of what Rick was like when he was mad. Cindy’s advice was to cut his dick off and then shoot him.
Alice defended Rick, because he was really soft hearted and tender, but people failed him and let him down and disappointed him and tested him and tried his patience and drove him crazy and broke the camel’s back. They walked on eggshells around him in case something they did they set him off.
Alice looked bleak. To distract her Cindy talked about Bill. “I think I’m going to leave him,” she said.
Alice looked at her with sympathy. Being alone would be a punishment. She hoped it wasn’t contagious. Being alone with kids would be life at hard labor.
Cindy told her about the receipts she’d found. About the phone bills she’d gone back and checked. About more cancelled checks, more receipts, more settlement statements. About credit cards and accounts at banks she knew nothing of.
Alice advised her, which shocked both of them. Get copies of everything. Or change the locks and keep the originals. Alice had been reading legal thrillers. She liked figuring out what was going on.
Alice told Cindy she’d been snooping in Rick’s things, and found things that worried her. “If I didn’t love him, I’d think he was up to something, but he’s just doodling.” She didn’t want to put too much emphasis on a few little quirks. “He’s under a lot of pressure. I’ve been seeing it more and more.” Sometimes it scared her. “When I’m lying awake at night, sometimes I wonder if he’s not planning to kill me for the insurance and sell the children.” Speaking it aloud, she suddenly felt how remote a possibility it was. Just her and her silly ideas, up all night being negative.
Rick would have thought it was an excellent idea. Gordon didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, in principle, but would have balked if he’d ever had to look one of them in the eyes. But Rick would have done it to his own kids just to shut them up.
Cindy was appalled. She could see it. Rick was capable of it. He was a bully as a child, and had never gotten over it. He was a successful bully, and used it as his regular everyday persona. No matter what Alice saw in him, he’d buried that soft tender heart so far that he walked crooked.
Alice quietly freaked out. Telling Cindy some things had made them more real, and she had an unpleasant vision of Rick as a slavering monster looming over her and the kids. She was living with a dangerous predator who wanted to hurt her and eat her children. And there was no way out. She started to cry, and Cindy drew her close and stroked her hair while she sobbed.
Later, she stroked other things. The kids stayed in the den and didn’t interrupt them.
* * *
After Alice left with the kids, Cindy wandered around her house putting things back where they went. She took two hydrocodone and a soma and felt better, but was still feeling raw. Poor Alice, poor dear Alice. She could just kill Rick for treating her like that. There were bruises on her body that nobody but a sadist would leave. Cindy kissed each one. Sometimes twice.
Fucking Rick. He was getting away with being a wife beater. And Bill was getting away with being a philanderer. What was Gordon getting away with? And that Frank?
Cindy fumed and steamed. Soon, wandering around the house wasn’t enough to contain her fury. She downed a couple of provigil and hopped into the car to go to the range and practice shooting her gun.
Except she never made it to the range. She stopped off around the corner from Mom’s house and sneaked in the back way. Standing in the back yard, hidden by the branches, she waved the gun at first Mom, sitting in her rocker in front of the TV, then some guy sitting on the couch next to her. She wasn’t too steady and had trouble focusing. She wondered about the guy, but decided that he wasn’t her target. She waved the gun at Mom and pulled the trigger. Mom and Allen saw and heard it, but were watching The Sopranos and were only confused.
The loud retort startled Cindy. So did the kick. She dropped the gun. When she found it again and straightened it up, there was a dog looking at her and growling. She shot the dog and ran back to her car, where a guy was walking along holding a leash and peering into the bushes. She shot the guy, and sped away into the darkness as lights came on in the nearby houses.
Cindy slept well that night. She didn’t see whether or not she’d hit Mom, but the act of pointing and shooting was so satisfying that she thought she might be content playing a video game. Kill Mom. Maybe she could get Rick to publish it. Fucking Rick. Foolish Alice.
She felt stiff, and might have attributed it to the exertions of the night’s sleepwalking, but she was still blissfully unaware, and decided that it was because of Alice. Her whole body had come alive, and she could feel places that used to be numb. The way her thighs rubbed together when she walked. She hadn’t noticed that before. The feeling of her pubic hair being caught in the fold of her leg. The bottoms of her feet. It was good to be alive. She felt like going back to bed for the sheer hedonism of it. And having Alice over again to help enjoy it. 1500-count sheets were meant to be shared.
Then she smelled burning hair. She ran downstairs to find her silk rugs smoldering in the fireplace. The smell was sickening. There were slashes thru all of her paintings. The masterpieces also had holes cut in them with scissors. In heart shapes.
She found another one of Judy’s presents on the front steps. A newspaper christmas tree.
This was no accident. Cindy was pretty sure Judy was behind all this pointed destruction. How she – or whomever – got in was a mystery, but they went out of their way to wound her. They must really hate her.
They, hell. It had to be Judy. They hadn’t been civil since her wedding night, when Judy disappeared with Bill at the start of dinner. They said he got called away for an emergency – they didn’t want to ruin the wedding dinner for her (her last happy memory of wedded bliss). Later, their first lovemaking was memorable only for Bill’s losing his erection after a few otherwise forgettable moments.
She didn’t learn out until morning that Judy was found drunk and crying in a utility closet. Bill denied everything. Judy had apologized for twenty years, and Cindy hated her for it.
Cindy was a virgin on her wedding night. She was still the reluctant virgin with Bill. It never occurred to her that her husband had been sleeping with everything that smelled female. She thought he was a virgin just like she was, and then later revised it to being a virgin on the night before their wedding night (entrapped by her evil sister). She figured that she was giving him sex. It was good enough, and she could be assured of his faithfulness. Besides, he was impotent more and more lately. Soon she wouldn’t have to bother.
Judy still had to be punished for ruining her marriage. Cindy thought about this in detail as she sorted a handful of pills for breakfast. Then Alice called, hysterical. Child Protective Services had just come to the house and taken her children.
* * *
Mom sent Allen out on an errand. While he was gone she went down to his nest and picked up some of the beer cans and cigarette butts. A simple walk-thru was enough to tell her what he’d been up to lately. He left a trail that an amateur detective would figure out at first glance.
Frank arrived. Judy was lucky to have him, and didn’t know it. He reminded her of her own husband, long dead. They had the same sense of humor, the same way of laughing, the same lines around their eyes. Frank didn’t laugh much when he was over at her house, but she liked having him around because she could pretend herself that her dear husband was still alive, and just in the next room.
Frank brought her a floor lamp. He would have been dismayed to see what had happened to the automatic drapes, so she didn’t mention the fire, but made a big fuss about all the features he pointed out so painstakingly – the remote, the rheostat, the heat lamp, and his special effort – a white noise generator. So she could get a tan and listen to the ocean. A tanning bed and reading lamp in one. He was so clever. She watched him bent over, fussing with the controls.
She looked at the clock in the kitchen. “Now, just one more thing,” she said, leading the way into the bedroom. Frank sighed.
This time she tied him up with belts and spanked him with a pingpong paddle.
Frank staggered to the bathroom afterwards, humiliated and out of breath. The belts had left marks around his wrists and ankles. He had a blister on his butt. He was wrung dry. Mom lay on the bed humming Old Black Magic.
Frank sat on the pot and let his erection subside so he could pee. He felt a little light headed. He started to tingle all over. And then he got hot and chilly at the same time. And then his vision grayed out and he was fighting to remain conscious.
Then he was on the floor and the paramedics were shining lights in his eyes. He was cold. He threw up and passed out again.
* * *
Judy was sitting with Ben and Allen in Allen’s apartment for, he swore, the last time. While selling weed in a parking lot was safer than letting Rick catch up with him, it was much less comfortable. So they were there to hang out and smoke one last joint before he moved his stuff into Mom’s house. And fuck the landlord.
Allen asked if there was anything they wanted for themselves, and began rolling a fatty. Judy put dibs on the mirrored tray as she pulled a fifth of cheap bourbon out of her pocketbook. Ben wondered if he should take his devices back, unless there was need of them at the new place?
“Hey, that’s a really good idea. There’ve been some real suspicious things happening lately.” His mind was filled with a vision of the electronic fortress. Cameras and microphones. Monitors lining his nest. “What kind of security would I need if I wanted to see down the street and around the corner and shit? And all the doors. And inside.” He passed Ben the weed and the lighter. Judy passed him the booze.
“Wow,” Ben said, saluting Allen with the joint before lighting it. “I didn’t think you’d be serious. It would be horribly expensive.” He thought while savoring the hit. “You’d have to pay a guy like me’s salary for starters, and all the monitors, and the data storage. And the cameras. I guess a couple of million to see and hear everything.” He paused. “Of course, the guy I work for is doing exactly what you’re talking about at his house. It’s not costing him a penny.”
They agreed to look into the low cost option and Ben passed Judy the joint and had a chaser from the bottle. Ben didn’t think much of his company’s security procedures; it should be easy to divert a whole bunch of hardware without them figuring it out. He should know, he was in security, and they were an elite team of idiots.
Allen looked at the stickies flowing out of Judy’s pockets and handbag. “So how’s that neat thing working for you?” he asked.
She passed him the joint. “Oh, it’s great.” She took a swig. “You’d never believe it. I got the house to a certain level of clean – I could see the floor in every room – and suddenly I felt something shift in my head. And all of a sudden I could think better. It was like walking thru one of those clear plastic flap doorways into a refrigerated warehouse.”
Ben said wow, and they talked about astral projection, and Allen tuned out. It was too New Age. He was more Stone Age. It was meat and potatoes roasting in the fire for him, while they sat around arguing about shadows on the fucking wall.
Judy showed them a painting she’d just done. A landscape. With a yellow sky and a red sun, and what looked like scorched earth. “Watercolor, right?” Ben asked, and they talked about paint for awhile.
Judy stopped to scribble something on a stickie. “It’s because I’ve been doing all this organizing. All of a sudden I’m having all these ideas.” She indicated her stickies. “And all these visions. Like something’s trying to tell me something.” Allen made UFO noises. “And I remember how creative I was as a child. But my fucking Mom. I remember her yanking me by the elbow one time, and shouting at me to do my homework.” She rubbed her elbow. “She ripped up my drawing. My elbow’s always hurt, ever since.” The pain seemed to be coming from her shoulder at the moment, so she held the bottle in her other hand and rubbed her shoulder instead.
Ben rolled a somewhat thinner joint from his ounce as he told Allen about the surveillance his boss was doing. It bothered him because the wife was obviously the victim of his abuse, and the prick was using his suspicions to torment her. When in fact, he was being quite the man around town, himself. “I’m not supposed to talk about it,” he said, looking at Judy. She nodded. “But it’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel I can just sit by and watch anymore.” She thought he looked noble. “I’m working on a way to fix it.”
Judy approved on principle. “Nail the bastard,” she said. “Catch him beating her up and they can play it in court while he sits there and cries for mercy.”
“Are you going to use a remote?” Allen asked.
Ben thought about it. “Well, it’ll probably involve a remote, but it won’t be as easy as the proximity alarm.” It would be a wonder of the cryptocinematic world. It would win a prize at Sundance. A montage of security clips and sound bites.
Judy admired Ben’s genius. He should meet frank. They’d have so much in common.
There was a noise at the front door, and suddenly a tall dark figure burst into the apartment. He stood there, shadowed against the light, a fearsome creature. Dark forms blinked up at him, shrinking back with terror.
Rick had tossed the Allen’s-home alarm because it never worked. He’d trusted his instincts and just showed up. Surprise was everything. “You owe me three months rent,” he boomed from the door. “ Since you’re obviously avoiding payment, I’ll be taking it out of your hide.” He waited for his eyes to adjust. The dark forms fidgeted. He advanced on them menacingly.
“Rick,” said Allen, resigned. “Rick,” said Judy, dismayed. “Rick,” said Ben, wondering what happened to his proximity detector. Rick’s vision cleared, and he looked from his tenant to his employee to his older sister. His mind stuttered for a moment. “Fuck me dead.” said Rick.
He turned on Judy. “I can’t believe you’re here,” he shouted at her, red faced. “I know what you’re doing here.” Filthy addict. He reared back. “And you’ve been drinking.” She stared at him. He’d always wanted to say it – I’ll deal with you later – but she was using her big sister stare on him and he couldn’t get the words out. “Mom isn’t going to like this.”
Rick turned on Allen. “I need that rent right now,” he threatened, grabbing Allen by the shirt and twisting. I’ll deal with you later, he wanted to say, but he was dealing with him at the moment, drawing him to his feet and feeling around all his pockets for his cash. “We’ll call this a partial payment,” he sneered, thrusting Allen back into the couch. Ben used his cellphone to record the scene for posterity.
Rick turned on Ben. “You,” he said with contempt. “Give me all your money.”
Ben looked at him calmly. “Sorry man, you’ve already got it. Besides, I’m a little short since that last raise you gave me.”
“I’ll deal with you later,” he snarled. “There’s a drug test with your name on it at work.”
As Rick cowed Judy into emptying her bag, Allen wondered about the two of them being brother and sister. He wondered about Rick being Ben’s boss. He wondered what Cindy must be like.
Ben, filming the while, wondered what Judy thought of her brother’s secret life. He did not wonder why his boss was a slumlord. He did wonder what else he could cut into his documentary.
Judy put the mirrored tray into her bag with the other things and got up to go. Rick had humiliated her.. He made fun of her books and her vitamins and her good luck charms. He’d jeered at her stickies. He’d taunted her with always being broke. He grabbed a popsickle-stick figure she was working on and snapped it in half. She wanted to kill him.
* * *