Do you get disappointed like me to learn that what you prepared, and deemed a good work, was late for submission because you’re careless enough not to check the deadline first? Well, it sucks and it happens, and there’s always a first time. There is always that misstep we experienced as n00bie waddling in a place we only heard of, our knowledge derived from what were read, heard, and read some more, spurring us on to try the excitement and adventures of the game: In this case, the book publishing game.
As an aspiring writer (I want to publish a novel), I am eager to join “call for submissions” in competitions, collections, anthologies, exercises, etc., that encourage n00bs like me to try their luck and get that elusive first publication to happen, regardless of prizes or extra copies awarded later to the winners. Of course, I am only too willing to join what is close to my genre or subject matter in fiction: horror, mystery, crime, or fantasy.
Thus, I joined an open request to submit a story—my first time to do it for writing—that follows an exercise with no promises of prizes, publisher’s copies, or even a reply but only the privilege that it will be read by the author himself: Mr. Stephen King.
Yeah, I did the book exercise as told—dig the fossil and see what story it holds—and was ready to submit, when I found out in the given website that they no longer accept submissions for that On Writing suggestion since 2005. I was, to put it in a mild and sane way, five years late. Ha-ha. The joke’s on me, pity, little me! Lesson Learned: Check if the offer is still valid, as in the fine prints in your box of cereals or milk.
Nevertheless, sad as I was, I felt compelled to share the brilliance and staggering worth of my oeuvre (I plan to post it on short-fiction.com.uk, of which, I am a member) and yet, cringe at the thought—who the f—k am I kidding but only myself? I am an unpublished beginner, an amateur writer—a n00b, anyway you put it or turn it—in which English is but a second language, and have not published anything worth mentioning except those in college newspapers managed by favourite honour students of the professor who serves as the editor and who knew, as my friend, that I can somehow write and fill a blank page.
Unfortunately, I am also thick-skinned, honed from years of swashbuckling campaign presentations and arguments with clients in advertising. (Where else can you study hypocrisy firsthand, up close, served fresh, and always with a toothy smile?) Thus, what follows is the fossil I dug, an original story with alterations of the premise provided in the exercise, six pages of it in my desktop, or exactly 4, 209 words.
So whether you like it or not, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, revered members of the Academy for Arts and Sciences, respected and distinguished heads of the literary awards committee, writers’ organizations, book editors, publishers, agents, dealers and retailers, the clamouring fans and eager critics, and the worldwide reading public, may I present to you, for your consideration, my late short story:
It started as an innocent blush, a sweet, heartfelt affection common only among youths. Bold, brash, relentless, it grew; a warm expression of dedicated adoration, a singular, suffocating devotion some say was crazy, crazy-crazy; wild-crazy. The kind of dangerous-crazy one hides from and avoids. After all, a crowd is always a three.
Nell slid down her father’s chest, reluctant to let go of her tight embrace; her wide, white ribbons drooping, dangling out of place, head buried deep, distressed, even as Dick winced.
A stab of pain shot right up his back and shoulders straight to his head, as he lowered her—his head still bandaged, a shoulder dislocated, an elbow on a sling with welts and bruises on both arms—while his sister, Betty, waved and called, anxious to see them both—a tender portrait of tragedy ambling towards her amidst the shouts and laughter of children enjoying the noisy garden birthday party.
“Hello there, young lady! What did Daddy do to your hair?” Betty said, smiling, embracing Nell, ignoring her downcast look and giving her a kiss; her fingers already at work uncurling, straightening the tangle of ribbons and hair.
“Hi, Betty…Best I can do on short notice,” Dick said smiling, tired and dry, pecking her on the cheek. Betty’s smile faded fast, suppressing her tears, biting her lips as she glared at him: Once again she saw the ugly cigarette burns on Nell’s arms still clutching him, wrapped firm around his legs. What Betty didn’t know was Jane had the pleasure of making an ashtray out of her daughter’s fragile body: Nell’s genitals peppered with it.
On the night it happened four days ago, his cell phone rang, persistent, vied for his attention until the caller went low bat: Betty, on the line.
“I heard shouts, yelling…I woke up, trembling,” Betty told him later, when they met at the hospital. “I-I recognized Nell’s voice, Dick… screaming!” she said, close to tears, an eerie disquiet enveloping her. “I called, even if it was late,” Betty said, unable to explain the disturbing sense of dislocation she felt for them. Among his sisters, Betty professed a solemn affinity beyond understanding and love closest to him, an intimate connection bordering on telepathy, something mental, subliminal.
He met his sister’s stare now, a look of concern, of pity, of concealed anger for him and Nell: His bruises longer, larger, and more severe along his shoulders, rib cage, and back—huge swollen leeches engorged in iodine. Jane did not hesitate to use the old golf club he kept behind the door of their bedroom, in case of emergency. It took several neighbors who heard Nell screaming—and him yelling at Jane to stop—to control her until the police arrived.
Later, after Jane was restrained, tranquillized, and taken custody to the nearest sanatorium several blocks from the house, and he and Nell rushed and treated for contusions and given mild sedatives in the trauma room, the only answer he can give the questions thrown at him was that Jane had a fit, an outburst of anger directed to them for no apparent reason…lying, misleading everyone, for all its worth.
“Did you see the news? Not yet?!” Betty said, eyes wide, accusatory, tense; her voice a whisper, low as she can managed, conscious of Nell walking hesitant before them. From time to time, Nell looked back at him and Betty, whispering as they walked.
Even for a three year old, Little Nell showed intelligence, a capacity to understand, a kind of heightened sensitivity undeveloped as yet, but acute and perceptive whenever she felt scared or threatened. Before they reached the party, before she allowed him to leave her for awhile, before she succumbs to the gaiety of the other happy, boisterous kids around, Nell clambered up to him again, and close to his ear, asked: “Mom-mee bad? Mom-mee come, Duh-dee?”
Dick faltered a bit, and stammering, shook his head. “Oh, no—no sweetheart! Mommy’s good…She’s resting right now. Aunt Betty here—she’ll take care of you…She’s here for you. Okay?” he said, and kissed and hugged her tight. Nell felt like a soft pillow—small, fragile, undemanding—and it broke his heart to see the pains she suffered from Jane’s abnormal brutality: Jane tortured Nell, apparently jealous of her daughter’s closeness to him.
And what Betty whispered made him more nervous, made everything seemed problematic, complicated, and beyond his reach. A huge fire broke out in the sanatorium early in the day where Jane was detained. Most probably while he prepared Nell for Betty’s birthday party for her youngest son. He wanted Nell to forget what happened, while he spends some time for himself alone in the house. He wanted to think things over, to study what he must do as he looked back at Jane’s suffering mind. What triggered her apparent madness—“her premeditated cruelty when she lost her sanity”—as the doctors and the psychiatric consultant for child abuse affirmed, after she was sedated. Reports of the fire said several of the patients were unaccounted for; either missing or dead…And Jane’s name was on the list.
An uncanny shiver went through his body as Nell uncurled from him, and sighing, waved goodbye. “Bye, Daddy…Love you, Daddy,” and threw him a flying kiss, something he taught her each time he leaves for work. His heart crumbling, pounding hard in his ears, he noticed Betty in tears looking at them, waving her goodbye, too.
“I love you, sweetheart…Daddy will pick you up in an hour or two, okay? Don’t hesitate to ask Aunt Betty for anything…,” he said, forcing a smile, and whispered to her ear, “…Especially if you want to go to the bathroom. I love you, Nell…Enjoy the party!” He waved at Betty, ignoring an ominous glint in her eyes and drove off.
He cried in the short drive all the way home. What Betty saw were only the cigarette burns, what Nell already suffered and endured days ago. What he did not tell her was what happened that night: Nell screaming at the top of her voice in her room, crying and begging Jane to stop. Jane stood at the foot of the bed, a woman possessed of hatred, of envy that eroded into malicious jealousy in her eyes, poisoning her heart, her mind of both rationality and common sense, angered by her three year old daughter’s closeness to him, her own father.
Jane barricaded Nell’s room, but he could see and hear what was going on, as he tried to force his way in. Jane held the scissors in one hand, Nell already tied spread-eagled on the bed, naked, while Jane poked her vagina with a lighted cigarette.
“Sooh, you like Daddy too, don’t you, sweety pie?” Jane crooned, deaf to her daughter’s terrified cries, the cigarette drilled hard within Nell’s sensitive private parts. Jane shrieked in delight, hysterical in glee, each time Nell’s body trembled, bucked, and kicked in pain on the bed. “Daddy! Daddy!! No, Mommy, no!” Jane mimicked her daughter, laughing, as Nell shouted for him, crying for help, screaming to get free from what she cannot understand yet her mother insisted on doing to her, all the while the scissors poised to cut her up.
“Sshh…shhh! Hush now, sweetheart—Mommy’s going to take away what makes you sooh itchy for Daddy, okay?” Jane said, excited; her face a picture of mad delight—cold, contorted as if what lay before her was a repugnant frog ready for dissection in biology class.
Jane lighted another stick. Took a long, vigorous suck; inhaling, burning the cigarette’s length to half, and slowly approached her daughter, intent to cut her vagina into shreds. “You think you can hide it from me? You think I didn’t see? You think I won’t notice it each time you embraced and kissed him—you fucking little shitty whore!!” Jane started slow as she spoke, and then screamed the last words, as he barged in, wresting the scissors away from her trembling hand.
“Fuck, Jane—what the hell are you doing?!” he shouted, grappling with her, jerking the scissors out of her hand, out of the window, as Jane swiveled fast and pushed him hard away from her, throwing him off balance; Nell’s screams ringing in his ears. And as he rushed to untie his daughter, he caught the first malicious blow of the golf club at the back of his head, sending him quivering in pain, reeling and bloodied, almost unconscious sprawled on the floor.
He endured successive blows after that, protecting his face and head with his arms and shoulders, and never was able to untie Nell, which the neighbors saw as they run to assist them, thinking there was a break-in. Yet Jane did not stop.
Still screaming, she continued to pummel him, or anyone else who happened to be in her path. “She was like, possessed! We could not have subdued her, if she did not slip on the blood on the floor,” one of the neighbors testified to the responding 911, as Jane was sedated and held in straight jacket by the paramedics.
Dick shut his eyes for a second, unable to erase the unwholesome images flashing in his mind. He learned of Jane’s unusual behavior from the neighbors’ accounts. “Often, we saw her seated on the windowsill, smoking, jiggling Nell on her lap…the child clutching her, scared,” the retired teacher said. “Sometimes she’s on the roof, bouncing Nell on her knees—Nell crying, of course!” the grocer’s wife said, shaking her head. “And she ignored us when we called her attention…Didn’t talk to us—as if we didn’t exist!” The neighbors tend to agree without hesitation, obvious of their concern for Nell. Each one gave their statements at the short, informal inquest held by the authorities and doctors at the sanatorium trying to determine the cause of Jane’s abnormal actions towards her daughter, and to him, her husband of four years, after her temporary detention that night.
“What we wanted to know, sir, is if you have any family history or record of mental imbalance…If there were insanity or related illnesses in the past…Or mentally-impaired relatives that could have played a role in her loss of control. Anybody confined in an asylum?” the attending psychiatric specialist said, frank, numb, and blunt as toothless gums, mincing no words.
You mean crazy? Dick wanted to say, frustrated, angry. He felt embarrassed, stripped of any moral decency, bared to suffer these routine indignities. “I don’t know…Right now, I am confused,” he said, and lowered his gaze. All his neighbors were there, those who responded to help. Now he cannot face their questioning eyes, their honest stare of sympathy and concern. He shook his head. “I have no knowledge of any illness…Or anything she suffered—please, can we talk about this later? I want to see my daughter—”
That was a lie.
Jane had the quirkiness of the wild, unstable mind even before they became sweethearts. She was the best friend of his girlfriend, and through her malicious games and seductions, which at the time thrilled him, consumed him—my God, she was hot, and he was seventeen, horny as a rat!—ended up with him. Yet, he thought it wouldn’t last. Their relationship always fragile and tense, and coasted along feeling she will fade away and outgrow him soon, as he got involved with other girls.
And her sadistic tendencies surfaced then, often breaking his delicious tryst—a girl’s broken arm, a bloodied nose, and worst, a bitter disfigurement of the face. She was like a deranged cat: biting, clawing, gnashing at his interest of the moment, until the terrified girl crawled away, banished, forgotten.
But then, he loved it…enjoyed it, in fact. He felt important, precious in her eyes. It was a testimony of his virility and masculine ego. A 100% proof of his sexual prowess and attractiveness to the opposite sex…His misplaced accolade showered on himself. He tolerated it, rode the ecstasy of it, and thus, ended up marrying her, a teenage wife.
Dick stared ahead, blind for a moment as he drove, unraveling clear in his mind Jane’s uncanny demeanor after the birth of Nell, her deteriorating trust with him and her unpleasant behaviour, her strange actions that more often than not, sparked their heated argument, a sour and nasty exchange whenever he asked about Nell.
Jane soon acted peculiar in the house as Nell grew up, and he noticed it. He felt her suspicions; an almost direct accusation pointing a finger at him as a paedophile, whenever he is around his daughter. She would linger within hearing distance each time he carried or played with Nell, as if cautious that he would molest her. But more so, when Nell would embrace and kiss him. Later on, he felt Jane’s misplaced attentiveness towards him and his daughter when she forbade him to kiss Nell good night, or when he left for work. Soon after, even their conversations about his daughter became a problem.
“What?! What’s that, Dickie boy? You want to know what?” Jane would blurt out, her tone already angry, irritated; testing his patience.
“Jane I’m tired…I said how is Nell…,” he would answer, almost patronizing, controlling his irritation of his wife. For the past weeks, Jane was acting weird, doing things he felt were meant to antagonize him, to push him to anger, for him to find a reason to hit her. “I have not seen the kid all day and—”
“So what the fuck is so important that you want to know what that little cunt did all day, Dickie boy?” Jane would shout at him, eyes large and glaring, as if she already caught him committing a terrible indecent act against his daughter. “Why the fuck do you want to know, huh?”
Nell would waken at their shouting, and sometimes creep on the upstairs landing; listening, looking at them gnaw and bite and gnash their teeth at each other. And when he noticed her, would shut himself up, and motioned Jane to stop. But then, it happened again that night, and Jane did the unthinkable: She dragged Nell down the stairs—the kid crying, shouting for him—as they fought and he struggled to free his daughter. And that’s when he noticed the burns…That’s when he saw Nell’s ugly bruises and welts, swollen lumps on her hips, her back, her thighs, her shoulders and under her arms.
They fought, unmindful of the neighbors, the same people who helped and testified…The same unselfish individuals from whom he was covering up his wife’s insane jealousy and ugly abuse of Nell, even if the truth lay bare in their eyes.
“I know you, Dickie boy…I know that look in your eyes,” Jane said then, trembling on the verge of tears, when he confronted her that night and saw more than the cigarette burns. “I will not allow that tiny cunt have her way with you, Dickie, to seduce you—to take you away from me! Never!! Don’t you love me?” Jane shouted, begging him to understand, to reconsider the imagined frailty of her plight.
“What the hell, Jane? Are you mad?” he shouted back at her. “What did you do to her?”
“Love you, Duh-dee—shit! Hurts, Duh-dee! Hurts—fuck!! She’s just pretending, and you know it!” Jane said, parroting Nell, mocking and insulting them as he treated her burns. “Fuck you! Fuck you!! Fuck you both!! Is this not enough, Dickie boy? Is this body not good enough for you?” Jane yelled, undressing. And in spite of her being his wife, threw herself at him, naked; forcing him to have sex with her, unmindful of Nell whimpering in pain in front of them.
He did slap Jane then. Maybe more than just a slap…Truth is he felt so guilty for hurting her. Yet, he was more concerned of Nell; the child sore, smarting all over with the extent of abuse Jane inflicted on her. And as he consoled his daughter and laid her to sleep in her room, he himself dozing on the couch downstairs—tired, confused, disoriented with all of what he saw and felt that night—drifting into a light sleep, only to be awakened by Nell, screaming in her room.
Stopping now for some groceries, trying to resume the normalcy of their lives, it did not relax his nerves nor did it organize the confusion of his thoughts. His cell phone rang, yet he did not answer it; he dared not answer it: Betty, again. Still unable to shake the lingering dread he felt driving from Betty’s place, he turned it off, not wanting to hear another bad news, hoping the anxiety he felt would vanished with it—oh, how he wished Betty live farther from here!
Dick parked the car and closed the door. He did not bother to open the lights. With his body aching and his mind reeling from the successive turn of events, the soft shadows of the house in mid afternoon soothed somehow his anxiety as he went to the kitchen with his groceries and prepared coffee. Alone in the quiet gloom, he thought he heard Nell screaming, and almost jumped and turned around. Again he saw Jane dragging her down the stairs, and worst, felt the pounding of his heart as he tried to barge in to Nell’s bedroom: Horrified that he was already too late, that Jane killed their daughter—murdered her—with her insane jealousy.
He needed to sort their lives. Jane cannot stay long in police custody at the hospital. He had to let his parents know—and hers, too—of what transpired, of what Jane was doing, and the inevitable divorce and child custody, until Jane is treated and pronounced safe and sane to be with them again. Somehow, that is what he hoped. Still, she has the right as wife, and mother of Nell.
Immersed in his thoughts, mug in hand and staring vacant at the thin stream of sunlight on the floor bouncing, shining from the back door, Dick ambled his way to the darker comfort of the living room. He must try to catch the news. If Betty’s intuitions were true, it was right to leave Nell with her for awhile, or for as long as it would take. It would make the child forget, at least, until he can be sure—
Dick froze, mid-step. The brilliance of the sun glittering in his eyes made him hold a brief after-image of the dark surroundings, an eerie reversal of colour, and realized at once the terrifying truth of his apprehension and fears.
Before he could turn, he heard the back door closing; the bolt clicking, locking tight. Stunned by the sense of someone present in the house, cold sweat beginning to trickle down his back, he knew, deep in his hammering heart, it was what he was afraid to confront, what Betty whispered and warned him, what he prayed and hoped would not happen, from the time he left Nell, all the way until he got here.
“Hi, Dickie boy…,” Jane said, soft, loving, pining…The crazed grin and stare of the mad, clear and inevitable, unquestionable this time to ignore on her face. She stood in the dim foyer of the living room with both hands behind her back; a shy girl hesitant and too polite to disturb him, to join him in his thoughts, still wearing her hospital gown—dirty, blackened with soot and wet splatters of grime, disheveled and torn—ashes on her arms, on her legs, on her hair with red ribbons askew and worn in a hurry to prettify her dreadful countenance.
“Did you miss me?” Jane said, smiling at him, staring at him, watching and studying him as she did an exaggerated curtsy, ready to dance with him in the hollowed intimacy of the living room. “I was in a hurry…Afraid I wouldn’t catch you here…But I made it, darling—didn’t I?”
“You thought I was dead?! Ha-ha!! I wouldn’t die without you, Dick!” Jane cut his thoughts, his words, and laid open to him the murderous perversity of her mind. “It took me a while, but I got my lighter…And I got here, too!” Jane giggled, proud of what she did. “We need to be together again, Dickie…Just you and I—did you miss me, darling? Don’t you like me?” Jane said, pacing slow on the edge of the living room, coming closer to him but with a wary look, hands still behind her back, self-conscious, gauging his actions…guessing his expected reactions.
“My God! Oh, my God—Jane!!” Dick cried out. He saw it, and through it, but his mind rejected it. He understood everything, the full meaning of it, but his rationality insisted it is not true. It could not happen, not possible—no, it is not possible at all! “Good God, Jane—what have you done?” He cried, and yelled, and cried some more, until his breath dried out in his throat.
The red ribbons on Jane’s hair dripped on the living room carpet, tracing a line of dots where Jane stepped away, prancing deliberate towards him. Saturated in blood, it wiggled, wobbled; a wig ready to fall. “I got this, hey…Do you like it? Looks better on me, eh, Dickie?” Jane said, grinning. “Better than that little cunt of yours you love so much and adore!!” Jane yelled, harsh, thundering; her voice echoing on barren reasoning, the glee of the mad edged her words, the giggle of the murdering kind found only in criminal asylums, those thrown behind bars and locked up for eternity—oh, God, have mercy!!—alighted on her face.
The room bursts in blue and red swirling lights from the outside. The sirens wailed, hurried, and died without them aware of it. There were movements, commotions outside, the front and back door exploding with knocks and desperate pleas of magnified shouts. Yet, they seemed oblivious of it, staring hard at each other, looking straight at one’s intent hoping to uncover it, to understand it, even if they both knew it was already too late. The changing, alternating colours of lights draped Jane’s face, highlighting more the terrifying look of an unbalanced mind glowing distinct in her eyes.
Dick stood deaf, mute, too numbed to even call out for help. He remained rooted in front of her, a doomed gorgon fatality in shock, as Jane began to unravel and deal his fate in front of him—slow, painful, and true—showing both her hands.
“Hi, Duh-dee!” Jane’s voice, mimicking Nell. Nell’s body slumped, lifeless; held only rigid and upright against Jane. Nell’s head scalped, her face distorted, shrouded by her mother’s bloodied hands—the mad puppeteer ecstatic, thrilled with her hideous performance. “Say hello to your lover, Dickie boy!” Jane shouted at him, blood seeping through her gown from Nell’s dead body like wet, dark grime.
Dick howled, cried uncontrolled. It was only a few minutes ago that he hugged his daughter goodbye. It was as if he never left her at all in Betty’s birthday party. It was unlikely that Jane could—
“Miss me, Duh-dee? Love you, Duh-dee…,” Jane said, continuing the chilling mimicry of her gruesome parody, still trying to catch Dick’s attention in her fevered, jealous mind, unmindful of her daughter’s blood soaking her hands.
“What? What?! You don’t want to listen, Dickie? C’mon, you’ll love—oops!” Jane said, and faked a slip, loosening her tight grip on Nell.
Jane began to laugh. A horrifying glee that echoed and swallowed the noise of the doors banging, opening in front and back; of the cops rushing in with the paramedics and their bags, each one determined, well-meaning in attempting to help; everyone in time to see Nell’s head lolled to one side…Then dropped, and wobbled on the floor in front of Dick’s unbelieving, unseeing eyes.
“I tried to warn you…,” Betty said, crying, unable to resist uncurling, straightening the once white ribbons still stained and discoloured after several wash. She threw it now on Nell’s grave besides her parents, together with her bouquet of love and tears.
The unwholesome aftermath saw Dick sprang from his shock and strangled Jane, while everyone in the room, stunned and staggering in slow-motion reaction scrambled, confused on what to do or who to assist or stop. But before they can push Dick away from his wife, before he can squeezed away her last breath, Jane’s hand found Nell’s head, and touched the knife still stuck in her neck. Jane, with the strength and intent of the insane, plunged the knife deep into Dick’s heart, smiling: “You are…mine…Dick,” and gasped and convulsed her final words. Dick fell dead on his wife’s body, hands still tight on her throat.
Jane followed Dick and Nell to Betty’s place, and when Dick left for the house, snatched Nell from the celebrating, happy bunch of kids. Then grabbing a steak knife, threatened anyone who will stop or follow her, knocking Betty unconscious on the pavement, as she run tugging Nell away from the bewildered crowd, back towards home…her home, where she knew, Dick waited for her—only for her—in her dangerous, disturbed mind.