by Lesley A. Diehl
Enjoy this mystery short story previously published in an anthology published by Lesley’s writing group. Here in the same issue we have a review & giveaway of Lesley’s latest mystery novel.
Because Florida isn’t all about beaches, waves or shopping
Claire stood at the rear window washing the dinner dishes and gazing at the patchy grass in the yard. It was early February, and the weather was warm and humid, but little rain had fallen during the winter, and the alligator holes were drying up. The biggest of the reptiles controlled their shrinking territory chasing smaller males to other locations. Claire had noticed one six footer had taken up residence in the creek beyond the yard. A roar from the water’s edge signaled his interest in mating. Her gaze turned to the pile of chain link fence which sat at the end of their driveway. George had promised to fence in the yard, but that had been over two years ago, and he still hadn’t gotten to it. And probably wouldn’t any time soon, thought Claire.
Sophie’s cry of pain drew her attention away from the yard. “George, leave that dog alone.”
“She pissed all over my boots, the stupid mutt. I swear I’m either gonna take her to the pound or out across the swamp and shoot her myself.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Claire dried her hands and entered the living room where George was positioning himself into the recliner. He grabbed the remote and turned on the television.
“Where is she?” asked Claire.
“I stuck her face in the smell, slapped her head and booted her butt out the front door. She’s probably where she usually is, hiding under the car. I drag that damn mongrel out of there every morning. I should just back out over her.”
Thank God he hadn’t thrown her out into the back yard where she would become an appetizer for one of the big reptiles. The fencing was supposed to dissuade them from wandering into the yard and give Sophie a place to run and play in safety. It was only a matter of time before George put Sophie out there and reveled in anticipation of what might happen to her. And what it would do to Claire.
Claire knew it would be no accident, either. George seemed to hate that dog and treated the pup much the same way he did her. First came the intimidation, then the slaps followed by closed fisted punches. The only time Claire got relief was when George left to meet his buddies for coffee each morning at the nearby convenience store. That was Sophie’s safe time too as the poor little Labrador/Cocker Spaniel mix was left alone with him all day while Claire was at work.
Claire looked down at her chapped red hands and her swollen feet and wondered where the good years had gone, the years before George started hitting her and the dog. He wasn’t always this way. Once, when he had a job, he worked out in the gym, walked three miles every morning and showered regularly. She’d never considered him a clothes horse, but in those years, he always wore starched and pressed shirts, wool and silk blend pants and shined his shoes.
When his mother died three years ago, and he inherited her extensive estate, he stopped taking care of himself, stopped caring about what others thought of him, stopped living life beyond this room and his morning coffee with the boys. At first he talked about the house they could now buy, the trips they would take, and all the things people usually associated with a windfall. But George seemed uninterested in anything except the huge flat screen TV, the one purchase he’d made after his mother’s death. It seemed to hold him captive in the living room.
He let his beard grow long, stopped going to the barber for a haircut and showered infrequently, usually after Claire mentioned in her encouraging way that a shower would relax him. That might or might not provoke an attack. Getting close to George now was like hiking too near a dead animal on the road. It looked bad and smelled worse.
Claire caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror as she turned back into the kitchen. You’re not much to look at yourself, she thought. No longer the slim, outgoing blonde, the girl everyone wanted to date in college, the smart one, the pretty one. She and George were the “perfect couple.” Now they were hardly a couple anymore. Memories of what they once had forced her to turn back into the living room, to try with him one more time.
“You’re not feeling bad about not trying out for that tech job, are you? I understand they hired Pete Lawson across the street. They could have had a more experienced man in you.”
George looked up from the television. His eyes examined her closely as if looking for an insult. Claire held her breath. Maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned work of any kind.
“Lawson, that young shit. They’ll be sorry they hired him. They’ll have to spend months training him and by then he’ll have moved on to something better.”
“I don’t think so, not with the way the job market is today. He’ll stay…” Claire clapped her hand over her mouth when she saw George’s face turn dark scarlet.
He jumped out of his chair and rushed across the room toward her. “Don’t talk back to me, you slut.” He sunk his fist into her stomach with a blow that doubled her over. Another miscalculation on Claire’s part.
She wanted to join Sophie under the car.
But they made up that night. Claire promised George she’d stop by Publix after work and buy him a Porterhouse for dinner. Several years ago sex was the way George expected her to placate him. Now it was food. For that, Claire was grateful.
She threw a twenty ounce steak into the grocery cart, then picked out two smaller ones. She also purchased a chocolate cream pie for dessert. She knew George would eat that himself. She wheeled the cart around the corner and almost ran into her next door neighbor, Margie Fines. The two women had once been close friends, but Claire suspected George’s surly attitude kept Margie away from the house, and George forbade Claire to go to her place. Lately Claire didn’t have time to run next door because she worried about Sophie’s safety if she wasn’t there to intervene between her husband and the dog.
Margie was aware of the abuse George laid on Claire. Of course, Claire thought, how could anyone not be. She was covered in bruises most days. George no longer tried to hide what he did to her, no longer worried who knew.
Margie looked at Claire with compassion in her eyes. “How’s it going, honey?”
“Okay, I guess.” Claire bent over to select some puffed rice cereal off the bottom shelf and grabbed her stomach where George had punched her last night. Pain blanched her face and, although she tried to hide it from Margie, she knew the other woman saw it.
“Cramps. It’s that time of the month,” Claire said.
“Sure.” Over the years the sympathy Margie had for Claire had turned to pity, and now Claire saw anger cross her features. She knew Margie wasn’t angry with her, but her inability to leave George left her feeling embarrassed and more helpless than ever.
Margie asked her the one question she couldn’t answer. “When are you going to leave him?”
“Never.” Then she added with more confidence than she felt. “He’ll change.”
Margie shook her head. “I’m here if you need me.” She touched Claire’s arm with affection as she passed.
George was surlier than ever when she got home. “You’re late.”
“The lines at the supermarket were long.” She rushed past him to put away the groceries and to check on Sophie, left in her crate in a corner of the kitchen. The crate was empty.
“Guess.” George chuckled.
Claire ran out the back door. The sun was beginning its descent and deepening shadows hid the shore of the creek. No Sophie anywhere. An alligator roared a call for a mate. Close, she thought, too close, just beyond the live oak at the water’s edge. As she watched, the reptile showed itself and began a leisurely walk toward the house.
“Sophie?” she called. The gator stopped midway between her and the creek. From behind the sauntering reptile, she saw a movement, a patch of light against the dark earth. Sophie! Blocked from the house by the gator’s presence.
The alligator turned slightly, sensing the dog behind it and to the right. It rose up on its short legs ready to move. Sophie made a dash for the porch not ten feet from the hunter. But the gator’s attention seemed riveted elsewhere.
Claire felt something at her side. George had joined her at the porch door.
“This should be good. Who’s faster? The stupid mutt or that gator. I’m betting on the gator.”
Sophie ran by the alligator and flew into Claire’s arms.
“Throw her back. Let’s see that again.” George said. The gator seemed frozen on the grass, its gaze fixed not on Sophie, but on George.
“I think you should come in, George. That gator seems more interested in you than in the dog.”
George opened his mouth to say something, but he stopped. The words seemed to catch in his throat. Claire expected to see anger or sadistic glee on his face, but instead there was fear. He turned and walked into the house.
George said little that night, and his appetite was gone. He left most of his steak on the plate and turned down the pie. The only thing he said the entire evening came after the eleven o’clock news.
“I’m going to bed.” He trudged up the stairs, and soon Claire heard the usual snores emanating from their bedroom.
Throughout the night the alligator roared down by the creek. Each time the noise interrupted George’s slumber, she heard him awake, and he muttered something unintelligible, then flopped over to resume his agitated sleep. Claire slept not at all that night, too anxious over what the morning would bring.
An hour before George got up, Claire tiptoed downstairs, opened the refrigerator door, extracted a large plastic bag and headed out to the back yard. After she finished her work there, she walked around the side of the house, threw some of the contents of her bag on the ground and trailed the remainder down the drive until she got to George’s car. She’d saved the largest morsel until last. She tossed it under the car. As an afterthought, she went back into the house and got the pie, which she also threw beneath the vehicle.
“Where’s that pie?” George stuck his head into the fridge. “I’m famished because you didn’t feed me enough supper last night. I need a bite before I go off to meet the boys for coffee this morning.”
Claire held herself very still as her mind raced to come up with an explanation. “I threw it in the garbage. The meringue was all watery. I didn’t think you’d want it that way.”
George closed the refrigerator door and turned to her. “When did you start thinking you could decide what I might or might not eat?” He slapped her across the face and, without a backward glance to see if she was okay, he headed out the door.
She heard him open the car door, then there was a pause. “Goddamn dog. Under the car again.”
Claire crossed the kitchen, glanced out the window into the morning fog still lying heavy and milky across the yard and removed the blanket which covered Sophie’s cage. The dog lifted her head, and the two of them seemed to hold each other’s gaze for a moment.
“What the hell?” yelled George. Then came a scream that cracked the stillness of the air.
Claire sat in the new recliner she’d bought while George was in the hospital. Tucked in beside her was Sophie, the two of them content to cuddle away the evening hours. The gator had gotten George’s entire hand and what was left of it couldn’t be found. Nor could the gator, for which Claire felt relieved. She didn’t want Wildlife killing the guy off. It wasn’t his fault he followed a trail of meat scraps across the lawn and under the car. Claire felt the pie was the clincher.
“Our little secret, huh?” Claire petted Sophie’s head.
Just yesterday, the mail carrier had delivered Claire’s divorce papers and her order of protection. They lay on the end table, and she occasionally glanced over and touched them to make sure they were real. George wouldn’t be coming home to them. And the healing wasn’t going well. Now the doctors were talking amputation up to the elbow.
“I don’t think he’ll be hitting either of us any time soon, do you?” She lifted one of the dog’s silken ears in a caress. Sophie wriggled her body closer to Claire.
In the rosy light of early evening a gator roared from far down the creek. Claire smiled at the sound. She thought Sophie did too.
You can find more mystery short stories in our Terrific Tales section.