BY S.E. GRECO
Copyright is held by the author.
THE VERY first thing little five-year-old Mikey noticed when he woke from his nap and walked from his bedroom into the kitchen was the puddle of red liquid on the floor. Most of it was on the linoleum, but there were also some spots on the living room rug. And he had a moment of sheer panic.
Did I do that? he thought. Is that…cherry juice? Strawberry? Uh-oh, I’ll be in trouble.
But it wasn’t juice.
Mikey looked over at his mother, who was standing at the sink washing her hands. He stammered, “Mommy? I didn’t . . .”
“Oh Mikey, I know you didn’t do it,” she assured him. “But you can help me by getting the rug cleaner in the blue bottle from the hall closet, okay?” She took a large rubber band and tied back her flipped bob hairdo, the style that Jackie Kennedy had recently made popular and that just about everyone was wearing these days.
“But what is this red stuff, Mommy?” Mikey asked her, relieved at her expression of his innocence, but very curious about the puddle.
“It’s blood,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Blood?” he repeated in a whisper. “Who’s blood? Did you get a cut?”
“Oh no, of course not. I was carrying a roast that I’m going to cook, and the bag broke. And some of the blood from the meat dripped out, that’s all.”
“A lot of it dripped, Mommy. There’s a line of it.” He pointed at all the spots.
“I know, Mikey, I know. Don’t worry, we’ll clean it all up.”
“Before Daddy gets home?”
“Right. Before Daddy gets home.”
“Because Daddy would be mad if he saw it, right?”
Mikey’s mother turned away and said nothing.
“He gets mad sometimes,” Mikey continued. He waited for a response from his mother, but she remained silent. She was looking down intently at the stained rug as she put on an apron and a pair of rubber gloves.
After Mikey brought the rug cleaner to her, he approached the blood puddle, then bent down and moved his index finger forward to touch it. Mikey’s mother held out her arm and said, “Oh, don’t touch it, Mikey. Let me clean it because I’ve got gloves on. You can watch, okay?”
Slightly hurt at the rejection of his further help, he gave her an obedient nod. Mikey’s mother got down on her knees and dipped the sponge into a bucket filled with warm, soapy water. She started with the linoleum and cleaned the blood up easily as Mikey watched. Then she moved over to the rug and kneeled again. As she worked diligently with a rag and the rug cleaner, she said, “Mikey, I was thinking that we could go on a little trip. Just you and me. Would you like that?” She looked at him and smiled.
Mikey raised his eyebrows in anticipation because trips were usually fun. “A trip? You mean to the beach?”
“Yes, let’s go to the beach.”
Mikey gave her a big smile back and clapped his hands. “I like the beach. When will we go?”
“I thought we’d go tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Okay, yeah!” Mikey’s level of excitement rose even higher at the news that the beach trip was coming so soon. He knew that “go tomorrow” meant that he’d go to sleep, then wake up early and it would be time to leave because a beach trip always started with getting up early.
“What day is today, Mommy?”
“It’s Sunday today. So we’ll go to the beach on Monday.”
“And which beach are we going to? The one with the Ferris wheel? Or the one where I got the pink ice cream?” Mikey chattered.
“Well, I don’t know yet.”
Mikey’s look of excitement turned to one of puzzlement. He said, “We’re going tomorrow… and you don’t know yet? But you always know where we want to go on a beach vacation a long time before we go.”
“Yes, well I thought of it just now, the idea of us taking a little trip together. Isn’t it a nice surprise?” She continued to squirt the cleaner and scrub the rug.
“Uh . . . yes,” Mikey responded with uncertainty. “But . . . where’s Daddy?”
“He went to the store.”
Mikey ran into the living room, hopped up on the couch, and peered outside.
“Daddy’s car is here,” Mikey said.
“Well . . . he walked. He likes to walk sometimes, for exercise.”
Mikey was confused again since he knew his Daddy loved to drive his car, but he accepted her explanation. He hopped down from the couch, sat down next to his mother, and said, “Daddy likes the beach. He likes to sit under the umbrella and drink beer. Even though he’s not supposed to do that on the beach, ‘cause they told him that time to stop it. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“And then he got mad at the person who told him.”
Mikey’s mother paused. “I remember,” she said stoically. “But Daddy’s not going this time. Just you and me, right?”
“Right . . . but . . . why’s Daddy not going?”
“Well . . . he can’t go.”
“Because . . . we’re going to the beach on a Monday, and he works on Mondays.”
“Why can’t he take off from work, like he does sometimes?”
She stopped the scrubbing and turned toward her son. “Mikey . . . you know how Daddy gets mad sometimes?”
Mikey’s expression became as somber as a five-year-old’s can get. He spoke slowly, almost in a whisper: “I know he gets mad. He says it’s because I’m so bad.”
Mikey’s mother sighed and she shook her head. “But that’s just not true. You’re not bad. He gets mad at me too. She paused and then added cautiously, “And… you’ve seen him hit me.” Her hand went up involuntarily to the bruise around her left eye, but before she could touch it, she stopped herself. The swelling was minimal, and with the makeup she had applied over it, she was fairly sure that it was unnoticeable without a careful inspection. She continued to approach the sensitive subject. “And Daddy . . . hits you too, sometimes, right? On the…cheek?”
Mikey bent his head down, unable to bring his eyes up to face his mother. It was the shame.
“Because . . . I’m bad,” he stuttered.
“No, you’re a good boy. I just thought . . . it might be nice for us to get away from . . . everything. Just the two of us.” She managed to give her son a half-smile.
Mikey’s mother stood up and then noticed the bloody steak knife on the floor, against the cabinet under the kitchen sink. She walked over, snatched it up and put it in the sink. Mikey said nothing, but his mother could tell that there was a question in those little blue eyes. She said, “I used the knife to cut the bag that the roast was in, but I wasn’t careful enough. I dropped the knife on the floor accidentally when all the blood started to spill out.” She then also noticed that she’d carelessly left her bottle of tranquillizers on the countertop, so she deftly scooped them into her apron pocket. No point in having to explain to Mikey what they were for.
“Mommy . . . is this . . . Daddy’s blood?”
Mikey’s mother was startled by the question. “What did you say?” she asked softly, even though she’d heard him clearly.
Mikey had noticed his mother’s strange reaction to the question. “Is this Daddy’s blood?” he repeated cautiously.
“Mikey . . . why would you ask that?”
Mikey lowered his head and whispered, “I just thought . . . it’s not yours, you said, and I don’t have a cut either. So that leaves Daddy.”
“It’s blood from a piece of meat, a roast. It spilled everywhere.”
He nodded dully and looked around, then walked into the living room.
“Mommy, there’s some blood on the big cedar chest,” he said.
The cedar chest sat in the living room next to the couch, where it served as a coffee table. Mikey pointed to the blood, which was around the latch.
Mikey’s mother sighed. Nothing escaped the sharp eyes of her curious little boy. “You’re very observant, Mikey.” She walked over to the chest with her sponge and quickly wiped up the few small smears of blood.
“Ob-ser-vice?” Mikey mimicked. “What does that mean?”
“Observant. It means you notice things.” She smiled.
“But how did the blood get on it?”
“Well, I guess I had some of the meat blood on my hands when I touched the cedar chest, that’s all.”
“Why did you open it, Mommy?”
“I didn’t open it. I just touched it.”
“Can I look inside the chest?”
“No, I can’t open it now, it’s locked, and remember Daddy said the key was lost and he’ll have to use his tools to change the lock.” She instinctively dipped her hand into the side pocket of her dress, where she felt the key. She wanted to make sure that she hadn’t dropped it on the floor when she was cleaning. Mikey would have noticed it. Because he noticed everything.
“Mikey, why don’t you go into your room and play with your toys, and I’ll get dinner going, okay?” Mikey didn’t look happy about his mother’s suggestion, but he obeyed.
As Mikey walked through the entryway, he saw flashing red lights through the fogged glass panels to the side of the front door. He knew immediately what it was. Excited and alarmed, he called out: “Mommy, the police are here!”
As she scurried to the front door she thought, Had someone . . . a neighbor . . . heard something and reported it?
She said abruptly,” Mikey, go to your room please, go play with your toys.”
“But I want to see,” he whined.
She made a swooshing motion toward Mikey with both of her arms. “Go on now. The police must be here by mistake, I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Her hand moved toward the doorknob. She hesitated when she heard a car door slam. Then a muffled voice, but she couldn’t make out the words.
She opened the door before there was a knock, and there stood the huge figure of officer Sam Peterson.
“Sam? What’s . . .”
“Hello, Doris,” said Sam in his usual booming, cheerful voice. “I have something for you. Look what I found by the side of the road.”
Before Doris could say any more, her husband Henry appeared behind Sam and gave her a cheery smile.
“Hi Honey,” said Henry. He was holding four large bags.
Mikey peeked out from the hallway and then ran out, unable to contain himself. In a blur, he scurried through the open front door and wrapped both arms around one of his Daddy’s legs.
Doris put her hand on her heart and said, “Henry . . . you fellas startled me. I was worried something had happened. What’s going on?”
Sam chortled, “Sorry about that, Doris. Henry told me to turn on the lights, said Mikey would get a kick out of it. Wanted me to turn on the siren too, but I drew the line there.”
Henry grinned and said, “Well, once I got to the hardware store, I saw that the grass seed and some other stuff I needed was on sale, so I bought it all, forgetting that I didn’t have the car. It wasn’t until I walked outside that I realized I’d have to carry everything two miles home. So I started walking, and then Sam here drives by and sees me lugging all this stuff and offers me a ride.” Henry turned to Sam and said, “I’d pat you on the back right now if I had a free hand, Sam.”
Doris smiled at Sam and said, “You’re such a nice guy, Sam. Would you like to come in for some coffee?”
“Thanks for the offer Doris, but I gotta go. To serve and protect, as they say. I’ll see you folks.” Sam waved and walked to the patrol car.
In the living room, Henry showed his curious little son everything he’d bought, including a small metal farm truck with wheels that turned. It was painted a glossy red. Mikey beamed and ran into his room to play with his new prize.
As soon as Mikey left, Henry’s demeanour turned serious. He took Doris by the hand, walked her into the living room, sat her down gently on the couch and said, “Doris honey, we need to talk. I need to talk. To say that I’m just so sorry…so very sorry I hit you last night… and the times before that. It’s tearing me apart. I’d promised you . . .”
“It’s got to stop, Henry,” she said firmly. “I can’t live like this.”
“I know . . . what I’ve put you through . . .”
“It’s . . . the drinking, of course. We both know that. You’re a different person when you drink. I don’t understand it, but your personality changes completely. You’re so kind to me and Mikey when you’re sober. And then . . .”
“I know, I know.” He hung his head. “Honey, I’ve put you through hell. You must be thinking about this all the time. Dreading the next time I lose control. And now you’re even taking sedatives because of me.”
Henry looked into his wife’s eyes and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Don’t leave me, Doris,” he pleaded. “I’m so lucky to have you. I’ll change, I swear to God I will. I got rid of all the alcohol in the house early this morning when you and Mikey were at church. Even the beer. There’s not a drop here, I swear.” Henry lowered his head again in contrition.
Doris gently put her hands on her husband’s cheeks and said, “Look at me, Henry. I love you and I don’t want to leave you. The thing is, even with all that’s happened . . . I have faith in you. I know you have the strength to beat this.”
They spoke for another half hour, about how Henry’s father had been a drinker, and maybe it was somehow in Henry’s genes, but he was going to fight it and win over it. And in the end, they held each other.
Eventually, Doris gently removed herself from Henry’s grip and stood. She said, “When I first saw those flashing red lights, I actually thought that someone might have called the police asking them to look into the noise last night. The shouting. You were quite loud. I’m amazed that Mikey didn’t wake up.”
“I know. But that’s over now, Doris.”
She gave Henry a soft smile and started walking toward the kitchen.
“Henry, I’m going to start dinner now, but I thought I’d leave in about an hour to visit Mom. She’s not feeling well, her arthritis has flared up. I’ll take Mikey and we’ll stay overnight. It’ll really cheer her up to see him. And then assuming Mom feels better in the morning, I told Mikey I’d take him to the beach. From Mom’s, it’s not a long drive. We’ll be back home tomorrow night after dinner. I’m making a roast beef with potatoes for you now. I’ll put everything in the oven before I leave, and I’ll set the timer. When it goes off at around six, just take it out and eat. There’s more than enough for you to have leftovers tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Honey.” Henry closed his eyes and imagined the deep bluish-green of the ocean. “Ah, the beach. Sounds like fun. Wish I could take the day off and go with you, but I’ve got that big report due.”
“I know, but it’s early in the season, there’ll be plenty of other chances.”
As Doris began to season the beef, she shook her head and smiled slightly at the fact that Mikey might have thought she’d knifed his Daddy.
Because knives . . . well, they were for fucking morons.
When Henry was at the hardware store and Mikey was napping, she’d dissolved all of her phenobarbital tablets in the flask of bourbon that Henry had hidden in the bottom of the cedar chest. There was enough sedative in there now to kill a plow horse. Assuming Henry drank it all tonight, and she knew he would, he’d drop off to sleep, then slip into a coma, and eventually, his heart would stop. So there’d be no need to shove a knife into it.
That pathetic scene of contrition that had just played out was a rerun she’d seen at least five times before. But this time was different. Because it would be the last time.
Sure, she could have just left with Mikey, but Henry would have come after them. Besides, she wanted him dead for what he’d done to her, and more importantly to Mikey.
She and Mikey would get in her car and drive north, and just keep on going up into Canada. She wasn’t sure where they’d end up, but she’d figure it out. And Henry would never lay a hand on Mikey or her again.
As Henry read the newspaper, Doris walked toward their bedroom to slip the cedar chest key back where Henry had hidden it. And so clever, he must have thought, to tuck it inside a sheaf of Alcoholics Anonymous literature. What an asshole. He’d gone to one meeting before declaring he could kick the habit without anyone’s help.
As she passed Mikey’s room she bubbled, “Mikey, time to pack for the beach! I decided we’ll leave today. Are you as excited as I am?”
S.E. (Stephen Edward) Greco grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and studied science and engineering at Cornell University. After a career at a major tech company, he pivoted from writing patents and technical papers to penning fiction. His mystery, suspense, humour, and science fiction short stories have appeared recently in Suspense Magazine, The Dark City Crime and Mystery Magazine, Literary Hatchet, Scarlet Leaf Review, CommuterLit, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Society of Misfit Stories, Suspense Unimagined, Strange Stories, and Going Down Swinging: Pigeonholed. His work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize anthology and his story “I Called to Say You’re Dead” was a runner-up for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2020 Derringer Award for best mystery novelette. He now resides in New York and divides his time between writing, reading, and oil painting. Visit him at segrecoauthor.com.