MONDAY: A Walnut Box


Copyright is held by the author.

NICOLE IMMEDIATELY knew the blood on the envelope was hers. Three big, fat and wet splodges that sort of looked like a face. One of the stains had started to run, making it appear as if the right eye was shedding a tear. Nicole saw it as strangely poetic, especially given the circumstances.

And to think that today was her 30th birthday. By now she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be seeing her 31st. She took a strange comfort in the fact that there would be a certain neatness to her headstone. Nicole Gardner, born June 14, 1960, died June 14, 1990. At least it would be easy to do the math.

It hadn’t been Nicole’s intention to end her morning assisting mathematically challenged graveyard visitors. In fact, her day was supposed to be unnecessarily mundane. Let Gavin kiss her goodbye as he left for work, run a few errands and do the weekly grocery shop, maybe even make her own birthday cake — or have one from Estelle’s Pâtisseries Parfaites delivered and pass it off as her own. Gavin wouldn’t know the difference anyway, he was far too distracted these days. Besides, Estelle’s cakes and delivery service were exquisite.

But after Gavin left, her plans had derailed. On a whim she’d decided to snoop around for her birthday present. Gavin was usually unimaginative when it came to hiding things or keeping secrets. However, it seemed he’d become more careful as it took her almost 10 minutes to find a walnut box tucked away at the back of the wardrobe, underneath his carefully arranged boxes of shoes. It was so obvious she almost missed it.

As she pulled it out, she hoped it would contain the silver necklace with the sparkling sapphire pendant. Surely the black, crescent shaped leather handbag wouldn’t fit in the walnut box. Although, Nicole thought, she’d dropped increasingly obvious hints about both gifts, so maybe he’d stashed the bag somewhere else. After all, Gavin had been far more generous with her housekeeping allowance yesterday. It meant she didn’t have to fill her meatloaf with mushrooms again tomorrow, and pretend it was all beef.

It was amazing how quickly the cash she’d been diverting had added up. If Gavin didn’t come through with the pendant, Nicole decided, she’d buy it herself. It would be something else he’d probably never notice.

Nicole’s slender fingers glided over the smooth, lacquered box and she held her breath as she slowly lifted the lid. A single blank envelope was inside. Crisp, thick and cream-coloured, the kind Nicole had only ever seen when she’d cleaned rooms at the Royal York all those years ago. That had been before she’d met Gavin, a time she preferred to forget now she’d moved a few rungs up the all-important social ladder.

She lifted the flap of the envelope and peered inside, wondering if Gavin had ignored her not so subtle musings and opted for yet another gift certificate instead. A manicure wouldn’t be completely unwelcome and at least this time she wouldn’t be paying for it from her secret squirrel fund.

If it wasn’t a gift certificate, then it was perhaps an oh-so-predictable lipstick sealed love note from a mistress. In some ways, Nicole would be thankful if another woman was servicing Gavin. That way she wouldn’t have to put up with his usual routine of kiss, fondle, grunt and finish quite so frequently. She’d thought that was normal, until the energetic delivery boy from Estelle’s had started making up for Gavin’s shortcomings, and that young man knew how to hold his tongue. Well, Nicole smiled, at least when she told him to.

Except it wasn’t a gift certificate or a love note that Nicole pulled from the envelope. It was a photograph. A picture of a family — husband, wife, and two sons aged no more than 15. Big smiles plastered on their faces, fishing rods in hands. A camping trip, no doubt, and Nicole recognized the picture from the news report she’d watched the night before. A tragic accident, the anchor had said, no survivors.

The note on the back of the photograph wasn’t Gavin’s handwriting. It read: “G — Your first of many. Burn this when the job’s done.”

Nicole knew now that an appropriate response would have been to rush to the kitchen, grab the phone and call the police. Have Gavin — or whoever the hell he was — arrested and sent to prison. And she would have done so, probably, if she hadn’t heard him open the front door at that very moment. Maybe he’d forgotten his packed lunch again, driven back quickly so he didn’t have to spend money on another tuna sandwich and packet of all-dressed chips. Or he was coming to get rid of the evidence.

There was no time to put the walnut box back, so it all came down to fight or flight. Fight was impossible. Gavin was over six feet whereas she barely made it to five foot three when perched on her tip-toes. So flight then, became the obvious choice.

Nicole shoved the photograph back into the envelope and moved across the room. She pushed open the window. In a month they’d be moving into the exclusive two-storey townhouse she’d pestered Gavin about until he’d given in. For now, Nicole was thankful they were still in the bungalow. Although being on the ground floor was helpful to her escape, the fact that they lived at the end of an isolated street and backed onto a ravine was working against her.

As she put one leg over the window sill she heard Gavin call out, “Nicole, are you home?”
It was the only point in the day that she hesitated. Perhaps it was all a mistake. Her husband was boring, yes, and predictable — or so she’d thought — but he was a good man, and she still loved him. And anyway, Gavin, a murderer? The man was so predictable, it was almost laughable. His daily bowel movements were as perfectly synchronized as the Swiss rail system.

But when he opened the bedroom door and she watched his eyes dart from her to the open walnut box on the floor and back to her again, she realized that not only had she completely underestimated him for 10 years, but she actually didn’t know him that well at all.

“Nicole, don’t,” he said as he moved towards her, but she swung her other leg out of the window and pushed off.

The gravel stung her bare feet and Nicole knew it would slow her down. If she could get to the end of the street and out into the open, she’d have a chance. An improbable one, maybe, but not altogether impossible. So Nicole ran, clutching the envelope in her left hand, pumping her right in a futile attempt to gain speed.

When the blood splattered on the envelope, Nicole knew it was over. The pain, she thought, would surely come soon. She hadn’t even heard the shot and figured Gavin must have one of those guns with a silencer.

As Nicole’s legs buckled and her knees and palms slammed onto the jagged gravel, she saw that the other eye of the bloody face on the envelope had started to weep as well.

And when she looked up, the last thing she saw were real tears glistening in Gavin’s eyes.

  1. Great story, Hannah.

  2. A compelling story that suffered from brevity.
    Sometimes more is more.

  3. Loved it!

  4. I agree with Jazz; the story, while interesting, felt underdeveloped. As is, the discovery of the husband’s secret life was in this reader’s eyes too shocking and inadequately foreshadowed — if at all. After the shocking reveal, the reader should be able to go back and see the clues, changing the ‘huh’ moment to ‘aha, of course.’

  5. Pleasingly, teasingly challenges readers to exercise their own imagination. Neat!

  6. So nicely done, Hannah!
    My favourite line: “His daily bowel movements were as perfectly synchronized as the Swiss rail system.”
    My favourite thing about this whole story: the perfection of the images of faces and tears, that frame the narrative so well.
    If I’m allowed to love something in the comments, too, I love that Jazz wants…more! (another favourite thing of mine — more more more) 🙂 The story does make a body wonder: what if Nicole had waited when Gavin called to her?

  7. Great story kept my eyes glued to the screen. Well done!

  8. What a gripping story. I could not stop reading. Loved it!

  9. Usually I love your stories, but I have to agree with Jazz and Frank on this one. It’s difficult to accept that a woman could be married to a hired assassin for 10 years and not suspect a thing. A few clues and perhaps Nicole’s unwillingness to believe her own eyes or instincts might have made the story more realistic. (I still love your writing!)

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