Apr 8

The Life of One Happy Wife

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Edited: Apr 10

 

Cassandra sat by the window, gazing at the morning sky. She was sipping her coffee, her face warmed by the steam and her eyes unfocused. The children were being watched over by a nanny, taken out to play in the garden and the youngest, born merely ten months ago, was put to sleep by another woman, after Cassandra was told to breastfeed it. She despised the act, feeling degraded, like an animal feeding its young one, while the baby sucked her breasts dry, biting and clawing until it deemed it enough. After six children she still asked her husband to find her a wet nurse to feed them, but he, an educated and well-read gentleman, always reminded her that they had six alive and healthy offsprings because of her beautiful and miraculous bosom and that lower class women would only poison their babies’ pure pallets. She hated that way of thinking, coming from a family of working women, but not able to do anything about it, fearing that her husband would leave her to her previous fate if she disobeyed him.

 

She could hear the staff running about in the kitchen, getting ready for lunch. She could imagine her late mother being there and she herself in the other room, playing with the other poor children and waiting for leftover lunch. Her father in the barn, teaching her brothers how to take care of animals in the hopes of sending them to tend to other wealthy families, only for them to create their own poor spawns and continue the cycle of miserable existence. Cassandra was lucky to have caught the master’s son’s interest, as her mother had told her. Otherwise she’d have either done the same as her brothers or had gone to a brothel to sell her body and die from shameful diseases. She knew how amazing the opportunity she had was, but she couldn’t help but feel empty.

 

She hated her husband. He was a cold man, interested only in his business, selling weapons to the French, who were fighting their revolution, which was the reason they hadn’t gone under after the war in America and in her body. Every night he touched her she felt dirty, used and abused by his hard and wanting hands which only took pleasure for him and gave her unwanted children and difficult pregnancies. He’d always get what he wanted and leave her to stay awake all night, wondering how such a normal and pure act of love could feel so sinful and wrong. She’d wright on the bed to bring him satisfaction, to show him how capable and loved he was and then she’d bring her knees towards her chest and silently cry. He’d never hit her or the children, but after the wedding he never even touched her hand during the day. During the rare times he was home they’d sit together in the library in silence, never talking or even looking at each other. In the beginning Cassandra had tried, talking about the war, about the American’s foolishness and their audacity to disobey their king, about their house finances or Greek literature, but he’d always smile at her as if she was just another one of his children, amusing him with their naïve curiosity, trying to impress him. After their second child she’d given up, deciding to retreat in the abundance of books in their home, away from his belittling glances and disparaging smiles.

 

The one thing she could be proud of was emerging from the lower class and bringing her family with her. She had made her sisters into desirable by well-off gentlemen ladies by making a name for herself and after begging her husband to employ her brothers, made them good suitors for young ladies looking to get wed. Her parents had died from pneumonia after the harsh winter before her wedding, sleeping in the barn with no money to find a doctor on time so they couldn’t enjoy the privileges of a calm and wealthy life, but at least they could rest in peace, knowing their children could.

 

Cassandra got up from the window seat, leaving her cold coffee on a table nearby. It had been prescribed to her by a doctor for her head melancholy, but she despised the bitter and strong taste of it. She didn’t really feel melancholic, just realistic about the monotony of her life, but she’d made the mistake of sharing her thoughts with her husband one afternoon. He’d looked at her funny and next morning there the doctor was, ready to make sure she knew how lucky she was and how happy she should be for the good sir to love her so that he’d choose a poor girl from the kitchen floor to nurse into ladyhood instead of picking a fully blossomed and well-mannered lady with a fortune behind her name. He advised her to start drinking that coffee they sell in the coffee hoses, but that she had to buy from the pharmacy, because, as a respectable lady, she shouldn’t enter a place full of unwed and strange men. He did fail to mention how the good young sir had to marry her because he had impregnated her and her smart mother had to send her father to intimidate him and threaten to speak to the priest about his late night wanderings into the girls’ rooms. How they had to have their first night as man and wife making sure her thigh had bled enough for there to be no question of her purity. How before him his brothers had occasionally done the same, taking their pleasure from the young servant girls living there and leaving them to deal with the consequences, unwilling to father the bastards and placing the young innocent girls in various bathhouses to fend for themselves. How she knew for a fact that her husband was still having his fun with the servants, had seen them becoming fuller and unhappier by the day and then suddenly disappearing without explanation, replaced by another pretty young face. Not really caring, she’d let him play with them, glad that she was left alone for another night.

 

She left the bedroom to go down to the kitchen, to check if the preparations for lunch were running smoothly. Her younger sisters were going to visit the house, to finally meet their new niece, to gush about her pretty curls and big eyes and not mention how useless her life was going to be, bland and full of constant childbearing and boredom, having to find some stupid occupation to fill the time between birth and death like gardening or knitting, knowing that literature and paint were for young boys to express their intellect and sophistication, which young girls just didn’t possess. Then, after eating their meal, they were going to boast about their husbands’ latest successes to one another with almost real pride that was not exactly empty, but void of sincerity and filled with jealousy for the opportunities the men had to make their name known and remembered by others, not just their children and staff. They’d gossip a bit about their neighbors and their husbands’ clients in an attempt to buy some more time together but after saying everything positive they had they’d bid each other farewell and return to their big houses full of shiny things and pretty clothes and continue to feel empty.

 

After Cassandra saw the cooks were hard at work she left them alone. She remembered how irritated her mother was when the mistress would watch over them to make sure they did everything right. Then the young girl thought it was because of the mistress’s attention to detail but now she knew it was because of boredom.

 

She went to the library to wait for her guests, deciding to try to knit the baby a new hat. She knew they had enough hats in the baby’s cupboard but it did kill time and reading was going to give her a headache after that nasty coffee. She picked the blue yarn for the little girl and started moving the needles slowly and precisely.

 

After the birth of the last child she decided that was all her womb could handle. The pregnancy had been a difficult one, full of abdominal pain and morning sickness way after the first three months. The birth itself had been almost deadly for her, the midwife thinking Cassandra had died from blood loss. She’d spoken to the women after coming to herself some days later about wanting no more children. The midwife had told her about some herbs that, taken the day after the act, guaranteed clearing the womb from anything unwanted but she warned Cassandra against taking it more than four times monthly, remarking that overusing could lead to poisoning the system. A month later those selfish cold hands had slithered over her nightgown and found what they wanted and the morning after, her husband gone to work, she’d given the herbs to one of the maids to make her tea. The maid had looked at her knowingly, judgement clear on her face, but had done what she’d been ordered. There were no more children conceived after that and the husband was still none the wiser.

 

Cassandra often thought about what could’ve happened to her if she hadn’t been caught in the delicate prison of wealth and cold sophistication. If she could’ve found a young man with a bit of land to take care of, who could’ve loved her like her father loved her mother, carefully and obediently. Or if she could’ve found a passing through the mansion stranger to love her passionately and fiery like the romance in Shakespeare’s plays and who could’ve taken her to a new and exciting place to grow old in. Or, maybe, she could’ve ran away from the mansion, leaving her family and the repulsing brothers behind to become a nun, living among other women, alone and sworn to celibacy but independent and free from those slimy hands in the night. But she knew that, whatever her fate could’ve been, she’d still be bored and unfulfilled in the end, her days empty and void of anything exciting that could make her enjoy life. The fate of the modern woman was service to one man or another, no matter if it was a husband, master or God, hidden from history in his shadow and unable to prove she was anything other than a tool to be used for children and adoration.

 

When she was really young she’d sneak in the library and read of amazing adventures of Greek heroes and dream of becoming them, missing the fact they all were male more easily than the fact that those stories were from decades earlier. Later, when those facts were pointed out to her by one of her sisters, she’d dream of writing stories like those, so she could inspire other little girls to go into the wild world and live a life of adventure and love and passion. She’d write her stories on a book, a gift from her father for her tenth birthday, fill the pages with her imaginary worlds filled with heroic women that are not to be loved and adored, but to love and adore themselves. One night, after an exhausting day of preparation for an event the servants knew nothing substantial about except that it had to be perfect and that had taken from morning until noon, Clarissa’s mother had asked to read her stories with a tired smile that had molded her tired and hard face into something almost delicate. The girl had excitedly handed her book over and almost couldn’t sleep from anticipation for her first reader’s opinion. The next morning her mother had come into the room, the other children already out and playing. She’d sat on the bed with tears in her eyes, making them sparkle in the morning light and taken her smiling and expectant daughter’s hands in her own. She’d told her with a sad smile that her stories were beautiful and incredible and the girl had almost bounced on the bed in excitement, but the woman continued. She told her daughter she had to stop writing because writing of those imaginary worlds where women got what they wanted and even more could only lead to crushing sadness. She explained further that even if those were beautiful stories, they were not the reality where they lived, because even if they, as women, could find happiness in childbearing and housekeeping, they could never achieve anything more than that and imagining they could lead to nothing productive and realistic. She got up from the bed and before she opened the door she told her daughter that her book was going to stay with her parents from now on. After the mother left the room, Cassandra felt tears pour from her eyes and down her cheeks, feeling the crushed parts of her heart poke her insides, knowing she’d been changed.

 

After her parents died she did find the book, tucked under the hay in the barn, but she threw it in the kitchen fire, not even opening it. Her worlds hadn’t disappeared from her head with the disappearance of the book, but their effect on her had changed. Instead of making her hopeful about her future they made her resent it, hating it for leading her to a world of someone else’s making that in which she couldn’t fulfill her dreams and made her live a purposeless life, filled with things she couldn’t let herself hate because they made her a living image of what most women dreamt about – a rich wife with no concerns and endless free time, full staff of servants to tend to her every need and women to care for her children instead of her. Of course, what those women didn’t consider in their dreams was the suffocating purposelessness they’d feel, remembered in the end because of their husbands’ achievements and not their own.

 

As she knitted the useless hat in her husband’s library filled with books about countless men’s adventures, she heard the door open. The maid was there to tell her that lunch was almost ready and her sisters’ carriages could be seen on the horizon. Cassandra thanked the maid and dismissed her, putting the yarn and needles down. It was time for her to put on her happy façade and greet her equally fulfilled and happy family.

Please, read this:

 

This was Martina Toneva’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.

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  • 13:30 “I can’t take this anymore.” “What exactly can’t you take, Sarah?” David shouted, holding the steering wheel. “It’s all because of you. We all revolve around you.” “Stop talking. I want out, let me out.” “You are not going anywhere!” “Stop right now!” “No!” “David, watch out!” 06:30 The first alarm went off at 06:30. By 07:30, when the second alarm went off, Sarah had dried her hair, put on fresh clothes and filled up most of her suitcase. All her possessions laid folded on the living room couch. Her soft hands snuggled each garment in its own space. Cosy cashmere next to wool, above - gentle silk. Sarah was a beautiful woman. A crown jewel. On that morning, she had devoted herself to making the trip as painless as possible. She folded David’s clothes. She made sandwiches for the road. All David had to do was get up and drive. The third alarm went off at 08:30. At 09:00 - Sarah’s phone rang. “No, mother. We are going to be on time. Yes, mother, our luggage is ready. No, he is in the shower. Of course, why wouldn't he? No, do not cancel anything. Tell father he would love to. No, he prefers flan. He doesn’t drink coffee. You know this, mother. Yes. Yes. Yes. Right on time. Oh, there he is. He sends you his best. We have to go…if we want to skip traffic. Yes, me too.” Sarah entered the bedroom and stood tall over David. “Wake up. It’s past 09:00. We are going to be late, please.” David rolled to the other side of the bed. His dry mouth croaked back at Sarah, who spoke in a firm but calm voice. “I have been ready for an hour. I took care of everything. I got up at 06:30. What time did you get home last night? I didn’t hear you come in. You promised to get up on time. It’s past 09:00. David!” David pressed his feet against the wooden floor and got up. He rustled to the bathroom and locked the door. Sarah watched him go, counting the seconds on her wristwatch. David glided out of the bathroom at around 09:30. “Give me fifteen minutes,” he yelled out. “Thirty at the least,” Sarah thought to herself. “What time is it?” David asked. At 10:00 David and Sarah met in the kitchen. David had uncovered a wrinkled t-shirt and a pair of jeans. “Why did you put that on? You have fresh clothes next to the suitcase.” “I want to save them for later, not ruin them now.” “Pick something from the suitcase, it’s fine”. “You look great. What did your mother say?” “Nothing. My dad wants you to play tennis with him. Five o’clock, ok?” “Sure. Are we playing doubles or singles?” “Ask him, I don’t know.” “Right, are the bags ready?” “Put something on and close them, yes. I need to check if I forgot anything.” Sarah checked the bedroom, the bathroom and the closet, where she took a small pause before going back out. David had taken the bags down to the car. Sarah browsed the living room, put her coat on, checked her make-up, entered the alarm code and locked the door. Outside, it was a hot spring day. David was loading the trunk of their new BMW. “Ready?” “Yes, Sir-ah.” A nickname David used carelessly. He appeared from behind the car. “You didn’t change.” “I will change when we get there, no time to waste.” Sarah entered the car without saying a word. David started the engine. The fuel alarm lit up. “We don’t have fuel?” Sarah asked. “We have enough for now, we can fill it up later.” “So you know where to stop?” “Sure, there are a ton of fuel stations on the way.” David took out his phone. “Damn, I forgot to charge my phone. Give me yours”. “No, thank you. You will listen to the radio. Let’s not run out of battery before we get there.” David laughed under his nose. “Whatever, let’s go.” It was a three-hour drive to their final destination. It was her father’s sixtieth birthday and everyone was invited to the mountain villa. Lunch started at 13:00 sharp. It was 10:30 and they had no chance of arriving on time. 11:30 Traffic was a drag. Everyone was leaving town for the weekend. “Switch the station,” David said while looking in the rearview mirror. “Just a second, I can’t do it now.” Sarah was looking at her phone. “Ok, where are we going? How can we get out of this? Helloooo, what are we doing?” “How am I supposed to know? You are driving, figure it out.” “You are the one with the phone. What are you looking at?” “Follow the damn road, David. Stop wasting time.” David felt his temperature rising. He looked away, turned left towards the highway and immediately regretted it. The line was so long it almost disappeared into the horizon. “Seriously?” Sarah complained. “Why did you go from here?” The fuel alarm informed - 35 miles to empty. “We are stuck,” David said. 12:30 The city was behind them. David was driving well above the speed limit. Sarah’s heart was pumping as she counted each passing mile of fuel - 15, 14, 13 and down. They passed by a fuel station, but David did not slow down in time to pull over. “Why didn’t you stop here?” “Don’t worry. I am sure there is one right passed the hill.” Sarah turned up the air conditioning. “That burns fuel, too. You know that, right?” David added. Sarah felt like a caged animal. When the fuel meter hit the 9-mile mark, a small orange fuel station appeared on the right. David did his best to hide his relief, but Sarah felt his fear. “See, I knew there was one right here.” They stopped next to one of the two fuel pumps. “You want something?” David asked. “No, I am staying here. I will have a sandwich.” David looked around for someone to fill up the car. Sarah shook her head. He had to do it himself. A few gallons later, a man in an orange uniform appeared from behind the gas station. He moved like a dusty cement statue dragged over the tarmac. Oily black spots on his uniform, grey and purple spots on his skin. The closer he got, the more unconcerned he became. He cornered David against the fuel pump. “Fill it up, ok?” David mumbled. The man took the pump out of his hands and continued filling up the BMW. David noticed a few men standing by the entrance. Big men. Fat and strong. Leather jackets and sweatpants. They did not let him pass unnoticed. “Hey, boy. Nice car. How many horses?” “I really don’t know,” David coughed out. “Is it yours?” David was halfway inside the gas station when he answered, “Yes”. He bought chips, a can of Coke and paid for the fuel. The woman at the cash register accepted the payment begrudgingly. Once out, he ignored the leather men. No matter. They were focused on the stray dog sniffing around the BMW. David walked to the car - not too slow, nor too fast. The dog looked up and growled. Sarah was oblivious to all this. “Go on now, go away, go,” David pleaded. “Tell him, tell him,” one of the men shouted. “I am, I am.” “Well…,” the leather men laughed. David unholstered the car key, stared at the dog’s eyes and fired away. The car alarm rang out in the vast green landscape. The dog became even more curious and so did Sarah. The alarm pointed her to the standoff and for the first time that day - she laughed. David fired one more time. The car alarm beeped again and the doors unlocked. Two shots, two misses. Sarah couldn’t stop laughing. The dog, in its sphinxian wisdom, found no reason to move, nor any danger in not doing so. Pressed against the horrible beast, David had forgotten about the cement man by the fuel pump. He stepped in out of pure boredom. “Go away,” he said with a voice dry as paper. The dog complied. The cement man stood still. “Thank you very much.” David reached in his pocket for some spare change. “Here you go, thanks.” David crawled into the car. “What was that?” Sarah asked through her grin. “Let’s move.” David started the car and inched away. “You bought chips, why did you buy chips? I made sandwiches, didn’t you hear me say I made sandwiches?” “Please, let’s go.” About fifteen minutes had passed. 13:15 “I’m sorry, mom. We almost ran out of fuel. Yes, terrible. He will play. If he is not too tired, he got home late last night. Who knows…at least an hour. I am sorry, tell dad we are very sorry. Where are we? David, do you even know where we are? Yes, I think I see the forest. Forget it, we have ruined everything. You should tell dad the tennis is off too. We will be too tired. Oh well, ok, we will see.” “What the hell was that?” David asked. Sarah looked out the window. 13:25 “Go ahead and blow it all off. We are almost fucking there. Do you know how that makes me look?” David said. “What did you want me to say? We are going to miss everything. I don’t want them to wait for us,” Sarah answered. “Wait for us? For what? They can start their drinks and things, we will get there. What’s the big deal?” “Nothing is a big deal for you, ever. Does someone have to die for you to care? “There you go again. I didn’t say that. You know what I mean.” “Nothing, you just say things, but they mean nothing to me.” David was driving well above the speed limit. The green pastures spread for miles and miles. Ahead, the pointy tops of the pine forest were reaching for the sky on both sides of the road. 13:30 “I can’t take this anymore.” “What exactly can’t you take, Sarah?” David shouted, holding the steering wheel. “It’s all because of you! We all revolve around you.” “Stop talking. I want out, let me out!” “You are not going anywhere!” “Stop right now!” “No!” “David, watch out!” A lonely dog appeared from the pines. There was no time to avoid the blow. Their bodies rushed forward. The dog’s rib cage snapped against the front bumper. Seconds later, the car stopped. “Sarah, Sarah, are you ok? Sarah?” She raised her head.“Sarah, say something, are you alright?” Time stopped. The road laid empty under the big sun. No sound for miles. The BMW shined like a black bug in the narrow forest pass. “Sarah, look at me.” David checked her for injuries. He slowly lifted her arms, looked at her face, ears, fingers and neck. “Does it hurt somewhere?” It took a few minutes for Sarah to come to her senses. She answered in a scared, gentle voice, “Yes, yes”. Her eyes filled with tears, but she was not crying. Inside the car, David and Sarah were waking up from the crash. As the initial stress calmed down, pain began to emerge. David turned off the engine and felt a strong, dull pain in his right shoulder. Sarah took a deep breath and cringed from nose pain. There was no blood, no bones. “We are going to be fine”, David said. “Don’t worry. My shoulder hurts a little, you are not bleeding, it’s ok. We are getting home soon.” Sarah looked ahead. Seconds later she remembered, “The dog.” David turned around and saw its body laying on the tarmac. “What should I do? Maybe we should go.” “No, we can’t leave it like this.” “We don’t have time for this. We should get home and see if you are ok.” “I am fine, David. Help the poor thing.” David took a beat. “Ok, I am going.” A scarlet trail led David to the dog, close behind the car. He kneeled. The dog’s body was twitching like a newborn in a pool of blood. David remained still for a while. Sarah opened the door. She was close when David said, “She is dead.” “Is it a she? Poor thing. You killed her.” David shrugged. “Yes, I killed her. Thank you very much. Thanks for the help. What now? We need to move her away from the road.” “How do you suppose we do that?” “Grab the tail, I’ll grab the head.” “No way. I don’t want to touch it.” “Sarah, please, grab the tail.” “No, you do it.” “My shoulder hurts, I can’t do this on my own. We will drag her to the pines and leave her there. Please, do this for me, ok?” Sarah closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her nose pain spiked up again. “Ok, ok. Fine.” They stretched the corpse from both sides. Sarah was pulling the tail while David was holding its head. His shoulder gave. The dog’s teeth hit the road. “What happened? You ok?” Sarah asked. “My shoulder. It hurts a lot. I don’t think I can go on like this. Let’s just drag her to the trees.” They grabbed the dog by its feet. The blood trail turned towards the pines. They were sweating. The freshness of the spring morning had dried out. David and Sarah were far from the BMW. Their hands were all covered in blood. “Here, do you think here is ok?” David asked. “I think so. Maybe we should go now”, Sarah said. Suddenly her eyes froze. She pointed to the car and screamed. David turned around. “No, no, stop.” Two men emerged from the forest. They got in the car and drove off. David sprinted behind them. “Stop, stop, stop!” He ran out of breath close to where the BMW had been. He looked back at Sarah. Her eyes were still fixed on the car. She fell to the ground and hid behind her trembling fingers. The car disappeared. David followed the blood trail back to her. He bowed down, gripped her hands and pulled them down. “Don’t cry, darling. I love you so much. What the hell is happening? What a day.” Sarah’s face was all dog blood and tears. The more David kept talking, the angrier she became. “I can’t breathe. Step back. Step back.” “Calm down. It will be fine.” “No, nothing is fine, David. Nothing is fine. You are an idiot. Look at us. Someone stole our car, we killed a dog, I left all my things in the car. What are we going to do? Look at where we are. There’s no one here. What am I going to tell my mother, my father? This blood. I am covered in blood. What can you do?” “I never meant for all this to happen. How is this my fault? Fine, fine. We are late. I came home late. I confess. You got me. I was late, and no, we were never going to be on time. God help me if we miss another boring lunch with your family. I am sick of you dragging me around all the time. I hit a fucking dog, here, it’s dead. They stole the car. And here you are, lost in the middle of nowhere with an idiot, fuck you too.” “My phone is in the car, David. We can’t call anyone. Have you seen another car pass by? No. Who knows what time it is. How long have we been here? “You want a phone? Here, look!” David took out his phone. “But, you said it had no battery left. You didn’t charge it.” “No, I still have some…see,” David turned the screen to Sarah. “Ok, ok. Fine. Call my mother.” “Um, what’s her number?” “Seriously, you don’t have my mother’s number? It’s been five years.” “Be serious, of course I don’t have your mother’s number.” “Give me,” Sarah snatched the phone and turned around. David took a breath and looked the other way, hoping the car would miraculously return. “Hello, mom, can you hear me? No, you need to pick us up. No, someone stole the car. I am sorry, please. I don’t know. David, where are we? No, we are close.” “Just tell them to drive, it’s about twenty minutes away from the house, down the road. ”We are twenty minutes away, on the road, yes. Come quickly, alright?” Sarah hung up and returned the phone. “They are coming.” The sun was still there, heating up the oily tarmac. They stood in the shadow, next to the dog. Birds started circling above them and small cracks started echoing from the forest. “We should move,” David said. “Come on, leave it.” “It’s a she.” “Ok, leave her. We have done enough.” David and Sarah walked up along the pine shade. A stream of blood ran down Sarah’s nose and glazed the tip of her tongue. She stopped. “Let me see,” David said. The blood glued his thumb to her red lips. “I am sorry…for what I said. I never mean to hurt you. Sometimes I…lose my mind around you.” Sarah raised her eyes. “I know, I know. But get a hold of yourself. I cannot keep going like this.” “I do love you, you know it. We will get through this. I mean, how much worse can it get?” “Let’s wait for my parents here. I am getting dizzy.” They sat down on the grass and leaned on each other. The blood on their clothes began to darken. It was a long silence. 15:30 Over the small hill, two cars appeared. In front - Sarah’s parents in a white SUV and behind them - the local police. “There they are,” David said. He helped Sarah get up. They hugged as the cars pulled over. Sarah’s mom ran out. “Sarah, darling, what have you done?” “Don’t touch me. You will get blood all over yourself.” “Don’t be stupid. We must get you to a hospital.” “I am fine, no need, let’s go home, please.” “Don’t be foolish. We will get you to Dr Stevens. All this blood. Are you hurt? “Well, my nose hurts. We have been here for a while.” “Of course, I will call the doctor right away.” “Karen, she is fine. It’s best for all of us to just go home,” David said. “David, please, let her go. I know what is best. Do you need to see Dr Stevens?” “No, no. I am fine.” “Go speak to George. The police are here.” “Let’s all go. I don’t want us to separate,” Sarah said. They walked to the cars. “Sarah, come here,” George hugged his daughter. “Karen, call Dr Stevens.” “Well, George, happy birthday. I guess we screwed everything up.” “We will speak later, David. The police are here to question you. Go now.” The policeman was right behind the SUV. A tall, armed man with hunting sunglasses. David walked up to him. “Good day.” “You must be David.” “They appeared from the forest and took off,I couldn’t see their faces.” “Have you been drinking?” “Um, no, we woke up and drove straight here. About the two men…” “Do you mind if you do a test?” “Well, no, but…we are going to George’s birthday.” “Sir, come with me .” “I don’t want to leave Sarah.” “I said, please, sir.” David looked at Sarah and her parents. Karen was on the phone, George was questioning Sarah. “Ok, whatever you say.” They walked to the police car. “Who’s blood is this?” “The dog.” “What dog?” “We hit a dog, that is why we stopped.” “At what time exactly?” “I don’t know, around 13:00.” “Where is it now?” “Next to the road. By the pines. We dragged it.” “You shouldn’t have done that. This is a crime scene. David, when was the last time you consumed alcohol?” “Last night, before I came home.” “It must have been a good night.” “Sorry?” “David, do we need to run any more tests? Is there something else you need to tell me?” “Look, we hit a dog, that’s all. Those men appeared from nowhere. Please, I need to go back to Sarah.” “Not right now. Those men? How many were they?” “I saw two.” “And they came out of the trees?” “Yes.” “Where were you?” “By the dog, we were in the shade, it was too hot. Can I talk to Sarah now?” “How fast were you going?” “How fast? I don’t remember.” “Is it dead?” “What?” “The dog.” “Yes, yes, it is.” “Was it dead when you got out of the car?” “Yes, yes, it was. Let me go see her for a second.” “A big dog can survive a hit of up to forty miles per hour. This is a fifty-mile road. So, you tell me, how fast were you driving? David stood silent. “Right,” the policeman said, “You are coming with me.” “Let me talk to Sarah first. I am sure George won’t mind.” The policeman put a hand on his holster. “You have one minute.” They walked back to the SUV. David saw Karen get in the car. The policeman went straight to George. Sarah went to David. “I have to go with them.” “Why?” “I don’t know, they have to question me, I guess. And I need to report the car stolen. You go home.” “What about father? They know him.” “I know. They don’t seem to care. I will call you when I’m done. Go home now.” “We are going to see Dr Stevens first.” “Right. Don’t let them drive you crazy. I will be back before you know it.” “David, we should talk.” “I know. It will only take an hour or two.” “No, listen. Maybe you should go back home.” “I told you, I will be back before you know it.” “No, to the city. You don’t have to spend the weekend here.” “What do you mean?” David looked at George and the policeman. “My father is very upset. Someone will drive you back to the city.” “Why are you doing this? I don’t want to leave you.” “I know. This is for the best. Trust me.” “Sarah, what is really going on?” “Calm down. You don’t want to be here anyway. We will talk when I get back. It will be alright, David. Let’s get through the next few days.” David checked Sarah’s eyes for a drop of doubt. “Ok, as you wish.” Sarah gave David a little kiss and walked back. As she got close to the SUV, she overheard the policeman talking to her father. “The dog men, yes. We will see what we can do. He looks ok, given the circumstances.” “Are you sure? Check everything.” “Of course. We will get him back to you tonight.” “Call me if necessary.” “Have a good night, sir.” The two cars circled back and drove off. They crossed the narrow pass together. The SUV was flying ahead. After a while, the police car turned right towards the station. David was in the backseat, looking at the rocky mountain tops. He got his phone out. The battery alarm sighed. On the screen - her mother’s number. He finally had it. And it was not going anywhere. Please, read this: This was Vasil Shkutov’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.
  • – I had a dream about you -- – Yeah? Was it dirty ;) -- – Let's say I am not writing it here -- –- Hm, getting curious -- – Wanna meet and tell me in person? -- Eva had to delete the message thread fast because truths about infidelity always came out in the way you least imagined them to. Her fear was mostly unreasonable because her husband had never invaded her privacy – as a true Dane, Bjorn was keeping his respectful distance, having full faith in his wife. Eva loved that but, at the same time, it drove her crazy. Having Balkan blood running in her veins made her crave for some, as she called it, healthy jealousy or at least something resembling warmth. Or interest. She herself wasn't the warmest person either and she considered that a plus rather than a setback. When she was in her twenties Eva had been wreckless towards her own and other people's feelings. After all, young hearts heal fast. It was then that she met Peter – taller, younger, dreamier boy with his golden eyes matching his golden hair. He was her weekend lover – they used to meet at her place and then only leave bed for some snacks, coffee or wine. Apart from the sex which she would rate as “successful”, and she was the type of person to put a grade on everything from spoons to people, they used to argue about God and music, and share all kinds of things: him about his past and his family and Eva – about her dreams and seekings. Peter had mentioned he loved her but who could possibly know what love was, especially that young? At least that was what Eva thought – she was set on having a romantic relationship without all the feelings part, whatever that meant but it was working well with her and Peter so far. Then, in her thirties she started craving stability: a man with a job, unlike Peter, who was still changing degrees in the university, wandering between History and Graphic Design; a man who didn't smoke and didn't spend his weeknights at techno parties – the music Eva used to call synthetic since no real instruments were involved. So she met Bjorn online and broke things off with Peter in the cowardliest way possible – via text. Bjorn was funny and fascinating in his peculiar foreign way – he was equally annoyed and amazed by the way everything worked in Bulgaria and was constantly asking questions: "Why does nobody obey the signs?", "Why do all waiters feel entitled?", "What do you mean you don't have whom to complain about that here?". And Eva was taken in by his love of rules, his big hands, and his stable IT job. They married in months and then had two lovely daughters in the course of two years – both girls blond and tall like their father, but with their mother's dark weighing eyes. Now Eva was living between the kitchen and the washing machine, contemplating the family meals and her life choices. The pride of being a stay-at-home mom in the first years of her life as a settle-downer was slowly replaced by a peculiar lump somewhere between her throat and her chest. And then there was this feeling of worthlessness that lurked in the corner of her mind's eye, haunting her like a bad omen. She didn't discuss any of this with her husband; the only time she tried, he cut her off by saying that Denmark was full of women over thirty who described themselves as “depressed” but were actually just bored. And that the shrinks and modern life coaches were feeding off of these poor creatures like vultures. “There are people with real problems, you know. You need a hobby. Find friends or watch TV – it's made for people exactly like you.” Case closed. So, a week or so ago while she was counting the nutrients in the spinach and cheese souffle, Eva caught herself thinking about the least painful way to die and making a mental list of pros and cons of leaving her daughters motherless. What was the point of being here anyway? No one was noticing her; the girls were always saying they hated her because she never let them play on their tablets before bed while their father thought that tablets were developing the new thinking everyone needed in order to survive the 21stcentury. Father and daughters were teaming up against Eva because she didn't let any sugar pass the threshold. Daddy's girls were loving Bjorn because they got everything. “Our family can afford it,” he was saying. Or at least he could. She brought nothing to this family but food, rules, and toilet paper. And it wasn't like Bjorn didn't love her – he just didn't talk much. Or didn't touch much. At first, this was exactly what Eva loved about him – a husband who made her feel free. Now this freedom was turning into a sense of irrelevance. Like she was irrelevant. Yes, maybe they wouldn't miss her that much. Maybe it was pills – you go to sleep and never wake. She started researching pills online: it was unbelievable what kind of information you could get from the web - so detailed, so matter-of-factual, so heartless. The 21stcentury was really a different era she hadn't quite got to know because she had been too busy fulfilling her dream of stability and perfection. Then, on Tuesday, when she waved her daughters Goodbye and prepared to go to the pharmacy, she started shaking uncontrollably, her stomach burning and she couldn't even reach the bathroom – she was sick right there, in the hallway. It was on that exact spot that she realized – this was not what she wanted. She had fallen so deep in this married life, this married lie, where she was always putting others before herself, always neglecting her feelings as unreasonable, always keeping herself self-composed and “normal”. Now she wanted to be pulled out of it. She didn't have the strength to do it by herself; she was not Munchausen strong. She needed somebody else to grab her by the hair, shake her out of what was killing her. It was there, in the hallway, sitting on the floor in her own vomit, fingers shaking, that she texted Peter. No, she hadn't dreamt about him. She hadn't dreamt about anything lately. She had trouble sleeping, her mind searching for something in the dark but all she could lay her hands on was more darkness. But she knew Peter all too well. She knew exactly what to write to sparkle his interest without sounding needy. And she knew how to make it all work out: he would mention he was working from home. She would mention some made-up appointment in the area in two days. He would ask if she'd be up for some coffee. Then she would carefully choose what to wear – nothing fancy or too revealing: it was not her style and it was not what he was after. She would not overdo it by putting too much make-up. Nothing too glamorous for a workday or a non-existent appointment. She couldn't believe how easy and mechanically it all happened – they say the muscles have memory. She felt like a giant muscle, driven by the neuro impulse, keeping it moving forward. * She was early, the cafe had just opened – the counter girl was still arranging the mugs in an Illuminati pyramid. "I hope that the all-seeing eye is not watching me from the top," Eva thought with disturbed amusement. Cappuccino, water, and a cake with lots of sugar – her brain needed the overstimulation. She needed to stay sharp and in good humor and that was what sugar did to her. Maybe she was too hard on the kids by forbidding them the joy of the sugar rush. No! Not the children now. She wanted to feel unmarried and childless for what was coming next. When Peter came in, she saw she could still see through him: a grown-up boy, shy, avoiding eye contact while at the same time taking a walk on memory lane along her body that was now dressed in tight jeans and a designer oversized pullover in mauve she had never worn because she never went anywhere, just like her matching earrings which had never enjoyed life outside the box either. He was still sweet. The sweetest thing she'd ever had. And like all things sweet, they had to be consumed with care or they could ruin you. Or did they? Wasn't it the sweetless healthy lifestyle that led her here, in this cafe, eating cake, betraying her family and luring an innocent man with a stable relationship now? This high-speed train of thoughts made her smile bitterly and that was the smile that welcomed Peter at the table. Seeing him and the way he looked at her, Eva realized that Peter had never forgiven her how she'd ended things with him but he was acting poorly like it didn't bother him now. It turned out she had never forgotten him and she hoped she was a better actor. Now, at that table, his long fingers were fiddling wantingly his cigarette case and she remembered vividly where these hands had been. She was listening to his low voice and was hardly making any sense of the stories he told her about his new job as a graphic designer and his new apartment. The conversation was just right, avoiding all topics sensitive – her marriage, his girlfriend, their split-up. All she was thinking of was how it would continue: He would invite her to see his new place and she would carelessly say ok. They would climb the stairs playing the silent game, both dying to lose. He would unlock the door and she would know that she was getting exactly where she wanted. He would help her undress right there, in the hallway, then take off his own clothes in a hurry, the fabrics shuffling in the silence, answering questions no one dared to ask. Then they would do it on the sofa, no foreplay - she had been ready for this for years. He would stare in her eyes and she wouldn't blink, both knowing this should never repeat. She would know he wanted her to leave her husband, her daughters, her comfortable life and just be with him for the rest of their lives, away, away from the world, with him only, just like they had been in the forever long weekends they used to have. Just for a second, she would wish the same. The thought of their bodies never separating would make her climax and this would make him climax too. * “I'd better go, right?” He didn't swallow his tears – unlike her, he was emotional and didn't think it was something unsensible. In their so-called relationship she used to be the rational one, and he – the passionate one. Nothing had changed. Seeing him break in tears after all those years made her feel guilty for trying to save herself at his expense. He was still bearing the innocence only a boy in love could. With the tenderness of a mother, of a lover, and a wife, Eva pressed his head against her chest and said: “Hey.” “Hey,” he whispered back. This had been her code word for "I love you" back then. She could never I-love-you him back because she had never known what love was. But she knew that she felt something inexplicable for him and this something fit perfectly in this "Hey". Still blushed, Eva said her Goodbye looking away, and then left in a hurry, hoping he would be strong enough to clean up the emotional mess that she was leaving after herself. Again. Going downstairs she was trembling, thinking of him inside of her, surrendering to each other, knowing she would leave him, this time for good. She took out her phone and started blocking Peter from the social networks. Wandering somewhere between the present and the past, she lost control of her body, stumbled and before she kne it, she was falling down the stairs. Eva felt her whole being twist, and the stairs, like some come-to-life punishers, hitting her for the many sins she had committed during the past hour and the past years. When she finally landed, her whole body ached excruciatingly and for a some time she doubted she would ever rise again. But after a while she managed to move her hand and she reached for her phone to call an ambulance. Unlike Bjorn's opinion about how nothing ever worked in this country, the emergency team arrived in minutes. Mainly bruises and a fractured leg. She was lucky to survive. Bjorn was coming any minute and she had to explain what had happened, where it had happened. Bjorn hurled into the ER room. He approached the bed with a cold concerned look, saying “Bad things happened, but you are OK”. No display of sympathy, just the usual foreign behavior she once thought she loved. She spoke first: “I want a divorce”. Please, read this: This was Miloslava Abadzhieva’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.
  • Speaking characters Caiaphas, High Priest of the Roman province of Judea, AD 18 – 36 Lazarus of Bethany, restored to life by Jesus four days after his death Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the early disciples of Jesus, later revered as St Paul Omnipresent character Jesus of Nazareth They were in the garden, under the cypress tree. Its shade helped against the Sun, but did nothing to cool their heads. ‘We can’t let him live. We just can’t,’ said Caiaphas. Passover was coming. Jerusalem was about to welcome nearly a million pilgrims. I can’t have my authority challenged . ‘There are ways,’ said Saul. Blasphemy . Must be dealt with . ‘Find him, and bring him to me,’ said Caiaphas. He was sitting on a wooden bench. The Sun was warm to his cold pale face. There was a piece of napkin hanging from his cheek. The skin hadn’t healed completely. ‘I still can’t believe it,’ said Lazarus. His hand was still wrapped in linen. It was holding a cup, and it was shaking almost imperceptibly. ‘Tell me again,’ said Saul. He was fighting a memory. The smell of the balm of Gilead was strong. ‘He had promised me. I didn’t listen,’ said Lazarus. ‘It wasn’t what you’d hoped for, was it?’ Saul said. Women would wear the perfume. But it wasn’t seducing him, it was suffocating him. ‘I did try to do right,’ said Lazarus. ‘Followed the word of... ’Saul was thinking about aunt Martha. He’d been a little boy. One evening he came back home. He was hot and tired. Found his mother and some old women from the nearby village fussing around her. Why were they putting cloths on her? Why wasn’t she moving? And what was that smell? He would never forget it. And Lazarus smelled just like aunt Martha that day. The balm of Gilead. The smell of death. Had he really come back? ‘You must tell him. He has to know,’ said Saul. Lazarus said nothing. All this talk had exhausted him. ‘Why isn’t he with you?’ Caiaphas said. ‘I thought I should first tell you,’ said Saul. ‘Tell me what? Your instruction was clear,’ said Caiaphas.‘ Jesus is not the messiah. Lazarus is a living proof he’s a false prophet.’ Saul said. Caiaphas said nothing. He just stared at him with unblinking eyes. ‘Lazarus may be more useful to us alive,’ said Saul. ‘And why is that?’ Caiaphas asked. ‘Because he is not happy.’ Saul said. ‘Because he is not happy?’ Caiaphas said. Saul was eager not to disappoint. He kept silent for a minute to collect his thoughts. And then started retelling the High Priest what he’d heard. ‘A few days ago Lazarus got very sick. His sisters sent word to Jesus. He ignored them. If he had been his true friend, he would have hurried back. He might have tried to save him, claiming to be the Savior himself. Instead he lingered. Two whole days. Then he started his journey back to Bethany. But when he finally arrived, Lazarus had been four days dead. And then, over the righteous objections of his sisters, Jesus desecrated the tomb. He had the mourners remove the stone from the entrance. And then he raised him from the dead. But Lazarus is not happy. Why? Where is that happy place his prophet promised?’ A long moment of silence. ‘Now you really must bring him to me,’ said Caiaphas. ‘This is the man,’ said Saul. ‘Leave us,’ said Caiaphas. And before Saul could object, he added: ‘This is now a matter for the elders. You are yet to fully see the light of truth. ’Saul left. Ambitious, yet obedient , Caiaphas thought. He has a future . ‘So, Lazarus, how was the afterlife?’ Caiaphas said. ‘I couldn’t really tell the difference,’ said Lazarus. ‘How so?’ Caiaphas said. ‘In this life, we are slaves. But then I saw the souls of men. They were slaves too. Forever entrapped in their own wickedness.’ ‘Were you not saved? By him who calls himself the Son of God?’ ‘Yes, I was. He warned us. He told us we had been fooled to believe that silver would let us into the Temple of His Father and that our sins will be cleansed. But I saw the truth. I was meant to. Because no-one dared to believe him. But he showed me and brought me back. Now I know. Now I am his message. And everyone will listen.’ Now I really can’t let him live , Caiaphas thought. ‘I tell you the truth. Unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Please, read this: This was Teodor Tsekov’s graduation short story, published here exactly as submitted.

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