Fiction 2018 / Spring 2018 / Volume 48

The Price You Pay For Being Lucky—Roberta Hartling Gates

Eugene coaxed his new ’57 Buick over the treacherous streets, thankful for the chains he’d put on his tires just last week. Some years you didn’t need them, but this winter was turning out to be a doozy, one of the worst on record. The sun had actually come out today, but its only effect was to highlight the wreckage of last night’s ice storm: bushes and tree limbs dragged to the ground, electric wires sagging like hammocks, and cars, if they’d been left out overnight, so heavily coated they seemed to be encased in epoxy.

Eugene knew the storm was reason enough to keep anyone, even Brinsley, at home. And if the phone was dead, well, so what? It was to be expected. Yet for some reason Eugene had a bad feeling. It was probably silly, worrying about a man like Brinsley, but in the five years Eugene had worked for him, he’d never once been late for work. In fact, he was generally the first to arrive. So finally, just to put his mind at ease, Eugene drove over to the Lauers’  to have a look for himself.

As he parked his car by the curb, he peered at the house, trying to determine if anything was amiss, but it seemed the same as always: a solid red-brick structure built in the twenties, not overtly pretentious but with the look of money behind it. In other words, exactly what you’d expect of C. Brinsley Lauer, the politically connected president of the Lauer Bridge and Steel Company.

Brinsley wasn’t just Eugene’s boss—he was his cousin as well, though most people in the office didn’t know that. It wasn’t a secret exactly, just something that wasn’t mentioned, probably because Brinsley wanted to avoid charges of nepotism. In private, though, Brinsley and his wife, Florence, were good to him, inviting him over for dinner two or three times a month or for the occasional card party. A faint whiff of condescension always seemed to cling to their invitations, however, as if they were just a little too conscious of the good deed they were doing. Eugene suspected he was being thin-skinned, but he knew that he could never be Brinsley’s peer. Besides being a poor relation, he was a good deal younger, fifteen years younger to be exact, which more or less relegated him to the status of a little brother. Plus, Brinsley had put Eugene through Iowa State. It had been generous of him, and Eugene appreciated his help, but because the money had been a gift, not a loan, it was something that sat between them, needing to be repaid in all the ways that didn’t involve money.

Since his visit today wasn’t a social one, Eugene bypassed the front door and went to the back of the house instead, pulling his hat down low to shade his eyes from the blades of light ricocheting off every surface. Except for the icy tinkling of twigs and the cawing of a few crows, it was quiet.

Standing on the back steps, he rang the doorbell and waited. When no one came to the door, he stamped his feet and tried again, this time counting to 100, but there was still no answer. Reflexively, he reached for the doorknob and gave it a twist, then stepped back in surprise when the door actually opened. This was unexpected, but not so unusual. After all, this was Dubuque, Iowa, not New York City, and lots of people felt comfortable leaving their doors unlocked. Still, he couldn’t imagine the Lauers doing that. They simply kept too much cash in the house. Just how much Eugene hadn’t realized until Brinsley opened the wall safe one evening when he happened to be there for dinner. Eugene had just had his old Dodge repaired and was moaning about how much it had cost him when Brinsley said, “Why sink any more money into that wreck of a car? Get a new one and then you can stay out of the shop.” The safe was hidden behind a painting in the library and had a combination lock that made it look pretty much like any gym locker. Eugene, who watched as Brinsley worked the lock (three twists of the knob in opposing directions), nearly gasped when the door was opened to reveal stack after stack of tightly compacted bills. “Here you go,” Brinsley had said, taking out a stack and peeling off several of the bills. “Three thousand ought to get you something decent.” Eugene had always known his cousin was well off, but until then he’d had no idea how really wealthy he was.

Nudging the back door open, Eugene stepped into the small “mudroom” which opened onto the kitchen. Florence,” he called, “are you home?” But then, realizing that the maid was more likely to be in this part of the house than Florence, he yelled out, “Ruby, it’s me, Eugene. Are you here?” He entered the kitchen cautiously and looked around. No one was there, but the room was a mess. Half-empty cups of coffee and a plate of cold pancakes littered the table, while an overturned bottle lay on the floor, oozing out maple syrup. Where was Ruby anyway? She wouldn’t have left a mess like this. And for that matter, where was Bijou, the poodle, that little yapper whose teeth were as sharp as knitting needles?

It was only then, wondering about Bijou, that Eugene heard a muffled sound coming from somewhere below him. It sounded like someone coughing, but then he realized that it must be Rex, their other dog, the big one, barking in the basement.

 

* * *

 

Only twenty-four hours earlier, Florence Lauer had been sitting at her dressing table, getting ready for a meeting of The Fortnightly. Feeling a little excited, as she always did on Fortnightly days, she happened to glance at all the pretty things laid out before her: the Limoges jars, the silver-backed hairbrush, the crystal atomizer. Thirty years ago, when she was still back on the farm, no one would have connected her with luxuries like this. Nor would anyone have guessed that someone like her, a girl as plain as pudding, would have ended up being the wife of anybody, much less a self-made industrialist like Brinsley, a man who spoke regularly with the governor and traveled all over the country on business.

Florence had been twenty-four—already an old maid—when she went to work for him. Sitting in his office with her stenographer’s pad on her stockinged knee, she noted the gleaming white of his shirt, the real silk of his tie, the confidence of his smile and thought: This is the one. This is the man for me. It was just a game she played with herself, though. She never believed that he’d actually marry her. And yet he had.

They’d been married for twenty years now, which was a long time, yet it didn’t seem all that long, probably because there were no children to remind them of the passing years. It was a small regret, but if truth were known she preferred things as they were, just the two of them, free to travel, to do whatever they liked. Besides, children were always so disappointing. You start them out right—they’re smart and adorable, always remembering to say “please” and “thank you”—but then they flunk out of college or turn into alcoholics or just plain go bad. She’d seen it happen with the children of friends. Her next-door neighbor, for instance, had a son who was in jail for writing bad checks. When talking with her, Florence was always careful never to mention his name or bring him up in any way.

Looking into the mirror, Florence powdered her face, then combed through her hair, which was short and permed like Mamie Eisenhower’s. The suit she was wearing was one of her favorites: such a lovely maroon color and so superbly made it would last for years. When she’d bought it, the tall young salesgirl had said, “Don’t wear a blouse with it. A string of pearls maybe, but that’s all.” The suggestion had seemed almost too daring, but today, for some reason, she felt like being daring.

Florence touched the pearls at her throat—real pearls, not cultured one, a gift from Brinsley—and stepped into a pair of suede pumps. The shoes pinched her toes a little, but Florence liked how thin they made her ankles look, as well as the clicking sound they made when she walked across hardwood floors. She twirled in front of the full-length mirror, nodded at her reflection—You’ll do, old girl—and grabbed her hat and purse.

Halfway down the steps, though, she paused at the sound of a man’s voice coming from the kitchen. The radio perhaps? Ruby didn’t turn it on very often, but she might have this morning. And being as hard of hearing as she was, it made sense that the volume would be turned way up. But then, quite clearly, Florence heard the words, “Come on, bitch, I haven’t got all day.”

Bitch: the word stopped Florence dead. No voice on the radio would have said that. But maybe Ruby’s good-for-nothing brother had stopped by to beg a ten or a twenty. Florence thought briefly about calling Brinsley at the office—there was a phone in the library, another in their bedroom—but her husband was a busy man. Besides, Ruby’s brother was always mealy-mouthed around her: Yes, Mrs. Lauer, I’ll just see myself out, Mrs. Lauer. Florence knew that as soon as he saw her, he’d leave.

But when she got to the kitchen she saw only Ruby, heaped on a stool in the corner, her face stark, tight to the point of trembling. She seemed incapable of speech, but then her eyes darted in the direction of the butler’s pantry, and Florence turned. That’s when she saw him: the boy with the knife. He was sliding out from behind the pantry door.

“Oh,” she said and dropped her hat and purse on the counter. Why hadn’t she called Brinsley? It would have been so easy. But, no, she’d been so sure of herself that she’d walked right past the phone in the library.

“Ruby,” she said, struggling against her fear, “I didn’t know you had company.”

Ruby was not a young woman, and her face, which was long and thin, looked almost skeletal. She gazed blankly at her mistress, eyes rolling in her head, and Florence had a sudden urge to reach out and slap her. Stupid cow! Didn’t she understand that they had to stay calm? He had a knife and they had nothing. Nothing at all.

“She don’t hear too good,” said the boy, stepping in front of Florence. He had on dungarees and thick-soled motorcycle boots. His pale hair was combed straight back and oiled in imitation of James Dean, the movie star who’d killed himself in a car crash a couple of years ago.

“You have to write ’er notes,” the boy added as though Ruby were someone Florence had never seen before. He gestured toward the table where a small pad of paper lay, the words “Lauer Bridge and Steel Co.” imprinted across the top. Florence flipped through a few of the pages, struggling to make out what was written there:

I’m not gone to hurt you

Just make me some cofee

Put big dog in basemint—little one can stay

Florence glanced at Ruby. Rex, their Chesapeake Bay retriever, was in the basement? Then they were even more alone than she’d thought.

“I used to collect garbage from the houses all up and down this street,” the boy said, “and this here house”—he waved approvingly at the walls—“was always my favorite.” He said it as if he were paying her a compliment.

“My name’s Frankie,” he continued, sucking in his gut so he could tuck the knife inside the band of his jeans. “And your name’s Florence, ain’t it?”

Florence cringed (how had he found out her name?) but she made herself look straight at him. “So, Frankie,” she said, resurrecting the crisp, efficient voice she’d used as Brinsley’s secretary, “what can I do for you? What is it you want?”

“What do I want?” he repeated, his eyes narrowing. “Well, Florence, that’s what I’d call a real interesting question.”

He started to circle her slowly, his head cocked, looking her over. She could stand this, she had to, but then his eyes stopped, falling somewhere between her pearls and the top button of her jacket, and she had to swallow hard to keep from being sick. She was willing to empty out the safe for him, to hand over her mink coat, even her pearls—but anything else, no, it was unthinkable . . . She stole a quick look at Ruby, forgotten in her corner. She looked relieved, almost smug. Now that the lady of the house was here, their intruder had forgotten all about the housemaid.

Frankie pushed his face into Florence’s and she saw that he was practically beardless, just a bit of down on his upper lip. On his chin, a bright red pimple glared, its head of pus ready to pop. “Well now, what you could do is make me some breakfast,” he said and retreated a couple of steps. “Some pancakes would suit me just fine.”

Florence was surprised but grateful. He was hungry, that was all. No crime in being hungry. But when she bent to get an apron out of a lower drawer, he whirled on her. “What the fuck?” he said, pulling out the knife again.

Shaken, Florence dangled the apron in front of him. It was a ludicrous situation: a knife on one side, an apron on the other.

Looking a little embarrassed, he put the knife away. What had he thought—that she going to reach into the drawer and pull out a weapon of her own? It was preposterous. . . . But then she remembered: There was a weapon! It was upstairs in Brinsley’s closet, a .22 rifle that he used for hunting pheasants. She could see it clearly, sheathed in its cloudy plastic case. It was there, waiting for her. All she had to do was get to it.

She dropped the apron over her head and tied it behind her, then turned to Ruby: “Get me the griddle, will you please?” But Ruby only looked at her blankly. “Griddle,” Florence repeated, this time more loudly. “For pancakes,” she added, pretending to flip one with an invisible spatula. But Frankie moved in quickly and knocked her arm down with a chop of his hand.

“No, not her”—he pointed backwards at Ruby with his thumb—“you. Just you.”

Florence nodded as a feeling of dread spread through her. Clearly, she had to do this on her own, without help from Ruby or anyone else. As she gathered the ingredients and started mixing them, she tried not to think, to focus only on what she was doing. But he was too present, too restless, bouncing on the balls of his feet, picking his teeth with a thumbnail, lighting one cigarette and then another. He was like a Geiger counter that wouldn’t stop clicking. But then Florence realized that it was the clock. It was the clock that was ticking, not him.

She poured puddles of batter onto the griddle while Frankie sat at the kitchen table dribbling ashes, his eyes never leaving her.

When the pancakes were ready, she piled them on a plate and brought them to him. It occurred to her then, as she went back and forth, fetching butter, then syrup, then milk, how perfectly he’d orchestrated this little scene: the lady of the house waiting on her garbage man. He was telling her that she needn’t think she was any better, he was just as good.

She watched him attentively, and when his cup was half empty, she topped it off with the efficiency of a Howard Johnson’s waitress, asking, “Is there anything else?”

He leaned over his plate, forking up big bites of the spongy pancakes and said, “My girl’s out in the car.”

“What?”

A little syrup dribbled from the corner of his mouth. “Joleen, my girl—she’s out in the car.”

Florence was stunned. He had someone with him? A girl? “Well, go and get her. She must be freezing out there.”

Suddenly, her heart was pounding. If he left, actually walked out of the house, she’d be able to do something. Lock the doors after him, call the police, maybe even retrieve the rifle from upstairs.

But he didn’t leave the house, only went to the back door and leaned out: “Hey, babe, get in here, will you?”

It was a test, Florence thought. God was testing her. She had been lucky in life, with more than her share of life’s riches, and that’s what had brought this punk to her door. It was the price she had to pay for being lucky. But this wasn’t the end. If she kept a clear head, they’d come through this, she and Ruby both.

After several long minutes, Joleen duck-walked in. She was small, practically a child, with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and there, balanced in front of her, a belly as big and hard as a beach ball. Splaying her feet to balance the load, she took small dainty steps as though she were walking on ice. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but there she was, pregnant!

Florence rushed over to her, reaching for one of her small pudgy hands. It was cold, as stiff as wood. “Here, sit down,” she said, leading the girl to a chair at the table. “I’ll get you some coffee.” But then, reaching for the pot, she encountered the boy’s eyes. There was a look in them she couldn’t quite read. Was he jealous of this solicitude? Or didn’t he want anybody else touching his girl?

Joleen, sitting at the table, shrugged off her coat and looked around with her mouth half open. Florence filled the girl’s cup and she muttered something, thank-you maybe, before blowing across it.

“What else?” asked Florence. “Eggs maybe, or pancakes?” But the girl only sat there, gazing down at her belly as if she’d only just noticed it.

“How about some toast anyway?” Florence asked. She wanted to feed the girl, or at least the baby inside her.

“Okay,” said Joleen listlessly, wiping her nose on the back of her hand, but by the time Florence had toasted the bread, the girl was asleep in her chair. Her snores, light and phlegmy, weren’t that much different from Bijou’s.

“Oh, she’s asleep,” said Florence, disappointed. She would have felt better and safer if Joleen had been awake. She was a distraction, her presence helped to dilute the tension.

Frankie came over and shook her by the shoulder. “Hey, babe, wake up,” he said, but she only batted his hands away.

“Poor thing,” said Florence, “but there’s a couch in the library. Why don’t you take her in there so she can stretch out.”

Frankie looked at her as if she’d said something in French.

“In the library,” Florence repeated. “It’s through the dining room and then to your left. You’ll see it.” She wanted him out of her kitchen if only for a minute, then perhaps she’d be able to think.

But Frankie wasn’t going to let that happen. “Show me,” he said, motioning to her to help him lift Joleen out of the chair.

Florence, thwarted again—would she never be able to get away from hooligan?—took one of the girl’s arms while Frankie took the other. As they steered her toward the library, Florence looked down at her arm which was hardly bigger around than Florence’s wrist. What was she, a seventh- or eighth-grader? Easy prey for somebody like Frankie. But how exactly had it happened? Didn’t she have parents to look out for her, a mother to make her stay at home? But perhaps she didn’t. Perhaps she was one of those unfortunate kids who’d been put into foster care or dumped in an orphanage.

In the library, the two of them lowered Joleen onto the leather sofa so that she lay on her side. Still half-asleep, she inserted a thumb in her mouth and pulled her knees up as far as her swollen belly would allow. Florence took the lap robe from the end of the sofa and draped it over the mother-to-be, while Frankie gazed down at her.

Florence, surprised by the wistful, even reverent look on his face, saw an opportunity. “So, what do you think it will be?” she asked in as conversational a tone as she could manage. “A girl or a boy?”

Frankie shrugged his shoulders. “A boy, I guess,” he said, his voice almost devoid of belligerence.

“And what will you name him? Frankie maybe?”

The boy looked at her as if he hadn’t thought about this, as if he was considering the matter for the first time. “Sure, why not? It’s a nice name,” he said, sounding a little defensive.

“It is a nice name,” said Florence quickly, reminded momentarily of Eugene, who was so easily offended you hardly knew what to say to him.

“As a matter of fact, one of my brothers was named Frankie,” she added. “He died in the war, though. In the Pacific.” This was not true. She had no brother named Frankie, no brother who was dead, but she sensed that she had his attention.

“You come from a big family?” he asked.

“Yes. Six boys and then me, the only girl.”

“I ’spose you was rich.”  

“No, not at all,” she said, eager to correct him. “There were so many of us and then of course there was the Depression.” She paused for a moment. “You’re too young to remember, of course,” she went on, aware that she was beginning to babble, “but farm prices hit rock bottom back then. Eggs were a dime a dozen, if you can imagine, and oats just eleven cents a bushel. You couldn’t possibly live on—”

“We was poor too,” Frankie broke in “No indoor plumbing. Just an outhouse.”

Florence nodded. She knew about outhouses.  “It was tough, wasn’t it?” she said, watching him closely. “Always going without, afraid to ask for the littlest thing.”

Florence wasn’t sure, but she thought she sensed something in him, shame, she supposed, because she’d felt it too. She remembered how much the girls who lived in town enjoyed making fun of her clothes, which were hand-me-downs for the most part, or her hair, which her mother cut at home, chin length with straight-across bangs. “Buster Brown,” that was what they’d called her, because her mother’s bowl cut made her look just like the boy in the advertisements for shoes. Until she moved to the city, she’d never even been inside a beauty shop. That was how backward she’d been. Girls like her had it rough, but it was even worse for her brothers. She knew that from watching them limp home from school with their cut lips and torn pants.

Frankie looked at her suspiciously. “I ain’t no charity case,” he said, and she quickly backpedaled.

“You probably weren’t as poor as we were,” she said. “I just remember how it felt, always having to wear the dresses my cousin Gloria had outgrown. And it was such a small town, everybody knew those dresses. They’d seen them before on her.”

Frankie seemed to relax a little. “My old man had a bad heart and couldn’t work much,” he said. “If us kids wanted money, we had to hire ourselves out or collect bottles. That’s why I quit school, so I could be a garbage man.”

Florence nodded. Now she was getting some place. “Life can be pretty unfair sometimes,” she said.

Frankie gave her a piercing look. “Hasn’t been unfair to you,” he said with a bit of a sneer.

“Well, things can change,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound too much like Mary Poppins. “When you’re as young as you are anything can happen.”

Frankie was moving around the room in jerks now. He picked up a paperweight and then a cloisonné box, looked at each for a moment, then set them down again

“I’m living proof of how different things can be,” Florence went on a little desperately. “One day you don’t have enough money for a movie and the next—”

But Frankie wasn’t listening. “What’s this thing?” he asked, pointing to a heavy bronze piece in the shape of an Old Testament oil lamp.

“Oh, that’s a lighter,” she said. Then, seeing the blank look on his face, she added, “It’s designed to look like a lamp of learning, but it’s really a lighter.”

“What, for cigarettes?”

“For cigarettes, pipes, whatever.” She had given the lighter to Brinsley on their last anniversary.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said, reaching for his pack of cigarettes and pulling one out with his teeth. He picked up the lighter and held it in one hand while trying to coax a spark with the other, but he couldn’t get it to work.

“No, it’s too heavy to do it that way,” she said. “Sit down over here and I’ll show you,” she added, motioning him toward a big leather recliner, the only really comfortable piece of furniture in the room. “Now put the lighter on the table and lean down to it.”

He gave her a skeptical look but did as she instructed, managing this time to produce a steady blue flame. It was bizarre, seeing this smart-ass kid sitting in her husband’s chair, lighting a cigarette the same way Brinsley lit his after-dinner cigar.

Frankie, inhaling deeply, propped his motorcycle boots on the coffee table and leaned back in the chair, claiming it the same way he had the lighter. Quite clearly he was enjoying himself.

This was it, thought Florence—the moment she’d been waiting for. If she didn’t act now, she might never have another chance. “Frankie,” she said, turning to him, “you wouldn’t mind if I ran upstairs and changed shoes, would you?” She pointed to her three-inch-high pumps and added as casually as she could, “These heels are killing me.”

Frankie looked at her, suspicion clouding his face. “Take ’em off down here,” he said.

She risked a small laugh, which sounded almost natural. “And walk around in my stocking feet? No, thank you.”

He gave her a slow up-and-down look, detached but still leering. She wasn’t a person. She was a—she didn’t know what—a victim, a thing. Outside, the rain seemed to be turning to sleet. She could hear the icy pellets striking the windows like nails.

“Okay, go on,” he finally said, waving her away. “But get your ass back down here pronto. You don’t want me comin’ up there after you.”

She nodded and made for the stairway, Bijou scampering along beside her. Slow down, she told herself. Think!

There was a telephone in the bedroom, right by their bed. She could call the police—But the number: what was the number? Why hadn’t she memorized it? Everyone knew there would come a time when you needed to know that number. But she could still call Brinsley. He could contact them for her.

She glanced at the grandfather clock on the landing: one o’clock. Would he be at lunch? She didn’t know. Perspiration filmed her upper lip and she licked it away. Just one phone call and this ordeal would be over, but she had to be stealthy. She walked into the bedroom, closing the door behind her, and plucked the receiver from its cradle. She had already started to dial Brinsley’s number when she realized there was no dial tone, nothing, no sound at all. What a joke: She had to teach him how to use a cigarette lighter, but he knew how to cut a telephone line.

But there was still time for Plan B, she’d just have to be quick. She kicked off her shoes so he wouldn’t hear her footsteps through the floor, then hurried to Brinsley’s walk-in closet. Her husband was an orderly man, so she didn’t have to thrash about looking, the rifle was right there in front of her, enveloped in its plastic case.

She picked it up—it was heavy, much heavier than she thought it would be—then fumbled for the start of the zipper. She was acutely conscious of the minutes elapsing. Her hands shook, she couldn’t control them—What if he did come looking for her?—but then her fingers found the little tab—Yes, there—and with trembling hands she unzipped the case. Now she too was armed. But was it loaded? No, of course not, Brinsley would never keep a loaded gun in the house.

She stood the rifle up with the stock between her feet while she rummaged the shelf above her. Who could tell where he kept his ammunition? It might be in a dresser drawer for all she knew. Or perhaps there wasn’t any. But, no, there had to be. Standing on tiptoe, she started to sweep the shelf above her with the flat of her hand. Sweaters tumbled down, shirts from the laundry with their thin paper bands, some rolls of film, but—there!—at the back of the shelf she felt something hard, a small dense box. Reaching with her fingernails, she tried to ease the box off the shelf, but it crashed to the floor and broke open, causing the shells to roll in every direction. She was down on her knees grabbing for them when the door flew open. It was Frankie. The knife was in his hand.

“Why, you little bitch,” he said as Bijou ran around him in circles barking. He started for her, kicking Bijou out of the way, but Florence sprang from the floor. She braced the .22 against her shoulder, released the safety and sighted the rifle on him. Growing up on the farm, her father had taught her to shoot. She and her brothers had practiced on rats.

For a moment, Frankie hesitated—he must think it was loaded—but then, slowly, insultingly, he took a step toward her. “C’mon, Florence, put it down,” he said, his voice syrupy and clotted. “I know you don’t want to hurt nobody, but if you keep this up you just might.” He took another step toward her.

“No,” she shouted. “No closer.” She tightened her grip on the rifle and looked straight at him. “Now get out of her,” she said. “Get out of my house and never come back.” Her voice had the commanding ring of Brinsley’s.

But he was on to her. “Gimme the gun,” he said, leaping forward and wrenching the rifle out of her hands. She stumbled backwards, hands scrabbling for the wall behind her. He broke open the rifle, saw the empty chambers and spat out a laugh. “Ha. I knew it was empty.” Bijou, running in tight circles around his feet, nipped at his calves.

“Fucking dog,” he said and brought the butt end of the rifle down on her head with a crack. The little dog—its eyes dark and puzzled—looked up at Florence, then folded into a heap on the floor. For a moment, Florence couldn’t breathe. He had killed their puppy, she’d seen it happen but it was too much to take in. Florence squeezed her eyes shut, knowing that she was going to die, that it was over for her. She knew he was approaching her, she could feel his closeness, sense the rifle in his hands—but it no longer mattered. She was done trying. Death would be a release. She waited, ready, alone in her private darkness, but there was no rifle, no knife, no blow of any kind, only the sound of his breathing obscenely close. She opened her eyes and saw him standing in front of her.  

“You double-crossed me, Florence,” he said quietly, ominously, spacing out the words. “Here, I thought you was so nice, fixin’ me pancakes and bein’ so polite. But the whole time, you was just foolin’ with me.”

Florence shook her head frantically.

For a moment his face hung over her, a mixture of rage and confusion. “Why’d you have to go and ruin things, Florence?” he bleated. “I would have let you go. You should’ve known that. But, no. You had to go against me just like everybody else.”

And that’s when she saw it: the glimmering edge of the knife. It was poised above her, ready to plunge.

 

* * *

 

When the police came, they found Florence’s body alongside Ruby’s in the master bedroom. Both women had been stabbed multiple times in the neck and chest, Ruby so viciously that her head was practically severed from her neck. Brinsley’s body was discovered just inside the front door, where the police surmised that he must have encountered the killer as he came home from work. There had been a struggle, that much was clear—the floor was scuff-marked, the walls dented, a plant knocked over—but in the end he’d been shot, once in the leg and once in the chest

As for the teenaged assailants, they’d made it all the way to Colorado in the Lauers’ black Packard, leaving a string of dead bodies in their wake. When Eugene read about their capture in the paper, he was relieved, almost giddy. For a while, he considered relocating, but then he married a girl from Dubuque and they started a family. Only a couple of years after that, he had a house built for them on a bluff overlooking the river. He knew what people said about that house (it’s so big, just who does he think he is) but Eugene didn’t care. He was president of Lauer Bridge and Steel now. He sat in the president’s office with its mahogany-lined walls.

But Eugene wasn’t the same man he’d been. He was nervous for one thing, always getting up to check the doors and windows, yelling at his wife if she left the house without closing the garage door, once almost shooting their teenaged son when he crept into the house after a night of too much drinking. And his dreams, when he did manage to sleep. were full of blood. People told him he was lucky—he’d escaped death, hadn’t he?—but his “luck” had been in knowing Brinsley’s birthdate. That, and a small town police force who never wondered where the rifle had gone. Eugene deserved to be where he was—on a hill, in a wood-paneled office—but he had to be careful. At first that had seemed like a small enough price—foregoing alcohol, never sleeping in the same room as his wife—but little by little the knowledge of what he had done assumed an almost palpable size and shape, until finally it felt as if an elephant were sitting on his chest. People who didn’t know better could call that luck if they wanted to, but it wasn’t. It was a curse.

– The End –

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