By Judith Quaempts
read by Amy Tapia
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She slams her book shut at the sound of his car. Oh God, dinner should have been in the oven an hour ago. Hugging the book to her chest, Margaret hurries into the kitchen and drops it into a drawer filled with dishtowels then opens the refrigerator and removes the casserole she made that morning. Sliding it into the oven, she sets the temperature fifty degrees higher than necessary to make up for the time she lost between the pages of her book. Ted was a stickler about mealtimes.
Upon a bright blue, freshly ironed tablecloth, she sets dinner plates and salad bowls, aligning each with care. Silverware is sprouting from her hands when he comes through the kitchen door.
“Hi, honey,” she says with a smile. “I didn’t hear your car. How’d it go, did they like your presentation?”
“Why is the light on in my study?” His voice, whisper soft, carries a familiar edge.
Tendrils of fear snake through her belly. Margaret has no idea what her husband means, but the look in his eyes spells pain.
“What light? What are you talking about, Ted?” She hates the tremor in her voice.
“The goddamm light in my den, that’s what I’m talking about. I noticed it when I pulled in. What were you doing up there?”
His accusation hangs in the air, a noose with her name on it.
Stay calm, she tells herself. Stay calm.
“Ted, honey, I haven’t been in your study. You probably forgot to turn off the light when you left this morning, that’s all.”
His eyes have a feral glow. She knows her stuttered denial only fuels his suspicion. Margaret wants him to stop looking at her like that. She wants the laughing, tender-eyed man she married two years ago. She wants …Oh God…she wants to feel safe again.
Helpless beneath that gaze, she turns back to the table, begins placing silverware beside each plate.
“Don’t turn away from me!”
Three weeks, she thinks, her knees turning to jelly. It’s only been three weeks.
“You think I’m stupid, is that it?”
Suddenly, he’s upon her, his hands digging into her arms, spinning her around so that she must face him.
“You think I don’t know what you’re up to when I’m not around, how you rummage through my things, how you sleep with every man you see?”
For a paralyzing moment, his upraised fist seems suspended in the air. Then, there is only a star shot darkness and she is lying on the floor.
Hold on, she thinks, curling in on herself like a dry leaf. Hold on.
“Answer me, you dumb bitch. Do you think I’m stupid?”
His fingers tangle in her hair, forcing her head up. Blood spills from her mouth, leaving a bright crimson comma on the pristine tile floor.
“Christ. What a mess. Nobody in his right mind would want you. Certainly not me.”
He spits into her captive face before dropping her head and walking away.
Margaret lays unmoving as his footsteps cross the floor. Barely breathing, she counts each step as he climbs the stairs. Only when she hears his study door close, the lock click into place, does she struggle upright and stumble into the bathroom.
I’m okay, she reassures herself, undressing with shaking fingers. I’m okay.
Climbing into the tub, she opens the taps and sits with her forehead pressed to her knees while steam rises around her. She’s safe now. Ted will spend the night in his study. He won’t leave it until she’s in bed. He’ll eat his dinner cold and leave a mess for her to clean up.
Tomorrow evening, he’ll come home with fresh flowers. He’ll arrange them in the cut glass vase he bought her after another of his “moods.” He will be tender and sweet, pouring her a glass of wine, telling her to sit while he sets the table. Ted never apologizes. His eyes won’t see the darkening bruise on her face, or the purple marks on her arms. In Ted’s mind, it never happens. That’s how Ted’s mind works.
What will he do, she wonders, when he realizes I’m gone?
Closing her eyes, Margaret relaxes into the water’s warm embrace, letting a new feeling take hold inside her.
She calls it hope.
By Michael Fourman
read by Amy Tapia
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First impressions are big. When I first met Max he seemed compassionate, different from my previous employers. I was wrong.
“I have a little kid,” I explained, desperation forcing my voice louder than I wanted.
My play at sympathy was met with a cold stare from an unyielding granite face. “You can finish your shift, Maggie. I’m sorry.” Sorry didn’t cut it. I’d never been let go from a job before, for any reason. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. My stomach felt like it’d been kicked with one of Max’s size eleven steel-toed boots. Being a single parent was hard enough, but being jobless, too, made life nearly impossible.
In the following months I scoured the town, looking for anything that would pay a wage, but was met each time with the same sympathetic smile and apology. The economy made jobs scarce, and, with just a high school diploma, I wasn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s hiring list. As my labored search became more frantic, I had to make tough choices. The car payment and credit cards were no longer priorities, but I kept food on the table and a roof over our heads. Mac-n-cheese served as supper most nights, and I barely had enough money left to keep the utilities on. I worried but never cried. I was scared but stayed strong. When unemployment benefits ran out, my frantic search became a predatory hunt for something, anything, that would earn me a paycheck. Finally I caught a break. It wasn’t my ideal job, but it beat the alternative.
My friend, Pete, warned me, “Are you sure about this? I mean, I know that area of town. It’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous? It’s not like I’m catching king crab on the Bering Sea. I’ll be fine.” My light-hearted response placated Pete but did nothing to ease my nerves. I’d buried concerns for my own physical safety under the hopes of financial security.
So I focused on my new job, starting with my wardrobe. With the last of our money, I bought several skirts and a nice pair of heels. It felt good to dress up and not go to work looking like a grease monkey in Max’s shop. Stress had consumed me with doubt, but the nice clothes strengthened my confidence.
As I prepared for my first day on the job, I battled fear for control of my body. It took over an hour to fumble through my make-up, and then I fussed with my hair for another hour. First impressions are big, and, after a finicky couple of hours, I was finally ready to impress.
Our final box of Mac-n-cheese became our dinner, and, without milk, the sauce would once again be watery. Bobby’s mouth drooped with disappointment, “Mac-n-cheese again?” It ripped my heart to see him disappointed; I prayed my new job would make a better life for us. It had to.
“I have to go — wouldn’t want to be late on my first day,” I announced. “Bobby, be good, for Pete’s sake.” Pete’s frown and obvious disapproval flattened my attempt at humor.
Bobby flashed me a gapped-tooth grin, “You look like Cinderella, Mommy.” Although my life felt like anything but a fairytale, it was moments like those that kept me going.
The foreign sound of my clicking heels on the sidewalk brought back memories of Sunday church services, but they were quickly shoved aside by Pete’s warning replaying in my mind. Walking through this part of town was unnerving. But at least I wasn’t on the Bering Sea. My pace slowed as I reached the entrance to the Venture Building, but my heart continued to beat frantically. Trash overflowed the lone receptacle used to collect greasy fast food bags and discarded newspapers. A nearby traffic signal clicked through the go, caution, stop routine several times. Oh good, “Jesus Saves”, according to the balloon font graffiti defacing an adjacent parking garage. Anchored to the sidewalk, I stood, palms sweating, contemplating how to make the most of my first impression. Would I be witty or keep it professional? My mental conversation was interrupted by a dark sedan creeping along the curb.
The tinted car window descended, and a well-dressed man leaned over like he was lost and needed directions. “How much?” he asked.
He seemed nice. “Fifty,” I nervously replied, climbing in. After all, first impressions are big.