This story by Christy Brown is a runner-up in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Christy Brown is a New Jersey native who now resides near the South East Coast of Florida with her husband, Chris. Though her days are spent managing learning and development projects, Christy is working toward a second career as a fiction writer. “Betrayed” is her first published story.
Ester sat the woven laundry basket on the faded rosebud comforter then dropped down next to it, breathless. As her years advanced, even little things took their toll. Her husband, Henry, volunteered to put the clothes away when he returned from the grocery store, which didn’t set well with Ester. She was old, not an invalid.
The two met when Henry rolled up to the soda shop in his 1955 Ford Thunderbird where Ester was waiting for friends to arrive. He leaned against the picture window of Pop’s and asked her name. Though Ester thought he was handsome, she acted unimpressed and told him if he wanted an answer, he had to come back the next day. Sure enough, he returned, and Ester and Henry have been together ever since.
Ignoring Henry’s request, Ester piled his socks and underwear in the top drawer of the oak dresser they purchased fifty-six years earlier. As she closed the drawer, a battered, blue shoe box peeked out from a stack of Henry’s cotton undershirts. With aroused curiosity, Ester slid the container from the dresser, laid it on the bed then hesitated. Christmas was a month away. Perhaps this was the reason for Henry’s sudden interest in the laundry.
A quick glimpse couldn’t hurt. If it looked like a present, Ester would return the box to Henry’s hiding spot and act surprised Christmas morning.
Removing the lid, she found at least a hundred envelopes, wedged from end to end. Some as white as the snow falling outside her window, others were various shades of yellowed. Ester tugged the one closest to her free and found Henry’s name and address written by hand. On further examination, she discovered there was no return address and a postmark from six months earlier.
Ester’s stomach churned. She considered returning the box and pretending she had never stumbled across Henry’s secret stash. But the thought quickly dissolved, and she carried the box down the creaking steps, across their cozy living room to the olive tweed couch beside the raging fire Henry started before he left.
With trembling hands, she placed the box on the coffee table and opened the letter she removed. The first words she read were, My Dearest Henry. Ester’s heart pounded as she scanned the page which spewed the intimate details of a long romance and ended with, Love Kit Kat.
Ester’s lips quivered, and her arms fell limp. She gazed at the scuffed hardwood floor where her two children took their first steps, the wooden staircase where her radiant daughter posed in her ivory wedding gown, and the front door where she greeted two Marine Officers who delivered news of her son’s sacrifice to his country.
Convinced her whole life had been a lie, Ester dropped her face into her palms and wept.
“Mom,” her daughter Emily called from the kitchen.
Ester wiped her eyes on the back of her thin-skinned hands. She was tempted to shield Emily from the devastating truth, but she never lied to her daughter. At seventy-eight years old, she wasn’t about to start.
Emily entered the living room, and her joyful expression faded. “What’s wrong?” she asked then took a seat beside her mother.
Overcome with sobs, Ester handed her daughter the letter. Emily read through each word then turned to her mom.
“He’s having an affair,” Ester cried.
Emily placed the letter on the couch and laid her hand on her mother’s. “We should talk to Dad when he gets home.”
Ester searched her daughters face for signs of outrage, but there was none. “You knew?”
“Mom, please,” Emily said as she reached for her mother.
Ester scrambled to her feet, clutching her chest and let out a primal screech. Her body quaked as she gripped the cast iron poker from the edge of the brick fireplace and waved it at Emily. “Get out of my house!”
Keeping her eyes peeled on her mother, Emily staggered back. “You don’t understand.”
A frigid wind whipped through the living room as Henry strolled through the door. “Is that my Emily’s car out front.” He stopped and took in the scene. “Ester, honey, what happened?”
Ester jabbed the poker in his direction. “Don’t honey me!” She snatched the letter from the couch and crumbled it in her fist. “I know all about your little tart!” She scoffed. “Kit Kat? Really, Henry. What kind of name is that?”
Henry laid the bags on the floor and inched toward his wife. “I can explain. Just put the poker down.”
“No,” she screamed as she held the letter over the open fire.
Henry’s eye glistened. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t do this.”
The pain in her husband’s eyes fueled Ester’s fury. How could letters from some filthy harlot mean so much to him? Ester fed handful after handful to the flames until all that remained of Henry’s cherished love letters were the smoldering embers drifting through the living room.
“Mom! Stop it!” Emily wailed, taking a step towards her mother.
Fuzzy thoughts swam through Ester’s mind. She had no idea why she was holding the poker or how it came to be in her hand. Without warning, reality collided with Ester’s brain, and the cast iron slipped from her grasp, clanking against the hardwood floor. She had been betrayed, but not by her husband or daughter. By an insidious disease which turned her mind into a battlefield between the world she remembered and the one she often forgot.
Ester collapsed onto the couch, surveying the damage she had done. Her fingers shook as she brought them to her lips. “Henry,” she called in a meek voice.
Henry gathered Ester in his arms, his gaze trained on the fire that devoured more than five decades of memories captured by his wife. “It’s okay, Kit Kat. It’s okay.” He peered over his shoulder at his daughter. “You should go.”
“Dad,” Emily croaked. Unable to speak, she clasped her hands in front of her mouth as if in prayer.
Henry squeezed his eyes shut as Ester buried her face in his chest. “Please, she just . . . having a bad day. I shouldn’t have left her.”
Emily scampered out the door, and a wave of relief flooded over Ester. She loved her Emily, but couldn’t bear the pity Ester was sure shone in her daughter’s eyes.
Henry held his wife, rocking her, soothing her anguish until her sobs subsided and her breathing evened.
Ester straightened and stared into the amber flames. She had done something terrible. She could feel it in her bones. But whatever happened was like a word lingering on her tongue her voice was unable to grasp. No longer able trust her own mind, Ester was terrified.
“Ester?” Henry inquired.
She smiled at her husband and patted his thigh. “The laundry isn’t going to put itself away.”
Henry extended his hand, helping Ester to her feet then tucked a rebellious gray strand, which escaped from her bun, behind her ear. “You did the laundry for the first fifty-six years, let me take care of the next.”
Icy fingers ran down Ester’s spine as she took hold of an empty box on the coffee table. “What’s this?”
Henry gave his wife a strained smile. “You know better than to ask questions this close to Christmas.”
Ester nodded but couldn’t shake the feeling the box was important.
With his hand planted on the small of his wife’s back, Henry led her up the stairs. “You look tired. Maybe you should lie down for a while.”
On the landing, a winded Ester perched her hand on her hip. “I’m not a child, Henry!” But her protest was followed by a yawn. “Fine,” she said as she pressed past him. “But just a short nap.”
Henry drew the faded rosebud comforter back and gently helped Ester into bed. “Sweet dreams my lovely bride.”
With flushed cheeks, Ester shooed him away. “I think you need your eyes checked.”
Henry laughed then kissed her forehead. “You’re still as beautiful as the day I saw you outside the soda shop, nibbling on that Kit Kat.”
Ester studied the deep crevices carved into her husband’s face. For each line, gray hair, and body ache told a part of their story. And though they never spoke the words out loud, Ester knew it was a story she would soon forget.
Ester yanked the comforter up to her neck. “Will you wake me when Emily gets here?”
Henry gave her a sad smile then nodded. “Get some sleep Kit Kat.”
Ester frowned. “Henry.”
“Who’s Kit Kat?”