This story is by Kitty Bartell and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Erin knew she had made a mistake about ten minutes after she said yes. She and her husband David had been down this road before, and they both knew it would be in her nature to forgive and try to forget, again. Ann had surprised them with a knock on their front door. Dressed in khakis, a white, button-down shirt, and bleached Keds, with her mop of crazy grey/white curly hair, she had obviously come directly from a Saturday shift at her church’s thrift store; and her presence on their doorstep made Erin take a step back. They hadn’t seen or spoken to David’s mother for eight months despite living only a few miles apart; her in a posh retirement community about fifteen miles inland, and Erin and David on a barrier island off the coast.
“I hope this isn’t a bad time,” Ann said with a disingenuous smile as she stepped into the small foyer. A knot formed in Erin’s stomach about the size of the fist she anticipated would be striking with whatever emotional blow was about to be delivered. “I want to move past all this,” Ann announced in her clipped, icy tone.
Move past all this!? You mean months of silence preceded by many more months of thoughtless behavior? Eight months earlier Erin had needed a little me-time to deal with a recent health scare and had declined an invitation to meet Ann for lunch. Ann got angry. Granted, Erin had been focusing all her attention on Ann, helping her get through the year following her husband’s death, and had become accustomed to the undivided attention. Never described as easy-going, Ann was a master-complainer; satisfied with nothing. Family lore told of tantrums and thoughts of little more than herself from childhood onward, and following Ned’s death, her demeanor only soured further. “How dare you abandon me when I need you?” she accused. An over-reaction to be sure, but not surprising.
In their 25-year marriage, David and Erin knew this was Ann’s way whenever she didn’t get what she wanted. First, she vented with all manner of cruelty, then cut whoever she was angry with out of her life, and sometimes her will; acting shocked and surprised when they weren’t exactly motivated to jump back into the relationship once she cooled down. It had been months, but Ann was back, asking Erin and David to jump, again.
Why is she in our home? Erin thought. Why couldn’t she just “reach out” like she always did, with a passive-aggressive email. At least I can hit DELETE before her poison seeps too deeply into my soul. The past eight months had been so peaceful, but here she was, doing it again. And again, Erin had said yes, I can forgive, and at least try to forget.
Once she got what she came for, Ann turned on her Keds and headed out the door. As her tail lights turned the corner Erin looked at David with tears puddling in her eyes. “Did we just agree to stay with her?”
“I think we did,” David said, sounding defeated, sounding beaten.
Ann had heard through the family grapevine that the couple had put their home on the market. It had sold much quicker than anticipated, leaving them with a few months between when they would need to move out of 14 Magnolia Lane, and when construction on their new home would be completed. Ann had come with an offer for the couple to move into her spare bedroom in her home during the gap. A generous offer; one Erin only agreed to for David’s sake. Not one for confrontation, particularly with is mother, Erin knew it was up to her to either accept the peace offering, or make things worse for David. However, once accepted, Erin had the feeling she was sinking into a dangerously, deep hole, from which she may never emerge.
The reconciliation started out well. David and Erin moved a couple car loads of their belongings into the luxurious spare bedroom. “Make yourselves comfortable,” Ann said. “This is now your home too” Those words would come back to haunt them in just a few short weeks. Weeks over which Erin would find her computer printer destroyed by a random piece of metal jammed into its gears. Weeks when she found thing that were important to her damaged or destroyed, like her treasured kitchen knife; found mysteriously mangled in the kitchen drawer. In the meantime, however, the king size bed with its mountain of pillows and sumptuous quilts made them feel quite welcome, and for a moment, Erin thought, this just may be okay.
It wasn’t long before Erin started questioning Ann’s motives for inviting them to stay. Whenever David was at work and the two women were alone in the house, Ann was strangely inquisitive. Questions about David’s health, about the couple’s finances, about their personal routines. Ann talked about David’s girlfriends from before he and Erin were married. She made peculiar comments about David. “You do know that David has always needed a lot of physical attention, don’t you?” When David hugged or kissed Erin in Ann’s presence, she asked, “Where’s my kiss, David?” When they would watch TV in the evenings, Ann would flirtatiously deliver candies to David, and only David. Erin thought it was all a bit bizarre, but tried not to make too much out of it.
As long as Erin had known her, Ann had made it clear that she did not like cooking. When alone, her diet consisted of boiled hot dogs with white bread buns, mini containers of cottage cheese and diced fruit in syrup, cookies, cakes, and pies from the grocery’s bakery, and Diet Coke. On the other hand, Erin loved to cook, and Ann claimed to love everything she made. It appeared this was going to be a nice way of contributing to their new living arrangement. Erin cooking with fresh meats, seafood, vegetables, and fruits, olive oil, herbs, and spices; and at first, Ann acted thrilled to have a cook in the house. The one daily dispute between Ann and her new housemates was about dessert, something Erin and David rarely ate because of David’s Type I diabetes. “You have to eat something for dessert. You can’t make me eat alone,” she would demand.
Ann began analyzing nearly every move that Erin made, which resulted in Erin actively avoiding her. “Oh, you’re wearing your sexy shoes today?” “Is that a new blouse?” “Why do you have to work so much?” “Why don’t you take time to eat breakfast with me?” Erin set her alarm extra early so she could shower, dress, and leave the house before Ann’s usual 7am shuffle to the kitchen for her first cup of coffee. If she dawdled, Erin knew that Ann would be angry when she had to leave for work. Most afternoons, Erin invented errands and delays so that she would never arrive home any sooner than was necessary to make that evening’s meal. Once she did slip into the kitchen, Ann would perch herself on a stool on the opposite side of the huge kitchen island, questioning every ingredient, technique, and decision; putting Erin permanently on the defensive.
The minute David would walk through the door at the end of his work day, Ann’s disposition made a complete reversal; all hugs and happiness for the rest of the evening. Erin knew David was having difficulty believing the stories she was telling him about his mother, even knowing her history; but he comforted Erin and tried to stop her tears as they lay in bed before sleep brought welcome peace. The rising tension in the house was affecting David more than anyone realized, and as his mother’s jealously and selfishness grew, along with his wife’s misery, so did a small pain in his chest. A pain that didn’t remain small for long.
Three months after they moved into Ann’s house, David and Erin realized they needed to move out as soon as was possible. The doctor had said David’s stress level was so high it was impacting his heart. By now Erin was the sole target of Ann’s cruel hostility. She no longer tried hiding her hatred for Erin, or her desire to put David in situations where he would have to choose between his mother’s needs or his wife’s. The couple had confided their situation to a few friends who were now pleading for them to get out. Erin even allowed herself to have the passing thought that the brutal situation in which they were so deeply buried might be more than just emotionally dangerous.
The couple secured an apartment and would be able to move in two weeks. They rented a box at the local mail and shipping store; arranging to have their mail forwarded. The weekend before their scheduled departure, David and Erin happily agreed to dog sit for friends at their home out on the island, despite Ann’s angry protests, “Why do you both need to go? Can’t David stay with me and Erin can take care of the dog?” They packed a small bag, and planned to enjoy the peace of being on their own for a couple of days. They would tell Ann of their plans when they returned on Sunday evening, and move out the following Saturday, they foolishly hoped with little drama.
Despite their island getaway, David’s chest pains took him to the emergency room on Saturday afternoon, where he was informed that if he didn’t find a way to decompress, the next time it could be much worse, if not fatal. The immediate crisis averted, they knew they had to lay out a plan to help David make it through the coming week. Erin would return to Ann’s early Sunday evening and explain why David needed a stress-free environment when he arrived home. David would drive out an hour later so that he could avoid Ann’s predictably unsympathetic initial reaction. As planned, Erin arrived at Ann’s home first, and ten minutes into the conversation she sent David a text message, “Do not come here! Park and wait to hear from me.”
Ann went crazy. Denying that anything about living in her home could possibly be stressful, she accused Erin of being a terrible wife, and that if she would give David more of what he needed he wouldn’t be so stressed. Ann demanded that Erin get out of her house immediately, “If you don’t like the way it is here, then leave now,” she hissed. For a moment, Erin considered that Ann was throwing only her out; planning to keep David for herself. After attempting reason, Erin knew she had to leave, but didn’t want to go without some of their belongings; fearing they may never see them again. Ann took Erin by the shoulders and began shaking her, “You’re hurting my son! Get out!” With Erin blindly throwing things in suitcases and boxes, and dragging computer equipment out the front door, Ann raged on; at one point grabbing part of David’s computer and playing tug-of-war until Erin ripped it from her grip. Erin was nearly as crazed as Ann at this point. She was not leaving without some of their things. It was Ann who slammed and locked the door, ending the debate.
In the two years of silence since that Sunday, between David and Erin and her mother-in-law, Ann has been like a haunting specter, shaking Erin’s confidence and security. For she knows that one day there will be a knock, or an email, or a call, asking her to jump.