This story is by Linnea Brigid Douglas Ayers Houskeeper and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from…” Margaret Atwood
“Linnea! You clueless fucking cunt! You took everything from me. I will fucking kill you where you stand, bitch!”
I roll over on the soft maroon carpet lining the walk-in closet, or as I now think of it, my Safe Place. Missy, slightly purring, lifts her head in the crook of my arm, looks at me, and lays her head on my shoulder. I feel her purring louder.
I have my laptop, cat, iPhone, Xanax, favorite Barbies, and cigarettes.
I also have my customized wolf-design Zippo, a contentious birthday gift from my father when I turned 18. Mom thought that Dad’s buying me a lighter was encouraging me to smoke.
What else does a woman need?
Anything precious to me is in this room or my two other locked rooms; I wear the keys around my neck all the time.
“You fucking retard! Do I have to smash your fucking teeth in?”
Not my teeth, please. I had sinus surgery about five years ago, don’t you remember? I know you do because you reminded me how much money it cost you to take off work. $476. Please, don’t smash my teeth or my nose. Break a rib or two instead.
Missy startles and I wince when he bangs his ceiling, my floor, with a baseball bat.
“Shut off the fucking TV, stupid bitch.”
The TV isn’t on. I don’t even have a TV in this room. There is no CIA agent following him either, but that doesn’t stop him from believing in that reality.
I spring up, thoroughly disturbing Missy, and check the door. Still locked. I feel for the keys around my neck. What if I have to pee? I crumble to the floor; I am so fucking tired.
I crawl back into the closet and curl into a ball. Missy looks at me with her wide-open cat eyes.
“I’m sorry, Missy,” I say, stroking her neck.
Tears prick my eyes, but I don’t have any tears left. I did the ugly, snotty, gasping-for-air, silent, jagged sobs earlier in the evening when I took refuge in my room.
Sure, Mom would say it isn’t my fault, but it is. I was late getting to dinner tonight, I said something about Johnny Depp being liberal, then Arthur was up, and the dinner plate (part of a wedding-gift set from my mom) was on the floor in pieces. When he threw the water glass against the wall, I felt the shards ricochet into my hair.
I grab my Madame Tussauds ashtray, (a honeymoon purchase), my cigarettes, and the controversial Zippo.
Missy lets out a little disapproving noise.
“I’m opening the window, Missy.”
I perch myself on the top of three shelves Arthur built around the room’s perimeter for my books and beloved Barbies.
“I painted the shelves pink–your favorite color. I love you so much, Linnea.”
That was 10 years ago.
I still love him. I don’t like him, but I love him…I guess? He is my husband. Until death do us part. What God has joined together…
I tamp down my cigarette and light up in front of the window. The humid, breezy air cools my face. I inhale and hold the smoke in my lungs. 1…2…3…exhale. Fuck, smoking is great. I feel sorry for people who don’t smoke.
“Freedom To and Freedom From.”
I have used this quote to justify my marriage to myself and other people, even from the beginning.
My mom and I had lunch at Applebee’s after shopping for wedding decorations.
“You know,” my mom said, stirring her straw aimlessly in her Coke, “the florist charges $200 more for centerpieces.” She wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Your dad and I will pay…”
I wanted to say, “Yes, please! Thank you!”
Picking at my fries, I said, “Arthur said no. He said it’s a waste of money.”
“Arthur doesn’t have to know—”
I gave her my high-school teacher look.
She took my hand. “It’s your wedding, Linnea. Making the centerpieces will be fun.”
No, it won’t.
“Mom, I know you think Arthur is controlling.”
“He didn’t even want you to have a wedding shower…”
“I did, though, didn’t I?”
She opened her mouth, and I spoke, “Mom, there are two types of Freedom. Freedom To and Freedom From. I’m giving up certain Freedoms in marrying Arthur, but he’ll take care of me. I may not be Free To spend money on a manicure every month, drive any car I want, or buy Barbies whenever, but I am Free From cooking, paying bills, car stuff, insurance, food shopping, errands…You know how difficult my OCD makes those things…Arthur understands my OCD…he tolerates it. This year is my tenure year at school. Teaching is still so overwhelming. Arthur gives me Freedom From.”
“He hasn’t worked in two years…”
“He has the inheritance.”
Those two years of not working turned into nine years (he was employed for a year), and the inheritance, unbeknownst to me, was gone two years after we got married…so, the house was whose?
Why is he quiet? It is a relief, but a cold stone tumbles around in my belly.
Freedom To and Freedom From. I wonder if my mother knew I’d quoted The Handmaid’s Tale, which she gave me in high school. Violence doesn’t bother me. The Sopranos episode when Janice shoots Richie after he punches her…I rewound that scene a dozen times.
Bang. Bang. Dead. Could she get a refund on the wedding venue?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, I felt bad that the main character couldn’t buy cigarettes anymore. Fuck–my worst nightmare. My American Spirits have been faithful to me for almost 20 years.
That book disturbed and fascinated me. I think I was disturbed by the book because I was so fascinated by the idea of Handmaids. Free From having to be skinny, perfect, peppy, happy, strong, feminist, and employed in a hated job…no decisions. Just follow the rules. I wouldn’t be able to smoke…but I wondered why Offred didn’t just fall in line…
I stub out my cigarette and light another one. I don’t “chain-smoke,” but this is a special occasion. Missy jumps up on the shelf with me, and I pet her velveteen fur.
Arthur was clear. If I leave the house, he will destroy everything. The last cop who was here said that he could do nothing. Arthur posed no “imminent threat” to me because he did not have access to weapons and Arthur apologized. The Derringer is my little secret. My little vaycay in the nuthouse—Arthur was kind enough to share that with the officer. Besides, why should I have to leave My House?
I put my cigarette down and look at my plastic tub of clothes—now my dresser.
At the bottom, wrapped in an old knee sock…the double-barrel 410/45LC Derringer.
This gift was far more contentious between my parents than the lighter. When I tried to kill myself, I used pills. I am far too vain to use a gun.
Freedom To and Freedom From…
I perch myself back on the shelf with Missy. I look at her, look at the gun, and look at my reflection in the window.
If I put the gun under my chin (the surest way to shoot oneself if fatality is the goal)…
“You fucking whore! Cunt, I know you fucked that nigger!”
No, I never fucked the music teacher, but like the TV and CIA…Neither of his sisters told me he was mentally ill before we married.
Arthur is stomping up the stairs; the cold stone tumbles faster.
“Bitch, open the fucking door! I’ll come through it.”
“Are you afraid of my father, Arthur?”
“Fuck him. I could crack his skull with a baseball bat!”
I laugh, and I mean, I laugh. Even when I see the locked doorknob turning, I laugh loudly. Arthur is terrified of my father; all cowards fear my father.
“I know you are afraid of him…you ought to be more afraid of me.”
I sit in the plush chair Arthur gave me for our seventh anniversary. I carefully take each Barbie off the bedside table near my air mattress. I move the table in front of me, and I level the gun using the table as a tripod.
“You don’t have to be accurate, just shoot in the general direction, then call me,” said my father when he gave me the gun.
Missy jumps on the arm of the chair with me.
I cock the hammer; he hears it. He is a coward; that’s why he never hit me. Arthur feared crossing the line from barking to biting. Biting would have hurt less.
Hail Mary…I’m done with crazy.
“Fuck you, Linnea!” He punches the door.