This story is by Sam Ward and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ethan sat two feet away from the TV, eager for his favorite parts.
“Mommy, can we skip to Lambert?” Ethan cried out to his mother, Hannah.
It was only the two of them tonight in their cluttered apartment. Hannah’s oversized pajamas and a sweatshirt masked her slender form. She sat curled up against the arm of the couch, browsing social media on her phone. She glanced at the TV.
“Lambert’s coming up, Ethan.” She said to her 6-year-old.
Hannah realized that meant they were nearing on what must have been the fifth time through the cartoon.
“Ethan! Look what time it is! It’s 10 o’clock already! We have to get you to bed, mister” The night had slipped past her so fast.
“Can’t I watch it one last time?”
“Turn it off, Ethan. It’s way too late!”
Ethan rose up and huffed. Defeated, he shut off the TV.
A wave of relief tingled across Hannah’s skin as the room finally fell quiet. She hadn’t noticed how much the noise was getting to her.
Three measured, booming knocks at the door interrupted the silence.
The two of them jumped. “Dad’s home?” Ethan exclaimed.
“I don’t think so…” Her husband wasn’t supposed to be back from his business trip for another three days. She crept towards the door, only half expecting to answer it. Thoughts streamed through her head. Who would be knocking at the door at this hour? Look at this mess. What do I look like?
She peered through the peephole. It was their neighbor, Tom, and he looked angry.
Oh no, I hope we weren’t being too noisy, she thought. Tom had always been friendly with them. Feeling guilty, she opened the door.
“I’m sorry, Tom, were we–”
“Hannah.” Tom, drooped over, bracing himself against the doorway, towered over her. Even sunk over, his stature and burly build were hardly compromised. An indistinct combination of odors radiated from Tom. Wearing slacks and a sweaty undershirt, he stood in the entryway staring at the ground. Hannah tried to make eye contact with him but realized his eyes were somewhere else. She had misread the situation. She had never seen him like this. The disconnect of how he responded to her was in sharp contrast to his typical social adeptness. Hannah felt rattled by the unpredictability of his current state.
“Were we making too much noise? We were about to go to bed.” She said with unease, as she began to inch the door closed.
Tom slammed his hand on the door and stumbled his way in. Hannah jumped back and pushed Ethan away. Ethan, unused to this kind of behavior from adults, cowered back to his room.
Tom turned and closed the door. He remained looking at the doorknob in his hands.
Hannah’s eyes darted around the room. She had a single-mind to defend herself. Tom remained posted by the door in contemplation. A moment later, he swiveled around, as if he hovered above the ground, and faced Hannah. His face changed, lifted. But it felt false.
“Hannah! I’m not going to hurt you! Ha ha ha ha ha” His long uncomfortable laugh provided the opposite effect as his words.
“I just didn’t want you to close the door on me. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Let’s talk in the morning, Tom. It’s late, Ethan should be sleeping…”
“I heard you watching TV,” Tom said as if he didn’t hear Hannah at all.
He hunched over to grab himself a chair.
“I heard you watching TV, and I was thinking about how you commented on my big flat screen. How you wanted one of those. I was thinking I could give it to you. I’ve always been good.”
“…Right, I think my husband said he liked your type of TV,” Hannah replied.
“Yeah. George. He said he wanted it. I’ve always been a good neighbor.” Tom muttered.
“He should be back any minute now, but he’s usually very tired. Maybe you two can discuss it later.” Hannah lied.
“No,” Tom stated. “You can have it.”
Tom sat in the chair, yet to make eye contact. Hannah started to think that she again had misread the situation. Tom didn’t seem troubled that her husband could be home soon. It was possible that he was so fuddled that he didn’t understand. Part of her had concern for Tom, but she was still anxious about his current state. She told herself she could try to help him another day, but for now, she wanted a way out of this.
“Is Rebecca out of town?” Hannah asked.
“Rebecca is an insect.” Tom proclaimed.
Hannah jolted with regret for her question.
Tom continued, “Even animals have a sense of morality, but not her. There is nothing lower than her. Nothing beneath her.”
“I’m so sorry, Tom,” Hannah said with sincerity. “What happened?”
Tom glared at the floor, his grip tightening on the chair.
“Maybe it’s best to try to get some rest, Tom. These things hurt, but hopefully, every day will be a little less painful.” Hannah felt a little embarrassed by the platitudes spilling out of her, but she wanted this to end. Tom was becoming more unhinged. His eyes begun to hop from one spot in space to another as if jumping back and forth between events.
Hannah began to move towards the door, hoping that Tom would follow the signal.
Instead, Tom grabbed her wrist.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Tom said through clenched teeth. Dread swirled in Hannah’s stomach. This conversation made her feel like she was herding a beast, and she kept making mistakes.
Tom continued, now rambling, “You think I should forget about her and move on? But it’s not like that. She was my everything. She was my sense of pride. My sense of security in life. She was my identity. I feel like my entire world was a lie.”
Tom finally looked up at Hannah. “She lied about everything. She never loved me. She was using me. She was cheating on me the whole time.”
“I’m sorry, Tom–”
“She mocked me behind my back!” Tom interrupted as he squeezed Hannah’s wrist. “She thought I was the pathetic one!”
“Tom. You’re hurting me.” Hannah pleaded, hoping that in his bitter stupor, Tom forgot she was in his grip.
Tom sprung up to his feet, maintaining his hold on her.
“But people didn’t see her as an insect. They think I’m the monster.” Tom said, now keeping his glare on Hannah.
“Let go of my mom!” Ethan interrupted from the hallway.
Ethan ran full speed at Tom only to meet the back of his hand. Ethan writhed on the ground, crying.
Hannah shook off the trauma of seeing Tom hitting her son. She had to do something. Tom leered at the hand that struck Ethan as if it wasn’t his. It was enough of a distraction to give Hannah a chance to grab whatever was in reach and swing it. A vase. It was big and filled with water. It took Hannah putting her entire weight into the swing to smash it into Tom’s head, but it did the trick. He collapsed to the floor.
“Ethan, are you alright?”
Ethan looked up in disbelief.
“Quick, give me mommy’s phone,” Hannah begged as she motioned for it.
She looked at Tom, laying on the ground.
She called the police.