This story is by A.J. Mortimer and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Please say something.” The words stuck in Hayley’s throat as she followed her husband with her eyes.
“Say what?” Callum paced in front of where she sat on their bed. His hands shook at his sides. She reached out to calm him as she always would when he was upset but he ripped his arm away from her. “Don’t touch me.”
His shoulders relaxed ever so slightly and he released a deep sigh. “Just tell me who it was.”
Hayley squeezed her eyes shut. “Shawn.”
“From work?” he shouted, his volume control ignored, forgetting there was a sleeping toddler down the hall.
“Did you pick him specifically to spite me?” Callum looked at her but his eyes wouldn’t focus. “You know I hate the way he looks at you. God, he’s touched. You let him touch you.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Hayley’s phone buzzed on the nightstand. They both stared at it. She didn’t stop Callum from taking it. He clenched it in his fist after reading the message. He showed it to Hayley.
Shawn: Did you get home safe?
“Did you ever do it here? In our house? In our bed?”
“No,” Hayley shook her head. “I told you it was just tonight. I came right home and told you. I couldn’t lie to you about this. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t do that to me? You can’t lie but you’d cheat on me? How the hell am I supposed to trust anything that comes out of your mouth?” He was pacing again. “I don’t even feel like I know you anymore.”
“Then we’re on the same page for once.”
He stopped. “Excuse me.”
“Callum, this is the most you’ve said to me in a month.” She rose from her seat on the bed. “And when you have spoken to me it’s like you’re not there. You barely get out of bed. You didn’t even tell me you were fired, I found out a week later from your brother. I can’t live like this. Our daughter can’t live like this. She thinks you hate her because you won’t play with her anymore.”
Callum shook his head and looked away. Hayley moved into his line of sight, forcing eye contact. “Neither of us have been the same since we lost-”
“Maybe if you could talk to me, could even look at me, I wouldn’t have-”
Hayley’s head snapped to the side at the force of the slap. The sound echo around the room. She touched her stinging cheek and turned back to him; his eyes were as wide as hers. He reached out for her with a slow, gentle hand but she tensed.
He’d never hit her before, never been close to physically hurting her. This was the longest he’d ever raised his voice since they’d met. The loudest thing about Callum was his laugh.
“Daddy?” A sniffle came from the barely opened door. “Mummy?” Their four-year-old peaked through the gap with her stuffed bunny clutched to her chest and tears welling in her eyes.
Callum brought his still shaking hands to his mouth and turned away, shielding his daughter from his pain. His shoulders shook with the struggle to hold in his sobs.
“Come on, Daisy,” Hayley said as she scooped up the toddler into her arms and situated her on her hip. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
“I heard shouting.” She tucked her head into the crook of her mum’s neck and her arms wrapped around tight, bunny stuck safely between mother and daughter. “Did daddy hurt you?”
“No, baby.” Hayley threaded her fingers through Daisy’s hair and stroked out the tangles. “We were just… We were just planning a prank on Uncle Jake.”
“A prank?” Daisy asked, finally looking up. Her tiny hand brushed over the red mark forming on Hayley’s cheek. Hayley held back a hiss of pain and smiled at her daughter.
“We’re gonna try to scare him next time he comes round for dinner.” She set Daisy down on her bed. “But for now, it’s way past your bedtime.”
“You’re too loud, I can’t sleep.”
“We’ll be quiet, I promise.” Hayley left Daisy with a kiss on her forehead. “Sleep tight.”
Hayley closed the door behind her and stared at the door opposite. Her eyes flicked over the car and football stickers and ‘Daniel’ painted on the wood. She crossed the hall and traced the letters with her fingertips. The height marks cut into the wood of the door frame stopped a few inches above the set behind her. From the first mark where they finally managed to keep Daniel standing still, to the crossed out one where they hadn’t noticed him on his tiptoes, to the last one overtaking the handle; the smile on his face when he noticed the large difference from last year.
She rested her hand on the handle but couldn’t make herself open it. Drawing in a deep, shaken breath, she turned and went back to her room.
Callum sat on the bed with his head in his hands. Hayley joined him.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she said. “I can’t blame you for what I did to you. It was my choice to cheat. I’m sorry.”
“I shouldn’t have hit you.” He looked at her and met her eyes for the first time since she’d told him. “Is Daisy okay?”
“I told her we were practising a prank to scare your brother.”
Callum let out a little laugh before his smile dropped. “I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep feeling like this.” New tears trailed down his cheeks. “I still walk past Daniel’s door expecting to hear his laugh. I get worried when I don’t and go to check on him.” Callum shook his head. “It all hits me at once when I open the door and he’s not there.”
“Neither of us has been handling this well. I feel like everything in my life revolves around the fact that my son is dead.” Hayley felt bile threatening to rise up her throat. “I just needed to forget, so I asked some people from work for a night out.” She’s sure Callum can still smell the alcohol on her breath, she can still taste it. “I didn’t plan to cheat. Shawn just made me feel something else. Something different. I’m sorry.”
Callum’s fists clenched in his lap but he took a deep breath and relaxed them. “Does Daisy really think I hate her?”
“I keep telling her you don’t, but she thinks you’re mad at her for letting go of Daniel’s hand before he… before he wandered off into the street.”
“God,” he sobbed, clenching his hands in his hair. “I was meant me to be holding his hand. I’m the one that shouldn’t have let go.”
All Hayley wanted to do as she watched her husband break was to hold him tight and take all his pain away, but she’d only added to it and now she didn’t think he’d let her hold him again.
“We need help,” she said.
Callum nodded and tried to control his voice. “We need to deal with things for Daisy’s sake.”
“I don’t know how we’re gonna get over this.”
“We don’t need to know, we just need to try.”