This story is by Stephanie Newbern and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The man’s picture on the refrigerator stared at Hazel. She gazed back, gripping shattered glass from the frame and the mud-stained shirt. The very last one he wore. Specks of blood appeared on Hazel’s hand. She flinched, and sank at the kitchen table, whimpering.
She grasped the ink pen twice, before steadying her arm to write. Come on, just five more words, she prayed.
Rhea burst into the kitchen, snatching the letter, mimicking a young girl’s voice. “My Dearest Russell, I miss you every day. I’m so lonely. If you could just come back to me, so we can hold hands again…”
Rhea crumpled the letter, hurling it against the wall. “Oh, for mercy’s sake, Mama!”
Ethan stepped into the room. “Hey sis, that’s enough!”
She lowered her face to meet Hazel’s eyes, but Hazel hung her head. “Mama, how many times do I have to tell you that it…”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Ethan warned.
“Well, you know how she gets,” Rhea grumbled. “It’s been almost a year since Dad died, and Mama still acts like he’s going to happily walk through that door any minute! Dad hurt us all so much, I wish…” her voice trailed, as she fought tears, massaging her arm.
Hazel’s eyebrows furrowed, but she didn’t let Rhea see. That stroke eight months ago may have taken my tongue. But dagnabbit, I still got my marbles! Your father was decent, he… She pounded her fist, straining to stand upright. Rhea started after her, but Ethan grabbed her wrist.
“Ouch,” Rhea yelped.
“Sorry. Just leave Mom be. She’ll be fine without her meds for a bit longer,” Ethan promised.
Hazel trudged to her bedroom, grasping the banister to maintain her balance. Such disrespect, she ruminated. I’ve loved that man all my life. Wasn’t perfect, but he still took care of us! She rubbed her aching forehead.
Behind her closed door, Hazel covered her ears to block the arguing, but it permeated. “…Big Brother, I don’t think she knows. We have to tell her what Dad did last…” Then silence. Hopefully, Ethan shut her up, thank heavens, Hazel sighed. She giggled while her eyes caressed the room where she and Russell spent forty-three years. Every memory untouched since he passed. The steel-toed boots from his workplace, the Bible from their wedding, every faded portrait of Russell with the kids. Why? Why does Rhea despise him so much? Everyone knows he’s worked so hard to be good. She dismissed the thought with a headshake.
Hazel bit her fingernails. I’m darned sick of Rhea barging in, I never have any peace, she seethed. I need to go see him. He’s the only one who can comfort me. Who needs meds!
Rhea’s voice rang in the hallway. “Don’t worry, Ethan. I’ll take care of Mama.”
Here I come, my sweet!
Hazel’s legs had been weak, but she strengthened her steps across the room to her dresser drawer. Pulling out her dusty jewelry case, she beamed. I’ll bet Russell forgot he gave me that darling seashell pendant for our tenth wedding anniversary. I certainly haven’t forgotten. He’ll be so happy to see it on me.
The case was empty. Hazel’s smile faded and eyes widened. No, no! She checked the rest of her dresser, chest, and nightstands. It has to be here! I put it back in this case after he died. I can’t leave without my pendant! Slamming the drawer shut, a box of photos fell off the top of the chest. She picked up one that caught her eye – a girl’s bruised back. The date read 1997. Rhea was twelve. Must’ve fallen from a tree or something. Hazel tore the photo.
“Mama?” Rhea pounded on the door. Hazel jolted to her feet, saying nothing.
“I need to tell you something about Dad,” she continued.
Hazel’s chest heaved. Plodding to the door, still quiet, she hesitated. So! Hazel fumed. You took the one thing of your father’s that meant the world to me. And you say he was bad?
“And it’s time for your pills. Let me in.”
Hazel flung the door open, startling Rhea. “Mama, what’s wrong with you?”
They locked eyes for the first time. Hazel bit the inside of her cheek. I won’t let her see me cry. Nonetheless, the tear fell. She held up her empty jewelry case.
Rhea didn’t answer. Her gaze turned to the wall. She wrung her hands, and massaged her arm again, grimacing.
Strange. She always says something ugly, Hazel mused.
While Rhea turned away, Hazel slammed her hand against the doorway, demanding Rhea’s attention. Don’t turn your back on me! Hazel thrust the jewelry case in her face.
“What? Your stupid pendant?” Rhea rolled her eyes. “You don’t need it anymore!”
Hazel wasn’t satisfied. How dare you touch my things. Grabbing a children’s book from her trunk, she jabbed it repeatedly with her finger, while showing it to Rhea. Two hidden photos slipped out of the book, scattering to the floor. Rhea snatched one up.
“Look, Mama, I get it, okay,” she sneered. “I know Dad bought me that book for my birthday. I know he bought me and Ethan clothes and fed us. I know he gave you flowers and candy on Valentine’s Day. But that doesn’t make him a good person!” Rhea dropped her head. “Dad was sick. Before that night, I…I heard him say he would shoot you first,” she stammered. “But he pulled the trigger on himself instead.”
Rhea continued, lifting her sleeve, revealing the scar on her wrist. “He did this to me, too.” She shoved the picture at Hazel. “And he scarred my leg. When you were out shopping. It was always when you weren’t home!”
Hazel dropped the jewelry case, shattering it. You’re lying. He wouldn’t do that.
“But it doesn’t matter anymore,” Rhea stressed. “I’m so glad he spared you. You did the best you could raising us.” Hazel dug her fingernails into her arm, trying to process what she’d heard.
Rhea took Hazel’s hand. “Now, let’s get your meds and get you packed. You’re coming to live with me tonight. Ethan and I will sell this house.”
Hazel wrestled away, pounding her hands into Rhea’s chest.
“Mama, what are you doing?! Get hold of yourself!”
Rhea tried to get away, but Hazel maintained her hold on Rhea’s collar. Hazel thrashed her arms about, while Rhea shielded her face. As if an unseen force entered her, Hazel struck Rhea with her fist.
Rhea wheezed, rubbed her cheek, and backed away. Gasping, every inch of Hazel froze, except her trembling hand. Oh no, no, no, this isn’t me! Rhea, I’m so sorry! Hazel inched toward Rhea, but she withdrew further.
Hazel watched Rhea sobbing in the corner. What have I done? I’ve never hit her before. Am I that much like Russell, harming my child? Have I been that naïve all this time?
Hazel grabbed her coat and purse. Ethan rushed in to stop her, but she freed herself.
“Mama!” Rhea called.
The pain in Hazel’s legs intensified, but she pushed through. Bus stop next block over. Hope I’m not too late.
The bus was just pulling away. Too late! What do I do?
A taxi driver came shortly after. “Ma’am, hurry, get in! Where to?” he asked. Hazel’s twitching hands pulled out a crumpled paper.
Thirty minutes later, she arrived at the cemetery:
BELOVED HUSBAND, FATHER, COWORKER, FRIEND
1955 – 2020
Hazel steadied herself on the pathway to the tombstone, despite the crushing pain in her leg. Shivering in that freezing afternoon, her teeth chattered as she collected her thoughts.
My Dearest Russell,
Our daughter told me what you did to her. What you almost did to me.
Please say you didn’t do it.
And waited. She felt nothing this time, just the cold wind.
You can’t say it, can you? Hazel sensed no response.
I can’t believe I didn’t see it. How could you have been so cruel! I hurt Rhea today. Like you did to her. I hate myself. I defended you. And now you’ve infected me with your hostility.
Hazel paused to catch her breath.
I love you. Always will. But we are no longer one. I can’t feel anything for someone with such malice.
Hazel’s thought was interrupted by another taxi screeching to a halt, followed by rushing footsteps.
“Mama, wait!” Rhea called. Hazel turned. They locked eyes again.
“Check your coat pocket,” Rhea said.
Confused, Hazel felt her pocket. She pulled out the seashell pendant.
Hazel caressed it, stroking the link chain. The photo inside read, Russell and Hazel. In love forever.
Hazel tore the chain from the locket and hurled it at the tombstone. The clang echoed through the cemetery.
You are dead to me. Rest in peace, alone.
Hazel walked back toward Rhea, shoulders hunched. Her heart wanted to say, Sweet dreams, my love.
Instead, she turned to the tombstone, mouthing these words.
See you next year.