This story is by L.L. Meinecke and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The basement was dim, rendering the frantic scribbles difficult to decipher. Emily angled the paper in a stream of light coming through a small window. She considered her discovery, heart quickening with every word.
He’s done it again. Every time I try to leave I can’t escape him. No matter how secret my plan, he’s one step ahead of me. Tonight, he held me against the wall, covered my mouth and whispered, ‘you are mine Kate, you always will be and I expect you to be the wife I need. Do not disappoint me or you’ll pay.’ I am not safe.
Emily was in the basement shuffling through an old dresser, hoping to refinish it; a small wooden box was among the contents of one drawer. It contained the note as well as a necklace adorned with a letter K.
Staring at the K on the necklace, she read the paper again, and searched her mind. I am not safe. The tense words brought her hand to her chest, fingers brushing across her own necklace; a gift from Derek last year to mark their one-year anniversary. Squeezing the charm – an E – with forefinger and thumb, her eyes widened; the necklaces were unmistakably similar. In that moment Emily knew – Kate was Derek’s first wife.
When Emily met Derek, 10 years her senior and a successful investor, he was charming, handsome and seductive. He had briefly apprised Emily about his short first marriage, saying they had wanted different things and that Kate left. Being young and blinded by infatuation, Emily accepted the explanation at face value and the couple never discussed the matter again.
Emily heard the creak of the basement steps, causing the skin on her neck to crawl. Breath stuck in her throat and she could feel her blood pulsing. There was no need to turn around, she new Derek was there.
Emily folded the paper, moving as little as possible, and placed it back in the wooden box. Before the necklace could be returned Derek was behind her, causing a flush of anxious uncertainty.
“I see you’ve found Kate’s box.” His voice was deep and even.
Derek stepped closer and placed heavy hands on Emily’s shoulders, fear and confusion now swirling. Attempting to remain steady, she failed and jerked as Derek brought one arm firmly around her waist.
“Now that you’ve seen it,” Derek continued evenly, “I hope you will begin to understand.”
She choked, barely able to speak, “understand?”
“Yes, Emily. You are my wife and I have needs.” Slowly he brought his hand from her shoulder, down between her legs and pulled her tightly against him.
Feeling the hand, firm at her crotch, immediately sparked the shame and pain of marital sex that was too rough; experiences Emily was uncomfortable with, but too timid to admit. His searing touch caused tears to swell.
“I picked you intentionally, knowing you could become everything I want.” Derek’s voice was in her ear and she could feel his hot breath. Pausing, he kissed her neck intimately, enjoying the distress he was causing. “Kate was unwilling and she had to pay for that.”
Emily tried to steady her voice, “how was Kate unwilling?”
“By clinging to her independence, thinking it was more important.” Lifting his head he was speaking plainly now, “I am a patient man, Emily. I have been taking my time, shaping you into the wife I desire. Your innocence has made it easier than it was with Kate.”
Events from their marriage replayed from memory. You don’t need to work, I make enough for both of us. He was insistent she quit her job, but with an approach that appeared charming; I want to take are of you, and she finally agreed.
Emily found joy in being a stay-at-home-wife and, focusing on her love of writing, was working on a book. Involvement with their neighborhood led to planning a community garden. Derek’s comments ran in her mind now. Do you really think you’ll be a successful author; thats a terrible idea for a book; no one actually wants a garden; who do you think is going to play in the dirt with you? The criticisms had been infrequent, yet came with a painful sting, catching Emily by surprise. When strung together the rhetoric made her want to vomit.
Sudden guilt about her naivete morphed into anger as she became conscious of Derek’s subtle successes, gaining control seemingly unnoticed. The book laid dormant for weeks and enthusiasm for the garden dwindled. Most regretful was her allowance to become completely dependent under Derek’s false guise of care.
Releasing his hold, Derek turned Emily to face him, disgust coursing through her veins. Picking up the box, he neatened the note and removed the necklace from Emily’s stiff grip. Placing it in the box he snapped the lid shut, causing her shoulders to jump.
“You said the words Emily, on our wedding day. To love and obey, in all duty and service. It’s time to fulfill your vows completely.” Vows she had spoken, but where written by Derek.
Staring, she was unable to speak. Pieces of a puzzle were coming together, forming a new, abhorring image of their marriage. Attempting to find clarity for this nightmare, a whisper came out, “you want me to serve you?”
“In strict obedience, as is your duty, Emily. I have expectations.” There was a slight smirk to his face, a smirk that was previously attractive. Now, it turned her stomach.
“Where is Kate?” A silent, apprehensive squeeze in her chest gave the answer the moment the words left her mouth. Kate was gone, at the hand of Derek.
“If I wanted her found, she would be.” Derek lifted Emily’s chin and looked in her eyes. He lowered his mouth and kissed her, tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. “You have not disappointed me, yet.”
I am not safe. The thought devoured her.
With Kate’s box in hand Derek turned to go. Emily watched him climb the stairs, leaving her in the dim basement. She began to wonder if there were other boxes; a collection of failures. At the thought of this she fell to the floor and hugged her knees.
She remained on the floor for hours listening to his harrowing footsteps above. Finally, the front door slammed and the house was silent. Rising, she knew staying meant her life would be judged by his twisted perception of reality.
It was evening now and light no longer streamed through the small windows. Shuffling around in the dark, afraid to pull on a light, she searched for anything that might yield protection. The basement was oddly bare, as if by design. Nothing was certain anymore.
The windows were high on the basement walls and the front one was nailed shut. The window to the backyard opened but she was unable reach high enough to climb through. Breathing deeply to steady herself, she pushed the dresser to the window and maneuvered out into the crisp, dark night.
Crouching in the shadows next to the house, Emily was hesitant. Fear made it difficult to think clearly. Just go.
Hugging the house, she rounded the corner to the side and could see the street. Continuing slowly and nearing the front corner she paused and readied herself to run. Her next step triggered the motion sensor and light flooded the yard.
Panic overtook Emily and she froze, her heart pounding so hard it was audible. Derek rounded the corner into the light and a small sob escaped her lips.
He’s one step ahead of me.
Striding to her calmly, he draped one arm over trembling shoulders and whispered, “tisk, tisk, Emily.” Leading her to the front of the house and then inside, he closed the door.
Faced with her prison Emily raged; finding unknown strength she shoved Derek away. He stumbled into the entry table, contents crashing to the floor. Emily turned back to the door to flee, freedom mere steps away.
She turned the knob but before she could pull it, Derek shoved her, knocking her into the door face first. His forearm quickly pinned Emily by the neck and she tasted blood. Her head throbbed and her body shook.
Kate’s frantic scribbles flashed, I can’t escape him. And Emily understood.
Derek pressed his entire body against her now, his voice angry. “You are mine, Emily. Always.”
The weight of his body made it hard to breath. Tears mixed with blood streaked her face. Fear elicited a small, trembling nod and she dropped her hand from the doorknob.
She closed her eyes, an act of submission, but furtively promised that this would be the only time. Unexpected inner strength told Emily she could play this game; silently buck his efforts to shape her, then set his notion of marriage ablaze at the perfect moment.
From within came a new vow. A box bearing her, or any other name, would never exist.