This story is by KG and was a runner-up in our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
KG lives in the Pacific Northwest, is married to her best friend and has too many dogs. She started writing when she was a teenager in a horribly misguided attempt to be cool. Her hobbies include reading, video games, running and baking.
Grace had never lived up to her name, which was why she found herself whimpering in front of the house she had accidentally set on fire. She was still gripping the matchbook she had discovered in her husband’s jacket, along with Tracy’s address and an invitation for Ryan to come over anytime scribbled on the inside. Judging from the many hearts scrawled at the end, that invitation did not include Grace.
She was headed for jail, all because she had knocked over a candle. It hadn’t been on purpose, but that probably didn’t matter when arson was involved. There was a loud pop from inside and Grace recoiled. She drew a deep breath and decided she would have to do the responsible thing, no matter how unpleasant. She was a mature adult. In the distance, sirens began to sound.
She dropped the matches and ran.
Grace stared at the grocery store shelves. She kept expecting someone to clap a hand on her shoulder and order her to come with them and the wait was making her irritable. She had to make dinner—she didn’t have time to get arrested. She turned out of the aisle and in her haste bumped into a man. His eyes crinkled as he looked at her before kneeling to pick something up.
“Hi. You dropped these.” He pressed something into the palm of her hand.
“Oh. Thanks,” Grace glanced down and froze. Her head snapped up, but the man had already vanished. She put a hand to her throat to hold in the scream that was threatening to erupt.
She was looking at the matchbook from the fire.
It was evening and Ryan was glued to his phone as the television blared. Grace was curled on the other side of the couch, occasionally moaning. Ryan’s eyes flickered over to her.
“I’m fine.” She wasn’t.
“You barely ate,” Ryan said, but he wasn’t really paying attention and Grace didn’t bother to answer.
That’s because I know about your girlfriend, dear. By the way, I set her house on fire.
She could already see Ryan’s face: it would be the same horrified look he’d given her when she didn’t know the Star Wars theme. No, better to not even open that door. Grace closed her eyes. So that was her choice: look the other way. She buried her face in a pillow.
The doorbell rang.
Grace jumped up as she had a sudden, sickening image of the police showing up. Leaving Ryan on the couch, she peered through the blinds and gasped. The man from the store was standing on the porch, his hands shoved in his pockets. She opened the door a fraction.
“What the hell? How did you find me?”
He looked at her like she was an idiot. “I followed you home. I was hoping you’d help me with something, actually.”
“Why?” Dear God. This man was crazy and he knew where she lived.
He scratched his chin. “I need your help.”
“No.” She went to slam the door in his face.
He had been fingering his phone and turned it to face her. She froze: he’d been taking pictures of her at Tracy’s. There she was, clambering into the kitchen like a common thief. A common thief that needed to lay off the chocolate, from the way her jeans were bulging in some of those photos.
“How did you get those?” She hissed.
“I was across the street when I saw you. Will you help or not?” He ran a hand through his hair.
“… Fine.” She considered adding “and you’re a sociopath” to the end of her sentence but thought better of it.
“Great. Meet me at the McDonald’s on Howell in 20 minutes. My name’s Max, by the way.”
She watched him go. Had she really just agreed to help this guy? He probably needed help moving a body. Grace clutched the doorframe for support. He seemed to read her mind, because he lifted a hand as he walked.
“Don’t worry. Petty theft should be easy for an arsonist.”
Grace bristled and opened her mouth to retort, but Max was already back in his car.
After they met at the designated location he’d told her to hop in his car and she had balked. But she didn’t really have a choice. Besides, the dark, sleek Mustang didn’t look like a car someone would want to get blood all over. Then again, murderers didn’t exactly advertise themselves. Grace ultimately solved the problem by getting in, not buckling up and keeping her hand on the door where she was ready to tuck and roll at the first sign of trouble.
But he didn’t drive her to the woods to kill her. It was much worse: he drove them back to Tracy’s. Grace whipped her head and glared at him.
Max cut the engine and they both gazed at the house. It was standing but singed around the edges and completely dark. Max had already assured her that Tracy was staying in a hotel and wouldn’t be around but Grace still felt her stomach twist. She hadn’t meant to start anything—she just had to know.
Who was worth our marriage?
“I need you to go inside and get something for me.”
“Uh, no.” Grace had always prided herself on not panicking in a crisis but was now being forced to reconsider that aspect of her personality after this morning, when she realized she had tipped over a candle and the curtain had caught it. She had tried to smother the fire with a pillow (not her best idea in retrospect), only to have that burst into flames in her hands before deciding this was a job better left to professionals and slinking out the back.
They sat in awkward silence until Grace broke first.
“What is it, anyway?” If he said a pair of Tracy’s underwear, she was running all the way home.
“A ring.” Pause. ”It’s actually mine, so it isn’t really stealing.”
“How do you know Tracy?” Grace finally looked at him properly. It might have been the lack of light, but he seemed embarrassed.
“We, ah, used to date.”
Grace snorted. She had seen photos of Tracy. Tracy was tall and had a face like a ferret, except on a ferret it was cute and on a person it was beady and unscrupulous. Max looked exactly like her type, which was why Ryan was so confusing. On the short side, slightly-pudgy-around-the-middle Ryan. Grace blinked hard. “She probably sold it.”
“No, she has it.” Max’s fingers curled around the steering wheel.
“How do you know?”
“Because she was wearing it until recently,” Max stopped abruptly, and Grace had a sinking feeling that the real end of his sentence had been “until she started seeing your husband”.
“You could get it,” Grace said. Max shook his head.
“No, the neighbors know me. It’ll be bad if they see me poking around. If they see you, just say you’re a friend of Tracy’s and she sent you.”
Grace was beginning to get the feeling that Max had been planning this for quite some time and wasn’t about to be stopped by something as petty as logic. She climbed out of the car and spun around.
“Fine. But you delete those photos.”
Max crossed his heart and Grace stomped across the lawn. The kitchen window that had been her original point of entry was still unlocked and she slipped inside with a stab of guilt. The fire had started in the living room but spread quickly, and everything was soaking wet. Grace walked into the bedroom and pawed through the dresser, trying to recall if she had seen the ring Max showed her. Tracy’s clothes were nicer than hers and completely ruined.
Grace felt a kernel of pleasure that she tried to stamp down.
What if it’s love? That thought kept making the accusation wither on her lips each time she saw Ryan. Grace got on her hands and knees and groped underneath the bed, coming up empty.
Grace could handle a normal affair based on lust. It was the idea of her husband being in love with the ferret that made her want to claw off large strips of her own skin.
Grace went to stand and bumped her knee against the nightstand, knocking over a framed photo. She tugged on the nightstand handle. It was locked, and no key in sight.
Grace stood, reached for the nightstand and tipped it onto its front, smashing her foot through the back with a satisfying crack. She reached in and pulled out a mass of feathery soft papers that had been folded and refolded. A leather pouch slipped out of the papers and as Grace went to stuff them back, she caught Max’s name at the top. Grace started to read. Tracy had written letters to Max, some a few lines while others filled the entire page. The third letter was just one sentence: I’m so, so sorry.
Grace was scandalized. She stared out the window at the star-filled sky. Her mind was a whirling mess of discombobulated thoughts.
I have to do laundry tomorrow.
My husband is cheating on me.
Tracy is still in love with Max.
Grace abruptly pushed the letters off her lap as if they were burning her. With shaking hands, she opened the pouch. Max’s ring slipped into her palm, twinkling at her in the moonlight.
Grace slid back into the car and dropped the ring into Max’s hand. He closed his fingers over it.
Grace could see he meant it and covered her flush by making a huffing noise and buckling herself in. They drove in silence until Max finally spoke.
“That was my grandma’s ring. I thought … when we broke up, she wouldn’t give it back. Thanks again.”
“Thanks for not going to the police.” Grace smiled.
There was another long stretch of silence, then as Max turned onto the main road:
“So, your husband?”
“I know,” Grace sighed. Her fury had ebbed upon seeing those letters. Tracy was pathetic, her husband more so. They pulled into the parking lot and Max cut the engine. He showed Grace the photos from earlier and deleted them, then sighed.
“Weird night,” Max said.
“A little,” said Grace.
They grinned at each other.
Finally Max cleared his throat and Grace reluctantly got out. She watched as Max waved then disappeared into the weave of traffic. Two ships passing in the night, as her mother would say. Two strange, slightly deranged ships.
She drove home in silence. When she unlocked the front door Ryan was where she had left him, fast asleep. He jerked awake as she walked past him.
“Hey. Have a good time?” Grace nodded.
“It was … interesting.”
Ryan gave her a distracted smile then turned his attention back to the television. Grace watched her husband in the blue light and made a decision.
“I’m going to shower, and then we need to talk.” She was surprised to hear her own voice, stronger and calmer than she expected. Ryan made a noise that may or may not have meant he heard her. She paused at the foot of the stairs, one hand resting on the banister.
“Ryan, I know about Tracy.”
Ryan made a choking noise and stood, sputtering as his phone fell out of his lap with a clatter. Grace didn’t wait for an articulated response, instead climbing the stairs and pulling off her jacket. The matchbook Max had given back was in her pocket and she gazed at them, examining Tracy’s neat, compact handwriting before dropping them in the trash and heading for the shower. Whatever fire they had started, Grace was ready.