By J.A. Sullivan
Joyce let her fingertips glide along the raised scar across her cheek, under her right eye. The skin was smooth, like a line of Barbie Doll plastic melted onto her face. If she sat still for long enough, the sounds and smells of that Valentine’s night long ago flooded back, and so did the pain. Tangy shoe polish filled each jagged breath. A heel stomped and snapped ribs as easily as a child smashing ice on a puddle. Thousands of needles and knives stabbed through her back, chest, and face. Crumpled and broken under the kitchen table, Joyce heard the clacking of size eleven men’s dress shoes against the apartment’s laminate floor, walking away without a care and without hurry.
Now those same shoes tapped the table leg, begging for attention. “How many times do we need to go over this?” Craig snarled from the opposite side of the candlelit table. He shoved his soup bowl forward, clanging it against the crystal votive holder.
“Until it’s enough,” Joyce replied. She stood, picked up their bowls and took them to the kitchen.
Craig hadn’t even bothered to try the tomato bisque she’d made from scratch. After all they’d been through, her efforts were never appreciated. She rinsed the bowls in the sink, watching red swirl around the drain. Her thoughts turned to broken noses, missing teeth and split lips. All the nights with Craig ended in a vortex of crimson she desperately wanted to wash away.
The chain attached to her ankle jangled against the floor. Joyce placed the bowls in the dishwasher, then scooped out two plates of gnocchi from the warming dish on the stove. After a drizzling of brown butter sauce, adding curls of parmesan cheese, and topping each plate with a fried sage leaf, she thought they looked picture perfect. The chain rattled again, and she carried the entrees to the dining room.
Placing Craig’s plate on the table in front of him, she took a moment to adjust her culinary presentation so that the leaf appeared on an artistic angle. She pretended not to notice his grunt of annoyance. Taking her own seat, Joyce delighted in the sight and aroma of her meal. There was a time when she had dreamed of starting her own catering business, back when they’d hosted dinner parties for family, friends and Craig’s business associates.
His clients had been the first to dry up. Rage started following Craig to the office, instead of being trapped within the walls Joyce called home. She always looked back, trying to pinpoint the moment when his anger began looking for targets other than her. A pointless exercise, like trying to find the exact snowflake responsible for an avalanche.
Next, his friends stopped coming around. Joyce didn’t think they cared about her black and blue appearance but were put off when Craig’s verbal lashings landed on them. Then her own friends dropped away, disgusted at Joyce’s inability to take charge of her own life – their words, not hers. She wished they had stayed, helped to build her up instead of tearing her down, but that was life. Family members weren’t any different. They’d all left, leaving Joyce isolated. And they’d never returned, not even years later.
She cleared her throat and took a sip of wine. Across the table, Craig stabbed his fork into a tender morsel of gnocchi. As he raised the bite to his lips, Joyce held her breath. He was going to eat it. Life was going to change.
Only it didn’t.
Joyce emptied her lungs as she ducked, just in time to avoid being struck in the head by Craig’s plate which sailed through the air, smashing into the wall behind her.
“If you’re going to torture me with your cooking, you could at least try something new,” he growled. “Every year, it’s the same goddamned meal. If this isn’t hell, I don’t know what is.”
She scrambled to the kitchen before he could see her start to cry. Using a paper towel to wipe the corners of her eyes, Joyce forced herself to take deep breaths. Every year she wanted to make a different meal for Valentine’s Day. She’d spend hours looking up recipes, and even practised cooking some of them. But when the day came, she found herself over a pot of boiling water, dropping in handfuls of little potato pillows while tomato bisque simmered on the adjacent burner. Always the same. An endless swirl without change.
Grabbing the broom and dustpan, Joyce went back to clean up Craig’s mess. She’d have to mop up the butter sauce later, but first she needed to remove all the bits of food and shards of the broken plate. After clearing away the largest chunks, she sank to her knees, looking for splinters of dishware under the table.
One piece, the size of a fingernail clipping, sat on the edge of the dark stain spot Joyce had never been able to remove. If she would have been able to tend to it right away, she was sure she could have cleaned it, leaving the floor as if nothing had happened. She placed her cheek against the laminate, the stain flowing away from her lips like a cartoon bubble. Yes, in a perfect world, her blood wouldn’t have left a permanent mark. But there it was. Calling her back to that day, keeping her chained in an endless loop of shame and guilt, without a chance to break the cycle.
Had she called out for help that night? She couldn’t recall. Events were blurred together. Someone, perhaps a police officer, had found her under the table. Or maybe it was the landlord or a neighbour who’d opened the door first and rushed to her side, police and paramedics attending later. Her face had felt like a waxing strip was ripped away as they peeled her off the floor.
For days she was in and out of consciousness, laying in a hospital bed, while the blood under the table congealed and saturated itself into the laminate. At some point, someone told her what happened to Craig. Probably several someones, reciting the incident over and over. Impaired driving collision. He was gone. It was over.
Only it wasn’t.
“Having a nap down there?” Craig sneered, his face peeking under the table, his lips a twisted smile. “Get moving and bring out the strawberry tarts so we can get this over with.” He kicked his leg, rattling the chains that tied them together.
Joyce snatched the splinter of plate off the floor, gathered everything into the dustpan and walked back into the kitchen.
He was right, this evening needed to come to an end.
Even though she had no more love to give, Joyce arranged the tarts on plates, swirled chocolate sauce over the whipped cream dollops she’d formed into hearts and accented the dish with fresh mint leaves. Craig wasn’t going to eat the dessert either, but it was the course she always enjoyed most.
She plonked the plate in front of him, no longer caring about appearances, and took her seat. Picking up her dessert fork, she cut through the tart crust, dipped the bite into the whipped cream, and savoured the flavours on her tongue for a moment before she started to chew.
“Why?” Craig asked so softly she barely heard him.
Joyce took another bite.
“Answer me, damn it!” He slammed his fists into the table.
“I wish I knew,” Joyce replied. “Every year I hope this will end differently, but it never does.” She took another sip of wine to wash the crumbs from her mouth. As she placed the glass back on the table she glanced up at Craig, really seeing him for the first time of the evening. He looked terrible.
The once luxurious suit she’d had him buried in was tattered and hung off his body like it was three sizes too large. Flesh on his face sagged down from his cheekbones, while the skin across his forehead was taut and split. His nose had been gone for a few years now, as well as his eyes.
“If you want to punish yourself, go ahead. But leave me out of it.” Dark inky tears spilled from the corners of his empty eye sockets. “What do you want from me? Absolution?”
“That’s rich,” Joyce said with a snort. “After all this time, you still think I’m the sinner.”
“You must think you are, otherwise, you wouldn’t pull me back here every year for this evening of torment.” His jaw popped and hung loose from his skull. Joyce reached across to push it back into place. He swatted her hand away and jabbed the bone into the rotting flesh of his face. “You’re the one doing this,” he said, the words barely forming as his jaw hung limply, no longer under his control.
“Maybe it’s what I deserve. I couldn’t walk away from you before, how am I supposed to now?”
“Figure it out. I’m literally falling apart, just for your amusement.”
The table began to vibrate. Time was nearly up, again.
“Just let me go,” Craig pleaded. “Let me rest and rot and never return.”
“I think that every year,” Joyce said as she slid the table away, revealing the stain on the floor between their chairs. The tarnished spot began to glow red. “I want to change. I really do. Being with you was the biggest mistake of my life. It eats at me constantly, beating me down even more than you used to. How am I supposed to let that go?”
“That’s for you to figure out.” He stood, tapping his foot against the glowing spot on the floor, testing its solidity. “But I’m begging you, don’t bring me back for another Valentine’s meal. The air is like a thousand papercuts on my skin. Every joint, every bone, every scrap of muscle I have left screams in agony when you bring me back.”
“Am I supposed to have sympathy for you? My entire existence with you was agony.”
“Then put an end to it.”
Joyce let herself fill with rage. Bitterness coated her tongue and she spat onto the stained floor. The glob boiled and sizzled on the red-hot glowing boards. The laminate bubbled and melted, dripping down into a pit of hellfire. She shook her shackled leg, snaking the chains to the edge of the pit. Slowly, the metal links tumbled over the side, pulling Craig’s leg forward.
He never struggled against the gravity dragging him forward. “Please, let this be the end,” he whispered before plunging completely into the pit. The chain tugged against Joyce’s ankle before the shackle released, each link clattering as it disappeared over the edge between this world and the next. In the split second before Craig vanished from sight, she thought about jumping after him, but stopped herself. Maybe this had been enough. Maybe this time was the end.
Only her heart knew it would never be.
J. A. Sullivan is a horror writer and paranormal enthusiast, based in Brantford, ON, Canada. Attracted to everything non-horror folks consider strange, she’s spent years as a paranormal investigator, has an insatiable appetite for serial killer information, and would live inside a library if she could.
Her latest short story can be found in Don’t Open the Door: A Horror Anthology (out July 26, 2019), and other spooky tales can be found on her blog. She’s currently writing more short stories, a novel, and reading as many dark works as she can find.
You can follow J. A. on Twitter @ScaryJASullivan
Check out her blog https://writingscaredblog.wordpress.com
Find her on Instagram www.instagram.com/j.a_sullivan