She didn’t want to go to daycare. She didn’t voice her complaint, she protested by refusing to eat her breakfast. It was a smart move, logical for a five year old who had been instilled with her father’s daily adage.
“No breakfast, no exit.” He had to explain what that meant at first. She didn’t understand, couldn’t connect the words. James knew it wasn’t the most self-explanatory saying, but he was a sucker for brevity and repetition.
“If you don’t eat your breakfast, we can’t leave the house. If we can’t leave the house, we can’t get to where we need to go. Ok?”
Abby understood almost immediately when it was explained to her. She only hesitated momentarily before slurping the rest of her pink cereal milk.
Now, pink marshmallows and soggy O-shaped donuts floated undisturbed in her bowl.
“No breakfast, no exit.” She had triumphantly repeated back to James when he asked why she wasn’t eating. He couldn’t help, but smile at his daughter’s cleverness. He also couldn’t help, but feel a tinge of pride as he credited this rebellious act to his own gene pool. Abby would be like him, he hoped, and nothing like her mother. God willing.
“No breakfast, no lunch.” James had countered. He didn’t want to withhold another meal from his daughter, but had no time for a soft negotiation. Abby’s face immediately sank as the thought of another lost meal dawned on her. She then looked up at James and said, “But it’s too old now.”
She stared at the soggy cereal, contemplating whether to eat it or not. James saw her point and compromised.
“Just drink the milk. Eat the marshmallows if you want.” Abby’s eyes brightened a bit at the offer of excluding her least favorite bits from the cereal.
“Ok.” She then scooped up the pink marshmallows with her spoon, being careful to leave the soggy donuts in the bowl. After she slurped her milk, she let out a satisfying “ah!” Abby then picked up her backpack and headed for the door without any more word from him with a big smile on her face. Now it was James’s face that sank.
He wasn’t sure if Abby really didn’t want to go to daycare or if she just wanted to get out of eating the donuts in her cereal. He felt his heart drop a little at the thought of his daughter’s potentially manipulative behavior. He flicked himself on his forehead, hard enough to leave a slight red mark.
“Why’d you hit yourself, daddy?” Abby asked. She stood in the open doorway and James closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he answered.
“Just a bad habit, baby. Let’s go.” James followed after his daughter and slammed the door behind them. The door knob jiggled from the inside a few times and stopped. A few moments later, the door knob jiggled again, then subsided.
James drove Abby to her day care center and wondered if she had really tricked him to get out of eating soggy cereal. He hoped she’d complain about having to go to daycare, so he’d know for certain how she felt. He pulled up to the kiss and ride section and waited for Abby to lean over and kiss him goodbye.
“Why do I have to go here? Why can’t I stay home?” James was immediately relieved, but then found himself at a loss for an answer. He had no good reason, at least none that would satisfy Abby. He hadn’t gone to work since Abby’s mother had gone to the mental ward. James was sure it was postpartum depression, and Mel had merely retreated into silence. However, Mel’s passive silent treatment erupted one morning when Abby refused to take Mel’s breast.
“Why won’t she take it?” Mel asked. She was on the verge of tears, and James’s attempts at comfort were ignored.
“Let’s just give her formula,” James suggested.
“She’s supposed to take her mother’s milk. My milk!” Mel shouted suddenly. James had gotten up to grab the bottle from the dishwasher when Mel stood up as well. She shoved Abby into James’s arms, who had nearly dropped her in the process.
“Jesus! Mel, be careful!” Mel had already left the kitchen. James carried Abby to her room and put her down in her crib. He grabbed the formula on his way back to the kitchen and found Mel standing in front of the open dishwasher with her breasts exposed. The bottle was still in the washer. Mel held the kitchen knife at her side, so James didn’t notice it at first. The gleam of the blade caught his eye as Mel brought up the knife to her breasts.
“She won’t take it because she hates me. Her own mother.”
“What are you doing? Put the knife down, Mel.”
“My milk’s not good enough for her. Is it good enough for you, James?” Mel brought the tip of the knife onto the top of her left breast and traced it around lightly.
“God, stop, Mel!” James took a step forward and Mel suddenly pointed the knife towards him. James stopped and put his hands up. Mel took a step forward and James went back.
“Am I good enough?”
“What are you talking about?”
“If you had to choose one of us? Who would you choose?” She took another step forward and brought the knife higher towards James’s neck.
“I love both of you. Now, please put the knife down.”
“No, you have to choose. Me or her.”
“Mel, that isn’t fair.”
“No, it isn’t.” Mel lowered the knife.
“I have to choose for you.” She ran out of the kitchen and down the hallway to Abby’s room. James lunged after her and grabbed her bathrobe. It slipped off as she escaped his grasp. Mel turned into Abby’s room before James could catch up to her and slammed the door. He ran to the door and grabbed the door knob. Locked. He jiggled it and slammed his shoulder into the door.
“Don’t! I swear I’ll kill her!” Mel yelled through the door. James immediately backed away from the door.
“Ok. Mel, I’m sorry.” James tried hard to hide the desperation in his voice. “I should’ve gave you a straight answer.” James spoke softly through the door, trying to make out any hint of Abby’s breathing or cooing.
“You know I choose you.” He paused, hoping to hear Abby. A cry broke through. Mel sniffled and tried to stifle her sobs, but James heard her. “I always choose you. Please open the door.”
James begged God under his breath for Mel to open the door. He couldn’t hear Mel crying anymore. He couldn’t hear anything. A few moments passed and then he heard the door lock unclick. The door remained closed, so James carefully turned the knob and opened the door.
He saw Mel in front of the window away from Abby’s crib, staring out at the moon. James ran to the crib and found Abby staring up at him, unaware of any disturbance. He breathed out a sigh of relief and scooped her up. He turned around towards the door and saw Mel slam the door and lock it. She stared at Abby in James’s arms as tears streamed down her face.
“You lied. You chose her.”
“Mel, I love you.”
“You love her more than me.”
“I love her differently than I love you.”
“No. You love us the same way, it’s just…” Mel extended the knife to James. “You love her more.” Mel turned the point of the knife towards herself and before James could say anything, plunged the knife into her stomach.
She was hospitalized and taken to a mental ward. James had hoped she would be taken to prison as he thought a mental ward too menial for Mel. He didn’t want to believe Mel was completely insane, mostly because of what that would admit about his own character.
Even though it had been five years without incidence, James never felt at ease about Mel’s imprisonment. He always felt that her escape was an inevitability. His concern waned as Abby grew and more of his attentiveness was required as a single parent. Mel’s parents had never knew how to respond to their daughter’s “mental lapse”.
They thought it was an unfortunate event that could’ve happened to anyone much like an ill-timed left turn or a doze at the wheel. All James received from them was a monthly check. A substantial check. James hadn’t been much of a career man, so he lived off the checks and his resolve to be mother and father to Abby. However, as Abby learned to speak and saw other children with both parents, James realized it would be good for Abby to have a motherly figure in her life, so he enrolled her day care. But all of this was not something so easily explained to a five year old right before dropping her off at the day care center.
“I love being home with you, Abby. You know that, right?” Abby nodded her head.
“But, you’re growing up. And when we grow up, we have to learn to be with other people.”
“Why?” Abby asked.
“Because,” James paused, struggling to justify his answer. “If you’re just with me, then you’re missing out on time with other people. You’re gonna miss out on all the fun other people are having.” Abby mulled this over, biting her upper lip.
“You can have fun too. Why don’t you come with me?” Abby suggested. James swallowed a lump and opened his mouth just to close it.
“Baby, I can’t. It’s for kids.” James said. Abby sighed and opened the car door, knowing she wouldn’t win the argument.
“I love you, I’ll see you later, ok?” Abby slammed the car door without saying goodbye and dragged her feet towards the fenced playground. James watched her until a daycare teacher greeted her and let her in. He took a deep breath, wiped a few tears from his face, and drove away.
The doorknob jiggled from the inside again, rather violently. The door shook slightly then stopped. The lock unclicked and the door opened a sliver, then halfway. James slowly leaned his body in halfway before fully investing and entering his house. He closed the door behind him and bolted it.
James had made it a habit to check if the door was locked every time he came back home. Abby thought it normal, but James knew she would question his behavior one day, perhaps after watching another parent unlock a door before a slumber party. He had hoped his habit would subside year after year, but James never could face the heart of his fear. He picked up the remote and turned on the TV to drown out any more silence. The news was on. He flipped the channel to the morning news talk show with the bubbly blonde and her antithetical co-host. But the show wasn’t on. The same news was showing on the channel. Breaking news.
A few patients at a mental ward had gone missing. Two were found dead in a transfer van a few miles away from the ward. One was still missing. James’s heart seized his chest, as if it were grabbing him by his collar and pinned him down to the couch.
It was Mel. There was no doubt in James’s mind that Mel had escaped the ward and had murdered the two other patients. She had no idea where Abby was, which meant she would come back to the house. The front door was locked when he came in and the back kitchen door was locked. James rarely went through the back door and the knob was always locked, he had only recently taught Abby how to unlock it whenever she wanted to go into the backyard.
James remembered she had gone out the previous night to watch the fireflies and he must’ve locked it after she had come back in. When had she come back in? James stood up and rushed to the kitchen. He lunged towards the door and jiggled the knob.
It was locked. James breathed out a sigh of relief. His heart still seized his chest, but began to loosen as he took deep breaths. He giggled at his own panic. Laughter soon shook his whole body. Tears streamed down James’s face as he leaned over the breakfast table. He walked over to the sink and splashed some water on his face. He wiped his face with his shirt, which was damp with sweat. James found himself staring blankly at the counter next to his sink where his spice rack, knife block, and toaster sat. He noted the crumbs falling out of the bottom of the toaster, the empty spice bottles still in the rack, and the untouched knives in the block.
He hadn’t touched a knife from the block except for a few paring knives whenever he had to cook for Abby. Fortunately, Abby didn’t like meat and preferred to eat fruit raw and uncut. So, the steak knives, serrated knife, and the kitchen knife remained. James wanted to throw the knife Mel had used away, but had no desire to ever touch it. So it remained in the block.
Except for now. The knife was missing from the block and James immediately opened the dishwasher hoping it had somehow made its way in. James’s heart grew quiet and a dreadful silence enveloped him. He turned around and squinted at the gleam of the kitchen knife that soon pointed up at him.
“Hi, baby.” Mel stood in front of the hallway wearing only a towel. Her hair dripped water onto the floor.
“What happened to my clothes?” James didn’t answer right away, taking in her appearance. She had lost weight, but her eyes still blazed with intensity in spite of her sunken cheeks.
“I gave them away.”
“Why would you do that?”
“You lost weight.” James sidestepped her question and leaned to his left with his hands still on the counter, the knife block directly behind him.
“You never came to visit.”
“I couldn’t.” James stared at the wall behind Mel, unable to look at her any longer.
“You wouldn’t.” Mel stifled a rising sob in her throat, but tears streamed down to her lips.
“Where is she?”
James stiffened up. His hand was on one of the handles sticking out of the block.
“At your parents.” James slowly pulled out the knife, turning his gaze back for any reaction from Mel.
“No, she’s not. Don’t lie to me.”
“She’s not here.” James held the knife behind his back.
“Good. I came back for you.” Mel said and took a step towards James.
“I missed you, James.” Mel took another step, the knife still pointed at him.
James’s heart sank into his stomach as he realized the heart of his fear. The fear of facing Mel again terrified him, not only out of fear for Abby, but because of its inevitability. It was an unfinished chapter in James’s life and he knew it was something he couldn’t escape. It had to be closed in order for him to move on with his life. A part of him wished for the day to come sooner than later, and another part of him hoped the day would never come. He had convinced himself that he was content with his current life, dropping off and picking up Abby from daycare, and watching daytime television before grocery shopping for dinner. It was all under control.
And Mel threatened it all. As long as she was alive, James would never have control. Mel stepped in closer, and James made up his mind. He had made up his mind long before this day. Mel lunged in towards James with the knife and James sidestepped her and plunged his knife into Mel’s stomach. Mel let out a gasp and dropped the knife onto the counter. James pulled the knife out of Mel and blood seeped into the towel wrapped around her. She fell to the floor and took in labored breaths. James watched Mel as her blood spread across the kitchen floor. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders as Mel’s breathing grew inconsistent. James took in a deep breath, the last shared breath between him and Mel. He didn’t take his eyes off her until he was certain she was dead. Then he ran both knives under water in the sink and put them back in the block.
Abby had no trouble eating breakfast the next morning. She even finished the soggy bits in the pink milk as she slurped it down. James stood, waiting for her to finish. It was Saturday and he promised that they would go out to the park. There was a playground with a tall jungle gym that Abby loved to climb.
“I can see everything,” Abby said. “I can see our house from up there.” James smiled.
“What’s that smell?” James’s smile retracted.
“It’s bleach, I had to clean the floors yesterday.”
“It smells bad.” Abby finished her cereal and jumped out of her seat, carrying her empty bowl to the sink. James had moved Mel’s body to the car. He knew he couldn’t bury her in the backyard as digging would raise too much suspicion and he couldn’t bear the thought of having Mel that close to them.
Abby’s favorite playground came to mind as it had a small pond nearby. He first moved her body to a plastic storage bin and dragged her out to the garage behind the house where he loaded her up in the trunk of his car. He had made sure to lay the trunk with tarp and had wrapped her in it as well to avoid the blood from leaking out. He found an old luggage case and contorted her body into it. All he had to do was dump the case into the pond.
“Let’s go!” Abby yelled. James grabbed his keys and they headed out the back door to the garage. The door slammed shut and a few moments passed without any jiggling or even a click of the lock.
“Daddy, look!” Abby yelled from the bottom of the jungle gym. James glanced up at Abby, who was hanging by her arms off the first tier.
“Be careful,” James said quietly. Quacking interrupted James’s thoughts and he cursed the ducks under his breath. Not once had he seen ducks at the pond, at least he couldn’t remember. It wasn’t the ducks he despised, but rather who they attracted.
A young couple with a toddler were feeding the ducks at the pond. He had no idea when they would leave or if more families would congregate at the pond. All James knew was that Abby never outstayed her welcome at the playground. Even without his time keeping, she had always managed to scurry over to sit next to him on the park bench after 30 minutes or so. This was always the indicator that she wanted to leave for ice cream. James looked at his watch, it had already been 10 minutes and the family showed no sign of leaving the pond.
“Daddy, look at me!” James looked up to see Abby at the top of the jungle gym, smiling down at him.
“Careful, careful. Take your time coming down.”
James then turned back to the pond where the family was now throwing bread chunks into the water. The mother then turned towards James and walked towards him, and stopped by a tree halfway between the pond and playground. She took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She licked one up from the pack and quickly lit it, puffs of smoke rose through the branches.
James heard rustling from the playground and saw Abby hanging from her legs from the middle of the jungle gym. He looked down at his watch. 15 minutes. He could come back another day, but the body would begin to smell if it hadn’t already. There wasn’t another family in sight, except for the one. There was no better circumstance than now. James got up and rushed towards the mother with the only reasonable action he could think of.
“Hey, hey!” James yelled out. The woman jerked up and saw James storming towards her.
“You can’t smoke here! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I.. sorry. I’m putting it out.” The woman quickly threw down her cigarette and stomped it out. She began to walk away, but James had to drive it home.
“That’s littering! What kind of mother are you?”
“I said I was sorry.” The woman quickly ran back and her husband soon took notice. He grabbed his toddler and rushed towards James and his wife.
“Excuse me, is there a problem?” The husband handed the toddler over to his wife as he stepped in between James and the woman.
“She was smoking! That’s against park rules. You both need to leave.” James angrily pointed to the parking lot.
“Calm down. There’s no one else around and she was nowhere near you or your daughter.”
“I will not calm down until you leave.”
“Ian, let’s go,” the woman said to her husband.
“Get back. Keep Gray back,” Ian waved away his wife and child.
“Daddy!” Abby yelled from the playground. James didn’t turn around, but looked at his watch. It had been 20 minutes and James didn’t want to resort to violence with Abby watching. He had done enough, so he backed up.
“Forget it. Stay here and smoke all you want,” James turned around and headed back to the bench. He knew their day was ruined. They’d have no other option, but to leave the pond in frustration once they saw him sit back on the bench. James was halfway to the bench when he heard Ian curse under his breath and his wife trying to console him. He turned around and saw them heading for the parking lot. James let out a satisfied grunt and waited for them to drive off. Once they finally left, James quickly glanced back at the jungle gym to see Abby still hanging upside down, and quickly ran to the parking lot.
“I’ll be right back, Abby!” James checked for any other unsuspecting families or people around and once he was in the clear, he pulled out the luggage case.
It plopped down onto the gravel with a thud and James pulled out the handle and rolled it as fast as he could toward the pond. There was still no one in the area, so he wasted no time and pressed the handle back into its slot and gathered his strength. He hoisted up the luggage and threw it as hard as he could into the pond.
The case hit the water a few feet away from where James stood, and began to sink. James waited until the case was complete submerged, he looked around again to make sure no one had witnessed this. Relieved, James let out a deep sigh and turned back towards the playground. He checked his watch, it had been 30 minutes. Abby would be waiting for him at the bench. The ice cream store would be open by now and James felt like splurging on a large sundae with Abby. He had earned it. He was finally free.
James walked up to an empty bench and looked to the playground. Abby was still hanging upside down, but one of her legs were off the bar and her arms were caught on the bars awkwardly. Her head was bent on her shoulder as if her head had hit one of the bars after her leg slipped. James ran up to the jungle gym.
“Abby!” He slammed his head against one of the bars, and let out a grunt. He punched the bar with the bottom of his fist impulsively as his forehead throbbed. James quickly untangled her from the jungle gym and checked her breathing. Soft, barely audible. It sounded more like groaning. James ran with Abby in his arms towards the car.
“Abby, can you hear me?” James ripped the car door open and gently laid Abby in the backseat. He jumped into the driver seat and sped out of the lot, kicking up dust in the gravel lot.
Right as he had sped away, another car came in. It swerved right into a spot in front of the pod. Ian stepped out and hustled down towards the pond where he took a picture of Gray feeding his first duck. He must’ve dropped his phone when he heard the man shouting at his wife, or so he hoped. He searched the grass and then retraced his steps to where he had nearly struck the man. That would’ve felt good, he thought. Ian heard ringing back near the pond where he and Gray were. He found the black rectangle lying right in front of the pond and picked up his phone. The sun had come out from behind a cloud and its light sparkled on the pond. Ian felt his anger subside a bit and pointed his phone at the pond for one last picture. As he held his phone up, he noticed something in the water.
A black case floated on the shoreline, stubbornly hitting the edge as if it were trying to get out.