Source images courtesy of Pixabay

A Theory of Exchange

Right choice of gifts, wrong choice of men

Delilah’s breath frosted the glass when she parted the living room curtains.

Perry Como crooned “may your every wish come true” from her mother’s stereo. Come true, at least, while merry bells rang. Delilah squeezed her fingers tighter. Tighter.

No bells in this house. No happy holiday. Just happy hokey Christmas music and the warble of her mother’s mechanical canary. She wiped the frost with her sleeve and prayed she wouldn’t see a red Ford pickup driving past.

The view from the window was fractured by spider veins of ice.

Three feet of snow buried the hedges. Even the ground beneath the chestnut tree was knee deep with snow. Branches that reached to twenty-five feet drooped under the weight.

Delilah missed Texas and the sun shining through her kitchen window, a kitchen she abandoned two days before to avoid eviction. She missed her job of the last five years, a job she lost when the firm declared bankruptcy.

She rubbed her silver locket — a silver locket engraved with a ballet dancer — while she studied the street for Bodie’s headlights. Rather, the fog lights from his Ford Super Duty half-ton truck, lights that sliced through drifting snow. It would be next year’s model. Fire engine red. Spotless, shiny and more expensive than a one bedroom home.

Her mother forgot the nights when Bodie battered the front door with fists and boots while Delilah hid in the back. Forgot the dozens of 9–1–1 calls to when she feared for both their lives.

Her mother offered her a tea cup wrapped in a knitted cozy. “Calm down. He’ll never discover you’re back. Sit with me and enjoy the music.”

“I’m enjoying the snow.”

Her mother dropped into the rocking chair, turned it toward the fire so her back faced Delilah. “You should give that locket back to Bodie. The one you keep fondling.” The floor groaned from the fury of her rocking. She’d forgotten the nights when Bodie battered the front door with fists and boots while Delilah hid in the back. Forgot the dozens of 9–1–1 calls to when she feared for both their lives.

Bodie didn’t give Delilah the locket.

After she fled, after the court awarded the divorce, her mother’s memory waned. “Bodie wasn’t so bad. You didn’t give him a chance.”

Easy to say when Bodie bought her a new car after hers died. And dispatched his father’s immigrant laborers to mend her fence or fix her sink within minutes of her call.

Whereas her daughter Delilah ran to Texas where no one could find her, not even family. Leaving Bodie to turn on the charm and hook them on his particular brand of heroin.

“It’s okay to tell us where you live,” her mother said often during FaceTime chats from coffee shops or YMCA computers. “Who’s going to tell him?”

Bodie didn’t need to be told. He’d find her address on a scrap of paper by the phone after her mother jotted it down, afraid to forget. When he delivered firewood, or venison he killed, and she left him unsupervised while she made coffee.

Or she’d confess to Father Duncan after one of his homilies about God weeping when families divorce. Father Duncan would notify Bodie out of Christian duty.

Delilah’s sister Jez planted the idea that Bodie gave her the locket at dinner the night before. Six-years-older, but she wore her blouse tied at the waist and jeans cut low. A tattooed tongue disappeared down her ass crack.

She was working on her third can of rosé. She arrived with a six-pack to celebrate Delilah’s return even though neither Delilah or her mother drank. “I can’t believe you kept his locket.” She nodded with her nose because her hands were occupied with a rosé can and cigarette.

“I found it when I was ten. I didn’t know Bodie.”

Jez set her can on the table. Sangria lipstick circled the rim. The same shade as her toenails, which poked from the high-heeled sandals she wore even in the coldest winters.

“Was that the night you left food for the fairy in the woods? Or was it a troll?”

Their mother tapped her fork on her glass. “We will not discuss that.”

When she was ten, Delilah claimed an elf lived in the woods. Not a fair skinned, pointy-eared Peter Jackson elf with long blonde hair and pale eyes, but a bloated elf with horned nose, spiked teeth and boulder-sized hands that dangled between his knees and ankles. Two years of therapy followed.

Jez pitched her empty can over Delilah’s head and into the waste basket. “That’s right. Never discuss Delilah’s delusions.”

Their mother set her fork beside her plate and buried her face in her hands.

“That” occurred on Christmas Eve, twenty years before.

Delilah had seen the elf twice. The first time when she took a shortcut through the woods because she stayed too late at her friend Jenny’s house. On a fall day with the sun so low that shadows masked the ground. She entered a clearing where he squatted on his knees to dig.

When she was ten, Delilah claimed an elf lived in the woods, an elf with horned nose, spiked teeth and boulder-sized hands that dangled between his knees and ankles.

“Excuse me,” she said, as her mother taught her to do when she entered the wrong room.

He bolted into a thicket.

On Thanksgiving day, just before bed, she opened her bedroom window for fresh air and spotted him on the lawn. He shivered, rubbed his arms and stamped his boots. Her window light reflected in his eyes and, with that reflection, the loneliness of the world.

Jez raced past her door to the bathroom. (As usual, she’d siphoned too much of their father’s whiskey.) “Close the goddam window, you moron.” She wrapped her hand over her mouth, heaved, and dashed away.

When Delilah returned her attention to the yard, the elf had vanished.

On Christmas Eve, after Santa delivered the presents, after her parents closed their bedroom door, Delilah microwaved a cup of hot chocolate and laid half a dozen cookies onto a china plate. She crept through the snow and left her gift at the foot of the chestnut tree.

The next morning, the cup and plate had vanished. In exchange the elf left a locket. Her locket.

She scrambled from the yard, blew past the back door and tumbled into the living room, still in her flannel nightgown, her slippers covered with snow. Jez glanced up from the gifts, which she sorted into her pile and everyone else’s.

Delilah’s excitement stole her voice. She hooked her thumbs beneath the chain and held out the locket.

A grin erupted on Jez’ face, a wicked grin, the grin of the witch who trapped fresh children in her oven. “Mom? Dad? Deely stole a necklace.”

The locket dropped against Delilah’s chest. Her mouth leaped in front of her brain. “No. I left cookies and cocoa for the elf. He gave me the locket.”

Her mother’s first question. “Left cookies and cocoa on what?”

“One of your pretty blue plates. And cups.” Did they expect her to leave cookies in the snow?

The cupboard door wrenched against the screw. Seconds later it slammed. “Where’s my good China?”

“The elf took it.”

Delilah surrendered the locket. Her father locked her presents, unopened, in the attic. “Stop this elf nonsense and tell the truth.” No Christmas dinner for Delilah. She sat in her room with her nose in the corner.

After the new year, when she refused to recant, her parents started sessions with Dr. Gillian. Sessions that lasted until she believed she made up the elf to explain the missing china, china she broke by accident. And the locket? Someone must have dropped it by the sidewalk.

Delilah surrendered the locket. Her father locked her presents, unopened, in the attic. “Stop this elf nonsense and tell the truth.” No Christmas dinner for Delilah.

That summer Delilah sneaked the locket from her mother’s jewelry box and buried it beneath her window. Her mother never noticed its absence.

She unearthed her treasure in middle school and wore it hidden under her shirt.

Christmas Eve.

Delilah parted the curtains to survey the street.

Her mother set a cup of coffee on the buffet. “Keep opening the curtains and if he does drive past, he’ll see you for sure.”

Delilah didn’t hear. A red pickup with fender guards, snub-nosed hood and military style grill rolled past. No, it eased past, five miles an hour. A magnetic decal read, “Burke Construction.” She stepped into the shadows.

The driver’s arm draped the seat, his left hand drooped over the wheel. He wore a brown bombardier’s jacket and his blonde hair plastered with mousse — his wardrobe since high school.

Delilah twisted the curtain cord between her knuckles. “You said he’d never find out.”

Her mother buried her face in a Watchtower. “He’s putting on a show. To rile you.”

Bodie cruised past in the opposite direction. He circled the block and drove by three more times.

This was no show. Bodie was declaring his intention to reclaim her, which meant she should bail before he escalated to home invasion.

That night, her mother ran her playlist of carols through the stereo. Carols about Jesus’ birth. Even the pillow over her head couldn’t drown the melody. Away in a Manger, the song that played on the stereo the Christmas Eve when she told Bodie she was pregnant and praying a child would solve the rift in their marriage. Provide a talisman to ward off his blows.

Even the pillow over her head couldn’t drown the melody of Away in a Manger, the song that played on the stereo the Christmas Eve when she told Bodie she was pregnant and praying a child would solve the rift in their marriage. Provide a talisman to ward off his blows.

He pulled her into the hall, away from the family. He wrapped three silver dollar rolls in his fist, his technique for “tuning fuck ups” on his father’s construction sites, and slugged her stomach three times. No bruises. she slid down the wall to the floor as Nat King Cole crooned, “little Lord Jesus/no crying he makes.” Her baby’s blood stained her jeans.

The song played on the stereo during the drive to the hospital. “You should’ve been more careful,” her mother said. “Babies are fragile.”

At three in the morning Delilah trudged through the ice-covered snow to the chestnut tree. A tear froze on her cheek when she draped the locket over a branch.

She’d stay through tomorrow night, pray for the best then rent a cab to Columbus with the money hidden in her shoe. Catch a bus to Arizona. Her former roommate gave her the address of a Phoenix shelter.

She’d leave her remaining baggage in the bedroom closet. No attachments, not even a locket. Nothing to lead him to her.

Christmas morning.

Exhausted, Delilah slept until noon. She bounded to the window when she woke, barefoot on a hardwood floor.

No locket.

She braced her hand to her breast. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Confirmation certainly.

She stuffed two sweaters and a pair of jeans into her bag and searched for a taxi on her phone. The door bell chimed. She flattened against the wall. Planned her escape route.

“Delilah, it’s the police.”

Two cops congregated with her mother by the front door. A man in department issue jacket and hat, and a woman in a blue parka who overshadowed her partner in bulk and height. Delilah’s mother dabbed her eyes with a cloth napkin. Red blotches mottled her cheeks. She nodded toward the man.

He removed his hat, revealing a bald scalp tinged blue from the cold. “Hell of a Christmas, huh? You married to Bodie Burke?”

“I filed for divorce seven years ago, but he never signed the papers.”

The female coughed. “How’d that work out for you?”

“I was hiding in another state. Better stay married than risk him finding me.”

Parka cop introduced herself as Officer Scruggs before holding her iPhone out to Delilah. A phone with Bodie’s photo on the screen, his face bruised and broken. “This your ex?”

Delilah nodded. Jesus, what kind of fire did he light this time?

“Lucky girl. He won’t be looking anymore.” She scrolled to another picture. Her sister Jez.

Was that blood in Jez’ hair?

Her mother folded. The male cop caught her under the arms and steered her to her couch.

Scruggs waved the iPhone. “We’ll need one of you to ID her body.”

Delilah joined her mother, folded the brittle fingers into her own and rubbed them to keep her warm.

According to Scruggs, a runner spotted blood on Bodie’s windshield a block from her mother’s house — Bodie and Jaz’s bodies inside, their necks ripped apart. “We won’t know if it was human or animal until the autopsy.”

Flatt coughed phlegm into his glove. “Don’t forget the house.”

Scruggs ground her boot toe into the entry rug. “You won’t like this.”

A runner spotted blood on Bodie’s windshield a block from her mother’s house — Bodie and Jaz’s bodies inside, their necks ripped apart.

The police searched Bodie’s house. They found videos, journals and years of emails on his computer. Videos of an underaged Delilah undressing, in the shower, on the toilet. Some shot with a telephoto through her window, others taped by Jez. They sold the videos to a private voyeur site, mostly for pedophiles.

Flatt fiddled with the doorknob. “He was knocking boots with your sister while you were playing hopscotch with friends. She put him up to everything. The videos, the gaslighting, the beatings. Only you know why.” He zipped his jacket. “If we find who did it, you should drop by the jail and thank them.”

Delilah’s mother swallowed three Ambien. She locked her bedroom door. Surrendering to the weight of family obligation, Delilah left her mother to grieve and spent Christmas day closing out her duplicitous sister’s affairs — notifying the landlord, identifying her body, arranging the funeral.

When she returned home, she didn’t bother to switch on the lights. She followed the hall light and knocked on her mother’s door. “There’s food in the oven.” No reply.

She propped her arm against the wall to stop her legs from buckling. When she opened her bedroom door a breeze brushed past from her window. The drapes fluttered in the draft. Her mother must have aired the room and forgotten. She collapsed onto her bedspread, too tired to close the window, too tired to undress. She rolled her head toward the nightstand.

A china cup and plate nestled against the table lamp. The cup and plate she left outside when she was ten, left for someone even lonelier than her.

Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.

If you appreciate his stories, please support him with small subscription at Curious Fictions.

To read more stories from December’s Dark & Holy Fiction Challenge visit and follow The Mad River Literary Journal and 13 Days Pub.

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Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T Stephens

Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.