by Daniel Davis
Tammy’s fingers drummed against the coffee mug. For the twentieth time in the past hour, she glanced at the cabinet above the fridge, the one she had to use a stepladder to reach. She could see the bottles inside, beckoning. Just a nip, as her grandmother would say. A dab’ll do ya.
It would also cause complications. Couldn’t have alcohol on her breath, not now. Tonight, she could—and would—get blitzed, without anyone judging her. But for now, the caffeine would have to suffice.
The farmhouse was sweltering. Todd had wanted to fix the air-conditioner, but Tammy had stopped him. If you fix it, she’d said, you won’t have a reason to still be here. And she needed him. Allen was too big and too mean. If she messed up, there would be no second chances and no going back.
Even now, they had one shot, and Tammy had never liked backing herself into a corner like that. Always have an out, always be prepared; her father had instilled her with a sense of caution that still kept her from rash behavior. That’s why she’d stayed with Allen so long. The possibility of leaving was equally as nerve-wracking as the thought of staying.
Even Todd hadn’t been an impulse. She’d thought it over carefully; an affair was serious business and nothing to enter into lightly, especially with a husband like hers. She knew why she’d picked Todd, too, no need for a shrink to explain it to her: he was kind and funny, and bore a vague resemblance to Allen before he’d started drinking so heavily. Todd was also young and impressionable. Tammy was no Mrs. Robinson—she was only thirty-one, for Christ’s sake—but she had over ten years on Todd, and he was at an age where years still conveyed authority, especially when it came to women. The affair had only become possible once she’d reconciled to herself that she was using him as an escape.
Tammy had situated herself in the kitchen, not coincidentally the farthest place in the house from the front door. She sat at the dining table, which had once belonged to her grandparents. Across from her, the closed basement door lurked, taunting. She forced herself to look at it every now and then. Admit and accept responsibility. If you’re going to do something like this, you need to be honest with yourself. No cowering.
Todd strode into the room again, his hands beating nervously against his thighs. He’d had a Coke earlier, and some had spilled on his work shirt; the dark spot was still there, just under the fuzz he’d grown on his chin. She wasn’t sure what look he was going for—a pencil-thin mustache and thin hair under his lower lip, a poor man’s goatee. She was certain he wanted to look older, just as she was sure that she’d brought about this urge. But with the panic in his eyes as he glanced quickly at her, he seemed almost a boy still.
Poor kid, she thought. He still believed this had been his idea.
“Sit down,” she said, using the same passive tone as all the other times she’d offered. “You’ve been pacing this whole time. You won’t have any strength left when the time comes.”
He didn’t sit, but he did stop walking. As he turned to her, Tammy forced her fingers to be still. He couldn’t see how nervous she was.
“I keep thinking about what I’ll tell my kids someday,” Todd said. “Isn’t that stupid? I don’t even know if I want kids.”
“Hopefully you won’t tell them anything,” she said. “This isn’t the kind of thing families discuss around the dinner table.”
“I want a beer so bad.”
“You can’t have one. Not until later.”
“I know. I just said I wanted one.”
She ignored the tone and smiled at him to show she understood. Smiling felt wrong, however, so she turned to look out the patio door. The sky was perfectly and disturbingly blue, unmarred by a single cloud. Beneath lay endless green fields of soy beans, which had once belonged to Allen’s parents. They’d sold the property to a corporation the year Tammy and Allen married, keeping only the house as a wedding present. They’d known their son didn’t have the temperament for farming, which made Tammy wonder what else they’d known about him but hadn’t let on. In the years to follow, she would come to see the marriage as a passing of the torch, of sorts. Here, Tamara honey. He’s your burden now.
“What’re your parents like?” she asked.
Todd blinked. “What?”
“Your parents. You’ve never told me about them.”
“You’re trying to distract me, right?”
She shrugged. “I was just thinking.”
He looked at her for a minute, then pulled out a chair and sat down opposite her, staring at the floral placemat in front of him. A small bead of sweat trickled down the ned of his nose and plopped onto the table. Tammy made a note to wipe it away later, just in case.
“I’m acting like an idiot,” he said.
She shook her head. “No. You’re acting like a man with a conscience. It’s sweet. I’m not used to that.”
“It’s not that I think it’s wrong.”
“He deserves it. If anybody does, it’s him. I get it. I’m not backing out. I’m not leaving you alone with him again.”
“I know, Todd.”
He looked up. “I just don’t want to do it. Does that make sense? I dunno if I can get away with it. If we can get away with it. And I mean…” He licked his lips, trying to find the words. The gesture was so innocent, so unconscious, that Tammy had to struggle not to reach across the table.
“It’s a big step,” she said. “Is that it? It’s a huge commitment. Kind of like marriage, except this one really is for life.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Yeah, exactly.”
She glanced at the clock on the oven. “He got off work ten minutes ago. By now he’ll be on his fifth or sixth pull from the bottle of Jack Daniels he keeps in his truck. He won’t be wasted when he gets here, but he’ll be drunk enough, and drunk people fall down stairs all the time.”
“If it doesn’t kill him?”
“That’s why you’re here.”
He bit his lip and went quiet. Tammy watched him; his eyes seemed intent on memorizing every grain of wood in the table. She didn’t doubt his resolve; he would go through with it, and would keep quiet afterwards. He had a healthy streak of self-preservation. That, combined with his belief that the plan was his, would keep him from ever confessing, trying to pin it on her. She felt bad about this, about having pulled him into the corner with her. But the choice had been his, and he was the kind of person to choose this path, just as she was the kind of person to put the idea in his head and cultivate it. Guilt hadn’t stopped her, and it wouldn’t stop him. A lot of sleepless nights lay ahead of them both, but they would accept the consequences of their actions and deal with them accordingly.
She snuck another glance at the hidden liquor bottles. Her gaze naturally shifted back to the basement door. Every day after work, Allen buried himself down there; that’s how she’d come to think of it. He had a small woodshop downstairs, nothing professional but certainly more ambitious than a casual hobby, and when he was at a certain level of intoxication he liked to fondle his creations and marvel at what he’d carved. She couldn’t blame him; he had a way with a carving knife, a talent she once thought meant more than it turned out to. He had a gift, but the beauty he created with his hands spread to the other facets of his personality only temporarily. Maybe the booze had spoiled it, but she didn’t think so. She thought maybe there was something she’d missed in those early years. Fights about nothing that were more than just harmless lovers’ quarrels. Curses muttered under his breath. Moody spells that went deeper and lasted longer than her own. Things easy to ignore when they happened because she had wanted them to mean nothing.
But she had no sway over the past. Not even her own. She could control the present, and to an extent the future. Best to leave it at that.
“They’re normal people,” Todd said.
Tammy started and looked at him. He still had his head down, but was now toying with the placemat, sliding it back and forth. The fabric made a faint hiss against the tabletop.
“My parents. They’re plain. Ordinary. I mean, I can’t complain, you know? They’re just…normal.”
She took a sip of her coffee, cold now.
“You mean unlike us?” she said.
“Yeah. I mean, normal people don’t do this.”
She nodded. “That’s true. This isn’t normal, and I suppose that means we aren’t normal, either. But he isn’t normal. That’s why we’re doing this.”
“I guess, then, if he were normal, you and I wouldn’t have…”
“That’s one way of looking at it, if you want. But there are other ways, and I prefer them.” She leaned forward. “There’s nothing that’s going to make this okay, Todd. I’ve struggled with it too. What you have to accept is that it’s never going to be right. It’s just necessary. Just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
He grunted softly. “That actually kinda makes sense.”
She tried smiling again. “It’s not rocket science. It just looks like it.”
He reached across the table, grabbed the coffee mug, and took a big gulp. He winced t the temperature but swallowed it down. Tammy pulled the mug back to herself, remembering to wipe it off later.
Todd coughed, a wet phlegmy sound that felt, to Tammy, like a dam breaking.
He looked at her and said, “Are we bad people?”
She met his eyes for a moment then glanced away, out the sliding glass door. A bird flew over the house, a vulture or crow, its shadow large enough to cut a swath across the yard and out over the fields. Tammy shivered, her mouth dry. She raised the mug to take a sip but Todd had finished it off. She put the mug down and pushed it aside.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “We’re just doing what needs to be done. Like I said, it’s necessary. Maybe we aren’t good people anymore, if we ever were. Who’s to say? But we’re not bad. We’re just a part of this. That’s all.”
Todd swallowed and nodded. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and nodded again. After a moment, he stood up and slid the chair carefully back under the table. Wooden legs screeched against linoleum. Todd offered her a smile, weak but hopeful, and left the room.
She listened to his footsteps as he resumed pacing. Steady, monotonous. Rhythmic, as though he were walking to a melody in his head. She’d known he would be able to go through with it, even if it didn’t sit well with him. Because he was a good kid, and good people sometimes had to do things that, because they were good, made them feel terrible.
Tammy wondered if this applied to herself as well. She still didn’t have an answer. She wasn’t even sure if she believed everything she’d told him. She only knew that it didn’t matter anymore. She was going through with it—good, bad, or indifferent.
Todd’s footsteps ceased. Tammy tensed, her breath cutting short. After a second, the unmistakable sound of ties in the gravel our front. Then Todd, running up the stairs, out of the way.
Tammy breathed out slowly. Part of her wanted to run, but it was a small part, weak and muffled. She felt a strength she hadn’t anticipated but welcomed gladly. Todd was upstairs and wouldn’t come until she signaled. Now, at the precipice, she was completely on her own. Alone. For the first time all afternoon, for the first time in weeks, everything felt as it was supposed to. As it had to be.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing