We Should Have Left Well Enough AloneRonald Malfi
Table of Contents
We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone
The Dinner Party
The Jumping Sharks of Dyer Island
The Glad Street Angel
Under the Tutelage of Mr. Trueheart
The House on Cottage Lane
In a Pet Shop
Couples Seeking Couples
The Good Father
All the Pretty Girls
All is Calm
Discussions Concerning the Ingestion of Living Insects
Then There is Boston
About the Author
WE SHOULD HAVE
LEFT WELL ENOUGH
Copyright © 2017 by Ronald Malfi
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
“The Dinner Party,” originally published at the Horror Drive-In, copyright 2010
“Learned Children,” originally published at The Crow’s Caw, copyright 2010
“Knocking,” originally published at Horrorworld, copyright 2010
“The Jumping Sharks of Dyer Island,” originally published in Splatterpunk 2, copyright 2012
“The Glad Street Angel,” originally published in Bare Bone #7, copyright 2005
“Under the Tutelage of Mr. Trueheart,” originally published in Dark Hallows, copyright 2015
“The House on Cottage Lane,” originally published by Cemetery Dance Publications, copyright 2012
“Pembroke,” originally published in Dark Discoveries, copyright 2015
“Couples Seeking Couples,” originally published in 24:7 Magazine, copyright 2003
“The Good Father,” originally published in LampLight, copyright 2013
“The Housewarming,” originally published in Shadow Masters, copyright 2013
“Chupacabra,” originally published in Bare Bone #11, copyright 2009
“All the Pretty Girls,” originally published in Bare Bone #8, copyright 2005
“Closing In,” originally published in Dark Discoveries, copyright 2010
“Underneath,” originally published in Lost Cause Quarterly, copyright 2007
“All is Calm,” originally published in Bare Bone #10, copyright 2007
“Painstation,” originally published in Peep Show #3, copyright 2002
“Discussions Concerning the Ingestion of Living Insects,” originally published in Sick: An Anthology of Illness, copyright 2003
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
JournalStone books may be ordered through booksellers or by contacting:
The views expressed in this work are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.
ISBN: 978-1-945373-97-8 (sc)
ISBN: 978-1-945373-98-5 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-945373-99-2 (hc)
JournalStone rev. date: November 2, 2017
Library of Congress Control Number:2017951478
Printed in the United States of America
Cover Design: Neslihan Yardimli
Edited by: Sean Timothy Leonard
For Grandma, who showed me the truth inside a world of make-believe.
WE SHOULD HAVE
LEFT WELL ENOUGH
There was a café called le Sanglier near Paris and that was where many of the soldiers went to eat. It was a small café and rather dirty-looking, and the windows were grimy with soot from artillery fire. There were tiny wooden tables, circularly cut, placed about the cracked linoleum floor, and men crowded around these tables as if for air. Inside, nearing dark, it was always rowdy. If the weather cooperated, you could sit out back on the verandah and the waitresses would bring you French rum, which tasted old and distinctly of oak, and sometimes, if you were known to tip well, the waitresses would sit and talk with you for a while. Many of the soldiers did not know French and none of the girls knew English, but that did not matter, and it felt quite good just to have someone there and to look at someone pretty while sipping French rum.
The Dinner Party
Two men in long black trench coats follow you into the supermarket. Aside from the coats, they wear wide-brimmed fedoras and mirrored sunglasses. They each have hockey stick sideburns that jet toward the corners of their mouths and black leather gloves on their hands. You don’t know how long they’ve been following you or where they picked you up, but you are suddenly, fully, completely aware of them. Your heart sinks.
The baby is strapped to your chest in a wrap sling yet you hug him tighter, covering his small white head with one hand. It is a warm, soft ball, and you can feel his pulse thudding vaguely in his temples as he sleeps. Your hand is bigger than his whole head. That is good. You don’t want the men in the trench coats to see him. Or you.
You lose them somewhere down the canned goods aisle. You know this because you can no longer hear their dry palm-slap footfalls, can no longer feel those mirrored sunglasses sizing you up behind your back. Absently, you continue to fill the grocery cart but you’re not really paying attention now.
You think, I have made a mistake.
“Ma’am?” He is a teenager—brown-skinned, pimply, bespectacled—and he smiles with oversize teeth while he bags your groceries. His nametag says BYRON. “Help bring these to your car, ma’am?”
You shake your head. You can manage on your own.
Thinking, When did I become a “ma’am”?
Thinking, Byron. Bad name.
The woman ringing you up at the register smiles broadly and looks instantly like something out of a fairytale about distrustful cats. “What a little darling,” she purrs. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy,” you say.
Instinctively, you hug him tighter to your breast. Again, you’re thinking of the men in the coats. “Three months.”
The woman’s smile widens. Inwardly, you cringe. “What’s the sweetie’s name?”
You tell her.
“That,” says the woman, “is a beautiful name.”
Before leaving, you glance around one last time for the men in the black coats. They are no longer there. Suddenly you are overcome by embarrassment, by the shame of paranoia. You nearly laugh, you are so relieved. Because you were wrong. Because no one was there to begin with.
I have made a mistake.
You strap the baby in his car seat in the back of the van. He wakes only briefly to work his mouth around soundless cries, his gray eyes blinking like castanets. You slide the door shut and dig through your purse for your car keys. But you can’t find them. Panic slides a cold barb around your heart. Ridiculous conspiracy theories threaten to tear you apart. You rush to the door an
d tug on it, expecting it to be locked, horrible images of asphyxiation and blinking colorless eyes shuttling through your mind, but it slides open with a groan.
Gray eyes peep out at you. Pink fists jut through Oshkosh sleeves. There are giraffes on the sleeves, pandas on the plush insert of the car seat. You smile and think, It’s a jungle in there, kiddo. You say, “Hey there.” Say, “Hey there, big boy.” Say, “Who’s mommy’s big boy?”
Thinking, This is the funniest thing in the world. Michael would be laughing his head off right now. Michael would be calling me his paranoid pretty and would be laughing his head off. Nice one, girl.
And there they are, in your hand: the car keys.
Back home, you breastfeed while the TV sits on mute. Michael said to expect them around seven, and it’s still early, but you’re not the greatest cook in the world and this is a big dinner. Promotion at work. Michael works hard. His boss, his boss’s wife. Michael promised to bring a bottle of wine. A nice wine. You don’t know the difference between nice wines and not nice wines except to watch the faces of those who drink the wine, but you’re not worried about Michael and his wine. You are thinking of his boss and his boss’s wife—their names. You wrote them down on the back of an envelope but now you can’t remember where you put it.
The baby finishes suckling and begins to whine. You pick him up, dress him over one shoulder, thump his back with an open hand. You go into the kitchen, eyes darting about the countertop. The groceries are still splayed out, the grocery bags on the floor. No envelope. No names.
The baby burps. It’s like a ghost vacating his tiny body. You kiss his head, holding him close to you. You are suddenly so close to tears you’re frightened. The envelope, the fucking envelope—
Is on the refrigerator. Strawberry magnet.
“There we go,” you whisper into your baby’s ear. “See that? There we go. No sweat.”
Tony and Eliza Sanderson. Great block letters, all capitals, in felt marker. You wrote it last night in the bathroom after Michael told you. Because you didn’t want to forget. This is important to Michael, this dinner.
It’s now three o’clock and you put the baby down for his nap. He goes willingly, already asleep before you set him in his crib. Cartoon lions with bushy brown manes caper on the spread and there is a mobile above the crib with colorful felt airplanes hanging from it. The room smells of baby powder, Desitin, ammoniac wet-wipes. In the crib, those pink fists uncurl, the baby snores his tiny snores, and you’re already fretting about dinner.
You’ve done this before, though you’re not the greatest cook. You prep the roast, adorn it with spices and cloves, set it in the pan, preheat the oven. You decide to do scalloped potatoes but, fuck it all, they come out looking like grimaces and you can’t stand to look at them. So you smash them up in a ceramic dish and, voilà, they’re mashed potatoes. You use your mother’s recipe for green bean casserole, following the instructions like someone assembling a rocket, reading every line three or four times because you’re terrified of getting it wrong. Twenty-nine minutes.
Behind you, the oven buzzes. Opens. Food goes in. You’re sweating, but feeling good. Things are cooking now, ha ha.
Thinking, Tony and Eliza, Tony and Eliza, Tony and Eliza, Tony and Eliza…
Outside, a shape passes before one of the kitchen windows.
You freeze, your first thought, Those men from the grocery store. Your second thought: The baby!
You rush to the baby’s room but he has not been disturbed. The shades are drawn over the nursery windows so you can’t see out…but some instinct inside you tells you they are out there, walking around the house, trying to find a way in.
Suddenly, you wonder if you locked the front door.
Racing to the foyer, you make enough noise to wake the dead. You even utter a weak groan when you strike the front door and find that it’s locked. It’s been locked all along. Sweating, you listen, one ear against the door, but cannot hear anything. If there are men in trench coats circumnavigating the house, they are very good at remaining very good.
Or I made a mistake, you think.
You bring your hands up to rub the sweat out of your eyes, but when you look down, you are terrified to see fine silver hairs sprouting from your palms, so much it looks like you are grasping balls of very fine wire.
But there is nothing there. Your hands are fine. A trick of the light, a trick of the eye. Michael’s paranoid pretty, indeed.
Something smells. It’s bad.
In the kitchen, something burns.
“Goddamn it.” You rush in and it’s the potatoes. Stupidly, you left a piece of paper towel stuck to the bottom of the ceramic dish. It burns as you fan pillars of smoke away from the mouth of the oven.
At the sink, you wash your hands, examining them for fine silver hairs, but you are okay. You are not a monster.
You cook. Check baby. Check windows for swarthy figures. You’re able to do this calmly and simply now because you think of it as a routine. You think, Lather, wash, repeat, and try to keep from giggling. You think, Tony and Eliza, and you make a little song out of it in your head to the tune of “Frankie and Johnny.”
The food is cooking now. Really cooking. With Michael’s wine, it promises to be a fine evening. You set the table and actually feel good about how it looks. Outside, the stoop has darkened as the sun sinks below the distant trees. You go into the bathroom and begin to take a shower…but midway through the process—
(lather wash repeat)
—you panic about leaving the baby in his crib with those strange men outside. Naked, wet, soapy, you grab the baby from the crib, wrap him in his blue moose blanket and set him on the bathroom rug. You shower with the shower curtain open so you can keep an eye on him, keeping the water cold so the steam won’t make it difficult for him to breathe. He has tiny lungs.
“There,” you say in his ear when you are done. “Mommy’s all done. She’s going to dress now. Dress and look pretty.”
And you feel his heartbeat echoing in his tiny skull.
In the bedroom, a man stands just beyond the window looking in. It is dark out now but you can see him clearly. He’s dressed all in black, his white ghost-face seeming to hover in the air just beyond the windowpane.
“No,” you say, holding the baby against your wet nakedness. “What do you want?”
The figure says nothing. Does not move.
“Leave us alone.”
The figure does not leave you alone.
It takes all your strength but you manage to cross the bedroom to the window and pull the curtain closed. You can almost hear the stranger’s heartbeat on the other side of the glass. Still clutching the baby to your body, you go to the nightstand and pick up the phone. You dial 911, listen to the rings. But when a woman’s voice answers, you hang up. Because you’re overreacting. Because, okay, maybe you’re jealous of Michael a little too, and jealous of his taste in wine and his promotion and his Tony and Eliza, and 911 is your sabotage to the dinner party. But that’s not true, either. Not really. Jealousy is just what you told the doctor. Because you had to tell him something.
You dress, put your makeup on, examine yourself in the mirror. Your breasts have gotten so big…but so have your hips. Your skin looks…grayer, somehow. You think of old photos of Jewish corpses stacked like cured meats. Could just be the lousy bathroom lighting. Briefly, you contemplate changing out all the light bulbs but don’t think you’d have enough time before Michael comes home with your guests.
Still wrapped in his blue moose blanket, you set the baby back in the crib and smooth the fine hairs off his forehead. Soft, warm ball. Chest rises with respiration…and you are suddenly overwhelmed by your love for this little creature, this amalgam of you and Michael, of the successful attorney and the paranoid pretty.
“Oh,” you whisper over the baby, eyes wide.
bsp; Stricken, you rush into the kitchen fearing the worst…but the food looks fine and it’s almost done. It’s just the smell—it seems to curdle in your nose and turn into solid waste in your lungs. You rush to the kitchen sink and gag into the basin. A foamy snake spirals out of your throat. After catching your breath, you run the water and wait as your hot, prickling skin goes back to normal.
When Michael comes home, you are sitting in the living room in the dark, sick to your stomach. The doorknob jiggles and you can hear people talking on the stoop, and the first thing you think of is the man with the ghost-face looking in your bedroom window.
“Hi, hon,” Michael says. He’s beaming, looking handsome in a camelhair suit and a shimmering red tie. He clutches a bottle of what you assume is nice wine. “Oh, you look beautiful.”
You greet him with a kiss on his cheek as his boss and boss’s wife file into the house. They are much younger and handsomer than you pictured them, Tony and Eliza, like a couple straight out of a glamour magazine. You think of horrible light bulbs and sallow, graying skin and are suddenly intimidated by these beautiful people.
“Tony and Eliza brought the wine,” Michael says, carrying the bottle over to the wine bar at the far end of the room. “Dark in here.” He flicks on a light switch as he goes. “Fix you folks a drink?”
The Sandersons agree that a glass of wine would be nice. Tony shakes your hand and Eliza smiles and looks suddenly hideous. How did you think this woman was beautiful only moments ago?