To Love and Protect

Originally written: May 14, 2014

    Fred Jameson’s blood dried on Eric’s fingers.
    His sticky hands groped the worn steering wheel, chipping away specks of sun-dried leather. Empty beer bottles clinked against his truck’s bouncing passenger door. He watched his family’s farmhouse jolt with each veer of his truck on the gravel driveway.
    Jane stood in the kitchen, washing their few nice plates. From the window, she watched the approaching dust cloud cross the open prairie. Upon seeing her husband’s truck instead of Fred’s, her breath quickened with each swerve of its tires. Eric had been drinking, and the recognition made her long-faded bruises tingle. Fred never stopped by as planned, which thickened her blood even more.
    “Children,” Jane said. The glass in her hand slipped through the water and plunked against the basin. “Babies, go outside.”

    Lindsey, the oldest, stopped breading slabs of pork at the dining table. Her wiry, wheat-blonde ponytail hung defeated by the humidity.
    “Who is it, Mama?” Lindsey asked.
    Her mother’s slender back never moved, making her black, polka-dot dress lie still in the stale air.
    “It’s your father. He’s been drinkin’.”
    A blaring horn punctuated her statement.
    The pressure built against the walls as Eric’s truck reached the gravel plot surrounding the home. A pressure lost during his recent three-month sobriety stint, but now that was broken. His foreboding presence sucked his family’s sense of security away with the speed of a tornado.
    Owen had the worst fear. The middle child and only son, he chose to be forgotten by always hiding. He dropped a fork he had been playing with, which knocked against the table’s edge before rattling against the linoleum floor.
    “Owen, wait,” Lindsey called. “Take Margie!”
    Owen was gone before the tinging echo faded from the room.
    Lindsey grew anxious from her mother’s rigidity. She clapped her hands, dusting them off, and scooped Margie up from her seat.
    Eric’s truck skidded to a halt too close to the house. Rocks sprayed against its siding, even pecking the kitchen window. One left a tiny, crystal “X” in the pane.
    Fred’s watch rattled in the dashboard’s storage slot. Eric grabbed the device, his calloused fingers rubbing across Fred’s engraved initials on the watch’s back. His fist squeezed shut, trying to break the timekeeper down to its hands and cogs.
    As he slammed his truck’s door, Eric locked eyes with Jane through the kitchen window. Birds sang from their land’s bordering tree line. Her face was unmoved until she turned, breaking their connected gaze.
    “Lindsey, you get your sister outside, okay?” Jane said. “Go to the barn, the shed, wherever. Find Owen if you can.”
    Lindsey bounced Margie in her arms, trying to get a secure and comfortable hold on her. Margie fidgeted. Her eyes squinted as she tried breaking away from her older sister’s grasp.
   “Margie, stop,” Lindsey said, letting her voice coo.
    Eric’s boots thumped up the front porch steps.
    “Jane,” he called. “Where are you?”
    Jane cupped Lindsey’s cheek with her hand, massaging a water-wrinkled thumb over her daughter’s freckles. Margie fussed and grabbed towards her mother. Jane pulled Lindsey close, kissing her forehead.
    “I’ll be okay,” Jane said. “We’ll be okay.”
    The front screen door swung open with a hiss. Eric’s steps sounded like thunder on the hardwood floor.
    “Go, out the back door,” Jane said, pushing Lindsey towards the living room archway beside the fridge. Lindsey tucked Margie’s head under her chin and disappeared through the dark doorway.
    Eric heard the whispers from the kitchen and watched their moving shadows on the hallway’s floor. The door dividing the entranceway from the living room was open; its handle rested within a hole in the stairs’ wood paneling. When Lindsey entered his line of sight, she looked like Jane fleeing towards the back door.
    “Don’t run from me, Jane!”
    He started for Lindsey, who panicked as her father rushed towards her. Her powdered fingers slipped over the rounded handle, preventing it from turning. Margie started crying from the shouting and threw her head backwards.
    Eric passed the kitchen archway with a dangerous momentum. Jane had waited by the kitchen table, but she rushed after him when he charged towards Margie’s cry.
    “Eric,” Jane cried out. “Eric!”
    She rounded the corner and ran into his back. He had stopped in the doorway by the stairs. The back door swung open, a wind chime’s bells clanged, and Margie’s cry faded into the yard.
    Eric, still clutching Fred Jameson’s watch, whipped around to face Jane.
    “You think you can sleep around behind my back?” he asked, slurring the last part.
    Jane’s eyes met his before averting them to his mouth. The pungent smell of alcohol washed over her face when he spoke. His mud-brown pupils peeked out from squinted eyelids. Creases layered his forehead, trapping sweat in skin reservoirs. Eric’s entire body looked dingy and shadowed.
    He brought his hand back preparing to swing, and Jane tried to diffuse him.
    “Eric, I’d nev—”
    “Shut up!”
    His palm bashed into her cheek, causing her to fall against the wall. Her shoulder smashed into her mother’s portrait. Its frame hit the floor before Jane did— its glass crunching with a twinkling high pitch.
    “Don’t lie, Jane! I know!
    Eric bent down and clutched onto the front of her dress, jerking her around. Jane shrieked as the watch-wielding fist dove towards her face, but it stopped before landing. Instead, Eric’s red-stained fingers shook the familiar item in front of her eyes, forcing her to recognize it. He felt her relax beneath his grasp as she took a strained breath. His stomach twisted at his worst fear’s confirmation: he’d lost his wife to another man.
    Jane saw Fred’s watch, but she focused on the dried red that capped Eric’s fingers. The color spotted his gray thermal long-sleeve, and a button was missing from the neck portion.
    “What did you do?” Jane asked, growing more frantic. “What did you do, Eric?”
    The room’s dim lighting made Eric’s eyes look ashy.
    “What I had to.”
    Jane felt cold. Her husband was not a man but a monster. This was not the man she fell in love with. Shared kisses with. Wanted children with. Instead, he was a creature summoned by the dried-out fields, unpaid bills, and restless nights.  
    “What does that mean? Eric, what does that—”
    “People do crazy things, Jane! Especially love birds!”
    He yanked her to her feet. His hands gripped her wrists in tight binds. Eric looked Jane over from head to toe. His stare pierced her body.
    “Tell me. What’s Fred like most, huh? Your tits?”
    One of his meaty hands squeezed her breast while the other stayed closed on her arm. His chest bumped against her, trapping her against the wall. His breathing, his grunts, vibrated her cheek. Jane’s body went stiff with each forceful grab.
    “Your ass?”
    His palm raced down the curve of her body until he thrust her against him. Though they were locked together, Eric towering over Jane, she stood her ground.
    “Eric, stop!”
    He became more determined to break her.
    “What? The whore doesn’t want a little action?” he said, his voice becoming gravelly with his force. “I bet you didn’t ask Fred to stop!”
    His hands tossed the hem of her dress up. His dirty fingers knocked against her inner thighs. Eric tried reclaiming his conceived ownership over Jane.
    “I said, stop!”
    Jane, pressed against the wall, shrieked and shoved him away. The liquor made him off-kilter, and Eric slumped backwards against the stairs, affording her a chance to escape.
    There was a telephone in their upstairs bedroom.
    Jane hooked her hand onto the railing’s baluster, swinging herself around to the steps. Eric’s hand tried to catch hers, but she yanked it free.
    “Get back here, dammit!”
    Eric’s body fell forward towards hers; the house wobbled beneath him. He thought of Fred Jameson lying beaten and bloody in his grocery store’s parking lot. The town charmer had talked his wife into bed.

    Eric paused briefly at the base of the stairs, regaining his balance.
    “How could you do this to me, Jane?”
    “Eric, I’m sorry!”
    “No, you’re not!”

    Eric’s hand latched onto her ankle and pulled with enraged force. Her fingers desperately tried to hook the railing, but they slipped off the wood. Her elbow cracked against the hard steps with her chin soon to follow.
    Eric yanked her ankle past his chest. She reached for the railing’s support beams, but the polished wood offered no traction.

    “Eric, stop! Let go of me!”
    Their bedroom door grew farther away. Its phone seeming forever unreachable.
    Jane wished Fred’s truck had come up the drive instead. She could have loaded her kids into the back seat and left for good. But now, she had no escape.
    Eric whipped her around so she could face him. He looked at his high school sweetheart, knowing her love belonged to another man. His farm was dying, his family was starving, and his wife was fucking the grocer.
    “Why, Jane?” Eric asked, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her. “Why would you do this to me?”
    His voice cracked at the end.
    She kept facing away from him, but a few glances fell back to his face. Her bottom lip curled in beneath her front teeth. He violently shook her again.
    “Answer me!”
    “Because he took care of me! He took care of our kids!”
    Eric swooped towards her, his nose nudging the side of hers.
    “Excuse me?” he asked. “I take care of my kids.”
    His heated, sour breath rolled across Jane’s cheek. Eric reeked of booze and dirty sweat. His shirt possessed a faint scent of Fred’s cologne, though the splattered blood tainted its smell.
    Jane tried pushing herself away, but Eric’s hands closed on her waist. He trapped her.
    “Jane, I’m a good father, and I’ve tried to be a good husband,” Eric said, his words slow and threatening. “But I’m not losing you to damn Fred Jameson, you hear? I could go finish the job, but I’d rather leave him alive… knowing I know your secret.”
    Jane exhaled through her nose, blowing away his stench of whiskey. Water beads collected in the corners of her eyes.
    “After all I’ve done for you, Jane! After everything I’ve done! I’ve worked my fields till my hands were split just so I could keep food on my table. I fed my children with the food I put on that table.”
    Jane wanted to spit in his face. Eric’s money went towards alcohol these days. Her teeth clenched together.
    “Fred Jameson’s kept food on your table.”
    Throwing another fist, Eric’s knuckles collided with her upper cheek and her eye, knocking her head back against the step.
    “You fuckin’ bitch! Fuckin’ ungrateful bitch!”
    Jane’s head jumbled from the pain. Eric shoved her ankles together and dragged her down the steps, her elbows rumbling over the wood.
    “I’ll shut you up just like your boyfriend, Fred!”
    Eric dropped Jane’s ankles on the kitchen floor, leaving her lying between the two rooms.
    His heart hammered against his chest. Hurt, betrayal, and rage all surged within him. He tumbled through the kitchen, knocking into the dining table. Chair legs scraped against the floor with a low groan. His hand ensnared the carving knife’s handle.
    Jane heard the metal’s slice as he drew it out, its blade grazing the knife block’s slot. Her thoughts grounded, blocking out the pain, and she scrambled to her feet.
    “Jesus, Eric! No! Stop!”
    She needed the phone. She needed 911. Fred. Anyone.
    Her husband advanced towards her. With the setting sun in the windows behind him, Eric was a silhouette. Dusk’s red light reflected off the metal in his hands.
    “Eric, please! Don’t do this!”
    “Shut up! Shut! Up!”
    Eric’s shadow engulfed her. He drew the knife back, prepared for the first dig. His mind raced with the thought of the act, the anger. He would make her feel his pain if nothing else.
    “Fuckin’ whore!”
    Jane’s feet finally caught on the floor, and she made for the stairs again. Eric’s swooping blade narrowly missed her back. She threw the hallway’s coat tree backwards, slowing her husband.
    “Stop, Eric! Stop!”
    Eric tripped over the fallen column, and the knife dropped from his hand, skidding down the hallway to the screen door.
    Twelve steps divided Jane from the bedroom.
    Eric flailed as he crawled over the obstacle towards the knife. Once in his hands again, the knife’s point scraped across the hardwood floor as he stood back up.
    Jane leapt upstairs. Eric chased after her.
    “Food on my table… Food on my table!”
    Jane flung her bedroom door open. Eric was close behind.
    “Don’t you-”
    The wood banged shut, and she prayed the lock would hold.
    The engraved door took the first blow, bulging at the center. Its frame creaked from the force. Eric drummed against the barrier with his fists as he tried to find its weak point.
    Jane fumbled along the bed towards the nightstand and picked up the telephone. The dial tone hummed in her ear as she dialed 911.
    “Oh God, oh God,” she whispered.
    A breeze lifted the white, translucent curtains, revealing her children crouched together beneath the backyard’s tree line.
    Lindsey cradled her hysterical baby sister. She rocked and hummed in an attempt to quiet Margie. Owen curled himself under Lindsey’s arm. They all lurched forward when Jane appeared in the upstairs window.
    “Mama!” Owen shouted, reaching a tear-slicked arm towards the house.
     A flame ignited in Jane’s core. She would protect her children above all else.
    No one had answered her call yet. The door was bound to give. She would leave it ringing, letting the police trace her call.
    Jane dropped the corded phone. The earphone knocked against the floor with a low, dull thud. She went for the dresser drawers where Eric kept his gun.
    Eric’s boot boomed against the door. He caught the railing after the kick knocked him to the stairs’ edge.
    “Open the door, Jane!”
    Dresser drawers squeaked open and clapped shut inside the bedroom. Their brass handles rattled. Jane was looking for his gun. He had changed the drawer he kept it in. Eric threw his shoulder against the panel nearest to the lock. The door jamb crunched under his weight.
    “Eric, please! Don’t do this!”
    Jane found the gun buried beneath his socks. She hoisted Eric’s loaded .357 magnum, keeping her fingers away from the trigger. The barrel dipped towards the floor. In the bedroom’s cracked vanity mirror, worn photos with ripped corners looked back at her. Her younger self smiled on her and Eric’s wedding day.
    “Open the fucking door, Jane!”
    Wood crunched beneath his workman’s boot as the door held its barrier for one last blow.
    Eric heard her in the bedroom. She was near the window next to the nightstand. She was straight-ahead of the doorway. He was going in after her. He backed to the peak of the stairs, drew the knife back, and charged towards the door one last time.
    “I’m gonna kill ya!”
    His body smashed the door open. Slabs and splinters of wood flew throughout the bedroom. His wife screamed, and he found the barrel of his own gun blocking Jane’s face.
    A tiny voice called out from the bedroom phone.
    “911, what’s your emergency?”
    Jane looked at the beast coming for her. He barreled towards her like a battering ram, not slowed down by the door. He was no longer her husband, but if the Eric she loved was in there, she was setting him, her, and their family free.
    A tiny voice called out from the bedroom phone.
    “911, what’s your emergency?”
    Her finger found the trigger.
    “I’m sorry!” she shouted.
    Boom.
    Boom.
    Boom.
    The pistol kicked back at her face, pushing her against the window frame. Eric’s body concaved at his stomach as he stumbled backwards. His hand clutched at one of the new, growing stains on his thermal. His glassy eyes met Jane’s as he backed up to the top of the stairs.
    His body went numb as the floor disappeared beneath him. His wife lowered his smoking gun, dropping it by their bedside. She hurried towards him. He hoped she would catch him, but the ceiling’s white paint raced over his vision before that.
    Eric crumpled down the stairs, leaving streaks of blood on the steps. The stairs rumbled like a passing train. Jane stopped at the banister. Her fist pressed to her lips while her body vibrated, still shaken from the shots. Eric’s head cracked against the hallway floor as his body folded over top of him.
    “Eric,” Jane called.
    He was silent.
    The telephone’s voice was urgent but still carried the volume of a whisper.
    Jane slumped down onto the highest step. Her forehead pressed against the banister’s corner. She screamed, releasing the pain she harbored for years. Her husband lay dead at the base of the stairs, and she was the cause of it.
    “Eric,” Jane said. “Eric, I’m sorry.”
    She felt crushed by the absence in the home, a vacuum that made it difficult to breathe. The knowledge that Eric would never talk, think, or move again horrified her.
    Downstairs, the back door creaked open as the children made their way inside. Lindsey walked in leading Owen while Margie grumbled into her sister’s dress. After hearing Jane’s sobs, their eyes found her hovering against the upstairs banister.
    “Babies, don’t,” Jane whispered. “Go back outside.”
    Their father’s bloodied hand laid still on the floor, poking out from the stairwell. Owen stepped forward, wanting to see more.
    “Owen,” Lindsey said, pulling him back by his shoulder. “Don’t.”
    Lindsey took Margie and Owen back into the living room. She jerked the handle free from the stairs’ wood closed the door, leaving Jane alone with Eric’s body.
    The telephone’s busy tone quacked from the bedroom.
         
    


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