Something Off

Clammy hands claw at the hooded figure that drags the night-gowned woman across the damp grass. Muffled screams for help are quickly silenced by the hooded man’s sudden pressing of a small blade against the woman’s cheek. “You’re going to want to keep that pretty mouth shut, sweetheart. I don’t think Steven would appreciate getting you back with any parts missing.” Her eyes widen and her jaw clamps shut as he chuckles. “That’s much better.” The door of a waiting black van slides open as the pair approaches and another hooded figure helps lift the woman inside. The brakes squeal as the van slowly starts down the street and into the hours of early morning.

——-

Steven wakes a few hours after sunrise and rolls over in bed, his reaching hand expecting to meet the soft skin of his wife’s arms. It crawls between the sheets but hits only empty space. Steven muses aloud, “She probably went downstairs to make some coffee.” He gets out of bed and pulls on plaid pants before heading down the stairs, expecting to see his wife in the kitchen. He sees only an elderly woman in a bathrobe. “Mom, have you seen Alison? She never wakes up this early but she was gone when I woke up.”

“I can’t say that I have. She probably went to some cafe, you know how much she hates my coffee. Not good enough for you big city folks I suppose.”

“Mom she doesn’t hate your coffee, stop saying that.”, Steven peers out the window towards the driveway, “The car is still here.”

“Well, I don’t know Steven, babysitting your wife isn’t one of my responsibilities – which are many by the way. Speaking of, I was thinking of taking Billy and Sally to the zoo today, what do you think of that?”

“Huh? Zoo? Sure mom, yeah sure.”, Steven distractedly replies while searching his phone.

His mom smiles and takes her bagel out of the toaster and sits at the small breakfast nook. “I’m sure it’s fine Steven. You worry too much.” Steven sighs and heads back upstairs. Upon entering his room he notices Alison’s purse sitting undisturbed on the bedside table just as she had left it the night before. He shakes his head, “It’s probably nothing. Maybe she went for a walk.” Steven selects a suit off a hanger and dons it before heading downstairs. “I’m going to work Mom, let me know if you hear from her.” She nods without taking her eyes off her book.

——-

Steven’s eyes glass over as he leads the couple through the various bedrooms and bathrooms, making sure to highlight the unique features. He wonders how many times he has mentioned the “farmhouse style kitchen sinks” and “dual showerheads”. What would he do with all that time if he had it back? He had always imagined a more exciting life for himself. That’s right- while all the other little boys were playing cowboys and Indians (now called Native Americans thanks to the tirade political correct-ness warriors rampaged the country) Steven dreamed of someday being a mob boss to his own team of henchmen. The dark world of secret codes, drop spots, and hit men had always reached towards him with its shadowy tendrils, reeking of cigar smoke and dollar bills. It is funny, Steven thinks to himself, how money had that certain smell that was so distinctly recognizable. Nothing else smelled like that piece of paper and cotton that had passed through maybe billions of hands and had possibly been in who knows how many strippers’ bras, nestled just so between her warm, heaving breasts.

“Steven … Steven!”

Reality rushes back into Steven’s mind just in time for him to see a woman’s face alarmingly close to his. He takes a step back. “Yeah Madison, what is it?” She checks her watch, “Your phone has been ringing for the past ten minutes. You should answer it, we can show ourselves around for a little.” “Great, thanks.” He steps onto the back patio, still distracted by both his wife’s absence and his mobster daydreams. The ringing phone finds its way to his ear.

“This is Steven.”

“Steven Anderson, we have your wife.”

The small metal and glass device falls to the floor and Steven quickly scrambles to retrieve it and press it to his ear.

“What do you mean you have my wife?”

“We have your wife. She is unharmed for now but there is no possibility of escape. The only way you will see her again is to meet our demands. They are unique so you might want to grab a pen… ready?”

“Yeah, yeah I’m ready. Go ahead.”

“There is a shipment that we are interested in. A shipment that is going to be made in one short month by the Lombardi family, I take it that you have heard of them?”

“Yeah, of course, everyone knows that the Lombardi’s run this town. But I don’t understand -”

“You are going to help us find out the location of this shipment. You can assemble your own small team to assist you in gathering information from contacts that we will reveal the names of once we gain them.”

“So you’re keeping Alison until I do all this?”

“No, no – we aren’t monsters. A month is quite a long time for Billy and Sally to be without their mother.”

“How did you…”

“Do not underestimate us, Mr. Anderson, we know far more than you can imagine. On our team is world renowned brain surgeon, Charles Doheny. Have you heard of him? No matter. He has developed an implant that effectively erases one’s defiant character traits and makes them as pliable as putty. They recognize one figure in place of this dominant trait and thus, they follow this figure’s every command and fulfill their every desire.”

“You bastard.”

“No need for profanity Mr. Anderson, I am not that kind of man. I have no desire for your wife’s body, only her eyes. She will be released back to your care and each morning she will report your every move back to me. If you are not following our agreement then I will be forced to destruct the chip, rendering her brain a useless puddle.”

——-

A flowered oven mitt pulls the casserole from the oven. The aproned woman stands in a monochrome blue kitchen suffocating with sunlight. A man sits on the lower end of middle-aged sits at the plated formica table across the room wearing a dark blue suit. He is studying a newspaper that he’s read twice already. “Steven, can you grab us water please?” He sighs heavily and gets a glass of water and a beer for himself. She places a full plate in front of him and a light plate in front of herself at the table. He sips the beer and begins eating.

“Is is good?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”, he responded without looking up from his plate.

“Just fine?”

“Goddamnit Alison I don’t know what else you want me say. It’s just as good as all the other casseroles you’ve made. No better, no worse- just fine.”

“Okay.”

A young boy and girl lay in the carpeted hallway peer in between the stair railings over the living room. “I think they’ve forgotten us again”, the boy says. “I don’t think so. Maybe they just haven’t invited us down yet.” The boy frowns and pushes himself off the ground. He runs down the stairs, the girl reaches for the ankles to stop him but is too slow.

“Hey mom were you planning on feeding Sally and I tonight or are we being left to fend for ourselves again?” The woman looks up from the table with wide, startled eyes and says nothing. Billy walks into the kitchen and gathers things to make PBJ sandwiches. His father grabs his arm as he’s leaving.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going with that?”

“I’m making dinners for Sally and I since mom apparently doesn’t plan on feeding us … again.”, Billy squirms under his father’s fingers.

“I paid for this food. Your mother is in charge of deciding who eats it. You have not contributed and she has decided that you and Sally are not eating it tonight. So you’re not eating it tonight.”

“Come on dad, I really think she just forgot.”

The two look towards Alison, one with pleading eyes and the other with a hard-set jawline and steeled eyes. She looks down and picks at her food. He snatches the bread and jars from Billy’s arm as Billy slithers from his grip and runs upstairs. He tackles his bed and begins to cry into his pillow. “Billy, it’s okay. You tried. You really did.”, the voice comes from Sally in the doorway. Her comforting words are met only by soft sobs muffled by Billy’s Star Wars pillow.

Downstairs Alison begins to clear the plates and clean up the kitchen. As the sun set outside she went to sit on the flowered couch next to Steven who had taken off his sport coat at some point. He scrolled through news apps on his phone while she flipped through channels on an antennaed television set. 

——–

The grocery cart lists to the right side as it pushes along the faded linoleum flooring. Harsh lights illuminate the isles from frozen shelving compartments. Sally carries a torn piece of paper and collects things in her small arms to toss over the high sides of the cart. Billy hangs off the side of the cart, being pushed by their mother. A women with a short blonde bob in a tea-length floral dress rounds the corner into their isle. “Oh hello Alison, I didn’t know you were back out and about.”

“Hello Karen. Yes I am, thank you for your concern.”

“Oh, you misunderstand. I never said I was concerned.”

Karen walks through the isle without picking up anything and exits at the opposite end. Billy looks at Sally, a question in his cocked eyebrow. She shakes her head, dismissing the discussion before it can ever happen. Sally speaks up, “Mom maybe we can help you make spaghetti for dinner tonight. Does that sound good?” Alison looks down at her and shakes her head, seemingly confused to see her standing there next to the cart. “Yeah sure. Yes, we can make spaghetti”, she smiles then and looks back  and forth at her children, “Yes, spaghetti. All together like how it used to be. That sounds nice.”

——-

They pull up the driveway in a faded brown station wagon. The children exit from the rear-facing third row and round the car to help carry groceries from the second row. They push open the front door with a rustling of plastic bags to see Steven sitting in the living room. Four burly men sit near him with open notebooks. Steven’s head sharply turns- annoyed at the obvious interruption. Alison mumbles a quiet apology and ushers the children into the kitchen and pulls the curtains that lead to the living room together.

——–

“Jesus Neev, go easy on those turns. We don’t want to lose him just yet.”

“Hey Steven, how much longer?”

Steven rolls his eyes and speaks through his sigh “No more than 10 minutes.”

His ragtag group was obviously new in the world of crime that he was quick inducting them to. He relents to himself internally, well I did round them up from Craigslist- a cheap substitute for the gang squad he had always dreamed of. 

The black ford impala tears down the empty road that leads straight to the docks, which were currently being licked by the dark waters that reflected the moon the way the ocean only did at three in the morning. The car shudders to an abrupt stop at the entrance to the dock; all four doors open and five pairs of black boots hit the gravel, kicking up the small pebbles as they walk together towards the dented bumper of  the car.

“Hey Steven, I know this isn’t the best moment to be sayin this but I really gotta piss.”

“Fine. Whatever. Go piss off the dock or something and try not to draw too much attention to yourself.”

One pair of black boots heads down the salt soaked wood planks to the dock while the other four pairs remain huddled around the trunk.

“I think you should open it Steven”, the other pairs of boots ardently agree with this suggestion.

“Fine. I’ll open it- just don’t fuck this up for me okay? If this is going to work out for us then this needs to go well.”

The boots nod their reassurances of expected good behavior. Steven heaves open the heavy trunk to unveil the middle aged man resting inside- eyes wide with hands and feet bound like a freshly hunted boar.

“So Russell, are you ready to tell me what you know about the Lombardi shipments now?”

The body in the trunk, presumably Russell, shakes his head in defiance and curses around the gag in his mouth.

“That’s a shame Russell, that’s really quite a shame. I thought all this trouble that I’ve gone through would be made worth it by your confession of closely held family secrets.”

Steven sighs deeply, “Well, Se La Vie. Dump him.”

Steven walks back towards the front of the car and gets into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind him. The boots work together to life struggling Russell out of the trunk and walk him down the dock – past Neev who is still peeing somehow – and toss him in the water. Neev’s stream peters out and they all return to the Impala together. “We did it boss. He’ll be swimming with the fishes in no time.”

“You idiot, the phrase is ‘sleeping with the fishes’, not swimming. He’s not turning into a goddamn mermaid.”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

“No. No, it’s not. Did you put the weights around his ankles or his wrists?”

“What weights?”

Steven contorts his body so he is facing the man speaking from the backseat, “The weights in the trunk. The weights that will pull Russell to the bottom of the ocean so he will no longer be our problem. the weights that will make sure he drowns before he figures out how to untie himself.”

“Oh, those weights.”

“Yes, those weights. Where did you tie them?”

“They’re still in the trunk.”

Another boot speaks up, “Guess he might be swimming with the fishes after all eh Steven?” The grin on his face quickly dissolves once Steven’s full rage breaks through his mask of understanding.

“THE TRUNK?! They’re still in the GODDAMN TRUNK?! You have got to be fucking kidding me right now. Please, for the love of all things good and holy, tell me you are fucking kidding me right now.”

“No boss, I’m real sorry though. Maybe we can get him back and tie the weights on?”

“Get out.”, Steven’s face has turned bright red and it looks as though the pressure in his head might make his eyes pop out like bullets aimed at their target.

“What?”

“Get. Out. Get out of this motherfucking car and walk home you morons.”

“But-”

“No. Get out.”

The boots grumble in anger as they reluctantly slide out of the car. Steven shifts into the driver’s seat and whips around the Impala at full speed, spewing gravel in a soft arch towards the four men who watch him go.

“Well what the hell are we supposed to do now?”

——-

Soft light from the hallway slicing through the solid darkness of the bedroom as Steven slinks through the small opening. Alison stirs in bed as he sheds his suit and drapes it over the corner armchair. “How was work?”, she whispers from underneath the mountain of blankets. “It did not go according to plan.”

“Oh I’m sorry. Did the couple not like house? You really went out of your way for this deal, showing it to them at an hour like this. What did you say they did for work again?”

“They work as personal assistants to some higher ups at a bank.”

“And that’s why they were only available to see the house at 3 in the morning?”

“Yeah. They aren’t off the clock until the bankers go to bed and they stay up very late counting money.”, Steven reported while taking perching on the side of the bed to remove his shoes.

“Okay that makes sense.”

“Of course it does.”

He slips into bed beside her and rolls away from her expectant puckered lips. She sighs and shifts to lay on her side facing the framed family portrait on the wall.

——–

“Sally did you hear that?”

Billy’s question is met only with silence. He lifts his legs and pushes against the bottom of her bed, a few feet above his own. She shifts under her blankets and he kicks the bed again. “What Billy?”, she mumbles, still heavily under the influence of sleep.

“Dad just came home.”

“Okay, so what?”

“Doesn’t that seem weird to you?”, Billy gets out of bed and stands on the side railing so he is eye-level with Sally.

“I don’t know…what time is it?”

“A little after five.”

“Are you sure he didn’t just wake up early?”, her voice was more clear, having shaken off the last dustings of sleep.

“I’m pretty sure, he just now came upstairs and he wasn’t here when mom went to bed.”

“I’m sure it’s fine Billy.”

“Yeah but it doesn’t seem weird to you? Mom’s forgotten to feed us three times this past week and Dad keeps having those weird guys over and it’s just weird, it’s definitely weird I think. Things just haven’t been the same since we got back from grandmas.”

“I guess but I think it’ll be fine Billy, just go to bed. You have a spelling test tomorrow.”

Billy sighs and gets back into his bed while Sally folds her hands over her chest and stares up at the ceiling- searching for shapes in the plaster and a reason for her father’s actions in her mind.

2 thoughts on “Something Off”

  1. This captured my attention in the first paragraph! Had to stop to do life and then finished it this evening. The fact that it stayed in my mind for the entire day and that I was anxious to finish it, tells me the “thread” in the story line was A+. Great story, will there be a part II or will it just have to leave me “wondering” about the family? Loved it, CC! Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

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