Last year, I won first place in the Golden NIB contest from the submissions in my writers’ group, the Riverside Writers. This was the first time I entered a short story in a writing contest. Of course, I was ecstatic.
This story zeros in on the struggles between the parents of a young child. One is goal-oriented and has earned a doctorate and currently teacher English at a local university. The other is in prison for a vicious attack.
Life can sometimes can make a writer take a few pauses here and there. Going forward, I intend to publish more frequently.
I hope you enjoy the story. Let me know what you think.
THIS, JUST IN…
“This, just in, and you heard it first on Channel Seven Action News. Three convicts escaped from the Greenlawn Correctional Prison for Women in Fremont County. They wounded a corrections officer with his own gun before they fled.”
Beads of moisture peppered Peter’s brow. The steering wheel suddenly felt slick.
“…two of the felons have been caught.”
The lines between his brows deepened, as his mouth went dry.
“A third remains at large. “If anyone sees a woman wearing prison garb, an orange jumpsuit, do not approach. She’s armed and dangerous.”
He arrived at the Ida B. Wells Elementary School to pick up his daughter. The steering wheel spun in his hands as the SUV rolled to the back of the line.
Peter Ashburn pulled down the visor, he could barely recognize himself. His face was granite, tense. He closed the visor and snapped off the radio. He exchanged his prescription glasses for sunglasses.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. Take another. It doesn’t have to be her.
Susie waved and a sense of relief flooded him.
He must appear calm.
Susie held her Wonder Woman lunch box in one hand, and a colorful drawing in the other. Finally, it was his turn. A young woman opened the car door and his three-year-old scrambled inside.
“Hi, Mr. Ashburn,” Jane, the teacher’s aide, greeted him with a smile. She reached inside the car to buckle Susie’s car seat.
“Hello, Jane.” He didn’t recognize his own voice.
“Are you alright, Mr. Ashburn?” He nodded to avoid speaking. Jane closed the door and he drove off.
Susie wiggled in her seat like a frisky puppy. Her navy blue jumper askew, she yanked it down to cover her thighs, and then caught sight of the red tomato stains on the cuffs of her white blouse. Susie folded them back until the stains disappeared. Dark curls brushed her collar as she turned to peek at her father. Set in her tan, round face were a pair of glittering hazel eyes. She clapped her little dimpled hands and shouted, “I can hardly wait to get to the party. Are we going home first, Daddy?”
“Of course, pumpkin,” He answered a bit too loud, a bit too frantic. Peter cleared his throat and said softly, “You don’t want to go to the birthday party in your school clothes.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” The child giggled. “I’ve got my pretty yellow ballgown to wear.”
“You certainly do, pumpkin.”
“I’m not a pumpkin today, Daddy, I’m a princess. Only princesses have been invited. I’m
Belle, and Kayla is Jasmine.”
Moments later, they pulled into the driveway of a two-story brick house with an attached garage. Peter alighted from the car and walked around to get Susie.
“Hurry up, Daddy.” She bounced out of the car and ran up the three steps to the door. She planted her finger on the doorbell, so it would ring continuously.
“Hold on, Susie, Kayla’s house is just five minutes away. We have plenty of time.” Peter grabbed his daughter’s lunch box and drawing from the back seat, closed the car door, and walked up to the house. Susie released the doorbell.
A spray of bright, yellow sunflowers depicted on an apron met Susie’s eyes when the door opened. She stared up at the smiling face of Auntie Martha. Her aunt looked like a fairytale grandmother. Her plump frame provided a comfortable lap for Susie when she was sleepy or needed reassurance. Her chocolate brown eyes peered through old-fashioned rimless glasses that dangled from a chain which disappeared between the folds of her neck. Her cheeks were as round as apples. Her short afro adorned her head like a halo. Even her voice with its velvety, musical tone was perfect for reading bedtime stories, often lulling Susie asleep before the last word was spoken.
“My, my, what’s your hurry, Susie?”
Susie swung her arms back and forth as she rocked up and down on her tippy toes. “Auntie Martha, you haven’t forgotten about the princess birthday party, have you?” A smile revealed a dimple on her right cheek. “I’m wearing a crown, too!” The little hurricane dashed past her aunt and began to twirl around in circles like a ballerina.
“I’ve never seen her so excited.” Aunt Martha chuckled nervously as she looked up into her nephew’s brown eyes. Peter’s boyish face belied his thirty-five years. Tall and lanky, he stood slightly over six feet. Cropped brown curls framed an oval face, anchored by a square jaw.
He had the day off and expected to take it easy. Other than dropping Susie to the party, and picking her up, his day was free of commitments. His attire mirrored this intent. Although, clad in a faded Ralph Lauren t-shirt, a pair of well-worn jeans, and mid-priced sneakers, he was as tense as a man waiting to go into surgery.
Peter forced a smile. “Since she received an invitation from Kayla, she’s been planning her own birthday party.”
“I smell chocolate chip cookies. May I have one?” Susie asked.
“Yes, dear, but just one. I made them for the party.” Susie gave her aunt a hug.
“Here, Susie.” Peter handed her the lunch box and drawing before she ran down the hallway toward the kitchen.
Peter grabbed the letters on a table in the vestibule and tossed the junk mail into a nearby waste basket.
Aunt Martha gripped his arm. “Did you hear the news? Do you think it’s her?” Terror filled her eyes.
Peter put his arm around his aunt. “No, I don’t. Keep your voice down. If it was Vickie, we would have gotten a call by now.”
“I am so glad you took my advice and divorced her after what she put you through that landed her in prison. I’m so afraid that it’s…”
“Now, Auntie, let’s not worry until we know we have something to worry about. Promise me, you won’t worry.”
“Ok, I promise,” she said, then dabbed her eyes with her apron.
“Now, what have you planned for tonight?”
“I’m going to Sheila’s,” a sniffle escaped. “You remember Sheila, she has the corner house across the street. We’re having a girls’ night out.”
“Oh, no, don’t tell me the details, Auntie. When you ladies get together…”
“And you will have a nice three hours here on your own. You should be taking out that nice Asia Stevens.”
“I would have, but she’s out of town.”
“I’m glad to hear someone’s captured your interest, and you’re not grieving for Victoria.”
“She’s armed and dangerous.”
Peter shook his head to quiet the newscaster’s voice that wouldn’t go away.
He wiped his damp brow. “Auntie, where Vickie is concerned, you needn’t worry. She’s in the past,” he whispered as he patted his aunt’s shoulder. “I don’t know what I would have done without your kindness, inviting us into your home. After what happened, I couldn’t lift my head in that neighborhood again.”
“I did it for me as much as I did it for you and Susie. It’s been fifteen years since I lost your Uncle Matt. This house is too big for one person. I was lonely and felt useless. Now, I have meaning in my life, a purpose. Nothing brings a house roaring back to life than to fill it with young people. It’s been a privilege to see Susie grow and you make a fresh start. You have made me proud, Peter. After I’m gone, you’ll have this house, a home for you and Susie.”
Peter opened his mouth in surprise, and then worry lines appeared. “You’re not ill, are you, Auntie?”
“I’m fit as a fiddle,” his aunt replied. Peter let out a deep sigh. “It’s all taken care of. The house was paid off years ago. You’ll have nothing but taxes and maintenance to contend with.
Enjoy your night, whatever you do. By the time you get back from dropping Susie off, I’ll be gone.”
Susie appeared and walked toward them. She popped the last morsel of her cookie in her mouth and started to suck the crumbs off her fingers, one by one.
“Stop that, Susie. I hope you’re not going to suck your fingers clean at the party. Princesses have the best manners of any people I know.”
Susie’s eyes stretched wide. “No, Auntie, I won’t forget.”
“Come on, child. You’ll have a bubble bath and then I’ll help you dress for the party.”
Mrs. Graves greeted them at the door of the two-storied colonial. Kayla squealed at the sight of Susie, a frequent visitor, now donned in an exquisite yellow ballgown. Kayla appeared as a tiny version of Jasmine from Aladdin, in a pale blue crop top and wide pantaloons that gathered at the ankle. The girls took off running. Peter handed Mrs. Graves a gift-wrapped box and the bag of cookies. She thanked him, and then stared.
“Are you ok, Peter?”
“I’m fine,” Peter said, taken aback, his hands shook, and he shoved them into his pockets.
“See you at seven o’clock.” Fear exploded like a firecracker and settled in the pit of his stomach.
Admit it. You’re afraid Vickie’s the convict on the loose.
He decided to call the prison for confirmation but wasn’t sure they’d confirm his suspicions on the phone.
After a near tragedy, three years ago, his life had taken a turn in the right direction.
As he drove home, it came rushing back, as clear as day. They had been riding home from his company baseball game. Vickie was in one of her vicious moods. She had accused him of having an affair with a co-worker. Again. This time it was Ellen Langston. Like his teammates, he had smiled at Ellen who had just scored the first homerun for the team. Vickie had seen it. Thank goodness, she hadn’t started on him until they were in the car. It made for a tense ride home.
Vickie yelled, Susie cried, and he struggled to keep his mind on the road. He reached the apartment building and parked the car. Peter opened the rear car door and was about to unbuckle Susie’s car seat. Whack! The baseball bat slammed into his back. He turned around and reached for the bat, but before he could grab it, Vickie took another swing. The next blow brushed the side of his face, but came down hard on his left shoulder. Blood spilled down his clothes. By then his neighbors had seen what was going on. He heard the wail of the ambulance as he laid on the ground drifting in and out of consciousness. Several male neighbors had accosted Vickie and wrestled the bat from her. A group of residents cornered her. She raged and swore until the police arrived.
Peter woke up in the hospital with bandages on his face and back and his shoulder in a cast. The first person he saw was his aunt. It took him more than a month to recover well enough to return to work. He moved in with his aunt, at her invitation, and earned his Ph.D. in English.
An instructor at Beresford University, this year he was in line for an associate professorship.
Every time he had made plans to move, Aunt Martha had talked him out of it. She asked him who would take care of Susie when he had late nights at the university, a stranger? He was glad he had listened to her. Susie adored Aunt Martha.
His social life was the only area that hadn’t kept pace with his progress. Internet dating had been a disaster. Who would have guessed that attending church could hold such promises? He met a few single women, but Asia Stevens had stood out. Tall, graceful and attractive, she planned to start her own law firm with her best friend from high school.
A good conversationalist, Asia had a wide range of interests. While on their first date, Peter felt as if he’d known her all of his life; and, she liked children. It didn’t take Susie long to return her affection. Last week, Susie had helped Asia prepare a dinner of her native foods from Jamaica. Fried plantains were definitely a hit with the little girl.
Peter had to admit that he missed Asia, although they had gone out less than a half a dozen times. He’d call her later once Susie has gone to bed.
Arriving home, he inserted his key and opened the door. “Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha.” No answer. She had kept her word and left before he returned. There it was again, a spike of nerves hit him and spread like spilled wine.
Why couldn’t he just relax? There was something about being in Mrs. Graves’ presence that had cranked up his anxiety. He gasped. Now, he understood. Mrs. Graves smelled of lavender. It generated memories of Vickie. Lavender was her favorite fragrance. He could smell it now. Funny how the brain could recall a scent from the past which could trigger a memory strong enough for one to believe it permeated the air in the present.
He took a deep breath and counted to ten. Peter chuckled out loud to shake off his anxiety. He was alone. Safe. A few hours to himself. The most sensible thing to calm his nerves would be to call the prison. He looked at the numbers held by a kitchen magnet on the refrigerator. He didn’t know why, but he had thought it best to keep the number handy. Never could he imagine he’d have to use it.
He picked up the handset and punched in the numbers. A recorded message in a female voice rattled off a directory. He hit the number to the warden’s office. It rang three times before it went to voicemail. Peter waited a few minutes and punched in the numbers again and again.
He hung up the handset on the wall phone. If it was Vickie, the warden would have called him.
Peter was determined to relax. He’d listen to the news, have a nice cup of tea and curl up on the sofa with a good book. Peter put the kettle on and sat in his favorite easy chair, resting his legs on the ottoman. He clicked the television remote and the theme music from Channel Seven Action News blared.
A female anchor delivered the urgent news. “This, just in …the corrections officer who was shot during the prison break has died. Three inmates escaped from the Greenlawn Correctional Prison for Women this morning. The officer died of three gunshot wounds to the chest. Of the three convicts, only one remains at large. She’s armed and dangerous. She left the prison in an orange jumpsuit with the words Greenlawn Correctional Prison for Women on the back. Do not approach. Call the police immediately at the number listed below. The names of those involved will be released once all family members have been contacted. The authorities have provided a video to the news outlets of the suspects running from the prison facility.
Peter’s heartbeat quickened. The grainy video didn’t provide a positive identification of his ex-wife.”
A creaking sound from upstairs made Peter freeze.
Was it coming from Susie’s room? Calm down. Old houses creak. There’s no reason to be afraid.
But he was. Peter rose from his chair and pressed the power button on the remote. The room was now silent, he held his breath and listened. All was quiet. He slowly walked up the stairs. Long shadows stretched across the hallway.
There it was again. That sound.
As he crept toward Susie’s bedroom something shot out in the dark. He tripped, pitched forward and fell hard on the floor. Pain shot through his knee.
The scent of lavender assailed his nostrils.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow rush toward him. He looked up into the leering face of his ex-wife, Vickie.
“Lavender.” He croaked.
“You remembered. My mom bought me a lavender plant to cheer me up. I’ve got a few sprigs in my breast pocket. Lavender makes me feel calm. Enough with the small talk, now, take me to see my daughter!” She crowed.
My God, is this really happening?
The sight of the gun in her right hand spiked Peter’s fear.
“Vickie, did you hear, the prison guard is dead. You might get life.”
“You’d like that wouldn’t you?”
“Where is Aunt Martha?”
“I clocked her in the head as soon as I saw her. She’s unconscious or better yet, dead.
That snoopy busybody got what was coming to her. I bet she was the one who put the idea in your head to divorce me. She never liked me, and you knew it. What have you told Susie about me?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“Liar. I bet you told her I was dead, like so many husbands do who’ve got a wife locked up. Well, I’ve come back to life, baby.” She let out an eerie laugh, then puffed out her chest and raised a fist above her head.
“Susie won’t recognize you. She was only a few months old when you were arrested.”
“Whose fault was that?” She pointed the gun at him and Peter scooted back. “I haven’t seen my daughter in THREE YEARS,” she yelled. “You could’ve brought her to the prison so we could share some time together, have a relationship, but no! You couldn’t bother to spare me one visit. Get your ass up. Now take me to see my baby. Where is she?”
She waved the gun toward the stairs. He got to his feet and soon felt the barrel of the gun in his back. As Peter reached the bottom of the stairs, he could hear the boiling water hissing in the teapot.
“Would you like a cup of tea before we head out?” Peter asked, hoping the distraction would give him time to develop a plan. “Susie’s at a birthday party.”
“My little girl is at a birthday party?” Her voice softened in wonder.
“Her first. A princess party.”
He led Vickie into the kitchen. For the first time, he got a good look at her. The tangled brown hair fell around her face. Dark smudges were under her eyes. She had gotten chubby, the buttons on the jumpsuit strained to stay closed. Her teeth had yellowed. She must have started smoking again.
He couldn’t help but feel pity for the woman he once loved.
“Is this her?” She stared at the pictures on the refrigerator door. “She’s so beautiful. She has my hazel eyes.” Vickie walked to the refrigerator as if in a daze. She lowered the gun to her side. Peter noticed blood on the pistol.
Aunt Martha’s blood.
Her eyes riveted to her daughter’s images. There were so many pictures of her daughter.
Susie feeding animals at the petting zoo, running in the state park, and fishing at Summer’s Lake with her father and aunt. Vickie ran her finger over the picture of Susie walking down the stairs in her yellow ballgown and crown as Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Aunt Martha had learned how to print photos with the computer.
“She won’t be pleased to see us if we make her leave before they cut the cake and open the presents.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for her.” Vickie continued to stare at the pictures of Susie. Bam! Vickie hit the refrigerator. “I should have been allowed to see her on birthdays.” Her teary eyes glared at Peter, then turned to gaze at Susie’s pictures.
He opened the cabinet, took two mugs down and set them on the counter. He looked at the utensil drawer, paused, then reached for the utility drawer. He remembered it contained a coil of rope. With stealth movements, he grabbed the rope. He knocked the gun from her loose grip.
It skated across the floor only to be stilled by Aunt Martha’s size nine shoe. His aunt looked disheveled. A trickle of blood had crept down her face, but she was alive.
Euphoria animated Peter. As swift as lightning, he circled the rope around her arms, stomach and legs. He tied her to a chair. Vickie howled and cursed him as she struggled to free herself.
“If you don’t keep still…” He jerked his head toward the teapot.
“I’ve got this,” said Aunt Martha. She grabbed a kitchen dish towel, put it across Vickie’s mouth and tied it tightly.
Peter tore off a square of paper toweling, picked up the gun and set it on the table. As he reached for the phone, it rang. He listened to the voice. “Hello officer, yes, this is Peter Ashburn. I’ve been expecting your call. Yes, I know. I’ve got news for you, too.”