Tackling Tough Topics

Some stories are easier to tell than others, and I’m not referring to length or complexity. Sometimes the subject matter takes more of a toll on the writer than the reader. For me, this week’s offering is just such a story. I wrote the first draft twenty years ago. I have refined it several times in the interim, but I’ve never shared it before. Herewith:

“Daddy, no–please, don’t!” Allie twisted her fingers into a white-knuckled mass. “Not that one.”

Warner rolled a fist-sized seashell from one palm to the other blurring the shell’s broad bands of creamy white and rusty brown. “Actually,” he said, “it’ll do nicely.”

He placed the Chambered Nautilus gently on the floor.

Allie tensed as Warner raised his leg, his heel poised over the shell. She tried to hold her fingers steady, but the tremble only got worse. How could he be so cruel?

As if he’d read her thoughts, Warner lowered his leg. “You know the rules, Allison, and you know I’m not doing this out of spite. I’m trying to prepare you to be an adult.” He raised his leg once more.

“It’s not fair!”

He shook his head. “Life isn’t about what’s fair. You know that.”

“It’ll never happen again,” she said. “I promise.”

“I wish I could believe that.” The leg remained poised.

“You can!” Allie rushed to the display case, reached inside, and removed a double handful of shells. “Here, take any of these. I don’t care.”

“And what would you learn then? The painful lessons are the ones we remember.”

“But Mom gave me that one! Before she died, don’t you remember?”

“No, but I’ll take your word for it.” He stamped down hard, crushing the shell, then stepped into the hallway and stopped. “I want that cleaned up before you go to bed.”

Dumbstruck, Allie nodded.

“And don’t ever lock your door again. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. See, Allison? You’re learning.”

~*~

Janie squealed as only an imaginative freshman in a crowded high school lunchroom can. “Australia! Really? When?”

“Next month,” Allie said, without emotion. “Over Christmas.” She dropped her empty milk carton on her tray.

“Aren’t you excited? Maybe you’ll see Hugh Jackman! Would that be awesome or what? But really, any hunky Australian would do. The way they talk totally makes me melt. So, what’ll you wear? How long’s the flight? Is–”

Allie sighed. “It’s no big deal.”

“Not for you maybe, but I never go anywhere.”

Allie looked sideways at her friend. “You went to that outdoor adventure thing, didn’t you? Doesn’t that count?”

“Two weeks in the woods without a shower isn’t exactly my idea of a vacation. I couldn’t even get text messages.” Janie extended her hands, palms up, lifting first one then the other as if she were a scale. “Survival training. Aussie hunk. Survival training. Aussie hunk. Wow. Tough choice.”

Allie warmed to the challenge. “Okay, so maybe that doesn’t count, but you went skiing last year.”

“Yeah, and we stayed with my aunt and uncle. Not only did I not get any new ski clothes, I had to spend the whole time skiing with my dorky cousin.”

“You said he was cute.”

“Burt?” Janie wrinkled her face. “I’d rather kiss a toad!”

Allie laughed. “That’s not what you said before you left.”

“Yuck! Can you imagine doing it with your cousin?

Allie sobered. “No.”

Janie laughed. “Do you have any cousins in Australia?”

“I don’t have any cousins anywhere.” She thought for a moment. I have an aunt–my mom’s sister, Maggie–but she doesn’t have any kids.

“Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.”

Allie shrugged. “My dad’s only taking us along to make sure I don’t have a good time while he’s away. He thinks I might have a boyfriend or something, but he already chased away the only guy who ever asked me out.”

Janie nodded sympathetically. “What a butthead.”

“Anyway, it’s just a stupid business trip. My sister and I’ll be locked up in a hotel somewhere.”

“Poor things, stuck in a fancy hotel, having to make do with room service, a pool, and dinner out every night–that’ll be awful.”

“It won’t be a fancy hotel.”

“You don’t know that,” Janie said.

“I know Warner.”

“Why do you always call him Warner?”

“Well–duh. That’s his name.”

“I could never call my dad ‘Fred.’ Besides, he’d kill me if I did.”

Allie rearranged the trash on her lunch tray. “It wasn’t my idea.”

“No?”

“He asked me to. It started after– after Mom died.” She rubbed her eyes.

“You okay?” Janie asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Allie said.

~*~

The gift-wrapped package was waiting for her, exactly where Allie knew it would be. So was her little sister, Suzie.

The six-year-old crossed her arms and pouted. “He never gives me anything.”

“That’s not true,” Allie said, “You’ve got lots of stuff: dolls, toys, a bike–”

“Not like you!” The corners of Suzie’s mouth dipped even lower. “You get presents all the time.”

“You don’t understand.” Allie bit her lip. How was she supposed to make sense of it to Suzie when she didn’t know how to deal with it herself? It wasn’t fair.

Suzie lowered her arms and began to cry. “I do so understand. He likes you best!”

Allie stepped closer and gave her a hug. “It’s not what you think, honest. Maybe when you’re older–”

“You always say that!” She pushed Allie’s arms apart, ran to the kitchen counter and grabbed the package. “It’s prob’ly just another stupid shell.” She raised the box over her head.

Allie froze knowing how Warner would react if he thought she’d rejected his gift. “Please put it down.”

“How’d you like me to smash it? I could break it into a zillion pieces before you even open it. How’d you like that ‘Miss Smarty Pants?'”

“Do you want to get in trouble?”

“I don’t care!”

“Well, I do.”

“Then here, take it!” Suzie lofted the package toward Allie, then ran from the room.

Allie caught the box and put it back on the counter. She rubbed her temples; her eyes stung. There was no way she could explain to Suzie what the gifts really represented. She should have said something to someone the first time it happened, right after the night Warner came into her room. He said he was lonely, and he’d been crying.

That had been a strange, scary night. He talked to her for a long time, and as he talked, he touched her. That wasn’t unusual, he’d done it before. But that night, touching wasn’t enough. He rubbed her with perfume and something slippery from a tube. When she cried, he said he was sorry. He’d hurt her in other ways, before and since, and never apologized. Only for that, and only then.

Over the last two years his story, and his demands, changed. Now, he rarely mentioned her mother, only his need, and afterward, his love. The following day he always left a gift.

Allie knuckled away a tear and slipped the silver velvet ribbon from the package. The heavily-embossed, dark blue wrapping fell away easily. She’d seen the paper before, many times. Vancouver had a thousand gift shops, but Warner always went to the same one.

She lifted the lid, but before removing the contents, she went to her room and got the shell book. A gift from her mother, the huge book contained hundreds of color photos of seashells from around the world. She placed it on the counter next to the box, then reached inside where multiple pencil-thin spines greeted her fingers.

Allie removed the shell. Violet tissue drifted to the floor as she placed the unusual specimen on the counter.

She’d seen photos of it, but couldn’t recall its name. A conch, surely, but what kind? She flipped through the book until she found it. Spider conch. She peered at the text. No, a common spider conch, and based on the length of the spines, probably female.

Allie became caught up in the photos, as usual. She paged through to the chapter on cone shells, and noticed a passage she hadn’t read before. Several colorful photos adorned the page, including a close-up of the fabled “Glory-of-the-Seas” cone, but it was the Glory’s cousins which attracted her. Their common names were unspectacular: “Marble” cone, “Tulip” cone, and “Courtly” cone. The two she found most interesting had the most boring names: “Textile” and “Geography.” All were found in the Indo-Pacific, and all shared a feature not usually linked to shells–they were hunters.

Her eyes narrowed as she glanced at the calendar. Two weeks to go.

~*~

Janie and Allie rode the bus home; Christmas break had officially begun. “Can you bring me something from Australia?” Janie asked.

“Like what, a kangaroo?”

“I dunno, anything–a souvenir.”

“A lock of Hugh Jackman’s hair?”

“Sure!” Janie sighed. “I’m so jealous I can’t stand it.”

“Don’t be.” Allie looked away, feigning interest in something they passed on the road.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous about the trip. It’ll be a really long flight. Suzie’s gonna be a pain.”

“So? You’re not her mother.”

“Try telling Warner that. Ever since he let Mom die, he–”

What?” Janie followed her theatrical whisper with a nervous laugh. “For a second, I thought you were serious.”

“I am.”

Janie’s eyes grew wide.

Allied nodded. “He took us on a picnic. Mom got stung by a bee.”

“And died?

“Yeah,” Allie said. “She was allergic to bee stings.”

“So how was that your dad’s fault?”

“Mom pleaded with him to take her to a doctor, but he said she was making a big deal out of nothing. He didn’t even want to start packing up right away. It wasn’t until she had trouble breathing that he decided to do something, but by then, it was too late. She died before we could get her to a hospital.”

“Geez, Allie, I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

Allie wiped her tears on the sleeve of her sweater. “He says he didn’t know about her allergy, but he’s lying. I just can’t prove it.”

Janie shook her head. “You can’t be sure.”

“Oh, I’m sure, all right,” Allie said, her grief turning to anger. “There’s just nothing I can do about it.” Not yet, anyway.

The bus wheezed to a stop. Allie gathered her books and stood up.

“You’re not gonna do anything stupid, are you?” Janie asked.

Allie shook her head. “Nah.” She smiled and waved goodbye.

Crazy maybe, but not stupid.

~*~

Despite its length, the flight from Vancouver to Sydney was uneventful. Warner rented a modest condo on the coast north of Brisbane. The girls spent the days at the beach while he worked. If his mood was any indication, business must have been good.

They’d been in the condo almost a week when Warner announced he wanted to celebrate a particularly good deal he’d made. The girls dressed up, and they went to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Allie enjoyed herself so much, she was almost able to believe she lived a normal life.

Back at the condo, Warner sent them off to get ready for bed with promises of a trip up the coast to the Great Barrier Reef the next day.

As Allie brushed her teeth, she saw Warner’s reflection in the mirror. He retrieved a paper bag from the hall closet, opened it, and removed a package wrapped in blue paper and silver ribbon. Allie shuddered as he carried the box out of sight into the kitchen.

Maybe, if I pretend to be asleep….

She rinsed her mouth, washed her face and Suzie’s, then called good night to Warner from the room the girls shared.

Once in bed, Suzie’s breathing quickly fell into the steady, regular pattern of sleep. Allie remained tense. She could hear the television from the other room and Warner’s occasional laugh. She prayed the drinks he’d had with dinner would make him drowsy.

At length, the blare of the TV went silent. She heard the click of a light switch and the creak of a door. She tracked his movements from bedroom to bath and back by sound. A squeaky bed spring in his room promised her a peaceful night.

Too tense to sleep, she stretched, her mind awash with conflicting thoughts and emotions. She forced herself to think only of pleasant things, but her mind continually drifted into areas she wanted to avoid. Finally, she quit trying to think of anything specific. She breathed deeply and let the air out slowly.

The trip would be good; the Great Barrier Reef was a shell collector’s dream. She smiled, and then heard the squeak of his bedsprings again.

Damn!

She rolled on her side, facing away from the door, and waited in the dark. She heard the creak of a floorboard and the protest of a hinge down the hall. Dim light spilled into the room as her door was pushed quietly open. She closed her eyes, waiting for his hand on her shoulder and the whispered commands.

No! I’m asleep. Just have to keep my breathing steady.

The whisper came without the touch.

She kept her eyes shut. I’m asleep. I can’t hear you.

The whisper grew insistent. Still, there was no touch. She heard the rustle of sheets, yet felt nothing. The realization hit her like a cannon shot. Suzie! Allie sat upright.

“Warner?” she asked, her voice loud in the dark.

He turned to her from his seat on Suzie’s bed. “Go back to sleep.”

“No.”

“This doesn’t concern you, Allison.”

“Like hell.”

“Watch your language, young lady!”

She almost laughed at that except her stomach was churning, and her real fear was that she might vomit. “Stay away from her!” she said, her voice harsh.

In the dark, she could just make out his features as the muscles in his tight face slowly relaxed into a smile. “Well, well. Look who’s jealous.”

“Allie?” Suzie asked, her voice sleepy-thick.

“It’s okay,” Allie said, “go back to sleep.”

Warner stared at his eldest daughter for a moment, then spoke. “All right then, let her sleep. You come with me.”

Allie looked at the small form in the other bed, then at the man seated next to her. He held a bottle of perfume in one hand and a tube of lubricant in the other.

You bastard.

Allie got up slowly and followed him from the room.

~*~

In the morning they were both up before Suzie. Warner stood at the sink drinking coffee. “I’m going out to get stuff for the trip. Need anything?”

Allie pushed the gift-wrapped package toward him. “I need you to get rid of this.”

A look of concern crossed his face.

She frowned. “Don’t you know how much it hurts Suzie when you never give her anything?”

He paused briefly before answering. “What has she ever given me?”

Allie felt the blood drain from her face. She took a breath and balled her fists, but managed to keep the anger out of her voice. “Just this once, why don’t you get her something nice?”

“Okay–for you.”

“No,” Allie said, “for her.”

“Whatever, but you’re the one who earned it.”

Allie swallowed, the taste of bile raw in her throat, then forced herself to be pleasant. “I’m a shell collector; what reward could be better than visiting the Great Barrier Reef? We’ll find something I want.”

“I don’t know crap about shells, Allison. You’ll have to tell me what you want.”

“I’ve got a better idea. I’ll give you pictures,” she said.

“What for?”

“So you’ll know what I want while we’re looking.”

“Can’t we just buy them?”

“I’d prefer we found our own. Then it would mean something–be something special.”

“Whatever.” He glanced at his watch. “Get Susan up and ready to go. I’ll be back soon.”

As Warner closed the door behind him, Allie opened the shell book and turned to the chapter on cones. She ran her finger down the column of text until she reached the part she wanted. For the hundredth time, she read about the hollow, needle-like tooth which cone shells used to stab their victims and through which they injected paralyzing neurotoxins to kill them. They grew an ample supply of the deadly little harpoons making it possible to sting repeatedly. Humans had died from their venom. The treatment was the same as for snake bites, but there was no known antidote.

Allie carefully clipped two color photos from the treasured book: Conus geographus and Conus textile. Not only were they the most lethal, but they were also the most plentiful. She sealed the clippings, back to back, in a clear plastic bag and closed the book as Suzie strolled into the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Allie said, feeling strangely chipper.

~*~

The drive took much longer than expected, and Allison pestered Warner the whole time about the cone shells she hoped to find. He lectured her briefly for defacing the big shell book but forgave her when she apologized, citing as her defense the excitement of actually going to the Reef.

The sun sat low in the sky before they found lodging. The girls changed into swimsuits while Warner unpacked the car. They met him outside as he brought in the last load.

Suzie had to use both arms to carry the plastic bucket full of beach toys Warner had given her that morning. She smiled deliriously at him. “Where’s your swimsuit, Daddy?”

“I’ll put it on in a minute,” he said.

Allison hoisted a shopping bag bulging with odds and ends. “I think we’ve got everything we need.”

Warner went inside and changed. He’d told Allie he didn’t relish the idea of wading in the ocean looking for shells but conceded it was less stressful than trying to make deals when most of his potential clients would prefer to be out Christmas shopping.

Since Allie claimed their chances of finding specimens were better during the early evening hours, Warner announced they’d eat dinner first. Suzie didn’t want to wait, until Allison explained they’d be searching for live shells instead of the ones which washed up on shore. She smiled as she stroked her sister’s hair. “Just stay with me, and we’ll find the prettiest ones in the whole ocean. Maybe even the ‘Glory’!”

“What’s a ‘gory’?”

Allison laughed. “The ‘Glory-of-the-Sea.’ It used to be the rarest shell of all. People paid thousands for ’em.”

Suzie blinked. “Really?”

“Yup.”

“Thousands of dollars?” Warner asked. “When?”

“In the 1800s,” Allie said. “I can look it up.”

“Don’t bother,” he said. “Stupidity doesn’t impress me.”

Allie bristled but said nothing.

They walked to the beach after dinner, and Allie eagerly approached a man selling soft drinks from a cart. “How long will it take to wade out to the reef?”

“A week or so, I’d wager,” he said, laughing.

Allison’s excitement faded.

“You need to take a tour boat to get to the reef. I haven’t been out there in years.”

“What’s the matter, Allison?” Warner asked.

She told him.

“I’m not paying for a tour boat,” he said. “We’ll get your shells in one of the shops.”

“It’s not fair!” Allie said. She wanted to stamp her feet and scream like her sister did.

Warner responded automatically. “Life’s not about–”

“Yeah,” Allie said. “I know.”

Suzie groaned. “I’m tired.”

“Me too,” Warner said. “Let’s get a good night’s rest. We’ll look into it more tomorrow.”

~*~

They had breakfast in a cafe near a wharf. Suzie smeared dark jelly on her toast, took a huge bite and then spit it out.

“What’s the matter?” Warner asked.

While Suzie wiped her tongue with a napkin, Allie examined the jar in front of the little girl. “It’s called Vegemite,” she said, sniffing the open container. “People really eat this?”

“I can’t stand it myself, luv,” their waitress said, “but people ’round here can’t get enough of it.” She shook her head, “Vegemite and rugby league–what’s the world comin’ to?”

Allie asked her about reaching the reef.

“Tour boats leave every mornin’,” she said. “I’ve got a brochure around here somewhere. You fancy a bit of snorkeling?”

Allie shook her head. “No. I want to look for shells.”

The waitress frowned. “Then don’t waste your time with the tour boats. What you need is a section of dead coral. That’s where you’ll find the best shells.” She crossed her arms.

Allie smiled. “Can you tell us a good place to look?”

“No, but my uncle can. I used to help ‘im find shells for the tourist trade. He’s retired now.”

“I wouldn’t think of bothering him,” Warner said.

“It’s no bother. Besides, he loves it when people treat him like an expert.” She walked away and spoke to a man drinking tea at a table across the room. He nodded and waved. The waitress returned with fresh coffee. “He says he knows just the spot.”

“It’s a sheller’s paradise,” the man said ambling up behind her, “or my name ain’t Duff Chaney.”

Allie chafed at the time spent retrieving Chaney’s boats and preparing them for the trip. It was past lunchtime when they packed a cooler with food and drinks into a dinghy towed behind a weathered skiff. Chaney said little as he arranged the party and their gear and shoved off. The ancient outboard reeked of motor oil and threatened to shed parts. When Chaney yanked the starter rope the noise frightened Suzie who embedded herself in Allie’s side. The trip took about an hour.

“I’ll be back by seven,” Chaney said as he secured a homemade sunshade over one end of their boat. He wrapped an anchor line from the dinghy around a slab of dead, grey coral, then fiddled with the choke on the antique motor in his own boat. “You don’t want to be out here after dark.”

“That’s only four hours,” Allie said.

Warner stared at her. “Only? Four hours is plenty.” He looked at the sky. “Maybe too long. What if the weather changes–”

“No worries, mate.” Chaney gave him a broad, gap-toothed grin. “It’ll stay like this all week.”

“You’re sure?”

In answer, Chaney restarted the outboard motor which belched a cloud of thick, white smoke. “I imagine you’ll be ready to go when I come back,” he said, laughing. “Use plenty of sunscreen. Now, mind the prop’!” Allie felt a sense of relief as he chugged out of sight.

“Let’s go!” Suzie shouted. She jumped into waste-deep water with swim goggles perched on her head. “Right behind ya!” Allie said, splashing in after her. Warner looked like he might spend the afternoon in the shade, but Allie finally coaxed him in.

The search began amid a surprising abundance and variety of shells. Suzie quickly switched her attention to the schools of brightly-colored fish all around them.

Allie held her diving mask in the water and stared through it to minimize the sun’s glare. She found the first cone in less than an hour. About two inches long and stunning to look at, the shell had neither of the designs of the Geography or Textile cones she’d memorized from the book.

“Allie! Come look!” Suzie cried. Allie abandoned her find and sloshed over to her sister. The little girl pointed at a large, conical shell partially buried in the sand. “Is that one? Is that a ‘Glory’?” She waved to Warner. “Come look!”

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s called a volute, I think,” Allie said, lifting the shell from the water.

“A what?”

“A volute. It’s too big to be a cone.” She smiled at her sister. “And it’s a beauty! Should we keep it?”

“Yeah!” Suzie said.

Allie handed her the shell. “Go put it in the boat, okay?”

As Suzie trundled off, Allie glanced at Warner. With the plastic bagged photos in hand, he squinted down into the water, resigned to the search, but not happy about it. Sometime later he stopped mumbling, which got Allie’s attention. “Find something?”

“Could be.” Warner bent low to examine something in the shallow water.

Allie felt an adrenaline rush and started toward him. As she approached, he plucked a shell from the sandy bottom. He held it up and compared it to the picture, then smiled.

“How ’bout this?” he said as Allie reached his side. He held a four-inch shell between thumb and forefinger. “What do you– Ow! Shit.” He dropped the shell. “It bit me!”

“Shells don’t bite,” Allie said.

“That one did.” Warner inspected the fleshy pad of his thumb. “Felt like a bee sting, only worse.” He stared at the tiny wound. “Damn thing did have a stinger! Look.”

Allie inspected the tiny wound, then looked down through the water at their feet. A perfect specimen of Conus geographus lay in the sand. Her heart raced at the find.

“I read something about this kind.” She lowered her voice for the lie she’d often rehearsed in her mind. “It’s also called Lover’s Shell. The natives said the sting was an afri– afro–”

Aphrodisiac?

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Not that I need it, but that’s still pretty cool.” He frowned. “I just wish it didn’t hurt so much. Can you get the stinger out? My hand’s starting to go numb.”

“I can try.” Allie picked at the tiny harpoon, but her nails weren’t sharp enough or long enough to grip it. “It’s too bad we don’t have any tweezers.” She’d made sure of that.

Warner leaned over the side of the boat and retrieved his cell phone from under a seat. He cursed at the lack of a signal, then grimaced when he saw the time. “Damn! It’ll be hours before Chaney comes back.” He held his thumb to his mouth and tried to get at the tiny barb with his teeth, but that effort also failed.

“Why don’t you sit in the boat for a while,” Allie said, “until you feel better.”

She watched him clamor over the side, her heart hammering like the over-worked piston in Chaney’s outboard motor. Almost done! Now, they only needed to wait.

When Suzie became bored, Allie quit searching for shells and played with her. They stayed close to Warner and the cooler. In time, his speech became thick, and he complained of blurred vision, two of the symptoms Allie expected. The toxin was working, but did he get enough?

“Allishon,” he said, “My lipsh are numb.” When she didn’t respond he added, “but nuthin’ elsh. Lights out early tonight, okay?”

Allie cringed then wondered how she could get the cone to sting him again. Maybe he’ll pass out. I could try then.

She played with Suzie for what seemed like an eternity, then turned back to Warner. “What time is it?”

“Almosht six,” he said. “Allie, I’m worried. I c-can barely move.” He had stretched his arm across the top of the cooler and rested his head on it. He spoke with his eyes closed.

She stared at the man who’d refused to help her mother the day she’d been stung by a bee. The fear in the woman’s voice still haunted Allie’s dreams. When Warner made a whimpering sound, Allie could barely disguise her loathing for him. How does it feel, Daddy dear?

Suzie stood in the water beside the boat drinking from a plastic bottle shaped like a cartoon character. She stared at their father. “Is he really-really sick?”

“In more ways than one,” Allie said.

Suzie looked down into the water. “Is this a ‘Glory’?”

Allie jerked upright as her sister reached for the cone shell Warner had dropped.

“Don’t!” she yelled, surging forward as Suzie lifted the deadly cone in the air. Allie scrambled toward her and knocked it out of her hands.

Suzie yelped in surprise, then began to cry hysterically.

“Did it sting you?” Allie asked as she grabbed her sister’s hands and inspected them.

“You scared me!” Suzie sobbed.

Allie put her hands on either side of Suzie’s head and forced the girl to pay attention. She spoke slowly. “Did–it–sting–you?”

“No,” Suzie said, pulling free. “I just wanted to look at it.” She gazed back down into the water. “Is that the shell that hurt Daddy?”

“Yes,” Allie said. She guided Suzie back to the boat and helped her climb in. “We need to put more sunscreen on. I’ll do your back if you’ll do mine.”

“Allie?” Warner groaned. When she didn’t answer right away he called her again, louder.

“What?” She responded, so severely Suzie shrank away.

“It’s– it’s gettin’ worse,” he said, his voice raspy, his tongue and lips dry.

Allie leaned close and whispered, “Yes, it is. And that’s how Mom felt. You’re dying.”

“No,” he groaned. His eyelids fluttered, and his fingers scrabbled on the gunnels of the boat.

“You need to understand,” she said in the same low voice, “I made it happen. And you know what?” While she waited for him to respond, she tore the cone photos into tiny pieces and scattered them in the ocean. “I’ll get away with it. Just like you did when you killed Mom. The only hard part is going to be pretending I’m sad that you’re dead.”

Warner’s eyes opened wide, and he struggled vainly to speak.

“You’ll never hurt me again, and you’ll never–ever–touch Suzie. We’ll go live with Aunt Maggie, and we’ll be fine.” She forced herself to smile at him. “You’ll be worm food.”

His face contorted with fear, and his voice leaked out in a whine. “I don’t want–”

“Nobody cares what you want,” Allie said.

“It’s not… It’s not fair.”

Allie shook her head just the way he had so often. “Life’s not about fair. You’ve told me that a million times.”

Warner didn’t hear her. Nor would he ever.

Allie gathered Suzie into her arms as the muted growl of Duff Chaney’s boat sounded in the distance. She smiled and kissed the top of her sister’s head.

~End~

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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14 Responses to Tackling Tough Topics

  1. Wow! Great story. Good to see the villan got his comeuppance.

  2. dorisreidy says:

    I really, really like this one. The sense of foreboding is palpable. Good job.

  3. George Carnahan says:

    Another great revenge story, Josh.  Thanks!  Alice

  4. sonyabravermanaolcom says:

    Terrific. Just terrific.

  5. Bob Williamson says:

    Good story Josh. bw

  6. Robin castillo says:

    Dark and spellbinding. I love the near onomatopoeia of the antagonist’s name, Warner. “Warn her!”

    • joshlangston says:

      This is the sort of comment I often heard in college Lit classes, and I always wondered if the author being studied ever had any inkling about whatever it was the professor may have been talking about, Lord only knows how many years later. In the case of Warner and “warn her,” I dearly wish I could say I managed that by design. Alas, it was just a happy accident. But, if the tale is ever the focus of a college Lit class [cough], I’m prepared to claim whatever homage such wordplay grants me!

  7. Gail McKoy says:

    I really liked this! The sense of dread feels like something you could reach out and touch! Your writing style just screams to jump to video. This would make an amazing TV tale . . .

  8. Barry Womack says:

    Excellent, boss! This one hit me in the gut! This is as good a piece of fiction as I’ve read in a while. I take back my comment on a previous story of yours, this one doesn’t move the bar higher. This one shatters the bar.

  9. Dorothy Heinlen says:

    Powerful!

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