by Sharon Frame Gay
The police told our family that Jason, my husband, died instantly when his car swerved off the road and down a steep ravine. That’s not true. It’s what police like to tell the grieving family, so they aren’t cursed with thoughts of their loved one suffering.
Jason died in agony, one hand at his gushing throat. The other reached out in supplication, eyes wide in horror as his life ebbed away on a stretch of haunted highway.
He left behind our two children. Randy, age ten, and little Maddie, just turning four. Our house, once so warm and welcoming, was now an empty shell. I walked through it alone the day after he died. Randy and Maddie were at my mother’s house a few blocks away. Even the dog, Sander, was gone, staying with by my best friend Liz. My fingers longed to stroke the granite countertops in the kitchen, gleaming in the mid morning sun. Friends and neighbors had been here, cleaning the kitchen, sweeping the floors. I imagined if I opened the freezer, there would be several casseroles, arranged with instructions on recipe cards taped to the foil, waiting to be popped in the oven.
Jason’s funeral was well attended by people in the neighborhood and his co-workers. Everyone was somber, speaking in hushed tones. Randy and Maddie sat on each side of my mother, right up front, her arms around them protectively. I sat behind them, studied the back of Randy’s tender neck, head bent as he peered at the coffin from under waves of red hair. I wanted to reach over, push it back off his forehead. At ten years old, he understood about death. Maddie did not. She held a small toy in her hand, swinging her legs back and forth as she hummed a tune from Sesame Street.
The minister droned on about Jason and all his fine qualities. I wanted to snort. Fine qualities indeed. Nobody knew the real Jason, I thought. The one who betrayed me in so many ways. Today there wasn’t a dry eye in the church, including mine. My tears were shed for different reasons. I clenched my hands together tightly in my lap, enveloped in this moment of grief. I thought back to where it all began.
It was only two years ago when I discovered Jason’s affair with Annette, his executive assistant. Maddie was just a toddler. I was still sporting my baby weight, feeling awkward and fat in a pair of jeans and sloppy tee shirt as I folded the laundry in the late afternoon. Jason had just come in from golf, sweaty and crumpled. We were going out for dinner that night. Jason said he wanted to take a quick shower and followed me up the stairs. In a playful moment, he cupped my ass with his hand and I laughed out loud, swung the laundry basket around so that it almost hit him in the nose, and we both smirked.
He took a shower, and I was putting away clothes, when his phone buzzed on the dresser. It vibrated and trembled, about to spin itself off on to the floor, so I reached over and grabbed it, my thumb automatically swiping, like I do dozens of times a day with my own phone.
“Hi” read a text. “I’m sitting at your desk and fingering myself.”
I almost dropped the phone, stunned. The text was from Annette.
This must be a joke, I thought. A terrible inside company joke that everybody laughs about as they sit around the conference table. Who would text such a thing?
I scrolled up to another message. It was from Jason.
“Last night was gr8. I love U so much I can’t see straight. Gonna play golf with buddies 2day – will be thinking about U in bed. See U soon.”
My heart began to pound. Last night, Jason called to tell me he was working late, his voice soft and regretful. I had made meatloaf. It was almost done, enveloping the kitchen with home smells when the phone rang. It was cheerful and golden in the kitchen, the sun going down, light flowing through the window like honey. Even Jason missing dinner didn’t alter my good mood.
“No worries, Jay – I’ll keep it warm for you.” I remember leaning over and wiping Maddie’s face as she finished her grilled cheese, feeling her skin beneath my hands, rubbery and soft.
“I’ll be working into the night,” he said. “Don’t keep the food warm, just your sweet self, and I’ll wake you when I get home.”
I felt a surge of desire pepper my body, a delicious feeling adding to the glow of the October evening. Later, I showered and dressed in something sexy, climbed into our bed and waited for Jason’s hand to touch my face, for him to whisper in my ear.
But he didn’t wake me up. I don’t know what time he came in. I was sound asleep and didn’t wake until morning. I opened my eyes as Jason was pulling a golf shirt over his head. He smelled of aftershave and shampoo as he leaned over and kissed my cheek.
“I’ll be home this afternoon.” Then he squeezed my nipple gently. I moved away a little under the covers, embarrassed that my breast was soft and sagging now that Maddie had stopped breast feeding. Jason kissed me again, left the room. Turning over, I ran my hand over my belly, full and round. When was the last time I stood naked in front of him, I wondered. I’ll make up for it tonight, be brave, turn to him in the bedroom with a candle burning on the nightstand, soft music in the background.
Now I sat down hard on the bed like someone had pushed me. I held his phone and stared at it like snakes were slithering out of it, all over my hands, our home, our marriage.
Jason stepped into the bedroom. He was naked, still wet from the shower, his penis dangling, half erect. When he saw me holding the phone, he instinctively covered himself with his hands, as though exposed.
“What the hell, Jason!” I said, my voice filled with rage and hurt.
“What?” he asked, his blue eyes quizzical, innocent.
“Annette. You’re fucking her.” I said it simply, angrily, then tossed the phone at him. He picked it up off the floor, looked at the text, sighed. There was a thick silence, then he sat down on the bed beside me.
“We have to talk,” he said, still holding his hands across his crotch. “Let’s still go out for dinner tonight, give me a chance to explain.”
“No. We’ll talk right here, right now.” I walked into the hall, shouted down the stairs.
“Randy? Can you watch Maddie for a few minutes?”
“Yeah, Mom, we’re watching cartoons.”
I closed the door, walked over to Jason, slapped him hard in the face. He shook his head the way a dog would if a bee stung it. He grabbed my arm, pushed me away. I fell to my knees. It shocked me. Jason had never touched me like that before. Who was this man? Then I realized that I had just slapped him. He was defending himself. Tears sprung to my eyes. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but remembered what he was doing and flushed with anger again. Jason was having an affair with Annette.
Annette. His young assistant. I had never met her. She had worked with Jason for a year now. I was so busy with the kids, I never found the time to go to his office, introduce myself. I knew she was very young. There were comments at a recent company picnic that she was an attractive girl. Jason discouraged me from visiting the office. I’d never spoken to Annette on the phone either. I always called Jason on his cell. He said he preferred it that way. I did too.
I glared up at Jason. “Pack a bag and get out of here right now,” I hissed.
He nodded, turned away from me, his back still wet with droplets from the shower.
Jason reached in the drawer and pulled out some underwear, a pair of socks. Walked into the closet, came out with a shirt and a pair of pants.
“Get a sitter for tomorrow morning,” he said. “Meet me at the Pancake House at ten o’clock and we’ll talk then.”
I nodded, turned and walked downstairs on shaky legs. I was giving Randy and Maddie ice cream when I heard the front door close, his car start, headlights reflected on the garage door as he backed away.
I remembered the old saying, “save your tears for the pillow” and so I did. I’m not sure how I got the kids ready for bed, read them a book, sang a little song for Maddie. Somehow I got through it. Then I collapsed on the bed and sobbed until my ribs hurt. I wondered if my marriage had always been a sham.
Annette wasn’t the first. The first was my best friend Chloe, right after Jason and I got engaged. Two weeks before our wedding, she tearfully confessed over several glasses of wine that she had slept with him. She said it was a crazy thing to do. A fling. Jason loved me, not her, and I should marry him. She was leaving the both of us, going out of town for a while, will not be in the wedding. Please forgive her, she said, her long black hair shining in the sun on my parents’ patio. I dropped my goblet, watched it break into shards of betrayal, glass glinting along the paving stones, the wine leaching out into the grass. The diamond on my ring glowed in red and green as the prisms caught the light, cold in the waning afternoon.
When I confronted Jason that night, he cried. Said he regretted it with all his heart and begged for forgiveness. He asked that I tell nobody.
“Whether or not you leave me,” Jason pleaded, “I don’t want your mom and dad to know. It would devastate them. Please. If you tell them, they will never forgive me. Don’t tell a soul. It will ruin everything.”
He was right. My parents adored him. They thought of him as their own son. I didn’t know what to do, so I kept it to myself until I decided.
I married him anyway. I was so vastly in love, that I willed myself to believe it was a huge mistake, a moment of insanity. Things like that happen, don’t they? Yes, they do, I thought. Chloe probably called him over for some lame reason, poured him drinks, seduced him. Jason may have felt like it was his last moment of freedom before the wedding. Perhaps she had placed his hand on her breast, ground her hips into his crotch, stroked him with her hand. It would be hard to resist a girl like Chloe. I hoped that was the only time Jason strayed, but the new affair with Annette changed everything.
Now, we sat across the table from each other at the Pancake House and he said, almost word for word what he has said fifteen years ago.
“Chrissy, you can’t tell a soul. It will ruin everything.”
“What the hell, Jason? What are you talking about? You’re having an affair!”
“If the company finds out, I could lose my job. Annette, too.”
“Who gives a shit?”
A lady at a table nearby raised her head, glanced over. I lowered my voice. “Who cares anymore? You’re a cheater, and I want a divorce.”
“You’d better care,” he said angrily. “You better care if you want Randy and Maddie to eat.”
“Is that a threat?” I stared at him, shocked.
“Look, this isn’t that big a town. If I get fired, we’ll all be hurting for money. I don’t think you want that right now, do you?” He lowered his voice. “Don’t become a problem, Chrissy.”
“I’m getting a lawyer.” I grabbed my purse, stood abruptly, rattling the glasses on the table. Jason stood too, knotted the napkin in his hand. “It’s over, Jason.”
“I agree. It’s over. But, I need you to not tell anybody until we figure this whole thing out. It could ruin everything.” Jason reached for my arm, the second time in two days. His fingers locked around my elbow, sent pain rocketing up into my shoulder. The woman at the other table glanced up again, and he dropped his hands by his side.
“I found a place not too far away. It’s a one-bedroom apartment, furnished. I moved in this morning. Let’s take a week or two to figure things out, then we’ll talk.”
Now the tears started. He found an apartment in less than a day. He and Annette were making plans behind my back for how long? He not only had an affair, he was leaving me for her. Simple as that. I caught a glance of myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked lost, forlorn. The extra pounds etched circles under my eyes, my hair yanked back in a quick knot aged me. Was this why he was leaving? Ashamed, hating myself, I turned and ran out the door.
It was three weeks later when I met Jason one night at his apartment. I had not confided in anybody that he was leaving me, or that he was having an affair. I reluctantly agreed not to get a lawyer until we talked, not shake up things that could impact our finances.
Jason answered the door. He looked fit and handsome, as though our separation had polished him, bathed him in sunlight. The apartment was small but clean, with a little fireplace in the living room that glowed in the evening light. Seeing him for the first time in weeks, my heart yearned to go back in time. I wished I hadn’t touched his phone, read the text. I wanted Jason back. My life back. The kids and I and Jason and the dog, our house. Maybe there was a chance. I took a step towards him, smiled. But before I could speak, he turned his back, walked across the room towards a table in the corner.
“Chris, I’ll meet with my attorney next week, start the divorce proceedings. I suggest you get your own lawyer. Let’s please make it amicable, for the sake of the kids. Word gets out about this and it could ruin everything.” He picked up a tumbler of whisky, swirled it. I watched it circle the glass in golden waves, slowly, mesmerizing. Behind him was a photograph of a woman on the table. Annette, I presumed.
I glanced at it and saw a young blond, her head thrown back in laughter. Suddenly I knew this was Annette’s apartment. This is where Jason now lived. Of course.
I walked over to the photograph and realized with a shock that Annette was the babysitter I had been using for the past several years! When she graduated from college, she told me she had gotten a job, but I never made the connection. I always knew her as Anne. In a flash, I understood everything. This had been going on for years. Anne went to work for Jason and used a different name.
I remembered the times when I left Anne in charge of my children while I joined friends for weekends, visited my grandparents in Iowa, went out to a play or an afternoon at the spa. She and Jason must have had sex in our bed when the kids were sleeping. Later, they may have sipped coffee in my kitchen, their legs rubbing against each other, her robe open to her navel. Turning towards Jason, I flung the photo at him, my voice shattered with the glass as it hit the floor next to his feet.
“You son of a bitch! What the hell has been going on?” I ran to him, fingernails clawing at his shirt, his arms.
That’s when he killed me. It was quick, just like the police often tell the family. I died instantly. He crushed the side of my head in with a tool from the fireplace. I watched from above him as he hit me again and again and again, the way one might go after a snake in the yard, just to make sure it wouldn’t coil up and strike.
Then he rolled me in a blanket, called Annette out from the other room, and the two of them carried me to the car and dumped me in the backseat. They drove all night, three counties away, weighed my body down with rocks, and pushed me into a deep lake. I heard their voices murmuring, his sure and soft, hers tight and frightened.
My disappearance destroyed the family. They spent endless weeks looking for me, badgering the police, posters of me everywhere, but there were no clues. Nobody thought to look in Annette’s apartment for answers because nobody knew she was dating Jason, that the room he murdered me in was their love nest. My poor mother took care of the kids, prepared meals for them and Jason every single night. It made me sick to think about Jason accepting her good will and love. My parents never wanted to give up, but after a year they knew the inevitable. I had met with tragedy somehow. I was never coming home. They needed to help Jason, keep my memory alive for Randy and Maddie.
So today we are here at here at Jason’s funeral. Annette is sitting in the last pew, with a few girls from the office. Her face is perfectly composed, but her hands are shredding the program in tiny pieces, legs crossed at the ankle, a bead of sweat on her brow.
No, Jason didn’t die instantly. He was driving home after making love to Annette that night, on a road not five miles from our house, the twisty kind of road that one likes to avoid in the dark. But Jason knew his way to his lover’s like the back of his hand. He anticipated every curve, driving smoothly.
What he hadn’t anticipated was the sight of me, as my spirit stood in the middle of the road, an apparition of my former self, head crushed on the left side, eye dangling on my broken cheek. He screamed, jerked the steering wheel to the right, skidded, then crashed through the guardrail and down into the ravine.
As he lay there dying, his life ebbing away, I leaned in close, my ghostly breath in his ear.
“Don’t tell a soul.” I whispered. “It could ruin everything.”
About the Author:
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work has appeared in anthologies and magazines around the world, including Chicken Soup For The Soul, Typehouse, Gravel, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Literary Orphans, Crannog Magazine, and others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, The Writing District and Owl Hollow Press. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. You can find her on Amazon Author Central as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer. Twitter: sharonframegay