“Where are you going, Mommy?”
Startled, Leslie looked at her daughter with dismay. “I thought you were outside with Kylie.”
“Kylie had to go buy new shoes. Am I going too, Mommy?”
The child looked alarmed and Leslie’s heart contracted. Ella was a nervous wreck at the tender age of eight due to the behavior of her father. Why Leslie had ever married such a loudmouthed, abusive idiot, she didn’t know. Her parents had been right about him and now she wasn’t ashamed to admit it. In fact, give her another week to round up a bit more cash and she and Ella were out of there and off to stay with them back in her hometown in western Pennsylvania. From there, she’d raise the money to start divorce proceedings. Ella had caught her packing a second suitcase to store at her friend’s house from where she and the child would finally depart.
Bending to her knees, she took her daughter’s small, heart shaped face in her hands. “Ella, listen. This is very very important. This is a secret. You and I are going to get out of here real soon. We’re going to Gramma and Grandpa’s. We’ll start a new life there, you and me. But if you tell this to Daddy or let him know about it in any way at all, he will hurt us, do you understand? There’ll be no escape forever then because he’ll watch us like a hawk.” She looked deep into her daughter’s big brown eyes.
“I know, Mommy,” Ella said. “I can keep a secret.”
“Well, I worry about that because you’re only eight.”
“I have two secrets I never tell already,” said Ella.
Leslie had to fight down the urge to pry them out of the girl, but of course could not unless she was a hypocrite. Actually she was pleased when Ella said no more, for it showed the child was serious.
“Good,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
She had married Matt nine years before with every good intention. They had met at Penn State and at the time, while he’d been a party animal, she’d thought him a normal guy like their friends who enjoyed getting loaded occasionally and acting like idiots. But later when their friends simmered down and grew serious after a few years of working and having kids, Matt somehow remained in frat house mode and even grew worse. While the others moved to better jobs or up in their companies, Matt lost his first job, then managed to find work as manager of the meat department at a local supermarket, making no use of his business degree. Almost every evening, he drank and grew loud and more stupid than usual and once in a while he pushed or hit her. Most of the time, he verbally abused her and wasn’t above doing the same to Ella now. When he started that, Leslie realized that the only person who could help them was herself and as much as she loathed the idea, called her parents for help.
Her father surprised her by not gloating. “You come home,” he said. “Get our little girl into the car, drive across the state and don’t look back.”
Leslie lived in terror that Matt would discover her plan. She had everything she needed stashed at her friend Casey’s and was awaiting an insurance refund check Matt knew nothing about. It was just $260 but added to the cash she’d saved, enough to help with gasoline and expenses getting to her parents. “I’m not good at driving long distances,” she told Casey, “and I want to be able to stop at a motel for the night if we need to.”
Matt got drunk three nights before she planned to leave and took Ella for a ride just because he knew it would drive Leslie crazy. She had no idea where they went and called the police but then he returned with Ella in tears, the child tired and stressed out. Leslie grabbed Ella and slept with her in the girl’s twin bed, holding her close the entire night. God, how she hated her husband.
Next day, he announced at breakfast, which for him was just coffee and aspirins, “I’m going fishing with Dave and Justin. Fuck work, I told them I won’t be in today.”
“But they said they’d-“ she began and then stopped. What difference did it make if they fired him; she and Ella wouldn’t be there.
“Okay,” she said instead.
“Okay?” he snapped. Then he smirked. “Maybe I should take Ella along, teacher her how to fish.”
Leslie had to think fast. “That would be nice,” she lied, “but she’s got that dentist thing. Took ages for the appointment and it could abscess if we don’t-“
He laughed. “Like I’d want a kid along, you’re so easy to mess with.”
It was a Friday and he said he wouldn’t be back till Sunday night. This was probably the last time she’d ever see him if she could help it; by the time he returned, she’d be long gone. If he figured out where she went, so what? Her father wouldn’t stand for any of Matt’s crap.
For a moment, she felt a bizarre tenderness, knowing this was it. She touched his arm and said, “Give me a kiss.”
He had to ruin it by grabbing her ass and hinting at going upstairs, but then he said he had to get going. “Dave’s picking me up in a half hour,” he said.
“Have fun,” she said, though all she could think about was get-going-get going-for-God’s-sake-get-going.
And finally, he did.
She waited 20 minutes to make sure and called for Ella. “Honey,” she said, “grab whatever you want to carry in your hand, put on your blue jean jacket even though it’s not cold and get into the car.”
“Mommy,” said Ella warily, “are we going to Grandma and Grandpa’s now?”
“Yes, but first we’re going to Casey’s.”
She grabbed her purse and a gym bag, opened it and shoved in a squashed loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, jelly, a knife and two apples. “Snap to, honey!” she cried, and soon they were out the door.
Casey wasn’t home, unfortunately, but Leslie knew where her friend kept the spare key and let herself in. She stowed the saved suitcases in her car and left a note. “This is it, we’re on our way. So sorry we missed you but I’ll call you later. And thank you so much.”
An hour into the trip, which all told should take six hours, a tractor-trailer turned over and traffic was held up for an hour. Thank heavens the heat did not rise above eighty but that was bad enough. Leslie chafed at the bit. This was the last thing she needed. Finally, they started to move again. She said to Ella, “Maybe we’ll stop in State College, find a motel and take a nap, then maybe walk around the town. We’ll have dinner then and some ice cream.”
There was no reason to rush; they were free now. He’d have no idea where they were anyway. Even if he figured out where they were going, how would he know which route they took?
Her cell rang as they were nearing the college town. Thinking it was her parents calling, she dug it out of her pocket and looked at it. A number she didn’t recognize from her home area – was it Cissy on an office phone? Reluctantly, she answered.
“Mrs. Davis? This is Marta Wright from the ICU at Geisinger Community in Scranton.”
Her heart sank. “Wait,” she said, “I need to pull the car over.” This took a bit of time since she was sandwiched between tractor-trailers, but finally her tires crunched on gravel. “What?” she said.
“I’m sorry to tell you that your husband, Matthew, was struck by lightening this morning at Krieker Lake and is in critical condition. You need to come here as soon as possible.”
It was as if someone had smacked her hard across the face. “Come there?” she said, sounding like an idiot.
“Yes, Mrs. Davis. He might not pull through. He’s in a coma, which may be temporary, but may not.”
“How did it happen?” Leslie asked weakly.
“He was fishing and a sudden storm came up. Apparently, he didn’t have time to get to shore.”
“Thank you,” said Leslie and hung up.
She sat on the shoulder of the highway, their car shaking while trucks whizzed by. Ella looked at her pointedly. “Mommy? Mommy, what’s the matter?”
Leslie sighed. “I need to think a minute.”
Was he going to die? If he did, it would solve all her problems. She’d have the house to herself, she’d get out of the horrible marriage without a hassle, no one but Casey would have to know that she’d ever left, she’d get sympathy and help from friends and she could collect Social Security for Ella. They wouldn’t be able to keep up the house but she could sell it and rent her and Ella an apartment and then find a full time job. A clean sweep. But she’d have to call her parents and they might freak out after all she’d just put them through.
But what if he didn’t die?
She turned to Ella. “Your father was struck by lightening.”
“Is he dead? Do we have to go back there?” Ella asked warily and Leslie knew from her question that the child understood way more than she had imagined.
Leslie did not know which way to turn. She picked up her phone and called the same number back. “This is Mrs. Davis and I am calling about the condition of my husband Matt Davis.”
The results were the same; he was at death’s door.
Three hours later, she left their luggage and Ella with Casey and headed to the hospital. Leslie gave no explanation for the delay in getting there. She didn’t care what the nurses or doctors thought about it.
“He’s still with us,” a doctor told her, “but we can’t say what this has done to his brain. He’s showing signs of coming out of the coma. After we see what his reactions are, we’ll do an MRI.”
Leslie called her parents. “You were a fool to go back,” her father said, “though I understand your thinking. I hope for your sake he croaks.”
But unfortunately Matt did not and now it was possible she’d be expected to take care of him. Wipe his ass; pat his drooling chin, spoon gruel into his sadistic mouth, be a slave to this monster? She should have kept going; a few more hours and they would have been safe with her parents. She had to be the most stupid woman on Earth.
They called her in when he woke up and probably expected her to touch him and express relief but she just stared at him. The disapproving nurse dipped her head to signal that she should talk. “He’d want to hear your voice,” she said. But Leslie said nothing.
Matt opened his eyes again, darted them about and then settled on her face.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” said the nurse, swishing reproachfully from the room.
Matt said, “I died, Leslie.”
She said nothing.
“For real,” he said. He paused before going on. “It was amazing. But then they made me come back.”
“They?” she said coldly.
“I know you left,” he said. “I saw you on Route 80. You and Ella.”
She started violently. “What?”
He smiled and her stomach turned over. But the smile was not, oddly, cruel as usual. “I understand,” he said. “Everything.” And then he shut his eyes and apparently slept.
The doctor and two nurses arrived with a low-key fuss and soon someone came with a gurney to take him down for an MRI. She left without comment to anyone, and drove to Casey’s.
“The bastard woke up,” she told her and then started when she realized Ella had heard her. But the little girl laid her head against her mother’s arm to comfort her.
“Ella can stay with me tonight,” said Casey. “You go home and get some rest. Drink some wine and cool down.”
“He knows we left,” said Leslie, her voice full of wonder. “He says he saw us and he knew what route we took.”
Casey put down the knife she was using to cut up vegetables. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. He says he was dead.”
The women looked at each other until Ella said, “Daddy was a ghost?”
Leslie returned, against her better judgment, the next day. A doctor took her aside outside Matt’s room (he was no longer in ICU) and said, “Incredibly, his scan is basically all right. He might suffer headaches, some confusion and decreased attention span for a while, maybe mood swings. But his lack of serious injury is nothing short of a miracle.”
“Will he be able to work again?” she asked, her mind on when she and Ella could leave.
The doctor looked as if a tarantula had crawled out of her mouth.
“There is no way to tell that right now but I don’t see why not eventually,” he said curtly. “Social services can help you figure out finances and home aid if you need it.”
Surely, this was hell, she thought. Though a part of her hesitated. Matt had seemed strange when he woke, very unlike himself. After the doctor left her, she stood in the hall and ruminated a moment before walking into his room.
He was sitting up in bed eating from a tray. “Hey,” he said.
Her heart pounded as she approached the bed. “What makes you think we were on Route 80?” she said.
“I saw you. You were almost to Bloomsburg. You and Ella were eating peanut butter sandwiches.”
Her head swam and she had to grab the end of the bed to keep her balance. She took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I don’t see how you could know that.”
He was maddeningly serene. “You probably won’t believe me but I was out of my body. For a second, I was in the car with you. Leslie, I understand. Don’t get all worked up. I can see that you are.”
She was terrified. He was probably planning something hideous for when they got home. Maybe he’d lock her up in a closet, torture her some new, more ghastly way.
“You say you understand. What do you understand?”
He had finished his tiny cup of vanilla ice cream and was reaching for a lime Jell-O. He looked her full in the face, his eyes appearing larger than normal, crystal clear and sky blue. “I get why you were leaving. I don’t blame you. I was a prick.”
“Was?” she said coldly just as her phone buzzed in her pocket. Undoubtedly, it would be her father again, growing more exasperated. Last night he’d lost his patience and gave her a piece of his mind. She let the phone buzz out. She had so much on her plate now, the last thing she needed was someone yelling at her even if he meant well.
“They showed me everything,” he said. “I saw how I was. That’s over. The reason I’m back is to make things right.”
“What do you mean by ‘everything?’”
“You see how you made everyone feel.”
“Really? That should have been interesting for you.” While she was usually afraid of him, right now in his weakened state, she figured she could take him if he tried anything.
“You should have seen it, Les,” he said, ignoring her remark. “A huge zigzag in the sky. It was unbelievable. The biggest one I have ever seen and then another one came and that was it.”
She was silent while she fought with herself. She had seen a new life for her and Ella and now all that was gone. But why did it have to be? Nothing was stopping her from getting back into her car, picking up Ella and the suitcases and heading back down the highway. On the other hand, did she truly want to live in her hometown? She’d left it in the first place because it depressed her. The people there were conservative and polite; they swallowed their words. For years now, she’d lived in the “east” and had become like East Coast people - tougher, more assertive, and unafraid to speak her mind, though not with her husband. You soon learned not to speak up when someone might smack you down with words, a push or a fist. She must have brought that part with her from home, the part where she kept her terrible home life separate from how she was outside of the house with her transplant friends from Jersey, Philly or New York. Only Cissy knew. “Never air your dirty linen in public,” her self-effacing mother had always instructed her, not that her dad had ever hit women.
“I don’t love you anymore,” she told Matt. “I haven’t loved you for a long time. You’re a monster.”
He set down his empty Jell-O cup. “I behaved like one, I did. But now I know who I am and what I have to do.”
She wasn’t having any of it. “You talk big, but soon as you’re feeling okay again, it’s back to square one. And whether you’re suddenly a good guy or not, which is bull, I meant what I said. I don’t love you.” She paused before adding. “I wish you hadn’t come back. Everything would have been easy then.”
She was surprised that nothing she said could get a rise out of him. “It sure would have,” he agreed. “And not just for you. I have a mess to clean up now.”
“Your mess,” she said spitefully.
He nodded. “I’m really sorry that you’ve had to be part of it. I am so sorry, Leslie.”
They released him two days later after he demonstrated that he could walk, climb stairs and wash and groom himself. He seemed to improve at breathtaking speed, which scared her and surprised the medical staff. Her stomach was in knots. Should she go home with him? Now that he knew what she was up to, that any minute she could take off? And what if he figured out that Cissy had helped her and went to threaten her? She just could not trust this supposed transformation.
Ella hung on Leslie’s hand after she picked her up at Casey’s and they walked into their house. “We’re back home,” Ella said sadly.
“Yeah, for now,” said Leslie. “But any time we may leave.”
“School is going to start sometime,” said Ella. Actually, this wouldn’t happen for a month and a half, but Leslie got her point.
“I don’t know yet what we’re going to do,” she said.
“I wish we could go, Mommy,” Ella said. “To Grandma and Grandpa’s.”
Leslie slept in the guest room/office. She cooked and cleaned as usual, but had quit her part time job a few days before she and Ella took off and no way would they hire her back. Matt was a stranger. His mother drove down from upstate New York and lit up cigarettes in the house, though Leslie repeatedly asked her not to. Finally at dinner one night, Matt put down his fork and said, “Mom, life is precious. It’s like going to a very expensive and elite school. Souls wait to get into the right body and life on earth teaches you things like nothing else can. If you purposely do things to shorten your time here, you’re wasting opportunities. So stop smoking. I don’t want to see you doing it again.”
His mother’s mouth hung open while Leslie watched him as if she were a scientist observing a specimen in the wild. The man she had married was not the one she was with now.
To the surprise of the doctors, Matt seemed to suffer no residual effects and in one week, went back to work where he soon became known as “the supermarket sage.” When the produce department manager left for health reasons, Matt took it over and turned the section into a colorful work of art. Higher end customers flocked to buy and listen to his Zen utterances.
One evening after he arrived home from work, Leslie pulled him to the sofa and told him to sit down. Ella was outside playing.
“I married one man,” Leslie said, “who turned into a monster and now into a saint. Booze and lightning, what next, Matt? What happened to the original and which of them all is the real you?”
She began to cry. “I don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t even know why I stayed here. Maybe I should just get Ella and go to my parents’ like I planned. You don’t need me. I thought maybe you would, but you don’t. I don’t know who you are.”
He looked at her steadily with what had become his habitual expression, what she called to herself, “the Buddha,” and said, “I didn’t tell you everything that happened to me while I was dead. I don’t think you’d believe me. But that’s not important. What is important is that I know who I am. It’s not college Matt and it’s not bad husband Matt and even though you think this is me now, it’s not Zen Matt either. And while we’re at it, you’re not college Leslie and you’re not unhappy wife Leslie and you’re not don’t-know-which-way-to-turn Leslie either. You can’t even imagine what you are and if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t believe me. But that’s okay because you’re here now in this world, hard as it is, and you have to act as if it’s all there is so you can learn. But the secret is, it isn’t all there is. I’m living now with that knowledge. I like being the manager of produce for now but maybe not forever. I like talking to all the people I meet there. I like looking at your face when I come home and I like playing with Ella. But if you want to go, that’s okay. I’ll be all right whatever you do and I won’t be mad whatever you do. I totally understand.”
“Do you love me?”
“I do,” he said, “but since what happened, I love people in a different way. Maybe if we had sex, and don’t think I’m being a pervert here, but maybe it would make me feel that old way we had a long time ago, I don’t know. I guess I love you like a sister but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t love you differently.”
She stood up. She didn’t want to admit it but she understood what he was saying. “Well,” she said, “then I’m going to stay here and look around for a job, whatever that might be and when I find it, Ella and I might move out. But we won’t be enemies or anything.”
He smiled and when he did, she remembered what she once saw in him. Would she ever be able to trust him again though?
“I’ll go get some supper on,” she said.
Margaret's credits include stories published in literary and speculative fiction magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Confrontation, Mobius, Another Realm, Pennsylvania Review and Front Porch Review. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine and Licking River Review were nominated for Pushcart awards and another story, "The Manly Thing," was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has stories in several anthologies, including Pieces of Eight (Autism Acceptance) and Still Going Strong; a children’s book, Flick-Flick & Dreamer and YA book, REPLACING FIONA published by etreasurespublishing.com and a collection of short stories, RISK, available on Amazon.