After my kids had gone off to school that morning, I killed a spider in the kitchen. It had appeared unexpectedly on the counter and crawled in the lithe, stealthy way I despised. And feared. My breathing staggered as I watched it invade my space with each unpredictable lengthening and shortening of its spindly, long legs. Then, it stopped. One leg caught in a drop of honey. How it wrestled against its demise — this creature that only a moment ago had moved so confidently. My breathing evened out, and I used the flat of my palm and smacked with a force that snuffed out its life immediately. I realized then, how unnecessary my fear of Daddy Long-Legs had been. After I wiped the spider bits off the counter and cleaned the kitchen, Tom returned.
His shadow stretched long and dark across the floor towards my feet as he blotted out the sun through my doorway. Outside, the traffic hummed while the poplar leaves rustled in the late August gale bursting through the neighbourhood. Suddenly, the ache in my knee returned like a bad memory. I sat uselessly in the stiff chair, wondering how he’d gotten his hands on the new key.
He eyed the faded-blue loveseat and the scratched-up TV to his left. He slid out of the doorway, and the light shot me dead in the face, forcing my eyes shut. With my vision streaked purple and orange, I held my breath listening to the creak of the door closing and the heels of his boots clunk across the wooden floor.
“Is it fixed?” His gravelly voice was too close to my ears.
The TV switched on. Rumbling static filled the room. The TV was a ten-year-old wedding gift from my parents; I never thought it would be the only expensive thing I would own. I visualized his lean frame standing in the middle of the worn auburn rug, a long finger on the tuning dial. Slowly, I recalled the muddiness of his curls and the sharp edges of his jawline.
He sighed. I opened my eyes. I could see again.
He frowned, still tuning the TV. “Why d’you keep this broken thing around?”
Giving up, he coughed, massaged his temples, and dropped down in the loveseat. There he sat, taking up all the space, extending his long, jeaned legs out in front of him. Then, he smiled at me. My nails dug deeper into the arms of my chair. How I wanted to pluck those yellow teeth right out of that crooked mouth.
“What you thinking, Buttercup? Long time, no see? You been keeping house good, I see. But where the guitars, Buttercup?” He leaned forward and rested his chin on his thick knuckles. His stare settled low on my neck.
“That’s not my name.”
The smile vanished. “Where the guitars, I said.”
“I sold ’em,” I rose out of my chair and limped to the kitchen. He followed.
“For what. Bread, milk, eggs? For what? Makeup? Clothes?” He waved his big hand around the kitchen, narrowly missing the hanging lamp above me. “Sell that old, useless TV if you gonna sell something!”
“No one wants something that’s broken,” I yelled and dashed to the side.
But he grabbed onto the collar of my ripped shirt and yanked me up by it, close to his face, and hissed, “Say what you really mean.”
The smell of cigarettes and bourbon clung to his breath. Traces of lipstick lingered in the corner of his mouth. For the first time in almost a year, I looked at him — really looked at him, saw the burrs folding around his eyes, the skin hanging off his face like an overused, ragged towel, and realized how long I’d been afraid of him, how long we’d wanted better and to fix things, but like the things around us, all we’d done was get old. Old and tired.
Then I remembered what I had done that morning. “I killed a spider today.”
“Good for you,” he said, still gripping me by the collar, “Never understood why you was so damn scared of ’em—”
“Me neither,” I whispered. My shaking fingers latched solidly around his wrists and squeezed. I felt shock run through his body. “But today, I felt almost sorry for ’em. They stretch their legs and creep around building dusty nests that don’t last. And none of it matters when I slam my fist down on ’em.”
His eyes grew wide, but he chuckled. “Oh, Buttercup. Do whatever you want. I’ll always find a way in. Getting my hands on that new key wasn’t so bad.” I could feel the heat of his hands through my shirt.
“Get out.” I yanked my shirt away, heard it tear.
He lunged at me. “What did you say to me—”
I backed up and snatched the phone off the hook. Stomped a foot against the floor. “Get out, I said. I’m tired of you. The cops know ’bout you and so do the new neighbours.”
He paused, then nodded his head slowly as he took a step back. “Geez, you got a restraining order on me? You finally did it, huh?”
I took a step forward, holding the phone out. “Get out.”
“Gotta see my ki—”
“You really think they want to see you after last time? And the school knows what to do if they see you.”
He sauntered backwards, hovered at the door. “I’ll be back. You better give me money for ’em guitars.”
“Give me the key.”
He pierced me with a long glare.
“You know how loudly I can scream. And I have plenty of reasons to call the cops right now.” I clutched the phone, shaking, and held my breath.
He shifted his weight onto one leg, extended the other as he reached deep into his jean pocket.
Vina Nguyen lives in Calgary, where she continues to write, serenade small café audiences with her electric guitar, and substitute teach. She is also hard at work on her first novel with the support of her friends and her beloved houseplant, Beki.