a story inspired by a writing prompt in Stephen King’s “On Writing”

A styllized illustration of the side of a woman’s face with long dark hair streaming in the wind.

Dick covered his face with his arms, vainly trying to avoid the fists that pummeled him repeatedly. Oh God, not again, he thought. This can’t be happening again.

As he struggled to twist away from Jane’s fury it was as if he was caught inside a silken bag that softly brushed his face as the punches eventually slowed. He opened his eyes to bright morning sunshine filtering through his bed sheet and a tiny voice in his ear “Daddy, no hiding.”

He pulled the sheet from his face. Jane was gone, she had never been there, and it was just another nightmare. His 3-year old daughter Nell was standing beside the bed, her face bright with morning, her hair a wild halo around her head. Nell pulled the sheet further down the bed, announcing, “Wake up time! Wake up time!”

Dick reached out and rubbed his daughter’s tousled head. She had curls so much like her mother’s it was sometimes painful for him. Each night he prayed that a physical resemblance was all she had inherited from her mother.

Their courtship had been whirlwind, a chance meeting at a seminar, an invitation to dinner and three weeks of unrelenting passion that threatened to kill them both. Jane was energetic and wild in bed, very much in control, and Dick found that surprisingly to his liking. After years of unsuccessful relationships with women who seemed confused about what they wanted from life, what they wanted from him, Jane was a revelation.

She made the decision to get married, she made all the arrangements. Dick was like a water skier, hanging on for life, letting the boat steer him where it willed. Most of the time he felt exhilarated and high — here was a woman who knew what she wanted and went after it. And true to her role as hunter, Jane displayed Dick as a trophy and Dick took to his role willingly.

Three years went by quickly, spent in a blur of house buying, lovemaking, and a constant drive on both their parts to succeed in their careers. With Jane’s encouragement, Dick rose to vice President of the Brownstein Advertising Agency. She mirrored his success, growing her small interior design firm into the area leader, catering to the super rich.

It came as a total surprise when Jane announced one morning that she thought she might be pregnant. Dick stared at her in disbelief — not that this was a terrible thing, just that they had never discussed it. To his mind, having a child was something both partners would talk about and agree upon. Of course, these things sometimes happened unexpectedly.

“Why do you look so surprised?” Jane said. “When we’re not at work, we’re in bed. Why do you think that is? I’ve been trying to get pregnant for months!” She smiled her seductive grin and despite his confusion Dick wanted to make both of them late for the office. But Jane would have none of it.

“I’ve got to do the pregnancy test,” she said, and disappeared into the bathroom. Dick sat down on the bed, trying to digest it all. He realized at once that this was another decision that Jane had made for both of them, a decision more important than where they would live and what kind of cars they would drive. He couldn’t recall a single conversation with Jane, ever, about children.

But Jane was so happy, so fulfilled; he didn’t have the heart to say anything. Besides, wasn’t this what they got married for, bought a house for and worked so hard for? So he allowed himself to be swept up in the latest Hurricane Jane adventure — bending to her gale force will.

Around her seventh month of pregnancy, Jane’s belly had grown to basketball size. “Look at this,” she said as she stood in front of the bedroom mirror. “I look like I’ve let myself go to hell.”

Dick encircled her with his arms and rubbed the offending belly. “I think it’s beautiful,” he said. The words were barely out of his mouth when Jane whirled around and hit him across the face with her hand, her long, manicured nails leaving bright red lines.

“Don’t you try to fool me,” she screamed. “I know what’s going on here. While I become a fat pig for you, you’ll be off with one of those bitches in your office, screwing your brains out at lunchtime.”

Dick was unable to respond. What the hell had just happened? He rubbed the stinging lines on his face and stepped back from his furious wife. Was it hormones? He’d heard that pregnant women could be overly sensitive and prone to wild mood swings. That had to be it. He retreated from the room and soothed his face with a cool washcloth.

He fully expected that Jane would realize that she had acted a bit crazy, and apologize. She had always been prone to a quick temper, but this was an escalation. He went to work convinced that by evening, they could talk about it, and maybe even laugh about it. Several times during the day he tried to phone her office, just to hear her voice and gauge her mood, but she was either out with clients or supervising an installation.

When he got home that night, Jane’s car was already in the driveway. It was a rare occasion that she got home first. He envisioned a delicious meal cooked for him as a peace offering, and an evening spent in carnal delight.

When he opened the front door, the house was dark. There were no tempting aromas of dinner, no candlelight, no greeting by a pregnant wife who had returned to her senses.

“Jane?” he called. “Baby, where are you?” His question was met by a dark blur that resembled Jane but was wielding a huge kitchen knife over her head. Luckily, she was slowed by her pregnant belly, and only managed to slash his arm superficially before he got the knife away.

A complete psychotic break was what they called it, “they” being the army of mental health professionals who paraded through Jane’s hospital room. Because of the baby, they couldn’t give her the kind of medication that would help her lucidity; mostly she was restrained and sedated. When Nell was born she was barely aware of what was going on, and remained in the hospital instead of being sent to jail for the assault.

Since then, three birthdays had passed for Nell, with no improvement in her mother’s condition despite therapy and medications. She would alternately say that her violence was because of voices she heard, but in other moments she would declare herself to be part of a long line of powerful women who possessed magical powers and dark, violent desires. Occasionally, she would send long, rambling letters full of insincere apologies accompanied by frightening threats. Her anger was mostly directed at Nell, whom she viewed as a competitor for Dick’s affections.

Nell pushed her spoon around in her cereal bowl, obviously not interested in the morning’s serving of healthy processed grain. She shoved the bowl away hard enough to make the milk slosh over the side.

“Nell, no reason to make a mess,” Dick said. He looked intensely at his daughter’s face, seeing the glint of anger in her eyes. He was never sure, at times like this, if Nell’s petulance was normal toddler behavior, or a glimpse of something darker.

The angry light faded from her eyes quickly, and she smiled up at him. “Eggs?” she asked. At least he thought she was asking.

Dick scrambled an egg for Nell with one eye on the clock. He had barely an hour to get her to daycare and get to the office. He now understood what the single mothers in his office went through on a daily basis — a sophisticated dance of day care drop off and pick ups, pediatric visits scheduled at lunch time, and the need to use vacation days to stay home with a sick baby. He loved Nell intensely but there were some days when he just felt that his life had spiraled out of his control.

The morning was hectic, several meetings back to back, and he had barely a moment at his desk until close to 1 PM. His stomach growled with hunger, and he grabbed his pile of phone messages intending to return calls while eating lunch. One message stopped him cold.

“Call Dr. Greenblatt,” it read. “ASAP — it’s important.”

He plopped down in his desk chair, heart racing. He pulled up his contact list on his computer and found Dr. Greenblatt’s number under Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. Unsure of what to expect he dialed the number with shaking hands.

“Greenblatt here.” The doctor was as brief and no nonsense on the phone as he was in person.

All Dick got to say was his name. Dr. Greenblatt dominated the rest of the short conversation. Jane had walked out of the hospital and had not been found. Her agitation level had been very high lately, and Dr. Greenblatt suspected that somehow she had not been taking her medication. The State Police had been notified. Dr. Greenblatt advised Dick to contact his local police department and arrange for some protection.

Dick dialed the day care center. While they have been given specific instructions to only release Nell to him, he had to remind them. He told them he was on his way over. He figured he would call the police when he got home. After all, Marlboro was more than 50 miles away.

From the car he called his sister and explained the situation.

“My God!” she said. “What are they thinking about at that hospital? How could this happen?” She agreed to let Dick and Nell stay at her house, after all, her husband was a cop, and he’d come home right away to be with them.

Once at his sister’s he realized that he had nothing for Nell, just her day care bag. No clothes, no overnight diapers, but more importantly, they didn’t have Snuggle Bunny, and he knew there was no way Nell would go to bed without her favorite toy.

“I’m going back to the house,” he said. His sister and brother-in-law immediately protested.

“At least call your local police and let them know — have them meet you at the house,” they suggested. Dick nodded and got in his car. But he didn’t call. He didn’t need police around his house again, giving the neighbors new stories about him. The original incident with his wife had been enough. Besides, he’d be in and out.

As he pulled into the driveway, he felt a small trickle of sweat roll down his back. The house looked normal enough, yet anxiety was welling up inside him. He couldn’t help but remember what had happened that day, almost three years ago, when he had walked through the door of his house and ended up having to defend himself from his wife’s incomprehensible attack. The scar on his arms, referred to by the detectives as a“defensive wound” burned at the memory.

Get it over with, he told himself. She couldn’t possibly be here, how would she travel 50 miles with no car. She was probably still wandering around in the woods by the hospital. They would probably call him any moment to let him know she had been safely returned to her room.

He entered the house and was immediately aware of a faint scent in the air — a smell that resembled the White Shoulders perfume that Jane was fond of. He froze in place, straining his ears for any sound that would indicate her presence. He waited to hear the creaky floorboard in the bedroom, the squeaky hinge on the laundry room door, the swishing sound of shoe-less feet sliding slowly across the living room carpet. He heard nothing.

He bolted up the stairs to his daughter’s room. Her bed was in disarray, the sheets and blankets slashed with long, jagged cuts. Several stuffed animals had been ripped open, their fluffy guts spilling out on the floor. All Nell’s clothes had been ripped from her closet, and stuck to the wall, impaled by a steak knife, was Snuggle Bunny.

Without thinking, Dick pulled the steak knife out of the wall and grabbed Snuggle Bunny. He ran full speed down the stairs and jumped in his car, dialing 911 on his cell phone.

“Sir, please slow down, I can’t understand you,” the emergency dispatcher was saying, but Dick could only repeat his sister’s address over and over, hoping at some point it would be clear enough to understand.

He drove to his sister’s, blowing through red lights, passing cars on the right, the left, and squeezing between them on the two-lane highway.

He arrived to see three patrol cars parked at wild angles in front of the house, doors still open, lights still flashing. A small crowd of neighbors had gathered at a timid distance, craning their necks to see what was going on.

He burst through the door and was corralled by a cop. “Hey — hold on!” the cop shouted. From somewhere in the house he heard his sister’s voice.

“That’s my brother!” she said. “Let him in!”

The cop released his hold and Dick ran to the sound of her voice, which seemed to be coming from the kitchen. The scene that greeted him was overwhelming and chaotic. His sister was seated on the floor next to her husband, holding a folded towel against some kind of wound to his arm. Two police officers were digging through an open first aid kit and assuring him that the ambulance was on its way.

“Nell, where’s Nell?” He shoved more police officers out of the way to look around the room. A female police officer had Nell standing on the kitchen table, and she was carefully removing the child’s blood-soaked clothes. “She’s not hurt,” she said as Dick came running over. “We need her clothes for evidence.”

Dick noticed that the kitchen table was full of plastic evidence bags, one of which held a knife drenched with blood. Beyond the table, he could just see what appeared to be a pair of bare feet — a dark line of liquid dribbling away from them. No one was administering first aid. Dick knew it was Jane, and he knew she was dead.

He realized that his brother in law must have confronted her in the kitchen and killed her in the struggle. And somehow, Nell had been there too.

“Daddy, daddy,” Nell was saying. “Snuggle Bunny?”

He turned to his daughter, now wrapped in a fluffy yellow blanket. He pulled Snuggle Bunny out of his pocket and his daughter squealed with delight.

His brother-in-law, the hero, was being wheeled out to the ambulance. His sister stopped him as he attempted to follow.

“I just want to thank him for protecting Nell,” he said. His sister grabbed his arm firmly, and he looked down at her fear-filled face.

“It wasn’t him,” she said.

Dick shook his head, not comprehending. “You?”

His sister sighed. “No,” she said. “He did find her breaking into our kitchen, and she did come at him with a knife. But he didn’t stab her.”

“Well, what happened?” asked Dick, as he tried to wrap his mind around the whole thing.

“It was Nell,” she whispered, her eyes glancing across the kitchen at the little girl clutching the bunny. “She somehow got the knife and stabbed Jane in the thigh, it must have hit the femoral artery. That’s why she was covered with blood.”

“Oh my God, my poor baby!” Dick cried, and he snatched his daughter up in his arms, knocking Snuggle Bunny out of her hands to the floor. She cried out in distress. For a second, before he bent down to pick up the toy, he thought he saw the fire of fury in his daughter’s eyes — and then it was gone.

Noreen Braman is the author of “Treading Water,” and is a keynote speaker & workshop facilitator. https://njlaughter.mailchimpsites.com

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