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The Most Terrible Thing by Susan Taylor Chehak | Word Riot
Short Stories

July 15, 2011      

The Most Terrible Thing by Susan Taylor Chehak

Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. There were the roses. And the guests. And a rainstorm drove them all away. Thunder pounded the air, smashing it like glass; lightning cracked the sky. The next morning there were snail tracks on the rocks, shimmering like magic; I told William they were fairy trails.
     I know I had a son, a boy. I think there was a boy. It doesn’t matter. I can’t remember. I never can remember this. Not for sure anyway. But wasn’t there a boy?
     I’m on my way out for the flowers that I will put in the glass basket on the table by the door. We’ll have guests tonight.
     His name was William. Will, Willie, Billy, Bill. My mind spins a web: his memory clouds and clings and numbs and kills. He was my son. My only boy. My baby, my beloved. His hair was curly, and his eyes were blue.
     “Jane,” they said, speaking up, their faces close, “you have a son.”
     My body was an empty basket, hollowed out and still. I was shivering, flushed in a freezing sweat. Blood whispered and pooled into the mattress and through, onto the rug on the floor.
     You almost died, they told me later, smiling, serving soup. Charles came and he held my hand. When was this? I can’t be sure.
     I walk through the gardens. My feet are small in satin flats. I am out to cut the roses; the gloves on my hands are soiled, smudged with dirt. The clippers are rusty and stiff. My hands ache. My dress drags behind me in the grass.
     The boy was naughty. He disobeyed. He didn’t listen. He was a bother. He never could keep still.
     Herbs for the meat grow wild on mounds beneath the windows of the summer house. I’ve come out here to snip parsley, dill, tarragon, and thyme. The heat is conscious and oppressive; it bears down. Charles was expecting rain, he said. We kept hearing thunder. He said bad weather will always make the guests come late.
     I can hear two people talking. Murmuring in the summer house, they come out to sit in the iron chairs, under the umbrellas in the garden, their long arms folded, their slim legs crossed. The heat bears down, a weight, a shawl. Ice chimes in crystal glasses. Lemonade and tea.
     “Darling,” he is saying. Her earrings glint a message coded by the sunshine.
     She has her head buried in a newspaper. “It was on a cross-country flight. A birth in the bathroom. She was a teenager, they said. The father was from Georgia. My God.”
     He is cracking the ice between his teeth. She shivers and kicks off her shoes.
     My baby’s name was William. He was older. In a yellow slicker, running up the drive, across the grass.
     Calling to me: “Mommy! Mommy!”
     This was the first day of school, and his lunch pail was swinging, banging against his legs, bruising them, purple flowers blooming on the pale surface of his skin. He stopped when he saw that Charles was behind me, in the kitchen.
     It wasn’t William’s fault. No matter what Charles thought. “You can’t always be sticking up for him like that. He has to learn. A boy must be taught. He’ll thank us for it later. You’ll see.”

Those two linger in the sun. Her head is cradled in his lap; his head is tilted back. Eyes closed, they doze. She dreams; he snores. Her mouth is open, saliva gathers, spills over, a rivulet down her chin. They don’t notice me, walking by, my arms full of flowers.
     The roses nod, heavy with the dew. A cat hisses, arches up, claws the air.
     There it is again, that sound. Whack! Whack!
     I don’t remember these two. What are they doing here, in my house?
     She says his name, leans in closer to him. She hooks her hair behind an ear. She rubs his shoulders. He closes his eyes.

Charles was thundering but little William wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t help it. His breath was hitched with sobs.
     The most terrible thing. I had the roses in my arms. Glass, like ice, glinting in the pile of the carpeting by the door.
     He was only trying to help. I told Charles, “He was trying to be good. Come now.”
     I pulled William away. There were bruises blooming thumbprints on his arms. Charles stepped in the glass on the floor, and it sliced through the bottom of his shoe, into the heel of his foot. He left behind a trail of blood that followed him through the house, up the stairs, down the hall, like the slime of a snail, like bread crumbs in the forest, footprints in the snow.
     When asked about the blood, I told our guests that Charles had cut his foot.
     This woman is in my kitchen now; she’s standing at the sink with her hands in soapy water. She leans on the counter; she watches the window; she looks out at the sky.
     “I heard her again last night,” she tells him. She doesn’t look over her shoulder, but I notice that he rolls his eyes. He looks at his hands and shakes his head. He thinks, sometimes, she’s crazy, though to her face and to her friends he is always careful to say high-strung.
     He’s wondering whether it’s going to rain.
     The roses in the crystal basket nod.
     William!? Where did he go? He can be naughty; sometimes he hides.
     He went down for his nap, and never got up. The bruises left tracks across his back. The blood on his temple was slimy and warm; it bloomed on the pillowcase like roses on snow.
     Wee William is sleeping in. His blood like a finger painting on the sheets.
     “This house is haunted,” the woman says. She shivers in his arms.
     I am arranging the roses in the crystal basket on the table near the door. I am humming. It’s hot. We’ll have tarragon chicken and cold strawberry soup. Charles stands on the balcony and watches for the storm.
     The thunder, he says, has a way of making the company come late.

Susan Taylor Chehak

About the author:

Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of five novels, including Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her short stories have appeared in Coe Review, Guernica Magazine, L.A. Under The Influence, Sisters in Crime 5, and The Chariton Review. She teaches fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, as well as in The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spends as much time as possible in Colorado, and at present divides her time between Los Angeles and Toronto.

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