A Sample Short Story: “Acacia”

Acacia_constricta_flower

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

The doorbell rang. “Too late now, isn’t it?” Debra laughed ruefully. “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

Kevin answered the door. Anna stood there, dark hair pulled into a bun, bottle of wine in hand. “Sorry, I just remembered she probably can’t drink this.”

Debra, standing behind her husband, smiled and took the bottle. “A small glass won’t hurt me, or the little resident.” She put her hand on her midsection.

Charlotte arrived next, then Jeremy. Once everyone was inside, Kevin disappeared into the kitchen. Debra followed him, but he shooed her out. “Go on, sit with the guests. Everything’s under control.”

Fifteen minutes later, the food was on the table, and wine had been poured into everyone’s glass except for Debra’s; she wanted to save hers for afterwards. “Thanks for coming, everyone. It means a lot to me.” She looked around the table at each of them in turn, with her warmest glance reserved for her husband. Kevin squeezed her hand.

“Least we could do, honestly,” said Jeremy. “I can’t even imagine the shitstorm you must be going through.”

“Well, we can sort of imagine it,” Anna amended. “But it must be a hundred times worse for you.”

As if on cue, there was a sharp banging on the windows, and then the sound of raucous, fading laughter and epithets. Everyone around the table was silent for a few moments, then there was an outburst of uncomfortable chuckling. “Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen,” said Debra.

“You two get this all the time?” Charlotte was by far the youngest of the group, as her guileless anxiety and acne-scarred face attested. She turned to Kevin. “Door’s locked, right?”

“Yes, it is. And yes, it’s been pretty constant, but it’s nothing we haven’t weathered before.”

Jeremy tore off a chunk from his dinner roll and buttered it thoughtfully. “This case was so much bigger than any of Debra’s others, though. Maybe you should think about going away for a while, or changing your phone numbers at least.”

“It’ll blow over soon enough. It always does.” Debra patted Jeremy’s hand. “Thanks for your concern, though.”

Jeremy smirked. “No problem.”

Later, once Kevin had cleared the dinner dishes and brought out the coffee, Charlotte said. “So how does this work? Now that the trial is over, are you allowed to talk about it?”

“She’d probably rather not.” Kevin gave his wife a sidelong glance. “The point of the party was to try and forget about all that for a while.”

Debra waved a hand at him. “I don’t mind. But there isn’t much to tell.”

“She wants to know if you think Cooper did it.” Jeremy was on his third glass of wine, and his pale blue eyes were shining.

“It wasn’t my place to determine that.”

“You are painfully ethical, Debra,” said Anna. “But I’m technically not a lawyer, so I can tell you I absolutely think he did it.”

Debra raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “You’re in the majority, then.”

“I think you thought so, too. Just a feeling I got.”

Debra sat back in her chair and pondered this. Kevin asked her if she wanted wine, and she said she did, so he got up to get it. Charlotte got up also. “Excuse me, folks, I have to use the ladies’. Don’t talk about anything interesting until I get back.”

“Same goes for me, except I need the gents,” Jeremy said. He got unsteadily to his feet.

“Top of the stairs,” Kevin said as he went into the kitchen.

When everyone was back at the table, Debra said, “Honestly, I was kind of ambivalent about Cooper. I’m not sure he’s capable of the brutality he was accused of. But I didn’t like him personally. He gave me the creeps. I felt like he kept trying to push our relationship in inappropriate directions.” She frowned into her wine glass, and then laughed. “Was that diplomatic enough for you?”

“You can’t blame the guy, Debra. You are by far the hottest and blondest of all the defense attorneys in town,” Jeremy said. “I’m still sorry I fucked all that up.”

Debra’s voice was gentle and a little teasing. “Let’s not go there, Jeremy. No more wine for you.”

Jeremy ducked his head and mumbled an apology.

The clock struck ten, then eleven, and still the guests made no motions to leave. Jeremy had sobered up but kept mostly quiet as the others discussed topics other than the Cooper murder trial: Debra’s pregnancy, Kevin’s impossible class load, Charlotte’s master’s thesis, Anna’s dying mother. Debra listened and conversed pleasantly, but as the night wore on, the exhaustion began to take a toll on her. The party had been her idea, but perhaps the stress of the trial and the ensuing media skewering had affected her more than she thought. She gave an inward sigh of relief when Kevin finally said, “Let’s wrap this up, everybody. Debra’s about to pass out.”

“God, we’re so uncouth,” Anna said. “Sitting here yapping until all hours.” She grabbed her purse from under her chair and stood up, rounding the table to set a hand on Debra’s shoulder. “Get some rest, honey. You’ve really been through the wringer.”

Jeremy spoke at last. “Anna’s right. Matter of fact, you should blow off next week, let Anna and I handle things. Just until the frenzy dies down.”

Debra raised her hand to protest, but Kevin headed her off. “I’ll make her take a break, I promise,” he said, even as Debra was shaking her head. “Good night, everybody. And don’t you dare offer to stay and help clean up. I’ll do that tomorrow.”

“We weren’t going to offer anyway,” Charlotte said with a wink.

The guests dispatched into the night, Debra tumbled into bed at just past one without even brushing her teeth. She had no idea when Kevin came to bed.

When she awoke six hours later, the sheets were covered in blood.

****

“I’m not leaving you alone.”

Kevin stood at the foot of the bed, arms crossed, face bathed in morning light.

Debra propped herself up on her pillows, wincing at the pain in her abdomen. “I’m not an invalid, Kev. You took care of me all weekend. You’ve got your classes, it’s finals week. I’ll be fine.”

He sighed. “Debra, for Christ’s sake. This isn’t a biggest badass competition. You’ve been crucified by the public since that damn trial ended, and now this…” His voice faltered, but he recovered quickly. “You’re staying in that bed getting some goddamn rest like you should have been doing before, and I’m staying right here with you.”

Debra recognized the finality in his tone. Normally she would have countered this with a more commanding finality of her own and gotten her way, but she was too drained to argue with him. She had to remind herself that he, too, was suffering a loss. With a nod, she relented.

The next day, though, she put her foot down. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him around, but she disliked the feeling of being someone’s burden. Kevin grudgingly gave in to her, on the condition that she take the entire week off from the firm, as Jeremy had suggested. She wasn’t happy about it, but maybe everyone was right, and she was only hurting herself and others by trying to be superhuman.

Once Kevin had gone to work and the house was quiet, she found herself thinking of the potential child that had suddenly vanished on Saturday morning, in a torrent of blood and agony. The pregnancy had been accidental, and at first she’d been as ambivalent about it as she’d been about Kenneth Cooper’s guilt. But in the three months since she’d found out, the idea of motherhood had become more appealing, not least because Kevin had started to change too, rediscovering a tenderness that she hadn’t even realized she’d been missing from him until it returned. It wasn’t as though they had been having problems before, but there had been a distancing, perhaps inevitable given their demanding careers and long marriage. The baby, she thought, could have been just what they needed to draw them back together.

And now it was gone.

She pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. It wasn’t the end of the world, she thought. They could always try again. She surprised herself by smiling, and then drifted off to sleep.

An insistent pounding on the front door awakened her hours later. Scowling, she turned onto her side, but then noticed that her cell was flashing from the nightstand. She grabbed it, expecting another prank call, but instead there was a text from Jeremy: “Just me. Open the door.”

Debra shrugged into a robe and picked her way downstairs. When she opened the door, Jeremy was standing there in his trim gray suit, a green-wrapped pot of bright yellow, ball-shaped flowers nearly concealing his face.

Debra couldn’t help grinning as she leaned against the doorjamb. “You shouldn’t have.”

Jeremy peeked around the blossoms. “I would take credit for these, if they didn’t look like something Dr. Seuss dreamed up. They were delivered to the office this morning.”

“Who are they from?” Debra stood aside so Jeremy could bring the flowers into the house.

“I’ll let you uncover that fun fact.” He set the pot down on the dining room table.

She pulled the card free from its envelope and read the crabbed scrawl aloud: “Thank you for everything you did for me. And so sorry for your loss. Best, Kenneth Cooper.” She looked up into Jeremy’s face. “My loss? Does he know about the miscarriage? How would he know?”

“It’s the internet age, Ms. Thorne. Everybody knows everything about everybody.”

“Hm.” She brushed her hand across the flowers, sending a fine rain of yellow powder down onto the tabletop and the slight scent of cinnamon and vinegar into her nostrils.

Jeremy tilted his head. “I’m glad you took some time off. You don’t look so great.”

“Thanks, smooth talker.”

“You know what I mean. You needed the rest.” He paused, staring down at his shoes. “And I’m sorry. You know, about the baby, and about being kind of an asshole at your party.”

“You weren’t an asshole, and it’s fine. Don’t get sentimental, it gives me hives.”

He smiled, still not looking at her. “Same old Debra.” Finally he met her eyes. “I gotta split. Go back to bed. I don’t want to see you at the office until at least next week. Deal?”

“You men, always conspiring to keep a lady down. I promise to be scarce.”

“Good. Get better, sweetheart.” He gave her an awkward hug and showed himself out.

After the sound of his car engine had faded into the distance, Debra poured some coffee and stared at the cheerful riot of blossoms. She hadn’t heard from Kenneth Cooper since the trial had ended, but he was still thinking of her, it seemed. She pulled her robe tight and tapped her foot against the floor, not sure if this was a worrying development or not. Had the card simply thanked her, she would have written it off as genuine appreciation laced with a little flirtation, but the fact that he’d mentioned her “loss” was troubling.

She was still deep in thought when Kevin came through the front door, startling her. She looked at the clock and realized it was nearly eight. Kevin answered her unasked question: “I had some catching up to do, sorry I’m late. I stopped and got Chinese, figured you’d be hungry.”

She was. They ate at the table in silence as the yellow flowers bobbed softly between them. After a few minutes, Kevin pointed. “Should I ask?”

“They’re from Cooper.”

He plucked the card from the pot and read it. His brow furrowed. “He knows our address?”

“They were at the office. Jeremy brought them by.”

He looked at her. “Is this something we should be concerned about?”

“I don’t know yet.”

Kevin nodded. “Do you need me to stay with you while you’re home?” He paused a beat. “Never mind, I already know.” He laughed, a little sadly. “Just thought I’d offer.”

She reached for his hand and twisted his fingers in hers. “I appreciate it. But let’s not freak out just yet.”

“Okay. Just let me know.” He slipped his hand from hers and went into the living room. Debra heard the TV come on.

****

The next day Debra was beginning to feel almost back to normal, which meant she also felt unbearably useless. She woke early, shortly after Kevin left, and paced around the kitchen and dining room for an hour, the flowers always skirting the edges of her vision, reminding her of her enforced quarantine. At last she grabbed the blooms and took them into the garage, where she chucked them unceremoniously in the trash.

Then she called Anna, hoping there would be some catastrophe at the firm she’d need to sort out, but Anna was unequivocal: “We don’t need you, Thorne. Stay the hell home.”

Finally Debra gave up and collapsed onto the couch, flipping the TV on. Even now, all the news networks were still harping about Cooper’s exoneration, repeating the lurid details of the crime again and again: Pretty 22-year-old victim, found in her car with her head blown off, her body a horror show of bruises and stab wounds. Cooper admitting he’d dated the girl briefly, admitting he’d been enraged when she dumped him. Debra stared at the screen flatly as her own picture appeared beside those of Cooper and the victim. Here is the apex of the sick triangle, the news seemed to whisper, the woman responsible for the monster going free. Debra turned it off and went back to bed.

It was dark when she awoke, and the house was completely silent. Blearily, she reached for her phone. Nine-thirty. She scanned her messages; all were cranks. She dialed Kevin, but got his voicemail. “Where are you? It’s late.” She hung up, feeling disembodied.

An hour later, Kevin had still not replied. Debra threw on some clothes and grabbed her keys.

As she opened the front door, something white caught her eye. She turned.

Pinned there on the door was a baby bootie, splashed with red. She slammed the door and locked it.

She called Kevin again first, but he still wasn’t answering. Next she dialed Jeremy. “Can you come over here? I think something bad is happening.” She told the same to Anna, and both told her they were on their way over. Then she called Doug, an old friend in the police department, explaining tersely about the bootie, the flowers, Kevin’s uncharacteristic absence. Doug was audibly alarmed, and promised to send an officer right away. After that, there was nothing to do but wait.

Anna arrived first, followed closely by the officer and Jeremy. As calmly as she could, Debra repeated the events in a voice that sounded robotic to her ears. Spoken aloud, the string of incidents struck her as laughably insignificant: The flowers could have been a simple well-wishing gesture, the bootie could have been one of the innumerable crazies who had harassed her in the wake of the trial, Kevin’s lateness could have a million explanations. Debra regarded her three-person audience balefully. “Sorry to make such a big deal, it sounds paranoid.”

Jeremy began to protest, but was silenced by the simultaneous sounds of Debra’s phone chirping and the officer’s radio erupting in a burst of static. Debra snatched up the phone. “Got a call,” said Doug. “Body found in a car in a parking lot off 47th. Registered to Kevin Thorne. ID on the body is his too. I’m so sorry.…”

She ended the call without answering. The officer was talking into his radio, occasionally glancing at Debra with an expression of grim consternation mixed with pity.

Debra’s legs threatened to crumble beneath her, but she managed to stay upright. Her vision swam.

“Mrs. Thorne,” the officer said, “the victim was found shot and stabbed in a manner consistent with the Cooper murder. There’s an APB out for Cooper now. Victim’s wallet was untouched, but his keys are missing. Do you have somewhere else you can stay?”

Jeremy put his hand on her elbow. “She can stay with me for a few days.”

Debra was shaking her head before she’d even fully processed his words. “That’s not a good idea, Jeremy. Cooper knows you, and Anna. If he found me, he can find either one of you. I can’t put you two at risk.”

“A hotel then. I can stay with you,” Anna said.

Debra’s phone chirped again, startling her so much she nearly dropped it. She looked down at the screen. Charlotte. She answered, and immediately the young girl’s voice was a keening litany in her ear: “Debra, have you seen Kevin? I’ve been trying to call him for hours and he’s not answering and his secretary said she hadn’t heard from him since he left today and I…”

Debra interrupted, gently. She told Charlotte everything that had happened as coherently as she could, steeling herself against the hysteria that threatened to engulf her. There was a long silence on the other end when she had finished, so long that Debra thought she’d been disconnected. Then she heard a faint sniffle. “But I just saw him, Debra. In class today.”

“I’m sorry.” She wasn’t sure why she was apologizing, but there it was.

“Do you need to stay with me?” Charlotte’s voice was barely there, a forlorn ghost. “Cooper wouldn’t think to look for you here.”

Debra hadn’t gotten to know Charlotte as well as she could have over the two years she’d been Kevin’s grad student, but the thought of commiserating with someone who knew a side of Kevin that Debra herself rarely got to see was strangely appealing. “I’d like that.”

Debra went upstairs, gathered some clothes and went back down to the living room. The officer was posted at the front door, the radio on his shoulder crackling and squawking. Jeremy’s and Anna’s faces were distorted masks.

“We’ll find Cooper, Mrs. Thorne,” said the officer.

“Yes. All right.”

Jeremy offered to drive her to Charlotte’s, and she accepted. She hugged Anna, and allowed the officer to escort her to Jeremy’s car. Neither of them spoke on the short drive, and Debra was glad.

Jeremy waited on the curb until Charlotte had opened the door. She waved to him, and then ushered Debra inside. It was a typical student pigsty, littered with dirty laundry and empty food containers, but Debra barely registered the mess. Charlotte had clearly been crying. Wordlessly, she motioned Debra into the postage-stamp kitchen, where she poured them both a glass of wine. They drank in companionable silence.

“I’m sorry all I’ve got is the couch,” Charlotte said between sniffles, once her glass was drained. “I wanted to stay up and talk, but I think we both need to sleep. Maybe we’ll wake up and things will be okay again.”

Debra had been keeping tears at bay until now, but Charlotte’s bare naiveté pushed her over the edge. “Maybe so,” she managed to say.

Once she had settled onto the musty-smelling sofa and Charlotte had disappeared into her bedroom and closed the door, Debra found herself drifting off immediately, even though she had slept for most of the day. She dreamed of her picture on the news, in a lineup that also comprised Cooper and his first victim. There was also a fourth photo, of Kevin, but half his face was obscured by a spray of red.

She wasn’t sure what time it was when she awoke, with a stiff neck and what felt like a slight hangover. The first thing she became aware of was a cheery dash of yellow on the cluttered coffee table directly in her line of sight. She focused, with effort, but for a long time she couldn’t make any sense of what she was seeing.

It was a yellow, ball-shaped flower.

Confused, she tried to struggle into a sitting position, but her limbs felt leaden. She stared at the flower, comprehension slow in coming, and then noticed that beside the flower was a white baby bootie, and propped against that was a printed photo, a blurry image that looked as though it had been taken with a cheap cell phone. The flesh tones in the photo soon separated themselves into two naked figures, Kevin and Charlotte.

There was a sniffle off to her right, and she whipped her head toward the sound. Charlotte was leaning against the kitchen door, her face red and swollen. The pistol in her hand shook slightly, but it was aimed directly at Debra’s head.

“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said, her voice thick.

She pulled the trigger.

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