By Jesse Cipala
2020 Horror Short Story Contest- 1st Place
In a sleepy suburban town, on an unremarkable street sat a modest house. An almost indistinguishable Post-Depression Minimal style structure, which blended well with the rest of the dwellings on the block. Its personality consisted of slightly weathered white siding, capped by a gray shingled roof. An almost perfect cube of a small house, except for the protrusion of an entryway. Its red front door stood proud and welcoming. Behind that door paced a man who knew this to be the eve of the rest of his life as he knew it.
William looked down at his pocket watch; the hands read 5:55pm. He looked over to the clock hanging on the wall of the living room. It also read 5:55pm. His guests weren’t late yet, but in a sense, they were. They were the kind of people who always arrived 15 minutes early to any occasion. He made sure the newspaper was by the love seat. The date read Sunday, November 9, 1952. He walked over to the mirror by the entryway, inspecting his appearance for the third time since 5:30. Everything about this evening needed to be perfect, and it was already off to an imperfect start.
“Good evening, Mr. Thompson… How do you do, Mrs. Thompson?”
William practiced his greeting with his reflection, trying to conjure an expression of confidence to go along with his smile. Confidence was the most important element for tonight. William needed to be the one in control this time. He adjusted the knot in his tie, centering it within the collar of his white shirt. He licked his hand and smoothed out one or two stray hairs. Realizing what he just did, he walked into the bathroom to wash that hand. As he walked back out, he heard the faint sound of a car door closing. He rushed back over to the entry way, though he would wait a few seconds after they rang the doorbell to greet them.
Hearing his guest’s muffled voices as they approached, he was only able to understand,
“Let’s just get through this bullshit dinner. I’ll calm down when we go home.”
Then the door bell rang.
William stood there with a furrowed brow. He wasn’t surprised by that declaration, as he had heard many of those impatient outbursts before. Nevertheless, they stung him each time. He counted “five Mississippi” and opened the door, pretending not to have heard the words.
“Sorry we’re late, Bill, there was a line at the gas station on the way over.”
“No apologies necessary, Mr. Thompson,” William said, ignoring the interruption, “You two are right on time.”
“According to you,” came the gravelly voice of the opposing man. “But I always say if you aren’t ten to fifteen minutes early, you’re late.”
He walked in past William as he spoke, his breath already lightly scented with whiskey. His wife stood outside, waiting politely for William’s invitation in.
“It is good to see you, Mrs. Thompson, how are you this evening? Please come in.”
“Thank you for having us, William. Please, we’ve known each other for almost two years, you can call me Claire.”
Stanley snickered, kicking his shoes off, “I don’t mind the formalities.”
“Well, allow me to take your coats and do make yourselves comfortable.”
William placed their coats in the entryway closet as Stanley and Claire sat on the love seat. Stanley was a larger man of 6’3” with broad shoulders and a solid build. Aside from his physical appearance, something else about him commanded respect. He was a foreman with the United Automobile Workers, and often settled disputes between factory workers and the upper management. This, and time served in the Army when he was much younger, gave him an air of authority. It also gave him one of many reasons to dislike William.
In 1943, William tried to join the Army after graduating high school. A chronic cough at the time prevented him from passing the medical examination. Disappointed for not making it to bootcamp, though relieved as he was for not having to go to war, he would regret telling the story to Stanley. It was perceived as weakness to Stanley, and others like him. His first and only job afterwards was in a local butcher shop, where he stayed these last nine years. His only professional achievement was becoming the owner of the shop on a technicality. The original owner passed away in 1950, and having no family of his own, wrote William into the will. Another unimpressive story in Stanley’s mind, a lack of motivation. Stanley always had to find some way to make William feel small. It became a near constant show of dominance whenever they were together.
Stanley was in no way the first person in William’s life to make him feel like an outcast. As far back as childhood, William preferred isolation over the company of others. He read bizarre fictional literature, often finding abandoned structures to hide in for added ambience. He was an easy target for aggressive children to prey on. Not one to know how to defend himself, William often went home with injuries. Over time, he learned to rely on his imagination to cope with the harsh realities of his social shortcomings. He felt more at home in fiction than he did in the real world.
If Stanley had his way, an individual like this would only exist as a face seen on the street, soon to be forgotten. His beloved daughter was the link that bound them together. As any loving father would, Stanley wanted only the best for his “little doe.” This 27-year-old boy was the opposite of that. He was timid, socially awkward, and lacked qualities that Stanley could attribute to “being a man.” He could not understand what she saw in him, how they had been together for two years, or why she moved in with him 8 months prior to this evening. Normal couples don’t do such things. He should have married her first, and God forbid that!
Claire always seemed cordial, though William suspected it to be nothing more than good manners. He had had delightful conversations with her, but often wondered about the sincerity. It was hard to tell with her. She was a neutral party, perhaps playing the role of the peacekeeper for the sake of her daughter and nothing more. She sat up straight next to Stanley on the love seat. Her hands folded in her lap, perfectly content in the silence.
“Where is Heather, by the way? I haven’t heard from her in four days,” Stanley asked from behind the Sunday paper he found. “I don’t like that one bit.”
“She ran off with a friend for the weekend,” William vaguely answered. Stanley lowered the paper enough to make eye contact. William met it with an awkward, unsettling smirk. A knowing expression that irked Stanley just right, but not enough to alarm him. William had odd social habits that Stanley learned to get used to in his time of knowing him. He saw this gesture before, when William made some outlandish comment that ruined their first Thanksgiving dinner together. What did he say? Stanley couldn’t quite remember, but he did remember it was in such poor taste that he and Claire both lost their appetite immediately.
“The house smells delightful, William,” Claire said, breaking the tension.
“Thank you Mrs… Claire, I hope you two are hungry. Can I get either of you a drink before I set the table? I have wine, or perhaps a bottle of Coca-Cola.” William looked directly at Stanley, “I also have Scotch.”
“Now you’re speaking my language, Bill.”
“I will have a glass of wine, thank you.”
William turned the radio on and disappeared into the kitchen. Jimmy Boyd’s “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause” filled the living room. Claire commented about the Christmas songs playing earlier in the season than the previous year. Stanley took the opportunity to examine the living room closely. The main room of the house only had space enough for the love seat and an arm chair on one side, and a dining table for four on the other. It felt cramped in his opinion. He could reach over and almost touch the dining table from where he sat. He looked over to the bookshelf in his corner. There was a small assortment of thin science fiction books, which Stanley thought were mindless garbage. He amused himself wondering if William also liked those romance books found in the grocery stores. The ones where a knight in medieval times would sweep a princess off her feet, or a cowboy would give up his wild ways to settle down with the woman he rescued from bandits.
The floorboards creaked as William walked back in with the drinks. Claire thanked him again as she took the glass. Stanley merely reached a hand over the newspaper, pretending to read. Despite that, William maintained somewhat of a spring in his step as he walked in and out of the kitchen. He set dish after dish on the dining table. The savory aromas reached the Thompsons. Even Stanley curiously glanced over the paper to the table every time William sat a plate down.
“Dinner is served, please take a seat,” William said, pulling his chair out. Claire sat down, setting her almost full wine glass beside her plate. Stanley downed his whiskey as he sat, then eyed William expectantly. Taking the cue, William poured more into his glass, wondering how many drinks Stanley already had before coming over. Deciding to be a good host, he set the bottle within arm’s reach of Stanley.
William presented the dishes, noticing right away the curious gaze of his guests.
“This first dish is Petit salé aux lentilles, pork sausage links on a bed of lentils with carrots and onions. This dish in the middle is Chou Farci, cabbage rolls stuffed with ground pork, bacon, egg, onions, and carrots all minced together. The final dish is Pork Aux Pruneaux, porkchops that have been roasted with prunes and a nice drizzle of gravy on the top. I don’t know if I pronounced these correctly, but they are…”
“French,” Stanley interrupted.
“Yes, French dishes that I have recently learned from a cookbook given to me by a recent customer.”
Stanley wore an expression that showed he was both unimpressed, but also pleased with himself for identifying the type of cuisine based on the sound of the pronunciation. Claire, on the other hand, snuck in a smile undetected by Stanley. She was eager to break the monotony of beef and potatoes for at least one night.
They served themselves, and dinner had begun. The first few minutes were silent as the Thompsons explored their food. William watched them as they tried each dish. He shadowed each bite, waiting for Stanley or Claire to try something before eating the same thing himself. He studied their reactions, looking for hints of delight or disgust. He might as well have been watching them play poker. Their neutral expressions gave nothing away.
“I find that I enjoy cooking very much. In fact, I was thinking that I would like to work in a restaurant someday. Maybe I could turn the butcher shop into a diner.”
Stanley, gulping the last bit of his second whiskey, exhaled harshly through his nose. He swallowed and began chuckling while coughing. Claire glared at Stanley in disapproval.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Bill. You made some French food for us and now you’re opening your own restaurant?”
Stanley poured a third whiskey for himself.
“Well, I wasn’t planning to start tomorrow, but it was an idea that I had. I don’t want to be a butcher for the rest of my life. I think Heather would have liked it very much if I became a chef. Can you imagine that?”
“I think it’s a fine idea”, Claire said, “This meal is quite different than what we usually have. With practice, I’m sure you will eventually grow into the profession.”
“Thank you, Claire”, William said. He looked over to Stanley, who gave him a cold stare in reply. Frozen, glass half raised as if he was about to take yet another drink, Stanley stopped suddenly after William spoke. William felt a sudden chill in his spine. The confidence William wanted to exude throughout the evening began to fade.
The only other time he saw this expression from Stanley was during the first Thanksgiving. The first time he met the Thompsons and said the wrong thing, which ruined dinner. Perhaps that first night was when he lost Stanley all together. Soon after came the intimidation and subtle displays of dominance. Then Stanley began talking over him, one upping him, and demeaning him. But what did he say just now to warrant such a tense moment?
Claire noticed as well. She placed a hand on his shoulder and called his name. Stanley looked as though he was holding back a tirade, but then he relaxed and took a sip of his whiskey. William regretted leaving the bottle close to him. He had a feeling the evening just took a turn in the wrong direction. He also felt himself retreating socially, and Stanley sensed it right away. He saw the avoidance of eye contact and the shift in body language. Just the way he liked it.
“William, did you listen to the ‘War of the Worlds’ rebroadcast on the radio for Halloween?” Claire asked, trying to reintroduce more light-hearted conversation into dinner.
“Yes, I did, Mrs. Thom… Claire.” William relaxed in his chair again. “Funny enough, I listened to it when it first played in 1938. I was 13 then, and I thought the program was real. It was terrifying.”
“It was a clever piece of drama,” Claire agreed, “I read in the paper that it caused quite a scare for many people on account of how realistic it sounded.”
“I should call you Gulli-Bill if you believe that nonsense,” Stanley chimed in, aggressively cutting into his porkchop, “I see you have a number of science fiction books. Do you believe in ghosts, and monsters, and mermaids too?”
William sat in silence, watching Stanley drain his glass and pour a fourth whiskey. He didn’t know Stanley as one to drink this much, and in such short time. He looked to Claire for any sign of protest. She just watched him pour, and with a sour expression, continued eating.
“Do you know what your problem is, Bill?” Stanley asked, holding his glass and watching the liquid shift as he tilted it from side to side, “You don’t live in the real world. I don’t think you ever lived in the real world. Your head is full of shit. It’s so full of shit that there is no room left for productive thoughts. You are a 27-year-old non-adult who reads books about who-knows-what kind of make believe. You’ve spent your life, so far, cutting meat for shoppers. Congratulations for at least having a job. This, after you couldn’t join the Army and serve your country like a man. Do you know what I find symbolic, Bill? You served French food tonight. I’m sure you know they surrendered fairly early in the war. Christ! And my little girl found her way to you. It’s embarrassing when my friends ask me about her. She had so many suitable men in line when they all came home from overseas. Proud, strong, capable men who could give her a life she deserves. I have to tell them about you instead. Where did I go wrong as a father that she winds up with a weirdo like you?”
William took it all in, deflated and staring into his plate. Claire threw her silverware down in frustration. The loud clatter as they hit her plate caused William and Stanley both to jump. She wiped her mouth and stood up. Her chair scraped loudly across the wooden floor.
“I’m sure I’ve never been more embarrassed than I am right now.” She looked at Stanley with a scowl, “I’m sorry, William, but I must go for a walk right now before my drunk husband makes me scream.”
Claire walked out through the front door without bothering to put her coat on. Stanley, still focused on his glass, seemed indifferent to her display. He was almost amused by it.
“She can’t go home without me,” he chuckled.
William couldn’t help but find irony in that. Stanly was most likely too drunk to drive at this point. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stanley pour his fifth whiskey. Where did the fourth one go?
“Bill…” Stanley continued, taking a bite of the sausage, “What did you mean, exactly, when you said ‘Heather WOULD HAVE liked it…’ when you spoke about being a chef?”
The accusing tone of the question gave William a chill. He looked up at Stanley whose eyes were locked with his. Eyes that showed a hint of aggression and unpredictability. William tensed his jaw. His heart rate climbed to the highest level he had ever felt. His senses heightened like an animal in danger. Why did he ask that question?
“I..I meant, H-Heather would have liked it if I was a chef this whole time… Instead of a butcher. I know my job isn’t very glamorous”
Stanley stared at William long and hard, chewing deliberately, intimidatingly, swallowing audibly.
“What are you asking, Stan… Mr. Thompson?” William asked, feeling the sensation of pins and needles across his body.
“It has been four days since I have heard from my little girl. I have never gone that long without hearing from her, Bill.” Stanley placed a distinct emphasis in tone when he said his name. “Did you say something to upset her? Has she come to her senses and finally left you? This ‘friend’ of hers… is it, perhaps, a man that she’s run off with? Oh God in heaven, please let that be so. But God damn it, Bill, if you’ve hurt my little doe…”
Stanley’s voice rose as he spoke, the rapid onset of intoxication fueling his belligerence. His emotions became uncivilized, reverting to more primitive expression. He finished his last sentence through gritted teeth.
William realized the evening was lost. He was witnessing the full unrestrained distaste that Stanley had for him. He assumed for the whole time they had known each other as well. And it all came to a head at this dinner table. William had a feeling this would be the night for such a thing. Though, he didn’t anticipate the conversation forking in the direction that it had. Different roads can lead to the same destination, he thought. Now he knew for sure, having heard the words directly from Stanley’s mouth. Something about that brought an odd sense of relief to William. There was no more charade of manners or civility; the masks had come off.
For the first time, he felt like he understood who Stanley was: a drunken bully who only respected people like himself. He was no different than the countless other taunting faces he tried to forget. In that, came a seed of confidence that quickly grew inside of William. His heart rate normalized, as did his breathing. His jaw relaxed and his stomach stopped turning. A feeling of determination that he had never experienced before flooded his senses. It was feeling of preservation that refused to be trampled yet again. A feeling that, maybe, it was time for William to become the monster.
William leaned forward, making sure he had Stanley’s attention as much as he had his. There was a moment of pause. Stanley narrowed his eyes in anticipation, waiting to hear whatever pathetic words he had the courage to utter. William looked down into Stanley’s plate, then chuckled to himself. He saw that Stanley took small portions of each dish on his plate, and each dish had only a couple of bites taken. He looked back up to Stanley with that same odd smirk that so bothered him.
“I know how much you love your daughter, Stanley, but it doesn’t look like you loved dinner.”
Stanley looked down into his plate, confused by the cryptic statement. William reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He set it down next to his own plate, half covering it with his hand.
“You almost got your wish, Stanley. Heather was planning to leave me. She was kind enough to write me a letter explaining what she planned to do. She was careless, however, and I found it while she was still packing. I was so very upset to learn that she was leaving me for someone else. We had an argument…”
William let the sentence hang, an expression of calm disappointment on his face.
“WHERE THE HELL IS SHE, BILL?!” Stanley yelled in both anger and desperation. So tense was he that his white-knuckled hand shook as he brought the glass to his mouth.
“She’s on our plates, Stanley,” William answered with chilling calmness.
As the words left William’s mouth, a memory rushed back into Stanley’s head at the same time. It struck him with a physical assault as much as a mental terror. He remembered why that odd smirk bothered him so much. He remembered Thanksgiving from two years prior, when William smirked like that and made an ill-humored comment about human meat supposedly tasting similar to pork.
Stanley’s stomach twisted and tightened. Nausea rose up his torso and into his spinning head. Sickness and fear, along with his intoxication, threatened his senses. William laughed, enjoying the first time he had ever seen Stanley so visibly uncomfortable. He felt powerful, finally grasping what his all other bullies must have felt when they belittled him.
William was about to speak again, but an adrenaline surge found Stanley. With unexpected agility, Stanley quickly stood up leaped over the table at William. William’s eye went wide, not focusing on Stanley’s face, but the steak knife he was clutching. Stanley collided with William, knocking him backwards in his chair. William tried to yell, but he felt the serrated blade pierce his neck. Just as quickly as it entered, it was withdrawn, tearing the wound further. His scream came out as a wet gurgle. He felt two more violent jabs in his neck. Stanley shifted his body to steady himself over William, allowing William to shove a free arm against his attacker’s face. He managed push Stanley’s face back, but it was no use. William felt a sharp burning pain over and over in his side. Stanley stabbed at him blindly, each thrust hitting true. Within seconds, the light left William’s eyes.
Even after William stopped moving, Stanley lay on top of him for what felt like eternity. His heart pumped hard enough in his chest that he could feel his pulse in his ears. His hands were frozen into clenched fists. He tried to drop the steak knife, but he couldn’t relax his grip. All he could do is rest on top of the lifeless body and breathe.
Eventually, Stanley managed to roll to one side and prop himself against the wall. As the adrenaline surge subsided, his hands became functional again. He felt relatively sober, and a wave of emotions washed over him. Anger found him as he thought of William. At the same time, fear and sorrow for his only daughter. Sickness, and the ultimate sense of violation as he looked at the plates and the food now scattered on the floor. He looked at William, feeling only a mild sense of triumph. But his daughter was forever gone. What justice was there to be had?
Stanley saw William’s folded paper, now plastered on the side of his own shirt. Held there by William’s blood, which was all over Stanley as well. He peeled it off and slowly opened it. Curious to read what was now the last thing his precious daughter ever wrote, her last thoughts in her life before it was stolen.
Stanley was confused to find a poem, rather than a goodbye letter. It was written in William’s handwriting. He read line by line. It was romantic, a poem professing love for the only woman he could ever want in his life. It was followed by a short note… a proposal!
Stanley looked back over to William’s body with profound confusion. He saw a square protrusion in one of his pockets. Stanley reached into it, feeling a square velvet box. He didn’t need to see it to know what it was. He looked into William’s lifeless eyes, which seemed to be staring back. He pulled the box out and stood up. He opened the box and gazed at the sparkling diamond and gold ring inside. Like a detective, Stanley began piecing together these clues. William must have proposed to Heather and was denied. His anger, and obviously his possessiveness, caused him to attack and kill her. As a final act of revenge and perversion, he…
A gasp at the front door broke him of his thought. Panic clutched Stanley as he realized his wife had left earlier to go on a walk.
Stanley turned around and immediately fell to his knees. Tears of joy ran down his face as he beheld his “little doe” standing in the doorway. He didn’t understand how this came to be, but it didn’t matter. Heather was returned to him by some miracle. She was an angel… who stood with her hand covering her mouth. She shed tears of her own, from eyes that were witnessing terror. Stanley’s sense of joy and relief left him as quickly as it came. His beloved daughter, whose eyes were trained on William’s body, now looked at her bloody father, holding her engagement ring. All was silent, except for Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday” playing on the radio.
In the winter of 1955, Stanley sat in his prison cell, cycling through the same thoughts that haunted him every day for three years. The fateful night and the repercussions thereafter. Though socially awkward, William was harmless. The dinner was his attempt to ask the Thompsons for their blessing to marry Heather. Upon their blessing, he would propose to Heather the moment she came home from her long weekend away.
Stanley learned this bit of information during his trial, when William’s journal was presented as evidence found at crime scene. Heather, so completely heartbroken by the revelations, vowed to never speak to her father again. Claire saw what Stanley had done that night as well, having come back to the house minutes after Heather. Her drunk husband made her scream after all, drawing the neighbors’ attention, and then the police. She screamed until her throat burned, and then lost herself. She shut down emotionally and cognitively that evening. “Reduced to a mobile-vegetative state,” the doctor at the institution said, “It may be weeks, months, years… maybe for the rest of her life.” Stanley wouldn’t know, as no one ever came to visit him. His story was the headline of every newspaper and broadcast in the state. He assumed everyone he knew thought he’d gone mad. And they would be right, he lamented, at least in William’s last moments.
Stanley had a life sentence to think about the consequences of one action. How he destroyed four lives simply because he believed some absurd story, made up on the spot by a boy with an overactive imagination who was pushed too far. Every time he thought about that night, he muttered “Gulli-Bill.”
About the Author: Jesse Cipala is a visual designer based in the Washington DC area. One of his longest lasting loves has been that of a good story. Inspired by Stephen King, Clive Barker, and R.A. Salvatore, he’s drawn to world-building, character’s journey, dangerous situations, mysteries, and anything that’s out of the ordinary. An avid traveler, he’s been capturing stories around the world through his camera lens. You can see some of his work at http://www.cipaladesign.com
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