A SHORT STORY AND FLASH FICTION MIX OF CONTEMPORARY REALISTIC AND SOUTHERN LITERATURE, DARK WITH GALLOWS HUMOR, IMBUED THROUGHOUT WITH GOTHIC THEMES.
The Comfort of Secrets and other stories is a breakthrough book, a collection of short fiction, an unsettling glimpse through the window of other people's lives. Its stories can be best described as disturbing, twisted, maybe even savage, yet all are undeniably captivating in their observation of where contemporary life meets the odd and uncanny. I hope this book will stay in your mind long after you've closed its cover. R.E. Vaughn
BE READY TO BE CARRIED ON A STRANGE JOURNEY where every anguished soul, regardless of strengths and convictions, questions the real world as well as the surreal one. Inside The Comfort of Secrets and other stories, you'll find "Fragile Boundaries," a father's death wish come-true for his daughter's abusive boyfriend; "Preserving A Country Life," a southern fiction short introducing Riley and Will, mischievous, naïve young brothers who cross paths with the reality and harshness of life and death while at their grandparents' farm; and "Green Bananas and Death," a tragicomic piece in which a young husband encounters Death . . . The Grim Reaper himself. These and the many stories in this collection are an uncanny vision of how we all live in a world with others unpredictable and dangerous, some even merciless and unforgiving. There's no doubt the characters and events here will guide you to that dark place that's been a well-kept secret.
AT SEVENTEEN, I WAS A TALL AND LEGGY BRUNETTE, an alluring young woman not yet mature enough to comprehend the dangers of a man twice her age. On my eighteenth birthday, I married that man. By twenty-four, my life had become no more than a gruesome charade masking my husband’s dark moods, violent rages and verbal cruelty, and my psychological disfigurement. The man I once loved became my tormentor, rotten to his core, putrid and foul like a weeks-old dead animal decaying roadside.
Frank was someone my family should’ve warned me about, someone I should’ve been able to trust, someone the police should’ve known was dangerous. But when I awoke one night to find him standing over me, the knife in his hand inches from my face, none of those things mattered anymore. When he left the following morning for a new job in California, I left as well, but not with him. That was almost a year ago.
I've since returned home and taken back my life. My days are filled with promise and hope. When I think about the happiness that's now mine and the horrors I endured to finally have it, killing my husband came easily.
I WAS ON A TRAILWAYS BUS with my five-year-old daughter, Nicole, when my phone rang. We were leaving Norfolk, Virginia, headed to my parents’ home in Atlanta. The man on the phone said in an urgent voice, “Diana? Is this Diana Pearson?”
I looked at my phone. No caller name showed. The number wasn’t familiar. But the area code should’ve been. In my mind, I blamed my lack of attention on Pete, the only man I’d been with since leaving Frank. My life took another wrong turn when Pete put Nicole and me out on the street and then skipped town. I answered with a flat, “No, sorry. Wrong number,” to the caller, thinking he was a bill collector.
The week before, Pete had moved to Miami. He left me with nothing. And I mean nothing. Everything was his: the apartment, the furniture in it, “our” bank accounts, even the piece-of-crap Volvo I bought from him but never titled in my name. I guess I was too gullible, too ordinary and predictable for his taste, too much of the same stupid for him to come home to every day. He wanted warm sand between his toes and tequila sunrises, different lips every weekend to plant his against. Without Pete, my existence was like a book I hated to read. I was left with no choice but to close the cover. Making it on my own financially was out of the question. I'd quit my dismal, eke-out-an-existence, barely-able-to-afford-bologna job as a teaching assistant, knowing I’d have to go back home. If I was to give my daughter the life she deserved, I’d need my parents’ help.
The man kept saying my name over and over, sounding like he hadn't heard me or didn’t believe me. Again, I told him he had the wrong number. “Diana, it’s Cecil,” he finally said, “your parents’ next-door neighbor. I saw Frank, your husband, at their house today.”
My jaw tensed. I shifted in my seat, staring outside as our long red-and-silver bus left the terminal. I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Inside I was a mixed bag of emotions, part of me thankful for the phone call, the other wishing I'd never answered it. “I'm so sorry, Cecil, for not recognizing your voice."
My real sorrow was that Cecil had pointed out Frank was still my husband. Cecil meant no harm, but I couldn't help but cringe at the notion of still being married to the man, even if it was just for two more days. I wish I had told him Frank was no longer in my heart, and there was no chance he would ever win it back. To love Frank again would be like loving childbirth, a painful experience I’d lived through but didn’t care to repeat. In less than 48 hours, it would be the end of us, and I would be a free woman.
“It's okay, Diana, I understand, but I hate to tell you Frank’s moved back here. I remember your falling-out with your parents last year. Have you heard from your mother and father? I can call them if you—”
“No, don’t, Cecil,” I said, cutting him off. “I’ll call them myself.” Cecil Jenkins is a genial, sweet man in his early sixties with a sincere smile, bow tie, and an irritating habit of repeating himself, like a broken record. My former Sunday school teacher, he means well, but he’ll talk your ear off, nonstop, every chance he gets. If you try to hang on his every word—and good luck if you do—you’ll be hanging on a very long time.
I’ll call the police, was what I really felt like telling him. I don’t want that lecherous bastard living anywhere near me or my family. I found myself second-guessing my return home.
Nicole turned and looked up at me, a surprised expression on her tiny face at hearing Cecil's name. Concerned with what he had just told me, I didn’t look at her, but she knew I could see her from the corner of my eye. She kept leaning forward, brushing at the air in front of me, doing her best to get my attention, while giving me this goofy grin. I gave in and grinned back at her. My precious child had not forgot who Cecil was, even though we hadn’t talked to or seen him since last year. And she had not forgotten, either, the all-too familiar look of fear in my eyes at that moment, like those of a hunted animal that can no longer hide.
Had Cecil not been a long-time friend of mine and my parents, and such a kind man, I’m sure, given my chaotic state of mind, I would’ve ended the call without saying a word. I thanked him instead and told him not to worry, that I would handle everything when we arrived, and then hung up. I was finally going home, to my family, to my place of peace and hope, and now I was questioning why my parents had not called to warn me about Frank. The picture I’d been shooting for, the one of my daughter and me reuniting with them, had all but gone to hell.
We had been on the bus for only a few minutes, but to me it felt like hours. The gnarled trees of late November, dark webs climbing against an ominous gray sky, passed by as the driver meandered through dizzying streets to the interstate. The smell of the greasy cheeseburger and fries I’d eaten at the bus station hung heavy on my sweater. That meal was now an ache, a mean lump burning in my stomach, along with the anxiety overwhelming me.
The bus ride home would’ve been a nicer one if Cecil's call had not led me so far back down memory lane, but I was nonetheless grateful for my old neighbor's concern. I had become a new person without Frank and having our daughter all to myself, and was not about to let his return change that. Time away had allowed the anger and sadness of the old Diana to seep out of my bones, leaving love and faith in their place, both hopefully just as endearing like the love and faith between my parents.
I shut my phone off, turned to Nicole, and wrapped my arms around her. Sleep came quickly, my mind retreating to someplace deep inside me, hidden away from all the worries of the world. Any more bad news would just have to wait.
THERE WAS A COLD, DARK SIDE to my sister when her blood ran hot, particularly if backed into a corner or someone messed with our family. I wish I could say her fighting reputation preceded her and helped avoid altercations—from new or repeat contenders—but that wasn't always the case. One idiot eventually—and unfortunately—found out how mean Evelyn could turn when provoked.
One particular day, on an impulse that came from something primitive, like anger turned to all-out rage, Evelyn balled her fist and slammed it, hard as her puny arm would carry it, against the nose of a neighborhood bully, a fourteen-year-old named Russell Weldon. He had ambushed me on the school bus ride home, repeatedly taunting me with, “Baby girl ain’t got no more daddy.”
EVELYN WAS WAITING FOR ME at the school bus stop when Russell and I stepped off. Two boys I recognized as Russell’s friends were standing across the street. The taller of the two boys pitched the cigarette he was smoking to the road. Both boys crossed the street, hands in their pockets, and took up positions shoulder to shoulder beside Russell. They followed us, laughing, talking in quiet voices among themselves.
The shortest of the three said, “Hey there, Evelyn. I need to ast you something. We hear you’re putting out to the whole football team. That true?” Evelyn ignored the boy, looking straight ahead while I kept my eyes on the sidewalk just in front of my feet.
The boys continued talking and laughing. “Now, Tim, you know that ain’t true, don’t you?” the taller one asked. The short boy answered back, “Sorry, Shep. I was mistaken. It’s actually the basketball team. Ain’t that right, Russell?” making sure his laugh afterward was loud enough to carry to Evelyn.
“Whore,” Russell answered. “Yep. I’d say the girl ain’t nothing but a whore, fellas.”
The moment Russell opened his foul mouth, calling Evelyn what he did, wondering aloud about things not true, he'd made a terrible mistake. By the time he finished questioning my intelligence, cussing our father for his infidelity, and doubting Evelyn’s virginity, his fate was sealed. Evelyn was in a sore mood, tired of all the gossip, and looking for someone to take out her frustrations on—other than me—and she had found her man.
The three boys followed us as far as our neighborhood crosswalk and were within an arm’s reach behind us. "You need to hush, Russell," I said, looking over my shoulder at him, hoping he would stop before Evelyn acted.
“How about you shut the hell up instead, you dumb runt,” Russell said, casting a mean glance my way. He pointed at Evelyn. “You’re gonna end up a whore, too. Just like your big sister.” His words were acid, emphatic, and without mercy, and I knew Evelyn would not let him continue scalding us with his sadistic rant.
My sister didn’t believe in preliminaries before a fight; no pushing or shoving, no verbal threats exchanged. And she wasn’t a coward; she wouldn’t try to talk her way out of an altercation or back down from one. Her adversaries were always stunned when she locked eyes with them and then caught them off-guard with a quick, well-aimed fist between the eyes, dropping them without another word spoken, if they refused to heed her first warning.
"Don't say anymore, Russell," Evelyn said, spinning on her heel to confront him. She stepped closer, her face looking up at his, her right hand balled to a fist behind her. "Or I’ll make you regret it," she continued when he called her another foul name.
“Only regret I have’s not getting in your panties myself, you slut,” Russell said, “or, could it be, it’s your mama I’m thinking about?” He scratched at his head, looking up, grinning as if he was contemplating a perverse thought involving our mother, doing his best to further humiliate Evelyn and me. “Bet your mama gives head, too.” The two boys broke out in laughter.
Russell glanced down at Evelyn’s left hand, now fisted as well. He balled a fist of his own, and drew it back like a pitcher on the mound. I wasn’t sure in that moment if Russell would carry through or if he had even seriously considered the depth of Evelyn’s conviction to her word. All I knew was those things simply didn’t matter anymore because once he swung on my sister, God would be the only one capable of saving him if he missed.
"I guess I’m gonna have to teach you a lesson, you fatherless bitch—"
WHAM! Evelyn’s first punch landed hard and square on Russell's nose, the second against his lower jaw, flattening him to the ground.
Russell was a tall boy, a well-muscled athlete, but it was clear he had no experience in being taken down by someone as small and volatile as my sister. Stunned and confused, he rolled to his stomach, tried to stand, but gave it up when his legs wobbled out from under him. He fell to one knee, then cast his eyes up, as if trying to look at the inside of his skull before collapsing sideways to the pavement. He lay there, convulsing, hands clawed, jabbing at the open air while gasping at it. Drool and blood poured thick from his mouth and nose. I jumped back, but it was too late. Dark red covered the tops of my white sneakers.
“I think you really hurt this one,” I said to Evelyn, looking at the stony faces of the two boys quickly backing away. My voice was loud and the only noise around us, when their laughs abruptly ceased. I squared my shoulders and moved toward them. The short one, Tim, departed in a run, obviously wanting no more to be an accomplice to Russell’s bullying or to be in the sights of my sister’s fast and furious wave of justice.
Evelyn said nothing at first as she grimaced, shaking her hand, trying to relieve the pain wracking her knuckles. “I didn’t want to hit him twice,” she finally said, “but he was reaching for his pants pocket after my first punch.”
I knelt and watched Russell, amazed at the deep rise and sudden fall of his chest, sure he would soon stop breathing and die there on the spot, right before my eyes. He surprised me by kicking a leg straight out, drawing his shoulders up until they were touching his ears, and crying out like an infant in distress. A pocket knife fell from his jeans. I kicked at it with the side of my shoe, watching it disappear down a sewer grating.
A few moments later, Russell sat up to consciousness, holding his hands to his face, whimpering at the sight of all the blood—his blood—covering his shirt, pants, and my shoes. He spat a couple of times and pushed his tongue out. There were two bloody teeth on it and he spit them to the road. He rose unsteadily to his feet and then sat down on the curb in front of his house, crying, looking up at Evelyn through eyes swelling shut and with that same, stupid look of surprise and confusion I had seen so many times before. It was the same look I’d seen on the face of our mother when she realized our father was never coming back. Seeing his face, her face, my mindset quickly changed from satisfaction to one of compassion.
The tall boy named Shep moved toward Russell but stopped when Evelyn turned and faced him. She was looking at him in a strange way, like a snake eyeing its prey, her body tense, rigid, ready to strike.
Shep nodded toward Russell. “I just wanna check on him,” he said to Evelyn. He held his palms up high, looking as if in surrender. “I don’t want no more trouble.”
Evelyn pointed at the road behind him. “Go back down it the same way you came, and there won’t be any. Understand?”
“Yes, but Russell looks like he’s in a lot of pain.”
“I imagine he is,” Evelyn said. “And you will be, too, if you stick around. Now scat.” When Shep turned to walk away, she looked over to Russell with a look like she might be sorry for all that she had done to him, and then said to me, “Let’s go.”
“I can’t,” I said, standing. We were all three right there on the open street, and it seemed unlikely that what Evelyn had done to Russell had not been witnessed by neighbors and passing cars. And Russell was still bleeding a lot.
“Suit yourself,” Evelyn said, turning away to walk home.