“Want to know a secret?” Jack asked. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Kathy glanced up at him. He was watching her intently from across the dinner table, his hands folded in front of him.
“Do you know what tomorrow is?” he asked.
Kathy smiled. “Should I?”
“It’s our two month anniversary.” His eyes, dark and sharp, chewed at her hungrily for a moment, and then he smiled. “Isn’t that exciting?”
“Wow,” she said. She resumed setting the table. A fork here, a saltshaker there; her hands shook when she set down the potholders. “Two months already?”
“I have to go get the chicken,” she said.
He made a causal gesture, just a little wave of dismissal, and Kathy left the dining room. She felt his eyes on her back while she crossed the hall into the kitchen. The chicken she’d roasted earlier was sitting on the counter.
When she brought the chicken in and set it on the table, Jack sighed with pleasure. “You’re an excellent cook,” he told her. “That’s one of the reasons I married you.”
She sat down. “Thank you.”
Jack took the knife from its place by his plate and started carving the chicken. “I’m almost done with the walkway.”
“The one in the garden?”
“Yes,” he said. “I tried a footpath before with stones, but it didn’t work. And you know the old saying…If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Well, I like to say, if at first you use the wrong building materials, get something new and start over.”
Kathy’s stomach hurt.
He served her a slice of the chicken. “It’s like marriage,” he said. “This time I’m using slate. And I think,” he said, reaching over to squeeze her hand, “this time I’ve found the right material.”
“I hope so,” she said seriously.
He laughed. “I bet you do.”
After dinner, Jack went out to the garden, and Kathy was left to wash up the dishes. Jack didn’t own a dishwasher, so she did everything by hand, and then stacked up the dripping dishware on the rack by the sink.
When she was finished she dried her hands off on a dishtowel and took off her apron. Beneath it she was wearing a pink dress. Her shoes were thin, really no more than slippers, and they pinched.
The windows were boarded up, but she could feel Jack out in the garden. She’d developed a sixth sense where Jack was concerned. No matter where she was in the house, she could hear him: she was aware of a warmth, a heartbeat, in whatever room he was in. Her ears were constantly tuned for the particular sound of his breathing, or his voice.
Now, she was just aware of his absence. He would be in the garden for hours. Jack was like that. When it came to his projects, he could work almost nonstop. She didn’t think he slept more than three or four hours a night.
She clutched the quiet to her like a promise. With a few hours of free time, and more importantly, alone time ahead of her, she had things to do. She turned and padded softly across the creaky wooden floor.
There were places in the house she was allowed to go, like the kitchen, bedroom, and basement. Then there were places she wasn’t: the second floor, Jack’s office, and the closet.
Kathy didn’t mind not being allowed to go near the closet. She didn’t want to see what was in there. It was bad enough seeing its door every time she descended into the lowest level of the house, which she did frequently.
At some point in his life Jack must have either owned or raided a zoo. The basement was filled with tanks, and inside the tanks were animals: piranhas and eels and scorpions, anything scaly or poisonous or frightening.
It was the alligator in his huge tank that frightened her the most. It was a relatively small alligator, but its mouth still looked like it could easily remove a limb, and its dark, fishy eyes gave her the creeps.
The alligator was always on her mind.
The animals were well looked after, their cages elaborate, large and filled with soil or sand and plants. Jack liked animals, and he was good at taking care of them.
Besides animals, Jack kept materials for his projects in the basement: piles of rocks, locked cabinets filled with tools, rows and rows of books on plywood shelves, and a large worktable.
Kathy kept things in the basement, too. She had a collection of treasures stashed behind Jack’s dictionaries, the only books he never used. They were tools, the raw ingredients for a project of her own.
She had plans. Well, ideas, mostly. She spent hours thinking and throwing anxious looks at the alligator, who always seemed to be looking back with his inky, creepy eyes.
There were car keys at the bottom of his tank.
As a child, Kathy had been a bit of a tomboy.
She had never minded frogs or spiders, or any of the other things that usually made girls scream. She had liked mud. She’d gone swimming when her friends were worried about ruining their makeup and hair. Kathy had also loved fishing.
During high school, whenever she’d had a bad week, her father would wake her up early and drive her out to the river across town. There, they would prop themselves up on the bridge with their poles and their bait and fish.
Fishing was a reward when she got a good grade, a consolation when she fought with a friend. It was what got her through a particularly bad breakup.
Jack said she had been fishing the first time he saw her.
Kathy was making a fishing line.
For almost two months she had been sneaking down to the basement to unravel the hems of her clothes with a nail she found protruding from the wall. As it stood, she had about three feet of pink and white thread, all woven and knotted into something that was almost, but not quite, a rope.
Tonight she’d finally collected the final trinket needed to finish her fishing line. She had found a paperclip that morning on the floor outside Jack’s office. It was metal and oversized: absolutely perfect. She’d whisked it under her dress, tucking it between the strap of her underwear and the flesh of her hip. It had been tickling her all day.
After dinner she went down to the basement and retrieved it. She bent it into a hook, testing shapes until she had something elliptical and promising.
She tied it to an end of the rope, and then tested the weight in her palm. A frown wrinkled her brow. It needed more weight.
Kathy wiggled the nail from its sheath and twisted thread around its head until she had an anchor. For a moment she admired her work, and then she turned to look at the alligator. The gator stared back with its cold, flat eyes. A familiar chill shot up her spine.
She approached the alligator tank slowly. “Nice fishy,” she said, knowing she sounded like an idiot. “Sweet fishy. Well fed fishy.”
The alligator’s jaws were parted, revealing a row of nauseatingly sharp teeth.
Kathy dragged over a chair and pried the mesh cap off the top of the tank. Immediately, she caught a whiff of something like blood and pond water. She curled her nose and leaned back. The alligator hadn’t moved, but she sensed its wariness.
“Nice alligator,” she purred. The keys were half protruding from the mud. She could make out a flash of silver beneath the wavering surface of the water.
Being careful to stand with her body as far away from the alligator – and its teeth – as possible, she dropped the hook into the water. She kept one end of the string curled around her thumb.
She tugged on the string, trying to guide the needle to the keys. Her tongue pushed between her lips. The needle wasn’t large enough, or the thread not strong enough. She couldn’t steer the hook, and when she did, it dragged over the keys without catching anything.
The alligator was watching her with interest.
She had to get the keys. She couldn’t be so close to victory and walk away empty handed; she wouldn’t survive it.
She kept dragging the needle over the keys. Finally, finally, the hook caught something. She gently pulled the thread, and the keys came loose of the mud.
“Yes,” she hissed. She yanked.
The thread snapped, and the keys, along with the hook and thimble sank to the bottom of the tank. Kathy let out an involuntary cry.
She stood there for a moment, holding the now useless end of thread, feeling an ugly wave of despair roll over her. She shut her burning eyes.
She knew what she was going to do next, and she hated herself for it.
“This is where I keep my friends,” Jack had told her the first night in the shuddered house. He gestured around the basement. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
Kathy couldn’t remember what she’d said, but she’d probably agreed. There was something strangely beautiful about the animals: the jewel colored snakes, the alien intelligence of the reptiles.
“And this,” he said, leading her to the closet, “is where I keep my ex-wives. They were miserable cooks, or cried too much, or broke the dishes.” He smiled at her. “But you won’t be like that, will you?”
No, she said. She wouldn’t.
“Good,” he said. “I’ve been watching you a long time. I was extra careful about this marriage.”
Then he’d taken her car keys from his pocket, and taken her by the hand. She’d stumbled after him, her hiking gear still damp with sweat and mud.
“This is my favorite,” he said, showing her the alligator. He lifted off the top of the tank. “Hello, Bruce. Want a snack?”
He dropped her keys into the water.
“Oops,” he said.
Kathy carefully lowered her legs into the water, one at a time. The alligator went even stiller, eyes gleaming.
She crouched in the fishy water, teeth clenched, eyes on the alligator. Moving slowly, almost so slowly she wasn’t moving at all, she lowered her arm into the water. She groped around until her fingers brushed something hard. She grabbed the keys.
The alligator whipped towards her, its mouth snapping open and shut. She strangled a scream and jerked backwards, her arms moving in front of her defensively.
For a moment, woman and alligator squared off. Prey and predator.
It felt like hours before the alligator turned away again, dismissing her. Kathy let out a long breath.
She stood up slowly, straightening her body until she could get one leg over the side. She found the chair with her foot. She began to leverage her other leg over the side, clutching onto the tank for balance.
The alligator, which had been pointedly ignoring her, suddenly turned towards her. Its teeth were showing again.
Kathy froze. “Good alligator…”
The alligator lunged.
Kathy released the side of the tank and went tumbling over, narrowly avoiding a pair of jaws snapping down on her fingers. She dropped to the floor and staggered, her foot rolling under her so she almost went down. The car keys were still in her hand.
Kathy wanted to whoop, to shout insults. The alligator was whipping back and forth in its tank in rage, its tail thumping against the glass sides. She stuffed the keys into her bra and got back up on the chair.
“Sucker,” she said, and slammed the mesh cover down.
Once she’d more or less returned the basement to its original condition, she raced up the two flights of stairs and into the bedroom. She flung off her wet clothes and stuffed them into the hamper, hiding the keys between the folds of her pink dress.
She stepped into the shower, using a bar of yellow soap to scrub the last remains of the fishy smell from her skin. Then she shut off the water and pulled a towel around her.
When she shoved the shower curtain to the side, Jack was in the doorway, leaning against the wall.
“Getting ready for bed?” he asked.
She smiled. “I’m extra sleepy tonight. Must be the change in season.”
“That’s what happens when it gets darker.” He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, wet towel and all. “Want to know another secret?”
She shut her eyes.
“You’re my favorite wife.” After a moment he pulled back and kissed her. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go to bed.”
Somewhere it the house, a clock struck one. Kathy lay awake, her eyes on the dark ceiling, her heart fluttering in her chest. It was time to move.
It took all her courage to slide out from under the covers and creep into the bathroom. She pulled on a dress Jack had laid out for her for the morning, and retrieved the keys from the hamper. They felt cold and slick in her hand, like a frog or lizard. She clutched them in her feverish palm.
She padded out the door and down the stairs. Jack never bothered locking the door; they were miles and miles away from civilization. It was a rare day that so much as a car passed by.
Kathy’s car was still on the curb where Jack had parked it that first night. Kathy unlocked it with trembling hands. As soon as she was inside she started climbing over seats, punching down the locks. Then she scrambled back into the driver’s seat and jammed the key into the ignition.
She twisted it, but the engine just produced an uninspired little cough.
“Shit.” She turned the key again
A light turned on in the house.
She turned the key again and again, but it did nothing. The engine made the same muffled sound. Lights flared on the dash, blinking at her like angry orange eyes.
She could see Jack framed in the window, peering outside.
“Shit,” she said again. There were tears in her eyes; useless, wet dollops screwing up her vision. She twisted the key one last time, and then jumped out of the car.
She took off at a sprint. For a while she stuck to the road, but when she heard Jack shouting, “Kathy!” she ducked into the woods.
It had rained recently, and the ground beneath her feet was spongy. She moved mostly by feel, holding off branches with her arms. The world around her seemed to be a nightmare, twisted and overpowering, and it was getting closer.
“Kathy!” Jack was closer now.
She was out of shape, her breathing becoming labored. She knew she must be making a racket. She felt her way to a tree and sank down on her knees, hoping the dark would hide her. She pressed her hands to her mouth to muffle her ragged breathing.
After a moment, she heard the distinctive crunch of footsteps, moving in no particular hurry. Jack passed right by her tree. She leaned out to watch him pass. She thought his eyes gleamed a little in the dark.
He passed by, and Kathy settled back against the bark, shutting her eyes. She would wait until sunrise and then keep moving. Eventually she would find a town, a phone, escape…
With this plan in mind, she settled in for a long, cold night. Just as she was adjusting her position against the tree, something came out of the dark and struck her hard on the head.
Everything sparked, and then fizzled out to nothing.
Two months ago Kathy had gone for a hike.
She was about two thirds of the way down the mountain when she saw the other hiker. He wasn’t young, but handsome in a generic way. He smiled when he saw her.
“Hi,” he said. He laughed a little, like he was embarrassed. “I wonder if you could help me? I’m a little lost.”
He seemed friendly, so she smiled back. “Sure,” she said. “Where do you need to go?”
“I’ve got a map.” He pulled it out, and she moved forward to get a better look. “See, I left my car right here…” He pointed to a spot on the paper.
She walked until they were side by side. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said. She turned to point down the trail. “It’s just-”
Something dug into her neck. The man had an arm around her, and his voice was breathy in her ear. “Don’t scream,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you. Just come quietly, and we can talk in the car.”
Kathy made a strangled sound. She knew it would be perfectly useless to scream. There was probably no one else on the mountain.
“I’ve waited a long time to be alone with you, Kathy.” She felt his grin against her neck. “My name is Jack.”
The smell of eggs and pancakes finally stirred her from her dreams. For a moment she thought she was back home. “Dad?” she mumbled. “Daddy?” She’d had such awful nightmares. She wasn’t a kid, but she felt a child’s need to be held, to be reassured.
“Shh,” someone said. “Daddy’s here.”
Kathy pried her eyes open. They felt dry and crusty, and there was a sharp headache hovering at the back of her skull, pounding in her temples.
Jack’s face was the first thing she saw. He was giving her an anxious look, hovering over her, one hand on her shoulder.
“Kathy? Are you awake?”
She made a strangled sound, halfway between fear and pain.
“You’ve been asleep all day,” he said. “I didn’t wake you up. I thought a little rest would do you good.”
Kathy reached up and touched her head. There was a lump on her skull the size of an egg. It was tender; she prodded it with careful fingers and then dropped her hand into her lap.
Jack gave her his best crocodile smile, his shiny eyes flat and cold in the blaring light. “See what a good husband you have,” he said. “I made you breakfast.”
He had. She was sitting at the table, her legs tied down to the chair he’d propped her up in. The table was set with pancakes and eggs and sausage, a real feast. She turned her face away.
“It’s our anniversary,” he said, picking up a glass of orange juice. He handed her the other, forcing it into her trembling hand. “Here’s to two wonderful months.”
Two months, she thought with a little moan. Two months of fear, of loathing. Two months in a freak’s dungeon.
“And here’s to our third,” he said, raising his glass.
Maybe in another month the police would finally come. Maybe she would be returned to her home, her mother and father. Maybe she would be paid ridiculous sums of money to go on talk shows and tell everyone what it was like to be kidnapped and held prisoner. She just needed to stay alive. Just a few more weeks.
Kathy raised her glass. “To a third month,” she said, and drank.