Sharing one of my short stories today! This is Strangers at the Table, from Tales from the Cacao Tree, one of the books in the Mind’s Eye Series. My mission was to write a story based on the below photo, taken by Martin David Porter.
Strangers at the Table
The smell of coffee, strong and pungent, drags me from sleep. I sit on the edge of my bed contemplating the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. The numbers sear a defiant 6:03 into my retinas. A war rages between my body and mind. Too early to move. It’s Saturday, for chrissake! But I’m awake now. And there’s coffee, which means she’s also awake. I can’t let her sit out there alone.
Women are born with a heavy dose of liquid guilt oozing through our bloodstream. An absurd sense of responsibility for things that are beyond our control, not our fault at all. I am not to blame for her insomnia, yet I feel guilty for wanting to ignore her, pull the covers up over my head, sleep, forget. That guilt pushes me up off the bed, down the hall, and out to the kitchen.
She’s sitting there, my mother, already dressed in pale linen slacks and a wool sweater the color of burning coal. Her eyes are puffy and red, but still she makes the effort. Her smile doesn’t hide the sadness, and I hear the creak in her voice when she says, “Good morning, Delia.”
“Morn—” The reply is halfway out of my mouth when I notice the carving knife on the table in front of her. Its incongruence stops me short. Her cup of coffee appears untouched. The donut on her plate is missing a couple of bites. Chocolate glaze sticks to her lower lip. The knife by her hand is unused, unneeded. Sharp. Dangerous.
I ease into the chair opposite my mother. The table keeps us a safe distance apart. I am not afraid, not really. Why should I be? This woman gave me life, nurtured me, raised me to be a self-assured adult. She worked tirelessly to ensure I had all I needed, plus a little extra. Dance lessons and designer jeans. Ski trips with friends and trendy highlights from the best hair salon. I thought she was perfect.
Then three days ago I learned that this stranger who is my mother is a liar, and something more, something I’m not ready to acknowledge. My father did not die in a car accident shortly before my birth. No, my father is alive and well. He is a cold-blooded killer. A paid assassin, now in hiding, on the run from both the FBI and the Russian mob. And just like that I’m dropped into the midst of a thriller movie. I’m the dimwitted daughter too pathetic to elicit sympathy.
I remember the tall man at my eighth birthday party, who’d introduced himself as a friend of my mother’s. He’d handed me a fancily wrapped gift and hugged me too hard. My mother came outside carrying my cake, everyone singing happy birthday. I’d skipped over to the picnic table, happy to see the icing was green and not pink, and when I turned back, the man was gone.
When I was ten, someone stole my bicycle. I’d loved my bike and had cried myself to sleep that night. The next morning, a brand new one stood outside my front door, a big green bow on the seat. My mother had sworn she didn’t buy the bike, that it had been a surprise from my secret admirer. I’d giggled, not believing her. Now I know. Secret admirer. My father, the murderer.
My mother touches a finger to the chocolate glaze on her donut. When I was thirteen and got my first period, she’d told me that chocolate was the cure for mood swings. How can you be sad with a mouthful of chocolate? Now, watching her suck the chocolate from her finger, I wonder if she is self-medicating. Such an absurd thought, as if chocolate can cure this ailment, but there it is, yet another falsehood from my childhood.
“He’s a good man,” my mother tells me. “What he does is just a job.”
I want to laugh. Killing innocent people is just a job.
“If he’s such a good man,” I say, “then why did you keep me from him all these years?”
“His world is dangerous, and we didn’t want you exposed to that.”
Suddenly, I need to understand how this happened. “Where did you meet?”
My mother smiles, the first real smile in days. “On a beach in Hyannis. My parents owned a cottage there. Your father was a lifeguard, and I’d sneak over to talk to him. I was sixteen and desperate for adventure. He was twenty, tall and tanned, and oh so handsome! I loved him from the moment our eyes met.”
My gaze drops to the knife, still inexplicitly laying by my mother’s hand. I can’t put the adventurous young girl together with the grounded woman who raised me. I can’t find a reference point for falling in love with a killer. And I don’t understand the knife, its meaning, or the out-of-place fragments of conversation I overheard yesterday.
Sometimes a knife is just a knife, I tell myself.
And sometimes it’s not.
“Did you know?” I ask. “Back then. What he was?”
She doesn’t answer, but instead brushes her finger over the chocolate again and raises it to her lips. The digital clock on the stove clicks away a minute. Then another. The room suddenly feels too warm, and I want to take back the question.
My mother looks at me. I see regret in her eyes. She sighs, dropping her hand to her lap. Her fingers brush the knife handle and I watch the blade shudder.
When she speaks, her voice is a soft tremor, nothing like the firm, confident tone I’d come to expect. “I know what you want me to say, and I so desperately want to tell you what you need to hear. But you’re grown up now. Deep down, you already know the answer.” She watches me for a moment, and I try not to squirm. “I knew from the start who your father was. We had no secrets.”
I let out a noisy breath. So many questions. I recently read a book for my law studies class that said, during a trial, a lawyer should never ask a question for which he doesn’t already know the answer. I wonder if that also applies here. Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss.
Apparently I will make a terrible lawyer, because the words spill from my mouth. “Is what the cops said true? Were you his accomplice?”
She touches the knife. Her thumb traces the edge of the blade, and her expression is almost wistful. “He taught me how to shoot first. Your father loves guns. But they aren’t always practical, with the noise and all. Knives became his specialty. He learned exactly where and how to cut for a quick death. And also where to avoid, for those times quick death isn’t the objective. He made danger sexy.”
Right then, it hit me. A hard slap to the face, figuratively speaking. This upper middle class house in this pretty, suburban neighborhood. The Audi in the driveway and my college tuition. “You’ve never worked as a secretary at the phone company, have you?”
My mother taps a perfect pink fingernail against the knife handle. “You can’t honestly believe that kind of job would have supported our lifestyle.”
I stare at her, my jaw slack. Somewhere in the hazy background of my mind, my intelligent self screams for me to shut up. Stop talking. Smile. Pretend this is normal. Fascinating, even. Then get the hell out.
I ignore that fearful warning. This is my mother! No matter what else, she is still the same woman who held me, whispering soothing words, all those nights I was convinced a boogey man lived under my bed. She is the same woman who made me the coolest Halloween costumes and baked cookies for my classroom parties.
Regardless of what she has or has not done, my mother loves me.
She cannot be a killer. Complicit, maybe. But a killer? No.
My voice is barely a whisper when I say, “He’s here, isn’t he? I heard voices late last night. Yours and a man’s. You brought him into your room and told him he needed to stay quiet.”
Her gaze settles on the donut. Her answer is not really an answer at all. “I had a feeling about the last contract. Something wasn’t right. But the money was irresistible, triple the normal fee. And your father, well, he loves a challenge.”
She waves a hand in the air, as if my question is irrelevant. “A setup. The FBI is fishing now, as you could tell from their questions yesterday. But they know more than they’re saying, and it won’t be long before they show up here again. Last night, your father came to get us. He wants to go to Europe. Or maybe Australia.”
I’m hung up on one word. “Us?”
“I told him you wouldn’t go, that you’re headed for law school, an idealist with a clear sense of right and wrong.”
She says this with a hint of scorn, my mother, the woman I’d thought only days ago was proud of me and my career choice. I suddenly notice that she has the knife in her hand. She touches the blade point to the chocolate on the donut and, for some reason, I wince.
“Why didn’t you leave with him?” I ask, hating the whimper in my voice. “Just the two of you?”
“Because I knew that if I disappeared, you’d never stop looking for me. You’d never believe that I went willingly, or that I’ve killed more than he has.”
I can’t stop the little squeal from escaping my lips. “Killed? More?”
“You surprised me. I always thought that, when you got old enough, we’d be a family business. Your father, he didn’t want that. From the time you were born, he said he wanted only the best for you. Marriage and a family of your own. A safe, comfortable life, not having to always be looking over your shoulder or keeping secrets. Free to be who you are in public. You’ve made your father proud.”
“But not you.”
My mother offers a sad smile. “Oh, Delia, I have always been proud of you. You are very much your father’s daughter.”
“Then what are we doing here, Mom? What is this all about?”
“I thought about killing him last night. Your father.”
She gives me a look I don’t recognize. “Because this is his fault. This house. This life I’ve lived.”
“But I thought…”
“That this was my choice?”
“He changed after you were born. For a short time, he even talked about quitting the life. As if we could ever be a typical, middle class family. We wound up with a compromise. He’d live elsewhere, in order to keep you safe. And I’d raise you in a proper, normal environment. He’d support us, and we’d never want for anything. I was supposed to quit the life, and I did, for a time. But I am not Suzie homemaker. By the time you started kindergarten, I was ready for a nuthouse. Your father agreed to let me take on a few easy jobs now and then. He didn’t know I also took on independent contracts. That made me happy, made the air lighter and easier to breathe. And so I was able to bake cookies and be the kind of mother you needed.”
I watch my mother speak. Her voice, her face. But she’s become a stranger. Pink fingernails tap on a stainless steel knife. Chocolate on her lower lip. My mother. A killer.
“Is he still here? Are you leaving together?”
“I know your feelings on justice. Doing what’s right. You have a commendable spirit, Delia, but you are also a liability. You won’t lie to the police to protect me. You’ll tell them everything.”
“I don’t know anything! Just go. Be with… my father. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Do you know what your father wants?”
“He wants to quit the business. He says we don’t need to work, and he’s right, we have more money than we’ll ever be able to spend. We don’t need to do it anymore. Kill people. He wanted the three of us to explore the world. To be a happy, normal family.”
I gape at my mother. This woman across from me, who’d been my idol throughout my youth. Shock ripples down my spine, as I realize what she’s telling me. “You don’t want that. You like killing too much to stop.”
She nods, giving me that sad smile. “It’s an addiction, really. I don’t expect you to understand. It’s the only thing that quiets all the noise in my head.”
Sweat soaks my armpits. I stink of fear. “What now?”
“I told him that I’d convince you to come. And, for a fanciful moment, I even believed myself. But we both know that would never happen.” She accentuates her words by poking the knife point on the table, the tap, tap, tap sounding ominous in the spotless kitchen. “I told him that it wasn’t safe for him to stay. We’re meeting at a highway rest stop later this morning. I’ll tell him that I tried my best, but you chose to stay here and live your life. That you don’t want anything to do with him.” She watches me and sighs. “But he’ll insist on maintaining contact. On trying to talk to you. While you’ll need to clear your conscience and do what you think is right. Justice, and all that. The combination will be our undoing. So, you see, I have to do this. There is no other way.”
My mother, the woman I’d trusted more than any other to protect me in this world, grips the knife handle and rises from her chair. I scramble backward, up and away, my slippered feet not allowing me traction on the gleaming tile floor. I feel her breath on my neck, her apology in my ear. Then I’m twisting, and I have her wrist in my hands. All those self-defense classes she’d insisted I take. Moves I’d never expected to use, and certainly not on my own mother. We push and pull and topple. I feel warm blood on my hands and I don’t understand. I’m breathing. No pain. Beneath me, on the floor, my mother gasps. Blood trickles past the chocolate still clinging to her lower lip. She smiles at me and murmurs, “I knew you had it in you.”