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Jul/Aug 2018 Fiction

Pretty Little Thing

by Alex Eaker

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream


The Bride lost her little girl a few years before we met, I reminded my friends weeks before the dinner, but as things go, it came up.

"Child leukemia," she said to Derrick, who could not get through much of the dinner without asking. The Bride looked un-phased by the question, giving her usual half smile. Her hair was short, shorter now in her middle age, but still looked a spry, golden-wheat. The lines on her face supple with age, and if she graced you with a smile, those plateauing lines intensified like deep layers of paint. She still looked like she could kick some serious ass.

Derrick swallowed a brussel sprout without chewing, and the rest of the table—Derrick's wife Tina, Sally and her new boyfriend whose name nobody could remember, and then Davee whose wife had killed herself sometime in the past six-months (I believe it was in April)—took turns uncomfortably sipping from their wine.

"We met during my work in Ecuador," I said. The Bride held my hand under the table. "We both happened to visit Macchu Picchu on the same day. I of course recognized her and did my best not to fan-boy."

"What a masterpiece," Tina said.

"The Mayans chopped off each other's heads and rolled them down their pyramids," Derrick said, making direct eye contact with the Bride.

"That's the Aztecs," Tina corrected.

"It was the Incas who lived in Macchu Picchu," Sally's boyfriend said. We all gave him a weak smile. What was his name?

Tina and Derrick recently moved into a six-room apartment in Tribeca after Tina's promotion and the new baby. We were all there to celebrate life and next steps, new professions and wealth, livelihoods on the rise, maturing romances, a sum of the work we had all put in during our youth—both together and apart. This was 2006, and their apartment had a view of the Freedom Tower in its kind of skeletal phase of construction, and all I remember is this sense of a behemoth construct shading over the entire dinner and the reflection of the beams present the whole time in the Bride's copper eyes.

Before we had sat at the table to eat Tina's lamb roast, the Bride and I scanned the apartment. There was this elegant blend of a designer's touch and the staccato mess of a working couple with a new baby. The kitchen opened into a living-room type area, and although the furnishing was uncompromised and new, there were those hints of disarray that actually comforted me: magazines spread throughout table tops instead of unified, baby-play-things toppled over waiting to be stepped on. The Bride actually found a dust-bunny in the furthest corner of the television room, and we laughed together at its benignity.

"I get my own bar now," Derrick said, standing over the small maple bar adjacent to the wall-sized window. His arms outstretched, he clearly wanted us to be impressed or congratulate him on some achievement.

 

At the table, Derrick watched the Bride's hands every time she handled the kitchen knife to cut a piece of the bloody meat for herself. But it's not like she did anything different than us, not anything we would notice. The Bride eventually caught him staring, and to save himself from embarrassment, Derrick picked up his wine glass and called for another toast in the middle of the meal. He committed to the charade—spontaneous toasting became the theme of the night.

"To the new baby!" Sally raised her glass.

Her lips had that red stain of wine around the inside. Her unnamed boyfriend raised an arm as if to say you shouldn't have anymore, the night is young, but decided against it.

"To the baby," Tina agreed.

We all clinked glasses. The bride and I had switched to gin. The sweet smell of fruit warmed the air of the apartment.

"To the Bride's newest book!" I decided to call out just before dessert.

I liked making the Bride blush.

Davee stood to his feet and started to clap.

He said, "Exciting news. I loved your first book. I think it even saved my life."

"That's too much praise, Davee," the Bride said in faux modesty.

Derrick and Tina looked uninterested. This was one of the few toasts that didn't pertain to their achievements, and the only one that had gotten a rising ovation at that.

"I didn't know you were a writer," Tina finally spoke.

"She wrote a book about grieving and martial arts," the unnamed boyfriend seemed to say out of nowhere. It was evident all the men in the room were fans. Derrick would never admit it to Tina, though. I knew he had a copy of the Bride's book somewhere in his lounge.

"How does that work?" Sally asked. "Grieving and martial arts?"

"It's more of tiny anecdotes about my life," said the Bride. "Small, 500-word essays about things I've done. Things I've seen."

"The Five Fingers of Death and dying daughters," the unnamed boyfriend said. This made me really hate his guts.

"She was on the New York Times bestseller for a few weeks," I said. I made sure to look at Derrick when I said this.

"A month," the Bride smirked.

"That's fantastic," Tina said.

"I actually brought a copy of your first book," Davee said. "I was hoping you'd sign it for me."

He rose out of his chair and walked towards where his jacket was hanging in the foyer.

"I'm sure this is something we can do later," Tina said to him, but he was already gone. "It's not like we're eating or anything!" she called. But he was already in the foyer.

"I heard she dismantled an entire Yakuzah regimen," the unnamed boyfriend said and then took a big bite of Tina's pork. "In a night club. It's closed now, obviously."

Sally finished her glass of wine. Davee returned with the Bride's first book in one hand and a ballpoint pen in the other. The book was a small hard-cover with a picture of the Bride in her infamous yellow-jump suit, holding a prop Hattori Hanzo across the length of the cover.

I could see in the Bride's face she was disappointed she had to see herself like that again. She had just wanted normalcy at this point, and I had wrongly promised my friends wouldn't treat her any differently than I did. We did things like shop at Macys together. There were no jumpsuits in her closet anymore, just sundresses and jeans. Things like that. But the Bride was always a good sport. She couldn't deny the widower. I still couldn't trust that one of my friends wouldn't ask what kind of damage she could do with the pen.

"We should play a game," Sally said.

"We aren't too old for games, are we?" I asked the table.

"As long as we don't wake up the baby, I don't see why we can't play something."

"Strip twister, like we used to," Sally said. Now I felt pity for her unnamed boyfriend. I knew the damage Sally could cause after one too many drinks.

"I still haven't shed all my baby fat," Tina said. Perhaps this was the gentlest way to put out the fire that was Sally's idea of a game.

"I have a game," the Bride said. "It involves a shot of tequila and a scorpion."

The table stayed quiet.

The Bride let out a big laugh, "I'm kidding! How about charades?"

 

We split up into two teams, trying to part the couples: Sally, Tina, and I versus Derrick, the Bride, and Sally's boyfriend. Derrick suggested we make Davee the referee, seeing that he made the teams uneven. But how could we do that to him? He asked to be on Derrick's team, but I knew it was to be with the Bride. It was fine, a lot of men felt a pull about her. Only I knew all the baggage that came with her, though. Or at least, I knew as much as anyone could about her. All her secrets still somewhere else, I imagine.

The Bride was an ace at charades.

"Jaws!" her team yelled. "Forrest Gump! Training Day! Born on the Fourth of July! Home Alone!"

"She's just about good at everything she does, isn't she?" Tina announced.

The Bride sat down and parted her bangs with her finger, clearly invigorated by the action.

"Doing anything with Joe Pesci in it is impressive," Davee said.

"A burglar broke into our house just the other night, actually," the Bride added.

I could see on her face she wanted to tell the story.

"Unfortunately, it was not Joe Pesci. But I did shoot them with a BB gun," I said, as if to give my blessing.

"What happened?" asked Sally.

"We were at my house in Cos Cob," I said.

"Ah, the country."

"It's not the country, it just isn't New York."

"The alarm went off," the Bride said. "And I could hear them running back out into the driveway. Into their getaway mobile. Two men. Probably in their late 30s. First timers."

"You don't say."

"I got my bat out," I said. "But, she was the one to chase them down. In her bare feet. We should save the details."

"The details are the best part," the Bride moaned.

I gave her a look.

"I let them live," she smirked.

Everybody laughed.

The men's eyes were all locked on her. Even Derrick's. We all noticed. The Bride noticed. She notices everything. But she kept her eyes on me. I didn't ever ask what she saw.

Sally fell off the couch, and her boyfriend grabbed her arm to help her back up. Then the baby started to cry over the monitor.

"I think that's our cue," Sally's boyfriend said.

"Well, looks like the fun's over."

"She lasted longer than I thought." Tina stood up to go get the baby. "I think now is a perfect time to make an introduction. Before everyone heads home."

Sally was already falling asleep on top her boyfriend's shoulder. I wondered how far they'd have to drive. I realized I hadn't asked where she was living these days. Maybe she was living with the boyfriend. I really should try to get his name again, but it seemed much too late to admit the mistake.

People began to put on their shoes. The Bride wore her favorite pair of flats. Sally just held onto her heels, not wanting to even try walking in them. We were a good group of friends; getting together had been nice. Despite the eyes they had on the Bride. I didn't care for the eyes.

Tina finally met us in the foyer with a little lump of blanket between both her arms.

"This is Christina Jr.," she spoke.

The Bride and I tried to hold in our laughter. During the car ride over we had joked about Tina naming her daughter after herself.

"It's very Tina of her to do something like that," I had said.

"Men do it all the time," said the Bride.

"True," I agreed. "Were you named after your mother?"

She just smiled at me. I knew there wouldn't be an answer. She held my hand while I used the other to steer. It was an easy drive from Cos Cob into Manhattan. The sun had still been high in the air. There was so much day left, it was even above the sky scrapers as we drove over the bridge. Now it was time to go back to "the country."

"She's a pretty little thing," Davee said, waving his hand at the small baby face.

He was right. Tina and Derrick had the most Tina and Derrick baby possible. Two perfectly symmetrical dimples? Light strands of brown hair that looked done up by a professional? Of course. She was a pretty little thing like Davee said. Tina held tight, cradled her gently in the air. She'll be a better mother than cook.

"Can I?" a voice said. It was the Bride's. The sound if it surprised me for some reason.

Tina looked surprised, too. "Why not," she said.

She handed the baby over cautiously. "Just be gentle with her," she said.

The Bride just smiled and took hold of the baby. "Pretty little thing," she said.

 

A few nights before the burglar, when we had first made plans to celebrate the baby's birth, the Bride had started acting a little strange. Small things you only notice when you're in love with a person. You begin to miss the parts of them that changed. Praying you won't have to endure the strange, new behaviors long.

She kept a punching bag in the basement. One of those eight-foot tall ones with a small, white logo of a stick figure kickboxer along the bottom. Thing weighed as much as a fridge. She started kicking it every night. Sometimes she'd get out of bed and go into the basement, and I'd hear the thump! thump! thump! of her kicks just wailing the bag. Her whole leg was enveloped with a bruise after about a week. She wouldn't ice it whenever I told her to. How could I make her stop? How could I make someone—someone who could break my spine with her heel, pull my eyes from their sockets, make my heart explode with a push of her fingers—stop doing whatever she wanted to do?

I just thought she was stressed from the upcoming book. Dealing with agents, publishing houses, the upcoming tour. I agreed to travel around the country with her. I could work from the road. I was a cellphone kind of business man. Maybe an entrepreneur. We weren't really ones who worried about money. I knew that wasn't the problem. Neither of us had parents or siblings either. Those kind of problems went out the window a long time ago. This kind of thing was maybe half a relief. Most of the fights we had were so transparent. Just about us, not the things around us. A little bit of living in a bubble is fine.

But she talked in her sleep, too. When she wasn't kicking the bag, she was talking through her teeth while she slept. I held her from behind and did my best to try and make out the words. But there were only ever two words I had to hear.

"Baby girl," she'd say. "Baby girl."

Over and over like the sound of birds calling to each other from tree to tree.

I knew she wouldn't ever be able to do something like that again. Whether she physically couldn't or for which ever other reason, it didn't matter. Sometimes she woke herself up after screaming the words. Put a fist to my nose like I were a threat. Those are the kind of things you get used to if you want to be with this woman. That's what others don't understand.

"I'm so sorry," she said.

"You were saying it again."

She didn't cry. Never cried. Not in front of anyone, at least. I didn't mind, I could cry for her if need be.

"I can't find any more revenge," she said after that.

 

Then the burglars came. We had lied to my friends. The story we told, it wasn't how it really went. It was closer to those legends they knew about her. Those old stories. The bloody ones.

They got into the house without setting off the alarm. We never set it. Why would you when you live with someone like her? I told her I'd call the police.

"No, I can take care of it," she said.

We were whispering in my bedroom like little kids. Part of me was excited; I wanted to see the damage she could do. See it in person. I wasn't too convincing when I told her she didn't have to, that we could set the alarm and scare them off.

She had the look of a fox hunting injured prey, as it were just another game she could easily win.

"They're the lowest people," she said.

"You don't know that," I said. "They could be desperate. They could have lost their jobs and can't pay their water bill."

"They could be drug addicts," she argued. "Out of towners who came here because they knew this place is filled with rich, scared white men like you."

How could I respond to that?

"They could have children?" I said, but she was already gone.

 

The Bride held onto Tina's baby like she were a small egg. I placed my palm on her back and felt it shiver to my touch.

"She is a pretty little thing," I repeated.

We said goodbye and headed home. The sun was somewhere under the river now. The water dark blue, the city as quiet as I'd ever seen it.

"Do we have to go back?" the Bride said.

I held her hand like I had when we drove up.

"We could stay in this city. We could get a hotel room and make love." She said those last words mockingly, she never called it that unless she knew I wanted to be romantic. But I was tired. I wanted to go back home. There was still blood on the living room couch that needed to be power washed. Maybe I would just get a new couch altogether, I thought.

"There's our bed at home, though," I said. "We can make love in that. It's what I got it for."

She held my hand tighter and smiled. I wonder if she meant to hurt me. If she knew how strong she was. How badly did she mean to hurt those robbers? Anyone for that matter? Did she mean to kill all those people, or was it just holding a hand?

I decided a new couch would be right. A new couch and maybe a new security system. I was in the country, after all. And maybe I wouldn't put on a condom tonight. Maybe something could still happen with us. Make her full. A new couch, though. That's what we really needed. Not to be around that blood. And a baby, too. A pretty little thing of our own. The friends would come over, sit on the new couch, say how pretty the baby was. Say they love the country. The Bride would like that.

 

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