Tom Hatchett was awakened to the smell of burnt bacon and overcooked eggs. His overly considerate wife was attempting to make him breakfast in bed once again, but she was far from a five-star chef. Each time she attempted to prepare a meal, they ultimately resorted to hot cereal and frozen breakfast sandwiches from the Stop-n-Shop.
His room was hazed with morning light as he turned his covers and slid his feet into his slippers—another gift from his wife. He rubbed his eyes with a calloused hand from his years in construction. As he struggled to fully awaken, he thought about his most recent job, which wasn’t too difficult considering its gruesome end.
Tom hadn’t been too friendly with Steve, but he’d worked with the guy for nearly four years. Steve had just found out he was going to be having a baby the morning that he fell to his death. It gave Tom nightmares. Tom hated the idea of death. He couldn’t fathom such a definite end to something and it gave him a terrible anxiety. He was sickened by the idea that Steve would never be a father, would never be a great husband, would never have a chance to finally be proud of himself.
Bethany seemed to coddle Tom over Steve’s death, and for the first few days he embraced it. He loved that his wife understood that he needed someone to just be there while he struggled to cope with the tragedy. It only took him a few weeks to start wishing for some space, though. He didn’t have anything against his wife—he loved her. Tom just couldn’t stand her overwhelming desire to coddle him. She would buy him small gifts to cheer him up, apologize after doing nothing wrong, and her latest hobby seemed to be cooking, no matter how poorly it turned out.
He finally roused himself from the sleepy daze and headed for the kitchen to face his wife’s cooking. She was scurrying around the kitchen as a mouse would in the middle of the night. He put on the best “yes, dear” face he could muster and hugged her from behind.
“Breakfast sure smells tasty, Beth,” he said.
She jumped at his touch and gasped as if she were caught doing something criminal. She seemed completely frustrated and the tears in her eyes roused a sense of pity in Tom that he found distasteful. Her lip was quivering a bit when she finally found the nerve to reply.
“I hope you don’t mind another frozen breakfast.” She choked back a sob. “I wanted this to be perfect.” After a few moments she dove head first into his chest and cried silently. Tom felt almost disgusted with her. He couldn’t think of any reason for her to be this upset.
“Beth, sweetie, it’s all right. It’s only breakfast.” He could have easily lost his temper, but he was trying to keep a cork on that. He loved her, but it was so difficult to sympathize with how she reacted to situations like that.
She lifted her head with the most painful smile he’d ever seen, as if it hurt her to try and be happy. Tom felt as if she was hiding something, and a fit of anxiety overcame him. There was something wrong, but he couldn’t figure it out.
“Oh, Tom, you always know just what to say, don’t you?” She smiled; a real smile this time, it seemed. “I don’t know what I would do without you. I’d lose myself, Tom. I would. I don’t think I could last a day if you were to leave me to myself.” She sounded so desperate it made him even more uneasy. She was talking about Steve’s accident, and Tom knew it.
“I told you the day I put that ring on your finger I would stay with you until the very end.” He said this hoping for a reaction that confirmed his suspicions.
“I won’t let you die out there, Tom. It’s not fair that God gets to decide who lives and who dies. I want to protect you. I want you to be safe!” She scowled and started to prepare the frozen breakfast for the microwave.
She was acting especially irrational this morning. He let out an exasperated sigh and sat at the kitchen table. The newspaper was already separated into his favorite sections: sports, the opinion columns, and the funnies. Adult or not, Tom enjoyed comics just as much as he had as a child, and he wasn’t going to give it up for anyone.
Suddenly Beth spun around with an eerily cheerful smile spread across her face. It seemed devious—almost frightening.
“Did you want me to freshen your coffee, Tom?” He thought maybe it was just a slip up, since he hadn’t even poured himself a cup this morning, but it still seemed odd. A fresh pot of coffee was almost finished and Tom wondered if her behavior could be a side effect of caffeine. Tom tried to think of when his wife had gotten up to start breakfast, but couldn’t remember. He couldn’t even remember when he had gone to bed, which started another fit of anxiety. Something felt wrong, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.
“You know, I don’t think I want coffee today, Beth. I’ll just read my paper and go out to the hall and see if they have any—”
“No! Tom, no. I insist.” She was so abrupt he forgot what he was going to say. “You just get so cranky when you don’t have your coffee in the morning, sweetie. That’s all. We don’t want a cranky Tom today, do we?”
She was acting so strange today. Tom forgot entirely what he’d said prior to her interruption, almost as if a fog had rolled over his memory of it.
“Why are you so flustered this morning, Beth?” Tom asked.
She looked maniacal, a smile engraved on her face like that of an old jack-in-the-box; the ones that gave Tom nightmares when he was a boy. “Oh, Tommy, I’m not flustered, I’m just enjoying my time with you. I don’t want you to go rush off and find some reason to leave me alone again. I get so worried when you’re gone.”
He couldn’t remember when she had started calling him Tommy, and he had no idea what she meant when she said again.
He had been laid off for three weeks. He had enough saved in his rainy day fund to be comfortable for a few more weeks, but he had to look for more work.
“Beth, I’ve been home for nearly a month. We both know I need to start bringing home a paycheck again. You know I don’t like leaving you here alone, but we need the money.”
“I don’t care about the money, Tom. I care about you. Just drink your coffee. You can talk to me about finding work. That’s all I ask.” The urgency in her voice made him feel obligated. He didn’t want the damn coffee. Her insistence was bringing him to a boiling point, but he resolved to stay calm.
Tom nodded and smiled at the corner of his mouth, but kept his eyes on his newspaper. He decided to check the front page, but it wasn’t on the table. He turned the papers over on the table a few times, unfolded a few sections, and finally set them in a neat pile and looked up to find Beth eyeing him nervously. He raised his head and furrowed his brow. “Beth? Have you seen the front page? I can’t find it here.”
She broke eye contact and her body seemed to have gone rigid. “I’m not sure. Did you check in between the other pages?”
“I did.” He walked toward the trash in case she had mistakenly thrown it out. He normally wouldn’t mind not seeing the front page, but it bothered him that he couldn’t.
“I put the trash out already, dear, and I’m certain I didn’t throw it away,” Beth said. She sounded almost afraid when she spoke.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter much, anyway. Just wanted to see what news made the big time.” It was all small-town hype for the most part, nothing too engaging.
Tom absently looked over to the clock on the wall. It was nine-thirty, but he could have sworn it was only seven when he’d crawled out of bed. He tried to remember what time he had woken up, but once again his memory fogged over. He slowly forgot why it made him so anxious, and the anxiousness soon faded as well. Just then the microwave’s timer sounded and Beth unloaded the delicacies; another five-star breakfast in his less than average kitchen.
They sat down together and Beth handed him a cup of coffee. He didn’t feel like drinking it and he had an odd feeling that he shouldn’t. He felt almost sick, as if his mind was warning him to throw it out. In a flash of anxiety he thought of Steve. He wasn’t sure why, but he remembered him joking about his wife threatening to lock him up until the baby was born so that he’d stay safe. He set the cup beside him and took a bite of his breakfast sandwich instead, which seemed to upset Beth.
“Won’t you at least taste it?” she asked. “I bought a new brand. Just for you.”
He tilted his head toward the door and took a bite of his biscuit. “I think I’ll just eat quick and run to the office to check for work. Another week or two and our account balance is going to be zero.” He smiled a little, but Beth didn’t look as amused. He took another bite of his sandwich and reached for a napkin.
“I said drink some coffee, Tom. Please. Drink the coffee.” She sounded angry. He started to lose his patience.
“I don’t want any coffee. I feel fine. I’ll grab some at the hall if I need a little pick-me-up. Their coffee tastes like shit, but it’s got a kick to it. I’ll be fine.” He took one final bite and stood up. Beth slammed the table into his thigh throwing him to the floor. She threw the coffee mug at his head while he struggled to sit up, and she pulled a capped syringe from the back of her pants.
Tom grabbed her wrist as it plunged toward his neck, too shocked to fully comprehend what was happening. She batted at his hand like an angry cat, but he overpowered her in an instant. He shook the syringe from her hand and it spun across the floor, only stopping when it came into contact with a box by the back door.
Tom was furious now and he wanted answers. “What in the hell are you doing?!” He pushed her to the floor and sat on her stomach.
“You can’t leave me!” She struggled but he only gripped her wrist more tightly. Ten years as a laborer had its benefits. “You won’t leave me again!”
“What are you talking about?” Tom laid her arms out by her wrists as if she were to be crucified. “What is wrong with you?”
“Just drink your coffee! Drink the damn coffee! Just drink your coffee and stay with me!” The epiphany hit him like a ton of bricks and he felt like he was going to vomit. Whatever was in that syringe was in the coffee, too.
“What the hell have you been giving me?” As if it mattered. The woman he’d been married to for all these years was drugging him; he just wanted to know why.
“It’s just coffee, I promise. Just drink it. You can go to work tomorrow.” She was smiling that awful crooked smile again. “You just can’t leave me. I won’t let you leave.”
Tom stood up and walked quickly to the syringe. The box that had stopped it was open enough to see inside. Newspapers were stacked neatly inside. Not the entire papers, though, just the front pages. There were stacks of bills in the box too. Tom grabbed the bill nearest to the top and read the date.
Witmore Energies, July 5, 2013
The date was wrong on the bill so he grabbed another.
Standall Credit Union, July 5, 2013
His mortgage payment was overdue and attached to the summary was a foreclosure notice. Steve Moor had died July 8 in the year 2012. Tom looked back at Beth who was now standing a few feet from him. Her gaze was blank and she was wearing that crooked-ass grin, only now it scared him more than those jack-in-the-boxes. He looked at the clock again and he understood. His head started to throb and his stomach lurched, sending his breakfast all over the floor.
The last thing he heard was Beth’s voice, slow and menacing in his ear.
“Don’t worry, Tommy. I’ll clean that up for you. You can have your coffee tomorrow morning.” He felt a prick in the side of his neck and his vision clouded and his eye lids felt like lead weights.
“What did you…?” Then everything went black. He wouldn’t remember this tomorrow. He wouldn’t remember anything in-between, in fact. He would wake up to the smell of burnt bacon. He would awaken to an alarm clock two hours too slow. He would awaken thinking only a few weeks had passed since Steve Moor had died. He would awaken as a prisoner in his own home; his own mind. None of the things he would forget would matter, because Beth would always remember his morning coffee.