Sound On The Stairs

As he pulled into the driveway, Charlie breathed a sigh. He often gave this exhale of breath when he arrived home, but it wasn’t the arrival that relaxed him. No, there was a visceral relief he felt knowing  there would be no torment waiting for him inside the house. He pushed the button for the garage door and watched as the great white behemoth rolled upward.

Jeanette had seemed bigger than life when they first met. She was full of energy and vitality and she had enthralled him. In her company every activity was an adventure. She was charming and witty, the life of parties. Her enthusiasm was contagious to most people it touched, and an evening spent in her company would leave him feeling a buzzing energy not usual to his more temperate demeanor.

The car pulled forward with little coaxing from Charlie’s foot on the gas and stopped in its proper spot. Charlie gathered a pile of documents from the back seat, (more shit from the lawyer), and ambled out of the car.

The house door from the garage opened into a sort of mud and laundry room, which itself was connected to the kitchen. Charlie walked into the house with his stack of papers and pushed the big illuminated button to close the outer garage door as he went. When he got to the kitchen, he smacked the load down on the counter and moved to the sink to wash his hands.

In addition to her vivacity, Jeanette was obsessive about cleanliness. Over the course of their marriage, Charlie had learned to never enter the house without washing his hands immediately. It was a habit that persisted and even though Jeanette was no longer present to scream the reminder, Charlie could hear her in his mind with perfect clarity. “Have you washed your hands? HAVE YOU WASHED YOUR DIRTY, FILTHY FUCKING HANDS!?”

As he stood at the sink, he felt a sense of unease prickle his neck. The feeling crept along his shoulders and settled on his forehead causing his eyebrows to pull together in a concerned frown. He reached up and turned off the tap, angling his head to listen. What was it? Was that a scuffing sound from upstairs?

He listened a beat and then let it go. “My imagination” he thought. It was usually a little too quiet in the house when his son, Thomas, wasn’t home. Today was one of those rare times when Charlie was home during the day as a result of “network connectivity”, or so the IT guys called it, troubles at the office, which prevented any work from being completed. John, the boss, had told everyone to go home. “I’m not going to pay you to sit around and stare at one another!” So, Charlie was home while Thomas was, probably about now, gleefully stomping around the first-grade playground with his friends.

“A cup of tea, I think. Nothing with caffeine though. I don’t want to struggle getting to sleep tonight” thought Charlie. As if it would matter. Charlie had difficulty sleeping most nights anyway. On the rare occasion when sleep came quickly and easily, he would have terrible nightmares that would jolt him awake at some point in the night. He rooted around in the cupboard, filled the kettle and reflected.

After Jeanette’s arrest, Charlie and Thomas had been able to fall into a relaxed schedule of board games, school, work, stories at bedtime and therapy. Charlie had even been considering surprising Thomas with a puppy for his birthday next month. It’s a gift that Jeanette never would have permitted. Not because Thomas wouldn’t have been thrilled, but because Jeanette despised pets. “The mess and stink!” she’d say, “No way in hell.”

At first, their marriage had been idyllic. Charlie had never been so happy as in those days of newlywed bliss. The first time she punched him, he was so stunned by it he did little more than fold over and vomit. She had been immediately contrite, gushing with apology. “I’m so sorry!” she wailed. “ I didn’t mean to hurt you like that. You just made me so mad! Why did you do that?” Charlie had believed her. “Her temper got away from her” he rationalized. “Her feisty nature is something I love about her.”

Eventually, her contrition after an attack turned into blame before one. “Don’t piss me off! You know what happens when you piss me off! YOU MUST LIKE IT, HUH? YOU MUST LIKE IT WHEN I’M MAD!” along with slaps to the face.

After Thomas was born things settled down a bit. Jeanette would still become enraged about things like hand washing or the towels being perfectly straight on the rod, but she wasn’t physically abusive. Only verbally.

Thomas was almost four when Charlie noticed the first ghoulish purple bruise on his son’s chubby little upper arm. Charlie had confronted Jeanette immediately and she’d gone ballistic, railing that it was all Charlie’s fault. He was the one who left her alone with a snotty kid all day. He was the one who didn’t appreciate everything she did for him. It was his fault that she “never had a minute to herself!” He was always nagging her to “be careful with the money, don’t go out so often with my friends, spend more time with the kid! For fucks sake, I’m home all day with the kid!” That argument ended with a cracked rib for Charlie.

He left her the next day and took Thomas with him. It was hard, but he sought help from an abuse group who gave him a place to stay and protection until he could figure out what to do next. Somehow, Jeanette found him and Thomas and began harassing them. She would scream from outside the building that he was nothing without her. “Nobody will love you like I love you!” she shouted. She begged and pleaded for him to come home. “It’ll be better. I’LL be better! I swear to you, honey! Please come home.” The police were called; Charlie was awarded a restraining order against her, for what it was worth, and he began the process of divorce. On the day the divorce was to be final, Charlie had taken Thomas to get ice cream at their favorite place around the corner from the house. Jeanette had ambushed him in the store. Drunk, screaming and wielding a knife, she had attacked him. “If I can’t have you, no one will!” She had slashed at him and the knife cut his arms as he tried to protect himself from her wild movements. The clerks in the store called the police and a couple of the bigger guys managed to wrestle Jeanette to the floor, getting the knife away from her. Thomas had been terrified and crying under the table where Charlie had pushed him the second he saw Jeanette walk into the store.

The kettle began to whistle on the stove. “Shit!” said Charlie. Moving the kettle and flicking off the stove, Charlie sighed again. “It’s all over now” he said aloud. He had been saying this phrase to himself often of late. It comforted and reminded him to try letting go of the trauma. The therapist said this was a good step. “You’re not loony, Charlie.” He had said. “Speaking these kind of comfort words out loud is good for your recovery. You have been through a lot and it will take time to overcome fears that are pretty deeply embedded. Better not start answering yourself, though” he said with a wink. Therapists really shouldn’t try to make jokes, thought Charlie.

The water was too hot to drink just yet, so he sat the kettle on a trivet, popped the tea bag in a mug and picked up the kitchen TV remote. The news was on and Charlie let it run.

The current story was about a banker who was being prosecuted for fraud. “There’s a shocker” thought Charlie. The next story was one of those upbeat pieces designed to make the public think the news didn’t just report on all the bad stuff that happened all the time and was about a local coffee shop giving cups of coffee to the homeless.

He poured the kettle water into his mug and the headlines segued into a top story about an escape from the county prison. Three inmates had managed an escape last night. The reporter on the scene was taking the viewers through an account of events when Charlie heard a sound, unmistakable this time, from upstairs.

“Two of the inmates were wounded and re-apprehended not long into their flight” the pretty blond on the screen was saying. “The third, however, is still at large and is considered armed and dangerous. A guards’ nightstick was taken during the confusion. It is believed that the remaining convict still has the weapon. Local citizens should be on the lookout for…”

A cold chill gripped Charlie. In that moment, he knew the third escapee was Jeanette. The TV screen flashed an image of Jeanette’s mugshot, affirming Charlie’s intuition, and now he could hear steps moving down the stairs.

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