By Hillary Lyon
“We don’t have that kind of money to spare,” Chelsea pointed out. “As it is, when I go to the grocery store, I use my phone’s calculator so I don’t spend more than what I have on hand. You know that.”
“Yes ma’am, you are one conscientious little shopper,” George said distractedly as he examined his face in the bathroom mirror. He picked at an in-grown hair on his cheek. “But,” here his voice took on that patronizing sing-sing quality she hated, “as this is a business trip to Las Vegas, and as I work so hard to keep you in the style to which you are accustomed, as they say” he muttered, waving his hand in a dismissive motion, “I’ll gamble if I want—and I want.”
Chelsea shook her head and walked out of the bathroom. There was no point in arguing when it came to what he wanted; she’d learned that soon after they married. The word ‘compromise’ wasn’t in his vocabulary. Neither were the words: reasonable, generous, or patient.
“For fuck’s sake, let me have some fun, for once,” he called out after her.
The conversation continued in the car on the way to brunch with his mother.
“Listen, I have a perfectly logical system worked out,” he bragged over the decades-old pop song playing on the car’s stereo. Windows down, the wind blew Chelsea’s hair into her face, her mouth. She’d complain, but he’d only ignore her.
George was a smoker, and he was convinced if he smoked with the car windows down his mother wouldn’t smell the cigarette smoke on him. He was wrong, she always did, and always commented. And he always blamed Chelsea. Who didn’t smoke.
“There’s no way I can lose,” he smirked. The lit cigarette dangled precariously from his lips. “It’s mathematical, see? You wouldn’t understand, so don’t worry your pretty little head over it.” He turned up the volume on the car stereo before she could answer. The conversation was over.
Her mother-in-law was already seated at a table when they arrived. Gwendolyn flexed her knobby, arthritic fingers and examined her manicure. ‘World War II Red’ was the name of the nail polish; she’d worn this, or something similar, for decades. It’s what her late husband liked on her, but as she was now a window—she abruptly decided a change of color was in order. Maybe something pink and girly. Some color a bit more youthful and innocent, as she was going to put herself back on the market.
George bent over and kissed his mother on her powdered cheek. She sniffed loudly. Cigarette smoke! For once, she chose not to comment; she would ignore the odor of Chelsea’s foul habit. Instead, she smiled broadly when George pecked her on the cheek; she so loved her only son.
Her smile froze, then faded when she saw Chelsea. That young woman! How her son could fall in love—and marry!—some one who wasn’t from their social circle, she’d never understand. She thought she’d raised him better than that.
It was different when George’s late father Roger did it, when he married her. Her prince charming, he’d swooped in and rescued her from her trailer-park existence, and brought her to the big city, where she created a new life, a new identity. A literal new life, too, as she was pregnant with George. She and Roger had only know each other three months when they married. Gwendolyn long ago swept that inconvenient history out of her mind.
Now that they were here, Gwendolyn folded her veiny hands on the white linen-draped table and held court.
“I’m thrilled you’re going to Vegas!” She squealed as she lifted her water glass in a toast. “Your father and I loved that town so very much—you know, it’s where we married. We went back often and always had such fun. The shows, the food, the spas, the sport—”
“Sport?” Chelsea scoffed. “I think you mean gambling.”
Gwendolyn slid her eyes over in Chelsea’s direction. “Yes, well, anyway.” She then perked up, focusing her attention entirely on her son, “I just know you’re going to enjoy yourself, and I’m so glad you’re getting this opportunity—”
Chelsea interjected, “You do realize this is a business trip he’s going on, right? A convention, not a vacation.”
Gwendolyn disregarded this interruption from her daughter-in-law. “Georgie,” she said solemnly as she reached for his hands, “I want you to place a bet for me. At the roulette table. Red or black, it doesn’t matter.” She raised her chin. “And be sure to utilize your system!”
“All due respect, Gwendolyn, but he’s not going to do much gambling—he’s there for work, remember—and besides, we certainly don’t have the money to spare.”
George pulled his hands away from his mother’s grasp and cried out, “Whoa! Thanks, Mom!” Gwendolyn had slipped him several hundred dollars, tightly folded.
“And have some fun with what you have left,” his mother said through lipstick smeared teeth.
“Sure,” Chelsea said, not bothering to hide her exasperation. “Have fun with it! It’s not like we have rent to meet, or utilities to pay, or car payments, or credit card interest, or—” She could’ve continued with their litany of debts, but George and Gwendolyn were oblivious to her concerns. Mother and son stared into each other’s eyes; they were in their own little world, just the two of them, no one else allowed. When they did this, it always gave Chelsea the creeps.
Feeling victorious—since she’d made sure her boy got what he wanted—Gwendolyn picked up her menu and chirped, “Well, this is my treat—let’s eat!”
Chelsea had a system, too, only Georgie and mommy didn’t know about it; even if they had known, they wouldn’t have understood.
When she was sure her husband was in Vegas, when he called from the hotel to give her his room number, Chelsea pulled down the ladder to the attic of their house and climbed up. She navigated her way through sealed cardboard boxes—items from their move that they never bothered to unpack—and odd pieces of furniture they didn’t have room for, but were reluctant to sell, for sentimental reasons. Her grandmother’s sewing machine, his grandmother’s rag rug, her own collection of Sabino glass figurines, his great aunt’s collection of Cabbage Patch dolls still in their original boxes.
The floor creaked beneath her as she crept through this canyon of accumulated stuff. There, in the farthest, darkest corner of the attic was her goal: her great-grandmother’s antique steamer trunk, where all the best family secrets were hidden away.
Chelsea brushed cobwebs out of her way, and off her face. A spider, freeing itself from entanglement in her hair, scampered down the nape of her neck to travel over to her bare shoulder. An annoying tickle, she flicked it away.
The trunk was covered in a dusty sheet. Chelsea grabbed a loose fold and yanked it away. The sheet floated through the air behind her, scattering sweet dry dust all around her. She clenched her eyes shut tight until the dust settled.
On her knees now, she unlatched the trunk. The lid groaned in pain as she raised it, like an arthritic joint that hadn’t been used in years. Using her cell phone as a light in one hand, she reached inside the trunk with the other. Her hand swam down through folds of vintage clothes, sealed envelopes holding legal documents, framed photographs of long forgotten ancestors, and a stack of now-very-collectible 78 rpm records.
There, at the very bottom of the trunk, her treasure awaited. She fingered the ornate handle of the heirloom carving knife and nodded with satisfaction. It was right where grandmother had hidden it, along with her grandmother’s own hand-written recipe book—the one she used when she put together the family Christmas dinner in 1962, right after her cheating husband disappeared. No one asked how she could afford such huge portions of delicious meats; they were all just happy to celebrate his absence from her life.
Chelsea pulled these precious finds up from of the layered debris of the past, and smiled as she began planning her menu.
For the entire week, she didn’t hear from George. He’s having too much fun, I suppose, Chelsea pointed out to herself, to think about me. She spent her days at work, doing everything her department demanded. She lunched with co-workers, she fielded the calls of salesmen and -women, and she signed and stamped and filed all manner of orders.
In the evenings, she happily went home to her empty house. Not inclined to cook for just herself, Chelsea ate frozen dinners. She watched whatever she wanted on TV. At bedtime, she snuggled under soft sheets in her big bed; she whispered unintelligible prayers to the secret she kept under her pillow.
Georgie lost every penny his mother had gifted him, and then some. His system didn’t work. But how could his calculations be wrong? How could his strategy fail? He blamed the croupiers and the dealers; obviously, they were instructed by the casino’s pit bosses not to let him win. He reminded himself of that old gambler’s lament: The house always wins. So he didn’t. Mulling over this unjust situation, he chewed at the cuticle of his ring finger until it bled. He just needed to tweak his system, that’s all; the next time he was in Vegas, he’d win for sure.
On the flight back, he figured he’d concoct some story—He got robbed! His room was ransacked! He was the victim of a pick-pocket!—to explain this deficit when he got home. He was very adept at making up excuses, and had been since childhood. Of course, he assumed Chelsea would not question him; after all, his mother always believed him. George failed to understand this was because she wanted to. Chelsea, on the other hand, saw through these stories for what they were: Fabrications. Tall tales. Lies.
Chelsea invited Gwendolyn over for dinner on the night George was scheduled to arrive home from his business trip to Vegas. Of course, his mother gleefully accepted; she couldn’t wait to hear how much money her boy made at the gaming tables! He was sure to have inherited his father’s luck, she bragged to Chelsea. The old woman had dropped all pretense that George’s trip was for business.
Chelsea barely listened. She was preoccupied with setting the table. She was using the heirloom silverware, her grandmother’s hand-painted china plates, and the cut crystal glasses. Make this an occasion, a celebration! A night to remember, Chelsea tittered to herself.
Gwendolyn, stood behind her and sniffed. “Why are there only two place settings? Isn’t Georgie due back this evening?” She scoffed at Chelsea’s incompetence. “Where are you going to sit?”
Chelsea turned and smiled slightly at her mother-in-law’s undisguised snipes. “Oh, about that,” she said as she reached her hand under her apron. She wrapped her fingers around the ornately carved handle of her family’s antique carving knife. Before Chelsea could finish her sentence, Gwendolyn impatiently interrupted.
“I don’t smell any food cooking,” Gwendolyn frowned. “Just what are you planning to serve for dinner?”
Chelsea, threw her head back and laughed, as if Gwendolyn had told her the funniest joke in the world. “It’s all going to be based on my grandmother’s secret recipes!” She sang out jubilantly. “You want to know what’s for dinner?” Chelsea waved her gleaming, lethal knife before Gwendolyn’s watery eyes; the blade flashed coldly in the light of the little chandelier overhead. “You.”
George wasn’t actually due home until the next night, so Chelsea had more than enough time to prepare his homecoming feast. She had long ago decided her menu’s offerings.
A roasted leg of . . . Chelsea giggled as she filled a small silver bowl with mint sauce. A savory gravy made from unique sweat meats blended with arsenic, for the mashed potatoes. Carrots sautéed in a special, rosemary-tinged grease. Several thin slices of salted, meaty medallions, pan-fried. And for desert, a honey-sweetened puree of . . .. well, she wouldn’t name what the secret ingredient was for that.
George blew into the house, threw his luggage down at the foot of the stairs, and bellowed. “Man, I am so hungry, and that smells so good!” He was more than pleased that Chelsea would make such an effort for him. To his way of thinking, she was finally acting like a wife; no back-talk, no depressed mood—just paying attention to his needs. And he needed to eat.
He’d tell her about losing all his money—and a good part of their savings—after he consumed this fine dinner, and they’d knocked back a bottle or two of Merlot. She was always more agreeable—and forgiving—when she was tipsy.
He plopped down in a chair at the head of the table and sighed as he scanned the steamy, mouth-watering offerings before him. Chelsea said nothing as she began filling his plate: several thick slices of meat medallions, mashed potatoes drenched in gravy, sautéed carrots—all his favorite. He looked forward to dessert.
“Eat up,” she urged. “Bon appétit!” She sat in the chair to his right, resting her elbows on the table. She held her head in her hands and grinned as she watched him eat. So ravenous, was he. Her own plate remained empty; he failed to notice.
With her encouragement, he shoved an over-large piece of juicy meat in his mouth, followed by potatoes. He found this combination hard to swallow.
“Nom, nom, nom,” Chelsea giggled and clapped. She rose from her seat and danced around the table.
Choking, George reached for his wine, but only succeeding in knocking the glass over, spilling Merlot all over the faded floral table cloth.
“Well, that’s going to leave a stain,” Chelsea said with mock concern. “This ratty, tacky table cloth was your mother’s, you know,” she laughed as he turned red and frantically thumped his own chest. “In fact, this whole dinner,” she said as he slumped forward, face first into his brimming plate, “is based on your mother.”
Bio: Hillary Lyon founded and for 20 years acted as senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. Her horror, scfi-fi, speculative fiction, and crime short stories and poems have appeared in numerous print and online publications. She’s also an SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet. When not writing, Hillary also creates illustrations for horror/sci-fi, and pulp fiction sites. She’s lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the U.S.; she currently resides in southern Arizona. She has previously published her poem, “Tell Me A Story” here on The Yard: Crime Blog. She can be found at her website, HERE.