Susan woke up violently, remembering what she had done. Three nights in a row, she had murdered someone. Each in cold blood and without remorse. What is wrong with me, Susan thought. How sick am I? Each victim, a middle aged overweight white man, probably in his fifties. The kind that loves Mother’s Day, not to honor mom, but because on Mother’s Day his mom tells him how lucky she is, how proud she is of him. Beer belly and all. The kind like her husband. Last night’s was the most expertly executed of them all. There was no way she could have been discovered, but it was just a dream, anyhow. Susan wasn’t a murderer.
Around 1 a.m. she had popped into her car, as casually as if she were running out for milk. Just before she left, she checked on her girls. They were sleeping softly, snuggled together like a pretzel, their loose curls gently matted around their faces, dewy from the warmth of each other’s bodies. My babies, she had thought. She loved them so much it hurt, but they were getting older, and it worried her. They used to end up in her bed every night but that hadn’t happened for almost a year. It started shortly after their dad left, her husband. They were only still married because of inertia. Her mother always told her she was like an ostrich—hiding her head in the sand to ignore the problems circling around her. But Susan never agreed with the comparison. She was refusing to sign the papers, not acting like they didn’t exist.
Susan’s thin fingers had clawed the steering wheel while her foot didn’t come off the gas for one hundred and twenty miles. Decisiveness coursed through her body like a drip of caffeine. It had felt real, like she was really that determined. She hadn’t been thinking of what it would mean to be a divorcée, how she had chosen wrong. How she had given up so much for their family: at first, time with the girls so she could stay in her bookkeeping role and later, career advancement for time with the girls. When Susan and her husband met, they had laughed that one day she’d make more than him, that she was setting herself up to be a CFO.
Susan had a mediocre job as a bookkeeper that made mediocre money, but she was around for the girls, convinced of the necessity of her presence. Her husband wasn’t exactly a superstar; their salaries were more or less commensurate. So really, she justified to herself, the only things she had to get from a divorce was a court order telling her which days she got the girls and giving her husband the gift of remarriage. Over my dead body. She didn’t want a dime from him, but she wanted him to pay for what he did.
In her dream, Susan had exited the highway just past the Vermont border. She parked outside a Denny’s, in her ten-year-old Volkswagen Passat, the one they had purchased before kids, when they thought their income would only go up. The same Denny’s she and her husband would visit on the way home from camping trips. She thought back to when they would leave their first born in her car seat, sleeping, as they ate. They weren’t irresponsible—it was nothing like that. They could see inside the car from their table. The cool, breezy air seeping in from the cracked window was good for the baby’s lungs. The last time they were there, four years ago, Susan’s husband had called her fat, even though she wasn’t. A young woman had waited on them. The woman was pretty, but kind of trashy looking, nothing like Susan. She wore metal-colored earrings that were slightly tarnished and had multiple tattoos peeking out from behind her tight white v-neck. Her husband’s eyes had lingered. It didn’t bother Susan. It was biology. But then, his tone had changed. Susan had reluctantly ordered pancakes, giving into a craving, and already feeling guilty about it. “Are you sure you want to order that?”, he had said, disgusted. The thing is, he hadn’t really said that. He had said, “I kind of want to order that.”
Last night, as Susan looked around the parking lot deep in slumber, it took her only five minutes to find her victim. He was easy to pick out. Susan didn’t wonder what kind of man he was, or if he had a family. He wasn’t real to her, just a caricature of a person who was put on this earth for any reason but to be himself.
Like the other two killings, no one saw her, Susan was sure of it. It was the definition of murder in cold blood, though she would have been remiss to admit it since that’s not how she saw herself. But she didn’t really see herself at all. She saw men though—right through them. Like her boss who was nice to her just because he wanted to get her into bed. He had never actually made a move, or said anything indecent, but she was on to him. Thinks he’s so sly.
Women like Susan raised no red flags. No one ever saw her, or her five-foot four-inch frame with her “mom jeans” and marled cardigan that went out of fashion a decade ago. Her new haircut, not new to anyone else, but new to her, the split ends gone for now, swept off the floor of Supercuts. The damn greys that just wouldn’t stay away. Once she had accidentally dyed her hair too dark, making her look like the ghost of an eastern European, though her husband hadn’t noticed. She was never a looker like some women, but if there was no strong competition, she could capture the attention of a man or two. She liked to think it was because of the unusual green of her eyes. Not evergreen green, more like grass green. They made you look twice to make sure it was a woman and not a cat staring back at you. But she knew it was really her breasts.
Men always liked her breasts, the ones that nourished her daughters for years. She had refused to buy formula after she’d read the studies. She’d wanted her daughters’ futures to be better than hers. One night, right after a feeding, her nipples bloody before they had built up scar tissue, before they were used to being sucked on for hours on end, her husband had insisted on having sex as the baby lay in a makeshift bassinet next to the bed. She hadn’t touched him for weeks. Her nipples were chaffed, broken and bleeding. New skin had formed around them in earnest, the cells indifferent to whether progress was in vain, before being ripped apart again and again with every new latch. Baby and mother had used the other for comfort. The oxytocin blanketed Susan’s brain, marring her judgment as she had winced in pain while her daughter’s mouth closed in around her. But still, she wouldn’t give her formula. She was too proud to give in. Her husband had grabbed her breasts, hard, making her call out in pain. He didn’t mean to hurt her, she knew that, but she wanted him to feel bad about it, nonetheless. He had finished quickly, ashamed. That night, he went into the bathroom for a long time. Susan figured he was jerking off, never satisfied. But really, he had sat there for a long time, crying.
Last night’s moon was obscured by a thin layer of clouds that blanketed the sky. Susan’s eyes had pierced through the darkness of the Denny’s parking lot. Her victim opened his car door and threw a plastic bottle on the ground. It didn’t roll out on accident—she had been sure of it. He reached in, grabbed it, and chucked it across the empty parking lot. What kind of asshole litters, thought Susan? She had parked far away from a light, her car nestled beneath the shadows of the moon faintly glowing over the large oak tree above her. She put on a baseball cap that her husband used to wear. She put on his gloves and grabbed his gun. A wave of electricity ran through her body. The cops would never believe he left his gun at the house when she kicked him out. “Susan, sweetheart, keep the gun. I want you and the girls to be safe,” he had said right before she slammed the door in his face.
Susan had never been to a shooting range on her own accord but that didn’t matter. She had been practicing in her mind for years. Watching her husband cock the hammer and shoot, she felt powerful, as if she were the one pulling the trigger. She knew from the movies to close one eye to make sure the stronger eye didn’t distort the true location of the desired object.
Calmly, she approached the man’s car. He didn’t even turn around. Why would a man that size have his guard up outside a Denny’s? He wouldn’t. She didn’t see the photo of his wife, and two children on his dashboard, or the manilla folder on the passenger seat with his son’s paper he had reviewed during the break on his night shift at the local power plant. She pressed the gun to the back of his head and pulled the trigger. The suppressor was on, of course. She wasn’t an idiot, but it was still much louder than she expected. Looking around, she saw no one, but she quickly turned around, gun and gloves in hand and got back into her car.
Halfway through the drive home she pulled off onto a side road, near the creek she and her husband had stopped at, years ago, so he could relieve the whiskey from the night before. Funny how dreams don’t forget. They had been on their way back from a late spring camping trip. Susan could still remember how the snow had endured on the peaks of the Green Mountains. The first night at camp, her husband had gone out to collect firewood for the evening. When he returned to the campsite, he looked like he had seen a ghost.
“You’ll never believe what happened,” he had said.
Susan had rolled her eyes. She always thought her husband was prone to exaggeration, like the time he saw a pack of “twenty” deers. Right. He explained that he had inadvertently stumbled upon a den and when he saw the cubs, he knew he was in trouble.
Breathlessly, he had continued, “The mama bear stood there, glaring at me like I was the devil. I kept remembering what Dan said. Remember Dan? The survivalist guide we had before we were married? He said, ‘help the bear recognize you as human.’ So, I slowly climbed onto the nearest rock and gently waved my arms back and forth real big like, like this.” And he had taken his arms and spread them open wide and waved them up down, up down, to show her.
“I kept repeating, ‘I am just gathering wood. I am not here to hurt you. I am just gathering wood. I am not here to hurt you.’ The bear stared at me for a while, her whole-body tense, like she was thinking. Finally, after what felt like two minutes, her shoulders came down a little and she turned towards her cubs, and they walked away.” At the time, Susan had hugged him but now it just reminded her how full of it he was. No way he was that close to them.
But she was surprised how little had changed at the creek. The ground still broke under the weight of her feet. The leaves crumbled, the twigs cracked, the compacted dirt split open. Even the invisible insects, feeling her vibration, scurried out of the way. Susan thought of bears, awake after the winter, no longer nestled in their dens with their cubs. When they hibernated, did they just wake up one day, as if it were any other day? Oblivious to the snow that had blanketed their cave, to the stillness and cold. Or did they feel it? Were they aware of the season even though they slept through it? Awaking only to give birth and feed their cubs, long after their mate had left the den.
Susan stopped thinking. She spit on the ground before tossing the gloves and gun into the creek. “Let the water runneth over,” she had said out loud.
Even in her dream, she covered her tracks. On her way home, Susan had stopped at Walmart to buy Children’s Tylenol in case a neighbor saw her pulling into her jagged driveway at 5 a.m. She got another box of hair dye, and a Reese’s just because. Quietly, she opened the door from her garage to the kitchen. She was sure she didn’t see any cars on the road. The smell of freshly brewed coffee flooded her nose, the automatic timer the best investment she had ever made. Susan sat down at her breakfast table and released a long, deep exhale. Calmness flooded her veins. Gingerly, she peeled open the Reese’s, alternating between sips of black coffee and the peanut butter cup. Slowly, she nibbled off the firmer outer layer, piece by piece, and then quickly devoured the soft center before crawling back into bed.
This morning, Susan’s internal clock did not fail her, and she shot awake right before her girls came bounding in. “Good morning sweethearts,” she said, “Come here,” opening her arms to them, folding them under her armpits, squeezing them tight. Her eyes bleary from deep slumber. Slowly, she remembered. Again? What’s wrong with me? She looked over to where her husband used to sleep, that jerk. Cheated on me with Marilyn of all people. It just made her feel awful, that he would pick Marilyn over her. According to Susan, Marilyn’s only asset was her ass and her husband had never been an ass guy. That, and she had a successful accounting firm. I should have left him years ago, Susan thought.
She looked at the case where his gun had been. Maybe I need one of my own, she thought, before peeling herself out of bed and splashing water on her face. She paused, like she was looking at someone she didn’t recognize. Moving closer to the mirror she ran her index finger next to her right eye, then down her cheek and finally, opened her mouth to inspect her teeth. I’m not really that bad, she thought. Walking barefoot to the kitchen, she smiled. The Saturday sun poured through the metal blinds. She emptied the previous day’s grounds before brewing a fresh pot. Odd, she thought, that she hadn’t set the grounds last night. Or had she? The Ambien she had been taking since her husband left messed with her head, and clearly messed with her dreams. As she rummaged through the pantry for her last box of pancake mix, she spotted an old hot sauce that had been his. She grabbed it and chucked it into the garbage. She cracked open two eggs and had to fish out a tiny shard from the bowl. It kept slipping away. As soon as she had it, it moved around, just out of reach until she finally dug in, grabbing it hard.
“You little bastard,” she said under her breath.
She tossed the shells into the garbage and her breath stopped when she saw the wrapper. It wasn’t a Reese’s, like her dream—it was a Payday—she didn’t like Paydays. Must be one of the girl’s, she assured herself. Hot sauce had spilled out of its jar and drenched the Payday in a bloody bath. Looks like a murder scene, she chuckled to herself. She was in the mood for killing things. Susan picked up her phone and found the email address for the divorce attorney her friend had recommended. She shot her a quick note, asking for an introductory call.
“Cubs, breakfast is ready.”
Susan sat down, freshly brewed coffee in hand, and dug in.
Hayley Nivelle is an emerging writer. She has a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.S. from the Honor’s Program at Kansas State University. Hayley lives in Harrison, New York with her family.