Mona undid the top two buttons of her cardigan, muttering to herself. The bus had been freezing, like it always was in the summer. People these days were too spoiled, always wanting it freezing cold in the summer and pumped to a swelter in the winter. Seasons had no meaning anymore. Everything was thermostat ready and did her head in. Now back in the heat of the day, the walk from the bus stop to the stoop had left her slightly flushed.
A sudden burst of noise from the building door. It was Patricia, from three doors down, and her son Simon. Mona was glad to see she had brought the boy with her; it meant she wouldn’t linger as long with incessantly stupid small talk.
“Miss Mona, how are you today?” Patricia cried out, waving. “How are you today? You’re looking well. Nice and rosy-cheeked.”
“Thank you, dearie,” she said with a smile. The boy bounded down the stairs and landed in front of her with a small jump from the last step. He had a soccer ball under his arm. “Hello, Simon. How are you?”
Mona tried not to stare at the fuzzy upper lip he was developing. He kept his hair close, and the dumb expression he always wore, coupled with this new outgrowth made him look like a criminal to Mona’s reckoning. Not surprising given his parents.
“Can Simon help you with your bags?” Patricia offered.
“No, dearie, thank you. I’m quite alright. Just enjoying a breath of fresh air before I go inside.”
“Yes, it’s a lovely day,” agreed Patricia.
“Nah, it’s hot as heck,” said the boy.
“Simon!” his mother chastised him. “Well, I’m sorry we can’t stay and chat but we’re running late for practice. We’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
“Of course, dear.”
Mona picked up her shopping bags and started to move up the front stairs. She was thankful the woman hadn’t pressed and been on her way. She couldn’t stand the thought of that boy creature’s dirty hands all over her groceries. He would probably smash everything anyway. Hearing a shuffling gait from a few landings above, she glanced up. She couldn’t make the person out but judging from the noises and the enormity of the shadow cast against the far wall, she assumed it was the fat man from the third floor. He seemed to barely lift his feet when he walked, just slid them along like some just giant slug. Even when standing still he announced his presence by his cumbersome breathing. It turned her stomach to think of it.
He was trumping down the stairs like a cripple, no doubt his knees giving out from supporting his bulk. Mona pressed herself against the wall to let him pass by as he got closer, trying to flatten her bags at her side. When he neared she gave him a smile, and a slight nod of the head which she knew made her look sweet.
“Hello dear,” she said, her voice soft.
He smiled back, mumbling a hello, and she saw the beads of perspiration popping up on his upper lip and forehead. She turned her head quickly away to avoid the sight.
He has that fat people smell, she remarked to herself as she finished climbing the stairs to her apartment. Not surprising, she supposed. It must be hard to reach all the cracks and crevices when you’re a trash pile of a person like that. He probably takes up two seats on the bus; at the very least his body would cascade over into the next. She sighed, putting her groceries down outside the door to her place, searching for keys. People could eat whatever they wanted, of course, but there should be rules against being that fat. We shouldn’t have to put up with people intruding on our space just because they had no self-control. She’d heard on the radio that somewhere, Japan she believed, had imposed a fat tax. That seemed sensible to her. If they want to be disgusting, let them suffer the consequences; the rest of us manage to control ourselves. She moved her bags to the dining room table near the door and turned back to close it.
As she was reaching to hang up her sweater, she thought about a commercial she’d seen on television for a program where they even had fat people running all over the place to lose weight for money. She would never be able to bring herself to watch that. But, she thought, carrying the groceries into the kitchen, she could hardly stand to watch any television at all anymore. Only PBS on a Friday or Sunday night, usually while she was knitting. They had good, quality things to watch; none of this modern preoccupation with injecting sex in at every turn. It seemed to be all anyone could think of, as far as she could tell; the point of any story these days was sex. As she put away her few bought items, she clucked her tongue. It had even crept into her Friday and Sunday night mystery shows and that seemed to be the utmost disrespect. It saddened her that people were so limited and vulgar.
Just then she heard a sound from the room nearest the kitchen, her bedroom. There was a thudding, like some small animal scurrying across a surface, and a faint noise like the mewing of a cat. Smiling, she tossed her head and said out loud, “Oh, Joanie, are you at it again? I’ve only just gotten home.” She chuckled to herself as she tucked away the last of her purchases and went to investigate.
She looked at the hope chest at the end of her bed. She could see as the quilt which she had laid, folded, across its top moved ever so slightly from the movement inside. Watching its patchwork squares, they seemed to tremble. Suddenly there was one loud thud, almost like a kick against the side of the wooden box.
“Oh, you silly girl, enough of that,” Mona said, bending down.
She lifted the quilt, dropped it on her bed and opened the hope chest. And there she was inside, trying to push herself in one corner as she always did when the lid was opened, her eyes a mix of terror and anger. Mona shook her head.
“What have you gone and done now?” she asked.
She noticed that the scarf which she had wound round the girl’s head and knotted in the back, in order to gag her, had come loose. Her mouth was still mostly covered and she couldn’t scream, which was good, but it was definitely not where Mona would have liked. It had begun to slip down her chin. This won’t do, thought Mona. It’s supposed to cover her mouth completely. The extension cords binding her wrists and ankles were also much looser than they should be, and a glance showed her that they had begun to rub the girl’s skin raw where she struggled against them. Well, thought Mona, it serves her right. She shouldn’t be fighting.
And now the scarf was ruined of course. It had been coated in her saliva as she tried and tried to push it out and force a loud noise. Now that the girl’s mouth was surely dry and irritated, Mona could see small rips along the sides where the girl’s teeth had tried to tear against the gag. Parts of it looked frayed and torn. She had never liked the scarf much anyway – a gift from her terrible Aunt Helene, some depressing paisley and cheap gauzy material trying to imitate chiffon – but still, there was no need to destroy perfectly good clothing.
She bent down to reestablish the cloth over Joanie’s mouth.
“Waaaah,” the girl tried to form a word, her speech stifled.
“What? Are you trying to say something?” This was a first. Since Mona had brought her here a few days earlier, she only growled and kicked whenever the lid was opened.
The girl nodded and tried again.
“Waaaaa-luuuuh,” her tongue fumbled around the faux chiffon.
Mona shook her head. “This won’t do,” she said leaning closer. “Now, I will loosen this if you promise to be a good girl. Will you be a good girl?”
The girl nodded her head, her eyes pleading.
Not entirely trusting her, Mona relented and slid down one side of the gag freeing just enough of her lips to form a word. The girl gasped audibly at the release.
“Waaada,” she whispered, hoarsely.
“What?” Monda asked impatiently. Young people these days were so clumsy with their speech, not enough enunciation.
“Water,” the girl croaked. “Water. Please.”
“Water?” Mona contemplated. “Fine.”
She pushed the scarf back up and got to her feet. She stood over the chest regarding the girl. Too tall for the space, her body had become twisted into some sort of deformed W shape. Her knees were folded, her back arched and her arms out in front of her, also bent at the elbows. She had twisted her head so that she was looking up and out, but Mona thought it couldn’t be doing much good for her neck. If only she didn’t resist so much, Mona might able to offer her some relief from the confinement. But not if she kept on with this type of aggressive behavior. She must have some decorum about her if she expected to be let out.
Joanie’s full, shoulder-length hair had flown in all manner of disarray. All about her head it fell, pieces of it still sticking to her face where she had broken out in a sweat. No doubt from struggling so much. Now, with the lid open, her red hair seemed to catch some of the light from the nearby window and cast her face in a warm glow. Her cheeks looked rosy. Apple-cheeked, her mother used to call it.
The hair was the first thing that had made Mona notice her. When she was young herself people were much more surreptitious about dyeing their hair. Nowadays it seemed every young person did it and did it in any shade of the rainbow. Mona wondered if it was one of their silly rites of passage they seemed to have so many of in the modern world. Her mother would have never have stood for that; she claimed only movie stars and whores dyed their hair – and to her mother they were virtually indistinguishable professions anyway. But Mona loved to go to the films as a young girl and see the women with their platinum blonde hair. It seemed so unnatural yet stunning all at once. She hardly cared what the film was so long as the woman was beautiful and her hair shone. When she was very young, red red lips were still the thing and she had loved how even on black and white screens they were such a contrast to the hair. A great inviting slash across the face of an angel. Or a ghost. Ethereal glow broken up by a dark, beckoning mouth. She often imagined putting her fingers against those lips, pressing her fingertips against their supple softness. Slipping the tip of one finger over the flesh and past the teeth.
The girl shifted, uncomfortable under her study.
“Yes, your water,” said Mona sweetly, drawn from her reverie.
She extended an arm to pull the lid down. The girl began to shake her head furiously and throw out little noises of protest.
“I’m only going right over here, Joanie,” said Mona. “To the bathroom. It won’t be but a minute. We have to close it, though, don’t we? Can’t leave it open, can we, and have you running around the place like a chicken with her head sliced off.”
She made sounds that almost sounded like, “I promise.”
“Now, now,” said Mona, wagging her finger.
As she shut the lid, the girl whimpered and the sound made Mona smile.
In the bathroom, she turned over the glass beside the sink. She let the water run a few seconds first before putting the glass under, the pipes could get so warm in the summer and she wanted it cool. It was a small glass that she used for cleaning her teeth, so it wouldn’t be much but enough for Joanie. The cool water felt so refreshing against her hand that she let her head fall back as she enjoyed the sensation.
She frowned at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. More and more often it was common to turn her head and wonder who that old woman was staring back. Her face had become a map of ridges and lines, puckered and sagging and looking far more tired than she ever actually felt. She had the energy of someone young, she knew that. Or rather, she had the energy of the young person she had once been. The way these young people these days galumphed about, arms flopping lazily at their side, it seemed the mere effort of ambulation proved a challenge. She had no such problems, despite her many years. She was sprite – that was the patronizing word they used – and she was strong. She set the glass down on the side of the sink and began to dry her hands.
Why, hadn’t she brought Joanie in here all by herself, tied her quickly and securely when she was nothing but a heap of unconscious dead weight? And she’d barely broken a sweat in doing so. No, she knew she was in good form; she couldn’t understand why her face had decided to betray the obvious spirit she still had. She patted her curls, their blonde edges almost white again. Time for a new rinse, she noted, although the curls were still thick and bouncy. She still had her hair, a good strong head of it, and that made a world of difference. Maybe not as bright as Joanie’s color but any fool with a ten dollar bill could get bright from a box.
“Now, here we go,” said Mona sweetly as she knelt beside the opened chest. She placed the glass on the slim edge of the box and looked at Joanie squarely. “If you jump around too much, you’re going to spill all the water, so I need you to behave.”
The girl’s eyes were hard to read but she nodded her compliance.
Mona put the gag down, freeing her mouth completely, but she placed a finger on her lips.
“But no yelling or screaming. You understand that, don’t you?”
Again the girl nodded.
She held the glass to the girl’s mouth and tilted it slightly so that the water ran slowly onto her parched tongue. The girl jerked her head forward and began to gulp at the liquid. Quite quickly she was gagging. She leaned back, coughing. They were always too eager, thought Mona.
“You have to drink it slowly,” Mona instructed. “You haven’t had anything in a few days and your throat is so dry, it feels closed up, right? So you have to ease it back into it. No gulping.”
The girl gave her a queer look but seemed to listen. She lifted the glass again and the girl sipped slowly. Mona rested the glass on the edge again.
“Good. Now,” she said. “Let’s see about these ties. You’ve been doing so much twisting and turning, they’ve started to come loose.”
Mona curled a finger around the cords on her wrist.
“Please,” whispered the girl. “They hurt.”
“Only because you fight them,” admonished Mona. “You need to learn to behave.”
With that she yanked the knot tighter. The girl let out a small gasp of pain and Mona could feel her own face tighten with excitement.
She laid the girl’s hands to her side and tugged on her blouse, straightening it.
“You’ve mussed your clothes, silly thing.”
Mona moved to the bottom of the box and tightened the cords around the girl’s ankles.
“Please,” moaned the girl. “What do you want? I don’t understand.”
“You young folk understand very little,” sighed Mona. “Even when it’s plain in front of you.”
The girl’s eyes widened and when she spoke her voice was louder, jagged.
“Please. What do you want from me?” her voice climbed. “Please!”
“Now, now,” Mona chastised as she grabbed a bit of skin just near the girl’s knee and gave it a twisting pinch. The girl yelped. “We’ll have none of those raised voices, Joanie.”
The girl bit her lip, stifling another cry. Tears formed in her eyes.
“My name isn’t Joanie.”
“Your name,” Mona interrupted, her voice sharp. “is what I say it is. Now you hush, Joanie, or you’re going to make me angry.”
The girl fell back against the wooden slats, her lips trembling but silent.
Mona’s expression, which had been hard and glinting, softened. A slight smile touched her lips.
“Good. That’s a good girl.”
She glanced back down, making sure the ankle ties were as secure as she intended. Her eyes followed the curve of the girl’s legs.
“Look at this, you’ve practically twisted your skirt entirely around.”
She didn’t notice the plaintive noise from the back of the girl’s throat as she reached up and began to situate the wrenched fabric. She used her fingertips to try to flatten the pleats which had become crinkled. As she straightened the hem, her fingers brushed against the skin of the girl’s thigh. The girl began to squirm. Mona began to push against the material, as if smoothing it, but much harder than was needed. She traced the shape of the girl’s flesh through the fabric. When her hand pushed past the end of the skirt, just at the girl’s knee, she ran her hand round and let it rest on the back of her thigh.
“What are you doing?” gasped the girl.
“Hush, Joanie,” Mona commanded softly.
She pressed her hand further, moving her fingertips up and over the inside of the girl’s thigh. Her reach expanded in soft circles, growing wider and pushing further.
“Stop,” the girl said. “Stop or I’ll scream.”
Mona’s touching stop and the hand, like an iron claw, closed around the girl’s thigh, her fingers digging in. The girl gasped from the pain. With her free hand Mona pointed at her.
“If you scream, you will wish you hadn’t.”
The girl seemed quelled so Mona began again to move her hand under the skirt.
The girl kicked out suddenly.
“No. Don’t touch me, you evil sicko!”
Mona grabbed both of the girl’s knees and dug her steel tipped fingers in again. Joanie cried out in pain.
“Shut up, girl. Or I’ll make you shut up.”
“You won’t make me do anything you pervert.” She spat the last word out.
Mona was on her feet in flash, her eyes bright.
“Such language,” she cried. “Such ugly, dirty words from such a pretty mouth. You should be ashamed of yourself! We can’t hear any more of this filth.”
She reached down to stuff the gag back into the girl’s mouth. As her hand got closer the girl stretched out her neck and bit down on it. She bit with force but not enough to break the skin, yet the shock of it took Mona by surprise. She leaned back slightly, eyes wide and blank.
Then Mona slapped the girl’s face. Hard. The impact flared across her skin like a sudden fever. The girl fell back, turning her face away.
“I’m sorry,” Mona began. “But you made me.”
The girl turned back to her, her eyes blazing.
“Fuck you, you dried up old bitch,” she hissed.
“Why you stupid little cunt!” Mona thundered.
Possessed with a force she could hardly identify, Mona grabbed a handful of the red red hair. She jerked the girl’s head forward and then smashed it against the side of the trunk with all the strength she could muster.
The girl’s head lolled and finally she was silent.
The girl’s eyes were closed as Mona began to stuff the scarf into her mouth. Her fingers pushed the material past the lips and then the teeth; she could feel her fingertips graze the tongue. Mona had the sudden urge to push her fingers even farther in, fill up the slack mouth with her reaching grasp. But she restrained the impulse.
Not now, she told herself. Not just yet.
She stood and shook her head.
“Well,” she sighed, looking down. “What can you do?”
She closed the lid of the chest and placed the quilt back on top of it, carefully smoothing the folds where it hung over the ends.
On her way to the living room, Mona stopped and turned on the radio. It was tuned to a favorite station of hers and there was an old-fashioned radio drama of some sort in progress. Just the thing, she thought, and headed for the sofa.
She picked up the job of knitting she had begun earlier in the day. She straightened out what had already been done and got back into the business of moving her needles. Between the click clack of her work and the somber voices floating around the room, her nerves were soon still. She had wanted to take this with her and work on it during the bus ride to the grocery, but there was no point anymore. Inevitably when she tried, she never had the space to knit properly. People were never polite anymore, always shoving into seats, throwing their elbows all around. They had no respect for other people’s space.
She held up what she was working on and admired her handiwork. She especially loved the ombré worsted wool she had chosen. The way the colors bled one into the other soothed her. And they were great shades as well. They’ll work perfectly against Joanie’s skin tone, she thought. And the mottled effect the weave produced would even disguise her bruises.
As if on cue, she heard noises from the bedroom. She could tell they were the sounds of the girl’s kicking and throwing her feet against the sides of the chest. Mona tut-tutted. She has no idea how solid that thing is, she thought. Father made it himself, with wood from our own land. It will last forever. In fact, he’d fashioned the lid in one solid piece from a great branch of that tree in the back field – the one they’d found his body at the foot of that morning. Cold and stiff as a plank of oak. The thudding grew louder. This will never do, thought Mona and rose.
She moved to the radio and turned the dial until she found a station playing classical music. It happened to be a piece she was quite fond of. Mozart. Or maybe Beethoven? She never knew really, but it was good, quality music and that was what mattered. She turned the volume dial up as far as it would go. The music blared. She made her way back to the sofa and settled in.
Picking up her knitting, she cocked her head and listened. She could hear nothing but the sounds of the symphony echoing through the apartment. There, that’s better, she told herself. She began to move her needles again and felt a slight twinge of pain in her elbow. She moved the elbow about to isolate the angle which hurt most. She frowned a bit. I’ll have to have that looked at now, she thought. And the doctor was always such a hassle. But what could be done? If people insisted on acting like feral animals and not cooperating, you always paid the cost afterwards. No respect, that’s what it was. No sense of how their actions affected other.
She dropped her knitting beside her and leaned back in the soft cushions. A contented smile spread across her face as she gazed around the room. You can never discount the importance of quiet time, she thought.
Her expression softened and her whole body seemed to suffuse with the warmth of coziness. She lifted her chin and listened as the music swelled and crashed. And as it built to a deafening climax, her eyes seemed to go glassy, distant and vacant, her smile growing so wide that her lips parted ever so slightly, showing just the hint of teeth behind.
Joshua Ian is an up-and-coming writer, sometime poet, and failed filmmaker living in New York City. His short story entitled “Counter Strike” was recently included in the Queer Sci Fi Anthology titled Impact (Other Worlds Ink, 2018). His story “The Bitter Taste of Caulberries” appeared in Enchanted Conversation‘s December issue, “Of Frost and Firelight: A Winter’s Rhapsody.” Another of his stories will be included in the Perfectly Poisoned Steampunk Anthology due out later in the year. You can find him on Twitter @joshuaianauthor and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joshuaianauthor.