Every Sunday, after church, she stopped at Maple’s Grocer. Dinah Sanders was forty-seven and the lack of fat on her body wilted her clothes like shriveled petals burning in the sun. Her pale face yearned for color and her golden blonde hair faded away long ago with her twenties. She wore her hair in a low, dismal ponytail.
“Afternoon Miss Sanders. How was your Sunday with the Lord?” Jeb said.
Jeb Riley started as a bag boy at nineteen years old. At twenty-three, they moved him to the meat department and by twenty-five he was the butcher. Jeb was now fifty-four years old. He woke up at the same time each day. He drank his coffee black, liked his toast burnt, and before leaving to work every morning, he picked up the framed photo of his beloved wife and kissed it.
“Afternoon Jeb. Everyday is a day with the Lord. Church is just a way for town folk to show their faces after six days of ignoring Him.”
“I do admire your faith Dinah. What can I get you today?”
“What I get every Sunday, twenty pounds of your brisket.”
“I’m sorry to tell you but we’re all out,” said Jeb.
Dinah’s movement and breath seized to that of a statue. The presence of her stare left the store, glazed over with worried thoughts.
“Dinah? Dinah? You okay?”
She was shaken back to the present by Jeb’s voice.
“I’m sorry Dinah. With today being Mother’s Day, I guess folks all had the same idea to cook up a brisket.”
Dinah raised her voice enough to turn people’s heads, “Mother’s Day don’t mean nothin. You should be more responsible and not allow all the meat to be taken because of some damn invented holiday.”
“We might have some other-”
“You know damn well I come in here every Sunday after church to get twenty pounds of brisket. My family has been supporting this grocer since before I was born and you better believe my yearly donation to the Farmer’s Market will be forfeited.”
Jeb tucked his lips into his mouth, forced a smile that puffed his cheeks, and nodded to her.
The cessation of teller’s ringing up groceries and people talking and moving about, delivered a silent blow to the air around but this didn’t bother Dinah Sanders one bit as she stormed out. Once she was out, the light bustle of activity resumed.
Nancy, one of the teller’s, continued to ring up groceries and shouted to Jeb, “You okay over there?”
“She doesn’t bite, just has a bit of a sting,” Jeb said.
Nancy shook her head and said out loud, “That Dinah has never been right since she lost her boy. It’s sad but she’s never been right.”
Nancy rang up a six pack and Earl stood in front of her, “I’ll get a pack of Marlboro Reds too. You talkin about that Leper?”
“His name was Bobby. He was such a nice boy. That’ll be twelve fifty,” Nancy said.
The dirt underneath Earl’s nails outlined his fingertips as he pulled out his torn and faded wallet.
“That diseased boy had no business here anyway. The Lord knew that and so does Dinah.”
“That ain’t no way to talk about people Earl. Have a heart. It is Mother’s Day. I’m sure she thinks about her boy every single day and today especially,” Nancy gave Earl his change.
“She’s not the only mother hurting out there. Our world is filled with the broken hearts of mothers who spend their entire lives giving with nothing to show for it except empty eyes and a back ache. Anyways, ya’ll know where to find me and Happy Mother’s Day Miss Nancy,” Earl tipped the bill of his cap to Nancy.
“Don’t smoke em all in a day,” she lifted her hand but didn’t complete a full wave goodbye.
Jeb took off his apron and walked over to Nancy, “I need to head out and pick up Millie. She’s done getting groomed and is expecting me. I’ll be right back.”
“No problem. I don’t think I’ve known anyone to love their dog as much as you.”
“Got her when my wife passed eight years back. She saved me,” Jeb said.
“Saved you?” said Nancy.
“Yep. Saved me from myself.”
Jeb walked across Pine Street over to Happy Paws Dog Grooming.
“Hey Jeb, Millie’s all ready for you. She was a pleasure as always,” said Tom.
“That’s good to hear,” Jeb took out his wallet.
“Don’t worry about it this time Jeb. Rosie told me how you helped her with her car the other day. This one’s on me.”
“I’m always happy to help,” said Jeb.
“Let me get Millie,” Tom said.
Millie’s curled, fluffy tail whipped back and forth and her big blue eyes shined with adoration when she spotted Jeb. Like all Siberian Huskies, she continued to be energetic and playful in her older years.
“There’s my girl. How’s my Millie doin? Look at that pretty pink bow” Jeb got down on his haunches and rubbed his hands around her neck with ear rubbing in between.
“Millie was such a good girl we wanted to doll her up with a bow,” said Tom.
“It’s quite nice. Thank you.”
“Anytime Jeb. Hey, by the way, I saw Dinah walk by earlier, more like stormed by. She was not happy,” Tom said.
Jeb stood up, “Yep. She made quite the scene at the grocer because we ran out of brisket. You know how people are, it’s never really about a simple matter. There’s always something deeper stirring at their insides.”
Tom nodded his head,“She has never been the same since Bobby. She was so different when he was alive. She seems to be getting more nasty every day.”
“You know me. I always try to see the good in people when they are not in their right state of mind. I will never know a mother’s pain who has lost a child. That’s a type of hurt that’s not measurable and that I wouldn’t even wish upon my greatest enemy.”
“Well we all know you have no enemies Jeb. It’s always a pleasure seeing you and working with Millie.”
“Thanks and tell Rosie I said hello.”
Jeb held the door for Millie and they walked out. He crossed the street and went back into Maple’s Grocer with a big smile because Millie was back by his side. What he didn’t know and what would have wiped his smile away, was Dinah Sanders had been watching him the entire time.
Millie trotted in with her floppy tongue hanging out and a wide mouth grin that stretched ear to ear.
“Let’s get a good look at that Millie,” Nancy peered over her register.
“Millie, you stay right here. I have to get back behind the meat counter,” Jeb said.
“Don’t worry about her Jeb. Everyone loves her.”
Shouting from outside on Pine Street baited everyone to the double doors at the front of the store.
“What in God’s name,” Nancy said.
Millie did exactly what’s in any husky’s primitive nature. Tilting her head back with her snout pointed up, she howled.
“Millie, it’s okay girl,” Jeb rushed over to the storefront windows.
“Looks like something at Tom’s,” Nancy said.
Someone shouted, “Tom’s shop is on fire.”
Jeb looked Millie in the eyes, “Millie, you stay. Stay girl. Stay.”
Everyone except the howling husky left Maple’s Grocer to inspect the commotion at Tom’s shop Happy Paws Dog Grooming. Millie stopped howling when she was left alone and stared out from behind the double doors with purked, pointed ears.
Town folk crowded in front of Happy Paws as the Miltonville Fire Department rushed inside.Tom sat out front with his head down.
“Tom, thank God you’re okay. What the hell happened? I was just here,” Jeb said.
Tom shook his head and held his hands in his hair, “I don’t know. I just don’t know. It happened so fast. I was in the back and next thing I know, I smelled smoke.”
“It’s going to be okay Tom. The fire department will get to the bottom of it. You’ll recover,” said Jeb.
“This is my life Jeb. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have bills to pay.”
“This town will help you through it.”
A Miltonville fireman spoke to the crowd, “Alright folks. I know you’re concerned but everything is under control now. We’re going to figure out what happened so don’t worry. I need you all to get back to your business so we can do ours. Please.”
The crowd slowly moved apart and staggered down Pine Street, stopping every few feet and turning around to check the scene. Jeb grabbed Tom and with Nancy they walked back to Maple’s Grocer.
“We’ll do what we can to help Tom. I’m so sorry,” said Nancy.
The double doors slid open and Nancy offered Tom a water. Jeb walked off into the store calling for Millie. He returned quickly and in his hand he held Millie’s pink bow.
“I can’t find Millie anywhere. I found her bow and that’s it. It’s not like her to just run off,” Jeb said.
“You sure she isn’t in the stock room?” said Nancy.
“‘I checked. I’m going to look for her outside,” said Jeb, holding Millie’s pink bow in his hand and dangling it against his leg.
“What a night. What a God awful night,” Nancy put her hand on Tom’s shoulder.
The sun was tucking itself away behind the horizon getting ready to bid the day adieu as Dinah drove into her driveway. She popped her trunk and dragged Millie out with a mussel around her mouth.
“I’ll show them, running out of brisket,” said Dinah.
She walked into the kitchen, opened the basement door, and held Millie down, “Bobby, baby, I brought you dinner.”
Shuffling sounds echoed up the basement stairs and were accompanied by a grunting noise.
“Momma’s comin. I went down to Maple’s and they ran out of brisket. Can you believe that? With everything you and me give to this town,” she forced Millie down each step.
The bottom of the stairs were swallowed by the absence of light. As Dinah approached the bottom step, a scratching sound made her stop.
“Bobby, I’ve told over and over that you shouldn’t be moving about on your own. You know it’s bad for your condition.”
She pulled the string above her head to turn on the light, a small bulb that cast sharp shadows down on them.
Bobby moved into the light and reached his hands out to his mother. His disfigured, fingers pulled at her shirt. The nerve damage caused his knuckles to stay locked, his fingers curled like claws ready to attack. Three fingers on his left hand were just short nubs rounded off at the tips.
“Please Bobby, you’re poking me. Calm down.”
From his hands up to his arms, pink sores bubbled over his skin and moved up his shoulder. His face, once smooth freckled skin, was raw like cooked flesh. Red, wet moon craters scattered across his cheeks and over his forehead. The right side of his nose was caved inward leaving just one nostril instead of two.
Millie tried to pull away from Dinah. The basement floor was slippery and Dinah fell, her hands landing in something wet.
“What the hell is this?” She smelled her hand.
“Gasoline. Bobby, what happened here? I’m always cleaning up after you and I’m getting tired of it. Lord help me. Take this dog,” said Dinah.
Bobby reached his stiff hand out and Dinah wrapped the leash around it while she sat in the gasoline.
“What am I going to do with you Bobby Sanders? I will always love you but I will never understand why the Lord dealt us this hand.”
She started to get up. Bobby held his arm down the best he could to get the leash to fall off. He hobbled his arm up and down and once it fell to the floor, Millie darted up the stairs and out the basement door. In the living room, the window above the couch was open. Millie jumped onto the couch and pushed herself out the window and ran back to Maple’s Grocer.
“Bobby, look what you did. Do you know what I went through to get you that bitch for dinner? You have no idea. I think you need to go hungry for a few days to learn your lesson.”
Bobby reached in his front shirt pocket and struggled to get something out.
“What are you doing? Help me up. This floor is too slippery.”
From his pocket, he pulled out a matchbox, fumbled, and dropped the first match.
“You good for nothing-”
He didn’t drop the second match.
He stood over his mother and threw it down. Flames crawled over the gasoline. Bobby stood there and watched his mother scream on her hands and knees. Her saggy clothes melted into her flesh, eating away at her skin. She flailed on the floor and couldn’t stand up. Her eye sockets and open mouth were black holes behind burning light. She crawled violently on the floor. Bobby watched as both of them burned alive and for the first time in a long time, he tried to smile. Only the left side of his lips moved, pushing his cheek up while his right side drooped down.
Jeb turned back down Pine Street and saw Millie in front of the grocer. He ran over to her.
“Millie? What is on your mouth? You poor thing, who did this to you?”
He kneeled down and took the mussel off her and stared at it in his hands. She licked his face and wagged her tail. He stayed kneeled down next to his dog and pet the top of her head as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.
Written by Stephanie (Sterp) Evelyn
I am Sterp. I write dark fiction and have a very unhealthy obsession with disturbing narratives. I am the author of The Cult Called Freedom House: Sophia Rey Book One. My short story The Lost Tea Cup is in Issue 26 of The Literary Hatchet. I am also a painter.
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