Something Dark... and Chocolate

Submitted into Contest #133 in response to: Write about someone going on a search for a specific type (or brand) of chocolate.... view prompt


Drama Sad Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Denise is short— petite, she calls herself. She has a slight build with soft, sagging skin the color of puddy and the slow, measured movements that seem feline in their calculated precision. Paul often thinks of her as cat-like, slinking around the house, eyeing him with belittling glares, claws sharp and at the ready. 

Paul used to wonder how someone so small could make life so miserable. Now he knows that size has nothing to do with it. He knows that vicious words can be hurled from small mouths, that they will find and pierce the tender places, leaving wounds that never heal.  

He’s sitting in the sunroom in the pale light of morning, one leg draped over the other, a novel splayed across his lap. From his spot on the faded, floral loveseat, he watches her through the opening to the living room; she is reading her papers. Flat, brown eyes wedged inside narrow slits; pockets of papery skin beneath them, swollen and puffy. High round cheekbones give way to sunken cheeks that slide into jowls, pulled down at the sides by a constant frown.

He watches as she peels the topmost newspaper from the stack next to her chair, flattens out the crease, and begins to read. Paul ensures that her stack of papers is in the proper order, always putting the most recent at the bottom so they're in sequence. The morning sun catches the dust motes that hover in the air above her, and he wonders if she will notice and tell him that the room needs dusting. 

A familiar curl of disgust unfurls in his belly and threatens to rise, like bile, up to his throat. He swallows hard and looks away. He wants to keep a kernel of affection for her, especially today, even if it is an irrelevant, made-up holiday. 

He turns his attention back to the novel on his lap, the latest Stephen King. For decades, Paul has been a fan of Stephen King. Denise would say it’s an obsession, an unhealthy one at that, but it is the one thing that Paul will not compromise. She won’t take this from him, too.  

When people ask, sometimes fascinated, sometimes horrified, about his love of Stephen King, he tells them about the brilliant writing and terrific story telling. And it’s true, no one can tell a story like King. But the truth is that it feeds something dark within him, he likes to lose himself in the dark and twisty fictions. No, he needs to. His only escape, the words on the page can become his own, his imagination, his fantasies; in King’s stories he can go in his mind where he can’t in real life. 

He struggles to get himself back into the book, he keeps rereading the same paragraph over and over. He leaves it open on his lap, though, so she doesn’t think he’s finished, so she doesn’t give him something to do. He maintains a posture of reading, pretending, while he walks his mind through the day ahead. 

He needs to get going soon, the errands and chores ahead of him are long and complicated; he knows also that they will be thankless. They always are. But each day presents a fresh challenge, a new opportunity to get things just right. And today, of all days, he’s almost convinced himself that it could be possible.

He’s tempted to tell himself that he can find just the right ingredients, get everything just right, and that she will be happy. He’d settle for satisfied, even neutral. He risks another glance at her. From this angle, the sunlight bathes her head and face in a watery gold that looks almost angelic.  

When Paul and Denise first met, she was still in college, sharing an apartment with a roommate, and he was home on leave. He lived in the flat above her when, one night, the electricity went out. He brought them a candle and book of matches. She smiled warmly and offered a sincere thank you. Any kindness and affection he felt then has long been snuffed out, calcifying into something hard and cold. 

Paul grew up the oldest of five in a small house just a few streets over from where he sits right now. His mother was a tall, wiry woman with course gray hair and rough, callused hands. His father wasn’t dad or even father, he was Sir. Sir owned a junkyard; his business was quite literally, trash. Paul always found this sickeningly poetic since Sir was himself, by all accounts, garbage. When he wasn’t at the junkyard, he would settle his immense bulk into and prop his feet on a La-Z-Boy, chew on a lit cigar, and guzzle can after can of Schlitz.

Paul spent his childhood running interference between his father and everyone else: his younger brothers, his little sister, his mom. He willingly took the slaps, the punches, and the slams against the wall, those bumps and bruises always healed rather quickly. It was the put downs, the name calling, and the constant criticism that sliced him open over and over, leaving scars that have never gone away.

When Paul knocked quietly on the door to Denise’s apartment, shyly offering the candle, he could imagine his mother there, in the dark. He could imagine taking care of his siblings, holding them tight, making the darkness go away. Taking care of Denise pulled at something tender in him, like rubbing a finger over the raised skin of an old injury. He liked the idea of caring for her, saving her from the darkness. 

Their marriage, then his next military assignment, and their first child came in such quick succession that it took him years to discover that he hadn’t married someone who feared the dark, a girl who needed saving from the monsters; he had married the thing lurking in the dark. He had married the monster. 

By then it was too late, Paul never gave up on anything or anyone. Once he sets his mind to something, that was it.

A rustle of wind outside the sunroom pulls Paul’s attention back to the present. Clouds move slowly across the morning sky, blocking the sun, making the room suddenly cool and gray. When he glances back at Denise, she is in shadow. Her hair once again the color of dishwater gone cold, deep lines crease her face, the quick flick of tongue and baring of teeth as she licks a finger to turn the page.

She must feel him staring because suddenly she is looking right at him, eyes small and penetrating, mouth a thin line. 

“Finished reading?” she asks, gesturing to the book Paul is still holding. 

He sighs, closing the book and setting it on the table next to him. Pressing his hands onto his thighs, he unfolds his long body from the soft cushions. He may as well get started. 

She doesn’t wait for him to answer, just says dismissively, “The list is on the island.” 

He walks silently through the living room toward the kitchen. 

“Paul,” she calls as soon as he walks past her chair. “My cup.” Without turning in his direction or even looking at him, she holds up her mug. His shoulders slump a bit as he turns around to take the mug from her outstretched hand; he washes what’s left of the tea he made her this morning. 

He looks at the list on the kitchen island, a silver paperclip fastens it to several recipes torn from magazines or copied onto recipe cards in her flawless cursive. He pulls the list away and studies it, a beguiling collection of odd ingredients and specific grocery stores. He sighs, he had had the fleeting thought that perhaps he could surprise her this year, do something special for Valentine’s Day, something that would delight her. As he takes in the long list between his fingers, he realizes what a fool he was, what a fool he’s always been. 

She grew up the oldest of two sisters, abandoned by their father and ultimately raised by a stepfather who gave their mother three more children, each more favored than the last; all more favored than her. Instead of making her strong or independent, it carved a hole of want inside of her that she filled with a pouty, entitled self-pity. 

In some people, a painful childhood can blossom into empathy and compassion; in Denise, it rotted and spoiled inside of her, turning her bitter and resentful. Never getting the attention or love that she needed as a child, she has spent her adulthood in a state of constant demand. 

As a way to generate the attention on which she feeds, Denise has spent a lifetime collecting symptoms: rashes, indigestion, lethargy, and the like; hoarding them until they are numerous enough to become fully formed illnesses. Listing them in texts, rattling them off to Paul during drives to appointments, describing them in great detail on phone calls with her children. She has kept them all hovering and caring with her constant sickness, helplessness, and need. Paul, most of all.

He folds the list in half and slides it into the back pocket of his jeans, he can feel the sag of denim, the loose slack of fabric, and hitches his pants up a bit. It’s a reminder that his body is wasting away; decaying, he sometimes thinks. He isn’t meant to eat this way, such a strict diet, all these rules, ingredients that she can’t consume, foods she has convinced herself are making her sick. He should be enjoying meat and potatoes, creamy pastas, and sandwiches stuffed thick. But that is from a life he can no longer imagine. 

She has large collections of acceptable recipes, most of which are complicated, require tremendous time, and usually taste awful. She doesn’t prepare the meals herself, of course; her job is to delegate, instruct, critique, and then wait for the fully formed meal to be presented. So Paul does it all, the shopping, the preparing, the cooking. And then has to eat them, despising the food and himself all the while. 

When he gets to his first stop, he pulls out the shopping list and reviews it again. Then he has a thought. It is Valentine’s Day after all and he does, despite everything, want to make it special.

Once he has the things he’s come for: plastic bags filled with a variety of flours, nuts, and seeds all weighed and tied with a twist tie, the correct fruits and vegetables, and several jars and cans labeled Organic, he heads to a different aisle. 

He skips the Valentine’s Day section and walks past the prepackaged gifts and treats. He makes his way to the candy aisle, breezing by the stacks of brightly wrapped sweets and bags of lollipops to the specialty chocolates. He takes his time here, reading each label, studying the ingredients. He chooses one that’s organic, natural, with only a few ingredients. He selects a few of the same and sets them gingerly in his cart. They aren’t heart shaped, no frills or lace, but he’ll buy a little gift bag to make them special. 

He spends the rest of the morning collecting the remaining ingredients. He must go to two other shops, but he doesn’t mind. There is an unfamiliar hum of excitement inside of him, the anticipation of a surprise, the daring hope of joy. 

Paul has always been a high achiever, committed to perfection. Always. He worked hard in school and received excellent grades, garnering praise, awards, and accolades from his teachers, his peers, and his mom. Everyone but Sir. He went into the Army, rising in rank quickly. His father barely noticed. He went to college, got his CPA license, even got a law degree and yet, nothing. His father has been dead for many years, but his incessant disapproval haunts him still. 

Not good enough, not good enough, not good enough… that was the mantra from his childhood that has bled into adulthood and follows him even now, holding him hostage, like a straitjacket. He has been trying to outrun those words his entire ife. It is the fuel that has powered the engine, the one that keeps him moving forward, no matter what the cost. 

He unpacks the groceries carefully. Once finished, he fans out the recipes to see what they will be having for their Valentine’s Day dinner. No steak or nice red wine at a cozy restaurant him! They’ll be having salmon burgers with a side of sautéed kale and what looks like a very finicky type of bread that he’ll have to make from scratch. 

He sighs deeply and thinks of all the things he’d rather be doing. Reading his book, for one. Stephen King’s more recent novels haven’t been quite as violent or frightening as some of his earlier works, but Paul still enjoys them. They just don’t give him quite as much of a thrill as reading about a foot being cleaved off with an axe or a psychotic husband running around an abandoned hotel with a butcher knife. He clings to those thoughts for a moment, letting his mind run a bit farther than he should. 

The he remembers the chocolate. 

He puts each bar carefully into the pink bag that he had carefully selected. He doesn’t bother with tissue paper or a card, he can’t think of anything to write anyway. He leaves the bag on the edge of the island and gets to work on the night’s meal. 

Eventually Denise comes downstairs, smelling of soap and something medicinal and with a sinking feeling, Paul knows that he has missed this morning’s ointment application. She has several jars of prescription creams that must be administered twice a day and they require his assistance; he knows she doesn’t like it when she must do it alone.  

He nudges the pink bag toward her. 

“What’s this?” she asks, the rigidness of her voice betraying the residual anger. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Paul says, forcing a smile. He pushes his glasses up with the hand that holds the knife he’s been using, bits of garlic still cling to the blade. 

She stands still for a moment, holding his gaze. She never wears any makeup and her face looks sallow and pasty. On another face, her nose might almost be considered attractive, slender, and slightly curved up at the tip. Instead, it protrudes through dull, doughy flesh, a craggy structure, too sharp; exposing too much nostril. He realizes that he’s staring and looks away. 

She moves slowly toward the bag and opens it, pulling out each bar of chocolate and stacking them up into a small, rectangular pile. The sight of the candy bars in their kitchen suddenly look ridiculous, more like ingredients for a cake or a child’s treat instead of a gift for a Valentine. 

She looks up at him, pulling her lips into a thin line, before retrieving a bar and having a closer look. A look of smug contentment sweeps across her face. 

Dark chocolate, Paul,” she says, her voice is an ice pick of quiet rage. “I only eat dark chocolate.” 

The knowledge of this snaps into Paul’s mind with an almost audible click. He had been so preoccupied with the ingredients, whether it was organic, the particular brand, that he had completely forgotten this essential component. His shoulders drop and his hands fall, and the knife clatters to the floor. 

He feels a gathering inside himself, a twisting, growing thing that starts deep within and prickles outward, rushing through his limbs, up his neck. He clenches and unclenches his fists; blood is rushing in his ears. He sees Denise hovering in the doorway, her mouth is moving— she is saying something, but he can’t hear.

He closes his eyes.

Suddenly he launches himself over the kitchen island, scrabbling through minced garlic and chopped kale that goes flying, pans and cutting boards clatter wildly to the ground, and he is instantly upon her, knife at her throat, breathing heavily. He is seething, charged with a white-hot fury, and her wide, open fear fills him up with a satisfaction he has never known. He lifts the knife high and can almost feel the flesh and bone beneath it as he drives it into her over and over – 

“Paul! Paul!!” Denise growls, an almost inhuman screech. 

He opens his eyes, sees the dinner preparations undisturbed in front of him. He looks at his wife, her teeth still bared from yelling his name.

“I have to eat dinner at 5:00,” she snaps. 

He bends down to retrieve the knife, swallows hard at the burning rise of bile in his throat, and continues his chopping. He eyes the candy bars, still stacked in a neat pile, and thinks how lucky it is that he just so happened to buy his favorite chocolate. 

February 18, 2022 22:23

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Sharon Hancock
02:46 Feb 23, 2022

I love Stephen King, too. This is a great, suspenseful story! Poor Paul. At least he gets some chocolate.😻


Heather McGuire
14:47 Feb 23, 2022

LOL... thank you so much, Sharon! Poor Paul indeed! Stephen King is incredible, definitely one of my faves as well.


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