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Suspense Thriller


I learned as a boy that light tends to distract from the dark and it’s why I stand here diametrically opposed between the doors of St. Vincent's church and a police station. I was never any good at making decisions that required me to weigh good and evil. Mother taught me that if I wanted absolution I could always confess. The wrought iron filigree handle warm to the touch on my soft hands felt like a tiny burn of what I may need to repent.

 

******

I attended confession once a week. Mother believed that if we confess our sins we would always have absolution. Between confession and St. Gerard around my mother’s neck, I had all the protection I could ever need.


“Mother, why don’t you ever go to confession?”


“Now Hank, you worry about your own sins and I’ll worry about mine. Come help me pick out a dress.”


Saint Gerard was the only man aside from me to keep his place in our home. I’d asked my mother once who this saint was that held his place above her heart.


“St. Gerard was a saint that protected mothers, children, and the falsely accused. The story goes that a woman tried to return a handkerchief he left behind. St. Gerard insisted she keep it as it might prove useful to her one day. It’s said that the same woman had a near-death experience at birth. She held tight to the handkerchief from the saint. The child survived and now I wear him to keep us safe. Hank, he’s the only man who will.”


The story of the saint was the only motherly anecdote Helen Delite bestowed upon me. The glimmer of St. Gerard every morning at breakfast was the only sign that she might love me as her child. 


******

I loved anatomy twice as much as I loved my mother because of her long sleek neck. I’d spend hours studying anatomy and physiology books to fall asleep at night. I memorized the names of each of the bones, and I categorized the sinewy tendons and ligaments until I was cross-eyed from the multi-syllabled, hard-to-pronounce words.  The sternum was my main obsession, made up of three parts down the middle of the body: the manubrium, the body, and the xiphoid process. The manubrium being concave helped create a jugular notch upon which mother’s necklace sat. 


******

I made my way to California in hopes of fulfilling my mother’s legacy of becoming a model. With what little money I received from her life insurance policy I made a few stops along the way. I got by the rest of the time on my good looks and the saint under my collar.


I met Shelly in Grand Rapids at a park where she chased her young son around shrieking with joy. The dark brown feathered hair caught my eye first. The rounded apple-colored cheeks reminded me of a younger version of Helen. She was stunning. 

The old, “Excuse me miss, did you drop this?” pick-up line worked well. I held out a silky handkerchief covered with hand-painted white and pink peonies. This gesture brought a blush to Shelly’s cheeks, I knew she never owned anything as nice as this.


“No, that’s not mine.” 


My boundaries didn’t exist when it came to beautiful women like Shelly. I pushed the handkerchief into the front pocket of her corduroy bell-bottoms. I took her on three dates before I took her breath away on the fourth. 

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I have such hatred toward my mother.”

The hatred burned every day with each passing glimpse of the patron saint upon her manubrium. 


******


Mother had the kind of looks that could kill. The Patron Saint Gerard dangled from a gold chain necklace around her neck. The medallion burrowed its way into the joint between her two clavicle bones.


Anatomy and the saint were the perfect pair. The dips of my mother's breastbone allowed the saint to gaze down the midline of her body. 


******


 Carly in Bismarck recognized St. Gerard around my neck. When she pulled her own patron saint from beneath her blouse nestled in her jugular notch I made my move. I spilled some tea on her while she served my table, and we laughed as I wiped her denim skirt with my handkerchief. 


The nape of her neck didn’t quite meet my dating requirements at first. I gave her the handkerchief with bluebirds and tulips on it anyway. Carly was a single mother to Joey. I met Joey on the third date. I watched as Carly kissed her son goodnight.

 “Aren’t you going to wait for the sitter?” I leaned into the doorframe, biting my lower lip baiting her to say the right thing.


“Naw, Joey is fine on his own. Aren’t you Joey?”


I broke Carly’s heart on the third date and took the patron Saint with me on the fourth.


“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I cannot discern between good and evil. I stole something that wasn’t mine to take.”

A breastbone is a place for a man to lie his head I’ve discovered, and not for that of a child.


******

 

I was a young man that spent most of my time alone with my mother in front of the old black and white television set. It didn't take much to meet my entertainment needs. I survived on wowing her with anatomy facts, admiring her in date night outfits, and not much else. Mother told me there wasn’t much else to need as I’d be a man one day. A man that needed to learn one thing and it was only right that I learned how to keep the company of a sophisticated woman. 


Watching my sophisticated mother change for her dates always led me to see the smallest part of her sternum, the xiphoid process. It’s smallness didn’t take away from the top of her perfectly flat abdomen. 


“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I disobeyed my mother twice this week, I did not smile when she asked me to.”

I could not smile when she changed clothes for her 5th date of the week, allowing me to see her xiphoid process. I wasn't one for taunting.


******

 

“Mother, did you know that bones are stronger than steel? Your ring box. The one that holds the black pearl circled with diamonds? It could brace up to 18,000 pounds of weight if it were one of your bones. Isn’t that fascinating?” 


“Sure Hank. The weight of being an unmarried single mother with no men or agents knocking at my door... That could crush every bone in my body. Tell me, what’s your fancy science book say about the weight of that?”


I’m certain I was not meant to hear those words. But my mother didn’t differentiate what was, and was not appropriate while around me. 


The sternum is meant to protect the heart. My mother’s chest plate had been subjected to pulverization by the man that left her as a bag of non-caring dust. She was more apt to get in one’s eyes causing pain and tears all because her looks got her a baby out of wedlock and not a ring. Maternal instincts didn’t resonate with Helen Delite as much as being beautiful to an attractive man did. 


Our neighbor Mrs. Johnson waved down my mother one morning in our driveway. 

“Helen, good morning! The other ladies and I would love to have you over for a game of Bridge next week. What do you say?” 


Helen being Helen, reached over and corrected the collar of Mrs. Johnson’s dress. 

“There, that’s better. I couldn’t focus on your words with this beautifully disheveled house dress you’re wearing.” 


Poor Mrs. Johnson, she blushed with embarrassment in the presence of my mother’s regality. She made an abrupt excuse to get back to her home as there was a roast chicken in the oven


Being the envy of every housewife seeing her face in print did bring her a significant smugness but not much else. Her words were often spoken through a non-existent filter. She’d speak with a bright, convincing smile. Her voice with such harsh honesty. There was no need for me to interpret her words as anything other than cruelness behind a facade. Helen Delite taught me how to say what I meant with smoothness and insincerity. 

 

The modeling world knew my mother as Helen Delite. I knew her as Helen Byrne. A lapsed Catholic that wore her saints and kept a bible on her nightstand next to her Pall Malls. Her haughty and elegant bone structure was once discovered in the local mall by a talent scout at the age of 16. She handled the modeling prints from her days in high-end magazines like rare comic books. The pictures remained in plastic sleeves, preserving her images from time, dust, and fingerprints. 


Most kids in my neighborhood had sofas covered in plastic. Mother could care less about the condition of the sofa. No, she cared more about preserving her legacy. We were two strands of the same DNA, scrupulous in appearance and exact in emotions. She modeled high-end jewelry in almost every single magazine spread. She often wore the kind of diamonds reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s collection. Diamonds were the kind of gems that the sixties housewife fawned over. A simple gold band to signify marital status back then was far more common than a precious stone. 

 

As Helen Delites' son, the task of being a sounding board for the outfits she chose for her many dates fell on me. I learned to smile even when I didn’t want to, and I never wanted to. In front of her, I forced a twinkle in my eye when she bent over to kiss me on the forehead goodnight. My ironed cotton pajamas masked my disruptive insides. They screamed to each new date, “Make this woman a wife please!” Not because I wanted or needed a father. I felt certain that a boy would be better off an orphan than with a mother out with men every night of the week. I’d stand in the doorframe of our home, biting my lower lip in a childlike way waving them goodbye down the driveway. The dark shuttered the light from my eyes moments after my mother was gone. Only to return upon catching sight of St. Gerard himself the following morning.


******

 

 Joanne from Boise was a lapsed Catholic with a taste for handsome men and Pall Malls. I met Joanne at a casting call where we both auditioned for some commercial work. Her dark chestnut hair swept over her right shoulder. The vacant shoulder gave sight to the visible outline of her sternocleidomastoid muscle. Joanne was open and bare. I could see where the sternal head and the clavicular head twisted like two ropes wrapped tight. I examined the way the muscles and bones moved when she spoke. I was drowsy in the presence of the multi-syllabled anatomy. Joanne laughed and locked her arm through mine. She was delicate so as not to wrinkle the ironed creases in my linen blazer as we left the studio. 


Joanne confessed to me that she was a mother to a boy. There wasn’t time for me to catch the boy’s name. Sloppily I missed the chance to give her the handkerchief with the diamond print on it. There wasn’t time for my pictures to make it to print or to end up in a plastic sleeve protected and safe. St. Gerard would have to protect me now.


“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I have used another human for my own personal gain. I have taken a life.”

With the right amount of pressure and caught unaware a sternum will fracture and leave damage to a heart, proving catastrophic.


May 26, 2021 05:35

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39 comments

Claire Lewis
19:27 May 30, 2021

You weren’t kidding, this is quite a bit darker than usual. I absolutely love serial killer type thrillers, so naturally I’m obsessed with this Reading through the comments, I can tell this one took a lot of TLC to get to where it is. They were absolutely worthwhile; it’s brilliant. I love the anatomical details (anatomy was one of my all-time favorite classes in high school) and the way you’ve outlined his reasoning behind the murders so well. Reading through was almost like being pulled into his delusions, especially the clever way you al...

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Shea West
19:48 May 30, 2021

So much TLC. I found myself growling every time I went back to it, but I'm thankful everyone who commented really forced me to see where I could do better. I'm so glad that you liked that I alluded to the murders, I was focusing on keeping it like that to try and create empathy for him in some way. Like in my brain I feel it's not his fault his mother created this unhealthy environment and dynamic between the two of them. Thank you Claire, your time is valuable to me and so is your feedback <3

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Kelly Dennison
18:22 May 29, 2021

Reading through the comments, it looks like I'm reading this after a significant revision. Whatever you did...wow. I was utterly spellbound the whole time. As a true crime enthusiast (I can't help it) I couldn't stop watching this play out as serial killer thriller movie. It has all the right components. Man, the backstory is MY FAVORITE part. The detail, and the full circled nature of "anatomy and the saint" as the perfect pair is just...masterful. Awesome job here...

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Shea West
21:00 May 29, 2021

A very significant revision. I got a little trigger happy when I posted it early, but honestly I am glad that I did....all of the feedback made me dig in a lot more and make it better. Thank you for your generous compliments and comments!

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Kelly Dennison
14:43 Jun 02, 2021

Man, sometimes revisions feel harder than capturing the original story. Amazing job!!

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H L Mc Quaid
16:20 May 26, 2021

Hi Shea, Intriguing story...kinda like 'how to make murderer' but for reals. I like the recurring theme of bones/anatomy. Wondering if you could explain a bit more what the anatomical terms mean (e.g. xiphoid, sternocleidomastoid) to help the reader. Also, I felt the beginning (the game show) had no relation to the rest of the story. Maybe you're still working on it? Perhaps the choice is walking into police station (to confess) or the coffee shop next door to pick up the next victim, rather than trying to work a dating game show into the m...

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Shea West
18:16 May 26, 2021

You gave me some things to think about. When I read my story back, it makes complete sense to me. I suspect that if I have to explain it, I probably didn't convey meaning well??(No snark in that question btw!) I am still working on it (busy work week, put it up early for feedback for sure). I used the Dating show doors because it's full circle to his mothers life. She was on the show once, back in her glory days. I drew some inspiration from that serial killer who was on a dating game show once. I always wondered how he ended up there an...

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H L Mc Quaid
18:25 May 26, 2021

I did get that his mother was on the show, but I totally forgot that Joanne (whom he dates later) was the contestant that picked him. I think there's long time between that intro (and a seemingly throw-away character like Joanne) before we get back to Joanne. I think that's why I struggled to see an connection (the thread from the game show all the way to Joanne was too long for my short memory, ha!). Maybe folks with better memories won't have that problem. But I think if you interspersed the dates (present-ish) to his mom (past-ish), that ...

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Shea West
18:29 May 26, 2021

Thank you for giving me more insight. This helps me quite a bit. originally I was going to have him introduce Joanne at the very end on the game show. She opens the door, and the entire story before foreshadows her future? But I felt like that wouldn't follow the prompt as well. You don't have a crap memory, your points are very valid. All the feedback is helping me when I write every single week- So thank you!!!!

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Shea West
04:22 May 27, 2021

Yes! I have listened to the podcasts on him, such a scary dude!

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Shea West
19:12 May 28, 2021

Heather, I completely reworked this story. I really heard your input and advice and gave it a new intro, while weaving the dates through the remembrances of his mother. It's a big ask, but if you can re-read I'd love to know how it flows to you now :)

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Scott Skinner
12:58 Jun 05, 2021

Never read a story where the protagonist was a model before! A real lady-killer at that! He despises his mom, yet his whole life - how he interacts with women, what he does for work, his obsessions - all have to do and/or are because of his mom. A single mom obsessed with her looks bringing down her son and she didn't even know it! Or maybe she did and just didn't care! The anatomy references were sufficiently creepy and helped take me inside this guys mind. Nice one!

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Shea West
15:36 Jun 05, 2021

A lot of serial killers have unhealthy parental dynamics...I didn't make his relationship with her too extreme, subtle enough to drive a young boy with the right kind of brain chemistry to make him a creep. Thanks for reading Scott :)

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Daniel Hayes
15:10 Jun 04, 2021

Shea, this was... amazing!! I could tell you spent a lot of time on this story. Time well spent. That first sentence was incredible and set the tone for the entire story. The whole thing flowed so well, and the pace was terrific. Your prose is very lovely, and I know this was a dark story, but I really loved it!! Great job!! :) :)

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Shea West
18:11 Jun 04, 2021

Thank you Daniel!

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K. Antonio
15:29 Jun 03, 2021

I LOVEEEEEED THIS! The way the beginning starts, we get such a sense of this guys imbalance, how there's something dark going on. I really enjoyed the free form narrative, how the character drifts from memory to present. I feel like this was just a lot of work, because usually these free form narratives, the details, trying to get everything to flow takes time. It was great to read something different, and NEW coming from you!

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Shea West
15:45 Jun 03, 2021

This story truly was a labor of love. Every time I went back to it I was determined to do better by it. I could feel it in my body that it needed to be better, and with the great input given by others here I was able to do that. Thank you for reading and encouraging me with your comments! Means a lot.

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Angela Guthrie
23:30 Jun 01, 2021

Wow! This was nerve racking to read in a good way. I would like your input on my stories, if you have time.

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Shea West
00:47 Jun 02, 2021

Thank you. I'll head to your stories as soon as I can ☺

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Mary Sheehan
19:11 Jun 01, 2021

This story gave me Ted Bundy vibes. Those edits were an excellent suggestion; it kept me on my toes, start to finish!

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Shea West
19:33 Jun 01, 2021

This last version is miles better than the first, so I'm super happy to hear you were on your toes! That was my goal.

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Beth Connor
16:45 Jun 01, 2021

I just re-read this (on the PC) and I am loving it. If you have ever thought about getting one of your short stories narrated, send me an email. I do narration, have an audio fiction podcast, and have done a few Reedsy stories. I usually attempt female protagonists, but recently, I got in touch with an old friend that does voice-overs and acting and is interested in getting into narration! I would love to try him on your story if you are interested. (my email is jbethconnor@gmail.com) I can give you more info, and point you to some episod...

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Shea West
16:52 Jun 01, 2021

Wow Beth that's such a cool offer. I'll email you, I'm interested I'd love to hear more :)

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H L Mc Quaid
08:38 May 29, 2021

My personal opinion, is that the tension is dialled up with the new structure, and I love the italicised thoughts, super duper scary/creepy. Two comments. A stronger opening would be to start with the second paragraph, "I learned as a boy that light tends to distract from the dark....." I'm not sure whether you need to work in anything from the first paragraph (seems like a hang-over from the dating game theme), but if there's some symbology that you want to keep, you could probably work it in in the other places. You might want to co...

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Shea West
16:33 May 29, 2021

Your insight was super helpful, and honestly I needed to hear it (read it). I could see that it needed to be moved around like you had suggested. You have really good points about moving the anatomy stuff too, I will tackle this bad boy one more time! That starting point does make sense... I may forgo some of the wordiness there and keep the door symbology more concise. Thank you Heather, you helped me so much!

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Shea West
16:41 May 29, 2021

I feel like I owe you a coffee or a scone or virtual high five. Seriously. I made all those edits, and I love it so much more now. Thank you for taking the time to see into my writing world.

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H L Mc Quaid
16:56 May 29, 2021

ha ha, I'm gratified that it worked and that you think it's better. I definitely think it is. Often it's easier for other people to see the gaps and opportunities in our own writing, that's why critique is so valuable. :)

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Shea West
19:10 May 28, 2021

After a lot of wonderful and insightful feedback, I completely reworked this story. I eliminated some things and tried to format it a bit differently!

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A.Dot Ram
05:47 May 29, 2021

Your revisions are a lesson in how to do it! I love how just moving passages around changes the focus. I think I "get it" a lot more now. I didn't grasp before that he'd murdered the other women (probably his mom, too). I should have, but without context, "took her breath away" and "broke her heart" were too subtle. Now they're clever and chilling. This is the 60s, right? The fashion gives it away mostly. I'm just fascinated by the before and after and getting that window into your process.

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Shea West
16:30 May 29, 2021

The revising is getting to feel more cathartic and less "do I have to?!?!?" Which might be good, I'm not sure. I pictured this in the late 60's, maybe on the cusp of the 70's. The kids being left home alone for multiple nights at a time was another detail I used to show that. Thank you for your comment :)

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A.Dot Ram
16:54 May 29, 2021

That's definitely a good thing (re revising). I want to take a chisel to some of mine.

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Nina Chyll
12:15 May 27, 2021

Hi, Shea! It's so cool to see you sink your teeth into the thriller genre some more. There's a big part of me that wishes the categories of the short stories wouldn't be displayed at the top, underneath the title, but rather as tags at the very end. I feel like having placed that story in a certain genre before reading it made it difficult for me to let go of the constant feeling of tension through the initial expectations, so I couldn't possibly comment on the setup part because of that. I loved the anatomy, and I feel you've taken full ...

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Shea West
20:44 May 28, 2021

Thank you for your feedback Nina! I am not familiar with The English Patient, but I love that it made you think of something else. I went back and reworked the entire story, and took some of your advice with the showing an d not telling. I added an anecdote in and I hope it helps the entire thing flow better. Your story this week was beautiful!

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Beth Connor
00:06 May 27, 2021

This was a great thriller. Subtle, and a little cerebral. I really loved how you intertwined the bone and patron saint themes in this story. I think the anatomical terms Hank uses sets his mind apart from us readers that don't necessarily know or use those terms- kind of a buffer. I like a buffer hahaha. I agree with Heather, that the beginning feels a bit off, but I think there is room for it in the story. "Mother had the kind of looks that could kill." feels like a really strong opener.

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Shea West
04:07 May 27, 2021

So I initially started the story with that. I think I'll play with this a little and make it jive better. Thank you for the feedback!

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Shea West
19:13 May 28, 2021

Beth I did a major rewrite with all the feedback here. Let me know if you read it again :)

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Beth Connor
22:02 May 28, 2021

Oh wow- amazing rewrite. I’m always blown away by what small changes do to a story. I think the beginning gives me more empathy for Hank. I am going to read it again later, when I’m not on my phone-haha (I absorb stories better on my PC!)

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Shea West
22:42 May 28, 2021

I understand the feeling of absorbing better on my PC too. I prefer to reply to comments on my PC far better than on my phone. Thank you!

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Shea West
05:27 Jun 30, 2021

If you get a chance check out the incredible audio recording of this story "The Anatomy of a Confession." Beth Connor and her fellow voice actor friend recorded this story on her podcast Crossroad Cantina. They did an incredible job, go show her some love! https://crossroadscantina.captivate.fm/episode/the-anatomy-of-a-confession

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