TW: Mental health, substance abuse
“We have plenty of time,” he crooned back to me, his voice like warm honey on a biting autumn morning. He tilted my head up, forcing my eyes to meet his. The smile he gave me was enough to make me forget everything, just for a moment. But soon enough, the phone buzzing on the table sharply pulled me back to reality.
“But the catering company we wanted needs at least a month’s notice, and we have to start looking at bands to play at the reception, and if we want a fairly decent one we had better pick soon, or they’ll all be booked,”
“Norah, relax,” He kissed me on my forehead, grabbed his coffee and headed for the door. “I gotta get to work, try not to worry too much while I’m gone,” I smiled weakly. My soon-to-be-husband, the most unbothered person I know. It was actually one of the things that first drew me to him; how laid-back he was. One of the first dates he had planned for us was supposed to be a picnic at my favorite park, followed by a ride on a rowboat out on the river. And just my luck, it poured rain as soon as we got there. I freaked out and thought our date was ruined, but he turned on the radio and we just danced in the rain. To this day, it’s my favorite date we’ve ever been on.
So you can imagine my surprise when James never came home that night. The worrier that I am, I called, texted, even emailed, but in return I was met with radio silence. I tried to rationalize things, come up with a reasonable solution so I could fall asleep. Maybe his phone had died and he had crashed at a friend’s house, maybe he was caught up with something at work, maybe, maybe, maybe. I didn’t sleep at all that night, and when the morning rolled around with no word, I called the police department to file a missing person’s report.
“Missoula police department, what can I do for you?”
“Hi, um, my name is Norah Nelson, and I’d like to file a missing person’s report.”
“Who is the missing individual?”
“My fiancé, James Baker.”
“And when did you last have contact with him?”
“Yesterday morning, right around this time, when he left for work.” I talked on the phone with the officer for a little while, giving him all the information I could about James and his possible whereabouts. He told me they would contact me with any new information, and to try not to panic. As if that was a possibility. After our conversation, I paced around the kitchen, trying to think of something, anything, that would explain James’ disappearance. Coming up with nothing, I tried to distract myself by turning on the T.V., but after realizing 45 minutes later that I hadn’t actually processed a single thing I had watched, I turned it off and tried to call James again. This time, the phone actually rang. But he never picked up. I felt a pit drop in my stomach. He was alive, but ignoring me.
As I collected mail the next day, sifting through the envelopes, there was a letter addressed to me. From James. I dropped it immediately, as if it had burned me. With shaking hands, I picked it back up and tore apart the seal.
This is the most difficult letter I have ever had to write. It is not easy to tell you this, but I have been having an affair. A woman from work. You don’t know her, but I can no longer pretend that she doesn’t make me the happiest man that I’ve ever been.
A guttural sound resembling a sob somehow escaped my chest, and for a moment I forgot how to breathe.
You deserve someone who loves you, as wonderful as you are. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us to go through with this wedding. I hope you can forgive me, and I hope you find happiness one day.
I read the letter over and over again; a little piece of me hoping each time that this was some sick joke I wasn’t quite understanding. But even as I read it and reread it, I could find no alternative meaning.
At first, I could barely get out of bed. I was pulled into a deep depression and felt immobilized by pain. Everything reminded me of him and his betrayal. It made me sick to my stomach, and I didn’t eat for days. Eventually, though, I started to feel more anger than sadness. One day, I decided I had enough. I threw all of his belongings that he had left behind in the trash chute. Now the apartment didn’t feel like ours, it felt like mine. And I almost liked the anger. As the days went on, I began to grow curious about his new lover. Was she pretty? Was she smart? I called his office and the snotty receptionist who I’d been hoping for picked up. She was the worst gossip I had ever known, and I knew I could almost guarantee her saying something about James’ newfound relationship, if she thought I was the right person.
“Thank you for calling Stratford and Brother’s Law Firm, this is Heather, how may I help you?” I put on my best endearing elderly woman voice I could manage.
“Well, hi, honey, this is Susan, Susan Baker. James’ mother. Is he in the office? I was hoping I could catch him if I stopped by in a few minutes.”
“Hello, Mrs. Baker! He just went out to lunch with Stacy, he should be back within the hour.”
Her name is Stacy? How old is she, 12?
“Stacy? I’m afraid I don’t know a Stacy. Is she new?”
“Yes ma’am, Stacy is our newest receptionist. She’s fairly young, only 20, but she wants to go to law school. James says he is mentoring her, but they’ve been spending an awful lot of time together lately, if I do say so myself.”
“Oh,” I forced out a small chuckle. “My James has always been a ladies man,”
“He seems to be quite the catch ma’am.” I heard her pop her gum on the other end. “ Now, just between you and me, I did try to get at him myself a few times over the years, but he said he had a girlfriend. I guess she’s a thing of the past now, huh?” She laughed to herself.
“I would suppose so dear,” My cheeks flushed red.
“Well, should I let him know you called?”
“No, that won’t be necessary, I’ll call his cell a little later. Bye, now honey.” So our entire relationship was thrown in the garbage for a 20 year old girl named Stacy? How comical. I knew I had to find out as much about Stacy as I could, just for my own state of mind. The firm that James worked at had a website that would probably be a good place to start.
Meet Stratford and Brother’s newest addition to the team, Stacy Vesper!
Bingo, right on the front page. Stacy Vesper. Now all I had to do was plug that name into social media and an internet browser, and I was in business. Stacy Vesper was quite the partier. It didn’t take much digging to find dozens of pictures of her dancing on a bar, doing body shots off some gym buff wearing a thong, and snorting coke off the hood of someone's car. This was really what James wanted? The more I dug, the more it became evident that Stacy Vesper was the opposite of me in every way. I broke out a bottle of wine as I pored over my phone, looking for anything and everything I could find on her.
Two hours and three bottles of wine later, my head was filled with nothing but images of that bleach-blonde bimbo. Little Miss Perfect was a sorority sister at Tulane; Chi Omega to be precise, but dropped out after what looked like an unfortunate “accidental” hazing incident, in which a girl “fell” out of a window and was left partially paralyzed. Soon after, Stacy moved to Montana, where her grandfather left her a sizable plot of land in his will. Slumming it in farm country, apparently. Turns out richy-rich Grandpa owned a cow farm and a pretty prominent one. Let’s just say Stacy’s not declaring bankruptcy anytime soon. No wonder she could afford Tulane. With Grandpa being in the spotlight and all, finding the address to her land only took about 15 minutes of deep diving into the internet. But that’s all, I told myself. I’m just going to go to bed and pretend I never found any of this out.
That’s what I told myself.
Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the festering anger, but the next thing I know I’m in the back of a cab, making my way down a bumpy, winding road. I don’t even remember calling the cab company. For a moment, I feel violently sick, and all I can think about is getting out of this car immediately.
“Sir,” I tapped on the window dividing us. “Sir,” Without looking back, he pulled the window open.
“Yes?” He almost spit.
“Is there a rest stop or something coming up? I don’t feel so well,” I cracked the window, drinking in the cool midnight air.
“Can you wait 10 minutes? There’s a gas station about a mile down the road.” He sighed.
“I think so,” He slammed the window shut again and I sank down in my seat trying to hold myself together. At the 7/11 I practically threw myself out of the car and ran inside. After there was absolutely nothing left in my system, I walked out of the stall and into the blinding fluorescent lighting. I hesitated for a minute, and walked over to the cooler section, picking up 3 more bottles of wine. Liquid courage, I guess. And then, right in front of the doors, lighter fluid and matches. And I really wasn’t going to buy them.
I swear I wasn’t.
I saw the look the cab driver gave me when I got back in the car with my purchases. But he didn’t say anything, so neither did I.
The house on the property really was beautiful. Made completely of wood, with a wraparound porch and a chimney of river stones. The driveway curved up a hill to where the house sat, overlooking the forest. All the big windows on the front were dark, and I prayed for the house to be empty. After stuffing some cash through the window of the cab, I marched up to the porch. It was probably stupid to try the front door, but I wiggled the knob anyway, the plastic bag from the gas station weighing heavily in my other hand. Beneath my fingers, the knob clicked and the door swung open, the wind helping it along. Their living room looked like something straight out of a Better Homes and Garden magazine. Expensive furniture, a beautiful antique brass fireplace, and a delicate chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling stood as stark reminders of how much she and I were different. I stood stupidly in the doorway for a long while, trying to talk myself out of going further into the house. But I mean, who leaves their front door unlocked while they’re gone? It’s practically an invitation for anyone to come barging in. And for some reason, that made me feel a lot better about stepping inside, my shoes clicking on the hardwood floors with every step. I walked through their shared home, tracing my fingertips along the wall, wondering if he was truly happy with her. Wondering what had made him fall out of love with me; what I had done to push him into the open arms of another woman. If you could even call her that, I thought bitterly.
I’m not normally one to snoop, but when I got to the bedroom, I couldn’t resist looking in the closet. The massive walk-in housed mostly things belonging to her; designer bags and shoes, jewelry, expensive looking dresses that probably cost more than my rent. James had a modest corner, a couple of his tailored suits hung up with his pressed white shirts folded neatly on the shelf. Before I even knew what I was doing, I grabbed one of his jackets and stuck my nose in it, inhaling his scent, one I didn’t even know I had missed. It brought unexpected tears to my eyes. Blinking them away, I pulled out one of the bottles of wine and took a long pull in an effort to numb myself.
Feeling nothing, I had quickly come to realize, was much better than feeling sad. It was almost as good as feeling angry.
I woke up on the floor, not remembering having fallen asleep. The air smelled funny, and I realized I was lying, wet, in a pool of something. Did I pee myself? I wondered, but no, the smell wasn’t urine.
It was lighter fluid.
Apparently, sometime after the closet and guzzling all three bottles of wine, I doused the entire home in the lighter fluid, pouring it everywhere I could think. The air felt sticky from the smell, and I crawled down the staircase, feeling for the matches all the way down. Because if I had made it this far, I was going to finish what I came here to do. I owed that much to myself, at least. The coveted matchbox met my fingers at the bottom of the stairs, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Headlights shone at the bottom of the driveway, making their way up the hill. It started to rain. A surge of panic and adrenaline shot through me, and I quickly stood, making my way dizzily to the center of the living room. They would see me through the open door as soon as they were out of the car. They could watch their beautiful house burn to nothing and know that I was the one at fault. Burning their lives to the ground, just as they had mine.
I struck the match against the side of the box and waited. Looks of recognition crossed both of their faces as they stepped out of the car.
“Norah,” James said tentatively. He sounded scared. Like he was scared of me. I almost scoffed. “What the hell are you doing here?” Stacy stood, frozen, her unblinking eyes huge, waiting for him to do something. The flame licked closer to my fingertips with each passing moment.
It wasn’t until I felt the heat from the flame that I came to the realization that I was drenched in lighter fluid. That if I dropped the match there was no way I was getting out of this alive. But at that moment, it didn’t matter.
It didn’t scare me.
“You ruined my life,” I screamed at him, at both of them. “You don’t get to walk away unscathed, not after what you did to me.”
“We can talk about this, please. Honestly, Norah, this is a little dramatic, don’t you think?”
I simply smiled and dropped the match. Angry flames rose up from the ground immediately.
But then he ran into the house, towards me. I thought maybe I was imagining it, but when I felt his arms around me, carrying me out from the fire I knew I wasn’t. I kicked and screamed and tried to pry my way from his grip, but he only held me tighter. I thought I heard him tell Stacy to call 911 but I can’t be sure. After struggling for a while, exhausted, I relaxed and melted into his embrace. But he didn’t let go. Raindrops fell on my face, cooling my burned skin.
“Shh, shh,” He swayed back and forth, his chest heaving abnormally. Trying to soothe me, trying to diminish the rage. I stretched my neck and looked up towards the sky.
“James,” I whispered, closing my eyes. “James, we’re dancing in the rain, just like we used to.”
I could no longer tell if my face was wet from the rain or from his tears.
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Woah this was really good! The emotions were detailed so explicitly and I loved the build up of suspense- made me think James totally got murdered or something. Watching Norah slowly unfold and finally the climax of her lighting up the house was extremely chilling. I also liked the creative interpretation of the plot, it was a great twist. My only advice would be to explore Norah's character a bit more instead of letting her be defined by getting cheated on and freaking out. Is this out of character for her or did she always have the arsonis...
Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback! That is definitely something I would love to explore more, just wish we had a higher word count to work with sometimes lol.