Third place for the GKBC International Short Story Competition was, again, a close run thing. Tim told us of his woes in having to choose who got third and who got made runners up, but alas it could only be one story. Luckily for Russell Nichols, his story titled My Summer Reading List made it to third. Congratulations Russell, here is your story;
My Summer Reading List
by Russell Nichols
When my husband first moved into my house, there were two things he told me never to touch.
One was a glass jar filled with pennies. Hundreds, maybe even a thousand, some shiny, some moldy. He never said where the coins came from. For the longest, the jar just sat there, up on my mahogany dresser in the bedroom. I hated the fact that Darnell felt he couldn’t open up to me, but at least I could see inside the jar.
The safe, mind you, was a different story. It was opaque, all black and beat-up looking, shaped like an old coffin. He dragged that bulky thing straight up to my empty, dark attic. I asked him what was inside, but that conversation went nowhere in a hurry.
“Baby,” he’d say, stroking my cheek, “I’m only thinking of you.”
Every night in bed, I’d stare at the ceiling, wondering what my man was hiding up there. Was it a dead body? Money? Drugs? If he knew me at all, he’d have known secrets don’t sit well with this Scorpio. Tell you the truth, I would’ve opened his safe sooner too, if it weren’t for my mom.
“Remember how antsy you were to open your gifts?” she said when I called her in Atlanta on my way to Zumba. “We hid them, but you always found them, didn’t you? Then you’d throw a fit Christmas morning, bellyaching ‘cause Kamal’s got gifts to open and you don’t. What’s that your dad used to tell you, Dora? ‘Don’t kill your chickens ‘fore they hatch.’”
So yeah, in those first weeks, I respected my man’s privacy. And why not? He was on point with everything else: Helping with chores, listening to me vent about my co-anchor. And the man could cook. His “spécialité” was herbed chicken breasts coated in marsala wine and mushrooms, with garlic butter fettuccine, and a cranberry spinach salad tossed in a secret dressing. On top of all that, he always made me dessert. Understand what I’m saying? No, I don’t think you do.
Afterwards, he’d lay there with his back to me. I’d scoot in close, rub his wide, sweaty chest and whisper, “What you thinking about?”
“Baby,” he’d say, “I’m only thinking of you.”
But what was I thinking? What was I thinking when I said “I do” in that courtroom on May 23? Why the hell would I think a jump over a broom could change a man?
Well, long story short, a month into the marriage, I stopped thinking and started acting. This was June 22, second day of summer. That night, while he was out working, I got the key he hid under the lid of his penny jar and went to open my husband’s safe.
In the dark attic, wooden boards groaned under my slippers. I held the key in one hand, a flashlight in the other. On my knees I steadied my hands, inserted the key into the black box. The lock popped. I lifted the top.
But the safe was empty.
I pointed the beam around the box. That’s when I saw the entire base was a scuttle door. I gripped the edges and lifted the hatch and, crazy as it sounds, there was a stairwell. A stairwell inside the box! How, you ask? And where did it lead? I had no clue. But I’d come too far to turn back, so I climbed in.
I went down the narrow stairwell, walled in by gray concrete. If I was breathing at all, I couldn’t tell. I kept swallowing to keep my heart out my throat. The goosebumps popping up on my arms didn’t come from the cold.
When I reached the floor, fluorescent lights overhead turned on in succession. I was standing in a library. All around me were rows of wooden shelves, maybe twelve feet tall, lined with books, books and more books. I called out twice, but only my echo responded.
In the middle of the library was a circular counter, unoccupied, with a computer on the desktop and on the monitor, it said: Welcome to the Library of Darnell Othello Nock. My mind was racing with questions: What is this place? Am I dreaming? Othello?
I tapped the screen and new text appeared:
Do you have a library card? Y / N
I tapped N.
Do you want a library card? Y / N
I tapped Y.
A Terms and Conditions page popped up, which I skimmed over: Check out up to seven books at a time, blah, blah, blah, books must be returned within 24 hours, blah, blah, blah, if any books are overdue, I will be permanently banned, blah, blah, blah. But once I got to the last line, I nearly choked: Press I AGREE for unlimited access to the mind of Darnell Othello Nock.
Okay, now ask yourself: If you had the chance to read every thought your husband ever had, would you do it?
After I tapped I AGREE, a black card shot out into a dispenser below. A search bar appeared on the screen. I stood there a minute. Suddenly, I didn’t feel right violating my man’s privacy, his trust, especially when I knew he wouldn’t do that to me.
So I did what any self-respecting, 21st-century wife would do: I typed “cheating” into the search bar and pressed ENTER…
No, no, no, no, I kept thinking as I scrolled down the list of volumes.
The books were arranged by genre: Children’s, Young Adult, Fantasy, Reference, and so on. Organized perfectly. But inside was a mess. Broken sentences. Pop-culture references. Footnotes for flashbacks. Highlights. Dog-ears. It was a language all its own, an encrypted shorthand code I first had to crack, like Martian haiku.
So yeah, that first night, I barely got through book one. He came home at five, unsuspecting. I pretended to be asleep. He woke me up and wore me out as usual. Laying in bed afterwards, staring at the ceiling, I told myself I wouldn’t go back, but you already know I went back. And once I cracked his codes, I was burning through books like crazy.
On Independence Day weekend, I checked a book out for the first time. It was risky, I know. We drove to Tahoe to watch the light show over the lake. I had a paperback from his Fantasy section in my big gold purse. I didn’t let that thing out my sight for a second. But he was oblivious.
Anyway, after that, I was book-borrowing junkie. I hid them everywhere: in my dresser, under my pillow, in the kitchen cabinet behind my Instant Breakfast packs. Just to sneak a read whenever. I read during breaks at the station. At the salon on Wednesdays. At the Marina as motorboats rumbled by. But I always returned the books within 24 hours. Without fail.
By July 10, I finally got through all the “cheating” books. His cheating habits had to do mostly with taxes and dice games. Tests he took before he dropped out of school. His first armed robbery, losing his virginity. Perverted ideas about his dead aunt. And a host of other wild thoughts I pray I forget. But nothing about him playing me, thank God.
In his library, the children’s section in the corner was a colorful area with a toy train and those roller coaster tables with beads. This area held his earliest thoughts, scattered questions from a lost boy. But the thoughts hardest to read were in the Young Adult rack. So much pain in those pages. Words smeared with tears. And blood. Some books were up front, but the realest ones, the darkest ones were tucked in the back back, in the Horror section, where I read about the three years he spent locked up.
Okay, judge me all you want. You can say it ain’t right to pry into a man’s private thoughts like that, but you just don’t know. It gave me confidence I never had. No more guessing games. No more feeling like an outsider in my own marriage. I knew how to translate his silences. I knew about his regrets, his fears, his insecurities, his claustrophobia. I knew every single freaky thing my baby liked in bed. I knew why he kept that jar full of pennies. I knew everything.
Or I thought I did.
The night before last, I crept down to the library at ten. The computer told me I had only one unread book left, the August new release. This was a big deal. So I lit my eucalyptus candles, poured some Pinot Grigio and put on some Sade. I read the whole book, cover to cover, in two hours. And that’s when it hit me!
After this whole summer of reading, how did I miss this? How could I’ve been so desperate to find “the secret” that I didn’t see the truth looking dead at me? All these emotions exploded inside me–hurt, anger, betrayal–like fireworks.
I didn’t move for hours. Not until five when the man I thought I knew walked in. No doubt he was surprised to see me wide awake.
“Baby,” he said, “what you doing up?”
I stood up with the book and started reading every broken sentence. He looked confused as he took off his suit jacket. But as I read on and on, it all suddenly clicked.
He was about to say, I thought I told you never to touch my safe. But before he got a word out, I heaved the book at him.
“Not one time! Not one single time! What–I’m your wife–how is that possible? Tell me how you–you tell me how could you never think one thought about me ever. This whole time. Not one–”
Tears were tumbling out now.
He moved closer, reaching for my cheek. “Baby, I think you’re–”
“Overreacting?!” I screamed.
I hurled the penny jar at his stupid face. He ducked. The jar hit the wall, cracked and the pennies, the only gift his father ever gave him, fell to the floor.
I ran out the room and straight to the library. I heard him coming after me. I yanked books off the shelves. When he reached the library floor, he was staggering, holding his head in pain, trying to yell at me to stop. But I just kept pulling them down, stack by stack and throwing some at him as he came charging after me.
Suddenly, all the lights went out.
It was pitch black. I knew the library like the back of my hand, so I could get around in the darkness. But I didn’t know where he was. So I stayed put. I got on my knees and listened. I heard nothing. Not a step, not a breath. My heart was in my throat. It felt like he was close, but I couldn’t tell where.
So I bolted for the stairwell.
I ran as fast I as could, ran right out of my left slipper.
“Baby!” he called.
But I didn’t look back. I climbed out the box, closed the lid and locked the top.
That was about 17 hours ago. My pulse hasn’t slowed down yet. I’m in my room holding his book, the new release from August I threw at him earlier. As of today, August 9, right now at 10:09 p.m., this book is overdue. Which means I should be officially banned forever from my husband’s library. I slide the book under my pillow. My house is quiet.
Every time I close my eyes, I swear I hear floorboards creaking above me. I imagine a shadow suddenly there in the doorway and that monster creeping under the covers, whispering into my ear, “Baby, I’m only thinking of you.” And so now I’m just here, lying on my back in my cold empty bed, staring up at the ceiling.
We are still accepting entries for the second phase of the competition if you would like to enter. The theme is CRIME and the Short Story Competition page is here.
Featured Image: dGrosso23