A mother scorned
By Michele Bardsley
I DIDN’T INTEND TO kill Teddy. Sure, I had motive (hated him), means (trusted to my care), and opportunity (no one else in the house), but really and truly, it was an accident.
I suppose the worst thing about his tragic end was his head coming off in the dryer. There was no way a skilled seamstress could reattach his decrepit little noggin, much less a didn’t-know-what-to-do-with-a-needle woman such as myself.
I was much better in the corporate world where I could make grown men cry and strike fear into the hearts of secretaries. Josephine Jones, Professional Bitch. That was me. But, after a year, I was getting used to the world of the housewife. Since my husband was long gone, I guess I was a houseperson. Whatever. It wasn’t a bad life.
When Maggie came home from school that afternoon, I sat her down on the couch. “Teddy didn’t make it.”
She looked solemn and wise, as if she knew Teddy would perish on Laundry Day.
“It was the washer, wasn’t it?” she asked.
Her heart-shaped face and wide blue eyes reminded me of her daddy. He’d been a good husband, a loving father…at least he had until that messy business last year with a blonde named Lolita (no, I’m not kidding), a Caribbean cruise, and the discovery of some pictures on the Internet. Ted had disappeared. And I had left my job as vice president at a marketing firm to come home to Maggie. She’d had the nameless bear since she was a baby, but she named it Teddy the day I told her Ted was never coming home—not if he didn’t want to face life in prison and, worse, a pissed-off wife. The police figured he was in the Caribbean with Lolita. They still searched for him, but I’d given up. I knew he wasn’t coming home.
“How was first grade today?”
“Same as always.” She sighed. “Can we bury Teddy?”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
We went to the kitchen, the resting place of two-pieces Teddy. I got out the duct tape and attached his ratty head to his ratty body. I was glad Maggie wasn’t too upset about the departure of her dear friend. It meant she was ready to move on and maybe…just maybe she would believe saying good-bye to Teddy was the same as saying good-bye to Ted.
Knowing my daughter the way I do, I figured burial was imminent so I had the shoebox ready. I stuffed the bear inside, put on the lid, and handed the cardboard coffin to Maggie. “Do you want me to wrap it? We have some PowerPuff Girls paper left from your birthday.”
She shook her head.
We proceeded to the backyard. I grabbed a spade from the garden shed and dug a hole. Maggie placed the box inside then we both covered it up.
“Do you want to say a few words?” I asked.
She nodded and stared at the mound of fresh dirt. “He was a good teddy and a bad teddy. Most teddies are.”
“Amen,” I murmured.
“He needed to get clean, but instead he died.”
“But he died clean.”
“I will miss Teddy,” she continued in a too-adult voice, “but I’m glad he’s gone.” Her gaze found mine. “You’re glad he’s gone, too, aren’t you, Mommy?”
Somehow, I didn’t think we were talking about her teddy so much as my Ted. But my answer was the same. “Yes.”
They were both dirty creatures. Truth was, I’d come to hate the teddy bear as much as I’d come to hate my husband. He’d abandoned his morals, his humanity. He deserved to lose his head in the dryer, too, not to jaunt off to an island paradise with a dumb blonde.
“Teacher gave us math homework,” said Maggie.
I looked down at her and marveled at the perfection of her face. She was beautiful, my little girl. “I’m going to work in the garden for awhile. Then we’ll get washed up and go see Lisa.”
She smiled and the spark of joy reached her beautiful blue eyes. Lisa was her therapist. It had taken a year of therapy to get Maggie to smile like that. She liked Lisa and she had several break-throughs this last month. I was happy for her, for us. Without Ted, we were becoming a family again. I glanced at the small grave. Teddy and Ted were gone and I was glad, glad, glad.
Maggie went in to do math homework, which for first graders including the difficult problems of 1 + 1 and 2 + 2. She’d warned me that subtraction was next and much more difficult than addition, but I assured her we’d get through it. I knew lots about subtraction, including 3 – 1 = 2.
I loved the garden. I created it after Ted left. I fenced off a seven foot by seven foot square in the backyard and planted tomatoes and an herb garden that included rosemary, lavender, fennel, and spearmint. I even planted two lemon trees and both saplings were growing well. With patience and time, they’d bear fruit. The soil was deep and rich, well watered with lots of added nutrients. Caring for the garden was like caring for my soul. There was no better satisfaction than taking a barren place and making it live again.
After half an hour, I reluctantly stood and stretched out the kinks in my back. I rinsed off my tools with the garden hose and took them to the shed. It took a few minutes to dry and to hang them in their proper places. The shed was a new addition, too. It smelled like sunshine and peat moss, a pleasant reminder of nature. As I finished aligning the tools, my gaze stole to the rusty shovel in the corner. Why did I keep it? I never used it. Maybe once or twice. But I had purchased a shiny new one several months ago. It was smaller and easier to handle. I walked to the shovel and stared at it. A reminder of Ted, of our lives together, sat in the corner of the shed, baiting me. Making me remember things I didn’t want to remember. A memory of Ted walking around the backyard with a cell phone in one hand, a gin and tonic in another. It was early evening and I had just put Maggie to bed. Ted was yelling and swearing and crying.
“Who are you talking to?”
“No one, honey. Go back into the house. It’s just business.”
“It’s my allergies, that’s all.”
Yeah, right. I went upstairs and checked on Maggie. She wouldn’t sleep without a night light and lately, she’d had terrible nightmares. She preferred me to her father, which hurt Ted’s feelings, but the pediatrician assured us was just a phase. Sometimes children wanted one parent over another then they’d switch loyalties. It was about finding balance and love within the family unit.
I had to look up some information on the Internet. I was printing reports from my computer, so I decided to use Ted’s. I pushed the mouse and the screen saver disappeared…
I blinked. My hand was curled around the handle of the shovel. The rotting wood stabbed my palm with splinters. I released it, put on some gardening gloves, and dragged the monstrosity out of the shed.
“We’re going to be late.”
We walked across the yard. The shovel was so heavy I had to drag it. It scraped loudly against the concrete patio, but I didn’t care. All I knew was that I wanted it out of my shed, out of my memory, and out of my life.
After the therapy session, we went for ice cream. Maggie had a double-scoop of chocolate chip on a sugar cone and I ate an entire banana split. Maybe I was trying to fill the hole in my gut, the one that appeared when I clutched that shovel. Or maybe it was because therapy scared me, even though Lisa’s sessions were with my daughter, not with me. I don’t know why I was afraid. It was almost as if a monster waited in the closet and the door was cracked just enough so that if I wanted, I could open the door and let him out. Or slam it on his damned ugly face.
When we got back into the car, I didn’t go home. I drove until we reached the river. We’d had a lot of rain; the river was huge, swelling against banks, and running fast. Maybe fast enough to take a shovel all the way to the ocean. We stood on the edge, our shoes sinking into the mud, and watched the water swooshed by, gurgling and churning.
“It smells like dead fish,” said Maggie, holding her nose.
“Death is stinky,” I conceded. I heaved the shovel into the water. Despite its weight, it didn’t sink. We watched it float down the river until it was out of sight.
“That was important,” said my very wise daughter.
“Yes, it was.” I took her hand, feeling somewhat better now that the shovel was gone. “Let’s go home.”
TWO DAYS LATER, Detective Mark Chilenham knocked on my door. He was a nice man, in his fifties, who’d been married for twenty-seven years and had three children. He’d been a port in the storm for me and Maggie after Ted disappeared. He kept in touch, occasionally calling me with news about the search for Ted and sometimes he rang me just to chat. He never came to the house, not without calling first.
I looked at his expression and swallowed. “Ted?”
“Can I come in, Josephine?”
I let him in and led the way to the kitchen. He sat at the table in the same chair he’d chosen when he came to the house that night more than a year ago. Then, there were pictures of Maggie, my sweet innocent daughter, scattered on the table and Mark had looked at them with the eyes of an outraged father and not the eyes of a jaded detective. I’d always be grateful to him for that gesture of tenderness. By the time he’d shown up to the house, Ted and Lolita had boarded a ship bound for the Caribbean.
“We found a shovel in the river. Two kids fished it out and, luckily for us, watched one of those forensic TV shows. They thought the rust was blood. Just for kicks, we sent it to forensics and they found blood and tissue imbedded in the pits of the shovel.”
He gazed at me steadily and I gazed back.
“It was your husband’s blood type, Josie, but there’s no way to get a DNA match. The wood is rotted and wet so we couldn’t get fingerprints, either.”
“Ted’s not in the Caribbean with Lolita?”
“Whoever got on board that cruise ship with your husband’s boarding passes is long gone. I don’t think Ted ever left the city.”
“Lolita killed him?”
He shook his head. “Honey, there is no Lolita.”
I blinked, unable to wrap my mind around this development. If Ted didn’t run away with Lolita, where did he go? “No dumb blonde?”
“Maybe a partner in crime. Maybe a false name…” He sighed. “We’ve found no trace—not one—of a blond woman named Lolita. Other than her name on the cruise tickets, she doesn’t exist.”
“What’s going on, Mark?” My heart pounded in my chest and my mouth felt dry. The monster was trying to come out of the closet and no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t shut the door.
“We think Ted was murdered. We’ve been dragging the river for his body—or what might be left of it after a year. I suspect someone killed him with that shovel.”
Mark hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“Am I…am I suspect?”
“Should you be?”
“Of course I should. I hated him after what he did to Maggie.”
His gaze softened. “How is she doing?”
“She’s smiling again. She’s almost normal. Almost.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Teddy came apart in the dryer and we had a funeral for him.”
“She finally let go of the bear?”
Mark’s hands covered my trembling ones. “What your husband did was a terrible thing, Josie. Off the record, I’m glad the bastard is out of your life. We don’t have evidence to prove Ted’s death. A blood type isn’t enough. We need a body and we need to prove the shovel was a murder weapon.”
“But you can’t.”
“Nope.” The corners of his mouth lifted into a half-smile. “I suspect Ted’s whereabouts, dead or alive, will never be known, Josie. Can you live with that?”
“I don’t have a choice.” I managed to return his smile. “But it would be nice to know he was never coming back again.”
THAT NIGHT, I DREAMED about Ted.
He was in the backyard, talking on his cell phone. He stumbled around the yard, crying and sloshing his gin and tonic. I opened the sliding glass door and rushed out. Anger ballooned through me, filling my head, my heart with hate. When he saw my face, he knew that I’d discovered his terrible secret.
“Josie, wait. I can explain—” He backed away, tripping over the shovel. The stupid rusting shovel he’d taken out to dig a spot for a garden. He was always talking about gardens, about how they represented the renewal of life. He had such fond childhood memories of his mother’s garden. She used to take pictures of him among the plants. Used to take pictures…
He lay in the grass, staring at me. The cell phone had clicked shut when it hit the dirt and the gin and tonic seeped into the earth around the shattered pieces of glass.
“I’m sick,” he said. “I can get help. Honey, we can work through this. Therapy. I’ll go to—”
I picked up the shovel and slammed it onto his head. My rage made me blind to the horror, deaf to his screams. I hit him with shovel again and again and again until the strength in my arms gave out. His blood and brains mixed with dry dirt, brown grass, and glass shards. His skull was crushed, battered. It wasn’t enough. I pierced his neck with the shovel and pushed until his head separated. His sightless, bloody eyes gazed up at me.
“I guess our therapy session is over. I feel better. How about you?” I started shoveling dirt, digging a hole. “Oh that’s right. You feel dead.”
I woke up and scrambled from the bed. Moonlight filtered through the sheer curtains. My whole body shook and I wrapped my arms around myself to stop the shudders. I glanced around the semi-dark bedroom, trying to catch my breath. My heart thudded violently in my chest and I felt like a lead weight had lodged in my stomach. I wanted to go to the bathroom, to vomit, to rid myself of the obscenities in my head, but found myself looking at the closet. The door was cracked, just a little, and I swear I saw Ted’s eyes glaring at me from the sliver of darkness.
DESPITE THE NIGHTMARES, the bad memories, the feeling that the monster would devour me any moment, I kept up a happy appearance for Maggie.
We sat on the back porch, sipping lemonade, and gazing at the garden. We had a few minutes before we needed to leave to see Lisa. It was nice to relax after a day of housework, baking cookies for Maggie’s class snack, and writing checks for bills. Thanks to my former high-paying job, good investments, and coupon clipping, Maggie and I had enough to live on for the next few years.
“Why are you sad, Mommy?”
Surprised, I looked at my daughter. Her nose scrunched as she examined me. Did she think unhappiness was as easily seen as a case of chickenpox?
“I’m not sad,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. I was scared. Scared of what, I couldn’t name. But I’d taken to sleeping on the couch with the lights on low and the television turned on. I couldn’t face the dark bedroom anymore. It seemed that no matter how many times I shut the closet door, it managed to open again. I was seriously considering locks.
“Is something buggin’ you?” asked Maggie.
“The closet,” I said. “I think there’s a monster in it.”
She nodded sagely. “There was a monster who lived my closet, but he went away.”
“Maybe he moved into my closet.”
I sipped lemonade, loving the tart-sweet flavor of fresh squeezed lemons and lots of sugar. Maggie’s stare was intent and unceasing. I squirmed in my chair, resisting the urge to tell her to cut it out. “How did you get rid of your monster?”
“I didn’t.” She smiled, her gaze sweet and pure. The shadows that had lurked there for so long had receded. Maybe one day they’d be gone forever.
“Who banished your monster, Maggie?”
AFTER THE THERAPY session, Lisa, a plump redhead in her mid-forties, asked to speak to me. Sometimes I went to Maggie’s sessions, but lately, she hadn’t needed me. Lisa was pleased with Maggie’s progress and so was I. Maggie waited in the small lobby, content with coloring books and new crayons. The receptionist had a soft spot for my daughter and sat at the small table with her to color, too.
“Have a seat, Josie.” She leaned on her desk and steepled her fingers together. Maggie called this Lisa’s Serious Pose.
“Is everything okay?” I knew the anxiety showed in my voice, but I couldn’t stop my voice from trembling. Maggie had been doing so well, so wonderful…surely she wouldn’t slip into the nightmares, the temper tantrums, the wounded child no one could reach.
“Maggie’s fine. But she’s worried about you. She says you’re sad and that you’re not sleeping well.”
“I’m having nightmares. About Ted.” I was relieved to talk to another adult, one who was forced by law to keep confidences, thank God, about the dreams and my feeling that I had done something terrible, unforgivable. “I…I smack him in the head with a shovel.”
She nodded. “It’s been a year since he left. It’s an anniversary of loss for you and Maggie. I’m not surprised you’re having dreams or emotional reactions.”
“Do you think it’s possible that I killed him?”
Lisa smiled. “I think you wanted to kill him when you found out what he’d done to Maggie. But he was gone and you never got a chance to tell him how you felt about what he did. I’m not surprised you’re having dreams about smacking him in the head with a shovel.”
I cleared my throat. “The police found a shovel with his blood on it. In the river.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Is that when you started having the dreams?”
“It’s no wonder. Talk about giving your subconscious something to work with.”
“So…it’s not possible I did it?”
“Anything’s possible,” said Lisa. “But it’s doubtful. I think it would be a good thing for you to see a therapist, too. Obviously, there are some issues you need to work on. You’ve lived this past year for Maggie and your devotion has helped her recovery tremendously. But it’s time to focus on your needs.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Call me when you’ve decided. I have several excellent peers who’d work with you.”
I KNEW IT WOULDN’T be too long before I heard from Mark again. Call it a houseperson’s intuition. I dropped Maggie off at school along with thirty-two gooey chocolate-chip cookies, indulged in a Starbuck’s Mocha Latte, and stopped by the bank to pay the mortgage. When I got home, there was a message from Mark on the answering machine. His message was short, but his tone held an ominous note. I didn’t want to call him, but I dialed his direct line before I chickened out.
“I’m coming by to see you, Josie. It’s about Ted.”
He refused to give more details. I couldn’t think straight and the mocha latte lost its caffeine charm. I threw it away and did the dishes. Then I wiped down the counters in the kitchen. I was just deciding whether I or not I should alphabetize the soup cans when Mark arrived. We sat at the kitchen table, the same table that had held my grief and my sorrow for so long.
“We found his head in the river.”
Bile rose in my throat. “H-his head?”
“Yes. It was bashed and broken, but dental records confirm the identity of the skull.”
“How did you…”
“Lucky break when we were dragging the river. Finding a skull should’ve been damned near impossible in the murky water, but a diver came up with it.”
“He’s dead. He’s really dead.”
“It looks like the shovel we found was the murder weapon. We found some matching metal fibers in the bones.”
“Who did it? Who killed him?”
“We don’t know, Josie. I doubt we’ll ever know. There’s not enough evidence to connect anyone to the crime.”
“Where’s the rest of his body?”
Mark’s gaze pierced me. “The head had been severed, Josie. The body might have been dumped somewhere else.”
Relief and anger welled up at the same time. I cried. I wasn’t sorry he was dead. Not a goddamned bit. But I’d never get the chance to make him pay for molesting our daughter and taking pictures and putting the photos on the Internet for the entire perverted world to see.
“You know how he got Maggie to be still and quiet?”
“With the bear. Her favorite bear.” And two-piece Teddy was finally buried in the backyard where he could never again be a reminder of her demented father.
“It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know.”
“I don’t deserve your compassion,” I said, my hands fluttering against the table like trapped birds. “I don’t deserve her forgiveness.”
“Yes, you do, Josie.” Mark grabbed my hands and squeezed. “Yes, you do.”
He sat with me while I cried. He didn’t tell me platitudes or offer false comfort. He just let me grieve, grieve for Maggie, for me, and, yes, even for Ted.
When I was finished, we talked about mundane subjects like the weather and how to make a peach cobbler, and if I should cremate Ted’s broken skull or bury it in a cemetery. Finally, Mark patted my hands, and rose. “My wife wondered if you’d be willing to give up a tomato or two. She says those ‘maters are the best she’s ever eaten.” He looked at me, a question in his eyes. “Must be something in the soil.”
I led him to the garden and let him pick out as many tomatoes as he wanted. He filled a small bucket then stood and looked around the garden. He toed the earth with cop shoes. “It’s amazing what you can do with the right tools and a little determination.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking at my sanctuary with satisfaction. “Growing something this beautiful and wholesome and good from such a rotten piece of dirt. It’s a miracle.”
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