Hello everyone. I decided to post a short story I’d written a while back. I haven’t been able to find a home for it. I’ve received positive feedback with every rejection so I know it’s good. It didn’t fit in with the publishers anthology idea and I get that. It is kind of weird. But I like weird and I hope you do too. Give it a read while you’re waiting for the Blue Jays to win the next game in Texas. I know they’ll win because they have to. Twenty-two years is a long time to wait for a post-season game. It’d be a shame for it to end so quickly. Any-hoo, here is my story. Comment, like, share and enjoy.
Under the Garden
Like a thief in the night, Ryan left Lucy before the sun rose on a Sunday. She knew the reason. Two nights ago, she told him she was pregnant. After telling him, she became nervous at his immediate pallor and his quivery lips struggling to form a smile but then, he looked happy, really happy and not the faked happy expression he wore whenever she made meatloaf for dinner. Ryan laughed, picked her up and twirled her, talked about opening a bottle of wine to celebrate and then remembered alcohol wasn’t good for the baby and so he ran off to the corner store to buy a bottle of caffeine free Coke. His happiness lifted the worry only to leave it hovering tentatively about her shoulders. Lucy didn’t know if she could trust him. He once forgot to pick her up from the airport. Lucy was about to call a cab, wondering how she’d pay for it, wondering why he wasn’t answering his phone, when he appeared two hours late, rushing over to her apologizing, muttering something about his car not starting. Lucy let it go, thinking if his car didn’t start then why did his breath have the smell of beer on it? And wasn’t that a new battery in the car? She was pretty sure he sulked for hours about how much the damn new battery cost.
The pregnancy changed everything for her. She was scared and even though he wasn’t her ideal choice, maybe, just maybe he’d man up. Then the bastard left her, in the middle of the night like the worst sort of coward. How did she not hear him leaving? The creep. That Sunday, she woke up squinting into the sunlight squeezing past a gap in the curtain. She sat up, surprised Ryan wasn’t there. He usually stayed in bed long after she was up. Then she saw the open closet with nothing in it but her clothes and the empty hangers. She stumbled out of bed, still foggy, not processing his desertion until she noticed the missing CD’s on the stand and the little golden key on the floor, slid under the door after he locked it in his flight from her. A short while later she learned he took the car. Of course he did. Didn’t she know he was capable of that? It was why she had those doubts about him, because she knew he could do something like that without any reservations. He lacked a conscious.
After the initial shock wore off, an anger headache settled just behind her eyes. Her breath blew past pursed lips. It should have been her that left! She was the catch in the relationship! She made more money than him! She cycled between raging and crying as panic squeezed her heart with a cold fist. She didn’t want to do this alone. The years ahead closed in on her, like the bars of a cage.
A week went by, two, then three and she never called his cell phone, never tried to find out where he could be. She wept at the oddest moments. She burst into tears watching an M&M commercial. While tears cooled on her cheek she worried about depression. Who cries at an M&M commercial? They’re supposed to be funny! Must be the hormones. Those thoughts reminding her of her pregnancy, always managed to squirt a burst of fear though her.
Every weekday morning she trudged to work, feeling like an ant toting a load back to the hill, programmed to obey, all choices concerning her life removed from her. He never made any attempts to contact her and, really, she felt pretty damn relieved to have him out of her life. She regretted not leaving him long before, but she knew the reason. Like an idiot, she’d though he could change. If she willed it enough, cared about him enough, then he would change. He’d have to. And then she wouldn’t have to feel like a failure whenever she saw her friends from high school on Facebook, all married with children, living in a nice house and driving minivans with handy storage space under the chairs. She was getting up there-almost thirty seven!-and although she was very successful in her job, compared to her friends, she felt inadequate, like she was missing something. It was stupid, to feel that way, like she were back in high school wanting to do what all the cool kids were doing.
A month after he left, she found she enjoyed his absence a lot more than she ever missed it. Sitting in her kitchen, drinking decaffeinated coffee with her hand rubbing her stomach in gentle circles, she resonated contentment. She could do this without Ryan; in fact, she’d rather do it without him. Sliding the key back under the door! What a douche! Lucy smeared strawberry jam on toast and took a bite. Her phone buzzed on the table. An unfamiliar number flicked across the display.
“Hey, Lucy. How you been?”
“Yeah. It’s me.”
A fist pulled at her guts. Did he want to come back? The idea nauseated her.
“Okay.” She pushed the coffee cup further onto the table and straightened her shoulders into her fight posture.
“I’m still here,” she said. “What do you want?”
“I, uh, been wondering how you’ve been?”
“Wonderful. I’ve been pretty damn wonderful. Even without the car! I’ve got the bus system memorized. Where is it, by the way.”
“I’ve still got it and it’s our car, remember?”
“Oh, really? When’s the last time you made a payment on it? When was the last time I got to use it?”
“It’s in both our names!” He sighed, “Look, I don’t wanna to fight. I want to come back. I was stupid and scared, you know, but I had time to think and I want to be a father. I want to be the best damn father out there. You know what my old man was like. I don’t want to be like him.”
“Funny you should say that. I was just realizing how much I don’t need you. I never did. I was scared, too. Of doing this alone. But considering what you have to offer, I think you’d be terrible for us.”
“Where’s all this coming from? I was good enough to date wasn’t I? Good enough to do the deed and plant the seed, but not for anything else?”
“Essentially…yes. We’re done Ryan. I thought with the way you left in the middle of the night you already knew that.”
“I explained all that! I was scared! What else do you want me to say?”
“Absolutely nothing. I don’t want to hear from you ever again.”
His breathing rang harsh, like a scraping branch. An ominous sound.
“You can’t keep me away from my kid.”
Two more weeks passed and summer aggressively elbowed spring out of the way and took centre stage. Lucy loved it. She enjoyed the heat enveloping her like a cozy comforter. Ryan never did. He’d pout, with his arms crossed and his bottom lip protruding if the AC wasn’t on by the time he got home from work. Good riddance to that nonsense.
The summer temperatures persuaded her to start on her garden. She wanted to plant tulips and sleep with the window open so their gentle perfume would invade her home. She wanted to get it before the growing baby made it more difficult.
Wearing shorts and an old T-shirt with a Care Bear on it, she gathered her tools and the bulbs and walked to the garden under her window drinking in the sun along the way. She dropped the bulbs. They bounced by her feet. She seen something in the dirt. Right under her window were deep impressions in the soil. They were footprints with the night’s rain shiny in the heels.
A chill crept along her skin, stealing the warmth of the day from her. Lucy peered around, expecting Ryan to be waiting for her because isn’t that the way it always worked out? In a movie, this would be the part where the killer would appear behind her, breath of death caressing the back of her neck. She ran into the house and called the police.
The officer’s heavy tread approached her door. She frowned at his appearance. He looked young, inexperience apparent in his smiling face. Didn’t cops usually scowl? If not scowling, didn’t they usually wear indifferent expressions? Showing the world they had seen it all and nothing you said could possibly surprise them.
At the same time as the officer moved to knock, she yanked open the door, disapproving eyebrows arching. His fisted hand dropped to his side. He smiled, dimples like furrows in his cheeks, and when Lucy’s frown deepened in response, his grin faltered and then disappeared.
“Yes. I did. Two hours ago,” she said.
“I’m sorry. We’re really busy out there and two guys called in sick and-”
“I don’t need to know the details. Follow me.”
Lucy turned satisfied at the reddening of the officer’s face and led him to the garden. “There. See? He was standing right there. Right outside my bedroom.”
The officer pushed his hat back on his head, staring at the bootprints. Concern cut grooves into his features. He looked older out here under the sun. Lucy could see faint lines by his eyes and smile creases in his cheeks.
“When was the last time you were out here?”
“When was the last time you’d seen your garden minus the bootprints?”
“Oh. I don’t know really.” Lucy knew it a good question but wasn’t ready to give up her quick judgement of the officer.
“Well, it rained the night before, I think. So it would have been after that. You mind if I get an officer out here to measure and take photos of the boot prints?”
“Well, no. I’d really appreciate that.” The officer surprised her. He was professional and she offered a tight smile in apology and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Officer Gibbons. Lucy is it?”
He walked away from her and walking carefully, examined the ground and the fence surrounding her yard. “That’s an eight foot fence, right? Is the gate locked?”
“So, this guy had to hop it and then creep up to your window. Do you have any idea who this could be?”
“Ryan. My ex-boyfriend.”
His eyes hardened. He said, “Do you know where he is?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Can we go inside? I’ll get the photo officer out here and you can tell me as much as you can about this Ryan.”
They sat at the table and she told Officer Gibbons all she knew about a jerk-bag named Ryan.
Officer Gibbons left after reminding Lucy to lock her doors and windows and to keep a phone near at all times. He’d wanted her to stay with family or a friend but she refused. She locked the door behind the officer and sat on the couch, hand going to her belly. The stress of the day had sapped her energy.
A knock at the door scared a squeal from her.
She peeped through the window and then opened the door. Officer Gibbons stood on the porch. He said, “I just ran Ryan through our system. I found some things I think you should know about.”
“Can I come in?”
They gathered in the living room, his portable radio squawking unintelligible nonsense from his shoulder while he told her about a guy she thought she knew.
The Ryan before Lucy was addicted to crystal meth. Even dabbled in selling it to support his habit. He was suspected of running women and selling them for drugs or money. He was heavy handed with people. Had broken a few jaws in his time. Then one of the girls he was suspected of prostituting ended up dead. Strangled with a belt. He was a suspect of course, but there was no evidence, no witnesses, nothing to tie him to it. It was also possible one of the johns killed her. After the girls death,
Ryan disappeared. Off the radar. Word was he’d quit crystal meth, became a law abiding citizen.
Lucy was stunned. How was it possible she knew nothing of this? How could he hide that well from her? But did he really hide that well? A man tried to pick her up once, in the local pub. Ryan told the guy to beat it. The man acted as though Ryan wasn’t even there. Ryan punched the man in the throat, pulled him out of the bar by his hair and tossed him to the ground. Lucy followed him out, terrified yet a little excited. No one had ever fought for her before. Then Ryan started to kick the man. In the ribs, shoulders, arms, legs and with one swift kick the man’s nose exploded, like stomping on a ketchup package. Lucy screamed at Ryan to stop. Ryan looked back at her and she cringed from his gaze. His eyes burned with rage. She could have roasted a hot dog on his gaze. Looking back, it seemed she ignored many signs. He’d made more than one misogynistic comment in the past and when she’d call him on it, he’d brush it off, say he was kidding and she needed to lighten up. In light of this new knowledge, she realized he hadn’t been kidding. Ryan was bad news. Should she really be this surprised? Didn’t she always seem to pick the guys who were trouble? The dangerous ones, like she were still some teenager thrilled by the excitement they represented?
“Have long have you known him?” Officer Gibbons asked.
“Two years? Maybe more.”
Officer Gibbons looked down into his notebook, nodding, “Yeah. That seems right. He went off the radar a little over four years ago. You know where he works?”
“He worked as an assistant manager at the Best Buy. The one downtown. If he’s still there. I really don’t know. We haven’t talked since he left, except for that one time.”
“Is there family nearby? A friend you could stay with?”
“No. And even if there was, he’s not running me out of my home.”
“We can’t put a guard on you. You should consider getting out of here. Not forever. Just for a bit.”
“Can’t you arrest him?”
Officer Gibbons shook his head, “No. No evidence. No one saw him here. I don’t have enough here to pursue criminal harassment charges. I’ll swing by as much as I can, but I don’t work all the time.”
“Okay. I’ll keep the doors locked and have a phone with me.”
“Right. But it might also be a good idea to change the locks. He may have made a copy of the key.”
“Damnit! How did I get knocked up by such an a-hole!”
Officer Gibbons stood and said, “Assholes can be charming sometimes.”
She locked the door and worried at the darkening sky. Night was coming and thinking of the bootprints, she decided to sleep on the couch with a knife close to hand.
The next day Lucy inspected the garden and walked around the rest of the house. No new footprints were found. She peered at the fence expecting to see eyes tracking her through the slats. She went in the house and dressed for the garden. Those tulips wouldn’t plant themselves.
Lucy broke up the soil, bringing up the dark rich earth. The smell always reminded her of worms after a storm. She stabbed at hard packed earth, stubbornly refusing to yield to her hand-held spade. Sweat trickled from her forehead onto the dirt. She brought the spade down, it skipped off a rock and it slid into the web of her hand between her thumb and her index finger, parting the skin and creating a red, gaping mouth. She yelped and said, “Fuck me!” She cradled her hand to her stomach, the blood creating a widening circle on the cotton front of her shirt. Goddamn that hurt. This is gonna need stitches. She’d have to take the stupid bus to the clinic. She cursed Ryan again for taking the car. Pain hissed through gritted teeth. Lucy stood, watching her blood spill into the hole.
Something moved in the hole. Swimming to the surface reminding her of a seal skimming over water only the skin shone pink and smooth, like a scar. A mouth opened, a dark void drinking in the blood from her hand. It was the size of a ground hog and moved under the dirt with ease. It popped out of the dirt near her knees. Lucy screamed and jumped back. It keened in response, a sound making Lucy think she had frightened it. Dirt exploded as it dug underneath the surface. Lucy’s mouth hung open in slack-jawed amazement, the pain in her hand throbbing dully in the background of her shock. What the hell was that? Was that even real? She pushed at the dirt with the toe of her boot, incredulity turning her lips down. Thinking about it, she went into the kitchen and washed out the cut. She bit her lower lip from the sharp sting of the water. Deep in thought, she watched the blood swirl down the drain. She examined her wound and shook her head. She’d need stitches.
She wrapped a towel tight around her hand and, with great care, removed her blood sodden shirt and put on a fresh one. She plucked the keys from her pocket, slung her purse over her shoulder and walked from the house to the bus stop. Always at the back of her mind, while contemplating her route to the clinic, was the vision of the open mouth parting the dirt and slurping her blood. What type of animal was it? She walked the two blocks to the bus stop and glanced down the street, impatient for the bus to arrive. Stupid Ryan stealing her stupid car. A police car rolled to a stop beside her.
She leaned down to see in the window. It was Officer Gibbons.
“You alright?” His eyes flicked to her towel wrapped hand, “What happened?”
“Gardening. Cut myself.”
“It’s bleeding through the towel there.”
The towel, a thick beige one, was sodden and dark red, almost black.
“Shit-balls! Sorry. I always seem to be swearing around you.”
“Usually with good reason. You going to the clinic?”
“Yeah. If the bus ever shows up.”
“Come on. Hop in. I’ll give you a lift.”
The road behind the officer’s car was devoid of buses.
“Okay. Thanks.” She hopped in the car, careful with her hand as she closed the door.
He drove off, the radio voices as indecipherable as ever.
She glanced at the computer, noting the keyboard and touchscreen.
“Am I in there?”
He nodded and said, “Of course. Everybody is.” He didn’t smile as he said it.
She appraised his serious expression as he watched the road ahead.
“You’re fucking with me.”
His cheek creased in profile, “Maybe a little. But yeah, you’re in there. I put the report on.” Nodding at her hand, “That’s gonna need stitches.”
“I know it.”
She said, “Have you found Ryan yet? To talk to him?”
“Nope. He quit Best Buy. Our drug guys have been told to keep an eye out.”
Her pulse bounced the vein in her neck.
He said, “I’ll find him,” and the simple declaration made her feel a little better.
A new thought pushed Ryan aside, “Have you been keeping an eye on me?”
He flushed, “Well yeah. When I’m working. It is my job, you know.”
Lucy was flattered and wondered if his interest was more than professional. Still, she could never see herself dating a cop. Her parents, dope smoking hippies, instilled in her a mistrust of authority. And when she wasn’t pregnant, she had been know to indulge in the odd marihuana joint herself. He was cute though, and a nice guy. She should try dating a nice guy for once.
“Here we are.”
Lucy glanced up to see the clinic doors out her window and was disappointed at the short ride. What was she thinking? She was pregnant. He wouldn’t want her and besides, he was just doing his job.
“Oh. Thanks again.”
She opened the door and got out, her hand throbbing in time with her heart.
“My name’s Jeff, by the way.”
His face shone red, “My first name. It’s Jeff.”
Her eyes twinkled, “Nice to meet you Jeff,” and closed the door knowing that it wasn’t such a bad day after all, despite her cut. It allowed a brief moment to forget the thing in the ground. If it was even real.
After an interminable wait at the clinic and ensuring a gnome-like man holding a very big needle that yes, she was up to date on her tetanus shot, she received three stitches and given Tylenol. She left the clinic, the sun an orange glob sitting fat on the horizon, expecting, maybe even hoping, Jeff would be there. No police car waited for her. She caught the bus home and sighing as she sank into the couch thought she could really go for a beer. She patted her belly and reached for the remote. A rose and a stuffed teddy bear sat beside it.
She bolted upright, her hair trying to pull free of her body as fear pushed acid in her veins. She knew Ryan did it. Snuck into her house and left it here for her. Was Ryan still here? Hiding in a closet, his sweating face twitching and a smile jerking his lips? What would he do with her, the woman who spurned him, the woman who would do anything to keep him away from her and the growing life in her belly. She crept to the kitchen, her head on a swivel as her shaking hands picked up a knife. It gleamed with violence.
She called 911 and waited with her back to a corner, jumping with every settling noise the house made.
Two officers showed up in TV-like fashion. Red and blue lights swirled into her window and dancing on the walls as sirens wailed with authority. They walked into the house, grim-faced, flashlights in one hand and their other hovering over the butt of the pistol. They searched the house, looking in cupboards no one could possibly fit in. The female officer noticed Lucy’s curious frown and she explained, “You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve found people hiding in,” as she searched. They checked all windows and doors and Lucy felt a little sick when the male officer, heavy and out of breath, walked around the garden remembering the thing she’d seen in the dirt. It couldn’t have been real though. Pain induced hallucination.
Officer Graham, the female officer, said, “The house is clear. None of the locks have been tampered with and the windows are fine. Did this guy, Ryan is it?” Lucy nodded. “Did Ryan have a key?”
“I thought he returned it.”
“He must have made a copy. You should really get the locks changed.”
“I know. Officer Gibbons told me to do it. I just haven’t done it yet.”
“I can call someone out here to do it for you. It’ll cost extra because it’s after hours, but it’d be worth it.”
“I uh, well, okay.”
“I’ll stick around until it’s done. But really, the best thing to do would be to go somewhere else.”
Her eyes wet pools, Lucy shrugged and said, “I have nowhere else to go.”
It was hours before the locksmith arrived. Lucy spent the time in front of the TV with Officer Graham, worrying at her nails. Officer Graham took the rose and teddy bear for evidence and Lucy was grateful for it. She didn’t want those things in the house.
The locksmith, a skinny man with a receding hairline and cigarette smoke as a cologne, changed the locks and handed her the keys and left with a nod. Officer Graham left shortly after, telling Lucy once again to lock the door behind her and Lucy reassuring her that she would. She closed the door and locked it behind the Officer. She leaned against the door, listening to the empty house. Her eyes burned in her sockets, exhaustion tingled in her limbs only her brain kept buzzing. This Ryan, this stranger whom she’d known for two years, was dangerous. Had he killed the young lady with a belt? Tightened it around the throat until the girl’s eyes bulged? The horror she must have felt in those moments. Lucy kept the light on and with a butcher knife under her pillow, did her best to get comfortable on the couch. The TV’s nonsense became static. She yawned. Ryan had boarded the crazy train or, scarier thought, maybe he’d never left it. It hurt her to realize how little she knew of the man she had let into her home and into her bed. She closed her eyes, her body buzzing with exhaustion and while thinking of Ryan standing outside her window, leering down at her, she fell asleep.
She dreamed. Lying on a bed, bright hospital lights burning her eyes her legs and hips in the I’m-about-to give-birth position. Busy people moved around her, covered in hospital couture, machines beeped, liquids dripped and even though she was in labour, she felt no pain. A man towered over her, his head blocking out the light, obscuring his face with shadow. He held a wood saw in his hands. Rusty and jagged, covered in blood with bits of flesh jiggling in the teeth.
He leaned closer, pulled down the mask and Ryan grinned at her. His eyes bulged as his cheeks stretched, impossibly wide and his teeth, his teeth were sharp and pointed, cutting into his lips, blood dribbling down his chin.
“Don’t worry Lucy! Daddy’s here!”
She screamed. She struggled against the leather straps holding her arms and legs to the bed. Her heart pounded against her ribs as she pulled against her bonds and bucked her waist, anything to get away from that smile.
Ryan ripped the hospital gown off her. Her belly bulged and shone under the bright lights. The dirty saw dipped towards her stomach.
Ryan said through blood stained teeth, “You shouldn’t have tried to keep me from the baby, Lucy. Now, I’m just gonna have to take him!”
He ripped the saw against her stomach and she screamed. The strength of her scream brushed Ryan and the terrible room aside and when Lucy’s yell died in her throat, she found herself being comforted. It felt like home, like the peace of being held by her mother as a child. Peace smoothed her brow and Lucy snuggled into the warmth. Lucy’s brain drifted in peace and errant thoughts attempted to disturb it. Who was this person? Why were they so warm? Did she hear it purring? Didn’t matter, it was only a dream and she was safe, she was loved and the rest of the night was free from nightmares. When the alarm rang shrill and insistent, she awoke buzzing with energy. That was the best sleep she’d had in weeks. Her injured hand itched. The cut had leaked in the night, leaving a red stain on her blanket. Strange. She saw her bandage on the coffee table, folded neatly with the bloody side up. Had she taken it off in the night?
Lucy’s belly grew and the people at work noticed and said the obligatory congratulations. Weeks passed without news of Ryan. Changing the locks seemed to have stopped him from popping in uninvited and leaving presents. Everyday she took her tea outside, walking around the house. Jeff Gibbons was a constant presence. Lucy saw him at least four times a week. He always smiled and waved at her, making sure she noticed he was there. Sometimes he stopped his cruiser and took her up on her offer of coffee. Certain his interest in her was more than professional, she didn’t know how to deal with it. She was going to have a baby.
Maybe he had the female in distress syndrome. Only, with Ryan gone, she wasn’t in distress. She found herself looking forward to this baby.
She spent her time browsing through catalogues for cribs, blankets, clothes, baby monitors, strollers, car seats, bottles, and every other item the magazines said a baby must have. People at work offered her their old stuff and some things she accepted. Well she accepted all of it but donated the stuff she didn’t want or looked a little too used. She read books on parenting and baby care and fretted at the notion of breastfeeding her baby. Almost everyone agreed breast milk was best for the baby. She found pictures of breasts on the internet. Pictures of breastfeeding gone bad. Cracked, dry nipples, red as the world’s worst sunburn. Lucy’s hand would land protectively on her breast whenever she thought of those pictures. All that talk about how it could be tricky getting the infant to latch on made her boobs feel utilitarian. Latch on? Lucy was unconvinced. Why go through all the self-torture? Having a baby, alone, was hard enough without having to worry about latching on. Ugh! With all those thoughts roaming around, she couldn’t gather the energy to chase after Jeff. She had too much on her mind and it was exhausting just thinking about hitting on him. Besides, before she’d been afraid of doing this alone but those fears had receded with time.
Her pregnancy served as a great diversion from the threat of Ryan. With time and distance, she thought of him less and less. Most nights, she slept well. Her hand concerned her. The stitches fell out weeks ago and though the ends of the wound healed together a small hole wouldn’t close and it leaked in the night. She considered speaking to her doctor during one of her scheduled check ups, but when she got there, she either forgot or the matter lost importance to her. Her blood work came back fine. They’d tell her if she was anemic wouldn’t they? Since she appeared in good health and slept well, she didn’t let it worry her.
Lucy rose on a Saturday morning and made some breakfast while she sipped on a glass of orange juice. A strange dream last night, not scary, more soothing than anything. She was pinned to the bed, immobilized but not tied down. Something warm rested on her abdomen. She couldn’t see it, but she could feel the weight. Its purring soothed her and she entered oblivion. Her injured hand lay between it and her stomach. Her hand tingled. Strange how the dream made her think of the garden.
She never did get around to planting the tulips and then thought of the thing in the ground. How could she forget about such a thing? Her lips downturned and a nasty thought crept in, you didn’t think about it because it was never there. It couldn’t have been. Only she never considered herself imaginative and to dream up that mouth, seeming to form out of the skin to slurp her blood wasn’t like her at all. She was sure some shrink would have a theory. Probably something to do with Ryan and feelings of abandonment or the stress of seeing the bootprints. Lucy didn’t believe in such crap. She could find out if the thing she saw was real easy enough. All she had to do was go out and look. Dig around enough and if it was there, she’d find it. Her stomach quivered at the thought. Did she want to know? If it was real, Lucy knew it liked blood. It drank hers up real quick.
As Lucy raised the orange juice to her lips, the doorbell rang. Startled, she jerked, and orange juice spattered up her nose and on her shirt. Maybe she didn’t stop thinking about Ryan if a doorbell could get her to jump like that. She noticed the clock read noon. How did it get so late? She must have slept in. It took her a moment to recognize Jeff Gibbons in his civilian clothes on the porch through the window. He looked good. Lucy, feeling dumpy in her pyjamas, panicked because she didn’t want to answer the door looking like a slob, but she wouldn’t have time to change into anything before he’d wander away, thinking she wasn’t home. Damnit! She dashed to the hallway mirror, almost cried at the sight of her wispy hair, did the best she could to flatten it down, closed her bathrobe over her orange juice stain, opened the door, out of breath, and although her belly was marginal, she thought she must resemble a fat pregnant cow.
Jeff grinned, “Hey Lucy. How are you?”
“I’m good. Having a lazy Saturday.”
His smile faltered and his face reddened. He said, “Look. I’ve noticed, you know, during my shifts, that you go grocery shopping on Saturdays. I, uh, also know you don’t have a car, so I thought, if it’s okay, cause I have to do my grocery shopping too, if we uh, go together. That way, you get a ride and I get some company.”
Her mouth opened, but her stunned brain couldn’t form a response. Was he like, asking her out? Or did he just feel sorry for her and this was a pity thing? If it was a pity thing, why was he so red and nervous? No, thought Lucy, this a way to ask her out without actually having to ask her out. The start-off-as-friends trick.Who cares? It was a free ride wasn’t it? And if she found out she liked him and he really liked her then all the better.
She said, “Sure. That sounds really great. I, uh, should have a shower and stuff first.”
“Uh yeah, okay. I can run and get us some coffees while you do all that. Decaf, right?”
“Right. Milk and sugar too, please.”
He pointed his finger at her, like a gun and said, “You got it!” Then he pulled his hand back, embarrassed about the gun finger, hoping she didn’t notice. She did but was polite enough to pretend she didn’t. They’d get along fine, she thought, as she closed the door.
They rode to the grocery store, excited nervousness electric between them. She burned her lip on the first sip of coffee she took and so she held the cup in her lap letting it cool while turning it in her hands. Jeff drained his as though it were an iced coffee. She noticed his hands on the steering wheel. They were big, the knuckles like marbles, making the steering wheel appear small. She liked his hands. Safe hands, ones to protect her.
The parking lot was crowded. Driving down the parking lanes, scouting out an empty spot, zipping towards a spot that just opened then swearing under his breath as a little Smart car stole it. Jeff snagged a spot near the front entrance and he smiled at her, pleased with himself. She flashed her teeth in return.
They walked into the store, each pushing separate carts beside each other, taking up the entire aisle. Jeff noticed Lucy still carrying her coffee and said, “You didn’t like it? Did I get it wrong?”
“No. It was too hot. Still is. I burnt my lip. Hey, I was gonna ask you. Do cops get free coffee? I heard they do.”
“Not always, but yeah, most of the time. Not food though. If we want any food, we have to pay for.”
“Yeah. Sounds really unfair.”
He squinted at her, “Now you’re fucking with me.”
She held her thumb and forefinger close together, “A little bit.”
Lucy realized how much you could learn about a person from grocery shopping. Rick picked up lots of vegetables, fruit, lean meat, but only one loaf of fresh bread. She figured he was watching his carb intake. Most of the items he choose were non-fat, low calorie stuff, and Lucy couldn’t help but think, boring! Then, she noticed in the bottom of his cart the corner of a package of butter tarts under some lean ground beef. She had to tease him, “Butter tarts huh?”
He moved the ground beef over it some more, “Yeah. I like them and I get tired of eating lettuce all the time, you know?”
“I do know. That’s why I avoid salad as much as I can.”
Lucy enjoyed spending time with Jeff. The awkward ‘getting to know you moments’ weren’t uncomfortable. He dropped her at home and helped her unload her groceries. They exchanged numbers, hands touching, lingering and Lucy glowed under her skin. She should cook him a nice dinner or maybe he could cook one for her. How to get him to invite me out? She put on the kettle, wondering on the matter. The ringing phone interrupted her gentle thoughts.
“Who was that? What were you doing with him?” Ryan said, voice thick, shaking.
Lucy white knuckled the phone. A shiver, starting at the back of her skull, shook its way through her. She fast walked to the door, locked it, and peeped out of the curtains.
“You watching me?”
“Of course I am! You’re carrying my baby! I’ve got to make sure you’re safe!”
“Where are you?”
“Close. I’m always close.”
“You’re scaring me Ryan. What’s going on with you? This is not like you at all.”
“I wanted to come back! I told you I made a mistake! I can make it up to you if you just give me a chance! I deserve a chance!”
“No more chances Ryan. I don’t want to be with you. Not anymore.” Shaking hand, she hung up the phone. He sounded so desperate. Jittery, on the edge. She should call Jeff.
“Are you alright?” Jeff asked. After Lucy’s frantic phone call, he’d sped to her house.
“Yeah. Just a little nervous. He said he was close by. He’s watching me. He sounded so crazy!”
“I called our guys. They’ll be searching the area. I don’t know where he could be hiding. People are keeping a look out for his car.”
“My car. It’s my car too, goddamnit!”
He put a hand on her shoulder, a gentle touch, and she walked into his arms, unable to hide the tremble of fear and rage. He held her and she rested her head on his chest. It felt good to be held.
He said, “You really should consider leaving here for a bit. He doesn’t seem to be going away. Who knows what he might do?”
The idea appealed to her and it also made her furious. She had a stubborn streak and anger only strengthened it. She wouldn’t be run from her house. It was hers and fuck Ryan for trying to take it from her.
“I can’t,” she said, “I know I should. But I won’t let the stupid meat-pipe take this place from me. I just won’t.”
“Okay.” A pause, then, “Did you just say meat-pipe?”
“Did I? I guess I did. It’s just another word for dick.”
He laughed, “I figured that. Where do you come up with these words?”
She shrugged into his chest, “I don’t know. Read ‘em somewhere I guess.”
She moved back and he released her. He moved a stray strand of hair from her eyes. This is one of those movie kissing moments and Lucy was ready for it.
“You should get an alarm installed. It’s good security and, as an added bonus, it will reduce the cost of your house insurance.”
The moment passed. Lucy was disappointed. Maybe he didn’t like her after all. She offered a weak nod, “Yeah. I’ll look into that.”
“Say, I know it’s not the best time to ask, but uh, would you like to go out for dinner sometime?”
Did he do this shit on purpose? Confusing the crap out of her?
“Yes. I’d like that.”
“Great. That’s awesome. Um, how’s Saturday night?”
“Let me check my calendar. Just kidding. Saturday night sounds fine.”
“Great. I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yeah, I get home from work at-”
He kissed her, interrupting her, and it surprised her in a nice way. She kissed him back and she felt his hands on her waist, just resting there, but electric all the same. He broke off with reluctance.
“The uniform guys will be in the area all night. If you need anything, call me, anytime, okay?”
“Can I call you tomorrow?”
“Yes. Like I was saying, I get home from work at six. Call me anytime after that.”
“Great. I will.”
She locked the door after him. What the hell she was doing, starting to date one man while pregnant with someone else’s child? Fuck it. Jeff was a good kisser.
Her eyes opened onto a dark room. Disoriented, it took her a moment to recognize the room as her own. Her crotch felt hot, as though she’d wet the bed. She turned on the bedside light, expecting a wet blanket, and saw it sitting on her abdomen. Pink, regarding her with large black eyes, a proboscis protruding from a slit in its mouth, embedded in the injured hand, drawing her blood into itself, the skin turning a bit red with every drink, and all the while Lucy thinking she was dreaming, how this couldn’t be real and why won’t she wake up, as it watched her. Lucy opened her mouth with the promise of a scream when she was inundated with its emotion. It felt fear of her. Fear of being rejected, fear of being alone because it had been alone for such a long time, living in the ground, unable to find any of its own kind. Those dark eyes, reflecting the light but capturing her in their depths. It communicated with her and Lucy’s fear of it abated with the slowing of her heart. She pulled back the hand it’d been drinking from, the proboscis sliding from the wound, leaving a small hole. This was why she awoke in the morning with spots of blood on her sheets. This was why the hole in her hand never closed. She reached out to it and it arched up to meet her hand, the eyes closing and a purr rumbling from it. Her fingers touched it and she marvelled at how soft it was, seemingly without hair. It’s heat was like a candle in her palm. With touch, it projected contentment, gratefulness, and love. It wasn’t like the love you got from another person. This was tangible and not something you hoped was reciprocal. There was no doubt. This thing loved her and although it had been visiting her secretly in the night, it sought her love in return. A deep peace settled on her, better than any blanket. It would never harm her, it only wanted to be with her. A flare of panic shot through her. What if it was harming her? Drinking her blood couldn’t be good for her. And why wasn’t she ever tired? Shouldn’t she be tired? Instead, she awoke feeling fully charged and energetic. Was it doing something to her? What if it was harming her child? Wouldn’t something show up on her blood work? She gave the doctor enough of her blood, something should have come back by now. She would have to wait and see. One thing was certain. It wouldn’t be drinking her blood anymore.
She petted its head, the purring grew louder and it twisted in ecstasy under her hand.
“No more drinking my blood, okay? I’ll get you some ground beef or something. Maybe I can get cow’s blood from a butcher. Understand though? No more drinking my blood.” It rumbled under her hand and although it didn’t respond to her, she was certain it understood her. She felt its happiness. It was so happy it wouldn’t have to be alone anymore. Neither would Lucy. She fell back asleep, a background purring soothing her.
She patted the top of the bed, expecting to feel a lump under the covers. There was none. She crinkled her nose. Where did it go?
Lucy searched her house. She checked under the bed, in the closet, in her drawers and every place a pink skin pillow could fit. Was it a dream after all? She never knew such an animal existed. It was getting late and she had to get ready for work. Rushing around, putting her face on she remembered the ground beef in the freezer. She left it on the window sill so the sun could thaw it and it would drain into the bowl she put under it.
She browsed the internet at work and the only animal even close to matching what she saw was a naked mole rat but only the look of the skin was similar. The shape of it, well, she’d never seen anything like. Remembering how it moved to meet her hand, she thought of an amoeba, only this one wouldn’t fit under a microscope. Its skin felt soft, light, like touching cotton candy. She entered a search string for blood drinking animals and though she was disgusted by what she found. She found nothing resembling the thing in her garden.
Lucy stopped at a butcher shop on the way home. Turns out, she could buy cow’s blood although the request elicited an eyebrow raise from the butcher. She was grateful he didn’t ask why. She wouldn’t have had an answer for him.
By the time she got home it was almost seven. Her message light blinked at her. It was Jeff. She called him back and they bantered in a witty and flirty way. They solidified plans for Saturday night. He was going to cook for her! A real renaissance man! She ended the call by promising him she would get an alarm installed.
She spent the rest of the evening looking for the thing. Lucy traipsed around in the garden, nudging the dirt around, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. She wanted to call to it, but what should she say? Hey…thing? Shaking her head with a rueful twist to her lips, she made herself garden vegetable rice and lemon water. She would have preferred wine, but hey, not causing fetal alcohol syndrome was on her to do list. Before bed, she considered on how best to leave out her offering. She assumed it preferred warm blood and poured the blood from the butcher into a microwavable bowl. She added the blood from the thawed ground beef and zapped it, cringing her nose at the metallic scent. She placed the bowl on the floor near her bed. The smell nauseated her. Lucy lit a scented candle. She felt wired and exhausted. Would it show? Was it even real? She looked out her window. How did it even get in here?
Thinking she’d never get to sleep, like a kid on Christmas night waiting for Santa to show, she blinked and fatigue sucked her under.
Heat on her chest, sweat ran into her mouth. Lucy blinked open sandpaper eyes to see it on her chest, outlined by candlelight. Liquid eyes stared into Lucy. She could feel how it loved her. The bonding of blood? Lucy didn’t know, couldn’t fathom it and had no wish to. She felt the baby inside of her move as though it felt the love too. Lucy stretched out a hand and its skin rose to meet it. The purring massaged her chest, the black eyes squeezed into slits. Lucy, languid and comforted, noticed the empty blood bowl.
“It’s okay to be here in the morning. You don’t have to hide from me anymore.”
It rubbed its head into her palm. She would have to hide it from others to keep it safe. A fierce protectiveness rose up in her chest. Tears dampened her eyes at the thought of anyone harming her friend. She wouldn’t let it happen.
Until she slept, Lucy stroked it into the night, her hand falling in metronomic regularity. It was a balm on her heart.
She didn’t look for it when she woke. She went to work, staring at her screen, the words as indecipherable as Latin, thinking about her new friend and her date the next day. A tingle of excitement and a niggling worry of fear. She couldn’t tell Jeff about it. He’d think she was crazy and even though she’d petted it until she fell asleep, a part of her had doubts. Crazy people didn’t know they were going crazy did they?
She couldn’t remember doing any work that day. It passed in a jumble of thoughts leaving no indelible mark on her memory. She stopped at the butcher’s again and she could see the question almost passing from the butcher’s mouth but he restrained himself with a tightening of the lips. She’d need to find a new butcher.
Riding the bus home, the stale breath of an alcoholic exuding from a snoring mouth, Lucy really wanted her car back. Idiot Ryan. Why did he have to suck so bad? She arrived home and rushed inside to answer the ringing phone.
“Hey. How was work?”
It was Jeff. Her cheek dimpled. “Meh.”
“Yeah. Meh. I can’t remember a thing I did.”
“Sounds like you need a change. A job you like.”
“I have a lot on my mind. A job isn’t one of them.”
“Still on for tomorrow? No new plans?”
“Um, I was thinking of going to a swinger’s party, but a promise is a promise, I guess.”
“A swinger’s party? Where do you come up with this stuff?”
“Jeez. Swingers on the Discovery channel? I should order it from my cable company. Have you heard from Ryan at all lately?”
“No. Not since the last time. Maybe the walking goat sack finally got the hint and took off.”
“You do have a colourful way with words,” he chuckled, “I’ll pick you up at eight?”
Lucy placed the phone down. A hand clamped onto her wrist, hot breath seared her neck, “I’m not going anywhere, Lucy. Neither are you.”
She turned to face Ryan, pulling her wrist back. A fist swung towards her. She just had time to close her eyes before it hit her on the eyebrow. She felt the skin split. Blood spilled down her face.
“Shut up!” Fingers dug into her throat, Ryan’s face screwed up in rage. She pulled at his fingers, her neck on fire, her lungs desperate for air, his face wavering in front of her, spots crowding the peripheral, darkness closing in and then he let her go, staring at his hands.
“Lucy. Babe. I’m sorry. Damnit! Why’d you have to make me so angry?”
She collapsed to the floor, the scrape of oxygen down her throat painful and pleasurable at the same time. She held a palm on her throbbing cut, watching Ryan’s feet pace in front of her. She’d never been afraid of him during their relationship. She thought he was lazy, maybe a bit of a mean streak in him but not once did she fear him. Now, as his feet flashed by in front of her, the ghost of his fingers imprinted on her throat, the red of her blood droplets hitting the floor, she was terrified of him. She thought of Jeff and a tremor palsied her shoulders. He just called. She just spoke to him. He wouldn’t be calling back to check on her. She was alone.
His hand curled into her hair, “C’mon. I’ve got your room all ready for you.”
He dragged her into the bedroom. It didn’t resemble the room she left this morning. The windows had been painted black and the air was heavy with paint fumes. Handcuffs fed through large eyebolt stuck out of the floor near the mattress. She didn’t know what he did with the bed frame. Ryan let go of her hair, leaving her scalp tingling from the strained roots.
He gestured to the cuffs, “Put those on.”
She hesitated, stunned by everything, taking forever to process simple words and thoughts.
“Don’t fuck with me Lucy! Put. The. Cuffs. On.”
Lucy kneeled on the mattress. Picking up the cuffs, she put them on each wrist. She knew not to put them on too tight.
Ryan raised his arms, unbrushed teeth flashing yellow, “Well? What do you think? It took me all day to do this. This way, you’ll be nice and safe.”
“I feel real safe, Ryan.” Her throat hurt to speak. Her words were a croak.
“Always a smart mouth.” He darted towards her, crouching. She recoiled. He inspected the cuffs and shook his head, “This won’t do. Too loose.” Ryan squeezed the cuffs so they bit into her wrists, “Much better.”
He jumped up, “We’re all alone now, just like we should be Lucy.” He pointed at the windows, “No one can see in,” and kicking her chain, said, “and no one can get out.”
Ryan was a sweaty mess. His greasy hair clumped on his head, a few days’ beard darkened his face and his skin tight over his skull. He twitched with energy, his bones popping in jerky movements and his eyes alight with manic fire. A lamp on the floor made his shadow loom large on the wall as he paced, gazing with pride at what he’d done to the room. And to Lucy.
“How’d you get in here Ryan? I changed the locks.”
He waved his finger in front of her, “I know. You naughty girl. You underestimated me.”
“You picked my lock?”
“No silly. I broke the back window, unlocked the door and here I am. You know, you really should get an alarm. You can save on house insurance.”
Lucy peered at him with one eye, the other swollen and filled with blood and thought, once again, what a goddamn asshole Ryan was.
He put a bucket in the room and placed toilet paper beside it when she complained about having to use the washroom.
“Look at me,” he said, holding a glass pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other, “do I look like I’m kidding?”
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but crystal meth smoke is terrible for a baby. You should fuck off outside if you’re gonna do that junk.”
He wrinkled his brow, “Tell you what. I’ll blow the smoke out a window.”
“Genius. That’s what I always liked about you Ryan.”
“Goddamnit Lucy! Why you always gotta bring me down huh?”
“I’m just saying the wind could blow the smoke back in here. Bad enough you have me chained in a room with paint fumes, now you wanna have me suck on meth? Real father-of-the-year material you are.”
He jabbed a finger at her, “Don’t you push me Lucy. Don’t fucking do it.”
After posturing for a minute, he went outside to smoke. A small victory. How easy would he be to manipulate after he smoked up? She didn’t know. Her stomach grumbled at her. She should be eating dinner now, not chained to the floor in her own bedroom. She tugged at the chain. Fucking Ryan! Anger fought with fear. The Ryan she knew was gone. She had a stranger in her home and she was entirely at his mercy. She jumped when the back door slammed shut. Ryan entered, eyes all pupils, jaw bone jumping, and when he saw Lucy, he giggled. The urge to pee grew.
Ryan watched TV, smoked cigarettes outside, ate a can of beans out of the can and avoided Lucy. Even in his drug-induced state he sensed the wrongness of what he’d done and continued to do. Lucy asked him for food but his thoughts could never focus on anything long enough for him to give her anything except a loaf of sliced bread. She asked him for something to drink and he tossed her a water bottle an hour later. He danced shirtless in front of her, singing Pearl Jam songs. He’d stop for a second to pick at the scabs on his arms until they started to bleed and she imagined a build up of dead skin under his red fingernails, scabs stacked on top of each other, a scab-wich.
She peed into the bucket: twice. He hadn’t emptied it. The stench hung in the air, reminding her of what she’d done. She was terrified he’d walk in while she squatted and forced it out when he left for a smoke, hoping he wouldn’t forget anything and come stumbling in, catching her at it, leering at her. He never did.
During the night, Ryan’s behaviour declined in direct proportion to how much drugs he smoked and the growing realization he couldn’t keep her here forever, chained to a floor because her work would miss her and send someone to check on her. He had no idea she had plans with a cop the next night and she wasn’t about to tell him.
Lucy awoke to find Ryan lying on his side, awake, not even an inch away.
“What the fuck?” she said as she moved back, knowing she must have fallen asleep.
Ryan’s eyes swam in rivers of drugged crazy. His breath reeked and little jewels of sweat covered him. His right eye twitched. He reached out to stroke her hair and she said, “What the hell are you doing?”
“What should we name the baby?”
She appraised him, her mouth a white line. He didn’t move.
“There is no ‘we,’ Ryan.”
“I was thinking, Jesse. For a boy or a girl. Jesse’s nice.”
“Hey! Meth-head! There is no we. Now, if you unchain me, and leave, I swear I’ll give you an hour before I call the cops on your sorry ass.”
“I really like Jesse. It’s so, I don’t know, outlaw-ish!”
“Jesus, aren’t you listening at all? There is no goddamn-”
He slapped her face. Her teeth crunched into her tongue and tears welled. He crushed her cheek with one hand and said, “If there is no we, then there is no you. You get it, fucking smart mouth? I’ll sink your pregnant ass, in a lake, in the trunk of the car you love so fucking much! You understanding what’s going on here? I’ll fucking end you!”
Lucy knew she was in trouble and had to move forward with delicacy. He was volatile and fucked up on drugs. Christ, he’d hit her, pulled her by the hair like a goddamn caveman, chained her to the floor and hit her again! He even made her pee in a fucking bucket! A bucket! Before she could think about it, she spat in his face.
“Fuck you, dick-weed! There is no ‘we.’ Never will be a ‘we.’ Wished there never was a ‘we.’ You made me pee into a bucket!” In his shock, she pulled herself free from his grip. She stood, edging away, her chained hands in front of her, and said, “Get lost. Get out of here. No one wants you around. Least of all my baby.”
His dumbfounded expression morphed to rage in an instant. He sprang to his feet as though he had no bones and in one swift movement, pulled a switchblade from his pocket. Drool slid from his lips. He said, “That was a mistake bitch. Real stupid.”
He clicked the button and the blade flicked out. Lucy’s eyes darted around the room. She shook with fear. Looking over her shoulder, she kicked back at the painted over window. It didn’t break.
“Fuck me!” she said, and kicked again. The window shattered.
Ryan moved forward, Lucy screamed, putting her hands up and something fell onto Ryan’s head. It moved over his eyes, flowed downwards, covering his nose. Ryan screamed, dropping the knife. It was her nocturnal friend. It enveloped Ryan’s head and started feeding. Blood splashed, running down Ryan’s face to his chest and coating his hands as he struggled to pry it off. Ryan’s escalated to a high pitched wail, a steady, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! noise. It slid over Ryan’s mouth, silencing him. It slurped up Ryan’s blood and its pink coat turned a dark red. The noises it made from the liquid feeding turned Lucy’s stomach.
It burrowed into Ryan’s brain and he tumbled to the floor, his legs spasming and kicking at the floor, tap-tap-tap. It ate his head, growing out to devour his shoulders. Bones snapped and crunched but it kept feeding and slurping away, getting every last drop of blood. It ate Ryan’s jeans and even his boots. In minutes it was done and it moved bonelessly across the floor towards Lucy who had dropped to her knees without remembering having done it. It curled up to Lucy, winking it’s black eyes at her, mewling at her. Lucy put a hand to it. It purred under her hand. It opened its mouth and spat out something that clattered on the floor. A handcuff key.
Not a drop of blood was left on the floor,where a moment ago, stood Ryan.
A neighbour, heard the breaking glass and the screams and called the police. They arrived in minutes and thanks to the handcuff key, Lucy greeted them at the door. Jeff’s eyes misted at the sight of her bruised face and the marks on her wrists.
He wanted to hug her close but Lucy kept her body bladed against him and so he held back to give her the space she needed. She told him Ryan broke in, hit her a bit, chained her to the floor, intending to keep her to himself until she had the baby and then they could live happily ever after. After hours in his care, she convinced him to let her go. He left her with the handcuff key. She had no idea where he could be.
Jeff could tell she was lying. Even if he wasn’t a cop, he would’ve known. She displayed every sign of deceit he’d ever learned from the thousands of interviews and interrogations he’d done over the years. Something happened here and she didn’t want to tell him. She wanted to keep it from him and Jeff knew people only did that when they were guilty of something. She avoided his eyes and kept him from getting near enough to touch her, to forestall any notions of intimacy. She had on her suspect face.
Lucy knew she was hurting Jeff. She could see it in his eyes. What was she to do? He was a cop. She had to protect her friend, the one who protected her, the one who saved her. What would telling the police do? Probably either have her taken away or, if they actually believed her about the strange creature, take it away and what would they do with it? Poke, prod it and examine it. She couldn’t let that happen. It’s not like she’d be arrested for murder either. Everything fit with her story. The chains, the handcuffs, the eyebolt and the mattress flung on the floor. And they had no body. No blood either. It had consumed everything. For all they knew, Ryan did disappear, ran off before they got there. Just keep your mouth shut and they’ll go away. Even Jeff. It made her sad. She liked him, but hey, what’s a girl to do?
Lucy was right. They suspected but they had no evidence. Even if they could prove she killed Ryan, any defence attorney worth his salt could easily get her off on self-defence. Ryan’s history combined with her injuries and the state of the room would make it a slam dunk certainty. Besides, she never killed him, not really. Her friend did, her little pet monster. It was a member of the family now and would never leave her or be asked to leave. It made her feel safe and for that alone, she was grateful to it.