In his memoir On Writing, author Stephen King presents the reader a situation about a single parent having a day off. The parent then gets whiff of their ex-partner’s preferred scent. This should be impossible because said ex is in jail, and the scent should be nowhere in jail. King then challenges the reader to write a short story about what they think happens next. The following short is the result of what I think happens.
The newscast had already moved on to the next headline, but James’ brain was petrified by the first news story. The newscaster’s voice even though in reality had moved on to some other story, his words about the escape still reverberated in James’ skill. The visuals on the television even became faint as the images in his minds’ eye sharpened.
Charlotte, slashing the guards’ faces with her sharp fingernails, as she had done to him mere months ago. The scars on the side of James face stung if he smiled or grimaced in a particular way. Those nails, digging into cheeks, piercing those security guards’ eyelids, drawing blood… even though it was only his imagination, James could see it with more clarity than the television right now.
The smell of the perfume… one whiff of it had sent him into this fearful trance.
She was that desperate for revenge. James had gotten by with the victory in custody court, but it seemed as if she had won in the cruel game of life. He’d won, but Charlotte still had the upper hand. She had manipulated James for five years by getting inside his head, and now she was back in, after all the time that he had finally spent finally away, in jail.
Something told him to drink the tea in his hand. He looked down at it, the feeling coming back into his palms caressing the cup. The tea was barely lukewarm now. All he felt was the coolness of the cup’s material. But he ought to have a sip of it. Something to get his senses back on track. Bringing the cup to his lips, he drew a taste of the tea. Bitter now, but he forced himself to swallow it, so desperate for some scent other than that haunting perfume.
There. Some miniscule feeling of relief, the scent of the tea, washed over him. He was finally able to sigh, relax his muscles. It was shallow, a short breath, but it was something.
He needed more tea. Getting up, James pushed himself up from the armchair which he had sunk into, and paced to the stove, where the teakettle remained hot.
He stopped, standing in place for a moment, listening around him. To see if his suspicions were correct, or just his imagination.
Halfway over there, however, he stopped. Standing in place, he listened to the empty house for footsteps he was afraid of hearing. Logically, the prison Charlotte was locked deep in was halfway across the state. And the break in was reported at eleven thirty this morning. It was three eighteen now. There was no possible way she could be anywhere near him, or their daughter, or even the town. He was just hallucinating, having some form of emotional trauma flashback. Everything was in all actuality alright, and he was just being paranoid.
James took the kettle off the stove to pour water for more tea. But he smelled it again. This was not his imagination. The perfume of his ex wife, it was in the house. It had to be. This was too real to be him hallucinating. He looked up at the vent above the stovetop, as someone would in a horror movie when Mike Meyers or whatever killer was behind the person they were about to murder. Yet all the emotions of fear were not overwhelming James. There was no sound of baited breath.
And that terrified him.
Forcing himself to turn around, he looked around to find nothing but the empty kitchen. He wanted to go narrow eyed at the house, giving it the evil eye for haunting him. But he was wide eyed as he stared at the wall, the faint scent of the perfume driving him crazy. There was nothing but the shadows of the afternoon casting long along the walls of the house, but it spooked him to indescribable ends.
He had to investigate. He could smell it distinctly now. It was coming from the back of the house. He had to go find where exactly it was coming from. Grabbing a meat hammer from the kitchen drawer, James proceeded cautiously down the hall.
Nellie’s room? Why would it be in there? he thought as he crept through his own house. She wants to draw her daughter in, James realized. Nudging the door with the hammer, James stepped into the bedroom of his eight year old. There was noone waiting for him, no one sitting on the bean bags or the bed, but there was the strong smell of perfume in here. It didn’t reek, but it was enough to set James on the edge.
The closet was empty too, he found as he checked. It was nothing but an ordinary little girl’s room. So why did it smell of psycho ex wife perfume?
The far side of the bed held the answer. A drawstring bag lay on the carpet, the contents poured onto the rug. The meat hammer fell to James side, and his face contorted in confusion and rage. A handful of bottles had been in the bag, Nellie’s mother’s. Toeing the bag to the side, he could see the label he smelled, along with a bunch of others.
She was smart, Charlotte really was. She knew exactly how to manipulate their daughter. I can’t believe, but at the same time, I can, James thought. Using our daughter to haunt me even when the bitch herself cannot. They were probably given as a “gift”, he knew. Charlotte had always liked to surprise their daughter, and it was always with presents that James disapproved of. This was just taking it several steps further.
James stepped to open the window next to the far side of the bed, hoping to air out the room. The cold air of November immediately hit his nostrils, and he could feel the air coming in to mix with the poison perfume contaminated room. James leaned against the windowsill, his shoulders relaxing just a bit as he bowed his head. Anger coursed through him. He was not sure if it was at his manipulative ex wife for figuring out how to get at him, or himself for being so paranoid.
His head flew up at the doorbell. James jumped, a spooked by an external stimuli. The hammer flew, whacking the side of the wall. The drywall cracked, the hammer going straight through. James swore. That would have to get fixed later. Pulling the hammer from the hole, he left the bedroom to see who was at the door.
“I need you to sign, sir,” said the mailman, picking up the clipboard from the large package on the handtruck. “A bit busy in the kitchen?” he asked, eyeing the hammer.
“Just preparing dinner,” James lied. Resting the hammer on the box, he traded for the clipboard and signed the slip. Below the brim of their hat, the mailman’s eyebrows raised, obviously reading between the lines that something was up with the customer. James traded back the clipboard, taking back the hammer. “Is it possible you could get this in the door?” he asked. “I have a bad back.”
The mailman complied, much to James’ relief. He just needed someone else in the house, just for a moment. Placing the hammer on the table as they walked in, he helped the mailman pull the package— a large attachment for the laundry room— into the kitchen.
“Thank you very much,” James said as they slid the package to the floor. He picked up the kettle. “Can I interest you in te—“
James had backed into the package, not realizing where they had put the package. He tripped, sprawling as he fell forward toward the active stove.
The teapot went with him, unleashing its contents onto him, much to the mailman’s horror. James yelled in shock, boiling water hitting his neck. The kettle bounced as it hit the backsplash, ricocheting onto the kitchen counter. James himself had landed though on the burner, his hand catching the still red hot hotplate. He howled in pain, falling to the floor.
“Oh my God!” the mailman cried, viewing the mess in horror. He scooched around the package to pick up the man on the ground. He spun the dial for the hotplate to go off, and hauled the man to his feet.
“Hos- hos-p-pit-it-al!” James literally cried, cringing as his hands burned in agony. He was gasping the hot water scalding his neck. “Please, take me to the hospital!”
It was against the postal guidelines, but this was an emergency. Helping James cool off as best as he could, he put the customer in his mail truck. Route abandoned, he dropped James off at the hospital, explaining to the emergency nurses as best he could what had happened and insisting that he had to get on his route again.
It was not till long after the party was over that James was able to pick up Nellie. It must have been ten at night. The party ended at six. The car rolled up slowly to the driveway of the party house. A light inside flicked on. James sat in the car, trying to fight through the pain to get out of the car.
“Where the hell have you been?” asked the host mother as she opened the door for James daughter. The scent of the perfume came back to him, it coating his daughter in her frilly princess outfit. Pressing the side panel button, James rolled the window down and turned the interior lights. When the mother saw James, scalded neck and bandaged hands, she gasped in horror.
“I’m so sorry for—“ the mother began. “Are you ok?”
“No, I’m far as hell from being goddamn ok,” he came back, not even apologizing for being late. In the rearview mirror, Nellie’s eyes went wide with shock at her father’s language. She covered her ears. With the door shutting, he got the car on the road.
Every bump in the road made him wince in pain. The bandages on his hands and neck dampened the injury, but it was not enough to keep him from total discomfort. He could feel himself blistering up.
“What happened daddy?” Nellie finally said.
“I poured tea on myself,” was all he said. She gasped. “I’m ok though. But pumpkin, there’s something important I need to talk to you about. That I found in your room today.”
“Uh oh,” She said.
“Uh oh is right,” James said to her, his eyes darting from the rearview mirror to the road. Fuck it, he thought, pulling the car to the shoulder of the road. He twisted in his seat to face Nellie. “Did your mommy at one point give you bottles of perfume?” he asked her, trying to abate his anger.
“It was a present, because mommy says I should always have her smell with me,” Nellie said, nervousness in her voice. James listened as patiently as he could, breathing through his nose.
“But why did you wear it today?” asked James.
“Because I wanted to be a princess,” Nellie said. “And princesses smell—“
“Not like that,” James cut her off. “Listen, I know it is your mother and you love her, but you cannot be wearing her perfume. I’ve allowed you to keep other gifts, and pictures of her on the mantle, but we cannot. I repeat. Cannot. Have mommy’s smells in the house.”
“But I want to smell like a princess!” Nellie cried.
“You are eight years old,” said James, the seriousness heavy in his voice. “You do not need to smell of any perfume. And that is that.”
She pouted and she cried, but James ignored her, continuing to drive. He would drive until she was asleep, and then drive some more, until they both forgot about the incident. However, James would continue to look in the mirror back at his sleeping daughter, tears coming to his eyes. Charlotte was a loving, caring person on the outside, but deep down, she was rotten. Corrupt. Manipulative. She knew how to get into people’s heads. She’d gotten into his for too many years, and it had been a damn miracle he’d shaken even some of her influence out of his mind. But looking at the rearview mirror, he could see in his sleeping daughter’s mind that she had her mother’s voice in her heard. God only knew what else Charlotte had put into Nellie’s head.
He was not sure about who was more messed up from the ex marriage as he drove.