Cover image (and inspiration for this story) found at flickr dot com/photos/rowneyphotography/3562679690/. Used with permission.
She Who Has Felt the Woe
Beatrice sat on the veranda, one leg crossed over the other, her chin resting on her left hand as she read. The book was balanced on her lap, and her other hand held it in place.
It was a hot day, the sun strong and pitiless, and even under the shaded porch she could feel the heat. But she'd felt too cooped-up inside her house despite the air conditioning blasting out the stuffiness and humidity.
The book was a silly, impossible romance, the sort of book that shows love to be aggravatingly perfect and easy and achievable by anyone. Beatrice's 32-year single status proved that false.
Her scalp prickled in the uncomfortable heat, and she reached up to scratch it. Her hand brushed against the butterfly barrette perched atop her mass of tangled curls. It had been a holiday gift from a coworker whom she liked to think of as a friend. She was not stylish enough for it to look chic on her; it probably looked childish instead. But she thought it was pretty and wore it anyway.
She turned the page. The novel was very easy reading, and she would be finished before she knew it, but it was absorbing while it lasted, and it helped her forget her own concerns.
An angry shout drew her attention. She looked up from the page, her eyes alighting on a thickset, black-clothed man standing across the street, brandishing a fist at a small, terrified-looking boy. After a few inaudible shouts, the boy ran off down the sidewalk, casting backward glances.
Beatrice was about to shift her gaze back downward when the man's eyes found hers. She quickly returned to her book, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw him hesitate for a moment and then begin to move toward her.
Her heart started beating rapidly. People, especially strangers, made her very uncomfortable, and from what she'd seen of this man, he didn't seem very friendly. What did he want from her?
When she felt he was close enough, she looked up again, pretending to have only just noticed him. She could see now that he had sharp features and a fierce, lined face with a hooked nose and dark goatee. He wore a thick black jacket that was completely inappropriate for this weather. His teeth grasped a cigarette, and she almost shuddered. She hated smokers.
He cleared his throat and spoke. His voice had a strange, jeering quality to it that unnerved Beatrice. "Hate to be rude, but can I sit in the shade? I'm waiting for my son to come back with the dog. Idiot boy couldn't keep hold of the leash."
She nodded, not knowing how else to respond. "Of course."
He leaned back against a supporting beam and puffed on his cigarette. Sinuous threads of smoke rose up and reached Beatrice's nostrils. "Can I get you a drink, sir?" she asked him. It was more out of a desire to get him to snuff his cigarette than to be polite.
He grunted, but it seemed to be a yes, because he stood straighter, as if waiting for her to lead the way in to her house. She instantly regretted making the suggestion. The thought of such an unpleasant stranger in her house was much worse than the smell of his cigarette smoke.
But she feared it might be too rude to ask him to wait outside, not when he was prepared to step inside with her. Besides, it was hot, and the house was cool. It was only polite to let him in.
She dog-eared her book, placed it on her chair, and went to open the door, holding her breath as he passed into the front hall. "Have a seat," she told him, gesturing toward her low grey futon, and he complied. She ambled to the kitchen to fetch a glass. Her hand was halfway to the cabinet when she changed her mind and reached for the disposable plastic cups instead.
As she opened the refrigerator and scanned the top shelf for her water pitcher, she could hear him muttering crossly to himself. She cringed and silently prayed that his son would find the dog soon.
When she emerged from the kitchen, he was standing up with a pistol aimed downward. She nearly dropped the cup.
"Sir?" she squeaked.
He glanced at her briefly, said, "Darn spider," and swung his eyes back to the floor. Before she could say anything more, he squinted, took aim, and fired, the veins around his eyes bulging in concentration.
She stared at her bored carpet and thought, No, no, no!
He followed her gaze. "Sorry about that," he said gruffly. "Better that the spider's dead, though. Nasty things, spiders." He holstered the gun, and it was once more hidden beneath his jacket.
She didn't understand why he cared about a spider, but she did understand that letting this man into her house had been a big mistake. He ought to pay to have that fixed. But she was too terrified to ask him.
Instead, she wordlessly handed him the water. "Thanks," he muttered, removing his cigarette and stomping it out on the floor. She almost didn't care about the tiny scorch mark it left on her carpet, on top of the damage he'd already done with the gun. At least it had stopped emitting its smoke, and that was why she'd offered the drink in the first place.
"Sir," she began, mustering up her courage to ask him to pay for the damage he'd done. But she lost her nerve at the last minute and found herself saying, "Your son—is he your only child?"
The stranger nodded. "Yeah. Not a bad kid, really, but he can sometimes be a bit of an idiot." He took a swig of his water.
"I'm sure he does a lot to make you proud, though," said Beatrice awkwardly.
He shrugged and changed the subject. "That's a pretty little hair clasp you've got."
She reached upward involuntarily and touched the barrette. "Oh . . . thank you."
"My wife used to wear things like that," he added. "But she's dead now." He sounded angry now. She wasn't sure if he was angry that his wife was dead or angry at himself for bringing the subject up, but her heart was starting to beat faster again. There was clearly something wrong with this man, she was alone with him in her house, and he was angry. And he had a gun.
"But there's still Gabriel," he went on. "He won't die. He's a fine, healthy boy. I don't care how dopey he is. He won't die."
The man looked at the hole in the carpet, where the spider had been, and then back at her. "He won't die," he said again.
Beatrice was silent. She almost wished she could help this man, who seemed somehow less scary now and more pitiful. But she knew she didn't have the social skills necessary to be of any help.
He handed her the empty cup and she took it to the kitchen garbage. On her way back, she glanced out the window and saw a dog approaching, followed by the young boy firmly clutching the leash. They were moving down the sidewalk that was across the street.
"Sir, your son is coming," Beatrice informed him as she came back into the front hall. "He'll probably be wondering where you are."
"Mmph," he grunted, and, before she had so much as blinked, he had gone out to greet his son. She was about to close the front door behind him when he turned around and started making his way back toward her house, son and dog in tow.
"I forgot to say," he breathed, opening the screen door, "thank you, miss, for letting me cool off in your house."
"It was nothing," she said automatically.
"This is Gabriel," he added, shoving the boy forward so she could see him. He turned to his son. "Gabe, this lady was nice to your father. You should say thank you to her."
The boy was small and a few shades paler than his father. His arm muscles were taut as he gripped the dog's leash, clearly determined not to let go again. She noticed a small red area on his right forearm, a tiny dot in its center. It looked like a spider bite.
She suddenly understood. That was all? Well, then, this man was in a sorry state indeed.
The boy looked nervously at his father and then to the floor. "Thankyoumiss," he mumbled, very fast. The man chuckled, waved, and left, this time for good.
The screen door swung shut behind him, and Beatrice felt a rush of relief wash over her. But mingled with that relief was her pity for this man. It was a new sort of feeling; she usually reserved her pity for herself.
But not now.