The Ninth Circle

When evil took over earth, we didn’t anticipate a landscape of frozen tundras, ice, and life lost in time. I personally expected — and now find myself longing for — blazing heat and dust. We weren’t worthy of that, though. Media outlets and prominent political figures tried to blame it on environmental disasters and human irresponsibility for the Great Freeze. They pointed to scientists to back up the claims who — when put on the spot — denied any of it having to do with humans. 

This is happening too fast.

We had at least another fifty years.

It’s your fault. This is supernatural.

I remember when I heard the head of the World Health Organization blame a single group of leaders for the Great Freeze. They blamed evil and greed. They blamed lust and laziness. I looked at the family Bible on the shelf that we hadn’t touched in years and thought, there’s no way in Hell. But here we are, three years into the Great Freeze and no other logical explanation other than Satan himself. Crops froze over in the first year and people looted relatively quickly. There was a theory floated around by some surviving world leaders that involved controlled nuclear explosions to try and break the ice but the ice surrounding the bunkers and hidden locations was glacier-thick, or so I heard, and the men and women in charge of guarding (or operating) the weapons were all dead. 

Having a background in theology and mythology led me to deduct that we, as a human race, were placed in the Ninth Circle of Hell. My mother thought my exploits in old books and ancient history were for nothing, and now look at her. She’s in a block of ice somewhere, and I’m roaming the frozen tundra that was once home to someone. I haven’t eaten in months, but I haven’t been hungry. I’m not sure if it has to do with the supernatural events surrounding me or if maybe I’m dead and don’t know it yet, but the desire to satiate myself is gone. I also have no clue if there are others; I don’t know if I’m here because I was deemed good, or if I’m still alive because I was evil. Do evil people really know they’re evil? Regardless, I’ve been placed in the Ninth Circle. Or the Ninth Circle was brought up to earth — or the Ninth Circle just… appeared — I can’t really say. But whatever was written all those years ago in Dante’s Inferno was correct to an extent. It hasn’t happened often, but the writers and thinkers of previous millenia have had predictive abilities before. I just wished it wasn’t the Ninth Circle. A traditional Apocalypse would have been more manageable, honestly.  

No matter what, there’s no denying man did this to himself. Very on-par with the way everything else has been going for the last hundred years, if I’m being honest. I’m not surprised, I just wish I wasn’t alone so much. 

I did travel for months on foot looking for shelter that wasn’t sealed shut, or for a person who wasn’t frozen in fear. It was a fruitless hunt, however, and eventually I stopped looking around me. I kept forward, walking over ice and snow in the boots and puffer jacket I left home with. Tucked carefully inside of my jacket was a heart-shaped locket. My mother’s. I lost track of time, and I would have lost hope if I had any to begin with; The first unnaturally large storm cloud that blew in however long ago sucked any semblance of maybe it’ll pass out of me. 

My walking came to an unfortunate and abrupt pause when I came across a shallow, mostly-frozen river. Mostly frozen didn’t happen in the Ninth Circle. Beyond the banks of the water was a church. It wasn’t frozen. I saw lights. It couldn’t be, I thought. But I had to try. Even though I wasn’t religious, a priest was better company than no one. A log thick enough to sit on lay on the shore, as if waiting for me to embark. It was the first thing I could touch in that endless winter that moved from its place, and I felt a tingle throughout my body just to have connected with something earthen. Carefully, I eased it into the water and grabbed a long, wide branch to try and maneuver myself across. Luckily, because it was mostly-frozen, the water wasn’t moving very fast. Unluckily, neither was I. I paddled carefully, using my arms for the first time in months. My teeth chattered in the sharp air and I tried to not let that distract me from the shoreline. 

Fifty feet felt like an eternity, and I exhaled with relief at the sound of my log hitting dirt and ice. The church sat only steps ahead like a warm, inviting beacon. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t frozen over; I was used to glancing over smooth large bubbles of what once were homes and businesses. It looked like a safe place to me. It looked like Heaven. 

I didn’t knock. You never knocked in churches. You just went in, because it was always a place of safety, and always inviting. The feel of the carpet under my feet made my legs wavy. I spent months (years?) wandering a frozen, desolate wasteland. Even my hair was rigid and stood still in time. I marveled at the paintings, the stained glass – and then I saw the priest. He stood behind his podium at the altar as if he knew I was coming. 

“Father,” I said, “how have you survived here?”

“Come in, my child.” He waved me down the aisle. I noticed he didn’t answer my question.
“Father, how have you managed to survive in this frozen wasteland?” 

I glanced quickly around me to the fixtures on the walls. All of the crosses looked melted and hung upside down around me. They glinted in the sun. 

“Father,” I said, “how did these melt? Was it hot in here last night? Do you have fire?”

“It was below freezing last night, my son,” he replied. 

“Father…” I took a step back. “Father, why is this church the only building that has not been frozen in ice? How did this survive the Ninth Circle?”

“Well,” he sighed, “I let the Devil loose.” 

There is Only one Devil

Deeper, deeper we descended into the abyss. Before exiting topside, I stood on top of the mound of red clay and sand that accumulated from weeks of digging and watched the last of the sun drip into the horizon. It was foolish of me to hope the last of the day’s light found its way into this cavern. 

My lantern swung wildly on the steep walk down in the empty space and made the clay appear as flames around me. My partner instructed me to lower it closer to my side so it would steady. He was right. He was always right, that’s why I am the assistant. It’s a role I take seriously and with pride – and admittedly a little fear when we go on expeditions such as these. I observed with a knot in my throat as hired hands cleared piles of earthen flesh for little money at a very specific geographical location. I found myself with the desire to sit, my gut pulling into my spine as if God himself was trying to remove me from the dig site. My partner remained silent for most of those weeks, sipping coffee from an old metal thermos and occasionally directing the unofficial foreman of the angle required to reach the cavern. 

“This will make everything better for me,” he said the night before our descent. 

I nodded and drank some of the bourbon he shared, but I didn’t ask him to specify what exactly would be better. Everything is a lot. Of course I speculated to myself in the twilight hours, as sand patted down my tent, what was in the cavern. What – or who, maybe – has patiently or impatiently sat in the deep, deep darkness waiting for a rescue party to rediscover it. Or him. Or her. Any average man may have suggested oil or gold, but I knew my partner. Quiet, yes – a businessman, no. My partner was a collector of artifacts – mostly religious paraphernalia. And it didn’t matter the religion, as long as it was held by someone with great faith in their god. 

“The energy exists within the item,” he’d say, turning whatever it was at the time over and over in his palms. Sometimes he would hold his hands close to the fireplace as if to soften the barrier of flesh before squeezing the item, like he wanted to absorb them. Of course I found it bizarre but I never asked questions. I’m an assistant. I’m only paid to assist. 

The air in the cavern was thick and hung like the velvet drapes in my father’s old bedroom, although the space smelled like our family crypt. It resembled slow organic decay and sweetly rotting flesh, encased in porous, chilled stone. My partner turned back and saw me flare my nostrils and exhale hard from my nose to banish the smell. He laughed and it echoed in our theater. 

“Smells like a graveyard.”

“Quite so,” I said. 

“Come now, not much further.” 

I obediently followed, my lantern at hip height behind my partner. He walked with no light of his own, guided only by the whispering glow of mine. I thought he must have spectacular eyesight – and it made sense the longer I thought – because his estate was often dimly lit. Something that I chalked up to saving on electrical expenses. My partner was extremely wealthy, though. His worth – I’m not sure of the exact amount – could have covered the lighting of a hundred estates such as his. After further deliberation in my mind, I settled on the theory that my partner simply had very sensitive eyes. 

We walked for what felt like hours, and I noticed my lantern light was low. Still, I continued behind my partner who marched dutifully forward with no light – and no map. He must have memorized an old, found parchment prior to our exhibition, I concluded. My inner dialogues ended when my partner began to speak. 

“You have always been a wonderful assistant.” 

I felt a bead of sweat produce at my hairline and trickle down my cheek. 

“Thank you, sir.” 

“No, truly. Thank you. You’ve never questioned my hobbies, methods, or exhibitions. You do exactly what is asked of you, and I never felt I’d find such an exceptional help in this very long lifetime.” 

“Well, sir, I’m humbled,” I panted. The air thinned in some way. What a horrible time to begin a conversation, I thought. 

“Oftentimes, my previous assistants either questioned – or were offended by – my wide collection of various religious artifacts. As if there was only one answer to their higher good. I never understood that – the judgment.” He turned back. “You don’t judge me.”

“Who am I to judge what brings another man joy?”

“My point exactly! Who is man to judge what brings another joy? See? There is still some good in this world.”
I was always told, only God can judge us.” I blinked hard and slowed my descent on the rocky steps in an attempt to catch my breath. I felt hot around my neck and back. My partner, fading from my lantern, strolled ahead. He carried no pack, no water – just himself. He turned to see me struggling and waited for me to catch up. 

“Out of breath, old boy?”

“The air feels thinner. Forgive me. And it feels warm. I feel so warm.” 

“I know, isn’t it great?” He hugged himself. I couldn’t understand his resilience. I envied him in that moment. 

In the final throes of my conscious wobbling into the hot, unforgiving void, I noted my hunger and thirst rise as my flame grew smaller. We didn’t pack water. We had no food. My partner kept pace with me, although he was entirely unaffected by our surroundings, and I lumbered onward, heaving my legs one in front of the other. 

“To continue,” he said, “almost everyone who believes seems to be under the impression that their interpretation of the highest being – God, if you will – is the best version, and all others are wrong.” 

“At least there’s only one Devil.” 

My partner grinned in the dying glow of my lantern. He helped me up with ease and steadied me to my feet. We were finally on some sort of flat surface, and just in front of me, I could make out an impossibly large wall. I tried to raise my lantern, but was too weak; All I could see was a thick, vertical crack in the stone. 

“Yes my boy, there is only one Devil, and to some believers, the Devil is their God.” 

“What are you saying?” My vision blotted in and out in the already dark, oven-like space. 

“I’m saying, you have been an excellent assistant. But I need to go home for a while. Thank you again, for believing in me – for following.” 

The crack in the cavern wall began to glow and I was overcome with a white-hot light. My skin felt as if it would melt from my bones. Whatever air I had left in me escaped with a final bloody scream as I was engulfed in fire, my partner holding me, laughing. 

I woke up on the dirt mound. Red clay and sand stuck to the sweat on the back of my neck and behind my knees. Slowly, I sat up from what felt like a horrible, horrible dream only to notice my partner was gone. I placed my hand on my chest to make sure my heart was beating, when I felt something solid in the inner pocket of my vest. In it was a thick envelope, and in that envelope was the deed to my partner’s estate and a will. Both written over to me. I stood carefully and looked over to see an apparition of yellow raise up over the horizon. My partner seemed to have gone home, so I used my hands and began filling in the hole. 

January 26, 2020 7:17 AM

It wasn’t that I gained a conscience for her, but I spent so much time hovering around her mother that I felt like something was owed. It had been a good fifteen years of watching this kid, front and center, go through hell. I never stay around so long, but in special cases like hers — the slow burn deaths — I tend to leave a little something for those who have to live in suffering. 

Dreams, in the long run, are given rational explanations for why they occur. Losing your teeth in a dream is thought to be the coming of changes in your life; overflowing toilets is supposed to imply a literal shitty situation, pressure, mental or emotional unavailability. For some reason, she dreamed a lot about overflowing toilets. She never told anyone, and I wouldn’t spoil it for her either, but I never really saw someone dream about overflowing toilets so much.  

Ever since she was small she had night terrors of the Shadow Man who lurked in the doorway. She’d wake up and he’d still be there, unmoving, glowing red eyes, watching. She thought he was there for her — but she was wrong — he was there for her mother. The Shadow Man and I work in a similar business, different departments, I guess. He has a habit of haunting the children of the afflicted individuals and lingering around like a malignant tumor until he finally gets what he wants. When she lived at home, the girl would dream of him almost nightly. She told her mother about it, who rationalized that she had too much sugar in her diet, and brushed it off. Her mother never believed the girl’s sense of impending doom. 

The Shadow Man is a demon of death, a harbinger of what horrors are to come. He generally arrives before I do and he likes to leave first. Being Death, I try to keep things simple — swoop in, take the soul, get out. The Shadow Man hovers in the subconscious and warns of things unseen. He never gives an explanation as to why he’s there until the last minute. 

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

That’s what the girl uttered after she heard her mother was in the hospital. That’s what she said after she threw her books across her room and crumbled to the floor. Her roommates tried to bring comfort but she knew already, that it was the end. I watched her for fifteen years and for the first time I — dare I say — felt something? Her head spun and spun and she thought about her mother, her mother’s disease, and the Shadow Man. That black shadow stood behind her, invisible. The demon that spent two decades watching her finally came back for what he wanted  — her mother.

The Disappearances of Duckworth Falls

1.

Rosalie McGinnis disappeared from her bathroom on Wednesday afternoon. Her mom was home when it happened, but when interviewed by police she claimed to hear no forced entry and no sounds of Rosalie in distress. In fact, her mother only noted the disappearance a full two hours after Rosalie went into said bathroom to get ready for the movies with two of her friends. Mrs. McGinnis was supposed to drop all three girls off for the matinee, and noted it suspicious that her daughter didn’t come out of the bathroom. She opened the door, fearing she would find her beloved Rosalie unconscious, maybe from hitting her head on the tub. Mrs. McGinnis was taken by quite the surprise, you can imagine, when she opened the door to find no Rosalie at all, only her comb on the floor next to the toilet. The window, still locked from the inside, lacked even a smudge of dust. It was all very abnormal. The police agreed, and Mrs. McGinnis’s alibi was solid. The members of the McGinnis family themselves are a very normal, boring, happy foursome – Rosalie the big sister to Tyler McGinnis, my best friend. 

“My mom says I can’t play with you anymore, Barry.” We sat in Tyler’s backyard under the only tree. He jabbed a pointy stick into the dirt over and over. 

“Me? What did I do? I didn’t kidnap your sister.” The words felt harsh coming out of my mouth, meaner than I meant. But Tyler didn’t react, just kept prodding the lawn.

“It’s not just you,” he sighed. He paused his excavation and looked up. “She says I can’t go anywhere with anybody. I can’t leave this stupid yard, and they said something about liability of other kids here.” 

“That’s dumb,” I said. I sat back and put my hands behind me to support myself. “Parents are dumb.”

“Yup.” Tyler lifted his stick and continued to dig. Rosalie went missing two weeks earlier and the cops were none the wiser to who did the kidnapping or how it happened. I felt bad. Tyler was my best friend and I was also madly in love with Rosalie. You’re supposed to fall in love with your best friend’s sister, at least, that’s how it always looks in the movies. She was two grades older than us but she was always so nice to me – how could I not fall in love with a nice girl? No other girls wanted to date a guy named Barry. 

Last year, Greg Hargrove told me I looked like a Barry. I looked up at him from where I landed after he pushed me down on the playground. I didn’t know how someone could look like their name. A name was just a name. 

“Because,” he laughed, “you’re fat and awkward. You have an old man’s name.”

“It is my old man’s name,” I said, still on the ground. I figured if I got up again, he’d just push me down again. And I didn’t like confrontation. 

“Dumb Barry’s parents can’t even think of a new name for him! Come on, get up!” He egged me on, but I just said no thank you.

“You’re so weird.” Greg grimaced at me and walked away. I made sure he was far enough that I could get up without a fight, and that’s when Tyler walked over and extended a hand. 

“He’s a jerk,” he said. 

“No doubt in my mind.” I took Tyler’s hand and he helped me up. Greg was right though – I was a fat kid named Barry. But those were facts and I couldn’t take facts as insults. I wiped any dirt from the butt of my pants when she walked up to us.

“You alright? Greg is just a sad kid, don’t worry about him.” Rosalie smiled like an angel and put her hand on my shoulder and that was when I fell in love.  

Hello?” I popped out of my daydream to see Tyler staring at me. 

“What?”

“Did you hear anything I just said? You looked like you were in space.” 

“I wish I was in space,” I laughed. “Sorry, I was just thinking about… Rosalie. And how weird this all is.” I moved off of my hands that were both very much asleep and leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. “Sorry,” I said again.

“It’s cool. I guess I’m thinking a lot about it too.” Tyler let out a long sigh and lay backwards onto the grass; his head just missed the base of the tree. 

“What if she’s dead?”

“What?” I asked, not because I didn’t hear Tyler, but because I thought he could read my thoughts. 

“I shouldn’t say that,” he corrected himself. 

“Try to be positive, Tyler.” I patted him on his outstretched foot. We sat in the sun and baked a while longer, the dirt mound between us. 

“Thanks for hanging out,” he said.

“Hey! Maybe if my ma talks to your ma, you can come over to our house to hang out.” 

“Yeah, maybe.” He didn’t look at me when he responded. I knew it was futile. My family was poor and our house sucked. There was no way Mrs. McGinnis would let Tyler come over, even if Rosalie wasn’t missing. 

Tyler really had no reason or need to be my friend. He was popular enough, and we all knew I was not. His parents were still together, and my dad left when I was eight. Not to mention both of Tyler’s parents made a lot of money. His dad managed the Duckworth Falls Power Plant, and his mom worked for the Duckworth Falls Town Hall. My mom managed the Till, the everything store that had a little bit of everything someone might need at a slightly elevated price. We didn’t shop there. 

Before Tyler wasn’t allowed to leave his house, we would walk or ride our bikes to the comic book and baseball card store across town. My bicycle is Tyler’s old one; he got the new Schwinn for Christmas and gave me his old one the next day. His old bike was only two years old and I was still riding around on my dad’s ten-speed that he left at our house. The comic book store on Cornwall Street was our mecca. I’d just sit and watch him use his allowance to buy packs of baseball cards, always searching for one or two specific players. He tore through the shiny wrapping of each pack, and let out a huff here and there when the card he wanted was missing. 

“Dang.” He slapped the fanned cards against the top of his leg. “No dice. Here.” Tyler handed me the whole pack, opened, to keep.

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t know too much about baseball or their cards, but Tyler had a zillion of them and he was the only person who gave me things, so I put them in my backpack. 

I was thinking about my backpack full of cards when the sliding glass door to Tyler’s back deck caused him to sit up straight, and me to crane my neck around. I expected to see Mrs. McGinnis at the ready to tell me it was time to leave. We were both shocked to see my mom, though, in the door. 

“Barry Bear!”

I hated that nickname.

“Barry Bear! Time to go. Come on we have to go now.” 

My mom has never set foot in the McGinnis house. She always said they were too stuffy for her, that they had too many things. She said it felt like a museum. Usually, when she picks me up from Tyler’s house she just honks from the street until I make my way outside. Something had to be wrong, I was sure of it. Maybe my dad came back and he was wondering where his ten-speed went. 

“Well,” I sighed, “see ya later, Tyler.” I rolled over to my knees and pushed myself up to my feet and dusted the grass clippings from my shorts. My mom stood impatiently in the typical impatient mother stance: arms crossed, one foot out and leaning heavy to one side from carrying my inconvenience as a son, or even the phantom imprint of holding me constantly as a baby because I was very whiny and collicky. She liked to remind me. 

I passed her into the McGinnis house with a smile and she raised her eyebrows in return. We walked to the car together and as I said goodbye and thank you to Mrs. McGinnis, she almost beamed at me, like she was happy to see me leave her house. It didn’t hurt, not really, because that’s just how she was. 

“What’s going on?” I buckled myself into the front seat as my mom made a U-turn to head south back towards our neighborhood. She didn’t reply immediately so I asked again, thinking she just didn’t hear. 

“I heard you the first time, Barry.” 

“Well, then what’s going on?” 

My mom bit her lip a moment and fumbled with the air conditioning unit before she slowed down. Only two blocks away from Tyler’s house there were three cop cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance in front of Chris Fleming’s house. He was my classmate. 

“Woah what happened there? A fire?” 

“Chris Fleming is missing.” My mom fiddled again with the air conditioning and then returned both hands to the steering wheel. She drove straight on, not looking at the Fleming house, only slowing down either out of respect for the emergency workers, or so I could see. It was then I realized why Mrs. McGinnis seemed so happy as I left – she was no longer suspicious for her child missing, especially if the circumstances were the same. She was relieved. 

I didn’t reply to my mom and kept my face turned towards the window and watched the flashing daytime lights of emergency vehicles fade in the distance as we drove closer towards home. I tried to think of the last time I saw Chris Fleming. Homeroom? Gym? Why were the kids in my class going missing? And in Duckworth Falls of all places? It was a small town, easily overlooked, and generally only driven through by people trying to get to the major cities that shadowed us. There weren’t even any falls in Duckworth Falls. Come to think of it, there weren’t any ducks, either. And if things kept going the way they were, Duckworth Falls wouldn’t have any kids. 

Dick and Jane

Jane sat across from Richard, a candlelit dinner between them.

“I’m sorry I’ve been taking things so slow,” Jane said. “I just haven’t been around a nice guy like you in such a long time, Richard. It’s taken me back a little.” She swirled her wine around without picking the glass up off the table.

“Please, call me Dick. We’re on our what? Fifth date already?” Dick flashed a toothy, charming smile at Jane. He did feel their relationship was a snail’s pace, but he hadn’t met anyone quite like her before. She was timid, but he found himself pulled completely into her orbit. 

“Well, alright, Dick.” Jane couldn’t keep her eyes from his. He mesmerized her.

Dick reached across the table and grabbed Jane by her hand. 

“I want to be with you, Jane. I really do. This feels right.”

She squeezed his hand in agreement and raised her glass of wine. With a delicate sip, Jane just knew Dick was the one. 

It was a less-than organic gathering of overworked thirty-somethings that brought Dick and Jane together. Modern dating found itself stifled by the need to make end’s meet in the city; it was easier, more feasible, and fiscally responsible to make a profile online and wait. Jane was a self-proclaimed bookworm – and proud of the fact (If you don’t like slow mornings and getting lost in novels on a Sunday, this might not work out). Dick was an avid book collector and seller, specializing in antiquarian pieces. He reached out to Jane and asked her what was the oldest book she ever read. He then asked her out for coffee. 

“I prefer tea. I hope that’s alright.”

“As long as we can talk about books,” he replied. 

Their first encounter was awkward, as expected. Both admitted they hadn’t been on a date in quite some time. Dick was dreamy – tall, strong jaw, the opposite of what Jane imagined an antiquarian book collector to resemble. He found her elegant, soft, mysterious – like a book he was yet to read. They seemed to feed off of each other and after almost three hours of talking books they planned a second date. Then a third, fourth, fifth. It was seamless. Their tale perfectly bound, each page turn more exciting than the last. 

After their fifth date Jane took Dick home to her apartment. It was small, although the layout was just as he expected – large windows where multiple houseplants had a front row view to the busy street below. She had several small bookshelves scattered about her living room and he busied himself with the titles while he waited for Jane to put the tea kettle on. Mostly romance novels, some horror, a handful of memoirs – Jane had a decent assortment of reading material and that pleased him. 

“See anything you like?” She entered without him noticing. She sipped her tea. 

“I only see one thing I really like,” he said, eyes on her.

They made love in her apartment regularly after that night. Dick loved the smell of Jane’s hair, her pillows, everything. He drove to clients and auctions with her moved into the front of his mind, next to the 1607 copy of Aristophanes’ Divine Comedies he was about to sell. He wanted to move her into his home, he decided. He couldn’t be without Jane. 

At first she was hesitant, “Well, it’s a great idea and I’m flattered but,” she paused. “I guess you would find out anyway.”

“What is it? Tell me,” Dick pleaded with her.

“I haven’t dated in so long because – well, because my last relationship ended with a lot of… bruises.” She looked looked down at her feet, embarrassed. 

Dick took her hand, “I am so sorry. I understand. But I’d never hurt you. I just want to be with you. If you don’t want to live with me then I won’t make you.” Jane knew he was sincere. 

“Let me think on it?”

“Of course.” 

They spent the night at Jane’s apartment again, the smell of her steaming tea kettle warmed the rooms. Jane felt at ease – and while Dick slept beside her – made her decision to move into his home. She closed her eyes and let out a deep exhale. Her story was finally getting its happy ending.

It only took a short time to pack the contents of Jane’s apartment. Her books and plants took up the majority of the moving truck. When it came to her bed, “Throw it away,” she said. “We’ll just use yours.” She smiled wide at Dick. He nodded and smiled back. Dick noted how few things Jane had to begin with, and as he helped her pack he realized he didn’t even need to rent a truck for the move. 

“Did you move around a lot?”

“My last relationship caused me to get out as fast as possible. I only took the essentials, really. And the tea kettle.” She laughed. Dick was pleased. It wouldn’t take too much effort to have Jane with him always. 

The couple settled into a natural coexistence. Jane’s romance and horror novels blended in with Dick’s extensive antiquarian collection. Jane took note of how large his library was in comparison to her little shelves strewn about her old apartment. He had an entire room dedicated to beautiful, rare, expensive works. 

“Be careful in here,” he warned, “these are my prized possessions. No food. No tea. Sorry.” 

“Oh, well alright.” Dick had several rules for Jane to follow: she was to remove her shoes when she entered the house; Squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube; Place the toilet seat cover down when finished; Turn the lights off when leaving a room. He had a lot of little rules that she wasn’t aware of when they first began their romance, but she didn’t mind. He was nicer than any man she dated, and he was so willing to have her live with him. His beautiful house was better than any apartment she hurriedly inhabited years prior. 

She grew accustomed to all of Dick’s little rules and one Spring afternoon in their backyard, after only a year of dating, Dick proposed. 

“I am enchanted by you. My life is better because of you. I want you, all of you, to be with me. Forever.”

Jane accepted without hesitation. The couple planned for a small gathering, family and only a couple of close friends. She wanted to get married in their large backyard, “Right where you proposed. A perfect ending to our love story.” 

Dick was not persuaded, though. He insisted on a ceremony away from their house, although still small. “I mean, we’ve never been married before. I want it to be classic. Romantic. Special.”

“It’ll be special as long as it’s us, right?” Jane couldn’t sway her new fiance. He planned to pay for the ceremony, regardless. Eventually she relented. She wouldn’t get her backyard wedding.

Almost immediately after the couple exchanged vows, Jane learned she was pregnant with their first child. As her belly grew, her temper shortened. She lashed out at Dick for little things, and he grew impatient with her forgetting to shut off lights, or when he found her reading one of her horror novels in his library with a cup of tea. 

“You know there’s no food in my library,” he scolded.

“It’s our library, Dick. And I’m pregnant.”

He felt his anger swirl in his chest and left the room. He couldn’t do anything to a pregnant woman. 

When little Nell was born the problems between Dick and Jane subsided. There was a perfect, cherub-like little girl before them who needed constant attention and love, and there was no space for arguing over toilet seat covers and shoes worn inside. Dick had the woman he wanted and now, a child. He got everything he wished for. 

Nell could do no wrong in her parents’ eyes. She was precocious and curious about everything. Dick thought about the day when he would teach her all about antique books, but for now – he decided – the library was off limits to the toddler. 

“No no, that’s Mommy and Daddy’s room. Someday we’ll let you in there. But it isn’t for play, sweetie.” Dick took Nell by the arm and guided her out of the room. She let out a whine.

“Why can’t you let her play in the library, Dick? It’s her house too.” 

“I’m not allowing a baby to play in a room full of paper, Jane. Especially paper worth as much as that collection.” 

“They’re fucking books, Dick. I swear you love your collection more than this family.” 

Dick was taken aback by Jane’s words. He never heard her curse before; She said shit when she stubbed her toe maybe three or four years earlier. 

“How could you say something like that? What’s your problem?” 

Nell began to whine more.

“Oh great, and now you’ve upset the baby. Give her to me.” Jane put her hands out and Nell flopped into her mother’s arms. “There, it’s alright now. Daddy is just being mean, baby.” She looked at her husband with disdain, a look Dick never saw on his wife before. He didn’t recognize her eyes. 

Nell grew, and so did the couple’s tensions. The little nitpicking fights turned to cursing and fists slamming the kitchen countertop. Dick felt as if he was losing his mind in his own home. Jane became overprotective of Nell. She insisted he install nanny cams around the house to keep an eye on her. She told Dick she didn’t feel safe. 

“I don’t understand,” Dick said, “how can you not feel safe?”

“I just don’t. What if Nell falls, or if someone tries to break in? Would you install the cameras?” Jane mentioned to Dick that she told her mother about her concerns, and her mother agreed. Dick relented and installed cameras in the library, the front living room, and the kitchen to satisfy his wife. 

A month passed. Dick grew angry. His house no longer felt like it belonged to him. He sat in the front living room, reading, when he heard a thud from the library. And then another. And another. Dick jumped up. Someone must be stealing my books, he thought. He heard Jane walk out the back door into the yard, but not return, so he picked up the bat he kept by the front door and slowly made his way upstairs. The door was shut. His muscles tightened along with the grip on his bat. Dick slowly turned the knob and threw the door open, weapon overhead, to see Nell – alone – ripping pages out of a novel from 1843.

“What the fuck!” The baby began to cry. Dick dropped the bat and scooped her up in his hands. He heard Jane walk in through the back door, panicked. 

“What’s wrong!” 

“You left the baby in the fucking library alone? What is wrong with you?” Dick was screaming at Jane, the baby in between them, crying. 

“Stop yelling! You’re scaring her!” Jane reached to take the baby from his arms. 

“I’m losing my goddamn mind!” Dick turned around and picked up the bat.

“What are you doing?” Jane took a step back.

“I feel like I don’t live in this house anymore. You don’t respect my rules.” Dick held the bat at his side. 

“Dick,” Jane started, “put the bat away.” 

He exhaled. Dick walked past Jane and crying Nell back to the front room and put the bat back where it belonged. He grabbed his coat and left. He needed some fresh air.

Later that evening, from the library, Dick heard pounding on the front door. Muffled yells were overpowered by Jane, hysterical.

“He’s upstairs! In his library! He was so mad!” 

Heavy footsteps climbed the staircase to the closed door. Dick stood frozen and confused when two police officers came in and ordered his hands behind his back. 

“You are under arrest for assault,” one officer began.

“What? What are you talking about? I’ve been upstairs this whole time!” Dick’s heart began to race. He didn’t struggle. They had to be wrong. 

As the officers led Dick down the stairs, he saw Jane, bruised and bloodied, baby asleep in her arms. 

“What the… what the fuck?” He stared at her eyes, wet with tears. “What happened?” 

“I can’t even look at you!” Jane turned away as Dick was taken outside, through the front living room, past the empty space where the baseball bat belong, and into the squad car. 

“Don’t worry, ma’am, he’ll be locked up for a long time. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“No, that’s alright. Thank you for responding so quickly. I’ll just wait for the restraining order – and divorce papers – to come through.” Jane shut the door behind the officers and put Nell in her crib. The house was finally quiet for once. 

She sat down in her office and opened the family computer. Jane clicked through the nanny cam files and found the kitchen camera. She opened it. There, Jane cringed through footage of her, hitting her own face with Dick’s baseball bat. It fucking hurt, but it was all she could do to get him to leave. His stupid rules weren’t going to get him put away. His squeaky clean record wasn’t going to get her his expensive book collection, or his beautiful house. She deleted the history on the camera – Dick must have shut off the camera before he beat me. I knew I didn’t feel safe for a reason – she decided on her alibi. When she was finished, Jane closed the computer, picked up her cup of tea, and went into her library.