This dark short story was inspired by Michael Dellert’s suggested writing prompt. It took more than 5 minutes but I was on a roll and didn’t stop. Here’s the original prompt:
“Write a horror-romance-comedy that takes place at a backyard cookout.”
This dark story falls in the horror category, for more reasons than how someone dies.
Judy placed the potato salad on the table and straightened the tablecloth, again. She glanced at her watch and went inside to take out the last batch of snicker-doodles for the church bake sale. A few minutes later she wiped down the counters and carefully removed and folded her apron. Wiggles bounded from his usual place by the hearth and vigorously wagged his tail, spinning in circles by the front door. Dan was home.
Judy glanced in the hall mirror and tucked a stray hair into place. She smoothed her skirt and took her position in the foyer. Dan unlocked the front door and stepped in, he greeted Wiggles with a few pats to the head and a treat from the jar on the hall table. The dog gobbled the tidbit, sniffed at Dan’s shoes then went to lie back down in his place. Judy smiled and stepped forward to greet her husband. “How was your day, dear?” Dan put his keys in the bowl, placed his briefcase next to the table legs and then turned to his wife of 20 years. “It was busy, honey. As always. I clenched the Sampson deal. Once it’s signed I’ll take you somewhere nice. What’s for dinner?” Judy stepped forward and lightly kissed his cheek before stepping aside to follow him to the kitchen. “Congratulations, dear, you’ve succeeded again. A trip would be lovely, I’m looking forward to wherever you choose. I made everything to go with grilled steaks. Potato salad from your mother’s recipe, fresh green beans, toasted corn with butter. The steaks have been marinating in your favorite sauce for 3 hours.”
Dan had made his way to the sliding glass doors and looked out at the picture perfect scene of the back patio. The grill was sparkling clean, pre-heated and ready to go, the table set with precision. It could have been a photo shoot for Better Homes and Gardens. He smiled to himself as he spoke. “This looks very good, honey. Grab the steaks and I’ll finish up preparing this fine meal.” Judy spun on her 4” heels and promptly retrieved the platter of meat from the fridge. Dan had moved outside to the patio and rolled up his sleeves as he walked to the grill.
He looked back toward the house as Judy stepped out with the platter of meat. “Did you call the cable company today to change the services?” Judy nodded, “Of course, dear. Everything is taken care of and the man will be here in the morning to change the router.” Dan nodded, “good.” Judy’s heel caught in the gap between the stones and she stumbled slightly. “Oh!” Dan grabbed her elbow to steady her and took the plate of meat as he did. “Careful, Honey.” Judy looked up at him, “Thank you, dear. My heel caught on the stone.” Dan hadn’t let go of her elbow. “Are the stones an issue, honey?” His gripped tightened slightly and Judy’s hands began to tremble. “Oh not at all, dear. The stones you chose are perfect, they complement the yard impeccably. It is my own error, dear, I’m sorry to have stumbled and caused you concern.” Judy glanced up to Dan’s face just in time to catch the full force of his open handed strike to her cheek. The force of the blow reeled her but Dan kept a bruising hold on her elbow, Judy didn’t fall. “You will not be clumsy, Judith. My wife must be graceful at all times. Do you understand?” Judy straightened, breathed deeply to prevent herself from reacting to the stinging pain in cheek. She swallowed, tasting a bit of blood and recovered her poise. “Yes, dear, I understand I must not be clumsy. Thank you for correcting my error.”
The moment passed as suddenly as it had arrived. Dan released her arm, and started talking about the Sampson deal. He grilled the steaks, Judy brought his evening beer in a frosted glass. She stood by his side as he skillfully tended the meat. Dan talked about his day, and Judy nodded and made noises of agreement at all the proper moments. Dan looked up, “These are nearly done. Get the platter, honey.” Judy retrieved the platter and stood in waiting for the meat. Dan placed the steaks on the platter. Judy smiled sweetly at him, “These are perfect, dear. You are the absolute best with the grill.” A dark look swept through his countenance. “Just the grill, honey?” Judy stood stock still, eyes averted, “No, dear, you are the absolute best in all things. The grill is just this moment’s demonstration of mastery.” Dan appear appeased and stepped past her to the table. “Let’s eat then, honey, before my masterpieces get chilled.” Judy turned on the controls for the speakers on the patio as Dan settled in his chair. Classical music covered the silence of their meal. Dan liked to wind down and enjoy the meal and music without interruption.
The classical music had been a staple of Dan’s household for 18 years. He felt it accompanied the sounds of their life beautifully. The deep bass and horns kept time to the rigors of a disciplined home. Their children, now in far distant universities, were as familiar with the classics and their undercurrents as any classically trained artist. They had spent their lives interpreting each moment by the music at hand. Judy ate in silence. She watched Dan’s reaction to each item of the menu. She watched his hands as they carved the meat and sliced the green beans. Every minute movement of his was a clue to managing her responses to him.
A pause in the music brought Dan’s attention to her. “What did you prepare for dessert, honey?” Judy carefully placed her knife and fork down across the top of her plate. After she dabbed her mouth with her napkin, she replied. “Dear, I made your favorite Key Lime pie with the graham cracker crust.” Dan smiled, and it actually reached his eyes. “Well done, honey. Why don’t you clear the plates and bring it on out.” Judy rose and stepped to his side to clear his plate and utensils. She then returned to her place and cleared hers as well. She was deft and had many years practice. The work made no sound that would clash with the sounds of the strings in the new music. She moved to the sliding glass doors and slipped into the kitchen. In a few moments, she returned with coffee service, dessert plates and forks. Dan glanced up, watching her carefully, and then nodded. She poured his coffee, added a touch of cream and sugar then silently stirred the fluid. She placed the coffee spoon on the saucer without a noise, expertly laid the dessert plate and fork before him and then rapidly did the same for her place. She swept into the kitchen again and returned in under a minute with a beautifully crafted pie. She served Dan, then herself and sat back down. Judy folder her hands into her lap and waited. Dan was sipping his coffee and listening to the crescendo of the music. As it began to wind down, he picked up his fork and took a large bite of the pie. He looked up at Judy and smiled as he swallowed the creamy treat. “Another task well done, honey. Your lessons have paid off and your skill is shining through here.” Judy smiled, “Thank you, dear. I am very glad you like the pie.”
Judy watched him take another few bites, then lifted her fork to her piece. She placed the fork in her mouth slowly, then quietly lifted her napkin and glanced at Dan as she deposited the bite of pie in the cloth, unseen. Dan finished his pie. Judy was only a few bites into hers. “Dear, would you care for another piece?” Dan nodded. Judy rose ad quickly served him another slice. “Dear, would you like more coffee?” Again, Dan nodded. Judy obliged. The silence as the music faded was unsettling. Judy returned to her place and brought her coffee cup to her lips. She returned it to the saucer, a hint of her lipstick on the porcelain. Dan enjoyed the second piece of pie, and Judy softly brought the cup to her lips again. In the background Wagner’s Concerto #4 began with a forceful roll of drums. Dan frowned slightly, “I don’t recall adding this to the evening playlist.” Judy looked up at him, “Really, Dear? I thought this was one of your favorites.” Dan looked at her sharply, “Are you questioning me?” Dan noticed he was sweating slightly and wiped his face with his napkin. “Honey, this is not something I would have chosen for dinner. I do love the power behind Wagner’s work but not at a meal! I will not be questioned by you. You were doing so well, I thought we could get through one evening without you fucking something up!” Dan slammed his fist on the table to make his point. Dan felt his heart pounding in his ears, his chest felt heavy and he gasped as a wave of pain rolled through his gut. Judy tilted her head, “Are you alright, dear? You seem to be a bit out of sorts.” Dan pushed his chair back to stand up but the motion made his vision blur. He reached out toward Judy. “Judith, for fuck sake, get up and help me or you will regret the day you met me!” Judy looked at him with a pleasant smile, “Dear, I’ve regretted the day I married you for 20 years.” Dan looked at her with the most priceless of shocked expressions. “Judy, help…” His voice broke with another shot of excruciating pain. Judy just smiled at him. “I can’t help you, dear. The poison will make you vomit soon and I don’t want to mar my outfit. I know how much you expect me to be a ‘vision of perfection’ at all times.” As she said the words, Dan toppled forward onto the patio stones. The fall crushed his nose and blood splattered across the patio. Dan groaned deeply and began to vomit profusely. He gasped between expulsions and tried to crawl toward Judy. Pain wracked his features into a gruesome mask. He tried to speak but his voice strangled on another round of bloody vomit. Judy stood and backed away from him and the vile mess of blood and bile he’d become. “Dear, I’m going to clear the table while you finish dying. The children will be here shortly to help me portion up your body and deposit your remains into those big plastic rain barrels you insisted on having for the garden. Your children tell me that the chemicals they bought will dilute you completely and then we’ll wash you into the septic drains in the driveway while they wash your BMW over the holiday weekend.” With that, Judy walked past his convulsing body, and into her home.