‘Aftertaste’ – Original Short Story by Gloria McNeely

*This story was inspired by a story from an episode of The Creep Dive podcast – though mine is based on fictional characters.*

She had to admit he was making an effort, but it would take more than a coloured table cloth and some candles to make up for the past year and a half of bullshit he’d put her through. The table was set for two. It was their barely used Ikea dining table, a gift from her parents for their wedding three years previously which had been used as many times, and now covered in a blood red table cloth that she had a suspicion had been dug out of the discarded Christmas decorations in the attic. He’d even laid a red napkin out on baby Frankie’s high chair, that he promptly ripped to pieces. They sat now at either end of the table, glancing regularly towards their son, hoping he would do something to break the fragile silence.

“Hey!” Mike said in his playful dad voice, causing a tightness in Tina’s chest. He tickled his son under his arms and giggled along with him. Frankie had taken none of her fair features and instead had his father’s dark hair and eyes. She touched her own hair, recently dyed and cut from her usual long blonde to a choppy red bob. A weak attempt at reinventing herself, and now she was right back where she’d started. She grabbed her wine glass and drained it in one go closing her eyes against the sting in the back of her throat. He was a good dad, had been since day one. Was she wrong to take Frankie from him these past months? To keep him away when the problems were between them?

Grace would say no with a little added venom. The steadfast best friend who’d taken her in when she had nowhere else to go. He did it to himself, she’d say. He hasn’t asked for his son, has he? Hasn’t insisted on seeing him? He’s a deadbeat. Looking at him now she couldn’t marry the word to the man playing with her son, their son, taking his chubby little arm between his lips and pretending to bite until Frankie couldn’t breathe from laughing so hard.

Mike caught her eye and she realised she was smiling at them both despite herself. Colour rose to her cheeks and she looked away, pretending to admire the candle sticks in the centre of the table. Those she hadn’t seen before. Mike sat back down and Frankie returned to mashing the leftover flakes of paper napkin in his pudgy little fists.

“I’m really glad you came tonight. Both of you.” Mike said. He grabbed the bottle of pinot noir from the middle of the table and walked around to refill her glass. As he gripped the stem of her glass she heard the soft clink of his wedding ring. “I just wanted to do something for you both you know. I’ve really been working on my cooking skills recently and wanted to make something from scratch. Something really special.” She took the generously filled glass from him, careful to keep her own left hand hidden on her lap, the shiny, white line on her ring finger hidden in the folds of her skirt.

“What are you making?” she asked.

He set the bottle down on her side, a glint in his eye. “That’s a surprise. But I really hope you like. It would mean the world to me if you liked it.” There was more than just a glint in his eye now, there was a fervour, a searching look as he stood over her, scrutinizing her face. She raised the glass to her lips, afraid that he might try to kiss her, and worried because she was afraid. Was she here to try and work this out or not? Absolutely not, came Grace’s stern voice in her mind.

Frankie squealed from his seat, restless. Getting locked in his high chair also meant getting food, that was the compromise, and there was none that he could see. This snapped Mike out of his reverie. “The king has spoken!” he said, suddenly joyful. “I’ll grab the starter!” He hurried off to the kitchen and Tina tried to share a raised eyebrow with her son who only smiled quizzically at her. “Starter? That’s a little over the top isn’t it?” Frankie replied by kicking his feet loudly on the underside of the table.

She brought her other hand onto the rough red table top, the worn skin on her ring finger shining in the candlelight. Would he be mad if he saw it? Grace certainly would have been if she’d left the flat wearing it that morning. She’d told her she was going to visit her mothee and that hadn’t been a lie, she just hadn’t added the part about visiting her estranged cheating husband as well. Grace would have talked her out of it, and she was beginning to think that she shouldn’t of have let her.

Sometimes Tina wished she wasn’t so easily swayed, pulled and pushed from all sides. She needed to start making up her own mind, for Frankie’s sake. He deserved a strong mother.

Over the sound of the romantic playlist he’d put on the speakers, a bland Top 40 list, she could hear pots boiling over, the hob sizzling, and the occasional muffled curse word. What had gotten into him all of a sudden? He had never been a cook, the few times he’d even attempted to help her had been disastrous and now she wasn’t allowed to step foot inside the kitchen. Did he think this would make up for all the late-night internet chats? The pictures of all those women she’d found on his laptop? The thought made her sick and she gulped down more wine to ease her stomach. He’d promised that had stopped. That it wasn’t what she thought it was in the first place. To date, he had never even admitted to cheating on her.

And now he refused explain anything until after they ate.

That was the main reason she was sitting at his table now. She would tolerate the rock-hard vegetables and the burned meat if he would only tell her why. That magical word ‘closure’ would surely plug up the hole in her chest, or at least shave down the ragged edges. Grace said it didn’t matter why, that he was going to lie no matter what, but it mattered to Tina. And if he hadn’t been cheating, if it was something else like he said, well… that was another mystery she wanted solved.

By the time Mike kicked the kitchen door open again, a heavy tray in his hands, Frankie was full on fussing. Tina tried to distract him with a toy from his changing bag but he was on the verge of a meltdown.

“All right, wee man, all right.” Mike said amiably, pushing the tray onto the table. There were two soup bowls with what looked like chunky coloured water in them and a small plate of hors d’oeuvres. Mike presented Tina with her ‘soup’ and pulled his chair around so he could try Frankie with the small burnt bread he’s spread with some kind of pink paste. It looked like salmon.

“He really doesn’t like fish,” Tina interrupted, remembering the projectile vomit he’d had after her mother tried him on salmon slices.

“It’s not fish,” he told her simply, but Frankie didn’t seem to believe him. He strained against his seat, held his head as far away as he could get. Mike even tried the old airplane trick to get him to open his mouth, but it did no good. “Come on, little man. Just one bite. That’s all.”

Tina started to hover over the edge of her seat. They never forced Frankie. He ate what he liked and that was that, but she could tell by the strain in Mike’s voice that he was starting to lose his temper. He’d eat something else, why did it matter so much?

Finally at the end of his tether, the pink paste smeared on his ruddy cheek, Frankie started to really bawl, reaching out his hands for his mother. “Ok, I think he’s had enough,” she said, pulling him from his seat.

“I just wanted him to try some. He should try new things!” Mike stood up with her, the hunk of smeared bread still in his hand.

She pulled her son’s head onto her shoulder, his wail lowered to a hurt whimper now. “If he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want it.” She stared at him in disbelief, her turn to scrutinize his face. His cheeks were red from what she thought was the heat of the kitchen but she wasn’t so sure anymore. There was something like excitement in his every movement, what she’d assumed was nervous energy at the thought of making things right, getting his family back again, now it had her feeling cold. Had he been drinking as much wine as she had?

Needing an excuse to clear her head for a moment, she grabbed the changing bag by her chair. “I better go change him anyway.”

Mike threw down the uneaten paste. “Why don’t you change him down here, I’ll put down a towel or something.” He scanned the room for something suitable.

Tina already had her foot on the stairs. “It’s fine. I’ll take him to the bathroom. I need to go myself as well.” She kept her tone even but she watched him try and come up with an excuse, anything to get her to stay downstairs. “Is there something wrong with the bathroom?” She hadn’t seen it in months, and though she was sure there was no way he’d taken so much as an air freshener to it in that time, she couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t want her in there.

An image filled her mind of the magazine rack suddenly filled with pornos, or worse, another woman sitting on the edge of the bath in lingerie filing her nails, just waiting for the frigid wife to leave. Tina swallowed hard.

“No. Of course not. Just hurry back or your soup will get cold.” He smiled, but it was strained. She hurried up the stairs, suddenly feeling like this whole thing was a mistake. She should have just stayed with Grace.

On the upstairs landing she hesitated. She could hear him downstairs, slurping at his own cooking, but upstairs she heard nothing. To her left she saw the dark doorway of the master bedroom, their master bedroom, and clothes slung across the floor. Her heart beat as she pushed the bathroom door open and turned on the light. It illuminated nothing more offensive than the dirty streaks on the closed shower curtain and an overflowing clothes basket. She breathed a sigh of relief, scolding herself for being so paranoid.

But it was the paranoia that had led her to open up his laptop, to finally get to the truth. She considered this as she laid Frankie down on the changing table they had set up at the end of the bath. Tina had never liked the idea of having dirty nappies in bedrooms or living rooms; the bathroom was the only place for them. He was a lot less fussy now, ready to start his usual kicking game as soon as she unclasped the Velcro straps. She wrestled with him absentmindedly as she considered where she was.

Mike had begun to grow distant not long after Frankie was born. He’d stay later and later at work, eventually not coming home until after she’d fallen asleep. And when he was there, he was always on his computer, stopping only to do minimal duty as a father, but never to spend any time with her. Tina had convinced herself early on that she was losing it, imagining that his interest was waning. She’d managed to keep control of herself for a couple of months until one night, unable to sleep, she found him asleep on the couch, the laptop open on the coffee table in front of him.

She remembered that hurt, that deep down pain, worse than being in labour with Frankie at seeing those pictures. They were innocent enough, the ones on the screen, but they were still other women. Worse, some of them were women she knew, had known, some of them her friends. She hadn’t known then whether he was talking to all of them or if he’d just taken to saving their pictures from social media, but it made her nauseous regardless.

As did that message that popped up as she stood there, bent over his sleeping face lit up a sickly blue in the light of the screen. Tasty, huh?

Blinded by tears she’d still managed to pack her bags that night. He woke in the morning to an empty house. Eventually found her at Grace’s yelling from the front garden that he had never cheated on her, that it was all a mistake, but Grace had shut him down quickly, threatening to call the Guards. She hadn’t seen the laptop downstairs tonight. Did he really think he could explain this all away?

With Frankie clean and dry again, she let him sit on the bathroom floor for a minute while she washed her hands at the sink, trying to ignore the urge to give the place a good scrub. When she turned around, Frankie had something shiny in his hand. Her heart fluttered, thinking he’d found a razor blade or something, but as she dropped to examine it, she found his pudgy fingers wrapped tightly around a bracelet.

It was silver, a charm bracelet.

The threat passing did nothing to steady her heartbeat though. She’d seen this bracelet before, had bought the tiny bird charm that now hung over her son’s thumb. It was Grace’s.

She pulled it from his grasp, replacing it quickly with his favourite blanket from the changing bag. He didn’t seem to notice. With shaking legs, she brought him back downstairs.

She didn’t know what to do. Part of her wanted to run right then before he noticed, like she’d done three months ago, but she would only be going back to Grace’s. It couldn’t be true. Grace and Mike? Grace hated him. Unless she just wanted to keep you apart so she could have him. No, that was crazy, that couldn’t be happening.

With Frankie back in his high chair her fingers found her wine glass again. She drained it, emptying the rest of the bottle in as well. The heat in her belly gave her strength. She wasn’t running, not again. She was going to stay here, until he told her everything she wanted to know. Every fucking thing she deserved to know.

With liquid courage running through her veins she made to charge the kitchen right there and then, but the sound of a woman’s voice stopped her. She thought for a moment that she would pass out until she heard the words, “… once the onions are sautéed, you will need the crushed garlic from earlier to rub into the tenderised meat…” She laughed out loud, holding a hand to her mouth to stop from going hysterical. He was watching a cooking tutorial.

Before she could build up the momentum again to confront him, her phone buzzed in her bag. Clumsy now from the alcohol, she pulled it out to find she had three missed calls behind the one that was still incoming. She frowned down at the number, not recognizing it. With a quick glance at the closed kitchen door, and Frankie still content with his blanket, she slipped out the front door to take it. From the porch she could still see the high chair through the glass.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Tina, It’s Trevor.”

Her hand slapped her forehead a little too hard. “Trevor! I didn’t recognize the number. How are you?” Trevor was her friend from college, a computer nerd who now got paid for his skills. She hadn’t spoken to him in so long, if you didn’t count the email she’d sent him the day after… It was all coming back to her now.

“I’m good, I’m good,” he said slowly. She could feel it coming like a tidal wave, his calm tone was the tide slipping out to sea only to come rushing back in to drown her.

“I forgot I emailed you,” was all she could think to say.

He sighed. “Yeah. I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you. I wasn’t even going to do this, but Grace called me and… I felt like I needed to do something to help.” Grace. Did she have her hand in everything? Tina didn’t know how to feel about that name anymore, about the cold metal she still clutched in her hand. What the hell was going on here?

“Just tell me.”

He hesitated still, she could hear him clicking and typing. “I don’t really know what to tell you Tina. I don’t think you’d believe me if it was me just talking.” She glanced through the door to make sure he wasn’t coming. Frankie was still by himself wobbling from side to side, dancing to the music. “I’m going to email you what I have, the most important points. Can you call me back after you’ve had a look? I’m sure you’ll have some questions.” He sounded like he’d just told her someone had died.

And really someone had. The man she thought she’d married was dead.

She was sure she would have questions too. She agreed, hanging up and stepping back into the stiflingly warm house. She took her seat in front of her cold watery soup that looked to have unpeeled parsnip floating in it, her fingers aching; one hand grasping the phone, the other her evidence.

The phone was silent. Just as the angry thought rose in her mind that she should call Grace, she should ask her what the hell she was doing, he was back, this time with a silver domed serving tray, the kind you’d see in a fancy hotel. Tina froze in her chair, staring at the man she married, smiling over his shiny new apron like a cheesy Christmas card.

His voice was brimming with excitement. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want anything to burn and I figure you wouldn’t really want the soup anyway. It’s the main course that’s important!” He shook off the oven gloves he had on, laying them to the side. She watched as he shuffled around, grabbing her untouched soup and the plate of hors d’oeuvres from Frankie who was looking at the big shiny dome in wonder. She couldn’t bring herself to speak, couldn’t even bring herself to fake a smile but he didn’t seem to notice.

He placed a plastic kids plate on the table in front of Frankie; it was his favourite Spiderman one. This got him hopping but it was too far away to reach it. He set two adult sized ones out in front of him so he could serve on them, taking the biggest knife she had ever seen in his hands. His eyes were electric, like a magician about to do his big reveal. Then his face fell, his brow furrowed for a second.

“Hang on! I should do the veg first. It’s not a proper meal without the sides, just give me two minutes.” He held his hands up like he was commanding a dog to stay and disappeared back into the kitchen. Tina swayed in her seat, her empty stomach filled with rich wine and dread. She stared down at her phone again, Frankie making mewling noises in front of her, trying to get to his favourite hero. It always took ages for emails to get through to her phone.

The screen lit up.

One new mail.

Pots were being scraped in the kitchen. Contented humming had now replaced the frustrated cursing. Tina’s mind went blank as her fingers opened the screen, practiced movements leading her to her inbox.

He’d carefully labelled everything for her, making it clear that he’d been working on this for a while. Apparently getting into Mike’s computer had been harder than he expected, harder than it should have been for someone who was nowhere near tech savvy, but Trevor had reason to believe someone had helped him beef up his security.

The pictures were what drew her eye first, her heart thudding painfully as she scanned the faces. They all seemed to be from Facebook, some familiar, some not. Grace was there, but so was Tina, only adding to her confusion. Were these women he had slept with, wanted to sleep with? Women he was trying to strike up relationships with? Was he simply a pervert? Among the innocent profile pictures and the bordering on not so innocent beach holiday ones, were scattered porn pics. ‘Fetish’ pictures Trevor called them. Women tied with ropes, handcuffed, twisted up in bath tubs and covered in marks.

Frankie, having given up on reaching his plate, started babbling to himself, the background noise to Tina’s nightmare. There were documents labelled as ‘Short Stories’, the only attachments she actually knew about. He’d told her he was taking an online creative writing course, just for fun. Of course, she’d asked to read his work, but he’d stone walled her, assured her that he was working on some horror stories, that she wouldn’t like them. He was right about one thing. Fear kept her from opening them.

But the pictures of women weren’t the only pictures Trevor had sent her. There were also screen shots of conversations, but from what she could tell they weren’t with any women. She couldn’t make heads nor tails of all the acronyms and innuendos but she knew it made her skin want to crawl off her flesh. Along the bottom of the email was a list of sites, sites that he advised her not to look for, that she wouldn’t be able to find them anyway. Sites with names that made her head spin like ‘The Hungry Man’s Kitchen’, ‘The Forbidden Meat Locker’, and ‘Cannibal Cafe’.

Tasty, huh?

She was numb. An empty husk barely able to draw in breath. The chain of Grace’s bracelet rattled in her hand. Her eyes flickered to the silver dome in the centre of the table. Shaking, phone left untouched beside her wine, she reached for it. Realising something was about to be revealed, Frankie got excited, letting out a little high-pitched squeal as he watched her hand get closer and closer. She stopped just inches away, her fingers inching to the side instead where a single, white blonde hair was pinched between the dish and the lid. Slowly she pulled it free, holding it up to the light of the candle. Frankie was silent now, as though he could feel the tension in his mother’s blood.

The humming from the kitchen grew louder and her hand jerked, dropping the hair on top of the candle. It sizzled, disintegrating along the hair, leaving the hint of that horrid smell behind.

It took a moment for her to realise her breathing had become ragged. She was sweating.

Tasty, huh?

Wouldn’t you rather go out for dinner? Meet at a coffee shop? She heard herself asking him on the phone, trying anything to get out of coming back to the scene of the crime where her heart had been broken. No, he’d said firmly, too firmly, I want to cook for you. I’ll tell you everything after dinner. 

She found herself standing in the hallway, leaned down to press a kiss to the top of her baby’s soft head, wishing she hadn’t drunk so much wine that her head wasn’t so fuzzy. She moved into the dark hallway to the kitchen, only realising by the light in her hand that she had her phone with her too. The bracelet cut into her palm, the feeling there but distant, no pain yet. Something metallic hit the floor and she heard him mumbling to himself as he cleaned it up.

Grace’s bracelet. She had to know.

She pulled up the last dialled number and hit send. This was all a bad dream, a nightmare. It was just the wine confusing her, making her read funny. Once she sobered up a bit and got home Trevor would explain that it had all been a joke, that she’d gotten it all turned about and –

Muffled vibrations reached her. The high bell notes of Grace’s ringtone. She was the only person Tina knew who still used one.

All the commotion in the kitchen cut off abruptly. There was nothing but the phone ringing for a few seconds before she heard shuffling and thudding. She pressed her hand still gripped around the phone to the door and pushed, just enough to open up an inch, enough to see him at the back door, the coat hooks there. He scrambled around his own jacket, rifling through the pockets. She could only see his back but she saw him pull something out and stop. He stared at it for another few seconds, his neck straightening up, but not turning.

In her hand the screen went blank as the call ended.

Mike dusted his hands off on his apron and busied himself at the kitchen counter again, carefully arranging potatoes, carrots, and sauces into dishes. A heavy wooden chopping board beside him dripped something thick and red down the cabinet door.

Tasty, huh? 

Tina stumbled back to Frankie, gripped him tightly from behind and kissed his fuzzy head until he squirmed. Bemused and starting to really get hungry now Frankie watched her put her grown up toy on the table, the one he wasn’t allowed to touch. He grumbled as she took more of her bad juice. He wanted juice too. He wanted his Spiderman plate to play with. Why was no one feeding him?

The big shiny sharp thing rose up off the table in front of him, beside the big ball where the food was, that much he knew. He saw Mummy’s soft hands holding it, hoped she was going to use it to cut up his dinner, but she didn’t. She kissed him one more time on his nose, making him smile and shake his head and she was gone. He couldn’t turn around far enough in his chair to watch where she went, but he heard Daddy’s surprised voice. They must be getting dinner together.

Frankie jumped as the music in the speakers got louder. He couldn’t hear the voices anymore just the music. He forgot about the hunger in his belly. There was a baby in the big shiny dome, and he was dancing just like Frankie.

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