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The Soldier's Wife

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    The Soldier's Wife

    1
    There were four of them in Denny's car that night: Randy, Austin, Rabbit, and, of course, Denny himself. The windows were rolled down despite the 40-degree temps, and soft, clean gusts of night chill mingled with smoke and perspiration. The remnants of a case of PBR – cans crushed, box flattened – dotted the car's floor like grave markers in a carpet cemetery. The ashtray was piled high with butts, prompting Denny to flick his used-up cigs out the window. "Monster Mash" warbled through the stereo speakers at medium-low.

    "You guys sure about this?" Rabbit asked from the rear right seat. Leaning in close, he spoke in a manic whisper despite the privacy of their surroundings. The Kroger lot was as good as empty when it hit high dark. "I mean, are you sure this bitch is game?"

    From the driver's seat, Denny killed the last of his beers and pitched the can back over his shoulder. It was no big secret that Rabbit was a virgin. Part of the reason he'd thought of Jenny Stokes was so the nervous little fuck could lose his cherry. His other motivations were of a less philanthropic variety.

    "Sure I'm sure," Denny replied. He would be 19 soon, a good year to 18 months older than Rabbit and Austin, and probably a full two years older than Randy. Randy was another charity case in his mind, a decent enough guy who desperately needed to learn how to live. "This chick will do anybody. My brother nailed her a bunch of times, and they weren't even going together. One time, they even let me watch."

    This wasn't quite true. The door to Keith's room had been cracked open, and Denny was privy to a chorus of grunts and moans. He could make out the barest sliver of flesh – it could have been his brother's, for all he knew – through that crack, but he dared not open it any further. Keith would kill him for sure.

    "Bullshit," Dustin said. He didn't talk much, but Denny thought he had the biggest balls of the bunch. Guys like Dustin were solid. You could count on them to watch your back, and that's why Denny brought him along.

    "I'm telling you, man," Denny insisted. "This bitch is a fucking freak. Keith told me she gave blowjobs under the bleachers during home games."

    "Yeah, I heard that too," Dustin conceded. "I also heard she got married."

    "To a soldier," Denny said. "Fucker's probably over in Iraq tapping some towelhead pussy as we speak. All that means is that Jenny's aching for it. Now are we gonna talk all night or are we gonna get some action?"

    No one said anything. The rebellion, however brief, had been put down, and Denny felt validated. But not validated enough.

    "Randy?" he asked, eyeing the kid from the rearview. "You in?"

    "In," Randy parroted after a moment's delay. The kid looked wasted. Denny doubted he knew where he was, let alone what he was signing up for. Fuck 'em, Denny thought. If he couldn't keep his shit together, he should have stayed home.

    2
    The house had been a wedding gift from Jenny's aunt, and while Jenny showed the gratitude expected of her, she really didn't care for it. It was small, for one thing: only two bedrooms. That was fine for her and Mike, but they'd feel crowded when the baby came, especially if they ended up with twins. It was also gradually falling apart. There was light water damage, and the walls had begun to show cracks. The grass outside had grown knee-high. As soon as Mike got back, they would talk about moving.

    The upshot to such a small house was that it made things a little easier on nights when Jenny felt lonely. Halloween was one of those nights. She'd spent the evening handing out candy to the few – but consistently cute – costumed children who stopped by, and she planned on spending the night curled up in front of the TV, missing Mike something awful. As recently as two years ago, she would have been at a bar knocking back candy corn shots in her sexy devil costume, wondering, with bemused excitement, whose bed she'd wake up in. But that was her old life. It didn't belong to her any more than a move star's life belonged to Shirley Temple.

    By 9 p.m., she'd settled in for the night. Old Jenny would have laughed at abiding by a self-imposed curfew (and a ridiculously early one, at that), but New Jenny realized that the kiddies had headed for home and the only people left roaming the streets were troublemakers and assholes. Besides, it had been a long week of work at the pharmacy and she needed some relaxation time, even if her secondhand sofa was none too comfy and the picture on her TV kept cutting in and out.

    Nevertheless, she was able to halfway focus on a network showing of The Exorcist (edited, of course, but still capable of scaring the bejesus out of her if she paid full attention). Poor little Regan MacNeil was on the verge of going completely haywire when Jenny heard a rush of footsteps up her path. She knew before she reached the door that she was going to have to deal with some drunken yokels. They stopped by every now and then – always different ones, and always eventually to leave disappointed – but Halloween seemed to bring the stupids out in droves.

    Through the front window, Jenny spotted four of them, all in black, each with a different monster mask. The tall one had a Jason mask, the fat one a Frankenstein, the wiry one a wolfman, and the other one a Dracula. All that was missing was the mummy.

    "Jenny," Jason-mask called, rapping on the door. "Jenny Stokes! You home, girl?"

    "No, honey," Jenny called back. "Ain't nobody here but ghosts. Why don't you run on home?"

    "And leave you all alone?" Jason replied. "Shit."

    Jenny bit her lip. There was something about his voice she didn't care for, something familiar. It wasn't a voice she heard every day, or else she'd be able to recognize the speaker. Still, she could swear she'd heard it before. Maybe it belonged to a customer from the store. Or one of the boys she went to high school with – there had been quite a few who still chased after her, married or no. Evidently, they hadn't gotten word that there was a new Jenny in town.

    "I think I'll manage, thanks," she said. "Who are you all, anyway?"

    "Open the door and we'll show you," Frankenstein said. His voice was alien to her – slightly deeper, more disaffected.

    "Yeah, let us in," added Wolfman. Predictably, his was higher and scratchier. It drew another blank. Only Dracula had yet to speak.

    Jenny sighed. She could tell them to fuck off, of course, but they would probably just curse her and linger. Who knows? She could even wake up with rocks through her window. With that in mind, she decided to open up. These boys obviously knew her, which meant they must have at least heard she was married to an active-duty soldier, which meant, drunk and up to no good or not, that it would occur to them that Mike would kill them if they tried anything. What was the harm in humoring them for five minutes?

    The door creaked open and they filed in, Jason, then Wolfman, then Frank, then Drac. They stood before her in their ridiculous masks and Jenny chuckled. Bank robbers they were not.

    "Would you boys like some Snickers?" she asked. "The little kids cleaned me out of just about everything else."

    "We didn't come for the candy," Jason said. He was probably going for menacing, but he was so drunk that it came out sounding ridiculous. Jenny was convinced that she was dealing with a bunch of teenagers, 16 or 17, maybe even younger. They'd heard about her, perhaps from older siblings, and they thought they'd get their first taste of manhood, liquor up and have some fun with the town whore, only Jenny wasn't the town whore anymore (and when she had been, she knew she wasn't the only one).

    "All right, boys," she said, placing her hands on her hips. "Let me get a look at you. Take 'em off."

    Wolfman tittered, and Dracula hung back by the door, head bowed slightly toward the floor. Jason and Frank turned their masked faces toward one another, as if to exchange glances.

    "You heard the lady," Jason said. "Let's take 'em off."

    And with that, he reached for Jenny's pants, his fingers prying their way between her jeans and her tummy before she was able to shove him away. He tumbled backwards into his compatriots, who kept him from hitting the floor.

    "I'm a married woman, you little shit," she snapped. "Now you all get the hell out of here before I call the law!"

    She thought that would be the end of it. They'd had their fun, but now that they knew she meant business, they'd high-tail it home before she got them in serious trouble. At least that's what her friends would have done at that age. For all their tough talk, there wasn't one boy she knew who didn't fear the back of his father's or uncle's hand.

    They didn't leave, though. They stood gawking for a moment while Jason regained his composure.

    "Come on, man," Wolfman said at last. "Let's go."

    "Nobody's going anywhere!" Jason bellowed. Drac, who had backed himself nearly out of the house, froze in front of the doorway. The others flanked Jason on either side, and he advanced slowly toward her.

    "I am NOT playing with you," Jenny said. She began looking around for something she could use as a weapon. There was a knife in the kitchen, of course, but that was out of reach. In the meantime, there was…a picture? A lamp? Shit. "You all get out, right…"

    Jason slapped her, and this time SHE staggered, drops of spittle splattering in every direction from her stung lips. The blow calcified the seriousness of her situation, and she immediately turned to bolt for the kitchen. She was halfway inside when two sets of hands got hold of her, grabbed her, and pulled her back into the living room and onto the floor. An arm across her throat choked off her cry for help in its infancy, and the telltale zzzzt of a zipper sent white-hot fear racing up and down her body.

    "I've been waiting a long time for this," Jason said, and, this time the voice CLICKED. It was Denny Parker, Keith Parker's creepy younger brother, the one who always made eyes at her when she came over, the one who missed half a year of school because he was in juvie, the one…

    "Denny," she whispered, the words agonizing to form with the arm pushing into her windpipe.

    "Oh, shit," Wolfman yelped. "She knows us, man. She…."

    "Calm the fuck down," said Frank. "She don't know nothing and she won't say nothing, neither."

    "Denny, please," Jenny croaked. "He'll kill you. Go. Just go."

    "Honey," Jason/Denny answered, "he's halfway around the fucking globe and you ain't gonna tell him nohow."
    She felt a pair of hands, possibly Frank's, press her face into the floor, the rough fibers of the carpet grinding and burning her skin. Everything after that was hazy, a half-remembered mishmash of embarrassment and fear and pain, but she never forgot what Denny said before they left her: Once a whore, always a whore.

    3
    "I don't understand why you won't come out with us," Tracy said. She was standing on his front porch, dressed like a bumblebee. When she first told him what her Halloween costume would be, he'd made jokes about tasting her honey. But now that the actual occasion rolled around, he found that he had very little to laugh about. Not even his girlfriend inviting him to come out and party could sway his somber spirits. "Is is that Rabbit thing still? I didn't even think you guys were close."

    "We weren't," Randy said. "Not really."

    "Then why? And don't tell me it's your parents."

    "It's not my parents. It's…look, I just don't feel like it, OK?"

    "Whatever. You just better hope I don't find me a flower I like better."

    He watched her go, feeling guilty that he couldn't talk to her, couldn't talk to anyone about what had happened the year before. There was so much about last Halloween he couldn't articulate even if he'd wanted to – he'd been so drunk and sick – but what little bits and pieces he recollected made him want to kill himself. He remembered sitting in Denny's car, nodding and laughing before the queasiness hit and rendered him mute. He remembered being in the woman's house, too, staring at her ugly tan carpeting through his mask while she offered them candy. He wasn't sure about what happened after that. She'd yelled something at them and tussled with Denny and Austin and it got so hot under that mask that he wanted to pass out, but he didn't dare take it off, didn't dare leave, either, because he was scared: too scared to get involved, too scared to get away, too scared to do anything but stand there in the doorway like a fucking statue and close his eyes, and hope that what was going on a few feet in front of him wasn't really a gangrape.

    Oh, and he remembered Denny, how crazy Denny had been afterwards, how he called him a pussy and a faggot for not taking his turn, how he threatened to cut his throat if he told, how Denny and Austin laughed at him he walked from the car to his house. Randy tried to avoid Denny after that. It turned out to be a remarkably easy task. After graduation, the dude up and split. No surprise there: he needed a job and no local employer in his right mind would hire any of the Parker brothers.

    The Rabbit thing was harder to figure out. He'd seen Rabbit around school the rest of that year, said hey to him, and regarded him as a casual kind of friend. He figured Rabbit would be one of those guys Randy would always keep running into, and that was fine, as long as neither of them talked about that night. But then, in the thick of summer, a few weeks before school was set to start, Leonard "Rabbit" Arnevet went out and shocked the world.
    When the sheriff's deputies found him, he was on the floor in Dustin's bedroom, naked, jacked on meth and rambling incoherently. An equally naked Dustin lay in the bed, cold and stiff after Rabbit slashed him repeatedly with a knife. At first people were shocked, not only that something like that could happen HERE, but that RABBIT, of all people, could be the perpetrator. He was socially awkward, yes, but he seemed utterly incapable of such violence. But then the rationalizations began to take root: Rabbit WAS always kind of nervous/manic, maybe there had been a weird sex thing going on and Rabbit got sick of being Dustin's bitch, maybe he simply had a bad trip. Through the logic of gossip, there were infinite truths.

    Rabbit, for his part, insisted that he had been drugged and kidnapped by a soldier who wore bandages wrapped around his face. He stuck to this story even after de-toxing, tossing an emphatic "you gotta believe me!" at anyone who happened to hear it. He was promptly declared incompetent to stand trial, and the last Randy heard, he'd been spending his days at a psych facility two hours away.

    In a way, the misfortune was a comfort to Randy. There was no one left to remind him of that night save for the woman, and the woman – he long gave up trying to figure out her name – hadn't pressed charges. For a few nights in early November, Randy lay awake, waiting for the sheriff's men to come busting down his parents' door. But the longer that passed without anything happening, the easier he began to sleep. A year later and it only really bothered him when he thought about it. Five years later, he hopefully concluded, and it would be forgotten entirely.

    He'd gone back inside after Tracy left and vegged out in front of the TV. The Exorcist was playing, but it was edited and he'd seen it before. His parents seemed as perplexed as Tracy had been with his mood. Why aren't you going out with your friends, they asked. Tomorrow's not a school night; you're allowed to have a little fun. Are you feeling OK…

    The litany of questions finally persuaded him to go out. He'd show up at the party, apologize to Tracy, and pretend to be happy. Maybe he'd do such a good job of pretending that he'd convince himself, too.

    The party was maybe half a mile away. Randy thought about driving, but he decided it would be better to walk. He would take the time to clear his head, to practice miming "normal." If he was lucky, he'd even think of a costume he could improvise along the way.

    As he shuffled along the side of the road, Randy became aware of the low rumble of an engine behind him. He turned to look over his shoulder and got an eyeful of highbeams. Then, the driver gave it some gas and the vehicle jolted forward. Randy watched the vehicle – it turned out to be a pickup truck, of course – pass him on the right. He didn't know who said it first, but it was certainly true that Halloween brought out all the assholes.

    He had just passed the Hendersons' when he heard the awful squeal of peeling rubber and saw the same two cones of light bearing down on him again. The driver had pulled a 180 and was coming back his way fast. Randy instinctively jumped from the side of the road onto the nearest property, falling hard on his shoulder as he hit the Millers' lawn. The truck came to a stop just a few feet away, and the first thing Randy noticed after the door opened and the driver stepped out was a pair of combat boots. He knew a bunch of guys who wore them, and they were all dicks.

    Cursing, Randy pulled himself to his feet. He wasn't violent by nature, but he was sure ready to take a swing at whoever ran him off the road.

    "You think this is funny?!" he yelled as he walked around to the driver's side of the truck.

    Instead of the expected half-drunk teenager with a shit-eating grin, Randy encountered something he'd previously dismissed as nonexistent. Standing before him was a figure in military fatigues – it was too dark to make out the branch of service. The soldier's face was wrapped up in bandages, the dressings cloaking everything save for the eyes, nose, and mouth in the anonymity of white.

    "What are you supposed to be?" Randy asked.

    The soldier replied by swiftly punching him into unconsciousness.

    4

    Just before he blacked out, Randy had a vision of Rabbit waking up in Dustin's room and finding his friend dead beside him. As he drifted from consciousness, Randy wondered if a similar fate awaited him, or if he would even wake up at all. He wasn't sure which he should hope for.

    His eyes opened to darkness, but it was an indoor darkness. He felt a bed beneath him and something – rope or cord – anchoring his limbs to it. He'd been robbed of his clothes. Frantically, he searched the room for slumped or crumpled human forms, and breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't see a bloodied bumble bee outfit before him. That was about all he had to be thankful for: he hurt in more places than he cared to count.

    He was barely awake a minute before he heard footsteps. The door to the room opened, and a light flicked on overhead. Randy found himself face to face with the soldier, and in the soldier's hand was a combat knife. Randy started to scream, but the soldier held a finger to his lips. Don't talk, the blank face commanded. Just think about what you did to end up here.

    Randy racked his brain and conjured forth a year ago, the fear of the present overtaking the despair of the past. He saw bigger pieces now. He remembered Denny saying the woman had gone with his brother. But what was her name? Started with a J, he thought. What else about her? Dustin: I heard she got married. Denny: To a soldier. A soldier, like the one standing in front of him wielding a very sharp knife.

    "Please," Randy begged. "I…I didn't do anything to your wife, I swear. It was those other guys. Look, I wanted to help. I just got scared."

    "I know you did," the voice replied. Randy froze. It was a female voice. "Little Drac in the doorway. Jason and Frank called you over, but you wouldn't budge. Of course, you didn't try to stop nothing, either. Didn't go get help or turn your buddies in. And that brings us to why you're here right now."

    Slowly, the soldier unwound the bandages, revealing the face of a woman. THE woman. J, something. Jenny. He was sure of that now. Her name was Jenny.

    "Why now?" Randy asked. "Why didn't you go to the sheriff? Denny said you knew who we were."

    "I knew who HE was," Jenny corrected. "I didn't find out about y'all until he told me."

    "He told you?" Randy echoed.

    "Mmmhmm," Jenny said, nodding slowly. "He told me a lot of things. 'Course now he won't be telling anyone anything."

    Randy felt sick. He turned to vomit, but the most he could manage was a dry heave. His throat burned, and his eyes were flooded with tears. She'd killed Denny and Dustin and framed Rabbit, and now he was next. His only hope was to keep her talking.

    "Wh…what happened to your husband?" Randy asked. "The soldier?"

    "My husband," Jenny said, sighing. "My husband Mike. I couldn't bear to tell him, you know. Not while he was thousands of miles away. It would kill him to find out like that. So I held onto it. It ate me up, but I kept it to myself until he got home. I thought as long as we were together, I'd get past it. We'd move on. But Mike, well, Mike didn't see it that way. He couldn't understand why I didn't let the law take care of it. He wouldn't forgive me from keeping that from him. And when he found out I couldn't have any kids, that just did it for him. He was going to leave. I made sure he didn't."

    "He's…"

    "…under the tree out back. I talk to him every day."

    "Oh God," Randy said. He never felt farther from the Allmighty or from anyone else, for that matter. It was just him and her in that room, and soon enough, there would just be one of them.

    "Do you want to know why I haven't killed you yet, honey?" she asked, her voice as tender as a marinated steak.

    Randy shook his head and pinched his eyes shut. He couldn't bear to look at her.

    "Two reasons," she explained. "The first is that I believe people can change. I did a lot of bad stuff when I was your age. I ran with a lot of boys. But then I found Jesus and I met Mike. I had me a respectable job at the pharmacy. I'd changed. And when you boys took all that from me, I changed again. Now some people – like Denny – they can't change. He was born bad and he died bad. The little guy? Rabbit? Maybe one day he'll get better. But you? You can change. I have that feeling about you.

    The other reason is that I'm lonely. There ain't no one I can talk to about this. You're the only one left. You know what that's like? Hell, I know you do. I saw you talking to your little girlfriend earlier, saw the way you turned away from her. You been keeping this inside you the same way I have. Not no more though. You and me? We can talk to each other, OK?"

    "OK," Randy said. "OK. We'll talk and I won't tell anybody else. Nobody would believe me anyway. Please, just let me go."

    "Honey, you don't understand," she told him. "You and me, we're together now. I don't have no husband and I can't have no kids, so you're gonna have to help me out here."

    "But my parents!" Randy protested. "My friends!"

    Jenny shrugged. "Ain't my problem. No more talking, now. I need to get you ready."

    "Ready?" Randy asked. "Ready for what?"

    She ignored him and walked to the closet. With her back turned, Randy had no way of knowing what she had gone to retrieve. A moment later, she ended the mystery. It was a large blue diaper, bigger than any baby diaper he'd ever seen, big enough, he surmised, to fit him.

    "What's that for?" he asked.

    "I don't want to have to tell you again to hush," she said. She slid the diaper under him and fastened it snugly shut. Long after she set the knife down, Randy continued to balk at her touch.

    "Now," she said. "You've got a choice to make. See, you're staying here with me no matter what. We have a lot of changes to make. We're gonna start over, Randy, just you and me. What you need to figure out is if you wanna be awake for it or not."

    Randy looked at her as if she was speaking in tongues. Awake? Changes? Awake for what? It dawned on him that keeping her talking wasn't such a great idea after all. The more she spoke, the more confused he got.

    "There's a little something I can give you," she continued. "It'll put you out awhile. When you wake back up, you'll wake back up in a new life. It'll be just like that Matrix movie they come out with. Of course, that's assuming I figure the dose right. Or, there's something else I can give you, for your shoulder. You'll be out a few hours, and when you wake up, you'll feel better and we'll go work on this new life together. Thing is, if you give me a lot of trouble, you could end up joining Mike under the tree."

    "Oh God," Randy said. "Oh Jesus Christ!"

    Jenny kept right on talking. It was almost as if they were on different planes of existence. From the tone of her voice, the bound, naked young man in her bed could have been someone who'd dropped by for afternoon tea. She was so far gone that Randy wondered if it would have been better if Denny had killed her that night. She would have died rather than changed into…well….THIS.

    "Anyhow, either way you're going to be needing this for awhile," she said, patting the front of his diaper. "I figure at least the next year or so. We've got a lot of work to do."

    A year?! Work? Randy tilted his head back. It was too far down on the bed for him to hit the wall. But in time, he could inch his way up there. A couple of good, hard knocks would end this craziness once and for all.

    Oblivious, Jenny smiled at him and unzipped a small black case. She withdrew two syringes and held one in each hand. The one in her right hand was considerably larger than the one in her left.

    "Well, hun?" she asked. "What's it gonna be?"

    END
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