Alijah Hill

Dinner sat on the table. It was a prime roast that had been simmering in the oven for the past four hours and forty-five minutes alongside perfectly diced onions, carrots, and potatoes–all the same size. The inner portion of the meat was rosewood colored, and the glaze was precisely and evenly distributed throughout the plate. The plate sat on an oak table that had just been shined, with a porcelain and a silver dining ware set for two. The plate had been cooling for three minutes and thirty-five seconds and only had thirty more seconds to go. A bottle of wine stood erect at the center of the table, with the cork remover delicately placed beside it on top of the steamed tablecloth. The bottle was chilled to precisely 54.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and by the time it was open, it would be a perfect 68.5.

At the end of the other table, Anya was perched in her linen dress, also steamed, smiling. Looking in, it would be impossible to tell which one was stiffer– her spine or her smile. She sat with her hands folded in her lap and both feet planted firmly on the floor. A younger Anya likely would have been bouncing her leg slightly, but she knew better; she sat perfectly still. Her hair was slicked back into a bun with little face-framing pieces that fell unnaturally, curled to mirror each other. Her makeup was modest but covered her imperfections–skin texture, dark circles, lines across her forehead– and her eyelashes were painstakingly separated by mascara. From not too far away, a life-size porcelain doll appeared to be sitting at the end of the table. The only thing that moved was her eyes, darting towards the clock on the outdated, green oven. 6:39 P.M., only thirty seconds more to go.

Above the oven was a cracked window, and though the dusk and evergreens made it difficult to see in the distance, she could hear the sound of a truck engine. Stars had already started to freckle the sky. Anya’s face was unmoved, yet it looked duller. Then came the familiar sound of tires on gravel at 6:40. Anya noticed a drop of condensation sliding down the side ofthe wine bottle and heading toward the tablecloth. Her stomach dropped, and she calculated her movements in her head. Anya stood up, grabbed the drying cloth hanging on the oven handle, wiped the droplet of moisture, placed the cloth carefully to dry, and resumed her perch– all in seven seconds. Everything else was unchanged, except Anya was noticeably breathing now. As the key turned in the lock, she stiffened even more and stretched her smile a little wider. 6:41 – thank God he was twenty-three seconds off. The door creaked open at the sound of the third lock being undone, showing its age and thirst for oil.

Daniel was a broad, scruffy, older man in a welder’s uniform and muddy work boots. He still had dust on his coat, presumably from the work site, and his salt-and-pepper beard outlined his small, thin lips. He was tall, grumbling, and exhausted. Anya bolted up and walked thirteen steps to the door to greet him.

“Welcome home, Honey,” she said with the same grin plastered on her face, “How was work today?”

Anya did not make eye contact with Daniel, but he didn’t seem to notice and handed her his jacket, unlacing his boots and completely ignoring the welcome mat as he did so. Bits of mud flecked the area surrounding the mat, but before Daniel noticed, Anya had already used the handkerchief in her pocket to wipe it up.

“Work was a bitch, but that’s the usual,” Daniel replied, his voice low and groggy. As he spoke, you could see flashes of his teeth that were crooked and stained with coffee.

“Well, I am happy you are home, my love.”

As Anya hung up his coat on the rack by the door, she smelled the familiar scent of Marlboro Reds on his jacket. She placed his boots on the rubber mat by the door so no more mud would get on the floors before she cleaned and shined his boots in the morning. She kept everything spotless. The only part of the house that didn’t look straight out of a catalog was a basket of colorful children’s books by the fireplace– it stuck out against the beige walls and terry cloth furniture.

“Dinner is waiting for you at the table,” she said, standing with her hands folded by the door. She knew the routine–she needed to sit down before he did. She just had to make sure she got all the mud up.

“Why don’t you go ahead and take a seat,” he said firmly.

“Of course, darling,” she replied, almost squeaking. “Just one thing,” she said a little quieter, “Did you remember my eyedrops, dear? I don’t wanna bother you, but I just ran out of my last bottle, and you know how my eyes are,” her voice trailed off as she spoke.

Daniel stared at her for about five seconds before walking over to the kitchen counter, taking a small clear bottle out of his pocket, and putting it on the counter with more force than necessary.

“What would make you think I would forget?” he asked her slowly, not breaking his gaze.

Anya’s face faltered for a third of a second before she took a deep breath, “It’s only because I am so forgetful. I wish I were more like you!” She laughed with her chest and walked the ten steps to the kitchen counter, picking up the eyedrops and putting them in her dress pocket. She then quickly returned to her chair, hands folded in her lap once again. Daniel took out his keys from his pocket and locked the three locks inside the door before finally taking his seat at the head of the table, with his back to the door, facing Anya.

“Another roast,” he grunted.

“We were running low on groceries, and I know you were really busy this week, so I made something with the stuff we had instead of asking you to run to the store,” Anya responded in a rehearsed explanation.

“Don’t worry, sugar, I’m just messing with you,” he said, his expression still firm. Anya looked up and let out a breathy laugh.

“Ha, yeah, you almost had me!”

“I do expect this to be the last roast this week, though,” he said a little too loudly. Anya breathed a little heavier.

“Of course. I’m sorry. I just want to do my best for you,” she said remorsefully, “Are you ready to eat, dearest?”

“Why don’t you go ahead and say grace, sweetheart?” he challenged her, raising an eyebrow as he asked.

Anya folded her hands on top of the table and finally looked Daniel in the eyes.

“Father, we thank you for this food. We know we are of sin, and you provide for us even when we deserve nothing. You keep us safe from the world’s evils, even when we deserve nothing. We know you are just doing what is best for us, even when it hurts.”

Her body was frozen in time, not even taking a breath as she continued, “You forgive us, despite our pride. You teach us to be subservient, for your dominion reigns true. You are our one true God, and for this, we thank you,” she finished, in an unwavering voice.

She didn’t dare to blink or break eye contact during this recitation. She imagined herself in this same chair just ten years ago, saying the same thing but much shakier. She was smaller then and far less smiley.

“That was good, Anya,” Daniel said, finally smiling back at her.

Daniel dug into his dinner so sloppily and so quickly that there was no way he was even tasting it. About three minutes in, now 7:13, he reached for the bottle of wine.

“A bit warm now, isn’t it?” he said, his words sarcastic yet emotionless.

“I’m sorry, my love,” she said sweetly, “It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. We don’t want to go back down there now, do we?” He sat up straight and grew in size.

Anya’s smile noticeably faltered, and her next breath was shaky. He hadn’t threatened that in years. She felt a horrible bubbling in her stomach. She looked down at her hands and was instantly taken back to the feeling of cold walls and concrete against her bare skin. Her wrists were heavy and bruised, and she felt the ache of atrophied muscles once again. Her heartbeat increased as she swore she heard the sounds of footsteps above her. The whole room went dark except for the faint light from the open window, just out of reach no matter how hard she stretched. She would cry at the sound of boots coming down the stairs, and she would try to scream, but her voice was too hoarse for any sound to come out. He promised if she were good, it would never happen again. She had been a good girl. She worked so hard to do good. She was a good girl. Her legs started to shiver, but she pulled herself back to reality and sat back up straight in the kitchen chair.

“It won’t happen again,” she said monotonously. A look of satisfaction flashed over Daniel’s face, now pouring his second glass of wine.

It was now 7:20, and Daniel had worked his way through half of his plate and finished his glass. His eyelids were a little heavier than before, and his movements with his fork and knife were blunt. His cheeks had begun to flush, and there were bits of food in his beard.

“Do you remember how we met?” Anya asked, unprompted. Daniel looked taken aback by her sudden outburst. Nevertheless, he went to pour his third glass before he replied.

“Of course I do. It was at the Stop-N-Shop back home. I remember you had those cute little braids, and you were trying to buy some shit,” he said, slurring his words a bit.

“It was a candy bar. A Milky-Way bar. Do you remember that?”

“Yeah…something like that.”

“But I didn’t have enough cash on me. I was a few cents short, so you offered to pay for me. That was so kind of you, honey,” she said, dreamily looking out the kitchen window.

“Well, what can I say, I saw a pretty girl in need, and I had to save the day,” he gloated. He went to take a sip from his glass but slightly missed his mouth, hitting his teeth instead. Anya cringed at the sound.

“Do you remember what happened next?” she asked, using her fork to play with the untouched food on her plate.

“I don’t fucking know, Anya. That was years ago,” he spat, taking awkwardly long pauses between each word.

“I was so ungrateful back then that I tried to leave the store without properly thanking you. So you followed me out to the parking lot. You asked me where my manners were.”

“Ah, yeah, I remember now,” he paused to burp, “You were such a little brat back then.”

“I said I was sorry. I was so worried you were going to tell my Mom. I wasn’t even supposed to eat candy, but you promised you wouldn’t tell on me. You were so kind.”

“Well, I’m not a narc,” he laughed, now finished with his plate. He was resting his head on his hands.

“Then you asked me if I wanted a ride, and I figured since you were so nice, it would be okay. And… well, the rest is history,” she finished, still gazing out the window. She glanced at the clock again. 7:46.

Daniel didn’t seem to be listening to Anya anymore, and the bottle of wine on the table was finished. He was moving sluggishly and stumbling on his words,

“You…were so…naive…back then. Now… you’re much more obedient,” he grumbled. He attempted to stand up to get a second bottle of wine, and he barely got out of his chair before he stumbled back and nearly fell off the chair altogether.

“It’s okay, honey! I’ll get you another bottle from the cabinet. It won’t be chilled, though. I only put one in the freezer.”

“Yeah… you… yeah…”

Anya started back to the pantry but rechecked the clock on her way out. 8:03. By the time she came back with Daniel’s final glass of wine, it was 8:07. She set it in front of him and went to start on the dishes.

“Where’s the rest of the bottle?” he asked, followed by a heavy swig.

Anya didn’t look up from her dishes, “Oh darn, I left it in the pantry. I’m such a scatterbrain sometimes. I’ll get it after the dishes, sweetheart.”

“Gooood, ‘cause…I’ll want to finish that before bed.”

“Of course, my love,” she replied as she turned around and smiled at him. She was humming to herself while doing the dishes, an unfamiliar activity that Daniel, now finished with his glass, was oblivious to.

“You…know…” he slurred after a long moment of silence, “I’m…so happy… we met. You… take such good…care of me…” he said, resting his head on the table.

Anya put the last dish on the drying rack and dried her hands with a towel. 8:32.

Anya bent down to the now half-sleep Daniel and almost whispered in his ear, “My life would have never been the same if I had never met you, Daniel.” After coaxing it out from under him, she put the tablecloth in the washing machine and wiped down the table.

She sat in the kitchen chair until the clock read 9:32. Daniel didn’t move an inch. She listened until his breathing stopped. Then she got up, went back into the pantry to retrieve the mostly full bottle of wine, and picked up the twenty-one empty eye drop containers she had left on the ground, putting them back in the empty box of boot polish where they once were.

Daniel had left a newspaper on the table a few weeks back before heading to work. After debating whether or not to read it for most of the day, Anya opened it up to find a story of a woman found dead and her friend arrested for poisoning her. The culprit wasn’t arsenic, rat poison, bleach, or something Daniel kept locked in the back shed, but a common household item: eyedrops. A colorless liquid containing high amounts of Tetra-hydro-something—a chemical that was deadly when consumed in high amounts. She read that it was tasteless but figured if he were drunk enough not to notice that the wine was watered down, she would be even safer.

She returned to the table and slammed the rest of the bottle down. The clock read 9:41, two hours and nine minutes before the anniversary of when she had first met Daniel.

“Here you are, honey!” she shouted. Daniel didn’t move an inch. That’s when Anya finally started laughing–cackling. She kept on laughing long after she had run out of breath, and she realized she had been crying the whole time, too. She went over to Daniel’s jacket, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed.

“911, where is your emergency?”

“I don’t know!” she shouted, almost doubled over from laughing.

“Ma’am, it is a crime to misuse emergency services.”

“No, no, I’m not. My husband…is dead,” she said, still laughing into the phone.

The operator paused for a moment, “What is your name, ma’am?”

“Anya Marie Smith,” as soon as she said this, she slowly stopped laughing.

“What’s your husband’s name, ma’am?”

“Daniel Lee Smith.”

“Are you sure he’s dead, ma’am? Can you check his pulse?”

“I can’t hear him breathing. That means he’s dead, right?”

“Anya, go ahead and check his pulse, and just stay on the phone with me.”

Anya walked over and pressed her thumb into his neck just like she learned in P.E. –it was faint, but it was still there.

“It’s a good thing you asked me to check. He’s still alive,” she replied in a low, somber voice.

“Anya, I’m on the phone with the police right now, can you tell me what it’s like where you are?” 

“There’s lots of trees and stuff outside…and some mountains,” she said softly. Anya started pacing back and forth while holding the phone to her ear.

“That’s good, Anya, I need you to stay on the phone with me. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, what do you like to do for fun?” the operator asked her.

“I used to like reading a lot.”

“I like reading too. What do you read, Anya?”

“I really like…the Ramona and Beezus books. They remind me of my baby sister.”

The operator softened her tone slightly and replied, “My daughter loves those books.”

“I kept asking Daniel if he could bring them home from the library or something, but he just kept giving me picture books,” she said, her voice straining a bit, “It’s our anniversary today, you know? I’m so silly—I’m so stupid—because I really thought I had been good and would finally get one,” she burst into tears again. Anya collapsed onto the table and sobbed for a while before she spoke into the phone,

“I’m so sorry I was laughing before that wasn’t very nice,” she said sheepishly.

“That’s alright, Anya, I just need you to stay calm.”

 Anya stared at the table for a minute and a half before suddenly standing up. “I gotta set the phone down right now, but I’ll be right back, okay?”

“That’s fine, Anya,  just don’t hang up the phone in case I need you again.”

“Okay, I promise I won’t—I just….give me one second.”

She returned to the counter, retrieved her rag, and wiped up her tears. She repolished the area she had just cleaned, fervently rubbing in circles. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window and wiped the makeup from under her eyes, and smoothed her hair. She put everything back in its place and glanced at the clock, 10:15. She picked up the phone again.

“I don’t think I ever asked you what your name was. I’m so sorry that was very rude of me.”

“That’s okay, Anya. My name is Linsday.”

“Lindsay. That’s a really pretty name,” she said, now standing over Daniel and staring at him. Her stomach dropped as the situation dawned on her. “Lindsay, if he isn’t dead… that means he could wake up. Oh my God! What I do if he wakes up?” she frantically screamed.

“Anya, just hang in there for me, okay?” Sirens wailed in the distance. “Emergency services are on the way, can you tell me what happened?”

But Anya had already tossed the phone back down on the table and retrieved the gun from Daniel’s holster. She pressed it up against the back of his head.

“Anya, hello? Are you there?” a faint voice spoke out from the direction of the phone.

“What happened?” she repeated, almost hyperventilating, “He kidnapped a twelve-year-old girl in Colorado fifteen years ago,” she explained through gritted teeth, fumbling as she tried to cock the gun.

“Anya, just hold on. Emergency services are almost there,” Anya heard Lindsay speaking quietly into a radio on the other end.

“You don’t believe me. Just look it up! Missing persons report from fifteen years ago,” she cried through heavy sobs. She kept the gun trained on Daniel and ignored the pounding at the door. The police were having trouble getting through the locks.

 “Her name. Was Anya. Marie. Wilson!” she screamed. Her whole body was trembling.

She heard a faint voice call back, “Anya, the police are there and trying to get in. Can you unlock the door for them?”

Anya stood there and looked over her shoulder at the door. She lowered the gun. Even if the eyedrops didn’t kill him, she could open it, and he would get arrested– he would be locked away forever. She would leave this house and be free. She could go back home; she could go anywhere. She wouldn’t have to cook, clean, or smile ever again. She would never smile again. Tears were still pouring down her face as all these thoughts raced in her mind. Then, she noticed the dirty work boots by the door and saw that there was still a single spot of mud on the floor outside of the mat.

She pulled the trigger. 

Alijah Hill is a member of the Northwestern University class of 2025.