Hellraiser

Suellen Luwish lives in Austin, Texas, U.S.A.  Her poetry, short stories and articles have appeared in Penumbra, The Drummer, Focus, Seneca Review, Nerve Cowboy, Chiron Review and Möbius.  A regular contributor to Penny Dreadful and Songs of Innocence, she has twice been nominated by publisher/editor Michael Pendragon for The Pushcart Prize.  'Pretty Enough' originally appeared in 'Fearsome Features' on the U.K. Terror Tales website.  Ms. Luwish is proudest of having written the winning poem for an anthology by British author, editor and Terror Scribe Sue Phillips.  Ms. Luwish is most shamed by having accepted money for a humor column in Lawyers Digest, and suspects this transaction (which took place in Philadelphia) to have been the beginning of her bondage to Satan.

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It was so easy, really. Little things, like adding more detergent to the rinse cycle when I did his laundry, then drying it on hot, rather than fluff dry. So irritating that detergent was, he broke out in little bumps all over, and itched terribly. I didn't mind, not even when the bumps turned into red welted hives. Naturally, on hot, all his clothes shrunk, and Steve began to look fat long before I made sure he did get fat.

It's not much trouble to add alcohol to a bottle of shampoo or conditioner, just takes a second to run an emery board down the edge of a razor blade. And he slept surprisingly well, too much maybe. Probably the depression coming on. It's not very difficult to take a little snip here, a little snip there from the increasingly brittle hair of a sleeping, snoring man-certainly not with tiny nail scissors. Had he woken up, I would have smiled down at him as he should have smiled at me that morning three months ago, and said, 'You look beautiful when you sleep.'

But he hadn't smiled, and that wasn't what he'd said.

He'd said, 'I'm afraid some day I'll wake up and you won't be pretty enough.'

Maybe you think it's strange that I would move in with him after that, but when he asked me to, I did. There hadn't been much to say in response to Steve's remark, but I had conjured up a smile and my wits, and answered with, 'I know what you mean. Today's the day I woke up and realized you aren't nice enough.'

My lease was almost up, and I was ready to move anyway. The bar just across the street was nothing but drunken noise and loud music until 2 AM every night. His large studio and loft would be quieter, and give me a chance to plan my next move. Besides, whatever he said, the sex was good, and that mean streak of his had a lot to do with it.

Anyway, he was a photographer, and I was a model. He was used to judging women and I was used to being judged, just never so personally, and with such calculated cruelty. I'd worked with him, which is how we'd met, and of course, I was used to other women being around-some beautiful, some photogenic, and some that magical mixture of both. He was, of course, very good-looking and considered himself a great catch. He was accustomed to sleeping with as many women as he could, his specialty being sisters. I had already warned both of mine.

So there I was, going out on jobs, mostly local studio work and nearby location shoots, working out every day, and basically just letting my hair grow, while my lawyer friend, Michael, found someone to teach me the miracles of compound interest. At 32, my modeling days were coming to a close. The fair Irish skin that goes with blue eyes and red hair doesn't age well - I knew the bloom would soon be off this particular rose. Redheads are a small part of the American population, and the modeling industry never needs more than a few at a time. I knew the girl who'd be up next, and wished her as good a run as I'd had.

Steve went about his own business, and if the sheets didn't smell quite like me or my perfume when I came home, I just shrugged it off. Because often on my way home, I would stop to pick up some little treat for him. The man could simply not resist pastries or chocolate. Luckily, I can.

Or I'd stop at the vacant lot, and using a small towel, pick a little sprig of poison ivy. If he wasn't home when I got in, I'd get right to work with it, smearing it on his pillowcase, or face cloth, or inside his briefs. This was effective until I realized how seriously it would interfere with the sex, which was still good. I took a few weeks off, and refused to touch him, saying that, whatever he had, I couldn't afford to catch it. After all, he was just behind the camera, but I was in front of it. 

By the time the poison ivy cleared up, it wasn't difficult at all to forego the sex. Aside from being badly broken out from all the pastries, he was gaining weight. Stress had always made him overeat, and he was developing a serious cellulite problem. The dull razors were making a mess of his complexion, which had been really beautiful-very pale with dark freckles. His eyes were beautiful, too-a rare shade of rusty green. It made a nice contrast with his puffy reddened eyelids and the bloodshot whites of his eyes. His hair was a matte black, sort of wild with unpredictable waves. With the right haircut, just a little too long, he looked fantastic, but something had been nibbling away at that haircut, and he was spending an awful lot of time trying to get it to look right.

'You look fine,' I'd say, gazing at the unflattering mess of hair that made his cheeks look too fat, and his ears uneven. 'Can we please just go out now?' I, of course, made every effort to look constantly stunning, and he'd just sort of stand there in the bathroom looking bewildered, tugging at the black t-shirt that was stretched across his burgeoning gut. 

Since we were no longer sleeping together, I decided I could secretly spare him my birth control pills, and he took one regularly for three months every morning in his coffee. His sex drive lessened-a blessing for women everywhere, as his pectoral muscles were beginning to look decidedly feminine. He had been a fat child, I knew, and tended to gain weight around his hips and buttocks. Anxious and moody, every doughnut I brought into the house went directly into his mouth and settled like an inner tube on his hips. He looked bad, he felt bad, and without his arrogant masculine confidence, was rapidly losing his ability to work with models.

I, on the other hand, looked good and felt better every day. This was fun. I hadn't been a beautiful kid myself, but whatever I had going for me now, I was damned grateful for. It hadn't turned me into a tease or a bitch-just temporarily into the Avenger of All Womankind.

Women-although I hate to generalize-can do a lot of clever things with nail files, nail scissors, and the other small tools of their trade. Very quietly, I unstitched the backs of the armholes in his black leather jacket, then turned it inside out, and undid the lining in the same places. The next time he put it on and did that little shoulder gesture men do when they're settling into a jacket, the backs of the sleeves ripped open. I have never seen a face with exactly the expression his had at that moment. What joy!  How I wished every woman he had ever used and discarded could be there to see it! 'Anything wrong?' I asked.

He backed away from me, slipping off the jacket with some awkwardness, and said, 'No, no.  I think I'll just wear something else.' His voice cracked. I was beginning to think the birth control pills were very effective, no matter which sex took them.

That night we were dining at the Bonjour Tristesse. I don't really drink, but Steve downed a few too many at the bar before our table was ready. My lawyer friend, Michael, was there with a few friends, and I went over to say hello. We'd been in close contact since he'd been my boss, and had always enjoyed each other's company. Working with him had been a pleasure. He'd encouraged me when Ilona Freud of Freud Models walked into his office and decided that I, his receptionist, should take down my hair and stand up. Now he joked that he was working for me.

Michael introduced me to his friends, and gave me that big smile I'd come to love. He was both ingenious and ingenuous, a real sweetheart with light green eyes and prematurely white curly hair. He was about ten years older than me with a comfortable and appealing paunch, but he was the sort of man I knew would never really grow old. He had too much enthusiasm and love for life, books, friends, and nature. Michael was never neutral about anything. He loved a great book, he hated any instance of injustice. And he had absolutely no idea how attractive he was. 

'Are you here alone?' he asked. 'Join us!' he added, with a typically expansive gesture that included his smiling friends. I looked ruefully back at Steve.

'I'd love to,' I said, 'but I'm helping someone through a bad time-of course, I'm the cause of his bad time, but...' I shrugged and kissed Michael on the cheek. 'Lunch next week?' I asked. 'Only this time, let's not talk about my business assets!' His friends laughed, and I smiled and waved them all a little good-bye.

Steve was hunched fatly over the bar, the tan canvas jacket he had chosen stretched tightly over his back. He looked up sideways from his drink. 'And who was that?' he demanded. 

'The lawyer I used to work for. He's been great about getting me an accountant and...'

'Yeah, yeah,' Steve interrupted, dismissing Michael with a glance. Well, here we are, I thought-the good, the bad and the ugly, or at the very least, the not-pretty-enough. It's funny how women know whom they're going to marry. I knew it about Michael that night while Steve sat glowering over drinks. Michael knew it, too. I looked back down the bar at him, and it was there in his eyes. 

All Steve seemed to know was that everything was going wrong for him, and that, somehow, it was my fault. Of course, it was my fault, but even if it hadn't been, he'd still have thought it was. As I perched on a stool beside him, I thought, tomorrow I'm going to clean the bathroom grout with your toothbrush. The thought made me smile. 'What are you so happy about?' he groused. 

'You, Steve,' I answered. 'Living with you has made me very happy.' Now you may think Steve had already made his fatal mistake with that "not-pretty-enough" remark, but you're wrong. 

Steve was not a pleasant drunk. He looked at me as if I were the bathroom grout, and then made his fatal mistake.  He said, 'God, you're a dog.' No longer was I the good-natured Avenger of All Womankind. Inside me, the Witch Switch went on. The Witch Switch is not in every woman, and even those who have it don't always know how to use it. I knew. I'd studied with the best. As the oldest daughter, I had inherited a secret or two from my mother, a stunning and gracious woman for whom things somehow always turned out well. 

A dog, I thought, getting up quietly from the bar. I waved goodbye to Michael, and left. It was a short walk back to the loft. Once inside I double-locked the door so that Steve would not be able to get in without me opening the door from the inside. I was wearing a red dress, which seemed perfect for the little ceremony I was about to perform. 

I assembled a few things on the studio floor-a red candle, a needle, some of Steve's hair I'd clipped off, and a few old magazines. I flipped through the magazines until I found a photo of a puppy tugging at shoelaces in an ad for cross-training shoes. I ripped out the puppy part of the picture-from the angle, I was pretty sure it was a female, a little golden Labrador. And from the date on the magazine, I was pretty sure this "puppy" was now at least two years old. Then I pricked my left forefinger with the needle, and as it bled I wrote Steve's full name backward across the puppy with my blood. I sprinkled Steve's hair on the bloody name, and said the necessary words.

I know you're dying to know what the spell was, but one thing my mother taught me was that each spell should fit the occasion, and each one should be different, so I guess it's okay to tell you. Even if you do it, it won't work for you.  I said, 'Hey, Steve, how about a little hair of the dog that bit you? Hey, Steve, never bite the hand that feeds you,' and finished up with, 'All good dogs go to heaven.'  And then, very carefully, below Steve's name, I wrote God's name backwards, too, using blood from my right forefinger-and what do you know?  It spelled "dog!"  Then I spit on the photo. 

It was still a little damp, and burning hair doesn't smell very good, but I rolled the picture up and held it over the candle flame. What a stench! - but it burned, right down to my bloody fingertips.

I tidied everything up, changed the sheets on the bed, and went to sleep. I had an early shoot the next morning - "dawn at the docks" - a magazine editorial that wouldn't pay well, but would be a nice cap to my career. Sometime during the night, I heard a lot of scratching at the front door, and a whining sound. A dog started to bark somewhere and a few others answered, but Steve never came home that night. In fact, Steve never came home at all.

I'm kind of an animal lover, so I checked the papers for the next week, and saw the "FOUND: Golden Labrador female.  No collar." It gave a number to call, so I called, and the woman who answered sounded really nice. We talked a bit, and I said, 'No, I'm afraid the dog I lost was a puppy - yours is what, about a year or two old?' 

'Yes,' she said, 'and the sweetest thing imaginable. She seems so bewildered. If her owner doesn't call, I'm definitely going to keep her.' 

'Oh,' I said, 'that's wonderful.' And then, so she wouldn't feel bad about my lost puppy, I crossed my fingers and lied all in a rush, 'You won't believe this, but my puppy's back. My neighbor's holding her up at the window!'

'All's well that end's well,' she said. 'I'll let you get her. And thanks for calling!'

'Believe me,' I said, as the Witch Switch flicked off, 'the pleasure was all mine.'

 

 

(C) Suellen Luwish 2001

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.