We’ve been mingling at this benefit for two hours now, and no one has noticed I’ve not said a single word.
No one ever does. They all watch Robert, with his movie-star smile and his bleached teeth and his calm, caring aura that can charm ten grand out of a man’s alligator-leather wallet without so much as a blink. All while I, the very picture of the devoted wife, smile and keep my lips pressed tightly together, doing my duty.
I’ve lost track which cause this benefit is benefitting, but they’re all the same. Pediatric hospital foundations, underfunded elementary schools, woe-be-gone animal shelters. Robert sniffs them out like a shark in bloody water. Causes any decent person would donate to if they had the extra nickel, but get the city’s wealthiest businesspeople in a museum or an art gallery and throw some free champagne on silver platters, and suddenly Robert’s “percentage-based organizational fee” soars into truly unethical heights.
I shift my weight to ease the burning in my feet from my stilettos, and Robert’s arm around my waist tightens, his fingers digging into the soft flesh above my hip bone. I know better than to wince.
“The Thomlinson grant will fund at least four more years of research,” he’s explaining to a couple standing with us. “But with just a few more generous donors, we can plan far enough ahead to really make a difference.”
She’s a soft-eyed blonde who sighs up at my husband, but he watches Robert with shrewd eyes. His hands are rough, his cheeks laced with the delicate capillary web of sun damage and drink. He glances around the soiree. “All this costs a pretty penny too, I imagine. What’s the overhead?”
Robert’s unspoken sharp reply passes from his body to mine with a shiver, and when it swells at the base of my tongue, I’m ready. My expression gives nothing away as the lump sharpens and grows bitter spines, and I swallow before it gets unwieldy. I’m afraid for a moment it gets stuck, but I work my throat again and it goes down. Robert smiles, and when he speaks his voice is smooth and warm as an oiled bath. “Operating costs are of course built into the budget, but you’d be surprised how many generous sponsors have covered the costs of fundraising.” He gives me a single, approving squeeze. The man nods, won over, and pulls out his check book.
Sharp retorts. Bitter judgements. Viscous lies and misdirections that coat my tongue like mucus. It never used to be like this.
Ten years ago when we touched, the words he held back slipped down my throat like melted chocolate, and when he pushed me up against the bedroom door and tangled his hands in me, it was ecstasy to feel him everywhere, all at once. His unspoken passion and lust and wild abandon poured into me, made me drunk off of him. It never—
“Marie.” Robert looks down at me, his deep brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “It’s time.”
I follow him onto the low makeshift stage as he introduces me as his rock, his support, the only reason he can accomplish what he does. His hand clenches around mine with the inevitability of an iron shackle. He makes a “Behind every successful man” joke, and then gets serious about the generosity, the goodwill, the sacrifice of all those gathered in the room.
And with each lie that falls effortlessly from his lips, hard seeds of his disdain and resentment sprout in my throat. Like pearls, like broken teeth, I swallow them, one after another after another. His loathing of those he’s secretly afraid are better than him. He’s never told me. He’s never had to. I’ve swallowed his hatred every day of our marriage.
The lights are bright in my eyes. The heat of them presses down on me like a boot on my chest. Another seed forms on my tongue, just as Robert glances back to look adoringly at me, and I taste the truth of his love for me.
Sour and burning, like bile barely held down. I hold it between my teeth and meet his eyes.
Robert’s smile holds, then falters just enough.
The crowd beyond the lights is rapt. They wait for him to continue.
His disgust for me stays trapped in my teeth like a chunk of gristle.
Robert clears his throat and runs a finger inside his collar. “Marie? Everything alright?”
The very picture of the perfect husband.
I don’t swallow. His eyes narrow.
It grows needle-sharp with his unseen anger, and the copper-rich taste of my own blood mixes with the fire and bile.
In one quick movement, I wrench my hand from his, severing our connection, setting him adrift.
Robert coughs and turns quickly to the audience. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. My wife seems to be feeling unwell.”
He moves toward me but I evade his touch. And then I do something I’ve only ever done in my dreams.
I spit the great, shredded mass of glass shards and bloody flesh onto the floor between us. Liquid dripping down my chin, I bare my teeth in a wide smile.
The horrified gasp that erupts from the crowd sings in my ears. The blood at his feet glistens in the spotlights, more beautiful than all the diamonds in this room. I keep my eyes on Robert’s as I back away, off the stage, to a side door propped open for the night air. He wipes his mouth with a hand and tries twice, three times, to find something to say.
Voices call out. Concerned. Confused. Insistent.
Still he stays silent, crushed under the weight of his own words trapped in his throat.
When the first questions ring out from the crowd, I finally turn my back.
I let the door slam shut, and imagine the sweet smell of the ash when he burns himself to the ground behind me.
Angela M Cowan is a writer, editor and witch living on the West Coast. She loves strange fiction and fairy tales, and can often be found spending too much time listening to mosses. Follow her newsletter Inksmithing for monthly doses of writing exercises, books recs, occasional flash fiction and general hedge witchery.