Playing God was a piece I submitted for my Fiction writing: Short stories and starting out unit in second year. It was work-shopped in class and got a great response, as the subject of hypnotism was unusual as a plot device … for our class, at least.
A notoriously light sleeper, Rose’s eyes would normally have flickered open at the slightest creak of the floorboards in the hallway. But this particular night she was so tired not even the incessant barking of the next door neighbor’s dog could keep her awake.
That is, until two powerful hands closed around her throat.
Rose’s eyes bulged with shock and pain. Her hands reached up to try and prise the thick fingers from her neck. When that didn’t work, she flung an arm out and connected with a smooth metal circle – her alarm clock.
Grabbing it, she hefted it at the vague dark shape above her.
He hissed in pain, muttered ‘Fuck’; but those hands held fast. Rose felt her strength ebbing.
Then she remembered it – her “insurance policy”. The one she hoped she’d never have to call on.
Sliding her hand down beside the bed, she felt around between the mattress and base, silently praying to be able to use it before she ran out of oxygen. Luckily she’d done enough damage with the clock to make him loosen his chokehold a little. But he was still throttling her. Light began to flash behind her eyelids and she heard small whimpering sounds, as though a small animal was trapped somewhere in the wall behind the bed-head.
That’s you, you dumb-bunny.
Finally her fingertips found cold steel. Grasping the handle, she threw her arm in an arc toward her attacker.
Hot wetness smacked her chin, throat and chest. The hands around her throat went slack and a horrible, guttural gurgling sound filled the room.
Rose pushed at the stranger straddling her, weakly at first but as her strength returned, harder. He fell beside her on the bed. Rose rolled in the opposite direction and fumbled for the lamp switch.
She blinked and squinted, shielding her eyes from the sudden light source. Her alarm clock lay on the floor by her foot. Must have bounced off the bed when I hit him, she thought.
His blood saturated the front of her pyjamas. The warm, coppery stench of it made Rose feel sick. Fighting back the urge to vomit, she turned to face the man on her bed.
Her eyes widened in shock, but somehow, she didn’t scream.
Henry? What the hell?!
Her husband’s eyes were already glassy; his usually ruddy complexion grey. His fingers were slipping from the gash in his neck, and the gurgling quickly became a death rattle. Not knowing very much about human anatomy, she was amazed – and repulsed – by how much blood there was. It seemed to be everywhere. All over Henry, as well as herself, but still more on the bed and as she glanced around she noted splatter on the curtains and in the daggy shagpile carpet she’d always meant to pull up.
Must have hit an artery, she thought. Jesus Christ!
The full weight of what she’d done began to hit her. Her chest tightened. Suddenly, the air in the room seemed dreadfully thin (not to mention rank with the odour of blood). Gasping, Rose heard a voice in her head that was not her own.
Slow down. Take it easy. Long, slow breaths. Good girl.
She felt – or imagined she felt – the gentle pressure of a hand on her shoulder. Not her husband’s. No, Henry’s were very rarely gentle.
It was as if he was right there, in the room with her. She felt comforted by that. She felt sure he’d know what to do in a situation like this.
Bloody hell, what are you thinking? You can’t call him!
But that seemed to be exactly what she was doing. Rising from the edge of the bed, she moved zombie-like around the tableau of death that had once been her queen-sized, pillow-top mattress, and headed for the cordless phone on Henry’s side of the bed.
‘Paul? I’ve done something … bad. Really, really bad.’
‘Rose? Is that you? Where are you?’ His voice sounded muffled. Probably because you just woke him up, you damn fool. This time the no-nonsense voice in her head was her own.
‘I’m at home,’ she told him. ‘I’m in my bedroom. With Henry.’
‘Uh Rose? A little too much information there, if you know what I mean.’
Rose felt her cheeks grow hot. ‘What? Uh … I just … well, he was …’
‘I’m kidding, Rose. It was a joke.’
A joke? Rose thought. He’s joking at a time like this?
‘Rose, are you still there?’
‘Yes.’ Rose sank to the blood-mottled carpet, clutching the phone like it was a flotation device.
‘You sound funny. You’re not going to faint, are you?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Are you sitting down?’
‘Good. Now, what happened?’
‘H-he … he tried to kill me. I woke up … and he had his hands around my neck. But I didn’t know it was him at the time. He’s supposed to be at work. I thought it was an intruder.’
‘What did you do, Rose?’ He didn’t sound shocked. Rather, it seemed as if he almost expected the news. But that’s crazy, Rose thought. Or is it? He never liked Henry. He always said that one day Henry might go too far … And look. He was right.
‘I stabbed him,’ Rose told him, her voice croaking, and coughed to clear it. ‘I killed him.’
‘Rose, why are you calling me? You have to call the police. If he was trying to strangle you, that’s self-defence. But if they check your phone records – and they will, because it’s routine – They’ll know you called me first. That’ll look suspicious. Hang up, and call the police, Rose.’
‘Okay, I will.’
‘Good girl. Oh … and Rose?’
‘Are you okay?’
She could almost see him, just as he’d looked earlier that day, after a matinee performance that didn’t go quite the way he’d hoped. His dark hair had been slightly mussed – probably from running his hands through it – and his wire-rim glasses crooked. Not that he’d have them on in the middle of the night, but Rose liked to imagine him wearing them. It was oddly comforting.
‘Yeah… yeah, I’m okay.’
‘Great, that’s really good to hear. Now call the police.’
Rose did as she was told. Her voice sounded hollow as she explained to the dispatcher what had happened. They promised to send a car around ASAP. Hanging up, Rose headed for the bathroom, and leaning over the basin, brought up what was left of dinner.
Coughing and spluttering, she splashed her face with cold water. Blood and vomit mixed as they circled the drain. Her pyjama top stuck to her skin and she pulled it away, grimacing. The thick, viscous blood was already drying and had a cloying smell that was causing her stomach to convulse again. She’d have torn it off and burned the damn thing if it wasn’t considered destroying evidence. The tips of her auburn hair were streaked with gore.
That she could at least do something about, couldn’t she?
Rose leaned over the basin again and rinsed the ends of her hair until the water ran clear; then wrung them dry. That done, she reached up and tucked a strand behind her ear – and was automatically thrown back to earlier in the day, when Paul had done the same thing.
Not normally one to chastise someone for bad behaviour – especially not her boss – Rose nevertheless had to know why he’d played God with the contestants on his show. One poor guy, when instructed to kiss someone he fancied, had walked into the audience and locked lips – not with his girl, but with the girlfriend of his best friend. Fisticuffs ensued and security had to pull the former friends apart. A friendship was probably ruined, and all because Paul thought it would be fun to mess with his hypnotic subjects in a way he never had, previously.
‘I mean, it’s not as if the show was losing steam,’ she’d pointed out. ‘Just the opposite – we’re getting bigger crowds every time. So why play with people? I mean, obviously that’s what the show is about … but you crossed a line, Paul. You were never mean, before.’
‘You’re right. It was wrong of me,’ Paul eventually admitted. ‘I don’t know what I was doing…’ He shrugged and bit his lip. ‘Maybe you can chalk it up to over-confidence. I got cocky, that’s all.’
She’d managed a weak smile. ‘You’re good at what you do. You don’t have to show off.’
Paul had noticed something then, and had taken a step closer. Reaching out, he pushed her hair behind her ear. ‘And you’re getting better at covering up for him… but I can still see it. When did he do this?’ Paul’s fingertips grazed the bruise on her cheekbone, carefully camouflaged with copious layers of foundation. Or so she’d thought. Rose flinched.
‘I don’t know… Yesterday?’
‘You can’t remember when? It’s getting that common?’
Rose felt a flash of irritation. ‘It’s none of your business.’
Paul frowned. ‘Probably not, but … I care about you, Rose.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t apologise. You have nothing to be sorry about. He’ll be sorry, when I catch up with him.’
‘Oh, please, Paul… Don’t do anything. You’ll just make matters worse,’ she pleaded. ‘I can handle him.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Clearly.’
He sighed. ‘All right. For now. But if he hits you again, I’m not making any promises.’
‘I can live with that.’
‘I hope so.’ He reached out again, this time lifting her chin so she’d have to meet his eyes. ‘You’re too good for him. You know that, don’t you?’
She opened her mouth to say something (she wasn’t sure exactly what; probably something self-deprecating, under the circumstances) but was interrupted by none other than the object of their mutual contempt.
‘Rosie! Oh, there you are. What the hell’s taking so long?’ Henry spotted Paul, and his top lip curled, baring his teeth like a dog when it’s threatened.
‘Oh… It’s you.’
Paul’s arm dropped. He took a step back. ‘Yeah, I’m sorry to keep your wife late. We just had some stuff to discuss.’ Paul faced Henry down directly. ‘Strictly shop-talk, I assure you.’
Henry regarded Paul with suspicion, but said nothing. Instead he draped a possessive arm over his wife’s slim shoulders. ‘Let’s go, Rosie.’
The moment they were out in the carpark – and conveniently out of earshot – Henry stopped just short of his car and turned Rose toward him, gripping her upper arms so tightly Rose knew she’d have bruises the next day.
His eyes were narrowed, making them even smaller than usual, and his jaw clenched. ‘I don’t like you working for him, Rosie. I don’t trust him.’
Why? Rose had wondered silently. Is it possibly because he’s younger, fitter and better-looking? Or because he’s smarter than you could ever hope to be? He’s already got you figured out.
Rose shrugged. ‘Well, there’s the mortgage, so … I don’t have much choice. Anyway, he’s harmless.’
‘Harmless, my arse! Henry scoffed. ‘He’s a hypnotist. He manipulates people for a living. You could get a job as a stage manager anywhere you wanted. What about the theatre?’
Yeah, what about the theatre, Rose thought. Plenty of guys there who won’t try to hit on me!
But of course she never availed him of her private thoughts. To do that would be inviting more trouble than they were worth. Or maybe I’m just as much of a coward as he is, she conceded. Yeah, that’s probably it.
‘Well?’ His grip on her arms got tighter.
Henry sighed and rolled his eyes. ‘What about getting another job?’
Rose had stared at her husband with a mixture of disbelief … and something akin to hatred. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, well, why don’t you get another job? But again, that would earn his wrath.
‘I’ll start looking,’ she said, to shut him up. Not that she had any intention of actually sticking to her word.
‘Good’ he’d said, and that had been the end of that.
Now, as it turned out, it really was the end of that. The end of coming home and wondering what mood Henry would be in; the end of those humiliating visits to the emergency department where she could practically read the minds of the triage staff who attended her broken body and spirit. Yes, there would be no more of that.
Rose found herself standing just a little bit taller at the thought.
Is that cold? She wondered. To be relieved – no, glad that he’s dead? He’s my husband. I ought to at least be in shock.
The doorbell rang. The homicide detectives standing on her front porch were in their late thirties or early forties, and looked about as world-weary as Rose felt right at that moment. They introduced themselves, but she knew she’d never remember their names.
Rose led the plain-clothed officers upstairs calmly; as if she were merely reporting a burglary instead of a homicide. As the female detective entered the bedroom, her eyes were drawn downward by a flashing screen.
‘Is this your phone?’ she asked, bending down to pick it up. She held it out so Rose could see it.
Rose shook her head. ‘No, it’s my husband’s. He must have dropped it on the way in…’
On the way in to kill me.
‘So, explain to me how this went down?’ the male detective asked, hands on hips as he surveyed the scene of the crime.
‘I woke up to his hands around my neck. It was dark, so I didn’t realise it was him. He was supposed to be at work. I thought it was an intruder. So I stabbed him.’
‘And do you usually keep a knife in your bedroom?’
Rose shrugged. How can I tell them I keep it there in case of Henry?
‘I guess.’ She watched as he pulled a small notebook out of his blazer pocket and started to scribble some notes. ‘I mean, I’m home alone a lot, so…’ She let her voice trail off.
‘How would you categorize your marriage, Mrs Walker?’ This was from the female detective, still busy with Henry’s phone.
Rose felt a growing sense of unease.
‘Did you have a good marriage?’
‘No. Not really. I mean … Henry could be … difficult at times.’
‘Meaning he had a temper?’
‘Why do you say that?’ Rose asked, defensively.
‘The bruise on your cheek speaks volumes.’
Rose’s hand went to her face as an almost reflexive action. She opened her mouth to trot out one of the customary responses, but nothing came out. No more, said that voice in her head. No more making excuses for him.
The female detective keyed a command into the phone. ‘There’s a message on his voicemail from an unlisted number. Let’s see who it is, shall we?’
‘Hi, this is Henry Walker. Leave a message.’
Paul’s voice filled the room. ‘Henry. Get to work.’
Get to work. It was one of Paul’s hypnotic trigger-phrases.
There you go, Paul, playing God again, Rose thought; her legs giving way under her.
You bastard! How could you do that to me?!
‘Mrs. Walker, are you okay? Who’s Paul?’