Short Story: Powers of Ten

He sat at the kitchen table, knowing exactly what was to happen. She sat too, only some idea buried beneath a hopeful fear. There’d be no denials. She’d try and try, he knew. Every step. But the truth was undeniable.

A picture was worth a thousand words? He had ten.

For each one, she’d have a new excuse, its complexity growing and tightening the noose until the tenth emerged. Then, the floor would give. The rope would tighten. She dangle, dead or gasping. Likely the latter. She’d assured it. No matter what, he had her this time. She couldn’t escape.

Quentin Pearson had suspected his wife of adultery long ago. He couldn’t pinpoint when, exactly, but ignorance had turned to suspicion. Before long, it became the hand that shook the P-I’s after handing over the signed check that hired him.

Suspicion became knowing. Cheryl had always been off with friends, spending long nights away. Sometimes she called, drunk; they couldn’t drive home. It hadn’t bothered him, she’d always been the social type. He wasn’t. Nor was he the type to complain much about her excursions, so far as he knew.

Only his unexpected clusterfuck avalanche could’ve led him to be sitting with Cheryl now. Full-color 8x10s printed from digital photos between them. She was fucked. He knew it. Somewhere, someone else wasn’t the one fucking for once. Maybe more, too.

After all, Steph hadn’t mentioned how long it’d been since she’d seen Cheryl, only that she’d wanted her to call. That was how Cheryl’s type of recluse imparted long distance pleas. Not one of ‘em could use a damned phone.

Or maybe not, judging by the first photo: Cheryl outside, half-in her car, phone to her ear, talking to someone.

She could use a phone, thus the issue was one of choice. Then again, the whole damned thing was. If she’d chosen to remain faithful, Quentin wouldn’t have hired the PI. If she’d chosen to admit her affairs, neither would’ve remained in such a farcical marriage. But too bad, huh?

Then again, if she’d chosen otherwise, he’d have never been able to confront her. Given his enjoyment, why spoil it?

She was already busy making excuses: she was leaving. Going to the store, to the mall, to see Stephanie. All obvious lies. Or maybe not. There was no way to know how the images were sequenced, only their eventual ends.

Quentin did his best not to see red. It was important to remain calm. Rage ruined the trap he’d lain. He needed her like a startled hare, ankle caught, and dangling. He was too intent, the slow build of panic too insatiable in her, to risk doing things any differently.

When the panic would become too much, he couldn’t say.

He laid the second image between them. Nothing suspicious; her, outside a building. Nondescript. Parking lot. Indifferent to any other. Though he couldn’t place it, she feigned familiarity. Enough said.

Image two, means to an end it was, established the next. Quentin placed the third photo directly beside the second: Wider angle, less zoom. A drugstore forty miles away. One on every corner, he said, why this one in particular?

She’d begin to chew the inside of her lip now, he knew it. Quentin couldn’t see it, subtle as it could be, but always there in her times of distress.

Photos four and five were benign, boring. Yet, imperceptibly important. Doubly so, given photo six. He laid all three out, over the previous three. They’d made their point, word-values expended.

Images four and five only revealed their secret after the emergence of the sixth. With them, Cheryl’s teeth would bite deep into her lip. Deeper. Quentin imagined she’d taste blood. He hoped she would. He wanted her to. Then, he wanted to upper cut her jaw. Make her taste it.

Instead, he let the images settle in. Their existence hovering overhead like a gray cloud of tension, shame. That same fear prey felt before being eaten. She’d was his now.

Cheryl breathed. There it was. A car approaching a nearby parking space, making an arc. Cheryl exiting. Slipping into the vehicle. The driver, male, leaned. Cheryl squirmed, her chair man-eating jam attempting to devour her from the genitals upward. Maybe it was, in some reality. Here, it was another’s hands.

Quentin tempered fury with satisfaction from the belly-full feeling of a soon-to-be fed predator. He’d always loved watching her twitch and spasm, usually atop him. Death would do now. If only in death of a lie. She wouldn’t bother fighting.

Cheryl knew little could be said or done, didn’t care.

Image eight: Cheryl. The man. Deep kissing. It took all of her strength and senses not to flee. It took all of his cowardice not to beat her to death.

Image nine: Mystery man’s car. A cheap motel charging hourly.

Image ten: death knell. Shot from outside, through a window. Difficult angle. Subject matter clear. Her, impassioned-back bent; mystery man’s face averted from behind, thrusting. Her in ecstasy. Happy. Dreaming. Wishing. Presently squirming. Quentin smug, tasting victory on the air.

“I hate you,” she said, quietly guilty. “And I’m leaving.”

His victory slipped from his grasp, replaced by sickening emptiness.

“You’ve terrorized me for years. Beat and belittled me. Sucked away what happiness I had. Smiled at my misery. I’d call you a monster, but nothing like you is known.”

He was eviscerated. Victory and life snatched away and his own arrogance rubbed into his face all at once. He couldn’t even muster the wrath she knew as his trademark.

She was never more alive. She rose to leave. Years ago, his sudden, surprising lack of anger might have led her to believe in him. Might have led her to hope he could change. She wasn’t a girl anymore, didn’t.

Cheryl drew tri-folded papers from her purse, set them on the table. “I expect you’ll sign these,sooner or later. I commenced divorce proceedings the day I learned you’d takenover a thousand dollars from our savings. I knew you were either using, or spying. I didn’t care which. Maybe one day, you’ll be human again– if you ever were.”

Neither of them knew it until long after, but her final words rang out into a disemboweling emptiness. “Goodbye, Quentin.”

She knew only the sound of the closing door. The lifting of a weight that comes from shedding that which has burdened one for far too long. Cheryl breathed and climbed into her car. From then on she lived free.

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