Darker Daze: The Storms within is a collection of short stories that explore that darker side of the human condition. Each story pulsates with tragedy and a sense of desperate hope that only the suffering could understand. Ms. Mabry weaves personal experiences into fictional webs in a way that draws the reader in for a hug, then punches them in the gut. While these stories may be too emotionally charged for some readers, they give voices to the voiceless among us.
Do not shrink away, the demons are not yours...or are they?
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Darker Daze originally started as a small collection of stories I wrote as a type of self therapy. Some of the stories featured wish fulfillment, others took a small element of my own experience and branched out, and still a few were pulled right from my own journal and then crafted into a story with a different ending. Darker Daze has now taken on a life of its own and continues to provide me with a source of cathartic writing.
For each of these stories I was forced to reach into my own personal vault and draw forth the emotions that once threatened to destroy me. I have learned how to wrangle and whip them so they no longer have any power beyond that of a dark and twisted muse.
Some of you have seen those darker days, stood on the very precipice of its slippery slope. You have looked your demons in the eyes and backed away, oh so slowly. You didn't cross that line, but the darkness touched you. It settled into the very recesses of your being. It smolders there, ferments, and rots. When I dig down deep, I can still find it. I draw on it, and it spills onto the page as the darkness no one wants to see although many of us have looked for it ….
Within these pages you will discover the secrets of those who could not fight the darkness. A reflection of blood-spilled secrets that fester. Jealousy, morose, and passionate rage paint each page in shades of despair. Do not shrink away, the demons are not yours ... or are they?
***TRIGGER WARNING: All the stories in this collection contain elements of death, abuse, and suicide that may trigger emotional and traumatic reactions in some people. The stories in this collection are mostly fiction, with some based on the personal experience of the author. Names and places have been changed to protect the guilty. All work copyrighted by A.L. Mabry and may not be copied or distributed without written consent.
All marriages are sacred, but not all are safe.
~ Rob Jackson
I always loved New Years. The promise of new beginnings. The taste of potential and hope. I would scrub the house from top to bottom, telling myself, Out with the old, in with the new, as if just saying the words could make them true. I tried. Year after year after year. Not every end means a bright new beginning. This isn’t the beginning of my story, but that’s not what you’re really here for, is it? Sometimes the ending is all you want.
The shrill alarm slices through my cocoon. My serenity shatters, and I open my eyes. Familiar predawn darkness greets me with its promise of just a little more peace. The bedroom curtain was crumpled on the floor beneath the window and beyond the frosted glass red and green lights twinkle, almost in mocking. With the rest of the house eerily quiet, Mark’s breathing sounds amplified. I lie still for just a moment as the first panic attack builds. It swells in my chest, this violent ocean wave containing “what if’s” and “not enoughs.” I ride it out.
What will the trigger be today, what will set him off? I resolve to be preemptive through my routine. As I roll out of bed, careful not to wake him, I force myself to remain calm.
My swollen ankle twinges. When I go to bed, you go to bed.
My wrist aches. Chicken nuggets? Do I look like a fucking four year old?
My back throbs. You should have known I wanted my blue shirt today!
My scalp burns. Say you like it.
I creep through the hall and check on the kids before I head downstairs to start the coffee maker. While I pull out the ingredients for this morning’s breakfast, I relish the comfort of the most mundane actions. I beat a few eggs and put them in a pan to scramble for Randall and Jenny. Then I prepare Alice’s gluten-free pancakes. I pour the batter onto the heated griddle, then turn to stir the eggs before pouring myself a cup of coffee.
The warmth of the coffee and the stillness of the morning wash over me. I stop for just a moment to savor it. I try to shake off the last of sleep’s drowsy grip. With my calendar and to-do lists spread across the counter, I tackle the day. Mark's lunch is next, so I quickly put it together and place it in the fridge. I pull out chicken breasts to thaw for dinner. Then I remember we had chicken yesterday. I swap it for the cube steaks because Mark refuses to eat the same meat two days in a row. Breakfast and dinner. Check and check.
Every action is repetitive, the soul crushing routine that ensures I see another day. I place three plates on the island bar and pile on breakfast that will go mostly uneaten. Anger nips at the back of my conscious; tired of the servitude, of the compliance. Oh stop it, Holly. This nurturing servitude gives you joy. Without humor, I sigh. Liar.
From the den, the Christmas tree beckons with its shiny baubles and handmade ornaments. I wander in with the remnants of my coffee and gingerly brush aside the tinsel to look at this year’s family photo ornament. The photographer touched it up perfectly, not a bruise in sight. I make a note to tear down the tree before dinner. Mark was strict about “bringing” an old tree into a new year.
Routine beckons, and I return to the kitchen to pull the bento boxes from the cabinet and prepare each of the children’s lunches. With another yawn, I pierce each little fruit gummy with a pretzel stick. Randall and his friends are on a wizard kick, and they should love the little wands. For Jenny, I place a piece of turkey on white bread and top it with a slice of mozzarella. Digging through the drawer full of cookie cutters, I pull out one shaped like Hello Kitty’s bulbous head and cut her food into shape.
Alice’s lunch is next; I start by arranging the ham and cheese egg muffins, and then I add two fruit kabobs. Next, I add stalks of celery filled with gluten-free cinnamon peanut butter and finish all three lunches with a small dish of Greek yogurt. The clock chirps seven times, and I realize I have lingered over the lunches too long and will soon regret it.
I head back upstairs and dress in a rush, thankful I remembered to lay out my clothes. Mark rustles the blankets, and I feel my heartbeat speed up. Rifling through my makeup case, I find the tiny nub of concealer, and blend it over the yellowing bruise. I add a new concealer pencil to my mental shopping list, that will be the fourth one this month. With practiced strokes, I apply my eyeshadow. There is a slight tremor in my hand as I stroke the eyeliner pencil deftly across each eye, but I try to ignore it.
In the mirror’s reflection I see my dress for tonight’s New Year’s party. It’s a horrid shade of green, but the only one Mark would approve of. I had held onto a beautiful red slip dress right up to the register and only the threat in his eye convinced me to set it down. Promise, Holly, not threat. Let’s not mince words.
“I don’t know why you bother; no one cares what you look like.” Mark grumbles sleepily from the bed. “Or maybe you’re trying to catch someone’s attention? Whore.”
I take a steadying breath and brush nonexistent lint from my blouse. In the mirror, I notice a new bruise on my forearm so I grab a cardigan from the closet, the blue one, not the red one. Whores wear red, are you a whore, Holly? I reset the alarm clock for him and head down the hall to wake the kids. While Randall takes a shower, I help the girls get dressed and do their hair. Alice requests French braids this morning, Jenny is happy with simple pigtails. Once everyone’s dressed, I usher them downstairs for breakfast.
This monotony keeps me sane. If I keep following the patterns, I will be okay. For years I hated the fact that the children had so few holidays, but lately I have been more than happy to keep them out of the house as often as possible. Even if this was probably the only district in the country open on New Year’s Eve.
As the kids eat, I gather the spreadsheets and graphs for my presentation, hoping that the extra hours I spent perfecting it last night pays off for me. I touch a bruise and decide it was worth it. With this promotion, I’ll finally be able to leave Mark.
I pile everyone into the car and begin the morning rounds. I drop Randall at the middle school first, then Jenny at the elementary school. Last, I pull into Alice’s rainbow colored preschool.
She spills out of the SUV, and I straighten her hair and fix her coat. I hand her the bright pink lunch box and grab the tuition check from my purse.
I plaster my smile on and take her small hand, reluctance fills us as we head into the school. The bulletin boards are still covered with festive artwork, handprint reindeer, and mounds of glitter. Right away I see the “Coffee Moms” huddled in the corner of the lobby having their morning bonding session. They barely glance my way as I continue down the hall with my sweet girl. Their voices follow us and I pretend not to notice.
“… with her artsy little lunches…”
“…. kid looks like a Gap model…”
“…. probably has a nanny…”
With a hug and kiss, I push Alice into her teacher’s waiting embrace. I rush back through the lobby and drop my check in the box on the desk, careful to not make eye contact with the other moms. I climb back into the sanctuary of my SUV, behind the tinted windows, before I let the tears fall.
The judgment from these women is as unnerving as the invisibility I feel at work. This will change though, as I have this latest promotion in the bag. I reach over to pat my briefcase and panic crashes through my senses.
“He’s right. I am a dumbass. I can’t even remember my own briefcase.” Tension fills my limbs. I have to return home. Maybe if I drive slowly enough, he will be gone when I get there. The digital clock on the dashboard flashes, 8:30. I didn’t have the luxury of taking a scenic route if I wanted to get to work on time. And with everything on the line, tardiness was not an option.
The darkness pushes in on me like a palpable entity. Don’t panic yet. Figure out what is going on. I imagine taking a deep breath to re-center myself before I try to remember how I ended up here, alone, in the dark. I let the memories flow over me like ocean waves, surging forward and then lapping at the edge of consciousness as I orient them.
His grip on the back of my neck is painful as he pushes me back towards the mess. The contents of a shattered coffee cup lie strewn across the peeling linoleum, while his face looms in front of mine. Anger contorts his eyes into those of a savage predator. I flinch as his acidic voice crawls across my skin, and he lists my sins for me as if I could ever forget them.
You lie to me.
You think you can steal my kids.
You sleep around.
You’re a slob.
You neglect me for your stupid job.
With one swipe of his arm, my briefcase joins the coffee cup, and my papers settle onto the spill. My graphs, my proposal, my dreams slaughtered in the muck.
“If you only had a brain, you wouldn't be so damn clumsy. I bet your dumb ass won’t even clean it up right, and the floor will stay sticky for the next week. How did I end up with such a stupid, nasty girl?” The stale stench of alcohol invades my nose, gagging me.
Alcohol? It’s not even 9:00 am. And then I see it, my sweet letter to myself, sitting on top of the others. He found my journal, one thing I thought was safe from his prying eyes. The single page was ripped along the margin and sat atop the small leather book. The prophecy meant to seal my fate, but not like this.
You can do this. You will get this promotion. You will leave and start a better life for yourself. He will not control you forever. Stay strong. Don’t give up, don’t back down.
As I sink to my knees and gingerly pluck the shards of glass from the mess, his eyes burn into my body and fear churns in my stomach. I ignore the pricks as tiny pieces of glass stab into my skin, not wanting him to have the satisfaction of my pain. As I wipe up the last of the brown liquid guilt, I feel his large hands shoving me aside.....