Those of you who read my last post might have noticed a certain hubris in my certainty that my short story would be chosen as a winner in the contest I entered. Ah, hubris. My overconfidence challenged the gods, and they slapped me down but good! Nope, didn't even make the top ten. Perhaps it was a little too political for the judges . . . or perhaps, it just sucked! That's for you to decide, as I'm posting it below. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.
By L.J. Brietzke
She tasted the stainless steel bitterness of blood in her mouth. Pushing herself up onto her elbows, she spat onto the silken rug, and then spat again, wincing at the sting of her torn lip. This wasn’t the first time he had hit her. She was surprised, however, that her heart wasn’t racing in fear, nor was her mind scrambled in panic. No. It was satisfaction she felt, as the low, steady roll of simmering anger finally boiled over. She turned her face toward her husband, glaring down at her. His eyes widened in astonishment as she bared her teeth in an icy smile.
“Are you done with your temper tantrum? Or maybe you want to hit me again?” she said, her voice low and venomous.
The evening had begun in the elegant ballroom of the Presidential Mansion. Glittering guests sipped cocktails and chattered over the music played by a tuxedoed pianist. Crystal chandeliers sparkled overhead, in sharp contrast to the dark world outside. She circulated amongst the company, welcoming and serene as her duties as First Lady required. Dinner was announced. She drifted to the window and pulled aside the heavy brocade drape. In the last glow of a toxic red sunset, a sea of people surged on the far side of the iron fence, facing a line of guards standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside the barrier. The bullet-proof glass muted the outcry, but their faces revealed desperation and anger. As she watched, two ragged men attempted to scramble up the fence, only to be knocked back by the guards’ clubs.
A steward cleared his voice behind her. “Dinner is served, madam,” he whispered. Smiling, she took her place at the end of the gleaming table, but her thoughts were plagued by the scene outside the gilded walls.
“Whatever are you going to do about the uprisings, Mr. President?” asked a thin, silver-haired woman. “I swear, Robert and I can’t even leave our estate, but for your help.” She and the other guests had been flown in for the dinner by military helicopter.
“Don’t worry about them, Miriam,” he replied, waving a chubby hand in dismissal. “They’ll figure out they need to go to the supply depots for food and water soon enough. It’s not like we’re gonna hand out supplies from here, right?”
A sharp-faced man in an Italian suit spoke up. “I heard our servants saying the local depots are already empty.”
“Are they?” the President replied. “Good to know. They’ll just have to go to the ones outside the city.” He took a large bite of steak and washed it down with a gulp from his wineglass. “Be good to have them the hell out of here, anyways.”
The First Lady had no appetite. She picked at her filet of salmon as she listened to the conversation around the table.
“Who would’ve thought the Prime Minister would’ve had the balls to explode EMPs over us? Never saw that coming.”
“You mean the late Prime Minister? Yeah, I would’ve sooner expected it from that absurd little dictator. What a clown.”
“I’m so glad our estate’s power grid was shielded from the blast. I can’t imagine living without electricity.”
“It’s a good thing they only got a few nukes off before the end.”
“Well, no matter. They’re all gone now, and good riddance.”
“Any word from the coast, Mr. President?”
Her heart was filled with loathing as her husband answered, “Nah, not yet. It’s still too hot to send in troops. Can’t think of a better end to those goddamn intellectuals anyways.” She glanced around the table as their guests laughed, feeling a hot flush of anger under her skin, and motioned to the steward.
“Andre, where’s my son?” she whispered.
“I believe he’s playing chess with his guard, Madam.”
It was time. The First Lady stood, a rush of blood murmuring in her ears. She aimed a laser beam stare at her husband. “Those are our countrymen you’re laughing about. The people who looked up to you to keep them safe and secure.” She looked around the table. “Have you no humanity at all? Those were innocent men, women, and children who were incinerated!”
A shocked silence enveloped the room. Most of the guests gazed down at their plates. The wife of her husband’s chief aide, however, met her eyes with a barely perceptible nod. She focused again on her husband. “It was you and your stupid, irresponsible bravado that caused all this death and destruction. You and your bragging and taunting and provocation. You killed all those people . . . not just here, but around the world. Their blood is on your hands.” Chin lifted, she stalked to the door, and turned. “You’re monsters. All of you.”
She hurried to her son’s room, feeling faint as the blood returned to her head. Tapping on his door, she entered. The boy looked up from the chessboard and grinned. Across from him, his youthful guard shrugged. “Evening, ma’am,” he said. “I think he’s got me beat this time.”
The boy nodded. “Heck, yeah! Three moves to checkmate.” His smile faded. “Mom? Are you okay?”
“Yes, baby. I’m fine.” She turned to the guard. “Thank you for keeping him company, David. I hope you don’t mind finishing the game tomorrow?”
“No problem, ma’am.” He gave the boy a salute, and left.
The First Lady sat down and enfolded her son in a tight embrace. He returned it, and then pulled away, looking up at her. “Are you sure you’re okay? Your face is . . . like . . . white.”
She pressed her forehead into his and gazed into his eyes. “Honey, do you remember what we talked about? About being prepared?” His eyes widened, and he slowly nodded. “Good. I need you to be ready, okay?”
“Tonight?” he asked, his voice quavering.
“Maybe,” she replied. “Probably.” She gave him another hug, and stood. “Don’t worry, baby. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
Back in her bedroom, she stripped off her gown and changed quickly into jeans and a t-shirt. Yanking the jeweled pins from her hair, she smoothed it back into a plain ponytail. It didn’t take long for her husband to arrive. The door opened, and the next moment she was sprawled on the floor.
“Geez, what are you wearing?” her husband said, a sneer of distaste on his fleshy lips. “You look like shit.”
“What do you care?” She pushed herself up and leaned on the side of the bed. “I despise you.”
He sat down with a heavy sigh, and stared across the room. “I love you. You know that, right? Why do you defy me? Why do you force me to punish you?”
She stared at him, incredulous. “Force you? Really? You deserve every word I said, and more.” She wiped the blood from her lip and stood. “You don’t love me. You just want to own me. You made me your little trophy, and you barely even acknowledge the existence of your son—”
“No! That’s not true. I just want to take care of both of you. Haven’t I given you everything you need, everything you want?” He gave her a hard stare. “You were nothing before I found you. Nothing. Remember? I was the one who—”
“Plucked me from the gutter? Oh yes. I remember. How could I not with you always reminding me?”
It was true that her life had been difficult before she met him. The youngest in an impoverished family, she ran away from home at fifteen after her stepfather raped her. Scared and alone in the city, she was approached by a handsome, smartly-dressed man. “You’re a lovely thing, aren’t you, cherie?” he said. “Are you hungry? Let me buy you dinner.” Exhausted and starving, she had agreed. Afterward, at his townhouse, he plied her with sweet wine, and then led her barely conscious to his bedroom.
Being treated with kindness was an unknown luxury to her, and she reveled in the rich meals, beautiful clothes, and soft caresses that Marcus lavished on her. The first time he demanded she go to bed with one of his friends, she was shocked. She refused, and he slapped her, hard. Helplessly, she acquiesced, shutting her eyes tightly as the strange man used her body.
Marcus groomed his young protégé with a regimen of alternating tenderness and brutality. Soon, she and three other young women were entertaining at the parties Marcus held regularly. She hated it. One night, as she gloomily brushed her long hair before dressing, one of the women gave her a sympathetic smile. “Ah, chica, cheer up. Be happy you’re here, and not some skank walking the streets. Who knows? You could meet your Prince Charming and live happily ever after. God knows, we meet enough rich sons of bitches.”
True enough, she thought. Might as well make the best of it. From then on, she buried her despair and focused on making herself desirable.
A year later at a casino party, a corpulent businessman in an expensive suit joined the group of men surrounding her. One by one, the others greeted him and then slipped away. Comfortable now in her role, she tossed her head. “Thanks a lot for running off my suitors.”
He looked down at her, a half smile on his jowly face. “Trust me. You won’t want anyone else chasing you once you get to know me. You’ll see.” He grabbed a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter, and handed it to her. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. She kept her face neutral, and shrugged. “I can’t believe you don’t know. Everyone knows me. Everyone.”
She had vaguely heard of him. He was extremely wealthy, although many found him abrasive and reckless. She spent the next hour plying him with questions, and acting fascinated. He’s an egotistical, ugly bastard, she thought, but maybe he’ll get me out of here. When he whispered, “C’mon, let’s find someplace private,” she feigned reluctance before agreeing. Then, she feigned desire.
A week later, Marcus told her she had been chosen to be in a movie. “Not just appear in it, cherie. To star in it!”
A thrill ran down her spine. “Really? How do they know who I am? What kind of movie?”
“A romance, I think. The director is famous. He spotted you at one of my parties. You just do what he tells you, and you’ll be amazing. And guess what? He’s offering you $50,000 to play the part.”
She narrowed her eyes. “And . . . do I get to keep the money? All of it?” She knew Marcus pocketed her proceeds as an escort, leaving her only the tips she could charm from her clients.
He shrugged. “Well, they’re paying me a fee, of course, but the fifty grand? All yours. And after that, you can do what you want. Stay. Leave. It’s your choice.”
She was chauffeured to the studio on the first day of shooting. Excited and nervous, she followed an assistant onto a brightly-lit set, and came to a confused halt. Several cameras surrounded a huge bed. To one side of the room, two men and a woman chatted cheerfully, completely naked.
Oh dear god, I should have known. She gave Marcus a malevolent stare, and he grinned, walking away. Fifty thousand dollars. Just think about the money, girl, and do what you have to do. With a shudder, she stepped onto the set.
Two weeks later, she had still not been paid. “I know, I know, cherie. I called him about it,” Marcus told her. “He’s bringing it to a little soiree I’m having tonight. Join us, just for old time’s sake. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Reluctantly, she attended, wearing one of her most demure gowns. The director made a beeline toward her. “My star! You are the queen of eroticism, you sexy bitch. My movie is going to make you famous. Now, when are you going to let me film you again?”
“Never,” she said, her voice icy. “I would like my money, please.”
“Ah, you disappoint me, beautiful,” he said, reaching a hand into his jacket. It came out empty. “I’m so sorry. I forgot to bring the cash. I’ll deliver it to Marcus tomorrow. But think about working with me again. When people stop you just to worship at your feet, you might decide you like being royalty. And they will! Everyone will know that gorgeous face.” His smile twisted into a leer. “And that incredible body, of course.”
Icy needles of fear pierced her heart as she whirled away, intent on escape. Oh, no! What if he’s right? What if I’m recognized for that . . . filth? She rushed forward, directly into someone’s broad back. A spilled drink, a curse . . . and she was face-to-face with the arrogant businessman again. He excused himself from his companions and took her arm. Distraught, she could do nothing but sit on the plush couch to which he led her.
“You look upset, my dear,” he said, handing her a glass of Scotch. “Are you okay? Can I make everything okay?”
She tossed back the drink in one swallow, trying to stanch the tears that threatened to spill down her flushed cheeks. He leaned toward her, his face concerned. He looks a bit like my granddad, she thought distractedly. He’s certainly old enough to be him. In an unexpected rush, the whole sordid tale poured out of her. “What if my mother finds out? What if my brothers see it and tell her?” she sobbed.
The man gently took her hand. “I won’t let that happen. Don’t worry, little girl. I’ll buy the rights to that movie and no one will ever see it.” He put a finger under her chin, raising her eyes to his. “I’m gonna take care of you. I’m gonna dress you in silks and diamonds. We’ll sail on my yacht to Europe and the Caribbean and . . . well, anyplace you want to go. You won’t have to do a thing except look beautiful and love me.”
She became his mistress, and then his wife. Although she tried hard to love him, especially when she became pregnant with their son, the most she could invoke was a tolerant acceptance. He was fat and rude and pugnacious, and worst of all, he ignored their child. It was left to her to raise the boy into an honest and considerate young man, a difficult task with the example of his father. Her husband did keep to his side of the bargain, except for one thing. He kept a copy of the movie.
Their life was a whirl of glittering parties. She mingled with the rich, the famous, and the notorious. In public, she was the perfect, beautiful wife, but it was all she could do to keep her disgust under control. Appalled by the shallow, petty, avaricious people with whom her husband chose to circulate, she found no friends. She began to avoid him, thankful he rarely sought her company in bed. She much preferred spending time with her son, trying to fill the roles of both mother and father.
The boy was seven when her husband told her he was going to run for the presidency. “You’re joking, right?” she gasped. “You don’t know anything about running a country.” Agitated, she paced the room. “Frankly, your ideas about government scare me. I can’t stand the politicians you bring here. And that . . . preacher, or whatever she is? She sure doesn’t seem like a Christian to me. You’re not even religious, so what’s up with that? It’s like you’re all trying to figure out how to grab more money and power for yourselves, and to hell with everyone else.”
For an obese man, he moved surprisingly fast, leaping up and slapping her hard across the face. “Don’t ever say that again. Ever,” he growled. “I pulled you out of the gutter, and you don’t even have the courtesy to appreciate it.” His bloodshot eyes stared into her frightened ones. “If you ever try to oppose me, or treat my guests as anything but the finest people, I’ll put that movie out in all the theaters. I’ll sell it online. Everyone will see what a whore you were before I saved you.” He pushed her away roughly. “Don’t ever talk back to me again.”
Cowed, she had obeyed. The few times her anger emboldened her to tiny acts of insolence, she would return to her room to find the movie playing on the television.
They attended a campaign fundraiser one night, and she was horrified to find the movie director next to her. Trapped in the crush of bodies, she couldn’t move as he leaned toward her and whispered in her ear. “I think you should know your husband paid for that movie to be made, and insisted you star in it.” With a sympathetic squeeze on her arm, he disappeared into the crowd. She stared after him, aghast, knowing now the true depths of depravity of which her husband was capable.
Now she was First Lady of a ravaged and desperate country. “I’m leaving,” she said. “Tonight. And I’m taking our son.”
“You do that and I’ll put the movie out, I swear.”
She laughed. “Oh really? And who’s going to see it? Thanks to you, the whole country doesn’t have power, or running water, or anything. You can show it to those monstrosities you call friends. Go ahead. I don’t give a damn what they think.” She strode to the door.
“I’ll have the guards stop you!”
She turned, finally letting the hatred she felt for him to beam savagely from her eyes. “You could try,” she said. “You might even succeed in locking us up here for a while. But sooner or later, those men and women are going to turn on you. They have families outside these walls who are suffering because of you, and their priorities are going to become very clear to them.”
Quickly, she left the room and found her son. “Baby, it’s time. Are you ready?”
He was dressed in plain, dark clothes, and his face was pale, but he nodded and picked up a duffel bag. “I’m scared, Mom.”
“So am I, sweetheart, but we’ll take care of each other, okay?” She led him to her room, and pulled another bag from the back of the closet. “Do you remember how to get to the passageway, honey?” In his loneliness, the boy had explored every inch of the mansion, and had told her of a secret underground hallway that opened into the federal building across the street.
Two uniformed guards appeared at the open door, blocking it. Behind them stood the President. “Keep them here and stand security around the clock,” he commanded. “They are not to leave.”
The First Lady took a step forward, looking into the guards’ implacable faces. To the one on the right, she said, “Trevor, we’re leaving. I know you have a wife and a little girl out there in the dark. I know you’re only able to provide for them because my husband employs you. I understand that.” She turned to the other guard. “Marina, I hope your parents are doing okay out there. I know it must be so hard for them, and for you. But my place is out there with the people of our country. I want no part of this . . . this travesty of a government that has caused so much death and suffering. Please let us go.”
The guards stood for a moment in silence. Marina stepped back first. “May I accompany you, ma’am? The crowd is pretty agitated out there. I can protect both of you.”
“No, Marina, but thank you.” She looked at the other guard, her gaze steady. He too moved aside. Taking her son’s hand, she stepped into the hallway, only to dodge her husband’s lunge toward them. Trevor grabbed the President, holding him back.
“What are you doing, you idiots?” the fat man shrieked. “I’m your commander. You work for me! Arrest them!”
Marina shook her head. “No sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
The President stopped struggling, and directed a poisonous glare at his wife. “They’ll kill you out there. They hate you just as much as they hate me. Maybe more. Serve you right if they rip you to pieces, you ungrateful bitch.”
A faint smile crossed her face. “I’ll take my chances.” Turning her back on him, she followed her son toward escape from their gilded prison, the plans and access codes to the mansion’s security system hidden safely in the lining of her bag.