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Duality

You don’t know everything about your spouse.

By Rosie Ford Published 11 months ago Updated about a month ago 14 min read
Runner-Up in Unexpected Uncovering Challenge
8
Duality
Photo by Philip Smart on Unsplash

The neighbors’ chickens have escaped again. From his place on the sofa, Leo watches them peck at the front lawn. Mindless little prehistoric creatures with only one motivation: finding food. It’s the same reason Leo keeps his stupid job at the stupid bank in the stupid part of town with all the stupid mistimed traffic lights. Food. That’s one thing they have in common.

Footsteps leave the kitchen and stop on the threshold of the living room. May is always in socks, but it doesn’t matter when Leo gets his migraines. Every footfall sounds, feels like it’s going to cause an earthquake. He turns and the vertebrae in his neck scream. The resulting expression is partly smile but mostly grimace. He raises one hand to rub out the tension. May puts the mug down on the coffee table and takes over, her hands warm from holding the tea. “You’re the best,” he mumbles. She kisses his cheek when she’s done. He kisses her wrist. Together they watch the chickens wander the front lawn.

“You get migraines a lot lately,” May says, pushing Leo’s hair off his forehead.

Every month, actually. “Yeah.”

“Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“I’m not going to pay someone $100 to tell me I’m stressed,” Leo says. “I already know that.”

“Is it work?”

“That’s part of it.”

“You could quit,” May says. “I make enough money for both of us.”

“No.” Leo lays his throbbing head against her shoulder. “We’ve saved too much to give up now.” And if she ever left him, he’d be in deep shit.

“Think about it,” May says. “I’d rather have a healthy husband than a house.”

She says things like that and Leo knows his suspicions must be wrong. They have to be; she’s too sweet to betray him. They’re saving up for a house together, for fuck’s sake. But then her phone vibrates. She reads the name on the screen. Clutches the phone to her chest so he can’t see it. The click-clack of the keyboard digs into his brain. “Who’s that?” he asks, knowing she’ll lie.

By Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

“Ellie,” May says. But Leo likes Ellie. If it were Ellie, May wouldn’t hide her phone. Unless Ellie is the problem.

“Tell her hi,” Leo says, and turns back to the window. He takes a sip of tea. The sunlight hurts. The lawn mowers and leaf blowers sound like jackhammers even through the glass. It’s going to be a long . . . migraine. His stomach growls. “We should probably do something about the chickens.”

“Yeah.” May gets up. “I’ll help the neighbors put them back. Stay here and rest. Are you sure you’ll be okay when I leave tomorrow?”

“I’ll be fine, sweetheart.”

They kiss. She goes next door to get the neighbor, who still isn’t very good at wrangling the chickens even though this is the umpteenth time they’ve gotten out. Despite the migraine, Leo might have helped, but he’s too hungry. What he wouldn’t give for a big bucket of chicken right now.

In the end Leo gives $32.15 plus the $.49 delivery fee plus an unexplainable $4 fee plus an $8 tip for the driver. When May comes back from chicken wrangling, they sit down and eat together because even if she is cheating on him, he doesn’t want her to go hungry. He eats the mashed potatoes as a courtesy and to seem normal and wolfs down half of the bucket too. But it isn’t enough; his stomach growls for more.

“You were hungry,” May says.

“I guess so.” He half-smiles. “I’m always hungry during a migraine.”

“I wish I had your metabolism.” She pauses. Looks down at the table, not at him. Her cheeks are a little flushed from all the food. “Listen, I don’t have to go tomorrow.”

Does she want him to tell her to stay? No. She never plays games, which, among many, is one of the reasons Leo loves her. What is she hiding? “No, you should go. Really, I’ll be fine.” Kind of.

“I just feel bad—it’s really weird timing with the neighbors also leaving town. I know you don’t like the chickens.”

That isn’t exactly true, but Leo can’t tell her he stays away from the chickens because he likes them too much. “Baby, I want you to go. I know the conference is important to you.”

Unless there is no conference and what she’s really doing is going to see Ellie, her best friend—and lover.

Leo can’t stop thinking about it when they go to bed. May scrolls through her phone with one hand and rubs his head with the other while his brain tries to burst free of his skull. When the phone vibrates with another text, he can’t help but peek:

You can’t keep this from him forever. He deserves to know.

Then Leo cries. Cries because the pressure inside his head is too much, cries because the love of his life loves another, cries because he feels stupid for crying. May stops rubbing his head and takes his hand instead.

“Hey.” She leans in to give him a kiss on the forehead—which is his favorite thing in the world besides a couple of other things May does—and he rolls away. “Leo? What’s wrong?”

“You’re cheating on me,” he blurts. He could have made a plan, tailed her, caught her in the act, but he doesn’t play games either. That’s why they’re perfect for each other.

Were perfect for each other.

She stares at him, the light of the phone screen reflecting in her eyes. “I’m not cheating on you, Leo. I would never cheat on you.”

“Then what the hell are you and Ellie talking about? What exactly are you keeping from me? Why do you hide your phone whenever we’re together?”

“It’s not what you think.” She takes a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you. I just need some time to figure out how.”

“What’s so bad you need time just to tell me?” Leo asks, sitting up. The movement of his head sends him into another dimension. When he’s gotten his bearings, he lets out a long sigh. May stares at him, somewhere between confusion and concern. “I love you,” he says. “No matter what. Always.”

“I know. I love you too.”

“Then why won’t you tell me?”

“I’m not who you think I am,” May says.

Leo laughs and gets up. “That’s not reassuring.” He collects his favorite pillow, along with the green throw that’s draped over the chair beside their bed.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to sleep on the couch. Unless you tell me what’s going on.”

“Leo . . . .”

He shakes his head. Bad idea. Braces one hand against the doorframe while he waits for the world to stop spinning. Then he goes to sleep on the couch. May doesn’t come after him.

By Jason Leung on Unsplash

In the morning she wakes him with another kiss on the forehead. Sleep hasn’t eased the pressure. Not that he slept very well anyway, what with the constant cacophony of passing cars and yowling cats outside. And the spiders. Eight sticky feet tap tap tapping against the window. Where were they going in such a hurry? Or did it only sound like they were in a hurry because they had eight feet?

“How’s your head?” May asks.

“The same.”

“I don’t want to leave like this. What if something happens while I’m gone? Between the fight and you being sick, the timing is—it seems wrong,” she says. But she doesn’t know how easy she’s making things; the conference is his excuse for this month.

“Unless you tell me what’s going on, nothing will change.”

May tucks her hair behind her ears. She used to do that a lot when they first started dating, when she was nervous. “You won’t think of me the same way.”

“Oh my g—May, that isn’t helping. Just go.” He covers his face and lets out a sigh. “Maybe you can figure it out while you’re there.”

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” he says.

Then she leaves in her little car with the dents in the rear bumper and the dings in the front. She could afford something better, something prettier, something more expensive, but she just doesn’t care. Another reason why, among many, Leo loves her.

The neighbors come over in the late morning. Leo steps onto the front porch to talk to them, still in his pajamas and slippers. He can’t stop yawning or squinting or thinking about chicken while he listens.

“All you have to do is spread some seed and make sure they have water,” the neighbor, John, tells Leo. He’s not very good at wrangling his kids, either. One wanders into the street; the other picks blue berries—not blueberries—off a mysterious bush between the two yards, forcing his wife to choose between preventing a poisoning or a tiny pedestrian-auto accident. John holds the hand of the third as she screams something about a pony into the stratosphere. “We should only be gone two nights.”

“No problem,” Leo says, his ears ringing. At least, it won’t be a problem if he eats first. Probably.

The other neighbor, Lisa, is better at this. She catches the kid in the road around the abdomen and the kid about to put a blue berry in his mouth by the wrist. “Thanks for doing this,” she calls. “They shouldn’t be able to get out again. We fixed the hole in the coop.”

“They’re really no bother,” Leo says. But too bad about the hole.

John, Lisa, and the children leave in their minivan and Leo is alone on their side of the street. He doesn’t linger outside because the sunlight cuts right through the gloom and into his eyes. And because he doesn’t have much time.

He unlocks his phone and looks up “what time is moonrise today.” 7:17 PM. That gives him about eight hours to eat and set things up in the basement so what happened last time doesn’t happen this time. She was a Karen, but she had a family who loved her. Somewhere. Maybe on another planet because there was no humanity in her actions at the bank. So what happened was personal, which is why Leo will make certain he can’t escape the basement tonight.

He eats the rest of the chicken in the bucket and goes next door to feed the ones that are still alive. One eye is blind. The pressure is now shear-stress that’s doing a very good job of convincing Leo his brain is parting ways with itself. Soon. Soon the pain will end and the worst part will begin.

Leo throws another handful of seed on the ground. The chickens cluck, walk all over their food, and then eat it. Leo can’t help but laugh, until the laughter sends pain shooting up his neck. He fills their water trough with the garden hose, then picks up one of the less skittish ones. It’s soft and warm against his chest and makes happy rumbling sounds almost like purring.

It looks delicious.

By Ben Moreland on Unsplash

He sets the chicken down before it stops looking delicious and starts tasting delicious. Back at home, he eats past his fill. When dusk is on the horizon he takes a heavy dose of an antihistamine. Not much time now; the drug usually knocks him out cold.

In the cellar, Leo lays down a few blankets on the concrete floor and puts on his collar, which is no fun when May isn’t here. If she comes home early he’ll have a lot to explain. But instead of the leash that goes with the collar, he clips on a chain and secures it around the exposed lumber where a wall might one day stand if the landlord ever gets his shit together.

Leo yawns and lies down on the blankets, hazy from the medication. A lot to explain. What if May knew about Karen? Does it make things better or worse that he doesn’t know her real name, only that she called his employee a lot of ugly names at the bank? Does it even matter that she open-hand slapped him across the face in a room full of people? Or that she only apologized when the police arrived? She shouldn’t have posted bail. Maybe she’d still be alive.

On the edge of a drug-induced sleep, Leo feels it. The first sign. His bones stretching. An ache deep enough to make him forget the migraine. Muscle compounds on his neck.

He forgot about the neck.

He tries to slip a few fingers under the collar, give himself some breathing room, but it’s too late. The clasps on the back are too tight to pull apart. Leo claws at the collar, forgetting the migraine, the aching bones, everything except his waning air supply. How stupid was he? How stupid was he to think a collar and an antihistamine would stop the beast from returning the same way it has every month for the last twenty-something years? His vision blurs and fades to grey. He claws until he can’t claw anymore. Looks like he won’t be able to explain anything.

But then the collar breaks and Leo can breathe again. For some time he lies on the pile of blankets, panting. Dark fur covers his body. His eyes are sunflower yellow. Muscles ripple under his new pelt. The migraine has dissipated, replaced by torrents of emotion too intense to contain. May. He has to find May. His precious May.

Leo rises and ascends the basement stairs. How he’d love to sink his teeth into Ellie for stealing her away. He tears the basement door from its hinges and bursts from the living room window. Shards of glass scatter on the lawn. He pauses, sniffing the air. The chickens cluck unassumingly in the neighbors’ backyard.

Hungry.

Now there’s no controlling it. He rips the fence down and eats his fill of the poor creatures. By the time he’s done, only feathers and blood remain.

Leo puts his nose to the ground in their driveway, searching for the scent of May’s tiny car. He follows it down the street, around the corner, along the middle of a two-lane country road that certainly doesn’t lead to where the conference was supposed to be. He follows it all the way to the edge of their favorite state park. The car. Alone in the parking lot. Is Ellie with her? What is she doing here? He sniffs around the vehicle, then inside it. Ellie was here, but May got out alone.

She lied.

By Andrew Neel on Unsplash

The scent trail ends in a thicket of trees far from any trails and out of sight from the road. Camping gear is scattered around a torn tent. Something writhes inside, a mass of grey fur and bald skin. A pair of brown eyes meet his. May.

Half-turned, she screams. He whimpers and lies down on the forest floor, ears flat against his head. “Leo?” she calls, her voice ragged. “Leo, is that you?”

On his stomach, he edges closer. She’s naked except for her patchy grey fur. One of her hands has been replaced by a malformed paw. He used to change like this, when the changes first began. One thing at a time over a matter of hours.

May kisses his hairy forehead. He doesn’t leave her side.

When dawn breaks they’re tangled up in each other, May’s head on his chest, his arms around her shivering body. The migraine lingers, but it’s nothing some over-the-counter pills can’t fix.

“I should have told you,” she says.

“Yeah. Because I’m pretty sure we’re not getting our deposit back,” Leo says.

“What do you mean?”

“I broke a window.”

She laughs. “Why?”

“Stress makes it so much worse. All that pent-up rage just . . . comes out.” He drags his hands down his face. “And I thought you were cheating on me.”

May looks up at him. “I’m sorry.”

“Why would you tell her and not me?”

“I had to tell someone. This is new. In the last couple of months,” she says. “Losing you is my worst fear. I didn’t know if you’d love me if you knew I was like this.”

“I think this might be my fault,” he says. “A couple of months ago. We—things got a little out of control and—”

“You bit me,” May whispers. “But it was an accident, wasn’t it? Why wouldn’t you tell me you were like this?”

“I was worried you wouldn’t love me anymore.”

“I do.” May holds his face in one hand. “I also love you always. No matter what.”

“Good, because I also um, ate some things.” He can’t hold her gaze. “Namely the neighbors’ chickens. And a customer. The one who slapped me at the bank.”

“You ate them?”

“Yup.”

They sit in silence for some time, then May kisses his forehead again. “So this thing is pretty uncontrollable, huh?”

“Completely.”

“I think you should see a therapist.”

“I agree,” Leo says.

“And I think we should move.”

He laughs. “I think we have to move.”

By Dušan veverkolog on Unsplash

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About the Creator

Rosie Ford

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (7)

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  • Penelope Jane10 months ago

    captivating from beginning to end. thank you for describing migraines so perfectly.

  • Novel Allen10 months ago

    wow! Unexpected indeed. This was a great story. Thoroughly unexpected ending.

  • Rebekah Crawley10 months ago

    This is so good!! I did not see the twists coming at all, I was reading early on and thinking "I wonder why this guy loves chickens so much, what is with that" haha! Utterly brilliant!!

  • Babs Iverson11 months ago

    Well done!!! Congratulations on the runner up win!!!💖💖💕

  • Jenna Calloway11 months ago

    Such a fun story. Good job.

  • Nora Novak11 months ago

    Did not see that coming! Very original!

  • Did not expect the ending great story!

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