Axe to Grind 2021—1st place winner: "Fair Warning"
By Sarah Collins Honenberger
The dogs should’ve warned her, but Tommy’s scent is still familiar after all this time. It isn’t until his hand is on her breast that she realizes she isn’t dreaming. He’s back. His shoulders broader, the muscles granite. Without a word he roots himself into the bed next to her, into the sunken middle of the old mattress. His arms around her prevent flight, the stubble on his chin tough and thick. This isn’t the panicked, skittering boy who six years ago left her with a black eye and a squalling baby. This is a man. As the heat from his limbs flares along hers, she recognizes the fire.
She imagines him walking from the station, plowing through fallen leaves, his head bent forward as he punctures the shadows, his palm thrust against the fence to calm the dogs while he scans the windows to determine whether she’s alone. He abandons his knapsack with a soft thud, flicks laces as he undoes his boots, runs a finger under the mat for the key.
Over the impatient rustle of nightgown, his quickened breathing drags them into the familiar blaze. She prays silently, let her son stay asleep until Tommy does what he came for, long enough to convince him it’s enough.
She stifles a cry at his weight. The floor creaks. The bedposts jigger the wall. They were children, sixteen. Swimming in the reservoir, toes stretched to toes, he stroked her arms under the silky water. His fingertips trailed her thighs. Each minute a new discovery.
Night falls back into a murmur. She turns her face. He slides over her hips, an arm draped over her chest. Her eyes run across the black ceiling. Even in the darkness, she sees the life she made without him. She worked, saved. Liam started school, made friends. A steady blur, day after day, her life. Tommy doesn’t get to choose again.
Words catch in her throat. Like trapped rabbits, frantic, muddled, they fling themselves at the wire to escape. Soldiers return. Their wives welcome them, eager, needy. As the stories unravel, some husbands don’t stay. Some stay but can’t sleep or work. She only wants him to forget her, move on, another town, another woman.
“I never stopped loving you,” he lies.
Six years, like a smoky genie, fill the room. Six winters splitting wood, soaking blisters while the baby slept. Six summers trekking through mosquito clouds to the store, Liam on her hip. Six years separating dollars for electricity, doctors, groceries.
As much as she wants to get free of him, to return to yesterday’s haze when he was only a distant threat, she understands his greed can ruin the life she’s eked out of the nothing he left her. She has to be clever, patient.
With guttural curses, he wakes, leaps up, and crashes into the wall. When he crawls back into bed, he clutches for her. The boy who hit her, that boy was easier to understand, the one who laughed as he laced up stiff new boots and walked away.
After breakfast, she rushes Liam outside before he notices the backpack and boots. He waves sleepily from the school bus. She scuffs along the lane to give herself… time to think.
Back home she digs out the ax. She splits half the woodpile before he appears, juggling an apple in each hand. When he drops one, it rolls under the porch. Sixty cents wasted. The tiny cabin, etched in noontime gold against the dark pines, makes her want to cry. She has so little and he is so greedy.
Shifting weight to her left leg, she swings the ax high and hard. Half the log falls right and half left, the blade buried in the bracing log. She rocks it loose. When the ax swings in free fall, he’s right there. The blade barely misses his kneecap.
He jumps. “I’ll apologize, if that’s what you want.”
The weight of the ax drags. “I want you to leave.”
“But last night—”
“Last night was what you wanted.”
“You wanted it too.”
“You never asked.”
“Why ask? Look at you. All bones. Hard to tell you’re female the way you swing that ax,” he snickers. “A caved-in bed, a dented kettle, and a wobbly table.”
He smiles. “Thanks for the apple then.”
When he sinks to his knees, she tries not to watch the rippled muscles. She tightens her grip on the ax and smashes it down onto the next log and the next.
Plunging her hands into the rain barrel, she scrubs to her elbows. Barely time to relocate the split logs when the bus grinds up the lane.
On the last step Liam spreads his arms for the ritual jump. He’s never known anything except his mother’s arms when the bus arrives home.
“We cooked witches,” he yells. “Sand witches.”
Every day a new story. While he describes taking turns with the spatula, she considers the yard, the feathered trail in the pine needles where she dragged split logs into the woods to cover the ditch where Tommy sat. The way she sees it, he was trespassing, unrecognizable in the gloom. The dogs barked wildly. She was alone, frightened. Why would he come looking for trouble when he’s already walked out on them once?
Liam pats her face.
“Stop, you’re hurting me.”
“Then listen. I stoved by myself. Everyone had a turn. Then we ate them. I ate four.”
She thinks about scolding him. Four sounds greedy. While she hesitates, he circles the new log pile, his arms flapping. Most afternoons they read or draw together. She can’t let him go off in the woods. Or near the lake. Too dangerous. Life is too dangerous.
She squints at the sun hidden in the trees. You never know when a strange man might walk through and highjack your life. Liam crashes into her legs. “Can we have a snack?”
It isn’t greed. He’s growing, that’s all.
Sarah Collins Honenberger’s third novel Catcher, Caught is a Pen/Faulkner Foundation selection for its Writers-in-Schools program. Fiction awards include New Millenium, Antietam Review, National Press Women, semi-finalist Best Unpublished Novel (2015, 2020), F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Fiction runner-up award, Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, the Hook, and nominee for the Library of Virginia Fiction award for three of her novels. A fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she writes about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.