“Who’s ready for more wings?” Chance punched two fists into the air. A round of cheers went up, the guys ready to celebrate that their team had won.
“No, Chance. I’m sorry. I’ve got to get home.” Ryan stood up and put some cash on the table to pay for his portion of wings and the diet soda that he had consumed.
“Aw, come on, man.” Chance’s cheer deflated. “You always leave right after the game.”
“Because I have a wife who loves me.” Ryan patted Chance’s shoulder. “And I would like to keep it that way.” The rest of the Friday night football gang chuckled.
“Alright, alright. We’ll see you next week then.” Chance crushed Ryan’s wiry frame in the typical bro hug and rubbed Ryan’s head. Several others from the group also reached to rough up Ryan’s hair. They swore that rubbing his short ginger hair was good luck for the next game, but Ryan was pretty sure they would make up any excuse to mess up his usually very tidy hairdo.
“See you.” Ryan waved to the group after he extracted himself from their mussing. He was eager to see Dana. He exited the building and crossed the parking lot, walking up to his car while digging in his pocket for his keys. He had just closed his fist around them when something sharp jabbed into his neck.
“What the…?” He spun around while bringing his hand up to his neck, already fighting to keep his eyes open. As he crumpled to the ground, a shadowy figure with a baseball hat and a hood pulled down low entered his line of sight. Then all went dark.
Ryan breathed in and coughed out stale air. He cracked his eyes open, but everything was still dark. He lifted his head and turned it side to side, searching for any source of light. But he glimpsed only pinpricks of light like stars in front of his eyes. His movement produced a metallic clinking.
“Hello?” Ryan stilled his head and strained to hear any sounds that would prove he was not alone. A faint whistling of wind greeted him from somewhere to his right.
He tried to move his arms, but something cold and heavy pinned them behind him. A chill seeped into his skin from the chair he was pinned to.
Where am I? What’s going on? Ryan thought.
He clawed through his memories, struggling to figure out how he had ended up in this position. Flashes of the night before—was it the night before? How long have I been out?—ran through his head: football with the guys, a dark parking lot; but none of his memories were complete enough to explain where he was.
He rubbed his cheek against his shoulder and discovered that there was something over his head. That would explain the darkness. He rubbed again. The item was rough and scratchy. Burlap? Where does a person even find burlap these days?
A chik-chik of a deadbolt turning echoed throughout the room, and Ryan ceased his movements. A door creaked open, and sharp steps click-clacked on top of what sounded like concrete. Or maybe tile? Marble? Am I in a house or a warehouse? Ryan felt cold but wasn’t sure if the chill was from the heat being turned off or nonexistent.
Ryan jumped as the sack was ripped from his head, then squinted at the rush of light.
“Rise and shine, Boo Bear.” A tall woman with short brown hair and wearing an all-grey sweatsuit leaned over Ryan, a sneer on her lips. She clutched the sack with white knuckles. “Sleep well?” The innocent smile that slipped onto her face after her question unnerved Ryan more than the sneer. His mind spun for a second as he tried to understand who the woman was.
“No.” He shook his head. “No, I most certainly did not sleep well. Who are you?” Ryan’s eyes darted around the woman’s frame, and he concluded that they were in a house, not a warehouse, with tiled floors and white columns.
The woman walked around Ryan until she was behind him and leaned in close, both of her hands on the back of the chair. Ryan flinched away from her proximity.
“Does it really matter who I am? I’m a woman, alive and breathing. Doesn’t that make me your type?” What on earth is this woman going on about? Ryan clenched his left fist where his wedding band was.
“I’m not sure why you’re doing this or what you want from me, but I have a wife. A wife who is probably very worried by now. If you let me go, I won’t tell anyone what you’ve done.”
“Yes, I know all about your poor wife. She’s an incredibly sweet woman, and you should be very ashamed.”
“Ashamed why? Excuse me if I’m not picking up what you’re putting down, but I am extremely confused here.”
The woman growled and pushed away from Ryan before kicking at his chair. He flinched again. She walked to the front of Ryan again and paced for a few moments. When she turned back to Ryan, anger seemed to seep from her pores.
“Ashamed of your actions! Of how you’ve treated Dana. Like she was just some expendable woman to you. You made a commitment to her, till death do us part, and you broke that commitment!”
“What are you talking about!?”
“I’m talking about the other woman! Men like you disgust me. All you do is take, take, take.”
“What other woman?! I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ryan yanked his arms up, but the metal around his wrists wouldn’t give way. The woman stalked forward and backhanded Ryan.
“I know you have one! All men do.”
“No, we don’t!”
“Dana seemed to agree with me. I had a little conversation with her last week.”
“Hey. Eating alone on a Friday night?”
Dana looked up from where she was staring at her water glass and met the eyes of a tall and thin woman. Her short brown hair was in a ponytail, and she wore slacks and a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows.
“Um, yeah. Are you?” Dana tilted her head, one sandy-blonde curl falling across her face, and contemplated why this woman was talking to her. There were two other men eating alone in the restaurant. Why had the woman walked up to her?
“I guess I am. It’s so hard to find a committed, loyal man these days.” She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Mind if I join you?”
Dana thought for a moment, tucking the loose curl behind her ear and pushing her glasses up on her nose. She wondered if it was safe to eat with a stranger.
“It’s just that,” Victoria glanced around the restaurant, “I don’t really like to eat alone. You get me? I can always feel men’s eyes on me. Makes me a little scared to walk to my car when I leave.”
Dana’s eyes softened. “Oh, yeah. I understand that. Please, sit. What’s your name?”
The woman sat down and said, “Victoria, but you can call me Vicky. And you are…?”
Victoria pointed to Dana’s wedding ring. “And where’s the man who gave you that?”
Dana smiled. “Oh, he’s out with his friends. Friday night is for football and buffalo wings. I just didn’t feel like cooking tonight.”
“You’re a brave woman, letting your man out of sight like that.” Victoria raised her eyebrows and took a sip of the water the waiter had left her. Dana paused for a moment and scrunched her eyebrows.
“Ryan’s a good man. I don’t know why I would have to worry about him.”
“You’re telling me that he’s gone every Friday night? To watch some game? Does he tell you where he is?”
“During football season, yeah. And they always go to Buck’s Barbeque and Sports. I don’t really like what you’re insinuating. That’s my husband you’re talking about.” Dana was beginning to regret letting Victoria sit with her. But she couldn’t help the tiny tug at the back of her mind. Ryan wouldn’t cheat on me, would he?
“I’m so sorry.” Victoria’s eyes widened and she placed a hand over her heart. “It really was not my place to say that. I’m sure you can tell I’m a little jumpy around men.” She chuckled. “Sometimes I forget that there are good men out there. Or so I’ve heard.”
“No, it’s fine. But I know Ryan. He’s the best there is.”
“Of course.” Victoria smiled but Dana didn’t feel comforted at all.
When they were both finished eating, Dana said her goodbyes and walked out of the restaurant. A light drizzle had started up, so Dana stayed under the restaurant’s eaves as she dialed Ryan’s number.
“Hey! You’ve reached Ryan. Leave a message at the beep.” A squiggle of dread slithered down her throat and into her stomach, but Dana tamped it down. Who am I going to have faith in? My husband or some woman I just met? Dana pocketed her phone and pulled up her hood as she headed for her car.
Victoria watched Dana’s retreating figure and shook her head. “The wives never want to believe it.”
“That doesn’t prove anything! Dana didn’t believe you.”
“Your wife was so cozy in her denial. Football with,” Victoria brought up her hands to make air quotes, “the guys? How original,” she scoffed.
“It’s true! On Fridays, all I do is watch football and eat wings until I burst. And on Saturdays, Dana does brunch with the girls. Should I believe that she’s out cheating on me when she’s at brunch?”
“No. Because Dana couldn’t possibly be as slimy as you.” Victoria began pacing in front of Ryan again.
“You don’t even know me. What makes you think you can judge me?”
“Because I know men like you. And this earth doesn’t need to be plagued by your kind any longer.” Victoria stalked away from Ryan and disappeared around a corner.
“Wait a second. Where are you going? What are you going to do? Think rationally here!” Ryan yanked at his bonds and let out a growl of frustration when they held. His heart beat faster now. Is this where I die? I won’t even get to tell Dana goodbye.
Victoria appeared again, gun pointed at Ryan.
“Woah! Can we talk? I’ve done nothing wrong! I love Dana!” The cool metal of the gun pressed against his temple.
“They always try to talk themselves out of the pit they have dug. You disgust me.”
Three loud knocks rang out across the room, and Victoria jerked her head in the direction of the noise, her eyes wide.
“Victoria Bismark? Open up. This is the police.” Victoria’s head swung back to Ryan.
“What did you do?” Her venomous stare emphasized her poisonous words. She turned away from Ryan and shoved a hand through her hair. “It’s always the men. They always ruin everything.”
“Um…I’ve literally been here the whole time. How could it be my fault that the police are here?”
“Shut up!” Victoria swung back to Ryan, pointing the gun at his head once more. Ryan flinched. Is she really, truly, certifiably insane? I’m gonna die. The banging on the door got louder, sounding less like knocking and more like something slamming against the door.
“The world would be better without men.” Victoria stalked forward and pressed the barrel of the gun tightly against Ryan’s forehead. “You deserve to die.”
The door crashed open, splinters of wood flying, and police officers flooded in.
“Ma’am, drop the weapon!” Victoria gasped and swung the gun around her as though she were trying to point it at every police officer at once.
“But he’s scum,” she spat. “He deserves to die.” She trained her crazed eyes back on Ryan. Her arm holding the gun twitched in Ryan’s direction. A shot rang out, and Victoria slumped to the ground, the gun clattering to the floor. An officer darted forward, kicking the gun away.
An officer rushed to Victoria’s side, and she fought against his hands, but her movements were sluggish.
“He deserves to die.” She repeated as she glared in Ryan’s direction.
“You don’t get to decide that.” An officer uncuffed Ryan and draped a blanket around his shoulders before leading him out of the house.
“I know he did it! Even if he won’t admit it! All men do is lie! Dana deserves better!” Victoria was still screaming as the door was shut behind Ryan and the officer.
“How are you doing, Ryan?” the officer asked.
“Better now that you’re here.” Ryan chuckled as he rubbed his wrists. “How did you guys find me?”
“We’ve been looking for Victoria for a long time now. She’s had three other victims before you. When your wife came to report you missing, it was only a matter of time before we connected your disappearance to Victoria.”
“Wow. I guess I’m pretty lucky then.” Ryan thought about how different the day would have gone if he was only Victoria’s first victim.
“Ain’t no luck about it. We are just very good at our jobs. There’s an ambulance over there.” He pointed to their right. “Why don’t you get checked out, and then I’ll take you down to the station. I’m sure your wife will be very happy to see you alive and well.”
Will she be happy? Ryan thought. Why did that woman believe I cheated on Dana? Did Dana tell her I did?
Ryan wasn’t even fully out of the police cruiser when Dana crushed him in a tight hug. Her tears dropped onto his chest.
“Ryan, I’m so glad you’re okay!” She pulled away from him and clasped his face in both of her hands. “I’m so sorry about all of this. I don’t know what happened. That woman, she got into my head and she made me doubt you and I’ve never doubted you before, but I told her that you weren’t like that, but she still did all of this and I don’t know why she would, it’s not like I asked—”
“Dana!” Ryan gripped her hands. “It’s okay. None of this is your fault. Her mind was poisoned. I don’t think it would have mattered if you’d said anything different.” Ryan hugged Dana again, overjoyed to see that his wife had no part in his suffering.
“You were going to be her fourth victim. They told me that. She finds women when they’re alone and goes after their husbands. She forced the most horrible ideas into my head.”
“I believe you.”
“I love you so much, Ryan.” Dana voice was muffled by Ryan’s shoulder.
“I know.” He stroked her hair. “I love you too.”