Savior Complex

Me and the past never really saw eye to eye, so when I occasionally ran into someone I used to know, I immediately flipped through my mental Rolodex for an excuse to chuck at them before continuing on my merry way. It worked like a charm every single time, that is until I bumped into Tatum.

It had been at least seventeen years since I last laid eyes on her and the years had been very kind to this woman, in fact, she hadn’t appeared to have aged a day. She was still that slender mocha-skinned Honduran with a disarming smile but the updated version rocked a nose piercing and shoulder-length dreads in lieu of a bob cut. I couldn’t believe that I was actually pleased to see her, and during the moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history between us had been replaced with heart-warming nostalgia.

Her smile never wavered when she mentioned her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she was studying to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, nine and thirteen years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.

Time had no meaning as we stood there conversing on the sidewalk and for the first time in quite a while, I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t a character trapped within the confines of my overactive writer’s imagination. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we would call, and went our separate ways.

And on my way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt, as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life had taken. And on the tail of the guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.

I promptly deleted her number from my phone because neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.

Less than a week later, once I had time to regret deleting her phone number, she called with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t keen on the latter, but against my better judgment I wanted to see her again, so I agreed.

We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast-food chain done up in dime-store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company again. I experienced a level of comfort that oddly felt like home.

That was until her daughter, Stacie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have s-e-x?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.

Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. Having no idea what the proper protocol was, I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have s-e-x, Mommy?

Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes, we had sex.”

Was that how it was done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”

The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speedbag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deeper level. The rest of the conversation was downhill after that in terms of my personal comfort. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected, and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children and at her family dinner table, there was no place setting for me. It only lasted an instant but long enough for it to have registered.

I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place. It wasn’t a build-up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people sometimes simply grew apart. It was the Santeria. I told her I didn’t believe in magic, voodoo, and things of that nature and it was true, but the other truth was that it scared a part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.

If Tatum actually practiced rituals, she did a great job of keeping it to herself, her mother, on the other hand, was very open and vocal about the matter. That woman hated me the moment she clapped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason, I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding that fact. She visited our apartment constantly and when she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Santeria objects everywhere.

Things finally came to a head the day I came home from work early and walked in on a Santeria ritual in progress. Our tiny studio apartment was packed with strangers clad in all white, eyes closed in a trance, and chanting in a language I didn’t understand while they danced to the beat of the drummers positioned in each corner of the room. Tatum must have given her mother a key because she was standing in the center of the room, smoking a cigar and glaring at me as if I was the intruder in my own apartment. Speaking in tongues, the old battleax walked up to me and blew a cloud of disgusting smelling smoke into my face.

Tatum came home to find me lying face down on the floor. I told her what happened and not only had she taken it all in stride but she also took her mother’s side, stating that I had no business interrupting the ritual. I’ve never been an arguer, chiefly because I was no good at it but we had a knock-down-drag-out that day…which ended with me moving out of the apartment that night and never looking back. Depending on how you looked at it, if her mother did cast a spell on me, it actually worked because I was finally out of her daughter’s life.

I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited me around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation with the intention of cutting ties with her altogether but being gentlemanly about it and doing it in person. And if I was being absolutely honest, it had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home-cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.

Tatum greeted me at the door in an apron dusted with flour and seasonings, the picture-perfect happy homemaker. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces were different, still possessing features reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow…incomplete, like faces in transition. I chalked it up to a writer’s overactive imagination and thought nothing more of it.

Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes, and listened with rapt attention as I told the story of how I met their mother. Cutting ties with them wasn’t going to be easy.

After dinner, we sat in the living room and Tatum pulled out a photo album and flipped through family pictures of vacations with the deadbeat boyfriend, of her during various stages of her pregnancies, of her and deadbeat holding a newborn Lee, and later with Tatum holding a newborn Stacie while deadbeat lurked somewhere in the background. A life well documented.

She described how difficult things had been. Deadbeat developed a drug habit and came around under the guise of seeing his kids only to beg off some money in order to score and if that hadn’t worked, he stole things to sell. One time when Tatum refused to give him any more money, he had Stacie and Lee removed from her custody by Child Protective Services because of alleged abuse charges. She was nearly in tears as she spoke about the hell she had to go through in order to get her family back together.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. It was deadbeat, whose Christian name was Oscar, most likely coming around again to score. She spoke with him in hushed tones through the space in the apartment door allowed by the security chain. When his shouts turned to raged kicking on the door, I stepped up behind Tatum so that he could see me.

“Everything all right, Tate?” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

It was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Oscar lost his mind to the point where there was no reasoning with him. I did the only thing I could think of doing, I made sure he saw me dialing 911 on my cell. This caused him to weigh his options, and he eventually left but not before making a threat to come back to get his kids and make Tatum pay.

She convinced me not to involve the police but only after Tatum agreed to let me stay the night in case Oscar decided to return. We tried to salvage the rest of the evening for the sake of Stacie and Lee but deadbeat’s presence lingered in the air.

The sofa was made up for me as comfortable as she could manage but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was afraid that Oscar would return and afraid that I wouldn’t be of much use since I wasn’t a violent man. All I could have done was to block his attack while Tatum grabbed the kids and made their way to safety. And if that was what it took, then so be it.

When I started drifting off, as the tension of the evening released its grip, Tatum came to me. Her nightgown slid off her perfect body. Why hadn’t I ever noticed just how perfect she was before? She stood there, naked and beautiful in the moonlight that poured in from the window, and I knew then and there that I would have done anything for her. Smiling, she climbed on top of me and it was paradise.

After we were done, after all the love I was capable of making had been made, after the pillow talk in which things were said that were sweet and emotional and ultimately meaningless, Tatum gathered her nightgown and went back to her bed. I understood her not wanting the children to find her in my arms in the morning, but a small piece of me was disappointed.

My head swam with a million thoughts, my heart filled with far too many emotions, and that combined with the feeling that something wasn’t right, meant there was no sleep for me tonight. I was so preoccupied that I hadn’t heard it at first. The sound. The jingling of keys.

I went silent, straining my ears—moments passed. It couldn’t have been him with a set of keys. Surely Tatum would have changed the locks. Then it happened again. The sound of a key sliding in a lock. I sat bolt upright on the sofa, eyes scanning the darkness for a weapon. Remote controls, game console controllers, DVDs—the candy dish! It was no gun, but glass and solid enough to damage a skull.

I stared into the dark hallway from the living room entranceway. The sound of the doorknob turning. The door opened a crack and light spilled in from the apartment building hallway. An arm slipped in through the crack. It held something wire-like. A hanger? The tip of the hooked wire scratched at the door until it found purchase. The handle for the security chain. It slid across the groove slowly until the chain fell away.

I should have acted then. I should have rushed the door, slammed his arm in it, put my full weight against the door, held him there and called the police for them to cart him away. But I was held in place by a tense moment that locked inside of me. Instinct had taken over. So had the fear.

The intruder’s silhouette appeared in the doorway before the door clicked shut behind him, plunging the hall back into darkness. Footsteps, slow and deliberate. The floorboards creaked as if they were screaming a warning.

Then I heard a rustling come from the kids’ room. Had they heard the noise? Were they coming to investigate? Something snapped inside me. This bastard wasn’t going to harm the kids!

I charged into the darkness until I collided with the intruder. But as angry and determined as I was, it was no match for his explosive violence. He heaved me into the air and threw me on the floor. The ashtray slipped through my fingers and clattered away out of reach. The intruder proceeded to punch and kick me and I had absolutely no defense, I threw up my arms but they blocked none of his attacks. He wrapped his hands around my throat and I flailed spastically to get him off me as I gasped for the air that had been cut off from me.

I was overcome with fear but my body was overcome with instinct. My limbs simply tried anything they could to free my throat so I could breathe. But the intruder was having none of it. He slammed my head against the floor in a violent demonstration of his control over me as I gasped my last remaining breaths.

Then light flooded the room. Tatum and the children stood at the end of the hall, staring at me. My emotions were mixed. I wanted them to go away, I didn’t want them to see me like this. I wanted them to get to safety, but on the other hand, I wanted them to help me. I didn’t want to die.

But there was something in the way they looked at me, something that told me things weren’t right. And I looked up at the intruder—

Who was no longer there.

And now I understood why they were staring at me. Here I was lying on the floor with my own hands wrapped around my neck. It took some effort for me to loosen my grip. I staggered to my feet and tried to explain how Oscar had come back, how he had a key and he broke in and was going to do something terrible to them, but they didn’t understand.

Who was Oscar? they kept asking and, What’s wrong with Daddy?

When I told them to stop it, that it wasn’t funny anymore, that I wasn’t their father, looks of genuine hurt danced across their faces. I ran into the living room and grabbed the photo album for proof and flipped through the pages of—

Tatum and I on vacation. Me posing with her during various stages of her pregnancy. She and I holding a newborn Lee. Of us holding a newborn Stacie while Lee lurked somewhere in the background.

I had no recollection of having taken these photos, yet they existed.

And I looked at Stacie and Lee and they were different again, now a mixture of Tatum…and I thought I actually saw bits of myself in their faces. The kids asked Tatum what was wrong.

“Daddy just had a nightmare, that’s all,” she explained. “Everything will be all right in the morning, everything back to normal.”

And as Tatum ushered me to the bedroom, she grabbed the pillow off the sofa and something fell onto the floor. It looked like a figure made of folded palm leaves but I couldn’t see it properly because she quickly brushed it under the sofa with her foot.

“What was that?” I asked, my head still swimming in confusion.

“Just one of the kids’ toys,” she replied in a tone so soothing it was almost hypnotic.

Tatum said she would talk to Lee and Stacie about picking up their things, or she asked if perhaps I could do it because she wouldn’t have time since she was staring at a monster of a day at the law firm tomorrow, sitting first chair on a high-profile case.

That’s right, she’s a lawyer, I thought as the fog slowly lifted from my brain. Why did I think she worked in cosmetics? Perhaps she was right, everything would be all right in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Everything would be back to normal.

25 responses to “Savior Complex

  1. Brilliant! The ending was shocking. Might I add that your story had a hint of Koontz flavor? Wow, a lot of story in a short amount of screen…Love it!

    As a matter of fact, you’ve inspired me to post my own short piece of fiction. It’s been sitting in a folder on my hard drive…

    Like

  2. Oh this is outrageous! I prefer leaving the past in the past and would never dream of hooking up with an ex no matter how good they looked especially if their family members were practicing black magic or whatever in my house behind my back!
    You always have an appropriate twist that lunges at the reader. Well done! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That sound you hear is the silent screech of reality suddenly shifting sideways… This was legitimately chilling and perfectly written. I once had a brief relationship with a twice-divorced woman who had two young children, a girl and a boy ages 10 and 6 respectively, and I recall their curious stares when we first met, as well as the 6-year-old boy sort of adopting me as his father-figure right off the bat. It’s always a tentative feeling when meeting new kids whose biological fathers are out of the picture for whatever reason, and there’s a ton of pressure as you try to figure out the dance involved in getting to know a new “instant family.” In my case, the woman had some massive issues and the relationship didn’t last (thankfully), but I still miss those kids even now. However, I’m not sure I could handle kids like Stacie and Lee…or Tatum’s mom…or Tatum, for that matter. I tip my cap to you, good sir, on yet another finely written gem. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • This piece is “inspired by actual events.” When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I ran into an ex and her two children. Her mother did indeed hate me and practiced Santeria, and I did come home one time to find her performing a ritual in my apartment, which led to the end of the relationship. I can say with all confidence that there isn’t a spell strong enough to make me reenter a relationship with my ex. I wish her and her children well, but hopefully, our paths will never cross again. The past belongs in the past.

      Even though you miss the “instant family” children, it sounds like you dodged a bullet, and it’s probably for the best.

      Cheers for the read, comment, and compliment, Mike, they’re greatly appreciated!

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Ooh, creepy and deep. I love the twist and I got the chills! This brings back memories of my own experience with an ex. There were no kids but plenty of strange things happened I never thought I’d see or experience with my own eyes. I’m pretty open minded and like to discover all I can about the world but… I do have a limit haha. I walked away without regret. Great story Rhyan 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now you’ve got me interested in the strange things you saw and experienced. Sounds like the perfect grist for the story mill.

      I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m open-minded (there are more than I few things that I simply do not believe in) but I tend to be non-judgmental when it comes to the belief systems of others, especially if it causes no harm to others. I do not believe in magic, black or white, but I’m not keen on discovering “magical” fetishes hidden throughout my house, and I draw the line at rituals being conducted in my home, especially behind my back. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re going to perform a ritualistic ceremony, why not find yourself a nice temple, shrine, or an abandoned church?

      And a tip to the offspring of Santeria parents, if your significant other doesn’t embrace your particular beliefs, consider not entering into a relationship with them and definitely do not defend your parents invading the sanctity of your partner’s home and casting sneaky spells or conjuring who knows what from who knows where. It simply isn’t a cool thing to do. Ask your gods, they’ll confirm this fact.

      Cheers, Kirsten, for the read and comment, and I still want to hear about the “strange things.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha I know, I love weaving a lot of my experiences into stories. It’s the best.

        I agree with you about rituals in the home behind your back. After walking in on my ex while he sat crossed legged on the floor with an unsheathed samurai sword laid in his lap in front of a single candle glaring at me, I ran for it. My gut was screaming at me to go.

        As for the strange things… with this ex in particular (prior to the samurai sword encounter), the craziest thing I experienced was when he “summoned spirits”. I was wide awake, no intoxication, just me and him alone. And I wanted him to do it, because I didn’t believe him.

        Then I felt them all around me, hearing their footsteps across the floor. I kept looking, but there was no one else there. It lasted for about twenty minutes and I couldn’t stop crying because it was like my brain couldn’t compute what was happening was really happening. Then when it was over, I thought it was so cool, because I’m weird like that… I used this experience for my ‘Wanna Feel The Shadows?’ story. There are other stranger things that’s happened to me, but that experience tops them all.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Feeling summoned spirits surrounding me would be an interesting experience especially since it would spit in the face of my non-belief system and give my overactive brain something to gnaw on while it tried to rationalize the event.

        Now you’re just going to have to forgive me for being a nosy parker (that ain’t nothing but the writer in me) but in a hypothetical scenario, let’s say six months to a year after the samurai sword incident, you ran into your ex and he gave you a solid explanation (something you found credible) for what he was doing with the sword and candle and you believed him (you said you were open-minded) would you have gotten back together with him (you’re single in this scenario)? Think about it, who knows what other weird. cool things he could introduce you to? The two of you gallivanting off on X-File style adventures, Scooby Dooing your way through life.

        Inquiring minds want to know.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right I did say I was open minded… Well in that scenario, I would’ve listened to him at least, hear him out but I would’ve moved on still, even if single. There was a spark between us that died I knew would never come back.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoy reading your stories, even though they frustrate me sometimes, especially when the bad guys win. I know, I know, stories thrive upon complication, it’s the necessary ingredient, but man, it’s hard when the person you’re rooting for gets played. Anyhoo, thank you so much for another great story! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peri, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pantser so when I start these stories I have no idea how they’re going to end. If a happy ending wins the coin toss, fantastic. If not, so be it. And who’s to say the protag isn’t living a happier, albeit manipulated and controlled, life now?

      Cheers for sharing your opinion!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I knew Tatum was trouble. She and her mother so wonderfully inspire wrongdoing. Truly something to admire. You flipped it over just in time. And the narrator really didn’t deserve what he got. Why didn’t he heed the warning of their past together? Dark and gorgeous. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes we fail to see, or choose not to see, the warning signs in a relationship, and it’s possible that Tatum came back into his life when he was the most receptive and tired of being alone or navigating through a string of meaningless relationships. Here, he shortcuts his way into what another person in this comment section called an “instant family”. Who among us hasn’t taken the easy way out at one time or another, or settled for the convenience of a happy. loving family served on a platter?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s such a treat to read your stories, Rhyan. Sometimes I forget to breathe when I’m reading. You capture the reader in a web of mystery and suspense. I like how you wound the story towards black magic and the part where the children’s faces were changing. It’s so weird and creepy. And if this inspired by true events (I’m pretty sure it is), then I think you got away nice and easy. Great writing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is equally a treat to be read by you, my dear. The story is mostly true with the exception of the final dinner and confrontation, naturally. I don’t dodge many bullets in life but I managed to evade that one. Cheers for the compliment!

      Liked by 1 person

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