Richard Bell lives (for now) and writes in Cheshire, UK. His stories have appeared in Neonbeam, Hackwriters, Skive, Fickle
Muses, Midwest Literary Magazine, The Absent Willow Review, Anastomoo Handwritten and Word Riot. Two more are
forthcoming: in Foundling Review and Black Lantern. You can find Richard online at http://www.richard-bell.blogspot.com/
Death by Scrabble
It's Wednesday evening which means dinner at Hazel's parents' house, and I stand in the driveway with the beers tucked
beneath my left arm, jacket draped over my right. I thumb the doorbell. Voices sound from inside.
I expect to see Hazel but instead her father, Harold, emerges with his arms crossed, his immense bulk blocking the doorway. At
first this doesn't bother me, since Harold and I get on fine. We share a laugh now and again — usually at something funny on
the telly, or at the expense of Hazel or her mother, Beryl.
But now I look into his face and fight the instinct to take a step back. His brow is so furrowed that ordinary creases and lines
have become deep clefts in his skin, angled to lend the eyes immediately below an expression of severest hatred. Complete and
I stand my ground, though I avert my eyes in a gesture of submission. What the hell is he so annoyed about? And then I panic.
Does — oh no. Does he know? Does Harold know? How could he?
I ask for Hazel, despite the fact that I come here at the same time every week, and find myself almost drowning in relief when
her bright face squeezes itself playfully into the gap between Harold's belly and the inner doorframe.
She greets me, all hugs but no kisses since Harold's still standing over us. Has she noticed him glaring at me? She shoves him
out of the way and, finally, he grunts in a boar-like manner and retreats into the living room.
We hug again and Beryl comes to us from the kitchen, taking the coat from my arm and thanking me for the beer. She mutters
something about the fridge and holds the pack up as she passes her husband, who grunts again and once more trains his
smouldering skull-sockets on me.
I swallow dryly, the voice of reason assuring me that Harold doesn't know. Couldn't possibly know. What were the chances of
him seeing me out on Monday? Zero, surely. And he's never met Janine before. She could just be a friend… friends put their
arms around each other, don't they?
Unless Hazel suspects something, and she told him?
No, that can't be it. She seems fine. Nice. Her usual, cheery self. She'd be distraught. But it's all over now. Finished. Hazel's the
one I want to be with. Janine was just a stupid mistake.
Hazel's talking to me so I stare at her face, her eyes, those lips, and I nod, smiling, yes babe, yes, really? That's great. You're
great. You don't deserve this. Never again, I promise. Oh, you'd be crushed.
Just like I'd be crushed if Harold found out — physically squeezed to a pulp by those massive hairy hands.
At this thought I glance at Harold, avoiding his stare, looking instead at his hands. Those fingers would easily fit around my
neck. Gorilla's hands. A beast's hands. Like his face; flat, simian. I see him furious, screaming, baring long yellow teeth he
upends the coffee table and smashes it to pieces, rips an arm from the sofa, batting the floor with his knuckles, bowed legs
stomping, still screaming, swinging now from the ceiling light, shitting on the ruined furniture —
Beryl calls us from the kitchen. Dinner's ready. We seat ourselves, with Hazel and me facing her parents across the wide wooden
table. The drinks are poured — wine for the women, beer for me and Harold — and lasagne is shovelled from a rectangular glass
dish onto each of our plates. I remain silent while we eat, focussing all my efforts on appearing too intent on the meal to talk.
Hazel and her mother chat about one thing or another, and Harold grumbles through mouthfuls of lasagne whenever the
conversation reaches him. I don't look up but I know he's still staring at me.
As I sit eating, I wonder what exactly Harold is going to do, what his plans are. Why is he holding off confronting me? Maybe he
doesn't want Hazel to know yet, or can't face telling her himself.
That's it. He's going to force me into some kind of confession.
I shudder at the thought. Would he make it here, in front of all three of them? I don't think I could do it. She doesn't need to
know. Things are fine the way they are. Leave us alone, Harold, you frigging ape!
The meal is finished. We sit back in our chairs, sipping what's left of our drinks while Beryl takes away the plates. I pray inwardly
for Hazel to stay seated, but she gets up to help her mother clear the table, leaving me alone with Harold.
"Another lager? Or tea? Coffee?" Beryl asks from the kitchen.
"Coffee, love," Harold barks.
"Tea, please," I stutter, practically choking on my words.
Harold leans forward in his chair, spreading his arms on the wooden surface between us. He opens his mouth to speak. Oh God,
he's going to do it! He's going to say something along the lines of, Oh, by the way Anthony, where were you on Monday? In the
second it takes for his lip to curl back over his teeth in a snarling grin, I make the decision to deny everything. I pray for
someone, something, anything to save me. What do I tell him? I'll say I was — was… where? Bloody hell, I can't think!
I hear a teaspoon clinking against the side of a mug, the soft padded plop of a teabag dropped into the bin.
Hurry, Beryl, for Christ's sake!
Harold says, "So, Anthony — "
But then the women return and I deflate visibly in my seat like an old helium balloon, small, withered, wrinkled surely beyond
recognition. If it weren't for my hands flattened against the tabletop I would have slid clean from the chair.
The drinks are placed on the table. I mouth a thanks and cradle mine close, allowing the steam to lap my neck.
I hear a rattle and glance up. What's Hazel carrying?
"Who wants to play Scrabble?" Beryl asks us, clapping her hands excitedly. "Remember how much fun it used to be?"
Hazel laughs. "Look how dusty it is." She blows a grey film from the box and opens the lid, inspecting the contents. "When was
the last time we played?"
"God! Ages. Years," says Beryl, nodding. "You boys playing?"
"They are," Hazel tells her, and then, "I'll keep score!"
The game's apparatus is set up, the bag of letter-chips placed to one side while the playing board is folded out, and the long
racks on which our letters will stand are passed around.
We begin to play. Hazel adds up and jots out the scores while Beryl skims through a pocketsize dictionary. I find myself unable
to put together anything more than three or four letter words, since my thoughts are still hovering – cowering — elsewhere.
But after a while I begin to relax. Even Harold seems to have chilled out a bit. Beryl lays a mediocre ADULT horizontally across
the board, using the 'D' from my DOG.
Harold's turn now. I bring the tea to my lips just as Hazel says, "Wow, nice one dad. Plus the double-word-score tile that's…
I nod to myself. Twenty-two is impressive. I look down at the playing board — and gasp, tea spilling from my mouth, running
down my chin. The hand I brush it away with trembles.
Harold has spelt ADULTERY.
I look around, embarrassed, but no one noticed my outburst. He's going to do it! He's going to tell Hazel. I meet his eyes and
an unpleasant flicker of understanding is exchanged between us. It's somehow worse for the fact that he's smiling, apparently
enjoying himself, getting a sick thrill from having me at his mercy.
I feel like I'm going to faint. My composure hangs on the brink. I keep my hands beneath the table, but as my outward calm
returns, the shaking gives way to a cold numbness.
My turn. I pretend to study the letters at my disposal, and then admit that I have nothing. Grudgingly, I pass.
The game flows along as normal, and no one catches on to Harold's use of adultery — not that I had sex with Janine or
anything, nor are Hazel and I married for that matter. But I understand his meaning.
The hint is clear.
I sit nursing my tea, not paying much attention to the game or the scores. I have no idea who's winning. All of my attention is
focused on Harold.
It's his go now. He scans his letters, his arsenal, looking up briefly to flash me an ape-like grin. I bring a hand to my forehead,
studying his face from beneath the canopy of my palm.
And he does it again. I stare down at the word DECEIT spread in a tumbling white column.
I can't believe it. How has he managed to spell out two words related to the one topic? It's Scrabble, for Christ's sake. It's a
hard enough game as it is, and Harold's no genius.
Who does he think he is? A cat stroking a mouse. And all because he has — or thinks he has — something to tell. The power to
end mine and Hazel's relationship in an instant. All with just a few casual words.
If he says anything then I definitely won't deny it. Definitely. What would be the point? Suppose I'll just have to deal with it.
Face things as they come. No — wait, I take that back.
The game goes on and, unsurprisingly now, Harold manages to spell out a few more words in close sync:
So now, every time I lay out a new word, having taken fresh chips at random from the letter-bag, I rack my mind for a possible
retaliation, praying for a chance to fight back.
And then I have it! It's my turn, and I'm smiling as I piece together the word PRICK on the playing board. I even put the letters
the wrong way up, so they face Harold.
"Like a pin prick," I explain to Hazel and Beryl, who nod, understanding. The audience in my head gives a round of applause.
Well done you.
Harold goes bright red. What will he spell next? Betrayal is a hard one to top. A thirteen pointer, was it? I can't remember. And
all on its own as well, without borrowing letters from another word.
Something in that isn't right. I look at the playing board and murmur, 'Wait, how did you… spell out an eight letter word from
nothing…' I recoil and hiss, pointing a finger at Harold. "Aha! Hazel, look, he's got letters under the table! He's cheating."
"I'm not the only one," he grumbles. But the women, shocked, don't hear him. Harold rummages in his pocket and produces a
handful of letter-chips, dumping them back in the bag.
"Oh for crying out loud," Beryl fumes as she rises from her seat. "There's no point playing now." And then, more crossly,
"Why'd you have to go and spoil it, Harry? Why? You always have to spoil these things."
"I didn't…" He leaves the sentence unfinished, instead folding his thick arms in a sulk. The women leave the table and retreat to
the living room, mumbling things like "typical", "childish" and "every time". Harold starts to empty the board of chips, but Beryl
shouts, "Just leave it! I'll put it away later."
I fold my own arms and lean back in my chair, making no effort whatsoever to conceal a spreading grin.
Anthony: One. Harold: Nil.
I can't help but chuckle, at the scolding edge in Beryl's voice and the defeated, almost pitiable look on Harold's face. He looks like
a chimp told off by its keeper.
I laugh again. Bad chimp.
Harold rounds on me and instantly I regret the laugh, the grin, the posture. I straighten up, clearing my throat. What came over
me? I finish my tea, draining the last dregs in a visibly obvious way, thinking to use it as an excuse to leave the table. I make to
rise, but at a look from Harold I melt lower in the chair.
Eyes glittering, he cocks his head towards the living room and calls out, "Hazel, will you come here a minute?"