Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Illusion of Control

The urge to interrupt him was overwhelming. Helen looked down the long dinner table at her husband and silently screamed for him to shut the hell up. Only a sheer fool would miss the looks of annoyance and outright disgust everyone was displaying as Bill Harden continued on with his story about building yet another subdivision of new homes.

Making matter worse, Bill had even begun backslapping the guy sitting next him in a good old boy manner as he explained the process of minor bribery to get county officials to look the other way at zoning violations. Despite this being the fifth day of a two-week Mediterranean cruise with everyone assigned to this particular table for dinner each night, Helen couldn't remember the tormented man's name.

“Honey,” Helen said through clenched teeth, “I'm suddenly not feeling well. Can we return to the cabin, like right now.” She knew their exit would be almost as awkward as staying but the sound of Bill's droning voice was well on its way to making her nauseous.

Bill at least had the dignity to stop talking and look at his wife. “Did you say something, Sweetie?” He responded with the mindless puzzled look he got when someone dared invade the comfy little world he existed.

“Yes, I'm not feeling well and believe it would be best if we both went back to the cabin.” Helen said tempering her tone in hopes that it might disguise her anger.

“But dinner isn't where near over and everyone should hear how I secretly bought all the land the Parson family owned for cents on the dollar. Can't you just go back alone, I'm having the time of my life.” Bill almost whined back, so much that a few people at the table couldn't hide their shock.

It was then that Helen was overwhelmed with the regret of ever giving Bill the time of day, much less dating then marrying the buffoon. A small part of Helen's consciousness sniped back that she knew full well what she doing back then. Well on his way to a sizable fortune from taking over his father's business when the first meet, the young Bill Harden didn't look bad and was half decent in bed.

Middle-age hadn't been kind to her husband, his weight had drifted above what was normal and despite thousands of dollars spent to replace his thinning hair, the results looked so unnatural that Helen had often remarked he should just go bald. What almost made things unbearable, while Bill still had all his mental abilities he somehow believed everyone would be totally enthralled with the smallest details of how he made his fortune.

“Bill, we need to leave now.” Helen said sternly staring at her husband. He in turn still looked back oblivious to everything but the story in his mind.

“Helen,” he said, “you are more than free to go and do what you want. I'm staying here with my friends and finishing my dinner.” He then immediately went back to telling his story as if he had never been interrupted, ignoring Helen completely.

Finally understanding Bill had essentially dismissed her, Helen became enraged to the point she would had shot her husband where he sat if her gun was had been available. Even through her anger, Helen realized she was the now the one making a fool of herself, so she got up from her seat and stormed out of the restaurant.

Helen aimlessly roamed the passageways of the ship utterly enraged that Bill would dare to treat her that way. The utter bastard, she thought to herself ignoring the looks of the other passengers as she walked by, how dare Bill treat me like the housemaids he so casually screwed then discarded back home. Contrary to what Bill might like to think, Helen knew full well that for the better part of six years he had seduced each of the maids they had hired to clean the house and manage the mundane affairs like buying food and scheduling exterminators and such.

Helen knew something was amiss when Bill insisted on being the one who interviewed each of the young women the employment agency sent. The commonality linking all the young women that ended up being hired was that they were at least slightly attractive, have no real family, and be absolutely broke. Bill would then slowly befriend and then lavish them with money and perks. The only thing more monstrous than Bill's manipulation of the young women with money and fatherly attention was how often it succeeded in getting them naked.

After six or seven months, Bill would grow tired of his plaything and eventually buy her silence with money from an account he thought Helen didn't know about. With the old maid now gone, he would begin the hiring process again figuring Helen wouldn't really notice the change in staff.

Helen didn't begrudge her husband his little affairs, over the years she been involved with numerous personal trainers from the gym, their veterinarian, and even once the ubiquitous pool maintenance technician. Their marriage had long since evolved into a true business arrangement, he purchased the land and supervised the construction of the new subdivisions. While she used her interpersonal talents to network and meet new people that would further grow the overall business. Helen believed that she was a true master at managing people and events to her advantage. Above it all, Helen wanted to be in control of her own life and anyone else she had dealings with.

The proof of this being the times Helen secretly cleaned up Bill's occasional accidents with the women he was screwing. On two separate occasions Bill had gotten his household mistresses pregnant forcing Helen into action. The first time all it took was a little more money, a trip to an out of state abortion clinic, and a warning never to set foot in Sunnyville, Georgia again. The second time, when the girl suddenly appeared at the front door in tears over how Bill was the love of her life, more persuasive means had to be employed. Helen thoroughly enjoyed the idea that they were considered moral pillars of the Sunnyville community, any accusations of impropriety would threaten their livelihood, which was something she couldn't allow.

Helen had no idea how long she walked the corridors while being wrapped up in her anger and thoughts. At some point though, it had sunk down to her consciousness just how lost she had become. The ship they were traveling on, named Ocean Master, was one of the biggest in the world. The cruise line made a particular point in boasting that nothing bigger would be built until people started traveling between the planets and stars.

Obvious hyperbole, but as Helen looked for a map along the corridor, a momentary sense of animal panic took hold of her mind. The section of the ship she found herself seemed an endless line of identical doors. It was only after descending a flight of stairs that she finally found a “You are here” diagram of the ship mounted on a wall next the entrance to a small piano bar.

While the lights of the passageways had been dimmed to give the impression of the nighttime hours on the outside of the ship, the bar itself was positively dark. The only real illumination coming from lights mounted on the ceiling which were aimed down at the piano sitting on a small, raised stage. Helen noticed the highly polished wood of the piano, almost seemed to glow from the meager light.

Figuring she wasn't ready to face Bill nor her table mates again, a couple of drinks in a quiet place would do her good. Taking advantage of a nearby large mirror, she made sure her appearance was acceptable before walking inside. The gown she wore should have made her the center of attention at the dinner table. Made of gold and red silk the price tag was so large it had made Bill choke when they bought it in Barcelona before boarding the ship. For a women entering her fifties Helen took great comfort in knowing some people thought she wasn't much over forty.

Stepping through the entrance, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but she could immediately tell the place seemed empty. Scattered around the piano were several tables with chairs and along three of the walls were booths she knew were designed to offer almost total privacy. To the right of the piano stage was the actual bar, complete with an attendant doing his best to seem busy. After taking a seat on one of the bar stools, she acknowledged the presence of the bartender just long enough to order a double martini. The bartender, attuned to the needs of his customers, or just to the fact that a queen bitch was near disappeared into a nearby storage room.

“Finally some company,” Helen heard a deep male voice say behind her. Figuring she was about to be accosted by a man probably more obnoxious than her husband, Helen made ready with the proper verbal barbs to send him somewhere else. It was only when Helen turn to her left to see the guy taking a seat next her did she abruptly change her mind.

The man was about her age, wearing a nicely tailored black sports coat over an expensive dress shirt that was probably the same brand her husband wore. A nicely toned body, chiseled good looks combined with a head full of natural black hair lightly dusted with gray made him look dignified. But it was his ice blue eyes that made Helen feel like a giggly teenager.

“Hello,” he said offering his right hand, “name's Steven Calhoun. Excuse the ridiculous question but what is a beautiful woman like you doing in this empty bar?”

Helen tried to control her emotions and hide the fact that she was instantly attracted to the man. “Hello yourself, my name is Helen Harden. The reason I'm here is to get away from my irritating husband.” She said while shaking his hand and putting on her best smile.

“Husband?” Steven said thoughtfully. “I guess I should leave then. I sure as hell don't want any issues with your spouse.” He said starting to turn and leave.

“No Steven, you stay right where you are,” Helen said placing her hand on his forearm. “Bill Harden would be the least of your concerns. And yes, I could use some decent company right now myself.”

Steven smiled and settled back on his stool. “Anything you want to talk about?” He asked with what seemed genuine sincerity.

“Oh it's the usual, he's an insensitive pig that doesn't appreciate my efforts and how I keep him from walking out of the house without his pants.” Helen said not quite yet ready to explain how badly she would like to see her husband dead. “How about you tell me why such a handsome man is alone on a huge cruise ship filled with horny women?” She said redirecting the growing conversation.

“In short, I'm divorced,” Steven said in a casual manner with only a hint of emotional hurt. “We grew apart wanting different things. As far as the cruise is concerned, I don't know, I wanted to do something different, break out from what my ex-wife would expect. Truth be told, I'm finding all the people on the ship sort of intimidating. That's why I'm just hanging out here, waiting for the piano player to show up. ”

Helen was in heaven, to her Steven seemed like an innocent lamb. She soon learned he was moderately successful small town lawyer from Oregon, with two grown kids and no current personal attachments. It wasn't long before Helen found herself wondering just what mental illness his ex-wife suffered from to let such a decent guy escape. While Helen had promised herself to play the attentive and faithful wife while confined on a ship with Bill, circumstances were rapidly changing to the point she might freely break that vow.

“You know Steven,” Helen said coyly, “this bar stools hurt my butt, how about we order some more drinks and move over to one of those comfortable booths.”

If Helen believed in such trite myths as fate or love, finding Steven would have fit in those categories. He listened intently as the drinks and his easy company caused her to open up about the uglier aspects of her life with Bill. There finally came a point when Helen told him her most secret desire.

“I can't tell you how many times I wanted Bill dead,” she said to Steven. “Oh God, there were so many days where my fantasies consisted of the police coming to the house and somberly telling me Bill had died in a horrible car accident. Does that make me a terrible person Steven, answer that honestly.”

“It's a natural feeling when you're so unhappy,” he answered. “Now, you answer a question honestly, would you truly like to see your husband dead?” Steven asked back, his eyes boring down deep into Helen's soul.

“Yes,” Helen whispered back for some unknown reason.

“I wasn't always a lawyer,” Steven said with a gravity that spoke volumes. “Years ago I was in another line of work and if you promise to do me a favor, I'll see what I can do.”

Helen believing she could read the true intentions of everyone she met said nothing but stepped out of the booth while grabbing Steven's hand. “Take me to your cabin, now.”

It was a short walk down the corridor. While the cabin was relatively small, the bed was king-sized and her expensive gown made a colorful puddle on the floor next it. Helen didn't really believe Steven would kill her husband, it was just talk to get her in bed. More to the point, she was still quite angry with how Bill treated her, it would be nice to make him worry about where she went for several hours. Spending it with such a man as Steven was just icing on the cake.


Helen woke up to total darkness, at first she groggily thought she was in the cabin she shared with Bill. But their cabin had windows and a small patio opening out to the side of the ship. Some light had always bled through around the edges of the curtains making total darkness impossible. Then there was the fact that Bill always left the bathroom light on so he wouldn't stumble and fall on the way to the toilet.

That's when the alcohol induced fog cleared and she remember Steven and their hours together. “Steven, she said while reaching out across the bed. It was immediately apparent he wasn't in the bed and Helen highly doubted the cabin as well since it was deathly silent.

It took several minutes to work her way to the bathroom to find a light switch. Once that was accomplished she collected her dress and opened up her purse to find her cell phone and discover the time.

“Oh my God,” she said to herself upon seeing it was already fifteen minutes before noon. The damn ship would already be docked at Piraeus, a little ways outside Athens. What she thought would be a few hours of irritation for Bill had turned into far more than she planned. Helen thought about leaving Steven a note, but on second thought decided that she would try and contact him later.

She tried not to think about how her appearance while on the way back to her cabin. Helen realized with hair a mess and the expensive gown heavily wrinkled, she was an walking advertisement for the fact that she had spent the night someplace else. All things considered, it really didn't matter since she didn't know any of the other passengers and would never see them again once the cruise was over.

Her relief was short lived, after opening the cabin door. Every bit of her and Bill's possessions they left in the cabin were gone as well as the luggage they used. Their steward, an older man from Turkey walked in and gave her an uncertain look.

“Madam, I thought you and your husband had decided to disembark early.” He said confused and worried that he had made a mistake. Both Helen and Bill had treated the gentleman badly, something she suddenly felt guilty about.

“You saw Mr. Harden this morning?” Helen asked somehow worried that the mysterious Steven Calhoun had killed her husband.

“No Mrs. Harden,” he said nervously, “the purser's office told me to pack everything up and have it outside the cabin door to be picked up. If there is an issue they're the people to talk with.”

Helen left the cabin and raced to the purser's office hoping Bill hadn't decided to leave her high and dry. Right when she was about to get there the cell phone in her purse chimed with a text message.

Saying only: Missed you last night, decided we should stay in Greece and see the sights. Meet me at the Hotel Europa in Athens. Love Bill. Helen knew something was very wrong, Bill was never this spontaneous, this creative. But she had no other choice but to make her way to the hotel. After purchasing a new set of clothes at the ship's store, Helen left the Ocean Master and hired a taxi to take her from Piraeus to Athens.

The Hotel Europa was the type of place people described as having “Old World Charm.” Which generally meant to Helen crappy room service and bed sheets that would better serve as sandpaper. Still though, the spacious lobby was so beautifully decorated that the only thing proving she had not been transported to the early twentieth century were the modern clothes everyone was wearing.

No further instructions had come from Bill while traveling in the taxi so Helen went to the front desk to check for messages. The desk clerk quickly handed her a note saying he was up in room 227 and that she needed to join him. Still feeling like her world had been turned upside down, Helen didn't know what to expect when she stepped in the room. To her relief, the room was empty but all their luggage was neatly placed on the beds and the dressers. Feeling an overwhelming urge to sleep, Helen curled up on one of the beds and quickly faded into oblivion. When she awoke all her worst fears had come to pass.

“Hello Helen,” Steven Calhoun said sitting in a chair that faced her direction. “We need to have a serious conversation...”

“What did you do to my husband?” She interrupted surprised at her level of concern for Bill.

“Let's just say the old Mr. Harden is now indisposed. That's what you wanted, right?” Steven asked calmly.

“What do you mean 'old Mr. Harden?'" Helen asked knowing the answer might push her over the edge.

Surprisingly, Steven produced an United States passport and a State of Georgia driver's license with Bill Harden's name but bearing his picture. “I said I would remove your husband from the picture for a favor. I'm calling in that favor right now by becoming Bill Harden. To any and all we meet from now on we are man and wife, wild world travelers without a true home port.”

“Why are you doing this to us?” Helen asked wanting to run out of the room.

“That's information you will get when I can trust you. Let's just say taking over your husband's identity is the perfect cover.”He's the definition of the Ugly American, someone people around the world quickly forget about and want to avoid in general.”

“What about people back home, we have obligations and responsibilities, neither of us can just not return home. There are people who will miss us.” Helen said feeling trapped like an animal. More importantly, the illusion of being in control of her life was destroyed. That scared her more than anything.

“Think about it my wife,” Old Steven/New Bill said. “I have produced genuine identification saying I'm Bill Harden. Clever lawyers back in the States are even now slicing your business into shreds. The parts will be sold off and you and the man you started the cruise with will be people only vaguely remembers in a few months. I'm in control of things from now on, I'd suggest you regain your composure and begin the adjustment process, because even you can be replaced.”

Old Steven/New Bill moved from the chair to the edge of the bed. “We were perfect together last night, just imagine what a life of adventure and intrigue with me would mean.” He then leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips. At the same time, Helen felt a sharp sting in her right arm, she looked down in time to see New Bill pull back a fancy hypodermic syringe.

“Sleep on it for now my love, we'll talk again when you wake up.” New Bill said lovingly, after that everything went black.


Jimmy said...

My goodness, Helen has just learned to be careful what you wish for...Well done my friend this was really good.

The Bug said...

Excellent! I really enjoyed this one!

Pixel Peeper said...

Great story! The ending is the part where Helen would probably wish for the "undo" command of life, sort of like in Excel...