Daphne Contest Winner! “Daphne Rising” by Taryn Noelle Kloeden
Congratulations to author Taryn Noelle Kloeden for winning the Daphne Contest!
Taryn is an author of epic YA fantasy, and is also an anthrozoologist. Here’s a little more about her from her Amazon author page: “As a graduate student in anthrozoology with an undergraduate degree in psychology and biology, she is dedicating her life to understanding and protecting animals, both human and nonhuman. This zeal for the outdoors combined with a lifelong love affair with fantasy and horror stories led her to create the YA dark fantasy series, The Fenearen Chronicles. The second installment, Twice Blessed, is due out in 2018.
“Taryn lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with her Prima donna cat, Stella, and personal piano player/boyfriend, Lorenzo.”
by Taryn Noelle Kloeden
Delilah Miller Pelant dipped her hands in the kitchen sink’s hot, sudsy water. Dishes were one chore she didn’t mind. Anything involving water calmed her, sending her mind to happier times—splashing in the creek as a girl, or skinny-dipping with Abe back when he’d been her prince charming. But as she glimpsed her reflection in the window, the yellowing bruise beneath her eye reminded her that those days were long gone. Her husband, Abe Pelant, was not the man he once was. Nor, Delilah supposed, was she the girl who’d defied her father to marry him when she was just sixteen.
Delilah rinsed a teacup, trying to picture that headstrong girl. She’d been so sure of everything. Sure she would go to college, escape her small town life, and sure of Abraham Pelant most of all. She remembered the first time she saw him like it was yesterday. He’d ridden into town in his beat up chevy pick-up, but with the way he looked in his Army uniform, it might as well have been a white horse. His neatly cut sandy hair held just a hint of waves at the end that framed his face like Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy. Delilah sighed. Fitzwiliam Darcy started out mean, but ended up a good man. Her story had taken the exact opposite trajectory.
Delilah could not say exactly where things went wrong. Her life didn’t turn into a nightmare all at once—if it had she surely would’ve left when she’d had the chance. No, Abe’s transformation had taken time—and plenty of Johnny Walker. And now they’d moved to a cabin far away from anyone she knew. He’d said he wanted a fresh start, but Delilah knew what he really wanted was a place where his bookie couldn’t find him and he could beat on his wife without anyone being the wiser.
At first she believed Abe when he said he was sorry, that he didn’t mean it, or that it would never happen again. She even believed him when apologies turned to accusations and he found a way to make his abuse her fault. He’d always been good at sleight of hand, she just never imagined his biggest trick would be on her. He’d come home in a drunken fit, smelling of cheap perfume, and put the whammy on her just for looking at him funny. But then, presto change-o! He had her apologizing to him, saying she was sorry for driving him to the drink, for ruining his potential, whatever illusion he had weaved that time.
A dish slipped from her wet fingers, shattering into a million pieces. The sound echoed through the cabin and out an open window, setting off Abe’s trio of foxhounds in the kennel outside. Their howls smacked of desperation. Abe probably forgot to feed them before he left again. Delilah wiped her hands on her apron. She opened the icebox and found some leftover beef stew. The dogs scared her, but that didn’t mean they deserved to starve. She made her way outdoors and down the gravel path toward the dogs’ enclosure.
The tri-colored hounds raced back and forth in their run, long ears flapping. She paused on the other side of the chain link fence. The largest one, Uma, curled her lips back into a snarl. The other two, Laika and Hedy, watched her uneasily from the corners of their eyes. Delilah gulped. She tossed the cold stew over the fence, letting the chunks of meat and thick broth rain down on the grass beside the dogs. She turned and ran back inside without checking to see if they’d eat it.
If they didn’t eat it all, Abe would see the mess she’d made. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the broken dish and rinsed the stew pot. This was what she was reduced to now. She dropped the still-messy pot in the sink and turned off the tap. Delilah marched to the bedroom.
Abe had taken their only transportation—the same old beat-up chevrolet. Day after day, he left her alone in their cabin in the woods, at least four miles from the closest neighbor. When she’d complained of her loneliness, he’d made some crack about it being her own damn fault for not getting pregnant like a good wife should. What he didn’t know was that she’d been taking steps to prevent that—no child deserved to be born into her hell, no matter how badly she may have wanted a family once upon a time. Now all Delilah wanted was to be free.
How many times had she considered running away? But something had always stopped her. Fear, latent guilt for abandoning Abe to his demons, or some combination of the two. She knelt beside their bed, feeling between the mattress and box spring for the little money she’d managed to squirrel away. It wasn’t much—a crumpled ten, a handful of ones, and a few stray coins. It would barely buy her a night at a seedy motel. She could get a bus ticket to just about anywhere, but where would she go? Her mother was dead, her friends scattered to the winds, and she’d been estranged from her father since she’d defied him to marry Abe. She was alone.
Delilah stood, placing the money on the bedside table. She untied her apron and put up her hair. She had nowhere to go, but she couldn’t stay there. The last time Abe had hit her, it’d been different. He hadn’t even bothered to come up with an excuse. It was like he’d been bored and beating her up just seemed the thing to do. Though there were still the occasional good days, days where he seemed happy as a lark, a touch of madness underscored everything he did. He was a brute. Violence entertained him. She gulped, wiping away a tear. Violence excited him. She wouldn’t survive him, not forever. And despite everything, all the pain and abuse, Delilah didn’t want to die. She wanted to live, and more than that, she wanted a life.
No. She didn’t just want it. She deserved it.
After everything Abe had done to twist her mind, that quiet voice inside her head had been silenced for so long. The voice that said she mattered, that she was worthy of love, respect, and happiness. She didn’t know exactly what had awoken the voice, only that it was back. She had to act before Abe scared it away again.
Delilah whirled toward the closet. She dragged out her suitcase and threw in anything that would fit. Abe wouldn’t be home for hours. By then, she could be long gone, on a bus to some place no one would know her. She didn’t know what awaited her, but anything would be better than that godforsaken cabin and the prison warden who’d once been her husband.
She grabbed the money and dragged the overstuffed case into the kitchen. She made herself a sack lunch and a thermos of tea. Within a few minutes, Delilah had everything ready at the kitchen table. She paused, staring at the physical proof of her rebellion. Could she really do it? Could she leave Abe?
She crossed the room to the fireplace. A wedding picture sat on the mantel. How was it that the world looked so much happier in black and white? She ran her finger along the frame, sliding it to Abe’s grinning face. Where had he gone? What beast had overtaken the man she’d loved? If she left, she’d break her vow to him. Sure, he’d broken his many times over, but she’d still held onto hers, hoping, praying, one day her love and forgiveness would be enough to bring him back home.
Delilah wasn’t sure how long she stood there, with one hand on the photograph, the other on her heart. She stayed transfixed, imagining how their life together might’ve been, until the sound of an engine and the hounds barking broke her reverie.
She ran to the kitchen window. The beat-up Chevy rumbled up the driveway and Abe jumped out, a bouquet of sunflowers—her favorite—in his hands. He did a heel touch like Dick Van Dyke and all but sprinted to the front door. There was no time for her to hide the suitcase.
He swung open the door. “Darling, I thought I’d surprise–” He broke off, wild gaze falling to the suitcase and lunch bag on the table.
“Abe!” She plastered on a smile and shrugged toward the case. “Just cleaning out my closet, dear. Are those for me?” She reached toward the flowers.
He threw the sunflowers to the ground. He grabbed her wrist, dragging her into the bedroom. “Cleaning out your closet?” Abe screamed as he threw open the closet door. Almost all her clothes were gone, stuffed into the suitcase.
“Please, Abe,” Delilah cried, “I didn’t mean it. I was just so mad that you’d hit me again. I wouldn’t have gone through with it—”
A slap silenced her. She fell from the force of it. But Abe didn’t grant her that reprieve. He pulled her back up, throwing her onto the bed.
“I took off early for you!” His face turned red, his eyes bloodshot and glazed like a rabid dog’s. “This is how you repay me for trying to be romantic? You ungrateful—argh!”
Delilah kneed him in the groin. He fell off her, panting. Panic propelled her out of the bedroom, through the front door, and into the woods. She’d never fought back before, not like that. His brutality enraged her newly resolved mind. She wouldn’t live like this.
She expected to hear Abe chasing after her immediately, but she managed a bit of a lead before she heard the door slam open.
“Delilah!” He called her name. “Get back here, now.” A mechanical click echoed his words—the cocking of a gun.
She gulped humid air, running deeper into the woods. Branches cut her arms and cheeks. Briars tugged at her hem. This was it. Abe had pulled out his gun once or twice before during one of their fights, but it’d never been loaded. He would either kill her, beat her, force himself on her, or all three.
She ran and ran, tears blocking her vision. She tripped, and her ankle throbbed as she rose. Abe was closing in, and he wasn’t alone. Bone-chilling howls filled the air. He’d let loose his dogs to find her. She’d seen what was left of the foxes and rabbits they’d brought in. Sometimes they listened when their master called them off to protect the skin, other times they just couldn’t help themselves. They were killers, born and bred.
“No, please!” She cried out, not to Abe but to whatever force was out there, watching. She’d stopped believing in god a long time before, but perhaps, if she believed hard enough now, someone up there would save her.
“Delilah, Delilah,” Abe sang her name madly in time with his dogs’ howls. “Your father named you right, you deceitful little whore.”
“No!” Delilah fell again, this time twisting her ankle so badly she couldn’t stand, let alone run. She grabbed onto a scrubby tree, and pulled herself up as best she could. There was no use. She couldn’t run anymore. She collapsed against the tree, leaning her head on its bark. The tree had a homey, herbaceous scent. It wasn’t light and floral, but strong and a bit spicy—laurel. She recognized it from the bay leaves in her mother’s gumbo long ago. The scent calmed her.
Abe and his dogs closed in. “Delilah, Delilah.” Abe held the gun in one hand. He wiped his brow with his other as a manic smile spread across his features. “In the bible, Delilah took Sampson’s strength but you, you took more than that, didn’t you?” Incongruous tears ran down his sunken cheeks. “You took my money, my name, my life. And all I ever asked was that you be good to me, keep sweet, keep me happy as a wife should. But, no, you’re too selfish for that.”
His words barely registered. Delilah breathed in the tree’s comforting aroma. Abe would kill her right there, beneath the laurel tree. Somehow, the thought didn’t scare her anymore. It would be over, this dreadful life, and she could start a new one. Her body could lie right there, decompose into the soil, and feed this scrubby little tree until that’s what she became. This scrubby little tree spent its days reaching toward the sun, soaking up water through its roots, swaying in the breeze. Delilah sighed. What a lovely life it would be.
“Stay!” He ordered his dogs. “You listening to me?” Abe knelt in front of her. He pinched her chin between his fingers.
“Oh, Abe.” Her gaze drifted away from his twisted face, focusing on the peridot leaves above her. “I ain’t gonna listen to you ever again.”
He slapped her and followed up the contact with a vicious kiss. He pressed the gun’s barrel underneath her ribs. “You will,” he growled, “if you want to live.”
She turned her head away. “Do it,” she whispered. “I’d rather die here, then feel your hands on my skin ever again, Abraham Oliver Pelant.”
“You pushed me to this.” His free hand tightened on her hem, bunching it up toward her waist. “You act like a whore, you’ll be treated like—” He broke away as his dogs circled in around them.
“I said stay you stupid mutts!”
But they moved closer, prowling like hungry lionesses.
“You can have her after I’m done, you ungrateful beasts!”
Uma lowered, the fur along her back spiking into hackles. A growl rumbled in her throat, along with Laika and Hedy’s.
Abe rose, holding out his gun. “Get back girls, now!”
Their snarling intensified and all at once, they attacked.
Delilah shut her eyes, expecting their gnashing teeth to fall upon her. But instead she felt hot liquid spray her face. Blood and drool splattered across her skin and dress. The hounds tore into their master, ripping him apart until his screams dissolved into the snaps of breaking bones and the wet squelch of tearing flesh.
Delilah watched, transfixed, as they reduced her husband into nothing more than kindling. When they were finally satisfied, the dogs looked to her. She pressed against her tree as Uma, Laika, and Hedy trotted toward her. But their blood-stained muzzles did nothing but sniff her over. Their tails wagged and Uma laid her head in Delilah’s lap.
“G—good girls,” Delilah whispered as she scratched Uma between the ears. “Now, let’s get you cleaned up.”
Laika fetched her a stick and Delilah used it to stand. She hobbled back toward the house with the dogs following. Once the dogs were washed, she was showered, her ankle iced, and her dress burned, Delilah called the police, crying over her husband who’d gone for a walk in the woods but never returned.
Hours later, when the police came to the cabin door with their hats in their hands, they explained how the coyotes must’ve attacked her poor Abe. Delilah cried and the tears were real.
She buried Abe right there beneath the laurel tree.
“Let him be the tree instead,” she said to the three hounds beside her, “we have a better life to live.”
© 2018 Taryn Noelle Kloeden. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author for usage.