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Killing Malice



My stepmother’s name was Alice, but I called her Malice because she haunted my childhood and was the evilest person I ever knew—and for years I dreamed of killing her. I didn’t always feel this way about her. In fact, when I first met her at the age of eight, I liked her right away. Of course, I was at a very vulnerable point in my life at that time. I was still grieving the death of my mother, who had died two years earlier from cancer, and I was mad at the world, especially God. How could any kind of merciful God give my mother cancer when she was so young and then kill her slowly and painfully? It didn’t make any sense. 

It didn’t make any sense to my sister Annie either. She was three years younger than I when my mother died, too young to understand the concept of death and point fingers at the Almighty as I did, but old enough to know that the primary loving force in her life was gone. My father, a dentist and World War II veteran who everyone called the Doc, was also still in a state of grief, but he did the best he could to care for us after our mother’s death. The problem was that he had a dental practice to run and was dependent on a series of incompetent housekeepers to fulfill the role of our mother, which was not really part of their job description. After two years of juggling his dental practice while raising two kids without a wife, he was burned out and desperate, and Annie and I were starved for affection and in need of nurturing and guidance.

Enter Malice. The Doc first met her when a patient of his introduced them. Malice was in her late thirties at the time, the same age as my father, and she had never been married, which should have been a gigantic red flag to the Doc, especially in those post-World War II years when most women got married in their late teens or early twenties. The story she gave my father was that she had been in love with a married man for years who kept promising he was going to leave his wife and marry her but never did. A common story for women of that era, but whether it was true or not is open to question.

On paper they seemed like an ideal match. Both of them were attractive and intelligent and of the same religion, Catholic, although neither one was very devout. But perhaps the most important thing was the Doc needed someone to take care of his kids, and Malice claimed she really wanted kids but couldn’t have them due to a medical problem, which she never really explained to anyone’s satisfaction. What followed was a whirlwind romance, and six months later they got married. It was a large church wedding with many attendees, and it took place in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, which is where my sister and I grew up.

During the run-up to the marriage, and for the first couple of years after, Malice went out of her way to be gracious and charming and helpful to my sister and me, and we got along with her swimmingly. She even flirted with me a little, making googly eyes and telling me how handsome I was. And if something happened that created disharmony while she was playing with Annie and me, she would go into her pocketbook and take out this bag of chewy green candy shaped like small tree leaves and give us each one, saying, “Here’s a sweet pill!  Let’s all be nice to each other!” Beyond that, Malice tried to be the perfect mate for my father, always making him feel special and important, bragging to her friends what “a catch” he was.  So, to a young kid, she and the Doc seemed to be in love. Whenever I heard the latch on their bedroom door lock at night, I knew they were up to something of a sexual nature, although at my tender age I had only a vague idea of what it was. 

There were also other signs that the Doc and Malice were in love. After my stepmother moved into our house, my father bought new furniture for many of the rooms and redecorated them according to Malice’s specifications. Malice wanted our living room to be “a showcase” no matter how impractical it was, and so she got the Doc—who couldn’t care less about interior design—to shell out a tidy sum for a marble coffee table with a white Louis the XIV sofa and chairs entombed in clear plastic covers. The plastic covers made the furniture very uncomfortable to sit on, but it kept the white seat cushions under the covers immaculately clean so whenever we had company, our friends or family would “oooh” and “aaah” and marvel at how our living room looked “like a museum.”

  After Malice was done redecorating the house and putting her imprimatur on all the blandishments, she talked my father into removing any pictures of my mother that were in my room and my sister’s room so that she could feel less like an outlier and more like our “real mother.” To complete the picture-perfect bourgeois setting and show his love and affection for Malice, the Doc bought her a mink stole as well as an automatic dishwasher and a console color TV. These were the new status symbols and all the rage in the Eisenhower/Kennedy era when men smoked unfiltered Camels and had three-martini lunches and women went to PTA meetings and gossiped on the phone for hours with friends and family members. All well and good. But then things began to change—and rather quickly, too.

The first incident I recall that portended future problems seemed fairly inconsequential. Malice had made us steak with homemade French fries and salad for dinner. It was a family favorite and the Doc and Annie and I would always compliment her on it. On this particular evening, however, my father didn’t say anything, and when Malice asked him how he liked the steak, he simply replied, “It needs a little salt.”

Granted, it wasn’t a very tactful thing to say, but my stepmother’s reaction was not only unexpected but quite disproportionate to the Doc’s response. “Oh, I see,” she said, standing up from the table, “nothing’s ever good enough for you, is it?” She looked at him with venomous eyes. “I try my best to be a good wife and mother and this is the thanks I get?  But you know why?” She was screaming now. “Because you don’t really love me! You never did! I’m just a glorified housekeeper to you. To all of you!” She paused for a moment, then burst into tears and stormed out of the kitchen.  

My father and Annie and I just sat there, transfixed, and didn’t say anything. In a way, I felt sorry for her. Later in the evening I asked my father if he loved Malice. “Not like I did your mother,” he told me, “but I do care for her.” I wasn’t quite old enough or smart enough to realize the implication of this admission of truth, but when I became more mature I understood that Malice and the Doc got married for the wrong reasons. The Doc got his housekeeper and caregiver for his kids, and Malice got the kids she supposedly couldn’t have, not to mention a nice home in the suburbs and the status of being a doctor’s wife. So it was an equitable exchange between them, but it was based on expediency and mutual benefit rather than love. And now that the truth was out, Malice no longer felt the need to play the role of the kind and compassionate mother and became more comfortable with that of the angry, aggrieved wife. At first, it was my father who took the brunt of her antipathy, resulting in weekly arguments and acrimonious personal attacks. As a result, it wasn’t long before the nocturnal sound of the latched bedroom door, which previously I had heard a couple of times a week, became fewer and farther between. And by the time my sister and I were teenagers, there was no sound at all.

During this time, Malice had made a complete Jekyll to Hyde metamorphosis and transferred much of her resentment and hostility toward the Doc to me and Annie. No longer did she even make an attempt to be a loving or fair-minded mother. As far as she was concerned, Annie and I were just miniature versions of our father, and a week didn’t go by without her picking a fight with one of us for some imaginary slight that we brought against her.  Whenever we tried to defend ourselves, she would not tolerate our “back talk” and either strike out at us physically or punish us by not allowing us to go outside to play. At this point in my life I had not yet studied psychology, but it didn’t take a student of Freud to know this was twisted, aberrant behavior more in tune with a fascist dictator than a loving mother.  And it got even worse!

Prior to this time, Malice didn’t drink, or to be more precise, we never saw her drink, except at parties. But now she was hitting the booze from the liquor cabinet with regularity. Naturally, she wouldn’t admit it. Sometimes she would even water down the scotch or gin and blame it on me when my father asked about the liquor bottles’ obvious depletion. It’s been my experience that some people get merry when they drink alcohol, some get morose or depressed, and some get downright mean and nasty. As you can probably surmise, Malice fit neatly into the third category. One day, for example, after a few drinks, she didn’t like the way I “talked back” to her. I was about 12 at the time, and she took off one of her stack-heeled shoes and tried to hit me on the head with it. I blocked the impact of the shoe with my arm, which caused the heel to fly off and expose the metal pins attached to the shoe’s leather sole. Undaunted, she quickly took another swing and hit me on the forehead with the exposed metal pins. The pins dug deeply into my skin and caused immediate bleeding. An inch lower and I would have lost my eyesight.

Later in the day, when my father returned home from work and asked me what happened to my forehead, my stepmother lied and told him that I had hurt myself playing touch football with my friends. By this time, she had already fixed her stack-heeled shoe and sobered up. I told the Doc that she was lying and recounted what really happened. Malice could tell my father took my word over hers, so she stormed out of the house, muttering, “Of course, you’re going to take the word of your son over the word of the housekeeper!” Hours passed, and when Malice returned home, she and the Doc had another one of their knock-down drag-out verbal fights, which was becoming more and more of a daily occurrence.

That night after I finished my homework and recounted the events of the day, I sat on my bed and began to cry. My tears quickly turned to rage, however, and I began pounding my fist on the thigh of my right leg directly above the knee.  With each blow, I pictured Malice’s face absorbing the impact, her cheek bones crunching and her nose flattening as her blood splatted into the air and onto the floor. When I stopped hitting myself, I realized that my anger and hatred of Malice stemmed not only from her despicable actions but also from the injustice of my situation—like God taking my mother when I was six years old.  It just wasn’t fair!  But what could I do about it?  Nothing at that point. I had to bide my time, and then I would exact my revenge.

My poor sister didn’t escape Malice’s wrath either. One night, when my stepmother was supposedly helping Annie with her math homework, she lost her temper and kept calling Annie a “dope” because she didn’t understand one of Malice’s mathematical explanations. Of course, my sister objected to the use of the word dope and told her so; this “back talk” was enough for Malice to lose her temper and slap Annie repeatedly across the face, saying, “You are a dope!  You are a dope!” Naturally, Malice did this when my father was at work, and whenever Annie or I would squeal on Malice when my father got home, she would always deny it. And then there would be more verbal target practice between the two of them.

There were many more traumatic incidents I could describe, and by the time I was a senior in high school and Annie was a freshman, our family situation was an absolute horror show, a Grand Guignol of physical and emotional torment. One time, when the Doc and Malice were having one of their quotidian altercations, I remember pleading with them to resolve their differences so we could be a “normal family.” But it was futile, and later, when I suggested to Malice that she see a psychiatrist, she went into an absolute frenzy, screaming, “I’m not the crazy one here!  I was a happy person until I moved into this family!” In retrospect, my sister and I clearly suffered from child abuse, and had this situation happened today, we would have reported it to a child protective services agency. But in those days it was not an option, and parents could get away with almost anything when it came to controlling and disciplining their children.

By the time I was a senior in college, my father and Malice were pretty much living separate lives and Annie and I stayed away from her as much as possible. It was no secret that all three of us hated Malice and she hated us. One day, when I was discussing our deplorable family situation with my father, I asked him why he hadn’t already divorced Malice. Then he told me something shocking. As a prerequisite for their marriage, they worked out a financial arrangement in which my father agreed to include Malice on all his assets, like the house, his insurance policy, stocks and bonds, etc., in exchange for Malice paying off his debts.

“It was very stupid of me,” he admitted, “but I agreed to it because I was desperate at the time. After taking time off to care for your mother when she had cancer, my dental practice suffered financially. Also, my medical bills skyrocketed because my insurance didn’t cover everything, and I went into debt. So making the deal with your stepmother offered me a way out of my financial difficulties.  Obviously, I regret it now.”

“Obviously,” I said bitterly.

“I don’t blame you for being mad, but if I divorce her, I lose half of everything.  And to make matters worse, if I were to die right now, you kids would be in trouble because she would be in charge of the estate. Fortunately, I’ve been talking to an attorney friend of mine and he thinks he can finagle something to our advantage. I’m going to meet with him next week and see what he can do.”

And then the unthinkable happened!

Two days later my father unexpectedly had a heart attack and died. True to form, Malice became even more vindicative after the Doc’s death while Annie and I were in mourning. Now that she was in charge of the estate, she informed us that we were living in “her house” on borrowed time. And if we didn’t do exactly what she wanted without any “back talk” we would be out on our asses. The unfairness of the situation made me seethe with quiet rage. And that’s when I decided to kill Malice. 

I had a very simple plan. It was fall, and in the fall it was my job to remove the air conditioner from the living room window and bring it to the basement for storage for the winter. The air conditioner was quite large and heavy, but I was young and strong and could manage it, albeit with difficulty. The idea was to wait until Malice was in the basement doing laundry. I would remove the air conditioner and bring it to the top of the basement stairs. Then I would call to her for help.  When she would get about halfway up the stairs, I would throw the air conditioner on top of her, which would knock her down the stairs with the air conditioner landing on either her chest or face. I assumed the weight and impact of the heavy object would probably kill her, but if it didn’t I would have to finish the job.

When I told Annie about my plan, she didn’t offer any objections and went all in immediately. “Let’s kill the bitch,” she said. In a way, it amazed me how both of us had no compunction about killing Malice. In fact, we looked forward to it. So I waited until the ideal situation presented itself and carried out the plan.  It worked perfectly—except for one thing. The air conditioner hit Malice in the chest and then rolled onto her face and rested against her nose when she hit the ground. As I had feared, the impact didn’t kill her immediately and I had to finish the job. She was still squirming around a little, like a stepped-on cockroach, as I walked down the steps and stood over her. She looked up at me, her eyes filled with a combination of shock and horror.

“Goodbye, Malice,” I said as I lifted the air conditioner up to my waist then slammed it down on her face. That seemed to do the trick and knock the remaining life out of her, but I did it once more to make sure she was dead. 

When the police investigated her death, they questioned Annie and me at length. But we stuck to our story about how the air conditioner slipped out of my hands when I was carrying it down the stairs and fell on top of Malice, who was assisting me to bring it to the basement. Malice’s death was ruled an accident and there were no charges brought against me or Annie. With Malice gone, my sister and I inherited the Doc’s estate. We both lived in the house where we grew up for a few more years, then we sold it and went our separate ways.

 

TEN YEARS LATER

 

“I read that short story you sent me,” Jeannie said to me over the phone.

  I was living in LA now and working as an adjunct college professor and freelance writer. Jeannie and I had been going out for almost a year.

“What did you think?

“You didn’t really kill your stepmother, did you?”

“No,” I replied, “but I almost did. The only thing that stopped me was that I knew the cops would never believe my story. Everyone in my neighborhood knew my situation and how much I hated Malice. There were even times when I said in front of witnesses that I wanted to kill her. Everything else in the story is pretty much true, though.”

“Is your stepmother still alive?”

“No, she died last year. She was living in this crappy little row house in a marginal neighborhood in North Philly. Apparently, she had sold the house I grew up in and burned through most of the money from my father’s estate. And when my sister Annie went into Malice’s house after her death, she told me it was a complete wreck and there were empty liquor bottles strewn all over the place.  Annie also told me that she talked to Malice’s next door neighbor who said Malice hardly ever had any visitors and spent most of her time drinking herself into a stupor. So when all is said and done, Malice died alone, unloved, and broke. No wonder she drank herself to death.”

“Well, that’s karma,” Jeannie said.

“Or maybe…”   I chuckled.  “It’s my dish of revenge eaten cold.”

“Of course it is,” she said and laughed. “The question is, do you still hate her?”

“I do,” I replied unequivocally.

“And you haven’t forgiven her?”

“No way.”

There was a long pause, then Jeannie said, “You know, when you forgive someone it doesn’t mean that you condone their actions.”

“What does it mean then?”

“It means you’re no longer giving that person power over you.”

“What power?

“The power to control your thoughts and ruin your peace of mind.”

I didn’t say anything. Jeannie was a meditator, a Buddhist, and a very spiritual person.  Moreover, she was usually right about this kind of thing.

“Do you understand what I mean?” She prompted me. “The reason to forgive a person is to set yourself free.  It’s a selfish act, really.  It’s the only way to get rid of the malice in your own heart.”

“Hmmm…” I said. “I’ll have to think about that.”

 

ONE YEAR LATER

 

It takes time to forgive a person.  It doesn’t happen quickly or dramatically, but it does happen if you decide to make it happen by using meditation (which I did) or some other form of therapy to achieve the result you desire. You begin to think about the hatred you have for the person less and less with each passing day, and then one day it’s gone! And you wonder why you let it linger in your mind and torment you for so long. But I suppose everything has to happen in its own time. For me it took about a year for the hatred I had for Malice to dissolve from my consciousness.

Regarding my anger and disappointment with God—the God of my formative years, the white-bearded man in the sky who killed my mother—there was no need to forgive him because he no longer existed as a reality for me. He was replaced by the mystery of the universe and the cosmic consciousness.  Nevertheless, there are times when I wonder what my life would have been like had I actually killed Malice. Would I have gotten away with it? Or would I have gotten caught and gone to jail? Who knows? These are the thoughts that stories are made of.

 

John F. Miglio is a freelance writer and the author of the dystopian thriller, “Sunshine Assassins.” His articles have been published in a variety of periodicals, including Los Angeles Magazine and LA Weekly.  His most recent articles have been featured in Wand'rly, Op/Ed News, Hippocampus Magazine, Truthout, the Democratic Underground, Counterpunch, and Cynic.  He has also appeared on Air America Radio and Radio Power Network. His novel, “Sunshine Assassins,” has been called “a bone-chilling political morality fable,” “wickedly entertaining,” and “unforgettable.”


Image by Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney

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