Three Times a Lady - By Jon Osborne


Chicago, Illinois – 17 July 1971 – 9:04 a.m.

A dull-yellow stain spread slowly across Nicholas Preston’s crotch. His mother, Annabeth, watched it seep into the fabric of his underwear for a second or two before lifting her paralysing cobra stare and trapping her son completely in her unrelenting gaze. Bright green eyes that sparkled like heated emeralds burned matching, dime-sized holes through Nicholas’s skull.

‘Disgusting, foul little creature…’ she began, but Nicholas already knew the rest before the words were all the way out of her pretty mouth. They were the same words she spoke every time, delivered in the same condescending tone she always used, a tone that had always set Nicholas’s teeth on edge and made his brain want to explode inside his skull (as opposed to, thankfully, the outside of it). Honestly, though, what was new about any of this? It might have been a different day, sure, but it was still the same old crap – with the same crazy old woman who’d lost her mind years ago. The same crazy old woman whom the state had recently decided was a fit parent after all, even after the horrible thing she’d done.

Annabeth Preston lowered her gaze and studied Nicholas’s underwear some more, simultaneously wrinkling up her slender nose in revulsion, which somehow only made her look even prettier. ‘You’re almost nine years old already, for Christ’s sake,’ she continued. ‘When are you ever going to learn, boy?’

She paused and returned her stare to his. ‘You do know what this means, don’t you?’

Nicholas’s heart flipped over in his chest at his mother’s words. Of course he knew what it meant. Didn’t mean he had to like it, though. Closing his eyes tight, he breathed in deeply through his nostrils and wished like hell that he were somewhere else in the world other than in his bedroom right now. Anywhere else. In his mind’s eye, he floated away to his safe place: a beautiful forest clearing deep in the verdant woods where he could sit Indian-style on the ground beside a babbling brook and let the calming sounds of nature wash over him and soothe his soul. In this imaginary world of his – a world he’d created with the sole purpose of escaping the hellish reality of his everyday life – songbirds whistled their beautiful melodies in the swaying tree branches all around him while playful beavers splashed gleefully through the frothing white-capped waters, merrily going about their day’s work. More than anything else, this imaginary world of his was a nice place. A safe place.

But Annabeth Preston didn’t like nice or safe places. Never had and never would. To prove this point, she stepped forward quickly and jerked Nicholas physically out of his reverie, grabbing him roughly by the scruff of his scrawny neck and squeezing hard. ‘I asked you a question, son,’ she hissed at him through clenched teeth. ‘Answer me. You do know what this means, don’t you?’

Nicholas looked up at his mother with pleading eyes filled with tears while her sharp red fingernails dug even deeper into his tender skin and left half moon-shaped marks that wouldn’t disappear for at least an hour, trying his best to connect with his mother on some sort of soul-to-soul level but not having especially high hopes that it would work. Still, who knew? Maybe this time he could warm her heart and avoid the consequences. Maybe this time they could make a new start and try to love each other again. Stop being lunatics for a little while and start living normal lives again for a change. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

The cold, hard look of detachment in Annabeth Preston’s burning green eyes disabused Nicholas of this silly notion at once. Silly notions – among many other things in the house – were luxuries his mother never allowed. ‘It means a trip to the butcher’s shop,’ she went on sharply when Nicholas wasn’t quite able to make his swollen tongue work properly enough to form words. ‘Now get dressed.’

Finally released from her viselike grip, Nicholas rubbed at his throbbing neck where his mother’s fingernails had been just a moment before and did as he’d been instructed while five feet away Annabeth Preston tapped a high-heeled foot impatiently against the wooden floorboards in his bedroom – the same bedroom Nicholas had used to share with Timmy, though each and every last trace of his little brother had been erased now. No more of Timmy’s clothes or toys