Naomi spends her drive home from the bookstore listening to her favorite true crime podcast, Caught Red-handed. It has become a game. By now, she knows the signs of serial killers, the buttons that need to be pressed to push a stressed wife over the edge, the inner workings of a cult.

She listens to today’s story. A man decided to kill his wife because he was having an affair and didn’t want to get caught. She turns up the volume.

The female podcaster, a witty British woman who goes on too many tangents at the juiciest parts, is recounting the manner of the wife’s death.

“This case was quite unusual because he used a pickaxe. A pickaxe? Like seriously, who even has that around their homes anymore? Can you imagine this guy being like let me go get my trusty old pickaxe to kill my wife!”

Naomi lets out a small laugh but feels a sense of unease trickle up her arm. An ad starts to play, interrupting the best part of all true crime podcasts.

The decision to kill is the moment, Naomi likes to call it, when the yolk hits the pan, when the consequence of having an affair surpasses being caught by the police and spending the rest of your life in jail. But the mind doesn’t see it that way. It begins to think of the potential fight when the wife finds out, the custody battle over the children that will obviously be in favor of the wife, the judgmental looks from friends and family who once used to extend their graces and hugs to you. The mind hits a frenzy mode as it tries to avoid these scenarios. It hatches a horrible plan.

Get rid of the wife, claim you have no idea what happened, pray the police don’t find her, and live a happy life where one year later you take your affair public, but now, she is the new girlfriend because you deserve happiness too, the friends and family still love you, and your children automatically go to you.

Naomi can’t help but feel connected to the stories. She never minded being an orphan, especially because she was adopted by two wonderful Black parents. There was never a missed beat in her childhood. Her adopted mother showed her how to braid her hair, packed her lunches to take to school, and made sure she read at least one hour each day in exchange for thirty minutes of television time. And her adopted father read her bedtime stories every night, gave her space when she was older, was kind to the boys she dated and never once threatened them with violence. She had lived a good life in the After times.

But it was the Before time that made her listen and endlessly scroll through the news during her down periods at work. Bits and pieces of memories still haunted her, peeking through in moments when she was running on the treadmill, drinking boxed wine with her girls, making love to Dre.

She was five, asleep in her bed, and she still remembers the sound as if it were yesterday. It was loud, it hurt her ears, it felt as if it shook the whole house. Her father stood in her doorway, chest heaving up and down, yelling at her that they needed to go. But her body was stuck to the sheets.

Her father whisked her up and pressed her to his blood-splattered shirt as they ran out of the house. He told her to close her eyes, so she did the opposite. Then she saw her mother’s body, limp, sprawled on the living room floor, her eyes open, her head in pieces. The blood splattered the walls, the floorboards, her father’s clothes. She remembered the musty motel room her father took her to afterwards and how he never came back because he put a bullet in his brain. In the morning, the cleaning lady found her lying on the bed, eyes red and swollen with blood stains on her t-shirt, and called the police.

It would have been better for her parents to have tragically died in a car crash. Maybe she would have spent her days studying mechanical engineering, working in the field to enhance safe driving. But instead, she got a job at the bookstore to get discounts on psychology and crime books. Now she can’t stop listening to true crime podcasts and reading about the hundreds of ways someone can unexpectedly die. And it’s worse for her. Sixty-four percent of all victims killed by partners or family worldwide are women. And that number increases four times for Black women.

She trusts Dre though, or at least, is trying to. He didn’t question her when she set up cameras in the house, when she signed up for Krav Maga, or when she said she didn’t want any guns or sharp knives in the house. No, Dre is good. He makes her watch comedies, cooks her Cajun shrimp dinners, and massages cocoa butter into her skin.

Her neighborhood welcomes her as she makes a left turn into the familiar maze of townhomes she and Dre moved into two years ago post college. The podcast comes back on after the ads, and she softly presses on the brake so she has more time to listen before pulling in her driveway.

“Well, the dumbass decided to use a pickaxe and rammed it into the back of his wife’s head. Except, the wanker couldn’t even do that right because the forensics report says the gash cut along her cheek, which means she turned around while he was in the middle of trying to catch her off guard. Like, couldn’t you have waited till she was, oh I don’t know, sleeping? Or knocked her out with some melatonin? Or used a gun?”

The laugh doesn’t come to Naomi this time. Instead, visuals of her mother cloud her vision. The blood pooling around her head. Her braids tainted red. Her brown eyes turned upward, glassy and empty. The black metal object she spotted in her dad’s back pocket when she was hoisted over his shoulders. Quickly, Naomi presses “pause” on her dashboard and the laughter from the podcasters comes to a halt.

The silence grows in the car as Naomi pulls into her driveway. The living room light is on, meaning Dre is most likely watching a movie or reading a sci-fi novel. Naomi lets out a breath. It’s small and quick. She practices breathing in and out until her breaths get longer and deeper each time, just like her therapist taught her after her parents’ deaths. The clear images of her mother become fuzzier and fuzzier with each breath, until they disappear into the part of her brain that stores the file, waiting to pull it out again to remind her that trust doesn’t mean safety.

Naomi steps out of the car and a cool rush of wind raises the hair on her arms. She walks up to her front door, feeling the cold brass touch of the doorknob as she pushes the door open. There’s a smell of garlic in the air as she walks into her heated home. Her shoulders relax as she steps into the familiar, away from the blackness that’s taken the place of the blue sky.

Closing the door, she walks into the living room expecting to see Dre on the couch. But he isn’t there. She steps closer to the couch and sees the outline of his body still imprinted in the leather. Pressing her hands to it, there is no hint of warmth. There’s no telling how long ago it might’ve been when he sat there.

“Dre?” Naomi yells out. Her pulse quickens as she waits for a response that doesn’t come. She slowly walks towards the kitchen. The smell of lemon garlic starts to fuse with a hint of butter and rosemary as she gets closer. She doesn’t hear meat sizzling in the pan or Dre blasting music as he cooks. In fact, the house doesn’t sound like anything at all. The only sound Naomi picks up on is the heel of her loafers clunking against the wooden floorboards. She makes a mental note to purchase a different pair of shoes to wear at work. Flats are more ideal and less likely to make any noise.

The kitchen light is on and there’s no sign of food or Dre. She spots the recently used pan in the sink, oil still dripping down the sides. Did he eat and just fall asleep?

She checks her watch and sees it’s seven. He couldn’t be sleeping. Plus, they eat dinner together every night. It would be out of character for him to eat without her. As she walks towards the sink to get a closer look at what Dre cooked, a shadow runs across the kitchen floor.

Naomi lets out a scream as she jumps in the air. Her eyes scan every corner of the kitchen and see no one.

“Dre?” She yells out once more, feeling small like a mouse that’s been dropped in a snake’s cage. She curses herself under her breath. Didn’t she learn to stay quiet until she knew it was safe?

A door creaks open from inside the house and Naomi feels her blood turn cold. She’s standing in the middle of the kitchen with nowhere to run and hide. If a murderer wanted to kill her, she just made their job extremely easy.

Dre emerges from the backdoor and does a little groove as he saunters in the kitchen. He looks up, sees Naomi, and his eyes grow big. “Babe! Finally, I was starting to get worried.”

The flood of relief washes through Naomi’s body. “What’s going on? What are you doing?”

He pulls out the earbud from his ear and puts it in his basketball shorts. “Come and see,” he replies, giving her a grin.

She lifts an eyebrow and feels her heartbeat finding a steady rhythm. Her nerves are still on edge, but she can feel the adrenaline dissolving. She follows Dre out back and comes to a stop at the sight before her.

The full moon shines in the background, their back patio table set under rows of twinkling string lights. On the table sits a whole baked chicken, and the smell of garlic lemon butter is even stronger now. Two candles sit on the table and there are sides of mac n’ cheese, bacon green beans, and her favorite salad, a walnut fig kale healthy bowl of deliciousness.

Naomi hasn’t cried since she was a little girl and even though tears still won’t come, she feels something twist inside of her as if she is a broken clock that starts to tick again.

“What’s the occasion?” Naomi asks, a smile breaking her face. The adrenaline effects are completely gone and in their place is a feeling of warmth and relaxation.

Dre reaches out his hand and grabs hold of Naomi’s. His grasp is hot and slightly sweaty which doesn’t bother her at all. She finds it endearing. These hands slaved over the stove, put up the string lights, built her this. “No reason in particular,” he replies as he pulls her to her chair and gestures for her to sit down. “You were on my mind at the restaurant, and you know how we got those TVs everywhere?”

Sitting down in her chair, Naomi nods.

“Well one of those cooking shows was on, Mac likes to play them cause people order more food, and I had the idea to cook you up something nice because I love you, Naomi.”

A knot forms in her throat. “This is one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me. Thank you Dre,” Naomi replies at almost a whisper, knowing the words aren’t close enough to convey all of the new feelings she could feel hatching inside her.

“Of course, baby. I want to do anything and everything I can to show you how much I care.”

She watches as Dre grabs the knife in front of him. Then does a double take. A knife? How did she not notice the knife? “Where did you get that knife from?” She asks, her voice wobbly, her body rigid.

Dre looks at the knife and realization washes over his face. “I’m so sorry babe. I didn’t buy it, I promise. I got it from the next-door neighbors so I could cut the chicken. I promise I’ll return it to them as soon as we’re done. Is that okay? Would you rather me return it now?”

It takes her a moment to realize she hasn’t moved her eyes away from the knife, as if taking her eyes off of it will result in it being plunged into her chest. She closes her eyes and stays that way for a moment, to test the possibility of death. When nothing happens, she opens her eyes and sees Dre staring back at her, eyebrows raised, concern in his eyes. “No,” Naomi shakes her head, “This is good for me. Keep it here. It’s okay.”

“I should have given you a heads up. Completely slipped my mind. I’ll be more careful from now on,” he replies as he cautiously reaches forward to slice the chicken.

“Wait,” Naomi interjects as Dre is about to slice. “Let me cut it, please. It would make me feel more comfortable.”

Dre looks at her, unsure, but hands her the knife, the sharp tip facing him. It is a thick blade, one often used for cutting meat or vegetables or your lover’s throat. She turns the knife towards her and comes face-to-face with her reflection. In it, she sees weary eyes, but hidden deeper is a look of determination, daring her to be brave. Except, the knife begins to tremble in her hand and her reflection morphs with each shake.

Then a strong hand grabs her own, placing flesh against flesh, and helps her steady the knife. She looks up and meets eyes with Dre.

“Come on, baby, you got it,” he encourages.

She looks back at the chicken. Gripping the knife tightly, she grabs hold of the meat, plunges the knife into its skin, and slices. When the chicken opens, buttered steam rises to the night sky. Naomi uses the knife to slowly plop the glistening meat on her plate and sits back down, placing the knife next to the chicken for Dre to cut his own slice. As she takes her first bite, she closes her eyes as she chews. The chicken is hot, mouth-melting, and the most delicious piece of meat she’s ever eaten. It’s as if the heat is warming the gears in her body to tick forward, removing cobwebs from the parts of herself she abandoned long ago. She listens to the sounds of the grasshoppers sing, her heartbeat softening, Dre slurping from his drink, and louder than all of that, her own moans–a reaffirmation at just how good the food is.

Dre looks up at her and cracks a smile. “The food that good?”

And she just laughs and nods and cries and eats. There are no words to explain how she feels. Their laughter can be heard down the street, their food can be smelled from over the fence, and for once, Naomi doesn’t care about the space they’re taking up or how loud their presence is. She feels loose, relaxed, untethered. The moment feels like an egg cracking inside of her. It’s not yolk that oozes out. It’s a baby chick crawling out of a tight space, stretching its legs, testing its wings, taking its first step towards breaking free.

© Diamond Braxton
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Diamond’s interview]