Edith’s Promise by Robert Freel


Her betrayal that summer long ago buckled my legs. I sank into the kitchen chair, tearing at the last page as her diary slipped from my hands and fell onto the table. The tight, torturous pain crawled up my arm and pierced home like a thief with a knife. I fell forward, my cheek thumped the maple wood.

I woke sitting, my cheek lay on the small maple wood table Edith and I had used in the kitchen for fifty years. My body felt disjointed, my brain jumbled. I felt uneasy. Another bad dream, I muttered. A book with a page torn out lay sprawled near my face, but I was distracted by a foul odor, like food left out a few days. I raised my head from the table and looked over at the trash can, saw I’d emptied it after dinner, like always. Curious, the rancid odor stronger now, I slowly stood and scented the air. I’d cleaned and scoured the house daily since Edith passed, and this new stink agitated me. I decided to root out its source, starting upstairs..

Submerged memories of my wife’s death returned as I searched out the dreadful smell. A similar foul odor had wafted from her bedridden body when she asked me not to read her diary entries, written while I was overseas. I offhandedly told her I wouldn’t read them, but couldn’t seem to summon out loud the word promise that she begged. That was shortly before she died, and she spent her final moments of life cursing me, swearing to her god that she would wreak revenge from the grave if I read her journal after she died. Soon though her voice grew hoarse and weak; her final words a whispered croak that I would die for eternity should I breach her sanctity. The gruesome smell worsened there at the end. Whatever its cause I knew Edith’s love for me was dying too. That nicked my ego some and I relented, my love for Edith ever winning out. I lifted her gently from the bed and hugged her withered body close to me. I whispered the promise she wanted, the diary would remain her secret forever. Her eyes shined with gratitude as I hugged her closer, holding her tight against my chest until they closed forever, her feeble struggles to escape mere formality.

Was there a smirk in that final, grateful look? I remember shivering; she died smiling while I wept.

By nature I’m a curious man, but I’ve honored that last promise to Edith. What kind of man wouldn’t? I loved that woman with all I had for sixty years! Since the sixth grade, that damn war the only time we were ever apart. But by all that’s holy, I knew that god-awful smell at the end was deceit, the reek of something rotten long hidden in her heart, fleeing its dying host out into the open air around her. There was nothing gentle or good about any of it, and I began cleaning the house immediately.

But that stench had returned.

We were childless, Edith claimed she was barren. Our spartan lives were mainly devoted to jobs at the factory. Edith’s hobbies were church and abstinence; I’d have none of either. I worked wood and drank beer. Intimacy had ended with the war, decades passed with Edith submitting to wifely duties with neither protest nor pleasure, but I carried on like the trooper I am, fulfilling my own marital duties by taking gratification whenever I felt the need. Then one day the diagnosis, and soon thereafter the cancer snuffed her out quick as a licked thumb on a candle flame.

I lumbered from room to room, wondering whither came that damn smell. I thought of Edith’s last seconds, that silent putrid taunt of deceit exposed. Yet my search found nothing, no trash not emptied, no dead squirrels or rats or birds that had gotten in and died, no food left on a desk and forgotten. Still the smell grew worse — not brief and gone like with Edith’s death, but all invasive and everywhere. I began to gag, with my right hand I held my handkerchief over my over my nose as I hastily shuffled down the stairs to search the rooms on the ground floor.

Again I found nothing, and my searching took on a frenzied pace. The odor was overwhelming and I became fearful and harried, wondering if somehow Edith had returned in spectral form, bringing the smell she died with along for the ride. I am sure I kept my promise to you Edith! I screamed as I burst into the last room to be searched, our bedroom. The door banged hard off the wall–I turned quickly and the mirror on the back of the door almost surprised my reflection as it slammed closed, then shattered. The explosive sound shocked and frightened me and I ripped the door open again and staggered back into the hall. Smothered by the smell and frustrated I could ever find its origin, I retreated again to the kitchen, where to my bewilderment I found an old man sitting in my chair, head slumped atop the table, face-down on one cheek. I stood staring at him for a few minutes, my mouth drooped open and my head slightly cocked, curious yet utterly stupefied. The part of the face I could see was mostly decomposed and liquefied; a large pool of fluid had congealed and stained the maple wood below. To my horror and dismay I could tell from the hair and the clothes the old rotting man was someone who looked just like me, but I had no twin brother…

….as this fact sank in, an unbeknownst grin briefly etched my face and I quietly chuckled, but my mind screamed in silence. I felt anxious, jittery; I slowly turned around in a circle, my body trembling as my eyes flew about the room, seeking something to steady my mind. The putrefying smell emanating from the old man was hideous; the same smell I’d been chasing since I awakened. I’d found what I’d been searching for.

I spotted Edith’s diary that lay open near the old man’s head. I noticed the last page had been torn out.

Feeling dizzy, I looked away from the gruesome scene, and felt something clenched in my right hand; puzzled, I looked down and recognized a page torn from Edith’s diary, and not my handkerchief as I had believed. It was the last page, the summer 1967 passage from when I was in Vietnam, her very last entry. I wondered how I could know that, and looked at the journal on the table, opened to that missing torn last page…

I was frightened. My heart pounding fast and much too hard for my age, I unwrinkled the page and scanned Edith’s last words, written thirteen months after I’d shipped out and one month before I returned home…I am pregnant dear diary…oh my sweet lord help me decide what to do…

I screamed aloud into the empty room —Noooo! An overwhelming feeling of anger engulfed me at Edith’s treachery revealedfollowed by an excruciating pain in my chest that dropped me to the kitchen chair the old man was sitting in, we blended into one. My hands cramped and clenched shut, crumpling once again the diary page I had just unwrinkled in my hand. When the pain from the heart attack hit home, its severity stole my breath, and I fell forward onto the maple wood.

I woke sitting, my cheek on the kitchen table I’d made for Edith long ago, must be fifty years now. I felt disarranged, slept too long I figured. A book sprawled near my head, looked like a page had been torn out, but my mind focused on something that smelled off, like days old garbage gone bad. I could see the trash can was empty. I always emptied it after dinner, it was the one chore I did religiously. The stink was potent and familiar, and curious, I quickly stumbled from the chair and sniffed the air, gagging slightly. I suddenly remembered my beloved wife Edith, and her recent death, but the details evaded me as my mind fixated solely on the stink in the air. For some reason I was enraged! I was also afraid, my heart thumping wildly in my chest. Nonetheless I smiled. I felt my smile freeze into a grin—and I hurried off to find the source of the treachery invading my home.

I decided to start upstairs…


Robert is a retired single man, fifty eight years old. He has never submitted a story before this one. He enjoys writing, and since his retirement he intends to do a lot more writing of fiction. He was once a construction contractor long ago, but suffered an injury that made him seek other careers. He went back to school and received a degree in Management Information Sciences. He worked for Lockheed Martin until retirement.

Published 2/14/20