Kung Pao

Inside its folded cardboard pail, the chicken had gone cold and pockets of grease were congealing into clumps clinging to bits of pepper and peanut. A small puddle of sauce was pooled in the bottom of the paper bag, turning it dark brown and threatening to stain the cloth of the passenger seat if left much longer. When Kristin picked up the order three hours before, the rich, spicy aroma had sent her stomach into a frenzy. She had been eager to rush home and ditch her ever-tightening jeans for the comfort of worn sweatpants and mindless television. Instead, the food continued to cool, and the smell had become sickening in the stuffy car. Her stomach raged still, but no longer due to hunger.

Corey’s truck was parked a few hundred feet away, backed into a spot well away from the nearest overhead light. She knew he must be drinking – he was in the peculiar habit of reversing into parking spots before he drank, feeling more confident to risk the drive home when he only had to move in one direction. She checked her phone again, rereading the last message he’d sent.

Working late again, don’t wait up. Sorry. Record the Sox game, pls.

She’d read it a dozen times since spotting the pickup. It was the latest in a string of apologies for late nights. At first they’d been long, rambling compositions – too many details that couldn’t be confirmed, too vague to be challenged. Some of them were even sweet, waxing poetic about what a prick his boss Brent was to keep him from his sexy young wife and daughter. Eventually, they became terse, rarely running longer than fifteen words these days. Kristin had chalked up the change in tone to stress – the pressure of being a rising star in the company and a new father. As she poked at the newly-formed pudge around her waist, she silently cursed her stupidity.

She shouldn’t have seen the truck. The hotel was directly on the way home from both their offices, but the truck’s discreet hiding place in the lot and midnight blue body made it easy to miss. She was nearly past it when she was forced to stop short at a red light, spilling the chicken and forcing her to the shoulder of the road to stem the flow of the savory sauce. It wasn’t until she turned to reach the stash of napkins she kept behind the seat that she saw the truck – it sat guilty, and suspended in the headlights of an eastbound car.

When they were new, trust had come easy to Kristin. Corey was strong – physically and mentally – and felt solid under her touch. When they laid in bed at night, each of his breaths lasted a week, and came reliably like the tide. Her head on his chest in the dark, she thought of St. Peter – “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” After the baby came, he was a father long before she was a mother. When Claire cried in the night, it was his arms for which she screamed – for which they both screamed. Scrolling through her phone in the dark of the car, Kristin tried to tally the number of texts that had sent her home alone with take-out and wondered how many times she’d passed the hotel without noticing him. Her heart sank further in her chest, and she stopped counting at twenty.

A weak drizzle began to fall outside, peppering the windshield with small beads of water and reminding her she desperately needed to pee. She turned the key over to check the clock on the radio – it was ten minutes to nine. The earliest he ever crawled into bed with her on nights like this was ten; she could safely abandon her post to use a bathroom and be back in less than ten minutes. Instead, she set her teeth on edge and focused on anything but the swelling of her bladder.

She deserved to see the bitch. She deserved to compare their bodies and watch as he led her out of the building with a hand in in the small of her back. To measure her hair – its length and color – and imagine ripping each strand out, one-by-one until her head was plucked clean and she was left hideous. To scream at the sight of her until her vocal cords ached and frayed like a violin bow. To memorize the lines of her face, and the print of her dress, and the height of her heels, and the rings on her fingers, and the length of her stride. To map the story of her life based on their short walk to the parking lot and pinpoint the exact moment she decided to brand herself with a fiery red letter. Kristin would not be denied.

The hotel’s automatic doors slid open. Corey appeared in the frame – backlit with florescent light, but unmistakable in the pale blue shirt in which he left the house that morning. He turned his eyes skyward, considering the storm. Kristin’s heart wrenched, waiting for him to move, fearing the moment he was no longer alone under the porte-cochere. He watched the rain fall for another beat, then dug in his pocket. A moment later, her phone buzzed in her lap.

Hey, who won?

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