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art by Eleanor Bennett

Puppet Man

Cate Gardner is a British horror and fantastical author with over a hundred short stories published. Several of those stories appear in her collection Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits (Strange Publications 2010). She is also the author of two novellas: "Theatre of Curious Acts" (Hadley Rille Books, 2011) and "Barbed Wire Hearts" (Delirium Books, 2011). You can find her on the web at www.categardner.net. This is her third story for Daily Science Fiction. Find the others via the search box on the site.

Walter's wife needed a hobby. In Walter's opinion, it was more of a want than a need, but he didn't dare argue the point. When Maeve needed something, she had to have it. After all, it was how they'd become a couple. She paced the living room, fingers working themselves into knots.
"Baking," Walter said. He had a fondness for cake.
Maeve shook her head. "I spend too much time in the kitchen already."
She didn't. Walter cooked their meals, washed the dishes, and polished the silverware.
"I just..." A little sexist, he supposed. "Car mechanics, welding, flamenco dancing, wood..."
"Now you're just being ridiculous."
"Wait," she said, tapping her finger to her chin. "Woodwork. I could fashion things into how they should be. I like that idea."
The gleam in her eye unnerved Walter. Still, what harm could a new hobby do? Whatever made her happy.
Maeve signed up for a woodworking course at the local college. Walter offered to attend the course with her, but she wanted to do it alone. Her independence gave him time to indulge in his own hobbies; except he didn't have a hobby.
On the evening of Maeve's third class, and at a loose end, Walter decided to meet his wife and walk her home. He envisioned romance and the holding of hands, although they hadn't practiced any such frivolities in years. He found Maeve in close conversation with her tutor, Gelato or Gepetto or Gestapo or something. Walter's chest tightened, pain spreading from lung to lung and down to his belly button. Taking a deep breath, he straightened his spine and pretended it was made of wood, not jelly.
"Oh, it's you."
Really. Really! She'd never greeted him that way before. He scowled. Or rather, he attempted to scowl. He wasn't very good at it. His reflection in the classroom window offered more of a sad smile. Maybe scowling could become his hobby. Stranger things and all that.
"I thought I'd walk you home."
"I was discussing with Gepetto the possibility of employing a second hobby that may tie-in with the first."
Gepetto (ridiculous name) placed his hand on Maeve's forearm.
"Or I might not," Maeve said.
"You take up as many hobbies as you wish, dear."
"Don't condescend."
"I didn't. I mean... I'm sorry. I might take up a hobby myself. What is it you're thinking of doing?"
"Sorcery," Walter said, gulping. "As in swords and--"
"Without the swords."
"Right. Well, it's a little different. Ahem! Don't waste your time trying to put a love spell on me, darling. I already--"
"Never," Maeve said, scowling. She aced him at that. "I will join the class, Gepetto."
"Good. Our next task will be perfect for you. It incorporates some of the elements of woodwork, of fashioning something into someone new. Chisel away at the ugly bits and build something beautiful from it."
Maeve's eyes shone. The spark lasted as far as the college gates. Walter wished her eyes had shone all the way home for it was a dark night and a chill had gotten into his bones. When he tried to link arms with Maeve, she stiffened. He didn't try again.
In bed, Maeve (having warmed to him) ran her fingers across his chest. "You've put on some weight since we met. Three or more stone."
"A little extra for you to cuddle."
"I prefer a chiseled chest."
Walter turned over, closed his eyes, and wished he could make a hobby of sleep, or at least shake hands with it.
He awoke to Maeve straddling him.
"Darling," he said.
She climbed off. "Don't forget my new class is tonight. Please don't meet me. It's embarrassing."
The door eased shut, offering a sigh, and time ticked towards lunchtime. After lunch, he decided Maeve was embarrassed because they didn't own a car. By six (when her new class was starting) he realized she was embarrassed by him and settled on a hobby--leaving Maeve.
As with all new adventures, Walter's took time to fashion itself. There were plans to make, and he liked to think he wasn't a rash man. He squirreled money away. Every morning he woke to her fondling his man tits until he found he didn't have man tits anymore. He hadn't been dieting. His weight loss was due to stress. Leaving someone was never easy, especially when you still loved them.
He wanted to hate Maeve, to be disinterested in her, but she grew more beautiful with each passing day. When he felt his plans weaken, Walter concentrated on her ugly parts. Namely, her personality.
The week before he expected to leave, Maeve gave him a present. At first, it threatened to derail his plans. Walter unraveled the string and removed the brown paper to reveal a wooden heart built like an actual heart rather than a valentine.
"Okay," he said, leaning across the table to kiss her cheek. "It's beautiful, darling. Almost as big and full as mine is for you." He'd developed the hobby of lying. It was surprisingly easy to pick up.
"You don't like it."
He overcompensated by babbling about how awesome (a word built to betray the liar) the heart was.
"It'll look impressive on the mantelpiece."
In the end, the wooden heart found a place between them in bed. It rested there for seven days and then disappeared. Neither of them spoke of it: Maeve too busy whittling something else, Walter occupied with a sudden need for antacids. His chest burned.
As the day progressed, the heart became a weight on Walter's chest. Once Maeve noted its disappearance, she'd blame him and he'd end up apologizing for something that wasn't his fault. Maeve returned from class holding a wooden leg.
"Erm," Walter said.
He shuddered when she placed the leg between them. It nudged against him in the night, much as Maeve's legs had once done. He recalled the warmth of her legs pressed between his. He missed them. They were other people now. He drifted to sleep, almost believing they could rebuild their relationship.
When he woke, his knee refused to bend. He wasn't surprised to discover the leg she'd placed between them was missing--or rather that it wasn't. Although he couldn't see it, Walter knew the wooden leg had slipped beneath his skin replacing bone and muscle. Maeve stirred.
"You need to improve your joint work," Walter said. Leaving would be difficult today.
"I'll be working late. We've a large project. My classmates are helping me with it."
He tried his leg again. It still refused to bend. "You were in college last night." He looked at the empty space between them. "When did we go wrong?"
"What's important," Maeve said, "is how we fix things."
He should have packed his bags then and caught the 96 bus out of town. Their wedding picture stopped him. Her previous beauty (before time twisted and gnarled it into hate) trapped him. He removed the photograph from the mantelpiece, carried it to the sofa and sat there until Maeve returned home. Gepetto accompanied her because she'd otherwise have struggled to carry the one-legged replica of Walter. The replica had saggy breasts; wore his old torso.
"Don't look so surprised, Walter."
"My wooden heart hasn't skipped a beat."
Sleep tugged at Walter's eyelids. He tried to fight it but it seemed he'd conquered that particular hobby. Sleep overcame him. He awoke to her lips pressed to his. He couldn't feel their warmth.
"You're perfect," she said.
Walter noted that Gepetto had left.
"It's almost as if you're the man I married. I've smoothed out the lines and you were right, I do love your chunkiness."
"I'm not the man you married," he said, thumping his fist against his wooden chest. "You cannot change in here."
He rose on stiff legs (although her joint work had improved) and hobbled into the bedroom. His new frame carried the weight of the pre-packed suitcase as if it contained what remained of his love for her instead of all he owned. The door, planed almost out of existence, sighed as he left.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 16th, 2013
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