“Learned Behaviors”

By: Fiona Hansen

I jolt awake and turn my head to a passenger’s side view of the middle of nowhere. My stomach starts churning. I look blearily over at Steven, who’s currently tapping on the steering wheel and humming some indiscrete pop song. I smile over at him before looking down at the gift in my lap. I wonder if the wine wrapped in red ribbon may have been a bit much for a first meeting. A single strand on the ribbon comes away and I pluck it off and flick it, hoping the ribbon doesn’t now appear frayed. Steven looks over. 

“Stop that,” he says, “my mom loves wine. You don’t need to worry.” 

“Okay,” I say, smoothing out the ribbon and folding my hands in my lap. “I just want her to like me.” 

“She already likes you. Just calm down. You don’t need to be so antsy.”

“I just don’t want to leave a bad impression.” 

He takes my hand. “You won’t,” he whispers, his eyes soft and his mouth turned up. 

We make a right head down a gravel path blanketed by trees on all sides and Steven drives us past all visible markers of traffic or any kind of road. By the time I want to ask if we’re in the right place, we make it to the edge of a driveway outside of a large white house. My stomachache worsens.

“Come on,” Steven says, stopping the car and taking my hand to give it four quick squeezes. A rush of relief overwhelms me and I step out on the passenger side door. The walk up is tasteful, framed by urns on each side. The pillars on the front of the wraparound porch are white, but the door is painted a bright red. The sight makes me lick my teeth. 

We don’t make it more than halfway down the pathway before we see a figure approaching from the treeline, loping towards us with the kind of purpose one has when either very drunk or very angry. 

“You!” the figure calls, and reveals himself to be a man, about six feet tall, covered in sparse facial hair and wearing all black. He scratches at his arms and I can see the whites of his eyes. He’s looking at me as though he could rend me with his eyes alone, but said eyes are unfocused. His very presence on this sidewalk seems out of place, like a dot that needs erasing. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing showing your face here?” 

“I’m sorry?” I say, my brow furrowing. He starts towards us and I take a step back, holding the wine to my chest as though it could protect me. He doesn’t slow down, and I grab the handle of the bottle. Steven steps between us. 

“Don’t you dare approach her,” Steven warns. 

“I should call the police. What the fuck are you doing here?” the man asks, practically vibrating from the intensity of his hatred. 

“She’s visiting my family. Now back off. Before you regret it.” Steven glowers at him and when the man doesn’t move, Steven snaps his fingers in a quick, deliberate motion. The man’s spine straightens as if he was on a string, and he turns around, still scratching at his arms, muttering his way into the treeline. 

Steven puts an arm around me before I get a chance to ask what the hell happened. “Come on,” he murmurs and leads me up the stairs of the front porch. I dimly register Steven reaching for the doorbell but I’m watching the man. He’s large and likely only left us alone because it’s still light out. If he comes over to us though, he could easily overpower Steven and tackle me. And then I would have to break the wine bottle and paint this beautiful sidewalk red. Thankfully, I don’t have long to picture this image. The doorbell barely has time to ring before a great furry behemoth nearly knocks me to the ground. I put my hands up in defense before a wet tongue starts exploring my face. 

“Sissy, that’s enough!” Steven yells. I laugh out loud. 

“It’s okay, Steven, I like dogs,” I say, petting its head. 

“His name is Sisyphus,” a voice says from the doorway. A woman in a flowing maroon cardigan emerges. She’s easily five foot nothing, but she carries herself so regally that I could easily mistake her for a much taller woman than she is. 

“Hello, I’m Marcia. You must be the girlfriend?” 

“Yes, ma’am, I’m Jessica.”  

“Hello, Jessica,” she says, reaching for my free hand and clasping it in hers. Her hands are warm and dry and up close she smells like roses. Seeing her in person, I can see where Steven gets his hair and upright demeanor. “It’s good to meet you,” she says, “it feels as though we’ve missed you even though you’re only coming here now.” 

“Steven’s told me so much about you,” I say, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, “all good things, of course.” I hold out the wine. “Um, here. It’s for you.” 

She looks down at the wine bottle and tilts her head to one side. “How did you know I love Syrah?” 

“I guessed?” 

“You’ve done well with her, Steven. She is very intuitive. Do come in,” she says, ushering towards the doorway and stepping indoors herself. I look over at Steven, who’s grinning in his typical no-good lopsided way. He leans in close and whispers in my ear “you’re trying too hard.” I shove him and half-smile. My stomach hurts a little more but I don’t acknowledge it. 

I step over the threshold into the house. It’s even more tasteful and beautiful on the inside. The interior is spacious but lived-in, and it’s complete with a spiral staircase on the right side near the entrance, down which a beautiful girl in a lavender romper is bounding down the stairs, curls flying around her face as she grins. She sees us and cries out “Stevey!” before her eyes land on me. 

“Hello!” she says, her smile widening further. She pushes her forearms out to press what appears to be a gift basket into my arms. “For you and Steven!” 

“Oh!” I say, taking in the collection of candied red fruit, tiny boxes, and ribbon-bound daylilies within the basket. “Thank you, this is so sweet. Um, sorry, what’s your name?”  

“I’m Camryn. Didn’t you know that?” 

I blink. “Oh. Um, sorry, I didn’t.”

“She did not,” Steven says, eyes widening a bit at her before wrapping an arm around me. “I’m afraid I haven’t exposed all of our family’s gory details to her.” 

Camryn plasters more width onto her smile. “Well, she’ll simply have to learn them for herself, huh? I’m very pleased to finally meet you, Jessica,” she says, holding out her hand. 

“Pleased to meet you too,” I say, taking her hand. She squeezes mine with a practiced death-grip and her eyes drink me in. She pulls me in a bit closer and I can smell her perfume, something over-applied and floral. 

“I’m truly so excited to see you,” she whispers. “All of us are.” 

“Good to hear?” I say, one of my eyebrows raising. I look over at Steven, who grins.

“I’ve wanted to introduce you to the family for awhile now,” he says. 

“Come on in,” Camryn says, “we’re making dinner right now.” She pulls me into the kitchen and I laugh, holding my gift basket in one hand. The smells of dinner cooking are tantalizing, and I’m instantly drawn in. Camryn helps me set my gift basket down on the island in the middle of the kitchen, and a tall older man greets me from the stove. 

“Hey Doc!” Camryn calls. “Look who I found!” 

“Doc” turns around and smiles at me. “Hello, you must be Jessica.” He holds out his hand for me to shake, his other hand busy with stirring the pot. 

“Hello, Doctor…” I trail off while shaking his hand. 

“Oh no,” he laughs, “I’m not a doctor. It’s a joke. Whenever I went to family functions with Marci, we’d get introduced as “Doctor and Mrs.” even though it was the other way round. So my kids and my friends call me “Doc,” to my wife’s chagrin. I’m an English teacher. She pays the bills.” 

“I’m the only one in this family with a doctorate,” Marci says with a faint smile. 

“Are you a medical doctor?” 

“A psychologist. I wrote my thesis on memory, and how much a reflex can be retained even in the absence of memory.” 

“And how much can be retained?” I ask. 

She tilts her head. “It depends on how ingrained it is. In my experience, a suggestion can go a long way in retrieving behaviors one doesn’t remember.” Something in her gaze makes my stomach hurt a bit more.

“Can I use your bathroom?” I ask. 

Marcia nods. “Up the stairs. First door on the left.” 

I stop on the middle vertebra of the stairs as a frame catches my eye. It’s Steven, standing with a young brunette woman on a mountain. With a jolt, I look closer and recognize my own features: angular and plain and smiling for the camera. We’re both wearing hiking gear and posing together like it’s the most natural thing in the world. As though the two of us have ever been on a mountain together. As though we’ve ever posed for a picture after hiking. I gulp and wonder who took the picture. As if responding instantly to my thoughts, I feel a hot hand on my shoulder, holding me secure.

“You were so happy that day,” Camryn whispers, “it’s one of my favorite pictures. A day full of victories.” 

“I don’t remember ever going here,” I chuckle. 

Camryn turns me towards her, her face intense. “Don’t you?” 

I shake my head. “No, no I don’t think I do.” Her breath casts over my cheeks, and I gulp. “I need to use the bathroom.” 

Camryn nods. “Of course.” 

I head upstairs into the pristine white bathroom, where my stomachache grows unbearable. The air freshener stings my nostrils and I just have time to close the door behind me before I’m heaving unceremoniously into the toilet. Something gets stuck in my throat and I reach into the back of my throat, my eyes watering. I pinch at something stringy and I pull out what I realize is a stem. I choke and the rest of the object emerges and I promptly remove it from my tongue and examine it. My eyes widen as I realize there’s a lotus flower on my hands, and I retch once again, and a series of small white round objects spray into my palm. I don’t recall taking that many ibuprofen. If I did at all. 

I toss the plant into the toilet and inhale sharply, my chest rising and falling in a rapid motion. I sit back on my hands and the bathroom begins to shake around me. The haze of panic obscures the sound of the door opening, and I feel the press of a person behind me holding my shoulders. 

“Shhh,” a voice whispers, and I shudder upon realizing it’s Marcia. One of her hands moves to my hair and starts to stroke it, and her other hand finds my wet lotus-soaked hand and holds it tightly in her own. “Hush, dear,” she whispers. She squeezes my hand and a sob emerges from my throat. She squeezes it again and I calm down. Again. I exhale. One more squeeze. My limbs go slack and I smile without even thinking about it. She smooths my hair back from my forehead and turns my chin towards her face. 

“Look at me,” she says, examining my features before looking into the toilet at the lotus and pills. “Well, looks like you’re in working order,” she says. She pats my cheek. “Good girl.”

“I don’t feel good,” I murmur, my head lolling to one side. She nods. 

“I’m sure it’s disorienting to be here. But don’t worry. Once you get some dinner you’ll be perfectly fine. The family has gathered in the living room, do you want to join us?” She strokes my cheek and I lean into it without thinking about the action. 

“I just need some air.” 

“Alright. The back porch is through the kitchen. You know how to get there.” 

She helps me to my feet and I nearly bolt out the door. The stairway wobbles around me as I head down past the image of myself, which is mocking me now. What does she know that I don’t? My chest feels tight until I reach the kitchen, which is empty now save for the pot that has now migrated to the oven. I open the screen door and step out onto the porch.  

The cool air hits my face and I draw in a deep breath. No one follows me out, thankfully. I sink down onto the porch steps and wrap my arms around myself and let out a small sob. I feel my phone in my back pocket and I get the sudden urge to call my mom until I remember how preposterous that’d be. Even if I could reach her out here with the little signal one could get out here, what would I say? “Hey mom, can you come get me? I’m at my boyfriend’s family’s house and they seem to know everything about me already and they have pictures of me in places I’ve ever been?” 

When was the last time I even called my mother, anyway? I pull out my phone and look through the call logs. My breaths turn shallow as I scroll through them. Steven 10:58 PM. Steven 3:35 PM. Steven 5:45 AM. Only Steven. All the way through the call log up until exactly a year ago. My finger hovers over the call button on the contact labeled Mom. Will she pick up? 

I press the call button. I wait for several rings, my lips pressed together. I almost give up on her picking up when I hear a muffled yet unmistakable voice say “Hello? Jessica? Why are you calling from outside?”

My jaw drops and I hang up promptly. I stare out into the hedgerow, my jaw hanging open even further. How could the number be so wrong? She’s not my mother. My mind scrambles to find the image of my mother, of anyone except Steven and his family, and nothing emerges. When did I begin? When did I leave the car? 

I search through the fog of my memory for something, anything, a single face. I stare off into the distance in my search, and eventually a face emerges. It’s the face of the man in the denim jacket from the sidewalk. His features are once again contorted in fury. They’re also awfully close to the house. I scramble to my feet. 

“You,” he snarls, “you fucking bitch. You’re going to pay for what you did to my wife.” 

“I don’t know you!” I protest. “Or your wife!” 

His face twitches and he bellows “LIAR!” 

He takes off at a twitchy, loping run towards the porch. I lunge for the door and fling it open and jump through it as he reaches the porch steps. I try to slam it in his face but I’m not quick enough. He’ll get me if I don’t act quickly. His hand makes it through the doorway and I slam the door on it. He screams in agony and I turn away towards the kitchen, but one of his arms grabs me around the waist. 

I shriek and kick behind me, my foot aimed upwards. It makes contact with something soft and the man groans and staggers backward. I race into the kitchen, devoid of people now as the table is set, and fumble desperately in the drawers until my eyes land on the wine bottle on the counter. I grab its handle and turn to face him. His eyes up close are enraged without thought behind them, and his face twitches before he leans forward to bracket me with his arms. I bring the wine bottle down over his head. It crashes with a horrible noise and the bottle itself breaks in half. The wine spills over him and cascades over his shirt and hair, but despite the wine covering his entire form, he isn’t moved at all. I grip the remainder of the bottle, still clutched in my hand, and I lower it to his stomach.

The shard meets home inside of him with sickening, squishing ease and he gasps, staring down at the glass in his gut. His eyes widen and my jaw clenches. The moment stirs into clarity out of the buzz of panic for just a second. I register the warmth of blood on my hand and the moment returns to a buzz. I gasp and try to form my mouth around something to say. My wrist jerks, and I yank the knife out before I can think to stop. He stares for a second longer as his shirt darkens with dark red, blossoming into the wine like a horrible flower. I drop the knife, my lip trembling and my breath coming in sudden sharp gulps. He crumples to the floor, blood pooling beneath him. 

“H—” I try, but my mouth won’t work. I look down at my hands and my stomach churns. This can’t be happening. The world around me begins to buzz, and my limbs feel far away. A dark pool of blood gathers under him and my eyes latch onto a little reflection of light dancing in it. “Help,” a voice within my throat calls, although I’m not quite so sure it’s mine. 

Someone rushes into the room, and I get a dim sense of arms around me. I lean into them, my eyes still trained on the speck of light in the pool of blood. “Oh Jessica,” a voice (Steven’s?) murmurs in my ear. 

“He came at me, and—” I whisper, and Steven pets my hair. 

“Shh,” he whispers. More footsteps enter the kitchen, and I register several gasps and then a groan. 

“Jesus, Steven, she really picks her locations. The kitchen? Should’ve told her where to go.” Doc shakes his head. 

“He was the one who chased her in here. You don’t wanna clean it up, make your rats run a different maze,” Camryn counters.  

“We should call an ambulance,” I rasp, although my voice still doesn’t sound like my own. It sounds like an echo of someone else’s voice bouncing around an empty room. 

“She’s made clean work of him,” Camryn says. “Less messy than last time, for sure.” 

“Aww, she wasted the wine,” Doc says, clicking his tongue. 

My hands shake and I take another shuddering breath. “I didn’t mean to—how many people have I killed?” 

“Never count till you’re complete,” Doc says, the corners of his mouth turning up.  

“It’s alright,” Steven whispers into my hair and kisses my head. 

“Put him with the others,” Marcia calls to Camryn and Doc, who are already scooping up the body. Wine drips down from the man’s sleeve as they lift him, and the droplets run into the blood and dilute the puddle. Doc opens the door to the pantry and steps backward into it. I crane my head to look inside. Beyond the shelves of spices and canned goods, Doc flips on a light switch to reveal a stairwell into a dark room, and more lights turn on in quick succession as they descend. At the bottom of the stairs, I can make out darkened shelves on one side of the room and on the other side I see what appear to be racks of wine bottles, significantly emptied. Doc and Camryn descend the stairs and disappear into the very back of the room to place the body down. I let out a low moan and wobble on my feet. 

Marcia steps over the puddle of blood and steadies my shoulders before cupping my face in one hand. “Oh, Jess,” she whispers. “I’ll explain it all when you’re ready.” She cradles my head and I let myself fall into her chest. She strokes my hair and I feel the distant sensation of something pinching my arm. My head lolls to one side and I look for the dancing light in the now-smeared blood-wine mixture on the floor. There’s an epiphany in it somewhere, I think, but it evades me the more I search for it. The corners of my mouth turn up. I think my muscles want to laugh. Maybe I want to laugh. But the world around me grows dim and fuzzy and my jaw goes slack as she whispers to me, her breath hot against my earlobe. 


“First I need you to forget.”