The Irrelevant Woman

by Optimizer

Copyright© 2012 by Optimizer

Science Fiction Sex Story: It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for. If you can...

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Consensual   NonConsensual   Magic   Gay   Heterosexual   Science Fiction   Paranormal   FemaleDom   Voyeurism   sci-fi adult story,sci-fi sex story,adult science fiction story.

Experiments show that our senses only detect a tiny portion of what's out there. Worse, our brains manage to process just a fraction of that.

It's astonishing how much escapes our notice - and escapes it so completely that we don't even realize we missed anything. Surely it wouldn't take much to exploit those limitations...

(This story takes place in the "Newer Universe" series.)

Whatever the girl was thinking about, it purely wasn't the groceries she was ringing up.

"Excuse me," Mary said.

The clerk kept grabbing items and typing in the prices.

"Excuse me," Mary said said again, a bit more loudly.

The girl looked almost startled, as if the register or a box of cookies had suddenly spoke up. "I'm sorry?" she asked.

"You rang up my corn twice."

The girl stared for a moment, then ran her finger up the tape coming from the register. She then turned and looked at the clot of foodstuffs at the end of the belt - apparently to count cans. Sullenly, she pulled the microphone to her mouth and called for a manager. Once the sale was voided, the girl silently went back to processing the order. And then bagged it all silently, too.

No one offered to help Mary load the groceries into her car. Martha Brady and Patty-Jo Waller were chatting in front of the exit door; she had to wait quietly for them to notice her and move out of the way.

She piled it all in the trunk of the rusted Nova, and got it started up on the second try. Switching on the radio, she carefully pulled out of the lot.

As she made her way home, she noticed Annabelle on the sidewalk, and almost honked. The girl looked her way - for a moment Mary was sure she looked right in her eyes - but she moved on, and the car passed her. Oh, well, why should the girl even have the time for a middle-aged housewife, outside of choir practice?

Her path took her by the church where their choir sang. She took note of the sign out front: "THE LORD LOOKETH FROM HEAVEN; HE BEHOLDETH ALL THE SONS OF MEN." - PSALM 33:13

Pastor Collins was still on about that "White Event". Not three months ago everything had lit up for a few moments, bright as could be, everywhere on Earth. Many people took it as a sign the End Times had begun - Collins among them. Mary just held to Matthew 24:36, "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."

The radio people were talking about an earthquake, in some place called "San Salvador". Or maybe "El Salvador". It seemed like both, or something. Just for a moment, she wondered if the pastor might not have the right idea.

Her own worries took over as she turned onto their street, and searched their driveway with her eyes. Mary sighed with relief as she pulled into the garage. Hobart's car wasn't there. If only she could put away the groceries before he got home...

She compared prices, waited for deals, clipped coupons. He still always chewed her out about how much she spent on food. Yet there was plenty of money for beer, or bowling shoes, or paint for his car. If he didn't see her putting it all away, she wouldn't have to hear him go on about it. Or feel him take it out of her hide.

She started by lugging the milk into the kitchen. Even in early October, dew beaded like sweat on their sides. Cold never really hit Georgia until January or so. Maybe December.

As it turned out, she had plenty of time. He didn't show at all, the whole time she was stowing things away, and she got started on dinner. Meatloaf was a safe choice. Hobart never complained about her meatloaf, which was the closest thing to praise that came from him anymore.

It was hard to remember ever loving him. She could recall bare facts - being excited for the wedding, going off on their honeymoon. But the feeling had drained away a long time ago. Even her memories were in black and white. All that was left were smoldering embers of fear and resentment and well-banked, carefully-hidden hate.

She had dinner ready by six. But there was no sign of Hobart. A quarter after, she had a sinking feeling, which had turned into a sick depression by half past. He'd gone for a beer with the boys, or some such thing, and hadn't bothered to let her know. Anxiously she checked the answering machine again, but there was no message.

At seven she surrendered hope, and ate standing up, even as she rushed to get the plates and leftovers put away. There was no way around it, it would be a bad time when he got home. He'd scream about her wasting food, no matter that he hadn't called her. No matter that he'd have screamed just as loud if he'd got home from the plant and dinner wasn't on the table.

The most she could hope for was that he'd be too drunk to think about it until the morning. She couldn't be lucky enough for him to get so drunk he'd kill himself on the road home.

It wasn't much after eight when she heard the car door slam outside. Earlier than she'd expected. Maybe even his "friends" had ditched him.

Mary stood in the kitchen, chopping vegetables for tomorrow's casserole. The accustomed tension spread across her back as the key turned in the back door lock. He walked in and made an unconscious sniff when he caught sight of her.

"I missed you at dinner," she said quietly, not looking up.

"I got dinner out. Me and Barry and Hitch went over to Lula."

"Oh." She knew what that meant. A bar there. They went because it got a younger crowd, even some college kids. She didn't even care anymore about Hobart eying girls half his age. It was just that he'd come home to her, and she wouldn't measure up. And he'd blame her.

"Is that meatloaf I smell?" It had started. She risked a quick glance at his face. His expression belonged on an angry grade schooler, maybe even a kindergartener. Not a canning plant worker pushing fifty. Not a tall man with thinning and graying hair, a broad beer belly, and rosacea-ruddy cheeks.

She sensed the fearful, pleading tone creeping into her voice, and hated herself for it. "I thought you were coming home after work. I thought you'd like..."

"I never said I was coming straight home! Christ, it's Friday night! I don't need your damn permission to go out with my friends!"

Right, it was her fault she'd assumed he'd come home for dinner like he did nine times out of ten, even on Fridays. "Of course not, I just thought..." She shrank in on herself, but she was facing him now. She'd need to see when he started hitting.

He bellowed. "You 'thought'! You don't think, you do what I say, woman!" He pulled back his hand. From long experience, she instantly judged how far. The smack would be about average, she saw, and on her cheek. One followup, maybe two. Then, most likely, he'd have worked it off. Some crack about her hair or her spending or some other nonsense, and then he'd go watch TV. She'd probably have to muster up some tears, prove he'd hurt her; actual sobs shouldn't be needed, though. Just enough to make sure he didn't decide to...

Finally she realized the blow hadn't landed.

He just stood there, hand in the air, such an expression of ... of... stupid befuddlement on his face that, despite the fear that was almost comfortable, despite all her instincts, she had to desperately struggle not to laugh.

"Mary?" he called out uncertainly. "Where'd you go, woman?" He sounded strange.

Her mouth fell open in pure confusion. What was he on about? She hadn't moved an inch.

He wouldn't look her in the eye. His head darted around, searching. "Where the hell..." he muttered. Then he leaned around to look behind her. Her heart froze, along with her body. The skin of her arms, the back of her neck, sprung out in goose-pimples. If he was angry enough to taunt her, tease her ... this might be a memorable beating indeed.

But he just walked past her, over to the doorway into the living room, still hunting. "Mary Giselle Watson, you get your ass back in this kitchen right now!"

She'd hunched over, frightened. "I'm right here, Hobart," she said, somewhat tentatively.

He turned around, and she flinched. But he walked past her again to the back door, and opened it to search the backyard. "Mary?!" he yelled. "How ... where the hell are you at?!" She finally placed that odd undertone in his voice.

Fear. He was afraid.

She'd heard suppressed fear in his voice before. Talking about his job or his boss, or sucking up to police officers when pulled over for speeding. She'd just never heard it when he was giving her orders. It made a very strange, unnerving contrast. Especially because he tended to hit her more when he was afraid.

He waited a moment longer, then hollered, "You get your ass back in here right quick, or I'll tan your hide! You'll be black and blue, y'hear?!"

She spoke up again, against her better judgment. Whatever game he was playing, she just wanted it done. "Hobart, I'm right here."

He didn't respond to her. A moment later he slammed the door. He stormed over to the fridge, pulled out a beer, and marched into the living room. She heard the TV come on.

Mary just stood in the kitchen. Completely bereft of any explanation, of any notion what was going on.

It felt like a couple minutes passed. Eventually she went into the bathroom and stared in the mirror at her own reflection. There she was, the same face she saw every morning and night. She wasn't see-through or anything.

It was a tired face. A timid face. Rounder than times gone by; short dirty-blonde hair framing it. She'd never liked her large nose, but once upon a time she'd thought her green eyes were her best feature. Back when they'd had some life in them. Before they stared at the floor in shame around other people.

Her figure had broadened, too. She looked so ... plain, so average. An overweight, middle-aged housewife. Socially invisible, maybe. But not physically so.

She walked back out to the living room. Hobart sat on the couch, watching some baseball game, holding his bottle of beer.

"Hobart?" she said quietly. He didn't stir. He just frowned at the screen.

On a wild impulse, she walked over and stood on the other side of the coffee table, between him and the TV. He scowled, and leaned to one side. She shifted to her left, to get in his way again. He leaned the other way, still frowning. His eyes never once focused on her.

Giddy, disbelieving, she backed up and parked her rear right up against the screen. It felt warm, and a little static crackled as the fabric of her skirt touched the glass.

Letting out a bark of frustration, he stood up and charged toward her. The glare on his face ... she quailed inside. But her instincts were to freeze, and she did. He strode up ... and banged on the side of the TV. "Piece a' crap! What the fuck is wrong with you?!" he shouted. He craned his head, still trying to see around her. He grabbed the dial, clicked through to another channel. "Shit!" he yelled. He reached past her to fiddle with the antenna.

With another "Shit!" he gave up. Then he looked down at his beer. It was unopened. He must be rattled to forget that! she thought absently. He stalked away, toward the kitchen, muttering angrily to himself. She just stood there, and heard him rustle in a drawer, then the pop-fizz of the bottle being opened. As he walked back into the living room, she shifted away from the TV.

He stared at the screen. "Oh, you decided to work, eh? Ain't that always the fucking way." He sat back down in his usual place, where his hiney had worn a permanent dent in the cushions.

Mary was well-trained in reading Hobart's mood. Like an Indian judging the weather from the small signs in the wind and sky. He was ill-at-ease, upset. And yes, definitely a little frightened.

She stepped closer, carefully. He gave no sign he noticed her approach. Before long she stood next to the couch, staring down at him. Angry now, bold beyond reason, she reached down and tipped the beer into his lap.

He howled and swore and stood up, wiping frantically at his pants. But he made no move to strike her. He actually walked around the coffee table to get to the bathroom, instead of barreling through where she stood.

Utterly at a loss, Mary stepped away. Hobart came back, rag dabbing the wet spot on his pants. He seemed to be hunting for signs of anything out of place. It was plumb foolish how his gaze just slid past her, unseeing.

No, it wasn't that he couldn't see her. He couldn't... recognize that he saw her. It was like she was just a ... a piece of furniture. Something ignored, inconsequential, unimportant. Something beneath notice.

Something you couldn't notice?

Numb, she decided to go for a walk. She caught herself trying to come up with an excuse to give Hobart ... but then, half-convinced the strange spell would be broken, she just walked out the front door without permission. But no shouts followed. She ambled along their street, trying to figure out what on Earth was happening.

She wondered if Hobart had been bewitched or something. It made no Earthly sense. She knew he wasn't joking. That wasn't his kind of humor at all. He didn't ... he wasn't smart enough to think of a prank like that. Let alone keep it up. It was all just beyond her.

It had been a long time since she'd gone for a walk in the evening. Hobart didn't enjoy walks, and when he was home she was expected to be around to fetch him beer or listen to him complain or absorb a smack or three. She'd almost forgotten what it was like, the cool breeze starting to blow, the dusk making everything look just a touch fuzzy, just slightly magical.

Turning the corner, she surveyed ahead down the way. The Weathers' house caught her eye.

Insight struck her like a thunderbolt. Old Jody Weathers had suffered a stroke back in '83. He'd never recovered, never been the same again. Some of his quirks would have been funny if they weren't so sad. His left side barely moved, and his left eye drooped, but that wasn't the worst part. The funny thing was, he never saw the left side of things.

His wife Sadie would put a plate of food in front of him, and he'd only eat what was on the right. It didn't matter if it was liver on the right, and ice cream on the left, he'd ignore - plumb couldn't see - the left side of the plate. If Sadie spun the plate, though, he'd see what he'd missed before. And no longer saw what he'd been eating just a moment ago. What had the doctor called that? Something 'neglect'. 'Hemi-something neglect'.

It was like Hobart had 'Mary neglect' now. Like he couldn't even process that she was there.

A stroke! Hobart had had a stroke. A ... weirdly specific stroke? That didn't mess up how he moved, or talked? Or anything but seeing his wife?

She'd never heard of such a thing. Then again, until Old Jody had his stroke she'd never heard of 'neglect', either. Whatever else could it be?

She turned in and walked up to the Weathers' porch. Maybe she could talk to Sadie for a spell. Get some idea what to do, who to call. She pushed the doorbell and waited, trying to figure out how to tell Sadie about it in a way that wouldn't make her sound crazy.

The porch light flicked on, and Sadie pulled the door open. She peered out uncertainly. "Hello?" she called.

"Hi, Sadie. I'm sorry to trouble you, but..."

She broke off at the blank expression her neighbor wore. The woman leaned out the door and peered about the yard. Just like Hobart, Sadie cocked her head to see around Mary. "Hello?" she called out, again, a bit louder.

Mary, poleaxed, watched numbly as Sadie muttered, "Damn kids..." and closed the door. She heard sounds of Sadie walking away down the hall.

Slowly, feeling dizzy, she sat down on the porch. Had everyone suddenly come down with 'Mary neglect'?

It had been a bizarre evening. She'd ended up walking downtown, mingling with the crowd. Nobody had reacted to her at all. She'd shouted, jumped, even danced down the sidewalk. The people near her had conversed a bit louder, not even seeming conscious that they were trying to talk over her.

Finally she'd grabbed a giant radio off a young man's shoulder and dashed it to the ground. He'd gaped and his friends had had a good laugh at his clumsiness. Not a one of them looked her way.

After that she'd just put one foot in front of the other, numb. Her meanderings took her near the high school and she sat down on the bleachers by the football field.

There was no way to get a handle on this. The whole town was giving her the silent treatment. The whole world, for all she knew. Unable to imagine what she could do about it, she'd fallen to musing about more familiar problems.

She hadn't liked high school at the time, but its luster had grown over the years. She'd been a bit of a wallflower then, too. But she'd had some friends, some social life. There had been a sense of possibility back then. She might have done any number of things. Gotten a job, traveled. If nothing else, she could have married someone besides Hobart. He'd been handsome once, and had a fast car, and lettered on the baseball team.

So many chances she'd missed. She'd been a good girl, and saved herself for marriage. For Hobart, who'd climb onto her and pump a few times and leave her with a mess. Surely there was better out there. Some women cheated on their husbands - they didn't do it for a lover like Hobart.

A giggle carried on the breeze, interrupting the familiar, comforting funk she'd fallen into. A boy and a girl were strolling by the fence, holding hands.

Was that Annabelle? And Jimmy Kowalski, Patricia's boy? Where were they going? Under the bleachers?

Even back in her day, it had been a spot for making out. She just couldn't believe... Annabelle?! Maybe the girl didn't know what she was getting into.

She sat there for a few minutes, shocked. Such a sweet girl, active in the church, good family. Surely it was more innocent than it looked ... if only she dared check...

Visions welled up; Hobart, looking past her. Sadie turning away unseeing. Pedestrians ignoring her.

She crept down the steps and followed the couple into the dark space.

Annabelle looked anything but innocent. Her hair was down and she panted like a marathon runner even as she exchanged slurpy kisses with Jimmy. She was backed up against some supports. Her left leg was raised, foot resting on a shin-high crossbeam. The better to allow Jimmy to get his hand up her skirt.

Mary gasped loudly. Then, panicked, her hand shot up up to cover her mouth. But they didn't even pause. Jimmy moved in close; his other arm wrapped around Annabelle's back, pulling her tight.

The girl whimpered a little, back arching into his embrace. Her breath sped up even more. Jimmy kept going for a couple more minutes, seemingly determined. Then he shifted his hand down there, and seemed to be moving the tips of his fingers rapidly back and forth.

Annabelle's high-pitched moans were muzzled only slightly by Jimmy's tongue. Mary had faked a few orgasms, way back when Hobart still troubled to care, and she could see this wasn't for show. At all.

The girl's writhing settled down, and Jimmy drew his hand back. Annabelle seized him and kissed him passionately. She looked wild, free. Utterly unlike the reserved, demure young woman Mary knew from church.

It dawned on Mary then, finally, how fast she was breathing, how her heart thudded in her chest. Her underwear felt tight. She was actually getting wet! It had been years! Not since Hobart had thrown out her Harlequins and Silhouettes.

Just watching them was a treat. She couldn't believe Jimmy. Not even nineteen and already he knew more about pleasing a woman than Hobart ever would.

Annabelle had gotten hold of herself a bit, and gave her lover a smile as wicked as Mary had ever seen. Jimmy's answering grin was just as saucy.

She knelt on the scraggly grass in front of him and began undoing his pants. Mary gasped in shock - she couldn't possibly plan to...

But she did. She pulled the pants and briefs down and unhesitatingly took his length into her mouth. And 'length' was the right term - he had Hobart beat there, too.

Annabelle must have done this before. Several times. She seemed to have a pretty good idea how to please a man. Her tongue stayed active, and Mary just couldn't imagine where it all went when the girl took his entire ... thing into her mouth. Did they really mean 'deep throat' literally?

"Oh, fuck yeah..." Jimmy said, low and intense, as Annabelle pulled her face back slightly. Her lips were pursed around just the last inch or two of him; her jaw worked, just slightly, her tongue clearly moving in there, all over his tip.

"Fuck! Fuck! Here it comes!" Jimmy exclaimed. He put one hand out to grab a strut. His eyes closed and he took a deep breath.

"Uh, uh, uh!" he groaned, and his hips pushed forward a little. Annabelle moaned around his ... his cock.

Mary was in shock. Hobart had forced her to try sucking him a handful of times, but she'd never managed to get him to finish. And if she had, she'd never have swallowed it! Yet Annabelle seemed almost proud!

They kissed afterward. Hobart sure hadn't wanted to do that right after she'd had him in her mouth, but Jimmy didn't seem to care. They canoodled for a bit longer, then Annabelle said, "We gotta get back. My mom's gonna worry."

Jimmy gave her one last lingering kiss, and they got their clothes decent and walked off again, hand-in-hand.

She followed them to end of the bleachers and watched them shrink into the distance. She hadn't imagined this night could get any stranger, but it had.

She wished she'd masturbated during the show. Why hadn't she? It wasn't like they'd have noticed...

She woke to the sound of a door slamming closed. She blinked awake, confused, wondering where she was.

The morning sunlight was filtered through closed curtains, but it was enough to jog her memory. She'd come home after midnight, found Hobart still watching TV. And still ignoring her. With relief, she'd gone off to sleep in the spare bedroom.

She got out of bed and padded to the door. Carefully, she pulled it open, peeked down the hall and saw Hobart's back, walking away.

He picked up the phone handset, laying unhooked on the table. "Nah, the sheets are all rumpled but she ain't here. She must've come in and left, all when I was sleeping." He listened. "I swear, I never heard a thing. When the hell did she get to be so sneaky?"

Emboldened, she stepped out of the bedroom and came toward him. He didn't turn to look her way.

"When I find out who she's hidin' out with, I'm gonna tear 'em a new one, I swear." He paused. "Maybe. I'll have to ask around." Another silence. "Well, I'll keep lookin'. Let me know if you hear anything."

He hung up the phone, and looked around the room. As she was coming to expect, his gaze never focused on her. "Shit!" he exclaimed, and went into the kitchen. "Gotta fix my own damn breakfast. Damn fool woman, when I..." He trailed off to a mumble.

Whatever was happening ... was still happening. She was exiled from the whole human race, even when she was sleeping.

Why wasn't she scared, or sad? Why was she excited?

Mary changed out of her nightgown into a comfortable dress, and made herself some breakfast. She didn't bother to clean it up. While she was brushing her teeth, she got startled by the sound of Hobart hollering.

He charged around the small tract house like a crazy man, screaming bloody murder. "I know you're here, woman! I found your damn dishes! You come out right now, y'hear?!"

He poked his head into the bathroom, looked right past her, and ran off to search elsewhere. She giggled.

The weather was bright and sunny and just a little breezy as she stepped out. Perfect for another walk. She set right off for downtown Cornelia.

As the day wore on, she learned things about her new situation. If she was carrying or wearing something, it was just as undetectable as she was. If she picked up a drink off a table in a restaurant, it would eventually be missed. She could hold it right in front of their faces and they wouldn't recognize it. When she set it back down empty they'd suddenly find it, and wonder what had happened to the contents.

Yet she wasn't exactly invisible, either. As an experiment, she sat at a table outside the diner and deliberately stretched her legs out onto the busy sidewalk. Nobody tripped over her; they walked around instead. They didn't even seem to be aware they were doing anything strange. Very carefully, she stepped out onto Main Street when there were only a few cars coming. She crouched, ready to jump for the sidewalk. But the oncoming Chrysler switched lanes to the center about forty feet away. The driver didn't look at her as he passed by.

People could tell at some level that something was there. It was just that they were somehow prevented from attaching any importance to that fact at all. Nobody could pay attention to her.

She played a few pranks. Martha and Patty-Jo sat talking on a bench in front of the five and dime. Neither woman had ever been willing to even give her the time of day at church. Mary tried to swap their purses, but while they didn't feel her taking them away, they noticed the absence of weight on their shoulders and started looking around frantically. She put them on the ground.

The women immediately saw their bags, and marveled that they could have missed them. Once they'd calmed down and got back to gossiping, Mary experimented again. She could get away with reaching into the purses and rummaging for their wallets. She almost took out the money, but restrained herself. Instead, she put them back, each in the wrong purse. All through it the two chewed the fat, oblivious.

The grade-school classic of tying a man's shoelaces together was good for a laugh. She flipped 'open' signs to 'closed'. Then, in the bookstore, she saw Mr. Prentiss' old fat cat. Although she approached it carefully - the thing was never too friendly - it didn't notice her either. She rubbed it, and it stirred and stretched, but never gave any sign it recognized her presence. In revenge for remembered nips, she pushed it off the counter. The old tabby yowled and landed with a thud. The confusion on its face reminded her so much of Hobart that she almost fell over laughing.

She got bored with the jokes and explored. She could go anywhere now. She wandered past 'Employees Only' signs and snooped.

Mostly she saw boring, cramped spaces. The back areas of the Burger King put her right off fast food. It was kind of disappointing.

Mary wound up sitting on the bleachers again. It was mid-afternoon, and football practice was winding down in front of her. The day was still gorgeous. So were several of the boys playing around on the field.

The coach gathered up the team, gave some speech she couldn't hear, and dismissed them. On impulse, she got up and trailed the team into the locker room. She'd always wondered what it was like in there.

It turned out to be sweaty and smelly and damp. Boys were undressing and heading to the showers. Talking about ... pretty much what she'd expected.

She didn't want to 'jump' any of them. Not really. They were cute like ... like puppies. Fun to look at, maybe even fantasize about - just imagine if she were a high-school girl again! - but not serious lust objects.

Back when she'd actually been a high-school girl, she hadn't appreciated how good the boys looked. All of them. Young, clean, graceful in a way kids that age didn't recognize. None of them believed they'd one day be old.

She poked her head into the big shower area. Oh, yes - as a girl she'd have given all she owned for a sight like this. She squinted. Goodness, was Hobart that sub-par?

The boys were talking about ... boy stuff. Sports and cars and movies. They didn't even talk about girls as much as she'd expected. Then she noticed they started to bring up girlfriends as they got dressed. Which made sense; just imagine if they 'perked up' around other boys!

She gave the biggest of them a playful swat on the behind while he was bent over, tying his sneakers. He stood up and looked around, confused. He gave the boy sitting next to him a careful look before cautiously returning to his laces.

She laughed all the way out of the locker room.

Sunday, Mary went to church.

It was so strange not having to dress up. For anything. What clothes she picked, which shoes went with them, how she did her hair or makeup, jewelry ... none of that mattered anymore. Not in the least.

She grabbed a seat right up front, curious to see what would happen. The high muckety-mucks seemed a little confused about why they were walking around to the other side of the pew, but no one attempted to sit on her or move her. It was like the spot she sat on plumb didn't exist.

Once service started, she stood up and wandered about the church as Pastor Collins droned on. You weren't allowed to stare at people, normally. You could glance, sneak peeks, that kind of thing. Frankly and openly staring wasn't polite, though. People would get uncomfortable, even angry.

But she could really study people. And not like from the back of the choir. She could walk up and sit next to them.

Take Mayor Stephens; he was bored. He was facing the altar, but his eyes weren't focused on anything. His wife beside him nodded with the pastor's words, all unknowing.

The teenaged boys kept looking at the girls. And vice versa. She'd seen that before, but she hadn't realized how much of it was going on. Or maybe she just didn't remember.

The second hymn of the service drew her attention. It was one of her favorites, and it was an interesting change to hear it from the audience.

Even in choir, she'd been hiding, she realized. In the chorus, the background, the congregation wasn't supposed to be able to hear anyone's voice in particular. The whole point was to blend in.

Lydia was sighing, watching Pastor Bob speak. Everyone knew she had a crush on him. Mary had overheard once that Lydia might even have tried to get at the preacher one night. She could understand that. She'd had some fantasies about him, too. Dreams he'd come take her away from Hobart. Lots of ladies had a thing for preachers, she knew.

She lost interest after a while. There weren't that many surprises. It was a church service, how could there be?

At home, Hobart was in the front room sitting and watching TV. Just for grins, she almost turned the channel. But she'd never gotten in the habit of watching the tube; Hobart hadn't allowed it. It didn't seem like a habit worth acquiring.

She went into the kitchen and searched around, trying to figure what to make for lunch. Wrappers from a fast-food joint stuck out of the trash; Hobart wasn't good at fending for himself. It wasn't like the fridge was empty. It sported a fresh case of beer, even.

She made some pan-fried chicken. Just enough for one. It was nice to be able to make it way she liked, extra crispy. Hobart always wanted it greasy.

Hobart wandered into the kitchen, sniffing the air, as she sat down to eat. He stopped abruptly and stared with amazement at the setting before her on the table. "You gotta be fucking kidding!" he exclaimed.

She grinned hugely as he looked around the kitchen, trying to find her. He'd been drinking in front of the TV, oblivious to her cooking.

He gave up the search. "Well, fuck her. I'll eat it," he said, sounding like a whiny four-year-old with a potty mouth.

He reached for her plate. Startled, she grabbed it up. His hands stopped and a look of astonishment replaced the sullen anger on his face. His eyes darted, trying to find the food she held. Slowly, bewildered, he stood up straight. Then he bent over to look under the table.

She set the plate down, curious now. When he came back up, it took him a second or two to notice the food was back. He gasped and jumped back.

To her surprise, he managed to call up enough courage to come back to the table. But his hands still moved cautiously for her plate, and she had plenty of time to pick it up again.

Hobart froze. His eyes, squinting, searched for it, and her, but glided over without recognition. "What the hell..." he whispered in utter confusion.

For fun she let go of the plate. It only fell about an inch but the clatter in the silence made her jump in her seat.

Hobart did more than jump. He screamed and fell back.

Her husband lay there flailing for a moment, hands and feet skidding on the linoleum, trying to push himself away from the table. A second or two later, he rolled over and propelled himself toward the doorway. He stood there, breathing heavily, staring with terror at the plateful of food.

Mary found her voice, and burst into peals of laughter. He didn't look at her, or prick his ears, or anything. But maybe on some level he heard it, because it was then he turned and skedaddled off to the living room.

That evening, he ate dinner out.

Monday she awoke and found a mess in the kitchen, remnants of Hobart's incompetent attempts to make a lunch for himself. He was off to work.

She had a leisurely breakfast and set out for another walk. This time she headed into the 'old town', with more expensive homes. On impulse, she walked right up to a front door and jiggled the handle. It was unlocked.

She stepped in and took a little tour. The foyer was nicely decorated with a few pictures and a pretty stand. She moved on to the kitchen and felt an immediate stab of envy. A very nice refrigerator, the stove looked new, the countertops were marble ... it would be a pleasure to cook here.

The upstairs sported comfortable beds and a bathroom to die for. Glancing out a window, she saw a woman working in a garden in the backyard.

She checked out more houses. Many were locked up - people at work, kids at school - but she found a few housewives and an elderly couple, bickering in a friendly way that made her heart ache. In their basement she beheld a model train set a dozen feet across, little houses and buildings and farms. She thought wryly about Hobart, who lacked even the ambition to support a hobby.

Another street, more homes. The most interesting one didn't look so at first.

A TV was on in the front room, and an older toddler sat watching cartoons. In the kitchen a woman wiped down the countertop and glanced at the clock. "Time for your nap, honey!" she called.

The little girl made about as much protest as could be expected, but the mother was dead set on that nap. Mary watched with curiosity and sadness. Homer would never let her have kids. She wasn't even sure she wanted any of Hobart's get, anyway. But this was another thing she'd missed.

The woman closed the tyke's door, checked her watch, and hurried to her bedroom. Mary watched curiously as she quickly touched up her makeup, continuing to check her watch.

A faint knock sounded on the door below. The woman leapt to her feet and raced - quietly - down the stairs. Mary couldn't keep up. By the time she got down to the landing, the woman was closing the door behind a tall, blonde-haired man.

"All clear?" he said, low and urgent. In answer, the woman wrapped her arms around him and planted an open-mouthed kiss on his lips. He relaxed immediately and wrapped her up in a tight embrace.

It was almost a minute before they broke for air. The woman, voice husky, said, "Charlie's asleep. Miles won't be home 'til six or seven."

"Where do you want to do it?"

"Right over here."

She led him hand in hand into the living room, just off the foyer. A loveseat was under the front window - the shades were down low - and a couch sat at right angles to it, jutting into the room, guiding traffic behind it. Together they formed a space for the coffee table and the TV.

The couple went around in front of the couch and embraced again. The hunger with which the woman kissed him struck a deep chord in Mary. His hands pulled her close, stroked her back, her behind.

He worked up her skirt, and pulled down her panties. She stepped out of them, still kissing him. He started to work on his own belt, but that finally got her to stop smooching long enough to help.

Once he was free of pants and underwear, he eased her down onto the couch and lifted her skirt. He smiled and settled himself on top of her. There came a moan and he began to move.

Mary set one hand on the back of the couch, and leaned forward to stare down on them. Her other hand hiked up her skirt and slid under her panties. She found wetness between her lips, and worked her index and middle finger to frame and rub her button.

She could see the back of his head, his back ... and his ass, moving up and down as he thrust into the woman. Past his shoulder, the woman's face. Eyes closed, moaning as she bit her lip. Her arms encircled him, pulled him toward her with each plunge.

It was a lot better than a Harlequin. More real, for sure.

Touring houses was just as fun in the evening, when everyone was home. She watched families having dinner, couples arguing, widows knitting, kids playing.

She came in as one dinner was wrapping up. The Peirsons, down the street. Their son Billy had the paper route for the neighborhood. Even though he was supposedly going to community college. Idly, she followed the boy upstairs, but he closed the door behind him with a solid click. She jiggered the handle, and sure enough, it was locked.

"Well, phooey!" she said softly. Then she bent to peer at the door handle. Memories from early in her marriage floated up. She'd locked herself in the bathroom, hiding from Hobart. When she'd heard the door unlock, the sheer terror that had filled her...

Yes, the lock had a little tab. A small screwdriver could unlock it from the outside. She turned and marched down the stairs. In the kitchen, she walked past the woman wiping dishes and started rifling drawers. No screwdriver, but a paring knife turned up.

Back at the room, she fiddled with the latch a bit and got it undone. Quietly, she turned the handle and the door creaked open enough for her to slip inside.

Maybe her strange power kept him from hearing what she'd been doing. Or maybe it was the music coming from a small radio. Or maybe it was just that he was too busy.

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