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Twenty Three Weeks

23 Weeks- working title- K. Larsen ©2016

 

FEBRUARY

“What’s your name?”

“Nora,” I whisper. My throat feels sunburned. Sweat soaks the hair covering my neck. Wind gusts hair across my face.Something drips from my head. Or onto my head. I can’t tell which. A blurry face appears over mine. Too close. “Nora, we’re going to lift now.” I stare at the grey sky.  I shudder and worry about what might be watching from the thicket of woods nearby.  I can’t nod and my mouth makes no sound. For a moment I feel weightless. Free. I imagine it’s how birds feel soaring through the sky. Gravity quickly reminds me that something’s amiss. My leg feels like it’s on fire. I wince when I’m jostled into some kind of metal box. An ambulance. The sterile hygienic odor hits me like a brick in the face.

Everything looks like a watery blur from behind the rain-streaked windows of the ambulance doors. People have a deep-seated craving for a sense of family, belonging, identity. Looking back, I realize that he probably interviewed lots of different girls for the job and picked the one he thought would be easiest. It wasn’t just the girl he choose but the life she came from as well.  “Nora, stay with me.” The paramedic’s voice is deep and oddly soothing.  It pulls me from my thoughts. I slide my gaze from the window to him. I want to know what he looks like but my eyes won’t focus enough to get a good look. He pokes at me with something as if I am a large bug to be inspected. My body screams with pain. It feels like there’s a noose around my throat so tight stars dance in my eyes. I’ve experienced this before though. I can survive.  Life’s made me numb. I squeeze my eyes shut. “Nora, can you hear me?”

“Nora…”

 

I jolt awake—disoriented. Where’s Lotte? Tubes snake in and out of me. I’m covered in soft blue and don’t feel gritty with dirt anymore.  The steady beeps of nearby monitors hurts my ears. So much white noise. A symphony of electronic background sound that’s headache inducing. I’ve been too used to the quiet of nature for too long. The door to the room is closed. I don’t like closed doors. Panic jump starts my heart.  I’m trapped. Again. My leg is hoisted up and in a cast. I squint trying to recall the proper name for the contraption. My sternum aches and I have white lights dancing in my peripheral vision.

The door opens. Please be Lotte. A man in a suit enters the room. I lift my head slightly. “Hello Nora.” I don’t know who he is. He surveys me while chewing a nail. It’s strange to think of the unexpected turns a person’s life can take. “I’m detective Salve. And I need to ask you some questions.” I feel my face wrinkle in confusion. “Do you remember what happened?” he asks.

I drop my head to the pillow, stare at the ceiling as he pulls a chair next to the bed. “I was in a car accident.” My voice is a raspy whisper. When I chance a look at him again, he’s nodding.

“Yes. That’s good. Do you need anything?”

“Water,” I answer. And Lotte.

“Sure thing. Hang on.” He stands, the chair legs scrape across the floor and I cringe at the noise. When he returns he holds a small cup of water out at me, a straw plunged into it. He’s younger than Holden by at least three or four years from the looks of it. I wonder how long he’s been a detective. His brown hair is close cropped and his nose has a bump in the bridge. He has nice eyes and an easy smile. A nice face, Angela would say. I take the cup from him and chance a small sip. It’s hard to swallow but I manage.

“So, Nora, what’s your last name?” he asks.

I sigh and say, “Roberts.”

Detective Salve lifts an eyebrow at me. “Really.”

I lick my dry lips. “Really,” I mumble.

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” He eyes me then. Takes me in. “What’s your date of birth?”

“March 19th, 1980.” I look younger than I am. I always have.

“Do you want me to call your parents?”

“I don’t have any,” I answer. Like most kids who grew up without parents, over the years I have collected little tidbits of life knowledge, scraps and bits from friends parents, teachers, boyfriends, employers. Anyone who offered up a touch of wisdom and I kept them like fabric remnants so that I could someday stitch them into a nonsensical quilt-like afghan that might somehow make my life better-easier.  Right now I’d kill to have a parent. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know where Lotte is. I don’t know if I’m close to home or close to the farm.

“Is there other family I should call?” I stare at the ceiling again. A nurse comes in and explains that she’s taking my vitals, upping my fluids and asks if I need anything for my pain level. I want the detective to leave. He gives me an uneasy feeling. Men aren’t to be trusted. Dara, the nurse, writes her name on a whiteboard and tells me to let her know if I need anything at all. She gives Detective Salve the side-eye as she leaves.

“Angela Clark,” I croak.

“Sorry?” Detective Salve says.

“Call Angela Clark.” I give him the phone number and wait for him to leave. We’re not done yet. He told me that. But at least the unidentified girl in the car wreck has been identified. I buzz the nurse. She’s quick.

“My head is killing me.” Dara nods while simultaneously darting around. She reminds me of a butterfly with their erratic flight patterns. She’s dainty and delicate looking.  Before I can blink twice she’s handing me pills and the cup of water from the table. I swallow them down with ease.

“You should really try and sleep. The Doctor will be around soon to fill you in soon.”

I bite my bottom lip and try to make myself comfortable before I close my eyes. I shouldn’t close my eyes. I feel guilty for not getting up. For not finding Lotte or asking about her.

When I sleep my brain doesn’t hurt. The world is quiet. At least it used to be that way. Sleep was a heavenly escape. I didn’t dream. Sleep provided me sweet escape for eight hours.  It’s dark out when I wake. Rather, when I’m roused from sleep.

“Ms. Roberts.” An unfamiliar voice. I blink a few times before rubbing away the sleep crusties. My mouth is dry again.

“Nora,” I scratch out. He tucks my chart under his armpit and hands my water to me. I drink the remaining liquid. It’s not enough.

“Nora,” he says.

“Yes.”

“You’re aware of the car accident yes?” he asks curtly.

“Yes,” I answer.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” he says and a part of me wants to laugh but I don’t. “You shattered your femur and part of your patella.  You sustained a nasty contusion on your sternum and a serious concussion. It was estimated that you were pinned under your truck for at least three hours before help arrived-which is partly why you’re dehydrated and suffered moderate hypothermia.”

“Where’s Lotte?” I ask.

His brow furrows. “Who’s Lotte?”

“Charlotte,” I say. “She was in the truck with me.”

He pinches his lips closed. Swings his tongue in front of his teeth behind his bottom lip making the skin look as though a snake lives in his mouth. “As far as I know, there was no one else recovered at the scene.”

“That can’t be right. She was in the truck with me.” 

His face wrinkles in frustration. “Tell you what? I will ask around for you. Maybe I’m wrong.”

“When can I leave?” I ask.

“We need to do a couple more CAT scans, get your fluids up and monitor your break. But outside of that-soon.”

Now I do laugh. “That doesn’t sound very soon.”

“It’s all relative,” he says with an easy grin. “Also, the EMTs didn’t recover any personal effects. Do you have health insurance or an emergency contact you’d like on file?”

I shake my head. “I already spoke with a detective. He’s calling someone for me but I don’t have insurance. Is that a problem?”

“Not at all. Just another step to take. I’ll send someone up to get you officially admitted and work out payment options with you. I expect you’ll be moved upstairs out of emergency shortly.”

“How long have I been here?”

“You arrived,” he looks at his watch. A big fancy one. I can hear the ticking from my bed. “Fourteen hours ago. Most of that was spent in surgery to set your femur and get the screws in place.”

I blink. “Oh.”

“Do you have any questions for me Nora?”

My gut clenches. “No. I’m fine.” The better I feel, the more rested I am, the worse my panic is. He’s still out there and Lotte is missing.

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Not everyone is who they appear to be…

Helen dropped to her knees and started pulling out Sophie’s clothes from the dresser drawers. Small shirts and pants. Tiny socks. Oshkosh labels and small patent leather shoes all went into the boxes. She sobbed as memories washed over her. She hugged a stuffed dog to her chest and rocked back and forth. It had been one of Sophie’s favorites. She inhaled the smell that barely lingered on it. She couldn’t do this. Funny how life could twist on you like an unfamiliar road until you weren’t sure which way you were headed anymore. She drew strength from the recesses of her soul and plowed forward. It took her just over an hour to pack most everything up. Five boxes. Sophie’s entire life had been reduced to five pathetic boxes.

She stacked the boxes in the closet. She would not be getting rid of anything-simply stowing it away. Helen closed the door to the closet as if she were closing the door on her daughter. Her heart splintered. Out of sight but not out of mind, Helen glanced around the room. Her chest constricted at how barren it looked. How unlived in. She walked to the bed and drew up all the bedding into her arms and tossed it into the laundry basket before she remade the bed with clean fresh sheets and blankets.

IMPOSTER

 

Imposter

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Helen from Imposter

Helen

 

            Snow floated in the air silently outside. Helen stared, momentarily-zoned out in the decent of the flakes.

Big fluffy flakes that barely weighed anything.  Sophie used to love playing in the snow, she thought, but long gone were the days of bundling Sophie in snow pants, boots, a hat and mittens. Gone was the moment of zipping up her coat all the way to her chin and patting her on the butt as she clumsily made her way out the front door. Helen clung tightly to the memories she had of her daughter. Even ten years later, she held out secret hope that her daughter was still alive. Helen carefully arranged a bouquet of thorny  red  roses in a vase.

Statistically speaking, Sophie was dead. Everyone told her so. The police, the center for missing children, other missing children’s parents from her support group. She knew that-but she always believed that a mother knew if her baby’s heart was still beating somewhere out there and Helen had never felt the loss of Sophie in the deepest recesses of her heart. She just felt she was still alive.

                        Not knowing was the worst. It let the nightmares in. The what if’s and the tortures of imagination could drive a person crazy, especially after a decade of unanswered questions, but Helen reminded herself daily that she had to be strong because- what if Sophie came home? If she showed up and Helen was in the looney bin with no safe home to return to- that would be the ultimate failure as a mother.

 

            “Hey,” Sam said. Helen glanced at the clock. Her husband arrived home just after five pm.  At fifty he was still handsome as ever. ‘Easy on the eyes’ as her mother had called him. Tall with an athletic build and a strong jaw but kind eyes. He kissed her cheeks and swatted her rear as he passed her on his way to the kitchen. He had swept Helen off her feet at twenty-three. She had loved that he was a responsible single father of a two year old son- it showed his character. He was attentive and romantic. He’d wooed her with flowers, compliments and simple moments of affection.

At twenty-four they married and by twenty-five, Cora was born. Those early years had been pure joy. Shane-four, and Cora just a newborn, had seemed to complete their lives. Sophie came four years later by accident. A happy surprise to Sam and Helen but Cora, then four and Shane, eight, weren’t quite as elated. In that first year with Sophie, there had been a lot of singing ‘you can’t always get what you want’ to the kids. Now, decades later, Cora and Shane loved to bring that song up and sing it back to Sam and her when the moment was right. Helen grinned at the thought.

            “Hi love. How was work?” she asked and followed him to the kitchen.

“Same as always. Me trying to get Dad to modernize- Dad refusing- me plotting his retirement.” Sam winked at her and rolled his eyes. She watched as he set a bouquet of flowers on the counter for her. She loved the way he left flowers for her in the evening when he came home from work.

 

Since before Helen knew him, Sam was on track to take over the family business. A business that over the years had amassed them quite a fortune. Sam’s father had promised to retire three years ago but was still working full time- much to Sam’s dismay. He had plans to bring the company more up-to-date. He wanted a technologically savvy company, not the archaic one his father started.

With her step-son Shane now twenty-five and living in Boston, and Cora, twenty one and renting in Portland, the house was eerily quiet. Empty nesters. They should still have had a child in their home for at least another year. But it was what it was. Helen spent her days volunteering at Park View Hospital while Sam spent his at work.

Each time Helen witnessed Shane and his father growing closer over the years, each time he went to a father daughter event with Cora, she found herself angry with him for not mourning the loss of having those very same moments with Sophie. Helen felt that pang of heartbreak with every rite of passage that came and went for Cora and Shane knowing that those moments were stolen from her youngest child.

The years had been hard on their marriage. They loved each other,  yes, but the loss of a child tore the fabric of their marriage over time leaving them distant. A gaping chasm that never seemed to shrink no matter how much counseling they endured together. Or maybe that was what all marriages were like after twenty-two years. Helen wasn’t naive.  She didn’t expect passion to be around every corner but she did wonder if she should feel a more certain closeness to her husband after all these years.

Everyone mourns the loss of a child differently. At least that is what the counselor had told them so long ago. Helen couldn’t help the resentment she felt toward Sam about the way he moved on. To her, she would never give up hope but Sam had long ago written Sophie off. He refused to even speak her name or take a chance on new leads that came over the years with her case after that first year she was gone. To save their marriage, Helen had adapted to his methods. She had Cora to think about. Cora was one of those souls who watched to see what she could do for others, someone who would rather serve in silence. A kind and generous person.

Her step-son Shane was a different beast altogether. He’d been unruly from the start. A difficult child and a destructive one. Helen attributed it to three things. The way his mother coddled him, the way his father, Sam, treated him more like a best friend than a parent and Sophie’s disappearance. Those three things seemed to shape him over the years into a handsome man who was always on edge and had a temper.

“What’s for dinner, love?” Sam asked. He held her hand, brushed his thumb over her knuckles and looked at her as if she were his entire world.

“I don’t know. I thought maybe we could go out,” Helen answered.

Sam smiled and nodded. “Sure. Let me change and we can head out. Any hankerings?”

“Mexican,” Helen said. Sam beamed at her. He loved Mexican food and she knew it would please him that she suggested it. No matter how strange their relationship was now, she still tried. And that was what mattered in the end right?

That they never stopped trying.

Sam leaned in and kissed her softly. His salty lips made her laugh. He was always snacking on salted peanuts on his drive home from work.

K. Larsen (subject to change)

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Imposter – yes- again

AVA

July 11, 2016

     “Just one more God-damned thing that didn’t go right,” her mom said .  She frowned and fidgeted with the hem of her dime-store dress. Ava’s uncle went to his truck and changed from khakis into sweat pants. Her aunt ducked behind the hearse to light a cigarette in the wind. Her mom climbed into her beat up car, put on the flashers and motioned for everyone to follow behind. They formed a makeshift processional of dented trucks and loud mufflers, driving out of the small town, onto dirt roads and up to a cemetery bordered by thick woods.

What killed her father was drinking. The exact culprit was cirrhosis of the liver brought on by gin in particular,  whatever brand was on sale and cheapest. But, as Ava’s makeshift  family gathered at the gravesite, she wondered why he’d even started drinking in the first place.
Why would he choose that kind of fate?

Dave, her father’s  brother, who was making it through the day with the aid of her dead father’s gin; Mary, her father’s sister, who had hitched a ride to the service because she couldn’t afford a car; Her mother, a waste of a woman who could barely take care of herself let alone Ava, and Tandy, who was a close family friend. Ava scattered her father’s ashes and thought about how a regular night of drinking had ended in the emergency room-again, the tenth trip in the last four years. She’d been counting. That tenth trip had brought a diagnosis of end-stage liver failure followed by a month in a run down nursing home. And finally, his death followed by burial three days later.

Now her family had caravanned from the graveyard to a potluck, hosted at a VFW  in a part of the state where people barely kept jobs and drank too much. Ava and her mom had to get out of this God-forsaken town. That much she was sure of.

***

Tandy set up a buffet table and brought in homemade rolls- Ava’s favorite. Others came with pasta salad, mac and cheese and crockpot meatballs. They lined the food on a rickety table near a display of photos from her father’s  life. There he was behind a register at a counter, thirteen years old and straight-shouldered with an ear to ear grin on his face.

“So proud,” said a friend of his, looking at the photo. Ava didn’t want to look at the photo. It was just a reminder of how far he had fallen.

Tandy grinned.  “He lied and said he was 16 to get that job.”

      At seventeen Ava’s father had rushed off to marry to her mom in Vegas. Got a job at a Ames and worked his way up to manager. By the time he reached his late-20s, Ames was training him to become a regional manager. Mom and Dad had  their own trailer, Ava, a reliable car and a Christmas Club  savings account. It was a good, solid start to life.

     But the promotion never came and marriage to a woman like her mother took a lot of effort, and after a while he started to drink more. Dabbled in some drugs. Left Ames. Ava’s parents’ marriage unraveled and he moved out. He tried to push Ava  to do well in school. But she didn’t get to see him often because of her mother.

“You have all this under control?” someone mumbled.  Ava nodded without looking, she always had it under control. She was the strongest, the most responsible, the one who took care of her mother, even at ten. Her mom was the drinker, the woman in rural Maine whose well-being everybody seemed to worry about. At least, it felt that way to her. Everyone always asked, ‘How’s your mom doing, honey’ and ‘You take care of that mother of yours’. Ava, alone at the sink, gripped hard onto the countertop, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She wanted her Dad.

“When does it get easier?” Her Mom said and slumped against her. Ava shrugged her off and finished the drying the dishes without answering.

     When the memorial was over her mom drove them home to their trailer where Tandy, her Uncle Dave and Aunt Mary were waiting for them. Even the trailer itself, which Mom had purchased for $1,500 from one of Dad’s cousins, because she wanted to tear it down and put a new trailer on the beautiful rural lot was now three years older than dirt and they still lived in the grungy piece of crap, with unreliable electricity, a toilet that barely worked and no door for the bathroom. They pushed inside. Ava went to the living room and collapsed onto the couch exhausted and sad.

At ten Ava already knew there were days when the vast emptiness of rural Maine could make someone feel utterly alone — when the only sound was wind through the forest, and Tandy’s mail truck bouncing along the rutted dirt roads.

 

     While he flipped through her file, Ava scanned the room. Shelves of creased books lined the bookshelves. A single window to her left. Two table lamps and two doors on opposing walls. The office resembled a living room—if she ignored the bars over the shatterproof window. Her teenage scenery consisted of barred windows, stained mattresses on floors, old buildings in desperate need of repair and empty plastic bags blowing down alleys. His face reminded her of steel wool, deep lines etched into it. She had expected this session to be like the others—an investigation of her past, patronizing queries about her psyche, along with self-congratulatory cheers when she made some kind of “breakthrough.” Why else would they have provided  a therapist versus the detectives that lingered on the other side of the office door.

   

Ava hung her head, let her hair cover her face. She knew what was coming but she didn’t want to get to it just yet. She wanted to ride the high a little longer. If the house hadn’t been so contaminated she would have stayed longer. Forever maybe. She had felt some kind of love with them.  There had been no way to know what she had stepped into.  Wasn’t that just dandy? The first break she caught in life turned out to be another nightmare.

They had all been casualties.

Even her.

“I see here that you were at Stonehurst for a while,” Doctor White stated. She nodded her head and squeezed the arm of the chair. “Why were you there?”

“Doesn’t it say?” she answered. Ava picked up a strand of hair and twirled it round her finger.

Dr. White looked at her. His face a mask of  compassion. Faker. “I’d like to hear it in your words.”

Ahh, yes, her words. She rolled her eyes. She knew better than to use her words. Her words never equated freedom. She would speak in his language. “I tried to commit suicide. After the hospital discharged me, they couldn’t locate any family and they thought I was still a risk, so they admitted me to Stonehurst.”

Dr. White scribbled on his pad. “And what made you attempt self-harm in the first place?”

Ava scoffed at his choice of words-self harm- and picked at her cuticles. She thought back to the moment she had decided she wanted to die. She was living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated building. The landlord was a douche. It was winter in Maine.

Cold.

Dreary.

Bleak.

There was no working heat in the building. No running water since the pipes had frozen. She had ten dollars and a can of tuna fish to her name. Life didn’t seem all that fabulous. Her mother hadn’t been home in over a month and had showed no signs of returning in the next. Sick of living a life that wasn’t worth living, Ava had pulled the blades from her rusty razor and slit her wrists. She’d watched the blood coat her wrists, then palms until she’d passed out. In a way she’d found it  soothing to watch.

As luck would have it, not fifteen minutes later, Gary, her heroin addicted neighbor, strolled in uninvited as he often did and panicked. Called nine-one-one. Wrapped her wrists to staunch the bleeding. Ava woke up at Mercy Hospital-alive and thoroughly irritated.

“Ava, I’m trying to understand what happened,” Dr. White said.

How could she possibly make anyone understand? Ava slipped into a memory.

     Ava stood in front of her father’s place. The dilapidated trailer had been her dad’s, but now it was just Uncle Dave inside with the doors locked and ratty sheets blocking the windows. Using her key, she walked inside and blinked her eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Her father’s prescriptions were still stacked on the counter in the kitchen. His clothes still littered across the living room, his microwaved tv dinner in the sink and his handle of gin pushed up against the recliner. Uncle Dave reached for the bottle and took a gulp. Swallowed, then drank again.

“Last bottle,” he said to Ava. “Tomorrow it’s quitting time and to look for a job.” He looked like he meant it but she knew better.

The day before had also been her Uncle’s last day, and so had the week before that, and now it was just days until rent was due. Uncle Dave had no money and nowhere to go. For the last few years he had been living with her father and surviving on disability checks and a hundred bucks  in welfare. Her Dad had supported him and Uncle Dave had been his caretaker in return. He had monitored his medications, washed his yellowed skin and dealt with the adult diapers. Ava shuddered.

Now the trailer was devoid of her dad and there was nothing to do except reach for the gin and watch the same shows they’d always watched together: “Days of our Lives,” “Jeopardy” or whatever else came through on the bunny ears atop the television. Day turned into night. Night turned into day. An endless cycle. “Last day,” he said again and reached down for the gin-again. Ava sighed. There were so many questions she had never asked her father. Did he know he was dying? Was he scared? Would he go back and change anything? Was it her fault?

It was a decision, Ava’s mom said.

It was stress, Mary said.

It was life wearing him down, Dave said.

It was what it was, Tandy said.

But Ava didn’t believe what they said. There had to be more.

Ava watched her Uncle Dave sip from the bottle of gin. She stood and walked into her father’s bedroom. Ava lay on his bed. For the past few days she had been having a recurring dream. She was sitting in the living room with her dad. Ava wanted to tell him he was dying and needed to try, really try.  Finally she blurted it out: You’re dying Daddy, she said, but he didn’t look at her. You’re dying, she said again louder and tugged on his shirt sleeve. Don’t leave me! But the TV was blaring, the gin bottle in his hand, his eyes glazed over, and he was too out of it to hear her.

Don’t leave me with her Daddy.

Don’t leave me.


     When she was eleven and her mother had moved them to the
big city of Portland to escape the depressed rural countryside. Ava had finally realized just how inadequate her mother was. She envied the other kids at school and the park whose mother’s played with them, laughed with them and hugged them. Ava never had any of that. She knew she held a lot of responsibility but until she had witnessed other kids and parents out and about she didn’t quite know just how much her and her mother’s roles were reversed.

Ava shook the thoughts from her head and frowned.

“I know,” she answered.

Sometimes an answer was so obvious that no one could see it, because they were looking too hard. Because they were too close to it. Fiction camouflaged as fact. Ava slumped in her seat and closed her eyes. A whole town had looked and a whole town had missed it.

“This will go a lot faster if you volunteer the necessary information.”

A small smile creased her lips. She opened her eyes, looked at Dr. White and decided to begin her story.

©2016 K. Larsen

 

If you want more – leave a comment and let me know!

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Here’s to you!

In honor of you, the reader, I post….

A chapter.

Enjoy! 
#Duplicity
#WhoWillWin
#SaveEmma

*unedited* subject to change*

Friday
Milana

 

Willa: It’s not just a ‘friend’ weekend o’ fun 😉
Friday 3:48pm

 

Milana: Oh jaysus. Have an orgasm for me!
Friday 3:50pm

Willa: LOL, can do!
Friday 3:55pm

 

Milana: Ok hottie, have a fab weekend fling!
Friday 4:00pm

 

Willa: So I yelled out “that was for Milana!” That wasn’t weird right???
Friday 11:00pm

 

Milana: OMG! Bahaha, that is THE BEST! Love it.

 

I snort as I type my response. My phone rings almost immediately after I hit send. I lift it, glancing at the screen and smile. Shaking my head in amusement I swipe to answer.

“What are you doing?” I answer laughing.

“Shh, I just wanted to say hi. I’m in the bathroom washing up.” Willa, my best friend whispers. I chuckle because it’s not as if I need to whisper.

“Gross! You kill me, you know that. Please hang up the phone and go back to your weekend fling,” I say. I roll my eyes and giggle at the situation. Classic Willa. Queen of the overshare. No one can amuse me more than she does though.

“Brat. I just wanted to make sure no one had abducted you since I know you’re walking home alone right now, but-consider me gone.” She snickers. Before I have a chance to think of a witty comeback the line goes dead. I swear Willa has a sixth sense. She may be a TMI kind of person but she’s my person and I love her to the stars and back. I tuck my phone into the outside pocket of my purse and breathe in the night air.

 

I approach the house. Tall and brick and formal. Really the two-story building is drab and unwelcoming in my opinion. Three large granite steps up to the door. I shove my hand into the outermost pocket of my purse to find keys as I take the first step. I breathe in another lungful of the crisp night air and recap my pathetic life silently. I think about the way I wasted two hours reading a women’s magazine earlier because apparently I want to punish myself. I was overwhelmed by all the dieting options. Juicing, smoothies, pills, calorie cycling. Who has time to do that stuff? Who want’s to crap red for a week simply because they’re on an all beet juice cleanse to lose a measly ten pounds? Instead of being able to learn any useful information, I sat, stuffing my hand into a bag of salt and vinegar chips wondering why I have an extra ten pounds on me lately. College was a fail. Holding down a steady nine-to-five job was a fail. God, it’s like I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility possible in life. I take the next step up squashing my self-degrading thoughts.

 

“Peaches.” A deep baritone voice rings out. It cuts through the night. Fills the silence. Startled I whip around scanning the empty street. Then he steps into the glow of the street light. I cringe. First the bar, now here. This is a new tactic. A new approach that unsettles me. I school my features quickly.

“Bryce?” I call out. “What are you doing here?” I prop a hand on my hip, feeling put out.

A lazy grin spreads across his handsome face as he saunters toward me. He looks like some frat boy casanova. My phone vibrates in my purse. Not now Willa, I think. Bryce stops just inches from my body. He’s domineering. Taller than me even though I’m standing two steps up from him and in heels.

“Surprise,” he answers as his arm darts out toward me. I flinch but he only tucks a tendril of hair behind my ear.

What. The. Hell.

“Yeah,” I offer sarcastically, “definitely a surprise.”  I back up, taking the next step carefully. “Listen, it’s not really a great time so… I’ll see you later.” I clutch my bag to my chest and turn away, heading for the door.
“I wasnt done talking.” Irritation laces his voice.

I sigh knowing how this battle will go before it’s even happened. “I know, but I was done listening,” I call out over my shoulder confidently as I fumble with my keys. I just need to get inside. It’s safe inside. One large hand clamps over mine. My breath leaves me in a strong gust. He drapes an arm over my shoulders, tucking me against his side. My heart rate explodes.

“Let me,” he offers while taking the keys from my hand. Sweat beads on my forehead, despite the chill, threatening to drip down and ruin my makeup mask.

“Okay, thanks,” I mumble. He grins at me, Bryce-with dusty-blond hair and oversized black-rimmed glasses that cover endless blue eyes. Eyes that hide things. Eyes that lie. Eyes that never give away intent.

“You have such a pretty face Milana, why don’t you show it anymore?” he asks while scrutinizing me.

I swallow the words I want to say and stare at the ground like a dog dominated by its alpha. He slips the key into the lock with ease and turns it. I slink inside submissively. He follows, shutting and locking the door behind him. I hate the sound of that lock clicking. My feet pulse in my stylish but tight, green Loubotin heels that peek out under my jeans. I shift my weight to relieve the tension a bit.

Bryce stares me down in silence. I shift again nervously.

“Feet hurt?” he asks. I respond with a silent nod. “Why don’t you get into something more comfortable?” he says approaching me. His hands are tucked into his jean pockets which calms me a bit because it means they’re contained, for now.

I set my purse on the entry way table and kick off my heels one at a time. The loss of those extra three inches makes Bryce tower above me even more. He’s so handsome. I hate handsome. It distracts. Good looks hide intentions.

“So,” I ask moving toward the kitchen. “Why are you here?”
“You aren’t happy to see me? I kind of expected a warmer welcome than that after our run in at the bar Milana.”

I reach into the cabinet left of the sink and pull a glass down. “I’m happy, I just… I wasn’t expecting you.” I fill my glass with tap water then watch him over the edge of the glass while I take a sip. This could go a million different ways. And all of them probably awful. He seems extra uptight. Coiled to his breaking point.

“Hence, the surprise aspect,” he chuckles low and deep. A hand leaves his pocket and runs through his hair.

“Yeah,” I answer leaning a hip against the marble counter top. I don’t know what to say so we stand there in awkward silence together. A standoff of sorts.

“I’ve missed you,” he says taking my glass from me and setting on the countertop. The glass has a lipstick stain on the rim. Bright pink. His palms cup my face. His thumbs stroke my cheeks softly. I put my palms on his forearms and add a little pressure. His jaw twitches but he doesn’t remove his hands from my face. Instead, he leans forward, resting his forehead against mine. Anger fills me. Anger I rarely let myself indulge in at the tenderness, the intimacy of his action. His head tilts, grazing the corner of my mouth with his. A half-kiss. His mouth trails to my ear. “Haven’t you missed me?” he whispers. I tug against his fingers but they hold me in an iron-clad vise. He pulls back to inspect me. The icy chill in his frozen eyes cools the sweat on my neck and causes goose bumps on my forearms. “Peaches,” he snaps. “Answer me.” Something goes slightly wrong in my stomach at his tone. I need to get my head in the game.

“Don’t call me that. Yes. Yes, I mean, of course I missed you. This is all very unexpected, you know? I don’t know what to make of it,” I blurt. He sighs and drops his arms as he backs away from me. Good. I need the space.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I should have called first,” he says. I nod and give him a half smile. “Let’s sit. Catch up.”

I study him, wary of his suggestion. “Okay.” The word is drawn out, etched with suspicion.

He walks to the living room and I follow silently behind. My raw nerves make me dizzy. I watch as he sits on the cream colored couch. I choose the armchair across from him, and stiffly perch on the edge. I can’t read the dark cloud that has settled over his face. The silence eats at me as he sits back straight, shoulders relaxed, and flashes a smile. His temper existing just below the surface. The tension thickens between us. I grit my teeth and wait him out. I’d rather he lead.

“How are classes going?” he asks.

“Good. I like the subjects this semester,” I answer vaguely. The truth is a tricky thing. People think it’s a weapon to aim at someone but it’s just as likely to blow up in their own face. I clutch the armrests of the chair.

“How’s Dan?” he asks with a sneer. And here we go. The first of small clues to how this will go down.

I scoff and scoot back into my chair further. “Dan is none of your business.” I lift my chin higher.

“None of my business?” he laughs. “Milana, you are my business and if Dan is your business then he’s mine too,” he says.

“Leave him out of this. Please.” I grind out. His mercurial moods, his unreadable face—it confuses me. Makes it hard to know how to respond. Difficult to understand what he wants. My mother always said you can’t trust men. When my parents were still together, there were always parties. Men with slicked back hair. Women in sun-dresses. Glasses of wine scattered on any available flat surface. And even after Dad left us, there were still women. All the single moms who brought their kids over, along with all the makings for their drink’s. They’d sit up late talking in hushed voices about their ex-husband’s proclivities, while us kids played Uno in the next room.

Bryce’s voice snaps me out of my thoughts. “Is that how you pay for this pretty townhouse? How you enjoy everything college has to offer?”

Offended I question whether to spit at him and stomp away or not but I don’t want this to peak. “It’s late Bryce, maybe you should go.” I’m sure to ask him as nicely as I can muster.

“Go?” he laughs. His finger pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Yeah, as in, leave,” I say. I bring my thumb up to nibble on my nail but stop when I remember the perfect polish of my manicure. I massage the back my neck instead.I grip it tightly and squeeze.

“Oh no, no, no. Milana, I think you’re missing the point. I’m here to stay for a while,” he says. My shoulders slump just a little at his words and the tension in my neck doubles.

“Bryce, please. I’m tired. Tomorrow we can have lunch or something.” I bite my lip in anticipation. Will he go without a fight?

His blue eyes dance in a dangerous way. “Lunch or something? That’s what we’re relegated to now? Lunch?” He pushes up from the couch and approaches me. I can see his thoughts quickly turning stormy. He runs a shaking hand through his hair, an enormous knot twisting in my gut makes it suddenly hard to breathe.  He slouches toward me like a big cat homing in on its prey.  His right hand moves to my face, his fingertips curl into the hair at the base of my neck. I want to move, to run away but I’m frozen like a possum, hoping the predator will pass me by. My scalp smarts at his grip, but I refused to rub my head.  His nostrils flare. “I can remember a time when you begged me to take you, hard and fast. Definitely not a lunch or something,” he spits out.  He’s leading, as I wanted him to. His hands on me make me feel strong but the feeling is all wrong.  I’m some sort of freak who feels no pain. I hold onto the fire he’s spitting as if it were rain. I am nothing without pretend. I am nothing without a man.  I know my truths. His face gets hard and I can tell he’s grinding his teeth. I bite my lip and shrug my petite shoulders in indifference.

He loathes indifference.

Clearing my throat I  start in on him. “Why do you do that? Make me feel cheap and used? I’m not that person anymore you asshole. Things change,” I spit the last words at him. The successful lie makes me feel invincible for a moment. Yanking the handful of my hair, he tugs me closer to his face. His fingers wrap tighter, burning my scalp. Bring it, I think.

“No Milana. Things don’t change.” Unwinding his fingers from my hair, he trails them down my neck, along my clavicle, and down my arm. “But I’m not a monster.”

I breathe a sigh of relief but remain silent. “Maybe I should go.” Bryce stands up jerkily to his full height, pulling me with him. He’s watching my body, scanning every inch as though I were naked. He’s cooling down. I let out a massive yawn and rub my eyes.

“So, tomorrow?” I turn nervously to face him as he moves towards the entryway.  The muscles in his jaw clench and unclench.  I think about this morning. I slept until seven and stubbed my toe on the edge of the bed as I stepped over a mound of dirty clothes. I opened the fridge to find emptiness staring back at me. I hopped in the car but it wouldn’t start. It was too damn hot to walk but I didn’t have a choice and I prayed that my debit card wouldn’t get declined at the store while I was stuck behind an old woman with the pace of a slug. I think about how heavy my head feels on my neck, bent like a crane under the weight of a wrecking ball. How the blues threaten to come again. About how living’s no fun when you’re broken. I stare at my glossy nails, contemplating how much to say, the short dark hair falling over my face making me wish the chestnut strands provided some sort of real protection. I’m no fool though. They offer nothing in the way of safety. Life’s a tough game and I make the most of it.

“Night Bryce.”  He reaches for the doorknob, pauses then twists, pulling the door open. My chest rises and falls noticeably waiting for him to step through the threshold and shut the door behind him. “See you tomorrow.” I let the words hang out there like laundry drying in the wind.

“Yeah, tomorrow,” he says. He steps outside and slams the door shut. I inhale in an attempt to center myself.

 

I head upstairs for bed. I take the stairs too fast, reaching the top step but thinking there is another, I stamp down on the landing clumsily and lose my balance. My knee locks and then all I can think is-I must look like a baby gazelle learning to walk. How freakin’ awkward is that? It’s weird to think about your own life from outside yourself. It’s like having a front-row seat to your own demise. I’m overcome with exhaustion. I grab onto the handrail, catching myself. My lungs drag in his scent of his spicy cologne. Words desert me. His hands wrap around my waist like a noose. I squeak in surprise. His grip is tight and his fingernails dig white crescents into the sensitive skin at my waist. He pulls me toward him, till his chest touches my back. “You know what Milana, I think I want to stay. I think I deserve it. I think you want me to,” he whispers.

“This is how you want it, Bryce?” I ask lifting up my chin. He growls under his breath, grabbing my elbow and holding firm as he spins me to face him. Ripping from his grasp I dart down the stairs to my purse and rip my phone from its home in the outside pocket. His hand snatches it from mine. My heart beats wildly in my chest but I stand tall and fake confidence. “I don’t think so,” he grits out. I reach for it anyways. He hurls it against the wall. Pieces fly and rain down to the floor. My shoulders slump. Grabbing my keys from the sideboard he stalks to the door and crosses his arms. I curse the day they installed the fancy deadbolt that requires a key from the inside or out to unlock it. My irritation flares.

“This is wrong. You cannot keep me hostage in my own place,” I shout.

“Such a silly, naive girl-of course I can,” he says through clenched teeth. “and I intend too.”

I run then.

Straight to the back door. Knob in my hand, I twist and pull. The door flies open just as I fly backward. I land harshly on my hip. I bite my lip to keep the tears from flowing. Bryce kicks the door shut, locks it and sets the alarm. “See? Now if you try anything stupid, I’ll know. I’m faster, stronger and more determined than you Milana. Don’t test my patience.” I scoot backward on the tile floor away from him. He slams his hands on the counter, “Dammit Peaches.” Bryce is unpredictable and rash. Even when I can’t see him- I can sense him. It’s almost as if he has this air about him. An aura that states ‘I’m conquering the past in order to rule the future and I’ll destroy anything that gets in my way.’ and right now, I’m in his way.

“Do not call me that. Get the fuck out!” I scream.  He lurches toward me fast and confident. He pins me to the ground. His  hand clamps over my mouth and nose. My eyes fly to his. Bryce stands over me, hand pushing hard against my face. I grab his arm, trying to rip it away. His flesh tears beneath my fingernails but he doesn’t flinch. His forearms as immovable as  concrete posts.  My front teeth cut into the inside of my lip like razorblades and my mouth starts to fill with blood. The dirty metallic taste gags me as it slides down my throat. Kicking, my legs flail side to side, missing his body entirely. My emotions swell and stretch. My eyes beg, plead for him to stop. Darkness starts at the edges of my vision as he holds one hand over my mouth and the other around my throat. He keeps squeezing, but then, like returning from a dark precipice, one thick finger at a time, his hands are gone and I can breathe again. Blood in my mouth drips down my throat and I have to sit up to avoid choking. I sputter, and blood-thickened spit dribbles down my chin. I wipe it away with the back of my hand. My pounding heart sends blood, warm and disgusting, pouring out of the cut on my lip.  Bryce kneels near me, silent. I ignore him and stand on shaking legs, and walk away.

 

That was too close.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Bryce’s voice growls behind me in a mix of amusement and annoyance.

I open my mouth to scream but all that comes out is a pathetic gurgle. He chuckles. I don’t look back at him. I walk upstairs-slowly. He follows. When I’m in the bathroom I take stock of myself in the mirror. Fingerprints, red and angry dot my neck. Blood leaks from my bottom lip. My hair’s a rat’s nest. Bryce appears in the mirror behind me. Spit collects at the corner of his mouth,  a sure sign of his eagerness. Then, with one punctuating tug of his facial muscles, he smiles. My brain starts rattling off useless facts to calm me. Ninety percent of women’s activities are about getting male attention. It’s biological. It’s normal. It’s just how life is.

What I really want is a little white chill pill.

“I’m tired. Get in the shower. You’re filthy,” he says as if nothing happened. He turns the spray on hot. I give in. I pull my blouse over my head before wiggling out of my jeans. I step into the spray in my bra and panties. He says nothing. He wants me naked.  I know why and I know what’ll happen once I am, but the pounding in my face and hip reminds me he’s capable of worse, so for now I’ll meet him halfway. I don’t have a death wish.

“Here, wash with this.” He shoves a  bottle in my hand. With trembling fingers I pop open the cap. The bottle’s slippery and my hands are unsteady. He snatches the bottle from my hand and pours the liquid into my hair—roughly rubbing it into a bubbly froth. Shaking, forcing myself to breathe slowly and push down nausea as my mouth fills with blood again I let him wash me. I’m sure he can see my hands tremble. I’m also sure he enjoys it. This is what Bryce thrives on. I think about sneaking out again, but the risk is incomprehensible. As the blood and invisible filth that covers me washes away, swirling at the drain, he steps back, leans against the wall and lets himself slide to the floor, pulling his legs in close to him, happy to simply watch me again. “Peaches,” he sighs and I cringe at the term. I lift my chin a little.

I am not Peaches.

Friday
Bryce

“Peaches,” I sigh watching her. The vein in her neck pounds insanely fast. She’s covering something up, something she doesn’t want me to know. I want to ask but I don’t. She looks at me with big, round, needy eyes, making me feel guilty and angry in the same instant, without knowing which emotion precedes the other. It’s the anger I can’t hold back though.

I can never hold it back.

“Stop calling me that Bryce.” Her voice is flat. Defeated. I need her fight. I crave it. Defeated is pointless. Defeated is something I can have any day of the week. Defeated is boring.

“Why? Where the hell did you even get that nickname anyway?” I ask as she steps from the shower and grabs a towel. Mmm, that body.

She huffs at me. “It doesn’t matter. No one calls me that.” I can never tell with Milana if she’s acting or sincere. It’s part of the draw I feel to her. I want to tell her to leave me alone, to never touch me again, but I need so many things right now. And the gentleness in her touch, the warmth of her hand on my skin, it makes me remember all the things I don’t have. I want something to fill up that chasm that gapes inside me.

“Come on Peaches, tell me,” I taunt. She wipes the fog from the mirror with her small hand before inspecting herself-or rather the marks I’ve left on her.

“The priest who raped me said my pussy was succulent like a peach. I was twelve.” Her voice drips with honey, too sweet for good intentions. I roll my neck, rubbing the cord of muscle with a strong hand. Her eyes latch onto mine. I don’t know what to say so for a moment I say nothing.

“Shit. That was a good one,” I chuckle.

She shoots daggers from her eyes. I’d be dead right now if they were a truth.  “It’s not a joke,” she hisses.

Damn. I long to reach out and rub her shoulders but that’s too tender. Too much of a lie. I reach out and touch her hand instead. She pulls it away as though I’ve bitten it. “Shit Milana, really…that’s… Jesus. Seriously?” I worry for her. This could be a fact. A true fact about her past-her life. It slips me up. Makes me lose my edge for a moment. “I’m sorry. I had no idea,” I say and I mean it.

She bursts out laughing as she runs a brush through her wet hair. “No Bryce. That did not happen.”

Anger fills me. I push up to my feet. Her laughter stops as the back of my hand rakes across her face. Stunned, she whips her face back to mine.

“Asshole,” she grits out.

“Why would you fuck with me like that?” I bark back.

“So you’d stop calling me Peaches,” she shouts while touching her cheek gingerly.

My pulse drops, slowing. Her eyes, wide and vulnerable, flit across my face, each of her breaths coming faster than the one before it. Licking her lips with the tip of her tongue, she lets out one long, slow blow that tickles the stubble on my chin.

 

“I need you,” I say. She hears the truth as well as my lie. She leans forward and pulls my face toward her, gently pressing her lips against mine. I stand stiff. They give more than I expected. Under my palms her shoulders relax and my mouth follows suit. Letting out a low groan, her kissing grows urgent and hungry. I’m just as hungry. Any space between our bodies too much. I want to hold her down. I’ve tried so many times to capture that look in her eye for myself but my heart is as black as night. If I stick around, I’m bound to lose my mind over her. I studder like a broken clutch when she touches me. She’s a spider underneath my skin, an itch that needs to be scratched. And that’s why I’m here isn’t it? To scratch that itch?

 

Our connection is pure lunacy. Incalculable. Insufferable. She’s poisonously pretty. Her tongue massages mine. Deviously dirty. I bite her bottom lip. My heart is cracked like the dusty desert ground. She bites mine back. Yesterday is right behind me like a loaded gun and tomorrow looms with unknown outcomes. I pull back to take her in. Her bra and panties cling-still wet-to her body. The red lace hiding very little.

“Let me poison your heart a while,” I say.

“No.” She shakes her head. Her face is hard. “That was a mistake. I shouldn’t have kissed you,” she says. Her words injure. Like a hot knife cutting through a slice of ego of ambition. “In fact, I think …” her voice is timid, she’s uncertain. “I think you should really leave Bryce.” My heart speeds up from the way she says my name. It’s torture, my name on her lips.

 

I grab her wrist and tug. She stumbles into me. “Not happening. It’s after one am. We should sleep.” She tries to tug out of my grip but I don’t let her. She’s so petite. So delicate. So mine.

“Let’s go.” I pull her from the bathroom, across the hall to the bedroom. When we’re both inside I shut the door.

She watches me like a hawk. “You don’t seriously think I’m letting you sleep in here, with me?” She’s pissed. Her fight’s back. Good.

“You don’t seriously think you have a choice do you?” I volley back.

“Bryce, no. We are not sharing a bed.” Her hip is jutted out, her arms crossed over her chest. Her mouth a firm line.

“I don’t trust you to be alone without doing something stupid. Toss me a pillow, I’ll sleep here,” I say pointing to the floor in front of the door. She glowers at me but yanks a pillow off the bed and throws it. It lands at my feet. “Wanna spare a blanket princess?”

Milana’s body goes tight, rigid. For a moment I feel bad. She lives in a cell made of skin. Held captive. Sealed inside herself-always. It’s gotta be tough. She stomps to the armoire, throws the doors open and digs around until she finds a spare blanket. She nudges the doors shut one at a time with her hip. I meet her halfway. She puts the blanket in my hands. “Do not touch me while I sleep Bryce. I mean it.” Her voice is firm. I wink and nod. She frowns at me. Her defiance is a turn on.

I watch as she pulls a nightgown over her head before carefully removing her wet undergarments, then crawls into the massive king sized bed. The covers pulled up to her neck. She stares at the ceiling refusing to look in my direction. I spread the blanket on the floor near the door, kill the lights and lay down. I listen to her uneven breaths fill the silence. This time is different and yet, the same. Our game just beginning again. I crave a Bourbon . Bourbon is easy to understand. Tastes like summer on hot breezy day. I’m awake until those same breaths become slow and even and shallow. I fall asleep thinking of all the things I can do to her. All the ways to make her beg.

I stand by the bed feeling my full height. Bedside Milana the clock shows four am. I have no idea what I’m doing out of bed: I don’t need to relieve himself, I didn’t have a dream or some element of the day that’s kept my mind running. It’s as if, standing there in the darkness, I’m unencumbered. I don’t  feel tired, despite the hour, nor is my conscience troubled by any recent incident. In fact, I’m alert and empty-headed and inexplicably elated.

 

The bedroom is large and uncluttered. My footsteps are muffled by the deep carpet as I cross the room the pile still plush enough to hold the beautiful Ms and Vs the cleaning lady left as strokes of their vacuum cleaners’ wands.  I stop at the window, pulling back the curtains with care so I don’t wake Milana. I lean forward, press my weight onto my palms against the sill, exulting in the emptiness and clarity of the night.


I work hard, everyone around me works hard, and for what? I think about the plastic-wrapped tuna sandwich with a bottle of mineral water that I had yesterday. In the cramped coffee room where toast and microwaved popcorn smells filled the air. At a few minutes before four, I stopped working, threw out my earplugs and the remainder of my coffee and hurried home. Excited. I wonder about this sustained, distorting euphoria that I get from my time with Milana. From the anticipation of what it will be like.


Friday

(unknown)


His hands were fused to the steering wheel. His employee’s, they flaunted their ugliness as if it were a cruel joke, not on them but on those who watched. Emma was everything they were not. Beautiful. Inside and out. Her mother’s hair was auburn. Emma’s was black-brown with streaks of red. Even after all these years he could see her mother’s face clearly in Emma. Her mother’s eyes were like Emma’s but wider, and clearer. They shared the jawline and high cheekbones, but the whole of Emma’s face was breathtakingly stunning, even more so than her mother.
Why would a woman cast off a two year old without a word, or a touch? There one night, gone the next morning. Emma had asked that very question just last week.  Emma’s mother had been gone for eight years now. Eight years. He knew fifty years wouldn’t make Emma care less. Time wouldn’t dull the pain or keep her from wanting to get her mother back. On her deathbed, Emma would still be wondering where her mother was, why she had gone, whether she was dead, or just didn’t give a shit about her daughter. He turned the key, and backed out of his parking spot. As he drove to the school to pick up Emma from Color Guard practice he worried that his daughter would never quite get over the curiosity surrounding her mother’s disappearance.

 

His parents used to sing ‘you can’t always get what you want’ when he was a small boy and whining about wanting something. His parents were wrong. He could get everything he wanted and thus far, he had. He didn’t anticipate that changing any time soon.


He had never been the marrying type. Once a long time ago he thought he was but it was a farce. A terrible lie. He’d never intended on having a child in his home either but he was content in the fact that he had his daughter, his practice and that he was sexually satisfied to boot. A rap on the window startled him. Emma’s beaming face stared up at him. He let out a loud laugh and unlocked the car doors so she could climb in.