If she were honest with herself, she’d expected the place to look ominous. The ocean would come lapping up at the quay, breaking off chunks of concrete bit by bit. The sky would be set with a murky gloom. There would be no ships in sight, just open sea as far as the eye could reach, drifting towards a blank horizon.
When she pulled up to the lighthouse the sun was shining bright. Seagulls circled overhead, landing on old railings, calling at one another noisily. She could see cars parked on the lot, squeezed between faded yellow lines and chunks of cracked asphalt. It was something of a tourist attraction now that it was decommissioned. Penelope’d tried to sell it, insomuch as she’d put it on the market, but in the end she’d been too stubborn about price and too loyal to an old profession to give it up. So she put in some spit and polish and opened it to the public. A good old bed and breakfast, $150 a night even. Tours during the busy season. Not fancy, she said, but it paid the bills.
Jessica parked and stared out the windshield. The water was calm save for ripples of sunlight and the frothy breaking of waves meeting shore. Something about the beauty chilled her. It was the same feeling she got when she knew someone was lying to her face, but had no way to prove it. A circumstantial helplessness. Her fingers gripped the wheel and her eyes veered towards the lever at her right. She could shift it to reverse with a flick of the wrist, pull out, and head home. There was nothing that made this visit mandatory. No one could force her to step out the door of her Buick and towards the lighthouse. She’d dragged herself in and she could drag herself right back out again.
She killed the engine. Outside the weather was mild, warm with a mix of cool breezes to bring the heat down to pleasant. The smell was salty and fresh. Part of her wanted to close her eyes and take it in, but the other part won out, the one that made her wrinkle her nose and beeline for the old oaken door that led inside the lighthouse.
The wood was rough. She tried to picture being so weathered, so striated by storms. She’d spent many nights behind that door, holding out in the rooms pinned between the control room and the cupola. Sometimes she’d fantasized that the light did not serve as a beacon warning ships of the shore but as a sign, a message that she was here, safe but cloistered behind the walls. She pictured the bow of one of those ships bursting through the stone, breaking in and bringing with it not just peals of thunder but freedom, sweet and new and dangerous.
She’d been very young.
She pushed the knob down and the door swung open with a creak. It wasn’t the sort off the track of a cheesy horror sequence – it was more like a rocking chair, the weight of a grandmother shifting forwards and back again to keep up momentum. Inside it was lit well with a mismatch of lamps, their shades colorful but clashing in a way that was quirky and quaint. Penelope liked to joke that she was colorblind, but she wasn’t. She just thought it gave the place character.
Jessica stepped down. Nostalgia enveloped her, a kick to the gut. She stood and took it in, acclimating herself to the feeling, planting her feet against a barrage of memories.
Anne infested the place. She was infused in every corner, a collection of gossamer cobwebs. Her ghost was a smiling thing squinting over the top of a book, lounging in front of the radiator to get the chill out of her bones. She was a history of words whispered late into the night, long after Penelope had tucked them both in and told them to settle down now before they slept the day away come morning. Jessica tore her eyes away and stared at the carpet, at its stains and vibrant colors, and willed that ghost to leave.
She clenched her eyes shut, seized her own smile by the throat and forced it into place.
“Hey,” she said. She flung her arms open just as the woman stepped into her, wrapped them around her solid, wiry form. She was no less strong than she remembered her. Penelope had a persisting sort of strength, a vitality that couldn’t be sapped by time because she refused to bow to its power. She still climbed those stairs every day even though the lens didn’t really need cleaning, the light didn’t really need to be lit. She did it because the movements were worked into her muscles, and she was as liable to stop her motion as the turning of the tide.
“Youuuu,” she said, squeezing her. Jessica grunted, then laughed, watching the long white braid sway back and forth over the woman’s shoulder as she was rocked. “You shouldn’t have taken so long to visit. I missed you, girl. God knows how much.”
She let herself be pulled back, held between Penelope’s calloused hands. She studied her even as she was studied, faded green eyes on warm and vibrant brown. Rubbing her arms as though she could work warmth into her with nothing but love and a little friction, Penelope tugged her towards one of the sofas and motioned her to sit.
“How was the drive up?”
“Mmm,” Jessica hummed. “Long, but quiet. Blessed with mild weather.”
“Not like we’ve been having hurricanes lately,” she replied. “Not exactly the season for storms, not yet. That’ll come with summer. Spring’s not quite ready to let go.”
“No.” She shifted in her seat, pressed her hands between her knees, risked looking at the room again. “Suppose it’s not.”
“I’m surprised you actually came.”
Jessica winced, even though she knew the words weren’t meant to make her feel guilty. “I’m sorry.”
She heard a snort and couldn’t help smiling. She peered at Penelope just in time to catch the roll of eyes, the dismissive wave of a hand. “We both know why you didn’t want to. I didn’t blame you. Not like you didn’t invite me to visit, not like I couldn’t have dug up these stubborn roots and took the drive myself.” She grimaced, rubbing a hand over her legs. “Just thinking about sitting in a car that long, though. Jesus. It’d kill me.”
“We both know it’d take a whole lot more than that to kill you,” Jessica replied dryly.
“Bah,” she muttered, faking a scowl. “Don’t you start calling me on my shit. Whatever happened to respecting your elders?”
“You told me not to respect anybody who didn’t deserve it.”
Penelope narrowed her eyes at her, obdurate slits, and put a hand over her heart. “Are you saying I don’t deserve respect?”
“You know full well you don’t even need to ask that question,” Jessica murmured. She tried to keep her tone light, keep the jest up, but sincerity leaked its way through.
“Eh, you’re probably right,” she drawled. “Nobody respects a stubborn old fart like me.”
“You’re the most respectable fart I’ve ever known.”
Penelope blew a raspberry at her, sputtering it out at the end, and Jessica started laughing. It was childish, all of it, the whole devolution of the conversation a throwback to a childhood both sweet and bitter. She wanted to open her eyes and see Anne sitting across from her, aged like one of those photos of missing children, her features matured by the mind’s eye into what she could have been now. Tears threatened, the bitter stepping to the fore, and she sucked in the last of the laughter before it could turn into a sob.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, Jess.”
She was seen through so easily and it stung, even if it wasn’t surprising. Sucking in another breath, she held it in her lungs until they started to burn, shaking her head.
“No. No, I do.” She looked towards the other door, the one still smooth because it wasn’t exposed to the elements, the one that led to the metal stairway that spiraled up to the gallery. “Not tonight, though. I’m too tired tonight.”
Penelope stood and walked to her, squeezed her knee. “Spare bunk’s all made up. Tour group’ll be coming back down soon. Tim doesn’t tend to stick around long after hours – once he finishes his last little speech he’ll be heading back into town.”
“Good,” she said. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to meet Penelope’s new business partner, but she wasn’t in the mood for the small talk made by introductions, the casual ‘what got you interested in this’ and ‘how long have you lived in Cambria?’ It wasn’t the day for it.
“Get yourself tucked in, then,” Penelope coaxed. She gave her knee another squeeze and straightened. “You know the routine. Breakfast early, go hungry if you’re not up by seven thirty.” She squinted spitefully. “Though now you have a car. And a wallet. Alas, my threats fall hollow.”
“I’ll be up. Wouldn’t miss out on your omelets. There’s no greater sin.”
Jessica stood and hugged her again. It was done wordlessly, and wordlessly Penelope accepted it. She bore the wisdom of time, the ability to know when things were best communicated without saying anything. When she stepped back and walked towards the stairwell, Penelope offered no quips, no witticisms, and let her go with a simple ‘goodnight’ borne on the back of a sigh.
She went down. The way up burned at her back as she descended and she set her jaw against the feeling. Anne’s eyes watched her, mournful, begging her to come up and say hello.
“I hate you for what you did,” she whispered.
There was no answer from the ghost as she continued down.
#Horror #Fantasy #Fiction
“Do you think people will remember us when we die?”
Liedel skipped a stone over the water. It hopped thrice, skidding, too imperfect to go further. She pouted and began skulking with her head down, scouring the dirt for another.
“When or after?” Althiira replied.
“What’s it matter?”
“Because people will always remember you when you die. Especially if it’s in a particularly grisly way. It’s not the same as-”
“You know what I meant,” her sister muttered. She barely heard her: she’d gone quite a ways down the shore of the lake, picking up rocks and discarding them with flippant tosses. “You’re such a smartass.”
“Well my ass’s sure smarter than your ass.”
One of the stones got lobbed her way and Althiira ducked, laughing.
“Seriously. Do you think they’d remember?”
She sighed, planting her feet on the ground and hauling herself up, her hands smacking dust off the seat of her pants. “Why does it matter whether they do or don’t?”
“You don’t want to be remembered?”
Althiira shrugged. “I don’t really care.”
Liedel looked at her oddly, her lips all screwed up between a frown and a smile. “I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not.”
“Look. Everybody dies. There’s been tons of people that’ve come and just as many that’ve gone. Sure, if you get a big statue of you made or if you’re some rich fucker-”
She sputtered laughter and scooped up a handful of mud, tossing it at Liedel’s feet as she squealed and skittered away.
“Everyone’s gonna get forgotten eventually. It might take a while, but everyone will. Whether it’s in one year or a hundred, what’s it matter? What difference does it make?”
Liedel’s brows knit together. She plucked up another rock and ran her thumb over its round smoothness, weighing it, deciding.
“I hope people remember me,” she murmured. “At least for a little while.”
Althiira peered at her, frowning. She’d never been good with words, with serious things. She walked closer and clasped a hand on her sister’s shoulder, shaking her.
“Hey. You’re young yet. We’re young yet. And besides, nobody’d ever forget you.” She grinned. “You’re way too annoying to forget.”
Liedel stuck her tongue out at her, but she could already see a grin twitching at her lips. She pulled her hand back and took aim, flinging the stone with all her might.
It skipped seven times before it finally sank away from sight.
“We’re going to be late.”
Her mouth formed the thin line of displeasure mothers give unruly children, hard white lips over harsh words. I could see her all pinch-faced in the rearview mirror. Her eyes screamed but her voice was quiet.
“We’re late, every time. Every time.”
She flashed her husband a look, glared at his hands on the wheel. Glared at the ring on his finger. He didn’t answer and he wouldn’t look at her. His face I couldn’t quite see fully.
“They’ll think it’s me,” she hissed. She folded her arms over her chest, irate. The image of petulance. “I can tell they think it’s me. I can see it. It’s always the woman, lollygagging. The hair and makeup. You’ll get off without a hitch.”
“It’ll be ten minutes,” he said lowly. I saw the strip of his eyes in the mirror dart off the road and up to me. They had an apology in them. “It won’t be that big a deal.”
“Not once. Not a big deal once. This is a regular thing. I think people have noticed by now.”
“We’re not the only ones who show up late.”
“We’re the only ones who show up late always.”
I could hear my friend shift awkwardly beside me, her hands in her lap. Her posture was reflexively meek, the condescension in her mother’s voice washing to the backseat. Discomfort filled the Buick like methane, reeking and unpleasant.
“You’re so irresponsible.”
The accusation fell on hunched shoulders and pushed his foot harder on the gas. His eyes were riveted on the road, on the swath of asphalt beneath his headlights.
“I should just tell them. ‘Oh, it’s not me. It’s David. He had to see the end of the game.’ They’ll believe that.” She laughed in the way that slapped, that mocked. “God. You could learn to just record it. I record all my shows.”
I saw his forehead crease. I could see the furrows, the lines of brewing anger, of consternation. She was grinning, victorious, her mouth opening to deliver some final blow. Some knife right through the ribs to his pride.
I cleared my throat.
“Looks nice out. Lots of stars tonight.”
She deflated and he sighed - defeated and relieved. The truce was unspoken and mutually understood. A guest was here and appearances had to be kept up.
“So,” she said brightly, turning around in her seat to look at us. “You guys hungry for anything?”
It would have to wait until they got home.
She couldn't feel her face.
Winter had snaked through the trees, wrapping itself tight around graying trunks and settling comfortably beneath the canopy. During the day it crept forward, leery of the sun, traipsing around the mottled patterns of light that strained past the leaves. It was not so cold then, in the day. It was bearable: a slavering beast in a muzzle of steel.
For her purposes the day would not suit. She needed it to be unbearable. She needed the killing bite of winter unrestrained.
When night fell, she laid the bait and charged through the underbrush.
Her quarry followed.
It wasn't difficult to pinpoint its location in the darkness. It moved loudly, breath hard and guttural, grunting with the effort. In truth it was a wonder it heard her clearly enough to give chase. The pursuit was a slovenly thing, a drunken thing interspersed with animal's sounds of frustration. A snort. A stomp. A branch snapping and a hollow thud as it tripped and ripped itself amidst barren brambles. Every now and then it would become discouraged and she could sense it slowing, the anger dissipating in the cold, replaced by weariness. Yet she was not so easily dissuaded. She had spent too much time planning this, preparing this.
She shouted. She taunted. She threw another stone.
It shrieked in mindless fury and the chase began again.
Where they ran their noise silenced the forest. Singing insects ceased their strumming, animals froze in their tracks to watch with wide, luminescent eyes. She did not stop to observe these things fully, to take them in, yet she saw them in her peripheral, noted them in the back of her mind. She imagined it all watching – the animals. The trees. The forest itself, as though it were one great collective of conspiring sentience. They cut a swath through its tentative peace and it withdrew at the violation.
Not here. Not here. Turn back.
She ran forward with her prey hot on her heels. Not long now. Ahead she could see the marker she'd put so carefully in place. Behind she could see its silhouette, a thing of gangling limbs loosely attached to a wide-set frame. A set of white teeth glowed in its face, a sneer of senseless rage.
“Come!” She cried, luring. Jeering. “Come on, coward! Come and get me!”
Stooping low, she grabbed a fistful of dirt and aimed for its head. It was close enough now, close enough that she could see the hatred. It sputtered and roared incoherently, reaching out, fingers groping at her as she darted just out of reach. There she danced, she nimble, it utterly without grace. Backwards she bounded.
She leapt clear. It fell short, and tumbled into the pit.
Silence descended. Everything waited with bated breath, even her, though her heart was pounding and her lungs burned from the running. With an aching slowness she crept forward, towards the edge of the trap she'd spent hours digging alone. A pitiful sound oozed out of it, seeping upwards and over the fast-growing vines she'd used to camouflage her trench.
He slurred her name almost beyond recognition.
She could see him now. He lay twisted strangely, his leg askew, the ivory of bone glinting through flesh. His head lolled from side to side, uncomprehending, drugged by pain and drink. She could smell it on him: the blood and liquor. A bitter brew with a hint of metal.
“Althiira, help me.”
He was crying. His chest heaved with sobbing. She could see the glisten of vomit there, over his clothing, yellow and viscous. A hand reached up towards her with twitching, beseeching fingers.
Quick kills are best, a hunter once told her. There's no need to leave them to suffer. Finish it. Let it be done with.
“Aaaalthiiiirrraaaaa.” His hands pulled dirt down upon him and the sobbing grew softer. His breath left his lips in a white plume of noxious vapor. “Help me, pleeeeease.”
Her heartbeat slowed. She searched herself, searched deep, and found no compassion there. No pity. No remorse.
She stood and peered into the pit.
Then she turned and left winter to consume her father.
He was not lying.
They all sat there staring at him, staring at a man who sat on his hands yet kept his tongue unbitten. He had to keep the hands contained for fear of slapping their faces. He wasn't a violent man, no, but to be accused over and over of the same thing was trying his patience. His tongue wagged again and again. It bore no fiction. It falsified nothing, yet they did not believe.
“I did not kill him,” he would say.
In came the accusations. The proof. The photos of a corpse he did not remember. The bloody trousers he swore he'd never worn. It was all quite gruesome, truth be told. Whoever had killed the fucker sure was a violent man, that was certain. Smashed the other guy's head against a wall until it split. From the picture, it looked like he kept smashing long after the legs stopped that odd, sporadic, dying-insect twitch. After the eyes had come out of the sockets with odd, wet pops, like shapes out of one of those sorting cubes that children loved to poke around with, looking for the right hole. The eyes wouldn't fit again, though. The holes were too contorted because of the damage done to the skull.
They stared at him. Their hands pawed the photos closer, thrusting them across the table and tapping with bony fingertips. Look, they'd say. We know you did it. We have the proof. We have witnesses. We have. We have. We have.
“I know what I did!”
He'd shouted it. They leaned back in their chairs, eyes widened or narrowed. They waited, expectant.
“And I didn't do that.”
Quieter that time. They scrutinized him, bore down on him with looks of disgust and then tore in again.
A man in the corner scribbled furiously at his notepad. He'd glance up on occasion, perusing the lot with a quizzical brow, and go right back to his frenzied writing. At first he imagined smoke drifting up from his pen, just to be funny – but now he was certain it was actually real.
My word. He'd burn the whole place down, at this rate.
It went on. The accusing, the questioning, the heated responses. Always no, forever no, because he would not admit to something he did not do.
It was clear in his mind's eye. Perfectly so. Rounding the corner at the bar to pick up his fiance. Seeing the victim kissing her, leaning her against the wall. Her kissing him back, pulling him closer when she should have been shoving him away. Screaming for help. He'd run in to save her, beat the man to death, batter his face against the concrete until it was unrecognizable. No one would want him then. No one would want him after -
“I walked on by. I left them there. I showed up at the courthouse to file for a divorce.”
“And do you know why the police were called on you?”
Blank stares around the table. Silence, save for the persistent scribbling of the pen. He was convinced that sound was eternal. That it would go on until the world stopped spinning and God came down to smite everyone who ate bacon and wore dresses made of various fabrics.
“He's not lying.”
Heads whipped towards the notepad man. Their expressions were incredulous, the lot of them, their mouths dropping open.
Finally. Someone gets it.
“He thinks he's telling the truth because that's the way he remembers it. You could shove the corpse in his face and he still wouldn't own up. You could drag his hysterical fiance in here and even she wouldn't be able to convince you. He's telling you what he believes happened, and nothing is going to convince him otherwise. Nothing you could say, anyway.”
“You're willing to testify to that in court, doctor?”
The man snorted. He stood up, screeched the chair over the floor and to the table, reclaiming it with a dull thump.
“After a bit more study of the subject, maybe. Alone.”
A brief, murmured meeting ensued. Glances were cast his way, and still he sat on his hands. Still he sat, though now the tongue was bitten. To be called insane on top of everything else? It was absurd. Insulting.
It was so good he was not a violent man.
The rest of them filed out, a long procession of haughty looks and pointed glares. The door shut behind them with a definitive click. The psychologist took up a place directly across from him, made a bridge of his fingers, and asked:
“Now. One more time. What happened when you found Jessica cheating on you?”
Later, he would swear that the fellow had fallen out of his chair. That he'd gotten that pen stuck straight through his throat because of it, isn't that the damnedest thing? What a way to go, honestly. What a stroke of rotten luck. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.
And he didn't know what to make of that security footage, but it certainly wasn't of him.
He was not lying.
Brandon waited for the sound of a pin dropping.
Silence like this had to be pierced at some point. He prayed for anything besides his wife's breathing next to him, besides the clink of her pearls as she fiddled with her necklace. The jury was eyeballing him with a mingle of sympathetic looks and scowls. The sympathy outweighed the anger, which was why he'd be getting his son back again.
The gavel had been struck. Soft murmurings started up as people finally became mobile.
"I know he did it."
"That boy's going to get killed."
"Wait to see it in the papers."
Heavy doors creaked open somewhere behind him. Brandon stared up at the judge and hated him, hated the way he looked down at him, the way his thoughts were written all over his face. I can't wait to land your ass in prison next time.
You wish, fucker.
His wife put a hand on his arm. Her fingers were delicate and dainty. The engagement ring he'd given her so long ago glared up at him, condemned him. He wanted to take her pretty little hand and crush it between his fists. To bruise her eyes and leave the imprint of his knuckles along her lovely face. She'd deserve it. Deserve every little bit of it.
"Come on, sweetheart," she murmured. "We won. Let's get out of here."
Their lawyer smiled at them as they walked past. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, and the reek of pricey cologne. The best con money could buy. He followed them out to their car and opened the door for his wife.
"That was a great victory today. I'm so glad for your family. I hope you'll contact our firm with any furth-"
Brandon put it in drive and pressed the gas. Deb gasped, the door on her side shutting awkwardly as she tugged it in. The lawyer stood behind them, dumbstruck back to that plastic smile, polished leather shoes glinting on the asphalt.
"That was rude," Deb said. Her voice was like nails being driven into his eardrums. "He's done a lot for us."
Brandon's teeth clicked together hard. It hurt down to the roots and he clenched harder. He merged onto the highway past a minivan that blared its horns angrily, gunning it up to eighty, then ninety.
"It's sixty," his wife pointed out. Her voice was tense, her shoulders pale and borne through her red dress. It was a ridiculous thing to wear to a trial. She looked like a slut, not like some saddened mother whose son had broken a leg. An arm. A son that had had bruises often enough the nurses of his private school called protective services.
They'd showed up at the hand-carved door of their sprawling house with grim faces. Their son had watched from the staircase with his teddy in hand, wide-eyed and wondering.
The blue on his cheek had been steadily turning yellow. It'd be gone by the time they picked him up, like it'd never happened. But it had, everything had, and that truth would never go away.
"The speed limit is-"
"Shut the FUCK up!"
He whipped around a semi and she shuddered, turning her head away with tears in her eyes. He didn't care. He couldn't bring up even a single shred of empathy, not anymore. Enough was enough, and he'd had his fair share. His hands tightened on the wheel and he imagined choking the life out of her slender throat. He imagined it and wished he had the balls to carry it through.
She'd earned a taste of her own medicine.
"I'm not covering for you anymore," he rasped.
Deb didn't answer. She turned her face away, watching the cars whiz by, worrying her hands in her lap.
"If you ever touch our son again, I'll fucking kill you."
Take Me to Church
In went the cassette. The old woman had bleached blonde hair and lipstick right inside the smiling lines. She hit play with a nail painted scandalously red.
"Remember to take notes, girls!"
Pens hit paper inside pink notebooks. There are crosses on them, glammed up with fake rhinestones worthy of prostitutes. Five thirteen and fourteen year olds just starting to come into the prime of Knowing It All.
The cassette plays. An old man drones out at us, low and methodical. Verbal morphine. His words drip with euphemisms. I can picture him hunched over his desk at a bible college as he writes his script. His skin is wrinkled. His hands are shaking. His chapped lips curl up at the corners as he revels in his wisdom.
"You are a sacred gift."
"A perfect bride."
"A holy vessel."
His smile grows wider. Page after page is filled with it, his mantras, his tried and tested words. If he could still get it up he'd feel uncomfortable in his tight black suit. The thought of it arouses him. Makes him feel young again. He'll shape so many young virgins for so many young men. They'll be awkward and frightened and clueless. They'll expect nothing and nothing will be given to them.
"Your bodies are temples that musn't be sullied."
Don't fuck anyone.
"The more you explore, the less special it will be."
Don't fuck anyone.
"Every kiss you give is a kiss stolen from your husband."
Don't fuck anyone.
He unconsciously grinds his hips. The writing gets a little sloppier. The tip of his tongue pokes out between his white, perfect dentures. Finally he looks up at us over the speakers on either end of the boom-box. His smile is so wide and brilliant. He looks so grandfatherly and sweet as he tells me that if I let myself be defiled I am
He thrusts into the mahogany. Ecstasy. His typewriter quivers as his desk violently jolts. He taps the papers together and staples my newfound phobia. He leans over and bequeaths it to me, his tie askew, his eyes piercing. I rip open my ribs and put his words there. I slip them inside and close myself off. He looks on with approval and a sagely nod as he locks the chastity belt in place and pats my cheek. All of my worth protected under lock and key.
"You are your virtue."
I am reduced to what lies between my still-growing legs.
The cassette stops playing. The blonde ejects it and stows it away from the next group, patting it lovingly.
"Now girls," she says, eyes twinkling. "What did we learn today?"
The carpet was ruined before she moved in.
It was pocked by burns from cigarette butts and browned by coffee stains. It reeked of urine from an old cat that died in the closet, leaving its stench behind as a ghost. The dull blue fabric was bright once, but whatever vibrancy it’d had was long gone.
She parted the curtains to sunshine and dust motes.
“It’s shit,” she told the window.
She burned the bottom of the pan making a packet of 25 cent ramen. She ate it that way, tasting it all acrid against her tongue. Her boxes were half opened and half closed, spread around her in a near perfect circle like the makings of some second-rate wizard trying to summon demons.
“Here I am from the depths of hell,” she murmured.
If she said it too loud he’d hear her. It was silly, nonsensical, and she laughed at it even as she took it in.
She threw out the pan. Too used and abused to be worth much anymore.
Unpacking was gruesome. Her fingers convulsed around things. Gripped them tight enough that she hoped, just maybe, they’d disappear. A sleight of hand to wash away the clothes he’d picked out for her, the jewelry he’d bought for her, the things he’d shower down in a sacrifice against the bruises. Blood washed over her altar to account for his sins.
Most of it she’d sell. The rest she needed just to get by for a while. Just to get by.
Night came creeping through the window. Winter brought it fast on the heels of five o’clock, bleak and vindictive. She closed the curtains again. She shuttered the blinds and locked the door. Turned the deadbolt. Pressed her forehead against the wood and breathed.
There was a red streak between her feet. It grinned up at her with bloody ferocity, and she found herself grinning back.
“You’re free,” she whispered.
And suddenly she didn’t want her blouse on. She didn’t want the Victoria’s Secret bra holding up her breasts. The skinny jeans he’d brought her because they made her ass look so good. They were his hands all over her and she didn’t want them anymore. She could say no. She had.
The buttons flew across the room. Her shoes cracked against the wall. She was laughing, loud and hysterical and manic, and she didn’t care. She was pale and naked in the darkness. It washed over the marks he’d left on her, concealing them.
The burns that pocked her skin.
The yellow of her stains.
The dullness of her skin.
The carpet was ruined before she got there, but she’d call in the morning to have it replaced.
“My younger sister was autistic.”
Neon flashed through the window. One of the letters was broken, the ‘A’ in ‘Gentleman’s’ flicking on and off between pulses. It glanced off the side of her face, leaving it green and alien-looking.
“Yeah. You should have seen the fits she threw.” She pulled her stockings slowly up over her legs, slipping her underwear beneath her rumpled skirt. “The slightest change would drive her to screeching melt-downs. Usually in public, with my parents wringing their hands.”
He lit a cigarette and watched her, fingers thumping over the comforter. “Sounds rough.”
“Not for the reasons you’d think. I mean, it was embarrassing, sure, but I was a kid too at the time. Nobody blamed me for it.”
“They planned everything around her,” she continued softly. Her nimble fingers began lacing up her high-heeled boots. “Whether or not we could do something depended on Abby. Could Abby handle the noise of it? The lights? The sounds?”
“Mmmm.” He flicked some of the ashes into the tray near the bed, looking up at the ceiling and blowing out smoke.
“It was like I was competing with her, after a while. Trying to tear their rigid attention away from her just for a moment. I was all over sports. Academics. You name it. I did everything to try and win a little.”
“Like you won my heart?” His voice had a slight slur to it. A half empty bottle of vodka sloshed as he bumped the nightstand.
“I think on some level she knew it. What I was trying to do. I swear she’d get this gleam in her eye and start her screeching if they so much as patted me on the head. If she made it a day without freaking out they’d take her for fucking ice cream or buy her some new toy.” She laughed dryly, bunching her hair up on her head. “Every time they said ‘good job Jess’ to me, it was an afterthought.”
“S’rough,” he muttered. The bottle gleamed in the faint light as he picked it up, choking down a few swigs. “S’real rough.”
She stood and moved to her purse, putting the cash inside. “She threw a tantrum at my graduation. I got magna cum laude if you can believe it. A whopping four-point-oh.”
“H’I didn’ know you spoke Latin,” he babbled. “S’sexy.”
“Right when they called my name, right then, she started screaming. She filled the whole auditorium with it. People turned and stared. Every eye in the room was on her as I walked up on that stage to shake hands. My parents didn’t even see me do it. They were on their way out the door when they handed me that diploma.”
“Ooouuuuuch. Y’want me t’kiss it better?”
Jess slung the purse over her shoulder and closed the curtains. “I hate her,” she whispered. “I’ll always hate her.”
“Awwwww,” he said. “I love’ya baby.”
She crossed the room to the door and pulled it open. “Nah,” she replied. “Bet you’ll forget me. Might remember the story though.”
There was no reply. She glanced back at the bed to see him passed out, his gut exposed pale and milky in the sparse light.
She stepped into the night unheard.
Your words are cyclical. You keep tripping over your tongue and yourself. I can hear the slurs and the grunting. Your teeth are chattering and you keep telling me how cold you are.
“You shouldn’t be outside, bud. It’s freezing out there.”
I want to be relieved you picked up the phone. I tell myself I should be, that any sister would be. I keep distracting you with words, meaningless babble you won’t remember past the booze.
“I…I don’t even kn-know what to say t-to you. I haven’t kn-known what to say to you for a l-long time.”
More words. I don’t remember what they are the moment they leave my lips. I’m hurling them through the receiver, using hints and clues to tell the cops where you are. Downtown, somewhere. You’re not wearing gloves. You could get frostbite in this weather.
“I n-need to hang up and c-call my f-friends.”
What friends, I want to ask. The ones that feed your addiction? The ones that got you the weed you smoked? All those chemicals volleying around in your brain are about to pitch you over a bridge, boy. Or maybe they’ve just loosened your long-bitten tongue to honesty.
“Y-you’ve always been the responsible one. Y-you were right. I sh-should just d-drown.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised, really. You’re standing on the precipice and now you’re cutting the belay line. You want to make me bleed before you go. Drive the dagger in, up, and out. Eviscerate me and leave me cut wide with my guts on the ground.
After all these years of pushing me away, you’ve come to blame me for the distance. All the lying to get what you want, all the scheming and charming your way out of consequences.
There’s no one to scheme now. No more people to lie to.
Standing in that place, you want to leave me with the guilt so you can go free. You’ll let me be your scapegoat. Your ghost will grin as your family is ripped apart with finger-pointing.
“I-I’ve gotta go n-now.”
I will not bear your cross for you.
I will not.
“Stay on the line, bud. Don’t hang up. I love you.”
Fuck you for that.