Author’s Note: Lately, I’ve been trying to return to my roots, so to speak. I often feel like a person who exists in a lot of in between spaces. I can live anywhere and belong nowhere. I can get along with everyone and be loved by no one. I can comprehend much and master nothing. Dark, yes, but also true. Recently, I’ve felt myself losing my way, losing my voice, so I decided to turn back to my craft and those masters who taught me the basics. I spent time with the poets and the short story writers this weekend, and unsurprisingly, I found the following waiting for me. I’m sharing it here because I’m tired of throwing these things in drawers to die.
For those who may be new here, this is not representative of my published work either in style or content. I write young adult, high fantasy, but I was trained to write literary fiction. This is the latter. It is intended for an adult audience and appropriate trigger warnings follow. Please heed them.
Trigger Warnings: The following short story is approximately 2,300 words and contains the following potential triggers: Physical domestic violence, emotional domestic violence, discussion of self-harm, rape, drug abuse, adult language.
His hands envelop her small shoulders as he shakes her. Four shots of tequila have made her unsteady on her feet, and she sways like a willow in the wind.
“Him?” His breath smells like rum and expensive weed.
Her eyes dart to the phone lying on the cheap dresser. He won’t let her have it. A smile curves onto her lips. It feels cruel. “Yes.”
It doesn’t take much for him to push her down. She is small and drunk. She falls against a sharp edge of his metal bedframe left exposed. It cuts into her back, but she ignores the pain and tries to stand, fists balled. She trips over her trembling knees and falls again, cracking her head against the corner of his bedside table.
That’s me—splayed out on his floor, unconscious. I’m nineteen, five foot six, 108 pounds, blond-haired and blue-eyed with skin the color of the sand indigenous to his island home. He is twenty-one, six foot three, 180 pounds, dark-haired and blue-eyed, the only white Bahamian I’ve ever met.
He says the girl he’s prostrated is stunning, and she is. Her face is round, her skin smooth. Her eyes shift from dark blue to bright gray depending on how the sun hits them. She can quote Milton and Shakespeare and Woolf. She can read and discuss Sartre in French. A hefty portion of her tuition has been paid with an academic scholarship she earned by excelling in environmental science. She’s a sucker for Eastern European history and likes to talk politics. The flexibility of her mind doesn’t interest him, though. It never has. But the flexibility of her body… that pleases him.
When she comes to, her head throbs and the small room spins. There’s a light toppled over in the corner, providing only meager illumination. She blinks into the pale yellow glow and thinks yellow is a sickly color.
She stretches her fingers. The white appendages unfurl from her black lace fingerless gloves like a dying blossom. She reaches behind her and fingers the hole the bedframe has torn in her thin cotton tank top. Beneath the fabric, she feels warm, sticky blood. A hiss escapes through her front teeth when the salt from her sweating hands touches the wound.
He falls to his knees before her. The impact of his heavy frame on the floor rattles the room. She flinches, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He never has. The flinches would shatter his vision of her if he ever let himself see. They would destroy her perfection, and she must be perfect. He deserves no less.
She is not perfect, and she knows it. It’s why she’s left him. She is selfish and vain and horribly broken. She cares more about the numbers on the scale than those on her future transcripts. She is jealous and proud and sometimes her words cut like the piece of broken glass she uses to mar the flesh on her thighs.
But men like beautiful, broken things, and she likes that men like her.
“I’m sorry.” He seizes her hands in his and places hot, frenzied kisses over them.
She wrenches them away. Her blood stains his lips. He licks it until it’s gone. “I’m leaving.” She tries to stand, but dark spots flicker behind her eyelids.
He grabs her waist and helps lower her onto the thin, dirty mattress. He’s kicked the sheets off—another sign he’s using again. Coming down gives him fever dreams. “Let me drive you.”
She narrows her eyes in an attempt to stave off the spins. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Give me my phone. I’ll walk.”
His wide brow knits together, emphasizing the crookedness of a nose broken and reset wrong. It happened during a wrestling match—before the drugs, before the expulsion. Her father will be furious if he finds out she’s involved with a drug dealer who’s been expelled from such a prestigious university. She has to escape.
Once more, she tries to stand, but he pushes her back down. She lets him. This isn’t the first time she’s been in this position. She knows how to play—how to survive. “You’re in no shape to walk. Let me drive you. I’ll give you your phone. You can text Mary, but not him. Mary can meet us outside.”
“You can’t tell me who to text.” She tastes the lie as it spins off her tongue. He can. He will. He has all the power. It’s another reason he craves her—because she is weak. She’s been trained to be malleable, to always adapt but never exist. She is a chameleon who has forgotten her true color.
“I love you. You know how much I love you. I begged you. Anyone but him. Anyone.” Sweat pours down his face. Even that smells like rum.
Her eyes scan the room. Empty liquor bottles look like morbid Easter eggs hidden among piles of dirty laundry and broken furniture.
He grasps her neck with both hands and re-centers her attention. “Kiss me.”
It is not an invitation. Her instincts, honed by years of similar situations, tell her to obey. She understands her body is not her own, but her eyes find the silver-cased phone on the dresser, and she hesitates.
He—the one who has been frantically texting and calling—will not understand. He doesn’t know why she keeps putting herself in this other man’s path. He’ll consider this kiss a betrayal.
She grabs his wrists and shoves them away from her face. The smell of the rum seeping from his pores turns her stomach. “No.”
His face scrunches and reddens. Sobs, loud and terrible, rip from his throat in nauseating waves. She wrinkles her nose, disgust heavy on her tongue. He has always been too quick to cry. “Why? You know how much I love you. You know. You know.” The words trail off.
She crosses her arms over her chest and begins running her fingers over her ribs in intricate counting rituals. It’s another thing he’s always ignored. Even when she’s stoned out of her mind, her fingers fly across one another—never still. Stillness is her enemy. “You don’t know what that word means.” Neither does she, but that’s irrelevant.
“I do.” His eyes glisten with tears. He says they are blue and yellow—like the Bahamian flag, but that’s a lie. They are dark blue, like the eyes of the boy who raped her two years before. Blue eyes lie. Hers included.
He reaches for her hands, but she keeps them tucked tight around her.
“You’re everything. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. How can I show you? I’ll do anything.”
She thinks of the fresh blood on her back and rolls her eyes. “Someone who loves someone doesn’t hit them.”
“I didn’t hit you, baby, you fell. It was an accident. I’d never hurt you. You know that.” He puts his hands around her waist and tries to drag her into his lap. His tears are gone.
Her palms settle on his muscled chest, acting as a brace to prevent him from pulling her closer. The crisp, black button down he wears is her favorite, but she can’t remember why. It makes him look too pale—like a shadow in reverse.
“Just let me hold you one last time. Lay next to me tonight. I won’t touch you. Just stay, and in the morning, you can go.”
Her body aches, and her vision keeps blurring. Exhaustion is coming to claim her. She’s been here before and knows she cannot last much longer. “Fine.”
She slips to the far corner of the bed and curls into a tight ball, pressing her body against the cinderblock wall. It’s cool on her flushed cheeks. He settles beside her. She can hear him breathing, feel his fingers twitching to wrap around her hips, but he stays where he is. She pushes the tips of her sneakers into the wall, and as the rubber squeaks beneath her toes, unconsciousness comes.
She wakes to the smell of stale cigarettes and cheap rum. Everything is sore, and a thick layer of dried sweat coats her skin. She sits up slowly, mindful of the pounding in her temples, and blinks. Her mascara has clumped on her lashes, and they stick together, so she has to stretch her eyelids far apart to separate them.
He’s leaning against the dresser, watching her. There’s an ugly pink line across his thick throat and a computer cord lying by the side of the bed. Her eyes jump to her wrists. She knows the things he likes to do with ropes and cords. But her gloves are still on. She rubs her thighs together, feeling for her underwear. It too, is still on.
She looks back at him. “What did you do?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I thought I could choke myself and—”
She holds up a hand to stop the words. “Enough. Give me my phone. I’m leaving.”
“He wouldn’t stop calling you.”
She doesn’t think quick enough to smother her smile, and he catches it.
“Are you fucking him?”
Her lips purse. “It’s none of your business.” She is, and he knows it.
He throws out his hands. She flinches. “He’ll never love you like I do. No one will ever love you like I do.”
She winces. It sounds familiar. Another set of blue eyes springs to life in her mind. His weight was so heavy on top of her—suffocating, paralyzing. “No one will ever want you now,” he’d said with a final thrust and a satisfied grunt.
She blinks and the room comes back into focus. Her chest loosens, no longer held down by the phantom weight. Details. Details keep her grounded.
She notices a dime-sized hole on his right hand that wasn’t there the night before. It’s black at the center, like a gaping mouth. His flesh is raised and red around it and a sickly yellow puss oozes from it. “What the fuck is that?”
He glances at his hand. “I burned myself with a cigarette. I wanted to hurt for hurting you.”
“You’re sick. Give me my phone.” It’s no longer on the dresser, nowhere in sight. Her breathing accelerates. She can’t leave without it. Her father will kill her.
“It’s no different than what you do.” He gestures toward her thighs and the cuts hidden by her denim skirt. Those he could not ignore. She’d thought they might destroy the perfect mythos for him, but he’d simply altered his telling. Scars made her lovelier, even more perfect.
She glares. “I don’t do that anymore. He doesn’t like it.” This isn’t a lie, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t long for the glass she keeps hidden in her shirt drawer.
He approaches. She tucks her legs in close, and he slides onto the bed. His fingers seek hers, but she keeps her hands away. “I don’t care, you know. I understand why you do it. I’d never tell you to stop. I know it helps.”
This is a lie. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what it’s like to have a mind constantly at war with itself, to have the past always creeping in, trying to steal his sanity. He’ll never understand what it feels like for his muscles to squirm beneath his still skin, to have his screams silenced by reason, to want to cry but be unable to do so. He can cry. All she can do is bleed.
“Where is my phone?”
“The battery’s dead.” He’s stalling, but she’s no longer interested in playing his games.
“I don’t care.”
“Are you going to see him?”
“Yes.” It’s a lie. She doesn’t know if he—the one who’s been calling—will want to see her after last night.
“I’ll kill myself. I can’t. You can’t.”
She closes her eyes and breathes deep. This is why she keeps coming back. Not because she cares, but because she cannot have his death on her conscience. There is already too much there. “You won’t. Now, give me my phone.”
“You don’t care, do you?”
Slowly, she opens her eyes and takes his face between her gloved hands. His skin is slick with sweat and rough with stubble beneath her fingers. It takes all her self control not to pull back. She looks straight into his trembling blue eyes. They are so young. He is so young. True, she’s younger, but in age only. “Of course I care.” Lie. “But you deserve better. You know you do—deep down. We’re toxic for one another. Find someone who can love you right. I’m too broken to love anyone.” True. The best lies are seasoned with truth.
She presses her lips to his forehead. Salt touches her tongue, twisting her stomach. He sighs and slips his hands around her waist, tracing his thumbs over her hip bones. “I love you,” he says into her neck.
“I know, but you’ll find someone better. I promise.”
Eventually, he pulls away and fishes her phone from his jeans pocket. He hands it to her, and she smiles and races out the door.
Outside, the sun has already started to bake the asphalt. She ignores the burning in her back and the soreness in her limbs and starts to hurry across the parking lot, a little skip in her step as she clutches her phone to her chest. He called for her.
A smile breaks over her face as she stretches her neck toward the sun. She does not look back. She will not go back, she promises herself.