Patricia’s body felt like it was sinking downward. As though gravity had been turned up against her. Her breath was short, trapped in her chest, and she felt poisoned by the paranoid, impossible certainty that the walls were clutching at her. Patricia had always been the level-headed one. Not prone to over-worrying like her own mother, or to whimsical imaginings like her husband and children. But now…now she was half-crazy with thoughts of plummeting through the earth or being consumed by the sky. It was humiliating.
She crossed her legs, very tightly, and passed a hand over her face.
“I can’t do this,” she sighed.
“You can’t do what?” asked Amy.
“I just…I don’t…I don’t have the words.”
“That’s okay. Wait for them.”
Amy’s voice was very smooth. Her syllables sounded round and her consonants were firm, unwavering, the way a consonant should be. Patricia found it comforting, reasonable. She waited for the words.
The words did not come.
“Let’s try a breathing exercise,” Amy suggested.
As Patricia inhaled and exhaled to Amy’s calming five-count, Patricia thought about how much she appreciated Amy’s perfect voice. Also that Amy allowed Patricia to call her Amy, unlike Dr. Fredrick, who she saw once a month for her alprazolam and whose voice was terribly nasal and halting.
“Open your eyes,” Amy said.
This was originally posted on bettysbattleground.com
”Patricia opened her eyes. Amy was very pretty. Very young and slim and blonde and just pretty. She wondered, if Amy had been there that night, would he have chosen her instead? Probably yes, he would have, she decided, and she found herself wishing it had been Amy.
Patricia started. What a horrible thought! Horrible, terrible, selfish thought, to wish such a thing on kind lovely Amy. She banished it from her mind.
“What were you thinking just now?” asked Amy.
“I was thinking how nice your hair looks, and how much I wish I could be blonde again.” Patricia put a hand to her head and touched her hair. In her mind’s eye it was still blonde, but she knew that in reality it was back to the dull brunette which nature had forced her to sport as a child, though a bit of a richer chestnut tone now because she had dyed it. She couldn’t have waited for it to grow out. She had dyed it the day she learned about The Stranger’s preferences.
“My mother took me to get my hair done blonde for the first time when I was twelve,” she told Amy, stalling the other memories. “I looked so much more, I suppose the word is ‘glamorous.’ Just that little thing, that little change made such a difference.” She looked Amy in the eye and smiled. “I became so much more confident after that. Really grew into my own, as they say. I kept it up religiously. I never let a single root show.” She pulled a lock of hair into her line of sight so that she could see, yes, it really was that ugly, common brown. She shook her head, sighing.
“Why not have it done blonde again?” Amy suggested in such a reasonable tone that for a moment Patricia thought, yes why not? But then she remembered, and her hands began to tremble.
“How much, how much longer do we have?” Patricia hated to stammer in front of Amy, but her throat was tightening, she was needing to swallow too frequently, and soon she knew her chest would constrict.
“Why?” asked Amy.
Patricia squirmed in her seat. “Well, because, well, I feel that I need one of my pills and, um, I know you don’t like me to take them while-” She gasped.
Amy checked her tablet.
“There are fifteen minutes left. Do you feel you can hold out fifteen minutes?”
Patricia did not want to disappoint Amy, but no, no she did not feel she could wait fifteen minutes. Her breath was short and rapid. Her face felt very hot. The room was growing dim.
Patricia could not breathe.
Amy walked over to her. She knelt and placed her hands firmly on Patricia’s knees.
“Patricia. Patricia, do you hear me?”
“Yes,” Patricia managed to croak. How ugly that sound, thought a small voice that lived somewhere behind the panic.
“Okay, good,” said Amy. “Listen to me. I see your pill bottle. It’s sitting at the top of your purse right here. Can I take it from your purse and hand you one of your pills?”
Patricia held out her hand.
Soon she felt the thin, familiar rectangle in her palm. She caressed it with her thumb.
“Here’s some water.” Amy handed Patricia the small glass of rosemary water that always waited for her when she arrived. Patricia swallowed the pill. The darkness began to recede.
Amy counted to five. Patricia did her best to breathe correctly. After three more sets of five, Patricia was breathing to Amy’s count. Already she felt the tingling relaxation in her extremities that meant the drug was beginning to work.
“Good,” Amy said after Patricia successfully completed two sets of five-count breaths. Patricia smiled weakly. Amy returned to her seat. She took a sip from her glass. Then she laughed. Giggled, actually. Was it possible that Amy was nervous?
“I’m not really supposed to do that,” Amy admitted. “Give you medicine like that.”
“Even though it’s mine from home?” Patricia felt very quiet inside.
“Yes. Technically it’s considered dispensing medicine and I’m not licensed to do that, so…” She put down her glass and smiled a full, radiant smile, “Can we keep it our little secret?”
Patricia smiled back. She felt very light, like her whole person was not flesh but something nicer…perhaps feathers, or daylight. “Yes, of course,” she said, and now her voice sounded calm and even, very much like Amy’s.
Amy’s tablet beeped.
“Good timing,” Amy said. Patricia disagreed. She was feeling very nice and comfortable now. The cushion on the chair was so plush and that rosemary water-or was it rosemary lemon?-so good. She would have liked to stay and chat with Amy, just about anything, just to hear the both of their voices so calm and reasonable together.
“Are you feeling better? You look like you are.”
Patricia realized that she had not stopped smiling since she had begun to feel better. And really, she didn’t want to. She picked up her bag, but set it on her lap. “Yes, much better, thank you.”
“Well, that’s good.” The two women looked at one another. “I’ll see you next week.”
Patricia rose. “Are you upset at me for taking the medication?”
“No, no.” Amy waved her hand dismissively.
Patricia widened her smile.
“Well, I have another patient coming in,” Amy reminded her.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” Patricia spun on her heel and left the room. She waved cheerfully to the receptionist as she passed toward the elevator. She felt so light, and comfortable, and good. So good, in fact, that she considered going to have her hair done blonde. But there was a darkness to that thought, so she turned away from it and instead pushed deeper into the peace and happiness which the pill had gifted her.
Bri squished her cigarette into the pavement. She stared at it, burnt down to the butt and stinky and bent over the cracked sidewalk. Crouched over it in her PJ pants and tank top, no bra, her hair frizzing out of pigtailed braids, she felt a sort of relationship to the cigarette. She had smoked it all up, drawn out all of its venom into her body, and now they were the same: used up, hunched over, garbage.
Bri looked up. There was Theo, all lanky and hot in his wife beater with his ink showing. Hot, but trashy. She knew that. She knew enough to know they were trashy.
“Why’re you calling me that?” she asked, rising.
“ ‘Cause you weren’t listening.”
“Oh, sorry. I was kinda spacing out.”
“Yeah, I know. What’s up with you?” He was almost a foot taller than her and the white glare of the sun haloed around him so that she had to squint to see his expression. He didn’t look super happy. His lip was sort of snarled, not in a big angry way, but just like he was waiting for something. Or nervous. Nervous, she decided, seeing the way he had his hands shoved into his pockets.
Bri shrugged. She made a sound, a sort of “I dunno” without really moving her lips.
“Where’d you get that smoke?”
“I bummed it.”
“Yeah? You bum the whole pack?” He swung his arm out of his pocket in the direction of her hips. Bri looked down. There was the pack poking out of her waistband. She had forgotten she’d brought the whole thing out with her.
“No, I had it.”
“You had it?”
“Yeah I had it.”
“I thought you quit.”
“Give me a break, OK?” She didn’t really realize she was pulling out another one until it was already lit.
“So now you’re chain smoking?”
She glared at him, puffed, said nothing. He sluiced it out of her mouth and took a drag.
“I thought you quit.”
“Give me a break, OK?” he said, making his voice high pitched and raspy, the way he did when he wanted to sound like a girl. He sounded nothing like a girl, more like some bitchy demon.
“I told you don’t make that voice. I don’t sound like that.”
“I don’t sound like that,” he repeated in the voice.
She scuffed the toe of his shoe with her toe.
He handed her back the cigarette. “You spend our money on those?”
“No,” she said, grouchy. “I told you, I had ’em.”
“So you still got the money? ‘Cause we need, like, food.”
“Yeah, I still got it.” She exhaled heavily. Food.
Suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed like, he threw his arms around her waist, lifted her up and bit the side of her neck. It was this lovey thing he did sometimes, he’d probably done it a thousand times since they’d been together, but now, and so suddenly-
Bri kicked at his calf and pushed herself away from him.
“What the fuck!” she shrieked. She was shaking.
“Yeah, seriously, what the fuck Bri? What’s your problem? When are you gonna get over this crap?”
The fear settled into a deep anger pacing in her chest.
“This crap?” she shouted. “This crap?”
“Hey, ssshhh, quiet down. Let’s go back inside.”
“No.” She pushed him. “Is that what you think? I should just get over ‘this crap’ already? You ever been raped before Theo?”
“No, I just…” He was looking around all shifty and puppy eyed like he really cared if the neighbors were hearing all this. “I’m, you know, we’re married pretty much and I love you, and…” He stomped his foot so much like a little kid Bri couldn’t help but smile. “It wasn’t my fault.”
She softened then. “I know baby, I know.” She took his face in her hands, gave him one quick peck, then turned to face outward. The road was empty. The squat little mobile homes lining the street looked empty too. “But it’s a lot to deal with. You gotta give me time.”
“Maybe you should see, like, a therapist or something.”
“Yeah, right.” She laughed, looked at him sidelong to see if he was kidding. “Where am I gonna get the money for that?”
He shrugged. “Let me get one of those.”
She gave him a cigarette and lit another for herself. They stood smoking side by side, not looking at each other, just standing at the edge of the road staring at the nothing all around them.
“You hungry?” he asked after a while.
She shrugged. “I guess.” Then, “No, not really.”
“Yeah, me either.”
They smoked a little more.
“Hey Blondie,” he said, nudging her with his elbow. She knew what was coming next. She had been waiting for it, she realized. “You wanna get something?”
She exhaled. Smiled. She couldn’t help it. “Yeah, OK.”
He made a call. “Hey,” he said into the phone. “It’s a yeah. So where do you want me to meet you?” He paused, winked at Bri, who stomped out her cigarette even though it wasn’t done yet. “Uh, sixty,” he said. “OK,” he said. “See you in a minute.” He hung up, looked at Bri.
“You were already talking to him,” she said, pretending to be mad about it.
“What were you gonna do, say no?”
As they walked over to their rusty pickup Theo tried grabbing her again. She jerked away.
“Let’s just wait ’til we get the stuff, OK?”
“Whatever,” he mumbled, slamming the driver’s door behind him.
She was gonna get in the car, but when she touched the door handle, something bit at her inside, and she began to feel cold. She knocked on the window. Theo leaned over and pushed open the door.
“It wasn’t locked,” he said, annoyed.
“You think I could wait here?” She tried to bat her eyelashes, but she’d never really been good at the whole cute thing.
Theo sighed. “Whatever.”
Bri felt bad, she did, but as she watched Theo drive off, she knew that the bad feeling wouldn’t be lasting much longer.
When Patricia got home, Sue was there, and Andrew, and Andrew’s wife May. Harold was there too, of course, but that was nothing unusual. Patricia said hello and gave each of the kids a kiss. Harold stood in the background, looking sheepish like he had ever since “the incident,” as he called it. Patricia missed the old Harold, the proud strong Man Of The House, and Patricia hated The Stranger even more for taking that away from him.
“What’s the occasion?” Patricia asked, making sure to include everyone in her grateful smile. “We haven’t all been together like this since…” she trailed off. They all knew since when. They had all, of course, visited her in their turn. Even May had come by on her own once or twice, but they hadn’t all been together since it happened. Patricia thought it had been because they did not want to re-create that dynamic, but if that were the case, why do it now?
“We just wanted to see you Mom,” Andrew said.
“We made dinner,” May added shyly.
“Yeah, we each made something,” Sue said in her rough-n-tumble Sue way. “We had Dad make the salad, so hopefully he didn’t screw that up.”
Harold chuckled in the background. “I bring home the bacon, I don’t gotta be able to fry it.” How many times had he made that joke? And each time like it was the first, but now the words sounded dry and brittle; flavorless. Patricia felt so sorry for her husband. He had lost so much. A wave of tenderness flooded over her. She realized that she was beginning to feel the second pill, the one that she had taken in the car. She waltzed over to Harold, threw her arms around his neck, and planted a big kiss on his lips. He pecked back, pulled away. Patricia scowled.
“What’s wrong? You don’t want to kiss your dirty wife?”
Her thoughts felt soft, mushy even, and unencumbered by the heavy dull noise of logic and expectations and prudence. She felt free.
“Pat, please,” Harold said, his voice low and pleading. “Let’s go to the dining room and have a nice dinner with the family.”
She twirled to face the kids. She beamed at them, so young and lovely all, even Sue with her unattractive butch hair and dreary fashion sense. “Yes, let’s.” And she beckoned them into the dining room like a good hostess, a good woman who just lets everybody in, anybody, any filthy body into her own.
The kids were staring at her.
Had she spoken all that aloud?
Her hands flew up to cover her face.
“Oh, my, I’m, I’m so sorry.”
“Mom, it’s okay.” Now Sue was leading her gently by the shoulders to her chair at the table. Patricia plunked into it and reached for her glass.
“Would you like something to drink Mrs. Winchester?” asked May, sweet May. Always so sweet and polite. Not the prettiest, but she made up for that by being good to Andrew.
“Yes, dear, some red please.” Patricia held up her glass. May took it from her. “Such a nice smile you have dear. Almost makes one forget all that acne.”
“I’ll, um, I’ll get you the wine.”
Patricia nodded. The room felt very warm and comfortable and, best of all, safe. She let her eyes go soft, just a little.
“May, what are you doing?” Andrew hissed.
“Oh, I, I, um.” May stood nervously by the liquor cabinet, holding Patricia’s glass in both her tiny hands. “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking.” She began to weep.
“Oh dear, oh no.” Patricia went over to embrace May, making small, sympathetic cooing sounds from her throat as she traveled. “I didn’t mean what I said, about the acne. You’re a lovely, beautiful girl.” She really was, Patricia decided. The acne wasn’t so bad. Patricia took the glass from May. “Go sit down dear. I’ll get the wine myself.”
May began to sob even louder.
“May, go sit down,” Sue said, in a tone that bordered barking. “Mom, you too, come on. Let’s eat.”
“Yes, yes,” Patricia waved her away. “I’m just getting my wine.”
“No, Mom, forget the wine. Just come sit down.”
“Sue, back off. I am a grown woman in my own home and I will have a glass of wine with dinner if I so desire.” She threw open the cabinet and poured her glass brimmingly full. Only then did she sit down. “I apologize, May, that you had to hear me speak in that tone.” She felt sobered by the anger, sharpened. She took a sip from her glass.
“It’s alright,” May sniffed. She was no longer crying but the skin around her eyes was red and the acne in that area blanched where she had rubbed it.
Harold coughed lightly.
“Here, honey, start off.” He handed Patricia the bowl of salad. The leaves had begun to wilt.
“Oh honey is this the salad you made?” She plunged her fork straight into the bowl and took a bite. “Delicious,” she lied. “Not a bit too salty. You’ve still got it!” She heaped her plate high with greens and passed the bowl to Andrew, who took a small portion in silence.
“What a lovely dinner you have all prepared,” Patricia exclaimed, noticing the layout for the first time. “Why, it’s all of my favorite things, isn’t it? Garlic roasted chicken, herbed potatoes, oh do pass me those herbed potatoes next, won’t you?” The potatoes were diligently passed to Patricia. As she added some to her plate, pushing some of the salad onto the table cloth to make room, she smiled. “And then, after dinner, you can all gather in the living room and enjoy drinks while I drive to the grocery store to pick up ice-cream and get raped.” She laughed. Her laughter pealed and echoed through the silent room.
“Patricia, that’s enough,” Harold commanded. “You’re being disgusting.”
“Well,” Patricia set down her fork. “Look who’s back.” She glared at Harold until he cast his eyes toward his laden plate. When she spoke again her voice was soft, bristling. She pronounced each word carefully, so that she could relish the power in them. “I am sorry that you find my frank verbiage so disgusting Harold. Would you like to know what I find disgusting? The reality of a strange, filthy man following me into my own car and forcefully inserting his penis into my body.”
“Patricia, please,” Harold was practically whining.
“No! Let me speak.” Patricia lifted her plate and slammed it back onto the table in a flurry of wilted greens. She did it just for the effect, just for the power for it. She was yelling now, thunderous, and she had everyone’s attention.
“What I find disgusting? Is that when this beast, this stranger was done grunting and pumping inside of me, me, he then ejaculated onto my breasts. And then, do you know what he did then? He took out a goddamn antiseptic wipe, you know, the kind the maid uses on our furniture, and he wiped down not just my breasts but my vagina as well.” Her voice lowered as a sob wracked her chest. “None of you saw it but I was scaly there for weeks, oh god.” She put her face into her hands and cried.
“Mom.” Andrew placed his hand on her back.
She flinched. “I’m sorry.” She swiped at the still flowing tears.
“Mom, it’s okay. Nobody is-I mean, we understand. But we’re all, we’re really worried about you.”
“Why?” She sounded like such a baby, blubbering like that. She hated sounding like a baby in front of her babies.
“Mom, because, you’ve been through so much, we know that, we understand, but the way you’ve been lately, it’s not healthy.”
“What do you mean?” she squeaked.
“Your medication Mom,” Sue answered, no-bullshit the way Sue always was. “You’re abusing it.”
Patricia shrugged Andrew’s hand from her shoulder. She sat up as straight as she could. Which was very straight. It came with being the level-headed one.
“What?” she demanded, the tears mostly over, her tone cold.
“Way to go Sue, thanks,” Andrew snapped. “As usual, the queen of subtlety.”
“She’s not going to understand subtlety. Look at her.” She gestured at Patricia. “She’s flippin’ loaded.”
“Language Sue,” Harold murmured.
“It’s not a real,” Sue began to protest, but Patricia interrupted her.
“I’m not, as you say, ‘flippin’ loaded,’” Patricia huffed. “My medication is prescribed.”
“How much have you had today?” Sue asked.
“Only six milligrams.” Patricia pursed her lips and cocked one of her eyebrows smartly.
“Six milligrams? Of alprazolam? That’s a lot.”
“Oh what do you know?” Patricia snapped. “You’re just a nurse.”
“She’s an RN, Mom, she knows these things,” Andrew said, sighing.
“Yes, and in combination with the wine? Mom, that’s dangerous.”
Patricia looked into her glass, now nearly empty. She felt the tears resurfacing.
“Oh Mom.” Sue went to her then and put her arms around her. “I’m so sorry this happened to you. I love you so much. We all do. We’re all here for you.”
One by one the rest of Patricia’s family stood and joined the embrace, until they were all piled over her. With a sudden and almost embarrassing flash, Patricia recognized this feeling, this Home-Place that she’d had and could have gone to all along. For the first time since it happened, she thought, ‘Maybe I can live with this.’
Bri rolled off Theo. A lazy grin was sprawled over her lips and her eyelids drooped. She looked at Theo. His eyes were closed. He lay very still but she could see the heavy rise and fall of his chest. She poked him. He opened his eyes, very slowly.
“Yougotacigarette?” he slurred.
She leaned over the small gap between the bed and the dresser and slid the pack off the countertop. She vaguely noticed Theo’s fingers brushing her bare ass.
“Where’s the lighter?”
She groaned. “You’re making me do everything.” But it was a fake complaint. She felt good. She felt quiet inside, happy, or as close to happy as she got these days. All the tattered, shadowy memories that usually whirled around rabid inside of her were stilled now. Stilled, but not gone. Roosting, she thought, remembering the term from some book she’d read once as a kid.
The lighter was sitting next to their works. She prodded the cotton in the spoon with the corner of it to see if there was any kind of decent wash left, then tossed it to Theo.
“This place is gonna stink now,” she said, watching him take the first drag.
“Whatever. It smellls like badissy anyway.”
“Gross. Don’t say that.”
“You’re right.” He exhaled a long plume that spread out over his body and dissipated in slow, widening tendrils. “We’d have to smash more for that to be true.”
“You’re complaining? After what we just did?
He rolled his head onto his shoulder and looked at her. His eyes slid slowly away from each other inside their sockets. Suddenly they snapped back into focus. “I’m just sayin’.” He took another drag. “It would be nice if I could bang my old lady without us having to get loaded first.”
Bri frowned. “Come on Theo, we’re having a good time.”
Theo sat up. “Yeah, because of that.” He waved his hand in the direction of their works.
Bri eyed the spoon. From the sound of things she was gonna need that wash.
“You know why,” she mumbled. That good hum feeling in her limbs wasn’t gonna last much longer. The sparkle was starting to fade already. The dull familiar numbness was returning, that sort of cold, sort of nothing feeling that hovered just above where her pain lived.
“I know baby,” Theo crooned, his voice all sappy and pale sounding. “It makes me so mad thinking about what that guy did to you, to my baby. If I knew who he was, I’d bash his face in. I mean it, I’d kill him, even if it meant getting locked up, ’cause I love you that much. I just love you. I want to feel you, you know.” He smiled up at her, his eyes half closed, and wriggled his arm around her thigh.
Bri stiffened. “You care if I do that wash? There’s not much.” She got up and pulled a couple ccs of water into the rig.
“Is that all you care about?” Theo sounded alert now.
She looked at him and saw that he was getting dressed. She turned back to the spoon.
“I’m such an asshole for thinkin’ I can bang my own wife without buying her drugs first.”
“You’re not an asshole.” She squeezed the light brown liquid from the cotton into the spoon. It wasn’t much, but-she dipped her little finger into it and tasted- it was still bitter. That meant there was something there, at least. “And I’m technically not your wife,” she added, as an afterthought, as she rolled together a new cotton. “Plus it was our money. You didn’t buy it.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Theo was done getting dressed. He didn’t look at Bri as he left the room, he just slammed the door behind him. Bri heard the front door slam too, and then the rattle and screech of the truck peeling out. She felt a heaviness lift from her chest when the truck was gone, and realized she was relieved that it was gone, even if it took Theo with it. It was like that truck had been parked on her chest and now she could finally breathe a little.
She held the rig up to see it better. The stuff inside was so light, almost yellow. Probably wouldn’t even do nothing. Not worth rooting around in her arm for. As she hiked down her skirt to do an easy fem-shot she wondered if Theo would be back this time.
“I wouldn’t,” she admitted, “not if I was him.”
The rush faded almost as soon as it came on. When it was all the way gone, she began pacing the little trailer.
As Patricia turned into the lot, she thought about just how much she hated Amy. It was Amy’s fault she was here, Amy’s idea. Her hands trembled over the wheel. That bitch, she thought, that bitch, while she maneuvered the van into a spot. Not the spot. It was taken, and even if it hadn’t been, she would not have gone there, not even if Amy had insisted. But it was close.
“Are you doing okay?” Harold asked, next to her. His body looked relaxed, relieved almost, but his face was drawn and tense. She guessed he was mirroring her expression.
“Yes,” she rasped. Her mouth was dry. She cleared her throat. “Yes,” she repeated, and gave him what she hoped was a smile.
“Should I, um,” he drummed his fingers on the dashboard, “come in with you?”
She felt a thrill of joy as she considered the suggestion. If he came in with her it wouldn’t be as bad, and she could still tell Amy, honestly, that she had completed the exercise.
She looked at Harold. Some of his old self was back. She could sense it, possibly something about the way he set his jaw. He was ready for the task ahead of him. He would do whatever she needed of him. He would not complain.
She sighed. “No, no, honey, I think that would be cheating.”
Harold nodded, a little too quickly. He reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’ll be here then, when you get back.”
She pressed her lips into a smile. Heart pounding, she opened the door and stepped into the parking lot.
Dusk was beginning to settle. That part had been Patricia’s idea, not Amy’s, and now she regretted it. All day she had been telling herself that the exercise would work better if she waited until closer to nighttime, but now she thought maybe she had just been putting it off. Bitch, she thought again, imagining her hatred as a black, writhing cephalopod that she could sick onto Amy from her mind. It was wrong, she knew, to think that way about Amy, after everything she had done for Patricia. It was wrong to think of any woman as a ‘bitch,’ but she knew Amy would not mind, if it got her through this thing.
The large, neon sign cast a green light over the pavement several feet in front of the store. That was the Safe Zone, like in the game Patricia had played in her yard when she was a girl, before she had learned how to make friends. Patricia fixed her eyes on the green light and walked as fast and directly as she could toward it. She was aware of the parking lot stretched around her, of the rows of empty cars with their metallic, unseeing faces, of the pavement darkening beneath the impending night, and of the innumerable strangers crowded just outside of her vision, their faces twisted into menacing bearded grins, their bodies tensed like cats, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.
She reached the green lighted area. An employee on a smoke break regarded her dully. The doors slid open before her. She was aware, vaguely, of a trembling just beneath her skin as she stepped past the green halo through the doors.
The store greeted her with its comfortable, fluorescent banality. She did not shop there often and had not been back since it had happened, but the densely packed aisles and neatly delineated sectionals provided her with a sense of unchanging familiarity. It was the generic Grocery Store. No matter what was happening outside, the Grocery Store would always be stocked with its sales and merchandise, its over-eager greeters and lackadaisical checkers, its anonymous, blank-faced shoppers cycling through the aisles unawares, if only momentarily, of the darkening chaos outside.
She was only supposed to buy ice-cream. But Patricia could not help dawdling over the produce, stroking the smooth skin of the mangoes, lifting the mandarins to her nose so that she could feel the citrus sting her capillaries. There was something about the grocery store that had to do with survival. She was safe there, under the glare of the uniform lighting. She was one of the herd.
Patricia walked to the bakery. The sugar-frosted cakes gleamed inside their plastic packaging. What if she had chosen one of them instead? Would the sight of a cake perhaps have triggered in him some childhood memory, something before whatever had turned him into a monster? Would he have left her alone? The thought tortured her. She stood before the arrangement, hand poised over a black forest cake topped with over-red maraschino cherries, icing sweating under the plastic.
“Can I help you find anything?” asked a young Hispanic girl in a green smock.
Patricia felt herself blush. “No,” she murmured. “No, thank you.”
She walked away. Her steps felt heavier now. There was a leaden dullness in her chest. The spell was broken. It was a grocery store, not a time machine. Patricia was overwhelmed by a feeling of incredible, hopeless stupidity.
She stood in front of the ice-cream freezer. There was her brand, fully stocked and stacked nicely in its rainbow assortment of colors. There was the chocolate she would have shared with Sue, there was Andrew and May’s mint-chocolate chip, there was Harold’s mocha and caramel. Something deep inside of her began to wail.
She grabbed the ice-creams and hurried to the check-out stand. Her vision was blurred by desperately forming tears. When the checker asked her how her night was going, she just waved her hand.
As she walked back into the night, she held the plastic bag over her chest with both hands, like a shield. She did not feel like a mother, or a wife, or a woman at all. She felt like a little girl who had been thrust into some menacing fairy-tale woodland with nowhere to go but backward to her demise or forward into the mouth of the wolf.
She forced herself to walk forward. The lot stretched darkly before her. A car swung out of its spot, headlights blaring. She stared at it, dumbfounded by the sudden assault of light, until the driver honked and she scurried, blinking, out of its way. Her minivan was parked at the end of the lot, in the corner. She looked around. He must have watched her since she had left the store, she realized. Maybe even before. Maybe he had waited while she picked out the ice-creams. Maybe she had already been tagged, even then.
She tried to hurry across the lot, but the closer she got to her minivan, the heavier her legs became. By the time it was clearly in sight, she felt as though she were slogging through a swamp. Her heart pounded. She wanted to be anywhere but her own body.
Patricia practically fell into the driver’s seat. She contained a scream when she saw the man on the passenger side.
“Harold,” she whispered. The tears came now, in full.
Harold reached out and drew her into his chest. She sobbed and sobbed, the way she had done as a little girl in her mother’s arms. At some point, she realized that Harold was crying too. For a long time they stayed this way, just the two of them.
The trailer was trashed. Magazines, clothes, old unsent bills and paperwork strewn everywhere. Even the kitchen shelves had been opened and rifled through, the food boxes and canned soups tossed onto the floor. Bri sat in the middle of it all, her head in her hands. She was moaning. Rocking on her butt and heels, and moaning. She stopped, very suddenly, and shot upward. She ran, slipping slightly on some papers, to the shelf where she kept the dishes, and began pawing through the disposable plastic plates and the pile of mostly unused napkins.
“Where is it, where is it, where is it?” she muttered through clenched teeth.
She knew it was around somewhere. She’d hidden it good. Theo couldn’t have found it, but hell if she could remember where she’d put it. She had to find it though. She needed that number.
“Screw you Theo,” she whispered aloud, and instantly regretted it. He wasn’t there, he couldn’t hear her, but she regretted it just the same. It had been for her own good, his not letting her hold onto their guy’s number. He’d said she wouldn’t be able to control herself. And he was right, probably. Maybe. No, he wasn’t right. She had self control. After all, she’d had the number, stolen from his cellphone while he took a shower and written on that little scrap of paper, wherever it was. She’d had it, all along, and she still wasn’t strung out. She didn’t even get sick. But even though he was wrong, he’d kept it from her out of love. And anyway, if she kept sending mean thoughts out the universe to him, he wouldn’t ever come back. It had been long enough already.
The cabinet was empty. All of the plastic plates and cups and the cheap, too-thin napkins were confettied around her feet. The cabinet was empty and the number wasn’t there.
She needed that number. She couldn’t take the silence no more. Theo had been gone for two weeks, the longest ever. It didn’t make any sense, but the trailer seemed smaller with just her in it. She felt cramped and stuck inside of it, waiting, waiting, waiting for Theo to come by or call. The silence chewing down on her, louder than anything. The silence feeding her memories. She needed that number.
Her heart was pounding. She stopped and looked around. The whole house was on the floor. She’d been through everything twice already, picked up the stuff she’d thrown down, picked through it, thrown it down again. The number wasn’t there. And there wasn’t nowhere else to look. Maybe Theo had found it, somehow. A small, harsh cry escaped her throat. Then there was only silence.
She stalked through the house, feeling how big and wild her eyes were stretched but not being able to close them any. Heat and silence crowded around her body, pushed heavy against her, worked their mean, slippery fingers inside of her. Her arms began to prickle. She rubbed them hard, and for some reason, in that weird way memory works sometimes, an image flashed into her mind. It was so quick she wasn’t sure of the details. But there was the paper, and there was her hand, prying apart something wooden and stuffing the paper inside. Yeah, she remembered now, she’d gotten a splinter under her thumbnail. She smiled.
Walking easy now, she went out back and picked out a little hatchet from Theo’s toolbox. She didn’t really know why he had that thing, she’d never seen him do anything with it but swing it around like a maniac when he was high, but she was grateful for it now.
Bri walked back into the house. She strode to the kitchen counter, grinned at its badly built wooden edge, and brought the hatchet down. Her aim wasn’t so good, it took her a couple tries, but eventually she got it cut open enough to be satisfied that the paper wasn’t there. She shrugged. The trailer was falling apart. There were plenty of spots it could be. She turned, set her sights on the living room window ledge. This time her aim was better. The ledge splintered instantly. Bri watched for a moment as the pane shuddered in the heavy breeze, then slowly bowed in and shattered around her bare feet. She giggled at the cut on her toe. Trailing bright blood across the floor, she moved over to the table. At the next crack of the hatchet, something large and heavy inside of her began to wriggle free.
Bri found the paper, finally, tucked into a corner of the wall. She held it up, triumphant, as she burrowed out from the debris of her home. Splinters arced out of her bare arms and legs like stiff fur. The hatchet still dangled in her other hand, swinging slightly as she loosed herself into the night. She grinned. She felt the yellow sharpness of her teeth and the cold, clean tasting moonlight glinting off of them. She let out a whoop. It undulated and warped into something shrill and animal in the emptiness of the deep night. She pulled her phone from her pocket and placed her order.
“Thirty minutes,” said her guy.
“Thirty minutes,” replied the wolf, and she gave a little jump for joy.
The voicemail had been sitting on Patricia’s phone all day. She had noticed the missed call when she had left the gym that morning, and she had recognized the number immediately. She had thought about listening to it while she was shopping, had even gone so far as to dial her inbox, but had hung up before she could hear the message. She was too nervous, too hopeful, too scared. She wanted to keep that feeling small and inside of her for as long as she could.
Finally, around four, before the business day ended, she listened to the message.
It was abrupt, direct, the way the police always were. DNA taken from one of the other victims had come back with a match. They had a suspect in custody. They wanted her to come in to view a line-up. Tomorrow. At seven A.M. if she could.
It was only when she exhaled, shuddering, that she realized she had been holding her breath through the entire message.
She called the detective and told him she would be there at seven. He thanked her.
Feeling very jittery and excited, like she had drunk one too many cups of coffee, she walked to her room, sat down at the bureau, and began to cry. When she was through, she dialed her family members, each one by one in succession.
Everybody came. Andrew and May showed up first, at five-thirty in the morning with freshly baked scones.
“You poor dear, how early did you have to wake to make these?” Patricia asked, smoothing down her hair and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She herself had only woken to the doorbell.
“Oh,” May blushed fiercely. “I-I didn’t b-b-” She looked at Andrew.
“There’s a bakery down the street from us, Mom, remember? We picked them up on the way.”
“Oh, well, they’re still warm, that’s what counts. Thank you.” She took a nibble from the corner and thought about how she could get rid of the rest without it being noticed. She was avoiding gluten, at Amy’s suggestion, trying to get rid of that ‘wheat belly’ she had accrued over the past alprazolam-fueled months. But May couldn’t have known that.
Sue came by bleary-eyed after working a double shift. She set off straight away to fixing a good breakfast of sausage and eggs. It was exceptional. Patricia had to remind herself not to be surprised by this; Sue was her daughter after all and even women like Sue could cook if raised properly. They scarfed down breakfast in the anxious silence of meaningless chit-chat, then rode caravan-style to the station.
It was past seven when they arrived, but Patricia did not want to go inside. He was in there, somewhere. Locked away, yes, under surveillance, but still there, alive, remembering.
Sue touched her mother’s hand. “He won’t be able to see you, you know that right?” This was Sue at her gentlest, and Patricia hugged her in appreciation.
“I know. Of course I know. I just…” She shook her head, smiled. Could they tell that she was about to cry? “I’m sure I’ll know him,” she said finally, but she wasn’t.
“Of course you will Mom,” Andrew said, “After what he did to you, how could you not?”
Sue jabbed her brother hard in the ribs.
“And even if you don’t,” Sue added, “they’ll have other witnesses, the DNA. It will be okay.”
Patricia nodded. “Can I just have a moment to myself? I’ll meet you in there. You go on and let them know I’m here.”
The kids each gave her a hug and a kiss and walked inside. Her little clan.
Harold hung behind.
“I’ll be fine, honey, really.” She gave him her most convincing hug.
“Can I, um,” he looked down at his shoes, “can I take your purse in with me?”
She resisted the urge to glare at him. Instead, she forced a laugh. “There’s nothing in it, but here.” She handed him the purse. It was a lie, but not for entirely bad reasons. She had stopped taking the pills, as she had promised to do that night when they had all come over, but it made her feel safe to have them nearby. And Amy had said, if begrudgingly, it would be okay to carry the bottle sometimes, just to know she could have one if she truly needed it.
“Thank you,” Harold said, accepting the bag. Still not meeting her eye, he added, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just, it wouldn’t be good if you were, um, not clear headed for this.”
“I know.” Before he turned away, she added, “Thank you.”
He gave her a kiss, and then walked inside.
She was alone.
Patricia breathed to the five-count Amy had taught her. She was anxious in a way she had not allowed herself to be in a while. What if she had a panic attack when she saw him? They would understand, the little rational part of her said. She breathed in and exhaled again. One…two…three…four…five…It helped. Not as much as she would have liked, but it was something.
She walked into the building.
A girl sat in the waiting room. Not a girl, a woman, Patricia realized, but she was so small that Patricia had mistaken her for a teenager. She was dressed like a teenager, in a brown mini skirt and black halter top, with torn black sheers and cheap looking high-heeled boots, but she had the hard, careworn face of a woman who had not lived an easy life. She sat hunched over herself so that her stringy blonde hair dangled over her pale, sunken cheeks. Her arms were covered in tiny red scratches and bruises, as though she had battled a small but ferocious beast. The skin beneath her eyes was so dark it looked bruised, and the eyes above them roved about the room in listless, lunatic rounds. Her lips moved in syllabic shapes, but if there were sounds coming from them Patricia could not hear them. A dank, sour musk permeated the room. There was no doubt that it came from the woman.
Everyone was avoiding her.
There was Patricia’s family in the corner, as far from the woman as they could be, and there were the other families spotted around the room, all white with at least one blonde female among them. And there was the woman, also white, blonde and female, but surrounded on either side by a stretch of empty chairs.
When Patricia entered the room the woman looked up. For the briefest of moments Patricia saw a glimmer in her eyes that had no place on that desolate face. Hope, Patricia thought. But as soon as she saw Patricia it disappeared, replaced by a dullness that seemed much more fitting and permanent. The woman seemed then to become unreal, even invisible, in a corporeal sort of way. Just some woman who had long ago realized that she did not matter.
And yet, in that moment when their eyes had met, before the light had flickered out completely, it had been for Patricia like looking into a mirror. A mirror shattered and destroyed beyond repair, a mirror which would never again return anything but the most distorted and ugly of reflections. But a mirror nonetheless.
Patricia’s family members beckoned her to join them. They were so lovely, all of them, in every way. So clean, so healthy, so secure. She smiled at them, trying to transfer through that smile all of the genuine love and appreciation she felt toward each of them for being there with her that morning, and not just that morning but every day forever. Then, still smiling, she walked over and sat next to Bri.