~A thorn burrows steadily into my heart
making its slow way toward my center by degrees
Tiny little harmless thing when on its own,
exposed to the purification of oxygenated air
yet lethal inside the lightless humid me~
~A thorn burrows steadily into my heart
making its slow way toward my center by degrees
Tiny little harmless thing when on its own,
exposed to the purification of oxygenated air
yet lethal inside the lightless humid me~
Zoey slid the picture across the table to her husband and sank back. “I found that today.”
David’s head bent so low over the picture that she could see the tops of his ears turn sunset red. He said nothing, just shook his head back and forth.
She glanced out the window, watched a family playing freeze tag at the park across the street.
“Do you love her?”
Her question jolted him, and he turned his eyes away. “Yes,” he said.
In that precise moment, she felt the baby’s first kick.
“I need you,” the woman he’d never seen before whispered as her eyes drifted closed again.
He patted her cheek, “Come on, stay with me, okay?” He looked at the crowd growing around the scene of the accident. “Someone call nine-one-one, now!” He struggled out of his jacket and covered the woman, tucking it around her gently. He leaned down, made sure she was breathing. That was the first time he heard the voice.
Startled, he looked up, but no one acted like they’d spoken to him. He spotted her phone on the street near her shoulder, and without thinking, he pocketed it. Her eyes fluttered, but she remained unresponsive.
A young woman emerged from the crowd and rushed to his side. She took off her scarf. “I’m in nursing school. Maybe I can help?” With careful hands, she placed the scarf over the woman’s legs. Turning wide eyes on him, she said, “I saw the whole thing. It wasn’t your fault.” She patted his arm, “I’m Trudy.”
He blinked away the moisture in his eyes. “Cliff. Thanks for that,” he looked back down at the prone woman, “but it doesn’t really help.”
“I know… I know. She just came out of… nowhere.”
“Yeah, she did. Wonder why she was so hell for leather?” Where the hell were the police?
Trudy checked the unconscious woman’s pulse while maintaining a steady stream of chatter. “It all happened so fast, you know? Why would someone run out into the middle of the street like that? Do you think she’s going to be okay?” She glanced at the woman. “I don’t know her or anything, but it looked like she was kind of scared.”
Cliff felt a burst of frustration. His nerves were shot, and this girl was talking a mile a minute.
“I’m sorry, Mist-”
“Cliff, just Cliff.”
“Sorry, Cliff, obviously she was scared. I just,” she blinked, and a tear plopped out of her eye, “it just scared the hell out of me. So loud, and I just… I thought…”
“Look,” Cliff placed his hand on her shoulder, “don’t worry about it. He looked down at the woman laying so still between them. “I’m as scared as you are.”
Trudy studied his face for a moment. She started to say something when sirens redirected their attention. He took the opportunity to slip the pilfered phone into the pocket of her backpack.
“Finally.” Cliff stood protectively over the fallen woman while Trudy stood up, her eyes never leaving his face.
“I’ll stay with you the whole time.” Her eyes glistened as she studied him, “I’ll make sure they know what happened, that it wasn’t your fault.”
He thanked her offhandedly, which didn’t dampen her devotion one bit. As promised, Trudy stuck by his side as if they were glued, until night turned into morning, all through the preliminary questioning at the scene, right through to the police station where they were necessarily separated; she to a witness room, and Cliff to an interrogation room.
“Clifford Jan Yates,” an Officer Mills read from the tablet in his hand, “says here your license is pretty old. You really been operating a cab for,” he looked over his readers into Cliff’s face, “twenty years?”
Cliff held his gaze. “I’m older than I look.”
“Must be. I’d figure you to be about thirty-four. That would mean,” the officer narrowed his eyes at a spot just over Cliff’s shoulder, “you obtained your cabbie coin when you were fourteen. And that,” he looked back at the tablet, “is illegal.”
Cliff retained his right to silence.
Officer Mills seemed unhappy with his choice. “We have a witness says you didn’t even touch your brakes when you hit that woman with your twenty-year-old license.”
Anger surged through Cliff. “You and I both know your witness didn’t say that. The woman ran between two parked cars straight into heavy traffic.” He swallowed hard. “I slammed on my brakes. It was just too late.”
A slight shift played over the officer’s face. “As you well know, we can hold you overnight until forensics comes back with preliminaries…”
Mills cleared his throat, “no but. You’ve had the same address for twenty years. No history or priors. In short,” he looked down at the desk top, “we’re done for now.” His mind worked, and he glanced back up at Cliff. “Did she say anything to you? Anything at all?”
Cliff shook his head. “Nothing.”
The officer looked far off for a moment and then collected himself and studied Cliff. “I don’t think we’ll hold you. But don’t disappear on me. Got some paperwork …” He rose heavily from his chair and pulled the tablet into his side. As he went through the door, he called back over his shoulder, “stay in touch.”
The request was no problem for Cliff, he intended to keep on top of the investigation.
True to officer Mills’ word, the police department released Cliff within the hour. He spotted Trudy in wait for him by dispatch and thanked her for sticking with him. When she hugged him, he easily slipped the phone he’d stashed out of its hiding place.
He hailed a taxi and headed straight for the downtown emergency room. Pulling the woman’s cell from his pocket, he turned it on and swiped. A text thread loaded on the screen. “Look, Shayla, men are all…” the text read. “Shayla,” he tried the name aloud. What were you running from, Shayla? Before he could puzzle it, the cab pulled up to the curb of the hospital. He handed a twenty to the driver. “Keep the change.”
The street door to the ER was grimy with dried condensation and exhaust fumes; it grumbled and squealed, needing lubricant in its sliding track. Once it opened wide enough, Cliff strolled through and walked over to the directory, pretending to study it. He noted no security in the lobby and only a scattering of scrubs-clad employees. He spotted the perfect one at a desk cramped into an alcove by the elevators.
“’Scuse me, beautiful,” he beamed at the volunteer wearing too much rouge.
She favored him with a beatific smile. “Hello, young man, how may I help you?”
“I’m here to visit someone, but I don’t know her last name.” He shrugged in apology. “Work friends, you know?”
“Oh, dearie…” she tapped keys with two fingers and looked at the computer screen, “that’s so common, anymore.” She smiled up at him, “what’s her first name?”
More tapping, then the woman’s face fell. “Oh dear.” Mouth downturned, she reached a hand over the counter and patted his. “Terrible accident. She’s in ICU. Visiting hours are one hour, from seven to eight.”
Cliff patted the woman’s hand. “I’ll be back. Thank you, young lady, you’ve been very kind.”
The woman blushed and shook her head. “Oh, you go on, now.”
He winked and withdrew his hand. He had a lot to do before seven.
The moment he stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the office building, he heard the voice again. Where am I? He stopped and looked around. No one paid him any mind, only business-class people bent over their phones, and harried city dwellers rushing to cabs.
Cliff shook it off as a trick of his hot-wired nerves, depleted from lack of sleep. He put his hand to the door and an electric buzz spread up through his forearm, like touching an exposed wire, and a vision took shape in his mind.
The girl, Shayla, hunched over an open desk drawer, one file spread on top of the stacked ones, taking rapid cellphone pictures with shaking hands…
She did work here, then. Standing in the lobby, he tried to make himself inconspicuous. He walked past the security desk, spotted a ball cap and filched it, slipping it on his head in one move. An unopened package lay atop the rolling desk chair. He grabbed that too and tucked it under his arm, then ambled toward the directory. He had no idea where a “Shayla” would work.
A middle-aged man hiding his starter paunch under a tailored, dark grey suit stopped next to him. “Can I help you find someone?”
He smiled, embarrassed, and ducked his head in pretense of reading the package. “Uh, Shayla?” he made his voice halting and unsure.
The man smiled wide. “Ah – Avery’s assistant. That would be third floor. Hang a right at the elevator. Their suite is the last one, door’s at end of the hall.”
Nodding his thanks, Cliff watched as the man entered the elevator. “Going up?” Grey Suit called as he reached for the button panel.
Cliff hooked a thumb at the stairwell. “Leg day.” He pushed through the door, and vaulted up the three flights two steps at a time. Cautiously he opened the door and scoped the landing, hoping Grey Suit didn’t emerge from the elevator. The doors slid open, and he pretended to study the package while several people stepped out. No Grey Suit.
He joined the small crowd headed down the hallway. One by one, every person he walked with disappeared into the suites lining the corridor. Dropping the hat and package on a chair as he passed a brightly lit waiting room, Cliff stepped up to Shayla’s suite and checked through the window. No one manned the reception desk and the suite was dark, unoccupied. Grabbing the door handle, another vision filled his mind.
A man held Shayla’s wrists and pressed her back into a large filing cabinet in the corner of the room. He let go with one hand and seized her face, right over her mouth. His fingers bit into her cheeks. They struggled; Shayla groped at the filing cabinet handles, finally pulling the top one straight out. The cabinet toppled, catching the man on his calf as it fell. He let go of Shayla and she ran for the suite door-
Cliff felt a slight stir of air whisk past him; he turned as it went by. No wonder she was scared. He stood there in the hall, mind working the scenes she’d shown him. She had taken pictures with her phone; the one that now sat in his coat pocket. He needed to get to a quiet place – somewhere away from this office building – where he could relax his mind and work his way through what she’d shown him; comb everything for the smallest detail.
Then he’d take a crack at her phone.
I’m never so astonished, in good and bad ways, as I am by this lovely, confounding creature. She, alone, in my life has been a steady source of the most sublime inspiration and gut-twisting disappointment. Almost complete, impenetrable shroud to my detection and utterly unfathomable to my senses… In spite of my best efforts, I cannot get a fix on her.
My best connections with her happen when I don’t expend any effort. Only when I am still and silent, ready only for listening, can I even hope for the most fragile flicker of attachment from her. So I tether my jerky reactions, still my quivering hopes and muzzle my judgments, doubts and fears and… exhale, hoping against hope for a bond.
I feel it forming sometimes like the slightly ugly, throbbing, over-nerved growth of new skin over a tender wound. It feels temporary – so, so vulnerable, in that tenuous stage before it becomes solidly part of the flesh. I bury the thought that it might only ever be temporary and volatile, a wary hope stubborn in the face of all my experience.
She’s the one I’m at most danger of losing… but to react on that prejudice with single-minded pursuit would place all my other relationships at risk. So… I bury it away, too, choking the fear in my voice box, unable to say, maybe, the things she needs most to hear…
“Don’t leave me. You’re one of my horcruxes. I’ve hidden a part of my self with you. If you kill that part of me… I’m closer to real death.”
These words, though – “I love you” – spring as easily to my mouth as saliva at the thought of food.
Why do scars suddenly appear
every time you stalk near?
Not the ‘you’ outside the
boundary of my skin
but the monster clawing from within.
My insides burn with shame.
My heart pumps out regret.
I’d like to walk the path
of least resistance
and tune my dial to forget.
“Jake!” Beth called out as she pulled the front door closed. He’d told her he’d meet her at the campus coffee shop but never showed. After nearly two years as the more stable half of their unorthodox whole, Beth had reconciled with the fact he would as likely show up for a casual date as not. Jake managed to make up for his appalling lack of reliability with an enormous generosity in everything from trivialities to essentials. If she came up short for rent or a utility bill, Jake covered her without ever mentioning payback. Beth had never failed to pay him back, though.
As to their unusual yet intimate relationship, Beth only ever got up the courage to ask him why their closeness never went further than kissing. Although sometimes their kisses could progress to a full on passionate make out session only once had they ever crossed over to real intimacy. Just at the point where she might have given up her V card to him, they stopped and not once since had they ever gotten as far.
They had a huge fight once when Beth got up the nerve to ask Jake just what it was they were doing. He gave her his usual half smile and ruffled her hair. All he said to her was, “You’re cute.” He didn’t sound condescending, exactly, but she felt put down even so.
And so it was she stayed at the library till eleven thirty on a Friday night to “study”. Finally, figuring he wouldn’t call her and beg her forgiveness anyway, she found a couple other late nighters going to the same dorms she was headed to and walked home with them. No answer came back to her but the sound of Tom Waits at high volume from inside the apartment.
She walked down the hall and as she passed Jake’s room she resisted the urge to press her ear to the door. He had been secretive for the last several weeks and defensive when Beth questioned him over the most benign subjects. Best not test his patience.
Almost to the bathroom door, Beth heard the unmistakable sound of two voices in very intimate conversation. Hearing through the door, but not wanting to, the sounds of two people in an obviously passionate situation is always embarrassing. When one of them is your understood boyfriend, one could only describe the feeling as excrutiating.
Beth retreated back down the hall, aiming for first, her things, and then for the door. Just as she put her hand on the knob, Jakes door burst open. An almost too thin boy emerged from the room naked from the waist down, his hair bed tousled and deep caramel colored. Right on his heels, Jake – whom Beth caught just as he slapped the boy on the rear – snapped his head in her direction like he’d seen an accident happen in his peripheral vision.
“Bethy,” he glanced at the boy and back at Beth, “meet Eric.”
Eric looked supremely uncomfortable as if an inexplicable hole opened up in the floor he would not hesitate to jump in it to get away from the current scene.
Beth smiled, shocked really, that she could be so clueless, “Hi, uh, hello, Eric. Nice to meet you.”
Jake, without taking his eyes off Beth said, “Eric, disappear into my room for a bit, will you?” Eric slipped through the tiny sliver of space between the door jam and the door and Jake snapped it closed behind him. “Beth, you had to have known.”
Her mouth dropped open. Uh, had to have known? Like, “How, Jake? How was I- and for that matter, what am I supposed to have known?” She plopped down in the chair she’d brought over from her apartment because Jake liked “that weird swirly pattern,” and looked up at him.
To her everlasting irritation, he actually rolled his eyes at her, “I’m not going to apologize to you. You stayed with me because it was easier for you.” It was her turn to roll her eyes, but Jake went on, “Oh, don’t play like you don’t know what I’m talking about, Bethy,” he reached over to the coffee table for a well worn pack of cigarettes and shook one free.
And just when had he started smoking? “You can’t smoke in here,” she said automatically.
His soft chuckle startled her. “Oh, Beth, Beth, Beth… You know why you have accepted my almost unreasonable facsimile for a relationship with you?”
Beth finally felt a bit of something akin to defiance rise up in her. “Enlighten me, Jake.”
Jake tapped the cigarette on the table and then tucked it between his lips, talking around it as he reached for the lighter, “Because you’re not ready for the real thing, girl.”
“Oh, you know so much.” She jumped out of the chair and headed toward the door.
“Think about it,” his words stopped her, “I give you just enough affection to fulfill your needs,” he paused to light the cigarette and took a lascivious drag, “But you don’t have to put out for me. That suits you because you’re not ready.”
Without turning around she said, “I think you’re just pulling this psycho babble out of thin air to push your guilt off on me.”
Another long drag, followed this time by a long exhale before he spoke again. “Maybe you’re right.” Drag, exhale. “But maybe I’m a little right, too.”
Beth bit her lip to keep the tears in check. “I liked you Jake, I really did. I thought we…”
A soft laugh, “That’s just it, Beth. You liked me. I’m comfortable, because I don’t threaten to take anything more than you’re ready to give.” He took another long drag. “But you don’t want to give those things to me, do you. There’s someone else you want. You just used me. Like I used you.”
Beth held the cool handle of the hammer in her hand as she gripped the rung of the ladder to pull herself up a step or two. She wished her hand wouldn’t sweat so much. Oh great. Now she had to worry she’d drop the tool on someone’s head! Bad enough the guy waiting for the hammer made her so nervous she squeaked in reply when he asked her to fetch the hammer for him. Now she felt like she might be sick from the nerves.
Ever since she’d moved in with her father and his wife, she felt so out of place. The kids at her school all grew up together practically since before they were born. As a newcomer in the middle of junior year, she had already arrived at a disadvantage. A year later and not much had changed. She was shunned from the start because she came to a rural town from a big East Coast city and she had no chance whatsoever to find friends to save her from outer Mongolia in her social life.
She’d only ever had one boyfriend in her old high school. Rick was a few years older than her and had dropped out of high school. Beth didn’t really like him all that much, but she kept dating him anyway because he kept her from feeling so alone. Her leper like status at her new school and her inexperience left her completely unequipped to handle the more than friendly attentions of the hot guy balancing on the rafters above her head, waiting for her to hand him up the tool.
Nick was everything from the movie boyfriends she daydreamed about wrapped up in a taught, well defined package. His face wasn’t movie star perfect and yet his intense eyes, full lips quick to smile and reveal his pleasantly crooked but white teeth came together in a perfect picture of masculine attractiveness. He didn’t seem exceptionally tall, although to be fair, Beth only ever saw him up on the roof or from enough distance she couldn’t really judge. He did seem to tower over his wife.
A sigh escaped her lips as she glanced up the ladder and handed over the now slightly damp hammer. “Thanks, Beth!” His beautiful mouth curved in a slight smile and her heart fluttered a little.
“You’re welcome.” His gaze held hers for a few seconds. Beth looked away as she felt the heat creep up her cheeks and started down the ladder. Why was a god like Nick married to that old dried up skank, Felicia? Immediately, Beth felt awful at the thought. It was bad enough she was crushing on a married man, but Nick and Felicia were having marital problems. Or so the gossip indicated.
It wasn’t really fair to Felicia to use that word either. Beth bit her lip and glanced around as her feet hit the floor. She’d find the woman and see if she could help her in her project. Maybe she could ease the sense of guilt she carried around most days she helped out on the church construction when Nick was there.
Beth didn’t spend much time analyzing things, but sometimes she had to chase away the nagging thought Nick might actually be seeking her out on days her family crossed paths with his at the church. It started the week before when work began on the roof. Since Nick had worked for a roofing company, oftentimes he could be found up high on the new construction, balancing on some nerve wrackingly narrow piece of wood. Usually he had his shirt off. Best not to think of those times, Beth reprimanded her conscious mind.
He’d sat next to her father at the lunch break – her father got on with him well, as Nick’s work roughened hands were as good an endorsement of a man’s worth as any to Beth’s father – talking over the plans for the rest of the afternoon. In an offhand manner, Nick mentioned how his knees were starting to hurt from going up and down the ladder so much. Her father, without even looking her way, offered her up to Nick as his personal gofer. He glanced at her and nodded. His eyes twinkled with good humor. “That okay with you, Little Bit?” Nick embarrassed her with her father’s nickname for her.
She blushed then, too, the first of many times over the last week or so she’d been his assistant. “That’s fine,” she’d dropped her eyes just after he smiled wide at her.
“I thank you, and my knees thank you.” She glanced back up just in time to catch the wink he aimed at her. Her heart nearly stopped. He was teasing her. Unmercifully, too.
Each day, he grew a little friendlier and she got just a tiny bit more comfortable. She could actually hold one syllable conversations with him now without blushing very much at all. The last couple of days of fetching for him, though, something between them had shifted ever so slightly.