I think there were times when we were happy. I know there were. I remember lying by the riverbank in the sweet musk of chlorophyll and how he pushed the hair from my eyes, his touch gentle as a breeze. I remember the way my fingers could trace the planes of muscle on his torso, Michelangelo’s David, the skin smooth and dry and warm, the heartbeat just beneath its surface. I remember when I felt safe. I remember this as a dream, far enough away to be kept sacred. And when I lost him- it was worse than any way he’d ever hurt me. It was a pain that came in waves, persistent, unyielding, and I was the shore. Because to be without the violence, and to be without the pain meant to be by myself and that hurt much worse than any of the blows he threw at me.
Today me, the me which does not feel like me, lives in this decrepit square room that is blank of personality. She exists and pushes forth even though each breath exhausts her. I wake up to watery gray sunlight. I get dressed in my blue dress, the one I wear every day. I walk down the stairs, or I take the elevator to the bottom floor where I eat my meals. I talk to people I call friends. And I go to bed. Alone.
Tonight, he comes back to me as the sun dies weakly in the west. He usually does while I try to fall asleep, snapping me out of that suspended place between sleep and wake. I saw the shadows on the wall creating undulating patterns, ink stains of smoke. Silver moonlight. I imagined the whole room had a heartbeat; it was alive with something bigger than myself. The shadows grew fat and quivered with excitement and slowly he emerged, a too-real ghost of memory. I saw him creeping up behind me. I saw his arm cocked ready to strike, that smile that was too hard and unmoving.
But I had left, months before. I ran away. He passed out on the couch, and I remember getting to the door and looking back into the house, trying to look at it as if I was a stranger. Seeing the hole in the drywall he’d punched but never fixed, the shattered bottle of liquor, a bit of my blood smeared on the refrigerator where he’d smashed my face into the handle. Closing that door. Easing it shut ever so slightly so that it felt like I was closing the cover of a book, locking it all away, but hearing, I’ll find you, Noel. I always will.
My mind sunk into a sleep that was too deep, the kind of sleep that is self protective in its ability to shut everything out. He followed me. He grew from the darkness in the center of my mind, and the shape of him began to solidify, a man with hungry, wild eyes who crept along the wall until slowly turning to look at me.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said in a yearning voice, the voice which caressed me and read Pablo Neruda to me, the voice of the half of him that didn’t hurt.
I nodded. I felt glued to my bed, and the cold sweat was the only reminder I was truly alive.
The afternoon comes. I’m having tea with my best friend Peter. He’s a short, fat gay man who is probably the only man I have ever felt comfortable with. He has a kind face and I think the fact that he’s gay may be the reason I don’t feel afraid. He doesn’t want me, he doesn’t hate me, I just am, and that is a relief. He could never love me, in that way, that way that’s far too close to hate and tells me I’m worthless and unlovable.
“But why do you think you’re unlovable?” He asks. He blows the steam off his tea.
I’ve never really thought about why, since it seemed so obvious. I think the better question for him may be, why do you think I could be lovable? I haven’t earned it in any way. I haven’t loved people in the way I should, a way that could fix them. I shake my head.
“Because I’m unable to be loved,” I explain. It sounds stupid and I know it. Peter frowns. “At least by a man.”
“Why, though? What about you is so terrible?”
I sigh. My tea has gone lukewarm, and my mouth tastes like copper pennies. There’s blood in my throat. I have really got to stop screaming at night. “I don’t….I don’t listen. I’m selfish- I know this. Charles always tells me this.”
“Charles told you a lot of things,” Peter says evenly. “But how do you know any of it’s true?”
“I don’t know,” I admit. “But it’s not just that he said those things. It’s that I felt Peter purses his lips. He doesn’t like when I talk like this, I know, but sometimes I need to. He’s the only person in the world I can trust right now. I need him. I need his rationality. These dreams keep me on edge.
He changes the subject. “Is everything okay, Noel?” He says this with a gravity that is more than just a, how’s it going? “Really.”
But I can’t let him know. Because Charles would know- it’d get back to him somehow. He finds a way. He always does. The first time I escaped him, flew a thousand miles across the country, he caught me. Even before I got to my mother’s house. He grabbed me by the hair and pulled me into an alley and beat me until I didn’t even feel the pain at all, only an emptiness that was almost worse. He’ll find me again, but he won’t let me get away this time. He’s learned. He’s biding his time.
“Everything’s okay,” I say, but Peter doesn’t look convinced.
Today I have decided on soup. My throat is unbearably sore.
It’s tomato and the tinny, canned scent fills my nose. I really need to focus if I’m going to eat anything. I know I’m starving myself, but I can’t help it, I feel like I don’t deserve to eat. The soup is Spaghetti-O’s. It reminds me of my childhood, when Mama used to spoon feed us when we were sick, no matter how old we were, and bring a wet rag to dry our feverish faces. She taught me how to love. I fed Charles Spaghetti-O’s when he was sick, tucked the covers right beneath his chin, but I was stubborn and stupid, and eventually he slapped me across the face so hard that the world flickered out like a candle for a second. I never fed him Spaghetti-O’s again.
The soup reminds me of him, as does everything else.
I lift the spoon to my mouth and try not to gag. I need to focus. I need to be normal. I bring it to my mouth when I catch the rings of overcooked noodles, except they’re not rings anymore. They’re split up, expertly arranged into letters.
I drop the spoon and it clunks into the bowl, spraying drops of red against my dress. There’s cold sweat that grows up my neck and into my face and I want to cry, my heart is racing so fast. I know it’s stupid. I know I’m probably seeing things. I saw the words; I know I did. I saw the noodles (I sound so stupid, I hate myself), saying that he was here. It all comes crashing down and it’s almost a relief. He’s found me…I think he has; he must have.
He’s here, finally. I knew I wasn’t safe. I knew it was only a matter of time. I start to tremble. It’s my body’s immediate reaction when I think too much about him. I remember the knuckles splitting my lips, I remember when he slammed his foot down into my side, hearing the snap of my ribs, I remember staring up at the ceiling in a red haze wondering if I was real at all, and hoping I wasn’t. I remember that split second before he slammed my face into the wall, his hand curled tightly with a fistful of my hair, and how he laughed in a way that made me want to throw up. Until finally the world went dark.
He’s here (I think). I know it, I feel it. He’s stalking me, just like he said he would. I can’t be safe here. But I don’t have anywhere else to go. He’s not here, he can’t be. I just don’t know. I can’t do anything but wait. The restaurant blurs a bit, then focuses again. I finish my soup, scalding my throat even more, and then go back to my room. I lock myself in and curl up and try to sleep, not taking off my clothes.
I awoke in the middle of the night to a sound, something creaking. My door, maybe. The shadows were still haunted, splattering against the walls, and they shifted to make way for him. He stepped out into the room, and he was more real than I had ever seen him.
He took another step forward. He held out a flower- a white rose. Roses were my favorite flower, and every time he’d kick me or punch me or cut me with that hunting knife, he always carried with him, he’d come back the next day with a rose. Roses meant beauty, meant me, and he carried them so delicately with fingers that had buried into the flesh of my arm and thrown me across the room the night before, it confused me. White, he had told me, was the color of forgiveness. So, wasn’t it perfect, this white rose he always gave me, this beautiful thing he held which symbolized how he saw me, forgiving? It was the one trait I could have been proud of. I forgave.
He held it out to me and when I didn’t take it, instead of becoming mad, he slowly faded away. He backed up, his figure starting to blur around the edges, creeping slowly backwards with a look of sorrow deep in his hurt, lonely eyes, into the wall where he was a shadow, and suddenly I was looking at a lifeless wall, waiting to be extinguished by the morning sun.
I was awake then. I don’t know at what point I woke up. But my eyes were pulled open, and I knew what I had seen.
I stopped thinking of him for a while, but I still could feel his eyes on me sometimes, the ghost of his fingers like limp feathers trailing over my skin. My ignorant bliss draped over my fear and every time I tried to talk to Peter about it, he’d look at me in a disbelieving way that made me know I was crazy. I knew he wasn’t following me. He couldn’t find me, the soup had been a coincidence, it even sounded crazy when I heard myself talk about it. The dreams were normal, he said, and I believed him.
It had been a particularly hard day, and all I wanted to do was lock myself in my room. The incessant chatter of others ran through me, and I wanted to just shut off. But when I entered, I could tell- someone had been there who had not been me. I could feel it, could smell it. It was wrong. But everything was the way I had left it. My desk was pushed against the window and on it was a piece of paper I’d been scrawling on, the words everything is okay. My bed was made, and my walls were plain because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by posters or pictures. My wedding band was in the slit in my mattress- I checked that it was still there.
But on the windowsill, the windowsill I kept masterfully clean and knew better than the back of my own hand, was a single white rose.
It was so white and fresh the petals were nearly translucent, and its thorns were sharpened to thin, deadly points. The smell was overwhelming and seemed to force my nose into its sweetness. I picked it up and felt the tingle of electricity run through me. Everything blew away and I knew the truth, I knew it, I had to stop questioning myself.
I had to get out of there. He was going to catch me again. He’d already found me, and now he was dancing around, taunting me. Waiting for me to crack. He was following me, maybe with a knife or even a gun. He was going to kill me. A part of me dully said that that was what I deserved. I needed to run.
I picked up the phone on my nightstand, the landline with the curly wire and pressed Peter’s number. I’d taped it to my desk before, because I often called him in the middle of the night. I always felt bad about it, but he was always so kind, willing to listen while I told him about a nightmare I had had.
“There’s a white rose on my windowsill,” I said. I didn’t even want to look at it.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “Why is that important?”
“Charles,” I said, trying not to hyperventilate. “He used to- my favorite flowers were roses- he’d beat me and the next day they’d be in the house, and I could smell them, I’m smelling them now. It has to be him. Has to be. And he told me once that white- white- white-” I choked, stumbling over my words. There was something hard and dense in my throat rising up.
“Breathe, Noel,” he said. His voice was soothing, but almost a little patronizing. Like I was just some crazy person. And maybe I was, but I knew what I knew. I couldn’t just let things like this go. “It’s okay-”
“He’s going to kill me,” I said, and the bluntness of this triggered the tears to flow down my cheeks.
“He’s not going to kill you,” Peter said. “Let me come see you, we can make some tea and talk-”
“No,” I said. “Don’t meet with me- then he might kill you too.”
“He’s not going to kill you,” Peter repeated.
“He told me he would,” I said, and he had. He told me the night before I left, when he was on top of me, over me and the stink of alcohol was all I could smell. He leaned in close, and his voice was calm and smooth, the same way it was when he read to me Crime and Punishment, and he said very gently that he was going to fucking kill me. He’d come back. He’d come back. “Please, Peter. Promise me you won’t come find me.”
“I need to leave,” I babbled. “I wasn’t sure earlier with the soup…or maybe I was, I just didn’t want to believe I was. But now, it can’t be anything else. I thought I was safe here, but he’s found me. He’s waiting for me- he’s been creeping after me. I feel it. He’s waiting for the right time, because he’s smart and cold and calculated and wants nothing more than for me to die.”
“He’s not,” Peter said again. “Noel-”
But I couldn’t take it anymore. I hung up.
I sat down in my bed, rocking back and forth. My room’s window overlooked the river, and I was up a few stories so I could see even to the other side. He was there somewhere. He was hiding in the bushes, in the closet next to the bathroom. He was looking at me. Somehow. He had promised me…he didn’t break promises. I was stupid, stupid, stupid.
What was I supposed to do?
I couldn’t escape him. The first time I’d tried he’d carved his name into the skin at the base of my throat, cauterized it himself. He didn’t think I’d leave then. Not after I’d been branded. But I did and the second time I tried- well I thought I’d escaped but I knew now that I never could. That he’d always be one step behind me. I couldn’t, I couldn’t-
The doorknob started to move.
It jiggled back and forth. I’d wedged a chair beneath it, to lock it. It worked in movies, but the chair shifted a bit, and I froze. Someone was trying to get in. The white rose. The knob turned, squealed against the wood, and the chair hiccupped. It fell to the floor. Then the knob turned all the way and the door opened, and it was him.
It was Charles. The light was uneven and painted his face like a television that kept going in and out of service. He started to walk towards me, his face crazed and manic. His grin was toothy, like a shark’s. He walked towards me and for a second, I thought I saw the glint of a knife. I started to scream and back up, then scrambled off the bed. He walked slowly, holding his hands out in a peaceful gesture that I could not trust. He’d come back. I knew he would.
He opened his mouth. “Noel,” he said creakily, in a voice that sounded almost too high to be his.
I had to choose. I had to do something. The white rose, crushed underneath my hand, embedding a thorn in my palm as I moved backwards. I yanked open the sill. He roared, charging after me, and I did the very last thing I could, the only thing that was strong enough, the only thing left in me.
I jumped out the window.
The night air was freezing cold and bit at my skin, insects swarming all over me. The moment seemed longer than it should have, and the whir of green as the trees melted into the mountains melted into the grass melted into the gray of the concrete, oh God, there was the concrete, and I was getting closer to the ground and I knew it was over, the relief was thick.
And before I hit the ground, before I heard the crunch of my legs beneath me and felt my heart sputter, before I felt any of the pain at all, I remember thinking that I’d finally escaped. I’d die, but I’d die on my own terms. I didn’t love Charles enough to let him kill me.
I swam in the gray area between life and death where the water was thick and murky. Sometimes my head rose above the surface, and I heard voices and felt things but knew that nothing was real. I couldn’t open my eyes. The light hurt my eyes it was the artificial lights of the emergency room. I’d been there once before when Charles had caught me the first time I’d tried to escape. I heard murmuring and something was biting into my arm and wiggling its way around under my skin.
I heard Peter’s voice through the sludge, saw his wonderful soft face, his high voice that was always so soothing. I was glad that it was his voice I heard, but it was filled with worry. “…stabilized, completely preventable but she never took her medicine….”
And then another voice, but it was a man’s. A man who sounded kind, and then a woman next to me, probably a nurse, and who was fiddling with the insect that was burrowing itself into my arm. “You’re her doctor?” The man said. He was dressed in all black and looked like an ink stain in my peripheral vision.
“Psychiatrist,” Peter corrected. “She called saying she thought her ex-husband was trying to come after her and kill her, and I ran to her room. She’s on the fifth floor. She’d placed a chair beneath the doorknob, so it was hard to get in, and then when I did, she screamed.”
“But she knows you,” The man said.
“I don’t think she saw me,” Peter said. “I think she saw someone else.”
“Psychosis…” The nurse said softly. Her voice sounded familiar. Peter made an agreeable sound.
I was dog tired, all over, and I wished they’d just let me die already. It was so much work to even listen, to just lie there still and let the pain wash over me.
“Where’s the ex-husband? Prison?” The man asked. I was past the point of pain, but I felt the pressure squeezing the air from my lungs, like they were being crushed by a boulder. I was so tired. The world was darkening and everything was smoothing out into that same liquid ash color.
“Dead,” Peter said quietly. “She killed him in self defense four years ago.”
“Oh,” The man paused. “Is that…that’s why she’s here?”
Peter nodded. “She’s been trying to escape the hospital. But really, I think she’s been trying to escape him.”
I couldn’t make sense of the mumbling going on. There was a humming in my ears, a tensed string being plucked over and over vibrating my skull. I didn’t understand what Peter was saying, but I knew it was wrong. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense.
I drifted off into the murky gray water, letting myself drown.
Britney Pellouchoud is a software engineer and recent graduate of UC Berkeley with a passion for horror literature. Her published work includes poetry, short stories, and a novella. A new and emerging writer, Britney explores psychological and splatterpunk horror. She enjoys reading, scuba diving, and running.
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