By Ryan Nightingale
Jennifer looked at Bill who was seated across from her. While, yes, they had not known each other for an overly lengthy period, it was enough to spark a deep interest. It had been a long time since she had felt this kind of connection with anyone. Having spent her entire life alone, she found it an enormous task to not only trust but keep relationships close. However, despite this, she still agreed to have lunch with him and, much to her surprise and delight was enjoying herself.
They talked about many things. It was like when they conversed, she didn’t have to try. There were no awkward silences or forced small talk. The sharing of words that occurred between them flowed in a completely natural fashion. It was like she was talking to someone that she had always known. There was none of the shyness that typically accompanied the experience of a new connection. Rather, their interaction had a general fluidity that required no force or thought. This was quite different from those of the base acquaintances she had known so far in her life. At that moment, with those realizations, she knew he was someone she was not going to let get away easily.
“I think I want to try makeup for once,” Jennifer stated while examining her face in Bill’s bathroom mirror. The confidence that her relationship was starting to fan was bringing curiosity about what she could do with her appearance.
“To be fully honest, I suggest you don’t. You’re absolutely beautiful just the way you are.” The response had made Jennifer's heart swell. Here she had tried to make herself even more beautiful. Yet her amazing boyfriend didn’t want her to and was completely content with her current appearance.
Jennifer sat in her car as she drove to Bill's house. The events of the day still danced upon her heart and mind as the cottonwood trees passed by. Here she was, driving to see her boyfriend, as tears cut tracks down her face at the realization that she was now within an unknown. It had taken her months to find employment in the first place. It was the only reason that she was not within the confines of a shelter. However, by having misplaced one of the company’s client folders in the “For Auditing” file, the little security she had was gone. At least she had Bill though. While she may not know what was to come, or how she would plan for the future, she knew she wouldn’t be alone in it. Together they would get through this bump that had appeared before her.
She pulled into the driveway of the house that his friends and he rented at the time. However, her heart fell when there was no response to her initial knocks. She waited as the silence became denser and denser, and tension grew with it. He knew she was coming, so she could not understand the reason for this. She tried the door, and shockingly it opened easily.
At first, she was unsure if entering would be an appropriate action, especially when one considered they had only been dating for a few months. However, right as she was about to leave and allow her mind to spin her down a rabbit hole, she saw it. A small trail of the little milky square, each wrapped in bright tinsel, made a path that went up the stairs and out of sight.
At first, she just stared at it, after all this was not something that typically occurs outside of movies, especially when viewed from her own life. Yet, here they were as silent proof of the legitimacy of her reality. So, she naturally followed them. As they winded their way up the stairs, she felt her heart pump with every step that brought her closer to their end. She expected it to be in the bedroom, or maybe in a nice warm bath surrounded by candles. Instead, they ended in front of a door she knew didn’t lead anywhere special. She felt her heart sink slightly, as she couldn’t imagine anything worth getting excited about if it lay within the confines of a closet.
She opened the door and, quite suddenly, her heart leaped as she gazed upon a weaved basket filled with dozens of Lilies. Their breathtaking petals fell upon one another. Their deep pink hue invoked the illusion of a work of art created with hundreds of brush strokes.
She suddenly let out a small yelp as a pair of arms wrapped themselves around her. She spun around and saw familiar honey-brown eyes. She didn’t even give him a chance to speak before she flung herself around him. For so long she had lived with the thought that she was destined to die alone. That no one would ever be able to look past her many flaws and appreciate her for what lay beneath. Yet, not only had she found this, but someone who would go through incredible effort simply to bring some light into a previously dark and dreary day.
“I love you” she whispered in his ears. A gentle smile and a cupped cheek were his replies. While silent, they said more than any words could have.
She felt as if she were going to shatter from the raw force of her emotional energy. It was an extremely rare occurrence for her to have anything to look forward to. However, even she had to admit that since she met Bill, she had started to get more and more things to do so for. With every one of her belongings that she unpacked and found a place for, the reality that they were truly serious became more solid.
In just a short amount of time, she had gone from a lone soul, who had meandered through the labyrinth that is life, to being part of what truly felt like a team. It was one that she was more than proud to be a part of. At that moment she couldn’t even begin to dream, or imagine, what her new future might be.
“Could I have some extra money to get something nice for dinner?” Jennifer inquired.
“What happened to the $50 that I gave you a couple of days ago?” She tilted her head in response to the slight sharpness in his tone.
“That was just for normal things. I thought since it had been a while, we could maybe make a nice dinner and watch a movie.”
“I work hard for us Jennifer, you know that. I don’t want to waste money on something that we don’t need. I’m all for watching a movie, but we already have food here.” There was an obvious finality in his words. However, she decided to take the opening as it was annoying not having any money or income of her own.
“If it’s such a problem I could get a job.” She replied, a certain bite hanging to the edge of the words.
“No, you shouldn’t have to work. You’ve lived a hard-enough life and deserve to be able to stay at home and relax.” He said, his voice trembling slightly despite the nice words.
“I really wouldn’t mind. It can get pretty boring just cleaning and playing on my phone all d-” However, she stopped. There was a look on Bill’s face she had never seen before. It wasn’t necessarily angry or frightening, but it had an intensity to it. His look made it clear the conversation was over and it wasn’t to be brought up again. She bowed her head and accepted his wishes. After all, she knew he love her and was wanting to give her the easiest, most cushiony life that he could.
The movie played in front of her as Bill’s arm wrapped around her and made her feel the safest that she had in a substantially long time. It was amazing how a lack of parental influence could result in such an absence of emotional security. Now though, it was gone thanks to Bill. She had someone in her life she felt would truly keep her safe and wouldn’t allow for any injury or harm to befall her. For Jennifer, the future was a long way off, and she had lived for so long in the past that she was more than willing to enjoy such a pleasant present.
“Who are you talking to so much?” She glanced up with wide eyes at the tone in Brett’s voice
“Someone from high school.”
“What’s their name?”
“Jonathan.” She felt tense at the speed at which ice seemed to creep into his voice and darkness into his eyes.
“I’ve never seen you text anyone, let alone for this long.”
“Well...ya. We haven’t talked in several years, so we have a lot to catch up on.” Seeing the darkness in his eyes grow deeper she quickly continued, “He’s just an acquaintance, not even really a friend.”
“I find it concerning that he hasn’t talked to you for years, then you get a boyfriend and suddenly he’s jumping to contact you,” She thought she could hear a slight shake in his voice and decided not to express her opinion on Jonathan's “jumping” to talk. “Can I ask that you don’t talk to him anymore? I honestly think he’s just trying to get in your pants. I don’t want to see someone take advantage of your kind nature and end up causing you to do something that you might regret.”
“He...he’s never shown any interest in me, and I rarely get to talk to anyone else.” She sputtered.
“Well, I stopped living with my best friends so we could live together, and now I rarely see them either. It’s a little selfish to ask me to be the only one to make sacrifices.” She hung her head in guilt over his words. He was right, it was selfish for her to even think of fighting for the right to talk to Jonathan. Bill had taken a step back from his friends for her. They all used to spend almost every waking hour together, now he saw them maybe once a week at most. It truly seemed he was much more interested in spending time with her. Considering this, it would be awful to refuse to do the same with someone who wasn’t even a friend.
“Okay, you’re right.” She said with her head still bowed.
“This is why we work so well. We understand each other.” She agreed and he smiled while pulling her closer to him. They spent the rest of the night embraced on the couch and Jonathan never came up again.
“If we ever had a boy, what name would you like?” She chirped up suddenly.
“We wouldn’t have children.” Was his immediate reply.
“Why?” She couldn’t help but feel a little hurt by how quickly he said it. After all, she just wanted a fun discussion.
“Because children are annoying. They’re loud, messy, and after all your work they just grow up hating how you raised them.”
“But maybe we would be different.” Usually, when he was this blunt with his opinion, she didn’t push it. He was a beautiful man for the most part. On the other hand, she had come to learn that he had another side that lay in the shadows. She loved him, but she didn’t like this other part. Although, despite her experiences, this was something she knew she would eventually love. She never had a family, other than Bill of course. Though, she did adore the idea of starting one of her own and being able to give someone the life that she always desired. She also could think of no one better to do so with than Bill.
“I said no.” was his flat reply.
She felt herself grow warm and her body tense. “You know...you won’t let me get a job, you won’t let me talk to people, and you won’t even discuss the possibility of growing our family…”
He stared at her intently “That’s because I love you and want to help you do what’s best. Remember honey, you lost your only job right after we met. I think it’s safe to say you’re not the best at making good decisions on your own.” This stung even more, as she knew he was aware that her termination was still a semi-sensitive topic.
“You didn’t have to bring that up.” She turned to walk into the bedroom and calm down. However, a sudden strong hand on her shoulder spun her back around. She looked at Bill, mouth agape. While he had yelled at her before, he had never touched her.
“Hey, don’t you walk away from me while I’m in the middle of talking to you?”
“You weren’t talking, you were insulting me.” She managed to say, eyes wide.
“Just because you have no backbone doesn’t mean I was being mean.” His eyes hardened the longer he looked at her.
Tears immediately sprang up in her eyes and she pulled herself out of his grasp “You’re a fucking asshole.” Before she could turn around and continue walking away, a sudden stinging pain erupted in the side of her head, and she crumbled to the floor. She stared up at Bill, whose hand was still in the air, with a mixture of fear and shock. At first, he just stared at her, breathing hard. However, lucidity soon came back to his eyes, and he was once again the boyfriend that she loved.
“Oh my god! I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to honey. I didn’t.” He helped her up, and she saw panic etched across his face. She refused to make eye contact. “Please forgive me. I lost my temper and shouldn’t have done that. Please, I’m so sorry.” She nodded. While she still felt the powerful effects of emotion, she couldn’t be mad at him. She had pushed the topic, and she knew that it was a bad idea to do so in the first place. Cursing at him definitely hadn’t helped.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, although the words sounded false even to her. For his part, Bill didn’t seem to notice and proceeded to kiss the tip of her nose. She imagined he perceived it as a properly loving and apologetic gesture.
Jennifer was exhausted. They had been arguing for hours. At first, he hadn’t hit her very often, although a fear grew that it had started to become too normal. She wondered if he knew how much it hurt to have to get creative with makeup and wear long sleeves even on a hot day.
She couldn’t help but feel he was going too far in his ideology this time and decided to risk an attack. A woman who frequented the same supermarket she did had invited her to lunch. However, Bill claimed he got lonely when she was out of the house and didn’t want her to go.
“We’re always together, what does an hour matter?” She tried to make the words sound strong, but despite her best efforts she couldn’t help but hear the tremble in her voice.
“You are beyond selfish and stupid if you can’t understand why! All you do is sit around on your ass and spend my money. Do you ever thank me? No. Then the one time I ask to spend time with you, and it’s thrown in my face.” At his words, she immediately felt like she was the lowest creature on Earth. He either didn’t sense this or didn’t care since he continued, “Why do I even try to help you when you obviously don’t appreciate it? I’m all you have. Who else are you going to go to? Your family?” these words cut through her and left tracks of emotional carnage in their wake. Despite her best attempts, she felt her cheeks become wet.
“Your family didn’t want you around, but you got lucky with me. Yet, you take it for granted. It’s like you feel it’s some sort of right for people to be nice to you.” He apparently had his say, as he had just watched her while breathing heavily.
“I wish you wouldn’t act like this because I hate having to be strict. Look, I’m sorry. I know it isn’t nice to point that kind of stuff out, at least directly. I do love you and care though.” At this, he stepped forward and kissed her. She tried to pull away, the last thing she felt like was intimacy. He ignored this and pulled her closer. Despite her best attempts at squirming out of his grasp he began to breathe more heavily and increased the extent of his physical passion.
At this point, she realized that what was about to occur was going to happen no matter what she did or said. She decided that maybe if she allowed it to happen, she could later trick herself into believing it was consensual. So, she did her best to ignore the rising bile, while at the same time she hoped he would be quick about it.
She lay in bed and listened to Bill’s breathing. Suddenly, it dawned on her that she hadn’t had to buy any feminine products this month.
The “+” burned on the small stick in her hands like the eye of Satan. Not long ago she would have jumped with joy. Instead, she felt an emptiness and fear for that which had not yet entered the world.
She stood outside the front door of their apartment, she hoped that maybe if she told him outside where people could hear, his reaction would be less severe. However, she still felt her stomach fall, her heart race, and her skin become clammy as his car pulled in below her. This only worsened as he started to walk up the stairs.
Upon his approach, she didn’t hesitate, “We need to talk.”
“Why?” He looked at her, his eyes full of suspicion. She pulled the pregnancy test out of her pocket and gave it to him. He stared at it for a moment, his eyes wide. When he finally did speak, she was horrified by what followed.
“Okay, we’ll go to the place tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry. No, I want to keep it. Honey, I love you, but I can’t do that.” It took every bit of her courage and strength to stand tall and look him in the eye. He immediately started to shout. She didn’t know what he was saying, as it came out a jumbled collage of anger. She walked around him, not wanting to be backed up against the door. He started to walk towards her, still yelling his head off. She stopped receding as she noticed how close to the stairs she had gotten. Suddenly he raised his hand and, acting upon instinct and experience, she took a step back.
It happened in one fluid motion. One moment she was standing on firm ground, the next the sky and earth had swapped places. Eventually, her head landed with a sickening thunk, and she immediately felt moisture. Though, her concern was more directed toward what she felt between her legs. The last thing she remembered was the formulation of tears at what her beautiful new life had become.
Jennifer awoke, her breath heavy as sweat trickled down her body. She looked around their studio apartment wildly, positive that Bill would be leering from a corner. However, the only sound was the breathing of her husband. As well as their beautiful Ivy who had taken the place of that which was lost.
She walked over and observed the look of contentment on her daughter's face. It had been years since she last saw Bill. Even though it would be a long time until he saw the outside world again, he still seemed to find ways to hurt her. Not only this but the judge and lawyers forced her to accept his control over her. She knew they didn’t mean to and it wasn’t their intent, however, why did she have to be a “victim”? Why did she have to be labeled with something that confirmed that he had control over her at one point? Why not refer to her as a “survivor” and emphasize the fact she was strong and made it beyond?
As she continued to observe her daughter, she could not help but feel her heart continue to sink at the memory of the nightmare that had been forced upon her mind. Within the realms of impulse, she sat at the small card table that served as their work area. She sincerely doubted that anything would come of it, nor that Bill would feel any emotional reaction. However, she greatly desired to be able to move on, and allow her mind to purely focus on what was her current reality, not that which once was. So, she grabbed a sheet of paper, a pen, and an envelope, and began to write
I cannot begin to describe how much you hurt me. I also don’t believe you will ever realize just how deeply your actions have affected me or my life. Maybe when you are old and alone, you will look back and realize what you did. I can only hope that if this happens, you feel the full proper amount of guilt and shame you deserve. I also hope that you never again are allowed to influence another person. However, no matter what direction your life goes, I can rest easy knowing that I will never again be a part of it. I truly do hope that you get the help you need and one day can realize the extent of your actions.
She stared at the words that she had written. They were nothing more than flourishes upon a blank canvas and held no actual meaning other than how they were perceived. Though this was the case, at least she could have closure in knowing she finally made a proper stance against him. That at least this was of her own free will. She glanced over at her daughter and wondered if she would be able to pass on her memories, so Ivy never had to experience the same mistakes. While the damage had been dealt, and the wounds still fresh, she liked to believe that they might have been worth it.
Ryan Nightingale has previously had two short stories and one digital painting published. He has also written multiple novels but is still seeking representation. Once upon a time, he worked as a neuroscientist where he co-authored a textbook chapter on the neuroscience of self-compassion. He currently works as a freelance writer and enjoys painting, digital art, and other creative endeavors.