It had been a week since I started living with Beck. She hadn’t pushed me to get a job yet, opting to leave me to my devices. We didn’t argue about anything, but we didn’t agree either. She just left me alone. Harp hadn’t given me a chance to press her about our drive back. Beck was probably just uptight, as she’d been with me. Perhaps more so since Harp was actually her kid. The city could be dangerous, so of course she wouldn’t want her to go.
My eye was OK—mostly. It still hurt sometimes and the bruise wasn’t gone yet. They looked like they were trying to heal, but they were struggling, till shit. It looked angry, full of the hatred I felt when he hit me. Mark and Zeke made that group chat, but I never really replied. My husband only called me twice. I couldn’t bear to answer, though I let my finger hover over the button every time, willing it to press down. I thought he’d come looking for me, but he didn’t. I wondered if he really missed me.
That morning I washed my face, turned on the shower, then sat in it.
Everyone else was awake. Gone. The kids were at school. I was just glad I didn’t wake up at the crack of dawn. Beck and Garrett were at work, too, so I had my existence to myself.
I thought of nothing in the shower. Usually I allowed my mind to wander, but today, as the heat pelted down on me, I felt nearly nothing. My head was full of nearly nothing. It emptied overnight, now numb to the anxieties I had. About being here again. About seeing people again. About my husband. I knew it was temporary; as soon as I saw another person, every feeling would come flooding back. I didn’t want to leave the shower, but I’d been in so long all the skin on my body crinkled and the water started running cold.
Once I dried off and dressed, all I could think about was needing a smoke.
I checked every room in the house and was met with only silence. It washed over me, trying to comfort me. I wanted a smoke.
I went out to the back porch, where that little music box was hidden away, hopefully still undisturbed. I pried up the board, dodging splinters, and pulled out the box. I gave it a shake again. It still rattled. I cracked it open and stared at the contents, which remained just as I left them, frozen in time like the rest of my world here.
A key, a lighter, and half a pack of cigarettes. The pack was all that remained of an ex of mine. When its contents were gone, he, too, would disappear. At least that’s what I had told myself when I put them in here on one of my few visits. Before I met my husband.
The lighter still had fluid, and the cigarettes were dry enough to light. They were stale. They were long stale, and tasted weird, though I guess the usual flavor wasn’t great either. I was supposed to have quit, but stuff like that is hard when you don’t really want to.
I sat in one of the sad wicker chairs and smoked. If anyone else was here they’d say the weather’s good. It wasn’t yet summer, but it kind of felt like it, the morning warming up quickly as the sun inched higher. There was no ashtray, so I just flicked it away and hoped no one would notice when they got home.
The smell clung to my clothes. It hung, lingering, not wanting to let me go, even as the wind tried to pry it away. It was what my husband hated the most. The next was the taste, but sometimes gum fixed that and he could pretend that everything was fine. He’d still brush my hair from my eyes, press a gentle kiss to my lips, taste me. Taste mint and ash on my tongue.
I snubbed out the cigarette on the floorboards, then tossed it off the porch, watching it disappear into short grass. There was nothing much beyond their house. A brief field with wildflowers no one needed to tend backed up against the looming forest. It was dark beyond the trees, but the sun danced in the yard, gliding to a stop at my feet.
I smoked for about an hour, disposed of the other butts as I had the first, then fell asleep in the chair.
I didn’t plan on falling asleep. It just happened. I closed my eyes for a brief moment, then I opened them and it was sunset. The day had vanished. Shadows seeped from the forest, wandering into the grass. Everyone would be home now. My phone rang.
It was my husband.
I swallowed hard, coughed, then shut my phone off.
I plodded back inside before the sun could fully set. Beck was home and sewing, the TV playing quietly. She seemed invested this time, eyes fixated on the subtitles running along the screen. She let out a hiss as the needle hit her finger, breaking her from her trance. She smoothed down the fabric and stared at her finger before continuing on.
I think she had actually finished a new square in her quilt, but I couldn’t tell, since they all looked the same.
After a few more moments, she broke away from the TV and glanced up at me. Her mouth formed a straight line, and her eyebrows shifted in a way I can only describe as displeasure. Her nose wrinkled. Then, her gaze looked past me, as if I wasn’t even there at all, trailing along the hall behind me, rising slightly to peer up the stairs. I turned around, spotting Harp standing at the top.
She wore makeup. That was the first time I’d seen her in makeup, too. She had on deep red lipstick, close to black, and muted eyeshadow. It all stood bright against her pale skin. Her clothes were some of my old band tees I’d left behind. They suited her, but now I could see why Beck was disappointed. I think she looked a lot like me. Maybe more than she looked like her own mother.
Harp bounded down the stairs and threw her arms around me, then shook me slightly. “Can you drive me to a friend’s?” Her eyes got wide, begging. Beck wasn’t going to do it. I knew which friend. “Please?”
Harp didn’t like lying, which is why she asked me outright. She also knew that Beck probably wouldn’t argue with me, not now, anyway, while I was hurting. At least, she’d kept her judgments of me to a minimum. I think she was afraid of scaring me away, that if she got mad I would go back to my husband. Maybe she was right.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “You wanna stay over or what?”
“You can stay over,” Beck chimed in from the couch. She’d folded up her project, hands resting atop it. Harp beamed back at her.
“Thanks, Mom! I’ll get my stuff, then.”
I nodded and told her to meet me in the car. After she scampered back upstairs, Beck turned her gaze back towards me. She held it, steady, long, burrowing. There was a slight frown gracing her face.
“You said you’d quit smoking,” she said.
I scratched the back of my neck. “Yeah. I’ll quit. Still trying.”
“Are you trying?” she asked, raising a brow. She tugged at the thread on the quilt. It hadn’t been tied off yet, so it threatened to unravel. “We still need to talk. About everything.”
“What is there to say?” I replied. “You know what happened.”
“You haven’t told me anything. Why should I guess when you can just tell me? Don’t be childish. I care about you. Let me help you. I’ve tried to be understanding, you know. I haven’t asked you anything all week. I haven’t even asked you to help around the house. Or anything. We’ve all been taking care of you because we love you, but you’re a grown man, Faust. We shouldn’t have to. How can I work with you when you’re being like this?” Beck looked sad, now. She glanced away while I thought over a reply. A door rattled shut upstairs.
“Can we talk about it later?” I asked quickly.
“When you get back we’re going to talk about it.”
I swallowed and left before Harp could come back down, grabbing the spare keys—which had indeed become mine in that week—from the bowl by the door. I could feel her eyes follow me to the car, our conversation lingering heavily in the air. She won't be letting it slide this time.
Harp’s friend lived ten minutes away, on the other side of town. It was a cute house, a single story with a small front porch and a flimsy wood fence that wrapped around the property. The sun had set, so I couldn’t see much else. There was a flash of shadow in the lit window, then the front door swung open and slammed into the siding. A short girl stepped out on the porch in a black and white onesie. It had a tail, and possibly paws. A cat. Her dark brown hair was pulled into a messy bun, strands flowing every which way. It was hard to tell from this far, but it looked like she’d removed half her makeup, but her smudged mascara and dark liner were still apparent around her eyes. She wrung her hands together, though I couldn’t tell if it was from anxiety or excitement.
Harp exited the car before I could put it in park, dashing up to pull her into a hug. She lingered for a bit, then waved to me, and then the two disappeared back inside without a word, the door shutting gently this time. They passed in front of the window, silhouettes dancing in sync.
On the way back I stopped at a gas station. There were two in town, right across from each other. They always had the same price. The last pump at this station was still broken, as it always had been since I could remember.
I didn’t need to refill the gas yet, but I felt bad not doing it, driving the car around and giving nothing back. Not that I had any money to fill it, since I came here with just the clothes on my back. For a moment I stared awkwardly at the pump, hesitating over it. There was probably change in the glove box. There was always change in the glove box. A dollar or two. Sure, it wasn’t mine, but what else could I do?
There wasn’t change in the glove box.
I dug through it again, shifting around the mound of papers, perhaps years of registration renewals, I don’t know. At the bottom, there was a single dime. Fuck. I shut the box and settled in my seat, staring out at the world ahead in a daze.
It didn’t really matter. It wasn’t that big a deal; I just wanted to be nice. Y’know, help out around the house and stuff, for once. Be an adult. Like Beck wanted. Be useful. I felt like crying.
The sudden crunch of stray asphalt under tires startled me, drawing me back to my corner of reality, sitting no-longer-alone in our town’s second shitty gas station. A green, rusted truck pulled in front of me, even though there were other pumps (and a whole other station) open. And there it was, the GO FISH plate, greeting me once again.
I sunk into my seat and pretended I wasn’t there.
Mark got out and proceeded to fill the truck. He brushed red curls from his forehead as he stared at the machine, watching something on the display. Now that it was day, I could tell he’d gotten even more covered in freckles than I could have ever imagined. They stood distinct against pale skin, huddling in little clumps across it. Mark tugged the sleeves of his shirt up, then rested the pump back where it was.
He hadn’t seen me. I could tell, because when he turned around to screw the cap, he jumped two feet in the air, terrified at half my face looking at him over the dash. To be fair, I would also be terrified if I saw the person behind me at the gas station wide eyed, unblinking, clearly staring.
He shut the cover, opened the truck door and leaned in, shut it and waltzed over to my window. I sunk further, ceasing to exist. He tapped on the glass. He was smiling. I was not. I unlocked the doors, pointing to the passenger side. Mark got the message and slid in next to me.
“You gotta text back,” he said, referring to the group chat I was constantly ignoring.
“Sorry,” I said. I slid my phone from my pocket and turned it back on.
He leaned the seat back, getting comfortable. Another car pulled into the station. Our eyes followed it to the last working pump.
“You wanna hang out tonight?”
I shifted in the seat.
“It’s OK if you don’t want to,” he clarified. “I just want to catch up. ‘Cause it’s been so long, y’know?”
I had to take the car back because it wasn’t mine. But he had a truck, so he’d insist. I tried to shrink back into the seat and disappear into the upholstery, but there was nowhere to go. Mark tilted his head at me, still smiling. I could not fathom being so happy to see me.
My husband never smiled like that.
There was always a trace of something beneath his gaze, beneath the quirk of his lips.
But something about Mark’s face told me he was genuine, and I wondered what he’d been up to all these years. My phone buzzed. There was a message to the group chat; Zeke had sent a picture of a duck he saw earlier, swimming around in the pond. And Mark gave that same smile when he opened it. His eyes glanced towards me once before he reached for the door.
“I should head out,” he said.
“I’ll come over,” I blurted out. It wasn’t that late yet.
I told him I’d have to bring the car back and he said he’d just follow me, even though we lived a mile apart and I could just walk. But I didn’t want to argue, so I just nodded and brought the car back, no more gas in it than when I took it. I shot my sister a text where I was going so I wouldn't have to face her, then climbed into Mark’s truck. I knew she’d be pissed I was avoiding our conversation, but I didn’t want to talk to her anyway. She’d probably be pissed to learn I also didn’t manage to fill the tank any. Or maybe she’d be happy I was seeing a friend. I hoped she’d forget we were supposed to talk.