As soon as the words left my mouth, regret settled in my limbs, across my whole body, sinking me. It snuck its way in and I knew it was there to stay. I should have kept my mouth shut. I was scared to look at them. Scared to speak, scared to think about what my husband would say in the morning. Scared I’d fail at doing what I was supposed to. I could feel the judgment.
I held my eyes tight for what felt like forever, until they hurt, but I knew it was only for a few seconds. Around us was only nature, no problems and worries in our little forest.
“Oh,” they both said simply.
I opened my eyes. My body relaxed slightly. They didn’t sound hateful or angry. Shocked, maybe.
“So I’m going back… I was supposed to leave today,” I continued. I hoped they’d understand. That they’d just accept it and everything could be done with.
“Faust…” Mark trailed off with a sigh. It sounded like Beck’s. Like my husband’s. I shrank back into the dirt. “We’ll miss you. You have to actually come visit. Not just say you will!”
“Seriously,” Zeke agreed. “It sucks not seeing you for years. We used to hang out every day… Come fishing with us once in a while? I swear the pond is actually full of things, even if it doesn’t look like it.”
“You’re just bad at it, Zeke,” Mark said, poking him in the shoulder. “Get better bait.”
I chewed my lip, then told them a bit more, as if it would help. Justify things. “I just hate being here. With my sister. She’s… disappointed in me. Again. Mad at me. It’s complicated.” My stomach flopped and I wished I could unsay my words, but they hung in the air, permeating the soft calls of birds and the chirp of crickets. It was partially the truth. It really was.
“OK,” Mark said. “We’re not trying to pressure you to do anything, it’s just…”
“We’re kinda worried about you!” Zeke blurted out, continuing the thought.
I swallowed, my fears rising up again. “Why?”
Mark gestured to his face, a mirror of where the bruise was on my own. “Sorry… It’s hard to miss.”
Zeke fidgeted with his hands. “You don’t… talk about your husband, really. Like, I dunno, you haven’t really said anything about him. And you don’t sound excited to go back. I know it’s not our place, but seeing you for the first time in years and you look like that…”
Zeke paused for a long time. None of us said anything. An owl called. The noise echoed like his laughter, quieting slowly until all that was left was our breathing before the crickets started up again.
“Did he do that to you?” he finally asked.
“We’re just concerned. Anyone would be,” Mark added. “He’s not hurting you, right?”
He sounded like he so desperately wanted to be wrong. And I so desperately wanted to tell him he was, but I couldn’t. My voice was caught in my throat, my thoughts all jumbled in my head as I remembered. As I realized what this meant for me. They knew. I could lie; I wanted to. But I doubt they’d believe me while I looked like this. I hadn’t planned a story to tell them. Hadn’t planned a story for anyone. Not even Beck, who I know would beg me again to tell her. Both of them stared at me, watching me hold back tears.
I don’t know what set me off. Maybe it was because I wanted their optimism. Maybe because I thought they might understand. They’d been so nice, even if I said nothing. Even if I never explained.
I told myself I wouldn’t tell anyone, but they said it. They asked. They did what I always wanted someone to do, somehow. What I’d begged my sister for. What I’d cried for.
“... He did,” I mumbled, my voice almost swallowed up in the sounds of the forest.
It was so hard to talk about, especially as the two of them gasped in horror. My face crumpled. It felt wet, hot.
“Sorry… Sorry, I haven’t talked about it before,” I continued, voice all choked up, hoping they would say something. This was what everyone wanted to hear. The truth Beck wanted me to spill. The earth beneath me was cold, sucking any ounce of warmth from my body. It was a solid mass of dirt; I couldn’t get comfortable. I rolled onto my side, made eye contact with their concerned faces.
Mark didn’t say anything, he just reached over and put an arm around me and squished me up against his chest. It was the world’s most awkward hug, both of us on our sides in the middle of a field, clumsy, but he was gentle. There was care in his gesture as he held me tight for a few moments longer. When he let me go, Zeke had moved around to my other side so he could rest a hand on my shoulder.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said, as if he could read every thought I’d ever had.
“Bastard,” Mark muttered, not trying to hide the malice that edged his words. He spoke up louder. “Faust… I know you don’t like it here with your sister, but-”
“Stay with us,” Zeke cut him off. “We have an extra room.”
Mark gave him a look I couldn’t read, but it might have been worry. “Y-yeah, we do have a room,” he agreed. “If he’s hurting you, you shouldn’t go back… Did he threaten you?”
“He said he loved me.”
They stared at each other over me, then Mark sat up and Zeke followed. “Right… We should take you back. You can stay with us. Seriously,” Mark said, offering me a hand. I took it and wobbled to my feet. “If it pisses your sister off, you don’t need to tell her. Just pack your stuff. You don’t need to tell your husband, either…”
I considered it, I really did. They seemed genuine. But I knew how angry he’d be. I knew. They were so nice, even after all this time. It was like I’d never left, and I wondered what living with them would be like. If we’d have dinner together every night or something like that. If we’d laugh together again.
I knew my husband wouldn’t want me to come back here, no matter how much he loved me.
I missed fishing.
“OK. I’ll think about it,” I didn’t promise.
“Cool. Feel free to just show up. Well, we might not be home, so call ahead so you’re not locked out?” Zeke offered.
We didn’t exchange any more words, just got in the car and began the descent. I asked them to stop at the gas station. I spent the taxi money on cigarettes. A few packs of them. The rest I kept for myself. Then they took me the rest of the way home, dropped me at the door.
Nobody greeted me, of course. They were sound asleep. I left the keys where Garrett could find them on the kitchen counter. I slipped upstairs and tiptoed past closed doors. The creak of the floors gave away my presence, but it was low. No one heard through the thick wooden walls.
I settled into the bed and curled up, like I did every night, and waited for sleep to take me. My eyes were finally drifting shut when my phone buzzed on the nightstand. It was my husband. A text, saying he was going to pick me up because I couldn’t follow the simplest instruction.
Said he’d be here in the morning.
Said he called my sister.
But I felt like he really did love me like he told me, if he wanted to come see me himself. He was coming to fetch me, taking time off to see me. To make sure I made it home.
I held onto that thought, let it sit in my head as I laid there. Let it be a little spark inside me, that maybe this could all work out. We just needed a little break, is all. He loved me. He loved me like he said he did. He had to.
I don't know what I'd do if he didn't.