Ariel slid the side door of the van closed, chocolate ice cream stained her upper lip and dripped from a waffle cone.
Mazie clicked the passenger door shut and waited for Cullen to pass in front of her before falling into line behind and heading for the front door.
“Evening, Reynolds clan.” Rachel’s husband, George, stood on his front lawn in checkered shorts and a ratty old T-shirt. He held the garden hose and sprayed a fine mist over Rachel’s beloved rose bushes.
Cullen ignored him.
“Hi, George.” Mazie waved.
Rachel jumped out through the front door. She was like a damn jack-in-the-box and Mazie’s presence was the hand crank. The second she was in range, surprise! Rachel popped up.
“Beautiful evening!” she yelled. “Ariel, want to come play with Polly?”
Cullen spun around. “No, she doesn’t. It’s my birthday and she’s spending it with me.”
Rachel cocked her head. “Well, sooorry, birthday boy. I didn’t know this was the day the world was graced with your presence.” She jerked her chin at Ariel. “Maybe another day that isn’t so special, ‘kay sweetie?”
“Okay, Mrs. Simpson. Thanks.”
Ariel took her ice cream into the living room and turned on the television.
Mazie clicked the front door shut. “Don’t drip on the carpet, bug.”
Cullen went straight to the cupboard over the fridge and pulled out the bourbon. He sloshed a few ounces into a tumbler and turned to her. “I swear, one day I’m gonna kill that bitch.” He kept his voice low.
Mazie placed her purse on the kitchen table. “She’s snoopy, but harmless.”
“And for future reference, who texts me and when I choose to reply are none of your damn business.”
She looked at her feet. “Sorry. We don’t get many nights out. Just thought it would be nice to focus on that.”
“I don’t care what you thought.” He snatched her purse and rummaged inside. “Let’s see who you’ve been texting, huh?” He pulled her phone out and slid his grease-stained fingers all over the screen. The same thing he did at least once a week. He pressed his lips together and threw her a withering look. “Good. Just me.” He tossed the phone on the table, took his drink, and joined Ariel in front of the television.
At ten, he sent Ariel to bed. At ten-thirty, he took Mazie by the arm. She followed him up the stairs, her wrist aching in his grip.
In the bedroom, he stripped and tossed his clothes on the floor.
Mazie got undressed, hung her pants in the closet and put her shirt and underwear in the clothes hamper with the other dirty laundry. She picked up his clothes from the carpet, along with his filthy work shirt and jeans that lay where he’d dropped them after work — shag the colour of applesauce had seemed the right choice thirteen years ago — and tossed them into the laundry basket she kept in the room for his things. Kept them away from her clothes so his filth didn’t infect her.
He stood by the head of the bed, hard and anxious. “Hurry up already.”
She approached from the other side and lay on her back.
He crawled on top of her, ran his sweaty, stinking, sticky skin all over her. She closed her eyes and turned her head. He wouldn’t care. He never kissed her on the mouth anymore.
He pushed her legs apart with his knees and forced himself inside. The weight of him knocked the breath from her.
She clamped her lips closed, shut her eyes, and imagined an idling river, a quiet meadow at the base of the mountains, the scent of daisies and pine needles. Ariel played in the distance. Molly, their golden retriever, frolicked in the grass. The dog she’d always wanted. A dog they’d never owned. Ariel tossed a stick to Molly and the dog fetched and returned flawlessly.
Cullen’s breathing became laboured. He shifted his body until he loomed over her and encircled her throat with one hand.
As the air left her, she opened her eyes to glare at the monster he had become.
He grunted and groaned and thrust into her harder and harder, his grip on her neck tightening with each creak of the bed, each thud of her head against the headboard, the headboard against the wall.
Creak, thud, gasp, thud, creak.
Sparks of light exploded in her periphery. She clawed at his arm.
“No! I’m not done fucking you yet.”
Mazie gasped for air, prayed for his grip to falter, to allow just one small slip of oxygen through. Her vision blurred and she closed her eyes. He was going to do it this time. She was going to die. Tears dripped onto the pillow.
His body went rigid and his grip relaxed. He toppled onto her and breathed garlic and liquor onto her cheek. “Oh yeah.” He rolled off. “That’s what I needed.” He swatted her thigh with the back of his hand. “Go shower. You’re disgusting.” He turned off the bedside lamp and stuffed his pillow under his head.
Mazie slid from the bed, her movements robotic and stiff. She clicked the bathroom door shut and opened the one drawer that was hers and hers alone. He would never peer where tampons and pads and hair removal products lived, nauseated as he was by the whole ‘woman thing.’
She pushed the contents aside and tugged the false back away. The Polaroid camera lay at the ready.
She ran the shower, inched the door open a sliver and peeked out. He was unconscious. Bourbon-fuelled snores grunted from his nostrils.
She snapped two photos of the fresh hand print on her neck, the cumulative damage redder and brighter than before, the contrast against her ashen face a stark reminder of why her drawer was full of scarves. When the pictures popped out, she wrote the date on the white border of each and returned everything to the drawer, replaced the false back and slid the drawer shut.
She stepped under the near-scalding shower. The loofah found every inch of her skin. She ran the bar of herbal soap over her body again and again, lathered her fingers and slid them inside herself, stroking and rubbing to purify where he’d stained her. Masturbating in the shower used to be a relaxing, exciting, release. But this wasn’t masturbation. It was cleansing. She felt no pleasure. Only relief to know that as much of him as possible was out of her body.
When she was as clean as mere soap and water could get her, she sat in the tub and wept. No matter how hot the water, no matter how long she scrubbed, no matter how many bars of soap she went through, she could never wash him off.
She climbed into bed and turned her back to him, the slice of mattress between them a glacial chasm. She fell into a fitful sleep, her body on the brink and her arm hanging, fingertips pressed into the carpet. They were all that kept her from going over the edge.
Like any normal day.
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