Amazing Stories

EXCERPT: ECHO by Steven Hart

Echo, my second novel, is dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates. She and Georges Simenon were the dark angels presiding over its conception. Oates, because the novel’s depictions of predatory male privilege and the wicked cross-currents of sexuality are very much Oates terrain. Simenon, because the stand-alone romans durs — “hard novels” — written apart from his Maigret detective stories drill deep into extremes of human behavior and obsession. Read  an Oates novel like Rape: A Love Story, or a Simenon novel like Red Lights, and you’ll get an idea of where my head was at while I wrote Echo.

It’s an angry book. The town where I lived at the time had just seen a scandal involving a local merchant, a karate teacher, who had pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact with two teenaged girls under his charge, and I was hearing entirely too many variations of the teenaged Jezebel defense being offered on his behalf. Morons in the national legislature were offering their opinions on the nature of female sexuality. I was paying a lot of attention to the vaguely threatening or predatory manner so many men assume when they see a woman alone.

I also wanted to show someone trying to recover from an overwhelmingly traumatic experience. Because I like my characters human-scaled and ambiguous, the villains are not entirely villainous and the heroine is not always very heroic. The book was written very quickly, in a state that was part inspiration and part demonic possession, and there are things in it that survived multiple edits, even though I couldn’t explain to myself why they felt necessary.

Echo gets the most extreme reactions of anything I’ve written up to now. One writer friend called it “amazing.” Another writer friend refuses to talk about it. My agent read the manuscript and said two things right away: “This is great,” and “Where did this come from?” I’m very interested in hearing other reactions. Feel free to walk down this dark alley, and by all means come back to report on your findings.

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(Ed. Note: This excerpt contains scenes that include language, sexual activity, violence and concepts that may not be suitable for all audiences.)

ECHO

ONE

Bob’s sleep was empty and dreamless—the sleep of complete exhaustion. He’d paused just long enough to strip the cover and blankets from his motel bed, then peel off his bloody, sweat-stinking shirt and jeans and boxers. His last upright act was to yank the curtains together against the early morning sun. Bob needed a shower, but first he needed a nice long stretch of nourishing oblivion. His last memory was of the other man—Ron, the fifth wheel—likewise creaking aboard the neighboring bed.

Once he stirred, half awake and wincing against the rusty pain in his temples, trying to figure out the sounds coming to him through the dark. Dusty light was filtering out from the edges of the curtains, and Bob registered with mild surprise that he was looking at another dawn. Jesus, I slept a whole day, he thought, and then he spotted the glass and the open bottle of aspirin on the bedside table. Bob was able to reach over and snag the bottle without stirring from the bed. He thumbed two tablets into his mouth, adding their caustic tang to the slurry of chemical tastes already coating his tongue and teeth, then gulped the water, breathing hard after he drained the glass. “Fucking Stewart,” Bob whispered to himself. “Motherfucker thinks of everything.”

The glass slipped through his fingers and thumped on the carpet. Bob let his head slip back onto the mattress. The act of drinking had cleared a little patch of alertness, and that was when he heard the sound. Heavy grunting, muffled, as though coming through the walls. Bob listened a bit longer. Sobbing. He was listening to a man sobbing.

Bob got one elbow under himself and raised his torso, wincing as the mattress cover pulled loose from the crusted hairs on his chest. He could just make out a man’s bare leg, visible through the bathroom door. The picture came clear in Bob’s mind. It was Ron, sitting on the floor of the bathroom, crying into a bunched up towel.

Oh, now you’re crying? Bob wanted to laugh out loud, but his stomach muscles were sore. Goddamn pussy. Then the fatigue rolled over him like a big sand-churning wave, tumbling him back into oblivion.

The next sounds came from the opposite direction, muffled by the wall. Humid air and shampoo smells from the bathroom. The connecting door was open. Bob could hear Ron pleading: “Come on man, let’s go now!” And Chris snarling “Wait a fucking minute!” while Stewart’s low, sandpapery chuckle filled the background.

Then Ron stalked back through the connecting door, all clean and pulled together, water still beaded on his middle-aged hairline. Chris was right behind him, getting his shirt down over his damp jiggling gut. “You go ahead and wait downstairs, you’re in such a fucking hurry,” Chris said.

“Fucking all right,” Ron ground out. He snatched up his black gym bag, then stood watching as Stewart slipped through the doorway. Stewart all lean and dirty, naked and still visibly unwashed, veins popping along his arms and torso like a caveman’s nightmare.

Ron stepped back as Stewart stepped up, giving him space as the naked man leaned against the door to the corridor. “I dunno that’s such a hot idea, Ron,” he said. “You wanna hang in the lobby, give the clerk time to remember you? Maybe they got a surveillance camera in the corner. That sounds pretty fuckin’ stupid to me.”

Actually, Stewart, I told him, I kinda had an idea,” Chris jumped in. He and Ron were buddies from outside the circle. Stewart had invited them along to prove a point. “Instead of calling cabs, we can use the jitney.”

The fuck?” Stewart kept his eyes on Ron, even though he was talking to Chris. Chris had about a foot of height on Stewart and probably about twenty pounds, but there could be no doubt about what would happen if Chris raised his hands. “After what happened with you using Bob’s name, you wanna piss me off again? You really are a dumbass.”

“I looked it up online, just before dawn. They got a jitney, a little train that goes along the main street past here. It goes past the supermarket. We go in shifts, nobody sees us together. An extra layer of safety, like you always say.”

Stewart smiled and nodded. “Now this guy gets it. This guy uses his brains for something.” He clapped a hand on Chris’s pudgy shoulder. “But don’t wait in the lobby. Go right outside and wait where the clerk can’t see you.”

“It’s supposed to be roasting today,” Chris said. “I wanna stay with the AC.”

Stewart’s face clouded. “I just got done calling you smart.”

Chris’s potato face split in a wide smile. “Just fuckin’ around. I know you’re right.”

“Good,” Stewart said, and before Chris could do anything else, Stewart pulled him in for a sweat-crusted hug. From his spot on the bed, Bob could see the smug little smile evaporate. That was good. Chris was acting a little too comfortable. You wanted a geek like that to be a little off balance with you, just to keep him honest.

“Nice knowin’ you, man,” Stewart said. “Everything was perfect, except for that little screwup of yours. Just don’t fuck it up leaving, and you’re free and clear.”

Chris bent and clicked up the handle on his rolly suitcase. He straightened up and stared hard at Stewart.

“Perfect is right,” he said. “That was something. I never did anything like that in my life.”

Stewart smiled. “Well, you made up for lost time,” and Bob joined Stewart and Chris in their laughter.

Chris stopped laughing. “I don’t even know what tothink,” he said.

“My lad,” Stewart said, “you don’t have to think. You think too much, right? That’s what you said, right? So you just spent the night doing what came naturally, and now you know how good it is.”

Chris stared at the floor, arms crossed. Then he looked up and nodded.

“Ron, you’re not looking me in the eye,” Stewart said. “How come you’re not looking me in the eye?”

Ron’s voice was faint, dry, and tired. “I just wanna leave here, man. I gotta big week ahead.”

“Oh sure,” Stewart said. “It’s been a real bore here, the last couple of days. I can understand wanting to get back to the real action, cutting your lawn and all.”

Louis, also naked but fresh from the shower, ducked his head through the connecting door and straightened up. He was taller than either Stewart or Bob, and while his muscles were cushioned beneath a layer of fat, the overdeveloped shoulders and wide hands were as strong as ever. He’d been drawn by the familiar sound of Stewart running a game. Chris, who had managed to keep it together with Stewart, turned red and fidgety at the sight of Louis.

Stewart stepped aside and Ron stepped toward the door. He turned the knob. He had the door halfway open when Stewart put his shoulder against it and forced it shut.

“Ron,” Stewart said. He put his arm around Ron’s shoulders and turned him to face the other men in the room. “Let’s just be clear on something.”

Ron’s face was pale and drawn. Chris was tense and uncomfortable. Bob, Louis, and Stewart were all smiling broadly.

“You learned something about yourself back there,” Stewart said. “Whether you decide you like it or not is up to you. But it’s done. You wanted in, and you got what you wanted. It’s you. Live with it. You know something about yourself that nobody else knows except us, and we’re not talking.”

Stewart leaned in close, making Ron wince at his breath. “But if you get stupid, you’re going to learn something about us that you don’t want to know. Your wife will learn it.

Your kids will learn it. We’ll make sure you see it happening. So don’t go there, fuckhead. Just because we let you play a game with us doesn’t mean you’re in our league. Take your scrapbook of golden memories and get on with your weak life.”

Stewart eased himself off the door. Ron yanked it open. Before he could step through, Louis called out in a friendly voice: “Yo, Ron!”

Ron hesitated. “Yeah?”

“You know,” Louis said, “How about you give me one for the road?” He grabbed his crotch and nodded at Ron.

This time, both Ron and Chris blushed. “Crazy motherfuckers,” Ron muttered.

“So what does that make you?” Bob called out. The door slammed, and the three men left in the room laughed long and hard.

“Time to roll outta here,” Stewart said. “I’m hitting the shower, then we’re gone.”

“Good idea,” Bob said, and he gathered himself to get up. “Ah fuck!” he snarled as the mattress cover pulled loose from his hairy body. He staggered back and Louis whistled at the swirls of russet and black flakes, where the blood on Bob’s body had dried.

“I think maybe we better take that sheet with us,” Stewart said.

“Yeah,” Bob said. He winced and took robotic steps toward the bathroom. “Jesus, I’m stiff!”

“Had a bit of a workout,” Louis said. “Just like us.” He and Stewart high-fived as Bob made it into the bathroom. He steamed some flexibility back into his limbs, letting hot water pour down his body until the last dark swirls vanished into the drain. When he emerged, the bloodstained sheet had already been stripped away and the covers restored.

They had traveled light to begin with, so there was very little to keep track of. After two thorough scans, they left the rooms as anonymous as they’d found them. They passed from the cool motel rooms into the slightly warm corridors, and then down to the dark, chilly lobby with its black couches and rough stone countertop. Parents, kids, and geezers milled through the lobby, getting in each other’s way and on each other’s nerves.

Bob.

Earth to Bob.

Bob, Stewart, and Louis left in their separate cars and regrouped at a diner near the Garden State Parkway. They ate like farmhands who’d just plowed the back forty. When the second pot of coffee arrived, they’d been simultaneously struck with a fit of the giggles.

Bob sweetie.

“Yes, Bob sweetie!” Stewart’s voice pulled him back to the present, to the back yard and the tables with white cloths and the steel tubs of ice and beer, to the big cake with HOWDY PARTNER! written in blue icing.

He laughed and stood up, letting the guests clap for his benefit, feeling his wife’s hand briefly stroke the back of his thigh, looking at his son and his buds at the other end of the table, sneering and laughing at each other with the burden of knowledge that only pre-teen boys possess, a couple of neighbors, feeling the late summer breeze against his neck as he laughed and saluted Stewart. “This is the only guy allowed to call me that!” Bob shouted, and the guests duly chuckled.

Stewart wasn’t quite as lean as he’d been two years ago. Neither was Bob, for that matter, though he liked to think he was maintaining as he approached his mid-forties. “Usually,” Stewart said, “you’re supposed to tap your fork on the glass, but . . . ” He clacked his plastic fork against his red plastic cup and shrugged. More laughs.

“Now that my college buddy’s moving up in the world, partner in his engineering firm and all . . . ” He led the applause, and Bob bowed. “. . . I just wanted to say that I can’t believe he’s actually gotten away with so much. Especially since I was with him when he pulled half that sh . . . stuff.”

The listeners responded with the appropriate pseudo-scandalized noises – Oooooh! Uh oh! – and Bob couldn’t help remembering his way back to the diner, Stewart holding a coffee mug instead of a plastic cup, sayingHere’s to self-knowledge.

“Bob works hard and he plays hard . . . ”

Here’s to finding out exactly how much you’re capable of . . .

“. . . but even in our frat days, he always had this amazing focus . . . ”

. . . and being man enough to live with that knowledge.

“. . . he got stuff done, bottom line, and I guess his bosses finally recognized that . . . ”

Just like you guys, I’m all about experiencing as much of life as I can . . .

“. . . but another side of Bob is his loyalty. Really, this is a guy . . . ”

. . . I think we just went a lot farther than we thought we were gonna go. We went into a pretty dark place . . .

“. . . if I needed somebody to help me bury a body, I’d call Bob first.”

. . . and now we know some rock-solid things about ourself.

Stewart listened to the chuckles and grinned at Bob. “They laugh!”

This was the last hurrah of the old team . . .

“Now I know you think I’m kidding . . . ”

. . . and we went out in style. You know that’s true.

“. . . but it’s all part of what makes Bob true blue . . . ”

We can put this part of ourself away, get on with life, and know that we took it as far as it could go.

“. . . and why I’m so glad to have known him all these years.”

Stewart said, “Congratulations, buddy,” and all the guests stood to cheer and whoop.

“Jesus, man,” Bob muttered. “Getting me all teary-eyed in front of these people.” He put his cup down and said: “Just so I’m not hogging the spotlight . . . ”

“It’s your party!” somebody called out.

“. . . let me congratulate Stewart on his engagement to Judith . . . ” Clapping, whistles. “As most of you probably know, we’re looking for a new place closer to Northfield, so we can be closer to Sophie’s folks.” At the mention of her name, his wife gave his thigh another stroke. “And maybe they can get a look at Tom, if he’ll sit still long enough to let it happen.” His son held up his hands in a whaddya-gonna-do gesture. “You’d think with all this real estate background, we’d know better than to sell at the bottom of the market, but whatever.”

Bob lifted his cup to the crowd. “There’s going to be plenty of madness in the next few weeks, so I don’t know if I‘m going to be able to say goodbye to everybody in person when the time comes. So here’s to all of you. Here’s to Stewart for being such a great friend, and here’s to all of you for being such great friends and neighbors.” And as the tasteless beer washed through his lips, Bob peered past the top of his cup and thought that, aside from Stewart, nobody in this bunch would give a damn if the ground opened up and swallowed him. For that matter, he’d have a hard time thinking of reasons not to push most of them into the hole, should it come to that.

The formalities taken care of, Bob wandered around to the front of the house and stepped into the two-car garage, where he critically noted mud splatter on the family’s white SUV. The black one was okay, but if Tom didn’t want his allowance docked he’d have to apply some more elbow grease. He surveyed the other cars parked in the driveway and along the curb, comparing the likely prices with what he knew about the income levels of the owners. Bob and his family lived in a suburban bantustan of McMansions, blocky two-story monoliths with double-doors beneath cathedral windows, rising from the treeless lawns like mesas on a rundown golf course. It was an expensive neighborhood, but not as posh as it seemed. A couple of McMansions had already been foreclosed – the former owners of one had actually used the living room for their outhouse before throwing the keys at the bank. Now that his salary was about to take a big step up, Bob was looking forward to something more exclusive – maybe a gated community with its own Checkpoint Charlie off a tree-lined side street. He’d earned it.

Above a certain income level, the winds of finance and taxation shifted to keep people aloft and even rising. During his years as a civil engineer, Bob had been close enough to that level to feel the money-breeze ruffling his hair. Now he was about to step into the updraft. Louis was making buckets of money as a developer; Stewart was a partner in a property management company. Between the two of them, Bob had enough inside tips to get the firm leads on traffic studies, environmental assays, landscape designs – all the magic beans that had to be sown before a new building could spring from unprofitable dirt. At Waneitch Associates, Bob was looking like a rainmaker.

So now he was moving up a couple of income brackets. The elevation would bring no easing of income worries, it would simply kick them to a higher level. The Corwins would move to a bigger house with proportionately bigger mortgage payments, their living costs would correspondingly increase, and nothing would happen to ease Bob’s suspicion that he would end his days as nothing more than a bill-paying machine.

“Hey, stud.” Stewart was strolling across the brownish grass, firing up a cigarette. He handed it to Bob, then lit a fresh one off its tip. It was a ritual formed in college.
Don’t tell me,” Bob said. “Judith and Sophie are plotting.”

“Sophie’s in command of the bridal shower,” Stewart said. “They just decided.”

“Oh boy,” Bob said. Anyone else listening in would have wondered at his tone of voice, but with Stewart everything was understood. Women. Can’t live with ’em, can’t use ’em for mulch.

“Did Louis call? He said he was gonna call, apologize for not being able to make it today.”

“Not necessary. He’s busier’n a one-legged man in an ass-kicking rally.” Louis had taken over his father’s contracting company and become a full-fledged developer. All the Richie Riches were using their spare tax dough to upgrade their starter castles, and Louis was plowing the extra cash into throwing up condos, apartments, and strip malls. He was an empire builder, and as emperor he had to keep tabs on everything.

“I couldn’t help noticing,” Stewart said, “that you didn’t look like a guy on top of the world. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you looked kind of out of it.”
Out of it is right,” Bob said. “Used to be, whenever I felt like this, I’d go to a bar or something, spoil somebody’s night.” Even if he didn’t win the fights, Bob hardly ever lost one in a serious way, and the adrenaline rush of conflict – giving and receiving punishment, making himself the center of a sweaty little vortex of excitement and drama – more than compensated for any bruises or split lips.

“Getting a little old for that,” Stewart said.

“Not all that old, dude.”

Stewart cackled. “They’re cutting the cake, if you’re interested.”

“I’ll make a long detour on the way. I’m doing a little anniversary thing of my own.”

“What, you and Sophie?”

“Not exactly.”

“Mystery man.”

“Come and see. All will be revealed. You should appreciate it the most.”

“Skipping out on your own party? That’s classy.”

“Come on. You were part of it, too. It’s your anniversary as much as mine.”

Bob led Stewart through the front double-doors, past the stairs curving along the entry, into the living room with its teenaged clutter on the floor and middle-aged clutter on the walls – photos of Bob in his high school football gear, his graduation from Rutgers, his vacation shots with Sophie, taken at Maui, San Juan, Guadalajara, Aruba, and Rio. The family from Planet Blond, touring the tropics. Set into the bricks next to the fireplace was a plasma TV; when not in use, it had a screensaver that made it look like a landscape painting. Through the sliding glass doors Bob could see people milling on the back deck.

Bob’s office was a long narrow room behind the fireplace, with two big windows looking onto the side yard. Stewart gave him a skeptical glance as he locked the door behind them and went to the far end of the office, to the desk and computer monitor. He unlocked the bottom drawer and pulled out a metal box, which he unlocked with a thumbnail-sized key.
There better be some great dope in there,” Stewart said.

Next best thing.” The box held a clutter of small personal items: hair clips, rings, bracelets. Bob plucked out a white leather wallet with an embossed red valentine heart.
Stewart’s face went slack. “Uh oh,” he said. “You’re not gonna tell me . . . ”

“Two-year anniversary,” Bob mused. “Haven’t even touched it in all that time.”

“Holy . . . what the . . . ”

Bob swiveled in his chair and unfolded the wallet. Stewart dragged over a chair and watched cards spill onto the side table: driver’s license, ATM card, Discover, and Visa. The license showed a woman with short black hair, olive skin, and faintly almond-shaped eyes. One eyebrow was cocked slightly, and her full mouth seemed on the verge of making a wiseass remark. It was a face that defied the personality-erasing capabilities of the cameras at the motor vehicle agency. He read off the name: “Theresa Costanza.”

“What, a trophy?” Stewart was genuinely angry. “I can’t believe you’re stupid enough to keep something like this. If the cops found this . . . ”

“It’s been two years and not a peep,” Bob said. He’d gone through the day wondering if he even had a pulse, and now his heart was pounding. “We got away clean, just like the other times. And you can’t tell me you’re not even a little bit curious.”

“Of course I’m curious. I’m also pissed. That’s why I’m walking away from this mess right now . . .”

Sophie’s voice, loud enough to make them both jump, boomed through the living room. “BOB!”

“Don’t be pissed,” Bob said. He swept everything back into the lockbox, and they went out back to resume their duties as genial host and genial guest. If Stewart still had any doubts about what he’d seen, he kept them to himself, sticking instead to playing the party cutup and jokester. Judith clamped herself onto his arm, giving him some subtle tit action, and Bob compared her tight red frizz with Stewart’s black curls. If they had a kid together, they’d probably have to name him Brillo.

Sophie accompanied him down the driveway as they swatted mosquitoes and waved off the last of the guests. It had been a clear, comfortable day but tomorrow was going to be a roaster – you could feel it from the way the night air was thickening. Sophie settled back against him and he automatically put his arms around her waist. She shifted, brought herself in a little closer, gave him a little wiggle to let him know the real party would start as soon as the house cleared out.

Then the cell phone buzzed and vibrated against his leg. It was Harold (Never Harry) Dressen, calling to congratulate him and welcome him to his new office, where he was expected bright and early in the morning, and if it wasn’t too much of an intrusion he just wanted to go over a couple of things so they could hit the ground running right from the get-go. Sophie was close enough to hear Dressen’s voice. She sighed and went down to hug someone at the curb as Bob quick-walked to the house and retraced his steps back to his office.

There was a lot to go over, and Bob kept his voice carefully composed as Dressen ran down the week’s roster of projects. It was just about eleven-thirty when Dressen signed off. Bob sat and fumed for a while, staring at the locked drawer, wanting more than anything to dissect the wallet’s contents and savor some vivid memories. But first he needed to check if Sophie had gone to sleep.
He locked the door and plodded up the stairs. Bill-killing, mortgage-meeting Bob the Puppet, ready to get jerked around at a whole new level. Dressen was paying him good money, so that entitled him to call up and spoil a nice Sunday night. The ever-dutiful Breadwinner Bob wouldn’t dream of telling him to drop dead.

The door to Tom’s room was open. Bob took in the unplayed Fender Squier guitar leaning against the wall, saw his boy wearing headphones, slouched into a beanbag chair, eyes glazed with TV light, his hands a blur of motion on the game controls while the rest of him remained motionless. Bob wanted to yell at him to close it down and go to bed, but a fog of futility settled around his spirit, and he left the boy to his game.

The bed was turned down, but Sophie was nowhere in sight. He sat on the bed, set his shoes by the night stand and tossed his socks at the closet hamper. He was pulling his shirt up over his head when he heard the bathroom door open and heels clomp on the wood floor. With his head swathed in a polo shirt, Bob couldn’t see a thing, but the sound took him back to the boardwalk and a woman’s feet pounding down a wooden ramp. The fog evaporated and his heart started thumping again.

Sophie stood by the dresser in her pink briefs, her fuck-me pumps, and nothing else. “Hey you big blond galoot,” she whispered. “I got a project I need to catch you up on.”

Puppet Bob gets his reward. A little ration of pussy for the good provider, lead him around by the dick. For a high, sweet, screaming moment, Bob imagined getting up and backhanding her across the mouth. It had been several years since he’d really put Sophie in her place, and while he could usually keep her in line with a look or a tone of voice, a little correction out of the blue would probably do them both some good. Unleash the beast, bring out the pain, then offer comfort and love, turn the rage into something only she could control by keeping her man happy.
Just grab her by the scruff of the neck . . .

Bob was off the bed and on her in one quick motion. After some hungry kissing, he scooped her up, carried her over to the bed, and threw her onto the mattress. Sophie pushed the blankets aside and watched him get the rest of his clothes off. When she spread herself across the mattress and smiled up at him with her knees raised, Bob almost stopped and laughed. If she only knew what memories she was conjuring up, what body language was echoing through Bob’s mind, back and forth across the years.

Smooth mattress, smooth sheets, smooth blankets, smooth skin, everything smooth as he slipped into place. His wife’s little cries and sharp breaths billowed against his chest as he bucked and plunged and thought, Theresa.

TWO

Asleep one moment. Awake, shaking and gasping, the next.

The dark pressed in around her like a sweaty hand. Theresa swung her legs off the bed and stood so quickly she had to pause, dizzy, slapping the wall to keep her balance as her eyes filled with colored sparks. Her heart was still trying to pound its way out of her chest. She couldn’t lie down again. Not yet.

Theresa tried to calm herself by taking deep breaths. During the day, she could bundle up a pillow and use it to bury her screams. But not at night, not in the dark. That would be too much like being gagged. So . . . breathe in regular, steady beats. Like waves lapping on the shore. This was the second anniversary night. At midnight she’d fried her last Oreo cookie, then stepped around the counter to yell across the boardwalk to Vinnie and wave. She’d held up a finger, cried Gimme a sec, laughed when he yelled back I’ll save you a frog, such a kidder that guy, then she drew the old white work shirt over her shoulders and quick-stepped down the passage to the back parking lot, loving the breeze as it lifted the shirt and caressed her sweaty torso, groping for her cell phone, wondering about the shoes clomping too close behind her, imagining a stroll along the beach, the ocean always makes me better, and then the flash of movement across the windows of her car. And then her new life began.

All she could do now was outlast it.

Lisa’s boyfriend was with her in the other bedroom. No comfort there, not tonight.

I won’t spoil her reunion night with Simon.

Simon had flown to South Carolina for a jamboree of family events, and Lisa, unable to leave the café, had spent the two weeks with a boyfriend-shaped void in her life. The more her friends had tried to distract her with drinking games and fun things, the deeper the regret she’d felt that Simon wasn’t part of it all. Now he was back and all was right with her world.

I won’t hate Simon.

Theresa paced the length of the bedroom. As her breathing slowed, she reviewed all the ways this night was different.
She was not being held down. She could walk anywhere she pleased.

There was no gag in her mouth. There was no tape wound around her head. She could breathe easily, without fear of vomiting and choking to death. Nobody was dangling a knife over her face, telling her to decide which eye she liked the best.

The deep bruises were long gone, along with the muscle tears and infections. She could walk, run, and exercise without clenching in pain. There was a white line of scar tissue, about an inch long, under the right corner of her lower lip, where one of the rapists had bitten her, but it was hardly noticeable when she applied makeup. They had marked up Theresa’s body pretty badly, but there was nothing she could do about that.

She was not exposed. She had gone to bed wearing a loose t-shirt and baggy exercise shorts. Her body, her scars, her vulnerability – all safely out of sight. But the nightmare still chewed at the edge of her consciousness, waiting for her eyes to close.

The most frequent nightmare was simply a re-enactment of the rape, only on an endless loop, so the sun never rose above the ocean, smoky morning light never filled the space under the boardwalk, and the panting, cursing, sweaty weight of men’s bodies never ceased. In the other nightmare, the one that had just wrenched her back into consciousness, the probing fingers and organs became spikes and blades, slicing her open and spreading the slashes wider, skin ripping as the clutching hands pulled her arms and legs and other fingers poked and pried, making sure there would be nothing left without stains and scars. All the while snarling and pumping their hate into her. She could burst, let the poison rush out across the ground like steaming acid.

Shaking again. Time to check the house.

It was a small place, a bungalow Lisa had been renting for the past three years as she banked her salary and plotted her big move. It had a screened-in porch that looked out onto a small front yard, which Lisa kept bursting with flowering bushes. Rusty chain link fence with a gate that screeched when opened. Better than a watchdog, that gate.

Theresa padded back through the living room, past the bathroom, past Lisa’s bedroom, through the kitchen. Nothing was following her. Nothing was going to clamp its hard palm across her mouth. Nothing was going to jack sudden, agonizing punches into her stomach. Nothing was going to jam her into the back of her own car, feet and hands keeping her pressed into the damp, dirty carpet. Nothing was going to grab her hair and yank her head up. Nothing was going to pack a spongy ball into her mouth, or loop tape around her head to keep the gag stuffed in with her screams.

You dress like a piece of ass, you get treated like one. You asked for this.

The back yard. Theresa loved the back yard. High wooden fence so nobody could peer in. Wooden gate with a latch and padlock. Shade from a couple of big pines, but still lots of sun. All quiet and still now, in the breathing dark.

A car, moving slowly. No radio, no music. Theresa raced to the living room and peered through the windows, straining for a glimpse. It passed the house and continued up the street. Or maybe it had pulled over. Maybe they were watching the house.

We win and you lose. Live with it.

Theresa slipped into the porch. She tested the front-door latch, just to be sure. It clicked, and suddenly the door was loose in its frame, Theresa’s brain instantly erupted in scalding rage. Unlocked. Some asshole had left the porch unlocked. Anybody at all could have strolled into the house while they were all sleeping.

Probably Simon.> Stupid, arrogant, take-everything-for-granted, dumbshit, male, brains-in-his-dangling-dick moron. She was going to break down Lisa’s door and grab him by the ears and pound his head against the wall.

The rage evaporated as quickly as it had come, leaving her dizzy and nauseous. Theresa managed to lock the porch door without making too much noise, then sat in the living room and tried not to think about anything.

This isn’t working. But there was something that would.

Theresa went back to her room, crouched and opened the bottom drawer of her nightstand. She poured a bit of rubbing alcohol into a tea dish, then selected a single-edge razor from a plastic dispenser. She dabbled the razor in the alcohol, then extended her left arm. She pushed her fist against the wall, keeping the arm steady, and held the razor against the soft flesh of her inner bicep. The first cut made her gasp. By the fourth cut, her mind cleared and the ravening voices fell silent. They knew they had been defeated. Theresa could hurt herself before they hurt her.
Six cuts and she was done. She didn’t want to go crazy, mark herself up in some really noticeable way. Lisa might spot the cuts, the way she’d spotted the healed slices along her wrists during the winter. Everything had to be covered. No more tank tops in the summer, no more halters. From now on, it was strictly long sleeves for Theresa.

Theresa folded some paper towels and tucked them between her arm and her body. She fell into a long, quiet reverie, rocking back and forth on the edge of the bed, until she glimpsed her shadow on the far wall and realized it was morning.

Morning. Her eyeballs felt coated with hot sand.

A grand total of two hours sleep. And a job interview at eleven.

Theresa padded back to the kitchen, toward the sizzling sounds and the good smells Lisa was making. Maybe she could mix the giggling and friendly banter with her hard-won peace, use it to construct a decent façade for the rest of the day. A new, improved Theresa, capable of moving in the daylight and dealing with people.

Lisa, barelegged and loose-haired, was wearing one of Simon’s pinstriped shirts, while Simon hovered behind her with nothing on but his denim cutoffs. The stupid ZOSO tattoo across the top of his back was the first thing Theresa saw as she entered the kitchen. French toast fixings – egg cartons, cracked shells in bowls, a carton of milk – covered the table.

Theresa watched the tangle of summer-brown arms, the careless contact of hips and legs, the casual knowledge of two bodies. That had been her, once upon a time. Going out, looking and being looked at, playing chase-me-fuck-me with some guy, going home with him, wringing each other out in the dark. Waking up next to a new body, a new man to study and learn and evaluate. The bad ones zipped up and split, but with the good ones it was like this, all ease and funny remarks, quick kisses and hands trailing across each other on the way to the fridge or the coffeemaker. Maybe one more for the road, a quickie before the shower, if the man was exceptionally cool or exceptionally hot. And then you went off to start the day, full of the knowledge that as bad as the job might be, you were a real human being carrying a load of delicious secrets, well used and completely alive.

She could hardly stand to watch Simon put his hands on her sister. He grabbed her upper arm and hauled her in for a kiss and Theresa swayed in her chair as another acid wash of memories flooded through her. The lovers didn’t even notice as she slipped out of the kitchen and back to the living room. There was a light sheen of sweat across her face. Seven in the morning and it was already noontime hot.

“Hi baby!” Lisa cried. She hugged Theresa from behind, grunting urrrrggghhh as she tried to lift her big sister off her feet. “Come have breakfast! We’re trying a new recipe!”
Something slipped loose, and suddenly Theresa was laughing in the daylight. “So I’m the guinea pig?”

“That’s right.”

Theresa let herself be steered back into the kitchen. Simon, still shirtless, was waiting with a plate in one hand and a small pitcher in the other. Theresa’s shirt was rucked up under her breasts, exposing her stomach. She caught Simon’s glance and straightened up, breaking Lisa’s grip, so she could yank everything back into place.

Lisa scraped the chair across the tiles. “Sit!”

Theresa curtsied. “Yes, ma’am.”

Simon was doing the old comparison glance. People did it all the time. Lisa had gone into her teen years looking like a smaller prototype for her big sister. Throughout high school she’d maneuvered to keep boyfriends away from the house because half the time they ended up paying more attention to Theresa, who’d been happy to rub it in by calling her kid sister Me Junior whenever she was feeling bloody minded. Since then they’d adopted different styles. Theresa, still slightly heavier in the chest and wider in the hips, wore her black hair short. Lisa, who now got plenty of male attention all on her own, kept her hair shoulder-length. She favored bright dresses and colorful tops. She had more straw hats than an Amish village. Theresa went in for jeans or slacks and dark tops. She hardly ever wore dresses.

Simon set the plate down in front of Theresa. Deep gold slices of French toast, arranged like a three-leaf clover with a small white cup of cream cheese in the center. He reached across the table and flicked the pitcher three times, drawing a perfect spiral of brown syrup on each slice.

“How do you do that?” Theresa laughed. As she looked up, she caught Simon’s glance darting away. Men and boys had been ogling her since she turned fifteen, and she knew Simon had been looking down her shirt. The accompanying twist of anger was out of proportion to the offense, and Theresa pushed it away.

“Presentation, presentation, presentation,” Simon intoned.

She tried some of the toast, pretended to gag, got a wadded dishtowel in the face.

“Asshole!” Lisa yelled, but laughing, too.

“This is great,” Theresa said. “I never had it with cream cheese before.” Her stomach seemed to yawn with sudden emptiness, and Lisa ended up frying another four slices. Then it was time to shower and get ready for the job interview. Grey slacks, black top, heels. She broke out the makeup and gave herself the face she wanted, not the face the rapists had given her. After a little thought, she grabbed a white linen jacket for extra arm coverage while she was in the car with Lisa.

She regretted the heavy clothes as soon as she stepped out of the porch and into the swampy mid-morning heat. But Lisa was running late and Theresa needed the lift, so she took her place in the van and waited for the AC to work its magic. Simon blew a kiss as he headed for his car.

“You’re sure about this?” Lisa said, backing out of the driveway. “You don’t have to take the bus if you’re not up to it. I can give you cab fare back, you know.”

“I took some money out yesterday. I’ll be taking the bus every day if I get the job, so it’ll be good practice.” One of Simon’s friends was working on Theresa’s ancient Lincoln, trying to find a cheap way to keep it rolling a little longer. “I don’t think there even is a cab around here.”

“Cashier,” Lisa sighed, watching for an opening in the highway traffic.

“There’s shit-all in the job listings,” Theresa said. “I won’t be surprised if there’s a line of people trying for the job. Everything sucks.” And yet it was good to be out and moving, doing something purposeful, doing normal things and thereby maybe feeling normal. No longer the resident basket case.

It also wouldn’t hurt to be bringing some money into the house. She’d been living on Lisa’s goodwill for just over four months, since the fight with Rob – Theresa’s mind fled from that thought. A wound almost as raw as the ones inflicted by five strangers who knew nothing about her, except where she could be hurt the most. Rob, who knew a lot about her, had reopened – stop.

Stop.

Her hands shook a bit as she fished the iPod out of her jacket and inserted the ear buds. Lisa knew what the iPod was for, so she turned down the radio.

Therapy music. The rape counselor had given her a list of songs to help calm her panic attacks and boost her spirits, but Theresa found them a little too amorphous and New Agey for her classic rock tastes, and she’d been replacing them as new songs came to her attention. Picking music was tricky. One of Simon’s buddies had suggested Al Green, maybe to steer her thoughts toward romance, but “Tired of Being Alone” had pushed her in the exact wrong direction. Her most recent discovery was “Gone,” a Madonna song about leaving behind a bad situation. As Lisa steered onto the main road, Theresa closed her eyes and let the lyrics work on her like a salve. She matched her lips to the lines about not being broken again, about not falling apart. When Madonna sang, “I’m not very smart,” Theresa swallowed hard. I may not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, she thought, but I didn’t deserve any of this. She wanted to believe it. With time and repetition, maybe she would.

Once Madonna had done her work, Theresa clicked around within the playlist, trying to get a fix on a new mood. “Fool in the Rain,” her favorite Led Zeppelin song – all the tunes from In Through the Out Door had a tonic effect, for some reason. Then “Fixing a Hole,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and “Julia,” because Theresa had to have her Beatles, her Aretha, her Carly Simon, her Doobies.

She settled once again on “Sara,” a Fleetwood Mac song that alternated passionate singing and dreamy interludes in which she floated with the music. She didn’t really understand the lyrics – something about Sara being gone, yet holding out the promise of a reunion once she built herself a new house – but there was a sense of devotion she loved to hear. Sometimes, Theresa pictured herself building the house and giving Lisa a huge sunny steaming kitchen to work in. Other times, Lisa built the house and Theresa stayed on to . . . well, do something. Maybe spread manure on the flower beds. Whatever the words meant, the song pulled at her. It was a clean emotion, and Theresa tended it like one of the herbs in her sister’s cold frames.

Value City was a big glass-fronted box where fat women in blue tent uniforms folded and refolded piles of clothes while skinny boys in white shirts pushed shopping carts bristling with plastic hangers. The air conditioning couldn’t keep up with the sun blasting through the plate glass windows: the woman working the courtesy desk came around the counter with pebbles of sweat on her forehead and blobs of grey under her arms. She felt the boys scanning her as she was led to the back, where the brownish carpeting gave way to grayish-white tiles, past the locker rooms and the punch-clock and the vending machines by the eating area. Behind it all was the manager. His name was Bob.

Bob.

It shouldn’t have been a problem. This particular Bob was big, but in a soft and tame-looking way. He was probably not the kind to use his hands and fists on a woman. Pale face and soft, curly red hair that would probably be all gone by his fortieth birthday. He looked her in the eye to say hello, then he spent the rest of the session talking to her chest, only occasionally looking up to remind himself that there was a head with a brain in it floating above the cleavage. And he kept doing a little twirly thing with his pen, a trick that he was obviously way too proud of.

Bob.

He cleared his throat and she came out of her reverie. He was staring at her, not saying anything. What did he want, a blow job?

You do it nice and we’ll let you go.

“Do you need me to repeat the question?” he asked.

You want us to let you go?

“I’m sorry. I spaced for a moment.”

You do it nice for all of us and we’ll let you go.

“Are you in space now?”

Fucking slut.

“Excuse me?” The anger pushed the words a little too hard.

Nice and slow, bitch. Pretend I’m your dad.

“Are you drunk? Are you on some kind of medication?”

How’d you like that pen in your eye? For a moment, Theresa wasn’t sure if she’d actually said it.

“I’m sorry, I thought you were just interviewing my tits.” Nobody said anything as she got up. Nobody looked at her as she left. If an interview couldn’t be successful, at least it could be short.

We win, you lose. Live with it.

Back on the sidewalk, back out in the furnace. Theresa stalked across the immense sun-scorched parking lot, then waited for the light to change so she could cross the equally immense highway and join the Hispanics clustered around the bus stop. The anger kept her upright, kept her moving. Where the hell had she left her shades? She couldn’t function like this, like some blinking mole dragged into the daylight.

Thirty-three minutes before the bus would come.

How do I do this? How do I keep going? I’m so tired.

As Theresa stepped to the curb, a turning car rumbled past and the men inside let out a chorus of rebel yells. The low bell-tone of dread hummed through her guts as she retreated to the shade of the bus shelter. She told herself there’d been no real threat. It was all very pro forma. That was simply the thing you did when you saw a good-looking woman by herself. You wouldn’t want to say anything friendly, or do something to make her feel better about the world. You just yowled and leered and let her know what you’d do with her if the circumstances were just slightly different.

At least it was the middle of the day. Lunch over, everybody back to work. Fewer people on the street, fewer chances for accidental eye contact. Get hit with a predatory look that left you ready to scream for help.

The bus already. How long had she been standing here?

She fumbled out the tokens and took a seat near the door. The driver kept glancing at her, but that was okay. She had an escape route. She focused on that and did her best not to drift away.

The bus dropped her at another shopping center, another sweaty hike up a low hill of asphalt, stepping over riprap to reach the parking lot. As she walked between the cars, every smear of movement on the windows drove an ice dagger through her heart. She shivered on line in the glass-box pharmacy and ignored the men paying her attention, the joking attempts to start a conversation, the hard hungry looks over soft friendly words. Once her panic pills were safely stowed in her bag, Theresa headed for the liquor store and bought a six-pack of beer. Then it was down the black slope and across the black road, the sun beating her like a rented mule every step of the way. She slung the linen jacket over her shoulder and tucked the six-pack under her arm, rather enjoying the feel of the bottles sweating ice water through the plastic bag. The chill soothed some of the still-healing cuts. Once she reached her street, Theresa steeled herself for a fresh round of triggers: the sound of cars coming up behind her, worries about people watching from the houses. She had sweated through her clothes several times now. When she finally got to the house, wrung out and trembling, she dropped the keys several times before she could get the door open. Look at the time. Jesus Christ, it took forever to do anything when you didn’t have a car.

I am done with this day. I just hope the day is done with me.

The house was silent, but it was the quiet of emptiness. Nothing felt odd, there was no sensation of being stalked. She kicked her dress shoes into her bedroom and stashed the beer in the fridge. She needed a shower in the worst way, but there was still too much daylight. Theresa preferred to shower in the dark, with the medicine cabinet door open and angled away. She went to great lengths to avoid looking at her post-rape body.

The beer was for after the sun went down. She took a glass of lemonade out back and settled into one of the Adirondack chairs under the shady pine. The quiet of the house had been soothing, and now she felt transparent to the sounds of the afternoon. It was so pleasant being Not-Theresa that she actually slipped off to sleep for a while. She tripped awake to see shadows reaching for her across the grass.

With the sun going down, the house’s quiet was getting bothersome. Even having Simon around sneaking looks would have been preferable. She decided to turn on the radio and wash some dishes, but she began to worry about the relentless dance music masking other sounds in the house. What if somebody knocked at the door? What if somebody came in, walked up behind her? And the dishes were impossible, stacked so high in the sink that water poured across the counter and onto the floor when Theresa tried to rinse one. She dropped a swatch of paper towel on the puddle and nudged it around with her foot.

Time for a beer.

She took a couple of pulls from a long-neck bottle and thought about the job interview. Bob. Bob. Bob. One of the rapists had accidentally used the name, and even through the haze of shock and pain Theresa registered the jolt of fear that went through the others. They had just pulled the taped gag out of her mouth, so Theresa seized on the name, rasping out Bob Bob Bob, insanely happy that she finally had a weapon to use against them. Bob Bob Bob. She had called out some other things as well, things she hated to remember because she could still believe them, two years later, on nights when the old terror came back strong.

She didn’t want two bad nights in a row, so she started pounding the beers, hoping to lose herself in an alcoholic fog before the shadows wrapped around her heart.

It was well past dinnertime, and still no sign of Lisa.

Had she gone back to Simon’s place? For another sleepover?

“Oh shit,” Theresa wailed, and the loneliness of it trembled in every shadow in every room. So that would be tonight’s variation on hell – fears of being left alone? No doubt, it was on the horizon. Lisa would marry Simon and they’d open their café. Light-souled people would flock to it, Lisa would raise children brimming over with her happiness, and Theresa would watch all of it from the sidelines, a half-crushed animal along the highway, learning all over again how to crawl and, after a great deal of effort, maybe even limp.

You asked for this.

The beers were doing their job, but she needed one extra boost. She wove a path down the hallway, cursing Bob and herself, and broke out the razor dispenser. This time she didn’t limit herself. She simply kept cutting the tender skin of her inner biceps until the voices dropped away and nothing was left but the comforting fog. It took nearly an hour, and seven rounds of paper towels wadded under both arms, to stop the bleeding. Then she slipped into the bathroom to scrub the bloodstains off her fingers.

She was drying her hands when the front door opened and shut. She stood still, listening hard, and without thinking reached over and snapped off the light. She thought about clenching the keys like a spiked glove, then she remembered her bag was in the kitchen. So she stayed put, mouth open, breathing hard but quietly. Listening.

“Theresa?” Lisa’s voice.

Her body and mind unclenched. She flipped on the light and called out: “In here.”

The sudden scare had dissipated some of the alcohol mist, but not enough to ruin her buzz. She opened the door to find Lisa staring at her, eyes wide and glittering in the light from the kitchen.

“Baby, I’m so sorry,” she said.

“What . . . ” Theresa staggered back a little as Lisa rushed in and hugged her. Lisa’s arms were very tight around her waist.

“I left you by yourself last night. I was so caught up in Simon coming back, I just lost track. I left you by yourself. Jesus, and it was that . . . ” She stopped herself, and Theresa filled in the gap: the anniversary of me getting raped. “Baby, please forgive me.”

Theresa folded around her and kissed the top of her head. “I got through it. It wasn’t fun but I did it. I’ve had much worse days. I got through it. Baby steps. C’mon.” She turned and pretended to lean on Lisa’s shoulders. “Baby-step me to the kitchen.”

“You’re all sweaty. Why don’t you take a quick bath? You’ll feel a lot better.”

Theresa chuckled. “I was going to do that. Time got away from me, I guess.”

Lisa stiffened when she saw the beer bottles on the table. Theresa slumped into her chair and pushed her hair back along her head, then rubbed her eyes.

“I should have come home sooner,” Lisa said. “You were alone all last night and alone now tonight. God dammit, where was my head?”

Theresa didn’t slur her words when drunk. She spoke clearly, in a distant, abstracted tone.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I had six brown buddies to keep me company. You wanna split the last one?”

Lisa smeared away tears with the back of her hand. “How much sleep did you get?”

Theresa sighed. “About two hours. I’m pretty fried.”

“I can’t believe you’re even awake.”

“I’m working on it. My friends here are helping.”

“Theresa . . .”

“Maybe I’ll take some pills,” she mused. “I refilled the prescription today.”

“What?” Lisa snarled. “What? After all those beers? No. Fucking. Way.”

Then she was off down the hallway, heading for Theresa’s room, obviously meaning to quarantine the sleeping pills. “Hold up!” Theresa called after her, rising from the chair, then she waved in disgust and settled back down. She slouched against the table, propped her head on her fist, and closed her eyes for what was coming.

Lisa’s shriek cut through the house. Theresa opened her eyes, too exhausted to move, as her sister stomped into the kitchen pinching one of the razors between her thumb and forefinger. The wadded paper towel, shot through with russet stains, dangled from her other hand.

“Not again!” she shouted, crying all the while. “Not again!”

Theresa, still leaning to one side, shrugged. “You had your fun last night. So did I.”

“God fucking shit! Every minute of the day I worry about you! Every minute, it’s what can I do for you! What can I do to help Theresa! And meanwhile you’re hacking yourself up with razors!”

“It helps.” She turned heavy-lidded eyes up to Lisa and nodded. “You don’t understand it, but it helps put me right.”

Lisa stared down at her, then she threw the razor and paper into the trash. Still staring at Theresa, she grabbed the back of a chair and smashed it straight down on the floor, once, twice, three, four times. Her mouth was a tight line of anger. Finally she screamed at Theresa and threw the chair sideways across the floor. The air was still shivering as the front door slammed behind her.

Gotta think about moving. With next to no money in the bank, no job prospects, and a car about to cough blood and die. Sure, get her own place. That would be some feat.

So Theresa did the next best thing: she finished the six-pack and made her way to bed. She woke to sunlight and chirping birds, along with a straining bladder and a hangover mallet thumping at her temples, but she’d actually gotten some rest. It had been a good night after all. How about that?

###

Echo by Steven Hart is available on Amazon.  He can be visited on his website. His other works are displayed below.

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