The house is tiny tonight. The walls are caving in on me. The ceiling, peeled paint revealing the spotty bricks beneath, swarms above me. I will vomit again. I feel my chest constricting, the swell of nausea throbbing up my body. I crawl to my knees, wrench over. But nothing comes. I sag there, breathless, sweat soaking my flesh through my thin clothes.
Moonlight glints through the window. For a moment the carpet is illuminated. I see the red stains and puddle of vomit. The moon’s glare casts a bruised haze over my ripped, dirty shirt. My hand, spread out on the carpet, is revealed in all its torn skin and purple bruising.
I swallow a sob. I get shakily to my feet, my breaths thudding in my ears.
I need to move. I need to get out of here. Need to get out before he comes back.
I should’ve been gone hours ago, but hours ago I did not know that he would come home early, worn out from work and a job he hates and colleagues who make him feel less than every second he’s around them. I did not know that he would be hungry so early, impatient for supper. I anticipated his anger – I live my life on anticipation – but not yet, not this early in the evening. Nothing was ready – no dinner prepared. Tonight, I hadn’t even planned to make it.
Should I still go? Do I dare? The kick in my stomach, the tight skin stretched over my aching belly, is my answer. And I suppose I should be grateful that I can still feel her.
I stumble into the bedroom, the whole house silent and haunted around me. My bag is squashed under the bed where I left it. The room is spotless, tidy, and for a moment harmonious.
But the shadows sway through the thin white curtains, and the moon leers across the patchy carpet and the smooth white sheets and duvet of the bed. Every inch of this space starts to crush me, pressing down on my battered body and screaming head.
I kneel down and yank the bag out from under the bed. Pain bites up my chest and blood rushes to my head. I squash it down, and then I stagger out of the bedroom.
I freeze in the lounge – waiting and listening. No one else is in the house. I slide open the front door and stumble out onto the porch.
As I creep down the path, I finger the car keys from Mrs. Jennings. She’s our neighbour, and she’s not home tonight. But her car is in her driveway.
My breaths ease out a little when I see the car. She didn’t go back on her promise. That makes me smile, and suddenly all I’m aware of is the relief and appreciation coursing through me. For a moment, it numbs out the pain. It injects me with a tangible hope, and there’s a pang in my chest when I realise I won’t get to say thank you or goodbye or show her that I made it. If I make it.
I yank open the back door of the car and throw my bag inside. Then I run round to the driver's side and squeeze in over the pillow and blankets tossed over the front seats. I slam the door. The sound reverberates into the night and I freeze, my hands gripping the steering wheel. My breaths punctuate the stale air inside of the car. I stare out over the road ahead of me, a strip of tar that winds to the right and leads to the highway, and I grip the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white. I force myself to concentrate on the static buzz of cars in the distance.
Nothing happens. No one comes screaming. No one bangs on the car window. No alarm goes off.
I start the car, unable to breathe. The sound of the engine churning to life brings back all the nausea. Do I even remember how to drive? How many times I’m supposed to change gear? If the petrol tank is even full?
I slam on the brakes. How did I forget to check that? I thought of everything, planned everything, but didn't think of fuel. I didn’t even discuss it with Mrs. Jennings. Did she leave enough in? Will I even make it to the end of her driveway?
It’s too late now. Get moving.
The car slips down the driveway, then hits the road. I glance back at my house, no lights on inside, the curtain drawn. The neighbourhood is watching me, I feel it. Houses are dark bulks on either side - at nighttime, even the immaculately pruned hedges and bushes look like bundles of dark figures.
Silent cars sleep in narrow driveways. Sleek silver cars, all of them, of course.
Every house has a white fence, as well; delicate, pristine fences that do nothing to keep people out. Yet somehow it's taken me this long.
I told myself I'd just drive and not let my mind drift back to the past. That was one of the conditions: If I walk out of this marriage, if I leave him behind, then I need to forget about him and every experience I had in that house and in this neighbourhood.
But I'm kidding myself. Every plan, every rational thought, went out of my head the instant I flung open the front door and fled to this car.
I drive. The car is so loud that my muscles remain tense until I turn out of the neighbourhood, and only then do my breaths even out, too. Once I break onto the highway, there are other cars, but each one is oblivious to my experience. No one peers in through the window to see who I am and no one shouts or sounds the alarm. No one cares.
My body is coated in a cold sweat. My hands are plastered to the torn leather of the steering wheel and they never leave it. My feet are stilted on the pedals, but somehow I keep the car going. My calf muscles ache. My thighs throb with bruises.
She’s fitful inside of me. She reminds me that it’s not just myself I have to look after. I stall for a moment on the road - almost stop the car - because how I can provide for her? What if my cousin won’t take us in, and we land on the street? But the person inside of me: she’s the same reason I finally got the nerve to leave home. She’s the only reason. She set all of this in motion and deep inside of me I know it’s the right decision. Because he can do to me anything he wants – he can slam me against the wall, knock my legs from under me, scratch my face and blacken my eyes – but I will not let him touch her.
I squirm in my seat. I swallow. My mouth is dry, and it tastes of blood and sweat and stale vomit. I swallow again.
I can stop later. I can sob until my body is empty, give into being a shell of a woman. But for now, driving is all I have to do. Getting somewhere, anywhere but here: that is priority.
So I drive, tears streaming down my face, my body splitting in pain, and I keep driving to protect my daughter.