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Contemporary Fiction

Different day, same nurse with a stump where her empathy should be. ‘And you’re absolutely sure you fell down the stairs again?’

Sienna nodded and the nurse rolled her eyes. ‘You sure are a klutz,’ she commented and licked her finger to turn the page on the form she’d filled out last time. ‘Still no family history of inner ear disorders? Strokes? Brain tumours?’

Some nurses at the emergency department tried to coax the truth out with words dripping like honey, but Sienna was allergic to honey. Some raised their eyebrows so high they looked like they were about to detach from their faces, transform from caterpillars into beautiful butterflies, and fly off forever. No matter how raw Sienna felt, no matter how many stitches she needed, she knew to keep that big mouth of hers shut.

In Sienna’s native, Eastern European language, the oversized mouth she supposedly had would be called unblanched. She wondered if that would have made a difference to her husband. If he knew the expression, would it inspire him to pour boiling water down her throat and watch the red skin on her tongue come away just like it would peel off a tomato?


***


When she came home from the hospital, a cardboard box was sat on the kitchen table. She could see from the way it was dented slightly near the bottom that it had been simply dropped on the surface.

Bob emerged from the pantry. ‘I found some shit of yours in the garage,’ he said with his mouth full, pointing at the box. ‘Now let’s see your face.’

He approached her and a familiar grip closed around her jaw, but she knew that this time, it wouldn’t end up dislocated. Bob had a process, and part of it was sweet, post-fight reconciliation, especially if she’d needed ambulatory care. Sienna suspected he probably imagined her making out with one of the nurses after the stitches had been put in place, which would explain why he was always so insatiable whenever she came back.

‘They cleaned you up well,’ was his final judgment and he ran his fingers along the cut. She didn’t flinch. ‘You’re a brave girl after all.’


***


The box had bits and Bobs in it. Sienna’s old life and new squeezed together, things of no consequence that never got unpacked when she’d finally moved in with her husband. The contrasts reminded her of a charity shop display window, with tennis rackets next to evening gowns next to books on stargazing. She couldn’t remember the transition from a lone immigrant to a lonely immigrant wife.

On top, a guide from a London museum Bob took her to when he was still trying to impress her. A framed picture from a holiday he booked on condition she would work for that beach body. A plain, boring Valentine’s card in an obscene shade of pink. Pink stands for flesh that reveals itself from beneath the burnt sienna skin, she thought, and her hand wondered absentmindedly to a scar on her forearm.

Underneath, she found a diary she’d kept when she’d first moved to the very foreign country. Her native rambling got progressively interspersed with more and more English words, flippant and proud like children on their first day at the kindergarten.

At the bottom, she saw a book in translation she didn’t recognise at first: Rose Madder by Stephen King. She opened it and found a stamp claiming the paperback as the property of her town library, its name embedded on the first page, all red and accusatory.

She couldn’t recall how it was ever possible that she’d brought the book along with her.


***


She told herself she would only read for ten minutes to jog her memory. But she couldn’t put the book down and a dangerous feeling crept up on her: an opening to a person she once knew as herself was widening like a creaking door. If her thoughts got loud enough, Bob would hear them and come running with lubricant to put an end to the incessant noise.

Here was a book about a Rose Daniels, a woman escaping domestic abuse by walking into a painting made with a type of dye called rose madder, pictured on the cover. Sienna remembered how incredulous she felt reading it for the first time, how little empathy she could muster for the protagonist. How eventually, she abandoned the book halfway through.

Who was that silhouette in her distant memory, so sure she would never be beaten around the bush, never get bent out of shape? Bob managed both at the same time once when he broke her arm behind some rose bushes on their trip to a botanical garden. He dragged her there after she’d been on his case like the world’s smallest violin for hours on end, going on and on about their sterile lawn. Sienna learned a lot of English expressions that day.

Bob had a unique way with words — they could suddenly invade the physical realm in the most literal way. He once told Sienna she ought to have her mouth washed out with soap, and he did it for her, holding her head in a steady grip under his armpit until she gagged on the bitter suds. That’s how she learned the expression.

Nails were regularly hit on their heads until they turned purple and had to be tugged off Sienna’s fingers. Curiosity did once kill her old, blind and beloved cat when it had to suffer the consequences of peeing in the marital bed. In her ideal world, it would rain cats without the dogs, and she promised Bob she would never forgive him.

She closed the book and looked at the cover. She spotted some raw sienna in the painting, which was the same hue her bruises would always eventually pale into: the most curious, sickly shade of brown.


***


She realised that simply turning up at the airport wasn’t a solution people opted for anymore: they all booked their tickets in advance. But she couldn’t do that either way, not with the joint account. Bob loved going through the statements day by day to investigate Sienna’s outgoings. ‘What’s the public transport charge for?’ he’d ask innocently and she’d reply with such zest it only made him more suspicious. ‘It was raining hard earlier, so I took the bus home.’

‘Why is there a supermarket bill from today? Did you go out?’

‘An international fee? Have you been sending money to your mother again?’

‘What does Bitchbox stand for?’

It was Birchbox, the only waft of monthly luxury she would ever get. A few pathetically tiny samples of cosmetics she had no use for, with a beautiful calligraphy brochure attached every time. Love yourself, queen. Every day is your day. Look beautiful, feel gorgeous.

None of the travel-sized bottles and plastic containers had made it into her hand luggage. She had the book and a few changes of clothes in her bag, and the pristine woman at the counter with no discernible facial expression was staring her down like some artefact of the past.

‘You’ll have to wait until there’s a cancellation or a no-show,’ she explained after giving Sienna’s request for a plane ticket some thought. ‘It might take a while.’

‘No problem,’ Sienna replied and wondered whether the woman would just forget about her. ‘Thank you,’ she added with emphasis. People in this country loved expressing gratitude, even when nothing was being done for them. ‘Thank you in advance,’ she remembered to pile on. She walked away in a chuffed-to-bits state of mind. This should make the robot lady feel obliged enough.


***


The sweats started like some twisted waterworks as soon as she inserted the credit card into the terminal. She waited, suddenly feeling like her bladder was flooded, and ran away the moment the boarding pass was printed and handed to her.

She didn’t make it. She felt a warm, spreading fullness in her underwear which made the material cling to her skin, and then a tiny trickle ran down her thigh. She changed out of the ridiculous thong she could floss with into boxer shorts — the forbidden pair, reserved for the messiest, bloodiest periods only, as per Bob’s Bible of Bootylicious.


***


There was nothing remarkable about the flight, no unnatural buildup of emotions, no dreadful turbulences which would symbolise Sienna’s rocky path to a smooth landing. She fished the book out of her backpack for comfort, but she ended up stepping eagerly into the pages. Carts were wheeled and plastered smiles were flashed at her, but she barely raised her head to shake it. No, thank you. Thank you in advance for not bothering me any further.


***


She remembered the name of the narrow side street the library was perched on because one of her school friends had lived right above it, and she gave the address to the taxi driver at the airport. She’d withdrawn as much money as she could, fearing her husband would block the card as soon as he caught on. It would cost her wordy Bob a pretty penny, as he often said. At the same time, with no pain, there was no gain.

The library was just how she remembered it, tucked into an otherwise normal building with floors and floors of flats above it, one of which her friend had occupied. Sienna gave the librarian her name, but her loan sheet couldn’t be found. ‘Do you get rid of members if they’re inactive for long enough?’

The woman shrugged. ‘On occasion.’

The book card was also not in existence anymore, which the librarian proclaimed after sifting through a folder with the words LATE RETURNS written across it in red ink.

Sienna put Rose Madder down on the counter. ‘I’d like to return it anyway,’ she said.

‘You don’t have to pay anything,’ the woman reassured her, hoping Sienna’s determination had an obvious, financial source. ‘Stuff like that happens.’

‘No, no,’ Sienna interrupted. ‘I’d like to return it. I can’t explain it right now.’

The lady stepped back a little. She knew that inexplicability wasn’t a real word for a reason, and its adjective form, inexplicable, often prefixed news reports about terrorist attacks and school shootings in faraway lands, and she felt something foreign about the manic woman on the other side of her meagre barricade.

‘I’m really sorry,’ she said finally. ‘Checking that book back in is a lot of paperwork,’ she added. In a country where mentioning bureaucracy was equivalent to pulling out a bleeding, beating heart, surely, the Sienna woman would understand. ‘Treat it as a gift from the library.’


***


Sienna stepped out and the sour smell of old paper and old people subsided with the next inhale, so warm and dry it could only be continental. She looked around. Her childhood home wasn’t far, only a thirty minute walk, but she was in no rush to surprise her parents. Her feet and hands weren’t tingling, and she wasn’t apprehensive, not anymore.

She discovered that her favourite ice cream parlor had been replaced by a tiny shoe boutique with touching pairs of flip-flops and sneakers clearly selected by someone with provincial taste trying to impersonate Gucci. They told her the old owners had moved to a bigger building nearby and she found it without a problem, now clinically clean, stickers of excellence and hygiene in the windows.

Sienna only tucked into her treat when she’d reached the park, by which time the four scoops inside the waffle boat had melted out of their spherical shapes. She turned her phone on and it buzzed in her hand for so long she could feel the tips of her fingers numb from the vibrations. Missed call from Bob, message from Bob, email from Bob, missed video chat with Bob.

She answered when his palindromic, ridiculous name next lit up her screen. ‘Yes?’

‘Where the fuck are you? Why is there an airport charge on our account? And ATMs? Twice? Sienna?’

She got distracted by two children rattling past her so fast it shouldn’t be possible on a tricycle, and she admired their need for speed. ‘Yeah,’ she replied.

‘Yeah? What kind of an answer is that? Where are you? I’m coming to get you.’

It occurred to her briefly that he could, but she realised he wouldn’t know the name of her home town if he had a gun put to his stupid head.

‘Alright, Bob. Come get some,’ she replied and clicked off.

The sun was shining and the children were making more noise than should be possible when you’re that small. She would get up soon, her stomach pleasantly filled with sugar Bob would have called charged with cellulite, or pumped with the bingo wing mutation. But she wasn’t going to call it that anymore, no, it could just be called ice cream again.

She felt a little dizzy when she got up and her hand wandered up to the dissolving stitches holding the two parts of her left eyebrow together. She realised with all the force in her thrice-concussed mind that she wouldn’t have to wrap bandages around her head anymore. And that somehow, she’d need to wrap her head around that.

April 29, 2021 12:34

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39 comments

Rachel Loughran
14:15 Apr 29, 2021

Wow, this was incredibly well written - powerful and grim but impressively witty in places too. Great work!

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Nina Chyll
14:23 Apr 29, 2021

Thanks a bunch!

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Safaa Ismail
21:17 May 17, 2021

Wow, I love this story! It has tons of parts that hold a lot of hidden power to it. Great job!

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Nina Chyll
21:19 May 17, 2021

Thank you very much! It was a great prompt.

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Jayvon Howard
21:11 May 07, 2021

Powerful story! You made a beautiful use of the prompt and the word count! I had to read it twice because there's so much depth and authenticity with Sienna. The entanglement of physical and emotional abuse and menacing represented in your turns of phrase was really creative. Painful and brilliant!

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Nina Chyll
16:03 May 13, 2021

Ah man, thanks a lot for such a kind comment and for reading twice - what an incredible praise.

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Blue Green
06:53 May 07, 2021

Beautifully written, it drew me in even though the subject matter was hard to read. Great job!

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Nina Chyll
08:12 May 07, 2021

Thanks a lot! I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I guess it's a little like a car crash sometimes with those subjects, difficult to bear but can't look away.

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Blue Green
09:06 May 07, 2021

Yes, exactly!

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Alison Brewis
12:41 May 06, 2021

Congratulations on the win for last time! And well done with this story. It's very powerful. I love how returning the book is really key to the developing story, not just an add-on. You've developed the character of Bob well, I like how you can really hear his voice in Sienna's thoughts. And the Birchbox bit made me smile! Comments like "you are enough" just don't cut the mustard when you're dealing with abuse, do they!

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Nina Chyll
08:14 May 07, 2021

I wonder how many people do actually know about Birchbox (not that it affects the interpretation of the thread in any capacity). I don't think slapping those comments on cosmetic samples does anyone any good. You literally have to pay to receive a BS motivational quote thinly disguising the capitalistic intentions, it irks me a little to be honest! Thanks for the very thoughtful read and comment on my story.

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Alison Brewis
09:07 May 07, 2021

You're welcome. No I don't think you need to have heard of Birchbox to understand it in your story. I keep seeing Facebook adverts for it though. Those Facebook algorithms clearly think my self esteem needs a boost (for a price, of course!).

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Rachel Mann
07:59 May 06, 2021

I loved this story! Your narrative voice is beautiful and the progression of the character is really impressive in such a short piece!

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Nina Chyll
11:01 May 06, 2021

Thanks a lot for the comment! Glad you liked the story.

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Charlie Murphy
01:18 May 06, 2021

Yes! She left that jerk! =] Well done! I love Stephen King!

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Nina Chyll
11:02 May 06, 2021

Ha, I'm glad you've managed to root for the protagonist even despite the short format.

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20:41 May 03, 2021

Wow! That was so beautiful and tragic and inspiring all jumbled up together. I loved the way she mixed all the idioms up to give them new power and new meanings all the way through, that was so clever. It really showed the power of words in her life, and connecting it all through Rose Madder was another wonderful touch. Fantastic, really fantastic. Well done :)

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Nina Chyll
11:04 May 06, 2021

Not sure what prompted me to think of Rose Madder recently, but I'm glad it resonated with someone! Not really one of the hallmark King novels to be honest, but a really compelling psychological portrait nevertheless. Thank you for digging in and I'm really glad you enjoyed the story.

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12:49 May 06, 2021

I'm not a super big Stephen King fan, tbh, but I did enjoy Rose Madder, perhaps because it is a bit different to his other stuff? I really did enjoy your story very much (in case you didn't get that from my effusive comment hahaha). It was definitely one of my favourites this week. :) I hope you are feeling very proud of it. :)

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Nina Chyll
12:56 May 06, 2021

Awww thanks! You're way too kind. I do actually quite like this one, which doesn't happen to me all that often. I used to be a huge Stephen King fan as a teenager, and I very much appreciate how accessible and effortlessly enjoyable his writing is. I would still gladly reread some of his novels. If you liked Rose Madder, give Dolores Claiborne a try, it's a classic!

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14:06 May 06, 2021

Ooh, OK. I'll check it out, thanks :)

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Claire Lewis
14:45 May 03, 2021

Another incredible story! Some things I loved: the fact that the book is the catalyst that prompts her to leave, the way you play with turns of phrase to show us Bob’s abusive nature, and the incredible prose. This story is very different from your last in many ways, but I’m impressed by the elegance with which you handle truly difficult themes and subjects in both. Beautifully done!

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Nina Chyll
19:15 May 03, 2021

Thank you! Very much appreciated and I'm glad you enjoyed the turn of phrase.

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Edie Lockhart
11:27 May 01, 2021

Powerful story and the pacing and imagery is spot on. I came to this from your winning story The Tree Surgeon. Love them both.

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Nina Chyll
10:03 May 02, 2021

Cheers! Thanks for digging in.

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H L Mc Quaid
13:40 Apr 29, 2021

Hi Nina. A powerful story (suitably grim in parts), with some clever wordsmithing relating idioms to actual events. Some lined I liked: "The contrasts reminded her of a charity shop display window, with tennis rackets next to evening gowns next to books on stargazing." and, "Who was that silhouette in her distant memory, so sure she would never be beaten around the bush, never get bent out of shape?" One comment, wondering if you mean 'sew' instead of 'saw' her? : "...to saw up that big mouth of hers as well as her cuts." And a great en...

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Nina Chyll
13:43 Apr 29, 2021

Yes, thanks for the sewing! I swear to god I will never learn. I've got a similar issue with pronunciation there, too. Thanks ever so much for the comment. I notice one of the lines you picked out seems very British to me. Do Americans have charity shops or are they called something else over the pond?

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H L Mc Quaid
14:01 Apr 29, 2021

Yeah, we've all got words we struggle with. 😂 I'm trying to recall what charity shops are called in the US. When I was kid, we called them "Second-hand stores", but I think maybe now they're called "thrift stores". Americans tend to use 'store' rather than 'shop.' But maybe they'd understand what a charity shop is? Also, "chuffed" is very British. I didn't know what that was till I moved to London.

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Nina Chyll
14:12 Apr 29, 2021

Yeah, I knew the 'chuffed' expression will definitely sound foreign, but I'm hoping it will be clear enough in the surrounding context. I do think they're called thrift stores, from what you said and a brief googling, but equally, it's a fairly self-explanatory name, so I guess it shouldn't be too hard. Surprising how many small differences between the national variations I've spotted since I started posting on Reedsy.

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H L Mc Quaid
14:19 Apr 29, 2021

I think most folks should be able to figure out what 'charity shop' and 'chuffed' mean from the context. At least this story doesn't face the issue of what to call carbonated sugary beverages (soda/pop/soda pop/coke...just to name a few). 😂

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Nina Chyll
14:24 Apr 29, 2021

I'm guessing yours does? I'll give it a read soon! Currently having a wee look over this week's competition entries.

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Ruth Smith
04:45 May 04, 2021

Great story! I'd have run too. Very well written and believable.

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Nina Chyll
11:02 May 06, 2021

Thanks a lot! Glad you enjoyed it.

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Nina Chyll
08:52 May 02, 2021

EDIT: introduced some slight changes to the structure of the story and tweaked the language here and there.

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Rachel Smith
15:38 May 01, 2021

Wow. This is amazing. Your writing is so powerful, I was invested right from the start. I HATE Bob. I'm beyond pleased she got away from him. If you have time to read my story "what he would have wanted" I'd appreciate your advice. Don't hold back, I'm on Reedsy to learn!

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Nina Chyll
10:03 May 02, 2021

Thanks for the compliment! Sure I'll give it a read and likewise.

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14:23 May 11, 2021

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12:36 May 07, 2021

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