February 3, 2021
I will die in this house and no one will be here to see it. The thought comforts me.
“You smoke too much,” Ash said, eyeing the full ashtrays in the living area. He plopped himself down on the sofa and waited for Portia to finish what she was doing.
Portia took off her headphones and leaned back against the back of her chair, stretching, and rubbing her neck. She refilled her glass and drank deeply before moving to a chair opposite her brother.
“You also drink too much,” he added.
“I smoke the perfect amount of cigs and I drink the perfect amount of Scotch, Ash. Don’t be that brother who judges his sister on the partaking of tobacco and hootch.”
Ash frowned slightly and then let a smile wander across his face.
“Did you just say ‘hootch’?”
“I did. And I stand by my choice of that word. Hootch is a delightful noun. Liquor sounds gauche and spirits is just pretentious.”
“So,” Ash said.
Portia remained silent, content to smoke her cigarette and drink her Scotch. It would be up to Ash to get the conversational ball rolling. Frankly, I can do without it.
“How’s the hand?”
Portia looked at her right hand. Angry red scars raced along her palm, twisting and turning and never letting her forget why they were there.
“So…uh…how’s the Twitch thing going?”
“I have 25,000 subs.”
Ash sat up, surprise invading his frame.
“Really? That many? Just to watch you play chess?”
Portia shrugged. She got up and made herself another drink.
“Yes. It seems that people like a girl who smokes and drinks while playing chess.”
Ash nodded absently, lost in thought.
“If you’re trying to figure out how much I make, don’t. Along with the merch and the online tournaments, I bring in around 200k. And I don’t spend much.”
Ash gave his siter a sharp, appraising look. Her mental health worried him. Specifically, he worried that she would never be who she used to be.
“No, I guess you don’t.”
“No need to.”
“Well, you haven’t left this house in six years.”
“No need to.”
“Or bought new furniture.”
“No need to.”
“Stop saying that.”
“No need to.”
January 3, 2015
Grunting, sweaty, burly man with fetid breath. He comes in quickly and does his business, then he leaves quickly. I cry each time. I try to clean myself, but it is never enough. I know he will kill me in this room. The thought terrifies me.
February 28, 2021
“Lydia and the kids would like to see you,” Ash said.
The afternoon sun had crept in, throwing sodium patterns against the far wall, lending an air of melancholy to the room. Smoke hung heavily in the air, moving to its own rhythm and taking its sweet time getting to where it was going. Leaves had fallen in force, covering the lawn. A few rebellious leaves skittered around in the cold breeze, scraping softly against the driveway and settling fitfully on the doorstep. Paint peeled from the house, the curls of latex threatening to commingle with the army of leaves.
“I send my affection to the love of your life and the spawn of your fertile loins.”
“God, sis! Really?”
“Ash. Don’t be that brother.”
“What brother? The one that finds fault with your choice of words? Well, I’m that brother,” Ash snapped.
Portia shrugged and lit a cigarette, adding to the smoke still loitering on the premises. Ash opened a window to encourage the cloying vapors to disperse. A chilly breeze freshened the room and caused Portia to put on a sweater.
“I had cod loin for lunch today,” Portia teased.
“I think I’ll watch ‘Tarzan’ tonight. He wears a loincloth, you know.”
“You’re an ass.”
“Live and loin, dear brother.”
“I get that you’re always going to be a little angry…”
“Could you loin me a few bucks? I need to pay…”
“Ok. I give in. Jesus, you’re intractable,” Ash said, shaking his head in irritation.
“Want a drink? Let’s see. I have tap water and Scotch and sparkling water and…well…more Scotch.”
Ash took the Scotch and downed it in one go. Portia watched him, a smile flitting across her face.
“Trouble in paradise?”
“No,” Ash said, refilling his glass, “trouble right here.”
“Indeed. Listen,” Ash leaned forward, “there’s a new coffee shop three blocks from here. Very nice. Very hipster-ish. I was thinking…”
“No,” Portia said forcefully.
“Just think about it, sis. A quick little walk there. A cup of coffee. A quick little walk back. Easy peasy.”
Portia sighed and rubbed her arms anxiously. The idea of going outside made her skin crawl, and her heart beat uncomfortably fast.
“Sure. I’ll think about it before I reject it soundly.”
Ash shook his head and got up to leave. He closed the window, locked it, and let Portia inspect his work. The routine never varied.
“Be careful going home, bro.”
Ash looked at his sister sadly and slowly shook his head.
“I live next door to you.”
“Yes, well, the simplest, shortest journeys can be fraught.”
“Yes. Fraught. I leave the thought unfinished so that your fertile mind can conjure up things that are fraught.”
“Hmm. Well, thanks for not throwing another lame ‘loin’ pun at me. Mind you, the ‘fertile’ jab didn’t go unnoticed.”
“Great. Take care,” Portia opened the door and fingered the locks nervously.
“Can I hug you?”
January 5, 2015
The chain allows me to get as far as the restroom, but no further. I can’t reach a window or a door. I wash myself but I’m still stinking of him. It won’t wash away. He has become more brutal. He tells me that after he’s tired of me, he’s going to strangle me and dump me in the woods for the animals to eat. He calls me vile names. I still cry every time he takes me. I don’t want to, but I do. I want to die right now, before he kills me. Dear God, just let me die!
March 11, 2021
“Interesting,” Ash said, watching Portia do her thing online. She drank copious amounts of Scotch and smoked a pack of cigarettes in four hours.
“Yeah, well, it isn’t really Scotch. It’s apple juice.”
“Wow, you’re such a fake!” Ash laughed.
“True. But it gets the job done.”
“What the hell is a Giuoco Pianissimo?”
Portia tamped out her cigarette and immediately lit another one.
“It’s Italian for the very quiet game. A chess opening.”
“Your preferred opening, apparently, judging by your comments. I don’t get it.”
“That’s because you’re a wood pusher.”
“You suck at chess.”
Ash nodded in agreement. He had played Portia a few times, right after the tragedy, and she had beaten him soundly each time.
Portia sighed. Explanations were always so tedious.
“I play a positional game. Get everything in the right place at the right time before launching an attack. Protect yourself. It may seem boring to most, but it works.”
Portia laughed, but it wasn’t a kind laugh.
“No, you don’t. But no matter.”
The sun had just set, leaving a hazy dusk full of muted, beautiful colors as its parting gift to mankind. The air had become unnaturally still and soft, as if Mother Nature were holding her breath in anticipation of something sinister. Kids could be heard up and down the block, oblivious to the fading light as they continued to gambol about. A car door slammed, and a dog vociferously barked its displeasure at something.
“Have you given any thought to the coffee shop?”
“I have. I can drink coffee here for fifteen percent of the cost of Betty’s Beans. I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to worry about rude or lackadaisical service, and I don’t have to fret about the proper amount to leave for a tip.”
“That isn’t the point,” Ash responded.
“Points. Ash. Points. And they are valid arguments against going to your hallowed caffeine hideaway.”
“I don’t hide there, sis. I drop in for a cup of joe.”
“Sure, sure. Lydia getting on your case about something?”
“What! No. It’s just…”
“Sure, sure. Listen, I don’t want to get in the middle of your domestic squabbles, but the coffee shop isn’t the answer. I like Lydia…”
“You’ve never met her,” Ash retorted, with some vehemence.
“But I’ve spoken to her. And she has to be a pretty decent person to have snagged you.”
“True. I’m a good catch.”
“That you are, but you’re also a slob and you’re a little judgmental.”
“I don’t think…”
“You judge me all the time, Ash. You’re decent enough to keep it to yourself most of the time, but you’re judgmental. You think I’m not living a good life, but I am. You think I’m still tortured by what happened. I am. But not in the way you think.”
“So tell me how you deal with what happened and not go completely insane, sis. You can’t be doing well if you refuse to leave the house.”
“Ash. Dear Ash. So clueless.”
“Wow. That’s harsh.”
“Listen to me. I follow the Giuoco Pianissimo, in chess and in life.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
“But I do, and that’s what matters. You have to trust me, Ash. You have to let me live my life.”
“Such as it is.”
“And there you go, being judgmental.”
“Yeah, sis, but it just isn’t right. You deserve to be out there, happy and…”
“I’m happy here, Ash. I have my online friends and my Twitch. Most importantly, I have my sanity.”
“You still drink too much and smoke too much.”
“Ha! The clarion call of the defeated!”
“You know I’m right. When you start in on my drinking and smoking, you admit that I’m right and you’re wrong. That’s your tell.”
“Well, you do drink too much and sm…”
“Go home and give your wife the high hard one, Ash. That’ll take care of any little arguments you two are engaged in.”
“Go! Leave me. I have things to do,” Portia said, pushing Ash gently towards the door.
Ash listened as Portia threw the three locks and put the heavy iron bar across the door.
“You’ll never get out if there’s a fire!” Ash yelled at the door.
“That’s the least of my worries,” Portia muttered.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully. Just the way Portia preferred.
January 7, 2015
I have a plan.
April 14, 2021
“I never heard of this group. Weird name,” Ash said, scrolling through Portia’s playlist.
Portia leaned over his shoulder to see who Ash was referring to.
“Dishwalla. A Native American term for one who steals cable T.V. from a neighbor.”
“So, ‘Pretty Babies’ is your intro. Pretty friggin’ grim, sis.”
“Yeah. Want a drink?”
“I need you to go with me to the coffee shop. Just once, and I can die happy.”
“Hmm. Die happy. Sounds ominous.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. You mean that you’ll feel like you accomplished something if you can get your poor, damaged sister out, just once. “
“You can’t fix everything, Ash. That extra chromosome doesn’t give you magical abilities, you know.”
“I never said…”
“But I’ll go. One time.”
Ash blinked, stunned at the offer.
“Next month. May the twenty-seventh. Seven P.M. We will walk there and I will order a caramel mocha. What will you have?”
“I suggest a decaf coffee, no milk. You don’t need to get wound up before going home, and the dairy won’t do your gut any favors, either.”
“Just you and me. No Lydia. No carpet crawlers…”
“My kids have names, you know.”
“And then we’ll walk back. You will escort me into the house while I check all the rooms for unwanted guests. You will then go home and regale Lydia with your accomplishment. She will swoon and kiss you, and she will whisper sweet nothings into your ear.”
“Not likely,” Ash muttered.
“No? Which part?”
“Bite me, Portia.”
“Go home, Ash. Let your kids bite you. They’re at that stage, aren’t they?”
“I will. As soon as you leave.”
“Can I hug you?”
January 10, 2015
I break the glass of the medicine cabinet with my fist. It hurts like hell but I can’t worry about that. All I can do is think through my plan. It must be done right. I pray to God that He lets me succeed.
January 11, 2015
He comes in to have his way with me again. It’s late and he’s drunk, as usual. I whimper, a little more than usual. He undresses and forces my legs apart. He is starting to enter me when I sit up and plunge a shard of glass into his neck. He gasps and grabs at his neck, but I have pulled the shard out and I continue to stab him in the neck, the throat, and finally they eyes. He tries to scream but only a wet, sucking, gurgling noise comes out. He falls on top of me. I push him off. I find the key to the chains in a pocket and get myself free. I take a shower and call the police. My hand hurts. I can’t stop the bleeding. But I’m free. For the first time in ten days, I feel alive.
May 27, 2021
Betty’s Beans was indeed unpretentious in its furnishings, but the establishment did offer a wide array of drinks. To Portia, the choices were bewildering in their numbers. She scanned the menu board for five minutes, scoffing gently at some of the drinks.
“Look, Ash. A flat white latte with chocolate sprinkles and a caramel drizzle. Sounds more like a dessert than a drink.”
“Yeah, okay. Just order.”
“Caramel mocha, barista.”
Portia looked up, surprised and a little disheartened. She hadn’t accounted for the different sizes. She looked to Ash for advice.
“Large. And I’ll have a large decaf, no milk, one Splenda.”
Portia smiled. Ash had taken her advice.
They sat down at a table farthest from the counter. A couple of customers were inside, both with laptops. Young and ambitious. And probably unafraid of the world. Idiots.
“Not so bad, right? Quiet. Peaceful. Serene.”
“Is today synonym day?”
“Fine. I’ll give it four more minutes before we leave. That should satisfy you.”
“A whole four minutes! I’m blessed,” Ash said, being as sarcastic as her dared with his siter.
Portia tossed her bag onto a seat at their table. It landed heavily in the seat.
“What the hell you got in there, sis?”
“Everything a woman on the go needs.”
Portia stared at her brother and leaned forward.
“You’re not a woman on the go, so I decline to divulge. Ask Lydia, if you’re so curious.”
“Just trying to be a good brother.”
“Ha! That’s easy. You don’t have to wear a bra or suffer periods.”
“You don’t wear a bra,” Ash countered.
“True. Fortunately, I have small boobs. And what do men have to worry about?”
“Erectile dysfunction. Now can we change the subject?”
“Sure. Two minutes, then we’re outta here.”
“Can I hug you when we leave?”
One minute later, a man wearing a hoodie came in and pulled a gun out, brandishing it in the cashier’s face. He was yelling out threats and instructions. He wanted the money in the register drawer or he would “put a cap in your sorry ass.”
Ash froze. The one thing that he promised wouldn’t happen while out with Portia was happening. He glanced at Portia, who was digging in her capacious purse for something.
“Now’s not the time, Portia! Sit still and be unobtrusive.”
Portia smiled at her brother as she stood up and walked to the counter.
The man in the hoodie turned and pointed his gun in her face, threatening to shoot her if she didn’t back away.
“I just wanted to say good-bye. So…good-bye.”
Portia then shot him twice in the chest. She put her pistol back in her bag and sat down again. Ash couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. He simply stared at his sister, his mouth open and his eyes unblinking. Portia continued to dig through her bag. She found what she was looking for in due time.
“So, what would be the appropriate tip in a situation like this?”