This story contains sensitive content

Trigger warning: violence against women/domestic abuse

She woke up, dazed and cold. Reaching for the blanket pushed down around her ankles, she shivered at the touch of her sheets, the way they slid slickly along her skin, the way they prickled the goosebumps on her breasts.

What happened last night after Wyatt left? She knew she had told him it was over, demanded the key to her apartment, and told him to leave, but after that, she barely remembered anything. She was certainly exhausted. Their fight had been monumental…screaming, crying, more screaming, and threats. He had told her she would regret it. She thought she might, but she hoped she wouldn’t.

After he slammed the door, she had crawled into bed, hoping to lose herself in sleep, but the tears had come hard and hot, almost choking her. Great big heaves of pain had flooded her, and she was helpless to resist.

She’d made the right decision, she knew it. He was controlling, temperamental, and cruel. On their one-year anniversary, as she applied her mascara: “Too much of that shit makes you look like a whore.” And then again, getting dressed for her birthday dinner: “You better be careful–you’re getting fat.”

Now, she realized she must have fallen asleep while crying. Her whole body ached, and she briefly considered calling in sick. Her throat was dry, a thousand deserts dry. Lifting her leg to slide it out of bed felt like knives. Maybe she had the flu... Hadn’t the girl at the next cubicle been gone all last week? 

But she needed her job, her shitty little job at the employment agency, entering data and proofreading ads. And nothing about her asshole boss made her believe that he wouldn’t fire her in an instant. Even though her skin felt like ice, even though her throat raged, she knew she had to get up.

Stiff-legged, she lurched to the kitchen, pressing the button on her budget coffee machine as she rounded the corner. A steaming hot latte from one of those fancy automatic espresso machines would be nice right about now, she thought. It would warm me up quick. But no chance of that. After all, how could she possibly afford such a luxury on the shitty little wage she earned at her shitty little job?

And with Wyatt and his day trader income gone, there was no hope for a better future. Sure, he’d spoiled her with dinners on the Upper East Side and opening nights on Broadway, but he’d also hurt her. 

And not just with his words. There’d been that one time, when he caught her admiring her own reflection in the windows of the Met’s foyer–he’d twisted the skin of her arm, leaving dark sea-green bruises, and she’d had to wear long sleeves for two weeks. That other time…his hand had come up to her face so fast. She could almost convince herself it was an accident, but the cold glint in his gray eyes told her otherwise. 

She pulled open the drawer and reached for the can opener, fumbling with fingers, slow and clumsy. Once she had it in her hands, she worked the crank, opening the can of cat food, the metal slicing metal, the pungent scent strangely absent as she lifted the razor-sharp lid to reveal the pulpy flesh below. 

“Luther? Luther…?” she called. “Breakfast’s ready.” 

She saw him as he stretched on the window sill, stepping delicately onto the back of the couch, walking like a trapeze artist before launching himself to the floor. He entered the kitchen with his arrogant head held high, accustomed to being served his daily meal at this time. Cornering the small island, he caught sight of her and froze, his black back arching and his fur standing on end comically.

She shivered, chafing her upper arms with her hands. What’s wrong with that damn cat? she thought.

“Come on, boy,” she cooed, taking a step forward, holding out her hand.

Before she could get any closer, Luther skittered backwards, then bolted across the room, tucking himself in the corner between the couch and the wall.

“Well, suit yourself,” she said. Except that she didn’t say it...she croaked it. Her throat was even worse than it had been when she first woke up, and if she didn’t have the flu, she definitely had a bad cold. If I don’t feel better after I get out of the shower, I will call in sick, she decided. Screw her asshole boss, anyway!

Heading down the short hallway to her bathroom, her mind flashed back to the previous night. Wyatt had been furious as she held out her hand, waiting for him to hand over the apartment key. He’d put it in her palm but then grabbed her wrist, saying “You’ll be sorry” with an utterly icy calm. Even now, the vice-like grip of his fingers felt etched on her skin, and entering the bathroom, dimly lit with the muted gray of a nightlight, she looked down to see if he’d left more of his bruises.

Instead, she was surprised to see how pale she was. She’d always been fair, thanks to that cool Norwegian beauty that had attracted Wyatt in the first place, but she must really be sick. Blue veins crawled up the white of her inner arm. No sign of bruises, she noted mentally. At least not yet. 

Reaching into the shower, she turned the knob to full hot, waiting for the steam to billow out of the opening. She stepped into the shower, the scalding water slicing into her skin like daggers. But the pain was pleasure, and she welcomed it, feeling a little warmth return to her body. The steam seemed to soothe her parched throat too. Maybe she could go to work…she mused. Her hands skimmed over her soapy skin, remembering another shower, one she’d shared with Wyatt. Maybe she should give him another chance…

She turned off the knob. Without the heat of the water, her skin was cooling rapidly. If he were here, he’d be handing me a towel and a cup of coffee. But then, an image of his face flashed into her mind, hanging over her in the darkness. His features had been blank, but his eyes blazed with pinpricks of fury. He didn’t mean it. He never does. He loves me. He just can’t help it.

That’s it, I’ll call him, she decided as she stepped out of the shower, her hand groping for a towel. Drying herself off, she was cold already. Maybe he’ll come over, she thought eagerly. He wouldn’t be happy, but she could think of a few ways to make it up to him. 

She reached up with her towel to swipe at the mirror, trying to clear the steam so she could see her reflection. She would dry her hair and put on a little make-up…not too much–she didn’t want to look like a whore. But she would like nice for him, she would make him forget last night. The barest of smiles was curving her lips as the steam lifted, and she caught sight of herself in the mirror. 

And screamed.

The girl in the mirror was her–certainly, it was her. There was no doubt. Blond, blond hair, darkened by the water…pale, pale skin, not flushed by the warmth of the steam…blue, blue eyes, already growing hazy with a milky sheen. 

But it was the double smile that made her scream.

The lips on her face–gray, cold, slightly curved in a smile–and the gaping grin on her neck, a puckered gash that ran from ear to ear.

He had said she’d be sorry, and he’d meant it, she realized. 

And now, she would be cold forever.

October 23, 2023 05:43

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