“You can become anything you want”; that’s what her mother had always said. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but when you’re living on food stamps and have a child going to bed hungry more nights than not, that’s what you say. However, Beth knew better—had back then, too, but hadn’t wanted to hurt her mother’s feelings.
Life’s a bitch then you die.
“Yeah, baby,” she intoned, “you’re so damn good.” Some thirtysomething guy with a potbelly and lousy breath was on top of her. Beth studied the meticulous heart tattooed on his right arm with the name HEATHER written in cursive. She wondered if Heather was at home, right now, with a kid on one hip, fixing boxed macaroni and cheese. “Oh, yeah, make me wet, baby.” Beth never derived pleasure from these semiregular encounters, but they did help to procure the rent money and purchase alcohol. She hadn’t gone to college—hell, had barely finished high school—but she had a pretty face and a tight ass. And she told herself she was using the cards she’d been dealt.
“Thanks,” the potbelly man said, sliding off the bed and grabbing his pants. “I’ll call you next Friday.”
“I look forward to it,” she lied.
Moments later, she stood alone in the shower, a bottle of Corona Extra in her hand and cum running down her leg, ruminating her childhood. The scalding water turned her pallid skin mottled red. The beer blunted the happenings of the day. And as she washed away the odor of sex, the voices in her head mocked her, told her the world would be better without her. Beth felt a prickle in the corner of her eyes and drained the beer. She placed the empty bottle on a shelf next to the soap and bent over to kill the water. From this angle, the drain looked like a bottomless, black hole, and she imagined herself slipping down into that void, embracing the darkness and vanishing from existence—never to be seen again. Just then, Beth heard something (or someone?!) in the bathroom and pulled back the shower curtain.
A man wearing a black ski mask stood next to the tub.
She started to scream, but the man hauled back and punched her in the nose, catapulting her head backward, striking the shower wall. The world went fussy around the edges before finally dwindling to black.
* * *
Beth walked into classroom 217 at the end of a desolate hallway. The shadowy room was icy cold, reeked of BO and bad breath, and had no vacant seats. Thirty students pointed at her, their amorphous faces judging and mocking and laughing—no, check that, guffawing. She looked down and realized she was completely naked.
“Stop laughing,” she yelled.
She tried to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. It was as if she were paralyzed from the neck down, not only unable to leave but incapable of covering her private parts. From somewhere, a spotlight fixed on her, its harsh illumination blinding. All she could do was stand there, listening to the hideous laughter and feeling her face burn . . . burn . . . burn—
“Wake the hell up,” the man with the ski mask said, slapping her face repeatedly. He was sitting in a chair directly in front of her. The shades were drawn, and the room appeared more gloomy than usual. The air was heavy and redolent with the stench of three-day-old booze and cigarettes. “Nap time is over, darling. We need to talk.”
Her head throbbed; her eyes refused to focus. She was tied to a kitchen chair with an extension cord, naked and wet. And the only words she could form were, “Couldn’t spring for some rope?”
The man smiled through one of the three openings in the ski mask. “Well . . . we’ve got a comedian in our midst.” He whacked her across the face with the back of his hand. “Did that feel funny, bitch? Got any more jokes?” He reached over and grabbed an instrument (small, curved, two metal points at the end) off the counter. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’ll ask you some questions—simple inquiries, really. And if you lie to me, or if you refuse to answer, you’ll be punished.” He flipped a red switch on the black, plastic device.
“What is that thing?” she asked, trying not to sound nervous.
“Just something I use for motivation. And to, you know, jog the memory.” He leaned forward. “I hope you don’t have to piss, sweetheart.
Over the years, Beth had experienced countless difficult situations; however, at the moment, she struggled to recall worse circumstances than she currently found herself. “Wait . . . why are you doing this?” She wriggled to free an arm. No such luck. “Let me go and I won’t tell—”
He jammed the tips of the device into the flesh of her abdomen.
Thousands of livid bees stung every square inch of her body. Her muscles constricted with such extraordinary force she bit her tongue. Beth felt herself urinating but was helpless to stop the flow. She tried to yell, to plead for the unbelievable pain to stop, but her mouth refused to oblige. Time crawled to a stop and then ceased to exist at all.
The man leaned back in his chair. “Unless I ask you a question, you don’t fucking speak.” He smirked from behind the mask. “Calm down. It’s okay. We’re all friends here. Now, question number one. Did you do business—and by business, I mean fuck—with a man named Matthew Little?”
Beth, on her finest day, couldn’t remember most men she had done business with. But she did recall Matt Little because of the ironic juxtaposition of his last name and . . . you know, his manhood. He had joked about it the night they first met at Cheers and Beers. She had assumed it was your typical macho bullshit, but she had been sore for three days after that evening. “Yeah . . . yes, I know him. But whatever—”
“Remember?” He brandished the memory jogger, its metal teeth eagerly waiting to bite her soft flesh. “Okay, question number two. Did you know Mr. Little was married?”
She lowered her head, “Yes.”
“Beth,” he said, taking a deep breath, “that’s what’s wrong with the world today. People don’t respect boundaries. And without respect for boundaries, you’re left with nothing but anarchy.”
Tendrils of tears scampered down her cheeks.
And after an undetermined amount of time and several additional inquiries regarding Mrs. Little and her association with a prominent Lexington mob family, the man reached into his jacket pocket and produced a knife. He snapped the blade open with a CLICK. “Close your eyes, Beth.”
Beth began to sob uncontrollably. This was the end of the line. She was going to die in her disgusting kitchen, strapped naked to a Goodwill chair—marinating in her own piss like a Thanksgiving turkey. How had her life plummeted to such depths? “Please . . . please, I beg you not to do this. Don’t kill me.”
“Close your eyes,” the man said again. He inched the knife closer. “Don’t make me tell you again, daring. I don’t like repeating myself.”
Finally, she closed her eyes and surrendered to her fate. She cried when she felt the pressure, the cool inflexibility of the blade against her skin. Prayed to God for the first time in forever. And then nothing but beautiful silence.
She guardedly opened her eyes and discovered the man had gone; more importantly, she was still alive. Beth looked down and didn’t find any blood or entry wounds, but she noticed the cord had been cut. Her legs were wobbly and tingled something fierce as she made her way to the window. She lifted the blind. Sweet, gorgeous sunshine flooded the room. And for some reason, she recalled a line from Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge had said: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.”
This was her second chance. No more blaming other people for her problems. No more justifying inappropriate behavior. No more living in the past with all the other ghosts. Because her mom had been right.
“You can become anything you want.”