Darkness unspooling on the other side of the glass disappeared under the fog of her breath. Head resting against the window, she scribbled 4 5 27 in the mist, before erasing the numbers with a long sigh. She was tired, but not sleepy, even though it was past midnight and they had left the last city lights behind some twenty miles ago. Now, the night sky and the landscape had merged, turning the outside into a black void lost somewhere between Greensboro and Charlotte.
She shifted in her seat, searching for that elusive comfortable position. A series of pointless contortions, she hadn’t felt comfort in a very long time and she doubted she would find it again tonight in the harsh velvet slopes of a Greyhound seat.
She had never left Pennsylvania before, but as the coach pushed forward, she was leaving more than a state line behind, she was crossing all the lines, and there was no coming back from that. All she had with her lay somewhere below her feet in the dark belly of the bus, where her bag was a green canvas brick in a wall of luggage.
Things she packed:
3 pairs of jeans
5 bras and panties
5 pairs of socks
All brand new, she couldn’t afford to pack her own. He kept track, knew everything she owned, including the clothes that hung in the closet or were folded with meticulous care in the dresser. The tricky part had been the money, she didn’t have any. Looking after him and his house was all the work and fulfilment she should need.
Slanted body, she pressed her cheek against the cool glass, her eyes latching onto rushing shapes: farmhouses, barns, and others — dark blurs of other people’s lives. Happy ones, she hoped. The speed, they emerged for a second before being swallowed by the night again, unsettled her stomach. She abandoned the rushing outside world for the steadfast headrest in front of her. Taking long breaths to keep the sickness at bay, she left her shoes on the floor and pulled her legs up onto the seat next to her. The bus was only half-full, and people had peppered themselves about in the hope for some extra space. Still, another twenty-six hours to go before Lake Charles.
She hadn’t known where to go at first, just away. Far away, until she was swallowed by thousands of miles, until she became a dot so small he would never find her. She’d pored over brochures, she kept at her neighbour’s, studying red and blue lines, following them with her finger across the country until it stopped under the name of the Louisiana town. She knew she had found the place. It had her daddy’s name.
He had been a gentle giant with big hands that tossed her in the air, catching her each time as she giggled and dared him with “higher daddy”. But he hadn’t lived long enough for her to have a happy childhood. After he was gone, his place in the house and her mother’s bed had been taken over by a parade of boyfriends. But none of them had ever made her feel safe the way her father had. As a little girl, she had been scared of the monster under her bed; who knew that years later she would be scared of the monster in her bed, and worse, that she would have invited him in.
Things she packed:
3 cracked ribs
1 radial fracture
1 dislocated shoulder
1 collection of bruises trapped under her skin
It took six month to scrape the money together. She paid for her freedom through scrubbed floors, mountains of ironed clothes, piles of washed dishes for the ladies of the White Pine neighbourhood. As long as his dinner was on the table by 7pm, and his house was maintained to his standards, he didn’t much care what she did during her day. She kept it all at Mrs. Price’s. The old lady was happy to help, she knew a thing or two about mean husbands, luckily hers abused his liver as much as he did her and died early of cirrhosis.
The inside of the bus blurred under a gratitude mixed with sadness and she wiped the tears with the sleeve of her jumper. At first, Hank had been perfect, with a real job at the local bank and a proper house with no pizza boxes piled on the kitchen table, or old socks on the bathroom floor.
A cashed cheque, that’s how they’d met. He teased, she blushed. He asked her name, he asked her for coffee, he asked her to dinner, he asked questions, listening to what she had to say, he asked her to marry him.
For better, for worse, the minister had said. When her heart leapt with her “I do”, she didn’t realise how much worse she was accepting with that vow. He stopped asking, instead he demanded. She had first learned on a sweltering July day. The day she forgot to put a coaster under the bottle of beer, that was sweating as much as they were. How the drops had rolled down the thick glass and pooled on the mahogany coffee table. How she joked when he asked for a coaster. How he showed her that he would not be disrespected in his house.
Things she packed:
1 crescent scar on the back of her right hand
5 chocolate bars
2 packets of saltines
She rubbed the lesson he’d embedded in the back of her hand — a constant reminder, his standards and requests should never be discussed. She had lived through the madness where the loving hand that would stroke her cheek one moment, would curl into a fist and punch her in the stomach the next. But she had escaped that madness. The heavy consequences of what she had done settled on her shoulders, pushing her body deeper into her seat. Maybe she should get some sleep. Hank couldn’t find her here. She was safe to close her eyes, but her mind refused to believe her. Hiding from the idea of him under her jacket, she shut everything out and repeated the numbers 4, 5, 27 over and over until they dissolved into nothingness.
“We will shortly be arriving in Atlanta, please change here for connecting services towards San Antonio, Dallas and Las Vegas.”
The driver’s voice over the PA system jolted her awake, and she forgot for a moment where she was. How did she miss the alarm clock? She couldn’t be late with Hank’s breakfast, she couldn’t, but then she remembered.
The first part of her disappearing act was complete, now just a little longer until Lake Charles, where she hoped to become a statistic. He would have never stopped looking if she had run away; she was not allowed to leave him, that would be the ultimate disrespect. But she hadn’t run, all her belongings were still in their rightful place. Nothing was missing, apart from her. She would be one of those people who walk out one day, go to the store, or work and simply vanish along the way — another face and a few lines of information on the Missing Persons Database.
Things she packed:
Toothbrush and toothpaste
1 pack of baby wipes
1 bottle of vitamins
Back home, her toiletries still stood on her shelf in the wall cabinet, lined up in the correct order. Her towel folded on the rack, perfectly aligned with his, their toothbrushes sharing the same tumbler. The frames on the living room mantel filled with poses and smiles, portraying the acceptable level of affection and happiness — all the pretences of a seemingly perfect marriage.
Her future home didn’t have a precise address or defined walls yet, but it would have a bed with mismatched bedding — stripy pillowcases, clashing with a flowery duvet. She would eat toasts among those sheets, and when she’d roll around, crumbs would prick her thighs. She’d walk around barefoot, she wouldn’t have to put coasters under beers, and it wouldn’t hurt if she spilled something.
A quick wash, a very milky tea and half a chocolate bar later, she was about to board the bus to Lake Charles when she spotted the familiar outline of broad shoulders and short black hair. He’d found her. Arms folded across her stomach, she staggered back, slamming into the side of the bus. He wouldn’t try anything in public, would he? Maybe she could explain; maybe he wouldn’t see her. She should move but she was frozen, fear pouring its lead into her limbs. He turned around, looked right at her and smiled. It wasn’t him. All the tension rushed out of her with a noisy burst of tears that startled the poor woman standing next to her.
The popular route meant a lot more bodies needing seats, and a neighbour for the rest of the journey — an elderly man with dark terracotta skin and a silver moustache that wiggled every time he spoke.
The wipes had been a good idea. How would she have smelled to him if she hadn’t used them to clean the damp crest of her armpits and between her legs?
“Would you like one?” he asked, his voice sodden with a Southern drawl.
He nodded to the bulging brown paper bag full of peaches resting on his lap, hands gently cradling it.
“That’s really nice but no thank you,” she replied, nibbling on a saltine cracker. Her nausea had returned with the motion of the bus.
“I brought those back for my wife. She loves them. I went to visit our son, but she wasn’t well enough to come with me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, I hope she feels better soon.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”
She’d never really thought of leaving, she didn’t believe that was an option, not until six months ago. She was standing at the sink, cleaning dishes after Sunday lunch, when Hank leaned behind her, his chin balanced on her shoulder.
“It’s time,” he told her, his hands resting on the soft curve of her stomach. Fear sucked her heart dry, as she gripped the plate in her hand so hard her knuckles turned the same porcelain white. She stretched her tight lips into a smile and swallowed the scream stuck in her throat.
“Of course darling,” she said slowly, so the words wouldn’t falter on her unsteady breath.
That night, he made love to her. As he repeatedly pushed himself deeper inside, she formulated the first steps of an escape plan. She could take whatever he had in store for her. She didn’t have the self-respect to want better for herself. That was ok, she went from being her mother’s daughter straight to being Hank’s wife. She never had the time to develop a sense of self strong enough to believe she deserved respect, but she would never let anybody else be the recipient of his anger.
She made small talk with her new traveling companion, and it felt nice, normal. A conversation where she didn’t have to second guess every word she said. They were both heading to Lake Charles: Manuel, going back to his daily life, and her, starting a new one. When he learned that she didn’t know anybody in town, he insisted she came for dinner and met his wife, Lucinda. She made the best guacamole in all the state, he told her. He asked for her name, and she gave him the new one she had chosen for herself. She couldn’t start over still being the person she used to be.
They sat side by side; the morning sun staining the sky with shades of grapefruit pink as it warmed the window and their cheeks. She almost hadn’t gone through with it; the fear of the unknown, of getting caught had almost overshadowed the pain of broken bones if she stayed.
Things she packed:
1 first aid kit
1 peanut-size baby growing inside her womb
Life had decided to give her the ultimatum she needed, delivering it right inside of her forty-seven days ago. She couldn’t let him or her to grow up to be Hank’s child and suffer the terrors that came with the affiliation. So, she’d left yesterday, after staying with him for too long: 4 years, 5 months and 27 days too long.
She smiled at Manuel. “If that’s ok with you I think I’ll have a peach.”
She bit into the fruit and laughed as the juice ran down her chin, staining her tee-shirt.
Laure Van Rensburg is a French native, currently living in Romford, UK. She studied creative writing at Ink Academy. She was shortlisted for TSS Publishing Summer Flash Competition, longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award, and her stories can be found in Across The Margin, Danse Macabre, Ellipsis Zine, and Reflex Fiction. Connect with her on Twitter @Laure0901