Author’s Note: This is a continuation of the short story “Carolina“. While it can certainly stand on its own, “Carolina” provides a bit of background on John.~
It wasn’t about the face staring back, eyes separated from one another by the jagged, chipped fissure running the mirror’s diagonal. It wasn’t about gray eyes that were at one time blue. Nor the fat lip that split again each time she spoke.
It was what she saw in it. Years, stacked up like old newspapers. Flesh puffing her cheeks and concealing her jawline. Yellowing teeth. Gray strands dulling her blonde hair.
It was who she was.
“Fuck, Carolina. What in the name of fuck is this fucking shit?”
She cringed. Not at the string of profanity that dripped from him like slime. At the loud, sharp slam of the glass bowl of oatmeal against the tabletop.
“Breakfast, Carl,” she returned.
It was certainly surprising to hear nothing. She turned. The bowl made solid contact with her face, momentarily stunning her blind and deaf. She staggered back and caught the corner of the Formica counter top sharp in her kidney. Her breath left.
Thank God the boys were at Gramma’s.
When her hearing returned, so did the pain. Deep and throbbing in her lip and jaw, echoed by stabbing protests in her side.
“Fat cunt,” he was saying. “How many times?” he was pushing his face close to hers, and his breath reeked of stale Beam and bile. “Lay off the motherfucking slop. Can’t you fucking stir up an egg once in a while?”
She inched along the counter away from him. Blood slid like molten metal on the back of her throat. She didn’t meet his eyes.
“Fuckin’ weak bitch. No wonder the little assholes is growin’ up to be sissies. Get to the store. I want eggs. And some of that ham steak. Today.”
It wasn’t about the fact she was in a gas station restroom, in her pajamas and overcoat, using cheap brown towels to try to wipe away the forming bruises. It was about who she had become. Who he had made her. And how she had allowed it to happen.
There was a tap on the door.
A hesitant voice asked, “Carolina?”
Her heart stopped. Flipped over. She awaited the next beat, half hoping it wouldn’t come.
“I saw you come in – I was in front of the store… It’s John.”
There it was, the next beat.
He persisted. “I’m worried about you.”
She cleared her throat. “I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
“I’ll wait,” he said.
“There’s no need.”
Wait for what? What did he want? Money? Panic swelled through her chest when she realized she’d left the house without her purse. She had no way to buy the eggs and ham steak.
A sob, the first one in a long time, caught in her throat. She forced her voice around it, forced it to be steady. “I don’t have any cash today, I’m sorry.”
There was a moment of silence long enough to make her think he’d left. Then, as though through clenched teeth, “Would you open the door, please?”
He wasn’t going away. And she thought she might just have to stay here till she died. She couldn’t go back to the house empty-handed. Or late. She unlocked the door, and moved to stand with her back to it, studying the tiny white tiles on the wall, each surrounded by dark stained grout. There was writing. She didn’t register it though.
The door clicked closed. He didn’t say anything.
“I’m alright, really,” she said. Her lip cracked again. She had to turn to grab another paper towel, but he intercepted her, caught her hand and took it from her. He ran it under the water, till it was warm. Then he faced her, tilted her chin toward him and began to carefully swab at the blood. She flinched.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “What happened? Run into a door?”
She swallowed and fought the tears.
“Where are Calvin and Hobbs?” That what he called Martin. It made the five-year-old giggle, and he’d asked her in the car the first time, “Ma, who’s Hobbs?” When they’d gotten home, she’d found a picture of the strip, on the internet.
“With my mom.”
She shook her head, clenched her jaw. Averted her eyes and clutched her coat over her breasts, to hide their heavy sag inside her tired old pajamas. She wished he’d stop looking.
He sighed, stepped back and dropped the soiled towel in the trash. “You should call the cops.”
She finally looked at him. She had before, and she’d always thought he was attractive, beneath the burdens life had laid on him, behind the tension around his eyes. He had a gentle smile. There was no smile now, though. “It doesn’t work,” she said. “He’s just meaner when he gets out.”
“It would give you time to get away, take the boys and go someplace he couldn’t find you.”
She laughed, a humorless bark of a sound that bounced off the high corners of the room. “And go where? I got no money. I’ve got nothing that’s mine. Except the boys.”
He stepped in and put his arms around her, pulled her close. She stiffened, feeling self-conscious, awkward, but also wanting badly to accept the comfort.
He held her for a long time, not moving, not speaking. The fluorescent tube over the cracked mirror hummed and buzzed quietly. He was warm and solid. She found herself feeling at home against the cool nylon of his coat. A fly ricocheted mindlessly off the ceiling and light.
He finally stepped back. Held her by the shoulders, looked into her face. They were equal in height. “What’re you gonna do?”
She shook her head and moved away, to the sink. She looked at him in the mirror while she moistened yet another rough towel. “I have to go back. Hope he’s sleeping so I can grab my purse.” So he didn’t know she’d been so stupid to forget it, and still didn’t have his ham and eggs.
John shoved his hands in his pockets, like he was looking for something. “Here,” he handed her a crumpled ten. Her eyes welled. She was well aware it was likely all he had, that it meant he wouldn’t have what he needed for the day. She shook her head. “I know it’s not much. But take it.”
He pressed it into her palm, and curled her fingers around it.
She didn’t know what to say to him as they emerged into the hard daylight of the parking lot. He walked beside her, and she felt his hand on her back. She wasn’t sure what made that okay, only that it was, and that it felt good. For just a moment, safety cocooned her thoughts.
She went inside without him, bought the eggs and ham steak. She took the change from the cashier and walked back out through the automatic doors. She looked for him, expecting him to be gone. But he was there. He took the bag from her. She dropped the change into his coat pocket, and he smiled. They walked to her van.
“Could I come with you?” he asked.
“Come with me?” His words didn’t quite register.
“Yes, come with you. Would he do anything if I were there?”
She grappled with the concept, and why it made her feel happy and terrified at the same time. There was that safe feeling that followed him around. But it couldn’t happen. She wouldn’t put him, a virtual stranger, in the line of fire. “It would be worse, John. But thank you.”
He reached up touched her face, ran his thumb just beneath the throbbing split in her lip. “I wish you could come stay with me.”
She tried to smile and flinched instead. “I’ll see you around,” she said, as she got behind the wheel.
“Wait, here.” He pulled a scrap of paper from his pants pocket. “Got a pen?”
She found one. He scribbled something and handed it to her. “That’s a seven.” He grinned. “Call me, if you need anything. I’ll do whatever I can, Carolina.”
She looked at it, then at him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Why did you give me your number a while back?”
It had been a moment of desperately wanting something different than what she had. A moment of instinct. A flash of realization that he was nothing like Carl. “In case you needed anything.”
He smiled. “In case you need anything, Carolina.” He bumped the car door lightly with his hand, and walked away.