The first chapter of my manuscript - Berlin Owens make the decision to escape her husband.
|My legs swung from the bed of a red pick-up truck. I used a lighter to burn germs off the butt of a half-smoked cigarette before inhaling the stale smoke that tasted more like asphalt than tobacco. Who knows if the burning trick actually helps, but at least it makes you feel better. I never expected to be the kind of woman who smokes someone’s leftovers, but rock bottom and years of trauma will make you do some weird shit.
It pained me to look out over the horizon to see the mountains. Everybody loves the mountains, comes from miles away from anywhere to see them, but to me … they just look like extra walls on my prison cell.
The best place I ever knew might just be the flattest place on earth. I sat there and stared up at the mountains and wished for the day to come that I cross them and never look back. That was before I accidentally dropped that half-smoked cigarette into Eric’s workboot.
By the time the smoke wafted up to my nose, it was too late. The cherry had burrowed its way like a tapeworm into the heart of the sole. Not a big wound by any means, but it created a ridge. Eric hated ridges, detested them. He even wore his socks inside to keep the scruffy stitch line at the toe from touching him. Not a big wound, but Eric Owen’s would notice it for sure.
I snatched at it to get the halfie out, but as I clawed the cherry crumbled into my nail bed, and pain radiated through my finger as I snatched it back in a forceful gasp. Eric turned, with the grill tongs still hanging off of his wrist, and a fresh can of Shiner in his hairy hands.
“The fuck are you doing Berlin?”
“Sorry, it just fell in! I tried to get it out.”
“Get what out? What are you talking about?” He slipped the tongs back onto the grill rack and puff up his chest as he walked toward me. My heart pounded a few thick hardy beats before cranking up into a full-blown Nascar race of beats that sent stars to my eyes.
“It’s not a big d-”
“What the fuck did you do to my boot?”
“Nothing! It was an accident!”
“Yeah right, like all the other times you’ve destroyed my shit.” He cleared his throat and put on his most sarcastic mimic of my own voice, “Oh it was just an accident, I never meant to burn down your shed Eric. Oh and let’s not forget about momma’s pictures.”
The thought of momma turned my stomach upside down. The old Italian woman’s favorite weapon of choice was the cat of nine tails, and I, her favorite subject. Her own personal Jesus to crush under a crown of thorns. The way her eyes lit up as she tied my wrists to the post outback. The bloodlust in her lips as she commanded me to confess my sins in between cracks of the whip. Each tail slicing and plucking at my back.
Yeah, I burned her fucking pictures’. I’d have burned you both alive given the opportunity. The trail of empty beers next to the propane grill told me that Eric was already long down the path to alcoholic rage, and his clenched fists told me he was already at the stage where my face turned into a target. It wouldn’t matter what happened or not, he was coming for me now.
I pushed myself off the tailgate of the truck and turned to run down the street. Every muscle fiber from foot to head dashed in adrenaline-soaked desperation, my feet kicking up dirt with each aggressive strike of my shoes. Eric screamed every profane word his pea brain could think up.
The weight of his body crumbled mine into the pile of leaves that hadn’t been swept off into bags yet. I couldn’t say I wasn’t grateful for the softened landing with the olive-skinned mammoth on top of me it could have been a lot worse. But a cushion of leaves didn’t stop the pain taking my breath away as Eric used his mitt to grab me by the back of the neck. “Let me fucking go!”
“Awe, and what would be the fun of that?” I fought, he wrestled me down. I screamed, he covered my mouth. I bit, he smashed the back of his knuckles down across my cheek. That’ll leave a bruise. “Time for a little repentance, don’t you think?” I felt the blood drip down into the nape of my neck, “you’ll never be more than a dirty fag.”
“Don’t fucking call me that.” I swung my arms at him and dug my nails into whatever skin I could make contact with, but my attacks didn’t phase the mammoth of a man. I kept fighting, kept swinging, and kept pulling away as he dragged me into the house by the scruff of my neck. He carried me no different than Shaq carries a basketball except basketballs don’t normally scream and kick. “I swear to god I will be the death of you.”
“You keep telling yourself that princess.” He swung open the white lead-painted door to the cellar so fast that its signature creak disappeared. “Now I’m gonna go get your daddy. Would hate to deprive him of seeing your punishment. You know watching is his favorite part, right?”
“Just let me go you sick fuck!”
“Me? I’m the sick one? Do you remember why you’re here in the first place? You’re a god damned abomination, a filthy fucking faggot. And I’m stuck married to you so that your father can feel like his disgusting fuck of a child might go to heaven. Every time I punish you, it gets you closer to god. And one day you’ll recognize that I’m not your husband, I’m your fucking savior.”
Tears of rage streamed down my skin washing away the dirt from a few trails in my skin. Eric laughed and shoved me down the stairway into the cellar. The first stair connected to my shoulder which snapped louder than the thud against the rickety old stairs as he slammed the door shut behind him, leaving me in the darkness.
Tiny legs tickled their way up my pant leg, the scurry of their feet a sensory overload from all of my worst nightmares. My face peeled off the ground, but red strands of blood and mucus kept me connected to the small pool of red mud below.
I couldn’t see anything but the stars swirling in front of my eyes. The sounds were thick around me. Skittering nails ran along the walls, above the pipes, and one - squeaks and all - right in front of my face.
The cellar. The basement.
The cemented hole in the ground where nightmares became reality.
My own personal hell, far from anyone who could care to help, and that’s assuming anyone heard my screams - they didn’t. I’ve banged on that door till the skin peeled off my fists. The bloodied prints are still there, a few claw-marks too many if I remembered correctly, too. The solid old oak door, reinforced by three deadbolts and solid steel hinges. It’s a fucking dungeon.
Overwhelmed by fear my body is frozen there on the pavement, with my face barely above the mud. The place triggered an immediate response. Overwhelm. Fear. Paralysis. My mind slid away into that darkness. Settled into the background noise, I was just another piece of long-abandoned furniture, covered in dirt, and spiders, and muck. So my mind just slid away.
The last time I can remember being happy was ten years ago. Wow. It was ten years ago. Or was it longer?
Jaimie Ralston leaned over me in front of the lockers, her short fluffy mane of hair tickled my nose as our faces got closer. I tried so hard to play it cool, but all I could do was smile like a kid at a petting zoo. She never made me feel weird about it though, she knew it was nerves...she knew all my weird ticks…
“Can you believe we’ll be seniors next year?” She said just as our noses touched. It was the way she could take any serious moment, and flip it inside out in like a big joke. You would think her personality would have made her fairly popular, but we lived in a small town where it wasn’t really okay to be gay. She took a metric ton of shit from the standard “popular” kids, but she rolled it off with jokes so well that they eventually stopped trying. A few of the football guys even started to develop a weird bro-ship with her, guess it’s hard to hate someone who makes you laugh.
She stood back up with a bashful smirk, her left dimple indented into her red cheek. A bowling ball dropped into my gut as we made eye contact. My lips parted the way they do when you lose your breath.
My eyes pleaded for her to come closer again, and I felt myself begging for her lips to be on mine.
My mind flashed back to the moment we first met. She had on a pair of skinny black trips with neon teal lining, her black band tee splattered with white splotches, and that studded white and black belt she always used to wear. She was cute, and I think I did everything I could to make her notice me.
When she finally did notice me we clicked immediately. We were inseparable. Everywhere I went, she went, and visa versa.
So as Jamie Ralston stood here in front of me four years later, I begged her to come close. I never expected my father to be watching from the sidewalk outside as Jaimie pressed my back into the lockers.
Her lips touched mine faintly and paused, “are you sure?” Her voice was almost a whisper, but there was no humor in her tone. “You’re sure this is o-”
My breath trembled as I pulled her face to mine, our lips connected softly and slowly pulled apart before moving back in. We moved slowly, deliberately, and thoroughly. For those few seconds, nothing existed around us - not even my dad who watched in horror right outside the door. He was on his way in to surprise me for my last day of the year. It wasn’t a usual occasion for him, or for anyone in my family to pay any kind of attention to anything I do at all. Let alone show up at school, but I guess that was before mom died.
We stood there connected against the wall, lips embraced, for a few moments. We had waited so long for that moment, and the idea of letting it pass just didn’t feel right. Other kids walked by, some made comments, some laughed, one or two closeted kids gave us a quick bashful smile before moving on. “Freaks!” A few of the jocks shouted as they walked by, but we just smiled.
When we finally pulled apart Jaimie looked so deeply into my eyes it felt as if she might pierce my soul. She’d looked at me like that before. Often. But I’d never realized how warm and affectionate it was.
“Want me to walk you out?”
“I would love that.” I took her hand and we walked out the door. By this time my father must have moved on because there was no one, but a few of the loner kids and their cheap cigarettes, outside the building.
“Jaimie,” I whispered. I looked up expecting to see her dimpled face and that fluffy hair, but my eyes awoke to the darkness. The smell of copper wafted up to my nose, and I realized I was still laying in the blood puddle.
How much time had passed? The skittering creatures carried about in all the nooks and corners of the room, and the spider legs still trickled up and down my skin like a welcomed new jungle gym.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
The sound of footprints reverberated through the ceiling, Eric and my father’s work boots were large, loud, and unmistakable. Boards creaked under the men as they stepped closer to the cellar door.
I thought about trying to push myself off the ground again. Never let yourself be seen as weak, not around Eric Owens, the devout. Nor around my father, Lucas Martnez, the sadistic fundamentalist who gave his daughter to a conversion camp like a computer in need of repair. “Disobeying the law of God is a swift path becoming one of Satan’s whores’.” He said that day as I walked through the front door. “How wretched am I that my own daughter has become an abomination?” His jaw muscles flexed as his mouth closed. “I saw you today, at the school, letting that girl defile you . . . in public no less.”
I think my life ended that day, or at least, the good part of it.
Eric’s laugh pierced the doorway. I snapped back to reality, to the screaming pain that radiated from the gash in my shoulder, and the fear-laden darkness that surrounded me. “Get up, get up, get up.”
My arms pushed me off the ground in an adrenaline-fueled panic, which numbed the pain of the cut, and rendered the spider bites bearable. That moment, with my back pressed up against the cold cement wall, at the base of the stairwell, blood and dirt dripping down my jaw, I realized that today might be the day they finally killed me.
I felt weak and tired. The punishments became more brutal, more severe, and I worried my body couldn’t take much more.
After ten years of this, I wonder if they’d be doing me a favor?
Maybe it’s time to go anyways. I decided, no, I vowed to myself, that if I survived the night, I would escape or die trying. His laughter continued as light poured in from the top of the stairwell, my eyes blurred up at the silhouettes of Eric and my father making their way down towards me.
“Are we ready to behave?” He asked, yanking me up by the arm, his rough fingers pressed into the laceration. The blood and fat squished audibly. I gasped. The pain sent my muscles rigid as my neurons lit up like a Christmas tree.
I don’t know where my mind went after that. I saw what they did to me, I watched it happen, but my mind drifted off somewhere far away from the pain.