In conjunction with cul-de-sac, the literary magazine of College of the Canyons, Automata is publishing student work for the next two weeks. This week, we're featuring a short story by Melissa Demirel. You can read Melissa's thoughts on writing this story here.
Nervously needy knuckles I once thought to be giving and gentle and generous and even gorgeous now grabbed me greedily by my shapeless shoulders and wielded my body like a weightless boulder against the white wall of our living room for the first time that night, the seventh night this week. There was never any knowing which night could be capable of being the very last night, if there was a last night or a last time at all. I was ready for it every night, prepared at any given time, but never ready for the way Jackson’s enormous eyes—light eyes just like my very own, with blonde hair just like mine, the exact opposite of his father—stared straight into mine from his play area down on the floor—a grass-green mat piled with blue toy cars and Jackson’s two most favorite stuffed animals, a large stuffed teddy bear we called “Mr. Cub” and as an even larger cat we called “Ms. Kitten,” whose furry faces were now drenched in sluices of saliva from too many of his sickeningly soft, slobbery, sweet, soothing kisses.
Every time the sun sought refuge from the sable-turned sky and Phil made his effortlessly elusive entrance, my precious, pure, petrified Jackson’s pupils flashed at me, shrunk to half their size, and his eyes welled up like a blue-grey cloud on a sorrowful winter morning, wishing for and silently begging me for an explanation—but it was an explanation I could never give to a one-year-old, just a baby. He’d been through enough and had witnessed more than he deserved.
The impact between my spine and the back of my head with the wall had me seeing three of Mr. Cub and three of Ms. Kitten, and had ignorantly ignited the inexplicable intensity of last night’s irritable soreness, which I had numbly been trying to recover from, but I did my best as always to keep my eyes on Jackson while my heated hands hurled upwards instinctively to clash with Phil’s heaving chest. Beneath my clenched fists, which were already summoning drops of sweat swimming across my skin, I could feel his heart racing, pounding aggressively with such restless force that the repetitive rhythm of it seemed almost equivalent to the way a puma’s paws beat passionately against the ground on its way to rip its prey apart with its mischievous maw, parallel to the way a psychopathic serial killer repeatedly stabs a person without the burden of being excruciatingly exhausted, without boredom, without end—without the loss of excitement.
This excited him.
Seeing me struggle, weak, and seeing Jackson so small, young, unable to walk, only able to scream and sob like any one-year-old would, unable to do anything to stop all this let alone understand it— this excited the man I had spent so many years of my time with. The man I had loved. The man I had vowed to be with until death dared to separate us from each other. The man I had once looked at in awe, as if he was the entire world, my universe, because I thought him to be the love of my life, because I couldn’t stand being without this magnificently marvelous and majestically mysterious enigma of a human being. A broken human being. The man with whom I had a child—the child who had very quickly become my entire world and universe, the child who now looked up at me with the same expression of horror these last few weeks.
During the first week, I found out he had been let go from work at the law firm through his family, particularly his stubborn and secretive mother—who refused to tell me why this had happened and said I should have simply asked him about it, as if things had always been so simple with him—and when I confronted him about why he had been lying to me for so long about it—lying for about a month, during which time he had been borrowing money from his family members living nearby in order to keep our lives afloat and make it seem like nothing had changed—he lost his temper and left the house, slamming the door as if it would save him from an inevitable discussion with me; he came back after a few hours with tasteless whiskey trailing down the trough of his thick throat, lapping upon his thirsty tongue, from the bourbon-colored bottle lingering lifelessly on his lost, lacquered lips, luminous with the lackluster liquid.
I had tried to ask him where he’d been and had tried to steer things back to why exactly he had been fired, but his hands had clutched my hair, and I was too busy trying to yank myself out of his grip to continue that conversation or continue being curious at all—the first grip of many to come. The second night of that week, he’d stuck me face-first between the mantelpiece above our fireplace and his hand at the back of my neck—the first time he had held me against my will of many times to come. The third night, when I had told him that he wasn’t the man I married anymore and that the man I married and loved would never behave this way, he responded by throwing his whiskey bottle of the night into the kitchen, right past my face—the first throw of many—but thankfully at a time when Jackson had been screaming from the other room and hadn’t been in the living room to witness anything and hadn’t been in the kitchen where the whiskey bottle shattered like a million microscopic racing shooting stars. It had continued like that, in the first week: short-lived moments in which I was helpless, taken aback, confused, shocked, reproached and disappointed at the sight of what my honorable husband had been abhorrently allowing himself to turn into.
Tonight, as it so happened a few nights here and there, all my endeavors to take Jackson to his room and lock him inside while I “dealt with” Phil—tried to get him to calm down, fought against his efforts to exact pain on me or even on our son—had failed, for I had simply been too late and too careless and relaxed and unaware this time, caught up in the joyous simplicities of life that my son always had to offer. I almost succeeded in keeping Jackson safe in his room while I readied myself for Phil and his unfortunate efforts every night right before he came home, but tonight the boy had distracted me from watching the door or even the clock—Phil got drunk every night between seven and ten, like clockwork, like his body could only take so much before his careless mind decided it was time to find his way home and make yet another attempt to take the life out of me—like an anxious insect awaiting the appearance of a ravenous reptile.
The second week, he had gone from throwing his whiskey bottles and even our home decor and all our vases with roses and sunflowers inside and our delicate dishes at me to “making love” to me—against my will, because even in his drunk state, he was a caveman-like, overwhelmingly powerful man, and I knew I should have listened to my innate attraction to feminine, “nice” men. I knew I should not have married such a strong and unstable man. There had always been signs, little signs I ignored because I just loved him “so, so much,” signs that had never come back to me and signs I had never realized even existed until the first week—he had always had a “passion” for alcoholic beverages, but I never knew that he could let such a passion for and “admiration of the taste of ” these drinks take such a large, undeniably dangerous amount of control over him—until he laid his hands on me in ways he’d never dared to before.
At the end of the third week, I had suggested that he go to rehab, which he felt offended by and which he did not agree with, and so he went from sloppily slapping me in the face to giving my right cheekbone a punch. The pain caused hot tears to protrude from my eyes, my fight-or-flight instinct caused me to throw my right fist back into his face, and Jackson’s screams from his room had my head spinning, trying to figure out a way to get Phil to stop chasing me like a diseased dingo around the kitchen and living room as I swiveled amongst the couch and chairs and tables and home decor, and when I reached the entrance of our house, I grabbed the keys he had been using every night for the past three weeks to hurriedly leave our house in the afternoon once he had woken up and his hangover had died out and to come into the house at night once he had absorbed more than his fill of alcohol.
I grabbed those keys and opened the door right as he charged at me like a bellowing bull to smash me like a small, squashed spider into the door; he tripped and made his way towards the cement sidewalk outside. I closed and locked the door on him, my arms and legs still wobbly and shaking and sore, and purple and green and brown and red, from all those nights and all those times before. I could have told my neighbors or a friend or his family or my family what had been going on, but I chose not to—I was going to handle this, handle him, one way or another, because I had always been too stubborn for help, because I had always been too independent for guidance or advice, and I knew “independent” and “manly” was not a good combination, and so I knew I alone had to be the one to get myself and get Jackson out of this mess if it killed me.
He ended up crying even more than Jackson did that night— and crying for what? Crying so that I would let him back inside and let him beat me to death? I let him cry that night, sitting with my face in my hands on the other side of the door, listening to his false promises and his fake pleas and his stupid sobs. Until he broke the window right next to our door and ended up crawling in that way, his body covered in shards of glass sticking out of the same shirt he had been wearing for the past three weeks—the stink-ridden smell of his body odor was perfume compared to the scent of alcohol floating off his skin. He had smiled and had taken a shard of glass in his hand, slicing the palm of his hand open, although he didn’t seem to notice as his smile turned into a grin, and he charged yet again at me with the glass, before I ducked and he tripped once more, and tripped with such force that he didn’t wake up till the next morning.
“He’ll come to his senses,” I told myself every night. But it was now the fourth week.
I had been patient with him, naively optimistic, for longer than a month; that was more than enough. While his hands pressed deeper and deeper into my shoulders’ dimples—so deep I thought his thorn-like thumbs might break like a bear bite into the skin and burrow a hole through muscle and bone until they came out the other side and made their mark on the wall glued to my back—I thought to myself, Haven’t you had enough? Hasn’t Jackson had enough? Are you really going to let this bastard push you around and only fight back whenever you can? Aren’t you tired? Afraid for Jackson? Or even afraid for yourself?
I wasn’t sure exactly which day it had been since the first week when he had begun his nightly attacks, but what I did know was that it was a Sunday, and it was the seventh time this week, and it was the fourth week. Just another week. Just another night. Every night, I tried with everything I had in me to prevent it from being just another night in which he shamelessly allowed his own hands to suffocate his own wife in front of his own son. Every night, I failed—until he let me succeed by using up all the fight he had, and all his drunken energy evaporated, and he gave up and passed out on our wooden, laminated floor or our long, leather, light tan couch or the cozy cotton queen-sized cream-colored bed in our mini master bedroom.
He didn’t know this—because he woke up every morning not remembering anything—but he changed his routine almost every night, as if to subconsciously keep me from catching on to his terrifying techniques, the way he chose to move and which part of me he chose to break or bruise, to keep me from being better able to fight against him and potentially escape and hide. Last night he had decided to reach below my belly after he was finished pinning me against the wall, but tonight, within a second of me attempting to grab onto his bulging, brick-strong forearms to push him off of my body and out of my sight, his fingers lifted off my shoulders and folded like a feverish noose around my neck. He had never choked me before, let alone tried to.
I felt my lungs squeeze as my throat gasped, and I gulped on upwards towards our low ceiling as if it would help release me from his horrifically harsh hold. I had my hands at his forearms, palms pushing up and away at his wrists, long nails clawing at his skin, scratching and leaving crimson marks, trying to get whatever was left of my sober and sane husband—if he was ever truly sane or perfectly sober at all, if he even was who I thought him to be all these years—to recognize that he was trying to kill me, was killing me, trying to get him off, get him off.
My watery gaze shifted back to Jackson. Protect Jackson, protect Jackson, my mind chanted; him, his safety—it was all I ever managed to think about whenever Phil came home on these notoriously nerve- wrecking nights. I watched Jackson open his mouth to let out a scream as tears trickled down his plump, pink cheeks, and my right knee fired up like a lightning bolt into Phil’s crotch the second a shrill shriek let itself loose from the depths of Jackson’s vocal cords and reverberated throughout the hollow house like an awful alarm.
Phil’s groan was muted compared to Jackson’s mixed screaming and sobbing, who I went over to immediately, trying to soothe him so that none of the neighbors would think something was drastically wrong, since this night was the loudest of the others so far, since no one, not even me, had ever heard Jackson produce noises so concerning and so loud—I didn’t want anyone here tonight, or on any night. I had married Phil. He was my burden, my problem. I had to fix this.
Soon. No, tonight.
I ran over to Jackson and kneeled down amidst his toys and stuffed animals, my neck and lips still dry, pulse still pressing hard and fast, especially against my jugular vein, my breath heavy and uneven and stuffy as I pressed my arid lips against the peach-fuzz-like hair spread out across Jackson’s head.
The smell of his skin escaped me, and my hands went from stroking him to reaching out into the air for mercy, reaching against Phil’s inimical hands, which had insurmountably molded around the roots of my hair, leading me away from my baby boy. My legs and hips and feet straggled against the floor, my body burned for an escape as I watched my sobbing Jackson sit on his mat further and further away from me, as Phil dragged me across the floor as if I were a vacuum sucking up all the dust.
He threw me against the wall with the broken window at its side next to our front door, but I blocked the wall from hitting my head mid-throw with my elbows and broke my fall with my hands slamming hard onto the floor, diving into the leftover glass pieces from last week I had failed to discover with my poor, aged eyes. I hissed at the cuts being carved into my hands and arms, and discovered a much larger piece of glass partially hidden underneath our couch placed about a foot away from this wall. My attention drifted from that piece of glass, from the blood dripping down my arms and in-between my fingers, when I heard Phil’s large body mount itself atop the couch right next to and above my head, and I heard Jackson stop screaming instantly.
I looked up—No-no-no-no—
One of Phil’s hands had lurked forward, gripping like a python around his son’s neck—
Not Jackson, not Jackson—
He had never bothered to harm Jackson before. My baby.
I grabbed the larger piece of glass from under the couch, feeling its cut caress the lines of my palm, and lunged forward quietly and quickly, my breath shaky as I shoved it into Phil’s shoulder just deep enough so that I could take it out again. He screamed, stumbled away from Jackson, away from the couch, onto the floor, yelling in an agony that appeased me. I heard the drumming of my pulse beneath all my cuts soften at the sight of him like that. Thanks to him, I’d learned how to be calm during a crisis. I stepped over to Jackson and pulled him close on the couch, breathing in the youthful scent of him again with my lips against the entirety of his wet face. I shushed him gently and promised with a sweet, unsteady voice through stifled sobs, “Mommy will be right back. I love you. I’ll be right back.”
I turned back to a screaming Phil, whose crimson blood had been leaking from his wound. I crouched down, took a deep breath, locked my injured hands tightly around both his arms, and dragged him, inch by inch, away into the hall, my legs pulling us with a determined and unyielding strength into our bedroom. I let him fall against our bed, closed our door shut and locked it. I bent down and looked him in the eyes.
Out of the energy needed to yell at him and try to get him to understand what was right and what was wrong—for he had no sense of right and wrong anymore, he had no sense—I said softly, “You went after Jackson. Our son.” His screaming turned into a hysterical laughter, and he smiled sweetly at me. He didn’t understand anything I was saying. He never would. Never could. He’d lost his mind. I asked him sincerely, “How many people have you hurt on your way home every night? How many people would you dare hurt if I wasn’t around anymore for you to abuse?”
He grinned, yellow teeth dancing against his overbite, slurring, “Everybody.”
“You’re insane. You know, I loved you once.” I pulled the glass out. Watched a puddle of red cover the light bed beneath his shoulder. I said casually, “You need help, but I don’t think you’ll find it. Not in this world. You’d be a killer if I didn’t stop you tonight. The police won’t give you the justice you deserve. Rehab won’t help you. You’re too stubborn.”
It was the first time I was able to get more than a few words out before he attacked me. It was the first time I had ever felt a genuine gratitude looking at him. I stared into his soulless sockets, lifting my left hand to set down the photo of us on our wedding day on our bedside table, smearing sanguine all over the frame. We looked so happy.
I closed my eyes. Opened them. And I stuck the glass deep into where I presumed his heart was and leaned down to whisper against his ear, “I can’t threaten you anymore, and you can’t threaten me. You can’t hurt me anymore. You can’t hurt Jackson anymore. You can’t touch us. Can’t see us. Can’t hear us or yell at us. You can’t harm us—in any way. You won’t. I won’t let you. I can’t beg you to stop anymore. I can’t say ‘Don’t.’ I can’t say ‘Please.’ I won’t.” I took the glass out again, watching him take his last breath. “There won’t be a next time. There won’t be another night.”
Melissa Demirel is a student at College of the Canyons. Read her thoughts on writing this story here.
Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash
Published May 28th, 2018