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J. T. Hanna
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burn.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees 2012

Burn

 

By J.T. Hanna

 

 

She held the cigarette between her teeth and fumbled with the match head. She had finally mastered tucking her thumb out of the way after running the match along the strike bar. She couldn’t remember how long she had been here. She had lost track of time; had no idea what day it was, or, what time it was. She knew only if it was dark or light. Only when he was here and when he was not here. The old burns on her thumb were calloused and the newer burns were healing with bright pink skin along the side of her thumb. She tucked the matchbook under the edge of the mattress and took a deep drag on the cigarette. At least he let her have cigarettes. These long drags were the only thing now. Well, that and her small collection of matchbooks. She tried to rearrange herself, but could only push her butt up three inches before the ache in her arm became unbearable.

Her left wrist was handcuffed to a rusted metal frame. The bruises circled her wrist with purple tendrils stretching out like a fireworks flare. Her skin was so puffed and swollen into the metal that she could no longer lift her arm to release her pinched circulation. Her hand hung limp from the edge of the cuff and pain shot into her wrist every time she tried to wiggle her fingers; the only movement of her hand she could muster now. She daydreamed about the cuff slicing through her wrist until her hand fell off and lay next to her: lifeless and purple. Maybe then she could get free. She stopped looking at the rest of her bruises, stopped caring days ago about her lack of clothes. She forced her tongue from exploring the gash on her lower lip and the teeth marks in her upper lip; stopped wincing at the swollen left eye and jawbone. She even managed to ignore the rest of the bruises, stains and dried blood on her legs. She wouldn’t look at the mattress anymore. How many others had been here? How many other ghosts hovered around her who were unable to get away from him either?

She never saw the outside, but assumed it was an abandoned motel along a lost highway somewhere. She never heard any other voices. Never heard anything except a rustle of leaves, maybe a caw of crows and every now and then the tinkling of mice feet on the rippled yellow linoleum floor in the gutted kitchenette. The counters and the sink were still there but the appliances, if there ever were any, were pulled from the walls long ago. Only the faint ghost of a shadow outlined the empty rectangle slots along the sink. A rusted yellow and metal fifties-style table with two peeling vinyl chairs stood in a lopsided lilt, creating a slant that made her dizzy. Greasy, once-yellow curtains hung from a single window on the left side of the bed. The only other furniture was a table next to the bed, half eaten by termites. The mattress was brown now, spotted and smelling of mildew and decomposing stains: hers and who knew who else’s. This wasn’t his first captive love affair. He told her about them when he drank the whiskey bottle dry. He’d slurringly recount all of his favorites: the blondes he hated, the brunettes he enjoyed having and the redheads he savored killing. This was how he categorized them; as color-coded and faceless playthings reserved for tortures according to the predetermined traits associated with hair color.

But this time, she thought, this time. Then the familiar click of the lock, the rustle of leaves from the split second blast of light and rush of fresh air from the outside world before the crash of a door slammed. The dark begins again.

“Aw, darlin’, so nice of you to wait up for me.”

“As if I have a choice.” She said and pulled another long drag off of the cigarette.

“Shut up, or that cigarette will find its way into a different hole that won’t feel so nice.” He slurred. “Look darlin’ I picked up a new toy for us to play with tonight. It’s just like in that movie. You’ll love it. Well, I’ll love it, you don’t seem to have much fun lately.”

“What movie is that? Night of the....”

He charged across the room and jumped onto the bed, grabbed her by the throat and knocked the wind out of her as he landed.

          “I’m not in the mood for your sass tonight, you just shut up or I’ll fuckin’ slice you up, real nice and slow.” His breath was cheap whiskey and cigarettes. His hands smelled of grease and cold air. Tonight, she promised herself, tonight.

          “Are you ready for our little game?” He pulled a shiny manual saw from his coat, then he slid it back and forth in front of her face like a game show model. 

“This has been fun. I like you a lot. You weren’t one of those, ooooohhhhh please don’t hurt me, whiny little bitches that I had to kill real quick just to shut the fuck up. You have spunk. I like that. So, for you, I have a deal.” He placed the saw next to her hand, pulled the cigarette from between her fingers and took a long deep drag. “For you honey, this is what I’ll do. If you saw your hand off, I will set you free. But, I get to keep your hand as a little memento. Oh, yeah, and I get to watch.”

          “And all I get is a bloody stump.” Is what she said, but for a moment, just one split second, she could see herself sawing, sawing, sawing, and trying to get through the gristle and bone with the $4.95 hardware store small-toothed hand saw.

          “No, all you get is a bloody stump AND your life. I’m gettin’ kinda bored now. So, this will be our grand finale. You can go and I have your hand to remember you by.”

          “Can’t I just saw off your dick and watch you bleed to death instead? Then I can keep that as my little memento.” She stared straight into his eyes. She knew why he was bored. She had no more fear, no more emotion. Nothing. He had taken it all from her. She didn’t want her life anymore. Didn’t want to live after this. Didn’t want anything but him dead. Him dead and her watching every slow minute of it.

          “Now, come on. I think this is fair. I’ll just sit across the room for as long as it takes and then you can go. I promise. You know, I always keep my promises.” He got off the bed and went to the table. He pulled a cup of coffee and a bottle of whiskey from a paper bag, walked back to her and put the cup of coffee in her hand. He crossed the room, turned a chair around and sat facing her. “See, I always keep my promises.”

She smelled the coffee. And then looked at him. 

He said, “I didn’t put nothing’ in it.”

She smelled the coffee again. If he did poison it, this would be over. If he drugged it, she would be asleep and wouldn’t care. She doubted that he drugged it; he didn’t like when she slept. He liked her wide-awake. For everything.

          “I’ll give you one thing, girl,” He said, “I really had to raise my game. Most other girls just crumpled in a couple of days, didn’t take much to do me in, if you know what I mean. But you, you gave me a run for my money. I had to come up with some real new stuff for you, had to really think about things.” He raised the whiskey bottle in her direction before taking a long pull, gulping as trickles of whiskey seeped out of the corners of his mouth.

Damn, she thought. I have to do this now. He’s going to kill me. She took a sip and felt the hot sweet coffee warm her. She concentrated everything on that coffee. How it felt filling her stomach, warming her throat, lingering in her mouth. This, she thought, will be the only thing I will remember. I will think about hot, sweet coffee and only that. 

          “Yeah,” She finally said, “ I’ll like that deal. But with one change.”

          “A change?” he said, “Don’t like when you change my games, missy.”

          “You have to stay up close, and watch me cut my hand off, long and slow.” She watched the grin come across his face. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket and stood.

          “Oh, yeah, I like that change. See Girl, that’s what I mean. Always something with you.” He said as he stood and walked toward the bed. She took gulps of coffee. She breathed it deep into her. Tasting it. Inhaling it. Coffee was all she thought about. Hot, strong, sweet, steaming coffee. She dropped the cup on the floor and slid her hand into the ripped edge of the mattress and counted the collection of matchbooks: 1, 2, and 3. Side. Bottom. Him.

          He jumped up onto the bed holding the whiskey bottle, giggling with excitement. “This is going to be the best night.”

          “Uh huh, the best. Can I have some of that?” She said.

          “My whiskey? Thought you hated the stuff?”

“Not tonight I don’t,” she said reaching for the bottle. 

She took a pull on the bottle and slid the saw off the mattress and into the groove in the bed frame against the mattress.

          “Oh No.” He said leaning over and running his hand back and forth on the rug. “We need that.”

          He leaned halfway off the bed, checking under the frame and feeling along the floor for the saw. She tilted the bottle of whiskey spilling a trail of amber liquid along the opposite side of the bed, along the bottom of the mattress and splashed at the floor, hoping the carpet wouldn’t absorb it too quickly. She drizzled tiny trails along the shoulders and back of his jacket then sprinkled whiskey onto his greasy knit cap. She left about two inches in the bottom of the bottle.

          As he leaned to the other side, still looking for the saw, she pulled the first matchbook out, struck it with her thumb and pressed the one match into the entire line of matches. He was so preoccupied with the saw he didn’t notice the sulfuric puff of smoke or the fffsst sound as the book caught and she tossed it to the bottom corner of the bed. Retrieving the second book, he heard the grate of match head across the striker and made eye contact as the book flared. His triumphant grin shifting suddenly as he dropped the saw from his left hand and onto the bed.

          “What the hell is this?” He screamed and lunged at her. She waited just a few seconds and hit him with the thickest bottom ridge of the bottle. Adding his forward impact to her slam at his temple, the bottle shattered and splashed the remaining whiskey down the front of his opened jacket and shirt. She took one second to take in the horror on his face; she couldn’t suppress the tips of a grin pulling up the corners of her mouth, then tossed the lighted matchbook into his chest. The whiskey caught and she watched the tiny dripped tendrils ignite and travel up his chest, into his beard and up onto the wet cap. Flames flickered there as if suspended in pause and then shot down the wet streaks along the back and shoulders of his jacket. He fell back toward the bottom of the bed, which had already ignited from the first matchbook, flapping at his arms and hands until he realized the flames at the end of the bed had caught the bottom of his jacket.

“You fucking bitch, this is what you do to me?” He said as his cap dripped little lava balls onto the shoulders of his jacket puffing up into little ghostly wisps of smoke and flame. 

          She pulled out the third book of matches, ignited it and tossed it to the floor just as he collapsed off the end of the bed where she had spilled most of the bottle of whiskey. The matchbook and the flames on his clothes ignited with the whiskey in an orange flare as he screamed and rolled into, rather than away from the ignited rug. His cheap synthetic cap melted away and dropped tiny fireballs onto the rug creating more flares until he fell against the end corner of the mattress screaming. She stretched her handcuffed arm as far as she could and kicked him: Once. Twice. A third time and finally he fell over onto the floor attempting an overly animated version of stop, drop and roll which was more of a roll into flames, roll out and catch something else on fire, roll back into flames. The more he rolled back and forth, the more the bonfire seemed to grow and his frantic attempt to put out, instead of removing his clothes, he finally let out a scream that could only mean his layers of clothing had been burned away and the flames were making contact with skin. He fell out of sight at the foot of the bed half screaming, half whimpering until there was silence and a distinct crackle like boiling fat.

          Then she realized the entire back end of the room, the linoleum in the kitchenette and the curtains had ignited. The flames on the mattress were heading up toward her and there was still no way for her to get the handcuff off. The one thing she had forgotten was to get the key. What the hell was she going to do without the key? She turned toward the wall, pulled up on the rusted headboard and squeezed her foot behind the mattress and pushed back, but the mattress only slid about an inch on the right corner. She inched her toes into the corner, braced her heels against the top edge of the mattress, pulled up on the headboard and slid back with her feet and her butt, pulling, pushing and sliding all at the same time. Finally the mattress slid enough that she could fit both feet on the box spring and with several shoves the mattress finally fell onto the floor at the back end of the bed. A second later it whooshed into flames that caught the top edge of the box spring. 

The heat was creeping up on her legs, but so far, the flames only encircled her as they engulfed the other side of the room and the edges of the box spring. She assumed there were lingering traces of flame retardant still in the mattress, or maybe her guardian angel finally woke up. She wondered where the fuck that guardian angel had been all these months as she watched the room burn. She realized she no longer believed in rescue, guardian angels or any of that bullshit anymore. Her only escape had always been on her own shoulders. It almost worked too. Except for that goddamned key. She coughed as smoke filled the room and the flames crawled toward her. She got him. That’s what really mattered. He wouldn’t do this to anyone else. Her only regret now was that she had not saved some of that hot sweet coffee, or one last cigarette. Both would taste really good right about now. 

It was then that she remembered the saw.

 

 

J. T. Hanna was born and raised in Philadelphia and now lives in New Jersey with her husband Craig and rescued Beagle Odessa. She has published nonfiction, poetry, fiction and book reviews in various online and print journals. J.T. is an Adjunct Professor, Creative Writing at Rowan University and also works as Assistant Managing Editor for River Teeth, A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Assistant Editor, Nonfiction/Poetry for r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal and Managing Editor for Poets’ Quarterly. Her chapbook, Threads, will be available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press in November 2012. J.T. holds an MFA from Ashland University in Ohio.

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