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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Shari Held: Two Little Words

Art by Bernice Holtzman 2022

Two Little Words


By Shari Held


Go away. Leave me alone.

Heart pounding, mind racing, I dash down the stairs and out the door, dodging discarded beer cans, rusted trikes, and a broken chair.

But my mind can’t escape the thoughts that barge in. It’s all your fault. You know you deserve it.

The kinder, gentler part of my psyche whispers softly. Don’t listen to her. It’s not your fault. Escape!

I cover my ears with my hands. Stop. Please stop. I sink to the sidewalk, my body rocking back and forth, eyes scrunched closed – as if that would make me invisible.

Two parts of my brain are at war and I’m going to explode.

I sense Antoine drawing closer.

He’s found me.

“Hey, whatcha think you’re doing out here? I didn’t say you could leave, did I?”

My body tenses, clenches, waiting for the blow I know will come. With the first kick of his steel-toe boots, I curl into a fetal position, arms wrapped around my head, my body morphing into a five-foot-two-inch shock absorber.

“Go ahead, scream. You know I like it when you scream.”

I bite my lip. Fear intensifies the beatings. I’ve learned that lesson well. I shut down as his kicks alternate with curses. From afar, I hear myself laugh. Or maybe I just imagine it. In the white-picket-fence neighborhood I grew up in, someone would have called the police. The grad students community I’d left three months ago would have intervened.

I now count heroin addicts, pushers, and criminals as my neighbors. Antoine could pull a gun and blow my head off and no one would give him a second look.

He yanks me by the hair and peels me from the sidewalk. Some guys in a flashy car, music blaring, pull up beside us. “Hey, Antoine, get in. It’s party time.”

He flashes a smile at them. Eager for the drug rush. The party girls. The thrill of danger. He shoves me toward the apartment. “I’ll deal with you when I get back.”

I breathe a sigh of relief as I stagger across the cracked sidewalk toward our cockroach-infested tenement house. I pass a storefront and see a reflection I don’t recognize. Who is this dull-haired person staring back at me with vacant eyes? I scurry along faster. My thoughts focus on the bottle of Jack Daniels I’d snitched when Antoine and his friends were shooting up at our place. A one-way ticket to oblivion.

When I arrive, I pull the bottle from beneath a pile of dirty laundry. My hand shakes. Not sure if it’s from fear or in anticipation of the whiskey. I unscrew the cap and take a swig, not caring about its sting.

I jump when someone bangs on the door.

“Coming,” I call as I scramble to recap the bottle and return it to its hiding place. It’s probably Suzy, one of the other junkie ‘wives.’ She’d befriended me when I moved in with Antoine. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably be dead.

“I thought I saw you come in,” Suzy says. “You look like hell, girl. Antoine been beating on you again?”

I try to think of a wisecrack, but nothing comes out. I shake so hard it must look as if I’m having an epileptic fit. With no warning, I puke all over the floor, barely missing Antoine’s Nikes. I’ll have to check them carefully when I clean up. One speck of vomit and he’ll smack me across the room.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t get any on you, did I?”

She inspects her shoes. “Nope. You got good aim, girl.”

Suzy never calls me Glory, my real name. She informed me Antoine didn’t want anyone using my given name. He’d be the one to name me. I guess he hadn’t yet decided on one, although he’d tried out stupid, worthless piece of ass, and shit-for-brains. Those were the nicer ones.

Suzy belongs to Big Fred. She brags about how nice he treats her. Most of the time, anyway. He gives her drugs without making her pull tricks. She takes a white packet out of her pocket and pours a line on the coffee table. “Want some?” she asks.

Did I? It would be so easy to give in. To slide into that lifestyle. They say everyone has a line they won’t cross. I’d found mine. I may be an alcoholic, but, by God, I’m no junkie.

“Nah. Not my thing.”

She just laughs. “One of these days I’m going to get you to try it, babe. It helps with the pain. You sure?”

I nod and watch as she snorts the coke. She reminds me of Rebecca, my grad school roommate. Rebecca was funny, sweet, brilliant – with a penchant for walking on the wild side. It was Rebecca who introduced me to Antoine. Then, one night at a party she snorted some bad coke and ended up with a brain bleed. She didn’t survive.

Still, it’s tempting. My body aches with a fierceness the alcohol can’t begin to ease. But no matter how badly I need it, I dare not drink in front of Suzy. She’s my only friend here, but she could be a plant. I’m not so far gone I don’t realize that. Antoine could be supplying her with coke in exchange for spying on me. All that stuff about Big Fred being her source was probably so much bunk. In this hellhole, no one was nice to anyone without getting something in return.

Suzy turns up the volume on the radio and begins dancing to Jay Z’s ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle.’ She dances around me, making me dizzy, then grabs my hands and strongarms me into joining her. I wince and double over, glad I’ve already puked my guts out.

“Sorry, babe. I forgot.” She pulls up my tank top, exposing what I suspect is a maze of bruises tattooing my back. “Not bad,” she says. “I’ve seen worse.”

Anger surges out of every pore in my body. I could kick in her teeth. Shove her down the stairs. But why should I get angry with her? It’s probably what I’ll tell myself when I look in the mirror. I slump to the floor.

Suzy drops to the sofa and prepares to snort another line. Instead, she walks over to the cooler, pulls out a beer, and pops the top. She offers it to me after she’s had a swig. Then she grabs the last two cans. “Put these on your back. It’ll help with the swelling and bruising.”

I don’t move. She takes it as consent and places them on me.

“So, how’d you and Antoine get together?”

“Just bad luck, I reckon,” I say, shrugging my shoulders and emitting a noise that sounds like a chicken squawk.

She doesn’t laugh at my feeble joke. Instead, a frown spreads across her face. “You shouldn’t talk like that. Antoine’s one pretty cool dude. I wouldn’t mind it if he did me every once in a while.” She snorts the line of coke, then tosses everything in her bag. “Well, I’d better skedaddle. See ‘ya.”

My shoulders drop a notch when she leaves.

I clean up the mess I’d made, then head to the bedroom to retrieve my Jack Daniels.

That soft voice inside me whispers. Don’t do this. Fight the urge. You can do it.

“Nice pep talk, but you’re wasting your time on me.”

I grab the bottle from the bottom of the pile. A pair of Antoine’s underwear rings its neck. I start to sob. My critical voice picks this low point to join the conversation. 

You’re a worthless drunk. Go ahead. Medicate yourself with the entire bottle. Antoine will beat you senseless when he gets home. That’s what you really want. Isn’t it?

That voice has haunted me ever since my fourteen-year-old sister went missing. It was a week before they found Ellie’s remains. She’d been raped, beaten, and left to die in a ditch near Galena.

“Oh, Ellie, I’m so sorry. I should have taken you home like you asked me to, instead of staying at the baseball game to watch Tommy Butters at bat. I saw you get in that red pickup truck. I should have raised the alarm then, but I didn’t. And later, after you didn’t come home, I was afraid I’d get in trouble. If only I’d said something then, maybe you’d still be here. Please forgive me.”

When I’d finally gathered the nerve to tell my parents what I’d done, they’d been loving and supportive. That only made it worse.

I cry so hard and long it’s hard to imagine there’s a drop of moisture left anywhere in my body. This is the first time I’d allowed myself a good cry over Ellie. My tears open the floodgates to an epiphany: Antoine is my punishment. I’d engineered a way for my soul to grovel in purgatory. A slow death. Booze, beatings, and rough sex.

You’re getting exactly what you deserve. You’re right where you want to be.

Am I? Ellie wouldn’t want this for me. Neither would my parents. I thought I deserved it, but do I?

Get out of here. Escape. Go now, while he’s gone.

Did I think that or say it aloud? It doesn’t matter. I don’t move. I don’t know how long I sat there. Hours maybe. When I stand, my muscles are stiff and my back feels as if a two-ton elephant had used it for football practice. I grasp the Jack Daniels bottle tighter.

Take a sip. One won’t hurt. It’ll make you feel better.

The hair on the back of my neck stands to attention and my heart free-falls to the bottom of my gut. Steel-toe boots are stomping up the stairs. And from the sound of it, we’ve got company.

Time to play the good little wifie.

Antoine grabs me and plants a big, juicy kiss on my lips, as he runs his hand up my tank top to fondle my breasts. Pretending he hadn’t beaten me hours ago. I smile and act as if I enjoy it so he can be a big man in front of his friends.

He gives me one last kiss and pushes me toward the kitchen. “Hey, pass around those Buds in the cooler.”

“Babe, we don’t have enough to go round,” I say, hoping he won’t belt me and turn the whole scene nasty.

But he’s in a frisky mood. The party must have been good.

He slides some bills down my underwear. “Here, take this and get us some cold ones at Chad’s.” Then he slaps me on the ass and says something to Red.

I fly down the stairs, despite my bruised body. As I reach the street, a red pickup turns the corner.

Is that Ellie in the passenger seat?

My heart jumps. When a city bus pulls up at the stop next to the truck, I climb onboard without a second thought. “Please, God, give me a second chance to rescue her.” I ride the bus to the end of the line, then stumble out. The red pickup slowly turns the corner in front of me at the light.

There’s no one in the passenger seat.

I slowly come down to reality. Ellie’s never coming back. It’s too late for her. But maybe not for me. Through blurred eyesight, I see a bookstore, a Safe Place sign in its window. I wipe my eyes and stagger in and ask to use their phone.

With trembling hands and voice, I say the two little words I know have the power to save me.

“Hello, Mom?”

Shari Held is an Indianapolis-based fiction writer who spins tales of mystery, horror, and romance. Her short stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Hoosier Noir 3, Asinine Assassins, Homicide for the Holidays, Between the Covers, Trick or Treat: Tales of All Hallows’ Eve, and the upcoming The Big Fang. When not writing, she cares for feral cats and other wildlife, reads, and strategizes imaginative ways for characters and trouble to collide! 

Bernice Holtzman’s paintings and collages have appeared in shows at various venues in Manhattan, including the Back Fence in Greenwich Village, the Producer’s Club, the Black Door Gallery on W. 26th St., and one other place she can’t remember, but it was in a basement, and she was well received.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022