by: Linda Juliano
The emergence of an unexpected monster living inside a powerful and charismatic man. A short story that exhibits a mighty will, and a determined strength to persist amid pure wickedness…
Knowing William wouldn’t be home for a couple of hours, Rachel allowed herself to feel something besides fear as she stood in her underwear and bra before the full-length mirror, studying the pattern of old and fresh bruises that covered her body. There was a kind of beauty in the varying shades of yellow, purple and green, like splotches of paint on a delicate canvas. Slowly and deliberately she traced a finger from one splotch to another, connecting them with an invisible line.
As always, the smooth, ivory skin of her face was unmarked. Wealthy and ostentatious William Bird, the city’s top and most beloved lawyer, would never compromise his public persona by advertising his violent tendencies. He carefully and deliberately kept his marital secrets from his adoring peers — a skill he’d learned from his father. William’s good looks, intelligence and uncanny talent for persuasion earned him the instant adoration of everyone he met, including Rachel. If anyone ever suspected a monster lived inside such a powerful and charismatic man, they looked the other way. Raised by an uncle who blamed her for the accident that took the lives of her parents and little sister, Rachel soaked up William’s love and adoration like a thirsty sponge.
“They’re all dead because of you,” Rachel’s uncle had told her repeatedly over the years with a bitter edge in his voice. “If you’d remembered your stupid ballet slippers, your family, my sister and niece, would still be alive today.”
He never hurt her physically and always made sure her most basic needs were met, but he’d kept her at arm’s length emotionally, never showing her love or any affection. What he didn’t know, was Rachel carried guilt for the accident all on her own. “If only” were the two words most often on her mind. If only she’d remembered those damn slippers. If only her dad hadn’t turned back for home, putting them directly in the path of the drunk driver who ran the red light and plowed into their car. If only she’d died, too.
Shaking her head, Rachel took a step toward the mirror and reached out as if to touch the woman standing before her. “It wasn’t your fault,” she whispered through a trembling lower lip. “Not the accident and not these,” she added, pointing to the reflection of bruises. It had taken a long time and a lot of secret reading of self-help books for her to understand that truth, but she finally did. Most of the time, anyway.
If only she hadn’t met William while she’d still been so emotionally vulnerable and needy. Or if she’d known then what she knew now, she would have walked away in the very beginning.
Touching her fingers gently to her cheek, Rachel thought of the first time William hit her — the only time he’d hit her in the face. They’d been dating for six months when a waiter at a local restaurant had smiled at her a little too long and friendly for William’s taste.
“Slut,” William had growled into Rachel’s ear later when they were alone in his apartment. It was the first time he’d ever said a mean word to her.
He’d twisted her arm behind her back until she cried out, then he spun her around and slapped her on the face with enough force to send her spiraling across the foyer. She landed on the floor with a red handprint on her cheek and a bruise blooming like a black flower beneath her skin.
She shivered at the memory of the cold stone floor seeping through her nylons as she stared up at William in stunned silence. She’d watched his features change in an instant from vicious anger to mortified regret.
“I’m so sorry,” William had said, dropping to his knees, tears in his eyes. “I swore I’d never become my father.” He took Rachel in his arms and whispered in her ear, “I’ll never do it again, my love, as God is my witness. Please forgive me.”
She should have left him that night, she knew that now, but she was already in love and desperate to believe in his apology and the sincerity it was wrapped in. So she ignored the dark warning that coiled like a snake in the pit of her stomach.
For his part, William had kept his promise for several months; long enough to convince Rachel to marry him, to believe he was the man she wanted—needed—him to be.
Then everything fell apart.
As his case-load increased, so had his mood swings, then intake of alcohol. Before long, he was taking his frustrations out on Rachel. It’d started with an occasional shove, but it quickly grew into slaps then punches. For a while she tried to blame the alcohol, but it didn’t take long to see that alcohol wasn’t responsible for the darkness inside her William, it was simply the hand that held open the door. The darkness had been there before he started drinking heavily all along, casting an ominous shadow she’d tried in vain to ignore.
Rachel had become a ghost of herself. She’d walked away from her love of painting and the desire to become an art instructor, too forlorn and emotionally exhausted to pursue either.
With no family and the guarding of her marital secrets keeping her from friendships both new and old, she had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Like a caged animal, Rachel was locked behind bars made of fear, guilt, shame and lack of support rather than steel, but no less powerful.
After less than two years of marriage, Rachel had filed for divorce, taking the first step towards unlocking her cage. But it was a failed attempt.
“Don’t do this, Rachel,” William had begged, emotion cracking his voice in a way she hadn’t heard since the first night he’d hit her. “I’ll get help, I’ll change. I promise. We can move away, start fresh, anything you want.”
Rachel longed to believe him, believe he’d make a change, but she knew he wouldn’t.
“It’s over, William,” she said, sliding the divorce papers across the table toward him, casting her eyes downward. When he shot out of his chair, knocking it over with the back of his knees, Rachel’s head snapped up and she looked into William’s dark eyes. She saw then, without a doubt, the monster had defeated the man.
Rachel had spent that night in the hospital with a broken arm, sprained wrist, two cracked ribs and multiple bruises she was forced to blame on a clumsy trip down a flight of stairs. The doctors and nurses hadn’t believed a word of it, but they couldn’t prove otherwise without Rachel’s confession. They’d called the authorities, of course, but without her admitting to being abused or pressing charges, their hands were tied. Rachel had held no delusions about how far-reaching and powerful her husband’s influence was. The system was his friend, thus making it her enemy. So, she left the hospital with a plea for help locked tightly behind closed lips.
Disappearing would be her only hope and only chance of staying alive. Rachel had no doubt that given enough time she would die by William’s hand.
The front door slammed downstairs, jarring Rachel from her thoughts. She spun around as if to run, then froze, fear chasing adrenaline down her bare spine. What was he doing home two hours early? An army of goosebumps stood at attention along her arms.
Rachel strained against the pounding in her ears and the heavy rain outside, listening for footfalls on the stairs.
At the sound of the television switching on, she released her breath and hurried into a cashmere sweater, jeans and a pair of sneakers, struggling with trembling fingers to tie the laces. She had to go through with her plan. She might never get the chance or gather the nerve again. The longer she took to leave, the more time William would have to figure out what she was planning. And she knew, without a doubt, he’d kill her before he’d let her leave him.
From the closet, she pulled the large, red designer suitcase from the back where she’d stashed it weeks earlier, packed only with what she needed: a few items of clothing, her parents’ wedding rings and a personal family photo album of her childhood and baby sister. She left everything else behind, including the diamond on her finger.
Glancing repeatedly over her shoulder at the doorway, Rachel carefully opened the bedroom window and dropped the suitcase onto the wet rose bushes below.
She closed the window and stood there, wringing her hands together. She needed a new plan and quick. She was supposed to be miles away before William arrived home from work. Thankfully, she’d added some ground-up sleeping pills to the remainder of the scotch in William’s last bottle earlier as a backup. She knew he’d come home from work and follow his routine of finishing two or three drinks before noticing she wasn’t there. The sleeping pills would give her enough time to get even further away.
Rachel headed for the door, desperate to get started with her escape. She couldn’t wait for the pills and alcohol to take effect; it was too risky. She’d have to slip out right under his nose.
Fueled by fear and desperate determination, Rachel descended the stairs, her knees threatening to buckle with each step. She pressed her hand hard against the tightening knot in her stomach and took several deep breaths.
“You’re home early,” she called out to William, praying he didn’t hear the tremor in her voice. She cleared her throat, shrugging into her raincoat. “Everything all right?”
Predictably, William was sitting in his leather recliner, nearly-empty glass of scotch in hand, staring at a football game on television. He looked relaxed with his tie pulled loose from his neck, his dark hair disheveled and his feet free of his Italian-leather shoes.
As she approached him, she wondered — not for the first time — how someone so handsome on the outside could be so ugly and twisted on the inside.
“I’m going for more scotch; you’re almost out,” she announced, bending to kiss him on the cheek, keeping up the façade that everything was normal. “Do you want anything else from the store?”
William’s eyes narrowed with habitual suspicion, but after a sharp glance across the room to the nearly empty bottle on the bar, he reluctantly acquiesced. “No. Just hurry up. It’s raining out, take an umbrella.”
Rachel swallowed with relief, turning to go.
“Wait,” William said, grabbing the hem of Rachel’s coat. With enormous effort, she forced herself not to jerk away, or run for the door. “Pick up a Snickers bar.”
Rachel walked on rubber legs through the front door, closing it gently behind her. She tossed the umbrella aside and ran down the steps through the pouring rain around to the back of the house for the suitcase. Being careful with her footing on the slippery lawn, she moved as quickly as she could to the front and tossed the suitcase in the trunk of her car.
Wiping her long, rain-soaked hair from her face, she moved to the driver’s side of the car and reached for the door. But just as her fingertips grazed the handle, the air shifted suddenly behind her and pain exploded at the back of her skull.
Rachel woke, soaked and shivering, lying on her back, arms tied above her head to the antique, iron headboard of their bed. She tried lifting her head, but dizziness and nausea flattened her. She stared up at the ceiling with sickening comprehension.
“Not feeling well?” came William’s rough, unsympathetic voice.
Rachel closed her eyes, squeezing out tears that rolled down her temples and disappeared into her hairline.
“Where were you going, Rachel?” William’s voice was low with warning. He stepped into Rachel’s line of vision and glared down at her with eyes so dark they looked like two black holes. He’d removed his tie and his shirt was hanging open, soaking wet. “I hardly think you need a suitcase for a trip to the liquor store.”
Rachel saw a red blur through the corner of her eye and turned to see her suitcase propped on a chair against the wall like a trophy. A cry caught in her throat and she looked away.
“P…please, William. Please le…let me g…go,” she begged, shivering violently.
“Why would I do that, Rachel?” he sneered, slowly removing the belt from his jeans. His movements were sluggish and he swayed slightly, but his jaw was tense and his gaze piercing. “You’re my wife. Why would you leave?”
“Please don’t do this,” Rachel cried, her body stiffening with the memory of the pain a belt slapping against bare skin caused. “Please, William. I’m sorry.”
“Not yet,” he growled, before throwing back the rest of his drink.” You tried to abandon and humiliate me! Did you think I wouldn’t notice what you were up to?”
Rachel screamed when William whipped the foot of the bed with the belt, missing her legs by inches.
“Did you actually believe you’d get away with it?” He was breathing hard, his body vibrating with the rush of power and anger. “Or that I wouldn’t notice your ring missing from your finger?”
She closed her hand into a fist, feeling her wedding ring, like a noose, once again on her finger.
“You never could deceive me,” William said while pulling Rachel’s wet jeans off her body to ensure the belt made contact with skin.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel cried again, too weak and defeated to fight him. “I shouldn’t have — I won’t ever — ”
“— No, you won’t,” he snapped, his face twisted and dark. He paused, his eyes small slits as he concentrated on a thought. “Hold on,” he said, slightly slurring the words. His smile was slow and bared no teeth, giving him the look of a sinister crocodile. “This calls for something that will leave a more lasting reminder.”
He straightened, tossing Rachel’s jeans to the floor then staggered from the room, swearing when his shoulder banged against the door frame.
Rachel’s thoughts raced as her eyes darted frantically around the room. He’d threatened to cut her before, to leave scars that would serve as reminders of his power and her place.
He was drunk; he’d probably cut too deep.
Rachel froze when another thought occurred to her. William was too accustomed to alcohol to get drunk from one glass, even two or three. Yet he was staggering and slurring his words.
“The sleeping pills,” she mumbled. They had to be taking effect. But would they —
“Ahhhh!” William’s shriek was followed by the sickening sound of a body bouncing down the stairs. Rachel held her breath, listening.
She called out William’s name, her voice strangled with caution and hope.
She cleared her throat and tried again, louder this time.
Rachel twisted and strained against the necktie William used on her hands, but the harder she pulled, the tighter the knots became. Panicked and still fighting against dizziness and nausea, it took her a moment to realize her legs were not tied. Using her feet, she scooted up against the headboard, twisted around and used her teeth to bite and pull the knot loose before sliding to the floor and crawling to the dresser for a pair of dry pants. After dressing, she slipped on her wet shoes, her teeth chattering so loudly she could hear nothing else.
Hugging the wall for support, she made her way down the hall to the landing. She could see William crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, his body twisted into an unnatural position. Her hand flew to her mouth, catching a scream.
Slowly, Rachel descended the stairs and knelt beside William. She stared at his body, searching for signs of life with both hope and fear pounding in her chest. She wasn’t sure if she hoped he was dead or alive.
A torrent of emotions threatened her resolve to leave until she noticed the gentle rise and fall of William’s chest. She could go with a clear conscience.
Rachel gently pulled William’s cell from his pocket and dialed 9-1-1, then put the phone in his limp hand and slid her wedding ring onto his pinky-finger.
She stood over him, staring down at his still form for several beats. “Move, Rachel,” she whispered, willing her legs to cooperate.
Finally, mind and body fell into sync, setting free a rush of adrenaline that sent her scrambling back up the stairs for her suitcase.
Less than five minutes later, sirens screamed like banshees in the rain and a blur of lights flashed wild and colorful in the distance. With a racing heart and eyes wide and unblinking, Rachel drove past them on her way to freedom.
She still had a lot of miles to go and loose ends to tie up, but she’d broken the bars of her cage.
With a surprisingly steady hand, Rachel flicked on her blinker and merged onto the freeway.
As she began putting miles between her and William, the corner of her mouth lifted into a tiny, cautiously triumphant smile.