FICTION: Pulse by Shannon Connor Winward

Brian closed the bathroom door, shutting her in darkness. Kara’s eyes flew to the alarm on the night-stand. 11:07.

He started the shower running. Took a long, loud piss. She squeezed her eyes shut and began to pray. The shower door rolled open. Shut.

Kara threw back the sheet.

Water. Running. Run.

She put on the first clothes she could find — a pair of sweats and the LIVE concert-shirt with the hole in the armpit. She padded quickly past the bathroom door, careful not to make a sound. Please, Jesus…

Kara picked up speed as her bare feet hit the cold hardwood floor.

She went out into the hall. She could still hear the shower. She could even hear his breathy, almost-toneless humming, but it was probably imagination. Blood rushing in her ears.

He was a light sleeper, restless as a dog during a thunder storm, but he was a man who loved his showers. She knew she had time to do what she needed, as long as Michael did what he was told – and he would. He was a good boy – and as long as she could find Brian’s wallet and keys.

Brian hid them every night while Kara cooked dinner. He got them back again when she cooked in the morning. She’d seen where he put them a couple of times, by accident — popping out to go to the bathroom once she saw him stuff them under the sofa. Another time she found them in the utility drawer when she went looking for twine that she’d needed for a roast. Both discoveries earned her with a fist to the face, and sure enough he didn’t use those hiding places again.

Still, she thought she had a pretty good idea where to look. A woman knows her own home, and no matter how quiet Brian thought he was, even under the racket of pots and pans, Kara heard things.

That can go both ways, though, she thought, as the floorboard creaked under her foot. But still she heard the water running.

She went to the coat closet in the front hall and gently opened it. Nudged aside Brian’s bowling shoes and boxes of bullets for his Desert Eagle. Her fingers crawled like a spider along the top shelf but came down on nothing. Nothing. Her heart came loose in her chest and began to dissolve in stomach acid. Bile.

She still had time to slip back in bed. If her heart was racing when he got in beside her, she could just tell him it was a bad dream.

No. No more bad dreams. Michael deserved better than that. And, maybe, Kara did too.

She stood on tiptoe, reaching. Searching. It had to be here. Please be –

There.

Wallet and keys in hand, Kara ran to Michael’s door and nudged it open. She found his book bag by touch, hanging from the back of his chair.

“Mom?”

“Get dressed. What you wore today. Put some underwear in here, and a couple of shirts. That’s it.” Kara upended the bag, spilling schoolbooks and colored pencils on the foot of the bed. “Put on your sneakers. Here.” She scooped up the Nike’s and a pile of clothing and handed them to him.

“Where are we going?”

“Shhhh. Just hurry.”

Please, God. Whoever’s listening. Please. She went to stand guard by Michael’s door. They were past the point of no return, now. She could have made up some excuse, before. She got hungry. Needed a drink of water. Heard something outside. It would have earned her a beating, but nothing compared to what she would get if he caught her here with his wallet in her hand.

She heard Michael’s voice behind her, soft and nervous. “I’m ready.” It was what she was waiting for, but she still she jumped and clutched her breasts, all nerves and jangling keys. She grabbed the boy by the wrist and maneuvered him in front of her, down the hall. If Brian came out now, she could still shove the keys into Michael’s hand and propel him toward the door. She could block the hallway with her body long enough for him to get out and run. Maybe.

But it didn’t come to that. She grabbed her shoes from their place by the sofa and that was it. All she needed.

Wait. No. Had she forgotten something?

Michael whimpered in the open doorway, goading her to move.

She could still hear the shower running as she pulled the door closed behind her, painfully slow.

Then again, she could hear it running as she got behind the wheel of Brian’s Jeep Cherokee and turned the key in the ignition. Blood rushing in her ears.

***

Michael stayed awake the whole way, though he’d only been in bed for a couple of hours when she came to get him. He asked no more questions and said little else, except to comment when they passed the sign for Bridgeport that he’d never been this far from home.

Kara hadn’t, either, but she knew the roads by heart. She’d been studying maps for months now, while Michael was at school and Brian was at work. She had hiding places, too. Places a man would never think to look.

A few hours outside of Bridgeport, her nerves had calmed enough to take an exit off the interstate. They pulled into a rest stop.

Kara caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror while washing her hands. She was surprised to find that her reflection did not flinch away. She stared at herself for a full minute. When did I get this old? was the first thought. Then, When did I get this brave?

She was cold while she waited for Michael to come out of the men’s room, so she bought herself a hoodie with the words “State of Indiana” on it from one of the touristy kiosks. With tax it took up nearly fifty dollars of Brian’s money.

She had only a few hundred left, but she thought that would be enough. When they got to Pennsylvania, she’d slow down, start thinking more practically.

Kara glanced at the clock in the rest stop lobby. Ten minutes had gone by and Michael wasn’t out yet. No, eleven. She started for the men’s room entrance, but then saw her son emerge. Skinny frame, too tall for a nine-year-old, wide eyes too wary. Bruises on his chin, cuts on his lip. More under his Old Navy sweat shirt — his tender shoulders and belly, his freckled arms. Scars, too, on his upper thigh and under his shock of black hair, now slicked down over his ears. He’d freshened up. He’d hidden his tears.

She hugged him fiercely when he reached her. “Are you hungry, Baby?” He nodded. Kara forced a smile and spun him around. “Pick your poison,” she told him, indicating the variety of fried, fatty, sugary, syrupy, and caffeinated provisions he had to choose from, things she’d never let him have at home.

***

They found a motel on a back road outside of Rottsboro. Kara left Michael curled up on the seat while she went to pick up the room key. She traded more of Brian’s money for it – such big bills he kept. As tired as she was, as raw, she felt like singing when the clerk took the money away.

Michael was awake when Kara returned to the Jeep, but he blinked at her as if he didn’t know her. She gently extracted him from the vehicle, carrying his backpack for him.

They stumbled to the room together. Michael fell on top of the bed farthest from the door and curled into a ball. Kara folded the bedspread over him and then climbed in beside him. Bright, white morning light poured in from cracks all around the paisley motel curtains, but she didn’t care. She fell asleep with her baby in her arms and the sounds of a shower running in her ears.

***

Later, she borrowed a pair of scissors from the man in the office. She used it to cut her hair and Brian’s credit cards. She put the scraps from both projects in the plastic bag from their rest stop dinner – breakfast? – to be scattered in trash cans at every gas station, diner, or drug store they stopped in between here and Philadelphia. In her head, Kara imagined Brian following behind, sniffing out the pieces of her like a trail of breadcrumbs. There was a safe house there that she had contacted once, last year, when Brian had left her for an hour at a hair salon on her birthday. They could take care of Brian; press charges, if she wanted, or just make it so that he’d never find her. They would help her start a new life with Michael, just her and Michael – all she had to do was get there.

A new life.

Kara found the reflection of herself in the mirror, on purpose this time. She stared at the lines under her eyes, the blanched skin and fading bruises – a canvas of worry and pain.

How many times had she thought about running away? How many times, rinsing blood from rags into the bathroom sink, had she promised herself she would? How many white lies and wasted prayers?

But she had. She traced the amoeba-like bloom of yellow-brown on her left cheek, her skin flower-soft beneath his angry work. For once, she could almost be proud of what she wore – war-paint, maybe. A mark of what she’d survived. She ran her fingers through her cropped hair, surprisingly pleased with the bristly thickness of it.

Michael sat on the edge of the bed. His eyes widened when she emerged, stirred by more, she thought, than the new cut of her hair. She gave him a smile, one that almost didn’t hurt. “Time to go,” she said.

They were climbing into the Jeep when they saw the red van pull into the motel parking lot and skid, blocking the entrance.

Kara knew that van – one that Brian kept at the shop, for hauling emergencies, he said, always one to help out a friend. The newborn hope she had just begun to feel, warm and steady beneath her skin, shuddered and shrank away. Had she ever really believed this would work?

She heard Michael’s voice beside her, small and miserable.

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

Kara reached out to take his hand. “No, I’m sorry, Baby. I messed up.”

Michael began to cry. Tiny, broken little sobs. “He said he’d find us if we ran. No matter where we tried to go, he’d get us. He said…”

“I know – “

“He said if we tried to get away, he’d punish us worse than anything…”

“Listen.” She didn’t know what to say next. Her mind was reeling. Maybe – maybe they could get to the office and get help. Maybe she could barrel the Jeep into the van, enough to drive through, maybe she could run out there and distract him, block him, long enough for Michael to run –

“He said that he’d find us anyway, so if I just made it easier on him, he’d let me off easy. He said only one of us had to pay.”

The door of the red van was opening, but Kara turned her eyes to her son. “What? What did you say?”

Michael’s face was awash in tears. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he whispered. “I just can’t take it anymore.”

A small, round hole appeared in the window in front of Kara. Through the cracks she saw a Brian-shaped form wavering, growing larger.

She had lost Michael’s hand. She fumbled for it, tried to follow the sound of his screaming, but her fingers fell on nothing. Nothing.

She slipped back into bed while the shower roared.

She pulled the cool sheet over her head.

She fell asleep to the sound of rushing water.

Or was it only the sound of the blood rushing in her ears?

#

Shannon Connor Winward is an author of literary and speculative fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in venues such as Flash Fiction Online, Strange Horizons, Pedestal Magazine and Plasma Frequency Magazine, and has been awarded Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest and the Delaware Division of the Arts Emerging Artist Fellowship. Shannon is a member of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Her first collection of poems was published by Finishing Line Press in Summer, 2014. For more information, visit her blog at www.shannonconnorwinward.com.

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