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The Paths We Take #28: Knives and Lullabies

Aug 28, 2018






It had been years since I prayed, but when you only have three inches of numbing steel between you and a bullet, God is the only one who can save you.

“This is a destructive habit, Claire.” Donnelly’s voice slipped through the rays of blinding sunlight. His shadowy silhouette was sharp against the midday brightness, like a pristine cut-out from cerulean blue paper. The snow melted beneath my knees as Gramps pressed the barrel of the gun into the center of my forehead.

“Do you want to die?” Donnelly asked as Gramps slid his finger on the trigger. Gramps eyes pored over me as I looked up at him. I thought I imagined the slight shake of his head, but his widened eyes convinced me that he wanted to say, no . . . tell him that it won’t happen again.

It was the second time that week that I’d tore out of the front door and into the melting snow. The first time, I made it all the way to the first cluster of trees. I held on until they ripped my hands from the branches and dragged me back inside.

“Please . . . I won’t try it again,” I begged. I felt the barrel pull away from my skin. Donnelly’s silhouette grew as he enclosed on me. He leaned down and wiped a tear that had escaped onto my cheek with his glove.

“I’m a patient man . . . I’d like to think that I’m a forgiving man, but when you test me . . . when you break that bond of trust repeatedly, I run out of room in my heart for forgiveness . . . I’ll kill you.”

He grabbed a fistful of hair and jerked my head back. I could feel the cold air rush against the skin on my neck as I felt myself slipping backwards. I grabbed his arm to keep from falling, but he released his grip and ran his fingers through my hair. He put his hand under my chin and guided my lips onto his. The kiss was gentle, as if he hadn’t threatened to kill me seconds before.

He released my lips and rested my head on his shoulder. I could feel him brushing the snow from the bottom of my feet as I kneeled in front of him. The snow had completely melted into a slush underneath my knees, the frigid mixture numbing my shins.

A blaze of pain rushed my left foot as I felt the skin splitting from the arch to the heel. I bit down onto Donnelly’s leather coat to keep my screams at bay.

“It’s okay. It’s almost over,” he whispered as I felt the warm blood run down my foot and mix into the slush.

I grabbed my foot and fell to the ground onto my side, ignoring the frigid snow on my face. The blood gushed through my fingers as I tried to put pressure on the cut.

“She won’t be running for a while. Get her cleaned up and ready for the next client. If they ask, tell them she cut it on a broken wine bottle when she was drunk,” Donnelly told Gramps as he wiped the blade of the knife clean with a handkerchief.

Donnelly disappeared into the cabin while Gramps took off his coat and wrapped it around my foot. The surge of pain made my eyes fill with white splotches as I watched the trees spin around me. He carried me inside and sat me down on the leather sofa by the fireplace.

I watched the glint of the flames on the vaulted ceiling as I heard Gramps call for Tabitha, a former nurse from Vermont who was fired for stealing pain meds from the hospital she worked for. Gramps unwrapped his coat from my foot as Tabitha, who had been at the cabin since before I arrived, pulled a syringe from a plastic container that she’d placed at my feet. I didn’t even feel the sting of the needle, but as she started wiping my foot with a towel, I could feel the numbness overtaking the pain.

Tabitha’s hands worked like a choreographed dance. They moved in perfect flow — back and forth from the box, to the needle, to the nylon suture, back to the needle, to the scissors, and back to the suture.

“I’m gonna get you fixed up baby,” she smiled as she worked, Gramps looking on as he smoked a cigarette by the stone fireplace. I let my eyes close as I felt the pressure of the tugging and pushing on the bottom of my foot.

When she finished, Gramps picked me up and carried me to my bed. He left the room but returned with a bottle of water and two small oval shaped pills. He put the pills in my hand and set the water bottle on the nightstand, and then he left without a word.

I wondered again if I had just imagined Gramps trying to warn me, trying to give me the right thing to say to save myself from Donnelly. I hated myself for even thinking I could trust him.

Michael’s face drifted into mind as I swallowed the pills and pulled the blanket over my arms. He looked so young, even his eyes were young — bright and full of hope. Life hadn’t had a chance to ruin him yet.

He hadn’t been back since I begged him to help me. I hoped that he was trying to find a way to get me out, but as the days passed, my hope dwindled.

“I don’t know how you’re the golden girl around here,” Rae’s voice punctured the silence of the room. “You look like roadkill.” She dug her spoon into an oversized bowl of Fruit Loops and then crunched down on the sugary, ring-shaped morsel.

“Can you leave? I don’t feel like babysitting a toddler right now.”

Rae came over and plopped down on the edge of the bed by my foot. She gawked at the bandage as she shoveled another spoonful of cereal into her mouth.

“Awe . . . You don’t want to play with me?” she whined in her best baby-voice as she dropped her lower lip and pretended to pout, bits of blue and green Fruit Loops protruding from her mouth.

I turned my head away from her, to see if — like a toddler — she would eventually just get distracted by something else and leave me alone. Rae didn’t budge; she sat and ate the entire bowl of cereal, and then discarded the bowl and spoon on my dresser, spilling the remaining drops of milk onto the finish.

She came back over to the bed and began to stroke my hair as if I were a doll, her little plaything to be used any which way she pleased.

“Just because you have to be here, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it,” Rae said as she twirled my hair around her fingers. I ignored her, but she continued twirling as she hummed a soft lullaby that I didn’t recognize.

“My mom used to do this to get me to fall asleep.”

I was surprised that something non-sarcastic came out of her mouth. I turned my head just enough to look at her. Her eyes were fixed on my hair as she kept twirling.

“She would freak out if she knew I was here. I’m still her little baby-girl,” Rae laughed. “I can do just about anything I want.”

I thought about my mother, and how she didn’t freak out when she found out that I was dating older men. She just acted like I wasn’t alive anymore, not good enough for her — it was worse than her freaking out.

“My mom won’t have anything to do with me. If she found out that I was here, she’d say “Hmm,” and then go back to reading one of her romance novellas,” I blurted out. “She’d probably have the same reaction if they found my body in a trash bag in some gutter.”

“That’s pathetic . . . You’re way worse off than I thought,” Rae laughed again, but the laugh was hollow; the cruelness was drained from the harsh words and replaced with a kind of laugh you choke out when you’re hiding behind a mask.

Rae didn’t say anything else, she just kept twirling my hair in her fingers. I felt myself drifting off. I wanted to sleep the rest of the day, but just as I shut my eyes, there was a knock at the door.

Nancy nudged the door open, her neck was bruised in blue and purple splotches where my hands had tightened around it. I couldn’t tell if she was scowling at me or at Rae, she hated us both.

“Be ready in an hour Cla—,” she caught herself as she looked at Rae. “Nikki,” she finished as she looked back at me.

I wasn’t sure if Rae knew that my real name was Claire, or if she was supposed to know, but I couldn’t think of a reason why it would matter. Rae wasn’t going to do anything to cross Donnelly.

“Alright,” I said as Nancy looked Rae over.

“And you’ve got one at eight,” Nancy huffed at Rae. “I know you won’t have a problem with that.”

“Yes, fairy-godmother,” Rae blurted out as Nancy shut the bedroom door. I found myself chuckling at the comment.

Rae helped me into the bathtub, where I draped my left leg over the side as I soaked in the steamy water. When the water turned cold, Rae wrapped a towel around me and then left after she helped me out of the tub. I hopped over to the closet and put on a black, sleeveless maxi dress. I hurried to finish getting ready, but stopped long enough to admire the glossy, Ferrari-red lipstick in the mirror — Nikki wore Ferrari-red lipstick.

Gramps was the one to escort me up to the room. Again, he didn’t say a word as I leaned against him and limped, more like hopped, until we got to the stairs. Gramps picked me up and carried me from that point until we were in front of the door to the room that I’d come to hate.

“Good Luck, Pretty Girl,” he said as he left me staring at the door. When I opened it, I found Marks sitting on the end of the bed leering at me, his shirt unbuttoned and a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand.

I limped inside, my fingernails digging into my palms as I balled my fists. Marks took a swig of the Jack Daniels and wiped his lips with his sleeve.

“Hey baby,” Marks slurred. “It’s good to see you Claire. . . I never wanted things to work out this way.”

“Then why am I here, Royce?” I asked, my fists harboring all my fury.

“My kids loved you; I loved you, or who I thought you were anyway . . . I didn’t know the real you, Claire.”

My whole arms were shaking as I limped two more steps toward him. I grabbed onto the bed post to prop myself up while I leaned down, watching his glassy eyes bounce while he studied my lips.

“You keep calling me Claire. . . Haven’t you heard . . . my name is Nikki.”


© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.