22 by H.A. Grace

Walking down the grocery store aisle, looking at the products that were thrown across the shelving and trying to read each logo and ingredient with a lost appetite and a distant mind was not an easy task. I caught myself reading the same word or line continuously, not to place it to memory but to just read it, to know what it said. My mind was far from this run-down grocery store, the no good little town, dead-end job and messed up life. I never thought I would still be here, stuck here. I thought I would be living my life to the fullest, graduated from college with my dream job and married to my dream man. And yet, I was stuck here in this stupid town reading the word ‘cake’ for the twelfth time in a row.

My sore muscles ached as I stood there reading the cake box, my head beginning to throb from the fact that I hadn’t eaten yet and it was already 6:00 p.m. I didn’t have the stomach to eat. My toes were cold from the bipolar Texas weather even though I had on white Converse. I very obviously didn’t dress for the weather, wearing leggings and a navy long-sleeved tee. I was cold and dumb for not grabbing his work coat out from the back seat of my car, but I knew the coat had stains, and I couldn’t wear it like that. What probably made me notice all my pain through my numb nerve endings was the fact that my bra wire was poking the hell out of me.

Not painful, but very annoying.

I should’ve worn a sports bra, but I didn’t. I don’t know why, I had plenty of time to change after I showered, did my makeup and threw out the rubber gloves from cleaning the house.

“Oh my gosh! James Carter?” a girl squealed, pulling me out of my thoughts. She had a bright smile on her face as her eyes recognized me from what seemed like a lifetime ago.

James as a girl’s name, it was indeed unfortunate and caused me to be the butt of most if not all the jokes made in school. Teachers never believed me when I said that was my name and that I didn’t go by ‘Jamie.’  

I knew the girl, of course. We had graduated high school together.

Kara Marshes, dressed in her normal Kara Marshes way: black high-waisted leggings and a tie-dye crop top, white slip-on Vans and an on-trend fuzzy coat.

She must have been home from college on a break or for the weekend. Her blonde hair seemed freshly done, curled softly to frame her face. Her vibrant blue eyes were glittering and so full of light, the signs of a good life. She had sun-kissed skin matching her five-foot-five personality of the typical, popular, white girl. She had always been stunningly beautiful and kind. She was one of the nicest girls I knew in high school. Though, how she ever graduated was beyond me. She was, and still is, one of the dumbest people I know. Nevertheless, she was captain of the volleyball team and the cheer team; her mom was helping at every school event while her dad was the CEO of a law firm. The last post I saw of her on Instagram was her at a party for her sorority chapter with her boyfriend at her division-one school, faces full of smiles and eyes full of happiness.  

I remembered when I had that kind of look in my eyes and on my face, and Kara was still everything I ever wanted to be.

I wasn’t like her in high school, but she was still kind to me. My long brunette hair was never as perfect, my thin, five-foot-three body never as toned and tan, just naturally skinny and pale. I didn’t do any sports or even really work out until a few years ago when Danny dragged me with him to the gym.

Danny.

My heart hurt at the thought of him.

Danny McCaskey was the love of my life. We met a few months after I graduated. I had taken my car in to get it looked at, and he had been my mechanic. Standing at six-foot-two with deep brown hair and a brown unshaven stubble that laid on his tan face. He’s the definition of blue collared and the story of rags to riches. He owned the mechanic shop, and yet he was in his blue coveralls, covered in oil. It felt like a movie moment when I first met him. Our eyes had met, and suddenly there was nothing else around us. I had been so zoned out, lost in his bronze eyes. When I later asked him “When was the moment you knew I was the one?” he told me it was the minute I stepped out of my car. He left me his number, and I agreed to let him take me out the following Saturday. We have been dating for almost three years now.

He didn’t have any family. I had my dad, but my dad and I weren’t close.

I hated it when Danny would leave to work on oil rigs for his sponsors. The rigs could sometimes be very dangerous. Every time he left, he made me promise to be safe and then promised that he would always come back to me. He usually called me when he could, made sure I was okay and let me know he’s okay and thinking of me, then came back to me just as he promised. He always brought flowers and the greatest amount of love, saying that he loved me more than when he left.

Danny was all that I needed in my life, and a life without him in it was pure pain to the thought.

“Hey, Kara.” I greeted her with a fake smile. “How are you?”

“I’m good, just busy,” she laughed. “How about you?”

“Same,” I smiled. “Home for the weekend?”

“For right now, yeah. I’m picking up some drinks, supplies and bikinis before I head down to Florida with Brody and some of our friends for spring break,” she replied, like a giddy child on Christmas. “You remember Brody, right? My boyfriend from college?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I met him the last time when we ran into each other.”

“Oh, that’s right!” She giggled. “At the mall. You were with Danny in that jewelry store. I didn’t see any posts on your Insta, but did he propose?”

I numbly touched the engagement ring on my left hand, flashes of us on that day flooding my head.

It had been the best day of my life. He had taken me to the lake and set up fairy lights and a little campfire with pictures of us through the years hanging along the light strands. The ring was the ring I had dreamed about. A good-sized oval diamond encircled with twelve little diamonds and two slightly bigger ones splitting the twelve, with six on the top and the bottom. It was beautifully placed on a gold band that was also embedded with little diamonds. He had promised to take me away from here, to start a new life with me and live every day knowing that I was his. I loved that boy with every inch of my being. Nothing could ever change that.

I tried to push back the stinging of tears.  

“Yeah,” I replied, biting back a smile. “He did.”

“Oh my gosh!!” Kara cried. “I’m so happy for you! Let me see the ring!”

I showed her my left hand. She took it in hers to inspect my ring.

“I need to get it cleaned.” I laughed slightly.

“It’s absolutely beautiful!” she exclaimed.

“Thank you,” I said softly.

It was beautiful. I loved the ring, what it stood for and all the thought he had put into picking it out.

“So where is the groom? Is he here?” Kara asked.

“He’s…” I started. “Out of town.”

“That’s depressing.” She laughed lightly as if it were a joke. “I bet you miss him so much.”

“Yeah.” I faked a laugh, then checked my phone as if I would see his name pop up. “I do.”

“How does your dad feel about it?” she asked as she let my hand drop.

I felt my whole body go rigid, growing cold to the touch. The thought of rough, unwanted hands harshly gripping my skin made me want to shudder, but I kept as still as possible.  

“He, um, is having to grow on it,” I replied, trying to keep my voice even.

“Is he still messing with you and Danny?” Kara asked.

I could feel all the little amounts of color leave my body.

Had I missed some?

Was there a drip I had missed?

She must have seen something I missed. I thought about all the people I had passed in this store, some giving me odd looks or worried smiles. Did they see it too?

Someone must have seen it. Everyone saw it; they must have.

If Kara, who is dumber than doorknobs, saw it, everyone must have, too.

“I mean about wedding stuff,” Kara laughed, lightly touching my arm.

Oh.

“Oh. Uh, yeah, all the time.” I almost coughed as I let myself breathe again.

If only she knew. I had scrubbed every drip of blood off me before I came to this crummy store. I had bleached the entire house, trying to scrub away any evidence. The scene before me when I came home from work will forever be engraved on the back of my eyelids.

“So, what’s y’all’s plan?” Kara asked, her voice pulling me from the horror I had encountered earler that morning.

I wondered if she could see my colored skin through my long sleeved tee.

“We’re moving,” I replied, relaying the truth to someone who couldn’t see the lie. “Yeah, tomorrow actually, headed to Georgia.”

“Good for y’all!” she cheered. “I’ve always wondered why you stayed in this busted down, little Texas town. You have always said you wanted to leave.”

“Yeah, I did,” I replied, giving a fake smile.

I could still smell the liquid iron. The figure of the man who I was forced to grow up with, the one who beat me every day since my mother lost her life to his hands, was standing over the very still body of my love.

Danny. He had killed Danny. The knife was still in the bastard’s hand. A part of me died the moment I saw the love of my life, gone. He would never tell me how much he loved me again. I would never feel protected and safe in his arms again. I would never know the sound of his voice or the way his touch made my skin burn with desire and lust. I would never know the way it felt to have his body on and in mine ever again. I wouldn’t have his kids, I wouldn’t have him as my husband and I wouldn’t grow old with him. This man that was too kind for this world, too perfect for someone like me, too much of a good person.

“Now you can never leave me.”

That is what my rapist father told me.

Danny would never know that I stabbed that man who was only related to me by blood. He won’t know that I stabbed him until he was more stab wounds than body, that I was covered in so much blood that it stained my shower red.

The bastard resides six feet under the ground in an unmarked grave.

I buried Danny at the lake, under the willow where he carved our initials. I screamed and sobbed at his burial site.

I love him.

I loved him.

“Well, I better get going,” Kara said, bringing our conversation to an end. “But it was great to see you! Tell Danny I said ‘hi.’”

“I will,” I replied softly.

She was about to turn around, but before she left, she grabbed my hand and said with a genuine smile, “before I forget, happy birthday, James.”   

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