Tell Me What Depression Looks Like

Yesterday it was pizza

Tomorrow I’ll crave Chinese

I’ve got to remember to renew my gym membership

But I stop for fries and a latte instead

Credit card statement says I spend too much on food

Self-sabotage my biggest demon

And your voice a thousand ocean breezes away

Whispers, Don’t get fat

As I scavenge my purse for the buy-1-get-1 spicy nuggets coupon

I’m not hungry, I want to sleep

I’m bedridden, and you’re too far to push me out

The other side of the pillow crosses borders

And somewhere you lay your head

Dream of me in an itsy bitsy teenie weenie—

I hate to disappoint, it’s a bit tight

Can’t pull it over my hips

My stomach growls louder than

My heart beating against me for letting you go

But you promised you’d come back

And I promised I wouldn’t get fat—

I guess we’re both liars

T is for Type

The following poem, originally published April 23, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge, will open Act 2 of “Love Poetry.” You already know what happens in this part of the novella. Whitmore unfortunately takes his own life and now Jessica must deal with the guilt…

The Relationship Type

I’m not the relationship type.
My hands and feet are too cold,
the tips of my fingers and toes,
underneath the nail,
a purple-blue tint.
A lack of blood flow, a lack of oxygen.
My pulse beats to a different rhythm
opposite of the symphony he composes
for our love.
I’ll admit I can’t feel anything
when I touch him—
my senses numb to his warm affections.
“I love you” tastes like heated
mayonnaise on my tongue.
His kisses fail to thaw my icy lips,
frozen in a pout, unwilling to smile
to his presents and poems.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be the meek
lover you desired of me.
It was never my intention
that you grow so attached,
that my absent devotion
would rip you in two,
that my cold heart would be the reason
yours stopped beating.


R is for Ring

Originally published April 21, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge.

“What was that?” Bruce swatted at his ear.

“What was what?” Jessica pressed her lips against his forehead, shingling his brown hair with her fingers.

“I don’t know. It sounded like a fly, or something.”

“Am I making you nervous?” Jessica kissed him on the lips. Then down to his chin. Then underneath his chin, and lower on his neck, near his throat.

“Not at all.” He reclined onto the pillows propped up on the headboard as Jessica moved further down. She kissed his collarbone, then his bare chest. She traced her tongue around the sharpened outlines of his abs. His abdomen convulsed as he chuckled under her light touch. She migrated down to his navel, biting the skin on the outer edges. When she reached the thin trail of pubic hair just below his navel, he suddenly shot up.

“There it is again. That buzzing.”

Jessica searched the bedroom, and her eyes immediately fell on her phone lying on the edge of her nightstand. Bruce picked up the vibrating phone and looked at the picture displayed on the screen. “Is this him?”

Jessica nodded.

“He looks kind of weird. I mean, he has his hands in his pockets. He’s leaning to the left but his head is cocked to the right. He’s smiling, but it’s like he’s trying to show all of his teeth at the same time. Almost like he’s sneering at you.” Bruce leaned his head to the right and bared his teeth to demonstrate.

Jessica snatched the phone from him. “You look like a washed-up rapper.” She tossed it across the floor, and it landed where the door was cracked open.

Jessica climbed onto Bruce’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I don’t want to think about him. He’s history.” She sighed loudly, her breath ruffling through his hair. “You have experience with stealing girlfriends.” She arched her back. “Steal me.”

Bruce quickly flipped her over and positioned himself on top. “Alright,” he whispered. He sucked on her neck, and she wrapped her legs around his waist as he thrust his hips into her.

Jessica felt as if she would melt, her body like jelly underneath her skin. Two years of built up resentment, dissatisfaction, force appeasement to a tormented love gushed from her pores and onto the sheets in an ocean of sweat. Bruce kissed the tops of her breasts, and she remembered what she had always desired in a relationship. Someone to kiss her, comfort her when she was down, whether that was by lending a shoulder for her to cry on, or through unbridled sex. He intertwined his fingers with hers and pressed her hands on either side of her into the mattress, and she remembered she just wanted to be with someone who made her feel comfortable being herself, whether that meant watching her favorite black and white Alfred Hitchcock movies with her, going bowling just to order the chili cheese fries from the concession stand and using the bumpers to cheat, or dancing under arches of water shot from rusted fountains in the city park with giggling, half-naked two-year olds. He pressed deeper into her, quicker in pace, and she remembered how much she loved to fight. Why have sex in the morning when they could wrestle? Pin each other to the ground; winner got to take a shower first, loser cooked breakfast.

She never had any of that with Whitmore. Whitmore had a plan. He had seen too many movies, read too many blogs. He believed relationships were all about romance, love, working toward marriage. He never allowed them to grow into friends before he began planning a wedding and a family. He’d convinced her that pursuing a friendship wasted time. No one could wait that long. He was so eager to settle down, he never learned her middle name, or her favorite type of food, or what she enjoyed doing in her free time. He missed getting to know her.

She dug her nails into Bruce’s back and released a buoyant moan. She didn’t know what the future held for them, but she wanted him to help her rediscover her passion, the fire that burned within her whenever she became involved with a man who asked for nothing but her company.

Suddenly, there was a loud, piercing bang. It echoed off the walls, rang in Jessica’s ears, ricochet within her skull. Bruce pulled out of her and sprang from the bed so fast he nearly hurt her.

“That sounded like a gun shot. It sounded like it came from your living room?”

“No one else is here. My door makes a lot of noise. I would’ve heard if someone was inside.” Feeling vulnerable, Jessica crossed her arms over her exposed breasts, placing a hand on the opposite shoulder.

“Maybe it was outside your door?” Bruce said.

“There’ve been some break-ins. It could be my neighbor.”

“Stay here. I’ll check it out.”

“Be careful.”

Bruce stepped into his jeans and walked around the corner. Jessica scooted to the edge of the bed, wrapping the bed sheets around her shoulders. She heard Bruce open the door. She heard a heavy thump. Then she heard him gasp. Seconds later, he was standing in the doorway, his lips pressed together. He refused to make eye contact with her.

“You need to call the police.” His voice was short and weighted.

“Why? What is it? What happened?”

“Just—” He bent over and picked up her phone from the floor. “Call the police.”

Jessica was about to dial 9-1-1 when she saw a series of incoming texts from Whitmore.

I need to see you. Are you home?

I’m in the parking lot.

Why won’t you answer the phone?

I want to make us work. What do I have to do to make us work?

I want to marry you Jessica Ryan. That’s what I came to ask you.

So this is it? You’re done with me?

I don’t understand what I could’ve done.

Goodbye, Jessica. It’s obvious you don’t love me as much as I love you.

Just like Layla . . .

 Jessica slowly looked up at Bruce. “What did you see?”

“You shouldn’t go up there.”

Jessica dropped her phone and pushed past Bruce. She sprinted to the living room, and as if she had collided with an invisible brick wall that had suddenly risen from her floorboards, she collapsed to her knees. In front of her, face down, half his body inside across the threshold, lay Whitmore, blood spilling from his right temple. There was a smear of red on the front of her door, midway and on down to the bottom, from where his head hit and slid down as his body fell underneath him. Poking out from underneath his chest was the gun he used to end his life.

Jessica wanted to cry. She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t find her voice, and she realized that all fluids related to Whitmore, tears included, had been purged from her body while she had sex with Bruce. The only word she could muster out of her mouth was, “Oh.”

Behind her, Bruce spoke into the phone. “Yes, I need an ambulance. A man is dead.”


O is for Optional

Originally published April 17, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge. A version of this poem will appear in Chapter One of the novella, when Jessica looks at another “option” from Whitmore on her blind date with Bruce. 😉

A poem by Jessica Ryan

Relationships are optional.
You cannot mandate my marriage
to cure your loneliness, and I
do not need your love
to make my life complete.

I’ve kissed more boys
than I can count
and have loved less.
My feelings intensify and
fade like the seasons.
Do not mention marriage in the summer
and never children in the snow.
Laugh at my jokes and I’ll
pretend your confessions of
undying infatuation don’t amuse me.

I do not require the world,
only a small park bench outside where
the wood can rot; the paint can chip.
Sit next to me and hold my hand.
Ask of nothing; demand even less.
If mandates spew from your lips,
eliminating my free will, I’ll add you
to my list of boys I’ve kissed
and never loved.



J is for Jealous

Originally published April 11, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge

“Why don’t you ever answer my calls?” Whitmore turned to shut the door.

He must have beat the door down, Jessica thought, noticing that it was now completely off the bottom and middle hinges.

Whitmore drove his shoulder into the door. The wood creaked, and the edge of the door knocked against the jamb, refusing to close.

Jessica took that moment to back away into the kitchen. She yanked open the first drawer on the end of the counter fumbling through it for anything she could make into a weapon, all while keeping her eyes on Whitmore. She didn’t think she would be forced to defend herself against him, but she also didn’t know what he was capable of anymore. The fact that he thought it was alright to break into her home because she ignored a few phone calls frightened her.

The door finally clicked into place. Whitmore returned his attention to Jessica, approaching her behind the counter. She enclosed her hand around the handle of the first object she could feel: egg beaters. They would have to do for now. She slammed the drawer shut and quickly put the egg beaters behind her back just as Whitmore stepped around the counter.

“I want to explain myself,” he said, “the reason why I’m so protective of you.” He sighed, and bowing his head, continued. “I worry when you don’t pick up the phone. When Layla didn’t pick up, it was because she was cheating.”

“But I’m not Layla, Whitmore.” Jessica tightened her grip around the egg beaters. She looked toward the door. How secure was it? Could she easily escape if Whitmore were to lunge after her?

“I need you to understand what happened between us.”

“She cheated and broke your heart.” Jessica shrugged her shoulders. Whitmore never let her forget it. The memory of Layla was always inserting itself in the middle of their relationship, making him paranoid, jealous.

“She did more than just cheat.” Whitmore turned and leaned his back against the refrigerator door. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked up to the ceiling. “When I found out, I didn’t break up with her right away. I still loved her. I wanted to make us work. I wanted her to see that we could work. I thought—” He shook his head as if embarrassed by what he was about to say. “I thought if I could make her the mother of my child, she would open her eyes and realize we were meant for each other.”

Jessica dropped the egg beaters onto the floor behind her. She bent over to retrieve them, but Whitmore was already there. He tossed them into the sink and took her by the hands, holding them underneath his chin.

“After a few months, I noticed that she still wasn’t showing. I asked her if we should go to the doctor, and she said, with no emotion, no change in facial expression—-” He closed his eyes as tears fell from the corners. He used her fingers to wipe them away. “She said she got an abortion . . . and that it was over. I could’ve died.” He turned around and leaned over the sink, curling his back and sobbing down the drain. “I wanted to die,” he continued. “I had a bottle of vodka, half a bottle of sleeping pills. I closed myself up. I had every intention of never waking up that next day.” He sniffed and wiped his nose. “But I did wake up.” He lifted his head. “And I got out of the house. And that night I went to a poetry reading and met Heaven’s Angel.” He turned around and grabbed Jessica by the hips, pulling her into him. “I met you.”

Jessica pushed him off of her. “So you’re saying I’m just a rebound?” She scooted to the other side of the counter, putting distance between them.

“No, not at all.” Whitmore followed her and again put his arms around her. “I’m saying you saved me. I was in a dark place with Layla, but with you, you smiled and I saw nothing but light.” He brought his hand to her face and leaned down to kiss her lips. “That’s why I want to make us work.” He dropped his hand to her stomach. “Our family too.”

Suddenly, it all clicked. His obsession with Layla. How he refused to wear a condom the night of their anniversary. How he pounced on her the next morning, unrelenting until he released his seed inside of her. Layla had ruined him, made him calculating. Because of her, Whitmore would never give a woman a legitimate reason to leave. He would cry about the one who had broken him, and trap her, either using guilt or motherhood.

Jessica wanted to run. She heard the sound of gushing water spilling over the tub and remembered she left the water running. She raced for the bathroom and slipped on the tiled floor covered in a layer of sudsy water, falling hard on her hip.

“Careful! The baby!” Whitmore dropped down beside her and cradled her in his arms as if she were a bruised child. He kissed her neck, rubbing her stomach in circular motion. “Shhh.”

“Stop it!” Jessica swatted his hand away. “I’m not pregnant.” She reached over the tub, turned the knob and pulled up the plug in the floor to let the water drain. She scrambled to her feet and took three towels from the rack, tossing them onto the floor and using her feet to wipe up the water.

“What do you mean you’re not pregnant? Are you on your period?” Whitmore stood up, patted his soaked pants with his hands as if that would easily dry them.

“No.” Jessica concentrated on getting all the water, not wanting to make eye contact with him.

“So you’re late.”

Jessica paused. Was he keeping up with her cycle? There was no way for her to tell if the morning-after pill had worked. Her period wasn’t due for another three days, and it was naturally a few days late. It could easily be a week before she would know for sure. However, she couldn’t tell Whitmore that. She had a feeling plan B carried the same weight as plan A, and if Whitmore were to learn that his angel from Heaven was no different from Layla, he would descend back into that dark place. This, Jessica realized, was how he would force her to stay. The guilt that if she left him, rid herself of his seed, his blood would be on her hands.

“I need to think.” She collected the damp towels off the floor.

“About what?”

She didn’t answer. She carried the towels back to the living room. She pulled the door open. It shook as if were about to fall on top of her. She prayed that it would to end the nightmare she couldn’t seem to wake up from.

“You’re kicking me out? I don’t understand. What have I done?” Whitmore asked, following behind her.

“Whitmore, please! I just need time to myself.”

“You’ve had all day.”

Jessica scratched her forehead in frustration until it started to burn. “Do I need to call someone?” she asked. She wanted to rip the door off the last hinge and beat him with it. The rage built inside of her. She hated him, and she hated herself for letting things get this far.

“Fine, I’ll leave.” He moved to kiss her, and she turned her head, only letting him peck her cheek. “I’ll do anything for you, Jessica,” he whispered in her ear. “I love you.” He waited for her respond, but she only pressed her forehead into the door and pointed for him to go.

Once he was outside, she slammed the door, kicking it in and turning the deadbolt. She threw the towels down and screamed until her voice went hoarse. “Why!” she whined, wanting to cry. A jingle came from the couch. She dug between the arm and the cushion until she retrieved her phone. She didn’t recognize the number, but she answered anyway.

“Hey, you. Are you busy tonight?”

“Yes!” she shouted.

“Oh, OK. Well, how about tom—”

“No, I mean yes, yes. Whatever you want to do. Yes.” Jessica said.

“Ahh, great,” Bruce said. “How about nine?”



I is for Insecure

Originally posted April 10, 2015 for the A to Z Challenge.

“Jessica! Did you listen to 96.1 this morning? Bruce was talking ’bout you, girl. Why’d you tell him about Whitmore?”

Jessica held the phone away from her ear as she walked toward her car in the parking lot. She had just finished a stress-relieving workout at the gym, spending forty minutes on the elliptical and another twenty on the stair climber. Although she had stretched in the locker room before she left, her calf and thigh muscles immediately tighten at Whitmore’s name.

“His radio show, The Girlfriend Whisperer. He comes on right after my top twenty countdown,” Alex said. “Today he needed advice on this beautiful, smart, funny girl who’s stuck with a loser boyfriend. I knew right then he was talking about you.”

“Advice about what?”

“Asking you out, girl! He likes you. I knew he would. You couldn’t tell on your lunch date?”

Jessica collapsed into her car and laid her head back on the headrest. “I was too distracted by guilt!”

“Oh please! You and Whitmore are done. The city has spoken. Everyone was calling in saying, ‘Steal her! Steal her!’ A couple pathetic, insecure douchebags chewed him out for trying to date someone already in a relationship. I swear, one of them sounded like Whitmore. Does he listen to 96.1?”

“I don’t know.” Jessica sighed and rubbed her temples.

“You OK?”

“Whitmore’s been calling me all day.”

“Wonderful!” Alex said sarcastically. “Where are you?”

“Just finished at the gym.”

“OK, go home. Take a nice, warm bath. Turn off your phone . . . well, don’t turn off your phone, because Bruce may call. Just, don’t answer if it’s Whitmore. Give yourself a break from always having to explain yourself to him. He’s such a crick in your neck. I bet Bruce could get it out. Give you a nice, oily, back massage too.”

“Oh my god, Alex. I’m hanging up.” Jessica ended the call, chuckling to herself. She turned the ignition and put the car in gear.

On the drive home, she thought of Bruce. Would she be happy to hear from him if he were to call? Would she pull away again? Would she allow Bruce’s advances to be the kick she needed to end the relationship with Whitmore?

“I’m seeing another man,” she said aloud. Would Whitmore accept that? She’d tried ending the relationship before: You’re smothering me. You want too much. I need my space. I’m not ready for that kind of commitment.

Whitmore had rejected her arguments. “These are problems that are easily fixed,” he’d said, “and don’t I make you happy?”

In Whitmore’s mind, he did everything to make her happy. If she was happy, she had no reason to leave him; she had no reason for not wanting to marry him. But what did he define as her happiness? Smiling, laughing, kissing everyday—was that happiness to him? Having sex when he wanted? Overtly showing gratitude when he bought her gifts she never asked for, or took her out to expensive dinners neither of them could afford? The truth was, she wasn’t happy, and ‘happy’ was such a generic, unmoving term; she cringed whenever he spoke the word. He had this false sense of security that as long as he continued to do what he thought made her ‘happy,’ she would always belong to him.

Jessica pulled into the Clemmons apartment complex. She noticed a white Nissan Sentra parked in front of her neighbor’s apartment. Whitmore drove a white Nissan Sentra. She brushed it off. A lot of people are driving that car, she told herself. She hiked the stairs to the third floor.

The door to her apartment hung crookedly on the hinges and rubbed noisily against the jamb whenever she tried to open or close it. Jessica often had to pull the door up using the loosely screwed door knob, slam it shut, and then deadbolt it for it to close properly. If she didn’t, people could simply push the door open and enter her apartment, not needing to turn the knob, not even needing a key. Her cheap apartment manager still hadn’t called anyone to fix it, and with the recent string of break-ins, she didn’t feel safe.

She leaned against the door and kicked it at the lower corner under the hinge to keep it in place. When she pulled the knob, the door didn’t budge.

Satisfied, Jessica walked straight to the bathroom and turned on the water for a nice, hot, bubble bath. She squeezed the cherry blossom scented soap into the water, allowing the perfume to rise back to her nose with the steam and lift her off the floor.

The sudden sound of rattling and banging from the living room startled her to her feet. She went to investigate, and found Whitmore standing in the middle of the room—the door wide open behind him—holding up his phone.

“How’d— you get in here?” Jessica asked. She didn’t mean for her voice to crack. She didn’t want to sound fearful.

“You haven’t been answering my calls.”

“Was that your car parked outside?” She made sure to sound more assertive. He wouldn’t intimidate her.

“Did you listen to 96.1 this morning?”


A is for Attached

A prequel of Whitmore’s last relationship before he met Jessica. Originally posted for the A to Z Challenge April 1, 2015.

It was New Year’s Eve, and Whitmore was sitting up in a cold hotel bed with a bottle of flat champagne next to him, calling his girlfriend Layla for the fifteenth straight time.

The ball had already dropped, lights and confetti exploding around the illuminated numbers, 2014. All of the televised parties and concerts had gone off the air an hour ago. He was watching MTV count down the best music videos of 2013. He cupped his crotch, and hoped the half-naked women dancing across the television screen would ease the tension in his groin.

His pants were half way down when he heard a knock on the door. It was Layla.

“Where the hell have you been?”

Layla brushed by him and sat on the bed. She had a slight limp in her gait. She took her phone from her purse and began to scroll through the missed calls. “If I don’t answer after the first time, or the second time, or the third, or the goddamn twenty-third, why do you continue calling!”

Whitmore slammed the door. “We had plans, Layla. We were going to spend New Year’s together here.”

“At some shoddy hotel, drinking cheap-ass wine.” She flicked the bottle onto the floor. It rolled underneath the bed.

“Champagne,” Whitmore corrected.

“Whatever.” Layla stood and ran her fingers through her hair. “It’s freaking New Year’s, Whitmore. I don’t wanna stay cooped up inside. I want to go out. Party. Take some shots. Bring in the new year with my friends.”

Whitmore cocked his head to the side. “So you don’t want to spend time with me? You don’t love me?”

“Why do you always go from one extreme to the next, Whitmore? You can come with, or you can hang with your friends.” There was a sarcastic tone in her voice. She curled her lip and snickered. They both knew his only friend was his girlfriend, much to the vexation of Layla. “I mean, I just feel like you always wanna keep me to yourself. I do have a life.”

Whitmore scratched the stubble on his chin and folded his arms across his chest. “So why is your shirt inside out? Why are your pants unbuttoned? Why is your belt only through two loops? Why do you smell like Old Spice?” he asked circling, inspecting her.

“What are you getting at?”

“Who you been with?”

Layla picked up her purse and walked to the door. “If I’m gonna get interrogated, I’m leaving.”

She was gone before he could protest. He found himself alone on the bed once again watching raunchy music videos and contemplating masturbation. He shuffled out of his pants and boxers.

He was losing Layla. He could feel her slowly pulling away. He saw how she’d flirted with the waiter on their last date. Just the night before, he’d found pictures of men naked from the waist down in her phone. She’d been texting someone named Roc for the past month. She had one foot out the door, and he needed to act quickly to ensure that she would stay with him forever.

The idea came to him as he spilled onto the white bed sheets and fell limp. No more pulling out while they made love. He would get her pregnant.


Breastfeeding Mannequins

The mannequins at Macy’s are often naked. I’ve complained to a manager twice. Display clothes that actually fit or buy bigger mannequins. No woman is that size anyway.

Harold’s mother gives me money for formula. She doesn’t agree with our plan to wean Ryan after six months, but he’s already teething, and he bites.

The formula’s on sale, so I have extra money to stop by Macy’s and try on jeans I know won’t button. The baby weight hugs my hips; I’ve gained more since giving birth.

While checking the price tag on a pair of Kim Rogers, I notice Ryan leaning over his stroller. He’s sucking on the nipple of a bare-breasted mannequin half my dress size.

He’s just like his father, I can hear my mother-in-law saying, but I’m sure you know that already.


moral_mondays_logoJoin Moral Mondays, a new weekly challenge to write a 100-word fable or story based on the moral/lesson provided in the prompt. This week’s moral: look, don’t touch

Mama’s Boy

We are very different. I was spanked growing up, he wasn’t. It’s the reason we argue. He tells me I’m emasculating, I turn cold when he tries to express his feelings. I tell him his mother babied him as a child, nothing I do is ever good enough because she gave him everything.

In counseling, I admit to contacting my ex fiancé. He was raised by a single father quick with his fists. But I have brothers, I know how to fight, and I figured I’d have a better chance of winning than versus an overbearing mother.

But he’s heartbroken, and it’s the first time I’m happy to see him cry. I tell him I canceled at the last minute, I never slept with him. We leave the office arm in arm, and I believe we can make this marriage work, I shouldn’t give up so easily when things get hard.

I plan to wear pink lace under my blouse and pencil skirt to work tomorrow. When I come home in the evening, hungry for his touch, I find his mother in my kitchen, cooking his favorite meal, complaining about her son all skin and bones because he doesn’t have a woman who can fry him a good pork chop.


moral_mondays_logoA late response to last week’s Moral Mondays (a new weekly challenge to write a 100-word fable or story based on the moral/lesson provided) prompt: spare the rod, spoil the child.

New Beginnings (Buried Series conclusion)

I didn’t want to go back to his apartment. I didn’t want to go home. But it was dangerous to stay in Virginia. How soon would his ex’s body wash up on the banks of the Dan River? How soon would the local news air video feed from traffic cameras showing us dumping the suitcase over the bridge? How soon would Danville police track down his car?

He fell asleep at the wheel twice. The first time, he claimed he was only looking down at the dashboard, checking his gas levels, checking his speed, checking the time—it was almost dawn, but the sun had yet to rise. I wondered it would ever again. We belonged in the darkness, the shadows. The light of the sun would reveal the blood on our hands, permanently stained. No soap, no water would wash it away. We’d go through our daily lives carrying our shame like a scarlet letter. Anything we’d come in contact with would spread the mark—a hand shake here, a passing of papers there. It would spread like a plague until the whole of the earth was consumed. Maybe that was where original sin came from—Adam and Eve’s disobedience passed down through the generations. We were they reincarnated, repeating the cycle, bringing down the curse of death, just so he could keep the fruit of his loins. I doubted even God would save us now.

When he fell asleep the second time, his foot went heavy like lead on the gas pedal. The engine moaned as the dial on the speedometer passed ninety. I beat my fist on the steering wheel and honked the horn to jolt him back to consciousness. I wouldn’t risk a third time. As soon as we crossed back into North Carolina, we would find a cheap motel, pay cash so we couldn’t be traced.

Super 8 has a first floor room available on the back side of the motel, facing a construction lot containing a dormant tractor and mounds of clay piled ten to twenty feet high. It was the perfect place to lay low. Instead of pulling up in front of the room door, he parallel parked into three spaces in an empty corner of the parking lot on the edge of the construction zone, right next to one of the taller clay mounds. With the age of his car, passersby would think it had been parked there unnoticed for weeks, maybe months, possibly abandoned. It wouldn’t appear to belong to a guest staying at the motel—a guest police might be looking for.

The ceiling in the bathroom was peeling—crumbs of plaster swept behind the door. A faint brown ring lined the porcelain siding of both the toilet and the bathtub. There was a layer of smudge on the mirror, similar to his murky windshield, but I didn’t need to see my reflection to know I looked terrible. Deprived of sleep, the bags under my eyes weighed my face. I struggle to lift my neck. My body was heavy, as if I were sinking, drowning under the surface.

I pulled his oversized sweatpants over my hips, turned off the light, and stepped over the large stain on the carpet just outside the bathroom door—probably from a drunk hooker’s vomit, or pee. This was no hotel of luxury.  This was a place where people disappeared from the grid—the cheating husbands, the drug addicts, the “honorably” discharged civil servants, the criminal scum dodging the cops. We were the latter. If we were lucky, the place had bedbugs too. We’d need them to corroborate our story about his mattress and box spring anyway. If one of his neighbors ever asked, we could roll up our sleeves, lift our shirts, and reveal the raised red welts on our arms and backs, where the tiny critters feasted on our flesh.

I worried for Stephan, however. Already tucked into the bed closest to the closest, Stephan lay still, curled under the covers, sleeping with his thumb in his mouth. He didn’t deserve this punishment. He didn’t deserve to lose his mother; he didn’t deserve to lose his father, either. No child should have to suffer the blunt consequences of his parents’ selfish decisions.

“Why’d you kill her?” I could barely hear my own voice. He stepped out of his shoes, kicked them toward the dresser on which the TV sat. “I mean, it couldn’t have been just because she took Stephan,” I added.

“Why not?” He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it onto armchair by the window.

“I don’t know. I guess . . . I thought there was something more.”

She’d taken their son, erased him from Stephan’s life for almost a year and a half. That was his motive. No one would’ve blamed him if he hunted her down, found her sitting alone on a park bench in a small rural town—isolated from witnesses, yards away from the children playing on the swings—and snapped her neck. But I couldn’t wrap my brain around why he killed her after she’d come back, after she’d brought their son back. Without any persuasion or prying from him, she’d picked up the phone and promised to come home. Why go through killing her after she’d already fixed her wrong? Did she threaten to take Stephan again? Or was it much for him, seeing everyday how big Stephan had gotten, knowing he would never have those memories of watching him grow? He couldn’t forgive her for taking what she could never return?

It was much easier for women to forgive a lover’s wrong than it was for men. Maybe the man I dated before him never forgave me for aborting our baby, either. Maybe he dreamed of killing me too. And just as Stephan’s mom couldn’t save herself,  my obsession with becoming a mother now wouldn’t bring back the child I’d killed. What would he do to me if he learned of my past? After tonight, I knew at least one of us was capable of murder, but would I make the mistake of provoking him to kill me? Would I stoop down to the level of his ex—of my past self—and snatch a child from a father again?

I leaned over the bed Stephan lay in and kissed behind his ear. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered. I prayed he would never have to remember this night, or anything that happened before. I turned around just as his father pulled the curtains shut, but I caught a glimpse of the pink sky in the distance, behind the mounds of clay outside the window. The sun rising would signify a clean slate for us, a new beginning—all of our guilt buried in the night, the dark depths of the river, floating downstream, hopefully to larger bodies of water and eventually feeding out into the Atlantic Ocean, past  local, state, or federal jurisdictions, past territorial waters, and out of our lives forever.

But even as he slid into bed behind me and pulled his sweatpants down to my knees, my eyes wandered to the remote control lying on the nightstand, and I couldn’t help but think about pressing that power button, changing to one of the local stations, and waiting for the top of the hour breaking news report, between the weather and traffic . . .

Grisly discovery made in suitcase washed ashore . . .


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To Live