I stood stiffly beneath the hot spray of the shower-head and watched the dirt and the blood spiral down the drain.
The dirt and the blood had mingled together during my shower into a strange, rusty looking color that smelled like warm pennies.
It reminded me of sitting on the fire escape back home when I was still living with my dad, and how the hot metal had smelled when it was burning through my shorts.
“Diana?” My mom gave a timid knock on the bathroom door. “Are you alright in there? You’ve been ages.”
“I’m okay.” I let my head fall back to rinse the last few soap suds from my hair. “I’ll be out in a minute, okay?”
I could still remember the look on my mom’s face when Billy and I had eventually stumbled in from the party. She and Neil had jumped up from the couch, my mother’s hands fluttering to the neckline of her nightie when she’d seen the state of me.
Max had been sitting on the floor, her Halloween candy spread out in front of her. She’d pulled her mask down over head like she was trying not to see whatever she suspected was coming.
They’d wanted to know what was wrong with me of course; why I was pale and shivering and leaning on Billy’s arm like I couldn’t walk.
“She’s drunk,” Neil had said simply, as if he’d got it all figured out. “Serves her right.”
And for the first time in my life, I was happy to let him think he was right.
“I’m going to go shower,” I’d said, letting go of Billy and trying to slip past them both.
Neil had grabbed my arm to stop me on my way by, swinging me round to look at him.
“Don’t disappoint me,” he’d said slowly. “Remember what we talked about.”
I’d slowly pulled my arm away, his hands leaving red marks on my skin where he’d grabbed me.
My ankle throbbed.
“Diana? Are you alright in there?”
My mother’s voice brought me back to my senses, the roar of the shower loud in my ears. I turned the faucet off and stepped out, drying and slipping into my bathrobe.
My ankle was pink but the bleeding had stopped.
“What happened to you tonight?” My mother was waiting for me in the hallway when I eventually came out, pulling on my sleeve. “Did something happen?”
“Nothing happened,” I said, brushing her off more curtly than I liked. “I’m going to bed, alright?”
“Diana-“ she followed me into the kitchen, standing back and watching me as I grabbed myself a glass of water. “You can talk to me. Whatever’s happened, whatever he’s done to upset you, you can tell me.”
“Who are you supposed to be talking about?” I asked carefully, already suspecting.
“I think you know,” my mom said. “I think you know.”
“I don’t know.” My voice came out cold and defensive and I sipped at my water. It left a funny taste in my mouth. “You’ll have to tell me.”
“Billy.” My mom hissed his name like it was a bad word. “Did he do something? Is that why you’re so upset?”
“He didn’t do anything!” I brought my glass down on the table, the water spilling over my hand. “For God’s sake mom,” I hissed back, getting angry. “You act like I’m this fragile little thing who doesn’t know anything about anything, but I’m not.”
“Billy’s a troubled boy,” my mom tried firmly. “I’ll give him that. But I’m not going to just sit back and allow him to treat you like you’re a piece of meat who he can get drunk and drag to parties whenever he feels like it.”
“Well you’re a little late for that talk,” I snapped back defensively, catching on. “Because I already got him to screw me at a motel back in California.”
My mom slapped me, her bracelets jangling on her wrists. She brought her hands quickly to her mouth and started to cry, her eyes welling up.
“My God.” My mom stared at me, wounded like I’d been the one to hit her. “Diana, you didn’t?”
“It’s true.” I lifted a hand to my stinging cheek, my ears ringing. “Jesus, mom.”
“I don’t think I know you anymore.” Her words cut me deeper than I imagined. “I don’t think I know who you are.”
“I don’t think you ever did,” I answered back, trying not cry myself. “I’m not like you, mom. I’m never going to be happy being married to some security guard; and having to cook his meals for him and wash his clothes for him just to get him to say he loves me.”
This time it was my mother’s turn to look hurt.
“You think that’s all I am?” She asked. “You think I’m just some dizzy little wife who does as she’s told?
“I’ve been married to your father, Diana,” she snapped. “I’ve lived with him. I’ve been with him to the bars and the poker nights and the roadhouses and the motels. It’s not secure, Diana. It’s no life.”
“This isn’t a life!” I exploded. “This isn’t anything! This is just existing!”
I grabbed at her arms, making her look at me.
“Mom, I would rather spend my nights in seedy motels with him than spend them in a nicely laundered bed with a man who scares me.”
I pulled her fiercely into me, hugging her against my chest.
“Leave him,” I begged, crying, my voice muffled against her hair. “We can get out. It’s not too late.”
“Diana?” Neil’s voice sounded from the doorway, breaking us apart. “What’s going on?”
I wondered how long he’d been standing there. I wondered how much he’d heard.
“Nothing.” I wiped my eyes quickly, glancing sideways at my mom, who was staring mutely at the tablecloth. “We were just talking.”
“Yes.” Neil stepped casually into the room. “What about?”
Max appeared quickly in the kitchen doorway, her pale, heart-shaped face peering around the door.
“I can’t sleep,” she said, coming to our aid.
“It’s all that candy.” Neil turned to her, putting on his fatherly smile. “Your mother’ll make you some cocoa, won’t you Susan?”
“I’m going to bed,” I said then, slipping past Max and then down the hallway to my room.
I heard Neil shouting my name, following after me. I pushed at my door, trying to close it before he reached me but he stopped it, jamming his foot in the doorway and shoving at it with his shoulder.
“You interfering little witch,” he snapped, bursting into my room. “You think you know what’s right for your mother more than I do?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I backed up into the room. “I didn’t say anything.”
“We’ve all got opinions,” he went on. “We don’t always have to say them out loud.”
Neil turned to the door and pulled it closed, waiting for the catch to click. He turned to me with a smug smile.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, meanly. “I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen.”
“You’re not my father,” I burst out bravely, heart hammering beneath my bathrobe. “You can’t talk to me like you’re my father.”
Neil shoved me into a sitting position on the bed, holding my arms so tight it hurt.
“While you’re under my roof,” he snapped fiercely. “And while you’re eating my food and wearing the clothes that I put on your back; then I’m your father. Do you understand that?”
I nodded, eyes stinging, hating him.
“I’m sorry.” Neil cocked his head slyly to one side. “I can’t hear you.”
“Yes.” I spat out, hating the taste of the words in my mouth. “Yes, sir.”
“Diana?” There was a sharp rapping sound on the bedroom door. “Diana, are you in there? I need to talk to you.”
My eyes snapped to the door.
It was Billy.
“Now listen here.” Neil forced me back onto the bed, leaning over me, hand clamped down over my mouth. His forehead was pressing painfully into mine and I glared at him, furious with his trick. “I’ve tried being nice. I’ve tried giving you a chance to start again. I thought we could put your truancy in California behind us.” He gave me a mean shake, hurting me. I made a noise involuntarily against his hand. “Stay out of my marriage, Diana. Do you hear me?”
I nodded, chest hurting with how much I despised him, waiting for him to release me.
When he did, Neil went to the door and opened it but I stayed where I was.
Billy was in the doorway, still wearing the leather jacket he’d worn to the party. He saw me and quickly took a step forward. Neil’s hands went to his chest, pushing him back.
“Thin ice,” he said. “Both of you.”
He glanced behind him at the bed where I was still sprawling. “Remember what we talked about, Diana.”
Billy came into the room and I jumped up from the bed, flinging my arms around him. He smelled like beer and cigarettes.
“I hate him,” I seethed into his shoulder, my eyes stinging with tears. “I hate him so much.”
“Tell me about it.” Billy’s reply was dry and humourless in my ear. “I hate him too.”
Max slipped into the room, eyes shiny. She looked frightened, twisting at the buttons on her pyjamas.
“Mom’s in the kitchen,” she said, thickly. “She’s crying.”
“Are you okay?” I let go of Billy and knelt down in front her, peering into her small, freckled face. “Did the shouting scare you?”
“What did Neil want?” Max’s voice was shaky, her hands clammy in mine. “Did he hit you again?”
I looked at Billy.
“No,” I said, trying to keep my smile fixed in place. “He didn’t hit me. He was just a bit rough with me, but it’s okay.”
“He’s a piece of shit.”
Billy clicked at his lighter but didn’t move to take out a cigarette. “It’s gonna be okay though,” he said seriously. “I’ll figure something out.”
Max looked at him, wide-eyed.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” Billy’s reply was curt but kind. “I’ll just figure something out, okay?”
Max looked at him like she wanted badly to believe him. I wanted to believe him too. I wanted Billy to put his arms around both of us and tell us it was all going to be okay; He meant it. He had a plan.
In reality, he’d sounded determined but unsure. He must have thought those words over a million times before and had nothing ever come of it.
“Your leg,” Billy said, remembering. “Does it hurt?”
“What happened to your leg?” Max asked quickly.
“It’s my ankle.” At the reminder, it began to ache again and I sat down on the bed. “Some weird lizard thing bit me while we were in the woods.”
“What were you doing in the woods?” Max asked and then she blanched. “Actually, don’t bother telling me.”
“I mean it looked worse ‘cause of the blood.” I turned my ankle to the light. The skin was pink and white where the creature had bit me. “It doesn’t hurt that bad.”
“Do you think it’s poisonous?”
I hadn’t even thought of that.
“This is Indiana,” I said, trying to make myself feel better. “I don’t think they have poisonous lizards in Indiana.”
“No.” Max slipped her hand into mine, squeezing it tight. “I’m sure they don’t.”
We all fell silent, as if words didn’t seem to matter to us anymore.
In the kitchen down the hall, my mom was sobbing. It occurred to me that there were scarier things in this world than lizards that may or may not be poisonous. There were scarier things than plastic Halloween masks and painted faces. ‘Scary’ was Neil, with his smooth, mask-like face and his quick temper. ‘Scary’ was my mom, sitting alone in the kitchen with nobody bothering to hold her.