Before the room was empty…
Joan slept with a nightstick under the pillow. She never told the kids it was for burglars but that’s what they thought. The older ones would catch on soon enough but by then it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
She met Ronnie at a party and she wasn’t fooled for a minute. He was smooth as glass and just as transparent. But she liked him. That’s what it came down to. She liked his black wavy hair, his eyes that shone like dark water beneath a full November moon and that hint of an urban accent that set him apart from the lumbering local brutes roaming the streets from bar to bar in the depressed little steel town. She liked the way he dressed as if his appearance was the fragrance that drew the bee. Not one important thing attracted her but it was easy enough to forget everything she’d heard from mom, the nuns, the priest and her stuffy friends.
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. One by one, Ronnie’s muscular coils wrapped around Joan, soft and warm at first, with the drowsy hunger in their shadows, dreaming of the satisfaction that even animals know comes only at the end of planning and disciplined execution over a stretch of time. He waited until she was pregnant to marry her. He waited until they were married before his words got hot and he pushed her around. He waited until he was her sole source of food and shelter before he experimented with hitting her. When she blamed herself he knew the way was clear.
She was all his.
She had three kids with another on the way before she ran out of breath and broke the surface into the sunlight of reality. Echoes of the Catholic faith in which she’d been raised clung tightly to the principles of the Evangelical faith she’d adopted to satisfy his pious family but religion didn’t keep her imprisoned to the beast. No. It was the failure that she couldn’t face and the sadness of a loss which was purely imaginary. Had anything less than survival been at stake she could’ve gone on and on, denying, excusing, pretending.
But survival was at stake. If there was one thing the cold-blooded grip of the serpent had done for her it was to show her reality and not let her look away.
Now even the glow of the past was a filthy smudge on her mind and soul. The few kind words he might have said to the kids were hardly even fig leaves for black eyes and twists of verbal knives plunged deep. She had seen his heart and it wore the grin of the skull as it held out bouquets of flowers already dead upon graves.
She would not take refuge in lies, not even the soothing ones. She would do nothing but walk the straight line that led through restraining orders, the gossip of neighbors, the recriminations of family, the painstaking plane crash of divorce.
Most of all, she would not permit herself to remember the nights and days when her most private dreams came true.
Now it was all as over as the law could make it. There was nothing left to do but raise four kids on her own, rehabilitate her reputation on her own, get from here to the other end of life on her own. But she could do these things now. She was tested and strengthened. She had cataloged her resources. She was free and secure.
But she still felt beneath the pillow every night to make sure the nightstick was there.
She was sound asleep in the exact middle of the night when the drunken monster crashed through the door in the shadows, fortified against the magic spells of court-issued pieces of paper. Her peaceful dream exploded as a crushing weight dropped upon her bed, hands like claws finding her throat as if drawn by magnets, garbled streams of senseless profanity rushing forth upon whiskey-fouled gales. She saw oxygen-deprived visions of Heaven before she was even fully awake, with tears squeezed from her failing eyes.
But the stick was in her hand.
An exhausted rag doll conditioned by years of fear and doubt was no match for the wounded pride and muscled rage of a ravenous monster with nothing to lose. Her hand had found the stick but not even survival could give her the strength to swing it.
Somewhere in the darkness a child cried. A little boy would see his father choke the life out of his mother before facing the monster himself.
The thought was barely a fragment to her. Protect. The stick swung. Ronnie screamed and rolled to the floor, taking Joan with him. The stick swung again and the brute stopped moving.
It’s empty now.
The room has no memory. The sunlight finds nothing but the peace of emptiness, the sparkle of floating dust, the endless succession of shadows sliding across slowly crumbling walls. No stain of cruelty, no halo of love, no eternity to be won or lost. Such things have always come and gone like the dying echoes of sound and fury, leaving nothing in their wake.
Nothing but ripples in the light.