“She says it’s not abuse because there’s no bruises, you know, because she doesn’t actually hit me. She just—” Owen twists a hand in an arc through the humid air, a weak summary of the terror his wife causes.
Cicadas sing in the vines and brush that surround the outside of the patio trellis.
Liam’s chest burns with the beginnings of upheaval. “Doesn’t matter if she hits. She hurts you on purpose. That’s abuse. I’m glad you called me this time because you can’t keep hiding in hotels whenever she gets upset.”
“We used to hide from angry people all the time, you and me. Under the basement stairs. In that broken deep freezer in the garage. Stupid places.” Owen’s eyes go bright, awake, “We were cozy though, breathing the same air. Remember? Hey, why not hide with me? Just for a few days.”
“We always got caught too, remember that? And it made the beatings even worse. No. No hiding. Let’s grab your stuff and go.” Liam stands, “It’s been awhile since we shared a bed, so I made up the office for you, if you prefer.”
Owen shrugs. “She has a point though.”
“Helen. It’s true she doesn’t beat me or anything, and what’s a little name calling.”
The cicadas loll, anticipating.
Liam’s words leave a sour trail as they slide off his tongue. “What about the sex stuff?”
“What sex stuff?” There’s a frown and a scoff. Owen takes a swig of his lemonade. While he plays with the mouthful, swishing it around with his tongue, he stares through the sliding glass doors at the motel room where he’s hidden the last week.
Face heating, Liam sits. Rickety metal presses awkward patterns into his legs and rear.
The flex of muscles in Owen’s jaw and neck brings sweat to Liam’s forehead. His eyes drift over Owen’s throat, where bruises would decorate were Helen less restrained. Liam edges his hands down the rusty armrests of his chair to keep from yanking on his hair when Owen returns to the conversation, “That doesn’t really count, you know. I mean it’s not like it hurts, not really, she’s just—you know. Sometimes it still feels good.” Another swig. It goes down rough. “Once I relax.”
The cicadas get louder. Frantic.
Liam reminds himself to breath, to be calm, not accusing. Never accusing. “But you don’t want to do it. That’s the point, you don’t want to and she manipulates you into doing it anyway.”
Owen’s glass hovers in mid-rise, yellow fluid sloshing around. Liam eases a leg out and taps Owen’s shin with the toe of his tennis shoe. They lock eyes.
The cicadas’ song roller coasters as Liam speaks. “Anytime you try to fight she manages to guilt you into backing down. It’s wrong, Owen. It’s sick.”
“Would you quit being so dramatic?” Owen sets his glass down too hard and lemonade splashes over its side, coating his fingers with sugary liquid.
Liam’s chair screeches over concrete. “I’m not being dramatic.”
As he leaves the patio, Owen curses and scrubs his hands over faded jeans. Liam waits for the weight of Owen’s voice to reach out, to call him back, but it doesn’t come.
Inside the room the space is dark, vacant. A double-bed sits with covers tucked in tight except for its top sheet, which is stuffed, shell-like, around the back of a desk chair at a small table.
A coat hangs above an empty luggage rack.
Liam approaches the rack. “Owen? Where’s your bag?”
Glancing outside, Liam’s breath hitches at the crumble of Owen’s expression before Owen ducks his head and pulls at his wedding ring. Then rubs his wrist as if it aches. There’s a moment where Liam believes Owen will finally rise. Where his friend’s body straightens, rocks forward as if to jolt upright, but then Owen groans and leans back in his chair.
Liam strides to the dresser, yanks open the drawers one by one, top to bottom. All are empty.
He checks the bedside table. Empty.
His breathing intensifies.
He checks the room corners.
Under the bed.
Finally, he enters the bathroom. The sink holds a hotel toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. The shower is equally basic.
Liam picks up the toothbrush. Digs his thumb into the used bristles. He slams his hand down, a loud crack of fist against porcelain.
Leaning on the counter, he hangs his head and breaths through the building emotion. Until his eyes stop burning and his head matches the rhythm of the cicadas.
Even here their song echoes.
It guides his steps back onto the patio.
Owen sits, tense and waiting.
Liam approaches Owen. Sits back down in his chair. He lays one hand flat on the table, leans forward, and carefully reaches the other hand for Owen’s leg. “You didn’t bring anything. Wasn’t there time? Or aren’t you leaving with me?”
Liam curls his hand into a fist and bumps it against Owen’s knee. Then he scratches higher up, at Owen’s thigh. Owen slides his glass across the table, abandons it. For a moment he remains stoic. Then, he sighs. “It wouldn’t fix anything. You and me, we’re not kids anymore. Our lives aren’t breaking into farmhouses to grope each other. It’s time to grow up. To fix problems instead of run from them. I can fix this. You know things were even harder for her than they were for us. She needs me because I understand her anger, where it comes from and why she has to-- she has to get it out. I can’t leave her to burn up inside. I can’t run from her.”
The cicadas roar.
“So instead you run from me? Since the day you replaced me with her--”
“I didn’t replace you!”
“I’ve watched her ruin you, for years, bit by bit because you’re too stubborn to admit she can’t be, doesn’t want to be, fixed. There’s no reason for you to stay. You don’t have kids. You don’t owe her anything for her suffering. Please just... I can’t keep watching. Please come with me.”
Liam huffs hot breath out his nose, struggles to keep his hands clenched against his legs instead of in Owen’s shirt. For his part, Owen shakes his head and gives an empty chuckle before saying, “You’re right, you know. I did forget that hiding made the beatings worse. But Helen isn’t my mom and I don’t mind the extra punishment. Not if it helps her. I’m not going. She needs me.”
Insect wings fall to silence.
Metal scratches white marks over concrete as Liam stands. He says, “Fine. I’m done then.”
Crossing the patio and motel room, he makes it to the main door before stopping. The handle is slick under his fingers. He stares at his nails where they rub against the silver finish.
Then, he spins on his heel, crosses back to where Owen still sits. He knocks their knees together as he grabs one side of his friend’s face and leans down. First a bite to the top of Owen’s ear, then his words curl around Owen’s temple. “Okay. We’re okay. Next time, yeah?”
Owen grips the back of Liam’s neck.
A lone cicada cries.