“What is this?” Beer in hand, Brad stared from the doorframe. As usual, he migrated toward the window and peered out as if he suspected that someone else had been in the apartment with me and hid on the fire escape.
“I’m leaving. What did you think I was doing?” I spat. If only leaving Brad was as easy as saying it. I’d attempted it dozens of times before and I knew each stage of his reaction well. This time I was ready.
“Oh, come on Hillary. It was just a little fight.” Stage one. A docile sweet tone flew from a fire pit that had oozed bile the night before as he turned his head side to side, looking for no one. “I told you I was sorry.”
Oh, how bitter that phrase must have tasted in his mouth. The man never apologized to me unless he had something to gain from it.
“No. Brad. It wasn’t a little fight. It was a big fight and honestly one I don’t ever want to experience again.”
“Go ahead! Go!” His voice turned tight with anger. Yeah, that was more his speed. His eyes turned colder as they rested upon me. “But don’t be surprised when the law shows up on your job to arrest you.”
Stage two. Scare tactics and threats.
“For assault.” His fingers tapped a duo of black and blue spots beneath his right eye. “I guess that also means you’ll be looking for other means of employment.”
He was right. Assault and battery charges would cost me. It would ruin my clean record and my nursing assistant they would revoke my license soon after.
For a moment, my courageous resolve began to melt, but I tightened my fists, straightened my backbone and took a deep breath.
“You got in a bar fight.” His threats would not deter me. I wouldn’t let them. I was small in comparison to him. No one would believe I was beating on him. Any cop would know better … I hoped.
Ethan words fueled me as I packed.
‘You deserve the best.’
‘Love shouldn’t hurt.’
He’d spoke of his last relationship and it was true. Love shouldn’t cause intentional pain. Physically or mentally.
Of course, I didn’t entertain fantasies of a future with the celebrity. A few weeks had passed since our last conversation. Oh, I had wanted to, but remained strong. That guy, whoever he was, had only played a game with me. He’d disrupted my entire life and I needed a clear head so I could walk out on Brad for all the right reasons.
And, I knew I wasn’t in love with Ethan … or whoever. I loved the sweet words. I knew I wanted and needed to hear those things from someone. Anyone. I wouldn’t get that from Brad. Not honestly.
“You’re actually going to leave me? Are you that heartless? I got laid off. You’re going to leave me with no way to support myself?”
Stage three, guilt. The man was talented at playing on my soft heart and my inability to cause anyone an ounce of pain.
“You should have thought about that before you volunteered. You get an unemployment check.”
‘Keep going,’ I encouraged myself. Out of necessity, I had to absorb some of Tori’s fire. I’d always been a pushover. Always bit my lip and my tongue. Too scared to defend myself.
No more. I had every right to leave. I knew I could do it. No guilt. There was no reason to feel bad. Brad deserved to lose me. I deserved happiness. I deserved peace and deserved to have a life without fearing repercussions for my every action.
“I’m sorry, baby.” Like flipping a light switch, Brad was sweet and sincere again. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wanted to spend more time with you and then when I thought about what I had done, it stressed me out. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
Stage four, bargaining.
“You seem to do that a lot.” I reminded him. “Maybe what we need isn’t more time together, but more time apart.” I shut my first suitcase. “I’m not happy.”
His fists balled at his side. His jaw locked and his eyes glared down at me. The room seemed to darken and a chill ran up my spine. Stage five was the hardest and most dangerous. It was my last chance to give in, or feel Brad’s wrath.
“And you think I am?” He spat, taking a step towards me.
“Then what are we arguing about?”
“I love you.” But it sounded like a harsh command and it made my pounding heart pause. For the first time, I felt nothing, as if my heart had turned to ice.
“I told you not to say those words to me!” I growled through gritted teeth. The very sound of his voice made my skin crawl. Those words, from him, brought terror. Not joy. “I’m sick and tired of the drinking, the lying, the jealousy, the ridiculous way you have a problem with every little thing I do, and I’m tired of all the time I spend alone. I can’t so much as see a friend or my mother without coming home to your accusations.”
“You’re so beautiful, Hillary.” That whine. Ugh! How I loathed it and I knew it was all he had left. Obviously, my outburst had surprised him. “I’m just so scared of losing you. That’s the reason I do those things.”
“Well, those are the very same reasons why you have lost me.” And I meant it this time. I was done. I didn’t care if he had a job or not. I didn’t care if he couldn’t pay the bills, didn’t care if he starved … I didn’t care if he dropped dead!
“There are two people in a relationship, Hillary. Things don’t end because of one person. You are just as much to blame as I am. You are actually more to blame because you are the one who’s giving up.”
I snorted a laugh.
“There were never two people in our relationship. Just me, taking care of everything. Sitting alone. Talking only to myself. The way I see it I’m living single, so why the hell should I have this girlfriend title restricting me?” I took a final look around the room. I wanted nothing else.
“I think you were just waiting for an excuse to leave. I think you found someone else. That’s the real truth isn’t it?” He nearly screamed.
“Oh, you wish that were true,” I snapped. “I’m leaving you because of you. Your crap! Your bullshit!”
But in the back of my mind, I thought about Ethan. Hadn’t I been carrying some kind of torch for him? I kept saying no, yet deep in my heart, I knew there was a tiny bit of truth to Brad’s accusations. Okay, maybe a whole lot of truth, but so what? I had a right to find a new love and happiness and that was exactly what I was going to do.
“You got a lot of crap Hillary.” Tori propped her hands on her hips. Cartons and black garbage bags cluttered her living room and I still had to unload my trunk. “You left here with a suitcase and two boxes. How the hell did you accumulate so much?”
“I’ve been gone for three years.” I laughed. “And I inherited most of my grandmother’s things when she passed.”
“Looks like she left you the whole freakin’ house.”
“It’s not that much. I had to leave my bed behind. I doubt I’ll be able to sneak it out now that Brad doesn’t have a job to go to.”
“Screw it. You were holding the frame up with cinder blocks anyway.”
I opened the door and stood in the opening. “Are you gonna help me carry this crap upstairs or not?”
“There’s more?” She had just walked in the door from another long shift at work. The woman was turning into a workaholic. She saw that nursing home more than she saw her own place and I hoped it would change since I suspected she worked so much because she hated living alone.
“Do you think you parked far enough away?”
“The lot was full. Your neighbors threw a birthday party or something.”
“Pull it closer. I’m not carrying it that far.” Tori ordered with a big smile. Living with Tori had been fun in the past and the twinkling in her gray-blue eyes said it had made her day … no year … to come home and see all my things piled in the living room.
I moved my four-door sedan quickly, backing it up and popping the trunk. I was in a hurry to finish so I could sit down and relax. Moving was always an exhausting chore, one I dreaded more than anything in the world.
“I see you’re a thief as well as a whore.”
I jumped, nearly hitting my head on the trunk lid.
Brad snatched my upper arm and shook it.
“I have nothing that belongs to you! You watched me pack!” I fired back. I snatched a box and walked past him. “You’re not welcome here, Brad. Leave.” It was unsettling to see him there so soon after I’d arrived. It meant that he’d been on the ferry with me. He’d stalked me.
“I didn’t see everything you boxed up. You’re not taking any of this shit.” He began to open the boxes that remained in the trunk, sifting through and taking what he wanted”
“Hey. I bought that before you and I ever got together.” I complained as he took possession of the expensive stand mixer I loved.
“If you don’t want me, then you don’t want any of the things we had together.”
I attempted to snatch it away, but Brad took advantage of his strength, shoving me hard enough to make my bottom hit the hard pavement with a thud.
“Leave her alone Brad.” Tori returned after carrying up a couple of boxes and she took the steps two at a time.
“Stay out of this, Bitch!” Brad yelled. “It’s between me and my girlfriend.”
“I’m not your girlfriend anymore, Brad!” I insisted.
“The hell you aren’t!” He bellowed, pulling me to my feet by a handful of hair. His spit splashed my face as he continued to threaten and I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t make myself fight.
Like a man, Tori shoved the big brute, causing him to stumble and release his hold.
“Go inside, Hill!”
I gingerly rubbed my bruised arm, then carefully collected a bag from my back seat, my eyes mindful of Brad’s position, then hurried up the stairs, stopping at the top when I realized Tori wasn’t behind me.
Tori wasn’t afraid of Brad like I was and she continued to gather my things from the trunk without a tremble or a second look at Brad who glowered angrily.
Oh, how I wished I could consistently stand up for myself. I wished I had Tori’s resolve. It seemed like it took all my strength to do it once, then fear would make me tremble. I felt so weak. Why couldn’t I be stronger? Why couldn’t I do what I wanted to do?
“I know you put this in her head, Tori. You’re always butting your nose in where it doesn’t belong. Does it get you off messing with other peoples’ lives?”
“Oh, blow it out your ass, Brad!” Tori snapped.
“Maybe Rey didn’t do a good enough job keeping you in line,” Brad sneered. “If you don’t mind your business I’m gonna finish what he started.”
“Your threats don’t scare me.” But, I knew it the mention of her ex’s name bothered Tori tremendously, but she didn’t show it, turning icy eyes that dared him to raise his hand at her.
Physically Tori was so much smaller than Brad and I worried she wouldn’t be able to hold her own against him. Brad blamed Tori and I held my breath as he followed her up the stairs. I hurried to open the door, holding it for her and backing away as Brad followed her in.
“Get out of my house, Brad!” Tori demanded.
“Relax, I’m just going to use the bathroom.”
“No, you’re going to leave right now!” Tori placed a hand on his chest, using all her weight to push him through the threshold, then she slammed the door in his face and locked it.
Immediately, loud thunderous booms made the door shiver. I saw it bend in and out with the collision of his fists on the other side.
“Just ignore him,” Tori insisted, picking up a box labeled kitchen. Tori wasn’t the type to rest until the entire task was complete. “Let’s get this stuff put away so we can watch that new movie the welcoming geeks dug up.”
“Hillary! Open this door!”
I heard the threat between Brad’s simple words. I knew too well what Brad was capable of and I began to sob. My strength was gone and I didn’t know how much longer I could continue my mission. The man wasn’t going to leave me alone. He was going to keep coming and coming until he got what he wanted.
Again, I felt defeated and cried harder because this time, I had put someone I loved in the middle of it.
Suddenly, there was no confusion as to why I had left Brad. All the memories came flooding back. All the horrible things he had done to me. All the abuse … physical and mental. I sunk to the floor, staring at the door, wide-eyed and trembling. Any moment the door would give and the man would drag me back to the hell he forced me to endure.
Tori came stomping toward the door. Her face had that expression. That wild had enough mien that made me suck in a breath. She had a tightly wound fuse and I knew Brad had just snapped it. I cringed, expecting the worse. Expecting Brad to strike Tori as if she were a man the second she opened the door. He didn’t care about anything but what he wanted. He never had.
“Let me in, bitch!”
Tori’s lips curled in at the corners, some whiteness of her teeth flashed through and her hand reached behind for what she concealed beneath her shirt.
She jerked the door open and stuck a shiny black revolver to Brad’s nose. She didn’t just point it at close proximity. She stuck it metal to skin.
Brad’s eyes grew wide, so wide they bulged to the point of popping out of their sockets.
“I told you to leave.” Tori’s hand never shook. She glared, daring him.
Brad’s hands jolted up in surrender. He gurgled incoherently and a little stream of liquid made a trail from crouch to mid-thigh.
“If you EVER – pound – on my door again – you’re gonna have yourself a date with the coroner!”
Brad backed away until he slipped off the first step, barely keeping himself from tumbling down the entire flight. He turned and scurried away like a rat caught raiding the kitchen trash.