Playing With Fire

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Your days are numbered, beloved.
Count them slowly.

I sit up in my bed, clutching at my chest as I struggle to drag precious breaths of oxygen back into my lungs.

“Damn It!” I growl, though it comes out sounding more like a traumatized whimper.
As the remnants of my fear begin to fade, frustration and chagrin take their place, recoloring my world from the black of helplessness to the indifferent sage green of my bedroom walls.

I’d thought it a soothing color when I first moved in and smelled the fresh coat of dried paint. But it does nothing to quell the rage in my heart. I hate that after two years, the nightmares still render me immobile.
I hate that it can take something as beautiful as the girlish excitement I felt after one phone call and remind me why I’ll never have the beautiful, blissful ignorance of a nineteen year old anymore.

At twenty six, I feel as though I’ve lived two lifetimes and the woman existing in my body is twice my age.

My phone pings with a text and I don’t have to look to know it’s Anderson. My first week, I’d scared the shit out of his wife who’d come, gun’s blazing— literally— into my room after she’d heard me scream. After lowering the most terrifying looking shotgun, she’d blushed and apologized but it was me who was utterly humiliated.

I’d asked Andy to keep Lolita informed on a need to know basis, something I understood because I’d never put my sister-in-law in danger, but even still, all she really knew was that my ex husband was an emotionally abusive tyrant who’d made it so it’d taken an act of God to dissolve my marriage.

And while I’d not thought it prudent at first to tell anyone about the physical abuse, the sight of the only sister I’d ever had, wielding a shot gun, ready to blow my demons to kingdom come made me feel incredibly selfish.
So I’d broken down.

I’d told her everything and once the words were out, I couldn’t stop them. Then I held her while she cried for me and we made a plan. If it was nightmares, I had five minutes to send an all good text. If it wasn’t...

I shiver at the memory of the weighted metal in my hands. The taste of hesitation on my lips. I’d always thought guns were a slippery slope, congruent with playing God. But I’d only needed to look in a man’s eyes. Watch fifty thousand volts come to my rescue. And leave an entire life behind to know that there were ways to kill a person, to take a life, without them having to die. So I tuck the pistol, safety on, beneath my pillow to keep the nightmares away. My own personal dream catcher.

I send the text to Andy and glance at the time letting me know it’s too early to be awake but too late to try to go back to sleep. By the time I calm down enough for that, it’d be sunrise. Besides, I have an interview to prepare for.
Rather than bang around in the kitchen to fuss with breakfast, I decide on a run instead. I could use the time to turn off my brain, but I also need to move. After a nightmare my skin is always too tight and my body too numb. I need to know I still possess an ounce of capability even if it’s just putting one foot in front of the other. Something I haven’t felt since the night I invited a man back to my hotel room.

I pull on some leggings, a zip up jacket and tennis shoes before grabbing my headphones out of my purse.
The morning air is cool and refreshing when I step out of the house but it isn’t until I’m at the end of my driveway that I realize I don’t know where to go. I’ve been free to run— to do whatever I want, really— for six months now. But I don’t know the streets, the direction, and I have no way of knowing who could be watching me.
Your days are numbered.
Your days are numbered.
Your days are numbered.

A hand on my shoulder makes me jump and I both sigh in relief and embarrassment at the sight of my brother’s large frame towering over me. I punch him in the side. “No person your size should be that quiet.”

The sides of his lips curl upward, but he doesn’t commit to the smile. “Sorry.”

My hands rest on my hips. “I don’t need a security detail,” I lie, taking in his track pants and running shoes.

“What you need is an intervention. Who gets up at four in the morning to go run?” He grumbles, putting in one of those fancy wireless earbuds.
“You don’t have to—”
“I’m coming. You wanna lead the way or should I?”

Too tired to argue and not really wanting to be alone with my thoughts, I sigh in resignation. “Be my guest.” I gesture in front of me and Andy starts at a pace so slow it almost looks painful for a man his height. Hiding my smile I fall in next to my older brother.

Andy’s been a talker his whole life, filling the silence with boisterous laughter or nonsensical chatter. Whether he’s telling you off or holding a conversation, one thing that’s always consistent? The absence of quiet. So, his current silence speaks volumes.

I don’t have to ask to know it’s for my benefit. That was our deal after all— as long as I talk to someone, it doesn’t have to be him. But it feels irresponsible not to tell him about the phone calls. Before, when it was just the breathing I didn’t want to worry him in case it was nothing, but I’m not the only one involved now. If Winston is behind this, my brother deserves to know how to best protect his wife. It’s one thing to incense a man, it’s sobering to piss off one with an entire county of law enforcement at his side.

At what I assume is halfway through the fourth mile, I stop to catch my breath and gain the courage to... “Wait. Where are we?” I ask, turning to Andy as he reties his ponytail.

“Cascade Springs Nature Reserve. Beautiful ain’t it?” My brother grins wide as he gestures toward the gorgeous scenery I was too in my head to notice on the run up here. I’d felt the shift in altitude but I hadn’t noticed we were going uphill. Perched on a large Boulder, I take in the expansive fauna. Green and dewy, the stunning view takes my breath away and it’s even more gorgeous as the sun begins to break through the clouds.

For one glorious moment, all sense of time stands still and it’s almost a tangible feeling when the familiar stressors that have taken over my life for two years cease to exist. I see it all. Hear it all. The flow of the waterfall. The cacophony of nature’s earliest risers. And it’s so breathtaking, it’s emotional.

“Wow.” What else can I say?

“You know, it’s more cathartic to scream out here while your awake, then back at that house in your sleep,” Andy suggests softly, coming up behind me.

I shake my head and force a smile. “I don’t want to disturb the wildlife.”

“Birds don’t give a damn. They disturb everyone. All they do is sing and shit. Have at it,” he replies, shrugging. I cross my arms, turn to look at him and raise a brow.

“You’re serious.” I continue when Andy doesn’t respond. “Does that really work?”

Still, his mouth tightening at the corners, my brother just watches the water fall. Then he yells at volume so thundering, a flock of birds ascend into the morning sky leaving us alone with the sounds of rushing water.

“Try it,” he urges. Something in his eyes I can’t name makes me turn away and return to the beauty of the nature reserve.

I hesitate but only for a moment. Then scream, feeling strangely awkward. But Andy yells again and suddenly the morning sky opens with light as eight years of frustration and pain echo and die off into the air like a one sided argument with God.

I scream for the girl who fell in love with a police officer who ironically kept her locked away from the world he promised her. I scream for the twenty three year old who’d experienced more loss in five minutes than she had in a lifetime. I scream for the twenty six year old divorcee putting her life back together with a dangerous man at her heels.

I’m not sure how long has passed before my throat is raw and the tears have dried, but the light of day lives again. And the beauty before me still stands, unshaken by my emotional instability.
I barely register my brother, kneeling then shifting to a sitting position and I join him, watching our legs dangle over the side of the rock as the small body of water sparkles in the sun.

“Lolita might not be able to have kids,” Andy says, throwing me for a loop. My sharp inhale scratches my throat and my brother doesn’t look at me. “We tried for a year. I don’t know what to do.”

Oh no. I fight to swallow past the lump in my throat. “I didn’t know.”

“Six weeks ago, I did it all. Full panel, blood work... the doctor even had to explain to me what viable sperm meant because I didn’t know.” He chuckles half heartedly. “I thought... I thought it’d make me feel better, knowing it wasn’t my fault. But no. Not by a long shot.”

My heart breaks for my brother as he lays the vulnerabilities of his life out on the table. I want to comfort him, offer him reassurance but I know there is none. Not for this.

“My wife is killing herself with work so she doesn’t have to live with the guilt. And I am helpless to fix it,” he admits.

“You can’t, Andy. You have to know that.”

My brother’s half smile barely lifts. “Lolo doesn’t want anyone to know but she said I should tell you. When I asked her why, she just shook her head. So... this is me asking, Holli.”

I close my eyes and breathe through my mouth. A culmination of emotions rush me all at once and compel me to my feet. My heart aches for my brother, for my sister-in-law. And while, in a way, my burdens feel significantly lighter, I can’t afford to be crushed under the weight of them. Not now.

So I deflect.

“I’m ready to head back.”

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