Photophobia by Mary Lynn Reed
"You know I don't," she said.
I downed mine, then took hers too.
She joined me behind the bar, laid her hand on my forearm. So many times I'd dreamed of her next to me, closer than close. Under my skin. Now there she was.
"It's okay," I said. "I'm fine."
"Why didn't I know this?"
Darlene draped her arm around my shoulder, abandoning her usual reluctance. She stood flush against me, caressed the back of my neck with her fingertips. Whispered my name.
"I'll take you home," I said. "Like always."
"Is he dangerous? What'd he do?"
"Don't ask," I said.
"I can handle him," I said.
"Jesus, Christina, tell me --"
The television went silent in the other room, and both Darlene and I looked at the door. Bucky stumbled out, his face thick with black stubble, his eyes red-lined and watery.
"You got a pistol behind that bar, baby?" Bucky asked me.
Darlene straightened her spine. I moved around her.
"Darlene needs a ride. And there's only room for two in the truck."
"Fuck that. We can squeeze in the cab. You know it."
I looked at Darlene, glanced down at my boots, and she nodded.
I drove and Darlene pressed in next to me, her thigh touching mine as she inched away from Bucky on the other side. The night air was steamy and thick, radio hard to hear above the cricket and bullfrog chorus out the open windows. Bucky draped his arm around Darlene, tapped my shoulder, splayed his legs wide.
"Beautiful night. Beautiful woman next to me. Shit, I'm a lucky man," he said.
Then he laughed; he laughed hard, until he was choking. Coughing. Clutching at Darlene. "Oh yes, I'm lucky all right. Fifteen years lucky. Right, baby?"
"Bucky --" I said.
"Damn sight luckier than ol' Jeb though. Poor ol' fucked up brother Jeb."
"Stop it," I said. "Just stop."
"Oh, come on, baby. You haven't told your girlfriend about Lucky Jeb?"
Darlene squirmed, and I kept my eyes on the road. Straight ahead.
"What you got waiting at home, Darlene? A boyfriend? Husband?" He leaned in close to her face. "A woman?"
Arm still around Darlene, Bucky gripped my shoulder. "Turn this fucker around. We're taking her home with us," he said. "This girl wants to party. Been staring at me all night. And I got this coming, Chrissy. You have to admit."
Bucky pulled Darlene toward him. She kicked at him, thrashed and cussed. But he didn't let go. They struggled and I swerved the truck across the center line, clenched my right fist, and threw a punch without looking. Got Bucky in the side of the face, hard. Knuckles into his cheek, jagged silver ring slicing his skin.
"Goddamnit," he said, then gripped Darlene again, ripped at her shirt. Pulled it off with one fast motion down.
I let go of the steering wheel, reached for the blade tucked in my boot heel. The truck lurched into the ditch and Bucky lost his grip on Darlene. She fell against me. Then I stood, somehow, sideways on the brake, the blade in my hand coming down, into Bucky's shoulder. It happened fast but I saw Darlene slip behind me. The truck still rocked, back and forth. Bucky knocked the knife from my hand. Yelling and thrashing, and finally, the truck stopped. Stood still. And I pounded my fist into Bucky's wound. Blood everywhere and he gripped my shoulders, shaking me. He was big -- huge -- no way to overpower him. His hands on my throat. Squeezing. Then, from nowhere, he gasped, let me go, his eyes bulging. Darlene. Knife in her hand, I looked down as she sliced into his abdomen. Again and again and again. Blood spilling, from his gut and his mouth, then his gaze went steady.
Quiet. So thick and quiet I couldn't breathe.
Then Darlene pulled, tugged, pushed me -- out of the truck -- and we were running. So fast, and the air was so thick. Heavy and humid as July though I knew it was March. I knew it was almost spring and the flowers would bloom soon and I couldn't believe I was thinking of it, but I was. I ran behind Darlene, into the thick black woods, thinking of red and yellow tulips. How they unfold themselves to the sun, open so wide, so uninhibited. They craved the heat, source of energy and life. And when darkness fell, and the day turned quiet and cold, the tulips would fold themselves in, wait for their warm sun to return.
We didn't stop until the clearing, until we were standing in the spray of the back porch light, behind the trailer. Sweat glistened off Darlene's bare skin; it was caked in her hair. Jeans and a lace bra, her shirt lost in the truck cab. I pictured it, on the floorboard of my truck. Next to my dead husband. Next to Bucky's lifeless feet. His leather boots and the blade I knew was there, but he'd never pulled.
"We have to get out of here. Have to find a way out," Darlene said.
"No," I said. "I know what to do."
We sat at the dinette table, brand new bottle of whiskey and four hands, face down. Not moving. Darlene's father snored in the next room. I'm not crazy and I'm no fool, but I knew I was right and finally, I convinced her. To let me call the police.
When I hung up the phone, Darlene poured the whiskey herself, drank two shots without pause.
"Not a good idea," I said. "Detective will be here shortly."
She got up, paced back and forth, trembling.
"You're sure about this?"
"Certain," I said. "Don't worry."
It played out just as I told her it would. Bucky was just released from prison, believed by all to be a violent man. He'd threatened Darlene, then attacked her.
The detective was a Lucky Jeb regular. I poured him a drink and he took our story down on a small yellow pad, nodded attentively, then patted Darlene's arm, told her not to worry.
After he left I sat on the sofa, put my arm around Darlene. Light filtered in through half-closed blinds, stripes of dawn creeping in. Darlene rubbed her eyes.
"He was your husband," she said.
I kissed her shoulder, touched the side of her face.
"Tell me about Lucky Jeb," she said.
So I told her. My brother Jeb was murdered. No one talked about it at the bar because that's the way I liked it, and they knew better than to cross me. Case went unsolved for months and Jeb's wife disappeared, never heard from again. More evidence came out; there'd been a love triangle. Things pointed to a jealous lover. The wife's lover, but the case was weak. They convicted Bucky. Manslaughter.
Darlene looked out the window and didn't ask questions. Not even the obvious ones I feared the most. Sun spilled in the room, and the lines in her face seemed to deepen. Sink. She struggled to see me clearly but I knew she couldn't. All that light and her poor eyes. I knew it hurt her just to try.
I touched her hand and said, "I love you, Darlene. Close your eyes. Rest."
Her father still slept in the bedroom, just a few feet away. My first time in their trailer but you'd never know it. My shoulders relaxed and I exhaled. Then I touched Darlene's hair, ran my finger down the side of her face, her neck.
She shivered, flinched. Squinted at me.
I'd told her the story and I didn't lie. But a killer in love doesn't tell you everything. She slips in, makes herself at home. And vows to never let you get away.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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