This story does contain some erotic sexual content. It also contains some harsh realities surrounding domestic violence and abuse. If either of these subjects offend you, please do not continue. It's coded as a MF romantic tragedy for a reason.
Sometimes the Bad Guys Win
She cried in her sleep sometimes. Actually, she cried in her sleep a lot of the time, but some nights were worse than others. She never really woke up when she cried, and she didn't exactly sob, not so as you'd really hear her, but it always woke him up. He'd roll over and look at her face; the shadows on her skin were always different depending on the phase of the moon or the clouds in the sky or the number of cars driving by their suburban home, but she was always beautiful.
Tears shown on her cheeks in the faint light that drifted through the bedroom curtains. He never knew exactly how to help her, how to calm her and settle her restless, sad thoughts, so he did what he could. He would stroke her hair, pushing the sweat-dampened locks from her forehead. With his fingertips, he would gently wipe the tears from her cheeks, and he'd murmur nothing noises and soothing sounds to her. His voice was always soft but intense in the otherwise-silence of their bedroom. Eventually she would make a last hicoughy sob and relax against him, her breath slowing to the more gentle rhythm of dreamless sleep.
They'd finish the night like that, her body curved into a "c," her hands tucked between her knees, and her forehead pressed to his chest. On these nights his arm, protectively wrapped around her shoulders, was usually asleep long before he was. Lying there in the dark, listening to the now-calm in and out of her breathing, he would sometimes imagine all the ways he could fix it, the ways he could make it better.
The best ways were the ones she would never find out about. The commando raids late at night, sitting with a sniper rifle, watching through the scope. He had it planned down to the most minuscule of details, what he'd be wearing, what the weather would be like, and the movement of the wind over the dulled-blue barrel. He could feel the grass brush against the heavy cotton of his field BDU's as he lay propped up on his elbows, his cheek pressed to the smooth stock. He imagined her efforts to hide her delight as she read the report in the morning paper about an unexplained shooting. He'd sit across from her and smile, never letting on that he knew why she was suddenly so happy, why her dark moods had finally passed. Those were the best, and those thoughts were what kept his mind from the painful pinprick tingling of his fingertips as his hand fell asleep.
The problem was that he never knew where his sights were to be centered. Charlotte had resolutely refused to tell him any specific details about where she'd come from. "Oregon," she told him whenever he'd asked. "Outside of Portland." Then she'd change the subject with that manner of hers that said, "I've changed the subject, let's keep it changed." Unfortunately, "outside of Portland" encompassed most of the state, which was, more than likely, her point.
So he'd let the subject stay changed and tell himself it was because she loved him that she'd never be more specific. "It's your karma, Robert," she had said on more than one occasion. "I'd hate to think I put that temptation in front of you." She loved him, and that was good enough for him - most of the time.
The other scenarios were good too. He'd intercede for her, stepping in front of her monster, doing battle with her demon. She'd be so grateful that she'd never be able to dream of a life without him. Of course that was the problem with that dream. There had to be something from which he could rescue her, which meant putting her back in the position that she left. No, as good as it is to be the hero, he couldn't risk that for her.
But there were other nights. There were nights when he was just plain tired. Nights when he knew that unfinished work tasks filled his desk in box, or nights when dinner had burned and his stomach was unsatisfied. Nights after days of long meetings and longer commutes and bumper-to-bumper traffic through smog-filled streets. On those nights he would lie in the dark next to her and find that all he could focus on was the numbness moving from his shoulder to his fingertips. He'd lie next to her and wonder how it would be if he'd never met her. If he'd never fallen so hard for her charms. If her laugh had never drifted into his soul and sent roots so deep into him that the thought of being without her, the thought of losing her was physically painful. He'd wonder if perhaps he wouldn't be better off without her. He imagined life without the hassles, life without the difficulties, life without the constant walking on eggshells and tiptoeing around her moods.
He always felt guilty the morning after those nights; he'd find himself lavishing her with affection after those nights and inwardly cringing when she laughed about his sudden "amorè." She'd pour his coffee and giggle as his hand not-so-innocently brushed her robe and teased open the satin collar for an early morning peek. She'd flick the dishtowel at him as she wiped toast crumbs from the countertop. And then he loved her all over again.
The day they met started out for him like most other days. Early morning meetings to discuss whatever the business catch phrase of the week was, followed by some minor bullshitting around the burnt remains of the morning's coffee, then back to his office to wade through memos and e-mails and other, sundry details of the commercial real estate world. The phone was propped between his chin and his shoulder, and he swiveled in his desk chair to gaze out the window. His office, although a corner office as befitted his status as senior-junior partner, overlooked the frontage road aside the highway. The lack of view wasn't worth complaining about though; it was a massive step up from his former next-to- the-stairwell office he had shared with two other office drones before he took off in the enchanting world of commercial real estate development. Pushing a basket of files to the side with his foot, he propped his heels on the metal windowsill and leaned back in his "relaxed executive" pose.
That's when he saw her.
Actually, he saw her car first. Ditched cars weren't all that uncommon in late October. The first snow always seems to catch people off guard. No one has snow tires ready, and the auto/tire shops do a brisk business for the first couple of weekends after the white stuff starts to fall. This year the snow came early, even for Anchorage standards, and a car nose- or tail-first in the ditch was settling into one of those sights that quickly became commonplace.
However, it's not often that one actually sees a car take the nose-first spin-and-dive. The driver must have hit his breaks too hard or too fast, because it was a spectacular glide across the highway. It quickly became obvious that traffic wasn't going to stop, and when no one emerged from the ditched car, he grabbed his cell phone and coat and headed downstairs to see if the driver was hurt. If nothing else, he'd earn his Good Samaritan points for the winter, and it gave him a good excuse to step away from the office for a bit.
He knocked on the window first, but when the driver didn't respond he opened the door, simultaneously reaching for his cell phone to dial 911. She was slumped forward, her head leaning on the steering wheel, both hands gripped on the cracked vinyl covering. When he reached in to touch her shoulder, she raised her head and turned to face him.
She wasn't pretty. She might have been pretty, even beautiful, at other times, but her face was now a swollen symphony of purple, red, and blue. Swelling obscured her cheekbones, and her nose had the telltale lopsidedness of a recent break. His first thought was that she had hit the dashboard; that for some reason her seat belt had failed to lock when she impacted in the ditch. But once the surprise passed, he could see that the bruises marring her face were well set, deeply colored, and at least several days old.
He let out a low whistle then reached his hand down to meet her opened one. With his other hand he unclicked her shoulder belt. "Can you move, or would you rather I call an ambulance?"
She took his hand and stepped gingerly from the car. "Some Good Samaritan you are. Don't you know you're never supposed to move an accident victim?"
He opened his mouth to chastise her for being ungrateful when he saw the teasing glint in her eye. Whatever comment he planned was cut short. As she stood, she paled and swayed.
"Look lady. Be careful. Maybe you should sit back down."
Her eyes were glazed and there was a flush of fever under the paleness of her skin. "Yeah. You're probably..."
They spent a year getting to know one another. She had come to town with no apparent plan. He didn't have any direct reason to trust her, but he went with his gut, or some other place that inspired instinctive trust. He had a client who needed someone to watch a small summer cabin. Instinct or not, she turned out to be the perfect tenant. In exchange for keeping the home clean, the rodents out, and the pipes running, she got a place to stay until the owner came back up for summer hunting and fishing.
He took her out for coffee and they met for lunches. She was reluctant to talk about where she had come from. The look in her eyes whenever he asked bordered on panic, so he didn't push. But she was a near-perfect companion otherwise.
It took months for him to move past coffee. She used to laugh and quote movies to him whenever he looked at her for more than a friendly few seconds.
"Oh, Robert. You know, relationships that start under intense circumstances never last."
"Sandra Bullock in 'Speed,' Charlotte. Too easy."
"Maybe." Sip, pause, laugh, subject change.
They met three mornings a week before work. Always for coffee, always at the same place. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, lattès and bagels, and increasingly friendly conversation. He'd talk to her for as long as possible, then realize that she'd not said more than two or three sentences the entire morning. She was like that. She drew him out, and he found himself telling her things he didn't know he still cared about. Frustrations at work became trivial once she had laughed at him for taking them too seriously.
She found work quickly. She started working through the temporary agencies, taking whatever office position was available that week. Soon companies were requesting her specifically for blocks of employee vacations and holidays. Within a couple of months she no longer had to take the low-level front desk, look- pretty-and-answer-the-phone jobs, the jobs that didn't question her apparent lack of office background. By January she had been offered, and was able to take her pick of, back office jobs at salaries that, although not stellar, were high enough to let her start picking up the morning coffee tab on occasion.
It was as though her growing independence helped her relax personally as well as professionally. By March they were meeting for dinner as well as coffee, and she started making off- handed references to her life before Alaska. Nothing specific, just a peek behind her curtain. Dinner was, more often than not, something cooked together at either his apartment, or the cabin she was still staying in. They'd eat sitting at the counter or in front of a movie, wash the dishes together, and maybe share a bottle of cheap wine, doing their critical impression of whatever old film was showing on A&E.
He found himself expanding his entertainment circle at her gentle insistence. She'd skim the morning paper as she nibbled her bagel, making small hinting comments about whatever production the symphony was producing, or about the relative merits of the ballet the Miami touring company was bringing to the city that month. He found that he actually enjoyed opera, at least he did when he attended with Charlotte.
By April he knew he loved her.
His apartment lease came up for renewal, and the cabin owner was coming up for fishing season. They were both looking at housing upheavals, so it made sense for them to start looking together. They found a small house for sale. It wasn't hard to figure out why it hadn't sold. Too big for a single person, too small for a family, but situated in the middle of a family neighborhood. His name on the mortgage, hers on the contract for deed between the two of them.
They moved in the last week of May. As moves go, it was an easy one. She hadn't had a need for new furniture living in the cabin, so her move was finished in one cram-packed car trip. The furniture was his, and like most moves, it was hectic-fun. Too many people from the office helping out, getting under each other's feet. Lots of noise and confusion. But they were finished and their helpers had all gone home by the end of Sunday evening.
They collapsed on the sofa together in mock-exhaustion, feet propped on boxes, the last of the "thanks for helping" beers in their hands.
"Here's to a successful move, Charlotte." They clinked the bottlenecks together in salute.
"Here's to friends with strong backs, Robert." Clink.
"And here's to..." Robert's voice trailed off as their eyes locked. "Here's to you, Charlotte. Here's to the best friend I've ever had. Thank you for doing this with me."
Charlotte pulled back, sitting sideways against the arm of the sofa. She took a long swallow of her beer before answering.
"Thank you, Robert. For everything."
They moved into a routine quickly and easily. She in her room, he in his, meeting for breakfast, dinner and movies together in the rest of the house. They shared food in the refrigerator and did each other's laundry. She picked up his shaving cream at the grocery store; he remembered her mint cookies and cream ice cream. They both grumbled until the coffee finished brewing in the morning, and they fought for control of the television clicker in the evenings. And each night they went to their separate rooms, their intimacy ending at "good night." His room shared the wall with hers, and he listened to her at night, settling for sleep. He knew the sound of her bed creak as she shifted over to turn out her reading light, and he listened for the change in her breathing that said she had fallen asleep. Some nights he'd get out of bed and stand in her doorway, watching the rise and fall of the blanket across her chest as she slept.
That's when he realized that she cried in her sleep.
In June she started going to a doctor. A therapist, she told him. "Just to work out some old issues. Sort of cleaning out the old attic." He worried, but she kept it to herself, so instead of asking, he started to watch her.
For the first few weeks she pulled away from him, became withdrawn. Then, in late July, it was as though a veil lifted. She started to laugh again during the day, touching him as they passed in living room, standing perhaps a bit too close as they prepared dinner together in the kitchen, letting her hand linger on his for a fraction of a second too long to be merely friendly. But she still went to her own bedroom at night, and she still cried in her sleep.
They spent the month of August wringing the last bit of sunlight our of the long summer days. She stretched his leg muscles dragging him on long hikes through the semi-marked trails of the Chugach State Park, and he taught her how to combat fish for salmon on the Russian River and the various creeks along the Seward Highway.
They had spent the day fishing the Kenai River. They came home hot, sunburned, and smelling of fish bait and river water. They dropped the cooler on the kitchen floor and headed to their separate bathrooms for showers. He had just lathered his hair and face when he heard the bathroom door click shut.
"Charlotte? Is that you? Don't worry, I'm not going to take all the hot water. If it's bothering your water pressure, I'll be out in a minute." He started to rinse.
"Don't bother, Robert." She pushed opened the shower door and stepped in with him, hugging her body close to his as she closed the door behind her. She took the cloth from the hook and traced a soapy line across his chest, down his sternum to his pubic hair.
He put his hand under her chin, turning her face up to meet his gaze. "Charlotte? Are you sure?"
She nodded and brought the cloth lower, wrapping her hand around him, feeling him harden at her touch. Wrapping his arm around her waist, he drew her against his skin, feeling her breasts flatten against his chest. Suds slicked the space between them, making her slippery in his embrace. "If you're sure, let's do this the right way."
He took the cloth from her and gently soaped her back and shoulders, letting the water wash away sweat and river smell. He turned her so her back was against him. As she leaned into his body, his hands stroked over her shoulders, down her chest, painting the swelling of her breasts with the white foam.
With deft fingers, he lathered her hair, scritching softly against her scalp, watching her face relax as her eyes closed. His hands gathered her hair gently, pulling the shampoo through to the ends, letting the water fall down her back, along the curve of her spine. He bent his head and kissed the wetness of her neck. Encouraged by her small moan, he bent further, his lips making trails in the water along her shoulder blade, brushing his lips down her back to the curve of her buttocks. His hands wrapped around her waist, and he tasted the mixed flavors of soap and sweat on the smooth, taut skin of her ass. With one hand, he brought the soapy cloth down the length of her leg to her foot, then up between her thighs, cleaning her gently.
She arched her back, pressing her thighs against his hand, drawing him up with her fingers. Turning to face him she whispered, "I'm clean. Did you say something about doing this right?"
She slept in his arms that night, and for the first time he was able to hold her when she cried.
Charlotte never moved back into her room. They slowly converted the space to an office, and the unspoken agreement of relationship grew between them. He explored her body at night, tracing scars without asking about their origins. Waiting for her to open to him. And, gradually, she did.
"Marry me, Charlotte."
She laughed. "Robert, unless you know something happening in the legislature that I'm unaware of, we both know that can't happen."
"Charlotte, I'm serious. There's nothing to stop you from divorcing him. I've got lawyer friends in Oregon. Let me make some phone calls in the morning. This could all be over, and we can start fresh."
"I don't know, Robert. I don't want to go back there for any reason. Things are so good right now. I don't want to tempt fate. What's wrong with what we have?"
"No, Charlotte. I'm tired of living in his shadow. Until you've cut those ties he'll always be a part of our lives."
"I don't know," her voice faded before he cut her off.
"Unless you think you might want to go back to him."
An icy silence filled the room. He could hear the wind blow through the bare trees outside the window, and there was a soft 'crunch' as if something big, probably one of the moose living in the woods skirting the neighborhood, nosed through the trees, searching for an overlooked leaf. It had been a hard winter, and there was a feeling of hungry desperation pushing creatures into less secure environments.
In that space between two halves of a second, a cloud passed behind her eyes and he saw her as she was beside the road, a year and a lifetime ago. Worn and hollow. His stomach lurched with guilt, and he knew that had hurt as much as if he had raised his hand to her. He knew that in doubting her resolution to be away, that in accusing her of wanting to return to her painful past, he had gone too far.
Then it passed, and he saw the cold anger reflected in the glint of her eyes. She gritted her teeth and steeled herself with a breath drawn through a clenched jaw. Her eyes locked with his, and he silently begged her to tell him off, to draw on the strength she'd spent the last year developing.
She shook her head slowly, twice, before she silently picked up her pillow and the blanket from the foot of the bed. She closed the door softly behind her and he could hear her settling in on the sofa. The television clicked on.
The night grew colder.
She was back in the bed when he woke up that morning. She didn't mention their argument, he didn't bring it up again, but it was there. Silently hanging around the house with them. They weren't always aware of it, but it popped up when they least expected it. She began to drift away from him, and from whispered phone calls and surreptitious shuffling of the afternoon mail, he knew that she was making plans without him. He began to wait.
"How'd you get out?"
She hadn't expected that question to be the one they opened with. Such a simple question, with such a complicated answer. But it was one that she was prepared for. She and Robert had practiced her presentation for seemingly endless hours. It had taken all of her reserve courage to make this presentation. To agree to stand before this group of pre-service counselors and recount what life as an abused wife is really like. Her audience was filled with social workers, Ph.D. program candidates. They had already spent an hour going through the process, how abuse starts, how it builds. She had walked them through the first years of her marriage. The small fights, the first slap, the tearful apologies and heartfelt promises that it wouldn't happen again. Flowers and jewelry, and simple-sounding explanations. They had nodded wisely as she explained her feelings of guilt and responsibility, as she recounted his careful explanations delineating how it was really her fault. She knew better, didn't she? And since she knew how he liked things, it was really her fault if she did things differently, thereby making him hit her.
She had shared a little of her past with them, just to give them a feel of what it takes to set a woman up for such a marriage. The early death of her parents, the string of foster homes. The unsettling years between five and eighteen. A serious lack of parental guidance, and way too much independence at an early age. It was all so step-by-step, almost textbook. He professed to love her, he lavished her with gifts and attention. He showed her what he called love. She hadn't seen it before, and on the surface it seemed like love. So she met and fell in love with her Prince Charming, and for the first few months everything was beautiful. They entertained, they looked good together. He dressed her in finery, and decorated her in shiny, expensive baubles, and he trotted her out as his little hostess. They were "such a delightful couple." They threw wonderful parties, and they were seen where they needed to be seen. She glittered and sparkled and laughed. He was suave and charming. It all seemed ideal.
Of course, that was the problem. He "seemed" instead of "was." He had mannerisms instead of manners. He believed that etiquette could substitute for breeding. And, despite rising economically above his more-than-humble beginnings, he never really left behind his trailer-trash upbringing. He married looking not for someone to love, but for someone to blame. Be careful of the true believers; they only become more extreme as time goes on.
She reached for the water glass on the table beside her and sipped, giving herself a few extra seconds. She cleared her throat softly and began.
"It's not short answer, so you might want to get comfortable." That was good for a small chuckle from her 'audience.' "I used to do the grocery shopping every Friday afternoon. Part of my 'job' was to plan the meals for the house and for any events we were hosting that week, and when the grocery ads came out in the Friday newspaper I compared prices, made up shopping lists, and spent the day at whatever stores had the best deals. In retrospect, it was significantly less efficient and more time consuming that it should have been, considering that we didn't save that much money by driving from store to store, and frankly, saving twelve dollars a week on groceries shouldn't have been a high priority. But it was yet another form of control--he could keep my day fully occupied and accounted for if I had to spend it at 4 different grocery stores, 2 dry cleaners, the dog groomer, and his office. Remember that I still had a couple of hours or so of paperwork to do for him at the end of the week in addition to the household management chores. So I'd leave with him on Friday mornings, armed with my to-do list for the day and enough blank checks to cover each stop--no more, no less."
She paused and took a deep breath. Her hands, still holding the water glass, had begun to tremble again.
"Anyway. Friday evenings after work he'd compare my shopping lists, the grocery receipts and the checkbook to ensure that all the numbers matched up. For a long time this made sense to me. After all, he was the architect, and he was the one who paid attention to details, and I was just a girl. And, as he frequently reminded me, one prone to making mistakes.
"About 18 months before I left, I decided that maybe I needed to figure out a way to get some unrecorded funds of my own. Given the way things were set up at the time, there wasn't a chance in hell I could skim from the grocery or household funds. We had one checkbook for our joint account--like so many things it made sense at the time. He said that it made it too easy for mistakes to get made if we were running two different series of check numbers. So he held on to the checkbook and pulled out however many checks I'd need for whatever I was doing. He gave me credit cards for everything else I needed; I carried a gas station card to take care of the car, and a Visa for places that didn't accept checks or for unscheduled stops. I didn't have an ATM card, and even if I did I couldn't very well go withdraw funds from our account without him knowing about it. It took me about a week, but one Friday morning as I was going through the sale ads it came to me. It wasn't going to be fast, but it would be doable.
"After the cashier rang my grocery purchases, I had written the check, and she had given me my receipt, I would "discover" two or three extra coupons that I had "forgotten" to give her. Silly me, so sorry. Since they rarely added up to more than a dollar or two, it wasn't a big deal for her to simply ring them separately and give me the cash back. I figured that I averaged about a dollar a week at each store, three stores a week. It wasn't much, but knowing that I had a tiny reserve fund building up bolstered my spirits more than I can describe. I cut a small hole in the seam of the mattress and hid the cash there each week. It was simple enough to sew up the hole and cover it with a bed sheet, and there wasn't any reason for him to even notice the mattress as long as I kept the bed made correctly. Periodically I'd take out the singles and exchange them at the grocery store for tens or twenties, to keep the bulk from becoming noticeable. The only real risk of discovery I took was the overnight bag I kept packed and stashed under the center of the spare-tire in my trunk. I was afraid that Mark would have a reason to check the car someday, and I had no idea how I'd explain it. But by that point, I figured I could take just about anything he'd dish out. If he had wanted to kill me, he'd have done it by now. I knew that he valued his playthings too much to do any permanent damage to one of them." Her face grew impassive, and the audience could see the revulsion in her posture. She shook it off. "Anyway. In eighteen months I had a little more than $200. Like I said, it wasn't much, really, but it was enough to give me some peace of mind. It wasn't enough to give me the push I needed, the confidence to leave though.
"That took something else."
"I was a klutz. I know that becomes the most common trait associated with beaten spouses because we're constantly 'tripping,' catching ourselves when we 'fall,' which of course explains the three broken wrists during any given year, right? And the several facial bruises from when we run into door frames, or cabinets, or when we smash our fingers in the car door a couple of times each season is most often attributed to our lack of Ginger-Rogersesque abilities. So I realize that it sounds like I'm still making excuses.
"However, I really am somewhat of a klutz; my parents had some foresight when they chose not to name me 'Grace.' I worked for a friend of his, in a law office, four days a week. Our office was set up like, well, an office. Two rows of cubicles down the center of a room for the secretaries and clerks with offices around the edges. As a documents-manager, I rated a step up from a cubicle. Not a corner office--those were reserved for associates--but one of the middle, inside offices. It would have to be either be a junior employee's office or a file room because it completely lacked natural lighting, and it was too far from the senior partners' offices to be politically strategic. So, I had this habit known throughout the firm of coming out of my office door in a hurry, rounding the corner, and smacking my hip on the corner of the first desk in the row. Poor Sandi. It got so that she couldn't keep anything on the edge of her desk; I was sure to knock it over.
"Anyway, I almost always had a spectacular bruise on my right hip and thigh from her desk, so you can see that it wasn't much of a stretch for Mark to be able to call me into work because I had injured myself. He did that on occasion. But usually he called personnel to let them know that I was 'sick' and would be out for a few days. I was generally out just long enough for the most serious of bruises to fade a little, or for enough residual soreness to fade so that I could walk without drawing attention to myself. A day or two at a time, every couple of months. The rest of the time? Well, let's just say that Hollywood has nothing on me when it comes to make-up expertise."
With an almost-smile, she looked up from her water glass to find Robert in the seats before her. He was there, just as he said he would. He offered her a wink and a nod. She continued.
"It was a Wednesday. I had been married for about four years, or maybe it was forty. Maybe it just felt like a lifetime." She paused for a sip. "Four years, one month and eighteen days. It was flu season, and I had--once again--put off getting a flu shot. Invincible I wasn't, and I could feel it starting. So at lunch I told our receptionist that I was taking the rest of the day off, and I grabbed a cab home.
"When I got there, Mark was already home. It wasn't unusual for him to be 'home' during the day--he based his business out of the house--but it was unusual for him to be out of the office. And, he had company.
"I knew his friend. A fraternity brother-turned poker and football buddy. When I saw that he was entertaining, I mumbled some sort of apology for intruding and tried to leave, but he stopped me. Apparently I was the reason for their meeting. Well, sort of. Me and a hockey game.
"The way he explained it was that Craig, his friend, had admired me for quite some time. You see, this was meant as a compliment. I was supposed to be proud and grateful. So, instead of their normal case of Cubans or brandy, they made a more unique bet. If Mark's team won, he'd get the use of Craig's houseboat for the weekend. If they lost, Craig would get me for the weekend."
She smiled slightly at the collective small gasp from her audience. Even the most jaded of adults can be shocked when shown the seamier side of sexual deviancy. It's so different when looking at a real person instead of reading a textbook case study.
"Hockey allows for something that many other sports don't. They tied." She smiled, and her audience relaxed back into their chairs.
"So, instead of calling it a draw and playing the next game, Mark and Craig decided instead to just pay the bets as though they had both lost. Or, more precisely, as though they had both won. Mark would take the boat for the weekend, and Craig would stay at the house with me. Apparently they were there working out the details.
"Then I guess I did something that neither of them had expected. Remember that I had come home with the beginnings of the flu. When I realized that Mark was effectively turning me over to his friend, it hit me full force. Or maybe it was just a bad croissant from breakfast." Good for another chuckle. "Either way my stomach had had enough. I grabbed the trashcan from under the desk and vomited. Craig gagged, and Mark was furious. I think he thought that I had done it on purpose. That I was deliberately trying to embarrass him or make him have to renege on his bet. He hustled me into the bathroom, slapped me, and started pulling my dress off. When he had me stripped, he tossed me into the shower stall, turned the water on, and ordered me to get cleaned up.
She rubbed her right bicep, remembering the bruises his fingers had left. "He came back a few minutes later and pulled me from the shower. I tried to grab the towel off the counter as I struggled behind him, but he took it from me and held it out of reach in his other hand. He dragged me into the living room, tossed the towel on the carpet in front of his friend, and dumped me, naked and dripping from the shower, at Craig's feet.
His voice rang hollow in her memory, and as she continued, her face took on an ugly sneer, mimicking his tone as she spoke. "'Now, Charlotte. We had intended to make the exchange Friday, but since you're home, and obviously the office isn't expecting you back, I see no reason to wait. I'll just go pack.' I remember hearing him leave the room before I was able to look up. Craig was watching me, watching the water soak the towel and the carpet under me, but he didn't move until Mark was out of the room." This was where she faltered. When they had 'rehearsed,' she and Robert couldn't decide just how much was appropriate to share in this forum. They had decided to play it by ear, to see their audience's reaction before getting too detailed and graphic. It was silent in the small lecture hall.
In her mind she relived those few minutes that seemed to last for an eternity. The plush carpet left impressions in her palms and the towel had scraped rough burns on her shins when she landed. She felt Craig's hand grip her hair, squeezing the cold water out and down her naked back. Goosebumps rose on her arms as she felt his fingers draw her long tresses into a thick ponytail and pull at her scalp. He bent down low over her shoulder and his voice rasped in her ear. "Mark's told me about you. You're quite 'resilient,' aren't you, Charlotte?" he growled, and she struggled to keep her face impassive as his cigar-tainted breath filled her nostrils. "I've been looking for a gal who can take things a little 'rough.' I'm sure we're going to have a lot of fun this weekend, aren't we? Maybe test the limits a bit?" With his free hand, he brought the smoldering cigar under her crouched body and held it beneath the curve of her breast. She tasted the bile rising in her throat and her stomach knotted. The muscles in her back tensed as she flinched away from the heat beginning to scorch her tender flesh.
A cough from somewhere in the audience brought her back to the present. She shuddered, then began to shake. Robert stood and started up middle aisle, between the rows of listeners. Charlotte visibly faltered, and her voice cracked as she looked out over the hall. Robert knew she was searching for her courage; she found it as her eyes locked to his. By the time he reached the front row, she had calmed, regained her composure, and held her hand up--indicating that he should sit. He took an empty seat in the front row.
Charlotte shook off the memories and started again. Her voice had lost its personal warmth, but she continued. "The next thing I knew, Craig was throwing Mark a set of keys to the houseboat, and he was walking out the door. I spent the next few hours at the hands of yet another monster. Craig was cruel, sexually sadistic, but he wasn't as concerned as Mark with maintaining my long-term health." She smiled ruefully.
"It was a long weekend." The audience laughed nervously at her obvious understatement. "I was honestly sick. I was feverish and my body refused to keep anything down. And when Craig said he was looking for someone who could withstand 'rough,' he wasn't overstating his position. He was angry that I was ill, I think perhaps he was figuring that Mark got the better end of the bargain, and he was apparently determined to get the most out of the weekend before Mark came home.
"The days ran together and became an almost endlessly repeating loop. He woke up, ate while I watched, sitting on the kitchen floor at his feet. I'd heave and he'd get angry. I knew at that point that my cheekbone was broken, and I was pretty sure that my shoulder wasn't going to be the same anytime soon. After he ate, he'd drag me to the shower with him." She trembled again. "Then he started." A muffled gulp from the audience stopped her narrative.
"I'm sorry. Let me skip ahead."
"It must have been the second or third night, and Craig was starting to wear down. For some reason, before going to sleep, he hadn't tied one of my wrists as tightly as he had been. I hadn't slept, not really, since he got there. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and hurt. And I knew I was done. I knew that when Mark came home, things would never be the same, and I knew that I wasn't going to be even remotely safe anymore. So, when I realized that I was loose and that Craig was snoring, I untied my other wrist, grabbed my robe from the closet door, my purse from under the bed, my money-stash from under the mattress, and I sneaked out to my car.
"He must have heard the front door, or the car door, or something, but before I got the car out of the driveway, he was there. He pulled open the car door and dragged me to the driveway. I screamed, and a neighbor must have heard because a porch light next door came on. Craig panicked, took his foot off of my collarbone and backed off a step. I don't remember much else, except I know I got back into the car and drove off."