The Photo

I dragged one last time at my cigarette stub, then smashed it into the table. At least it wasn't his arm, which I would have gone for had it been close enough.

I looked back up at him.

His eyes were a warm amber, a color that should have been twinkling and smiling. But instead they were cold, and staring at me from within the wall that was his body. My sister—the weaker point of the wall, the bricks not laid quite right—was nervous next to him. I heard her foot taptaptapping against the linoleum.

The room was tense and reeking of cigarettes and beer. Claustrophobic, I drew in a breath of cold air. They never ran the heater during the winter because my brother-in-law was a cheapass.

"And why did I not know about this before?" The silence shattered, although I tried to keep my voice calm. But everyone winced. Without a cigarette in my hand, I started to rub at the yellow spots on my fingertips.

My eyes darted around the room, resting on my brother-in-law, my sister, a telephone, the ashtray, and then on the man standing behind my sister and her husband. He wore my old baseball cap. We exchanged a look and I felt my heart jump as over a chasm. Then I glanced back at my brother-in-law. He played with his beard as if he were completely relaxed.

Of course; he's in his element. A sour thought.

This all happened in the space of a second.

"You were the one who told us you would pay us back." My sister's voice leapt from her throat, dancing nervously. She glanced to her husband for affirmation but he didn't look back at her. He continued to stare at me.

I remembered my exact words, actually—Sis, you don't know how much this means, I'll pay ya back somehow, I just need a place to stay until—

But I didn't think—"Yeah? So after ten months you now tell me that I owe you ten grand?" The anger was blossoming, spreading from my stomach to my chest. My calm slipped away, accelerating into the distance with each second. "After dragging your brats all over the goddamn place? Cooking, cleaning for them? You know I don't have that kind of money! While you do what, huh?" A picture flashed in my mind of her fat ass melting into her La-Z-Boy as she popped Vicadin and inhaled Marlboro Menthols. Mindlessly glued to the television.

She saw what I was getting at; I could tell because her eyebrows were drawing together in the middle so it looked like she had a unibrow. The makeup caked on her face made her skin shine under the cheap light. It threw the pockmarks into sharp relief. Her brown hair was a rich but unnatural color—dyed to hide the grays. I considered attacking her appearance, but she probably got enough of that from her husband.

Speaking of which, he finally deigned to speak. "John said he would help you pay."

Puh-lease! What a lie! John was my ex-husband. I spit out a laugh. "Huh! Okay! That asshole didn't even give me money for grocery shopping. Good luck with that!" Good God to bring my ex into this—shit, I should start going for the low blows! I laughed again, and pushed my chair back. It squealed. My blonde hair swung in front of me as I stood, sweeping at the ashes on the cheap burned surface.

I laughed once more. I made sure to slam the chair back into the table.

"Hey!"

I ignored his sharp word and took the time to light one more cigarette. While lighting, I chanced another glance at the hatted man standing behind His Mighty One. When our eyes met again, my stomach was drenched in a cold yearning. It mixed with the strength of my hot anger, and I could feel every organ in my abdomen twisting and crunching like balled-up paper.

I dropped the lighter onto the floor, turned my back, and walked out.

My room was tiny and very bare, with a box spring and mattress directly on the stained beige carpet. There was one end table and on the wall a small mirror. The overhead lamp never got quite bright enough so the room wasn't more than a lukewarm yellow. There was a picture of me and my sister on the end table. We were lounging by the pool, cocktails in our hands. We felt like Venus goddesses that day.

Glass sailed everywhere when the picture flew into the wall.

The green suitcase clattered as I pulled it from the closet. I threw in a box of tampons, a few lighters, a legal pad, and the entirety of my wardrobe. After second thought, I fished the legal pad back out. My hand was having its very own seizure as I wrote.

Hey

You know Ive really enjoyed your company these past few months. Youre good to talk to, Ill be down at the motel, you know the one that we always make fun of when we drive past. Just ask for my name if you want to be with me instead of in this godfucking place before they try to pull money off you too.

PS keep the hat.

I left the paper on the worn end table where the photo had been, and left.