Lightning in a Bottle

I was nineteen that season. Nearly done with my freshmen year of college, my friends and I were using one of our last weekends before finals to get away from campus and relax by our town's Murphey Lake.

The sun bit into my pale skin on one of those first days of summer, leaving light pink in the wake of its teeth on my shoulders and legs and chest. The sweet smell of tanning oil overpowered the lake air and the thrum of boat engines could barely be heard as they glided through the water over the music running through the buds in my ears and the beat of my heart as my eyes flew across the page of my latest erotic novel. Beach reads, is what I told my friends, but I knew I really just liked the ache in my heart and stomach and between my legs.

My friends, sorority sisters and their fraternity boyfriends, raced along the shore throwing cold water up at each other to cool down from the heat. They'd left me to guard our towels and coolers when they realized they'd already lost me to words on a page. I was in my own little world.

As the music changed on my iPod, I barely caught the heated warning. "LOOK OUT!" Lifting my face from the page, I blinked behind my sunglasses, watching the Frisbee come sailing in my direction. With a screech, I ducked behind my hands, abandoning my book to the sand as I attempted to protect my head from the assaulting object.

"Ohmigod! Kaylee!" I could hear Savannah's shriek from the water as the bright orange disc ricocheted off of my forearms and fell onto the towel in front of me. Peeking out from around my arms, I watched as Savannah came jogging up to my side, kicking sand in every direction. Her mom face was on. "You really need to watch where you're throwing that thing!" She shouted, leaning down to check on me. "You could hurt someone being an idiot like that!"

I managed a laugh, sitting up on my towel, rubbing my arms. "Savannah, calm down, it's fine," I said, snatching up the Frisbee.

"I'm, oh Jezus, I'm really sorry. Are you hurt?"

"You're lucky she isn't!" Savannah snapped.

"Savannah!" I rolled my eyes, standing up next to her and turning to the stranger.

He wasn't anyone I'd ever seen before, and that was saying something in our small lake town. He must have been one of those out-of-state kids here for our law school that found out about our little lake from his fraternity brothers on campus. He had eyes like storm clouds.

"I'm fine," I said, flashing him one of my signature one-dimpled smiles, handing him his Frisbee. "But, you know, I think my arms might bruise if I don't get a strawberry milkshake from the marina." I saw Savannah roll her eyes and fought the urge to kick sand in her direction.

"Well, we can't have that, can we?" My stranger said with a laugh, and tucking the Frisbee under his arm he held out his hand. It was big and warm and firm in my small one. "I'm Levi."

"Kaylee."

Beautiful

The girl in the mirror looking back at me looked absolutely nothing like nineteen year old Kaylee on the shore of Murphey Lake. This girl didn't flash confident, bold one-dimpled smiles at complete strangers. This girl would never be caught dead wearing a sexy black two piece string bikini, regardless of whether she was trying to pick up guys or not. The girl staring back at me would hardly look up from her shoes as she walked across campus, just in case he walked past her and saw her make eye contact with someone else, just in case he found out from a friend, just in case he saw her from his car, just in case, just in case, just in case.

The girl in the mirror was hardly a piece of the Kaylee I used to be. I couldn't recognize this girl, and it made me sick to realize that this had been a long time coming.

The gentle snore from the room behind me made me jump, and I hurried into the bathroom, my bare feet shocked by the cold tile floor as I shut the door, turning the handle before it settled into the doorjamb to avoid the distinct click that could wake him up. Quietly twisting the lock, I grabbed towels, still damp from our showers this morning, from the hooks on the wall and laid them on the ground, against the crack under the door, and then stood back, the sleeve of my huge sweater falling down my arm as I lifted my hand to the wall, shaking.

I clicked the light on and waited. Waited. Waited. Waited.

It wasn't until I breathed out that I realized I'd been holding my breath.

Then I looked back at the stranger in the mirror. Quietly I stepped closer to it; curling my toes under my feet, listening to the joints crack with small pops, toying with the end of my sweater. It was one of his.

Levi had always liked it when I wore his clothes. When he'd found me making breakfast in his spotless kitchen the morning after the first time I'd slept with him, I'd been wearing the dress shirt he'd worn the night before and a pair of his tall, wool socks. He'd swept me up and ravished me on the kitchen island, making me feel exactly like one of the girls in those novels I always read. He thought I was sexy in his shirt. Our eggs had gotten cold.

I licked my lips, fisting my hands into the hem of his sweater and pulled it off, letting it drop to the floor and land with a plop, like a puddle, self-consciously wrapping my arms around my slim middle as I stood in my plain white bra and underwear.

Had my legs always been that skinny?

Had my eyes always been that big?

My knees that knobby?

My neck that long?

I turned my head to the side, watching as the girl did the same thing. I lifted my hand, brushing my long hair out of my eyes, watching as she did that too. Was that me?

Naked, I looked even less like the Kaylee of five years ago, back when beautiful fell from his lips so frequently.

"God, you're beautiful."

I'd never been embarrassed in front of a boy – no man – like this before. After all, I knew I was attractive. I worked hard for my athletic body; my tight tummy, my toned calves, my wide hips and butt that would never let me squeeze into a size two. I took care of my skin, I wore makeup, I pampered my hair. There was a certain standard that I had to live up to as a sorority girl and a lady of society. I knew I reached above that bar, and beyond. But for some reason, he had the best way of catching me off guard.

I was never quite as confident around him as I thought I was.

It was probably because his confidence was so overpowering, it practically oozed out of him. He could have his pick of girls on campus, all he had to do was smile at them, let them get a good look at those stormy eyes of his and they'd be as lost as I was. But for some reason, he only had eyes for me.

He trailed his fingers across my skin, toying with the edge of bra, leaving goosebumps on the slope of my breast. I felt the blush rise up from my chest, heat fanning out through my core.

"Look at that blush," Levi whispered. "Does it embarrass you when I compliment you?" He asked, his breath brushing against the sensitive place on my neck, and I let out a whimper, shaking my head back and forth in a violent disagreement. I could feel my long hair come loose from some of its bobby pins, and his fingers trailed up to tangle in my hair at the nape of my neck, making tingles run down my spine.

"No?" He asked, pulling his head back to look down at me, his lips curved up just so. His own dark hair had come loose from its pomade style, and I ached to run my fingers through his waves. "I could have watched you all night. You looked so grown up, so pretty, in that black dress. I need to buy you more of those. Gets me hard just thinking about you in them." I arched my back, pressing my hips against his, and he let out a low groan, the air escaping his teeth in a whistle. The muscles in my belly tightened. His mouth pressed down, hot and wet, against the skin of my collarbone.

We had spent the evening at a function put on by his fraternity brothers. A silent auction where the boys bid themselves away, and some of the girls did, too. I'd surprised him by entering myself as one of the items for bidding. When I'd signed up, Savannah and I had giggled about how much Levi would be willing to spend to save me from having to go to dinner with another of his brothers. The look in his eyes had been priceless, and the possession he'd shown over me had left me breathless and excited.

Despite having only dated for a little over a year, he had beat his competing Little brother in his fraternity with a bid just over five hundred dollars. I was the highest paid prize that night.

He had my arms pulled up over my head, wrists trapped in one of his hands, his grip loose. His body was stretched out over mine, though he was still in his grey dress slacks while I was down to the black lingerie that Savannah had spent over an hour in Victoria's Secret to help me pick out. I was going to have to buy her a freaking Lilly dress to thank her. They were working like a charm.

I hooked my knee around his leg, smiling, feeling my dimple ease its way onto my cheek. "Thank you," I whispered, pressing a kiss to his lips, my nose brushing down his jaw, lingering with my breath hot on his neck. "I'll start dressing up for you more often."

"You're gorgeous in everything," he said, laughing. I could feel his muscles bunch in his chest as the sound rumbled through him. As he talked, his free hand trailed down my arm and stomach, bumping its way along the lace edge of my thong, dipping toward the V of my legs. A little thrill shot through me, and I gently nipped at where his shoulder and neck connected, enjoying that he started just a little. "Whether you're wearing an evening gown, or you are a little pink and sweaty after all day in the sun, you look like a goddess."

"Girls don't sweat," I whispered, my eyes dancing. "We glisten."

He reached under me to unclasp the pretty lace bra, "Oh, baby," his breath brushed gently across my skin, making me shiver, "call it what you want, but I think it's sexy as hell."

Smile like Lightning

Levi hadn't touched me like that in a long, long time. The romance had been swept out of our relationship around the two year mark. He stopped reaching for me in the middle of the night unless he needed his own kind of satisfaction. He stopped caring if I wasn't in the mood. He stopped listening if I said no. His touches became less gentle, more demanding. The tenderness that I had mistaken for love had left. Some part of me, a piece that still tried to forget that the bad was real, that wanted to open my eyes and wake up from a nightmare, wished he would reach for me in the middle of the night. A larger part, though, wished he'd never reach for me again.

He won't.

My breath hitched and I twisted around, wondering if I'd said that out loud or if it had just echoed in my head.

I turned back, focusing on my reflection in the mirror.

My eyes never used to be so flat looking. The green used to sparkle with laughter, they used to dance with flecks of gold. My smile used to reach my eyes.
Did it still?

I furrowed my brows, thinking. Did it? Did it? Did it? It seemed harder and harder to think of anything anymore. Since I'd moved in with Levi, the days seemed to bleed together. The grey colors of his apartment with the blue accents made it feel like water, made it feel like I was drowning, made it feel like I was suffocating.

Blowing a frustrated breath out through my nose I straightened my sloping shoulders and smiled. Or attempted it.

My lips twitched feebly, the muscles in my cheeks aching from the effort. So I flattened my lips, sucking my cheeks in, chewing on them. I tried again. The result was a grimace, one side of my mouth turned up, the other open in an attempt. My eyes stayed dull, flat.

When did I stop having things to smile about?

Growing up, my life had been so blessed. I smiled all the time; at everyone I passed on the street and I loved that they had smiled back. Silly to think it now, but, I felt like I influenced a person's day; that I was capable of making it better. Now, I couldn't remember anything past crawling out of bed nearly an hour ago.

I had loved my smile.

His fingers traced across the curve of my lips, following the lines of my smile.

One, two, three.

Thunder rumbled through the forest like a beast giving a warning growl, and the rain started to fall a little harder, the drops landing with large splats, quickly mixing the dirt path we'd been hiking along to sticky mud.

"You're like, you're like lightning, I think," Levi murmured, sifting my dark hair through his fingers, and I tilted my head up at him, still burrowed under his arm and against his bare chest. He'd abandoned his sweatshirt so that we had something to sit on instead of just the hard rock floor. I toyed with the dark curls that littered his chest, gently scratching the skin, smiling when he looked down at me, dropping a kiss against my forehead. "I mean it."

A peal of thunder shook more water from the trees that crowded around the outcropping of rock we'd taken shelter under, huddled against the back of the rock. "You're just trying to take advantage of the situation," I teased, sitting up straighter and ducking out from under his shoulder. I wrapped my arms around my knees, drawing them up against my chest, grateful for the long sleeved T-shirt as a cool wind blew back against us.

"No I'm not," he insisted, tugging at a strand of my hair, running its dark color through his fingers; it was something he did a lot, look at my hair, play with it. "Think about it." I listened as his hiking boots scraped against the rock, sending pebbles down the gentle slope. "When are you not being as loud as you possibly can be?"

"Hey!"
"No, no, I don't mean it like that, you know that." He waved a hand in the air in front of him, as if he was able to dispel my doubts like a fly. "Think about it, seriously. You shimmer, you leave an impression." I felt him scoot closer to me, bumping my shoulder with his. "Sometimes you tend to strike without warning," he said quietly, and my thoughts immediately shifted to the day we met on the lake, a smile tugging on the corners of my lips, my eyes dancing.

"You were the one who couldn't control your Frisbee, if I remember right," I said, poking his shoulder. He responded with a snort.

"You're gorgeous, and energetic." He captured a wisp of my hair between his thumb and forefinger, smoothing it out between his fingers. "You're sexy."

"Lightning is sexy? You freak," I said, shoving his hand away with a laugh.

"You can feel its heat. It's sudden. It lingers. It's lusty." He smiled slowly, facing forward as a bolt danced across the sky.
One, two, three, four, five.

Thunder growled through the sky again.

"And they say it is nearly impossible to contain lightning, you know, that's how powerful it is."

"Lightning in a bottle," I murmured.

"Yeah. I think you're a lot like that. You're so incredible, Kaylee."

"You think so, huh?"

"I love you, Kaylee."

One, two, thee, four…

Neck

I turned my head to the side, trailing my fingers down the side of my neck, testing the muscles and the skin there, imagining I could still see the discolored skin, the bruises. I stopped at my collarbone, lingering along the curved edge, frowning at the teeth marks left in dark purple.

Had I let him do that to me? I couldn't remember, really. At least it was in a place I could hide it, as long as I wore what he wanted me to. The approved list. The gowns, the shirts, the pants, the skirts, the dresses and sweaters and shoes that he bought me. That he paid for. That he hung up in my closet. That he said were okay. I pulled my eyes away from the mark and walked toward the closet, flicking in the light to stare at the colors.

He liked me in shirts that didn't show too much cleavage, or with high collars. He liked me in light colors, nothing too bold. Wanted me as soft as a flower. Wanted me the color of Easter. He hadn't really liked that I was like lightning. He told me that more than enough.

I stepped through the walk in closet slowly, running my hand along the skirts and sleeves.

Silks, soft cottons.
Nothing but the best for his Kaylee.
I remember how he used to tell me I was so lucky to have a guy like him, that cared so much about how other men may look at me that he took the time to dress me himself. Like I was his little doll.
Reaching up, I pulled down a box I'd stuffed onto the top shelf, a simple shoebox for boots among all my others. It didn't look out of place, and it hadn't drawn his attention four months ago when I'd slid it up there while reorganizing my closet. Setting it down on the floor, I knelt behind it, pulling off the lid.

A long-sleeved grey t-shirt and a pair of jeans were folded carefully inside. I pulled the shirt out, hugging it to my chest and walked back out in front of the mirror.

It didn't take too long to figure out that he just liked it when I covered up.

I'd brought home a black dress with a scoop back one day, thinking I could wear it out to a party with my girlfriends. I'd left it on the hanger, in the closet door so he could see it. I still yearned for his praise. He hadn't said anything that night about it. The night before my party, though, he'd pulled me into bed, seduced me. And left those marks ringing my neck, down my back, and on each breast.

I'd cried bitter tears the next day when he pulled down a grey long-sleeved dress. It was beautiful, he'd bought it, of course. But I hated it. I hated it. I hated it.

And for the first time in our relationship, I'd been so angry with him, I'd almost hated him.

I stopped in front of the mirror, now, pulling the grey shirt on to see if the collar was high enough to hide the hickey.

five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

"Are ten hickies really necessary, Levi? Dammit, how am I supposed to go to the beach with these fucking things on my neck and stomach?" I whirled around, furious, to find him staring at me, his eyes dangerous.

"I did you a favor, Kaylee."

"A favor, Levi? A favor?! I've been planning this trip with Savannah for months now, and you just had to go and pull a stunt like this, didn't you?!"

"A stunt like this?" His eyes flashed as he ripped his belt out of his belt loops, and for a moment I was afraid he may strike me across the bed. "Please, Kaylee." He rolled his eyes, scoffing, "You know Savannah isn't a good friend. You always end up regretting these trips; attracting attention in those sexy bikinis of yours when you've got a guy at home. I did you a favor." He slammed his belt on the bed, staring at me.

"You're supposed to wear a bikini on the beach, Levi."

"So you're supposed to attract men and you're supposed to want you to cheat on your loving boyfriend, then?"

"That's not what this is about!" I shouted, hurling the swimsuit I'd been clutching at him. It landed on the bed between us, a bright red stain on the plain black comforter he'd picked out.

He picked everything out.
"This is about how you don't trust me to go a beach, anymore, Levi."

"Don't turn this around on me, Kaylee. I was only trying to help." He'd turned around was taking off his shirt, he wasn't looking at me, though I could see his face in the mirror on our armoire. He looked tired. "I just didn't want you to put yourself in a situation that you would attract unwanted attention. Men can be such animals, Kaylee."

I stared at him.

"Levi, I can take care of myself."

"Please, I've seen you try to take care of yourself. I've given you that chance, don't you think? Last year, when you went for a girls night out on the town? You had one too many and that asshole at the bar was trying to reach up your skirt when I showed up. I saved your ass."

"Levi, I..."

"No. Savannah isn't good for you! She puts you in dangerous situations and leaves you there for me to help pick up the pieces. I'm sick of your relationship with her."

"I… Levi, she's my friend."

"She's mold, Kaylee. Think about the time she left you at that frat party. You called me to walk you home after she left with a Delt? Remember when she cheated on her boyfriend and asked you to help keep the secret? She brings out the worst in you, Kaylee. I just want you to see that. She's not a good person."

Maybe he was right. I mean, Savannah had been pretty down on my relationship lately. Maybe she was just jealous. And she had left me behind, a lot. The incredulity of the situation was fading. He was right. I had been dating him for a year now. He'd let me move into his beautiful apartment. He loved me. Why was I so angry with him for being afraid that something might happen?
With a harsh sigh, I tugged the sweatshirt back over my head, climbing up on the bed on all fours and crawling over to him. He turned around, looking at me, and I put my hands up on his shoulders, kneeling in front of him.

"I understand. I do. I… I'll call Savannah and tell her I'm sick and can't make it tomorrow."

He gave me a weak smile, and brushed a kiss onto my forehead. "I'm sorry, too. Maybe I overreacted a little bit."

"So next time, no hickies?" I asked.

"Maybe not ten." I laughed, shaking my head.

"Well, that's a start, right?"

"I meant it about Savannah, though, Kaylee. I don't like her."

Arms

Frowning at my reflection in the mirror, I carefully rolled the sleeves up on my shirt, I examined the bruise the size of his thumb on the underside of my elbow, gently tracing it with my other hand. It didn't hurt anymore, it was just an ugly reminder of what our relationship had become. The ghost of a humorless smile flickered across my lips as I looked away from the bruise.

He'd threatened me a lot, after that. He threatened just as much as he he hit.

But he didn't like to leave a mark on my face that his friends could see that he couldn't blame on sheer clumsiness. I was his doll, his flower, his pastel plaything. Unexplained bruises never went over well with colleagues and friends. But dark purple splotches on my legs: Kaylee is so clumsy, you should see her at home, always bumping into the coffee table. Disfigured blue bruises on my arms: It is the weirdest thing, I'll tell you, I think it's the way she sleeps, all curled up on her side. And the raised marks on my stomach didn't even matter, it wasn't like I wore anything that revealing anyway.

The first time, he had been so apologetic, he had bent over backward trying to apologize to me. Long stemmed roses sent straight to my desk at work in the College of Business during my last year of school and a gorgeous new dress to wear out to dinner (with long sleeves so it covered the glaring finger prints).

Occasionally he would cycle back through that stage; he'd come home with a bouquet or a smile and a simpering I love you so much, Kaylee.

But then it would start right back up again.

"LEVI!" I shrieked with laughter, tumbling off the chair as his fingers dug into my sides, causing me to giggle and attempt to squirm away from him. He relented for a moment, watching me with humor dancing in his stormy grey eyes as I scooted my butt across his hardwood kitchen floor, still panting for breath from the first attack. "I need to do homework!" I said, moving to stand up, thinking he looked a lot like a cat stalking a mouse.

He lunged, nimbly catching my around the waist as I stood up, taking me to the floor again, his fingers dancing across my sides and stomach, up to my armpits and down to my knees, causing me to shake with laughter. I couldn't even fight back.
"No fair!" I panted between giggles, using my feet to break away from him, grabbing a barstool out from under the bar and situating it between us. "No fair!"

"How is a tickle war ever fair?" He asked, lazily, getting up and stalking toward me, I watched his socks through the slats in the barstool from my place behind it, biting my lip.

"Levi, really, I have to figure out my econ homework."

"I took that class, I can help you later," he said, easily reaching down behind me and grabbing my foot, dragging me out from behind the stool. I screeched, clawing at the floor before turning around and taking the offensive, attacking his sides with my fingers. He grabbed my wrists, yanking them above my head, raising his eyebrows suggestively, making me blush. "Don't start a war you can't win," he purred.

"You started it!" I spluttered, gasping as I dissolved in a fit of giggles again. It was starting to hurt, the inability to breathe and my aching sides. "Levi, stop!" He wasn't listening, and now one of my hands was pinned under his knee, the other pushing against his chest. "Levi!" I shouted, trying to put some sternness behind my words, but he didn't seem to be listening. I thought I was going to pee myself.

"LEVI!" I punctuated his name with a slap on his shoulder. There was no way it hurt, but it was enough to get his attention. "Thank you," I groaned as he stilled. "I kept asking you to stop, why didn't you stop?"

The laughter had left from his face when he sat up and looked at me.
"Levi, what… what's wrong?" I asked, staring at him, yelping as his hand encircled my elbow, dragging me toward him, digging into my flesh.

"If you ever hit me again," he growled low in my ear, "I swear to God, I'll hit you back so hard you won't even remember what happened."

Fingers

Flattening the collar of my shirt across my neck, I nodded to myself, glad that it covered my collarbones where he'd marked me. I smoothed the shirt down across my stomach, straightening the shoulders as I did so. For a moment, I dared to think that I looked almost normal.

Don't lie to yourself, Kaylee. Look at you.

His voice echoed in my head, sneering at me.

You haven't looked normal in ages, your friends would be able to tell you that, if you had any. But wait. You only have me. Why would you try to run away from me, Kaylee?

Clapping my hands over my ears, I squeezed my eyes shut, breathing deeply though my mouth and out through my nose.

It had taken Levi maybe six months to get comfortable enough, to know that I wouldn't be leaving any time soon, to start making comments like that. They were little at first, barely noticeable.

Do you really need to eat that French-fry, Kaylee?
I can't believe you'd wear such a low cut dress to brunch with my parents.

A ninety percent? I got a ninety-eight in that class.

I hadn't really thought about them before, hadn't really considered what he was doing but soon I started to believe them, take his word for it, agree with him.

Pretty girls shopped at J. Crew and made choices for themselves, I'd stick to TJ Maxx and let Levi approve my wardrobe.

Happy girls didn't eat an extra helping at dinner. Happy girls ate salad without dressing. So why wasn't I happy?

Smart girls still weren't as smart as boys, so I should just stop trying.

His little comments became ingrained in my system and before I realized it, I was letting them be true. He had made more comments than I had fingers.

"Right, like I'd ever buy you that thick of a band if we got married. Dream on, Kaylee."

"What's wrong with that band size?" I asked, flexing my fingers in front of me, staring at the thick band on my left ring finger, day dreaming and trying to get a point across to my boyfriend of five years.

"Your fingers are short and stubby, Kaylee," he said taking my hand and removing the band, setting it back down on the display cushion so the glass cases didn't get scratched. "Thick bands make them look worse." I narrowed my eyes, contemplating, and then sighed.

"You're right, you're always right." Standing on tiptoes, I kissed him on the cheek. He snagged my hand, pulling me away from the counter and toward the doors to the store, he was still talking about how he knew he was always right and how he knew that I would be just lost without him. I had started to tune him out, my head resting slightly on his shoulder as we walked, barely noticing as he tucked both of our hands into the pocket of his jacket, gently squeezing it.

"Oh, my god, Kaylee?"

"Savannah?"

Savannah and I had not spoken in ages, not since I had told her that if she could not be a supportive friend and accept the fact that Levi and I were in love, then she had no place in my life. Now, here she was, a few shopping bags hanging from the crook of her elbow and a smile of disbelief spread across her face.

"Kaylee!" She hurried to me and I pulled my hand free from Levi's, throwing my arms around Savannah's neck, laughing as she hugged me back, squeezing me tightly around my waist. "It has been too long!" She pulled back, holding me at an arm's length, looking over me. I grinned, and then glanced over my shoulder, catching Levi's eye.

His posture had changed dramatically, the casual smile had disappeared, and his shoulders were pulled back, stiff. I looked back at Savannah and released her, taking a step back to fall back into the roll of faithful girlfriend that I was. I took his hand, and he folded my fingers over his, pulling me closer.

"Savannah," he said, his voice notably cooler.

"Levi," Savannah replied, barely casting him a glance. "So how have you been?" She asked, reaching out to take my free hand, squeezing my fingers.

"Good, good," I said nervously, looking between Levi and Savannah.

"We should get together and catch up," Savannah rushed on, still holding my hand. "A bunch of us are going to catch a flick tonight. Dean will be there, you remember him, right? And Abby, and Jordyn. We're gonna go at like, eight. Does that work with you?"

"That sounds great," I said, feeling the grin spread across my lips, making my cheeks hurt.

"Kaylee." Levi's finger hand become slack around mine, and a cold drip of fear ran down my spine, pooling in my stomach. "We have plans."

"I'm sure you would be willing to share for a night," Savannah muttered, her words clipped. She squeezed my hand once more. "I'll pick you up at seven, okay? You're still at your old apartment, right?"

"No, Kaylee. I'm sorry, Savannah, but Kaylee and I already have plans."

That cold drip of fear switched, rapidly, and I turned around, staring at him, incredulous. Why was he doing this? Why was he lying?

"I'm going. I'll be there, Savannah. I can't wait."

"Great." She let go of my hand, calling a goodbye.

"You are not going," he hissed after she walked away, "I cannot believe you two would set this up just to humiliate me."

I looked around, worriedly, hating that his clipped tone was an octave or two above normal speech. I tried to pull him along, out of the normal traffic of the shopping center so we could sit down and talk about this. But he wasn't having it.

"You know how I feel about her."

"I know," I said quickly, worriedly. "But you heard her. Abby and Dean will be there, too. And some other girls," I added quickly, seeing his eyebrows raise.

"Perfect, Dean'll be there. You know how much I like him."

"Levi! Dean doesn't like me," I hissed, feeling tears prick at the backs of my eyes, yanking my hand out of his pocket and glaring at him. "Besides, I'm sure Abby will still be trying to get him together with Brooke tonight. So I won't even sit next to him."

"He wouldn't want to sit next you anyway, you know," he said, slowly.

"What?"

"Dean doesn't go for girls like you. Don't be dense, Kaylee."
"I… I never said anything like that."

"You think you'll ever get anyone better than me?" He laughed, but it wasn't a humored laugh, it was empty. "Come on." He'd backed me into a wall, now. We'd turned down a hallway toward the bathrooms, away from the other traffic, and he put one hand on the wall next to my head, his eyes glowing with anger. "I'm the best thing that you'll ever get. You can't go."

"I'm going, Levi," I said, swallowing around the lump in my throat, staring up at him. "I'm not asking permission, I'm telling you I'm going to a movie with my friends."

"You're lucky I even like you, that I even put up with you, did you know that?"

"You used to like my personality," I said, indignantly, moving to step around him, anger still coiling in my stomach about this. We had had our fights before, hell, more than Savannah had told me I wasn't in a healthy relationship, but he had never made it so public as this. He had never humiliated me in front of people we knew. Not to this level.

"Right, who you used to be," he muttered. I sighed, exasperated.

"I'll catch a cab home," I added, my temper flaring.

"No you fucking won't." Spinning around, he grabbed my arm. "And you're not going to the movie."

"You can't tell me what to do!"

Thighs

That was the start of it. No, I still had not realized just how awful he was that night, or even afterward when I got home from the movie and checked my phone to see 23 text messages declaring what a slut I was, and how I was lucky he made time for a whore like me. I'd like to say I didn't go crawling back to him. But I did. And that was the start.

That got me thinking, and that got me angry, and it got me reconnected to Savannah again.

I'd like to say that that night I started to plan to get away. That I slowly started to think about putting my life back together. I didn't. Not yet.

But with Savannah's support I had been able to begin dreaming of it.

She'd helped me put aside money, she'd helped me get together the clothes I'd kept in that shoebox in the closet. It was Savannah that had talked me through all of the planning and deciding, and it would be her that was there for me after all of this.

Rubbing my arms, I tugged the sleeves of the tee down, fisting the ends in my palms, happy for the excess fabric that hid the tan line on my ring finger, I couldn't wait for that to fade. Quietly walking back into the closet, I stooped, picking up the faded pair of jeans I'd left in the box and a plain pair of underwear. Clutching both items to my chest, I grabbed my plain Toms from the floor next to the box, quickly kicking it under the hanging clothes to hide it.

Back in front of the mirror, I ran my hands, sticky with nervous sweat, now, down my thighs.

Most of the threats stopped when I realized he just didn't like to listen to the word "no." Or really, that he never listened to the word no, unless he was saying it. Because once I figured that out, I stopped fighting back.

Carefully stepping out of the underwear I'd been wearing that day, I tossed them in the general direction of the hamper, smiling slightly when they hit the floor. Levi would just hate that. I pulled on the plain white ones, carefully adjusting the elastic bands on the ends so that I wouldn't get a wedgie the second I pulled on my jeans.

Whether it be about the clothes I wanted to wear, or what I wanted to watch on TV, or when I wanted him to stop touching me, or if I didn't want to have sex, Levi seemed immune to the word "No." Or at least believed that it didn't apply to him. Gritting my teeth, I stepped into the jeans I'd bought on my own, faded and soft and skinny – three things that Levi would never have wanted to see on me. It was in satisfaction, then, that I zipped and buttoned the fly, stuffing my hands into my pockets. They were a bit loose, despite the fact that they were the size I had worn when I'd met Levi, but I supposed that was due to the salads without any dressing.

He would rip these off of me the minute he saw me in them, I thought, giggling, immediately clapping my hand over my mouth and looking behind my shoulder at the door. When I realize he hadn't stirred, I let out a relieved breath.

A pair of jeans like this wouldn't have been included in my wardrobe after we had started dating, he would have been too afraid of other guys checking out my ass when I walked down the street.

No, he definitely would have ripped them off my legs.

"Come here," he murmured, and I felt my stomach knot up as he reached for me in the dark. It had been weeks since the last time he'd even thought about touching me intimately, but now I could hear him, moving across the bed his hand warm and soft on my waist as he pulled my toward him. I faked sleep, wishing he'd get the hint and roll over.

His mouth fell hot on my neck, kissing down my neck until I fluttered my eyes open, pushing against his chest. "What are you doing, Levi?" He smirked up at me.

"Oh, come on, baby, don't be that way. You know you want it."

"I was sleeping," I muttered, rolling over. "Can't we just sleep tonight?" I could see his expression in my head, a raised eyebrow, slightly pouting, and then his hands were on me again, rolling me over and pulling my shirt off over my head in one even swoop.

"You're starting to sound like you don't like me anymore, Kaylee," he whispered, running his hands up my stomach, cupping my breasts, and then back down to my waistband in the dark.

"You know I love you," I muttered, hating that my body reacted to him even if I didn't want to.

"If you love me then why would you rather sleep?"

"Because I have class tomorrow," I checked the clock, "this morning, in four hours, and its late, and my breath stinks."

"Excuses, excuses," he cut off, his fingers sliding beneath the waistband of my underwear, pulling on the elastic and letting it snap against my skin before he started to wiggle them off.

"Levi," I muttered, digging my butt into the mattress. "Levi, stop."

"No," he said, voice hot against my ear as he leaned down. "You're my girlfriend, which means that if I want something from you, I can just take it. And I know you like it, so don't even try to lie to me." He paused, and when I still didn't easily give in, he bit down on my neck, making me cry out. "And if you don't, then there is something wrong with you."

When this had all started, when the idea of his touch became repellant to me, I started wearing clothes to bed, again. I started sleeping earlier, and stopping kisses quickly. At first, he thought I was cheating on him, and when I quietly explained to him that I wanted to slow things down, I wasn't sure how I was feeling anymore, he made it his mission to make me change my mind.

I sighed, deciding it wasn't worth the fight, and he slid my underwear down the rest of the way, moving so that he was over me, placing hot kisses along my collarbone and neck, again. I knew the game, if I made sounds at the right time, or turned my head just so, then he wouldn't get mean, he wouldn't pull my hair or be rougher than necessary. His hand wandered down my body, stopping at my thighs, and his breath was hot in my ear as he demanded.

"Spread them."

As he moved to settled between my thighs, catching me by surprise as he filled me, I gasped and he smirked, thinking that meant he'd found some magic spot. I kept my eyes open, focusing on a spot on the ceiling as he moved over me, silently reciting credits and debits and accounts on a multistep income statement for my accounting exam the next day.

Hair

Levi had always loved my hair.

I drug my hand through its ends, untangling it and wincing slightly at the gentle tugs on my bruised scalp. My hand ran the length of it, all the way to my waist where its dark locks curled gently in on themselves, following the rest of the natural wave of my hair.

From the day we met, he'd had a fascination with my hair. Sitting slurping milkshakes as college freshmen he'd caught a flyaway piece to tuck behind my ear. All dressed up for a formal dance or an interview or presentation and afterward he would remove its restrainers; bobby pins and ponytail holders and run his fingers through it, fluffing it out, and running the tips of his nails across my scalp. In bed, pressed up against him, he would toy with its ends or bury his face in it , breathing in deep. Even in the car, his hand would find the back of my head while he was driving, playing with my hair there. For a while that was feeling of pure ecstasy. It could put me to sleep just as easily as it could turn me on.

I swept my hair over my shoulder, taking the ends and looping it up, trying to see what I would look like with a short cut, a bob where the ends tickled my chin. Cold fingers of fear clenched in my stomach at the thought of cutting my hair at all, I could just see the anger in his eyes.

I let my hair fall back down my back in a wave, flipping it back over my head as I bent over, running a brush through it, getting rid of the tangles and parting it down the middle, as if preparing to cut it.

When I flipped my head back over I pulled open the drawer under the sink, filled with an assortment of makeup, and I unzipped a small black bag in the back that I kept my tampons in. That had always been a place he'd left alone, disgusted by the thought of a period alone. Digging toward the bottom, my fingers closed around the cold metal handle of my hairdresser's scissors. I'd snuck them off her counter last time she went to go get color for my hair, holding them in my lap until I could slip them into my purse. Levi would never have let me buy my own pair, too afraid of the outcome if I'd attempted to cut my own hair.

With shaking hands I picked up a chunk of my hair in my opposite hand, closing my eyes as I squeezed the blades around it, listening to the crunch as they broke. I was left with a handful of my hair, hanging limp in my hand, and I gasped, feeling the breath leave my lungs. Hurling the scissors on the countertop I shoved the hair into the garbage can under the sink, my chest rising and falling in a panic.

If I cut my hair what would he grab on to?

Even worse, what would I hide behind when I didn't want him to see me?

The car ride back from the party had been quiet, though not unusually so, and so for most of the ride I had stared out the window, carefully taking out the bobby pins that had held my hair back for the evening letting them sit in my lap. When he had pulled into the driveway, I'd scooped them all up and stepped out of the car, quietly waiting for him to walk ahead of me and unlock the door. Despite having lived with him for over a year, I still didn't get my own key.

We stepped into our apartment, and I set my bobby pins on the counter, kicking off my heels as I did so, and spun around to smile at Levi.

"I had a wonderful evening. We should really get together with the Morrisons more often, his wife is simply wonderful," the happy words died on my lips when I saw his expression.

"I saw the way you flirted with Robert Morrison all night," he whispered taking a step forward, his hands jingling his keys in the pockets of his slacks. "I saw the way you touched him. How dare you humiliate me in front of my friends? In front of my business partners?"

"Levi, I, what are you talking about?" I asked, my brain flying through the events of the night, attempting to figure out just when I had let myself unknowingly flirt with another man, or even talk to one, alone. I knew how Levi would have reacted to that. How could I have been so stupid as to have slipped up? The evening really had been nice.

"Don't lie to me," he scoffed, staring at me in disbelief. "And then you had the nerve to seek him out and say goodbye when you left, and now you're lying to me about how lovely his wife is so you can see him again." He rolled his eyes. "When did you get this way, Kaylee?"

"What way?" I asked, again, still holding my ground as I tried to identify the moment I'd made him so angry. Maybe if I figured it out I could apologize.

With a snarl, his hand snapped out of his pocket, coiling into my hair and tugging. I screamed, actually screamed, as he pulled me by the hair toward him.

"You know how I get when you lie to me."

"Levi, please, I'm sorry for whatever I did," I whimpered, hunching my shoulders to keep him from pulling my hair too much, twisting my neck to look up at him.

"For whatever you did?"

"I'm sorry," I amended, quickly, "I'm so sorry, Levi." He didn't say anything, but turned around, tugging my hair with him, causing me to cry out again.

"I have to teach you a lesson for lying to me, Kaylee, you know that," he said evenly, as he continued to pull me down the hallway, I screamed again, wishing desperately that we had neighbors that would hear me, as I frantically attempted to keep up with his long strides in my dress, tears falling down my cheeks as he tugged again.

"Fucking lying bitch. I'm going to show you what happens when you lie to me."

Game Changer

He still hadn't stirred in the other room. Despite the angry tears that washed down my face, and the squeaks and moans that ripped from my throat when I couldn't hold in in anymore. Maybe the towels under the door had helped keep the light out. Maybe it only seemed so loud because the bathroom was tiled and empty. Maybe he was just really knocked out. Maybe I had killed him.

The thought passed and I barely bat a lash.

He deserved it.

But what if they catch me? What if they know it's me?

What if I get arrested?

But then an even more frightening thought enters my head and I watch as my eyes widen, the oxygen leaving my lungs in a little woosh that I can't seem to pull back in.

What if he isn't dead?

What if he wakes up before I leave?

What if he's already awake, and he knows, and he's just waiting?

My eyes fly to the medicine cabinet, neatly closed and in order, like nothing had been touched, nothing like it looked like tonight as I made dinner before he got home.

Ambien scattered across the counter, little white oblong pills marching across the black granite tile of the countertop like white ants. My own small, circular Lunesta Pills in a neat pile near the edge of the sink.

I'd crushed several of them to dust. Counted them meticulously. Twice. Then a third time. Making sure he wouldn't be confused when he opened his bottle again, knowing he wouldn't check to see if any were missing from mine. Butterflies can't help you sleep, he'd sneered.

I still hadn't heard his car in the driveway as I swept the dust into the bottom of his usual bourbon glass and quickly replaced the medicine exactly as it had been in the cabinet, the label on his toward the back so no one being nosy would see his name immediately. Mine piled behind the mountains of face creams and toothpastes and lotions that he'd insisted I put them behind. Can't have anyone thinking I'm engaged to a fucking loon. Can't even fucking sleep on your own, Jesus Christ. The fact that he couldn't either hadn't crossed his mind, obviously.

I'd stood, shaking, staring in the mirror, convincing myself that he deserved it.

Levi's eyebrows rose imperceptibly when he entered the kitchen and I handed him his four fingers of bourbon and two ice cubes. But he smiled, his lips twitching up at the corners ever so slightly.

"How was your meeting?" I asked, nervously straightening the placemats on our kitchen table, and fluffing our centerpiece of roses that he had brought home two nights before in apology. Levi shrugged, setting his drink down on the countertop and loosening his tie. I felt my heart deflate.

"They paid for dinner, so I guess I can't complain, but I did miss your cooking," he murmured, slinging the tie over the back of the barstool. "And he's my next client, so he's bringing money in for your expensive habits." I winced.

"C'mere." Slowly, my hands stilled and I looked toward him, one hand held out in offering, his other tucked into the pocket of his dress pants. My feet automatically propelled me forward and his hand caught my chin, tilting it up to look at me. "I missed you today," he whispered, brushing my hair out of my eyes before kissing me.

Some mechanical survival method left in me made me kiss him back, just enough that he wouldn't wonder. He pulled away, smiling. "I'm going to put on something comfortable," he continued, picking up his drink and taking a sip. "Why don't we watch the news?" I nodded, mutely following him into the bedroom where he unbuttoned his shirt and pants, handing them to me to hang up or fold for the launderers. He tossed his own socks into the hamper. My eyes following his every move with quick flicks.

A groan escaped Levi's mouth as he settled into the mattress, fluffing the pillows up behind him and clicking on the TV on top of our dresser.

"Bring me my drink, will you, Kaylee?"

His arm looped around my waist as I crawled into the bed with him, wearing one of his old sweatshirts, Harvard Law splashed across the front in faded maroon lettering, not that that is where he went to school. I stared straight ahead, not really watching the TV, quiet until his grip around my waist went loose, and I heard his snores.

Scissors

What if I hadn't used enough of the two kinds of pills? What if he hadn't drank enough of the bourbon for it to really knock him out? What if he was waiting on the other side?What if I had killed him?What if the police were going to show up at any minute?What if my neighbor found out?What-if?What-if?What-if?

My thoughts started running together, and I grabbed the sides of my head, squeezing my eyes shut.
He wasn't dead.

He was just asleep.

But, what if?

Carefully I picked the scissors up, much stiller, much calmer than I had felt before. Staring into the mirror with a determined gaze, I tilted my chin up, hoping to make it as even as I could, like I had seen the girls on YouTube do.

They were cold, and felt small in my hands, making me feel even clumsier.

I snapped them open and closed a few times, listening to their precise clicks. I snapped them open, then, running my thumb along the edge of the blade, letting the metal bite into it ever so slightly.

A sort of soft, serene smile etched onto my lips as I met my gaze in the mirror.

Reaching up with a shaking hand, I carefully took a chunk of my hair in my hand, and snipped it off my head. A laugh gurgled up out of my throat, as I stared at the lock of brown hair I held in my hand, letting it fall to the floor. I didn't even feel like myself. What was I doing?

Taking a larger piece, I snipped again, at chin level, letting my hair fall to the floor around me, belatedly thinking I probably should have gotten dressed after I did this.

I worked almost blindly, the scissors flashing around my head as I cut here and there, completely forgetting all the research I'd done that morning on hairstyles and how to cut your hair so it was symmetrical around your face. I suddenly just wanted it off.

I wanted to be free.

I wanted it gone.

I didn't want to hide behind my hair anymore.

I didn't want him to be able to grab my hair anymore.

I didn't want to be his.

With each angry thought, I hacked off another piece of hair, barely noticing as it floated down around me, clinging to my clothes and the rug in front of the mirror I was standing on. I should have laid something down so I could clean it up easily.

I hate him.
The thought flicked through my mind so easily, and I knew it was true.

I hate what he made me.

I cut again, the scissors clicking as I cut next to my ear.

I hate what he took from me.

I hate that I had let him.

I hate that I let him bottle me, contain me, stop me from being anything remotely like myself.

With each snip the weight that had been weighing down on my heart, on my very being, seemed to ease up, to melt off. A sense of relief washed over me.

I stopped, suddenly, putting the instrument down, and taking a step back, running a hand through the short hair that stopped just at my chin. It was flyaway, and I couldn't even pull it back into a ponytail. It was easily hidden under a ball cap, it completely changed what I looked like.

Mesmerized, I shook my head from side to side, watching as my hair flew out on either side of my head, and I laughed.

Leaving the scissors on the counter and my hair on the floor, I stuffed my feet into my Toms and grabbed my bag from the floor on the closet, slinging it over my shoulder. Quietly turning off the light and pushing the towels aside, I stepped out of the bathroom, my heart thudding in my chest as I stopped, still, and stared at the breathing form on the bed.

Not dead.

Confused by the fact that this did make me feel better, I crossed to his nightstand, carefully placing my footing on the floor, hoping that I wouldn't make anything creak as I took his car keys, slipping them into my pocket and turned around, opening the bedroom door, and not bothering to look back at him as I stepped out and silently shut the door behind me.

How Dare She

I rubbed at the stubble on my chin, scowling. I had never let myself fall apart like this before. This was her fault. Her fault for not being here. Her fault for not reminding me. Her fault for leaving me like she did. Didn't she know that I needed her? Didn't she know that I wasn't remotely myself without her?

Drumming my fingers on the wheel of my car, I leaned back in the seat, running my other hand down my face, kneading at my eyes and jaw.

I had been so angry, at first.

How dare she leave me? How dare she have the nerve to drug me? How dare she take my car and leave what we had started? How dare she think she could leave me?

I had given her everything. I had taken away all of her worries, given her anything she could ever have wanted, put a roof over her head. I had loved her. And how does she repay me?

The police had found my car a hundred miles away from our home left in a Speedway parking lot with the keys gone. I dropped the charges, thinking that if she didn't have anything to be afraid of she would come home. Thinking that we could work through whatever went through her head, whatever she thought happened. I waited patiently those first few months, only briefly looking around the room when I went to dinner with our old friends, trying to see her face. I barely even glanced around when I thought I smelled her perfume. And when the ghost of her laugh rang through our apartment I never went looking, just waited for her to come out.

I got impatient, though. She knows how impatient I can get. She knows better than to play these games.

I knew right away, there was no way she left. Her friends were here. Her family was here. Her entire life was in this stupid city. I had been so good to her, I had never made her move, never made her leave.

Well, that was about to change.

I slid my gaze out the window, still leaning back in my chair, watching as the front door of the house I had parked in front of for the past three weeks opened and a short haired woman stepped outside, followed by a blonde. I tensed in my seat, watching as the blonde crossed to her car, sliding into the drivers seat. They were talking through the open window, and the one with short hair gestured over her shoulder, toward the bus stop on the corner. After a few more minutes, like every day, the car slowly backed out of the driveway and took off down the street, taking a right, while the other girl walked toward the corner, holding her purse over her shoulder.

She was going to come home with me today. I had waited long enough for her to stop playing around. I was sick of her games.

Leaning over, my eyes never leaving her as she walked down the street, I reached into my glove compartment, my fingers closing around the cold metal of a gun. I tucked it into the waistband of my pants as I pushed open the car door, stepping out into the southern summer heat.

"Kaylee!"

The girl stopped walking. She was maybe ten feet ahead of me.

"I always liked you hair long, better."

As she turned, I smirked, feeling better than I had in weeks. Maybe even months.

She was coming home with me, or she wasn't going anywhere at all.