I sat on the linoleum in front of the oven, my insides burning right along with the dinner I had prepared for us. Five o’clock he was supposed to come home. Late again. I tried to keep the casserole warm as long as possible. But it slowly hardened into charcoal.
And I wouldn’t be able to confront him about any of it.
I wandered to our bed. To his bed, rather. Not ours. Everything here was his. Including me.
The picture of us after our tour of Rockefeller Center smiled from the nightstand. Happier times, when we both had a place in the relationship, a place in the world. I hardly recognized us.
When did we lose everything?
He lost nothing. When did I lose everything? When did I become a woman that sat at home waiting on her boyfriend during the peak hours of a Friday night?
Ever since he made it clear that I had no voice, at least not one he wanted to hear.
I choked on the words I could never say, the feelings never expressed. I curled up on his bed and experienced the hurt that I could only ever experience alone, without the judging, prying, wrathful glare of my partner.
The back of the picture frame popped off before I understood what I was doing. I bent my side of the photo behind his until only he could be seen. This seemed more appropriate. I was lost somewhere unseen, somewhere in his shadow. His winning smile, glinting gray eyes, perfectly trimmed hairstyle. The looks of a Disney prince and the heart of a villain. But the facade could never be shattered to the rest of the world. It was my duty to boost this visage.
My stomach knotted as I flipped the photo the other way, him folded behind me. I had beauty too, enough to match his. Yet I had become an extension of him, nonexistent without his chiseled chin framed beside me. This photo, with his side hidden, seemed almost eerie. I was nothing without him, or so I had been told.
And that was not okay.
I should not have been put off by an image without him. My face framed alone should not have been unsettling.
Clicking the back into place, I left the photo folded as it was, leaving only me to be seen. I needed to get used to the idea.
The door clunked open and my heart stopped.
I stood and smoothed out my cheese-stained shirt by instinct. “Mason. How was your day?”
He shrugged off his jacket and planted a quick kiss on my lips. “Fine. Dinner?”
I stammered over words, all hints of bravado and strength dwindling into nothing, “I made casserole. It’s a little singed. I was trying to keep it warm.”
He beelined to the fridge and popped off the cap of a beer. “That’s alright. I’m not that hungry anyway.”
My eyes glued to the floor as I braved, “It’s late.”
“Is it?” He flopped on the bed.
“I made dinner so it would be ready by the time you got home, but you’re late.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I said I’m not really hungry anyway. What’s the problem?”
He propped himself up on the pillows, narrowing his eyes. “Clearly there’s a problem. What do you want from me?”
“I said nothing.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you,” he insisted. “You’re the one that burned dinner and did I get mad?”
I blurted before I could stop myself, “But I wouldn’t have burned it if you hadn’t been late.”
He chuckled, his stormy eyes flashing with lightning. “So now everything is my fault? Let’s blame Mason for starving children and natural disasters. Is that how it’s going to be today?”
“It’s just that a head’s up would have been nice.” My chest tightened, disbelieving of my own forwardness. “This isn’t the first time it’s happened and it would be easier on me if you could let me know.”
A smile teased at his lips, but he shrugged in submission. “Alright. I’ll call next time.”
Smokiness wafted past my nose and I whipped my head toward the kitchen, realizing my casserole had officially shifted from dinner to fire hazard.
As I stepped away to fetch it from the oven, he held a hand up, a shadow casting across his face. “Hold on.”
I obeyed, frozen in place, fear clinging to his every word.
He clanked his beer down on the nightstand and leaned an eye toward the picture frame. My blood iced over.
“What’s this?” He pointed at the empty space where his side of the photo should be.
Numbness stilled my tongue, tears stung my eyes. Dread crawled along my skin.
That derisive, disturbing, yet handsome smiled tugged up his cheek as he steadied his temper. “You cut me out of my own picture?”
“It’s not cut,” I assured him, my voice trembling.
“Why did you cut me out?”
The intensity of his glare nearly crumbled me. He studied every nuance of my expression, every twitch of my hands. My body betrayed every ounce of guilt and panic, sweat practically painting my faults across my forehead.
“I was just reminiscing,” I stuttered. “About better times.”
“Are times bad now?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Really?” He jabbed a finger at the frame with a wild laugh. “They don’t seem great if you’re cutting me out of pictures.”
“It’s not cut.”
“What is wrong?” he scolded. “Why is it that something is always wrong with you? We can’t just relax and have a nice night. It’s always something.”
“The same thing is always wrong.” I backed up a step the second this audacious accusation lashed across my lips and quieted my tone. “I always have the same problem and we never fix it.”
“Since when are there problems?”
“Since you come home late without a word every night. You have no regard for my schedule. Not so much as a thank you for anything I do, but it’s always expected of me. I spend so much time trying to keep you happy that I’m drowning. I’m drowning in your life which isn’t leaving me much room to live mine.”
The tension suspended between us, hardening every atom of air until the oxygen was too heavy to pass through my lungs. My vision dizzied from the heaving, fruitless breaths that sank deeper into me.
His unshakable smirk remained, but his stare was deadly. The voice that flowed from him was too smooth, unnatural. “You’ve never mentioned this before.”
“What would you have done?” A convulsion slithered along my spine. “What will you do now?”
He leaned up from the bed and I flinched away before I could control myself. That smirk widened, though fury fueled it. “You think I’m going to hurt you?”
I swallowed, my throat threatening to close. “I don’t know.”
He shook his head, snickering to himself. “Have I ever laid a finger on you?”
My back seized up. “No.”
“Why would I now?”
I forced my breath to stream steady. “You’ve broken other things. Why not me?”
He stood before me and I clenched every muscle in order to stay in place, to face him. He gently brushed his fingertips along my jawline. I held my breath.
“I could, you know.” His thumb swirled a circle on my chin. “I could break you, hurt you. But I never have. Never would.”
The calming gray of his irises was so close to genuine. His aura was hypnotic. That’s part of what drew me to him in the first place. I wanted to trust him, to love him. I wanted to sink into the mist of his eyes and float there forever. Those desires never faltered. I still loved him. But trust was something that a logical mind could overturn, even when the heart insists otherwise. His words borderlined on comfort and assurance. But I knew them to be a threat.
“Then if I were to leave you,” I challenged, “you would let me without a fight?”
His jaw locked. “Are you leaving me?”
“I don’t know, but if I were, would you hurt me?”
He still brushed along my jawline, but his nail dug in as he caressed, scratching across my skin. “You would ask me to give you up without a fight?”
I lifted my chin, stronger than I thought possible. “It sounds like your definition of ‘never hurting me’ has conditions, then.”
“Are you leaving me?” he spat between his teeth again.
“Please take your hand off me,” I calmly said.
He shook his head, his laugh turning maniacal. “I’ve never hurt you. There is no reason for you to be acting like this.”
“I asked you to take your hand off. I have a right to ask you that. There shouldn’t need to be a reason.”
His fingers still brushed my cheek and his shoulders stiffened, more resolute. “You can’t leave me.”
An endless beat passed as neither of us surrendered. I was more terrified than I had ever been, yet for the first time I bore it without shriveling beneath him. I felt all the horror and stood tall in front of him, as his equal.
Holding onto my bravery just a little longer, I smacked his hand away from my face.
Within a blink, all hell broke loose.
To be concluded in Untold 5...
© 2021 by Kelsey Garber