Red Hair

The hateful light burned into Matt’s eyelids and the stench of warm urine and dried puke greeted his nostrils.  He didn’t want to move.  The tile surface beneath his cheek told him that he was on the bathroom floor.  He lay on the floor, relishing its cold touch against his flushed flesh, focusing his energy on the task at hand.  It took him a couple of minutes, but he was finally able to pull himself up and into the hallway without opening his eyes.  The ability almost was second nature.  He loved the flurry of a party that never seemed to end and the wild tangos with alcohol that accompany those few moments of freedom.

Once again he swore off drinking as he stumbled back to the dark comfort of his room.  The promise meant nothing.  He would see the inside of a bottle before the week was up the same way a lifetime felon will return to the odd comfort of his jail cell.

When Matt’s knees hit the edge of the bed he let his body fall on its pillow-top with awkward grace.  Once he was securely on the crumpled sheets he even dared to look around before returning to the sanctity of his half-drunk and dreamless sleep.  The windows had long been blocked with aluminum for mornings such as these, and he was thankful that momentary bouts of sobriety could contain foresight.  In the darkened room there were several piles of dirty clothing, food, and empty beer cans.  Scattered, half-empty bottles decorated the dresser top, but nothing seemed unusual.  If he wasn’t careful when he did laundry, a few things would come out of the drier with fun psychedelic patterns imprinted on them from the baked-on food.

Good, he thought as he began to sleep off the harmful daylight.  There had been mornings where people he couldn’t exactly remember from the night before had been near comatose on his bedroom floor, and he had been forced to wake up and get them the hell out.  If there were people sleeping off their booze in the living room or kitchen, that was just fine with him, but his room was off limits when he was recovering.

As he curled up on the bed, he realized that while his pants were off, his shoes weren’t.  He usually didn’t care about trivial matters when a hangover was pressing against his temples, but his feet were unnaturally hot.  So, using his feet he kicked off his shoes, wincing at the odor.  He wasn’t sure how long it had been since his last shower, but he couldn’t bear to take one now.  That much activity would make his head explode.  Better to live with the bitter stench another day.

Besides, no one’s here to smell me but me, he thought, burying his head in the pillow to get away from the smell of his feet and the stench of sour beer leaking from his pores.  He reached behind him for something to pull over his head so he could return to his morning hibernation.  But instead of finding the usual blanket or occasional sweatshirt his hand closed around a satin comforter.

The feel of the cool fabric beneath his fingers brought back the memory of the person he’d been trying to drown.  His eyes popped open, the dangerous light and throbbing hangover forgotten.  The dirty room lost.  Hell, he wasn’t even there anymore.  He had been transported back to his freshman year at college; spring break on Padre Island.  And now, alone in his room, he could almost hear her voice in his ear.

“Hey, you like to dance?”

He’d been drunk then too, but it wasn’t the same.  He’d been happy and carefree for the first time.  Free from his controlling parents and their insecurities.  He was in Padre with his classmates, and being drunk only heightened his sense of joy and excitement; this was pure, a rite of passage.

When she’d spoke, he’d turned around and saw a bra clad girl with beautiful ringlets.  The bar had turned up their fog machines, and black lights made her hair radiate a bright, fiery purple, her skin darkened in the haunting light.  Day-Glo paint covered her arms and belly in mindless swirling patterns, and there was something about the way she looked that instantly gave him an erection.

“What’s your name?” he’d asked.

“Maria.”

“Sure Maria, we can dance if ya’ like.”

They began to dance, and he clung to her for support as they staggered across the floor.  When she went to get another beer, it looked like a purple bra, a few painted lines, and a beautiful wig were moving away from him.  After a few feet in the fog he couldn’t even see that any more.  She’d been absorbed into the flowing crowd.

For a while he had been sure she wouldn’t return to him, that she had found someone bigger and stronger to take her out on the dance floor.  It wouldn’t have been surprising id she’d left him there.  But she returned out of the dark nothing to him.

“You want to dance in private?”

She took him back to her motel room and covered him with lush kisses, pulling at his clothes with in an unleashed frenzy he’d only seen on porn tapes.  Hands, tearing at clothes, brushing against raw skin.  Just the feel of her hands was enough to drive him insane, and he found himself replying to her need with the same hunger.

On the way to the room he’d tried to tell her he’d never done this before, but she already seemed to know that.  She kept whispering in his ear, and eventually her voice was all that mattered. It drove him to the reckless orgasms of youth again and again without a second thought of condoms or AIDS.  He was lost in the warmth between her sweet thighs, the kisses of her fiery lips, the fullness of her perfect bust, and the continuous whispering of her sweet voice.

It’s all right, poor, sweet Matt.  Just love me, just love me.

The next morning when he woke up he was only aware of her.  The hangover pulsing in the background didn’t even bother him.  He lay next to her for at least an hour, not moving for fear that she would wake up and throw him out.  It was possible.  People did stupid things when they were drunk.

When she woke she greedily accepted him back into her arms.

It was like that for the remainder of the trip.  They never left each other’s side, and that was fine with both of them.  Matt enjoyed having sex over and over again on her satin sheets.  She’d told him that her need for comfort caused her to take them everywhere with her.

But by the end of the week Matt was ready to leave.  He loved having sex and even enjoyed spending time with Maria, but he needed to get back to real life, needed to go back to being himself.  They exchanged phone numbers and addresses.  For a long time afterwards he remembered her fondly, and he even spoke to her often on the phone, but the memories of that steamy week had faded until she was nothing more than whispers in the dark, and then…

His hand slid down the soft, satiny comforter.  She was in his house, and he was afraid.  The beer smelling sweat poured out of his salty body and made the sheets cling to him like the lost Maria.  The urge to stay with the covers over his head was strong; he didn’t want to get up, but knew he had to.  If he didn’t get out soon she would come and find him, and that would be worse.  She would have the advantage if he lay terrified in bed, and he didn’t want that.

She was mad; he’d provoked her.

Two years after college he’d landed a good job with an accounting firm.  He hadn’t really wanted to crunch numbers full-time, but it was good money, especially for someone with a degree from a lower class university.  At a company business party he’d been watching the people dance around the marble floor thinking of Maria.  It had been three years or more since he’d last thought of her.  The last time they’d spoken was right before he’d moved out of his college apartment and into a house in Oklahoma City.  He and his roommates were going their separate ways, and Maria had called to bitch at him for not keeping in touch.

What was he supposed to do, marry her?  She’d grown increasingly impatient, and she hadn’t understood that he wasn’t ready for a relationship.  Yeah, they had shared a week of great sex, but it had been so long ago he could barely remember it, and there was no guarantee sex would hold them together.  It had been the last semester of his senior year, the beginning of the great job-hunt, so he had ended the relationship.

Then he’d been alone on that elegant dance floor, thinking of her beautiful purple ringlets and Day-Glo body paint.  She was still his night goddess, and many of his fantasies were of her and that first fumbling encounter.  He could almost feel her, could almost smell her vanilla body mist, almost hear her soft, teasing voice.

“Hey, you like to dance?”

He thought it was his imagination, a fantasy created out of longing.  That was before he felt her warm breath against his neck.  He’d turned around, and she was there, so beautiful he was afraid he would get lost in her.

“Of course.”

Now it was a different story.  Now Matt was creeping down the hall towards the bathroom, his vision still a little impaired by the throbbing headache, but if he concentrated, he could see better with each passing minute.  Wherever she was, she wasn’t here to play games.  That time was long past, and he wished he could stop thinking about the sane Maria, the Maria he loved.  For the first time in a year, he didn’t have any alcohol ready to dam the memories, and they came flooding back like a monsoon.

If he wasn’t careful, he would die in the flood.

That was the strange thing about memories.  Sometimes he was doing good to remember his name, and then, for no reason at all, he could remember the day he first hit a home run.  That perfect moment in time when everything just stopped.  How the sun glared in his eyes, how the handle of the bat was slippery with sweat, and how the heavy smell of salty popcorn and old chili filled the air.

Right now he could remember every detail about her, and even though he was on his hands and knees trying to get away from her, part of him loved her.  But he hated her too, that was the fucked up part.  That’s why the bottom of a whiskey bottle or a case of Texas beer was his best friend.

Now she was hunting him, and he couldn’t care one way or the other.  Survival was all that mattered.

At the edge of the hallway, he bent his knees and slid halfway down the wall before tilting his head to look through it.  He knew from experience that she was less likely to see his head if it wasn’t at eye level.

Matt remembered the exact moment he’d realized Maria was going insane, even if he couldn’t, wouldn’t, have admitted it then.  They had been living together for six months, and they were eating dinner together at the house.  She had cooked for them, and her meals were usually pretty good, but this one tasted like shit.  Maria didn’t even look good.  Her blonde hair wasn’t pulled back or even brushed; it just hung loosely around her head in greasy strands.  He hadn’t been home much lately because it was tax season, so maybe she had been having a rough week.  The hollow metallic scraping of her fork as if moved back and forth across her plate was the only sound, and the silence threatened to swallow them.

What’s wrong?

Why must something be wrong?”  Her eyes didn’t move up from her food.

You just don’t seem like your normal self.

Don’t I?

When he could think of no response to this, Matt had given up trying to talk to her.  Choking down what he could, he got up to do the dishes, but he never saw it coming.  He didn’t see anything until he woke up on the kitchen floor with his neck and shoulders throbbing.  Reaching out across the floor, trying to pull himself up, his hand brushed across a greasy, cast-iron skillet.  Crazy bitch hit me with the frying pan, he thought as he reached back and rubbed the very tender, very greasy, spot on the back of his head.

A M*A*S*H* marathon was playing on Nick at Nite, and she sat popping chocolate covered pretzels into her mouth.

Don’t question my moods.  They are what they’re none of your damn business.  Got it?

Not bothering to wait for an answer, she focused her attention on the television and laughed in large braying heaves that shook his brain and damaged something inside him.  After a little while he made it into the bedroom where he fell asleep.  He didn’t go to work the next morning, he hurt too much.  Maria stayed home and took care of him.  She acted normal, like nothing had ever happened, and he made himself believe it had been an isolated incident.

It was a month before it happened again.  This time she beat him repeatedly with one of his own golf clubs.  For two days he couldn’t move, but she took care of him, and he forgave her.  How could he not?  She was beautiful, and when she came to him at night she would freely give him her body, and with it came the things that perpetually masturbating teenage boys only dreamed of.  She was so uninhibited, so wild; he couldn’t imagine himself with anyone else.  He kept telling himself that it wasn’t just the sex that kept him there; he loved her, he knew that.

So he had kept her awful secret, and it had corroded him.  No matter what he did the episodes became more and more frequent.  To hide the obvious bruises on his neck and arms after a particularly bad beating, he had fallen down the stairs at work.  He collected worker’s comp on the accident and didn’t leave home for two months.  It was what she said she wanted.  She promised him that his being home with her all the time would keep her happy.  It did for awhile, but only a little while.

Four months after the accident a neighbor called the police during one of Maria’s outbursts.  The complaint had been made that Matt was abusing Maria.  But when the police beat down the door in rhythm to his horrified screams they found Maria holding an ax over his hand, lost in her own madness.  As she looked at the oncoming police, she dropped the ax.  Blood had poured from his arm in obscene amounts before he’d passed out.  His left arm was now slightly warped, and he could still feel the hauntingly cold touch of the metal as it bit into his flesh.  A constant reminder of her.

His health insurance had a stipulation that paid living expenses for two years in the case of a debilitating accident, and that was exactly what Matt considered it.  They told him he didn’t have to work if he would use that time for rehabilitation.  Matt took the offer, but he wouldn’t have returned to work even if he’d been poor.  He was lost and isolated in a world that he no longer understood.  She was gone, both mentally and physically, and he hadn’t been sure what to do without her.

Now she was back, and he didn’t have a clue what he was going to do with her.

His instincts told him to run, but every muscle in his body was tense with terror.  Running would have been impossible.  But one knee at a time he continued to slide across the carpeted floor.  The rug burn developing on his kneecaps didn’t phase him; it wasn’t important.  All that was important was that he kept his nostrils open for the scent of her soft, vanilla skin.  She was addicted to that scent, and she wouldn’t have come to his house without getting her hands on some first.

What would he do when he found her?

It was the passion that had kept them together and had left him feeling empty when she was gone.  For the first time in a year he could almost taste her lips again, and despite everything he wanted her, wanted her like he had never wanted anyone else.

If it were possible he would return to that fumbling world of rough touches and misplaced kisses, to hold her as an innocent and to have her hold him with honesty and compassion.

“What a second. What the hell are you thinking, bucko?”

What was wrong with him?  Matt closed his eyes, sucked in a cool, deep breath that stung his chapped lips, and reminded himself that he hated her, couldn’t stand the thought of her.  She fucking deserved payback.  He’d loved her, and that little bitch had lorded that love over him.

Manipulating cunt.  Dirty dealing whore.  Mean hearted psycho.

Matt could think of a thousand names to describe her.  A genuine smile crept onto his face.  He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn’t notice what had happened until his nose was pressed against the taunt flesh of her leg and vanilla filled his senses.

Her firm hand ran through his thinning hair.  He tried to move, to at least struggle against her, but his body had turned to limestone with her touch.  Seizing what little hair he had left, she yanked his head back.  Pain shot his neck and quickly spread to the rest of his body.  If he had been free to leave before, he wasn’t now.  Looking past her and into the living room, he tried to avoid her face.

Placing another hand firmly under his jaw, she pulled up, forcing him to look at her.  She wasn’t as pretty as she had once been.  They had cut her hair off.  The soft, curly ringlets had been traded in for uneven strands that hung around her face in frizzy chaos, and a fine web of lines were now etched across her soft skin.

“The outside world hasn’t been so good to you, huh Matty boy?” she asked with a half smile.  “Well, the inside world wasn’t so good to me.  I think we should’ve stayed together.  You were always mine anyway.  Even the first time we met, you were all mine, weren’t you?”

Gulping, Matt found it hard to nod with his hair locked in her tight grasp, but he managed a small one.

“That’s right Bitch, you were mine.  Come on, say it.”

“I was yours.”

“Always.” She demanded, her foot silently tapping against the carpet.

“What?”

“I said, tell me you were always mine.”

“Always.”

“Always what?” She asked, twisting his hair until tears unwillingly welled up and fell down his warm cheeks.

“Always…always yours.”

“I thought so.”  She pulled hard on his hair, dragging him back down the hall and into the kitchen.  He struggled to keep up, but she wouldn’t let him walk, forcing him back on his already raw knees.  Once they hit the linoleum floor, he stopped struggling and slid on his bloody kneecaps.  In front of the cabinets she released him, planting her feet firmly on either side of his kneecaps.  She leaned forward and reached over his head.  The familiar fragrance again drifted off her supple skin, and he could feel her full breasts as they grazed the top of his head.

Moving his hand slightly to maintain his balance, he felt a sleek, plastic case resting against his fingers.  Reeling it in with his fingertips he turned it around, a sharp pain stinging his palm as he tightened his grip.  It was a corkscrew, carelessly discarded, its coil four inches long.  It was small, but better than being defenseless.  He closed his eyes and thanked buddha he wasn’t a good housekeeper.

Knowing it probably wouldn’t do any good, he gripped the handle so that the corkscrew stuck out between his middle finger and his ring finger like a silver pig’s tail.  He was so busy concentrating on his small weapon that he hadn’t even noticed the gun in her hand until an empty click broke the silence.

“Bye bye, Matt.  It’s been fun.”  She said, a giggle slipping into the edge of her voice.

It was the laughing that bothered him most, and he knew he couldn’t give in to her, no matter how shitty his life was.  If she killed him, that was the end of the story, lights out, bye-bye birdie, and she’d win.  It wouldn’t matter that he’d once loved her, because no amount of love can bring someone back from the dead.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath.  The unusual aroma of salty beer, sweat, and sweet vanilla mingled in his nostrils as he ran his thumb along the corkscrew.  God, it was a long shot.

Ready…Set…

He opened his eyes as he sprang up using the counter as leverage.  She was standing in front of him.  The startled look in her eyes told Matt that she’d not expected retaliation from him, and in that single moment he had a perfect shot.

There was time to notice her eyes widening in shock as he advanced on her, and how they morphed into hate-filled orbs when she realized what he was trying to do.

But it was too late.  The wheel was in motion.

Muscles zinged with activity, and he could feel atoms bouncing off one another across his body; everything felt alive.  It was magic.

His arm swung down with perfect aim.  The skin puckered around the small tip and gave into the corkscrew’s odd penetration with little resistance.  Putting her hands up, she clawed at his face, still holding the gun, and the cold steel pushed against his flesh, the hollow barrel inches from his left eye.  Forcing himself to focus on the tightly wound silver coil, he plunged it even deeper into her neck, tearing flesh and muscle alike.  All the hatred and resentment boiled up in him, and he couldn’t stop attacking her.  He buried the unlikely weapon up to its handle.

In the middle of the struggle he remembered that when he had worked at a bar one summer they had called bottle openers church keys.

What church door will I open with this one?

 He put his sock clad foot against her knee and pulled back hard on the handle, ripping it out of her flesh.  Blood spilled down her neck as pieces of flesh and muscle hung from the wound.

The clock was blinking 9:48 a.m.

Blood bubbled from her lips as she attempted to shriek and dropped the gun.  It discharged as it landed on the linoleum with a heavy thud.  Pain seared into the left side of Matt’s abdomen, but it felt removed, as if it wasn’t really him.  Not really his pain.  The real him was watching from the other side of the galaxy.  He wasn’t here; it was a dream, a delusion.

Only he knew it wasn’t.

Maria sank to her knees and groped for the gun.  She put her hand around it just as she started to double over on the floor.  Using the last of his fading energy, Matt kicked the gun away.  It slid across the grey linoleum until it hit the carpet.  She lunged toward it but quickly gave up and began pushing on the hole in her neck, her fingertips covered in bright blood as she tried to stop the red cascade.  The pale face was a sharp contrast to her fingers, and she looked like one of those B horror movie posters that hung outside the Star Theater.  He’d watched them as a child, enthralled by the cheap entertainment.  Now, he watched her die.

The clock was blinking 9:53 a.m., and Matt knew it was lying, but he didn’t care.

He sank to his knees.  She was dead, but he still crawled across the floor and curled up next to her, his socks were soon soaked with their mingling blood.  Her hair was now a deep red, and it was a beautiful color on her.

I’ll tell her that someday, he thought, as he fell asleep on the warm, sticky floor.

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