His eyes were dark, cloudy-gray. Lightning flashed in them as they narrowed to angry slits. A rumble of thunder filled his chest. It was only a matter of time before the fury would be unleashed. His eyes were a reflection of the sky and the storm was rolling in.
Why Becky put up with him was anyone’s guess. What he put her through, the things he did to her, no one should have to deal with that. But she loved him. She knew it wasn’t his fault. His childhood had been rough. It was the kind you never wanted to think about, tried to forget. But it always crept into your thoughts, infiltrated your dreams. It was embedded in his subconscious and it dictated his life from the shadowy depths of his mind. Add to that the economy, the hardships at work, it was a recipe for disaster. Between pay cuts and reduced hours, there was simply not enough money for a good life.
She slammed the bedroom door, leaning against it to keep him from bursting into the room. He pounded on the door with fists that had so many times landed on her. The wood thudded, vibrated, shook her, from skin to muscle to bone. But she could not give up, she could not step away. There was no other way into the room so she had to guard the doorway with all the vigilance she could summon.
Becky often found solace in this room. She would curl up on the bed; the sheets and blankets always smelled fresh. Jeff never slept in the bed anymore. If he wasn’t out drinking away his pain, he was lounging on the living room couch, beer in one hand, remote in the other, clicking through the channels, never content with what he saw. The kitchen was a mess. Beer cans overflowed from the garbage can. Tied bags sat in the corner where Jeff had left them. The living room was the same. The lamp stands, coffee table, any usable surface was covered with crushed cans and t.v. dinner trays. The bathroom was covered in filth, the results of Jeff’s frequent over-consumption. A crucifix hung over the bed. Rosary beads dangled around the bedpost. The portrait of Jesus was faded but none-the-less watched over the room. A candle burned, the refreshing scent of a summertime orchard filled the room. This was her sanctuary. Her last refuge in what was a slowly collapsing world.
He tried to sweet talk her, coax her out of the room. Her return of silence only increased his rage. He knocked his head against the door, yelling, an angry snarl of curses and insults. Tears streaked Becky’s face. He just needed to calm down. He’d had too much to drink. It was her fault, really. She had promised dinner would be ready after the news but the old, worn out range wouldn’t light. It’s impossible to make a hot meal with no heat, but she couldn’t blame him for that.
How hard was it to have dinner ready? To have a cold beer waiting? After working a long shift at the shop it was her responsibility to see that his needs were met when he arrived home. He was the one providing for them. He was the one out making the money. Sure, it had been a lot less the last few years, but what could he do? If he wasn’t at work he went out job hunting. There was nothing for a man of his experience, his education. He knew what he knew, and that was a dying field. Becky had once offered to go find a job to help support them, but that didn’t go over well with Jeff. Her place was in the house he had said. His insistence that she stay home showed on her skin for weeks.
All was quiet outside the bedroom door. His footsteps had stomped down the staircase 20 minutes ago but she dared not move. It wouldn’t be long before he fell asleep. He would grab a few beers from the fridge before sitting down. Once in his chair he would resume channel surfing, chugging away, crushing a can and tossing it to the floor. Soon he would fall asleep, and then she could rest.
The dark-purple and yellow spots on her skin told a story of pain and suffering. Minor scars and scabs were scattered about her body. She hadn’t touched make-up in years. There was no point. He didn’t notice her unless she did something wrong. And that was a daily occurrence. The only affection he ever showed her, if you could even call it affection, was when he came home drunk and stumbled his way to the bedroom. He’d force himself on her, usually passing out before getting anywhere.
The taste of blood lingered in her mouth. Her face was red and swollen, her lip was puffed out and cracked. His job hunting had gone poorly. The smell of alcohol on his breath had been the first clue. She didn’t believe he had been looking for a job at all. It was foolish of her to question him though. And she had paid for it. But this would be the last time. She couldn’t blame him, but she couldn’t take any more. She was going to leave, and all was quiet.
Every Sunday she sat in the pew at church, alone but happy. The faded red velvet was a comfort to her. The hymns that hung heavy in the air as sounded by the organ were soothing. The pastor’s long-winded sermons of love, forgiveness, blessing, trust, happiness, were but dreams for Becky, though she cherished every thought that they conjured in her mind. This past Sunday the message had been clear. Though we may love, and we may forgive, we should not keep the company of those who mistreat us. As much as it broke her heart she decided then and there that she had to leave Jeff. She struggled all week with the idea. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair to him. He would be lost without her. He needed her.
She whisked around the room collecting everything she could fit in her small suitcase. She moved swiftly but delicately. Any sound could alert him to her activity. If he burst in and found her packing there was no telling what he would do. She didn’t even want to think about it. The case was overfilled with clothes, shoes, books, her jewelry box. She grabbed the rosary beads, kissed them and put them on top. One last thing. She stepped up onto the bed and took down the crucifix. The faded portrait would have to stay. He would need to watch over the house anyway. She laid the wooden cross in the suitcase but it was too full to close. She sighed. Something would have to be left behind. Hand-carved from maple, it had been passed down from her grandmother’s grandmother. A family heirloom. It was too bad. She took the antique jewelry box out of the suitcase. Now there was room for it to close with the crucifix inside.
They had only one vehicle, a rusted out pick-up truck. The muffler fell off long ago. It was a noisy machine. It hadn’t been inspected or registered, or insured, in years. But the church was just up the dusty dirt road from where they lived so Becky walked. Jeff was always sleeping off his hangover Sunday mornings. How he managed to make it to work and to the bar day in and day out without being caught was a mystery. Maybe it was a blessing. What he would do to her with the added stress of further financial burdens, she didn’t dare wonder. He was an animal. Wild and untamed. Becky’s friends told her he was a monster, but they didn’t understand. They didn’t see him like she did. Often they threatened calling the police, but Becky talked them out of it. How would he punish her for such a betrayal? If they cared for her safety they’d best mind their own business.
The door creaked as she slowly opened it. She peered around the corner. The hallway was dark, empty. She slipped through the small opening knowing that if she pushed the door further it would make a loud, grinding squeal. She padded carefully to the stairs and floated down them, skipping over a step she knew would reveal her presence. The wind howled outside the windows. The light was fading but an eerie green-gray glowed in the sky. She saw the back of his head sticking up over the couch. He wasn’t moving. She slid across the living room and into the kitchen. She peeked out toward the couch. A beer can was in his hand, tipped to the side. A wet spot marked the faded brown fabric of the sofa. His mouth was open, a faint snore now discernible. She grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and a bag of pretzels. It would sustain her for the journey. She had a few dollars in her pocket but she would need it for fuel. Or a bus ticket. Her mother lived more than 200 miles away and there was no telling how far the truck would take her. She opened the door and stepped onto the porch.
Rain was falling as she raced across the lawn to the truck. Wind whipped up, tossing her hair around, wrapping it across her face. Finally at the truck, she opened the door and tossed her suitcase in. The keys. She forgot to grab the keys. She had to return. Back at the house, she stood inside the kitchen, dripping wet. She held the door and eased it shut. The gusting of air threatened to slam it, and that would surely wake him. She checked the table. The keys were not there. She looked on the counter, in the basket of junk, in the drawer full of expired coupons, pencils and miscellaneous odds and ends. Nothing. They had to be somewhere. She tip-toed to the living room. The coffee table. There were the keys, along with his wallet and pocket knife. She dropped down on all-fours and began to crawl cautiously across the floor. At the coffee table she reached a hand up, staying as low to the ground as she could. She found the wallet first and took it. He might have a few dollars stashed away in there, and if not maybe a credit card. He had to be using something to pay for all of his beer. She reached back up and this time found the keys. She backed away slowly. Once back in the kitchen she stood, letting out a silence sigh, and again exited the house.
The rain was heavy. Hail had now been added to the mix. Dark clouds swirled and the wind roared. She dashed across the yard, hail pelting her along the way. Safe in the truck, she noticed the large, red welts left on her skin by the hail. It was nothing compared to some of the things he had done to her. Rain fell furiously. Hail stones clattered on the roof and hood of the truck. She jammed the keys into the ignition. This was it.
With a deafening smash, a crack split across the windshield as giant chunk of hail crashed down on it. She gasped, startled and shocked. She was okay. She was safe. But she had to go. And soon. On the horizon, a cloud wall moved in. Thunder boomed. Lightning crackled. Hail continued to fall. The rain was heavy, making visibility minimal. But she could see the front door. It was open. He was standing in the frame, arm across his forehead, wind ripping at his clothing. No. It couldn’t be. But it was. The noise of the breaking windshield must have woken him. She turned the key. The engine struggled to turn over. It whined and chugged. Then it fired. She grabbed the gearshift. The driver side door swung open and she was dragged from the seat. She landed on the muddy, wet driveway, face down. He stood over her. She looked up at him. The fury of the elements pounded down on them as a faint siren wailed in the distance.
She tried to stand but he struck her down. Glancing at the seat he saw the packed suitcase. How dare she try to leave him. That was unacceptable. That was his decision to make. When he wanted her gone he would say so. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her across the lawn. She kicked her feet and flailed her arms trying to crawl as best she could. But he was too strong. If she wanted to leave him, fine, but it would be on his terms. He looked to the sky. The twisting cloud was stretching toward the ground. The roar in the air told of the impending danger. It was moving straight toward them. If she wanted to be free of him, she would be.
He pushed her to the ground when they reached the shed. Shingles began ripping from the roof of the house. The padlock on the shed door was already open, he never locked it. It would just be more work to get in next time. He forced the door open, fighting against the raging wind. He looked back to check on the funnel cloud. It had touched down. He braced the door open against his leg and reached down and grabbed her. He pulled her to her feet. A wicked gleam in his smile told of his intentions. She begged him. Pleaded with him. Don’t do this. But his mind was made up. He shoved her inside. This time he would use the lock.
The funnel increased in size as it charged toward them. Debris mixed with the swirling cloud. Rain fell mercilessly. He stepped back, blew her a goodbye kiss. A strong wind rushed through, blowing him off balance. He took a step to recover his equilibrium. The door that had been braced open by his leg flapped in the powerful current of air. It blew back, the pointed wooden corner catching him on the temple. He dropped to the ground. Blood trickled from the gash in his skull.
She crawled to him. Shook him. He didn’t move. She looked outside, to the sky. The tornado whirled, bearing down on them with all its fury. She put a hand on his neck, pressed her ear to his back. He was breathing. He was alive, but he wouldn’t wake up. She couldn’t carry him to the basement. He was too heavy and she wasn’t strong enough. She could drag him, but the funnel cloud was close. Too close. There wasn’t time. She had to go.
She ran across the soaked lawn to the bulkhead door. She turned the handle. Pulling with all her might, against the wind and rain and hail, she swung it open. She stepped inside, looking back one last time at the shed and at him. Goodbye. I love you, I forgive you. She pulled the door closed and turned the latch. Backing into a corner, she fell against the wall and collapsed. She folded her hands over the back of her head, curled up, waiting and praying.
The wind howled. The rain and hail pounded. Then all was quiet.
She emerged from the basement through the bulkhead door that she had retreated through hours earlier. The sun was shining. Birds were singing. Far to the east, the darkness of the storm lingered. The house was destroyed, but she had been left unharmed in the cellar. A tree was uprooted and the shed was gone. He was gone. The truck remained intact save for the cracked windshield. She climbed in. Her suitcase was still there and his wallet was on the seat. She opened it. Two-hundred dollars cash. She could get a ticket at the station. The truck was no longer running but she turned the key. To her surprise, it started up. She grabbed the gearshift and put it in drive. She pulled out of the driveway and headed down the road toward town. A rainbow arced across the sky in front of her. Tomorrow would be a new day, a new start, a new life.