Karen Raylor reaches for the stilettos, her hands crawling like frantic spiders in the lightless closet. She secures one in each hand, fingers curled tightly inside the toe boxes so that she can brandish the blunt, hard heels with forward strikes.
Karen stands. Leans her left side against the door frame. Waits.
The footsteps have stopped. There’s silence.
It’s a loud whisper.
Her mind hears Mercer’s voice. Then the truth hits her.
What the hell… that’s Paul Hoffer…
Karen is relieved for a second, but then realizes it’s no less creepy and only a bit less dangerous.
She determines a possible chain of events: Jamie tells Paul about Karen’s sprain. Paul is concerned at first, then obsesses about it, maybe pulling in some fantasy he had when Karen stayed the night at their house but wouldn’t dare act on with his family around. Convinces himself that he can go visit Karen in the night, just being friendly, no bad intentions, while the dark recesses of his mind imagine Karen lonely and grateful and pulling him into bed. Wakes in the night, takes the spare key they have to her house, slips outside. Maybe takes a cab to Karen’s neighborhood. The unidentified sound that awoke Karen could have been him closing the front door.
Regardless, Karen has no more intention of letting her guard down with Paul than she would have with Mercer.
“Karen! It’s Paul! Where are you?”
Another shuffle of slow footsteps.
Shit, he’s coming this way.
Karen renews her grips on the shoes.
The slow squeak of the spring in the doorknob compressing.
Damn it Paul.
The door exhales open, a rectangle of slightly less-dense blackness appearing. Opens further.
Karen raises the shoes to shoulder level.
Suddenly feels her ties to Jamie. Loses a bit of the desire to hurt Paul. Just a bit.
Instead of ramming the stiletto heels into his flesh, Karen slams the heel counters into his face. As she does, she yells incoherently with the full power of her adrenaline-fueled lungs. Paul screams, mostly in surprise, a mild sound compared to Karen’s primeval roar. He falls to the floor.
Karen starts moving past Paul, but his legs lash out. His foot connects with her injured ankle. She also screams and falls, crumpling on her left side. Lightning bolts of pain sear up her body.
“Karen, why would you hit me?”
She’s shocked to hear his voice choked with emotion.
“Karen, I just… I didn’t…” he completely breaks down into sobs.
Despite herself, Karen’s nurturing instinct kicks in. She reminds herself that this same instinct lead her twenty-one-year-old self to get too involved with Mercer and his endless toxicity, but Karen is an adult now, and this is her best friend’s husband. Even though his coming to Karen’s house will surely cause no end of anger and pain for Jamie — and even though Jamie would surely feel no pity if she were in the room — Karen can’t help wanting to comfort and listen.
“Paul, I’m sorry… um, just a minute.”
Karen pushes to her left foot and hops to her open bedroom door, bracing herself against the wall. Retrieves her robe from its hook behind the door and puts it on.
“I’m turning on the light.”
Karen squints and flicks the switch. Sees Paul looking up at her through his raised hand, sniffing loudly to pull the snot back in. She moves to her bed and sits on the edge.
“I’ll listen. You can stay on the floor, but I’ll listen.”
“Okay.” He sits, inching a little further away from Karen. His nose and one of his cheekbones bear the red welts of Karen’s attack.
“I… I’m sorry, Karen. I know I went about this all wrong.”
Yeah you did! You snuck into my house in the middle of the fucking night! Karen thinks, but remains silent.
“I haven’t been happy with Jamie for a long time. Sure, she’s fun, but she’s always half-distracted by her phone or some random thought. We just don’t connect like we used to. And then there’s you… you’re so soulful, you know? The way you listen to people? You really care. All these years, I’ve secretly thought… hoped… oh God, I’m so fucking stupid.”
Paul buries his face and starts crying again. Karen rolls her eyes and takes in a long, silent breath.
“Paul, I’m sorry you’re not happy with Jamie, but she’s your wife. You committed to being with her. She supposed to be your best friend. If you’re not happy, you need to tell her, not harbor fantasies about other women, especially not her close friends. Talk with her. Make it work. You guys were great together once, and you can be again.”
“I guess… maybe… I dunno.”
Karen senses that despite her words, Paul is still stuck in his fantasy and is slowly getting turned on by being alone with Karen in her house, in her bedroom, at night.
“Think about Amelia and Lori,” she says. “Do what’s right for them. Can you imagine the pain and shame it would cause them if you cheated on their mom? And these are their formative years. If their daddy cheats, they might end up going for guys who treat them like shit. What kind of role model do you want to be for them? How do you want them to view love?”
“Love… but, I love you, Karen. Can’t you see that?” Paul looks up at her. Stands. Karen’s mind flashes to the stilettos that lay near the open closet. Paul moves forward half a step.
“I don’t care what happens, Karen. I love you and I—”
“Who in the goddamn fucking hell is this faggot?”
Karen’s blood turns to arctic sludge. She looks from the corner of her eye and then slowly turns her head.
He’s there. In the doorway. He looks every bit as terrifying as she remembers.
Worse. His face is a mask of cold rage, a stark contrast to the searing fury she knew a lifetime ago.
“Who…” Paul says, and then his eyelids and mouth go wide. “You’re Mercer…” His face becomes a visage of bravado held together by a thousand stitches of fear. “Listen, you’d better just turn around and get out of here before I teach you a—”
Mercer dashes forward with amazing speed. His fist pistons into Paul’s stomach. As Paul doubles over, Mercer rockets his knee into Paul’s jaw. Paul falls, out, but Mercer kicks him in the head and pulls his foot back for another.
“Mercer, no!” Karen reaches out and touches his flailing arm. He spins and backhands her. She throws herself back on the bed, dodging him at the last second.
“Shut up you stupid bitch!” His voice matches the cold rage of his face. He raises a fist to hit her. Stops. Turns back toward Paul.
Karen sits back up and watches as Mercer gives Paul a colossal boot to the abdomen that slides him back two feet. Reaches into Paul’s pockets, finding his phone. Powers it off and slips it into an inner pocket of his coat. Faces Karen again.
“I can’t even…” he says, gripping his skull with his fingertips, hands white from the pressure. His gaze is completely unhinged.
“I send you notes, reminders of our love, make it obvious that we’re getting back together, I give up porn, I give up an easy chance to fuck Breanne Balloons, I stop looking at Tammy’s and Shirley’s huge tits, I make you a sculpture of our tattoos, and how do you repay…” he trails off.
Mercer unzips his coat. Lifts his shirt. There’s the tattoo Karen remembers, the heart and the snake.
“Show me yours,” he demands, still holding up his shirt. The suspicion and pain in his eye says that he knows damn well Karen no longer has hers.
“I got it removed,” she says, averting her gaze.
“Show me,” he responds, cold anger now thawing and steaming. “Show me!”
Karen pulls down her robe and undershirt to reveal the top half of her left breast. His eyes are glued to the lighter patch of skin where the tattoo used to be.
“No,” he says, turning away and shaking his head rapidly. His mouth spreads wide, maniacal for an instant as he exhales, then falls slack. “No. No no no-no-no-no-no-no NO!”
Mercer stares at the curtain-blocked windows for a moment. Turns back to Karen. Seems more calm again. Karen finds his increased ability to control himself almost as terrifying as his presence in her house.
“Okay. Okay, Karen. I know now what I have to do. What we have to do. We have to get away. Away from all this bullshit, these trappings, family and work and idiotic shit that doesn’t matter. I have a place, a secluded place, one nobody knows about. We’ll go there.” Karen’s chest seems to squeeze her lungs.
“I would let you gather up some things,” Mercer continues, “but I don’t think you’re in the right frame of mind. I think you’re scared. And you should be, after I caught you with this piece of shit faggot on the floor. You fuck him, Karen? Huh? Is this your ‘man’?”
“No, he’s my best friend’s husband. He snuck into the house—” Karen considers whether or not to tell Mercer about her foot, realizes he’ll find out anyway, decides to offer the information to foster a bit of goodwill. “— using the spare key my friend has, knowing I sprained my ankle badly this morning, thinking my friendliness over the years has been romantic interest in him. But it’s not.”
Mercer leans in close. His eyes pierce Karen’s skull and nail her to the bed.
“Isn’t it? Tell me right here to my face that you don’t feel anything for this faggot.”
“I don’t feel anything for him,” she says, absolutely calm and sure.
Mercer continues staring for almost a full minute. Karen focuses on breathing, not breaking his gaze.
“Okay,” he finally replies, standing back up. “I believe you. Maybe you can gather some stuff after all. Let’s see how well you can stand.” He takes a step backward.
Freedom. He’s going to give her just the tiniest bit. If she works on building rapport with him, he might give her more and more until she gets an opportunity. With her injury, it would have to be a big one, but it’s sufficient to inspire hope.
Karen slides off the bed to her left foot. She smiles at him, feigning just enough warmth that she hopes he’s not suspicious. He hits her stomach hard, driving the wind from her. She collapses to her knees. Rolls to her side. It’s like when she was a kid and fell from the tree, but there’s no Nana to comfort her.
Mercer glares down at Karen.
“Sorry babe. I do believe you about not fucking this faggot, but I still think you won’t behave rationally. I can just imagine you screaming as soon as we get outside. So…”
He reaches into a compartment in his coat. Pulls out a length of rope. It’s shiny, probably made of silk. Lovers’ rope. He bends down and ties her robed arms behind her back, overlapping them so that each hand is near an elbow.
She feels him shifting more. Flashes back to the night of their marriage. Is suddenly sure that he’s about to rape her again. Twists her head, trying to see him better.
Seems Mercer has something else in mind. With her peripheral vision, Karen sees him reaching toward her head, both hands holding something. What…
Karen feels it slide past her hair and sees a flash of red. Smells the leather. Coughs as the rubber ball enters her mouth. Plays her tongue against it, trying to force it out, knowing it’s futile. Her breath, still regaining strength, roars through her nostrils.
Now Karen is certain he’s going to rape her. She tries to turn over. Mercer aids the effort. She meets his eyes, confused and relieved.
He helps her stand. Looks at her. Adoration laced with disgust.
“Karen, did you think… I was going to rape you?”
Karen stares at the floor.
“Look at me,” he says softly. “Look at me.” He puts a hand to her chin and applies slight pressure, but doesn’t force it. She raises her head.
“I remember our wedding night. Things got way out of hand, but I’m a different person now. I could never…” he looks away, gaze laced with pain. Looks down at Paul. Relaxes his face.
“Anyway, we’d better go before he wakes up.” Karen notices that Mercer didn’t call Paul a faggot again. She knows that no person is purely evil, and even the small reminder of whatever good Mercer has in him is reassuring. Something to focus on, something to connect with. She doesn’t see a way of preventing him from taking her to the remote place he mentioned, meaning that if she’s ever going to escape, she’ll have to put him at ease long enough to create the opportunity.
Karen glances at Paul. Looks at Mercer. Nods. Hops once toward him and waits. He smiles.
“There’s a good girl.” He reaches behind her knees and back, picks her up, cradles her. The similarity to how Nana used to hold her makes Karen want to scream against her gag, but she forces the feeling aside. I have to play the long game, outwardly and inwardly.
Mercer carries her downstairs. Sets her down. Uses the flashlight on his phone to find her coat and hat. Puts the coat around her, its arms hanging and empty. Zips it up. Pulls the knit hat onto her head, adjusting it with care. Picks her back up and heads to the basement. The whole time, he’s very cautious not to bump her foot against anything.
The egress window is missing a circle the size of a small plate. Seems Mercer used a glass cutter to reach in and unlock it. He slides it up. Helps Karen through and into the window well. Joins her and closes the window. The tight space is awkward, but Mercer is gentle and patient. Karen experiences a fresh wave of incredulity.
Once up and onto the cold stones that nestle against the foundation, Mercer carries her parallel to the back of the house, then angles toward the woods. He was avoiding the motion light, she realizes. A neighbor’s house is in her direct line of sight, and Karen desperately screams with her mind, but nobody peeks out or appears.
The woods are slow going. Mercer walks sideways so that Karen’s head points in front of them and her legs behind, but he can’t completely avoid knocking her feet into a tree now and then. She cries out in muted pain every time, and he whispers sincere remorse. The contrast to his actions inspires her skin to crawl even more than the chill air of an October night.
At his car, which is in an empty park, Mercer looks down at Karen.
“If you promise to be good, and I mean zero bullshit, I’ll put you in the backseat and cover you with a nice blanket. Otherwise, you get the cold trunk and no blanket. You going to behave?”
Karen nods, forcing her eyes wide and her head to move rapidly, wanting to appear scared. In her core, there really is a knot of fear, but she’s overcoming it well so far, focusing more on keeping her mind sharp and watching for any opportunity.
Mercer smiles, face slightly paternal. “There’s a good girl.” He sets her gently across the empty backseat, covering her entire body and head with a thick blanket as promised. Gets into his seat and fires it up.
As the car starts moving, Karen gets her first stab of panic, knowing that the next stop is his secret hideaway. She has to breathe through it, rolling her head in circles until the blanket shifts enough that she can get a steady flow of air. It would probably count as “bullshit” to Mercer should he turn and see any part of her face sticking out, but she decides it’s worth the risk. If anything bad does come of it and he demands to know why she did that after he finally removes the gag, she could just say that the blanket moved from the bumps and turns of the city streets.
Karen renews her resolve to play the long game, to build a connection with Mercer so that he eventually lowers his guard and she gets her chance. Stay strong, child, Nana says. Be calm and rely on your mind. You’ll survive this. You’ll survive.
Five minutes later — as well as Karen can guess — Mercer slows down to just above an idle. She sees red and blue lights dancing throughout the car’s cabin. Not daring to hope that Mercer is getting pulled over, Karen waits with shallow breath. Mercer comes to a stop. There’s no siren, just the lights. She hears the beep! beep! of construction equipment. No, there aren’t any flood lights that would let workers see at night. A tow truck. A broken-down car, maybe an accident. The police are here for safety.
Karen realizes that, with the car stopped, she has the chance to squirm up to the front seat and put her face in the window. The police might see. She could be saved right now. Mercer would go back to prison. She’d be free.
On the other hand, Mercer is stronger, unbound, and uninjured. He might force her back down before she even made it to the passenger window, and then he’d be furious.
Chapter 15 Choice: Should Karen try to get the attention of the police?
- Yes (83%)
- No (17%)
This poll closed on January 29th, 2018.