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Three Steps Ahead

By @garden_bella

Love is a peculiar thing. You either fall slowly and gently as if floating onto a bed of feathers, or you fall hard and fast as if jumping out of an airplane 30,000 feet in the air onto concrete. I jumped out of the airplane with no parachute, and I fell face-first, losing my soul in the process. 

I met him in college. We were both attending Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I was at a dingy nightclub with my friends since that was all we could afford, and I was waiting for a dance. The criss-crossing lights made me dizzy with all the movement, and all the different colors made it hard to orient oneself on the dancefloor. No matter how dank the nightclub was, my friends simply wanted to drink alcohol with music in the background and hook up with an agreeable man. 

No matter how disorienting and dizzying the nightclub was, I could still see him. He was staring at me across the room, and every time I glanced away and looked back at him, his eyes were still on me, inspecting me with a hungry glint in his eyes. Eventually, he sauntered over with a drink in his hand—whiskey with three ice cubes clinking against the glass. I immediately thought of him as a classy gentleman; all of the men I’ve dated chugged beer and vodka, but only a true gentleman can shoot whiskey. 

He smirked at me, introducing himself as Steve. I told him my name, and he repeated it, almost as if he was tasting it on his tongue.

“Chrissy…” he said with a smile. 

He traced circles on my hand before grasping it, interlacing his fingers with mine, and brought me to the dancefloor. He had me falling for him with his half-smile, so odd and enigmatic as if I couldn’t quite crack what he was smiling at. Was it me? Was it my outfit? Was it the way my body snaked against his while we were dancing? I couldn’t have known back then. 

We separated ways, me going home with my friends and him going home with a beautiful blonde on his arm. I wasn’t jealous; in fact, I understood. She was gorgeous with porcelain skin and thick yellow hair that fell around her shoulders and her doll face like curtains. Who couldn’t resist a girl like that? 

The next time I saw him was at the nightclub again, but this time I was alone. I wanted to make sure he knew I was there for him. Sure enough, he was there, standing in the corner, surveying the crowd on the dancefloor before turning his eyes to me, where our gazes met, and for the second time, we connected. I knew from that first connection that I would die for him if need be. I loved him, and he loved me. Supposedly. 

We enjoyed another dance together, the multi-colored lights casting him in different tones. Somehow, the colors that time around weren’t as disorienting. Somehow, they opened my eyes to him. A determined glint in his eye appeared as a purple light cast him in a purple aura, his face dropped to form an expression of melancholy just as the blue light shadowed him, and finally, for such a fleeting moment that I barely noticed, his expression contorted into one of anger, of pure rage. He stared at me as if I was his worst enemy, his grip tightening exponentially on my waist so much that it left bruises the next day. I was a piece of meat in his arms, and he wanted to consume me as fast as possible. 

As we continued to turn around the nightclub, I saw my friends talking to their potential suitors for the night, all of the men staring at their bodies up and down, barely meeting my friends’ gazes as they licked their lips in anticipation. 

And I remembered all my exes: Brian and John and Henry and Teddy. How they treated me. How they took everything they wanted from me. I smiled as I remembered fondly our memories together, forgetting all about everything else they did to me. 

I ignored my memories and his expression because I assumed all men looked at women that way. I was used to being looked at that way. Men are simply like that, and women just need to go along with it. 

So I didn’t fault him. Or every man that came before him. 

I wrapped my arms around his neck and swayed my hips to the music, his hands gripping my waist and oscillating with my hips. His grip got tighter with the beat, and his hands trailed up to softly lay on the groove where the neck meets the shoulders, almost testing the waters to see if I would retaliate. When I didn’t, his grip tightened, his thumbs pressing into my windpipe, tighter and tighter until I couldn’t breathe, but I still didn’t stop dancing. Air escaped my lungs, and I became light-headed until I fell into his arms, and I could feel him enveloping me in a tight embrace. I regained consciousness, and when I looked up, I could see him staring back at me, grinning, a red light illuminating the back of his head, creating a halo of vermillion. 

“You’re perfect,” he said, and I felt warm inside. 

We went on our first official date after exchanging numbers the last time we danced at the nightclub to the movies. I had practically tried on my entire closet thrice before finally choosing a dress that made me look sexy but not slutty, classy but not prudish. I looked at the warzone that had become my bedroom, gazing at the fallen corpses of my wardrobe on the beige carpet, their insides oozing out in the form of sequins, tassels, and ribbons. I bit my nails down to the nub as I stared out the window, awaiting my gentlemen. I looked at my phone. He was five minutes late. Had he ditched me? Had he found another beautiful woman to spend the night with?  

Eventually, my worries were qualmed at the sight of a car pulling up in front of my dorm. It was a black Chevrolet Impala, one of the classic ones that looked like it came straight out of the ‘60s. Its engine purred as he pulled up to the curb, getting out to open the door for me. 

“You look beautiful,” he said, giving my form-fitting black dress a once-over. 

“As do you, handsome,” I teased, pointing to his gray button-up that was tight against his chest and his white slacks. As he revved up the car, the engine roared. 

We drove to the movie theater and bought two tickets to a random horror movie he picked out—I couldn’t care less about remembering it. All I remember is that when the murderer was slashing the woman’s neck, when the blood was seeping out like a waterfall against her soft skin, I looked to my left to shield my eyes from the gore. I glanced at Steve, and his pallid skin reflected the red from the screen. His eyes were the reddest, glowing as he stared at the screen, his mouth carved into a smile and his teeth glinting from the glossy blood on the screen. I could see what was happening in his eyes, and once I saw that the scene was over, I turned back in my chair. I looked down at my hands, yellow from me clutching the arms of the chair. I cleared my throat and focused on the film, but my hands would not stop grasping the arms of the chair, and I didn’t even try to deny them. 

Our second date was at the park, having a picnic on the lush grass that had just been mowed. The smell of the grass was pungent, interrupting my cucumber sandwich. I had heard before that the smell of freshly cut grass is grass sending out warning signals to other grass that they’re about to die. I tried to ignore the smell.

The sky was filled with gray clouds, heavily pregnant with rain. I had suggested a different day for a date, but Steve wanted to see me as quickly as possible. 

He took my hand in his, and he was going to make eye contact with me but got distracted by a woman running by us. 

He thought for a moment before saying, “Do you know how fast the average person can run?” 

“I don’t know,” I replied with a smile, rubbing his knuckles. 

“Around ten to fifteen miles per hour,” he answered, and he finally met my gaze. “How fast can you run?”

I laughed, about to make a self-deprecating joke, but then I saw the seriousness in his eyes. His mouth was pulled into a firm straight line, forming wrinkles on his forehead and mouth that aged him. I was suddenly uncomfortable for the first time since I’ve been with him. I was used to seeing the corners of his mouth pulled up into a large grin, the skin wrinkling around his eyes as a result, a glint of happiness in his eyes. The sky suddenly seemed to darken considerably, the sun disappearing behind the black curtain of clouds. Joggers seemed to divert their paths around us, and a chilly wind passed over us, raising my goosebumps to attention.

“I don’t know. I’d say I’m pretty fast.” 

His smile returned, and everything was better again. The sun returned to its place in the sky to shine on our picnic, warming my goosebumps, joggers passed by us, and the world seemed brighter again. All because of him. 

“That’s useful.” His pearly whites shined between his lips, and I melted. 

I loved him. 

The third date was at his house, and I made sure to put on a matching bra and panty set and to chew gum before driving over. I didn’t know what would happen, so I wanted to play it safe. I shaved every single hair off my body, put on my waterproof mascara and kiss-proof lipstick, and spritzed on my favorite perfume. 

I smiled in the mirror, fixing my hair. I was in love with being in love. It was such a good feeling to be excited about something. I got to actually care about what I wore every day to impress him, and I put effort into looking nice. It made me feel good about myself. I started drawing again, sketching his beautiful face in numerous notebooks just to memorialize my love for him. I focused most of my time on his eyes, trying to get the glint of mischief and joyfulness just right in his dark almond eyes that looked back at me as I shaded them in. He had invigorated so many lost interests and loves inside me, and I couldn’t wait to repay him.

I arrived at his house late at night. The moon hung lazily by a string from the sky and was surrounded by stars, which was a rare sight to see. Since Steve lived in a small house on the outskirts of the city, I got to see more of the natural beauty of the Earth. It was as if every time I got close to him, I opened my eyes and saw more of the world. 

I rang the doorbell, and he promptly opened it with a big smile on his face. Oh, how I loved that smile. He beckoned me inside, taking my coat and telling me to take off my shoes and put them by the front door. I did as I was told happily.

“I’m going to go finish up dinner. You can turn the T.V. on if you want,” he said as he started walking to the kitchen, and I followed. His house was modest—it was more of a cabin than a house. The fire in the fireplace crackled and popped, illuminating pictures of him holding fish with his family on the mantle and the various deer heads on the wall. I could see my reflection in their glassy eyes staring at me, and as I walked to the kitchen, I thought I could see their heads following me. I ignored it and continued to follow him, taking note of the extremely clean floors and furniture. I even saw my reflection in the floor, which was a hell of an improvement from the apartments and dorm rooms of the guys at college. 

“Is this your cabin?” I asked, running my fingers over the soft fabric of the couch. 

“No, Chrissy, we’re college students. What could I afford now? It’s my parents’. They let me stay in it during the school year sometimes when I can’t handle the dorms anymore.”

I felt so stupid. Of course the cabin wasn’t his. I just embarrassed myself in front of him. I wondered what he thought of me after that comment. I hoped he hadn’t stopped liking me. 

He put on an apron to stir the pasta sauce, quickly getting to work cooking. We played around in the kitchen, throwing strings of spaghetti on the wall to see if they were ready. We then started to have a mini food fight, throwing spaghetti at each other until the floor was decorated with strings of spaghetti. He threw one last spaghetti at me, but it smacked me directly in the eye, and I immediately jumped back and smacked it on the ground. 

“Ow, ow!” I cried out, holding my eye, but he said and did nothing. I looked up at him, and he was just staring at me with a barely noticeable smirk on his face—but I noticed it. 

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said, expecting him to lead me to the bathroom or say something, but he just stared at me with that unreadable smirk on his lips. I rushed to find the bathroom, opening doors at random that led to the laundry room, a closet, and finally, the bathroom. I opened the faucet and splashed water into my eye, clearing out any food debris and looking at myself in the mirror. Why didn’t he say anything? Was he just repenting for his actions? I was sure he’d apologize when I went back. 

I fixed my makeup and was about to leave when I heard a muffled thumping. I stood still for a moment, trying to figure out if the sound was a figment of my imagination or Steve in the kitchen or the fireplace or something else. It couldn’t be a figment of my imagination—it was so clear. And it couldn’t have been coming from the kitchen—it seemed too far away. It seemed to get more frantic as I walked around the bathroom, placing my ear against the walls, trying to figure out where it was coming from. I finally placed my ear against the one surface I hadn’t tried yet: the floor. I kneeled down, my knees cracking and the linoleum floor groaning with the distribution of my weight all in one place. I tried not to move as I pressed my ear to the floor, but not too close because God knows what Steve did in there. I heard the thumping again—much clearer than before. It was deep underground—almost as if it came from Hell.

The door creaked as I opened it, and I flinched at each sound it made. I should have turned the T.V. on to cover the noise I was making. I slowly made my way down the hallway to one of the only doors I hadn’t opened yet, and with each step I took, it seemed to get further down the hallway, almost as if it didn’t want me to reach it. 

But I did. I peered over my shoulder to see Steve cooking in the kitchen. I felt dirty. 

Why am I going through his house without him knowing? 

For all I knew, it could be his pet messing around in the basement. He probably didn’t even have a basement and my ears were lying to me. I was always lying to myself, so it wasn’t a longshot. 

Should I just give myself up? 

I decided to turn the doorknob instead, letting my curiosity get the best of me, and the door seemed to swing open by itself with a gust of wind. I bit my lip hard, drawing blood, trying to figure out what to do. I tried not to look, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the concrete stairs leading down to a dimly lit room at the bottom. I glanced over my shoulder one more time and saw Steve starting on some vegetables, so I drew a long breath, held it, and then headed downstairs, closing the door behind me. My steps on the concrete echoed throughout the basement, and the thumping got even louder and more rapid, matching the beating of my heart.  

I reached the bottom of the stairs, and I had to wipe sweat from my brow from the combination of trying to be quiet and from guilt. 

The thumping increased until it was unbearable to listen to, and on top of the thumping was a muffled whining sound that could have made my ears bleed. It was steady and fast like the second hand on a clock, but as my footsteps got closer to the song, the thumping got more erratic and desperate. 

I turned the corner and came face-to-face with a woman, tied to a chair crudely with thick rope that I could see was cutting into her skin, and blood was seeping into the fibers. The chair was chained to a pole supporting the basement, so every time she tried to move, the chains clanged together and alerted Steve when she was trying to escape. She was gagged with duct tape, and she was beautiful. She had blonde hair, brown eyes framed with dark eyelashes, and a curvy figure. I was horrified. How could he do this to such a nice woman? She wasn’t doing anything to provoke him. She was wearing a dress that didn’t show too much. The more I looked at her, the faster I realized—she was the woman whom he went home with a month back. Could she have been me? Could I have been next? No, Steve wouldn’t do that to me. 

Her eyes were wide with fear, and they flicked between me and the scissors on the table in front of her. How oddly crude to put scissors just out of reach. I stayed put in shock at the scene before me, unsure of what to do. If I had let her go, I believed Steve would have killed both of us. 

Looking back, I am not sure what he would have done. Perhaps he would have continued toying with me despite letting go of his prey. Perhaps he would have killed me in cold blood. But that doesn’t matter anymore. 

What mattered at that moment was that I was afraid of making Steve cross by botching his night. And I didn’t want to make Steve cross. However, if I didn’t let her go, what would that say about me as a person? 

As I was about to move—to do what, I’m not sure—footsteps sound on the staircase, and we both froze in place. 

“Chrissy? Are you down here?” I could hear his voice drift from around the corner, and my adrenaline began to course immediately through my veins. I looked to the girl whose eyes were frantic, struggling against her restraints as if that would do anything, drawing more blood from her skin. My eyes drifted to the bright scarlet blood trickling from her restraints down to her wrists, pooling in the cracks of her ivory skin before dripping in steady droplets onto the concrete floor, splattering across the surface to create a morbid Jackson Pollock painting.

His footsteps reached the end of the staircase and rounded the corner at a leisurely pace, stopping as he took in the scene before him. “Oh,” he breathed slowly. “I see you’ve met Quinn.”

I turned to him with an expressionless face, waiting for somebody other than me to make a first move. I was always terrible with first moves. 

“Well…” he trailed off, unsure of what to do. He opened his mouth to say something but quickly closed it and grabbed the scissors, staring at them slicing open and closed for a moment before turning them on Quinn. Her eyes seemed to light up with hope for a slight second before immediately sinking as the scissors moved away from the rope cutting her wrists and to her hair, cutting a small lock of it as she winced away. 

He placed the lock of yellow hair in my hand, cupping his hands over mine. “A small gift.” He smiled, and I smiled back. I gripped the lock of hair as I watched him slit her throat and grab a saw from a tool rack in the back. It had rust-colored stains on the blade, and to any normal person, it would just be that: rust. But I knew that it was blood and skin and muscle from however many women. He cut her into pieces, starting with her head and then separating her torso, her insides revealing themselves on top of the basement floor. Her head rolled around on the floor for a few seconds, not sure of where to go until she stopped in front of my foot, her eyes still wide in terror staring up at me. I grimaced and tapped her head with my foot to send her away so that she wouldn’t stare at me anymore. Eventually, after cutting every part of her into small pieces, he threw her parts into a trash bag filled with soil. 

I couldn’t tear my eyes away, regardless of how much oozing and gushing of body parts happened in front of me. It was not pleasant, but if my complaining made Steve cross, I didn’t want to open my mouth. 

He shook the bag in front of my face, the blood that hadn’t seeped into the soil yet splashing against the white plastic. “Free fertilizer!” We both laughed, but the joke sent a chill down my spine. She was gone. Quinn was gone. Eradicated from the Earth, and her parents probably thought she was home safe, watching T.V. and eating dinner. The only thing left of her is her hair in my hand, which I pocketed because I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Do I keep it in her memory? Do I throw it away? I decided to think about it another time. My mind was too full of information at the moment to think about anything else other than the sea of blood in front of me. 

“Give me the hose, please,” he asked, pointing to the hose attached to the sink. I picked up the hose from the ground and handed it to him, our fingers sending electricity between each other as they touched. I was trapped, and I was happy to be. 

We climbed back up the stairs, and the only sound in that concrete jail was the creaking of the wooden stairs under the weight of our footsteps echoing. I had grown so accustomed to the thumping and muffled screaming of the poor woman that the silence was more eerie than her tortured wails. I started to wonder if Steve was also scared of the silence, and that was the reason why he kept the women screaming for so long. 

He pointed to my shoes at the end of the hallway and smiled. “That’s why I asked you to take off your shoes. Just in case you found her.” He turned to me and stared directly into my eyes. “Always be prepared. Always bring a bag with extra clothes. Always carry gasoline and a match. And always, always, be three steps ahead.” He reached out to me and into my front pocket, pulling out the lock of Quinn’s hair I had pocketed before. I didn’t even know he was watching me—his back was turned! He gripped the hair in his fist and raised it up to his nose, sniffing it and smiling while running the strands between his pointer and thumb fingers. He held it under my nose, and I hesitantly took a sniff. 

“Vanilla,” he observed. Without a second thought, he abruptly threw the lock of hair into the fire in the fireplace. 

I nodded my head in agreement even though I smelled lavender, and before I knew it, his lips were hungrily on mine, consuming every square inch of them until I couldn’t tell my mouth from his. 

Every time we went on a date, it was a mere front for hunting for our next victim. My job was to find a potential victim with a certain set of characteristics: small, demure, alone. His job was to approve my choice and do all the dirty work. We would go out to the movies, and I would get up to “go to the bathroom,” and while walking down the aisle, I would carefully spy out for any small girls that looked as if they were quiet and not with anybody at the theater. I secretly picked out the girls who were wearing the shortest shorts and the smallest tops because I thought that would please Steve more. Then I would go to the bathroom to take notes on if they were with anybody, any challenges that she might have posed to our operation, and many other things that probably didn’t matter but were interesting to me…like their clothes.

I would take the notepad to Steve, decorated with detailed notes, and he would also go to the bathroom to check out the girl himself and give his approval or rejection. He almost always approved, which made me feel fuzzy inside for being useful to him. 

Then, we would go in for the kill. 

Our second kill together was a petite brunette who we saw at the café alone, writing on her computer with quick and jerky motions. She had clearly had enough coffee for the day, and her leg bouncing under a mini-skirt clearly showed that. It impeded on our hunt because then she’d have more energy to fight back, but she was alone, which was hard to come by in women. I wondered why. Now I know. 

She packed up her things absentmindedly and began to leave, her stride short and slow despite the coffee. Perfect. 

Steve followed her out to the parking lot, stalking her like a tiger from afar, plotting her movements, and what car she was driving. Of course, our hunts were always at night and during the weekdays when there were fewer people in the parking lots. Fewer witnesses. 

We followed her until we reached a residential area, and then we began to flash our lights repeatedly until she pulled over out of confusion. I got out of the car first to establish trust, woman to woman. Steve told me how women feel a lot safer in situations with other women, so he said to wanted to “manipulate that safety with you, my darling.” I loved when he would call me his darling. 

“What’s going on?” she asked defensively, her hands on her hips. She had a good figure: skinny, small frame, not too many curves. It wouldn’t take too long to dissolve her in acid. And since her clothes were so tiny, it wouldn’t take long to burn them, either. I was proud of myself for thinking this through. Just like Steve said: always be three steps ahead. 

“Your tail light is out,” I replied, pointing to the back of her car. She rounded the corner and looked at where I was pointing. 

“No, it’s no—” And with that, a sickening crack sounded, and she dropped to the ground in a heap of brown hair and a maroon puddle of blood. She didn’t even see Steve creeping around the back of our car and behind her with a baseball bat. 

“Quick, before anybody comes,” he hissed, throwing the bat in the trunk and looking around for any cameras. I began to drag her to the car myself, grunting and using my underdeveloped muscles to lift her, but Steve came over and pushed me away hard enough for me to stumble over myself. “I got this. Get in with her to make sure she doesn’t wake up.” 

I arranged myself so that I was sitting in the backseat with the woman in my lap, her half-lidded eyes staring up at me, dull and lifeless, with blood trickling down her forehead. I pushed away her brown hair from the wound so it wouldn’t get sticky with blood, rubbing my thumb over her pink cheeks that were paling by the second. I brought my hand up to her cheek, feeling the warmth of her skin against mine along with her shallow breaths on my fingers. She was gorgeous; her dark eyebrows perfectly framed her face, and she had long eyelashes that tickled my fingertips. I wondered why she wore such revealing clothes if she didn’t want to get murdered, but instead of focusing on her body, I stared at her face, taking in every freckle, wrinkle, and dimple on her skin. 

I could see Steve’s eyes staring at me in the rearview mirror, cold and judging. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before he asked, “Are you regretting being with me?”

I stuttered for a bit out of shock before exclaiming, “Of course not!” 

His eyes drifted from me to back on the road, but for the rest of the trip home, anytime I stared at the woman for too long, I could feel his eyes on me, trying to gauge what I was thinking. Which was fruitless because I didn’t even know what I was thinking. I was mainly admiring the woman’s beauty and cursing her for wearing revealing clothes. Maybe if she hadn’t dressed that way, she would still be breathing. 

We continued on our killing hunts for almost a year. I moved in with Steve at his cabin after a month because my roommate was starting to get mad at me for arriving at the dorm at four in the morning every other day. Several of my professors came up to me asking me what was going on because my grades were slipping horribly. I thanked them for their concern but ignored them. My grades were important, but my future was with Steve. A job could never give me what Steve had. Besides, I was technically doing biology research as extra credit. 

Reports of the women we had murdered came out in the newspaper, and whenever search parties would show up on T.V., Steve laughed out loud and continued watching. 

“They have so much hope,” he said. 

I laughed along, but I didn’t feel anything. I simply thought about that woman’s dead and pleading eyes gazing up at me. 

I mourned her. 

During one hunt, I chose a woman without passing it by Steve for approval. He didn’t say anything, but he wasn’t in the mood to let her scream first because he killed her immediately after tying her up. I was shocked, but I thought that perhaps he just wasn’t feeling it that day. After performing our body procedure, we decided to watch a movie. Five minutes into the movie, Steve decided he didn’t want to watch it and began to kiss me instead.

Kiss was an understatement. “Bashing lips” was more fitting. He forcefully took my lips and gripped my neck, pushing his thumbs into my throat. At first, it was reminiscent of our first meeting, but it quickly turned sour when he grip didn’t let up, and he kept on squeezing and squeezing and squeezing

“Steve,” I croaked, scratching at his hands. “Steve…” 

My head was becoming lighter and lighter, and my eyes were beginning to roll back into my head before he let go. I was seeing stars, constellations, entire solar systems as the oxygen ran dry in my head and a film formed over my eyes. 

He leaned in close and whispered in my ear, his breath hot on my lobe, “Never pick somebody without my approval again.” He stood up abruptly, and I flinched. Clearly he didn’t like me flinching, either. A searing hot pain erupted on my cheek, and it took me a moment to realize he had slapped me. 

“What, are you scared of me now?” he yelled, and I tried my best not to flinch or wince or hesitate. 

“No, Steve,” I mumbled. He scoffed and turned on his heel and marched to the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. I cupped my throbbing cheek and nursed it with smooth motions, but it burned deeper down than the skin. I guessed I was sleeping on the couch. 

Why was he being mean to me? I looked down at what I was wearing. Jeans and a sweater. I stared into the fire and thought back to all the women’s revealing clothing and how Steve slit their throats so rapidly while rubbing the cheek that Steve had slapped so rapidly. I stared into the fire and understood. 

The next few kills, I let him completely lead, to the point where he also got mad at me for not helping enough. I didn’t want to make him mad, but I also did not want to be a part of their killings any longer. Their clothing no longer bothered me. What bothered me was how their eyes went dark as their skin got paler and paler. What bothered me was how I saw their souls leave their bodies as the knife ripped their necks open like menacing grins. What bothered me was how this did not bother me before. 

However, one day, Steve was having trouble with cutting the girl’s throat. He was just causing her more and more pain, and I couldn’t stand hearing her gargling her own blood while screaming. I swiped the knife from him, sharpened it quickly on the sharpening block, and cut her throat in one fell swoop. Her head dropped and dangled left and right before stopping in the center like a grotesque pendulum, her white shirt painted with her own blood. 

I cleaned the knife in the sink, soaked it in bleach, and cleaned the sink with bleach. I stopped there because cutting up the body was Steve’s job, but clearly I had already overstepped my bounds. He glared at me the entire time I was cleaning, and now that I was waiting for him to cut up the body, he simply stared at me. I gestured toward her dead body, and he cleared his throat and grabbed the saw and began to work. 

I hadn’t killed her; she was basically already dead before I got to her. She would have died after a few minutes—I just didn’t want her to suffer. The woman was no longer body heat with a soul; she was a piece of meat. Is this how men see us? I began to think as I was hosing down the floor. Is this how Steve sees me? I looked to Steve, who was sharpening his knives for good measure so that I never had to embarrass him again by taking over his job, and he wasn’t even making eye contact with me. Was I no longer warmth to him? Was I just a piece of meat at this point that needed exsanguinating? 

I continued to hose down the floor, whistling a distant Frank Sinatra song. What was the name of it again? 

Later that night, Steve was peeling my blood-encrusted clothes off my body and lying me down on the bed, pressing his fingers into my stomach and running his fingertips over my skin. It tickled and felt pleasurable, but usually Steve didn’t take this long to get to the deed. This time, he was admiring me—observing me—dissecting me. He lifted his hand before bringing down his pointer finger, and with his sharp fingernail, mimicked cutting across my stomach. He then began to cross-section me, cutting apart my chest, my breasts, my arms, my legs. His nail left white scratch trails across my sensitive skin which, after a few moments, raised into ugly red mountains. 

I swallowed my nausea and anxiety down my throat, but it came back up again so forcefully that I blurted out, “Stop it, Steve.”

He looked up at me through lidded eyes and from under his long eyelashes, his eyes piercing through me and staring right into my mind. Could he tell that I was fearful? That I wasn’t comfortable with him anymore? Or was it staring into my brain, figuring out different ways to dissect it? 

He stopped and got up slowly, and before I could react, lay a heavy punch on my cheek. I immediately sat up, but he pushed me down and slapped me again, laying two more punches before leaning back and watching me squirm around in pain on the bed. I nursed my bruised face under his hateful gaze, and as I tried to sit up again, he pushed me back down again, straddled my hips, and hit me until I couldn’t open my eyes. I heard a crack, and blood spurted from my nose and flowed down my face and into the back of my throat, where I subsequently began choking on the blood. But he didn’t stop. He did not stop. 

He only stopped until I turned blue and was gasping for air. He enveloped my face in his huge hand, pushing it down into the mattress hard enough to break my nose further. He drew his hand back, watching me as I sobbed and held my face, unsure of what injury to care for first. 

I peered up at him through swollen eyelids, and I did not dare to get up. Once he was satisfied with carrying through his lesson with me, he walked out of the bedroom with his footsteps echoing down the hall. I heard the front door open and close, and his car’s headlights blinded me as they shone through the curtains. 

It felt like hours before I felt safe enough to rise up again, and when I did, I slowly made my way to the bathroom to clean up. I must’ve drank gallons of water that night to get rid of the metallic taste of water in the back of my throat, but it never went away. I had received broken noses before from my exes before, so I knew what to do, but this one hurt substantially more than the other ones. I packed my nose with gauze and made a splint, but all of the medical equipment in the world could not cover the forming bruises under my eyes and my bruised pride. I clutched the sides of the sink and put my head down and sobbed. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I screamed and cried to cover up the pain in my face, but it still glared through my wails. I looked at myself in the mirror and squinted. My outfit was not revealing. I was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. That was not the reason. That was never the reason. 

I stared at my face, beaten to a pulp, and found it hard to recognize beyond the injuries. I could not recognize myself. What have I become? What has this relationship become? 

After hours of trying to minimize the pain through crying and Advil, I crawled into bed but could barely lay my head down no matter how soft my pillow was. Every time I did, pain surged through my cheekbones and jaw and throughout my body. It was safe to say it was a sleepless night from the pain, but also because I needed to prepare for when he came home. 

Either way, he came home at six in the morning, right before the sun sliced through the horizon, and burst through the bedroom door and threw the blankets over his body. He smelled of cologne but reeked of sweat. I didn’t ask him where he’d been. I had had enough. 

Before going to sleep the next night, I passed by the kitchen and lingered by the knives sticking out of the knife block. With my limited vision, I snatched the Santoku knife and gripped it in a fist, my knuckles yellowing at the force of my grip. I stared at it for a second, admiring how the dim kitchen light reflected off the steel surface before nodding to myself and walking to the bedroom, looking for Steve. The light in the bathroom was on, and I could hear the water running, so I tucked the knife delicately under my pillow and turned off the nightstand lamp. He came back into the bedroom, smelling of mint, and lifted the blanket and pulled me close to him. He reached his arms around me, trapping me in his embrace. He was cold. 

“I love you, darling,” he whispered close to my ear, giving the helix a fleeting kiss. The goosebumps on my arms raised twofold at the contact, and a shiver spread through my body. He began to stroke my hair and run his fingers through the locks, twirling them around his fingertips and sniffing them. I tried not to flinch. That only made him angry. 

I closed my eyes and went to sleep with my hand curled around the handle of the knife. 

I don’t know what woke me up that night. I don’t know if it was God, Satan, or my own good instincts, but I woke up with my hand already wrapped around the knife under my pillow, and I turned my face to see Steve wavering above me with two fists gripping a butcher knife. The end of the knife glistened in the moonlight streaming through the curtains, and it had clearly been sharpened the day before. Maybe even a few hours before. Just for me. 

Adrenaline took over my body, pumping itself into my veins as I kicked Steve off me and drove my knee into his sternum, raising the knife high in the air. 

I knew the knife would come in handy. There I was, breathing heavily and holding that same knife above my head. I didn’t even think. I just acted. 

I plunged the knife into his chest, not giving him any last words. He wasn’t worth last words. 

I shoved it so hard and so deep into his heart that the handle itself was halfway into his chest. He spluttered and coughed up blood that was black in the darkness, but he didn’t even try to talk to me, which was for the better. His entire face was covered in the blood he was vomiting up, but I couldn’t stop there. 

I plunged a second time. 

Then a third. 

Then a fourth. 

Then a fifth. Then a sixth. Then a seventh…eighth…ninth.

A plunge for every time he hit me. A plunge for every time he choked me. A plunge for every time I said I loved him. And a few more because I simply enjoyed the feeling of the blade slicing through his flesh and crushing his chest bones. 

And that added up to a lot. 

I didn’t even notice I was screaming until I stopped. I didn’t even notice I was crying until my tears dropped onto his body and mixed in with his black blood. 

I had stabbed him so many times that I ran out of room, and his body was more gashes than skin. I wasn’t satisfied. I began to choke him even though he stopped breathing a while ago. I pressed my thumbs deep into his throat until I felt his trachea collapse underneath my fingertips, but I didn’t stop. I choked him until every drop of blood from his throat came dribbling out of his pitiful little mouth. I stepped back and admired my work. I had killed somebody for the first time. I had just taken the life of somebody and in the most gruesome way.

And I smiled. 

I should have seen it coming from the beginning. I was a pathetic hopeless romantic. I accepted what was done to me without a question. I thought that only women who put themselves out there got what was coming to them. 

But I got what was coming to me even though I wore dresses that covered my shoulders. Being with Steve unlocked something that I have always had, and as I set my sights on the handsome blond man in the corner of the library, I realize that I never loved Steve. That wasn’t love. That was manipulation. That was deception. That was villainy. 

I tuck my newly cut hair behind my ear and put my book down and follow the man out of the library, sealing in my fate. I love the feeling of my new hair whooshing just past my jawline, free of any trace of his fingertips on them. 

I begin to whistle that Frank Sinatra song again. Oh! It’s called “That’s Life.” How fitting. 

I bounce to the lyrics, and I sing the lyrics as I crack the baseball bat over the man’s head before he could do anything to me. I tilt my head, and as I drag him to the car, I see an amalgamation of all the men I have known in his face. I belt out the lyrics the more I stare at his face, my smile growing bigger and bigger. 

I said, that’s life and as funny as it may seem

Some people get their kicks

Stompin’ on a dream

But I don’t let it, let it get me down

‘Cause this fine old world it keeps spinnin’ around

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate

A poet, a pawn and a king

I’ve been up and down and over and out

And I know one thing

Each time I find myself flat on my face

I pick myself up and get back in the race. 

I dance and kick the blood pooling on the floor up into the air, decorating the walls and my clothes with splatters of blood and laughing all the while. I had taken Steve’s advice. I was three steps ahead of him, and I won the race. 

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