Breaking the Rules
Shannon fiddled with the buttons of her dress as she and Justin waited for their coffees. Outside, rain fell on people rushing by the window of the coffee shop. She moved her attention from the scene outside to her two-month-old son in the carrier next to her. He was the most beautiful baby she’d ever seen, and it still amazed her that he’d formed inside her body.
“Are you listening to me?”
She looked up at her husband of one year sitting on the opposite side of the booth and nodded. A sense of hopelessness washed over her. She’d tried to do everything right—paid for the train tickets with cash and not her credit card, hadn’t used her real name, all the little tricks she’d picked up from watching movies over the years. She’d even cut her hair. Yet Justin had found her after only two days. She wouldn’t make a very good spy.
“Say something,” Justin demanded, loud enough that the people across from the booth glanced over.
Shannon rubbed at her forehead. “I’m sorry, my head is pounding.” Hopefully, the lie would keep his anger at bay.
“Do you have anything you can take?”
He reached across the table and grabbed the diaper bag. After rifling the contents, he removed a pocket-sized tube of Advil, along with her cell phone.
She watched her phone slide into his coat pocket. “What are you doing?”
“I’ll hold on to your phone. Now that I’ve found the two of you, you won’t be needing it.” He poured four pills into his palm and held them out. “So, what do you think?”
“I need my phone.”
“I…I’m expecting a call.”
She struggled to come up with a name that wouldn’t set him off. “Maureen,” she lied a second time, hoping he didn’t know she hadn’t spoken to her coworker since quitting the ad agency.
“If she calls, I’ll give it to you. Now, back to what I said. What do you think?”
“What do I think about what?”
She received a severe frown as a response before he said, “You’re doing it again.”
“Not listening to me. How about thinking about me for once and not always yourself?”
“Yeah, you’re always sorry after you do something.”
She glanced at the baby. Satisfied he was still sleeping, she adjusted his blanket and returned her attention to the table, where she stared at her coffee.
Justin’s tone softened. “You make me do and say things. If you acted better, I wouldn’t be so hard on you.” He reached across the table again, this time offering his hand.
Shannon bit into her lower lip in the exact spot she’d recently opened with her right canine. Blood meandered through her teeth, and she slowly placed her hand in his.
“That’s my girl. What I said was, if you and Chad come back home where you belong, I’ll go to couples counseling like you asked. I can change.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
He lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles but then squeezed her fingers, driving her wedding band into the side of her pinkie. “I’m not the bad guy, Shannon. Most of the time I’m only joking around, but you take things much too serious. You know what your problem is? You’re too sensitive. You need to lighten up.”
The baby squirmed and drew her attention. Chad scrunched his face, coloring the round cheeks so that he resembled an angry plum. “I have to clean him.” She moved from the booth and looped the strap of the diaper bag over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Justin pushed his chair back from the table and walked with her to the bathroom. “I’ll wait right here,” he said, positioning himself against the wall. She pulled on the door, but he blocked it. “I’m taking you back, Shannon. You need me—you’re too weak to raise a kid on your own.”
He released the door, and she entered the bathroom.
While changing Chad’s diaper, distant voices filled her ears, voices that belonged to ghosts who wouldn’t stay vanquished. In her mind she was a child of six and hiding under her grandmother’s heavy, wooden desk.
‘Don’t you walk away from me, young lady.’
The memory of the voice was like a cold wind, the kind that could get under her coat and raise goosebumps up her back.
She knew her mother would speak next; the memory was always the same—never changing because the dead wouldn’t allow it.
‘For Christ’s sake, Mother, I just buried my husband.’
‘Keep your voice down, Katherine. Do you want everyone to think you’re hysterical?’
‘I don’t care what people think. This is not the time to have this conversation.’
‘This is the perfect time. What are you planning on doing? Raising the child on your own? You know you’re not equipped for that.’
‘I’m perfectly capable of taking care of my daughter.’
‘No, you’re not; you’re too weak. You need me.’
In the restaurant bathroom, Shannon squeezed her eyes closed, recalling the spider that had crawled up her young shin and how she’d placed her hand in its path and lowered it back to the floor. It had scurried out from under the desk, and her grandmother’s thick-soled shoe had turned it into a black splotch. That was how she felt now, like a spider with a dark shadow hanging over her head, ready to drop and crush both her and Chad.
“Shannon.” The doorknob rattled. “Hurry up.”
“I’ll be right out.” She unbuckled Chad from the changing table, returned him to his carrier, and paused to stroke his dark brown hair. In exchange for her tender touch, he cooed. She kissed his cheek and whispered, “I’m sorry munchkin. I tried.”
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