I didn’t know how I loved her until we’d started our senior year in high school that fall, when he’d come along to hurt her again and again. I found her tonight, as fair as ever, curled up on her mother’s couch, loose razor blades and a can of unopened chicken noodle soup on the coffee table. I shook my head, took the soup to the kitchen, poured the lump of fat and starch into a saucepan, adding only a half-can of water, the way she liked it.
As the soup heated, I rinsed the oily can for recycling, nicking myself on the pop-top lid. I watched the blood well up into one fat red drop and then went into the living room. I thrust my finger into her face and swiped my blood across her forehead. She blinked but sat where she was. I squeezed out another drop and smeared it down the bridge of her sloped nose. When I reached the divot in her top lip, she took my finger into her mouth and sucked it clean, rolling her tongue to fit the shape of me.
I went back to the kitchen to turn off the heat. I put her soup in a mug and called to her, “You want this soup, or not?”
“I’ll have it,” she said. I brought her the mug and a spoon and sat down on the far end of the couch. I watched her sip the broth, my blood dried to rust on her face. She’d not bothered to wash before she ate. She’d not bothered to say “please” or “thank you” or even “piss off now.”
Yet she ate slowly, carefully, a duchess in men’s sweatpants. She looked up and saw me watching her. She put the mug on the table and crawled over to me, pulling blankets and used tissues in her wake. She melted into me, tucked her head under my chin, wrapped my slack arms around her waist.
I stayed quiet, listening to her sniffle. She wiped her nose on my t-shirt and sniggered when I squirmed, pretending to be grossed out. She wants to kiss again, I thought, but I couldn’t, knowing she’d been with him already today, his breath still hot on her lips, crumbs from his mustache still stuck in her teeth. I didn’t want to think of other remnants of him in her mouth, on her yielding flesh, so I pushed her off of me and stood up to leave.
“Don’t,” she said. “Stay,” she said. “Please.”
Finally some fucking manners, I thought.
“Why?” I demanded.
She knew I was angry and I think she could even hear me cursing her inside my head. She’d known me too long not to know that I wanted to thrash her. And then take her to bed.
“I need you,” she said, and I believed her, as much as I could.
“I know what you need,” I said. “That’s why I’m going.”
I left her there, alone, with her crusty face and her blood-shot eyes and her incredible bod and oh goddamn.
I drove to the farm, the farthest I could go. The roads had frosted slick and I could feel the Buick just start to fishtail around the tight corners. I dredged up the worst memory I could—the time I’d caught them at the party. They’d snuck away with a six-pack and I never thought it would happen because he was so much older than her, than us. Midnight almost—I was her ride, but when I’d finally found them in the back yard, her shoulders pressed to a tree—I could see the bulk of him moving against her.
He’d turned and asked, “What up, bro?”
I didn’t answer, just walked away. He hadn’t slowed down, even when speaking to me. She’d said nothing—fucking nothing—her long yellow hair glowing in the snatches of light that leaked from the windows of the party house. I walked to the front yard and barfed in the bushes. Then I’d gotten into my car and sped off without her, tires screeching.
Now I parked the Buick on the gravel drive and hiked to the top of the back pasture, where thirteen acres flattened into an alfalfa patch. I walked to the center of the field and threw myself down onto the frozen ground. I knew myself a coward, but I lay there under the late autumn stars, legs splayed and arms bent, mimicking Orion in his warrior’s stance, anyway.
Courtney Harler studies Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. She plans to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in January of 2017 in Jamaica. Her work has previously appeared in Northwest Boulevard, Neon Dreams, The Vignette Review, and Blue Monday Review. Raised in Kentucky, she currently lives with her family in Las Vegas.