Tabitha Matthews wiped away the steamy condensation from the bathroom mirror and winced to see the puffy skin around her left eye was, indeed, turning purple. “Not again,” she moaned, prodding the tender skin. How was she going to explain this? With a practiced hand, she applied the cream and concealer, noting that she’d need to buy some more. Steadily gulping from her coffee mug, she finished her morning routine until she was satisfied. Taking a deep breath, she walked downstairs.
Alan and the kids were all there already. Her stomach clenched to see them. Her family. There had been a time when just their existence had been an unspoken dream – something other people had, but not someone like her. Had she ever been that naïve, to think that fairy tales really came true? She’d have laughed, but it wasn’t actually that funny.
She took a second to watch the twins jam toast into their peanut butter-encrusted mouths, while Jacelyn animatedly explained to Alan why she needed to wear her purple sneakers to school. Something to do with some character or another or super powers, Tabitha wasn’t able to follow the logic of her four-year-old at the best of times and certainly not now, with the fear and confusion swirling in her mind. Alan, always playing the good guy, smiled at his daughter. “Purple’s fine, JJ. But let’s get going or you’ll be late.”
“But Daddy, Mommy’s going to take me to school today! She promised!”
At that, Tabitha startled, and four heads swiveled towards here. “Mommy!” chorused the babies- no, boys now, she reminded herself, their joy so apparent that it hurt her heart. “Hi Mommy,” echoed JJ. “I told Daddy you were taking me to school. Right?”
Alan was the only one who was silent, staring at her, through her. Her fingers flew of their own accord to the black eye and she looked away. The guilt pushed a level of intensity into the silence that wrapped around her throat, choking her. She dared to glance back to meet his eyes, trying to project courage she didn’t feel. “Of course I am, honey,” She told her daughter. “Are you ready to go?”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” Alan interjected. “I’ll take her.”
“But Daddy,” whined JJ. “She promised.”
“I said no.” Alan snapped. “And don’t argue with me.” His voice had risen to nearly a shout and Jacelyn pushed her chair back so fast that it slammed to the floor.
“You’re the meanest Daddy ever! I hate you! I wish only Mommy lived here!” She screamed.
Both Max and Adam had startled at the chair hitting the ground and were yelling at the tops of their lungs. Although they were only two, their cacophony seemed to echo around the room. Tabitha looked at Alan from the corner of her eye and saw his face was darkening, hands clenched at his sides. He glared at her with such a look of contempt that she physically recoiled. “Are you happy now?” he spat out.
“I can take her,” Tabitha said weakly. “I just forgot, but I’m ready. I’ll take her.”
“You’ve got to be crazy if you think I’ll let that happen,” he said. “Just go back to your room and stay out of my face.”
“But Alan, can’t we talk about this?”
He sighed and shook his head. “There’s only one thing to talk about. You know what I want.”
It always came down to this. His impossible, unreasonable demands. How she ever could have married such a monster just showed how damaged, how insane she’d been. “Forget it.”
He sighed again, and called for Jacelyn. “Can you at least clean off the boys? I don’t want them getting the car any dirtier than it already is.”
“The boys? Why would you take the boys? I’m here.”
He just gave her another look. “They’re coming with me.” He pulled Max off the chair and starting pushing the toddler’s little arms into his coat. Max turned up the volume tenfold and twisted his body into contortions. “Tabitha! A little help, please?”
She felt a wave of hate for him that almost took her breath away. “You want to take them so bad, you figure it out.” She took another gulp from her travel mug and stormed away, nearly knocking down Jacelyn as she did.
“Can’t you please take me?” Jacelyn whined, grabbing at her hand. “I don’t want Daddy to.”
Tabitha turned to smirk triumphantly at Alan, who was still struggling to zip up Max’s coat. “Of course I can,” she smiled. “Let’s go!”
“NO!” Alan roared, but Adam chose that moment to upend his milk glass. Distracted by the crash, Alan turned around and Tabitha chose that moment to grab her purse, travel mug, and daughter and ran out of the house. “Come back here,” Alan screamed after them.
Tabitha slammed the front door and sprinted as fast as she could to the car. “Mommy, my car seat,” protested Jacelyn as Tabitha flung upon the driver’s side and tossed her daughter into the front passenger seat. “I can’t sit up here, I need to sit in my car seat.”
“There’s no time for that,” Tabitha barked, slamming the car into reverse and pealing out of driveway just as Alan burst out of the house, toddler in each arm. He was screaming something at her, but she couldn’t hear. She drove through the neighborhood as fast as she could, heart pounding. “We did it! We got away!”
Jacelyn was huddled in the passenger seat, whimpering now. “Mommy, I changed my mind, I want Daddy to drive me. I need to go in my car seat. I’m scared.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of, honey,” Tabitha told her, taking another gulp from her mug. It was almost empty. Great. How was she going to make it all the way across town without a refill? She scanned the road, looking for a place she could stop, and exclaiming when she saw the convenience store. She braked hard and spun the wheel left, tires squealing. Jacelyn hit the passenger door hard and screamed but that sound was drowned out by sudden honking. Tabitha held her breath and braced for impact.
The white sedan swerved around them and she raced forward to the safety of the parking lot. She parked the car and lowered her head to the steering wheel; her sobs echoed Jacelyn’s. She only then became aware of her cell phone ringing. She glanced at it. Alan, trying to track her down. Indecision flooded her. Maybe she should just give in to his demands. She glanced down at her coffee cup. She couldn’t. Not yet. “I’ll be right back, honey,” she told Jacelyn. “Just stay here.”
She grabbed her purse and locked the door, entering the store. She glanced around, hoping against hope they had what she needed. She spotted the refrigerated units against the back wall. Jackpot! Unfortunately, there was only soda. She walked back up to the front of the store, stomach clenched and anxiety causing her armpits to flood liquid down her sides. There, thank God! Little travel sized bottles of vodka and whiskey blinked reassuringly from behind the counter. The older middle eastern gentleman stared at her when she requested ten small bottles. “We’re having an office party today,” she rushed to explain. “These are part of it, that’s why I need ten. There’s ten of us, and, well, it’s kind of hard to explain. Okay?”
He continued to stare at her. “Ma’am, I can’t sell alcohol to someone who’s been drinking. It’s against the law.”
“Drinking? I haven’t been drinking, what are you talking about?” She raised her voice indignantly so he could see how offended she was. She snuck a glance outside and saw Jacelyn screaming in the car. Why wouldn’t he hurry up and sell her the damn booze?
“Tabitha? Is that you?” Oh no! She couldn’t believe it.
“Suzanne? Hi!” The slim blonde woman approached Tabitha with a smile that faded when she got closer. “What happened to your eye?”
“Alan did it,” she blurted out.
“Alan? What?” Suzanne’s beautiful features creased in concern. “Tabitha, are you saying Alan hit you? My God!”
Tabitha felt her face burn with shame at the lie, but she continued. “Look, Suzanne, I’d like to catch up and all, but I’ve got to get going. Here,” she said to the man behind the counter, thrusting her credit card at him.”
“Ma’am, I can’t…”
“Tabitha. You relapsed again.” Suzanne’s words were soft and understanding. “Alan didn’t do that to you.”
“Look Suzanne, I’ve got to…”
There was a commotion outside and she saw Alan opening the car door to retrieve Jacelyn, two uniformed police officers behind him.
“And that’s how I hit my bottom ten years ago,” Tabitha finished telling the group in front of her, “and where my story begins.”