Her chest felt tight, as though compressed by a heavy weight, forcing her to take shallow, rapid breaths, leaving her lightheaded and confused. Her pulse throbbed in her neck, each beat sharp, constrictive. Consciously, she drew in a slow, intentional, calming breath, closing her eyes to center her soul before she expelled the deep panic with a gentle exhale.
“Relax, dear,” Marg Sloan encouraged with a bright smile. She reached across her desk to lightly pat Marissa’s clasped hands. “This is just a performance review, not an inquisition.”
“Right,” Marissa whispered through a nervous laugh. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Sitting straighter, Marissa smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ear, and shoved her haunted memories to the back of her mind, where she’d successfully kept every pain, every vision, every memory of her own tortured cries, buried for the past ten years.
Bloodied and bruised, more exhausted than she’d ever felt in her life, she’d still considered herself the victor of that fight. Spiritually. Emotionally. Never once had she allowed herself to feel a victim or a fool.
But, obviously, she’d only been fooling herself, if only the casual mention of his name held the power to revive that night in a vivid rush of terror and rage.
Marissa drew in a breath, forced her vision to focus on the paper Marg had placed in front of her, to listen to the words the woman spoke.
“…is simply wonderful. Your efficiency and accuracy ratings are well above what we would expect from a team member who has been with us for…”
Her speech became garbled. The typed words on the paper swirled. Marg handed Marissa a pen. She signed where Marg pointed. The paper disappeared into a manila folder. Marg produced another one.
And then she sighed.
“Now, about your attendance.”
Start on a high note, gentle roll to the low.
Marissa did her best to look contrite about her missed days and long lunches. Marg worked her way back to another high, Marissa’s impeccable phone etiquette, signaling the end of the performance review.
She walked away with a three-point-two percent raise. Better than the zero percent she’d expected, but not even close to what she had made during her brief stint working for Jimmy at Rogan-Handley Construction. Not that she wanted to suffer that humiliation again.
Still, she needed something better than the Farm Bureau.
At the end of the day, Marissa logged off her computer, slipped on her coat, and picked up the only decoration she had in her cubicle, a snake plant in a square, green pot.
The morning of her first day at her new job, her mother had taken the garden shears to her jungle of houseplants and selected a hardy cutting. She’d poked it into fresh soil, drawn a cheery face on the side of the pot, attached googly eyes, scattered a few stones for good luck, and then packed Marissa a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Marissa had tossed the sandwich but kept the plant. She’d named it Glenn and had given him the place of honor on her desk, beside her monitor.
Glenn had been in her care for eighty-four days now. She hadn’t killed him, but he didn’t look exceptionally happy, either. She poked her finger into the soil. Bone dry.
“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered, and tucked him into her oversize purse. “I promise, I’ll do better at our next place, wherever we end up.”
She walked out of the office without a backward glance and braced against the wicked, winter wind as she hurried across the icy parking lot to her car. The driver’s door was frozen shut, the handle an unyielding block of ice from the afternoon’s freezing rain. As she hurried around to the other side of her car, a frigid blast of arctic air whipped across the downtown square and stole the breath clean out of her lungs. Gasping, she popped the handle. The door opened with a wrenching groan.
With all the grace of hippopotamus in snow boots, she clambered across a collected mess of CD’s and fast food trash heaped in the passenger side, over the center console, into the driver’s seat. Panting through a sudden hot flash from the exertion, she struggled to loosen her scarf, unbutton her coat, and stabbed her key into the ignition. Her poor car shuddered, died, and then choked to a semblance of life. She waited a moment longer, for the high-pitched squeal of her alternator to quiet down to a pitch less painful, then flipped on her one working headlight and rolled out of the parking lot.
She only had to drive a few blocks to the house she’d shared with Kitty for almost all her life, but she didn’t feel like going home. She wasn’t in the mood to hang out at Captain Jack’s, either, though she could probably pick up a shift if she’d wanted to. Her bank account needed her to. Maybe over the weekend, when the tips would be better, and she’d have time to sleep off a hangover.
She headed out of town, down the spur toward the highway, then turned onto a familiar country road. It had been a long time since she’d felt the need to drive this direction, to clear her mind, to breathe the air.
Her brain felt scattered, her thoughts hyper and incomplete. The car’s heater cooked her feet, but the knob was broken and she couldn’t turn it down. Instead, she cracked the window, turned on the radio, and started flipping stations, desperate to find something that matched her mood.
“…make the entire process easy for you…”
♪ I’d take it all back, take it all back, take it all back, just to have you… ♪
“…regain control over your healthcare costs…”
♪ Are you going to kiss me, or not… ♪
The night was black, the sky a thick, heavy blanket of clouds, allowing no glow from the stars, or the moon. Patches of snow shone silver from the beam of her headlight.
♪ All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall… ♪
“…your official country station…”
♪ I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral… ♪
“…across the state with snow and ice, making the roads treacherous for travel…”
“…He had, at the end, a plan for salvation…”
Frustrated, she turned down the volume, and drove the next two miles in relative silence. Her tires kicked up frozen gravel. Individual rocks dinged along the undercarriage of her car. Wind whistled through the cracked window. Her single headlight flickered when she hit a rough patch of washboard road. She slowed for an intersection, though there was no one she had to yield to.
She was alone, on the road, in the world. It was how she’d preferred to live her life. Except for Jimmy, there was no one she had ever loved, no one who had ever loved her. She’d never been the kind of girl who needed friends. Other than her mother, she had no family. Not since her brother was killed, since her baby had died.
Halfway to the next intersection, she slowed. Then stopped, put her car into park. She turned off her headlight but didn’t get out.
A lifetime had passed since she’d last walked into the valley and sat beneath the burr oak tree where she and Jimmy had tucked the memory of their accident. Part of the reason was the land had sold and was now used to run cattle. The beasts had soiled the ground, muddied the creek, stripped the life from the earth, and trampled the roots of her tree.
What innocence she’d buried had long been destroyed. Not only by the cattle, by also by the beast of man.
For that ground was where she had been raped.
She turned away from the valley, dug through the CD’s piled on her passenger seat.
Just the mention of his name…
She found Eric Church. Slipped him into the stereo. She kept the volume low and closed her eyes.
For everything Marissa Vasek had been in high school, Cody Mueller had been the opposite. She was poor, the child of a single mother, the daughter of a hoarder. He was a child of wealth, of healthy abundance. She’d always been slow to learn, struggled to read, hated school. He’d been elected class president, valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed.
She’d hung with the wrong crowd, smoked pot, talked back, got suspended. He’d kissed ass, played the teachers, mastered the game.
He’d dated cheerleaders. She’d dated Jimmy.
Secretly, she’d watched him, crushed on him. She went to his basketball games, crashed his parties, got drunk, acted stupid, hoping he’d notice. All through high school, freshman through senior years, he’d never once looked her way. He’d never spoken her name. He’d never returned her smile.
Except, the night before their high school graduation, he did.
Three weeks earlier, a semi had crossed the center line of the highway, and Jimmy had swerved. She’d healed physically from the car accident, from her miscarriage, from the surgery. But she had yet to heal emotionally.
She’d hated herself. She’d hated Jimmy. She’d hated the way the whole town talked about her, about him, about what they’d done. She was branded a whore, Jimmy even worse. Together, they were outcast.
She was high, all the time.
The night Cody noticed her, she was so stoned she could barely walk, could hardly keep her eyes open. But when he’d beckoned, she’d felt the first glimmer of joy hit her heart since the night of the crash, and she’d followed.
She’d climbed into the passenger seat of his truck, directed him out into the country, and led him to the oak tree. She’d wanted to show him where she’d buried her heart. She’d imagined he would hold her, listen to her sorrow, comfort her, kiss away her tears, mend her heart.
But all he’d wanted to see, to kiss and to touch, was her body, naked in the grass.
She’d said no. She’d screamed, No!
But Cody always got what he wanted. Even if he had to steal it.
Until that night, despite rumors to the contrary, Jimmy was the only boy Marissa had ever let see her body, kiss her skin, lie naked alongside her and touch her intimately. Together, they had learned how to please another, how to love another, how to respect another. He’d been gentle with her, playful with her, rougher when she’d wanted it. He’d stopped immediately if she ever felt uncomfortable.
He’d learned what she liked, and he’d perfected it. For her.
Jimmy was how she imagined all men would be. She had never been more wrong, more naïve, about anything in life.
That night in the valley, Cody had done what he wanted, how he’d wanted, when he’d wanted. He’d gotten hard over her struggles for him to stop. He’d slapped her, pinched her, punched her, and bit her breast so hard she’d thought the bruise would never heal.
He’d shoved her face down into the muddy earth, and he had taken her from behind. And then he’d left her beaten and bloody, her clothing torn, her body exposed, and returned to town without her.
She’d curled up under the tree, knees to her chest, and forced her eyes to dry. As she’d felt her body passing out, she’d prayed for God to let her die in her sleep.
Hours later, she’d woken up to a cold rain, her face tender and swollen to the touch, pissed off to still be alive, and determined to never feel weak or helpless again.
Years passed. She took control of her body, of pleasure and sex. She learned how to fight and resisted the desire to love. She never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Jimmy. And she’d never given Cody a second thought. Until now.
He was all she thought about as she drove home, as she pushed her dinner around her plate. She saw his stupid, ugly face when she stared at the TV. She could feel the ghost of his clammy hands, could smell the stench of his rotten breath as she tried to sleep.
In the morning, determined once again to regain control, she returned to work, to her cubicle, and returned Glenn to his place of honor beside her monitor on her desk. Then, she picked up the phone, and dialed the church.
When Pastor Tom answered, she stated with conviction, “We need to talk.”