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Live Through This and You Won't Look Back

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construction site at night with title text

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Kenyatta loves her. Of this, Mandy is sure. Deep down, no room for doubt, between every time he says she’s beautiful and every time he says the words themselves and every time he touches her.

He’s always thinking about her. Constantly. The texts, erratically emoticoned but otherwise totally regular, whenever he’s on break or eating lunch or on his way home; the way his eyes follow her; the way he smiles at her.

She always texts back, even though most of the time she’s trying to sleep in the weird thin darkness that comes out of turning off the light and safety-pinning thin curtains shut against the day. It’s not worth it to deal with how upset he gets. She wakes up even when he doesn’t text because her body knows when he takes a break for lunch, knows to expect complaining about cold limp burgers that he keeps buying in the mornings because Burger King is the only thing on the way and open and cheap, knows when he starts heading home on the three busses and half-hour walk it takes to get back to their shitty one-room apartment, and knows to expect him to tell her how much he wants to see her, how beautiful she is, how much he loves her. The same words, all the time.

She’s exhausted at work, but it’s better than getting hit.

She has a job now. Night shift, janitor for Cleaner Maids Pro. The receptionist? secretary? manager? girl in massive earrings who sets her shifts and always looks bored out of her mind had told her she could be moved at any time, but right now she’s in a dingy office building with grey carpets. The carpets are most of what she notices. Most of her job is pushing a monster of a vacuum between cubicles—although the carpets’ color, probably intentionally, means they never look clean. The vacuum looks like a beige plastic trashcan, is two-thirds of her size, and fights her on every turn. She can’t entirely untether her mind because every ten minutes it gags on the grit in the carpets and she has to restart it by pressing hard with a spread hand against one of the loose plastic panels and leaning on the button.

She doesn’t mind it. There’s almost never anyone in the building—once in a while a few people end up working late, bent close to their computers, but usually the sight of her embarrasses them into leaving. She’s the cleaning lady to them, in an oversized grey uniform shirt she hasn’t even bothered to hike up, and she doesn’t mind that at all. It’s a relief. She knows a year ago she would have hated the way their eyes slip past. She would have made her eyeliner thicker and picked a brighter shade of lipstick and done something to make their eyes snag on her.

The ones who stay late are usually younger guys, probably eager to impress their bosses. Other than their ambition, some of them remind her of Lip. Every time she thinks about Lip—and she thinks of him at odd times, not just on the night shift but when she picks up sandwich materials from the grocery store, or buys a new bus pass from the unresponsive ticket machines—humiliation slides a hot second skin under hers, head to toe and too tight. She hates every memory of herself looking at him, every memory of herself laid open. The worst part had been that she couldn’t stop.

She worries about Ian. She misses him less complicatedly.

It’s a lie, what Kenyatta says about her being beautiful. But at least he believes it. At least he says it. At least he loves her.

 

Maybe she’ll try without love for a while. The thought turns her already vivid dreams into constant nightmares where before the nightmares were only intermittent—as erratic as Terry’s jail time although not so conveniently explainable. For a solid week she wakes up with adrenaline snapping her eyes open and making her arms and legs weak and dream-details more real than the waking life waiting three hours away. Certainly more real than Kenyatta’s solid form beside her, when it’s even there.

 

Mandy is so tired of throwing herself out of herself. Like she’s going fishing—sticking herself on the hook and casting into deep cold water like a dad on a father-and-son bonding trip from a hundred years ago. Hurling herself as an offering at Lip, because every so often he takes the bait and bites.

It takes a while for it to sink in that she’s tired of bruises, too.

 

Oddly enough it’s Karen that catalyzes things. Mandy knows perfectly well she should feel bad about Karen—specifically about hitting Karen with her car. At the time, she hadn’t let herself think about it much. When she finally does, square on, it’s like grabbing a broken arm to test the pain, except when she grabs this break she finds it isn’t, it’s whole and strong. (She knows what a broken arm feels like. She catches herself the fleeting thought that at least Kenyatta’s never broken her arm.)

Karen crunched. Mandy had never felt so powerful or so clearheaded as in the moment right after. Body on the road, blood on her car, and everything stripped away that slows her down.

For a while, it’s remembering that Karen hadn’t died that keeps her quiet. What if she neither kills him nor leaves him conveniently brain-dead?

But she comes back again and again to the memory of the car and the world gone clear despite the night all around her. The thud of the car hitting Karen and the crunch of her body breaking had also been the sound of something in Mandy getting broken away, something she didn’t need and something that had been making her cringe. The sound of her own body waking up—her blood moving faster in response to Karen’s spilled—and her mind settling quiet and sure into it.

She’d done it for Lip. That’s what had freed her to do it.

 

Maybe if they had sex more she wouldn’t be thinking about killing him. Sex, unlike scrubbing port-a-potties, pouring concrete, or sorting garbage, is something he’s good at. He fucks like a machine, never runs out of batteries, and as a bonus, babbles—fragments of so hot and her name and so so hot. She comes almost every time and she never has to feel like he’s focusing on her body but she also knows he believes she’s beautiful.

That’s what she went with him for. It seemed unlikely she’d find that combination again. His temper had fewer tripwires than Terry’s, too.

Except now she works the night shift and he’s up at five in the morning to catch the 7 bus and then the 163 bus and walk another half an hour to the construction site under the overpass, and back after another hour and fifty minutes at night after spending the evening with his band of friends. She’s gone out with them a few times, to grimy-walled sports bars with pool tables with all the felt worn off. About half of them bring girlfriends. He and his friends have it down to a science: just enough appreciation of each other’s girl’s beauty, but not so much to provoke anyone to butt defensively into each other’s space and start a fight.

One time one of the other girls had noticed a bruise on her collarbone. Mandy’d thought it would pass for a hickey, but it was obvious the other girl saw fingermarks the moment their eyes met. A complicated series of expressions, all there and gone in a moment, made the other girl’s face alive for the first time that evening: anger, sympathy, bitterness, resignation, the barest hint of disgust—at Mandy? at herself?—a twitch of wry fellow feeling. I’m sorry, said the tiny twist at the end of her mouth.

Mandy found her own eyes traveling over the girl’s dark brown skin in search of fellow injuries, but she didn’t find any.

Kenyatta thinks she’s beautiful even bruised. When she’s naked he touches the bruises gently—he doesn’t say anything but he doesn’t ignore them, and he still says she’s beautiful.

 

“I’ve been thinking, baby. We should buy a car,” Kenyatta collapses onto the couch-bed, currently in couch mode, and sprawls, stretching out his arms. The springs make a sad strained noise, and the frame shifts unsteadily, threatening to turn back into a bed.

They can’t afford it. They’d sold Mandy’s car for the security deposit on their apartment, to a skinny smiling youth who talked and was suitably impressed by Kenyatta’s muscles and talked and ended up taking it for at least five hundred dollars less than it was worth. Construction pays better than port-a-potties, barely, and Mandy’s work is steady, but they’re still late with rent every month while Mandy treks to the nearest ATM that doesn’t charge five bucks to add the twenty or thirty dollars they’re short—either stolen or borrowed from their future grocery money—to their bank account (which is Kenyatta’s bank account.) They’ve both got shit credit, though Kenyatta’s is worse.

He’s looking at her. His eyebrows come together, slightly, almost like he’s confused, and he unhooks his arms from the back of the couch.

She smiles at him, crosses the room to slid next to him on the sagging cushions, and puts a hand on his knee. “That’s a great idea.”

Kenyatta relaxes again and beams at her. “Mose can get me a deal—he works part time at a used lot downtown and he knows the owner really well, and we’ve been talking about this thing he’s been wanting to try where you can make the engine faster by swapping out some of the…”

She had done it all so fast.

She had done it like a fish on a hook comes out of the water when someone pulls on the line—except she’d done it under her own power, a fish choosing to move with the hook to hurt less. Instinctive, but coupled with urgency—pulling a hand back from a fire, flinching when someone raises a fist.

He hadn’t even had to raise his fist. She was still trained.

 

She talks and nudges him into going out without her so she can sleep. It’s dangerous to do that too often, but Mandy can feel her body panicking from his nearness—all brittle and tense and fragile, everything stretched and tensed too far, muscles frayed and weak and ready to snap. It is, she realizes, how she always feels around Kenyatta.

Trying to get her body back, she turns the couch back into a bed by herself. It’s an awkward job, involving a lot of shoving and not cutting herself on the ragged edges of the metal frame, and it doesn’t much help. Mandy pins the curtains shut and turns out the lights and forces herself to lie down and close her eyes.

She kills him in her head—with the car she doesn’t own anymore, with a gun she doesn’t have in her house any more, with poison on his pizza. This is nothing new—she’s been doing it since she remembered Karen. Now, though, she imagines getting away with it.

She imagines Mickey, carrying the body over his shoulders sideways and swearing at her, bitching about how she couldn’t have murdered someone smaller. “Hope you got a plan for where to dump this fucker cuz I’ve already gotten four inches shorter from having him on top of me, how did you fucking stand it so long. He’s heavier than a grand piano.”

—had Mickey ever shifted a piano as part of the boys’ moving company scam? She wasn’t sure. Probably not. He wouldn’t say grand piano, anyway.

…but Ian would be there too, and he would just grunt and hoist until they had Kenyatta awkwardly balanced between them, like a moving doorway, and she would walk through it and they would take him out to one of the scrubby abandoned lots between shitty apartment buildings and dig him a half-deep grave, and heave him in. He’d go in crooked, a limb flopping over the shallow lip of the ditch, and Ian and Mickey would both huff fuck or shit at that, and Mandy would push him in the rest of the way. She’d throw dirt on his face til it was gone, and they’d all tamp it down together.

They’d go out to the lake. They’d bring along a half-full handle of tequila of Svetlana’s and a six-pack of beer of Ian’s and drink it all in a heap together on the sand. Shotgun the beers, crumple the cans and make a competition of how far they could throw them into the water. Ian would try skipping one, and it’d hit the water at the right angle but just keep going down, and she and Mickey would make fun of him until all three of them were leaping over each other and wrestling, shoulders leaving big track marks in the sand.

She didn’t know how they’d ended up back in Chicago, but of course they had.

That thought killed it. No Mickey, no Ian, no lake and no booze, no lights in long broken lines across the water radiating toward her, no water looking so dark and clean that the illusion overpowered knowing how filthy the lake was. Just her.

She opens her eyes to the cut-price dimness, smells again the faint and constant rancid smell of her new home, feels the place where the couch-bed splits sagging and trying to swallow her up.

Mandy swallows and swallows herself, trying to get the knuckled fist choking her throat back down into her chest or her belly, back to one of the bearable places it’s been for so long.

She can’t do it. She could make it bearable, eventually. Everything’s bearable eventually—or you can always eventually get bent and folded into someone who can bear it. Mandy thinks about Karen again, and folds her own hands into fists instead.

 

The next day she goes out to the construction site at dusk with a plan, and smiles at him and runs her hands up his arms and they fuck between a bulldozer and one of the cement mixers. A tiny part of her wonders if this will make her think the sex is worth it again, but she doesn’t. Being without love doesn’t seem so terrifying anymore, she thinks, while he moans that he loves her.

It’s fall, and perfect. Cold enough she can wear a coat, which is where she puts her biggest kitchen knife. If Kenyatta ever catches a glimpse of it, she’ll tell him it’s so she can feel safe walking to the site. He’ll grin and tell her he’ll just make sure everyone knows she’s his girl, so no one’ll ever mess with her, and she won’t need it. He never notices the knife. He isn’t interested in the coat.

 

Five times, she figures, is enough to make a good pattern. Four nights in a row and then she skips the next one—calls in sick to work (it’s bad, a black mark, and she feels her stomach clench when she calls, stumbles over the words, because they fire people who call in sick, they told her so sideways when they hired her, even though she’s leaving soon) because she needs desperately to sleep, and then the next night after that she goes out to him again and then to work and then, on the seventh night—

 

Mandy’s feet kick up as many chip bags and candy wrappers as leaves as she walks under the overpass. They hardly sound different, either, and she leans her weight down harder to hear the crackles.

She’d shivered and zipped up her coat when she first got off the bus, but after twenty-five minutes walking she’s perfect. She won’t even be too hot in the coat until she’s ready to take it off.

Mandy can practically hear her blood thundering under every square inch of skin—it makes her worry about the knife; the slightest touch and her blood will gush out, wanting to be free, and give her away.

In the other pocket of the coat is a packet of baby wipes, for after.

This is a scrubby outskirt part of town, full of awkward patches of dead grass and cracked sidewalks and empty glass windows with business space for rent in them. Kenyatta’s construction project—Mandy intentionally keeps forgetting what they’re building—is probably an attempt to change that. Every day for the past five nights she’s come they’ve covered up another roped-off section of earth with concrete, and the steel skeleton above the hardened concrete sections has gotten higher and denser. There are enough bulldozers, concrete mixers, and excavators to make a miniature city that still outsizes her.

The overpass curves away and Mandy emerges to the sky. There are more stars than in Chicago. Probably it’s still not very many, but it feels that way.

When she gets to the site, Kenyatta is waiting for her where she’s led him for sex the last five times—the boarded-off square of earth where the next slab of baseboard concrete is going to go. There’s plenty of room for them to sprawl out, and her hair doesn’t get tangled in rebar. The dirt is soft.

He’s already lying down on his back, propped half-up on his elbows, watching her. His teeth flash a smile.

“Hey, baby,” Mandy says, easily, and can’t help walking a little faster, almost breaking a jog over to him. His smile widens fondly as, a little awkwardly, she kneels over him and straddles him, and widens more when she grinds down on him and leans in to kiss him.

She’d pictured so many ways for it to go wrong. The knife tangling in her coat, Kenyatta spotting it and raising his hand to stop the cut, the knife snagging on bone, bouncing off a rib, Kenyatta turning at just the wrong moment. She had imagined what would happen if he had the chance to fight back: Kenyatta beating her, fists thudding, every punch shoving her sideways and into more pain, and Mandy had remembered how hard it was to do anything, think anything, move even, when there was that much pain. When someone was holding you in place with one massive hand, and punching you with the other in the joint of the shoulder, on the cheekbone, in the chest, in the kidney—Mandy had imagined it so vividly her body’d gone frantic with fear and her muscles pulled so tight she thought they would snap. She’d imagined stabbing and stabbing, clumsy and desperate and desperately keeping a hold of the knife because if she lost it she was lost, imagined the mess

Imagined for the first time not holding back, because if she gave anything less than everything she would die.

She can’t keep kissing him like this or he’ll realize something’s wrong.

Mandy puts one hand in her coat and grips the knife, shifts her fingers just a little, holds it harder. Her heart doesn’t feel like it’s beating—it thrums in her chest in one continuous convulsion. The knife seems so light. She doesn’t know if she can count on it; it feels too easy in her hand. Steadying herself against his wide-muscled shoulder, Mandy holds him and herself together and in place.

Mandy draws the knife out and slashes so fast and so hard her hand barely slows when the blade hits flesh and she cuts his throat.

His blood is hot. It floods over her fingers. Kenyatta makes a choked breathy sound and then a horrible whistling noise as air escapes the gape in his throat, and dies.

His eyes are open, fixed on her, and although in the darkness Mandy can’t see his expression, it doesn’t matter. His love doesn’t matter weighed against what he did to her.

Scooping up his discarded shirt, Mandy scrubs off her hand. Blood smears on the fabric. There’s enough blood that she has to finish up by wiping her hands first on his jeans and then a whole fistful of baby wipes.

The corpse’s dick is still hard. Mandy briefly considers cutting it off, but decides that would be silly.

The earth is freshly turned and loose enough that it doesn’t take Mandy long to scoop out a shallow ditch. She still has plenty of strength left to roll Kenyatta in—the body moves readily when she wants it to, in a surge of effort. The surge is caged under her skin, filling her with energy.

She doesn’t want to let go of the knife, but with reluctance Mandy admits to herself she has to get rid of it. So she stabs the knife into his chest.

The first time she tries, she hits ribs and the blade vibrates unpleasantly in her hand, but when she does it again it sinks in, clean and satisfying, until the blade is totally buried.

Her right shoulder burns, but it’s a nice burn, like twenty-dollar whiskey instead of fifteen, as she covers him with earth. A thin layer of sweat dries on her skin with every gust of breeze, like armor.

Bent double, Mandy brushes the dirt around, muddling footprints and the grave and the imprint of Kenyatta’s body.

Some weird chemistry makes the dirt and blood smell wonderful mixed together.

 

The air no longer crowds close around her, slows her down. It’s no longer thin in her lungs, making her feel always a little floating, a little far away. Mandy walks out of the construction site feeling as though existing is effortless. Mandy walks out of the construction site feeling as though she’s ready to be seen. Mandy walks out of the construction site with her face hurting, and it’s been so long that it’s only when she lifts a hand to see if she’s accidentally cut herself that she realizes she’s smiling.