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The Fourteenth Time
When Leslie opened the door, she was face to face with a woman who's tears had streaked mascara and foundation into a muddy pool about her chin, water dotted with red from the cracks around the side of her eye. Again.
Leslie didn't want to spend the rest of the afternoon with this woman, trying to help her and heal her, only to have her words go in her ears and skip over her brain when she rushed home and ultimately did the wrong thing, laughing off the pain she cried about now. Leslie wanted to spend the rest of her day in her room writing her novel and eating Doritos, and tell this woman that she was sorry, but there was nothing she could do, and if she hadn't been able to help her the last thirteen times this'd happened, how did this woman think she's be able to help her now?
That is what Leslie wanted. But, fortunately, Leslie didn't get her way and, like always, resignedly held out her arms and let the woman crumple into them.
"Oh Leslie!" the woman moaned, "I'll never go back again, I swear, I hate him!"
That's what you say every time, my dear sister, Leslie thought as she patted her on the back. That's what you always say.
In moments like this, Jane often reflected on the state of her own sanity, Moments like this were rare, the times when she was left clear-headed and not overcome by emotion. I am not sane. I am illogical. Jane thought this, but she did not believe it. She followed her heart, and isn't that always the best thing to do?
Leslie was talking, saying something, probably about the fractured state of Jane's psychology. She didn't know, since she wasn't paying attention, and, thus, didn't care.
It seemed to Jane that Leslie presumed all of her troubles were a result of their terrible childhood that Leslie, heroine that she imagined herself to be, barely managed to rescue them from.
Jane didn't remember childhood being so bad. She remembered everything a little off, a little...skewed, but she couldn't quite place why.
Odd things, like the times Mother had gotten quiet. She wouldn't talk or...or move much. Over time, she seemed to fade, blending in with the couch, just watching TV with a glazed expression in her eyes. Sometimes she would lock herself in the bedroom. It put a damper on the house- things went uncleaned, laundry undone. In those days, people were quiet, and people were alone. It made Jane uncomfortable.
But that would never last for too long, before Mother would get a phone call, get dressed up, and start being happy again. Soon, her boyfriend would show up around the house, and it would be, 'Girls, this is Joe/Bob/Lennie. He's the best thing that ever happened to us,' and life would be back to normal.
Jane had tried explaining this once to Leslie, but she'd exploded.
"She wasn't happy, she was in pain!" Leslie had fumed at her younger sister, her neck-vein pulsating. "Every day she'd smile and hope things would be better, and every night after you went to bed she'd lock herself in her room and cry herself to sleep!
"None of them were any good! They took her money, her bed, her heart- and each one of them crushed it, leaving her to pick up the pieces. And she couldn't do it. She just couldn't do it."
The thing that irked Leslie about Jane is that she was always so goddamn positive about her life. Their life. Maybe she was younger, maybe she was just better at locking things away and forgetting them. But Leslie couldn't forget.
Perhaps there was a twisted part of her sub-conscious that didn't want to forget, always wanted to remember, wanted to point to that moment and say, "That's when I started hating men. That's when I started hating love. That's when Disney movies began to make me puke and fairy tales gave me tremors of disgust." Of course, underlying all hate is fear. So, though she wouldn't admit it, Leslie was afraid. Afraid of falling in love, afraid of happily-ever-after, but mostly afraid of turning into her mother. But, at least she had someone to blame.
Dan. They were engaged, their mother and Dan. This was supposed to be "it"- the wedding bells and white dresses and princess ever after. But Leslie peered into her mother's room that night.
There was shouting, and the lamp was toppled over on the floor, casting foreboding shadows on the red walls. Her mother cowered in a corner. Dan towered over her, drunk and swearing, a muscular man with shaggy brown hair and angry, irrational green eyes. He kicked her. She screamed. He kicked her again. She grabbed his leg pleadingly, dragging her fingernails down his shin. He flung her off against the wall; Leslie heard a crack. She screamed, and Dan whirled on her.
"Leslie, call the cops," her mom panted, tears streaming down her swollen face.
Leslie ran for the phone in the kitchen, but Dan bounded over her and ripped the phone socket from the wall, leaving an empty chunk in the plaster. Leslie felt a warm trickle run down her leg.
She saw Jane out of the corner of her eye, or at least she thought she did, but before she could shout anything she felt herself being thrust into the ground.
She woke up to a silent, empty house. She was only nine years old.
If that had been the end, perhaps Leslie would have gotten over it. But it wasn't. Oh, Dan was arrested and never bothered them again, but two weeks later her mom had a new boyfriend. The only difference was now Leslie knew not to get involved. Maybe they never hit her, maybe they did; they still hurt her. They kept her on a leash that eventually choked her to death. The only reason Mother ever gave for putting up with it was love- she loved them. They loved her. That is when Leslie learned how evil a thing love really was.
"Love is the only thing worth living for." Jane repeated these words to herself when she was hurting, like now. She sat in her sister's living room during an awkward silence.
Leslie sighed. "I wish we hadn't hurt each other when we were so young. You're my little sister. We'll always be family- you know that, right?"
Jane hugged her. "Yeah, I know. I love you." Leslie almost grimaced, but worked it into a smile. Jane looked thoughtful. "Leslie...I know Luke and I fight a lot, but why are you so keen on breaking us up?"
"Jane...you have to admit, Luke...he doesn't love you."
Jane looked stung, and pulled back.
"Look," Leslie pressed, "you know I love you, that's why you always come to me when things go wrong. It wouldn't kill you to hold things off a while, boyfriend-wise. I mean, you only broke up with Connor four months ago, and now you're in this mess again-"
"Oh, no, no, Luke's different, see? He's a musician, and he has the sweetest smile, and when he smiles at you, you feel like the best, happiest person alive-!"
"But he hasn't been smiling much lately, has he, Jane?"
Jane's eyes clouded over. "He loves me," she insisted stoutly.
"Jane, you just said you'd never go back."
"Well I was angry then, wasn't I?"
"Because he hit you! It's a valid emotion, Jane! And even if he didn't, he tries to control what you do!"
"Luke was right, I shouldn't have come here. You always try to turn me against him!"
"Always, Jane? You've been dating, what, a couple months now?"
"He hurt you Jane! And it's not just like he hit you, he-"
"He what?" Jane demanded, challenging.
"He's just like Dan!"
Jane stopped for a moment in confusion, pausing to place the name. Then it clicked, and she stopped again in shock.
"He's nothing like Dan!" Jane's nails dug into the side of the chair; shivering, she shrunk back into the corner of it, even as her eyes sparked with rage. "Luke loves me!" Her voice rose an octave, an animal yowl of pain. "You have no idea! You have never loved anyone, and no one will ever love you! You hate love, you have no idea what it's like!"
Leslie's eyes flashed, her breath quickened. Jane's words pierced like only the truth, or what's thought of as the truth, can. And it was worse coming from the twisted mess of her sister's mind. But, pain and thought were pushed away as she focused on her sister's gaze.
"He hurt you. People who love you don't hurt you," she whispered, revealing the tremor in her voice.
"No!" Jane shrieked.
"Yes," Leslie said ominously. Jane's eyes widened in terror.
"No!" she yelled again, throwing up her hands over her face as if to shield herself from her sister's words. Leslie lunged for her, tearing her arms away.
"Look at me," she demanded, whitening her sister's wrists with her grip. Jane tried to turn her head away, but Leslie shook her back, throwing off tears staining her cheeks. "Listen! He dragged you into the yard!"
"He didn't mean it-"
"Luke dragged you out and hit you!"
"He- he just-"
"Damnit, Jane!" Leslie exploded, "He beat you with a f***ing chair leg!"
"Haven't you ever made a mistake?" Jane cried.
"How can you defend him?! Jane- you came here because you're too afraid to go home to you own house! Damnit- you can't live like this!"
"I know!" Jane burst.
For a moment it was silent except for their breathing, searching each other's souls.
Leslie relaxed her grip on her sister's arms. Silent tears spilled forth from her lashes, running like a waterfall down her face and neck.
"I know," she said again, quieter. Jane took a breath. "I-I know he doesn't love me a-a-and I know, d-deep down I-I..." she closed her eyes and inhaled again."I don't really love him." Jane dropped her head and shuddered; Leslie tilted it up again. "I don't love Luke," Jane whispered shakily.
"That's good," Leslie murmured soothingly, holding her sister's hand. "That's right. That's okay."
"Leslie," Jane said, pushing back her hair, "I'm...scared."
"It's okay. You don't have to be scared of him any more. We'll-"
"No! No, I mean, I'm not scared of Luke- well, I am, but- I'm scared of not-Luke more. Without Luke, it's like...I'll be alone. I'll be nothing. Oh, Leslie, that'd be the worst thing on earth- that emptiness, that engulfing darkness...I-I can't-"
"Yes, you can. You can! Jane, Jane, listen to me. Listen to me, sis, it may seem scary, but really, it's freedom! Total freedom."
"Freedom." Jane turned the word over, mesmerized. "Freedom."
"Just call him. Call him and break up with him. You can do it, Jane."
"I'll be here for you."
Jane turned to Leslie. "I really love you. You know that, right?"
"Yeah. I do too."
Leslie watched with a heavy heart as Jane walked out the front door. Maybe she will break up with him. Maybe she'll get her life back on track. But her spirit knew the truth all too well.
Three weeks later, Jane and Luke were engaged.
Three weeks after that, Leslie opened her front door. This is the fifteenth time, she counted on her mental tally. Then she let her sister in.
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