The clock on the answering machine said 8:15 when she got home and checked her messages. A few from friends, one from the store, and a few hang-ups. By the time the tape got to Mark's voice she was making a drink in the kitchen, and as he spoke she stood still in front of the freezer, her hand reaching for the ice.

" I know its been awhile but I've missed you. How are you doing? I'm between meetings and I thought I'd come by and see you later, around ten?"

The tape clicked off and rewound, and Ellen let the door swing shut, slowly dousing the only light in the room. She waited in the dark for her breathing to slow down, but it never did. Why did he call,now, after all this time? Whenever she got herself a little stronger, a little further away, he would call, or leave a note at the shop, asking her to see him, or call him, and she always had. The first few times they saw each other, after he had left, she would become almost lightheaded, thinking that he wanted her back, and would try to do and say just the right things to make him stay, but he never did for more than a few days before he would leave again, promising to call. He never did, and she would promise, after each episode, to never speak to him again.

She tried to remember how long this had been going on, and decided that it must be three or four years, although she wasn't sure, because it felt like forever, and if it wasn't him it had been someone else, from her best friend's father to a series of men who would touch her, use her as if they were deaf, and couldn't hear her voice when she spoke. Maybe she said the wrong things, or didn't sound like she meant it, but all the men in her life had stopped according to their timetable, not hers, and she was tired. Tired of feeling empty, tired of waiting, tired of justifying and rationalizing behavior that in stronger moments made her feel ill. She remembered sending Mark a Christmas card one year and seeing it, unopened, sticking out of a stack of newspapers in his house the night he called her up,late, and gotten her to come over. He made love to her on the couch, fast and brutal. She could remember the smell of whiskey as he finished, and stood up, saying he had to be at work early. She spent the night awake, watching his back as he slept, and left before the sun came up.

She looked up at the clock, startled to find it was almost nine. She moved through the house into her bedroom. Opening drawers she pulled out a piece of black underwear that he had seen in a catalog and liked, and she had almost gotten them on when the feeling hit her, hard, and she knew that Mark would never see her like that again. She didn't want him to.

She dropped the lacy black panties into the drawer and reached under the folded things until she found the gun. The owner of the store she managed had given it to her a few weeks before, saying he worried about her, all alone at night. She was terrified of it, and had only shot it twice, in a field, and the sound had scared her so much that she had hidden it away until now. She sat down on the bed and checked the chambers, glad it was loaded, and ran her hand over the barrel. She felt calm, stronger than before.

She sat, for what seemed like hours, listening to the clock tick, and she knew what to do. Walking to the front of the house she sat down on a chair and looked out at the night, holding the gun and wondering if he was going to show up. If he didn't it wouldn't be the first time she had been tossed aside, but either way it would be the last.

Ellen watched the traffic light at the corner change, its colors bouncing off her glass. A car slowed to a stop outside and she stood, glad that he had shown up. The car sat there without turning off the engine, and inside Ellen raised the gun from her side and aimed. As she fired the telephone began to ring, forever, until the answering machine picked up.

" Hey, it's Mark. I'm stuck at the office--maybe I'll call you later. Sorry."

Ellen laughed as she lay on the floor, and felt the blood run through her fingers, and wondered if he would call back.


© James Mann 1996

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