This story is by Victory Jo and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
17.6 miles from shore to shore; that’s all that stood between her and freedom. Just 17.6 miles and a red light. Raelee’s Toyota crept to a halt at the stoplight. She’d traveled this bridge from the mainland to the peninsula many times. Just ahead, the spool of trees along the roadside would end and open up to the vast expanse where the bridge divided the bay and the Atlantic. She contemplated her last chance to turn around before the entrance toll. Could she really do this?
The wind raged against the night, howling its discontent, as the waves would try to beat the bridge’s stone legs into submission. Gulls floated in the air as if hung by strings near an open window. She needed to escape, start fresh in a new place where no one recognized her.
Like a marionette, she was tied to many obligations holding her in place. Struggling against the puppet master left invisible marks. Family and friends, many of whom she’d pushed away, weren’t enough to fill her lonely soul. As her heart thundered and cheeks grew tear-stained, indiscriminate moments from the last two years flooded her eyes.
One overcast weekday at work, Raelee received a call at her desk about a visitor in the lobby. “Thank you. I will be right out.” Replacing the receiver, she exited the work area through the wooden door separating her coworkers from outsiders. Her chest tightened. There he stood. She swallowed the lump in her throat, waved a thank you to the receptionist, and took hold of the lunch cooler in the visitor’s outstretched hand.
“You forgot this at home.” He drew his mouth in a hard line.
“Thank you. I know. I’m sorry. You didn’t need to come all this way.” She lowered her gaze, not meeting his stare. Please just go.
His face darkened as his back stiffened and cupped hands tensed discreetly at his sides. “You need to eat.”
“I would have figured something out.” Raelee shifted uncomfortably. “Really. You didn’t need to come.”
His decibels increased, causing the receptionist to shrink back. “Yes, I did! You are always forgetting things. That food needed to stay refrigerated, right? What if I had been at work? Then we’d have had to throw the food out.”
She glared at him. “You could have placed it back in the fridge.” She flinched. Should not have said that. Keep it together, Raelee.
“That is not the point!” Now he was shouting with his hands clenched in front of his abdomen. “Get it together!” He huffed out.
She stared after him before turning to the receptionist. Raelee avoided her gaze, releasing the breath she realized she’d been holding. “I’m sorry. He’s stressed about work, but he shouldn’t have overreacted like that. My inattention just added to his frustration.”
The receptionist nodded as a flustered Raelee walked back to her desk.
Another midwinter night, she was at an important meeting with an advisor. A shrill ringing disrupted the conversation. Raelee looked at her phone and sent the call directly to voicemail. Five seconds later, he was calling again. Directed to voicemail. Yet a third time. What the hell? “I’m so sorry, but I’d better see what he needs. It seems important.” He nodded. Stepping away from the table, she flipped the phone open and accepted the call. “What?”
“When I call, you answer. Got it? I put my shoes on to come looking for you.”
Ugh. She felt the heated words through the phone as a chill crawled up her spine. Her face flushed, and she clenched her teeth. “I told you I had a meeting. What do you need?”
“A message popped up about your show recording, but I X’d out of it by accident.”
Seriously? She sighed. “It’ll be fine. It should still record. If not, I’m not that worried about it.”
Tersely, “How much longer will you be?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Call me when you leave.” Click. The line went dead.
Raelee closed her phone. Sinking into her seat, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Please continue.”
A visit to a diner with friends one summer evening should have been a perfect ending to a night out. Instead, he berated a waitress for explaining how she could fulfill his meal request. “Don’t tell me. Just do it!” He got up, slammed his chair into the table, and huffed to the car.
Maybe I should just go. Raelee stood up to follow when her phone dinged with a text. You stay and eat. She resumed her seat.
Shaking heads and looks of pity engulfed Raelee. “I’m sorry. He shouldn’t have spoken to you that way.”
The waitress smiled, nodding slowly. “Shall I put this order in for you?”
“I don’t know what to do. She sighed, looking around at their friends’ faces. A deep breath. “Yes. Please make his a to-go, however you have to do it.”
“Well, that was crazy.” A friend trying to lighten the mood. The others agreed.
Ten minutes later, as food was being set on the table, her phone dinged. How much longer will you be? A heaviness consumed her.
Over time, he weaved tales of seeing his ex-girlfriends around town. Despite the time that had passed, he pontificated about their sullen expressions over their breakups. Raelee was now the lucky one. He puffed out his chest “knowing” that leaving him was their biggest regret.
He regaled her with his exploit of a failed fishing trip attempt he’d gone on with friends that resulted in closing down a bar for a game of stripper pool; it ended with everyone in their birthday suits.
Proudly, he boasted of a threesome happening with Raelee’s friend and ex-boyfriend right before they started dating. Humble he was not. His specialties included driving wedges and rifts between anyone who tried to get close.
His tales didn’t produce one intended effect in her: jealousy. Raelee saw through his tales for what they were, but overlooked what they insinuated to protect her heart. Instead, she focused on the good times: the laughs, the random bouquet of grocery store flowers, the honey sweet moments reserved for family and friends. She brushed the dreadful moments off, like dandruff on her shoulder. In doing so, she fell for his charm, never noticing as each string attached to his hand, the puppet master’s finest show yet.
He grew bolder away from prying eyes. With thinly veiled threats, he built walls to trap her. “I have people everywhere watching and reporting everything you do.” “They won’t believe you and will only try to hurt you.” “I will take you right here, right now, and I don’t care who sees it.” “You are mine.” But there was one that weighed heaviest on her heart. “If you leave, I will take him, and you will never see him again.”
Raelee shook her head, bringing that red light back into focus. Apologies and excuses on his behalf provided only a crude mask to what lie beneath. No one could save her from the puppet master. Glimpses manifested, but no one truly saw what was behind the curtain. Except, something was different now – a perfect little ten-pound bundle – who had suddenly become his pawn.
With her infant asleep in the backseat and suitcase in the trunk, 17.6 miles and a red light were all that stood between Raelee and freedom. The light turned green. With one movement, she severed the strings that bound her and embraced those 17.6 miles.