Authors: Max Ellendale
"What are you thinking about?" she asked, her voice
raspy. She scooted a little closer, inch by inch as if testing my reaction, or
"Wondering if I'm dreaming. Or nightmaring,
respectively," I confessed. "Wondering if you're really here or if
I've gone psychotic."
"I'm really here. Not sure about the psychotic part,"
she jested and I smiled a little.
Her head found its way to my pillow and eventually my shoulder.
Closeness felt both comfortable and strange all at once. She reached across me,
caressing my stomach under my T-shirt and narrowly avoiding the bruises. I bent
my arm that was under her and stroked her hair softly. We both sniffled on and
off. When she draped her leg over mine, my hand fell to her thigh, immediately
disturbing our peace. She jolted and cringed liked I'd burned her flesh.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I stopped touching her
altogether and that only made it worse. She rolled nearly on top of me, burying
her face against my neck. I lifted my hands away from her but touching her
seemed like a bad idea. She cried hard and so did I. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm
so sorry." I couldn't bear it, couldn't bear to see her suffering. I took
the risk and hugged her to me. Her response was the same. She wrapped her arms
around me and kept her face against my neck and hair. I held her until her
cries cooled to sobs, then sobs to gentle hiccups.
We spent three days like this. And I held her through it all.
"You should eat something," I told her, brushing her
hair from her face. She gazed up at me, groggy but she smiled. I slid my thumb
over her bottom lip and she kissed it.
"Did you break the kitchen?"
"Yes." I laughed a little bit. "I'll order
"Burgers and fries," she said. "Onion rings,
"Anything you want, Jilly. Anything."
"You?" Her smile continued and for just a few moments,
we were normal again.
"You've already got that," I said and she stroked my
cheek. I kissed her hand and reluctantly broke away from her to stand. "I
cleaned the bathroom down here to use."
"Good 'cause I have to pee." She stretched a bit and sat
up. I watched as she winced when she stood, just like last time. She smiled at
me when she left the room though the pit of my stomach churned with my worry
I ordered food then sat on the floor in the kitchen, surrounded by
broken things and thinking about what the man I murdered had done to my heart.
Because she is my heart. She's been my heart for two years and more. I listened
to the water of her shower and hid my face against my knees as I attended to
the intrusive thoughts. My hands covered my ears when her screams echoed inside
me. The only satisfying end came from the blast of my gun.
I was never more grateful for a piece of metal in my life.
We ate upstairs in the studio. I hadn't managed to destroy that
but none of her portraits hung anymore. Everything I'd done was packed away in
the storage cubbies like they used to be. We sat on the window ledge, listening
to the spring rain patter against the slanted glass window. Jilly ate more than
I did while she watched me. Her eyes never left me for longer than a few
seconds. I wouldn't know that if I wasn't looking at her, too.
For as traumatized as she was, relief seemed its equal. She no
longer looked over her shoulder or glanced to the locked doors to check on
them. I had to remind myself that, for Jilly, she was used to the chaos and the
pain. She came to me from that life.
"Have you called your brother?" she asked after a while
and I shook my head. "You should."
"I will. Rhoda, too," I said.
"You haven't spoken to her?"
"I haven't spoken to anyone."
She stood to ditch our wrappers in the trash and when she came
back, she sat closer to me, resting her chin on my knee. I ran my fingers
through her silky hair and she stroked my calf. "We should pick up the
living room and kitchen."
"How do you feel?" she asked, reaching forward to rub my
"Better. Not as tender to touch or breathe."
"Good. Jess?" She cupped my face in her hands and I met
her gaze. "You're really quiet."
"I know. Everything feels different," I said but when
her expression fell, I quickly added, "I mean, it's hard to get used to. I
still can't believe you're here. I'm afraid I'll wake up."
"I never wanted any of this to hurt you."
"I know, Jilly. One thing you can be confident in is that you
don't have to explain yourself. I saw Nate. I saw what he did to—" I
stopped myself. "If someone told me that they'd kill you if I didn't do as
they say, I might've done the same thing. I would have."
More tears welled in her eyes and she moved to me, the way she
used to, to sit between my legs. I leaned back against the wall and rested my
chin on her head. She pressed her ear to my chest and sniffled softly. "He
knew where you lived. The things he said he'd do to you…" She hiccupped
and I closed my eyes.
"He did them to you instead," I whispered and she
hesitated but nodded. "But not anymore. Not ever again. No one's ever
going to touch you again, Jillian.
." The last part came out
between clenched teeth and mingled with my tears.
She sniffled and stroked my forearm soothingly. "South
"I'll call the realtor."
We spent half a week cleaning up the house. Every room needed
cleaning, either from neglect or my destruction. We did the laundry room first
followed by gathering the laundry. The linens and bathrooms followed. Jillian
hauled the broken items out the back door while I covered the carpet with drop
cloths. We managed to salvage most of the furniture from the paint but the
walls couldn't be saved. We picked a soft blue-gray for the walls with white
borders. Decked out in old leggings and one of my paint-covered T-shirts, Jilly
again looked comfortable and like herself. I wore my usual jeans and
splattered, white button-down that used to be Graydon's. We pushed the table
and the sofa out of the way along with the television and its stand.
"None of the TVs work," Jilly said.
"I haven't paid the bill in awhile. I think the phones are
off, too," I said, pouring out the paint into the roller tray. Jilly had
already taped the borders.
"What'd you do while I was gone? You haven't painted anything
And fucked around in disgusting clubs
hoping to die.
"And break things."
"You really trust me with this paint roller?" She picked
it up and I showed her how to roll it out without being too drippy.
"Anything will be better than crazy handprints."
"Have you ever thought of painting a mural or something on
this big wall?" she asked after a few messy strokes.
We moved in silence while listening to the slurpy slap of paint
rollers. Jilly mimicked my movements though I felt her eyes on me every so
often. She seemed to watch me now more than she ever did. For the past two
years, we gazed at each other but now we seemed to
as if looking
for some sort of cue about what to do or say next.
The doorbell stuttered then rang and Jilly dropped her roller with
a splat onto the drop cloth. Her breathing picked up and her expression melted
from content to panic. I held my hand out to her and she took it.
"Go in the bedroom," I told her. "Close the
"Who is it?" She nearly squeaked when the bell rang a
"I dunno, baby. Go in there until I find out."
"I don't want you to go alone."
"Jess, open the door. The gate guard told me you were
here," my brother's voice boomed through the door and the bell rang again.
Jillian relaxed almost immediately but I grew more nervous.
"Just Declan." She sighed out his name like it was a
breath of ocean air.
I wasn't relieved. I opened the door while Jilly cleaned up the
splattered paint. My brother stood there, with his Irish blond hair, freckled
cheeks, and bushy beard. He rushed me and I nearly cried out with the force of
his hug on my sensitive ribs.
"Where the hell have you been?" he exclaimed. "Mom
said you didn't know where Jillian was and then you're phone was turned off.
And your place exploded."
"I'm here," I said after he let me go, forcing the grunt
from my throat. "Jilly's here." I waved him in and did everything in
my power not to keel over.
"That's all you have to say?" His voice continued at a
higher volume than usual. Jillian hurried over to me and touched my face just
when I felt about to puke. She immediately solved the problem by distracting my
"We went on a trip. Where've you been, De? I've missed
you," she said, and he hugged her, too. He calmed down finally and rubbed
her back a bit. When they leaned back, he looked the two of us over.
"You both look like shit. What kind of trip was it?"
"You want some tea? Jilly made passion tea," I said,
gesturing toward the kitchen.
"Quit sidestepping my questions and no thank you." He
frowned at me and crossed his arms over his chest. "I didn't come here for
"Well then, pick up a paintbrush and get to work if you don't
want to stand around doing nothing," I said and Jilly laughed a little.
To my surprise, he did it. The three of us finished a wall, in
relative silence, in just a few minutes. When we moved on to the next one,
Declan broke the mood.
"You really upset Mom," he said.
"I know," I said, glancing at Jilly whose brows
"She said you were acting the way you did after Graydon
died," he continued.
"I get it, De, really. We're just…" I sighed and turned
to face him. "We're just painting the living room, okay? That's what we're
Declan looked between the two of us, his eyes falling on Jillian
first. "You're letting her get away with this?"
"For now," she answered, her tone more confident than it
had been over the past few days.
We went on this way for an entire wall more until Declan finally
gave up. He leaned against the arm of the sofa and watched us quietly.
"I still think you should paint something on this wall."
She nodded toward it, her hands on her hips while she looked at it as if
mapping out the placement on a canvas.
"What'd you have in mind?"
"I'll paint a wall for you in our new place," I said and
"Your new place?" Declan asked.
"We're looking at a place in South Dakota," I said.
"Put a bid in."
"Did you really?" His eyes widened a bit.
"Black Hills National Forest area. It's perfect,"
Jillian said, her eyes lighting up a bit. I set the paint roller down and she
approached me, the bounce in her step returning. For the first time in months,
I actually felt myself smile. Not just on my face but on the inside, too.
"You're serious about this?" Declan stared, his mouth
hanging open a bit.
"Yeah." I nodded and slipped my arms around Jilly when
she moved to me. She hugged me then leaned back, smiling while she toyed with
my ponytail. I watched her lips, ruby and wet, and wondered when I'd last
kissed her. We hadn't since we'd come together again.
"Have you told anyone yet?" Declan pressed.
"No. We were going to wait to see if we won the bid," I
said, my hands falling to Jilly's waist. Her smile melted to a grin and I felt
her stomach quiver against my hip.
"You're both acting strange. You know that, right?"
Declan looked between us again. "Will you call Mom already?"
"Yeah, I will," I said.
"What are you going to do now?" he asked.
"Paint the living room."
After the final coat, Jilly cleaned up first while I capped the
paint. We'd do the borders tomorrow.
I showered and joined her in the bedroom in time to see her
combing out her hair. It was longer now and darker when wet, but I liked it
just the same.
"Why haven't you told your family anything?" she asked
while I pulled on my shorts.
"It's not their business."
"Declan's worried about you. You could tell him if you
"Tell him what, Jillian? That I killed a man while he raped
my girlfriend? It's not exactly something I'm comfortable with saying."
The words left me in a tone I didn't mean and Jilly's expression changed from
calm to hurt.
"You don't have to say it like that…"
"I'm sorry. I just...I don't know how to talk to them. Or
anyone." I sat on the bed and leaned my elbows on my knees. She set the
brush down and watched me. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so harsh."
"I know," she said softly.
"C'mere." I held my hand to her and she took it, joining
me on the bed. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry you had to do that," she said. "And I'm
sorry I left you."
"Either way, I would've ended up killing him."
"At least this way you didn't go to jail."
"That's the bright side." I laughed a little and she
smiled a bit.
"And I'm not dead," she said.
"No...You're not." I reached up and stroked her cheek
with the back of my hand. "Part of me expected to never see you again and
now I don't know what to do."
"Me either. You're hard to read right now."
"Declan hurt my side." I rubbed my ribs a little.
"When he hugged me."
"That makes you hard to read?"
"No, but it makes it harder to breathe."
"And makes your expression blanker. You're really
blank," she said, brushing wet strands behind my ear.
"I feel that way. You were afraid then blank, then afraid
"What am I now?" she asked, tilting her head.
"Better. More like yourself."
"I'm still me, Jess," she said, scooting back to lie
against the pillows. I followed her and turned on my unbroken side to face her.
"I'm still me. And I still love you. More than anything." Her words
traveled the space between us and brought a sting to my eyes, setting my
stifled emotions alight.