A Need for Shelter by Audrey Johnson
“She says it’s not abuse because there’s no bruises, you know, because she doesn’t actually hit me. She just—” Owen twists a hand through the humid air in an arc, a weak summary of the terror his wife causes.
Cicadas sing in the vines and brush that surround the outside of the patio trellis.
Liam’s chest burns with the beginnings of upheaval. “Doesn’t matter if she hits. She hurts you on purpose. That’s abuse.”
Owen shrugs. “She has a point though. She doesn’t beat me or anything, and what’s a little name calling.”
“What about the sex stuff?”
“What sex stuff?” There’s a frown and a scoff. Owen takes a swig of his lemonade. While he plays with the mouthful, swishing it around with his tongue, he stares through the sliding glass doors at the hotel room where he’s hidden the last week. The flex of muscles in Owen’s jaw and neck brings out a sweat on Liam’s forehead. He lets his eyes drift over his friend’s throat, where bruises would decorate were Helen less restrained. Liam edges his hands down the rusty armrests of his chair to keep from yanking on his hair when Owen returns to the conversation, “That doesn’t really count, you know. I mean it’s not like it hurts, not really, she’s just—you know. Sometimes it still feels good. Once I relax.”
Liam reminds himself to breath, to be calm, not accusing. Never accusing. “But you don’t want to do it. That’s the point, you don’t want to and she manipulates you into doing it anyway.”
“Anytime you try to fight back she manages to guilt you into backing down. It’s wrong, Owen. It’s sick.”
“Would you quit being so dramatic?” Owen sets his glass down too hard and lemonade sloshes over its side, coating his fingers with sugary liquid.
Squeezing the metal of his chair, Liam waits for Owen to finish cursing and scrubbing his hands over faded jeans before saying, “I’m not being dramatic.”
“Look are you going to leave with me or not?” Laying one hand flat on the table, the other reaches for Owen’s leg. Liam manages to curl it into a fist and bump the man’s knee instead of digging it into cloth and flesh, and pulling.
Owen’s expression goes flat. His words drag in the air, too damp and heavy to contain any snap. “Leaving—running, wouldn’t fix anything. We’re not kids anymore.”
The cicadas cease their song.
Metal scratches over concrete as Liam stands and says, “Fine. I’m done then.”
He makes it to the main door of the hotel room before stopping. The door handle is slick under his fingers. He stares at his nails where they rub against the silver finish.
Shaking his head, he spins on his heel, crosses back to the patio where Owen still sits. He knocks their knees together as he grabs one side of his friend’s face and leans down. First a bite to the top of Owen’s ear, then a kiss to his temple.
Owen doesn’t look up, but he nods.