Let This Remain
I nuzzled in closer to the smooth sheets beneath me, warmth permeating throughout my entire body as I felt sunlight blanketing me in comfort. Goosebumps raised over my bare arms as I shifted, my legs tangled in sheets softer than any I had ever felt before. My fingers drifted over the patches of a quilt, settling into the indents and ridges, running over the thick home stitched threads. I moaned quietly in protest to my own waking body, not yet ready to relinquish the hazy dream that I was clinging to in my mind. My mouth was warm and groggy, my hair thrown messily over my face. I had begun to settle back into my dream-like state, until I jumped, not recognizing where I was. I had never had a comfortable bed at home. Never any soft sheets, only a scratchy mattress that had a scrappy comforter on top. There was a window in my room, but I wasn’t usually allowed to pull the curtains back and let the sunlight in. Dad believed the neighbors would look in, try to see if we had anything worth stealing. Always paranoid.
I sat up quickly, whipping my head around, taking in the light washing over everything, the golden luminosity of the morning sun soaking everything in an iridescent glow. Not only was I in a bed, a real bed with a frame and sheets and everything, but I also had two blankets atop me. The luxury of more than one blanket, one that wasn’t littered with holes, was new to me. As I studied my surroundings, the memories of the day before came flooding back. This was my home now.
I scrambled for my phone, realizing it must be late as the sun rose higher in the sky. Checking the time, I saw it was already 6:10. Usually I was up by 5. I stumbled out of the comfort of the bed, yearning for the sheets to pull me back and wrap me in their warm embrace, my head foggy, relaxed once again as I realized I was safe. Finally, safe. Treading into the bathroom, my feet tingled in protest against the cold tile, a stark difference to the warm hardwood floors. I turned the knob on the old-fashioned bath tub, and quickly enough it was filling with hot water. I stripped from my pajamas, already barely clothed in only a tank top and underwear, dropping them near the door as I descended into the scorching water, just as I liked it. My hair sprawled around me as I sunk into the base of the tub, my back running along the porcelain interior, my arms wrapping around my knees as I waited for the water to consume me. I felt my body waking up, my senses stirring.
Amid the immense comfort that surrounded me I felt an aching in my chest. An emptiness settled into me, overwhelming me quickly. I wasn’t used to this, to feeling safe, feeling like I didn’t have to worry. I was amazed at the difference it could make to wake up without fear. It felt like taking my time in a warm bath alone with my thoughts was an indulgence, an extravagant amenity that I had never experienced before. What would happen if I had to go back? Back to the way things were. Back to him. I hugged my knees tighter, my hair sticking to my face with water and sweat. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to go away from this safe space.
I sighed softly in the still air, the only sound around me the faucet slowly filling the tub. My chest felt tight, my mind spinning with all the possible scenarios of how I could lose this short lived security. I clung to my legs, counting the freckles on my knees as I lost myself in thought, before I finally sank into the water and washed away the panic that was eating away at me. As I toweled off, I still felt the fear sitting on my shoulder, chewing on my neck, invading all my personal thoughts.
I decided that I would leave all that behind me in the bathroom, and steeled myself as I emerged from the steamy chamber. I put on my best poker face, and closed my eyes, taking one final deep breath before I started the day.
Rummaging through my closet, I threw on the first flowy summer dress I could find, along with a cardigan and some comfortable flats. All my clothes were muted and earth toned, subtle and quiet. I pushed myself to leave the confines of my room, quietly making my way into the kitchen. I searched around for any signs of life other than myself, but only found a silent house. He must not be awake yet.
I began some initial chores, dusting the living room, putting on a load of dishes. Despite the fact that he was a bachelor, and lived alone in this house, it was surprisingly clean. I was a little lost as to why he really needed a live in maid. He seemed quite capable, and still did his own fair share of cleaning up after himself. He didn’t leave things laying out of place, or have trash anywhere it shouldn’t be. He threw his laundry in the hampers and put his dishes directly into the dishwasher when he was done with them. He was tidy on his own.
I opened the back door, leaving it ajar as I stepped onto the porch, letting some fresh air into the open kitchen area. The backyard wasn’t particularly large, an area of cement just beyond the door acting as a porch, with a few small trees sprinkling the yard. Just to the side of the patio area was a small flower bed that was well kept, small delicate flowers planted in rows. They were all the same type, all pink and soft. I reached over, grabbing a silver metal watering tin that was placed nearby on the ground. I sprinkled them with water, watching it roll over the smooth petals, dripping off in beads. Lowering the tin, I reached down, gently stroking one of the flowers, feeling the smoothness of the petals against my fingertips. They were beautiful, as if they weren’t meant for human eyes. Pure and untainted by the pain of this world, they would only ever know this yard, this delicate existence.
I jumped as I heard someone shift behind me.
“Mr. Carli-…Austin,” I corrected myself, standing up as I turned, coming face to face with him. He held a cup of coffee in his hand, steam billowing over the top of the mug, drifting upwards, the scent filling the outside air. “I’m sorry. I was just admiring the flowers,” I admitted quietly, setting the watering can by my feet. His face was stoic as usual, unchanging as I spoke. He had a bit of stubble lining his jaw, making him look more rugged than the day before. Regardless of how indifferent his facial expressions were, his eyes always looked gentle. A gentle giant. I tried not to smile at the thought. He nodded in response, sipping on his drink.
“Chrysanthemums. They’re my favorite,” he said unobtrusively, staring down at them. His voice was almost as delicate as the flowers themselves. Maybe he didn’t want to ruin the still hush of the morning. It felt like we were in our own little quiet world on his back porch.
“…Did you plant these yourself?” I wasn’t sure why I was asking him questions, engaging conversation. I had every intention of avoiding interaction with the owner of the house when I applied to this job, but something about him made me feel like I could ask him anything without fear of being rebuffed. Maybe it was his gentle nature, or how softly his hands touched everything, like he would break it if he weren’t careful. He nodded in response to my question, falling silent for a moment before he spoke.
“I planted them a year ago. I was researching flowers and their meanings. These represent the death of a loved one, and respect for that person,” he stooped down, his fingers gliding over them. Even when he was crouching he was half my height. A silence settled over us, and I didn’t respond, feeling that he was hardly talking me anymore, but simply stating his thoughts aloud. I wondered who had passed away. Was that why he lived alone? Was that why this house felt like a place untouched by time and sound, always still and unchanging?
Austin rose swiftly, turning and disappearing back into the house. He left the door open behind him, and just like that he was gone. I finished watering the plants and returned inside as well, making my way into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. I wondered why he was awake so early. Perhaps he was an early riser like me? I wasn’t sure I would be used to the company at this hour. Usually this was the time I had to myself, alone with my thoughts.
It didn’t take me long to finish cooking breakfast, simply scrambled eggs and toast with jam. The scent wafted up into my nose as I carried a plate to the back of the house, to Austin’s study, where he spent most of his time it seemed. My stomach grumbled quietly, and I was thankful that he didn’t seem to hear it as I tapped on the open door.
“Would you like breakfast?” I implored and he nodded. I stepped lightly into the room, feeling like I was intruding on a private space that didn’t belong to anyone but him. I placed the plate on the side of his desk, and turned to leave, but something caught my eye. A picture, of what seemed to be Austin, though young and bright eyed, standing with an older woman with her hands placed lovingly on his shoulders, both of them smiling widely at the camera. His mother, maybe? This was the only family photo I had seen in the entire house. He followed my eyes to the photograph and moved promptly, turning the photo face down. I met his eyes, and though they weren’t threatening he almost seemed like a wild animal that was giving me a cautionary look, one that reminded me of my place. I shook my head, my face warming with a feeling of guilt, though I wasn’t sure why. I quickly turned to leave, but was stopped short by his deep voice.
“We’re eating at the table,” he stood with his plate, walking up to me, but waiting for me to leave the room first. I took the hint, stepping out ahead of him, and he shut the door behind us. It felt like a warning. We walked down the hallway, him only a few steps behind me the entire way, and I made myself a plate as he sat down. I decided not to say anything about the strange behavior or any of the questions I had as I settled across from him. This meal was the similar to the night before, dining in silence, only the sound of utensils hitting the plates and the occasional breeze outside the back door.
“Do you need anything from the grocery store?” I spoke, shattering the quiet. He nodded, standing and retrieving a list from the counter top, placing it on the table and sliding it towards me before he sat again, finishing his food. I glanced over the chicken scratch scrawled on the sheet before me, taking the last bite of my own breakfast. Like the night before, he reached over, picking up my plate and taking it to the sink. I didn’t fight him this time. I stood nearby, leaning slightly into the counter-top as I watched him put the plates into the dishwasher, his arms slim and lean as he moved, mesmerizing with his long limbs and nimble fingers. I found my voice, and with it a small sum of courage.
“Was that your mom in the picture?... She was very pretty,” he froze for a moment before he continued what he was doing, not turning to face me at all. “I never knew my mom. She died when I was little… But your mom had beautiful hair and eyes. I wish I had pretty hair and eyes like that.” Maybe it was his silence that urged me to continue talking. I wasn’t a very vocal person, but then again I also had never had anyone but my dad to talk to. “Will she ever visit here?” I asked, and he dropped the dish into the washer roughly, the plate clattering into the rack. I looked up, confused, as he stalked over to where I stood.
“I don’t care about your personal life. You’re not here to socialize so get to work,” he said sternly. Though his voice remained monotonous, it held so much weight. His eyes bore into mine with anger and irritation, kindling beneath the surface. I felt my blood run cold, embarrassment and regret washing over me as I rung my hands together. My skin felt hot as I turned, trying not to outwardly cringe, feeling ashamed of myself for attempting to reach out.
“Right… I’m going to the store,” I said weakly, grabbing the list from the table and hurrying out the door. My head was a mess, not sure how to feel after being snapped at by someone so generally calm and collected. Though I felt like crying, I collected myself, breathing deeply again. There was no need. I had faced worse. This only solidified my initial thoughts of this job, that I would keep to myself, and despite the fact that we remained in the same house, I would live a solitary life. I didn’t need other people. I felt the knot in my chest begin to loosen, my stomach settling. Shake it off.
I walked through the automatic double doors of the grocery store nearby, not a ten-minute walk from the house. I grabbed a small, red basket and strolled down the aisles, my mind continually going back to Austin’s face when he approached me before. I shook my head, trying not to think about it. As I searched for the aisle with the canned goods I glanced up, catching sight of a familiar face. My stomach dropped.
Dodging behind the nearest shelf I felt myself begin to tense again. This time tears began welling in my eyes, and I wasn’t concentrating on holding them in, or looking stoic, but only thinking about the fear of being caught. I peeked around the corner, confirming it was indeed who I thought it was. His name was Nick, an old friend of my father’s, who used to visit frequently enough when my dad had his poker nights. They both were avid gamblers, and would often get drunk together and fight over the money owed to each other. My mind drifted back to the distant memories of when I was sixteen.
”Liana! Be a sweetheart and get me another beer,” my dad’s friend, Nick, gave me a toothy grin, showing his rotting teeth and exposed gums. I kept my head low, nodding obediently as I turned towards the kitchen. I jumped as his leathery hand slithered up the back of my thigh, patting my backside. I felt my stomach churn with disgust, quickly walking away as my skin crawled, but I knew better than to say anything in opposition. I pulled the fridge door open. It was mostly empty, as usual. I reached for the first beer I saw and grabbed it, passing it to the man and scurrying out of the room before another friend could take notice of me. Most of the time they didn’t pay me any mind. Every once in a while they would have me stay and watch their poker games, telling me it would be valuable to learn, even saying I could practice and get exceptionally good at cheating, make a living off swindling people in casinos. That was the way these people thought, always scheming to find money, didn’t matter if it was clean or not.
I moved quietly into my room, shutting the door softly behind me as not to call attention to myself. They were just outside, yelling and cackling over their crude conversations. My mattress squeaked lightly as I lowered myself onto it, curling up into a ball in the corner. I hoped none of them came in here tonight. There was no lock on my door. They never did anything, not really. Nothing more than laying a grimy hand on my thigh, or leaning close to me while they spoke, their breath rank with alcohol and putrefaction. But all the same, my body was tense with nerves and anxiety that they would come in here, approach me, say the same uninvited words and advice. Really they just yearned for the soft touch of a girl, voices weak and feminine, bodies trembling beneath them and making them feel powerful. They had never done anything before, but that didn’t mean they never would. I hated it when dad had his friends over. I hated this place.
I ignored the shelf behind me stabbing into my shoulder blade as I cradled my head in my hands. I felt my mind slowly unraveling as the panic overcame me. My chest felt like it might cave in as my lungs clambered on, gasping for air, my vision blurring. I can’t go back. I slid towards the floor, my mouth hanging open as I tried to breath, but I could only take small, strangled breaths. I rocked back and forth, my mind burning, white hot. I won’t go back! I was barely aware of the hands that had placed themselves over my own, my hair falling in waves over them. They gripped my face, and steadied me, forcing me to stop rocking. Slowly, slowly, my vision focused, Austin coming into view. He held my gaze. His eyes were gentle again.
He didn’t shush me. He didn’t say a word. He began breathing deeply, rhythmically, moving so I would mimic him, his eyes never leaving mine. I began to calm down, my panic subsiding as I concentrated on breathing with him. I tried to think only of him right here in front of me. His deep brown eyes. The glint of his nose ring. The five o’clock shadow climbing his jaw. The soft curve of his lips. I glanced up, seeing Nick’s face over his shoulder, and I sucked in a sharp breath.
“He’s going to find me,” I gasped, pulling back roughly from Austin’s hands. I tore out of his grasp and slammed my back against the shelves behind me, knocking things from them. I frantically looked up, terrified it drew attention to me. Before I could decipher if Nick had seen me or not, Austin had pulled me up onto my feet, and into his chest. His arms wrapped tightly around me, shielding me from any prying eyes. My legs shook as we waited, and I sunk into his warm shoulder. My hands trembled as I gripped his jacket tightly, as if I would drift away if I loosened my hold. After a few moments he released me, grasping one of my shaking hands.
“He’s gone,” his face was void of emotion as he led me towards a bench near the front of the store. “Stay here,” he commanded as he disappeared from my sight. I wondered if he was going to leave me there. Maybe he would call the agency and request a new maid. Maybe all of this was for nothing, and I would end up in my father’s clutches again. But much to my surprise, Austin returned shortly after with a cold bottle of water in hand.
“Drink this,” he tipped it toward me as he removed the cap, and I stared dumbly up at him. He waited a moment before he reached down, grabbing my arm and shoving it into my palm. “Drink,” He said firmly. I listened this time, the bottle shaking as I sipped from it, relieved as the cool liquid met my dry lips. I sat for a moment, my heart slowly calming down. “Come,” he tugged my wrist and I stood, tumbling forward. He caught me easily by my shoulders and didn’t let go until I was steady. He raised his eyebrows slightly at me, in what I assumed was his silent version of a questioning look to determine that I was alright, and I nodded when I felt I could walk. He released me and we left the store, the condensation from the water bottle dripping over my fingers.
“Why are you here?” My voice cracked as spoke weakly. He didn’t respond at first, but eventually he spoke,
“I felt bad for snapping at you. I followed you to apologize. I’m sorry,” he mumbled, not looking at me. My head fell limp as I stared at the ground, walking in his shadow.
“Thank you for helping me,” I rasped and he stopped suddenly. I bumped into his back, almost falling backward but balancing myself. I looked up, confused.
“Can you just tell me… You’re not a wanted criminal are you?”
“And what if I was?”
“…I guess you couldn’t do the grocery shopping anymore,” he concluded, and continued walking. I laughed softly behind him and followed, my eyes heavy.
“No… No, I’m not a criminal,” I clarified, and we fell into a silence.
“If you want to talk about it… I’ve been told I’m a good listener,”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” I chuckled. Somehow the conversation was flowing effortlessly enough between us. It wasn’t something I had pictured easily with him, but I felt weak, tired after experiencing so much fear so suddenly, and I didn’t have the strength to keep my guard up. “I’m running… From my father. I left his house a year ago, and I’ve been dodging him ever since. He says that I belong to him. That I owe him for raising me, and I’m not allowed to leave. But, I can’t stay there anymore. I can’t live in that place,” I shook my head. “I want to be happy,” I almost whispered. Silence settled over us for several moments, until Austin nodded.
“I’ll help you. You don’t have to go back there again,” he said.
The rest of the walk home was quiet.