The Safe Room

Photo: © Amy Dupcak. All rights reserved.

Tom asked Catherine why she kept going up there. She didn’t want to say. She didn’t want to sound stupid. She didn’t want to tell him she needed to get away from whatever came next because she didn’t want anything to come next and Leila’s room suited her for exactly that reason. She would sit on the bed or stand at the window looking down at the flagstone patio, the back yard, the sagging lacrosse net Leila and her friends had shot at, the flatness of it all, flat as the windowpane, flat as a painting, a generous piece of land not used in years, as Leila’s room wasn’t used, in fact most of the house wasn’t used, superfluous as time itself, scummy on her mind pond and yet impossible to skim off, an algae of facts about crack and meth and memories of rehabs and relapses and rescues and escapes but no more, not again, and that, insidiously, reassured her, the impossibility that anything worse might happen, not in Leila’s room. Its emptiness and silence reassured her that now the future would be the past, that’s all it would be, the past, nothing next.

Leila had begun using again. She and a guy and a girl were sharing a house outside Philadelphia. The other girl said that night Leila left an argument, walked outside, came back, went to the kitchen, got a knife, struggled with the guy, and stabbed him in the chest, slicing his aorta. Both girls’ fingerprints were on the knife. Both girls’ clothes were blood-spattered. Leila was charged because she said she could not remember anything, and the other girl said she was guilty, although now Leila seemed more innocent every day. Being clean, even by incarceration, took years off her face like a chemical peel. She didn’t look thirty-five anymore. She didn’t even look twenty-three.

Tom wanted to talk about defending her. He wanted to talk about selling the house to handle the costs. He wanted Catherine to be the one to keep the other two kids, not kids at all anymore, in the loop. He insisted she accompany him to this jail—he always referred to it as “this jail,” as if it were not really a jail—and take the lead in comforting and reassuring Leila who nonetheless looked at them with relief in her expression because she thought this would be the last time she could hurt them. They would be dead before she was released. And then go with him to see the expensive lawyer who always said the same things about the desired outcome—not criminal homicide, no prior intent, but involuntary manslaughter, or best case, temporary insanity/mental illness, which was plausible. They must not let Leila plead guilty. That’s your key job, he said. My job is the rest. Don’t worry, you can count on us, Tom said, which meant the lawyer could count on Tom pushing Catherine to be the knot that held everything together, like always, not come undone.

The trips to Philadelphia smashed her and Tom so hard together that she could not bear more “processing” when they reached home in Annapolis. She couldn’t stand the parts of the house they still used, either, their tidiness, their comforts, their reflection of her life since they bought the place to raise a family. The better place was Leila’s room upstairs where she could be alone, try to think, debate with herself whether she was locking her demons out or locking them in. Ultimately, she decided doors meant nothing to demons; demons went where they wanted to. In a fraction of a second, demons could settle upon any mind pond they chose. They liked wine and gin ponds, too, and dream ponds, and ponds full of tears. Why did she even need to think? What hadn’t she already thought? What good did it do to wonder whether the guy enjoyed favors from both girls and whether he provided or withheld the drugs and that provoked the violence? Or was there a link between rough sports like lacrosse—shoving other girls out of the way, knocking them to the ground–and violence later in life? Or the long-term effects of Percocet addiction on a seventeen-year-old girl recovering from a torn ACL?

Did she closet herself in Leila’s room to get away from him? Tom asked. Did she blame him for this thing? (Again, “this thing,” preposterous, unreal.)

No, not at all. Hadn’t they discussed their culpability, his and hers, until it was dead years ago?

Then why did she go up there? To punish herself?

It wasn’t exactly that, she told him, and finally confessed she was there because that was where she felt safe even if there was a kind of vertigo built into the room.

What did she mean by vertigo?

She tried putting it this way: When she was in Leila’s room, it was as though she were on a subway platform and a train was speeding by inches from her face and the train was Leila’s life.

That’s what gives me the vertigo, but at the same time, it’s the one place where I can stay steady enough not to fall in front of the train because there’s actually nothing happening there at all. So I wobble and I get scared, but I don’t fall because I know the real train is gone.

She took a moment to appraise how much she had upset him and risked inviting him to join her in Leila’s room.

You can sit on the chair, and I will sit on the bed, and we can talk about whatever you want because that room actually is the end of the line, not a way station. There won’t be anything about how we pass our time in Leila’s room that can hurt us. We’ll always be safe there no matter how terrible things get.

Tom tried to get her help, but she refused. He met with a realtor about selling the house. He went to Philadelphia by himself. He told Leila what was happening to her mother. Leila said she understood and tried to reassure him Catherine would be okay eventually. Like me, she said. I’m off the stuff and I have a girlfriend, and I don’t let myself think about anything else. I feel safe here, Daddy. I know that’s sort of sick, but I really do.

Robert Earle’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals including The Literary Review, Quarterly West, Eclectica, Jabberwock Review, Mississippi Review, december, Florida English, Typishly, Storgy, Aji, and Erotique. Vine Leaves Press published his most recent collection of short stories, She Receives the Night. He also has published a book of nonfiction, Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press) and a novel, The Way Home (DayBue). He lives in Durham, NC.

Appears In

Issue 14

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