Six O'Clock

I lie in the warmth of the dawn light, watching it spill golden across the quilt. The cat, fat and black and soft, stretches out on the pillow beside me, pink pads stark against her ebony paws. Her sore, red and angry and still weeping, marks the place where the tip of the iron struck her chest. The cat is fastidious; the sore is tidy and perfectly round. I drop my hand onto her flank, stroking her velvet fur, and whisper, “I love you, sweetheart.”

           Otherwise, the house is silent.

           The little clock on my nightstand says 5:47. I still have time. Time to think. Time to plan. Time to breathe.

           I sit up. The room—my room, our room—is filled with yard sale furniture. An oak-paneled bureau from a duplex in Montpelier; two mismatched rocking chairs scooped up during a trip to the Rangeley Lakes in Maine; and the bed, that hateful thing, a brass and white nightmare from a moving sale in Burlington.

           The carpet is the color of dried blood. I know this because I have bled on that carpet and it did not stain. The curtains, cheap satiny things from K-Mart, tell lies to the outside world with their bright yellow flowers and jaunty green stems.

           The cat stretches again and licks her paw, showing me the curve of her claws. The clock tells me it is 5:49.

           He says I am a lousy cook. Because of this, he does not expect breakfast, and so I will not make it. He’ll get French toast and coffee at Clive’s in Northfield on the way home. My own stomach is like a rock—a thick, solid thing damming up my digestive tract with anticipation. I won’t eat. I can’t.

           I slide out of bed and pad over to the bureau. He likes me to be in “real clothes” when he gets home, not the sweatpants and t-shirt I sleep in. I strip, pull on panties and a bra, and then choose carefully. Red makes me look fat, he says, like a bloated apple. Yellow washes me out—I have an Irish complexion, after all. Green is okay, but only with jeans. I select a sea-green turtleneck sweater and a pair of Levis. Turtlenecks are good; they hide the bruises.

           The cat rubs against my ankles as I brush my hair. It is nearly to my waist because he won’t let me cut it. I hate him for that. I braid it, fasten it with an elastic, and kneel down. The cat comes to me, purring. I scratch her ear. The sore glistens with fluid.

           The clock tells me it is 5:54.

           I stand. The golden light stretches all the way across the room to the staircase. The light captures the mahogany whorls in the wood banister, turning them into swirling galaxies. I go to the banister, the ancient carpet scratching against my bare feet. I’ve felt that carpet scrape against my bare legs, leaving raw, red burns. Painful, but still better than a wood floor, which leaves deep bruises. When I reach the banister, I touch the rounded newel post. It saved my life once, and I always touch it in gratitude as I pass.

           The cat trots down the stairs. I stand at the top, my fingertips still resting on the post. They are dizzying, these stairs. Nothing to hold onto except for the newel post and the banister. The wall opposite is flat—plain plaster. It is a long way to fall, unyielding wooden steps with sharp edges and grey ceramic tile at the bottom.

           I take the stairs slowly, the pine boards worn thin by decades of tenants. When I reach the bottom, I exhale. I check the clock on the cable box. 5:57.

           The kitchen is a muted brown—his idea of a manly color. His Hawaiian coffee beans live in an aluminum canister with a vacuum seal. I open it and scoop two tablespoons into the grinder. The cat jumps onto the counter beside the toaster. I push her gently off, reminding her, “That’s what got you in trouble in the first place.”

           There is the crunch of tires on gravel. The rock in my stomach turns to ice.

           The cat takes off, scrambling up the staircase. I run a hand down my braid, checking for imperfections. The grinder whirs. I look at the clock on the microwave. It tells me in bright red numbers that it is six o’clock. I have to pee, but there is no time.

           I hear the click of his key in the lock.

           The door opens. His hat comes in first—looking like Smokey the Bear’s, only dark grey-blue. His pale blue uniform shirt is wrinkled, and his nametag is askew. He has taken off his utility belt to drive, and it is draped unceremoniously over his shoulder—Maglite, mace, cuffs, Taser, Glock. His black boots, which I polished yesterday, are caked in mud and scuffed at the ankles.

           “Fuckin’ inmates,” he says.

           “Bad night?” I say.

           “Prisoner transport. St. Johnsbury.”

           “Coffee?” I say. His answer will shape my world.

           “Beer,” he says.

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Kate Spitzmiller's work has appeared in Approaching Footsteps, On the Premises, Cleaver Magazine, and Typishly. She has work forthcoming in The Esthetic Apostle. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her debut novel, Companion of the Ash, was released in December, 2018. Follow her on Twitter @KateSpitzmiller.