Stella’s eyes fluttered open and followed the odd shadows cast by the metal fan blades. Four splotches of light reflected from nightlights around the room slid up one wall, merged in the corner and slid down the next wall as the fan oscillated. The fan had followed her nomadic lifestyle since childhood and lulled her to sleep with the weird wobble-rattle on every third pass. Stella searched her mind looking for a remnant of the dream that woke her, but found nothing, not even a scrap of nightmare. Weeks had passed since she’d woken in the middle of the night in a low-grade state of panic and her breath caught in her throat.
It was nothing. Go back to sleep.
Earlier that evening, she’d indulged in her clean sheet day ritual and spent time shaving her legs and exfoliating her winter pale skin now a bright shade of pink from a day spent in the garden. Her agent had called with the news that advance copies of her book shipped. Life was marching on. The warm sunburn across her cheeks reminded her that life was good and the sun would rise on another glorious day in a few hours.
Stella rolled over to face the bedroom’s south wall with her back to the rest of the house, pulled the quilt up around her shoulders, and nestled deeper into the sheets as if hiding from an imaginary boogeyman. She thought of the silly games her therapist taught her. Most of the grounding techniques she could remember involved getting out of bed and either soaking her hands in warm water or holding an ice cube, but she was so snug in her sheets.
While she waited for the sandman to return, she opened her eyes and counted five things she could see: the pale orange glow of the night light leaking out of the master bathroom. Window sheers fluttering in the breeze of the open window, coffee mug with a half-drunk cup of hot peppermint tea, her kindle on the nightstand she set aside after only two pages of an Octavia Butler novel. A tub of lotion that she rubbed into her cracked and chapped hands at the end of a day in the kitchen.
Did I leave the window open?
Four things she can touch: soft cotton sheets, the shaggy nap of a well-loved fleece blanket, eyelet lace on the throw pillow, cool breeze on her sun-kissed cheeks.
Three things she could hear: the tick-click of the cuckoo clock in the kitchen, the buzz of the streetlamps outside of her bedroom window, and the whir-rattle-whir of the fan stuck on its track.
Two things she could smell: fresh green scent of spring and something woodsy with a hint of citrus. She couldn’t place the smell immediately.
One thing she could taste. The last dregs of Sleepytime Tea laced with the bitter hemp oil she bought in bulk from a Colorado company. Shipments from Boulder came every month since her separation.
After a sharp inhale of shock, her breath caught in her chest once again. Her inflated lungs pushed her heart into her throat where she could feel it throb and beat.
Happy by Clinique. Her ex-husband’s signature.
If she didn’t exhale, maybe the scent would prove to be a phantom. As adrenaline kick-started her heart and coursed through her veins, she was more aware of the space around her. While she played bullshit mental games to lull herself back into the land of nod, she had missed the obvious weight in the bed beside her.
Her first therapy sessions were spent learning to associate the scent of coconut with the feeling of safety and calm. Whenever she felt panicky or anxious she rubbed lotion between her hands, cupped them over her nose and mouth and meditated on her breath. The therapist explained that scent is the most powerful memory trigger and she was retraining her brain. The scent of him pulled Stella down into the murky depths of her own memory to that last night of their marriage: curled into a ball in the corner of their shitty rental kitchen nursing a broken hand while he continued to scream accusations and threats. Her left hand found the bottle of cologne he kept by the backdoor for a spritz on his way out. She whipped the bottle at him. The pitch went wild and the bottle exploded on the door frame above his head.
Stella cupped her hands around her nose and mouth and wished for some other nightmare. She’d loved, then battled this man for almost a decade. Kevin was there for a reason and wouldn’t leave until he was satisfied.
“Get out,” Stella said. She tried to sound demanding and calm, but her voice cracked.
“I miss you.” Kevin’s husky voice was somewhere between a whisper and rasp. She’d thought it was sexy during their early courtship, but now it made her hair stand on end. He rolled onto his side and lightly ran his fingertips up her bare arm. The gesture used to comfort and soothe her to sleep during the good times, but now his touch turned her stomach. Hot acid rose up the back of her throat and threatened to gag her.
“Get the fuck out of my house.” Stella threw back the covers and planted her feet on the plush carpeting. She wiggled her toes and pulled at the carpet nap. With her feet firmly planted in the present she couldn’t fall backward into past traumas. Too bad that damn therapist didn’t teach her techniques for dealing with trauma that was happening in the moment.
Kevin was sprawled out on the side of the queen bed closest to the bedroom door and could easily block her from the kitchen and her cellphone. Kevin tucked his hands behind his head and crossed his legs like he was trying to get more comfortable. “I wanna celebrate with you. Heard your book comes out next month. Didn’t think you’d ever make it happen.”
Her eyes flicked up to the face she used to love, but then she looked down and away like she was trying not to provoke a wild animal.
“Don’t you wanna share your success with me?” Kevin asked.
Kevin slid out from the sheets, folded the comforter back, smoothed out the wrinkles, and fluffed the pillows. As he was bent over the bed, Stella knew this was the moment to sprint past him and get free, but her feet were rooted in place. When evolution wired her brain in the womb, it forgot to connect the fight or flight switches. Stella dreamed of being brave and strong, but the moment for both left her frozen. Stella sank deeper into the plush carpet with the weight of her cowardice.
In the dark, Kevin’s silhouette was larger, like the soft man she once knew was wearing a muscle suit. Fear narrowed her focus and her vision tunneled in on his loose sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and sweatpants. He was dressed like he’d been invited to spend the night.
“Leave. Now.” Her voice was the only part of her that felt brave. She kept her voice low and controlled. Kevin’s temper was unpredictable like a garden snake, content to bask in the sun one moment, striking at her the next moment.
Kevin bounded on top of the bed, scrambled across it in his sneakers and came to loom over her in a flash. He ran his fingertips over the top of her scalp, through her blonde tresses, looped a thick finger through her hair elastic, and pulled her head back.
“Do you miss me?” He leaned down and whispered in her ear his lips grazing her ear lobe and sending shivers down her spine. He closed his eyes while slowly inhaling her scent. The acid tickling the back of her throat became a fire that raged from the pit of her belly to the tip of her tongue. Maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t a coward, but a sleeping dragon. Through her nose, she drew a long breath deep into her stomach.
“GET OUT!” she screamed into his ear.
Kevin cocked his head, gripped her hair tighter, and forced her head back farther. He smiled at her outrage like she was a small yapping dog: cute yet ineffective.
“Kiss first?” Kevin asked. His chapped and cracked lips grazed the side of her cheek.
“I hope you fucking die.”
He kissed her cheek and the acrid smell of cheap whiskey tickled her nose. Fire erupted from within. First as a tremendous belch, then it came as a river of bile and acid. Kevin ambled from the room and the house before a single drop of vomit soiled the bedclothes and plush carpet.