She awoke cold and sore. Her body pressed against the hard, cool porcelain of a bathtub. Tile reached to the ceiling above her. Bath towels were tucked around her and her hair was still damp. She sat up slowly. It hurt. She pulled back the towel and saw bruises that had blossomed all over. Her knees, her arms, her ribs. She climbed out of the bathtub, unsure of where she was or how she had gotten there. She squinted at herself in the mirror and took physical inventory of the bumps and bruises including a goose egg on her forehead. She wrapped the bath towel around her and opened the door.
The T.V. was on in the motel room, but it didn’t drown out the sound of the rain outside. A glowing lamp sat on a nightstand between two double beds. The room felt like it tilted. She blinked to clear away the double vision. The front door’s knob rattled before it swung open and revealed a man. He carried two paper sacks in his arms. The hood of his sweatshirt was pulled up and shadowed his eyes, but he smiled when he saw her.
“I see you’re finally awake, love,” he said, “Good, because I brought food and some fresh clothes.” She leaned heavily on the doorjamb of the bathroom as the room spun.
“What happened?” she mumbled. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth.
“We had a car accident, love. Don’t you remember?”
Victoria ran the hem of her scarf through her fingers again and again. She stared at the fire exit sign. She could just leave. She should leave. No, remember what Dr. Carson said. This was an important step. She needed to control her fear, seeing him before the parole hearing would take some of the shock away. She hadn’t seen him in ten years, but she saw his face every night in her dreams.
She realized threads were becoming unraveled from her scarf and released her death grip on it. The scarf dropped back to rest against her chest next to her visitor badge. Willard-Homewood Penitentiary Visitor. She looked around the waiting area. The beige linoleum tiles looked freshly waxed. The molded plastic chairs had rust around their metal feet. They looked like something that Victoria had used in elementary school. Nobody used chairs like these anymore. Perhaps this is the end of the line for chairs too.
A few other women sat around the room. A young mother was trying to calm her fussy baby. A gray haired woman sat quietly whispering to herself. The beads of a rosary slowly working through her hand. Another with scraggly mousy hair was barely able to keep her eyes open. Her cheeks were sunken in, her hands knobby as they brushed the hair out of her face. She let out a strange, wistful laugh to her own private joke and Victoria could see several of her teeth were missing. Victoria looked away to the guard that sat behind safety glass. He wasn’t paying any attention to them as he chewed on pencil, a crossword puzzle was no doubt getting the best of him. A buzzer sounded, the metal door clicked and another guard appeared in the room.
Victoria stood up and approached the guard. It was hard not to see him look her up and down and furrow his eyebrow. It was obvious that he wondered what she was doing there. She didn’t look like a typical visitor.
“I’m Victoria Kranz,” she reiterated, her voice shook. He let her through the door and it clanged shut behind her.
“Is this your first time here, ma’am?” The man looked down at her. He was at least six feet tall, broad shouldered with light brown hair that made an appearance on the nape of his neck.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Don’t be nervous,” he said flatly. “I wouldn’t be joking if I said they smell fear. You have a non-contact visit. He’ll be behind glass and there’s a phone receiver you talk through. You can hang up anytime.” Victoria slowly followed behind him down the whitewashed brick hallway. He stopped outside another door and looked at her. “I’ll be by the door. Just wave if you need anything. You’re on the far end.” He opened the door and waved her in. The room was gray with small cubicles on one side. They were all empty as Victoria passed to the other end. She sat down and faced the empty chair. She looked back at the guard. He stood by the door just as he said he would.
It was the ride on the tilt-a-whirl that started to bring back the memories. She was with a girl named Lucy. They worked together at the mini donut stand and had a night off to enjoy the carnival. Before long it would be dismantled and trundling down the road to the next county fair. They whirled around, spinning, laughing, then she saw him. He was standing there staring at her from the control panel. The expression on his face was bone-chilling. As if he was possessed by the devil. She suddenly remembered how she had fought for her life before she blacked out and woke up in a motel bathroom. It had been two months since they left the motel and met up with the carnival. She had a memory problem, but she had been too afraid to admit it. She couldn’t retain anything she was told. She had no idea how much she didn’t recall. Then it all flooded back. The black eyes burning into her. As soon as the ride stopped, she thrust the lap bar out of the way and ran. She leapt over the fence of ride and out into the darkness away from the dazzling lights. Lucy’s fading voice calling after her.
A buzzer sounded and Victoria jumped. She had the scarf end in her hands again, twisting it anxiously. She heard a door clank shut and glanced at the guard, who still stood like a statue. He nodded at her. When she looked back a man was watching her from behind the glass. He stood there gazing at her while a guard unfastened his handcuffs. He was wearing a dark blue jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up. He rubbed his wrists before finally taking his seat.
Her anxious fingers froze over the fabric of her scarf as she stared at him. He was not the man she saw in her nightmares. He was older for one thing. Silver hair mixed with dark at his temples. He had a bit of a beard, but the scar on his cheek still reached out of it. His eyes were more wrinkled, but still black, still burning. Looking straight through her.
Victoria mustered her bits of courage. She tried to keep her hand from shaking as she reached for the receiver and brought it to her ear. His eyes followed her every move. This is it, she thought. She met his gaze, sat up straighter and waited. He picked up his own receiver.
Victoria’s voice caught in her throat, but she managed to squeak, “Tom.”
“It’s been a long time,” he continued, a bit of his Scottish brogue came through as he spoke, “but you haven’t changed a bit. I like what you’ve done with your hair.” He gestured at the bangs she had tucked behind her ear. Her hand sprung up self-consciously and smoothed her hair down. He grinned as she did so, “I missed our little talks…”
The telephone rang. Victoria ordered the sugar-high children to go brush their teeth, but they continued to jump on the couch. The babysitter shook her head in defeat and picked up the receiver.
“Hello, Johnson residence?” she said coolly. No one replied. “Hello?” she said again, a note of tension in her voice. She strained to hear from the ear piece and made out the sound of breathing. “Stop calling!” she cried and slammed down the telephone.
Victoria shook the memory from her head and cleared her throat. It was time to get to the point.
“Do you know why I’m here?” she asked.
“Because you missed me.”
“No!” Victoria spat, “The parole hearing!”
“Oh, stop lying to yerself, love. You miss me.” He traced his finger along the safety glass. Victoria steamed in her chair and held her tongue. “Fine, you say you don’t miss me, but tell me, did you ever settle down with someone? Is there any man in your life now?” Victoria turned her gaze to the tabletop and pursed her lips. Her relationships had never seemed to last long. She couldn’t say why. They just didn’t work out. Supposedly she was difficult, paranoid. She was damaged goods with a child in tow.
“They never measured up did they?” he continued in almost a growl. “What we had was special. No one else understood that. Why didn’t you try to tell them?” He wagged a finger at her.
“Tom, you are nothing, but a kidnapping rapist carnie! I don’t know how you managed to find my number again. I’m unlisted, but I know it was you who called my house!”
“Lower your voice, love, or they’ll end our visit.”
Victoria glanced over her shoulder and the guard was staring at her with interest. She turned back to the glass.
“It wouldn’t matter. I don’t have anything to say to you anyway.” She folded her arms as she gave him a haughty look. Tom raised his eyebrows.
“Then sit there. Just sit there for me. That’s the least you could do after coming all this way.” Victoria scowled at him, but kept her mouth shut. “I mean you really hurt my feelings, love. All the things you said against me…but I forgave you. I understand you wouldn’t want your parents to think of you as that kind of girl. You kept it though, that proves you love me.”
“It doesn’t prove anything,” Victoria spat. She slammed down the phone and tried to blink the tears out of her eyes. She buried her face in her folded arms. She felt so mixed up. Years of therapy seemed to be slipping right down the drain.
“It’s time for dinner, darling,” Victoria called as she set the plates on the table. Sybil didn’t answer. She was probably glued to the cartoons again. Victoria walked to the living room and she could hear Sybil’s voice. She was telling a story about school. It must be another play time tea party, Victoria thought. As she stepped into the room, Sybil turned to look at her surprised. She was standing by the side table and held the telephone in her hand.
“Sybil, who are you talking to?” Victoria went to her. Sybil didn’t reply, the expression on her face was guilty. “Go eat your dinner,” Victoria instructed. She took the receiver from the nine-year-old’s hand.
“Who is this?” Victoria asked the caller only to be met with silence. Her blood went cold. “How did you get this number?” It was a struggle to keep her voice calm, so her daughter wouldn’t overhear. Silence. “I’m getting this number changed, so don’t bother trying this again.” Victoria set down the receiver, grabbed the telephone with both hands and ripped the cord from the wall. She wrapped the cord around the telephone, walked to the kitchen and dumped it into the garbage can. She sat down at the table. Sybil shot her a wary look.
“Don’t ever answer the telephone again,” Victoria said.
She dabbed her eyes with the scarf and stole a glance at Tom. He sat there with the receiver still held to his ear as he waited. His black eyes were reading her. He knew about Sybil. How did he manage to find out what he wasn’t supposed to know? That’s why he called.
She finally reached for the receiver.
“She’s my child too, Victoria.” He purred, “You shouldn’t have kept her from me.”
He put a hand to his chest. “I want to be the best father I can be.”
“That’s not going to be possible, Tom.”
“The parole hearing, love. I might get out. I’ve been very, very good, you’ll see.”
“No. You’re not getting out…ever. I’ll make sure of it.” Victoria stood up, discarded the receiver and went to the guard.
“We’re done here,” she said.