Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2022 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before.” This, the second of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Nicole Cascone’s story, “Almost Tangible.”
Joseph had fallen asleep hours ago, some time around eight or nine. Now, a quarter past midnight, I listened to his soft snoring as he slept beside me, oblivious to the world. He had always been a heavy sleeper, something I envied him for as a person who was the complete opposite. I could stay up for hours after him and not wake him once; on days when he was extra tired, I could probably have a full conversation with a third person, and he’d be none the wiser.
Somebody else might’ve been annoyed about having such a heavy sleeper for a partner. When it came to Joseph, I would much rather he be one rather than easy to wake. When he was sleeping, it was a chance of freedom in an otherwise stifling house. I could breathe a little easier, smile a little wider, and enjoy myself a little more.
Joseph didn’t like when I stayed up late, but it was rare that he caught me. In the event that he did wake up for some reason, I could feign sleep if I was quick enough to notice. It had worked several times. There were less than a handful of times that he had discovered me awake way past when he had fallen asleep. Unfortunately, those few times had been bad enough to leave a lasting impression.
“What are you doing up?”
I jumped at the sound of Joseph’s voice, instinctually hitting the power button on my phone and shrouding us in darkness. “What?” I managed to ask, after a moment of silent panic.
“You heard me,” his voice was deep with exhaustion, but the angry tone was clear. I heard the rustling of his sheets, before the bedside lamp beside him lit up the room in a soft light. “Why are you up so damn early? It’s,” he paused to check the alarm clock, “It’s nearly one in the morning.”
“ I couldn’t sleep,” I mumbled. He looked at me, but I carefully avoided making eye contact.
“You have sleeping pills for a reason, idiot. Did you even try taking them?”
I mentally berated myself for such a poor excuse. “Oh, n-no. I forgot,” I said as I slid out from under the blankets and stood up. “I’ll get those now. Sorry.”
He groaned and rolled over, facing away from me. “Just stay out there. Sleep on the couch or something.”
“Oh. Okay,” I began to gather my things.
I managed to grab my phone charger and a pillow before he looked at me again. “I told you to get out, didn’t I?”
“I was just—” I began.
He cut me off. “I didn’t want an explanation. Hurry up, before I drag you out there myself. And you better not come back.”
I nodded and fled. It took me two weeks following that night to work up the courage to stay up late again.
I was lucky to have gotten out unscathed each time I had been discovered. Joseph loved to use his hands when he felt I wronged him in some way, so the lack of it could probably be attributed to exhaustion. Whatever it was, I was just thankful to avoid being hurt.
However, I wasn’t just up to scroll through my phone or read a book like I usually would tonight. I had waited an hour after Joseph had fallen asleep, reading an ebook that I had found (I hadn’t gotten very far into it, despite how long I spend reading; my mind was racing too fast for me to process any of the words), before I was able to get myself out of bed without nearly fainting from fear.
My heart was pounding in my chest as I planted my feet on the floor and slowly stood. My head spun for a moment, but I closed my eyes and managed to prevent collapsing.
I was as silent as possible as I began to make my way to the bedroom door, avoiding the spots I knew would creak if I applied too much pressure, and keeping away from where things were scattered on the floor. I managed to get to the door, being slow as I pulled it shut, and wincing when it let out a quiet click that sounded as loud as a gunshot in the otherwise silent house.
I didn’t have to worry quite as much about keeping quiet now that I was out of Joseph’s general vicinity. However, the terror coursing through my veins kept me at a pace that allowed me to be as soundless as possible as I snuck down to the downstairs closet.
Joseph’s house was aging, but I had come to know where the floorboards were squeaky and what steps were just a bit too loud like the back of my hand. I had never understood how people could become so familiar with a space, until my very wellbeing depended on it. If I didn’t want to get screamed at, or starved, or beaten, or whatever else Joseph had in mind when I got on his nerves, I had to be on my toes when it came to every bit of my surroundings.
I got down to the living room without any incidents, and slipped down the attached hallway. At this point, Joseph definitely wouldn’t hear a thing if I let down my guard and didn’t worry as much about my volume. Yet I kept my sounds as muted as possible as I slipped into the first door on the right.
I pulled the door shut and fumbled for the light switch, sliding my hand along the wall until my fingers found it. I flicked it upwards, illuminating the room with dim light. The closet was small and cluttered, but that made it the perfect hiding spot for the bags of things I had packed and hid in here three days ago.
My vision was blurred, thanks to both the tears dripping down my face, and the fact that Joseph had slammed my head against the desk only 30 minutes before. As I crawled up the stairs on my hands and knees, the front door closed with a bang, signaling that Joseph had left the house. He usually did after taking his anger out on me, and most of the time he came back drunk, hours later, and continued with the punishment.
There was an ache between my legs, and walking only made it worse. I stuck to crawling pathetically along the floor like a wounded animal, unable to stop the soft sobs pouring from my mouth as I got to my bedroom. A rapidly cooling liquid dripped down my inner thighs; I could only hope it wasn’t blood, unwilling to check for myself.
I pushed the door open, made it a few feet into the room, and finally collapsed on to my front. As my consciousness faded, the pain pushing me towards the edge, I asked myself, ‘is this really how I want to spend the rest of my life?’
I had asked myself the same question too many times to count. However, there, falling unconscious on the bedroom floor after facing another vicious round of Joseph’s abuse, I realized that even the next one could be my last. They got more and more violent as the months went on. Four years into our relationship, and here I was, wondering when he’d finally manage to kill me.
When had it become this way? When had sweet kisses and romantic, candlelit dinner dates turn into getting slammed into furniture and raped on the floor for miniscule mistakes? Why had I failed to notice the warning signs? Why had I just stood by and taken the abuse, even as it slowly became worse and worse? Was I willing to die at Joseph’s hands?
I knew it was finally time I fled.
When I woke up, Joseph still wasn’t home. The pain in my lower half had faded into a dull ache by then. I cleaned myself up, thanking whoever was looking out for me that the liquid I had felt earlier hadn’t been blood, and began the very depressing job of deciding what I would and would not take with me when I fled the house.
I had filled three bags and hid them in this closet, but it was important to leave as soon as possible. Even if Joseph didn’t find the bags, which he likely wouldn’t because of how rarely we used the closet, it wouldn’t take him long to notice that a large portion of my things were missing.
It felt very final to zip up the last bag and carry it down to the closet. I had buried the three behind other junk stuffed inside, wondering what was next. I was 26, and had wasted years on a man who didn’t and wouldn’t love me.
But I wanted to be 26 and behind compared to my peers, instead of permanently 26 and dead. Now it was a matter of finding the right moment.
The perfect opportunity had arisen the next day, when Joseph informed me that he would be going on a business trip over the weekend.
“A business trip?” I repeated, feeling my heartbeat speed up. “For how long? Where to?”
“Until Monday,” he answered as he hung his jacket up by the front door, “and I leave Saturday morning. We’re just going a few towns over, but it’s too long of a drive to go back and forth.”
“Alright,” I said, trying to keep any excitement from my voice.
He glanced up at me, raising an eyebrow. “What’s for dinner, then?”
“Oh,” I glanced towards the kitchen. “I made spaghetti.”
He scrunched his nose and said nothing.
Friday night had finally come (Saturday morning now, considering it was past midnight). I had never been terrified and overjoyed at the same time; I didn’t even know it was possible to experience such condescending emotions simultaneously. I had spent all of yesterday doing everything I could think of: making arrangements to stay at a friend’s, contacting people for help, researching everything regarding escaping domestic abuse situations. And despite all of the preparations, I didn’t feel ready at all.
I had spent years living my life like this. Now, with only a few days of composing a messily constructed plan, I was fleeing. And yet, as I clutched on of the packed bags close to my chest and thought about how in less than 12 hours, I might finally be away from this hell of a life I had been living for nearly four years, I could feel all of the life Joseph had sucked out of me over all of these years slowly come back.
Fleeing Joseph scared me a lot. But the thought of staying with him until he ultimately took my life (I had no doubt he would) scared me more.