Aching Back and Black Tea

It’s high time for a new project. A new Work in Progress, better said. I’m hoping this new idea turns into a novel, and I’ve almost hit the 15k-word mark for it. Working on this one has been so refreshing, and (so far) the self-doubt has been manageable and muted in favor of wanting to find out what happens next. That feeling, of wanting to know what happens next and where the story goes, before realizing you’re the one writing it… I haven’t felt that feeling about one of my pieces in a long time.

I’m sharing a small piece of it, a continuation of a scene (chapter?!) I wrote a few weeks ago. Recently, I also came up with the emotional theme that the story will follow, so I didn’t feel too bad or self-indulgent if I didn’t go back to the story for two weeks to keep writing. I favored self-care while feeling off after hitting month two in quarantine, and I still came up with a major break-through for a new project. Time well spent.

What you’re reading is what I consider a very rough, in-need-of-polishing first draft, so keep that in mind when reading. I would love to hear what you think regardless, so please let me know how reading this short scene makes you feel.

Trigger Warning: References to domestic violence.

Black and white image of mug with steaming liquid inside
Photo by Salome Alexa on Unsplash

Her head still ached, and in her dream she was walking on streets, some in Camden, some in Virginia, and even one in DC. They all blended together, with a seafood restaurant with a Natty Boh sign appearing next to an entrance to Camden Market. Xander kept walking, but she broke into a run as she wound past some streets. As she got to one similar to the bridge underpass she’d walked with Neal the day before, she started running, but she wasn’t moving as fast as she could.

Like all dreamers, she ran and moved fast but she wasn’t going anywhere, and when it came to pushing past some kids waiting at the bus top, she felt herself pushing hard but there was no impact to her shove, and the longer it took for her to make her way past the packed bus stop, the bigger the urge to run. No one was behind her, but it was a presence, almost a mist or a fog, that threatened to consume her if she didn’t keep running. But the people at the stop wouldn’t move, and when she turned to find another way through, she saw Oliver’s face.

The sound of the door closing woke her, forgetting where she was. She tried to sit up straight, but her lower back screamed at the attempt and she couldn’t move. Slowly, Neal’s living room started looking familiar again, and as she unwound herself from the fetal position she’d fallen asleep in, her back stopped hurting a bit. She reached around her head to the arm of the couch for her phone where she’d left it charging and checked the time – 7:30. Neal probably hadn’t gotten in bed until almost 1 and if he left at 7:30, when had he gotten up?

Oliver’s face in the dream was the same as it had been the night before, before Neal clocked him. It was the same anger Oliver had had before he’d hit Xander, the same look she had noticed briefly before the smack came down. She was scrolling down Facebook but not really seeing anything but Oliver’s face in her dream, his face at the bar when he smiled at her in front of everyone at the bar, then his face the morning before, when he wound his arm back before bringing it down on her.

She went to browse Instagram but then jumped back to Facebook again, forgetting she wanted to see what her one friend from high school was doing for the latest pyramid scheme. She browsed again and scrolled for a few minutes before remembering she was working at noon and that she should probably get an hour or two more of sleep before getting ready.

She set an alarm for 8:30 and set her phone down. She turned to her other side, carefully to avoid the shooting pain on her lower back. She settled in and tried to go back to sleep, her eyelids heavy. She thought about Neal, how he’d said he’d be cutting a key for her today, so she probably shouldn’t leave until going to her shift, which meant she couldn’t go out and buy groceries like she’d wanted. She could clean the place, but that would be too presumptuous, not to mention predictable – he gets her out of the biggest pickle she could possibly be in while living in a foreign place, and her gratitude would come in the form of Cinderella?

What would she have for breakfast? He hadn’t said to help herself to anything to the kitchen yet, but isn’t it implied when letting someone stay with you? Or would he be pissed if he knew all she had to eat all day was a cup of black tea before going into work for five hours? She could go get brunch before going into work – that was an idea. Get a snack for her break on the way into the bar and hold off until dinner – but then she wouldn’t be able to cook him dinner like she told him she wanted to. What would they have for dinner tonight? What would they do for dinner?

Xander turned on her back again and put her arm over her eyes. Neal could use some curtains; those blinds were very dusty, but at least they were keeping some of the light out because of it. She could buy him new blinds or curtains, as a thank you and to help her sleep a little better if she was going to keep crashing in the living room. What if he wanted to stay up watching TV one day and she wanted to head to bed? What was the expectation there? She probably would have to stay up with him, yawn politely and be on her phone, or get comfy on the couch until she “accidentally” fell asleep and he let himself out quietly. She couldn’t be there for long – she had to find a cheap room somewhere close. Tracking down her great aunt in the country had never been an option, really.

She could feel herself dozing off, her eyelids getting heavier, her thoughts more disjointed. She thought of what she’d do for dinner again. They could have dinner together, get some take-out that she’d pay for. But that would surely set a precedent, right? Like a curfew, or being home (or back there) at a certain time every day to have dinner together. And who would cook? Not Xander.

What if he had ladies over – he wasn’t married. She’d never thought to ask. While having his beers at the bar, Neal didn’t talk about seeing anyone else at the end of the day other than his mom, and if he were married, a wife would certainly have something to say about those dusty blinds. If he had a wife, would he even have offered Xander the place? If that was the arrangement – but no, that wasn’t it. The way Neal had thrown Oliver to the ground, it had the familiar concern of a father behind it, not a possessive husband. That’s what Oliver’s face had been like. But she pushed that face out of her thoughts, not wanting to dream of him ever again.

She turned to lay on the side she had woken up on, and finally fell asleep. Her alarm went off what felt like minutes afterward, and she couldn’t get comfortable with her achy back, so she went to the kitchen and put some water to boil on the kettle. The plastic appliance had stains on it and was greasy everywhere except the handle and button to turn it on. So that’s where her gratitude would start. She grabbed the mug she’d used the day before and poured some hot water over a bag of black tea, and while she went to look for the painkillers in her travel first aid kit, she hoped Neal was the kind of bachelor that kept clean dishrags and dish soap somewhere.

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