Authors: Carter Wilson
THE COMFORT OF BLACK
Also by Carter Wilson
The Boy in the Woods
Copyright Â© 2015 by Carter Wilson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, businesses, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States of America by Oceanview Publishing Longboat Key, Florida
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The book is dedicated to my wonderful agent, Pam Ahearn. Your feedback, tireless effort, and most of all your belief in my writing are all forever appreciated. And thanks to Pat Gussin, Bob Gussin, Frank Troncale and all the other staff at Oceanview for reading this book and wanting to take it on.
I hugely appreciate all the feedback from the steadfast members of my critique group. Ed, Dirk, Sean and Linda, here's to you.
Ili and Sawyer, you can't read this one either. But thanks for being amazing children and inspiring me on a daily basis. I love you endlessly. Now, stop picking up my books and looking for the bad words.
Jessica, you are awesome in all sorts of ways. We are good together, and I simply couldn't do any of this without you. Henry, thanks for making me smile and being just a good kid.
Mom, I appreciate you reading the draft with a keen eye, as always. Sole, this one would freak you out as well, so I'll just give you the CliffsNotes version sometime. But you give me tequila, and that's a good thing.
Dad, I think about you every day, and there are always bits of you reflected in my writing.
Finally, thanks to all the readers who have been following me since my first novel. I hope this one lives up to your expectations. Knowing there are folks out there buying my books and enjoying the stories I create is pretty much writer-heaven. Let's keep this relationship going for a long time.
THE COMFORT OF BLACK
Hannah didn't have a plan beyond setting her father on fire.
She hid in her closet tonight as Billy rampaged, cloaked in the dark among shoes too small to wear, clothes reeking of cigarette smoke no matter how many times she washed them, and a memory box containing only dried, blackened roses from her first and only boyfriend, a romance that lasted not much longer than the flowers. Hannah had spent much time in this closet before, and time itself stretched into magical proportions in the cramped darkness. Seconds were minutes, minutes were hours. But it would finally be over. Billy was predictable. When his rage ended, it would leave him fatigued, like a cheetah after a kill. He would sleep, and when he did, it would be Hannah's turn to act.
Forever later, when the house finally fell silent around her, Hannah slowly counted to one hundred and opened the closet door. She left her room and crept through the house, the rough floorboards creaking beneath her bare feet. She found her mother in bed, an empty glass of gin on the night table, her nightly anesthetic. Hannah draped an arm around her and felt her mother shake with stifled sobs. Hannah told her it was time to do something. Time to stop living like this.
“Go brush your teeth and get to sleep,” her mother said. She spoke into her pillow. “Things will be better in the morning.”
Things were always promised to be better in the morning.
Hannah stroked her mother's hair.
“Yes, they will,” Hannah said. It was the first time she ever believed it.
Her father's abuse stretched as far back as Hannah could remember. Now Hannah was fifteen, the assaults had become routine, and Hannah no longer called him Daddy. Justine still called him Daddy, but Hannah only called him Billy. To Hannah, she had no daddy.
Hannah left her mother and walked softly into the room she shared with Justine and found her twelve-year-old sister asleep, her hair pasted in sweat to the side of her face, her favorite stuffed rabbit clutched against her chest like a newborn child in its mother's arms. The rabbit was missing its left ear, the stuffing held in by a piece of duct tape pasted over the hole. Billy had torn the ear off one night as punishment for a chore left undone. Ripped it off the creature's head right in front of a crying Justine, then fed the ear down the garbage disposal. Hannah leaned down and kissed Justine on the forehead and whispered in her ear. “Tonight, Justine. It's gonna be over tonight.” Justine didn't stir.
Hannah then walked through the living room and stared briefly at her father, who, even in sleep, seemed tensed in rage, ready to spring at any moment like the toy snake inside the fake can of nuts. He had finally passed out in his favorite chair, the shitty green one that smelled of mold and cigarettes. Billy's final Pall Mall of the night had burned to the filter as he slept, the ash scattered in gray motes around his dirty work boots. An empty whiskey glass rested on the arm of the chair, remnants of the drink visible on Billy's t-shirt, streaks of dull caramel against grayed white.
Hannah continued to the garage and found a can of gasoline. She picked it up and crept back into the house, leaving the door open behind her. She lifted Billy's lighter off the kitchen table and held it tight in her fist. Back in the living room now, the smell of turkey was heavy and stale from the kitchen. She unscrewed the top of the gas can, the acrid fumes attacking her nostrils. But it
. It smelled like a last-chance gas station on a long, desert road, one final opportunity to refuel before heading west toward something new, vast, and different.
As she looked down on her father, Hannah's rage swelled. This was the rage Hannah inherited from Billy, and as she got older she found herself fighting against it, convincing herself she was not like him, but still the anger flooded her more often than she could remember. She usually found a way to dam it up. But not tonight. Tonight she was thankful for it. It would allow her to do what needed to be done.
As gently as she could, Hannah sloshed the contents of the bottle over Billy's lower legs and along the base of his chair. Billy was a hard sleeper. Hannah was pretty certain the noise would not wake him, but the smell was strong. The fumes might arouse him, so she needed to move fast. She trembled as the gas can lost weight in her hands. But Billy didn't move, and the only sound he offered was a steady, rhythmic snore, the song of the drunk. Hannah had poured a long trail of the gas leading toward the dining room table, next to where the uneaten turkey remained there, nobody having even bothered to put it in the refrigerator. She had poured the final drops inside the hole in the carcass.
She stared at Billy and squeezed the lighter in her right hand, her palm sweaty against the hard plastic. She heard his yells from earlier in the evening echo in her memory.
You ruined the fuckin' turkey, you stupid bitch
. Billy's open palm had connected with his wife's face, one more biting sting piled on top of hundredsâmaybe thousandsâbefore it. That was his preferred method of assault. Never a closed fist. Always open-palmed, as if somehow that made it a correction rather than a beating.
The fire would spread quickly, and Hannah would have to run and get her mother and sister. Would they try to help him? Or would they jump into the car and drive, drive as far and as fast as they could go, crying at the horror of what they left behind but relieved by the freedom the flames had given them?
Hannah fantasized the latter. In this fantasy, Hannah would
be a hero, the girl who saved her family from a monster. Her mother would stop drinking and her sister would finally live in a world where the drunken shouts of
weren't nighttime rituals. In this same fantasy the police would say it was self-defense, because the cops in the small Kansas town knew Billy was an evil man and the world would be better without him. Things would be the kind of normal Hannah had always dreamed.
A world without Billy.
But Hannah had never experienced a dream coming true, not in the fifteen years she had been on this earth.
She needed to act but found her body frozen. Standing, not moving, not even breathing, a void of motion that seemed to transcend time. The moment held a religious kind of quiet. In her mind, she saw the reverend in their little Baptist church reading from the Bible, and in this moment, this darkness, she could hear the man's voice speaking with conviction, his gaze sweeping through the tiny congregation.
Be still, and know I am God
Hannah blinked, breaking the spell, not wanting God to be a part of this moment. God hadn't been there for her before, so He wasn't allowed to be here now. Her hand began to shake as she stared down at her father and flicked the lighter. Once. Twice. On the third attempt, the flint sparked the gas, and the flame rose above her thumb. A drop of sweat beaded on her forehead and ran down her face, tickling the tip of her nose. She heard herself gasp in the silence of the tiny, broken house.
Billy's eyes shot open. They were wide at first, then narrowed as his gaze drilled into her. He smiled in the dark of the room, his teeth radiating against his unshaven face.
. He sniffed the air and then spied the gasoline can on the floor near her feet.
“Good for you, Hannie,” he said. “Maybe you just did learn a thing or two from me.”
An invisible python wrapped itself around Hannah's chest and squeezed.
Billy coughed and cleared his throat. His voice was a soft growl. “You realize, even on fire, I'm gonna come over there and break every bone in that beautiful, soft face of yours. You know that, right? With my last ounce of life I will make you suffer, baby. But you do what you gotta do, Hannie. I always thought you were soft, but maybe I was wrong. This is
. So do it, little girl.” He straightened in the chair.
The words repeated in her head. A mantra.
Do it, Hannah. Do it. Do it
Billy rose from his chair as Hannah kept her arm held out in front of her. Billy's face danced behind the flickering flame. His bright-blue wolf's eyes gleamed with excitement. The smell of blood, of a meal soon to be had.
She had stopped breathing. She could not move. The stillness of moments before was back and it consumed her. All she could do was look at him.
Billy came toward her.
Hannah and her husband hadn't had sex in six weeks. Six weeks and three days, the longest span of abstinence in their entire relationship. Hannah knew, because she kept a calendar. Since the first time they had made love she made a little mark with a pen in her Day-Timer, black hashes adding up over the year, whiskers of sexual memories.
The past two years had been filled with ever-increasing gaps. Dallin was thirty-three and Hannah thirty-four. There was no good reason for gaps at that age, she thought.
He was working late. Or he was tired. Or the most common reason of all: he was stressed. That one, in particular, made no sense to her. What better cure for stress than sex? But she didn't understand, he would say.
It's not like that. Do you know how much pressure I'm under? I can't just perform on command