Where Have You Been
She closes the door as quietly as she can, tiptoeing in her lacquered red shoes whose sound is cushioned by the mud covering the soles. She doesn’t notice the imprints she’s leaving behind her as she goes, too focused on the stairs she needs to reach. Once upstairs it’ll be easier to pretend she’s been there all along like it had been asked of her.
But before she can cross the threshold she hears her father’s voice, calm and steady, spelling trouble.
“Where have you been?”
“Nowhere,” she tries to lie, but she still has her coat on and smells like wind and petrichor.
“That why I saw you in the neighbours’ backyard twenty minutes after I sent you up to do your homework?”
Lost cause, she sighs as she drags herself to the living room. He’s sitting in his favourite armchair, television abandoned as he stares his daughter down.
“I didn’t have a lot, and you said I could go play after—”
“I said we’ll see if you can go play after you’re done. You think you can leave just because you want to? You don’t make the decisions in this house, you’re an eight year old child.”
He did say she would be allowed to go after her homework was done. She heard him clear as day but he wouldn’t listen even if she insisted – especially if she insisted. Her friends’ parents say her dad is so hard at work, pushes himself to his limits in spite of being hardly recognised for all that he does. In spite of no one respecting his authority.
She doesn’t have the words to explain that at work he’s about as hard as a glass but turns into diamond the closer to home he gets in the evening.
“No seeing your friends until next week,” he says, and it’s final.
Whether or not he remembers how overjoyed she had been at the prospect of her best friend’s birthday party that weekend, she can’t tell. Not like it matters; the adults are always right — or so they themselves say.
“Where have you been?”
It’s 7:38 in the morning and class is about to begin. Phone out, she and her friends form a circle around their idol’s latest video. The tap on her shoulder is impatient, a woodpecker right on the protuberance of her collarbone. When she turns around she comes face to face with the one boy she can always make out in a crowd. The scrunchies in her hair are her favourite colours, she’s wearing her new outfit. They’ve been together four months today, and for fifteen year olds that’s a lifetime.
“We came up to watch our vid somewhere quiet. You didn’t get my text?”
“Where were you this weekend?”
Now she sports a frown to match his. They hadn’t planned to go out, had they? She wouldn’t have forgotten, she sets memos on her phone for that kind of thing. She would have remembered.
“At my gran’s. I thought I told you?”
“Your grandmother looks like an old guy with a shitty goatee?”
“What? No! What’s up with you?”
“My brother saw you laughing with a dude, walking real close to each other. I should have known you were a slut.”
She staggers under the strength of the word, the blow his mouth delivered hitting her hard. Her friends move closer to her, one of them gets in a blow of her own – with her hand, that one. They start arguing but all she hears is that one word over and over again and she thinks about the weekend she spent with her family, how happy she was to see her aunt after so many years. She thinks about the tour of the neighbourhood she gave her cousin because he wanted to see if it had changed; twenty isn’t that old and the two hairs fighting on his chin couldn’t possibly be called a ‘goatee’.
She blinks back to reality when a finger shakes an inch away from her face.
“You better be sure everyone will know you’re not a virgin.”
There’s no truth to the accusation – because it is one, everybody’s reaction tells her so – and yet her heart seizes with fear, because she was told it should. None of them understand anything past the shame she’ll feel and the power he’ll gain, and for him that’s enough.
All she took was a minute. Just the one, to put her hair back in order and massage her feet. Heels are a special type of torture on her legs, but they’re a mandatory part of the work uniform. Unless you’re tall, like the foreign assistant; then you’re encouraged to wear sneakers because at least in these the team manager is almost of eye-level with you.
The assistant, as a matter of fact, really liked wearing heels.
Her minute is closer to two so she walks as fast as she can without dropping the ridiculously high stack of papers management couldn’t be arsed to go and get for themselves. One of them had offered to send somebody else because she’s so tiny, how do you want her to hold all that? but that had only fueled her spite. Not to mention they would have likely sent the one accountant who came back with a bad knee because she couldn’t afford to recover.
(They say life’s like this, hard unless you work it. She remembers her father, hard at work, never gained recognition for it. She remembers what she was told on her first day, “they’re only here because their daddies were too. A bunch of spineless money-grubbing douchebags, can’t wipe their own—” and how it had only taken her two days to repeat those words and mean them.)
“Where have you been? If you’d kept us here any longer dinner would have been on you, sweetheart!”
They laugh their special colleagues laugh and she purses her lips in something that passes for a smile.
“The toner in the printer needed to be replaced and the receptionist wasn’t the one who had stored it this time so I had to look everywhere for—”
“Yes, yes it’s great, why don’t you hand those over and we’ll tell the receptionist to put things in the right place next time, alright?”
“It wasn’t her who—”
“Pass those around if you please, we don’t have all day.”
She stands still for a second, having half a mind to correct them again. They wouldn’t listen any more than they did the first time around; maybe if she dropped something heavy or climbed on the table they’d be shocked enough for her to get a couple words in?
“What are you standing there for, darling, trying to blend in with the furniture?”
There’s laughter around the table once more but this time it is subdued. As her eyes trail over the vaguely similar faces she sees second-hand embarrassment, scorn, lack of interest. Too much interest. Blood rushes to her cheeks and as she turns around it takes more than whatever energy she had left not to clench her hands into fists.
When she closes the door behind her she’s only comforted by the idea that they’ve already forgotten everything down to her very presence. She doesn’t plan on keeping that job forever, anyway. She can put up with it for the time being.
“Hey, where’ve you been?”
Her fiancé is tucked under the sheets, a stray rose petal clinging to the bedspread. He gauges her carefully, the red heels in her hand dripping rain on the carpeted floor, the stain her lipstick left behind on the hard line of her mouth the only disruption in her make up. She looks tired, but at long last she’s home.
She stares too, calculating. He doesn’t look mad, just disappointed, yet there’s something in his eye that makes her want to hop under the shower and not come out until he’s fast asleep. She isn’t in the mood for a chat tonight.
“I told you I would grab a drink with a friend after the board meeting.”
“What you didn’t tell me is that you’d be home so late. Do meetings really last that long, or should I be worried about the friend?”
I owe you nothing, she thinks as she drops her shoes on the floor. All she needs is warmth and sleep.
“Put your shoes away, you’ll ruin the floor.”
“If that’s the mood you’re in I better get the petals out of the vacuum bag.” He waits a beat, continues when she doesn’t prompt him further. He’s never really needed her approval to ramble. “See, I thought a romantic evening would be just the thing for you, since you’ve come home knackered from work for a while.” She massages her forehead, temples, unzips her dress, getting closer to the bathroom with each step. He goes on. “So I grabbed all those organic rose petals from the store and made the bed all nice, I even had champagne but the ice in the bucket started melting so I put it away.”
She can tell. The bucket is perfectly visible from where she stands, devoid of champagne but filled to the brim with water and nearly-melted ice in the middle of the shower. Oh, bother. She wants a steaming hot shower, not another mess to clean. A sigh escapes her before she can hold it back; she couldn’t possibly hold on to it for so long, it had to go somewhere.
“Did you just sigh at me? I tried to do something nice for you, you know, it’s not my fault you couldn’t be home in time for it!”
“I’m tired,” she snaps through the pounding in her head. “And I told you I’d be home late. Did you really think now would be the best time?”
“You said you’d be home later than usual, so I expected half past seven, not nearly midnight. Nice of you to text me, by the way.”
“I specifically said ‘late.’”
“I don’t remember you saying that, but whatever you say, sweetheart. You can go get your grumpy shower now.”
And then he turns on his side, switches his bedside lamp off, and makes to sleep. There’s water boiling inside of her, thunder rumbling in the distant landscape of her self-control. Just go, pleads the little girl hanging onto her hand with desperation. Please go, the teenage girl pulls her along, staring transfixed at the floor. You better go; the young adult’s tone leaves no room for misinterpretation, but if there’s any doubt about her intentions her clenched fists are right there.
So she goes, drags the weight of all she’s been and all she’s heard to the bathroom, tips the bucket on its side and as the water runs down the drain she tries to regain some patience. Gets in front of the mirror to remove her earrings, drags a cotton soaked in cleansing cream over her face and the bags under her eyes, Jesus, when did she get so tired? By the time she hops under the shower she’s trapped inside her head, the empty bucket in the corner of her field of vision. She doesn’t see it really but it guides her thoughts out of the fog.
I did say I would come home late.
… Did I?
I was running late, I didn’t pay attention to what I was saying. Maybe I did say that but not clearly enough and he misheard me. Am I getting angry over nothing? He had good intentions, it’s not his fault I had a bad day. Why am I taking this so hard, why am I such a mess? I’m not supposed to be on my period soon, am I? It could just be that.
She’s about to drop the issue and move on when she hears it.
At first it sounds like water trickling down but then it starts again: low and menacing, uncomfortable like being scolded by her father.
No, it isn’t quite like that. There is no anger directed at her, but the feeling is there nonetheless. Something standing behind her straightening her spine, an animal hissing and growling.
“Lower your eyes.”
“What?” she asks out loud. The walls of the mist-coated room echo her question, sending back a sound unlike that of the command from before.
“Lower your eyes,” she hears again, and understands it comes from inside of her – her mind, maybe, or something close to it.
“I don’t want to.” She thinks it back with as much strength as a candle in the wind but it’s enough; after all, truth experiences no solid state. “I don’t want to.” Defeat beats down on her shoulders. It’s in her gut too, melting and boiling all of her strength and head held high and a thousand possibilities down to nothing.
“LOWER YOUR EYES,” the voice booms, and it’s one of those times where there’s absolutely a wrong answer but not really a good one. There is what is expected of her, and nothing else. Not even a choice to make, not even time to think. It’s do or… what?
OR WHAT? She thinks real loud, WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF I DON’T? She’s been raised to fear those voices, the consequences of disobedience when no one ever explained what said consequences would be. She’s been told who was right before she could even think to ask what they were right about and here she is, tired out of her mind and too skinny too grey too blue not enough joy or will or normal—
“Fuck you,” she spits out, renewed vitriol. “Fuck you.” Her eyes stare straight ahead, head held high and a thousand possibilities.
The voice licks its fangs and retreats, sated… satisfied.
I was late and tired. “I’ll be home late” is a shorter sentence than “I’ll be home later than usual,” so that’s what I would have said regardless. And even then he has no right to whine about me ruining a selfish surprise. If he knew me at all he would have never made this ridiculous attempt at a relaxing evening, especially since his idea of relaxation is sex when mine is a bath and Chinese takeout. He’d know that if he paid attention. He’d understand if he cared.
It felt like waking up after a fever dream, her lashes blinking droplets away to keep her awake.
How long had it been that way, her looking the other way while the man in her bed threw childish tantrums, unable to hear ‘no’ or ‘you’re wrong’ without getting red in the face? How many before him had done the same, when had she fallen asleep?
Her phone buzzes, she grabs it on autopilot. “R u awake?” says the text she receives from the friend she saw earlier at the bar. “Eyes wide open,” she texts back. The bathroom door is cranked open just enough for her to see the shape of her fiancé in her bed. Her lips curl in mild annoyance. “I’ll come see you tomorrow. Need a plan of attack,” she texts again. She’s not out of the woods yet but there’s no way she’ll let a false sense of dread lull her back to sleep.
As she turns around to turn off the light she catches her own eye in the mirror and comes to a stop. The bags under her eyes haven’t changed in the slightest, but she could swear she saw fire in her pupils. She angles her face this way and that, admiring the new colours she spots there; crimson passion, golden bravery, emerald power.
“Hello there,” she smiles. “Where have you been?”
Fleur is a queer storyteller living predominantly in their own head, which happens to be located in France close to the Belgian border.
Their love for the magical and eerie started with bedtime stories but now transpires into their stories, through which they seek to shine a light on both the beautiful and grotesque aspects of everyday life. With a particular fondness for the Norse and Greek gods, they mix a little bit of everything into their practice – various means of fortune reading, gemstones, and devotional candles are commonplace in their shared apartment.
You can find Fleur on Twitter @moonsflora and on the rare occasion, on Instagram @moonsflora_.