Alice left her body for the first time the day George nearly killed her.
He hadn’t beat her too much this time, just a backhand to the face that sent her spinning to the kitchen floor. She heard the pan of burnt meatloaf clatter onto the tiles, and then he was on her, squeezing her neck with his meaty hands until she passed out. When she woke, George was slapping her face lightly.
“Come on, baby, wake,” he urged. “That’s my girl.”
She tried to speak, but her throat felt shredded. George helped her sit up.
“See, you’re okay.” He pushed some strands of hair away from her face, gentle in the aftermath, as always. “You should know better than to upset me like that, though. All I want is a nice meal when I come home from work. You know how hard I work to take care of you, right? Right?”
She nodded. “I know,” she croaked. “I’m sorry, George.”
“Well, that’s all right.” He helped her stand, and the room spun. “Now, clean up this mess and get me a decent dinner. Okay?”
That night in bed she watched him sleep and imagined cutting his throat. She could easily slip out of bed and take a knife from the kitchen drawer. She’d lay the blade across his Adam’s apple, which bobbed up and down as he snored. George liked to keep the knives sharp; it would be easy, like slicing through butter.
She stayed in bed, resisting the urge. Going to jail wouldn’t be as bad as remaining here, but she wasn’t willing to trade one prison for another. Sometimes, death seemed better. Part of her wished that George had strangled her just a few minutes more, to finish the job. But only a part.
Once while George was at work, she had filled the bathtub with warm water, peeled off her clothes and slid in. She picked up the knife waiting on the edge of the tub. She brought the blade to her wrist, but instead of doing it quickly, like she ought to have done, she stared at the thin blue veins beneath the translucent skin, and a memory surfaced.
She was a young girl sitting outside on the grass one summer, eating an orange. The sun warmed the fruit on her plate. She lifted one of the orange slices and held it up, examining the delicate veins of its flesh through the light. As she bit into it, sweetness burst onto her tongue, and the warm juice dribbled down her chin. Happiness suffused her whole body, warming her like the rays of the sun. She was glad to be alive.
She had gotten out of the tub, dried off and dressed, put the knife away. If she cut those veins, she would kill that little girl. The one who still lived inside her, trapped and mute, but waiting for the taste of oranges again.
In bed Alice felt the bruises on her neck, the ache in her left cheek, but it didn’t matter. She thought about the little girl, the burst of sweet juice, and the warm sun as she drifted off.
After a time she woke, disoriented. Something felt different. She didn’t feel any pain in her face or neck, but it was more than that. She got out of bed and just stood there, trying to think of what it was. Light from the street lamp outside the window illuminated the room, casting a beam across the carpeted floor. She followed the intricate pattern of the lace curtains, as if she had never noticed it before. Every single fiber in the rug was visible to her. Every tiny rosebud on the wallpaper leaped out, even in the dim light. She tingled with electricity, like a ball of energy, light and formless. For some reason she wanted to laugh, and when she did, it sounded like music. She turned quickly to see if she had awakened George, but he just snored on.
She stared at the bed for a minute more, trying to understand what was so strange about it, until she finally realized what it was. Alice was still there, right next to George. She was looking at herself while outside of her body. At first she thought she had died in her sleep. She must have hit her head on the floor harder than she thought. Internal hemorrhaging had killed her. But when she looked closer, she noticed the rise and fall of her chest. The Alice in bed was only sleeping. She was dreaming, then. She couldn’t ever recall having a dream of such clarity.
Presently she noticed a shimmering cord that attached her to the Alice in bed. About an inch thick, it glowed silver and snaked out from behind sleeping Alice’s head to connect to the back of her own. She reached up to feel it, but her hand passed right through.
It irked her that the cord connected her to the battered thing in the bed. The woman had nothing to do with the real Alice, the consciousness that floated here, weightless and free. She wished she could fly away and leave the pathetic body behind.
With the thought, she suddenly shot upwards through the ceiling, through the roof, and out into the summer night air. She saw the houses below her, then the lights of Redfield as she flew higher and higher, until the lights became the pinpricks of stars. An infinite number of heavenly bodies blazed in every direction. Awe filled her as she comprehended the vastness of space, but as she realized her own smallness in this celestial sea, panic set in.
Fear snapped her back along the cord at incomprehensible speed to her body waiting in the bed. She woke instantly, opening her eyes to the bedroom ceiling. The heaviness of her limbs, the dull ache of her bruised cheek, the fire in her throat all assaulted her. George snored beside her, his head thrown back, his mouth slightly open. The dream was over. She turned away and wept silently, so as not to wake him.
She thought it nothing more than an exhilarating, vivid dream, until the next night when she found herself standing next to the bed again, her body sleeping next to George. And again the next night, and the next. She guessed her brush with death had opened a doorway through which she could pass, to roam with a freedom she had never known.
She drudged through her days, cleaning the house until it was spotless, cooking meals for George, and enduring his belittling remarks and fitful, unpredictable fists. She didn’t care. This wasn’t her real life. Her real life waited for her at night. While her vulnerable body slept, her soul soared through the air of Redfield, exploring as she wasn’t allowed to during the day.
At first she kept to the house, hesitant to relive the overwhelming vastness of space. She didn’t want or need to go that far. She wandered the rooms, passing through walls and doors, relishing the idea that George couldn’t follow. In this form, she was free from the weight of his gaze, the force of his hands, his awareness of everywhere she went. She was truly out of his reach.
She looked out the windows and yearned to escape this house that was his, this cage he had fashioned for her. One night she tentatively moved forward to step out through the glass of the window, into the small front yard. The glittering cord followed behind her. She wondered how far she could go, if it was another leash to hold her back. She walked down the street, away from the house, away from George, away from the weak body that slept behind him. The cord stretched out behind her but didn’t pull her back, so she kept going.
She explored her neighborhood, peeping into the houses of their neighbors. She had never been allowed to befriend them, and she was curious to see how others lived. Some houses were dark as families slept. Some glowed with the light of the television as the occupants watched favorite shows. Couples made love, and she turned her eyes away from them. Their loving caresses were painful to see when compared to George’s sweaty thrustings.
She left the neighborhood and entered town, looking into the dark windows of the shops. Everything closed early in Redfield. Only a few cars passed down the quiet streets, and even fewer people walked the sidewalks. If someone did pass by, she instinctively ducked her head and didn’t look at them, not wanting them to see the newest bruise, or the shame in her eyes. When she remembered they couldn’t see her, she gazed frankly, drinking them up like a thirsty woman gulps a glass of water.
She wanted to see more, much more than she could in a single night by walking. She wanted to see other places, other cities, other states. One night she mustered up the courage to fly again, but this time used her mind to control her flight, so that she coasted above the rooftops of Redfield. She laughed out loud as she flew into the adjacent town and landed softly on the grass of its common. Williston was more of a small city, and she spent a lot of time looking around and exploring its twisty, shop-laden streets. She remembered passing through it to Redfield after marrying George, but she hadn’t seen it since.
She was passing one particular building when she spotted a sign in its window:
Abused? Scared? Nowhere to go? Call 1-800-XXX-XXXX.
There was nothing else on the sign, only those words and the number. She peered more closely at the building, but it looked abandoned, dark and empty beyond the glass of its window.
As she flew back to her bed and the sleeping Alice, she couldn’t get the phone number out of her head. Once back in her body, it crossed her mind once again, but she immediately dismissed it. There was no point in running. No matter where she went George would eventually find her, and probably kill her. She didn’t want to die. She had to protect the little girl who loved oranges, who flew with her in the night, and laughed with her. She could endure the days, as long as she had the night.
It was enough.
A few weeks later she missed her period.
Alice always looked forward to her time of month. George wouldn’t touch her while she was bleeding, as if she suffered from some sort of contagion he didn’t want to contract. Vigilant about birth control, he kept a box of condoms in the nightstand drawer next to their bed. Her certainly didn’t leave contraception in her hands. Either she wouldn’t take the pills consistently (“You’d miss one on purpose, I bet, just to have some snot-nosed, bawling kid, another mouth to feed we can’t afford,” though Alice suspected he didn’t want her attention diverted away from him) or she would consider herself open for business (“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’d fuck every guy in the neighborhood, wouldn’t you?”)
When she found the courage to tell him she might be pregnant, he blamed her, as if she had somehow caused the condom to tear. He screamed at her and threw chairs around and swiped things off tables. Then he beat her.
Luckily, he didn’t hit her in the stomach this time. She wanted this child. She wasn’t going to let George make her get rid of it, something he had yelled about during his rant. This child was hers, and it was not going to know George at all. Not ever. This child will sit on the grass in the summer sun eating oranges, delighting in its sweet stickiness. It was never going to lose that happiness, not if she could help it.
She lost a night of blissful roaming from lack of sleep, but it was worth it. Her desperate, anguished mind formed a plan. She felt it would succeed but for one fairly large problem, and she set to work on solving it right away.
The next time she left her body she didn’t leave the house, but tried, unsuccessfully, to grasp an object. She’d reach for a cup. a vase, or a bottle of water on the counter top, but her glowing hand passed right through it. Again and again, she’d reach for something, curl her fingers about it, and hope to feel its solid edges. But each time, she failed. Her form had no matter, therefore she could not interact with matter. And yet, the need to do so was key to her plan. Every morning she woke in despair. George was going to bring her to the clinic in Williston next week. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stop the “procedure”. Not in her waking form. She was running out of time.
One night before bed, George was flipping around the channels on the television when he stopped momentarily on a show about ghosts. This episode chronicled the troubles of a family whose home was haunted by a nasty entity, one who could hurl objects, grab hair or scratch skin, and cause all sorts of physical phenomena. The attending ghost expert purported that it could do these things by sheer force of emotion. Its rage fueled its strength.
“What a crock of shit,” George commented, clicking off the television. But Alice now knew what to do. She reasoned that her own disembodied soul was similar to a ghost, and so had the same abilities. She could grasp objects if she wanted to. She was just going about it the wrong way. Every time she tried to pick something up, she cleared her mind and concentrated, focusing entirely on the object. She had believed she needed to be calm and detached, like a monk trying to levitate. But it appeared she wasn’t supposed to be calm. She was supposed to be enraged.
Rage-that was something she could summon. Rage was a boiling lake she kept deep down inside her. Part of her was afraid to access it. To touch it was to burn, to incinerate to ash. She recoiled from it reflexively.
That night she stood by the bed examining her body next to George, she let herself gaze unflinchingly at what she’d become. Her pinched and worried face was unable to find peace even in sleep, despite the joyful wanderings of her soul. The latest bruises were beginning to yellow as they faded, giving her a sallow look. Her hair lay lank and dull against the pillow. Her shoulders hunched together, a perpetual shrug she had assumed to protect herself from blows that could fall at any moment. She looked much older than her years.
She had wasted the better part of her youth with this man. This man who had sniffed out her loneliness and fear after her parents had died in the crash, who took her far away from home and out of reach of any remaining family and friends, who had stamped out any trace of the happy little girl she had once been.
She looked from the crabbed body of sleeping Alice to George, who slept soundly. oblivious that he had ruined a life. No lines creased his brow, no premature gray invaded his hair to show his troubles. He slept as if it was perfectly fine that he wanted to kill the life inside her.
Hatred flared in her. She let herself touch that pool of rage, and then suddenly she was floating above him, trying to pummel him with her fists. She hit and cursed at him, but her slapping hands still fell through him. As in her waking life, she was ineffective, unable to touch him. In utter frustration, she screamed a high-pitched wail that echoed in her ethereal ears. At the same moment, the bathroom mirror in the next room shattered, and pieces of glass rained down onto the sink and floor.
George’s eyes flew open at the noise, and he gasped as if waking from a terrible dream. Alice was pulled back into her body as it woke. She looked over at him.
“What the hell?” George glared at her.
He could find no explanation for the broken mirror, and made her clean it up while he went back to sleep.
Alice could affect the material world in her disembodied form, but had to learn how to control and focus it. She spent the next few nights practicing, summoning the now easily-accessed anger, and focusing her attention on an object she wanted to grasp. There were a few mishaps. The remote control dropped onto the coffee table; a butter knife clattered into the sink. George got out of bed to investigate the noise. She laughed at his fearful uncertainty as he stood in the middle of the living room, looking for burglars.
She finally succeeded in picking up a plastic cup from the counter, holding it for a few minutes, and gingerly setting it down again. Once she accomplished this, she turned her attention to opening the kitchen drawer where she retrieved one of the sharp knives. She picked it up and held it before her. It gleamed in the moonlight coming through the window over the sink. Yes, she thought. This one will do nicely.
After George left for work the next day, she picked up the phone and dialed the number from the sign on the abandoned building. The woman on the other end of the line spoke in soft, measured tones, and gave her directions to a place called Haven House.
Alice hung up, packed a few things, and walked into town to catch the bus to Williston. Once there, she followed the woman’s directions. Haven House was a cozy-looking brick building with banks of tulips beneath the windows. She knocked on the door, and the soft-spoken woman, named Margaret, let her in with a compassionate smile. Margaret led her into a small office and asked her some questions, then handed over some papers for Alice to sign.
“No one will hurt you here,” she said, leaning forward and putting her hand upon Alice’s arm. “Settle in tonight. Tomorrow we’ll talk about your next steps.”
Alice wasn’t worried about tomorrow, but thanked Margaret and followed her her upstairs to a comfortable bedroom where she put her things. She washed in the bathroom down the hall, then sat in the cushioned chair near the bedroom window. She watched cars rush past in the road below, thinking of nothing in particular. She waited for the night.
After a while, Margaret came up to tell her dinner was ready. She could meet some of the other women here and start to build a “safe circle” of trust, a support network that would help her in the days to come.
Alice declined, citing fatigue, and Margaret let it go this first night since she was new. “Sleep well,”she said, starting to close the door.
“I’ll try,” Alice replied, “But do you think you could check on me in a few hours? I’m afraid I may lose my nerve, and leave in the middle of the night. I don’t really want that.”
“Of course.” Margaret smiled her beatific smile and clicked the door shut. Alice sighed with relief. She had an alibi for tonight.
George would be home by now and find her gone. She wasn’t sure what he’d do, but she waited several hours before lying down on the bed and trying to sleep. She was nervous and feared she might not be able to, but she finally dozed off and found herself looking at sleeping Alice in the strange bed of Haven House.
She flew up through the roof, oriented herself, and headed toward Redfield, and home. Not home, she thought. Not anymore.
She landed in the middle of the living room, or what was left of it. George, at finding her gone, had torn the place apart. He had flung the coffee table over onto its side, scattered the couch cushions over the floor, and smashed the television screen with the VCR. He toppled over lamps and end tables. The kitchen was no better. Appliances littered the floor, dished were broken on the tiles, pots and pans were knocked from their hooks.
In the bedroom George lay sprawled on the bed where he had collapsed after his rampage. His sleep didn’t look sound now. His brows scrunched together in consternation, and his lips were drawn tight in a thin line.
She returned to the kitchen, opened the drawer, gripped the knife in her glowing hand, and went back to the bedroom. Standing over him, the tip of the knife poised over his exposed throat, the only regret was that he would never know it was his darling Alice who killed him. When the blade sank into his neck, it felt like stabbing a melon, not like butter at all.
When she woke the next morning, the sun streamed through the bedroom window of Haven House. She rose and dressed, then descended the stairs into the kitchen. No one was about this early. She thought she might leave now, but the summer sun beckoned her out to the backyard. She picked out a large orange from the bowl of fruit resting on the kitchen table, then slipped out the sliding screen door and sat on the grass.
Alice slowly peeled the orange, delighting in the feel of the oily essence on her fingers. She broke open the fruit and separated the crescents, making a small pile in her lap. The orange was ripe and plump, and she raised a piece to the sun. The light glowed through its flesh, delineating its delicate veins. It reminded her of the fragile veins of a fetus, and she smiled. Resting a protective hand over her belly, she took a bit, savoring the sweet juice.