The Next Breath

As Sophie staggered through the front door of her apartment, she caught a whiff of fresh cigarette smoke, more pungent than the stale stench clinging to her clothes and hair. Flying through the living room in four-inch heels, she whipped her head around, searching for the source of that acrid odor.

She stopped short in the kitchen doorway. Her roommate sat at the table, a cigarette clutched between his lips as he peered at his laptop screen. Cash glanced up at her, sheepish as he straightened in the chair. “Good morning, Sophie,” he said.

“I told you not to smoke in here.” She tried to sound stern, but her voice was reduced to a low rasp. “Put it out right now. You’ll set the smoke alarm off.”

Cash took a deep drag, closing his eyes to savor it. “No, I won’t,” he said, “because I removed the batteries. I was going to put them back as soon as I finished this.” Reluctantly he ground the cigarette into a glass ashtray she didn’t know they still had. She thought he stopped smoking after his father died last year.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, focusing his large blue eyes on her again. “You sound like you’re catching a cold.” His stare swept over her red dress and the snags in her stockings.

Sophie’s hands flew like startled birds to her throat, but Cash saw the violet ring of bruises mottling her skin.

“Jesus Christ.” He stood and started toward her.

Sophie stumbled backward and held up her hands. “Don’t.”

Cash froze mid-stride. “Okay,” he said, speaking as though she were a frightened animal he wanted to soothe. “Do I need to take you to the hospital?”

“No.” Her voice broke on the word.

He swiped a hand over his face, never looking away from the bruises. “Who did this to you?”

She brushed stringy hair out of her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to see him again.”

“I sure as hell hope not.” Cash reached for her arm.

The moment his skin touched hers, he was no longer Cash but the man who had choked her senseless just hours before. Sophie jerked from his grasp. “Leave me alone,” she snapped.

“Hey.” Cash pointed a finger at her. “Don’t try to make me one of your nameless fucks. You took care of me last month when I had the stomach flu. You stood beside me at my father’s funeral. You think I’m going to let this drop, when you come home with bruises on your neck?”

“Please,” she whispered, tears scratching her eyes like powdered glass. “I just want a hot bath. We’ll talk later.”

Cash’s shoulders slumped, and his slender body appeared to fold in on itself. “Can I… do you need any help?” he asked.

Sophie shook her head and forced a smile. “No, I’m okay.”

She kicked off her heels before making her way to the bathroom. Not bothering to lock the door, she stripped out of her clothes, refusing to look at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. She ran hot water until the glass steamed. Lifting a leg over the side of the tub, Sophie eased her foot into the bath and hissed at the scalding temperature.

She wanted to lather her skin and hair, wash away all traces of the night before, but she was too tired. Instead she leaned back and closed her eyes, the water so hot it muddled her senses and made her shiver.

A soft knock sounded on the bathroom door. “You okay, love?” Cash called.

“Yeah,” she said. “You can come in.”

He opened the door and stopped short, averting his gaze. “Sorry,” he stammered, his face flushing. “I didn’t know you were…”

“Naked? It’s fine,” she said, unable to hold back a grin.

Cash pulled the shower curtain closed. Sophie heard him put the toilet lid down and then sit on it. He let out a sigh that sounded as weary as her bones felt.

“Why do you keep doing this?”

She settled deeper in the water. “I don’t know.”

“It won’t stop until you figure that out,” he said.

Sophie snorted. “You should have been a shrink. You missed your calling.”

“Why do you let these men hurt you?” Cash persisted.

“I ask them to,” she replied.

Even the meekest of men, the ones who twisted their wedding bands and trembled like scared rabbits as she approached them in bars—even they could be goaded into hurting her when she got them alone. Some required nothing more than a submissive look and a plaintive, “Please, sir.” Others lashed out only after she hurled insults at them, snickering at their cocks.

“Why do you ask them to hurt you?” Cash’s voice was just above a whisper.

Sophie gingerly touched the bruises at her throat and thought of what she could wear to the office on Monday to hide the marks. “It’s the only way I can come.”

She heard the low hiss of air between his teeth. “What happened last night?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and thought of the man she met at the bar two towns away. He sat by himself, nursing a gin and tonic. Mid-forties, balding, a bit of a belly on him. He was quiet, but he laughed at her jokes, and as the evening wore on, he leaned closer. His hand was on her thigh when she suggested they go to a hotel.

The man turned out to be one of the nice guys, at least at first. He wanted to kiss her mouth, her neck. She took his hand in hers and forced him to squeeze her breast.

“What …” The man stepped away from her.

She stood in the dimly lit hotel room and took off her clothes. He couldn’t stop staring at her as she slipped between the sheets. “I like it rough,” she told him. “You think you can manage that?”

“How rough?” he asked. A layer of sweat coated his cheeks.

Sophie started to climb out of the bed. “If you have to ask, you’re not up to it.”

“I am,” the man insisted.

When his naked body weighed her down, the man tried to kiss her again. “That’s not what I want,” she said, turning her head away.

He pinched her left nipple hard enough to make her gasp. “Be careful what you ask for,” he said. Then he slapped her face.

As he fucked her, panting from the exertion, she realized he was close to coming. “Hey,” she said. Her sharp tone brought him from his trance. “This isn’t doing it for me.”

His features contorted in rage. “I’m fucking you as hard as I can.”

Sophie burst out laughing. “You can fuck me into next year, pal, but that tiny cock of yours still won’t do the job.”

His large hands wrapped around her throat. Still she smiled as his stare locked with hers. He squeezed hard, his jaw clenched, and the veins protruded at his temples. The edges of her vision darkened as blazing flares popped like flashbulbs before her eyes.

So this is how it ends, she thought. She always believed she would welcome that final release, but the reptilian part of her brain scrambled into action, and she struggled like a mouse with its leg caught in a glue trap, her small fists hammering the man’s head. Her lungs screamed in agony. It felt like the inside of her chest was being scraped with a dull knife.

The man relaxed his grip just before she lost consciousness. He pulled out of her, whispering, “What am I doing?” Then he jumped from the bed and ran to the bathroom.

Sophie rolled onto her side, coughing and sputtering. She drew in a deep lungful of air, tears streaming from her eyes. Over the sound of her labored breathing, she heard the man vomit into the toilet.

Sophie turned her back to him as he dressed. Just before he left the room, he said, “I’m sorry. Please—I have a family.”

She couldn’t tell any of this to Cash, so she dunked her head below the bathwater. When she resurfaced, Cash’s voice filled her ears.

“Is it because of your brother?”

Sophie began to shake so hard the water sloshed over the side of the tub. “You asshole,” she said. “That’s low, bringing him up now.”

“Sophie, I’m sorry,” Cash said.

She climbed to her feet and pulled back the shower curtain. “You want me to say I’m completely fucked up because my brother used to sneak into my room at night?”

Cash held out his upturned palms in supplication. “You’ll end up dead if you don’t stop this.”

Sophie shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Cash stood and yanked at his hair. “Let me help you,” he said. “Please.”

Sophie curled her lip in disgust. “I’ve asked you to help me before.”

“No.” Cash shook his head violently. “You wanted to use me.”

She stepped out of the tub and reached for a towel. “I asked you to fuck me,” she said. “How is that using you?”

“I’d jump at the chance to fuck you.” Cash’s breathing grew heavier. “But not the way you want. Even if I were to tie you up, get rough with you, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Sophie wrapped the towel around her wet hair and pushed past him. He followed her into her bedroom. “You have no right to lecture me about my problems,” she said. “Let’s talk about how you haven’t dated anyone in years.” She slumped on the edge of her unmade bed. “You keep yourself holed up in this apartment, wallowing in your own shame.”

“That’s not true,” Cash said.

Sophie hurled the wet towel at him, and he caught it with one hand. The tendency to bare her fangs and lunge for the jugular began to well in her chest. “Thomas told me about your roll in the sheets,” she went on, smirking at the way Cash’s eyes widened. “You didn’t think I knew about that, did you?” Sophie leaned forward. “I know he told you the next morning that it meant nothing to him—you just served as a hole for him to fill.”

Cash’s face drained of color, and Sophie saw the panic leeching into his skin.

“Now do you want to hit me?” she taunted. “I bet you’d just love to smash your fist in my face. But I’ll let you fuck me the way he fucked you.” The words spilled from her in a ruthless stream. “Thomas said you make a great bottom. So do I, Cash.”

He didn’t ball his fists or advance on her with a raised hand. He only gave her a sad smile. “You won’t win that easily, but keep it up if it makes you feel better.”

His pain was so raw she had to look away. “It doesn’t,” she said, her voice thick with unshed tears. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have any more knives you want to twist in my gut?” he asked, closing the distance between them.

Sophie fell back against the bed. As Cash loomed over her, she lifted her legs and wrapped them around his hips. “Please help me,” she whimpered.

Cash took a shuddering breath and covered her body with the towel. “No,” he said. “Get some sleep.”

When he pulled away, a sob erupted from her lips. “If you loved me, you would hurt me.” She covered her face with her hands, the way she did as a child when she wanted to hide.

Cash sat beside her on the bed and gathered her in his arms. “I do love you,” he whispered, his lips against her hair. “That’s why I’m saying no.”

As they huddled together on the dirty sheets, he held her so tight it made her ribs ache. Sophie found it hard to breathe, but she remained still, terrified he would loosen his grip if she moved.

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