Story Title: Obstacles
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“Where will you go?” asked Karen.
Tony saw Mary’s calm crack slightly. She tried to speak, cleared her throat, tried again. “I don’t know. I was staying with Dean, and obviously that’s not happening anymore. Could you recommend a hotel?”
“No friends in town?” Tony kept his voice even, not wanting to scare her again.
“I haven’t been here long enough to make friends,” she said. “Anyone I know was Dean’s friend.”
“Then you can come with me,” said Karen. Mary started to protest but Karen shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I live with my friend, Lacey, and our other roommate just moved out. You can even have your own room, no need to crash on the couch.”
“But I can’t—I mean, I don’t have a job. I can’t pay rent, I can’t—” Mary’s voice caught.
“Worry about that later,” Karen said. She came and sat next to Mary. “Take a breath. Look, you need some help right now. You need a place to stay, and I have one. This isn’t the time to worry about payback. Right now, it’s just a night or two on a couch.”
“It’s not that,” said Mary. “It’s—these are my problems. I should handle it myself. I shouldn’t impose on you.”
Tony exchanged a puzzled look with his sister, trying to figure out what to say next.
“I’m not trying to pile on,” said Tony, “but you should listen to her. We’ll help you get your stuff tomorrow.” Where had that come from, he wondered, but continued, “You don’t need to punish yourself just because your plans fell through. Sometimes it just happens that way. The best laid plans of mice and men, right?”
“He’s right, for once,” Karen said. “Give yourself a break, Mary. You’ve been through a lot. Take some time to process it, then you’ll be able to figure out what to do next.”
Mary nodded, much to Tony’s relief. “Okay, you’re right. There’s no sense in making this any more difficult.” She took Karen’s hand. “But I will pay you back, and I won’t impose.”
A knock at the door interrupted Karen’s reply.
“Hey, you guys in there? Everyone decent?” Jackson called through the door. After a beat, he said, “I’m going to empty the cash register, ok?”
“That’s Jackson,” Karen said and patted Mary’s hand. “He’s a goofball, but he’s a good guy and an excellent tattoo artist.”
Tony shook his head and stood up. “I’d better go make sure he doesn’t actually empty the drawer. You know he’d do it just to mess with us.”
“He would. Come on, let’s go.” Karen squeezed Mary’s shoulder. “We’ll get some dinner and get you settled for the night, okay?”
“Okay.” Mary nodded and wiped at the corner of her eye. “Thanks. I appreciate it. I can’t tell you how much.” She cleared her throat. “I feel like Blanche DuBois, relying on the kindness of strangers.”
“It’s good. Keeps her out of trouble,” said Tony, and was pleased when Mary’s smile grew a little stronger.
They stepped out into the shop and Jackson looked up. “Everything okay?” he asked.
“We’re good,” said Tony.
“I’m going to take Mary back to my place,” said Karen. “Tomorrow, if you’re up for it, we’ll get your stuff, okay?” She glanced at Mary, who nodded.
“We’ll come with you,” said Tony.
“Absolutely,” Jackson agreed. “By the way, I’m Jackson.”
“I’m Mary. Nice to meet you. Thanks for your help.” She turned to Karen. “What about your shop? You must have appointments or something tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Tony, more forcefully than he intended. Mary stepped back, and Karen glared at him. He sighed. “What I mean is, ah, we open at eleven tomorrow and I don’t think we have any appointments until the afternoon.”
“It’ll be fine,” Karen assured Mary. “Ashlee can cover for me at the counter, I don’t have any appointments, and if we had to open later, it wouldn’t be a problem. No, it’s fine,” she said as Mary started to protest. “It wouldn’t be the first time we opened late. Tony oversleeps a lot.”
“One time,” Tony said. “One time.” He looked at Jackson for help; his friend shook his head. “Okay,” Tony conceded. “Maybe twice.”
“Maybe twice last month,” Karen said.
Tony sighed. He knew when he was beaten. “Fine. Go on, Karen. We can handle it for the rest of the day.”
“All right. Come on, Mary. Let me get my stuff and I’ll take you to my place. You can meet Lacey, and then the three of us will have a fun evening. You deserve some fun.”
After they’d left, Tony turned to Jackson. “Well, that was a hell of a day.”
“It was. And what have I gotten myself into?” Jackson asked. “Since I’ve volunteered to help this stranger reclaim her belongings.”
“I don’t know.” Tony sighed. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Sitting on the floor that evening with Karen and her roommate Lacey Carmichael, sharing some pizza, Mary tried to relax a little. They’d both been friendly and helpful, and while she worried about repaying them, Karen was right. Mary needed help, they had offered, and the important point would be to repay when she could. In the meantime, she’d keep her back straight, her chin up, and impose as little as possible.
“Mary, I don’t mean to pry, but had he ever hit you before?” Lacey asked.
Mary had liked Lacey right off. Lacey was the opposite of Karen in many ways: dark hair, caramel skin, far fewer tattoos, and closer to Mary’s height, but still taller. Which, Mary thought wryly, wasn’t hard. Differences aside, the women clearly had a tight bond, and shared a manner that made Mary feel both liked and cared about. She wasn’t sure she could remember the last time she’d felt like that; perhaps a visit with her father.
“No, but it was getting physical.” Mary stared at her glass half-full of white wine, then took a sip. “Last night he grabbed me. Didn’t hit me, just kind of shook me.”
“Damn. I’m glad you left,” said Karen. She reached for another slice of pizza.
“Me, too.” Mary took another drink, savoring it before swallowing. “I see it now. I thought he was nice at first, but I don’t think he ever was. After a while, I couldn’t do anything right, no matter what I did or how. He always found something to be angry about.” She knew she should have more pizza or she’d regret the wine, and took a small piece even though she wasn’t too hungry. “I don’t know why I didn’t see it earlier.”
Lacey shook her head. “He probably apologized a lot, right? Said he was stressed from work or something?”
“Yeah.” Mary nodded. “There was some of that. And blaming it on me. ‘I didn’t mean to say that, you just made me so upset.’ Stuff like that.”
“Oh, god, girl, that is the worst,” Lacey patted Mary’s hand. “I worked with someone like that, and they worked the cycle. Be nice, be mad, blame you, be nice. It’s gaslighting, pure and simple. It makes you second-guess yourself all the time, and question your judgment.”
“It does, you’re right.” Mary thought a moment. “Wow. That’s so damn obvious and I should have seen it sooner way sooner than I did.”
“That’s why it works,” Karen said. “It’s sneaky, so you don’t see it. It’s only obvious when you can get some distance.” She tilted her head. “You’ll need to work to trust yourself again, Mary, but you’ll get there.”
Mary nodded, wondering if she could trust her instincts when they’d failed her in such a major way.
“You will,” Lacey agreed. “I did. And you already took a big step. You trusted yourself to walk away, all on your own from what I hear.”
“Mostly.” Mary shrugged, then smiled a little. “Karen standing up to him helped.”
Karen scoffed. “That was nothing. He was a bully, and bullies don’t like being confronted. But you’re welcome.”
Mary nodded. “You’re right, he did, but it really did help me,” Mary said. “When you leaned forward and he was he stepped back—I don’t know, that just made it all clear to me and I knew I couldn’t wait much longer to break up. I thought maybe I’d do it when we were in private, but then I couldn’t wait.”
“Honestly, Mary, you were probably better off doing it this way,” Lacey said. “If you’d been alone with him, he might have talked you out of it. Or, I hate to say it, been more violent.”
“Yeah.” Mary sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Okay, enough talking about the past.” Karen poured herself some more wine. “Let’s talk about Mary moving forward.”
“Absolutely. To Mary,” Lacey said, and they all clinked glasses. “So, what’s next?”
“I don’t know.” Mary stared at her wine. “I came here for a job. I’m a dressmaker. And a photographer.”
“Oh, cool!” said Karen.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Mary, “but it’s not the easiest way to make a living.”
“Do you think you’ll go back?” asked Karen. “To whatever mysterious place it is you come from?”
They all laughed, but Mary shook her head. “No,” she said. “I don’t want to go home. I don’t have—there’s nothing for me there.” She stopped before saying any more and tried to organize her thoughts as it hit her that with her mother and stepfather having moved, she had no home to return to.
“I’ve wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, for years, and try to work as a dressmaker. I was working at an office and it was fine, but they downsized and I found the job listed at the shop and I jumped at it. It didn’t work, but I’m going to find something else.”