Violet carved her hate into her flesh one name at a time.
Her skin was riddled with scars, some barely visible, others dark and ruddy. The oldest, the first name, was on her right ankle, above the knobby bone. It revealed a halting progress, with many gaps in between the lines and curves.
He suffered for a long time.
Anthony looked up from his dinner plate and smiled. “This is really good, babe.”
“Thank you. I wanted to make something special for tonight.”
The cooking classes were her idea. Anthony had been worried about the knives, of course, although he hadn’t said anything with his mouth. Only with his eyes. The first time his hand had touched one of her scars, he’d paused, his eyes curious. Concerned.
She’d looked down at her hands. “I had a … problem when I was younger, but I’m better now.”
“What do they mean?”
“Nothing,” she’d said. “Nothing at all.”
A breeze blew in through the open windows, fluttering the curtains, and the late spring air was heavy with the scent of flowers. Children’s voices called out and their neighbor’s dog barked several times, a deep, growling sort of bark. She and Anthony grimaced at the same time, caught each other, and smiled.
“Happy anniversary, babe,” he said.
She smiled and twisted the ring on her finger. The year had passed so quickly, yet seemed a lifetime. Anthony had asked her to marry him on their sixth date. Crazy, perhaps, because they’d barely known each other, but she’d said yes without a second thought. Three weeks later, they were standing hand in hand in the courthouse promising forever, a promise she intended to keep.
Mrs. Anthony Cardno was a good person.
But Violet isn’t and you know it.
That wasn’t true. She was a good person. Sometimes she got … lost. That was all. But it was all in the past. She was better now. So much better.
With Anthony softly snoring in the bed beside her, Violet clasped her hands together on her chest and recited the names. Too many names.
“Please forgive me,” she whispered when she was finished.
She rolled onto her side and touched Anthony’s cheek, his skin soft, yet rough at the same time, beneath her fingertips. The sleeve of her pajama top slipped up to her elbow, revealing the edge of a name: Sabrina. Her best friend in grade school. Violet closed her eyes.
It wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. She hadn’t known.
She woke before Anthony and padded down to the kitchen to make coffee. From the kitchen window, she saw the next-door neighbor’s children, already up and about, kicking around a red rubber ball. She smiled and touched her belly. Two months ago, she’d thrown out her birth control pills. Nothing had happened yet, but they were both young. There was plenty of time. Anthony would be a wonderful father. And she would be a good mother even if the baby didn’t sleep well or cried all the time.
“You were always crying when you were a baby,” her mother had said time and again. “Drove me crazy. You’d cry if you were hungry or full, wet or dry, it didn’t matter. It was like you came out hating the world and wanted everyone to know it.” Her mother would tap her cigarette into her overflowing ashtray, pat Violet on the bum, and smile. “Grab me another beer, okay?”
When her mother had married her stepfather, Violet had hoped that everything would be okay. Now she had a real family. Her mother would be happy, wouldn’t drink so much, and wouldn’t forget to go food shopping or pay the electric bill. But her stepfather had only made things worse. So much worse.
But we took care of him, didn’t we?
No, no matter what he’d done, he didn’t deserve what happened. No one did.
Long after the sun had faded from the sky, she and Anthony took a walk through the neighborhood. The children and dogs had been collected for the night, and lights behind windows winked out one by one. His hand gave hers a quick squeeze.
“Next year we’ll go away someplace for our anniversary, how does that sound? Somewhere with a beach and blue water.”
“And fruity drinks with paper umbrellas?”
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her softly beneath the glow of a streetlamp. Then they heard the shout. She jumped, pulled away, and scanned the street. No one else was outside. The shout came again, more muffled this time, from a small green house with a swing on the front porch.
Anthony took a step toward the house. Violet shook her head.
“But if someone is hurt … “
A voice snapped in anger, followed by a whip-quick sound that Violet knew all too well — a slap.
“Let’s go back home.”
Anthony gave the house a long look. Violet tugged his hand.
“Come on. It’s not our business.”
Violet was collecting her mail from the mailbox at the end of the yard when a dark-haired woman and a little girl of perhaps four or five in a yellow dress and white ruffled socks walked past. She looked up just in time to see the bruise darkening the skin of the woman’s cheek. Violet’s hands clenched into fists. The little girl pulled her thumb out of her mouth and offered up a wide, innocent smile.
You can make things better.
No, it wasn’t her fight. She didn’t know them at all. She watched them turn onto the sidewalk leading up to the green house.
But you could if you really wanted to. Just one more time. Help them, then I’ll go away.
The voice whispered so sweetly, but it lied. Oh, how it lied.
Violet pulled out a knife to slice tomatoes for a salad and paused. The overhead light glinted in the metal. She closed her eyes and saw the little girl’s face. The woman’s bruise.
You can fix it.
“Leave me alone,” she whispered.
Two years after her mother had married her stepfather, the voice spoke to her for the first time. Eight-year-old Violet had been sitting in the corner of her bedroom with the door locked, wiping tears away, with a fresh set of bruises on her upper arms.
“I hate you,” she’d whispered. Over and over again.
I can help you, a voice said.
She’d jumped up, stifling a shout, looked under the bed, checked inside the closet and out the window. The voice had laughed softly.
I won’t hurt you.
She’d covered her ears. Buried her face in the pillow.
Trust me. It will be easy. So easy.
It had whispered and whispered, and eventually her hands had dropped from her ears. It had told her what to do, and when the house had fallen silent, Violet had tiptoed to the kitchen and pulled out a small knife.
Good girl. That’s a very good girl.
She’d closed her eyes when she had touched the blade to her ankle, and the pain had not been nearly as bad as she’d imagined it would be. Beneath the copper bright tang of blood, she’d smelled something dark and terrible like the sweet stink of roadkill or the scummy water left in a vase filled with dead flowers. She’d felt something light brush against her skin, opened her eyes, and saw a shadow flickering across the floor. One quick flicker and then it was gone.
She didn’t know then what it would do.
A few days later, her stepfather had collapsed in the back yard. The doctors had called it a rare, aggressive cancer, but Violet had known they were wrong. The malignant cells hadn’t eaten him away from the inside. Her hate had.
Let me out.
She dropped the knife back into the drawer and slammed it shut. It bounced back open with a little jingle, offering her a hint of the silverware within.
She took several long deep breaths. She would not do it. Not now. Not ever. She recited the names. Once. Twice.
“I am sorry, I am so sorry.”
Words. Useless words. Her stepfather had said them so many times.
He wasn’t really sorry. You weren’t either.
Standing in front of the green house, Violet noticed the white letter sticking out of the mailbox. She stepped closer, casting quick glances over both shoulders. The letter was out far enough for her to make out a name: Kevin Turner.
With her mouth set into a thin line, she turned and walked back to her own house, the name a heavy weight inside. She couldn’t hate him. She didn’t even know him.
You could if you wanted to. He’s just like your stepfather.
She didn’t know that. The woman could have fallen down. How many times had she done something stupid, something that —
Excuses, excuses. You know you want to. That’s why you looked at the letter.
No, it wasn’t that way at all. She wouldn’t do anything. She’d promised to leave it all behind. For Anthony’s sake. For her own sake.
Sabrina Ogden had been her best friend all through grade school. In their first year of middle school, Violet had spoken of what her stepfather had done. Sabrina had told another friend who told another and on and on. The whispers had followed Violet through the hallways. The shame had burned like a brand.
When the dark voice had whispered, Violet had tried to hold it in, but she hadn’t been strong enough.
The doctors hadn’t been able to cure Sabrina either.
Tears burned in Violet’s eyes.
_If she’d been your friend, she wouldn’t have told anyone. If she hadn’t — _
She jumped and the paring knife in her hands clattered into the kitchen sink. She stared at the blade for several long moments, her mouth dry. She didn’t remember opening the silverware drawer. Did she?
You know you want to. I’ve been waiting for so long.
She slipped on a smile and turned around.
“You looked like you were a million miles away,” Anthony said.
“Sorry, I was woolgathering.”
She went to him and rested her head on his chest.
In the dark, she stared up at the ceiling. Recited the names.
Joey, who’d tried to take advantage of her at a party in high school. Sarah, that same year, who’d blackened her eye and fractured her wrist for telling the principal about the smoking in the bathroom. Christopher. Laura. Matt. Jake, who’d broken her heart. Peter, who’d shattered it. Ryan, who’d promised to love her forever. He hadn’t deserved to die such a terrible death.
And so many more. She wanted to forget them all, but she held tight, fearing she would.
My fault, my fault. All of them, she thought.
Every time she’d carved a name, the darkness reappeared, a slithering shadow she could only see as a human-shaped haze in the air. Did they see it come for them? Did they taste its fate in their breath?
And did they know she’d sent it?
Just one more time. Please.
“Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
She didn’t want to hurt anyone. She was a good person now. She was.
Violet saw the little girl again, playing in the front yard of the green house. She was digging in the dirt with a stick, singing softly to herself. When she heard Violet’s footsteps, she looked up and Violet saw bruises on her forearm, four finger-shaped marks. Violet’s hands curled into fists. Her heart beat heavy in her chest.
We can help her.
No, it was not her problem. But her steps were heavy on her walk back home.
An image of the girl’s bruises floated in Violet’s mind, and her fingers tightened on her open book.
One more time. I promise I’ll go away.
Why wouldn’t it just leave her alone?
You know you want to help her.
But not in that way. She would call Child Protective Services in the morning. They could help the little girl.
What if they don’t?
The words on the page swam into a blur. She recited the names. Ran the tip of her finger over the edge of a scar. Recited the names again.
Her cup of guilt was deep, the brew within thick and bitter. No matter how many swallows, she could never drink it all down. Not in one lifetime or ten.
“Honey, are you okay?”
Violet looked up from her book. “Yes, why?”
“You had the strangest expression on your face.”
“I was just focused on the story, I guess.”
He touched the back of her hand.
“If something is bothering you, you can tell me. You know that, right?”
“Of course I do.”
She put her hand atop his. The words gathered in her throat, but she swallowed them down. Anthony was the first, the only, good thing in her life. If he knew the truth, the things she’d done, he’d run as far away as possible.
Violet put the phone down, her mouth set in a thin line.
They won’t help her and you know it.
But they would. The woman on the phone said they would send someone out. A snippet of memory crept in. A woman from CPS came to her house once. In spite of the bruises on Violet, she hadn’t done anything except write a report, but things were different now. They took bruises more seriously. The little girl would be okay.
But you can make sure of it.
Violet sagged against the counter and groaned into her hands.
“Leave me alone, please, just leave me alone.”
But she already knew that. It would never go away. Never give her peace. She was broken. Wrong. She yanked the silverware drawer open and grabbed a knife.
“Is this what you want?”
Yes. You know you want it, too.
No. She wanted to be well. To be happy.
She made a tiny cut.
“No! I will not do this. I will not.”
She threw the knife down, sank down with her back against a cabinet, and put her head in her hands. Recited the names. A harsh sob bubbled up from deep inside her chest. The names. The deaths. All her fault. She was a monster. With a grimace, she scrambled for the knife.
You want this. You know you do.
She slashed at her skin, her grimace turning into a smile at the sharp, beautiful sting of the knife. Even that was wrong. It never hurt enough. She cut again and again, the letters distorted. Wet, red mouths dripping crimson pearls. When she finished, she threw the knife down.
“Are you happy now?”
And there, on the delicate skin of her wrist: Violet.
One last name, one last death, to pay for them all.
What did you do? You stupid, stupid woman.
Tears blurred her vision as the blood dripped to the floor.
“Please forgive me, Anthony,” she whispered, her voice small and insignificant in the quiet. “It’s so much better this way. You deserve someone so much better.”
No, no, no! You can’t do this. You cannot!
She had to. It was the only way. Her limbs filled with lassitude, her mouth dropped open, and her breath came long and slow.
A shadow emerged from the wound like a ribbon, taking shape as it grew. It slipped free slowly, ponderously, its weight feather-light, its stench thick and heavy. It caressed her cheek in a hideous lover’s pantomime. She took a deep breath, steeled herself against the pain to come, yet the shadow slithered across the tile, moving away from her without a sound.
“No, no, no.”
She reached out, but her fingers passed through the darkness. She grabbed again and again, caught nothing but a kiss of air against her skin. Then the shadow slipped beneath the door, and she sobbed into her hands. She didn’t understand. She’d carved her name. Why didn’t it take her? She rocked back and forth, her arms wrapped around her knees. No voice whispered in her mind. Only a strange, calm silence. Could it have been that easy all along? But all those deaths …
No. It had to come back for her. It had to make her pay.
Ambulance lights cut the night with slashes of red and blue, and Anthony’s hand gripped Violet’s tight, his skin warm against hers. The neighbors watched from their porches, their eyes filled with curious alarm, as the paramedics wheeled a stretcher out of the green house.
“I wonder what happened,” Anthony whispered.
Violet rubbed her finger along the cut on her wrist, still in the pink of healing. A few moments later, the dark-haired woman stepped out of the house, her face expressionless, the little girl by her side. And on the girl’s ankle, not quite covered by a white ruffled sock, Violet saw the name carved into her flesh: Daddy.
No, oh, no. A chill raced down Violet’s spine. Her mouth went dry.
Anthony tugged her hand.
“Come on, let’s go back home.”
Violet heard his voice as if from far away. She couldn’t move, couldn’t take her eyes away from the little girl.
“Violet, honey, what’s wrong?”
The little girl met Violet’s gaze, her lips curved into a dark, familiar smile. A smile laced with hate.