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PRECIOUS AND FRAGILE THINGS
by Megan Hart

Genre: General Mainstream Fiction, Mainstream

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“The funniest thing I ever seen was a fat lady in a bikini trying to do the limbo,” Todd said suddenly.

At the sheer incongruity of his statement, Gilly turned from the sink where she was washing her breakfast plate. “Where did you see that?”

“At the beach. I only went one time.” Todd leaned back in his chair, rocking. “Laughed so hard I pissed my pants and…the people I was with got mad and took me home.”

She watched him tilt the chair, waiting for him to tumble backwards. By luck or skill he kept the chair hovering in place while he balanced. He was graceful that way. Comfortable and competent with his body in a way he wasn’t with his intellect.

Todd looked at her. “What’s the funniest thing you ever seen?”

Gilly shrugged. Conversation didn’t seem like it should be so easy, no matter how much he made it so. “I don’t know.”

Todd sighed dramatically. “You’re never any fun.”

His comment stung. “Young Frankenstein. That’s a funny movie.”

Todd rolled his eyes. “Not a movie. What’s the funniest thing you ever seen in your real life? Bet it ain’t as funny as a fat lady in a bikini trying to do the limbo.”

He was challenging her again, and Gilly rose to the bait. “When I was just out of college, I bought a new mattress from this factory outlet store. When I went to pick it up, the guy from the store helped me put it in the back of this van I’d borrowed. He tried carrying it on his back, but he got stuck, and then the mattress fell on him and only his legs were sticking out….”

Todd raised both brows. Gilly frowned. “What? It was funny. I guess you had to be there.”

“I made you smile.” Todd thumped his chair down onto all four legs. “See?”

Gilly pushed her mouth back into the frown, but it was too late. “I wasn’t smiling at you.”

“You got a nice smile.” Todd winked.

Oh, how she wanted and needed him to be loathsome to her! Gilly thought of the way his hand had felt when he hit her mouth, drawing blood. The memory was still vivid enough to make her put a hand to her lips. It was also enough to wipe the smile from her face.

“I wasn’t smiling.” Her denial was transparent, but Gilly didn’t care.

“Are you this much fun at home, too?” Todd pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his tee shirt pocket and scowled to find it empty. He tossed it onto the kitchen table and stood. His gaze swept her up and down. “Maybe they don’t miss you as much as you think they do.”

He stomped into the pantry while Gilly, stunned, stared after him. In the months before he’d taken her, Gilly had felt more often like screaming than laughing. She thought hard, tears springing to her eyes, about the last time she had laughed with her children. Really laughed. It had been a long time. There had been too many days when her palms hurt from clenching her fists too hard to keep from striking out, too many nights when the last words she uttered were not “I love you,” but “for God’s sake, go to sleep!”

People always vowed to change, if given a second chance. Gilly was no different, no better. She sat rigid, her back as straight as a poker, and vowed that if she was allowed to return to them, she would cherish her family as something more precious than diamonds. Later, when most of her time with Todd had begun to fade into a series of hazy memories, this moment at the kitchen table would forever stand out as clear as crystal. She wouldn’t spend the rest of her life without yelling at her kids or arguing with her husband; such a thing would be impossible and impractical. But when those moments came, the times of anger and grief, it was the moment at Todd’s kitchen table she always recalled, and that was usually enough to make her put out her hands and forgive.

“I know you want to hate me,” Todd said from the doorway, a fresh pack of cigarettes in one fist. “I know you want to, real bad. But admit it. You just can’t.”

“You’re wrong.” Her voice stuttered, giving away her emotions.

“You just ain’t that hard.” Todd dismissed her protest like it meant nothing. “And if you do hate me, it isn’t because of what I done, really. It’s because of what you done. So you’re mad at yourself.”

His observation was the truth, but Gilly wasn’t about to admit it to him. “Don’t try to psychoanalyze me. You’re not smart enough to get inside my head.”

He smoothed a hand through his hair. “Shit, Gilly, you seem like a sad, uptight bitch to me. Why the hell would I want to get inside your head?”

She exploded. “Just shut up!”

“Oooh.” Todd raised his hands in mock-fear. “That’s a smart comeback. Wish I could think of something that smart.”

Gilly left the table and stalked to the living room, but there was no place to escape him. She paced the wooden planks, wishing suddenly she smoked so she could have the comfort of a cigarette to occupy herself.

She was hard enough to hate, she thought spitefully, watching him as he set out a game of solitaire on the dining table. And she had every reason to hate him. But she also had every reason to hate herself.

Thinking of the evil he’d committed against her, holding her at knifepoint, slapping her face, should have been enough to keep the fires of her hatred burning. Gilly, however, feared that Todd was right about her. She wasn’t hard enough to keep hating, not in the face of kindness and good humor. Not even when she should.

Relationships were like machines. Gears fit together, turning to make the machine work. Boss, roommate, parent, child, spouse. The cogs moved, the gears turned or stuck and needed to be oiled. Todd was none of these to her and yet there was no denying they had a relationship, and that it was as much a machine as any other. If they couldn’t find some way to make it work, it would break down. A day before Gilly would’ve said without question she didn’t want to make it work. Now she wasn’t sure she could stop herself.