"Tell me one more time why we're doing this?"
"Because Hope decided it would be fun to finger paint all over my walls."
Lily was currently in her sister's living room, running a roll brush of cream-colored paint over random splashes of brighter colors. There were reds, blues, oranges - all in the shape of little three-year-old fingers. Thomas was at work, so Audrey had recruited Lily to help her clean up the mess, and Lily saw no reason to turn her sister's request down. It was either spend the afternoon doing this, or spend it going over the nutrition labels of everything in the fridge for the third time in two days. Besides, if memory served, painting a wall burned roughly one-hundred and sixty calories an hour, based on the weight of the person doing the work.
Lily could hear Hope screaming bloody murder in her bedroom down the hall, throwing things against the closed door, and generally having a tantrum. If the little girl were aware of curse words, she probably would have been saying a few of them at that point.
"How long are you going to make her stay in there?" she asked.
Audrey leaned over to get more paint on her brush.
"Until her father gets home. Longer if her yelling wakes up Reid. It took me forever to get him down for his nap." She pushed a stray strand of blonde hair out of her eyes with the back of her free hand. Her hair was in a bun, but it was coming loose. Her nails were painted pale pink, Lily noticed, the polish starting to chip off, revealing the nail beds, which were ragged. She must have been biting them. Things being out of control had always made Audrey nervous. "Thanks again for helping out, Lil. I really appreciate it."
In truth, it was a problem. Not because Lily had anything else to do, but because the constant moving and stretching to reach the top of the wall made her shirt graze her burns. She had tried to minimize this problem by wearing baggy clothes, but it wasn't really working, and it was taking all the self-control she had to stop herself from wincing. Audrey was already a keen observer, especially when it came to her little sister, and Lily didn't need her asking any questions.
As she had figured they would, the shapes faded faster than the letters. It had been four days since she saw Shay, and the shapes were almost completely gone, but the "S", "A", and "L" looked as fresh as if they had been made the night before.
The rope burns on her wrists, however, had disappeared. Not a single bruise or discoloration remained. The cream Shay had rubbed on them obviously worked well. When he had come back into the motel room from his car, Lily asked him what the cream was, but he wouldn't give her an answer, and the tube didn't have a label, so she couldn't find out for herself.
She was reminded of something Shay once told her - that he had ways of getting things he shouldn't have. At the time, she thought he was talking simply of beer and cigarettes, but was that really it? He was legal now. Perhaps he knew how to get other things, too.
'But,' she reasoned, 'it was just cream. Maybe I'm over-thinking this. It was probably something he ordered online, and he took off the label on his own.'
It would make sense. Shay had a tendency to keep things secret - at least where Lily was concerned. She had always assumed it was a control thing, like almost everything he did around her. He may have even removed the label right before bringing the cream in to her, not wanting her to know what it was.
Taking a shower once she got home from the motel was just as problematic as Lily had thought it would be. She wound up washing her hair in the bathroom sink because it smelled like smoke, and she couldn't stand under the spray for too long. The first touch to her stomach had her fighting back a shout of pain, even after turning the water on "cold". She was probably going to have to resort to taking a sponge bath once she left Audrey's house, thanks to the paint dotting her arms and hands.
She had tried to avoid looking at the letters Shay burned into her skin while showering. She was okay with the "S" and the "L", but the "A" irritated her, for obvious reasons. She already felt weird about doing something like this behind Shay's girlfriend's back, and having the woman's first initial on her body made it worse. Nothing she and Shay were doing involved sex, and it never would, but it still felt like cheating. Emotionally, at least.
After getting out of the shower, Lily got on her computer and looked the woman up once more, a morbid sort of curiosity overcoming her. She hadn't gone through the photos since before meeting Shay again, and she wanted to know what the couple had been up to in the meantime. It felt a little like stalking, and that made her uncomfortable, but she did it, anyway. Shay may refuse to tell her anything about Andi, but that didn't mean she couldn't find things out for herself, as long as he didn't know she was doing it.
The woman seemed to have gained a little weight recently, Lily noticed, before chastising herself. It was horrible that that was the first thing she zeroed in on. Her hair and makeup were still impeccable in almost every photo, and her smile looked sincere. She was happy - that was easy to see.
Going through not only Andi's photo albums, but also Shay's, Lily came across a surprising piece of information - he was a cop. Well, not a cop, exactly, but he worked in a police station, (the records department), and he seemed to have a badge. When had that happened? And why hadn't he told her about it? Sure, he was secretive with her, but why keep that hidden? What was the point?
Lily found it idiotic when a guy claimed to be "a complicated man", as it usually meant he was more shallow than most of his peers, but in Shay's case, it appeared to be true. It had been true when she first met him, and it was still true to this day.
She tried to picture Shay sitting at a desk in a police station, waiting out the hours working a nine-to-five job, filling out reports, following orders day after day. Then going home to his girlfriend to watch movies and have dinner and clean the house. They were images she just couldn't reconcile with the way he had always acted around her. The way he acted four days ago, with the wax.
She had heard from him once since Saturday. That was one more time than she expected she would. He texted yesterday to ask how the burns were doing, and to make sure she was taking care of them. The text came through at two in the afternoon, and it made her wonder what he had been doing before writing her. What made him decide to check on her in the first place. Shouldn't he have been working? Maybe that was what he was doing - typing things into a computer, a picture of his girlfriend on his desk, his mind going back and forth between thinking about what she would be making for dinner, and what Lillian was doing at that moment. She felt uneasy imagining this scenario, but in a way, it was a nice image.
Hope was still yelling, and Lily could tell that it was making Audrey edgy. Every time something new thumped against the door, her sister would jump, which would cause her to paint unevenly, which just put her even more on edge.
"Hey," Lily spoke up, and Audrey turned her head to acknowledge her. "Why don't we go have dinner once Thomas gets home? Just you and me. I think you need to get out of this house."
Audrey smiled tightly.
"Good idea. I know the perfect place."
Thomas wasn't exactly pleased with the idea of Audrey leaving him alone with a screaming toddler the second he got home from work, but after promising that she would only be gone for an hour and a half, (and that she would bring him something back to eat), he begrudgingly agreed.
The sisters took Audrey's car - an old, red Convertible that their father had given her years ago, after she got her license. It looked horrible, smelled like french fries and formula, and there was a crack just beginning to form in the center of the windshield, but it was a reliable car, despite the impracticality of it when the owner had two young children. Thomas had tried to convince Audrey to sell it several times, but she refused. It was a piece of her teenage years, she said, and she was going to keep it around for as long as she could.
The windows were rolled down, and Lily watched the scenery move past in a blur of color. Although she wanted to help her sister relax, she was regretting her idea that they do it this way. The seat belt was was causing her burns to sting more than they already had been, and the restaurant they were going to was one she had never heard of before, so she didn't know the menu. The place sold Italian food, Audrey told her, and Lily had to fight to hide her anxiety. "Italian" restaurant food usually meant giant bread sticks, creamy sauces, and pasta dishes piled high with calorie-laden meatballs. And that wasn't even taking into account the desserts.
Lily hoped the place would be packed and Audrey would want to go somewhere else, but, of course, she wasn't that lucky. There were maybe two dozen cars in the parking lot, a few containing people who were on their way out.
The inside of the restaurant was nice enough - dim, pleasant lighting, wood flooring that turned to carpeting as you came to the booths, and classical violin background music playing quietly through speakers mounted high on the walls. You ordered as you got there, rather than waiting for a waitress. Audrey was taking her time placing her order, which was fine with Lily. It gave her more time to decide what she wanted to eat.
She read the menu up on the wall, and started doing the math in her head, finding comfort in the numbers that had controlled her life for years, yet feeling anxious at how high those numbers were.
Chicken alfredo - one-thousand four-hundred and eighty calories.
Chicken scampi - nine-hundred and thirty calories.
Five cheese ziti - one-thousand two-hundred and twenty calories.
She was just guessing at the exact count, of course, but the numbers were still far too high for her liking. She could feel her anxiety building, and she wondered if this was what Audrey felt like when she discovered that Hope had used her living room wall as a blank canvas.
She bit her lip, feeling the urge to start shaking her foot, until she realized that she couldn't do that standing up. So she took to shifting her weight from one side of her body to the other over and over again. Both her sister and the woman waiting to take their order stared at her - Audrey with a look of concern, and the woman with a look of annoyance.
Her heartbeat started to speed up, and she could feel her cheeks reddening. She needed to decide what to eat, and she needed to do it quickly. Did anyone else in the world have such a problem ordering from restaurants, she wondered, or was it just her?
"Why don't you try the soup and salad?" came a voice from behind her. "Minestrone."
Lily turned around to find Shay standing there, long-sleeved black dress shirt on, police badge visible on his chest. Audrey and the woman at the counter were watching him, too, and Lily wasn't sure what to say. But Shay's conditioning kicked in before her brain could, and she heard herself agreeing.
"That sounds good, thank you."
His phrasing suggested that he was just offering her an idea, but Lily knew what it really was - an order. Something meant to take away her control, her responsibility. Something meant to make her life a little bit easier.
"Do you two know each other?" Audrey asked as the woman at the counter put in their order.
"No," Shay responded before Lily could. She was vaguely aware that, for once, she could smell no smoke on him. "I just know the menu here, so I thought I'd help out." He smiled a polite smile, one that Lily couldn't remember ever having seen from him in all their time together.
When Audrey turned back around, Shay touched a hand gently to Lily's stomach, over her shirt, and Lily had to grit her teeth to keep from instinctively pulling away - the touch hurt.
"By the way," he said in her ear, and Lily prayed that her sister wouldn't look over at her just yet, "since I know you're trying to figure it out, anyway, the meal is five-hundred and forty calories."
After they ate and returned to Audrey's, (giving Thomas a Styrofoam container of lasagna, and a couple bread sticks), her sister asked Lily if she wanted to spend the night. Lily agreed this time, unwilling to go home, though she didn't exactly like the idea of sleeping on the couch when the living room smelled like fresh paint. At least the freezing air might help it dry quicker.
Shay had texted her right as they were leaving the restaurant, asking how she liked the meal. Lily ignored his question and asked one of her own - 'What were you doing there?'
'Lunch break,' was Shay's reply. 'I'm working late. You looked like you were having trouble deciding what to eat, and I wanted to give you a hand.'
'What was with the badge?' She wanted to see if he would tell her the truth about what he did for a living. Being sneaky with Shay felt wrong, somehow, and she regretted asking the question immediately. But he still answered.
'I guess I never told you. I work at a police station. Record-keeping.'
At least he was being honest. She had almost expected him to lie, though why she thought he would, she wasn't sure. If she asked him something, and he was okay with the question, he usually answered honestly. If he wasn't, he either told her so, or he simply didn't answer at all.
Back at Audrey's house, after the family had gone to bed, Shay kept the conversation going.
'So did you enjoy the meal?' he repeated. Lily, sitting on the couch, watching an old black and white comedy on the TV, was surprised he didn't seem angry at the fact that she had ignored his question (or tried to). Not to mention her prying about his job. And, she wondered to herself, her brain going a million miles a minute, if he was working late, shouldn't he have been writing to his girlfriend, not her? Saying sorry for still being at work, telling her not to wait up, and making it known to her just how much he loved her?
'Yes, thank you,' she responded after a while. She had something else to ask, but she was worried about how Shay would take it. He wasn't saying anything back, though, and after twenty minutes of silence, she finally typed out the message.
'Why did you tell my sister we didn't know each other?'
'It's just easier,' was his reply. It was sent about a minute after her own message. 'I go to that restaurant a lot for lunch. The people there know me. I didn't need it getting back to Andi that I was talking to some girl.'
'But you work for the police force,' Lily typed. 'Don't you talk to girls all the time?'
'Yeah, but Carol's a gossip, and she tends to assume things about people that aren't true.'
'Who's Carol?' Lily asked.
'The person who took your order,' responded Shay. 'The irritable one. I'm not kidding about her assuming things. I gave a lady directions to the gas station once while waiting in line, and Carol told one of my coworkers that she thought I was flirting. She's an annoying woman.'
'It's better that you lied to my sister,' Lily wrote, hoping Shay wouldn't think she was being passive-aggressive. 'She already knows too much about me.'
Just as Lily was about to lie down on the couch to try and get some sleep, she heard something. It was quiet, but not well-concealed. They were footsteps, she knew immediately, made by small feet.
"Hope?" she spoke into the darkness. It wasn't like Reid was mobile, so who else could it have been?
The little girl came into view, blonde hair messy, eyes tired. She wore a pale blue, quarter-sleeved nightgown with lace at the cuffs, and slippers shaped like ducks on her feet. She was gripping a picture book in both hands.
"Aunt Lily," she asked in her small voice, "can you read me a story?"
"Didn't your mom read you one before bed?"
Hope shook her head.
"No. I'm still in trouble."
"Then I probably shouldn't."
Hope frowned, and Lily felt her heart sink a little. The little girl moved to turn away, and Lily stopped her.
"Alright," she said, "just one. But don't tell your mom. Turn on the light, please."
Hope cheerfully ran over to Lily to give her the book, then climbed on the couch, crawling on her knees to turn on the lamp that rested on the table beside it. She put her head on Lily's legs, lying on her back.
Lily turned the television down low, not wanting Audrey to overhear anything and come outside her bedroom to find that Hope was awake.
Hope popped a thumb into her mouth.
"You know," Lily said, "your mother used to read to me like this. She used to read me stories everyday."
"She tells good stories," Hope spoke around the thumb she was sucking.
"Yeah, she does."
Audrey was actually the reason Lily grew up loving to read. When she found out her little sister was having trouble learning in school, she took to reading her short chapter books in her bedroom. She taught her more about reading than school ever had. And Lily was grateful for that to this day.
Quietly, Lily started reading, getting lost in the simplicity of children's books. She missed it, she realized, and she read the story two more times, even after Hope had fallen asleep.
'Yeah, my sister knows too much about me,' she thought, her eyes no longer seeing the words on the page in front of her. 'But at least she cares.'
Lily woke up at five AM to find Hope lying on the couch, the pillow Lily had meant to use under her head, blanket covering her. There was a tightness in Lily's neck - she had fallen asleep sitting up.
She got off the couch and put on yesterday's jeans, along with the sneakers she had been wearing while painting with Audrey. Then she walked over to the living room closet, where she knew Audrey kept the family's jackets and coats. She could feel the minestrone soup still sitting in her stomach. She felt jumpy and anxious, and full,and she knew well how to counteract those feelings - she needed to run.
Running in jeans wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing, and at least she had a place to put her cellphone (the jacket of her sister's that she borrowed didn't have a pocket).
Her thought-process started out the way it almost always did when she ran - focus on the calories. Burn them off. Obliterate them. But then her mind began to wander, and she started thinking about Shay. She didn't want to, but it happened, anyway.
When did he go to work? What was his morning routine? Did Andi wake up with him, or did she stay asleep while he got ready, leaving him to have an entire morning to himself before she opened her eyes?
Being able to put a name to the idea of Shay's girlfriend still struck Lily as weird; she had avoided finding it out for so long. The woman seemed like an "Andi" - dark-haired, cheerful-looking. Friendly to people, based on the photos Lily had seen of her with random groups of women.
'Fat,' whispered the vicious, ever-present voice in her head. The voice of her eating disorder.
'No,' she corrected herself, 'she isn't fat. She has a little weight, yes, but that doesn't make her any worse or any better than anyone else.' Even as she thought this, she ran just a little faster, her footfalls echoing in the quiet of the early morning. At least the constant inner criticism was turned onto somebody else for once.
Shay was the only one who had ever known how to stop that criticism. It had played in her mind on a loop for most of Lily's life, only really ceasing when Shay took control of things - took control of her.
After they stopped their games for the first time, Lily felt lost in her own head. It was a feeling that continued for months, and she hated it. One night, she tried to do what Shay had done for herself.
She waited until her parents and sister were asleep, and took a shoe box out of the back of her closet. It was a secret box, something that no one - not even Audrey - knew anything about. She kept laxatives in there that she almost never used, and, more recently, a cheap orange lighter that she had purchased at a convenience store.
She grabbed the lighter and opened her window, her feet dangling outside as she sat on the sill. She liked that her room was on the first floor, and this was why. She wouldn't have been able to do this safely if it wasn't.
It took her a few tries to get the lighter started - she wasn't a seasoned professional, like Shay had been - but once she succeeded, the flame burned brightly. She held her free hand over it, not touching, but feeling its warmth on her skin.
She psyched herself up, took a breath, and thrust her index finger into the flame. A scream caught in her throat, and she bit her tongue so hard, she tasted blood. She pulled her finger away immediately. The skin had started to burn, of course - just barely second-degree, it looked like.
She felt no calm, no release. Just pain. She pulled her legs back inside, extinguished the flame, and threw the lighter out the window, ready to head to the bathroom to run her hands under cold water. She remembered Shay once telling her that hot water was best for treating a burn, but she ignored it. She never burned herself on purpose again. She ate nothing the next day, and went for a three-hour run when her family wasn't home, punishing herself for her stupidity. Only Shay would ever be able to give her that kind of a release, and at the time, she had assumed she was never going to feel it again.
Lily put on a burst of speed, trying to pull herself from her memories. She only had a couple hours before she had to go home to get ready for work, and she was going to try her damnedest to run the fullness out of her system until then.