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Bad Penny
by LJC

Shellie woke to the sound of the shower running in the other room.

She hadn't meant to fall asleep. She hadn't thought she could, knife sitting on the coffee table in front of her right next to the bag of frozen peas that worked for an ice-pack in a pinch. The peas had melted, water scumming across the table, which dipped a bit from the crooked floors. The knife had to be close enough to grab, if it was Jackie kicking the door in, pack of drunkass cronies right behind him, if Dwight didn't come back.

(Dwight always comes back.)

The knife was dull grey in the fluorescent light from the kitchen. The edge wasn't sharp as it could be, but last night, it had seemed sharp enough. She didn't touch it. Left it where it was. Sat up slowly, like she was worried her head would fall right off her shoulders if she moved too quick.

She shivered, rubbing her cheek where the corduroy from the arm of the chair had made lines in it. Her face ached, and she gingerly touched her cheek, wincing. She brushed her jaw with probing fingers as she padded barefoot across the hall. She knew what she'd look like in the mirror. Not so bad as last time. Maybe even she'd be able to hide it, if she caked the make-up on. At was dark enough, she lied to herself, that she'd get by this time without losing half her rent.

She saw the shoes first. They'd been red. She only knew they were his on account of how big they were. She wrinkled her nose at the smell from the piles of clothes outside the bathroom door. Mud and shit and blood and something else. Black smears all across the linoleum hallway floor. Breadcrumb trail.

The shower was like white noise, not like real sound at all. She was surprised she'd woken up at all. Weak sunlight came in through the frosted glass window, morning sounds drifting up from the alley. At least it had stopped raining.

She could see the shadow of him, behind the curtain. Steam crept across the ceiling like summer clouds, and she dropped his shirt and her panties on the bathroom floor before she pulled the curtain enough so she could climb in.

The water was hot enough to scald, and she glanced down before she could stop herself. There was a circle of grime, and the water was pink where it had touched him on its path to the drain. His shoulders were knotted beneath her fingers. She flinched before she could stop herself at the first sight of the night's damage.

Water drenched her hair as she reached for the cracked cake of soap. He took it from her, and she saw his hands were bruised, knuckles split and black grime beneath his fingernails. She wondered how long he'd been in here, before she'd found him. He smelled like soap, not like the clothes he'd left in the hall.

Smelled like soap and steam and Dwight. Just Dwight.

His hand found her shoulder, steadying himself as he turned. His face was a map of cuts and scrapes, green eyes half closed as she ran fingers down his chest. Counting bruises. He tipped her chin up, running the tip of one finger gently along her aching jaw.

"He won't be coming back."

"He's a cop, Dwight. He's a cop and he--"

He shook his head, sending wet soapy droplets against the plastic shower curtain. "He won't be coming back."

He pulled her against his chest, hot water sluicing over them as he held on like he never meant to let go. He always did that. Held on, like he was scared she'd disappear. Or maybe that she'd pull away.

"He went to Old Town. He ain't coming back."

Old Town. She closed her eyes, jaw twinging in protest as she rested her cheek against his chest.

"I was scared."

"Bad penny, remember?" He laughed like it was a joke. "I always turn up."

He went to Old Town.

"Scared you wouldn't come back."

(Dwight always comes back.)

She didn't say what she was scared would claim him. They didn't talk about it. Not when it was Jackie Boy. Not when it was someone else. That was how they got along. By silent agreement. It had worked, up until now. It would probably work just fine later, when the bruises had gone from purple to green.

"I always come back to you, don't I?"

She got up on tiptoes and kissed him carefully, on account of her fat lip, and the bruises darkening his jaw.

"Yeah. Yeah you do."

She picked up the cracked and veined cake of soap from where it had fallen, blocking the drain. She began to scrub his back, ignoring the long scratches that hadn't come from a fight.

As they lay in her narrow bed, hair still wet and soaking the pillowcase, she closed her eyes tight so he couldn't see the tears.

Dwight always came back.

Always and never.


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