Ellie looked away from the computer monitor and picked up the cordless phone to check the caller ID. She glanced at the phone’s screen, and then dropped the phone as though it were made of white-hot iron rather than plastic.
She didn’t recognize the number. But she knew who it was.
She stared at the dropped phone as it continued to ring, rattling on the desk.
She took a deep breath. Answer it, or no? As if to help her decide, mental snapshots flipped through her head, one at a time.
The first time they’d been in the same room for longer than a few minutes. She’d laughed so hard that day; harder than she had in months.
The first time they went somewhere as a couple. They’d cleaned light fixtures. The floor had looked like it had snowed because of all the dust.
Their first kiss. She knew exactly where it had happened, and could take you there in a heartbeat. When and where he proposed to her. Her birthday, the picture of him tickling her in the sunshine, both of them laughing, happy.
When things started to fall apart. A picture of her, pale, with white lips and huge dark eyes, next to a picture of what she’d looked like before – rosy cheeks and a smile. The way he'd kicked that chair when he was angry; the holes he'd punched in the wall with a pen; the way he'd treated everyone else when he had been angry with her.
When he threatened to lay down in a parking lot so he could get run over, to force her to tell him something he wanted to know.
The day she finally realized that he really didn’t respect her and he’d called her a name. She discovered he had manipulated her to get what he wanted. Layered on the guilt, over and over. She broke it off; sat on the couch and missed him, crying. She had even considered suicide. How had it all gone so wrong?
He had pressured her after that, trying to get her to come back. Calling her, sending her messages, talking to her. She had wavered, considered. She missed him so much it hurt like a physical pain. He tried to kiss her, to hold her hand, to convince her things would be different. She'd almost believed him.
But then he was arrested.
She’d heard the truth, then.
He was arrested on charges of sexually molesting a minor. Four girls. Ten counts.
It had started with a phone call that seemed as innocuous as this one. It had gotten both worse, and better. He was far away, but it was all people could talk about. No, she wasn't okay. Why did they have to ask? She wanted to pretend it had never happened - why did they have to keep talking about it?
He had called once, before his hearing. Even then, his hold was strong. He'd wanted her help in his case. She'd said she would testify for the defense, but they'd never called.
...and then, afterward, the day she had finally looked up the symptoms of emotional abuse. When she had found every problem she’d ever had during her relationship under the heading ‘Your Situation Is Critical If...’ and cried some more.
She’d loved him. So much. And not only had he cheated on her, but he had knowingly done things to harm her. And, perhaps worst of all, he had harmed children. In her mind, it was the ultimate betrayal.
He’d manipulated her. He could find some way to get to her, whatever the situation. He knew what she wanted from life, and he would use that as ammunition against her. He'd known what she wanted to hear, and would say it even if it was all a lie. And she had believed it.
She had withdrawn into herself after his arrest. No one really knew how she felt, not even herself. But, slowly, the thoughts, the reminders, stopped hurting so much. She could hear his name without flinching. Then, finally, the day came when her smiles were no longer forced. How ironic that her freedom had come when he lost his.
She stared at the phone ringing by her hand, biting her lip. She wanted to hear his voice again, even though she had been denying his existence for months.
As she looked at the phone, an alarm blared, jerking her back to the present. She reached for the button to shut it off, and a small smile played across her lips as more recent memories came back.
She had begun a journey he wouldn't understand. Perhaps, when he finally got out of jail, he would be afraid of her. She was no longer physically afraid of him - she could thank her instructors for that. As she gathered up her gear to go to her martial arts class, she grinned.
One day when he got out of jail, she would find him. And he would be afraid. He would be afraid because she intended him to know what she’d become. She would meet him in an alley, look him in the eye, and he would know that she could beat him if she so chose. But she would smile, and walk away, leaving him untouched. He would know that his hold on her had been broken - for good this time.
Because she would not take advantage of weakness, as he had. Because she wanted him to know that she had succeeded in everything he had failed to accomplish. She would be happy, and she would be free. But she was not yet ready to face him.
The phone rang into silence.
She had gone.