She ran out of the blimp in absolute silence. Flight suited her, or maybe falling did. It was a moment of peace, followed by a moment of absolute darkness. Can’t breathe. The water was cold and black, no light from the new moon to illuminate it. She resurfaced and hungrily gasped in air, slowing down her limbs to create effortless buoyancy. It hurts. She ignored the pain in her stomach and gave a good guess at which way the shoreline was judging by some lights, and started making her way through the current, her skirt ballooning and harboring her so that swimming was more taxing. Haleigh was struggling to keep her consciousness. The lights were dimming and brightening as her vision spun. A trip through Lethe, she imagined, and as she moved, her experiences cascaded like ribbons behind her, first floating, then dissolving into murkiness. Finally, a sharp pain in her hands arose as she scraped up against the concrete foundation of a dock, and she mixed her blood with the syrupy darkness that surrounded her, almost wishing to see a fin rise from the water.
She tried to hoist herself up, and immediately was reminded of the cramps in her stomach. It was like she had turned off everything in order to get here. With a sudden jolting cramp, she let go of the dock, hunching over and being rewarded with a mouthful of water. She realized that blood wasn’t just coming from her hand, it was everywhere. She tried to keep her breath steady, but between her struggle to stay awake and the pain she was in, she was close to giving up. Another jolt, she groaned in agony and started to go under. No, you have to fight. She would not die today, not like this. Haleigh reached for the dock with new vengeance and gripped it as hard as she could. She pulled herself up onto the lower platform and collapsed in excruciating pain. It was coming. She propped herself up against a piece of wood and watched in horror as a small figure appeared on a bed of crimson. It looks so real. “It is real,” she said out loud. She didn’t cry. Haleigh had lost so much today that she had nothing left to give, not even the water in her body. She didn’t bother trying to clean herself up, she was exhausted. Haleigh laid back down and took one last look at the obsidian waters before falling into a deep sleep.
I am not telling you this story because I want to. I am telling you because, in order to regain health, one must extract the poison that circulates within them. Let me tell you what the second time you kill a man is like.
The feeling, what rust smells like, but as a sensation. You transform, metamorphic, metastasize as metallic as the bullet shot from your shaking hand. You feel dull, tired, but this time the nausea is a little better. A game of literal and metaphorical Russian roulette you never wanted to join, a lover you thought you knew. You were better than this, how did you get here? Anyone is better than this. A part of your soul leaves your body when the breath leaves his, but it’s a smaller piece of spirit than the last time. This is the first time you have ever seen him look surprised, the first time you have ever considered that he had an expiration date. When you are holding a gun, identifying your emotions is the farthest thing from your mind. It is only after a heart is stopped that we start projecting our concerns onto the moment, shoving reason into the shell we were, giving agency to hands that were not our own. Maybe it was panic when he started yelling at me, maybe I was angry he was drunk and taunting me, maybe it was me wanting to end the moment, my hopes that this wouldn’t be the gun with the bullet. Perhaps I hoped it was the one, maybe I even wanted it.
I remembered an odd moment as I pulled the trigger. I remembered my mother braiding my hair on the front porch when I was little. We heard a loud pop, and I asked “was that a gun?” She laughed, “No baby, probably just the neighborhood boys playing.” It was such an innocent moment. To think this was the second man I killed, what a fucked up moral decline. But it didn’t begin here, and I am not the person I used to be. In fact, I’m not sure I’m a person at all, but rather a product. A tangible conclusion. Or maybe I’m just fucking crazy.
“I, too, fuck people for money,” Loretta said smiling sweetly at the waiter while Haleigh covered her mouth trying not to laugh. The waiter gave an uncomfortable and noncommittal chuckle and walked away at the first opportunity. Haleigh watched her maneuver picking up the pen he left with unusually long ruby red nails, and scribble her name on the tab. It was a loopy, nonsensical cursive that took up half the receipt, but Loretta didn’t seem to care. Her hands were covered in costume jewelry rings, her jacket sleeve bejeweled with the word cunt, just in case people didn’t get that she was selling it. With the check out of the way, they resumed their conversation. “Like I said sweetheart, love doesn’t exist. It’s all a biological reaction. We are the flowers and they are the bees. We are inherently designed to attract men, from our smell, to wide eyes, to the softness of our skin. We are ahead of the game because we look at attraction for what it is, and what it could be.” It made too much sense. “I just don’t know if I could ever do it, it sounds a little scary.” Haleigh responded. Loretta rolled her eyes, “If you say so, but when you change your mind you know where to find me.” And with that she walked away. The noise of the door closing and the rumble of conversations around her became distant as Haleigh retreated deeper into thought. Loretta had said it with such certainty, when you change your mind. She was a business woman through and through, that’s for sure. Haleigh felt a bit of envy, but also a bit of inspiration. She took her napkin off her lap and tossed it on the table. Then she hesitated and folded it, placing it back down before she got up and exited the restaurant.
It had been days since she had gone outside. David was reading the newspaper next to her, occasionally clearing his throat and rustling the page. It almost felt like they were a married couple. Aside from the fact that he paid for this apartment solely so that she could live here and see him on his “work trips.” But she didn’t think about that, and when she did, she told herself that they were even closer than he and his wife because of it. She liked to imagine that an escort was better than a wife, that she could provide him everything he needed, everything he wanted. This was a marriage, just without the illusions, the lying, the treachery. And he never hit her, not once, so he was pretty much a perfect gentleman. Haleigh stretched, expanding her diaphragm and giving a loud yawn, and rolled over under the sheets to face him. He put down the newspaper and they chattered about work and play. Today was their last day together before he left for his special club. They were having one of their many events, and she was curious about it. “Will you ever take me to one? You always make me stay here.” David looked her up and down from the corner of his eye. “I still have secrets, even kept from you. I will take you, but only if you’re ready to learn absolutely everything.” This sent a shiver down her spine, she was so eager to learn, and was relishing the future intimacy that it would bring. In response, she nodded, and pulled the covers up over her head so that she could remove his boxers.
She knew that many people didn’t like David, and she understood that he could come off a bit severe, but she had seen his soft side from the beginning, and knew he was a good person. Everyone has a flaw, his was just drinking and having a temper. She remembered once when they were walking down the street he spotted a stray dog. He found the nearest hot dog stand and ordered 6 plain ones. He took them back to the dog and left them there so that it could eat. He told her not to tell anyone he did it because he didn’t want to seem weak, and she laughed and agreed.
I was scared when my first client visited me. He was a large man, large gut, large forehead, large nose. If oily could have described a personality, I would say it was his, and he reeked of stale cigars. I was glad for Loretta, she dressed me earlier, giving advice on how I should act, what I should look like. I am wearing white because it is my first night. It is lace because lace is innocence, I have fake eyelashes because men love the look of fearful wide eyes, I have blush on because embarrassment is sensual. She said I should resist at first, they like to play the game, and in that moment, I wondered how different my life would have been if I had learned that sooner. He didn’t talk, didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t even lock the door. He walked in, and told me to disrobe. So I did. For about 5 minutes he circled me, examining what type of stock he was working with. Finally, he walked out of my sight, and I heard the rustle of his clothing. I was thankful in that moment that Loretta gave me a pill earlier, because the room started to get wavy, I stopped being able to feel. It all seemed like a dream.
When Loretta opened the door she dropped her cigarette on the ground. She hurriedly stomped it our and rushed into the hallway where the form of a wiry young woman lay crumpled on the floor. Her paleness almost illuminated the black, blue, brown, green, and purple that trailed down all visible parts of her body. She was a kaleidoscope of abuse, a mirage of hatred and revulsion. As this was not her first rodeo, she put one of the young woman’s arms around her neck, Loretta supported her as she limped into the small apartment, and then collapsed on the plastic covered couch inside. Loretta walked back to the table, and grabbed a bottle of vodka she had been nursing for breakfast, along with a cloth napkin so that she could clean the scrapes and cuts on Haleigh’s body. She stopped for a moment and watched the rise and fall of her chest, and the sudden peace that overwhelmed her as she fell asleep, or maybe unconscious. Maybe she should have given her a pill for the second one, she knew it was too soon. The contrast of Haleigh’s expression with her broken body reminded Loretta of herself many years ago, “quiet amidst the chaos,” she murmured. “Keep it as long as you can darling.”
As they walked onto the blimp, she checked her hair one last time to make sure it was still perfect. She was told to wear nicer clothing, but felt odd about it seeing as they were going to be traveling. Looking at the guests around her, she now regretted her decision to dress so comfortably. Full length gowns riddled the stairs, and David himself wore a black suit. When he told her what the special trip was, she was confused. It was a two-day flight on a blimp that could have rivalled any mansion. It was an event of cocktail parties, gambling, and, to put it as vaguely as he did, entertainment. Once they reached the top of the steps, they entered what appeared to be a large ballroom, complete with emerald green carpeting, and a large crystal chandelier. Haleigh’s eyes widened, she had never stepped foot in a place like this before. She began to examine faces around her more closely, recognizing politicians, celebrities, and those who she could only assume were the richest men of the world. All were accompanied by dazzling women, littered with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, each slightly trailing behind their much more important counter part. The only odd thing about then was that they all had a simple gold necklace, attached to a delicate chain that their partner was holding. No, she was not prepared for this at all. She turned her attention back to her own partner, who was chatting with a man who appeared to be an acquaintance. He looked at her, and she started to introduce herself, but was cut off with a slap to the face. “How dare you speak without his permission,” the man said. “What kind of a whore did you bring this time?” She was speechless, cheek throbbing from the stranger’s hand. She turned slowly towards David and saw that he was laughing. A jolt of fear ran down her spine.
“Relax, it’s just in public. These are my friends, I have to play along with them,” David rubbed her shoulders as he spoke. They were in their private suite where he was explaining the rules of the club. It was a playground for the elite, and all the men brought escorts of various social statuses. This couldn’t be real, Haleigh thought. She had never in all her life, even as a prostitute felt so degraded. She was not allowed to speak, she had to wear a collar, she had to take her meals in the room, and was at David’s beck and call. He took another swig of whiskey and walked towards the closet to retrieve a dress for her. She looked at the chain he had placed on the bed, and back at the glass of whiskey, and tried to still the shaking in her hands.
The first time you kill a man, you will cry, you might even throw up. Just make sure you reach the sink, any DNA you leave can be traced to you. The second time you have sex with a client there are no pills involved, just you and him. It will go horribly wrong. This time he will lock the door, this time you know it is not so other people can’t get in. It’s so you can’t get out. You will watch him undo his pants, open up his brief case. You will chatter on and on trying to make him slow down, trying not to panic. He will come towards you with a knife. He will threaten you as he chokes you. He will beat you until you can’t feel it any more. He doesn’t cut you, but the blade remains at your throat. When he finally moves back to his brief case to reach for ropes and a gun, in a rage of fear, disgust, and anger you will reach for the knife and plunge it into his back. But men only die quickly in movies. You will watch him fall to the ground, attempt to get back up, and you will run into the bathroom and lock the door. He will proceed to crawl over to the door and bang on it feebly. When the banging stops, you will have a panic attack and ask yourself if he’s alive even though it’s a stupid question. You will open the door and feel different. You will open the door and discover that he was a monster, but you were more of one.
Haleigh waited in the room for her third client. “Don’t fuck it up this time love,” Loretta had warned. She was shaking, her eyes were swollen. She watched the doorknob slowly turn, and in entered a man who seemed entirely too normal. He was in his 40s, good looking, and well dressed. He greeted her and introduced himself. “My name is David.” She gave hers in return, and he held a hand up to her face. She flinched, but found that he was only examining her puffy eyes. “You don’t deserve this life.” He meant it. For once she made love and it didn’t feel like she was being ripped to shreds, it felt like she was being sewn back together.
She had slowly learned to trust him, and they had created an arrangement where she only had to work for him. Loretta warned her not to, but Haleigh knew it was fate. They said goodbye, and Haleigh moved in to a small but luxurious apartment in the city. This situation was so unfamiliar to her. How does one treat a married man she is fucking? How does one meet her at a party and not tell her the truth? The questions complicated further and further, but Haleigh always managed to push them to the side. She would see David come back from work, and start crying because he worked so hard, and he still couldn’t get enough votes on a certain project. He deserved a woman who didn’t think about all these little things. There were only a few times where her confidence in this wavered. One day, he came over unannounced with two young children, a boy and a girl. They came in and the boy asked with wide eyes, “Are you daddy’s new friend?” She looked at David for an answer and he said yes. She told him that she didn’t feel comfortable meeting his children, and he said it was fine, they had met the one before her. He went silent realizing his mistake. Of course later on that night he apologized and bought her a very expensive bottle of wine, but in that moment she absent-mindedly touched her stomach and decided not to tell him. It could wait until after the blimp trip.
“I can’t,” she was shaking. Whispers urged her to do it, pull the damn trigger. The man across the room was not her lover. He was a drunk and powerful man who owned her. He looked into her eyes, and as he opened his mouth the whispers around her ceased. “You are worth nothing; you will never be anything.” He then smiled at her, took another swig of whiskey, and started laughing hysterically. Her eyes watered, but she refused to cry. He may have been belligerent, but he meant what he said. She took a moment to close her eyes, and slow her breath. It was in this moment Haleigh let go of everything, feeling absolute relaxation for the first time possible ever. It was time to transform again, to start over again. She shot the gun, and with it offered a prayer that this time it might be different, that she wouldn’t need someone else to save her. She would be her own redemption.
She ran through the labyrinth of hallways, heaving air as quickly as she could. She could hear the voices behind her and knew that she couldn’t stop. There had to be an exit somewhere, she just had to find the right door. She turned left, then right, then another left, and flung the next door open. This one was heavier than the others she had seen, and metal instead of the wood on the door sweets. As it opened a large gust of wind burst through her hair, and she saw a balcony ahead. She jogged to the railing and took a short break to catch her breath. She looked down over the rail and saw the dark waters below her. Glancing back at the door she saw a group of men coming onto the balcony to find her. Haleigh turned back to the rail and leapt.
Sarah Jennings is an emerging writer and yoga teacher from North Carolina. She has been published by Cadence magazine, Fish Food magazine, and won the D.A. Brown award for creative writing at Wake Forest University. She likes to explore characters and situations that make readers uncomfortable, and challenge them to accept that the world isn’t perfect.