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First Steps – Chapter 1

By Ned Lips

The light from the work lamp glistened on the smooth surface of the flint knife as Sarah turned it in her left hand. Her eyes, tear-filled and tired, struggled as she examined it for any remaining imperfections. The stress of the evening rolled through her. She put her right palm down and rested her left fist on the bench, clutching the knife, supporting her weight. She felt its razor-sharp edges cut into her skin.

The years of physical and emotional abuse coursed through her system. Her body became heavy, as though lead bricks were being piled upon her back, pushing her down, trying to crush her soul, to break her. But, as she had for so long, Sarah endured against the burden, took a deep, cleansing breath, raised her head, cleared her eyes and stood erect, staring into the darkness above the light.

“I’ve spent too much of my life hiding in the darkness, hiding outside the light. Today is the day that changes forever.” Her words echoed through the emptiness and felt every bit as hollow. The ever-present odor of motor oil and garbage reached her consciousness. “This is my haven from my world? How did I deserve this?” The garage was stifling, hot and confined. Her hands were grimy, cut with a bit of smeared blood. Her shirt was soaked in sweat, streaked with dust from the flint she’d been working and blood from her hand. Her hair was as dull, lifeless and entangled as her life.

Instead of feeling unkempt, Sarah felt stronger, emboldened. She loved camping and living off the land and had always felt more comfort able in old well-worn jeans than in fancy dresses. She breathed in her own scent, deep and purely human, free from artificial perfumes.

Sarah stared down at the tools strewn across the workbench, handmade from stone, antler and bone, of varied lengths, thicknesses and tips, each with its own purpose. Tears began to cloud her vision. Stress pulled at her muscles. Sarah took a deep breath, wiped her eyes with her sleeve and chose the perfect tool, created from a piece of deer antler. She took another deep breath, focused on the knife and deftly applied the antler’s sharp tip to a slight imperfection. The flake of flint would be nearly imperceptible to anyone not as skilled as herself. Jazz would’ve noticed.

The events of the evening raced through her mind. Her stomach churned, and again she relied on the bench for support. “Have I done the right thing?” she said aloud to the empty, dark garage. She opened her fingers and watched as the knife slid then tumbled onto the cut and worn wood surface. She felt a bit like that slab of wood: beaten and bashed but still strong. The sting on her cheek where he’d hit her had resonated in each strike on the rock as she’d rendered that knife from its rough stone birthplace. Her left hand moved to her cheek, touched it gently, then looked at her fingers. No blood. It was a habit. She knew this time there would be none.

She half-fell, exhaustion gaining hold, into an old metal folding chair, which clanged and rattled, echoing through the garage, threatening to collapse under her. The tiny work light focused its attention on the workbench. Chunks and chips of the rock and their many tools lay strewn across the old wooden surface. Sarah sat outside the circle of light, gazing at the glistening knife in the middle of the chaos.

She flexed her right hand, the hand that had driven a straight punch into her husband, sending him crashing onto their glass coffee table. She’d finally hit Robert back. Sarah leaned forward into the light, picked up the knife, examined its jewel-like perfection and smiled. “It was time, Sarah,” she said aloud to herself. “It is the right time.” She wasn’t sure
she’d convinced herself, but she knew she’d had enough. Bruises, broken
bones, excuses and stories to protect him and their family.

He’d come home drunk again, angry and looking for blood. Her blood. She closed her eyes and replayed the evening in her mind.


“Sarah, goddammit.” The door from the garage flew open and slammed against the kitchen wall, the solid wood door bending under his staggering weight against the doorstop. He bounced off it, careening into the end of the cabinets, grabbing for the quartz countertop of the island, sending the salt and pepper shakers skittering across the smooth surface. “Sarah!! Where the fuck are you, goddammit?”

Sarah pushed herself deeper into the darkness of the living room. Their kitchen, a mere 12 feet away, began where the long hardwood in the front foyer ended. The chandelier in the foyer was off. No lights on upstairs or in the living room behind her. The only light came from the small desk lamp in his study, glowing across that foyer floor onto the edges of the plush, beige living room carpet. Save for his stumbling and her own pounding heartbeats and shallow breaths, both of which sounded deafening to her but were imperceptible to her husband, the house was deathly quiet.

She crushed herself into the front corner of the living room, feeling the rough, fashionably textured wall on her right arm as she squatted safely behind an expensive but uncomfortable chair that no one ever sat in. She could just see the open door to the kitchen. He’d struggle through that space soon. If she could see him, she knew he’d be able to see her, but she was banking on his drunkenness to miss her in a dark corner where he would have no reason to look.

Hands clammy, she remained hushed, calming her breath and heart as she’d been taught by her mother and spiritual teachers. Her girls, she hoped, were asleep upstairs. They’d heard their father enter the house from the garage many times in this way and had long ago learned to sleep, or at least pretend to sleep, through it.

“Sarah, you fucking bitch, where’s my dinner? Where’s my drink? Goddammit, where the fuck are you?” Robert was stumbling through the kitchen. She heard him open the fridge. “SARAH!” His next move was to stagger into his study to find a bottle where he’d drink himself into a stupor and, if she was lucky, fall asleep on his couch. Just as often, however,
he’d get that drink, stumble upstairs and find her. That was never good for her. He’d broken their door down even after she’d replaced it with a solid wood exterior door. He was a big man—6’4″, about 245 pounds, naturally strong—and, when numbed by alcohol, could break down nearly anything. He’d dislocated his shoulder several months ago coming after
her but still managed to hit her until she bled.

“Sarah!” She could see him now as she pushed herself deeper against the wall. Her heart raced despite her training. Her deep, calming breaths were too loud. If he saw her, he’d destroy her. She sucked herself deeper into the shadows. The darkness will protect me. He’ll go left into his study, not right into the living room. The booze is in his study. This had to work.

He fell against the doorframe leading from the kitchen into the foyer, then knocked over the vase on the foyer table, both broken so many times that she’d bought the current vase and table from Walmart. Once a stickler, he no longer noticed. Sarah held her breath as the cheap vase scattered across the floor toward her, a large piece settling onto the living room carpet not three feet away. She put her hand over her mouth.

He righted himself, right hand on the wall, and stared blankly ahead. She switched her breathing technique to tiny, shallow breaths. The light from the desk in his study lit his way. It was the guide she hoped he’d follow.

He gazed up their elegant stairway, now dark and hollow. He was holding onto the polished oak rail and finial with both hands. He was close to bellowing her name again but stopped. Will he head up there? What would he do when he can’t find me? My girls. She prepared to pounce if he began to head upstairs, if he approached their doors. She’d protect them, but it would mean a long, difficult battle for her. Please go into the study. Please.

He just stared up into the darkness.

Then, like a moth drawn to a flame, he turned and headed toward the light, stumbling from the railing to the wall until he could grab the doorframe. Robert steadied himself, lost his balance, an awkward step backward in her direction. Don’t fall. She pulled back from the chair into the shadows. Robert then righted himself once more and took a step into the study, then another.

Sarah closed her eyes and took a breath. Quiet, like a hunter, Sarah. You can do this. Her heart pounded in her chest as she crept from the shadows, sliding around the wall, back against the front door bathed in the light, along it, silent as a cat, then back within the shadows of the wall beside his study.

He wavered in place, searching the study.

As she crept closer, he grabbed a bottle from the file cabinet drawer to his right, opened it and took a long drink. He took another step, one hand on top of the cabinet. She could see his addled mind trying to determine how to navigate to some other object for support. He took another swig. He let go and took one feeble step.

Now!

“Robert!” Sarah jumped into the light at the door of the study behind
him.

“Whaaa—” was all Robert could say as he turned around to face her. “You whore!” He slapped her—harder than she’d been prepared for—across her face with his right hand. It shocked her, but she retained a strong footing. “You bitch.” The swing staggered him as well. He took a step back, regained his balance. “Where’s my dinner?” His body rocked toward her, his right hand raised to strike. Just the window she was looking for.

For the first time in their marriage, she used every pound of leverage her 5-foot, 8-inch athletic frame could generate, from her powerful legs through her sinewy right arm, to drive the heel of her hand deep into and through his shocked face, wishing it was possible to carry through the back of his head.

He fell like a stack of newspapers thrown from a truck, back and through his glass coffee table. His head slammed against the floor. His eyes lost their focus. His nose bled down his cheeks.

Robert struggled for a minute among the broken glass but only managed
to cut himself more deeply. He lay nearly motionless on the floor,
bottle safely in hand. Of course.

She was glad he went down. She didn’t want to hit him again, though he deserved it. His left bicep was bleeding heavily from a nasty gash. A pool of red began to form beneath it, stark against the pure white rug. The shard of glass from the table that had inflicted the wound still hung from his arm. Who knew, or cared, what other injuries befell him.

Sarah stood over him for a few seconds. “You’re an abusive sadistic asshole, Robert. We’re done. From this moment on, you’re on your own!” His eyes betrayed his astonishment. “I’m calling the cops. Get the fuck out of this house! And I mean now!”

She stormed out of the study, slamming the door behind her. Sarah stood alone in the silent darkness of the foyer. A sense of joy rose from within her and she raised her fists to the chandelier hanging from a ceiling two stories above her. “I’ve finally done it!” she whispered. She’d hit him back, and hard. Her smile was small and uncertain but present for the first time in a long time. He’ll think twice about hitting me again, if he even remembers tonight.

The elation was brief. Now what? The emotion of the moment and the finality it represented rushed through her. No plan. How could I not have a plan? She ran up the stairs, wiping at her tears, leaving Robert to tend to his own wounds. She knew he wouldn’t. He’d continue to drink until he passed out.

The tirade and crash woke her girls. “Mom?” It was Jasmine, their oldest, 11, tall for her age and slender, with Sarah’s dark black hair and deep green eyes. Sarah ran into her room. Janie, 5, long auburn hair flying in every direction behind her, sprinted in, and as Sarah turned, Janie leaped into her mother’s arms.

“What happened, Mommy?” Janie asked.

Sarah gathered her girls into her arms, tears streaming down her cheeks. The three snuggled together in Jazz’s double bed. The two girls cried themselves to sleep as she hugged them close. Sarah stared at the open door, ears tuned to any movement, ready.

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