We play the knife game on the kitchen table. Mark likes it all cut up, says it looks like home. We eat dinner on the couch, mostly. I wouldn’t mind bleeding to death, but Mark is quick and steady and never misses the space between my fingers. He has a knack for seeing where things aren’t.
Mark was one of those boys with nervous hands. He could riffle shuffle a deck of cards like a professional dealer. He spun pens around his thumb like batons, flipped his burner phone open and closed so fast I thought it’d snap in two. Now it’s the knife game. If his parents had bought him a drum set things might have turned out different. I’ve always watched boys like this, boys who make the things in their hands seem like nothing. I guess I knew I’d have one of my own eventually. You spend enough time watching something and it becomes all you can see.
This is not our house, but it’s Mark’s table. He found it a few streets down and carried it here himself to have something to beat up and throw away when we leave. We never stay long. The house is falling apart. The mattress sags to the floor. A pink plastic cross hangs beside the bedroom door, the one my mother hung outside my old room. Patterns of mold line the ceilings, making shy footprints on the walls. The celery-green kitchen wallpaper curls up around the edges like a magazine on fire. Whoever lived here before must have been a champion of sorts; a collection of golden trophies gleams bright upon the dusty mantle, mounted high and proud like animal heads. Mark thought we might be able to pawn them, but they are hollow and weightless. The gold paint chips right off.
My palm is flat on the table and I can feel scars in the wood from old games. Mark doesn’t stab the spaces in order anymore, from behind the thumb (1) to outside the pinky (6) and back. He’s gotten too good for that, so it changes each time we play. I try to keep up so that I know where the blade will land. Tonight is 1-2-1-3-1-4-1-5-1-6-2-6-3-6-4-6-5-6-4-6-3-6-2-6.
The knife flashes toward 4 when something happens that neither of us expects. There’s a hammering at the door and my finger feels warm and distant. Mark’s eyes are wide and wispy. The knife quivers between us. Mark makes mistakes that regular people can’t justify; but I can, and that’s how we’ve made it this far. We are bound. The lock jiggles and men are swearing outside. It’s time to run again.
Blood pulses from my fingertip. I hold my hot palm up to my face. I’m bleeding to death like he said I never would. He is shouting at me but his words sound thick and funny through the drumming in my ears. He rips at his t-shirt and reaches for my hand, but my hand is on fire. I yank it away before he burns himself and bolt to the bedroom. We can’t leave without her. She slept through everything – she was so quiet that Mark forgot her, but a mother never forgets. I throw open the door and stand, swaying, in the threshold. The room is empty, has been empty for years. She was never even here. The pounding on the door reverberates through the walls. I grab the cross from the wall. We’ll need it for the next house. Mark grabs my wrist and pulls me toward the screen door, pressing a torn piece of his shirt into my bloody hand as we run for the tall grass behind the house. I chase his shape blindly through fields and thickets into the purple dark, clasping the plastic cross so tight it bleeds.
The baby was alive for one year and has been dead for two. I would’ve explained to her about things, like how not to marry a man like Mark and how to make pasta and how to hold still for the knife game. I would’ve hung her tiny clothes out to dry in the backyard and listened to the shy of her every sleeping breath. Stuffed her drawers with lavender or rosemary and hung the plastic cross above her bedroom door. Sometimes they play across my brain like projected slides, all the things I would have done. Golden, crisp, and fuzzy.