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Finding Refuge – Seeking Safety and Security After Relationship Failure

Abrial was away from her home in the stuffy inland town of Relway, California, visiting her sister Peg in Las Flores on the coast. She was strolling on Los Refugio State Beach when the cell phone in her sweater pocket chirped and vibrated, shattering her reverie. Incoming! Like a missile strike, Abrial often thought these days when her phone rang. It had brought her so much bad news lately. But as she glanced down and answered the call, she was relieved to see a familiar friendly number.

“Mom, they misspelled war.” Her daughter’s sweet voice trilled into the phone from Relway.

“What do you mean?” she replied, instantly on edge, gooseflesh rising on her arms. Abrial pulled her sweater more tightly about her.

“Well, Grammy took me home to check on Jinx and feed him and someone had painted the word ‘war’ on the garage door. But I think they spelled it wrong. They did it in red, in big, sloppy red letters.”

“What do you mean exactly?” Abrial probed, her chest tight and her voice unnaturally high in her own ears.

Her almost-six-year-old prattled on innocently, unaware, pure sweetness. “Well, I think they tried to spell ‘war,’ maybe like the one you are having with D…” Her voice trailed off. “Like the one you’re having.” She continued. “But they spelled it w-h-o-r-e.”

God dammit! How dare they! She thought. That’s my home, my little corner of peace.

Abrial pictured her home, nestled in the sheltering curve of a tree-lined cul-de-sac, secure on its pie-shaped piece of earth. There was nothing fancy about her home. It was just another beige one-story, in a neighborhood of beige houses; but it was her home. She’d owned it for almost a year, the year following her miserable break-up, and had only recently begun to feel safe within its walls.

Not divorce, she reminded herself. What did the State of California call it now? Yeah, Marital Dissolution. How fitting!

The alarm in her place had never been tripped, but she often felt as though it might be. She’d awakened in a cold sweat several times, nightmarishly imagining that it had been. In the early months there, her lurid night terrors had run to themes of death. She’d be flying, then falling, or swimming, out too far in a subterranean pool, then drowning, struggling for breath, alone in an empty cavern, her pitiful solo screams echoing uselessly off black stone walls. When not sleeping fitfully, Abrial had spent nights padding aimlessly from room to room, caressing her things. She didn’t intend to brush against her objects; she just did, as though her hands had minds of their own. They’d levitate, magically, to stroke a picture’s surface or ruffle the fur of a stuffed animal. Was she seeking grounding? she often wondered. Her things rested on tables, those tables sat stably on the floor, in turn the floor was supported by a foundation which nestled into the earth, grounded, literally and figuratively. Who the hell knows!?

It was strange how Jinx left her alone during her late-night ramblings, watching but not approaching. It was almost as if the cat knew she needed to connect with the inanimate. The grounding theme again?

Recently though, her nightmares and sleepless nights had ebbed. She’d even had some pleasant dreams, laced with sun-splashed islands, gently lapping wavelets and high floating clouds, always hazy and hard to remember, gone in the instant after awakening, but hardly terrifying, just transitory. She still wandered occasionally, caressing her things, but often intentionally now, straightening and organizing her place reflexively. Her house really felt like her house now. Night or day she believed, she knew, it would protect her.

Now this!

Someone, some thing, had slithered up her driveway under the cover of darkness, onto her property, had touched her walls with his filthy hands, and had left his rancid blood-red gash for everyone to see.

Then suddenly, her mom’s grating voice cut in on the still-open phone line.

“I got a call from your friend Mary,” she screeched. “She said someone painted something horrible on your house last night,” she carried on, gouging the fresh wound opened moments ago by Abrial’s daughter’s report of the assault.

A beat, just one awkward beat passed, like a crippled beggar catching your eye when you’d stared too long.

“Yeah, that’s what happened. My kiddo told me. I obviously haven’t seen it yet. I’m still in Las Flores on the beach, but heading home soo…”

“Get here quick,” her mother cut in, her voice sharp, a viper’s strike. “The worst crap always happens when you leave. Drive safe though. No sense getting in a wreck and making everything worse.” Like you always do, Abrial filled in, completing her mother’s unspoken accusation.

Push and pull, push and pull. Thanks mom. That’s really what I need right now.

The Rutans, her neighbors from just down the street, rang next.

David Rutan seemed relieved not to have to discuss in detail the “w-h-o-r-e” splattered across the front of her house. But he did say that the damage went way beyond that.

“He (How did Rutan know it was a “he?” Abrial mused) painted over some of your lights and windows. And he wrote some other stuff on the sidewalk and on your front porch.” David’s voice faded into babble as he went on and on about the foreign paint colors now soiling Abrial’s walkway and entry. More details followed, many… many… more, with Abrial quietly inserting mmmms and uh huhs intermittently as she trudged through the sand. A wind had whipped up. She labored against it, panting softly, wounded, like a doe grazed by a hunter’s arrow, bloodied but not felled.

David couldn’t bring himself to the say the words, the “other stuff,” to Abrial, but she imagined what they might be. Probably rhymes with ‘bunt’ and ‘switch’ she caught herself thinking in an instant of evil black humor.

As she hugged herself on the beach and slogged on, Abrial had the vague feeling that somehow David was enjoying this. He’d never said much to her at neighborhood gatherings. His wife always kept a close eye on him at these events. “How ya doing?” “Fine?” “Oh good” had been the extent of their “conversations” to date, but he often kept his eyes on her just a flicker too long, looking her up and down, finished almost before he started. It’s the quiet ones you have to watch, Abrial reminded herself. Plus, he hung out with Mike Hawk, their street’s one single male. Talk about a guy who stared too long. It was almost like his hot gawks would burn you if held just a moment longer. And Mike Hawk would always say, “Mike Hawk, Mike Hawk, Mike Hawk. Say that 3 times fast and see what you get.” Got it — ‘my cock’ is what repeated rapid-fire ‘Mike Hawk’s became. Charming, charming AF!

Abrial snapped back to David’s chatter. “We’re over at your place now. As soon as we saw, we grabbed some butcher paper from one of Sam’s art projects and taped it over your garage door.” Abrial pictured the light cream paper, wrapping, swaddling, soothing her distressed garage door.

“Now we’re painting. White was the only color we had in the house, but it’s covering pretty well,” David Rutan offered, ever the handyman.

Yeah, ‘white,’ as in whitewash. There’s not enough of it in the world to cover this mess.

David cut back in, “We’ll get another color soon and go over it again, but everything’s A-OK for now.” Cheerful as a sparrow. And just as thoughtful. Abrial raged internally. How dare he presume to select “another color” for her house. Did everyone in her life think they could just control her so easily under the guise of being helpful, a good neighbor? Great that he’s trying to be of use, but enough is enough. Cover up the shit, whitewash it away, and then walk away. She’d deal with the rest.

David paused and she tried to interject, but he sped on, “No don’t race home. We’ll take care of it. You’ll see; it’ll be right as rain in no time.” Did he really have to express most of his nonsense in bright-eyed clichés? But whatever, she’d be home soon.

Abrial always said that the beach was the only place where she knew where she was. Any beach would do, but Los Refugio was her local favorite. It was narrow, bounded at each end by rocky cliffs. Reaching it required a quarter-mile trek through dense brush, along a path barely maintained for the trickle of visitors it received. Abrial always enjoyed the work it took to arrive at her little fortress. She knew that finding refuge was both difficult and worth it. Also, few found it.

Even an hour or two, the chance to meander along the thin strand and gaze out over the endless rolling waves, seemed like a vacation to her, a reprieve. Years ago, her then-different, not cracked and embittered mother, had named her Abrial for a reason. The name Abrial was French in origin and meant “open, secure, protected.” Abrial treasured her name and its meaning. She loved word origins, anagrams and the like, wordplay. One day she’d stumbled across the fact that the letters in “Relway,” the dusty little place she called home, could be rearranged into “lawyer.” How ironic, that the place she called home was a word puzzle for the very type of person who had caused her such torment, the person she’d wed and divorced, and likely the person who was now waging war against her, again, and in a new and different way.

Alone on Los Refugio, Abrial generally felt safe and secure. Nothing could rush at her unexpectedly, catch her unaware, sneak up from behind. On the beach at Los Refugio she saw everything coming at her, long before it arrived, or so she’d thought.

Today however she suddenly felt isolated, insecure, acutely aware that no one would know if a huge wave swept in and washed her away. The high rocky cliffs on either end of the strand loomed, imprisoning, not protecting, her.

Wheeling high above, a flock of seagulls appeared small and pure, their bodies white and non-threatening. But suddenly, the flock dropped as Abrial struggled forward, and as they neared, the gulls seemed menacing, their strident cries accusatory and jarring. One swooped and she ducked, afraid that it was targeting her. Up close, its dirty gray body was heavy and unnaturally large as it streaked past. The wind off the water cut through her sweater and into her flesh. She trembled. The sand between her toes, rubbed, cold and gritty.

She imagined the oppressive heat of Relway, two-and-a-half dull driving hours to the east.

During their phone conversation Abrial’s mother had commanded, “We’ll clean up tonight. We’ll get turpentine and brushes for the sidewalk. And then we’ll do this… and then we’ll do that. And blah, blah, blah — all issued in order form.

There was no stopping Mom. With a scheme in her head and an outrage heaped upon her daughter, there was no way her vision would not be realized. Ordinarily Abrial felt a bit out of control and somewhat unbalanced by her Mom’s precipitous plans to intervene in her life, but today she let it go. It’s okay to accept the help. The distraction would do them both good.

As she drove home, more calls came in. The bludgeoning continued. Abrial could have switched off her telephone but she took a certain savage satisfaction in letting each new blow rain down upon her.

Her next-door neighbors, Betty and Bob, called. “We hate to have to tell you this,” they chorused from twin lines, “but whoever did this threw a brick through one of your side windows.”

“The crash must have set off your alarm, because the security company showed up at the house.” Bob reported.

Betty added, “Bob went to check it out right away. When he looked through the window, he saw a note taped to the brick. Sitting there in your living room! Can you imagine!?” Betty voice rose to an indignant squeak.

Abrial could imagine, but she was too numb to react. She stared straight ahead, her knuckles whitening as she gripped the steering wheel. The series of shocks — delivered from handsets in Relway to a tower or a satellite or a transmitter or whatever, to her phone — continued.

Betty chattered on. Something about yellow caution tape and “You’ll have to read the note when you get home. Don’t cut yourself on the broken glass. It’ll be okay in the end. You’ll see.” And on and on …

Abrial drifted away, saying “Yes I know.” at what seemed like suitable intervals as Betty burbled endlessly.

Betty and Bob, sounds like a bit of bad jargon, stagey names in a fifty’s movie, a marginal one, one with a perky dog and a white picket fence and a kid with freckles and a cute speech impediment.

But Betty and Bob were really their names. They were nice enough, older and civil rather than friendly with her. Their last encounter had been a misplaced accusation about a pipe. Something about a leak in her yard that was somehow ruining one of their precious flowerbeds. They’d been wrong about the leak. Abrial had ultimately proven that it was coming from someone else’s yard, but their terse snippiness had subsided slowly.

Now, as Abrial tuned back in, they were offering to feed her.

“I know what we’ll do,” Betty said. “As soon as I see your car in the drive I’ll come over with some chicken, and pasta salad. Iced tea too. Then, Bob will help you clean up.”

No irony there. Or maybe there was, but Abrial was beyond caring. Did Betty mean clean up the broken glass or her act? Who knows? And frankly, who freakin’ gives two shits at this point?

Maybe all this new torture was from her ex-husband, the Relway lawyer, but she’d never be able to prove it. He was far too clever for that. And, he had friends, special friends, in special places, all over town.

But damn those bastards, whoever did this. She wanted to trap them, those criminals who’d tried to destroy her safe harbors, home and away. She wanted to trap them, in a bright white light; then… well, who knew what she’d do with them then.

For now, she’d get a motion detector and mount it over her garage. If anyone approached after dark, they’d trigger the light. She knew what that felt like. When she walked at night, she counted her steps to the next house with a motion detector in place. She knew which houses had them. But she was shocked, just slightly, every time the light came on and caught her in its glare.

Abrial continued driving away from the beach, away from Los Refugio, toward home.

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