LEAVE HERE ALONE • by Bracken MacLeod

Liv’s rules for dating told her, Stop! Turn Around. Leave Now. The alternatives, Encourage Him, Keep Going, Indulge Yourself, meant potentially much more suffering than if she paid attention to her red flags and just walked out of the restaurant unaccompanied.

Her date leered at her over a fork wrapped with lemon pasta dripping dry vermouth white sauce — a glistening shrimp speared at the end. “So the kid says, ‘This forest is really scary.’” Pausing before delivering the punch line, he punctuated the ironic twist of the set up by tearing at the pink meat with his teeth, grinding it into paste. “‘You think the path into the woods is scary?’ the man says. ‘I have to walk out of here alone.’” He smiled, showing tiny pieces of pink flesh in the gaps of his teeth.

Liv forced herself to inhale, to let the aromas of the restaurant overwhelm the memory of acrid pine sap and copper that darkened her mood like a forest canopy. Her enthusiasm for dinner was slipping away.

Despite the joke and the reminiscence it kindled, she rarely had an appetite out with strangers. Once, she’d caught a date complaining into his cell phone before realizing she had returned from the bathroom. Yeah, she ordered the most expensive thing on the menu and then picks at it. Right? If she didn’t want to eat, she could’ve just gotten a salad and saved me the money. I’ll tell you, if I don’t at least get a blow job… Liv had learned her lesson. Order modestly. Move it around the plate. Pretend. Leave unbeholden. Unentangled.

It’s not right. I should leave here alone.

“What?” her date asked with a hint of annoyance. “It’s funny.” He was ready to aggressively defend the joke’s humor. He’d dominated the conversation the entire evening, which was fine with her. She didn’t like men who asked too many questions. This one was more than happy to talk about his job (textbook editor), his house outside of the city (still worth more than he paid), his hobby (nautical knot tying), and not pry too deeply into her personal life. Then, he ran low on boring things to say about himself and decided to tell an off-color joke. In the course of the set-up, pause, and punch-line, he’d deeply mined the concentrated emotions and apprehensions that Liv’s rules were designed to shield her against.

She tried to blink away the tears without being obvious. “It’s not funny.” She caressed a scar hidden beneath her shirt and pushed the unbidden recollection back down.

“Sure it is. I mean, it’d only not be funny to someone who…” The sly smile, though blurry, showed his hand. He knew something about her — something formerly hidden and safe, now as bare and evident as her wet eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think…” His expression belied his concern. He seemed happy to have provoked her — to have her speared like another pink piece of meat to be chewed up.

Stop! “It’s okay,” she said. Turn Around. “I think I should go.” Leave Now. Liv rose to go hail a cab and spend a night at home without complications.

“It’s just a joke.” He crumpled up his napkin and stood, blocking her. His fingertips turned white as he gripped her wrist a little too firmly. She looked down at her purpling hand and noticed the tattoo on the inside of his wrist: a gold triskelion. Like a yin and yang, but with a third black tadpole chasing after the first two. Your hobby is nautical knot tying, huh?

“Please, let me go,” she said.

“You’ve hardly touched anything on your plate. No more jokes. Sit down and let’s enjoy our meal. Then, I’ll take you home.” He waited, gesturing back toward her chair. Controlling her. “I’ll be a perfect gentleman. I promise.” In his expression she saw the look of the first man who’d plied her with unsolicited promises and veiled threats. You have my word; just do what I say… Tears welled in her eyes thinking about how beautiful that man’s face had been when she shoved him onto the jagged rocks in the ravine below.

“How about it?” her date asked.

So, you’ll pull up to the curb and give me a polite good night kiss on the cheek? Then you promise you’ll wait patiently in your car for me to get my door open before pulling away and driving around the corner to discreetly jerk off?

Encourage Him.

No. I think I’ll invite you in for coffee and let you follow me up the stairs, making sure I walk just a little too slow with extra swing in my hips. Maybe I’ll stop abruptly to let you get a little closer and notice how the lines on my panties cut narrowly up the middle. And when I get you inside my apartment, I’ll slip something in your drink before I show you the quiet room.

Keep Going.

You’ll want to leave, but my dope is the best. When you wake up, I’ll show you my scars and my strap-on and I’ll tell you a joke — probably the one about the cannibal luau and the spit pig. Who’ll be laughing then?

Indulge Yourself!

Liv sat back down and wiped her eyes. Her date smirked, having got what he wanted. She daydreamed about straddling her first while he struggled against the broken frailty of his body. That one thought he was walking out of there by himself, but my ropes were loose and he was distracted. She could see the humor in her date’s joke after all.

“More?” she asked, tilting the wine bottle toward him. He knocked back the earthy pinot noir he’d wrongly ordered and held out his glass for another. “Pace yourself, dear. We’ve a long night ahead.”

Hungry again, she picked up a curried prawn with red-tipped fingers and bit it neatly in half. I’m not going to regret this one. Not even a little bit.

Bracken MacLeod has worked as a martial arts teacher, a college philosophy instructor, at a children’s non-profit, and as a criminal and civil trial attorney. While he does his best to avoid using the law education, he occasionally finds uses for martial arts and philosophy. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Sex and Murder Magazine, and The Siren’s Call e-zine, and his next story is slated to appear in the forthcoming issue of Grave Demand Magazine. He is a member of the New England Horror Writers organization.

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