Hell’s Kitchen. 2AM. Your boyfriend, after sex, says “we need to talk.” In the nick of time, a masked vigilante crashes through your bedroom window. Your boyfriend gets two boots to the sternum. The hero knocks the wind out of Boyfriend like Boyfriend’s words knocked the air out of you. Boyfriend throws a right hook that catches your hero on the jaw. Your hero’s bottom lip splits and drips a red line through his chin-scruff. He grabs Boyfriend by the shoulders and tosses him over the dresser like a fish at market. There’s a Boyfriend-shaped crater in your drywall. Your hero spits a mist of blood on Boyfriend’s face and head-over-heels his naked, barely-conscious body out the shattered window. You live on the first floor, but you wish it were the thirtieth.
“Are you okay?” says your hero.
“I’m fine,” you tell him.
“You can say that again,” he says.
You kiss his busted lip. “What’s your name?” you say.
Your hero thrusts back his shoulders, hands square on his hips. “I’m Kind-Responsible-No-Baggage-Man,” he says.
“Thank you, Kind-Responsible-No-Baggage-Man,” you say. “How can I ever repay you?” Still in bed, still nude, you find a way.
KRNBM moves into your Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He replaces your window and repairs your drywall. He leaves the toilet seat down and wipes away any splash-back. He showers with his mask on. You wonder when he’ll reveal his secret identity.
“When it’s safe,” he tells you.
KRNBM slips out of the sheets in the night while you sleep. In the morning he’s there next to you with bruised ribs. You ice him. You bandage him. He’s lucky you’re a veterinary nurse, you think, but you’re a manager at Petco.
One morning, Kind-Responsible-No-Baggage-Man isn’t in bed. He saunters in at 10AM with cappuccinos and he’s not wearing his mask. There’s a purple bruise ringed on his cheek like fish lips. “I need to tell you something,” he says. In the nick of time, a masked arch-nemesis crashes through your window. Kinda-Irresponsible-Definitely-Has-Baggage-Man gets a boot to his unmasked chin. The scalding coffee splashes across his face. He hurtles out the window wailing. The arch-nemesis holds you against the just-repainted drywall by the throat.
Who are you? you try to say, but it’s barely a rasp.
Arch-Nemesis yanks up the mask and unfurls a scalpful of shimmering silk. “I’m your worst nightmare,” she says and has her way with you on your sofa.
Arch-Nemesis moves in. Arch-Nemesis is Delusional-But-Well-Intentioned-Acquaintance-From-Your-Past-Girl. Arch-Nemesis is Formerly-Quaint-Bully-Victim-Now-Vengeful-Sexy-Woman. She sometimes goes by Stacy. Stacy drinks milk straight from the carton. She uses your last tampon without saying so. She sleeps with her mask on. “Kinda-Irresponsible-Definitely-Has-Baggage-Man will be back any day now,” she says. Her henchwomen crash on your couch, to keep you safe, she says. The sex is unbelievable. Stacy’s nipples taste faintly of licorice.
One night there’s a knock on the bedroom door while you’re going down on her. “Come in,” Stacy says. It’s a red-headed henchwoman, fully nude. “Go with it,” says Stacy. The henchwoman kneels on the bedspread beside you. She puts a callused hand on your ass.
A mask-less mastermind smashes through your window fists-first. You get a punch to the love-handle and tumble off the bed. You lift yourself off the carpet and see his face. You’d recognize that scarred bottom lip anywhere. “Kinda-Irresponsible-Definitely-Has-Baggage-Man,” Stacy says, only now he’s disfigured, his burns his new mask.
“Not anymore,” he answers. “It’s Jaded-Ex-Hero-With-Nothing-To-Lose-Man now.”
You have to admit, that’s pretty hot. Stacy agrees. She and her henchwoman tear off his suit. The three of them ravage each other in front of you like you’re not even there. One foot at a time, you climb out the window and, even though it’s not a long fall, the landing stings your bare feet, the shock of solid ground like lightning through your legs, your chest, your wet, aching eyes.
You find the smelliest dumpster in Hell’s Kitchen, where they’re least likely to look for you. You eat fish bones from the restaurant nearby. You collect scraps of fabric and tear eyeholes in them. You become Who-Even-Am-I-Anymore-Woman, or What-Does-It-Even-Mean-To-Be-A-Single-Woman-Woman, or Heart-Feels-Like-A-Window-Girl. You wear a different mask each day and run from the cops for no reason.
One day you don a mask cut from a red plaid picnic blanket. You undo a blouse button and hitchhike to New Jersey. By nightfall you’re in your hometown. You write a message on a rock with sharpie and, hidden in the hedges, chuck it at your high school best friend’s front door. The note says, Maybe I love you. You don’t think she lives there anymore. You don’t wait to find out.
The porch light is on outside your parents’ house. All the windows are blacked out. You scale the trellis to the roof. Through their bedroom window you hear your parents making love in the dark. You hang from the gutter and peer into your kid brother’s room, only he’s not a kid anymore. You think now he’s a sidekick in Hell’s Kitchen. His electric guitar is still in its stand.
You hand-shimmy over to your childhood bedroom window. There’s still a nightlight in the outlet. You swing feet-first through the glass and land in its shards on your floral comforter. First you lock the door, then you find the pot stash you taped to the underside of a bookshelf for this precise occasion. You light a spliff with the lighter you find beside an old Bratz Doll. Then you light Bratz Doll’s hair.
The doorknob jiggles. “I’m calling the police,” says your father’s voice.
It’s only me, you think. Heartbroken-Comic-Book-Love-Interest-Girl.
“Is that you, sweetie?” your mother says through the door.
It’s me, you think. The-Hero-I-Deserve-Woman. Bratz Doll’s plastic scalp is melting in your hand.
“Let us in,” say your parents. You blow Bratz Doll out and lay her on your bed with the shattered window. You pull off your plaid mask and cover Bratz Doll’s deformed face with it. Your dad credit-cards the door open, kiss-quiet. They’re wearing robes. Not capes, you think, thank God. Their nostrils flare at the paint-scented smoke. There they stand in the doorway—his hand on her waist, hers at the small of his back—and listen for you to speak.
David Joseph’s creative work has appeared in Hobart, Entropy, W.W. Norton’s Hint Fiction anthology, and elsewhere. He is a first-year MFA candidate at Arizona State University. Connect with David on Twitter: @dfhjoseph. He has appeared before on Litbreak and on our sister site, Three Guys One Book.