Authors: Lena Bourne
Other books by Lena Bourne
A Note From the Author
NOT LOOKING FOR LOVE: EPISODE 6
Not Looking For Love: Episode 6
Copyright © 2015 Lena Bourne
Kindle Edition, License Notes
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
My mom's apartment is so icy that the vodka's cold even though it's been sitting on the counter for the last three months. There's only about a third of it left. I take a long swig straight from the bottle, ignoring the burning that brings tears to my eyes. I have to drink it fast, there's too little of it left to have any real effect if I don't.
I can't believe I called Gail back. Can't believe I confused her even more by telling her I love her and want to be with her, then refusing to return. Though maybe she's even more pissed off at me now because of it. Maybe my weakness worked for the best for once.
I couldn't face going up into this apartment once I finally reached it. So I sat downstairs in the car, letting it idle, because the moment I turned off the engine that would be it. Once I did that, I'd have left Gail for good. My fingers dialed her number before my thoughts caught up to what was happening. The need was too great, too dire, the pull too strong. But I should've fought it.
I sit down at the table, take another long drink. My throat and stomach are both burning now, but at least that pain masks the other one, the one which feels like my heart's been beaten and bruised, is bleeding now, and not how it's supposed to. I drink more. But I already know it's no good. I'll get messed up physically, sure, but my mind will stay clear. Like it usually does, unless I drink a whole bottle. Drowning my sorrows never actually worked for me.
There's a noise in the hallway, sounds like footsteps on the stairs, and my heart stops. I'm completely paralyzed, my whole body taut, waiting for the knock. Which doesn’t come. And I recognize the noise for what it is now. They're opening the bakery downstairs. The smell of freshly baked bread and pastries is already filling the apartment. It turns my stomach.
I finish off the vodka and take out my phone, stare at the picture of Gail all swaddled up in a huge scarf, fat snowflakes covering her black woolen hat, her cheeks cherry red from the cold. I took that picture in Alaska, and the tall mountains are just barely visible behind her through the falling snow.
I could just call her back. Tell her everything. Maybe we can work it all out together. But the thought sends a cold stab straight through my stomach like someone's aimed an icy cold jet of water at me. The threat is too great.
Instead I dial the number Mike called me from. But it just rings a few times then disconnects. No voicemail. I try again and again. Maybe the guards will find the phone, take it away from him. Lock him up more securely. But that would solve nothing. I have to talk to him, have to make him take his threat back.
Vodka won't solve this, feeling sorry for myself won't solve this. Calling Gail won't solve it. Mike has to take it back.
The sky outside is almost white now, no sunshine, just a shimmering wintery mist. My skin is cold, but my insides are burning. I call Jerry. I've waited long enough. Maybe he knows something.
"What?" he answers groggily. In the background, I can hear his bed creaking.
"Do you have any news on Mike's case?" I ask.
"Scott, it's five in the morning," he says and starts coughing, hacking up a wad of phlegm loudly.
"Do you?" I ask right over his coughing. "About Gail's case?"
"They accepted the diminished capacity plea," Jerry says, his voice raw. "He's already at the psych ward. Haven't you spoken to him?"
"There's no way he's doing time for attempted murder then?" I ask.
"No," Jerry says and lights a cigarette, exhaling into the phone. "It's unusual it went over so smoothly for him. Diminished capacity is hard to get."
"Must be his friends," I mutter, before realizing I've actually spoken aloud.
"What friends?" Jerry asks, his voice sharp and clear all of a sudden. "What do you know, Scott?"
"Nothing," I say. "Forget I called."
He falls silent, probably struggling with himself whether to pester me more or let it go.
"How is Gail?" he finally asks, and I'm glad he decided on letting it go. Tears are in my eyes now, cold because the apartment is so chilly my breath’s misting.
"Fine," I managed to say before my voice cracks.
"She'll get better as time passes," Jerry says, probably to save me the embarrassment.
I just nod, even though he can't see me. I say goodbye, because call waiting is beeping in my ear. And I really hope it's Gail. But at the same time I don't.
"What are you doing calling me?" Mike hisses into my ear.
I clear my throat, keep my voice as level and non-threatening as I can. "I'll do whatever you want me to, Mike, just leave Gail and her family out of it. Please."
I hate groveling before him like this, and my whole body is actually seething with hatred, but I somehow manage to keep it out of my voice.
"Did you break up with her?" Mike asks.
"Then she's safe," Mike hisses.
"Can't we just be rational about this?" I ask. "I'll do what you want."
"I want you not to see her," he says. "She makes you weak and we have work to do."
"I have to go now, we'll talk later."
"Why is it so important to you that I don't see Gail anymore?" I ask anyway. He has to take his threat back. There's no other way.
"Don't call me again. I'll call you," he whispers and disconnects.
Tears are running down my face now, colder than my frozen skin. All anger, hatred, fire, hope, desire to make this alright are gone, obliterated by vast, endless, paralyzing sadness. Gail thinks I cheated on her and I can't even call her and beg her to forgive me.
The vodka's gone and apart from the room spinning slightly as I walk to the bed, I'm as sober as I was when I came here. I get into bed without even taking my shoes off, and pull the blanket up over my head. The two air mattresses sag under my weight, since I should add more air. But I can't move anymore, can't even think.
I keep my mind completely blank, only focus on seeing black. Like that Aikido exercise for falling asleep I read about once. I let nothing touch me, just see the black. But I still have no fucking idea how I actually manage to fall asleep.
Once the sky outside is completely white, I finally get up from the kitchen table, my whole body stiff because I haven't moved for hours.
I slip off my dress, put on my pajamas, take off my make up, brush my teeth. But the bed smells like Scott, his cologne mixed with clear winter air and the faint scent of our lovemaking. Tears well from my eyes, but I don't sob, don't even whimper. They're coming hot and thick, and I'm seeing the floor as though through a sheet of water as I walk to the living room and lie down on the couch, wrapping myself in the blanket.
I wish he'd call back, but mostly I wish we could start last night over again differently, that we never went to Kate's party. But that would change nothing. Certainly not his wish to cheat on me, and be rid of me. So instead, I wish I could rewind time back to late last summer. I'd walk away from him after he refused to go for a drink, and never look at him again this time.
I wipe away my tears on the blanket, and new ones don't come. I can rewind time to that point in my mind. I can pretend Scott was just a distraction. A way to feel better. My stomach clenches at the thought, and my heart feels like it just burst open, is spewing a mess of blood and scabs. Because I can't pretend that.
But I know I can get through this regardless. For the first time in months, I know I’m strong enough to deal with anything. I watched my mom die and survived. Had an abortion, been kidnapped. And I survived. I will survive Scott leaving me too. Get over him cheating on me. Helping his diseased brother without even telling me. Believing I was just a spoiled rich girl using him for a kick. Not trusting that I love him enough to do anything for him, understand everything, work it out, and let it go. Forgive and forget. He wanted me out of his life from the moment I crashed into it. I wish I'd been able to understand just how much he really wanted that sooner. Because then I could have avoided this blinding, jagged, sharp piercing pain in my heart.
But he called me back. Told me he loved me. Why?
I let the thought go. That call was all wrapped up in rejection. Neatly, with a bow on top. Frankly, he always sucked at rejection, and maybe that was more about him than me all along. Maybe he just didn't want to be the bastard who chased away a poor unstable girl. Which is just fine. I will never again go where I am not wanted.
Sunlight is hitting my face, and a sweet, faint birdsong starts outside. I close my eyes, listen only to it, think of nothing else, see myself lying in the soft grass of a meadow in springtime, the sun warming my face, birds calling to each other all around me. It's impossible not to see Scott there with me. But it's fine, I'll just ignore him, like I should've from the start.
I wake up shivering, even though sunlight is streaming through the window. And for a single sweet moment I don't know where I am. Then I remember. I still stretch my hand out to the edge of the bed, holding on to the deranged wish that Gail is here with me. But she isn't, and I might never wake up next to her again.
Mike hasn't called me yet. I almost call him right away, before I even get out of bed, because this seriously can't stand. I'm all for facing ugly, brutal truths, but this is ridiculous.
The room sort of wobbles around me as I walk to the bathroom, but that's probably just from sleeping on the air mattress. I'm still so cold I can't stop shaking. I really should've turned on the heat when I got here.
I haven't eaten anything in more than 24 hours, I realize after sitting in the silent room for almost half an hour, wearing my jacket and wrapped in the comforter. I can't warm up. No one is calling me.
Figuring I should probably move just to get my blood flowing again, I walk down to the deli, cranking up the heat before I leave. I get a lot of noodle soups, instant mac and cheese, some bread and milk, and a large vodka. When I try to pay, I realize I only have sixty dollars in my wallet. All the rest of my money is in a safety deposit box back in Connecticut. I'm not going back there to get it. I'll never be able to stop myself from going to see Gail if I do.
In the end, I can only afford a couple of the soups and the vodka. But that's alright. Because Mike'll call soon and take it all back, and maybe I won't even have to spend another night in the apartment alone. I should get back there now. I can't have that conversation with him in a store.
I eat one of the soups when I get back, and drink some of the vodka. I'm still cold though, and the room is kinda fuzzy now, but that's probably just because I have the heat cranked all the way up.
I lie down, and wake up in a sweat. It's already dark outside. I don't remember falling asleep, and the air is so dry now my throat scratches. Still no call though. From anyone. Gail is staying true to her word too. Unless she's in some hospital again.
My heart hammers at the thought, fresh beads of cold sweat erupting on my forehead. How can I do this to her again? What the fuck was I thinking?
She picks up on the third ring. "Scott? It's one AM," she mumbles, her voice all soft with sleep. It's that late?
"Are you OK?" I ask.
She's silent like she didn't hear. Like maybe I didn't even call her.
"Why are you calling me?" she asks, her voice sharper. I can just see the look in her eyes too, anger flashing.
"I wanted to know that you're alright," I stammer.
"I will be. Don't bother worrying," she snaps.
"Good," I manage. The selfish part of me really doesn't want her to be alright about this. Ever. But I'm pretty good at silencing that part. I wish Mike would call, so Gail and me can talk normally again.
"Is that the only reason you called?" The accusation is so thick in her voice I have to ignore it, pretend I didn't hear.
"I should go now," I add. "You can go back to sleep."
"You can't just cheat on me and break up with me, then call me in the middle of the night to ask if I'm alright. No, I'm not alright. But I will be," she huffs. I can just see her, sitting up in bed, her hair all wild, her chest heaving, redness rising in her cheeks, her lips wet and glistening. "Why did you even call?"
Because I had to know she was OK, had to hear her voice, can't have her believing that leaving her was anything I wanted to do, can't stand the thought of never speaking to her again.
But I don't say any of that. I just say, “Bye,” and hang up.
She doesn't call back, though I'm shaking with anticipation and need for her to.
The next thing I know it's morning again, and I have a serious fever. So I might as well not get out of bed at all.
I stayed awake for hours after Scott's crazy call in the middle of the night, going over all the things I did wrong, he did wrong, we both did wrong. I came to all the same conclusions and woke up sitting up on the sofa, the phone still clutched in my hand and a cramp in my neck.
Maybe I should've called him back. He sounded so out of it. Maybe I should do it now.
But I set the phone down on the coffee table and stand, intent on getting some coffee. Because I'm through running after him, I really am. Whatever this weirdness is, I know that. But he sounded so small and so lost last night. So maybe I should call him back. He'd do it for me. Had done, sort of, sometimes.
I'm dialing his number without remembering making the conscious decision to do it. It goes straight to voicemail and I scream, tossing the phone on the couch. This is exactly how it used to be. The next time I call, the number will probably be disconnected. I can't go through this again. I cannot!
I only drink half of my coffee before running out to get some boxes, then spend the rest of the day stuffing Scott's things into them. He's left like half his wardrobe, most of it strewn all over the apartment in the most unlikely places. He also left his video games, and all his school stuff, his pencils and sketchbooks that he hasn't touched since we moved in. I suppose he'll need all that back eventually, but he'll have to call me to get them. I'm not calling him again just to find out his number is disconnected. Maybe that's what I should do this time. Change my number. Then he can chase after me all over the country.
I've been such an idiot.
It's night by the time I'm done. My arms are sore from lugging all the boxes into the guest bedroom. All I want to do now is lie down and sleep. But my thoughts are still whooshing in my mind at a thousand miles per hour, and I can't even sit still, let alone lie down.
So I stay up for the rest of the night pacing the living room, researching something for school I've been putting off. I'm really glad my laptop is light enough to do that, because I could not sit down right now.
My fever finally breaks on Wednesday morning. Or maybe it's Thursday, between shivering and jerking awake from nightmares in which Gail bleeds out in my arms, I've lost all sense of time. The world's got that fresh look now like it always does when an illness passes, but I'd actually love another day or two of the feverish stupor. But I guess I can't even have that. I've always been a quick healer.
I stumble to the bathroom, take a shower, brush my teeth with my finger because I didn't take my toothbrush from the apartment. Afterwards, I have to force myself to open the suitcase. It’s one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because it means I've well and truly left Gail. Again.
But, no. Mike'll call. Then I can tell Gail everything and we can work this out. We've been through worse. We'll get through this too.
A key rattles in the lock just as I finish getting dressed. Janine's mom shrieks, clutching her chest in the doorway.
"Scott, you scared me to death," she says breathlessly.
"Sorry, Ava," I mutter. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to clean up a bit," she says and walks into the room, the door clicking shut after her. "I didn't know you were here. Your dad didn't say."
"He doesn't know," I mutter. "And I want it to stay that way."
She walks up like she might hug me, but stops about a step away. "You look unwell, Scott. Are you sick? How long have you been here?"
She looks around the room, her eyes lingering on my suitcase.
"I told your dad he was wrong to try and force you to help Mike," she goes on without waiting for an answer. "We had a big fight over it. Your girlfriend didn't understand, did she?"
Her eyes leave the suitcase and find mine. She seems to have aged at least ten years since I last saw her. There are more grey streaks in her hair than blonde now, and the edges of her eyes are lined in red.
"That's my business," I mutter and sit down on the bed, because I suddenly have no energy left to continue standing. Good. Maybe the fever will come back and I can spend the rest of the week in bed. Maybe the rest of my life.
"I wanted to call you, Scott, tell you not to do anything you didn't want to," she says, looking down and wringing her hands.
"Maybe you should have," I say, before I can stop myself. There was a time, not so very long ago when I would've been very grateful to have someone on my side. But it's well too late for that now.
"It's just that I was very angry with you over the way you persuaded Janine to just up and leave," she says, her voice sterner now.
"It was Janine's choice," I mutter before thinking. It stings to have her accuse me of this now, on top of everything else.
"Janine always did what you did," she says.
"She wanted to leave too," I say. "Else she wouldn't. And she's never done anything just because I told her to do it."
How am I always responsible for everyone else? Who the fuck is responsible for me? Why don't they ever save me from any of this shit that keeps hitting me?
The room's wobbling again, and I'm all sweaty.
"Lie down, Scott. You're not well," she says, moving to pick up the blanket off the floor. "I'm sorry I brought this up now. I'll come back and bring you something to eat."
"You don't have to," I mutter, but lie down anyway, let her pull the blanket over me. She's done it hundreds of times, took care of me when I was sick after my mom died. So I can let her.
"Now, now," she mutters, but I don't know if she knows she's actually speaking.
She leaves and comes back sometime later, bringing food and medicine. I stay in bed while she heats up the soup in the kitchen until it's scalding hot. She makes me eat it and take the pills, won't leave until I do it all. Promises she'll be back in the morning, even though maybe I'd prefer it if she didn’t come again. I just hope she doesn't tell dad I'm here.
"I found good homes for those kittens of yours," she tells me while I eat. "And my cousin took the mother."
Some good news at last, but it hardly touches me. I feel a lot better after she finally leaves, wonder if it's too late to puke up the pills so I can go back to feeling like shit.
All I want to do is call Gail back, just to hear her voice. But I'd be messing with her if I do, so I can't. Not until Mike calls me back. Only he's not doing that. And I don't know how much longer I can keep from calling him.
I spent the rest of the week scrubbing the apartment, going to class, and studying. I barely slept for more than four hours a night. Scott hasn't called me back yet. He clearly has no intention of doing it.
He could just say, ‘Sorry, let's talk’. And I would have forgiven him, probably, eventually. Would've taken him back.
It's Saturday morning now, and I'm up way too early. It's shaping up to be one of those sad, heavy cold days, when winter makes a sudden reappearance in spring, and I wish I could sleep it away. But I won't be able to, I know that. I still can't sleep in the bed me and Scott shared. And I can't sleep in the guest room either because that's where I put all of Scott's stuff, so it smells like he just walked in.
But he's not coming back.
My phone rings just as I think it, and half my coffee ends up all over the kitchen counter as I run to get it. But it's Dad. I haven't told him yet, haven't told anyone.
"Good morning, Gail," he says, sounding uncharacteristically fresh. Though I don't think he's drinking quite so much anymore. He's found his peace in work, managed to forget Mom that way. The thought hurts.
"Maybe we could have dinner tonight," he says. "I could be there at eight."
"No," I say and he gasps, so I quickly continue, "I'll come see you. I haven't even seen your new apartment yet."
"That would be nice," he says, and I can hear the smile in his voice. "Do you have the address?"
He gives it to me and then we say goodbye. I spend the rest of the day studying and doing laundry, and end up going into the city four hours early just to get out of the apartment.
The last time I came to New York City was when Scott and me went to the ballet almost two months ago. And the memory of that night is a jumbled mess of pain, hurt, fear and guilt. I couldn't stop thinking about Mom for almost the entire performance, and then Scott reminded me of that terrible night with Mike. Did he already agree to help Mike then? How long was he keeping that a secret from me? How could he think I wouldn't understand?
Anger finally comes, washes away all else. I spend way too much on a few new dresses for spring, two new pairs of shoes and a purse. But I feel marginally better as I pull into the garage of Dad's apartment building.
His new place is a two-bedroom on the fifty-third floor in a building a few blocks from the UN. The East River is a rippling black mass outside the windows, and cars on the FDR are a snake of white, red and yellow lights. He wanted me to help pick out an apartment for him, but it was too hard for me then. He was abandoning my childhood home, the place where he spent almost thirty years living with Mom. I have to admit he picked very well on his own though. But now that I'm here, I can't help picturing our house all dark and cold, empty and dusty, and I just want to leave again.
"So, what do you feel like eating?" he asks.
I shrug. "Whatever." I'm suddenly very tired, I don't want to go far.
"Have you been sleeping?" he asks in the elevator. I stare at my face in the mirror. The yellowish light casts dark shadows over my face, and the blue circles under my eyes are even larger than I remember them from this morning. I didn't put enough concealer on. I look like some haggard cleaning lady going home after a full day's work. Which is what I've actually been doing. Cleaning. Like that could erase the weeks we spent living in our apartment together.
"I had a lot of studying to do," I mutter, and meet Dad's eyes in the mirror. He doesn't look that much better than me. His dark circles are actually black bags, and I suppose that's how mine will look too in a few years. Because I'll probably never sleep well again.
"Work always helps," he sighs just as the elevator stops and chimes for us to get out. The surge of anger in my heart is all for Dad this time. How can he just bury the memory of Mom under a pile of work? She should not be so easily forgotten. But I don't say it, because as messed up and tired as I am, I know it's not true, and not anything I should say aloud.
He leads the way to an Indian restaurant not far from his apartment. The wind is picking up, wrapping me in a chilly cocoon.
"Scott didn't want to join us?" Dad asks as we sit down. My breath catches in my throat.
All I can do is shake my head. I can't say it, can't tell Dad I'm no longer seeing him, can't face the happiness in his eyes over the news that I know will be there.
"I have something to tell you, Gail," Dad says, and I actually jerk. My thoughts are still with Scott, wondering where he is right now and who with, so my first thought is that Dad's found another woman.
I clear my throat and busy myself with draping the napkin across my lap. "Yes?"
The waiter forestalls his answer. I order a coke, and Dad gets a bottle of wine, which I'll probably end up sharing.
"I was offered a job in Geneva," Dad says as soon as the waiter turns his back. "I'm leaving in May."
I'm just staring at him, my eyes open so wide it stings. He's all the family I have left and now he's moving halfway across the world.
"Is it a good job?" I manage to ask. Because I should be happy for him. And I'm not a little girl anymore. I am happy for him.
"Yes, it's with the Human Security Network, a promotion…" His voice trails off, probably since I'm still wearing the shocked expression. So I relax my face and smile, because really he deserves to feel good again. We both do.
"That's great," I say, but I can't help adding, "For how long is the posting?"
"Four years, initially, then we'll see."
I shudder, hope he doesn't notice, and smile wider. "I'll visit you all the time."
Our food and drinks arrive, but he doesn't start eating, won't take his eyes off me. "I'll stay if you want me to."
I shake my head and break off a piece of naan. "No, I'm fine, Dad. I'm an adult."
And part orphan. But I don't add that. Because I'm too old to be babied.
After that he starts eating too. I ask him to explain his new job, and we just talk work and policy for the rest of the meal. Because we really are that much alike. We can both lose ourselves in study and work, bury all our problems and sorrows under a huge pile of it.
It's Sunday night and all that's left of my cold is an annoying scratching in my throat. Ava's feeding me everyday, doing my laundry, bringing me fresh bread and milk. She even bought me a toothbrush. Janine's called a few times but I haven't called her back. She probably knows what happened by now, but I'm not ready to hear her ‘I told you so’. Mike hasn't called at all. And I hate him more with each minute that passes.
All the movies on TV tonight are ones I've seen a million times, and I really wish I'd packed the Xbox. The thought sends a sharp jolt right through my heart. Because it means I've accepted leaving Gail. Which I haven't. At all. I'm going right back as soon as Mike takes his sick threat back. Which he will, I'll make him, as soon as he calls.
Ava has straightened up the boxes of my old shit, so they're sitting in a neat row against one wall. I might as well go through them now, decide what to keep and what to take up to the attic.
Then I'm sifting through the drawings I did in prison, that suffocating feeling of not being free to go wherever I wanted gripping my chest. It's why they're all landscapes, and not very good at that. The proportions and angles are all wrong, no one can ever get close enough to look at it all this close. If I don't see Gail soon, I'll probably start drawing pictures of her, with her face way too big for her body.
My phone rings just as I'm stuffing the drawings into a box that's going to the trash tomorrow.
"Finally," I bark into the phone.
"You've been expecting my call, I see," Mike muses, like this is somehow funny.
"I'll do what you want, Mike, whatever it is, just leave Gail out of it," I say, fast because I've been practicing.
"No time to get into this now," he says. "Pick me up at eleven tomorrow. At the ward."
"What? They're letting you go?" my voice actually cracks. I hadn't expected him to get out this soon.
Mike chuckles. "Yes, my friends work fast."
"Have your friends pick you up then," I say before I realize I was even thinking it.
"We're more than friends though. We're brothers," he hisses and just the sound of his voice fills me with rock hard dread.
"Whatever," I manage. I'll be there. I have to play nice now. Else he'll never retract his threat. Just to mess with me. I should probably stop asking him to. But I can't. It's too important.
After he hangs up, I just sit on the floor, staring at the wall. Because he might not take it back, might actually end up hurting Gail again. And I don't know if I can stop it. Maybe I should warn her.
My finger's hovering over her name on the screen of the phone, but I don't dial it. Can't. I have to try and fix this before I admit failure. Admit that there might actually not be a future for Gail and me ever. Not in this lifetime. I've said it often enough in the past six months, thought it too, but never like this, never with such a lack of hope.
The next morning, I arrive to the ward almost half an hour early. Not because I planned it, but because I drove way too fast, almost got into two accidents. I couldn't slow down. Besides, I should really get some practice in. But Andrew's car is way too clunky, even if the acceleration is awesome. Gail's car though, that one's just perfect. I stifle the thought the moment it emerges, but it’s still too late to prevent the sharp pain erupting in my chest right after it.
I concentrate on the rough bricks of the wall enclosing the psych ward until all I see are the pores, the uneven surface, and the dirty white lines holding it all together.
"You been waiting long?" Mike asks, and I jerk up, turn to him so sharply my neck cramps.
"Not really," I lie. I feel like I've been standing here for a decade.
He's wearing the same oversized jeans and sweatshirt he did when I first visited him here, and his leather jacket looks all wrong with the outfit. Not that he didn't always look stupid in that thing.Who does he think he is? Fucking Scarface?
There's a glint in his dark eyes though, and it looks a lot like twisted happiness.
He slides his hand over the passenger door then opens it. "Andrew's car? I thought you didn't want to be seen dead in this thing."
"No, that was you," I say and open the driver's door, climb in, watch him do the same, don't start the engine.
"We need to talk," I say.
"We need to get the fuck away from this place," he counters interrupting the rest of the sentence I had practiced.
"Look, I get it. You want to get back at me for screwing up the business," I continue like he didn't interrupt. "But you have to leave Gail out of it. She has nothing to do with it."
"Oh, I have to, do I?" Mike asks, fastening his seat belt. "Seems to me she had a lot to do with you leaving me and going to Alaska."
"I didn't fucking want to go back to prison!" I yell. "I told you we were taking too many risks."
Leaving him?He really is sick in the head.
"Nothing was gonna happen to you, Scott," he says. "Stop dramatizing."
"Right. One bad move and I'd be right back in prison. For ten years or more," I spit out. But we're getting off the subject. "Just take back all that shit you said about hurting Gail. I'll do whatever you want me to."
He chuckles and my stomach clenches, acid rising in my throat.
"You want her to be safe, then you'll do exactly as I tell you," he says. "Right now, you don't get to see her. Maybe if you're good, I'll change my mind."
He's smiling, but his black eyes are so cold, so dead, I might actually still be staring at that wall. He is serious. He was serious the night he made the threat. I can't believe this is actually happening. It's like I'm stuck here with some nightmare version of Mike, and I can't wake up.
"Now, take me to my place. I need to change."
I start the engine, clamping my mouth shut. If I say anything right now, I'll make it worse. If I don't start driving I might actually strangle him.
"And then, in a few days, once I burn these institution clothes, I'll introduce you to my new friends," he says, turning on the radio. "They've been dying to finally meet you."
I pull onto the expressway too fast, totally cutting off a silver station wagon. The concrete divider is right there too. I could just end this right now, and then Gail would be safe. But I don't. Instead I pull into the middle lane and slow down, because I can't let go of her yet.
Mike hasn't called me all week, so when he finally does on Friday morning, the hope dying actually hurts like someone stabbed me. I can't believe I was beginning to think he wouldn't, that he'd just slip away and let me get on with my life. I can't believe I've been stupid enough to hope for that.
I almost called Gail last night. I've lost count of how many times I've opened the apartment door thinking some faint creak was her coming to me like she did so many times. But it was never her, and I felt even more of an idiot for hoping. Because, fuck, she thinks I cheated on her, and I left her without saying anything much. So why would she come here? She's not that needy anymore. And I shouldn't hope so hard for her to be. She deserves to feel better.
The phone's still ringing in my hand. I answer just as Mike hangs up. Maybe I should just let him call back. But it's a fleeting thought. I shouldn't antagonize him.
I call back and he answers immediately, an edge in his voice. "I'm picking you up in an hour. Meet me downstairs."
"Picking me up for what?" I ask. A part of my deranged mind hopes it’s for a nice lunch date where we will work everything out, and I could then go see Gail tonight.
"It's time you went back to work," he says and hangs up before I can ask anything more.
Back to work? I'd literally give both my legs if I never had to steal another car. Besides, I'm such a liability now, with my record, all the shit that happened with Gail, my DNA and fingerprints in the database. Who the fuck would even want me working for them? Unless this is all still Mike trying to get me sent back to prison.
I can't breathe in the apartment, so I go down to the street, pace up and down waiting for him. It's supposed to be spring, but it's colder than it was in January. After awhile I even stop fighting the daydream that I'm really waiting for Gail, that everything is as it was. That we'd worked everything out.
Mike pulls up right on time, his black car shining like he just drove it out of some showroom.
I slide in and his wide, pearly white smile almost makes me retch. What I really want to do is punch him. So I make long work of fastening the seatbelt, because I just might act on it this time.
"I don't want to go back to work, you realize that?" I ask, turning down the radio. The noise was like a thousand blades scraping the inside of my skull.
"Why not, Scott?" he says, speeding away. "You were so good at it."
It's true. I was very good at stealing cars. Even took pride in it for awhile. But…"I want to be good at something else now."
I want to be good at loving Gail and starting a normal life so we can be together. Even in my head, it's starting to sound like wishful thinking. But maybe I haven’t fucked it all up beyond repair yet.
Mike breaks hard, pulls into a bus stop so fast that one of the people waiting there leaps back.
"Right now, you're gonna do what I tell you to do," he hisses, no smile anywhere on his face now. "It was hard enough for me to convince them to take you back after that shit you pulled running away. You nearly cost me years of work with that one. Fucking years."
He's breathing heavily, and I have no idea what he's talking about. "What do they know about me leaving? Why should they care?"
"Who do you think you've been working for since you got out of prison? Me?" he asks, spittle hitting my face. I wipe it away, bile rising in my throat. His eyes are bulging, red veins standing out clear against the whites.
"Yeah, I thought I was working for you," I mutter. "Why didn't you tell me? Who do you work for anyway?"
"You'll find out soon enough," he says, and slips the car into gear, drives off. "And you should know you were never in any danger of going back to prison like you kept accusing me of trying to cause."
"Is that right? Could've fooled me," I say, staring straight ahead, because the urge to punch him is overwhelming again. Then maybe he'd lose control of the car and that huge rig he’s overtaking would run straight into us. End this shit once and for all.
"And you were never in any danger in prison either," he spits out. "I took care of all that for you too. And how do you repay me? By running away with some nerdy chick. She's not even that hot."
Gail is that hot and more. And I can't punch him right now because then I might never get to touch her again. Never kiss her, hold her, come inside her. Just the thought is making me hard.
"OK, if I continue working for these people, and be really good at it, can I go back to seeing Gail?" I ask, knowing I'm leaving myself wide open here for Mike to torment me with this, but I'm hoping he can hear the sarcasm. This whole situation is so ridiculous. But I have to make sure Gail is safe.
Mike chuckles, and I don't think I've ever hated him this much. "We'll see, Scott. It all depends on your behavior from now on. Kind of like it did in prison."
"How do you mean I was never in any danger there?" I ask.
I nod. Boris was my cellmate after my first one got stabbed over a juice box at lunch. He was a grumpy, surly guy, but he could tell all sorts of interesting stories. Old legends from Serbia, the country he was originally from.
"As long as he was there, no harm would have come to you," Mike assures me.
"And you fixed that for me?" I ask. Mike must really be crazier than I ever imagined. He’s having illusions of grandeur now. I read about those. I wonder if we're even going to meet real people right now. Or just some empty room filled with his imaginary friends.
"Yes," Mike says. "It took some convincing, but Vlado finally agreed. So you should be thanking me for not getting raped in the showers. You couldn't have stopped it on your own."
He smacks my arm, probably indicating my muscles.
"You're talking about rape like it's a funny thing," I mutter, crossing my arms over my chest. I'll never use that word lightly again. Not after what I've seen. And now my guilt over what I did to Gail on the second night she came to me is mixing with everything else. I manage to chase those memories away, because I'm sharing the car with a psycho right now, and getting raped might actually be the more welcome option, if I had to choose.
He laughs and pulls off the expressway in the industrial zone. We're driving along a straight narrow road now, flanked on both sides by low rectangular buildings, interspersed with fields of brown grass, a leafless tree here and there.
He gets off the main road, pulls into one of the larger complexes.Lazarus Logisticsis written in cracking, broken letters across the entrance. A large guard with a pockmarked face opens the ramp, waves us through.
"We're here," Mike says lightly as he parks in front of a large, dark weather-beaten warehouse. "Speak only when spoken to for now." He grabs my arm as I move to get out of the car. "And, Scott, watch what you say very carefully."
I know what he's asking, that I need to curb my sarcasm, but I can't make any promises right now. This looks like exactly the type of place I never wanted to be in again. It's straight from some action movie scene, and these types of visits don't usually end well.
A guy about my age holds open the doors for us. He eyes me up and down as we approach, but his face is so blank I have no idea what he's thinking. The edge of a tattoo is peeking out over the collar of his jacket. I never trust anyone who tattoos their necks. It means they don't have much left to lose. Although I could be wrong. Everyone seems to have at least two tattoos these days.
Some of the exhilaration I felt when Derek first let me start stealing cars for him returns as we enter the warehouse. I fight it though. It was dumb then, and I sure as fuck don't want to do it anymore.
"He's in the basement," the guy who opened the door says, his voice totally toneless. "Waiting for you."
Mike grins at me, and starts walking towards a dark stairwell at the far end of the vast room the door opened into. It's supposed to be lit by fluorescent lights, but most of the bulbs are busted, some of them still hissing and flickering.
A bone crunching thud is followed by a scream that cuts right through my brain as we descend the stairs. The smell of blood, piss and shit makes me retch.
Mike gives no indication that he even heard the scream as he leads the way down the dark hallway towards the room where it came from. I'm falling behind. I absolutely, positively don't want to know what's on the other side of that door.
But Mike is already knocking on it, and it opens almost immediately, an older man wearing a black, vinyl butcher's apron standing on the other side. His hair is nearly white, and his eyes look like a frozen sea.
"Michael," the man says happily like we're his dinner guests or something. "Come in."
His eyes fix on me. "And this is your brother?"
I have the urge to say no.
Mike nods and waves me forward. I have no idea how I get my legs to move, how I make it to the door.
Inside the room, a guy is suspended off a hook hanging from the ceiling by his arms, his feet barely touching the large dark green, bloody tarp covering the floor. The man’s blond hair is a mess of blood, some dried some fresh, and both his eyes are swollen shut under huge purple bumps. Acid is rising in my throat so fast I'm sure I'll die from it at any second.
Mike pushes me further into the room, follows after me. I force myself to look away from the dying man, and fix my eyes on Vlado. He's got one of those faces that makes it seem like he's smiling all the time. Maybe its the way his thin skin colored lips naturally curl up at the edges, because there's no smile in his cold, light grey eyes.
"I am Vladimir Milosevic," he says. "Call me Vlado. I'd shake your hand, but they are dirty."
He looks down at his palms and I follow his gaze. He's right, his hands are covered with blood.
The guy being tortured seems to have passed out. Or maybe he's dead.
"And that's Ciril," Vlado says, and points to the corner where a second guy wearing an apron is standing by a desk covered with knives, axes, hammers. This guy's apron is white, or was, before it got drenched in blood.
Vlado follows my gaze, and then points to the guy hanging off the ceiling. "His name is not important anymore, but you should be looking at him. This is what happens to anyone who tries to run from me. You only have Michael to thank that this isn't you."
The point of all this hits me like a blow to the stomach. What the fuck is Mike involved in? What did he get me into? Gail will never be safe, if he gets these people to hunt her.
"It won't happen again," I murmur and mean it. It's the only way to keep Gail safe.
"Take another good look, then you can leave," Vlado says and I obey, the sight of the poor man now etched into my brain forever. I'll probably never close my eyes without seeing Gail in his place. I'm out of all options, and this is just the beginning.
"I have to take a leak," Mike says once we're back upstairs, but I ignore him, stride across the hall and out the door. I need air. I need to start pretending none of this is real.
Outside, I lean against the side of the building, take deep breaths, trying not to throw up.
The guy who held the door open for us walks over, holds a pack of cigarettes at me. "Have one."
I shake my head.
"Go on," he says, pulling one out half way. I take it, let him light it for me, try not to cough. I've never been much of a smoker.
He's eyeing me again, something close to pity in his eyes now.
"You hitting on me or something?" I ask. Maybe he'll hit me, beat me to death for suggesting it, and then all this will be over by no fault of my own. That's how it would have to be. By no fault of my own.
He twists his face up. "No. What the fuck kind of question…"
He's not getting mad though, not hitting me.
"I just thought I’d ask," I say. "I'm never really sure with guys. Don't wanna get stuck somewhere with you thinking I led you on."
I have no idea why I'm even still talking.
He laughs and lights a cigarette of his own. "You're funny. A lot funnier than Mike, anyway. You're his brother right?"
I nod and leave it at that. He takes a long drag and walks away, enters the building. Mike comes out a few minutes later.
"So now you know what to expect," he says.
I throw the cigarette on the ground and step on it. "Yes, thank you for that, Mike. You've truly done so much for me. I don't know if I can ever repay you."
"In time you will, I think," he says and walks to the car.
I don't know if he's just ignoring my sarcasm or if he's too insane to understand it. Either way, I'd prefer to be dead. Which still scares me, but only just.
On Friday afternoon it finally hits me. The heavy, prickly ball of tears had started building in my chest before lunch, and by my last class of the day it's a brick in my throat, so heavy and painful my entire body is cramping up. It's been two weeks since Scott left. More than a week since he last called me. He's not coming back. Not changing his mind. Not taking any of it back. Not even apologizing.
I grab my laptop and books and leave the classroom. I rush down the hall, run down the stairs, tears blinding me. Someone calls my name as I crash through the front door, but I ignore it. It's probably not even real. I'm just imagining Scott calling me, manifesting it. I run right across the grassy field, almost trip over the rope fence at the end of it. Then I'm standing in the street, wind snaking around my legs, my chest, cooling the tears in my eyes.
I haven't cried since the night Scott left. It was because I didn't accept it as real, I realize now.
It's been such a crazy seven months. My mom died, I chased a guy like a sex crazed slut, had an abortion, been kidnapped, broke up with Scott, got back together, broke it off again, moved in with him even though I only knew him for a few months. And now, in this quiet, windy street things finally stop crumbling all around me. Everything finally finds a place in my mind, solidifies, becomes real. Scott leaving me this final time is real.
I wipe my eyes, wrap my coat tighter around myself and start walking. The wind licking my face is like taking a cleansing, long overdue bath. The heavy brick of tears is gone from my throat, and my mind is clear for the first time in months.
It's time to move on, pack insane, messed up Gail away, hope she never reemerges.
I hold on tight to this feeling of freedom, this lightness. I should go visit my mom's grave, bring her some flowers. I haven't been since right after she died. I should go back to my home, pack away her things, perhaps take something for myself. I should move out of the apartment Scott and me shared. Because we're never going back to that. Not just like that. Like this never happened. Because it’s a pattern between us. One we'll never break if we keep walking right back into it.
A huge part of me is screaming that I'm wrong, that I need him back right now, need him to hold me, and tell me things will work out. But the truth is, I don't. And another part of me knows that very well too. Because what we started can't go on. Not the way we started it. Maybe some other way.
I call Phillipa as soon as I enter the quiet, cold apartment. It still smells of the flowery detergent I used to clean it.
"Gail, you want to do something tonight?" Phillipa asks, surprise and joy filling her voice in equal parts.
"Sure," I say. "Can I come over?"
She still lives in the house we shared. Alone now, because she hasn't been able to find new roommates.
"OK, why not?" she says, doubt heavy in her tone. I haven't been back since I moved out almost three months ago. Mostly because I was afraid it would bring back memories of the night Mike broke in and dragged me out. I swallow the bile that rises at the thought now, but the fear is not as sharp, almost feels like it happened to someone else.
"I'll be there in an hour," I say, already kind of reconsidering.
Being in this apartment, it feels a little like Scott might walk in at any moment. Then we could make some dinner, watch a movie, or just go to bed early. Desire wakes in me, followed by a sharp, painful jolt through my stomach.
He cheated on me, broke up with me after the first serious argument. Maybe I shouldn't have yelled at him like I did at Kate's house. But he could've stayed true long enough for me to apologize. I did understand his need to help Mike. I still do. Just right then, getting slapped in the face with it, I needed some time. And a huge part of me wants to call him right now and tell him all that, ask him to come over. To come back. Leave a message, if he doesn't pick up.
But the rational part is louder. I can't keep pulling him back. He's made it very clear that being with me is not something he really wants. Whether he loves me or not.
It's a tough one to swallow. Love isn't supposed to work that way. And I know he loves me, I can feel it in every fiber, every cell of my being. Yet he also left me. I know that too. So I hold on hard to the clarity I've fought so hard to regain.
I hastily pack a change of clothes, my toothbrush, and my schools stuff for Monday. Maybe I'll come right back, or maybe I'll stay the weekend. All I know right now is that I shouldn't be alone anymore. Thoughts are looping in my mind and none of them are making much sense. Not for long anyway.
"You wanna go do something in the city?" Mike asks on the way back from the warehouse. Like it's just any old Friday night, and he's not a psycho involved with even bigger psychos.
I'm staring at him, and I don't even have to catch my reflection in the window to know my mouth is open. I literally have no idea how to answer. ‘No, I want to go home and never see you again.’ That wouldn't work. ‘Yes, sure, why not?’ That's even worse.
"Stop staring at me like that. It's creepy," Mike says finally.
"I’m creepy? What the fuck do you call that scene then?" I finally find some words. "What are you involved in?"
"Us, Scott, it’s us. We're both involved in this now." He digs into his pocket and pulls out a black phone, tossing it in my lap. "That's your new phone. Get rid of the old one."
I can't do that. Then Gail will never be able to call me again. Mike maybe reads my expression correctly because he adds, "Or at least don't call me from it. Or anyone else we work with."
I flip the phone on, scroll through a couple of the screens. It's brand new, never been used probably. Or maybe it once belonged to someone who's now dead. Maybe even the guy dying right now.
"Who are these people, Mike?" I ask.
"I guess you'll find out eventually…" He sighs. "Vlado heads a large organization. They deal with all sorts of things, including rare, expensive cars. Which you'll be helping them with. And that's all you need to know."
"What are the other things they deal with?" I ask, imitating his business-like tone.
"Like I said, nothing for you to worry about right now," Mike says.
"You seem to be in it pretty good. Why do you need me?" Whatever all of this is, it doesn't seem like anything I'll be able to walk away from. Ever. Unless I'm dead.
"You'll get a call pretty soon with further instructions, maybe as soon as tomorrow," Mike says. "So how about that drink in the city."
"I wanna go home," I mutter. Crawl under the covers and not think of anything at all. But it's like the middle of the afternoon, and it doesn't look like tomorrow will be any better.
"To that sorry ass apartment?" Mike snorts. "Come on, Scott. Get a normal place already."
"I had a normal place, back in Connecticut," I mumble, staring out the window. We're on the expressway, the cars whizzing by making me nauseous.
"That was just a nice interlude for you," Mike says.
What a quaint way to put it. Interlude. I didn't even know he knew that word. But I guess he's right. Gail and me together was just a wishful intermission.
"That's the exit," I say pointing at the sign that will take us back home.
Mike mutters something under his breath, probably cursing me, but pulls off the expressway.
I get out of the car in front of the bakery, ignore him saying goodbye and that he'll call me soon.
Ava's been. The whole apartment smells of the lasagna she brought, the smell mixing with the pine cleaner she uses to wash the floors. I wish she'd stop coming, and, at the same time, wish she was still here.
I take a bite of the lasagna, but I can hardly swallow it. The brownish red color of it reminds me too much of that poor man's face. Then I'm pacing again, because I can't sit still, can't stop seeing the dying guy, can't stop thinking about the fucked up mess I'm in, how it’s so much worse than anything I've ever faced, and there’s no way out.
If I leave right now, I can still catch the bank in Connecticut. I need some money. And maybe being in the same town as Gail will make me see this more clearly.
I get to the bank with barely ten minutes to spare and take out a couple of thousand, since I don't know when I'll have the nerve to come back here again.
Being in the same town as Gail solves nothing. All it does is bring my need to see her bubbling to the surface, until I'm parked across the street from the apartment, gripping the steering wheel so hard my forearms are cramping up. I can't go in, but I want to.
The windows are dark and none of the lights come on for the whole hour I'm sitting there. She's not home. But I could call her. Meet her. Tell her everything. Then she would understand why we can't be together. It's that last thought that stops me. It’s selfish. Knowing nothing, she’s safe and alive. If I tell her, she could be dead.
My need to see her is so strong, I feel her sitting in the car next to me, smell her, feel her soft skin against mine as I stretch out my hand to grip her imaginary one. If I could just hold her one last time, feel her body pressed against mine, that would be enough. It really would. The fact that she probably hates me for what I did hurts, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the all-consuming pain of not being able to be with her.
My phone rings and I snatch it out of my pocket. Maybe Gail knows I'm here, is calling me to come in. But it's not that phone ringing. It's the one Mike gave me.
"Where are you?" Mike snarls as I pick up.
I'm just sitting there with my mouth open, no response coming to me.
"I went down to the beach," I lie, my heart thundering in my chest. Does he know I’m in Connecticut? How much proof does Mike need to carry out his threat? Not much probably, he's a psycho.
“A bit cold for swimming, don’t you think?” he asks.
I start the engine and drive off, fear making my breath catch in my throat. This was such a dumb idea. What if he goes after Gail now? It's what he wants to do. I know it.
"You sure you don’t wanna do something tonight?" he asks, and my relief is so great I almost say yes. Until I remember what he is.
"I think I'll just stay in and think about shit," I say instead, regaining some composure. What I actually want to say is, “No way, psycho’.
Maybe he hears it anyway because the line goes real quiet like the connection dropped.
"Some other time then," he says, and there's such hurt in his voice I just want to scream at him. He's the fucking psycho. If he wants to hang out, he has to start acting normal. But I'm not sure he can.
"Yeah," I mutter and hang up before I say anything more. This whole situation is so beyond fucked up, I don’t even know how to begin unraveling it.
"You're early," Phillipa says when I show up at her house at six fifteen. She eyes my bag. "You're staying the night?"
I shrug and squeeze past her into the hall. "I might, if you don't mind."
She gives me a sad, knowing smile and nods, gripping both of my hands in hers. "I would love it."
I look away first, pull my hands from her grasp gently. "So, how about some wine?"
I stride off towards the kitchen, fighting against the tremors rising in my chest. I promised myself I wouldn't talk about Scott tonight, or even think about him, but Phillipa’s knowing look just made a lie of that. Scott and me spent a few very nice nights here, mornings and afternoons too, some of the best ever. Thinking I could forget all about him here was a dumb idea. Impossible. But it might be impossible for me to forget all about him anywhere.
Phillipa followed me into the kitchen, is watching me stare at the kitchen table where Scott ate a sandwich once, years ago it seems now.
I clear my throat and head for the fridge. She has a couple of bottles of white wine. I grab the one that's open and set it on the counter too hard before I reach for the glasses.
"If there's anything you want to talk about, Gail, I'm here for you, you know that," Phillipa says, as I hand her one of the glasses.
"Scott left me again," I blurt out, tears hot in my throat. Somehow saying it makes it real. And now I'll cry, maybe never stop.
Tears are streaming down my face as I walk to the living room and plop down on the couch.
Phillipa sits next to me, takes the bottle from my hands. "I'm so sorry to hear that, Gail."
I wipe my tears away on my sleeve, surprised when new ones don't follow. "I'm not taking him back this time."
I can't believe how firm my voice is, how much of that statement I actually truly believe.
"You probably shouldn't," Phillipa mutters, pouring the wine for us. "I mean, enough is enough, right?"
She holds her glass up for a salute and I clink mine against it, the clear ring echoing in the room. "Enough is enough."
"Love is a strange and complicated thing," she muses, leaning back against the cushions. "Sometimes, even when it's stronger than anything, it still can't last."
"You and Holly?" I ask, before thinking. I shouldn't just blurt out these insensitive things.
She shrugs. "Wasn't meant to be, I guess."
I turn to her and raise my glass again. "I'll drink to that."
And she joins the toast, smiling crookedly with no real mirth. I see that Phillipa doesn't want to talk about what happened between her and her girlfriend. I guess that pain is still too raw.
But for all my promises, I tell her everything. How I found out about Scott helping Mike, yelled at him, how he cheated on me, left in the middle of the night. Tears are streaming down my face again by the time I tell her of the late night phone calls. Mostly because I realize I want him to call me right now. Because I'd forgive him on the spot, if only he came home. Though maybe that's just the wine talking.
"Maybe he's just protecting you," she says once I'm done talking, and I'm just staring off into space again, trying not to imagine falling asleep in Scott's arms tonight.
"He doesn't need to keep me safe!" I exclaim. "I can take care of myself. He just has to be with me."
"It's a thing with men," she says. "Take my two brothers for example, being overprotective is like breathing to them."
"Well, brothers sure…" I let my voice trail off, not sure where I was going with this. ‘They're family’, I guess I wanted to say. But I want Scott to be my family too.
Phillipa pours more wine for both of us. We've finished two bottles already and her face is starting to look a little fuzzy.
"What I meant was, with his crazy brother and all, I'm not surprised he doesn't want you involved," Phillipa continues. "For your own good."
"He picked a funny way of showing me he cares. Sleeping with his ex and storming off in the middle of the night," I counter. "I'm sure there must be other ways. Better ways."
I pause to drink off the rest of my wine.
"As they say, the simplest explanation is usually the right one," I continue. "Scott just doesn't want me in his life."
I came to the same conclusion as Phillipa in the beginning. But then I followed it to this much more logical version.
And it hurts to know it. It's a sharp, relentless, stinging pain right in my heart, and it hardly ever really goes away. I’m just getting better at ignoring it.
"We'll be just fine, whatever the truth is," Phillipa says, and raises her glass.
"That we will," I answer and clink mine against hers again, drink the last few drops. And I know it for the truth with a certainty I haven't felt in months. Even though a soft feeling of homesickness and love, belonging and wistfulness is snaking through my chest now, taking the edges off the sharp stinging pain of truth. Even for all the knowing, I wouldn't say no to Scott if he came back right now. I'd never say no to him, for as long as I will live.
How hard is it to get out of an apartment lease? I've been going back and forth with the landlord for the better part of the week. In the end, I just let him keep the deposit, because I want to be over and done with it. But at least all the arguing and emailing gave me something to do, filled my thoughts with something other than being mad at Scott and being in love with Scott.
I've been staying at Phillipa’s since Wednesday. And after a lot of deliberation, and countless instances of almost calling Scott to come get his stuff, I finally told the movers to put the boxes of his things in the basement of this house. I can call him later, when I'm less volatile, when I know better that we're through. Or better yet, he can call me. Until then, I won't be too happy having it all so near, but I can't throw it out either.
Phillipa cracks open my bedroom door and sticks her head in. "Feel like some dinner?"
I slam the textbook shut and nod, rubbing my eyes. I've been reading and rereading the same paragraph for what feels like hours anyway. Besides I have all the time to study now, will probably stay up till two or three in the morning doing it, like I've been this last week after there was nothing more for me to pack or clean.
She wants to go out, I'm all for ordering in. We finally settle for walking to the taco truck on the corner, and eating there.
"Leo says you ran right past him the other day and didn't even say hello," Phillipa says between bites. "He sounded a little put out when he told me."
"Shit," I say, folding back the wrapper of my taco. "I wondered why he hasn't called at all."
Not that I called him. I'm not huge on socializing now. And maybe Scott was a little right about Leo, I think he does like me. Which is not something I'm capable of handling right now.
"That might have been last Friday," I say. Someone did call my name as I bolted past them. I'm really still flaunting my insanity for all to see.
"Maybe you should give him a call," Phillipa suggests, tossing a piece of her tortilla for the birds that have gathered around us. "You two seemed to have hit it off the other night."
"I'm not ready to start dating yet," I blurt out.
She turns to me sharply, scaring the birds. But there's a wide, surprised look plastered across her face, her eyes very soft. "I didn't mean to suggest, sweetie…no I just thought for a distraction."
Distraction. That's how everything started between Scott and me in the first place. With my selfish, pigheaded need to make him be with me. And that never really ended. Until three weeks ago. When it did. For the last time. Shame is what I feel now, most strongly of all other things. Because I forced him into something he didn't want to do. Couldn't do, it seems now. And we both ended up hurt.
"I'll see," I mutter, taking another bite, even though I'm totally not hungry anymore. I just want to go back home, maybe go to sleep for a few hours.
I'd expected all sorts of nightmares starring Mike to return when I moved back to the house he kidnapped me from. But mostly I don't remember my dreams now, and when I do ,they're of Scott. I think maybe I'd prefer the nightmares. I woke up this morning with butterflies in my stomach, certain I'm about to see Scott sleeping next to me, because my dream that he'd come back was that real. If I concentrate I can still feel them now.
"It's not dating if you just call him and talk about those complicated legal issues you're both so interested in," Phillipa says.
I shrug and wrap up the rest of my taco up. I can eat it later, once my stomach settles.
I can't sleep when we get back to the house, and I can't really study, but I try anyway, because burying myself in a pile of work is probably the best cure right now. Phillipa would call it avoidance, but she's not, most likely because she's afraid I might lose it at any moment.
I get the call I've been dreading on Tuesday. Until then I could blissfully pretend I'm not doing anything wrong, not working for a lunatic Serbian mob boss called Vlado. Pretend that Gail and me just had a little argument. A misunderstanding.
"It's on for tomorrow night," Mike tells me. "Someone'll pick you up at six then they'll tell you what to do."
I don't really remember what I did for the rest of Tuesday, or on Wednesday before six.
But at five forty five PM I'm down in the street. The wind's blowing at like 100 miles per hour, and all I can think of is Gail. How her hair would look flapping in this wind, soft and silky, her cheeks red from the cold.
"You coming in or what?" a guy asks, leaning across the inside his car and pushing open the passenger door. It's the guy I asked whether he was hitting on me, and I see it as just another example of how things always go wrong for me.
I climb in and slam the door shut with too much force, making him wince. "You wanna watch that?"
"I've never broken a car door yet," I snap, because people who are oversensitive about slamming car doors too hard really annoy me.
Something starts beeping like crazy as we drive off, and the guy's eyeing me pointedly now like I'm doing it.
"Put your seat belt on," he finally says. I shrug and do it. The beeping stops immediately.
"Where are we going?" I ask, after we pass the exit Mike took when he drove me to the warehouse.
"Jersey," the guy says, extending his right hand to me. "I'm Greg, by the way."
I shake hands. "Scott."
"It was the thing to say, Greg." I turn and stare out the window. Twilight is falling, and everything looks two-dimensional like I'm just watching it on screen. Like it's not actually my life.
"So what's the job?" I ask, barely recognizing my own voice. Maybe if I looked in the mirror, I wouldn't recognize my face either.
"It's more of a collection tonight, really. Getting an Audi off some impound lot. I'm coming with you for back-up."
"I'm gonna need back-up?" I don't like doing any job without obsessing over it for at least a week in advance. But this will work too. Whatever.
"It's an in and out thing," Greg explains. "I'll get you into the lot, you take the car and follow me."
"How do you expect me to follow after this slow ass ride?" I ask. It's a nice car, a black Mustang, but the way he's driving, it might as well belong to some old lady. "We'll just get caught."
He chuckles, pulling a pack of cigarettes from him pocket. "We got some time." He offers me one, but I shake my head and he doesn't press it this time. "You just make sure to keep up once it's on."
The hard ball of nerves starts forming in my stomach as soon as we get off the expressway. It's full dark now, and we're somewhere the fuck out in Jersey. But it's only just past eight, it can't be time yet.
Greg pulls into the parking lot of a diner. "We have a few hours to kill."
"How many?" I ask, getting out of the car. My hands are shaking, nerves over knowing next to nothing about this job catching up.
"Two, maybe three," Greg says and locks the car.
"I hope you'll at least tell me which car to take," I mutter at his back as he starts walking towards the diner.
He laughs outright. "You are funny. Don't worry about any of that. This one is simple."
I'm dreading the wait more now. And the long ass ride back home. I feel like I haven't slept in weeks, even though I slept for more than twelve hours last night.
Inside the diner, Greg takes off his jacket revealing more of his tattoos. They cover both his arms, painted on so close together I have trouble seeing any one thing.
"You like the tats?" he asks, winking at me just as the waitress dumps a couple of menus on the table. Her smile disappears as she looks at him sharply then back at me, and walks away.
"Not really," I say. He got me back, I guess, for that gay comment. Or maybe he is gay and is really hitting on me. I have no idea anymore.
"What do you got that's better?" he asks, studying the menu.
"Nothing," I say.
"I should think not," he mutters.
"I mean, I don't have any tattoos at all," I say leaning back. "But if I did, they'd all be better than yours."
For some reason, Greg is almost as easy to talk to as David. And I've seriously missed that, more than I let myself realize.
The waitress comes back and I get a burger and fries, though I'm so not hungry I might as well have just stuck to water.
"Not a single tattoo?" Greg asks, peering at me like he thinks I'm lying. "How's that even possible?"
"I just never came across anything I'd want to be wearing for the rest of my life."
"Not even like something for a girl?" he won't let up. The thought is an icepick straight to the heart. Yeah, I'd get something for Gail. Maybe I should, to remember her by. Though I'd probably just end up scratching it off one night, because I couldn't stand it.
I shake my head. "Besides you can never get just one."
"Tell me about it," he says, glancing down at his forearms.
"I didn't think I had to," I say and he chuckles again.
Then we eat, mostly in silence. I'm imagining what Gail is doing right now and what she'd say if I got a tattoo. Greg's not really big on small talk, and even though he's friendly and easy to talk to, he's still a complete stranger and works for the people who might actually be trying to kill me.
The call finally comes just after ten. The ball of nerves is a cement block in my stomach, and I wish I didn't drink so much coffee.
The headlights of Greg's car glint off a golden emblem on a white plaque to the side of the impound lot entrance. Otherwise it's all dark and looks deserted.
My heart thunders in my chest as I take in the high wall surrounding the lot. Why steal cars from a mousetrap? Though with any luck they'll just arrest me tonight, then it'll be all over fast.
"The car's just behind here," Greg says, turning off the headlights and stopping next to the wall about thirty feet from the entrance. "Don't worry. Everything's arranged."
He reaches into the backseat for a tightly wrapped bundle, ending in what looks like an anchor.
"Here," he says, holding it out to me. "You'll use this to climb over the wall. I'll get the gate open in the meantime."
I realize it's actually a climbing rope attached to one of those climbing picks. I've never used anything like it. And I haven't climbed a rope since high school gym class.
"Don't you have a ladder or something?"
He shakes his head. "I'll set it up for you."
I follow him out of the car, careful not to slam the door this time. He leaves his open. It's almost pitch black outside, the only light coming from the floodlights inside the lot, which are well obscured by the wall.
I check the wall, though the top is shrouded in darkness. A hard gust of wind makes the pine trees surrounding the lot hiss.
"Don't they have cameras and shit?" I ask.
"They'll be off," Greg says, uncoiling the rope.
"What about dogs?" These kinds of places usually have vicious guard dogs. "I came across some of those once, and I still have nightmares about it."
That was actually back in the ninth grade when David and me climbed over a wall to check out what was supposed to be an abandoned house. Luckily the old guy who lived there turned out to be pretty nice, which I don’t think is the case here.
I'm talking too much, because I'm nervous. It does nothing to unravel the hard knot in my stomach.
"You'll be fine," Greg says and walks closer to the wall. "If there are dogs, they'll be chained, I'm sure."
"I hope it isn't one of those long ass chains," I mutter, following him. I can deal with getting arrested, even shot, but torn to pieces by dogs is a horrible way to go.
Greg manages to get the pick to stick to the wall on the second throw. "All yours," he says, handing me the end of the rope. I tug on it and it holds, but I weigh about 250 pounds so I'm still not sure it'll actually hold me. Just as well, maybe I'll fall and break my neck. That would solve shit too.
"Once you get to the top, just toss the rope over and descend," Greg tells me.
"Yeah, so simple," I murmur. The wall is three times my height at least. "If there's no security, why can't we just walk in through the front gate?"
"Stop asking so many questions," he says pointedly, so I guess it's time.
"What car?" I ask.
"It's a black Audi limousine. License plate says Mad Dog, so it should be easy to spot. It's parked right by the wall on this side anyway. Here's the keys."
He hands them to me, but I'm too stunned to reach for them. "Keys? What kinda theft is this?"
"It's an extraction, like I said. Ready?"
I shrug, pocket the keys and grip the rope, start climbing. The leather gloves I'm wearing slip a little, but I'm sure it's better than having the rope burn into my palms. It's slow going, and I'm actually panting by the time I reach the top of the wall, my arms burning. Once I do, I look for the car, and I think I see it, but it's right below me so I can't read the license plate.
I jump off the rope too soon, and the impact sends a spine jarring jolt through me, my left knee buckling. But I hardly feel the pain with all the adrenaline pumping through me. This is just like any of the hundreds of jobs I've done. And it seems to be better planned than most. I stay by the wall for a few moments, listening hard for an alarm, or the sound of dogs barking. There's neither.
The license plate on the black car actually reads MaDog, but I guess that's close enough. It's unlocked, and the radio blares some weird techno as I turn the engine on. I turn it off, my heart hammering somewhere in my throat.
The gate is already opening as I reach it. This was too easy. Way too easy.
I follow Greg's car, and for all his trash talk earlier, he's still obeying the speed limit.
There's a thick, nauseating smell in the car, a lot like rotting meat. I open the windows and breathe through my mouth, but I still feel like I'll throw up at any moment. I hit a stretch of road lined with streetlamps and see the source of the stench. That's not just tinted windows in the back. Both the back passenger windows are covered with dried streaks of black blood, as is most of the rear window. I almost throw up, acid burning the back of my throat so bad I might pass out.
What the fuck kinda car did I steal?Or extract, as Greg put it, which is far more accurate.
Most likely this car's been involved in some crime, and a bad one at that. Murder. And this car is evidence. Which no one's collected yet and they won't now, since I stole it and am probably delivering it to the murderer right now. The nausea grows worse at the thought.
This must be how Mike's evidence, the stuff I planted, got fucked up. Gail and her father have no chance if these people decide to take them out. None at all. They won't know what hit them. And their only hope is me standing in the way of that.
I haven't been paying attention to following Greg, and he's suddenly gone. The nausea turns to full on stomach cramps. I can't fuck this up. Too much depends on it. But I don't have his number, and I have no fucking idea where they want this car.
I'm just about to call Mike and beg him to tell me what to do, when I spot Greg's Mustang waiting for me at a deserted bus stop.
I think of nothing else but keeping his taillights in sight for the rest of the way, don't look back, or sideways, afraid I'll lose him again.
It's almost two in the morning by the time I finally get back home. I'm still seeing just the taillights of the Mustang. The blood stains are covering those too now. And I really hope they'll get MaDog some other way, though I don't think that's very likely.
I pour myself a water glass of vodka and call Mike as soon as I'm back in the apartment. Tremors are still vibrating inside me, but my hands are surprisingly steady.
"What the fuck did you get me into?" I snap once he picks up.
"It's a little late to be calling, Scott," he drawls, his voice sounding nasal as it always does when he's doing coke. Which used to be all the fucking time last I hung out with him. Music is playing in the background, and I hear women laughing. I hope they continue to.
"Stealing cars from rich people is one thing," I say. "Destroying evidence of murder is something completely different."
"Just do as you're told, Scott, and don't think too much about it," he barks. "That's always been your problem, thinking too much. That, and worrying too much."
I hang up, toss the phone across the table, watch it collide with the wall.Good. I hope it's fucking broken now.
But it's not, and Mike calls back at least ten times. I don't pick up though. I just take off my jeans and shoes, get into bed, watch some dumb movie, and then another one.
I can't keep my mind on anything but this exit-less situation I'm in now. I should just call Jerry in the morning, tell him everything. Call Gail and tell her everything. A part of me knows that would be the smartest thing. Because I know I probably can't handle this shit by myself. But another, much louder part is screaming I have to. Because she has no one else, and the police failed her once before. There's little reason to believe it won't again. Funny, since she's planning on devoting her whole life to the pursuit of something as fucking fragile and unsubstantial as the law.
By the time I finally fall asleep at dawn, all that shit is still a shapeless weight in my brain, and I'm so tired of trying to move it around, lighten it.
The doorbell ringing wakes me. I jump out of bed, and rush to the door, still half asleep, buzz whoever it is in. Because I'm hoping it's Gail, and I believe it is with every rushed breath I take right up until the moment Mike's standing in front of me.
"What do you want?" I snap, and head back inside.
It's getting dark like maybe I've slept for the whole day, but it might just be an overcast day.
"For you to put some pants on, for starters," he answers following me inside.
If I don't think too hard about last night, it actually feels like just a dream, so that's what I'm going with.
"You can't not answer my calls, Scott," Mike says, sitting down at the table.
"Fine, whatever." The more he talks the more real it all becomes. "Is that why you're here?"
"That, and to take you to see this awesome apartment in the city you should rent," he says.
"I'm fine here."
He snorts. "This place is a dump. You can afford a lot better now."
I pour some hot water over my instant coffee, because I can't be bothered to actually boil the water. It's too bitter and strong, but at least the room is not as fuzzy after a few sips.
"I'm not ready to move out yet," I say, leaning against the kitchen counter. I suddenly realize, I'm doing it because I don't want to be in the same room as Mike, and this is as far away from him as I can get in this small apartment. The thought scares me. When did I become this nervous wreck pussy?
I peal myself off the counter and walk to the table, sit across from Mike.
“Why can't you just stop this bullshit and let me get back to my life?" I ask. And I'll keep asking, for as long as it takes.
"That life's no good for you," he shoots back. "This is the right thing for you. One day you'll thank me."
I laugh hoarsely. It's possibly the saddest sound I've ever made. "Can't you just let me make my own choices?"
"I see you're not gonna be any fun today," Mike says and gets up, zipping up his jacket. "I thought we could go see the apartment and then have some fun. But I guess not."
Fun? What, with knives? He's so sick. There's no trace in his tone, his face that I've just asked him to stop making these insane demands of me, except for his nose twitching a little, but that's probably just from the coke.
"Answer your phone from now on," he says. "Whatever the time."
I shrug, finally say OK, when he won't stop glaring at me. Then he's gone, and it's dark outside and all I want to do is go back to sleep. Which I do, because with all this shit, I feel like I've been awake for weeks, and there's nothing much to stay awake for anyway.
The next couple of weeks pass in a haze of sleeping, drinking too much and answering Mike's calls, which are either about jobs or him telling me to move to the city. At least the jobs are sparse. I only did two others since the first one, and it was stealing cars from rich people, so at least there's that.
Sleep's not much help though. In the dream I just woke up from, I sat on the broken pier at the beach and watched Gail walking away, the pain of her retreat ripping my chest open. I've started keeping the downstairs door unlocked, so Gail can come in more easily if she's gonna. Which she probably isn't because it's been like a month and a half and none of those noises in the hallway that keep waking me up are ever her. Nor has she called. Which is just what I wanted, since it means she's over me. Completely. And that hurts worse than everything else combined.
I get my phone and call Mike, tell him I'm ready to see the apartment. I'm really not, but it seemed like a good idea so I went with it.
Mike's all chatty and happy on the way there. I stare out my window and hardly speak.
It's on the sixtieth floor of a brand new skyscraper overlooking the Freedom Tower. It's like the view's mocking me too. Freedom. My new life is not that much different than prison. I take the apartment on the spot, not even bothering to check out the bedroom or bathroom. I’m sure they’re fantastic. The apartment’s probably owned by Vlado and his people, so this is just another way of them keeping me in check, but I honestly don't care anymore. I have to start this new life for real eventually, and it might as well be today.
Mike's on the phone in the kitchen, making the arrangement for me to rent the apartment. I stand really close to the living room windows, trying to look down to the street. I wonder what it'd be like to just jump. My stomach cramps at the image of the pavement coming closer, the cold wind whooshing all around me. How long would the fall take anyway? Minutes? Seconds? I've never been good at physics, but I imagine it would seem like a very long time. Long enough to regret it, probably. The windows don't open more than a crack anyway.
"It's all settled," Mike informs me. "You can move in whenever."
My mind's still stuck in imagining the free fall, and it takes a few moments for his words to register.
"Awesome," I mutter. Gail could be waiting for me at Mom’s apartment right now. I should get back. This was a bad idea. She'll never be able to find me here. But she found me in Alaska. That memory brings more pain than joy now, kinda makes it hard to breathe, but they all do.
"I'll just get my stuff," I say, taking the keys Mike's holding out to me.
"Next step is getting you a new ride," Mike says, as I'm unlocking Andrew's car in the garage. "This family wagon has to go."
"I'm kinda used to it," I mutter. I couldn't care less about getting a new car.
"Wanna do something now?" Mike asks and I shake my head. The need to go see if Gail's at the apartment is a rising panic. I'm certain she’s there and I'm wasting precious time.
The drive back takes ages, and the hallway is just as empty and dark as it was when I left. She's not coming back. And I can't face another evening wishing she would, another night waking up at the slightest noise thinking it's her.
I pack my stuff even more hastily than the night I left her. I'm back at my new apartment two hours after I left it.
It's fully furnished, in that minimalistic modern way, with just a couple of black leather sofas in the living room, and a huge screen TV. I'll have to get a second one for the bedroom, since I can't fall asleep without it on. One of the couches has a sofa bed and I sleep there. It'll work for now. I really hope I've managed to leave the dreams of Gail behind at my mom's place too.
It's Sunday morning, and a family of birds is singing right outside my window. Spring has started. At Phillipa’s urging I enrolled in a bunch of extra-curricular classes. I now do yoga, dance, am a member of a classics book club, and all this on top of my school work, does at least keep my mind from wondering too much during the day. But at night it all comes back. Or on mornings like this. Or anytime when I let my mind wonder.
I dream of Scott. Not every night, but every second or third one for sure. And the love I feel in all those dreams, especially the ones where we're holding each other, is completely out of this world, a physical presence, a relentless weight that barely lessens by the time I have to go back to sleep. Somehow, it's worse than any nightmare I've ever had. I could forget the nightmares, chase them away. But this is love, this I have to hold on to. Can't chase it away.
Sometimes we kiss in the dreams, sometimes we just sit on the beach watching the sun set. And then I'm left with butterflies in my stomach, and my eyes wet with tears for the rest of the day. Which is stupid. Because he's not calling me, and I'm not calling him. It's how it is. How it has to be. He was right, I know that now, even though I still don't feel it. With his past, my future, I'm not sure there was ever a way for us to even be together. Which hurts, but I'm getting better at facing it.
My phone ringing brings me out of my head and back into the sunlit room where I'm supposed to be studying.
My heart sinks in disappointment when I see it's not Scott. Though why I'm even still expecting a phone call from him, after almost two months of silence is beyond me.
"Leo, how are you?" I say as I answer.
"Fine and you?"
"Getting by," I say, perhaps a little too morosely.
"Do you have any paper due?" he asks. "I would love to help you again."
I'm a little taken aback. We haven't actually spoken that much since the last time he checked over one of my papers. I went for one drink with him and Phillipa about a week ago, and apart from that, we only chatted a bit in between classes.
"Thanks for offering," I finally manage. "But you don't have to. Maybe we could just meet for a drink or something, talk about stuff."
I can't believe I'm saying it, but it feels good at the same time. I can't keep pining over Scott. It's been almost two months since he left me. Time to forget.
"That would be great," he answers and I can hear the smile in his voice. I would give a lot that it was Scott on the other side, saying those things. I actually shake my head, as though that will get rid of the thought.
We agree to meet for lunch, and I spend the whole time waiting for it fighting the urge to call him back and cancel. I don't though, which is quite an achievement.
He's wearing a light blue polo shirt and a thick, cable knit cardigan when we meet, along with his black rimmed glasses and a pair of skinny jeans, but somehow he looks cool and not nerdy. Maybe it's the fact that he's Italian. They can all dress so well.
He kisses both my cheeks as I walk up, his lips brushing against my skin. Heat rushes to my face and I'm sure I'm as red as a tomato. But it's because I'm worried that Scott will find out—a totally irrational fear that I squash.
I sit across from him at lunch, not next to him though, and keep the conversation strictly on school. He keeps dropping hints that we could maybe go see a movie after, have a drink later. I finally have to tell him straight out that I have too much studying to do.
"So when you have the next paper done, just send it over. It is no trouble, I will look it over for you," he says once we're standing by my car and I'm about to leave two hours later. For all my earlier apprehension over meeting him, the time just flew by. And I don't know whether to be glad about that or cry.
"You're too nice," I say. "I feel like I'm taking advantage of you."
Maybe those are the words I should've said to Scott, back in the beginning. Then he wouldn't feel like I was just using him all the time. Though maybe that wasn't ever the real problem between us. Maybe he just didn’t love me all that much.
"You are not," Leo says and I wish Scott were the one saying it.
I need to get home and take a nap. No, I need to stop thinking about Scott all the time.
"OK, I'd love your help then," I say. "I'll call you."
"Please do," he says, and kisses both my cheeks again. And this time I let myself enjoy it.
A hot and really smart guy is interested in me, and I can be happy about that. On paper Leo is perfect, even if the brush of his lips on my skin leaves me quite cold.
I couldn't sleep at the new apartment either. Too much light maybe, or just too many thoughts and memories. Mostly it was the idea that Gail was waiting for me at my mom’s apartment, and the urge to go there and check that kept me awake. But she would've called, and she wasn't.
I went up to the roof at four AM, tripped the fire alarm, then stood right at the edge, the wind gusting in my face, the street lights pin points in the street. The guard finally found me made me go down to some dingy room in the basement where I spent the next hour explaining I was actually supposed to be in the building.
I did finally fall asleep at dawn. I usually can, once it's light out.
But now it's like two in the afternoon and I have no idea what to do for the rest of the day. I'm actually a little happy when Mike calls at six, but I try hard to stifle it.
"Get ready," he says. "I'm picking you up at seven."
"Vlado wants to see you," Mike says and my heart skips a beat, or ten. I haven't actually seen Vlado since the day I met him, and I was seriously beginning to hope I never would. "And wear something other than your washed out jeans. Try to look presentable."
"What does he want from me?"
"Just be ready at seven," Mike says, and I can hear him smiling.
"Just tell me," I counter.
"You'll find out soon enough," he says and hangs up.
I don't call him back, because with the sick way he's all attached to me, I'm probably gonna be OK. Or not, whatever.
My other phone is ringing again while I'm in the shower and I get out, all soapy, because it might be Gail. It's a strange number though. I almost don't pick up, since it might be Derek, and I'm not ready to talk to him yet. Might never be. If any member of my family had listened to me when I was telling them what a sick bastard Mike was, none of this would be happening right now. And I'm not sure I'll ever forgive them. I pick up anyway, since I can always just hang up if it is Derek. Besides, he hasn't called since I visited him in the hospital, and neither has my dad. Which leads me to believe they don't even know Mike's out.
"Scott? This is Dr. Kraus, your brother's doctor at the—" a woman's voice says, and I can just see her squinting.
"Yeah, I remember you. What do you want?" I interrupt.
"I've been trying to reach you," she says, which maybe she has. I haven't been picking up any calls on this phone. "I wanted to warn you, now that your brother is out."
"He's been out for weeks, what took you so long?" I interrupt her again.
"Me calling falls outside the sphere of regulations and normal procedures," she mutters, sounding like she's speaking to herself. "But I had to…"
"Because I believe your brother is unstable and with the way his anger is focused on you, you could be in danger," she says breathlessly. "You need to be careful."
"A bit late for warnings," I say. "That boat has sailed."
"How so?" she asks.
"Not really something I’ll talk to you about," I say. "Why couldn't you just keep him locked up?"
"He was deemed fit for release by a colleague," she says. "There was nothing I could do."
"Well, goodbye then," I say.
"Wait, don't hang up!" she yells so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. "Whatever you do, don't aggravate him to the point that would make him lose control. Go along with his wishes, at least on the surface. Try to get him to seek counseling. I can recommend some good psychiatrists."
I laugh. "Me trying to get him to see a shrink would aggravate him completely. Believe me, I've been there."
I wish things were so simple. That I could just get Mike into therapy and all would be back to normal. But going along with his plans has already made me more of a criminal than I ever was, and only pretending to do it could get Gail killed.
"Thanks for calling, anyway," I say. "But it's really too late."
I hang up, not wanting her to give me any more false hope, because I really can't take any more disappointments.
She calls back, sends me a couple of texts with shrink names when I don’t pick up. I guess she feels better having warned me now, but it sure as hell hasn't done much for me.
Mike is double parked when I come down a few minutes after seven, arguing with some deliveryman.
"You took your fucking time," he snarls at me, pulling out so fast the guy has to jump back to avoid getting hit. The whole thing does not faze Mike in the slightest.
"Where are we going?" I ask pointedly.
"Vlado's holding a little dinner party." He eyes me up and down. "I told you to dress up."
I shrug. I had tried, but most of my old clothes still don't fit me. Though I lost some serious weight in the last few weeks.
"I'm not really in the mood for a dinner party," I say as though that's enough to get me out of it.
Mike digs in his pocket and tosses a small vial into my lap. "Do some of this. It'll improve your mood."
It's his coke, and I set it on the dashboard. "I don't feel like it."
"Suit yourself," he says, and grabs it, does a hit while we're stopped at a red light. I might be worried normally, but I'm kinda hoping we'll crash. And these death wishes should frighten me more, I know that too, but they don’t.
"You haven't told Dad and Derek that you're out, did you?" I ask after a while.
Mike shakes his head. "They don't need to know just yet, and I can't really deal with all the family drama right now. They think I'm still inside. I call from time to time."
I turn to him sharply. "You're pretending to still be locked up? You realize they fucking disowned me for not helping you with the shrink bullshit."
I probably shouldn't be yelling at him about this. Dr. Krauss' warning not to antagonize him is echoing somewhere deep in my brain. But it's not very loud.
"You should've been eager to help me, Scott," Mike says, chuckling. "Consider this some more punishment for that. But I'll tell them all we're cool eventually."
My throat is clenched so tight, I can hardly get a breath in. I have to squeeze my hands together in my lap to prevent myself from making him crash the fucking car. I don't know how much more I can hate him before I have to do something about it.
But it can't be now, because we're finally being let into the garage of a tall Upper West Side building and I've never been less hungry or less in the mood to socialize than right now.
Mike parks the car and walks to the elevator like he owns the place, and I follow a few steps behind, trying not to let any thought linger.
The elevator door opens right into the penthouse. Vlado strides over from the bar, as we enter, swirling a glass of something brown. Greg's standing by the huge, wraparound windows, and four guys I don’t know are sitting on the leather sofas.
"You made it," Vlado says and gives Mike a hug. I have no idea how to greet him, but luckily he forestalls any action on my part by hugging me as well. It feels like being pressed into a wall.
Up close I realize his eyes are the same color as my mom's were, only much colder, like blue ice. I had no idea I even still remembered the color of my mom's eyes and now this sick bastard's reminding me. I'm not sure how any of this shit could get worse.
Vlado tells us to mingle while we wait for a few more people. I take a drink and wander over to the windows, ignoring everyone there, not caring what they think of that. Sometimes it's better to be mistrusted than liked, and I think this is one such situation.
I missed sunset, but there's still a bright orange band lined with white on the western horizon. It blends almost seamlessly into the dark blue of the night sky, despite being so opposite in color. I wonder which colors I'd have to mix to paint it just right. Blue obviously, maybe red and black. Not too much white. That would have to just be used for the finishing touches. Not that I've actually painted anything in years. The last thing I was trying to learn before I got arrested was how to draw realistically. I never did achieve it, and I'm not sure I'll ever try again.
"It's time to eat!" Vlado yells and I follow the others to the table. Two more guys in suits came while I was gazing out the window. The rest of the company looks a lot like Greg—huge muscles and tattoos everywhere. They're all wearing suits and I wish Mike had been specific as to what I was supposed to wear, but at least I'm wearing a black sweater and pants, and, besides, I don't care.
Mike is sitting at Vlado's right, like some long lost son. They talk like they've known each other for a long time and really enjoy each other's company. The nausea rising in my stomach makes it impossible to even think of food.
Greg's sitting next to me, and keeps casting me looks like he wants to talk, but I'm fine just listening. Though some of the conversation is in Serbian, I presume, and I understand precisely jack shit.
We're sitting at a dark wood table, eating off plates with golden scrollwork worked into the edges. And the silverware looks like it's actually made of silver. The smell of cologne, brandy, wine, meat, beans and onions is mixing into a sickening odor in the air, and I hope someone cracks a window soon.
"You don't like the food?" Greg finally asks, chewing on a piece of the little sausages that are actually made of minced meat. I've cut one of mine into little pieces, but I'm still struggling with the decision to actually eat it. "It's cevapcici," he elaborates, like that means something to me. "Just eat it, it's good."
I shrug and take a bite. It's not bad but I still have no appetite.
I can feel Vlado look at me from time to time, but he's not addressing me directly, so I ignore him.
"You're not very talkative today," Greg remarks.
"I have other things on my mind," I mutter.
"You look it," he says and chuckles. But if he's this far in Vlado's confidences, he can't be my friend.
They're discussing things I know nothing about, so I guess it's not too strange I don't join in. Though Mike started casting me dark looks sometime in the middle of the main course. I ignore him too.
After what feels like days, Vlado finally tells us to go back to the living room for some drinks and smoking. He wanders over to me as I get my second drink, Mike trailing a few steps behind.
Vlado places his meaty arm around my shoulders and leans close to my face. He's shorter than me, but somehow it doesn't seem that way.
"So, how are you finding your first few weeks working for me?" he asks, and I can smell onions on his breath. There's only the barest hint of an accent in his voice.
"Fine, I guess," I say. "I do my job and go home."
"And you do it well," he says, smiling widely.
"I'd do it even better if I could do my own planning." I'm not really sure why I'm bringing it up. But not knowing where I'm going, or what the next job will be is starting to turn into pure dread before each one. Because what if I fuck something up? What happens to Gail then?
Vlado laughs, the smell of onions growing more disgusting. "I do like people who speak their mind plainly."
Mike's glaring at me, dark hatred in his eyes. Is he jealous?
"Yes, I think you've proven you can be trusted," Vlado says and finally removes his arm from my shoulders. "You can start taking part in the planning from now on."
I don't actually know if that's better or worse. It certainly means I'd be deeper in it, probably too deep to ever get out. But I guess I knew that from Mike's first phone call.
"And now it's time for some fun!" Vlado announces to the room, clapping his hands.
A large door on the other side of the room opens, and at least fifteen girls, my age or younger, wander into the room, all wearing impossibly high heals, and barely any clothes. They're all sorts, some longhaired, some blonde, some black haired, tall, short, skinny, curvy. Most of them I'd fuck in a heartbeat back before I met Gail. But right now, not a single one is doing anything for me.
They stroll over to the guys sitting on the sofas, and the ones standing by the windows. I take a few steps back, hoping none of them will wander to me. Most of them are swaying slightly, and their eyes are so glazed over I don't even think they spotted me all the way across the room.
"See anything you like?" Greg asks. He's standing on his own by the window too.
"Not a thing," I mutter. "I think I'll just leave."
"Now? But the party's just getting started."
"Not sure how I feel about doing it with a whole bunch of other guys around," I say. Which is partly true. But even if I was alone with all of these girls, I'd still leave. Just looking feels like I'm cheating on Gail.
"There's bedrooms," Greg says.
I slide open the balcony door and step outside. "What are you waiting for then?"
Greg follows me outside, and closes the door.
"You have a girl?" he asks and offers me a cigarette. I take it to have a reason for standing out here.
"Something like that," I say. I don't want to get into it. I just want to leave. "Why aren't you in there?"
He wanders over to the railing, leans against it. I'm afraid to go too close to the edge. The compulsion to jump is already too strong where I'm standing by the door.
"I'm never touching one of Vlado's girls again," he says, real anger in his voice. And there's more there, I'm sure, but I don't really want to know.
"We can wait until they start getting it on, then leave," he says. "I don't think they'll miss us much."
I glance back into the room, right into Mike's black eyes. One of the girls is sitting in his lap, kissing his neck, but it's like he doesn't even feel it. I look away and join Greg by the railing.
"How long do you think that'll take?"
"I'm actually ready to leave now." He tosses his cigarette over the railing and walks back inside. I follow.
We're almost at the door when Mike grabs my arm, stopping me. "Where are you going?"
"Home," I answer. "It's been a long day."
"Stay," he says and it sounds pleasant enough, but I know it's a command. One I'm not about to follow.
The elevator door opens and Greg steps inside, holding the door.
"I'll see you later, Mike," I say and pull my arm from his grasp. I hope he doesn't make an issue out of this, but I can't stay. As it is, I feel like I'm about to throw up.
"Your brother didn't want you to go," Greg remarks once we're finally descending.
"Whatever," I mutter. "He's a little fucked in the head."
"Yeah, I noticed," Greg says. "I hate doing jobs with him. It's a good thing he mostly plans them these days."
"How long's he been around then?" I ask.
"Two years, a little more," Greg says. "And now he's so tightly wedged in, I swear he's the first person Vlado thinks of when he wakes up in the morning."
He laughs as he says it, but it's a cold sound, almost scary.
"I just wish he'd left me out of it," I mutter, but I'm not sure Greg heard.
We're driving now, and I roll my window down, since I still can't shake the nausea. What if I fucked up by leaving? What if Mike hurts Gail now?
Greg asks where I want to go and I give him my address. He also asks if I want another drink, but I say no, so he drops me off at the sidewalk and speeds off. I just want to go to sleep, pretend none of this shit is my life now, and hope it won't get worse by tomorrow.
"You're making a huge fuss. Just go as friends," Phillipa says for what must be the millionth time. I've been tiring her for hours about whether I should meet Leo for a drink tonight. He sent me a text in the morning already, asking me out. It's two PM now and I still haven't replied. He probably thinks it's a no.
"Can't you come too?" I ask.
Phillipa shakes her head. "Holly wants to meet and talk."
I gasp, slamming my hand over my mouth. "Really? And you've let me tire you with my problem all day. That's great news!"
She shrugs and walks over to the sink, rinses off her plate. "Depends on how you look at it. I'm afraid going on this date with her will just open up all the old wounds. Or worse, give me hope."
I walk over to her and put my arm around her shoulders. "Hope sucks. But only if it's unfounded. Maybe you should give it another chance."
My own hope is bubbling to the surface like a geyser. I still wake up each morning with Scott and what happened the first thought. Still get butterflies in my stomach when I think of him, which is most of the time. It's been two months. When will it finally get easier? At least the urges to call him only come once every few days now.
"I should just man up and go, right?" Phillipa asks, rubbing my arm.
"Yes," I whisper. And I wish I could just call Scott and talk. But I won't willingly reopen that wound. I know where it leads. I will get over him.
"I'll go out too," I say. "That way we're both moving on.”
I text Leo back then spend ages picking out what to wear. I want something flattering, but not anything to suggest this is anything but two friends having a drink on a Saturday night.
I end up settling on a pair of boot cut slacks, ballet flats, a blouse, and my trench coat. The same one that got drenched in blood on one of those nights I chased after Scott when I shouldn't have. The dry cleaners managed to get most of the stain out, leaving just a faint outline. I'd throw it out, but it's one of the last things Mom bought for me before she got sick, and I couldn't handle parting with it.
Leo went all out on his outfit. He's wearing suit pants and a jacket, his off white shirt opened just a little too wide at the collar. He even did something to his hair so it looks messy yet neat at the same time. But that's not what gets me.
He's wearing the same cologne Scott uses, and the reminder turns my knees to jelly. My need to be meeting Scott tonight, not Leo, rushes to the surface, and I hardly remember to greet him back. He kisses me on both cheeks again, but it barely registers. I want to kiss Scott so badly I can actually taste him on my lips, my whole body flooding with warmth. Why did he have to ruin it all? We were doing so well.
"Are you feeling alright?" Leo asks. It's exactly what Scott would say. Because he never did think I was alright. I grasp the spark of anger that thought brings, grip it with my whole mind. Scott cheated on me. Walked out on me in the middle of the night without so much as an explanation. Did it again and again. I will not pine over him anymore.
"I just got a little dizzy. I haven't eaten much today."
Which is a lie. I've spent the whole day eating. If I wasn't on my period I'd be sure I was pregnant. And the memory of that drowns the remaining butterflies that rose from smelling Scott's cologne on Leo.
"Then let's eat," Leo says, and guides me to the Indian restaurant in front of which we met.
He spends the whole meal looking at me with far too much devotion, and far too little friendship. I know that look now, thanks to Scott, though learning it has brought more pain than anything else. Which is not true. Scott's also shown me how good falling in love can be.
I take a long drink of my wine to chase away the thought, and ask Leo a complicated question about his work. He always takes a long time to answer, and loves talking about himself, so it works. Scott didn't talk a lot about himself, which I thought was refreshing at the time. Now it seems he just didn't want me to know him. Or maybe he really was more concerned about me.
"Do you want to get another drink?" Leo asks once we're done eating and the waiter is clearing our table.
"Sure, but let's go somewhere else," I say. Might as well start pretending I'm over Scott, even if I'm not quite there yet.
Leo takes me to a wine bar I've never been to, orders some Italian wine I've never heard of. It tastes good, even if it is a little too sweet for my taste.
Somewhere around my third glass he changes tactic, starts asking me about my life. But I'm not ready to tell him about my mom yet, so I focus on my dad and his new job in Geneva. Which sets Leo off about how the UN is not doing enough to stem human rights violations. Stuff I heard before, but he's bringing my dad into it, and I don't like it.
"They're doing as much as can be done," I counter. "Given the flaws in the system. But the intentions are good."
I can almost hear my dad speaking these words and I've argued the same points with him before, but tonight I'm firmly on Dad's side. Mostly because I had too much to drink, and Leo keeps edging closer to me on the pretext of not hearing me well enough. But I know my voice carries very well, so there's really no reason his whole side should be pressing into me right now.
"We should go," I say, interrupting him midsentence. "I have a lot of work to do tomorrow."
I can't have Leo leaning against me, smelling like Scott. It's too confusing. The wine is making me want sex, but with Scott, not Leo, so it's all wrong.
He argues, but I call the waitress over and pay, ignoring his protests. I let him buy dinner, because he wouldn't hear a no, so I'm paying for the wine. This isn't a date. This is just two people with common interests sharing a drink.
I take out my phone to call a cab once we're on the sidewalk. I drove here, but I'm too unsteady to drive back, which is just another way this night has gone all wrong.
"I can drive you home," Leo offers, but I refuse, saying he had too much to drink too, though he seems quite sober.
"I had a great time tonight," he says after I order a taxi, looking directly into my eyes and swaying closer. I look down the street, keeping a watch for the cab.
"Yeah, it was fun," I mutter, since he's waiting for me to say something.
"We must do it again."
I nod. "Sure."
A taxi rounds the corner and I step closer to the curb. "That's my ride. I'll call you."
He places his hands on my shoulders and moves to kiss my cheeks. But he doesn't move his head to the side on the second one, and I end up kissing his lips. Such a cheap, childish move.
I fight the urge to wipe off my lips. Even though Leo is perfect for me. On paper. But my heart, my mind, my whole being wants Scott so badly now I'm trembling.
I say a hasty good night and bolt into the cab, slamming the doors with way too much force. I could just call Scott, tell him how I feel. But then what? He doesn't want insane, flighty Gail. Never did. He doesn't want any Gail at all. Else he'd call me back by now.
I can’t sleep when I get back from Vlado’s dinner party. Every time I close my eyes it's like a million fucking fire ants are crawling all over me, biting. I even try to jerk off so I could finally relax enough to sleep, but I keep seeing Gail, her face, her milky white skin, her long brown hair covering her full breasts, the hard nipples poking out. My hands are burning with the need to touch her right now, and I can almost feel her straddling me. No, I can't go there. It's bad enough I have those wet dreams about her almost every night. They’re probably the only reason I haven't needed the emergency room for the blue balls problem, because I positively cannot let myself jerk off thinking about Gail. Else I’ll go insane with the need to be with her. But I can't do it without thinking of her. I’m such a mess.
So I'm back to square one, staring at the TV screen and some dumb crime documentary, which is all I watch these days. Maybe it’s some subconscious attempt to figure out what to do about Mike, even though I'm pretty sure nothing can be done. Either I go along, or Gail dies. Or I die. Or go to jail. If only I could get to sleep, then at least I'd be able to see Gail.
My phone ringing wakes me sometime on Saturday afternoon, and of course my first thought is that it's Gail. Followed almost immediately by sickening disappointment when it's actually Mike.
"You staying in tonight?" he asks.
"I was gonna, yeah," I mutter.
"OK, well, just thought I'd ask," he says and hangs up. I don't know if I'll ever get used to these weird ass calls of his, but they’re starting to seem more commonplace now.
After a quick shower it's almost dark outside again, and I debate with to order take out or actually go out. In the end I settle for a couple of those noodle soups since I can't be bothered with anything else. I'm still tired like I haven't slept at all.
The intercom buzzes at a little past nine. "There's a lady here to see you," the doorman informs me. I'm just opening and closing my mouth. It can't be Gail. Although she did track me down in Alaska. But there's no way she could know where I am now. This apartment isn’t in my name, and no one but Mike knows where I live.
"Sir?" the doorman asks. "Should I send her up?"
"Yes," I manage, and open the front door, staring at the elevators.
It takes forever, but the left one finally chimes, and a tall brunette gets out. And she could be Gail. Her hair's the same color, her legs are long enough, her breasts full and round. But the face is all wrong. She smiles as she approaches, her hips swaying.
"Who are you?" I ask.
She smiles wider and brushes against me as she enters the apartment.
"I'm Amber," she purrs into my ear. "But you can call me anything you like."
What the fuck's that supposed to mean?
I take a step back and keep the door open. "What are you doing here?"
She's wearing one of those charm bracelets the escorts Mike likes wear. It looks like the one Gail lost by the pool that first time we met. My stomach clenches at the memory. I want this fake Gail gone.
"I'm here so we can have a good time," Amber purrs again and steps closer, trying to force my hand off the doorknob.
"I never asked for you," I say.
"I'm supposed to tell you Mike sent me," she says. "And that you can call me Gail, if you want."
"Motherfucker!" I yell. She shakes a little, taking a full step back from me.
"I think you should go," I add.
She regains her composure, and slides her hand across my bare arm slowly. "Are you sure? Don't you like me?"
There's something so sincere in her question that my anger at Mike ebbs away a little.
"I suppose you won't get paid if I send you away, right?"
She looks at me with serious eyes, all the seduction gone. "No, I won't. I might even get fired. This is only my second job and I didn’t do that well on the first one."
It could just be a line and there's no way we're having sex, but I close the door. It's probably better if Mike thinks his little ploy succeeded anyway.
"Want a drink?"
She nods and follows me to the kitchen, her heels clicking across the wooden floor.
"This is a nice place you got here," she says, checking out the apartment while I pour the vodka.
"Yeah," I mutter handing her a glass and moving to the sofa. She follows, sits too close.
"So I take it I can't pull off being Gail?" she asks, her eyes fixed on the view outside the window. "I was so nervous all the way here. I was sure I couldn't do it, and I guess I was right." She fixes her gaze on me, but it's unsteady, like she's waiting for an answer. Her eyes are too dark to be Gail's.
"No, sorry," I say, not even sure why I'm apologizing. "I mean you’re attractive and everything, but you're not Gail."
Though with the way she tears up after I say it, she could be.
"Look I won't tell anyone this didn't work out," I say. "Just don't start crying."
"I just…I…" and tears are actually flowing down her cheeks. Great. I'm even making escorts cry now. I turn away from her and lean back, staring at the muted TV. Cops are arresting someone on screen, red and blue lights flashing.
"I'm acting like an idiot." She wipes the tears away with her fingers, and sobs softly. I just want someone to say something like that about me again someday, I guess."
"Maybe you're in the wrong line of business for that." I don't know why I'm being moralistic. Not like I can talk. I fucked up any chance of a normal life, because I was too weak to get out while I still could.
"Yeah, I know. But right now my options are pretty limited," she murmurs. "It's either this or the streets. And there I'd be in the same place, but with much less money and more disease."
"Just don't ever go when Mike asks for you," I say without thinking.
Her eyes turn wide, probably at the venom in my voice. Or maybe because she's here at Mike's orders. Way to try and comfort her. I swear, everything that comes into contact with me turns to shit, there's no middle ground anymore.
A charged silence is hanging between us now, but it's a distant thing, like it's happening to someone else.
She takes a long swallow of her drink, then sits there, rubbing the glass.
"So this Gail, she sounds like quite a girl," she finally ventures.
"Yeah," I mutter.
"What happened to her?"
"Nothing," I say. "It just didn't work out."
"Maybe you should try harder. Seeing as you're all cut up about it."
It makes sense, and for some reason it's not hard to listen to her speak about Gail.
"We're just from two very different worlds," I mutter. "It was crazy to think it could work out."
But I don't believe that. And I never will.
"That doesn't necessarily have to be a barrier," Amber says, glaring at me.
"No, but sometimes it is."
"My fiancé was killed in action in Afghanistan," she whispers. "That's a barrier."
"If you still want this Gail," she interrupts, "And all that's stopping you is some made up obstacle, maybe you deserve to be all cut up about it."
She's breathing heavily now, her cheeks all red.
And she's right. But it's not made up obstacles I'm facing here. They're very deadly and very real.
"Look, I appreciate your assessment of my situation, but maybe you don't know enough," I blurt out, kinda sorry this is the turn the conversation took. But then again, talking about Gail is not likely to make it any easier to get over her. "I think you can leave now. It's been long enough, so no one will suspect."
She doesn't argue, just gets up and holds her purse against her stomach. "I'm sorry, I spoke out of turn. We're still cool?"
"Yeah, I won't tell anyone what really happened. I'll even say you were really good." I just want her gone now.
She finds her own way out the door, but it's like Gail stayed. And for the rest of the long night I can feel her in the room with me, standing somewhere behind my shoulder, just out of sight. It gets so creepy, I have to leave the apartment, end up walking around the nearly deserted streets for hours like some deranged psycho. But that's not me. That's Mike, and I'll very likely never escape his grasp.