Page 19

Author: C.J. Roberts

Fernando rushed again, but I was ready this time. I waited until he was within arm‘s reach and used his momentum against him. I stepped to the side, caught his neck with my arm and jumped on his back. We went down with a loud thud as I rode Fernando to the ground. With my knees firmly planted in his sides, I went to work punching Fernando in the face before he covered himself. My hands throbbed with pain after colliding with bone.

Fernando rolled, knocking me to the side, and delivered a backward kick that landed between my shoulder blades. I cried out, my hands scrambling for purchase on the other man’s sweaty flesh. Wearing jeans had been a mistake. The fabric trapped me. Two more kicks landed on my back and I saw spots.

The fight had gone from a sparring match to an earnest struggle. Fernando scrambled to get on my back, his arms trying to wind their way around my neck. I kept my arm up to protect my windpipe.

A familiar feeling spread throughout my body. Suddenly, the only thing that mattered was winning. A fist collided with the side of my face and my teeth bit down hard on the mouth guard. I could taste blood in my mouth.

“You can’t kill me, Khoya. I’m a god here.”

I gritted my teeth and pushed with all my strength on the arm attempting to circle my neck. Fernando’s arm trembled and eventually he was forced to readjust his position on my back. The bell rang and Carlos yelled for us to separate, but neither of us listened. I refused to be saved by the bell for a second time.

I pushed myself up with my arms, exposing my neck to Fernando in a way he couldn’t resist. As he wrapped his arm around my neck, his face pressed to the side of my own, I reached behind his head with one arm and grasped my other hand. I squeezed. Fernando grunted into my ear. I crushed his windpipe with my shoulder as I pressed him from behind.

With each of us having the other by the throat, it became a test of endurance. Fernando’s position was better than mine, but he was used to fighting for sport. I was accustomed to fighting to live. I squeezed until my shoulders burned. I had run out of oxygen long ago and black spots invaded my vision. But I held on. I held on until I felt Fernando sag against me, only seconds before I blacked out.

I was jolted into consciousness by a forceful slap and cold water being splashed on my face. Carlos’ angry glare was all I needed to realize what had happened. I looked beyond him to watch as another man treated Fernando to the same. He sat up with a cough and rubbed at his neck.

“I knew you were a troublemaker when you walked in,” Carlos said in Spanish. “Get dressed and get the fuck out.” He stood and tossed my shirt onto my chest. I pulled it on and stood as quickly as I was able.

“Good fight,” I managed through a strained throat. “We’ll do it again.” Fernando managed to smile and nod as I turned to leave the ring.

I grabbed my socks and shoes and left without putting them on. The cold was bracing as I walked toward my car, but I didn’t mind. It was the only thing keeping me upright. I knew I’d be bruised to hell in the morning. At last, something felt normal.

I managed to get back to the hotel before the first stirrings of bruised muscle, scraped flesh, and weary bones had me longing for the comfort of a hot bath. Slowly, I eased my body into the water. It stung viciously. I put ice on my face. No one could accuse me of being pretty at that moment.


I was sound asleep when I heard the pounding on the door. I moaned as I attempted to move all at once. The light coming in through the curtains told me it wasn’t yet evening. Livvie hadn’t waited long before coming to find me.

I decided further movement was ill advised. My throat was too sore to yell. A strange pinch occurred in my chest. I wanted to see Livvie, but I didn’t want to fight with her.

Vivisected. It’s the only word I can think of to describe how I’m feeling—vivisected. As though someone has cut me open with a scalpel, the pain not sinking in until the flesh begins to separate and my blood bubbles out. I can hear the crack as my ribs are flayed open. Slowly, my organs, wet and sticky, are pulled out of me one at a time. Until I am hollow. Hollow and yet, in excruciating pain—still alive. Still. Alive.

As I lay unable or unwilling to move with Livvie pounding on my door, it occurred to me: It’s always going to hurt. Yes, vivisected had been a very apt word to use. Loving Livvie was like allowing myself to be peeled open and hollowed out. She made me weak. She made me vulnerable. She made me ache and long and hope for all the things that could never be mine.

The door opened.

“Caleb?” Livvie called out. It was the first time she’d ever used the key I’d given her and I groaned at my own stupidity. That was another thing Livvie made me—stupid.

“I’m in here,” I said. Getting choked until unconscious is hard on the vocal chords. I hated the way my heart knocked in my chest. I really wanted to see her. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. Shamefully, I wanted her to see me battered and use it to keep her from screaming at me.

She gasped when she saw me but didn’t reach out to touch me.

“What did you do now? I mean, aside from invade my privacy and break my trust? It’s been a busy day for you.”

I let her words hang in the air between us. What could I say? Finally, she stepped closer and brushed her fingers across my cheek. I hissed.

“Serves you right,” she snapped. Beneath the anger I heard concern. “What happened?”

“I picked a fight,” I whispered. “You should see the other guy.” I laughed and it hurt.

“Is—is the other guy alive?” she asked without inflection.

“Yes,” I said just as coldly. “You would ask me, wouldn’t you? I’m always killing people for petty reasons.” I turned away from her. “If you came for a fight, don’t bother. I surrender.” I felt an intense pressure in my chest. “Just go.”

“Do you really want me to go?” she asked. There was no emotion in her voice and it scared the fuck out me. Please, don’t go. Don’t leave me.

“If you’re done with me,” I said instead.

“Coward,” she spat. “You’ll take a beating. You’ll face men with guns. You’ll kill. But God forbid you have to swallow your goddamn pride and apologize for being a nosy little shit.”

I sat up fast.

“You think I don’t swallow my pride? Fuck you! All I’ve done for months is swallow my pride. I’ve apologized ad nauseum. I fuck you when you want to be fucked. I play nice for your friends. I wait for you to come home because I have nothing more to do. You’ve become my whole life!

“Meanwhile, you’re writing about me. You still see me as the man I was. You still see the killer—beautiful on the outside and hideous on the inside. Why are you with me? Why am I trying so hard to be someone else when all I’ll ever be to you is the man who ruined your life? I follow you around like a love-sick bitch and every day I fight the urge to go back to what I know. There are days when I want to go back to being the person I was because that person couldn’t love you. The man I was would never be this weak!”

I shouted through the pain in my throat and that, coupled with the emotion working its way to the surface, threatened to close off my airway. Livvie’s face was a mask of indifference. It chilled my bones. How had she learned to be so cold? I knew the answer even as I asked the question.

“You love me?” she asked as she looked into my eyes. “When did you come to the realization? Was it when I told you I loved you and you said it was cute? Or maybe it was after I killed a man? Possibly when I begged you not to leave me at the border?

“Did you realize you loved me while I was alone in the hospital and weeping over you? When did you shout your love from the rooftops, Caleb? I couldn’t hear you. I was too busy trying to fucking breathe without you. I was busy convincing everyone around me I wasn’t crazy for defending my kidnapper. So, remind me. When did you say the words? I’ll be sure to go back in time and comfort the broken girl you left in your wake. Your love can comfort her, because I’m not the same person anymore.

“I’ve learned to breathe without you. I’ve learned there’s no one in this life I can trust. It isn’t that you read my words. I don’t care about that. I would have shown you eventually. It’s the note you left. It’s now. It’s knowing that at any moment you’re going to run off and leave me again. How can I tell you I love you? How could I survive it again?”

I was stunned into silence. Every cell in my body crawled with shame. Livvie was a survivor. She’d survived me. I realized then what I was witnessing was not indifference—it was pain. Livvie was in pain and it was my fault.

I didn’t know what was happening, but it came on suddenly. My nose started running and I sniffled. I knew Livvie was watching me. I knew how ridiculous I must look, how weak and broken. I couldn’t even care. I had nothing left to lose. I did my best to clear my throat before I spoke.

“I couldn’t say it, Kitten. I’d just finished… I loved him.” I felt my chest shaking.

“Who?” Livvie whispered. She was still so stoic.

“Rafiq,” I said softly. Livvie sighed.

“Why, Caleb? You know what he did.”

“Yes. I know what he did. I also know what he didn’t do: He never touched me the way the others did.” A part of me couldn’t believe I was about to go into this with her. I’d read her story and it had me thinking of my own. I suppose I thought I owed her the other half of our tale. I needed her to know I hadn’t cast her out without good reasons. “I was so young, Livvie. I was so powerless. Every day I was raped by someone. I was raped every day until I started to convince myself it wasn’t rape. I let them touch me. I let them… fuck me. I smiled at the ones I saw more often than the others, imagining they must care for me. Why else would they come back to use me repeatedly?

“Eventually, I believed them. I believed them when they said they cared. I believed them when they promised to buy me from Narweh. I let myself hope that one day I would be free.” I heard myself sob. The sound was far away, as though someone else were falling apart and not me. “It never happened. They never cared. They were never going to set me free. It was the hope they loved to toy with—my hope. I let it die.

“And then one day… Rafiq came. He picked me up, whipped and bloody. He took me home and nursed me. He fed me. He fed my body. He fed my mind. He fed my soul. He taught me how to do more than survive—he taught me how to live. And he never touched me.

“For years he took care of me. I didn’t need hope anymore. I had something better. I had purpose! I loved him for that. And then...” I felt numb as I stared off into space. “I learned the truth.”

My body shook as I recalled the night I murdered him.

“I wasn’t anything, Livvie. I wasn’t anything to him and he’d been everything to me. I would have died for him and the whole time… I was nothing.” I finally looked at Livvie. Tears were on her cheeks. “But that’s not the worst part. No, the worst part is that I meant to kill him before I knew the truth. It was the only way to set you free and I… I killed him, Livvie. I killed him and I buried him in Felipe’s garden where his family will never find him. I buried the only person I thought I could trust. I loved him, and he turned out to be the person responsible for the most horrendous betrayal of my life.

“And then I realized I’d done the same to you. I’d beaten you. I’d raped you, and worse—I even made you like it. I fed you hope and I snatched it away. I made you love me! How could I tell you? I couldn’t tell you, Livvie. I was confused. I was… broken. I’m still broken. I don’t know who I am or what I want. All I know is that without you… without you, there’s nothing. I’m nothing. Do you have any idea how terrifying that is for someone like me?”

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