I park on a side street two blocks away from the apartment building. Pulling up my hood and slipping on sunglasses, I trek to the building. Without a key, I can’t get through the main door. And I don’t want to announce my arrival to the man I’m going to visit. So I hang out by the door for a few minutes and, sure enough, someone walks out of the building.
“Oh thank God,” I murmur just loud enough for her to hear me, keeping my chin tucked to my chest while riffling through my purse. “Stupid key always gets lost at the bottom and it’s cold as the arctic out here. Thank you.”
“No problem,” the lady says while holding open the door for me.
In spite of the arctic temperatures, a few beads of sweat trickle down my back as I climb the stairs. Each step robs a little more oxygen from my lungs, the weight of what I’m about to do bearing down on my chest. My pulse pounds out of control, making it impossible to hear anything but the whisper of fear.
I stop for a moment and stare at my old apartment door. After a few breaths, I turn the corner and ascend the final set of stairs. My eyes stay focused on his door. If I glance right, at Erica’s door, I will lose it.
When my shaky fist raps on his door, my heart attempts to break out of my chest. He killed Erica.
I knock again.
He killed Daisy.
I knock a little harder.
He’s been taunting me.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
I think I could tear down this door. My plans to drug him before stabbing a knife through his heart could get derailed by the revenge running through my veins. When he opens the door, I’m going to have a hard time not skipping the drugging part. All I want to do is kill him.
“Miss? I think you might have the wrong apartment.”
I jump at the unfamiliar voice wafting down the stairs from the floor above.
“No,” I say curtly, turning my back to the middle-aged gentleman taking his final step to the landing behind me.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Miss, I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but Mr. Mann committed suicide several days ago.”
My fisted hand stills on the door, leaving my adrenaline-fed panting as the only sound in the stairwell.
“What?” I inch my head round, eyeing him over my shoulder.
The messy blond-haired gentleman zips his coat, nodding. “Hung himself. Landlord found him when he went in there to fix a plumbing issue that Mr. Mann had reported the week before.” He slips on his gloves. “My condolences if you knew him, miss.”
My feet remain rooted in their spot as the man makes his way to the lower level.
After a numbing drive home and a Xanax, I sleep for ten hours. The drug doesn’t last that long, but peace of mind worked synergistically with it. I wake with a residual numbness. It’s like someone knocked my puzzle on the floor and I may never get all the pieces back in their right spot, but maybe it doesn’t matter.
I sit on the edge of the bed, missing the body that used to lie bedside me. After staring at my phone screen for a few minutes, I message Griffin.
Me: Doug is dead.
The message says undelivered.
I shouldn’t call him. His voice would render me a sobbing mess. If he’s not getting the message, maybe if I called it would just go to his voicemail anyway. I hope.
My pulse begins to surge like it did yesterday at Doug’s door. What if Griffin answers? After a few minutes of playing chicken with myself, I press call.
It rings once.
Shit! He’s answering it.
I can’t breathe.
It’s not him. It’s a recording saying the number is no longer in service. I don’t understand. I call him again, dialing the number with the area code.
Again, the same recording.
Next I call Sherri.
“How are you doing? The girls sure had fun getting manicures and pedicures with you and your mom.”
“Yeah, um … me too. Hey, I was just seeing if you knew anything about Griffin’s phone. I tried texting him and calling him, and it says the number is no longer in service.”
My legs bounce off the side of the bed, filled with out-of-control nerves. She doesn’t respond.
“Yeah, Swayze. Listen, sweetie …”
Nothing good ever comes after the words “listen sweetie.” My legs still so all my body’s focus goes to listening.
“He has a new number.”
“So it has his new area code instead of this one?”
Another awkward silence.
“Sherri, what’s going on?”
“Do you need to get a message to him? I could relay it.”
“I’ll do it if you give me his new number.”
“I’m sorry. He asked me not to do that. I’m really really sorry, sweetie.”
I feel like the loner sitting at the lunchroom table all by myself, catching the occasional “sorry sweetie” glances and hand-fisted-over-the-mouth snickers.
So this is a clean break?
“Tell him …” I shake my head. If he were truly worried about me and my safety, he wouldn’t have cut all ties. Not with me living by myself, knowing Doug has been taunting me since Erica died—since he murdered her. “Never mind. There’s no message.”
“I have to get ready for work. I’ll see you later.” I end the call.
No tears. I’m done being sad. I’m pissed off. Hurt. But seriously pissed off, whether I really have any right to be or not.
We didn’t end badly. We ended with a long night tangled in each other’s bodies.
And then … nothing.
He left. I let him. But I didn’t think he would do this.
This doesn’t feel like love or even self-preservation. This just feels cruel.
I stop. I just … stop.
For the next month I function in robotic mode.
No mention of Griffin to my mom or anyone else.
No prolonged contact with the Calloways.
When Scott comes over to clear the drive, I give him a polite wave and set a cup of coffee on the workbench in the garage for him. When Sherri calls to see if I want to come to dinner or have lunch on the weekends, I always find an excuse.
Nate doesn’t ask me about anything.
Not Dr. Albright.
Not the hypnosis.
In fact, he doesn’t say much at all. He’s become the employer I needed him to be months ago.
A month without mentioning Daisy.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten her or the parts to that life that reside in my mind. Something happened to me that day. And I’m not sure if it was Doug’s death or the total loss of connection to Griffin.
I guess I’m still trying to figure out how I got to this place in my life. Or maybe I’m trying to figure out exactly what place this is.
My mom is the only person who knows about Doug. She needed to know that her daughter was safe. Then I needed her to promise to never mention his name to me or anyone again.
“Look at you go, pumpkin.” Nate grins as he walks in the house and sees Morgan standing up to the sofa, hips gyrating to keep her balance. Her grin is the brightest light I have ever seen.
Hands down she is the best thing in my life at the moment. I want her to be smart, but not too smart. Popular but kind. And I want her to meet a boy just like her daddy used to be, but I don’t want some sick bastard killing her before she can truly live life.
Just random thoughts. Wishes upon stars. Prayers to an unknown god.
When Nate comes over to pick her up, she lunges for me. ME. I shouldn’t gloat, but I need this. I need something.
“Who does Morgan love?” I hug her, smirking at Nate. “Swayze. That’s who.”
He takes her from me, shooting me an evil glare that doesn’t totally hide his smile. “You’re fired.”
I laugh. “I have her five days. You have her two and maybe one to two waking hours in the evenings. What do you expect? Of course she thinks I’m awesome.”
“She got wobbly and fell in your direction, and you read awesome out of that?”
“Don’t be petty about it. You think I’m awesome too.”
“Whoa … your hungry ego has a voracious appetite today.”
“I’ll bet you three hundred dollars I can get you to say I’m awesome.”
He lifts an eyebrow. “Now we’re betting on your awesomeness or lack thereof? And not the typical hundred-dollar bet, but the interesting amount of three hundred dollars?”
I shrug. “My dishwasher went out. Three hundred dollars for a new one.”
He studies me. “I’m not going to take pity on you. A dishwasher is not a necessity.”
Of course he would say that. Growing up, he didn’t have one.
“I don’t expect pity. I will earn the Swayze, You Are Awesome award fair and square.”
“He nuzzles Morgan’s neck and she giggles.”
“Ready?” I grin.
Nate smiles. It’s big. It’s familiar. It’s the boy who loved me in that other life. “Do your worst.”
I take Morgan back from him, holding her so she’s against my chest, facing him. My mouth nuzzles her ear as I whisper so only she can hear me.
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