She nodded slowly. She could see his reasoning. It’d been years since she’d related the events of that night to anyone. Several psychologists, her parents, and two close friends were the only people she’d told the story. So much time had passed. A ridiculous urge to dump her burden in his lap coaxed out her words.
“Suzanne and I were on our way to the restaurant to meet up with the rest of the team after the meet. It was only a few blocks from our hotel. The coaches didn’t care if we wandered around town, as long as we were in pairs.”
She swallowed hard.
“We started to cross in front of the alley that was behind the hotel when a car came up. We stopped to let him turn out of the alley, but he waved us on. It was pretty dark. I couldn’t see much of him except for a silhouette and his hand waving at us. We crossed in front of the car and kept going toward the restaurant.”
“You never saw the guy in the car?”
“Not ’til I heard the car door open. I glanced behind me because it struck me as odd that the motor was still running.” She expected to see pity in Jack’s eyes. Instead, she saw intense concentration and attention.
“He rushed at us and tackled me first. I was on my stomach, with him on my back, when I screamed for Suzanne to run. She didn’t.” Lacey wiped abruptly at her eyes, angry at the uncontrollable wetness. “She started kicking him and pulling on him, yelling for him to let go of me. She was so stupid! She could’ve gotten away and got help or something!”
“Is that what you would’ve done in her shoes?”
She shook her head slowly, locked on his serious gray gaze. It’d taken months for her to accept that she would’ve stayed and fought for Suzanne. But that didn’t lessen the pain. Or the blunt anger at her dead friend for her foolishness. Blotting at her wet nose with a napkin, she pushed on as her insides churned.
“He grabbed her by the ankle and tripped her. He was so big; he could hold me and knock her down at the same time. I managed to twist to my back, and I bit his arm and tried to knee him, but he crushed his knee into my chest and punched me in the nose.” She winced. “I can still hear the horrid crunch it made. Then I couldn’t breathe because of his weight and the blood going down my throat. I don’t know what Suzanne did to him right that second, but it pissed him off. He crawled off me and grabbed her by the hair. I rolled onto my side and just lay there, trying to breathe.”
Stalling, trying to get a grip, she took a shaky sip of her drink. “I don’t know if I can…”
“Keep going.” The voice was firm, but compassionate.
She inhaled and felt strength from his calm.
“I was gagging and spitting blood. I could hear her screaming, but I couldn’t move. No one had ever deliberately hit me before,” she whispered, eyes on her cup.
“Suddenly, Suzanne stopped screaming. I mean, really stopped. She went from ear-piercing screams to utter silence. That got my attention. I rolled to my stomach, flung out blindly with both hands and grabbed at whatever was closest, catching her ankle. He was trying to lift her up and she was totally limp. I couldn’t even tell if she was breathing or not. I just knew I had to hang on or else she’d be gone. It turned into a tug-of-war. I pulled her foot to my chest, squeezing with all my strength, and shut my eyes. My gut told if I let go, she’d be dead.” She glanced up.
Jack’s eyes were wide.
“He kicked me in the face. Really hard. And more blood filled my mouth, and I was coughing and hacking to get it out. It tasted so bad, and it was thick and gross. But I wouldn’t let go. I ducked my face into her leg and held on tighter.”
“Then what did he do?”
“He kept kicking me in the head, trying to make me let go. I don’t know how many times. When he stopped kicking, I thought we’d made it. He was leaving and we were safe, but I still wouldn’t let go. Then my leg erupted with pain. The absolute worst pain I’d ever felt. Worse than my smashed face, worse than the time I broke my collarbone. He’d stomped on my knee and I let go.”
She inhaled unevenly, feeling the phantom twinges in her leg. DeCosta had shattered the tibia up near her knee. She noticed Jack was pale and rubbing at his thigh, unable to look away.
“He heaved her up over his shoulder like she was a doll and dashed back to the car. I remember seeing her arms flop down his back like broken tree limbs, but I don’t remember anything after that. They said I repeated the license plate over and over in the ambulance. I don’t remember that either.”
Her nerves were quivering, fighting the adrenalin in her system, trying to hold still, not let him see how reliving the memories had shaken her core. She’d said she didn’t remember any more, because she couldn’t articulate the absolute terror and failure she’d experienced as her eyes had strained in the dim light to lock on Suzanne, trying to pull the girl back through sheer brainpower. Lacey couldn’t describe the black curtain that had finally fallen as the car spun its tires, leaving her with a glimpse of a shimmering license plate and red taillights. Like evil eyes in the dark.
That black curtain still lurked, slithering over her skin when her guard was down.
She stared out the window at the tall firs, sucking in their icy beauty to chill the memories and cool the heavy guilt.
Why had she let go?
Jack didn’t ask if Lacey was going to finish the sandwich. He knew she couldn’t. It was a good thing he’d eaten before she started talking, or his sandwich would still be on his plate too.