The woman in front of me fell onto her knees, begging. “Put him down, please, I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it, it’ll be all right, don’t you know I love you? I won’t have anyone over again, I promise. Just—please give him to me, please give him to me—”
The iron was lowered, set back down on the board, singing the shirt left there, waiting to be smoothed out. The man’s expression transformed, a sickening look of triumph crossing it as he shifted the sobbing boy, holding him under his other arm. He reached out to touch the woman, to stroke her face. The man was so fixated on her bowed head that he didn’t see the skillet she’d pulled off a nearby low shelf, not until she stood and swung it up in a clean arc toward his face.
The baby fell to the floor and I rushed toward him, the sound of gurgling and pain and metal striking flesh and bone drowned out by his hysterical tears. I turned his soft weight over and picked him up. There was a cut at the corner of his lips, where one of his new teeth had caught the tender skin. It was bleeding profusely, but the boy stilled and quieted, looking up into my face with these wide eyes, rimmed with big tears. His thumb slid into his mouth as I tried to wipe the blood away. He didn’t start bawling again until he saw the woman, his mother, crying too, reaching down to pick him up and clutch him to her chest.
She snatched up my hand and dragged me away from the man’s prone form on the floor, the mess of his blood on the black-and-white checkered tile. He shuddered and coughed and we only moved faster, toward the door. She swiped her purse off the counter, then doubled back for the keys when she realized they’d fallen out.
The door led to a garage, and the light that flooded the cramped, dark space dissolved the memory once and for all.
I surfaced at the exact moment the weight came off my chest. I was breathing, coughing, choking on the flood of air that filled it. I rolled onto my side, curling into as small a protective ball as I could. It was several agonizing minutes before fear released its claws from me.
The small, breathy sobs I heard weren’t my own. I propped myself up on my elbow, looking for the source.
Cole sat at the edge of the mat, his back to me as he hunched over his knees, struggling to master his breathing. The section of the mirror in front of him was a spiderweb of cracks, stained with blood. I forced my feet under me and stood on shaking legs, taking one halting step toward him, and then another. He clutched his right hand to his chest, ignoring the way it bled onto his shirt. I walked to the towel rack and returned with a small cloth, pulling his hand toward me so I could clean the blood away. His skin was hot, boiling to the touch as he shook.
“Fuck,” he breathed out. “I’m sorry—we shouldn’t do this anymore. Fuck.”
“Okay,” I said softly, and stayed anyway.
I was in the bathroom, still dripping from my shower, when I heard Chubs’s voice carry down the hallway. With one last glance to make sure my hoodie covered the worst of the new bruising on my neck, I dashed out of the room, calling after him.
He spun on his heel, clearly relieved. “There you are. You missed the others—they had to leave. Apparently it’s an eight-hour drive to Gold Beach and the idiots want to do it in one day.”
“They found a truck to carry the supplies?” I asked.
“Yeah, which you would have discovered for yourself, had you made an appearance at breakfast—ah, sorry, that came out wrong. I didn’t get to tell you last night, but I’m sorry about Agent Conner. I want to tell you everything will be all right, but I’m afraid you’ll punch me.”
It was the first faint smile I’d managed all day. “Was Vi okay about going?”
He let out a long sigh, deflating somewhat. “She was trying to find you last night to run ideas by you, but it’s probably for the best she didn’t. She had a million ideas of how the two of you could sneak off to find Agent Conner.”
There it was, the now-daily sensation of being the biggest ass**le in the world. I hadn’t even tried to talk to her about this last night. I’d promised her that we would talk about these things, work through them together, and what had I done? Gone off alone to run my head clear.
“Are we still going to talk to Clancy?” he asked.
“Wait—how did you—?” I didn’t remember mentioning it to him, but that was exactly why I’d come out to catch him.
“We talked about this yesterday afternoon, when you were going to lie down for a while,” he said.
I gave him a look that must have registered how blank my mind felt. “We did?”
“Uh, we did. For at least ten minutes. You nodded. That’s generally a sign that you, you know, understand and agree.”
“Oh...you’re right. Sorry.”
“You are exhausted,” he said, poking my forehead. “Impaired judgment and forgetfulness are both symptoms.”
I nodded, giving him that. “Do you mind coming now? I have a feeling this might take a while.”
“And miss the chance to spend another day hauling around filthy, broken crap? Lead on.”
Cole hadn’t had the thought, or likely the time, to prepare Clancy’s meals for the day. I listened to Chubs complain about Vida and Vida’s language and how Vida’s “reckless history with firearms” was going to get us all killed as I did my best not to take Clancy’s water bottle, dump it out, and fill it with bleach.
The pantry had been nothing but bones a week ago, but the humanitarian rations had managed to flesh it out to the point that it was starting to look like a healthy stash. I glanced at the clipboard posted outside of its door, feeling a faint smile stretch across my lips at Liam’s neat, careful notes about what we’d already used, and what was on the menu for the rest of the week. Food allergies were noted at the very bottom of the chart—of course. Leave it to Liam to be thoughtful enough to kill himself to try to find almond milk and gluten-free pasta for the two whole kids that needed it.