Grace waited for the man to get out.
The lot was wooded so that the house was hard to see from the road. There were cathedral points and lots of deck space. Grace could see an aging barbecue. There were a string of lights, the old lantern kind, but the lanterns were weathered and torn. There was a rusted swing set in the back, like ruins from another era. There had been parties here once. A family. People who liked to entertain friends. The house had the feel of a ghost town, as if you expected tumbleweeds to roll past.
"Turn off the ignition."
Grace ran it over again. Open the door. Swing the legs out. Pull out the gun. Take aim...
And then what? Tell him to put his hands up? Just shoot him in the chest? What?
She flicked off the ignition and waited for him to get out first. He reached for the door handle. She readied herself. His eyes were on the front door of the house. She slid her hand down a little.
Should she go for it now?
No. Wait until he starts getting out. Don't hesitate. Any hesitation and she would lose the edge.
The man stopped with his hand on the handle. Then he turned around, made a fist, and hit Grace so hard in the lower ribs she thought the whole cage would cave in like a bird's nest. There was a thud and a crack.
Pain exploded across Grace's side.
She thought that her whole body would simply give out. The man grabbed her head with one hand. With the other he traced his hand down the side of her rib cage. His index finger came to rest on the spot he'd just hit, at the bottom of the rib cage.
His voice was gentle. "Please tell me how you got that picture."
She opened her mouth but nothing came out. He nodded as if he'd expected that. His hand dropped off her. He opened the car door and got out. Grace was dizzy from the pain.
The gun, she thought. Get the goddamn gun!
But he was already on the other side of the car. He opened her door. His hand took hold of her neck, his thumb on one side, his index finger on the other. He squeezed the pressure points and started to lift. Grace tried to stay with him. The movement jarred her ribs. It felt like someone had jammed a screwdriver between two bones and was jerking it up and down.
He dragged her out by the neck. Every step was a new adventure in pain. She tried not to breathe. When she did, even that slight expansion of the ribs made the tendons feel like they were being freshly ripped. He yanked her toward the house. The front door was unlocked. He turned the knob, pushed it open, and tossed her inside. She fell hard, nearly passing out.
"Please tell me how you got that picture."
He slowly moved toward her. Fear cleared her head. She talked fast.
"I picked up a packet of film at the Photomat," she began.
He nodded in the way someone does when they are not listening. He kept coming closer. Grace kept talking and tried to scoot back. There was nothing on his face, a man going about a mundane task, planting seeds, hammering a nail, putting in a buy order, whittling wood.
He was on her now. She tried to struggle but he was ridiculously strong. He lifted her enough to flip her onto her stomach. The ribs banged against the floor. A different pain, a new pain, seared through her. Her vision started going hazy. They were still in the front foyer. He straddled her back. She tried to kick, but there was nothing behind it. He pinned her down.
Grace couldn't move.
"Please tell me how you got that picture."
She felt the tears coming, but she would not let herself cry. Stupid. Macho. But she would not cry. She said it again, about going to the Photomat, and getting that packet. Still straddling her back, his knees on the other side of her hips, he put his index finger on the damaged bottom of the rib cage. Grace tried to buck. He found the spot where it hurt the most and rested the tip of his finger right there. For a moment he did not do anything. She bucked more. She flung her head back and forth. She flailed. He just waited a second. Then another.
And then he jammed the finger between two broken ribs.
The voice unchanged: "Please tell me how you got that picture."
Now she did cry. He let her. She started explaining again, changing her words, hoping it would sound more believable, more convincing. He did not say a word.
He rested the index finger on the damaged rib again.
That was when a cell phone rang.
The man sighed. He put his hands on her back and lifted himself off. The ribs screamed again. Grace heard a whimpering sound and realized that it was coming from her. She made herself stop. She managed to glance over her shoulder. He kept his eyes on her, took the phone from his pocket, snapped it open.
One thought in her head: Go for the gun.
He stared down at her. She almost didn't care. Going for the gun right now would be suicide, but her thoughts were base-escape the pain. Whatever the cost. Whatever the risk. Escape the pain.
The man kept the phone by his ear.
Emma and Max. Their faces floated toward her in something of a haze. Grace encouraged the vision. And something odd happened then.
Lying there, still on her stomach, her cheek pressed to the floor, Grace smiled. Actually smiled. Not from feelings of maternal warmth, though that might be part of it, but with specific memory.
When she was pregnant with Emma, she told Jack that she wanted to do natural childbirth and that she did not want to take any drugs. She and Jack dutifully attended Lamaze class every Monday night for three months. They practiced breathing techniques. Jack would sit behind her and rub her belly. He would go "hee hee hoo hoo." She would copy him. Jack even bought a shirt that read "Coach" on the front and "Team Healthy Baby" on the back. He wore a whistle around his neck.
When the contractions began, they rushed to the hospital all prepared, all ready for their hard work to pay off dividends. Once there, Grace felt a stronger contraction. They started doing their breathing. Jack would go "hee hee hoo hoo." Grace would follow suit. It worked wonderfully well right up until the very moment Grace started to, well, started to feel pain.
Then the insanity of their plan-when did "breathing" become a euphemism for "painkiller"?-became apparent. It washed away the macho idiocy of "taking the hurt," a concept idiotically male in the first place, and reason, calm reason, finally came to her.
She reached out then, grabbed a part of Jack's anatomy, pulled him close so he could hear her. She told him to find an anesthesiologist. Now. Jack said he would, the moment she released said anatomy. She obliged. He ran and found an anesthesiologist. But by then it was too late. The contractions were too far along.
And the reason Grace was smiling now, some eight years after the fact, was that the pain that day was at least this bad, probably worse. She had taken it. For her daughter. And then, miraculously, she had been willing to risk it again for Max.
So bring it on, she thought.
Maybe she was delirious. Nothing maybe about it. She was. But she didn't care. The smile stayed in place. Grace could see Emma's beautiful face. She saw Max's face too. She blinked and they were gone. But that didn't matter anymore. She looked at the cruel man on the phone.
Bring it on, you sick son of a bitch. Bring it on.
He finished with his phone call. He moved back toward her. She was still on her stomach. He straddled her again. Grace closed her eyes. Tears squeezed out of them. She waited.
The man took hold of both of her hands and pulled them behind her back. He wrapped duct tape around them and stood. He pulled her so that she was on her knees, her hands bound behind her back. The ribs ached but the pain was manageable for now.
She looked up at him.
He said, "Don't move."
He turned away and left her alone then. She listened. She heard a door open and then the sound of footsteps.
He was heading down into the basement.
She was alone.
Grace struggled to free her arms, but they were wrapped tightly. No way to reach the gun. She debated trying to stand and run, but that would be futile at best. The position of her arms, the searing pain in her ribs, and of course, the fact that she was a major gimp under the best of circumstances-add it up and it didn't look like a sound alternative.
But could she slip her hands under herself?
If she could do that, if she could get her hands, even bound, to the front of her body, she could go for the gun.
It was a plan.
Grace had no idea how long he'd be gone-not long, she figured-but she had to chance it.
Her shoulders rolled back in their sockets. Her arms straightened. Every movement-every breath-set the ribs afire. She fought through it. She stood and bent at the waist. She forced her hands down.
Still standing, she bent the knees and squirmed. She was getting close. Footsteps again.
Damn, he was heading back up the stairs.
She was caught in the middle, her bound hands under her buttocks.
Hurry, dammit. One way or the other. Put the hands back behind her or keep going.
She chose to keep going. Keep going forward.
This was going to end here and now.
The footsteps were slow. Heavier. It sounded like he was dragging something with him.
Grace pushed harder. Her hands were stuck. She bent more at the waist and knees. The pain made her head swim. She closed her eyes and swayed. She pulled up, willing to dislocate her shoulders if it would help her get through.
The footsteps stopped. A door closed. He was here.
She forced her arms through. It worked. They came out in front of her.
But it was too late. The man was back. He stood in the room, not five feet from her. He saw what she had done. But Grace did not notice that. She was, in fact, not looking at the man's face at all. She stared openmouthed at the man's right hand.
The man let go. And there, falling to the floor by his side, was Jack.