I know instinctively how much he’ll loathe that idea, and sure enough, it sparks an immediate reply. Not as controlled as the first. “You?” The barked word, and laugh, has so much contempt in it that it’s like a knife across my skin. But my skin’s thicker now, and the edge doesn’t draw blood. “No, Gina. I’m not afraid of you. How’s the weather in Georgia, by the way?” Gina, not Gwen. He’ll always call me that.
“Cozy,” I say calmly. “How’s hiding like a cornered rat?”
“Oh, I’m not hiding, sweetheart.” His tone drops into a range that feels wrong. A little frightening. “I’m looking up at that warm square of light where you are. If you turn out all the lights, you’ll see me. Pull back the curtains, Gina. Take a good look.”
My free hand fists itself in the bedclothes, a violence the lovely room doesn’t deserve, and I take in a deep, slow breath tinted with the faint scent of lavender. “The hell I will,” I say. “Because you’re a goddamn liar. You’re not here. You have no idea where I am.”
“Prove it. Go and look.”
“Fuck off with your mind games, Melvin. You’re not there. If you were, you’d be knocking on the door.”
I bolt to my feet, because at that very moment, there’s a knock. Brisk. Three taps on the main entrance.
I hang up the call, drop the phone, and lunge to open my bedroom door. “Sam! Don’t!” I grab my handgun from the shoulder holster slung over the chair, and he pauses, already in the act of unlocking. I rush to put my back to the wall. My heart’s pounding, and although I do not believe Melvin is the boogeyman he wants me to think, the timing is too eerie. I calm myself, then nod to Sam. I’m ready, but I hold the gun at my side, pointed down.
He opens the door and steps quickly back, and I see our nice hostess standing there in her blue sari, smiling. There’s another advantage of having the gun down; I can quickly slip it into a pocket of the robe before she turns her gaze toward me. “Please excuse me, I came for your clothes . . . ?”
I’d forgotten all about the laundry, and I feel incredibly stupid. Hot and cold at once. I go and grab mine. Sam stuffs them in with his and hands her the crinkling plastic bag, and she gives us a nod and a smile and moves away. She turns back as he begins to close it. “Oh, wait, sir,” she says, stepping back. Behind her is her daughter, with a silver tray. “Your scones.”
“Sorry it took so long,” the daughter says. “I hope you like them.”
They look delicious, and I say so and thank her. I wince as Sam closes and locks the door again. “Sorry,” I say. “I’m jumpy.” My heart’s racing. My hands are shaking. Melvin has put poison in my veins, like the call was a snakebite.
“Yeah, got that,” he says as he grabs a treat from the tray I’m holding in both hands. He doesn’t miss the tremors. “What is it?”
I don’t want to tell him, not yet, so I slide the tray onto the other, empty table, shake my head, and go back to the bedroom. I put my gun back in its holster. I turn the light off in the bedroom, and after a second of hesitation, I walk to the window and slide the closed curtain aside, just enough to look.
There’s a deck down on the first floor, with round wooden tables and chairs arranged in precise formation around them. The shade umbrellas are tightly folded. Beyond the deck, the lawn rolls down a hill and into underbrush, and beyond that, a forest and climbing hills. It’s a pretty place.
There’s no one down there. Not a soul stirring.
I turn back to the bed as the phone buzzes for attention. This time, I accept the call and say nothing. Just wait. The silence stretches, and finally, Melvin says, “Made you look.” I can hear the smile in his voice. Smug. Relentless.
“I’m not afraid of you, you murderous shit,” I tell him. “Fuck off.”
He hangs up. I sense that Sam’s hovering near my doorway, not quite asking, and without raising my head I say, “That was him. I’m sorry. I let him gaslight me. Won’t happen again.”
“Hey.” I do look up, finally, and his face is tense, but there’s compassion there, too. Concern. “None of this is your fault, Gwen. It never was. Remember that.”
I nod, but my heart isn’t in it. I was uniquely situated to stop a monster, for years. It’s impossible not to feel that. To know in my bones that I bear part of that blame, if only in my own mind. “He said he was here,” I say. “Outside. And then I heard the knock—”
“Bad timing,” Sam says. “Story of our lives. How the hell did he get your number?”
I take a deep breath and shake my head. I don’t know, but I can guess. Absalom. The Georgia cops demanded our cell numbers. That info got entered somewhere in a system, and Absalom would have been looking for those reports. He knows we’re in Georgia, I think, and my pulse jumps again. We shouldn’t stay here. We should run.
But that’s the old Gina, whispering to me. I’m done running. I’m hunting.
I tell Sam that Melvin knows we’re in the state, because I can’t not tell him that, and I feel a little weight come off me when he shrugs. “Have to expect that. We did send up a nice big flare at that cabin. He doesn’t know we’re here. You’re right. He was gaslighting you.”
“So should we go?”
“Do you want to go?” I silently shake my head. “Then we should get a decent night’s rest.”
Sam comes into the room, but not far. Leans against the doorpost. We’re so careful with distance, the two of us; we understand the minefield of memory and deceit and a bloody, sorrowful past.
And it doesn’t mean that the desire to step into that minefield isn’t real, too. I can feel the pull between us, slow and steady, a constant tension that we keep dialed down to a low hum, for the sake of safety. We might sleep in the same space, but we don’t sleep together. I know we’re both thinking about it on some level, especially in this calm, lovely place, stripped down to robes that untie so easily.
What dries my mouth and shakes my confidence is that I wonder if this powerful attraction I feel toward him right now is the rebound reaction of having heard Melvin’s voice. I want comfort. I crave safety. And I know that seeking that in the arms of another man—even Sam—is dangerous. My safety has to be found within myself.