“I haven’t decided,” he says. “I’m thinking about it.” I get a glance that’s so fast I barely register it as a look. “If you didn’t do what those tapes show you did—”
“I didn’t.” Somehow, I manage to say it quietly. I want to shout it. To smash my fists into the table until they bleed.
“If you didn’t,” he repeats, without any emphasis at all, “then I can’t let you put yourself in danger without someone to watch your back.”
I’m biting the inside of my cheek, I realize, to keep myself from doing something stupid. I taste copper and realize I’ve drawn blood. I have a mad, stupid urge to tell him that I did do those things, and to just fuck off and let me go, because I know right now that it would be the kinder thing to do. This is tearing him apart. I can tell from the careful way he moves, as if he has to think out everything he does, no matter how normal. We seduced each other into the idea that we could overcome all this, and now . . . now we can’t.
“Someone you can recommend?” I ask him.
Sam puts his fork down and leans back against the worn vinyl of the seat. For the first time, he looks me square in the eyes, and I can’t read him at all. All control, nothing on the surface. “Lots of people,” he says. “But nobody I’d trust you not to screw over.”
“Don’t.” It’s a soft, sharp cut, and I see the flicker in his eyes to go with it. Violence, suppressed. “If you’re lying to me, swear to God, I will walk away and leave you to die, because you will deserve what you get. Do you understand me?”
I should tell him to just drive away, right now. I know I should. Sam is a good man who’s had a hard road to this point. But I can either be honest and cruel, or I can be kind and a liar.
He wouldn’t thank me for being kind. And the truth is, I need him.
“I won’t lie to you,” I say. I mean it. “I never helped him. I never will. I want him dead. And you can help me get there.”
He doesn’t blink. Doesn’t move. I can see that he’s waiting to see any sign in me of deception, or weakness.
Then he nods, spears a bite of steak, and says, “Then that’s the deal. We find him. We kill him. And we’re done.”
My scarf, I realize, has slipped down and exposed the darkened bruises around my neck, and as the waitress stops to refill our water glasses, I see her giving me a worried look. I readjust the fabric, say nothing, keep eating. When she brings the check, she turns it over in front of me. Handwritten on the back is, Is that man hurting you?
The irony is so thick I want to laugh. I shake my head and pay the bill in cash, and she moves on, still frowning.
I don’t tell Sam she thought he was abusive. It’s the darkest possible joke, because I’m the one hurting him.
By that time, Sam’s staring out the window. It’s fogged over, but when I wipe a spot clear, I realize that the sleet is coming down thick. It’s already started to coat the cold surface of the sidewalk; the freeways won’t be much better.
“We won’t get far in this,” I tell him.
He nods. “There’s a motel next door.”
We drive the SUV over to the parking lot. This chain isn’t as anonymous as the French Inn, and I have to use a prepaid card as a guarantee, even though we’re paying cash.
“One room?” the clerk asks, and it isn’t really a question until Sam says, “Two.” That earns us both a curious look, and she books us in that way. It’s twice the expense, but I understand. Space is better now.
In the silence of the anonymous room, I sit on the bed and stare at nothing, and I wonder when this emptiness will start to fill. All my panic and pain is gone now, but all that’s left is . . . nothing. Nothing but a desire to find Melvin.
My room shares a connecting door with Sam’s. I take off my shoes and wrap up in the covers, and I’m still staring at that silent closed door when sleep drags me away.
I come awake in the dark, heart pounding, and I don’t know why until I feel the phone buzzing next to me. My eyes are tired, and it takes me a second to focus on the number. It’s familiar.
It’s the same one Melvin used to call me before.
I press the button. I don’t say anything.
“Rough day?” Melvin’s voice.
“Yes,” I say. “You meant it to be.” I slip out of the covers and turn on the light beside the bed; for a heart-stopping second I’m sure I’ll see him there, sitting in the corner, but there’s no one here. I move quickly to the connecting door and open my side, muting the phone as I tap lightly on the wood.
“You brought this on yourself, Gina. You keep pushing and pushing, and pretty soon you’re going to end up somewhere you don’t want to be. Or . . . I don’t know. Maybe it’s exactly where you want to be. Maybe you’ve got a taste for it now, too.”
Sam isn’t answering, and for a hollow second I think he’s left me behind, changed his mind and driven off into the night . . . but then I hear the lock turn, and he opens the door. Like me, he’s fully dressed. He doesn’t look like he’s slept, from the bruised circles under his eyes, and light silvers the rough stubble on his chin and cheeks.
“You want to end this?” I ask Melvin. I see Sam get it, and he shifts his weight, as if he’s bracing for a fight. It helps, having him standing here. It pushes the gut-deep horror of Melvin’s voice to arm’s length, even if it’s a temporary kind of relief. “Fine, let’s end it. You come get me. I won’t fight you. We can finish this right now. All you have to do is agree to leave our kids alone.”
He’s tempted. I can feel he is; it quivers in the air between us, a horrible attraction so perverse it makes me feel sick and faint. I recognize the deeper pitch of his voice when he speaks next. This is foreplay to him. “We will finish this between us,” he says. “But not until I’m ready. You get to wait for it, honey. You get to wait, and watch, and worry when I’m going to come for you.” There’s double meanings in all of that, sexualizing and fetishizing my fear. “I want you to wait. I want you to imagine it, over and over. When you can’t stand it anymore . . . that’s when it’ll be time.”
“I’ll tell you where I am right now. All you have to do is show up.”
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