We Ran: chapter 6.

“You just have to show an interest in what she likes. That’s the first step.”

The words are spoken in a gentle Irish lilt, and I swirl the beer around in my bottle as though that’s going to make the liquid perk up and regenerate itself. Damien Connelly has owned this bar for the past five years, and even though he’s been in this country for the past ten years, his voice retains a twang that’s as strong as though he’s just stepped off the boat. Part of it is sincere and part of it is a trick to drag people into his bar, which he refers to as a pub whenever people who he doesn’t recognize by eyesight step into the place.

I’m leaning my forehead against the bar, not because I’ve had too much but because I’m just tired of winding up in these sorts of situations. I want to make things right. I have a beautiful wife, and we have yet to actually have children. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t try, and on occasion, we do find ourselves in that position. Surely a child would be something that we would have in common, right?

He gives me a strong nudge under the pretense that he’s squeezing between me and a perfectly light, easy to move stool in order to wipe down the bar. His brand of roughness is the kind you can’t resent in anyone, and I can only sigh and knock back against him. He’s much smaller than me, perhaps 5’6” in the right shoes, but nobody would dare to accuse him of being a leprechaun because they know that he provides damn good service and listens just as well as he pours. Sometimes his advice isn’t half bad either.

“So, what does she like to do? Surely you have to have some idea what she gets up to when you’re here keeping me company with that pretty face of yours.”

I lift my middle finger to him, but he just takes it as a signal to pour another drink and circles around the bar, towel flung over his shoulder. Is he whistling? Of course he is.

“She’s been getting really into religious stuff lately. Reading the Bible, going to church with these ladies, that sort of thing. She even asked me if I believe in God.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“That I didn’t know.”

The whistle takes on an ominous tone, and he thoughtfully uncaps a bottle of beer before setting it down in front of me. “You can’t go disrespecting somebody else’s religion, boy. She has her eye on the eternal prize, and you’re here trying to milk the most out of every day of your life. That’s just not going to mesh.”

“Well, we haven’t meshed in a while either.”

“Because you’ve got to show her that you care, that you can handle that kind of a sacrifice for her.” He’s polishing a glass when he gets an idea. This is how it usually happens: he’s scrubbing the same spot for a while, and then he gets so excited that the glass slips in his fingers and he nearly drops it. On one occasion he actually did have to sweep up a shattered shot glass, but to be fair, immediately prior to the revelation he’d been dipping into his own meager supply of horrific red wine. “Have you tried going to church with her?”

The suggestion is so absurd that I can’t hold in my laughter. He’s slightly wounded, I know from the way that he scratches at his scraggly shock of hair like there’s some pest that’s the root of his discomfort, but I can’t feel to horrible about it. After all, he did tell me I ought to go to church. “You want me to go to church with her?”

“If that’s what she likes to do, then it seems to me like that would be an easy step in the direction of setting things right with her.”

“You’re lucky I like the beer you keep.” I point the neck of my bottle at him like a threat, but I’m smiling as I take a sip. He keeps it cool but not ice cold, and while some people don’t like it that way, I prefer it. I don’t want my hand chilled off when I’m having a drink, and I like to be able to taste what it is I’m consuming.

“What’s so wrong with church then?” he presses. “Can you not sit still for an hour while someone else talks, or is it just too early in the morning for you to bother getting out of bed?”

“The ladies that she’s taken to going with…are not my biggest fans.” This is an understatement. If I pass one of them in the hall when they come over for their ritualistic gossip, they silence and stare at me like they have to track my movements before they can resume their brainless chatter. They are the most useless creatures I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t think Jesus would like the way that they talk about and then promptly boycott sinners.

I have to hand it to Damien; once he has an idea in his head, there’s no talking him out of it. “Then imagine the look on their faces when you walk through those doors with your wife’s arm looped through yours. Just scrub up a bit, put on some decent clothes. And slick down that fucking hair of yours. Honestly, it’s a disgrace.”

“Like you can talk!”

“Certainly I can. I am personally versed in the matters of disgraceful hair, so I’m not just out to offend you. It’s from one brother to another. So what do you think? Will you give it a go just?”

To shock those girls would give me such a great sense of satisfaction, but just the thought of getting up and being crammed into a pew with all of those people freaks me out a bit. All of the talk of salvation just strikes me as being selfish. People don’t go because they loved the Lord so much as they just want to make sure that they don’t burn in the eternal hellfire. Either embrace the hard lifestyle and take responsibility for it, or at least admit why you go. Don’t pretend it’s like it’s some big fucking party every Sunday where everyone’s just so happy to get a new take on the Bible they’ve already read ten times in the past month.

“There’s another problem.”

“I’ll all ears, son.”

I actually find myself feeling a bit shy now, looking down at the condensation on the bar. I wish he would have wiped that up when he was actually pretending to do the work. Now it’s just distracting to me, and I can’t resist dipping my finger into it and drawing shapes that seem to dry up from my body heat. “The way she talks about the pastor. It’s almost romantic. She seems to think the world of him, always going on about how he’s just the nicest man and has such a great perspective and warm eyes. She actually told me that his eyes are warm. Do I have cold eyes or something? What does that even mean?”

“Well, yours blue,” he says, trying to get a bit of a laugh out of me. This time it falls flat, but he doesn’t get discouraged. “Do you think they’re having an affair?”

“What? No. How can you even say that? Karen would never do something like that to me.”

He holds up both hands in surrender and then goes back to polishing a glass like it might hold a genie that will give him some idea of how to help me with my situation. It’s really not his fault that I’m so hopeless, but I need to lean on him. I have nowhere else to go with all of these demons inside my head, and I can’t afford to unleash them back at home.

“Well, when you say that a woman’s taken a shine to another man, and you’re the one who’s sitting on the barstool avoiding home, it just seems like there’s something there that you don’t want to own up to.”

“I don’t want to be less of a man in her life than this stranger. That was my house, bought with my money for my wife. Now it’s getting filled up with these people who come in and try to save her soul and make her care about what’s going to happen after we die. Fuck the afterlife, you know? We’re here now. We’ve gone through so much. Yet I don’t feel like I can go in there at certain times without them looking at me and judging me. Who gave them the authority? Whose God would say that that’s all right?”

He circles around to me and puts a hand delicately between my shoulder blades. At first I think that I don’t want to be touched, that I want to just curl up and feel the weight of my grief press me down into the floorboards until I can’t get up. But his palm is light, almost feminine given his size. If I close my eyes, it almost feels like things could be okay again. “You haven’t lost her yet. She still has your name and your ring. You still share the same roof and the same bed.”

“But I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think that I’m enough.”

“Then you’re going to have to come up with something. This isn’t just about Karen, you know. It’s about you. You have to figure out what you want and how you’re going to make that life happen. You’re not eighteen years old anymore. Life doesn’t just sit out there and wait for you to tap your watch and decide it’s finally time for things to happen on your own terms. It crashes through your door without being asked and batters just about everything in its path. You’re beaten down a bit now, but that doesn’t mean that you have to let yourself stay that way. You fought for her once, didn’t you? What’s so different now?”

There are so many answers to that question that I could provide him, none of them pleasant. “Maybe I just wasn’t made for fighting.”

“Then we’re just going to have to rebuild you, aren’t we?”

I don’t like the tone he’s taking with me, and I find myself sitting up straighter if only to exert the knowledge that I’m a bigger man than he is. “What is this ‘we’ business that you’re getting at?”

“Finish your drink in a hurry. We’re going to give you a small makeover to transform you into the kind of respectable man that anyone would appreciate calling a husband.”

“Have you lost your fucking mind? Why should I listen to anything you have to say about respectability?”

“Because your drinks tonight are on the house, but I’m cutting you off. Come on, nobody else is here. Get that down your throat, and we’ll head on up to my lair to take care of business.”

“How do you ever get laid when you call it your lair?”

“You’re hardly in a position to cast stones.”

As much as I resent the hell out of the guy for being able to read me and my situation so well, I know that it’s better to listen to him than to get angry. What good is it going to do me to slink off home, alone and frustrated by my situation? My silence would only upset Karen as much as anything I could possibly say, and then I’ll stay up all night trying to think of ways to get a buzz while she’s sitting up in bed, waiting for me to finally join her. It’s not an appealing thought to me.

Once I set the empty beer bottle back on the bar, he gives a cheer as though there are actually other people he has to rush out of the bar. He plucks up the bottle and drops it in the trash, then sets about turning out the lights. I have a feeling he wouldn’t even bother unless he was worried about people wandering in when the other bars have closed down, seeking out that final drink that will make home that much more distant.

In the darkness, we take off towards a set of stairs in the back. I’ve never actually gone up to his place before, and for some reason, I figured that he would live across town rather than in one of the apartments overtop of his own establishment. It seems too close, too familiar, too much of a trap. He doesn’t seem to mind it though, whistling as we make our way up and as I curse every time that my toe bangs against a step in the darkness. Not once does he offer to turn on a light or otherwise make the ascent easier. Once we make it to the top of the stairs, he pulls out a heavy key ring and squints in the darkness to find the right one. Why he bothers to lock up when he lives here is beyond me, but I don’t dare to question his logic.

The place is surprisingly sparse, but I suppose it’s not like he has to sprawl out all that much when he already lives in the building and spends most of his time downstairs. As soon as we’re through the front door, there’s a beaten down couch with the stuffing leaking out and a few pitiful, patchwork beanbags slumped on the floor. A tapestry hangs on the wall, and I start to wonder why he doesn’t have beaded curtains in the place of doors. I’m afraid of what the answer might be though.

“I’d ask if there’s anything I can get you in order to make you comfortable, but this isn’t about what makes you comfortable. This is about what’s going to make you happy in the long term, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.” I could actually see myself hating him if he didn’t have such a bright smile and a way of going from a pensive bastard to the most congenial guy you’ve ever met.

We’re hardly past the door before he has a joint drawn from his shirt pocket. It’s incredible how it’s been tucked in there all this time and I’ve had no clue. With a practiced hand, he lights the cigarette and takes a slow breath, holding it in and looking at me like he could use all the help he can get. “Do you want some?” he asks on the exhale, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger.

“That’s okay.” My wife’s already concerned enough about me spending all of my time getting drunk. I hardly need to add drugs to the score and to explain where the money’s going. My head’s already swimming enough as is, and he just shrugs it off, joint between his lips as he moves deeper into the apartment. I don’t want to be abandoned to a beanbag chair or cushion on the floor, so that just means I have to go deeper into the apartment with him.

His bedroom is much more traditional than I had expected, with a complete bed in the center and posters on the walls. The Beatles, The Clash, The Rolling Stones…he seems to have an affinity for rock acts with a definite article involved. Rather than head towards the wardrobe, which I figured would be his destination, he finds the bed and immediately sprawls out, waving at me to take center stage. “All right, you’re going to be going to church. I’m some horribly stuck up bitch who’s concerned that the holy ghost doesn’t have enough food to eat. You’re trying to charm me. And go!”

The prompt throws me off, and after drinking so much, I’m not sure that I’m in the best condition to be tackling this challenge. Still, he looks so little like the kind of woman that I’d be going up against that I turn my back to him in order to laugh. That out of my system, I whirl around and stretch my arm across my chest, giving him a deep bow. “Pleased to take your acquaintance, miss,” I say, going for the bonus points of flattering any woman by making her feel younger than she is. “I don’t believe that we’ve met before. I’m Dustin. And you are?”

I expect some sort of positive feedback if only for the fact that I’ve really hammed it up, but I don’t even get so much as a slow clap from him. He just rolls his eyes and shakes his head, two signs that I cannot endure lightly. I know that I’ve fucked up, but at least there must be some feedback forthcoming. “Erica Collins, and I must say that you have a lot of cheek on you. I’m not out looking for some man to seduce me. I just want to read my Bible and be a pleasant old gal. No need to try to charm me. It makes it seem like you have something to hide.”

Maybe he has a point. I turn around again, trying to get into character. Obviously just showing up to church isn’t going to be enough. If I’m falling asleep during a service or can’t at least banter about why I’ve suddenly decided to accept our Lord and Savior into my dark, sinful heart, I’m going to nosedive before noon. I can’t look like I’m just humoring Karen, especially since she hasn’t even asked me to show up. What I have to do is look like this is coming from the heart, and really, the effort is, even if it’s something I couldn’t care less about.

This time I’m as demure as I can manage, keeping my eyes to the ground until I’m right next to the bed. I pretend that my wife’s next to me, greeting the women who are near and dear to her heart with the warmth that she no longer reserves for me. Surely they would excited words for one another, anecdotes about recipes and candles that don’t resonate with me in the slightest. Once the words have finished stringing themselves together in my head, I clear my throat. “I’m Dustin. Pleased to meet you. It’s so great to finally be able to meet you after Karen’s said so much about you.”

Damien narrows his eyes at me and taps a bit of ash onto the floor. I’m sure that’s not what church is like, but I don’t say anything about his technique. That would just be ungrateful. “And what exactly has she said about me? And I’ve been to your home when you’ve been home? What exactly have you been up to? What is your stance on the alcohol question?”

There’s no predicting women even when they’re coming from another man’s imagination. I sink down on the edge of the bed, resisting the urge to hide my face in my hands. It would be just too obvious, expressing too much disappointment. He’s clearly doing his best for me, and I realize that I haven’t really had a close friend like this before. Running away with Karen was alienating for me, and I’ve dedicated so much of my life to being with her. That isn’t exactly conducive to forming close relationships with other men.

“Why don’t you just try something simple?”

“Simple like what?”

“Hello, I’m Dustin. I’m Karen’s husband. It’s lovely to meet you.”

“And what happens when they ask me why they haven’t seen me around before?”

“Then you just tell them the truth. That you’re curious.”

“I’m not curious though. Not really.”

“You want to save your marriage, do you not?”

I nod, incapable of saying the words out loud. To say that it’s actually in danger is much too scary to admit. If he sees it that way, it’s his problem. As for me, I can just get by with expressing fear that there’s some crack. It doesn’t have to be fatal.

“Then you’re curious. You want to know what’s drawing her to this rather than to you. You don’t have to say what you’re curious about. All you have to say is that you’re curious. Smile, but not too much. Shake hands, but don’t grip too firmly. And for God’s sake, put on a jacket and comb your hair. I hate saying it, but even this pot isn’t making you look any better. You’re really going to have to do some work on it.”

We Ran: chapter 5.

“Have you ever read the Bible?”

The only clock that we have in the bedroom is on the wall, so I can’t tell what time it is when she finally speaks. I’ve been drifting in and out of sleep for an hour or more, but she’s remained stony on her back, not even leaning in for a kiss or cuddle at any point. I’ve been on my side facing away from her just to get a bit of peace, but now that’s lost.

Holding in a sigh is difficult, but somehow I manage it as I navigate from my left side to my right. She’s still staring up at the ceiling, not even paying me a glance as I grunt and rustle my way to turn to her. Just to try to get her attention somehow, I give the blankets a bit of a yank accidentally-on-purpose, but she just waits for me to stop moving before she pulls them back over her legs, hands smoothing across her waist and then settling back into the same position they’d assumed before.

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We Ran: chapter 4.

I’m not in my bed. As soon as I open my eyes, I realize that this isn’t the way my own ceiling looks. The fan has brown blades rather than white, and the dimensions are all wrong. Of course I know that this means that I am not in the right room and everything else beyond what I see must be wrong, but for the time being, I’d much prefer just looking up and focusing on what I already know. Best not to overwhelm myself with too many details too soon.

“So you’re up.”

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We Ran : chapter 3.

I’ve always thought that it was unfair for women to look so stunning when they feel such pain. Maybe it’s because there’s a part of me that  feels like I can be a hero if only I can wipe their tears away, or maybe it’s just a defense mechanism that kicks in so that I can cope with the  pressure before me. Either way, it’s still impossible to remain numb to the fact that she is crying in her wedding dress.

“It’s because I wore white,” she explains bitterly, her hands clutching at the fabric to create wrinkles in the satin skirt. She pieced together the whole thing herself—the bodice tight and overlaid with lace daisies, the  neckline unfairly high, cap sleeves puffing out to provide only modest comfort and protection from the winter’s bite.

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We Ran: chapter 2.

The machines are taking over all these sprawling farms. As I drive past,  I see the tops of them rising up with more resolve and durability than any crop. Green and red and yellow, they’re meant to be a reassuring presence upon the land. They’ll till, they’ll plant, they’ll harvest, and all that the farmer is left to do is take the carrot and bite into it while reassuring the distributors that it’s fresh. But where are the workers?

I know that I don’t have a lot of useful skills. Apparently these days people want to know that their cars are being looked after by the book, not pieced together by some kid who thinks he has half an idea of what he’s doing once the thing starts up in spite of his adjustments. Everyone’s out for blood and references.

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We Ran: Chapter 1.

A couple of years ago, I was embarking on the manic torture of National Novel Writing Month for the second year in a row. Tired Pony’s album The Place We Ran From had just been released, and I liked the fact that there was some narrative quality infused in the record from start to finish. Some people say, “Write what you know,” but I don’t know anything until I’ve written it. To that end, I decided to glean inspiration from those songs and then build my own story. A heavy debt is owed to that music, though I’ve tried to be as inventive as possible with the outcome. I’ll be posting as I edit. Hope you enjoy!

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NaNoWriMo: part 7. THE END.

The newsprint danced before Oliver’s eyes as he tried not to take a nap in his casserole. Today’s was some seven-layer monstrosity based on Mexican fast food, if he was to give a name to the bean-and-cheese abomination on his plate. He pushed the chunks of salsa around on his plate as his young bride pouted. “We should go out and do something exciting,” she stated.

 

“Yeah? Like what?”

 

“I don’t know. We could go dancing. See a movie. Get dressed up and go out to dinner somewhere fancy.”

 

Raising his eyes to hers, he merely yawned. He knew that he wasn’t anything approaching presentable in the moment. The effort of planning a funeral had been more tedious than he’d expected. The obituary in the newspaper had contained several typographical errors, something having to do with a reporter bitterly hitting the “autocorrect” button, and he had to be sure that the reprinting had fixed everything since the service was to be held the next day. He wanted to make sure that Lily saw the listing so she would know where to go.  He told himself that it had been right to kick her out of the house. It was for her own safety. If only he’d had some privacy to convince her that it wasn’t safe to be so openly defiant to this woman. He loved Marilyn, but he also knew how harsh she could be. He had never been able to dispel Marilyn’s suspicions about his sister. The best he could do was to put distance between them. But since their argument at the hospital, he had not heard a word from Lily, even when they’d drawn up the “recovered” living will and discovered that Darren Pratt had a “do not resuscitate” order. His heart gave out, and so too did their efforts to keep him alive.

 

Marilyn dropped onto his lap and drew his head to her chest. She smelled of vanilla and spice, and though she wore a sweater, the material was tight and soft. They had gone so far that it seemed tempting to give himself over to her comfort. She did all this for me. I can’t betray her now. “I could maybe do a movie,” he told her. He was so exhausted that he was sure he would fall asleep in the dark, but if that would make her happy, he would do his best.

 

She sighed and ran her fingers through his hair. “You’re getting shaggy,” she critiqued from nowhere. It seemed to be her way, to find something that she wanted and then to take complete control. Dominate or eliminate. “You really ought to get out and do something fun to take your mind off things. I don’t like seeing you depressed. You’re ruining our honeymoon,” she added, as though that would somehow motivate him.

 

“I know I am. I know.” How could he tell her that all he wanted to do was get in touch with his sister? How could he even think about Lily when he had a leggy blonde on his lap? He was lucky, oh so lucky to start again at thirty. So why was he so miserable?

 

Maybe she’s started on my food too.

 

He pushed the thought from his mind as quickly as possible, but he felt even less compelled to take a bite of his dinner. As far as victims went, he didn’t have much to offer. Marilyn had become considerably wealthy upon the death of her father, and with Darren’s death, they had secured some cherished property. But what would she want to do with a barren farm that was in desperate need of improvements and repair? It was good for its size or the sentimental value, little more. And if he died, he was sure that Lily would kick up a considerable fuss. At least he hoped so. Not that it would matter after he’d died.

 

Grappling with depression through his life had made him somewhat accustomed to the low moods, but nothing compared to the guilt he carried. He had a beautiful life and could afford a relaxed lifestyle at last. He had not earned it through his own sweat, but he had bought it with his conscience. Surely that was something. He longed to escape his own mind, if only for a little while. And then a thought came to him.

 

He patted his wife’s back to make her stand, then leaned into her for a kiss. The passion between them had lessened considerately after his father’s death, though she seemed no less insatiable. Day after day, he told himself that he had to accept the path he’d chosen for himself, to leap into the flames and enjoy what he’d stolen for himself. He was not his mother. He was going to survive, even if that meant others would have to die in his stead.

 

“Why don’t we go down to the bar?” he suggested. She started to pull a face, but he just kissed her again. He’d made the suggestion a few times before, but she’d made excuses about how it wouldn’t be fun to have one of them intoxicated while the other remained sober. This time, he was prepared for her feeble protests. “We can afford a cab to get us home. Or I’ll give you a piggyback ride back. Don’t you want to see if your old man can manage it?”

 

A smile cracked its way through her tight-lipped refusal, and he saw that she had lost her stubborn battle. When she laughed, she looked so young that he could hardly believe what they had done. We were just trying to protect ourselves. We just want to be happy. So be happy. “Well have a drink and see what happens. Just one,” she told him with a tap of her fingertip against his nose. “I want to see this guy you seem to think so highly of. Lee?”

 

“Liam.” He ripped the obituary from the paper and folded it to place in his pocket. If his old friend hadn’t read the news, then he wanted to be the one to deliver the blow personally. He’d known the old man for twenty years and deserved to be at the funeral. Surely missing work wouldn’t be a problem for him.

 

She assumed her spot on the driver’s side of the car, hers rather than his. It gave him the opportunity to crack his window and fish out his pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t sure when the habit had taken hold of him, but he felt more comfortable having something to do with his hands these days. It also gave him a reason to remain mostly silent as his wife talked about the gossip she’d heard from this person or that. Since her father’s death, she’d considered her own future in politics, and that meant knowing the business of every man, woman, and child in the community. At least that seemed to be her interpretation of the office.

 

The drive was mercifully short, and he begged her leave to just have time to finish his smoke. She looked hesitant about heading into the bar alone, but then firm resolve took over her features. Without him by her side, she would be able to form her own opinion about the place and its patrons, which would give her an opportunity to decide whether they would be leaving early or not. She pressed a kiss to his cheek and then set off inside, all tight skirt and swiveling hips. As he watched those legs retreat from him, he was certain that no woman under the age of forty had been in the bar for decades.

 

As he leaned against the hood of the car, he noticed a man fiddling with a chain to secure a bike against…well, therein dwelled the problem. There wasn’t a convenient place to attach the chain, so he rolled on along the front of the building, searching for a pipe or pole. It was only when he stepped beneath one of the dim lights that highlighted the joint’s sign that Oliver recognized his friend. The thought of catching up again made him smile, and he would definitely have to vent about having acquired his filthy habit from the person who was supposed to have his back.

 

“Decide to trade in the bike for an older vintage?” he asked as he clapped the other man on the back. Liam had always been proud of the motorcycles that he stubbornly rode even in the snowiest of winters. “I have to hand it to you, you can probably be safer drunk on one of those than on one of your choppers.”

 

He expected a hug or a sneer or at least some sarcastic remarks about how he hadn’t been around in a while. Hell, part of him even expected to receive some condolences for having lost his father so recently. He did not see the fist coming until it had already swept through the air, ready to make contact with his nose. He didn’t have time to dodge the blow entirely, but he did manage to turn enough to take the blow on the cheek instead.

 

As he was falling, he tried to remember the last time he’d been punched. He’d never been one for fighting. Perhaps it was in middle school, when boys were talking about his sister and it had been a matter of honor to act out. He didn’t remember the pride he’d felt then as the gravel stung his back and his cheek throbbed red hot in pain. “What the fuck?” he asked, but the words were abandoned as he rolled away from the boot that tried to connect with his ribs next.

 

He was on his feet, looking to the door. Marilyn had already made it inside. The bike had fallen over, leaving the chain free. He made a dive for it, but Liam was surprisingly quick and managed to grab the lapel of his coat. He found himself shoved up against the side of the bar quickly. He waited for the whip of metal against his skin, but it did not come.

 

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?” his friend—former friend—hissed against his cheek, the one that was already bruised and swelling.

 

To beg would be pathetic, but he felt himself writhing against the fist pressed to his chest, as though he could untangle those fingers from the grey wool blend. “I didn’t realize our friendship had an expiration date,” he said to the fist rather than Liam’s face. He wanted to make eye contact, to show that he wasn’t afraid, but the threat of another punch wasn’t one that he would endure without being prepared this time. “You could have a bit of fucking heart, man. I know I’ve been out of touch, but I’ve been pretty busy, in case you hadn’t heard.”

 

“What, getting someone to marry you so you can get paid to keep your house?”

 

The accusation made both cheeks burn with indignation. “What the fuck is that to you?” He thought of Marilyn inside, waiting for the bartender who had yet to arrive. “For your information, I just lost my father, so you can cut the attitude.”

 

The grip on him didn’t loosen, and he shifted to keep the plastic siding from digging into his spine. “Yeah, well, what about your sister?” Liam hissed. “You think she didn’t lose her old man too? After all the years she put into taking care of him, you think it’s some crazy coincidence that you keep her away from him, he goes and gives up the ghost?”

 

“You don’t know a damn thing about it.” He wanted to ask where Lily was and how Liam knew what was happening with her, but pride wouldn’t let him. He swallowed thickly and managed to stick his chin out with defiance. This was the life that he had wanted. This was the path to happiness, or so he had told himself.

 

To his surprise, Liam released him. His feet weren’t prepared for handling his balance, and he pitched forward onto his knees. The other man just laughed and shook his head at the vulnerability he displayed. “Man, you are convinced that your shit doesn’t stink, aren’t you? Do you think I got all that from the Internet?” He waited for a beat, but when he realized that Oliver wasn’t talking, he just laughed down at him. “Lily, you fucking moron! Lily told me. Your sister, remember her, or do you have room for only one woman in your life at a time?”

 

To Oliver, it felt like a veiled accusation about the death of his mother, but he knew that saying that out loud would just be madness. He pushed himself up and brushed the pebbles from his clothes. Soon Marilyn would realize that he was taking too long to follow her inside, and then she would come looking. She would not back down from Liam’s aggression, though he worried about her reaction more than his. “Where did you see Lily?”

 

“Where do you think I saw her? Here. She came here. Where else did she have to go? Did you think she was just going to sleep at the library?”

 

There was something so self-righteous in Liam’s tone that something clicked in Oliver’s mind. He saw the pride in the man’s stance, in his gaze, in the way he managed to stand between him and the door. “Are you fucking my sister?”

 

“Ollie!” Lily pulled the door open but didn’t step outside. She didn’t have a coat on, and both of her arms wrapped around the baggy plaid shirt she wore in order to keep the heat in.

 

Liam spread his feet in order to keep his balance that much more solid. “Go back inside, Lily. I’m handling it.”

 

“Did you hit him? Oh my God. Oliver, what are you doing here?”

 

What could he say for himself? He came to the bar for a drink. Everyone went to the bar to drink, to forgot, for company or for forgetting what it was like to be alone. He wanted to say that he was sorry. He wanted to say that he knew she would be okay, that she was better off with Liam than she could be hanging around the house and building up Marilyn’s hypothetical and literal venom. Instead, all he could think to saw was “Did you see Marilyn?”

 

His sister’s features darkened even in the dim light. “So it’s not enough to run me out of the house, you have to come here and chase me off all over again? I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

 

“But you don’t drink. This isn’t your scene. Liam isn’t even your friend,” Oliver entreated. She hardly looked like how he remembered his sister. Since when did she pull her hair back into a bun and actually wear makeup, especially with those ridiculously baggy clothes?

 

Lily straightened up and set her eyes in a solid glare. “He’s been more of a brother to me than you have been lately. He has an extra room for me and has been teaching me how to handle the bar so I can pull in a little money. And no, for your information, we haven’t been ‘fucking.’” She raised her fingers to draw quotation marks in the air when she said the word. “I guess you wouldn’t know anything about respecting me now, but Liam does.”

 

The accusation stung worse than the punch had. Oliver looked from his sister to the friend who had moved to put an arm around her. Somehow they looked like a natural couple. In another life, perhaps he would have blessed them to explore the chemistry that they had. As it stood, he just felt the nausea of jealousy and betrayal. “You have no idea what I was doing for you by asking you to leave. You really should be thanking me, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll just head on home then.”

 

“Yeah, you go back to your big, empty house and your lifeless wife. Maybe you can put a baby inside her so you can get some company up there. Fucking prick,” Liam murmured. The words were delivered as though he wasn’t even there, and Oliver knew that if he had been a fighter, he would have let a fist fly. Instead he just let his head dip down until his chin touched his chest.

 

“I can’t just leave Marilyn in there,” he said weakly.

 

The mere mention of his wife’s name sent a spasm of rage across his sister’s features. Liam tightened his grip on her, but she regained control of herself. “Don’t worry,” she said with a cold smile, “I’ll send her out to you.”

 

He hardly wanted to be left alone with the man who had battered his face, but he didn’t want to wait in the car, either. “You have to make her understand that I was doing the only thing I could think of to protect her.”

 

Liam snorted a laugh and rubbed his knuckles, trying to ease the cramping from them. If they were more than just moderately sore, he didn’t let on. “You think that leaving her to fend for herself penniless and homeless, waiting for your old man to die is really a favor? You’ve gotten really fucking twisted man.”

 

“He was in pain. He wasn’t living anymore.” I did it for us. I did it for Marilyn and myself and even Lily.

 

“Yeah, well, did you ever think about what Lily was living for? Did you think that she might have wanted to just say goodbye, even if he didn’t hear her?”

 

She had no life. I was freeing her.

 

Oliver shrugged inside his coat and knew that talking about his sister wouldn’t get him anywhere. “What ever happened to us, man?” he asked instead, meaning it to be rhetorical. Liam laughed so hard in the cold that his breath came out in a foggy burst.

 

“You got your head up your own ass. Or her ass. I’m sure it’s gorgeous, but you know. Have a bit of fucking dignity, okay?”

 

Marilyn tried to slam the bar door behind her, but no sound came. Her cheeks were pink with fury, eyes wide as she sought out her husband. She grabbed his elbow and pulled it off to the car without a word. “Nice to meet you, gorgeous!” Liam shouted at them. “Why don’t you call next time so I know to expect company?”

 

She flung herself into the passenger’s seat, leaving Oliver to take the wheel. He knew the car would be more comfortable if they gave it time to warm up, but he didn’t have the patience to stay and be ridiculed further. From the corner of his eye, he could see how brittle his wife was, as though she had turned to ice to avoid feeling anything beyond rejection. He knew that she wanted him to ask her what had happened inside the bar. But nobody was going to ask him what he’d done. Nobody wanted to know how he’d saved everyone who was worth saving. Nobody would ever appreciate the sacrifices that he had made. They didn’t deserve his generosity anymore.

 

“Lily knows,” he said instead.

 

 

 

After finishing her shift at the bar, Lily was reluctant to go home with Liam. He had been generous, and his dark eyes were kind when they were the only two still left in the rundown old building. His hands were always warm, and he could summon a joke from any situation. Except this, she reminded herself. “Do you want to grab a pizza and rent a movie?” he suggested as he locked the door behind him. His apartment was within walking distance, and the effort would be more of a detour than a convenience. Still, she knew that he was trying to show her kindness.

 

In another life, she thought, she could find herself falling in love with him. Those muscular arms would keep her safe, and she would tease him for having such a buff build despite having never done a bit of exercise for as long as she’d gotten close to him. She would share his bed, wash his clothes, stroke his hair. But she knew that it wasn’t her fate to do such a thing, at least not yet. “I need to go clear my head. What happened earlier…” She trailed off and met his eyes pleadingly. She’d spent too much of her life looking down at her feet.

 

He opened his mouth to protest but cut himself off. In spite of his party boy reputation, he possessed an understanding of people that made him a wonderful bartender and a social boon. “Just give me a call if you need a lift home. And don’t do anything I would do, okay?”

 

She had to smile at that warning. She let herself lean into his warmth, pressing a kiss to his cheek. She expected him to recoil like everyone else in her life seemed to, but he let out a gentle laugh and gave her a hug. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a hug before this. Before him.

 

She didn’t have to look back to know that he was watching her bike away. Left would be the right direction for town and a scenic route, but instead she hit the road and went right. He probably knew where she was going, but she was grateful that he didn’t try to stop her. Her front wheel wobbled back and forth as her arms shook. She had thought that she could be strong for her father, for her mother, for everyone who had ever dared to believe in her, but she didn’t buy it herself. She had never felt weaker than she did then, and the one person who had always been in her corner was gone.

 

The most difficult part for her was to admit to herself that her brother was no longer her friend. The man who had come to the bar was not the boy who had grown up with her, and she understood that now. It would make what she had to do easier.

 

She hated the thought that she would go back to the house when her father was no longer there. For years he had not left without her driving him, and she knew that he had to have been terrified of the end without her there. Had he doubted that he would die because she was missing it? Had he asked for her or thought about her at all? Or did he just never wake up after the heart attack?

 

Fighting back tears was a waste of time. She let herself cry, not because of the pain she felt but because she had been weak for so long. She could have done more by stopping the girl or standing up to her brother. Instead she had let herself be demolished by selfish people for too long.

 

There was something comical about seeing the old house with only one light on inside. Already small things had changed: a wind chime on the front porch, names on the mailbox, a couple of rocking chairs beside the door. She left her bike at the bottom of the lane to avoid making too much sound. She imagined what it would like to be a stranger walking up this way, taking in all the land that was put to no use at all anymore. All she could feel was sadness and regret. As much as she tried to leave her own frame of mine, she knew this was a place defined by loss.

 

Still, she knew she belonged here. Had she not lost everything that she had held precious? Did she not deserve to fade into history the way this farm would? Was this not her fate?

 

She thought about knocking on the front door and then letting herself inside. She could scream at liver and make him face what he had done to her. She could continue the conversation she had had with Marilyn at the bar. She had been leaning against a wall, looking bored out of her mind while the few men inside laughed together and sent knowing looks in her direction. They had all been daring each other to approach her, but no one had built up the nerve. Lily had poured a shot of vodka and held it out to her, smiling all the while. When she’d said that it was the only drink that she’d be getting and that her money couldn’t buy everything, Marilyn had looked like her hand would shatter the small glass. She had waved her hand as though she couldn’t decide if she wanted to throw the bit of liquor in Lily’s face or throw it back just to spite her. In the end, she’d just blown past her to the door.

 

The winter had already devastated her garden, but she knew the trellis should still be leaning against the house. It rose up with a few dried tendrils still clinging to the wood. Part of her was surprised that Marilyn hadn’t had it torn down immediately, but she wanted to believe that Oliver was sentimental enough to keep this piece of her still alive, as though she too might return in spring once the ground thawed and emotions had found their rightful place. He’d never think I’d come back now.

 

Had the lattice been purchased from a store, she knew it would never hold her weight. But her father had been far too proud to resort to buying something he could make by hand. Even when his health began to fail him, he had used the time trapped inside to work the wood together, taking care that each joint was strong. He’d applied five layers of white paint because it hadn’t looked just right to him before then. She’d laughed and told him that it would be outside and hopefully covered with ivy soon enough, so there was no point in taking such care and wasting so much paint. He’d merely rolled his eyes and gone back to the brush to make the strokes just so.

 

The structure barely whispered beneath her weight as she pulled herself up. The holes were tiny, but she managed to get a solid enough grip to make up for her fumbling feet. She felt her heart start to stagger uncontrollably when she as a few feet off the ground, but by the time she was past the first floor of the house, she had grown oddly comfortable with her mission. She was, after all, doing this for a purpose.

 

She had always hoped to have her bedroom facing out toward the garden, but it was never meant to be. This was the master bedroom, and thus her father had always been able to look down on her pride and joy. This fact now worked in her favor since she never bothered to lock the window. His illness made it difficult to control his temperature, and being able to welcome a breeze at a moment’s notice had been a gift.

 

What she hadn’t thought through was how she would open the window from the outside. Her balance was precarious already, and when she tried to get her fingers in the small crack at the bottom of the frame, she felt her fingernails bend back noncommittally. Any more pressure and they would surely snap, and she knew that she would not be able to keep quiet. She wedged her feet in the trellis as confidently as she could, put a palm on either side of the window frame, and pushed up with all her might.

 

There was a slight give, and that was enough. She bit down on her lower lip until she could taste blood in her mouth, hot and metallic and cloying. She didn’t scream though, and that was what mattered to her. She could be brave, she knew that now. The pane had given way just enough that she could get her fingers inside, and with all her strength she lifted, sending the wood moaning as the glass retreated upward. She’d never crawled through a window before, even when she was a teenager, and the thought of managing to do just that felt thrilling to her. The reality was less appealing, all twisted limbs and slow movements to make sure she didn’t spill in or tumble out.

 

When she finally pulled herself to her feet, the nostalgia nearly drove her to the floor again. The bed was still unmade, and there was no sign that anyone had bothered to clear away her father’s things yet. His scent was still heavy all around, like sterile wipes and musky lotion and the popcorn he adored even as it stuck in his dentures and made a mess of the carpet as the kernels were lost. He had been taken from her, but his belongings were still here, his favorite shirts and the Westerns he read and the tapes he insisted on watching because he refused to believe in any more modern technology.

 

She was so lost within her own mind that she didn’t hear the gun until she had fallen and something warm was welcoming her.

 

 

 

Marilyn had known that Oliver wouldn’t shoot. She’d heard the noises first and had gripped her husband’s arm, begging him to hunt down the intruder. He had looked uncomfortable though, and that wouldn’t do. She remembered how he’d fired upon the deer so long ago, only managing to graze it when it had been such a simple kill. No, if she wanted this done right, she would just have to take care of things herself. He would just help with the cleanup and then turn in on himself, as usual. In that sense, he had disappointed her, but at least she knew him well enough to trust that he would keep his stupid mouth shut.

 

She’d owned the gun for such a long time that it felt natural to carry it down the hall. Her own father had taught her how to shoot, taking out tin cans and even small birds in her youth. She’d always been a bit uncomfortable with blood though, and in spite of all her fantasies of putting a bullet in the back of the hunter’s head, or heart, or his kneecaps just to make him suffer a particularly harsh execution, she had never felt compelled to shoot.

 

The dumb bitch was just standing in the bedroom like she had never seen it before. She looked stunned, the window wide open behind her. Marilyn cursed herself for having not checked the lock sooner, but then she decided to be grateful. Lily really could not have made things easier if she had knocked down the front door and committed suicide right before their eyes.

 

Pulling the trigger was as easy as it had always been. She knew the bullet was designed to create a mess, going into the flesh and shattering to bits to cause the most damage. There was no hope for her as soon as she hit the floor, and better yet, the bullet wouldn’t sink into the wall and leave traces of a crime scene. It wasn’t as neat as her poisons, but in a pinch such as this, it worked well enough. Lily could have cried out or begged or even screamed for help. Instead she just embraced the floor and let death have her, passive to the end.

 

The blood was going to be an issue on the carpet. Marilyn sighed and set the gun on the floor. She could have dropped it, but then it might go off again. That wouldn’t do, not at all. She kneeled next to the shuddering pile of limbs that was her sister-in-law, then touched the blood gently. She didn’t need much, just a little on her hands. That would do. She stoked the woman’s pale cheek, leaving a stain behind before she ran down the hall. By the time she made it to their bedroom, the tears were already streaming down her face.

 

Oliver was waiting in the doorway for her. It was easy to cry when she knew that her own husband hadn’t come running to investigate the sound of a gun firing. Instead she let herself crumple up against his chest, tangling her fingers in his shirt. The stain transferred so easily. They were both in this together. They were made blood by this act.

 

“Calm down,” he was saying, but she had to panic more, she had to show him that she was right. “Calm down, Mar, you’re bleeding.”

 

“It’s.” She started to speak but decided a sob was better suited to her purposes. She couldn’t look him in the eye yet or he would know. He’d see through her, and then he would turn against her. She couldn’t stand to be alone again, not after all she had been through. “It’s not my blood.”

 

“Whose…” He trailed off when he noticed that she no longer had the gun in her hands. There were only so many rooms in the house. He had to know that they were either under threat or had a body on their hands.

 

“I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry. I was so scared and just saw a shadow. She lunged at me. I didn’t realize.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

And then he pushed her aside and was running down the hall. He threw each door open with an aggressive gesture, and she would have laughed if it hadn’t been so absolutely predictable. She let herself sit on their bed and wait. Why they hadn’t moved into the master bedroom was beyond her. For such a large house, they seemed to have the smallest bedroom, the product of Oliver being the younger child. They would have to make a lot of changes in order to use this home wisely. She knew that they would manage though. They really had all the time in the world.

 

When he screamed, she didn’t go to help him. He was going to have to learn somehow that this was not how to conduct a marriage.

 

It was only when she heard his footsteps racing down the stairs that she decided she would have to follow him. If Lily hadn’t bothered to go ahead and die yet, he might get the wrong impression about her chances of survival. She’d have to talk to him. He always did need to be leaded so obviously. How she got anywhere with him, she didn’t know.

 

The family had cancelled the landline coverage in an effort to save some money years before, and cell phone reception was spotty at best. When she made it to the kitchen, Oliver was smacking the device against his palm, as though violence would somehow compel the signal to kick in. “Ollie,” she said softly, touching his arm. He jerked away from her, and then she saw how his face was covered in tears and blood. How had he gotten so messy? He could only imagine what he had been doing in such a short time in the master bedroom.

 

“I have to get an ambulance!” he shouted. “You shot my sister. Fuck, Marilyn, do you know what you’ve done?”

 

“She jumped through the window! She was attacking me. What was I supposed to do with a stranger lunging at me in the dark? I couldn’t see what was going on. I just had to protect myself.”

 

“She’s dying! I have to save her.”

 

“You can’t. You have to let her go.”

 

“I can’t just leave her dying up there.”

 

She felt her blood temperature rising. It wasn’t like this was easy for her. Pulling the trigger wasn’t exactly something that she’d wanted to do. The blood was drying on her hands, brittle and rusty and making the whole place smell. All she wanted was to scrub the stains from her skin, but she knew they would never leave, not really.

 

Still, she shoved her husband aside with a sigh of disgust. She couldn’t stand the sight of him, with his wide eyes and hysterically gaping mouth and mess. She turned on the hot water and poured dish detergent in her hands until it dripped into the sink. “One of us had to die, Oliver,” she told him matter-of-factly. “She came here tonight to kill us as revenge for letting your dad die. You told me yourself.” When she rubbed her hands together, she let her fingernails bite into her skin. It felt so right, and she smiled into the steam that rose from the water. “She wasn’t ever going to let us be happy together. She was breaking into our house when we were trying to sleep.”

 

“No.” She didn’t have to turn back to him to know that he had tears in his eyes. His tone said it all. “Lily was good. She was kind. She would never hurt us. Never.”

 

“She never trusted me. She hated me. She hated you because you chose me over her.”

 

“I didn’t.”

 

Those words hurt her more deeply than she expected. She turned off the water and wiped her hands on her sweatpants. The rusty strains transferred. She knew she’d have to throw the material out. A fire would do best, she imagined. “All I have is you now, Oliver. The only person I had in the world was my father, and he hated me. He controlled me, and he abused me.”

 

“Did he though?” She could tell that those words had been rolling around in his mind for a long time, but he had never dared to ask because he cared too much for her. She turned to face him, unable to meet his eye with the way the tears and sweat had dappled the bloodstains on his face. She tried to walk away, but he grabbed her arm. Under any other circumstances, she would have jeered him about having finally found his balls, but she knew this wasn’t the time. “Tell me the truth for once, Marilyn. Did your father deserve to die?”

 

She rolled her shoulders back and managed to get her arm away from him. He’d irritated the skin a bit with how tightly he’d grabbed her, nothing more. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and tried to think of the best way to explain things to him. He was her husband, her partner, but he was so new to her world. He would require a careful, calculated explanation, and in spite of their time together, she hadn’t considered how she would handle this conversation. Hadn’t she always thought that it would come to this? Maybe part of her, but she’d been too busy falling for her. She knew that when she began to speak, he would question everything they had been through, and she wanted to cling to this feeling for a little while longer, the sensation that she loved and was loved in return. For the first and last time in her life, she just wanted to be something to someone.

 

With anyone else in the world, she could be cold and calculated. But when she raised her eyes to look into his, ice blue meeting the green of the earth, she was surprised by the tears that overcame her. “Who am I to say when someone deserves to die?” she asked him, even though she knew that it was unfair to pretend she was innocent. She had killed, and even if she wanted to implicate him as her partner, she had been the one to add each name to her list as clearly as though she had pulled the trigger like she had this very night. “In a way, yes, I guess he did. Did he raise a hand to me? No.” She saw him wince then and wanted to put her palm to his cheek. She could still remember how cold his sister’s cheek had been already as the life escaped her. They were so alike, the two of them. If things had been different, she could have lived here with the both of them. She could have saved them both. “There are different ways to abuse people though. He was a cruel man. He never let me forget that my mother was a whore who hadn’t bothered to marry him. Having sex outside of wedlock, that was a sin, right? It didn’t matter that he’d done the same. He wasn’t the one who got pregnant. I don’t think he would have claimed me, but she had the audacity to die giving birth. Who does that anymore, right? He could have just left me unclaimed, but no, he had ambitions, and it was better to hide me away than to ignore me and let me be discovered. Better the devil you know.”

 

He looked like he wanted to interrupt to say something snide, so she put her fingers to his lips. She wondered if he could taste his sister’s blood on her hands or if it even mattered anymore. What they’d had together was fraying and she recognized that these could be the last few moments that she had to speak to him. “He hated me, Oliver. You have to believe that. He kept me close but only close enough that he knew I wasn’t going to go running to cause a stir. He told me I had to be more beautiful if he was going to be successful. He told me that I dressed like a slut like my mother. He told me that I had to be able to shoot, to defend myself, to do whatever it took to make sure that I didn’t reflect poorly upon him. Do you know what it’s like to grow up like that? He didn’t even really claim me in public, but I was just so glad to have one parent that I went along with whatever he wanted from me. It was never enough. What I told you about trying to kill myself, it was real. He didn’t let me. It would be too much of a scandal.”

 

He shook his head and took a couple of steps back. When he moved, she knew she had lost him. The one person she had been able to open up to, however little that was, was abandoning her. Each step was a new tear, not in fabric but skin, material that was not so prone to stretching and then giving. “So you just used me to get revenge on your dad because he didn’t like you that much?”

 

“You don’t know what it was like to have always been a mistake. You don’t know what he was like. He did kill people, Oliver.” She didn’t want to laugh, but a giggle still pressed its way out of her lips. “I am his daughter. I learned from him. I thought that if I followed his lead, I might be able to counter the damage he’d done somehow. I’d be able to stop you from going down the same path.”

 

“He wasn’t enough though, was he? What did you really want here? Why would you care about his house, this farm? Did you want his money? I didn’t have anything.”

 

“When you walked into the office that day…” She closed her eyes to remember. He was tall but bent, a man nearly broken by circumstance. His hair was wavy and dark, his facial hair coming in red. Those green eyes had been so alarmingly bright, cheekbones high, freckles random and charming. He’d taken her breath away the moment she’d seen him. It was just a crush, of course, but she didn’t want to hand him over to her father to just be another citizen ruined with no way to fight back. “I wanted to help you,” she said simply. “I knew if I’d told you that he was my dad, you’d think I was just like him. I guess in some ways, I am. But I cared about you. I fell in love with you. I thought that together, we could start again. But he was an evil man, and he got no less than what he gave to other people.”

 

“And my dad?” The tears had gone from Oliver’s eyes. There was only anger. He had stopped stepping away. Instead he closed the distance between them, hunching forward to have his eyes meet hers. They were so red, so intense. She could see the veins standing out there and in his forehead, in his throat. “All he did was be sick. You told me that it was a matter of mercy to take him out. Did you mean that, or did you just not want to take care of him anymore? Did you think he was standing in the way because he didn’t bless our union? I went behind his back to sell this place to your dad. He had a right to be mad. When he decided that he was going to disown me—“

 

“We did what we had to do to make sure that my dad’s death wasn’t in vain.”

 

“There’s no reason to justify murder. Not to me.” He shook his head harshly. He ran a shaky hand through his hair, and for a moment, she thought she might slip away. Instead he moved closer, his finger jabbing into her shoulder. “And then you shot my sister. She was the one thing I had left. I kicked her out to keep her away from you. I thought that you would hurt her if I didn’t. Now what? She’s not going to make it, is she? Why couldn’t you just put the bullet through her fucking head and make it easier on all of us?”

 

“Because I wanted you to suffer.” She knew that Oliver was trying to intimidate her, but she had endured enough forceful men in her life. She wasn’t going to be taken advantage of again. She had been pushed too far and had only learned the way to claw at the other person’s button. “What do you want me to say, Ollie? That I’m going to shove you out a window and claim this place and fulfill my father’s legacy? That I’m going to turn this place to a parking lot anyway, just for the hell of it?”

 

“I just want you to tell me the truth. For once.”

 

She had to laugh at that. He knew her better than anyone ever had, but just because they’d entered the darkness together, he assumed that everything was built on some false pretense. There was no way she could begin to explain that she had to trust him implicitly so he wouldn’t turn her in. Every benefit that had resulted from the deaths, they’d enjoyed together. She hadn’t retreated from his bed or divorced him the minute his father’s body grew cold.

 

“You want the truth?” she asked quietly. There were emotions stirring within her, a kick in the sternum and a twist in the gut. Could she let herself actually tap into that? Could she let go of every instinct that had told her that crying was a weakness and would never make a difference the way poison might? “I’m sorry I shot Lily. Not for her though. I don’t give a shit about her. I’m sorry because it hurt you. But now I’m all you have left. I think it would be good for you to remember that.”

 

“The only thing I have.” He sounded skeptical, but once he’d let the words fall from his mouth, something about him changed. His scarecrow frame grew strength, drew taut. She smiled when he did because it was so nice to finally see him look more like the man who had walked into her father’s office, who had been so patient in calculated. He had been in control once. It seemed like such a distant memory.

 

“Maybe we should leave this place behind. It’d be a while before anyone came out here to check.” She knew that money left a trail, but they were young yet. They could make plans. When she ran her hands over his shoulders, he didn’t flinch away from her. She thought he’d be shaking, but he had regained his strength. This was the man she loved. She let her cheek press against his chest. There was blood there, but she didn’t mind, not anymore. “We can go somewhere warm. We can be anyone there. We’ll just be together.”

 

“Can we go tonight?” he asked. His hand absently stroked her hair, creating tangles he could claim as his very own.

 

The question made her break down. She thought of the deer again. When her father had handed him that awful, curved blade, he had only put up a fight for so long. He still split the poor animal’s hide and cracked the ribs to make the organs spill out onto the cold ground. When the moment called for it, he could be ruthless, not because he was a detached man but because he cared too much. He loved her and would take care of her. When the tears threatened, this time she did not struggle. “Forget the phone. Let’s go now.”

 

“Please.” His lips were light when they met hers, but she what she felt for him was a flame consuming her. Such love could not be contained in a mere glance or a whisper. She needed him fully, without shame, and his body pressed against hers in kind.

 

She hardly felt the knife until it was sliding out of her.

 

He’d pierced her side, glancing off a bone only on the way out. She pressed her hand against her skin, but the blood was stubborn and would find its way to the floor. She stumbled back against the sink. She didn’t look down. If she didn’t look, it wasn’t real. She just had to find a cloth to put to the wound. She had to stop the bleeding.

 

Was she bleeding? Was it happening?

 

She was laughing. This much she knew. “You stabbed me,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

 

Her husband, the only man she’d ever really bothered to love, dropped the knife to the floor. His hands were red, so red. She could hardly believe the color. She’d always thought blood was darker. How could her own be so different.

 

His hands didn’t shake when he pulled out his pack of cigarettes. That filthy habit. How could he resort to smoking when she needed him? He was patient as he placed a cigarette between his lips. Her blood was slippery, sticky, confounding as he tried to get the lighter to spark. She wanted to reach out to help him, but her head was getting so light. She just needed to get the phone from him. She would be fine. They would be fine.

 

He stared at the cigarette for a moment as though it surprised him that he had changed so much. He shrugged and placed the smoke between her lips. She didn’t want to breathe it in, but she was afraid to let it drop to the floor. God forgive her, for the first time in years, she was afraid.

 

How slowly he moved as he let the lighter meet the drapes, the tablecloth, the paper towels they’d only bought days before. He grew frustrated when the table and chairs refused to catch easily. She didn’t want to cry anymore. She just wanted to go to sleep. She couldn’t look at him when he took the cigarette back from her, inhaling one last, long drag. She knew his eyes contained only hate.

 

“I’ve been dead for years,” he told her. “And so have you.”

 

He turned on the gas.

NaNoWriMo: part 6.

She checked her messages until her cell phone’s screen flashed only a drained battery in response. Lily had spent the last few hours in a vicious cycle: call, text, pace, check, repeat. Each time Oliver’s voice came on the other end, she allowed herself to become optimistic before she recognized the voicemail message. She knew something had to be off from the way he’d spoken to her on the phone. Something strange was happening at that girl’s apartment, but strange was not justification enough to call the police over. She knew she’d never be forgiven if the cops burst in on the young couple, well, indulging in the flush of early love.

 

As she sat at the kitchen table, her palm itched as though fragments of glass still remained just below the surface. She tried not to pay attention to the phantom sensation; to acknowledge the itch would be to confirm that it was based in reality. She couldn’t afford another slip like before. Madness had never been her forte, and she wasn’t sure that she could handle another plunge into that darkness without her brother there to pull her back.

 

Sleep came as a fitful punishment for spending her night in a stiff wooden chair rather than lounging in her own bed. She knew that when her brother returned, it would be through the kitchen, as it had been the night she had taken to polishing the glass. Each dream was interrupted by the twitch of paranoia shaking her back again. She had to resist the urge to go pacing the halls in case he returned and slipped past her.

 

The door woke her shortly after dawn, when the sun was yellow and violently glaring through the window. The sound of Oliver’s shoes scraping across the floor was unmistakable. “Lily?” he whispered. His voice was rough, as though he’d been shouting himself hoarse through the night. “Are you awake?”

 

“I was worried,” she explained simply. When she finally rubbed the sleep from her eyes enough to look at her brother, she nearly drew back in surprise. He was still wearing the same clothes he’d left home in, dark khakis and a button-down plaid shirt, but the garments were helplessly wrinkled. His attire was nothing compared to his body though. He seemed to have spent a year in a desert, with his frame barely looking capable of filling out his clothes. The dark circles beneath his eyes sank in so deeply they resembled bruises. His coloring was toward the grey side of pale, and his hair stuck up precariously. If she hadn’t been worried already, she would have immediately been put on edge.

 

For a moment, he stopped in his steps and just swayed, as though his body wanted nothing more than to trudge to bed and pretend that there was no reason to have to acknowledge her. “I’m sorry I didn’t call. I lost my phone.”

 

His voice was so exhausted that she could tell that he didn’t have the energy to deceive her. In spite of herself, she felt a flood of empathy. Her own exhaustion was forgotten in favor of pulling out another chair and shoving his chest gently to guide him down. He could hardly put up a fight and winced as his bottom connected with the seat. The cupboards were as bare as usual, but she found the instant coffee that he’d insisted on buying. She was sure that he would fall asleep soon even if he had twelve cups of the stuff. A loaf of bread was down to the heel, but she felt that he looked famished enough that he needed to eat at least something.

 

“Where have you been all night? I mean, I don’t want to pry into your business,” she added hastily, “but you don’t look great. Did you get any sleep at all?”

 

“I’ve been talking to the police.”

 

She nearly lost her grip on the glass jar of coffee. It rattled against the mug and spoon that she’d set aside for him. “I’m sorry, what?” she asked the kitchen sink. To turn and see his expression would probably be too crippling for her to handle after the night she’d had, trapped between her imagination and the shadows and the snippets of dreams that never had a chance to play out more than halfway. Even with her back turned to him, she could hear the tears that were on the verge of his voice, stubbornly held back because he always put others before himself and refused to show his emotions.

 

When he didn’t answer, she struggled to catch her breath. “Does it have to do with Marilyn?”

 

He winced when she said her name. “Her dad’s dead, Lily. He died last night.”

 

“Oh my God.” For a second, she thought about what would happen to the house, who would buy it and how they would manage to afford what they needed in the meantime. Guilt flooded her as she thought about how the man had flirted with her, and the shame burned her cheeks. “What happened?” she asked to draw the attention away from herself. She busied her hands with the toaster, with filling the kettle on the stove and lighting the range. There were a thousand ways to let on that she wasn’t affected any further than her brother’s agony.

 

“We were having dinner at her apartment.” He began to rock back and forth a bit, creating a light pattern of stomping against the floor. She worried that the sound would be enough to wake their father, but she said nothing to interrupt him. He didn’t offer a reason why the three of them would be having a meal together, and she didn’t ask. “Everything seemed to be great. We were all having a fine time together. I know I was pretty harsh on him when he was here with you, but you’re my sister. You’re way too young for him, you know? Of course I’m going to be protective. He was okay on his own. I mean, for a politician and out of touch rich asshole. We finished up the food and wine. I was helping Marilyn clean up, throw out the rest of the food and wash dishes, you know?” She was surprised that he would ever do such a thing when he hardly helped out at home, but love changed people. She understood that all too well. “He’d gone to the bathroom. That wasn’t weird, but we finished with clearing the table, and he was still in there. We knocked, just to check, but the door was locked and he wasn’t answering. So we called 9-1-1.”

 

She couldn’t pretend to ignore him forever. The toaster was working, the water was on its way to a boil. She had to turn back, and when she did, she saw that her brother’s eyes had been desperately seeking out hers. There was something behind those green depths that spoke to an agony she couldn’t even comprehend. She wished she could tell him that it would be all right, but she couldn’t find her voice. He had to continue. “They had to break down the door. By the time they did, it was too late. He’d had a heart attack and fallen down on the floor. His head hit. There was so much blood, Lily. It was just this giant pool. I was surprised it didn’t come out from underneath the door.” He shivered and tried to pull his shirt around him more tightly, but the wrinkles settled in ever more deeply.

 

“Well, why were the police there? Did they suspect foul play?”

 

A sharp glare came through his exhaustion, piercing and aimed directly at her. “Of course not. He was just an important member of the community and worth a lot of money. They had to check things out and figure out how to contain the information until they had the facts straight. They didn’t want to have the local news swarming poor Marilyn’s apartment and asking their grim questions when she’d just lost her father. Can you imagine if, God forbid, the leukemia finally did its thing and the first thing you had to deal with wasn’t making funeral arrangements but trying to swat a microphone out of your face?”

 

The image made her stomach turn, or maybe it was just the smell of the toast getting too dark because the loaf had nearly gone stale. She would have to get the butter out of the refrigerator to mask the charring. She was certain that he wouldn’t even notice if she’d handed him a slap of wood that she’d coated in paint instead. “Is she going to be okay?” She hated to ask the question, didn’t even like the girl, but she had to pretend.

 

“I think so. I stayed with her for the night, but she insisted that I come home this morning. It was just so scary. I mean, they took the body away and cleaned up for her a bit, but it’s practically a crime scene. She’s spooked by what she saw. I don’t think she wants to stay there anymore. It just doesn’t seem right for her to have to live with her father’s ghost. I mean, don’t you think about Mom sometimes around here?”

 

“Not really. She didn’t stay.”

 

If he heard the words, he didn’t show it. Instead optimism started to settle in, as it could only do amongst those who were too tired to feel the grip of reality. “Do you think she could stay here with us for a while? Even if she goes back to her apartment, I don’t think she should be stuck there right now. She might just look for ways to blame herself for what happened to her father. It’s not fair.”

 

“Where would we put her?” Of course she knew the answer to that, but she hated to think that death would bring the young lovers closer together. It didn’t seem right to be coping in that way. It wouldn’t get them anywhere. “It probably isn’t best for her to get comfortable here when we’ll just have to wind up selling the place.”

 

“We won’t though.” He seemed to realize that he’d spoken too hastily as he flushed and bit his lower lip. He couldn’t meet her eye anymore. “He was a rich man, you know. And she loves me. I know you don’t trust her, and she did mess around a bit by calling herself his assistant, but she’s his sole heir. She’ll help us, I know she will.”

 

“How do you know? Have you seen the will?” She could tell that her brother was deeply moved by his grief for his lover, but she had to be realistic. They shouldn’t benefit from a man’s death. She shook her head sadly and nearly yelped when the toaster spat out its offering. She pinched out the bread and hissed as the burnt bits seemed to stick to her skin. If her brother noticed her pain, he didn’t offer any words of sympathy. “We can’t just accept thousands of dollars from Marilyn. I mean, it would be generous if she offered it.” She had to grit her teeth to prevent herself from saying what she really thought, especially through the pain and exhaustion she felt. “It wouldn’t even keep us going forever.”

 

“This is our home. We’re going to keep it.” He sounded so certain. It was the first thing he’d said to her since walking through the door that hadn’t passed through some emotional filter first. He was just solidly sure about this one. She laughed as she spread enough butter on the toast to make it soggy in the places that weren’t too charred to absorb liquid. She dropped the plate down in front of him, though his eyes seemed to dance around the room, refusing to focus on any one thing.

 

Lily didn’t want to laugh at him, but she couldn’t take this seriously. They had had so many conversations about their futures and how they no longer had control of fate. It seemed ridiculous to her that he would suddenly decide that he had grasped the steering wheel again when he clearly hadn’t. For a moment, she considered calling a psychiatrist, but she knew that would throw him into a rage. Like the last time… The memory was not a welcome one, and she pushed it from her mind.

 

“How are we going to do that? The one person who was interested in buying this place, house and property and all, is dead. You can’t just ask your girlfriend to buy our house from under us. If you two break up, then there’s no telling what she might do. Not that I could blame her. It would be weird.”

 

“He bought the place.”

 

“He? You mean she.” The sagging of her brother’s shoulders, the refusal to make eye contact, it all began to add up for her. The kettle cried out on the stove, but Lily needed to sit down. Thinking had become too trying for her. “That’s impossible.” She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen Oliver talk to their father. There was no way he would have signed the place over.

 

“You can check the bank statements. We’re rich.” He gave her a tired smile, one that spoke to an exhaustion greater than she would ever know. “I forged his signature. You know I’ve been doing that for years just to keep this place afloat. It’s really not that hard. I’m just telling you this because you deserve to know the truth. I knew Dad would never sell, but I knew we needed to. So I decided to do it. It went through last week. He offered to pay everything up front.”

 

“How much.”

 

“A lot.” He waved his hand in the air, as though the number itself hardly mattered. “It’s more than enough to take care of us and pay taxes and give us time to get on our feet, find other jobs, maybe do something about Dad. Marilyn doesn’t want to go back on the offer, but she doesn’t want to take the house from us. She’s so different from her father.”

 

Lily didn’t know what to believe, but it would be useless to fight her brother when he was clearly in a state. He saw someone die, she reminded herself. It had to remind him of Mom. He’s probably blaming himself right now. “When is she coming here?” she asked instead. He shrugged and finally noticed the toast in front of him. He picked up the slice and tapped it against the plate, then dropped it with a dull thud. She winced as she realized how inadequate the food was for him. And the kettle. Oh God, the water. She jumped up and turned off the burner, but the steam was coming out so aggressively that she knew if she poured any of the water, it would pop and splash and probably burn her. Or he wouldn’t even think and take a drink of it.

 

“I was hoping you could get her,” he admitted.

 

The idea of the chore set her on edge. She hadn’t actually driven a car in ages, instead sticking to farming equipment or her bicycle. Still, she knew it was important to Oliver. If she refused, she knew he would walk out the door without a word and do it himself. He might get into an accident, and she could not stomach guilt like that. Plus it would give her an opportunity to speak to Marilyn for herself to try to gauge what her intentions really were. If she was half as upset as Oliver seemed to be, then that would be fair enough.

 

Fueled by guilt and curiosity, she gave her brother’s shoulder a squeeze. “Of course I can do that. Don’t you worry about it. But do me a favor.” She took a deep breath, hating what she was about to say. Still, he owed her this much for putting her in such a difficult position. “You have to go up and talk to Dad about this. He’s not going to like it if you just bring a girl into the house to live with us. You have to make it clear to him that this is the way things are now.”

 

He swallowed thickly but nodded. “I did the right thing, didn’t I?” When she looked up to her, she could see every vein in his eyes, red tendrils seeming to branch out and spread to try to devour all the white remaining.

 

How could she deny him the peace that he would need to admit to his crimes? Even if he had done what was necessary to save the farm, in a sense anyway, he had committed a crime. Nobody would go to the police, but she knew that their father would not treat him as gently as she had. He needed to gather his nerves to face his fate. “Of course you did the right thing, Ollie,” she said gently as she slipped away from him to find her shoes and coat. “You always do the right thing.”

 

 

 

Marilyn was waiting on her front steps when the car approached. She jumped up excitedly and waved those thin arms in greeting. She thinks I’m Ollie, Lily thought. From afar, she didn’t believe that the girl looked that wounded by her father’s passing. She wore a brilliantly red duster jacket and had her flaxen hair arranged in a delicate bun on the top of her head, not a single strand out of place. She looked like she was waiting for a date rather than trying to escape the house where she’d witnessed her father’s death.

 

Lily took some satisfaction in slowly parallel parking the car, the speed or lack thereof mostly due to her lack of practice rather than meaningful suspense. When she killed the engine and stepped out of the car, she saw Marilyn’s expression drop. The willowy girl had a way of folding into herself, shrinking at a moment’s notice to go from tall to vulnerable. “Lily?” she called.

 

“Oliver asked me to come get you. He told me what happened.” She thought that Marilyn looked frightened. Of course she does. She found her father’s body on the floor. Stop being so paranoid. She hoped she wasn’t sneering when she found herself snapping internally. “I’m so sorry to hear about your father. It must have been such a shock for you. Oliver’s taken it pretty horribly himself, and they weren’t exactly close.”

 

“They’re working on it. Were,” Marilyn corrected clumsily. When she moved down the stairs, Lily saw that both of her hands were filled: one with a suitcase, and one with a bag of trash.

 

“Can I help you with anything?” she offered.

 

“No.” The answer came quickly, forcefully. The girl had to struggle to put her graceful airs back on. “I’m sorry. It’s just been such a long night. All I really want is to go somewhere and go to sleep. I packed a few things so I don’t have to be back for a while. Since we’d had dinner, I thought I’d take out the trash rather than coming home to all that spoiled food still sitting there. I don’t want to have to think about his last day. How we should have noticed…”

 

She trailed off, but there were no tears forthcoming. Maybe she’s cried them all out. Lily opened the trunk and then slipped back into the car, giving Marilyn the time she needed to sort her things. When she felt the car bounce as the trunk was slammed shut, she put the key in the ignition. Soon after, the girl slipped into her seat and gave her a tense smile. “I don’t think we’ve gotten off on the best of terms,” Marilyn ventured. “I am sorry about that. I really want us to get along. I care about Oliver, I really do. I love him.”

 

Lily tried not to wince over the word. She’d expected she would hear it, but to her, it felt grim for this girl to be making such declarations when her father had only recently been found dead. “I haven’t exactly been myself lately either,” she ventured, not apologizing but still leaving room for Marilyn to believe that she wanted to get along as well. “Why did you say you were Mr. Ge…your father’s assistant?”

 

Lily glanced at the girl in her rearview mirror and saw the way she bit into her lower lip like a ripe fruit. If she kept that up every time she was asked a question, she would surely have a scar soon. “It just seemed easier, in a way. I know that sounds ridiculous now, but I figured you would prefer dealing with someone from the office rather than his daughter. I’m not like him. I’m not interested in tearing things down or putting you all out of your home. I just want to help.”

 

“And if you hadn’t fallen in love with Oliver? Would you still want to help us out?”

 

“I’m not sure.” Marilyn rummaged through her purse and found a handkerchief, though she seemed to want the cloth to twist between her elegant fingers rather than to dry the tears that were not forthcoming. “I invited Dad over to meet with Oliver because I wanted them to get along. I thought that if they saw each other as men, then there was no way he’d just kick you out into the night. They seemed to get along great. There weren’t any arguments or anything. I was waiting for a chance to really work on him. I thought after dinner would be the best, probably with another glass of wine or two. Only he didn’t come out of the bathroom.”

 

Lily tried to concentrate on driving, something she had never much enjoyed anyway, but her eyes kept glancing at the mirror. There was something about Marilyn’s voice that seemed transparent, as though she had gone over the story within her head so many times that she could no longer infuse any emotions. “Things must be happening very quickly for you now,” she ventured.

 

“They are. We don’t really have much other family, certainly not in the area. My mom walked out a very long time ago. They weren’t married, and it’s easiest for him not to really acknowledge me. Keeps things from getting scandalous. I don’t think anyone would have ever tried to bring him down, he had too many connections for that, but being careful never hurt anyone.” She gave a wan smile, and for a moment, she seemed to actually miss her father. “How much has Oliver told you?”

 

“Oh, everything.” Was that a wince Lily gave out of the corner of her eye? Lily couldn’t tell as she watched the road. Part of her wanted to pull over and keep the doors locked until she had from Marilyn the answers to every question she could think of. “There’s something I want to ask,” she admitted, “but I’m afraid you might be offended by it.”

 

“Oh, go on. How are we going to be sisters if we can’t be honest with each other?” Her hand shot out and touched Lily’s knee, which nearly threw off her concentration entirely. She wondered if this was what happened to her brother, some reassuring words and a soft touch to begin to instill the seeds of love.

 

She licked her lips and slowed the car deliberately. They were all too near the house already, but she wanted to know. She had to know. “Is there a part of you that’s glad your father died?”

 

Marilyn’s lips pressed together as though they could not decide if it were better to smirk or frown. They settled on something in the middle, a shaky smile that rattled with disbelief. “Well, thank you for warning me that I might be offended. At least I know you’re not just asking me because of who I am,” she said dryly. As for the question, she leaned her head back against the cushion and closed her eyes as though concentrating on which version of the truth to tell. “I suppose it’s possible that part of me that isn’t sad about what happened to him. He wasn’t a particularly good man. He was cruel, to me as much as anyone. Even more so, I think. He put money before people. But he was still my father.” A muscle jumped in her jaw when she clenched it. “Do you ever think about your father dying?”

 

“I can’t help but imagine it.” She knew she had to open up in return if Marilyn was going to trust her, but Lily still felt nervous. “Everything’s been different since Mom left. Died. I’ve spent so much time trying to take Dad to his appointments, soothe him from the treatments, keep him company, keep him alive. I’ve given ten years of my life to the cause of constantly making sure he doesn’t give up the fight. I feel like things would be so much easier if we knew if it was a losing battle.”

 

“It’s so different when it actually happens. It’s nothing like you’d imagined it.”

 

“You thought about it?”

 

“Sometimes,” Marilyn said, turning to look out the window. With her back turned to Lily, she indicated that it was all she would say on the matter.

 

 

 

“Your sister’s an obligation.”

 

Oliver was growing frustrated by his lover’s version of pillow talk. They passed the evenings in barely subdued passion, flirting and teasing to the point of combustion, but when they relented and found themselves collapsed in exhaustion in one another’s arms, all he wanted to do was sleep. She seemed to think that he owed her the favor of listening after all she gave to him. He left a hand draped over his closed eyes and did his best not to sigh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

“She hates me. She knows that my father didn’t just have a heart attack. She has too many questions.”

 

“That’s just what Lily’s like. She asks a lot of questions. You have to understand that she’s…” He trailed off and tried to think of the most generous way to describe his sibling. He didn’t want to be flippant, but at the same time, he didn’t want this ridiculous paranoia to continue. “Not used to dealing with people. She never has been. I always thought that she had some mild form of autism. I don’t know what to tell you except relax.”

 

“Relax? Relax? We’ve committed a felony, more than one in case you haven’t noticed, and she has the chance to rat us out.”

 

“She wouldn’t do that. There’s nothing more important to her than family, and we’re family.”

 

“You’re family. She doesn’t trust me any further than she could throw me.”

 

“I could throw you around for a bit to take your mind off it.” Oliver rolled over and put his arm around her, but she just kicked at him and moved toward the edge of the bed. She wasn’t the sort to take teasing well, with her lovely pale cheeks glowing red and those blue eyes narrowing. Somehow the frustration only made her seem more attractive, especially as she became impossible to actually catch and calm.

 

“Oliver, I’m serious. We’re going to have to do something about her.”

 

“Like what, kill her?” He made his voice breezy, but that was only because he feared what she actually had planned. It had been weeks since they had poisoned Martin George. The funeral had been sparsely attended, and though the local newspaper had published several stories dedicated to such a committed public servant being taken before his time, very little noise actually rumbled in the community beyond the greedy wondering who would pay them off in the man’s absence. There was no mistaking him for a popular man.

 

Marilyn sat up in bed but didn’t attempt to get away. She was still learning her way around the house, becoming acquainted with the place’s old body and the nuances that gave it character. She hated the groaning floorboards and the random drafts, and trying to get some distance from Oliver could make her collide into Lily or her father in the halls. It was a risk she loathed to take. “I can’t tell you how to act around your sister, but she’s suspicious of me. I think that she thinks everything has worked out a little too conveniently.”

 

“Well, hasn’t it?”

 

“That was the whole point.”

 

She gave his bare chest a shove, as though it would make him focus on her words rather than think about her body and a way to take her mind off the topic of his sister. They were comfortable, weren’t they? They had enough money that they didn’t have to worry for a while. He knew he had to find ambition again, but after falling apart for so long, all he wanted was a chance to just relax into this lack of stress for a short while. He wanted to experience being in love without any of the bullshit creeping back in. But he could tell that she wasn’t going to drop the topic for the night until he took her seriously. “Well, it’s not like you kept the poison or used your own computer to research. There’s nothing that she can use against you.”

 

“If she starts to whisper to the police that my father’s death seemed suspicious, wouldn’t they investigate it? Or what if they came to talk to you about the night he died, and your father found out that you forged his signature on the deed to the house? Wouldn’t he throw a fit?”

 

He flinched and remembered when he had tried to explain what had happened. His father was in the twilight haze of pain medication, trying to keep himself awake only due to stubbornness. Oliver had told him that they didn’t have to worry about money any longer because he found a way to sell the house and keep it. The old man had just let out a dry laugh. “We’re keeping it because we’re not selling it.” Those had been his words, confidently delivered through the fog of painkillers.

 

“We’re not going to get anywhere if you’re always worrying about Lily. Just drop it. We have to trust each other, remember?”

 

“Well, I don’t trust her.” She pulled the blankets up over her chest and chewed on her lower lip contemplatively.  “Can’t you make her like me or something?”

 

Oliver tried not to laugh, but it was a battle lost before he could even put in the effort. “She’s always been stubborn and thought her own way. There’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe if you acted a bit sadder about what happened or let her know about the abuse—“

 

“No.” Marilyn’s fair fingers rubbed over the scar on her wrist involuntarily. “It was hard enough to talk to you about that sort of thing. I don’t think that I could open up to her too, especially if she’s just going to be suspicious about everything I say. I don’t want her to exploit what I’m telling her.”

 

Holding back a sigh was no longer an option. “You have to give her something. You have just marched into the home she’s lived her whole life, bought it out from under her feet and gifted it back without asking for the slightest thing in return except a promise to maybe eventually get a job outside.”

 

“You know that my father bought it, not me. She shouldn’t be holding that against me.”

 

“Well, she’s going to. You’re going to have to bond with her in some way if you want her to trust you. I don’t know what to tell you. You’re both girls. Can’t you find something in common?”

 

“Like talking about you?” Marilyn asked dryly. She settled down in the bed, and Oliver began to hope—blindly optimistic though he was—that she was going to go to sleep.

 

“We should get married.”

 

What?” He nearly knocked over the lamp on his nightstand as he fumbled to turn on the light. He needed to see the intention written across her features, the love in her eyes and the sincerity across her lips. “Say that again.”

 

She looked uncomfortable. She began to twist a section of her hair nervously. “Well, we’re together, aren’t we? And we’ve been sharing so much. I like it here, I really do, and I want to stay. Plus I love you, and you love me,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “It would really get rid of the suspicion if we were married.”

 

“You don’t think it would be more suspicious that we made it official now?”

 

“No. He’s been dead and buried for weeks. And I know how I feel.” Her features began to grow softer, and she leaned her head against his chest. I have to trust her, he told himself. He was surprised by how steadily his heart was beating. He wasn’t panicked in the slightest. No matter how much she challenged or frustrated him, he believed that he was the only person who give her exactly what she needed, the only one who could protect her. Wasn’t that the very duty of a husband? Was there a reason why they shouldn’t?

 

He’d been single for so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to be hopelessly in love, to feel the need to surrender every last bit of his happiness just to know that she would have a peaceful night’s rest. Her moods, her fits, her fears, they were all worth enduring because they let him appreciate her peaceful moments that much more.

 

“I guess we should go ring shopping tomorrow,” he said at last.

 

 

 

Liam tried to hide his surprise when Lily walked into the bar. She usually appeared in the early afternoon, but this time she had the company of the post-dinner crowd, all five patrons huddled together in the corner to watch a football game with drunken gusto.

 

He wasn’t the most observant, but even he knew that Lily had changed. The circles were just as present under her eyes, but she had her straw hair tightly separated into two messy braids. She’d tried to put on some makeup, but the red lipstick was too harsh when her skin was so tan. Some people just couldn’t wear it. He wanted to give her a talk if she wanted to come into his bar and try to pick up men, especially after the last time so many months ago. Pity rolled through him, but he had to be polite. “Well hello, darlin’,” he greeted with a tip of his pageboy hat. “To what do I owe the pleasure of having your lovely place in this establishment?”

 

She seemed torn between a blush and a frown but ultimately settled on the latter. “I’d like a beer, please.”

 

“Sure, you’ve come to the right place.” He gestured to the taps, but she just settled into a seat and seemed unbothered. “What kind of beer would you like? We have quite a few.”

 

“Something that doesn’t taste too much like beer.”

 

The request made him grit his teeth. He liked his friend’s sister most of the time. Even though she was a few years older than they were, she seemed oblivious about so many things that he took for granted. He thought it was sweet of her. Most of the time. “Well, let’s get you a Corona with a lime. Or would you prefer a lemon?”

 

“A lemon would be nice,” she said. By the way she looked at him, he could tell that she felt proud that she had made a choice. She watched carefully as he uncapped the bottle without having the beer fizz out, and he sliced up a new lemon just for her benefit. She seemed to be downright buzzing before he even handed her the beer, though once he did, she seemed content to just have the chilled bottle cradled between her hands.

 

“Anything else that I can do for you?” he asked, sensing that there was something still on her mind. The group of football fans had ordered a bucket of beers. That would keep them occupied for the next ten minutes or so. Long enough for a conversation, anyway.

 

She let her fingertip trace through the condensation that was beginning to form on the bottle. “When was the last time you talked to Ollie?”

 

The question took him off guard, if only because the answer didn’t immediately come to mind. He could recall a time when he’d let his friend get drunk and then walk home, and then there was the business of Lily coming in and trying to get drunk herself. He hadn’t really seen either of them since then, but with night after night spent in the same place talking to the same people, he had a poor grasp on the passage of time. “I guess I talked to you more recently than I’ve talked to him. Why?”

 

“What did you two talk about?”

 

Not much seemed to stand between Lily and Oliver, the result of being adults still living with their father, but Liam felt awkward betraying his friend’s trust like this. “Money, mostly. The old house. Your old man. How’s he doing lately? Your dad, and Ol, I guess.”

 

“Dad has his good days and his bad days. Oliver…he’s getting married.”

 

She finally took a drink of her beer and winced a little, though he couldn’t tell if it was due to the taste of the drink or the fact that she was just so broken up about the news. He could hardly believe it. Unlucky in love Oliver, Ol-love-her, Ollie Ollie Can’t Get Any, had managed to find a girl who was crazy enough to stay with him and marry him? “Well, that calls for a drink to celebrate!” Liam declared, setting up two shot glasses. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea to give her tequila, but if she didn’t want it, he’d help himself. “He didn’t tell me about any girl. Probably didn’t want me to steal her, you know?”

 

“It all happened very fast.” She looked at the shot glass warily, but when Liam downed his own, she decided to follow his lead. Her response was immediate, a heavy cough that she washed back with more Corona. The beer at least seemed more palatable in comparison. “He met this girl, who lied and said she was this guy’s assistant. She was really his daughter, but he didn’t care. He still liked her. He sold our house, our land to that guy, without telling me or Dad. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t his place.” He’d never seen Lily angry before, but the way she shook could not be mistaken for nerves. Her fury was a barely controlled thing, simply searching for the right outlet to crash out and destroy something. “He only told me this afterwards, of course. After the guy had a heart attack. His daughter got everything. She’s letting us keep the house. And now they’re getting married.”

 

“Well.” This was more than a tequila situation. He poured himself a pint and prepared another bucket of beers for his patrons. If they weren’t going to order another round soon, then he’d at least have some handy cans to sink into. “That’s really lucky though, the fact that she likes you guys enough. Seems like everyone gets what they wanted. Except the poor dead guy.”

 

“That’s the thing. Isn’t it just convenient? And what if they get divorced one day? What happens to me and Dad?”

 

“Well, did you pray for some sort of an answer? Seems to me like you want everything to work out okay, but when the solution finally appears, you can’t accept it because it’s too neat. You just need to relax and be grateful for how things are turning out.”

 

“How can I relax? I have no place in my own house anymore. I think she hates me. And there’s nothing for me to really do anymore other than serve as my dad’s live-in nurse.”

 

“Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe you’re supposed to be doing this right now.” He gestured toward her, which made a bit of foam slosh over the edge of his glass. He’d wipe it up later. It hardly mattered. “You’re a nice girl, Lily. You deserve to relax a little. Maybe you’re supposed to do the shit that you never let yourself do in your twenties. Let your hair down and get drunk and meet all the wrong people and mess around. Make some mistakes and get a job you hate and save up and see the world. You’re not dead yet. You have to stop living like it.”

 

The speech seemed to be sinking in until the last couple of sentences. Then her eyes grew wide, fearful. He could practically see the reflection of the television within them. She fumbled with her purse and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “I need to go home.”

 

He was disappointed that his attempt to help was only going to drive her back to the old house. He thought that there had to be something in those walls that drove the whole family nutty, black mold or asbestos or something. “Don’t mention it. You tell your brother to come down and pay your tab so he’ll see me sometime.”

 

Lily pushed her way out into the early evening, the wind cold on her face. She could not let herself cry, but the wind threatened to pull the tears from her eyes anyway. She wanted to go home, but she knew that she would not be welcome. She wanted to talk to her brother, but with his engagement, she was certain that she could not talk any sense into him. He hadn’t headed her warning about the girl before, and he certainly wouldn’t now. But he had to know.

 

When she pulled out her cell phone, she was surprised to find that she had a voicemail. She expected it to be Carina demanding she return the salacious book she still hadn’t bothered reading. (“If you want your own copy, you just have to let me know so I can hook you up at Christmas,” she’d likely chide.) Instead she listened to her brother’s voice start out calm before he broke down.

 

 

 

Lily spent so much time at the hospital that she didn’t feel insecure there, but this time she felt her pulse racing out of control. She was usually the one filling out the registration forms, reciting insurance information, paying what needed to be covered for this visit or that treatment. Aside from a quick stop to the gift shop for a pack of gum to mask the alcohol on her breath, she rushed to the kiosk in the emergency room. “Excuse me,” she said, interrupting a pregnant woman in a wheelchair who had been describing her symptoms in a whiny tone, “I need to find my father. He came in here about an hour ago.”

 

The nurse had clearly seen this sort of pushy behavior too many times to be phased by it. “Name?”

 

“Darren Pratt. That’s with two r’s and two t’s.”

 

The woman typed away diligently and ignored the tears that came from her other patient. “Yes, I see here that your father’s been admitted. Please go straight back to the elevators and take one to the seventh floor. The nurse on duty will be able to help you from there.”

 

“Thank you so much.” Not knowing what else to do, she dropped the pack of gum in the woman’s wheelchair as a peace offering. Every doorway looked like an elevator, and it took her five tries before she finally found a set of chrome doors next to an up button. An older couple was already waiting for the lift, but that didn’t stop her from pressing the button frantically. It was all she could think of to do with her shaking hands.

 

The attending nurse gave her as much of a reassuring smile as possible, but he couldn’t offer any real details before calling her father’s doctor. He offered her some water, but Lily just worried that the smell of alcohol was still clinging to her, so she excused herself to go to the bathroom to scrub her hands harshly. It would be better to be sterile, she thought, and if she smelled like industrial strength soap, so much the better.

 

When she returned to the hall, a tall woman in a white lab coat was waiting for you. “Miss Pratt?” she asked. Lily nodded, suddenly shy. “I was told that you’d been contacted. I don’t want you to worry first of all, so I’ll tell you that your father has been stabilized. He’s in critical condition, but we’re doing everything we can.”

 

“What happened to him?” She felt sick. Her knees no longer wanted to support the weight of her body. The only thing she had to do was look after her father, and she’d left the house and rendered him vulnerable. She had only one duty in life, and she’d betrayed it, betrayed him.

 

“Your father suffered a heart attack. Your sister-in-law—“

 

“She’s not my sister-in-law yet.”

 

The doctor looked through her papers but shrugged. “She presented ID. Well, your brother and his partner were present during the incident, and they were able to drive him here while the attack was still happening. We’ve patched him up as best we can for the time being, but with his cancer, you can imagine that his state is rather fragile. We’re watching him very carefully and want to hold off on checking for further damage until we’re sure that he can handle it. We’d like to keep him under observation for the night and then decide where to go from there. I’ve discussed all this with your brother, but my records indicate that you’re the one with your father’s living will and power of attorney.”

 

“I am?” Of course she was. She was the one who handled all of his medical treatment, and she was the older sibling. Still, with the way Oliver had taken charge of everything financial, it took her by surprise when something fell upon her own shoulders.

 

“Yes. Did your brother ask you to bring the form with you? Or does your attorney have a copy?”

 

“Yes, of course. I mean, the attorney has it. I don’t.” Because you were drinking. Because you weren’t at home with him. Because if not for Oliver, he would have died. Not you. You would have let him die. “I’d really like to see my father now.”

 

The woman pulled a grimace and didn’t bother to mask the expression from her. “You do have to understand that he’s quite weak and under heavy medication. He probably won’t be able to communicate with you as he needs his rest, but if it will reassure you that your father is in good hands, follow me.”

 

She twisted her fingers together in impossible knots and felt the joints crack, but there was satisfaction to be gained from the pain. It reminded her that she was alive, that she was deserving of this torment because she hadn’t done her duty. If she punished herself, she felt that her father might survive. She wouldn’t let her guard down again, no. She wouldn’t be as selfish as Liam had encouraged her to be. There wasn’t time for that.

 

The first thing that struck her about the room was the smell. She knew everything was clean, but rather than smelling like bleach, it reeked of plastic and heat and people. She wanted to keep walking to another place, one that seemed more welcoming, but the doctor grabbed her shoulder and gave it a squeeze before slipping inside. There she saw Marilyn curled up in the room’s only chair, her body swaddled in Oliver’s favorite jacket. Her brother was propped up against the radiator, his hand covering his face.

 

“Ollie.” Her voice was nearly drowned out by the machines. It seemed to her that gadgets were handling everything for their father, from controlling his breath to assuring that his heart had a steady beat. This was not the strong man who had worked from dawn until midnight, the solid chest that had housed a heart so tender when it came to his workers, his animals, his livelihood. This was a skeleton with a bit of excess tissue and plastic. He was hardly human.

 

It wasn’t her brother who spoke first but Marilyn, who stretched and then stood to offer her a frail hug. She hated to wrap her arms around this girl. She didn’t want to accept her comfort, but she felt so powerless. She relented and let herself be taken away by Marilyn’s warmth and vanilla cinnamon perfume.

 

“Oh, Lily, I blame myself,” she murmured against her ear. The regret lanced through every word, but Lily did not feel the slightest stir of sympathy. “We were worrying about the wedding, so we decided we would just elope. It would make things easier on everyone, and we have so few family members between us. It would cut out all the stress. But when we told Darren—“

 

Lily pulled away and strode over to her brother.  “You got married today, and you didn’t even tell me?”

 

The doctor cleared her throat and left Darren Pratt’s chart at the foot of his bed, murmuring that a nurse would gladly speak to them if they needed anything further. Lily didn’t even hear the door close. Her own blood pressure was rising. She thought she must be drunk to be going through something this ridiculous.

 

“I think there’s something a little more important going on at the moment, okay, Lils?” her brother asked. His eyes were rimmed in red, but he refused to show any further emotion than was necessary.  “But yes, we got married. I didn’t think you’d want to be involved, so I didn’t ask you to be part of it. That’s all.”

 

She laughed dryly and turned her back to the couple. She felt a wave of nausea building within her. “So you two fall in love, and her father dies of a heart attack. You get married, and Dad has a heart attack. Am I going to have one as soon as you get her pregnant?”

 

She could sense the outrage brewing behind her. She thought they would whisper to one another, but that didn’t happen. Instead her brother harshly grabbed her shoulder, whirling her around. “What did you say?”

 

She was too tired to have to go through the insult again. She wasn’t the sort of person to deal with confrontations, so she just tried to twist away. His grip was far too strong though, and the more she struggled, the more his fingers buried into her. “Stop it. You’re hurting me.”

 

“You don’t get to say that sort of shit about us. This is our father, Lily. I love him, and I love you, but I love Marilyn too. You can’t just go around accusing us of…”

 

“Of what? Murder?” There was something in her brother’s eyes that she could not recognize. It wasn’t anger or outrage or even sadness. It was desperation. She hadn’t seen the expression in a long time, not since they still had animals who were too dull to recognize their own impending doom, who were practically begging her to find a way to save them after they’d broken a leg or come down with a disease. Her brother was afraid.

 

Oliver raised a hand to her but was shaking too terribly to do anything but let the physical threat speak for itself. Marilyn was the one to unfurl behind him, letting her hand rest on his shoulder. “I think you should leave now,” she said icily.

 

“I’m the one who’s the power of attorney. I have his living will.”

 

“I think you’ll find that your father changed those documents when he found out about our wedding. The paperwork’s still being processed, but it will come out soon enough.”

 

Lily found herself laughing bitterly. “How do you expect me not to accuse you of murder when you pull shit like this? Ollie? Are you going to say anything to defend yourself? Her dad cuts you a check for like a million dollars, and then he winds up dead? And Dad, who hated the idea of her father, wants to bless your wedding so much that he just signs all legal power over to you? Let me guess, he wrote me out of the will? And he signed it just like he signed that contract you never even showed him—“

 

“Leave.” Oliver had closed his eyes so he didn’t even have to look upon her. “Go home and pack your stuff. I don’t care where you go, but I don’t want you there.”

 

“But what about when Dad gets out of here? Who’s going to take care of—“

 

“I said I don’t care. Just go!”

 

The male nurse threw the door open and looked alarmed as he took in the scene. It was then she noticed that Marilyn had pulled the panic button next to their prone father’s bed. Her eyes contained a confident smile as the man gently rested his hands on Marilyn’s shoulders. The others had been there for hours. Surely he could tell what threw this equation off. “You’re going to die,” she said as she was guided from the room. She didn’t feel the need to clarify who she meant.

NaNoWriMo: part 5.

“Has he ever touched you?”

 

Oliver knew that Marilyn was still awake. Even though they had turned out the lights hours ago, coming to rest with one another even more recently, the shallowness of her breath made him believe that she was frightened. She hadn’t been able to warm up since that trip into the woods, and no amount of showering had been able to still her shivering. She had her back pressed to his chest, and though he longed to touch her and gather her body to his, but he could tell that she hadn’t been in the mood even earlier.

 

“Touch me how?”

 

“You know. Has he ever taken advantage of you?” He didn’t want to get graphic for fear of her leaving the bed, throwing on her clothes and telling him to go home. Still, he worried about her. Some memory had been drawn up during that hunting trip, but she had refused to talk about it before they had made it home. Then she’d just wanted to lie down for a bit. She couldn’t stand the thought of dinner, not after seeing that poor animal turned inside out, staining the ground.

 

She let out a deep breath and crossed her arms over his, which were circled around her waist. “No, he’s never tried that on me,” she admitted. He knew that he should have been relieved, but her tone carried a burden he had yet to ease away from her. “People don’t just have to do something physical to get to you though. I saw him kill a man and basically frame me, remember?”

 

Oliver struggled with trying to process this as a fact. How could she see something like that and not be constantly haunted by what had happened to her? How could she not tell a single person until he came along? He could question her story all he wanted, but he understood that at the end of the day, he would never understand what that was like. Seeing the other man hunt had been enough to convince him that he was a trained killer, even if he only targeted animals anymore.

 

“I don’t know how much longer I can pretend to be civil to this guy. He freaks me out.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement, but Oliver knew that an apology wouldn’t be good enough. He brushed her long, flaxen hair away from her neck and pressed a kiss delicately to her skin, one that spoke to no intention or expectation. It was only a gift. “I know you said that you have a plan, but I don’t like the way he looks at you. i think he’s starting to suspect that there’s something between us. When we were out, he kind of implied that I was chasing after you. It’s only a matter of time before he knows.”

 

He had never noticed how chilling her blue eyes were until she rolled over to stare at him. “You have to be ready for this. Once we decide that we’re going to do this, there’s no going back. You swear you’ll do what it takes to protect me and your family?”

 

“Of course I do. I will. I lo–”

 

His voice cracked, but the thought had already been released into the world. She gaped for only a moment, then released a girlish laugh. “You love me? Really? So soon?”

 

To him, the weeks that he had spent courting her had been the best he’d had in years. Instead of spending every waking hour anguishing about money, he at least got out of the house and could talk to someone who would show him the appropriate sympathy. Maybe it was moving quickly, but they had a much deeper connection than most people would ever experience or understand. “I’m thirty,” he said, as though that would justify the way he lived his life. “I don’t have time to mess around with things that don’t mean something to me. So yeah. I do love you.”

 

Marilyn was someone who kept her emotions behind a solid wall, but he could see the tears pressed up to the barrier, eager to flow over. All thought of revenge, of escape, of anything beyond that night left his mind when she wrapped her arms around him tightly and pressed her cheek to his chest, her lips to his skin. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered, her voice heavy with emotion. “After everything you’ve heard and seen, you shouldn’t. I can’t believe you can. I’m just so…”

 

“Fucked up?” he offered, though he had to laugh because he could hardly think it about her. There was a part of her that was mysterious, yes, but more than that, she made him feel as though he was not alone. “You don’t have to feel that way. I mean, look at me. At least you have a nice apartment and a job and a car that’s all your own. You’re going places, and you’re going to be fine after this. You’re beautiful and smart, and you know how to take care of yourself.”

 

She looked angry with herself when the tears began to drop on her cheeks, so he brushed them away with his thumb. That only made the flow heavier, a task of keeping her skin dry rendered impossible. “I don’t know why he picked you, but I’m glad he did. I’m terrified, but I’m glad I met you.”

 

“You don’t have to be scared. Don’t cry. Shhh.” He knew that soothing her was probably futile, but all his life, all he had ever done was try to take control. If he couldn’t fix his own life, at least he could do something for others. To surround himself with order might do more to balance out his own troubles than tackling them head on.

 

Her nails curled into his skin for a moment, cutting off any other comforting words he had to offer. “I am scared,” she admitted, “because I know that tomorrow he’s going to give you a final offer. All you have to do is get your dad to sign everything over, and then we just have to wait for the bank to process things. The sale has to go through first.”

 

Oliver laughed as he thought of the old house, with no boxes packed and the dust gathering by the day. “We don’t have anywhere to go. Even if you do expedite the sale somehow, and that’s a lot of money you want to move quickly, we still have to find somewhere safe for my dad to stay. Lily and I need to find homes, jobs. That’s not even thinking about utilities, keys, things like that.”

 

“You don’t have to worry about anything like that. He’s not going to put you out of the house.”

 

“What, so he’s going to let us rent our own farm? Pay to stay in our home?” The thought of being under the politician’s thumb made him feel sick. For too many years, he’d struggled to make things work. He may not have wanted to work on a farm, but with that aspect of his life over, he couldn’t stay. Even this town was too much. His mind was already racing at how he’d have to come up with another scheme, how he’d have to face Martin’s wrath for backing out on the deal, how he’d get his family out. He shoved back the blankets and let his feet touch the ground.

 

Marilyn tugged at his wrist before he could get to his clothes. “Oliver, you’re not listening to me. Everything’s going to be fine there. You just have to stick to the plan and get your father to sign.”

 

“I don’t know how I’m even going to do that. I can’t just tell him that we’re going to get a certain amount of money in exchange for all that he worked for his entire life. He won’t go for that. Add to that the fact that we’ll probably have to put him in a home? No way. He won’t do it.”

 

“Then you’ll just have to forge his signature.”

 

“For something this huge? How could I?”

 

“Because Martin is going to die!”

 

The words were practically shrieked. Marilyn drew her slim legs up toward her chest and rubbed at her eyes aggressively. Looking at Oliver anymore seemed to be too tedious a task. Her words were enough to make Oliver lose his footing, sink back down onto the mattress. “He’s what?”

 

“You heard me.” She drew the blankets up further to avoid exposing herself to him. No amount of withdrawing would take back what he knew now. She seemed remorseful and shied away from his touch.

 

“H-how do you know? Does he have cancer or something? You can’t really know how much time some–”

 

She held up a hand to silence him. “You trust me, right?”

 

“I already told you that I do.”

 

“Good.” She let out a breath and eyed him warily, as though to detect any hesitation in his devotion. All he wanted was for her to have the same confidence in him, so he offered her a hand to squeeze. This time, she took it, studying the lines of his palm. “We’re going to kill him, Ollie.”

 

The words sounded so ridiculous that he knew he had to have misheard her. Nobody just announced homicide in bed like this. “We’re going to kill him?” he echoed, trying to reign in his response.

 

“Yes.” As his laughter died, her expression grew dark. Those full lips were pressed together, eyes narrowed with contempt. “It’s not like I haven’t thought this through. There’s no other way.”

 

“Now, slow down.”

 

“Slow down? Slow down? The man put a bullet in someone in front of me. He’d do the same to you if given a chance. Don’t you get why he had to show off his knife to you? It was a warning. He’s not going to stop. He doesn’t have a reason to stop. He’s not going to let you walk away from this, not now that he knows that we’re close.” She could have told him how much she regretted drawing him into something like this, but she didn’t. She wiped her eyes and sat up taller, the redness of her eyes only making her look more furious. “You had to realize there would be no other way. He has connections across the whole city. We can’t just hand him over to the police and expect something to happen. He’s not going to stop, Oliver. He takes and he takes, and when he can’t, he just destroys. Do you think he’s just going to let me quit my job and walk away knowing what I know?”

 

A pang of protectiveness crashed into his ribcage. Had he ever allowed himself to fully consider what her plan had been? Yes, he’d thought about it. He’d imagined a heart attack induced by a scare, a farming accident faked on his property, an old-fashioned shot to the back of the head. But he hadn’t even been able to kill a deer. He couldn’t imagine how he would be involved in a conspiracy to murder someone and then cover up what happened.

 

She was serious though. He could see it in the way she became cold and rigid. She brushed her hair with her fingertips and leaned against the headboard, looking more put together than she had the whole day. “It has to be this way,” she told him, the emotion drained from her tone. “We won’t just be helping ourselves. We’ll be getting justice for who knows how many people he’s killed or robbed blind. We won’t have to live in fear anymore, and nobody else will have to go through what we have.”

 

Oliver touched his own wrist to check his pulse. He was surprised by how calm he felt. Yes, death. Death was just a matter of fact, the end of every timeline, a judgment no person could evade. Martin George did not deserve the existence he enjoyed, and no court would be unbiased enough to put him on trial for his sins. Oliver eased himself back into bed, chilled by his own desperation. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even consider it.

 

“How did you feel after your mother killed herself?”

 

He sneered. The question was cruel, but what he implied was far worse: How did you feel after you drove your mother to suicide? “If I’d stayed at school or just handled things myself, my mother would still be alive. It wasn’t until she saw what a fuck up I was that she couldn’t take the guilt of passing on that sadness. I was always trying so hard to cover it up in front of her because I didn’t want her to blame herself, like I just learned that you’re supposed to be sad all the time to get attention or something.” In that moment, he hated his sister for ever having said a word about their family and how he could have triggered the downfall of the whole clan.

 

Marilyn leaned over to him, her voice growing warmer, calmer. “And have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Following in her footsteps?”

 

These were the thoughts he did not give voice, the sentences that gathered in the back of his throat every time someone asked him how he was feeling. “Everyone thinks about it at least once, don’t they?” he asked. He knew he was deflected and that she understood the same. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he reminded himself that he had to trust her. “I couldn’t. I remember what it was like for me. For Lily and for Dad too. I couldn’t do that to them. It’s worse than carrying on and making them put up with me.”

 

“So you know what it’s like to take a life in your mind every day.” She slid over to him and laid her wrist upon his lap. She was pale enough that he could barely make out the jagged line across her flesh. The edges of the scar were a shade darker than the rest of her skin, but the path of the cut was bright and smooth like porcelain. The mark went up, following the blue tributary of her vein. “Most people make the mistake of cutting across,” she told him, letting her finger recreate the stroke she’d made instead. “You’re supposed to open it up and just let it all come out. So that’s what I did.”

 

“Who saved you?”

 

She laughed gently, the sound that had once reminded him of bells. “Saved me? Stopped me. I didn’t get to do the other arm.” She offered her other arm so he could compare. How fine the skin was there. How could he have not noticed before? “I did it right after we got back from that awful place. I was just so scared. I didn’t know what else to do because I knew I couldn’t get away. I thought, ‘This is my only chance to escape.’ I took my scissors and locked myself in the bathroom. It took me so long just to build up the nerve. My hands were shaking. It hurt at first, but then the adrenaline kicked in when I saw so much blood. I thought I was going to faint, but I kept going. And then.” She shrugged, her eyes going distant as she replayed the moment in her mind. “I was on the floor then, and I didn’t answer when he called to me. So he broke down the door.”

 

He shuddered as he tried to imagine what it would be like to be so close. If he had not met her, he would have been oblivious to the fact that his life was in dangerous, but maybe without her, things would be different. “Did he threaten you after that?”

 

“Yes.” She rubbed her wrist and then curled her arms around her body. How slight she looked then, how fragile. “He tried to patch me up at first, but the blood came too quickly. I’d gone too deep because I’d done it right.” A faint smile played at her lips at the memory of her brief victory. “He took me to the hospital and explained that I’d had an accident. I had a transfusion, some stitches. When I came to, he told me that if I ever tried that again, he’d make sure that I didn’t come back out of the hospital looking the same. I don’t really have much family left, so nobody could protect me from that.” She steadied herself and then looked to Oliver. “It’s been me or him for a long time now. I’ve just been waiting because I can’t do this on my own.”

 

Never had Oliver been more torn. He hadn’t even been able to save a farm that had generations of history behind its livelihood. How could he possibly stand up to this man where she had failed? And yet there was a part of him that burned with fury for the injustice she’d endured. Martin could just as easily exploit Lily, poor simple Lily with her difficulty making friends and lack of any real social skills. She would make herself over into just about anyone if it meant she could finally have a connection with someone else. Was Martin already honing in on her to turn her against the rest of the family? Could he poison her mind against Oliver?

 

Or was he just utterly paranoid because this girl was feeding his already sick mind?

 

He cleared his throat and stood again on weak fawn legs. He slipped on his boxers for the faintest sense of heat more than propriety, though fear made him approach the window to look outside. No cars were even parked there. There never were. “How did you intend to do it?”

 

“Poison.” She was there behind him quickly, her nightgown barely clinging to her body. Though she’d only had it on for seconds, the silk spoke of the warmth that was waiting beneath that material. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his shoulder lightly. “Well, an allergy actually. He’s allergic to fish. I’m sure we can find a way to expose him that will kill him. It’s not uncommon.”

 

“Wouldn’t he taste it?”

 

“We’ll figure it out somehow. We’ll put it in his coffee when he comes to your house, after everything’s been processed. It should kick in when he’s driving home. He’ll wreck his truck, which will cover things up even more.”

 

“Why do we have to sell if this is going to happen?”

 

“So you’ll get the money. Trust me.”

 

There was that word again. Could he trust someone who already had a plan in place to kill another person? Even if he loved her? As her hands began to roam his skin, he decided he could.

 

 

 

Lily hated leaving the house when her father was sleeping, but it was better than answering his obsessive questions. Where was she going? What was she doing? Who was she meeting? Why couldn’t he come along if she was telling the truth? Just thinking about it exhausted her. She left a note on the refrigerator and bundled up in a wool peacoat to ride her bike into town.

 

If she had friends, then they would probably be the workers of the library. There she could live thousands of other lives, experience love and heartbreak and adventure without ever having to make any sacrifices in her own life. Someone always had a new recommendation for her, but she wasn’t looking for books this time.

 

The Tuesday afternoon crowd was rather thin. Hopefuls applied for jobs or just wasted time browsing the Internet at the computer bank, but few patrons bothered to look through the book collection that somehow got thinner by the year. Carina, a small whippet of a grandmother, busied herself making sure the returns were properly arranged on the cart so they could be reshelved with optimum efficiency. She smiled warmly at Lily, already drawing out a list of new releases that technically weren’t supposed to be loaned out for another week. Lily waved her off, explaining that she was still making her way through a romance novel she had reluctantly accepted on the condition that it contained no bodice ripping.  “Good to take your time on that. You’ll want your own copy,” Carina advised with a gleam in her eye. “What can I do for you then?”

 

“I’m actually hoping that you could help me with some genealogy.” Carina had taught a few classes on family trees at the library on the weekends, until budget cuts meant that available hours had been cut back to the most essential. “I have a friend who doesn’t really know much about her family history. I thought that for her birthday, I’d give her a little surprise, start her off and show her how easy and fun it can be.”

 

Carina clucked her tongue and looked over her glasses at her. “I wouldn’t call it easy, but mysteries were never meant to be. It’s sweet of you to give her something so personal.”

 

Lily hoped the older woman wouldn’t call her bluff. She had never mentioned friends before, and she was certain that most of the community knew her as something of a loner. Still, there was something about Marilyn Turner that bothered her. She’d tried to look her up online, but there were no results that seemed to apply to the blonde girl with the coy smile.

 

Karina looked around and then placed a sign on the front desk stating that she would be back in a few moments. Like Lily, she lived the most in her imagination, and little had more potential than a name with a story to be found. She tucked a pen into her severe schoolmarm bun and motioned for Lily to follow her. The back office was rarely occupied except when someone wanted to have some privacy for a meal, and they had the space to themselves. The equipment was tragically outdated, with the computer so old that a line swept across the screen at a steady pace, reminding Lily of a heart rate monitor. “Your tax dollars at work,” Karina commented dryly as she brought up her database. “Okay, give me the information you have.”

 

“Her name is Marilyn Turner. She was born here on…” She trailed off and bit her lower lip. She had presented this as a birthday gift, but she didn’t know how old the girl was, let alone when she was born. She cursed herself for having not thought this through better. All she could do was give a faint laugh. “I’m completely blanking on you. I should have written this down first, shouldn’t I? She’s twenty-four. At least that was what she told me, but you know how girls are.”

 

“You couldn’t pay me to be twenty-four again, but it was a very different time. Do you know the names of Marilyn’s parents?”

 

“No. They died when she was younger.” She couldn’t remember if this was what she’d been told or if she was making things up anymore. All the more challenge for Karina, she told herself.

 

“Well, at least that means we’ll be able to pick her out of the results if it shows that her parents died when she was little.” The screen was filled with so many options that it made Lily’s head spin. What exactly was she hoping to find? It wasn’t as though she’d discover that Marilyn was secretly dead and haunting them. You’ve read too many trashy novels.

 

“Are you sure Marilyn’s her first name? I’m not getting any results.”

 

Lily’s heart sank. She didn’t want this mysterious woman to retain all her secrets. “Did you spell her name right?”

 

“Unless you know of another way to spell it. Maybe she goes by her middle name. I could just run a search for the Turners around here, but that’s going to take a while.” She patted the boxy computer tower beside her, the gesture all she needed in order to explain. “Then I’ll have to sort through the results.”

 

Lily could only linger on her disappointment for a moment .She knew she had to find out more, and the only way to do that was to pay Marilyn a visit. “Well, if you get bored, I’d be grateful if you stuck with it. I’m actually running a little late to meet her for lunch, so I’ll ask her then and give you a call if she clues me in on anything useful. How about that?”

 

“If you could find out her parents’ names, it’d be much easier.”

 

“I’ll see what I can do. I’ll check back later.” She felt grateful that she didn’t flush at the first sign of trouble the way her brother did. It was embarrassing how clueless she had been. In a film, she could have marched in there and pulled up all of the public information available on Marilyn, right down to a scan of her birth certificate and driver’s license. Reality was more than disappointing.

 

Since she was already in town, it took little time for her to find Martin George’s offices. She had never seen where the city council worked, and the old building filled her with a sense of awe and frustration. Martin hardly needed the marble columns and bay windows in order to feel self-important. She felt underdressed in her simple tan sweater and faded corduroys, but there was no time to change into a business suit. She wanted to channel a famous detective, but she was lacking the proper attire and the appropriate sidekick.

 

All she could do was smile warmly at the building receptionist and try her best. “Excuse me. I have an appointment with Mr. George,” she explained.

 

“Name?” the girl asked, barely looking up from her laptop. Between her computer and her headset, she looked more like a telemarketer than any sort of assistant.

 

Improvise, she scolded herself. “My name is Lily Pratt. He’s buying my father’s farm, and he was supposed to finalize the offer. I was just supposed to pick up some paperwork from him to take back to my father to have him sign.” She swallowed thickly and pressed on. “He said that if he was out, he would leave it with his assistant or someone nearby.” The woman regarded her skeptically. She knew she had to kick things up.

 

She was surprised when the tears came. She was not the sort of woman who let herself become overwhelmed by emotions, but she was exhausted and frustrated. She had no idea what she was doing or what she might discover. She was worried, not just about her father and her future but for her brother and what he was getting into with his girl. “My father’s very sick,” she said between gasps for breath. “I need to go get his medicine after this. I don’t know if this is when I was supposed to come in. I don’t have a lot of time.”

 

She could hear the woman’s fingers fly over the keyboard, hammering at the keys. “I’m not seeing you in his calendar, but there is the name Pratt here. It says Oliver instead.”

 

“That’s my brother.” More and more, he had been disappearing throughout the day. She’d stopped asking him questions as she had only reminded herself of her father. “Oliver’s been the one doing the negotiating.”

 

“Can I see some ID, please?”

 

Rather than feel weighed down by her brother’s involvement, Lily chose to be relieved that he had gotten her this far. She fished into her small purse and pulled out her license. She expected the woman to just check her name and picture, but instead she pushed away from her desk and walked over to a Xerox machine. She made a photocopy of the ID and stapled it to some printout. She wanted to ask what the fuss was about, but when the woman returned her license without so much as a word of thanks, she decided against it. “His suite is the last door on the left.”

 

“Thank you. Thank you.” She returned to the hall before she could thank the woman a third time for her rudeness. She made no eye contact with anyone as she marched down the hall and knocked lightly on the door. No answer. She tried again, then shyly barged in.

 

Lily was mildly embarrassed to find herself alone in a waiting room. Of course I wouldn’t be walking right into his office, she reminded herself. A secretary with a severe black bob gave her a chipper “I’ll be right with you” and then went back to typing frantically on her computer.

 

She considered taking a seat and flipping through a magazine, but she was too anxious. Instead she bounced on her heels in front of the desk and waited for the woman’s hands to stop their frenetic clatter.

 

“Sorry about that. You’re Oliver Pratt?”

 

The question made her want to laugh, but she kept her composure. “His sister. I believe he had an appointment with Mr. George.”

 

“Yes, but I’m afraid Mr. George is out of the office until tomorrow. I assume they discussed rescheduling. It’s not like him to have a conflict on his calendar like this.”

 

“That’s okay. I actually came by because I wanted to talk to his assistant.”

 

The woman blinked at her impatiently. When she didn’t elaborate, the woman said, “That would be me.”

 

“No, no, I mean his other assistant.”

 

“I’m sorry. He doesn’t have another assistant.” There was alarm in the woman’s dark eyes, and Lily could see her moving back.

 

“I don’t understand. I’ve met her before. She came to my house. I mean Marilyn.”

 

“Oh, Mary.” The woman put a hand to her chest and laughed politely. “She told you she was his assistant? That’s just like her. She’s always pushing people to see how far they’ll believe her. That girl.” She took a second to shake her head. “I’m sorry about that. Mary’s not Mr. George’s assistant. She’s his daughter.”

 

 

Oliver had forged his father’s signature so many times on lesser documents that his hand didn’t even shake when he surrendered their property. It felt appropriate somehow to secure their future so simply, with the other occupants of the house unaware that technically, they were trespassing. The day the money appeared in his bank account, he couldn’t stop laughing. He would have to set up other accounts, of course. He couldn’t risk anyone else seeing all that money and asking questions. Not when there was so much left to do.

 

His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He knew who it would be. “He wants to meet with you. Have dinner to celebrate you doing the right thing, no doubt.”

 

“We can’t do it here.” She’d promised that they would be able to keep their home after it all happened, but how could he ever face his home knowing that he had killed someone there? He wouldn’t murder for a piece of property, but for love? He was learning how far he would go.

 

Marilyn sighed on the other end. “Ollie, you know we’ve been over this.”

 

His house was remote enough that the chances of a man having a heart attack wrecking his vehicle were great. Any traces of a crime could be easily covered up, destroyed, or explained away in his own home. Yes, officer, of course my fingerprints are on the chair he sat in. I live here. They knew the terrain, so there would be no way for him to make an escape.

 

“I just don’t think it’s safe for Lily or Dad,” he said. Through the wall, he could hear his sister’s voice reduced to a whisper as she shouted his name. Soon she would be in the room, no doubt criticizing his newly discovered love life. “I haven’t even told them about the sale. Dad would never allow it, and Lily would freak out on me. How could I explain to them that that guy was here again?”

 

He could hear her frustration from across the town. “Okay, okay,” she said, mostly to herself. He could picture those beautiful eyes pressed shut as she focused. “We’ll just have to do it at my place. Anywhere else will be too risky. Come over as soon as you can so we can get everything set up. For dinner,” she added, as though anyone could be listening in on their conversation.

 

“I’ll be there soon. Love you.” She hung up without saying a word, but he didn’t mind. His heart was racing to think that the day had come at last. His life would never be the same, but was there really much that he wanted to preserve anyway?

 

He was just getting his shoes laced when Lily threw open his door. A surge of regret raced through his bloodstream, not guilt for what he was about to do but because the last few weeks had pushed them apart. He could see how much the stress was getting to her, wasting away the weight in her face to make her cheekbones look more severe, her eyes wild. “We need to talk, “she told him.

 

Sorry, but I’m going to be late to murder. “I agree. I have to be somewhere, but when I get home, we’ll sit down and talk. We’ll go over everything that we’ve been ignoring for the last few weeks. I miss you, Lily, I really do. We’re going to fix everything and figure out how we’re going to keep the house. It’s all going to be okay.”

 

He’d expected the speech to sway her, but the tension was still written across her tensed features. “You’re not going to see Marilyn, are you?” She barely gave him time to remain silent on the matter before she gripped his arm tensely. “We need to talk about her. She’s not who you think she is.”

 

He let out a terse laugh. “What, do you think you know her better than I do? Honestly, Lily, you need to just take a day off and relax.”

 

“Oliver, please. She’s leading you on.”

 

Anger flared up within him, red and raw. Pulling himself away from her meant that her fingernails scratched into him and his body bashed into the doorway, but he could no longer feel his body. “What, because she’s young and beautiful, there’s no way she could want to be with someone like me unless she had some ulterior motives?”

 

“No, I—“

 

“I’m disappointed in you. I thought you’d support me and be happy for me. You know it’s hard enough for me to put myself out there with another person. I’m trying to just have a tiny bit of happiness right now while everything else is fucked up. Can’t you just let me have that?”

 

“That’s not—“

 

He decided to leave his coat behind rather than push past his sister to get to the closet. His left shoe was threatening to fall off, but he stormed out of the house, pausing only to grab his keys from the stand by the door. He was already in the Oldsmobile when Lily made it to the porch. He reversed down the lane to make sure she couldn’t chase after him.

 

The steering wheel took the brunt of his aggression, his palms bashing against the plastic as he cursed his sister’s name. Wasn’t he doing this for her? Yes, but also for Marilyn. What could she possibly know about her? Meek, antisocial Lily, who would probably live in that house for the rest of her life and never issue a single complaint? She couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to feel the fear he did for Marilyn’s life. She was abused, and she was in danger. This was the only way.

 

She looked perfectly calm when she answered the door, but Oliver still wrapped his arms tightly around her. She laughed quietly but untangled herself from his gangly limbs. “You know you can’t act like that when he gets here. You have to be professional.” She smacked his bare forearm and pulled him inside. “What the hell were you thinking, not even bringing a coat? I didn’t mean you had to get here that quickly.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t planning on making you sit on my lap when your boss is over. Has he been here before?”

 

The scent of meat already filled the modest apartment. Oliver bent over the slow cooker but could not make out anything more than the brown of roasting meat and the orange of carrots. “A couple of times. His job isn’t exactly the sort to keep normal business hours.” She noticed him snooping and waved a wooden spoon at him. “Venison. He gave me a ton of it yesterday. I thought it would be poetic justice.”

 

“How are you going to get the fish in there. Won’t he be able to taste it from the start?”

 

“The plan changed.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and squeezed past him to put a tray of pre-made rolls into the oven to bake. “I figured it wouldn’t look good if someone who knew him so well let him come in contact with the one thing he’s terribly allergic to, especially when there obviously isn’t any fish in this food. Plus you’re right. If he tasted it and didn’t have enough of a reaction, what would we do? We’d be fucked.” He wasn’t sure if he had ever heard her swear before. It somehow added gravity to the situation. “I’ve done my research. Belladonna can induce a heart attack, and he’s big enough that nobody will find it suspicious.”

 

“You’ve been looking up poisons? They can trace what you look up online.” His stomach gave a nervous kick, and he knew already that he would struggle to eat more than a bite during the meal.

 

“They won’t have any reason to suspect foul play, so it doesn’t matter. But I was careful. I looked things up at the library. You can get anything online. Apparently it’s great for helping with eye problems and migraines. I used a pre-paid card, had it sent to a P.O. box. I didn’t want you to worry.”

 

“It’s hard for me not to worry when we’re talking about killing someone.” He tried to think of the last person he had seen dead. When was the last funeral he attended? Had he ever seen someone slip away in the hospital?

 

“Just remind yourself that he’s not a man. He’s a monster.” She went through the cabinets and found a couple of wine glass with frosted etchings of snowflakes. A bottle of champagne was waiting in the refrigerator, and she tore away the foil over the cork. “I was going to save this until after he was gone, but I think that we could both use a drink.”

 

He was tempted to just ask her to give him the entire bottle. “So we’re going to slip him poison in his drink? How traditional.”

 

“Why mess with a good thing?” she asked with that coy smile of hers. Her full lips were lashed with red, but the shade somehow did not look severe on her. She struggled with untangling the wire to get to the bottle’s cork, but she did not ask for help. “My fingers are shaking. I can’t believe this is actually happening. I’ve thought about it for so long, but now it’s real. I feel so…free.” She laughed quietly. “And loved.”

 

“You are.” He drew her to his chest and closed his eyes, trying to focus on how real she felt, how warm. Yes, he did love her. He had to. There was no other way.

 

 

 

“What do you think, Oliver?”

 

Oliver flushed as he tried to remember the topic they were discussing. His eyes kept sweeping over Martin, trying to spot some obvious hint that the poison had begun its work. He had no idea what to watch for–sweating, discomfort, red skin or pale? Any hint that something was happening would suffice.

 

“I’m sorry,” he murmured before taking a sip of water. “I think the wine’s going straight to my head. What were you saying?”

 

Marilyn lifted the napkin from her lap to daintily dab the corners of her mouth.” He wanted to know how it was that you’ve gotten tired of venison so soon during hunting season,” she said patiently. “You’ve hardly touched your food.”

 

He’d managed to put back a couple of soft carrots and a few slivers of meat, but the thought of poison made him too nervous. One misplaced drop (Grain? Crumb?) could put him in danger. He managed to cut another slice of the meat, refusing to look at how generously pink the flesh remained. “I think I’m coming down with something.”

 

“Best defense is to get some good food inside yourself then. Red meat will build up your defenses,” Martin insisted, pointing at him with his fork. “Of course I don’t blame you, what with all the stress you’ve had lately. It can’t be easy. I just hope that you can take a load off for a little while and figure out what you really want. You can leave all the concern about that big field to me.”

 

“And house.”

 

The words slipped out before he could censor himself, but if Martin was bothered, he didn’t let on. Instead he just winked and took a drink of his wine. “I’m coming up with plans already. I can’t wait to get to work. How’s the hunt for a new place going for you, anyway?”

 

“Well, we’ll definitely be downsizing. Right now it’s just a matter of finding a nursing home with a vacancy so we know that Dad’s looked after properly. Then Lily and I can figure out where we’re going to go and how to divide things up.”

 

“A niece of mine actually works at The Good Shepherd. It’s a ten-minute drive or so, but I’m sure you’re used to taking trips. I could put in a good word.”

 

“Yes, that’d be really good of you. You’ve done so much already.” Pretending to feel any sort of warmth for this man was a struggle, so when his phone vibrated in his pocket, Oliver barely resisted the urge to jump out of his seat and run from the room. “I’m sorry, I’m getting a call. Dad’s ears might be burning. I should take it just to make sure he’s okay. I’ll only be a minute.”

 

The cell phone had been buzzing against his thigh almost continuously since the dinner had started, but he’d been doing his best to ignore it. He wasn’t surprised to see his sister’s name on the display. “I told you that I was busy tonight,” he snapped, not caring what great excuse she might have for the intrusion.

 

On the other end, Lily gave an audible gasp. He could picture her trying to gather her thoughts, chewing at her thumbnail as she tried to sort out exactly how she was supposed to approach the problem from another angle. “Are you with her right now.”

 

“Yes.” He saw no point in lying to her. From the kitchen, he could see Marilyn pouring more wine for her boss. Had she already slipped the poison in, or was she going to take this moment as the perfect opportunity to distract him and administer the nightshade?

 

“Ollie, listen to me.” Her voice was agonized with tears, and he could hear that she was trying to choke back sobs. “I went to City Hall to try to talk to Marilyn about something. She doesn’t work there.”

 

“Of course she works there. I’ve been there and saw her behind her desk.”

 

“That wasn’t hers. I don’t know what she has to gain from pretending that she’s just working for Mr. George. She’s his daughter, okay? Everything she’s told you is a lie. I’m sorry. I know you really care about her and you think she cares about you. I just thought you needed to know. Before things went further.”

 

There was a noise in the other room. Martin was struggling to unbutton the collar of his flannel shirt, kicking his heels against the floor in frustration. Even from the kitchen, Oliver could see the sweat that was breaking out on his forehead. His free hand groped for his glass of water on the table, but he just sent silverware clattering to the floor in the process. “I really can’t talk right now, Lils. I’ll see you tonight. Or tomorrow. I don’t know.” He held the power button on his phone until his fingertip turned white and the phone vibrated to indicate that it was off. He tried to push it back in his pocket, but it bounced to the floor. He hardly heard it as he ran back to the table, where the man seemed to be choking.

 

“How much did you give him?” he asked as he looked around for some way to help. Surely there had to be something he could do. Every instinct was crying out to him that he had to save someone who was struggling to preserve life.

 

Marilyn glared at him but stood up as well. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said sharply. “Something’s just not agreeing with him. I think that Mr. George should go home now.”

 

“How’s he going to get up and drive away when he can’t even breathe?”

 

She looked at the older man clawing at his throat and pursed her lips. “I guess we’re going to have to help him get into his truck at least. It’s not going to work otherwise.”

 

Oliver took one look at him and knew that his knees were shaking so hard that he could barely keep himself upright. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

 

“Well, I’m not going to have him die at my kitchen table.”

 

“Why, because he’s your father?”

 

For a moment, pure rage flickered over her features. She brought a hand back as though to slap Oliver, but then she turned around and took a deep breath, steadying herself. “My abusive father. Yes, okay, I didn’t tell you that. I didn’t want you to think about your own dad and have misgivings, okay?”

 

“You lied to me.”

 

“I didn’t. I just didn’t tell you. But now you know. And when he is gone—“ She jerked a hand at the man whose eyes grew wider and redder by the second. ”—I am going to inherit everything of his, including your farm. So see? I love you and am protecting you and your entire family. You can keep the money and your home. Everything works out for you. We can be together and be happy.”

 

The sounds that came from Martin were no longer words. The damage has already been done. Even if we got him to the hospital, we’d have to explain what happened to him. They’d run tests and see that he was poisoned. There’s no hope for him. There wasn’t any as soon as he sat down to the table. You could have stopped it before, but you didn’t. You didn’t want to.

 

Oliver closed his eyes. He couldn’t look at that face any longer. He knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life. “We can just drag him out into the yard. Get him next to his truck and say that he fell. We found him there.”

 

“Is that going to be enough?”

 

“It’ll have to be, unless you want to spend all night trying to hoist him up into his truck just to dump it someplace.”

 

“I’d be more comfortable if there were some accident to cover our tracks.”

 

A slam behind them demanded their attention. Martin tried to drag himself across the floor. With the way he pulled himself forward with swollen fingers, it soon became clear that he was going for Oliver’s cell phone. He jumped over the older man, the millionaire who had tried to pay to make all his problems go away, and kicked the phone over to the doorway.

 

You can’t save him. You can save her. You can save yourself.

 

“Your driveway has a slope,” he panted. “We’ll just have to get him inside and set up, then get him going downhill. Gravity should take care of the rest.”

 

“Good, that’s good.” To Oliver’s surprise, she was actually looking to him with something resembling admiration. She was actually expecting him to help plan this out in the moment.

 

“How are we supposed to carry him?”

 

The satisfaction began to fade from Marilyn’s features as reality set in. “Something with wheels,” she mumbled to herself. “A chair?”

 

“We have to try.”

 

There was a terrible smell. Martin had given up on crawling and had rolled on his back to focus on gasping. He was making so much noise for someone who couldn’t speak that Oliver wanted nothing more than to hit him just to make him stop. For a minute, all he could do was bend over the kitchen sink, struggling not to gag up the little food he’d forced down.

 

Marilyn cursed as she pushed the dining room table aside to make room for an awkward, old leather office chair. “This is the best I can do to roll him.” She looked at her father, then back at the chair. “Should I get a belt to strap him in or something?”

 

“This is fucking ridiculous.” Oliver gritted his teeth and tried not to snap at her. This wasn’t a game. This wasn’t an act. They–she–had some something they couldn’t walk away from, and the best they could do was protect themselves from the consequences. “Why can’t we just stick him in the bathroom and say he was in there too long, so we had to check on him?”

 

“Do you want to be the one to pull his pants down?” she snapped. When she looked down at her father’s body still writhing on the linoleum, it was with a mixture of fear and annoyance. “We can’t just leave him inside. What if they make it a crime scene? What if they run tests and find the poison?”

 

“Wouldn’t they run tests to see if he was drunk driving? Shouldn’t you know if it’ll turn up on a test?”

 

“I didn’t think of everything, okay?” she shrieked. That crack in her calm, that glimpse at the depth of her rage was all it took to make Oliver stop asking questions. Her temper collapsed as quickly as it had erupted, and she was left with tears in her eyes. “Please, Ollie. I need you to help me with this. I don’t know what to do.”

 

He knew that getting him into the truck would be impossible. The front stairs alone would take them hours, and he didn’t want to be caught hauling a dead or dying body outside just in case the noise called attention from neighbors or people driving past. Every second that Martin spent on the floor, he became more of a liability. The phone could ring, the doorbell could chime, people could just decide to come over. Oliver took care of other people. That was just what he did. “Do you have keys to your bathroom?”

 

“I have…” She bit her lower lip as she thought about the question. “A skeleton key. It works.”

 

“We’ll put him in the bathroom then. Put him on the floor. He’ll have collapsed. We can clean up the food and drink, say that we were getting ready to call it a night when we realized he was still in there. We’ll wait long enough to call for help when it’s too late. Get them to break down the door. Lose the key somehow. I don’t have motive since I just got a ton of money from him. You…” He didn’t have to explain to her. She had everything to gain from her father’s body growing colder.

 

He expected her to look worried, but she’d left that behind long ago. She had administered too much poison to be patient. She had waited for this moment for a long time, and she wasn’t going to let her father walk out of the apartment and potentially survive the encounter. This had been her real plan, Oliver was certain, whether she had decided it long ago or in the heat of the moment.

 

“I can get emotional,” she vowed. “Does anyone know that you were coming over here?”

 

He remembered the fear in his sister’s eyes when he had been leaving the house, how alarmed she had sounded on the phone. She’d been resolute in believing that something was wrong with Marilyn. She just doesn’t know what it’s like to be abused. She grew up in a loving home. We’ve always stuck together. Marilyn has had no one. She’d been to the edge of what anyone can take. This is it. She has to understand. I’ll make her.

 

“No,” he said at last. “We should get him in the bathroom now.”

 

It was the quiet of the kitchen that scared Oliver the most. He had been able to focus when Martin had been choking and thrashing, but his body had grown still with acceptance. His chest still struggled to gather in the air to just survive, but anything more was beyond his reach. He seemed to be more corpse than man, and the burden of reality was settling heavily over Oliver. This was a man who had refilled his wine glass and clasped his hand warmly, who had frightened him, yes, on multiple occasions but who had also infuriated him. It was a flawed human who had been reduced to a dying animal before his eyes, and he knew that he was responsible. This was a feeling that few would ever experience, the power of taking a life—or to just refuse to save it.

 

What he wanted more than anything was the ability to feel anything. Instead an icy numbness had taken hold of his mind. Preservation was all that what was going through his mind. He’d found distance from his body as his hands slipped under the man’s armpits, the thin material of his shirt soaked through with sweat. It was another man who pulled hundreds of pounds up, up, a woman positioning a chair for the dead weight to settle into seamlessly. He found himself thinking about bruising and how to be gentle. He would feel sorry for them, he was certain, for the way the universe had forced them to take matters such as this into their own hands. It was clear to him that they were not professionals and would never truly understand how to do this efficiently.

 

Relief, that was his ultimate goal. He wanted to rest. But first he had to go ahead to get to the bathroom. It was important to make sure that there was enough room to get Martin inside while closing the door. Once he felt confident, he helped Marilyn wheel her father inside. They bickered over who would stand inside to guide the body down and who would be the one tipping the chair. Marilyn had been firm about taking care of the chair, citing the fact that she was far too frail to catch the immense weight of her father, but Oliver vetoed that decision. If Martin George was going to die of a heart attack, then he would go down quickly and roughly. Oliver would put his back into it and fling him down. She would just have to make sure that he fell the right way and didn’t damage anything of hers that it would hurt to lose.

 

From behind his emotional wall, he could see that it was a struggle to get Martin’s slumped body out of the chair. He considered breaking off the arm, but that would be too much. He crouched down and put his shoulder beneath the seat while pulling the wheels back toward himself. The result was violent but effective: the chair snapped back against Oliver and buried the wheels into his stomach, but the older man hit the black and white tiles with a sickening finality.

 

It was difficult to see what had been so intimidating about the man known as Martin George as he took up most of the floor, his arm bent at an odd angle and his temple resting against the floor. A pool of red began to leak slowly from his body. Oliver wondered if that meant that his heart was still beating. Would he bleed to death first? Could he still feel and hear? Did he understand exactly what had brought about the end of his life?

 

Marilyn recoiled from the blood and stretched her slender legs as far as possible to leap from the bathroom over the threshold into the hall. She slammed the bathroom door behind her and turned the key in the lock. It had been her choice to do this, to bring about this end. Oliver found himself almost amused that the end of this man’s myth was not a nail in the coffin but a key in the doorway. Most keys seemed to give way to potential. This one closed off the last opportunity to survive.

 

Oliver finally found his breath and righted the chair so he could slump against the cushions. They were still warm from the body that had previously occupied them. He wanted to ask what they should do first, get rid of the key or go about cleaning up the kitchen so most of the dishes and food had been cleared away before police could arrive. Or should they figure out their story so even if they were separated, they would give the same details and break down at the right moments, describing the discovery of the body in the same disturbing detail?

 

“How do you feel?” she asked. He didn’t realize that she’d slid into his lap until her arms were around his neck, not squeezing but embracing lightly, lovingly.

 

“Numb,” he answered. “You?”

 

“Alive,” she said, though she hardly had to when her body was gathered so tightly against his.

NaNoWriMo: Part 4.

The trees whispered against the windows as the wind picked up. Lily looked in on her father, but the chemotherapy had made him sick so quickly that his body was thoroughly exhausted. She’d hardly been able to get him up the stairs before he had fallen asleep. The doctor had clucked something about payments when she was there, but she had just fluttered her eyelashes and insisted that she wasn’t the one to handle the checkbook in the family. Important things like that had to be left to the men. She’d filed it in her mind as another reason to have a confrontation with her brother later.

 

But he had not come home promptly. So much of her life had turned into the pause and the lull, the formation of the question without speaking it. The more urgent their situation became, the more they didn’t talk about what was happening. For years she had trusted her brother implicitly, but she knew that he wasn’t a businessman and didn’t have the head for saving something that was already in such peril. He just wanted to preserve their feelings and be the hero, but she had never been able to put her little brother up on a pedestal.

 

His car kicked up dust as it tore up the driveway. They were in desperate need of some rain just to get their meager garden growing, and the clouds overhead were promising to make up for what they’d lacked. She made her way to the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. She would not confront him outside. She would have a cup of tea and let him sit down. She would not let him have the advantage of going on the defense from the start of their conversation. To him, it would appear sudden, but it had been hours—years, really, if she could be honest with herself—that they had needed to have this conversation.

 

There was laughter at the door. He crashed his way in with more care to carrying a conversation than treating the old house with the respect it deserved. Lily bristled and held her empty mug even more tightly. The other voice was a girl’s. She wanted to tell them that they should be quiet, that their father was having his nap and needed his rest after such a poor creation. Instead she moved to the pantry and busied herself looking through the teas that she already had memorized.

 

“Lily! Where are you?” Oliver was in the kitchen already. She took a deep breath for patience and leaned around the door to give him a tight-lipped smile. “Oh, there you are. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

 

The girl looked to be at least five years his junior, mature enough to look like an adult without being touched by time just yet. She was apologetically tall and slouched horribly, and her long black dress with its Peter Pan collar reminded Lily of a bolt of cloth. Or maybe she was just irritated already. She accepted that this might be the case. “I have to get this,” she said without any remorse in her voice. She held up the box of tea as an excuse to get over to the stove before the kettle could even begin to whistle.

 

“That’s a nice idea. Marilyn, do you want a cup of tea or something? Lily, this is Marilyn. Marilyn…”

 

“It’s very nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.” The girl offered a pale hand, but Lily was already busy. She had to unwrap the teabag and get it in the mug, then pour the water, then measure out the right amount of milk and sugar. It was a very involved process. No time for handshakes. “I’d love a cup of tea,” the girl called Marilyn said to get her attention.

 

She had to admit it was a clever move. It was enough for Lily to turn to her and offer up whatever dredges of a smile she had within her. “I’ll just get you a mug then,” she said as she moved to another cupboard. She didn’t offer the girl a choice in which tea she got. “You know, for as much as you’ve supposedly heard of me, my brother’s never mentioned any Marilyns.”

 

She didn’t have to look back to know that color had splashed across Oliver’s cheeks. He was prone to wearing his feelings most vividly, and he’d always been quick to become embarrassed. The Pratts were not terribly social creatures, so some things never changed. Fortunately for Oliver, Marilyn just giggled and shoved him gently with her hip. “Well, I’m—“

 

He gave her a sharp look and hastily interrupted. “She’s Mr. George’s assistant.”

 

That name being spoken in their house again made the fresh mug nearly slip between her fingers. Since that initial visit, the only time she’d heard of the politician was when her father had asked her to make sure that dreadful man didn’t come back around these parts. She had pointed out that he hadn’t even met the man, and a potential buyer wasn’t a bad thing, but her father wanted to hear nothing of the sort. All he had to know was that he was a politician to know exactly what kind of a person he was. If their legacy had to crumble, then it at least should fertilize a new beginning for some young family. He wasn’t interested in moving out to make way for a parking lot.

 

“You didn’t tell me you’d been in touch with Mr. George again,” she said as she prepared the tea for this girl. She had gained a new level of intrigue very quickly, and Lily realized that it was probably best not to offend her with her cold behavior.

 

Oliver pulled out his chair and offered the other to Marilyn, who accepted. There was nowhere else to sit in the kitchen, but Lily had ceased to care. She placed the porcelain cup in front of the girl, who offered her a bright smile in response “I’m afraid Mr. George is very difficult to pin down. You’re probably aware that it’s an election year, so he has many interests tugging at him.”

 

“I thought it would be a good idea to bring Marilyn out here to see the farm. She can take some photos, answer any questions that he might have. That way we don’t have to keep waiting for him to find the time to come here. We don’t have unlimited time to figure out where we’re going after this. We have to get looking for a place to live and jobs, those little factors that wouldn’t cross his mind.”

 

They were the most responsible words that she had heard her brother speak since he had begun his frantic search for a buyer. She had started to believe that he would never take the next step because it was too scary. “The sooner, the better as far as Dad is concerned. You know he doesn’t like change. If we have more time to figure out where he’d be comfortable, that’d be best,” she pointed out.

 

Marilyn touched her arm gently. “I truly am sorry to hear about your father’s battle,” she said, all firm eye contact and soft tones. “We want to find the best possible outcome that won’t put him in any danger.”

 

“That’s really very sweet of you.” Lily was surprised by the warmth she felt from the sympathy. Other people had expressed their concern about their father, naturally, but he had been sick for so many years that his cancer was just treated like a matter of fact. Some people just had heavier loads than others, and there was no reason for making every day seem like a special occasion. She put down her tea in order to pat Marilyn’s hand. “I don’t know how much you can really do for us, but I had no idea that he cared that much about us.”

 

Oliver and Marilyn exchanged a look, but he was the one who found his tongue to speak first. “He seemed pretty fond of you, Lils. I wouldn’t sell yourself so short.”

 

She bit her lip as she remembered the way the man had followed her around. She had only tried to make him comfortable, to be helpful. She didn’t understand why her brother had been so furious about it. “Well, it’s not like he wants to marry me and keep the farm in the family still, so I don’t see why that matters,” she snapped back.

 

If the discomfort bothered Marilyn, she didn’t show it. Instead she dunked her teabag patiently and took a sip from her mug, then helped herself to a bit of the sugar. “He wouldn’t want bad press either,” she reminded them. “Like I said, election year.”

 

Lily refused to feel embarrassed in her own home, even if it would not be her home much longer, so she cast her gaze outside the window. The clothes were gathering lower, swollen with the promise of rain. “It’s just a shame you couldn’t have picked a better day to come out for photographs,” she said.

 

Oliver shrugged. “Well, she can always come back. It’ll give him a general idea of what the place looks like. I want to give her a tour so she can go back and say flattering things.”

 

“You’ll hardly have to prompt me,” Marilyn said, sounding nearly breathless with excitement. “I know you said you had a farm, but when I got here, I was surprised by how big it is. It’s tucked back so far from the main road that I really could have lived here my whole life with no clue this place existed.”

 

“We should get to that then.”

 

“But what about my tea?”

 

“You can bring it with you. I mean, I know the way back to the house.” He gave her a soft smile and pulled her chair back for her when she began to stand up. Lily couldn’t remember the last time that she had witnessed her brother demonstrate manners like these. He wasn’t rude, not really, but this was taking things to another level entirely.

 

“I can come on the walk with you.” Lily wasn’t sure why she volunteered, but as soon as she had spoken, she knew she couldn’t just back out on the offer. It would be too strange.

 

Oliver’s body language screamed his discomfort, from the way he clenched his jaw to his hand on the small of Marilyn’s back. She could practically see his mind turning over reasons that she would have to stay behind, perhaps to stay by the phone in case Mr. George called or to be close in case their father woke up in need of something. She lived in suspense of being helpful, but she knew it wasn’t the same as being needed. The phone would ring, or it wouldn’t. Her father might need something, but it could very likely wait ten minutes anyway. As Oliver stared her down, she dipped into the living room and returned with her faded goldenrod cardigan, one she had knitted herself with all that time she had spent sitting and hoping and remaining invisible.

 

“I think it’s wonderful you’re coming,” Marilyn said to her, and with the way her eyes creased with her smile, Lily found herself believing every word. Even if the girl was lying to her, she felt flattered that anyone would think to preserve her feelings. “You might know something that Oliver overlooks. Anything you can offer is going to go a long way to showing Mr. George that you’re serious about selling and deserve to get your money’s worth.”

 

“Well, I’ll just check on Dad first then.” By the tone of his voice, Lily could tell that this was meant to be her responsibility. He felt that he was doing her a favor by taking on the task.

 

She refused to feel sorry, instead hooking her elbow in Marilyn’s to steer her to the front porch. The women hunched their shoulders against the chill of the wind, resorting to their mugs to fortify their warmth. As Lily toyed with her teabag, she heard Marilyn give a started cry.

 

“Your hand!” she said, a finger stretched out to Lily’s palm. She didn’t dare touch. “Are you okay? I don’t know how I didn’t notice it sooner.”

 

The cuts had settled into deep scabs that made bending her hand uncomfortable. As for the pain, it was something for her to endure and triumph over. She considered it a badge of honor in some ways, and if nothing else, it gave her ample distraction through the day. She curled her hand up and ignored the tugging of the skin as she pressed her fist into her pocket. “I had an accident,” she said simply. She could tell that brief explanation wouldn’t push away the concern, and there was a part of her that invited the attention. Even when she’d been to The Full Back, not a single patron had asked her about the angry red marks across her hand. Even Liam had stayed remarkably detached. “I was washing some old wine glasses that had belonged to my parents, and one got away from me.”

 

“God, it’s like you slipped and fell on it.”

 

The perfect alibi fell right before her. She had to smile. “I did. When I was going to get a broom to sweep up the shards, I fell. It was late at night, so Dad was already asleep, and Ollie wasn’t home yet.”

 

“He doesn’t talk about your father much.” The girl’s light eyes flicked up to the second story of the house. “All I know is that he’s been sick for a long time. Surely he must have been very strong to keep this place.”

 

The prompt had Lily leaning against one of the porch’s whitewashed rails. She couldn’t remember the last time she had unburdened herself. She wanted to keep her cards close to her chest in order to stay safe, but then she remembered how she had felt in that bar, trying to create a connection with a man who just walked away from her. You could trust no one, or you could trust everyone and hope to see results. She was cautious, but over a decade of playing it safe had hardly panned out well for her.

 

“My father…we had a good thing going. We weren’t a huge operation, but we had crops and cattle mostly. One gives to the other. We mostly handled dairy and corn. This country goes through corn like you would not believe. Dad was the sort to take charge of everything. I think he slept five hours every night if that. He went through three pots of coffee a day just trying to keep up with everything. All the farmhands, he considered them family. He was never the sort of man who talked a lot or gave out hugs, but you could tell he had respect for the people who worked here. He paid them well. He thought that if you paid people what they deserve, you’ll get the best out of them. It’s what his dad had done, and his dad before him.

 

“Ollie told him that we should diversify more in case something happens. Dad thought that was hilarious. He was the one who had been farming his whole life. By the time we came along, it was a business. We helped out here and there, but it wasn’t the same. Dad is a traditionalist. He stuck with what he knew.

 

“I was working here with the cows when Ollie was off in college. We were so proud of him because he was actually trying to do his own thing. He was paying his own way. The stress got to him though. He wanted to come home. Mom wasn’t really happy about that, but she went to get him anyway. She drove five hours each way and didn’t complain once, other than to say that she wished it wouldn’t get them home so late. We tried to be easy on him because we knew Dad would be furious about the wasted money, the tuition and gas and stuff. Mom was gone that morning. She left a note. She’d been depressed as far back as she could remember. She couldn’t face the guilt of knowing that she had passed that on to Ollie.”

 

Sharing this was more difficult than she’d realized it would be. The tea tasted bitter from steeping too long, but there was nowhere for her to fling the teabag. She had to just savor the warmth and the distraction. She always needed something to do with her hands. “They never did find her. Dad did everything he could, hounding the police and hiring a private investigator, things like that. They gave up on her and said that it was more likely she was dead than just someone who wanted to disappear off the face of the earth. Why would you leave a note if you didn’t want to be found? She was the kind of person who always looked out for other people. She wouldn’t be selfish and start over. But Daddy couldn’t face that, so he just sank so much money and energy into trying to find her. He had to believe she was still out there. Things started to fall apart here. He wore himself down…and then he found out about the cancer. So, you know. It’s been tough. He can’t face his limits. But he’s my father.”

 

Marilyn’s face was pale and seemed to age as the gravity of the situation became clear to her. Her hands shook as she handled her tea, and she had to abandon the cup on the railing of the porch to avoid spilling the liquid all over her delicate dress. Tears rimmed her eyes, but she refused to let them brush over her cheeks. “I don’t suppose Oliver would tell me a story like that. Thank you for sharing it with me.”

 

She had wanted to get the truth off her chest, but there was a new heaviness clinging to her, as though she could feel the weight of her bones within her body. Maybe this hadn’t been her story to tell. Maybe Oliver had been waiting or didn’t want a near stranger to know that he suffered from depression, even if he had never brought the condition up again after his mother’s disappearance. Maybe he just told himself that it wasn’t true.

 

Or maybe he liked this girl, really liked her, and he didn’t want to chase her off by letting her know just how fucked up his family was. The guilt was a heated spear in her chest, the metal white hot and scorching. “Please don’t tell Ollie that I told you about everything. He probably wanted to tell you in his own time. I said too much. You just wanted to know about Dad. It doesn’t even matter. You’re just here to take pictures of the house. I just don’t get much company, let alone others girls. You shouldn’t listen to me.”

 

The tea was far too strong. It had gone off. She turned to take it back into the house, but when she got to the door, she saw her brother standing there, illuminated from the light still on in the living room.

 

 

 

Lily’s retreat had been hasty. Rather than run away from her brother, she’d charged past him into the house, the only real place she had ever felt comfortable, mumbling apologies and excuses in a voice that struggled to press on through her tight throat.

 

Color pooled within his cheeks as he faced Marilyn, his inner demons having been introduced without his permission. How could he even begin to talk about what had gone on in his life back then or the burden he carried even now? “Marilyn,” he started, but he let his voice sink down within his chest because he had no clue how to finish any sentence he started.

 

“It’s going to rain. I think you should take me home.”

 

A fist seized up within him, pulling and twisting at random. Self-loathing would be the most natural response, but better to be angry, to have another target. He knew what he had felt about his sister’s flirting with an older, disgusting man. Was she jealous of what he had with this beauty? Yes, she had to be envious, he was certain of it. There could be no other reason she would make such a spectacle of him.

 

The clouds split in mourning for him as they walked back to the car. He ground his teeth together and thought of the cigarettes he’d hidden away in the glove compartment. At least he would have some mild method of self-abuse in which he could indulge on the way home. He did not know what to say to Marilyn still, so he opted for silence as he buckled in and turned on the radio.

 

Her slender hand was quick to turn the volume down. “You could have told me.” There was hurt in her voice that he could not begin to pin down. How could it possibly about him betraying her? He had always been honest, and if he had held back with her, it was only because they hardly knew each other. Still, she crossed her arms over her chest and would not cease her pout. “I told you, we have to trust each other. If you don’t open up to me, I don’t know how we’re going to go forward.”

 

“Well, I’m sorry if you never asked me if my mother killed herself or if I ever had a nervous breakdown. You work for the government. Shouldn’t you be able to dig this up in a file or something?”

 

She gave him a withering smile but at least relaxed her stance a bit. “It would help me understand why exactly this place means so much to you.”

 

“It doesn’t. I hate the farm. I really don’t care if your boss razes it to the ground or builds an amusement park with a statue of himself in the middle. I just need to get out.”

 

His hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that he was afraid he’d break a bone through his own anger. And then there was her palm, as hot as though she still gripped her tea, sliding over the thigh of his jeans. “I don’t want him to do anything to your family. I’m trying to help you. You know that. And you’re going to help me.”

 

“You keep saying that, but what does it really mean to me? You’re asking for a lot of trust, but you’re not giving me a lot in return.”

 

“Turn left.”

 

The gravel road she’d indicated led to nowhere, as far as anyone was concerned. There was private property owned by a power company, but they had decided not to expand their business after all. The area remained undeveloped, flat and foreboding on either side. In the rain, all that broke up the darkness of the storm was the dappled impression of raindrops and the defiant gaze of the headlights.

 

“Stop the car.”

 

They were nowhere. In the middle of the road, nowhere to turn, no traffic bearing down upon them. Total isolation. It seemed to Oliver to be a pointless exercise in control.

 

“It happened here.” She unbuckled her seatbelt but didn’t open the door. Would he have followed her out into the storm anyway? He wasn’t certain. Before, yes, anywhere, but now she knew too much. Why she would want to stick with him was a mystery to him.

 

When it became clear that he wasn’t going to speak, she pressed on. Her fingertips traced the condensation that formed on the windshield as they idled. “When he asked me to drive out here with him, I assumed the worst. Some people are scared of their bosses because they have money or power. Mine has both. It was in the middle of the day. He said I had to pick someone up along the way for him.

 

“I’d never met the man before. He wore a suit. Looked sharp. He laughed when I picked him up from the hotel. He said that I didn’t look like any taxi driver he’d ever met in his life, and I definitely didn’t have the skills to be a valet. He wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I was glad he sat in the back.

 

“Martin had given me the directions earlier in the day. I couldn’t remember the last time I actually had to read a map. I was so scared that I was going to get lost and get in trouble. The guy in the back kept asking me questions, but I didn’t know anything, so I just stayed quiet. I thought maybe that was what a valet would do. Then I saw him.”

 

She pulled at the sleeves of her dress so she could twist the material between her fingertips. Even in the compressed space of the car, she managed to pull her knees up to her chest. “He was just standing in the middle of the road. It was so unexpected that I nearly drove through him. I stopped, and the man got out of the car. He called him John or Jack or something like that, I can’t remember. They shook hands. And then he just. He put his hand in his pocket, and the other man fell down. I didn’t understand. And then I saw the red spreading out on the road.” Tears choked her voice, but she wiped her eyes and pressed on. “I screamed. Of course I screamed. I was so scared to be trapped there with him. I started the car again and was going to pull away, but he grabbed my door and that was it. I knew I couldn’t just go. He knew everything about me. And he told me to just go home.

 

“I didn’t know what to do. I could barely remember how to drive. I thought about going to the police, but I wound up in my shower instead. I was just trying to scrub at my skin like that could get rid of the blood that I’d seen. And then I realized. The man had been in my car, not Martin’s. His DNA was in my vehicle. People might have seen me pick him up. I could try to clean it up as best I could, but everything would tie me back to him if I said I’d seen the murder of some man I didn’t even know.”

 

Oliver shuddered and squinted through the windshield, trying to imagine a ghost a few feet away. “How long ago was this?” he asked quietly.

 

“A month, maybe two? It was the last person he did business with. I’m sure of it. He seemed to get what he wanted after that. Now he’s set eyes on you. I’m just so scared for you. For the both of us. When you walked into the office, I wasn’t sure who you were, but I know I can’t let that happen to you. You’re—“

 

His body was leaning over the gearshift, mouth keenly seeking hers. Never had he felt more needed, the heat of his body and the weight of his flesh pushing away all thoughts of that which could no longer be touched. He expected her to push him away and ask to go home, but instead those pale hands found purchase on his shirt, holding him close to her. Her lips were faintly sweet, her kiss firm while her fingers shook.

 

“That’s not going to happen to me,” he told her, afraid to open his eyes and see her draw away from him. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

 

“I know you won’t. I have a plan, remember?” she said. He could not see her coy smile, but the way her lips pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose was reassuring enough for him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this way, charged by adrenaline and confused as to whether he could take on the world or the world was caving in on him.

 

All he wanted was to listen to the rain with her, their bodies flush against one another as everyone else carried on without them. He could lose himself in the folds of her dress, the slope of her curves, the gentle purr of her voice as she described how she had felt when she’d first laid eyes on him, certain that he would be the one to make everything change. He believed her. He trusted her more than anyone he had known in years, and the knowledge that he was safe confiding in someone else made him nearly cry in gratitude.

 

At once Marilyn sat up in her seat and smoothed out her skirt before she set about fixing her hair. “I’d like you to take me home now,” she told him. She turned the vents on to help the windshield lose its fog. Her eyes remained glued to where the road would be, but her voice was as clear as though she whispered in his ear. “And then I’d like you to spend the night with me.”

 

No gesture of Martin George’s was subtle. When he slid from the driver’s seat of his pickup, he did so slowly, exaggerating the ridiculous portions of his body. His blazing orange jacket did nothing to minimize his waistline; on the contrary, it spoke to what a successful hunter–and consumer–he was.

 

“I have to admit, I was surprised that you invited me out here like this,” he said as he struggled to catch is breath. He clapped Oliver on the shoulder and circled around to the back of his truck to grab his rifle.

 

The idea had been Marilyn’s, though she had told Oliver to take credit for it. She said it was best for him to make it obvious to the public that he had some interaction with the man. It would be more difficult for him to disappear without a trace if others knew who he was going to meet. It also wouldn’t hurt to humanize himself in the man’s eyes. She knew her employer to be ruthless, but perhaps he would take a more paternal view of a young, inexperienced man nearly ready to talk business.

 

Oliver was less than surprised when Marilyn hopped down from the truck as well. She wore an orange vest and hat that looked as though they had been made for someone twice her size, but if the fashion misstatement bothered her, she gave no hint at her displeasure. “I hope you don’t mind me tagging along,” she said with her characteristic smirk upon her face. “Sometimes after a long day at the office, it’s nice to just get out in the field and shoot things.”

 

They’d discussed how to handle their relationship when they were around other people. They would be casual acquaintances, comfortable with one another without being overly familiar. She had pushed for this more than he had, if only for his safety from Martin’s zealous scrutiny and tension within the Pratt family. The best way to ensure their privacy to enjoy one another’s company, and enjoy they did on an increasingly regular basis, then they’d have to sneak around for a while. Surely there was some pleasure to be had in being one another’s dirty little secret. A few hours was all it had taken to win him over.

 

“Well, I don’t know much about offices, but I’ll try to offer my sympathy.” Already Oliver longed to get her out of the hunting gear, his fingers itching for contact with her skin, but he would have to settle for the cool wood and metal of a gun instead. “It’s been a while though.”

 

“Don’t you worry about showing off or anything like that. I don’t think Mary’s ever handled a gun before, have you?” Martin gave her a pat on the shoulder, a gesture that made her struggle not to wince. The protective side of Oliver wanted to find a way to keep the man from touching his assistant, but he knew that he would have to wait. According to her, it wouldn’t be long.

 

In the meantime, she forced a giggle that sounded all too real. Probably from years of practice, he told himself mournfully. It was no wonder that the two of them were so drawn to one another, trapped in their lives as they were. “Just water pistols, I think, but it can’t hurt to learn.”

 

“Oliver, I’m surprised that you’re not more of a shooter yourself. It’s a real useful skill to have when you’re protecting your farm. All sorts of critters could get at your crops or your livestock.”

 

He shrugged and wondered if his arms and shoulder would get tired from the weight of his weapon. “We never had a problem like that. The only real animals that posed a threat to my knowledge were people.”

 

Martin stared him in the face for a moment, eyes searching his features for any hint of malice. Finding none, he allowed himself a loud, low laugh. It started in the stomach and made his whole body move, making him look more like a Santa Claus figure than ever. It was difficult for Oliver to think of him as a murderer when he managed to look so goddamn jolly. Tears began to well, but he managed to get his emotions back in check. “Well, my boy, sometimes people are the enemy, and sometimes they can fix everything for you. I reckon you must be thinking of me as the latter, or else why would we be here? So you could shoot me?”

 

Oliver tried not to think of the night that Marilyn had been sobbing in his car, describing the coldblooded act of violence she had witnessed. He tried to remember how she’d laughed just moments before so he could imitate the sound. “As long as you don’t take off that coat and stand on all fours to throw me off, I think you should be safe.”

 

Reassured that a mild threat had not been issued, Martin looked out among the trees and tried to pick a path. As the only experienced hunter, it was up to him to not only keep them from getting lost but also to intuit where the game would be if they were to have a successful day. Otherwise he would be trapped spending an afternoon with two people who were relying on his money. Not the most entertaining company in the world.

 

Oliver grabbed Marilyn’s elbow and drew his lips to her ear. On such a clear autumn day, he was struck by the scent of her shampoo and nearly distracted from all rational thought. “How do I know he’s not going to just shoot us in the woods and claim that it was a hunting accident?”

 

She gave him a thin grin and patted his cheek gently. “If that was what he intended to do, he probably would have told me to stay in the truck. Don’t get anxious. That’ll tip him off, and he won’t be happy. Don’t make him do anything rash.”

 

From a distance, Martin shouted something that they could not make out. The words mattered less than his tone, which was growing increasingly impatient. The couple exchanged a glance and then began to follow. It seemed impossible that a man as large as Martin could walk nearly silently through the woods while Oliver’s own boots made symphonic crashes of every leaf in his way. “What are we even hunting?” he asked.

 

The question summoned laughter ahead of him. “This was your idea, boy. Are you telling me you don’t even know what season it is?”

 

Oliver shrugged and tried to act casual. “Figured it would be a good time to learn.”

 

“Deer. What we’re looking for is deer. At least it’s not a small target. Try to imagine going for a turkey.”

 

He had to at least laugh at the idea that he’d be chasing down fat, waddling birds. Marilyn, on the other hand, let out a distressed cry. “They’re so cute though,” she protected. “They have beautiful eyes and never hurt anyone. Why would you want to kill them?”

 

“Overpopulation, Mary,” Martin lectured. His tone sounded disappointed, but she didn’t wince. If she was afraid, she had long since learned how to capture that emotion and put it behind glass. “If we take out the does, then we can prevent them from reproducing. If the population gets out of control, they begin to eat our crops. They run on our roads, cause accidents. We reduced their natural predators long ago because we were scared of them as well, but when we let the deer remain, we were sloppy. We didn’t consider the consequences. That’s why we have to do more than just hunt for sport. We take the meat, use the coat if we can.” Slowly, cautiously, a gleam grew in his eye. “But a big pair of antlers looks good over the television.”

 

“I think that looks disgusting.”

 

“Well, I didn’t ask you to come along as our little moral compass. Please be quiet now. If you scare away all the deer, then there’s no reason for us to be out here when we could be warm and contented indoors.”

 

Oliver had killed little in his life. Insects were a necessary evil, aside from the cicadas he had beheaded with his cousin in his youth after he’d been told that their heads would pop right off if you pulled the right leg. For some time, his father had been intent to take him fishing during the summers, but he grew to dislike the sport after he had cast his line and immediately felt the pull of a catch. He’d reeled it in only to find the hook had gone through the blue gill’s eye. The bait had still been on the hook.

 

He’d followed his father on hunting trips in his youth, but he had never been allowed to handle the firearm out in the open. For the first time, he started to wonder if the problem had been that he was his mother’s son. Had there been something about him that had stood out from the beginning, marking him as a danger to himself and others? Were they just too anxious to arm him, or did they think that he would not be interested in the act of causing death?

 

In so many ways, Martin was like his own father. He was just from a different way of life, but he thought that he was right no matter what.  They stuck by their traditions and their avenues of power, and anyone who stood in their way simply didn’t understand the natural order of things. He could picture himself as the man’s son, a fact which made him cringe after the way the politician had so blatantly flirted with his own sister.

 

A twig snapped to the left. They all three turned as one, torsos moving while their feet stayed glued in place.

 

The doe was simultaneously paranoid and oblivious. Her ears twitched at the hint of a sound, but she continued to walk on, nosing her way through the fallen leaves in search of any viable food. Oliver held his breath. He felt like a boy again, waiting in anticipation of his father lining up the perfect shot and living up to his expectations. There was no blood in his memories, just the sound, the pride, and the drive home with the corpse in the truck bed, ready to be strung up and reduced to venison for months to come.

 

“Take it.”

 

At first he thought the voice was in his head, but then a heavy hand squeezed his shoulder. Even though his layers of clothing, he could feel the excessive heat of Martin’s body so near. “Go on. Take the shot.”

 

He’d nearly forgotten that he had a gun at all. He’d intended to hang out and talk more than anything, but there wasn’t time to hesitate. Could he do this? He tried to remember. It would kick and hit him harshly in the shoulder, but he didn’t know how to steady his aim without being able to brace himself. He decided a bruise would be worth it. He knew he wouldn’t have much time to aim after he turned. The step would be too loud.

 

He was slow to pull back the hammer of the gun. It settled with a faint click. He closed his eyes, hoping the animal couldn’t hear so far. The wind was in their favor, carrying the noise away, but he’d have to shoot into it. Why was he worrying about the wind when he didn’t even know if he could hold his own hands still well?

 

He lifted the barrel and aimed. The deer was distracted by something that she’d tugged up, no doubt stubborn weeds that were still managing to grow as the days grew cooler. Her side was turned to the hunters. He could not ask for a more generous target, unless of course the deer felt inspired to fling herself onto the end of the gun. This was not the time to stress or overthink. This was the time to act.

 

He took a step to his side so he was facing the deer. Her head snapped up. She was ready to bolt, but she couldn’t outrun a bullet. His hands were steady. His breath was frozen. His aim was true. He pulled the trigger.

 

The recoil was worse than he expected, and he felt his arm jerk the gun up toward the sky after he’d already loosed his bullet. The crack of the shot burst out over the woods, and for a moment, he allowed himself to hope that he had made the kill.

 

But no. Hooves crushed leaves as the panicked animal came to her senses. Oliver could have felt disappointed, depressed, any number of defeated responses, but instead he was just drained. There was nothing to do but accept that he had demonstrated what a poor shot he was, simple as that.

 

Except it wasn’t. Martin took two shuffled steps forward and dropped to his knees so abruptly that for a moment Oliver was frightened that he’d had a heart attack. But the politician brought his rifle up quickly, sighting the deer in haste. He squeezed off a couple of rounds, then stayed crouched until the deer seemed to hit an invisible wire, collapsing to the ground.

 

“Come on. He can’t handle this all by himself.” Marilyn put her hand on Oliver’s shoulder and tenderly rubbed the spot that was already beginning to bruise. Martin was through with stealth, sprinting off toward his kill with delight. When she leaned into him, he no longer noticed her perfume. “You saw the way he handled that gun. How he hit something that was running from so far away.”

 

She did not speak in questions. Oliver took in how quickly the man could move, how quiet he was. As a hunter, these were invaluable skills. As an executioner? He didn’t want to think about it, but it would be so easy to have an accident out here. The sale of the farm wasn’t even up to him really. His father’s name was still on the deed, and no matter how much baiting Oliver did, he wasn’t about to sell to a politician.

 

“We should get the tarp out of the truck.” Marilyn was already walking away from him. Martin swallowed thickly and decided to make for the fallen animal. The ground was already growing moist from the pooling blood. For some reason, he had thought it would look redder.

 

Martin cradled the animal’s head and gently stroked her fur. “You always have to have respect for what you kill,” he lectured. He did not look up at Oliver as he spoke. “You can’t expect something so inferior to know the natural order of things. She was oblivious to us until we came into her life today. We spared her a crueler death, a longer life of suffering. The world lets too many suffer needlessly anymore, don’t you think?”

 

Were his words meant to be so open to interpretation? Did he mean to imply that Oliver himself was a potential victim, too blithely unaware to notice that his future killer was mere feet away? He could not afford to suspect as much. To begin to show fear would tell Martin that he had some idea of what was happening. If he gave as much away, the other man would act faster. He would snuff out the threat.

 

“I guess if I respect what I kill, I won’t have to change my life much,” Oliver said lightly, trying to change the subject. It only brought a chuckle from Martin. He slipped on a pair of gloves and then leaned over the deer to twist her ear. A lightning bolt of blood ran across the surface.

 

“If you’d been a little quieter or quicker to draw, you would have gotten her right in the head. Quicker, cleaner kill than what I made, no doubt.” He reached over to pat Oliver on the arm, then recoiled as he realized he was still wearing the sullied glove. Somehow it gave him a laugh. “You’re new to this. I can tell. What made you want to go hunting with me?”

 

“Mary. Marilyn,” he corrected, not wanting to be overly familiar, “mentioned that you like to get away from the office sometimes. That you hunt. I thought it would be a good chance to just catch up with you and apologize for the way that I’d acted before. I was–”

 

“Protective? You can just come out and say it, boy.” The man struggled up to his feet. Even stranding sat his straightest, he was lacking a few inches on Oliver, making him somewhat less intimidating. That and the grin that was in nearly nearly every public figure’s toolkit. He sized up Oliver, all while maintaining that amused glint in his eyes. “You’re young and maybe a bit territorial. I know it’s a hit to your pride, doing what you have to do to keep your family going. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that you don’t like being held back by all of this either. You’ve put your entire life on hold just to make sure your father’s looked after and your sister doesn’t have to do it on her own. It’s commendable.”

 

Oliver wanted to grit his teeth, but he knew that a muscle would inevitably jump in his cheek. What was the point of being psychoanalyzed by the person who could afford to buy his house? Why would someone in his position want to applaud the person who still tenuously owned what he wanted? “Actually,” he said, “I just thought you were flirting with my sister.”

 

What Oliver expected was for the older man to burst into laughter and issue his apologies. Instead his blues eyes were locked upon him, staring sharply. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of charming conversation with someone that you find engaging, is there?” he asked in a low voice. “I think you know quite well what I mean about that.”

 

“I don’t really–”

 

“This thing is way heavier than it looks.” Marilyn interrupted them to dump the tarp unceremoniously on the ground beside the deer. She barely glanced down at the dead animal, instead focusing on catching her breath. He knows. A chill ran its sharp fingers up Oliver’s spine as he considered what this would mean for the two of them, for her employment, for her safety. She must have noticed the sudden silence between the man because she gave a giggle and kicked at the edge of the blue material. “I don’t know what we do next.”

 

“I think we should get the deer wrapped up in this so it won’t bleed so much when we take it out to the farm.”

 

“The farm?” Oliver asked, hoping his voice didn’t crack as terribly as it seemed to him.

 

“Of course. You dad said he hunted, right? I’d like you to have this. You did hit it first, so you marked your territory. Consider it a peace offering of sorts.” There was something unspoken beneath Martin’s voice, a threat that was promised if he didn’t take the bloody carcass home with him. How was he going to explain this to his family? And how would he go about butchering the creature. How did you even get rid of things like skin and bone once you were finished with them?

 

And had he actually mentioned the fact that father was a hunter?

 

“You’re really generous for this. I’m sure Lily will go wild for it. She loves venison.” She hated it actually, but there was no reason in being honest anymore. He felt exhausted by the deception and no longer knew what to believe about this man. All he knew was that he wanted to get home and just fling the deer over the hill and out of his sight.

 

“Wonderful. Give me a hand then, and we’ll get this loaded up in the truck. We can drop it off at your place.”

 

“Better than taking it in my car.”

 

How much did a deer even weigh? Looking at the body, he was certain it was at least a hundred pounds. He began to put his hands on the legs–still warm, he noted with some discomfort–before Martin called to him to stop. “Where are my manners? I can’t just give this to you like this. The meat will go off. We have to field dress the deer first.”

 

“Field dress?”

 

“Get rid of the organs. It’ll be easier for us to carry back, and it lowers the chances of there being any bacteria growing in there.” Reaching under his jacket, Martin curled his fingers around the handle of a sharp knife, wickedly curved as the blade came to its tip. As though he could sense the stares that had fallen upon him, the politician laughed. “Better to keep my knife close. Wouldn’t want to lose it anywhere. You never know what can happen out in the woods. Isn’t that right, Mary?”

 

His assistant’s mouth dropped into a circle, but she said nothing. Oliver tried to think of how he could possibly ask her what this man meant, but the only sound that came was the wet tear as the deer’s flesh surrendered its organs to the forest floor.