It’s dark now. Moon up. Stars sparkle. The fan hums. I fluff my pillow and roll to one side. Adjust my arm. Adjust the teddy bear. No, this isn’t right. I turn over. Fix my legs. Tug the bear next to me again. Nope. Still not right. I feel the fan on my bare legs. Everything still looks too bright behind my lids to fall asleep.
My head races and I try to slow it. Maybe it’s my breathing. How long has my heart been beating so fast? I fight off the thoughts I know I want to think.
But I don’t want to.
Of course I do.
No, there’s no point. I try to focus on breathing. Being tired. I am tired.
I can’t help myself. The thoughts come flooding in like an entire oceanpouring into my ears. The memories, the worries, the feelings. I get hit with it all. And I go under, everything crashing down on me.
I think about him. Like I have before. On hot nights, cold nights. He’s always there. Lurking. Waiting to rob me of the air that fills my lungs. Replace it with him.
Stop thinking. Thinking only makes things worse. Thinking. Rethinking. Overthinking.
The way he whispers in my ear. The way he coos to me when I cry.
Snap out of it.
Don’t let him take over.
I ask myself the necessary questions: Is this something I can fix immedi-
ately? No. Is it some kind of dire emergency? Not at all. Is it directly affecting my health? . . . Well. Debatable.
There’s no point in thinking about this shit at 1:30 in the morning. Actual-
ly, there is one . . . but that’s not happening. You need sleep, you idiot woman.
Plenty of time to think in the morning. When the blistering sun creeps overhead. When he creeps back into my mind. Smooth, cool, languid.
Pull it together, you hopeless girl.
The darkness finally comes over me . . . You’re late.
I’m pulled under by a different force. I fall into a black void. I fall for an eternity. Deeper and deeper. I’m wondering how I’ll get myself out.
I forget about it. I just fall farther. I’m strangely okay with this nothing-
ness. The darkness. I fall so far and I’m engulfed in it. There is nothing. I’m noth-
ing. And I’m okay.
I jolt upright in my bed. Drenched in sweat. Nauseous. Cold. There’s a pounding on the door. I groan and hope I’m dreaming. Maybe that’s just my head pounding . . .
It comes again. Louder. Persistent. I pick up the digital clock on the floor: 4:28AM.
Who the fuck?
I tuck the plush bear underneath my bed. Whoever it is banging down my door at this hour, I don’t need them having that kind of dirt on me. Not even my own mother knows I still have that torn-up old thing.
I pick up my silk robe from the floor, slip into it and tie it loosely. I de-
scend down the staircase to the front door. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning flashes. It illuminates the house. Pictures on the walls dance in the flash. Eyes look like they’re following me. But I’m half asleep.
It’s not real, babe.
I open the door. It makes sense now. It looks like you don’t have to even speak of the devil for him to appear. Thinking about him is enough.
He’s drenched head to toe from the rain that’s coming down mercilessly from the gray sky. His suit clings to him and his hat creates its own waterfall off the brim in front of his unshaven face. He’s leaning limply on the door frame. He slowly looks up to meet my gaze. His lusty devil eyes burn into me, glowing in the dark. But I stay cold.
“What the hell are you doing here, Lawrence?”
He pushes past me into the house without a word. He squishes down the hall into the living room without taking off his jacket. He plops himself onto the couch and takes off his hat. I follow him, switching on the light to illuminate the dark room. When I get a good look at his face, I see that his lip is split and his left eye is black. There’s blood mixed in the hair on his face and now, with the light on, I notice that he’s only wearing socks.
“Holy shit. Punk, what the hell went on out there?” I rush over to him and kneel at his feet. I grab his face, look into his bright blue eyes.
“Guess shit happens sometimes,” he finally says with a smirk. “You piss off the wrong guys in this city and you end up lookin’ like this.” He looks away from me and I pull his face back again.
“Barton,” I start. We look at each other for a moment. Unmoving. That old, familiar tension fills the space between us. “You’re an idiot,” I say. I get up and walk into the kitchen. I break off some ice in the freezer and wrap it in a dish towel. I hear him call from the other room.
“Hey May, how’s about a bet?” he says, excited. “Ten big ones says you still sleep with that old stuffed bear, dontcha?” I freeze and form a fist around the dish towel. Hearing my silent anger, he explodes in maniacal laughter. I walk back into the room and stand in the doorway, towel in fist.
“How’s about you shut your pie hole when I’m helping clean up your beaten face, punk?” I retort.
I bring the towel to him and sit on the couch, which is now turning into a puddle. Even through all the dirty rainwater he’s soaked in I can smell his cologne.
Damn, that smell . . .
“I probably haven’t shaken those guys off my trail, either,” Barton says. I put the ice towel to his eye. “We’re not safe here.”
I grasp what he’s saying. “Those brutes are still following you? And you came here?” I bolt up from the couch, forcing him to hold the ice himself. I begin to panic. “What the fuck were you thinking coming here?” He gets up and reaches toward me. I shove him away. “And now I’m tangled up in your bullshit?” I turn my back toward him.
“I need your help, Parker,” he snakes his arms around my waist. He puts his chin on my shoulder, and I can feel his stubble through my robe. “I gotta get out of this town. For good. But I need you to help me.” He spins me around, pulling me closer. “I want you by my side till the end, Mabel.”
I melt for him. I can’t be ice when he looks at me with such fire behind his eyes.
“Fine,” I agree. I touch his lower lip gently, where it’s been split. “How’s about you get yourself cleaned up while I change?” I say.
As soon as my back is turned to walk away, I feel a hand come down on my butt and smack it. I quickly turn back and glare at Barton.
“Thong . . . very sexy,” he says in a gravelly voice.
I roll my eyes and turn again to walk back to the staircase, passing the light switches without brightening the rooms. I climb the stairs and head to my room. I pause to stare at myself in the mirror.
This always happens. When Barton is away, I can be as cold as ice. But when he comes in here and burns through me with those blue-fire eyes, I thaw. And he sees that I do. He takes advantage of it. As long as I’m helping him get out of town, I’ll be rid of him too, which will be better for my state of health, I suppose.
But there’s no time to waste, now. You need to get dressed and hit the road. Drive far and fast. Beat out the swine coming to kill Barton.
I reach my closet and drop my robe. It falls to the floor, smooth and silent. I stare into the dark closet for a moment. I pull out the first dress I can distinguish and put it on. It’s white, with a sweetheart neckline, cute short sleeves and a small slit above the right knee. I spot my favorite blue pumps lying on the floor of my closet and slip those on too. I quickly run my fingers through my golden hair and untangle my bedhead.
A loud crash shakes the whole house.
I rush down the staircase to find a black Chrysler Windsor smashed through my front window. My eyes bug out of my skull as I stand frozen at the scene, frantically searching for Barton. I hear running footsteps coming from the kitchen behind me, but I’m too stunned to move. I feel an arm glide around my waist, and pull me out of the way. In my other ear, I hear a gun go off. And it goes off again.
When I look back, I can see both goons bleeding all over my carpet. Gurgling, I make out the pleading behind their eyes, and I look away. They hadn’t made it much farther than getting out of the beauty of a car they just destroyed.
Tsk, tsk. What a shame.
All I can hear now is ringing. A faint voice murmuring something I don’t quite catch. It’s Barton. I see him in front of me, relieved he hadn’t been crushed underneath the car. My $5,000 leather couch, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. I try hard to read his lips and match them up with the words desperately trying to reach my ears through the tunnel.
“Get your coat,” I hear him say, finally. He puts his hands on either side of my face. “I’m gettin’ this car out of your front window.” He steadies me against the wall before rushing over to the Windsor, kicking aside the bloody, dead brutes. My hearing slowly returns to me and I begin to hear sirens in the distance. Coming closer. Fast.
Get moving, woman.
I wipe my face, not sure if I’m sweating or crying. No time to figure it out. I snatch my trench coat, hat and purse from the closet and stumble over the bodies and into the passenger side of the car.
“Hold onto your hat, kid,” Barton warns. He pushes the car into reverse and hits the gas to the floor, shooting us straight back and out of the front of my house. Struggling to get control of the wheel, Barton switches the car into gear and we speed off.
I can see two or three sets of blurred red and blue flashing lights pull into my driveway just as we dip down the hill and curve around it with the road. The highway ascends to the top of the hill, and as we come around a turn, the entire city reveals itself.
Barton slows to ten above the speed limit and switches gears again. He takes the wheel in one hand, putting his other arm around the back of my seat.
“That was quite a wild ride, huh?” He quickly looks at me from the cor-
ner of his eye and smirks. “You wore my favorite dress, May.” His hand cups my shoulder.
I look down at the dress and I remember it. I remember how every stitch felt when I put it on for the first time. I remember how he looked at me in that dress and I feel it again with the way he looks at me now. I remember how the fabric clung to my body as he pressed me close to him. And how each thread felt when he slid it off me.
“I didn’t wear it on purpose,” I say coldly. I turn my head toward the window, looking out at the city. “There was no time to be particular.” I touch my collarbone and find the low neckline of the dress, running my fingertips back and forth along the fabric.
“Don’t be like that, Mabel,” he starts. “We used to be rather close, wouldn’t you say?” His hand moves from my shoulder to graze the skin of my neck with his fingertips. I inhale sharply, hearing a low chuckle from him in response. “Still close,” he breathes. He pulls me closer to him on the seat of the cab, but I don’t look at him. I try to stay cold.
After driving in silence for what feels like a long time, Barton pulls over on the side of the road. We have driven unimaginably far from the city, but it still sparkles brightly in the light of the early dawn over the cliff. Even with all the dirty, rotten creatures that crawl and lurk in the alleyways and streets of that city, it is beautiful from such a distance.
We both get out of the car without a word and walk to the edge of the cliff to look at the dingy, beautiful city as the sun begins to creep on the horizon, breaking through the storm clouds. The brisk morning wind sweeps back my coat. I shiver and quickly pull it closed. I feel Barton come up behind me, brush the golden locks off my shoulder and snake his arms around my waist. It’s a familiar feeling, and I welcome the warmth he gives off, even still in his soaking wet suit.
“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” Barton says, resting his chin on my shoulder. It’s not a question that needs an answer, but I give him one anyway.
“That she is,” I agree. “Even with all the rotten thugs and corrupt people running the place. She’s beautiful.” I allow myself to find his hand, and our fingers naturally intertwine. There’s a long moment of admiration for that beautiful shithole before Barton speaks.
“You don’t have to stay here, Mabel,” Barton says. His lips brush the skin of my earlobe. “Leave this town behind. Make it choke on the dust we kick in its damned face.” He holds me tighter, speaking more excitedly.
“What’s your point here, punk?” I say coolly, turning my face to his. His lips brush against my cheek. He abruptly spins me around, holding me tight.
“I want you to come with me, Mabel. Forget about this place. It’s hell on earth.” His blue eyes are bright in the sunrise that is above the horizon now.
I want to say yes. Despite how cold-hearted I’ve tried to be toward Barton, I want to be with him. I need the man like a hole in the head: he drives me crazy, and he’s an idiot when it comes to most things . . . Things like us. But hearing the words fall from his lips makes me want to say yes. I don’t want to lie anymore.
“Barton,” I whisper. Tears well up, but I don’t want him to see them. I look away. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear you say.” I suddenly find myself clutching a fistful of his suit jacket.
“Mabel, it’ll be you and me. You and me against the whole world, kid.” He takes my face in his hands, wiping away the tears that fall. He leans down to close the space between us. But my words stop him.
“. . . I can’t,” I whisper. My voice is hoarse. I turn away from him and walk out of his reach. “I can’t leave this place. It’s . . . got some kind of hold on me. I feel like . . . ” I look out at the glittering hell that I call home. “I feel like I’m not done here, yet.” I turn to face him. “There’s still something more I’m meant to do.”
“Mabel,” he starts. “Don’t make me beg . . . ” He walks toward me, arms open, reaching for me.
“You have to understand, Barton,” I say. I take his hands in mine.
“You’ve got to get out of here if you still want your life,” I tell him. His hands slip through mine and find my waist, pulling me close to him. He looks into my eyes for a long time. He puts his hand on my cheek. He sighs.
“Looks like this is the end of the line, huh, kid?” he smirks, and my heart melts. I smile tenderly.
“It is for you.” I bring a hand to his cheek and smooth his stubble with my thumb. He kisses my palm. “But not for us.”
“Don’t you dare think about forgettin’ me,” he demands.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I admit. And I’m telling the truth. I really mean it. Knowing he’s leaving town for good somehow makes me want to ditch all of my reserved emotions.
I finally let myself be pulled toward him even closer. We close the space between us. The familiar tension evaporates, and we’re lost in old memories. I let myself drown in him. And I fall deeper into the blackness, the nothingness. This time, at the bottom of the void, there’s a bright blue pool. And when I hit it, I’m not drowning. I can breathe. I smile against his lips, and I feel him smile against mine.
“I’ll see you around, kid,” Barton says. He strokes my hair and kisses the top of my head before turning back to the Windsor and getting into the driver’s seat. He turns on the car and shifts gears. Before speeding away, he winks at me. My heart swells.
And then he’s gone.
When Barton Lawrence leaves town, I’ll be happy to be rid of him, to be able to take a break from his nonsense and idiocy. I’ll miss the cool air that hangs around him. When I smell his cologne in a dark alley, or hear his voice on the wind, I won’t be able to help all the thoughts that will come flooding in, like an entire ocean pouring into my ears.
It’s brighter now. Sun up. The city still sparkles. I hear the same sirens in the distance. I start the walk back to my mess of a house. I’ll have to take care of the police. Feign surprise at the scene.
Damn. The shit I do for you, punk.