If i could stay, p.14

If I Could Stay, page 14

 

If I Could Stay
 


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  “I know,” I said, cutting off her self-imposed torture. “I know.” I said it because I did know. “We were both too young. We were both too broken.” We still were.

  She walked back to me, her posture broken, her mouth turned down, and she wrapped her arms around me. “I’m sorry, baby girl. I wish I had been stronger.”

  “You don’t need to fight Dad. You can live a normal life.”

  She pulled back and framed my face with her hands. “This is my life. This is the work I have to do.”

  I sniffed and closed my eyes in defeat. What could I say? It was clear I wasn’t going to change her mind about anything. Though we had both dreamed of escape from our father and normalcy for ourselves, we had each taken very different paths. I wanted no part of hers, and she refused to consider mine.

  “Come on,” she said.

  I gathered up the pile of clothes that I’d dropped at some point during our conversation and followed her into a gorgeous bathroom where she left me to shower and change. I needed it after spending however many terrified hours traveling in a van and then a jet from Missouri to Texas. I was seriously pissed at her for putting me through that.

  I let the water pound against my neck then my face as I tried to slog through the mire of emotional baggage that had just been dropped at my feet. But it was too much. It was overwhelming, impossible to untangle, a complete overload of information, while at the same time it wasn’t enough information to make sense.

  I finally shut it down. Being kidnapped, the conversations with Renee. I shoved it all out of my head and cast about for something else—anything else—to think about.

  My mind landed on Jack, and I clung to the thought of him with ferocity. I relived our time curled up together in his truck when he’d been trying to save me from hypothermia. I thought of how mad I’d been when I discovered he was a cop, how attractive he was in his stupid uniform, how kind he was to find me a job and a place to live.

  I filled my head with Jack, shut off the shower, and got dressed.

  12

  WHEN I EMERGED from the shower, Renee told me not to dry my hair and instead introduced me to a woman who was going to cut it for me. I allowed it, knowing I needed to change my look anyway.

  So I cut my hair. More than a foot gone. I kept the black but had her give me a blunt cut right above my shoulders, and I had her add bangs because I was fairly certain one of my remaining IDs had that cut. I also let Renee give me several outfits. They were nothing like what I usually wore, because even her most everyday clothing screamed wealth. I put on a lightweight sleeveless shirt with glass beads sprinkled along the bottom, pairing it with a jacket that zipped off to one side.

  After she had approved my hair and my wardrobe, she brought me a familiar duffel bag. The one that had been in the trunk of my car, the one that held the key to my last security measures. I took it, opening it up to be sure that the key was there. It was. The knot in my chest loosened as I wrapped my fingers around it, feeling its sharp edges pressing into my skin. I looked up and tried to smile at Renee. “Thank you.”

  She looked at me like she wanted to smile but couldn’t quite manage it. “What else do you need?”

  My mouth opened, ready to decline any further help, but then a thought popped into my head. I shut my mouth, giving myself a moment to think. “I could use one more passport.” Because two just didn’t feel like enough.

  She nodded toward the bag, her eyes brightening. “I already had Milo make two more for you. One’s U.S.” She swallowed. “The other is Grecian.”

  After pawing through the bag, I found them and almost cried right then and there. As much as she claimed that our dream of Greece had been a childhood fantasy, she was handing me a Grecian passport. “Thanks, Renee.”

  She blinked, and I wondered if she would let her composure slip, but she just straightened and said, “Of course.”

  The silence stretched.

  “Are you sure you won’t stay?” she asked.

  I shook my head, disappointed that this was how Renee and I had turned out. “I need to start living my life my way.” I reached out to hug her. “Thanks anyway.” I thought about asking for a way to get in touch with her, but I didn’t think it was a risk worth taking. It would be better to cut all ties.

  She gave me a bright smile, but her eyes looked watery. “I have one more thing I want you to have.” She crossed to a beautiful wood jewelry case and pulled open one of the drawers, removing something from inside. She returned to me and motioned for me to give her my hand.

  I held it out and she dropped a ring onto my palm. As soon as I recognized it, tears blurred my vision and I closed my fingers over it, bringing it to my chest. “I thought Dad had gotten rid of it.”

  I didn’t remember a time when this ring had been off of my mother’s finger. She’d been wearing it the night she died.

  I had seen the crime scene photos of my mother’s murder only once, soon after she died.

  My father had been in his office and I’d gone in, trying to get his attention. He sat at his desk, his elbows propped on the top, his head cradled in his hands. He didn’t seem to hear me when I said his name, so I went closer. I stood right at his elbow and still he didn’t look at me.

  Spread out in front of him were the photos from the night my mother had died. At first I couldn’t make sense of them. But then I recognized my mother’s ring, the one she had inherited from her own mother. The hand on which it resided was smudged and splattered with blood. I’d moved closer, terrified and wanting to run, but needing to look closer, to understand.

  My arm bumped into my father’s and he jerked upright, turning to stare at me. Then he stood, his wheeled chair zooming backwards as he reached for me. “No, Leila! Don’t look.” He scooped me up and ran out of the room as I stared over his shoulder at the mess of photos that were starting to make a terrible kind of sense.

  I had looked for that ring many times, thinking if I had it I would have a piece of her. I’d never found it.

  I opened my hand and looked at the ring, almost unable to believe it sat on my palm.

  “Of all the things I’ve taken from Dad—and I’ve stolen a lot,” Renee said with a watery laugh, “I’ve been the most grateful for this.” She sniffed back her emotion. “I want you to have it now. You deserve it more than me anyway.”

  I let her wrap her arms around me, let her rock me back and forth as I stood there missing my mother more than I had allowed myself to in years.

  Eventually we both took a deep breath and pulled back, brushing the tears away and putting our brave faces back on.

  She motioned toward the door. “I have a car waiting out front.”

  I nodded, pulled the strap of my bag onto my shoulder and followed her out into the waning light of sunset.

  Our goodbye was awkward and broke my heart. I was still angry with her. Incredibly so. The fact that she had immersed herself into our father’s world—and was proud of it—was a betrayal I might never get over. At the same time though, she was my sister, she was alive, and she still cared about me.

  I hugged her goodbye on the magnificent front steps of the mansion and then climbed into the back of a white luxury SUV, driven by a guy who seemed to go by “V.”

  I waved through the open window as we pulled away. As the car traversed the tree-lined drive, V reached over the seat to hand me something. “You’ll need to put this on.”

  It was one of those sleeping masks again, like a blindfold. “Seriously?” I asked, annoyed.

  “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, but Renee believes it’s safer for everyone if you don’t know where her home is located. So if you’ll just put that on and lie down for a while . . .” He trailed off. I could tell he was trying to be nice about it, but I doubted I actually had a choice.

  “Whatever,” I muttered. I was tired anyway. I slipped on the mask, declaring sarcastically, “I guess I’ll have a little nap!” before lying down.

  I meant to just lie there
in a huffy, annoyed silence, but the nice seats, the darkness provided by the mask, and the hum of the engine, combined with the general crazy that had happened in my life, made falling asleep inevitable. I drifted off as I twirled my mother’s ring around my finger.

  ***

  The night my mother died, she had gone out to meet with my father. She’d never done that before. Ever since they’d separated, she had only met with my father when he came to our apartment in the Hamptons.

  My father told me they had been discussing a reconciliation. Renee insisted that my mother had finally been asking for a divorce.

  To this day, I don’t know what the truth is, and when it happened, I couldn’t understand how Renee could blame Dad.

  I didn’t know that he had taken her to his favorite restaurant, the one he was known to frequent, the one where his enemies knew to find him. All I knew was that my beautiful mother was sitting across from my father when someone opened fire, shooting through the window they sat in front of. Four people had been injured, but only my mother had died.

  Maybe that’s why Renee blamed my father, because he was the reason she was in that restaurant. After my mother died and we moved back in with my father, I think he expected that Renee would come around, that she’d stop blaming him, stop hating him. He assumed it was just the overreaction of a grieving child, but the weeks and months passed and Renee never let up. She was thirteen, her mother had died, and she blamed Dad.

  Not me. I was nine. I had lost my mother, and my desperation for love and attention made me blind to everything else. I didn’t think about what my father must have done to drive my mother away in the first place; all I knew was that he was the one to hold me while I cried.

  Renee had had her reasons. She’d understood, at least a little bit, about the world my father lived in, about the dangers inherent in his business, but she didn’t tell me. The idea that my father was a dangerous criminal never crossed my mind, and Renee didn’t tell me about the gossip, about the accusations she heard at school or saw on the internet. I think she could barely handle knowing them herself, and she refused to share that burden with her little sister.

  So while Renee gathered her anger, holding onto it like it would keep Mom’s love alive, I plodded sadly through my small life, standing at Dad’s elbow while he worked behind his huge dark-wood desk, hoping to be noticed. I waited for a smile to let me know that even though my mother was gone, I still had a dad that loved me.

  We went on that way for years. Me waiting for the tiny scraps of affection to fall from my father’s grasp. My sister doing all she could to protect me, to love me when my father’s attention waned, to cheer me up when the ache of missing my mother wouldn’t let me smile.

  But naivety doesn’t last. It can’t.

  As I got older, I started to notice the rumors. The teasing of the other kids at school began to make sense. Some called my dad “the jailer,” no doubt a nickname they heard their parents whisper due to the fact that Dad had the power to get people out of jail or let them rot. They didn’t realize he had the power and connections to do much worse. He knew all the right people. Or all the wrong people—depending on how you looked at it.

  ***

  Renee’s employee dropped me off at a hotel on the outskirts of Kansas City. It was the middle of the night, so I would need to hunker down until morning, when I could go to the bus station and then find a rental car company that was open.

  Watching that SUV drive away finally allowed me to breathe. A part of me had wondered if perhaps I would end up being delivered to my father. I trusted Renee—to a point. But I didn’t trust the people who worked for her.

  The hotel room brought memories of my first day in Cameron crashing in on me. The uncertainty of having no resources, no transportation. And then Jack. Jack in his uniform, showing me the photo of my burned car, Jack bringing me food.

  I lay on the stiff mattress and let my brain run in circles, knowing that the pursuit of sleep would be useless. The next day I would get my freedom back and gain control of my life once again. It couldn’t come soon enough.

  After a fitful few hours of sleep, I woke, showered, pulled on the clothes from my go-bag, and did my makeup so that my natural features would be somewhat obscured. Then I left, hailing a cab that took me to the bus terminal.

  I paid the cabbie in cash without saying a word then stepped out. My steps were measured as I walked through the doors with my go-bag hanging across my body. I didn’t want to look too eager or too casual. The key was ready in my hand, and I fought to keep it from shaking as I approached the locker.

  The key slipped in and turned, and I couldn’t help the split second of panic as I wondered if my bag would still be there when it opened.

  The slim black laptop case sat inside, just as I had left it. I pulled it out, resisting the urge to rip it open and be sure that everything was still there. The money was my safety net and gave me the freedom to run; the ledger that I had taken from my father was an insurance policy of sorts. I pulled the strap up onto my shoulder and closed the locker, leaving the key behind. I clutched the case to my hammering chest and walked back out of the terminal, not stopping until I was three blocks away and felt comfortable hailing another cab.

  The ride to the car rental place was just mind-numbing enough that I had to fight to keep my focus. I couldn’t fall back into thinking about my disappointing reunion with Renee or the inevitable goodbye with Jack.

  Because I was going back to Cameron to say goodbye. It would have been smarter for me to just leave—take off and find a new town—but I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave Jack, not the way things had ended between us.

  ***

  It was mid-afternoon when I pulled to a stop at the curb in front of Jack’s house, my stomach tied in knots. I had taken my time in Kansas City, renting a nondescript gray sedan, getting food, going to a department store to get more clothing and other essentials so that after I told Jack goodbye, I could drive without having to stop. But as I sat there with my hands still on the wheel, staring ahead at the street that stretched in front of me, I wondered if I should just keep going.

  He was so close, though; all I had to do was walk across the lawn and I would see him. Putting the car in park seemed to take more effort than it should have. I stepped out and ran my hands over my short hair then wrapped my way-too-expensive coat around me and marched up the walk.

  I opened the screen door and raised my hand to knock, but the door swung inward before I had a chance to bring my knuckles to the wood. Jack was obviously just about to leave. He didn’t see me because he was focused on grabbing a jacket from the hook beside the door with one hand and checking the gun holstered in the back of his jeans with the other. Not that I could see the gun. It was just a familiar movement, slipping his hand beneath the unbuttoned shirt he had layered over the dark gray t-shirt.

  He stuck an arm into his coat and took a step forward before he ever looked up.

  Then he froze. It was only one second, maybe less, but the flip-book of emotions that fluttered across his expression left me speechless. Then the coat dropped to the floor and he surged forward, enveloping me in his arms.

  It was a better reception than I had expected, and my own arms slid easily around him. He was safety personified.

  Then he pulled back abruptly. “Where have you been?”

  I opened my mouth to answer, but he pulled me through the door, looking down the street in each direction, as if someone were going to jump out and attack.

  I couldn’t say with any certainty that that wasn’t an option.

  He shut the door and locked it then turned his laser vision on me: studying my new haircut, my makeup and clothes.

  He made a noise like he was going to say something, but then stopped, putting his hands on his hips and looking away before fixing his gaze on me again. “You disappeared. No warning. Adeline called me frantic when you didn’t come back from the market. It’s been two days! And with everything you’ve
said, I was certain you’d been kidnapped, but I had no idea by who or why or where to look.”

  “I’m sorry—”

  “I’ve been going crazy here, Angel, thinking you were being tortured or worse.” He gestured toward my nice clothes, my put-together appearance. “And you just show up back here, like it’s no big deal.” He turned away, grabbing onto the stair banister with both hands before turning back. “I don’t get you.”

  I waited for him to keep going, to keep blaming me for what had happened, but he had run out of steam, so I spoke. “Are you going to let me explain?”

  He folded his corded arms over his chest and leaned back against the banister. “By all means.”

  “I was kidnapped.”

  His eyes narrowed in concern and confusion, and he shook his head, unable to make sense of it.

  “Tuesday morning, I was walking to the store when I passed an electrician working on one of the power lines. Except he wasn’t an electrician.” I gave a jerky little nod. “He and another guy threw me in the van, tied me up, drove to an airport, put me on a private jet, and flew me to an estate in the middle of Texas. I was told that ‘the boss’ wanted to meet me.” I swallowed. “Imagine my surprise when the boss turned out to be my own sister.” My breath caught on the last word, but I refused to cry over Renee’s betrayal. Not now.

  Again I watched as his mouth attempted to form the words that his mind refused to provide. Finally, he gave up and came toward me. “Come on.” He grabbed my hand and led me to the living room, where he gently pushed me onto the couch and then sat in a chair directly across from me, his elbows resting on his knees as he steepled his fingers against his lips and tried to pry into my brain with his eyes.

 
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