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The arrangement 23, p.8

The Arrangement 23, page 8

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series

 

The Arrangement 23
 


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  While my mind wanders, I walk the room, checking the massive bathroom and bedchamber for signs of life, but there are none. Still, I can sense that there’s someone here. The prickling sensation of an unseen glance caresses me over and over again. It’s like standing in a gentle breeze which is equally invisible but real. I pad into the murky master suit and stride directly over to a set of double doors that lead to a huge closet. I yank them open, expecting to come face to face to with a person. I’m not certain who, but no one is there. Damn it. I’m certain about this. Someone else is here. I may not feel a goddamned thing, but my Spidey-sense is going batshit crazy. Eyes are on me, watching me, waiting in silence.

  I back toward the massive foyer and stand in the center of the ivory colored room. Tipping my chin up, I speak into the air, “I know you’re here. Show yourself.”

  I back toward the doors into the hallway and flick the big bolt, locking the door. No one will be able to enter the room unless they have a bulldozer. I tighten my grip on the pliers and press my other palm to the light switches and break the circuit. The overhead electric lights go dark, but the room isn’t pitch black because of the gas lamps. The flames flicker in front of the wall of mirrors, painting the entry room in a golden hue.

  Raising the pliers higher, holding them in line with my heart and ready to strike, I slowly circle the room. It’s not until the wind blows the silken fabric for the third time that I consider the balcony. The hairs on my arms rise as I take a step toward the French doors. As the drapes shift in the breeze, I can make out the silhouette of a figure seated in a chair toward the very edge of the stone terrace. My eyes haven’t adjusted enough to the dim light to see his face, but his back is toward me. Did Vic get up here before me? Why is he sitting? Is this Vic’s way of playing with me?

  The urge to run sears through my legs and makes my heart pound. I could run forward and crash my pliers into the side of his head, or stay where I am and light this place up as soon as I remove the safety on the light fixture. Calm nerves, thick and steady like thick ropes from a ship, overtake my arms and legs. I find my resolve and don’t frantically do anything. If this is Vic, he’ll die with me in this fiery hell. I refuse to divert from my plan.

  There’s a light fixture to my left, flickering beautifully, waiting for me. I’ll get to the asshole waiting for me, but first I’m doing what I came here to do. Vic can laugh in my face and torment me as much as he wants. It will only last a split second before I blow this place to hell.

  As I pad toward the gas lamp on the wall, I don’t turn my back to the figure on the balcony. I know he sees me. I’m not the one making the first move or saying the first word. Fuck him. Two can play this game. There’s no reason to talk, nothing to say that can destroy me any more than he already has.

  I crash the pliers into the glass housing surrounding the light fixture, breaking it. Shards fall to the floor in a cascade of noise. There’s no reason to be quiet. Vic knows I’m here. By the time he figures out what I’ve done, he’ll get eaten by a fireball.

  Turing my attention back to the lamp, I examine it quickly. The flame is exposed, and before I do anything else, I take the metal tool and slam it into the coupler housing the safety shut off. The tiny wire can’t take the hit, and it wasn’t designed to. The telltale sound of gas rushing through pipes fills my ears as the sulfuric scent fills my head. I pull a lighter from my other pocket, walking slowly toward my twisted sibling.

  A smile tugs at my mouth. There’s no way out. If he jumps, he’s dead. If he stays here, he’s dead.

  I start talking, saying whatever comes to mind. “I never knew why Mom was always so afraid. I mean, I sensed it—that something happened to her when she was younger—but I never thought it was this. I never thought your sonuvabitch father touched her. She lived in fear for over twenty years, constantly looking over her shoulder, trying to protect me—trying to save us.”

  A deep sadistic laugh is my only answer.

  “You know,” I press forward, rubbing my thumb against the side of the lighter as I walk, “I always wanted a brother, any family actually. I’d dream about those big family holidays with tons of cousins and aunts and uncles. A place where we belonged, with people who loved us. Instead, I got you, you sick, fucking sadistic lunatic.”

  “That’s terrible,” Vic says from the balcony. His voice carries oddly through the space, almost as if it’s coming from behind me. I look back, but the room is empty. He’s on the balcony. I can see him, sitting there, smugly slouched forward toward the rail. Sick fucker. Maybe the vast marble room bounces sound in weird ways. Either that or I’ve had one too many shots to the head tonight. Both theories are entirely possible.

  “Well, guess what?” After one more step, I stop. I need to lure him back inside just to be certain he dies. The balcony is second choice and better than nothing. Still, I can make him come to me. His arrogance is too enormous to sit there and do nothing. I smirk and hold up my hand with the lighter high above my head and call out, “The Campone line ends with us! There’s no way out. I’m the death angel, and it’s time to pay for everything you’ve ever done. If I burn for eternity because of it, so be it. It’ll be worth it to make sure you’re erased.”

  No reaction. Vic just sits there like he’s at a fucking picnic. He doesn’t move or speak.

  I pause for a second, considering grabbing Vic and dragging him back into the room. Every inch of my body is corded tight, ready to fight. The one thing I can’t account for is the swirling in the pit of my stomach. I went from feeling nothing to that queasy sensation when I passed over the threshold. It’s still there even though I heard Vic’s voice. Maybe it’s gas poisoning? I already inhaled too many fumes for one night.

  There’s a nudging at the back of my mind that won’t leave it alone. I debate the need to see Vic's face, to watch his eyes as I end us, but that creates more risk. Still, my eyes sweep over the form, the stance, and won’t stop picking at the wrongness of it, but there’s a massive amount of shit wrong with Vic. I always react this way around him. My skin prickles more and more until every inch of my body is standing on end. Screw it. There’s enough gas seeping out into the night air that I can light this motherfucker up and end it. Decision made. Done. I’ll step onto the terrace and flick the lighter, and we’ll both be swallowed in a cloud of flames. Resolve pumps through my veins as I shove through the sheer fluttering fabric and out onto the stone verandah.

  I lift the lighter ready to flick it, thumb already increasing pressure. All I need is a downward thrust of my thumb, and this is over. That’s when I come face to face with someone I never expected to see again.

  The form in front of me isn’t Vic. It’s a woman, hunched forward, head down. Her hair is matted and clumped to her skull. The once full figure is frail and beaten, but I’d know her anywhere.

  “Mom?”

  CHAPTER 13

  My voice cracks as my eyes sweep over her emaciated body. Her once smooth skin is covered in grime, old wounds, and dried blood. The skin hangs off her bones as if she’s not had enough to eat in months. I forget everything in those seconds, the lighter, the sick bastard still in the room—all of my attention is on the woman facing away from me in that chair.

  It can’t be Mom. There’s no way. I saw her dead body…wait. No, that’s not true. I didn’t. I saw Daddy’s twisted lifeless form and refused to look under Mom’s sheet at the morgue. I saw her feet poking out from beneath the cloth. I wasn’t the one who identified my mother. The doctor did—said it was her—that they were together. They left the house together. They went to get ice cream. I was supposed to be there. The memories drown me in a deluge of rapidly firing images and voices that sound like clipped recordings.

  A scream lodges in my throat, choking me. There’s no air. I stagger back a step. This can’t be. It’s possible it’s someone else. The only way to be certain is to step to the side and see her face. It’s not her. There’s no way. I inch over and gape at her profile. My gaze swe
eps over the curve of her cheek and the sunken eyes. A single birthmark is on her neck, just above her collarbone. A memory surfaces of an eight-year-old Avery wrapping her arms around Mom’s neck—seeing that mark. She smelled like vanilla and summer flowers. The perfect mixture of warmth and sunshine.

  The scent of the room hits me like a hammer to the face. It’s nostalgic, intentionally. Vic planned this. He did it on purpose. That’s my mother’s perfume filling the air.

  The woman in the chair, the woman with my mother’s face and withered body slowly lifts her head. When our eyes meet her features crumple in horror. “Avery?”

  Her voice is a dry husk of what I remember. Is it her?

  Wide-eyed, I gape at the woman, heart pounding, feeling everything. The emotional assault begins in my chest and rips through my body like a cleaver, hacking me to bits. I stand, too stunned to move, too shocked to flick the lighter. I had no hope, and never imagined she could be alive. My mind is arguing with me, telling me that this cannot be my mother, but my heart protests—and to my surprise is not dead. My heart’s very much alive and trying to fill with hope.

  I can’t allow that.

  I can’t fathom this.

  I can’t light this.

  But I can’t let Vic live.

  I can’t do anything until I’m certain.

  I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. Those two words repeat in my mind as I stare blankly, feeling the slick plastic casing in my palm. There are a million reasons why I’m stuck in this loop. I cried at her grave. I wore her cross. I stole her ledgers. And, I paid for her sins. I missed her. I mourned her. I grieved her.

  She’s gone.

  That’s when Vic’s voice purrs behind me, his breath washing across my cheek. “I brought you a gift, little sister. She’s not in pristine condition, far from it.” He sneers and then laughs lightly. “Sorry about that. I meant to shine her up, but you managed to evade my plans for this evening, so I thought it was time to show you exactly what you’ll forfeit if you fail to comply.”

  I speak in a controlled snarl, still staring at the woman seated in front of me. “That’s. Not. Her.” My gaze locked on the figure in the chair and the familiar profile that’s different but the same. I’m barely breathing, holding my breath, and remain frozen in place.

  “Are you sure?” Vic’s watching me with delight.

  Mind fucks and head games. There’s been so much hurt and anger seeping into my chest that I thought there was nothing left of me, nothing left to tear apart or rip away. Maybe it’s because he’s dangling hope in front of my face that I’m reacting like this. There was nothing that could stop me, no one that could hold me back. Everyone I love is gone, dead. This is just another way to get me to back down. It’s not Mom. It can’t be. I steel my body and fist my hands at my sides, my thumb still on the lighter, ready to flick it.

  “It’s not possible.” I’ve not turned away from the woman seated in the chair. The wind blows softly, lifting her tangled, filthy hair from her face. She doesn’t say anything.

  Vic strolls over to her, turning the chair around so I can see her head-on. The woman’s eyes lock onto me, watching me as if she can’t take me in, as if I’m not real. She doesn’t speak. Her lips form a weary line, but those eyes are screaming.

  Vic scuffs his feet against the gray stones of the balcony before offering a lazy grin my way. I don’t move. I’m frozen, unable to take action. That’s when Vic steps in close to me and presses his palms together. There’s a look of triumph in his eyes, an intense need to gloat, and prove that he won no matter which hand I play.

  He sniggers, glances at the woman and then back and me. He lifts a palm, inviting me to continue as he taunts, “Then finish your little attempt at arson. Blow up my home and everyone in it. Join me in the 9th Circle of Hell for all eternity.”

  “I didn’t betray anyone I love.” His words distract me for a moment, long enough to look away—long enough to think.

  “Wrong on multiple accounts. You have so much to learn.” He grabs hold of the woman’s chair, and yanks it hard, sweeping it across the floor and into the powder room, stopping just before me. The centripetal force holds Mom in place. When the movement ends abruptly, she sways to the side but doesn’t fall. Vic puts a hand on her shoulder to keep her upright. Mom’s reaction is instantaneous. Her entire body tenses and pulls away from him, cowering. A tremor builds in the arm he touched and her jaw locks as she tries to keep from screaming out.

  Vic chortles, steps toward me, and folds his hands together, clasping them in front of his narrow waist. Head lowered, he flicks his gaze back to the woman. “The lowest level of hell is reserved for the most despicable among us. The ones who betrayed their loved ones, the people they were supposed to protect. You and I won’t even get the flames—we’re not good enough for that. It’s an eternity frozen in a sunless existence surrounded by people like me.”

  Think faster, Avery! This is bullshit. Light it already! “You’re wrong.”

  He tips his head up, clears his voice, and looks me in the eye. “’As they denied all human ties, so are they bound only by the unyielding ice.’”

  Anger surges through me. “Don’t quote Dante to me to justify your actions.”

  He laughs, pressing his hands to his chest. “They’re not my actions. Don’t you see?” He gestures between us and bounces toward me with a massive grin on his face. “We’re the same, you and I.”

  “No.” The single word is clipped and certain. The muscles in my arms are twitching, ready to fight or run.

  Vic leans in close to my face, still standing on the balls of his feet. His hands are held loosely behind his back, and he has a confident look on his face as if he’s infallible. “We are alike, and you just don’t want to admit it. Blood is thicker than water.”

  Rage boils inside of me, and I spew out, “WE ARE NOT THE SAME!”

  His smile fades, and he tips his head to the side as he lowers himself to stand like he's not insane. He holds out a hand, palm up as if lecturing in a classroom in a calmly caustic tone. “Then prove it. Do it. Drop the lighter and forfeit your life to save hers.”

  I glimpse back at the woman in the chair. Her eyebrows pull together, and she’s yet to say anything more than my name, but I feel it. My flesh covers in goosebumps and my heart is screaming with unrelenting vigor. I swallow hard and look down at the lighter in my palm.

  I suck in a jagged breath and lift my chin. I tilt my head back toward the ceiling, trying to think, but I can’t. All my thoughts are fractured, broken, and fall from the skies of my mind like tiny stones. One after another, they tumble into the abyss. It’s only been a moment since I stepped foot in this room, but it feels like a lifetime.

  The woman coos, her voice barely audible, “He can’t stop you. Please, light it. You have my blessing.”

  There’s a thud at the door as something huge barrels against it. A disgusting grin slithers across Vic’s face. That door will fly open at any moment. The gas will dissipate, and my chance to end this battle will be lost. One flick of my thumb will repay this bastard for every wrong he’s ever done. It will keep Vic from hurting anyone else. I’m justified. I can end this. The time to act is now.

  But I can’t move. That’s the problem. My heart realizes the truth before my mind can process it. That voice, the inflections—I know it well. Even parched and weak, I know it’s Mom. The words are falling away as I remember her vividly. Everything I lost and the pain of it comes crashing back all at once.

  I have my mother back for a fraction of a second. It’s goodbye again with no time for words, no apologies or explanations. Tears sting my eyes, and I question how it's even possible. I wonder if she shocked my soul back to life only for it to die a moment later.

  Vic watches me carefully, the lines of his face creased in a gleeful grin. He stands there, daring me to light it—knowing that I won’t.

  I rub my thumb over the ridges on the lighter without sparking it while my other hand grips the p
liers tighter before resting on my belly. My past and my future are at my mercy, but I don’t know if it’s more merciful to take their lives or spare them. I’m trapped, unable to decide, unable to move.

  There’s another slam at the door. When Vic's men break through, Mom will be gone again. They’ll snatch her away. Vic will kill me—or worse. If he lets me live, he’ll figure out a baby is growing within me. I can’t fathom what he’d do to her, how he’d make her suffer. The time for action is now. If I wait, I’ll lose my opportunity. I lift the lighter.

  Mom nods at me and then meets my gaze. “Do it. You have our blessing.”

  I watch her lips wrap around the word, the way she says ‘our’ and the way her eyes lower to my belly—to the child yet to be born. It unhinges me. There’s another crash at the door and a loud crack. The doorframe is splintering. One more hit and they’ll be inside.

  We’re too high up to jump, and there’s no other exit.

  My only weapons are a lighter and a pair of pliers. Mom is too weak to walk. If I try to save her, I’ll have to carry her. We’d never get away.

  Mom’s voice is louder this time, near frantic, “Avery, please!” She looks past me to the door that’s splintering into pieces. Arms are shoving inside, but the wood is unyielding. Last chance. I lift the lighter, ready to strike. Willing to do it when a location check goes off.

  In rapid succession, more male voices offer positions and check in with their location inside the building. They’re responding, coming at Vic’s silent request.

  I lift the ridges of the lighter and take one last glance at the woman I thought I’d never see again. “Goodbye, Mom. I love you.”

 
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