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Rabbits in the garden, p.17

Rabbits in the Garden, page 17

 

Rabbits in the Garden
 


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  Smoke coursed through Avery’s lungs as she bolted down the stairs and into the lobby. Several groups of panicked people were clustered there. Nurses held their patients close and stroked their hair while the doctors tried to divine some sort of plan. There were others like Avery, however, who gave the stationary people two glances at the most as they flew past them and out the front doors. The fire had enkindled the night, and as Avery emerged from Taunton and breathed in the air of freedom, it smelled like the electroshock room, but worse.

  Avery couldn’t help but look back as she ran. The screams of people still trapped on upper floors were too devastating to ignore. When she reached the gate, the screams of terror increased and she stopped entirely to watch the west wing collapse. Chunks of Taunton crashed to the ground and several people with them, but the sound of snapping wood and breaking glass drew her eyes upward to the engulfed cupola that had started to sink down through the roof.

  “Run!” Avery shrieked to the people clustered in the lobby, but they couldn’t hear her.

  She started to run back to warn them when the cupola gave way and smashed through the hospital roof. Floor by floor, it broke through and landed in the lobby with a violent crash that forced Avery to her knees. She clamped her hands together and began to pray, but she didn’t get far through the Lord’s Prayer before a patient rushed past her and almost knocked her over.

  “I hope you’re thanking Him,” the patient said, and when Avery looked up, she saw that it was Pam.

  “I was,” Avery replied sincerely, and she gave a small wave before Pam ran away and disappeared into the dark.

  That thought stayed with her as the fire engines drew close and she drew farther away from Taunton. So many people, so many innocent people, and she was so thankful. So very thankful.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  Avery spent the night curled up beneath a mulberry bush ten miles from Taunton. She knew the police would be sweeping the area and she had no intention of being caught, so even during sleep, she never truly slept. Every time her mind began to drift off, she heard the screams of those she’d sentenced to death and saw their terrified faces as they frantically tried to squeeze themselves through the barred windows. And then there was Flint, the only true friend she’d had in Taunton. Like her nickname suggested, Flint had helped start the fire, but Avery never wanted her to kindle it as well. But that wasn’t her decision. Her friend had chosen to surrender to the sickness that Avery always denied. Flint was right: Avery had viewed her as someone who was also unfairly committed, but in the end, Flint did deserve to be in the asylum. She wanted to be. Avery never understood that, and even after contemplating it all night, she still couldn’t fathom what Flint’s psychosis had caused her to do. Then again, what had Avery’s own will caused her to do? Was it her love for Paul or her hate for Faye that made her appetite for escape so ravenous that she left a trail of charred carnage behind?

  She didn’t allow herself the chance to ponder the answer. As soon as Paul popped into her head, there he stayed. Even with her severe exhaustion, she reveled in her thoughts and grinned for the moment when he would hold her again. She waited until the world became silent and started trying to wave down a car. When a Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible finally pulled over, she was certain the driver would be male, but it was a girl behind the wheel.

  “Are you alright?” she asked when she saw the dirty abrasions on Avery’s face and hands.

  “I was in an accident. My car flipped,” Avery said frantically. “If you could drive me into the city, I’d really appreciate it.”

  “You’re not a psycho killer, are you?” the girl asked jokingly and Avery forced a chuckle. “I’m Olive, by the way. Is there somewhere in particular that you need to go?”

  “I was on my way to surprise my friend Paul. I haven’t seen him in years. I don’t even know where he lives actually. I was just going to look him up once I got into town.”

  “What about your car?”

  “Once I find him, I’ll alert the authorities about the car. For now, I don’t even want to think about it. I’m so tired and I’m so sore.”

  “It’s alright if you just want to lean back and close your eyes for a bit. It’s still about a half hour until we reach Boston,” Olive said and turned on the radio.

  Avery heaved a gracious sigh as she shut her eyes and let the comfort of Elvis’ velvety voice wash over her. She didn’t even realize she’d fallen asleep until she awoke with a jolt. She looked around in confusion, realizing that the car was stopped on the side of the road with the radio blaring.

  “She should be considered armed and dangerous. All motorists should be on alert for an eighteen year old girl with black hair traveling by foot. It is believed that she is the cause of the fire at Taunton State Hospital that led to the escape of fifteen other patients and the deaths of dozens more. We’ll keep you updated as this story progresses.”

  Avery looked over slowly to see Olive wide-eyed, trembling, and brandishing a pocket knife.

  “Are you her?” she asked shakily as she pointed the blade at Avery. “Avery Norton: the girl who torched Taunton? The girl who killed all of those people on Martha’s Vineyard?”

  “Yes and no.”

  “Get out of my car.”

  “Look, I just need a ride. I don't want to hurt you. My name is Avery Norton, but I didn’t kill anyone. I just need to get to Boston.”

  “I told you to get out!” Olive hissed and swiped at Avery with the knife.

  “I wasn’t going to hurt you,” Avery said as she slid out of the car, but before she could even close the door, Olive’s car peeled away.

  The city was within sight, but so was Avery. Word was out, and before long, a police car was sure to pass or a “helpful” citizen would report her location. Luckily, the city was only a ten minute hike away, but she didn’t intend on walking it. She had to get to Paul before she was recognized again. It would hurt, but Paul and Sophie kept her feet slamming through the fields, down the streets, and into the first diner she saw. She located the phone directory and scanned for Paul’s name. Dillon. 1400 East 3rd Street Apartment # 523. Thank God. She had a ways to walk still, but at least she had a destination.

  By the time she was making her way up the stairs and down the halls of Paul’s apartment building, Avery was nearly delirious with exhaustion, but standing in front of apartment 523, her mind sharpened in an instant. Her stomach twisted into fluttering knots and her palm was sweating as she curled her hand into a fist and knocked on the door. She heard footsteps and soft voices, and the door began to open. Avery felt her excitement crescendo like music, but seeing the back of a woman's head, her joy dropped off the cliff into a sea of dread. She was too late, she thought. Faye had gotten there first and, as always, she’d destroyed any chance for Avery's happiness. However, when the woman turned, Avery realized it wasn’t her mother after all, and she heaved a thankful sigh.

  “Can I help you?” the young woman asked.

  “I'm Av - I’m here to see Paul Dillon,” she replied, but when she looked past the woman, she saw a man with ice blue eyes frozen in the hall, staring at his unexpected visitor.

  “Avery?” he whispered as he walked towards her in mystification. “Is it really you?”

  He stood before her as beautiful as always, as brilliant, as strong, but just when she thought he might never break out of his shock, he threw his arms around her and lifted her into the air. He whooped in exultation, and in only ten seconds, he planted a thousand kisses on her cheeks.

  “I've been praying that you'd come. Ever since I heard about the fire,” he said and as he caressed her face, she felt like some priceless sliver of crystal.

  He was looking at her as if she didn't have a single flaw even though she knew she was covered in grime. She had never known that feeling, and she'd never had such longing building within her. She wanted to kiss him passionately, to peel off his clothes, and dig her fingernails into his skin, but she just stood there loving
him from a distance as she had for so long.

  “I didn't interrupt anything, did I?” she asked as she looked at the woman who'd answered the door.

  “Not at all. Avery, this is Anna Mulberry, Sophie's nanny,” he said and when Avery extended her filthy hand, Anna hesitantly shook it.

  “I'm just going to put Sophie down, and then I’ll leave you two alone,” she said and she carried Sophie into the bedroom.

  “Would you like a drink?” Paul asked as he poured two glasses of wine.

  “My first glass of wine,” she said, and he clinked his cup against hers.

  She tipped the glass back and the cold, crisp Chablis splashed over her tongue. It was sweetly aromatic and although it quenched her thirst, the dry aftertaste made her crave more. They savored the opportunity of being able to just shut up and look at each other. As they sipped their wine, they were face to face, eye to eye, and even when Anna Mulberry walked back in, it was difficult for them to break their silent connection.

  “She's asleep,” Anna said as she put on her coat.

  “Thank you,” Paul said, watching the nanny impatiently as she gathered her things and finally walked out.

  As soon as she was gone, Paul took Avery's wine glass out of her hand, looked deeply in her eyes, and kissed her hungrily. She melted into him, and her head swam with amorous thoughts, but when his hands started to move under her blouse, she pulled away.

  “What's wrong?”

  “I'm all dirty,” she replied meekly.

  “I didn't notice,” he said sweetly. “But I did notice that you’re hurt. Are these burns?”

  “Some.”

  “Is it true you started the fire?”

  “I may not have held the flame and it wasn't my idea, but yes, I am the reason it happened. I needed to get out and Flint—-” she started, but her grief caused her to choke on her words. “She helped me. She's the reason I'm here right now, with you.”

  “I think you need this more than me,” he said as he poured his wine into her glass. “I'm going to draw you a bath. Just relax and try not to think about that place.”

  As soon as he left for the bathroom, however, a thousand memories of Taunton leapt into her mind. Even though she had lived for longer on the island, Taunton dominated her memory. She could hardly even remember how her life used to be, when happiness didn't seem such a far away dream. She had to struggle to remember her father and even then, there were gaping holes in the images she summoned. It was easy to find Natalie in her mired mind, but every happy thought was obliterated by so many sad ones. She walked past the bathroom where Paul was running his fingers under the faucet and into the bedroom where a peach-colored bassinet was cradling her precious niece. She looked down on her in adoration, but a surprising jealousy crept in afterwards. She saw so much of Paul in Sophie's face, and she couldn't help but wonder how her own influence would've changed Sophie's appearance. While Natalie had granted a softness to the strong features Paul had given their daughter, Avery thought her influence would've turned Sophie into stone, into an onyx reflection of the girl with no happy memories. Unfortunately, because of Natalie, Sophie also resembled Faye and the similarity made Avery's heart ache. It had to be one of the things Faye loved most about the baby and one of the many ridiculous reasons why she wanted to get her hands on her.

  “Your bath is ready,” Paul whispered as he ran his hands over her shoulders and down to her fingers.

  The steam from the bathroom had wafted into the hall, and as he led her down, she felt immersed in a dream she'd thought would never come true. He led her to the tub, but when he turned to leave her alone, her body moved of its own accord and pulled him back. She let down her hair and combed it with her fingers, and as she lifted her blouse over her head, she tried not to break their eye contact. He was frozen by his eyes' devotion, and once she'd shed her last garment, she held out her hand and he helped her into the bath. She let the warm water swallow her as she dipped her head back and ran her fingernails over her scalp as if she could claw away every ill thought. As it turned out, all she needed to do was look at Paul. She'd never been naked in front of a man before, but she didn't feel awkward or exposed. Maybe it was because even though her body was swathed in its lustiest attire, he was looking at her face.

  “I know why you're here,” he finally said as he sat next to the tub. “You came to warn me about your mother. You came to protect Sophie. But you took a huge risk, Avery. The police have been watching this place.”

  “It was worth the risk. Already,” she replied. “But I came here for a lot of reasons, Paul. More than just those two.”

  “Is one of the reasons that you love me?” he asked with his eyes nervously averted, but she reached out and touched his hand.

  “They are all because I love you, Paul. How could you even question it?”

  “Easily. Just as I'm sure it's been easy for you to question whether I still love you.”

  “Do you?” she asked, but Paul’s answer was in his smile and how his hand rested on hers.

  “I should leave you alone.”

  “Please don't. I don't want to be alone. I can't be.”

  “Then you never will be again,” he said as he kissed her slippery hand.

  “The water feels so good, so clean. When I took baths at Taunton, I always felt dirtier afterwards.”

  “You don't have to talk about it.”

  “How can I not? It's all I know.”

  “What about us? Why don’t you just think about us running around in the summertime, scaling fences and houses and whatever else we wanted to conquer?”

  “Because it only makes me remember what I've lost, what we could've been by now, and how much I can't conquer anymore.”

  “What if we could start over? You, me, and Sophie.”

  “We still think just the same. All those times we dropped off the dock with squid as bait while everyone else used worms or lures,” she chuckled. “I want so badly to start over, Paul, and to believe that I can forget.”

  “Then we will. We'll leave Boston. We'll leave Massachusetts. Hell, we'll leave America if you want.”

  “How?”

  “My parents have a boat on the island that we can use. We can sail away and never come back.”

  “We can't go back there, Paul. Someone else might recognize me, if not my mother.”

  “Your mother won't expect us to venture so close to her haven, and as for people recognizing you, I've already thought about it. You could disguise yourself. I still have some of Natalie's clothes...”

  “No, I couldn't,” she whimpered and furiously shook her head.

  “I understand. I didn’t mean to upset you. I'll get you some clothes tomorrow, okay?”

  “You’re so sweet to me, just as you’ve always been.”

  “Did you think that would change?”

  “Maybe.”

  “Nothing will ever change the way I feel about you, Avery. I knew from the day you left that even if we didn't end up together, what existed between us would always be there. You would always be a threat to whatever girl I had in my life,” he admitted, but when he leaned forward to kiss her, Avery suddenly stood up in the tub.

  The water cascaded down her body and Paul couldn't help but watch each droplet roll back to its origin.

  “Do you want me, Paul?” she asked.

  “Yes,” he whispered, “but I wouldn't think of pressing you if you didn't want to do anything yet. You don’t owe me that.”

  “What makes you think I wouldn't want to?”

  “Because I still know you. I could've gone ten or twenty years without seeing you, and I'd still know you. You want to be with me because you love me, but when it comes down to it, we're really just strangers who used to be friends. It's like our childhood together was a past life.”

  “I don't mind being strangers. It's ideal for starting over, isn't it?” she replied as she stepped out of the tub, and when he wrapped a towel around her, she hugged him close. “Could
you ever look at me and not see a little girl or an accused murderer?”

  “I'd like to think so,” he answered and kissed her shoulder. “What about me? What about everything that happened between me and Natalie?”

  “I've already gotten past that. She was so insistent about it being unintentional that I couldn’t hold either of you responsible. Also, my hurt feelings seemed a trivial thing once my mother made her intentions clear.”

  “I'm sorry I didn't come forward sooner. During your trial I mean.”

  “I told you not to. She would've killed you.”

  “And now we've come full circle, haven't we? But I'm not afraid of her anymore, Avery. If it came down to it, I know I could take her.”

  “It's never been about hand-to-hand combat with her, Paul. If it was, I think even Natalie couldn't taken her on, but she kills without brute strength. I don't care how much you try to dispute it, she could still kill you. She could kill us both. Then where would Sophie be? I won't let that happen. I gave Natalie my word.”

  “So who is this for: me, Natalie, Sophie, or you?”

  “A true good deed serves everyone. I’m just glad that I have the chance to do one at all. But if I have to narrow it down, I'd say that I'm doing it for me. I feel justified in being selfish right now.”

  “I don't blame you.”

  “Of course you don’t. You know that one of my selfish desires is you.”

  “So that makes me selfish too, and I don't care,” he said, and with a grin, he dropped down to his knee. “I love you, Avery Norton. As you were, as you are, and as you will be, I love you. I couldn't imagine a life without you when we were apart, and now that we're together, I refuse to. Will you marry me, Avery?”

  “What happened to being strangers?”

  “Strangers get married sometimes.”

  “Paul, this is Boston, not Las Vegas.”

 
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