“Are you going to kill him?” I ask, but then add, “I mean not for me, of course, but for that other man?” I want him to say that, yes, it’s for me, but I know that’s not the reason.

“You will be safe to live your life now,” he says simply.

We share a quiet moment and I get out of the car, shutting the door softly behind me. And then I watch Victor drive away, his brake lights penetrating the partial darkness at the very end of the road. And then he’s gone. Just like that.

What just happened?

I doubt I’ll ever be able to wrap my mind around the past nine years of my life and even more-so, the past couple of days. As I stand here at the end of a driveway of a place familiar yet so foreign to me, I realize that I can’t feel myself. At least the person I used to be, or the person I was supposed to be but the opportunity was taken from me by Javier. By my mother.

I have lived a life of seclusion and bondage, a prisoner of a Mexican drug lord who although treated me with a strange sort of kindness, abused me in other ways. I have slept with a man I didn’t love and who I didn’t want to sleep with for most of my young life. And Javier is the only man I’ve ever been with sexually. I have seen rape and kidnapping and abuse in every form possible. And I have seen death. So much death. My only friend died in my arms just hours ago. I watched the life leave her body as she looked at me.

After all of this, I feel like, as I sift through those memories casually as though scanning a hand of cards, none of it is affecting me the way that it should, the way it would a normal girl. And I know why. I just hate to admit it to myself: over the years I became used to it. It was how my life was. My mind conformed and adapted the best way that it knew how.

But now here I am back at home in Tucson, free to do whatever I want. I could walk a few blocks to the little store I used to go to everyday after school and buy a soda and a bag of Doritos. If I wanted, I could go to my old elementary school down the road and swing on the swings or lay down in the field that surrounds the building and just look up at the stars until I fall asleep. I could steal that bike in the front yard of lot number twelve and ride to my old friend’s house twenty miles away. But the trailer behind me at the end of the cracked concrete driveway is just as good. And it’s right there. It’s taking me longer than I anticipated to walk up to the door and find out if the only person I knew who could help me now still lives there.

I can do whatever I want, yet I find it eternally difficult to choose where to begin. Or if to begin at all.

I guess now I know what it feels like when a person has spent half of his or her life in prison and is released back out into the world. They don’t know what to do with themselves, they don’t know how to fit back into society. They constantly look over their shoulder. They can’t sleep past five a.m. or believe that they can choose what to eat and when to eat it. Violence and darkness and confinement is so much a part of them that half of them never learn any other way.

I don’t want to be like that. But right now, as I stand here staring at the blaring light on the front porch and letting it bring spots in front of my eyes, I feel like it’s how I’ll be forever whether I want it or not.

A shadow moves across the front window.

I shove the stack of money in the back of my shorts, pulling my tank top down over it and then I take a deep breath.

I walk up the wooden steps and knock lightly upon the door.

“Who is it?” a man’s voice asks from the other side.

I’m pretty certain now that she’s long gone from this place.

“It’s…Sarai. I used to live over at lot fifteen.”

The chain on the door shuffles and then the door breaks apart. A short, chubby man peers out at me.

“How can I help you?”

He’s shirtless and his round belly hangs over the elastic of his knee-length gym shorts. The smell of popcorn filters out the door and past me.

“Does Mrs. Gregory live here anymore?” It feels awkward asking because I already know that she doesn’t.

The man shakes his head.

“Sorry, but I’ve lived here for two years now,” he says. “And I never knew of a Mrs. Gregory.”

“OK, thanks.”

I turn my back on him and descend the steps.

“Are you alright?” the man calls out.

I glance up at him momentarily. “Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”

He nods and closes the door as I leave, the sound of the chain lock being slid back into place is brief.

My bare feet move painlessly over the sand and rock-littered road of the trailer park. The street lights mounted high on the light poles begin to thin out and bathe me in darkness as I make it to the end of the road and leave the property. A car drives by and I’m instantly on edge, thinking it might be Javier here to kill me. But it drives on past and leaves me only with an erratic heartbeat and paranoid thoughts. At least I know that Izel is dead. I picture her last moment lying on her stomach in the sand with that gun in her hand. I didn’t flinch or recoil when I saw Victor’s bullet pass through her skull and her upper-body hit the ground face-down like a toddler falling asleep in his birthday cake. No, I felt only the satisfaction of revenge. I was glad to watch her die. Because she had it coming.

I only wish that it had been me who killed her for what she did to Lydia.

Strolling past a line of about a dozen mailboxes, I see the stop sign out ahead where I remember that if I go left it’ll lead me to the elementary school. I decide in this moment that that’s where I’ll go because I have nowhere else to go. And after many long minutes of walking I make it there, glad that nothing about the playground has changed, at least. The same old rusted seesaw I remember sits near the swing set with one seat raised high in the air. Three spring riders: a dolphin, a lion and a walrus, are lined next to each other inside an encased sea of playground pebbles. I make my way through the dry grass and sit down on the same swing I always went straight for during recess. And thankfully it feels the same, too. The way I coil my fingers around the linked chains just above my head, how the conformable plastic seat fits just right against my thighs. But I’m much taller now than I was back then, so my legs are bent awkwardly beneath me. I dig my toes into the cool pebbles and watch a tiny white light from a plane move across the distant sky, making no sound.

And the only face I see in my thoughts is Victor’s. He helped me, after all, even when I had accepted that he never would. I think about the conversation that he had with Niklas in the SUV and it only creates for me more questions about Victor. I wonder why he fired first. I wonder why he didn’t just go along with the original plan to hand me over, trade me for Lydia and apparently, Cordelia, who I had no idea was any part of this at all. Maybe he knew that Izel would’ve killed me anyway and afterwards tried to kill Victor and take Lydia and Cordelia back. It’s very plausible that Javier ordered Izel to go along with it, make the trade and then the second she had the opportunity, start shooting at us. I don’t know; there are many ways that the whole thing could’ve gone. And there are many reasons why Victor might’ve done what he did.

All that I’m sure of is that I’m alive because of Victor. I’m home in Tucson because of Victor. I’m free from a life not of my choosing, because of Victor.

Cold-blooded murderer-for-hire or not, he saved my life.

I reach around and take the money from the back of my shorts. I run my fingers fast over the edges, letting each bill fall rapidly onto the next, expelling a small blast of air on my face. There has to be at least five thousand dollars here. I start to count the ends of each bill, but stop a quarter of the way and just accept that there’s a lot. Enough to rent myself a room for the night so I can get a shower and some rest. I resolve to do just that, relieved that I’ve come up with a solid first part of a very long plan. But then I realize that I don’t even have a driver’s license. I don’t have a single shred of identification to prove that I’m me, or anyone else. I’ll be lucky to find a hotel to rent a room to me without identification, no matter how much money I try to bribe them with. And I need to spend this money wisely, do what I have to do to stretch it out. Because it’s all that I’ve got.

In the back of my mind I know I could simply go to the police and tell them my story and that they would help me. But I feel so overwhelmed by the simplest things that with work, I know, could be remedied that I feel utterly defeated by it all.

I sigh miserably, letting my head fall in-between my slouched shoulders and I press my toes into the pebbles some more, moving them around in a circular pattern.

And then for the first time in what feels like forever, I break down in tears of self-pity. Not of anger or anguish or frustration. I cry for myself. Sobs roll through my body. I let the money fall on the ground next to my bare feet and I grip the chains on either side of me and just let it all out.

When I’m done minutes later, I raise my head and wipe the tears from my face.

A set of headlights turns on the street on the opposite side of the school building and I watch the car until it stops in the road about fifty-feet from me.

It’s Victor.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

I don’t get up right away. I just gaze out over the grass at the car, knowing what I want to do but having a hard time figuring out if it’s what I should do. But then finally I stand up, giving in to that desire and I pick the money up from the ground and set out for the car.

The window slides down seconds before I get there.

“Who was Mrs. Gregory?” Victor asks with both hands resting casually on the steering wheel.

I open the door and get inside; there’s no need for either of us to question or explain why he’s here. We both know already. For the most part.

I close the door.

“She was more like a mother to me than my real mother.”

A light breeze moves through the opened window and brushes through my hair.

Victor remains quiet looking at me, letting me relive the moments. I keep my eyes trained out ahead, peering into the darkness through the spotless windshield.

“I spent most of my time with her,” I go on, seeing only Mrs. Gregory’s face in my mind now. “She fed me dinner in the evenings and we’d watch CSI together. She loved baking her own seasoned Chex Mix.” I glance over, laughing lightly. “She was a mean old woman. Not to me, of course, but she told my mom off a number of times. And once, one of my mom’s boyfriends came over to Mrs. Gregory’s looking for me—” I glance over again sharply and say, “He was one of the jerks who thought because he was sleeping with my mother that he could tell me what to do. Anyway, he rapped hard on Mrs. Gregory’s door, calling out my name. It was so funny.” I laugh again, resting my head back on the headrest. “She came to the door with a shotgun in her hand. It wasn’t loaded, but it didn’t need to be. That guy looked like somebody just kicked him in the nuts. He never came over there looking for me again.”

I feel the smile fade from my lips as other memories appear.

“She got real sick once,” I say distantly. “Had to have some kind of artery surgery, I don’t know, but I remember being so scared she was going to die. But she made it through.” My head falls to the side, still resting against the headrest, and I look right into Victor’s eyes. “But what I’ll always remember her for the most was that she taught me how to play the piano. For five years, from the time I was eight-years-old when I met her, up until I started hanging out with my best friend more, Mrs. Gregory taught me nearly every day it seemed. I’d head over there after school, sometimes forgetting about my homework, and I’d play until my fingers ached.” I look downward toward the dashboard, regretful. “I wish I never would’ve met Bailey. I still feel bad to this day for replacing Mrs. Gregory with my friend.”


Tags: J.A. Redmerski In the Company of Killers Book Series
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