“I’ve missed you,” I say softly, placing my hands within my lap. “I was worried something had happened to you.”
“Nothing will ever happen to me,” he says in an unemotional voice. “Not unless I let it.”
I smile softly and drop my gaze momentarily.
“Has Greta treated you well?” he asks, verifying further that he doesn’t fully trust her.
Nodding once, I look up and meet his eyes. A shiver runs down my spine when I look into the depths of them. I’ll never understand how any man can turn a woman’s insides into warm mush with just a look.
“She always treats me with kindness,” I say with promise. “I like her very much.”
He sits up straight and crosses one leg over the other at the knee, lacing his strong fingers together within his lap. He’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt with little black buttons down the center and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His feet are bare, just as I suspected, his legs covered by long black dress pants that drop over his ankles. He has strong, manly feet. Large feet. Just like his hands. I don’t know why I’m always drawn to look at them, such a seemingly unimportant part of a man’s body, but I’m always compelled. It’s as if every inch of him was made to perfection and deserves to be admired. Even his flaws are perfect to me; the deep, but thin scar that runs three inches from behind his earlobe and around the back of his head, the larger scar along his abs that dips down into the left side of his rigid oblique. The tiny mole on the back of his neck, just at the top of his spine. They are all perfect. Or, perhaps I’m just besotted for the first time in my life, and I don’t know any better. All women experience nature’s trickery at least once. Whether it’s with the man next door, or the actor one dreams about but knows she’ll never have.
Mine turned out to be my captor.
I straighten my back somewhat so that I don’t appear to be slouching. My fingers fumble restlessly in my lap. Fredrik looks at me—he never took his eyes off me to begin with—and I know what’s coming next. The part of his visits that I dread. I sigh and break our eye contact, staring toward the wall far behind him and letting it blur out of focus.
“Have you remembered anything?” he asks softly.
I swallow down my nervousness and interlock my fingers together tightly so that I don’t look so afraid.
Shaking my head gently, I answer, “No. Nothing new, anyway.”
I can feel his gaze on me, seeking my attention. I yield to it and look at him.
“I’ve told you before, Cassia, that even if you think you’re repeating yourself, that I want you to tell me what you remembered, what you saw while I was gone.”
I swallow again and glance down at my hands.
“Just the fire,” I say. “I was daydreaming. Yesterday. And the flames licking the ceiling bled through my memory, just like last time.”
“Was she there?” he asks and it hurts my heart.
It always hurts my heart when he asks about that woman.
I nod slowly, reluctantly. “Yes.”
He remains quiet and incredibly still, waiting for me to go on, to tell him everything I saw down to the last detail. But I don’t want to this time. I want him to lay next to me and hold me in his arms like he did not long ago. I had never felt so safe. I want to feel like that again. Right now. Not because of my enigmatic fear of Fredrik, but because of the fear I feel when I see that woman’s face in my memory. A woman with jet-black hair and sinister dark eyes. A woman I always tell Fredrik that I do not know, that I can’t remember, but the truth is that I don’t want to remember. And the more he presses me, tries to help me regain the memories of my life before the fire, the closer I get to knowing what she did to me. As much as I fear her without even knowing her, I know she must’ve done something horrible, unspeakable.
I would rather leave my past far behind if it means that to know it again, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.
But worse than that, I fear more than anything that once I remember and I give Fredrik the answers that he seeks, he’ll find her and forget all about me.
“Tell me, Cassia…tell me what you remember.”
I look beyond him, past his tousled dark hair and deep blue eyes, past the attractive scruff of his face that I often feel prickling against my cheeks even when he isn’t touching me, and I let the memory blur into focus.
The screaming in the apartment building wakes me. I shoot up from the bed, my face drenched in sweat, my lungs beginning to burn from the smoke filling the tiny room. It takes me a moment to realize what’s happening and still it’s not even the smoke that makes it all apparent. It’s the screams. I realize that if I was the only person in the building, I never would’ve woken up at all. I look down at the bed and imagine myself lying there, curled within the white striped sheet, flames engulfing the mattress, licking the walls and the headboard and slithering toward my long blonde hair spread out against the pillow, fast, like a desert snake moving in a sideward motion over the top of the sand.
I don’t remember standing from the bed. How did I get here? I ask myself.
The screams in the hall are getting louder. I hear crashing and pounding just outside the door, but it’s not my door that someone is beating on. And the crashing noise I can’t make out, but I think it’s the ceiling caving in. I see from underneath the door the lights flicker in the hallway and then go out.
The screams cease and I feel my heart in my throat.
Then as if time skips, I’m not standing in front of the bed anymore. I’m climbing out the window and making my way down the fire escape.
I slip and everything goes black.
Though I still hear my breath expelling from my nostrils unevenly as if my sinuses are clogged. The sound of my heartbeat I hear and feel in my head, racing, beating violently through the veins in my temples.
But everything else around me is quiet; the sirens and horns fading quickly into the background.
Then I hear a voice. A woman’s voice. At first it sounds distant as though she’s talking to me from behind a wall, or across the length of a giant field. But her voice is getting closer.
“I told you I’d find you,” the voice says with a hint of cruelty, mockery, satisfaction.
I try to open my eyes but the lids are too heavy. The tips of my fingers scratch against a hard, coarse surface. I move one hand around, pressing my palm fully against the surface, trying to decipher what it is and why I’m lying face down on it. My body solidifies and I recoil into myself as I begin to cough, my cheek scraping roughly against the hard material that is beginning to feel like concrete or asphalt. I taste the smoke in my lungs, I feel it burning my esophagus and the back of my throat and my nostrils.