In only a few minutes, Jared saunters back toward me and climbs into the truck, surprising me by reaching for the gun in my lap, covering my hand holding it with his.
Our eyes meet and I can see the heat in his and I’m not sure why. I’m a mess, barely showered and...I just don’t get it, but I’m hoping it’s not going to be a problem. “I’ll let you keep it on one condition,” he negotiates.
“You have to promise not to use it on me.”
“Haven’t considered that just yet.”
He chuckles and releases the gun to start the engine. “Guess I’m doing something right then. Put it in your purse. I’ll feel better if you're armed. We’re around the back of the building. I didn’t want us to be seen and the faster we get inside and stay inside, the better.”
Ah, I think. The familiar drill and supposed brilliance that everyone thinks is the hermit strategy. Until there’s a fire. It’s a horrible thought and I cut my gaze to the window, thinking of that damn sign “Red Heaven Restaurant.” Maybe it’s a tribute, not a slap, but Sheridan is into oil and thanks to Jared I now know my family was, too.
Jared opens his door and I blink to realize he’s killed the engine and we’ve arrived at our building. I quickly place the gun in my purse and follow him outside, surprised at how little anxiety I feel with Jared, considering the motel. But he knows my brother, and I hunger to hear more about Chad, even more so, I crave the moment I can hug my brother again.
By the time I read the number on the chipped, powder blue door, Jared is already swiping the key. He motions me forward and I enter to a musty smell that I dismiss with the relief of finding two beds that seem to support my trust in Jared. Or maybe it’s all the place had, but I’m going to go with my instincts.
Jared shuts the door behind me and locks it, and I turn to watch him. He unzips his bag and sets a gun on the bed. Now, I’m nervous and my heart lurches, my eyes meeting his. “If anyone comes in that door,” he explains, motioning to the gun, “they meet Berta. And she’s a bitch to swallow.”
“Well then I’m glad to meet her,” I say, though she isn’t any more comforting than his obvious thought that we need her.
His eyes soften, his voice turning all silky and gentle. “Why don’t you join me so we can talk.”
I nod and claim the opposite bed, and we sit with the nightstand separating us, knees a foot apart. He stares at me and doesn’t speak and I do not like the sympathy etched in his brown eyes. “What? Whatever you’re hanging on to and not saying, just say it. You’re scaring me again.”
“I could sit here and weed through how you got with Meg and what you’ve been through but I’m just going to get right to what matters. Four days after I got the message from your brother, I got a second call from him. This time, I answered in time to talk to him.”
Adrenaline pours through me. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“It wasn’t the right time.”
I’m pretty sure that means I’m not going to like what is coming. “And?” I prod anxiously.
“I’m going to shoot straight with you because I think it’s the only way you can make a clear decision about what comes next.”
I clutch the blanket on the bed. “What does that mean?”
“It means, Chad was urgent and whispering on the call, clearly hiding. He said…” He hesitates, a muscle flexing in his whisker-dusted jaw.
“He said what?” I demand.
“He said he wasn’t going to make it through the night and all he cared about was you.”
“No. No. That can’t be. You said--”
“I haven’t given up hope on him. He was calling me to ensure you survived. He’s a survivor too, though, Amy. We will fight for him. I promise you.”
Hope is my enemy. It’s worse than lies. It promises and it takes back. It teases and it rips my heart out. “What else did he say?”
“He told me he left you instructions to protect yourself and 111 is the way to do it, whatever that means.”
“111,” I murmur and at first I think of the locker number at JFK where he’d left me a note but another memory surfaces. He and I had been at a dig site in Egypt, alone in a tent, hanging out as we often did, and Chad was stuffing pieces of paper he’d written on in an old wine bottle.
“What is it?” I’d asked.
“One hundred reasons why and eleven ass**les.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing I ever want you to understand.”
“You know what it means?”
“It’s his lucky number,” I say, and know what it means and where to find it. “He used it for a lot of things. What else?”
“He told me to tell you he’s sorry this hell happened and he knows you can never forgive him, but he loves you.That was it,” he adds. “The line went dead.”
My breath hitches and I lower my head, pressing my hand to my forehead. I’ve lost him before I ever found him again. No. No. No. I push to my feet and start for the door. Jared grabs my arm. “Whoa. Where are you going?”
“They have my brother. They gave me four days to get them what they want or they’ll kill him. Maybe 111 is what they want. I have to go now.”
“You know what he was telling you with 111?”
“Yes.” I tug on my arm. “I need to go. We need to go now.”