“Stephen, everything is okay.” Her voice automatically shifted to the calm, even cadence that she knew from experience often soothed Stephen. Her heart began throbbing loudly in her ears. Just as frequently her efforts at calming him hadn’t worked. She knew intellectually that this time was different. Stephen had made some significant improvements. Hadn’t he? Still, it was hard to assure her body of that when it had experienced a mortal threat from him on several occasions. Niall’s eyes skittered anxiously to where Eli sat reading a magazine in the atrium.
Stephen began to mumble in a manic, pressured fashion as he paced. The hairs on the back of Niall’s neck prickled as they stood on end.
“. . . Had to make that meeting . . . Richard Marchant insisted it had to be me . . . wouldn’t accept Marietta doing it . . .”
“Marietta?” Niall asked in rising confusion. Marietta had been Stephen’s top manager at Chandler Financial years back. It struck Niall as bizarre to hear him say her name suddenly.
“. . . You acted all pissed off that day . . . know we agreed that I would take Michael to preschool on Mondays . . . but I had to be at that Marchant meeting . . . and what was your job compared to mine? Huh? I was the one who made all the money . . . Why should I have to worry about taking the kid to school?”
Niall jumped when Stephen violently struck his thigh again as he paced.
“Stephen? Don’t . . . You’ll hurt yourself. Stephen . . . please . . .” Niall attempted to break through his increasing agitation, but he paid her no heed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Eli putting down his magazine and standing.
In all of the terror and shock that had followed Matthew Manning opening fire on a group of children, parents, and teachers that day, killing three adults and four children, Niall had completely forgotten that she and Stephen had argued over who would take Michael to preschool that morning.
“It should have been you who took Michael to school!” Stephen shouted suddenly, several drops of saliva shooting forcefully from his mouth.
Niall’s heart pounded horribly in her chest.
“It was me, Stephen,” she said shakily. “I don’t know what you mean . . . It was me who took Michael to school that day.”
Stephen stopped abruptly in his pacing and whirled around. His face looked like a horrific mask, twisted and rigid. Only his eyes seemed real as they peered through to the outside world, making Niall think of a wild, dangerous, trapped animal.
“But it should have been me!” Stephen shouted suddenly, his tone a mixture of horror and regret. “If I had been there, maybe . . . maybe . . .”
Niall shook her head as tears coursed down her cheeks. She’d had no idea that he suffered from so much guilt. She’d always assumed that when he ranted at her, shouting “it should have been you,” that in his confusion and madness, he expressed an anguished wish that Niall had been the one to be murdered instead of their son.
“No, Stephen . . . you couldn’t have stopped it,” she whispered. “What Matthew Manning did made no sense. No one could have predicted it. Your being there wouldn’t have changed things—”
“Stephen?” Eli queried as he approached from the side, careful not to make any abrupt movements. Several other attendants entered the day room from the locked unit, moving rapidly toward Stephen. Niall realized distantly that Eli must have activated some kind of alarm. “Why don’t we go back to your room for a while, bud?”
Niall didn’t even blink when Stephen lunged at her violently. It was as if some primitive part of her being had been expecting it. He’d been in touch with his guilt ever so briefly, and it had been too painful for him.
The defense of madness needed to be erected once again.
“It should have been you, Niall!” he snarled.
And in that moment Niall knew that she hadn’t been wrong in thinking that Stephen had a primitive wish that she was dead instead of their son. It was just that his wish was more complicated than she’d assumed. In truth, every time he told her that it should have been her, what he really meant was “It should have been me.” Should have been him who took Michael to preschool that day . . . should have been him who died instead of an innocent four-year-old boy. But his misguided guilt was so intense that in order to survive psychologically, he needed to project it onto her.
He required the insulation of his madness.
Eli stopped Stephen’s violent pitch toward her by grabbing him from behind, immobilizing his arms at his sides. Stephen’s glittering, manic eyes remained glued to Niall as he bent his knees and tried to throw Eli off him, making them both lose balance and fall heavily to the floor. He struggled like a wild animal as the other attendants rushed to assist Eli, who was taking the brunt of Stephen’s desperate attempts to come to terms with his own guilt.
“Go, Ms. Chandler. Your presence is making it worse,” one of the older attendants barked at her before he turned his attention to trying to restrain Stephen’s flailing right leg.
Niall stood and walked stiffly to the visitors’ exit for the day room. A nurse with a concerned expression on her face buzzed her through the thick metal door. Niall heard Stephen’s voice behind her already becoming hoarse from his repeated, harsh rants.
“It should have been you!”
The security door shut behind her for the last time, and there was only silence.
Niall looked up from where she knelt on the floor of her office when she heard the knock.
She smiled when she saw her boss, Alistair McKenzie.