My shoulders rise and fall with a heavy sigh and my gaze strays toward my lap where my fingers fidget restlessly. And then after a moment of quiet contemplation, I tell Izabel the same story that Cassia told me last night about how she and Seraphina met. Izabel listens the entire time with parted lips and an ever-growing look of horror and sadness slowly twisting her features. I try not to look at her eyes at all because I can sense how much the story is affecting her personally. And I begin to feel regret for telling her, Izabel of all people, who lived nine years of her life under the rule of a notorious Mexican drug lord who molested and raped and kept her prisoner long enough to turn her into the killer she is today.
By the time the story is over, Izabel can’t speak for what feels like an hour but is just mere minutes. I see the raw emotions eating away at her brought on mostly by the things that Seraphina went through, the memories of her own life with Javier Ruiz and all the things from her past that she—just as I do with my similar past—tries every day to shut out of her mind. But also like me, no matter how hard she tries, the deepest scars never fade.
“Fredrik…,” she says softly and then turns her head to face me, “…you have to let that girl go. You have to, now more than ever.”
I shake my head no, though I didn’t mean for her to actually see me do it—it was a reflex. I can’t let Cassia go, and I won’t, no matter how hard Izabel presses me.
Why did I tell her any of this? What could I have possibly gotten out of it?
I feel her hand on my forearm as I grip the steering wheel. Her fingers tighten around my bone. “You listen to me.” Her voice becomes sharper, determined, and I finally look back into her eyes. “Look what she’s been through. Think about what you just told me.” She shakes my arm. “That cold bitch—regardless of the horrific things she went through—killed this girl’s mother and father. She was traumatized as a child because of what your ex-wife did to her. She went through something that no one, goddammit no one, should ever have to go through, and now she’s being kept a prisoner, chained inside a basement like an animal, and what makes it sicker is that she thinks she’s in love with you!” Her rising voice fills the car, her fingers are digging into my arm over the top of my coat sleeve.
Izabel looks a lot like I do when I need to torture and kill someone to appease the painful memories.
I can’t look at her anymore.
My fingers are white-knuckling the steering wheel.
Finally, I feel her hand loosen and then fall away from my arm.
“I’ll help you,” she says gently. “I’ll do whatever you need me to do, but you have to set that girl free. We’ll put her in a safe-house to protect her until Seraphina is caught—”
Silence fills the car.
Consumed by regret and guilt and a plethora of other negative emotions slowly eating away at me, all I can say is, “I’m sorry for what you went through when you were with Javier Ruiz. And I’m sorry that I dragged you into this—I don’t even know why I did—but I’m not letting Cassia go. I need her to find Seraphina. She’s the only way I’m ever going to find Seraphina.”
After a moment, Izabel says somberly, “Then you’re not who I thought you were.” I hear the door click open and a rush of cold air escapes into the car.
“Where are you going?” I ask carefully without moving a muscle.
She swings the door open all the way and gets out of the car. Leaning over and inside with one hand propped on the edge of the door she glares in at me, her eyes full of anger and disappointment and pain.
“If you won’t let that girl go,” she says through her teeth, “I will.”
She slams the door shut, cutting off the frigid air filtering through the car.
“Izabel, wait!” I’m out of the car in seconds and walking around the front and toward her on the other side. “You can’t do that. You have to trust me on this!”
She stops at her door without opening it, crossing her arms tight against her chest as the wind pushes against her long white coat.
Disgusted with me, she shakes her head indignantly.
“I was wrong,” she says. “You don’t love that girl at all. You’re still in love with that crazy bitch. And you’re so in love with her that you’re willing to ruin an innocent girl’s life just to find her. As if what Seraphina did to her already isn’t bad enough! I can’t believe you’d do this, Fredrik!” Her voice cracks.
A small family approaches from the parking lot heading toward the conservatory. Hearing Izabel’s shouts, the father takes his little girl’s hand and pulls her closer between him and his wife. They watch us over their shoulders as they hurry up the walkway.
Izabel and I both wait until they slip inside the building before saying anything more, glaring into each other’s eyes, hers filled with more anger and disappointment towards me than I ever wanted to see.
“I can’t let her go,” I say calmly, one more time.
She turns on her heels and jerks her car door open, intent on leaving me standing here.
“Izabel!” My voice rips through the air.
She stops, standing wedged between the door and the frame, her face consumed by rage, her body rigid and conflicted by its need to get away.
I sigh heavily, and look down at my shoes, letting regret and pain crush me from the inside out.
And then finally I realize why I brought Izabel here, why I need her so badly.
“I can’t let her go…I can’t because Cassia is Seraphina….”
She stares at me blankly, yet behind her eyes is a lake of shock and confusion and denial and she’s drowning in it.
She steps away from the door, but leaves it open, and very slowly walks toward me. I study her quietly as she approaches, trying to decipher the seemingly impenetrable veil of perplexity that consumes her, and all I can make out from it is pain. Though I can’t tell who she’s hurting for: Cassia, Seraphina, me or herself.
The corners of her eyes begin to glisten with moisture. She steps onto the sidewalk and reaches out carefully to touch the side of my face, and the moment she does, that unnamed pain she harbors transfers from her and right into me. Her throat moves as she swallows her tears down. I realize in this moment that I do the same thing.
“Oh, Fredrik,” she says softly, shaking her head.
But it’s all she can say and she drops her cold hand from my face and rests her arm down at her side.