DISCLAIMER: I do not own Guiding Light or the characters therein depicted. I do not seek to profit from this story. This is an AU story--based on a drabble I posted in February--that splits off from the "I can trust you with my life!" scene on 2/16/09. All canon after that does not exist in this story. Also, the Phillip Spaulding that returns in this story is still bat-shit crazy and evil. Graphic depictions of love between two consenting adult women are contained within, obviously, but not for a while.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I tried to remain as close to character as humanly possible but as I have only seen YouTube clips of Otalia and no full episodes, I cannot guarantee the results. Style Note: As some of you have noticed, I am switching POVs for every chapter. Natalia, Olivia and Emma will tell their stories in their own words, first-person present tense. Any other exposition needed will happen in third-person past-tense. This will cover the urgency I need and will also allow for omniscience for exposition with multiple characters. I am very interested in knowing whether this style works how I have intended it, so let me know.
THANK YOU: To Meghan and Destini for beta-ing this story. To Tiff, for helping me figure out the stubborn spots in the plot with such brilliant ideas, and to DJShiva for your enthusiasm and comments.
WARNING: Chapter 10 contains descriptions of violence against a child. If you are a survivor of abuse and avoid descriptions of it in fanfiction, please do not read chapter 10.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Hide Beside Me
Throughout his life, Phillip Spaulding had rarely met a barrier that he couldn't eradicate. From prep school clashes with fellow students (and sometimes administrators) all the way to his recent brush with madness, Phillip had risen above whatever barriers stood between him and his ultimate goal. When he wasn't bulldozing through them. Therefore he gazed on the two strips of Do Not Cross tape affixed to the side door of Natalia Rivera's home with something akin to mild amusement. They fluttered to the ground with one precise swipe and he stepped over them as he entered the home, his conscience unsullied by guilt, or indeed any thought that he might be engaging in criminal activity.
He knew when he arrived that there was no one home. The house was a dark hulk in a snow-covered field, lit by the occasional weak ray of cold light as the moon struggled to illuminate the night through a milky cloud cover. It was sad-looking, really. He judged by its bones that it was a good, strong house. It had a striking, traditional profile that no doubt blossomed into full-fledged Norman Rockwell homeyness when the household's lights were lit. The very idea that Olivia Spencer lived here willingly.... It did not bear speculation. He would have to see for himself.
A strong smell of bleach assaulted his nostrils as he entered the kitchen. He flipped the light switch, shielding his eyes briefly against the golden light that blazed forth. He wasn't worried about the neighbors. If they came to investigate, he would explain that he was looking for his daughter. Parental concern would garner him more compassion than distrust out here, he assumed. Not that it wasn't true. Finding Emma was his primary goal at the moment. Almost everything else he had planned for Springfield hinged upon his daughter's disposition. He would have his revenge.
The kitchen was very green, he decided, disliking it immediately...and immensely. Green was not one of his favorite colors. Upon further examination, however, he saw that it was well-appointed, if a little eclectic. A stainless steel double chef's sink, a six-burner gas stove, a stainless steel Sub Zero refrigerator, and a Burberry Roman shade competed with the kitsch of an entire set of floral and evergreen dish ware, displayed ostentatiously around the room, with numerous Catholic icons and crosses littering every available surface, and a dining set that could have easily been used by the Walton family of television fame. The decorative bowl of pine cones on the counter by the sink was something Phillip didn't think should be discussed in polite company, let alone embraced as a decorative piece. But the whole...worked. Not for him, of course, but he could see Olivia in the room easily. What wasn't Olivia's contribution had to be Ms. Rivera's.
She was an unsophisticated decorator to be sure, but he would be damned if he would dismiss her based on that alone. He was afraid he had already underestimated her once; he would not do it again.
He left the kitchen and entered the living room. It was depressingly more of the same. A smattering of good pieces interspersed with homey kitsch and Catholic relics. In another lifetime, he might have found the home to be comforting. Now, he found it to be a puzzle to be solved. Nothing more, nothing less.
He scaled the first flight of stairs and opened the door at the top of them, his resulting smile brief and as close to warm as a smile of his ever got. He'd found his daughter's room. True, it was a stereotypical ode to the colors pink and purple but that didn't matter to him. What mattered was that he felt closer to her already. He could feel her energy in this room, her sweetness, her potential. It was as if Lizzie had come back to him, in a way. It was as if he could start over with her through Emma, could regain what he'd lost through the manipulations and toxicity of this Hell on Earth. She was the key. He and Emma would exact his revenge upon the depraved wreck that was Springfield. He and Emma would bring them all to their knees.
He just had to find her first.
He looked around her abandoned room one last time, his heart swelling with paternal pride. "I will find you, Emma, sweetheart," he said aloud, touching the face of a doll that lay propped against one of her pillows. "Don't worry. Daddy's coming."
He stood for a moment longer then shut the door quietly behind him, almost reverently. He opened the next door along the corridor and grimaced. Olivia's room...in all its "finery." It was a pigsty, and Phillip breathed a sigh of relief. This was the Olivia Spencer he remembered. Passionate, volatile, but most of all, disorganized. Someone prone to making mistakes. Someone that--when left to her own devices--would self-destruct long before she achieved her goal. This was largely the reason she was unfit to be a parent, especially to Emma. The joint custody arrangement he'd agreed to in the divorce was a mistake, obviously. He should have destroyed her then and there. He'd had the ammunition at the time. It was a testament to how low the madness had brought him that he'd had the means to annihilate Olivia and yet chose not to do so. He would not make that mistake twice, either.
However, he reluctantly had to admit he did not completely know the Olivia Spencer that resided here. Rick had insisted she'd changed. He hadn't believed him at the time--such words were often wishful thinking--but something allowed Olivia Spencer, bloodsucking opportunist that she was, to live here, in a farmhouse of all places. It certainly wasn't Ms. Rivera's financial prowess, he knew. Perhaps it was a dependency borne of unusual connection: the problem of Gus Aitoro's heart. Whatever it was, it was a variable he had to pin down and he knew he wouldn't be able to find the answer in this catastrophe of a room.
He shut her door and ascended the last flight of stairs.
The first doorway on that hallway opened into a minimally furnished and rather blank guest bedroom. The second opened into the guest bath, which felt unfinished, too, somehow. The third opened to reveal the master suite and Phillip grimaced again, but this time for an entirely different reason. Unsophisticated, it turned out, didn't even begin to describe Natalia Rivera's decorating style. Other words came to mind now that he saw how this palatial--almost regal--suite was underused and under-appreciated by the simple woman. Plebeian, bucolic, artless...all these words and more flooded his mind upon seeing a bed the size of a postage stamp haphazardly pushed against any old wall, upon seeing the rustic and mismatched furniture and the jarring colors of the country quilts--the only color in the room. It was nothing short of painful to see such a beautiful suite wasted in such a way.
The cross over the bed alone...well, it was too horrible to contemplate. He would have turned on his heel and fled had it not been for the three photographs lined up on an ill-appointed bedside table.
He walked toward them, curious to see who Ms. Rivera would keep enshrined in such a way. The table held only the three photographs, nothing else.
The first was of Natalia Rivera as a younger woman...with sad eyes and the hands of someone who had seen more than her fair share of manual labor. Beside her sat a laughing child, no more than ten. A son, perhaps? He filed the supposition away for later contemplation.
The second photograph was of Gus Aitoro, though in it he was no more than a teenager. It smacked of a relic from a past life, something like Natalia's crosses and her Virgin Mary statues. Symbolic, representative, well-worn. But rote.
When he lifted the third photograph from the desk, his eyes fell first on the little girl in the center. Emma. He felt that wash of paternal pride again, seeing her strong features; her clear, intelligent eyes; her hair, the color of his own. This would be his heir. This would be the only one of his children to inherit his fortunes, his plans, and his vision. The others, they were lost to him now. Too old or too far away or too poisoned against him to even begin to understand what potential they had once had, or how it had been squandered.
Not so for his youngest child. The one upon whom all his hopes rested.
He ran a thumb over Emma's features and then let his eyes take in the rest of the photograph. Natalia Rivera stood on Emma's right with her arm around his daughter. The two of them were looking straight ahead at the photographer, laughing, perhaps at something he or she had said. Olivia, to Emma's left, was not looking at the photographer at all. She was, in fact, looking at Natalia Rivera and the look on her face told Phillip Spaulding everything he needed to know about why Olivia Spencer suffered to live in a farmhouse on the edge of town rather than in her high-end uptown hotel.
Olivia Spencer was in love with the plucky young widow with the big brown eyes.
It was written all over her face.
Phillip weighed the revelation for a moment. Most men, he knew, would find the possibility titillating. He did not. He studied the idea with an almost clinical detachment, sensing in it its potential as a fulcrum upon which to rest the lever of his will. It was...an unexpected turn of events, to be sure, but not unheard of. And certainly not out of character for Olivia, who had always been an untamed spirit.
It was out of character for the younger woman, though, he suspected, and he wondered if Olivia had been requited yet.
Whether she had or she hadn't been, one thing was abundantly clear: Phillip Spaulding had just discovered a chink in Olivia Spencer's armor.
And he meant to exploit it.
SPRINGFIELD POLICE DEPARTMENT
"Nothing? Nothing at all?" Frank Cooper pushed passed Mallet to reach his phone, which was ringing off the hook. "Cooper," he barked into the receiver. He held up a hand as he listened to the caller, his face falling after a few seconds. "No, Dad, we haven't heard anything here either.... Yeah, I'll let you know.... I know, Dad. Later." He dropped the phone back into its cradle and returned his attention to Mallet.
"Do you have anything?" he asked the junior officer plaintively.
Mallet shook his head. "Sorry, Frank. I checked with all the wrecker companies, with EMT services, I even called both morgues--"
"Morgues??" Frank's eyes nearly popped out of his head.
"It's SOP, Frank. I didn't find her." The taller man sighed, his frustration beginning to show around the edges. "It's as if she just disappeared."
"People don't 'just disappear,' Mal," Frank replied angrily. "They don't just leave their cell phones on their kitchen tables, pack their cars, and run off to--to--who knows where! It just isn't right!"
The younger cop eyed his superior thoughtfully. "Is that what you found at the farmhouse? You think she--what? Left town?"
As much as he hated to admit it, Frank Cooper had no choice. "I think Natalia went after Olivia and Emma. I think they're on the run." He sank into his chair and stared straight ahead blankly, wondering why the woman he loved hadn't at least confided in him. If she'd only come to him first, he could have made her see reason, he could have stopped her. He carefully avoided the tiny voice in his head that suggested that was exactly why she hadn't come to him.
Mallet's eyes narrowed. "Because Phillip's back," he said...and it wasn't a question. Phillip's return had upset a number of his ex-wives and Mallet was sure that their primary concern was the safety of their children. It didn't surprise him that, of all of them, Olivia had reacted decisively and immediately. Beth might be feeling insulated from Phillip's return, what with Lizzie an adult now and with James off at prep school. Plus she had always been the one loved Phillip, no matter what. Believing in him, rescuing him...even defending him when no one else could or would.
Harley, living in Greece, was about as removed from the situation as she could be and still be on the same planet.
Only Olivia, mother to Phillip's youngest child, might actually have a reason to worry. Phillip's rationalization--if you could call it that--for the kidnapping of his children in 2004 had been that he was saving them from the poison of Springfield and its inhabitants. If that was still his goal now, Emma alone still resided in town as a dependent child. She alone could "benefit" from Phillip's intervention in her life.
Mallet thought if Emma were his, he might have left town with her, too.
"So what do you want to do, Frank?" he asked. If Olivia and Natalia had fled Springfield with Emma, so what? That wasn't against the law. Olivia was Emma's biological mother and had custody, didn't she? She could take Emma to the moon if she wanted to, as far as the law was concerned.
Frank didn't answer right away. In fact, he didn't answer for so long that Mallet wondered if he'd heard him. He was about to repeat himself when Frank finally looked up at him. There was something almost feverish in the detective's eyes.
"Expand the APB on Natalia's car," he said, his voice hard. "Make it national."
"Frank, if Natalia's with Olivia and Emma, they haven't done anything wr--"
"Just do it!" He exploded out of his chair and again pushed past Mallet, exiting his office only to run into Phillip Spaulding in the main squad room. Mallet followed.
"Frank Cooper. Just the man I was looking for," said Phillip mildly. He ignored the junior officer who seemed engrossed in one of the computers at the desk.
"I would have thought you'd want to steer clear of here, Phillip," said Frank, sneering slightly. "Having second thoughts about wasting taxpayer money with a trial? Come to confess?"
Part of him wished it would be that easy to put Phillip Spaulding in jail. A larger part of him salivated at the thought of watching Springfield's Golden Boy being ripped apart in open court. The long feud between the Spauldings and the Coopers aside, Frank simply didn't like the man. Convicting him of the kidnappings and locking him up would go a long way toward wiping Phillip's face of his smug superiority, and Frank couldn't see a downside to that.
"I'd like to know where my ex-wife and my daughter are, Detective. I decided to follow official protocol in the matter...even though I have serious doubts about the competence of Springfield's finest." His condescending grin was glacial.
"Why is it any of your business where Olivia and Emma might be?" countered Frank. "Waiting for your chance to kidnap Emma again, are you?"
"I haven't been convicted of that incident--"
"You will be. Trust me on that!"
Phillip sighed. "Be that as it may, I haven't yet been convicted. In fact, a trial date has not even been set. I am innocent until proven guilty, am I not? Legally speaking?"
"You're not innocent, Phillip. You were probably born scheming for something," spat Frank. But reluctantly he agreed with the man. "Legally speaking, though, yeah. You're innocent until proven guilty. So what?"
"It means I have every right to know the whereabouts of my child, Detective. I have come here seeking your assistance with that."
Frank had the sudden sinking feeling that he'd just walked blindly onto thin ice. He could almost hear it cracking and the pit of his stomach hunched back into his spine as if hiding from a predator.
"Olivia has custody of Emma," he said slowly. "She's under no obligation--"
"We, in fact, share custody of Emma," corrected Phillip. "An agreement we made during the divorce...which I now regret, of course."
Frank's face fell. "But when you died, custody went to Olivia," he ventured uncertainly.
"Do I look dead to you, Detective? Because really, I feel fine." There was no ire in Phillip's voice, no accusation, no incredulous anger. In fact, he seemed unhurried, unruffled. Unnaturally so.
Mallet looked up from what he was doing. He had a really bad feeling about where this might be going. Especially considering the emailed report currently displayed on his monitor.
Frank shook his head at Phillip. "That custody agreement had to have been violated when you faked your death," he said sharply. "It constitutes abandonment or--"
"I did no such thing. My father arranged for my 'death' and then kept me prisoner in a warehouse where I received inadequate mental health care until I finally escaped. Since there was no intent on my part, there was no abandonment. I could bring my lawyers down here to explain it to you, if you'd like. No? Then I would be much obliged if you would tell me where my ex-wife and my daughter are. I would like to bring my daughter home. She needs to be with her father."
Frank ran his hand over the back of his neck. "We...don't know where they are." Why did those words feel like the hardest words he would say all day?
"Then you admit you are looking for them." Phillip's eyes turned hawkish but his voice remained even.
"No. No, not...really. I-- We-- Well, Natalia might be with them and I...just wanted to make sure she was safe. She...didn't tell me she was...leaving."
Phillip gave Frank Cooper a long, appraising look. Could it be? Was there an honest-to-God love triangle here with Natalia Rivera as the prize? This just got better and better.
"I see. And have you found Ms. Rivera?"
Mallet pulled a copy of the email he'd received off the printer and handed it to Frank, keeping one eye on Phillip Spaulding. He knew they'd have to disclose this information but he wanted Frank to do it from a position of relative strength rather than because he'd been backed into a corner. That corner seemed to be getting closer.
Frank looked down at the report. It was a routine notification from Overland Park, Kansas reporting that an abandoned car registered to Olivia Spencer of Springfield, Ohio, had been impounded and would be held for sixty days, at which time legal proceedings would begin to transfer ownership to the city of Overland Park so that the car could be liquidated at auction.
Fucking hell, thought Frank. He had a good idea what this meant. He had a feeling he'd known this all along. This was just a confirmation of his fears. One he couldn't really ignore. He shared a look with Mallet and the younger man shrugged almost imperceptibly, as if to say This ball's in your court. Sorry.
No matter how he looked at it--whether he told Phillip or not--he was screwed. He decided he'd rather be screwed for doing the right thing rather than the wrong thing. He just couldn't figure out which was which at the moment.
"Yes, Detective?" prompted Phillip, sensing that the younger Cooper man was struggling. "Does that--" He indicated the piece of paper in Frank's hand. "--pertain to our conversation?"
Frank made a disgusted sound and shoved the report at Phillip, who read it twice before smoothing the creases it had received during its rough treatment and handing it back.
"In that case, Detective Cooper," he said softly, "I'd like you to issue a national Amber Alert for Emma. Today."
Mallet had to hand it to Phillip Spaulding. He might be bat-shit crazy, but he was bat-shit crazy like a fox.
Frank opened his mouth, closed it, then took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I must have misheard you. I thought you just asked me to issue a national Amber Alert on Emma."
"I did." Phillip's inscrutable eyes did not leave Frank's.
"Are you kidding me?" The police detective leaned heavily on the counter separating him from the younger Spaulding man. He viciously fought the urge to reach across it and strangle the man on the spot.
"No. I want every effort made to return my daughter to me. That report says that Olivia's car has been found--abandoned--in Kansas. We don't know what's happened. It's possible that Olivia and her 'friend'--" He said the word friend with open scorn. "--have Emma and are intending to keep her from me. At the least, that is custodial interference and since they've crossed state lines--many of them, in fact--that calls for a national Amber Alert. It's also possible that something has befallen Olivia and Emma, something terrible over which they had no control. In which case, an Amber Alert is utterly required." Phillip pinned Frank with an openly hostile glare, the first since he'd entered the building.
"Because they've crossed state lines, I could call in the FBI," he said, his voice deceptively serene. His eyes were anything but. They blazed with fury. "Do I believe that Olivia has kidnapped Emma in order to deliberately cause her harm? No, of course not. She mistakenly believes she is 'saving' Emma...from me. But the FBI will not care what I think. They have procedures, protocols. Olivia and possibly Ms. Rivera will be branded kidnappers. When the FBI apprehends them--and they will--they will charge both of them with a felony, a federal crime. They will be tried in federal court and--whether they are convicted or not--their lives will be ruined. However, if you issue an Amber Alert and if we arrange a...televised plea of some sort, a request for contact, I feel confident that Olivia or Ms. Rivera or both will turn themselves in without us having to involve the FBI. I will have my daughter back, safe and sound, and perhaps then I will not be so inclined to press charges. Against either woman."
"You bastard!" Mallet just managed to grab Frank before he launched himself over the counter.
"Frank!" he said, pulling the detective away from Phillip. The blond man hadn't even flinched. In fact, he looked rather...disappointed by the interruption. "Frank, don't! It's what he wants. He wants you unbalanced. He wants you to hit him and he wants you to do it in front of witnesses. You said it yourself--he was born scheming. Don't let him buy an acquittal on your back, okay?"
Phillip raised an eyebrow at the exchange, mentally chastising himself. It appeared he was slipping. This is the second time I've underestimated someone who seemed unassuming. It will also be the last.
Frank pushed Mallet off of him but made no further move toward Phillip. Instead he straightened his shirt and tie. He looked straight at the younger Spaulding, his eyes burning with hatred.
"Mallet, issue the Amber Alert," he ground out. "And then meet Mr. Spaulding and me at the television station. We're probably going to need backup."
"Backup? Why?" asked Mallet, momentarily confused.
"I have one word for you: Dinah."
Mallet's eyebrows shot up, a little surprised. But after he'd thought about it for a minute, he realized Frank was right. His ex-wife was a bit on the unpredictable side.
He wondered if he would be overdressed if he wore Kevlar.
WSPR TELEVISION STATION
Dinah Marler sat at one of the unused console desks on the news set, going over programming schedules. She could have just as easily done this task in her office, but her office was quiet. Private. Dull.
She preferred the hustle of the studio, the constant burr of conversation underscored by a low electronic hum, the kinetic sense that something was just about to happen, that something tangible was being created all around her. It made the drudgery of programming schedules or budget cuts bearable somehow. Plus it made her accessible to her staff and kept her in the know about the more subtle goings-on in their lives. In fact, she sometimes knew more about her staff than the staff itself seemed to know, and therefore personnel problems hardly ever blindsided her. It was a win-win situation.
Dinah Marler was many things. Stupid was not one of them.
So when she glanced up from her spreadsheet to see Frank Cooper and Phillip Spaulding enter the studio together, heading for her office, she narrowed her eyes and had a single thought.
Aloud, she merely said, "Ashlee, do we have any strychnine in the building?"
The earnestly efficient production intern looked up from her laptop, which she had perched on a dais nearby. She liked to be immediately available to Dinah as much as possible, so when Dinah worked on the floor, so did Ashlee. Simple as that.
"Strychnine?" she asked. "Isn't that...a poison?"
"Rat poison," agreed Dinah, her eyes tracking the approach of Frank and Phillip as they left the area of her empty office. Someone must have told them where she was. Double fuck. "Do we have any?"
"Why?" Ashlee was facing Dinah and did not see the men approaching. Her confused look would have been more entertaining to the station owner under different circumstances.
"Because it looks like we're about to have a rat problem," said Dinah warily.
"Dinah, we need to talk," barked Frank Cooper, startling Ashlee as he and Phillip came to a stop at the edge of the desk.
"I knew it; you're breaking up with me," deadpanned the aggrieved station owner. "How ever will I go on?"
Frank cocked his head to the side and glared at the woman. He was in no mood for Dinah's usual antics.
"I need a favor," he said, trying again, his voice lower but no less tense.
"A favor," she repeated. "And you brought tall, blond, and crazy with you to...what? Intimidate me?"
"The favor concerns me," said Phillip, his voice only slightly exasperated. "In a way," he amended, realizing that that assertion might not get him anywhere with his acerbic cousin.
"Let me guess. You're looking for the next hit reality series. Phillip and his ex-wives on prime time, squabbling over the kids, the money, the psych meds, the faked death. Nice. Has potential. I pass. Talk to Fox." She went back to her spreadsheet. Ashlee snickered quietly.
"We're issuing an Amber Alert on Emma."
That did the trick. Ashlee's chuckles stopped abruptly and Dinah slowly looked up from her problem weekend schedule, her eyes flashing with barely concealed shock backed by a healthy dose of indignation.
"The crazy is contagious then?" she asked, her voice lower, deadlier. "Because really, what the hell are you talking about, Frank?"
Frank sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "Olivia and Emma left over a week ago for a weekend ski trip up at the lake. They haven't returned. Now Natalia is gone, too. No one's seen her in a couple of days and the farmhouse is all locked up. I got a report a little while ago from a town in Kansas, saying they'd impounded an abandoned car. It's Olivia's. It looks like...it looks like Olivia and Emma are on the run."
"And I would like my daughter back," added Phillip unnecessarily.
Dinah looked from Frank to Phillip and back, completely unable to fathom what had brought the two of them together on this, as unlikely and unattractive a team there ever was. Then she remembered. Natalia. The sugary-sweet widow of Gus Aitoro who was Olivia's personal assistant and Springfield's resident Catholic saint. She thought she also remembered that Frank and Natalia were dating. Sorta.
Everything suddenly became very clear to Dinah. She didn't like it one bit. She pinned Frank with a look that would have chilled most people to the core.
"You're working with him--" she said, pointing to Phillip, "--because you want St. Theresa of the Ducks back? Seriously?"
"Frank's motives for assisting me are immaterial, Dinah," countered Phillip. "He's doing his job. Now we would like you to do yours."
"And what job is that exactly, Phillip? Because I'm pretty sure once that Amber Alert hits the airwaves, you'll be the lead story at six and eleven without any help from me. Hell, they might even break in with a 'special news bulletin!'"
"We want you to do a... We want you to talk to Olivia directly in a thirty second spot. Convince her to turn herself in. She'll listen to you. And we'll...listen to her. We'll tap the 800 line, try to trace the call." Frank's plea was earnest, sincere, and--to Dinah--fucking unbelievable.
Dinah blinked twice then laughed. "You want me to--" She couldn't finish for the laughter. She actually sounded almost manic. Ashlee watched worriedly. Then Dinah cut it off, like turning off a faucet. "Yeah, no. I'm done. Have a nice day, really, but have it somewhere else." In the distance, she saw someone else enter the studio, groaning when she recognized her ex-husband. Mallet looked off towards where her office was located then turned and headed in their direction. Dinah was oddly pleased that he still knew her that well.
"Dinah," he greeted, nodding as he came to a stop on the periphery of the group.
"Ex-husband," she replied, nodding back at him. "Can you get these two jackasses off my front lawn?" she asked, indicating Frank and Phillip. "I've had enough of their hee-hawing."
"You have to do it, Di," Mallet said softly. "Do the spot. Help us help them. No one wants the alternative."
Dinah froze. Something in Mallet's voice frightened her more than anything Frank or Phillip had said so far. "What's the alternative?" she asked cautiously. Her bravado was gone but she'd be damned if she let Phillip see that.
"The FBI. Felony kidnapping charges. Ruined lives." His eyes slid to the side, glancing at Phillip for just a second, but Dinah knew her ex well enough to see the gesture for what it was: an accusation. "Let's salvage what we can from this, okay?"
Dinah looked at Mallet for a long moment until she finally nodded a short, business-like nod.
"Ashlee, set up a camera here. We'll use this set. And get me Pete. Just Pete, no other cameraman. Got it?"
The younger woman nodded. "Got it," she said, her eyes wide as dinner plates.
"And not a word to anyone, Ashlee. I mean it. If this becomes a circus, I'll make you the clown. And you know how much I hate clowns."
"Lips sealed, check. Anything else?"
Dinah looked to Frank. "I assume the SPD will be setting up the phone line and the wire tap, yes?" When he nodded, she waved her hand dismissively. "Then you'd better get them here, Frank. And Ashlee, this set is off limits until I say otherwise." She rubbed her forehead briefly with one hand, sighing deeply.
Oh, Ollie, she thought sadly. What have you done now, you big lunkhead?
Everyone was still milling around in front of her when she looked up and her melancholy worry for Olivia ignited in her gut, becoming wrath. "Did I stutter? Now! I want this over with before I decide to go through with the machete fantasy playing in my head! Move!"
Actually, they scattered like cockroaches under a bright light, Ashlee moving faster than all the rest.
She knew where Dinah kept the machete.
INTERSTATE 70 WEST SOMEWHERE EAST OF CAMEO, CO
The snow came out of nowhere only ten miles ago and it seems to be following--no, chasing us--down the interstate. I'm concentrating so hard on the road and the thwupthwup of the windshield wipers, a migraine is starting over my left eye. You are not helping.
"Natalia, just-- You can slow down, you know." You're gripping the dashboard in abject terror, your knuckles white. "I mean, I'm in no hurry to drive through the guard rail into a flooding river. Are you?" Your nervous laughter grates on my last nerve. I can't answer you because I'm too busy clenching my teeth against the words I want to say. They're not nice.
We're already crawling down this dark, slick, twisted mountain road at 22 miles per hour! What more do you want from me? I haven't taken my foot off the brake for a split second in the last six miles!
"No, seriously, Natalia--do you want me to drive? Because I will. I...I'd really rather not have us go all to pieces, ya know? Frozen, broken, bloody--"
"Okay, Olivia? You can just--" Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP! I scream in my head. The migraine instantly gets worse and I catch myself before I close my eyes against the pain. Bad idea. Very, very bad. "--just be quiet. I'm doing the best I can." I glance at the GPS mounted over the radio. "We've only got eight or nine more miles before we get to the hotel. We'll make it. I promise we'll make it. Without your expertise behind the wheel. And without driving the van into the river. Okay? Can you just relax for fifteen more minutes? Can you? Because up until now, you've been as silent as a stone. I'm starting to think I liked it better that way."
My voice is short, sharp, and tight and I see it cut you. Your hurt feelings bleed into your eyes, dark jade green in the dim light of the dash. Then your mouth twists into a condescending scowl.
Here it comes, I think, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. That would only make it worse. Because I've seen that look before. You're about to let me have it.
"Fine," you snarl, baring your teeth at me in a sneer. "You want to kill us all, be my guest! So what if they never find our bodies? So what if we drown at the bottom of some God-forsaken ravine? As long as you get to be right, right? As long as you--"
"Oh, stop it! Stop it, Olivia!" I risk prying the fingers of my right hand off the steering wheel for two seconds so I can punctuate my words with a gesture. "Just don't. In case you haven't noticed, I'm trying to drive--"
"Doin' a great job, too!"
I ignore you. "--to drive down this twisty, crazy, icy road. In the dark. In a snowstorm! I really don't have time for your asinine drama queen histrionics right now!"
I'm just about to say something brilliant like 'You heard me!' when Emma bursts into tears in the backseat and everything else flies right out of my head. The snow, my migraine, the hurt in your eyes...everything. You must be having the same reaction, because you're turning to your daughter even as I look desperately for a place to stop along the road. There's no shoulder--just a rusty, ridiculous guard rail standing between us and a ribbon of deep, dark water--but there's a snow-spotted median separating the westbound and eastbound traffic. Not that there's much of either at the moment. I slap the hazards on and pull onto the rocky strip of earth. I've barely put the van into park before I'm out of my seatbelt and my seat, climbing in the back to gather Emma into my arms. I'm a second ahead of you and I feel your arms wrap around us both.
She sobs--heartbroken, shuddering sobs--and begs us to stop fighting. I don't know about you but I feel like the biggest...the biggest heel on the planet right now. I forgot she was there! I was so...so tangled up in the weather and the driving and the argument with you that I forgot Emma was in the car. God, I feel like the worst mother alive.
We talk over each other trying to soothe her. "Shhh.... Sweetie, Emma...." "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! Sweetie, it's okay--" "We'll stop. We've stopped. Emma? Please, baby...." "We didn't mean it! We're just tired and--and being silly. Please, Emma. It's okay. I promise, it's okay."
Eventually she quiets a little, her breath coming in short gasps, her face glistening with tears. The blinking amber hazard lights on the dash give her tears a golden hue and I cup her face in my gloved hands and wipe them away as best I can. You're searching the pockets of your coat for a Kleenex or something for her to blow her nose into. I can see the silver tracks of your own silent tears before you surreptitiously wipe them away. I've just gone from feeling like a heel to feeling like a Class-A jerk in a single heartbeat.
"Why do you fight like that?" asks Emma piteously, between gulps of air. Okay, scratch jerk. I'm an ass.
"Oh Emma," I sigh sadly. "I'm sorry. So, so sorry. It was my fault--" You're shaking your head and getting ready to argue with me again--I can tell--but I hold up a hand to stop you. "I was...I was frustrated and scared because of the snow and because the road was steep and tricky to drive and--" And your Mommy hasn't spoken a single word to me since we got in this stupid van this morning and I don't know why! I want to know why! "--and I took it out on your Mommy. I shouldn't have. It was wrong--"
"Natalia, no," you interrupt me, unable to keep quiet any longer. "It was my fault! I was...." You swallow reflexively and I see the pallor of your face as if for the first time. "I'm not...good with these steep, twisty--with the river right there!--and I was...scared. Terrified, really. And when I get like that, I go a little--okay, a lot crazy. I should have kept my mouth shut. I don't have...have any idea what I was thinking--"
Just as I'm about to tell you it's all my fault again, there's a knock on the drivers' side door. We both freeze, looking at each other like deer caught in the headlights. I don't know what to do. Who could it be?
There's another knock and a deep, male voice calls "Colorado State Police! Are you okay in there?"
You look at me helplessly and I realize that this is something I will have to deal with myself. However unprepared I am for that at the moment. I climb back up into my seat and roll the window down. The snow is still coming down heavily and the officer outside is wearing one of those official police issue ponchos that I have always thought were so funny. I don't know why, but the ponchos and the wide brimmed trooper hats together always make me think of ducks.
"We're fine, Officer," I say, smiling. "We...um...pulled over because of the snow. We just wanted to give it a minute to let up. We don't know the area very well and...and it was coming down pretty hard."
The officer glances at me and then into the back seat. He shines his flashlight right into Emma's eyes and she whimpers a little. "Sorry," he says brusquely, but his eyes are kind, worried. He points the flashlight back at the ground outside. "Where are you headed?" he asks me.
"Grand Junction," I reply. "We're stopping there for the night. We're on our way to the Grand Canyon." The snow hitting his poncho makes a hissing sound that's almost comforting. I shield my eyes from a pair of approaching headlights.
He nods once. "Well, you're almost there. Just a couple of miles down the road here. This snow should start to let up a bit in a few minutes but I wouldn't stay parked here too long if I were you. These medians can get pretty boggy with mud. Wouldn't want you stuck here for the night."
"Oh.... Thank you, Officer. I never thought--" He holds up a gloved hand and I fall silent. He's frowning a little and suddenly I'm worried that he's going to ask for my driver's license and the registration for the van. I have both but I don't really want to risk giving them to him. I'll have to give him the real ones and then there will be a police report on file. Frank could find something like that easily. And Phillip, too, probably. Our plan's success depends on flying as low under the radar as possible. Attracting the attention of state troopers really doesn't qualify.
"Is the little girl okay?" he asks gruffly. I glance back at Emma and smile softly.
"She will be. We're all tired--a long day in the car and now the snow-- Her mother and I were arguing. We upset her...a little bit." Okay, a lot. I'll make it up to her. I will.
He issues me an official state trooper half-grin. "I have two of my own," he says mildly. "Makes you wish you could just drug 'em for the long trips, doesn't it?"
I laugh weakly and glance back at you, only to see you covering your eyes with your hand. Before I can mumble a reply, the trooper tips his hat at me. "You three be careful, okay? Have a safe trip."
I thank him again and roll up the window, watching him in the side mirror as he returns to his cruiser. He turns his turn signal on and pulls back onto the road, heading east away from Grand Junction now. When his brake lights disappear finally, I let out the breath I've been holding.
"Close," you finish for me and your eyes are wide and gray in the dim light.
I look at you and realize we're both a little rattled. I should get us to the hotel, get us out of the snow and warmed up. And...and I think we all need a little TLC after...all this. I have an idea about how to make that happen and a slow smile spreads across my face. But first things first.
"Emma?" I ask, turning to your little girl. Her tears are all dried up but she still isn't smiling. She looks a little...thoughtful. Uh oh.
"Yeah?" she asks as you climb back into the passenger seat. I hear the sturdy click of your seatbelt and it makes me smile a little. You used to be hit or miss with seatbelts until I lectured you for five minutes one very cold winter morning. With the heat off. Now it's become a habit, you buckling up every time you're in the car. It shouldn't please me as much as it does. It really shouldn't.
"I want you to know how sorry I am about the...the argument and making you cry. I didn't mean--"
"I know, Natalia," she says softly. "It's okay. But...." She chews her lip, just like you do when you're wondering if you should say something or not. As if the chewing can somehow hold back the words.
"Well, since you were fighting with Mommy, shouldn't you...shouldn't you say sorry to her, too?" Her eyes are worried but they're also confident. She knows she's right.
'And a little child shall lead them,' I think. I glance upward. Thank You for reminding me.
I look at you and you have the same look on your face that I do, I bet. Chagrined doesn't even begin to cover it.
"It's okay," you whisper, averting your eyes. "You don't have to--"
I put my hand on your arm. "I want to, Olivia," I say sincerely. "I should be apologizing to you. She's right; apologizing to her is too easy."
"'Right....'" You chuckle morosely. "I wonder where she gets that from. It's certainly not from me."
I shake my head at you. "That's just not true, Olivia. You're a wonderful mother. I've been meaning to...to tell you that for a...while. I'm sorry that I didn't. I'm sorry, too, for taking my frustration with--" I gesture out at the snow and the night and this whole frightening place we're in right now. "--all this out on you." I glance at you, then look at my hand on your arm. I suddenly feel a little...lightheaded. "Forgive me?"
You look sideways at me, grinning that crooked, mischievous grin that I love.
"Only if you forgive me first."
I laugh. "Deal," I agree. "After all, you were being kind of a--"
"Eh!" you say, holding up a finger in a very familiar way. "Language!"
I narrow my eyes. You know very well I was going to say "a pain." So I decide I'll change it to something else. See how you like this!
"--a poopyhead," I amend pointedly. You and Emma both burst into laughter and my heart stops. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard and I wish I could hear it every day. Every single day.
"Well, this 'poopyhead' would like to get back on the road, if that's okay. She's freezing her pooper off!"
Emma squeals with glee and suddenly I regret starting this. "Olivia!" I scold, turning on the van. I turn off the hazards and flip the right turn signal on. I wonder briefly who I'm signaling to since not a single car has passed us--in either direction--since the trooper left.
"What?" you ask, all innocence. I smirk at you.
"Can I use that word?" asks Emma excitedly.
Our answer is emphatic, unanimous, and simultaneous. "No!" we say--then look at each other, half shocked and half amused.
"Awww!" Her disappointment makes her scowl. I see her in the rear view mirror and almost laugh out loud. She looks just like you when she does that. She's adorable.
You cover your eyes with one gloved hand as I ease the van back onto the road. "Yeah, that wasn't well thought out on my part, was it?"
"Not so much, no," I tell you, grinning at you. "But I've learned to expect that from you."
Your outraged look makes me laugh. "That was fast! What happened to me being 'a wonderful mother?'"
"Oh, you still are," I assure you. "You just have a big mouth."
"Could be worse!" you counter. "I could have your nose!"
"Ah!" I exclaim, covering my nose with a gloved hand. "What's wrong with my nose?"
You laugh helplessly. "I just have one question: when you stop to smell the roses, are they afraid?"
"Oh, you--you--poopyhead!" I swat your arm indignantly.
"Wait--isn't this where I came in?" you ask, your eyes twinkling. We continue the banter the entire way to the hotel and it isn't until I've parked and gone inside to get us a room--you've corralled a bellboy to help you with Emma and the bags--that I realize you probably did all that on purpose, to make the last nine miles fun for me rather than harrowing. You put aside your own fear and made me laugh just so we could all get here in one piece...happily. Suddenly I'm reminded of those too brief moments this morning, wrapped in your arms, feeling safe for the first time in a long, long time.
I glance at you standing in the front door of the hotel, directing the pimply boy with the gold name tag how to stack our bags on the cart. You're holding the duffel bag in one hand and Emma's hand in the other and I want nothing more than to wake up feeling safe again, feeling protected. I turn back to the pretty redhead behind the desk, chewing my upper lip.
This is wrong, what I'm thinking. Isn't it? I shouldn't want this as much as I do. But....
Before I know exactly what I'm doing, I ask, "I'm sorry, but can you change that room to a king suite?"
She stops typing and looks up at me, confused. "Sure," she says. "Will you need a roll-away bed or--"
"No," I say hurriedly, glancing at you over my shoulder again. "No. But I will need some room service. Can I order that now?"
She blinks. "Absolutely, Ms. Santiago. What can I get for you?"
"Three cheeseburgers, one with onions, three fries, three orange sodas, three ice cream sundaes, and a big bowl of popcorn, extra butter. And deliver the ice cream sundaes and the popcorn an hour after the dinner, if that's okay."
The keys rattle under her fingers as she types the order in. "That shouldn't be any problem at all," she assures me. She hands me a little brochure with the hotel's name on the front. "These are your keys," she explains. "Your room is 3115 and the elevators are--"
"Down the hall and to the left," I say, smiling apologetically. "We're on a long trip," I explain. "Lots of hotels."
She smiles but it doesn't quite reach her eyes. My smile slides away.
"All set?" you ask, walking up beside me. I nearly jump.
"Oh...yeah." I feel my face heat under your scrutiny and I almost turn to the girl at the desk again and ask for the other room back, the one with the queen beds. But if I do that, then you'll know what I've done and...and how will I explain it to you?
'Sorry Olivia, but I just wanted to wake up in your arms again. It was a mistake. It won't happen again.'
Yeah, no. First, there is just no way I could ever say that to your face. And secondly, it...it's not a mistake. I...I don't know why or how I know that, but it can't be. It just can't be a mistake to feel warm and safe like that.
We get into the elevator and I glance nervously at you. You're looking down at Emma with a weary smile and I can hardly breathe for the anticipation that I'm feeling right this moment.
The emotion is so strong I lean against the rail on the wall to support myself and I think desperately of stopping the elevator and running back to the desk once more. This is...too much. It gnaws a hollow place in my middle like hunger, but for what? Why do I need this so much? Then you stroke Emma's head and something in that caress is familiar to me.
Comfort.... That's what I want. Comfort.... Like the comfort given to a child...a child who was beaten and afraid....
And there's nothing wrong with that. Not one thing, no matter which way I look at it.
I grin, relief flooding through me.
I'm not going to Hell after all.
QUALITY INN -- GRAND JUNCTION, CO
I'm. In. Hell.
I thought it was bad, spending eleven hours in the car with your scent, my relentless longing, and my colossally evil mood. I thought it was bad, spending eleven hours realizing how close I had come to losing you. If you had woken up, found me wrapped around you--
I can't think about that.
No, I thought it was bad when I turned on the light in our hotel room and went around the dividing wall between the sitting area and the sleeping area--only to discover a single king-sized bed perched in the center of the space like a giant spider.
You nervously told me, in hushed tones, that this was the only room the hotel had left and...something about the snow. I admit I wasn't paying too much attention.
Because--and I think I've covered this--I was in Hell.
But this.... This is so much worse.
You're in your dark green flannel pajamas and the fuzzy purple socks again and I'm in my very respectable raspberry flannels. We're sitting up against the headboard with Emma and a giant bowl of popcorn snuggled between us. And we're watching Mary Poppins.
No, no, wait. It gets worse.
We're watching Mary Poppins and you know all the words to the songs and...you have a beautiful voice. Something I don't think I knew about you. I mean why wouldn't you, what with all the singing you must do in church, but it's...just.... Wow.
Wait. There's more.
We're watching Mary Poppins and you know all the words to the songs and you have a beautiful voice and you're cuddled up along my side with your head resting on my shoulder.
Yeah, kill me now. No, really. Do it now because you're gonna do it anyway, by accident, in just a few seconds when we get to that part in the song--
You can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious backwards.
How many times have you seen this movie anyway??
I sigh heavily and you look up at me with those big, brown eyes and you're so close.... If I had the slightest bit of spine I could just lean a little forward and--
You said something but I don't know what it was. I was too busy kissing you in my head.
"I asked you if you were feeling okay," you repeat in a half whisper. Emma is giggling at the penguins as they dance with Bert. "You look a little...flushed."
Flushed? I think, incredulous. That's not the word I would have used. But then exactly what single word describes the state of being I'm currently in, hmm? That being 'totally in love with my best friend (who doesn't know it and wouldn't want to) while sharing a king-sized bed with her and my kid while also on the run from my crazy ex-husband who may or may not want to repeat his award-winning performance as a kidnapper.'
Oh, I know. SupercalifragilisticexpialiFUCKED.
Say that backwards, little miss perfect!
"I'm fine. It's just a little.... Do you feel warm? I'm warm."
You get this worried look on your face that makes the spot between your eyes crinkle up and then you cup my face in your cool hands, peering at me closely.
"You don't feel like you have a fever," you whisper, your fingertips fluttering around my eyes and along my forehead. "Do you have any other symptoms? Headache? Sore throat? Tummy ache?"
"'Tummy ache?'" I hiss, my voice acidic. "What am I--four?"
Your face crumples, hurt, and your hands drop away from their concerned task. Damn. That came out...all wrong.
I grab one of your hands in mine, entwining our fingers without even thinking about it.
"I'm sorry," I say softly. "I'm sorry. That was.... God, it seems all I do is apologize to you lately."
You squeeze my hand. "It's okay. This...this is all so--"
"Crazy?" I smirk. "Like me.... Yeah, I get it--"
"No! No, that's not what I said." You cup my face in your free hand and I lean into it before I can stop myself, closing my eyes. "You're not crazy, Olivia," you continue quietly, your voice earnest with conviction. "You're...you're wonderful."
My eyes pop open and I'm staring into a sun-washed autumn field for three precious seconds until you blink and the sun goes out.
"Are you cold now? Okay, Olivia, you're officially scaring me!"
I shake my head. "No, no. I'm fine. It was a just a--" It was just a dream dying. "--a chill or something. I'm fi--"
Emma whips her head around and hushes us with a finger to her pursed lips.
"Shh!" she scolds, clearly annoyed. "Some of us are actually trying to WATCH the movie!"
We look back at her, wide-eyed, both of us contrite.
"Sorry," we mumble, soundly put in our places. I don't know about you, but I'm strangely okay about playing second fiddle to Julie Andrews with my kid. It could be so much worse, after all. It could be Paris Hilton or--God forbid--Ann Coulter. Even the thought of that makes me shudder with revulsion.
We settle back to watch the movie again, you reclaiming your perch on my shoulder...except this time you put your arm around me and, if possible, cuddle closer.
I swallow and the sound is deafening to me. I try to focus on the movie. 'Try' being the operative word.
It's the ridiculous laughing scene with Uncle Albert. Great.
Emma starts first. The infernal giggling. Then--and somehow I'm not surprised--you start. And it's just freakin' adorable, the two of you giggling and--and--
Then I start. Me. I don't giggle. I. Never. Giggle.
Oh God, I groan. It is contagious!
My maiden voyage into Giggleland ends abruptly, however, the second you begin to play with my hair.
I think my exact words are "Erk."
You glance at me curiously for a second, then smile. But you don't stop what you're doing. That's the most important thing. You don't stop.
I replay--for the trillionth time--what that woman at the Mount Rushmore gift shop said to me.
"She adores you--that much is obvious."
I don't believe it, of course, but oh.... If you did....
We sit like that, you cuddled up next to me, playing with my hair, Emma snuggled between us, until you realize during the George-Banks-Goes-Loopy scene that Emma is actually fast asleep, her hand sitting in the popcorn bowl.
"Put that on the floor. I'll deal with it tomorrow," you tell me, indicating the bowl while searching the bed for the remote. When you find it, you turn the TV off and now the only light in the room comes from the lamp on the bedside table.
I do as you tell me to do and when I straighten up, I'm almost relieved to find that you've slid away from me to make room for Emma to lie down, arranging a pillow beneath her head and pulling the blankets up around her.
I also find that I miss the warmth of you next to me and I think even the ends of my hair are now craving the touch of your fingertips.
If you're trying to kill me, you're doing a bang up job of it. Just thought I'd let you know.
You're looking at me thoughtfully from across the bed and I don't know what to say so I say "Thank you for--" without thinking. I catch myself before I finish because it turns out I was going to say "Thank you for being the most beautiful person I've ever known."
I think it's time to put my brain on a leash. Or maybe a shock collar. Do they make those?
"For what?" you ask softly and your gaze is searching and electric at the same time.
"For...for getting us here safely. For ordering dinner. For being able to say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious backwards. I don't know." I smile at you shyly and wonder if too much is showing in my eyes.
You smile back. "Should I have put that on my resume?" you ask.
I laugh. "It certainly would have gotten my attention," I say. "I just don't know what good that would have done back then."
"Because you didn't know me?"
I shake my head a little. "No. Because I was...different. I wasn't...I wasn't a very good person then." I think back to that other life--because that's what it feels like to me now. Another life lived by another me. A me who hungered all the time--for power, for prestige, for sex, for money. But that other me was never satisfied, no matter how much she took, no matter how much she was given. The hole in her middle was so big, so empty, nothing could fill it. Until you came into my life....
You reach across Emma and take my hand in yours. "Yes you were," you say simply. "You were a good person then just like you're a good person now, Olivia. You were just a little lost...."
Thank God you found me when you did, I think. Thank God you found me at all.
I harbor no illusions about this: without you, all that would be left of me now would be a headstone visited by my daughters twice a year.
I feel tears come into my eyes again and--desperate to hide them from you--I turn toward the bedside table.
"We should get some sleep," I say thickly and I pray you can't hear the tears in my voice. I turn the lamp off, plunging us into that velvety darkness that seems to be found only in hotel rooms. You're still holding my hand.
"Good night, Olivia," you whisper. "Sweet dreams."
"You too," I say simply. I think you'll release my hand now but you don't. So I don't release yours. The only problem with that? I can feel your spirit like a current between us in the darkness, running through the closed circuit of our entwined fingers. I'm surprised you can't see what it's doing to me. Hell, I'm surprised you can't read by me. My whole body feels lit up and sparkling.
It's gonna take me forever to fall asleep.
After five minutes of this, you sigh and pull your hand away. Before I become despondent over the loss of that connection, though, you whisper, "Olivia? Turn on the light, please."
Startled, I turn over and do so. "You okay?" I ask worriedly, turning back--only to find you carefully navigating your way between Emma and me. "What are you doing?" Did I squeak when I said that?
"Getting comfortable," you mumble and you won't look at me. Instead, you face away from me on your side, cuddling Emma.
I stare at you, probably looking like a gaping fish, until you whisper, "You can turn the light off now."
I turn over and do so but when I turn back I suddenly don't know where to put my body, my hands. I try really hard to relax but I can feel the heat of you not five inches away from me and I can feel the blood in my body react to it, to the temptation of your presence. I realize that my right hand is still floating in mid-air because when the light went off, it reached for you as if it had done so for a hundred nights in a row and I only barely caught it. Slowly, I risk putting it down--softly--on your shoulder.
And I leave it there because I don't know what else to do.
There's no way in hell I'll sleep tonight. No fucking way.
You sigh again and I think Jesus Christ, WHAT NOW?
In the ruby blackness of the room, I feel your hand cover mine on your shoulder and you guide it downward until it rests on the curve of your hip. Then you tug it--me--forward until I'm spooning you. Until I'm spooning you.
Forget sleep. There's no way in fucking hell I'm surviving the night.
When I'm arranged to your satisfaction, you sigh for the third time and it's a contented sound, the first I've heard since we started this...this...whatever it is. Then you go to sleep.
I lay there for what seems like hours until I'm sure that you are so deeply asleep that a tornado would be hard pressed to wake you. Then I slip out from beneath the covers and stumble into the sitting area, finding the uncomfortable camel-colored couch by touch alone and curling up at one end of it. Every inch of my body that was pressed along yours aches to return to you. It's a physical pain and it makes me tremble--no, shake. I'm going to shake apart. I'm going to come crashing down.
But no matter how much this hurts right now, it's a cakewalk compared to what I would feel like if I stayed curled up around you and accidentally did something to reveal how much I love you, how much I want you. Seeing disgust or hatred for me in your eyes--it would kill me. After Phillip taking Emma from me, it's my greatest fear.
It keeps me up nights, I think, rolling my eyes at myself. Ah, gallows humor.... How refreshing!
So I stay on the couch...where you find me in the morning, winter light flooding the small sitting area via a window overlooking the interstate and beautiful downtown nowhere. A carafe of coffee, a pitcher of orange juice and a tray of assorted pastries and muffins sit on the coffee table--the result of a 6am call to room service. The smaller TV in here is on but I muted it to keep it from waking you and Emma. It's too early for anything good to be on so I'm watching an infomercial that is trying to sell me a rotisserie machine.
You look at the food on the table and then at the TV, your face closed, unreadable. I have the feeling you're upset about something but you aren't saying anything or yelling at me so I don't know what to do. I follow your gaze and see that the rotisserie people have just plated an entire turkey with all the trimmings.
"I can't tell you how many times I've almost called in and ordered 15 for The Beacon," I say, nodding toward the television. "Even on mute, this pair makes a convincing argument for the convenience of rotisserie cooking."
I smile at you but you don't return it.
I can see it in your eyes then: fear. Fear of what, though? What happened? Did I do something?
"Emma wants to try out the whirlpool tub so I told her she could take a bath this morning," you say, your voice flat, lifeless. I frown and start to get up.
"Okay, that's...fine. I'll--"
"No, I'll do it," you interrupt, holding a hand up to stop me. "I just wanted you to know where we'd be."
I slowly sit back on the couch, confused. "Are you sure? Because I can--"
"I'm sure. You stay here and...check on the weather. I...I'd like to know if there's going to be more snow today."
Snow. I'd forgotten all about the snow. "Okay. I can do that. Natalia, I--"
"We'll be out in a little while, I promise." Your words are rushed and quiet and then you disappear around the corner. I hear your falsely chipper voice as you herd Emma into the bathroom and then the door clicks shut behind you both and I'm left with the faint sound of water running and the feeling that I'm just not smart enough to figure you out sometimes. What the hell was that all about?
I shake my head and turn back to the TV, unmuting it and switching away from the still-playing infomercial on the latest in rotisserie technology. How can they possibly fill ten minutes on this thing let alone an hour? You stick meat on a set of prongs, insert it into the square thingy, set it and forget it! How difficult is that to remember?
I press the channel button savagely--not knowing what is going on with you is bothering me more than I'd like to admit at the moment--until I find a local news station. The bottled blonde anchorwoman smiles as she finishes a story on the latest stimulus package released earlier in the week by Obama.
"--and President Obama said yesterday that he is confident this stimulus package will be the first successful step toward repairing the country's ailing economy."
I grab my coffee mug off the table and say a silent prayer that Obama is right. The economy is almost as fucked up as my personal life. He needs all the help he can get.
"In other national news," continues the anchorwoman, "an Amber Alert has been released for eight-year-old Emma Spencer of Springfield, Ohio--"
My cup crashes to the coffee table and shatters, spraying me, the couch, and the floor with hot coffee. I don't even notice. You rush in from the bathroom, horrified.
"Oh my God, Olivia! What happened? Are you all right?"
I can't say anything. I just stare at the TV in front of me, watching my world fall apart on a 19-inch screen. You follow my gaze and cover your mouth, dropping to the arm of the couch in a stunned heap. There's a picture of us on the screen now. The one from our living room, from New Year's Eve.
"--in the company of her mother, hotelier Olivia Spencer, at the Briarwood Resort where they went for weekend ski trip two weeks ago. They have not been seen since. Police are also interested in speaking with Spencer's assistant, Natalia Rivera, seen here in a photograph taken in the home they share. She disappeared from Springfield three days ago under suspicious circumstances and Springfield police believe she is in contact with Spencer and her daughter if not actively involved in their disappearance. They are calling this a case of custodial interference until more is known. Spencer shares custody of her daughter with Phillip Spaulding, CEO of Spaulding Enterprises. A friend of Spencer's--WSPR station owner Dinah Marler--released this emotional plea this morning."
The screen switches and there's Dinah, sitting behind one of the news desks down at the station. She looks pale and pissed off. I know this look. She's been cornered.
"Olivia," she says, and angry tears fill my eyes. How can she be doing this to us? Cornered or not? How can she do this??
"Olivia, please call me. This isn't like you and I want to help. I want you and Emma to come home. We'll work this out. I promise you, we will. Whatever you're going through, I'll be right beside you. We--your friends and family here in Springfield--just want you both back, safe and sound. Please call. I'll answer. 1-800-555-3662." Her lower lip trembles for a split second and her eyes become glassy. "I'm here, Ollie. Call me. 1-800-555-3662."
The news show cuts away from Dinah's face and returns to their anchorwoman. "Anyone with any information regarding the whereabouts of Emma Spencer, Olivia Spencer, or Natalia Rivera is urged to contact their local police station rather than the number given by Ms. Marler. Again, if you have seen Emma Spencer, Olivia Spencer, or Natalia Rivera, please contact your local police department. Jim?"
The next image on the screen shows a building engulfed in flames and that's how I feel right now. Incinerated. Obliterated. I.... I don't know what to do.
I feel...oddly calm but my vision blurs at the edges. My sight begins to narrow slowly to a corner of a shelf in the entertainment center where the veneer has pulled away, revealing the cheap MDF board underneath. There's a slow, deep thrumming sound in my head and it drowns everything else out. I'm sinking into the drone of it, letting it carry me away. Nothing else makes sense anymore. Nothing.
There's a crack in the veneer. The edge of it is yellowed by cheap wood glue. Someone tried to fix it once, a long time ago. They didn't do a very good job. Unacceptable. Just unacceptable.
Sounds--like whales singing in the deep, dark sea--push through the droning hum in my head. They don't make any sense. Only the crack is clear. The place where everything will fall apart.
The shock of your cold hands on my cheeks causes the world to rush back in at me all at once. The glaring sunlight, the acrid smell of spilled coffee, the searing pain of a burn on my left hand, the desperation of your voice....
"Olivia? Olivia??" You've forced my head to turn, to look at you, and I do, finally. You're frantic. "Olivia, honey, please look at me! Please!"
"I see you," I say but the words come out as a croak, as if I haven't spoken in months.
"We've got to go. We've got to check out of the hotel, Olivia. Okay? Can you help me with that?" Your hands are still cupping my face and I close my eyes, wanting to stay here, just like this. Forever.
"Olivia!" You shake me, your voice nearing panic, and my eyes fly open. Need to fix that. Need to help you. Whatever you need. I'll help you.
"Okay," I say, waiting for instructions. "Okay."
"Okay," you repeat. "Emma's still in her bath. I'll go get her dressed and ready. You get the bags packed, okay? Can you do that, Olivia? Olivia? Talk to me!"
I nod. "Yes, I can do that. Bags. I can get the bags." I stand abruptly and shards of the broken mug clink and ping as they drop from my lap and bounce off the coffee table.
"Good. Okay. I'll get Emma. I'll tell her...I'll tell her that we have to get ahead of a storm or something. We have to get on the road early today because of the snow."
I head toward the bedroom to start packing our bags when you grab me, stop me. Your hands are like vice grips on my forearms.
"Olivia, listen to me," you plead. "Listen to me. I need you to be here with me now. I need for you to be strong right now. For Emma. Do you understand? We'll get through this, we will. But Emma needs you right now."
The steely determination in your voice and the pain from where you're gripping me--as if by will alone you can hold me together--cut through the last of the shock and I take a deep breath as if surfacing from a long submergence in an icy lake.
I feel it all come back then, in that moment. Everything. The terror, the rage, the confusion.... The love.... It's like a power surge, that love. For Emma. For you.
I look at you with clear eyes, finally finding some steel of my own.
"Let's go," I say tersely. You nod and release my arms, turning toward the bathroom to collect my daughter.
I catch your sleeve and turn you back for a moment, letting everything--the buzzing swirl of everything I'm feeling in this moment--show in my eyes. Just for one second. One second I refuse to regret.
"Thank you," I whisper softly. They are the most heartfelt words I've ever said.
Your cheeks darken a little and you nod before you look away.
US-191 SOUTH, SOMEWHERE NORTH OF MOAB, UT
Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not kill.
I've been repeating those words since we left Grand Junction, but they aren't making me feel any less homicidal. However, they're just repetitive enough, just familiar enough to help me keep it together while I drive. I have the cruise control set at a safe speed and I'm dividing my attention between the road (and any possible police presence) and you.
You're surprisingly calm. After seeing you.... Holy Mother of God, you frightened me to death this morning! I've seen you many ways before. I've seen you angry, outraged, livid.... I've seen you exhausted, weak, afraid.... I've seen you tender, gentle, compassionate.... I've seen you strong, unyielding, relentless.... But I have never seen you catatonic! You wouldn't respond to my voice, to your own name! Do you have any idea what that did to me? How badly you frightened me?
So I'm watching you whether you want me to or not, okay? Okay.
I glance in the backseat, relieved to see that Emma's dozing. It's so quiet in here, it doesn't surprise me. What surprises me? That you're still awake. You didn't sleep last night; I know you didn't.
I want to know why you got out of the bed, why the simple act of holding me was somehow beyond your.... No, I won't cry. Not now. Just...just please, please don't hate me for what I did. It won't happen again, I promise. Just please, don't let this be some...weird thing between us. I don't want to lose your friendship because of a moment of weakness on my part. I just couldn't....
God, why is this happening?
I rub my forehead, hoping to stave off another migraine before it starts. It's not looking good.
Why now, God? Why did he have to come back? Why couldn't he just stay dead?
Damn you, Phillip Spaulding!
He did this! You know he did! He has to be the one behind this Amber Alert, right? Frank would never have....
But he did, didn't he? He had to go along with it--unless Phillip bypassed Springfield PD completely and went to the FBI. But the news report didn't say anything about the FBI. It just said for people to contact their local police departments. Which means Springfield PD is involved...which means so is Frank.
But why? Why would he do that? Why would he agree to something like this knowing how dangerous Phillip is? He arrested Phillip, for crying out loud! For kidnapping! Why would he then turn around and basically accuse us of the same thing?
Oh, no. No, no, no. A sickening thought occurs to me. It's because of me, isn't it? Oh God, he's not thinking about you and Emma; he's thinking about me! Because of what he believes we have! He and I were going away and then Phillip came back and--and--
And I had forgotten all about that! Oh my God, he and I were going to go away for the weekend and I forgot all about it! I haven't thought of Frank as anything other than a police officer since the day I left Springfield. Even before that, if I'm honest. I didn't even leave him a note! I told exactly two people where I was going: Jeffrey, because he needed to know about The Beacon and what I had done with it; and Rafe, my baby, who needed to know why I couldn't be there for him right now. It never occurred to me to tell Frank anything.
And that answers that question, doesn't it? I should trust the man I'm dating, no matter what. I should have been able to go to him about this, knowing that he would support me. But I didn't because somewhere inside, I knew he wouldn't support this. He would have tried to stop me. And because I didn't give him that opportunity, now he's helping the man that kidnapped Emma--
Rage rushes over me like a hot wave and I feel the electric tingle of it raise the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck.
How dare he? How dare he put you and Emma in danger? How dare he call you a kidnapper--at Phillip Spaulding's behest, no less!--just to get me back?
Phillip's driving this, I'm sure. He's the one who's made our lives crazy and uncertain, who made me open those places in my past that I thought I'd buried forever, who made me make a fool of myself in the name of comfort. But Frank helped! He sold you out to Phillip to get me back! If I lose your friendship over...what happened last night, I'll never forgive myself. But if you or Emma are hurt in any way because of this Amber Alert, I'll never forgive Frank. Or Phillip, for that matter. But Phillip--we knew he would be a problem. It's why we left in the first place.
Frank should have known better.
I return to the once-comforting litany I've been repeating all morning except now I'm thinking about two people instead of one.
Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not kill.
It's still not helping the way it should, but I'm too damned angry to care.
"Mommy?" Emma's sleepy voice cuts through the silence of the van like a siren and my attention focuses on her like a search beam. You turn to her and I look up in the rear view mirror. We both answer.
"What is it, honey?"
She doesn't acknowledge my mistake and your response is only to glance at me with tired, grateful eyes. My insides unclench a little. Maybe we're still okay.
"I'm hungry," she says plaintively and I look at the clock on the dashboard, realizing that we've been on the road for over an hour now and that none of us have eaten. We left the pastries untouched on the coffee table in the hotel when we fled this morning.
The GPS says we're a couple of miles from Moab, Utah and...and I mutter "We'll stop at the next town." Emma is placated and you nod, turning again to gaze out your window at the miles upon miles of low, gray skies hanging over rocks rusty red like old blood.
I, however, am nearly paralyzed with awe.
This is so not subtle. This is literally Biblical in proportion and I can feel Nicky's hand in it as surely as I feel God's will.
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
Ruth. The Moabite.
I look at you and realize a choice has been made. A choice that I wasn't even aware had to be made, but that I made anyway, two weeks ago, when Phillip Spaulding came back to town and you took Emma and ran. A choice I've been making--and defending to you--every day since. This is where I'm meant to be. Right here, with you, with Emma. There can be no doubt of that now.
I wondered, you know. After I signed the papers to give Nicky's heart to you, I wondered if the signs I believed were telling me to do that were really there, if maybe I wasn't a little bit crazy with grief and loss and a colossal feeling of unfairness. So crazy that maybe I had made it all up and I wondered for a long time whether I had done the right thing. I sat there in that hospital, waiting to see if you would live, wondering the whole time what I was doing there, why whether you lived or died mattered to me at all. Nicky was gone. How could anything matter after that?
Then when it seemed like you would die anyway, believing yourself unworthy of Nicky's heart and the second chance it gave you, it was as if all the confusion and second-guessing just fell away, leaving me with a purpose: to make you live again.
Now, here I am again, seeing signs too obvious to ignore, actual road signs saying "Moab 3 miles" and there's no uncertainty, no second-guessing. Wherever this leads me, leads us, I will go there.
Frank was a distraction and I can't afford distractions in my life anymore. You and Emma are my family and you need me. Period.
Feeling somehow more solid, more grounded than I have in days, I pull the van off the highway at Moab and follow signs to a McDonald's. If you were actively paying any attention to where we're going, you'd probably raise an eyebrow at me, but the billboard advertising this den of culinary iniquity showed a play area and I'm willing to sacrifice good nutrition for the opportunity to talk to you without Emma overhearing just this once. So my decision has been made.
You can argue with me when we get there if you want.
When I park the van, neither you nor Emma believe what you see and I have to prod you both to open your doors.
"Who are you and what have you done with Natalia Rivera?" you ask gravely and I would laugh if all of this weren't so serious.
"It's a vacation, you guys!" I say, forcing the sound of excitement into my voice. "We can have a little fast food here and there, right? Besides, I don't think there's too much else to choose from around here, so we'll just have to make do."
Emma is the first to recover and she cheers before sliding the van door open, heading happily into the red and yellow monstrosity. You and I follow after, far enough behind that she can't hear us.
"I thought the play area would give us a chance to talk," I say softly. "But we'll have to keep our voices down and watch the other customers inside. If it looks like anyone is paying too much attention to us, tell me, okay?"
You stop for a minute outside the door and look at me helplessly.
"I don't know if I can--" you begin and I grab one of your hands and squeeze it tightly before quickly letting it go.
"You can, Olivia. You're the strongest person I know and you can do this. I promise. Okay?"
You look at me for a long moment, your eyes uncertain, unreadable, and then you finally nod. We enter the sleepy fast food joint and walk up behind Emma in line. There aren't too many people inside and for that I'm grateful. If I light a thousand votive candles when we get back to Springfield, I'm sure it won't be enough to thank God for our continued good fortune.
At least I hope it continues.
I look up at the menu board and as my eyes scan it for something suitable to order, I become more and more nauseated. People willingly put these things into their mouths? Their stomachs?
"Okay, you two need to go pick out a table," I say in my best no-nonsense voice. "I'll order."
Emma is the first to understand. "Awww...."
"What's wrong?" you ask and then you look at my face. "Oh. Damn." You look hopefully at the menu one last time. "Can we at least have some hashbrowns?"
I shoo you off toward the tables--there are dozens to choose from--and say, "We'll see."
"Double damn," you curse and I want to laugh and cry at the same time because this is just so normal in a time when everything else...is not. You take Emma's hand and lead her away, debating the relative merits of sitting near the windows versus sitting near the entrance to the play area. Not surprisingly, she's taken the play area's side.
When I find you five minutes later, you've compromised and have chosen a table tucked into the corner behind the low dividing wall separating the dining room from the ordering counter. It's near the play area and an exit and it looks out over the parking lot where we've parked the van. It allows us an excellent view of the entire restaurant while keeping us partially hidden from prying eyes. I couldn't have done better myself and I raise an approving eyebrow at the choice. I should have known that brilliant mind of yours would begin adapting to our changing circumstances eventually. We may just get through this after all.
I slide the tray I'm carrying onto the table and begin setting food in front of the two of you. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, and fruit cups for all three of us; orange juice for Emma, coffee for the two of us; and one order of hashbrowns--to share.
"Fruit?" you ask incredulously. "Is that even on the menu?" You turn to look over your shoulder.
"It is for me," I reply. "Now eat. It's late and--" I look at your left hand as you lift your cup to take a sip of coffee. "What's that?"
You stop dead, your eyes wide. "What's what?"
"That! On your hand!" It's angry and red against your cream-colored skin and it's at least three inches long. "Is that from this morning?"
You set your cup down and cover the burn with your other hand. "It's okay," you mutter. "Hardly even hurts."
I narrow my eyes at you. "I'll be right back," I tell you and I march out to the van, open the back, and rummage through our bags until I find the one I want. I retrieve the first aid kit out of my smaller bag then return to the restaurant. I must have taken longer than I realized because Emma's place is empty.
"Emma's playing. The pancakes didn't pass muster," you say, noticing me eying Emma's half-eaten breakfast. "No zest. I told her you'd have a word with the chef."
I smirk at you, plopping the first aid kit on the table before I reclaim my seat.
"You and I have a date with this first aid kit when we're done eating," I announce. You look a little flustered, so I add, "You know skin breakdowns can lead to serious infections--which you can't afford. Plus, it could leave a scar."
"I have others," you say sardonically.
"That one--" I say, indicating the one running the length of your torso, "--was necessary to save your life. This one is Phillip's fault and I'll be damned if I let him leave that kind of permanent mark on you." I look up into your stunned eyes. "And before you say anything, I'm suspending the language prohibition--unless Emma's nearby--for the time being. Considering the day we're having, I don't think God will mind a few...choice words. And if He does, I don't know, I'll--I'll do an extra long penance or something." I shrug.
"I'll help," you offer wryly. "What's that you always say? Thinking's as bad as doing? If that's true, I'm goin' straight to Hell when I die. Do not pass go, do not collect halo and wings. I've been wanting to murder Phillip since we got in the van."
"Me too," I admit, only slightly reluctantly. "Him and Frank."
You blink. "Frank? Why Frank?"
At first I think you're joking but one look in your curious and concerned grass-green eyes shows me that you're honestly confused. "Well, Phillip can't help himself, really, can he? He was raised by Alan and that's bound to make anyone crazy. Remember, I lived there--"
"So did I," you say sourly, your opinion of the Spaulding mansion written all over your face.
"Right. So...Phillip's crazy. He's bound to act on that. But Frank? Frank helped him with the...you know." I look around at our fellow diners but no one's paying us the slightest bit of attention. I glance at Emma and she's enjoying probably her eightieth trip down the twisty slide. All's well for the time being. "Frank isn't crazy," I continue, looking back to you. "In fact, he's as plodding as they come. At least, that's...what I thought."
You cover your mouth with one hand, hoping to disguise your aborted laugh. "'Plodding?'" you repeat but your voice sounds...strained.
I wince. "Was it nicer than 'boring'? I was trying to be nice."
You shake your head. "Not by a long shot. Anyway, you were saying? That's what you thought?"
I feel the anger seep beneath my skin again and my blood heats, rippling like oil in a white-hot skillet. "Yeah, that's what I thought until this morning when he...when he basically used you and Emma as bait. To get me to come back."
I see the denial perch on your lips and then I see realization and understanding eclipse it. "No offense, but I'm gonna kill your boyfriend when I see him next," you snarl.
I shrug again. "None taken," I say indifferently. "And he's not...he's not my boyfriend. Not anymore." I think about that for a minute then amend, "Actually...he never really was. Not really." I don't know why, but it's important to me that you know that.
My declaration pulls you up short. "But you were going away with him for the weekend!"
I look away from you. "That...was a really bad idea. I don't even know why-- I thought it would...help?"
I look back at you and there it is: a fleeting look of disgust and...something else, washed in celadon. Until you see me looking and it goes away. Again. I swear, some day I'm going to ask you what that's all about. But today we have bigger things to deal with.
I take a sip of coffee, finish my fruit cup, and pull the first aid kit over in front of me.
"Hand," I order and surprisingly you give me your left hand without protest or hesitation. You're not even looking at me; you're staring out the window, lost in thought. Taking advantage of your distraction, I open the little packet of triple antibiotic ointment and dab some on the angriest, reddest part of your burn, spreading it carefully with the edge of an unused napkin. I'm worried it'll sting but if it does, you don't seem to notice.
"So Phillip's batshit crazy and Frank isn't and for some reason they're working together--"
"Different agendas," I remind you, pulling out a sterile gauze 2x2, a roll of bandage tape, and two foil packets containing alcohol wipes. I open those first, using both wipes to sterilize my fingers as best as I can. I realize that performing sterile procedures in a Utah McDonald's might be asking too much, but every little bit counts.
"Right. But...but what about Dinah? Why is she helping them?" Your consternation crowds your eyes and they darken with the coming storm.
"Aren't she and Phillip related to each other?" I pull four even strips of tape from the roll and affix them to the edge of the table. Then I lift your hand in mine, cradling it as I lay the gauze square over your burn. I try to distract you from any pain I'm causing by stroking your wrist while I press the edges of the gauze down as gently as I can, wanting to cover it completely but also wanting air to circulate. Burns are always tricky to dress.
"Cousins. But she would never-- What are you doing?"
I look up, startled by the change in topic. "Bandaging your hand," I reply, but it comes out more like a question. "Did I hurt you?"
"No." You swallow heavily and you won't look at me. Your hand is trembling. What on Earth? "No, not that. With your-- You know, never mind. Could you just hurry up, please?" you ask with a weak smile. You look distinctly uncomfortable. "It's hard to talk about how much of a bastard Phillip is without making rude gestures and I need both hands for that."
"Well, that can wait," I tell you, plucking one of the strips of bandage tape off the table and running it down the edge of the gauze. I smooth it with my fingers and look up into your suddenly piercing eyes. You stare at me for half a second before smiling another heartbreaking self-deprecating smile, the intensity of your eyes guttering out like a candle running out of wick.
"No, it really can't," you say, attempting to tug your hand away. I retrieve another strip of tape and tighten my grip on your wrist, wondering what's gotten into you. You've never minded my help before and I used to change the dressings over your surgery incisions. I hope this isn't about my...indiscretion last night.
"Yes, it can, Olivia," I disagree, my voice low and unsteady. I clear my throat and place the tape I'm holding parallel to the last piece, smoothing it into place the same way. "Stop being such a baby," I chide.
Your hand begins to writhe in my grip and my first instinct is to tighten my hold even more--which causes you to wrench your hand away from me almost violently.
"No, it can't!" you hiss, your eyes nearly panicked. "Nothing can wait anymore! What are we doing here? We should go--"
"Keep your voice down!" I hiss back, looking over at the elderly couple sitting closest to us. They are paying more attention to their paltry breakfasts, a weekly treat that they probably scrimp and save for, than they are to us. "We'll go in a few minutes but we need to talk--"
"Talk? We need to disappear! We need to fall off the face of--"
You obey the order instantly, but your eyes.... You're on a ledge somewhere in your head and I don't have any idea how you got there or why! And now it's up to me to talk you down....
Great. How am I supposed to do that? You're Olivia Freakin' Spencer--emphasis on the freakin' at the moment. I'm just your....
I feel a smile begin but I quickly clamp down on it.
I'm your assistant.
If I'm any good at my job--and I am--I'll be able to talk you down from any ledge, anywhere. I just have to treat this one like a business problem.
"First--before we go any further with this conversation--I have to know one thing: do you trust me?"
You sigh. "We've already--"
"Answer the question." I snap, not in the mood for your usual evasions. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes." Your eyes hold mine and I see caution there...and a tint of grudging respect. I'll build on both, thank you very much. Either is better than panic.
"Good. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's time for us to regroup. We can make the plan work but--"
"The plan?" you ask, clearly incredulous. "You still want to go to the Grand Canyon? To other tourist attractions?" You shake your head angrily. "I don't know if you noticed this, but we made the national news this morning--"
"No, not to other landmarks. I agree that would be too dangerous. But we should still go to the Grand Canyon...unless you're ready to explain what's going on to Emma and I don't think you are." I raise an eyebrow at you. "Are you?"
You shake your head again, this time with a single, efficient motion. "No," you say and your mouth has become a thin, determined line. "But what about that state trooper in Colorado? If he's seen the...you know...he might have put two and two together by now. He knows where we were--"
"I thought of that. I did. And I think we can get around it."
"It's time for Emma to pick her spy name," I admit. "Changing our names might be enough to get us through one day at the Canyon. We'll have to be really careful--"
"Ya think?" Your sarcasm cuts but I ignore it.
"--careful and aware of our surroundings. Maybe she'll get bored and we can leave right after lunch...or something...."
"And go where?" you demand.
I frown. This is the hard part, the part I don't know. Where can we go? Where can we go where won't we be recognized? We've both been branded kidnappers now. We're both guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of society--and being proven innocent might not help us all that much, come to think of it. Why is it so easy to believe the worst of people and so hard to believe the best, even when witness to it?
"You don't have any idea, do you?" you accuse, your voice cold.
You open your purse and grab the pre-paid cell I gave you in Omaha. You open it and begin pressing buttons. I'm completely aghast.
"Who are you calling?" I ask, my voice an unflattering squeak.
"I'm sick of flying in the dark," you say, putting the phone up to your ear. "It's time to start knocking heads--"
"Dinah," you announce. "I'm calling Dinah." Your mouth twists into a grotesque parody of a smile.
"And if she has any sense whatsoever, she'll put me through to voice mail. Because come Hell or high water, I'm going to get some fucking answers."
To Be Continued
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