I fought the visions. My mother used to tell me my expression turned stupid when I had them, but I didn’t care about that so much anymore. I hated when the visions were true somehow, actual bits of the past. I didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.
“She’s such a snob,” one of the young women whispered on the other side of the locker room.
I stayed faced away, trying not to hear their gossip. I tugged my jeans on and pulled my shirt over my head. When I glanced in the mirror to fix my hair, I barely saw the dark brown framing my fair skin—only the way the other girls looked at me. I bent over to pick up my shoes.
“The guys don’t even ask her out because she’s so stuck up.”
I didn’t understand why they thought like this about me, but I didn’t much care anyway. As soon as I had my shoes on, I threw my gear bag over my shoulder and walked out.
Master Trahem was on the workout floor sparring with Mr. Schmidt. Master Trahem’s uniform was starting to come open, and sweat glistened on his well-built chest.
I looked away.
“Bye, Kindle,” Mrs. Trahem said as I passed the front counter. “See you tomorrow.”
I smiled at her, one of the few people I reserved my genuine smile for. She was a big part of the reason I came in early to help every day, her and her atrocious typing skills. She always held her fingers above the keys like a fisherman wielding a spear, as if expecting them to squirm out from under her aim.
But honestly, helping with data entry was just an excuse—Mrs. Trahem was the best person I’d ever known, and I felt calmer when I was around her.
“You’ll be there early, right?” Mrs. Trahem added. She tucked her silky dark hair behind her ear. There was a grace to her movement. No wonder Master Trahem had married her so quickly. At twenty-nine, she was a few years older than me but looked just as young.
“Definitely.” Then I kept walking. Before I gave into the urge to turn and watch Master Trahem.
The girls from the locker room followed me out into the parking lot. I sat in my car and started the engine.
While I drove the forty-five minutes home, I fought to stay awake. At least traffic at nine-thirty at night was thin. I always missed rush hour. I left my apartment before six every morning and didn’t return until after ten. Being tired felt normal.
As I pulled up to my building, I examined each car. I knew to whom each of them belonged, as well as half my neighbors’ friends’ cars. The girl across the hall traded boyfriends every week. She drove me nuts.
I had no way of knowing what Chris was driving. I had to know which cars were supposed to be here in order to know if there was a new one. Most of my neighbors drove beaters like me, and Chris had always liked something flashy. But with him, I couldn’t depend on consistency. He was smart.
I recognized all the cars tonight. I parked under the streetlight and kept the door locked while I pulled my gear bag onto my lap and slipped the strap over my shoulder. Keys ready, I jumped out of the car and jogged up the steps. I hated apartment buildings in Florida. The halls were open, no security doors to block unwanted visitors from knocking on your front door, from lurking in shadowy corners.
Within about ten seconds, I was up the stairs, down the hall, and at my door. Just being able to move quickly without running out of breath was worth the cost of Taekwondo classes. I felt more confident, less scared.
My door unlocked, I glanced down the hall one more time then slipped inside. I closed the door, locked it, and flipped the lights.
I was not alone.
He was right there, tall, thick, and blond as always. I was seeing as clearly as if through acid. I blinked to make sure he was really there. I always did that. It was stupid.
Chris was always there.
Standing in the middle of my one little room, he just looked at me. It was like he was waiting for me to apologize for something. He always seemed to think I should be apologizing. I knew better now, knew I’d never done anything wrong, but I wasn’t defiant either. I kept my mouth shut—as if he might go away if I was very still and very quiet, like certain predators in the wild.
He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. “My little Kindle,” he sneered politely, “you haven’t called.”
Your keys. Hold onto your keys. You’re too far off the main road. You can’t outrun him. I tried, without letting them rattle, to get a better grip on my car key. It was the longest, the best weapon.
“You never did talk much.” He stepped to the side, closer to the counter—not far enough for me to be able to make it out the door before he could grab me. “It used to be kinda nice.”
He looked at my little chipped ceramic teapot. I’d found it at a yard sale. It reminded me of the one my grandma had, a very long time ago. I loved it.
With the flick of his wrist, he shattered it on the floor.
He looked at me as if unaware of the crunching of shards under his feet as he walked around the little table.
“Do you have nothing to say?” he demanded.
Remember the women’s self-defense class, Kindle. Keep your head straight. Remember your targets and exits. I’d taken Master Trahem’s seminar so many times I had it memorized. I knew what to do, but it was hard to think clearly through the fear. I never felt prepared to face Chris.
Keep it together, Kindle. You’ll get out of this.
His skin was turning blotchy—he was getting angrier.
“I’ve been busy,” I finally said.
“Your mother always says you’re a stubborn little bitch.”
So he was still talking to my mother. He could charm Bambi out of the woods. She’d always believed him over me. It was better that way though. He’d never hurt her. By staying away, by letting her think he was the good guy, I could protect her.
“How is she?” I said it partially to keep him talking, distracted, and partially because I wanted to know. I hadn’t seen or talked to her in over two years.
“Still in that same old dump,” he said. “Once trailer trash, always trailer trash.”
He was moving closer. I held my breath as he passed.
He turned toward the one window in the apartment—still too close to me. “She’s got some guy living with her now.” He looked at me over his shoulder. “I think she clones them—the same receding hairline, beer belly, and holey T-shirt.”
He came around to face me squarely. “You’re the lucky one. You didn’t lose your virginity to some good ol’ boy hick. No scent of chew mixing with diesel in the cool night air in the back of his truck.”
I shook my head. I’d been stupid, but I’d never been a whore.
“No?” he said. “You don’t think that would’ve happened? You think you’re somehow above your lot?”
“Poor doesn’t equal slut.”
“Well, it certainly don’t equal class.” He looked around my apartment, my tiny one room.
This one room was better than when I’d lived with him. He drove fancy cars and lived in a big house, but here there was no stench of crack, no incoherent cursing in the middle of the night, no wasted guys trying to grope me. It hadn’t been as bad at first, no worse than living in the trailer park with my mother and her latest disgusting boyfriend. But it’d gotten worse quickly. Chris’ charming mask started to slip, and then one day it shattered on the floor. That was the first day he hit me. I’d told myself he was just high and hadn’t meant it. He was high all the time, and I started to realize he did mean it. What was I supposed to do though? I had no friends, no money, no car, and he had my mother wrapped around his finger.
His expression changed, sweet in a slimy kind of way. “Why, honey, you should step away from the door. You’ll catch a chill.”
It was almost eighty degrees outside.
He cocked his head.
I stepped away from the door, one step into the middle of the kitchen.
“You must be a little slow,” he said. “I always defended you when people called you stupid, but I think I see what they were trying to tell me. They were trying to warn me not to get in too deep, that you would just drag me down, and here I am again, trying to save you.” He shook his head. “I must be a glutton for punishment. You can be pretty—or at least you used to be.” His chin tilted as he looked me up and down. I managed not to cover myself with my arms. “You’ve still got your tits and ass, but this time away from me has been hard on you. I can see it in your face, just like your mother, that used-up look.”
The only thing I still had of my mother’s was her pale green eyes. I kept my hair brown, my skin fair, and I even dressed differently—plainer and never skimpy.
“Oh, and don’t get me wrong, your mother can be a decent woman. She’s just a little, well, slow. I see a lot of her in you. She has a hard time judging for herself. She needs help, someone to guide her. That’s why I’m here. I’m still willing to help you, Kindle, no matter what you’ve done to me. I still want to help you.”
He took a breath and turned away, as if gaining strength.
His little martyr act didn’t work anymore. I was just biding my time, trying to find an exit. I had my keys ready to go, but he was still too close. The neighbor to the right must’ve been having a party. He liked rap music. No one would hear if I yelled for help—and Chris would probably just talk his way out of it anyway. And my phone was still in my purse inside my gear bag, which was still on my shoulder. I couldn’t dig for it, and who in the world would I call?
He looked at me. “What do you say, honey, are you ready to come home?” He almost seemed…hopeful.
I’d stopped falling for his charm a long time ago. No matter how sincere he seemed, he was not to be trusted. I knew perfectly well he only wanted me because I’d left. No one left Chris. No one defied him.
I met his eyes and lifted my chin stubbornly.
His tone was a command. “You are mine, Kindle.”
“I’m not coming with you.”
“Fucking bitch.” He raised the back of his hand.
I didn’t move, didn’t flinch, ready to block.
He paused and dropped his hand. “You’ve changed,” he mused. “You seem to have forgotten what’s good for you.”
I said nothing.
He took a few steps away, closer to my bed, as if touring my apartment, looking for something.
He picked up the book that was sitting next to the bed and flipped through the pages. It was a library book. I hoped he didn’t rip the pages out again.
“The same old crap as always.” He tossed the book in the corner. Then he threw his hands up. “What the fuck. Where’s all your shit? How do you live like this?”
“This is all I need.”
He looked at me more closely, as if he didn’t trust something in my voice, thought there was something I wasn’t telling him. I felt like I could see in his mind, exactly where his thoughts were going. It was going to be bad this time. I was going to be lucky to get out.
Focus, Kindle. You can do this. Sparring is getting easier. You know where the weak spots are. You know how to find your target.
There were rules in sparring, though, in Master Trahem’s classes. Chris didn’t follow rules, and Master Trahem wasn’t here. I felt safe when he was around.
Chris looked down at my bed, at my mattress on the floor. It was perfectly made, blankets tucked tightly. Everything in my apartment was linear and straight. It made me feel like I could control something in my life.
He grabbed the folded down edge of the sheet and yanked. The blankets spewed like vomit, and the mattress shifted, no longer straight.
He lifted the blanket and looked at the sheets. They were clean. I knew what he was looking for. He brought a fistful of the sheet to his nose, like a dog smelling to see if his bitch was in heat.
“I haven’t slept with anyone,” I said. It had only ever been him. I was not in a hurry to repeat the experience.
He breathed deeper, as if there was something there—something more than fabric softener.
I stopped breathing.
Last night—that’s what he smelled. I didn’t use the air conditioner if I could help it. It’d been exceptionally hot. I’d slept with just the sheet—and no clothes other than a nightshirt. I woke from a dream, an intense, sensuous dream. In these dreams, I called him Ty, and he looked at me differently. I wasn’t his student. I was much more to him. My skin had been moist from more than just sweat.
Chris spoke through his teeth. “I would ask if you’ve been screwing around with another girl.” He dropped the sheet. “But you’re not that interesting.”
He moved toward me. “Who were you thinking of?” he demanded.
I shook my head.
“Who?” he bellowed.
The rap music still boomed.
“No one,” I said.
He was coming faster. His temper was like the force of gravity. Once he let go, it hurled out of control, inevitable.
He grabbed my throat. I didn’t react fast enough.
He squeezed the sides of my neck, my blood supply. The pressure built in my head. My ears pounded. His hands were big—he could hold a secure choke with only one hand. He lifted me off the ground.
My fingers dug at his grip around my neck. I hammered my fist into his arm, into his radial arm nerve, but he didn’t have pressure points. Master Trahem said it was rare. The bastard had to be special, didn’t he?
I kicked at his groin, but didn’t hit quite right. I tried a thrusting front kick at his stomach.
He threw me away from him.
My body went limp as if floating through space.
I smacked into the wall. I grabbed whatever I could to stay on my feet.
He was coming at me again.
I slammed back into the wall. My head dented the cheap drywall, and I puddled to the ground.
I struggled to get to my feet. The room wouldn’t stay still. My vision blurred.
He pushed me back down with his foot. I grabbed his leg and yanked to knock him off balance. He stumbled sideways, and I side-kicked his other knee.
He slammed to the floor and roared, “Fuck.”
Vision still blurred, I grabbed at the wall to try to pull myself up.
His thick hand was on my arm.
I smacked into the floor with a thud. Then his hands were everywhere. I kicked and flailed, but he held my hips and pressed me against him.
He ground against me. “I’ll show you what it means to be with a man.”
No. God, no.
He grabbed the bottom hem of my shirt. The sound of ripping fabric and then his hand smoothed over my skin. “Come on, Kindle…” His voice trailed away from me. I knew he hadn’t stopped talking.
The images were more powerful with physical contact. The vision was clear—it felt real, like a recent memory, like it was true.
It was dark. Chris was walking next to another man who was in a suit. They passed a swing set. It was silent and still as a graveyard for children on the other side.
“You think I’ll let you do that?” the man said.
“You don’t have a choice.”
The man stopped and looked at him. The street lamp was enough to show me his face. I recognized him.
“I could quit,” the man said, “move away, out of Florida.”
“You won’t uproot your wife and your precious Briana. How would you support them? How would you explain it? You can’t start over someplace new. You would never get enough votes—and certain information may find its way into certain hands.”
The man glared. He knew Chris was right. And how would he explain it to his wife? She would leave him if she knew he’d associated with someone like Chris, and take his little girl with her.
Chris was exuberant inside. He saw victory.
“You’ll help me,” Chris said.
My voice sounded far away, out of my reach. I couldn’t stop it. “You’re blackmailing Representative Hiller.”
Chris stared at me.
I lay there on the floor, frozen. He might kill me this time.
He grabbed my face. “What do you know?”