We were each to come separately.
We had to be smart. Cautious. Cover our tracks. Travel as far as the money would take us. Away from the horrors of the past.
The location was perfect, a tourist’s seventh heaven—presently cloaked in the kind of night that reverberated a palpable electricity, prickling my skin with its righteous appeal. Fireflies sparked the air while a seemingly endless band of katydids worked the crowd, crooning en masse in a harmonious buzz of rhythmic exultation. But I wasn’t here for the music or the ambiance.
I was here for her, the only woman in this world who ever gave a damn about me. The one person I’d do anything for. Anything.
I could still smell the blood on my hands.
For a fleeting moment, I wondered if she’d actually go through with it—uproot her life for a bastard like me. A small part of me secretly hoped she’d bail on the arrangement, maybe turn me in. Not because I didn’t value my freedom or want her here.
But because she deserved better.
Then, I felt it—that tug—her heart in proximity, drawing me forward. Emerging through the tea-lit trees, she looked wired, nervous. She fussed with her hair, blunt red layers that were a far cry from her signature jet-black curls. Still, I’d have known her anywhere. Even downcast and uncertain, those big brown eyes always gave her away…
My beloved Leila.
Wearing a baggy olive dress that hung to her ankles, she hugged herself gracefully against the wind and I sighed. Only she could don such an outfit and make it regal. Puffing out her chest, she filled her lungs with the moony sky. She lifted her gaze to take in her surroundings—and froze.
She saw me.
Of their own accord, my knees grew weak, yet my feet persisted, propelling me to my fate. I inched closer while noticing the rapid rise and fall of her chest, indicating that she was just as affected as I.
I wanted to say something. Something important. Something profound. My mouth opened but the syllables hid under my tongue.
Searching her face, I aimed to process her expression. My efforts were awarded with a heart-stopping smile. I took her hand, relishing the contact and the warmth of her skin. Studying our entwined fingers, she chewed her lower lip then put her head on my shoulder. And that was all that needed to be said.
All the plans we made and all the dreams we shared and all the times we ached with the desire to have something tangible, culminated in this moment—our clean slate.
I felt happy. And hopeful. For the first time in my life.
I had no idea how long we stood like this while vacationers thrust to action around us, oblivious to who we were and everything we’d been through to get here. All I knew was that I suddenly stopped breathing. And then I heard it:
The slow-crunch approach of vehicles from behind. Too many to count.
No. Please God…
My fingers went numb—she was squeezing me, hard. She heard it too. The telltale drawl of engines was distant then on top of us.
I shot her a look…
I let go of her hand and she took off, yet my boots remained rooted to the ground. Like I said, I’d do anything for her.
Initially, she made good distance before coming to an abrupt stop, as if sensing the growing gulf between us. Her head whipped around. Her body followed suit. Her eyes held mine for a beat before registering what it all meant. Vigorously shaking her head, she held out her arms and started to run…this time, to me.
No. Go back, foolish girl.
Boys in blue appeared from the shadows, detaining Leila in short order, resulting in the sort of outburst I never thought she was capable of, a sound akin to a person being burned alive. She wailed. She sobbed. She shrieked incomprehensible language. It made me crazy to watch her unravel this way, yet the rational part of my brain knew she was merely being held for her protection.
I was the one they had come for.
Emotion sliced through me like a hot blade. Sadness for the person I should’ve been. Envy for the better man who would one day give the only woman I ever loved all the things I never could. Remorse for the tender heart in front of me that I would have to leave behind. Regret for all the time I wasted doing wrong.
But tonight…I would do something right.
With a deep inhale, I made my peace with what I couldn’t change. I would give them what they wanted: The pretender with more aliases than there were months in the year. The grifter with outstanding warrants all over the U.S. The shyster who wouldn’t know an honest dollar if it bit him in the ass. The cutthroat who rid a subpar human of his breath and resilience.
Truth be told, I wasn’t a killer by nature. I simply did what I had to do…for her. She was always my reason. Always the exception.
After all, this was no ordinary love.
They say every man has his breaking point. I learned mine the day I encountered her father, and the way he looked at her—the way no blood relation had any business doing. Upon being welcomed into his home, it was clear I was touching upon something outside my criminal realm…something vile and sinister. Even with Leila right at my side, he never took his eyes off her, continuously adjusting himself in his too-tight polyester slacks as if to entice, sucking on home-rolled smokes until their ashes became one with the carpet.
I took special interest in his “wall of fame” as he called it, where dozens of dusty photographs of Leila dangled from rusted nails—as well as one of her mother.
God rest her soul.
First thing I noticed was that Leila didn’t smile. Not in the pictures or in her father’s company. Second, was the fear written all over her face…in past and present tense. So absolute it made my blood curdle.
Then all I could think about were her headaches. The anxiety. The tremors in her hands. How she cried the first time we made love…flinched whenever I touched her hair. How the smell of tobacco made her languid and nauseous. How the scars on her right breast resembled inflicted burns from cigarettes. The way she called out in her sleep…
“Mommy, can you hear me?”
And I realized that being summoned to the place where she grew up was her way of turning a spotlight on the secrets she could never say out loud. She needed me to see…to understand…
Because she loved me.
So as I broke his nose and spit in his eye, he only laughed…while his daughter cried. That’s when I stepped out of my right mind to commit a crime worthy of a true sinner.
Then, just like that, it was over.
And now, so it was…for me.
I was surrounded. The tourists were gone. I could no longer see her, though I still heard her crying.
Don’t be sad, my beloved. He can’t hurt you anymore.
I went for my pocket. That always made them twitch. But I did it for Leila. Because, for her, I’d do anything.
“Leila, can you hear me? I love you.”
Copyright © S. A. Healey
Image source: flickr.com – Danielle Elder, photographer