Are we there yet? Isabel with a slight tremor in her otherwise mousy voice.
We’ve been in the Taylor Electric van for almost an hour and traffic is being its usual self, namely that there are too many cars on the road and every one of us is kicking ourselves for living in a place where simply getting around is so hard.
Almost there, I say, absentmindedly changing the radio station to distract me from the anchor in my pocket. Rebecca’s phone jingles as I’m moving and when I look at it, I see that it’s her husband asking how her day is going. That text, sadly, will go unanswered. Another fifteen minutes.
We’re heading to the only place I could think of taking the glass orb and the pledge. There’s a small wooded area in the middle of an abandoned lot outside the city. I found it when I was looking for a place to stage heist plans and couldn’t stop thinking about its potential until I eventually caved and bought the place under a pseudonym so that my family wouldn’t ask questions and figure out what my very secretive profession actually was.
A quarter hour later we’re pulling into the lot, and, thankfully, it’s just like I remember it.
Why didn’t we come here first? Isabel asks.
Because it was too dangerous, I say as I turn off the engine. There was nothing that made it worth risking the only safe place I have left.
If you weren’t a huge criminal I’d almost admire your discipline.
You should, it’s the only thing that might get us out of this.
The anchor is heavy in my pocket, there’s a grin on my face, and the shame I felt after killing Yvonne is pushed down deep enough that while it’s still there it isn’t threatening to suffocate me between every breath. My steps are as light as they’ve been since, well, since I was still Victoria.
In the middle of the forest is an abandoned well, which, despite its age, was still structurally sound when I first came upon it. I hired one of those construction crews you run into in my trade, the kind that operate in the seedy underbelly of the city working for various crime-lords, and had them build it out for me over the course of several months. I nearly cried the first night I sat at my desk, gazing up at the lights of the cavern they created, admiring the condensation as it dripped down the limestone walls.
I actually kind of like this, Isabel says as we step off the ladder and stare at the vault-like entrance. It’s solid steel, a foot thick, unlocked only by a nine-digit passcode.
I put in the code—it comes back to me seemingly out of muscle-memory, which is nice considering I forgot how to hotwire a car—and we step inside the cave. The cavern opens up and stretches into the distance. The air is damp, cool, and heavy. I flick the switch next to the door to start the airflow system and the fans fire up without missing a beat. Next come the lights, which click on in sequence, illuminating the stairway down to the main level, the walkway, and, down at the other end of the cavern, my old desk.
This is a supervillain-level lair you’ve got here, Victoria, Isabel says, which sends a jolt of pride through my body.
It’s practical and, I’ll admit, maybe a little more grandiose than it needed to be.
My footsteps echo off the walls. Being here feels so nostalgic. I know it’s been less than a week, but it’s quite literally been several lifetimes. I was never one to be overly emotional, but the goosebumps on my forearms are telling me I’m about ten seconds from tears if I don’t hold it back.
But things are off the further I get. A cabinet left open, a chair overturned, a cache of ropes and hooks strewn about the floor. Even my metal desk is astray; I was never the tidiest person, but always one of those people who knew where everything was in the chaos of their quarters. My desk, though, is littered with files and tools I know I never would have left so out in the open, and when I get up close I see that the drawers have been emptied on the ground behind it.
Looks like they got here first, Isabel says before I can utter the words myself. I’m in disbelief; the only way into the cavern were me and Javier. To have him tortured so brutally that he would give up the door code? Once the thought hits me, those tears I’ve been holding back break the dam.
I sink into my desk chair, my body going limp. It’s as though I’ve been holding this back since my first death, having never gotten the chance to properly grieve my own loss while constantly being pursued or listening to others grieve theirs.
I’m so sorry, Victoria, Isabel whispers over my quiet sobs.
It takes a few minutes before I’m back to normal. “I need to see Javier’s place,” I say more to myself than Isabel, Rebecca’s voice cracking and warped from the runny nose and tears. “I need to see if he has anything that can help me end this.”
After collecting the contents of my desk and putting it all back together, I clear a space in the top drawer and unceremoniously drop the anchor and pledge inside.
What are you doing? This place isn’t safe!
It’s not secure, but I doubt they’ll ever be back here since they already came through once. Even if one of the hunters is outside, they’re going to think I came down here to hide, saw the cavern, and left because it wasn’t safe.
There’s silence in my head, which must mean Isabel agrees. I take one last look at the cavern before heading to the door. It’s hard to imagine having the last safe place I thought I had destroyed like this and knowing the only other person who knew about it was the one who gave it up. I’m at a loss for words. I just hope Javier isn’t completely lost as well.
It’s a long and frustrating climb up the ladder, and now that we’re back in the open air Rebecca’s phone is blowing up from all the messages she must have received when we were in the cavern. I half expect the Cruel Man or Sadistic Woman to be waiting for me when I get to the top, laughing maniacally, lying in wait in the shrubbery so they can shove me back down and put an end to this punishing day. When I reach the top, though, they’re nowhere in sight.
Where are we going? Isabel asks as I fire up the engine.
Javier must have been truly lost to give up our hideout, and it struck me when I heard Rebecca’s phone going off that it seems like the only thing worse than having voices in your head is having voices that actively fight against you. If I’m to get out of this with myself intact, whatever ‘getting out of this’ really means, I’m going to need to make peace with Rebecca.
Rebecca, I say as I climb into her van. I’ve gotten more done with your help today than I thought I would and it’s already pretty late to be doing anything else. How would you like to see your family one last time?
It’s silent, but I know she’s still there. Judging by what happened to Jenny, it seems only something truly horrible will destroy what’s left of these women’s souls. It’ll be dangerous with the hunters out there looking for us, but if you want to make a quick stop by your place before we go off, I wouldn’t be against it. Everyone deserves a chance to say goodbye, which is something Isabel and I never got to do.
Are you… serious? Rebecca asks from somewhere that sounds far away, as though she had receded from my thoughts as much as she possibly could.
I fire up the engine. Just tell me where to go.
After just over two hours of driving, we finally take a turn down a residential street just south of the city. Rebecca’s van is running on fumes, as am I. I’m no longer the tireless night-owl Victoria Simone, but now the early-middle-aged Rebecca Taylor, who is constantly exhausted from rearing a boy and girl while becoming one of the most respected electricians in the area.
The street is lined on both sides with nice, if not enormous, houses that are similar to each other but different enough not to make it all too bland. Each family has a driveway, garage, and small, open yard out front with a wooden fence around the back. The cars are well taken care of, mostly Kias and Hyundais, and the driveways are littered with evidence of children, be it basketball hoops, chalk drawings, or bikes with frilly streamers hanging off the handlebars. Being here makes me think that Rebecca could have been friends with my parents if life had worked out much, much differently.
This neighborhood reminds me of the one I grew up in, at least what I can still remember of it. The road slopes slightly as it stretches down to a cul-de-sac, such that the houses on one side eventually have long driveways that climb the hill to their garages while the houses on the other side are on flat land or even slopes down behind them. I can see the front yard from the doorstep of our childhood home in my mind, the thicket of short pine trees off in the corner, the driveway in the other, the small stretch of green grass that separated them. It’s a glossy image, with the corners fuzzy and indistinct.
When I try to flip that memory around and look at the house from the front yard, my mind goes blank. Imagining the inside is much the same until I’m able to grasp onto a memory of Donavan sitting in what I think is the living room, the carpet light blue and the walls white behind him, while the rest of the image other than his clear and smiling face almost completely absent.
I take a deep breath to calm myself. Gerard’s warnings are already coming true, and I need to see my brother to remember who I truly am, along with Javier’s place and whatever else that might keep me grounded, because if I’ve already lost my parents, the house I grew up in, and skills that were so ingrained that they were part of who I was, then completely losing control doesn’t seem too far off.
Rebecca’s house is down at the end of the street at the edge of the cul-de-sac. I feel her pride welling through me as I look at it.
I take—or rather, Rebecca takes—a deep breath before I get out of the van. Are you going to be okay? I ask her.
Yes, it’s just, I have no idea what to say.
Tell them you’ll always love them, Isabel says. The last time I talked to my aunt she yelled at me, and then she died before we could make up. It took me years to get over that.
It seems like sound advice, but I’ll admit I’m way out of my depth here. Victoria never lost anyone, until she lost everyone.
We walk in through the front door. It’s hardwood floor and roomier inside than I expected. Tidy, though lived in, with children’s toys on strewn about here and there and a computer desk off in the corner of the living room where, by the looks of it, the children spend most of their time. The smell of takeout pizza wafts in from the kitchen.
A boy who looks to be about nine or ten runs around the corner when we walk in. “Mommy’s home!”
It takes all my strength to keep it together. His name is Danny, Rebecca says through a shaky voice. Ask him to get his sister.
“Hey Danny.” Rebecca wants me to kneel, but I have a hard time looking her son in the eyes. “Can you go get your sister for me?”
The boy runs off and Rebecca seamlessly takes control of her body. She turns and heads straight for the kitchen.
Her husband is around the corner, pulling four plates out of the cabinet next to the sink. He’s short but thin, with a neat hairline that’s betrayed by a balding patch on top of his head. He has the strong, veiny arms of a man who works outside all day, and the belly of one who drinks beer most nights.
“Sorry, Babe, but you only need three plates,” Rebecca says, her voice strong despite the crashing waves I feel inside her. “I can’t stay for dinner tonight.”
Almost as though he expected it, he returns the top plate to the cabinet. For a few moments, he refuses to look at her and when he finally does his eyes are full of annoyance.
“Again?” he says. “Honey, I know these night jobs pay more, but you need to spend time with the kids.”
Rebecca holds steady while I crumple and Isabel whimpers from what we’re watching. In this moment I realize how truly strong Rebecca is: she’s standing here acting like this is just a normal night where she’s working late, without showing any physical sign of knowing that this is the last time she’ll see her husband and kids. I can’t imagine keeping my cool through this.
“I’m sorry, Randy, I truly am.” She walks forward, wraps her arms around him. “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of our marriage working while you watched the house and kids. Thank you for always being such an amazing father and husband.”
Their eyes meet. He looks taken aback by what he’s hearing. From this small slice of their lives, I don’t imagine them being on bad terms, but I get the feeling Rebecca is all business all the time and isn’t one to express herself.
“It’s—it’s okay,” he says, putting the plates on the countertop and embracing her.
“This will be the last time, I promise,” she says. Isabel cries out and Rebecca’s body twitches from the sudden sound. Releasing her husband and pulling back slightly, Rebecca forces a smile onto her face. “I love you Randy. Always.”
He grabs her face and pulls it close for a kiss, but it’s over before it starts. Whatever passion that once raged has become only a few hot coals as their years piled up on one another.
Fighting back tears, Rebecca leaves the kitchen and turns down the hallway. Her son and daughter, a girl who looks to be about twelve or thirteen, are walking up, smiles on their faces. Rebecca kneels so she’s face-to-face with her son and looking up at her daughter.
“I have to work late tonight,” Rebecca says. “I just want you both to know I love you and that all this working late and taking night-shifts is for you.”
“We know, Mom,” her daughter says with a forced smile. Rebecca wraps her arms around both of her children and squeezes tightly, still fighting back the tears I can feel in the corners of her eyes. She’s a house of cards just waiting to fall.
After a long embrace, she lets them go. “Dad has dinner in the kitchen. Make sure to behave while I’m gone.”
We’re out the door a few moments later. Rebecca closes it softly behind her, but I feel her knees buckling so I retake control before she manages to turn toward her van. She howls out in pain as she recedes to the periphery, Isabel crying alongside her.
“Well, we need gas before anything else,” I say once we’re in the van. “After that I guess we’ll go find a cheap hotel to stay in for the night. Somewhere far away from anyone we care about.”
It’s an erratic, fifteen-minute drive to the nearest gas station and the quiet sobs of Rebecca and Isabel are my only company. Try as I might to keep my own family off my mind, I can’t get them out of my thoughts. I can’t even remember my parents’ faces, but would I have the strength to do what Rebecca did to protect them from Gerard? To protect Donavan?
Thankfully, the gas station is almost completely vacant other than the attendant, who I can see stocking shelves through the window as I drive up. I don’t know Rebecca’s pin and when I ask her she’s unresponsive. I decide I’ll have to go inside to pay.
I’m only a few feet from the van when I hear the voice.
“Not so fast, Victoria.”
It’s a man’s. It’s gruff, satisfied, arrogant.
He’s short and stubby, with a long beard and longer hair in a ponytail behind his head. I wouldn’t think twice before overpowering him if he didn’t have a gun in his hand, aimed directly at me from only a short distance away.
“Oh, it’s you.” There’s no fear in me, only resignation. Of all the places to find me, an empty gas station seemed like the least likely and I felt too safe when I pulled up. “The Cruel Man. How’d you find me?”
“The Cruel Man?” he says. It seems to have caught him off-guard and forces a laugh. “It has a nice ring to it.”
“How did you find me?”
“It was difficult, I’ll admit.” He inches closer, the gun pointed at my chest. “I eventually just had to ask Gerard where you were. I’ve been looking for you all day.”
All day. Seems like an entire lifetime has passed. “So, Gerard knows where I am even after I wake up?”
“Oh, of course. The person in control of the anchor knows where it leads.”
Interesting. That means I can use the anchor I left in my hideout to find the one it belongs to, if only I could figure out how to do it.
“Don’t sound too satisfied,” I say, forcing a grin just to annoy him. “Good hunters don’t typically have to be told where to find their prey.”
His face twists into a snarl. “Be quiet, woman.”
“Hey, just saying, maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were.”
The man straightens up and laughs. “Gerard said you went to your old hideout. Did you like what we did with the place? I rather enjoyed it myself.”
So, Gerard knew I was there at the time, but did nothing to stop it. Could he see what I was doing? Or did he just know my location? “You could have left it better than that. My cave didn’t do anything to you or Gerard.”
“I heard when your partner told us where it was he was begging to stop the torture.” The Cruel Man straightens, grin widening when he sees the effect his words have on me. “He’s even weaker than you are.”
“You shut your mouth about Javier,” I say, but it only makes his laugh deepen. I look over the Cruel Man’s shoulder into the gas station and see the attendant blissfully dancing to the music in his headphones, his back turned, restocking the shelves. There’ll be no help from him.
The Cruel Man shrugs. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be like your partner soon enough.”
He’s got me backed against the van at point-blank with nowhere to run. I have no options, so instead, I focus on Donavan. His face. His smile. His afro. His eyes. I can’t lose him after this death. I can’t lose the last thing really tying me to my childhood.
“Well, get on with it, then.”
The Cruel Man gets on with it. The bullet rips through me. I flop back against the van. Rebecca and Isabel scream in unison, but I remain silent, my mind entirely focused on my brother. Rebecca Taylor is dead.
Chapter 6 here.
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