Vivian’s alarm goes off at six, just like yesterday. My head is ringing and I’m lethargic; the rest of the day after finding Gerard’s former hideout was a blur of small bottles of alcohol and unanswered texts to the Guilty Man.
I go back to sleep until my phone buzzes several hours later. It’s a text from a blocked sender. So predictable. Every day with the taunts. Every day with the jabs. Every day with the pledge only to let me free if I give him what he wants, which he must know by now I do not have.
There’s a semi-fresh bottle of vodka on the table next to the phone. Semi-fresh in the sense that I got stomach pains a few hours after I ran out of the small bottles in Vivian’s purse, so I opened a new fifth from the fridge. Semi-fresh in the sense that I only took a few drinks and left it open overnight so now it tastes warm and stale. Hands shaking, I grab it and choke down a mouthful to calm what is either the beginnings of a hangover or the beginnings of withdrawal.
It takes me a few minutes to reach over and grab the phone. Gerard’s text adds onto my already sinking ship:
“Since you don’t have what I want, I’ve decided to make things more interesting. The corner of 125th and 8th. You’ll find your friend there. What was his name? Javier? When he’s not begging for death, all he does is cry your name. Won’t you go visit him?”
Gags when I open the picture that follows. It’s a young man, small, frail, face so bloodied he can’t even open his eyes, teeth missing, nose flattened. The plastic of the phone starts to crack from how hard I’m gripping.
Sighing, I take a swig of vodka and consider sending the Guilty Man yet another text before erasing the whole thing.
You have to go help him, Ally says. At least get out of this boring house.
I have neither the desire nor the energy. You can only run so long on pure rage before you crash.
You have to at least try. This time it’s from Rebecca.
There’s nothing I can do. Running in to ‘save’ him would probably just get me killed and even if it didn’t the two of us would get hunted down eventually anyway. My chest burns from another drink of the vodka. No, he’s lost. As painful as it is to say. I can’t help him.
Whatever happened to that woman who tortured her enemies?
She’s gone. All that’s left is this drunken mess.
Then what are we going to do? Isabel asks as I take another drink.
At this point, I’d rather just lay here until the hunters find me.
We have to do something, Isabel says when I fail to respond. We can’t just sit here all day waiting to die.
I agree, Ally mutters.
I suppose they’re right. If I’m leaving Javier to get tortured, I can’t just waste this life. I could try to figure out what Vivian does for work and if she’s been fired yet, trying to keep her alive as long as possible. I could try to run again and maybe be able to get free given what I now know about how the game is played. I could try to see my family…
Then it hits me. Isabel, I’ve got it. Rebecca and I got closure, or at least as much as we could, but you’ve been here almost since the beginning and you’ve never once seen someone you loved. Who do you want to see?
Her disbelief filters from her soul directly into mine. Are you serious? There’s a pause while she considers, before finally she says, Can I see John?
Ally groans in annoyance, but I ignore her. All she wants is blood and running me right into a trap isn’t helping anyone but Gerard.
After filling my purse with more miniature bottles of liquor, throwing a couple whiskeys in with the vodka to liven things up a bit, I head for the door. When it closes behind me, I’m teeming with positive energy. The anger exhausts you. The regret holds you down. The hope for fleeting moments of happiness keeps you moving forward.
It’s almost noon. We’re across town from Vivian’s place in an industrial park full of dozens of nearly identical white, rectangular buildings that have long, dark windows and three to five storefronts on every side. I’m walking through sheets of rain up to a pho restaurant called ‘Pho Ya Boy!’. Like the building itself, the restaurant is non-descript from the outside, so much so that I honestly don’t think I would be able to pick it out from a crowd of any number of other businesses in the same park, save for the name, which is just enough of an unusual pun for me to give it a chuckle.
I thought about driving here, but then remembered the rain and how much alcohol I’d already consumed before even leaving Vivian’s bed and took the bus instead.
Are you sure he’s going to be here? I ask Isabel while we’re walking up to the door.
Yes, it’s a Wednesday and it’s raining. John always went out for lunch on Wednesdays, and this was his favorite place on a day like today.
Inside is like walking into a different world. It’s brightly lit and has yellow and green floors. The walls are covered with NBA basketball posters from the mid-to-late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The tables, which are as tightly packed as possible, are painted like basketball courts. I suddenly understand why John would like this place and a smile crosses my face when I imagine sitting here with Donavan.
I order a small bowl of the Detlef Shrimp from the counter and take a seat off in the corner with a good view of the front door. I’m one of the only customers when I first walk in, but the restaurant fills up quickly after I arrive, and by five after noon there’s a long line at the counter and half the seats are taken. I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate, and when my bowl of noodle soup arrives a few minutes later I’m so starving that it barely registers that John hasn’t come through the door yet.
This is such a waste of time, Ally groans. We could be out there helping Javier or hunting down the hunters and instead you’re in here eating soup.
I pause between mouthfuls. I know your heart is made of stone, but Isabel has been with me almost since the beginning and she needs this.
What are you even going to do? Ally questions.
I just want to see him one last time, Isabel says.
Their voices fade as the argument continues. For now at least, all I care about are the noodles. Then Ally says something that makes me stop dead with a noodle still hanging from my mouth.
What if one of the hunters takes him over and destroys his soul?
Isabel is silent. Of course, I’d considered the possibility. It’s why I haven’t gone to see Donavan or my family again even though my heart aches for them. It’s why I haven’t even mentioned how much this reminds me of the last time I saw them, how the Guilty Man scolded me for being so careless.
Do you want to leave, then? I ask Isabel. She was with me when I last saw my family, and she was the only other one here who experienced what happened to Jenny.
No, I want to see him. I’ll go crazy if we went all this way just to leave before he gets here.
What about the hunters? Rebecca asks.
We’re not going to be close to him, so they won’t take his body, Isabel says, feigning confidence through a trembling voice. But if they do, I’ll probably just go the way of Jenny and this’ll all be over.
Jenny? Ally asks.
She was the first, I say, my eyes back on the door. There’s a man and woman approaching outside, but I can’t see their faces behind the restaurant logo on the window. The Cruel Man went into her brother and attacked us. She disappeared after that.
Traumatic, Ally says. No wonder Gerard can’t break you.
I look up as the door opens, watching the man and woman walk in. He hasn’t yet, but I’m getting worr—
That’s him, Isabel says.
The man I was watching through the windows pulls down his hood and unwraps a scarf from around his neck, which had covered most of his face. He’s about average height, with a chiseled jaw, dark hair that’s closely cut on the sides and longer on top, high cheekbones, and intelligent, if weary, eyes.
Isabel gasps when the woman John came in with removes her jacket. She’s slender, a little taller than most women, with straight hair that’s long and thick and perfectly frames her pretty face once she takes it out of the ponytail she had under her hood. She’s looking at John intently, her eyes focused on his own, a wide grin on her face, laughing at some comment he must have just made under his breath.
Who’s that he’s with? Rebecca asks.
Isabel doesn’t answer. I can feel her fuming.
Isabel? Are you okay?
Jessica. A coworker who was always into him.
I watch them order. Jessica is smiling and laughing at everything he says. He’s more reserved, almost stoic, giving her toothless grins when their eyes meet before looking away, as though he’s uncomfortable. I can’t tell if he’s naturally like this, or if she’s making him so, but either way he doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself.
Rebecca scoffs. You’ve been gone for what, a week? And he’s already out here on a date?
Barely even a week, Isabel says, no hint of emotion in her voice, though I can feel it oozing from her soul, but it makes sense. I knew if I weren’t there they’d be together. Just look at her.
You know, you were worth more to the world than your love of your boyfriend, Rebecca says.
Yes, I know, but none of that really matters anymore. He was the one. I loved him more than anyone, and now…
How about family? Friends? Rebecca asks. Who else can we see? Where can we go that lets you have closure?
He’s all I have left, Isabel says. All I had left.
He looks like he can barely stand her, I say.
We’re all silent for a moment, just glowering at them over my bowl of Pho. They get a table near a hallway I’m guessing leads to the bathroom.
This isn’t a date, I say, at least not for him. He looks miserable.
That’s just how he looks sometimes, Isabel says. I get the feeling no matter what I say at this point that she’s resigned to whatever assumptions she’s made about what’s going on.
Maybe he’s just trying to cope with the loss.
What loss? she says, and my heart breaks for her. Obviously, he didn’t care as much as I did.
We watch them in silence for several minutes as their conversation goes from a mix of jovial and reluctant to almost non-existent entirely. An awkward air hangs over their table, her checking her phone and him gazing out the windows toward the parking lot.
Okay, this is too hard, Isabel finally says. I need to leave.
I quickly stand, though as I do my bladder lets me know I’ve spent the last twenty minutes drinking water and eating soup. I longingly look over to John and Jessica’s table toward the bathrooms.
Victoria, if you have to pee, then just go. I’ll be fine.
My pace slows as I walk past their table. They’re both doing their best not to look at each other, and with every glance in their direction I feel more uncomfortable for both of them. She’s still on her phone. He’s looking out the window and sniffling from the heat of his pho.
I guess I don’t really know how I wanted this to turn out, Isabel says. Maybe this is the best I could hope for, him moving on so fast and trying to be happy.
We pee in silence. I’ve always felt uncomfortable even talking at the sink after doing my business, let alone in the stall like some people, so you better bet I’m not saying a damn word even to the women in my head while we’re in the bathroom. I wash my hands and exit as quickly as I can.
John, his back to me, is shaking and hunched over his pho when I come back. The look on Jessica’s face is one of horror and sorrow, and her hand is resting gently on his arm just below the elbow.
I slow my pace without thinking, doing my best to be as nonchalant as possible as I pass.
“I just miss her so much,” he groans, his voice stuttered and cracking. I realize now that those sniffles weren’t from his pho after all, but the beginnings of a dam that has since broken wide open. “I’m completely lost without her here.”
Oh my god, Isabel moans, and I have to hold back the sudden urge to break out into sobs of my—rather, her—own. Oh my god, John, I’m so sorry!
“It’s okay, just let it out,” Jessica says in a loud whisper.
I fight off a hitch in my step, my knees buckling beneath me. John! Isabel screams, her voice trembling and tears forming in my eyes. John! I love you! Please, just try to be happy! Please!
He juts upright and then snaps his head back, his hands covering his face and tears streaming out through the spaces between his fingers. “Why did they kill her? Why did they take her away from me?
Oh, John, honey, if you knew your head would explode, Ally laughs.
Not now! I snap.
The cold rain slaps me in the face when I finally get outside, sobering me just long enough to dig into Vivian’s purse and pull out one of the many small bottles of alcohol. It burns my chest while Isabel burns my heart.
I’m so sorry, Isabel. I wipe the alcohol from my lips. I’m so sorry I’m doing this to you. I’m so sorry you had to see him like that. I fall against the wall behind me, no longer caring if anyone inside the restaurant can see me.
Coming here was a poor choice. There was never any positive outcome.
She’s right. This wasn’t going to be Rebecca saying a final goodbye to everything she loved. It was going to be Isabel having never gotten to say goodbye and then taunting her by its proximity but never letting her say how she felt.
I’m staggering from the building, trying to put as much space between John and I as possible. The door opens behind me a few seconds later, no doubt a happy customer completely unprepared for the drunk, crying woman outside.
My steps are still uneven, and when there’s a tap on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon,” I say through a slur of tears and alcohol.
The tap comes again, harder this time. I spin to see a woman of about mid-thirties wearing a rain jacket glaring at me. “I’m going, I’m going,” I say.
She clutches my arm as I turn to leave, and I meet her eyes once more. “Victoria, I don’t understand you. Sometimes you’re impossible to catch. Other times you make it so easy it’s boring.”
My heartrate doubles in an instant. I look the woman up and down and then yank my arm free. “Really? Now of all times?”
She shrugs. I don’t see any weapons on her, but her jacket could hide a knife or even a small handgun and it’s not like the Sadistic Woman needs to be covert when she tries to kill someone.
“I just knew where you were,” the Sadistic Woman says, laughing. “I didn’t know what you looked like until you started crying and ran out of the restaurant.”
Dammit, Victoria, this is what you get, Ally says. We should have n—
Shut it, Rebecca snaps.
“So, what do we do?” I ask, trying to hold off a tremor in my voice and the argument in my head. “You just kill me right here?”
“That’s not any fun, but I suppose that’s how it’ll go.” She reaches into her coat.
Do something! Rebecca screams. Her voice snaps me together. My movements are slow, but the woman’s hand is still stuck under her coat when I lunge at her. She gasps, my shove sending her stumbling backward a couple steps before she falls to the ground.
Run! Rebecca urges, but this time I don’t need the encouragement. I’m already a few steps in the opposite direction of the restaurant, looking for any way out.
Pho Ya Boy! is in an industrial park, so there are dozens of parked cars I’d love to steal if only I could remember how and wasn’t too drunk to drive. I could try to hide in one of the other businesses, but then I’m just waiting to be found and I’d probably ruin even more lives than I already have. No, all I can do is run, even if that run is more a drunken stumbling than a full-on sprint.
“Get back here you bitch!” the Sadistic Woman screams. Judging by the distance in her voice she’s still where I left her, struggling to get up.
I’m running through the parking lot toward the road when I hear a low rumble in the distance. It grows louder and louder until I eventually look in its direction. Just down the street is a bus stop, and a bus has just pulled up. There’s a hiss of compressed air being released as the doors open.
All I can do is hope the bus stays long enough to make my escape. There are three people in line outside. My knees are aching. Now two. My hamstrings feel like they’re about to rip in half. Now one. I think my heart might explode out of my chest.
I limp through the door, covered in sweat, knees weak, fumbling through the pockets of Vivian’s jacket.
“Keep the change,” I gasp as I throw a five at the bus driver. He nods, closes the door, and pulls away from the stop.
Wheezing and my side aching, I walk to the middle of the bus. Everyone’s eyes are on me, the staggering woman covered in sweat and reeking of alcohol who just ran a couple hundred yards because she couldn’t wait for the next bus. They’re think they’re uncomfortable, but they didn’t even see me inside the restaurant or outside with the Sadistic Woman, nor did they hear me having full conversations with the ladies in my head. No, they think they’re uncomfortable, but they’re lucky they only got the last sixty seconds of it.
There are no seats, so I find a rail to steady myself. I don’t know if it’ll be Vivian or the next woman or if it’ll ever even happen, but if I’m ever in a body for any length of time, I’m going to focus as much as I can on regaining Victoria’s fitness before anything else.
We’ve been driving for maybe fifteen seconds. Everyone’s still staring at me, but I’m staring out the windows, trying to get a clear view of the parking lot I left behind, trying to see if the Sadistic Woman is still chasing me. I let loose a long breath.
A cool breeze rolls through the bus an instant later, but no one around me seems to notice it.
Did anybody feel th—
A fist comes out of nowhere. I see it just out of the corner of my eye and duck to avoid. It slams into the railing I had been leaning against. A woman cries out in pain.
The two of us lock eyes. “Salire,” the woman whispers. The cool breeze kicks up again, and the woman’s eyes roll into the back of her head. She goes limp and crashes to the floor while another woman nearby snaps up at me over the chaos.
What the hell is this? I groan, stumbling backward.
Rebecca’s voice is shaking. She’s jumping bodies! You need to run!
I lunge at the door, but it won’t budge. Slamming my fists, I scream, “Open!”
The bus screeches to a halt and the Sadistic Woman, in her new body, falls on top of me as the door opens. I throw an elbow, connecting just above the eye and then sprint out as fast as I can, just waiting for the next cool breeze to tell me she’s nearby.
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