I’m lying face-down in the bed of a new woman, restless, wide awake despite the fact that I just woke up, perhaps kept so by the cold torrent of bloody rage flowing through me.
I told you he was just using you, Ally mutters.
My hand instinctively reaches for the bottle of alcohol on my nightstand but hits a lamp instead. There’s an instant of confusion until I remember that this woman isn’t Vivian.
We have to tell them who he is, she says. We can get him back for torturing your friend and get out of this game at the same time.
A long sigh and my two competing desires wrestle for control. It would feel nice to expose the man who tortured Javier into oblivion and got us into all this in the first place. Then again, exposing him would further Gerard’s goals and if there’s anything Albert and I still agree on it’s that Gerard must be eliminated.
No, we can’t expose him. I can’t let Gerard win after all this.
Ally’s disbelief filters into my soul. You can’t be serious.
He tortured Javier, but he did it in order to stay undercover. I struggle through it, trying to forget Javier’s face the last time I saw him, how he talked to the voices in his head, how he was barely hanging on. Does that make him a good person? No, it doesn’t. Do I trust that he actually cares about me? No. Should I have slept with him? No.
Then expose him! Ally yells.
Keeping him secret is the only chance we have of taking Gerard down. It might be a tough pill for her to swallow, but it’s true. Do you think Gerard will let us free if we give him Albert?
But you finally have what he wants, Ally says.
No. You’re being naïve if you think Gerard will let us go. Albert is the only hope we all have of being at peace.
I agree, Rebecca says. It sucks, but it’s true.
You saw what he did to Javier, Isabel says, and just like that I’m fighting two women in my head, about to lose myself just like Javier.
My hands tremble as I look at this woman’s home screen. At first I thought the shaking was because of Vivian’s alcoholism, but now it seems like something else, like maybe it’s the just another sign that I’m losing control. Trust me, I know.
Then what are we going to do? Isabel asks.
The phone tells me her name is Jordan. She’s a software developer on the East Side and stays in good shape despite the desk job. She’s young, looks popular. They’ll mourn her when she’s gone, which is probably going to be soon.
It takes me a moment to respond. We run. At this point, I think that’s all we can do.
We can’t run, Ally says. You know what happens when you run.
Yes, but it’s our only alternative at this point.
I think we can find something better, Rebecca says. Running now is an emotional decision.
God damn right it’s an emotional decision. I can feel her bristling at my usage of the Lord’s name in vein, but at this point it seems obvious there is only one Lord, and he’s keeping me in purgatory for his own enjoyment.
Emotional decisions aren’t always the best, Rebecca continues. Like sleeping with Albert, who turned out to be only marginally better than the rest.
It’s not like I knew it at the time. Obviously had I known I wouldn’t have done it.
Then go tell Gerard who he is and let us all be done, Ally says.
I’m on my feet, digging through this woman’s clothes. No matter what I do, I’ll need to be dressed for it. Albert said the family was benevolent and that Gerard went about it wrong. That’s not quite the same thing.
Can anything he said even be trusted at this point? Ally questions. The man tortured your partner and then shot you in the face. He’s your enemy.
Perhaps, I say, checking two pairs of shoes against one another, trying to determine which will work better if I have to run, but he’s not Gerard. He could never be as bad.
What are you talking about? All of this is his fault. He hired you! He got you killed! He tortured Javier! He betrayed you!
Hearing it all neatly laid out gives me pause. I decide I’ll go with the black running shoes over the trail runners. The area is muddy and wet, but I doubt I’ll be in the woods, given that I’ve been all the way through Jordan’s apartment by now and haven’t seen any hiking backpacks or camping stoves.
You’re right, it might all be his fault, I say, but it’s not like he planned it. He hired me to help get rid of Gerard and someone else betrayed us all. He tortured Javier because he’s on Gerard’s team and that’s what Gerard does. He betrayed me because he had to keep himself hidden.
Ally scoffs, and even Isabel and Rebecca are feeding me bad energies. I don’t like it any more than you do, I continue, but looking at the long-term gain over the short-term satisfaction, keeping Albert hidden means Gerard will eventually be gone. Giving them Albert now might make us feel good, but Gerard will win, and he won’t let us free, despite what you say. I add in the last part as Ally tries to interrupt.
You’re going to be just like Javier by the time the ‘long-term’ hits if you just run, Rebecca says. You can’t fight them off forever.
I know I can’t, and I’m willing to suffer that fate if it means Gerard is dead and gone.
Why even run, then? Ally asks. Why not just let them kill you?
Because I have to fight somehow, I just need to do it on my own terms.
There’s a long silence in my head, a welcome silence. I go throughout the apartment, packing snacks and various supplies into one of Jordan’s duffle bags, trying not to think of what happens when I get caught running a second time. Shoving me into Yvonne’s body was bad enough. Now I’ve given Gerard a headache for over a week and still haven’t given him what he wants. I imagine Jordan will be one of the last hosts I’m completely in control of.
Ally is the first to speak. Fine, if you’re going to run, at least give me what you gave Isabel.
And what was that? I ask. Going to see John?
Yes, but I don’t want that, Ally says. I want to see my favorite park one last time. After that, we can run all you want. Her voice is dejected and frustrated. Look, I am too, but somebody needs to make the tough choices.
The parking lot at the park is about half-full when we pull in. The park sits on the southeastern tip of a long lake and stretches north along the water for a couple of miles. There’s a nice view of the other side, and on a crisp, sunny day like today you can see mountains way off in the distance beyond the water.
Though I feel exposed by the open space and the preponderance of people, I can see why Ally would choose this park as the last familiar place she sees before we go into hiding. The water is calm and blue. The grass is green. There are children playing on the playset. There are ducks swimming underneath the bridges and docks. It’s morning, but I imagine a sunset in the west over the distant peaks of the mountains that just barely creep over the horizon on the other side would be breathtaking.
We find a bench to sit on along the water. It’s a more secluded part of the park with just a walking path and little else.
You know, if you just told Gerard what he wanted you could come here as often as you like, Ally says as we sit down. I ignore her.
A young couple passes a minute or so after we sit, holding hands, laughing, and smiling. They’re both women, so I’m immediately more at ease than I would be otherwise, which I suppose is misguided; I’ve only been hunted by the Sadistic Woman and Cruel Man, but when I died Gerard’s team had plenty of other women on it that he could send one or two of them after me at any moment.
I’m telling you, Ally, I say, I’m not going to give up Albert and I’m not going to just sit by and wait for them to find me. At least if I’m on the run they’re also in an unfamiliar setting and I might be able to hold them off.
I lean back against the bench, taking in the view of the water. No, not forever.
We’re on that bench for at least an hour before moving again, and this time it’s just to another bench closer to the parking lot to get a slightly different view. It’s beautiful and serene, but I’ll admit the sound of every footstep has me looking over my shoulder.
Ally, we need to leave soon, I say for what must be the tenth time.
Just a little longer, she says for what also must be the tenth time, though with each response her voice seems emptier, less emotional, like she’s no longer excited to be here but just trying to stave off the inevitable.
Finally, I can’t wait any longer. Despite Ally’s protests, I get up to start the short walk toward Jordan’s car. A few minutes later, lost in my thoughts and wondering exactly where I’ll run to, I nearly walk into a man coming around a blind corner in the opposite direction. We both stop short, grunting our apologies, before continuing in our respective directions.
Once he’s around the corner, I stop and look after him. His eyes. That was Albert coming to find us.
You barely saw him, and you weren’t paying attention, Isabel says.
I’ve been barely seeing him since Gerard killed me. I start retracing my steps up the path. That was him.
What do you even want from him? Ally groans. Just ignore him! He betrayed you!
If he’s here, he might have come to explain himself, Isabel suggests. Could be worth hearing him out.
Or he’s just watching me to make sure I don’t betray him, I say, doubling my pace back up the path but keeping my footsteps quiet.
He’s standing alone in the middle of the path, gazing out at the water, his back to me, when I come around the corner. He’s got his phone up to his ear, though from here it looks like it’s a different phone than the one he had in his apartment, likely the host’s or perhaps one of the many burner phones I now think he must have given that he’s plotting a coup and is always switching bodies. I can’t really make out what he’s saying from here, so I inch forward until I can.
“She knows my name, but no one else’s,” he says. My body tenses and I nearly teeter over with the abruptness of how I stopped. “I just saw her at a park along the water.”
Who is he talking to? Ally wonders in my ear.
There’s a quiet moment where he listens to whoever is on the other end.
“Yeah, I understand, but this is getting too dangerous. She’s on our side, she wants him gone just as bad as we do, and she’s already agreed to help us. Let me go back and talk to her about what happened yesterday before they find her.”
It’s killing me that I can’t make out the other voice. I inch closer and closer, hands cupped behind my ears in what must be a strange sight to anyone watching.
“Look, Oswald, I nearly got caught yesterday.”
Oswald! Ally mutters, trailing off.
Who’s that? Isabel questions.
I don’t know, Ally says after a pause. I guess I was just excited to know who he was working with.
“What if Catarina had been five seconds faster?” Albert says as he starts to turn toward me. “What if she’d stopped and thought about what she was seeing or told Gerard about it? We need to strike now. We’re so close and she can he—” We lock eyes, his widening with surprise. “—oh shit I have to go.”
He pulls the phone from his ear and thrusts it into his pocket. “How much of that did you hear?” No longer the confident voice he was using on the phone, it’s now wracked with shame.
“Enough to know you’re working with a man named Oswald.”
“I’m so sorry about yesterday,” he says as he walks toward me. “I didn’t know she was there, and I had to make a split-second decision.”
I’m trying to keep my anger in check, but it’s difficult. “So, you blew my brains out?”
“I didn’t want to, I had to. Please, you have to believe me. I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to get you involved in any of this.”
“You’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
“Please, think of the plan.” He pauses for a breath as though trying to calm himself or maybe search for the right words. “You can hate me all you want, but you know Gerard is much worse than I am. Please don’t give us up.”
“Only if you guarantee my freedom after all this,” I say. “Only if you guarantee I’ll be rid of all this body-snatching and soul-jumping shit once he’s gone.”
Ally is trying to speak over him. No, Victoria! You can’t trust him!
“Yes, whatever you want.” He puts his hands on my upper arms, holds me in place for an instant before I pull away. “Whatever you want, just don’t expose us. Please.”
He wanted to use you and now he’s begging you not to use him back? Ally says. He’s the one who tortured Javier!
I take a deep breath and try to push her voice to the side as much as possible. “I’m so sorry about your partner,” he says.
“Seems like you’re sorry about a lot of things.”
He looks down at his feet, trying to hide his guilt. “Yes, I am. Mostly for getting you two mixed up in all this to begin with. I never meant for it to go down like this.”
“Like hell you didn’t.” I can feel my voice rising and I’m trying to keep it down. “You used us from the beginning. You’ve never cared about us at all.”
“That’s not true.” There are tears—presumably of sadness, but he might be a good actor—building in the corners of his eyes. “I’ve been watching over you to keep you safe.”
“Keeping tabs on me.”
“No.” He pauses and then relents. “Well, maybe a little.” He winces, trying to find the words. “But it was my idea to tail you. I wanted to protect you. Even now.”
You can’t trust anything he says, Ally says. He’s trying to manipulate you.
Will you just shut up? Isabel snaps. Let him talk.
“Trying to protect yourself as well,” I say. It’s hard to keep my voice down, especially with all the talking in my ears.
“Is that such a crime? Am I not allowed to feel bad for you and also wary of what you might do to me?”
“What I might do?” I can barely breathe. My voice is more garbled barking rather than full words. “You tortured my best friend until he was insane!”
“Gerard put me in charge of his questioning. I couldn’t risk being exposed. Your partner wasn’t strong like you are.”
I slap him across the face and he stumbles backward. “Don’t you dare speak of him like that!”
“I’m sorry—I just—there was nothing I could do.” He takes a deep breath, tries to calm himself. “Please, you have to understand. This was all Gerard.”
“You pulled the trigger yesterday on me just like you did with Javier.” Whatever I was doing to keep my voice down, it no longer works. “He was dead inside. Hollow! A shell!”
He just stares at me, unable to find the words. I’ve got plenty. “You and Oswald can go to hell. I’m done with this shit.”
And with that, I’m stomping down the path, him pleading behind me. The path is more or less empty once I get around the blind corner, other than what looks to be a young couple who just left the gym off in the distance. From here, I can see the man is wearing a muscle shirt despite the cool weather and the woman is wearing short, black yoga shorts and a tight long-sleeved shirt.
My temper is still flaring. You can’t imagine what it’s like making a deal with the man whose been torturing your best friend because he is somehow worse than your common enemy.
It’s a brisk walk down the path. The water is still beautiful, the grass is still green, and the sun still shines, but I’m feeling less attached to it all with each step, more used to the idea of leaving it all behind. In fact, I told Albert that I wanted to be free once this was done, but I’m not entirely sure freedom at this point wouldn’t just mean the cold, blissful embrace of a true death. There’s nothing more for me on this world. Donavan’s smile flashes in my mind. Nothing attainable at least.
As the young couple get closer I realize they’re not young at all, but actually in their mid-to-late forties at the earliest, though they’re dressed athletically and ‘hip’ as though they not only just left the nearby gym but are also those parents who wear the styles of clothes their children wear because it makes them feel younger. When they were further away, they seemed to be laughing and hold hands, but as they’ve gotten closer to me they’ve grown stoic, and their fists are clenched at their sides.
I take note of the white of their knuckles, of the bulging forearm muscles. They throw me uneasy glances as they pass, our eyes locking for only a split-second.
Shit, that’s them.
Good! Ally yells. End this, Victoria!
“Not so fast.” The woman’s voice comes from behind as I pass. By the time I hear it, I’m not even surprised.
I slowly turn to them, frustration in my voice. “Look, this charade has gone on long enough. Just kill me and get it over with.”
They step forward, the Cruel Man grinning and the Sadistic Woman almost laughing. “Finally just given up entirely, have you?” she says. “I expected more from you, Victoria, but according to Gerard you’ve been at this park all morning.”
“What can I say? I like the water. It soothes me.”
“You know what soothes me?” the Cruel Man laughs.
“What? Killing? Torturing?” I spit at him.
He looks taken aback, almost surprised. “Why, yes, yes that’s correct.”
Just tell them! Albert and Oswald!
My upper lip quivers. “Well, get on with it,” I say, walking to meet them. They’re only an arm’s length away.
The Cruel Man looks at his partner. “Do you want to do the honors, Cat?”
Albert and Oswald! You don’t have to die again!
“After what happened last time? With pleasure.”
She reaches behind her back, pulls a small pistol from her waistband. Small, presumably, so it would fit in her shorts. She cocks it, points it at me from so close it’s nearly touching my nose. “Any last words?” She holds back a laugh. “Until next time, at least?”
“Albert and Oswald!” Ally screams, though it’s not inside my head. Try as I might, she forces it out through me.
The woman lowers the gun, looking back and forth from the Cruel Man to me.
“They’re plotting against Gerard!” Ally screams again, muffled and through my fingers.
The Cruel Man shakes his head. “Those motherfuckers.” He turns to Catarina. “Of course it’s them. Didn’t you see Albert with her yesterday?”
“I did,” Catarina says, lowering the gun.
“Albert is up the path,” Ally forces through my fingers. “Just around that—”
“Enough! Stop!” I scream, pushing her as far down inside me as possible. I feel her presence shrink with the weight.
The Cruel Man smirks. “Someone’s got voices in her head.” He turns to Catarina. “He might still be here. You want to check or do you want me to check?”
She nods and hands him the gun. “I’ll check, you take care of her.” Grinning at me, she says, “See you next time, Victoria.”
My eyes follow her up the path as the Cruel Man raises the gun to my forehead. See, Ally? They’re still going to kill us and you just ruined the best chance we had! Isabel screams.
“You made it too easy today,” the Cruel Man laughs. “Try harder next time.”
I might be lost and hopeless, but I’m not going out like this. I fire my hands up to the gun so fast he can barely react, twisting and wrenching it free and then pointing it back in his face before he can move a muscle.
“You’re not ready for when I try hard,” I say, my finger twitching on the trigger, relishing the look of surprise in his eyes.
Don’t kill him! Isabel screams. The host is innocent!
Sighing, I point the gun down at his leg before pulling the trigger. The sound echoes off the house on the hill above us and carries helplessly over the water. There’s a cool breeze on the air a few seconds later, no doubt the soul of the Cruel Man leaving this body and entering another nearby as I run as fast as I can toward safety.
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