Did You Miss Me?

There is nothing more gorgeous than the sound of palm trees. The gentle swishing in the morning breeze, the fresh Floridian sunshine teasing my eyelids, coaxing them, encouraging them to open.

     I wake up.

     Another day of careful freedom, of solitude.

     I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and stretch. I walk out of my bedroom and start moving methodically through my little beach house, robotically carrying out my morning routine.

     Start the toaster, pour some orange juice, scratch my head and get the newspaper. Every day the same, but there’s some comfort in that fact.

     I open the front door to another dazzling island day, smiling, drinking in the light. I bend down to pick up the newspaper from the doormat.

     The glass of orange juice slips from my hand and shatters against the front step, a puddle of pulpy yellow spreading, staining the doormat and destroying the newspaper.

     A large, perfect sunflower sits on my paper. Pristine yellow petals, none damaged, bent, or discolored, surrounding a center as deep brown as freshly turned sod.

     A sunflower and a folded note. I snatch them up quickly and dart back inside. I shut and latch all the windows, slide shut the Venetian blinds, peering around corners like a wanted fugitive.

     This cannot be happening.

     Not to me.

     Not again.

     I end up back in the kitchen and stare warily at the sunflower, lying limp in the middle of my kitchen table. There was a time when I would have welcomed the blossom’s presence in my home—it had been my favorite flower. Bouquets of them in every room in our little house, brought by him, kept alive by me. Bursts of sunshine that reflected a happy first six months. But now I feel like the flower is staring me down, its great horrid face turned toward me, a malicious reminder of that happier former life.

     He knows how much I love sunflowers. That’s why he’s doing this to me.

     My eyes drift away from the garish bloom as I shudder, and they fall on the note. It is simple white computer paper, folded in half one way, then the other, into quarters so I can’t see what’s written inside. I carefully separate the note from the sunflower with the end of the soggy newspaper—I can’t shake the feeling that touching the flower again would hurt, would burn my skin like corrosive acid—and once the two are a suitable distance apart, I pick up the note and unfold it. It only carries four words.

     Did you miss me?

     The note slips from my shaking fingers and drifts lazily to the floor, a great, wounded butterfly. It settles almost noiselessly against the hardwood planks, but that faint rustle carries a note of finality within it that is louder than a gong, more severe than the last nail in a coffin lid being driven home.

     I feel a modicum of calm wash over me as I wait for my next, inevitable thought to come.

     Run.

     I spring into action and run to my closet, grabbing the small black duffel bag I always keep packed.

     Three years of running has trained me well. 

     I think of the first time I filled the black duffel in the dead of night—the night I lost my identity to another, safer face. The first new woman I became. I think her name was Christine.

     I charge back to the front door and fly through it, leaving the house abandoned—it hardly mattered now, and once the mortgage payments stopped the bank would repossess it anyway. I run down the steps and stop just sort of the little Vespa I use to get around the island—I’m going to need better wheels than those. My eyes dart around, sizing up my neighbors’ cars—no. That’s exactly what he’d expect me to do.

     I turn my eyes to the sea.

     I steal around to the back of my house and run to the canal. It was mercifully deserted at this time of the morning; the fishermen were already gone, and the vacationers—like my neighbors—were passed out on couches and beds with the blinds shut tight, sleeping off a night of tequila and bad decisions. They won’t notice me until I’m already gone—I hope.

     My next-door neighbors had a 42-foot yacht. Small by yachting standards, but perfect for my purposes. Hopefully it had a full tank of gas.

     I untie the lines and throw them into the boat, continuously glancing at my neighbors darkened windows, praying no early risers decide to take a look out to the water. I jump into the vessel, get behind the wheel, and stop. My hand drifts to the ignition port, hoping, praying for the impossible. I stop myself from screaming with joy at the gently clinking of my fingers hitting the keys. I turn the vessel on and its twin engines roar to life, an earsplitting racket in the stillness of the morning. I stare up at the house for a full thirty seconds, heart in throat, waiting for a curtain to twitch, for a voice to scream out and ask me what I’m doing. 

     Nothing happens. I breathe a sigh of relief and slowly start to trundle down the canal, towards the open ocean, my saving grace. The canal opens into the channel and I open the throttle, using the GPS to plane back towards the mainland.

     I’ve made my escape for now, but I know the game of cat-and-mouse is just beginning.

     He can’t be that far behind.

     I make it to Miami by midnight—having used all my neighbor’s fuel reserves and still nearly empty by the time I arrive. I pull into an empty slip in a marina and disembark, creeping up the docks by the light of the moon.

     The parking lot has a few cars in it, and the portholes of some boats in the harbor are ablaze with light—party barges where things are just getting warmed up. I weave through the still vehicles as quietly as I can, not drawing attention to myself, quiet, unassuming, minding my own business. I quicken my pace as I set off down the darkened road towards the glittering light of the city, a stream of thoughts flashing through my brain.

     Find a cab.

     Get to the airport.

     Pick a flight and fly.

     I’m at the airport, standing under glaring lights, looking at the monitors of flights departing.  Can’t go too close, shouldn’t go too far—he’ll be expecting both after last time. I suppress a shudder as I remember him crashing through the door of my house in the middle of the countryside, outside a nothing town in Ohio, a long flight from my previous hiding place in Portland. I’d jumped out a second story window to escape.  Broke my ankle…

     No. Focus.

     Where am I going to go?

     Hartford, Connecticut. Too close.

     San Francisco, California. Too far.

     Denver, Colorado. I love the mountains. He’d know.

     Springfield, Illinois. Perfect. Not too close, not too far. An unassuming city, just the right size for one more face to be absorbed into a sea of a thousand faces.

      Behind Delta Airline’s counter there is an employee, her eyes dead and blank due to the lateness of the hour.

     “Can I help you?” She asks.

     I smile, kind and benevolent. The charade begins. “Yes, I’d like to purchase a seat on the one-twenty to Springfield, if possible?”

     The Delta employee raises her eyebrows at me. “Honey, you’re gonna have to run to make that flight. It’s boarding in half an hour.”

     “I’m aware. I’ll make it. Is there a seat available?”

     The employee’s eyes narrow; she’s annoyed I didn’t take her subtle advice to get on another flight, I can tell. I smile pleasantly at her; I don’t have time to feel badly about it. She types on her computer for a moment, and then her eyes flick back up to mine.

     “Well, looks like it’s your lucky day. There’s one seat left…in Business Class. Which means,” she gives my outfit the once-over, “you can’t wear that on the plane. You still want the ticket?”

     “Yes ma’am,” I say abruptly, fumbling in my black duffel more my cash, my documents. “I’ll change before I board.”

     She snorts. “Have it your way, honey. It’s your money.”  She types on her computer and looks up at me. “Name?”

     I steal a glance at the ID I had drawn at random out of the duffel. “Charlotte Russell.”

     “Mhm. Birth date?”

     “October fifteenth, nineteen-ninety.”

     “Mhm.”

     I try to keep myself from bouncing up and down, a nervous tic, as I wait for the employee to finish with me. We carry on a moment longer until the employee finishes my boarding pass. She prints it and hands it to me over the counter.

     “Good luck,” she says, one eyebrow raised.

     I thank her and set off for security at a brisk walk, swiftly dropping my old wallet—the wallet full of my Florida life—into a trash can.

     Leah Peters, age twenty-seven, born in Ocean City, New Jersey, likes kayaking and eating cheese.

     Not anymore. There’s only Charlotte Russell now.

     I glance at the ID clutched in my hand, remembering the amount of painstaking effort it took to create a false driver’s license, a new face, an untrue life. I hope it works.

     I get through security and look at my watch. Fifteen minutes till first boarding call. I sigh and run for the nearest bathroom, ducking into a stall and changing as fast as I can. Off with the flip-flops, the denim shorts, the T-shirt, and on with the pinstriped pencil skirt, the white button-down blouse, the blue blazer. I step into a pair of black ballet flats and shake my long black hair out of its braid, stepping out of the stall to study my face in the mirror. Leah Peters—albeit dressed a bit nicer than usual—stares back at me. Freckled skin, almond-shaped green eyes, India Ink hair.

     This will never do.

     I heft my duffel onto the bathroom counter and start to dig out what I’ll need. Large sunglasses, a pair of children’s safety scissors—not the sharpest, but they’ll suit my needs—and a mop of auburn hair. I look at my reflection in the mirror again.

     “Charlotte Russell, Charlotte Russell, Charlotte Russell,” I say softly to myself.

     I mercilessly hack through my hair until it hangs just above my shoulders. I push the remnants of my black mane into the trash and throw what remains on my head into a ponytail, pinning it flat to my skull. I hastily brush my fingers through the auburn wig and glance at my watch. First boarding call has been announced; they’ll be five minutes into the process by now.

     Fuck.

     I pin the wig in place and put on the sunglasses. I look at myself one more time as I re-zip my duffel bag.

     Charlotte Russell, Charlotte Russell, Charlotte Russell.

     I leave the bathroom and begin to run to my gate. I arrive, panting, breathless, just in time for final boarding call. Charlotte—I—smile apologetically at the TSA worker. Charlotte the gentle, who hates to be a burden. I hand her my boarding pass and ID. She glances at the photo on the license, then back up at my face.

     “Could you remove the sunglasses, please, ma’am?”

     Charlotte the flustered, the forgetful.

     “Oh, of course!  So sorry.”

     I push them up over my bangs and smile at the TSA woman. Her eyes flick down and up again. She returns my smile and scans my boarding pass.

     “New haircut, huh?”

     “Yeah,” I reply as she hands me my things.  “I really like it.  It’s like I’m a whole new me!”

     Charlotte the bubbly, the outgoing, boards the plane.

     Two hours later, I walk off the plane and duck into the nearest bathroom. Charlotte got to enjoy her time on the plane, but now I have to change again.

     One identity is easy to track down.

     Eleven in three years makes things a bit more difficult.

     I shed Charlotte in the bathroom stall and adopt Jade Clearwater. Jade is different from Charlotte; introverted, cold, withdrawn and quiet. A big-city attitude, and hard to track because of it.  There have to be a thousand Jade Clearwaters in Springfield. I pull on a leather jacket and leave the terminal, stepping out into the briskness of early March in Illinois. It’s just after two in the morning, so I hail a cab and ask to be taken to a hotel roughly twenty minutes from the airport. The cabbie looks at me in the rearview mirror, eyes slightly narrowed, but I’m too tired to care. I tip my head back on the seat and close my eyes, exhausted.

     “No worries about the cab fare—just find me one twenty minutes away, please.”

     “Whatever you say, Angel.”

     My eyes snap open and I’m suddenly on high alert, my ears buzzing from what the cabbie just said.

     “I’m sorry?” I say, leaning forward in my seat.

     The cabbie doesn’t reply.

     “Excuse me, what did you say?” I ask a bit louder.

     He gives no sign of having heard. I feel my heart begin to pound, panic settling in. I put my hand on the cab’s rear door handle.

     “Pull over, please,” I say. I jerk once on the door handle for emphasis, but the door is locked, and the cabbie is still playing deaf.

     “Please stop the cab, I want to get out.”

     No answer. I feel hysteria bubbling up in my throat.

     “Stop the car and let me out!” I command.

     “No.”

     The cabbie’s voice—I recognize it now. He looks so different—he’s put on weight, his hair seems darker, longer. There’s two weeks of stubble on what was once a meticulously shaven face. I remember the handsome man who took my hand in the grocery store, back in the beginning—I remember the blaze-eyed demon who used that same hand to strike me at night. He resembled the demon more closely than the man, now.

     “No, Angel Gracemore,” he says—I start at the sound of my real name, I haven’t heard it in so long—“You’re not going anywhere.”

     I want to close my eyes, to turn my face away into the seat cushion, but I can’t. His gaze, as always, has captivated mine. It was that look that always stopped me from leaving, or from telling anyone what happened to me when the doors were closed and the blinds were shut—his eyes promised me love, companionship, hope for change and a path away from the darkness.

     How stupid I was to believe such hollow lies. His gaze captures me now because I can’t help but be fascinated—he’s come all this way, tracked me for so long. Some small, insane part of me is impressed. I shudder as the next inevitable four words fall out of his mouth.

     “Did you miss me?”

     As we drive he stares at me in the rearview mirror, his eyes boring into mine. I see their corners crinkle as he smiles.

     “Did you get my present, Angel, love? Did you like the flower? I know they’re your favorite. I was so excited when I dropped it on your front step, knowing that you were right on the other side of the door…it was so hard for me not to knock…”

     I hear a wet slithering as he licks his lips, still staring at me. I fight the urge to gag.

     “I don’t like sunflowers anymore,” I say tersely.

     He sighs and shakes his head, his foot pressing down harder on the accelerator—we pick up speed as his agitation grows.

     “Why are you lying to me, Angel? You know how I feel about liars…”

     He begins to weave in and out of traffic, seventy miles an hour, seventy-five…he’s going to kill us if I don’t calm him down, make him focus on something else. I take a deep breath.

     “How…how did you find me? I’m…terribly curious.”

     I want to spit—saying those words, giving him power over me tastes bitter; the phrase burns my tongue. We lock eyes in the rearview mirror again and his gaze starts to soften, the barely controlled rage fading from his eyes.

     “You didn’t make it easy, baby,” he says with a laugh, “but then you never do, do you? All I had to go on was the last bitch you pretended to be—Emily Truckey—and then…”

     He prattles on about talking to neighbors, fake IDs and photos in train stations, but I barely hear him. I’m watching buildings and trees flash by through the window, the buildings becoming sparser, and the trees more numerous. It’s only a matter of time until we will be out of the city completely, and he’ll be able to take me God knows where.

     “Once I tracked you down in Miami, the rest was easy,” he says, smiling at me.

     “Oh yeah?  How so?”

     I need to keep him talking, let the narcissist be carried away by his own cleverness, so that I can figure a way out of this. 

     “You were easy to spot in the terminal, baby.  Even though you dyed your pretty blonde hair that disgusting shade of black, you were still the most beautiful woman there…”

     I am back in flight mode, looking for an escape route. Roll down the window and scream for help? He’d shoot me. Open the car door and jump? We’re going seventy-five miles an hour. I’d die. I’m running out of options. My eyes scan the interior of the car again, searching for something, anything that will help me—but my search is futile. The cab itself becomes oppressive, the musty smell pervading my nostrils, the cloth seats rasping against my skin, closing in, smothering me.

     After three years of running, I can no longer escape.

     “But what I don’t understand,” his voice gets louder and my attention snaps back to him, “is why, Angel? Why do you run, you hide from me? Why do you make me play this silly little fucking game? I’ve never done anything but love you…”

     “Love?” I say quietly.

     Rage tinges the memories red as they come flooding back to me—the sleepless nights locked in a closet, chained to the radiator in the basement, naked and afraid; the raw redness of chafed skin, of shiny burns, the dull ache of bruises the size of softballs…it hurt to shower, to breathe, to think, and yet for an entire year I stayed, and for what? To escape one prison to enter another, spending my life on the run?

     No.

     No more Christines, Emilys, no more Leahs, no more Charlottes or Jades.

     Running had always seemed to be the easiest, safest thing; in my search for safety, I had become predictable.

     Time to surprise him.

     I unfasten my seatbelt and lunge forward, locking my arms around his neck from behind. I pull back as tightly as I can, pinning his head to his seat as he sputters and chokes.

     “How dare you talk to me about love!” I scream in his ear. He jerks the steering wheel left, then right, careening us back and forth through traffic, but I don’t care. I squeeze harder, and get a sick joy from hearing him choke.

     “I’m stronger than I used to be, aren’t I? In more ways than one.”

     One of his hands leaves the steering wheel and reaches for the gun, abandoned so carelessly in the center console while he drove—he should’ve known better. I’m too fast for him. With one quick swipe I knock the gun to the floor of the passenger’s side of the car, then return my arm to his neck. We are screaming down the road.

     “Why did I run?” I hiss in his ear.  “I ran because you’re a monster. I ran because a restraining order is just a piece of paper. I ran because I was afraid. But you know what?  I am done. Running!”

     My voice climbs to a shout as his eyes roll back in his head and he slumps down in his seat. I look up through the windshield, empowered, triumphant, and see an oak tree rushing at me at seventy-five miles an hour.

     I don’t have time to brace myself before the crash.

*

     I feel a faint pulsing of light against my eyelids—there is a rushing in my ears. Palm trees, waving, perhaps? No, the ocean, waves breaking on the shore. But the light is wrong—too blue for Florida sunshine. I hear boots crunching on dead leaves.

     “Oh my God,” a voice says softly, and I feel someone drop to their knees beside me—am I lying down? I must be. The stranger presses two fingers to my neck. Can he feel my fluttering pulse?

     “Bring me a trauma kit, we have another victim!” I hear the man beside me yell.

     Another victim?  Wait…

     The cab.

     The crash.

     Him.

     I force my eyes to open to the glaring presence of pulsing blue-and-red police lights. I look up into the kind face of a bearded man.

     “Mmm…mmmm…mmmmister…” I say—I can barely speak; my throat feels like it’s been coated with chalk.

     The man’s eyes widen. “Easy there, Miss.  Don’t try to speak,” he says. “Don’t worry, help is on the way.”

     I shake my head—a small movement that causes incredible pain—I have to know.

     “Th…the c…cabbie…is…is he…?”

     The man frowns, apologetic. “I’m afraid you are the only survivor, Miss.”

     Through my haze of pain comes a burst of elation. I smile a crooked, pained smile.

     “Good.”

     The man’s brow furrows a moment as he stares down at me. His mouth starts to move, but then my eyes close again and the rushing in my ears intensifies. It really does sound like the ocean.        

     I’m aware of my body being moved, and I hear snippets of conversation between the breaking of the waves—“Blood loss”, “Extreme trauma”, “We’re losing her, we’re losing her”…

     In the back of my mind, a quiet voice reminds me I want to live. It cuts through the rushing waves like a knife, the new little fighter in my soul. I do want to live, but whatever happens now, it hardly matters. I don’t care.

     Live or die, at least I’m free.

 

            13
               april 15, 2015