Wiping her fingertips impatiently under her eyes, Christina fumbled her key into the car’s ignition switch. Cranking it over with more force than necessary, she nonetheless heard the gentle hum of the vehicle as it came to life. But even as it sat idling softly underneath her, offering an escape from the humiliation of her exit, Christina didn’t back out of her parking spot.
Her neck seemed to go out on her. Collapsing forward, her chin tucked into her chest as the sobs she’d held in check far too long racked her body. It was stupid really, letting herself get so upset. She knew that, but all the same, heartbreak fell from her mouth in broken, gasping breaths.
It shouldn’t have had the power to affect her this much. Not anymore. It’d been almost four years. Four years since she’d felt imprint of her mother’s hand against her cheek; almost four years since she’d turned on her heels in the aftermath of that moment, marching up to her bedroom only long enough to pack one suitcase of belongings…
Almost four years since she’d last seen her mother. Natalie DeLuca had stood outside on the back steps, her arms folded tightly across her slim waist, expressionless as her daughter had walked away. The wind of a chilly autumn had lifted the edges of her blue paisley-patterned dress as she’d watched her daughter fumble her car keys into the ignition—
Pressing the palm of her hand up tightly against her mouth, Christina meant to push it all back inside—the sobs, the shaking spreading across her body, the screams itching up her throat. Choking, she pressed her hand up against her mouth until she felt her teeth clench with the pressure.
But it achieved the desired effect. The distraction of pain stemmed her tears, the last rolling almost unheeded down her cheeks as she slowly dropped her hand down to the shifter. Her fingers curled against the plastic lever.
“Get a fucking grip,” she whispered. With a jerk, she put the car into reverse and with a quick, hard jerk of her foot, she swung the car out of its parking spot.
Late model brick buildings with their banks of windows winked down at her as she slowly pulled out into the busy streets. Concrete parking ramps, billboards half-hidden behind an overlay of business fronts and traffic signs, and a few faded canopies assaulted her senses, crowding her in. For the first time since she’d moved to Minneapolis, Christina wished to be far outside the city limits. The compulsion to leave was almost breathtaking as she stood there, waiting at the first set of stoplights.
A sense of claustrophobia she’d never experienced before invaded her body. Her foot fidgeted nervously against the brake pedal in her desperation for flight. She just needed to get out of here.
She needed to get home. Before the memories would force their way back into her consciousness…
Her lips twisted with self-depreciation. Because the loss and torment hadn’t ended with her mother. Christina hadn’t ridden away from her family home in a cloud of dust like some Hollywood movie. No, it had been far more humiliating in its reality than all that. The stubborn anger riding high in her stomach as she’d sped halfway across town, the mascara smearing black against her complexion, had only been the beginning.
She’d hardly been aware of the houses twinkling by as she’d driven that night, her flip-flop pressed firmly down on the pedal.
Chestnut Ave, Green Light Cir—County B…
Roads whirled past in a distant blur she hardly had the presence of mind to notice. Her heart was beating too hard in her chest, her breathing ragged as she anxiously sped forward, waiting for one particular street sign to come into view.
Her lips pulled into a hopeful smile as she put her left blinker on, the car slowing as she turned up an all-too familiar road.
“No.” The sound of her own voice shook Christina from her reverie. With a shocked, she saw her hands working on the steering wheel as she pulled up outside her apartment.
“Shit,” she whispered as she navigated around a large truck into a parking spot outside the duplex she’d considered home the past two years. She had no recollection of how she’d gotten here. The ride home had been totally eclipsed by images of the past.
Forcing away the feeling of anxiety that always clawed at her whenever she did something so completely on auto-pilot that she had no actual remembrance of it at all, Christina unfolded herself from the driver’s seat.
Her heels clipped against the cracked sidewalk as she made her way toward an overly large (and badly chipped) blue porch, the left-half of which designated her portion of the duplex. How different the ground under her feet had looked that night four years ago. How utterly disconnected, the porch of her present from the professionally-stained wraparound deck of her past.
336 Harbor Lane.
At one point, she’d almost considered it would become her new home.
But then those worn flip-flops of hers had skittered up the crushed rock of its driveway, the muscles in her neck pulsating visibly as the front door came into view. Her car had sat untidily at the curb.
“God, you must’ve looked so pathetic,” she spat to herself now, one hand clutching the railing as she climbed the three steps that took her to the top of the slightly sagging porch. Her fingers were clutching her house keys too hard as she went to open the door…
Christina hadn’t gotten halfway up the short drive when the front door thrust itself open, a black shadow emerging from within. In a flash the dark shape was hurtling toward her, loafer-clad feet almost tripping in their haste, blocking her path.
Her lips pulled up tremulously when he came into full view. She opened her mouth to speak—
“What the hell are you doing here?” He hissed, one hand shooting out to grab hold of her upper arm. His fingers squeezed against the tender flesh. All the while he was looking back over his shoulder at the house.
“My mom…” Christina’s lips trembled. “She found out.”
That brought his head back around to her. “What? What!” His fingers cut into her skin at the words.
“Stop!” She cried reflectively, jerking her arm back. Vacantly, he dropped his hand down to his side. Then, just as quickly, he was running it through his hair, his eyes once again swiveling to the front door. The threshold remained empty. His head slowly swiveled back around. “She found out what exactly?”
His eyes were accusing, defensive. Not the least loverlike. Nothing like the way he’d ever looked at her before.
She lifted her hands weakly, let them drop. “About us.”
His head dropped. “Fuck.”
Christina reached out for him. “But that’s what we wanted—”
With an explosive gesture out of all proportion, he shook off her advances. “What we wanted?” He laughed. It hard a hard, hollow sound. “No, it most certainly is not what we wanted.”
Blinking stupidly, absolutely unwilling to process what he was saying, what was happening, Christina only continued to shake her head. “But I don’t understand…”
He growled. Literally growled as he loomed over her.
She tried again. “You said—”
“Oh hell!” With a curse, he was running his hand through his hair again, making the soft brown strands stand up in uneven clumps. “I wanted to get you in bed. Of course I said things.”
If she’d thought her mother’s hand had left an impression…Snapping her head back so hard it hurt her teeth, Christina’s next breath came out in the shape of a hiccup. “Stop it. Bill, stop it!” She shouted. “Why are you saying that? Why are you talking to me like that…” and on and on, she pleaded, her wide eyes running hopefully, fearfully over his strained expression.
He smiled thinly. “Because I want you to leave my property right now.”
She remembered staggering backward, the heel of her left foot falling out of the flip-flop and stabbing against the powdery rocks. “Wha-what?”
“And I don’t want you to ever return.”
Though she’d hate herself for it the rest of her life, Christina had felt large, terrified tears sprint up to her eyes. Her lips trembled so badly the words she spoke next were barely comprehendible as she stared at him.
“But I don’t—Bill, my parents kicked me out. I’m…I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“You’ve got to be out of your mind,” he hissed, taking one intimidating step forward before bringing himself to a controlled stop. “My wife is inside, Christina.”
“Your wife?” Her lips quivered all the harder, and now it was her eyes that skipped across the immaculate lawn toward the curtained livingroom window. “But—but you told me you were leaving her.”
He lifted one stiff shoulder. “Yeah, well, things changed.”
She nodded. “They changed.”
“We’ve talked. We’re going to give it another go,” he told her, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“And what about me?” Christina asked, her voice rising to match her growing hysteria.
“Keep it down!” Bill insisted, reaching for her again. He shook her arm roughly, his eyes ever vigilant for onlookers. “Keep it the fuck down.”
“Oh, of course,” Christina insisted, sniffing back tears. Her voice was watery. “Wouldn’t want to upset her, now would we?”
“Christina…” he sighed, but there was a lack of real compassion in the sound. And she’d know. After all, he’d sighed with longing for her at one time. And she’d fallen for it. “Look, I’m sorry, but…”
“I’ll just bet you are,” she said, ripping her arm out of his grasp. “I’ll just bet you are.” With what dignity she had left (and admittedly it was almost none) she forced her feet to turn, to walk away back the way she’d come. Her ravaged face she kept held high.
“Christina…” At the reluctance in Bill’s voice, silly girl that she was, Christina stopped and turned back to him.
He made a gesture. “Just don’t…don’t do anything stupid.”
She laughed. It had a wild edge. “I’m afraid it’s a bit late in the day for the advice, isn’t it?”
But that time she hadn’t stopped. Her feet dragging, fumbling, half-slipping against the crushed rocks, she somehow got herself back to her small, compact little car.