Chapter 2: Shadowboxer
She pressed play on the iPad resting against the dresser and could hear the Bose speakers begin to vibrate. It was the signal for him to come to the bedroom. A sign saying she was dressed up and ready for him to undress her. The door was open and the perfume spilled out into the hallway and the candles were quivering with their deep glow. All for Bernado. Every single thing for Bernado.
Two champagne glasses rested on the nightstand with one of the candles behind it. This was a special touch for a special night in their apartment. Bernardo wasn’t much of a champagne kind of man. He collected wines and had his favorites, along with his love of scotch and bourbon. The filled flutes with their slender stems would simply make her man smile. They would be a sign of what he could expect when he entered the room.
Allie Laurent stood in the shadows of the walk-in closet, fully dressed and ready for action. Sometimes he would tell her what outfit he was in the mood for. She certainly had plenty to choose from. Expensive lingerie Bernardo had bought for her over the years, sometimes from stores or designers she had never even heard of. It was one of his favorite hobbies picking them out. Then again, anything to do with Allie happened to be put into his “favorite” category.
The half-empty bottle of high-priced champagne didn’t feel too heavy in her hand. She raised it up and took a long sip, nearly finishing it. It would help loosen her up. But she was ready for Bernardo. She’d been ready all day now.
He was taking his time. Probably downstairs enjoying his drink, checking his phone, maybe finishing watching some game. Not that he wasn’t in the mood or didn’t want her but he could take his time. He’d eventually have what he wanted.
The Norah Jones song from years ago began to play and Allie could only smile. It was Bernardo’s playlist. He loved himself some Norah Jones. He’d always told Allie that she looked like Norah, something Allie didn’t see but she allowed him to indulge this nice little fantasy. He liked hearing Norah’s voice when they were making love, regardless of the song playing. It amped up the story he was letting play out in his mind.
“Sono qui, Allie,” Bernardo said loud enough to be heard over Norah’s sensual and sad song.
Ah, the Italian coming out.
Yes, Bernardo, you’re here.
She moved through the darkness toward the open doorway leading to the glimmer of the bedroom.
“Champagne?” he said with the sound of genuine surprise just beyond her glance. “You’re spoiling me.”
“I got you something new,” Allie said. “Something you’ll like.”
“Where are you?”
Norah continued to serenade them.
“Close your eyes,” Allie said in a wistful tone. “For a moment.”
The music was perfect. A sign that this was right, that everything was right, that this was going to be absolutely amazing.
Peering around the doorway to spot the tall, dark and handsome man himself, Allie could see him grinning. Not peeking—no. Sometimes, Bernardo could be a patient man. Like tonight when every single little thing was perfect. He stood there by the bed waiting in his light blue button-down shirt and designer jeans.
Allie breathed in, then turned the corner and rushed over to him and swung the bottle of champagne against his temple as hard as she could. She hoped that it would dig into his skull and his dense head and strike him dead. Or at the very least just knock him out and over and give him a nice bump and scar for the rest of his miserable life.
The blunt sound was followed by a choking gasp and a quick scream as Bernardo went down. He opened his eyes and wobbled his head and looked at her with confusion and alarm. Eyes dazed and widening and then flattening and then widening again.
She struck him again on the side of his head. Harder.
The eyes didn’t open again.
A streak of blood spilled over onto the front of his crisp blue shirt.
Allie looked over him for a moment, staring and waiting. She didn’t see movement and couldn’t tell if he was breathing. It didn’t matter. She dropped the bottle and then moved past him. There was no sudden awakening with a hand grabbing at her ankle. He was either unconscious or dead. If it was the latter, she held enough evidence on him that taking the bottle didn’t really matter.
If the cops had to track her down, Allie wasn’t worried. Not in the slightest. The cops weren’t the thing that terrified her.
Breathe. Move. Get out.
Allie grabbed her coat waiting in the kitchen. Then she grabbed the suitcase in the coat closet that she’d stuck there. It was always there, but this time the suitcase was packed and ready to go.
She had indeed bought a new outfit for tonight that she was wearing. But these were traveling clothes. Instead of something with lace and strings, these were comfortable winter clothes for a nice little getaway trip with her best friend.
Morgan knew Allie was leaving Bernardo. She just hadn’t told Morgan exactly how she was going to leave him. Or when. The only important thing, the thing both of them knew too well, was the why.
Norah could still be heard singing behind Allie in the bedroom.
“Out on your own now. Do you like the way it feels? Didn’t I come through? You were too far gone.”
Again an aching grin fell over her face. Allie loved the little ironies of life. They were balm for the brutality that came with it.
She was going to need a lot more balm for the road ahead. She knew that. But she was finally stepping on it and getting out.
The plane trembled for a moment, shifting up and down as it sorted itself out through the clouds. Allie closed her eyes, unfraid of the turbulence but still terrified of the disorder she’d left behind in New York.
The decision to leave Bernardo had arrived with the invitation from her friend to go on a trip. A simple text arriving a month ago with a one-sentence question that ultimately would change Allie’s life.
Want to go to North Carolina with me?
There was something about the straightforwardness of the question that made Allie decide in an instant that she was going to go with Morgan. But not only that, Allie was going to finally leave her husband. This simply felt like the natural thing to do. It was a legitimate offer to get away and Allie took it. But she also took it knowing she wasn’t going back. She would stay away. Far, far away.
“You seem nervous,” Morgan said in the seat next to her facing the window.
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
She hadn’t told her friend about everything. Not yet. Allie planned to, especially since reading the texts that Bernardo had been sending to her.
Unfortunately for everybody I didn’t kill the bastard.
He didn’t know she was still friends with Morgan, but eventually her husband would find out. He would figure out what had happened and where she’d gone. And chances were good that he’d come find her, too. So Morgan needed to know. But later. Not at this moment.
“We’ll be there in less than two hours,” Morgan said, grabbing her hand and squeezing it. “Aren’t you glad that it didn’t work out with Sterling?”
“I’m not happy for you, but yes, I’m very happy for me that I can accompany you.”
“Sterling had wanted something tropical. Probably so he could be around a bunch of women in bikinis. The jerk. I swear. Between you and me, we could write a book on getting the wrong guys.”
Allie glanced at her beautiful friend and smiled. “You could write that book. With the emphasis on guys. With a big fat ‘S’. I’d just write a book on living with a monster.”
Morgan gave her a sad and sympathetic look, so very familiar this past year. “I’m sorry for bringing that up.”
“It’s fine. Really.”
“You were quiet last night. Do you want to talk about anything?”
Last night I was wondering whether I left my husband for dead.
“Not now. Let’s just celebrate getting away to the resort in the mountains.”
“You’re going to love it,” Morgan said. “I promise you. Let’s hope for lots of snow.”
“Sounds good to me.”
She had known Morgan since college, but it had only been since moving back to Manhattan that the two of them had reconnected. Allie still found it hard that her friend had so many guy troubles. Everybody said Morgan resembled Jennifer Aniston, not the young woman on television but the star gracing the movies these days. There was a strength and sophistication about Morgan that Allie felt like she’d never have. People called her friend warm and sexy while using words like elegant and aloof to describe Allie. A few years ago, that would have bothered her, back when she and Bernardo were living in Los Angeles keeping up with that insane lifestyle. Now it didn’t matter how someone described her.
Tired and old and scared.
The tired and old parts didn’t bother Allie, but the scared part did. She had lived a long time—thirty-plus years—without being scared of anything or anyone. But suddenly fear had deluged her entire existence just like those crippling twin tsunamis last year. Everything changed. Nothing was spared.
The only difference was that Allie could move on from the wreckage and reclaim her courage. This was that moment. Now and tonight and tomorrow and the rest of her life.
Allie glanced back down the aisle and noticed it was empty. She told Morgan she’d be right back, then unbuckled herself and walked to the back of the plane. The glances of several men followed her but she ignored them, mostly because she felt so disheveled. She was glad to close and lock the folding door behind her.
For a moment, she held onto the edge of the sink while she bent down and looked into the small mirror. The sensation filled her again, starting in her stomach and working its way up. Soon she felt her jaw tighten, the surge almost ready to spill out again like it had in the airport earlier this morning. The dizzy sight and the dry mouth and the gurgling stomach almost made her vomit. But Allie didn’t have anything left inside her. A few dry heaves and then she was fine.
The lukewarm water ran over her cupped hands. She splashed her face, then wiped her mouth. Then as she took a paper towel and dried it, Allie studied the face she didn’t recognize. Nothing about it was pretty anymore, or young, or energetic. It stared back at her with a sad and sorry look of contempt.
Allie placed a hand on the mirror, wanting to block out the face. Instead of feeling the smooth surface of the glass, she felt nothing.
Her hand simply disappeared.
She could see it half gone up to her wrist. And not only that, her right hand lost behind the mirror was cold. Brutally cold. The kind of cold that could give you frostbite real fast.
Allie pulled her hand back as if it was in some kind of rabid dog’s mouth. It was fine. The mirror looked the same as it had and so did her long fingers.
She touched her right hand with the left and noticed how cold it felt. Her eyes moved back to the mirror, but it didn’t look any different. So she tried again, this time with her other hand.
The same thing happened. It sunk inside the glass, behind the surface, disappearing to look like she was missing fingers, then an entire hand. It was as if she was dipping her hand into the dark waters of a lake at evening time.
A part of her wanted to put her whole arm inside the mirror. To put her head inside and look inside. If this was some kind of wacky dream, she wanted to see where it went. She wanted it to play itself out.
There was a jostling at the door with someone trying to open it. This got her attention and made her pull back her left hand.
It was frigid just like her other hand had been.
What just happened here?
She examined the mirror before leaving but couldn’t see anything unusual. The plane bounced a bit, prompting Allie to hurry back to her seat. Morgan smiled and asked if she was okay.
Allie didn’t wonder or worry about whether she was seeing things or maybe even losing her mind. She wasn’t coughing up blood or feeling a broken rib or being held a prisoner in her apartment to avoid anybody outside seeing the bruises on her face. There wasn’t a monster hovering over her anymore, screaming at something she’d done or clutching at something he wanted.
Yeah. I’m fine. As long as Bernardo doesn’t show up to kill me, I’ll be fine.
She stared at her hands and wondered if she really knew what that word meant anymore. Maybe fine was a feeling for other people. Maybe there was never a way to get back to the simplicity and the normalcy of it.
Could you ever replace the dire and the despair with a life of fine?
I hope and I plan to and I will.
The love she longed for which closed its eyes and opened its heart felt like some kind of hidden cave of gems waiting deep in the Appalachian mountains they drove by. Allie was the passenger and slowly sifted out of her seat into rolling hills smothered with memory.
Allie first fell in love with the film “Charmingstance” five years ago when she saw it on her thirtieth birthday. She had seen it with a man she had dated for a couple of years, and the film strangely signified the end of their relationship. The two of them were all wrong for each other even if the sex was great. Allie had always been in search of this deeper sort of thing and that was the night when she finally figured out that Luke would always be shallow water. The movie put an exclamation point on it, especially when Luke walked out of the theater bewildered and complaining about having wasted the last two hours of his life.
That’s what I’ve done for the last two years of mine, she had thought.
So ended one relationship and so began another one. The true word to call it at the start was an obsession, and it was centered solely on this mystical and poetic film made by one Bernardo Donati. This American-born young and quite handsome director who had made a couple of indie films before blasting to stardom with “Charmingstance”. Bernardo was the only son of Italian mega-millionaire businessman Antonio Donati and his fashion mogul wife Stella Donati. How Allie could have ever dreamt or conceived of being part of that life still astounded her. But the very film was built on the idea of transforming yourself, of changing the person you saw in the mirror. At her very core, this was what Allie had longed for in her three decades of life. Somehow, it seemed, Bernardo Donati knew how to speak to her heart and soul.
The movie world would end up speaking to that very heart and soul, but the words it would use would be harsh and cruel, and most would come from Sir Donati.
“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul,” Marilyn Monroe once said.
Allie knew that now, but had no true idea that could have been the case five years ago. So deluded and foolish and driven simply to try to meet this man. She did. Now she dreaded the day they had met. Now she hated herself for every second afterwards, and how easily she had been sucked up into this scalding vacuum. A dark place where you couldn’t breathe and could only hear the noisy engine of another man’s nightmares playing themselves out on you. Literally on and over and through you.
Her day-drifting out the passenger seat window stopped as Allie blinked and looked back over at Morgan. “Yeah?”
“I’m going to stop at the grocery store in Mars Hill.”
“That a real name?”
“Yep. Tiny little town, the last one before we get to the resort.”
“Do I have to go in?” Allie said with a smile, stretching her arms and legs.
“Didn’t sleep well last night, did you?”
Morgan flicked her hair like she always did out of habit. It was great when the guys were around because they loved that sort of thing, but Allie simply found it amusing.
“I think you have some big story to tell,” Morgan said.
“Maybe,” Allie said.
“What would get you to spill the beans? Margaritas or wine?”
“Both,” Allie joked. “Actually, your short ribs would make me tell you anything. And then some.”
“Ooh,” Morgan said with a grin. “Well, I’ll have to look up the recipe on my phone, but I think that’s possible. With the margaritas and wine, of course.”
“You do know I stole that recipe from Tom Colicchio?”
“The Top Chef guy?”
Morgan gave her a nod.
“Haven’t watched that show in a while,” Allie said.
“I don’t think a new season has been on for a couple of years. Just like—just like everything.”
The painful truth Allie not only knew but carried scars for. Not emotional scars but the literal kind, the wrinkled flesh kind. All because Hollywood and the film industry had suddenly stopped.
Two tsunamis wiping out the west coast can do that.
She had once even uttered this to Bernardo in anger. This had been before she knew the depths of his . . . issues. This had been before she realized that a tsunami didn’t necessarily have to manifest itself in water but could be in human rage as well.
Morgan started to switch lanes and then jerked the car back not realizing she had almost plowed into a truck in her blind spot. The guy laid on the horn to get her attention.
“Oops,” Morgan simply said with a giggle. “You know—if you want the ribs we’ll probably have to pick up some items to cook it in too. Not sure what the cabin will have. Not sure if it will have hardly anything.”
“Maybe just a big fire pit in the back,” Allie said, still glancing at rippling hills they passed that seemed to go on forever.
“There,” Morgan said, pointing to the sign. “Mars Hill.”
“You sound too New York. You need the twang. Like ‘Marrrs Heeel.’”
“Maybe we’ll find you a nice sweet Southern boy while you’re down here.”
Allie kept watching the scenery as she agreed with her friend. “Sweet sure does sound nice. Just make sure the Southern boy doesn’t have a name ending in ‘iti’.”
“Yes, definitely,” Morgan said. “No Italian men.”
“No Italian anything,” Allie added. “Men, food, wine. Nothing.”
“I think that might mean I won’t be able to wear a couple of my shoes.”
“Look around us,” Allie told her. “What do you need fancy shoes for?”
“For the big, handsome strapping Southern boy who knocks on our door asking to cut some wood. Oops—here’s the turning lane. Almost missed it.”
“I think you’ve read too many Nicholas Sparks books,” Allie said.
Morgan flipped her hair again. “Nope. Just Fifty Shades Carolina Style.”
Allie howled out loud. It was great to just yell for no reason other to be silly.
“Nothing about that sounds good,” Allie to Morgan.
“Speak for yourself, sister.”
Allie had never taken such delight in personal isolation.
The sporty Nissan Altima they’d rented whipped around the curves as they approached the resort. It took another half hour to get from the town of Mars Hill to Wolf Laurel. A twisting road off the highway became more and more tangled the higher they got into the mountains. Allie could count on one hand how many houses they passed. Soon they arrived at a quaint gatehouse with a lane on each side to enter and exit. Morgan told the elderly man moving as slow as turtle the address for where they were staying and what name it was under. He gave them a pass to stick inside their car and then pressed a button to raise the gate. His smiling gaze never left them as they drove off waving at him.
Suddenly there were cabins all around them. The directions Morgan’s phone was giving her took them up a paved road, winding of course and feeling like one lane. They soon arrived at the top and drove by a hotel and a large mountain lodge that was a combination pro shop for the golf course and a restaurant for the resort. Half a dozen cars were parked outside even though it was definitely not golf season.
“Think we can pick up some men there?” Morgan joked.
“Yes. As long as we bring walkers,” Allie said.
The directions led them to a dirt road that meandered on the other side of the mountain. Down a bit then up again, then turning around and then driving around and up and then back down.
A cold sort of gloom hovered over Allie, and she didn’t think it was the temperature.
“Is that thing really working?” Allie asked.
It took them right to a road heading upward at a sharp incline. The house had its number on a wooden sign at the top of its plunging driveway. It was a quaint little cabin with a tin roof and a smiling grin of a front.
“Can I just live here the rest of my life?” Allie asked.
“Maybe we will, don’t jinx us,” Morgan said, backing up and then slowly heading down the sharp gravel drive.
Once outside, the wind feeling colder than it did at the Asheville airport, Allie followed Morgan as she searched the winding deck that wrapped around three-fourths of the cabin.
“They said it’s under a mat that says ‘Welcome’ but I don’t—oh, here.”
Morgan looked underneath and then found the plastic bag with the key inside it. She held it up so that Allie could see she’d found it.
“Just like they said,” Morgan said.
“Glad they didn’t forget.”
“Yeah, me too.”
The key worked for the front door just right outside the driveway. It creaked open and the musty air inside greeted them with a choke and a cough.
“Smells like my grandparents,” Morgan said.
“Smells like freedom,” Allie said, walking in and embracing their remoteness.
“It’s very quaint,” her friend said, walking around and taking it in.
It’s very me very now very necessary.
“It’s perfect, Morgan.”
A smile and a flip of the hair and an assured glance.
“You don’t know how happy I am to hear that,” Morgan said.
Allie hugged her, then they proceeded to check the rest of the place out. This would make such a beautiful temporary shelter from the storm of the life they’d just left. Temporary being the word. Sooner than later, Bernardo would know and would come to this place. But for now, he wasn’t there. For now, maybe, just maybe, Allie could sleep halfway decently.
On a side table near the front door, an elaborate chess board with handcut wooden pieces sat waiting to be used. Allie picked up one of the black pieces and was surprised by how heavy it felt.
“You know how to play?” Allie asked Morgan.
Her friend glanced at the board and then shook her head. “Uh, no. But I’m willing to learn anything with enough alcohol.”
Morgan placed the handbag she’d brought in on a table while Allie walked to the back of the small cabin. She glanced outside one of the windows and saw something black streak by. She jerked back and let out a slight cry.
“What is it?” Morgan screamed coming to her side.
Allie pointed in terror outside as Morgan glanced through the window at the deck. On top of the flat wooden railing sat a fat black cat. Morgan looked back at Allie and then playfully slapped her arm.
“Don’t freak me out,” Morgan said.
Allie was looking out now, almost questioning what she’d seen. “I swear it looked bigger than that. “
“It’s a cat. A very well fed cat.”
“Are you a superstitious person?” Morgan asked her as she moved away, uninterested in the feline outside.
“No. But—a black cat?”
“It’s not crossing your path, right? Isn’t that what they say? Come on. This has an upstairs, you know. Let’s check it out.”
Allie looked out the window again but the cat was gone. She wasn’t worried about the thing. It could go a few days without eating.
The pair of bedrooms awaiting at the top of the stairs reminded Allie of two equally-shaped valves in a heart. Each was cut by the narrow, sloping roof above it. Each one had a twin bed nestled against the slant, with a dresser and a bed table accompanying it. Between the bedrooms was a small bathroom with only one sink and one shower.
“This is cozy,” Morgan said as she ducked her head while examining one of the beds. “The pictures made it look a lot more—level?”
The dim light from the single bulb in the lamp cast a cloudy orange glow over the room. The wood beams on the side looked weathered with age, like the wrinkles of some wise grandfather. For Allie, everything appeared inviting, like the thick comforter over the bed or the half-moon rug under the mattress or the ancient round alarm clock that looked like it was bought in the seventies. There was a book on the table next to the bed with a picture of the Smoky Mountains on the cover along with the word “Journal” at the bottom. A sidekick of a pen hovered right next to it.
“So what theme would you like?” Allie asked, noticing the shape of the animal on the lamp standing on the dresser. “Bear or dear?”
“No, no, no, you get to pick first.”
“Bear,” Allie said as a finger touched the outline of the black bear at the base of the lamp. “Are there really bears up here?”
“How about we don’t find out? I like deer better, anyway. I’m surprised you chose bears.”
“It’s my frame of mind,” Allie said. “No, make that my frame of life.”
“I hope you’re not going to be a bear to be around the next week.”
Allie didn’t even smile. “With bad puns like that, yes, I most certainly will.”
“Let’s check out the rest of the place. That might take about thirty seconds.”
Before they left the bedroom, Allie had to ask her.
“Tell me something. Were you and Sterling going to sleep in separate bedrooms or something? I mean—it’s not like there’s one master bed. It’s more like two minis. You know?”
Morgan gave her that college mischievous sort of grin. “I didn’t book this place thinking of sleep. It looked kinda like my grandmother’s apple pie, the kind I might want to—”
“Stop. Right now. I know where that filthy mind of yours is going.”
“I’m just trying to say–”
“Don’t,” Allie said with a laugh. “I don’t want to even think of apple pie anymore. I’m afraid to.”
“Sterling would have hated this place anyway,” Morgan said.
“I adore it. It’s like a poem you can live inside.”
“We haven’t even seen all of it.”
Allie glanced back at the journal. She wondered if it had been written in. It didn’t matter, because she planned to fill some of its pages. It had been too long since she’d actually put thoughts and feelings of hers onto paper. Onto literal paper, the kind you could tear off and crinkle up and toss aside.
Paper was a lot like emotions. It was too much like emotions. She wanted to pour herself onto some of them and then hide them away so that the monster didn’t come and toss them into the fire.
“You coming?” Morgan asked.
She nodded and followed her down the steep steps. This wasn’t merely a cabin. Not to Allie.
This was a safehouse. Where nobody knew her name and number.
The absolute favorite thing in this cabin had to be the stone fireplace in the center of the family/living/main room. Whatever you called the room you walked into that comprised three-fourths of the cabin. Two couches you sank into made a V-shape in front of the fireplace. Just beyond it was a table with a few chairs. Not four but three for some reason. Then next to it was the small kitchen. No island, no bar stools, no wet bar, no extra amenities.
It took them a few trips to get all the groceries. Once the kitchen counters were covered, Allie slipped back into the main room to continue examining their home.
“No television anywhere, huh?” Allie asked.
“Doesn’t look like it. And my cell reception isn’t that good.”
Allie had turned her phone off and wanted it to stay off. For a day or a year. Something like that.
“This is really perfect,” Allie told her friend, dusting off the top of the low coffee table in front of the two couches. “I love this place.”
“It’s remote. Did you bring any books?”
“Remote is wonderful,” Allie said, then added. “I have about five hundred on my Kindle.”
“You didn’t bring an axe, did you?” Morgan asked.
“No. What? Why?”
“I don’t want you going The Shining on me or anything. No ‘Redrum’, okay?”
Allie simply laughed. “As long as I don’t see or hear and smell Bernardo, I’ll be fine.”
“I always thought he smelled good.”
Allie looked at Morgan and shook her head. “Expensive cologne can’t cover up a cheap soul.”
“You go girl,” Morgan shouted out as she headed into the kitchen to organize their supplies.
Allie simply settled in on this couch and decided she didn’t want to move. For an hour or a day or maybe a few.
It would take her quite a while to start taking off the armor that had been stuck on her. Rusty and worn armor that had started to corrode all over her heart and soul.
It’s time for a cleansing. Time for some peace and quiet.
A dance-pop sugary-sweet song suddenly began playing in the kitchen. Allie knew that Morgan had connected her cell phone to the wireless speakers.
Okay, maybe forget the quiet. But the peace will come. It has to come eventually. Right?
She’d been wrong many times before. All she could do was hope. And keep the doors locked.
“Think anybody will find us?”
Silence and the dark wrapped like blankets around them.
So confident. So crazy. This guy.
“Think we should go back?”
The moon stood watch, staring without a single blink.
He did something crazy. Unheard of. Something more unexpected than them sneaking out and sitting on the hillside overlooking the ocean.
“You’re holding my hand.”
She could see his smile since the moon was kind enough to shine on them. His gaze seemed to compete with the sight above.
“That’s ‘cause it fits.”
Carefully constructed to connect. Two out of two billion. Hands that suddenly felt like one.
“My father used to hold my hand. But the guys I’ve known—they skip that whole thing.”
Like a rock thrown out to sea that refused to skip but instead stayed waiting on the surface, he simply smiled.
“Don’t lump me in with those others. Keep them inside the box. Let me roam free.”
The breath of the Pacific let out a beautiful and warm exhale. The endless waters before them were a mirror.
Yet it didn’t take much to shatter a mirror. Just a simple rock thrown in the right way at the right time.
God to only be able to step through and patch it all back up . . .
If only she could go back. To keep things there by the ocean, back in her early twenties, back when she was so full of herself. Back when she realized this young man really was the right one.
Instead, Allie had been foolish to believe he’d wait. To think there might be others. To wander off and never come back again.
There were others, indeed. Ones that waited in pitch black rooms with doors that locked. Ones that took her and then wouldn’t let her go.
Allie, the adult and not-so-confident version, had grown used to escaping. But it was always with her mind and her heart. She’d go back to the rock looking over such beauty. High enough to take her breath away. She’d go back and find salvation, only for a few moments.
Even now, in the silence of the cabin now, Allie had gone back. Just for a brief moment. Just to remember and try to say goodbye.
It never came.
A comforter covered her in this cozy little cabin and its name was Fiona Apple. Her pillow happened to be some kind of red wine Morgan had bought. Allie realized that sitting around by a fireplace sipping wine on a Sunday night wasn’t really a great way to declare victory over the booze-faced bastard she’d just left but she was coping. Morgan had given her a pill to help with the panic, too. Maybe that helped. Allie wasn’t much of a fan for either of these vices but tonight she needed them and welcomed them. The music was simply the soundtrack for her sad little soul.
You meet the man of your dreams and you’re swept off your feet. With an Italian name and an accent and all the promise of this wonderful art he created. A director. A visionary. A fresh voice.
Allie wondered if most men had similar demons or if the artistic ones tended to carry a special breed of them. The tortured souls falling victim to their own vapid shadows. Believing the hype predicted and then medicating over the cliff tossed over.
At one point, Allie had tried to carry Bernardo. She understood the industry and how fickle and ferocious it could be. She also understood how things changed—how everything suddenly stopped once California was partially decimated. They had moved and people had died and the entire industry suddenly started to circle. Some being sucked inside the swirling hole. Some of it surviving but changing. Some of it simply vanishing into thin air.
Bernardo’s career had been of the latter sort. Nobody wanted clever art anymore. The world was ending. Nobody wanted anything that could be called art or even rhymed with that word. Bernardo’s career wasn’t just on hold. It was finished. Done. Over. Thank you very much for coming, here’s your consolation prize. It’s a wife that will bleed for you and allow you to bruise her over your misfortunes and your missed opportunites.
A punching bag.
A shadowboxer as Fiona Apple sang about on the iPod and the portable speakers Morgan had moved from the kitchen into the main room.
The room spun around and Allie knew she’d had enough. The past can do that to you.
“Wow, going old school tonight,” Morgan said walking into the room, not worrying about turning down the volume.
“I remember getting high to this album,” Allie said.
“What? Really? Not you.”
Allie nodded and laughed. “Yeah. I had this stoner boyfriend in high school-he was a mess. But a beautiful mess.”
“You seem to attract those.”
“I could deal with the beautiful part,” Morgan said sipping her fresh glass of wine. “At least on cold winter nights.”
Memories were like bits of snow and ice pelting the side of the house. So many in bits and pieces. Too many to choose to pick up and study.
Morgan sat down next to her on the couch and sat Indian-style facing Allie.
“I left him,” she told her friend.
“What do you mean?”
Allie heard herself laugh and it sounded a bit mental, a bit delirious. This only made her laugh harder.
“I mean I bashed a champagne bottle over his head and knocked him unconscious and then left. That’s why my suitcase is so packed.”
Morgan still obviously didn’t understand. She was silent, waiting to hear the yeah right just kidding.
“I’m not kidding, Morgan.”
“Do I need to tell you?”
The flickering light from the fire moved over Morgan’s face. “No but I mean—did something happen that I don’t know about? Something to make you finally–”
“I married him. That’s enough.”
Yes, this was true, but Allie also knew there was something else. The final eye-opening moment. The new low, the hitting rock bottom moment.
“But yeah, there was something,” Allie added. “A week before you invited me to North Carolina.”
There was only the sound of crackling wood and the crinkle of flames in the fireplace. Morgan balled up more on the sofa and waited, watching Allie.
“Things haven’t been good,” Allie said.
“I know that.”
“No, I mean—the last couple of months. Things with Bernardo—he started acting strange.”
“The beating-your-wife kind of strange?”
“No.” Allie paused, again unsure whether to go there. The alcohol and the late night and the seclusion all helped, but still.
Still . . .
There was nothing to hide. She had hidden too much for long enough. Telling someone—speaking it out loud—didn’t just make it real. It allowed her to try to let it go. Or at least to start to.
“Something was different recently,” Allie said.
“What? Tell me—you sound so—what happened Allie?”
“There was a night—something was wrong. I didn’t know what prompted it. Of course, everything wrong in his life was because of his unlucky fate. His poor, poor luck of timing. Not being born two decades earlier before the tsunamis. The decline of the art-house film and blah blah blah. Everything’s been wrong since we moved. You know that. But this was different. Something was very, very wrong the moment he stepped foot in our apartment.”
Morgan waited, sipping her wine and watching Allie as if she was watching some kind of horror movie. Maybe she had been ever since Allie called her up the moment they were reunited in New York.
“He just seemed . . . I know how this might sound–”
“It’s me, Allie. I don’t care how it sounds. What happened?”
“He raped me. Crazy to say about someone you’ve slept with for years, right? But this night, he didn’t wait, he didn’t ask, he barely said a word to me. It was like every single angry drop of blood inside of him was wanting to lash out, so he did. It was . . . awful.”
Morgan came to Allie’s side and held her hand. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I was scared. More than I’ve ever been in my life. It wasn’t Bernardo who raped me that night. It was somebody else. Bernardo-the monster I realized I’d married—he was gone. And it was like—this is the crazy part. It was like he was possessed by some kind of thing. Some vile thing. I just . . .”
Allie wasn’t sure if she had cried any since it happened. The shock and the pain had dried them up. At least until tonight. Maybe it was the security and the sanctuary of this place. The warmth of the fire and the wine. The glow over Morgan’s face. The ability to tell this depraved story to her friend. Maybe all that and more.
“I am so sorry Allie,” Morgan said embracing her.
“When you told me about North Carolina, about this place, I knew. A switch flicked and I was like ‘I’m leaving him.’ It was that simple.”
“Does he know you’re here?”
“Not yet. He will. I swear—a part of me wondered if I killed him. I knocked him unconscious. I half wanted to kill him.”
Morgan cursed Bernardo’s name. “I hope he makes his way up here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to see what he does when I take that axe over there by the woodbox and slice his head open.”
The way Morgan said it made Allie laugh. “Have you even picked that thing up? It looks pretty heavy.”
“Well, no, but–”
“How about we just keep the doors locked and our cell phones powered?” Allie said.
“We don’t get the best service up here.”
“Even more reason to lock the doors,” Allie said, wiping her cheeks and eyes.
“I wish you had told me,” Morgan said as she looked up at her.
“I just did. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to.”
“Allie—you can do anything. I know that. I just wish you realized that about yourself.”
“I’m starting to,” Allie said. “Perhaps.”
I’m going to feel this wine tomorrow.
She finished brushing her teeth and looked into the small, round mirror on the wall. It was a bit warped so she looked like one of those pictures you could take on your MacBook that distorted your face and made it into something funny. Nothing about the portrait she looked at appeared humorous, however. She could still see her fear and fatigue washed over her pale face.
For a brief moment Allie thought of the plane ride and the mirror. She moved her hand to touch this one, but pulled it back.
Don’t be stupid.
She held a backpack full of memories involving mirrors going all the way back to her first recollections of being in preschool. Bernardo had called it her obsession, but she’d only told him a handful of the stories. A man both obsessed and possessed couldn’t say a word on that topic.
In her small bedroom with the sloping ceiling, Allie found her phone and thought about turning it on. But she resisted. She didn’t want to know what sort of messages awaited. He would find a way to reach out even if she blocked Bernardo in every single way known. He’d discover a way and then he’d smile as he threatened her.
It’s so easy to be caught up in the smile shuffling through some unseen door. It’s so easy to be sucked in before you realize the smile is like a movie poster, designed to capture your attention and get you in the seat regardless of whether the film is any good or not.
Oh, but his smile . . .
She could see him now, just like always, just like the way she used to remember him by. Smiling those pearly whites, the dimples flashing, the dark eyes looking so dynamic. This brilliant, creative spark in a world full of mediocrity.
Swept off her feet. That was how she had been. This whirlwind, this breathless leap, this intoxication. Too delicious to have an aftertaste. Too sudden to have a hangover. Those aftereffects would come, of course, and they would be bitter. But in the beginning, there was only the sweet, tempting taste of devotion.
Words, so many and so yet so few, bounced off the clouds and the stars. She had been mesmerized the way some kind of member of a cult might be. Falling under a trance and not realizing the traces of desolation hovering all over her.
In her dreams, the places she feared to go, Allie saw him holding her hand, smiling. Walking alongside of her, fitting. Laughing with her, loving. Basking in the wonder of new love.
For a while it was really, truly wonderful. There were no signs or omens. There was nothing to tell her to run. She felt—Allie believed—that he understood her.
She could not fathom that someone would reach such a deep place without a clue of how he got there. Without knowing what to do once he got there. Without being worthy of coming anywhere close to this place.
Bernardo didn’t leave this place. Instead, he stayed and became a terrorist of the heart and the soul.
Allie still sometimes dreamt of the man she thought she had fallen in love with since that man was completely and utterly a figment of her imagination.
She put the phone back down and turned off the lamp, then crawled underneath the heavy blankets hoping sleep would arrive quickly.
Her twirling head and the thoughts bouncing inside it seemed to have other ideas.
Like always, Allie would eventually think about that movie. The one that had started everything, the inciting incident that she could blame.
At that time in her life, the idea of an artist fascinated her. She was interested in a little bit of everything, and even felt like she had a talent as a photographer, yet she still didn’t have the spirit of an artist. She didn’t realize the door she had opened, however. Sometimes the truth was like learning the mysteries behind a magician’s tricks. You saw things differently. You might even wish you didn’t know how the magic worked.
This happened early on when Allie began to learn more about this wonderful and mythical film called “Charmingstance”. One of the most moving scenes came near the end with a woman walking alongside a river and then stepping in it and scooping water onto her hands and feet. It was this simple and profound redemptive moment that encapsulated the movie in just a few moments. The song behind it came from Peter Gabriel. The magic truly came from his song “Washing of the Water.” Maybe the mystery came from how they were able to secure the rights for it.
When it came down the truth, however, Bernardo had dispelled it with brushing it off with a laugh.
“I never wanted that scene in there to begin with. And that song was just so—so boring. I hated it.”
This mythical, magical moment suddenly crumbled. Allie had believed that this man she loved carried this pulsing heartbeat and soulful melancholy inside. But this was one of the first times when she realized that sometimes the art produced in the end didn’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of the artist.
Chunks of the foundation began to fall, and this would be a foreshadowing of the murkiness that would follow. The romance, the love, the passion, the falling without a need for a parachute . . . All suddenly disappearing. All dissipating.
“But what about the moment where he ends up—” she had ended up saying and explaining her thoughts and feelings on the things that meant the most from the film.
Only to find an answer she wished she didn’t know.
“I love how she ends up going out and finding out the truth–” she admitted to thinking.
Only to hear that he wanted a different ending and that he hated the clichéd and corny ending that was in the film.
Life was very different when you suddenly peered behind the curtain to get a true glimpse of your Great Oz. It never looked the way you first imagined.
Nothing in Allie’s life would ever look the same again.
She hangs on, clasping the ice, shivering. The weight—the wind—the rush all pull Allie back but she shakes and keeps fighting. Eyes flickering, opening and shutting, the heavy snow cutting at them. She can see the wall. The white towering pillars hovering over her. Moving closer, as if they’re breathing, as if they’re pushing her back.
Then amidst the screaming wind of the storm she can hear the laugh. His laugh. His delirious, angry, burn-the-world-down sort of laugh. The cold burn in her eyes feels like staples trying to keep them shut. But she forces them open to see the white enveloping her. Long, sharp alabaster daggers reaching out toward her face, her throat.
Those aren’t pillars or daggers they’re teeth and they belong to my husband.
And Bernardo keeps laughing as he begins to bite down and tear the part of her cheek that’s stretching to scream out but can’t be heard over the wailing wind rushing over her.
Something scratching woke her up.
The wind blew outside, but not in some kind of scary way but more in a soothing one, the kind you’d find on some kind of app and play to fall asleep to. The other sound, the scraping sort close-by, was the one that sounded a bit alarming.
She could feel her body drenched in sweat. Parts still shook. The nightmares weren’t anything new. She had grown used to them. These were the ones she didn’t mind. At least she could awaken from these horrors.
Allie opened her eyes and waited in the dark. There was no sound at first, then the clawing came again.
This time she could feel the tugging on her comforter.
This isn’t happening.
She didn’t ever flip out over little rodents or tiny animals that either slithered or scampered in the dark. But she wasn’t about to stay in bed letting whatever this was continue munching on part of her blanket. Allie climbed out of bed on the other side and then went over to turn on the lone lamp on the nearby table. Even before she could peer around the mattress to examine the culprit, she saw something white pop up on top of it like part of some magician’s trick. Something white—anything white—anything that even remotely resembled those chomping, smiling, sickening teeth—-
Bolting backwards, she banged a shoulder against the wall and then saw the monster.
The cat simply crawled to the middle of the bed and then snuggled up as if she’d done this a thousand times before.
With her body still shaking and a heart that felt like a marathon-runner, Allie carefully approached it, then examined it from a few feet away. The white animal didn’t look wild or mean, but she’d never been a big fan of cats so she wasn’t going to be stupid and get bit.
“What are you doing here?” Allie said, moving closer, then sitting on the edge of the bed.
Allie wore comfortable jammies that had never been worn before. Bernardo wasn’t a big fan of flannel pajamas even if they had come from Victoria’s Secret. But that very fact alone—that she had actually been worried about wearing them—was utterly ridiculous. Just like staying with him as long as she had.
Just like this white cat waking me up at two in the morning.
The gentle purring of the Persian Cat could be heard. Its copper eyes looked up at her with wonder.
“Where’d you come from, huh?” she asked, finally moving a hand to pet the long and sleek white fur.
The cat bolted out of the bed. Thankfully it went right past Allie instead of jumping right at her head. It landed on the floor like some kind of ballet dancer and then dashed out of the small room through the slightly open door. Allie thought about heading out to find the animal, but it was late and she was tired. Either the owners of the cabin had left her there or maybe she was just roaming like cats did. Maybe she was married to the black cat she’d seen earlier.
That look. It felt strange because it felt . . .
But she’d never owned a cat. She didn’t know anybody—not anyone close—who owned a cat either. So why did those copper eyes looking at her seem recognizable?
They don’t look like Bernardo’s. That I know.
A sign for Wolf Laurel hung on one of the walls. It was fitting. Allie thought that her husband’s eyes resembled a wild wolf. The kind hunting down its prey. Alert and focused and deadly. Just like any predator.
This made her think of the last text he’d sent her before she shut off her phone. Very passionate. Very ravenous. Very Bernardo-esque.
I WILL find you. And I WON’T let you leave. And every single second you are away will mean I’ll take that much MORE from you once you’re mine again. This time I won’t be gentle. This time I swear I won’t hold back anything.
Shutting off the light and slipping back under the covers, Allie wondered how much more Bernardo could take. There wasn’t much left to give.
That little bit left inside of Allie stayed awake for a long time, thinking about the white cat and eventually dreaming about it.
At least she had something sweet to dream about. For now.