I close my eyes and fight back my tears. I know what comes next, I’ve seen it in my head a thousand times, but each time it’s as hard to watch as the first. It never gets any easier. I’m not sure how long I sit there in silence, willing my tears away. I don’t even realize I’ve stopped speaking and gone somewhere else until I hear Nico’s voice.
“You don’t have to, Elle. Just let me hold you and forget the past.” His voice is gentle and kind and caring and it takes every ounce of strength in my body not to give in and just let him hold me. Take care of me and make it all go away. But I can’t. I need to rip the Band-Aid off.
My mind back in the present, I find the freckle and reclaim it as my focus, continuing with what I have to say. What I need to say. “He almost killed her that night. He lifted her by her throat and crushed her windpipe. She couldn’t breathe. But that wasn’t good enough. He wouldn’t stop.” The tears start to flow from my eyes, but I won’t let them keep me from what I need to do. “He wouldn’t stop. He just hit her over and over again. And she made this noise. This horrible noise because she couldn’t breathe. She was gasping for air, fighting with what little she had left.” The tears turn into sobs and I feel my body trembling.
“Come here, Baby.” Nico tries to pull me to him, but I won’t allow it. I need to get it all out.
For the first time since I started speaking, I look up at Nico. His eyes are pained and filled with unshed tears of his own as he watches me cry and listens to my story. I take one more deep breath and look into his eyes when I speak, my words coming out quiet, but their meaning unmistakably clear. “I killed him. I knew where his gun was hidden and I shot him.” Nico’s eyes widen, he wasn’t expecting what I told him. “That’s why I know.” My voice is barely a whisper. “I know what you feel like.”
I cry until there are no more tears left. I don’t know how much time passes, but Nico holds me tight until my body is wrenched of every last sob and tear. And I let him. For the first time in my life, I let someone else hold it, even if it’s just for a little while. He holds the pain and the guilt and the burden, all of it. And with the weight lifted from me, I fall asleep. Sound asleep.
Elle shifts in her sleep and I tighten my grip. She hasn’t budged in hours, not since she fell asleep in my arms. I eased my back down onto the couch and laid her out on top of me while I held her. My arms are numb from holding her so tight, but there is no way I’m letting go. Not ever.
I thought I understood what it meant to feel pain, but I had no god damn clue until I saw her face. Seeing her pain made anything I’ve went through pale in comparison. Worse than a blow to the chest, the pain is physical and emotional. The urge to hit something is almost unbearable. How could any human being do that to a woman, no less in front of a little girl? Forcing a twelve-year-old to defend her own mother at the cost of taking her own father’s life. No, not her father’s life. She took the life of a monster, who deserved it. I only wish it was me. Wish I could take it all away and let it be me who went through it, not Elle.
She looks so peaceful when she sleeps. I’m pissed off at myself for not being there for her when it happened. Deep down I know it’s irrational to hate myself for not protecting her when I hadn’t even met her yet…but it doesn’t make the feeling go away just because common sense tells me it’s impossible.
When I froze in the cage and beat myself up over it, this little angel reaches out to help me, knowing that it will only bring bad shit to the surface again for her. And what do I do when she puts herself out there for me? I basically turn my back on her. I’m so f**king self-centered…so worried about myself that I make her retreat. It must have taken everything she had to reach out and try to help me with what she bears herself. I’m a total ass**le.
I’m confused when I wake up. I don’t even remember falling asleep. But I’m lying on top of Nico and he’s holding me so tight that for a minute I forget what happened last night. I told him. And now he’ll never look at me the same. Even my therapist and friends I met in group change when they hear my story. Everyone except Regina. She understands me because she has her own cross to bear. Some look at me with pity, others think I’m a monster…that there is no justification for taking another life. I know what they think.
I have no idea what time it is, but the sun isn’t peaking in through the window yet, so it must not be morning. I try to close my eyes and force myself back to sleep, but my bladder has other plans for us. I attempt to gently slip out of Nico’s arms as he sleeps, but his arms tighten around me and pull me back into place.
“Where do you think you’re going?” His voice takes me by surprise, I thought he was sleeping.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” I respond to his chest, I’m not ready to see his beautiful green eyes. The ones that used to look at me like I was special, like he wanted to devour me.
Nico’s grip loosens and I quietly get up without another word and make my way to the bathroom. I’m horrified when I look in the mirror. My face is all puffy, blotchy, and red and there are black streaks of makeup dried on both cheeks. My hair is a tangled mess on one side and the other side looks as if it was glued to my face. Wonderful.
I wash up and do my best to look presentable, but there’s not much to help a swollen face except time…and maybe some ice. I make my way back to the couch in the dark where I expect to find Nico, but he isn’t there. For a second I panic and think he’s already left me, but then I hear him walking behind me.
“Bath or bed? I feel like I’m gonna break that little girly couch you have every time I move an inch.” He wraps his arms around my waist from behind as he speaks and it takes me a minute to realize what he’s asking.
I’m thankful that we manage to make it to the bedroom without turning on any lights, I’m not ready to see his eyes. I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready, but I’m being selfish and just want to pretend nothing’s changed a little while longer. Nico waits until after I’m in bed before climbing in and then he climbs in next to me. Lying on his side, he wraps his arm around my waist as I lie on my back and he pulls me so I’m lying next to him. His big hand reaches up and pushes the hair that’s already fallen out of the hair tie I had just secured out of my face. He rubs his thumb up and down the side of my cheek and my eyes close, relaxing at his touch, so gentle and soothing.
I think before I speak. “Not really.”
I can’t really see his face, but I feel him nod once, accepting my response.
A long moment of silence passes before Nico speaks again. “What are you most afraid of right now?”
I know the answer right away, but I think about how to respond to the question anyway. I don’t try to catch the few tears that roll down my face, hoping he won’t notice in the dark. But Nico’s thumb catches my tears.
I still haven’t summoned the courage to answer his question, when he speaks again. “I’m afraid I’m not good enough for you. That I’ll drag you down into the hell that I belong in with me.”
The few tears that had escaped become the eye of the storm and suddenly the torrential downpour hits and I can’t stop them. But I force myself to answer through them. “I’m afraid to see the way that you’ll look at me…now that you know who I really am.”
Nico pulls me to him and wraps me tightly in his arms. I cry…really cry, feeling years of pent-up tears flow from my body. It’s exhausting and strangely freeing at the same time. He doesn’t loosen his grip on me until I have nothing left.
Eventually my breathing calms and the tears are all gone. I begin to drift off to sleep, but then suddenly it’s light and I have to force my eyes closed to ward out the stream of brightness. Nico turned on the light.
“What are you doing?” My eyelids are still pressed tightly closed as I speak.
“Open your eyes.” Nico’s voice is soft, but his words are a command, not a question.
I don’t respond, and I also don’t open my eyes.
“Elle, baby, open your eyes.”
His tone is so sweet, I’d find it hard to deny him anything when he talks to me like that. So I do it. I open my eyes a little and look up at him. His beautiful green eyes are right there, so close to me. And they’re waiting. Waiting for me to look back at him fully. I allow it, allow my eyes to fully open and look into Nico’s. At first I’m just looking at the eyes themselves. The beautiful color, the dark pupil in the sea of soft green, the thick dark eyelashes that frame the beauty God has given the man. But then I find myself looking past the surface and I’m searching. Searching for what I expect to find there. Then I realize. It’s not there. No pity, no shame, no doubt. And my eyes widen when it hits me.
“There she is.” The corner of Nico’s mouth twitches and I can’t help but smile back at him. My body heaves a deep breath of relief and I feel as though I’m at peace for the first time in a very long time. It might even be the first time I’ve ever felt this way.
We spend the next few hours talking and making love and I never want it to end. But I have an early afternoon deposition that I’m not prepared for and I have to drag myself into the office. “I have to get to work. I’m late, even for me.”
“You’re usually late to work?” Nico seems surprised.
I laugh at his comment, he must be the only person on the planet that doesn’t know about my issue with timeliness. “I’m late for everything.”
Nico shrugs, “I guess I didn’t notice.”
I smile at him and yes, I think I might even blush a little. Blush at the man who has touched every part of my body with his mouth and now knows my innermost, darkest secrets. “You seem to be the only thing that I can make it on time for.”
Nico’s eyebrows arch in surprise, but then a slow, smug smile spreads across his handsome face and I’m rewarded with his dimples.
I playfully smack him on his chest. “Don’t get too full of yourself, I’m sure it was beginner’s luck and you’ll be waiting for me most of the time, just like everyone else.” I attempt to leave the bed. I need to take a shower and get to work, but Nico pulls me back down and I’m quickly positioned underneath him.
I think he’s still being playful, but when I look up at him, I find his face serious. “I need to know something, Elle.”
“What?” I’m confused at how we went from playful to serious and what is bothering him.
“Dinner with the pansy ass last night?”
“The pansy ass?” My brows furrow as I speak… for a second I really am confused as to what he is referring to, but then I realize he means William.
Nico doesn’t say anything else, he waits for my response.
“We had a business dinner with a client.”
“I didn’t see any client and it didn’t look like business to me.”
“That’s because he told me the dinner was at six and not seven so that I wouldn’t be late. So when I got there at six thirty, we had a half an hour to wait for our client together.”
My answer seems to satisfy him, but the tension I see flee from his face only disappears for a few seconds. Then it’s back.
“I don’t like seeing the two of you looking so cozy.”
“We’re friends…we’ve been friends since law school.”
“Men who sleep with a woman don’t do friends, Babe.”
“Well William does.”
“I see the way he looks at you. He doesn’t want to be your friend.”