Raw and honest.
That is what Liam Stone claimed he wanted from me, but that is not what he gave me. He lied to me. He hurt me. And still, some crazy, stupid part of me clings to the idea that there could be a logical explanation for what I overheard between Derek and him last night. That same part of me that saw him as my hero, willing to fight my proverbial Godzilla. But he was never truly my hero, and after a sleepless night in the Cherry Creek Inn, I have faced reality. I cannot risk trusting him, or anyone else for that matter, at least not until I confront the past someone wants me to forget. That means leaving Colorado and the persona of Amy Bensen, and heading to Texas, which is exactly what I’m working on now.
Entering the downtown Denver pawn shop on a typical gust of Colorado wind, I swipe my long blonde hair from my face, and glance around the open space where unattended glass display shelves are arranged in a T-shape. Silence seems to be my only companion, but the all too familiar sense of being watched has me fighting the urge to turn and leave, with good reason. This is where the guy at the flea market, the one who’d made a joke of a fake ID for me, told me I can obtain the kind of high quality product that will allow me to disappear. And while I’ve lived in a bubble, allowing myself to know far too little about why and who I’ve been running from these past six years, I am crystal clear on Liam Stone’s money and power. He will hunt me down and he will find me if I don’t cover my tracks.
Glancing at the huge, black-rimmed clock on the wall to my left that reads high noon, I comfort myself with the idea that the staff must be in a back room eating lunch. Perhaps they are watching me on camera, but if so, why not come out and greet me?
“Hello?” I call out, hugging myself and feeling awkwardly underdressed in the too skimpy white shorts and red tank I’d bought at Walmart right after my dinner-turned-disaster with Liam the night before. I hate that I can’t go back to my apartment for my things without him, and who knows who else, finding me. Of course, most of ‘my’ things are items Liam bought anyway. Once I’m ready to disappear, I’ll pull my money from my old New York account and purchase some more basics that really feel like mine. Correction. Once I’m capable of disappearing. I’m ready now.
Determined to do what I’m here for and leave, I move further inside the store, silently praying the twenty bucks I gave the cab driver is enough to ensure he waits for me. “Hello?” I call again, but my answer is more silence.
Seconds continue to tick by and I am feeling increasingly uneasy. I consider walking into the back room, but considering the kind of operation this is supposed to be, I think better of that idea. Deciding to step outside, check on my cab and regroup, I turn toward the exit.
At the sound of the heavily accented voice, I rotate to find it belongs to a rapidly approaching, fifty-something burly man with a thick beard as gray and wiry as his longish hair. “I was looking for Roberto,” I say quickly, hoping this scruffy-looking stranger isn’t him yet hoping he is my answer to freedom in the same moment.
By the time the question is out, the man is in front of me, a mere few steps separating us, the scent of cigarettes wafting off of him, his jeans and t-shirt wrinkled and worn. “I am Roberto,” he declares and I am too discomfited by his nearness to be relieved I have found the man who is supposed to help me. He reaches out and lifts a strand of my long, blonde hair and it is all I can do not to shrink away from him as he adds, “My man said you were brunette.”
It takes all I have in me not to knock his hand away. “Wig,” I say, tugging my cheap, oversized purse I’d bought this morning in front of me and between us. “I brought it with me.”
“For a quick change of identity,” he comments. “Smart Mammi.”
I do not know what ‘Mammi’ means, but after the horrid ID his man at the flea market had made me, I agree it was smart. My last minute decision to toss the bottle of hair color means that, given a worst case scenario, I can still pass with my Amy Bensen photos.
He tugs roughly on the strand of my hair in his fingers before dropping his hand. “$2500.”
I gape. “What? No. I was quoted $500.”
“You need to disappear badly enough to want two hair colors. That means you need the best identification I can make you. That runs $2500.”
“I don’t have $2500. What do I get for $500?”
“Nothing. You were quoted wrong.”
My gut knots. My wig and hair color have somehow revealed the desperation I had coolly concealed from the other man. “I don’t have that much.”
“Well, then,” he says, his lips thinning, “use your flea market ID.” He turns away, dismissing me.
“No,” I say quickly, all too aware that the fake ID made this morning won’t get me through a grocery line, let alone airport security. “Wait.” He faces me again, arching a dark brow in a silent question. “I have $700.”
My mind races, calculating how much I will have left to survive with if I go higher. I settle on a firm, “$1500. That is all I have.”
His gaze rakes up and down my body, then returns to my face and I feel as if I’ve been raped. “Perhaps we can barter,” he suggests. “You give me something I want. I give you something you want.”
My heart lodges in my throat. I want to survive. I want answers. I want to make Amy Bensen disappear but not like this. Not like this. “No, I–”
“Yes,” he counters and his hands come down on my shoulders.
Panic rushes over me and a wild, intense rush of adrenaline spikes through my blood. I shove his hands away. “No!”
He grabs my wrists. “It will be good for you, I promise.”
“Let go,” I hiss. “Let go.” A familiar prickling in my scalp begins, signaling one of the dreaded flashbacks that can easily debilitate me. “No. No. No.” Pain spikes along my scalp, like a blade carving me from one side to the other. “Oh, God. Not now.”
“Oh God, is right,” he promises. “Over and over you gonna say that.”
My eyes meet his and I see the intent in his. He isn’t going to make me an ID. He’s going to make me a victim if I let him. I am sick and tired of being everyone’s victim. I raise my knee and put every bit of myself behind the blow I land on his groin. He grunts and doubles over, panting in evident pain. The prickling in my head is more pronounced and I shove against the door, desperate to escape before I collapse, but it doesn’t move. Panicked, I turn and push on the steel latch and then burst from the store and into the wind. A quick glance to my right in search of my cab tells me the driver has deserted me. I cut the other way, running blindly as fast as my feet will allow.
Spots splatter in front of my eyes and I dart into a place labeled as a diner, and head for the sign that reads “Restroom”. Once I’m inside the one-stall room, I lock myself in and press my back against the wooden surface. Pain pierces my scalp and I ball my fists and slide down the door, just in time. Suddenly, I’m flashing back to the past.
I park my Toyota Camry in front of the house and shove open the door, wondering what it will be like to be in college a few months from now, without a curfew. Stepping outside, the hot Texas night suffocates me and so does the realization that the porch is dark. How very…odd. I frown and shove my door closed, strapping my small purse cross-body, noting my parents’ Ford SUV is in the drive and opting to keep my keys in hand. If my mom isn’t on the porch waiting to tell me I’m ten minutes late, maybe the migraine she was fighting earlier caught up with her and I need to let myself inside.
Rushing toward the house, hoping to avoid a lecture, I tiptoe up the stairs. The third plank creaks loudly and I freeze, certain that no headache will stop my mother from discovering my tardiness. Dang it, this is Dana’s fault. I think of my best friend. I’d told her I had to leave the movie theater thirty minutes ago, but Jack—aka the captain of the football team—was talking to her and she’s infatuated with him.
Inhaling, I decide to just go for it, and rush the rest of the way up to the main landing. The instant I hit the porch level, a hand wraps around my upper arm. I gasp and a big hand covers my mouth. I reach for it, trying to pry it off of me.
A second later I’m slammed against the wall, that big hand still over my mouth. “Were you inviting someone to grab you and hurt you?”
I blink my older brother into view through the inky black night surrounding us and his hand falls from my mouth. I grimace at him and lift my knee to his groin, stopping just shy of contact. “I should hurt you like I would them. You scared the crap out of me, Chad. When did you and Dad even get back into town?”
He ignores the question. “When you see something unusual like the porch light being out, you don’t just charge forward and hope for the best. Walking around in your fairytale world of Saturday night dates and teenage gossip isn’t going to keep you safe.”
My anger is instant. “Teenage gossip? Did you really just say that to me? I want to be at the digs with you and Dad. I want to be exploring the world. It’s your influence on Dad that keeps me from traveling with you, so don’t even go there, Chad.”
A long, curly lock of his blond hair falls over his brow. “Because I’m fucking trying to make sure you have the normal life I have never had.”
I suck in a breath at the raspy, affected quality to his words that sends goose bumps down my spine. Fear clenches my gut. “What’s wrong, Chad?”
He stares at me and I wish like heck the shadows would soften on his face.
“Chad?” I prod when he doesn’t reply.
He shoves off the wall and scrubs his face. “Nothing’s wrong.” He motions to the door. “Let’s go inside.”
“No. Not yet. Not until you tell me what’s going on. Don’t tell me it’s nothing. Tell me the truth.”
“You can’t handle the truth. If tonight told me anything, it’s that.”
“That’s unfair. I’m living the only life you let me have. What aren’t you telling me?”
Pounding jolts me back to the present and I am on the ground, my legs spread out on the filthy floor of the restaurant bathroom. “Chad,” I whisper, aching from how real he’d felt in my flashback. It had been only months after that when I lost him and everyone I loved. I squeeze my eyes shut, remembering how Mom had opened the door and ended the conversation that Chad would never reopen. Chad had blamed his behavior on a girl and a bottle of tequila I know he’d never touched. I’d have smelled it on him. You can’t handle the truth. I squeeze my eyes shut, ashamed of how right he’d been. Ashamed at how I’ve hidden and blocked everything out. Afraid of what I’d discover. My lashes lift. Not anymore.
I open the bathroom door, and return to the main dining area, and it’s as if my memory of Chad has shifted something inside me. I am suddenly challenged to be more than I have been, but deep down I know this has been coming. Something inside me burns to escape the prison that has been my life. It is almost as if on a subconscious level, I went to work at the museum to tempt fate and force myself to finally act.
Exiting the building, I am remarkably cool-headed about how to deal with my travel limitations. I hail a cab and direct the driver to take me to a bank. There I withdraw the cash from my New York account, all too aware I’m sending out an alert about my location to whoever was following me from New York. Next, I have the driver take me on my second trip to Walmart, where I suck it up and invest in more of what I need for my travel plans, a selection of casual clothes, two suitcases, a couple of hats, and sunglasses. Once I pay for the items, I go to the bathroom and change into jeans and a basic navy tee, intentionally leaving one suitcase empty while placing my purchases in the second. Finally, I slip on a red hoodie to make sure I stand out at my next stop.
When the cab pulls up to the airport, my nerves are scattered, but I force myself to get out of the car. I have a plan and it’s a good one. Good thing, too, since there is no plan “B” that makes sense to me.
I rush to the counter of a budget airline in an effort to control my cost and I am just in time to snag a seat on a flight leaving in less than an hour. I check in the empty bag, assuming a bag makes my flight look more legitimate than I intend for it to be, and keep the other with me. Once I have my boarding pass, despite my feet resisting, I press forward, reminding myself that there are cameras and security people everywhere. I’m safer here than anywhere else.
Fifteen torturous minutes later, I head to the gate, where I claim a seat near the counter so that I can call for help if needed. I do not move. I just…wait. And wait. And wait, it seems. Finally, boarding time arrives and I know this is when I have to plan things just right. I wait in line and the attendant scans my ticket and waves me down the ramp. I walk toward the entry and disappear onto the boarding ramp, then move to the wall, letting others pass. My hoodie comes off and I stuff it in my bag, then tug out the black ball cap I purchased and shove my hair underneath.
“Do you need help?” an attendant asks.
“My mother is meeting me and I’m worried. Do I have time to look for her?”
“You have about three minutes. Is she a confirmed passenger?”
“What’s her name and I’ll call her on the intercom and check the manifest for her name.”
“Kylie Richardson, and thank you.”
She looks concerned and nods. “Give me a moment or actually continue boarding and I’ll find you. What’s your name?”
“Lara,” I say, speaking half of my real name for the first time in six years, and all but choking on it as I do.
Brooks, I think, and for reasons beyond my obvious need for discretion my birth name no longer feels right. It no longer feels like me, and too easily, another alias flows from my lips. “Richardson. Lara Richardson.”
“Okay, Ms. Richardson. Go find your seat and I’ll find your mom.”
She turns away and I do not let myself dwell on the foolishness of using my real first name in an airport where I am surely being hunted. I creep to the edge of the walkway and peek around the corner to find the attendant walking toward the counter where another woman waits. The waiting area is empty. Like it had been that day I’d met Liam, when I’d thought I was going to be bumped, but instead ended up seated in first class next to him. Now, I wonder if that was a coincidence or by his design.
With the attendants facing away from me, I hear the announcement calling my fictional mother and I seize the opportunity presented to me. Darting from the walkway and to my right, my destination is the nearest exit sign, which I find quickly. Lifting my suitcase, I all but run down the escalator and straight toward the taxi stand.
Outside the building, I head directly to the male attendant and hand him cash. “I’m late to a wedding rehearsal dinner. I need out of here fast.”
He glances at the twenty-dollar bill I’ve handed him and nods. “You got it, sweetheart.” He lifts his hand to motion to a cab and grabs my bag.
“In the back seat, please,” I instruct, wanting my few possessions where I can get to them if I need to make a fast departure. I can’t afford to throw out any more money after the cost of that plane ticket.
I’m just about to climb into the backseat when I hear, “Amy.”
For the flash of a moment, I freeze, the sound of Liam’s deep, intensely male and all too familiar voice radiating through me. No. No. No. He cannot be here. He can’t. But he is and that can only mean one thing. He had me followed. He’s been having me followed and it’s the confirmation that he was never just a stranger who touched me deeply. He is everything I do not want him to be. Everything I had prayed he wasn’t.
I whirl around to face him and the attendant is stepping away, giving me a view of Liam standing there, looking every bit of Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome in faded jeans and an Izod shirt that is as perfectly aqua blue as his eyes. Close. Too close and he sways into motion. “Don’t!” I hiss, holding up a hand. “I’ll scream bloody murder, I promise you.”
He stills, and our eyes lock, his narrowing, holding mine captive. “Run to me, not from me.”
Those familiar words ripple through me, stirring a passionate memory of him saying them to me once before. And they hurt. I hurt. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“You know who I am. Who are you?”
“Hey, lady,” the driver says. “You coming?”
“Yes,” I call out. “Yes. I am.” But I don’t look away from Liam. “I heard you, Liam. I heard you talking to Derek last night.”
“You don’t know what you heard.”
No denial. I’d wanted denial and not hearing it tells me more than words. I turn away and start to get into the car.
“Don’t do this,” he commands, but there is a hint of a plea to his voice I’m not sure is real. Maybe I just want it to exist. Maybe I just want to turn back time and make last night, and so many things, go away. “You need my protection,” he adds.
I laugh, but it is all pain and no humor. “Your protection was never what I needed.” It was his honesty. His realness that I now doubt.
“You need my protection,” he repeats. “That’s what I was talking to Derek about. Me protecting you.”
Is the camera feed live? he’d asked Derek. That isn’t protection. “Lies don’t protect me,” I bite out, and duck to get into the car again.
“I didn’t lie to you.”
I stop moving, grinding my teeth at the realization that I ridiculously want him to give me a good reason for what I’d overhead. There is no good reason, I remind myself as I had a million times last night. I let my guard down with him and I can’t. Not when my family is already dead and I could be next.
“I can’t do this with you,” I whisper, not even sure if he can hear me as I lower myself onto the leather seat.
“I will find you,” he calls after me, and the words are pure conviction, a promise.
“You can try,” I say, and my heart is racing as I yank the door shut, lock it, and shout at the driver, “Go, go, go. Go now!”
The car jerks into motion at the same moment that Liam pounds on the roof. Scooting away from the window, I watch as he tugs on the locked handle. “Amy, damn it!” he growls. The man I know to be private and in control, at least in public, is nowhere to be found. “Open up.” We keep moving and he runs beside us, leaning into my view. “Don’t do this. Stop. Stop now.”
“Do we have a problem, lady?” the driver asks.
“Drive and we won’t!” I shout at him.
He guns the engine and we pull ahead of Liam and the absence of him beside me is both a relief and a blow. I twist around to stare at him, the baseball cap falling from my hair, my eyes desperately seeking Liam. He’s running after us. Running. Liam doesn’t seem like a man to run after anyone, but he’s running after me.
My fingers curl into my palms and I force myself to turn and sit down. Liam was desperate for me. I know this. It was in his eyes, his actions. In his voice. And I am desperate for him, for the man who I believed finally ended what felt like an eternal hell of being alone. But I do not know why he is desperate for me, if there might be reasons beyond real emotion, any more than I know why I am hunted or why he might be involved. I only know that he could be. And right now, I know why I let six years pass before I looked for answers. Not knowing who to trust, or how to find out what I need to know without dying first, is terrifying. But not knowing was a facade of safety that never existed and is simply no longer an option.
I will find you. Liam’s words play in my head and I know he meant them. He will find me if I give him the chance. My nails dig into my palms where my fingers are still curled. If I ever see Liam again, it has to be my choice.
I sit up straight and survey the area outside the car as we exit onto the highway and I think of the note in the JFK airport. Be smart. Don’t link yourself to your past. Stay away from museums this time. Be smart. We are traveling the expected path in a car that I’ve been spotted in by Liam. That is not smart, but calm slides through me as it had after the diner this morning, and I’m back in that ‘zone’ I’d found years before to escape the memories of the fire that had burned away my world. Stop and think, Amy, I tell myself. Stop and think before you act.
I resist the urge to scream for the first exit, thinking it, too, would be obvious. “Exit here,” I order several miles later, digging cash out of my bag and dragging the handle of my suitcase open.
The cab takes the frontage road. “Right or left?” the driver asks.
My gaze lands on a truck stop and a light bulb goes off in my head. “Get back on the highway,” I order, slipping my hair back under my ball cap.
“What?” the driver asks, sounding irritated. “You told me to get off.”
“I got confused,” I say and he stops at the light directly ahead of us and I open my door, tossing him cash.
My zone does not seem to stop my adrenaline from spiking like gasoline through my veins at the danger of being out in the open, a danger I’m ready to have behind me. Shoving the bag I’m using as a purse onto my shoulder, my singular suitcase in tow, I dart across the road. This will be over in a minute and I will be out of danger. I have a plan that is much better than the one I started with this morning.
The instant I’m inside the truck stop, I make a beeline to the back door that I can tell leads to the industrial gas pumps for the big rigs. I’m bypassing my Plan A, which had been to buy a cheap car off of Craigslist, one I wouldn’t need an ID to buy, and drive out of the state. Dangerous as it might be, I’m hanging onto my cash, and hitchhiking. It’s dangerous, but so is staying in the city any longer than necessary.
Stepping outside again, my plan is to find the most un-serial-killer-like person as possible but as I exit, a short, bearded man in jeans and a cowboy shirt grabs the door from me and stops a few steps from me. “You need help, sweetheart?”
Already this is seeming like a bad idea. “No, I’m good.”
He squints, thick lines around eyes that spend way too much time moving up and down my body, before he asks, “You need a ride?”
“She’s with me.”
I glance up to find a thin, fifty-something red-haired woman kicking up dust with her cowboy boots. She stops beside me. “You ready to head out?”
The look she gives me is all motherly authority and my heart squeezes with the memories of my own mother. “Yes,” I say, no hesitation in my reply. “I’m ready.”
She motions me toward a big red rig and I fall into step with her. “I’m Shell, honey. I’d ask what you’re running from but I’ll spare you a lie. I ride with my hubby Frank. You can join us if you like. Where you headed?”
“Away from here,” I say. “That’s all that counts right now.”
Sadness seeps into her eyes and quickly is banked, but I see it. I feel it. Oh how I feel it and once again with a stranger, I feel a connection. But then, all I have in my life are strangers. Who else would I connect with?
“Who do we have here?” A happy looking gray-haired man with a beer belly asks as we approach the shiny red truck.
“This is…” Shell begins, and glances at me, a question in her expression.
“Amy,” I say, clinging to the name that is the only thing I’ve managed to keep for six years.
“I’m Roy, Amy. You know how many truckers it takes to pump gas into a rig?”
“Ah…no. How many?”
“None. We make our wives do it.”
Laughter bubbles from my throat and Shell snorts. “He doesn’t make me do anything, honey.”
Ten minutes later I’m at the window seat of the rig with Shell between me and Roy, and my laughter has taken a nosedive. Roy pauses at the exit to check the road and my chest is suddenly killing me, a crushing sensation pressing against it like the big rig I’m riding in is rolling over me instead of the hot pavement.
We pull onto the access road and while I felt regret leaving New York, I feel none over leaving Denver. But there is plenty over leaving Liam. I still want my Godzilla slayer, which is exactly why distance between him and me is good. I don’t know who I’m running from or if I’m wanted dead or alive. I simply know I have enemies and that it’s time I find out why. I will do that by being my own hero and the hero that honors my family the way they deserve to be honored.