Nothing about Rueben’s appearance betrays what he is. What he’s done.
The knot in Scarlett’s stomach tightens as she sits at the table picking lint from the sleeve of her sweater, and watches him from the corner of her eye. Her gaze travels up the familiar curve of his arm as he reaches for his glass. His muscle bulges as he lifts his glass for a drink.
The knot hardens.
She forces herself to take a bite of fish and retches, disguising it with a cough.
Rueben sets down his glass. “Better not be getting sick.” His calm tone coaxes her fear into surrender once again.
She chases the fish with tepid tap water before answering, “I’m not. It was just a tickle.” She feels his eyes on her—raising the hair on the back of her neck.
“How’s dinner?” He jabs his fork toward her plate.
The white fish is undercooked. Again. The rice is hard, but she says, “good,” and ignores the way the lie burns the back of her throat.
“Then eat. You need to stay healthy.”
She pushes the rice around her plate, then separates another piece of fish from its transparent bones.
The fish’s round jelly eyes become a woman’s grey-blue eyes staring up at her. The fish’s grey skin morphs into long brown hair that floats around the woman’s once, pretty face.
Scarlett gags again and pushes away her plate.
“Eat, dammit!” Rueben slams the table with his fist. Cutlery clatters, drinks slosh, and the fish eyes jiggle.
Snot and tears drip from Scarlett’s chin. She lets her hair fall across one shoulder. A dark veil between Rueben and her.
“You wanna leave? Is that it?” Rueben’s voice softens. She trembles at the sound of his chair scraping on the hardwood floor as he stands. Then his arms are around her, and his mouth is in her hair.
“You know I won’t stop you.” His whisper sends chills down her neck and spine. Then—in one fluid motion—Rueben picks her up. He holds her so that her face is buried in his shoulder. The trembling stops.
She should fight him. She should demand he put her down. She should run. She’s told herself all these things before, and done none of them.
She feels the staccato rhythm of his heart pounding in sync with hers as he carries her to the adjacent room. He lays her on his bed then stands over her, his shirt streaked with her tears and snot. She stares at the dark stubble on his chin as he brushes her hair from her damp face.
“Look at me.”
Tears shimmer on her lashes blurring his face.
“Why won’t you look at me? Am I that horrible to look at?”
“No.” Her choked whisper reveals more truth than her defiance.
“Then look at me. I won’t hurt you. I promise, I’d never hurt you.”
She blinks, sending hot tears into her hair line. His dark eyes hold hers. Magnetic. Opposite poles laced with intensity.
“You don’t believe me.” He pushes away from the bed. She watches him pace. He keeps shaking his head like he’s losing a battle with his demons. At last he turns to look at her. She sits up and pulls her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them.
“Why are you afraid?” The pain in his eyes twists a knife of betrayal deeper into her gut.
“Why do you think?” She flinches at her brave retort.
“Because I killed your mother.” His words fill the room, and a suffocating silence ensues.
She drops her eyes and plucks at the threads around a hole in the knee of her jeans.
“That’s not why.” When she looks at him again the past and present collide. An agonizing dance choreographed to conflicting beats of truth and denial.
“Then tell me.” There’s a note of panic in his voice. A huskiness.
“I’m afraid because…I’m in love with you.”
There isn’t a sudden flurry of activity like she’s often imagined. No mouths crushed in kisses, no fingers tangled in clothing and hair. There’s nothing more than vapid stillness.
“You can’t. You shouldn’t.”
How can she respond to that?
“You have to leave.”
A rushing watery sound floods her ears. Is that the sound her mother heard as her body floated down the river?
No. Of course not. The dead don’t hear.
Scarlett stands, facing him. Fists clenched. “What? Why?”
Rueben runs his hands through his hair, a gesture as unfamiliar as the words he’s just spoken.
“I can’t…” He suddenly leaves the room. She follows with her heart in her throat. Unshed tears make it difficult to swallow.
She grabs his sleeve and when he turns around, the look on his face twists the knife up to its hilt.
“I can’t keep you here anymore. I can’t make you stay.”
“You can’t make me leave, Rueben.”
He stares at her. “Maybe not. But the cops can.” He heads to the kitchen where he yanks open a cupboard and pulls down a shoebox she’s never seen before.
“Go!” He’s yelled at her many times, but not like this. The force of his tone makes her back away. He digs out a cell phone from the box and dials with his thumb. He’s had a phone all this time? And it works?
It’s not like she’s ever tried looking for one.
For once it isn’t the paralyzing unknown that prevents her from running away, it’s Rueben’s slumped shoulders as he leans against the counter while speaking into the phone, giving directions to the cabin. He looks so different: rumpled shirt, dark hair mussed. He wears pain and defeat like someone else’s garment.
She snatches the phone from his hand, snapping it closed. The prickle of his whiskers against her cheek is like coming home when she presses herself against him. He holds her, and this time she lets her body respond.
When they separate, she looks up at him. Years of holding back makes her bold. “Tell me you love me.”
“Tell me. I want to hear you say the words.”
“My little Scar. You have to go now.” He runs the back of his hand down her cheek. That’s what she is to him. Not Scarlett, but his scar. The wound that healed, but left a mark.
She stands on her tiptoes and pulls him to her. The first time their lips meet will also be their last. Their bittersweet confession.
It seems like hours has passed, but she knows it’s only been minutes. Everything warps around here.
At the door, she looks back at him. Time rewinds and she sees Rueben the way she first saw him: twenty-two years old. Shoulders rigid, eyes hard and cold. Lethal good-looks.
That’s how she used to look at her kidnapper—without seeing him.
But things are different now. So, she says what she must.
“You didn’t kill her, you know.” Scarlett’s hand shakes as she clutches the doorknob.
Rueben doesn’t move. He doesn’t seem to hear her, but she keeps saying the words anyway.
“That night, my mother had taken a handful of pills. I didn’t try to stop her like before. I was tired of it all. I jumped in the car before she took off, because I knew…I knew if I didn’t, I’d never see her again. So, when we showed up here she’d already overdosed.”
She hears sirens in the distance and imagines the cops speeding up the graveled driveway like she and her mother did five years earlier. She can still see her mother’s sweaty face and wild eyes. The bruises on the older woman’s face, from her last boyfriend, were yellow; giving her pallid skin a little color.
The only thing Scarlett doesn’t know is why her mother had driven here. To this cabin in the woods. To this stranger who kept fifteen-year-old Scarlett and her mother tied to his radiator for three days—even after her mother had died. Then released her body into the river.
“She killed herself, Rueben.”
Voices. Car doors slamming. “Come out with your hands up!”
Rueben glances at the floor, shifts his weight. “He loved her. My father.” When his eyes meet Scarlett’s, they’re bright. “I was only three when they first met. They were together for a few years. I guess you didn’t know that.” He sags against the counter. “Your mother was the only good thing in my life.”
There it is. The truth. It hangs in the air like a living thing. Sucking oxygen.
But it’s not truth that gives Scarlett the strength to finally open the door. It’s justice.
Squinting at the flashing, bright red and blue lights, she takes her first step outside and hears Rueben say the words she’s longed to hear said about herself.
“I loved her.”
Aria J. Wolfe is a Realtor by day and a writer by night. She writes about the darker side of humanity while illuminating the possibility of hope and redemption.