Skinner was up and around the table in a flash, with one hand covering my mouth and the other holding the knife tight against my throat.
“Shhh,” he breathed in my ear.
We listened as the engine cut off, and the sound of footsteps echoed on the stairs going up to my apartment. We heard him banging on my front door for several minutes, calling out for me. I imagined him standing there, confused and wondering where I was.
Lexi’s car was in the driveway. I wasn’t answering my cellphone.
He’ll know something is wrong. He’ll call the police.
My assurance was quickly overtaken by a flurry of doubts: what if Finn thought I’d changed my mind about meeting him? What if he thought I didn’t want to get back together? What if he gave up and left, without ever going inside the apartment?
Then, I realized that this was Finn – he didn’t take no for an answer. I’d been surprised he’d even conceded to giving me a week’s worth of space; shocked that he’d agreed to wait until eight to come over tonight. When that boy wanted something, he went after it with everything he had.
And he wanted me.
I fought off a smile when I heard the undeniable sound of my apartment door being kicked in. Such a caveman.
Skinner cursed, dragging me up out of my chair and walking me into the living room, with the knife still pressed to my neck. He watched the monitors as Finn entered the apartment, scanning the kitchen for anything out of place. Finn walked over to the bags of groceries I’d abandoned on the counter earlier, a speculative look marring his brow.
Reaching one hand into the bag nearest him, he took out the block of cheese I’d purchased and held it in his hand for a minute. At first, I didn’t understand what he was doing, but I quickly put it together – he was gauging its temperature, trying to see how long it had been left unrefrigerated.
From the anxious look on his face I assumed it was now lukewarm, which told him I’d been gone for quite some time. Placing it back on the countertop, Finn walked through the apartment and checked every room, moving from the kitchen, through the living and dining areas, into Lexi’s room and, finally, into my bedroom.
I could spend hours trying to describe all the emotions that filtered across his face when he walked into my room and saw not only the collage of photos, but also clear signs of the struggle that had taken place. My desk chair was overturned, my bedspread was askew, the pictures littering the floor were disturbed and bent where I’d eventually fallen to the ground.
He looked shocked, horrified, angered, and terrified all at once.
Skinner was talking under his breath, clearly unhappy with this turn of events. Grabbing a roll of duct tape off the shelf, he ripped off a piece and pressed it over my mouth. He pulled my hands in front of me, hastily wrapped duct tape around them, and shoved me down into the straight-backed desk chair facing the screens.
Whirling back around to check the monitors, Skinner watched as Finn took out his cell phone and dialed 911.
“Fuck!” he snarled, leaning close to the screen and staring at Finn as he spoke rapidly into his phone. “I’m gonna fucking kill that asshole.”
It wasn’t a threat; it was a promise. His earlier control had evaporated along with his carefully laid plans. With Finn’s arrival, Skinners’ focus had shifted away from me, and I knew he wouldn’t stop until either Finn was dead, or he was.
Skinner spun around to face me, his eyes wild, the knife flashing dangerously in his grip. “Stay here,” he barked. “I’m going to go deal with this.”
This was the man who’d taken everything from me. Who’d killed my mother in cold blood, as I’d watched. Who’d haunted my every nightmare for years. Who’d made me afraid to love, for fear that it could be ripped away from me again.
He’d taken my innocence; He wasn’t about to take the love of my life, too.
As he began to run from the room, I reached up with my bound hands and used the tips of my fingers to rip off the duct tape covering my mouth.
“Stop!” I yelled after him.
He paused in the doorway, listening, but didn’t turn to face me. He wasn’t a stupid man – he must’ve realized that he didn’t have enough time before the police arrived to deal with both of us.
If I wanted Finn to live, I had to make Skinner choose me.
I knew I wouldn’t survive if I went through with this; I understood it with an unshakable clarity. I could see exactly how my death would play out in the next few minutes and, though I didn’t exactly like that picture, it would be worth it if Finn lived.
I couldn’t save my mother, but I would save him.
“Is this really the best you could do?” I mocked Skinner. His ego was at the heart of every decision he made – maybe, if I pushed the right buttons, he’d lose all restraint and turn his rage on me. “You had fifteen years to plan tonight, and this was all you came up with?” I forced a laugh and got shakily to my feet.
I watched his spine stiffen, his muscles tense; it was working. I was getting to him.
“I thought you’d do better, Ernie.” I made a disapproving tsk sound, as he’d done earlier – purposefully baiting him. He spun to look at me, red faced and panting with anger.
I could hear sirens approaching now. A glance at the monitors showed Finn making his way back through the apartment, heading for the front door so he could greet the arriving officers.
“What did you say to me, little girl?” Skinner snarled.
“Don’t forget it was this little girl who sent you to prison, Ernie. It was this little girl who caused that car to crash and steered us straight into the arms of the police,” I said, desperately trying to keep my voice steady and hold my tears at bay.
He took a step toward me, holding out the knife.
“Shut up, bitch,” he screamed. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
“It’s me you want,” I reminded him. “It’s me you’ve watched all these years, obsessed over, fantasized about. It’s me you’ve tried to frighten, to destroy. But you know something, Ernie?” I asked, backing away from him so the table was between us. “You failed. I lived, and loved, in spite of you. I’m happy. And that’s certainly more than I can say for you, old man.”
That did it.
He launched himself at me with a primitive scream, the knife held high over his head as he prepared to strike me. Anticipating his attack, I threw out my taped hands, grabbed the top of the chair in front of me, and threw it in his direction. It didn’t go very far but it did land in his path, slowing him down.
He chased me in circles around the perimeter of the table – a deadly game of cat and mouse. On one of my passes, I managed to grasp a dangling edge of the tablecloth and yank it roughly. The abrupt movement sent the dishes and platters flying, clattering to the floor loud enough that the noise hurt my ears. The vase of roses fell and shattered, sending millions of razor-sharp shards of glass exploding in every direction. I heard Skinner yelp as they sliced at his feet and lower legs.
I turned in time to see him trip over one of the loosed serving dishes and fall to the ground, his knife clattering across the hardwood floors and coming to a stop beneath the desk on the other side of the room.
I looked frantically to the door, hoping I could run to safety, but immediately discarded that plan when I saw that Skinner was clamoring to his feet in the space between me and the exit. Even in his unarmed state, I couldn’t fight him with my hands bound.
Out of ideas, out of options, out of time – I dove for the knife.
As I fell to my knees, arms outstretched and reaching for the handle, time seemed to slow down, as if everything had suddenly shifted into slow motion. I heard Skinner yell, his footsteps loud as they pounded across the room to reach me.
My fingers closed around the handle, and I gripped it tightly between both hands. It was uncomfortable with my wrists still taped together, but it was the best I could do at the moment.
Everything happened at once.
I flipped over onto my back at the exact moment Skinner jumped into the air, hoping to tackle me from behind. I think he knew, as soon as his feet left the ground, that he was going to die. It was there in his eyes when he saw the knife in my hands, suspended over my stomach and pointing up toward the ceiling.
He tried to pull back, to change his course midair, but it was too late. His weight landed on me, knocking the breath from my lungs, and I felt the pressure of the knife as it slid into the soft flesh of his abdomen, slashing deep into his vital organs.
He gasped at the pain, his face inches from my own. His eyes bored into mine, burning with hatred, and when he opened his mouth to speak, a foamy red spittle flew between his lips and landed on my cheeks.
“You fucking bitch!” he screamed, lifting his hands up to close around my throat. He was dying, his strength waning as the lifeblood slipped from his veins, but he was going to use the last of his energy to take me with him. His hands grew dangerously tight as he choked the life out of me, cutting off my air supply completely. My hands, bound and trapped uselessly between our bodies, were helpless to stop him.
Things started to go dark. Skinner’s face was fading in and out of focus as I stared up at him, at times unable to make out his features. I thought I heard the distant sounds of a door crashing open, a man’s voice yelling, and footsteps thundering across floorboards, but my mind was too hazy to be sure of anything.
I thought about Finn, in those last moments. I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to look at the dying man above me, and instead focused my thoughts on the man I’d do anything for.
There he was – one dimple popping out in his right cheek, as he threw his head back and laughed at something I’d said; his dark hair disheveled, and the beginnings of a scruffy beard darkening his jawline. Those eyes, so blue and full of emotion, staring at me – seeing straight into my soul.
My head was swimming with the lack of oxygen, and I knew I had only a minute left – maybe less – before I lost consciousness. I used those precious seconds to live the life we should have had together.
I watched him graduate, grinning proudly and cheering until my throat was raw, as he crossed the stage and received his diploma.
I threw my arms around him and screamed YES! when he got down on one knee in a puddle, pulling out a ring on a rainy street corner one drizzly afternoon.
I floated down the aisle, dressed in a cliché white gown and clutching my bouquet like a lifeline, as I walked, smilingly, into my future.
I grinned tiredly in the delivery room, watching as Finn held his baby son in his arms for the first time.
Image by image, I lived out our life, even as I felt my own slipping away. I couldn’t feel Skinner’s hands on my throat anymore; I couldn’t feel much of anything anymore.
I’d gone numb.
Somewhere deep down, it registered that someone was shaking me, saying things to me, but I was too far-gone to feel and long past hearing.
My eyes slivered open and the last thing they saw was Finn’s face, his expression frantic as his lips mouthed my name over and over.
I tried to smile at him, to let him know that it was okay, because he’d lived – he’d have a future, even if I weren’t around to share it.
I tried to put the I love you into my eyes, before the dark embraced me.
He clutched me to his chest, his tears falling like rain onto my face.