My father’s words hit me like a slap in the face. And it’s not just what he’s saying. But how he says it. He sounds like he means it.
It was you. You killed them.
I glance over at the guard behind me. He could not have heard what my father said. But I still have a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“It wasn’t me,” I say quietly. “I would never…”
“Wouldn’t you?” That amused smile is back on his lips. “You’re my daughter, and you always reminded me so much of myself. Do you remember what you used to do when you were a child? All those animals your mother kept finding dead.” He laughs again. “She used to talk to me all the time about getting you psychological help. Did you know that?”
My jaw tightens. I had blocked out all those conversations my parents used to have about me in the bedroom, when they thought I couldn’t hear them. My mother indeed believed I was quite troubled. “Yes,” I say quietly.
“And look who she was married to all along!” He laughs. “Talk about oblivious. No wonder she killed herself.”
My face burns. I always resented my mother for taking her own life. She could have stood trial, and if she was innocent and went free, she could’ve been there for me. But instead, she hung herself in her jail cell. It makes me think she wasn’t as innocent as she pretended to be. Or maybe she just didn’t care enough about me. I needed her, and she left me alone in the world.
“I’m not like you,” I say.
“Oh, really.” He bares his teeth at me. They used to be white and perfect, but now they’re yellow and one is rotting away in the front. “Why did you become a surgeon then? It’s not because you love cutting into people? You don’t get any satisfaction out of ripping their guts out? You never fantasize about—”
Before he can get out another word, I slam the phone down. I can’t listen to this. He’s wrong. I’m not like him. I’m not.
I mean, yes. There are elements of his personality in mine. And of course, we look alike. But that’s it. I’m different. I’m not a monster like he is. I would never…
My father raps on the glass with his fist. He points at the phone. I shake my head. I’m not playing this game anymore. I should never have come. My first instinct was right.
Nora. I see him mouth my name. The name he chose for me. It’s the only thing I kept from my old life.
I shake my head again. No.
I’m leaving. And I’m never coming back.
About four hours later, I’m back at the San Francisco airport. I’ve never felt so happy to be home. I could kiss the ground, except it’s disgusting and sticky.
It’s nearly eleven o’clock at night, and I’ve been up since five in the morning, but I’m not even the slightest bit tired. I’m wired with adrenaline
—I could stay awake for the next twenty-four hours. But realistically, I know I have to go home and get some sleep.
I retrieve my car from the airport parking lot. It’s only when I get behind the wheel that a wave of exhaustion hits me. I start fantasizing about my nice, soft bed. About how lovely it would be to slide between my sheets. But I’ll be home soon. Well, in about an hour, maybe less. Soon enough.
As I get on the freeway, I start to imagine another life, one in which I hadn’t been born to Aaron Nierling. A life in which I could have had a relationship that lasted more than three months. Maybe even get married. Right now, I could be driving home to my husband waiting for me in bed.
Strangely enough, when I imagine that parallel universe, the man waiting for me in my bed is Brady. Even though in reality, he will probably never speak to me again. And that’s fine. Completely unsurprising, given the circumstances.
It isn’t until I’ve been driving for several minutes that I notice the smell.
I can’t quite identify it. It’s a cross between rotting eggs and rotting cabbage. I wonder if I left some groceries in my car the last time I went shopping. Maybe an egg rolled out of my grocery bag and is now stinking up the trunk of my car. I’ll have to get rid of it as soon as I get home. And keep the windows rolled down for a while to air the car out.
Ten minutes later, I have to roll down all the windows, back and front. The smell has gotten out of control. So much so that after ten more minutes, I can’t stand it another minute. I have to pull off the freeway.
There’s a gas station right off the exit. It’s empty, but there’s a light on in the store right next to the station. It’s one of those twenty-four-hour mini-marts. I pull up in front of one of the gas tanks. While I’m here, I might as well fill up my tank.
A clerk comes out of the store, wiping his hands on his jeans. It’s a boy in his twenties with green-tinged hair. He waves at me. “You need any help, ma’am.”
As if this day couldn’t get any worse, now I’m being called ma’am. “Yes, could you fill up my gas tank please?”
I give the boy my credit card and pop my tank open. He gets the gas going, and I get out of my car as quickly as I can. The smell isn’t as bad outside the car, but because the windows are open, it’s still pretty unpleasant. Inside the car, it’s stifling. That egg must have turned sometime today and evolved into something mutant.
“You need anything else?” the clerk asks me.
“Actually,” I say, “there’s a strange smell in my car. I think I might have dropped some groceries somewhere. An egg or possibly some cold cuts.”
The clerk leans in toward the window. He takes a whiff, and his nose crinkles up. “Yeah, damn. It smells like somebody died back there.”
“I know! I must have—” My voice dies mid-sentence as his statement hits me. It smells like somebody died back there.
No. Oh God, no.
I glance at the clerk to make sure he’s occupied with my gas tank. I pop open the trunk of my car, praying to God that all I’m going to see is a rotten egg. As soon as the trunk is open, the smell increases exponentially. Whatever is rotting is in my trunk.
And I smell one other thing.
“Whoa!” The clerk waves a hand in front of his face. “Lady, what do you have back there?”
I let out a strangled laugh. “Just as I thought. I left some groceries in here. Silly me.”
He nods at the dumpster around the side of the store. “We got a garbage dump over there if you want to toss them.”
I slam the trunk closed. There’s no way I’m rifling around my trunk for the source of the smell with this guy breathing down my neck. “It’s fine. I’ll take care of it when I get home.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Are you sure? That smell is pretty rank. I wouldn’t want to drive home with that.”
I force a smile. “It’s not that bad. And I don’t live too far from here.”
Only about half an hour. I’ll have to keep the windows down and breathe through my mouth.