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“Emilie,” Melissa says sweetly, forcing me to concentrate. “It is Emilie, isn’t it? I’m so used to calling you Cinderella.”
My blood boils instantly. Caleb’s ex has grown some serious brass balls. Coming at me like a coward from behind a public computer and using a teenage girl to do her dirty work was one thing. Getting all up in my personal space and pretending like we’re old friends is just dangerous. For her.
But I have to rein that shit in. None of the five trillion emotions I’m feeling right now are allowed to show on my face. This isn’t like when I’m reading her threats all alone or with Caleb. I can’t cry, shake with fear, or scream with rage. Melissa can’t know that she’s getting to me in any way.
“I need to get home. Can you move, please?” She’s currently leaning against my driver’s side door, not budging. “It’s cool. I can walk,” I say, turning away, knowing full well it won’t be that easy.
“Stop, you little whore,” she hisses.
Oh, the contempt! Caleb was right—she’s not nearly as good an actress as I am. Either that, or she forgot to change her crazy-filter this morning. By the time I turn back to her, she’s plastered a serene smile on her flawless face. “Would you like to come for a drive with me?”
Fuck no. “My parents are going to be home soon, and we’re having dinner—”
“You’re going to want to come with me, Emilie.” Her voice stays calm, but her words leave no room for argument. Plus, she has her phone in her perfectly manicured hand and turns the screen in my direction, showing me that she literally has the means to ruin my life at her fingertips.
Seeing the image of me on the drafting table, my legs in the air and Caleb between them, is nothing new. I saw it a hundred times the day it was first sent to me, and another hundred since then. Seeing Melissa’s thumb poised over the “send” button above the image, a hair’s breadth away from putting that video in the inboxes of… hell, I don’t even care who. It doesn’t matter. It just can’t happen.
“Ok… Sure. I would love to go for a ride with you.” The words come out slowly, each one fighting to stay in my mouth.
“Oh, good! You can leave your bag in your car. You won’t be needing it.” She steps aside, allowing me to open the door and do as she says. I tuck my tote bag under the driver’s seat, cursing myself for wearing a dress that has zero pockets for stashing my phone in.
“Where are we going?”
“Does it really matter?” she asks as she opens the door to the sleek, white BMW parked next to my twenty-year-old, unwashed Jeep.
As soon as she’s seated next to me, she reaches over and pops open the glove box. At first, I’m worried about her skin coming into contact with mine. Who knows how contagious her strain of psychosis is? Then I’m more concerned about the small handgun she’s pulling out of the compartment.
That’s a gun. Like, a real fucking gun. Those things should only be on TV or in movies or on the not-so-local news. Not in real life, and definitely not inches away from my very mortal body.
This completely changes things. There will be no more attempts to get away from her. There will be no sassy backtalk. There will be…
There’ll be no walking away from this, will there?
She tucks the weapon into her purse, acting like the most frightening moment of my life didn’t just happen. She’s not making any overt threats. Heavily implied, sure, but she hasn’t said anything like, “This will be the instrument of your death.”
The rest of the drive passes is total silence. It’s a nice break from trying to keep up with her lunacy, but it’s also incredibly unnerving. I focus on which streets we’re taking and try to guess where we’re headed. She takes us to a neighboring town that was affluent a long time ago, but not so much anymore. A lot of buildings here are well over a hundred years old, and they all show their age. Melissa pulls into the parking lot of one such building, whose current incarnation is an indie movie theater.
My heart races. Of all the places she could’ve taken me, she chose one that gives me a chance of escaping. It’s a slim chance, but it’s there. My brain runs through a dozen scenarios. If Eric’s brother Kyle is working today, I need to be prepared with a plan. A few plans, really, just in case.
My overriding emotion is still fear, though, so it’s easy to mask the hope bubbling up inside me.
“No, we’re not going to see a movie, silly,” she says, answering a question I hadn’t even thought to ask. “I’m taking you to one of my favorite places in the whole world. It’s where I come to clear my head.”
She must come here a lot, then, because she’s only got a few marbles left rattling around up there.
My hope dies a little when we approach the box office at the entrance to the theater. This is where Kyle’s usually stationed. Instead it’s just some pimply kid who looks younger than me. Melissa purchases two tickets to a movie with some formerly big-name actors trying to make comebacks in a no-name Cannes film canlı bahis wannabe, and we head inside.
The odor of decades of spilled soda and popcorn butter assaults my senses as soon as we step into the lobby. Do these ugly, red rugs ever get shampooed? Or is that against the rules of the historical—
Oh, thank fucking goodness! Kyle’s working the concession stand. See, this is why I prepared for multiple scenarios. This one calls for Plan B. Not the morning after pill, but the thing that’s going to save my ass. Besides, I’m guessing it’s a little late for pregnancy prevention.
“Hey, Melissa?” I ask, putting my plan into action.
“Yes, Emilie?” She looks at me, but she’s clearly distracted and on edge. I mean, I would be, too, if I were holding someone hostage and had a gun in my purse.
“My mouth is really dry, and if we’re going to be talking about everything”—please, please, please let us be talking and not skipping straight to the murder part—”it would be great if I could have some water. If you don’t mind.”
“Oh, of course! That’s an excellent idea. I’m a bit thirsty, myself.”
Oh, look, we have something in common. If it wouldn’t sabotage my plan completely, I’d change my mind about the water idea, just so we can go back to having zero things in common. Well, except that we’ve both been with Caleb, which is way worse than the water thing.
On our way to the counter, Kyle notices me and opens his mouth to say something that’ll give me away. That, of course, is not allowed, so I give him a warning glance and shake my head as subtly as possible. He looks at me like I’ve lost it, but he must’ve gotten my drift, because he doesn’t acknowledge me with anything other than the standard, “What can I get for you today?”
Melissa orders two bottles of water, which comes to nearly ten dollars. She must not carry cash, because she whips out a black Amex card to pay. I’ve never seen one of these in person before, so I’m momentarily distracted from my mission by what must be a seriously impressive credit limit. When she lowers her head to sign the receipt, I’m back in the game.
I lock eyes with Kyle and mouth, “Get Eric.” His eyebrows scrunch together, giving me the distinct impression that he can’t read lips and is therefore the most useless person in my life right now.
That’s it. I’m doomed.
My stomach churns, and I instinctively rest my hand on my lower abdomen, wishing it was Caleb’s hand instead. A sense of loss sweeps over me. What if she uses that gun on me? What if I don’t make it out of this alive? Not only will I lose my parents and Eric and Parker, but I’ll lose my future. I’ll lose Caleb. I’ll lose the life that’s probably growing inside me.
Oh, hell no. Fuck that noise. Who the hell does this bitch think she is? Those are my things, and nobody takes my things without my permission. And she so does not have that.
Melissa and I are practically the only people in the building who aren’t paid to be here. There was an elderly couple back in the lobby, but I don’t know if they were coming or going. At this time of day, in the middle of the week, this theater is deserted. Then again, I doubt the place is packed even on a Friday night.
We pass right by the theater number that’s on our tickets. Not that I thought she and I would really be catching a flick together. The theater we do enter momentarily takes my breath away.
The light in here is dim, at best, and creates an eerie atmosphere in the beautifully maintained space. It’s old, that’s for sure. And massive. The stage looks like it was designed for live productions, rather than a movie screen. Based on the opulent architecture, I’m guessing this theater was built in the twenties—back when people spent money on shit like this. I can see why Melissa comes here.
Instinctively, I move toward the stage, and for a moment, I’m transported to another version of reality. One where I’m up there, singing “What I Did for Love,” and feeling Caleb’s eyes on me, the hot lights, and that indescribable completeness that comes from doing what I know I was meant to do.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Melissa asks, rudely breaking into my trance.
“Yeah. Yeah, it really is.”
“You want to be up there, don’t you?” Is it that obvious? I just look back at her, feeling helpless. “Go ahead,” she says, waving me on.
She follows me as far as the front row, where she takes a seat in the center, while I climb a small set of stairs to the stage. It’s dark, but there are safety lights on each step and along the edge of the platform. I walk downstage, stopping just short of falling off.
Completely exposed and vulnerable, I watch as a wickedly satisfied smile blossoms on Melissa’s face. Hiding my fear is my number one priority right now, but my trembling body gives me away, so I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and give myself a good hug.
Think happy thoughts… Think happy thoughts…
…My first time on a stage, performing for a crowd. I was ten, and it was a recital bahis siteleri given by my voice teacher to showcase her students. There were only thirty or so people in the audience, but that didn’t matter. I found my passion that day.
…The first rehearsal for the musical our freshman year, when I bonded with Eric over our mutual disdain for Grease. Within five minutes, I knew we were destined to be best friends for life.
…When I checked the cast list junior year and saw that I’d gotten the part of Fiona in Brigadoon. My very first lead role. Landing that part let me know that other people recognized something in me I’d always felt was there.
…That shocking moment when Caleb pressed my hand over his rapidly beating heart to show me what he felt for me… Our first kiss… Our first night together… Every single time he’s told me he loves me and that he’s mine… Every time he’s touched my body and every single word he’s said.
The trembling stops. My eyes open, and my arms unfold. This is my stage, now.
“There it is,” Melissa says. “There’s that presence I’ve heard so much about.” Her words are flattering, but there’s contempt in her voice. Jealous, much?
“Heard from who? From Lacey?” My voice bounces off the walls and ceiling and back into my ears. Normally, I can appreciate fantastic acoustics. Right now, it’s just fucking spooky.
“Yes! My good friend, Lacey. I haven’t been able to reach her for two whole days, and I’m starting to worry,” she says, sounding less than concerned. “You wouldn’t happen to know why she’s not answering my calls, would you?”
Absolutely. “No. She and I don’t really talk like that.” That part is true, at least.
“Really? That’s surprising. She talks about you all the time. About how you steal all the good parts, and how her boyfriend still looks at you in a way he never looks at her.”
“That’s not true. Jeff—” I slam my mouth shut, cutting myself off quickly. No need to give her any more information than she specifically asks for. I wonder if she’d be willing to answer a question I have for her.
“How exactly did you and Lacey become friends?” I ask. I’ve been dying to understand their unlikely connection since the moment I learned about it, and Melissa seems to be in a chatty mood.
“She’s a very ambitious girl. Did you know that I used work in theater in New York?”
“Yes,” I answer, a little too readily. Scorn shades her eyes. She must not like the fact that Caleb’s talked to me about her. Recovering quickly, she continues her story.
“Well, Lacey found out about that, and she approached me after one of your little shows last year. She wanted me to impart some of the wisdom I gained through my years of experience.” Wow. This woman isn’t just crazy and evil—she’s also the most nauseatingly pretentious person I’ve ever met. “She gave me her phone number, and I promised to call. I’m normally not so discourteous, but I neglected to contact her for a full month.
“I made it up to her by taking her out for coffee and letting her in on a few trade secrets. Then I asked her for a small favor. You see, Caleb had… changed since I’d last seen Lacey. Practically pretended his own wife didn’t exist. I was convinced he was cheating on me.” She pauses to take a long drink from her water bottle, then twists the cap back on as slowly as humanly possible. “The only time he wasn’t with me was when he was at work, so I was convinced his mistress was a teacher. Lacey sweetly agreed to keep an eye on him for me. She reported back a few times, but never with any bad news.
“But Caleb’s behavior toward me only became worse. We hardly ever spoke, and he’d long since stopped— Well, that’s nothing a child should hear.” A child? Really? Aim a little higher with your digs, lady. “A few more months passed, and I knew I had to resort to more drastic measures. I was certain that if he lost me from his life, he’d come to his senses and beg me to forgive him.”
“That’s why you divorced him,” I guess. There’s that piece that was missing. Why I wasn’t able to understand how she could so easily leave an amazing man like Caleb.
“What other reason could there have been, silly?” A small shrug is the only response she gets out of me. “I was willing to give him time, all the time he needed. So imagine my shock when I received a call from my friend Lacey.”
Shaking my head, I say, “I think I’ve heard enough.” I know the rest of the story well, and I’d rather not hear her warped version of it.
“You think you’ve heard enough?” she asks in disbelief, abruptly standing and marching gracelessly to the stage, purse in hand. Gun in purse. “You will listen to everything I have to say. Do you understand me?”
Purse on the floor. Gun in her hand. Panic sets in, and my muscles and joints lock up. My brain and my mouth, however, can’t stop moving.
“I’m sorry! I swear, I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was still yours. If I’d known, I never would’ve gone near him. Please believe me,” even though not a word of it is bahis şirketleri true. “It was hard, at first, but we’re staying away from each other now, and—”
A sharp, bitter laugh echoes through the theater. “You lying cunt! Do you think I’m an idiot? His scent is all over you. And the smell of sex.” Oh, shit. “You fucked him today, didn’t you? You let him use your whore body. You know that’s all you are to him, right? Just a dirty slut who spreads her legs whenever he asks. You stupid, stupid girl!”
All her forced civility from before is gone, and what’s left is unadulterated fury. It’s frightening to watch. To watch her lose all control of her sanity and her careful restraint. To watch her wave the gun around as she rants. My previously calm body skips right over trembling and goes to full-on shaking. Heavy tears fall from my face, landing on my pink dress and my crossed arms.
If I can just let her ride this out, let her say whatever it is she needs to say, there’s a chance I can walk away. Isn’t there?
When she lifts the gun and points it directly at me, that chance may as well have never existed. My eyes won’t close. If I move at all, she might pull the trigger. She’ll probably pull it even if I remain perfectly still, but I’m not about to give her any excuses.
Not daring to say the words out loud, I tell Caleb I love him, over and over in my head, wishing the words could somehow reach him.
Turns out they don’t have far to travel, because just then, one of the theater doors silently opens. It’s within my line of sight, but Melissa’s back is turned to it. A small amount of light filters in, almost completely blocked by a tall, imposing silhouette.
As relieved as I am to see him, my fear instantly kicks up several hundred notches. Kill me all you like, you crazy bitch, but please… please… don’t hurt Caleb.
He slowly makes his way down the aisle, the soft soles of his boots barely making a sound on the carpeted floor. When he’s standing just five feet away from Melissa, he opens his mouth to speak. My heart stops beating, and my lungs stop taking in air. If it wasn’t imperative that I remain conscious, I’d be a lifeless heap on the floor of the stage. She is so close to losing it completely. One word, one sound, could mean the end.
“Melissa,” he says in that soothing, raspy voice of his.
With the gun still pointed at me, she turns her head at the sound of her name. “Caleb,” she breathes. “Oh, thank god you’re here. I’m going to make everything better. We can be together again, baby,” she says, sounding as relieved to see him as I am.
“It’s ok, Mel. Everything is going to be ok.” He holds out his arms and takes a step closer to her… but his eyes flicker to mine. It doesn’t escape her notice.
“You can’t resist her, can you?” she screeches at him. Her arm whips around so that the gun is now pointed at his chest, just a few feet away from him. There’s no way she’ll miss if she takes the shot. “Can’t you see what she’s doing? She’s manipulating you with sex, throwing herself at you any chance she gets. Is that what you really want?”
“No, Melissa. That’s not what I want. I want a real woman. A woman who’s gentle, loving, and kind. A woman with flaws that fit her so well, she’s a better person for having them. A woman so strong, she can acknowledge her weaknesses without fearing them. A woman who makes me believe I’m a better man than I thought I was, because she chose me over everyone else.”
Melissa’s head shakes back and forth in slow motion for a long time, and I begin to wonder if she bought that his words were meant for her.
“You’re not talking about me, are you? You’ve never said anything like that to me. Ever.” Hopelessness clouds her expression, and she lowers her gun a little.
I don’t know what it is I do that causes her to swing her gun back to me. Did I move without realizing it? Did I speak and not even hear myself?
“What would you do if I killed her right now?” she asks Caleb, tears streaming down her face, still beautiful even when contorted with grief and pain.
“You may as well kill me, too, Melissa.” A sob escapes me at the thought of Caleb not being alive in this world, even if I’m already dead.
“Get down here!” she yells to me. It takes me a moment to get my limbs to work again, but the second I can move, I’m practically tripping down the stairs to stand beside Caleb. Touching him is out of the question, but just being near him is enough.
The small firearm in Melissa’s shaking hands swivels back and forth between us. Her chin quivers, but once she has that under control, she looks into Caleb’s steel blue eyes and tells him, “I never stopped loving you,” before shuffling backward.
My eyes stay on the gun until she suddenly lowers it and takes off for the exit at the side of the stage, leaving me and Caleb alone. The massive space is silent, aside from the sound of my blood pumping in my ears.
Before I can even catch my breath and process what just happened, three police officers storm into the huge theater and jog down the aisles. They’ve almost reached us, and one of the officers is asking if we’re ok, when a loud pop from outside stops us all dead in our tracks.
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