“Very clever,” he sneered, his piercing blue eyes savage and cold. The right side of his jaw was throbbing, the way it did just before an explosion. It reminded her of a ticking bomb.
I’m. Tick. Gonna. Tick. Kill. Tick. You.
She had nothing to say. No defense for what she had done.
Her hope had been blind. She hadn’t imagined this. The closing of the door, her gateway to freedom blocked, his body trembling with rage again. Again, again, again. She didn’t think she would survive another again.
“Did you think he would save you?” he asked, his nostrils flaring. He had locked the door and begun closing the gap between them.
She backed into the wall, knocking a picture frame from its hook. It fell and shattered, sending tiny jagged fragments of glass across the hardwood floor.
It was the picture from their wedding day. The only one where he’d been smiling. She had loved it once. Had touched it gingerly as she passed it on her way to the kitchen.
He was still gripping his shotgun, and for a second she wondered if he was going to aim it at her.
Her heart beat wildly, like some caged, feral creature within her chest.
He threw the gun across the room and was upon her in an instant, his strong hand closing around her throat. It took her an instant to realize what was happening. She did not know she was suffocating until she tried to catch her breath. How long had she been holding it?
“So help me God,” her husband growled, his breath wreaking sweetly of whiskey, “if he ever comes ‘round here again, I’ll empty that shotgun into the back of your stupid fucking skull.”
Her fingernails dug into the backs of his hands, drawing blood. He didn’t seem to notice.
His blue eyes bore into hers.
He won’t let go, she thought. Not this time.
That morning he had hit her. She had forgotten to buy more whiskey when she went to the store the day before, and he had drained his last bottle dry.
You did it on purpose, you whore.
Afterwards, as her black eye was beginning to bloom, she sat cross-legged on the ground in front of their house, the fallen pine needles and frozen soil sending sharp little pains through her legs. I can’t deal with you right now, her husband had told her, the keys to their only vehicle dangling from his fingers. He left her stranded, as he always did. They lived deep in the mountains of Northern California. They had no neighbors, no friends. He had begun putting bricks upon her tower of isolation the day after their wedding, when he went through her archaic cell phone and deleted any contacts he deemed inappropriate. High school friends, relatives, old boyfriends, one ex-fiancée. She had no access to the Internet; social media was forbidden. Six months after their wedding she was fired from her job, and she was not allowed to look for another. You will find someone else, her husband had said. You will leave me.
As she sat in the forty-degree air in nothing but her house shorts and tank top, her eyes cold and dry, she turned her cell phone over and over in her hands. A string of ten numbers passed repeatedly through her mind. She hadn’t dialed them in over three years, but their memory hadn’t faded. Sometimes she caught herself reciting them quietly as she fell asleep at night, or as she pumped gas or pushed a cart down the aisle at the grocery store. 209-555-8139. One of the contacts her husband had erased from her phone. The one that mattered most. She had memorized it long ago.
There were times she would punch the numbers into her phone just to see them against the backlit screen, just to prove they existed. Dial, delete. Dial, delete. She never pushed Send. How could she? What would she say? I’m sorry. I should have never left you. He wouldn’t possibly believe her. He had probably changed his number the day she called off the wedding. The day she confessed she had met someone else.
Her eye throbbed, and again she found herself dialing the number.
She didn’t know what would happen when she went through with it. Didn’t know the moment she said his name aloud, her voice would crack and she would weep as she hadn’t wept in years.
She could say nothing more.
“Just stay on the line,” Cody Poorman told the only girl he had ever loved. “Sarah? I’m getting in my truck right now and I’m coming to you.”
Sarah Burns. She wasn’t just the girl that got away. She was the girl who had devastated him. Destroyed his entire life. Sabotaged his youth, his innocence, his dreams. They had begun dating their freshman year of high school, and he had proposed when they were seventeen. At the time, she was pregnant with his child, which she lost a few months after saying Yes. It was buried beneath the willow tree behind his family’s house, a grave he frequented every night. The end of their love story began at that tree. She had withdrawn from him after the doctor confirmed their blood was incompatible. Together, they would never be able to create life.
She broke his heart the month before they were supposed to walk down the aisle. Three months later she was engaged to a coworker from the casino, and in the time it took her to find a thrift store dress and a pawn shop ring, she and her new fiancée drove up to Lake Tahoe and said their vows. The night Cody Poorman heard of their union was the first night in his young life he sought solace in liquor. It would be the first of many.
He had always been a good student, particularly in English. He was quiet, serious. Literary and romantic. Sarah had been the adventurous one, always pushing his limits, coloring his world. She was the kind of heroine about whom he would have liked to write a story. So vibrant, so alive. She made friends in the strangest places: the Starbucks parking lot, walking his mother’s dog down Main St, meandering through tombstones at the old Gold Rush cemetery. Old people, young people, homeless people. Sarah Burns had once loved people. She had once loved to laugh.
She came from a rough home. Her father was in prison, her mother an abusive drunk. When Sarah turned fifteen, she had moved in with Cody’s family, who loved her as one of their own. When she left Cody, she left them all.
His mother had cried.
“That girl doesn’t know how to love herself,” she had said. “She doesn’t know how to let herself be loved.”
Cody didn’t become an angry drunk, or a sloppy drunk. Instead, drinking fueled a certain recklessness he didn’t know he possessed. He drove too fast around blind corners, blew stuff up down at the abandoned bridge, went to parties and slept with girls whose names he never cared to know. His old friends receded, bemoaning the Cody they once knew, while his new friends wondered where the hell he’d been. He didn’t tell them. He surrounded himself with people who didn’t know about Sarah, or the baby, or his long-gone dreams of becoming the next Hemingway. Everything he had buried beneath the willow, everything he mourned.
When she called him and wept his name, it was the first time he had heard her voice in three years. Even now he didn’t know why he had never deleted her number, or changed his own. Perhaps after all that time, he still held onto a shred of hope that she was not lost forever. That she would come back to him.
He had heard the rumors, of course. Sarah Burns- or Sarah Radcliffe, as was her married name- had never moved from the area. She and her husband lived in an isolated cabin forty-five minutes up the mountain. She had no contact with anyone except her sister, Kat, with whom she was permitted to speak on limited occasions, and who had come to Cody’s auto shop whenever she had car trouble. She would give him scraps of unwarranted information while he worked on her rusted ragtop. He pretended to dismiss the news carelessly, though Kat knew better. She had always hoped Cody would end up with her sister. Just like everyone else.
The last time she had come, Kat told him she thought Sarah’s husband was beating her.
“She won’t come out and say it, but I’m on to her. She’s scared to death, Cody.”
Cody’s work had paused while he let that sink in.
“That’s too bad,” he said presently.
Kat waited, but Cody resumed working on her car.
“Aren’t you going to do something about it?” she had asked.
He hadn’t answered, and she found another mechanic.
When Sarah’s name flash across the screen, his heart seemed to stop and he knew she was about to wreck his world. Again.
He also knew there was nothing he wanted more than to give her that opportunity. After all she had done. After all she had broken. Because as he listened to her weeping, he realized he was forgiving her. That was all I wanted, he would think later. To know you were hurting too.
She was able to babble an address, some details of what had happened.
I can’t do this anymore, she cried. I’ll die.
He drove as fast as his truck would permit on the winding mountain roads.
He had flashes of a new life as he drew closer to her. He imagined her arms wrapped around his neck. The salty taste of her lips as he kissed her while she cried. The length of her hair as he pulled it gently through his fingers. He could see her smiling again. He would write her a story with a happy ending, if only he could hold her again. If only he could protect her, deliver her, become her savior, perhaps some part of him- perhaps both of them- could be resurrected.
When he pulled up to the cabin, he saw her sitting on the ground. Sarah. She was a wraith of the girl he had once known. Her highlights had grown out, her hair dark and greasy and pulled back in a mess of a ponytail. Her cheekbones protruded, and both large eyes were swallowed in deep shadows. Around one of them spread a deepening purplish-blue, the same color as her lips from the cold. In the time it had taken him to find the place, the temperature had dropped eight degrees. It would snow tonight.
He leapt from his truck and went straight to her. He reached out to touch her but changed his mind.
“Are you all right?” he asked, getting a better look at her eye. “Should I take you to the hospital?”
“No,” she shook her head. “Just get me out of here.”
He looked around quickly to see if she had packed any belongings. She was barely dressed, and she gripped nothing but her phone. The front door to the cabin was slightly ajar.
“Let’s get you into some warmer clothes, huh?” Cody said, gently taking her elbow. “Do you need to pack your things?”
“We have to leave now. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
She was already walking towards the truck. He scrambled to remove his Carhart jacket and throw it over her shoulders, but she didn’t seem to notice. Instead she reached for the door handle and froze, her eyes on the road.
Her husband’s red Dodge was approaching.
It flew around a bend in the road and stopped abruptly at the end of the drive, kicking up a spray of gravel. Henry Radcliffe leapt from the driver’s seat, a shotgun in his hands.
Cody cursed. In his desperation to reach Sarah, he hadn’t thought of packing a weapon.
He stepped in front of her, shielding her with his body.
“What the fuck are you doing at my house?” Sarah’s husband screamed. His foot twisted a little and he faltered. He’d been gone for two, maybe three hours. Long enough to go into town and have a few drinks.
Cody felt Sarah behind him. She was trying to push him out of the way.
“Henry, don’t,” she cried as her husband barreled closer. He paid no attention to her. His eyes burned into Cody. He lifted the shotgun and pointed it at Cody’s chest.
“You get off my property or I’ll send you straight to hell.”
“Go,” Sarah plead into Cody’s ear. “You have to go.”
“Get in the truck,” Cody told her, then raced around to the driver’s side and jumped in. He started the engine and looked at the empty passenger seat. She was standing at the window, tears streaming down her face, shaking her head slowly.
Her lips formed the word again.
Henry Radcliffe had reached the bed of Cody’s truck, shotgun aimed at the back of Cody’s head. He was kicking the truck and screaming.
“Sarah,” Cody shouted over him, “get in the truck!”
There was a crack like thunder as Sarah’s husband blew a gaping hole through Cody’s tailgate.
“I’ll kill her too, you sonofabitch, you don’t git right now!”
Cody Poorman would never forgive himself for pealing out of Sarah Radcliffe’s driveway, alone. He would never forget that last frightened look in her eyes before she turned and ran into the cabin, disappearing from his life a second time. And he would never stop playing through everything that happened that night, and everything he thought he could have done differently.
Henry didn’t kill her. Not that night.
The way Sarah Radcliffe died would never be directly correlated to her husband. It couldn’t, because Henry Radcliffe’s death preceded hers. He was killed two years after the night his wife tried to leave him. He took a turn too fast in icy weather. The guardrail yielded like foil.
After failing to rescue Sarah, Cody had called the police to report a domestic disturbance. They checked in on the cabin, and while there were clear signs of spousal abuse, the wife wouldn’t own to it. She had fallen down the stairs, she said. But she would be all right. Everything was fine.
She never sought help, and she never left. In the two years before her husband’s death, there were other incidences, other bruises and wounds, but she took them all in silence. Once after a few drinks, Cody worked up the courage to dial her number, but it was disconnected. He waited, wondering if she would ever try calling him again. She didn’t.
There was a time- after the death of her husband- when she had considered it. She had dialed that familiar number, had erased it and dialed it again. But it had been so many years, and how could she show her face to him after what she had done? She had never brought him anything but misery, and the last time she had called him she had nearly gotten him killed. Whenever she thought of that, her face burned with shame. Cody Poorman was far better off without her. She did not deserve him.
Once she was widowed she returned to what she knew: dealing black jack at the casino. It was under new management, and she was reformed. Reliable. Her husband was no longer around to beat her senseless, make her call in sick. She sold the cabin to pay off his debts and moved in with her sister Kat, who waitressed at the casino restaurant. Together they joked of playing slots as old spinsters. Sarah swore she would never remarry, and Kat was a lesbian in a small town; the pickings were slim.
The night she turned thirty, Sarah traded shifts to get off work at the same time as Kat, who wanted to go dancing at a new club downtown. But Kat appeared early, her face ashen as she approached her sister. “Cody Poorman’s mom just called me,” she told Sarah. “She doesn’t have your new number. She needs to talk to you.”
“It’s a manuscript,” Cody’s mother said as she slid a stack of white printer paper across the table towards Sarah. “He meant for you to read it.”
It stood about an inch and a half thick and was held together by a large file clip. Sarah looked but was afraid to touch it. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
On the front page was the title, Sarah, and beneath it was a bright orange note with his handwriting.
I’ll love her till I die, it read.
Sarah’s hand flew over her mouth and for a long time, both women were silent. Finally, Mrs. Poorman sniffled and Sarah realized she was not the only one crying. She could not bring herself to look up into the other woman’s face.
No one had seen or heard from Cody during the two days leading up to Sarah’s birthday. When the police finally broke into his apartment, they found him facedown in bed, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles and the manuscript Sarah now had in front of her.
“He was a sad boy,” his mother explained. “Even before he met you. He would have these fits of melancholy. I never knew what to do. How to help.” She reached across the table to grab Sarah’s hand, and it was all Sarah could do to remain still. She wanted to run. “I asked you to come here because I wanted you to have this,” Mrs. Poorman nodded towards the manuscript, “and because I want you to know you’re not to blame for what happened. Cody loved you. He always loved you. But he didn’t know what to do with that kind of love. He held on so tightly. He didn’t know how to let go.”
Sarah took the manuscript home and hid it away in a drawer. She couldn’t bear to look at it, to think of it, to know it remained in this world while its author lay in the ground beneath the willow tree, next to the child they had lost when they were just children themselves.
She had never been much of a drinker, but after Cody’s funeral she could find nothing else to numb the pain. Whiskey was the tonic her mother, her husband, and her first love had sought. Now two of them were dead and gone, freed by the poison that had sent one into a ditch, and sung the other to endless sleep. She found herself longing for her own lullaby.
“Do you ever think your future is behind you?” she asked Kat many years later. “That somewhere along the way, you missed it?” She was thinking of Cody, of their child, of the willow. She always thought of these things. “I only dream of what I’ve lost,” she continued. “I look forward to nothing.”
She suffered from nightmares. For a long time she was too frightened to sleep, but after a while she resorted to certain remedies, pills which caused her to sleep so deeply she did not dream.
They found her much the same way they had found him: facedown in bed, two empty bottles on the nightstand. One had contained whiskey, the other sleeping pills. The whiskey bottle left a ring of residue on a stack of printer paper, the manuscript she had long avoided and hidden away. In desperation, she had finally read the story he had written for her: the story of a girl with long waving hair and clear blue eyes, who fell in love with a boy and learned to be loved by him in return. It was a sort of fairy tale; the future she had forfeited, the past that had never been.
She had felt something like solace at its conclusion. Not from atonement, but from the kind of serenity that came with knowing atonement could not be had. And yet he had forgiven her, loved her anyway. With that knowledge she had taken the only picture she had of him and written, Lay me beside him, and clutched it to her breast. As the world spun and her eyes closed she felt herself slipping into peace. For after all this time, she was finally returning to him.