Michael woke reaching for the gun he no longer kept by the bed. His fingers slid over bare wood, and he sat, instantly awake, his skin slick with sweat and the memory of ice. There was no movement in the apartment, no sounds beyond those of the city. The woman beside him rustled in the warm tangle of their sheets, and her hand found the hard curve of his shoulder. “You okay, sweetheart?”
Weak light filtered through the curtains, the open window, and he kept his body turned so she could not see the boy that lingered in his eyes, the stain of hurt so deep she had yet to find it. “Bad dream, baby.” His fingers found the swell of her hip. “Go back to sleep.”
“You sure?” The pillow muffled her voice.
“I love you,” she said, and was gone.
Michael watched her fade, and then put his feet on the floor. He touched old scars left by frostbite, the dead places on his palms and at the tips of three fingers. He rubbed his hands together, and then tilted them in the light. The palms were broad, the fingers long and tapered.
A pianist’s fingers, Elena often said.
Thick and scarred. He would shake his head.
The hands of an artist …
She liked to say things like that, the talk of an optimist and dreamer. Michael flexed his fingers, and heard the sound of her words in his head, the lilt of her accent, and for that instant he felt ashamed. Many things had come through the use of his hands, but creation was not one of them. He stood and rolled his shoulders as New York solidified around him: Elena’s apartment, the smell of recent rain on hot pavement. He pulled on jeans and glanced at the open window. Night was a dark hand on the city, its skin not yet veined with gray. He looked down on Elena’s face and found it pale in the gloom, soft and creased with sleep. She lay unmoving in the bed they shared, her shoulder warm when he laid two fingers on it. Outside, the city grew as dark and still as it ever got, the quiet pause at the bottom of a breath. He moved hair from her face, and at her temple saw the thread of her life, steady and strong. He wanted to touch that pulse, to assure himself of its strength and endurance. An old man was dying, and when he was dead, they would come for Michael; and they would come for her, to make Michael hurt. Elena knew none of this, neither the things of which he was capable nor the danger he’d brought to her door; but Michael would go to hell to keep her safe.
Go to hell.
Come back burning.
That was truth. That was real.
He studied her face in the dim light, the smooth skin and full, parted lips, the black hair that ran in waves to her shoulder then broke like surf. She shifted in her sleep, and Michael felt a moment’s bleakness stir, a familiar certainty that it would get worse before it got better. Since he was a boy, violence had trailed him like a scent. Now, it had found her, too. For an instant, he thought again that he should leave her, just take his problems and disappear. He’d tried before, of course, not one time but a hundred. Yet, with each failed attempt, the certainty had only grown stronger.
He could not live without her.
He could make it work.
Michael dragged fingers through his hair, and wondered again how it had come to this place. How had things gone so sour so fast?
Moving to the window, he flicked the curtain enough to see down into the alley. The car was still there, black and low in the far shadows. Distant lamplight starred the windshield so that he could not see past the glass, but he knew at least one of the men who sat inside. His presence was a threat, and it angered Michael beyond words. He’d made his bargain with the old man, and expected the deal to be honored. Words still mattered to Michael.
Rules of conduct.
He looked a last time at Elena, then eased two silenced forty-fives from the place he kept them hidden. They were cool to the touch, familiar in his hands. He checked the loads and a frown bent his face as he turned from the woman he loved. He was supposed to be beyond this, supposed to be free. He thought once more of the man in the black car.
Eight days ago they’d been brothers.
Michael was at the door and almost out when Elena said his name. He paused for a moment, then lay the guns down and slipped back into the bedroom. She’d shifted onto her back and one arm was half-raised. “Michael…”
The name was a smile on her lips, and he wondered if she was dreaming. She shifted and a warm-bed smell rose in the room. It carried the scent of her skin and of clean hair. It was the smell of home and the future, the promise of a different life. Michael hesitated, then took her hand as she said, “Come back to bed.”
He looked into the kitchen, where he’d left the guns next to a can of yellow paint. Her voice had come as a whisper, and he knew that if he left, she would ride the slope back into sleep and not remember. He could slip outside and do the thing he did well. Killing them would likely escalate matters, and others would certainly take their place; but maybe the message would serve its purpose.
And maybe not.
His gaze traveled from Elena to the window. The night outside was just as black, its skin stretched tight. The car was still there, as it had been the night before and the night before that. They would not move against him until the old man died, but they wanted to rattle him. They wanted to push, and every part of Michael wanted to push back. He took a slow breath and thought of the man he desired to be. Elena was here, beside him, and violence had no place in the world they wished to make. But he was a realist first, so that when her fingers flexed on his, his thoughts were not just of hope, but of retribution and deterrence. An old poem rose in his mind.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
Michael stood at a crossroad, and it all came down to choice. Go back to bed or pick up the guns. Elena or the alley. The future or the past.
Elena squeezed his hand again. “Love me, baby,” she said, and that’s what he chose.
Life over death.
The road less traveled.
* * *
The New York dawn came scorching hot. The guns were hidden and Elena still slept. Michael sat with his feet on the windowsill and stared down into the empty alleyway. They’d left at around five, backed from the alley and sounded a single blow of their horn as the sightlines collapsed. If their goal had been to wake or scare him, they’d failed miserably. He’d been out of the bed since three and felt great. Michael studied his fingertips, where flecks of yellow paint stained them.
“What are you smiling at, gorgeous?” Her voice surprised him and he turned. Elena sat up in bed, languorous, and pushed long, black hair from her face. The sheet fell to her waist and Michael put his feet on the floor, embarrassed to be caught in a moment of such open joy.
“Just thinking of something,” he said.
She was smiling, skin still creased. Her back arched as she stretched, her small hands fisted white. “You want coffee?” Michael asked.
She fell back against the pillows, made a contented sound, and said, “You are a magnificent creature.”
“Give me a minute.” In the kitchen, Michael poured warm milk in a mug, then coffee. Half and half, the way she liked it. Café au lait. Very French. When he came back, he found her in one of his shirts, sleeves rolled loosely on her narrow arms. He handed her the coffee. “Good dreams?”
She nodded and a glint sparked in her eyes. “One in particular seemed very real.”
She sank into the bed and made the same contented noise. “One of these days I’m actually going to wake up before you.”
Michael sat on the edge of the bed and put a hand on the arch of her foot. “Sure you will, baby.” Elena was a late sleeper, and Michael rarely managed more than five hours a night. Her climbing from bed before him was a near impossibility. He watched her sip coffee, and reminded himself to notice the small things about her: the clear polish she preferred on her nails, the length of her legs, the tiny scar on her cheek that was her skin’s only imperfection. She had black eyebrows, eyes that were brown but could look like honey in a certain light. She was lithe and strong, a beautiful woman in every respect, but that’s not what Michael admired most. Elena took joy in the most insignificant things: how it felt to slip between cool sheets or taste new foods, the moment’s anticipation each time she opened the door to step outside. She had faith that each moment would be finer than the last. She believed that people were good, which made her a dash of color in a world blown white.
She sipped again, and Michael saw the exact moment she noticed the paint on his hands. A small crease appeared between her brows. The cup came away from her lips. “Did you paint it already?”
She tried to sound angry but failed, and as he shrugged an answer to the question he could not keep the smile from touching every part of his face. She’d envisioned them painting it together—laughter, spilled paint—but Michael couldn’t help it. “Too excited,” he said, and thought of the fresh yellow paint on the walls of the tiny room down the hall. They called it a second bedroom, but it was not much larger than a walk-in closet. A high, narrow window was paned with rippled glass. Afternoon light would make the yellow glow like gold.
She put the coffee down and pushed back against the bare wall behind her. Her knees tented the sheet, and she said, “Come back to bed. I’ll make you breakfast.”
“Too late.” Michael rose and went back into the kitchen. He had flowers in a small vase. The fruit was already cut, juice poured. He added fresh pastry and carried in the tray.
“Breakfast in bed?”
Michael hesitated, almost overwhelmed. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he finally managed.
“It’s not…” She paused, and then got it.
Yesterday, she’d told him she was pregnant.
* * *
They stayed in bed for most of the morning—reading, talking—then Michael walked Elena to work in time to get ready for the lunch crowd. She wore a small black dress that accented her tan skin and dark eyes. In heels, she stood five-seven and moved like a dancer, so elegant that beside her Michael looked angular and rough, out of place in jeans, heavy boots, and a worn T-shirt. But this was how Elena knew him: rough and poor, an interrupted student still hoping for a way back to school.
That was the lie that started everything.
They’d met seven months ago on a corner near NYU. Dressed to blend in and carrying heavy, Michael was on a job and had no business talking to pretty women, but when the wind took her scarf, he caught it on instinct and gave it back with a flourish that surprised him. Even now, he had no idea where it came from, that sudden lightness, but she laughed at the moment, and when he asked, she gave him her name.
Carmen Elena Del Portal.
Call me Elena.
She’d said it with amusement on her lips and a fire in her eyes. He remembered dry fingers and frank appraisal in her glance, an accent that bordered on Spanish. She’d tucked an unruly strand of hair behind her right ear and waited with a reckless smile for Michael to offer his name in return. He almost left, but did not. It was the warmth in her, the utter lack of fear or doubt. So, at two fifteen on a Tuesday, against everything he’d ever been taught, Michael gave her his name.
His real one.
The scarf was silk, and very light to land with such force on two lives. It led to coffee, then more, until emotion came in its wildness, and the coming found him unprepared. Now here he was, in love with a woman who thought she knew him, but did not. Michael was trying to change, but killing was easy. And quitting was hard.
Halfway to work, she took his hand. “Boy or girl?”
“What?” It was the kind of thing normal people asked, and Michael was dumbfounded by the question. He stopped walking, so that people veered around them. She tilted her head.
“Do you hope it’s a boy or a girl?”
Her eyes shone with the kind of contentment he’d only read about in books; and looking at her then was like looking at her on the first day they’d met, only more so. The air held the same blue charge, the same sense of light and purpose. When Michael spoke, the words came from the deepest part of him. “Will you marry me?”
She laughed. “Just like that?”
She put a palm on Michael’s cheek, and the laughter dwindled. “No, Michael. I won’t marry you.”
“Because you’re asking me for the wrong reasons. And because we have time.” She kissed him. “Lots of time.”
That’s where she was wrong.
* * *
Elena worked as the hostess for an expensive restaurant called Chez Pascal. She was beautiful, spoke three languages, and at her request, the owner had hired Michael, eight days ago, to wash dishes. Michael told her that he’d lost his other job, that he needed to fill the days before he found a new one or the student loan finally came through, but there was no other job, no student loan, just two more lies in a sea of thousands. But Michael needed to be there, for while no one would dare touch him while the old man breathed, Elena was under no such protection. They’d kill her for the fun of it.
Two blocks from the restaurant, Michael said, “Have you told your family?”
“That I’m pregnant?”
“No.” Emotion colored her voice—sadness and something dark. Michael knew that Elena had family in Spain, but she rarely spoke of them. She had no photographs, no letters. Someone had called once, but Elena hung up when Michael gave her the phone; the next day, she changed the number. Michael never pushed for answers, not about family or the past. They walked in silence for several minutes. A block later, she took his hand. “Kiss me,” she said, and Michael did. When it was done, Elena said, “You’re my family.”
At the restaurant door, a blue awning offered narrow shade. Michael was slightly in front, so he saw the damage to the door in time to turn Elena before she saw it, too. But even with his back to the door, the image stayed in his mind: splintered wood, shards of white that rose from the mahogany stain. The grouping was head-high and tight, four bullet holes in a three-inch circle, and Michael could see how it went down. A black car at the curb, gun silenced. From Elena’s apartment, the drive was less than six minutes, so it probably happened just after five this morning. Empty streets. Nobody around. Small caliber, Michael guessed, something light and accurate. A twenty-two, maybe a twenty-five. He leaned against the door and felt splinters through his shirt, a cold rage behind his eyes. He took Elena’s hand and said, “If I asked you to move away from New York, would you do it?”
“My job is here. Our lives…”
“If I had to go,” he tried again, “would you come with me?”
“This is our home. This is where I want to raise our child…” She stopped, and understanding moved in her face. “Lots of people raise babies in the city…”
She knew of his distrust for the city, and he looked away because the weight of lies was becoming too much. He could stay here and risk the war that was coming, or he could share the truth and lose her. “Listen,” he said, “I’m going to be late today. Tell Paul for me.” Paul owned the restaurant. He parked in the alley, and had probably not seen the door.
“You’re not coming in?”
“I can’t right now.”
“I got you this job, Michael.” A spark of rare anger.
Michael showed the palm of his hand, and said, “May I have your keys?”
Unhappy, she gave him the set Paul let her use. He opened the restaurant door and held it for her. “Where are you going?” she asked.
Her face was upturned and still angry. Michael wanted to touch her cheek and say that he would kill or die to keep her safe. That he would burn the city down. “I’ll be back,” he told her. “Just stay in the restaurant.”
“You’re being very mysterious.”
“I have to do something,” he replied. “For the baby.”
He placed his hand on the plane of her stomach and pictured the many violent ways this day could end. “Really,” he said.
And that was truth.
Copyright © 2011 by John Hart