It starts out slow. The slightest twinge, coupled with an inkling that something isn’t right. It quickly becomes more than that. Embarrassed, I excuse myself from the table and retreat to the bedroom, which I soon realize is a smart move. I haven’t even fully closed the door before the twinges stop and the pain takes over, engulfing me. Internal heat rages throughout my rib cage, descending downward, spiraling into my abdominal cavity. It effortlessly pulls me under until I fold in two. Thirty seconds ago, I was completely fine. Better than fine. It was the happiest moment of my life. Now I’m dying. Clutching my midsection in complete agony, I lean forward, pressing my body against the door, slamming it shut. I flip the lock as a cold sweat sweeps over me. Within seconds, my lungs seize. No matter how much air I attempt to suck in, it isn’t enough.
My vision blurs as my breath comes out in spurts. I pant like a dog on a hot day. The room takes on a very distinct smell, reminding me of burnt flesh. It steeps the air in the combination of a liver-like scent and sulfur. While the fire may be internal, the smell isn’t. My stomach knots, clenches, twists, and turns. The pain is relentless as it radiates outward, its tendrils wrapping around every inch of me. It feels like I’m being skinned alive, only from the inside out. With every inhale, the sensation tightens its grip, until I can no longer think straight. Until I can no longer see a way out of this.
Until misery is all there is. Whispering jumbled prayers, I pray to God, to Moses, to Buddha—I pray to anyone who will listen. I just need them to make this stop. They don’t. And it doesn’t. The searing heat engulfing my insides only intensifies. I grit my teeth so hard I fear they may chip off in my mouth. Shock forces me deep inside myself, making it hard to know what is real and what isn’t. It feels like someone is prying my mouth open, holding my jaw in place, pouring battery acid down my throat. It feels like a Molotov cocktail has been buried deep within my belly.
A ticking time bomb planted and detonated. But no. It’s just me in this room, alone with my poor decisions. My mind tries to rationalize. This cannot be happening. But it is very much happening. As I writhe from side to side, I force myself to focus. My eyes scan the bedroom. What can possibly save me now? My phone? I left it in the kitchen. Paramedics? There isn’t enough time.
Water. What I need is water. Something, anything, to soothe the burning. I drag myself up, bracing my palms against my thighs. If only I hadn’t been so stupid. If only I could get a handle on this. Two steps are all it takes for me to realize what a pipe dream that is. Time slows to nothing. Internally, layers of flesh are being serrated and filleted. Slices of organs are being peeled away; shallow layers of my innards are slowly separating.
Then, with a fiery explosion, what remains disintegrates into nothing. It’s all happening in slow motion and I can feel everything. A pulsating sound pings between my ears. It starts out high-pitched and shrill, and then it dims, but it plays on repeat, so I know what’s coming. A cacophony of nails on a chalkboard. If death has a sound, this is it. I give up trying to focus on anything else. It’s pointless. My legs buckle, and my body falls to the floor with a heavy thud. The rest of me is somewhere else, halfway to hell.
This is not how this night was supposed to go. Slinking forward, serpent-like, I inch toward the bathroom. I get nowhere fast, so I shift direction, making it to the bed, where I force myself upward. The room spins like a Tilt-A-Whirl as I sway precariously from side to side. It reminds me of my firstborn learning to walk. It reminds me of carnival trips with my children, memories that will be forgotten instead of made. Knowing sentimentality can only get me so far, I hobble onward, still holding onto the hope that I survive to see my children’s faces once again. Hoping I’ll get another chance to hear them laugh. Although I know I probably won’t. Right now, there is only one goal: to find water.
It won’t save me. But it might buy me some time. The bathroom is the wrong call, I realize, as I grip the inside of the doorframe. I dig my fingernails into the wood, thinking I should have gone through with the remodel. What an unforgiving place to die. I hadn’t thought the misery could get worse. I was wrong. The contractions deep in my gut continue to sweep over me, crashing like tall waves, each one worse than the one before. Eventually, I lose my handle on the doorframe and with it, my footing. I fall forward, endlessly forward, until my skull hits the edge of the sink and a hard crack ensues.
I’d hoped it would end there, but it doesn’t. Instead, I am witness to my suffering, as everything slows. This could just as easily be happening to someone else, and if it weren’t for the relentless tearing in my stomach, maybe I could pretend that it was. The blood though, I can’t ignore. It trickles out of the corner of my mouth, vibrant against the white marble floor. Brick red and sweet, it coats my lips. I inhale the metallic scent; the warmth brings me comfort. Everything is so cold. My mouth fills, and as I spit blood onto the floor, I see that in the fall, I’ve bitten off a sliver of my tongue. It looks out of place lying there all pink and moist, covered in tiny bumps.
My fingers reach out to touch it. It feels muscular and rough, like something I might have once fished out of the ocean. I cup it in the palm of my hand. For what reason, I don’t know. To save it? Just in case? What a silly thought. A last vestige of hope. My cheek pressed against the cold tile, I think, so this is where it ends. There’s a rattling in my chest, the kind you hear stories about. It tells me I don’t have long. Still, my stomach and chest continue to heave, and my body clings desperately to life, a reminder that it refuses to give up long after the mind has.
Clawing my way along the smooth marble, I move toward the toilet, but once there, I am too tired to even lift my head. I allow my eyes to close, and I say a silent prayer that whatever comes next, comes quick. I pray that my children never see me like this, that they never know how I suffered in the end. Then, I wait for the bright white light, but what I get instead is a knock at the bedroom door. It’s soft at first and then more urgent. I hear a muffled voice, so familiar, followed by desperate pounding. It doesn’t matter. I can’t open the door, even if I wanted to. I have no idea what killed me, but I sure as hell know who did. H C HA P T E R O NE Then Ali Seattle e watches as she fastens her bra.
His eyes never leave her as she searches for her panties, lingering as she slides them over her thighs. “Do you have to go?” David asks, solemnly. She looks up and brushes the hair out of her eyes, only to have it fall back into place. Ali knows he loves it when she messes with her hair. He loves her optimism. He loves everything about her. “You know I do.” “Yeah.” He flashes a smile. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
” “This feels like guilt.” She scans the room, looking for the items that she had laid out on the bed. Items that were supposed to have made it into her carry-on, but never did. Items that are now scattered on the floor. “We have a deal, remember?” “Yeah, yeah. No guilt. No making you choose. I get it.” “Why do I sense a but coming?” “There’s no but,” he says. “I just miss you when you’re gone.
” “And I miss you.” “I take it the session didn’t go well.” Her brow raises just a hair and then her eyes soften. “What makes you say that?” “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “How was the happy couple?” She hears the sarcasm in his voice. He doesn’t know this, but she hates it when he follows a question with a question. “You know I can’t discuss that.” “Right, client privilege, of course. I was thinking…maybe it would be a good idea for you to stop seeing them.” “What?” He sighs.
“You’re incredible, but I think you should work with people who at least have a shot.” “Who said they don’t?” He raises his chin slightly as his expression morphs from one of frustration to one of surprise. He runs his hand through his sandy blond hair, drops it to his side, and then stares at her with dark eyes. “I just assumed.” “You’re too smart to make assumptions,” she says, smiling mischievously, and leaves it at that. It’s nice that she doesn’t really have to talk about her work, or rather that she can talk about it without actually talking about it. The couple he is referring to paid triple her normal rate to have her fly to Seattle last minute, so his assumption is a fair one. “While I’m digging myself into a hole…I think you work too hard.” He isn’t wrong about that either. Not that she’ll admit it.
Therapy, sex therapy at that, particularly at the level she practices, is not a nine-to-five gig. “Unfortunately, relationship issues rarely follow a banker’s schedule.” “So, you think they’ll make it?” “Define make it?” “I don’t know.” His brow furrows. “You know…live happily ever after.” “No one lives happily ever after, my love.” The truth is, no, she didn’t think this couple will make it. However, admitting that would be a bit heavy for the moment, and he doesn’t need to know any more than she wants him to. “It seems you’ve forgotten how good I am.” “Ah, yes.
A momentary lapse. Perhaps I was hoping for a reminder.” “You just got one.” He strides over to her and takes her hand in his, intertwining their fingers, softening his approach. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” He pulls her toward him, pressing his body to hers. “Honestly—none of it matters. I’m just glad you came.” That’s a half-truth, she thinks, as he pulls away and searches her face.
“And I really hate to see you go.” “So you’ve said.” The way he looks at her brings back memories of what they just did. Him pinning her down, her pleasure muffled by the satin sheets. Skin on skin, sweaty and raw. One hand tangled in her hair, the other God knows where, pulling her under, silently pleading. “I could cuff you to the bed.” Her eyes narrow. She could argue for her limitations. But she knows better.
Ali knows if you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them. Obviously, she can’t be in all places at once, but most limitations are more psychology than anything else. She could explain that she has clients, sessions that have been scheduled months in advance. She could tell him about the wait list that’s a mile long. She could tell him how many years she’s worked to get this far in her career. But what would be the point? “How about a rain check?” A wry smile lights up his features, crinkling the corners of his eyes in a way that makes him seem older and wiser than he is. “Fine.” He shakes his head. “Ball gag it is then.” She can’t help but laugh as he grips the back of her neck, pulling her close once more.
“Now you’re talking.” He’s a pain in the ass, but the way he fucks makes up for it. “It’s not wrong to miss you,” he whispers in her ear. “How can I help that I want more?” He releases the grip on her neck, steps back, and takes her in. “Who wouldn’t?” “You’re right. It isn’t wrong.” She searches the floor for her discarded black pump. “Which is precisely why I’ll be back on Tuesday.” He watches as she leans down and peers under the bed. The shoe could be anywhere in this mess.
David goes borderline crazy whenever she leaves for a trip, and the bedroom reflects that. He gets restless and wild, demanding even. Not that she’d complain. She pretends not to like the moods brought on by her absence, but secretly she wouldn’t want it any other way. “There it is,” she huffs, nearly breathless. Her arm extends painfully as she strains to reach the missing shoe. Her fingers graze the tip and then slip. It’s a stretch, but she fishes around until finally she makes contact and raises it triumphantly over her head. “Damn,” he says. “I was hoping you wouldn’t find it.
Hard to get to the airport barefoot.” “Not these days,” she tells him, sliding backward before pushing up to a standing position. “They prefer you that way.” She turns around and freezes. A small gasp escapes her lips. David, on bended knee, smiles up at her, his expression equally nervous and hopeful. Her eyes widen. It isn’t like him, the nerves. He’s as confident as they come. In his palm rests a small velvet box.
The lid is open. Next thing she knows, he’s extending his arm upward, shoving a big shiny thing in her face. She exhales slowly, and as she does, her face softens. Not because she’s happy, although she can easily pretend, but because it came sooner than she expected. Although she’s not entirely surprised, the disappointment is there nonetheless. There’s something about men and their need to mark their territory, forever wanting to own her, that feels like a letdown. “Sarah,” he says, sucking in a deep breath. “I know it’s only been a few weeks. I mean —believe me, I know this is crazy. But who cares? I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and I can’t find any good reason to wait on getting started.
” He tilts his head ever so slightly as his brow lifts toward the ceiling. “Will you marry me?” She feigns speechlessness, although there is much she ought to say. Her flight takes off in an hour. Better not chance it. She’d certainly miss her flight. “Yes!” she squeals. “Yes! Of course, I’ll marry you!” He stands and pulls her to him, squeezing so hard it knocks the breath out of her. “You have no idea. You’ve just made me the happiest man in the world.” He kisses her cheek first, and then her mouth, before trailing his lips along her collarbone.
His lips are very effective. He’s one of the good ones. The kind of man who makes it obvious he’s had a lot of practice, the kind of man who likes to take his time. Which at the moment is a problem. She isn’t dressed, and she’s pressed for time. The perfect recipe for disaster. “There will be other flights,” he murmurs against her skin. “I’ll make sure of it.” She doesn’t argue because she understands. This is the way things are supposed to go.
This is the way he sees it playing out in his mind. This is the way he’s always envisioned it. This version is his fantasy, and some fantasies you don’t disrupt. It’s an invisible but important line, one she’s learned needs careful towing. He gently sucks at her neck, tracing an imaginary line down to the rounded curves of her breasts. He lingers. She breathes in the sandalwood scent of him as he relaxes into her. “It’s not fair that a woman should be this perfect.” He glances up, his eyes meeting hers. He’s confident, but like all men, he craves reassurance.
She could argue, as most women would. She could laugh him off, or find a reason to disparage herself, but she knows better. That’s not her style. “So they say.” He laughs because it isn’t a lie. It’s obvious in the way other women look at her. Their expressions thinly veiled, it’s easy to see what they are thinking. They’re thinking it isn’t fair. A woman with a small waist and large breasts has obviously had work done or starved herself. She hasn’t and she doesn’t.
That’s what she finds funny. Most women want to be thin. Most people want to be rich—talented, whatever—and yet, most people disparage those things when they see them. Playfully, she pushes him back onto the bed. With his tanned skin and chiseled body, he could easily grace fitness magazine covers. He’s not perfect, but he’s pretty close. She reaches for the drawer beside the bed. It sticks, although with a bit of force, she slides it out. Shuffling blindly, she comes up with what she went in for. She holds the handcuffs in the air like an unspoken question, dangling them at eye level.
“My turn.” “God,” he sighs as she slips them around his wrists. “You never cease to—” She places her finger against his lips to silence him. He nips at it. “I love you, Sarah. I love you so much.” With a nod, she starts to offer a response, but can’t decide where to start. It certainly isn’t with the fact that her name isn’t really Sarah.