Never Let You Go – Chevy Stevens

I didn’t have long. He was waiting at the beach—and he’d be counting every minute. I splashed cold water on my face, let the rivulets run down my neck and onto my shirt. I stared into the mirror. Tried to remember how to arrange my lips so I didn’t look so scared, softened the muscles around my eyes, rubbed at the smeared mascara. It didn’t matter how many ways I told him I hadn’t been flirting with that man, I might as well have been shouting into the ocean. The concrete floor of the bathroom was covered with sand and bits of paper that stuck to my flipflops. Beside me a little girl struggled with her tap. I reached over and turned it on for her, then moved to the side, avoiding the curious look from her mother as she exited a stall. They walked out hand in hand, the little girl chatting about Santa—would he find them at the resort? Christmas was a month away. I thought of Sophie with a sharp ache in my chest. Each day she added something new to her list. I had one thing on my wish list, just one. This vacation was supposed to be an early Christmas gift from Andrew, but that was an excuse. He knew he’d gone too far last time.

I came up with reasons we couldn’t go to Mexico, but he’d overridden every one and booked a room at the resort where we stayed on our honeymoon. Our suite was even bigger this time, the view panoramic. As though white sand and sparkling turquoise water could make up for everything. I had been careful to wear the pink one-piece when we went down to the beach that morning, layered with my tunic cover-up, the one with the high neckline and hem almost to my knees. Then I put on my straw hat and large sunglasses. As we left the room, he smiled his approval, drew me close for a kiss. I tensed, but I couldn’t smell any alcohol on his breath or taste it on his lips. I wanted to pull away, but he had to end the kiss first. We set up on the beach under one of the grass umbrellas for the next couple of hours as Sophie played in the sand. Andrew’s hand held mine across our chairs, his thumb stroking lazy circles.

A woman walked past and I caught her giving Andrew an admiring look. He was handsome in his white shorts, his stomach muscles clearly defined, his skin bronzed after only a few days in the sun, but none of this had any effect on me anymore. I was careful not to look around, but I imagined how we must seem to others. Just another happy couple with their child. I pretended to doze, but I was watching Sophie behind my glasses. She was building an elaborate sand castle with turrets and a moat, and using a stick to draw designs in the side, where she carefully placed shells. She’d be seven in January, was already leaving the little girl behind, her limbs thinning out, her pale blond hair darkening to rich honey like her father’s. She picked up her pail and walked back to us. “I’m hungry, Mommy.” We flagged down the waiter, who’d been bringing Andrew Coronas all morning.

“Una cerveza, por favor,” Andrew would say, while I sipped on a lime margarita, and tried to ignore the growing knot in my stomach. We put in our order, chicken salad for me, burger and fries for them. Our waiter was handsome, with black hair and eyes, white teeth that flashed in quick smiles, and a cheeky expression. I avoided looking at him, but then I made the mistake. When I passed him my empty glass, his fingers lingered a moment against mine. It was an accident. He’d been distracted by some noise behind us, but I knew it wouldn’t matter. Our hands had touched. The waiter set down a fresh margarita in front of me and walked away. Andrew was wearing sunglasses, but I could still see his angry expression, the pinched look around his mouth, and my thoughts careened and slid around, trying to find purchase.

I had to distract him. I motioned to the beach, the palm trees. “The scenery is gorgeous.” “Yes, you looked like you were appreciating it.” “It’s so relaxing.” I molded my face into a pleasant smile. As if I didn’t know what he was getting at. As if we hadn’t been down this road so many times before. Sophie, perched on the end of my beach chair with her towel wrapped around her waist, was watching our faces, her green eyes worried. She twirled a strand of wet hair around her finger.

Ever since she was a baby, she’d twirl her hair when she was tired or anxious. “Why don’t you go collect more shells, sweetie?” I said. “They look beautiful on the turrets. I’ll wave when lunch gets here.” She got up, grabbed her blow-up dolphin, and walked back to the beach but looked over her shoulder at me a couple of times. I kept smiling. “You must think I’m stupid,” Andrew said when she was out of earshot. “Of course not.” He focused back on his book, turning each page with a jerk. My breath was fast and tight in my throat.

I took a sip of my drink, but the lime was no longer refreshing, the acid curling in my stomach. I rubbed at my breastbone, but it didn’t ease the pressure. Our meals arrived and the waiter asked if he could get us anything else, but Andrew wasn’t speaking to him and I was forced to answer for both of us while Andrew stared at me. I could feel his rage from across the chairs, hear the rant he was rehearsing. Sophie was now making her way back. I leaned closer to Andrew. “Please don’t do this. Please don’t turn this into something. He touched my hand by accident.” “I saw the way you looked at him, Lindsey.

” “No, you didn’t.” This was when I should’ve been reassuring him, telling him he was my one and only, but the margarita had made me brave. It made me stupid. “You’re imagining things,” I said. It was as though his entire face broke apart and then rearranged itself into someone else. The real Andrew. The man no one saw except me. Sophie ran up to us, sat beside me on the beach chair. Her skin was cold and wet against mine. She reached for a french fry.

“Did you see all my shells, Mommy?” “Yes, baby.” I glanced at her castle. “They’re perfect.” Andrew dumped ketchup onto his plate, smeared a french fry around. “Eat your lunch, darling.” “I just need to go and wash my hands.” I could feel Andrew watching me all the way to the restrooms. I kept my head down and didn’t look at anyone. * * * I threw my paper towel into the garbage, slid my sunglasses on. I had to get back to the beach.

Sophie would want to swim again and I didn’t want Andrew to let her when she’d just eaten. I thought of the Coronas he’d had. How many? I didn’t even know. I used to keep count. They weren’t on the beach chairs. My salad was still on the side table, the lettuce wilting in the heat. My drink was empty. Andrew’s burger and fries were gone, Sophie’s half eaten. I looked around. They weren’t at her sand castle.

Maybe they went back to our room? I walked closer to Sophie’s sand castle. Her towel was spread on the other side, her lime-green plastic sandals kicked off. Her dolphin float was missing. I took a few steps into the water, my hand covering my eyes. The waves rose and fell, an undulating mass of blue. Swimmers bobbed up and down. I squinted, tried to focus on their faces. Where was she? Where was Andrew? I spun around and scanned the people on the beach, the throngs of resort guests, clusters of kids running and chasing waves. I turned back and gazed out over the water again, looking for Sophie’s small head, her red bathing suit. Then I saw her blow-up dolphin moving up and down in the waves—with no one on it.

I walked through the water as fast as I could, the current tugging against my legs, my feet sinking into the soft sand. When I was in deeper water I swam hard strokes to the toy and latched on. They had to be out there. Sophie never let that dolphin out of her sight. I couldn’t see her bright pink snorkel, but there were so many people in the water. I thought again of the food she had eaten, the beers Andrew had drunk. He was a strong swimmer, but Sophie was still learning, and tired easily. I plunged my head under the water. I saw legs coming closer—masculine legs. I rose to the surface sucking in the air in big gasps.

An older man a few feet away took his snorkel out of his mouth. “You okay?” he yelled. “I can’t find my daughter!” More people were swimming over. What’s she wearing? Did you see her go under? Someone get the lifeguard! I was treading water, my torso supported by the dolphin. “I didn’t see her go in. She’s only six. She’s wearing a red bathing suit.” A speedboat roared past and fresh waves sent us all bobbing up and down, salt splashing in my face. The horizon appeared and disappeared. Someone from the resort on a Jet Ski radioed in her description.

People were diving down, then rising to the surface with wet hair and foggy goggles. None of them found her. I kept sticking my head under the water, but all I saw now were pale thrashing legs that stirred up the sand and made the water murky. I popped back up, looked out over the breakwater. Could they have been swept out to sea? One of the resort boats was circling outside the roped-off swimming area. The staff in their white shirts and orange shorts, binoculars pressed to their eyes, searched the horizon. I waited for a yell, something, but the beach had gone curiously silent. People stood at the shore. I didn’t know how long I’d been in the water. My teeth were chattering and I was frantic, confused by all the people speaking to me.

I explained that she was with my husband, that he could be missing too. The lifeguard wanted me to return to shore, tugged at my arm until I finally went with him. We swam to the beach and I lurched onto the sand, still clutching the dolphin float. My cover-up was clinging to my skin, wrapping around my thighs. My legs gave out and I collapsed onto my knees. The sun beat down on me, blinded my eyes as I stared out at the water. Beside me the lifeguard urged me to drink water from a plastic bottle, then talked into his radio, Spanish phrases I couldn’t understand. Jet Skis searched the water. I felt something, an awareness that made me turn my head and look down the beach. It was them, walking toward us.

Sophie in her red bathing suit with the white polka dots that we’d picked out together. Andrew, his long muscular legs taking those familiar loping steps. They were clutching drinks. Sophie looked like she was wondering what all the fuss was about. I jumped to my feet, sprinted to them, almost losing my balance in the soft sand, but I was unstoppable. I lifted Sophie into my arms. I was crying into her neck. “Mom, what’s wrong?” “What’s going on, Lindsey?” The lifeguard came over. “Is this your daughter, senora?” “Yes, yes!” I lowered her down, pressed my hands to the sides of her face, and kissed her cheeks, her lips, her suntan-lotion-scented nose, her hair that had dried into salty ropes. Andrew was talking with the lifeguard.

“I’m sorry my wife put you all through this. She has an overactive imagination.” He smiled and made little circles by his head. The lifeguard gave him a confused smile, dropped a hand onto my shoulder, and peered into my face. “Drink some more water, senora. The sun, it’s very hot, sí?” He left us alone. The crowd was dispersing, but I could feel their judgment, the whispers. I didn’t care. I had Sophie. She was solid and real and standing in front of me.

“I was so scared,” I told her. “I saw your dolphin in the water.” “Daddy and I were playing and it floated away. He said we could get it later.” Andrew was staring out at the water. I tried to read his expression but he was wearing sunglasses. How angry was he that I’d made a fuss? “It just kept floating away,” he said. “Thought we might never see it again.” Then he grabbed Sophie’s hand. “Come on.

Let’s get out of the sun.” * * * We were sitting under the umbrella. I was still shaking, though the sun was aiming directly at us and I’d wrapped a towel around myself—I’d noticed Andrew glancing at my wet cover-up clinging to my breasts and thighs. Sophie was sitting near me, her hand in mine. She kept giving me little pats. “I’m okay, Mommy. I’m okay. I’m sorry you got scared.” Andrew was watching me. I could feel his gaze burning into the side of my face.

I wanted to ignore him, but I knew he was trying to get me to look at him. I turned. There was a look in his eye, something mean. Something smug. “That was embarrassing,” he said. “Why didn’t you wait for me?” “You were taking too long.” He shrugged. “You did it on purpose. You were trying to scare me.” “Don’t be silly,” he said, rising to his feet.

“You did that to yourself.” He held his hand out for Sophie. “Come on, sweetie. I’ll help you build another sand castle.” I watched them walk away. Sophie looked over her shoulder at me, her little face concerned. I smiled reassuringly. The lifeguard came over. “Is everything okay now, senora?” “Yes, yes, it’s fine.” I didn’t want him to linger.

He turned away and I saw something in his face. Pity? Or did he think I was just a stupid blond woman who overreacted? I remembered how I had thrashed around in the water, how desperate I’d felt. How had I become this way? How had I turned into this woman who couldn’t go to the bathroom without being afraid? Andrew was filling a pail with sand. Sophie and he had the same determined expression. He felt me watching, gave a small wave and a friendly smile. You’re imagining things. That’s what I’d told him, and then he made me pay. But he hadn’t just wanted me to be scared. He wanted me to know he could take her from me. In the blink of an eye.

One day I might be in the bathroom, or maybe I’d step outside for a moment, or go to the store, and they’d be gone. I would never see her again. I had to leave him when we got home. There was no more time to plan. No matter what it took, no matter how risky it was, I had to get Sophie away from him. I slowly lifted my hand, gave my palm a kiss, and blew it in his direction. CHAPTER TWO DECEMBER 2016 The house is quiet when I wake, the floorboards cold under my feet as I push myself out of bed. “Sophie?” She doesn’t answer. Sometimes she gets up early to work on a project, or goes for a walk. She likes to study the patterns in the snow and ice.

It worries me when she goes off into the woods by herself, but she wears hiking boots and carries a whistle, and trying to keep her home when she’s feeling inspired is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Shivering, I wrap my flannel robe tight around my body and shuffle into the kitchen. Sophie’s put a pod in the coffeemaker for me, left a note stuck to the machine. Sorry, Mom. The snow was calling … XO My baby, the artist. I pin the note onto the bulletin board, on top of the others I’ve saved, then check that she’s locked the door and reset the alarm. She’s always forgetting, says we have nothing worth stealing anyway. I remind her that’s not the point. I let the shower run hot as I can stand it, steam filling the room, soap swirling around my feet and down the drain. My hair is long again and the wet tendrils lay flat against my breasts.

My mind drifts as I think about my plan for the upcoming week, which clients might need more help before Christmas, whether I should place an ad for another cleaner. Maybe I can expand and take on some janitorial work next year when Sophie goes away to school. I enjoy this feeling of accomplishment. In the beginning it was just me, a beat-up car, and a box of cleaning supplies. Now I have four full-time employees and nothing holding me back. After I’m dressed, I unplug my phone from the charger and notice I’ve gotten a text from Marcus. You still want to skip this week? Let me know. Marcus teaches a self-defense class for my domestic violence support group and sometimes gives me private lessons. I text him back. Yeah, just busy, but I’ll see you at the meeting.

I make a second cup of coffee— the first is for sanity, the second is pure pleasure—and prop my phone up against the bowl of fruit on our kitchen table. I sign in to Skype and wait for Jenny to answer my call. She comes into view, her blond hair still messy from sleep, her face pale without makeup, but she has an ethereal kind of beauty that makes her look angelic—and much younger than her forty-five years. I always tell her that if she wasn’t my best friend, I’d have to kill her. “God,” she says. “What a morning.” “Yeah?” “Teen girls.” She shakes her head. “Enough about that. What are you doing today?” “I have one cleaning job.

Then maybe some Christmas shopping.” “I thought Saturdays were your day off.” “One of the new girls I hired just quit—she’s back with her boyfriend.” Most of the girls I hire are from my support group. Women starting over with the shreds of their lives stuffed into suitcases, garbage bags, or the backseat of their cars. Unfortunately, they aren’t always ready to move on. “She says he’s changed, but you know…” “Right.” We’re both quiet. She doesn’t need to tell me that she’s thinking about her ex-husband, just like she knows I’m thinking about Andrew. Jenny and I also met in group.

“How’s Sophie?” she says. We talk about Christmas gift ideas, anything and everything that crosses our minds. For the last couple of years we’ve done all our shopping together—Jenny can actually turn Christmas chaos at the mall into a fun adventure. Since she moved to Vancouver a few months ago, I miss her terribly, but we try to talk often. “I’m not sure about Greg,” I say. “What do you get someone you’ve only been dating for a few months?” “How about a nice dinner? Or cologne? The Gap has sweaters on sale.” “I don’t think he’s the Gap type.” I smile, trying to imagine Greg, with his colorful tattoos and tight-shaved head, wearing a preppy sweater. I’ve only ever seen him in his UPS uniform, or shirts and dark jeans when he’s dressing up. He looks intimidating, but when you speak to him, you notice his warm brown eyes and happy-go-lucky laugh.

Maybe cologne is a good idea. Then I realize I don’t even know what cologne he wears. “I’ll have to think about it,” I say. “I was wondering about inviting him over to help decorate the tree with Sophie and me, but that’s always been our tradition.” “You should probably ask her how she feels about it.” “Good idea.” I glance at the clock. “I better get going.” * * * It’s started to rain, the snow on the side of the roads turning to mush that grabs at my tires. Winter in Dogwood Bay means you never know whether to expect rain or snow, or sometimes both.

I’m a half hour late, but it won’t matter. Mrs. Carlson, a nice old lady who lives with her cat and bird, always leaves in the morning to visit her sister on cleaning days. I follow the garden path around the side of the house. The rain is melting snow off the shrubs and trees, chunks hitting the ground with a muffled thud. I squeal as one almost hits me. When I unlock the door, the house is freezing cold. I fiddle with the thermostat, bumping it up a couple of levels, then set my boots on the mat, slide on my slippers, and put my tray down on the kitchen counter. Something smells burnt, like toast. The dish rack holds one plate and teacup, and a knife.

A small plastic Christmas tree sits in the corner of the living room, hung with a few brightly colored ornaments. There’s already a stack of presents underneath. I start on the kitchen, scrub the counters and sink until they gleam, then mop the floor. I hum Christmas carols as I work and think about when Sophie and I should put up our own tree. We always get a fresh one, then decorate while watching Elf and drinking hot chocolate. I move into the living room, wipe every surface with lemon-scented cleaner, fold a knitted blanket, fluff the pillows, vacuum the cat fur off the back of the couch and from under the cushions. I haven’t seen Gatsby, but he’s probably sleeping under the bed. Next I vacuum the carpet so the lines are all in the same direction, backing up as I go, careful not to leave a single footprint. I grab my tray and move down the hall, then pause halfway when I hear a noise behind me. I turn quickly, my body stiffening.

A streak of white. Gatsby. I make a kissing noise and call his name, but he doesn’t come running like usual. He must be chasing a spider. When I’m finished in the master bedroom, I make my way to the spare room at the other end of the house. Mrs. Carlson rarely has guests, but the room always needs dusting because of her budgie, Atticus. It’s my least favorite room—the dander from his feathers makes me sneeze and Atticus screams the whole time I’m cleaning, but today he is remarkably silent. As I push open the door, a cold draft whistles toward me. The window is open.

I hurry over and slide it down. So that’s why the house is so cold. When I turn around, rubbing my arms to get warm, I spot Atticus hunched into a ball at the bottom of his cage. He’s always perched on his wooden branch, screeching at me or ringing his bell. I frown, take a tentative step. “Atticus?” He doesn’t move. I take another step. His eyes are closed, his tiny chest unmoving. I look back at the window. How long had it been left open? Mrs.

Carlson’s going to be devastated. Back in the kitchen, I rummage through my purse on the counter for my phone, knocking it over in the process. My lip gloss rolls out. I don’t stop to retrieve it. Mrs. Carlson’s sister answers and I have to repeat my name. Finally she puts her on the phone. “Mrs. Carlson, I’m so sorry, but Atticus…” I pause. How do I put this? “Atticus has passed away.

I’m so sorry,” I repeat. “Oh, no!” she says, her voice quavering. “Whatever happened?” “I think he might have gotten too cold.” “The window! I was sure I closed it—I always let him have some fresh air in the mornings so he can sing to the birds outside.” I don’t know why she had the window pushed all the way up at this time of year, but I’m not going to make her feel worse by asking questions. “Poor Atticus,” she says. “I’ll have to take care of him when I get home.” Her voice is starting to break and I can tell she’s near tears. “Perhaps I should bury him outside under the lilac bushes. They’re so pretty in the summer.

Do you think that’s a nice place?” “It’s a perfect place.” I can’t just leave her to take care of it on her own. “Would you like me to do it?” She pauses, and I hear her blowing her nose. “I couldn’t ask you to do that.” “I wouldn’t mind.” “Oh. That’s very kind. I’d like that.” She catches her breath, a hiccup of sound. “I’m going to miss him terribly.

The house will be so quiet without his beautiful singing.” “He was a lovely bird.” She sounds so shaken. I’m glad she’s with her sister. I’ll bring her flowers this week, stop by and have tea with her. “Thank you, dear.” She blows her nose again. “Can you say a prayer for him?” “Of course.” I grab a small box and newspaper from the recycling and create a makeshift coffin for Atticus’s body, which I place in the garage. I finish the rest of the cleaning, vacuuming Atticus’s cage and pulling a sheet over it.

Then I get Atticus’s body from the garage. When I crouch down to pick up the box, I catch the scent of something masculine in the air, something woodsy. I stand quickly and look around. The garage is neat and tidy, only her dead husband’s old Buick filling the space. She must have an air freshener. I’m still thinking about Mrs. Carlson as I walk into the kitchen. Her animals have meant the world to her since she lost her husband three years ago. I set the shoe box down, look for my keys on the counter, then pause. They’re gone.

My purse is upright. I’d knocked it over earlier, and my keys and lip gloss had tumbled out. I left them lying there. I stare at the beige fake leather bag I’d found on sale at Walmart that looks like a Chanel, according to my daughter anyway. I peek inside. My keys and gloss have been carefully placed on top of my wallet. I stumble back. I don’t stop for my boots or my coat. I just run out of the house, noticing in a quick flash that the door is unlocked. He went out that way.

He could be waiting. I sprint for my car, lock the doors, and press the numbers on my cell. I rummage through my glove box for my pepper spray, remove the safety, and hook my thumb on the trigger. While I’m waiting for the police, I stare at the house and the path, watch for any movement. It’s been three months since my brother called to tell me Andrew had been released from prison and that someone saw him on Vancouver Island. I can still remember the sound of Chris’s voice when he phoned, the hesitation and tightness. I knew before he even said anything. This was the call I’d been waiting for. Andrew was a free man and he was going to find me. But days passed.

Then weeks, months. Nothing happened, and I thought we were safe. My gaze travels from the door to each window, up to the second floor, then down again. The whole time I was inside, cleaning, singing, and vacuuming, he was in there too. He might have been standing so close he could have touched me. Why didn’t he make his move? Then I realize why he didn’t. It wouldn’t have been enough for him. He needs me to suffer. He’s going to make me pay for every year he spent behind bars.

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