Pieces of Her – Karin Slaughter

For years, even while she’d loved him, part of her had hated him in that childish way that you hate something you can’t control. He was headstrong, and stupid, and handsome, which gave him cover for a hell of a lot of the mistakes he continually made—the same mistakes, over and over again, because why try new ones when the old ones worked so well in his favor? He was charming, too. That was the problem. He would charm her. He would make her furious. Then he would charm her back again so that she did not know if he was the snake or she was the snake and he was the handler. So he sailed along on his charm, and his fury, and he hurt people, and he found new things that interested him more, and the old things were left broken in his wake. Then, quite suddenly, his charm had stopped working. A trolley car off the tracks. A train without a conductor. The mistakes could not be forgiven, and eventually, the second same mistake would not be overlooked, and the third same mistake had dire consequences that had ended with a life being taken, a death sentence being passed, then—almost—resulted in the loss of another life, her life. How could she still love someone who had tried to destroy her? When she had been with him—and she was decidedly with him during his long fall from grace— they had raged against the system: The group homes. The emergency departments. The loony bin. The mental hospital.

The squalor. The staff who neglected their patients. The orderlies who ratcheted tight the straightjackets. The nurses who looked the other way. The doctors who doled out the pills. The urine on the floor. The feces on the walls. The inmates, the fellow prisoners, taunting, wanting, beating, biting. The spark of rage, not the injustice, was what had excited him the most. The novelty of a new cause.

The chance to annihilate. The dangerous game. The threat of violence. The promise of fame. Their names in lights. Their righteous deeds on the tongues of schoolchildren who were taught the lessons of change. A penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter, a dollar bill . What she had kept hidden, the one sin that she could never confess to, was that she had ignited that first spark. She had always believed—vehemently, with great conviction—that the only way to change the world was to destroy it. August 20, 2018 1 “Andrea,” her mother said.

Then, in concession to a request made roughly one thousand times before, “Andy.” “Mom—” “Let me speak, darling.” Laura paused. “Please.” Andy nodded, preparing for a long-awaited lecture. She was officially thirty-one years old today. Her life was stagnating. She had to start making decisions rather than having life make decisions for her. Laura said, “This is my fault.” Andy felt her chapped lips peel apart in surprise.

“What’s your fault?” “Your being here. Trapped here.” Andy held out her arms, indicating the restaurant. “At the Rise-n-Dine?” Her mother’s eyes traveled the distance from the top of Andy’s head to her hands, which fluttered nervously back to the table. Dirty brown hair thrown into a careless ponytail. Dark circles under her tired eyes. Nails bitten down to the quick. The bones of her wrists like the promontory of a ship. Her skin, normally pale, had taken on the pallor of hot dog water. The catalog of flaws didn’t even include her work outfit.

The navy-blue uniform hung off Andy like a paper sack. The stitched silver badge on her breast pocket was stiff, the Belle Isle palm tree logo surrounded by the words POLICE DISPATCH DIVISION . Like a police officer, but not actually. Like an adult, but not really. Five nights a week, Andy sat in a dark, dank room with four other women answering 911 calls, running license plate and driver’s license checks, and assigning case numbers. Then, around six in the morning, she slinked back to her mother’s house and spent the majority of what should’ve been her waking hours asleep. Laura said, “I never should have let you come back here.” Andy pressed together her lips. She stared down at the last bits of yellow eggs on her plate. “My sweet girl.

” Laura reached across the table for her hand, waited for her to look up. “I pulled you away from your life. I was scared, and I was selfish.” Tears rimmed her mother’s eyes. “I shouldn’t have needed you so much. I shouldn’t have asked for so much.” Andy shook her head. She looked back down at her plate. “Darling.” Andy kept shaking her head because the alternative was to speak, and if she spoke, she would have to tell the truth.

Her mother had not asked her to do anything. Three years ago, Andy had been walking to her shitty Lower East Side fourth-floor walk-up, dreading the thought of another night in the one-bedroom hovel she shared with three other girls, none of whom she particularly liked, all of whom were younger, prettier and more accomplished, when Laura had called. “Breast cancer,” Laura had said, not whispering or hedging but coming straight out with it in her usual calm way. “Stage three. The surgeon will remove the tumor, then while I’m under, he’ll biopsy the lymph nodes to evaluate—” Laura had said more, detailing what was to come with a degree of detached, scientific specificity that was lost on Andy, whose language-processing skills had momentarily evaporated. She had heard the word “breast” more than “cancer,” and thought instantly of her mother’s generous bosom. Tucked beneath her modest one-piece swimsuit at the beach. Peeking over the neckline of her Regency dress for Andy’s Netherfieldthemed sixteenth birthday party. Strapped under the padded cups and gouging underwires of her LadyComfort Bras as she sat on the couch in her office and worked with her speech therapy patients. Laura Oliver was not a bombshell, but she had always been what men called very well put together.

Or maybe it was women who called it that, probably back in the last century. Laura wasn’t the type for heavy make-up and pearls, but she never left the house without her short gray hair neatly styled, her linen pants crisply starched, her underwear clean and still elasticized. Andy barely made it out of the apartment most days. She was constantly having to double back for something she had forgotten like her phone or her ID badge for work or, one time, her sneakers because she’d walked out of the building wearing her bedroom slippers. Whenever people in New York asked Andy what her mother was like, she always thought of something Laura had said about her own mother: She always knew where all the tops were to her Tupperware. Andy couldn’t be bothered to close a Ziploc bag. On the phone, eight hundred miles away, Laura’s stuttered intake of breath was the only sign that this was difficult for her. “Andrea?” Andy’s ears, buzzing with New York sounds, had zeroed back in on her mother’s voice. Cancer. Andy tried to grunt.

She could not make the noise. This was shock. This was fear. This was unfettered terror because the world had suddenly stopped spinning and everything—the failures, the disappointments, the horror of Andy’s New York existence for the last six years—receded like the drawback wave of a tsunami. Things that should’ve never been uncovered were suddenly out in the open. Her mother had cancer. She could be dying. She could die. Laura had said, “So, there’s chemo, which will by all accounts be very difficult.” She was used to filling Andy’s protracted silences, had learned long ago that confronting her on them was more likely to end up in a fight than a resumption of civil conversation.

“Then I’ll take a pill every day, and that’s that. The five-year survival rate is over seventy percent, so there’s not a lot to worry about except for getting through it.” A pause for breath, or maybe in hopes that Andy was ready to speak. “It’s very treatable, darling. I don’t want you to worry. Just stay where you are. There’s nothing you can do.” A car horn had blared. Andy had looked up. She was standing statue-like in the middle of a crosswalk.

She struggled to move. The phone was hot against her ear. It was past midnight. Sweat rolled down her back and leached from her armpits like melted butter. She could hear the canned laughter of a sitcom, bottles clinking, and an anonymous piercing scream for help, the likes of which she had learned to tune out her first month living in the city. Too much silence on her end of the phone. Finally, her mother had prompted, “Andrea?” Andy had opened her mouth without considering what words should come out. “Darling?” her mother had said, still patient, still generously nice in the way that her mother was to everyone she met. “I can hear the street noises, otherwise I’d think we’d lost the connection.” She paused again.

“Andrea, I really need you to acknowledge what I’m telling you. It’s important.” Her mouth was still hanging open. The sewer smell that was endemic to her neighborhood had stuck to the back of her nasal passages like a piece of overcooked spaghetti slapped onto a kitchen cabinet. Another car horn blared. Another woman screamed for help. Another ball of sweat rolled down Andy’s back and pooled in the waistband of her underwear. The elastic was torn where her thumb went when she pulled them down. Andy still could not recall how she’d managed to force herself out of her stupor, but she remembered the words she had finally said to her mother: “I’m coming home.” There had not been much to show for her six years in the city.

Andy’s three part-time jobs had all been resigned from by text. Her subway card was given to a homeless woman who had thanked her, then screeched that she was a fucking whore. Only the absolutely necessary things went into Andy’s suitcase: favorite T-shirts, broken-in jeans, several books that had survived not just the trip from Belle Isle, but five different moves into progressively shittier apartments. Andy wouldn’t need her gloves or her puffy winter coat or her earmuffs back home. She didn’t bother to wash her sheets or even take them off the old Chesterfield sofa that was her bed. She had left for LaGuardia at the crack of dawn, less than six hours after her mother’s phone call. In the blink of an eye, Andy’s life in New York was over. The only thing the three younger, more accomplished roommates had to remember her by was the half-eaten Filet-O-Fish sandwich Andy had left in the fridge and her part of the next month’s rent. That had been three years ago, almost half as many years as she had lived in the city. Andy didn’t want to, but in low moments she checked in with her former cohabitants on Facebook.

They were her yardstick. Her truncheon. One had reached middle management at a fashion blog. The other had started her own bespoke sneaker design company. The third had died after a cocaine binge on a rich man’s yacht and still, some nights when Andy was answering calls and the person on the end of the line was a twelve-year-old who thought it was funny to call 911 and pretend he was being molested, she could not help but think that she remained the least accomplished of them all. A yacht, for chrissakes. A yacht. “Darling?” her mother rapped the table for attention. The lunch crowd had thinned out. A man seated at the front gave her an angry look over his newspaper.

“Where are you?” Andy held out her arms again, indicating the restaurant, but the gesture felt forced. They knew exactly where she was: less than five miles from where she had started. Andy had gone to New York City thinking she would find a way to shine and ended up emitting the equivalent amount of light you’d find in an old emergency flashlight left in a kitchen drawer. She hadn’t wanted to be an actor or a model or any of the usual clichés. Stardom was never her dream. She had yearned to be star-adjacent: the personal assistant, the coffee fetcher, the prop wrangler, the scenery painter, the social media manager, the support staff that made the star’s life possible. She wanted to bask in the glow. To be in the middle of things. To know people. To have connections.

Her professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design had seemed like a good connection. She had dazzled him with her passion for the arts, or at least that’s what he’d claimed. That they were in bed when he’d said this only mattered to Andy after the fact. When she’d broken off the affair, the man had taken as a threat her idle chatter about wanting to focus on her career. Before Andy knew what was happening, before she could explain to her professor that she wasn’t trying to leverage his gross inappropriateness into career advancement, he had pulled some strings to get her a job as an assistant to the assistant scenery designer in an off-Broadway show. Of -Broadway! Just down the street from on Broadway! Andy was two semesters away from earning her degree in technical theater arts. She had packed her suitcase and barely did more than toss a wave over her shoulder as she headed to the airport. Two months later, the show had closed under crushingly bad reviews. Everyone on the crew had quickly found other jobs, joined other shows, except for Andy, who had settled into a real New York life. She was a waitress, a dog walker, a sign painter, a telephone debt collector, a delivery person, a fax machine monitor, a sandwich maker, a non-unionized copier paper feeder, and finally, the loser bitch who had left a half-eaten Filet-O-Fish in the fridge and one month’s rent on the counter and run off to Buttfuck, Georgia, or wherever the hell it was that she was from.

Really, all Andy had brought home with her was one tiny shred of dignity, and now she was going to waste it on her mother. She looked up from the eggs. “Mom.” She had to clear her throat before she could get out the confession. “I love you for saying that, but it’s not your fault. You’re right that I wanted to come home to see you. But I stayed for other reasons.” Laura frowned. “What other reasons? You loved New York.” She had hated New York.

“You were doing so well up there.” She had been drowning. “That boy you were seeing was so into you.” And every other vagina in his building. “You had so many friends.” She had not heard from one of them since she’d left. “Well.” Laura sighed. The list of encouragements had been short if not probing. As usual, she had read Andy like a book.

“Baby, you’ve always wanted to be somebody different. Someone special. I mean in the sense of someone with a gift, an unusual talent. Of course you’re special to me and Dad.” Andy’s eyes strained to roll up in her head. “Thanks.” “You are talented. You’re smart. You’re better than smart. You’re clever.

” Andy ran her hands up and down her face as if she could erase herself from this conversation. She knew she was talented and smart. The problem was that in New York, everyone else had been talented and smart, too. Even the guy working the counter at the bodega was funnier, quicker, more clever than she was. Laura insisted, “There’s nothing wrong with being normal. Normal people have very meaningful lives. Look at me. It’s not selling out to enjoy yourself.” Andy said, “I’m thirty-one years old, I haven’t gone on a real date in three years, I have sixtythree thousand dollars in student debt for a degree I never finished and I live in a one-room apartment over my mother’s garage.” Air strained through Andy’s nose as she tried to breathe.

Verbalizing the long list had put a tight band around her chest. “The question isn’t what else can I do. It’s what else am I going to fuck up?” “You’re not fucking up.” “Mom—” “You’ve fallen into the habit of feeling low. You can get used to anything, especially bad things. But the only direction now is up. You can’t fall off the floor.” “Have you ever heard of basements?” “Basements have floors, too.” “That’s the ground.” “But ground is just another word for floor.

” “Ground is like, six feet under.” “Why do you always have to be so morbid?” Andy felt a sudden irritation honing her tongue into a razor. She swallowed it back down. They couldn’t argue about curfew or make-up or tight jeans anymore, so these were the fights that she now had with her mother: That basements had floors. The proper direction from which toilet paper should come off the roll. Whether forks should be placed in the dishwasher tines up or tines down. If a grocery cart was called a cart or a buggy. That Laura was pronouncing it wrong when she called the cat “Mr. Perkins” because his name was actually Mr. Purrkins.

Laura said, “I was working with a patient the other day, and the strangest thing happened.” The cliffhanger-change-of-subject was one of their well-worn paths to truce. “So strange,” Laura baited. Andy hesitated, then nodded for her to continue. “He presented with Broca’s Aphasia. Some right-side paralysis.” Laura was a licensed speech pathologist living in a coastal retirement community. The majority of her patients had experienced some form of debilitating stroke. “He was an IT guy in his previous life, but I guess that doesn’t matter.” “What happened that was strange?” Andy asked, doing her part.

Laura smiled. “He was telling me about his grandson’s wedding, and I have no idea what he was trying to say, but it came out as ‘blue suede shoes.’ And I had this flash in my head, this sort of memory, to back when Elvis died.” “Elvis Presley?” She nodded. “This was ’77, so I would’ve been fourteen years old, more Rod Stewart than Elvis. But anyway. There were these very conservative, beehived ladies at our church, and they were bawling their eyes out that he was gone.” Andy grinned the way you grin when you know you’re missing something. Laura gave her the same grin back. Chemo brain, even this far out from her last treatment.

She had forgotten the point of her story. “It’s just a funny thing I remembered.” “I guess the beehive ladies were kind of hypocritical?” Andy tried to jog her memory. “I mean, Elvis was really sexy, right?” “It doesn’t matter.” Laura patted her hand. “I’m so grateful for you. The strength you gave me while I was sick. The closeness we still have. I cherish that. It’s a gift.

” Her mother’s voice started to quiver. “But I’m better now. And I want you to live your life. I want you to be happy, or, failing that, I want you to find peace with yourself. And I don’t think you can do it here, baby. As much as I want to make it easier for you, I know that it’ll never take unless you do it all on your own.” Andy looked up at the ceiling. She looked out at the empty mall. She finally looked back at her mother. Laura had tears in her eyes.

She shook her head as if in awe. “You’re magnificent. Do you know that?” Andy forced out a laugh. “You are magnificent because you are so uniquely you.” Laura pressed her hand to her heart. “You are talented, and you are beautiful, and you’ll find your way, my love, and it will be the right way, no matter what, because it’s the path that you set out for yourself.” Andy felt a lump in her throat. Her eyes started to water. There was a stillness around them. She could hear the sound of her own blood swooshing through her veins.

“Well.” Laura laughed, another well-worn tactic for lightening an emotional moment. “Gordon thinks I should give you a deadline to move out.” Gordon. Andy’s father. He was a trusts and estates lawyer. His entire life was deadlines. Laura said, “But I’m not going to give you a deadline, or an ultimatum.” Gordon loved ultimatums, too. “I’m saying if this is your life”—she indicated the police-like, adult-ish uniform—“then embrace it.

Accept it. And if you want to do something else”—she squeezed Andy’s hand—“do something else. You’re still young. You don’t have a mortgage or even a car payment. You have your health. You’re smart. You’re free to do whatever you like.” “Not with my student loan debt.” “Andrea,” Laura said, “I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but if you continue listlessly spinning around, pretty soon you’ll be forty and find yourself very tired of living inside of a cartwheel.” “Forty,” Andy repeated, an age that seemed less decrepit every year it drew closer.

“Your father would say—” “Shit or get off the pot.” Gordon was always telling Andy to move, to make something of herself, to do something. For a long time, she had blamed him for her lethargy. When both of your parents were driven, accomplished people, it was a form of rebellion to be lazy, right? To stubbornly and consistently take the easy road when the hard road was just so . hard? “Dr. Oliver?” an older woman said. That she was invading a quiet mother–daughter moment seemed to be lost on her. “I’m Betsy Barnard. You worked with my father last year. I just wanted to say thank you.

You’re a miracle worker.” Laura stood up to shake the woman’s hand. “You’re very sweet to say that, but he did the work himself.” She slipped into what Andy thought of as her Healing Dr. Oliver Mode, asking open-ended questions about the woman’s father, clearly not quite remembering who he was but making a passable effort so that the woman was just as clearly fooled. Laura nodded toward Andy. “This is my daughter, Andrea.” Betsy duplicated the nod with a passing interest. She was beaming under Laura’s attention. Everyone loved her mother, no matter what mode she was in: therapist, friend, business owner, cancer patient, mother.

She had a sort of relentless kindness that was kept from being too sugary by her quick, sometimes acerbic wit. Occasionally, usually after a few drinks, Andy could show these same qualities to strangers, but once they got to know her, they seldom stuck around. Maybe that was Laura’s secret. She had dozens, even hundreds, of friends, but not one single person knew all of the pieces of her. “Oh!” Betsy practically shouted. “I want you to meet my daughter, too. I’m sure Frank told you all about her.” “Frank sure did.” Andy caught the relief on Laura’s face; she really had forgotten the man’s name. She winked at Andy, momentarily switching back into Mom Mode.

“Shelly!” Betsy frantically waved over her daughter. “Come meet the woman who helped save Pop-Pop’s life.” A very pretty young blonde reluctantly shuffled over. She tugged self-consciously at the long sleeves of her red UGA T-shirt. The white bulldog on her chest was wearing a matching red shirt. She was obviously mortified, still at that age when you didn’t want a mother unless you needed money or compassion. Andy could remember what that push-pull felt like. Most days, she wasn’t as far removed from it as she wanted to be. It was a truth universally acknowledged that your mother was the only person in the world who could say, “Your hair looks nice,” but what you heard was, “Your hair always looks awful except for this one, brief moment in time.” “Shelly, this is Dr.

Oliver.” Betsy Barnard looped a possessive arm through her daughter’s. “Shelly’s about to start UGA in the fall. Isn’t that right, sweetie?” Laura said, “I went to UGA, too. Of course, this was back when we took notes on stone tablets.” Shelly’s mortification amped up a few degrees as her mother laughed a little too loudly at the stale joke. Laura tried to smooth things over, politely questioning the girl on her major, her dreams, her aspirations. This was the type of prying you took as a personal affront when you were young, but as an adult, you realized these were the only types of questions adults knew how to ask you. Andy looked down at her half-filled coffee cup. She felt unreasonably tired.

Night shifts. She couldn’t get used to them, only handled them by stringing together naps, which meant that she ended up stealing toilet paper and peanut butter from her mother’s pantry because she never made time to go to the grocery store. That was probably why Laura had insisted they have a birthday lunch today instead of a birthday breakfast, which would’ve allowed Andy to return to her cave over the garage and fall asleep in front of the TV. She drank the last of her coffee, which was so cold it hit the back of her throat like crushed ice. She looked for the waitress. The girl had her nose buried in her phone. Her shoulders were slouched. She was smacking gum. Andy suppressed the wave of bitchiness as she stood up from the table. The older she got, the harder it was to resist the urge to become her mother.

Though, in retrospect, Laura had often had good advice: Stand up straight or your back will hurt when you’re thirty. Wear better shoes or you’ll pay for it when you’re thirty. Establish sensible habits or you’ll pay for it when you’re thirty. Andy was thirty-one. She was paying so much that she was practically bankrupt. “You a cop?” The waitress finally looked up from her phone. “Theater major.” The girl wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know what that means.” “You and me both.

” Andy helped herself to more coffee. The waitress kept giving her sideways glances. Maybe it was the police-like uniform. The girl looked like the type who would have some Molly or at least a bag of weed stashed in her purse. Andy was wary of the uniform, too. Gordon had gotten her the job. She figured he was hoping she would eventually join the force. At first, Andy had been repulsed by the idea because she’d had it in her head that cops were bad guys. Then she had met some actual cops and realized they were mostly decent human beings trying to do a really shitty job. Then she had worked dispatch for a year and started to hate the entire world, because two thirds of the calls were just stupid people who didn’t understand what an emergency was.

Laura was still talking with Betsy and Shelly Barnard. Andy had seen this same scene play out countless times. They didn’t quite know how to gracefully exit and Laura was too polite to move them along. Instead of returning to the table, Andy walked over to the plate glass window. The diner was in a prime location inside the Mall of Belle Isle, a corner unit on the bottom floor. Past the boardwalk, the Atlantic Ocean roiled from a coming storm. People were walking their dogs or riding their bikes along the flat stretch of packed sand. Belle Isle was neither belle nor, technically, an isle. It was basically a man-made peninsula created when the Army Corps of Engineers had dredged the port of Savannah back in the eighties. They had intended the new landmass to be an uninhabited, natural barrier against hurricanes, but the state had seen dollar signs on the new beachfront.

Within five years of the dredging, more than half the surface area was covered in concrete: beach villas, townhouses, condos, shopping malls. The rest was tennis courts and golf courses. Retired Northerners played in the sun all day, drank martinis at sunset and called 911 when their neighbors left their trash cans by the street too long. “Jesus,” somebody whispered, low and mean, but with a tinge of surprise, all at the same time. The air had changed. That was the only way to describe it. The fine hairs on the back of Andy’s neck stood up. A chill went down her spine. Her nostrils flared. Her mouth went dry.

Her eyes watered. There was a sound like a jar popping open. Andy turned. The handle of the coffee cup slipped from her fingers. Her eyes followed its path to the floor. White ceramic shards bounced off the white tiles. There had been an eerie silence before, but now there was chaos. Screaming. Crying. People running, ducked down, hands covering their heads. Bullets. Pop-pop. Shelly Barnard was lying on the floor. On her back. Arms splayed. Legs twisted. Eyes wide open. Her red T-shirt looked wet, stuck to her chest. Blood dribbled from her nose. Andy watched the thin red line slide down her cheek and into her ear. She was wearing tiny Bulldog earrings. “No!” Betsy Barnard wailed. “N—” Pop. Andy saw the back of the woman’s throat vomit out in a spray of blood. Pop. The side of Betsy’s skull snapped open like a plastic bag. She fell sideways onto the floor. On top of her daughter. Onto her dead daughter. Dead. “Mom,” Andy whispered, but Laura was already there. She was running toward Andy with her arms out, knees bent low. Her mouth was open. Her eyes were wide with fear. Red dots peppered her face like freckles. The back of Andy’s head slammed into the window as she was tackled to the ground. She felt the rush of air from her mother’s mouth as the wind was knocked out of her. Andy’s vision blurred. She could hear a cracking sound. She looked up. The glass above her had started to spiderweb. “Please!” Laura screamed. She had rolled over, was on her knees, then her feet. “Please, stop.” Andy blinked. She rubbed her fists into her eyes. Grit cut into her eyelids. Dirt? Glass? Blood? “Please!” Laura shouted. Andy blinked again. Then again. A man was pointing a gun at her mother’s chest. Not a cop’s gun, but the kind with a cylinder like in the Old West. He was dressed the part—black jeans, black shirt with pearl buttons, black leather vest and black cowboy hat. Gunbelt hanging low on his hips. One holster for the gun, a long leather sheath for a hunting knife. Handsome. His face was young, unlined. He was Shelly’s age, maybe a little older. But Shelly was dead now. She would not be going to UGA. She would never be mortified by her mother again because her mother was dead, too. And now the man who had murdered them both was pointing a gun at her mother’s chest. Andy sat up. Laura only had one breast, the left one, over her heart. The surgeon had taken the right one and she hadn’t gotten reconstructive surgery yet because she couldn’t stand the thought of going to yet another doctor, having another procedure, and now this murderer standing in front of her was going to put a bullet in it. “Mm—” The word got caught in Andy’s throat. She could only think it— Mom. “It’s all right.” Laura’s voice was calm, controlled. She had her hands out in front of her like they could catch the bullets. She told the man, “You can leave now.” “Fuck you.” His eyes darted to Andy. “Where’s your gun, you fucking pig?” Andy’s whole body cringed. She felt herself tightening into a ball. “She doesn’t have a gun,” Laura said, her voice still composed. “She’s a secretary at the police station. She’s not a cop.” “Get up!” he screamed at Andy. “I see your badge! Get up, pig! Do your job!” Laura said, “It’s not a badge. It’s an emblem. Just stay calm.” She patted her hands down the same way she used to tuck Andy into bed at night. “Andy, listen to me.” “Listen to me, you fucking bitches!” Saliva flew from the man’s mouth. He shook the gun in the air. “Stand up, pig. You’re next.” “No.” Laura blocked his way. “I’m next.” His eyes turreted back to Laura. “Shoot me.” Laura spoke with unmistakable certainty. “I want you to shoot me.” Confusion broke the mask of anger that was his face. He hadn’t planned for this. People were supposed to be terrified, not volunteer. “Shoot me,” she repeated. He peered over Laura’s shoulder at Andy, then looked back. “Do it,” Laura said. “You only have one bullet left. You know that. There are only six bullets in the gun.” She held up her hands showing four fingers on her left hand, one on her right. “It’s why you haven’t pulled the trigger yet. There’s only one bullet left.” “You don’t know—” “Only one more.” She waved her thumb, indicating the sixth bullet. “When you shoot me, my daughter will run out of here. Right, Andy?” What? “Andy,” her mother said. “I need you to run, darling.” What? “He can’t reload fast enough to hurt you.” “Fuck!” the man screamed, trying to get his rage back. “Be still! Both of you.” “Andy.” Laura took a step toward the gunman. She was limping. A tear in her linen pants was weeping blood. Something white stuck out like bone. “Listen to me, sweetheart.” “I said don’t move!” “Go through the kitchen door.” Laura’s voice remained steady. “There’s an exit in the back.” What? “Stop there, bitch. Both of you.” “You need to trust me,” Laura said. “He can’t reload in time.” Mom. “Get up.” Laura took another step forward. “I said, get up.” Mom, no. “Andrea Eloise.” She was using her Mother voice, not her Mom voice. “Get up. Now.” Andy’s body worked of its own volition. Left foot flat, right heel up, fingers touching the ground, a runner at the block. “Stop it!” The man jerked the gun toward Andy, but Laura moved with it. He jerked it back and she followed the path, blocking Andy with her body. Shielding her from the last bullet in the gun. “Shoot me,” Laura told the man. “Go ahead.” “Fuck this.” Andy heard a snap. The trigger pulling back? The hammer hitting the bullet? Her eyes had squeezed closed, hands flew to cover her head. But there was nothing. No bullet fired. No cry of pain. No sound of her mother falling dead to the ground. Floor. Ground. Six feet under. Andy cringed as she looked back up. The man had unsnapped the sheath on the hunting knife. He was slowly drawing it out. Six inches of steel. Serrated on one side. Sharp on the other. He holstered the gun, tossed the knife into his dominant hand. He didn’t have the blade pointing up the way you’d hold a steak knife but down, the way you’d stab somebody. Laura asked, “What are you going to do with that?” He didn’t answer. He showed her. Two steps forward. The knife arced up, then slashed down toward her mother’s heart. Andy was paralyzed, too terrified to ball herself up, too shocked to do anything but watch her mother die. Laura stuck out her hand as if she could block the knife. The blade sliced straight into the center of her palm. Instead of collapsing, or screaming, Laura’s fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife. There was no struggle. The murderer was too surprised. Laura wrenched the knife away from his grip even as the long blade was still sticking out of her hand. He stumbled back. He looked at the knife jutting out of her hand. One second. Two seconds. Three. He seemed to remember the gun on his hip. His right hand reached down. His fingers wrapped around the handle. The silver flashed on the muzzle. His left hand swung around to cup the weapon as he prepared to fire the last bullet into her mother’s heart. Silently, Laura swung her arm, backhanding the blade into the side of his neck. Crunch, like a butcher cutting a side of beef. The sound had an echo that bounced off the corners of the room. The man gasped. His mouth fished open. His eyes widened. The back of Laura’s hand was still pinned to his neck, caught between the handle and the blade. Andy saw her fingers move. There was a clicking sound. The gun shaking as he tried to raise it. Laura spoke, more growl than words. He kept lifting the gun. Tried to aim. Laura raked the blade out through the front of his throat. Blood, sinew, cartilage. No spray or mist like before. Everything gushed out of his open neck like a dam breaking open. His black shirt turned blacker. The pearl buttons showed different shades of pink. The gun dropped first. Then his knees hit the floor. Then his chest. Then his head. Andy watched his eyes as he fell. He was dead before he hit the ground.

.

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