“Oh, please.” Beth is starting to sound exasperated. “You know Julian is fucking crazy about you. Whenever I talk to him, it’s Nora this, Nora that . . . Does Nora need anything? Has Nora been eating well?” She lowers her voice comically, mimicking Julian’s deeper tones.
I grin at her. “Really? I didn’t know this.” And I didn’t. I mean, I knew that Julian is crazy about fucking me—and he definitely admitted to a certain obsession with me because of my resemblance to Maria—but I didn’t know I was this much on his mind outside of the bedroom.
Beth rolls her eyes. “Yeah, right. You’re not nearly as naive as you pretend to be. I’ve seen you batting those long lashes at him over dinner, trying to wrap him around your little finger.”
I give her my best wide-eyed-innocent look. “What? No!”
“Uh-huh.” Beth doesn’t seem fooled in the least.
She’s right, of course; I do flirt with Julian. Now that I’m no longer quite so afraid of my captor, I am again doing my best to get into his good graces. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there is a persistent hope that if he trusts me enough—if he cares for me enough—he might take me off the island.
When this plan had first occurred to me—in those terrifying first few days of my captivity—I had been playacting. As soon as I found myself off the island, I would’ve done my best to escape, regardless of any promises I might’ve made. Now, however, I don’t even know what I would do if Julian took me with him. Would I try to leave him? Do I even want to leave him? I honestly have no idea.
“Have you ever been in love?” I ask Beth, picking up my brush again.
To my surprise, a dark shadow passes over her face. “No,” she says curtly. “Never.”
“But you have loved . . . someone, right?” I don’t know what makes me ask that, but I’ve apparently touched a nerve, because Beth’s entire body tightens, like I just struck her a blow.
To my surprise, however, instead of snapping at me, she just nods. “Yes,” she says quietly. “Yes, Nora, I have loved.” Her eyes are unnaturally bright, as though glittering with unspilled moisture.
And I realize then that she’s suffering—that whatever happened to her had left deep, indelible scars on her psyche. Her thorny exterior is just a mask, a way to protect herself from further hurt. And right now, for whatever reason, that mask has slipped, exposing the real woman underneath.
“What happened to this person?” I ask, my voice soft and gentle. “What happened to the one you loved?”
“She died.” Beth’s tone is expressionless, but I can sense the bottomless well of agony in that simple statement. “My daughter died when she was two.”
I inhale sharply. “I’m sorry, Beth. Oh God, I’m so sorry . . .” Setting down my brush again, I walk over to Beth’s couch and sit down, putting my arms around her.
At first, she’s stiff and rigid, as though not used to human contact, but she doesn’t push me away. She needs this right now; I know better than anyone how soothing a warm embrace can be when your emotions are all over the place. Julian delights in making me fall apart, so he can then be the one to mend me and put me back together.
“I am sorry,” I repeat softly, rubbing her back in a slow circular motion. “I am so sorry.”
Gradually, some of the tension drains out of Beth’s body. She lets herself be soothed by my touch. After a while, she seems to regain her equilibrium, and I let her go, not wanting her to feel awkward about the hug.
Scooting back a bit, she gives me a small, embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, Nora. I didn’t mean to—”
“No, it’s all right,” I interrupt. “I’m sorry I was prying. I didn’t know—”
And then we both look at each other, realizing that we could apologize until the end of time and it wouldn’t change anything.
Beth closes her eyes for a second, and when she opens them, her mask is firmly back in place. She’s my jailer again, as independent and self-contained as ever.
“Dinner?” she asks, getting up.
“Some of this morning’s catch would be great,” I say casually, walking over to put away my art supplies.
And we continue on, as though nothing had happened.
After that day, my relationship with Beth undergoes a subtle, but noticeable change. She’s no longer quite so determined to keep me out, and I slowly get to know the person behind the prickly walls.
“I know you think you got a rough deal,” she says one day as we’re fishing together, “but believe me, Nora, Julian really does care about you. You’re very lucky to have someone like him.”
“Because no matter what he’s done, Julian is not really a monster,” Beth says seriously. “He doesn’t always act in a way that society deems acceptable, but he’s not evil.”
“No? Then what is evil?” I’m genuinely curious how Beth defines the word. To me, Julian’s actions are the very epitome of something an evil man might do—my stupid feelings for him notwithstanding.
“Evil is someone who would murder a child,” Beth says, staring at the bright blue water. “Evil is someone who would sell his thirteen-year-old daughter to a Mexican brothel . . .” She pauses for a second, then adds, “Julian is not evil. You can trust me on that.”