“Wait . . . What?” I stare at him in disbelief. “Are you crazy? Do you know what you were up against? There’s no way you could’ve done anything—”
“I should’ve still tried.” Jake’s voice is heavy with guilt. “I should’ve done something, anything . . .”
I reach out across the table, impulsively covering his hand with my own. “No,” I say firmly. “You’re in no way to blame for this.” I can see Leah out of the corner of my eye; she’s twiddling with her phone and trying to pretend she’s not here. I ignore her. I need to convince Jake that he didn’t screw up, to help him move past this.
His skin is warm under my fingers, and I can feel the vibrating tension within him. “Jake,” I say softly, holding his gaze, “nobody could’ve prevented this. Nobody. Julian has—had—the kind of resources that would make a SWAT team jealous. If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s mine. You got dragged into this because of me, and I am truly sorry.” I’m apologizing for more than that night in the park, and he knows it.
“No, Nora,” he says quietly, his brown eyes filled with shadows. “You’re right. It’s his fault, not ours.” And I realize that he’s offering me absolution, too—that he also wants to free me from my guilt.
I smile and squeeze his hand, silently accepting his forgiveness.
I wish I could forgive myself so easily, but I can’t.
Because even now, as I sit there holding Jake’s hand, I can’t stop loving Julian.
No matter what he had done.
“You know, I think he’s still really into you,” Leah says as she drives me home. “I’m surprised he didn’t ask you out right then and there.”
“Ask me out? Jake?” I give her an incredulous stare. “I’m the last girl he’d want to date.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she says thoughtfully. “You guys might’ve only been on one date, but he was seriously depressed when you disappeared. And the way he was looking at you tonight . . .”
I let out a nervous laugh. “Leah, please, that’s just crazy. Jake and I have a complex history. He wanted closure tonight, that’s all.” The idea of dating Jake—of dating anyone—feels strange and foreign. In my mind, I still belong to Julian, and the thought of letting another man touch me makes me inexplicably anxious.
“Yeah, closure, right.” Leah’s voice is dripping with sarcasm. “The entire evening he was staring at you like you’re the hottest thing he’s ever seen. It’s not closure he wants from you, I guarantee that.”
“No, seriously,” Leah says, glancing at me as she stops at a stoplight. “You should go out with him. He’s a great guy, and I know you liked him before . . .”
I look at her, and the urge to make her understand wars with my deep-seated need to protect myself. “Leah, that was before,” I say slowly, deciding to disclose some of the truth. “I’m not the same person now. I can’t date a guy like Jake . . . not after Julian.”
She falls silent, turning her attention back to the road as the light changes to green.
When she stops in front of my apartment building, she turns toward me. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “That was stupid and inconsiderate of me. You seem so okay that I forgot for a moment . . .” She swallows, tears glistening in her eyes. “If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here for you—you know that, right?”
I nod, giving her a smile. I’m lucky to have a friend like her, and someday soon, I may take her up on her offer. But not yet—not while I feel so raw and shredded inside.
The next few weeks crawl by at a snail’s pace. I exist moment to moment, taking it one day at a time. Every morning, I write out a list of tasks that I want to accomplish that day and diligently adhere to it, no matter how much I may want to crawl under my bed covers and never come out.
Most of the time, my lists include mundane activities, such as eating, running, going to work, doing grocery shopping, and calling my parents. Occasionally, I add more ambitious projects as well, such as applying to college for the spring semester—which I do, as I told Leah I would.
I also sign up for shooting lessons. To my surprise, I turn out to be pretty good at handling a gun. My instructor says I’m a natural, and I start doing research on what I need to do to acquire a firearms license in Illinois. I also tackle self-defense classes and start learning a few basic moves to protect myself. I will never be able to win against someone like Julian and the men who took me and Beth, but knowing how to shoot and fight makes me feel better, more in control of my life.
Between all those new activities, my work, and my art, I’m too busy to socialize, which suits me just fine. I’m not in the mood to make new friends, and all of my old ones are away.
Jake and Leah are both back at Michigan. He pings me on Facebook, and we chat a few times. He doesn’t ask me out, though.
I’m glad. Even if he wasn’t going to college three-and-a-half hours away, it would never work out between us. Jake is smart enough to realize that nothing good could ever come out of getting involved with someone like me—someone who, for all intents and purposes, is still Julian’s captive.
I dream of him almost every night. Like an incubus, my former captor comes to me in the dark, when I’m at my most vulnerable. He invades my mind as ruthlessly as he once took my body. When I’m not reliving his death, my dreams are disturbingly sexual. I dream of his mouth, his cock, his hands. They’re everywhere, all over me, inside me. I dream of his terrifyingly beautiful smile, of the way he used to hold and caress me.