Shane was still sprawled out over the couch when I woke up the next morning at 10 o’clock. It was still so early that it would be really mean of me to kick him out, but late enough that I was stuck alone with him since Conner and Lea were at work.
I peeked out the front door to see how much snow fell. The sidewalk was already shoveled, the streets were plowed and a light feathery snow was gently falling. I grabbed the mail and decided instead of running that I’d just make coffee and curl up and play my guitar. Then I would tackle my laundry.
I threw the mail on the kitchen table, barely noticing the one piece of mail addressed to me. Maybe, the size of the envelope was what made me look twice at it. It wasn’t normal size; a bit larger and thicker than the rest. It might have been the color, a creamy peach that struck a chord with me. Whichever, I picked it up and walked into my room. I stuck my head in to check on Shane; he was still out cold.
Sitting down on my bed, I glanced quickly at the return address on the letter. It was from the hospice. I ripped open the envelope and unfolded a handwritten letter. Another smaller envelop slid out and fell to the floor. Bending down, I picked up the fallen envelope and read the name on the front; Gracie. It was in Jacob’s handwriting.
My knees buckled and I sat heavily on the floor, leaning against my bed. I read the unfolded letter first. I think that’s what was meant for me to do, since the other letter was still sealed. It was from one of Jake’s doctors, Doctor Slaterman, whom Jacob seemed to grow very fond of while staying at the hospice.
I never got to give my condolences to you before you left. First and foremost, I wanted to write that we held a small memorial for your brother, recalling how full of love and life he was, and how amazing he was with all the other patients. What started out as a small gathering in the common room turned into a significant event. I know that Jacob did not want a funeral or wake for his passing, but I felt we needed to celebrate Jacob, the patient we had for the longest period, who fought the hardest against his disease.
Before Jacob passed, he spoke privately with me, asking me to give you the letter from him that I have enclosed.
I hope all is well with you, Grace. The patients and staff here miss your nightly musical tributes for your brother. Our halls have never been more silent.
Martin Slaterman, MD.
Cradling Jacob’s letter in my arms I promised myself that I would record a few pieces of music on a CD for the patients there. Looking down again at Jake’s handwriting, I traced the letters with my fingers.
As I opened it, tears spilled from my eyes. How death takes everyone away, leaving me here, knowing where everyone goes, and knowing I would never be welcomed there; this is hell.
So, I guess I’m a goner. I wish I could have stayed with you longer, but I couldn’t fight anymore, and for that, I am sorry.
I want you to know that because of you, I was not scared. I knew that there was a heaven and that I will make it my mission to get you there one day too.
After your accident, when we lost Mom and Dad and I almost lost you, I really thought you were crazy. I thought that you had major brain damage from the accident, but your doctors assured me that your head was the only thing that was not injured. It took me months, maybe years to see finally that my little sister did really die with my parents in that accident and your soul stayed. But Gracie, I’m happy that you were here and I was honored with the chance to have you in my life, because without you, I would have died with my diagnoses. You showed me what faith and what love was and if I can do anything where I am now to help you end your punishment, I will.
I love you, Gracie. I promise you that I will see you again one day.
I folded the note back up so no one could see it. I didn’t know if anyone who read it would understand what Jake had implied, but I couldn’t chance it. Lea was the only other person who knew my secret. They were the only two people I had ever told about my past. The reason was simple; this was the hardest life I had fallen into.
Usually, I fell into someone older who lingered on for a short amount of time. When they passed on, I would end up a lost soul in another shell. I’d lost so many people, and I’d suffered so many sicknesses and diseases, it was beyond count. I once woke up in a woman who had been attacked by a rapist. She was lucky enough to die in the beginning of his torture. Me? My soul showed up for the whole show. I begged him to kill me when he was done with her body and he did; slowly.
Each time that I could take no more of a person’s life, I would take too many pills, or forget to take certain medicine, or like in this life, slice my wrists open when I was sixteen. I don’t condone suicide, but really is it? These beautiful souls have gone and I’m just shoved into their rotting bodies. My own personal hell, a lost soul on earth for eternity.
Jacob once asked me if I was a ghost. I told him that I didn’t know. I’m more of just a lost spirit, wandering around looking for the other half of me.
This was the only life that I had lived through ending it. Gabriel once said that maybe it was because he was here with me somewhere. Gabriel. I think I’m his personal play thing, I think this is his sick experiment on how much an angel’s heart can take before it turns its wings on the love of a human.
Two hours later, Shane’s soft touch on my shoulder woke me. I had fallen asleep clutching Jacob’s words. My face was still damp from tears and it hurt to blink them.
“Grace? What’s wrong, are you sick?”
I sat up, the papers crinkling noisily around me. “I’m fine. How are you?” I asked curtly.
His muscular arm reached up, running his hand through his hair, a lost confused expression on his face. “What the hell did I do last night?”
Laughter busted out of my mouth. “That’s great, Shane. No, really. That’s perfect. Why don’t you go home now, okay? Goodbye,” I snapped. Jerk. I still felt the heat of his touch on me!
He stood there deep in thought, seemingly trying to remember any information from the night before. “Grace, I know we didn’t, did we?”
I grabbed up all the loose papers around me, got up, shoved them into a drawer, and stormed out of my room. I slammed the door in his face, but he just swung it right back open.
I bolted into the kitchen and he was right behind me. I honestly thought about getting a sharp knife out of one of the drawers to scare him. He grabbed me by one arm and swung me around. My heart pounded hard and I could feel my pulse in my wrists.
“What did I do? Why have you been crying?” He asked with a soft sad expression. His face leaned in so close to me that I felt his breath on my skin.
“You didn’t do anything, Shane. You called me last night. You thought I was with Ethan. I hung up on you and you climbed up the fire escape in the snow, with no coat on and banged on my window until I let you in. Now please, just leave.”
“No.” He shook his head vehemently. “No. I’m not leaving until I know I’m not the reason you’re crying.” He stopped talking and looked me intensely in the eyes. “You were wearing a sheet? You…you got me dry clothes,” he said, remembering.
“No big deal, see?”
“No big deal? I leaned you up against a wall; I can still taste your skin on my mouth. I can still feel your body against mine.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything to say. What he just said was so intoxicating that I didn’t want to say anything to make him do it again, or make him not want to.
Gently, he took my wrists in both his hands skimming his thumbs against my scars once more. My heart sped up from his touch. I turned my head away from him; waiting for the insensitive questions people always asked when they noticed my scars. Did you just do it for attention? Did you have a plan? Was there a backup plan? Will you try it again since you failed the first time? Instead, his soft gentle voice asked, “Why were you crying this morning?”
Dragging my hands away from his touch, I let them fall limply to my sides. “I received a letter in the mail today from the hospice where Jacob passed away. Inside was a letter that he had written for me before he died. It was just hard to read it.”
Taking my hands tenderly in his, his breath caught. “Grace...”
The way he said my name made me ache. It shattered my already broken heart to dust. The tears came, streaming like rain down my cheeks. Shane pulled me into his arms and I fell into him. He gently stroked my hair as I let my sadness overtake me.
He held me until my tears stopped. I looked up at him, and smiled weakly, “I’m sorry, Shane.”
I tried to move away from him, but he gently held me tighter. He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against mine. It felt like last night all over. Only this time, he wasn’t drunk.
He raised his head, just enough to look into my eyes, and breathed in softly. His blue eyes were captivating. He held himself there, almost touching my lips; just a soft breath between them. I watched the inner struggle in his eyes as they looked down longingly to my lips. Then, meeting my gaze again, he closed his eyes and trembled. He inhaled deeply and stepped back; my disobedient body followed. I had to ball my fists and force myself to stand my ground. There was no way someone could have this effect over my body; it was insane; it was mortifying.
The shrill ringing of the doorbell made us both jump. I gave him a small tight smile, thinking of the horrible mistake I could have just thrown myself into. I backed away.
“Please don’t be sorry, Grace,” his words were soft and gentle. “I am your friend and I’m here if you need to talk about anything or need a shoulder to cry on.”
The doorbell continued ringing like a screaming child wanting attention in the background.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
I spun around to walk towards the front door.
“Especially if that’s the only way I’ll ever get to hold you,” he whispered. I didn’t think it was meant for me to hear, but I looked back to acknowledge it anyway. He was looking up at the ceiling, running both his hands through his hair. No, it wasn’t meant for me to hear, which made it all the more dangerous.
I opened the door to two men in suits with gold police shields held out in front of them. “Good afternoon. We’re detectives from the 19th precinct. We’re looking for a Grace Taylor.” Shane was behind me immediately.
“I’m Grace Taylor. How may I help you?”
“Miss Taylor, may we come in. We need to speak to you about the incident with Carl Sumpton.”
I waved both the detectives in and showed them to the living room, shoving Shane’s makeshift bed things over so we all had room to sit. “I’m sorry, Detectives, but I’m not sure who Carl Sumpton is, unless you are referring to the man who attacked me in Boozer’s late Wednesday night?”
Neither of them sat down.
Shane quietly exited the room.
The older detective, who was without a doubt the thinnest man I had ever met, introduced himself as Detective Allens and he pulled a file folder out of his soft leather briefcase. Placing it on the coffee table, he opened its contents and Carl Sumpton’s arrest picture stared back on me. Smiling menacingly for the camera was the man who attacked me.
Sitting down on the edge of the couch, I leaned forward and touched the image on the paper. “Carl Sumpton? I hadn’t been told his name.”
The second detective, who I’d estimate to be around thirty, sat down on one of the chairs. He folded his hands on his lap and leaned forward, golden brown eyes serious, yet cautious.
“Miss Taylor, I’m Detective Ramos. Had you ever had contact with Carl Sumpton before?”
“No. That was the first time I’d ever seen him. Although, now that I look at his face without him trying to throw himself on me, he does look kind of familiar.” I sighed.
Shane returned with a few bottles of water and offered them to the detectives. “I can make coffee if you’d like,” he said.
Detective Ramos accepted the water from Shane, “Thank you. I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.” He twisted off the top of the bottle and sipped the water, waiting for Shane to reply.
Shane gave him one of his heart stopping smiles and held out his hand to shake the Detective’s hand. “That’s because I never said it. I’m Shane Maxton.” He sat down next to me, placing a water bottle on the table in front of me with one hand. The other he placed on the small of my back, letting me know he was there for me. I wanted to melt into his touch.
Detective Ramos shifted in his seat and continued. “You’re the one who helped to stop the attack.” It wasn’t a question.
Shane smiled at me, gently rubbing my back with his hand. I clamped my mouth shut, afraid that the butterflies that were wreaking havoc in my belly would fly out of my mouth and attack Shane at any moment. “Grace was doing a pretty good job of defending herself. I think she would have taken care of him all by herself if I hadn’t get there in time, but I’m confused. We already spoke with the arresting officers at the hospital that night. Has something changed?”
Detective Ramos and Allens shared a glance. Then the older man nodded his head and Detective Ramos looked to Shane and me with a somber expression. “After Mr. Sumpton was arraigned, he was remanded and housed in Riker’s. We don’t know how it happened, but he was put in his cell at 1400 hours and at the evening head count after the meal he wasn’t accounted for.” He hesitated for a moment, letting the news sink in. “The cell was still locked when they went to feed him. No one understands how he escaped, since the cell hadn’t been opened since his arrival. Furthermore, when questioned, none of the other prisoners even remembered seeing him inside his cell.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and the pressure in Shane’s hands became tighter on my back, holding me steady. “Like he just vanished?”
Detective Ramos gave me a tight smile. “No. Most likely, he found some way out with help from someone on the outside of the cell. He probably terrified the other prisoners so badly that they pretended to see nothing. He was a monster when they brought him in. They needed a few corrections officers to settle him down when he was left in his cell, but there’s an even more disturbing part,” he explained.
I nodded for the detective to continue. What could be more disturbing than telling me the guy who attacked me could be roaming around the streets of New York City ready to attack another girl?
“When we ran his name through our system, nothing came up. Investigating further, we found him to be an outstanding citizen until the last five months or so.”
Shane looked curiously at the Detective; asking the question that was formulating in my head. “What happened five months ago?”
Taking a deep breath, Detective Allens stepped forward to answer, “He was admitted to the Sans de Barron Hospice; he was terminal. His doctors had given him only a few weeks to live. He’d been comatose and unresponsive for weeks, then sometime last Sunday, he just walked out of the hospice. Am I right in saying that you had been living at the hospice with your brother Jacob for approximately six months?”
I swallowed hard and nodded a yes. “There must be a mistake though. The man that attacked me, there was no way that he could have been that strong and dying of some disease at the same time. Maybe the guy stole the real Carl Sumpton’s identity or something.”
The detectives both shook their heads in agreement, but their expressions never reached their eyes. They had their own theories and they weren’t going to share it with us.
Detective Ramos cleared his throat and continued, “When a perpetrator of a crime of this magnitude is arraigned, the District Attorney on the case usually requests a temporary order of protection to be issued to the victim. This is your copy of the order.” He placed another paper on the table from his briefcase. “I wanted to say that I’m sure this matter will be resolved soon.”
Shane’s hand was still on me. It was quickly kindling a fire under his fingertips. His features were angry. “And you think a piece of paper will stop this lunatic from trying to hurt Grace again? What should she do if he comes up to her when she’s walking down the street? Should she say, hold on let me look in my purse, here this piece of paper will stop you?”
I placed my hand on Shane’s knee and his eyes snapped to mine at the touch. “Stop it, Shane. I’m sure they will do everything they can to contain him again.” I looked at both the detectives. “Thank you both for coming here and telling me instead of calling me on the phone. I appreciate the paperwork and everything. Is there anything that you think I could do in the meantime, while you…um…work on this matter?”
“We understand your anxiety, Mr. Maxton. For the next twenty-four hours, there will be a uniformed officer sitting outside this apartment in a patrol car. Just be aware and keep your eyes open, Miss Taylor.”
After a few more words, I walked the detectives to the front door and locked the deadbolt.
Shane came up behind me and gently placed his hands on my shoulders. They felt strong and safe; I stepped away quickly. The last thing I needed was my head muddled from his touch. “I’m fine, Shane,” I snapped.
He stormed off down the hallway. “Yeah, well you definitely will be, because Conner and I are staying here with you and Lea until that asshole is behind bars again.”
Somehow, I thought that would prove to be more dangerous than Carl Sumpton trying to kill me.