I straddled my wife on the bed, rolling the muscles of my abdomen in an out and making a mouth out of my belly button by squeezing the skin around it.
“What’s the matter, baby? You know you want to kiss me,” I deepened my voice, comically giving the obscured body part a voice of its own.
“You’re such a goofball!” Sara squealed and playfully smacked my bare chest.
“Oww!” The deep voice whined. I fell to my side. “You got me ... I’m dying!”
I felt a soft finger trail my side, causing a sensation I could not ignore for long. I held my breath, pinched my eyes, then burst into a delightful howl. “Okay – okay! I give up!”
“Wuss.” Withdrawing her playful attack, Sara fell back on the bed, rested her hands on her belly and exhaled a contented sigh. “I love you, Sean.”
I braced the weight of my body on an elbow and gazed at her. Oh, I never could get enough of staring into those eyes – so blue and I knew every turquoise speckle that made the shade change with her mood.
She had been my wife for three weeks and I still thought I was dreaming. Our courting hadn’t been easy. We were forbidden to contact each other, forced to sneak away to enjoy fleeting moments until finally we defied both our fathers and followed our hearts.
I was a Gianetti, born into a family that enjoyed an endless supply of money obtained by dirty deeds and bloodied hands. My father said that Sara and her family were beneath us. Uniting our families brought no benefits and Sara’s father, a usually understanding Christian man, uncharacteristically shunned me from the moment my name escaped Sara’s lips. I couldn’t blame him. My name alone stood for pain and suffering. But Sara didn’t care who my family was. She never judged me like the rest of Jenithiyah and oh, how I fell in love with her for that.
When we were together no one else in the world existed. The world vanished and we were deaf to the people who chided and berated. So, what we were barely adults. Anyone under twenty-one was considered a child in Jenithiyah and to me, it seemed far too long when I felt and worried about the things full-grown men thought about. I couldn’t stand waiting for that milestone. For the freedom to make my own choices – I’d carried a diamond ring in my pocket for months, deliberating an ultimatum; my father’s ways and his money – or Sara.
“Do you want to marry me or not?”
I’ll never forget how stunned I was when she turned in her seat and said the words I’d been trying to get the nerve to say. In that instant, my choice was easy. All the money in Jenithiyah meant nothing if I had to deny my heart. I could not – and would not live without Sara.
“They’ll accept us once we’re married … They’d have to … right?” Her innocent hope refelecting through big eyes. “And we’ll be happy … Sean, I’m so miserable when we’re apart.”
“We’ll never be apart again.” I kissed her forehead. “I promise.”
Eloping was easy. We came from Demora, a city where everything and everybody moved fast. Where casinos stood tall and bright. Where anyone could get married on a whim. We chose a place just inside the city limits that resembled a church and rented a room across the street. We sat on the bed holding hands in silence. Staring at the clock. Waiting and hoping we weren’t found before midnight – when Sara officially turned twenty-one.
We had a small wedding. No fancy catering. No expensive flowers. No guests. The notary and his wife who owned the chapel were the only witnesses and despite the absence of the traditional fancy gown, no other woman was prettier. In ripped jeans, my white dress shirt and a single red rose in hand, Sara was breathtaking and as we promised our hearts to each other forever, I knew we had made the right choice.
“What are you thinking about?” Sara touched her hand to my cheek, bringing me back from the memory.
“Just thinking about how much I love this place.”
She sat up, cast her eyes on the splintered and faded hardwood floors, and then raised them to the yellowing wallpaper held by tacks in some places. “We live in a one-room apartment that smells like ... I have no clue what that smell is.” She laughed. “Oh yeah, this is much better than that palace you lived in.”
“So, light a candle.”
“It’s going to take more than scented candles to cure what reeks in here.”
“Any place is a palace when you live in it.”
No one who knew me understood why I had given up a sprawling mansion for the run-down apartment I’d rented in on the rough side of Demora. They didn’t understand how I could stand to be a mere gopher for a local construction company when I could have whatever I wanted handed to me - But one day they would get it. One day, when my friends gazed at the woman of their dreams and they would get it.
“This place is – heaven,” I sighed.
“You’re crazy,” she whispered and traced her fingers across my shoulders. My skin tightened and tingled with her touch.
“You like that about me,” I returned, wishing I could stay in that moment forever and I would have if only that damn alarm clock didn’t tattle the time from an old milk crate we used as a nightstand. “I’ve got to take a shower before it’s too late,” I moaned, slid to the edge of the mattress and placed my feet on the floor.
Sara giggled and I knew it was because I looked odd crouched on the edge of our frameless bed with knees level to my chest.
“Why don’t you join me?”
“Always a flirt,” Sara teased. “I’ll pass. It’s too small and you nearly fell out last time we tried that.”
“If you change your mind, you know where I’ll be.” I kissed her cheek, then touched my forehead to hers, gently played with a strand of her long, ebony hair. “I love you.”
She sighed her satisfaction, giving me one of those sweet smiles that meant she was happy – happy with me.
Reluctantly, I made my way to the small bathroom, pausing for one more look. That was the hardest part of my life – leaving her side to go to work.
She touched the tips of her forefingers to her lips, flattening her hand and blew the kiss my way. “You’re going to be late for work.”
I had to hurry to take my shower. Damn. It seemed always waited until the last minute. It was so hard to pull myself from my wife’s arms, but I had to provide for her too. Even though I despised my job. I hated being bossed around by a beer gutted old fool, who treated me like a freeloader. Like each check he signed was a loan he’d so graciously given – Damn it, I worked my ass off – I earned every dime – I ached and bled -- But any job is better than the family business. I just wish I didn’t have to remind myself of that multiple times a day – pretty much anytime the boss pushed my buttons.
It was all going to be different some day. I was going to have that man’s job. I was going to buy Sara a nice home. One with a picket fence in a nice neighborhood. We were going to fill the rooms with children –
The sound of wood splintering and crashing interrupted my thoughts.
“Sean!” Sara screamed in a high-pitched, heart-stopping tone.
“Stay on the bed!” A man’s voice echoed from the larger room.
I nearly slipped on wet tile getting to the door.
The intruder stood frozen in opposite door frames with eyes wide.
“Jacob?” I could not believe what I was seeing. My best friend – and he stood with a nine millimeter aimed at my wife. “This ain’t funny man!” But something told me this wasn’t one of his jokes.
Jacob shook his head slowly and gaped with tear-filled eyes. “You’re not supposed to be home, man.”
“Jacob, don’t do this,” Sara pleaded and made a desperate shift toward me.
I reached for her hand.
“Don’t move!” Jacob murmured. He waved his gun. “I’m dead serious!” His whole body shook, rendering his gun hand unstable. “Sara – I’m …” He choked on his words and shifted his brown eyes from one of us to the other. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed with glassy eyes.
“Put the gun down. It’s not worth it,” I softly tried to reason, inching closer to the bed.
“I can’t, Sean.” A heartsick moan escaped his lips.
“Yes, you can. Just put it down and we will forget all about it. We can run away – all of us – we’ll hide together.”
“You know better than that ... Sean! They ordered ... She’s the mark ... It has to be done!”
“Jacob.” Sara pleaded with a man she thought she could trust. “You’re our friend.”
“Don’t look at me, Sara.” Tears fell freely, streaking Jacob’s cheeks. “Please! Just turn away.”
I stared helplessly at Sara, begging on her knees, clutching a sheet to cover herself. Her fearful expression broke my heart. This is what her father feared. This was why he wanted me to stay away from her.
Maybe if I could get closer. Jacob was twig compared to me. He was tall and gangly and I knew I could easily overpower him, then talk some sense into him – if I could just get near enough.
“I said don’t move!” Jacob paced. Touched the gun to his head. He was using. I believed he was high then. He wouldn’t be debating what to do if he were sober.
I took another step. He pointed the gun at Sara again and I retreated. The guy was out of his mind.
I glanced at a spot beneath the mattress where I hid my own weapon – The only secret I had ever kept from my wife. I inched, hoping Sara could hold the assassin’s attention long enough for me to obtain it. Once I had it, Jacob would relent.
“Jacob you’re better than this,” Sara cried. “Just walk away – walk away from it all.”
“Sara,” Jacob’s cracked voice uttered. “Don’t you get it? It’s you – or it’s me.” I saw that softened glint cloud his eyes. The gun slightly lowered.
I took advantage and dove, snatching my pistol.
Jacob turned his aim to me.
“This bullet’s not meant for you, Sean!”
“You know how deadly my aim is Jacob. Don’t make me shoot you!”
“You know, I always knew you’d let this chick come between us.” Jacob’s head turned side to side in disbelief. “I told you not to piss off your old man! Now, look what you’ve done! To all of us!”
With a heavy heart, I pulled that hammer. Refusing to forfeit. “Think about what you’re doing – friend.”
Jacob’s gaze returned to Sara. “Forgive me?” He squeezed the trigger but fumbled. His normal mistake of forgetting the safety bought just enough time.
Sara screamed. The shot echoed.
Jacob clutched his chest with one hand. He stared at the wound with an expression of sorrowful surprise.
In a whirlwind, fate had dealt us all a raw hand. A moment scarcely longer than a heartbeat left our lives utterly destroyed. The intruder laid motionless on the faded hardwood floor, just steps inside our door.
“Why?” It was the first and last time my gun hand ever shook. “Why didn’t you just put the gun down?” The gun dropped from my hand and I fell to my knees, unable to dismiss years of friendship. I cradled his head in my lap and shared his horror.
“I had ... I had ... to,” Jacob gurgled. “It’s ...not ... but ... yours ... too.” Jacob’s last breath escaped him and his eyes glazed. His sputtering dwindled and his lips no longer quivered. It was over.
I trembled and rocked my buddy. The one who had been by my side since we were ten years old. What happened didn’t make sense, no matter how hard I tried to rationalize it.
A moan distracted my grief and it hit me. Sara had not spoken. The room had been quiet. Too quiet.
“Sara?” I scrambled to my feet and felt all the blood drain. Sara’s olive complexion appeared pale. Her eyes distant.
I fell to the mattress and cupped her face in my hands. “Baby, look at me.” I inspected her body. Warm crimson trickled down her naked body from the hole in her side and stained white sheets. She opened, then closed her mouth. The pain, seemingly so intense she could not control any other function. I’d pulled the trigger too late.
“Don’t leave me, Sara,” I begged hysterically.
Her breathing stilled. “Please! Stay with me!”
A veil of darkness draped over our love that day, taking her soul, irreparably scarring mine and forbidding our earthly hearts from ever again beating as one.
I scowled at Jacob’s lifeless body as a painful scream flew from my lips. Sara was all I had. All I wanted and he’d taken her with him! And I still didn’t understand why.
I lost it. My body shook. I embraced Sara, caressed her silky hair. My kisses mixed with my tears on her soft skin as I begged for my own heart to stop beating.
The police arrived quickly. Only moments had transpired since Jacob had kicked in our door even though it had seemed like an eternity to me.
The first man to enter gazed at the lifeless form, laying in his own blood in my home. His gaze met mine. A furious hatred turned his normally soft eyes cold. “Put your hands up!” He growled with malice, holding his gun in an authoritative form. One foot at a time, he approached cautiously until he noticed my weapon discarded beside Jacob.
He tore me from my wife. Slammed my head into the soft bedding and read me my rights.
“Take it, easy.” His partner warned. “Cornell’s on his way.”
“Screw Cornell!” The blond-headed cop, a man I knew, tightened handcuffs around my wrists tight.
But I didn’t feel them cutting the skin. I was numb. No longer a big tough guy. I was broken. Shattered with tears falling in streams down my cheeks.
“Look what you’ve done!” He bellowed, snatched a handful of hair, and jerked me to my feet. “Look, Gianetti! I told my mother you were nothing but trouble!”
The room was swamped with suits and badges as if they had materialized from the faded woodwork. Where the hell had they been ten minutes before? Where? I wanted to scream as I was dragged away. But it was all a blur. I didn’t speak. I didn’t explain. I let them drag me away, my eyes on Sara until the last possible second.
I stared at a small wedding band I rolled between my fingers. I often think about that day. Ten years had passed and those last moments were the only memories of Sara I could remember in full detail. I couldn’t forget the fear in her eyes, the tear that rolled down her cheek and the soft smile she had managed for me just as her last breath escaped her trembling lips. The joy, as well as the pain of that day, haunts me.
I dropped the ring on the table in front of me and stood up. I brought a glass of whiskey to my lips, took a sip. Sara’s smile flashed. It was my fault.
I screamed a deep wail of pain and threw the glass against the wall. My breath caught in my throat as I stared at the liquor stained wall and shattered shards of glass on the floor that mimicked my life.
The grandfather clock chimed and I glared at the tall object. Time was a cruel joke, ticking by so slowly even though it already knew what the future held.