Chapter 13 - Nate
I caught her.
Not that it did much fucking good. I should have insisted she use the front door. Hell, it was probably my fault the branch broke, too. I weighed more than her, and I’d used it every day for a week when her mom died, probably weakening it.
Everything happened in slow motion. I heard the branch crack, and saw her freeze. Then there was a snap and she was falling, screaming, her limbs flailing as she tumbled through leaves and branches.
Then there was a sharp crack of what sounded like wood on wood, and she fell terribly, deathly silent as she plummeted toward the earth.
I got beneath her, somehow, arms outstretched like an idiot. Her weight carried us both to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Her elbow struck me in the nose and I saw stars, every molecule of air crushed from my lungs as I landed on my back in the grass, her deadweight sprawled across my chest.
“Alex,” I choked, sitting up, cradling her head as her weight slid into my lap. Her eyes were closed and blood coated the side of her face, oozing from a terrifying gash on her temple. Her right arm flopped to the side, bent strangely between her elbow and her wrist, and white bone glistened.
“Alex wake up,” I pleaded, holding my hand beneath her nose. When a puff of warm air hit my skin I gasped out a sob of relief. She was alive. Still alive.
I scanned her body for further injuries, but the broken arm and the head wound seemed to be the extent of it. Not that those weren’t enough.
“Please, angel,” I said, slapping her cheek. “Please open your eyes.”
She didn’t. She remained limp and motionless in my arms, her breathing so slow and shallow I could barely see her chest rise and fall in the darkness. I pressed shaking, bloody fingers to her throat and her pulse hammered against my fingers, racing against time.
“What the-- Aly!”
I had lost all awareness of my surroundings when Alex fell, and hadn’t even noticed light spill out over the front lawn as the front porch light flipped on. I hadn’t heard the front door slam, or noticed her father circle around to the side yard. Startled, I looked up when I heard his voice and was blinded by a beam of light shining directly into my eyes.
“Get away from my daughter!” the older man yelled, stumbling towards us. As the stars cleared from my eyes, I saw that he was wielding a kitchen knife in one hand and a heavy flashlight in the other.
“She fell,” I tried to explain. “She hit her head. You need to--”
“I’ve called the police,” he snarled. “They’ll be here any second. Now get the hell away from my daughter.”
Part of me appreciated his ferocity. I saw a little of Alex in his glare. The middle-aged, pot-bellied preacher man raised his knife, ready to commit a cardinal sin to protect his daughter, and it almost made me smile. I’d tell her about this when she woke up. This aggressive display couldn’t make up for years of terrible parenting, but she deserved to know how much he loved her in a pinch.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll move.”
As slowly as I dared, and as gently as I could manage, I lowered Alex to the ground and backed away, hands held up by my head, as her father scrambled forward, dropping to his knees beside her.
He dropped the flashlight but hung on to the knife, brushing the hair off her face with his free hand and scanning her body as I had for injuries. He cried out when he saw her broken arm, his panicked tears splattering against her bare skin.
“What happened?” he moaned, bending over her, stroking her hair. “What happened?”
“She fell,” I tried to explain, but he cut me off with a glare, brandishing the knife.
“Stay back!” he ordered. “What did you do to her? What did you do?”
He was weeping openly, his body curled protectively over hers, and my dumbass brain finally caught up with his. I’d been so preoccupied with her fall and my own fear that I hadn’t even thought of what this must look like.
Her father had heard her scream and run outside. He’d found her, apparently beaten and bloodied, in the shadows by his house. He saw her scant clothing and sex-matted hair. He saw claw marks on my arms and neck, and my bleeding nose.
He saw his precious daughter, hurt and unconscious. He saw the man who had hurt her. Raped her. Done god-knows-what to her.
“Wait!” I said, shaking my head frantically. My body told me to run, but I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t leave Alex unconscious, bleeding into the grass. “You’ve got it wrong,” I said, dropping to my knees, trying to make myself as un-threatening as possible. “We’re together. We meet every night. She climbs in the window, but the branch broke. I didn’t hurt her. I swear to you, sir, I didn’t hurt her.”
But that wasn’t expressly true, and he didn’t seem inclined to listen. He just waved the knife at me and bent over his daughter, blind with the need to protect her. I respected him more in that moment than I ever had before.
Sirens screamed and flashing lights bounced off the walls of the house.
“We’re back here!” her father yelled, summoning two uniformed police officers who ran around the corner of the house, hands on their pistols. One of them saw Alex’s body and his eyes widened. He reached for the radio clipped to his lapel and called for an ambulance.
“He did this!” Alex’s father said, dropping the knife and jabbing his finger at me. I shoved to my feet, shaking my head, arms held up by my head.
“She fell,” I said frantically. “She fell. I didn’t… she fell.” I sounded ridiculous, and some intelligent part of me-- muffled by roaring panic-- told me everything would go smoother if I just shut up and let them take me. But if they took me, we would be separated. I wouldn’t be there when she opened her eyes. If she opened her eyes.
Panic spiked and I stumbled backwards. “I didn’t fucking hurt her!” I said, louder, as the two officers advanced. One of them pulled a Taser from his belt, but I hardly noticed it. My eyes were glued to Alex. A third officer had rounded the corner and was kneeling by her head, gently pushing the older man aside. He peeled her eyelids back, one by one, and shined a light in them.
“Get on the ground and put your hands behind your head,” yelled an officer, but I could barely hear them. The officer examining Alex frowned, and I didn’t know what that meant. Was he just a frowny kind of guy, or had his light-in-the-eyes assessment turned up something unsetting?
“Please let me stay with her,” I pleaded, unable to tear my eyes from Alex’s still form.
“Get on the fucking ground,” they told me.
Just then, Alex moved. She groaned, and her head rolled to the side, eyes cracking open. Suddenly it was just her and me. Her good arm twitched, reaching for me, and I staggered toward her, tears of relief breaking loose from my eyes and streaming down my face.
Then something bit into my arm and my chest, and the world turned gray and tipped sideways. A crackling sound clicked in rhythm with the muscle-locking agony that pulsed through every tendon and bone in my body. I hit the ground hard, unable to break my fall. My lungs refused to expand and my body twitched and jerked as pure fire clicked through me.
When the Taser finally stopped I was on my stomach with a bony knee in the small of my back and my arms pulled taut behind me. The familiar feel of cold steel on my wrists accompanied the buzz of locking handcuffs.
My head spun as they hauled me to my feet and ripped the Taser leads out of my skin. Alex was unconscious again, but I heard more sirens and knew the ambulance was on the way. I let the cops march me to the front yard and shove me in the back of a squad car. My left shoulder protested loudly, but I ignored it, pressing my forehead against the glass window and trying to make out what was happening as my two arresting officers jogged back to the side yard.
Flashing lights announced the ambulance’s arrival, and two uniformed medics appeared in my frame of view, dashing toward the side of the house, one of them carrying a backboard.
It felt like eternity before they reappeared, and in those eons my mind flashed through every nightmare scenario my corrupt imagination could conjure. I envisioned blood in her skull, pressing down on her brain until her heart forgot to beat. I envisioned horrific internal injuries that I hadn’t noticed, bleeding her dry from the inside. I envisioned her waking up and crying out in pain, searching for me, and thinking that I had abandoned her. I envisioned her lungs collapsing in her chest and her breathless gasping as she fought for air.
When a crowd of people rounded the corner of the house, I squinted in the dim morning light. Alex was strapped to a backboard, a brace around her neck and an oxygen mask over her face. Her eyes were closed, but her breath fogged the mask, and I let out a ragged breath of relief. The cops carried the backboard between them, while the paramedics scrambled into the ambulance and pulled out a stretcher. They secured her, backboard and all, on the stretcher and covered her with a blanket before wheeling her out of sight.
I leaned back against the seat as best I could with my arms twisted behind me. Alex was safe. She was in good hands. She would wake up with her teary-eyed father by her side and know that he cared about her. She’d be okay.
Nothing else mattered.
* * *
I’d been arrested before, but it was always for stupid shit. Shoplifting, fighting, crap like that. Criminals like me were a dime a dozen, and I fit like a beige couch into the decor of the crowded police station. Nobody looked at me twice.
Being arrested for rape and battery of a young girl, though? That gets you some attention. Special treatment, too, dished out in small, easy-to-deny increments.
The first offense were the handcuffs, which were painfully tight. They dug into my wrists hard enough to draw blood, which trickled over my hand and dripped off my fingers when they hauled me out of the car at the station.
The second treat came when I “fell” during the walk from the car to the exterior door of the station. Someone’s booted foot tangled with mine and I slammed into the pavement, concrete digging into my chin and drawing fresh blood. Neither officer spoke. They just hauled me to my feet and shoved me forward.
Everyone stopped and stared when they marched me through the station. An elderly women in a pink sweater-- a receptionist-- glared daggers at me. Detectives in plainclothes wrinkled their noses. Uniformed officers smirked at my scraped up face, probably recognizing common practice.
I wasn’t angry. If I really was a rapist who beat on women I’d deserve to get roughed up. The only issue was that I wasn’t a rapist, I’d never hit a woman, and I desperately needed to get out of here so I could find Alex and make sure she was okay.
They left me in an interview room with my arms still cuffed behind me. I tried to ask about Alex as the officers left, but they ignored me.
There was a clock beside the two-way mirror on the opposite wall. It was protected by a wire cage, bolted in place. Everything in the room was bolted down. The chairs, the table. The camera in the corner, blinking at me as it recorded my every breath.
The clock read 5:33 when the police officers left me alone. I watched that minute hand trace its full path three and a half times before the door finally opened again. A balding man in an off-white button up, stained khakis, and a thin brown tie marched through the door and planted himself in the chair across from me, dropping a yellow legal pad on the table between us. There was a badge on his belt and a compact firearm holstered at his side.
Not a lawyer.
The other officers had already read my rights and I’d been arrested enough times to know the drill. I didn’t have to say a thing, and I knew the smartest way forward would be silence.
I never claimed to be smart.
“Is Alex okay?” I blurted, my voice hoarse from thirst and disuse.
The investigator glared at me, the bald surface of his head shining in the fluorescent light.
“The young lady you assaulted is in serious condition,” he said sharply, jotting something down on the notepad as he spoke. “She has a concussion and the break in her arm will require surgery. She has defensive wounds, and it looks like she got in a few good blows before you managed to subdue her.” His eyebrows drew down and he met my eye, his gaze flinty. “Believe me when I say that we can and will bury you in forensic evidence, Mr. Reynolds. The best thing for you to do is cooperate fully with our investigation. If you’re honest with us from the start, you will likely be looking at a reduced sentence with the option of parole.”
That was bullshit. Smart-sounding bullshit, but bullshit all the same. He didn’t have the authority to reduce my sentence. He was just trying to get information. Fine.
“Alex and I are friends,” I said. “I would never hurt her.”
“You care to explain to me why your ‘friend,’” he put the word in air quotes and I wanted to cave his face in with my fists, “would punch you in the face?” He waved at my nose which had finally stopped oozing blood. With my hands locked behind me, I couldn’t wipe it away, and dried blood cracked and itched on my chin.
“I tried to catch her when she fell,” I growled. “Her elbow hit me.”
“What a hero,” the investigator said sarcastically, chuckling without humor. “What about all the marks?” He gestured at my neck, where her nails had scraped across my skin. “Did her cat scratch you up while you were rescuing it from a tree?”
No way in hell was I going to tell this asshole that my girl turned into a wildcat when I fucked her. Her nails had gouged deep grooves in my back and sides, and neck, and I didn’t mind a single bit. I fucking loved it.
“They’re unrelated,” I said lamely.
“I’m sure they are,” he said absently, annotating something on his notepad.
What followed was an hour of questioning. I tried to answer honestly, and stayed stubbornly silent for those questions I couldn’t answer without telling the asshole things he had no right to know.
He left after the hour, taking his notepad of scribbled condemnations with him.
Minutes turned back into hours. I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, and blood trickled slowly over my hands, dripping onto the tile floor. My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow. My nose throbbed, my shoulder ached, and every time I started to doze or daydream, an image of Alex’s lifeless face flashed in my vision.
Just after lunchtime, two new officers came into the room and hauled me off to booking. They uncuffed me to print my fingers, and if either of them took notice of the bloody grooves in my wrists, they didn’t mention it. I held the placard with my name and the jurisdiction of my arrest while they snapped my photo from the front and both sides.
Once they’d processed me, they took me back to the interview room. They cuffed my hands in front of me, though, which was a considerable kindness. One of them brought a styrofoam cup of water, too, which I guzzled the second they shut the door behind them.
I used the sleeve of my shirt to wipe the bulk of the blood from my face, and then settled in for the wait. The next person I saw was going to tell me about Alex, whether they wanted to or not.