“Runner” – a Short Story – Full Length by Will Write for Sanity

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RUNNER

By: Brandy Meredith / Will Write For Sanity

            Annabelle pressed her back against the damp brick-wall, closed her eyes, and attempted to regulate her breathing. The more she tried to be still and quiet, the more her body trembled and her breath wheezed out in long, hard huffs. She could hear the car approaching, and she pressed herself even tighter against the wall, hiding in the shadow of a ventilation duct that curved and twisted, seeming to slither up the side of the large office building. In a low, inaudible whisper she prayed the car would pass the alley without slowing.

If he stopped, Annabelle would be trapped.

The narrow alley was only a small slice in the towering Chicago skyline, and at the end, another brick wall loomed twenty stories above her. A row of rusted and beaten dumpsters that looked like they might once have been blue gaped at her, their lids propped open by overflowing trash. The only light came from the orange glow of the street lamps that cast a triangular pattern down the center of the pavement. As the car reached the gaping mouth of the alley and Annabelle held her breath, something wet and furry crawled across the top of her open-toed shoes. Squealing, she rapped the back of her head on the wall as she lurched forward out of the shadows toward the narrow slice of light. She quickly slammed her body back against the brick surface and stifled a cry, willing herself to disappear into the rough wall. Did he see her? Hear her? She could hear the car idling at the mouth of the alley. It was stopped, and she had just about decided to try scrambling up the ventilation duct when she heard the towncar pull away.

She wasn’t sure how long she waited after that– it felt like an hour but was probably only three or four minutes before she slowly made her way to the opening of the alley. Her willowy frame was still trembling, and the back of her pencil skirt and suit jacket were gritty from being pressed against the brick surface. The bun she had twisted her chestnut hair into that morning was soaked through. Stray strands were escaping and fleeing in various directions, dripping water down her face. Her small, elfin face was slate white except for a couple bright patches of pink burning her cheeks.

Heart still thundering, she cautiously peered around the corner and down the street. Her eyes were wild as they scanned the rows of cars parked along the curb. It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and the business district was a boneyard of steel and concrete, deserted and cold, and the image gave Annabelle a brief chill. Even the town-car was gone. “Thank God,” she thought. She shrugged out of her suit jacket and stuffed it into the briefcase that held her laptop and the real estate brochures for the properties she had shown earlier that afternoon. She freed her stringy, wet hair from the confines of the bun and shook it out until it hung loosely down her back. As far as disguises went, it was the best she could do.

Annabelle emerged from the alley like a chastised dog – head down, shoulders hunched, and eyes darting back and forth as she quickly made her way to the corner of Second Avenue and Main Street. Beyond that point, there would be more people, more open shops and bars, and she would only be two blocks from her apartment.

***

Her, would-be mundane Friday night had begun only twenty minutes ago.  Annabelle usually left work before six o’clock, but she had wanted to take care of some extra paperwork before clocking out for the long weekend. By the time she left work, it was almost eight o’clock. The office building was closed, and almost everyone else had gone home.

She didn’t mind working late. She was just homesick for the slow, lazy days of Mississippi. Somehow the people in Mississippi were able to accomplish just as much in an eight hour day while still taking their time and socializing with almost everyone they came in contact with along the way. In Chicago, Annabelle was lucky if she heard “how’s it going?” from one of the hundreds of people she saw throughout the day.

Her job in Bluebell, Mississippi had really only been a glorified receptionist’s position at the local health clinic. That was just the kind of job a business degree could get in a small town. She chuckled under her breath, remembering old Mrs. Finn. The woman brought her cat into the clinic at least once a month, swearing it was choking to death. After explaining to the old lady that Get-Well-n-Go was a “people clinic” and not a veterinarian’s office, Annabelle would assure her that Shelby (the cat) was just getting rid of a hairball, and everything would be fine. The old woman, always wearing a bright, billowy dress, would give a great sigh of relief and thank Annabelle for “saving Shelby’s life.” Next, she would ask how much she owed her, and Annabelle would reply, “Oh, it’s free this time.” Mrs. Finn would give her a stale and often sticky piece of butterscotch candy from the bottom of her purse. Annabelle smiled at the memory.

Emerging from her daydream, she waved goodbye to a few stragglers who were tying up their own loose ends as she made her way to the attached parking garage. Whether they noticed, she didn’t know. They seemed not to even see her.

When she moved to Chicago six months ago, she had walked almost everywhere. It was one of the things she hadn’t wanted to give up. In Bluebell, she could walk from one end of town to the other and back before an episode of Law and Order could finish, and in Chicago, her apartment was just close enough to work. She had almost enjoyed her morning commute, despite the hurried bustle of the city streets. It had been a week since she first noticed the car following her. That was when she started driving instead.

There were probably a hundred black towncars in the city, but she noticed this one outside of her apartment when she left for work one morning, and when she came out of the coffee shop down the street, it was idling by the curb a few car lengths down. She hadn’t been able to see the driver because the windows were tinted, but she was pretty sure it was the same car. Assuring herself it was probably just a coincidence or a trick of her overactive imagination, she strolled the rest of the way to work.

After living her first thirty years in a small town with a population equal to the number of people who occupied a large apartment building in Chicago, it was easy to attribute her paranoia to the culture shock that came with her move. But when she made it to her office building and went inside, she hung around in the lobby and watched the street through the glass entryway. A few seconds later, the same car crawled past the front of the building.

So she had been driving to work for a week, and while she thought she might have seen the car a few more times since that day, she couldn’t be sure. It had probably just been her imagination all along. Hell, she still triple checked the locks before going to bed at night. Imagining boogey-men in broad daylight wasn’t too much of a stretch.

Her heels clicked rhythmically on the pavement like a ticking clock in a large, empty house as she made her way across the parking garage. The bad part about being the new girl was that her parking spot sucked. It was in the back corner of the fourth floor. She could literally walk home in the time it took her to get to her car.

The garage was normally bright and busy with cars driving in and out, the blare of horns echoing through the concrete maze, but after closing hours on Fridays, the lights in the structure switched to power-saving mode. This meant that every other overhead light was turned off, creating ten-foot swamps of darkness between each pool of light. Her footsteps quickened in the dark and slowed in the light as she made her way to her Trailblazer.

She was elbow-deep in her briefcase, searching for her keys when her hurried pace came to a sudden stop as she saw the car parked beside hers. It was definitely not the lavender-colored VW bug that normally occupied the spot. The black towncar with tinted windows waited in an expanse of shadows, breathing. Was it breathing? Her stomach lurched, and she began digging through her briefcase more frantically. She didn’t know if she was looking for her keys or her cellphone. It didn’t really matter. Her fingers had gone numb. She was standing four parking spaces away from her boogeyman, and her feet were frozen in place.

Just as her fingers closed around the keychain, the driver’s side door of the towncar opened and a shadow that must have been six and a half feet tall unfolded from the mouth of the breathing car. He started toward her, and she spun on her heels and ran as fast as her sensible realtor’s shoes would carry her.

“Wait,” a deep, booming voice called from behind her, and she heard her sunglasses hit the pavement and skid away. “Hey, where are you going?” the voice called. It was lower than it had been, not as close. He wasn’t following her.

Then she heard the car door slam shut and the engine hum as the car backed out of the parking spot. She ran faster. She couldn’t imagine waiting for the elevator, and there was no time to dig for her keycard to get back in the building, so she took the stairs two at a time. When she reached the street and felt the cold rain on her face, she knew the car would be exiting soon, so she kept running. No one seemed to notice her as her heels pounded quickly down the pavement. Her fellow pedestrians only averted their eyes and moved out of her way.

***

And that was how she ended up hiding in an alley, soaked and cold. She guessed it was safe to assume that the car had been following her after all.

When she finally made it to her apartment building, Annabelle stopped in the entryway to catch her breath. The fifteen story building opened up into a dimly-lit hallway full of mailboxes that reminded her of tiny morgue drawers. The ancient tile flooring was chipped and faded. Her shoe found a newly liberated chunk of tile, and it skittered across the floor, startling her. She made her way to the three elevators. One of them had been broken since she moved in, and the other two sounded like they were being hefted up the dark shaft on frayed nylon rope. The lights inside the old steel boxes flickered off and on. When she had first moved into the apartment, it reminded her of a hotel, only with really bad carpet and terrible customer service.

As she rode the elevator to the sixth floor, she wondered just what in the hell was going on? If she had known a big city would be this dangerous, she would have moved to a remote cabin in woods somewhere between “hope you have a full tank” and “what’s indoor plumbing?” Cities were supposed to be anonymous and impersonal. What happened to that? She must have missed the “Crazy Stalker Guy” section in the brochure.

As Annabelle let herself into the apartment, her nerves were instantly soothed by her roommate, Jasmine’s, out-of-tune rendition of “No Scrubs” coming from the kitchen. The small, tidy apartment smelled like furniture polish. She dropped her briefcase by the door after locking both locks and the chain and headed toward the sound of Jasmine’s voice.

“Hanging out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride, trying to holler at me…” Eyes squeezed shut, Jasmine crooned into a ladle as she slid around the kitchen floor in her stocking feet. Her concert attire consisted of a black tank top and a pair of hot-pink pajama shorts that read “Dreamy” across her butt. Her braided hair was twisted into a knot on the top of her head, and a few strands clicked back and forth with her movements.

“I swear, they’ll let anybody perform in this joint,” Annabelle said in mock disapproval as she slid onto a barstool. She laughed at Jasmine who had stopped singing and was standing, legs spread, ladle still held up to her mouth, and a wide-eyed look of shock on her face.

“You… scared… the… shit… out of me.” Jasmine breathlessly pronounced every word with emphasis, placing a hand on her dramatically heaving chest. She dropped the ladle back into the dish drainer and looked at Annabelle who was still laughing as she patted her wet hair with a clean dish towel. “What happened to you? Wait. Let me guess. Your first puddle shower?” This was Jasmine’s term for when a car drives through a puddle and showers the poor pedestrian who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her eyes were squinted with amusement.

“Not exactly,” Annabelle said, her smile vanishing.

“Well then, what happened? Forget your umbrella? Wait – Didn’t you drive?” A look of concern replaced Jasmine’s amused smirk, and she hopped up onto a barstool beside Annabelle.

“You remember the car I told you about? The one that was following me?” Annabelle asked. She suppressed an urge to cry as she prepared to tell Jasmine what had happened.

“Yeah. What? Did you see him again?” Her eyes ran over Annabelle, eyebrows drawn together.

Annabelle told Jasmine about the car in the parking garage and the giant man who had gotten out of it. She told her about how she had ran from her office building, and she told her about hiding in the alley. “I’m not sure if I should’ve been more scared of the guy or the rat that ran across my foot.” Her attempt at a joke flopped.

 Jasmine looked like she had gotten caught gyrating around the kitchen again. “We need to call the police,” she said.

“And say what exactly? That I see black cars everywhere, and somebody took my co-workers parking spot?” Annabelle asked, helplessly. “He hasn’t done anything to me.”

“Umm… stalking, duh,” Jasmine said, glancing around the kitchen, probably looking for her phone.

“But I can’t prove anything,” Annabelle said uncertainly. She had always had an impression that big city cops were used to investigating multiple homicides, busting massive drug cartels, and stopping vengeful terrorists. She knew she had probably watched too much Law and Order. Still, she didn’t want to seem like a scared country-girl in the big city. But honestly, she was a scared country-girl in a big city.

The man had tried to talk to her. He didn’t sound angry. He had sounded more confused than anything, when she thought about it.

“…pepper spray,” Jasmine finished as Annabelle surfaced from her thoughts.

“Pepper spray?” she asked.

“Yeah. We need to get you some pepper spray,” Jasmine repeated.

“I’m not so sure I want to be in a situation where I’m close enough to use it.” She was remembering how long it had taken her to find the set of keys in her briefcase. She imagined walking around with the small spray-can tied around her wrist. “I’d probably just end up spraying myself with it anyway,” she said.

“Well, what are we going to do? Because you can’t keep running back and forth to work. You’re too skinny as it is,” Jasmine said, only half joking.

“I don’t know, but-” Annabelle was cut short by a knock on the door. Her eyes grew so wide her vision blurred, and she stared at Jasmine who gave her a reassuring look.

“I’m sure it’s just the wrong apartment number,” she said. “I’ll get it. You stay here.”

Leaning forward on her barstool, straining to hear Jasmine at the front door, she nearly fell head-first onto the floor. She hopped down. Tiptoeing to the kitchen doorway just around the corner from the front door, she pressed herself against the wall and listened. She found herself thinking that she had spent entirely too much time hiding against walls tonight.

“Who is it?” Jasmine called through the heavy-duty front door. Their peep hole had been blacked out by previous tenants. “They must have been as paranoid as I am,” Annabelle thought. Her throat was dry, and she struggled to swallow as she listened for a response from the hallway.

“I’m looking for a Miss Kingston, Annabelle Kingston,” a male voice boomed from the other side of the door.

Annabelle’s chest heaved again, her heart stuttering. The lights in the apartment seemed to dim and brighten. She gaped, wide-eyed at Jasmine from around the corner, and Jasmine shot her a questioning look that said “what do you want me to do?”

Terrified, Annabelle jumped back around the corner and closed her eyes. She didn’t know what to do. All she knew was that she wanted to go back home to Bluebell. This would never happen there. She knew everybody in Bluebell.

But hadn’t that been why she left?

She heard Jasmine opening the door, imagined her peering through the crack allowed by the chain lock. “Who are you?” Jasmine demanded.

“My name is Adam Barnett.”

And that was when Annabelle slid to the floor.

 “Belle?”

Seeming to come from a great distance, she heard Jasmine calling her by the nickname she had given her shortly after they met. Jasmine had said, “Us city-folk don’t have time for too many syllables. That’s why everybody calls me Jazz.” She decided on Belle the minute she found out Annabelle was from a town called Bluebell.

It was when Annabelle met Jasmine that she was finally able to open up about the life she left behind in Bluebell. She had been in Chicago for just under two weeks, and the loneliness she felt was only intensified by the vast number of people in the city. On a mission to start over, she joined a yoga class and signed up for real estate classes.

She couldn’t help but like the small, spunky yoga instructor everyone called Jazz. When they met, Annabelle was living in a rent-by-week hotel. Coincidently, Jasmine was looking for a roommate. Six months later, they were best friends. Annabelle needed a best friend.

After moving in, Annabelle came clean and told Jasmine everything. She confessed her greatest sin, and like a true friend, Jasmine had lied and told her it wasn’t her fault, and she couldn’t blame herself for what happened. It was nice for the short amounts of time Annabelle could make herself believe it, but she knew the truth. So, why in the hell was she thinking about Adam Barnett?

All of these thoughts came in just a few seconds of unconsciousness. By the time Jasmine reached her, she was easing into the same nightmare she had moved across the country to escape.

***

Annabelle was driving down Mason Boulevard in Mississippi. As she neared Culpa Park, she was passed by a speeding police cruiser and an ambulance with their sirens blaring. She offered up a silent prayer for whomever they were on their way to help, as she often did. But when they pulled into the small park up ahead, her grip tightened on the wheel. Her foot lowered the gas pedal to the floor, and her Suburban leaped forward and raced toward the park.

Her daughter, Katie, was at the park with the babysitter, a teenage neighbor, Allison. Annabelle had met Katie’s dad, Rick, in college, and they dated for a month before the fun wore off and they both moved on. When she found out she was pregnant, she let him know that she didn’t expect anything. While he wasn’t thrilled with the news, he promised to help out. He did. They had maintained a civil relationship. Over the five years since Katie’s birth, there had been hiccups and arguments but nothing major. Once every five or six months, they got together to discuss the visitation schedule for the next half year. That’s where she had been that day.

The cruiser, along with three others and two ambulances were parked alongside the playground. On the far side of the playground was an open field where people walked dogs and played ball. She veered crookedly into a parking spot and jumped out of her Suburban, running toward the cruisers, terror propelling her.

As soon as she saw her, Allison yelled her name. She was running toward her with tears streaming down her face and blood on her shirt. She grabbed Allison by the shoulders. “Why was there blood on her shirt?” Allison sobbed, “It’s Katie, Anna. She’s hurt.”

Annabelle let loose of the grip she had on Allison’s shoulders and ran blindly toward the ambulance with its back doors standing open. She saw Katie’s small body lying lifeless on the gurney that had just been hoisted up into the back. Katie’s face was a mask of red.

Annabelle screamed Katie’s name. Her soul peeled out through her throat in a guttural cry, and she threw herself into the back of the ambulance.

The dream faded with a police officer explaining to her that some college kids had been playing baseball in the field beside the playground.  A line drive. In the face. Five years old.

***

“Belle? Hey. Belle, please wake up,” Jasmine’s voice was back and it was laced with fear and uneasiness.

Annabelle slowly blinked her eyes. She was lying on the couch, and Jasmine’s gentle featured face was all she could see.

“What happened?” Annabelle croaked, throat still dry.

“You fainted. Are you alright?” Jasmine’s eyes were wide and scared.

“I’m fine. I’m a little confused but okay.”

That’s when she heard his voice.

“I think you might have hit your head going down. There’s a bump,” the man’s voice said from behind Jasmine’s face.

Annabelle jerked upright and stared over Jasmine’s shoulder at the hulking man standing in their living room. She was right. He was easily over six foot tall. He had short dark hair in messy spikes all over his head, like he just got out of bed or he just spent an hour in front of the mirror sculpting that particular look. She couldn’t tell the difference these days. His features were very strong – a wide set jaw and a narrow, carefully sculpted nose. She had never seen this man’s face before, but he was familiar to her somehow.

“I’m sorry, Belle,” Jasmine said. “I needed help getting you to the couch. I threatened him though,” she seemed to brag as she turned and gestured to an unattended butcher’s knife lying on the coffee table. “He says he’s here to see you. What did you say your name was again?” Jasmine asked, turning toward the man.

“Adam Barnett,” he whispered.

“Adam Barnett,” Annabelle echoed. “You killed my little girl.” She somehow managed to grind the words out through clenched teeth.

Jasmine visibly stiffened and turned a shocked gaze to Annabelle.

Adam winced. “That’s what I’ve been telling myself every day for five years now.”

Annabelle sat very still, eyes blazing, and Jasmine remained a protective barrier between them. Her eyes darted back and forth, from one to the other.

“I’m sorry for scaring you, Miss Kingston,” he began. “I really am. I don’t know how I saw this playing out, but I had to find you.”

“Are you kidding me?” Annabelle’s voice shook with rage. “You’ve been following me for a week, and you expect me to believe you’re sorry for scaring me? What’d you think would happen?” She was on her feet then, leaning across the coffee table toward him.

“I know. I’m sorry.” His gaze dropped. Was that shame? “I was trying to find the nerve and the right way to approach you,” he said.

“Yeah? Well, you did a really fucking horrible job.” She spat the words at him with force. “I want you out of my house.” She walked to the door and flung it open, gesturing to the hallway.

“Wait, please. Please just let me talk to you for five minutes,” he pleaded. “I promise I will go back to Mississippi and leave you alone forever if you just give me five minutes.” His eyes were teary and pleading.

She looked at Jasmine who was gazing at her with a mixture of sympathy and worry.

“It’s just five minutes, Belle. Then you can be rid of him. I’ll be right in the kitchen the whole time,” she reassured Annabelle.

 “Alright. Yeah. I’ll give him five minutes,” she agreed and then turned to Adam. “But after that five minutes, you’re gone, and I never see you again.” Her anger was coming mostly from how frightened she had been. She sat back down on the small couch, pointing sharply to the adjacent couch and motioned for him to sit.

“Holler if you need me,” Jasmine said as she stared Adam down on her way out of the room.

Adam sat on the loveseat that was positioned across the coffee table from where Annabelle sat. The living room was so small that he could have touched her by simply reaching across the table. There was a small flat-screen TV hanging on the wall with two large, black and white pictures of Paris on either side.

“Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me,” Adam began.

“I don’t really give a shit what it means to you. I have been a nervous wreck for a week because you were too chickenshit to pick up a phone or walk up, in a public place, and introduce yourself like a normal fucking person.”

“I’m sorry,” he began again.

“I’m not finished,” she pounded the words like nails. “I moved here to get away from Bluebell, not to have it follow me. I never wanted to see you. You or anyone else who looked at me like I had some kind of… contagious sadness.”

“I know,” he said. He was perched on the edge of the couch, his back rigid. His legs were so long that his knees were almost level with his chest. His hands were clasped between them, and he nervously flirted with making eye contact, but couldn’t seem to hold it. “When I found out where you were…”

“How exactly did you find out?” she asked, genuinely interested despite her anger. No one from Bluebell knew exactly where she was. She had no family. Her parents were killed in a car wreck when she was three, and she was raised by her grandmother who passed away when she was twenty-six. She was close to a lot of people in the community and had several friends, but after Katie died, she had four-and-a-half long years to withdraw from them. In the end, she simply told everyone she was moving and wasn’t sure where yet.

“I hired a private investigator,” he admitted, wincing as if he felt the stab of anger that gouged her.

“Where I am and what I’m doing is none of your business,” she said. Her voice was lower, but her temper was still hot.

“Yes, but I had to talk to you. I had to apologize. My therapist said…”

“Your therapist?” she asked.

“Yes. I’ve been seeing him… ever since… I needed to talk to someone. But lately, all I’ve been talking about is you. There’s nothing I can do for me anymore.” He paused, seeming to choose his words carefully. “My therapist warned me against contacting you. He said your residual anger would only make me feel worse.”

He didn’t choose them carefully enough. Her eyes snapped up to meet his. “My residual anger…  Would make you feel worse? Am I supposed to apologize?” She was gaping at him.

“No,” he said calmly. “That’s why I’m here. There’s no way I could possibly feel worse. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I never got a chance to. The police, the lawyers… they wouldn’t let me near you. I never even saw you because there was no trial. All I ever wanted was to talk to you and to say I’m sorry. But then you were gone.”

“Yeah. Gone. And for a reason,” she said. She was thinking about how things had been after Katie died. All the sympathy. Even after four years, no one could look at her without that downward curve of their eyebrows and sympathetic smiles. How was she ever supposed to move on? Everyone told her how tragic of an accident it was. Like she didn’t know. They repeated over and over that she shouldn’t blame herself. There was nothing she could have done without knowing, but Annabelle knew the truth. It was her fault. She didn’t need a babysitter to have lunch. She could have taken Katie with her or at least left her with an adult.

“Listen,” he said, pulling her from her thoughts. “I wanted you to know I wasn’t just some college punk who moved on and got over what happened. I wanted you to know that. I needed to tell you before…”

“Before what?” she asked when he trailed off. The memories of her daughter’s death were as raw as they were during the days following the accident. When she decided to move, she had chosen Chicago for its stark contrast to Bluebell. She wanted somewhere big, impersonal, and without memories. So she moved to Chicago, met Jasmine, and was working toward her realtor’s license… But the disguise she had assumed was flaking away like an old sunburn, and she was left raw and hurting.

“My life’s over,” he almost whispered. “I haven’t been me since that day in the park. I quit college. I quit talking to all my friends. I spend all my time working as a night security guard to afford therapy. All this time and I still can’t get my shit together. I’ll never be able to forget what she looked like…” he said. “I’m no good for anyone. People look at me different. Feel sorry for me. I don’t deserve…”

“So what are you saying? You’re going to hurt yourself? Do you want me to have that on my conscience too?” It seemed so selfish. To just end it because of what happened. Did that make what she did selfish too? Or just cowardly?

“No, I hardly think what happens to me should bother you,” he said, genuinely appalled. “Like I said, I came here to tell you I’m sorry. I guess I thought you would feel better knowing that what happened that day ruined me too,” he said.

“I don’t feel better,” she said. “She’s gone. Nothing will bring her back. I was doing a pretty good job forgetting the past, but here you are,” she said, motioning around the room with her hands.

“I don’t think it’s possible to forget,” he said, and she glared at him. “If you think you can, you’re fooling yourself.”

“Who do you think you are?” she mumbled without malice. It was barely audible.

“The person who put you here.”

Annabelle shivered. He was right. Did she even want to forget?

After a long pause, she finally spoke. “Adam, it was an accident. I know that. You were playing baseball in a public park. You weren’t drunk driving or anything.”

“No, but…”

“I was angry,” she interrupted. “I am angry, but I know it was an accident. It took a while, but I forgave you a long time ago,” she said.

“You forgave me?” he asked.

“Yes, I did,” she admitted to herself and him. “After Katie… I left. Not just because of you. I was broken without her. I came here to make a new life.” She thought for a moment.

He nodded.

“I got this bright idea,” she continued, “that I would just move far away from Bluebell, to a different world, and things would be different.”

“But, there was nothing…” Adam began.

“I wasn’t there for her. I wasn’t even there,” her voice cracked, “that day.”

“You couldn’t have known,” he said. Silent tears ran down his cheeks. His hands flexed between his knees, seeming to want to reach out for hers, but he kept them in his lap.

A small smile found its way to her face. “No, but neither could you.”

She couldn’t really be angry with him. The past five years of her life were spent hating this man and then trying to forget him and all the memories associated with him. All the desperation and misery in his eyes reflected how she had felt for so long. She could see herself in his misery. It wasn’t his fault, but he would never forgive himself for something he couldn’t have possibly predicted. She hadn’t blamed him. It was herself. It had always been herself. But there he was, giving a face to his name and digging up old feelings that never really went away. The ever-present idea of Adam Barnett had transformed into a broken man who was hurting as badly as she was, a man who lost the past five years of his life because of what happened to a little girl he had never even known. She wanted to punch him and hug him. She wanted to kick him out, and she wanted to beg him to stay. A connection to her past… to Katie.

He leaned across the coffee table toward her. She didn’t back away. She simply gazed into his eyes, pleading. Pleading him to take them back in time and change things that could never be changed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, so softly that she more read his lips than heard him.

Her tears flowed freely, and she wrapped her arms around him over the table. She hugged the man who killed her daughter. She hugged the broken person who may never be the same as he was before and who would forever deny himself the innocence he deserved. She hugged the man who showed her who she was through the person she saw in him.

“I’m glad you found me, Adam,” she said as her head rested against his chest. “I’m tired of running.”

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