April 17

The pain was unlike anything Ashley had ever experienced. Her vision blurred, doubled, faded, her ears rang, all sense of where she was, who she was erased by blows to her head, her neck, her spine. She tried to listen for signs, but all she could hear were the echoes of gunshots. Bile rose to the back of her throat, threatening to choke her. She tried to get up but her head pounded and her body felt like something weighed her down and she didn’t have the strength to fight.

“Jesus, Ashley, you’re so beautiful, so perfect.”

Ashley blinked, searching for the source of the voice. A dark shape hovered over her and she tried to reach up to touch but her hands were pinned to her sides. Where was she? Who was talking? She knew horror when a finger traced over her cheek, brushed hair back from her face.

“Why do you look so disgusted by my touch? You love me, you’ve said it twenty-three times. I kept count.” The voice coming from the dark shape hovering over her was familiar, so familiar. Alex?

“Alex?” Ashley whispered the name even as she knew it couldn’t be him. Alex would help her, would hold her. Not Alex’s voice. It wouldn’t hurt her face to say his name.

The shape growled and she felt the weight on her shift. Her left hand rose into the air as if attached to a string a marionette controlled. She tried to see, but the nausea overwhelmed her and she heaved as something tugged on her finger. She heard a sob as she swallowed the acid down again, trying not to choke.

“I can’t believe you took his ring, agreed to be his wife. You’re mine, Ashley. Say it, say you love me.”

Ashley struggled to speak, to ask where she was, but her jaw wouldn’t move. She tried to open her mouth to scream but pain radiated from her jaw to her brain.

The weight on her chest shifted again, and she thought she could smell sweat and despair. If crazy had a scent, Ashley was sure what she smelled now would be it.

“I guess you can’t talk, huh?” The giggle. The male, high pitched giggle triggered a memory. What? Who?

“Look at me, Ashley, look at me. See me, love me.”

Ashley blinked, tried to focus, blinked again. She saw two Michaels inches from her face, staring down at her with an insanity in his eyes she’d never seen before. “God, your eyes, they see inside me. You said you loved me. I thought you saw inside me and loved who you saw, but then you took his ring. How could you? First you gave him your body, then you gave him your soul. I thought you loved me. I’m the Golden Boy, you should’ve loved me, promised me forever.”

Ashley wanted to shake her head, scream that she’d only ever said she loved him the way she did with all her friends. Never the way she said it to Alex, showed Alex. Her mouth wouldn’t open, and her head hurt too much to move.

“I’ve got one bullet left, Ashley. Say you love me or I put the bullet in your brain. I’ll do it from the side so I can still see your eyes. Watch as the life and the light die in them. The blood on your forehead isn’t anywhere near as pretty as your hair. I want to wash the blood off so I can see your pretty face properly when you say the words. Say you love me when I come back, tell me, show me. I’ll get you a better ring than this.”

Ashley tried to focus on what Michael was showing her but her vision swam. It had to be her engagement ring, the ring Alex had given her – when? An hour ago? Two? Ten?

She heard something small hit the wall, the same wall she knew was now riddled with bullets, and heard it bounce across the floor. She’d find her ring, put her ring back on her finger, if Michael would just get off her.

“I’m going to make you pretty so you can say you love me. Don’t go anywhere.” Michael brushed a kiss over her lips and Ashley almost threw up. She felt the weight on her body ease, felt a breeze on her flesh – dear God, was she naked? What had she done? What had he done to her? She hadn’t been so drunk she’d have betrayed Alex, would she? A tear escaped as she felt around for her ring. Her hand found something cold, something metal. She gripped it with her left hand and tried to lift the object so she could see. She realized it was Michael’s gun, Terror quickened her pulse and her hands shook. She almost dropped the gun but then she remembered – one more bullet. The next shot would kill her. Ashley forced herself to sit up, holding the gun out in front of her like she’d seen in the movies, tried to aim at the wall. Her vision grayed and she saw double again. She saw two dark shapes moving – towards her? Away? She pointed the gun at the wall between the shapes and fired. Her eardrums throbbed from the sound, her arms jerked, and the gun dropped to the floor. So did the dark shape.

“Michael?” Ashley whispered his name when she heard a faint groan. “Michael?”

Ashley forced herself to roll over, got to her knees, her arms felt weak as they shook supporting her upper body weight. Every inch of her screamed in agony, she almost blacked out again. She blinked but her vision wouldn’t clear. She tried to stand but couldn’t. “Michael?”

She began to crawl on her hands and knees. Her hands were wet, her knees slid. Blood, she could smell the metallic scent, could feel herself slipping in it.

“Michael!” She tried to scream as her jaw felt like it ripped apart.

She was beside him now, feeling for his pulse but she couldn’t find one because her hand shook. She ran her hands over his body, down his bare chest to the jeans opened at the fly. His phone was clipped to his waistband. She freed it, tried to see to dial. She kept messing up. She willed herself to ignore the pain, pressed the home button to activate Siri.

“Call 9-1-1!” Ashley thanked God when the phone began to ring.

“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?”

“Ambulance. Gun. Help.” Ashley struggled to speak into the phone as Michael’s hand reached for her. She managed to tell the operator her address before she collapsed on top of Michael, sobbing.

“Don’t die, please don’t die.” Ashley’s tears burned her skin, the vomit she’d avoided spewing now came up, narrowly missing Michael’s body. The smell of the vomit mixing with the blood released more vomit, until all she could smell was her own fluids. “I don’t want to be the reason you die.”

“You do love me –” Michael whispered, his hands wrapping around Ashley as she heaved again.


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