“He’s coming. He’s coming!”
“Be prepared. Be ready. Be careful.”
“You have a lot of responsibilities, Nico.”
Bits of conversations ricochet off the walls of my mind, eating away at my confidence to uncover an all-consuming fear that lurks inside me like a predator ready to strike.
Because he’s out there. I know it, Dad knows it, the guys know it.
And most of all…he knows it.
Fear makes you weak.
Weakness gets you killed.
I slide out of the passenger seat of my Audi R8, my feet landing on the concrete of my driveway. I slam the door shut and walk the few feet to the front door. Shaye is waiting for me on the other side, hopefully wearing nothing but the apron she uses when she cooks dinner. My stomach growls, but I’m not hungry. Not for food, anyway.
I slide my key into the lock and grasp the brass door knob, ready to turn, ready to put this day behind me. Each day is just like the last…work, work, work, wonder…work some more…wonder some more. It’s the wondering part that has my brain twisted. I never wonder. I always know.
But this time, I’m a sitting duck, waiting for the hunter.
I don’t fucking like it one bit, and the loss of control is crippling. And I don’t know how much longer I can bury this shit and hang on to my last shred of sanity. Sometimes I think these mind fucks are worse than someone putting a bullet in my brain.
I push open the door, but the house is dark. Even the kitchen. One light is on. Upstairs, in my bedroom. Maybe she decided to just order pizza. Later. Much later by the time I’m finished with her. Works for me. The sooner I can get Shaye naked, the sooner I can dive inside of her and escape all of this other bullshit. Then, it’ll just be us.
The way I wanted it to be.
The way I know it never can be.
I toss my keys into a bowl on the hall table, nearly missing it because I can’t really see it. I kick off my shoes and take the stairs two at a time. Seconds pass, and I’m no closer to the top. The staircase looms above me. The faster I jog upward, the faster the steps seem to regenerate.
What the fuck is happening?
I place my hand on the railing, but I don’t feel the smooth wood grain along my palm. Instead, it’s submerged into a sticky, gel-like-liquid…like quicksand. I yank and pull, but it’s useless. My hand is stuck.
I use my other hand as leverage and slap it against the wall. But it slices through the sheet rock, which morphs into the same type of gummy substance. I blink hard at the stairs that seem to lead into the heavens, stairs I can’t even climb because I’m literally stuck to the wall now. My heart thumps against my ribcage, blood rushing between my ears.
I can’t move. But maybe I can scream. If Shaye is upstairs, she’ll hear me and we’ll figure this out together. “Shaye!” My mind hears the scream, but my mouth is still closed tight. I try to force my lips apart, but they’re also stuck. Just like my body.
My ears perk up, her voice distracting me from my current situation. She’s calling me! She is here! I try again. “Shaye!”
Nothing. Nothing but the shrieks that follow my name. And then…
“Help me, Nico!”
A loud crash follows, along with a sinister laugh.
I know that laugh. I’ve never heard it before, but somehow I know it.
I yank my body left and right, trying to free my hands. Nothing.
Bile rises in my throat. I need to break free. Now. All the preparation, all of the planning…none of it matters. This shit is happening now, and I finally need to reclaim my life. I tug and pull some more as her screams get louder and more desperate. I have to get upstairs now. I can’t see through walls, but my gut tells me the only thing that I need to know…Shaye is in danger. And even though I’ve known what’s coming for a long time, I still don’t have a solid plan for how I can protect her.
It may be too late…
Fuck, no! Strange sounds emerge from deep within my throat, though my mouth is still stretched into a tight line. I can only hear clanging cymbals and heavy drum beats. Noise. Way too much noise. I won’t be able to hear if…
My pulse throbs harder and harder with each passing second until the stairs laid out in front of me morph into a darkened road. There is ice on the ground and silence in the cold, gusty night air. I’m not wearing a coat, I’m in a t-shirt and jeans. But somehow, the frigid temperatures don’t phase me one bit. My eyes dart left and right, behind trees, around parked cars. Not a soul appears in front of me, but I’m not alone.
I can feel it. I can feel him.
Shaye’s screech pierces the silence again, reminding me of my mission, and I run toward it, my pace quickening, my heart thudding. Seems like I’m running for miles, but the voice grows fainter until I can no longer hear it. Night brightens into day, and hot rays of sunshine stream over the crashing waves on South Beach. Hordes of sunbathers litter the beach, and I race around them, searching, straining to hear her voice, praying I haven’t lost her.
But she hasn’t made a sound, and I’m not entirely sure how much time has passed.
And I somehow know that it’s been a long time since I’ve heard her voice.
I’ve traveled so far, although I can’t seem to fathom the distance, and she’s nowhere to be found.
Am I too late?
I collapse against the tall lifeguard stand, panting. Beads of sweat drip down the sides of my face as I scour the sand, looking for something, any clue that she’s still alive, a shred of hope to convince me that I can still save her, that I haven’t lost the most important person in my life because of the irrational choices I have made.
Irreversible choices. Damning choices.
My gaze falls down to the white sand and it’s speckled with bright red dots. I follow the path of dots until they become larger red splotches. My heart thuds as the stain spreads over the beach, blanketing the earth in a disturbing shade of blood red as far as my eyes can see.
I fall to the sand, clutching my temples. “Shaye, where are you? Please help me find you. Please come back to me!”
But the words are no longer just in my head. They tumble from my mouth, my voice echoing in the still air. I squeeze my eyes shut and when I crack them open, dark, dank concrete walls close in on me. I creep around a corner, following a trail of large, fluffy marshmallows and somehow I know these ‘breadcrumbs’ that I’m following are significant, and not just some Willy Wonka type of bullshit that is fucking with my mind. I inch closer to a large doorway, toward the muffled cries that haunt my dreams. A thin stream of red liquid trickles out of the doorway, the marshmallows now floating toward me.
Marshmallows. Shaye loves marshmallows. I need to find Shaye.
I fall to my knees once again, next to Grandpa Vito’s motionless body, a devastating image that is forever burned into my memory.
Don’t leave, Grandpa. Please. I still have so much more to learn…
You have a lot of responsibilities now, Nico.
My gut clenches, and I’m back on the staircase at my house, my hands finally free of the binding substance. I leap up the rest of the steps toward the landing and tear down the hallway to my bedroom. I slam open the door, out of breath but hopefully not out of time.
“Shaye,” I gasp, dragging myself through the empty master suite. “I’m here.”
* * *
My body rockets to an upright position, sweat drizzling down the front of my heaving chest. My hand instinctively pats the mattress beside me, connecting with the cool, twelve-hundred thread count sheets that I’d bought when Shaye moved back from Miami a few months ago. I’d wanted to make her feel comfortable here in my house, to give her a taste of the luxury I’d worked so hard to attain. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for her, nothing I wouldn’t give to have her next to me for the rest of our lives.
But months later, I’m still trying to figure out how to give her the life she deserves. I thought I had it all figured out. I thought once I pulled the trigger and blew away Frank Cappodamo, I’d paved the way for our safe future. With one single trigger click I sent his family a message. I sent my own guys a message. Fuck with me or anyone I love, and you will die.
It earned me respect and loyalty, which was great.
It also put a bullseye dead center on my back.
The nightmares started almost immediately after the warehouse massacre, and they’ve only gotten worse over time. I collapse onto Shaye’s pillow and breathe in her flowery scent. She should be here with me, but recently the nightmares have gotten so bad, I’ve made excuses about work keeping me out late and me not wanting her here by herself in the middle of the night. She’s much safer staying at her parents’ house, anyway.
The truth is, I can’t control these damn dreams. And I hate like hell for her see me in a state of complete fucking weakness. I’ve tried drinking and drugging myself to sleep, and nothing works. Nothing can bring me peace, not even buried balls deep in Shaye.
I let out a deep sigh and flip onto my back. I know I won’t sleep again until I take care of the enemy from beyond the grave.
But this time, it’s not the memory of Frank I’m battling.
He’s sent in a replacement, a crazier motherfucker than he ever was.
And until I stop Cappodamo’s poison from leaking into my life, I’m pretty damn sure I won’t have a decent night’s sleep again.