The second time was different.
Liz had been afraid at first, and very much on her guard, but three weeks of business as usual had disarmed her fears. Her cuts had healed nicely. Beebee had called to say that the police were pressing charges of assault against Marc. He was remanded on a bail bond of twenty thousand dollars, the money having been posted by one J. Langdon.
Jamie. Standing by her man.
The next day, Liz had gone down to the precinct building to review her statement with a lawyer named Jeremy Naylor, who worked in the county attorney’s office. She was amazed at how young Naylor looked: he had peach fuzz hair and the baby face of an innocent untouched by the world. But his questions showed a keen mind applying itself with complete concentration to a congenial task. When they were done, he said he would have a court date arranged by the end of the week.
That was the good news. He proceeded to give her the bad. “There’s no way we’ll be on the docket before October, Ms. Kendall, and that’s optimistic. I don’t like the thought of your ex‑husband having ready access to you all that time. I think we should apply for a TRO—that’s kind of an interim restraint order, issued on the basis of perceived risk. It’s a long shot. The defense will argue that it’s prejudicial, which, you know, they will have a valid point. But I’d like to give it a try all the same. For the sake of your peace of mind, and mine. Can you be free at short notice this week or next week? This will be a motion in judge’s chambers, and it will mostly be based on the police paperwork, but you might still have to go in and talk about your past history with Marc if the judge asks for specifics.”
Liz said yes, she could get the time off work. She would take it unpaid if she had to.
She went home feeling like her life was getting back on the rails. The doctor at West Penn had been right after all: everything that had happened had been a side effect of the assault she had suffered. A trauma artifact, as he put it. So long as she avoided being throttled and slammed into tiled floors, there was no reason it should ever happen to her again.
Everything was looking up. The weather had stayed fine. Molly had gone four whole weeks without an asthma attack. All three of them had watched The Wizard of Oz and the kids had been enthralled. True, Liz had had to work fourteen hours’ worth of overtime to pay what she owed for her medical bills, but in her upbeat mood that had mostly been enjoyable. “I don’t understand how you can smile like that when you’re working the concessions stand,” her colleague Bella had marveled. “You know you’re gonna smell like burgers and fries all day, right?”
“Absolutely,” Liz shot back. “And guys go crazy for that smell. I’ll be getting more action than I can handle.” She picked up a lettuce leaf from the fixings tray and rubbed it behind her ears. “There. That should bring the vegetarians to the yard too.”
Bella guffawed and lowered the bar still further with a joke about why vegans give the best head. When Nora DoSanto, their supervisor, came by a few minutes later, she had to tell them to dial down the smut out of respect for the Pixar movie that was showing in screen three.
“Sorry, Nora,” Liz said, still giggling.
“Sorry, boss,” Bella echoed.
Liz felt like she was waking up after a long, troubled sleep. She even went back to doing the occasional volunteer shift at Serve the Homeless, which she’d stopped the previous spring when money and time were too tight and somehow never started again. She was back in the world, and the world made sense.
Then, like lightning out of a clear sky, she had another attack—and it was worse than the first.
It was a weekday morning, so Liz was dropping Zac and Molly off at school. Zac hit the ground running, taking off with a hurried “Bye, Mom!” as soon as she pulled up outside Julian C. Barry. No hugs or kisses. Public displays of affection with parents were kryptonite for teens, as Liz well knew.
At Worth Harbor, though, she took her time like always. She got to use one of the two disabled spaces right next to the front gate on account of Molly’s chest. The alternative was to park round the back of the school, which was a long trek for Moll at the start of the day.
She walked Molly to the steps and knelt to give her a hug which was enthusiastically returned.
“You be good,” she told Molly.
“I’ll be very good,” Molly said with her usual banner headline emphasis, “and get a star.”
“Well, that would be great,” Liz said. “But regular good is also fine. Nobody gets a star every day, kiddo.”
Molly jog-trotted into the school. In spite of her condition, she never seemed to be content with just walking. Wherever she was going, she made sure she got there fast.
When Liz got back to her car, she found herself boxed in. Someone had parked a big black SUV side‑on in front of both disabled spots. Liz waited a while, then finally went off in search of the driver, trying to repress a feeling of exasperation. Her shift at the cinema didn’t start for another three hours, but she had a ton of stuff to do before then, including the week’s grocery shopping.
Mrs. Hannah at reception did everything she could, which was basically to give a shout-out over the PA system to the car’s owner, asking for them to come back and move it. Liz thanked her and went back outside.
The car was still there. Two women were standing next to it, talking in a very relaxed way as though they were there for the long haul. Liz walked up to them.
“Hi,” she said. “Is this your car?”
The nearer of the two women turned and looked her over. Liz felt a little bit intimidated by that cool glance. The woman was a head taller than her, broad-built and statuesque. Her blonde hair had a sheen to it, as did the blue satin jumpsuit she was wearing. In fact, she was all-over glossy, as was her car.
“Yeah,” she said. “What of it?”
“You’ve kind of blocked me in. Could you please roll forward a few feet so I can get my car out?”
The woman looked from Liz to Liz’s very unglossy Kia Rio, and then back to Liz. “What,” she said, “so I’m meant to believe you’re disabled?”
Liz kept her tone neutral, suppressing her irritation. “My daughter is disabled. She’s got a respiratory condition.”
Jumpsuit lady looked at her friend, who fanned herself theatrically as though this was dramatic, late-breaking news. She was blonde too, but less emphatically so. There was a pecking order, clearly. “Okay,” she said. “But it’s not on your license plate, is it? So I guess you’ve got one of those placard things from the DMV. Show me.”
“I said show me. Show me you’ve got the right to use that space.”
Liz felt herself blush furiously, not with embarrassment but with anger. She didn’t have time for this. But a shouting match would only waste more time, even if she had the stomach for it. Better to be the grown‑up and let it pass.But the thing inside her was quicker. It broke over her all at once, ice-cold, freezing her volition, taking her limbs away from her like a pickpocket.
At the same time, she didn’t want to condone such shitty behavior or make it seem like she accepted it. As she took out her keys, she said, “I’m going to make a note of your registration and report this to the school. Just so you know.”
The two women exchanged another glance, clearly not thrilled with this pronouncement. “So now you’re threatening us,” the jumpsuit lady said flatly.
“I’m not threatening you. I’m just saying. There are rules here.”
“Sounds like a threat to me,” not‑so‑blonde said. “This is a free country, you know.”
“Yeah,” jumpsuit lady agreed. “I’m within my rights to park here unless you got a placard. Which you didn’t prove it, so here I stay until you do.”
“You can’t intimidate us,” added not‑so‑blonde. “Anyone gets reported, sweetheart, it’s gonna be you.”
Liz turned and walked toward her car.
“Yeah,” jumpsuit lady said. “That’s right, bitch. Put up or shut up.”
Liz’s hand was raised to click the key and open the door. The blue DMV placard, stamped and up to date, was sitting right there on the dash.
But the thing inside her was quicker. It broke over her all at once, ice-cold, freezing her volition, taking her limbs away from her like a pickpocket.
Wait, Liz protested. No.
Her lips didn’t move. Her breath didn’t stir.
She turned around slowly to face the two women.
“Would you mind running that by me again?” she said with brittle courtesy. Only it wasn’t her saying it. She just felt her lips move, heard the words coming out of her mouth.
“What, are you deaf?” jumpsuit lady demanded.
Her friend shook her head in a more‑in‑sorrow-than‑in‑anger kind of way.
“No placard, no can do,” jumpsuit lady said. “Just the way it is. If you’re kosher, it’s all good. But if you’re abusing the system, then you’re gonna find out you picked the wrong—”
Liz was up in her face before she finished the sentence. “You know,” she said, “I’m finding a little of you goes a really long way. So here’s a thought. How about you shut the hell up right now before I shove my hand down your throat, drag out that little dangly thing at the back, the uvula or whatever it’s called, and tie it round your neck tight enough to tourniquet the sucking wound you call a mouth?”
Jumpsuit lady’s eyes went wide. “Hey!” she said, “you are way out of line. You can’t talk to me like that. That’s a threat. You threatened me!”
She tried to push Liz away, two-handed, but Liz leaned hard into the push and didn’t budge. As before, she was watching all this happen, feeling it happen, but someone else was running the show and making all the decisions. Either that or her body was acting by itself.
Her hand came up as fast as a whip, pressing her car keys against the blonde woman’s cheek just underneath her eye.
“Monocular vision is okay for most things,” Liz said, “but it’s for shit when it comes to depth perception. If I poke your eye out right now, the fist fight is going to be hilarious.”
Jumpsuit lady gasped. Her friend reached out to grab the keys.
Liz intercepted her without even looking. She took hold of the woman’s thumb, left-handed, and bent it back. A surprisingly little pressure made the woman shriek with pain and drop to her knees. Liz’s right hand, holding the keys, didn’t waver by so much as a millimeter.
“Really?” she said. “You want to do this? I mean, look at little me and look at the two of you. I could scar you both for life and call it self-defense.” Liz felt her lips curve into a grin, and she felt the intent behind it as a prickling rush across her own nerve endings. The thing that was moving her meant the grin as intimidation, but at the same time just . . . meant it. It was genuinely happy, genuinely enjoying this. Being in the driver’s seat, making the decisions, was pleasurable. And the confrontation was pleasurable, for its own sweet sake. Laying down the law to these two sizeable adversaries. Being better than them, and knowing it, and proving it.
The woman whose thumb Liz was twisting whimpered, bowed down almost all the way to the ground.
“Oh, now that’s a sweet sound,” Liz said. “I want some more of that.” Her wrist flexed. The woman on the ground gave a short, bleating squeal.
The thing inside Liz stared the jumpsuit lady down with cold joy. Liz wanted to take her own gaze out of that equation but she couldn’t. Her eyes weren’t her own.
“You’re crazy!” jumpsuit lady protested.Her hand came up as fast as a whip, pressing her car keys against the blonde woman’s cheek just underneath her eye.
“Not impossible,” Liz said. “That’s probably what I’ll go with, anyway. I mean, if you decide to hide your ass behind a lawsuit, because that’s the kind of pussy move a pussy bitch like you falls back on when she can’t loudmouth her way out of trouble.”
The blonde woman backed away. The key had left a bright red mark on her cheek. She got the door of her car open and scrambled inside. “Let Eileen go,” she said. “We’ll leave. We don’t want to fight with you!”
“Then go ahead and roll your cunt- mobile the hell out of my way,” Liz countered. “Eileen and me, we’re bonding over an intense experience. She’ll join you when we’re done.”
Jumpsuit lady started the SUV and moved forward about twelve feet in a series of bunny hops, too scared to keep her foot straight on the pedal.
“Eileen what?” Liz said in a mild, almost gentle tone.
“Garaldi,” the kneeling woman gasped. “Oh God! Eileen Garaldi.”
Liz cupped both of her hands around Eileen’s one hand—a gesture that in other circumstances might have been a benediction. “Well, it’s really nice to meet you, Eileen Garaldi. But just this once. If I ever see you again, my boot is going straight up your ass, okay?”
The woman whimpered again.
“Okay?” Liz prompted, squeezing just a little bit harder.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh God, please! Let me go!”
There was a moment when it could have gone either way. The thing inside Liz, the puppeteer, was seriously considering breaking the woman’s thumb. It was reluctant to let her—to let the both of them—just walk away with no real souvenir of the occasion.
No! Liz found some purchase at last. The ruthless, sadistic calculation gave her something to push off from. She flailed inside her own flesh, uselessly truncated, unable to find the point where her nerve endings connected to her floating, futile point of view. But futile or not, it had an effect. The feeling of disconnection strobed quickly, off and on, her fingers twitching as they responded intermittently to her will. Liz fought to maintain that control, to push it further as the other part of her, the puppetmaster part, retreated. Its triumphant self-assurance was shot through now with doubt and anger. It hadn’t expected this counterattack.
Liz flexed her fingers, surprised and overjoyed when they responded. She went for broke, dropping her arms to her sides so that the woman’s hand slid out of her grip. Eileen Garaldi found her feet and scrambled away, her eyes full of tears and her cheeks red. “I’m calling the police,” she yelled. “I’ll sue you.”
The puppetmaster wanted to lunge at her but Liz was pulling in the opposite direction. Caught between the two impulses, her body swayed a little on the spot.
“I seriously doubt it,” Liz said. Liz’s mouth said. “But go ahead if you want to. I’ll see you in court. And in some other places that aren’t so well lit.”
The woman broke and fled for the passenger side of the SUV, which drove away with a melodramatic squeal of stressed rubber. Liz staggered back to her own car, so weak at the knees she felt as though she was about to go sprawling full length on the asphalt. She got inside and just sat there for a while, eyes closed, until the last frigid remnants of that alien presence melted out of her.