CHAPTER 1: Solitude of a Birdcage

Shame woke her.

The heat of it rolled through her, an explosion that started in the pit of her stomach and ricocheted off of her organs. In the dark haze between sleep and consciousness, she’d seen Van, her best friend. She’d heard Van’s voice, saying it was okay to cry, felt Van’s fingers wrap tightly around hers and squeeze.

Sitting straight up in her bed, she turned to the figure that lay beside her. Isaac stirred and reached for her, his hand falling on the empty pillow beside him. Even through the darkness, she could see his eyes flutter open. “Maxie,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“Van,” she said, breathless. Still disoriented from sleep, her eyes scanned the room. “Where’s Van? What time is it?”

Sh-h,” Isaac soothed, placing a comforting hand on the small of her back. “Relax. It’s only two, Van’s still at work.”

But Maxie’s heart was hammering angrily against her chest cavity, guilt flooded her veins. Remnants of sorrow lingered from her dream. In it, she’d been fifteen again, sitting in the pitch black of the bedroom she’d once shared with Van, waiting for a call that would never come.

“If he was ever going to call,” she thought aloud, “it would have been that night. My birthday.”

Isaac rose to rest on his elbow. He took hold of her arm and gently pulled her around to face him. She couldn’t. She kept her eyes low, her head turned. “Hey,” he said. “Was it a nightmare?”

“No,” she replied. It was a reminder. How easy Isaac made it for her to forget nights like that one. Nights when it had been Van beside her, Van wanting to know what was wrong. Wanting to make it better. “We can’t do this,” she said. “We can’t tell her.”

Isaac took his hand off of her. With a sigh, he fell back down against the pillow. “Go back to sleep,” he said, evenly.

“It was my birthday—”

“I’m not going to entertain this conversation.”

“He didn’t even call, but Van was there—”

“Of course, she was! You lived with her, Maxie. Jesus. Where else would she have been?”

“You don’t understand…” Maxie could almost feel the warmth of Van’s palm against her cheek, as it’d been that night, catching her tears as they’d fallen. She could almost smell Van’s perfume. Her shampoo.

Or maybe that was just Isaac. Why wouldn’t her friend’s scent be clinging to him?

She opened her mouth to speak, but as she finally allowed herself to look at him, everything she’d been meaning to say slipped away. His eyes were closed and his brows were knitted together in frustration, yet he was still so handsome her words left her.

“I mean, seriously,” he went on. “Aren’t you sick of this? The hiding, the sneaking. I’m not a fucking teenager anymore. I’m not doing this.”

When he realized she was staring at him, warmth mollified his hard gaze, and the corners of his lips curled up into a small grin. “C’mere,” he said, taking her by the arms again and pulling her against his bare chest. “We’re telling her tonight,” he said, softer but with no less conviction. “We’re telling her, and we’re going to deal with the consequences. It’ll be hard, but at least we’ll have each other.”

“But I’ll lose her.” Her best friend in the entire world.

“Maybe at first. But she’ll get past it eventually. You both will. That’s what it means to be family.” His fingers were in her hair as he spoke, the tips of them moved gently against her scalp. Then he dropped a kiss on the crown of her head and, even in the midst of her guilt, she wanted nothing more than to lose herself in his embrace.

What was it about him that made her lose her sense of obligation? Her sense of loyalty? The answer came to her almost instantly.

Everything. Every single thing.

They made love. They held each other. They talked. They made love again. It was just after four in the morning when she untangled herself from his limbs and went to the kitchen for water. She pulled the jug from the refrigerator and as she turned to retrieve a cup, something caught her eye. Van’s bedroom door. It sat slightly ajar, a thin stream of light bleeding out into the hall.

Van was home. Just in her bedroom.

Maxie could hear her shuffling around. For a moment, she stood frozen in her own panic. Wearing nothing but panties and Isaac’s oversized tee shirt, there would be no denying what had been going on while Van was away. Especially not with him half-asleep in her bed.

She had to wake him, warn him. They planned on coming clean to Van, but not like this. Pivoting toward her room, she slammed right into a broad chest. Strong hands grabbed her before she could gather her bearings, and roughly turned her back toward the counter. She cried out as her belly smashed against the edge. She opened her mouth to scream, but a hand seized her by the mouth and jerked her back first. His fingers dug into her cheeks, his palms covered her nose. She couldn’t even breathe, let alone scream.

She struggled against his iron grip for but a moment before the sensation of cold metal against her temple made her stop short. “That’s right,” a low voice rasped at her. The man leaned down so close to her that his lips brushed against her ear. “Don’t move another fucking inch.”

She didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. Her heart may have even stopped beating, but she couldn’t be sure. Fear oppressed every other emotion, every other thought. “Is anyone else here?” the man demanded. Maxie’s eyes went to Van’s bedroom as it occurred to her that it wasn’t Van at all shuffling around in there. So there was just Isaac.

She shook her head.

He lowered the gun and shoved her back down on the counter, pushing her face into the granite tile. Her heart pace quickened as the shirt she wore rose over the back of her thighs. She cried out, but once again, the sensation of the gun against her skin quieted her. “Shut up!” he ordered, pressing her face harder against the countertop. Pain vibrated through the side of her head. She felt as if it would explode under the pressure of his palm.

Was Isaac still asleep? What would happen if she yelled for him? What would happen if he came running out of the room to the sound of her distress with no idea of what was waiting for him? She would get them both shot.

With the gun still digging into her spine, the man lifted her shirt to reveal her skimpy, lacy panties. Maxie recoiled. She tried to rise, her hands flew back to stop him. “No, please!” she cried, tears blurring her vision. When had she started to cry? “Don’t!”

Her hands battled with his for the hem of the shirt for a moment before he took her by her hair with one hand and jerked her head back violently. With the butt of his pistol, he delivered a swift blow that landed just above her brow. She crumbled instantly, right into the violent embrace of her assailant. The room spun beneath her as he shoved her, limp and dazed, back against the counter. “I will fucking hurt you,” he growled, giving her head a sharp jolt. Reality was slipping away from her as the pain of her wound set in in sharp, furious bursts. She slowly raised her hand to it and looked at her fingers, decorated in blood. She blinked as darkness crept in, slowly framing her vision. “Do you understand me?” he barked at her. When she didn’t reply, he gave her head another jar. This time she nodded.

Taking her by the back of the shirt, he shoved her to the middle of the floor. She could feel herself swaying on her feet. Her legs felt weak beneath her. For a moment, she stood there trembling, uncertain of what was happening, of what was going to happen. What was he doing behind her? She couldn’t hear him, he wasn’t touching her, and yet, she could feel him, like an ominous shadow hovering over her. Finally, he said, “Take off your shirt.”

Her eyes fell shut, her insides crumbled. Like a hollow, rotted floor, collapsing beneath the weight of her. A violent sob rose up from her chest.

“Hey!” he snapped. “Now!”

Helpless, her hands shaking, her shoulders heaving as she wept, she slowly pulled her shirt over her head and let it fall to the floor. The apartment was cold—or maybe it was just the menacing presence of her aggressor—and the hairs rose on her arms and the back of her neck. A moment later his icy fingers trailed down her spine, stopping at the small of her back to pop the elastic of her panties. She shuddered, weak with humiliation and shame. With a chuckle, he said, “Nice.”

Maxie squeezed her eyes shut tighter as he circled her, the slightest bit of movement dizzying her. Stopping in front of her, he shoved her arms, which were crossed over her exposed breasts, down to her sides. “Your panties now,” he said. “Take them off.”

She dropped her head, slowly shook it. “Please—”

He was behind her again; she felt the gun prod her forcefully. “Now!” he barked.

Letting her eyes flutter open, she wondered if she preferred to just have him shoot her. Humiliate her, rape her, maybe kill her once it was all over, anyway, or just put her out of her misery now? But then, something shifted in the darkness. A silhouette, a figure. Isaac.

He came out of the shadows just enough to meet her eyes. His were black, and stone cold. His shoulders were squared, his jaw was taut. She inhaled sharply as he raised the small gun in his hands—he’d given it to her months ago, insisted she keep it in the drawer beside her bed despite her persistent claims that she’d never need it—and pointed it right at her. She inhaled, her eyes went wide, and then he pulled the trigger.

She wondered if it all happened in slow motion; growing tense as the deafening bang of the gun vibrated through her entire body, her eyes slamming shut just a half a second before she felt drops of wetness land on the bare skin of her back, the sound of the intruder’s body hitting the floor with a thud. And then the silence, the blackness, the numbness that followed.

Isaac didn’t miss a beat. He rushed forward and as soon as she felt his hands on her, she collapsed in his arms. Locking her in his embrace, he led her away from the limp body at their feet. She pressed herself against him, wrapped her arms around him, sobbed desperately into the curve of his neck. He lifted her and brought her to the living room where he wrapped the small duvet from the couch around her bare shoulders.

For a moment or so, he said nothing as she cried, just held her heaving, quaking body to him, rocked slowly back and forth, ran his hand through her tousled hair, and rested his lips reassuringly on her ear. She struggled to breath, her heart beating so hard and so fast that her chest hurt. Her ears were still ringing, her head was throbbing, blood fell in slow, vein-like streams down her face. She could barely see through the throbbing pain in her skull, through her fear, through her shock. “Relax, sweetheart, I’m here,” he finally whispered. “I’m right here. Focus on my voice. Feel my heart beat. Can you feel it? I’m right here.”

He pulled back to take off his own shirt and then pressed it to her head.

“It’s not that bad. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” he assured.

And then she jerked back, her eyes wide and wild. She tried to get to her feet but Isaac held her.

“Hey, hey,” he said, gently. “Just calm down, you’re safe now.” Her breaths grew short and quick when her eyes fell on Van’s bedroom.

“No,” she whispered, peering around the dark apartment. “Isaac—”

“Relax,” he said, “just relax—”

Sh-h!” she hushed, frantically. Where was the second intruder? Had he fled during the commotion, or was he still there? Maybe he was watching them at that very moment. “Isaac,” she murmured, her voice barely audible, her eyes impossibly big as she looked up at him. “I think there’s someone else here.”

He peered back at her, and then around the apartment. “Alright,” he said, still so collected while Maxie sat before him, hyperventilating from uncertainty, shock, blinding fear. Slowly rising, he tucked her behind the couch and wrapped her fingers around the gun in his hand. “Do you remember how to use it?” he asked.

Maxie blinked. She wanted to tell him no. She wanted to say that she couldn’t take the gun, because there was no way she’d be able to pull the trigger if necessary. She wanted to beg him to just stay with her, to kneel in the corner beside her, to never leave her sight. But instead, she swallowed hard and managed a choked, “Yes.”

He nodded and turned to go off into the darkness. “No!” she cried, reaching for him. He turned back to her and kneeled down to meet her terrified eyes.

“I’ll be okay,” he assured. “Just trust me, alright? Sit right here, don’t move, don’t make a sound. I’m going to call the police and then come right back for you.”

She shook her head but he was already pulling away from her again. More tears sprang forth as he carefully peeled his wrist from her fingers, which dug into his skin. “I love you,” he said, and pressed a short but passionate kiss on her lips. It was almost comforting, reassuring, like a promise.

She watched as he stole into the kitchen, grabbed the dead man’s gun, and then disappeared into the shadows. Maxie sat, struggling to keep her breathing even. She was trying not to blink, trying not to jump every time she thought she heard a noise. Her hands holding the small gun shook. The smell of the dead man’s blood was making her nauseous. Minutes passed. Long, unbearable minutes that felt like hours, days. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe no one else was in the apartment. Maybe they were safe—

Two thunderous gunshots shattered her thoughts. She shrieked, pressed herself more firmly to the back of the couch, tightened her grip on her own gun. She couldn’t control the sobs that erupted from her chest. The terror she felt was paralyzing. Where was Isaac? Why didn’t he come back to get her?

She pulled a hand off of her gun to quickly sweep it over her eyes, then placed it back against the metal. Her palms were sweating, her hands quaked, she thought she would throw up any second. She needed to see Isaac. She needed to hear his voice, to feel his arms around her. She needed to know he was okay. Where was he? What was going on?

He told her it would be okay, but she didn’t know if she believed him. He told her not to move, but she didn’t think she could oblige. Taking a deep breath, she slowly rose on shaking legs and took a step through the darkness, still holding the blanket around her. The silence of the apartment was just as deafening as the gunshots. Had anyone heard them? Maybe the police were on the way.

She took another step, and another and another, through the wide pool of sticky blood and into the hallway. She wanted to call out to him, but feared getting someone else’s attention instead, so she moved mutely throughout the apartment. The living room was empty, the front door hung slightly open. Did someone leave? Where was Isaac?

She treaded softly and slowly down the hall. The bathroom door was closed. Van’s door was closed. Her bedroom door was open. She paused, breathed, carried on. Just before the open door, she paused again, breathed. Then, pointing the gun, she turned into her bedroom.

Her body went cold.

Her blood stopped pumping, her heart stopped beating, she stopped breathing. She may as well have died right there, standing. Without him she couldn’t live. She didn’t exist.

Sprawled out on the floor beside her bed, motionless in a growing puddle of his own blood, was Isaac. Shot in the head.

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