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Tyler: IN THE AIR TONIGHT
The gun pressed to the side of Paige’s bare neck, the cold barrel barely registering against her skin. She’d gone numb. Her hands gripped the beefy arm across her throat—it was close to choking her, pulling so hard her feet were nearly off the floor.
She tried to balance on her toes, but Wayne was moving backward, dragging her into the bowels of the ER and away from security.
The smells accosted her. Stale air. Rubbing alcohol and air freshener. Fear and death. No matter how well it was cleaned, those odors would never cease, embedded into the hospital as surely as they were into her senses.
In the background, she heard the cacophony—sirens and the screams of the patients and her co-workers—heard someone trying to reason with the man who’d taken her hostage.
“Mr. Wallace . . . Wayne, please, you don’t have to do this.”
Jeffrey, please—put the gun down, don’t do this.
The echo in her head threatened to take over everything, even as she told herself fiercely that this wasn’t the same situation—that the man holding her wasn’t her brother and that none of this was remotely personal.
Less than an hour ago, EMTs had brought in Cindy Wallace—she’d been beaten and at first insisted that she’d fallen down stairs. Paige had worked here long enough to recognize the signs, the excuses, the fear etched into the fine lines in the woman’s worn face.
After a few moments alone with Paige, Cindy had admitted her husband had been abusing her for years. She hadn’t offered up much more than that, but it had only taken Paige one touch with a bare palm to know the full story, her gift of psychometry working overtime—and she’d called the social worker down immediately. And the police.
And then she’d put on exam gloves so she wouldn’t have to feel more of Cindy’s pain.
But she hadn’t realized the extent of Wayne Wallace’s anger, hadn’t taken it seriously enough when Cindy told her that Wayne had gone so far over the edge that he would do anything not to be separated from her.
The police were searching for him. And Paige had been so intent on taking care of Cindy that neither of them had noticed Wayne sneaking into the curtained area.
They’d noticed when he grabbed Paige and held his gun on her, though.
“I’m not leaving here without you,” Wayne was saying now as he dragged her, Cindy following along, until they reached an empty room where he herded them inside, ordering his wife to shut the door behind her.
Time and space shattered inside Paige’s head when the door closed—everything slowed to the point of nearly stopping and her heart throbbed in her ears.
You’ve done this before—stay calm.
And suddenly she was fourteen again, the ER was the high school cafeteria and the man doing the shooting wasn’t an overweight bully who abused his wife, it was her brother, Jeffrey, and he would make headlines for the school shooting.
She forced her mind to the present. One wrong move—by anyone—and things could get ugly fast. Especially because the police were here—she’d heard them calling out to Wayne to answer the phone in the room, which he ignored. Cindy was screaming at her husband, the three of them trapped together and Paige wished Cindy would be quiet, wished everyone would shut up and stop talking.
But nothing ever stopped in the ER—especially when it was a matter of life and death.
If she could get the examination gloves off her hands, she might be able to help herself. Or she might make things worse. But there was no way this could end well. She refused to let it drag on for hours.
Her gift was both a blessing and a curse, sometimes both at once. She’d been using it for as long as she could remember—inadvertently when she was a child; later, when she’d begun to dread its intrusion, she’d taken to wearing gloves or pulling the sleeves of her shirts well past her fingertips as a defense. She’d even gone as far as to tattoo symbols of protection on the insides of both wrists, although they didn’t seem to be much help at the moment. She was alive, yes, but the symbols were there more to keep the evil she touched from invading her.
This time, it might be her only hope for surviving.
Sliding her hands along his arm as if trying for a better grip, the latex began to roll off her palms. Halfway off and the images came through—ones she didn’t want to see. Broken bones and blood and screams nearly shredded her with pain . . . this was all a part of Cindy’s daily life.
Shoulda killed the bitch when I had the chance.
God, was there anything Paige could see that would help her?
“You beat her yesterday and again this morning,” Paige said, her voice hoarse and breathless, and his grip went slack for a second before tightening.
“Shut up, bitch.”
She tightened her own grip on his forearm, letting her hands take in the violence and pain that threatened to shatter her. It was why she worked a job where no one considered it odd that she wore gloves all the time. “You lost your job again yesterday. And you were so angry that you came home to Cindy, tried to have sex, and then you hit her when you couldn’t get hard.”
Wayne shifted suddenly so he faced her, and before she could move away he had her by the throat, his fingers wrapped tight around her neck, closing her windpipe. Her only recourse was to grab at his wrist with both hands, but he was remarkably strong—and dead inside. That’s all she saw, anger and death—no hope, no love.
She was light-headed, opened her mouth but no words came out. Wayne pointed his gun at Cindy as he slowly took away Paige’s entire supply of air.
“Leave her alone, you pathetic asshole.” Cindy’s voice had gone from near hysteria to calm, and Paige recognized that tone. Cindy had decided she had nothing to lose.
She would egg her husband on until he killed her.
He keeps getting out on technicalities. His dad’s a cop—they always let him go, she’d whispered in response to Paige’s earlier question about pressing charges.
“You don’t tell me what to do. If you’d listen to me, the way you’re supposed to, this never would’ve happened.” Wayne’s voice was furious, full of guilt and blame—all things Paige recognized.
“You can’t get it up, and I can’t wait to tell everyone about your limp dick.” Cindy’s words were as deliberate and malicious as her husband’s fists had been to her face.
They did the job, because Wayne released Paige by slamming her body against the nearest wall. She hit her head hard against it and fell to the floor. From there, she saw Wayne lunge forward to squeeze his wife’s throat, tighter, until Paige saw Cindy’s eyes bulge and her face turn reddish purple. One of the officers who’d slammed through the door earlier, when Wayne had crashed the bed he’d been holding Cindy down on to the floor, wouldn’t let Paige up, no matter how hard she fought.
Then, a doctor came in, armed with a syringe. With the help of the officer trying to subdue Wayne, the doctor jammed the needle directly into Wayne’s neck.
Finally, the drug worked its magic, shattering the insanity and everything went mercifully quiet. Wayne’s big body slumped down on top of his wife’s prone one, but it didn’t matter anymore. Cindy was gone; Wayne would go to prison for murder, and Paige was back in that awful time in her life when everything had suddenly turned from good to bad.
The entire situation had taken an hour.
“Ma’am, it’s over.” One of the police officers was attempting to help her up from the floor. She wanted to stay there, on the cold linoleum, to curl up and sob, but her pride wouldn’t let her. At least not in front of strangers.
She stood and allowed herself be led through the crowd. Her breath came in harsh gasps, part fear and partly because Wayne had held her neck so tightly. She would have bruises there by morning, as well as along her side where she’d landed when he’d tossed her. Her body ached, her head throbbed and her nerves were worn down to the nub.
In the hallway, she was vaguely aware she’d passed by doctors, nurses and orderlies, heard their murmurs of concern. She didn’t want any of it.
Finally, the officer escorted her behind a curtain where Carole Ann, a woman she’d known since she first started working here, was waiting for her. She was the charge nurse in the ER and dealt with the stress of the job easily. She didn’t play favorites and she was excellent at her job. She was also the one person Paige had given her personal information to, although she would hesitate to call Carole Ann a good friend. Paige had shared her cell phone number and a few meals with the woman—the barest slice of her life. And yet, it was far more than she’d let anyone in for a long time.
“I’m fine,” Paige insisted to Carole Ann now, but her barely there voice said otherwise.
“Yeah, I’ll let you know when you’re fine,” Carole Ann said with a smile—an old joke of theirs, as those were Paige’s first words to her when they worked together. She sat patiently as Carole Ann examined her. She knew the bruises on her throat were already showing, no doubt a deep purplish red. “I failed her,” she said finally. Quietly.
Carole Ann crossed her arms and shook her head. “Paige, you were almost killed by that guy—he was out of control. There was nothing you could’ve done.”
Nothing you could’ve done, honey, no way for you to know what your brother was capable of doing.
They all said that at first, until their pain hardened to anger and the town began pointing fingers at Paige’s parents, at Paige.
No one would ever be friends with her if they remained in that town. As it was, no one wanted to be her friend later, either, once they found out who she was. Except for her stepbrother, Gray—her fiercest protector. Her best friend.
Her heart surged with loneliness, because Gray was gone. This time he wasn’t coming back the way he had all the other times he’d gone off on a mission for Delta Force.
He’d died three months earlier—she hadn’t been informed until two weeks ago, when his body had finally been released with no explanation as to why it had taken so long to be told of the tragedy.
Gray’s body had been sent to her stepfather, Joseph—Gray’s father—out in Arizona and she’d flown out for the burial, stayed in his one-bedroom townhouse. God, that had been depressing. Joseph was in a wheelchair, attached twenty-four seven to an oxygen tank because of advanced emphysema.
Everyone close to her was either dead or dying.
“She started drinking again,” Joseph had said about her mother, who’d died a year earlier. They’d visited her grave after Gray’s service. “It was so hard on her. You understand that, right?”
She did, although it always bothered her that her mother didn’t seem to think it was hard on Paige. But all of their lives had changed that sunny May afternoon; and now, her older brother, Jeffrey, was in a maximum security institution for life.
“Maybe you should take the time you’ve got coming,” Carole Ann suggested as she wrote Paige a prescription for pain pills and gave her a shot of a steroid to shrink the swelling in her throat. “Take a vacation. They’re going to force the issue anyway, make you visit the shrink.”
She knew that Carole Ann was probably right. Getting away from here and taking some of her accrued vacation time would be a nice way out for the hospital administration and would disperse the reporters who, like vultures, had no doubt been outside in the parking lot for the duration of the incident. “I don’t know where I’d go.”
“Someplace not as heavy. Which is any damned place but this hellhole.”
Paige couldn’t explain that she needed to be here, to feel the heaviness. Instead, she stared down at the tattooed stars on her inner wrists and wondered if they protected her from anything at all. “Thanks, Carole Ann—I’ll think about it.”
“Good. Go home and rest. I don’t want to see you back here for at least forty-eight hours, and I’d prefer a week.” Carole Ann used her best nurse’s-orders tone, then stepped away from Paige and headed back to work. Business as usual.
The dizziness had stopped. Her throat still ached—the hoarseness would take days to go away—but she hated being treated like a victim. She wasn’t in this case—Cindy Wallace was. And so she slid off the exam table and headed out to the main part of the ER.
It was quiet—too much so—and tension bowed the air as she walked toward the main information desk. It was usually bustling, no one staying in place for very long, but they’d stopped taking patients and now all she saw were people’s backs as their faces remained glued to the television mounted on the wall above the station.
She saw the front of the hospital and pictures of the Wallaces flashed on the screen. Next was the picture from her ID badge, looking humorless and sallow. She grimaced a little, but if that was her worst problem . . .
Her face was still on the TV screen, but now it was a younger version—that file photo of her at fourteen that the press had used over and over again when the school shooting first happened.
She knew the one they would show next—the one of her wearing a bloodied shirt, being escorted out of the school . . . and then her kneeling on the pavement.
There had been a recent school shooting. Whenever that happened, it was inevitable that Jeffrey’s name would come up—as sure as it was that they’d mention Columbine. This time there was even more interest because of Jeffrey’s transfer to the mental health section of the prison. They claimed it was just as secure as the main prison itself, but she’d worked with her share of psych patients and, in her opinion, they could be far more devious than regular criminals, without being obvious about it. Often underestimated, they would appear catatonic and still steal your keys to the ward.
It’s prison, it’s different, she repeated to herself.
Her brother and what he’d done had been her secret since before she’d moved here to this large New York hospital. She was twenty-six and she still looked slightly haunted, some might say, and anonymity was something she craved, something she needed as much as air.
Even though she used her stepfather’s last name, it would be easy enough to tie her to the horrible tragedy that had occurred. It was so far in the past for most people that she’d thought that by now it was safe. But she of all people should have known better. She would never be safe from any of it.
Still, the news report signaled the first time anyone had found her since she’d gone off to college. She’d kept her identity hidden, cut her hair short and dyed it darker, wore glasses even though she didn’t need them and made up a fictional background that basically left her an orphan.
Now she wore her hair long and back to its natural blond. She had also ditched the glasses because she was old enough not to be recognized as the girl she’d once been. But as of today, her security was gone.
The entire staff was glued to the television—one by one, they’d turn surreptitiously to look at her, to try to see the resemblance between her and that young girl in shock. She could see the questions in their eyes, and she understood.
Everyone wanted to know what it was like to live with evil. She would do anything in her power if she could only forget.
From the Paperback edition.