“I should’ve stayed with her,” I keep saying. I’m aware of the soothing hand on my forehead, and soon also of the warmth of a bed and thick duvets that slowly brings my body back to life, but other than that I’m stuck on Lauren’s story inside my head. It’s a while until I can lift my eyelids, and even longer until I come back to myself completely.
“I need to talk to her,” I say to whomever is there to listen. “She has to forgive me.” I try to get up, but a stabbing pain in my ribs knocks me back down. I groan, but luckily someone rushes to my side and does something to take the pain away – I don’t know what.
“Don’t strain yourself.” It’s Yvette’s smoker-deep voice. “You’ve been seriously abused, and you’re still weak.”
Little by little I get used to the waking state again, and Yvette rustles the curtains aside to let light in. I’m still at the asylum – I recognize the bleak gardens outside, even though I can’t see very well – but in a much cozier room. I manage to sit up on the bed eventually, grimacing at the discomfort, and tangling in all the cables that are clipped to my fingertips. Wow, I must be doing shitty.
“How did you manage to get me here?” My vocal cords sound so rusty I must’ve been out for days.
“You’re pretty lucid, I see,” Yvette says with a smile as she heads back to the bed. She checks the IV lines and the machines around me like a dexterous nurse, only that she’s wearing black instead of white. A Morticia-Adams-dress that’s too tight on her plump shape. I can’t help but marvel at how generous her bust is, and at the fact that she doesn’t try to hide it like most women her age. The cleavage, red lipstick and wrinkle-free full-moon face make me wonder whether she grooms this appearance for some much younger lover. Can’t believe where my mind strays . . .
“How much do you remember?” She inquires, hands and eyes up on the machines.
“Everything. I remember that Lauren almost got me killed, and that she ordered I be treated so badly that I eventually die. Which is why I’m surprised to wake up being tended to.”
I catch a glimpse of myself in the screen of a machine, and I cringe. I’m compelled to return my gaze to the image – one eye is swollen and reddish-purple, same as my upper lip that’s crisscrossed by cuts.
Yvette leans down to me with a motherly smile, and caresses my forehead. The scent of aromatic cigarettes is welcome and homely – I must be really damaged to find it pleasant; I always hated the smell of cigarettes.
“You were very lucky, Saphira. It may look bad now, but it’ll all go away. There will be no scars or permanent damage. There’s a God up there who loves you.”
“Yes, I believe so,” I whisper, still terrified by my own image. I try not to look at it again, and pray that Kieran doesn’t get to see me like this. “How did you manage to save my arse?”
“Let’s say I restored the balance of power. Lauren Morris has been sleeping with Lord Barkley for years – this was Barkley’s secret, and how certain people in this town kept him doing what they said. Now, since Miss Morris opened her big slutty mouth in front of me, he must do what I say. I blackmailed him.”
“She’s been sleeping with Ronald Lord Barkley . . .” My stomach knots. I can’t help imagining Pretty Lauren’s skinny model legs in high heels wrapped around Barkley’s pruned hips. Gunnar’s abuse of her when she was a child drilled into her mind severely deep, making her sink in traumatic experiences until she became as dangerous as her abusers.
“This is all my fault . . .” I shake my head, and get a terrible ache.
“No, Saphira.” Yvette cups my face and makes me look into her eyes. “We are all responsible for our own actions, and so is Lauren for hers.”
“That’s not true,” I manage among tears. “It’s a simplistic way of putting things in order to get the burden off the shoulders where it belongs. You can’t tell a raped child that they’re responsible for what they become.”
Yvette searches my eyes. “As I said, you’re pretty darn lucid.”
“Thank God. Don’t try cheap lines on me again, because they don’t soothe me – they enrage me.” I sound angrier than good Yvette deserves. Poor woman is just trying to help, but I can’t bring myself to apologize.
“Okay, then look this truth in the face,” she retorts. “What happened to Lauren Morris was not your fault. You were only a child yourself. Even if you had known what Gunnar was capable of, you couldn’t have confronted or challenged him.”
“No, but I could’ve hindered him. I would’ve never left her side, I would’ve . . .”
“Not knowing what he was capable of kept you alive and unscathed, Saphira! That bastard cared about his image more than anything – his immaculate image of a family man – and had you compromised that, he would’ve gotten rid of you. He may have done with you what he did with Catherine Lancaster!”
Chills go through me and shake me to the bones. The man I’d known as my father . . . I can’t think it to the end. It’s unbearable.
“And raping his neighbors’ daughter didn’t threaten his image, you think?” I grumble, trying to move yet further away from that feeling.
“Lauren Morris’ dad used to work for yours. He kissed Gunnar’s ass big time. So Gunnar sent him and his wife on business trips almost constantly, if you remember, and kept the girl at your house.”
I nod slowly in recollection. That’s how Lauren and I became best friends in the first place. Loose ends come together, and things start to make sense. I look slowly up at Yvette and narrow my eyes – well, my one good eye.
She frowns down at a syringe that she then dips into my belly. “So that your blood doesn’t coagulate,” she explains.
I don’t even wince at the sting – at least one welcome by-product of being subjected to great violence; you become really hard to frighten or sway, not to mention almost immune to pain.
“How long have you been working for Barkley?”
The smile that crosses Yvette’s face is that of a patient wise woman. It fits her better than the tight black dress, I think. “For many years, Saphira.”
“But how come we never met? Are you originally from Northville?”
“Oh yes, I was born here. And you and I met before, a number of times actually. Not that I expected you to remember, you’re high society, crème de la crème, I’m working class – the well-paid and well-connected layer of it, I admit, but still just a face in the crowd.”
A face in the crowd . . .
“I’ve even been at your graduation party – a big one your mother threw there, wow,” she continues. “I was at the Manor on the Night of Venice as the Marquis presented you as his girlfriend, and at the Christmas party at your house as your father announced your engagement to the Marquis. I attended your engagement banquet at the Manor too.” She gives me a meaningful, naughty look. “You and the Marquis came to greet us after you came back from your . . . “
That night flashes through my memory. Kieran doing it to me down in the dungeons, then displaying me all over the banquet hall, my arm hooked around his. It was surely clear to everyone that we’d just ravished each other, and Kieran made a point of it. And then it hits me.
Images and events rush through my mind one after the other – the Opera House. Lauren. Billy singing on the stage, his voice angelic; Jeremy befriending Billy, the boys in the catacombs; Lauren following; Vivien and I keeping back, scared. A face in the crowd. Basarab, Ivan.
Jeremy was the most popular boy in town back when we were teenagers. He’d give me those cocky grins that made me melt. He kissed me by the thick oak tree in his back yard. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes again was Lauren right by our side, her eyes jealous and her cheeks red. Billy – a thin mouse-faced boy with spectacles and hormone-caused pimples by now – gazed long at Lauren from somewhere behind her. Little Jeanie watching us from up in her room, nose and little chubby palms stuck to the window. Ronald Lord Barkley visiting all our families very often. A face in the crowd. Basarab, Ivan. Again, the Opera House.
Years later, I walked in and saw Jeremy in bed with Lauren. Just months before Jeremy and I were supposed to be married. She said she did it for revenge, but in truth, who was using whom? Billy worked as a notary, sunken in his work in his smoke-filled, cluttered office; still Jeremy’s best friend, and still hopelessly in love with Lauren; it seemed easy for her to manipulate him. He helped with adoptions a lot. Lord Barkley still visited all our families. Vivien on the table, her body arching under electroshocks, her eyes on a face in the crowd. A face in the crowd. The Opera House. Basarab, Ivan.
The big hooded man walking away from Lauren in the rain the night Kieran and I wanted to elope together. Powerful, giving her orders. Lauren Morris, raped by Gunnar years ago. She’d slept with my fiancé, as well as with the family friend Ronald Lord Barkley who should’ve loved her like a father, and who knows with whom else. A face in the crowd, always there, never noticed. The Opera House. Basarab, Ivan.
“Saphira!” Yvette’s voice drills through to me. “What is it girl? You look as if you saw a ghost.”
I stare up at her. “I know who he is, Yvette. I just realized who Ivan Basarab truly is.”
To be continued on Friday.