Chapter Twenty-Four: Catharsis

"Third is the door of madness. There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind." ―Patrick Rothfuss

I have a gun in my hand. For some reason, it's pointed at David.

Then I realize why. Dr. Hall steps out from behind him, pressing the edge of a knife to his throat.

"Don't—" I reach toward them, but Dr. Hall backs away, pulling David with him.

"Charlotte, you give me no choice," he murmurs quietly.

I see the muscles tense in his arm, see blood drip down the knife as it slowly begins to pierce flesh. David closes his eyes and winces. He knows he's going to die.

My finger automatically squeezes the trigger.

BANG

BANG BANG

BANG

Light flashes from the muzzle of my gun, loud ringing echoes in the air.

The body crumples to the ground. He's not dead, but dying quickly. I run to his side, brushing a stray strand of hair from his face, smiling weakly down at him.

"I'm so sorry, David. So, so sorry."

I will never forget the expression on his face.

Why? He asks silently, but the spark in his eyes is gone before I can explain.

I look up at Dr. Hall, who stands by in mildly surprised silence. He's working it out in his mind. You killed him so that I couldn't. You didn't want me to enjoy it.

Damn right.

Why not kill me?

I stand and answer his unspoken question. "He was too good for me. Too perfect. I would have ruined him." I think about it for a moment and inquire. "Do you ever feel that way about me?"

He looks down pensively at David, poor dead David. "Always."

I move nearer, reach for his hand, which he willingly lets me take. This is what it means to touch another human being. To understand them through and through. To be them, for a moment.

"What did I do to deserve you?" I whisper.

He glances at me. "Nothing. You did nothing. You simply are. You exist."

I nod slowly. "We were made for each other."


I wake up with a start.

My hand immediately scrambles for the phone and automatically finds the number, pressing the call button.

Two rings later, I hear David's tired, groggy voice on the other side of the line. "Charlotte? What's wrong? It's three in the morning."

It takes me a moment to find my voice. "I know it's late—can you come over?"

He can hear my distress and doesn't argue further. "Yeah, sure. I'm on my way."

I haven't seen him or talked to him in a week. Not since our argument. Until tonight, I was still angry at him, and he was probably still too upset to make the first move. Right now, though, I don't really care. I need to see him, to know that he's OK. I need to know that I didn't just kill him.

I barely manage to unlock the front door before I collapse on the sofa, wrapped tightly in a blanket. When he finally arrives a few minutes later and knocks on the door, I can't even get up.

"Come in," I call weakly.

He enters quickly, turning on lights as he goes until he finds me curled up on the sofa. Despite my anxiety, I laugh, half out of relief at seeing him alive, half out of amusement. His hair is a wild, tangled mess of curls, his eyes drowsy, his face slack. In his hurry, he didn't even bother to get dressed before he came—he's standing in front of me now in nothing but his boxers and a t-shirt, with his coat thrown over the top.

Normally he'd be mortified if I saw him in such a state. Right now he's too preoccupied to care. He approaches and joins me on the sofa, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me close without even having to ask what's wrong.

I close my eyes and take in the sensation of his embrace. "I had another nightmare," I explain in a muffled voice.

He soothes me softly, running a hand over my hair, pressing his lips to the crown of my head. "What about?" he inquires.

I don't know how to tell him. 'I killed you in a dream' doesn't seem like such a good thing to say at the moment.

He senses my hesitation and states, "Charlotte, you can tell me about the nightmare, no matter what it was."

"He was going to kill you," I manage to say.

"Who? Dr. Hall?"

I nod.

"He can't kill anybody anymore, Charlotte. He's in prison."

I know that. But I'm not. I'm free and perfectly capable of killing somebody. "It felt so real."

"It wasn't." He holds me tightly, touches my face, tracing his fingers over my contours and smiling at me. "This is real. Do you feel this? I'm here now. I'm real."

He's right. I'm not a killer. I didn't kill him. I don't want to kill him. It was just a dream. "I don't know what I'd do without you," I whisper.

"I feel the same way about you," he murmurs.

I look up at him and return his smile weakly.

"David...thank you for coming."

He squeezes me gently and replies, "Any time."

I rest my head against his shoulder and close my eyes, letting out a sigh. "Will you stay with me tonight?"

"Of course I will. Do you want me to take you to your room, or do you want to stay here on the couch?"

"Will you come with me?" I inquire tentatively.

"To your room? I was just going to stay out here..." he trails off when he sees my pleading expression and sighs. "Yes. I'll come with you."

He helps me up and leads me to the bedroom, gently tucking me in under the covers before sitting on the edge of the bed. "Do you need anything?"

"No, I'm OK. Come here." I lift up the sheets, inviting him to join me beneath them. I know he's uncomfortable with the idea, especially after what happened last time, but I need to feel him near me, to hold me.

He accedes to my wishes, taking off his coat and hesitantly sliding under the covers. He wraps his arms around me, pulls me into him, molding his contours to mine. I feel his lips brush the back of my neck, the stubble on his jaw prickling my skin.

"No more nightmares," he whispers. "I'm here to chase them away."

I hope so. I close my eyes and try to sleep, but I spend most of the night awake, soaking in every sensation—David's deep, even respiration, his warmth, the smoothness of his skin against mine. I don't know when I'll ever experience this again.

I'm going to appreciate it while I can.


Sometime the next morning, I wake up when I feel somebody sit down on the edge of the bed. I open my eyes to see David staring down at me with a small smile on his face.

"What time is it?" I ask.

"Ten fifteen. I cancelled my appointments for today—called in sick. You've already slept through your class. I thought we could have a day in." The smile he gives me leaves no room for disagreement.

"Sounds nice." I sit up and rub the sleep from my eyes.

I notice that David has already showered and dressed. He must have found the corner of my wardrobe where I keep the things Dr. Hall left behind. Those are his slacks and his button-up shirt that David's wearing. It's a good thing they're not too different in size, although the shirt is a little tight across the shoulders and I think the pants are probably a little too short.

"I hope you don't mind," he murmurs when he sees me examining his attire. "I borrowed them from you. I would have gone home to get something, but I didn't want to leave you alone."

"It's all right," I reassure him. "I don't mind. You might, though. Those are Dr. Hall's clothes."

He grimaces. "I figured." He looks uncomfortable, as if the clothes themselves are drenched in acid, burning his flesh wherever they touch him.

"Stop it," I chide him gently.

"Stop what?"

"Flinching. Those are nice clothes."

"Worn by a serial killer."

"So?"

"I wonder what he was doing the last time he wore these..." David muses. "Possibly planning the next murder he'd commit..."

I let out a short laugh. "No." I reach out and touch the shirt. Dr. Hall left two behind. I know them both really well. This is the white cotton one with faint, almost invisible pinstripes on it. It was his "utilitarian" shirt, the one he'd use when he was cooking or doing something else that required comfort over appearance. This shirt was as close to casual wear as he could get.

I also happen to know that it cost over two-hundred dollars.

I don't tell David that. Instead I simply mention, "He made me dinner in that shirt. Several times. I like it. It looks good on you," I add with a smile, just to make him feel a little better.

He smiles back, but it looks more like he's wincing.

"I'm going to go take a shower," I inform him. "Are you hungry? You can eat while you wait for me."

He shakes his head. "I want to wait for you. We can make a late breakfast together."

"I'm going to warn you now, I don't cook very well."

"Neither do I," he admits with a laugh. "We can figure it out between the two of us."

That sounds nice.

My shower relaxes me, washing away the fear from last night. David's here now. Everything is all right. It's better than all right.

Once I'm out of the shower and dressed, we spend several minutes trying to decide what to make. It's that time right in between breakfast and lunch, when it's not quite clear what we should eat. Finally, David suggests a compromise. "Waffle sandwiches."

"Waffle sandwiches?" I echo dubiously.

"We'll make waffles and then make sandwiches out of them. What do you want? Ham and cheese? Tuna? Turkey and avocado?" His enthusiasm is charming, but I'm still a little doubtful.

I glance in the refrigerator and reply, "I have eggs, tomatoes, and cheese. That's it."

He comes up behind me, glancing over my shoulder. "When I said you should have easy-to-fix meals, I mean that you should at least have some food in the kitchen. How do you survive?"

I shrug. "I manage." Honestly, though, I don't know how I survive. Most of the time I can't even remember if I eat or not, much less what I eat.

"Well you're definitely going to eat something this morning. Do you know how to make waffles?"

"No."

He sighs. "All right. I'll look for a recipe. Why don't you see if you can't find some flour and baking stuff?"

"Baking stuff?" I repeat.

"Yeah, you know. Stuff. Whatever it is that you use when you make things," he replies absently, already pulling out his phone to search for a waffle recipe.

I can't help but laugh. "You're pathetic."

"Hey, you don't know how to make waffles either."

"Yeah, but at least I know what 'baking stuff' is. ...I think."

David laughs as well. "Here, I found a recipe. It's got four and a half stars. That must mean it's good."

"Let me see." I reach for the phone, which he turns over to me. "Eggs, flour, milk, oil..." I give the phone back to him. "Read me the rest."

He obediently reads the other ingredients while I search for them in the kitchen. I don't have baking powder, but I have baking soda.

"Do you think this will work?" I show it to David.

He shrugs. "I don't see what the difference is."

Dr. Hall would be mortified. Fortunately, he's not here.

The waffles turn out all right. Some of them stick to the waffle iron and break apart, others are undercooked and still gooey on the inside, while others are overdone and crispy. David cheers and gives me a high-five when we get one perfect waffle out of the entire batch.

They're a little salty—David thought the little 't' in the recipe meant 'tablespoon' instead of 'teaspoon'—but we put extra tomatoes in the sandwiches to balance it out and it works pretty well.

"Not bad," I admit.

David takes a bite out of his sandwich, and tomato pulp dribbles down his chin. He laughs and wipes his face with a napkin. "A little messy, but better than nothing. How about we order pizza for dinner?"

I nod. "That's definitely a good idea."

After brunch, we clean up in the kitchen and spend the rest of the day in the house, watching TV in the bedroom, playing cards, doing what normal people do on a day in. I like it. It's casual and relaxed, and I feel completely at ease with David.

We eat pizza for dinner, then curl up on the sofa together and just talk. I stretch out, put my feet up, and rest my head on a pillow in David's lap. He absently strokes my hair with his fingers.

Finally I breach a subject that has been plaguing me all day. "It's Friday today. You don't have work tomorrow."

He looks down curiously at me. "True. Why?"

"Would you mind staying another night?" I inquire tentatively.

"Are you afraid of another nightmare?" he asks with concern.

"No. I thought it might be nice to...see what happens." I know it sounds lame, but I don't really have a better reason for asking him to stay.

"Charlotte, are you sure that's a good idea? I don't think we're ready for that kind of intimacy."

"Who decides that kind of thing? I mean, how do you know whether we're ready or not?" I retort.

"Well, judging by what happened last time..." he points out cautiously.

I avert my gaze guiltily. I should have known this would come up. David is a psychologist; it's obvious he wants to talk through what happened and work out problems instead of simply ignoring them and moving on.

"I'm sorry," I apologize quietly. "I didn't mean to be such a bitch last time. I was just angry that you were so upset."

He runs a hand over my arm, squeezing gently. "You're not a bitch," he replies softly, wincing as the harsh word leaves his mouth. "I don't like it when you degrade yourself like that. You're a wonderful, honest, beautiful woman, and you're hurting, but that just makes you human."

"That doesn't give me an excuse for what I said."

"No, but I accept your apology. I said some hasty things as well. I was...shocked, I suppose. When did you get that scar?" he inquires.

I sit up with a sigh. "I don't even remember getting it. All I know is that one minute I was in bed, Dr. Hall gave me something to help me sleep, and then I woke up with—with the body, and this 'X' on my chest."

David tries to hide the painful expression on his face, but he's not good at disguising his emotions.

I take his hands and squeeze them tightly in mine. "David, I'm moving past it. I'd like it if you could too. I have a troubled past, but that's what makes the time I spend with you so special. I'm happy with you. I want to be with you. I want you to be happy with me."

He smiles. "Charlotte, of course I'm happy with you."

"Then show me," I urge him.

He hesitates, so I move nearer and cup his face in my hands, slowly touching my lips against his. He responds tentatively at first, then with more firmness. He slides a hand behind my neck and pulls me even closer.

Pretty soon I'm straddling his lap, unbuttoning his shirt while he presses hot, desperate kisses to my throat. His shirt comes off, the undershirt too, and I caress the bare flesh of his torso with my hands. His breath comes out in short, shuddering gasps, his heart pounding heavily under my palms.

I rest my hand over his chest for a moment, feeling his pulse. I had forgotten how good it could feel to be with a man whose heart rate actually reacts to external stimuli. Dr. Hall's pulse never seemed to change, just like his carefully guarded expressions. I only ever knew how he felt when he told me, and even then I was depending entirely on his word most of the time.

"Damn it!" David suddenly exclaims, drawing me out of my thoughts.

"What?" I reply, hoping it's nothing that I've done.

"I forgot my wallet at home."

"You need your driver's license for this?" I ask with a laugh, relieved that I'm not the problem.

"No," he answers bashfully. "It's just... I keep protection in there. Just in case something like this happens."

I open my mouth to mention that I probably have something tucked away, but then I remember that I don't. Dr. Hall never used condoms. He strongly disapproved of them. Apparently they made sex less enjoyable for him. Sometimes I wondered if it was really because he got off on the riskiness of it. Or maybe he actually secretly wanted a kid. My only defense against that was a box of birth control pills I kept hidden in a dark corner of a kitchen cupboard. But I threw those out when Dr. Hall was caught. I didn't think I'd ever need them again.

"It's fine," I respond with a shake of the head. "You don't need—"

He silences me with a look that clearly says he isn't going any further without protection.

I sigh and remove myself from his lap, getting to my feet and stalking to the bedroom, where I grab my wallet. "I'll be back," I tell him as I cross the living room again. Slipping on my shoes and a coat, I leave the warmth of the house for the chilly, wet darkness of the autumn night.

There's a gas station just down the street, so I duck inside, grab a box of condoms, pay for them, and run back home. Fortunately, I don't think anybody recognizes me, so I don't feel too embarrassed.

I've only been gone ten to fifteen minutes tops, but when I get back inside, I find David already in the bedroom, lighting candles, which he has placed all over the room.

"Turn the light down, will you?" he asks, finishing up with the last of the candles, which are balanced on top of the headboard of the bed. "I found these in the kitchen," he explains, turning around to face me as I flick the light switch off. "I thought I'd set the mood while you were away."

I smile, kick off my shoes, and toss my coat on the floor. "David, I don't know what to say..."

"Don't say anything," he answers, approaching me slowly. He notices the box in my hand and reaches for it. "Glow in the dark?" he inquires with a curious chuckle.

I flush. "It's all they had," I reply defensively. "You're the one that insisted. Don't complain now."

"I'm not complaining," he assures me. "I'm all for experimenting a little." He looks at the box again and laughs helplessly before tossing it onto the bed. "Glow in the dark..."

I silence him with a long, sensuous kiss. I notice he doesn't laugh after that. He's too busy trying to undress me as quickly as he can.

First my shirt comes off, then my bra. He caresses me gently with his hands, letting his gaze linger on every part of me, though I notice he avoids the scar on my chest. Pressing his lips to my skin, he slowly trails downward and drops to his knees, where he has immediate access to my jeans.

"Let me know if I make you uncomfortable," he murmurs, carefully unbuttoning my pants and drawing them down my legs.

"Just try," I dare him.

His only response is to lay a kiss on my left hip as he hooks his fingers through my underwear and begins to slide it down. Waiting for me to step out of it, he holds it up and murmurs, "Briefs?"

"Standard marine issue for women," I explain. "I never got out of the habit." He looks like he's about to laugh again, and I add self-consciously, "And they're not briefs. They're skivvies. Stop it."

"I'm not laughing," he responds in a choked voice.

"You're about to."

Dr. Hall never complained. Then again, he bought me all sorts of interesting things to wear. He once told me that lingerie was like icing on a cake—insubstantial and not altogether necessary, but the perfect amount of extra sweetness that completed the experience.

Next time, I'm going to have to remember to wear something a little more provocative.

"Forgive me," he apologizes. "It's not funny." Looking up at me from his position, still kneeling in front of me, he adds, "God, you're beautiful."

Well that's a start. With a hand under his chin, I raise him to his feet and draw him into another kiss. My hands find the waistband of his borrowed trousers. "Let's see what you've got under here," I whisper in his ear.

He shivers. "Ohhh, you gave me goose bumps. Do that again."

I lean in and graze my teeth over his earlobe. He lets out a long, low moan.

I know these trousers very well. It takes me roughly three seconds before they're pooled in a heap around David's feet. I press myself against him, rubbing him teasingly through his boxers. He sucks in a sharp breath.

"Do you practice?" he groans.

I shrug and pull away, sitting down on the bed and beckoning him nearer. "I'm not completely inexperienced. Come here and I'll show you something else."

He finishes undressing before joining me. I'm so used to waiting, exercising what little patience I have, but David's a man after my own heart. Reaching behind me, he grabs the box of condoms and murmurs, "Let's see if these really glow in the dark."

They do. In fact, it's a close competition between the condom and the dim light from the candles.

I can't help but laugh.

"See, you think it's funny too," he notes.

It's true.

There's nothing funny about how I feel, however, when he moves closer and draws me into a deep, longing kiss. I bend backward until I'm on my back, and he lowers himself on top of me, slowly and carefully maneuvering himself to the point of penetration.

I close my eyes, awaiting him with bated breath.

He gently inches his way inside me until his heat fills me entirely, his face close to mine, his breath soft and warm upon my face.

"Tell me if I hurt you," he whispers.

I open my eyes, meet his gaze, and assure him, "You just do what you do. I'll be fine."

He nods and presses his lips briefly to mine. But it's not in his nature to be selfish. I have to urge him several times to go harder, deeper, before I even come close to release. I'm nearly there when he accidentally bumps his head against the headboard.

Casting my gaze upward, I see it happen all in one instant. One candle, too close to the edge, topples from its place and lands right on David, splattering hot wax all over his back before it falls onto the sheets. Thankfully the fall extinguishes the flame and we don't have to worry about a fire.

To his credit, David doesn't cry out. He simply winces and lets out a low groan of pain.

I sit up abruptly, sex completely forgotten as I quickly force him onto his stomach, examining his back carefully. "Are you all right?"

"You tell me," he replies in a muffled voice.

I flake the drying wax off his skin to reveal several bright red marks and a few blisters. "It's not too bad. Hang on; I have some ointment for that somewhere."

I get up and run to the bathroom, returning with a tube of analgesic antiseptic cream, which I carefully spread over his burns. He starts to shake, and for a moment I think he's crying, but then I realize he's laughing.

"I'm so sorry," he mutters.

"Don't be sorry," I reply with a smile. "I haven't been so entertained in a long time. Now come here. I promise I'll be gentle with you."

He's embarrassed, but not enough to be completely put off. He lowers himself into my arms again and we carefully come to a pleasant, beautiful conclusion.

Now I know how good it feels to be wrapped in David's arms with no barriers between us anymore. I haven't been so content in a long time.

"Charlotte, I'm so sorry," he murmurs after a few minutes. "I should have warned you what an absolute idiot I can be."

I laugh softly and run a reassuring hand down the side of his face. "It's fine. Really. You were perfect. Everything I expected from you."

He laughs as well. "You expected me to be a bumbling fool?"

"No. I expected you to be warm and affectionate and real. And you were." I can't help but notice the tender way he still touches my skin with light fingers, the way his eyes soak in my features. "You are."

"Thank you," he whispers.

I snuggle up to him and close my eyes. I could fall asleep right now, right here, and never wake up. I don't want this moment to end.

But David isn't ready to sleep yet. I guess I don't mind it if we talk first.

"May I ask a personal question?" he inquires in a soft voice. "You don't have to answer it if it makes you uncomfortable. I'll understand completely."

He sounds so tentative. I wonder what he wants to ask. "What is it?" I inquire.

"Did you ever sleep with Dr. Hall?"

I hesitate, startled by his forwardness, wondering if there's an easy way to answer him. The response is pretty obvious—until recently, David was wearing Dr. Hall's clothes, clothes that the man kept here so that he could spend the night with me. I've already confessed that I loved him. Maybe David already suspects and just wants to hear it from me. Or maybe the idea is so unpalatable to him that he is simply blind to all the signs.

"Sorry," he interrupts my thoughts. "That was a terrible question. Forget it. I'm so sorry I even asked."

"No. Don't be sorry," I reassure him. "We just had sex with glow-in-the-dark condoms. You can't get much more personal than that."

He laughs. That's a good sign.

After another few moments, I tell him, "Dr. Hall and I were intimate."

"What was it like?" he inquires curiously. I must have a strange expression on my face, because he hastily adds, "I'm not trying to be creepy, I'm just curious from a psychological point of view."

"Well..." I try to think about it, what he could possibly want to know. "It was exciting, you know? He wasn't into bondage or sadism or anything like that. In fact, he was pretty conservative. He'd never really hurt me. But there was that edge, that excitement of knowing that he could. He knew a hundred ways to hurt me, more ways to kill me, but he didn't. He chose to be gentle, to show me love instead. Even if he couldn't feel it, at least he showed it. Do you realize how empowering it is to feel loved by somebody like that? Somebody who finds it easier to end the life of another human being than to love?"

David nods slowly. "He made you feel special."

He seems somewhat sad as he speaks, which leads me to wonder what he's feeling. "Are you jealous at all?"

"I am," he admits. "Just a little."

"Why?"

"How is it that a serial killer can merit the love of such a beautiful woman like you?"

I'm not beautiful, but it's nice of him to say so. "He had to work very hard to earn it."

He sighs. "Well I guess that means I have my work cut out for me."

I touch his face, brush my lips against his. "No. You're an easy man to love, David."

"Why is that?" He seems pleasantly surprised.

"Because you're good. You're sweet, and gentle, and kind."

He sweeps my hair out of my face and pulls me into a gentle kiss. "I love you, Charlotte."

A shiver runs through my body to hear him say that. I wish I could say it too—he deserves to hear it—but I'm not sure I'm there quite yet. He understands. I see it in his face. He knows that I'm fond of him, that I need him. And for now that seems to be enough for him.

Holding me near, he continues with another question. "What did you and Dr. Hall do when you spent time together?"

I look up at him. "You're certainly very curious about Dr. Hall suddenly."

He shrugs. "I'm trying to figure you out. It helps to know more about previous relationships."

I guess I can understand that. "We talked a lot," I tell him.

"That's it?"

"Well he wasn't here all the time. He'd show up for a day or two and then be gone for weeks at a time."

"And that didn't bother you at all?"

"No."

"So when he showed up, you just talked."

"Oh, he'd make me food. He loved that. Sometimes he'd read me something, other times we'd just curl up on the sofa and talk. We even had a game we'd play on occasion."

"Game?" he asks in disbelief.

"When you apply for a license to carry a concealed weapon, they give you scenarios and ask what you should do. For example: 'A guy walks into a gas station and starts threatening people with a gun. Do you pull yours out or not?' We did the same thing, except he'd give me a scenario and ask if it was acceptable for me to kill the person, and then I'd do the same," I explain.

"Really?" David seems very interested.

"Yeah. Surprisingly, he didn't always say it was OK to kill. In fact, he rarely did. He would only kill a very select group of people that he found offensive or rude. And not everybody that offended him was fair game. It was like he had morals in a weird way."

"Morals? Dr. Hall?"

"One time I gave him a scenario where he was working in a hospital as a surgeon and was unable to save a woman. Her sister found him and dumped hot coffee on him because she was angry that he let her sister die. I tried to make her as unpleasant a person as possible, but no matter what I said, he wouldn't kill her. He wouldn't even consider it. I asked him why and he said it would be wrong. That's all. He didn't explain it."

"Charlotte that's... incredible. I mean, can you believe how many psychologists would love to trade places with you and be able to get inside the mind of a serial killer like that?" David marvels.

"Yeah, well apparently I got in too deep. I'm still trying to get out."

He touches my face gently and holds me tightly against him. "Don't worry. I'm here to help you."

"I know. Thank you, David. For everything."


Finally, for the first time in several months, I wake up with somebody real beside me, and it feels good. I lift my head from its place on David's chest and stare at him, taking in the reality of this moment.

He stirs, woken by my movement, and opens his eyes. "Good morning," he greets me in a tired voice.

"Mmm...morning."

"How are you?"

"I should be asking you that. How's your burn?"

He winces at the reminder. "Painful."

"I can look at it if you like."

"Don't worry about it," he chuckles. "I've suffered worse."

He shifts out from under me and gets up to leave, but I stop him with a hand on his arm. "Wait, don't go."

"I was just going to make you breakfast," he explains.

"You don't cook," I remind him.

"That's why I was going to make toast."

I let out an embarrassed laugh. "Oh."

While he's gone, I reach for the remote and turn on the TV. It used to reside out in the living room, but I moved it to the bedroom during that dark time after Dr. Hall's trial. Not that I watched it; I would just turn it on to listen to the white noise so that I wouldn't feel so alone.

Now I simply flip boredly through the channels, just to give myself something to do.

David returns after a few moments and hands me two slices of buttered toast with jam. "I'm not sure how old the jam is. The label wore off. If it tastes fizzy, just scrape it off."

I laugh and bite into the toast. It's not bad. A little burnt, but who am I to judge? Pointing to the TV, I state, "Sit down. You're just in time for a Bill Cosby rerun."

He smiles and sits at my side. After a moment, he puts his hand on mine and asks, "Are you all right?"

I frown slightly and turn down the volume on the TV. "Should I be worried? Did you put something in the toast?"

He laughs. "No. I'm talking about how you feel after last night. That was a pretty big step you took."

I sigh heavily and flip to another channel—the news. "I wish you'd stop treating me like I'm fragile," I tell David. "I'm just—" Then I see it.

The volume is turned down too far to hear what the anchorman is saying, but big bold letters run along the bottom of the screen while footage of an abandoned armored vehicle on the side of the highway plays.

KING COUNTY KILLER LOOSE. AUTHORITIES SEARCHING FOR ESCAPED SERIAL KILLER.

The remote and my half-finished toast fall from my hands. I'm too shocked to even know what I'm feeling. Nothing, I guess. It hasn't even hit me yet.

Dr. Hall is out.

One lone thought crosses my mind as I read the words on the screen.

Not now.

"Charlotte?" David follows my gaze to the TV and sucks in his breath sharply. The sound works to pull me out of my stupor, and I immediately stand up and drag him to his feet as well.

"You have to leave," I tell him. "You have to go now."

"Charlotte, what are you—"

I point emphatically at the screen. "Do you not see that? He escaped this morning."

"I won't leave you."

"You have to!" I shout, wishing I could physically pound it into his head. Instead I settle for hastily picking his clothes up off the floor and throwing them at him. I remember that technically these are Dr. Hall's clothes. I'm going to have to come up with an explanation if he asks where they went.

"We'll call the police—" David states, holding up a hand to calm me.

I scoff. "You think they can help? We'd spend all day trying to explain it to them and they still wouldn't do anything useful."

"Come with me then," he offers. "You'll be safe if he can't find you."

I shake my head. "He'll find me, David. He always does."

"Well I'm not going to leave you here alone with a serial killer after you," he tells me, reaching out for me.

I back away from him. "I know how to handle Dr. Hall. He won't hurt me. He's spent too much effort on me," I explain. "But he will hurt you. You know what he's like. Give me time to figure things out. I don't want anybody to get hurt."

"I can't leave you," David insists adamantly.

"I'll be fine. He'll come, stay for a day or two, and then leave. He always does." I try to sound convincing, but I don't even think I'm convinced. I have no idea what's going to happen. All I know is that I don't want David to be a part of it. I care too much about him to let him step in between Dr. Hall and me. The thought of him getting hurt—or worse, killed—sends a chill through me.

"What if he takes you away?" he inquires in a soft, worried tone.

"He can't. I have exams coming up. He won't interfere with my education, strange as that sounds."

I watch as David reluctantly begins to dress even as he starts to protest again. "Charlotte—"

"David, please—trust me," I beg him. "Please."

He looks down at the floor, his shoulders slumped in defeat. Slowly, he nods.

I don't know how much I can trust him to stay away, to let me handle things, but I take what I can get. "Don't call me," I tell him firmly. "Don't call the police, and definitely don't come over. I'll call you when it's safe. Hopefully by then I'll have worked things out."

"Why do I feel like you're going into battle?" he asks me quietly.

"I'm a marine. It's what I do."

Neither of us seems reassured, but it's all we have. I walk him to the door, we part with a desperate kiss, and then I'm left alone with nothing but the dull terror in my heart to keep me company.