I had come here a year and a half ago with Donovan. While he and Joseph discussed business, I had wandered the house, stumbling upon a little boy playing with toy race cars. Bored, I had joined him, and we had raced the cars around ― not saying a word, simply making race-car sounds ― for fifteen whole minutes. After a while, he had finally looked up at me and seemed to measure me up. Squinting one eye at me, he had stared at me, and I had stared right back.
"You look like a gir-r-rl," he had stated, drawing out the last word with distaste, his childish pronunciation difficult to understand.
I blinked in disbelief. Narrowing my eyes, I had replied, "Oh, yeah? Well, you...you have big ears!"
He had stared at me with wide eyes, then broke out into a huge grin. "I like you! You my new fwend! I'm A-Aleks-Aleksandr."
"Uh, I'm Aubrey," I'd said hesitantly, confused by his kid-logic.
Aleksandr had given me one of his toy cars, and thus had begun our friendship.
I had been over quite a few other times with Donovan, and occasionally watched Aleks when Joseph and Donovan had every had to leave for a few days. I had been the only baby-sitter that Aleks could stand, so Joseph was really grateful whenever I had watched over him.
"Hey, Aubrey, wanna play a game?" Aleks suddenly asked, breaking me out of my reverie.
I sighed, brushing one of Aleks's fine, black bangs out of his face. "I'm sorry, munchkin, not today." I still felt a little sore from Donovan's beating yesterday.
Aleks's smile vanished as he bent his head down to rest on my chest, and quietly said, "Oh."
Feeling uber guilty (this kid was the only person who could make me feel guilt), I wrapped my arms around him and rubbed his back. "I'm sorry," I repeated softly.
"That's otay," he said, his voice muffled by my shirt.
Closing my eyes, I sighed, then finally suggested, "Why don't we go get some ice cream, eh?"
Aleks sat up so fast, he nearly cracked his head on my chin. "ICE CREAM!" he squealed, jumping off my lap and bounding to the bedroom door. Turning back to me, he waved his arms frantically, bouncing up and down, chanting, "Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!"
I chuckled, then quickly got up and followed the energetic boy to the kitchen on the first floor. Digging around in the freezer, I pulled out the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, then grabbed some bowls, spoons, and an ice cream scooper.
"How many scoops, little man?" I asked, struggling to pry the lid off the container.
"TWO!" he shouted, proudly holding up two fingers.
Getting us each two scoops of ice cream, I put the lid back on, then stuck the container back into the freezer.
We dug into our ice creams, sitting quietly at the kitchen counter.
"How long are you going to be here?"
I looked up at Aleks's ice cream smeared face. Sighing, I said sadly, "Not very long, little man. Just till tomorrow. I have to leave soon."
"Oh," he said, then asked, "Will you watch a movie with me?"
Aleks gave me a big grin, and quickly continued to devour his ice cream. We both soon finished, and I stuck the dishes in the sink, then got a washcloth and cleaned up Aleks' ice cream covered face.
We made our way downstairs to the lounge, and I put in the movie Aleks chose.
Heh. Beauty and the Beast. Ah, the wonderful childhood memories of sitting on the couch at home as a child, popcorn in my lap, all the lights turned of, my family at my side.
We settles into the couch ― Aleks plopped himself into my lap ― with the lights off, the movie on the big, flat screen TV, and the HD surround sound blaring. Halfway through the movie, I saw Joseph peek in on us out of the corner of my eye. Catching my eye, he gave me a small nod, then left.
After the movie came to an end, Aleks insisted on watching another one, then another one after that. I got up and made us some popcorn, and soon returned, the buttery smell quickly filling up the room.
The movie we were currently watching was nearing the end when I noticed Aleks had turned to dead weight on my chest, and his breathing was deep and even. Shifting, I cringed when I felt pins and needles shoot through one of my arms.
Careful not to wake him, I used the remote to turn off the TV, then gently picked the small boy up. Using the light shining in from the open door leading upstairs, I made my way back to Aleks' room and softly laid him down on his bed, then took his shoes off and tucked him in.
Brushing a stray lock of Aleks's hair out of his face, I kissed his forehead again, then whispered, "Love you," and quickly exited his room, followed closely by Vincent (who had been sleeping in Aleksandr's room the entire time, the little lazy ass), shutting the door after me and heading downstairs.
I found Joseph waiting for me at the bottom of the staircase.
"Did you say goodnight?" Joseph asked quietly. Holy crap, it had gotten pretty late. The clock on the wall said it was nearing 9:00pm. I haven't eaten anything but a quick breakfast, ice cream, and popcorn today. No wonder my stomach felt so hollow.
He nodded, then beckoned for me to follow. We made our way downstairs into the basement, and Joseph directed me to sit in a chair near the far wall.
"We're going to need a picture of you to put on your ID," he explained, standing behind the camera that was facing me.
I nodded, fixed my hair real quick, then looked at the camera as Joseph counted to three. I heard the little snap as the camera took my picture, and Joseph let me stand back up.
"Everything should be done in an hour."
"Thanks for doing this, Joseph," I said sincerely.
He smiled at me, and I had a sense of deja vu. He and Aleks look so much alike.
"Hey," he said, "You've helped me out quite a bit with Aleksandr. This is the least I can do."
"Yeah, well, Aleks is really easy to take care of. The little guy's pretty fun," I said with a chuckle, hands in my pants pockets, rocking on the balls of my feet.
"You seem really at ease with kids," Joseph said innocently, his tone deliberately nonchalant as he messed with the camera.
I felt myself freeze, then slowly continued rocking back and forth, and said calmly, "I guess I just have a knack for kids."
"Do you have a kid of your own? Or a sibling, maybe?" Joseph asked, looking up.
I gave him a cold look, quickly ending that line of conversation. Joseph held up his hands in mock surrender, a small smile on his face, eyes hooded.
"Alright. I know when I'm crossing the line. Now," he said, changing the subject (to my immense relief), "Antonio-my head of security-should have all the little details sorted out by tomorrow. Your ID will be almost as real as if the DMV made it itself."
"Cool," I said, waiting. I could tell Joseph still had something to say to me.
And I was right.
"So, Aubrey, tell me. What really happened to Donovan."
I looked at him sharply. Dammit, sometimes Joseph is too smart for his own good. "What do you mean?" I asked, playing dumb.
"Everyone in Donovan's apartment was killed. Everyone...Except you. Now, I'm one of the very few people who knew you where actually Donovan's whore, not his cousin, and that you hated his very soul. And you lived in that apartment, practically 24/7, only going out the few times Donovan allowed you, so it stands to reason you where there during the murder. So, tell me the truth. Why aren't you dead, too? What the hell really happened in there?"
"Nothing, Joseph. There's no conspiracy," I said with a cajoling tone and a condescending smile. "I guess whoever killed Donovan didn't gave a damn about me. Or, maybe they just didn't know I was even there."
When he continued to give me a disbelieving look, I said, "Really! I don't know what happened! Donovan came home, I went and took a shower, and when I came back out, everyone was dead! So, deciding I didn't want to be there when the shit hit the fan, I packed up and booked it."
Okay, not really true, but there is no way in hell I'd mention anything about Simon. And I'd definitely not mention my part in Donovan's death. Donovan was an asshole, but quite a few influential ― not to mention dangerous ― people were counting on his shipments and business. If they found out I had killed him...well, that's basically the same thing as putting the gun to my head and pulling the trigger myself.
Joseph sighed and shook his head, saying exasperatedly, "Red, Red, Red..."
I walked up to Joseph and enveloped him in a spontaneous hug. He stiffened for a second, but eventually returned it, patting my back.
"Thank you, Joseph, for giving a shit about me," I said quietly. "No one's done that before."
Stepping back, I quickly put some space between us before the conversation got too deep and emotional. "I'll be waiting for that ID tomorrow," I said, walking backwards towards the stairs, swinging my arms front to back, clapping my hands when they met. "I'll go ahead and show myself to the guest room. I remember where it is."
Turning around, I made my way upstairs to the second floor, then found the guestroom easily enough. Shutting and locking the door after I made sure Vincent followed me in, I left the lights off and used the moonlight seeping in from the big windows to guide my way to the bed. Running my fingers through my hair, I heaved a huge breath.
Ugh, I still didn't quite know what I was going to do. I didn't have any particular place to go. Nothing particular to do. Nobody tying me down.
I was free.
I felt my breath whoosh out and my knees buckle at the reoccurring thought. I'd had the little epiphany before, but it was still a surprising blow every time I thought about it. It-it's just...I'd never thought I'd be free again. I thought I'd die before this would ever happen. I'd resigned myself to my fate, and then Simon came along and changed everything. God, I owe him my life!
Sliding back against the side of the bed to the floor, legs splayed haphazardly in front of me, I clutched my head, trying to keep it from spinning off and go rolling across the floor. I thought about my freedom some more, my brain no longer weary from yesterday. New thoughts about my freedom kept popping into my head, and I couldn't hold them back. I was getting a new ID, and then I'd be leaving, maybe heading to a new city, away from here!
For years, I've had to worry about doing something that would set Donovan off, or looking too unappealing and making Donovan pissy. I've had to spend days hiding in my room, avoiding Donovan when he was in one of his moods, praying he wouldn't feel like breaking my arm to relieve the stress. I've had to wonder how many times I was going to get raped each week (Donovan liked it rough, especially when I struggled).
But, most of all, I've worried about Coby.
Leaning my head back against the door, I felt the gears in my head slowly start back up. Yes, Coby. I finally had a plan. I could finally go see him with my own eyes.
Feeling a huge weight I didn't know was on my shoulders finally disappear as I came up with my plan, I stood up, feeling a thousand pounds lighter. Making my way over to the bed, I stripped to my underwear and flopped down face first, and smiled a rare, real smile.
Closing my eyes, I fell asleep, excited, nervous, and just plain terrified about what the next day would bring.