"He's the nicest one?"
We were out having lunch at a sparsely filled diner. It was nice to be back in air conditioning, and I had come to the conclusion that I would never live in a state outside New England. The heat was awful, there were scorpions, and all I could see was desert for miles and miles. It was depressing. I liked big lakes, and towering pines. I was even missing snow.
Erik had already finished his chicken parm and was idly watching me to make sure I finished my tilapia. I was just as sick of fish as he was, but he insisted I needed the omega-3s. I half expected him to start spoon feeding me.
"None of them are what I would call 'nice,' but Seth is milder than the others." Erik took one of my fries to nibble. "Chris is practically normal, save for obsession with Charlotte and her mother. Why are you pushing pieces to the edge of your plate? Eat."
"Because they're gray, and I don't eat the gray part."
"It's the bottom of the fish. It's harmless."
"Grizzle is harmless, too; bet you don't eat that." I glared at him, defiantly popping another piece of fish doused in tartar in my mouth.
Our waitress came by with a refill for me and tea for Erik. He smiled at me and fingered his mug, and we were both quiet for a while. A kid ran by with her younger sibling and I saw a brief, wistful expression on Erik's impassive face. He pressed his lips together and gazed out the window.
"The plan is more important than ever before," he said, more to himself than me. "Not for the money—I don't particularly need it anymore." He cast a sideways glance at me. "For safety."
I was in the midst of shoveling coleslaw in my mouth. I paused, blinking stupidly back at Erik, then swallowed hard and patted my lips with a napkin. He eyed me for a moment before sighing and picking up another napkin, dipping it in his water, and leaning forward to wipe the edge of my mouth. I scowled but didn't try to stop him. There was no point.
"What plan?" I asked when he was done. "Busting your friends out of the clink?"
"That's the ultimate goal, yes. For Chris and Seth, anyway." Erik took my fork and knife to cut up the rest of the fish, and he started feeding me like I had predicted. "My relationship with Pierre and Liev is a bit more like a bird picking meat from an alligator's teeth. Symbiotic, so they won't kill me."
"But… why? Why not just avoid them?"
Erik expectantly waggled the fork when I didn't take a bite. When I did, I could feel people watching us. We probably looked really bizarre.
"I needed the money when I was younger," he said. "I also enjoy studying them, and I've learned a great deal from their mistakes. But maintaining close proximity to them means I need to be useful. It hasn't been a problem. Toting you around in front of them is."
I chewed hurriedly. "Why?"
"They're psychopaths. They like to take what doesn't belong to them." Erik ate a piece of my fish and made a repulsed face. "Liev and Pierre have an understanding that does not extend to the rest of us. You need to stay close to me."
"Why?" I asked again, filling with dread. "What will they do?"
The doorbell chimed, and Erik stared evenly at me. "Whatever they want."
It was a voice from my nightmares that I hadn't heard in a very long time. I flinched and slowly looked up to find, to my horror, Mr. Mahon standing next to our table. Erik stopped moving.
He looked the same way he had in high school, just older. A hair under six feet tall, wearing a polo and cargo shorts with sandals. Not ugly, but not particularly attractive. He'd lost some weight and some hair and I noticed the wedding band was gone from his finger. I stared up at him in stark shock.
"M-Mr. Mahon?" I stuttered.
Erik started laughing and stood up so fast that he was a blur. "Oh, this is so…" He shook his head and offered his hand to Mr. Mahon—uh, Luke. "So convenient. Nice to meet you, my name is Harris."
Fake name? My heart pounded as they two men shook hands and greeted one another, and Erik introduced himself as my fiancé. He sat back down and insisted Luke sit beside me, which was both terrifying and disgusting. I lost my appetite and sidled as far away from my former teacher as possible.
"Wow, engaged?!" Luke exclaimed, putting an arm around my shoulders. "I'm so happy for you, Hans. You were always such a bright student. How's college?"
"She's taking a break," Erik interjected. He was smiling, but I could see the rage bubbling underneath, and his eyes were locked on Luke's arm around me. "This is too impersonal for old friends; why don't we bring this back to our hotel room, hm?"
Luke smelled faintly of alcohol. He was almost totally ignoring Erik and tugged me closer. I could've burst into tears.
"My house is much closer," Mr. Mahon said. "Do you want to… catch up, Hanny?"
No one wants to be friends with me. I'm polarizing. I'm smart, and proud of it, and I suck at being nice. Some girls are mean to me in class and I cry in the other room. Mr. Mahon is there, and he touches my arm. 'Don't let them get to you, Hanny. Why don't you stay after school so we can talk?'
Erik was tapping his fingers rapidly on the table. "And how do you 'catch up,' Mr. Mahon?"
"That's for me to know…" Luke tapped my nose, smiling. "…And Hannah to find out."
My stomach turned and I kind of wanted Erik to fucking kill him. I shrank away from Luke, tormented by memories of stolen kisses and the traumatizing loss of my virginity, and wanted to kill him myself.
Erik stood up abruptly and slammed his hands down. "Then let's go."
It was happening fast; faster than I ever would've imagined. Erik was pushing things along and I'd never seen him so impatient and agitated. He paid the bill and directed Mr. Mahon to our car, and watched with thinly veiled fury as my teacher continued to drape himself all over me.
Erik eyed us, fiddling with his keys. "Hannah, sit in the front seat."
Luke opened the door behind me and pushed me inside the car without acknowledging Erik. I caught a glimpse of Erik's blank stare before Luke slid in beside me and shut the door.
"Who is he, Hanny?" Luke asked, putting an arm around me again. "Another teacher?"
"You're drunk!" I snapped.
Erik got in the car and turned his mirror to look back at Mr. Mahon and I. His dark eyes were inscrutable.
"I took a vacation." Luke leaned closer and I could feel his breath on my ear and smelled whiskey. "My wife and I split up and she took the kids. All because I kept some… pictures on my computer."
We were already out on the road, and lights were flashing past the window. I heard Erik's grip tighten on the steering wheel, but I couldn't see his eyes anymore.
I pulled away from Luke, disgusted. "What kind of pictures?"
"You know… like the ones I took of you."
The car abruptly swerved off the road, throwing Luke and I against the left door. We bumped along or a few minutes and I struggled to sit upright and put distance between myself and my teacher. Who else had be preyed on? Did the police know he had the pictures, or did his wife just dump him and move on?
Erik slammed on the brakes and got out of the car without putting it in park. I scrambled forward to yank back the emergency brake so we didn't roll anywhere, and the left door opened. Luke shouted in protest as Erik violently dragged him from the car and threw him into the dirt. I stayed in the car and shrank back against the opposite door, too terrified to get out. He was really angry.
"Where are the pictures you took?!" Erik demanded, kicking Luke hard in the ribs. "Where are they?!"
Luke tried to grab Erik's ankle and got a kick to the head instead. He groaned softly and rolled on his back, and Erik straddled him and punched him in the face. He grabbed Luke's collar and shook him, and blood stained the dirt. I covered my face with my hands and peered through my fingers.
"WHERE ARE THEY?!" Erik roared. He was trembling with rage, and slammed Luke's head off the ground. "I have to have them—tell me where they are!"
Luke laughed as he coughed up blood. "They're all mine. I'm not sharing Hannah with you."
It happened fast. Erik withdrew a steak knife he'd brought from the diner and in a flash of steel and flesh, Luke's throat was gushing blood. I turned away and held back vomit, but I could hear Erik start furiously stabbing the corpse, and I almost lost my dinner. There was no other sound but the blade plunging into flesh and crickets chirping in the distance.
Eventually, that sound stopped, too. I tentatively opened my fingers to see Erik still straddling Luke, panting and staring at the knife now lodged in his forehead. He rubbed his arm across his forehead and felt around Luke's pockets until he found his wallet. His hands were covered in blood as he flipped through the wallet and took out three pictures.
Erik looked at them briefly, then his black eyes flickered to me. "Open the trunk."
I groped behind me, too afraid to look away from Erik, and opened my door, spilling out into the dirt. I hurried to my feet and opened the car trunk to find a black bag with campfire fuel, matches, and pliers.
The sun was setting. I approached Erik with the supplies trembling in my hands and he smiled at me. Blood had splattered across his suit.
"I may have lost my temper," he said, taking the pliers first. He yanked open Luke's mouth and sighed. "Thankfully, I learned how to properly dismember a body."
I flinched when he tore out one of Luke's teeth. This wasn't the Erik I knew. This was the same one who almost killed his younger sister and turned on me like a rabid dog. I watched him rip out all of Luke's teeth despite myself, mystified. The vicious psychopath side of Erik wasn't interested in me. He was hard to expose, but impossible to control when he did finally break free.
It was dark when Erik was done. He stood up and started peeling off his clothes, throwing them on Luke's dead body. I went back to the trunk without being asked to get him clean clothes, and when I came back, Erik had emptied all the fuel on the pyre. He glanced over his shoulder at me as he struck a match, and smiled.
"Do you feel better, Hannah?" he asked. The match tipped from his fingers and the pile erupted into flames, leaping and snapping towards the sky. The fire glowed across his face, contorting his features until he looked like a demon. "I feel better."
"I… It happened so fast…"
Erik pouted and nodded, offering me a hand. "I know it's hard. You need some time to process your emotions. Come stand by the fire with me, my love. I'll help you."
"I'm an accomplice…" I choked on my words, eyes brimming with tears. "I… I killed someone."
Erik gestured for me to approach again. I hesitated, but the desert was dark and cold, and I didn't want to be alone. He pulled me against his chest and hugged me tightly, resting his chin on my head.
"What do you do when a client brings in a rabid dog?" he asked.
"…There's nothing we can do. There's no cure, and it's dangerous. We euthanize it."
"Exactly." Erik cupped my face in his hands, wiping away my tears with his thumbs. "We euthanize animals that cannot be saved—for their own good, and for the good of everyone else."
I stared up into his dark eyes and swallowed hard. He'd wiped the blood off his hands, but I could still smell the rusty residue. Erik smiled and kissed my forehead and told me to wait in the car. I was happy to. The reek of boiling skin and tissue was permeating the air and making me sick. When I opened the door and checked on him over my shoulder, I saw him tearing up the pictures from Mr. Mahon's wallet and sprinkling them into the flames.
A long time passed before Erik came to the car. The fire was out as far as I could tell, and he had wrapped up the teeth in a piece of cloth. He glanced at me sitting stone still in the passenger seat. I hadn't moved much since getting back in the car. It was like the world was passing by me, and I couldn't go anywhere. Mr. Mahon was dead.
Erik shifted the car into park and released the emergency brake. "We'll go back to the hotel to rest for a day before we leave for Louisiana. How about a bath, hm?"
"…I can't believe he's dead," I whispered.
"I know. Give it time."
My eyes dropped to my hands that were just as guilty as Erik's. "Why did you take his teeth?"
"Dental records. It makes it more difficult for them to identify the body." He squeezed one of my hands reassuringly. "But Mr. Mahon is mostly ash now. I scattered his bones—they don't disintegrate."
He kept his hand on my thigh the entire trip back to the hotel. I was still shaking when I got out of the car and Erik helped me inside for a few steps before sweeping me up in his arms. He never carried me bridal style—always cradling me like a sleepy toddler, with my head lolling on his shoulder.
I was crying when we got back to the room. My emotions were all over the place; I couldn't pin one down long enough to examine it. Erik spoke soothingly to me and lowered me to sit on the edge of the bed. He brushed back my hair, standing over me, and kissed me on the forehead before leaving for the bathroom. I sat there miserably, feeling the yawning pain of guilt both for watching Erik kill Mr. Mahon, and for the relief and happiness it gave me.
"Tell me what you're feeling, Hannah."
Erik had taken his shirt off already. He knelt down in front of me and took my hands in his, once again back to the gentler demeanor he only saved for me. His dark eyes searched mine and I sniffled.
"I'm scared," I said softly. "I feel… terrible for letting you kill him, but I'm…" I hesitated and looked down at his big hands curled around mine. "…I'm happy he's dead."
"That's to be expected, considering what he did to you. Witnessing death can be traumatizing, but your guilt is unnecessary." Erik kissed my hands, smiling. "You couldn't have stopped me."
I stared back at him. "I should've tried. I shouldn't sit here like this when you've been threatening to kill people just because they wronged me."
"What other options do you have?"
I freed my hands from his and got to my feet, biting my nails. "I don't know. I mean, you're my legal guardian now, but I could go back home with mom and dad. I think I'm getting better because you're not drugging me all the time. But… mom and dad don't know that. And with how I've been acting, I don't think they'd even believe me if I told them. But they might."
Erik nodded and stood up, too. "They might." He reached in his pocket for his cell phone and offered it to me, smiling. "Why don't you try?"
What?! I blinked back at him, flummoxed. He was telling me to rat on him to my parents?
"But…" I faltered. "But what will happen?"
"They may believe you—probably not, but maybe." Erik tossed the phone in his hand so the screen was face up. "Your parents aren't stupid, but I have convinced them quite thoroughly of your mental instability. I already have custody of you, further complicating matters, and you and I would be long gone before the authorities even consider arresting me. But… you could try, and cause your poor parents even more anguish over your wellbeing."
I drew back from the phone like it was venomous. He was right. Mom and dad might believe me, but Erik was slippery like an eel. He'd either convince them that I was having another episode, or he'd vanish before anyone figured out what was happening. It would just be torment for my parents.
"The police will believe me," I stammered. "They have to investigate."
Erik put his phone back in his pocket and sauntered towards me. "Yes, they do, but that will lead right back to your parents. You would be committed for a time until the trial, or until another psychiatrist can examine you for release." He began unbuttoning my blouse, tilting his head. "And I know quite a few psychiatrists who will keep you right where you are."
"I'm not supposed to let you do this to people!" I sobbed, pushing him away. "It's not right! It's illegal, and it's not right!" I turned and ran my hands through my hair, shaking my head. "But I don't want to hurt my family, and I don't want to end up in a psych ward."
"Of course you don't. You're a good girl, Hannah." Erik grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him. "Stop languishing under the delusion that you can stop me. You can't, and continuing to feel guilt for me being outside of your control is fruitless and damaging."
I knew that, but it didn't change how I felt at that moment. Erik kept murmuring to me as he took off the rest of my clothes and guided me into the bathroom. Maybe I was a monster, too.