The Last Breath

Chapter One

Ella Mae Andrews, April 1994

Some guy on Oprah last week said there is no such thing as an accidental lapse of memory. That every phone call you forget to return, every errand you forget to run on the way home is a whisper of your subconscious.

Listen really hard, he said, and you’ll hear the reasons behind your resistance. Why do you keep putting off calling Marla Murphy back about the church bake sale? Why should your husband have to wear last week’s dirty slacks? Why did you allow your misery about Dean to distract you from the fact that the letter you wrote is still upstairs, lying forgotten on the bed?

Ella Mae Andrews would especially like to know the answer to that last one.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t hear a thing her subconscious was trying to tell her over all Ray’s sobbing.

You’d think that when confronted with concrete evidence of your wife’s infidelity with the next-door neighbor, there’d at least be some screaming. Screaming and cussing and angry accusations and blame.

You’d think Ray would have tossed her out and changed the locks and shredded her clothes, that he would have marched next door to Dean’s house, fists slinging, or maybe even shoved her onto the bed for a heated round of revenge sex.

But there was none of this. There was only sobbing, which was so, so much worse.

Ella Mae may have not be able to hear the whispers of her subconscious, but her conscience was roaring, and it was telling her this was wrong. Wrong to have spent her afternoons in bed with a married man who is not her husband. Wrong to have let Dean talk about a future together, after divorces have been settled and families have been broken to pieces. Wrong to stay in a marriage with a man she no longer loved.

By now it was dark out, and Ray and Ella Mae spooned on top of the very same sheets that still smelled of Dean. The full spring moon outside the window acted like a nightlight, bathing the room in a buttery glow. Ray’s tears had finally petered out but he was awake, his mouth pressed against her ear. She closed her eyes, and tried to process what he was asking.

“Let’s give it a month before either of us makes any decisions.” Ray buried his face in the damp hair at the side of her neck. “Please?”

“A month won’t change anything.”

“We’ll go to therapy. Cal will know the best person to talk to.” His voice was hoarse, his tone recklessly hopeful. “And we’ll get away, just the two of us. Drive to the coast. Fly to some island in the Caribbean. We’ll figure things out. We will. Till death do us part, remember?”

She twisted on the bed until she was facing him, not bothering to mask her answer. Ray’s eyes flickered, and it was a full five seconds before he said anything more.

“Can we—“ His voice broke, and he clutched her tighter. “Can we please just sleep on it?”

She didn’t respond. She couldn’t. Now that she had made her decision, the thought of another night in this house, in this bed, in this town, sent an army of insects slithering under her skin.

“One more night. That’s all I’m asking.”

She balled her hands into tight fists, buried her face in his wrinkled dress shirt, and willed herself not to squirm. Ray Andrews had given her seven good years and three step-children she loved like her own. Surely she could give him a few more hours. At the very least, she owed him that much.

“Okay,” she whispered into his chest. “But just one more night.”

Ray’s arms relaxed with the realization he’d just bought himself some more time. Ella Mae knew he’d spend all of it trying to come up with a way to make her change her mind, and she wanted to tell him not to bother, that it’s too late for magic words.

Instead, she closed her eyes and allowed them both this little respite.

Tomorrow would be here soon enough.

***

Ella Mae had just drifted off to sleep when Ray gave her arm a little jiggle, his voice barely a whisper. “Did you hear that?”

She cleared the sleep from her head and listened to a feverish wailing outside, from somewhere over the hill in the direction of Bill Almaroad’s farm.

“It’s just a barn cat in heat.” She allowed herself a little yawn, melted deeper into the mattress. “Go back to sleep.”

“Not that.” Ray lifted his head from the pillow. “It came from somewhere downstairs.”

Ella Mae stiffened, her senses stirring to high alert. “Could it be Gia?”

“Shh.” He sat up, swinging his feet onto the floor without a sound. “Gia’s in North Carolina with the McCallisters.”

Ray craned his neck, turning his ear to the door. That horny cat next door was still trying to summon every male feline in a fifty-mile radius, and Ella Mae struggled to hear around its wailing. And then Ray stabbed the air with a finger. “There! There it was again.”

Alarm prickled her skin. Had she heard someone moving around downstairs? She thought so, but she couldn’t be certain.

Ray, however, was. He rose, creeping on bare feet to the closet, where Bo’s old baseball bat stood propped in a pair of steel-toed yard boots. He clutched it in a fist by his side and crossed the room. He stopped at the doorway to the hall, turned, and pressed a finger to his lips. “Stay here,” he mouthed. And then he slipped into the darkness.

Ella Mae rose onto her elbows, straining to hear. The stairs creaked under someone’s weight and then the noise faded into nothing. The only sound was the rhythmic pounding of her heart. She lay there for what seemed like an eternity, willing herself to not panic, her eyes wide and superglued to the bedroom door.

From somewhere downstairs, there was a yelp followed by a muffled thump. Blood roared in her ears, and she scrambled across the sheets to Ray’s side of the bed, reaching for the phone with a shaky hand. It wasn’t there. The phone wasn’t there! For a brief moment, an irrational wave of anger replaced her fear. How many times had she told Ray to return the handset to the charger? A million, at least. And now, thanks to Ray, she’s landed in the middle of a Stephen King novel without a phone.

And then she heard heavy footsteps on the stairs, and her breath caught in her throat. Because if there was one thing she knew with an icy certainty, it was that if the person approaching the bedroom door were Ray, he would have called out to her by now.

She cast a panicked glance around the room, searching for a place to hide. The closet—no, not the closet, that’s the first place he would look. The footsteps grew closer, too close. Out of time and options, she slid noiselessly off the bed and crawled under it.

Two large feet stepped into the room, gleaming black Reebok runners under dark denim cuffs, and Ella Mae knew she was in danger. She knew it by the terror that rolled through every part of her, searing her chest and clawing at her throat and setting her skin on fire.

Ella Mae dug her nails into her palms hard enough to draw blood and willed herself to think. Think! But the only thing she could think of was please God let me get out of here. Please God don’t let him see me.

The shoes moved to the closet—thank God she hadn’t hidden in the closet!—and an arm swept aside the shirts and pants and dresses, arranged by type and color on matching plastic hangers. She shimmied across the carpet to her side of the bed, the side closest to the door.

And then she waited.

The shoes stepped around to Ray’s side of the bed, not bothering to tread lightly anymore, and she heard a swishing of hand against sheets, she assumed feeling for warmth. She pushed herself out from under the bed on the opposite side from him, keeping a careful watch on the shoes.

When the feet turned toward the wall, she snatched the chance, scurrying on hands and knees toward the hallway. At the door, she broke into a sprint, not turning and not pausing at the stairs, which she took by threes and fours.

Somewhere about halfway down, a hand made contact with her curls and tugged, snapping her head back hard enough for Ella Mae to see stars. Her bare feet caught air and she landed with a sickening thud on her back, aware of a sudden, piercing pain in her left temple, right before her world went black.

Moments later, Ella Mae’s world came flooding back at the bottom of the stairs, where she lay sprawled, her body steamrolled. Something warm and sticky—she knew viscerally that it was blood, and that it was her own—pooled in the hair behind her left ear. She would have checked how much, but her wrists were bound and her arms had gone numb beneath her. She couldn’t scream around the cloth in her mouth, turning her tongue to sand paper and gagging her with its sour smell. She tried to work it out with her tongue, but there was too much of it, and it was in too tight.

Ray! Where was Ray?

There was movement to her right, a dark shadow coming at her in a snow mask and a long object in a fist. A fist covered with surgical gloves. When she saw what he was holding, a box of Saran Wrap, her blood pressure spiked and her pulse jackhammered in her ears. She tried to wriggle away, but he stopped her with a palm to the ankle. He gave it a jerk and she hit the floor with a gargled moan.

Her captor pulled a long strip of plastic from the roll and pressed the end against her mouth. She shook her head, frantic and flailing, and he slipped a palm under her neck, plowing his fingers into her hair and holding her there with a thumb across her windpipe. He wrapped the plastic, once, twice, three times, around her head. She struggled and his grip on her neck tightened.

And then his eyes flashed across hers, and her entire body went still. Ella Mae’s captor was no stranger, and this was no random crime.

This was a crime of passion.

On the fourth or fifth time around her head, his work turned sloppy. A fat strip of plastic pressed across her nose. For one brief but electric moment, she thought this all must be a mistake. Surely he wasn’t trying to suffocate her on purpose. She writhed on the floor at his knees, unable to breathe through either her nose or her mouth, desperate to make him understand. If only she could catch his eye, she could make him understand.

Their eyes locked, and what she saw there stopped time. For however long he watched her, nothing mattered but their silent conversation. Not his children or hers. Not what happened before and what will happen next. Not space or time or reason. He pushed to a stand, and something ignited in her chest—her heart or her lungs or both—an explosion of acid and fire. And then he walked away.

That was when Ella Mae knew that for her, tomorrow would never come.

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