Michael woke reaching for the gun he no longer kept by the bed. His fingers slid over bare wood, and he sat, instantly awake, his skin slick with sweat and the memory of ice. There was no movement in the apartment, no sounds beyond those of the city. The woman beside him rustled in the warm tangle of their sheets, and her hand found the hard curve of his shoulder. “You okay, sweetheart?”
Weak light filtered through the curtains, the open window, and he kept his body turned so she could not see the boy that lingered in his eyes, the stain of hurt so deep she had yet to find it. “Bad dream, baby.” His fingers found the swell of her hip. “Go back to sleep.”
“You sure?” The pillow muffled her voice.
“I love you,” she said, and was gone.
Michael watched her fade, and then put his feet on the floor. He touched old scars left by frostbite, the dead places on his palms and at the tips of three fingers. He rubbed his hands together, and then tilted them in the light. The palms were broad, the fingers long and tapered.
A pianist’s fingers, Elena often said.
Thick and scarred. He would shake his head.
The hands of an artist …
She liked to say things like that, the talk of an optimist and dreamer. Michael flexed his fingers, and heard the sound of her words in his head, the lilt of her accent, and for that instant he felt ashamed. Many things had come through the use of his hands, but creation was not one of them. He stood and rolled his shoulders as New York solidified around him: Elena’s apartment, the smell of recent rain on hot pavement. He pulled on jeans and glanced at the open window. Night was a dark hand on the city, its skin not yet veined with gray. He looked down on Elena’s face and found it pale in the gloom, soft and creased with sleep. She lay unmoving in the bed they shared, her shoulder warm when he laid two fingers on it. Outside, the city grew as dark and still as it ever got, the quiet pause at the bottom of a breath. He moved hair from her face, and at her temple saw the thread of her life, steady and strong. He wanted to touch that pulse, to assure himself of its strength and endurance. An old man was dying, and when he was dead, they would come for Michael; and they would come for her, to make Michael hurt. Elena knew none of this, neither the things of which he was capable nor the danger he’d brought to her door; but Michael would go to hell to keep her safe.
Go to hell.
Come back burning.
That was truth. That was real.
He studied her face in the dim light, the smooth skin and full, parted lips, the black hair that ran in waves to her shoulder then broke like surf. She shifted in her sleep, and Michael felt a moment’s bleakness stir, a familiar certainty that it would get worse before it got better. Since he was a boy, violence had trailed him like a scent. Now, it had found her, too. For an instant, he thought again that he should leave her, just take his problems and disappear. He’d tried before, of course, not one time but a hundred. Yet, with each failed attempt, the certainty had only grown stronger.
He could not live without her.
He could make it work.
Michael dragged fingers through his hair, and wondered again how it had come to this place. How had things gone so sour so fast?
Moving to the window, he flicked the curtain enough to see down into the alley. The car was still there, black and low in the far shadows. Distant lamplight starred the windshield so that he could not see past the glass, but he knew at least one of the men who sat inside. His presence was a threat, and it angered Michael beyond words. He’d made his bargain with the old man, and expected the deal to be honored. Words still mattered to Michael.
Rules of conduct.
He looked a last time at Elena, then eased two silenced forty-fives from the place he kept them hidden. They were cool to the touch, familiar in his hands. He checked the loads and a frown bent his face as he turned from the woman he loved. He was supposed to be beyond this, supposed to be free. He thought once more of the man in the black car.
Eight days ago they’d been brothers.
Michael was at the door and almost out when Elena said his name. He paused for a moment, then lay the guns down and slipped back into the bedroom. She’d shifted onto her back and one arm was half-raised. “Michael…”
The name was a smile on her lips, and he wondered if she was dreaming. She shifted and a warm-bed smell rose in the room. It carried the scent of her skin and of clean hair. It was the smell of home and the future, the promise of a different life. Michael hesitated, then took her hand as she said, “Come back to bed.”
He looked into the kitchen, where he’d left the guns next to a can of yellow paint. Her voice had come as a whisper, and he knew that if he left, she would ride the slope back into sleep and not remember. He could slip outside and do the thing he did well. Killing them would likely escalate matters, and others would certainly take their place; but maybe the message would serve its purpose.
And maybe not.
His gaze traveled from Elena to the window. The night outside was just as black, its skin stretched tight. The car was still there, as it had been the night before and the night before that. They would not move against him until the old man died, but they wanted to rattle him. They wanted to push, and every part of Michael wanted to push back. He took a slow breath and thought of the man he desired to be. Elena was here, beside him, and violence had no place in the world they wished to make. But he was a realist first, so that when her fingers flexed on his, his thoughts were not just of hope, but of retribution and deterrence. An old poem rose in his mind.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
Michael stood at a crossroad, and it all came down to choice. Go back to bed or pick up the guns. Elena or the alley. The future or the past.
Elena squeezed his hand again. “Love me, baby,” she said, and that’s what he chose.
Life over death.
The road less traveled.