“You call that a dick?” a strange, distant voice said.
A flash broke through the veil of crimson pain. The smell of hot metal, burning sawdust and dirt scorched its way down Libby’s throat. An awful ringing swelled in her ears. And then … silence. Silence and darkness.
February 25, 2036
Libra Baingana adored the beauty of the sweeping arches that circled this part of “The South’s Most Romantic City.” Despite the lack of lighting and the lateness of the hour—it was past midnight—the arches gave the perimeter of this heavenly little district a distinctly positive and empowering atmosphere. Much better than walls or fences.
The cab came to a stop in the turnabout, alongside the “Welcome to Clinton—A Peace Enclave” sign. The brand-new, exclusive, inclusive community boasted a plan optimized for walking and cycling. The cab driver could take his vehicle no further. Only electric vehicles making deliveries that benefited the entire community were allowed on the few streets wide enough for cars.
Libby swiped her watch across the billing scanner. Ordinarily she prided herself in giving drivers a generous ten-percent tip if they went above and beyond. Sometimes she’d add a bit more if they were willing to listen to her sing the praises of the Enclave. But she’d not opted to sing tonight—the driver, a man with the boring name of “Joe” looked about as MAGA as they made them. Had she had a choice, she’d have called for another driver, but her app said none would be available until morning. It would be better for everyone if she invested his tip in some carbon credits instead. Besides, with gas as cheap as it was nowadays, there really should’ve been a discount, but greedy people like him insisted on overcharging those who needed their services.
She slammed the door shut and stepped away, expecting him to peel out and leave her choking on a cloud of carcinogens. Instead, he eased that criminally oversized four-seater into gear and drove the five-mile-per-hour speed limit all the way out as if he didn’t care at all, which he wouldn’t if he habitually overcharged. Not tipping had clearly been the right decision.
She took a deep, satisfied breath and started walking. It was an easy twenty minutes to her cottage even in heels and a dress. She set out across the community park with its exercise-encouraging footpaths. When the motion-activated solar lights failed to keep up with her pace, she slowed.
The glass of the framed certificate in her bag rattled a bit so she pulled it closer. She couldn’t wait to get home and put it on her wall, right above the ranking belts. They were like a rainbow—white, yellow, gold, orange, green, purple, brown and red. The final rank, black, was the reason she was out so late. She’d gone out to celebrate with the rest of her karate friends. But none of them lived in the Enclave. And her Enclave friends didn’t care for her karate friends’ violent ways. Which was completely ridiculous. There wasn’t a violent bone in their bodies—or hers. Karate was about discipline and conditioning. She loved moving through the forms. She’d even sparred. It wasn’t that hard and she’d only been bruised a couple of times. Karate had shown her the power within her own body. It had shown her that she was as strong as anyone else. Fierce. Independent. Equal.
Something caught the edge of her vision as she passed the communal composting drums. The small building that housed one of the park’s restrooms was up ahead, its blue, police call-box shining like a beacon. Usually she loved the Enclave’s energy-consciousness—it felt a bit like celebrating Earth Day every day—but the stupid path was so poorly lit, she’d have felt safer with a pair of light-up shoes. The hairs on the back of her neck stood, insisting that something was wrong.
Libby took a deep breath and shook off the trepidation. That MAGA cab driver had really gotten to her. She walked faster. In just fifteen minutes, she’d be in her own cottage, enjoying the—
A hulking silhouette stepped out of the dark and into her path. She spun and bolted without thinking.
The blow to the back of her head sent her reeling.
She dropped to her knees. Her palm scraped the sidewalk as she pushed up with one hand and drove her elbow back. It connected with a meaty thud and bounced off a wall of muscle and bone. There wasn’t even a grunt.
Fingers bit into the back of her neck, shoving her forward again as her voice caught in her throat. Freshly laid sod cushioned her landing.
She twisted and kicked under the pounding of piston-like fists.
They just kept coming, driving each and every breath from her body.
“Stop.” Blood gurgled into her throat.
Her arms were a meager shield. Pain exploded from her cheek. Her nose. Her jaw.
She fumbled for the watch with its SOS app, but it was gone.
His grip nearly yanked her scalp off—
—as he dragged her across the grass.
Light seared through swelling eyes.
She’d lost her heels. Her hose had torn. And then they were off and she was bare against the tiles.
Crimson dripped into her eyes, blurring her vision.
Straddling her hips, he looked down at her through a black morphmask.
She flailed under him going for his face. It was out of reach.
His hands wrapped around her throat.
She tried to break his hold, wedging her arms between his, but he was too strong. She punched from the side. He blocked with his elbows.
Adrenaline-powered knees pounded into his back. Once. Twice.
He didn’t buckle.
He didn’t budge.
The morphmask closed in until the reek of his breath was all she could smell.
He smacked her head into the tile. The world swam around her. Something wound around her neck and then the smell didn’t matter anymore.
All that mattered was air. The air she wasn’t getting. She could no longer feel the harsh unforgiving tile beneath her, could no longer see the uncaring light around her.
Libby filled the pot with water and set it to boil. Leaning against the galley kitchen’s counter, she took a deep breath. Then another. She couldn’t face going back out into her cottage’s common room. All her friends were there.
If she heard someone else say that it wasn’t her fault again she was going to scream. She’d never thought it was.
In the aftermath, she’d been taken to the hospital. An exam had revealed that she hadn’t been raped. The gaping hole in the man’s chest had prevented that. She closed her eyes, but that image—blood, bone—just wouldn’t go away. They called it an exit wound and it bloomed in her mind’s eye, getting bigger and bigger, over and over again. He’d fallen atop her. Bled on her. Crushed her.
She’d never seen his face. And they hadn’t let her see him as she’d requested. Then insisted. Then demanded. Privacy. The man who would’ve raped and killed her—he’d served time for both—and they were worried about his privacy.
There was a part of her that needed closure, needed to see him dead and buried, so she could put a face—a dead face—to her tormentor. Maybe then, the nightmares could stop. Maybe then she’d stop seeing him in every man she encountered.
Her therapist said she was projecting. First on the cab driver. She’d wanted it to be him, that everyday-kind-of-joe who looked down on people like her. But the police insisted the driver was a different man. Proof positive: he wasn’t the one in the morgue.
At some point she’d cried herself hollow, so she just stared at the pot, waiting for the water to boil so she could make some tea, and just maybe, she could get these people out of her place so she could heal in peace without having to listen to their petty concerns, their whiny voices, their utter inanity.
Her karate friends had tried to come over a couple of times, but she just couldn’t face them. She was an utter failure. Her instincts and training had kicked in just like they’d said, but something had happened when her attacker hadn’t acted like her sparring partners—he hadn’t staggered backward or succumbed to her punches and kicks.
Her attacker had knocked her around like she wasn’t even a challenge. She still looked like mince-meat and had to wear a scarf to hide the marks around her neck. She never thought she’d be that woman—the kind that ended up in an alley strangled with her own pantyhose. Yet that’s exactly what had almost happened.
Caine peeked around the corner and crept forward on bare feet, his rainbow-hued silk sarong swishing. Her hookup partner wore his hair piled atop his head in an elongated bun that looked like a dick. She burst out laughing.
He smiled and laughed right alongside her until she stopped, but there was no mirth in his brown eyes. He shut off the stove. The boiled-dry pot gave off a hot metal tang, just like—
“Libby, dear, you gonna be okay?”
There was something about the lilt in his voice, the pitch, the tone. Her clenching hands shook, turning beet red. Her heart raced, pounding in her ears. She wanted to rip that stupid man-bun off his head and beat him senseless.
“Get. Out.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper.
The mask of his smile dissolved to reveal a frown. His mouth opened only to close just like a fish.
“I said. Get. Out.” The pitch rose to a screech. “All of you.”
He rolled his eyes as he raised his hands mock-defensively and backed away. “Libby needs a little space, everyone. Let’s…” The rest faded as she sank to the floor and clamped her hands over her ringing ears.
Hot metal. Burning sawdust. Dirt.
Closure. Libby’s therapist was big on closure. They’d thought long and hard on what it would take to get there.
She’d burned the ranking belts, much to the horror of her Enclave friends. She’d gained nothing from the act but a small fine for violating the Enclave’s covenants against pollution. She’d burned the violation notice too, albeit in the privacy of her kitchen.
A month ago she’d decided she couldn’t stand the place anymore, so she’d moved. It wasn’t just the park and having to cross it every time she came and went. She was terrified of the dark. And the scent and feel of grass. And public restrooms. And pantyhose.
Closure still eluded her. Then the therapist had suggested she seek out the person who’d saved her life. At first, she’d rejected the idea. She abhorred violence and she’d been sickened at the thought of acknowledging that violence had saved her life. Violence never solved anything.
Except it had.
And then the seed of that disconnect took root and grew until she couldn’t ignore it. Like a drowning man grasping at anything promising salvation, she grabbed onto the idea. The name and address were public record. The Enclave had gone after one “M. Pacuraru” for violating their Peace Enclave status. Weapons of any kind were strictly forbidden by the covenants and even though technically they were binding only on the residents—something about state pre-emption—the Enclave’s developers knew that if they didn’t at least make a show of suing, the residents would revolt and they’d never sell another lot. So they’d made a big deal out of it and lost spectacularly when some Trump-appointed judge had ruled that the Enclave’s covenants didn’t supersede state or federal law. Between all the doctor visits and her therapy, moving to a new place, learning to drive, hiding behind victim privacy laws, and just avoiding the world in general, she’d missed out on all the drama.
She drove past the street that led to the Enclave and found the vigilante’s home just a few turns later. It was an old neighborhood. Kids were allowed here. They were running around, wild and completely unsupervised. She shouldered her purse, slipped her key-fob into her pants pocket and stepped up on the sidewalk as a girl streaked by on her ninebot, helmet-free hair flapping in the wind. Libby closed her gaping jaw with a snap.
“Can I help you?”
The voice belonged to a teenage boy. He was standing on the porch of an older home. Despite the shadows cast by the towering willow trees, the suspicion on his face was clear.
“I’m looking for the Pacuraru residence,” she said, shading her eyes with her hand.
After a few terse questions as to her identity and intent, the boy invited her in. He was tall and she guessed he wasn’t really as old as his height suggested. She concentrated on her breathing, just as her therapist had taught her.
Breath in. Hold. Let it out slowly. Again, and again.
She almost bolted at the thought that he might have an older brother, or father, running around. She clutched the purse tighter.
In. Hold. Out.
She wiped damp palms on her pants as he invited her to sit on an old leather couch. A chill snaked up her arms but she lowered herself into the cushions, careful to avoid as much skin contact with the leather as possible. All she could think about for a moment was the poor cows. She forced a smile at his puzzled look. He disappeared through a doorway.
She looked about as she set her purse on the floor. Very middle class. An eclectic mix of old and new. Tidy despite the ton of books. Family photos overwhelmed the walls.
The sudden drop of weight into her lap made her yelp. A cat the size of a small dog, experimentally flexed its claws into her thighs and then settled down to purr. The rumble was like that of an old motorbike, deep and throaty. A strange, soothing calm seemed to rise out of the creature and seep its way inside her. She raised her hand to pet the spotted coat. The cat arched its back into her hand, somehow guiding it towards its head. With cautious fingertips she stroked the strange, striped ears.
“I see you’ve met Sig.”
Libby’s hand froze. That voice. Familiar. Strange. The vigilante.
She forced her gaze upward, determined to retain control. In, hold, out.
“I’m Maria-Nicoleta Pacuraru.”
The vigilante was a little old lady. Literally. She was maybe five feet tall. Not because she was stooped but because she’d obviously been petite her whole life. She had to be sixty … or so. Her white hair was swept up into the kind of swirl that used to be called “feminine.” Delicate, untamed wisps of snow-white hair framed a face traced in delicate lines that spoke of both laughter and sorrow.
She wore her no-nonsense demeanor on an age-thickened frame dressed in practical clothing that didn’t scream “I want to be young” in that pathetic way that so many aging women desperately adopted. Libby would bet that the old woman never apologized for who or what she was.
“I’m Libby,” she said, voice cracking.
The intense blue gaze narrowed. She called into the kitchen in some not-quite-Latin language. The boy materialized with a bottle of water—a plastic bottle—in hand. Reluctantly, Libby took it, fumbled with the top and took a sip.
“Would you like some tea, Gran’mama?”
“Yes dear, thank you,” Maria-Nicoleta said. “For two.”
He nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.
Maria-Nicoleta picked up some needlework tacked onto a scrolling wooden frame and set it aside so she could sit in the chair directly across from her guest.
Libby’s lips were still parched despite the water. So was her throat. “Is that needlepoint?”
Maria-Nicoleta responded with a tight smile. “You didn’t come to admire my needlepoint, did you?”
“No ma’am.” She flinched at the sexist word that had somehow made it past her lips. Maria-Nicoleta didn’t seem to mind though. “I came to thank you.” There. It was out. She waited for that feeling of closure that was supposed to come. She’d been promised; guaranteed. But she felt no different.
“Thank me for what?” The gaze was hard. So was the voice. A bit of accent had snuck through. Just a smidgen of it.
Libby looked down as Sig demanded better technique. His purrs vibrated through her hand, rising and falling with the rhythm of her strokes. She sighed. She could do this.
“Thank you for saving my life.” She looked up.
Libby blinked. That was it then. They were done. Right? But … no. Not yet. There was more. “I have money. I know they sued you. I’d like to make up for that.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? Money?”
“Well yes. I mean. I don’t think it was fair to put you through that. Make you defend yourself.”
“Life is unfair, is it not? Yet, I won.”
“Yes, but … lawyers are expensive. I know. My father made his fortune suing…”
“… people like me. I know, dear. But I won. It’s loser pays. Tort Reform Act of 2030.”
“Still. Your time. The stress. Your reputation. They called you a—”
“Vigilante. Yes, I know.”
She laughed. “I wasn’t roaming the streets looking to dispense justice.”
The flippant answer stole Libby’s words. She’d never considered the vigilante’s motivations, assuming along with all the others that it had been ego or pride. Or compensation. “Ammosexual” was one of the kinder things they were called. She’d expected some strutting macho-man with combat boots, camo pants, and a wife-beater shirt. Or a police- or military-reject with something to prove.
“Why were you there?”
Maria-Nicoleta nodded towards the cat. “Sig is a bad boy. Comes from the Serval in him. Likes to run around. He especially likes your Enclave: lots of fat, lazy, rodents. I was out looking for him.”
“So, it was an accident? The man—”
“Oh no. I shot him on purpose. Surely I don’t have to explain to you why.”
Libby was sitting with a crazy woman who carried a gun while looking for her cat and readily admitted to murder—except it wasn’t murder. Not legally, the courts had ruled. Not morally, either some might argue. Others would disagree. Despite Sig’s best efforts to purr her into calmness, she was shaking. “But you said you weren’t a vigilante.”
“I’m not. Running across a man beating a woman senseless was ‘an accident’ but stopping him was not.”
“Why didn’t you use the police call-box?” Every restroom had one. Libby could still see it clearly in her memory. But it had been out of her reach.
“Oh, I did. But you only had seconds. In the many minutes it would’ve taken the police to get there, he’d have raped and killed you.”
“You couldn’t have known that.”
Maria-Nicoleta took a deep breath like a disappointed teacher suffering a frustrating student. “What other activity includes beating a woman bloody while wearing a morphmask and using her pantyhose to strangle her?”
The tea arrived. Maria-Nicoleta whispered something in the boy’s ear as he bent to set it on the table between them. He nodded and ducked out again.
“My grandson, Marco,” she said as she poured. She nudged the delicate, steaming cup towards her guest. “He’s in the kitchen, rolling his eyes in silence because I insist on calling him that. He prefers Mark. Which is why I prefer Marco.” A sly smile crept across her lips as she took a sip. “Go ahead. Don’t let it get cold.”
Libby maneuvered around Sig, who protested the shift by unsheathing his claws enough to remind her how thin her pants really were. She managed to bring the cup up and to her lips and sit back, all without spilling either tea or cat. Bitter and astringent, the tea was nevertheless pleasantly soothing as it went down her throat.
“Sig, let the lady drink,” Maria-Nicoleta scolded.
Sig’s head popped up as he considered her. His tail swished, narrowly missing Libby’s cup. Then he settled again and purred defiantly.
“See, he does as he pleases.” It was spoken with affection and without an ounce of rebuke.
Libby switched the cup from one hand to the other, maneuvering over the cat, and set it atop a small side table conveniently equipped with a coaster.
“I’d really like to do something to, to…” Great. She was developing a stutter too.
“Make yourself feel better about the whole thing?”
Libby gulped. Something was vibrating in her chest and it wasn’t due to Sig’s purring. She was cold despite the hot tea and the weight in her lap. “Please.”
Maria-Nicoleta set her cup down and leaned back, propping her elbows on the armrests. “I take it you never want to go through anything like that again.”
“Never.” Finally, someone who understood.
“Then learn to defend yourself. Really defend yourself, so others don’t have to.”
Heat rose in Libby’s cheeks. Heat and anger. “That’s not what I meant. I never want to be in a situation where a life is at stake. Mine or anyone else’s.”
The old woman tilted her head. “No one does. Do you imagine that anyone seeks out having to take a life?”
“—took a life. Yes. To save another. Yours.”
“Who are you to decide?”
“I decided nothing. The decision was his. The moment he chose rape, he forfeited his life.”
“Was it easy?”
“Were you scared?”
Libby took a shuddering breath. “Would you do it again?”
She didn’t think Maria-Nicoleta had heard her, she was silent for so long. Libby thought she’d never answer, never tell her what she needed to hear.
“You can choose to lock yourself away, in the safest place you, and your money, can buy. And evil will still come for you. Now. Later. Someday. You can hide behind police, armed guards, and fences, and as long as you’re willing to live in that small world, you’ll be safe for awhile. You can hide behind illusions like the ones you believe in—that a piece of paper, a sign, willful blindness—can protect you. You can pretend that evil does not exist. That it doesn’t hunt. That it doesn’t prefer weak prey, but—”
“I am not weak!” Libby stood.
Sig yowled in protest, landing on all four feet. He looked at each woman in turn and padded off towards the kitchen in a feline huff.
Libby’s pulse was pounding. In her ears. In her throat. How dare this … this … old woman who barely reached her shoulder, who was so scared she walked around carrying a gun, call her weak.
No matter. She was done. She’d come here to say her piece. She’d thanked her. Given her vindication for taking a life. For using violence. Couldn’t she be satisfied with that? Did she have to make her feel so, so—
It was all a blur: the door slamming behind her, somehow getting into her car and driving away, finding her way home.
She stood among the chaos of half-unpacked boxes and poured her weakness out in a torrent of tears until exhaustion granted her respite.
Somewhere in her apartment, Libby’s tablet buzzed for its life. The synchronized beeps, warbles and pings of her smartwatch, tablet, and phone came together, demanding attention. Her head pounded with a mother-of-all-hangovers intensity. It was profoundly unfair. She’d not so much as touched booze or drugs.
She stumbled out of bed and reached for the cardboard box serving as a nightstand, feeling for her phone. It wasn’t there. Her probing hand knocked the smartwatch off the charging stand. She groaned, rolled off the bed, and rummaged around the piles of clothing and shoes still waiting to be stowed in the closet. The noise had ceased but there was a message.
A transcript scrolled across her tablet: “Miss Baingana, this is Mark. You left your purse at my grandmother’s house. You’re welcome to pick it up. Or I can drop off. ”
There were several text messages along the same line, with earlier timestamps that hadn’t gotten through her emotional upheaval or had been queued by the system due to the nighttime “Do not disturb” settings. She sat back on the bed. If they had her purse, they had her new address, which didn’t disturb her as much as she’d expected, even if she was now living in a building with uniformed security guards. The last thing she needed was the hassle of getting new ID cards.
She typed, Thank you. I’d like to come by around ten. Does that work for you? and headed for the shower.
As she was dressing, a thumbs-up icon popped up on the watch face. She pinged the building’s concierge desk with a request for cat treats and pulled on some jeans to give Sig something sturdy to claw into.
Libby waited for an empty elevator. The previous four cars already had occupants—male occupants. Certain men had always intimidated her, but this…she hated this new fear and the way it had her in its grip, the way it dug its claws into her, the way it fed on her insecurities and grew. One of her neighbors joined her. He held the elevator door. She smiled and pretended she was waiting for a friend.
When her heart stopped pounding and her hands stopped shaking, she held her finger over the call button again. She could take the stairs, but the hollowness of the stairwells reminded her of the restroom. Maybe she could send a runner for it. The safety of her apartment beckoned. There, inside its alarmed doors and windows, she could…
No, no, no.
She thought she’d come so far. Her therapist had said that learning to drive was wonderful progress. It would go to waste if she became a recluse. She closed her eyes and pushed the button.
It was a long ride down. She bolted out the door whenever a man entered the elevator and had to wait again. In the short time she’d lived here, the elevators had never been so busy. By the time she made it to the lobby she was sure she was going to throw up. The urge to crawl back into bed and stay there was overwhelmed by her fear of taking the elevator up again.
The cat treats—wrapped in a tulle circle and cinched shut with a paw-print embossed ribbon—were waiting for her at the front desk. She tucked the treats into her back pocket and asked for her car to be brought to the front. The parking garage scared her too. Damn. Had she even mentioned that phobia to the therapist?
Her list of problems was growing, not shrinking, despite her new ability to drive. It had been terrifying at first, but it had given her something to do and a much-needed sense of control. Real control, not like the kind she’d thought she had in the Enclave, where everything was either mandated or forbidden. At first the strictness of the hyper-conscious and enlightened lifestyle, devoted to every politically correct practice ever devised, had appealed to her. But it had been a false sense of security. The serial rapist and murderer hadn’t cared about rules, regulations, or the good intentions behind them. He hadn’t cared about giving her a fighting chance or about playing fair or—Maria-Nicoleta was right. All he’d seen was easy prey. A fat, lazy, rodent.
She arrived more than an hour late and knocked, then rang the doorbell. No one answered. She knocked harder.
“In the back,” someone called.
She followed the porch around. The most divine scents welcomed her. Cream with herbs and spices on simmer. Baking bread. There was a smoker in the backyard. A tendril of grey snaked out of its chimney like a genie escaping its lamp. A screen door led into the kitchen where Maria-Nicoleta stood, an aproned magician with a rolling pin for a wand, presiding over dough and cooking pots and ovens. Her counters were overtaken with more vegetables than Libby had seen outside of the farmer’s market. No cans. No boxes. No instant anything.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Libby mumbled as her stomach loudly announced that it would like to volunteer for duty.
Sig followed her in, snaking between her legs, painting his scent all over her. Grateful for the distraction, she leaned down to pet him. Purring, he nuzzled. She reached into her back pocket and presented him with the pouch. Whiskers twitching, he sniffed cautiously and nudged her hand. She tugged the ribbon open. When the treats were gone, he looked up expectantly.
“Sorry, that was all of it.”
His tail gave a twitch and he scampered through the cat door.
She almost called after him: Don’t leave me.
Libby stood, feeling awkward and uncertain, but Maria-Nicoleta was focused on beating some dough into shape.
“Would you like some bread?” She nodded towards a basket covered with linen. “There’s butter too.” Maria-Nicoleta kept her gaze on the dough as she rolled it all out. There was flour up to her elbows and some was sprinkled on her face as well, creasing the lines already there.
“I just came back for my purse, and I’d really like to just get it, and go.” Libby took a deep breath. “Thank you very much, I’m very sorry I made such a rude exit, and inconvenienced you and Mark, I mean Marco, and—”
She was out of things to say. This was a bad idea. She should leave.
Maria-Nicoleta wiped her hands on the apron, retrieved a roll, buttered it, and set it on plate. She shoved it at Libby. “Sit here,” the old woman ordered, pointing to one of the stools surrounding the island. “Eat.”
Libby’s butt found the stool before she realized what it had done. She eyed Maria-Nicoleta. The stern gaze said, Eat, so she took a small bite. The roll melted in her mouth.
Oh wow. Real butter.
She’d not had real butter in ages. She’d almost forgotten how good it tasted. She devoured the roll, but before she was done chewing, another landed on her plate.
“When you didn’t arrive, Marco decided to make special delivery to you. Now we wait for him to bring back.”
“But—” she checked her smartwatch. Sure enough. Two text messages. Well, she had been driving. She took out her phone, started to text back, but it was yanked from her hand and set aside. It was replaced by a bowl of soup.
“Eat,” Maria-Nicoleta said, adding a slice of jalapeño to her bread plate. “Like this.” She demonstrated with her own slice of pepper, taking a small bite out of it and then sipping some broth.
Libby took a cautious bite of the jalapeño and immediately doused it with the broth. Its strong, sour, lemony flavor eased the pepper’s heat. She avoided the meatballs and helped herself to a second spoonful of broth. Oh, that was good. Way too good.
Libby cleared her throat. “Thank you. This is very good. How long before—”
“Long enough for us to finish our talk.”
Instead of dread, relief took hold of her.
“How did he do what he did?” Maria-Nicoleta demanded.
Libby’s relief was to be short-lived, it seemed. Something deep inside her knew that she needed to do this. “He surprised me.” It was true. Everyone said so. The therapist, the police.
“Is that all?”
No sympathy, not that Libby’d expected it. Not from the gun-toting granny.
“He was faster and stronger.” Something not physical lifted off Libby’s shoulders. Without that burden, her next breath had a lightness to it like she hadn’t felt since—
She thought furiously, swirling the spoon around the meatballs. Why didn’t Maria-Nicoleta just come out and say it instead of playing this guessing game?
Because if you hear it from her, you’ll dismiss it, you fool. You know you will. “He was evil. He liked hurting people. People like me. Helpless, weaker…”
Her stomach’s happy churning turned to a roiling boil. She set the spoon down and pushed away from the island.
“Are you going to run away again?” Maria-Nicoleta was relentless.
Libby shook her head as she stood, waiting for the world to stop spinning.
“Are you still sorry that I stopped him?”
And there it was. The source of her guilt. She wasn’t. Not really. She wanted to be. Any decent human being would be sorry. She was decent. She was human. She valued life. All lives. Even his. Even after what he’d done to her, what he could have done to her. There had to be a reason, something that had driven him to it, because no one chose to be evil. Society made men evil. It wasn’t his fault. This was the right way to think. The right way to feel. Feel, feel, feel.
“Iamgladheisdead,” she blurted out. Her fingers flew to cover her mouth. Her eyes widened. What had she said? What had she done?
A silvered eyebrow rose, emphasizing the fine lines of Maria-Nicoleta’s forehead. “And why is that?”
What? There was more? Yes, there was. She could feel the weakening knot of guilt in the depths of her soul, twisting, fighting for its hold on her. She couldn’t undo what had been done to her. She couldn’t change the past. She could only shape the future. Think, think, think. “Because—”
Libby took several breaths.
“Because he can’t rape or murder anyone ever again.”
Five years later…
Libby lowered the empty gun. She set the semi-automatic down, keeping the muzzle downrange, and pressed the button to bring the target back into the bay. It was a standard silhouette target. It glided to a stop and she took a step back. Most of the holes were inside the nine-ring, and a few were dead center. The instructor gave her a pat on the back as he checked off a mark on his tablet. “Nice group. Looks like you’re good on your renewal.” The electronic earmuffs made his voice nice and clear and filtered out the high-decibel gunfire around her.
“Thanks,” she said, beaming.
“See you next month for practice?”
She nodded. Even though she only had to qualify for her permit once every four years, she was at the range every month. For practice. For fun. For friends. New friends. Friends who would rather see her as a fighter instead of a victim. Friends who didn’t think rapists and murderers worried about signs.
No longer a slave to the ridiculous notion that she should take on someone bigger and meaner with her bare hands, she’d embraced not just new friends, but new awareness and new responsibilities. She was seeing the world for what it was, not what she wanted it to be.
She packed up her range bag, loaded and holstered her gun, covered it with her shirt and headed for the main store. As she entered the club lounge, several members of the range’s shooting team surrounded her. They were grinning.
“Uh-oh,” Libby said with mock worry. What were they up to now?
“Guess what?” Jane was bouncing up and down on her toes like a little kid.
“We’d like for you to join the team,” Jeremy said.
“I thought you were full up.”
“We are, but we’re opening a new location and I won’t be able to attend all the meets. We need an alternate,” Darcy said.
Jeremy took her into a bear hug. She returned it in earnest and pledged to start attending the weekly practice session.
Libby walked towards the exit, and paused under the team’s banner: “God created woman, but on February 25, 1836, Sam Colt made her equal.”
Copyright 2017 by Monalisa Foster
Original date of publication: Nov. 4, 2017
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