I found the inside of the road
Thought about the first time that I met you
All those glances that we stole
Sometimes if you want them, then you’ve got to.
– Josh Ritter, “Good Man”
When Gillian Hunt ran away, she went to the one place she still felt safe; the one place she had ever truly thought of as home.
The bedroom at the top of the stairs was the same as she remembered; originally part of the attic, part of the room was cut off by the slope of the roof. Her bed was tucked under the angle, and a curtain hung from the ceiling and draped over the bed. She remembered waking every morning before school and watching the material catch the new sun’s rays. Now, though, rolling over and seeing that curtain made her feel like a coward. She was hiding.
Every morning also brought new horrors. She never remembered full dreams, but what she did recall was bad enough. She dreaded falling asleep because she knew what waited. Screeching, like nails on a blackboard, and horrific laughter. She never knew laughter could be evil, but there was no other word for this soulless cackling that filled her head.
Gillian spent her first three days in Georgia in church. Praying, lighting candles, listening to the music, anything to get the images out of her head. She was still traumatized by the demon assaulting her in the morgue, but that paled in comparison to what came next. The darkness, the touch of a cold hand on her forehead and then… it was inside of her. She couldn’t begin to describe the feeling accurately. It was being blind, deaf and dumb to the outside world while something else controlled your body.
And when the veil finally broke… oh, the pain. Caitlin Priest, Riley’s partner and guardian angel, was holding her in a bear hug. Her body burned where the angel touched her, the light searing her flesh. It was like the worst sunburn she’d ever had, like acid burning through her skin. Priest whispered in her ear the entire time, words and verses meant to be soothing. But the pain they caused the demon was transferred to Gillian.
She eventually passed out from the pain. When she woke an indefinite amount of time later, Riley was by her side. The pain had fled, as if she was a terminal patient whose doctor found a miracle cure. But she couldn’t rejoice. The Duchess had fled, she could tell she was truly gone, but the scars would take time to heal.
Gillian wasn’t like Riley. She couldn’t handle the thought of demons coming after her, trying to kill her. She sat on the edge of the bed, fists against her eyes, and chided herself for the comfortable lie. Riley wasn’t better at handling the demons in her life. She was just as terrified as anyone else would be. But she didn’t run. She faced it down.
Their first night together, Gillian stayed up with a battered Riley in her bed. The gash on Riley’s side terrified her, and the way Riley kept tensing and murmuring in her sleep… Gillian couldn’t imagine the hell she had gone through. The hell she had survived. And she was still there, still facing the demons, but she was alone.
She picked up her cell phone off the nightstand and flipped it open. The message from Riley was still there, and she replayed it for the millionth time since it arrived the day before. “I miss you. I love you.”
She closed her eyes and dialed. She chewed her bottom lip as she waited for an answer, praying Riley was somewhere–
“I love you, too.”
She heard a sharp intake of breath and then a sigh. She closed her eyes. She wanted suddenly to have Riley with her, in her arms, to hold and kiss her. Why, God, was she so far away? Because of you. Because this is where you ran.
“Gillian?” Riley whispered.
“I got your message.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “Are you okay?”
She could hear the relief in Riley’s voice. “Yeah, Jill. I’m… doing well. Now.”
Gillian used a fingernail to toy with the skin around her thumbnail. “Are you busy? Can you talk?”
“Yeah,” Riley said. “Yeah, I have a couple of minutes. How have you been?”
Gillian smiled. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Tell me it’s an easy one,” Riley said. “Start at the beginning, Doc.”
Gillian laughed. She was immediately transported back to the dingy apartment of a dead junkie. His blood was splattered all over the window, and he lay on a pile of old newspapers with his arms splayed out to either side. Detective Riley Parra walked into the room and Gillian introduced herself. Riley shook Gillian’s hand, made the briefest eye contact, and then looked at the body. And then she said, “Tell me it’s an easy one. Start at the beginning, Doc.”
Following that moment, Gillian stole glances at Riley whenever they were at the same crime scene. When Riley and Sweet Kara would come into the morgue to see what she had found, Riley never acted like the place sickened her. Gillian didn’t blame people for their reactions to the dead bodies; it was just human nature. But the fact that Riley was willing to visit her without gel under her nose, that she could hold a conversation over a dead body without wincing or gagging, just secured her place in Gillian’s heart.
The magical moment they kissed, and then their first night together, was still like a dream. She couldn’t believe Riley actually had feelings for her. And then, like a flash, it was over and they were apart again. All because of her.
“Nothing’s easy anymore,” Gillian said.
“I feel like… I need you here. But I know you can’t leave. And if I go back to that place, I feel like I’ll never find the courage to get out of bed in the morning.” She realized she was still sitting in her own bed, after her early evening nap, and stood up. She went to the window and looked out at the backyard of her youth. “Riley, I’m sorry I ran.”
“Don’t,” Riley said softly. “Please, I understand. I know why you left.”
Gillian rested her head against the window and closed her eyes. “I still have nightmares. And if I woke up from one of them, and I was still in that city…”
“What if you were in my arms?”
A tear slid down Gillian’s cheek. “I think that would really help.”
“I’m lying in bed right now. Your bed. I want you to imagine waking up with me holding you, Jill.”
Gillian wrapped her free arm around herself and said, “Feels good. Feels safe. I never feel anything less than safe with you, Riley. I just feel like I spent so long looking for you, and then I had to give you up as soon as I found you. I’m so sorry I put you through that.”
“Even if you never come back… even if you feel like you can’t ever show your face in this town again, I’ll treasure what we had.”
Gillian could hear the tears in Riley’s voice, and she knew how much the words had cost her. She walked back to the bed and said, “I’m trying, Riley. I want you to know that I’m trying.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“How… how are things going?”
Riley chuckled. “Not well. I don’t want to get into it. But… yeah. Things kind of got darker around here after you left.” She paused and said, “I don’t believe we’re through. You know that, right? However long it takes, until you tell me we’re through–”
“We’re not through,” Gillian said.
“Well. That settles that, I guess.”
Gillian smiled. “I’m sorry. Part of my anxiety has been from thinking I gave you up when I left. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you moved on and found someone new.”
“There’s no one else, Jill.”
Gillian closed her eyes and another tear rolled down her cheek.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yes.” She wiped her face and sat on the edge of the bed. “Riley…”
After a long wait, Riley said, “Gillian? Are you still there?”
“I’m here. I just… I don’t know what I was going to say.” She sniffled. “It’s really good to hear your voice. I was so lost when you found me.”
“That night…” Gillian remembered stumbling through her dark apartment, groggy from a lack of sleep, angry at the person sharing her bed, confused when she heard the voice of the person waking her up. Then fear when she saw how much blood was coming out of Riley, the horrible cut running down her side. She pressed her fist against her lips and said, “I had a crush on you for a long time, but I didn’t realize how deep it was until I saw you that night. When I thought there was maybe a chance you may not…” She bit her bottom lip as her voice trailed off. “That’s when I knew I was in love with you. I thank God that you figured it out at the same time.”
“Yeah. Mysterious ways,” Riley said.
Gillian closed her eyes. She knew the reasons for leaving well enough by now that she could recite them. Her presence was Riley’s vulnerability. As long as she was there, she had a target on her back. And Riley’s enemies wouldn’t hesitate to use her as leverage. They had already used her once, and it was only due to divine intervention that she escaped. Next time she might not be so lucky.
“I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry, Jill.”
“No.” She chewed her bottom lip and looked out the window. “I don’t know. I can’t give you any promises. But hearing your voice… God, Riley, I’ve missed you. I have missed you every minute of the day, I just didn’t realize how much until right now. I think that’s why I didn’t call you. I was afraid that if I heard your voice, I wouldn’t be able to say no if you told me to come back.”
“I don’t want to pressure you.”
“I know. I know I can tell you I’m staying. I can’t go back there. Not yet.”
Riley hesitantly said, “But soon?”
“Yeah. I think I can say soon.”
Riley made a sound that was half a chuckle and half a sob. “Well. You be sure to let me know when you nail down a date.”
“I’ll do that. And Riley… maybe… you could call me tomorrow.”
“And the next day?”
Riley laughed. “Yeah. What about the day after that?”
Gillian smiled. “Use your own judgment.”
Riley laughed again. “I’m done being a martyr, Jill. I love you, and I miss you, and I’m not going to let you go. I’ve lost too much. I won’t lose something as precious as you without a hell of a fight.”
Gillian was now crying openly. She looked out the window and said, “That’s very good to hear.” She checked her watch and saw that it was later than she thought. “God, you must be exhausted. I’m going to let you go to sleep…”
“No,” Riley said. “I’m awake.”
“Are you sure?”
“What did I just say?” Riley said. “I’m not letting you go easy.”
Gillian lay back on the bed and looked at the sloping ceiling above her. “How about this. We can talk until you fall asleep.”
“I know when you’re tired, Riley Parra. Don’t argue with me.”
She could practically hear Riley’s smile over the phone. “Yes, doctor.”
“Now, tell me about your day, dear.”
Gillian listened to Riley’s story with equal parts shock, horror, and dread. But the dread wasn’t debilitating, and the fear was easily assuaged by the knowledge Riley was still in one piece. Gillian ran because she thought distance would make it easier to deal with the hell Riley faced day in and day out, but that was wrong. What she needed was Riley, at the end of the day, in her arms, in one piece. Safe and warm. That was what she needed to get through the day. And she knew Riley needed her just as badly.
Gillian knew she wasn’t ready to go home yet, but she knew it was only a matter of time before she started packing her bags.