Not wanting to interrupt their moment, I turned around and entered the house. I’d been wanting to check if they had ingredients for a sponge cake. The boys loved baking in the afternoons, and even though Greta didn’t remember who I was anymore, she always appreciated a good cake.
The minute I walked into the house, I noticed the walls rattled with a piercing scream coming from upstairs.
“Just fucking say it. Don’t stutter it. Say. It!”
I tore up the stairs in a flash, the sounds of Andrew’s shouts drowning the thuds of my feet hitting the wood.
“I can’t fucking listen to you anymore, you no-good piece of… piece of…crap! You remind me of him. You’re just like him. A little, stupid loser.”
I screeched to a halt on the threshold of Andrew’s office, panting. It was the first time I’d ever been there. He was crouching down, shaking Tinder’s shoulders, spraying spit all over the poor kid’s face.
I didn’t think.
I didn’t even stop to digest what was happening.
I stormed inside, scooping Tinder in my arms, ripping him from his father’s hands. Andrew stood and staggered backward, his face morphing from anger to shock. He didn’t think he’d have an audience.
My name fell from between his lips like a curse. Like he wanted to shake me, too. How often did he do this to him? Tinder’s words vibrated in my body, making it hum with rage.
“It’s a map. If we follow it, we’ll get to heaven, and in heaven, everyone is nice, and no one hits you.”
The better question to ask was how many more outbursts could Tinder expect in his lifetime—many, I suspected—and how many more victims were out there in the world who suffered under Andrew Arrowsmith’s wrath?
The last question hit me hard.
It hit me hard because deep down, I knew there was at least one other person close to me who was shattered by Andrew.
Traumatized enough to swear off the entire human race afterward.
“Look, I know what it looks like…” Andrew made a move toward me, his voice soft and soothing.
I jerked Tinder to my chest.
I shook my head. “I’m not ready to talk about what I witnessed here before I talk with your wife.”
“What’s happening here?” Joelle’s voice drifted from the hallway. I turned around to face her. The look on my face said it all. The hopeful, open smile that graced her lips the entire afternoon collapsed into a glare.
“Oh, no. What did you do now, Andy?”
Now implied there were a lot of befores.
“I just told him to speak clearly.” Andrew tried to laugh it off and tousle Tinder’s hair, but the boy buried his face in my shoulder, sniffing.
“He shook him,” I said quietly, not wanting to add any more details to avoid embarrassing Tinder. Kids were much more perceptive than adults gave them credit for. “I’m going to take the boys downstairs to make a sponge cake. I’m sure you have things to talk about.”
I offered my hand to Tree, who stood behind his mother, and went downstairs still holding Tinder.
“Can we make triangle sandwiches first and cut off the crust? I hate the crust.” Tree giggled.
“Of course. What about you, Tin? Would you like anything for a snack?”
“A-A-Ants on a log, please. S-S-Sorry I made Daddy upset with my stut-stut-stuttering. I didn’t mean to.”
He coiled into himself in my arms. I shook my head briskly.
“Nonsense. I want you to remember something very important, okay, boys? Something I want you to carry with you everywhere, no matter where you go, like the necklace I gave you.”
We reached the bottom of the stairs. I put Tinder back on the floor and crouched to their eye level.
They nodded, their big, innocent eyes clinging to my face.
“Whenever Daddy loses his temper and yells at you, it’s not your fault. We are not responsible for other people’s actions. Only for our own. That is not to say we are never wrong. It is our job to try to do our best to become better and always hold ourselves accountable for our own actions. But never blame yourself for what Daddy or Mommy is doing, okay? Promise me.”
“Scout’s honor!” Tree put two fingers up.
“I-I promise, too!” Tinder jumped.
My heart rattled in my chest like a rusty, empty cage full of feelings I didn’t want to face.
The family I was trying to build was a threat to these children.
And their parents were a threat to mine.
But I couldn’t turn my back on them.
I dropped my half-full duffel bag to the floor, scowling at Petar.
“Really, dude? You promised he wouldn’t be here.”
The sound of the front door being thrown open was enough indication my husband walked into the house even though I’d specifically called Petar to make sure the coast would be clear so I could pick up the small stuff I’d left here and move it back to my apartment.
Petar hitched a shoulder up helplessly.
“He wasn’t supposed to come until ten or eleven, I swear. Ever since you left the house, he’s only come here to sleep. Sometimes not even that. Three times I had to send a courier to the office with a new set of suits for him this week.”
Though it was tempting to feel bad for Kill, I pushed the emotion out of my heart.
I threw the duffel bag on my bed, stuffing the knickknacks I’d forgotten in my haste to leave two weeks ago.
“Where is she?” I heard Cillian’s rumble from downstairs. Petar did the sign of the cross, looked up, and dashed out of my room. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know where I was, so I left the question hanging unanswered.
Sure enough, not five seconds later, Cillian was standing at my bedroom door, dark and surly as Hades holding uneaten pomegranates.
“Back so early?” I huffed, stuffing one of my one hundred thousand flowery self-help journals into my bag. “What would Daddy say? I thought you were born to work.”
He walked in, closing the door behind him.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” I made idle conversation, knowing how much he loathed it.
“Shouldn’t you be living with your husband?” he shot back.
“No,” I said evenly, zipping the bloated bag, tugging at the stuck zipper. “You spent the past few months cementing the fact that we aren’t a real couple. All I’m doing is finally listening to you. You did a great job convincing me we’re nothing more than a contract.”