MY NAME IS ALL THAT’S WRITTEN on the plain white envelope taped to the mirror. It wasn’t there when I entered the ladies’ room at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The laughter and pleasure of tonight’s charity event evaporate as fear and dread slam into me, adrenaline shooting through my body. No. No. No. This can’t be happening—but it is.
Suddenly the room begins to fade, and everything goes gray. It’s been years since I had a flashback, and I try to fight it, but I’m already right there in it. The scent of smoke burns my nose. The sound of blistering screams shreds my nerves. And all the pain and heartache, the loss of all I once had and will never have again, threatens to overwhelm me.
Fighting the meltdown, I swallow hard and shove away the gut-wrenching memories. I can’t let this happen. Not here, in a public place. Not when I’m certain that danger is knocking on my door.
On wobbly knees, clumsy in the four-inch black strappy heels that made me feel sexy only minutes ago, I step forward and press my palms to the counter. I can’t seem to make myself reach for the envelope, and my gaze goes to my image in the mirror—to the long, white-blond hair I’ve worn down tonight in honor of the heritage of my Swedish mother that I’m tired of denying. Gone, too, are the dark-rimmed glasses I’ve often used to hide the pale blue eyes my parents shared, making it too easy for me to see the empty shell of a person I’ve become. If this is what I am at twenty-four years old, what will I be like at thirty-four?
Voices sound outside the door, and I yank the envelope from the mirror and rush into a stall. Two women enter the bathroom, and I tune out their gossip about some man they’ve been admiring at the party. Leaning against the wall, I open the sealed envelope to remove a plain white notecard, and a small key drops to the floor. Cursing my shaking hands, I bend down and scoop it up. For a moment, I can’t seem to stand up. I force myself to my feet and blink away the burning sensation in my eyes to read the few short sentences typed on the card.
I’ve found you, and so can they. Go directly to JFK airport. Do not go home. Do not linger. Locker 111 will have everything you need.
My heart thunders in my chest as I take in the signature: a triangle with some writing inside. The same symbol that was tattood on the arm of the stranger who saved my life and helped me start a new one—and who’d made sure I understood that seeing that symbol means that I’m in danger and I have to run.
I squeeze my eyes shut, fighting a wave of emotion. Once again, my life is about to be turned upside down. Once again, I will lose everything—and while it’s so much less than before, it’s all I have. I crumple the note in my hand, desperate to make this all go away. After six years of hiding, I’d dared to believe I was safe—but that was a mistake. Deep down I’ve known that, ever since I left my job two months ago as a research assistant at the central library to work at the museum. Being here is treading water too close to the bridge.
Straightening, I listen as the women leave and the room goes silent. Anger erupts inside me at the idea that my life is about to be stolen from me again. Inhaling, I tear the note into tiny pieces, flush them down the toilet, and shove the envelope into the trash. I want to throw away the key, too, but some part of me won’t let that happen.
Unzipping my small black purse, I drop the key inside. I’m going to finish my party. And maybe I’m going to finish my life right here in New York City. The note didn’t say I’d been found; it only warned me that I could be found. I don’t want to run again. I need time to think, to process, and that is going to have to wait until after the party.
Decision made, I exit the stall, cutting my eyes away from the mirror. I don’t want to see myself right now, when I have no idea who “I” am or will be tomorrow. In the numb zone I’ve used as a survival tool before, almost as many times as I’ve tried to find the meaning of that symbol on the note, I follow the soft hum of orchestral music, entering a room with a high, oval ceiling decorated with magnificent murals. I tell myself to get lost in the crush of patrons in business attire and waiters offering champagne and finger foods, but I don’t. I simply stand there, mourning the new life I’ve just begun, and that I know is now gone. My “zone” has failed me.
“Amy, where have you been?”
Chloe Monroe, the only person I’ve let myself consider a friend in years, steps in front of me, a frown on her heart shaped face. From the dark brown curls bouncing around her shoulders to her outgoing personality and fun, flirty attitude, she is my polar opposite, and I love that about her. Now I will lose her. Now I will lose me, again.
“Well,” she prods when I don’t reply quickly enough, shoving her hands onto her hips, “where have you been?”
“The ladies’ room. There was a line.” I hate how easily the lie comes to me, how it defines me. A lie is all I am.
Chloe’s brow furrows. “Hmmm. There wasn’t one when I was there. I guess I got lucky.” She waves off the thought. “Sabrina’s freaking out over some donation paperwork she can’t find and says she needs you. I thought you were doing research—when did you start handling donor paperwork?”
“Last week, when she got overwhelmed,” I say, and perk up at the idea that my new boss needs me. I need to be needed, even if it’s just for tonight. “Where is she?”
“By the front desk.” She laces her arm through mine and pulls me forward. “And I’m tagging along with you. I have a sixty-year-old admirer who’s bordering on stalker. I need to escape before he hunts me down.”
Her light words go deep. I’m the one being hunted. I’d thought I was safe—but I’m not, and neither is anyone around me. I’ve lived that firsthand. I felt that heartache and loss and while being alone sucks, losing someone you care about is far worse.
I stop dead in my tracks and pull Chloe around to face me. “Tell Sabrina I’m getting the forms and will be right there.”
“Oh. Okay. Sure.” Chloe lets go of my arm, and for a moment I fight the urge to hug her. That would make her seem important to me, and someone could be watching. I turn away and rush for a doorway, feeling sick to my stomach that I’ll never see her again.
I finally exit at the side of the building into the muggy August evening and head for a line of cabs, consciously not rushing or looking around me. I’ve learned ways to avoid attention. Going to work for a place with a direct link to the world I’d left behind wasn’t one of them, and now I’m paying for that luxury.
“JFK airport,” I say as I slide into the back of a cab and rub the back of my neck at a familiar prickling sensation. A feeling I’d felt often my first year on my own, when I’d been certain danger waited for me around every corner. Hunted. I’m being hunted. All the denial I own won’t change my reality.
THE RIDE TO the airport is thirty minutes, and it takes me another fifteen to figure out what the location of locker 111 is once I’m inside the terminal. I pull it open and see a carry-on roller suitcase and a smaller brown leather tote bag with a large yellow envelope sticking up from inside it. Having no desire to be watched while I explore what’s been left for me, I gather up the bags and head for a ladies’ room.
Once again in a stall, I pull down the baby-changing table and check the contents of the envelope on top. There is a file folder, a bank card, a cell phone, a passport, a notecard, and another small, sealed envelope. I reach for the note first.
There is cash in the bank account, and the PIN is 1850. I’ll add more as you need it until you get fully settled. You’ll find a new Social Security card, driver’s license, and passport as well. You have a complete history to memorize, and a résumé and job history that will check out if looked into. Throw out your cell phone. The new one is registered under your new name and address. There’s a plane ticket and the keys to an apartment. Toss all identification and don’t use your bank account or credit cards. Be smart. Don’t link yourself to your past. Stay away from museums this time.
A new name. That’s what stands out to me. I’m getting another new name. No. No. No. My heart races at the idea. I don’t want another new name. Once again, I’m losing part of myself. After living a lie for years, I’m losing the only part of my fake identity I’d really accepted as me.
I grab the passport and flip it open, and my hand trembles at the sight of the current photo. How did this stranger I met only one time get a picture this recent? I’d once considered him my guardian angel, but I’m freaked out by this. Has he been watching me all this time? I shiver at the idea.
My only comfort is that my first name won’t change. I’m now Amy Bensen, rather than Amy Reynolds. I’m still Amy. It’s the one piece of good news in all of this and I cling to it, using it to stave off the meltdown I feel coming. I just have to hold it together until I get on the plane. Then I can sink into my seat and think myself into my numb zone, which I can’t seem to find right now.
Flipping open the folder, I find an airline ticket. I’m going to Denver, and I leave in an hour. I’ve never been anywhere but Texas and New York. All I know about Denver is it’s big, it’s cold, and it’s the next place I will pretend is home, when in reality I have no home. The thought makes my chest pinch, but the fear of what might await me if I don’t run pushes me past it.
I turn off my cell phone so it won’t ping and stuff it, with everything but my new ID and plane ticket, back into the envelope. I have my own money in the bank, and I’m not about to get rid of my identification and access to that resource. Besides, the idea of using a bank card that allows me to be tracked bothers me. I’ll be visiting the bank tomorrow and removing any cash I can get my hands on. When I’d been eighteen, naive and alone, I’d blindly trusted the stranger who’d rescued me. I might have to trust him now, too, but it won’t be blindly.
Making my way to check-in, I fumble through using the kiosk and then make a beeline to security. A few minutes later I’m on the other side of the metal detectors, and I stop at a store to buy random things I might need. All is going well until I arrive at my gate and hear my new name paged from the desk.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Bensen,” the fortysomething gate agent begins. “We had an administrative error, and seats were double-booked. We—”
“I have to be on this flight,” I say in a whispered hiss, my heart in my throat. “I have to be on this flight.”
“I can get you a voucher and the first flight tomorrow.”
“No.Tonight. Give someone else a bigger voucher to get me a seat.”
“Talk to a supervisor,” I insist. Avoiding attention means I’m usually not a pushy person, but I have no death wish. I am alive, and plan to stay that way.
She purses her lips, but finally she turns away and makes a path toward a man in uniform. Their heads dip low and he glances at me before the woman returns. “We have you on standby, and we’ll try to get you on.”
“How likely is it you’ll get me on?”
“We’re going to try.”
“Try how hard?”
Her lips purse again. “Very.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. And I’m sorry. I have a . . . crisis of sorts. I really have to get to my destination.” There is a thread of desperation to my voice that I can’t contain.
Her expression softens. “I understand, and I am sorry this happened,” she assures me. “We are trying to make this right. And so you don’t panic, please know that we have to get everyone boarded before we make any passenger changes. You’ll likely be the last on the plane.”
“Thanks,” I say, feeling awkward. “I’ll just go wait.” Flustered, I turn away from the counter and head to the window, where I set my bags on the floor beside me. Leaning back against the steel handrail on the glass, I position myself to see everyone around me to be sure I’m prepared for any problem before it’s upon me. And that’s when the room falls away, when my gaze collides with his.
He’s sitting in a seat facing me, one row between us, his features handsomely carved, his dark hair a thick, rumpled finger temptation. He’s dressed in faded jeans and a dark blue T-shirt, but he could just as easily be wearing a finely fitted suit and tie. He’s older than me, maybe thirty, but there’s a worldliness, a sense of control and confidence, about him that reaches beyond years. He is money, power, and sex, and while I cannot make out the color of his eyes, I don’t need to. All that matters is that he is one hundred percent focused on me, and me on him. A moment ago I was alone in a crowd, and suddenly, I’m with him. As if the space between us is nothing. I tell myself to look away, that everyone is a potential threat, but I just . . . can’t.
His eyes narrow the tiniest bit, and then his lips curve ever so slightly and I’m certain I see satisfaction slide over his face. He knows I can’t look away. I’ve become his newest conquest, of which I am certain he has many, and embarrassingly, I’ve done so without one single moan of pleasure in the process.
“Inviting our first-class guests to board now,” the gate agent says over the intercom.
I blink as he pushes himself to his feet and slides the strap of his duffel bag onto his shoulder. His eyes hold mine, a hint of something in them I can’t quite make out. Challenge? But what kind of challenge? He turns away, and just like that, I’m alone again.