Raven panted as he came out of the blood high.
His eyes popped open.
His pupils widened in alarm.
His throat was on fire.
He sat up and grabbed his throat.
The fire spilled down into the rest of his body.
Raven rose quickly and stumbled out of the aisle.
The fire was biting him, devouring him.
He tripped over an errant stepstool and fell hard.
“Oh. Oh. Oh.” His body bowed and curved into a fetal position.
I am going to die. I’m going to die. I’m…
Strong arms grabbed him and dragged him out of the library, out into the hall, and down the hall for miles and miles.
He hyperventilated, which made the fire in his throat flare up.
It hurt to make any sound, but he couldn’t help moaning. It was purely involuntary.
The flames are going to break through my skin.
I will be like her.
I will become fire.
Only…I will die.
I’m going to die.
I’m going to die.
The arms released him onto a hard tile floor.
Before he could start to make sense of where he was, piercing hard jets of cold water rained down on him, freezing him and soaking him good.
He stood. “Now, see here!”
The cold water struck his face and it felt marvelous.
Raven turned to the shower head. He opened his mouth wide and let the water come pounding in. He gulped down a whole mouthful of water.
The fire in his throat sizzled and fizzled out.
He didn’t give a thought to the quality of the water or of lead inside the pipes. He drank and drank until the fire inside of him had died away altogether.
He wilted down to the tile floor, feeling terribly waterlogged and vaguely sick.
Raven spread his gloved hands on the floor. Only then did he notice that his insides weren’t the only part of him that was waterlogged. “Uhh. Uhh. My..my gloves. Wet. Clothes. All wet.” He pulled out his handkerchief and let out a small whimper. “Wet. Wet. Oh. Oh. How will I ever get it all dry?”
Missy crouched beside him. “Feel better?”
“I’m…I’m…I’m…” He held out his soggy handkerchief in a helpless gesture.
She took it from him and wrung it out. “There you go.” She gave it back to him.
“Ah.” He could see the wrinkles perking and bubbling into shape. He burst into tears.
In a rush, his mind dredged up memories of every person he’d lost, every heartache, every disappointment, every grief he’d pushed down to deal with later.
His mind dredged up the memory of May Rose’s death.
He cried all the harder.
She put her arm around his sopped shoulders and let him sob into her neck.
Ambrose elbow-propped on Barbara’s desk. “Hey there, beautiful.”
Her face brightened. “Hi!”
“I’m disappointed. You didn’t wake me up tonight. I was looking forward to it.”
“Sorry! I wasn’t able to get away in time.”
The phone rang.
She gave him an apologetic look before answering it.
He smiled and went to retrieve his cleaning supplies.
As Ambrose swept the tiled floor by the front door, he glanced at her.
Her slightly frazzed hair style.
Her animated expressions as she talked on the phone.
Her cowl-necked knit shirt.
Her exposed neck.
His thoughts drifted into a very heated daydream about removing that knit shirt, about her touching him with no fear and no hesitation.
Which, unfortunately, reminded him of the results he was waiting on.
The daydream was officially ruined.
I suppose I should tell her. Maybe I should wait until I get the results and then…
He set the broom and the dusting scoop against one of the chairs in the lobby. They promptly clonked to the floor. He kicked the scoop and returned to Barbara’s desk. “So.”
“Yeah, I’m back. Look. I don’t think I’ve ever told you.”
“Told me what?”
He came around to her side of the desk.
Her expression turned serious. “What’s wrong?”
“I really don’t know how to go about telling you this.”
“Just tell me.”
Where do I start?
He took a breath and exhaled. “I went to The Cardboard Box yesterday.”
“Oh? What for?”
“To undergo STD testing.”
Her posture stiffened a little.
“I know I told you that I never slept with Maria or Elsie and that is true. I never told you that…Do you want to hear this?”
“I’m getting married to you. I should hear this.”
“You will not be my first time.”
She became very still and very quiet.
“Before I met you, I was still struggling to get through my Elsie fixation. I would go to bars and pick up women who were willing. I’d go home with them or we’d go to a hotel. I don’t think I need to say what we did.”
She shook her head. “I get the idea.”
“It didn’t satisfy me. Every woman I was with…I found them all to be lacking. I wanted them all to be Elsie. Every single one of them. I couldn’t bear the fact that I was with someone and it wasn’t Elsie.”
He lowered his gaze. “I killed every single one of them.”
Her face turned pale. “So, what will happen when I’m with you?”
His gaze returned to her. “You’ll be safe. I want you. Just you. You don’t even know. You have no idea how much I want you.”
“I will not hurt you. I swear.”
“When will you get the results?”
He sighed. “Three to five business days. I grabbed the clinic’s card before I left. I intend to harass them all three to five business days until I know.”
She giggled. “I’m sure you will.”
He brushed his knuckles against her face. “I don’t want you to be hurt and ruined because of my selfish mistakes. I love you, Barbara. Just you.”
She stood and hugged him. “Thank you so much for telling me. And thank you for getting tested. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”
“I won’t give you the miserable details. I will say this much: I will never put myself in a position where I need to get tested again.”
“That bad and worse.” He twirled one of her strands of hair that had untucked itself from her hairstyle. “But I would go through all of that testing all over again just for you.”