45 - Cowardice

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Of course Nat had fled. 

In the end, Kyle had gotten his way. Liam went home with him that night, and Liz was left alone and stewing in her anger. 

Since when had she become the bad guy here? What had she done wrong? She had done her best to support her family. She'd built a business from nothing, and put up with countless bullshit along the way because of it. Kyle had never appreciated what she did for him, had only ever been threatened by her strength and her ambition. 

And now he was pulling this sanctimonious father card. Pretending that he wanted to be such a good dad now, that he was so involved, so concerned. As if. He had never given a shit about anything but himself, and she didn't believe for a minute that he was going to start doing anything different now. 

She found herself pacing around the house, prowling through each room like some sort of wild animal circling the edges of its hard-won territory. 

And Nat. Fucking Nat. 

She wondered if she should call someone. What did you do if you thought someone was having a psychotic breakdown? Could you call a hospital or something? Get them locked up in a loony bin? She had no idea how any of that worked, but she honestly considered it all the same because Nat had obviously lost her goddamn mind. 

Having these...outbursts. Her unhealthy obsession with those murders. Her ridiculous fear of some stupid dog. 

She circled into the kitchen and dug through the dusty upper cabinets, looking for the bottle of vodka she had stashed behind half-empty boxes of roach traps and faded old pot holders. She pulled it down and thought about pulling out a glass, then changed her mind, tipping the bottle back to her lips instead. 

Drinking straight from the bottle. How scandalous. The ultimate mark of bachelordom, but what else was she right now? She was all alone. 

"Obviously you're the real bad guy," she said aloud, to break the silence. She stood in the archway between the kitchen and parlor, eyes on the dog by the front door, but she wasn't sure which of the two of them she was speaking to. "I mean, look at you. The most terrifying stuffed animal I've ever seen." 

She laughed, and there was no humor in it. It came out high and cold, and the cruelty of it echoed in her ears but there was no reason to feel shame when you were all alone in the house. 

She really should figure out what to do about Nat. 

Nat was unhinged. She'd acted almost like Liz herself had killed the damn cat. 

Of course she was sad about it. But in the grand scheme of things, there were bigger fucking problems than an old cat curling up and dying under the couch. It would have happened sooner or later anyway. 

She couldn't explain the way his body looked. Maybe he really had dragged himself inside after being hurt real bad. Maybe something had been eating at his body after he died. Hell, there was a thought. Maybe he'd just died of old age under the sofa and something had come along and started to gnaw away. Decomposition. The circle of life and all that. 

Maybe it was a mouse. Mice could gnaw through anything. They were a menace in the shop. Maybe a mouse could chew through a body like that, too. How should she know? She wasn't a damn biologist. 

Built into a righteous fury now, she set the bottle of vodka -- now considerably lighter -- down on the kitchen table. 

What had Nat done with the laptop? 

Liz started tearing open cabinets and closet doors until she found it, dragged it out to the kitchen and plopped it heavily on the table. She waited impatiently for it to boot up, tapping her fingers against the table, biding her time by sipping at more vodka. 

By the time the computer finished loading, she'd almost forgotten what she was looking for. 

Almost. 

She wasn't sure how to phrase the thing she was searching for, but a promising link popped up all the same. 

24 HOUR SPOUSAL SUPPORT LINE - FREE CHAT 

Right there at the top of the page. Finally, at least something tonight was going right. She clicked the link and skimmed over a few pages before finding the chat room itself. A text window popped up. 

HELLO. THIS SERVICE IS 100% FREE AND CONFIDENTIAL. DO YOU HAVE A CONCERN ABOUT A LOVED ONE? 

Boy, did she. 

She started to type. 

She wasn't a very fast typist, and what spilled from her fingers was riddled with typos, but the words started to come easier as she began to explain it all. She needed someone to rant to, somebody who would be on her side with all of this, and whoever was on the other side of the screen seemed more than willing to listen. 

So she explained. 

She told this disembodied stranger about what an asshole her ex had been. How she thought things would be different with Nat. How Nat used to be cool, and fun, and so very different, but now it was all the same shit. How her wife was so young and stupid sometimes. How she didn't take responsibility for her actions. How she was paranoid. How she'd thrown Liam to the floor and then tried to blame it on a dead dog. 

There was no reply for a little while. 

The screen filled with three blinking dots, over and over, as if a message were being written and rewritten and deleted. As if from deliberation. She wondered if the app had crashed, if there was even someone on the other side. 

She felt better, though, just for getting it all out there. Maybe all she'd needed was to purge herself of all of these thoughts. Now she just needed a good night's sleep and she could start working this shit out in the morning. 

Words at last appeared on the screen. 

OH, LIZ. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO, DON'T YOU? 

She froze. She had never told them her name. 

YOU NEED TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR OWN, LIZ. 

YOU NEED TO PROTECT YOUR FAMILY. 

Her head felt fuzzy, the vodka seeming to kick in all at once, and she blinked bleary eyes at the laptop screen. 

But the words remained, stubbornly real. 

THEY'LL COME AT YOU FROM ALL SIDES. 

THEY'LL TRY TO TAKE AWAY WHAT RIGHTFULLY BELONGS TO YOU. 

YOU HAVE TO PROTECT WHAT'S YOURS. 

"Tony?" She typed, hesitantly, brow furrowing. The words felt so familiar. It had to be a coincidence, but that was one hell of a coincidence. "Tony from the hospital?" 

YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO, LIZ. 

The screen went blank, the computer glitching and freezing. When at last it recovered, the window had crashed. It was open now to another tab, one of Nat's old windows that she'd never closed. One of those damn, grisly crime scene photos. And, just beneath it, a photograph of a man she recognized. 

Anthony Rivera. 

Tony. 

"You have to protect what's yours," she announced aloud to the empty house, and closed the laptop, stumbling down the hall to the bedroom. 

When she woke hours later, fully clothed and with a pounding headache, she wouldn't remember any of it. But, despite the severity of her hangover, she carried a certain lightness with her into the next day, as if some decision had been made. Like a zipper that had been broken for a long time and then at last repaired, Elizabeth Loman felt like she was finally back on the right track. 

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