In which the plot thickens…
Chess clenched her fist under the table to keep from reacting. Fuck. Holy fuck, how had—she’d been so careful. She’d never even taken fucking cold medicine or aspirin in front of anyone at Church, never let them see her pillbox, hardly even drank. How could they know about her addiction, how had they figured it out?
With an effort she hoped wasn’t visible, she furrowed her brow and shoved as much genuine confusion as she could into her eyes. “Worried? Why?”
“That…” Dana took a deep breath. Oh, shit. “That guy you brought to Elder Griffin’s wedding. Your boyfriend. Doyle says he’s met him before, that he’s violent and a bully and not very smart. That he’s a bad guy. He looks like a bad guy. It worries us.”
Her first response was relief. It wasn’t about her pills; she wasn’t about to get shopped to the Elders and kicked out of the Church and into some rehab hell. She was safe.
But right on the heels of that relief—so close it happened at pretty much the same time—was anger. Doyle was running around calling Terrible a violent bully? Doyle had some fucking nerve saying that shit. Him of all people. And—hold on. “Us?”
“Me, Atticus, Nancy… We thought maybe we should talk to Elder Griffin, but we decided to talk to you first. And let you know we care. We’re here for you. You don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship—”
“Okay.” More fist-clenching; if her fingernails were longer she’d have sliced all the way through her palms at that point. Getting pissed—no, showing how pissed she was—would only be seen as an admission of guilt, as panic or trying to hide something. So she focused on the sharp pain in her hands and used it to keep her voice calm. “I appreciate that you guys care, really.” Lie. “But I am not in an abusive relationship. Absolutely not.”
“You have bruises,” Dana said quietly. “On your wrists. It’s not the first time, either. We’ve all noticed them, for the last few months, on your arms or your wrists or your shoulders or neck. You didn’t give those to yourself somehow. And you weren’t on a case, so you didn’t get them that way.”
Shit, could she leave now? When could she leave? Dana’s cottage had become a trap; not just a plastic toy house, but a roach motel. The floors covered with sticky, oppressive care and concern would grab her feet and hold her there until she starved to death, until she cut off her own legs to escape.
Which she was almost tempted to do, if it meant she could avoid that conversation. Avoid trying to come up with a way to explain those bruises on her wrists—they were hardly even bruises, really, Dana was being awfully fucking dramatic—that didn’t reveal things that were nobody’s business but hers and Terrible’s. Yeah, he’d given her those little marks, those faint smudgy shadows under her skin, but he sure as fuck hadn’t been hurting her at the time. And she didn’t mind one bit, either.
When she didn’t reply, Dana continued. “What about a few weeks ago, after Elder Griffin’s wedding? You looked like somebody had beaten you up.”
Fuck. It had never occurred to her that people would see the bruises she got the night the Agneta Katina exploded, and think Terrible had given them to her. And she didn’t have any way to explain that set of injuries, either, because what was she supposed to say? “Oh, those. Yeah, I was just doing a little illegal magic and blowing up some private property. You know, because somebody was bespelling my dealer’s drug supply. And a bunch of people died, but I never reported any of it?” Sure. That was a great idea.
How fucking ironic. People had been ignoring the abuse written all over her body, the signs of what had happened to her at the hands of this or that piece of shit who was supposed to be taking care of her, for her entire life. Now she was happier than she’d ever been and actually with someone who made her feel safe, someone who would die before he’d let her get hurt, and suddenly everyone had fucking eagle eyes and were so worried about What Horrible Things Were Happening To Chess.
“I was in a car accident,” she said. It wasn’t a great excuse, but she had to give one, didn’t she? Damn it, she never should have agreed to this stupid visit, no matter how useful Dana’s information was. “It was only minor so it didn’t get reported. I am not being abused. By anyone.”
Pause. Dana wasn’t looking at her, so Chess couldn’t tell if she believed her. Did it matter? Probably not.
Almost definitely not. “Even if that’s true, you have to know that people are talking about you. We’re concerned. You could do so much better. You’re smart, and you’re pretty, and you can be really funny. You have a lot to offer, and you should be with someone who has a lot in return. Who is just as smart, and can talk properly, and has a real job.”
Dana reached out to stroke her arm, a brief touch that Chess ignored. She ignored Dana’s attempt to catch her gaze, too. “Why do you want to waste your time with someone like that, when there are so many better men out there? Men who can give you a real life, who can be good husbands and fathers one day?”
The smell of the food had changed from appealing to nauseating; Chess’s throat burned from it and the rage churning in her gut. Good thing she hadn’t been hungry before, because she couldn’t imagine forcing that meal down even at gunpoint. She hunted with her eyes for the clock on the wall, found it above the fridge covered with sappy greeting cards and magnets with kittens on them and a few pictures of Dana and Doyle in his Look-at-Manly-Me leather-filled living room, and stood up. “Oh, hey, I didn’t realize it was so late. I’ve got to go, Dana, sorry. I’ve got—one of the Randalls’ neighbors asked me to come back around nine, so I really need to get moving.”
Dana didn’t look fooled. Chess didn’t give a shit. If she didn’t get out of that place immediately she was going to scream. And then she was going to smack Dana across the face, and that was really not a good idea. That was the kind of thing that would bring a whole load of disciplinary actions and problems down on her head, and she did not need that. What she did need was fresh air, and a smoke, and fuck how she needed her pills.
“Just think about it, Chessie, okay? I know a couple of really nice guys who’d be happy to go out with you. Doyle and I were thinking of having a party in a couple of weeks, you could come and meet them—”
“No, thanks.” Chess was already grabbing her bag. The door only a few steps away beckoned her like a pipe full of Dream. All she had to do was grab it, open it, and she’d be free. She’d be done with this bullshit conversation, and she’d be forewarned if any of them ever tried it again.
They were all talking about her? Nosy motherfuckers. She’d known when she brought Terrible to Elder Griffin’s wedding that there would be some gossip, that everyone would have some sort of opinion. It was easy for busybodies to have opinions, after all. Especially when it came to subjects they knew absolutely fucking nothing about.
But she had not imagined them all getting together and dissecting her life and personality, assuming she was with Terrible because she didn’t think she could do better or that he actually abused her and she needed their help. She hadn’t pictured them setting up some kind of intervention to free her from Terrible’s fell clutches. Fuck them all. All of their best qualities piled together wouldn’t make half the person he was.
“I really didn’t mean to upset you,” Dana said. “I’m trying to help. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
The furious words Chess had been about to fling in Dana’s direction died before they left her mouth. The fury itself didn’t, not really, but Dana wasn’t lying—at least she didn’t seem to be, and Chess didn’t think she was. She was honestly worried, and while it was at least partly her fault that she was shallow and unimaginative and that she couldn’t see what a scumbag Doyle was, her heart was in the right place. Or close to the right place. The point was, if Chess actually was being abused and needed help, she’d be grabbing a lifeline offered by Dana at that moment, and that mattered.
But the rest of it? Fuck letting that go. “I know, Dana. I appreciate it, really. But you have no idea what you’re talking about. And neither does Doyle.”
She turned the doorknob and opened it, pausing for a second before she crossed the threshold into sweet, sweet freedom. “But tell Doyle for me that I’m really grateful for how he’s being such a good friend, too. Tell him I’d hate to ever have to tell you if some guy actually had hit me, because I know you’d be really upset to hear the whole story. Could you just say that to him? I don’t want him to think I don’t care about his concern.”
Doyle wasn’t stupid. He’d get the message. It would only hurt Dana to tell her how she’d slept with Doyle—once—and how he’d acted like an entitled little whinybaby when she made it clear it wouldn’t be happening again. Dana didn’t deserve that, so Chess wouldn’t do it. Unless she had to, like if Doyle opened his fucking mouth about Terrible again.
Of course, she guessed it could be argued that she had a responsibility to tell Dana how that situation ended with Doyle punching her in the eye, and how he had a problem with Terrible because Terrible beat the shit out of him for it. But she doubted Dana would believe her. Doyle certainly wouldn’t admit to it. She didn’t have any proof. And honestly, she didn’t think it was something he’d do again, to anyone else.
But…she would tell, if he didn’t shut the fuck up.
She almost hoped he wouldn’t, as she strode across the grounds and climbed into her car. Too bad that would mean a whole different kind of shitstorm, and would open an even bigger window into her life for her fellow employees to shove their interfering heads through. And if they did that, who knew what they would see?
Anything was too much. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? When had she ever asked any of them for help, even in training? She hadn’t. Shouldn’t that have given them the message that she didn’t need anything from them?
As if people ever got that particular message. Or as if it ever stopped them from telling other people what to do.
She stabbed the gas pedal and steered her car toward the street, satisfied by the feeling of escaping and the knowledge that she’d soon be back in Downside. Satisfied by the act of driving, and the fact that it, at least, was something nobody else tried to “help” her do—although, hell, somebody out there probably would try to snatch the wheel from her if they could, even if it killed them. Which led her right back to Doyle, and how she was going to tell Terrible about the discussion with—oh, shit.
No. She couldn’t tell Terrible about it. This was what he’d predicted, wasn’t it? What he’d worried about, one of the reasons—if not the reason—why he hadn’t wanted to go to the wedding with her. He’d told her they would judge her, that seeing her with him might make them look at her differently, that they’d think something was wrong. He’d told her it could cause trouble for her and she ought to be concerned about it.
The discussion with Dana couldn’t exactly be called “trouble.” Neither could the still-infuriating mental picture of everyone she worked with having some sort of roundtable “Poor Chess” conversation over popcorn and beers—or fish and wine, or whatever the fuck. It was irritating, it was annoying, it made her want to drop “Mind your own damned business” notes into all of their mailboxes, but it didn’t count as trouble.
Trouble would be if she’d just had that conversation with one of the Elders. The fact that her fellow Debunkers thought Terrible didn’t look like a nice guy—what the hell did a “bad guy” look like, anyway? Because she’d known a lot of cold vicious shitbags who looked as kind and gentle as Nursery Goodys—meant nothing when it came to her work. She didn’t give a damn what the other employees thought of her.
And despite her paranoia earlier, she knew that as it stood her Debunking record was good enough to grant her a lot of leeway in behavior. Not good enough to save her ass if they found out about her drugs, and definitely not good enough to save her life if they found out about the sigil on Terrible’s chest, but good enough that they wouldn’t care about who she dated. If they’d even cared to begin with, which she doubted.
So this really didn’t matter. And if it did? Well, that was a bridge she’d cross when she had to. If she had to, which she hoped she didn’t, because if she had to make a choice between Terrible and the Church, the Church would lose. No question in her mind about that one. She could handle not working for the Church. It would suck, but she could do it.
But losing Terrible? Nope. Somewhere in the back of her mind, somewhere deep down in her soul, deeper even than all the filth and sludge, the guilt and rage and memories she buried every day under the weight of her pills and powders and thick sweet Dream smoke, way down at the bottom… Down there was the terror like a constantly churning engine at the idea of losing him. If that ever happened she didn’t know how she’d be able to handle it, how she would go on with her life. So if anyone at the Church thought they were going to take him away from her?
She’d like to see them fucking try.