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Deceptive Innocence

By:Kyra Davis

help. I can’t give him a home, or a family. I can’t even give him the final drink that might make him forget.

“You have to go,” I say as gently as I can. “There’s a shelter a few miles from here. Perhaps they can—”

But before I can finish my sentence, Lander slams his hand on the bar, and when he lifts it there’s two hundred dollars there. “For a Best Western,” he says, his voice cool and steady, as if he’s ordering a drink, not a bed. “Find one with a free breakfast.”

The man gapes at the bills before snatching them up and weaving his way out of the bar.

I stare at Lander, who is now occupying himself with his phone. “He won’t get a hotel room,” I finally say.

“He might,” Lander counters. “Not a Best Western, not a hotel that will buy him a moment of human dignity. But he might find a bed, a room, someplace where he can drink the liquor he’s about to buy in private.”

I shake my head, still not getting it.

“I feel sorry for him,” Lander clarifies.

“Because he doesn’t have a family?”

“Because he’s chosen despair over anger,” he says distractedly as he checks his emails. “It’s a bad choice. Despair will kill you. Anger’s more useful.”

I drop my gaze, toy with my garnet ring. Lander’s singing my song . . . my anthem. Again I feel my pulse quicken, just like it did right before our meeting, before I began my game.

I lean into the counter, my hands spread out to either side as if I’m balancing myself. “Are you angry, Lander?”

He looks up from his phone, his expression almost seductive, almost menacing. “Not as angry as you, Bell.”

Immediately I step back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m—”

“I can hear anger scraping at the underside of every cheery word that comes out of your mouth,” he interrupts. “You’re absolutely draped in anger. And you know what?” He puts a few bills down, more than enough to cover the drink he consumed. “You wear it well.”

My heart pounds in my ears as once again he leaves.

What if he knows?

Dear God, what if he knows I want to destroy him?

chapter two

* * *

When Lander arrives on the third night he doesn’t bother with the name game.

I pour the whiskey without his having to ask for it. My black minidress is detailed with what the saleswoman euphemistically called “vegan leather paneling” in the front and back and is considerably more brazen than I’m feeling. In fact I’m actually feeling uncertain now; he’s not as easy to read as I imagined.

Have I given myself away? How?

The questions and worries kept me up all last night, so I was forced to substitute memories for dreams: memories of my mother, laughing while holding me in her arms, memories of her delighting in my love of fairy tales and storybook princesses.

As the clock pushed past midnight the hue and tone of the memories changed. Images of my mother gasping as that man, Nick Foley, pulled her into a surprise embrace when he didn’t know I was nearby. Memories of the first time I spied Nick kissing the back of my mother’s neck while she tried to make the bed he shared with his wife. I was so young, I barely understood what I was witnessing.

And when the clock struck three, that’s when the memories were at their darkest. My mother hysterical, blood soaking her shirt—then later, memories of my mother screaming as they led her away.

The memories made me sick. At four in the morning I was on my knees wanting to pray but unable to come up with the name of a God who would listen.

If Lander knows my game, I’ve failed my mother again, this time in only the space of a week.

So now I stand before him as he drinks his whiskey, waiting for him to show his hand.

Lander’s gaze casually sweeps the room. There are more women in the bar than usual tonight. Some of them are actually cute. But he doesn’t show any of them special interest. He simply sips his drink and returns his eyes to me, studying me the way I’ve been studying him.

When he puts the drink down he breaks the silence.

“Why do you work here?” he asks.

“I need a job.”

“There are other jobs.”

“No doubt,” I agree as I take out a rag and wipe some drops of liquor off the bar. “But this is the one I got.”

The spill is gone, but I keep moving the rag back and forth with slow, deliberate movements, making it more of a meditative exercise than anything else. Somewhere on the other side of the room a girl breaks out in hysterical laughter.

“I could get you out of here,” Lander says quietly, “help you find something better.”

The relief hits me with the force of a bullet.

He knows nothing.

And he wants me. I’m sure of that now.

“Are you offering to save me, Lander?” I ask as I drop the rag behind the bar.

He chuckles. It’s a softer sound than the last time he laughed in my presence, a little more loaded. “I’m not the savior type.”

“No, I don’t suppose you are.”

He continues to study me, the drink in front of him seemingly forgotten. “Would you like to come home with me, Bell?”

Now it’s my turn to grin. I look to the left and right, making sure that there’s no one close enough to overhear. Then I gently put my hand over his and lean in so my lips are right against his ear and whisper . . .

“No.”

The night moves on at an odd pace. People fade in and out of the bar like phantoms, barely noticeable, never leaving an impression, with the possible exception of the stoned girl with rainbow-colored hair who asks me to turn up the volume on the TV so she can dance to the commercial jingles.

When Benny, the bartender who covers the last shift of the night, wanders in at eight thirty, less than ten people are there.

One of them is Lander.

He’s never stayed till the end of my shift before.

I go to greet Benny, tell him which tabs are open and who’s paid up. The rainbow girl spins to the sound of Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide” as it plays over a Budweiser ad. The drunk from the night before stumbles in, already too w

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