Pockets of fire raged in the corners, and smoke billowed in angry curls. My chest burned, my feet found every fracture and crack in the ground, and the heat felt like it was blasting at my back until I eventually found the end of the tunnel to the house across the street.
The door was ancient and heavy. My eyes burned so badly I couldn’t do more than feel for the hundred-year-old knob and deadbolt. They were hot to the touch, and I cursed. I picked up my skirt and shielded my right hand with the fabric then licked my left hand and quickly turned the deadbolt. I opened the door and closed it behind me. The air in the stairwell seemed seven hundred degrees cooler. I took it in as if I’d never breathed before, and my lungs punished me by feeling as though they were being stabbed with every gasp.
After a couple of blinks, I looked up. The stairs were the same as they’d always been, and at the top was a rough-hewn oval where Antonio had broken through the wall.
I ran up the stairs. Tripped. Fell. Got the hell up. I ran again and reached the dark basement, falling palms-first onto sharp plaster chips. I screamed. It hurt badly. I looked down, and even though I couldn’t see well past my singed eyes and the room’s darkness, it was obvious my hands were burned.
I swallowed. That hurt, too. It had been worse than I’d remembered down there. I’d been intent on getting out, getting to Antonio. I hadn’t even known I was in hell. And where was he? Was he still down there? What if he was burning to death on the far side of the tunnel, and I was up here with my feet on cold plaster, waiting?
I thought about going back down. I saw myself wandering through ten miles of tunnel, calling his name. I knew I shouldn’t have let him put me in that well. I shouldn’t have let him close the lid or walk away or any of it. I should have protected him the way he protected me.
And that was what he’d done. He’d protected me every step of the way. He’d put me under the umbrella of his love, and I’d done nothing but stand in his way. I’d made it my business to assert myself, and in doing so, I’d put him between me and death.
“Antonio.” I whispered, but no one answered. I didn’t even know who I was calling to in that dark basement. He wasn’t there. He couldn’t have made it and closed the door behind him. It was just me, with a murder on my conscience and my docket, on the run, alone.
Don’t stop until you’re in the car.
“Get it together,” I said to myself. I could cry about Antonio another day. Today, I had to make his death worthwhile. I breathed, even though it hurt, and looked over the basement. One stairwell went up to the house; I knew that. A blast of cold air came from another shorter, rough-hewn exit that led right outside. I heard the sirens through that opening and went to it.
The fresh air hit my face like a Freon blast. The yard went back a hundred feet and was surrounded by cinderblock and cast iron. A white car waited by the exit, which led to a back alley. I couldn’t tell the make, but it was nondescript, looking like a million other cars in the city. I walked to it, wondering how I was going to open the door without bloodying the handle or drive without touching the wheel. And then, ten steps in, I berated myself for worrying about my stupid problems after what had just happened, and I had to fight an emptiness and uncertainty I’d never felt before. The plan had been to go to Tijuana then drive south to Guatemala, and fly to Greece under different names. I couldn’t remember if I’d promised to stick to the plan. Was it the right thing to do? Did it even matter without him? I put my head on the cool roof of the car, listening to the sirens a block away. I prayed that no one was hurt, that I could gather the strength to drive away alone, and that Antonio was in heaven.
The smell of burning wood that saturated my clothes reminded me of him, and I decided I’d never wash that fucking dress. We’d tried everything together. We’d done crazy things, wild, irresponsible shit. My God, I’d shot someone. I was a murderer for the rest of my life. I’d killed two men: Paulie, on purpose, and Antonio through sheer recklessness.
My breath hitched, and though I tried to hold back the tears, they came nonetheless. A minute to cry. I had to just take a minute to breathe, mourn, and cry.
Like angelic comfort from the firmament, a hand came on my shoulder.
It was a cop, maybe, or some other authority figure come to arrest me, or Daniel gently comforting me before handing me over for a hundred infractions. Then I felt a hand on the other shoulder, and through the smell of burning wood that saturated my clothes, hiding all other scents, came a voice.
“Passenger side, Contessa.”
I spun so quickly I got dizzy and fell into Antonio’s arms. I was saved, pulled from the jaws of despair. I didn’t care why or how, just that it was true that he was with me.
“What? Theresa? What’s wrong?” He pushed me away, and when he saw I cringed, he looked down. My hands were up, in front of me. He took them from underneath.
“Gesù, what happened?”
“I thought you were dead,” I said.
His ripped shirtsleeve dangled off his elbow like bunting. “Not yet. I run faster than you think.” He held his finger to my face, first pointing then stroking the length of my nose. “But next time we go to a wedding, the worst that will happen is you get too drunk to dance.”
“I don’t drink at weddings.”
He put the hand without the ripped shirtsleeve on my cheek and kissed me in the dark yard, with the crickets squeaking their mating call and the thup-thup-thup of the helicopters getting closer.
“You ready to go?” his mouth whispered into mine before he kissed me. God, I couldn’t believe I thought I’d lost that hungry mouth, those lips, soft with intention, framing a brutal tongue. I couldn’t touch him because my hands were still raw and burned, but he pulled me closer in that kiss. I wanted him to tear me apart against the side of that nondescript white car.
But I pushed the kiss off before I could ask and he could be tempted to comply. “You driving, Capo?” I barely had enough breath to finish the sentence.
“Si, amore mio.”
He walked me to the passenger side and held the door open for me. His arm was bloody under the torn shirt, but he didn’t say a word about it. He knocked on the hood of the car as he came around, as if sending me a message that everything was all right and that he had it under control, and when he got in and the gate opened, I knew he did.
The car pulled into the street, and we drove south, to our life.