She read on.
“I don’t know if you are even receiving these letters, my darling. At this point I guess I write them as much for myself as for you. But I can’t stop. I won’t stop, Lisa, not until you know that I love you, that I forgive you, that I will never give up on you, no matter how many times the guards turn me away.”
It touched her that he still said “the guards” rather than “you.” Darling Matt. He still wanted to absolve her of everything.
“I can’t bear to think of you in that awful place. Please, my darling, if you’re being mistreated, you’ve got to let somebody know. If not me, then your lawyers or even the governor. Even Danny McGuire might be able to help.”
Danny McGuire. It was funny, every time she thought of Matt, she felt like Lisa, but every time she thought of Danny, she was Angela Jakes. Poor Angela. So beautiful, so young. She was the first one to be violated, the first one to suffer. By the time she became Tracey, and Irina, and even Lisa, she was stronger, hardened by the litany of horrors, numb to the pain. But Danny McGuire had known her at the beginning, when she was still vulnerable, still raw. He had known Angela, and in his own way, Sofia suspected, he had loved her. Reading his name in Matt’s distinctive, cursive handwriting, she almost felt nostalgic.
Perhaps she should send Matt some sort of message, anonymously, just to let him know she was okay. Apart from the obvious hardship of losing her freedom, the routine at ASH suited Sofia well. Half her life had been spent in institutions, and the other half on the run, not just from the police but from her own demons. At ASH, her days were pleasantly predictable. She found the hospital routine a comfort.
As for being picked on by the other patients…if anything, the opposite was true. In the outside world, women tended to be too envious of great beauties to appreciate them aesthetically. But here at ASH, with no men to compete for other than the smattering of male guards, and little enough beauty in any form, Sofia’s beauty was a passport to popularity. Other women wanted to be around her, despite the fact that she was far from social, choosing to eat alone at mealtimes and declining all group activities from movie night to organized athletic events. But she never left her room without admiring glances. Occasionally the tone of the glances shifted from admiration to outright lust, but unlike the state prison, there weren’t many bull dykes at ASH and Sofia had never felt threatened.
Nor was her beauty her only advantage. Through no effort or desire of her own, Sofia had become something of a celebrity within the hospital. Many of the other women admired her, viewing the Azrael victims as rich, dirty old men, men who had callously abandoned their children and who’d therefore gotten what was coming to them. Sofia herself was careful never to endorse this view. Flashbacks to the murders still gave her terrible nightmares, and talking about them could bring on acute anxiety attacks. The only part of the past she held on to was Matt Daley.
“He came again today.”
The male nurse’s voice wrenched Sofia back to the present. Reluctantly she looked up from Matt’s letter.
“You still don’t want to see him, huh?”
Sofia shook her head. “I’m tired. I need to sleep.”
The male nurse left her, watching through the glass door panel as she lay down on her bunk and closed her eyes. Could it really be possible for a woman to grow more beautiful with each day?
The nurse’s name was Carlos Hernandez, and he was one of only a handful of males on the psychiatric staff at ASH. His buddies in Fresno had teased Carlos about landing his “dream job.” “Welcome to Altacito,” they mocked, “population two thousand. One thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine crazy bitches…and you!” But the truth was that Carlos was lonelier in this job than he had ever been in his life. Yes, he was surrounded by women, but there wasn’t a single one with whom he could strike up an acquaintance, still less a friendship or relationship. The patients were obviously off-limits, and the average age of his female colleagues on the nursing staff was forty-two, with the average weight probably around 180 pounds. Not exactly rich pickings. For an institution that housed over two thousand women, it was astonishing how few of them were attractive.
Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.
Sofia Basta, on the other hand…she was the exception that proved the rule. An anomaly. A freak occurrence. She was older too, in her early forties, according to her birth certificate, but she looked at least a decade younger, and infinitely more desirable than any woman Carlos Hernandez had ever met, let alone dated. Her smooth skin, perfect features and lithe, slender body would have been more than enough to fuel the young nurse’s fantasies. But Sofia had something beyond that, an inner calm, a sort of goodness that shone out of her like a light. Of course, Carlos Hernandez knew about her mental illness. Take her off her meds and she could snap at any moment, change back into a confused and highly dangerous psychopath, capable of murder. But to talk to her, it was so hard to believe. Sofia seemed like the sanest, loveliest, most gentle creature on earth.
Through the glass he saw her shoulders shaking. It was against the rules, but he couldn’t help himself. Slipping back into the room, he sat down on her bed.
“Don’t cry,” he said kindly. “You don’t have to see anyone you don’t want to see. A lot of patients here find outside contact hard.”
Sofia turned over and looked at him with those delicious liquid-chocolate eyes. Carlos’s stomach flipped like a pancake.
“Does it get easier? As time goes on?”
It didn’t get easier. It got more oppressive and stifling by the day, the hour, the minute. Carlos Hernandez had seen the toll that a life in an institution took on a human being. The hopelessness, the despair, knowing you would never get out, that this was your world till you drew your last breath. It was bleak. But he couldn’t bring himself to say as much to Sofia Basta.
“Sure it does.”
“I would see him,” Sofia blurted out, “if I were ever going to get out of here. If I had any future, anything to offer him. But since I don’t, it seems cruel. He has to forget me.”
“Try to get some rest,” said Carlos, pulling the blanket up around her and gently stroking her hair before leaving the room. He glanced up and down the corridor, checking if anyone had seen him, but he was safe. D wing was deserted, as it always was on visiting days.
Carlos Hernandez had never met Matt Daley. But he knew one thing about him already: he would never “forget” Sofia.
Sofia was unforgettable.
MATT DALEY DROVE TOWARD THE INTERSTATE, his new customized Range Rover the only car on the road. Barren desert stretched around him in all directions, an ocean of emptiness and dust. Like my life. Desolate.
The world thought that Matt Daley had turned his life around. And on the surface, he had. After years of grueling physical therapy, he’d learned to walk again, against all the odds, and now only used a cane for support. Rarely was his name mentioned in public these days without the epithet survivor thrown in somewhere. His documentary on the Azrael case, produced lovingly on a shoestring budget because Matt had refused to cede editorial control, had received wide critical attention, if not exactly acclaim. Matt made no secret of the fact that he was an apologist for Sofia Basta, pinning the blame for the Azrael killings firmly and exclusively on Frankie Mancini’s shoulders. Despite the fact that the jurors at the trial had effectively done the same, this stuck in many people’s craw, including HLN’s Nancy Grace. Grace had wanted Sofia’s head on a platter from the day of her arrest. Ironically, it was the Fox anchor’s vitriolic condemnation of Azrael: Truth and Lies that had ensured it a far wider audience than Matt could otherwise have hoped for. Distributed throughout Asia and the Indian subcontinent, as well as in Europe and the United States, the film was a resounding commercial hit. Matt Daley was more than a survivor. He was a rich man, a winner, a success.
None of it mattered.
He hadn’t expected Lisa to see him today. After four years he was resigned to her rejection. But he’d hoped.
Hope would be the death of him.
He pulled onto the freeway. Now that he was alone, tears coursed freely down his cheeks as he once again gave way to the pain. Sometimes he fought it. Told himself sternly that he had to do something, to take his depression by the horns and wrestle it down and defeat it. But most of the time he knew.