Clench

“Don’t go,” I whisper.

Bella blinks, already holding her key ring with the purple USB. “It’s snowing. Traffic’s going to suck.”

She looks out of my grandparents’ home, at the first flakes falling onto the street. They come down straight and fast, with the precision of a marching band in a bygone era, when men were men and everyone loved their country. On the wall opposite the window hangs the portrait of one of the last men of that world, who stares at the approaching snow with equals parts confidence and resolution. My grandfather would have gone into the snow without delay, winter boots hitting the ground like he was about to liberate an oppressed people from their godless dictator.

Bella turns away from the window, looks at me with a glum resolution. The keys are jangling in her hands.

“Sit.” I grab her wrist, my fingers clenching down on the sleeve of her red turtleneck. “My parents will be back in an hour. Stay for dinner?”

Her mouth twists hesitantly. “I told Greg I’d drop by tonight.”

My ears twitch as soon as I hear that name. We all know what happens if she visits Greg.

“Drop by after dinner. Greg can wait.” I tug gently, and Bella sits with me.

The couch has been here for decades, worn thin under generations of women and their eager suitors, while parents and aunts and uncles surveyed them carefully from the rest of the living room. Bella’s knees are pressed against mine, slits of pink poking out from worn threads. Our faces are close; the softest white fuzz sits between her eyebrows. She doesn’t know that I can see it; she would blush and immediately excuse herself to pluck it all off.

“Bella, come on. They’ll love to have you for dinner. Grandma’s making asparagus.”

Bella wrinkles her nose. The peach fuzz on her forehead ripples like frost on an overnight tent. It’s our own private joke: she hates asparagus, and I’m always trying to trick her into eating it.

Her keys jangle, and my eyes snap to her pocket. All I need right now are two things: her keys and her USB flash drive. If I can get those, everything will be fixed. But I have to time it perfectly.

Now Bella is standing up, walking around the living room, past half a century of my ancestry hanging on the walls. My grandfather, collar stiff and decorated with silver stars, observes us. He’s been on missions a thousand times more urgent than this. If he could only step out and help me. But he stays motionless, locked in the same instant forever.

“Wait, you forgot your jacket.” I say, walking back into the kitchen. This was a good move. I should have thought about the jacket before. Now Bella and I are at the kitchen table, brown with seven pale patches from years of plates sliding back and forth. The oven is blowing hot apple cinnamon air at us. I’ve got her hooked. She won’t be able to leave without staying for dessert.

Bella looks out the window. The first car is cutting through the snowy street, carving two black lines like giant garter snakes. The kitchen clock is ticking, counting down the moments until my family comes, and it will be too late for her to leave. It’s half past four, and the sky is going pink. It’s longer than I’ve ever kept her here, and I’m so close.

“Try it.” I’m pulling open the oven, setting a slice of steaming hot apple pie on the counter. She’ll have to wait for it to cool, and every second that I keep her from going out on that icy road, away from Greg, is a victory.

Bella sighs, and smiles reluctantly, knowing what I’m doing but taking the bait anyway. She digs into the slice, her spoon fogging up as it breaks through the crust. The recipe was Grandpa’s favorite, and how proud would he be to know it still lives on.

Bella’s keys jump into the corner of my eye from the corner of the kitchen counter. I walk toward them, turning on the faucet and talking loudly, keeping an eye on the back of Bella’s black hair in case she turns around. I talk about the week’s Chemistry lab, about visiting universities next month, anything to mask the sound of the keys as I collect them and store them in my pocket.

I win. She can’t leave. She’s safe.

Bella is telling some story, pausing between words to blow on the bites of pie. Her lips scrunch into a pink ring with every puff of air. But I have no time to think about that. I have my laptop out on the counter, slipping the purple USB into it. I’ve never been this close before.

She looks up at me from her slice. She has a piece of mushy apple on the front of her yellow blouse. Does she know I have her USB open on my desktop? I keep pretending to listen to her.

The clock ticks louder, its hands pointing up like a stick figure surrendering. I’m holding Bella’s keys tightly, opening files, pulling up photos of passports, one named Gregory March, the other Isabella Blake. Then I have the plane tickets open.

But I can’t make out the destination.

Read! Focus! But it’s just a jumble of letters. Maybe if I ask her? No, I’d give it away.

“Pie’s almost done,” my grandmother says, walking into the kitchen with Grandpa and my parents. “Mitts are in the bottom shelf, would you take it out?”

I’m about to take the pie out of the oven, when I hear a jangle at the front door. Bella has her hand on the knob, saying sorry she can’t stay longer but that the pie smells good.

How is she leaving? I clench my fists. The keys have disappeared. Somehow, Bella got them and she’s heading out the door. It’s the latest I’ve ever gotten her to linger. If I can just focus on what the plane tickets say—

But the USB is also gone. I’m staring at a blank screen. Grandpa is cutting the pie into eight pieces, and outside the snow is starting to fall.

I’m losing control. Bright light is bulldozing through the window of my cell, and my grandparents’ kitchen is already slipping away, as the ticking of the kitchen clock melts into a baton tapping on metal bars.

I push my face into my pillow, keeping my eyes clenched shut, hoping I can drift away from my cot and back to that kitchen, hoping this time round I’ll keep Bella from going to Greg’s and getting on that plane. This morning, I got closer than any time before. Maybe, if I just focus…

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