Angel McKenzie stared into the steel blue eyes of her past. A past she had buried deep in her heart, locking it away, locking herself away--until now. As if a flood gate had been opened, memories of that one single horrific night came bursting to the surface, flooding her heart with pain so intense an agonizing moan slipped past her lips.
The owner of those eyes reached out, then quickly drew his hand back. He started to speak, then stopped. What could he say? There were no words. Nothing could change what had happened almost three years ago. Nothing could bring back her baby and the only man she'd ever loved...or ever would love.
She knew he had done everything he could to save her family from the flames of death that Christmas Eve. A picture of his black-streaked face formed in her mind--his tattered fireman's uniform covered in soot and grime, the sadness in his expression as he told her it was too late. No, he wasn't to blame. She was all too aware of where the fault lay. The knife in her heart and the emptiness in her soul were constant reminders. And nothing in the world would change that fact.
She had killed her family.
And God had stood by and watched it happen.
As if by some cruel trick from a higher power, the hauntingly familiar Silent Night poured from the mall's speakers amidst shoppers pushing through the garland-decorated shops in search of that elusive, perfect gift. The only gift Angel had truly ever valued had been brutally torn from her grasp because of her stupidity.
The unmerciful night replayed in the memory bank she was unable to erase.
"Ready for bed?" Her husband had bent to turn off the tree lights.
"Wait! I want to leave the lights on. It's Christmas Eve and they are so pretty. The tree can be seen from outside by everyone. And it's the first thing I'll see when I come down in the morning," she'd countered.
He'd shaken his head. "It's not a good idea, Angel. You know the tree's very dry, and you have so many lights it's an accident waiting to happen."
"Oh, John, you're being paranoid." She'd turned out all the other lights and stood gazing at the tree.
"If you say so. I still don't think it's safe." He'd taken her hand and led her up the stairs to their bedroom.
And the lights stayed on. She followed behind with one last look at the tree and smiled to herself. Another argument won. Like she always had to do.
She shook the memory away.
No accusation or blame radiated from the man standing before her, the man she never even knew by name, only pity, which was worse. So much worse. Unable to stand it a moment longer, she broke eye contact with him and hurried out the nearest exit, forgetting whatever it was that had lured her out of her tiny apartment in the first place, leaving behind the tacky Christmas decorations she'd grown to hate.
Once she reached her car, she plopped into the seat and slammed the door shut against the outside world.
Only then did she allow the tears to fall.
Her next awareness was pulling into the apartment parking garage. She had no memory of the drive as if she'd been in a complete trance. She didn't recall making any turns or stops. Nothing.
She opened the car door and for the first time since leaving the mall, she felt the cold bite into her exposed skin. Remembering she had a jacket on when she left the apartment, she glanced at the passenger seat. What had happened to it? She must have dropped it during her hasty retreat. No matter. She rarely left the apartment anyway, preferring the quiet seclusion of her self-appointed prison.
The roar of the chilling wind echoed through the hollow garage, moaning a sad lament. Its pitiful cries reached into her bosom and squeezed the dead beating heart resting within her chest. An overwhelming sense of grief strangled the breath from her lungs, causing her to gasp for air. The desperate inhalation of chilly air burned her throat and she coughed.
She clutched her thin purse and, without looking back, ran straight for her door. The gold number 9 hung askew. The key shook in her hand as she inserted it into the lock.
Safely inside her beige walled cell with her one beige couch and her tiny table with a single chair, she fell upon the beige comforter draping her bed and curled into a fetal position, rocking herself into a numbing sleep.