"IT WAS ABOUT a year after I met you," Olivia said.
She stood across the room. The color was back in her face. Her spine was straighter. It was as though she was gaining strength, telling him all this. For his part, Matt tried not to process yet. He just wanted to absorb.
"I was eighteen years old, but I'd already been in Vegas for two years. A lot of us girls lived in old trailers. The manager of the club, an evil man named Clyde Rangor, had a couple of acres a mile down the road. It was just desert. He put up a chain-link fence, dragged in three or four of the most beaten-down trailers you'd ever seen. And that's where we lived. The girls, they came and went, but at this time I was sharing the trailer with two people. One was new, a girl named Cassandra Meadows. She was maybe sixteen, seventeen years old. The other was named Kimmy Dale. Kimmy was away that day. See, Clyde used to send us out on road trips. We'd strip in some small town, do three shows a day. Easy money for him. Good tips for us, though Clyde kept most of that too."
Matt needed to get his bearings, but there was just no way. "When you started there, you were how old?" he asked.
He tried not to close his eyes. "I don't understand how that worked."
"Clyde was connected. I don't really know how, but they'd find hard-up girls from foster homes in Idaho."
"That's where you're from?"
She nodded. "They had contacts in other states too. Oklahoma. Cassandra was from Kansas, I think. The girls would basically be funneled to Clyde's place. He'd give them fake IDs and put them to work. It wasn't difficult. We both know that nobody really cares about the poor, but little children are, at least, sympathetic. We were just sullen teenagers. We had nobody."
Matt said, "Okay, go on."
"Clyde had this girlfriend named Emma Lemay. Emma was sort of a mother figure to all the girls. I know how that sounds, but when you consider what we'd had in the past, she almost made you believe it. Clyde used to beat the hell out of her. He'd just walk by, you'd see Emma flinch. I didn't realize it then, but that victimization... it made us relate, I guess. Kimmy and I liked her. We all talked about one day getting out- that's all we ever talked about. I told her and Kimmy about meeting you. About what that night meant to me. They listened. We all knew it would never happen, but they listened anyway."
There was a sound from outside of the room. A tiny cry. Olivia turned toward it.
"That's just Ethan," Matt said.
"Does he do that a lot?"
They waited. The house fell silent again.
"One day I was feeling sick," Olivia said. Her voice had again moved into a distant monotone. "It's not like they give you nights off, but I was so nauseous I could barely stand, and, well, girls throwing up on stage didn't do much for business. Since Clyde and Emma weren't around, I checked with the guy at the door. He said I could leave. So I walked back to the Pen- that's what we called the trailer area. It was around three in the afternoon. The sun was still strong. I could almost feel my skin being baked."
Olivia smiled wistfully then. "You know what's odd? Well, I mean, the whole thing is odd, but you know what just struck me?"
"The degrees. Not the temperature degrees. But the degrees that change everything. The little ifs that become the big ones. You know about those better than anyone. If you had just driven straight back to Bowdoin. If Duff hadn't spilled the beer. You know."
"It's the same thing here. If I hadn't been sick. If I had just danced like I did every night. Except in my case, well, I guess different people would say different things. But I'd say my ifs saved my life."
She was standing by the door. She eyed the knob as if she wanted to flee.
Matt said, "What happened when you got back to the Pen?"
"The place was empty," Olivia said. "Most of the girls were already at the club or in town. We usually finished around three in the morning and slept to noon. The Pen was so depressing, we got the hell out of there as soon as we could. So when I came back, it was silent. I opened the door to my trailer and the first thing I saw was blood on the floor."
He watched closely now. Olivia's breathing had deepened, but her face was smooth, untroubled.
"I called out. That was stupid, I guess. I probably should have just started screaming and ran, I don't know. Another if, right? Then I looked around. The trailers had two rooms, but they're set up backwards, so you first walk into the bedroom where the three of us slept. I had the lower bunk. Kimmy's was on the top. Cassandra, the new girl, her bed was against the far wall. Kimmy was neat as a pin. She was always getting on us about not cleaning up. Our lives were dumps, she'd say, but that didn't mean we had to live in one.
"Anyway, the place was totally trashed. The drawers had all been dumped out, clothes everywhere. And there, near Cassandra's bed, where the blood trailed off, I could see two legs on the floor. I ran over and I just pulled up short."
Olivia looked him straight in the eye. "Cassandra was dead. I didn't need to feel for a pulse. Her body was on its side, almost in a fetal position. Both eyes were open, staring at that wall. Her face was purple and swollen. There were cigarette burns on her arms. Her hands were still hog-tied with duct tape behind her back. You have to remember, Matt. I was eighteen years old. I may have felt older or looked older. I may have had too much life experience. But think about that. I'm standing there looking at a dead body. I was frozen. I couldn't move. Even when I heard the sounds coming from the other room, even when I heard Emma scream out, 'Clyde, don't!' "
She stopped, closed her eyes, let loose a deep breath.
"I turned just in time to see a fist flying at my face. There was no time to react. Clyde didn't pull the punch at all. His knuckles landed flush on my nose. I actually heard the crack more than I felt it. My head snapped back. I fell back and landed on top of Cassandra- that was probably the worst part of all. Landing on her dead body. Her skin was all clammy. I tried to crawl off her. Blood was flowing down into my mouth."
Olivia paused, swallowing air, trying to catch her breath. Matt had never felt more incompetent in his life. He did not move, did not say anything. He just let her gather herself.
"Clyde rushed over and looked down on me. His face... I mean, he usually had this smirk. I'd seen him give Emma Lemay the backside of his hand lots of times. I know this sounds foreign to you. Why didn't we act? Why didn't we do something? But his beatings weren't unusual to us. They were normal. You have to understand that. This was all any of us knew."
Matt nodded, which felt totally inadequate, but he understood this thinking. Prisons were filled with this sort of rationale- it wasn't so much that you did something awful as that the awful was simply the norm.
"Anyway," Olivia went on, "the smirk was gone. If you think rattlesnakes are mean, you never met Clyde Rangor. But now, standing over me, he looked terrified. He was breathing hard. There was blood on his shirt. Behind him- and this is a sight I'll never forget- Emma just stood with her head down. Here I was, bleeding and hurt, and I was looking past the psycho with the clenched fists at his other victim. His real victim, I guess.
" 'Where's the tape?' Clyde asked me. I had no idea what he meant. He stomped down hard on my foot. I howled in pain. Then Clyde shouted, 'You playing games with me, bitch? Where is it?'
"I tried to scramble back, but I bumped up into the corner. Clyde kicked Cassandra's body out of the way and followed. I was trapped. I could hear Emma's voice in the distance, meek as a lamb, 'Don't, Clyde. Please.' With his eyes still on me, Clyde reeled on her. He had the full weight of his body in the blow. The back of his hand split Emma's cheek wide open. She tumbled back and out of sight. But it was enough for me. The distraction gave me the chance to act. I lashed out with my foot and managed to kick the spot right below his knee. Clyde's leg buckled. I got to my feet and rolled over the bed. See, I had a destination in mind. Kimmy kept a gun in the room. I didn't like it, but if you think I had it tough, Kimmy had it worse. So she was always armed. She had two guns. She kept this mini-revolver, a twenty-two in her boot. Even onstage. And Kimmy had another gun under her mattress."
Olivia stopped and smiled at him.
"What?" Matt said.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't think I know about your gun?"
He had forgotten all about it. He checked his pants. They'd taken them off him in the hospital. Olivia calmly opened her purse. "Here," she said.
She handed him the gun.
"I didn't want the police to find it and trace it back to you."
"Thanks," he said stupidly. He looked at the gun, tucked it away.
"Why do you keep it?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"I don't think Kimmy did either. But it was there. And when Clyde went down, I dove for it. I didn't have much time. My kick hadn't incapacitated Clyde- it'd just bought me a few seconds. I dug my hand under the top bunk's mattress. I heard him shout, 'Crazy whore, I'm gonna kill you.' I had no doubt he would. I'd seen Cassandra. I'd seen his face. If he caught me, if I didn't get the gun, I was dead."
Olivia was looking off now, her hand raised as though she were back in that trailer, digging for that gun. "My hand was under the mattress. I could almost feel his breath on my neck. But I still couldn't find the gun. Clyde grabbed my hair. He was just starting to pull when my fingers felt the metal. I gripped for all I was worth as he tugged me back. The gun came with me. Clyde saw it. I didn't have a real grip on it. My thumb and forefinger were wrapped around the butt of the gun. I tried to snake my finger around the trigger. But Clyde was on me. He grabbed my wrist. I tried to fight him off. He was too strong. But I didn't let go. I held on. And then he dug his thumbnail into my skin. Clyde had these really long, sharp fingernails. See this?"
Olivia made a fist, tilted it back so that he could see the crescent-white scar on the underside of her wrist. Matt had noticed it before. A lifetime ago, she'd told him it was from a fall off a horse.
"Clyde Rangor did that. He dug his fingernail in so deep that he drew blood. I dropped the gun. He still had me by the hair. He flung me onto the bed and jumped on top of me. He grabbed me by the neck and began to squeeze. He was crying now. That's what I remember. Clyde was squeezing the life out of me and he was crying. Not because he cared or anything like that. He was scared. He was choking me and I could hear him pleading, 'Just tell me where it is. Just tell me... ' "
Olivia gently put her own hand up to her throat now. "I struggled. I kicked, I flailed, but I could feel the power draining out of me. There was nothing behind my blows anymore. I could feel his thumb pushing down on my throat. I was dying. And then I heard the gun go off."
Her hand dropped to the side. The antique clock in the dining room, a wedding gift to Bernie and Marsha, started to chime. Olivia waited, let it finish playing.
"The gun wasn't loud. It was more like the crack of a bat. I guess that's because it was a twenty-two, I don't know. For a second, Clyde's grip somehow tightened. His face looked more surprised than pained. He let go of me. I started gagging, choking. I rolled to the side, gasping for air. Emma Lemay was standing behind him. She pointed the gun at him and it was like all those years of abuse, all those beatings, they just boiled over. She didn't cower. She didn't look down. Clyde spun toward her, enraged, and she fired again, right in his face.
"Then Emma pulled the trigger one more time and Clyde Rangor was dead."