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Karmen ducked her head, snapping at Ellen as the flash went off on the latter’s phone. “Delete that now. You know I don’t let anyone take my picture.”
“It’s wrecked anyway,” Ellen groused. “I only got the top of your head. I don’t think anyone wants to see a picture of your side part.”
Karmen held her hand out for her friend’s phone. By now, the routine was familiar to both women. Ellen rolled her eyes, but dutifully held out the phone. Karmen scrolled through a dozen photos, making sure there were none of her before handing it back.
“I don’t get why it’s such a big deal.” Ellen sat down across from Karmen. Their server approached with menus. “I’ve never met anyone so camera shy. Did you have some kind of traumatic camera experience as a kid?”
Karmen stared at Ellen a moment, started to answer, then didn’t. They’d known each other for six years. If Karmen had a best friend, Ellen was it. But could she really afford to have a best friend? What if she told Ellen the truth? Would it really be that bad? Remember the last time? It was bad.
“We should order.” Karmen picked up her menu, changing what she had been going to say at the last second. She could feel Ellen’s eyes scrutinizing her through the menu. She had almost slipped. She was becoming too comfortable. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t get too close. Maybe it was time to move on.
“You act like you’re in the witness protection program.” As Karmen’s menu slipped from shaking fingers onto the floor, Ellen gasped, her hands flying to cover her mouth. “You are in witness protection!”
To Karmen’s panicked ears, Ellen’s whisper sounded as loud as a gunshot. The gunshot she heard and saw over and over again. The gunshot that invaded her nightmares, leaving her awake, drinking coffee at two a.m. She had started to set the coffee pot up before she went to bed at night.
Karmen had known what she was doing when she had walked into the police station eight years ago. She had understood that testifying against Bobby would mean she would have to leave everyone and everything behind. But her conscience wouldn’t let her do anything else.
She had suspected he was involved in something illegal. They’d been dating six months when he’d confessed to her that he was related to one of New Jersey’s biggest crime families. They’d never discussed it again. She should have left him right then, but she’d been in love, or so she thought.
Somehow, after that confession, she had allowed herself to accept more and more of Bobby’s life. Once she had started down the slippery slope, it seemed there was no way out. His kingpin uncle gave the dinner toast at their wedding and bought them a house for a wedding gift. By then, Karmen had stopped letting herself think about where the money came from.
All that changed the day she came home early from a Paris shopping trip with her best friend. She might have expected to see Bobby with another woman. That she might have been able to get over. Instead, she walked into their living room just as he pulled the trigger, gunning down her friend’s husband.
Karmen froze, unable to process what she had just seen. Then she ran. She didn’t make it to the door. Bobby was on her in an instant. “Karmen. Stop. Wait. You weren’t supposed to see this.”
“That’s your concern?” Karmen choked out. “That I saw you? Not that you just murdered my best friend’s husband?”
“Karm, you know what I do. You know this is part of it. He was skimming.”
But Karmen hadn’t known. Or maybe she hadn’t let herself know that her husband was a killer. It suddenly occurred to her that he might kill her. She let Bobby lead her to their bedroom and waited while he brought her a sleeping pill and a glass of water.
“When you wake up, this will all be over. I’ll have it all cleaned up.”
Karmen pretended to swallow the pill. As soon as Bobby closed the door behind himself, she spat the pill out and packed a suitcase. She left through the balcony door and snuck down the stairs leading to the back yard. She didn’t even try to sneak to the front to pick up her car. She knew Bobby’s uncle had had it bugged when he bought it for her. Bobby had warned her.
Karmen threw her suitcase over the fence separating their yard from their next-door neighbor’s. Then she had walked an hour and a half to the police station, where she told her story and agreed to testify against her husband.
She had survived three attempts to silence her before Bobby’s trial date. Terrified, she had nonetheless testified before being whisked out a side door and into a new life. At no point was she allowed to see her friend. She didn’t even know what had happened to her. Maybe the family had killed her as well. The police wouldn’t discuss it with Karmen. She’d read about the guilty verdict in the newspaper of her new hometown.
Karmen’s handler created a new look and a new name to go along with the new town. Karmen hated both. Two months of nightmares and loneliness later, she had met Shauna. They’d quickly become friends and, despite explicit instructions not to, she had told Shauna her story. Shauna had told everyone she knew. Karmen had had to run for her life to another new identity, another new look.
Now, sitting across the table from Ellen, Karmen imagined everyone’s eyes on her. She felt a gun aimed at her head. Running would only make it worse. People really would stare. They would remember her.
She reached down and picked up the menu. “Don’t be silly. I’m the most boring person you’d ever want to meet. Why would I be in witness protection?”
As Ellen looked back at her, skeptical, Karmen motioned the server over to the table and ordered. By this time tomorrow, she’d be on an airplane headed who knew where. Her heart broke, knowing that this time she wouldn’t make the same mistake. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t get too close. She added another restriction to her life. Don’t make friends. This time, when her handler relocated her, she would follow the advice he’d given her in the beginning. She’d get a dog. And a cat, she decided. Maybe she’d end up a crazy cat lady. Maybe this was how they all started out.
This story came from a pair of related Reedsy prompts. The first was to write a story that began with someone taking a picture. The second was to write a story about someone who is pathologically camera shy. I’m not sure Karmen’s fear of having her picture taken is actually pathological, but I decided this was close enough to the prompt parameters to count.