Live Again

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Chapter 3

The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.

Oh starry starry night! This is how

I want to die.”

-Anne Sexton

I died on my last date with Courtney.

She came from a family that owned a successful business selling things like computers and phones. They had worked for years to make technology cheaper without lowering the quality of the product. My parents looked down on them, but I loved them fiercely.

I met Courtney during my first year of high school, and she intrigued me from the moment I saw her. She was a red-head with a spattering of freckles and gleaming green eyes. Perfectly proportionate in every way, she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. But more than that, I was curious about the gaping burn-scar marring her lovely face. Girls in the hall would point and mock, but Courtney would simply smile. She brought light and beauty wherever she went.

I have no idea why she paid any attention to me – at first I worried that it was because of the money. But I soon learned that she had little regard for that sort of thing, and I admired that most of all.

We had been planning this date all week. We were both seventeen, but our parents let us do what we pleased. Courtney was fascinated by all things astronomy, and I was taking her to stargaze in Westfield Park. Around this time of year, we had spontaneous meteor showers and shooting stars, so I was hoping for a show. I packed a blanket and drove to her house. I didn’t tell my parents where I was going – if mom knew, she surely would sic the paparazzi on us. I was much kinder then...and more honest...but I still did what I could to stay out of the limelight.

Courtney lived near me, her house considerably smaller than mine but infinitely warm and cozy. I walked to the door that evening and shook her father’s hand, and Courtney emerged with a picnic basket. She wore a white blouse with loose sleeves and silver, sparkling, Celtic patterns embossed across it. Her shorts revealed her long, tan legs. Unlike my mother, she never wore much makeup, and she never needed it. We hurried to the car, laughing and talking. Our surroundings were quiet and peaceful, and so were our hearts.

I drove the gray Camaro I’d received for my sixteenth birthday. The blanket was wadded up in the backseat, and Courtney sat next to me, rifling through the picnic basket.

“We’ve got these chocolate muffins my mom baked this morning.” She held the bag up for me to see. “And sandwiches, but who wants to eat real food? Plus, a bag of Cheetos, cookies, and some soda.”

I chuckled. “How much does she think we’ll eat?”

“You know her. She likes to bake whenever she has the chance.” She began packing things back into the basket contentedly.

“Well, don’t worry. I brought our fail-safe.” I pulled a Snickers bar out of my pocket, and she giggled.

Once, a year back, she’d been furious after witnessing a bully in the school, and I’d handed her a Snickers bar and said the line: “Have this. You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

It had become a running joke between us.

“You look beautiful,” I said with a hint of color in my cheeks.

She gave me a warm smile, and we said nothing more.

Westfield Park was large, filled with trees, blooming flowers, and neat, trimmed grass. There was a lake on one side and a swing-set on the other. Lamps stood around the perimeter, lighting our way. We walked to the middle of the park and laid out our blanket. Our spot was off the path, settled in a thick patch of trees that framed our view of the night sky. We ignored the picnic basket and laid across the blanket, breathing in the clear night air. It was quite dark by that time, lit by a myriad of stars. On occasion, a shooting star or meteor flitted across the sky.

Courtney traced constellations with one long finger, and my arm was looped around her shoulders.

I inhaled slowly and let it out, looking over at her, my eyes tracing the slope of her forehead, the gentle curve of her nose, her soft, voluptuous lips. Her scar was a dark swath on her cheek. She’d gotten it in a house fire when she was young. Once, I’d asked if it bothered her, but she shook her head, smiled, and said, “I love it. Imagine, I’m one in a million with this!”

“Why stars, Courtney?” I asked with a hint of wonder.

She looked at me, and the stars glistened in her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“They’re dead light. The stars are already dead, we’re just looking at the light that used to come from them. Isn’t that kind of sad?”

She issued a light chuckle. “You think too much, Jack.”

I snorted in amusement. I planned to be a surgeon, she wanted to paint; we were worlds apart.

She nestled closer to me, her fingers toying with the folds of my shirt. “Wouldn’t the night sky be so dull without the stars?”

“I suppose so.”

“Think of it, Jack. Those stars are dead, and they’re still giving us light and beauty.” She shifted to look at me. “When I die, I want people to remember me that way. I want to make that much of a difference.” She pressed her forehead lightly against my cheek.

“You will, Courtney,” I whispered, wrapping my other arm around her. “I know you will.”

She smiled, her long eyelashes kissing my cheek.

I pressed my lips gently against her forehead, and she lifted her head so our lips could connect. A rush of blood ran through my temples and set my body on fire. She tasted like sugar. Warmth swelled inside my chest until I thought I might burst. I ran my fingers through her fiery hair, and she put a slim, warm hand across my cheekbone. I drew back to look at her flushed face.

“I want to leave after high school,” she murmured. “I want to get out of here.”

“Then let’s do it.”

Her brow dipped. “Just like that? Your parents won’t like that. I see the way they look at me.”
I stroked her hair, frowning. “I don’t care. They can think what they want.” There was a moment of silence between us, then I continued, “We don’t need their money. We can make our own. We wouldn’t need that much.”

She smiled and planted her lips on my cheek, then rested her head on my chest. Her words were barely audible. Almost experimental. “I love you.”

I tried them too, and they sounded more natural than anything in the world. “I love you too.”

I held her close to me, and everything was perfect. She warmed me, body and soul.

That was when we heard approaching footsteps and soft, amused voices. I frowned and sat up, looking around. A group of people strode through the trees, large, indistinct shadows in the darkness.

“What’s wrong?” Courtney asked, sitting up.

“Good evening!” a voice called.

It sounded friendly enough, but I didn’t trust it in a city filled with gangs and criminals.

“Courtney Banner?”

Courtney stiffened. Perhaps my family was well known, but, even though she had as much money, hers was not.

As they emerged from the trees, I saw the hideous tattoo like a demonic mask across the first man’s face.

I scrambled to my feet, grabbing Courtney’s hand, and demanded, “Who are you?”

“Friends!” They were closing in fast.

Courtney and I bolted, and the strangers belted out angry shouts. As we weaved through the trees, we heard them crashing around behind us. My lungs heaved with panic as I tried to form a plan. I dodged back and forth, weaving impossible patterns in the trees, pulling Courtney behind me. She was struggling to keep up, but so were the mysterious men. Their shouts were becoming more and more distant.

“We need help,” Courtney wheezed. “These men...are chasing us...”

Confused, I looked back at her. She had her cell phone to her ear, and I realized that she’d called the police.

My head spun with adrenaline, and my heart felt like it might burst out of my chest. The more Courtney lagged, the more desperate I became.

“We’re in Westfield Park. My name is...Courtney Banner...and I’m with...Jack O’Dair....”

If we slowed, they would catch us. I looked around wildly and spotted a large, bushy shrub to our left. We swerved to the side and dove into the bush, pressing ourselves to the ground. Courtney gave me an incredulous look, her face lined with fear, and I pressed my finger to my lips. A faint voice came through the phone, and Courtney hung up.

We waited in silence, listening to our pursuers approach.

“Check over there!” one shouted.

Their heavy footsteps tromped through the grass and brush, and I was terrified they would step on us. There had to be at least five of them.

Another hissed, “Come out, you little brats!” passing two feet from our hiding spot.

Courtney’s grip on my hand numbed my fingers. I glanced at her and tried to give a reassuring smile, but I was shaking as hard as she was.

What could they want? Ransom?

The word filled me with horror.

Their footsteps were receding. I couldn’t tell if they were moving away from us or if they were just softening their footfalls. Twigs poked at my face and left me itching all over. Courtney’s hand was sweating. We waited there for an unbearable amount of time. Every minute dragged on for an eternity, and the longer we spent cowering in the shrub, the more determined I became to get back to the car. Occasionally, we heard movement, but we never knew whether it was the wind or our pursuers. I was certain they would see us if they looked directly at our hiding spot.

When five minutes of silence had passed, I whispered, “I’m going to see if they’re still there. Then we’re going to run. Okay?”

Courtney gave a shaky nod.

Mustering myself, I quietly crawled out of our hiding spot. Sweat soaked my forehead. It was pitch black under the cover of the trees, and I could hardly see. Wind dragged through the foliage and made everything rustle. I shook violently, scanning for our pursuers. There was no sign of them.

I motioned to Courtney, and she joined me. Twigs stuck out of her hair, and our clothes were stained with dirt. Silent and clinging to each other, we crept through the trees in the direction of the path. Our footsteps were impossibly loud, but there was no sign of the men. I kept my arm locked protectively around her, trying to find the strength the situation required. I had to be brave for Courtney. The ice-cold air stung our nostrils. Once, a bird shot from a nearby branch, scaring us out of our skin, but after that it was silent.

Finally, the path came into sight. I let out a sigh of relief and pointed.

Courtney nodded, pale-faced, gripping my arm.

We were almost there when a huge form leaped from a nearby shadow, slamming what looked like a crowbar against my skull with a crushing impact. Horrible, excruciating pain exploded in my temples, and I dropped to my knees, letting out an agonized scream. A curtain of blood fell over my vision, soaking my shaking hands and dripping onto my shirt.

“Jack!” Courtney cried, dropping beside me. Footsteps converged on every side, drawn by my howl. She clutched me against her frantically, but the man holding the crowbar wrenched her away, shoving her to the ground.

My vision had transformed into an amalgamation of colors and shapes, and everything seemed to lag. Moaning, I tried to crawl toward Courtney, but a wave of nausea washed over me, and I vomited until there was nothing left in me. Burning tears filled my eyes and streaked my cheeks. My head was on fire. The blood pouring from the wound was magma, and a beast ripped at the space behind my eyes. My breaths came in sharp, hysterical gasps as I struggled against unconsciousness.

I heard blurred, indistinct voices above. A hand clamped onto my shoulder and flipped me onto my back. I cried out in pain, feeling like my head had been torn from my shoulders. The man with the tattooed face stared down at me and laughed. “Jack O’Dair?”

His loud, nonchalant voice sent bolts of pain seeping into my injured skull.

“Well isn’t this lucky. Two birds, one stone.”

I braced my arms as if to push myself upright, but agony stabbed my temples, and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to contain a whimper. One thought pounded in me like a heartbeat.

Protect her. Protect her.

“Easy,” the demon-faced man said in a condescending tone, wiping at the blood on my face with his sleeve. “Everything heals, Jack.”

“D—don’t touch him!” Courtney snapped.

She was on the ground where the men had thrown her, trembling, tears streaming down her cheeks. The color had left her face, but she bristled with determination.

“Well look at you!” another man drawled. “Most of the time, the rich girls haven’t got anything to ’em. You’re feisty, aren’t you, sweetie?”

A third man yanked her to her feet, surveying her through lecherous, beady eyes, and pushed a hand beneath her embossed shirt.

I hadn’t thought there was any fight left in me, but uncontrollable rage overtook my mind, overpowering the pain. I slowly crawled to my feet.

Protect her. Protect her.

The demon-faced man didn’t notice, looking to Courtney. “That’s enough,” he snapped. “We need to get going and contact their parents.”

“There’s no rush,” her captor growled. “I don’t see why we can’t have a little fun.”

Courtney wrenched against him with all her might, rage and terror twisting her face. “Stop it! Let me go!”

Another man drew a knife, pressing it beneath her chin. “Shut up, bitch, or I’ll sever your vocal chords.”

Courtney froze, her eyes widening.

Protect her.

Utilizing the remainder of my strength, I hurdled forward and shoved the man with the knife away from her. I must have thought we would stand a chance if I could take the knife. I pried at his fingers, my world spinning, but he wrenched his arm free, and sudden pain shot through my abdomen. Courtney’s scream pierced my ears.

I looked down to see the knife sticking out of me. My assailant grinned, ripping it out and stabbing it into me again and again.

“Stop!” The demon-faced man shoved him back. “They’re no use dead!”

I watched blood dribble, then pour from my middle, soaking my weak, shaking hands. My knees buckled, and I swung forward, collapsing in a haze of pain. I heard one our assailants yelling. Obviously, this had not been part of the plan. Courtney was screaming and sobbing. Wetness spread beneath me, and my mind grew quieter. I thought I heard distant sirens.

Dazed, I watched them begin to haul Courtney away. She writhed and shrieked and sobbed. “Jack! Jack! Please! No! Jack!”

Those final cries will never leave me.

My hand scraped across the ground toward her, and I issued a low moan. Too stupid and small and injured to save her. Thick, soupy fog filled my mind. As her desperate voice receded, weak, pathetic sobs wracked my hurting body. The blood and tears were hot against my icy skin.

I thought I was alone until someone rolled me onto my back. My head lolled, pounding, and through a gap in the canopy I saw a cluster of stars. The demon-faced man pulled me into his lap gently, cradling me in his warmth. He stroked my forehead, and I was simultaneously revolted and comforted by his touch. I cried faintly, my eyelids drooping, unable to move. His tattoo stared at me with its frozen, leering smile, and the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to come alive.

He grinned and covered the tattooed side of his face with one hand. “Don’t be afraid... Our duality is the most important aspect of our lives. It can save us.”

Courtney was the most important thing in my life.

I tried to tell him but began to choke on blood. Whimpers rose in my throat.

I wasn’t ready.

“Shh...” he whispered. “It will all be over soon...”

I died under Courtney’s starry sky with one of my murderers running his fingers through my hair.

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