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The following week is hell. I’ve skipped the past week of school. My voicemail is full of missed calls and messages, but Yogi’s the only person I’ve spoken with. The days storm by, offering only lightning and showers. I’m juggling everything that’s happened while trying my best to take care of Estelle. She isn’t doing well at all. She spends most of the day in her room, crying. Just leaving to pick up some things at the grocery store paralyzes me with guilt. I literally called her, like, ten times just to make sure she was all right. And even though she picked up, she barely said a word. Her breathing… or tears… were the only signals that told me she’s still “okay”.

As for me, my anxiety is almost uncontrollable, causing me to break out into cold sweats at any sudden noise. I’ve chewed down the cuticles of my fingers, to the point that they sting from rawness. I find myself randomly gnawing like a beaver on the inside of my cheek. The stress is eating away at me in layers.

It breaks my heart hearing my Estelle’s sobs every night when I pass by her bedroom. Although she’s still managing to drag herself downstairs to make breakfast for me, she never stays to watch me enjoy it. Now she prepares my food before I wake up and leaves it on the kitchen counter. I just take it up to my room and it by myself.

When I try to talk with her, she barely answers, and her voice is a muffled monotone. There’s zero trace of the warmth that used to radiate from her. It’s like I’m living with a stranger. I worry about her constantly, and every night I pray, “Bud, tell me what to do! Tell me how I can help her!”

After the coroner’s office released Bud’s results that he’d died of heart failure—apparently his heart was so weak that it just couldn’t keep beating—she flatly refused to have a funeral. He was cremated right after.

“Bud never wanted a funeral!” she insisted. “Never! He told me he would never want people gawking at him lying there all made up and looking like a clown the way those funeral homes make you look. He said it would be insulting! He wouldn’t have it and neither will I! And no memorial service, either!”

I’m so tense that I can barely sleep, and I’ve guarded myself from doing anything social. It’s work and back home. And in all of the above, I manage to find secluded pockets and wait miserably for time fade by. I don’t even have it in me to visit Alanna, although I desperately want to. I want so much to see her, but I only have one photo left. I want our last time, before I can get other photos of her, to be special. I want us to be the same as we were last time, but I know it won’t be. My heart’s incapable of it at this moment.

In fact, I’m feeling almost as lost and alone as I did when I was living with Jet and Dina. Maybe even worse, because back then I had no family to lose. All I can think is how I finally found where I belonged, only to have it torn from my grip. Maybe I’m destined to be alone. Maybe that’s the message in this. The universe telling me, “Get over it. You’re supposed me be a pathetic recluse for the rest of your life.” Maybe it’s time that I listen.

The most eventful thing I’ve done was revisit the photo of the vials. I figured, that the trips to Alanna, the Great Depression, and the discovery of the Peace Hunters would give me some extra insight. But it didn’t. All I discovered were additional minor changes. I didn’t stay long, but long enough to see that even more had changed. The scenery had changed back to daytime, a new lake had sprung up beside one of the buildings, and a park filled the open space between two of the condo buildings. And I can’t tell for sure, since it was night out the last time, but the buildings looked like they were painted a different color. I didn’t wait around to get knocked on the back of my head again. Once I realized no obvious clues were left behind, I got out of there fast. I contemplated trying to steal the vials again, but their position hadn’t changed, meaning whoever hit me would still have the upper-hand. So I decided to wait it out. Estelle doesn’t need any more on her plate. None of us do.

Still, tonight the pain’s unbearable, searing. Everything around me reminds me of how much I’ve lost, everything I no longer have. It’s dizzying.

I can’t take it anymore. I pull out my phone and call Mario.

“Dude, I’ve been calling you! You okay?”

“I guess so. I just haven’t really wanted to talk to anyone.”

“No, I totally understand. But I’ve been worried about you. Anything I can do to help?”

“I need to get out. If I stay in this room any longer, I’m gonna jump out my window.”

He laughs. “You’ve called the right guy. It may be a school night, but I know just the place. I’ll pick you up in a half hour. Dress nice.”

I poke my head into Estelle’s and Bud’s room to check on her. Thank God she’s fallen asleep. I feel terrible leaving her alone, but I need this right now. I slip out of the house just as Mario pulls up in a white Bentley.

“Whose car is this?”

“My uncle’s. He’s out of town... Dude, I told you to dress nice.”

I look down at my jeans, worn-out black Converse, and gray polo. “I thought this was nice.”

Mario cracks up and shoves the door open. “Get in! I’ll take care of it.”

We get onto the highway and drive for about 15 minutes until we pull up to what looks like a circular warehouse in the hood with more than a hundred people in their mid 20s lined up outside. All the girls are wearing different assortments of tiny, expensive dresses and tall, skinny heels, and the guys are all in sports jackets.

So that’s what Mario meant by “dress nice.” Damn.

“Welcome to Club Ego,” Mario tells me. As the valet runs over and takes the keys. “The place to be. Let’s go.”

He jumps out but I stay in my seat. “I don’t fit in here. Look how I’m dressed.”

He comes around to my side and pulls me out by the arm. “I told you, I’ll take care of it.”

He leads me to the head of the line as the people who are waiting stare at us and mutter. When the enormous bouncer who’s keeping an eye on the crowd spots us, he breaks into a huge grin.

“Mario! What’s up, dude? Where you been hiding? Haven’t seen you in a hot minute.”

“Hey, Magnum, good to see you, too. You know how it is, school’s been crazy. This here’s my boy Gavin.”

Magnum looks me up and down. “Sorry, bro. You know I can’t let him in dressed like that.”

Mario rolls his eyes. “Dude, his gramps just died. Come on…”

Magnum shakes his head. “All right. Don’t make me regret this.” He unlatches the velvet rope that was stopping us from waltzing in. “Welcome to Ego, kid. Enjoy yourself. Try not to cause any trouble.”

I give him an uncomfortable “Thank you” and follow Mario down a dark, narrow corridor that opens out into a sick, two-story-high club. Blinding lights flash from every corner, in every color. There are women swinging from chairs hanging from the ceiling and costumed dancers gyrating on translucent pillars that light up in different colors and to the beat of the music. The DJ’s spinning on a circular revolving stage in the center of the warehouse. One corner of the wall is lined with a huge fish tank with fluorescent coral and insane fish that light up brightly against the black light. The floor is surfaced with see-through glass that constantly flickers back and forth between arrays of neon lights.

“Whaddya think?” Mario shouts.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before!”

A waitress who looks like a model approaches us. She’s wearing sky-high sparkling gold heels and black tights, and her “shirt” is literally body-painted on in purple and gold flames. She holds out an acrylic tray of shots that have real flames around their rims.

“Hey, Mario!” She gives him a big kiss on the cheek.

“Hey, Tori! This is my boy Gavin.”

I flap my hand at her from where I’m hanging back behind him.

“Hey.” She gives me a kiss as well. I’m sure that, like him, I now have a purple glitter kiss mark on my cheek.

Mario gestures at the tray. “Whatcha got for us there?”

“Fire Balls.” She hands each of us one. “Enjoy, boys!” She winks at us and moves on through the crowd of what seems like more than a thousand people.

On “three,” we swallow the shot. It tastes horrible, like motor oil. It burns so much that I grab my throat and almost drop my glass.

Mario rescues it and pats me on the back. “It’s called liquor my friend,” he laughs.

We take a lap around. Mario says hi to nearly every cocktail waitress and employee there.

“How come you know everyone here?” I ask.

“My uncle and aunt own it.”

That explains it.

We spend the rest of the night getting offered free concoctions of things I don’t remember the names of. After about my fourth shot, the lights start bleeding into one another. I find myself dancing in the middle of the floor, using moves I had no idea I knew. Then I hop onto the DJ’s stage and begin dancing next to him. Mario spots me and starts laughing hysterically. He throws a sign to the DJ, who waves me over and hands me a set of headphones. I start scratching at the turntables along with him.

This is exactly what I needed—a night of complete craziness. Someone hands me another shot when I jump down from the stage. The room is twisting and turning all around me. I bump into a girl and spill my drink all over her white dress, but I ignore her and start dancing away. She shrieks and someone grabs my arm.

I turn around to meet angry eyes. “Yo! You just spilled your drink on my girl’s dress.”

“My bad!” I say and then turn back around.

“Yea it’s your bad! You think that’s cool?” He tugs at my arm again.

The girl cuts in, “Just let it go.”

“Yea, listen to her. Just let it go.” I say.

The guy shoves me really hard, causing me to momentarily lose my footing. “I’ll tell you when I’m gonna let it go. And I’m not letting it go until you give her a proper apology.”

“Shove me again and see what happens.”

I glimpse his nostrils flare out, then he steps forward and shoves me again. I don’t think—I just land a punch in his really ugly face. He jumps me and we fall to the floor throwing our fists at each other. The people around us back off and just stare at us fighting. I roll over to get away from the guy, but the motion makes me queasy. He crawls after me and is pulling his arm back to pound me again when I throw up all over him. Everyone screams.

“Are you crazy?” He jumps off me and splits for the restroom. I break into a fit of giggles as Mario runs up and grabs me.

“What the hell are you doing?!” He pulls me to my feet and drags me through the crowd.

By the time we get outside, the valet has already brought the car around. Someone must’ve radioed Magnum about us. Mario shoves me in on the passenger side and charges around to the driver’s seat.

As he peels off, he yells, “Are you crazy?! That’s my uncle’s and aunt’s place! They’re gonna kill me!”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby!” I slur. “He deserved it! I’d do it again, too!” Then I punch the dashboard.

“Listen, Gav—I know you’re going through some serious stuff, but you’ve gotta control your shit!”

“Blah! Blah! Blah! Pull over! Now! I’m gonna throw up again!”

He veers off to the side of the road. After I’m done throwing up, I curl up in a ball on the pavement and start crying.

Mario squats next to me and rubs my back. “Hey... it’s gonna be okay.”

“No, it won’t!” I shout. “He’s gone! Everybody around me drops like flies! You’d be smart not to get too close to me!” I’m sobbing so hard that I can barely speak. “... And they’re... after us!... It’s only a matter of time... I’m gonna be next!...How am I supposed to protect Estelle?!”

Mario sits back on his heels looking bewildered. “What’re you talking about? Who’s after you? Tell me.”

I can’t! Just stay away from me!”

“I’m not leaving you here. Let’s go! Get in the car!” He pulls me up but I take a swing at him.

“Gavin!” He puts his arms around me and squeezes me so hard that I can’t move. “Relax! Everything’s gonna be fine!”

Finally I give up. I stop squirming and surrender. There’s no more fight in me.

The next morning I wake up splayed out on my bed still in the same clothes. My head is pounding and my whole body is trembling. The taste of bitter alcohol lingers on my tongue; enough to make me want to vomit again.

I stagger to the bathroom and look in the mirror. My eyes are bloodshot, my hair’s rumpled and caked with dust from the road. My shirt is ruined, stained with liquor and vomit. I shudder and duck under a cold shower.

It takes me a while to remember what happened and how I got home. I still can’t figure out how I ended up on my bed. Mario must’ve brought me up. I grab my phone and find a message from him: “Call me when you wake up. Feel better. Don’t worry about last night. I’ve got your back. I mean that.”

I plop back down on my bed in my underwear. What have I done? What’s wrong with me?

I check on Estelle. She’s knocked out. She would be mortified if she ever found out about last night.

I hear a knock on the front door and I sprint downstairs two steps at a time so whoever it is won’t wake up Estelle.

I glimpse a girl’s silhouette through the frosted glass.

“Who is it?” I croak.

When I open the door, my heart had to have skipped three beats in a row.

“It’s me. Mel.”

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