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You’ve got to be kidding me. She’s the last person I’d ever expect to show up. I mean, I would’ve been less surprised to see Abe Lincoln standing there.

Her blonde roots are pushing out the remnants of shadow-colored hair. She’d never let her roots show. Her green eyes look dull, and she keeps turning around to look behind her. Something’s not right.

“Hey, Gav. Can I come in? Please.”

“Sure.” I open the door wider and she dodges past me.

We sit down in the living room. She huddles in the chair across from me and I wait for her to say something, but all she does is stare pensively at the floor and rub at her lips with her fingers.

“How’d you find me?” I ask, breaking the silence. I’m too wasted to be sarcastic. Plus, I’m puzzled about my own feelings; I’m slightly relieved to see a familiar face. Or maybe I’m just confused and hung over.

“GPS. Jet had locators put on our phones, remember?”

“Right. Of course he did. Surprised he hasn’t used it to have the cops track me down yet. Not that it’d help.” I can’t help but chuckle. “What’re you doing here, anyway? Not that I want you to feel unwelcome, but I don’t figure you’ve shown up just because you’ve missed me so much.” Well, maybe I do have it in me to be sarcastic after all.

Instead of rolling her eyes at my tone the way she usually would, she hesitates, then says, “Some people ransacked our house. They kept demanding to know where you were. They said you had something they needed.”

Naima and Axel. I guess I should have figured it would only be a matter of time, but I never thought of them going to Saddlehorn. That’s probably why they haven’t intercepted any of my last travels. I’ve been so preoccupied with the idea of them trying to attack us here in D.C. that it never occurred to me how easy it would be to find me by backtracking to my old life. But I don’t get how they found out about me.

“What’d they look like? What’d they say?”

“They didn’t seem harmful, but they were aggressive. Especially the girl. They kept insisting that they weren’t there to hurt us but that I had to tell them where you were because you had the ‘crystal vials.’ They tore the whole house apart looking for them. Gavin…who were they? What do they want with you? Tell me!” She’s so upset that she sounds almost hysterical.

Why do they think I have the vials though? “It’s a long story. You don’t want to get involved.”

“Are you kidding?” she explodes. “They’ve already involved me! Are they dangerous? Are you in danger? Tell me!” She actually seems to be concerned about me—which is something I’ve never seen in her before.

“I’ll be fine. I promise. What about Jet and Dina? Were they home?”

“No. He’s been attending all these anger management classes that the court made him take. And Dina’s been going with him.”

My thoughts are racing. It’s only a matter of time before Naima and Axel track me down here in D.C. Maybe they have already and are just staying in the background until they’re ready to strike.

“You need a place to stay?” I glance up to the second floor, but everything’s quiet. Estelle must still be sleeping.

“It’s okay. I’m staying at the Key Bridge Marriott nearby.” But she doesn’t look as confident as she sounds. She picks up her purse. “Look, I need to go check in, and the taxi’s still waiting outside with all my stuff, but can we meet for lunch? We need to get to the bottom of this.”

I grab her hand as she gets up from her chair. “I’ll meet you for lunch, but let’s be clear—there’s nothing to get to the bottom of. I’m sorry you got caught up in it, but it’s over now as far as you’re concerned.”

She frowns. I can tell she isn’t convinced, but she decides not to pursue it, at least for now. “Whatever you say... There’s a restaurant next to the hotel called The Golden Pub. I’ll text you the address... I gotta go.” She heads for the door, then does an about-face, comes over and gives me a soft punch to the shoulder. a kiss on my forehead.

“It’s good to see you, little bro.” The door closes behind her.

I’m so shocked that I have no reaction whatsoever. In all fourteen years that we lived together, she never did anything like that. All she ever did was make my life miserable. So what the hell was that about?

I spot her the moment I walk into the restaurant. She’s sitting in a far corner with her back to me and wearing a sky-blue baseball cap. I remember that cap perfectly—it was Leyla’s favorite. We won it for her at the Nevada State Fair one year and she wore it religiously. I can’t help smiling.

I creep up behind Mel and squeeze her shoulders like I always used to and which she always hated.

She gasps and has to bite back a yelp when she sees it’s me. It’s clear that she’s still running scared. If only she knew.

“Sorry,” I apologize. “I guess this isn’t exactly the best time for surprises.”

I sit across from her and take a peek around us. Who knows if anyone’s followed her? Luckily the place is pretty empty for midday. The waitress brings us a menu, but we just ask for diet sodas.

“I know you said it’s none of my business, but I need to know why those people are after you. That girl—Naima—she said they weren’t there to hurt me, but her eyes were so angry. She said they were just looking for you, but I don’t believe her. She really scared me!”

“Mel, it’s gonna be fine.” I try to reassure her, but I have to admit I’m kind of afraid myself. So I lie. I tell her something I have no intention of doing. “They’ll find me here and I’ll give them the vials, and then they’ll go on their way and they’ll never bother any of us again.”

She stares at me, then shakes her head. “No!” Something I say makes her breathe deeply and repeatedly. At first I’m unsure, but now I’m certain tears are beginning to well up at the corner of both eyes. Then, the first drop forms and gently rolls down her cheek. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know what else to do—”

“Calm down! It’s okay, your coming here. I understand.”

“No! That’s not it! They made me!”

I go still. “Made you?... Made you what?

Her voice cracks. “They told me that if I didn’t lead them to you, I’d regret it,” she sobs.

“What... do... you... mean?” I grab her hand and pin it to the table. “Tell me!” I make sure to pronounce every word with a deathly seriousness that hangs to every movement of my tongue.

“I tried to lie. I said I didn’t know where you’d left to. But then they threatened to kill Jet and Dina! I told them that if they promised not to hurt us, I’d help them find you. I didn’t know what else to do! You didn’t respond to my birthday text and I knew you wouldn’t pick up to me. I know you’re trying to wipe us out of your life for good. So I bought a cheap flight here to warn you. Let me help you.”

I release her hand and sink back in my chair. Of course. Why should I have expected anything else? Of course she would lead them right to me to save her own skin. I know I’m being unfair to her because they are her parents, but I can’t help it.

I stand up and shove my chair aside. “Help me? You want to help me? Do you really blame me for wanting to erase you guys from my life? I was a fool to think that for once you might actually be on my side!” I look her dead in the eyes. “I swear to God if anything—and I mean anything!—happens to my family—to my grandmother!—I will personally make sure that you pay for it!”

I storm out of the restaurant, leaving her to sob by her pathetic self, and race down the street trying to outrun my fear and rage. I drop to my knees. I’m having trouble breathing and all I want is to scream and go on screaming so the feelings of betrayal will leave my body. My palms are beginning to swell. My feet are overcome by that grainy, sand-like feeling. My heart’s racing even faster than when Leyla died, even faster than when Bud passed...

At least in those situations I never saw their deaths coming. But now I can anticipate what may come. Soon I may be faced with another possible death. Maybe my very own. Or worse—Estelle’s. But I don’t know how or when or exactly what to expect. All I can do now is imagine the worst. And try to prepare for it.

I pluck myself from the ground. I remind myself of my promise to my mom and dad, that I would protect Bud and Estelle. I failed Bud, but I will not fail Estelle. And I know that by protecting her, I will be fulfilling at least a part of my promise. If there is another death in my future, I will ensure it’s neither mine nor hers.

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