Chapter 8 - Rumors
The second Delia left last night I grabbed that box of film canisters and looked up the closest place that actually still developed film. There was a store that was an hour away, but they were already closed for the night. I tossed and turned all night thinking of the answers that box might hold. I have spent the last twenty years asking questions and looking for answers, and I am finally moving forward. I woke up at five a.m. and drove to the small store that still declared that they did one hour photo. I had to wait in the parking lot for two hours for the store to open and then another ninety minutes for the photos to be developed. One-hour photo, my ass. Once in the car, I actually ripped the large white envelope that encased each roll of photos. I grabbed the first set and started to flip through them, but it took several moments to understand what I was looking at.
Sam holding out a pillowcase and a jewelry store clerk dumping an entire shelf of sparkly jewelry into the bag.
Sam standing in a group of hard-looking men as they all stare into crates filled to the brim with guns.
A ring of people who are all yelling and looking into the center where two young children, no more than eight or nine, fought with their bare fists.
A selfie of Delia with blood dripping from a clearly broken nose and a deep cut running from her eyebrow into her hairline.
A dirty piece of paper with a child’s handwriting on it that said “Samuel has made a deal with a motorcycle gang in Arizona and is selling out my truth-seeking abilities so they can find the rat within their ranks. But they didn’t like when I told them their V.P. was the one who was lying. They beat me up and Samuel did nothing to stop them.”
Sam standing with blood spatter on his face and a gun in his hand as a young woman lay dead at his feet.
Sam physically forcing an old man out of a car with a look of excitement on his face.
A close-up of a deep cut that looked to be on a young woman’s rib cage. Her ribs were also deeply bruised.
Another piece of paper with handwriting slightly more mature than the first, “Today I killed a boy. I don’t even know his name but he was a Shifter and looked like he was a year or two older than me, so he was maybe thirteen and I killed him with my bare hands. Samuel Compelled me not to stop until either he or I was dead. I was unable to fight the fog to stop. I should have just let him kill me instead.”
It went on and on. I spent more than an hour in that parking lot looking through these stacks of gruesome photos until I actually had to get out and throw up because I was so disgusted by what I saw. The man in the photos was my son, but I barely recognized him through all of the hate and anger consuming him. What had happened to my boy? And how could we ever atone for the kind of abuse he put that innocent child through?
Whispers and looks followed me everywhere I went that morning, but I stuck to my guns and refused to Cloak myself. I took Chasity’s advice and even pushed my allure out more than normal. Everybody that I came across was quick to denounce Madison’s actions and say they knew I wasn’t that kind of girl. Connor went out of his way to escort me to History and I knew that this was his way of declaring he was on my side because Madison always hung all over Connor in History. When we walked into the classroom Madison was already there with a small group of people who were all looking at their phones and snickering while darting glances up at me. Sound was emanating from her phone and I figured she had actually taken a video of the condom bomb exploding in my face.
I walked straight up to her and once everyone stopped laughing I said in a clear unemotional voice, “Madison, I think that you owe me an apology.”
She actually snorted out loud before sneering, “Bitch you are the one I caught kissing my boyfriend on the beach. You are the slut that owes me an apology.”
“First of all, I have been nothing but polite to you and yes, what Blake and I almost did on the beach wasn’t fair to you. But I am not in a relationship with you and I don’t owe you anything. If you are going to be mad at anyone, you should be upset with Blake, not me. This culture of women turning on and tearing down other women needs to stop. What you did to me this morning was petty and borderline cruel. You are a leader within this school and people look up to you. You have taken that responsibility and torn it to shreds, allowing others to think it is okay to disrespect and hurt their peers. It is unacceptable. You owe me an apology,” I said while pushing my allure out enough that I felt Connor take an unconscious step towards me.
But allure is not the same as Compulsion and I can't force Madison to do anything. She clearly had a stubborn streak and refused to let go of her grudge against me. She didn’t look away and raised her chin in a gesture that I knew well. She wasn’t going to back down. And that was okay. I had said my peace and I had done it publicly. I had no doubt that this conversation would spread just as fast as my photo had. It was now the student body’s choice on how they decided to act in the future.
The history teacher approached our little standoff. He must have heard what I said because he asked, “Ms. Olsen, is there something you would like to report to the administration? I can go down there with both of you now if that is what you would like to do. This sounds like something serious that the principal should know about.”
That got a response out of Madison and I saw the slightest flicker of fear in her eyes before she regained control of her steely anger. “No, Mr. Clements. It is just a bit of girl drama that we have resolved between ourselves. No need to even mention this entire incident ever again.”
Instead of looking relieved that I didn’t rat her out, Madison just looked angrier as her friends quickly moved away from her and Mr. Clements brought the class to order. Connor was suspiciously quiet and a part of me wondered if he was upset because he had feelings for Madison. I pulled out my phone and Cloaked it so the teacher wouldn’t call me out while I texted Connor. A week ago I wouldn’t be caught dead texting when I could just talk to someone because each text message cost money on a pay-as-you-go phone like this one, but now I had a fridge stocked with food and free showers. I figured I could send a couple of texts.
Ray: You know you don’t have to automatically take my side. If you want to work things out with Madison, I will understand
Connor: Don’t be dumb. I wouldn’t touch that bitch with a ten-foot pole after what she pulled
Ray: Then why are you so upset??
Connor: This shit should have never happened. If B and I hadn’t fooled around with that bitch then she wouldn’t have gone after you. The rumors are getting pretty bad and it is all our fault
Ray: What rumors?
Connor: Stupid shit that you don’t need to know about
Ray: What rumors??
Ray: Better I hear it from you
Connor: fml. People have noticed that you spend a lot of time with me, B, and Max. They are saying that you are doing all three of us and what to know what is so special that would keep all three of us interested.
Wow. I guess I asked to know, but I hadn’t expected that. I thought they were going to be talking more about the drama between me and Madison, not assuming things about me and the guys. If Connor was this pissed off, how angry were Blake and Max going to be? I didn’t really care about these people because I didn’t even know the majority of them. But the guys had grown up with these kids, played football with them, and I think Max was even on the student council. I knew that Blake and Connor shared girls between them and people talked about it, but as far as I knew, Max had never been included in those rumors. How would sweet Max react to this?
I was lost in thought, completely ignoring what the teacher was saying when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I glanced behind me to see that Connor was leaning forward, clearly wanting to say something. I leaned back in my chair so that he could whisper in my ear.
“You okay,” he asked and I nodded my head. I didn’t like the rumors, but they were probably the least of my worries. Murder attempts, moondust cook labs, and newly discovered family drama put silly rumors to shame. “Listen, all of this shit is just petty high school stuff. You are better than all of this. You are better than all of us.”
I gave up trying to look like I was paying attention and Cloaked both of us so that we didn’t draw any attention before turning around and grabbing his chin. “You listen to me, Connor Berg. I don’t care what the humans or the other Valkyries say. I. Am. Not. Better. Than. You,” I told him, making sure to enunciate each word. “You are a wonderful person and I am lucky to have the privilege to call you my friend. Some petty rumors do not change that. They don’t even come close to putting a dent in that. Do you understand me?”
He swallowed hard enough to cause his adam's apple to bob and then nodded his head. I looked into his eyes for a moment more before dropping his hand and turning to sit straight in my seat. The rest of the class was over before I had a chance to get my thoughts straight. I walked alongside Connor to the south cafeteria, which had started becoming the more popular one since the Three Musketeers had changed their routine to eat lunch with me.
To my surprise, Regina caught up to us before we even left the classroom and I was impressed that I had been so wrapped up in my own drama that I had forgotten that she, Jonas, and another Valkyrie named Austin were in our history class too.
“I liked the way you put that pathetic human in her place,” Regina stated and I gritted my teeth to keep from commenting. This was the future Queen of the supernatural society. I expected a little less blatant racism. “And I have to say the things that people are saying about you are almost flattering. I mean, I have had my fun with any number of Vals but I have never considered taking three at the same time. We must compare notes sometime,” Regina said and I had to swallow the bile that was coming up my throat at the thought of the kind of notes Regina was referring to.
I saw Connor clench his fist, but he kept a blank poker face securely fastened to his face. If he could keep his mouth shut after actually dating this girl, then I would do the same. But this line of conversation did allow me to ask some questions that I had been wondering about since I had learned that female Valkyries have arranged marriages and were prohibited from dating humans.
“I was under the impression that female Valkyries stayed celibate until they were married to a royal,” I said with an interested inflection to my voice as we sat down next to Max and Blake.
“Ha, that’s what our fathers would like to believe, but in reality, our culture supports almost the opposite,” Regina said like she was explaining that the sky was blue. “Because most male Valkyries will never have the privilege to be with a female Val, everyone turns a blind eye or even encourages us to spread the love around before we are married. Even affairs after being married are commonplace. I have even heard that some queens will go out of their way to have an affair with powerful Vals in an attempt to get pregnant and bring new Gifts to their line. But all I know for sure is that I am going to have as much fun as I can during my Matching,” Regina purred while sending Connor a flirty look across the table.
I glanced around the table at the male Valkyries surrounding us. Not even Austin and Niu, who seemed to worship the ground that Regina walked on, seemed okay with what she had just said. Was she really so self-centered that she couldn’t see the effect she was having on those around her? This girl really needed to learn how to read a room.
I scanned the area around us for some excuse to leave because I was about to say something that would most likely bite me in the ass later. Also, even though I had brought up the subject, this wasn’t something I was comfortable talking about with so many people around. I caught sight of Jack in the lunch line and even though I had a delicious lunch that Max had packed for me, I stood and made my way over to him.
“Eventful morning,” Jack said and pulled me into a hug. “You okay?” I nodded into his chest and wished that the day was over already.
“Want to explain what really happened? Because there are about a dozen different stories ranging from you killed Madison’s dog to she caught you in bed with her father,” Jack asked and massaged the back of my neck.
“Ewe, people actually think that slept with her dad?” I asked with clear disgust ringing in my voice.
“That was one version I heard. But I will say that some girl I didn’t recognize immediately stood up for you and claimed that you were too nice for that and it was probably all Madison’s fault,” Jack replied and I figured that girl had gotten a dose of my allure at some point today.
“I got caught up in a moment and almost kissed Blake before Connor and Madison interrupted us,” I admitted and Jack let out a heavy sigh.
“Fuck, Ray. We talked about this. The Berg twins may be decent people but they aren’t the kind of guys that you want to have your first relationship with. You’re not ready for someone as experienced and loose as Blake Berg,” Jack said in a hushed whisper.
“Jesus Jack, I know. The second Connor saw us, the two of them got into a huge yelling fight and Blake basically admitted that I would just be another notch in his bedpost. I came to my senses and am fully aware of how Blake treats girls. Give me a break, he’s gorgeous and I am a teenage girl with raging hormones for God’s sake,” I whisper yelled back.
It took a minute but eventually, Jack cracked a smile, pulled me into a headlock, and gave me a soft nuggie. “Sorry Ray, but just the idea of you dating gives me an ulcer. I think I might have liked it better when you refused to talk to anyone but me,” Jack said in a teasing tone. By this time we had made it to the front of the line and I simply walked next to him as he grabbed his normal large portion of free food.
“So Sean and Mathis stocked my fridge with so much food that it will go bad before I can eat it all. And there are three incredibly comfortable beds and as much as I will try, I am pretty sure that I only need one. I was thinking that maybe you and Amy could come to stay with me,” I said and looked down at the floor. If he refused, I didn’t want him to see the hurt his rejection would cause me. Because I wasn’t looking, I didn’t see the hug coming and let out a grunt as he squeezed me harder than he ever had before.
“Fuck Ray. Of course, we will come to stay with you,” Jack said rather loudly and I could already hear the current of whispers starting up again. Oh well, they didn’t matter. Let them talk all they want. Jack eventually put me down and happily walked with me back to the table of Valkyries. I was in a significantly better mood than I had been when I had left.
After lunch, we all split up and I was unsurprised that Blake walked with me to class because we both had web design this hour. What did surprise me was moments before we reached our actual classroom, Blake pulled me into an empty classroom across the hall.
“Ray, we need to talk about what happened on the beach Friday night before we found out my dad was missing,” Blake said in a voice that was much more serious than his normal jovial way. “I am so sorry that Madison is causing all of this trouble and that she did what she did to you this morning. I will talk to her and make sure she stops spreading rumors about you.”
Was this what this was about? Blake was feeling guilty about the cruel prank his latest fling pulled on me? “Blake, I don’t blame you for what happened this morning. You didn’t put spoiled milk and condoms in my locker. You aren’t spreading lies about me. This isn’t your fault,” I said in a soft but sure voice.
He gave me a small smile and then said, “Listen that’s not what I want to talk to you about. Friday, after Con interrupted us on the beach we said some things that didn’t mean what you thought they did.” I thought it was a little presumptuous to assume he knew what I thought he and Connor had meant, but I was willing to hear him out.
“Okay, what did you mean?” I asked point-blank.
Blake reached up and rubbed the back of his head before explaining, “Our familial clan is the Blade Clan, and growing up we had a lot of interactions with the Collins Royal Line. We were often brought in as playmates for Regina and Kaiden, but they would only let Con play with them because he was the one with three Gifts. Time passed and everyone hit puberty. Regina started flirting pretty heavily with Con. He knew the score and understood that he wasn’t ever going to end up with Regina, but couldn’t resist having a physical relationship with her. Con was young and thought she would be his only chance to be with a female Val. However, they hung out so often that Con started really falling for her and the only thing she demanded was that Con stop spending so much time with me. This was around the same time that Dad and the Blade Clan were pressuring Con to join Blade when they knew that I would never be accepted because I only have two Gifts.
“Long story short, everyone wanted Con to drop his useless brother and I didn’t even necessarily disagree with them. Con is an amazing guy and a powerful Valkyrie and I want what is best for him, but because we already linked as kids the separation was slowly killing both of us. It turned out that Regina didn’t even really feel anything for Con, she was trying to prove that she mattered even more than a Valkyrie link between twins. Con finally wised up and that is when we left our familial clan and joined the Oakland Clan.”
Holy bananas, I knew that Regina was self-centered and spoiled rotten, but I hadn’t known she was downright cruel. I reached out and took Blake’s hand and let the clan bond soothe both of us. “Friday night, Con was just trying to stop me from making what he thought were the same mistakes that he made, because he now knows that his brief time with Regina wasn’t worth almost shattering our relationship. But Ray, you are nothing like Regina. Con and I both know it and if he was on that beach instead of me I am positive he would have gone for it too.”
Now I was confused. Why would Blake be telling me that Connor would have kissed me if he had the chance?
“The most important thing that I need to tell you is that Ray, I really like you,” Blake finished with intense confidence and the butterflies exploded in my stomach once again.
But this time I wasn’t going to let the butterflies drown out what my head was yelling at me.
“Blake, I really like you too,” I admitted and his face broke out into a breathtaking smile that made the next thing I had to say that much harder. “But I have to tell you something about me.”
The moment I said the word but Blake’s smile started to fade and I knew that I was going to have to word this very carefully because he had so many self-confidence issues. Life had taught Blake that he was a lesser Valkyrie than his brother, and nothing could be farther from the truth.
“I haven’t dated anyone before,” I said bluntly. “I mean, I was too busy with work and surviving in the foster care system not to mention that I spent a good portion of my time literally invisible. So what I am trying to say, is that I have never been in a relationship before. In fact, on the beach would have been my first kiss.”
I could feel my cheeks heating as I admitted my lack of experience to the most experienced boy in school. He is going to think I am such a child. But when I got the courage to glance up I saw that Blake’s smile was firmly back on his face. He was happy that I had never been with a human even though I knew for a fact that he had been with more than his fair share of humans.
Stupid hypocritical patriarchal society.
“So, while I really like you too, I am not ready to have some short fling with you. I’m not judging the kind of relationships that you have with girls, I just know that I would get too emotionally attached and I’m not ready to have casual sex. I have no doubt that if we started a physical relationship, I would fall head over heels in love with you because you are such an amazing person. And I would be torn to shreds when you decided that our time was up. I don’t think I am a mature enough person to see you every day, knowing all that I can’t have after something like that. I won’t risk our friendship. It means too much to me.”
“That’s not what I --,” Blake started to say but was interrupted when the door burst open and a teacher I didn’t know reprimanded us for not being in class. I was mortified of first having to spell out my lack of experience and actually admit that I wasn’t adult enough to enjoy casual sex and now to be caught by a teacher beaking the rules. Before I met the guys, I never broke the rules in school because it was the one place where I could learn what I needed to make a better life for myself.
I muttered a soft “sorry” to the teacher and hurried out of the empty classroom and across the hall to our web design class. I Cloaked myself enough that everyone wouldn’t notice my entrance and busied myself with logging into my computer as my mind ran through the conversation I just had with Blake.
What was he about to say?
The rest of the day went by a lot faster. Even though most people still were talking and staring at me, the idea of moving Jack and Amy into the house with me kept an easy smile on my face and made pushing all thoughts of Blake out of my mind easier. Over the last six months, there had been a couple of times when Jack told me that I could stay with them when their mom wasn’t home, but Cherry hated me with a fiery passion. She usually became pretty agitated when she found me in her trailer. I knew Jack hated when I left, but I never wanted him to choose between me and his family.
Now, they could crash at the rental house when they wanted, but could also go home if they needed to be there for their mom. Plus I wouldn’t have to stay there alone. It was great having the guys over last night, but I doubted they would want to do that very often.
I was still in a good mood when the last bell rang and I walked with Max to my locker that had been completely cleaned up. I wanted to put my books away but was a little suspicious of the little grey square storage compartment. Max must have seen my trepidation because he stepped in front of my locker and asked gently for the combination. I gave it to him and nothing happened when he opened it.
I gave Max a relieved smile and put my books inside and turned to see everyone was gathering around us. And by everyone, I mean the Valkyries. I was starting to think of them in two groups, Regina’s and mine. The Three Musketeers were clearly mine while Austin, Niu, and the royal guards were definitely team Regina. I knew that if Felix had a choice he would side with me but his duty and job were completely tied to Regina so if push came to shove, he would be one of hers.
Jonas was the one I wasn’t completely sure about. He was living with the Blade Clan but he seemed separate from the rest of the group. To me, it looked like he tried to distance himself from almost all of the other Valkyries when he could. It was probably because of his strong Empathy Gift, but I still didn’t know if he was loyal to the queen-to-be in the same way that Austin and Nui were.
Not that it really mattered. It wasn’t like Regina and I were going to war and needed allies to fight by our sides. And if it ever did come to that, she would completely destroy me. I was a street kid and she was a crown princess.
I shook my head to clear my mind of these weird thoughts and started walking towards the parking lot. I had plans to go to the clan house with the guys so that I could talk to Elijah. Then I was going to ask to borrow one of their cars to help Jack and Amy move some stuff into the rental house. I was just heading towards the student parking lot when I noticed that Logan of all people was sitting outside looking like a bad boy movie star leaning against an incredible-looking motorcycle. I changed my direction and walked over to see what he wanted because I was pretty sure he didn’t hang outside of high schools very often.
“Well, well. Look who the wolf dragged in,” I drawled and gave him a side smile in greeting.
“Me? Oh no, look at you Little Val, strutting your stuff with an entire posse following you around like you are the second coming of Christ,” Logan teased. I looked behind me to see that every single one of the Valkyries had followed me out and now were staring at us with interest. Just to the right of the Valkyrie group, Lawerance and a large number of his pack were also starting to congregate.
“Looks like I’m not the only one with a posse,” I replied and Logan winked at me and saluted Lawrence.
“They think I am here to start trouble, but I’ve got something I want to talk to you about. So do you mind ghosting us so that we can have a little privacy?” Logan asked and I chuckled at his name for using the void.
I pushed us both back into the fabric of reality until we were completely submerged in the void and sealed the entrance so that we had zero interaction with the physical plane. “Ghosted,” I announced and cocked my eyebrow at him. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
“Well someone is in a good mood today. I came by to give you something that I think you should have. A sort of thank-you for saving me from being drained and turned into a recreational drug used by white bread humans,” Logan said and held out a large manila envelope that was filled with several different bulky items. I reached in and pulled out the first thing that my fingers touched. It was an American passport and when I opened the cover I discovered my own face looking back at me, but a completely unfamiliar name printed to the right. A Tennessee driver’s license with the same name, Rebecca Anne Young, was clipped to the other side of the small booklet.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked in an awed whisper and looked back down at the fake passport in my hands.
“Sure is,” Logan replied in a cocky tone. “Best money can buy. That is actually a real American passport with a legitimate social security number attached to it. I know a guy that files birth certificates and through the years fills out all of the government and tax paperwork to raise a perfectly legit and bulletproof I.D. If you ever need to use it, no one will ever call it out as a fake, because technically it isn’t a fake at all.”
“Holy bananas,” I breathed and traced my fingers along the official seal. “Rebecca Anne Young, R.A.Y.”
“Yeah, when I was looking through the names he had available I had him add the middle name so that you can still go by Ray if you want. And Rebecca is twenty years old, so you won’t have to worry about being a minor. I figure with your disappearing act and this I.D. if you want to bail no one will be able to find you,” Logan said, getting a lot more serious.
“This is huge, Logan. Thank you!” I told him from the bottom of my heart.
“Yeah, yeah. Actually, it is small potatoes compared to what you did for my brother and the other dip-shit high schoolers last week. Not to mention saving my bacon, so in my book, I would say that I still owe you a few. But listen, that I.D. only works as a getaway plan if no one knows about it. Not even your trusty pack of Oakland Vals. Because even if you do trust them not to either come after you or sell you out, the royals have ways of getting answers out of people’s heads,” Logan advised and I nodded my head in agreement. This was one thing that I would have to keep entirely to myself.
I looked back into the manila envelope and found three burner phones and a stack of cash with a band reading 10,000 U.S. Dollars around it. “Logan, I am not taking your money,” I told him bluntly.
“Ten G’s can disappear a lot faster than you would think. I would give you more, but I am having slight cash flow issues right now,” Logan said and looked over at the Oakland wolves. I grabbed his hand and slapped the stack of cash into his upturned palm.
“I have more than this stashed away, and I am perfectly capable of getting money to live off of if the need arises,” I told him and he reached behind him and ran his hand through his expensive-looking motorcycle.
“I have no doubt, little Val. If you ever decide to try your hand at earning under the table, you hit me up. We would be great partners in crime,” Logan teased and then turned serious once more. “If you decide to use that I.D., call me! I programmed my number in all three of the burner phones. You don’t have to tell me where you are going. In fact, it would be better if you don’t, but if you suddenly drop off the face of the earth, I want to know that you are safely running and not chained up in some Val prison somewhere.”
I felt the blood start to drain from my face as the idea of being physically restrained or Compelled to stay in a Valkyrie prison. I nodded to let Logan know that I would let him know if I decided to run. That was enough to wipe the serious look off his handsome face. Logan started rubbing his hands together and walked towards where Lawerance and the other wolves were standing and said, “Okay my little Val, let’s have some fun.”