The fallen leaves crunched beneath his boots, the small sounds abnormally loud in the near-perfect silence of midnight. The wind whistled softly through the bare branches, blowing swollen splinters of cloud across the white face of a quarter moon. It was that time again, time to get the injections they’d promised would change his life. And boy, had they.
But I still don’t even know what they do to me.
He tripped over a loose stone in the narrow path, catching himself on a burnt tree. It had been split down the middle, no doubt the victim of a lightning strike. He always ended up stumbling on something, wishing the notes they left for him didn’t advise against bringing a flashlight. Or any source of light, really. He knew he didn’t have to listen, but he also knew there was no such thing as a simple warning in this way of life. If the higher-ups didn’t want him using one, then there was a reason for it.
No one uses these back paths anyway, he told himself, barely missing a hole. What are they so worried about?
He looked up, seeing a small, pitiful excuse of a building. Every time, it was in a new place, but it always looked the same. The crooked walls were little more than termite-scarred slats of wood held together by rusting nails. The slightly sagging tin roof was cracked and weathered. He pushed the door open, wincing at the protesting shriek of the hinges, coughing as the musty air settled in his lungs.
The small interior wasn’t much more appealing than the outside, but at least it was warmer. As usual, Anya was waiting for him, her hip cocked against a metal tray on a tall stand. Her long blonde hair was loose, her slim legs more delicious than ever in tight black jeans. Her full breasts threatened to spill from her off-shoulder top, clinched in at her narrow waist. She crossed her arms when she saw him, giving him her usual smirk.
“You’re a little late,” she said. He shrugged, pulling off his jacket.
“I had some things to take care of.”
She rolled her eyes, taking the cloth off the tray and folding it before sticking it in her pocket. She picked up the syringe closest to her hand, taking off the plastic cap and pressing lightly on the plunger. A tiny stream of thin black liquid escaped from the needle, the latest in a long line of injections she’d given him.
“You know these could kill you,” she mentioned.
“I don’t have a choice,” he took his place on the stool next to the tray, pulling up his thick sweater. “Besides, it’s not that bad.”
The look on her face told him everything he needed to know, but she spoke up anyway.
“I just hate seeing you like that. I care about you.”
He sighed, turning to the tiny hut’s sole window. It was cracked and dirty, but anything was better than having to see her worried expression.
“I know,” he answered quietly. Her hand trembled as she wiped the injection site with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol, as she traced the tip of a fresh scar on his back. She swallowed.
“You sure you wanna do this?” she asked. “I mean, you don’t really need it…”
“I told you, it’s orders,” it came out more harshly than he had intended. “I can’t back out.”
She still hesitated, she always did, the tip of the needle barely scraping the skin over his spine.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he spoke over his shoulder. “It wouldn’t be as bad if you just got it over with.”
“It’s not that,” her voice was low. He sighed again.
“Look, I know you’re worried,” he gave a faint smile. “But would I really be here if I didn’t want this?”
For once, she refused to answer. Of course he would. After all, he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Still, it felt nice, knowing he worried for her. She swallowed, putting the feelings away for later.
“As long as you’re sure.”
As usual, he didn’t make a sound as she administered them, though it was clear how much they affected him. The tremors started first, his veins and muscles bulging as the chemicals coursed through his blood. Every inch of his skin was soaked with sweat, his damp hair sticking to his forehead. He’d told her before how much it burned, like he’d been buried beneath a mountain of red-hot coals.
She moved to his side, watching the tears stream down his cheeks, the clouded, salty drops mixing with the thin lines of blood running from the corners of his lips. It felt like an hour had passed before he fell back against the wall, his breathing harsh, his chest heaving.
“Never gets easier,” he muttered. He turned to her, seeing the fear in her eyes. “You okay?”
She gave a small, unsure nod.
“I don’t think it was as bad as it usually is,” she glanced at the line of used needles on the tray. “Considering this was a new formula.”
“Wait, what?” he looked at her. “What was different about it?”
“I’m…not actually sure,” she handed him his jacket. “You know they don’t give me the specifics.”
“Yeah,” he knew she was holding back, not that he’d ever decide to press her about it. After all, like everything else with this project, there was a reason for keeping secrets. Besides, he had his own job to focus on, a job he still wasn’t sure he’d be able to finish.
The sun had finally broken through the blanket of clouds, though it did little to distill the growing cold. Lena zipped her jacket completely, stuffing her hands in her pockets. Jason had hardly said a word to her since that day in the library, making her wonder just what his intentions had been.
Why would he do that, she asked herself. Make me spill my guts then go back to acting like I barely exist?
Ty and Chad had each told her it was something to do with Jason’s past, that he’d been forced through the wringer and had closed himself off almost completely because of it. She couldn’t help but wonder what might’ve happened to him, snapping a thin branch from a tree and tossing it aside. The clearing was just ahead, the space having quickly become her safe haven.
She spent every moment she could there now, either doing her homework or her best to scratch out new designs in her notebook. If only there were a way for her to build a small hut or something out there. A place to stay when Kara was on the warpath, knowing the woman would never risk ruining her designer clothes and shoes on a trek through the woods. Of course, escaping her stepmother wasn’t the only reason she’d come to love the clearing.
Jason was there nearly every day as well, always deep in some tai chi or whatever session. She wondered sometimes if he even knew she was there, sneaking peeks at him from her perch on top of the boulder, not that she’d ever admit to admiring him. Still, it was hard to ignore how attractive he was, or to stifle her giggles when he slipped on the damp grass or in a puddle.
She giggled now, remembering when he’d fallen into a patch of mud. It had been their first sunny day after two weeks of rain, just the right mix of humidity and a cooling breeze. He’d knelt by the pond after spitting out a few mouthfuls of mud, cupping his hands under the surface and splashing his face. He’d done that several times before peeling off his shirt, rinsing out the large brown stain as best he could.
It was hard to remember the last time she’d seen a guy shirtless, one as ripped as him, anyway. She remembered the strip of white that had shown above his shorts, the small gasp that had escaped when he’d turned his back to her. She’d ducked behind the stone when he’d turned, glaring about before tugging the still-soaked shirt over his head. She hadn’t moved until she’d been sure he’d left, long after the sun had gone down.
I never thought that’s what he was hiding, she pushed aside the last branch. The muscles on his back had been nearly invisible, his dark skin covered in long, narrow scars. She shuddered. What the hell happened to him?
She looked around, still not quite used to the space’s near-total silence. The pond’s half-frozen surface rippled in the crisp wind, the last of the flowers stubbornly clinging to their fading colors. Other than a few squirrels and birds scratching and pecking at the ground for food, the clearing was empty.
That’s weird, she stepped closer to the stone. He’s usually here before me. I wonder where he-
“You know, if you wanted to spy on me, you could’ve at least asked.”
She jumped. Jason was standing behind her, his arms crossed at his chest. As usual, his face was unreadable.
“I-I wasn’t spying,” she stuttered, brushing invisible leaves from her pants. “I just…tripped. And did you really have to scare me like that?”
He chuckled, but even that was impossible to decipher.
“I didn’t have to, but you made it kind of easy.”
She glared at him, then turned to leave. He took her shoulder.
“Okay, fine, I’m sorry I scared you,” he was still smiling. “Happy?”
“For now,” she hoisted herself up on the boulder, crossing her legs. “And I wasn’t spying.”
“What would you call it, then?” he sat next to her, letting his feet dangle. “Stalking?”
She pouted, keeping her gaze on the ground.
“I wouldn’t call it anything,” she said. “We just hang out in the same place and-”
“Completely ignore each other?” he leaned back, bringing one knee up. She huffed.
“Speak for yourself,” she swept part of a dead leaf off her sleeve. “You’re the one who made me spill my life story then went back to ignoring me.”
He actually looked surprised, the expression fading into a sheepish one.
“You’re right, that was messed up,” he turned to her. “I’m sorry, and I actually mean it this time.”
She smiled, nudging his shoulder.
“You don’t have to sound so beat up about it, I’m not that delicate.”
He laughed, showing his braces. It was the first time she’d noticed his teeth were actually kind of crooked, even if they were perfectly white.
“So, why do you come out here to do your tai chi thing?” she asked. “Couldn’t you do it at home?”
“Yeah, but I like it out here,” he laid back, putting his arms behind his head. “It’s quiet.”
“Until you start blaring your music,” she lay in her side, resting her chin on her hand. He smiled again.
“What about you?” he turned his head toward her. “Why do you like coming out here?”
She stayed quiet, tracing a line in the stone with her finger. He propped himself back up, pushing aside a lock of hair that was tickling his nose. Lena kept her eyes glued to that spot on the rock, though he had the feeling it wasn’t what she was really looking at. A moment later, she blinked, whatever had come over her falling away.
“Ty said you guys were in a band together,” she said, ignoring his question. “How’d you meet, anyway?”
“Gym class,” he laid back again. She could tell him the rest of her story when she was ready to. “One of the only people who’ve ever kicked my ass at soccer.”
“He was always captain of some team back home,” she looked confused. “But I don’t remember him ever touching an instrument. What’s he play?”
“Keyboard, but he usually just screws up the mixing,” he rolled his eyes. “Last time he made us sound like chipmunks with head colds.”
“That sounds like him,” she giggled. “I’d love to hear you guys play sometime, uh, without the sick chipmunks, that is.”
He flashed another smile.
“I think I can arrange that.”
“So, what happened after that?”
Autumn put her elbows on the table, resting her chin in her hands. Lena sighed, wishing she hadn’t brought up the talk with Jason. It was the only thing the redhead had been able to focus on since.
“He asked if I wanted to watch the meteor shower with him next weekend,” she said simply. Autumn gaped at her.
“No. Way. He asked you out?”
“I don’t think so,” Lena looked at her, knowing the only way to stop the conversation was to let the girl get it out of her system. “Why, is that a big deal or something?”
“Are you kidding? Jason’s one of the most popular guys in town,” Autumn made it sound like she should’ve known that by now. “Pretty much every girl wants him, some of the guys, too.”
“I’m sure he just wants someone to watch it with,” she said. A guy like Jason, wanting to go out with her? Yeah, right. “It doesn’t have to be anything.”
Autumn sighed dramatically. Could Lena really be that thickheaded?
“You don’t get it yet,” she said. “He’s popular, but he’s pretty uneasy around girls. He doesn’t usually talk to them unless he really likes him.”
Lena eyed her suspiciously.
“How do you know all this? Ty said you’d never talked to Jason.”
Autumn twirled her hair, a telltale sign she was hiding something.
“Mm, I asked around,” she said innocently.
“Or you just asked me,” a tall boy with wavy, blood-red hair walked up behind her. His pale, blue-gray eyes flashed slightly with a mix of annoyance and amusement. He sat next to her, pulling a small silver cross from the collar of his purple T-shirt. Autumn glared at him.
“You’re not the only one I talked to, Lance,” she said irritably. Lance shook his head, his thin lips still in a half-smile.
“You get obsessed with the weirdest things,” he sat down next to her. She rolled her eyes, peeling the wrapper off her granola bar. At the other end of the table, Chad gave a frustrated groan, crumpling the page he’d been scribbling on and tearing it out of his notebook. Ty was sitting across from him, his earbuds in as he looked over a packet of sheet music.
“That’s the eighth time you’ve done that,” Lena noted as Chad tossed the page in the trash. “What are you doing over there?”
“Ugh, this new song ain’t coming together,” Chad grumbled, almost to himself. She moved to the empty seat next to him, glancing at the lines he’d scrawled on the opposite page. Several of them were crossed out, others copied two or three times.
“It’ll never work if you keep forcing yourself,” she slipped the pen from his hand. “Why don’t you try thinking about something else for a while?”
“Would if I had the time,” he took the pen back. “The concert’s next month.”
Lena sat back, looking confused.
“It’s a fundraiser,” Ty took out his earbuds. “Local musicians get together to raise money for whatever the town decides on. This year it’s for a woman’s shelter.”
“I never got why those shelters are only for girls,” Autumn cut in. Was there a conversation she didn’t eavesdrop on? “Guys get abused, too.”
“It’s that whole ‘men don’t need protection’ mindset,” Lena scoffed. The concept had always annoyed her. “And the fact not many of them will admit to being abused, especially for a girl. It’d hurt their pride.”
“We are pretty thick-headed,” Ty admitted. Lance nodded, then glanced around.
“Hey, where’s Jason? He should’ve been here by now.”
“I saw him with Stephanie,” Chad closed his notebook. Maybe the song could wait a while. “It was getting pretty heated.”
Unexpectedly, the words caused a small twinge of jealousy. Lena closed her fist under the table, hoping the emotion didn’t show on her face.
“What were they arguing about?” she managed a neutral tone.
“Don’t know,” Chad shrugged dismissively. “They walked away before I could hear.”
“But isn’t she dating Eric Stalker?” Autumn questioned. The boys looked at each other.
“If she is, it’s a pretty open relationship,” Ty coughed lightly, rubbing the back of his neck. “He’s pretty much the only guy I haven’t seen her with.”
“I don’t know how anyone could date her,” Chad pretended to gag. “Bitch is insane.”
“Yeah? Well try living with her,” Lance said, clearly annoyed now. “You wouldn’t last a day.”
“Yeah, man,” Chad shook his head, laughing. “I don’t know how you survive.”
“She’s your sister?” Lena turned to Lance. He groaned.
An uncomfortable silence followed, broken, as usual, by Autumn. She stood, pressing her hands flat to the table.
“Okay, I think we’ve sat here long enough,” she said. “How about we go try that new all-natural place downtown?”
“Can’t,” Ty grabbed his backpack, hurrying off before he’d even finished pulling it on. “I have detention.”
“Practice,” Lance and Chad spoke in unison. Lena tried to follow them, remembering the last time Autumn had suggested what to do after school. She didn’t think she’d ever seen people puke so much. Before she could escape, Autumn grabbed her sleeve, gazing at the younger with puppy eyes.
“Kara heard about that last murder on the news,” she said quickly, hoping it would be enough. Autumn didn’t give up easily. “My curfew’s been moved up.”
“When was the last time she was even around?” Autumn countered smoothly. So much for that plan. “Besides, why would a guy killing old men go after teens?”
Lena stared at her, hoping a new excuse would somehow appear. As usual, it didn’t.
“Fine,” she huffed, pulling her arm away. “But if I end up dead, I get to haunt you.”
Autumn swallowed the last bite of her salad, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. Her content expression faded to a curious one when she realized Lena was still staring at her blueberry-jasmine tea. It looked like she hadn’t touched it since putting it on the table. She reached over, nudging the cup back until it touched Lena’s hand.
“You like staring into space a lot, don’t you?” she asked. Lena blinked in surprise, apparently unaware she’d even slipped in to a daze. She looked up, a faint embarrassed blush on her cheeks.
Autumn gave an indulgent smile.
“I’m pretty sure I know what you were thinking about,” she said. “Have you told him yet?”
Lena finally took a sip of her drink, a thin purple line showing up above her lips. She quickly wiped it away.
“Told who what?”
Autumn rolled her eyes, still smiling.
“Have you told Jason you like him yet?”
“Well, no, but I-” Lena shook her head, glaring at her. “It’s not like that. We’re just friends, okay?”
Autumn pushed her plate aside, leaning closer.
“Not many girls could be ‘just friends’ with a guy that hot,” she whispered, giggling. Lena groaned.
“Okay, yeah, he’s hot,” she conceded, hardly believing she’d actually said it. Even more that she’d managed to keep a straight face. “But I’ve known him for what, three weeks? It’s way too early to see him like that.”
“Jason watches that meteor shower every year,” Autumn revisited their conversation from earlier in the library. “Last time he asked a girl to watch it with him, they ended up dating.”
“So? One time isn’t a pattern,” Lena struggled to keep her voice down. Autumn could be so irritating sometimes. “Why do you want me to like him so badly, anyway? You’re the one who said I shouldn’t trust him.”
“It’s not just me, the guys have said he never stops talking about you,” she sat back again. “And Ty was right, I’d never really talked to Jason before. He’s nothing like I thought he was.”
“Where’d you hear all that stuff about him, anyway?”
Autumn sighed. Lena could be so dense sometimes.
“Okay, let me spell it out,” she ticked them off on her fingers. “He’s shy, sexy and crazy smart. His family’s also one of the richest on the coast, of course there’s going to be rumors about him.”
Lena groaned again, resisting the urge to facepalm. Rumors, was she serious? Still, it made a lot of sense. Someone like Jason was bound to have gossip circulating about them. Whether it was actually true or not was a completely different story. She was about to speak when she noticed Autumn was no longer looking at her. Instead, the redhead was focused on the counter, where a short, curvy blonde with long pigtails was attempting to flirt with the cashier. Judging by the annoyed look on the man’s face, she was wasting her time.
“C’mon, you know you owe me for that little favor I did,” her voice was wispy. The man grunted.
“And you still owe me for the last two times you were here,” he snapped irritably. “Now, either pay up or get out.”
She huffed, adjusting her crop top as she spun away from him. Her hazel eyes gleamed when her gaze landed on them, her unnaturally white teeth flashing in a smug grin.
“Well, if it isn’t Acne Autumn,” she sauntered to their table, planting her hands on her hips. “Didn’t I tell you to stay away from this place?”
“I don’t listen to street corner rejects,” Autumn quipped. “And didn’t you just lay claim to the dumpster out back?”
The blonde eyed Autumn’s long yellow skirt and green cowl neck sweater. She smirked.
“You mean the one where you get your clothes?”
“I think she meant the one where you get your makeup done,” Lena put in. “Or is your little brother in clown school?”
The blonde glared at her.
“You must be that new girl Stephanie keeps talking about,” she said. “The one that won’t stay in her place.”
“My place is where I say it is,” Lena crossed her arms. “Not what Stephanie wants it to be.”
The blonde leaned over the table, sneering.
“Then I guess you wouldn’t mind having your little secret spilled to the whole school,” she said softly. “How does that sound?”
“Fine by me,” Lena waved a hand in front of her nose. “But could you use a mint next time you wanna get in my face, please?”
Autumn stifled a giggle, disguising it as a cough. The blonde glared at them again, then left, letting the door slam shut behind her. Lena shook her head, then turned back to Autumn.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“Heather White, head cheerleader and complete Stephanie wannabe,” her tone grew curious. “What secret was she talking about?”
“Beats me,” Lena shrugged. “She was probably just trying to scare me.”
“You sure?” Autumn moved quickly to worry. “Because when she says she has dirt on someone, she means it.”
“She can dig up whatever she wants about me,” she said confidently. “It’ll never be enough to make me give in to them.”
“As long as you’re sure,” Autumn pushed back from the table. “You done with your tea? I’m gonna toss this stuff, then we can go.”
Lena could feel the knot growing in her stomach, determined to keep her fear hidden. Heather might be a master blackmailer, but there was no way she could actually found out what had happened in Grosse Point. Right?
I guess I shouldn’t put much past her. She remembered the other incidents Heather must have set up at school, no doubt she’d been working under Stephanie. Nothing too big, but enough to incite whispers and subdued laughter when she walked by. She sighed. Guess I might as well prepare for the worst.
Monday afternoon found Lena staring at her locker, her mouth hanging open. Taped to the purple metal door was a mug shot, her face Photoshopped in place of the inmate’s. The words ‘I’m a whore and proud of it’ glittered along the bottom in bright green pen.
The day had started with a group of boys cornering her in the hall before class started, asking if she’d like to blow them in the locker room. The girls that hadn’t laughed at her, either openly or behind their hands, had all accused her of sleeping with their boyfriends. At least now she knew why.
“I can’t believe this,” she ripped the page off, staring at it. Ty came up behind her, looking at it over her shoulder.
“Wow. What the hell’s wrong with them?”
She groaned in mortification, covering her face with her hands and slumping against her locker.
“These are all over the school by now,” she muttered, pulling her hands aside. “What am I gonna do?”
“You can’t let it get to you,” Ty crouched slightly so they were face to face. “That’s what they want.”
“But that doesn’t help me get rid of these things,” she crushed it in her hand, sounding like she was holding back tears. “Why are they doing this?”
“They’re nuts,” he straightened, glancing at the wad of paper. “You know, we might be able to get them for harassment with this.”
She shook her head, pressing her fists to her eyes.
“No, I’ll deal with it myself,” she brought her hands down. “The last thing I need are Stephanie and her lackeys hating me even more.”
They looked up to see Autumn running toward them, waving a sheet of paper. Lena groaned again, already sure what it was.
“Where’d you find that?”
“In the parking lot,” Autumn slowed to a stop. “There were trashcans full of them.”
Lena gawked at her. Trashcans full of them? Just how many of those things had they made?
“Heather tried giving them to the teams,” Chad came up behind Autumn, scowling. “Lance and I said they were a load of shit and to toss them.”
Lena pressed her back against the lockers, then pushed away from them. She crushed the page into an even smaller ball, determination replacing the fear on her face.
“This isn’t even close to what happened back home,” she missed the distress that flashed across Ty’s face. “I don’t know why I’m bothering to freak out about it.”
Autumn smiled, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“We can help you clean up the rest of these,” she said. “By tomorrow, there won’t be any trace of them.”
“Thanks, Autumn,” she said gratefully, but then her worry pushed its way back to the surface. “But how do we know they didn’t put them up all over town or something?”
“Hey, Lena, relax,” Ty assured her. “When these guys say they’ll do something, they’re good for it.”
She looked around at them, trying to find even a hint of a lie. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time someone had made her a fake promise. Finally content that there wasn’t, she smiled.
“You guys are the best,” she tossed the wadded-up poster in the trash. “Let’s split up. I’ll start in the computer lab.”
Rose petals floated from vases set in corner of a large, softly-lit room. Quiet music filtered from hidden speakers, blending with the subdued chatter of the guests like paints on a master’s canvas. Lena stood by herself on a wide stone balcony, taking in the perfumed night air drifting in from a magnificent garden. She inhaled deeply, gasping when a warm hand fell gently on her waist.
“You’ll catch a cold out here.”
It was Jason’s voice, deep and sexy as ever. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her from behind. He tilted her chin back, her face burning when her eyes met his.
“It’s not that bad,” she whispered. Her blush deepened as his own hand moved slowly to her cheek.
“If you’re not cold,” he said quietly. “Then why are you shivering?”
It wasn’t until then she noticed it, the tremors affecting every inch of her body. She gave a faint sigh.
“Maybe it is a little chilly,” she moved closer to him, resting her head on his chest. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
His lips curled in a slow smile.
“You could’ve waited inside-”
She blinked. Autumn was gripping her shoulder, looking annoyed. She was standing at the free samples counter, still holding the bottle of rose perfume that had led to her spacing out.
“About time you came back to earth,” Autumn said. “I’ve been calling you for almost ten minutes!”
“I was in the middle of a daydream,” Lena returned, pouting. “And it was just getting to the good part!”
Autumn shook her head, pulling her toward the clothing racks.
“You can daydream later,” she started looking through one of them. “Right now, you need to find something. We have to meet the guys at the food court soon.”
Lena rolled her eyes, reaching in and picking a dress at random. The shimmering off-white cloth skimmed the floor, a fitted halter flowing seamlessly into an A-line skirt. Autumn took her shoulder again.
“It’s perfect,” she exclaimed. “Jason’s gonna die when he sees you in it!”
“Who said I wanted him to see me?”
“You had a dream where he kissed you,” she said. “So you have to like him!”
Lena looked down at the dress, smoothing the skirt. She hadn’t even noticed when her feelings had changed toward him, but they had, and now there was nothing she could do about it. Except hope it wouldn’t end the same way Andy had. That day had been one of the worst of her life, one of many events that still gave her nightmares.
Andy…she failed to hold back a sniffle. I’m so sorry!
“Lena?” Autumn stopped searching, turning toward her with concern in her eyes. Lena quickly wiped her own, pushing the stale pain to the back of her mind.
“Sorry, allergies,” she flashed a weak smile. “Uh, what were you saying?”
Autumn still looked worried, then offered her own fragile grin. Lena could tell her the truth later.
“I was just asking if you liked Jason or not.”
“Oh, yeah,” she went to a mirrored pillar, holding the dress in front of her. With a little altering, it looked like it’d be a nice fit. “I guess I do, but how do I know if he feels the same way?”
“Um, because we’ve all told you he does?” she managed to smirk. “And he still wants you to watch that meteor shower with him tonight.”
“I almost forgot about it, actually,” Lena folded the dress over her arm. “I’m not even sure I’ll be able to go. I mean, Kara’s always-”
“-Drunk out of her mind,” Autumn finished for her. “Just sneak out after she’s asleep.”
She reached in her pocket when her phone went off, tapping out a text.
“Now let’s go pay for these things. The guys are starting to wonder where we are.”
Ty waved to them from a table near the edge of the floor, smiling. Autumn hurried over, giggling while she snatched the seat next to him. Lena slid in across from them, surprised to see Jason on the other side of him. He was bent over a sketchbook, part of his hair spilling over his shoulder. Lena averted her gaze when he looked up, hoping he hadn’t noticed she’d been staring at him.
“Something wrong?” he asked. She scratched the side of her neck.
“I just didn’t think you’d be here,” she hated how nervous she sounded. “You don’t seem like the mall type.”
“I’m not,” he went back to the sketchbook. “But Ty can be pretty persuasive.”
“Yes, he can,” Lena glanced at Ty. He shrugged, giving that sneaky half-smile he’d been famous for in middle school. She rolled her eyes, turning back to Jason.
“What’re you drawing?”
“Something for history,” he spun the book around. The open page showed a half-finished sketch of a smoking, corpse-strewn battlefield, a jagged, snow-capped mountain range in the background.
“This is awesome,” she turned it back toward him. “I can barely draw stick figures without messing up.”
He chuckled, closing the book and tucking it in the laptop bag next to him.
“You still up for tonight?”
“Oh, um,” why was it so hard to talk all of a sudden? “Y-Yeah, sure.”
He smiled, the look fading when Chad sat next to her. As usual, the blonde wore expensive sunglasses and a wide, cocky smile, showing off his silver canine.
“Hey, there, baby,” his tone was almost mocking. She groaned.
“How much longer am I gonna have to deal with you?”
“Until we hit college, baby,” he put an arm around her. “Because you’re my girl now.”
“I’m no one’s girl,” she said angrily, pushing against him. “Let go of me.”
He chuckled, pulling her closer. Her cheek pressed to his shoulder, his covered gaze flicked to Jason’s, as though daring the other boy to say something. Jason scoffed, looking away and grabbing his bag.
Ty and Autumn stood to let him out, both glaring openly at Chad. He’d let Lena go the second Jason had walked away.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Ty snapped when they’d sat again. Chad smirked, leaning back.
“Just letting J know he can’t get everything he wants.”
“What are you talking about?” Autumn demanded. Chad put his arm around Lena again.
“He wants the new girl,” his smirk grew back to a smug grin. “I just beat him to her.”
“Ugh!” Lena jammed her elbow sharply in his stomach, then shoved him out of the booth. She slipped out after him, stepping on his hand as she did so. “You freaking dirtbag.”
She snatched the plain paper bag that held her dress, storming away before Chad had even gotten back to his feet. He watched her go, holding his side where she’d slugged him.
I hate acting like such an asshole around her, he thought. But I’ll do whatever it takes to help Jason out.
Jason zipped his coveralls, taking longer than usual to fold his clothes before stashing them in his locker. His uncle had called him soon after he’d left the mall, saying they needed an extra set of hands at the garage. He chuckled. When didn’t they?
And it’s not the first time I’ve had to come in on a day off.
It had annoyed him at first, sure, but the more hours he put in, the bigger his paycheck. And that was just fine with him.
He unclasped the gold chain around his neck, gazing at the single charm before tucking it in the pocket of his jeans. He didn’t want to run the risk of anyone seeing it, lest they think he was betraying the family. He growled softly, slamming his locker shut.
They betrayed me first.
He went out to the main garage. As usual, several cars sat unattended, his cousins milling near the wide open door of his uncle’s office. There were more of them than usual, he noticed, looking bored as the old man finished another of his infamous speeches.
“You guys are here to work,” Luca spat. He was a short, stocky man with piercing dark eyes and dark gray hair going white at the temples. His deep voice resonated through the long, tall room. “I’m not paying you to waste my time!”
“Then stop wasting ours with your dumb speeches,” Enzo shouted. The boys nearest to him cracked up.
“Yeah, and it’s not like you pay us that much, anyway,” Johnny added. Luca pinched the bridge of his nose in response, yelling at the laughing group to get back to work.
“Why can’t I get through to them?” he muttered once they’d dispersed. Jason came up next to him, tying his hair back.
“They’re idiots,” he said dryly. Luca sighed. Jason may have been the youngest, but he was more mature than half his cousins combined.
“God bless Romalo’s soul,” he said quietly. “Whatever he was able to do with you, he did it well.”
Jason didn’t bother correcting him, content to let the old man believe what he wanted. It was a hell of a lot easier than trying to explain everything.
“Whoever that driver was,” Luca continued. “They shouldn’t have been allowed to walk away.”
“There wasn’t anything they could do,” Jason remembered the accident was a sorer subject for his family than it had ever been for him. “And there’s no changing it.”
“Life’s a cruel mistress,” Luca shook his head, still lost in thought when Jason slipped away. It was hard to believe the boy had lived this long, since the cards had been stacked against him from the start.
He definitely has my brother in him, he thought. But unfortunately that’s not all he has in him…
Jason straightened, glancing around. He thought he’d heard someone calling him, going back to the engine when no one acknowledged him. He’d bought the old convertible off a senior, amazed the car had still been in one piece.
Man, did this guy have any idea what he was doing?
He didn’t notice the shadow falling over him, the mischievous smile that crossed the person’s lips. They tapped his shoulder, not bothering to hide their laughter when he banged his head on the raised hood. He turned, glaring at a slim girl with red-dyed black hair.
“What do you want, Chelsea?” he took off his cap and wiped his forehead, then pulled it back on. Chelsea laughed again.
“Are you ever gonna be done with this piece of junk?”
She put a hand on the windshield, more cracks than glass, grimacing at the hideous neon pink and slime green seat covers. It looked like they were the only part of the car left undamaged. Jason rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the stiffness of having been bent over for so long.
“I just want to get it running,” he said. “No big deal.”
“Oh, I think it is a big deal,” she patted his cheek, going on in a singsong voice. “My baby cousin’s in love!”
“I am not,” he swiped her hand away. She took a step back, still smiling.
“You think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been acting lately?” she clasped her hands, sounding like a gushing mother. “Little Jasi has a crush!”
He cringed at the old nickname, a hot blush flaring across his face.
“No one’s called me that since I was three,” he reminded her. “And I do not!”
Smirking, she walked behind him, snatching his phone from his pocket. The image on the lock screen was a pretty girl with a shy smile, her shining dark hair tossed over her shoulder.
“I saw you looking at this earlier,” she tapped the phone against her chin. “Why would you have a girl’s pic on here if you didn’t like her?”
He bit his lip. Lance had asked to borrow his phone the day before, claiming to have lost his. He hadn’t returned it until that morning, saying something about a small change he’d made. It hadn’t been until later that he’d learned what that change had been, that the backgrounds had been replaced with pictures of Lena. Chelsea waved the phone toward their cousins, holding it just beyond his reach.
“Better spit it out,” she said. “Otherwise, everyone here is gonna find out about your little girlfriend.”
“Alright, alright, fine,” he groaned. Did she really have to play dirty all the time? “Her name’s Lena. We met in the clearing behind our street.”
“And?” she prompted mockingly. “Go on.”
“And…that’s it,” he sighed. She gazed at him, bringing her arm back to her side. It didn’t surprise her he hadn’t made a move yet, considering how badly his last relationship had turned out. Emily had just been a disaster waiting to happen. Even before then, emotions had been tricky for him, especially when they concerned others. She sighed, setting his phone on a nearby toolbox.
“I saw what Chad did this morning,” she said. “Why are you still friends with him, anyway?”
“I don’t really know,” he went back to work as he talked, it always helped him focus. He and Chad had butted heads their whole lives, it had just gotten worse when Lena had shown up. Even so, it was hard to tell if he actually liked her, or if the blonde was just screwing around like he usually did. Chelsea thought a moment, twirling a loose lock of hair with her finger.
“You know, nonna’s planning that charity thing she does every year,” she started suggestively. “You could always try asking her to that.”
He cringed, remembering the last time he’d brought a girl with him, the grilling nonna had given her. Emily hadn’t spoken to him for a week afterward. Would the same thing happen if he brought Lena? Would she even say yes if he asked her? He sighed, figuring there was only one way to find out.