Lena glanced in Kara’s room, seeing the woman was sprawled on her king-sized bed. She was alone, snoring lightly with a pair of empty wine bottles lying on the floor. She sighed, for once thankful for her stepmother’s drinking problem.
At least I won’t have to worry about her coming after me.
She hurried downstairs, slipping silently out the back door. Digging in her pocket, she pulled out her phone, turning on the flashlight when she got to the tree line. Glancing back one last time to make sure she wasn’t being followed, she disappeared into the woods.
Jason was already waiting when she reached the clearing, lounging in the bed of an old white pick-up truck. A small, battery-powered lantern sat on top of the cab, bathing him in a soft, inviting light.
“You’re here early,” she noted. She shut off her phone, sticking it back in her pocket. He stretched, putting his arms behind his head.
“Wanted to be set up when you got here,” he looked toward their street, the signs of civilization lost behind the trees. “She asleep?”
“Out cold,” she climbed into the truck bed, enjoying the softness of the mattress beneath her. The last rays of the sun had long faded, the stars winking at them from a dark, moonless sky. “What time’s this supposed to happen?”
He shrugged, checking his phone.
“Nine or ten,” he slipped it back in his pocket. “So it shouldn’t be too much longer.”
She settled back on the pillows, reaching into the little cooler between them. It was a warm night, the silence comforting. A young buck came from the trees, bending over the pond to drink before darting off.
“I never lived in a small town before,” she said. “It’s so different from the city.”
“How are you liking it?” he turned his head toward her.
“It took some getting used to, but I think I like it more,” her small grin wilted. “I’m just worried people will find out what happened.”
“You mean with your family?” he looked quizzical. She shook her head, sitting back up.
“Please don’t make me talk about it.”
He watched her toy with her small water bottle, then the light leather strip tied around her wrist. It was a beautiful piece, carved with a detailed waterfall and river. She wore it almost every day, along with the emerald ring on her right hand.
“Was that jewelry your mom’s?” he couldn’t stop himself from asking. She looked at her finger.
“I hid some of her stuff after Kara moved in, she explained. “Since I knew she’d get rid of it. I did the same thing with the rest of my family, too.”
“Where is it?”
“With a friend. She said she’d send it once she knew I’d gotten away from Kara.”
“How long do you think that’ll take?”
Her shoulders slumped at the question, her chin hitting her chest.
Hardly aware he was doing it, Jason reached over and brushed her cheek, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
“I know we just met,” he said softly. “But I want you to know I’m here for you, no matter what.”
She smiled slightly.
“Thanks, that means a lot.”
A trail of fire streaked across the sky, reflecting in his eyes. She swallowed.
“I’ve never known someone with such dark eyes…”
The quiet words slipped out before she could stop them. He didn’t answer, turning to the heavens as more meteors flew past. She watched in awe as they gradually increased, nearly blotting out the stars with their blazing brilliance. After what felt like an impossibly long time, the shower tapered off, leaving only the moonless night.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” she lowered her head, wincing slightly at the twinge in her neck. He smiled, still gazing at the sky.
“People in cities don’t know what they’re missing,” he sighed contentedly. She lay back on her side, tucking her hand beneath her pillow.
“Some people like living in places that are lit up,” she countered. “They feel safe.”
“Yeah, but no matter how bright a place is,” he started deeply. “There’s always a dark alley to get dragged into.”
As depressing as the statement was, she supposed she couldn’t argue with him. She turned to the sky, watching a few straggling meteors pass overhead.
“What’s this place like?” she asked at last. He looked thoughtful, absently fingering his collar. He did that a lot, now that she noticed.
“People don’t usually lock their doors,” he said. “And the last break in was some drunk guy who’d locked his keys in his car.”
“Sounds like it’s usually pretty safe,” she struggled a bit with her next question. The story had been plastered everywhere since she’d moved there, a serial killer with a taste for older men. She shuddered, remembering when they’d described just a few ways those victims had died. “Do you think we’re safe out here, with that psycho running around?”
He turned to face her again, this time sitting up and gripping her hand firmly. He gazed in her eyes as he spoke, that action alone nearly enough to hypnotize her.
“He wouldn’t get within fifty feet of you.”
The fierce protectiveness in those words startled her. He barely knew her!
“T-Thank you,” she almost choked on the soft words. His grip relaxed, though his hand didn’t leave.
“I’m not the only one who feels that way,” he reminded her. “We’ve all got your back.”
She bit the inside of her cheek, turning away from him. The last thing she wanted was someone else to see her tears.
I just wish it wasn’t so hard for me to believe that…
Lena pushed lightly at her pillow, trying to get comfortable. It had been so soft the night before, but now it felt almost like she was lying on a stone.
When did it get so hard?
She rubbed her eyes, squinting against the sunlight. When they finally adjusted, she looked up, her cheeks burning when she realized she was curled up against Jason’s side, her head on his shoulder. He was still asleep, his eyes squeezed shut, his jaw clenched. Whatever he was dreaming about, it wasn’t good.
Careful not to wake him, she pulled herself back, lying as far from him as she could. It was then she noticed his shirt had ridden up slightly, offering a peek of a fresh scab that sliced across his abs. She cringed.
Wonder what he did to get that.
He shifted, groaning softly. A few more minutes went by before he sat up, gazing around while he fixed his shirt.
“Guess we overslept,” he said absently.
“Looks like it,” she pushed herself up, watching as he took something from his pocket. “You’re deaf?”
“Just in my left ear,” his fingers closed tightly around a hearing aid. “Not sure if I was born with it or if something happened when I was little.”
She tilted her head.
“What makes you think something might’ve happened?”
He looked at her, the sudden edge in his eyes making it clear he didn’t want to talk about it. She also found herself hoping he didn’t remember their conversation from the night before.
He put in the hearing aid, then vaulted over the side of the truck bed. It was the first time she’d noticed how long his hair actually was, the lightly tangled locks falling just past his shoulder blades. It suited him, she decided, adding a certain nobility to his chiseled profile. She swallowed.
“J-Jason, I…” she shut her mouth, hating how breathy her voice sounded. If he’d heard, he ignored it, no doubt used to the reaction. “T-Thanks for last night. It was great.”
He didn’t answer, his whole body tense as he glared at something beyond the clearing’s edge. She crawled to the open tailgate, looking over his shoulder.
“What is it?” she asked worriedly. “What’s wrong?”
He blinked, shaking his head.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just thought I saw something.”
“Oh, okay,” she sat, letting her feet dangle over the edge. A moment of quiet passed before she continued. “Guess I should get going soon. I have to be home before Kara wakes up.”
She slid to the ground. Jason grabbed her shoulder to keep her from leaving.
“How about I walk you home?” he was still staring toward that random point in the distance. She felt his fingers stiffen, his nails digging in slightly. Whatever might be out there, if it was enough to make him this nervous, it couldn’t be good.
“Great,” he let go of her shoulder, taking a tight grip on her hand. “C’mon, let’s get going.”
Lena allowed herself to be pulled along, looking behind them. Just before the clearing disappeared around a bend in the path, she could’ve sworn she saw something glimmer briefly in the far trees. She gulped.
Was someone really watching us?
Yeah, go on, run while you can.
He brought down the scope, watching the pair slip away. It was the most boring part of any mission, reconnaissance. The only part that had never made any sense to him. Every target sent his way ended up dead, so what was the point of the higher-ups forcing him to learn about them? What was the information going to be used for?
You’re lucky it was just a camera this time, you coward.
He tucked the device in the pack lying next to him, running his hand over the hard plastic case that held his rifle. The gun was as much a part of him as his flesh and blood; he itched to go after the pair, to pull the trigger and just be done with it. But that would mean going against orders, which could just as easily send a bullet through his own brain.
But why does the boss care so much about this kid?
For as long as he could remember, there had been an obsession with that boy, one none of them had ever been able to place. Was it something to do with his family, the people who had raised him? Did the old man have some other plan in store he hadn’t told the team about? He scoffed.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
He looked up when silence returned to the clearing, the crunching of footprints and soft echo of voices fading with the duo’s departure. If there was one upside to having to spy on these people, it was the chance to get away from the more mundane aspects of his job. Namely the paperwork that, more often than not, just served as a pillow for his daily naps.
At least it does something useful.
He waited a bit longer before getting to his feet, picking up the heavy pack easily and slinging the strap over his shoulder. Carefully, he made his way through the undergrowth, still wondering why he had been ordered to follow them in the first place. The girl certainly wasn’t a threat, and the boy seemed clueless as to what his family was really involved in. Was this supposed to be some way to make sure he didn’t find out?
Seems a little counterproductive, if you ask me.
He stopped when he heard them again, ducking behind a thick trunk before they had a chance to see him. They were sitting on the back steps of the girl’s house, talking in slightly lowered voices. From what he could hear, the boy was telling her about some concert, how they’d managed to surpass their set goal. The girl gave a small cheer, covering her mouth when she hiccuped. He laughed, the sound quickly fading when she kissed his cheek.
Well, what do we have here?
“Thanks again for last night, Jason,” she stood, hurrying into the house. Jason tried to follow, the door clicking shut before he could get to his feet. He took a few steps into the yard, turning back to stare at the house. The girl soon appeared in an upstairs window, looking down and waving to him. Briefly, he waved back, his hand drifting to his cheek when he looked away again. The blissful, yet frightened look on his face told the spy everything he needed to know.
This is going to be even more fun than I thought.
Jason gazed one last time at Lena’s window, then turned and hurried back to the path. All the while, his fingers remained on that fading spot of warmth on his cheek, his heart jumping to his throat.
That didn’t just happen, he thought frantically. It couldn’t have!
He’d known he was making a mistake when he’d asked her to watch the shower, but he hadn’t let that stop him. He’d thought it would be what he needed to finally let the past go, to be able to stop letting his fears control him. Instead, it had only made things worse, the barbed memories tearing at him like they had for months after the accident. Like they still did nearly every night.
I don’t want that to happen again.
Everyone he knew had kept telling him it wasn’t his fault, but those constant reassurances had only made the pain worse. Even now, after almost two years had gone by, he blamed himself. He hadn’t paid enough attention to her, hadn’t treated her as well as he should have. She hadn’t deserved what had happened, he should’ve been the one who fell…
I’ll don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself for that.
He ducked under a low branch, looking to see he’d started veering off the path. He’d walked the way blindly so many times, it amazed him he still couldn’t make it without nearly getting himself lost. The clearing was just ahead, a tall figure briefly visible on the other side. So, his gut feeling had been right, there had been someone watching them.
Whoever it was, they vanished before he could get a second glance, leaving him with only a handful of questions. Who had that person been? Why were they so determined to remain unseen? Why had they been watching them in the first place?
Could it have something to do with…
He shook his head. No, that had been his father’s mistake, it had nothing to do with him. Sure, he’d overheard a few things when he was little, but nothing that should’ve resulted in that kind of order. He barely even remembered most of it!
Maybe they weren’t even really watching us.
True, he hadn’t run into many people by that clearing before, it was part of the reason he liked it so much, but that didn’t mean there weren’t others exploring out there. That was probably all it had been, he told himself, just some random hiker who’d happened to come across them. Yet there was something about that explanation that just didn’t sit right with him; if it had just been a hiker, why had they gone out of their way to stay as invisible as possible? Why hadn’t they at least tried to say something?
I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
He hurried the last few yards to his old truck, climbing in and locking the door behind him. He shivered, feeling a pair of eyes was still glued to his every move, that the person they belonged to was far from friendly. He swallowed, fumbling his keychain from his pocket. It felt like hours had passed before he found the right one, jamming it in the ignition. The engine sputtered weakly, then fell silent. He groaned.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Lena pressed her back to the kitchen door, sinking to the tile, her hands pressed to her lips. She could feel her face burning, her heart prepared to leap from her chest. She hadn’t just done that, she hadn’t just kissed Jason Vetra.
I-It was just on his cheek, she said to herself. Why am I freaking out so much?!
It didn’t take long to find the answer; it was Andy, it was always Andy. She’d tried so hard to forget what had happened, had done everything she could to force the memories out of her head. Nothing had worked, not even six months in a coma.
That wasn’t my fault, she ground the heels of her palms into her closed eyes. She’d repeated the phrase to herself thousands of times, but the claws of blame refused to free her from their hold. All she had done was follow through on a bad idea, she’d had no control over what had happened after, none! Why won’t it leave me alone?
She pushed back the tears, getting to her feet. The house was silent, meaning Kara was still out cold. Even so, Lena did her best to move silently, tiptoeing through the kitchen and living room, carefully avoiding the spots that creaked on the stairs. The briefest pause by the master bedroom door proved Kara was still asleep, her soft snoring still faintly audible. She allowed herself a small sigh of relief, she’d made it.
She slipped down the hall to her own room, locking the door before falling on her bed. Faint wisps of spice still floated on the air around her, the remnants of Jason’s cologne. Strange, she’d never smelled it before, had he put it on especially for last night?
Maybe, she laid back, smiling at the pictures stuck to her ceiling. It was the one time she’d been thankful for always forgetting her camera in her purse. They captured some of the last memories she’d made with her family; their trip to Niagara Falls for Michael’s twelfth birthday, her mom with the triplets on their first day of kindergarten. Her favorite picture, though, was one she’d snapped on Christmas, minutes after she’d torn the wrapping paper off her new camera.
Her parents were sitting on the couch, her father flashing that burning smile as he held a fake sprig of mistletoe over her mother’s head. Her mother was laughing, her face as red as her Santa-sprinkled pajamas. Lena remembered what happened next, her parents had kissed, then had disappeared in their bedroom for the rest of the morning. She’d just wished she’d known it would be one of the last happy times they’d all have together.
She let the tears run freely now, the photos blurring as her eyes filled with them. It was Kara’s fault everything had changed, her life would still be almost perfect if that woman had never entered her father’s life. The only downside would’ve been not having Ty and Miranda by her side as they navigated the maze of high school.
She reached for her phone, her mood dropping further when she saw her inbox was empty. She’d sent Miranda a series of texts about life on the island every other Saturday since the move, just as they had agreed when she was still in the hospital.
Miranda had stopped responding after the first two months, her only explanation being she was getting her phone taken away until she got her grades up. Lena couldn’t blame her for wanting to break the promise, she’d want to as well after reading some of the things she’d sent, but had she really needed to lie about it?
She probably thought I couldn’t handle the truth.
A few weeks ago, that would’ve been accurate, but things had started looking up after she’d spilled her story to Jason, when she’d realized she didn’t have to keep it all locked inside. She’d send the texts one more time, she decided, and if Miranda still didn’t respond, then that would be the end of it.
She recapped everything that had happened the past two weeks, ending it all with watching the meteor shower the night before. The blush bloomed on her cheeks again when she remembered how she’d woken up, the quick peck she’d given him out of impulse before rushing inside. The last thing she did was attach a picture she’d managed to take of him, when he’d pulled off his shirt to clean it after falling in the mud.
If anything will make Miranda text back, she thought. That will.
She hit send, setting her phone on the nightstand. It wasn’t until then she’d noticed the tears still pooling on her pillow, the fact her eyes were starting to sting. She swiped at them halfheartedly, wishing for once that they’d never stop. It was such a relief when she let them loose, the tension draining from her body with each drop. It was also the only time she was able to sleep without dreaming, a state she longed for most nights.
I still wish things could go back to the way they were, she thought. But at the same time now, I don’t…
She groaned, turning over and burying her face in her pillow.
“Ugh, could this get any more confusing?”
Chad balled up his taco wrapper, chuckling.
“Hey, guys, check this out.”
He tossed it over his shoulder, his smile widening when he heard a disgusted shout. He looked, seeing it had landed in the lap of a cheerleader, the brunette glaring hatefully at him. He laughed, the rest of his table soon joining in.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Ty was the first to notice Lena’s silence. She was staring at her tray, slowly stirring her lumpy mashed potatoes with her fork. “You’re usually the loudest when he messes with people.”
“Hm?” she looked up, her eyes slightly glazed. She visibly forced herself to swallow a bite of food, nibbling on the white plastic tines afterward. “I was just thinking about a dream I had last night.”
Chad got up to throw the rest of his trash away, taking the empty seat on the other side of her.
“You mean the one I overheard you and Autumn talking about this morning?”
She nodded, taking another forkful of potatoes.
“Jason was in it,” she started. “And I’m pretty sure Stephanie was, too.”
She and Jason were on the walking path next to the school, immersed in a pleasant conversation. He whirled when an engine roared behind them, a dark blue Porsche skidding to a stop seconds before it would have hit them. He moved between Lena and the girl who stepped from the driver’s seat, her face hidden by the abnormally thick shadows of the trees.
“You made a mistake when you went against me,” she said. Her voice was burning, though with what Lena couldn’t quite tell. She brought her left hand out from behind her, revealing an old pistol that was splashed with rust. Jason moved further in front of Lena, glaring at the girl across from them.
“You’ll have to go through me to get to her,” he said angrily. She giggled excitedly.
“Thanks for making it so easy for me,” she smiled, then raised the gun and pulled the trigger. Jason lurched when the round hit him, tearing a ragged hole in his shirt. Lena screamed, unable to move as he pressed his hands to the wound. They came back slick with blood, her cry rising in pitch as another bullet slammed into his thigh.
“Stop it!” she helped him to the ground, her tears mixing with the blood starting to leak past his lips. “You’re killing him!”
The other girl laughed again, aiming at his chest.
“Don’t worry, I planned to.”
The gun went off, the sound louder than the others. A final hole opened over Jason’s heart; Lena held her head in his lap, sobbing as the last of the light faded from his eyes. She leaned down until her forehead touched his, her tears coming even more forcefully. The other girl continued to watch them, tapping the smoking muzzle of the gun against her cheek.
“I was going to kill you, too,” she started after a while. “But I think I’ll let you live. It’s too much fun watching you suffer.”
She walked away, her crazed laughter echoing as the sun sank behind heavy clouds.
“It was just a dream,” Lance said when she’d finished. A terrible one, but still just a dream. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, how sad,” Heather stopped at their table, her voice scornfully piteous. Lena scowled at her; how long had she been listening?
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“Oh, I just want you to hear something,” Heather twirled a bleached pigtail. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard yet, but Jason sent Stephanie an email last week. He’s fed up with the little nobody that keeps trailing him everywhere.”
She leaned closer, her frosted pink lips curling in a hateful smile.
“How’s it feel, Lena?” she asked softly. “Learning the one guy you thought cared doesn’t give a shit about you?”
Lena gazed briefly at her before rolling her eyes, getting up and dumping her half-eaten lunch in the trash. Dealing with Stephanie’s drones always made her lose her appetite. Did the girl really think she’d fall for that story?
How stupid does she think I am?
She went out to the hall, stopping when she heard voices coming from a classroom.
“It’s all that little slut’s fault,” a girl was yelling, sounding desperate. “She took you away from me!”
A boy groaned, sounding fed up.
“Look, I don’t know what I did to make you think I liked you, but I don’t. I never did,” he added vehemently. “Your parents pay me to tutor you, and I just quit.”
Lena jumped aside when the door flew open, Stephanie running out in tears. Jason stopped just outside it, watching her flee. He shook his head.
“She’s nuts,” he muttered. Lena chuckled softly, startling him.
“I think the whole town knows that by now,” she said.
“No kidding,” he shut the door, then turned to her. “What’s going on?”
“Heather just tried to make me believe you had it for Stephanie,” she scoffed. “I’m not that gullible.”
“I know,” he leaned against the door, smiling down at her. “That’s one of the things I like about you.”
“Really?” she giggled, licking her lips. “Um, what else do you like about me?”
“Well, pretty much everything,” he put a hand on her waist, shoving down the desire to run. “And you know that party Autumn’s been going on about lately?”
“You mean the charity thing your grandma throws every year?” she asked. “What about it?”
“Well,” he flashed that smart smirk of his. “Would you like to go with me?”
She tapped her chin, trying to look thoughtful.
“I’ll have to check my calendar,” she said at last. She smiled slowly. “But I think I can make the time.”
He sighed, looking strangely relieved.
“Great,” he took his hand away, rubbing the back of his neck. “Guess I’ll see you next Saturday.”
Stephanie didn’t bother to muffle her cries. She’d gone straight out the door after her fight with Jason, following the front walk to the short dirt path next to the school. A circle of painted stones sat at the end under a small wooden canopy, each one honoring a student that had died. As if that stupid wall in the library wasn’t enough.
She fell to her knees in front of them, scanning the names and dates without really seeing them. Since her freshman year, she’d always been drawn to this place, not that she’d ever bothered to figure out why. To her, none of these people mattered now, some not even when they’d been alive. It all just seemed like a big waste of time, trying to honor people who weren’t even around to notice if they were forgotten.
She wiped her eyes, running her fingers over the stone closest to her. Each one was about the size of her fists put together, some smoother or more rough than others, she guessed depending on how the person had been in life. This one was painted to look like part of a coral reef, the bright colors and crisp lines blurring through her tears.
‘For Jonathan Priceton,’ she could barely make out the words, written in tiny, perfect black cursive. ‘A short, shining life with an ever-lasting presence. 1969-1983’. She remembered hearing about him from one of her other tutors; he’d been the late vice-principal’s grandson, and had died instantly when his family’s car had been T-boned. But why was she thinking about him?
I don’t care about these people, she shook her head. The only one she cared about was Jason; it had been that way for as long as she could remember. She’d come so close several times, only to have some other girl swoop in and ruin everything. Not that it had taken her long to make those girls change their minds.
Her nails dragged through the damp, freezing soil as she clenched her fists, fresh tears welling up in her eyes.
It’s going to be different this time, she vowed silently. No one can have him but me!
Her resolve hardened, she got to her feet, not bothering to brush off her jeans before turning her back on the ring of stones. She had planning to do, and she knew just where to start.
Enjoy it while you can, bitch, she laughed quietly. Because now, I’m coming for you.
“Oh, I can’t wait!”
Autumn was practically skipping down the hall; Lena grabbed her arm, tugging the girl back.
“Calm down,” she hissed. “Everyone’s staring at you like you’ve gone nuts!”
“Oh, I can’t help it,” the redhead hopped eagerly in place. “Ty wants us to go to the party together!”
Lena looked at her, dropping her wrist. Had Autumn actually been worried that Ty, her own boyfriend, wouldn’t want to go with her? She rolled her eyes, deciding it was best to let the girl stay on cloud nine, even if she did think it was a little crazy.
“How’d you guys get together, anyway?” she asked. Autumn blushed, giggling.
“I’ve always asked to show the new kids around,” she explained. “But I didn’t expect him to be so cute!”
Lena chuckled. Ty was cute in his own way, even if he was a bit of a feminine guy. It didn’t help she’d always seen him as a second older brother.
“He asked me out after school that day,” Autumn squealed. “And we had our first kiss under the mistletoe last Christmas!”
“Wow,” Lena followed her friend’s spring-filled steps with sullen ones. Andy had pushed himself to the front of her mind again, and while the memory didn’t sting as much as it used to, it still wasn’t a pleasant thing to revisit. They hadn’t been together long, but it had been one of the happiest times in her recent life. She still longed to go back and change how things had ended, staring down at her hands as though she expected them to be covered in blood.
“Whoa, take it easy!”
Lena snapped her head up, seeing she’d run straight into Autumn. She freed the auburn strands that had gotten caught in her necklace, the girl turning to her with an expectant look on her face. Lena blinked.
“I said, ‘so, is Jason your first boyfriend?’. You were zoning out again,” she added with a hint of concern. Lena sighed.
“First off, he’s not my boyfriend, and he wouldn’t be my first one,” she swallowed, glad that, for once, tears weren’t threatening to spill. “Andy and I ended…pretty badly. I still don’t like thinking about it.”
She fidgeted when she noticed Autumn was still staring at her; she really did have a sick fascination with certain things.
“I…didn’t exactly date too much,” she went on nervously, not sure why she felt compelled to. “I was the one most guys wouldn’t go near unless they wanted to make someone jealous.”
Autumn gaped at her.
“You didn’t,” she almost whispered it. “…Did you?”
“What do you think?” Lena glared at her. “You really think I wanted that reputation? I don’t even know how it started!”
Autumn winced. She shuffled her feet a bit, glancing around awkwardly.
“Uh, listen, I’d love to stay, but I…have to get to the animal shelter!” she flashed a big fake smile, rubbing the back of her neck. “Um…see you later?”
“Yeah, okay…” Lena felt her low spirits fall further. “Sure.”
Autumn smiled again, then hurried off. Lena slumped against a locker, feeling like she wanted to bawl her eyes out. Was it possible Autumn thought less of her, now that she knew all that? Was Washington High destined to become the next Ford Academy?
It can’t be like that again, she thought helplessly. It just can’t!
She was so busy trying to keep the tears back, she didn’t notice Chad until he was right in front of her. He was dressed in black sweats and a long-sleeve white shirt, a small sports bag hanging off his shoulder.
“Hey,” the hint of grin on his face faded. “You okay?”
“Hey, Chad,” she rubbed her eye. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“You don’t sound like it,” he hitched his shoulder to adjust the strap, gazing at her with worried eyes. “You wanna talk about it?”
She shook her head, looking away from him. He blew out a breath.
“Look, I know I’ve been a jerk the last few months,” he scratched his cheek. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care.”
“It’s not you,” she assured him faintly. She crossed her arms, sinking toward the floor. Why couldn’t those feelings ever just leave her alone? “It’s not any of you…”
“What is it?” he asked.”Maybe I can help.”
She shook her head again, more slowly this time.
“Not unless you have a gun I can borrow…”
He took half a step back.
“I don’t like where this is going,” he sounded wary.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” she pushed away from the locker, looking up at him. “I wanted to see if there was a shooting range somewhere, but I don’t have a gun.”
“Oh,” he thought a while, glancing behind him. “I’ve got track now, but if you can stick around a while, I can take you to the range after.”
“No problem there,” she gave a weak shrug. “I was sucked in to talking with the counselor, that’ll probably take a couple hours, at least.”
“Uh, okay, great,” his voice cracked slightly. He cleared his throat. “Meet me in the parking lot at five-thirty. I’ll see you then.”
“So, wait, why’d you want me to bring you here?”
Chad looked on while Lena aimed, the laser sight trained in the middle of the target. The range was just outside of town, a repurposed old warehouse. He hadn’t fired a single shot content to just watch her.
“My mom used to take Michael and me,” she fired, missing the bullseye by a quarter of an inch. “The first time I shot was my sixth birthday.”
“So, this reminds you of your mom?”
“Yeah, but it’s not just that,” she readjusted her protective headphones. “It also helps blow off steam.”
They’d been there just over a half-hour. It was the first time she’d really been alone with him, one of few she’d felt truly safe around a boy she wasn’t related to.
“You mean Stephanie and Kara, right?” he asked.
“That’s part of it,” she reloaded the gun, firing after each word. “There’s also school…life…depression…”
She brought her arms down, turning to stare at him.
“And boys that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
He cringed. He definitely deserved that one.
“Look, I’m not doing this for the reason you think,” he started quickly, going on before he lost his nerve. “I’m doing it because I know Jason likes you, and I’m hoping getting him jealous will make him act on it.”
She looked at him incredulously. He really expected her to believe that, didn’t he?
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
He grinned sheepishly, flashing his silver tooth.
“I didn’t think you’d play along.”
She pulled off her headphones, setting them next to the gun.
“When’d you come up with this little plan of yours?”
“A while ago,” he took off his headphones as well, looking down at them as he talked. “We were working on something and he let it slip. I knew he wouldn’t do anything about it so I…decided to help him out.”
Lena continued to stare at him, making him squirm.
“And I’m pretty sure Autumn already told you this,” he went on. “But J doesn’t really trust girls, and it all started with his sister. She and their brother almost killed him.”
Her jaw dropped; she blinked several times, shaking her head as his words sunk in.
“W-W-What?” she could barely form the word. “D-Didn’t anyone do anything? How long did it go on for?”
He only sighed heavily, giving a small shrug.
“No one really knows,” he said sadly. “And everyone was too terrified of them. They disappeared years ago, and to this day no one knows where they went.”
His phone went off just as he finished, the obnoxious chirp bouncing off the concrete-coated walls. He pulled it from his pocket, his eyes widening when he saw the number.
“Uh…gotta take this, Be right back.”
He hurried outside, glancing behind him to make sure she hadn’t followed him.
“You’re cutting it pretty close,” he hissed, annoyance clear in his tone. “She’s already here.”
“I don’t care about that,” the person snapped. Their voice was heavily distorted, just like always. “What I want to know is if she’s catching on.”
He thought back to every conversation he’d had with Lena, trying to remember if she’d ever acted strangely toward him. Pissed off or laughing, maybe, but she’d never acted like she was aware he was hiding something.
“I don’t think so,” he started. “She doesn’t seem suspicious of anything, at least.”
“Good, keep it that way,” the person laughed, sending chills down Chad’s spine. God, was that a creepy noise! “We don’t want her spoiling our little game just yet.”
“What about him?” he bit his lip, knowing how much trouble he could get in to just for mentioning it. “You know he’s bound to catch on sooner or later.”
“Leave him to me,” they were serious again, every trace of laughter gone. “You just take care of the girl.”
He opened his mouth to answer, then closed it, suddenly feeling unsure. Was this really the right way to go about things? Most likely not, but it was the only way they could go about it, if they expected to fix anything. He swallowed.
The line clicked. He brought his hand down, staring at his phone. In all the time he’d done this, he’d never known things to move along this quickly. Was it possible someone else was involved?
Whatever, he shook his head, shoving his phone back in his pocket. Doubt was a luxury he hadn’t been able to afford foe years, especially now that the stakes were sky-high. I already have my role, that’s all I need to worry about.
Jason sat on the bleachers, using his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. His PE class was nearing the end of their basketball unit, and was currently in the middle of a full-court game. Chad came by after another quarter, looking even more smug than usual.
“You might as well give up,” he sat a row higher, his old, torn-up sneakers barely an inch from Jason’s face. “That hottie’s good as mine.”
He stood, turning away. The stink of Chad’s shoes had always made him feel sick, and now was no exception. Chad chuckled, jumping to the floor.
“You think you still got a shot?” he asked arrogantly. “You haven’t even made a move on her yet!”
Jason rolled his eyes, crossing his arms.
“Doesn’t mean she’s desperate enough to date you.”
Chad smirked. He’d likely get his ass kicked for this, but if it meant helping his friend out, then it was worth it.
“I know what your problem is,” he came up behind Jason, lowering his voice. “Chickenshit.”
Jason tensed, barely turning his head.
“What did you call me?” his voice was low, deathly calm. Even Eric, as much as they loathed each other, had never been stupid enough to go that far with him.
“You heard me,” Chad spoke slowly. He could feel the stares of the rest of the class on his back, hear the edges of their excited whispering. “Chicken…shit.”
Jason whirled, grabbing the blonde’s shirt. Chad gulped, knowing he was a dead man.
“No one calls me that,” Jason growled softly. “And gets away with it.”
“You don’t have the balls,” he did his best to sound taunting, hearing his voice shake beneath it. Jason glared at him a moment longer, then unexpectedly shoved him away.
“I won’t waste my time,” he muttered. On impulse, Chad grabbed the basketball rolling past his feet, throwing it as hard as he could at Jason’s face. Jason grunted in pain, a hand flying to his nose. The anger in his gaze had been replaced with surprise. “What the hell, man?!”
“You’ve been top dog for too long,” Chad caught the ball when it bounced back to him, then tossed it aside. He wasn’t sure where the anger in his voice had come from, but he was glad for it. “It’s time you gave it up.”
Jason stared at him, bringing his hand down. His nose wasn’t bleeding, not yet, at least, but there was a good chance he’d have quite the black eye later.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Chad’s expression darkened. Without warning, he slammed his fist into Jason’s eye. Jason staggered back, then shook his head. His eyes blazing, he swiftly returned the blow, a low thud resounding as Chad hit the floor.
“You wouldn’t believe how much I liked doing that,” Jason said now. He’d just finished a week of detention for the fight. Chad, as usual, had gotten off scot-free. Lena gulped, thankful he was on her side. What on earth had Chad been thinking?
“W-What happened next?” she asked quietly. He shrugged.
“Walked out, didn’t look back.”
Ty groaned. It had always amazed him that Chad and Jason were friends, with how much they butted heads. He stopped to pick up some trash, catching movement from the corner of his eye. He shrugged it off as a trick of the light, rushing to catch up with his friends.
Tucked against the side of a bank of lockers, Alex waited a moment before sighing in relief. She hurried outside, cutting through the parking lot on her way to the football field. Heather was leading the cheer squad through their routines for the next game, a collection of moves that would probably make any straight man forget said game was even happening.
“Stephanie!” Alex waved excitedly to the older girl. She was sitting on the sidelines with a sketchpad in her lap, no doubt engrossed in another of her little ‘masterpieces’. Though Stephanie was one of the best artists in school, most of her work made people feel like they’d just walked into a nightmare. She barely glanced up when Alex jogged over.
“Did you find them?” she asked. Alex nodded.
“Yeah, I followed them just like you told me to.”
“What’d you hear?” Stephanie dipped her brush in the small ink pot sitting next to her. “Don’t leave anything out!”
Alex sat in front of her, trying to keep her eyes off the picture. It showed a heavily shadowed rose in a field of vines, its thorns inverted so they cut into the stem. She went through everything she’d witnessed the last week, all the while watching as Stephanie’s brush gradually slowed to a stop. Only then did she fully lift her head, her expression one of complete disbelief.
“You sure he said all that?” she asked. Alex nodded.
“But that’s not even the worst of it,” she went on. “He even asked her to his grandmother’s charity thing next Saturday.”
The brush clattered on the page, ink splashing across the picture like black blood. Alex swallowed, inching back as Stephanie’s fist tightened, as her eyes began burning with utter hatred.
“That…little…bitch,” she growled through clenched teeth. “Who does she think she is?!”
Alex watched as she fumed, brightening slightly when she remembered the idea that had popped in her head that morning. It just might work.
“Um, Stephanie? I-I know I shouldn’t really say anything,” she cringed when the girl turned to glare at her. “A-And I know you already have a plan, but…”
“What is it?” Stephanie demanded. “Did you think of something?”
“Uh, kind of,” Alex rubbed the back of her neck. “B-But I’m not sure how good it is…”
She outlined what she had of the plan, surprised to see the wicked smile that took over Stephanie’s face. She laughed when Alex finished explaining, leaning forward and putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Alex,” she started gleefully. “I think you just moved yourself up a notch.”