Someone tapped quietly at the door. Lena rubbed her eyes. Had she dozed off again? Glancing at the clock hung over their unused fireplace, she was shocked to see it was already after midnight. Who could it possibly be this late? What if the noise woke Kara?
On the floor, her phone vibrated; she must have dropped it when she fell asleep. Kara had given it back to her that afternoon, saying she was going out of town in the morning and needed a way to keep track of her. There was a text message from Autumn, saying Lena had to meet her on the porch. There was something very important they needed to talk about.
Well, I’m awake, she messaged Autumn back, telling the girl she’d be out in a second. Might as well see what she wants.
She tiptoed to the door, flicking on the outside light as she looked through the peephole. A shivering girl stood outside, her head bowed, tendrils of auburn hair tumbling from her black hood.
“Autumn?” Lena pulled the door open, cringing at the faint squeak of the hinges. She grew more concerned when her friend didn’t answer, taking a step outside. The moment she did, a strong hand clamped over her mouth, the other grabbing her waist. The hooded girl lifted her head, showing her cruelly-smiling face had been painted to resemble a skeleton. The rest of her hair was stark black.
“Keep holding her,” she whispered loudly. She dug into the large front pocket of her sweatshirt, taking out several big cable ties. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
Lena struggled, grabbing her captor’s hands with both of hers, hoping she could somehow free her mouth long enough to scream. It only made them tighten their grip; they shoved their knee in her back, knocking the breath out of her. The girl grabbed her wrists, tying them quickly. She did the same with Lena’s ankles, all while trying to contain her gleeful laughter.
“Let’s get going,” she hissed when she’d finished. “I don’t want anyone seeing us.”
Lena gave a muffled shout when her feet left the ground, grunting as she was thrown over a thick shoulder. All the while, their hand remained firmly over her mouth, cutting off any chance she might have had to alert someone.
The pair brought her to a black car parked before the empty house next door, shoving her in the back before getting in themselves. The skeleton girl adjusted the rearview mirror, glaring at their captive as she started the near-silent engine. Her eyes burned with such hatred, Lena was surprised she didn’t burst into flames.
“Put her out,” she pulled away from the curb. “And make sure I can’t see her ugly face.”
Lena turned to the person next to her, catching glimpses of their face whenever they passed under a streetlight. It was painted half zombie and half dragon, as though they hadn’t been able to choose just one. They parted their fingers enough to force a straw past her lips, flashing a dark, arrogant grin.
“Be a good girl and drink it all,” they said quietly. “Or else.”
Lena didn’t need any more convincing. She gulped down the warm, salty liquid as fast as she could, choking on the last few sips. They laughed, putting an arm around her after letting the bottle fall to the floor. They leaned close, their hot breath hitting her ear
“Hope you’re ready,” they whispered. “Because you and I are about to have a lot of fun…”
Jason couldn’t believe Lena was still missing. It had been three days since he’d learned about it, since he’d come home to find the police waiting for him. They had questioned every aspect of his relationship with her, saying he was one of the last known people to have seen her alive. He still wasn’t sure if they saw him as a suspect or not.
He reached across the table, dragging the poster to him. He focused on the picture, on the beautiful girl with the sky smile, her emerald gaze focused on the ground. Her hair was a shining wave tossed over her shoulder. It was the same photo Lance had set as the lock screen on his phone, the same one he still had. The page slipped from his grasp, a small gasp coming when his phone vibrated. He pulled it from his pocket, seeing Chad’s number.
“We’ve probably combed the whole island by now,” he got right to the point. “Where could she freaking be?”
“I wish I knew,” Jason sighed. He couldn’t believe it was happening again. Things were supposed to be different this time!
“Hey, Lena’s nothing like Emily,” Chad snapped. It didn’t surprise him the blonde knew what he was thinking. “She wouldn’t do something like this on purpose!”
Jason had lost track of how many times he’d tried to convince himself that was true, but it was one thought that refused to stay in his head. The drama with Emily had only deepened the scars his brother and sister had given him, to the point he doubted they would ever fully heal.
“I can’t tell you to forget about Emily,” Chad sounded sympathetic, yet fed up at the same time. Jason allowed a small, hollow smile to touch his lips; forgetting her had long since proven impossible. “But I can tell you it’s okay to stop blaming yourself for it.”
“It’s not like I try to,” he leaned on the table. There was a short pause on Chad’s end of the line, the muffled sounds of a car and footsteps.
“Look, we’re on our way back to the woods,” he said. “We’ll swing by and get you.”
The line clicked off. Jason sighed again, letting his phone fall to the table. His head had been pounding since he’d woken up, sprawled on the couch with no memory of getting there.
Ugh, what the hell happened to me last night?
He grabbed a half-empty Sprite from the fridge, heading to the living room to wait for his friends. He watched the street through the long front window, seeing kids bundled up and playing in the slowly-melting snow with their parents or babysitters. Further down, he could see the opening to the cul-de-sac, imagining the large willow next to Fisherman’s Creek. Every year, the scene served as a reminder of the time, the family he could never get back.
Don’t think about it, he told himself harshly. If you get stuck again, you’ll never find Lena.
He crushed the plastic bottle in his fist. Staying focused was the only way he’d find her, and that meant forgetting the past, keeping the memories locked up where he couldn’t reach them. At least for now.
It’s for the best, he said to himself. She’s all that matters now.
He took a last look out the window, seeing a red SUV pull into the driveway. He started for the door, fear taking hold when he saw his hand start to tremble. The bottle fell to the floor as a searing pain ripped through him; he doubled over, clutching his stomach.
God, no, he thought. No, not this again!
Loud, hoarse coughs rattled his chest, a hand flying to his mouth as a violent burning leapt up his throat. He brought his hand away, revealing a vibrant red stain on a palm slick with sweat. Blood ran from his lips, the knock at the door a deafening echo. His vision blurred, the world fading as the door flew open.
Faintly, Jason heard himself groan, wondering if someone had hammered burning needles into his skull. A bitter taste lingered at the back of his throat, rough as sandpaper. He could feel a dried stream at the corner of his mouth, his whole body rigid. Slowly, he opened his burning eyes, hating how long it took his vision to clear.
“What…happened?” his voice was weak and quiet; he wished he could say he barely recognized it. A young woman with blonde hair and brown eyes leaned over him, Kelly. She bent down, grabbing the damp compress that had fallen from his forehead.
“We found you unconscious,” she said softly. “It’s been two hours.”
He sat up, shrugging her hands away when she tried to push him back down.
It felt like seconds had passed. Had it really been that long? She nodded.
“We knew something was wrong when we heard the crash.”
“What’re you talking about?” he asked. “What crash?”
She motioned toward a small pile of shattered porcelain, a recreation of a famous statue Jason’s mother had bought on his family’s last trip to Italy. Just a few weeks before the accident.
“What are you doing here?” he turned back to her.
“Don’t you remember?” she pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket, a copy of the missing persons poster he’d been looking at earlier. “Lena’s still missing. Everyone else has already gone ahead to look for her.”
Jason scratched his wrist, noting a small cut. The weight of fear and unease settled back in his stomach, making him even more nauseous. He stood quickly, fighting back a wave of dizziness.
“You shouldn’t be up yet,” she cautioned him. “You still need to-”
“I need to help find her,” he turned toward the door, grabbing his head and pressing a hand to the wall. She glared at him.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she said sternly. “You need to be more careful about this, Jason. Don’t you remember what happened last time?”
He just looked at her.
“You were in the ICU for two weeks. Do you really want to go through that again?”
“I-I don’t care,” he managed. The dizziness won out, forcing him to his knees. It had been almost two months since the last fit; he’d hoped he was finally in the clear. How much longer would he have to endure this? “I just hate…feeling useless like this.”
“Oh, Jason,” she knelt next to him. “You’re not useless, but you can’t keep pushing yourself like this.”
“But what about Lena?” he sounded desperate. “I have to help find her…”
“And we will,” she brought them both to their feet, leading him to the couch. “But only after you’ve gotten some rest.”
He sighed, lying down again. She put the compress back in place, smiling slightly when he closed his eyes.
“Just a few hours,” she assured him. “Then we can help look for her.”
Jason was starting to regret the decision to go out on his own. Kelly had kept her promise, driving him to the forest after he’d slept a few more hours. The only down side was it was near sunset when they arrived, the rest of the group already deep in their search. He’d texted their friends, saying whoever found Lena first would have to message the others. What he hadn’t planned on was his flashlight dying shortly after he’d gotten started, leaving him nearly blind as he made his way through the wood.
The only thing on his mind was Lena, what could’ve happened to her. Would she be alright when they found her? Would she even still be alive? The images flashing through his mind only worried him more; shots of her chained to a filthy wall, cold and alone. Of her lying abused and bloodied in a rain-soaked ditch. He gulped.
She’s still alive, he tried to assure himself. She has to be…
He stopped, leaning against an old oak tree. An old memory had forced itself to the front, brought on by the sight of the large knothole at the base. The wind had been howling that day, rain coming down in sheets. He’d wandered too far from home, crawling inside to take shelter from the storm. Shaking from the cold and hugging himself as he wept in fear. He’d ben eight, released the week before from the hospital.
He pounded the bark as anger coursed through him, the memories pushing him forward again. They flowed before his eyes, blinding him as he staggered along the dim path. He was unaware he’d started running until he tripped, falling to his knees in the ice-crusted soil. Tears mixed with the sweat dripping down his face, his gasps for breath intertwined with quiet sobs.
Men ain’t supposed to cry, his brother’s voice snapped at him. It means they’re pussies.
So what if I cry? Jason clenched a fist, hit it against the soil. Better than being empty.
He wiped his face, hearing a low sound, the dying echoes of a voice. He stood, following the calls to a long wound in the earth, barely wide enough for a man to crawl out of. It was a natural opening to the abandoned mine, now just a trap for unlucky forest creatures. Warm, dank air still rose from it, making him cough. He walked carefully around it, moving closer to what he hoped was the source of the noise. The full moon finally broke free of the cloud cover, lending its light to a sole figure huddled against a thick fallen trunk.
He hurried over to her, holding her tightly. His first thought was how cold she was, that she was clad in little more than her underwear. How long had she been exposed like that? He unzipped his jacket, draping it over her shoulders. Stiffly, she put her arms through the sleeves, her face tight with pain.
“J-Jason…” she was crying softly, her voice hoarse. She hugged him again, her whole body trembling. “T-T-Take me home…p-please…”
“I’m taking you to the hospital,” he gathered her up so she reclined in his arms, getting to his feet. “We have to make sure you’re okay.”
Jason had lost track of time since he and Lena had arrived at the hospital, lost in the disconnected details she’d murmured before succumbing to a fitful sleep. His clothes were covered in dried mud, his hair stuck to the back of his neck. He got up from his chair to pace, unable to keep still.
He’d use the last of his cell battery to text the gang, letting them know Lena was safe. He knew she didn’t need him anymore, that he could come back after she’d recovered, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to leave.
He stopped, seeing Dr. Khan by the reception desk. The aging man looked worried, a clipboard held tightly in his thick hands. He’d been the Vetra family’s doctor for as long as Jason could remember, possibly even longer. His thinning, white-streaked black hair was slicked back, his dark brown eyes as sharp as ever.
“How’s Lena?” Jason almost feared the answer. The doctor shook his head.
“Considering what she’s just been through, I’d say she’s doing very well,” he glanced at his clipboard. “She’s very dehydrated, has sustained several fractures to her wrist and ankle and developed quite the case of pneumonia.”
Jason knew from the man’s tone that he was holding something back, deciding it wasn’t worth worrying about, at least for now.
“Can I see her?”
To his surprise, Khan nodded, leading him back down the hall he’d come from. It was the same room he always ended up in, the white door adorned with a large purple flower.
“She’s resting comfortably now,” Khan motioned to the door’s small window. Lena was lying in the room’s sole bed, her wrist and ankle bound in red casts, her still-damp hair spread across the dirt-streaked pillow. Several IVs pierced her arm, supplying her with fluids and antibiotics. Jason hated how fragile she looked.
“You’ll have to stay out here until she wakes up,” Khan patted his shoulder. “Please try not to disturb the other patients.”
Jason nodded absently, waiting until the man had turned the corner before turning to the nurses’ station. He knew it wouldn’t be empty for long; he twisted the knob, slipping inside. The near-silence was deafening, the only sounds being the steady beep of her heart monitor and the faint rasp of her breath. He made his way to the chair on the other side of her bed, sagging into it. His thoughts drifted endlessly between her and the extra assignments waiting for him at home. The added work helped distract him, if just for a short while.
Thinking about the past won’t get you anywhere, he snapped at himself for the hundredth time that night. All it did was cloud his mind, made it impossible to think clearly. Yet no matter how hard he tried, the thoughts refused to stay silent.
He stood again, peeking past the shade on the other window. The sun was peeking over the horizon, a slim line of gold gilding the distant hills. He felt the smile on his lips fade as quickly as it had appeared, a soft moan drawing his attention back to the room. Lena had woken up, rubbing her eyes before looking around with a dazed expression.
“W-What happened?” she sat up slowly. “W-Where am I?”
“You don’t remember?” he sat down again. “I brought you to the hospital last night.”
She shook her head.
“The last thing I remember is climbing out of that pit,” she shivered, no doubt at the memory. “I don’t even know how long I was down there.”
She recognized the thoughtful look on his face, the way his eyes always narrowed when he was confused.
“I’m trying to figure out who’d want to do this to you,” he murmured, then sighed. “But I can’t think of anyone.”
“I won’t be much help,” she scooted closer to him, stopping when her IVs went taut. “Their faces were painted, I have no idea who they were.”
“Did you recognize anything about them?” he asked. She shook her head.
“I thought one of them sounded familiar, but I’m not sure I’d know them if I heard them again.”
She waited as he mulled it over, smoothing the oily swath of hair tossed over her shoulder.
“Looks like I’ll never find out what you had planned,” she said. He smiled slightly.
“I don’t care about that,” he brushed her bangs from her eyes. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”
She blushed, her gaze straying to his lips. Her heart was begging her to kiss him, her breath catching in her throat when his hand slipped to her cheek.
“One thing’s for sure,” his thumb smoothed over a small scrape on her cheek. “Even after all this, you’re still the cutest girl I’ve ever seen.”
His lips were barely an inch from hers. Her hand rose to cover his, the desire in his eyes fading at the contact. He pulled away, casting his gaze to the floor.
“I’m sorry, Lena,” he said quickly. “I…I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what?” she couldn’t believe it. What was going on with him? “Jason?”
“I can’t explain it,” it was only a partial lie. “I-I’ll see you at school.”
He left then, almost running into Kara. He nodded faintly, rushing past her. She hurried to the bed once he was gone, smacking Lena hard across the face.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she demanded. “I was nice enough to give your damn phone back and you’re not even smart enough to keep it with you!”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Lena held her stinging cheek. How had Kara even found out where she was? “I was kidnapped and dumped in the middle of nowhere!”
“You and your excuses,” Kara smacked her again. “Next time I call, you’d better answer, or you’ll be lucky to wake up the next day!”
She stormed out, shoving aside a shocked orderly on the way. Lena glared after her, clenching her sore jaw to keep from screaming.
Jason ran his hands through his hair, enjoying the rush of hot water on his skin. He’d gone straight home after leaving the hospital, passing out on the couch in front of Il palazzo di sangue, one of Italy’s goriest movies. He hadn’t noticed the title when he’d put it in, wanting only to forget what had happened that morning.
He’d tried so hard to act normal after what his siblings had done to him, until the incident with Emily. Ever since then, he’d kept his emotions locked away, afraid the pattern would just repeat itself.
Lena’s nothing like Emily.
He shut off the water, grabbing a towel. The damp air in the bathroom reminded him of the Bahamas, of swimming and surfing like he had nearly every summer he could remember. He recalled when he’d almost drowned, getting caught in a riptide while building a sandcastle near the shore. The next thing he’d known, he was coughing up salt water, lying on the deck of an unfamiliar motorboat. Four strangers had been watching over him, their faces worried.
“Are you okay?” a little girl asked. She was two years older than him, her short black hair in pigtails. He groaned, smiling weakly up at her.
“I think so,” he rubbed his throat. It felt like he’d swallowed sandpaper, after gargling a handful of rocks. “Where am I?”
“You’re on our boat,” said a boy. He was just a year older, his dark red hair cropped around his too-big ears. He held out a hand, helping him to his feet. “I’m Lance.”
He’d been weeks shy of his fourth birthday. His parents hadn’t noticed his absence until they’d returned to the docks the next morning. That had been a stab to the heart for him, since he’d still clung to the belief that they cared for him. He and Lance had been best friends ever since.
He finished drying off, tossing the towel aside and pulling on dark pajama pants. He picked up his comb, staring at his reflection. Thick, arrow-straight black hair, slanted black eyes, a dark tan marred by a life’s worth of scars.
They weren’t too bad on his face, a small one on his cheek from a fall, the newer line from stitches on his chin. Water dripped from his bangs, running over a mess of bite marks on his left shoulder. A rabid dog, one of many things in his life that had nearly killed him. Plenty more were scattered across his body, the most distinct burned in to the flesh just above his left hip.
A broken heart, a spear-headed serpent writhing through the cracks. His brother had tied him hand and foot to his bed, stuffing dirty socks in his mouth to muffle his screams. The reek of burnt skin had been overwhelming, his body numb from exhaustion.
I swear, Carson, he slammed the comb down, the bright orange plastic cracking when his fist tightened. When I find you, I’m gonna rip your fucking throat out.
He threw the comb away, gathering his clothes and dumping them by his door. He fell on his bed, grabbing his phone and going through his messages.
“You’re on thin ice,” it was the most recent one. “Either you take care of our problem, or I make sure the whole world knows what you really are. Think about it.”
As always, the number was blocked, the voice digitally garbled. Even so, he had a hunch the calls all came from the same person. They’d frightened him at first, now little more than an annoyance.
Whatever. He let out a long breath, deleting it like he had with the others. I’ll find them eventually.
Lena pulled out her history book, restlessly tapping the foot bound in a walking cast. It was her first day back since being released from the hospital; she couldn’t believe how happy she was to be in school.
“You’re doing well.”
She looked up. Jason was dressed in baggy black jeans, a tight red tank top and spotless white sneakers. His hair was visibly shorter, slightly messy like he’d just gotten out of bed. She licked her lips nervously, realizing he looked unbearably sexy.
“Uh, hey,” she smiled. “H-How’s it going?”
“I’ve been wondering about you,” he glanced to the side. “Listen, about what happened at the hospital-”
“Don’t worry about it,” she shut her locker with more force than needed. He was really choosing now to bring that up? “It’s fine.”
He walked with her, still looking unsure.
“What’ve I missed the last couple weeks?” she asked flatly.
“From what I’ve heard, a lot of review,” they stopped outside Ms. Conny’s room. “You sure everything’s okay?”
“I told you, it’s fine,” she looked up at him. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Lena,” he sounded disappointed. “You know I can tell when you’re lying.”
“It’s not a big deal,” she assured him, her voice still slightly harsh. “I’d tell you if something was wrong.”
She went in, leaving him in the hall. Guilt was biting at her, but she shoved it down.
He already saved my life, she thought. I can’t ask for more.
She tried to focus on the lesson, zoning out when she realized it was just review.
I really like him, she’d stopped trying to fight it a long time ago. But it won’t go anywhere. He’s been through too much already.
True, she didn’t know exactly what had happened to him, but the details she’d gathered so far revealed a hell that swallowed hers whole. She toyed with her pencil, jotting random things in her notebook to make it look like she was paying attention.
She finally remembered what had happened after she’d been abducted, the memories breaking free of the fog when she’d seen the two pink lines on that stick. Of all the things that could have happened, why did it have to be that? Why?
Maybe I should tell him, she thought. He looked pretty upset…but he’d probably hate me if I told him!
She buried her face in her arms, groaning softly.
What am I gonna do?
Coach Willis finished separating the girls, turning to Lena.
“Don’t want you messing up that leg anymore,” she jerked a thumb toward the bleachers. “Sione, you’re on the bench.”
Lena gave a sigh of relief. Her PE class was in the middle of their softball unit, one of few sports she couldn’t stand. She stretched out on the bottom row, at the tail end of a nap when a shadow passed over her, giving a small, forced laugh.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Better than running around in the mud,” she sat up. Jason sat next to her, wiping sweat from his forehead. The boys’ class was across the field, in the middle of their soccer unit. She turned away from him, not wanting him to catch the worried look in her eyes.
“You’ve barely looked at me all day,” he said. “What gives?”
“You were the one acting guilty this morning,” she reminded him. “And I already said I didn’t want to talk about it.”
He regarded her for a moment.
“You keep thinking about what happened, don’t you?” he asked simply. She scoffed.
“I’m just an open book to you, aren’t I?”
She got up, ready to leave when he grabbed her hand.
“You’ve been through a lot lately,” his grip tightened. “You don’t need to keep it bottled up.”
“I’m not bottling anything up,” she sat back down, her fingers curling around the edge of the bleacher. “Why can’t you leave it alone?”
He kept hold of her hand, his tone growing softer.
“Why can’t you let people worry about you?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” she stood again when the coach blew her whistle, signaling it was time to head inside.
“Look, I know you’re probably just trying to help and all,” she pulled her hand away, tears pricking her eyes as she did so. “But I really don’t want to be around you right now. I’m sorry.”
She hurried off before he could say anything. She knew he was staring at her, knew he was wondering what he could’ve done to upset her.
There’s no other way, she told herself. He can’t find out about this, he just can’t!