Don’t tell me she’s watching that again…
Lance peaked into the living room. Every time he’d stayed at their dad’s the past month, Stephanie had been glued to the couch, watching the old news story she’d recorded on mute. Their mother was the local anchorwoman, covering everything from the weather to the recent murders. They’d been going on intermittently for years, yet no one had any idea who might’ve been behind them. In fact, they barely seemed to be trying to solve them at all.
He was about to leave when a picture flashed onscreen; Lena sitting in her hospital bed, smiling nervously, almost fearfully. The gorgeous woman hugging her copied the look, though there was something fake, almost sick about it. He’d seen the story before, back when it had first aired, his curiosity getting the better of him when Stephanie started talking to herself.
“I can’t believe this,” she clutched the pillow in her lap, holding it tightly to her chest. “How the hell could he do this to me?”
Silently, Lance moved closer to her, careful to stay out of sight.
“Falling in that pit should’ve killed her,” she went on, nearly rocking back and forth. “I told them to make sure she was dead. I can’t believe this!”
Can’t believe what? He stopped behind the couch. What’s she going on about?
“Guess I’ll just have to take care of that little skank myself,” she reached for the side table, opening the drawer and taking out their father’s gun. Lance let his hand fall on her shoulder, his voice icy.
“Where you going with that gun, sis?”
“Uh, Dad asked me to clean it,” she said quickly. It was clear he’d startled her. “I-I was just gonna do it.”
“Hm, he always asked me to do that,” he kept up the charade. Did she really think she could fool him? “Why would he suddenly ask you?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged off his hand, moving away from him. “Maybe you just don’t do it well enough.”
He quickly rounded the sofa, effectively trapping her in the living room.
“You sure seem interested in that,” he glanced at the television. The image had changed to a shot of damage from a minor flood at the library. “Question is, why?”
“Oh, uh, just a current event,” she said lamely. “For government.”
He chuckled meanly, stepping closer to her.
“You know I don’t believe that,” he snatched the gun from her grasp, his dark smirk widening when he saw her hands were starting to shake. He threw it in their grandmother’s oversized knitting basket, out of her reach unless she managed to get past him. “What are you planning?”
He was surprised to see the fear drain from her eyes, replaced with a rage worse than he had ever seen from her.
“I’m going to kill that bitch,” she shouted. “She ruined my life!”
Before she could blink, his hands were wrapped around her neck, his eyes blazing as he forced her back against the wall.
“She hasn’t done anything to you,” he snapped angrily. She clawed helplessly at his wrists, drawing thin lines of blood. He ignored the sting, a cruel smile forming on his lips. “You’re just a pathetic, jealous little-”
His words were drowned out by her scream, a sharp pain shooting along his arm. He released her, staring at the small handle protruding from his bicep. A knife? Where the hell had that come from?
He grabbed her hair when she tried to slip past him, her yell choking itself out when he slammed his fist into her back. She collapsed, breathless, to the floor; he placed a boot on her spine to keep her there.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he growled. “Not until you tell me what the hell you did to Lena!”
Stephanie squirmed beneath him, glaring at him as best she could.
“I didn’t do anything,” she gasped. “Eric called me after he dumped her in that stupid pit, saying how good it felt to fuck her!”
He stared at her, the ticking of the clock unusually loud as he took her wrists, yanking her to her feet.
“You know I don’t believe that,” he hissed in her ear. She glowered at him over her shoulder, her eyes filling with fear again when she saw the blood running along his other arm. She opened her mouth to speak, to beg, unprepared for the blow that knocked her out cold.
Stephanie shivered, a hand going to hide her burning eyes from the blinding fluorescent lights.
Ugh, where am I? What the hell happened?
She sat up, disgusted to see the narrow, lumpy mattress beneath her. The concrete walls were chipped, scratched and scribbled on, a record of all those who had been there before her. She rose to her knees, looking out the tiny room’s sole window, secured with black bars and metal grating.
The view offered a wide, muddy yard scattered with dirty clumps of melting snow. The whole of the high gray wall was embedded with colorful shards of broken glass, crowned with several curling black strands of razor wire. At the far end of the yard was the slightest glimpse of a corner watch tower.
“Bet you never thought you’d end up here, huh?”
She turned, seeing Lance standing beyond another set of bars. Behind him stood a cell identical to her own, the bright orange-clad occupant slumped motionlessly against the wall. Stephanie sat down on the edge of her bed, crossing her arms and glaring at her little brother.
“What am I doing here?” she demanded bluntly. He laughed.
“I dragged your ass here,” he returned flatly. A white gauze bandage was wrapped tightly around his upper arm, a bright spot of blood at the center. He shoved his hands in his pockets, glaring back at her with narrowed, hateful eyes.
“Why?” she asked. “What did I do?”
“How about being a pain in my ass, for starters?”
She looked at him.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
He gave a small laugh, a hand slipping behind his back.
“I called Eric,” he said casually. “He sold you out.”
She gasped sharply.
“What?! That coward!” she pounded the thin mattress. “How could he do that to me?!”
Lance smiled to himself. This was exactly what he had been hoping for.
“I said he’d join her in that fucking pit if he squealed,” Stephanie went on, her voice rising. “And now I’m stuck in this shithole!”
He cocked a brow.
“I thought you had nothing to do with it?”
“Of course I did,” she faced him fully. “That slut ruined my life, she deserved everything she got!”
Lance couldn’t stand the pride in her voice, her self-righteousness making his stomach twist. He’d always known she was crazy, but hearing it like this, the lengths she’d go to to get what she thought she deserved, made him utterly sick. He listened as she detailed every phase of the plan, never once showing even an ounce of remorse.
“How much longer am I gonna be stuck here?” she asked when she’d finished. “I have to help set up the art show at school tomorrow!”
He chuckled again, bringing out their mother’s voice recorder. He’d used it to capture everything she had said.
“With any luck, you’ll be stuck here for the rest of your life.”
Luca drummed his fingers impatiently on the minivan’s hood, glaring at Jason’s sneakers. As diligent a worker as the boy was, there were times he got too wrapped up in it.
“Jason,” he called again, exasperated. “Get your culo out here!”
Several more minutes passed before Jason rolled out from under the van, his faded blue coveralls splashed with oil and grease. He wiped his hands on a stained, ratty towel before pulling out his earbuds, looking sheepish when he saw his uncle scowling down at him.
“Uh, hey, zio,” he got to his feet, making a half-hearted effort to clean himself off. It was then he noticed Lance standing behind the man, somehow managing to look nonchalant and terrified. “What’s going on?”
Luca gripped his shoulder, patting it twice before letting go.
“You’re on break, he said softly, walking away before Jason could question it. Something in his uncle’s touch had instantly made him wary, a rare, underlying fear in the man’s calm words.
“What’s going on?” he turned to Lance, who swallowed nervously.
“I-It’s about Lena,” he nodded toward Luca’s office. They went inside, shutting the door behind them. He set his backpack on the man’s desk, taking his phone from the front pocket. He’d made a copy of the recording before handing it over to the police. “I found out who kidnapped her.”
“I called Eric,” the recording was quiet and a little grainy, but clear enough. “He sold you out.”
“What?! That coward!” Stephanie’s enraged screech was unmistakeable. “How could he do that to me?!”
Lance watched Jason’s jaw tighten as the recording went on, the rest of his body following suit. He shut it off before it finished, knowing Jason got the idea.
“Where is she?” he demanded. Lance swallowed again.
“I-In a cell,” he rubbed the bandage on his arm. He had forgotten how frightening Jason could be when he was angry. “I-I caught her watching the news story and mumbling about it. When I confronted her, she stabbed me.”
He couldn’t believe they hadn’t made the connection sooner. Who had a reason to pull this stunt besides Stephanie? She was also the only one he knew manipulative enough to get people to go along with it. He shivered slightly, remembering how cold she’d sounded. What had happened to the warm, caring girl he’d grown up with? What had caused her to change?
He looked up at a loud sigh, seeing Jason force himself to calm down, an act he sorely hoped he’d gotten better at. The memory of last time was still enough to bring him near pissing himself; how could one person have caused that much damage? Especially with the condition Jason had been in at the time? He shook his head, shoving the thought from his mind. He’d already had enough nightmares from dwelling on it.
“What about Eric?” Jason’s voice was quiet and burning, almost worse than when he let his anger through.
“I knew you’d want to deal with him first,” Lance tucked his phone in his backpack, pulling a plain wooden box from the largest pocket. “And I found this in Stephanie’s room. She must’ve kept it as some kind of trophy.”
Jason wiped his hands on the legs of his coveralls before taking it, peering inside. Lena’s name was carved crudely into the lid, where the red velvet lining had started peeling away from the lacquered wood.
“I’ll give it to Lena when I see her,” he set the box on his uncle’s desk. “Well, if I see her.”
“What do you mean?”
Jason shrugged, then his shoulders slumped.
“She said she couldn’t be around me, but she wouldn’t say why.”
“I’ll get Chad to talk to her,” Lance curled the strap of his still-open backpack over his shoulder. They shared their old handshake; he tightened his grip before letting go. “Kick that guy’s ass for her.”
“You can count on it.”
Eric plopped down on the small bench, wishing this was one of the days he’d decided to skip. His PE class had had to redo the president’s fitness test, Coach White saying most of them had failed it the first time. He took a long swig from his water bottle, glaring at the door, hearing the soft echo of chatter beyond it.
He took another drink before capping the metal bottle, dropping it in his backpack. He stood, tensing slightly when the lock clicked. Hadn’t he been alone just a second ago? Why hadn’t he heard anything before that? He turned, seeing Jason leaning against the door. The younger boy had his arms crossed, his face tilted toward the floor. He gave a dark chuckle, the sound sending a shiver down Eric’s spine.
“I thought you were low before,” he started quietly. He lifted his head, his face blank, his eyes blazing. “But this takes it to a whole new level.”
“W-What’re you talking about?” Eric cringed when he heard the stutter, taking a step back toward the lockers.
“Oh, you know what I’m talking about,” he crossed the room with slow, deliberate strides. “You thought you could get away with it, didn’t you?”
Eric tilted his head.
“Get away with what?”
Jason chuckled again, the sound still abnormally harsh. In a flash, he had two fistfuls of Eric’s shirt, the furious fire in his eyes growing even hotter.
“You. Raped. My. Girl.”
Eric tensed further, realization hitting him like a cold wave.
“N-No, I didn’t,” he shook his head, failing to pry Jason’s hands away. “I-I didn’t-!”
“Cut the bullshit!” Jason shoved him back against the lockers. “Stephanie sold you out, dumbass!”
Eric froze. Stephanie had given him up? No, it couldn’t be, she wouldn’t have done that! At the same time, he knew it couldn’t have happened any other way. Stephanie had never thought twice about passing the blame, if it meant protecting herself. He stopped fighting, letting his hand drop to his sides.
“S-She said she’d dump me if I didn’t agree to it,” he knew how pathetic it sounded, his dejected baby blue eyes falling from Jason’s burning black ones. “That, or she’d kill me.”
He felt Jason’s grip loosen the slightest bit. Was it possible the guy actually felt sorry for him?
“You enjoyed it, though, didn’t you?” his voice was quiet. Eric suddenly longed to tell him the truth, that he’d despised every second of it, feeling the twisted part of his brain take over.
“Bitch had no idea what she was doing,” was that laughter he heard in his voice? No! “It was like fucking a sixth grader.”
He lowered his voice, feeling his lips curl in a smug grin.
“She didn’t fight,” he went on slowly. “She let me screw her, almost like she wanted it.”
Jason’s jaw clenched, his gaze falling back to the floor.
“Shut up,” he muttered.
“It was weird,” Eric kept talking. Why wouldn’t he stop? “I could hear her screaming, begging me to keep hurting her like that.”
Jason’s jaw tightened further, the rest of his body following suit.
“You should’ve seen her when I finished,” Eric’s voice was even quieter. “Like she wanted more.”
“Shut up!” Jason threw him against the lockers again. The rage in his eyes was now clashing with desperation, fear. “Sh-She’s not like that!”
Eric looked on, feeling lower than dirt, still unable to stop himself.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“S-She wouldn’t do that,” Jason’s anger vanished entirely. He stepped away, letting Eric go. “She wouldn’t…”
He glanced up in time to see Eric’s fist, ducking beneath it. Eric’s eyes were clouded, his swift movements jerky and uncertain.
“I’m going to kill you,” he shouted. “That’s the only way to keep you from Stephanie!”
Jason jumped aside, hoping to avoid Eric’s next blow. It connected with his shoulder, sending pain shooting down his arm.
“What are you talking about?” he got in a sharp jab to Eric’s chin, followed by one to his gut. “I never touched her!”
“That’s not what she told me,” Eric grabbed his stomach, glaring at him through sweat-soaked brown hair. Jason easily sidestepped his next move, watching as the momentum sent him crashing into the lockers.
“Whatever she told you was a lie,” he said calmly. “That’s all she’s ever done!”
Eric staggered to his feet, a cynical laugh spilling past his lips. He ran forward again, Jason’s fist connecting neatly with his cheek.
“I didn’t want to hurt you,” he started flatly. “But it looks like the only way you’ll listen.”
He caught Eric’s wrist, twisting his arm so his hand was forced between his shoulder blades. Eric yelled in pain, his struggles only making Jason tighten his grip. Finally, the joint couldn’t take anymore, a wet pop cutting through the noise. He stumbled when Jason pushed him away, his eyes misting as he clutched the limb hanging uselessly at his side. Jason stared at hi with contempt in his eyes, pierced with the smallest shards of pity.
“Stephanie’s been using you right from the start,” he said harshly. “She never gave a shit about you.”
“I-Is that why she…” he trailed off, unable to finish. He didn’t want to believe it, that he was just a tool to the girl he loved, muscle to get what she really wanted. “She…”
“Lena doesn’t give in,” the ghost of a smile touched Jason’s lips. “That makes her a threat.”
Eric shrank away when he stepped closer, his wide eyes now utterly vacant. He knelt, cringing at the shout as he popped Eric’s arm back into place. It was hard to believe they’d almost been friends at one point, until Stephanie had come along and corrupted him. Just like everyone else she’d managed to sink her black claws in to. Eric looked away, his voice breaking.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m so sorry…”
“Lena’s the one you should really be saying that to,” Jason rose, going to the door. He paused after unlocking it, glancing at Eric over his shoulder. “And next time, pick your side more carefully.”
Lena’s ankle folded beneath her, sending her sprawling to the rough ground of the track. Chad jogged up to her, helping her to her feet. He noted the blood starting to leak down her shin, wincing at the large cut near her knee.
“That looks like it hurts.”
“I’m used to it,” Lena walked to the fence, plopping down against it before fixing her ponytail. “It’s pretty much why I never did track.”
“You just need some practice,” Chad sat next to her, handing her a crumpled tissue from his pocket. “No one’s perfect the first time out.”
“Heh, speak for yourself,” she pressed the thin paper to her cut. From what she’d heard, he’d been a track and field star since sixth grade. “You don’t have lead feet.”
“It takes time,” he sat back, stretching his legs out. They were tanned, lean and muscular, just like the rest of him. Lena groaned.
“Patience is not one of my virtues,” she looked around. “You always come out here alone?”
“I do my best when I’m sure no one’s watching,” he flashed a smile, winking at her. “Less chance of a cute girl distracting me.”
She blushed, giggling shyly. He could actually be pretty charming if he tried.
“What got you started on it?”
He thought about it, ruffling his hair.
“I don’t really know,” he said at last. “But it sure beats that lacrosse crap Jason does.”
Lena moved to a clean spot on the tissue, watching as the pale pink paper was stained crimson. She’d joined the gang at several of the lacrosse team’s home games, marveling at the speed and skill Jason showed on the field. It also amazed her how aggressive he was, he was usually so sweet and gentle.
“I never took him for that kind of guy,” she mused aloud.
“Most people don’t,” Chad shifted, scratching his shoulder. “He usually hates it when people see him like that.”
She looked at him.
“He gets pretty scary when he’s pissed off,” he shuddered lightly. “But it takes a lot for him to get to that point.”
She stared at her ankle, then her wrist. Nearly two months had passed since they’d healed; just the thought of that night still gave her nightmares. She felt his gaze on her, turning to see his face had hardened, his eyes narrowed.
“Keeping it to yourself won’t help anything,” he said shortly. “You need to tell someone.”
She shook her head, whipping him in the face with her ponytail.
“No,” her voice cracked. “I can’t.”
She shook her head again.
“Because…B-Because…” she choked, her lip quivering. “It would just make things worse!”
She leapt to her feet, barely making it to the gate when he grabbed her hand, stopping her cold.
“Lena, you’re not making sense,” he closed the distance between them. “What would make things worse?”
He watched as a tear trailed down her cheek, as she finally let herself cry. She sank back to her knees, covering her face with her free hand, her nails biting into his palm. He knelt behind her, surprised when she spun, gripping his thin black jacket and sobbing into his chest. He wrapped his arms tightly around her, the part of his heart that craved her soaring while the rest sank.
“I-I can’t tell Jason,” her words were muffled. “I-I just can’t!”
“Why not?” he took her shoulders, pulling her back to stare at her. “Lena, what are you talking about?”
She sniffled, taking several shaking breaths before blurting it out.
“Because…Because I’m pregnant!”
Eric stopped short, turning back toward the track. He’d cut through the baseball field on his way home, hoping to find the water bottle he’d left there after PE. Now the bottle dropped from his hand, the loosened lid popping off and rolling away. Cold water splashed his sandal, ignored as he tried to process Lena’s words. Had he really just heard her right?
That’s crazy, he took a step back. How was that possible? He’d taken every precaution in the book! This can’t be happening!
His water bottle forgotten, he whirled, sprinting away before he could hear more. Stephanie would kill him for this, he just knew it. Things weren’t supposed to have happened this way! He ran until the school was out of sight, sweat stinging his eyes as he stumbled to a stop, fighting to catch his breath.
It’s mine, he thought, horrified. Oh, God, I know it is!
As if what he’d put Lena through hadn’t been enough, now she had this to deal with. It was so unfair, she didn’t deserve any of it!
Then why’d you agree to do it?
The question stopped him cold. Why had he agreed? Because of his feelings for Stephanie? Because she’d threatened to end his own miserable life if he hadn’t? Every reason that came to mind just made him feel sicker, like the scum he knew he was. There had to be some way to fix this, he thought frantically, there just had to be.
But what? What?!
He thought back to his fight with Jason. They’d known each other since they were little, and in all that time, he couldn’t remember ever seeing him that angry. It had terrified him, still terrified him. He grabbed his shoulder, fresh fear washing over him. Jason would do far worse when he found out, and he’d deserve every second of it.
I’m sorry, Lena, I’m so sorry, he gulped. I’ll find a way to make it up to you, I promise.
Lena shied away from Chad after her admission, fearing his reaction. He stared blankly at her, then shook his head.
“A-Are you sure?” he asked haltingly. She nodded, still keeping her distance. When he didn’t say anything, she glanced up, seeing he was no longer looking at her. Eventually, she broke the silence, unable to bear it.
“Well?” she questioned. “What are you thinking?”
“I…don’t really know what to say,” he blew out a breath. “Have you told anyone else?”
“No,” she brought her knees to her chest. “I don’t want anyone else to know.”
“If I told Lance or Autumn, the whole town would know overnight. Ty wouldn’t know what to think and Jason would…” she trailed off, crying again as she buried her face in her arms. “Jason would probably hate me!”
Chad gawked at her.
“What the hell gave you that idea?”
“What other reaction could he have?” she glared tearfully at him. “It’s my fault it happened!”
“Did you agree to go with them?” he asked. She sniffed, wiping her eyes.
And did you ask for what happened to you?” he went on.
“‘But’ nothing,” he gripped her arms. “You didn’t ask for it, so how is any of it your fault?”
She stared at him, then buried her face in his chest again. Knowing her, she’d kept it bottled up from the start. He hugged her tightly, waiting until she’d cried herself out before speaking again.
“None of this is your fault,” he said softly. He tilted her chin back. “The only guilty ones are the assholes who did this to you.”
“Y-You really think so?”
“I know it,” he ran a thumb over her wet cheek. She looked faintly hopeful now, the sight making him smile. Without thinking, he leaned forward, kissing her gently. She jerked back, looking stunned.
“Chad, what,” she faltered. “What was that?”
“I know you and J are into each other,” he said. A hint of red touched his face. “But I really like you, too.”
He moved to kiss her again, surprised when she returned it. Her hand slipped to the back of his neck, her fingers slipping through his short hair. He froze when she licked his bottom lip, taking her shoulder and pushing her back.
“You sure you don’t want to talk about what happened?” he asked. She shook her head, the hurt plain in her eyes.
“No,” she got to her feet, her fists clenching before falling limp. “I want to forget it happened.”
She jogged away, the bloodied tissue falling forgotten to the track. He watched her go, telling himself over and over what an idiot he was.
“You know, ignoring him’s a pretty crappy thing to do.”
Autumn glared down at Lena, her face a mask of annoyance. Lena shrugged, turning the page in her math book. Autumn had called her earlier that evening, asking if she wanted to come over for a study party. She was starting to regret agreeing to it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said shortly. Autumn sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“You haven’t looked at Jason in weeks,” she shoved the book aside. “I want to know why.”
Lena pushed herself up, crossing her legs. She pulled out her pale yellow scrunchie, smoothing down her ponytail before putting it in again.
“He’s just been a jerk.”
Autumn gaped at her.
“How can you say that?” she asked. “He pretty much saved your life!”
“I know that,” she fingered her bracelet. It was another piece of her mother’s, a delicate gold chain with a beautifully engraved nameplate. “It’s just…when I think about him now, I feel…guilty.”
Autumn laid across the foot of the bed, her purple pajama top riding up slightly.
“Why?” she asked. “Because you made out with Chad?”
Lena blanched, her pencil plopping to the pillow she’d been laying on.
“H-How’d you find out about that?!”
“Please,” Autumn rolled her eyes, turning on her back and reaching over the footboard. She pulled up a stuffed rabbit with short ears, setting the toy on her stomach. “He’s liked you since day one. You really think he’d be able to keep something like that to himself?”
Lena sighed, smiling slightly when Autumn’s kitten jumped into her lap, curling into a tiny, fluffy white ball.
“I guess you’re right,” she picked at a loose thread on the pink and white striped comforter. “But I just…can’t stop thinking about what Eric did to me…”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Autumn said sternly, sitting up. Her stuffed rabbit tumbled back to the floor. “You didn’t ask him to do that to you!”
“Chad said the same thing,” she stroked the ball of fur in her lap, trying to take comfort in the kitten’s soft purring. She could feel Autumn’s eyes on her, cringing when she felt tears sting her own. “I don’t know why I can’t get that through my thick head.”
“I don’t really know, either,” Autumn shifted to face her, copying her position. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It kind of does,” Lena started absently, then snapped her mouth shut. Autumn stared at her, tilting her head.
“What do you mean?”
“N-Nothing,” Lena stammered. She stroked the kitten a bit more quickly. “N-Never mind!”
The kitten squirmed out of her lap, scampering across the bed before settling on one of Autumn’s pillows. Autumn stared levelly at Lena, succeeding in completely unnerving her. She shivered, rubbing her arms.
“I don’t know what to do.”
Autumn rolled her eyes again, tucking her hands beneath her.
“The first thing you should do is tell Jason why you’ve been avoiding him,” her look softened. “He cares about you, Lena, just like we do.”
“How could he once he finds out? He’ll probably-”
“Kick Eric’s ass again,” she grinned slightly. “And this time, Ty and I’ll record it.”
“Wait, he did what?”
“Lance told Jason what happened,” she clarified. “How he got Stephanie to admit she and Eric were involved in the whole thing.”
She hated the conflicted look that passed across Lena’s face, that the spark of hope in her eyes vanished the moment it appeared. Lena toyed with her bracelet again, tracing the letters of her mother’s name with her finger nail.
“Y-You really think I should tell him?” she asked, barely looking up.
“Yes,” Autumn nodded. “He’ll be in the music room during lunch tomorrow, you can do it then.”
“O-Okay,” Lena still sounded unsure. She swallowed. “Guess I will.”
Jason had lost track of how many times he’d checked his phone. Ty had texted him before school, saying to meet him in the music room during lunch. It was almost time for sixth period now, where was he?
Least this isn’t a complete waste of time, he tightened another string on his guitar. It had sounded off all week. What’s going on with this thing?
He looked up when the door opened, surprised to see Lena. She ducked back slightly when she noticed him, then slipped through, the door falling shut.
“Hey, Lena,” he strummed another chord; it still didn’t sound quite right. “Everything okay?”
“Oh, h-hey, Jason,” she walked toward him, stopping a few feet away. “H-How’s it going?”
“Fine,” he glanced at her again. What was she so nervous about? “What’s up with you?”
“Oh, n-nothing,” she pushed back some of her hair. Her eyes strayed everywhere but him, her teeth worrying her lower lip. “Um…what’re you doing in here?”
“Ty wanted me to meet him here,” a note of suspicion entered his tone. “But I don’t think he’s coming.”
She fidgeted a moment longer, then her shoulders slumped, her hands falling to her sides. She sighed heavily.
“That’s because Ty didn’t text you,” she admitted. “Autumn did. She wanted me to talk to you.”
“Well,” she gulped, clinching her eyes shut. When she spoke again, her words came in a rush, so quiet he could barely hear them. “Jason, I was pregnant.”
The last string snapped when he tightened it too much, whipping his hand. He ignored the sting, his wide eyes locked on her.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She gulped again, shying further away from him.
“I-It was after midnight,” she started. “Autumn texted me, saying she needed help. But when I opened the door, it wasn’t her.”
“Autumn?” Lena pulled the door open, cringing when the hinges squeaked slightly. She grew more concerned when her friend didn’t answer, taking a step outside. The moment she did, a strong hand clamped out 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.”
“They drugged me on the way there,” Lena went on. “I don’t know where we went, but they said no one could hear me.”
She grunted as she was thrown over that hard shoulder again. Now barely conscious, she was only vaguely aware of her surroundings, her fading sensations centered on a sharp, constant pain…somewhere.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun,” the deep vibrations of a laugh. “And the best part is we can be as loud as we want.”
She bounced against their back, the creek of stairs echoing. The last thing she knew, she’d been thrown on something soft, the blurred light above flickering before flashing out.
“By the time I woke up, I was already in that pit,” she finished. “I must’ve broken my wrist when I climbed out. I don’t know how long I;d been wandering around when you found me…”
Jason set his guitar aside, getting up and going to her. He took her hand, leading her back to the row of chairs.
“It sounds like you still haven’t told me everything,” he let her sit before doing so himself. “What else happened?”
It didn’t surprise him when she started crying; it actually amazed him she hadn’t started sooner. She curled up against his side, her tears soaking his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Jason,” she said brokenly. “I’m so sorry!”
“Hey, hey,” he draped an arm around her, his tone soft and comforting. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for-”
“Yes, I do!” her head shot up. “I was going to have the baby, Jason! How can you not be pissed about that?!”
“It didn’t have anything to do with me,” he brushed her bangs aside. “It was your choice.”
That was when it hit him.
“But you said ‘was’. What happened?”
Her eyes widened. She started sobbing into his shirt again, her words barely audible.
Someone grabbed her shoulder from behind. She jumped, recognizing the strong grip. She turned, seeing Eric towering over her. His pale blue eyes were clouded, his jaw tight. He bent down, his lips almost touching her ear.
“I won’t make you go through with it,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
He led her to the stairs, then pushed her. The boot and cast made it impossible to catch her balance, the only thing that stopped her was a bodyslam against the wall. Several of the kids in the hall started laughing, a pair of girls grabbing her arms as she struggled to get to her feet.
They shoved her, sending her tumbling again. She crashed to the floor, her eyes burning as she fought to hold back tears. One of the girls on the landing pointed, laughing even harder.
“Oh, my God, look!”
A dark stain was spreading quickly along the front of her jeans, the warmth and faint smell telling her exactly what it was.
Lena cast her gaze to the floor, her fingers tightening on his shirt. His whole body had gone taut, a drawn bow string ready to snap.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” she whispered.
“It’s not you I’m pissed at,” he answered, his voice not much louder. That same instant, the tension left him, air from pricked balloon. “It’s everyone else in this place.”
He ran a hand through her hair again, letting it trail to her damp cheek. The fear was still there, though now mixed with relief. He almost smiled, the look fading before it touched his lips.
“I know this doesn’t mean much now,” he said. “But if I’d known about this, I would’ve done anything to stop it.”
She swiped at fresh tears, her hand drifting to cover his. That familiar surge of panic rose again, but he pushed it back; it was time to let go. He leaned forward, brushing a light kiss against her forehead.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell me anything,” he went on softly. “I promise, I’ll always be here for you.”
She sniffled faintly, managing a small grin.
“It took me a while to believe that,” she said. “But I do now, and I’ll never forget it.”
She reached in her pocket, pulling out a glossy black watch. She clasped it around his wrist, holding his hand in both of hers.
“Thanks for saving me,” she was blushing now. “And for always being there for me.”
He smiled, wrapping his arms more tightly around her.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
What the hell’s wrong with me?
Jason slowed to a stop when the light changed, the engine’s purr dimmed by the thoughts whirling in his mind. He’d stayed late after his shift at his uncle’s restaurant again, enduring Valerio’s weekly speech about how he worked too hard for such a young man. Lacing the tired words with the wish his own sons had even half Jason’s work ethic. If Tino and Ricci weren’t wasting their time tripping over each other, they were wasting everyone else’s by pulling pranks.
Jason groaned, remembering the pizza dough incident. It had taken almost two weeks to get that mess cleaned up. He’d asked his uncle why he let those two get away with so much, a second floury explosion rocking the kitchen before he’d gotten an answer. Not that it would’ve been much of one, anyway.
Nothing’s more important than family, Jason, that’s what the old man always said. At the end, they’re all you have.
Pfft, yeah right. Jason sped off when the light changed again. The night was nearly pitch black, the only illumination besides the faint silver of stars being the occasional passing headlight. Family, my ass.
They had no idea what he had gone through, the memories he fought to bury. No matter how hard he tried, they kept clawing their way back to the surface, turning into nightmares he was sure would drive him insane. Some nights had him racing to his parents’ old bedroom, he’d never been able to clean it out, grabbing his father’s prized .45 and ramming it against his skull.
He could never find the courage to pull the trigger.
It didn’t take long to find where the hesitation came from: a promise he’d made them two days before their deaths. A promise that, no matter how bad things got in the future, he’d never give up. And a true Vetra never went back on their word, a principle that had been hammered in his head since birth.
They all broke their promises, he said to himself. But I’m too much of a coward to break the only one I made.
He shook his head, fighting to remember the good in his life, the people who’d miss him if he were gone. Only one face truly lessened the pain, a face he hadn’t even known existed until recently. Her deep, sparkling emerald eyes, the shy, sweet smile that took his breath away. It amazed him how quickly he’d fallen for her, how the mere mention of her name was enough to set his heart racing. Even so, he knew she could do better, that he wasn’t good enough to have her.
But I couldn’t tell her that.
Lost in his thoughts, he was blind to what occurred just a few yards ahead. A large black van swerved into his lane, the shattered headlights making it invisible.
Until it was too late.
Jason cracked open his burning eyes, wincing at the light shining into them. Beyond it, he could see the blurred face of a young nurse. Too slowly, his vision cleared, revealing Kelly, Dante’s fiancée. She smiled softly, flicking off her penlight and slipping it in her pocket.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” she stepped away when he sat up, her smile fading when he leaned back. His clothes were gone, replaced with a thin green hospital gown, his finger gripped in a gray pulse monitor. He groaned, holding his head.
“Ugh, what the hell happened to me?”
“You were in a car wreck,” she answered. “You’ve been out of it for most of the night.”
She glanced at the notes she’d scribbled on her clipboard.
“You came in with a moderate concussion and several hairline fractures to your left forearm and hand. Besides that, all you’re really looking at are some nasty cuts and bruises.”
Jason shifted his arm, looking down at the cast. It was dark blue, Kelly’s name sprawled across the back of his hand in silver sharpie. He touched his head again, feeling a line of stitches just under his hairline. Right, he remembered now…
He gasped, jerking the steering wheel to the right. The speeding van swerved at the last second, scraping the side of his car, providing just enough momentum to send him off the road. The steep embankment was even more slick from runoff, the breaks useless as he slammed sidelong into a young tree.
The narrow trunk snapped in half, the branches tearing through the canvas roof of the convertible. Faintly, Jason felt the blood running down the side of his face, the sharp pain in his arm, crushed between his side and the dented door. It wasn’t long before darkness took over.
“You woke up puking around midnight,” Kelly went on. “We gave you something to control the nausea and help you sleep.”
Jason looked back to the cast, remembering the last time he’d had one. He’d been eight, listening in as his father questioned the doctor about an amputation, thinking his shattered leg had been too damaged to save. Screws and bars had held the bones in place for months, the procedure leaving yet another scar he hid as much as he could.
Kelly finished taking out his IV, quickly bandaging the spot. He blinked, pinching the bridge of his nose. Whatever pain meds they’d given him were starting to wear off.
“Anyone know I’m here?” he asked. She nodded.
“I called Chelsea a while ago, she should still be in the waiting room. She also left that for you,” she pointed to the chair next to his bed. His backpack sat there, partially unzipped. “I need to check on some other patients now, but I should be back soon.”
He nodded absently, taking the bag and looking through it. The fresh memories from the crash had dredged up images of an older one, of the warm, clear summer night that had changed so much. Nearly seven years had passed since then, since the chief of police had knocked on his grandparents’ door, the woman solemn as she delivered the news. He’d spent the days before unable to sleep, thinking about the promise he’d made, the one he still couldn’t believe he’d been able to keep.
I can’t take much more of this, he tugged the shirt over his head, struggling briefly to get his cast through the sleeve. When is all this shit gonna end?
He stood to pull on his pants, hating wave of dizziness that washed over him, hoping this time it was just from the meds.
Wish they would tell me what’s going on…
He slid on his sandals, perking up when the door creaked softly open. A little girl stood in the doorway, Chad’s baby sister, Lilly, recovering from her second kidney transplant.
“Uncle Jason?” she rubbed one baby blue eye, her dark hair messy like she’d just woken up. “What’re you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” he went over, kneeling in front of her. “Why aren’t you with the other kids?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she yawned, her dark green teddy bear slipping from her grasp. He chuckled, watching as she slowly bent down and grabbed it.
“You look pretty tired to me,” he picked her up with his good arm; she was even lighter than she’d been before the surgery. “Does anyone know you’re here?”
She yawned again, her head slumping against his shoulder. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to wander around, he’d done more than his fair share of it at her age. What worried him was how weak she still was, even if she didn’t seem to notice.
“Will you read to me?” she sounded even sleepier. She and the other children loved it when he read to them. How he could become every character, make them all believe they really lived in the story’s world. He smiled.
She was sound asleep when they reached the children’s ward, much to the relief of the two nurses assigned there for the night. He watched as one tucked her into bed, wondering if he’d get to live long enough to do the same with his own kids.
Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Chelsea was waiting for him when he got to the main lobby, talking with a few of the orderlies. She smiled when she saw him, excusing herself from the conversation.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. He shrugged.
“Like shit, but I’ve been through worse.”
“Don’t I know it,” she gently touched the cut on his forehead. “C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”