The nights were finally getting warmer, the last remnants of slush and snow fading as fresh buds sprouted on the bare branches. A half-moon rode high in a star-studded sky, an unblinking eye that watched his every move.
What was I thinking?
He shook his head, looking back at the constant show he put on. It had gotten so easy to act that way, telling empty lies with the calmest of faces. Beneath the mask, his mind was racing, preoccupied with every way the smallest details could go wrong. Only this time, the concern was one he normally wouldn’t have thought twice about.
Why am I taking so long?
With past assignments, the target lived a month or so after coming in contact with him; it had already been six, eight since he’d received the order. What was it about this girl that made her so different? She didn’t know anything about the real him, only the image he projected to the world. Even so, she seemed to truly care for him, a concept he had long since forgotten how to grasp.
Don’t be stupid, he snapped at himself. She’d kill you if she knew the truth.
Death had never fazed him, he’d seen it often enough, yet the mere thought of hers was enough to make his stomach twist. How could he have allowed himself to get so close to her? He stopped in the doorway of the injection house; it had been moved again, not far from the dump where he’d gotten the troublesome order.
A tall figure stood before him, black leather clinging to every inch of their near-skeletal form. They leaned over the half-covered tray, staring at him with pale, unforgiving green eyes. Light brown hair tumbled down around their pale, attractive face.
“Who’re you?” he asked flatly. They straightened, turning toward him.
“The name’s Duck,” they answered simply. He felt his jaw tighten.
Dusk laughed, cupping the first syringe in a ghost-white hand.
“I’m afraid she’s been…unexpectedly called away,” they motioned to the stool. “Why don’t we get this started?”
He rolled his eyes, pulling off his shirt before taking a seat. Dusk walked slowly behind him, tracing the hard muscles in his back, their short nails lingering on an old scar. They pushed the needle in just below it, chuckling at the soft, pained sound that escaped his lips.
“It might not hurt much now,” they said as they finished. Slowly, they licked his blood from the tip, making a show of pricking their own tongue with it. “But trust me, it will.”
He felt the second one more than the first, his eyes starting to water and burn. Dusk clasped his trembling shoulders, rubbing them in a mock gesture of concern. They leaned down, biting the rim of his ear before whispering into it.
They showed him what he prayed was the last one. He tensed, acid filling his throat. They stepped in front of him, the laughter in their cold eyes growing as he lost all control.
The searing heat that pounded through his veins was worse than anything he had felt before. A wet, hacking cough rattled his lungs, the pain making it impossible to breathe. He pitched forward, every nerve screaming when he hit the floor. Hot bile flooded his mouth, his vision fading. He was vaguely aware of someone forcing his head back, Dusk’s blurred face a mask of twisted pleasure.
“Hurts now, doesn’t it?” they asked. Their grin widened further. “Well, don’t worry. Soon you won’t feel a thing.”
A high-pitched echo was followed by another wave of pain; he screamed once before falling limp. Dusk laughed again, taking their cell from their back pocket. The boss answered quickly, just like always.
“I finished my work,” they said gleefully, standing. “He’s all yours.”
Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Bzzzt!
Jason groaned, knocking his clock when he reached blindly to turn it off. He kicked his twisted sheets away, thankful that, for once, they weren’t also covered in sweat. Khan had insisted he come in that morning, to make sure the fractures in his arm were healing properly.
His phone chirped on the nightstand, the screen showing a number he hadn’t seen in years. He didn’t know why he answered it, his breath hitching as he set it on speaker.
“You done good for yourself, small fry.”
He stiffened; that name again.
“W-Who is this?” he demanded shakily. The person laughed.
“You know who I am,” they said. “I’m your worst nightmare.”
Jason’s pulse quickened. He gulped.
“W-What do you want?”
“Just called to congratulate you,” their tone grew more mocking. “I’m surprised you managed to live this long, but we both know it can’t last forever.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he swallowed his fear, anger taking over. “What do you want?”
“I just felt like warning you,” the joking tone ended. “Enjoy the calm while you have it.”
The line clicked. Jason let the phone drop from his hand. That hadn’t just happened, it wasn’t possible. He shook his head, shoving the threat to the back of his mind. There was too much going on in the present to worry about the future, or the past.
He repeated that to himself as he got ready, glancing outside whenever he could. He didn’t know what he was looking for—a masked killer waiting to burst from the shadows? The gleam of a scope while he was gunned down from a distance?
Quit being paranoid, he snapped at himself. That guy was a loon. Nothing’s coming after you.
The feeling of being watched followed him to his newly-repaired car, unease creeping like vines in the pit of his stomach. He fumbled with his keys, his heart skipping a beat when he saw the folded note waiting on the driver’s seat, his name slapped across the front in a neat, unfamiliar scrawl.
‘You have until tonight, then we take matters into our own hands.’
A fresh jolt of panic cut through him. He crushed the page in his fist, throwing it in the back. He took off down the street, wondering why they’d chosen now to come back for him.
This can’t be happening!
Khan had spent the last hour staring at the x-ray, unable to make sense of it. It just wasn’t possible!
“I don’t believe it…” he shook his head, still unable to take his eyes away.
“What is it?” Kelly came up behind him, examining the image herself. She blinked in surprise, her jaw dropping slightly. “Is this right?”
She glanced through the file in her hands, finding one of the x-rays from the day of the accident. Ir showed several fractures in Jason’s left wrist and elbow, along with a jagged break across both bones in his forearm. She held it up next to the new one, Khan giving a short nod.
“There’s no mistake,” he said at last. “This is accurate.”
“But how can that be?” Kelly argued. “It makes no sense!”
“I know,” he shrugged. “But there’s no arguing with this.”
She looked at the images again, then sighed.
“Guess I’ll go tell him.”
She walked briskly to the waiting room. As per usual, it was near vacant, the few patrons staring either at their phones or the muted television hanging on the wall. Jason was slumped in a chair near the small magazine rack, wearing the same bored expression he’d had earlier. He smirked slightly when she approached him, dropping the pen he’d been toying with.
“Looks like you saw a ghost,” he said jokingly. “Was it that bad?”
“No,” she picked up the pen, tucking it back in the pocket he’d swiped it from. “We can take your cast off, the breaks have healed.”
“Say what?” he sat up fully. “That’s crazy!”
“That’s what we said,” she chuckled. “But I guess it’s not really that surprising, you always were a fast healer.”
“That’s true,” he stood, smiling. “So, when can I get rid of this thing?”
She laughed again, motioning toward the hall.
“Right this way, sir.”
Lena watched Kara’s car turn out of the driveway, disappearing down the street. The woman had been in a rage when she’d come home the afternoon before, the extra ferocity a clear sign her latest beau had ended it. Somehow, she’d managed to slip to her room without being noticed, thankful she’d been able to avoid at least one pointless beating.
Thought she’d never leave.
She slipped off her bed, grabbing the bag she’d set by the door. It had taken longer than she’d thought to find a dojo in town; she couldn’t wait to start classes again. She glanced at the slip of paper taped to her mirror, scribbling the name and address on her wrist. Detouring to the kitchen, she grabbed her water bottle and an orange before dashing outside, barely remembering to lock the door behind her. A few houses down, she spotted Jason, putting up the top of a dark green convertible.
“Hey,” he smiled when he saw her. “Going somewhere?”
“I signed up for karate classes again,” she glanced at her wrist. “You know where the Shima Sports Club is?”
“Yeah, I take kickboxing there,” he swept a twig off the hood. “Want a lift?”
“Uh, sure,” she looked at him strangely. “But wait a second, shouldn’t you still have your cast?”
He looked at his arm, moving his fingers.
“Got it taken off yesterday,” he sounded as confused as she did. “Doc said it was already healed.”
“What? It’s barely been three weeks!”
“I know, we couldn’t believe it, either,” he shrugged. “But it’s not like it’s a big deal. Weirder stuff’s happened.”
He glanced at his watch, then back up at her. He laughed.
“You can finish staring at me later,” he slipped into the driver’s seat, reaching across to open the passenger door. “Right now, we should get going.”
“Oh, right,” she slid in, marveling at the near-silence of the engine. “How long have you had this car?”
“I bought it off a senior last year,” he adjusted the rearview mirror. “Took me months just to get it running again.”
“Well, you did a great job,” she ran a hand along the side. He rolled his eyes, turning onto the main street.
“You should’ve seen it before, looked like it was about to fall apart.”
“You couldn’t tell now.”
They rode in silence until he hit a red light, noting her subtle fidgeting from the corner of his eye.
She stopped playing with her fingers, tucking her hands beneath her. She swallowed.
“I-I’m still having dreams about what happened,” she said simply.
“You went through a lot,” he stepped on the gas when the light changed. “It’ll take more than a couple months to get over it.”
She didn’t respond this time, watching him through her lashes. Some of his hair had slipped free of its usual ponytail, blowing in the wind; he reached up every once in a while to push the locks from his face. That same, serious gleam was still in his eyes, reminding her his mind was always working. She wondered what he was thinking about.
Lena shook off her daydream, stepping from the car before slinging her bag over her shoulder. The long, low building was of brown brick, full, tinted windows along the front offering views of several rooms. At the moment, only the closest was occupied, full of men she guessed were in their twenties.
“Looks like I got the wrong time,” she smiled up at him. “Mind if I just watch you?”
“Yeah, that’s…” he trailed off, his eyes narrowing. A tall, lean man was strolling toward them, a lazy smile stretched across his pale lips. “Oh, great.”
“Hey, Jason,” he stopped, smoothing a hand over his spiked white hair. His unnerving dark gaze drifted to Lena, his grin turning cocky.
“Well, who’s this?”
“My name’s Lena,” she took a step behind Jason. “Who’re you?”
“Name’s Cody,” he said proudly. “Around here they call me the champ.”
She looked at him.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” irritation leaked through her unease. “What do you want?”
He shrugged, crossing his arms.
“Just wondering what a girl like you is doing with a chump like this,” he glanced at Jason, who kept silent. Lena put a comforting hand on his arm, glaring at Cody.
“Are you always this annoying?”
He shrugged again, flashing another smug grin.
“You wouldn’t be the first girl to get tired of him,” he said, turning away. “You ever want a real man, baby, you know where to find me.”
“Maybe when hell freezes over.”
He laughed again, heading inside. Jason sighed.
“Don’t believe anything that guy says.”
“I won’t, trust me,” her hand slid down to his. “Is his ego the only reason you hate him?”
“Guy’z a lazy cheater,” he rolled his eyes. “Threw chalk in my face at our last competition, then kicked me out of the ring. Ref said he didn’t see anything.”
“Of course,” she looked thoughtful, giggling impishly. “On the bright side, now I can distract him while you kick his ass.”
He smiled, braiding his fingers with hers.
“Sounds good to me,” he leaned closer to her, sounding playful. “But I might end up falling for it, too.”
Cody leaned against the wall near Lena, seated on a thin cushion at the edge of the room. He picked a stray thread from the waistband of his loose black pants.
“So, you’re J’s girl,” he started casually. Lena barely glanced at him.
“Not really,” she answered flatly. “But don’t take that as an invitation.”
“We both know I’m way out of your league,” she said, keeping her back to him. He chuckled.
“You wouldn’t be the first girl to say that,” he told her. “And you wouldn’t be the first to change her mind.”
He shouldered himself from the wall, taking her hand and dropping a folded scrap of paper into her palm.
“You get tired of him, baby, you know who to call.”
He walked away, shoving Jason aside when he passed. Jason glared at him, then rolled his eyes. He dropped his backpack next to Lena’s, taking a red hair tie from his pocket. The sleeves of his white shirt had been cut off, the waistband of his gray sweats marred by a small bleach stain.
“That ass didn’t bug you too much, did he?” he asked. She shrugged.
“Nothing I’m not used to,” she tucked the bit of paper away. “So, what made you want to take kickboxing?”
He finished putting his hair back, rubbing the small scar on his cheek with his fingertip.
“It was my mom’s idea,” he said, somewhat sadly. “She signed me up the first chance she got.”
He touched the scar a second longer, then let his hand fall to his side.
“Once in a while, I think about quitting,” he went on. “But then I remember how she looked when she watched me, and I feel like I’d be letting her down if I did.”
“Oh,” that hadn’t been the answer she was expecting, though at the same time, it was. She felt his fingers on her chin, looking up to see his faint smile.
“She’s not the only reason I stick with it,” he said. “I just haven’t found anything else I like.”
She giggled, her next question cut off by an impatient shout.
“Jason, let’s go!”
He cringed, calling over his shoulder.
He placed a quick kiss on Lena’s cheek, taking his spot near the front of the room. Lena touched the small space of fading warmth on her skin, the sounds of the class fading into white noise.
This might end going somewhere after all.
She bit her lip, wishing she could push away the dread tugging at her stomach.
That won’t happen again, she promised herself. I won’t let it!
Lena groaned, pressing her thumb to the throbbing pain between her eyes. The migraine had started shortly after she’d woken up, late, when she’d realized she’d left her homework on the kitchen table in her rush to leave. She’d also had three tests she’d forgotten to study for, one of which had counted for a fifth of her grade.
She rested her forehead against the inside of her locker door, the cool metal helping to ease the throb. It flared again when the bell rang, the piercing note tearing at her eardrums.
Just one more class, she assured herself. One more class, then you can bum a ride and curl up in bed.
She pulled back from the door, giving a short scream when it slammed shut. Stephanie was glaring at her, her pale eyes blazing. Lena backed away, her headache forgotten as fear took over.
“W-What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded shakily. “I-I thought you were in jail!”
Stephanie’s gaze burned with more hatred than ever.
“My dad bailed me out,” she spat. “Thanks to you, bitch, I’ve got a record!”
Lena swallowed, moving back further.
“W-Well, then you shouldn’t have kidnapped me,” her voice cracked. “O-Or let your boy toy rape me!”
“You deserved it, you fucking slut,” she grabbed Lena’s shirt, tearing it down the middle. “Just like you deserve this!”
Lena screamed again, scrambling to cover herself. The students gathered in the hall had stopped to watch, some even laughing.
“You crazy bitch,” she shouted. “What the hell’s wrong with you?!”
“I’m sick of you getting between me and Jason,” she ripped Lena’s camisole, her nails catching skin. “And now the whole school’s gonna see you pay for it!”
She swiped a hand past her pocket, a switchblade gleaming in her grasp. Lena jumped away, holding her arms in front of her, crying out when the knife streaked across them. Vaguely aware of the blood dripping from the cuts, she ducked, diving at Stephanie’s legs. They crashed to the floor, the knife skittering away.
“You’re fucking insane,” she grabbed Stephanie’s wrists, holding them against the girl’s chest. “Why do you keep doing this to me?!”
Stephanie growled, struggling against her. She managed to knee Lena in the stomach, shoving the girl back. She then scrambled for the knife, stabbing blindly when Lena jumped her, the blade cutting deeply into the other girl’s thigh. Stephanie laughed, grabbing Lena’s hair and forcing her to the floor. Smiling cruelly, she pressed a knee to the girl’s stomach, her eyes shining with malice.
“You want to know why I’m doing this?” she asked spitefully. “I’ll tell you. It’s because everyone’s wanted you gone since the day you got here.”
She leaned closer, lowering her voice.
“And because I want to make sure you never go near Jason again,” she straightened, clutching the knife tightly, raising her arms high above her head. “So, say goodbye, bitch.”
Lena gasped, clinching her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see the steel come down, the surge of blood when it sank into her chest. She waited endlessly for the pain that would end her life, surprised to instead feel firm hands on her shoulders. She risked a look, watching Stephanie fight to break Lance’s grip. He’d taken her wrists in one hand, tearing the knife from her grasp with the other. Lena didn’t think she’d ever seen him more furious.
“Dad wasted his time getting you out,” he hauled Stephanie to her feet, wrapping an arm around her neck. “Now I’m gonna make sure you rot in that cell.”
Lena groaned softly, feeling nauseous when she looked down at her leg. Chad was using his sweatshirt as a makeshift tourniquet, tying it tightly just above the cut.
“You’re really bleeding,” he said when he’d finished. “Maybe we should-”
She shook her head.
“No, Chad, it’s fine,” she put a hand over his. “It’s probably not as bad as it looks.”
“Well, maybe, but-”
“Chad, really, I’m okay,” she gave a weak smile. “Now, please, just help me up.”
His lips tightened; he slipped an arm around her waist, bringing them both to their feet. She leaned heavily against him, biting her lip to hold back a gasp of pain. That was when the ringing started, the same sound that had marked her last moments of consciousness during the fire. Her fear growing, she turned to him, only to see his face had blurred, his frantic calls half-buried by the ringing. It soon cancelled him out completely, darkness creeping across her vision. The last thing she felt was the brief sensation of falling.
“…I will be.”
Andy slipped off the table he’d been sitting on, setting his sister’s old violin aside. The few other kids in the quad had gone silent during the short performance, some of them snickering when they saw the bright blush across his cheeks. He glowered briefly at them before turning back to Lena, his blue eyes shining when he saw the dazzling smile on her face. She’d smiled less and less since her mother had died, he’d started to forget how pretty she looked. He scratched the back of his head, a few short locks of his gelled, dark violet-dyed hair coming loose.
“Well, what did you think?” he asked nervously. Lena jumped up and hugged him, a gesture he returned gladly.
“It was amazing, Andy,” she said. “Thank you so much!”
He chuckled, his blush starting to fade.
“Hannah helped me write it,” he explained. “We’ve been working on it for weeks.”
She smiled again, somewhat shyly this time.
“Did you really mean all that?” she asked. He nodded.
“You mean a lot to me, Lena,” he took her hand. “And I finally found the best way to show you.”
She giggled, then kissed him, ignoring the kids shouting from across the quad. All that mattered right now was him, one of few rays of sunshine left in her clouded life. She pulled away slowly, the memory of their first kiss coming to mind. Like many things in their relationship, it had just happened, the result of a water fight when they’d snuck into the school pool during lunch. Andy had finally admitted his long-standing crush on her, asking her to be his girlfriend right then and there. It had only taken her a few minutes to accept.
“So, are you still, uh, coming to Hannah’s party tonight?”
“Oh…” the joy seeped out of her. “I-I don’t think I can. My stepmom’s-”
“Completely crazy,” he pulled away, crossing his arms. He shook his head. “How do you deal with that?”
“Well, she has been drinking a lot lately,” she started. “A-And she’s pretty bad about setting the alarm when she’s drunk, so…I might be able to sneak out tonight.”
“Awesome,” he grabbed the violin when the bell rang, kissing her again. “Hope I’ll see you there.”
She watched him hurry off, still unable to believe her luck. Andy wasn’t the cutest guy in school, but he was one of the nicest, always treating everyone around him like his best friend. It had been a complete surprise when he’d said he liked her, even with Miranda hitting her over the head with how obvious it was. She couldn’t believe it had already been four months since then.
I really hope nothing happens to screw this up, she thought fearfully, then shook her head. No, she couldn’t think that way. There was no way fate would cruel enough to take this from her, after it had already taken so much.
I don’t care what it takes, she decided. I’m going to this party tonight, and I’m going to make it the best night Andy and I have ever had!
She nodded once before heading inside, her imagination running wild.
If she only had any idea how much trouble this one night was about to cause.
Lena woke up to the sound of her own groaning, her headache having spread to every inch of her body. She sat up slowly, leaning back against the wall. The cuts on her arms had been bandaged, the ruined leg of her jeans cut away to reveal more bandages. She turned at the soft scratch of pen on paper, surprised to see Jason’s grandmother sitting at the nurse’s desk.
“I was wrong about you,” the old woman started, not looking up from her work. “And about Stephanie.”
Lena scratched at her thigh, realizing the air still smelled vaguely like Chad’s cheap cologne.
“Um, it’s okay,” she found herself saying. Even her throat was sore. She swallowed. “You didn’t know she was crazy.”
Evelyn put her pen down, going to the sink and grabbing a paper cup from the stack next to it. She filled it to the brim, going to Lena’s cot and handing it to her.
“This isn’t the first time Stephanie’s hurt someone,” she sat across from Lena. “Last time, she claimed she was defending Jason from a bully.”
“What?” Lena couldn’t imagine him on the losing end of a fight. She took a small sip of water, the cool liquid easing her sore throat. “Um, when was that?”
“Several years ago, before the accident,” Evelyn sighed heavily, putting her hands in her lap. “Jason thought he’d get in trouble if he defended himself.”
She touched the small pendant at her chest, a roughly-made clay sun with a smiling face.
“His sister told him he’d be thrown away if their parents found out he’d been fighting, this was after my husband and I were granted custody.”
“Uh, when was that, exactly?” Lena rubbed her hands together. When had it gotten so cold? “I mean, he told me it happened, sort of, but…”
“He was six. By then, it was clear she and their brother were the ones tormenting him. We felt taking him was the only way to stop them.”
And it still didn’t work, Lena added silently. She took another sip, setting the cup next to her. Evelyn leaned forward, taking the girl’s hand tightly in hers.
“I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did,” she said. “I never saw Jason so happy until he met you. I hope you can forgive me.”
It’s fine, Mrs. Vetra, Lena replied silently. I’ve actually gotten pretty used to people hating me for no reason.
She blinked, shaking her head slightly.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Vetra,” she said aloud. “Really. Let’s just forget about it.”
The old woman looked relieved, turning when the door opened. A pair of cheerleaders staggered in, the shorter one limping and leaning heavily against her friend’s shoulder. Evelyn gave Lena a small smile before getting to her feet, pulling the curtain closed around her cot. She was thankful for the privacy, reaching in her pocket for the folded page she’d found in her locker that morning. She hadn’t risked trying to read it during class, and she hadn’t gotten the chance during lunch. She read the note slowly, every line bringing her closer to tears:
‘Lena, I know I’m the last person you’d ever want to hear from, but there’s something you really need to know. I’m the one who-’ she stumbled over the word. ’-who raped you, who threw you in that hole and left you for dead. You never did anything to deserve any of that, and I know I’ll never be able to say ‘I’m sorry’ enough. But you forgiving me is the last thing I deserve.’
She stopped reading, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. This was the last thing she had expected.
‘I don’t have any excuse for what I did, so the least I can do is tell you the truth. I let Stephanie manipulate me into helping her, and you’re not even the first girl I’ve hurt because of it. I’m so pathetic, I never did a damn thing to try and stop her. I let myself believe some fake relationship was more important than other peoples’ lives, and I’m so, so sorry. ’
Her eyes widened when she reached the last paragraph, surely it couldn’t mean what she thought it did!
‘I’m just a weak, selfish coward, and I know there’s only one way for me to even try to make it up to you. Don’t worry, Lena, soon you’ll never have to see my ugly face again. I’m finally going to do something right. Take care of yourself, and please, don’t let me ruin anything else for you. Eric’.
The small, neat cursive was a smeared, blotted mess by the time she finished. The letter slipped from her trembling fingers, fluttering gracelessly to the floor. She brought her knees to her chest, burying her face in her arms. There was no way he had really meant that, she thought, she wasn’t worth it!
It’s not your fault, Eric, she shouted silently. It’s Stephanie’s. Please, you don’t have to do this!
She continued sobbing, not caring if anyone heard her. The next morning, after endless hours of tossing and turning, she learned the truth she’d spent the night night praying so hard against. Eric’s parents had found their only son dead, his neck mercilessly snapped by the noose wrapped tightly around it.