Grasping for the handle, I flung open the door and tumbled from the drivers seat. I barely landed on my feet, clutching at the truck door as I sucked in a deep breath of fresh air.
A soft breeze caressed my hot skin, my tight lungs gratefully welcoming the chilly air. It burned as it went down, my hurried breaths catching. I sank to the ground as my panic attack fled, leaving my body shaky and weak. Crouching beside my old truck, my arms wrapped around my knees and my cheeks wet with tears I hadn’t even noticed, I was sure I had PTSD.
Deep breaths, Winnie.
My eyes fell closed as I sucked in another lungful of air and I started counting, just like my therapist had taught me.
1, breath, 2, breath, 3, I am alive, 4, I survived, 5, breath, 6...
My breathing slowed as I continued to count, saying the mantra over and over in my head. I am alive, I survived. My grip on my legs loosened as my body relaxed, my heartbeat slowing to a normal pace. I let my eyes flicker open, drifting over the dried grass and rusty fence. I swallowed past the lump forming in my throat, pushing myself into a standing position. My knees wobbled as I leaned against the truck, allowing myself to find my balance as my gaze fastened on the rickety old sign above the gate.
Sleepy Hallow Cemetery
I stepped away from the truck. This was never easy, but I thought it would hurt less as time went on. It was still as painful as it was the day I woke up in the hospital. As I stepped through the gate, my eyes fell to the well-worn cemetery trail. I visited only occasionally, never strong enough to stay more than a few moments.
It hurt too much to be here.
I followed the trail, letting my mind flow back to the memory. A memory that chose to keep haunting me. It was a reminder of my guilt, of my everlasting shame, and my selfishness. I bit the inside of my cheek as I recalled the anger I had held onto that whole day, the anger I had used to push his buttons until he looked at me.
Shaking my head, I glanced up. I was standing in the back corner of the cemetery, a large headstone standing proudly before me, mocking my tears. I tried to think of the right words to say, but I couldn’t. What could I say? He was dead because of me. How could I apologize if he wasn’t here anymore? He couldn’t forgive me—I couldn’t even forgive myself. Nobody would ever forgive me.
I stood still, staring down at the granite. I felt confusion, and the guilt and hurt that came with it. Why had he died, but I survived? None of it made any sense.
A beep from my phone shook me from my stupor, the sound of a text coming in. I fished the phone from my back pocket and glanced at the screen just as a second text came in. One was from my sister, asking where I was, the other was from my best friend, begging for a ride. Wiping away my tears, I let my eyes go back to the gravestone.
I needed to get to school. No more crying, no more nightmare memories—it was time to go to school.
Crossing my arms across my chest, I hugged myself as I turned away. I wouldn’t be back anytime soon. I couldn’t bear the pain and depression that came with it. So, I walked away. I stared down at the path as I made my way back to the parking lot, refusing to glance back at his gravesite.
I stared at my reflection in the truck’s mirror. My eyeliner was smudged from crying, but I didn’t want anyone else to know. I was parked in front of Alice’s apartment building, my sister Jenny was already in the backseat with her headphones on and her eyes closed to the sun. Napping. If she had noticed my tear-stained face, she didn’t say anything.
I was just finishing wiping away the last of my smeared mascara when Alice yanked open the door.
“Hey, bîtches!” She yelled, making Jenny jerk awake in shock. I silently wondered if she ever had nightmares like mine, even though she hadn’t been there. Alice grabbed the bar above her door and swung herself up into the truck with ease. “God, it’s so quiet in here!”
She switched on the radio, a soft rock song now playing through the speakers. I let the smooth guitar wash over me, soothing my scattered nerves. Closing her door and snapping her seat buckle, Alice fiddled with the tuning nob until she found a station she liked. An upbeat pop song poured through the speakers, setting my nerves on edge again.
“Hey, Ali,” I greeted, trying to sound calmer than I felt. I shifted the car into gear and pulled out into the light Friday morning traffic. My fingers tightened around the steering wheel as I did so, feeling my heart stop as an SUV pulled up next to me. I swallowed back the fear I felt as it passed me and went on to turn up ahead.
“Winn, did you hear about the party tonight?” Alice asked as I peeked in the rear view mirror at a red light. Jenny had drifted back to sleep, her eyes closed once more. “It’s supposed to be the party of the year! Only seniors are allowed since it’s like a graduation party.”
I focused my eyes back on the road, easing my foot onto the gas as the light changed to green. My arms hurt from how tense I was, and I consciously forced myself to relax. It wouldn’t do me any good if I was too tense. I let my best friend’s voice wash over me, her lighthearted chatter doing it’s job to keep me distracted from my own thoughts.
Alice lived only a few blocks from the school, but she hated walking or taking the bus, so she always caught a ride with us since we lived a good 15 minutes drive away. She was always energetic, but today she was worse than ever. She continued to gab away about the party long after I had parked and climbed down from the truck.
A smile firmly in place, I stepped around the truck and glanced up at the high school. The building looked new, what with a fresh coat of paint and a new stone plaque with the words Sleepy Hollow High School engraved on it. It was the newest addition to the school board’s attempt to brighten it up. Students milled about the parking lot.
I waved goodbye to Jenny, her eyes bleary and her high ponytail skewed as she rushed to her friends across the lot. The group of cheerleaders welcomed her with smiles before going back to their gossiping. Alice linked arms with me as we walked toward the front doors, but my mind was elsewhere. Her words faded to a low hum in the back of my mind as we made our way across the parking lot. With flashes from my dream coming and going, I tried to focus on the homework I had forgotten to finish and the upcoming pop quiz in my Chemistry class.
“Do you think he’d sleep with me if I asked him to?” Alice asked, making my head jerk up in surprise. I stared at my best friend in shock. We were both virgins, and as far as I knew she had no desire to have sex with some faceless guy. Her green eyes were focused on someone near the doors, and she bit the corner of her lip as she watched whomever it was. I followed her gaze, my own eyes landing on the group of laughing boys.
“You’re joking right, Ali?” I asked, my eyes flying back to my friend. She was still gazing across the courtyard, and a smile pulled at her lips. My eyes flew back to the four guys, and I instantly regretted it. Grey eyes flashed with something akin to mischief and a breathtaking smile pulled at kissable lips to reveal bright white teeth and an adorable dimple. I tore my gaze away, finding Alice waving at the boys. I nudged her arm. “Stop that!”
“What? Why?” Alice was grinning still, her eyes flickering back to the group. I heard a heady laugh as we walked past them, and I tried to ignore the somersaults my stomach decided to do.
“I thought you wanted to wait,” I said, changing the subject. Alice laughed a little, flicking her bright red locks over her shoulder as we walked through the doors. She glanced back at the guys one more time before she let me lead her to our lockers.
“Well, that was before Duncan said hi to me last week,” she said with a flirty smile. I frowned, glancing at the doors we’d just come through. Duncan looked like the average all-American boy-next-door with his easy smile and pretty blue eyes, and he was one of the biggest players in the school.
“You realize he’s slept with most of the girls in our grade, right?” I asked, watching as the group of guys stepped through the doors. I spotted Duncan easily, his blond hair hanging in his eyes and a skinny brunette hanging on his arm. “And it looks like Ginger has her claws in him today.”
Alice looked over her shoulder, catching sight of the couple. Her shoulders slumped a little, but she didn’t look too surprised. I winced as Alice slammed her locker shut, knowing it hurt her more than she wanted to let on. Stupid boy.
“Well, there goes that idea,” she said with a small laugh. I stuffed my jacket into my locker before closing it and wrapping my arm around Alice’s.
“We can always find you another guy to sleep with,” I informed her with a teasing smile, trying to get her to crack a real one. “If that’s what you really want. I bet we could get Mitchell Slater to do it.”
A real laugh slipped past her lips and she covered her mouth to muffle the sound. “God, no.”
I laughed with her, feeling lighter than I had in the last few hours. My laughter faded as I realized someone was watching me. I lifted my gaze only to find grey eyes focused on my face and a small smile playing at his lips. I pulled my gaze away, feeling my cheeks flame as I allowed Alice to pull me down the hallway toward our homeroom.
Why the hell was Ryder Knix watching me?