The waiting room wasn’t hectic as I had first suspected it would be.
A lady in a knitted sweater with small, cartoonish animals plastered all over it was coughing up a lung near the magazines. One set of twins by the soda machine horsed around while their parents watched them.
The father flashed a look at his pager that was clipped to his hip, reading the phone number that blinked on the screen. Soon, he walked up to the pay phones lined up to the left of the lobby and inserted a coin.
I did this for over half an hour, observing people. I didn’t speak, I didn’t answer when someone tried to talk to me. I stayed there, incapable of doing anything else.
I’ve had an issue with conveying my emotions since I was a kid. I either over perform or under perform. There’s never been a third option; I had no balance between the two. I was always too angry to see clearly, or too closed off in my own mind, smothered in silence, to rejoin with the outside world.
It worked for twenty three years, and I saw no reason to change that or tweak it.
While waiting, I littered my thoughts with the task of watching other people do mundane things, distracting me from the whirling storm in my head.
It was coming. I was trying to force it down, put it at bay. But it was inescapable.
The sense of remorse would strike me like a lightening bolt, rendering me transfixed to my seat and held captive in the chains of my devastation.
Kelsey was more than a friend. She was like a sister.
Most of my family lived in New York, besides Carter who lived in Berkeley, California with her husband. But she didn’t visit me anymore for reasons I had to respect.
When I met Kelsey and Conner, I had gone two years shutting off every human being in my life. It was two years after Julia’s death, and I did everything I could to minimize my contact with the others.
Kelsey saw something. She wanted this friendship more than I originally did. She could be a pain at times, but that was partly why we got along. We both found humor in insulting each other.
The corner of my mouth turned upwards, reminiscing on the many memories we shared. I thought of when we took all of Conner’s things in their apartment and left it on the rooftop. If we would’ve looked at the forecast for the day, we would’ve known that it would start raining. It ruined all of his things.
To get back at me, Conner convinced her to steal my car keys and get the color changed to pink and they both hand-painted small doodles of genitals on the body of the car.
“You’ll thank me later. It’s a total chick magnet.”She had said to me, handing me the keys.
I had rolled my eyes, not finding humor in it. ”Yes, because every girl wants a guy who drives a pink car with tiny dicks drawn on it.”
I was pissed. I wasn’t able to laugh about it until later on.
Looking at the countless hours we had shared as friends, I saw how one incident had caused a seismic shift, altering the reality we lived in. Things could’ve ended differently.
That bullet could’ve easily gone into Sophia, or Conner, or anyone else in that room. But it didn’t, it went into Kelsey - nearly shattering Conner’s world in a heartbeat.
They were hugging and smiling before Mister Santiago barged into the room. By the time the gun had been fired, there was no smile in sight. Only grim expressions.
I had known, long ago, that life was a fragile thing. I could say, because of that, I saw how fast and how brutal things could be flipped upside down.
You can’t keep putting people’s lives at risk for your own happiness. Sophia shouldn’t have to die like Julia did. Haven’t you learned your lesson? You don’t deserve anybody.
The regret had arrived into my overbearing narrative. It was correct. Sophia deserved better. She shouldn’t have to be shoved into this lifestyle.
Then again, it wasn’t like if I left, she was no longer a target. Her father had ties deeper than I did, meaning she’d always be a possible target.
I had to weight my options if leaving her alone was a better idea than staying - but not at this moment.
I stared at her, seated in the chair next to mine. The stressed building up in me dissolved as I spotted the grin stretched on to her lips. Holding my gaze, she slid her hand into mine and intertwined our fingers. No matter how powerful my thoughts were, they parted and disappeared. The only thought that remained was of her.
As much as I wanted to let her go - for her safety - I knew I was too hung up on her for my own good. I was tainted by my selfishness, corrupted by my need for her.
The word made me laugh, discovering how true it was to say I needed her. I had never needed anyone, but here I was, contradicting that claim.
We were toldKelsey was getting prepped for surgery. They found a way to remove the bullet lodged near her ribs. She lost a lot of blood, but they thankfully got to her soon enough. If everything went well during the surgery, she’d be fine.
I couldn’t keep track of time, seeing Conner pace the small space of the waiting room, mumbling to himself.
Half an hour in, Anthony and Ernie joined us at the hospital, along with two of our other guys. He had heard news of what happened to Kelsey and wanted to see what was going on.
Before the sun went down, Sophia’s dad came through the doors with an older woman. She had raven black hair that looked blue in the light, practically identical to Sophia’s. Her forehead creased when she locked eyes with Sophia.
"Mom?” Sophia rushed out of the uncomfortable plastic chair.
“That’s Sophia’s mom?” Anthony gawked with his jaw hanging. “I can see where Sophia got her huge t—”
I punched his arm. “For once, shut up, Anthony. Or I swear to God, I will shove your foot into that vending machine over there and leave you there to die.”
“I was going to say teeth. Huge teeth.”
“Sure, you were.”
“No, really. I was.” He quickly corrected, but I didn’t believe a word coming out of his mouth. “Also, you can’t fit a foot into a vending machine.”
“Wanna try?” I raised a brow, challenging him. Anthony sunk into his seat, calling truce.
“What are you guys doing here?” Sophia asked.
“I came here as soon as your father said you were at the hospital.” She brushed Sophia’s cheek as any concerned mother would. Her next set of words weren’t in English. Sophia replied in Spanish and they kept their conversation like that. I was oblivious of what they were saying. They slowly switched back to English because of something Sophia said.
“I tried to tell her you were fine, but she wouldn’t hear any of it,” Mr. de la Torres cracked a smug look. “She demanded to come see you.”
“I’m okay, I promise,” Sophia said. “Who’s watching the boys?”
“I have someone watching Thomas and Jamie.” Her mother told her.
“Oh, is Gabby and Rio taking care of them?”
My back stiffened. It hadn’t crossed my mind to discuss Audrey with Sophia. If she was aware of what her father did for a living, then chances were that she wasn’t informed on the kind of activity Audrey had caught herself up in.
Sophia’s parents shared a glance. Holding both of Sophia’s hand, her mother said. “Audrey left this afternoon.”
“W-wait, what do you mean by that?” Sophia stammered. “What do you mean she left? Where did she go?”
“She came to the house, in a frenzy, and started throwing her few belongings into suitcases. Rio went with her.”
“I don’t understand. Why would she leave without telling me about it first?”
“I’m as confused as you. I asked her what was going on, but she said that they needed to get out of town for a while.”
“Isn’t that convenient?” Anthony snickered.
Sophia’s head whirled around. “Did you know about this?”
Roughly, I jammed my elbow into Anthony. He had gotten me in trouble with that question. Raising from my chair, I went to where Sophia was. Hiding things from her and lying had backfired with us in the past. I didn’t want history to repeat itself.
“Can we talk outside?” I questioned, putting my hands in my pocket. “We need to talk.”
I worried that she would blow up and refuse it. But like me, Sophia was drained with everything that had gone down today. Without fighting against my request, we exited the waiting room. Sophia’s parents gave a disapproving glare when I took her hand.
Well there goes my chance for a great first impression.
Sophia slowly released my hand and faced me out in the hospital parking lot. There was a bench toward the left so walking up to it. I led the way and we sat ourselves down, not saying anything for a bit until Sophia broke the ice. “Tell me what’s going on exactly. And don’t sugar-coat it or hide details. I want the full story.”
“I don’t sugar-coat things.” I disagreed, but her stern expression told me she didn’t see that as truthful. “Okay, so maybe I skim on the details a little.”
“You mean, a lot.” She added, angling herself in the seat, she grabbed both of my hands and put them on her lap. “Listen, I don’t hate you for how you hid Lora’s murder. We all make mistakes and I hope we can learn from this. I do, however, have a problem with the fact that you didn’t tell me about it when you knew before the...” she lowered her voice. “..you knew before the police did. I understand your intentions weren’t to anger me or piss me off. You were only trying to look out for me. But, in the end, not telling me hurt a lot more.”
“I know - and I apologize for that, but you never let me explain. You left my apartment way to fast to let me tell you anything.”
Sophia mumbled something under her breath, dropping her gaze to my hands that were on her lap. She singled out one of my fingers stroking it along the knuckles. “I’m usually okay with my anger, but I have moments where I don’t want to be around anyone and end up snapping. But given what happened, you can understand why I acted the way I did. Lora...died. Because of me.”
“No, don’t say that. It’ll eat you up inside forever if you keep thinking that way. Blame me if you have to blame anyone. Pin this one on me.”
“How many times do I have to do that though? Lora, and now Kelsey. Who’s next? Nicolas? Conner? My family? Me?”
I brought my hand to her face, running my thumb over her cheek. “No, nothing’s going to happen to anyone else. It’s over. Santiago is dead.”
“What if there’s more people like him?”
“No one is going to do anything to you.”
“You can’t promise that, Bryce. You can’t promise any of that. You don’t know who’s going to die tomorrow. None of us have control over our own safety.” She sighed heavily, brushing away my hand. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Is she about to say what I think she is?”
“I’ll fix this-”
“No, you can’t.” She interrupted. “And even if you do, how am I supposed to live a normal life now that I know my dad’s involved in this, too?”
“I don’t know. I can’t give you an answer to that.” I replied frankly. I could see where this conversation was heading. She was leading up to a breakup. It was written on her face, in her eyes, and also on those lips of her I couldn’t stop thinking of kissing.
Pay attention, Bryce. Not today.
I returned my hand to her knee. “But I can say that I will use everything in my power to reassure you that you are safe. I’ll do anything, because I know you didn’t ask for this....even if we end no longer seeing each other.”
"No longer seeing each other?” she repeated my words, reeling back. “Do you plan on ending things?”
I blinked, dumbstruck at how I had misread the conversation. “No. I thought with the way you were talking, you’d be interested in stopping things.”
“I was venting, Bryce. I was expressing my stress,” she elaborated, throwing her hands in the air. “That doesn’t mean I want to give up on this. I figured at least talking about it with you would help somehow so you could see where I’m coming from.”
“Oh, I uh, analyzed that wrong.”
“Very wrong,” she said, and met her back with the bench, relaxing into it. “What were you going to say about Audrey? That’s why we came out here in the first place.”
Where to start?
I retraced my steps and saw where the story could begin. So, I started with the night I got shot, going from there on out. Sophia didn’t ask questions right away. She let me tell her how I got in this predicament. I explained how she seemed to fit in all of this, where Audrey played a part, how Mister Santiago knew before either of us did. I told her how I had only found out about it minutes before he sent Grayson to get them.
“That...doesn’t make any sense.” Her mouth popped open, mortified. “Gabby isn’t like that. That isn’t how she is. She’s engaged, Bryce. She’s planning on being married and settling down. She even got promoted last month and said she was getting a bonus.”
“By any chance, was that bonus going to be entirely paid in cash, tied up with rubber bands?”
“That’s not funny.” She scowled. “I can’t believe this though. She’s a sweet girl.”
“She also tried to kill us. And she suggested if she should kidnap Conner when I first met her.”
Her hand covered her mouth. ”She didn’t.”
“Oh, but she did.”
Her palm went up to her forehead, absorbing this knowledge with her eyes wider than ever. A tall shadow went across half of Sophia’s face. Looking over my shoulder, Mr. de la Torres loomed behind me.
He offered us a flat-lipped smile. “I wanted to see if I could speak to you alone.”
I got up from my seat. “Oh, alright. Sure, I’ll leave.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. “I wanted to talk to you.”
I exchanged a cautious gaze with Sophia. “Uh, well, whatever you say to him you can say with me here.”
“Sophia, please go back inside the hospital. We’ll be done in a short moment.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, assuring her. She got up from the bench and planted a kiss on my cheek, winning me a dark scorn from her father. She headed back inside the hospital quickly afterwards. Her father took her place and eased back, resting his ankle on his opposite knee and shaking his foot.
“I’m aware of the fact that you used to work for Mister Santiago.” He rubbed his chin, looking out into the parking lot. “Before I came to his house today, I had a discussion with a heads of the six families.”
The six families consisted of the top crime bosses from Washington to San Diego. I wasn’t very well-informed on who ran each one, but I knew the de la Torres family was one of the six.
“Why are you telling me this, Mr. de la Torres?” I rushed to add his name at the end of my statement out of respect. He did just save our lives after all.
“I’m telling you this because we came to an agreement that I would be taking the territory once owned by Mister Santiago. Meaning you’ll be coming to me for the profit cuts and seeing a lot more of me.” He smacked my back, hitting it with a heavy hand. “I want you to report to my estate at the end of the week so we can go over my rules and restrictions. And don’t think just because you’re with my daughter that it gives you some kind of pass. If anything, I’ll to make things ten times harder than it already would be.”
I inhaled, wanting to lighten the mood in a way. “Should I call you George?” His gaze tightened on me when I said his first name. “Or is Mr. de la Torres cool instead?”
“You’ll call me boss. I don’t expect you to call me anything else.”
“Oh, so we’re going to work our way up to Mr. de la Torres then, with time and by building trust?”
“No.” He deadpanned. “You’re not allowed to say that.”
He rose from the bench, straightening his tie and smoothing a hand over his coat. “Oh, and one last thing. If you ever bring any harm to my only daughter, remember that whatever I do to you in return will not be as quick and painless as it was for Mister Santiago. It will be slow, drawn out, agonizing pain. It’ll be to the point where you’ll be begging for that bullet.″
“I’d never hurt her.” I swore. “She means a lot to me.”
“Let’s hope you keep your word,” he said, flashing a smile. He gave me one final look and then walked back inside. Through the glass, I saw him start speaking to Sophia’s mother, casually chatting away to her as if he hadn’t just threatened someone’s life. I didn’t know how he did it, but I was more depressed now than I was when we arrived at the hospital.