It's a Cruel World, Sir

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12 | Missing

It’s like freshmen year all over again—minus Chase. Thanks to him, I’m spared a lot of the usual wary glances and whispers that’re so loud, I’m surprised people actually think I can’t hear them. There are still a few idiots who are determined to cause havoc, but Chase quickly shuts them up with extra busywork.

After his class, though, I consider going home. Mother and Cassadee are probably long gone by now, so it’s not like I’ll have to deal with them, and I’m relatively tired of all the caution even the professors are giving off every time I enter their line of sight. The only reason I stay is in hopes of Calvin showing up. By the time lunch ends, though, it’s pretty obvious he’s not coming.

Instead of going to my afternoon classes, I take refuge in my hiding place. Not many people know that the school has a basement, and those that do have no idea where the entrance is. Only the janitors have the keys to open the door, anyway, so it wouldn’t do them any good.

Too bad my dad taught me how to pick a lock.

Near the end of freshmen year, when I had hit rock bottom, I’d spend the night hidden in between boxes, almost sleeping days away in the murky corners of the place. Now, I sit in the middle of the floor, watching as blood drips from my fingertips to the concrete.

It’s funny honestly. You’d think that after everything, I’d simply call Nikki or Whit and tell them things are getting bad again, but with Preston on the hunt, and Leon freaking out over every turn, I don’t have it in me to worry them with my little habit. Besides, I’m not the freshmen I was last year—I’m older now, stronger—I should be able to handle something as stupid as this.

But Ryan’s expression when he found out my nickname keeps playing in my head, and it hurts. A lot. Outright fear might have made me feel better, but he looked sick, like he was going to puke, like there was nothing worse I could have told him.

“Vixen?”

Before I know it, Chase is standing in front of me, eyes frantic as he scans the surroundings. Behind him, the door hangs open, letting in a shard of light from the hallway.

I grind my teeth and slowly hide my forearm from him, turning it over and gently sliding up my sleeve.

“What’s up?” I go for nonchalant.

His eyes flicker over my arm, the exact one that won’t seem to stop bleeding, before they meet mine, no hint of anything in them except a concentrated amount of silver flaring around his pupils. The color seems so light in the black basement, it almost looks like it’s glowing.

“Where are your friends?” He matches my tone, squatting in front of me.

“Oh, somewhere around the city,” I say absently, bored. “They’re trying to figure out what Preston is planning, so they skipped today.”

“You probably shouldn’t tell your professor this,” he points out.

“Eh, they’d tell you themselves anyway.” I shrug. “What’s Gibson going to do? Suspend them?”

“I was thinking more of detention.”

“Probably not. There’s not a professor in this building that wants to put up with us during classes, let alone after."

“I don’t mind.”

“Yeah,” I agree, “but you’re the only one.”

He smirks a little, but it falls. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I answer instantly.

He raises an eyebrow, disbelief written all over his face.

I sigh. “Actually, I’m worried about Calvin.” Which isn’t technically a lie. Rolling in misery is a problem, but the bigger picture is that Calvin never bails on us when we need him, so for him not to show up today means something’s wrong.

“Why?” he asks. “What happened?”

“While Leon and the others went to interrogate the city, Calvin was supposed to stay here with me so I wasn’t left ’unprotected.’” I roll my eyes, remembering Leon’s drama this morning. “He never showed up, though, and he’s never bailed on Leon when he’s as freaked out as he has been lately.”

“Have you tried to call him?”

“I texted him when the lunch bell rang, but he hasn’t answered me,” I say, “and, as egotistical as it may sound, even if he’s avoiding Leon, he never ignores me.”

He thinks about it for a moment, processing the information. “You want to make sure he’s okay?”

I almost roll my eyes at his stupidity. “Obviously.”

“All right.” He straightens himself up, holding out a hand for me. “Let’s go then.”

“What?”

“The best way to make sure he’s okay is to check around; first his house, then the places he often goes to, but I’m sure they won’t let you go out by yourself, right?” When I nod, he continues, “Then I’ll come as well. Leon won’t mind as long as someone’s with you.”

I blink. “Wait. You’re coming with me?” I know I repeated what he just said, but my mind can’t process it. Walking the streets of Silverstein with Chase? Uh, well, he has a car, so we wouldn’t really need to walk, I suppose...

“Yes.” He chuckles, amused. “That’s what I said.”

“Uh, okay then.” I nod, taking his hand. “What if someone sees us together, though?”

“I’ll tell them you threatened me to help you,” he teases, helping me up.

“That’d probably work,” I mutter. “In fact, it’d probably be best if you did say tha—”

His grip on my hand tightens as he yanks me closer, covering my mouth with his other hand. “There are a few things I’m going to have to teach you. First: stop making yourself seem like the bad guy,” he says, expression serious as his eyes meet mine, piercing. “Stop saying things that make you seem like you’re heartless when you care too much, and stop taking the fall for others’ mistakes. If we get caught together, I’ll take responsibility because I’m the one offering. You don’t have to incriminate yourself to solve a problem. Understood?”

Unable to do anything else, I nod.

“Excellent.” He lets me go, and I blink a few times. “Let’s start with his house.”

He doesn’t give me a chance to comment, heading for the stairs. I follow behind him silently, lost in thought.

Everyone has gone home, not even the professors wandering the building. I see a janitor or two cleaning aimlessly, but other than that, the hallways are bare.

“What time is it?” I ask.

“A little after four,” he answers.

So I had been hiding in the basement for almost four and a half hours. It had seemed like a lot longer, but that could be because I was alternating between staring at my phone—waiting for someone to text you back makes minutes feel like years—and rolling in self-hatred. I probably would have stayed there all night if Chase hadn’t found me.

Speaking of... “How did you know where I was?”

“Hm?” He hums, looking at me as he unlocks his car doors with the press of a button.

“How did you know where I was?” I repeat, slipping in the passenger seat. Aside from the fact that, for all he knew, I could’ve gone home, there are over a hundred rooms in the school, including the janitor closets and teacher lounge. “It’s nearly impossible for you to just stumble into the one janitor’s closet that has the door to the basement in it.”

He slides into the driver’s seat, starting the car. “Alice mentioned something about you not being in her class, and Geoff was worried that someone kidnapped you, so I had to call Nicole and ask if she knew where you could be.”

Great, so he probably has Nikki worried. With a sigh, I send her a text, telling her I’m okay and Gibson and Kaiser were overreacting. Gibson was probably worried about what Calvin and Leon would do if they found out someone had kidnapped me while I was at school, but it’s weird to think Kaiser was worried about me—after the whole Macintyre thing last year, I’m sure I’m not her favorite person.

“Why were you down there?” he asks, tone light, like he’s simply trying to start another conversation.

I take a second to answer. “Didn’t feel like going to class.” It’s not a complete lie.

He thinks about it, probably deciding if he believes me. “Did something happen?”

I tense, mind automatically bouncing to Ryan and then my arm, which has taken a turn for the painful. I can actually feel my pulse in my veins, like a drum is buried in my wrist. “No,” I say. “I was tired and needed a place to nap.”

He accepts this answer with a nod and the conversation dies.

I should probably make more of an effort, try to convince him that everything’s fine and he and all of the others are simply overreacting, but I’m too drained to lie, and the longer I go without a reply from Calvin, the more my mind jumps to awful scenarios where Preston has taken him. According to rumors, he’s known to torment people who cross him...

I can see it now: Calvin, the idiot, would make a passing at some girl, trying to ease the tension or something, and with his luck, the girl would end up being Preston’s girlfriend or something. Then he’d try to play it off, only to end up pissing Preston off more. In order to instill some form of fear, Preston would need to do something brutal enough to cause Calvin to cave, which isn’t as easy as it sounds...

Talking. Talking is definitely better.

“Calvin lives on the outskirts of Silverstein, in a small trailer park,” I blurt. “I think it’s called Blackwood Estates or something.”

Chase glances at me, like he’s wondering why I’m suddenly in the mood for a conversation, but he doesn’t push anything. “Really?” he says halfheartedly, looking back at the road. “Does he live with his parents?”

I shake my head. “No. He lives with his older sister, but she works as a flight attendant, so she’s almost never home.”

“What happened to his parents?” he asks, finally sounding curious.

“They died when he was a sophomore in high school,” I mumble. “A boating accident or something. I’ve never gotten details because Calvin says he doesn’t remember much about it. He remembers the funeral and his sister fighting to be his guardian, but not many details.”

He tilts his hand. “How old was his sister?”

“She’s twenty-seven now, so that’d make her around twenty-one-years-old, possibly twenty-two.”

“So she’s six years older than him?”

“Yeah, but it hasn’t affected their relationship. She and Calvin are pretty close.” I pause. “Well, close compared to me and Cassadee.”

He lets that sink in, and I can see him mulling over whether to ask me something or not. “Have you and Cassadee always...?”

I sigh. “Always.”

He nods, letting the subject drop, but I elaborate anyway.

“Cassadee isn’t my sister sister,” I explain. “She’s my half-sister. We have different dads, and unlike me, who spent the first eight years of my life with my dad, Mother raised Cassadee, and you can’t expect anyone who’s been raised solely by my mother to grow up sane.”

I can see the amusement flicker on his face. “I see. Lesley, Kaleigh, and Austin are also your half-siblings, correct?”

I nod. “I had only met Shaun once before I was informed that he and Mother were having twins. She immediately made me go buy the necessities as soon as she walked in the door.” I shake my head, remembering the look on the clerk’s face when I told her I needed baby supplies and the best cribs they had to offer. “I knew about Les a few months after Mother found out, simply because Cassadee had threatened that if I didn’t do what she said, Mother would dump the responsibility on me. She and Shaun were married five months later.”

He’s silent for a moment, taking it all in. “I never saw a wedding ring,” he says thoughtfully.

“She probably took it off when you weren’t paying attention,” I mutter.

“Why?”

“Because you’re unbelievably good-looking, and, despite your job as a university professor, you have a nice car; she probably took that to mean you have a rich uncle or something. That’s her superpower: she can smell a man with money.”

He chuckles. “I’m well off, but I’m not rich. Certainly not enough to quench your mother’s thirst.”

“I’ll be sure to tell her that.” Actually, I’d much rather not bring Chase up in front of her ever again, but if it should arise, I’ll be sure to crush what ever plan she’ll concoct in order to win his affection. “Though I’m sure he’s too smart for that kind of thing anyway...”

“What?”

My eyes widen when I realize I said it out loud, but I try to wave him off. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

He smirks but doesn’t say anything.

It falls silent for the rest of the ride. Thankfully, we get to the trailer park pretty fast. My stomach sinks, though, when I don’t see Calvin’s car anywhere.

“He’s not here...” I murmur, heart rate skyrocketing.

If he’s not here, God only knows where he could be. Could he actually be in danger? Did Preston kidnap him? Or was he really out screwing with some girl?

“Hey.” Chase pulls me from my thoughts, hand resting comfortingly on my shoulder. “I’m sure he’s okay. Take a deep breath.”

I do as he says, breathing in through my nose, trying to calm my nerves.

“Do you know where he would go?” he asks, his hand moving against my back in slow circles.

“There’s a place near Mary Jane’s Joint that he stays at from time to time. It’s right next to that old club they closed down. Bubba’s, I think.”

“All right. That’s where we’ll head.” He pulls the car in reverse. “It’s fine; we’ll find him.”

Oh, I’m finding him all right, even if I have to personally tear through Preston’s doors to get him.

“Why is this man, Preston, after you seven anyway?”

I rest my head against the back of the seat. “Nikki and I went on a late night convenience store run a few weeks ago. On the way to Circle K, we saw this guy messing with a girl. He, like, shoved her against a door and started kissing her neck, despite her screaming at him to stop. We were debating on whether to intervene or call the cops when he bashed the back of her head against the door, stunning her. I lost my temper. Before I had really thought it through, I was on him, nearly breaking his neck when I threw him down the stairs, and Nikki was forced to call the police. It turns out the guy was some big shot member of the Black Kings, the local gang, called Ronnie. Put more simply, he was Preston’s right-hand man, and we got him arrested for assault and attempted rape.”

“And he’s retaliating by...”

“By going after me.” I sigh, closing my eyes. “The sad thing is, the police even told us that the charges weren’t likely to stick unless we appeared as witnesses, but even that might not help since we have a reputation, so there’s really no reason for his retaliation.”

“Except a nineteen-year-old girl overpowered a member of an infamous gang,” he points out. There’s silence for a minute while I try to decide how to respond, but Chase beats me to it. “To think that people are so close-minded, they can’t see how far you’ll go to help someone.” His voice is hard, contained anger leaking through. “I can’t fathom how you handle it.”

I look over at him. The look of genuine anger on his face makes something swell in my chest, something warm. “It’s not all bad,” I respond, trying to calm him down. “The girl we saved is safe now—she went to live with her parents while everything cools down here—and continuously tells us how much she appreciates the help.”

“Is that enough for you?” he wonders. “Don’t you think people should know that you go out of your way to make sure no one else is hurting? That you’re willing to put all the blame on yourself to keep others from worrying?”

“It’s a cruel world,” I say easily. “And I think you have the wrong idea. You seem to think that I’m some sort of selfless person, but I’m not. Nikki, Whit, Leon, TJ, Trent, even Calvin; they’re good people, but I just go along with what they say.”

He opens his mouth but closes it tightly. It takes him a few beats to say, “I’m never wrong,” he murmurs quietly. So quietly, I don’t think I’m supposed to hear it. “Especially not this time.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I don’t say anything, letting it drop as everything gets quiet.

It’s not until we pull onto Broadway Avenue that I finally open my mouth. “You might want to park around here. This neighborhood’s not very friendly when it comes to people with money. Plus, someone’s liable to steal it.”

“Okay,” he agrees, pulling the car over and tucking it against the curb, conveniently camouflaging it with the bushes lining the sidewalk. “Be sure to stay close,” he says, putting it in park. “Wouldn’t want you getting lost, would we?”

I roll my eyes and step out, waiting impatiently for him to join me on the sidewalk.

Bubba’s is around the corner, blaring music already, ignoring the fact it’s barely past four-thirty. I can see rainbows of light through the window, but notice that the bouncer hasn’t perched himself outside yet. There aren’t many people inside either, and Alex nods when he sees me.

“Hey, Cupcake, what’re you doing here so early?” He grins, crooked teeth bare, as he runs a hand through his hair, trying to tame the messy array of golden strands. He glances at Chase and tilts his head. “Who’s your friend?”

“His name’s Chase, a friend from MJ’s. This is Alex, the owner of the building.” I vaguely introduce the two. “We’re looking for Calvin, Alex. Have you seen him?”

“Third floor,” he answers, head nodding towards a black door near the DJ Booth. “Fair warning: last time I was up there, he was with a girl, so be prepared.”

I roll my eyes but thank him nonetheless.

“He was ignoring you?” I hear Chase muse, clearly as surprised as I am.

“If he was, he’s going to regret it,” I grind out, temper already sparking.

The steps groan as we walk up them, but the elevator looked like a rusted death trap, so I try to ignore it. Chase follows behind me, looking as if he’s ready to grab me if it seems I’m going to fall through the floor. Occasionally, I see his hands dart out, ready to catch me, especially when I wobble and have to grab the railing to keep from tumbling backward.

When we reach the third floor, I almost praise Jesus.

There’s only one door—the ‘penthouse’ of the building if you want—and even though it’s usually locked, all I have to do is wiggle the doorknob and push in for it to open.

Inside, I can still feel the pulse of rap music from downstairs, but it’s quieter. The wooden floor is covered in clothes. All kinds of clothes just scattered about. A couch is tucked in the corner, the rundown TV in front of it looking as if it dates back to the dinosaur age. Other than that, there’s a mattress, minus the bedframe, pushed under a group of windows. The tacky, Cheetah print comforter is bundle at the foot of the bed, pillows on the floor next to it. Before I can start raiding the room, searching for some hint as to where Calvin went, the bathroom door opens and Calvin steps out, a towel wrapped around his waist.

I launch myself at him, ignoring the water dripping from his hair, and wrap my arms around his neck.

“Cup... cake,” he tries. “What... are you... doing... here...?”

“I was so worried about you,” I breathe into his neck, loosening my grip. “You scared the hell out of me.”

“What are you talking about?” he asks.

I pull away a little, looking him in the eye. “Didn’t you get Leon’s text?”

He shakes his head. “I left my phone at home.”

“Left your phone at home?” I echo.

I’m relieved that he’s okay, but anger gets the best of me. Releasing him, I jab my finger into his neck. He yelps as I press hard on the pressure point, bending down in an effort to escape, but I stomp my heel on his toes.

“You selfish, arrogant prick,” I hiss. “Do you know how worried I was? I almost dragged Chase to Preston’s and kicked in his door because I thought he had decided to go for you instead! You couldn’t even bring your phone with you if you were going to whore around? Huh? Jesus H. Christ, you are so lucky I’m glad you’re okay or I would murder you myself.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t think anything of it. I definitely didn’t think you guys would need me today.”

“Yes, we needed you! Leon didn’t want me to be in school by myself!”

“You were left at school alone?” he reiterates, face grave. “Shit, Cupcake, I’m so sorry. I didn’t—I mean, I never would’ve guessed—ah hell. I deserved that heel-to-toe thing. I’m sorry.”

I let out a frustrated breath. “It’s fine. Just...don’t leave without your phone again, okay?”

“Got it,” he says, looking guilty. “Are you okay? Did something happen?”

“No. I hung out in the basement most of the day.”

“Shit,” he repeats. “I’m sorry. Really. I’m so sorry.”

I yank him in for another hug. “I know. You’re forgiven.”

He hugs me back, wrapping his arms around my waist and squeezing.

We stay like that for too long, I guess, because I can hear Chase clear his throat pointedly.

Calvin freezes, arms like stone against my back, before he pulls away. “Oh, hey, Chase,” he greets, smiling at the professor leaning against the wall. “What’re you doing here?”

“He found me hiding in the basement and offered to help me look for you since I can’t go anywhere by myself,” I explain.

“He volunteered to come with you?” he checks.

“Yeah.”

He sighs, ruffling his wet hair. “Thanks for helping Cupcake.”

Chase shrugs. “It wasn’t anything special.”

Calvin’s lip twitches, smile hardening like he has something more to say, but his eyes flash to me and he stops.

“We’d better get going,” I intervene, shooting him a quizzical look. “I’m worried about Chase’s car.”

Calvin nods, knowing what I mean. “You know you’re staying with me tomorrow, right?”

“Of course. How could I forget?” I grump.

He laughs. “I’ll see you then.” He goes in for another quick hug. “And be careful. People on the streets have been pretty pissy lately.”

“I will. Chase is with me anyway, so I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” he mutters.

I raise an eyebrow.

— xxx —

“I thought you were going to do more damage,” Chase says when we reach the bottom of the stairs.

“If I wasn’t so happy he’s okay, I might have.”

The first floor is still pounding with Rap. Alex is behind the DJ Booth this time, headphones covering his ears as he searches his playlist for something more dance-worthy. He nods when he sees me, and I give him a little wave goodbye, making a beeline for the door.

The sun is hiding behind a building when we step outside. Clouds are still spotting the sky—dark, heavy clouds that make me wonder if it’s going to rain later tonight.

I catch Chase glancing at me and look at him. “What?”

He motions to the Sleeping with Sirens long-sleeve. “You’re soaked.”

“Yeah, Calvin was still dripping when I tackled him,” I mutter, assessing the damage. My shirt is dark grey, the writing white, but you can see where water was absorbed in the fabric: the grey is almost black and the white is see-through.

“I’m surprised it didn’t bother you,” he comments. “He was only in a towel.”

“So?” I wonder. “I couldn’t see anything. Besides, he’s Calvin; I don’t see him like that.”

He smirks, opening his mouth to say something, but is interrupted by some guy ramming his shoulder into his arm. The man, rugged and dirty, steps away from us, personally offended, as if Chase was the one covered in crap and smelled like a trashcan.

The guy snarls, cigarette between his fingers. “Watch where you’re going, buddy.”

“Why don’t you take your own advice, asshole?” I shoot back. “You obviously did it on purpose.”

“What did you say, you little bitch?”

“It’s always bitch,” I mutter. “No one has a better insult.”

“You shouldn’t be so rude to women,” Chase chides easily, tone light, like he’s talking to a kid. “That’s no way to make them like you.”

"What?” he demands, looking at Chase like he’s lost his mind. “Who would want a pink-haired whore?”

At least it’s not bitch this time.

“Let’s go.” I grab Chase’s arm, barely glancing at the idiot in front of us. “He’s not worth it.”

“You wanna repeat that?” the man demands, puffing out his chest.

Chase stays rooted where he is, face dark. “You should watch your mouth, child.” His tone is below zero, absolute freezing.

The man’s arm twitches, teeth grinding so hard, I’m surprise I can’t hear them. The next thing I know, the cigarette in his hand is aimed for Chase’s icy eye. Quickly, before I can think, I grab the man’s fist, barely cringing when the hot ashes press against my palm, and slam my free fist into his jaw. He lands on the sidewalk with a dull thud.

“Don’t screw with someone who’s in the mood for a fight.” I glower, satisfied with the broken jaw he’s sure to have.

He grumbles a curse, whining about his jaw, as I glance at my palm, making a face at the white welt. Cigarette ash is smudged around it, so I try to wipe it off on my jeans.

Chase is standing behind me, expression unreadable. “Come on,” I say back to him, stepping over the man writhing on the concrete. “Things like this happen all the time, so we don’t have to worry about someone calling the cops, but this guy’s bound to have friends, and I don’t feel like taking on a bunch of pissed off—”

Something grabs my hand, tugging me back. I nearly stumble on the man’s chest, gaining my balance just in time, and turn to Chase, agitation flaring.

“What in God’s name—”

His lips meet my palm, eyes closed as I feel his tongue lightly swipe along the burn. When he opens his eyes, I shiver. They’re gleaming silver, molten. “I meant what I said about teaching you a few lessons.” His voice is rich, deep, and his accent is stronger, murmured into my palm. “You shouldn’t let insolent children hurt you. You shouldn’t put yourself in front of someone being attacked. Do not purposefully put yourself in danger again. If I find out you did, I won’t let you off with only this, Vixen.”

I shiver again and barely manage a nod.

He takes my hand away from his lips but pulls me closer. There’s only a slim separation of air between us as he locks our gazes. “Promise me out loud.”

“I promise,” I breathe.

His lips curl into a smile. “Good.” He releases me, satisfied. “We should go.”

I follow him without a word, feeling his lips against my palm, tongue tracing the edges...

My face heats up and I look down at my hand, eyes widening.

The burn is gone.

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