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She does look like death, but she seemed to be doing okay – until we touched her. Then it was like a switch went off inside her and now she can’t escape fast enough – what the hell just happened? I’m scared to let her leave in her current state… I also don’t want to let her go… ever…. Good grief.

“Sweetheart, please let me first reassure you that nothing happened between us last night. None of us.” She seems hesitant to believe me, so Ali and I recap how she ended up here – at least the part we know. How she got so drunk in the first place is all her. When we’re finished, she nods woodenly accepting what we’re telling her. Thank God. I would hate for her to think we’d take advantage of her in that drunken state! Disgusting. While she seems reassured somewhat about us not having sex with her, she still wants to leave.

“Sweet girl, why don’t you spend the day with us? Just relaxing, we could go for a horse ride, then a picnic and even a nap if you need it,” Ali jokes. She wants to – it is written all over her face. I have no doubt she enjoyed her time with us whenever we got together at the bar, but is it possible she likes one of us? Oh wow… maybe even both of us?

Before excitement has the chance to root in my heart, I can see whatever inner monologue is going on in her head break her down, and she’s back to wanting to leave. Desperately. I know if we keep resisting, she is going to freak out so instead I offer her a ride home. She refuses and insists she can take a cab, but Ali and I insist, and she finally agrees.

She sits in the middle of the seat between the two of us in my old truck since we don’t all fit on Ali’s bike. Both of us try to engage her in conversation but only get one-word answers if she says anything at all. Whatever happened inside her mind, she has shut down emotionally and disengaged. She is suffering from her own post-traumatic stress – I just wish she would let us in so we could try to help her. Something massive has happened in her life and she is still suffering the fallout.

We both walk her to her door, and she thanks us again for looking out for her. Her voice is kind, but her eyes are void of all emotion. She promises to see us soon at the bar but that she is going to spend today in bed sleeping it off. With a small wave she enters her place and closes the door. Ali and I both get back into the truck and head to the ranch. It’s several minutes before I break the silence.

“Why do I feel like every word she just said to us was a complete lie?” I’m anxious and feel like there are nails lightly scratching down my back, giving me chills. This uneasy feeling comes from years of experience in the field and I’ve learned to trust my gut, it has saved my ass more than once.

“Probably because I feel the exact same fucking way, Finn. Something fucked knocked her down man, and I think she’s struggling on her own,” Ali snarls. He feels it too. He’s alive because of his gut just as much as I am so if we’re both feeling like this, something isn’t right.

By the time we get back to the ranch we’re both in a bad mood. We resume our seats in the chairs on my deck, each with a beer in hand. The silence stretches between us for a long time, both of us lost in our thoughts. It’s me who breaks the silence again.

“Do you think we should check on her? Maybe stop by and take her some dinner…?” I’ll come up with ten excuses if I need them, but something is telling me we should stop by her place. Now. Ali is already walking to my truck, so I guess he agrees. We stop at a local popular diner and pick up dinner for three, in the hopes Peyton’s stomach will be ready for some real food by now.

When we pull up in front of her place the windows in her apartment are all dark. She must still be asleep so that’s good. We buzz her suite, but she doesn’t answer, not that we’re surprised. As we’re standing there, an elderly couple leave the building. The man recognizes our corps tattoos and asks us a few questions about where we served, and thanks us for our service before leaving and letting us in. Neither of us are thrilled with the delay but we can’t be jerks about the couples’ kindness either. Plus it got us into the building which is what we wanted.

We knock on Peyton’s door repeatedly for at least ten minutes and she never answers. Either she isn’t home or really stubborn. Given that the neighbours are now complaining to us about how much noise we’re making, no way she’s sleeping through our knocking. Her car is in the lot and she really wasn’t in any shape to be going anywhere…

Ali and I look at each other, both of us sharing the same frightening thought. She was upset – no – devastated by something… you could see her emotionally detach with your own eyes. Is it possible the alcohol didn’t give her the pain relief she was looking for so now she found it somewhere else? Oh God.

Ali threatens to kick the door down if she doesn’t open it within thirty seconds. We count silently and the door remains closed. Ali growls and with one kick her apartment door swings open. I know Ali is a big guy but that was remarkably easy. We’ll be getting her some better locks tomorrow.

We both start calling her name but hear nothing back. The apartment is silent with only the running fridge making any sound. There is a trail of Peyton’s clothes leading to what I’m guessing is her bedroom – the clothes are the ones she was wearing when we dropped her off. The rest of her apartment is spotless, so this seems out of character – warning bells are going off in my head.

I can hear sirens, so my best guess is one of the neighbours called 911. I have never been arrested before, but I don’t see talking our way out of this one. It doesn’t look like she’s here, so we just broke into her empty apartment. Ali opens a door and checks what turns out to be her closet while I open what I’m guessing is the bathroom.

Oh my God. So much blood.

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