Playing With Fire

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Pink Roses

Holli

“Remember to have your mind maps for chapters fifteen through twenty five, done first thing Monday morning. We’ll begin our Socratic discussions as soon as the bell rings, so be on time please! Enjoy your weekend!” I call after my students as they rush for the door.

Because summer school is so accelerated, the kids I’ve only had for a month are already thinking about its conclusion at the end of July and getting them to focus has been more daunting a task than usual.

If I’m being honest, though, I can hardly blame it all on the students. My brain has been just as scattered this week. With lesson plans for the fall semester due, Lucas’s constant attention, and the stress of keeping our relationship hidden from Andy, my brain has been a tangled mess reminiscent of those knotted Christmas lights we used to hang in December when Andy and I were younger.

I blow out an exasperated breath at the pile of essays I have to grade when a knock at my door makes me jump.

“Sorry, Miss DeLower, I didn’t mean to scare you,” a shy brunette says. I recognize her from the writing lab I work in every other day. Bella? Bailey?

She pushes her glasses onto her nose. “I’m Belle Bryce, I volunteer in the office for extra community service hours. They sent me to deliver these to you.”

My gaze falls to the exquisite bouquet of pink roses in a crystal vase, resting in the girl’s hands and my stomach lays at my feet.

No, no, no. Not here. Anywhere but here.

But the darkness doesn’t listen. It swirls around me like the fog of a tornado and I’m cloaked in its suffocating energy. Anxiety crackles against my skin and the adrenaline spike makes me physically ill.

“Miss DeLower?” The girl asks.

“I’m fine.” I place a hand on my stomach and close my eyes as I wait for the nausea to pass.

“I think you should sit down, you don’t look so good. Should I go get Nurse Heely?”

I shake my head. “I’m fine,” I parrot.

“I think you’re having a panic attack. I get those sometimes. It’s public speaking that does it for me,” she says. “Do you have any candles? Matches?”

I shake my head. Candles? “Fire hazard. Not allowed.”

“Right. Oh I know!”

I rub my temples as the girl pulls out her cellphone and taps on it for a few minutes. She props it against my water bottle and one of those fake fireplace videos plays on the screen.

“What—”

“Shh. Don’t try to speak. Just watch the flames.”

I’m half a mind away from inquiring whether or not Belle needs a drug test, but I’m not exactly in a position to argue so I humor her request.

I watch the flicker of the fire, the sounds of its crackle tinny through the small phone speakers. Not a minute passes before my heart rate slows and the adrenaline comes down. The jittery feeling begins to leave my body and I glance up at Belle’s eyes that are more of a blue hazel than that of my own earthy green, brown.

“How’d you know that would work?” I ask, my cheeks heating. I guess I should be glad a quiet student like Belle found me and not a teacher. The entire school would know about it by Monday from all the gossips that work here.

Belle smiles. “Not my first rodeo, unfortunately. My mom used to light candles for me because she claimed they were the only thing that calmed me down.”

“Sound like a resourceful woman.”

Her smile falters. “Was. She passed away my freshman year. It’s just me and my dad now.”

My heart breaks at the sadness in her eyes. I got the holy grail of mothers and I’d always had Dad and Andy. I hadn’t realized just how lucky I was to have them until Winston had tried to isolate me from everyone I loved.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Belle.”

“Miss DeLower?”

Belle and I whip around to face the front door and I refrain from groaning. Great. The last person that needs to witness my breakdown.

“She’s fine. Just dropping off a delivery, but I think I got the wrong room.” She picks up the vase of flowers and tosses me a wink, but before she can step around Dale Sutton, he grabs the card from the vase and my heart races again.

Shit! “Dale, don’t read that!”

He frowns. “’Cause they’re from Luke? He wouldn’t write something inappropriate and send it to your work.”

Huh? I clear my throat. “T-they’re from Lucas?”

He turns the card around so I can see it.

20 roses for 20 line drives -L

He tilts his head. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay? You look kinda pale.”

I exhale, the weight of my assumptions crashing around me like the world’s biggest wake up call. I can’t keep living like this, freaking out over every little thing, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. It doesn’t matter that I left Winston, he still controls me but it’s worse this time because I’m a prisoner amongst freedom and while I can taste it, it lingers just out of my reach. Then something like this happens and I’m knocked ten steps back.

I can’t even accept a bouquet of gorgeous flowers without them reminding me of the empty apologies that were supposed to make up for the broken wrist of three christmases ago or the bruised ribs of my twenty third birthday. I remember every slap, every kick, every cruel word and the blood. So much blood.

I want to be free.

I swallow past the lump in my throat and say the most honest thing I have all week. “Can you call my brother for me?”

To Dale’s credit, he doesn’t hesitate. “What’s the number?”

I rattle off Andy’s phone number and he turns to Belle and hands her a crumpled bill from his pocket. “Hey Belle, can you get her a bottle of water from the vending machine?”

Her amber eyes with the blue ring around them widen and my blush has nothing on hers. “Y-you know my name?”

Dale looks confused. “You volunteer in the torturing center. I’m there every day.”

I can tell by Belle’s expression this is not news to her.

She doesn’t say anything for the longest time, then wordlessly turns on her heel and rushes out of the door.

Dale turns to me. “I need to know now, am I telling my brother about this or no?”

I shake my head. “He should hear it from me.”

He nods as he makes the call to Anderson. “Hey, you’re not with my brother are you?... Good…” Dale sighs, frustrated. “No, I’m not in trouble nor did I get myself locked up. It’s about Miss DeLower… No, not that one, your sister… I’m not sure, she just asked me to call.”

“Tell him to come pick me up,” I mouth. Dale nods.

“Yeah, she wants you to come get her. I don’t think she can drive… Yeah, yeah. Alright, I’ll let her know.” Dale cuts the call and puts his phone away. “He’s coming from downtown so it’ll take him a minute to get here. Are you cool to wait?”

I nod, smoothing down the fabric of my skirt. “Thank you. I’m sorry to make a big fuss about this.”

Dale looks at me for the longest time. He opens his mouth as if he’s about to speak, then closes it.

“Dale?”

When his eyes return to mine I’m surprised by the vehemence there. “Look, you can pretend with Belle because she’s good people and she’s probably too sheltered to notice, but not with me. I know what I saw Holli. You look scared out of your mind. And not worried-scared, either. Like really afraid.”

The small action of looking away gives me up, but I can’t meet his eyes. Not when my sanity hangs from vulnerability by a thread. I can’t afford to break down in front of my students. Not while I’m a probationary teacher. “I—”

“Before you lie to me, you should probably know something. It ain’t really my place to tell, but my mom won’t care. She’d tell you herself if she thought’d it help.”

“Tell me what?”

Dale looks away. “The first one sent roses. The second, peonies. The last one, daisies. Mom don’t much care for flowers anymore unless they come from her garden and even then, it ain’t never one of them three. Not just flowers, but all gifts. You know how we celebrate her birthdays? Luke and I take her to the beach. But never gifts. Never.”

The knowing look mixed with pain in his eyes makes my heart clench. I never wanted to be a victim. After what happened to my mom, I promised myself I’d make sure nothing like that ever happened to me. I’d told myself for four years, if I allowed it, it’d hurt less, take Winston’s power out of it— because that’s what he’d really wanted from me. I know that now.

But I was naïve to ever think I wouldn’t lose a piece of myself every time.

“You don’t have to say nothing, ’cause that’s not the point. I just want you to be prepared because my brother’s not stupid, Miss D. I’m telling you all this because if I figured it out, he will too if he hasn’t already. And when he does, you’re gonna be the one talking him off the ledge.”

“I’m back! I ran as fast as I can. The vending machine on this side of the school only had soda, the water was out, so I had to go to the cafeteria.” Belle’s soft voice babbles a mile a minute and her nervous energy is a reprieve to the heaviness of my emotions.

I take the bottle from her. “Thank you.”

“No problem, Miss DeLower. And I found the owner of those flowers. Miss Puckett loves her some pink roses. Says they’re her favorite.”

Students like Dale and Belle remind me everyday why I love teaching high school. “That’s very kind of you. Hey, I’m fine now guys, really. I can wait a half hour by myself, besides I’ve got a stack of essays to grade.”

I direct my words at Belle, but I’m talking to myself for all the attention she’s giving me. Either Dale is oblivious to the way she studies him from behind her thick frames or he’s being polite, but something that’s clearly obvious to me— I’m pretty much all but forgotten.

“Hey, Belle… I only have seven students in my English Additions class. Dale’s the only essay without a peer reviewer. I was just going to do it myself, but since you work in the writing lab and assist freshman classes, a student would be preferable. Do you have the time?”

Dale looks from his cell phone to her and I’d laugh at the way she practically melts under his gaze, but I don’t want to embarrass her.

She looks up from her feet to me and swallows. “I think I can make that work.”

“Good. Peer interviews are due next week. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pretend I didn’t just have a breakdown in front of my students.”

Belle winces, but Dale’s expression is stoic as ever. “We’ll take it to the grave. Right, Belle?”

“Right,” she agrees.

I hand Belle’s cellphone to her and point to the door. “Dismissed,” I murmur.

But I toss a wink her way as she steps out of the door behind Dale and her furious pink color darkens.

She doesn’t know it, but her kindness and Dale’s confession have done more for my resolve in a half hour than any therapy session has, my whole life.

It’s time for me to take my life back from the man who stole it.

It’s time the world to know who Sergeant Winston Drake really is. It’s too late to change my past, but I can prevent it from happening to someone else.

I’m getting my freedom back, even if I have to fight dirty for it.

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