Chapter 10- A Second Too Long, a Second Too Short
“Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.”
Few things in the world rival the clinking of pots and pans and cooks calling, “Order up!” when one is rabid with hunger.
Raven, Maddie, and I were having lunch at Pedro’s after a long morning of classes. Raven had been complaining for last twenty minutes about her Calculus class and second, third, and fourth-guessing her major.
“What’s so great about speech pathology anyway? So I help disadvantaged children have fulfilling lives. Big whoop.”
“That is a big deal,” Maddie replied. She’d spent most of lunch indulging in Raven’s drama. Food was here, which meant I was only partially listening to what was going on. “You want to change lives. I doubt ten years from now you’ll remember Calculus, but you’ll never forget helping those kids.”
Raven opened her mouth, paused, and shut it again.
She squinted at Maddie. “You’re really wise for a college student. You raised by a monk or something?”
Madison became occupied stirring her straw in the ice. “Nah, I’m just good with words, I guess.”
“You can say that again. Don’t know how you haven’t grabbed that butter knife over there and cut my throat to shut me up.” Raven sympathized.
“Sophia’s been listening too. She doesn’t seem bored or anything,” Maddie said.
My head jerked from watching the waitresses serving orders. “Huh? What?”
Raven rolled her eyes and pointed at me with a spoon. “Point made. Where the hell is the food? I’m
“Food,” I grunted.
Maddie giggled. “I think we’ve lost Sophia.”
Finally, finally, the waitress grabbed a large tray from the counter and walked to our table. The second she put it down, we descended like wolves on the offering. The waitress snatched her hand back, and hurried away with a frightened expression. I absently noted it was Shawna, the same snarky waitress as last time.
Ten minutes later, we were sitting back with full bellies and considerably less cranky.
Raven rubbed her stomach. “I was starting to worry
I’d have to go all Silence of the Lambs and eat you guys.” Madison blushed at the same time I yawned. So much food was making me sleepy, but I had English Lit in a half hour and couldn’t risk a nap.
“Sleepy,” I expressed my woes. “Someone slap me.”
“Alright,” Raven agreed magnanimously, reaching across the table, but Maddie grabbed her hand and held it tightly.
“No violence at Pedro’s, girls,” Maddie scolded.
Raven pouted, but a glance over my shoulder had a glowing smile overtaking her face. There were only two possible explanations: Calculus had been outlawed, or Jesse had walked in.
“Ladies,” came Jesse’s cordial greeting, but he didn’t pause as he crouched beside Raven and kissed her, so fully and deeply I had no choice but to look away.
For some reason, I chose to glance at Madison, and the look on her face made me wish I hadn’t. Her fingers were clenched tightly around her soda, and she was staring at the table, lips pursed.
Did Madison like Jesse? The thought had never occurred to me, but she did always seem to act strangely when those two were together. I didn’t have time to ponder the matter.
A familiar smell, clean cotton and grass, filled my nose and my senses went overboard.
Jesse hadn’t come alone.
“I’d tell you to make some room, but given our history in this place, can’t say I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Landon’s deep and always vaguely amused voice was in my ear.
I turned a fraction of an inch to the side and was met with lazy sapphire eyes. Without permission from my brain, my lips turned up in a cautious smile. Things with Landon had been unsettled since the night in my room, but then again, when had things with Landon ever been settled?
“Hi,” I said, full of my usual wit and charm.
A breathtaking grin spread across his face. “Hi back.”
“Babe, hand me a towel or something to wipe all the steam from the windows. I feel like I’m watching foreplay with these two,” Raven declared in her usual wit and charm.
Maddie was looking at us with a twinkling smile, and it made me shy. Damn it, two minutes in Landon’s presence and I was already mush-minded and girly. I needed Susan B. Anthony to descend from the heavens and punch me in the baby-maker.
“Someone had to bring the steam, since you and Jesse weren’t cutting it,” Landon smirked at Raven’s glare and Jesse’s exasperated sigh.
I spoke to him from the corner of my mouth. “I think we’re troublemakers.”
He laughed low. “Sugar, you have no idea.”
I passed him the sugar. He glanced at it and then me.
“So I’ve heard.”
“Your friend’s a real comedian,” Raven said loudly. “Want to hear the one about the Goth chick and the frat boy?”
“Hey, I’m not a frat boy!” Jesse protested. He noticed Raven’s Death Ray activating and quickly backtracked. “I mean, not that you’re Goth or anything. Or that Goth is bad, it’s fine, great. Aw, screw you, Lan.”
Landon, satisfied with a job well done, turned back to me, still holding his crouch. Geez, he must have some wicked muscles. I could hold a squat for maybe two seconds before my calves started burning.
“So, we still on for tonight?”
“Yup. Printed out relevant research, have my notes, and I’ve started on the PowerPoint,” I informed him, proud for taking the initiative.
Landon chuckled. “Am I just there to look pretty?”
“Don’t worry, you’re doing your job well.”
Giving myself a pat on the back for putting the surprised look on Landon’s face, I made the mistake of glancing at my watch.
“Crap! I’m going to be late to Lit!”
Grabbing my backpack, I quickly slid it on my shoulder. Landon stood, stepping aside as I scrambled for my wallet to leave the money for lunch and a decent tip.
Raven waved her hand. “I got it, just go!”
“Thank you!” I effused my voice with gratitude and hightailed it from Pedro’s, but not before noticing the oddly determined look on Landon’s face.
“I’m here, I’m here!” I panted, swiping my nametag from Riker’s desk and practically crawling over the counter.
Riker was tapping a tune with his pencil and barely raised his head. It was one of the great things about having a hippie for a boss-he didn’t give a toss so long as everything worked out in the end.
Today had just been the day of tardy. First the chef takes a decade to finish lunch, then I was late to Lit (something I vowed never to do again after Professor Henry forced me to sit up front and proceeded to include me in his Spray de Saliva), and tying the knot with my lateness to work. In my defense, I’d needed at least fifteen minutes to wash off Professor Henry’s DNA.
The next few hours went by peacefully. I shelved the large stack of returned books, since Riker never noticed them until they threatened to spill over the floor, and helped out the students looking to get all their homework done on a Thursday in order to enjoy a free weekend.
I was almost done for the day when my phone buzzed in my back pocket. Checking that nobody was in immediate need of my services, I extracted it and checked the caller ID.
“Sophia! How are you, honey?” Mom’s voice, as always, filled me with an acute sense of homesickness.
“I’m good. How about you? I feel like we haven’t spoken in a long time.”
“It’s because we haven’t. I understand, of course, your life must be busy and glamorous, who has time for a phone call to their silly old Mom?”
I rolled my eyes. “So how’s Dad?”
“Dandy. He bought a new golfing set for a gazillion dollars and is pleased as punch. I go and buy new curtains for the guestroom and it’s like I went and funded the cocaine movement.”
Snorting, I idly clicked through the selection of recently returned books on the computer. Mom went on about Dad and golfing and how his constant losing should give him some sign he sucked at the sport.
“So, what time is your plane landing?” Mom asked casually.
My finger paused above the mouse. “Huh?”
“You know, for Thanksgiving. Don’t tell me you
haven’t bought your ticket yet!”
“Mom, I know what you’re doing. We agreed I’d come for Christmas, but not Thanksgiving. Anyway, it’s not for another two weeks.”
“Well, I changed my mind! It’s been three months since I’ve seen you, and my belly-button aches. I still feel the umbilical cord, you know, and it wants you reattached to me.”
My nose wrinkled, Riker caught the move and raised his brows. I mouthed the caller and he nodded in understanding and solidarity.
“Ew! Put some salve on that belly-button or go see
Dr. Hernandez. As for Thanksgiving…I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Mom made a sound disturbingly close to a growl, so
I talked quickly. “Actually, I’m at work and I need to help clean up, so I’ll chat with you later, yeah? Okay, bye!”
“Sophia Katherine Michaels!”
“Love you!” I finished, and quickly hung up.
Riker flicked his Mohawk and shook his head.
“Mothers, man. Can’t live with ’em, can’t send them to voicemail.”
Fat drops of rain landed on me the second I stepped outside.
Fabulous. Flipping my hood over my hair, I tightened my jacket around me and hurried down the path. I was about to turn the corner when I remembered Landon cautioning me against the dark alleyway.
I hesitated. On one hand, he was right. It was dark and dank and empty, which was everything a girl or sane person knew to avoid, especially at night. On the other hand, it was raining heavily, so who would bother skulking in the alleyway at this time? I wanted to get home, and fast. If I was late to one more thing today, I would flip a building.
Decided, I made my way down the alley, my footsteps echoing against the narrow walls. I was almost through and feeling the first trickles of relief. There was really nothing to it, just a couple dozen feet of concrete.
Almost as soon as I’d finished the thought, an arm came out of nowhere and shoved me against the wall.
I was frozen with surprise and fear for a nanosecond, pinned against the wall by a meaty arm. Adrenaline spiked throughout my body, and I surged forward with a hysterical scream.
Before I could get more than two steps away, however, he was there. One arm went around my torso, trapping my arms to my sides. The other clamped over my mouth.
I tried to kick him but only hit empty air. My eyes stung from the cold and pure panic. I was pressed into a burly male body, and I filled my lungs with a scream that wouldn’t see the light of day.
Wiggling frantically, I tried to open my mouth wide enough to bit his palm. No way was I going down without a fight. The steel band around my chest tightened painfully.
“Stop fucking moving,” an angry voice hissed in my ear. “I’ve got a message for your boyfriend. Tell him retribution is coming, and he’d better be prepared to pay.”
Boyfriend? Retribution? What the hell was this psycho going on about?
Writhing in his grip, I gave escape another futile shot. A swift punch to the side of my head had the walls swinging in front of me. “Did I stutter, bitch? Stop moving! I’ll let you deliver my message when I’m good and ready. Tell Sinclair what’s dead isn’t always buried, and I haven’t forgotten. It took me a while to track the son of a bitch down after his Daddy covered his footsteps, but I’m here and he’s going to pay.”
Sinclair…holy mother of fudgecake, this loony tune was talking about Landon!
“While you’re delivering that message, I hope you don’t mind if I use your face to send another one,” he laughed in my ear, and the sadistic sound made my skin crawl.
Suddenly, he loosened his hold completely. I moved to run, but a heavy knock to my cheek drove my body into the wall. My head made impact with a sickening crack. I crumpled to the floor, eyes drooping and lungs seizing.
“Don’t forget what I said,” was the last thing I heard from my attacker before he retreated from the alley and disappeared into the rainy night. The part of me that wasn’t about to pass out appreciated the theatricality of the whole thing.
Everything was blurry. I tried to stand, but pain blasted from my head, and collapsed again with a gasp.
My phone rang, its music bouncing loudly off the walls. Fighting the dizziness threatening to overwhelm and drag me under, I picked it up and put it to my ear.
“Are you maintaining a theme of being late for the day? It’s raining, so I’m outside your room. Where are you?” Landon’s voice sounded faint.
“In the alley,” I whispered and hissed with pain when a small shift scraped my head. “I’m sorry…I know you told me not to…it hurts. It hurts a lot, Landon.”
In my ear, I heard Landon’s footsteps slapping pavement. “Stay with me, Sophia. Don’t hang up. What happened?”
It was getting harder and harder to concentrate on what he was saying, and the concrete was starting to look pretty comfortable.
“He said he was sending a message. ’What’s ‘dead isn’t always buried’, I think. Oh, and something about retribution. Was he talking about zombies?” I giggled loudly and tilted to the floor. The cold of the ground against my cheek shocked me conscious for another minute.
Landon inhaled sharply. “No,” he whispered. “Oh no.”
Tapping noises filled the alley, and terror filled me. Was he back? Was the attacker back with another ‘message’?
Landon’s face filled my vision, horror stark on his features. “Shit,” he growled. “I’m here, Sophia, I’m here. Just sit tight, okay? I need you to stay awake.”
He raised me from the floor and onto his lap. The scratch of his jeans against my cold skin was nice. It almost negated the pain radiating from my head. I knew Landon saw it because I felt him tense and curse.
“I need an ambulance. We’re at Franklin University, in the alleyway near the campus library. No I can’t stay on the damn phone, there’s a girl bleeding on the floor. I don’t know, someone attacked her, so hurry up!”
“I am so sorry, Sophia. I am so sorry,” Landon’s agonized chant was the only thing keeping me from sleep.
His hand moved over my hair, being careful to keep away from the back of my head.
“Not…your fault,” I managed.
This didn’t stop his mantra, just made him tense up even more. In the distance, I heard sirens. Good, the doctors needed to return my coherency so I could get Landon to stop apologizing.
“Dammit, what is taking so long?” Landon’s impatience was growing by the second, but the hand stroking my hair never faltered.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured.
“Sophia…” Landon’s exasperated voice trailed off.
“I…was late. Again. Sorry. Got…held up,” I finished.
Landon didn’t laugh, but he relaxed slightly. “I think I’ll let this one pass. Just don’t let it happen again.”
Finally, I couldn’t ward off the pull of sleep. As my breathing eased and my eyelids fell, a blast of irony brought a smile to my lips.
I’d been attacked, likely had a concussion, and was waiting for the paramedics.
And yet in all my life, I’d never felt safer than I did in Landon’s arms.