Chapter 29- Grave Reflections
“Life has a way of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen at once.”
“I still don’t understand why you have to leave three days early,” Mom complained. Dad was too busy trying to find any kind of parking at LAX to chime in.
“Once I figure everything out, I’ll let you know, I promise,” I placated. Her scowl wasn’t particularly reassured, but I was pretty sure she’d forgive me once I told her I had a boyfriend. “Where are you even going to stay?” she continued.
“Oh honey, there’s an open spot right there! Quick, that Camaro is getting funny ideas.”
Dad swerved into the parking spot. “I’ll probably stay with the Kendalls’. They’re the ones I stayed with over Thanksgiving.”
“I THOUGHT YOU STAYED ON CAMPUS
Rapidly jumping from the car, I lugged my carry-on from the trunk and strapped my purse securely across my chest. The three of us narrowly avoided being run over by an assortment of cabs and buses as we entered my terminal. Mom continued bombarding me with questions, but I was too lost in my head to pay attention.
I was finally going to see Landon.
It had been two and a half long, endless weeks. Spending time with my parents had been a treat, and I’d needed the time to clear my head and see things through fresh lenses. Going back to see Landon was my grand romantic gesture: my boom-box under the window, my Ryan Gosling kiss in the rain. If flying hundreds of miles and suffering my mother’s ire wasn’t romance, I didn’t know what was.
Our last argument had circled around and around in my mind, like the lyrics of a song you can’t forget.
The girl I love, she could write a thousand stories, direct a thousand movies. She could live a thousand lives. All you’ve got to do is tell her it’s finally safe to come out.
I wasn’t so sure about a thousand lives-but I was certain about this one. And it was about time I started writing my own lines for it.
Raven had been confused as hell when I’d called to tell her my plan and sworn her to secrecy. “Why? Isn’t Naomi still in the picture?” she’d asked.
To which I’d responded, “I don’t care who’s in the background of the picture so long as Landon and I are front and center.”
Her parting line had been something akin to ‘You sappy dumbass’.
“We’ll send Poe with your friend Raven,” Mom said as I stood in line. “I’m sure he won’t cause problems with her since they’ve lived in the same room for a few months now.”
My poor naïve Mother.
I reached the front, and they each hugged me tightly.
“We’ll come up and visit soon,” Mom promised tearfully. “I can’t go three months without seeing my baby again.”
Dad mussed my hair and grinned. “Hugs, not drugs. Have a safe trip, pumpkin.”
Laughing, I allowed the wave of sadness to wash over me and slowly recede as I waved goodbye to my parents. The wait was short before I was boarding the plane and on my way back to Maryland.
As soon as I landed, I planned to call Mrs. Kendall to inform her I might need to spend a few nights at her homeif she’d take me- and to determine whether Landon was staying with them or his Dad.
I was jittery throughout the entire flight. The woman next to me had been sound asleep since we boarded, and I was grateful I had the window seat. It would be a tragedy to let a view like the one I was seeing right now go to waste.
From Raven’s combat boots and her tough-as-nails personality to Maddie’s sweet smile and romantic heart, from Jesse’s sly matchmaking to Poe’s panty pilfering, from Riker’s bizarre philosophical trips to Pedro’s chocolate milkshakes, I’d had a truly wonderful quarter. Time passed differently when you lived on campus-every day felt like a year and every relationship a lifetime.
Then there was Landon.
I’d never really been big on the idea of love. Sure, I believed it existed-my parents were proof of that. But it seemed more like something you see in the movies and read about in the books-dreamy and magical and utterly inconceivable. It had taken me two years to say ‘I love you’ to my first best friend- I couldn’t even manage to say it in the cutesy, irreverent way most teenagers did.
But then a boy with blue eyes rescued my cat in exchange for my heart. I laughed out loud, garnering another strange look from the wary flight attendant. As if Landon had only demanded my heart. The bastard hadn’t been satisfied until he’d taken possession of my sanity, my thoughts, my soul.
At least we’d gotten an A on our Psych project.
We finally landed, and I nearly tramped a small
Persian lady in my rush to get out. I avoided glancing at any mirrors as I rushed across the airport. No doubt I looked like hell warmed over, but such was the price one pays for love.
Night had fallen, and I was starting to get annoyed with my lack of planning. This was why I was a micromanager; last minute plans were scary and a pain. Also, I had no idea what directions to give the cab driver.
I dialed Mrs. Kendall’s number and smiled awkwardly at the cab driver, who was driving in the general direction of the Kendall’s neighborhood.
She answered on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Hi Mrs. Kendall! It’s Sophia Michaels.”
“Oh, Sophia! How are you, dear?”
“Great, great. Listen, do you happen to know where Landon is? I’m in town and I really need to see him.”
“Is that so?” she chuckled, and I almost rolled my eyes at her sly tone. “He’s actually staying with his father. You might want to call ahead to make sure they’re home. I’ll give you the house phone, since Landon left his cell here yesterday. Do you have a pen and paper handy? I’ll give you the address?”
Drat, I hadn’t considered the possibility that no one was home. I held the phone from my ear and addressed the driver. “Do you happen to have a paper and pencil for the address?”
He glanced into the rearview mirror and rolled his eyes. After some shuffling, he handed me an old GPS. “Just type it.”
“Go ahead, ma’am,” I said, keying the address into the worn machine. It actually wasn’t too far away from the Kendall’s, just a few blocks. That was convenient.
“Sophia, I’m glad you’re back, sweetheart. Landon’s been…well, I’m just happy you’re here.”
I bit back my huge grin. “Thanks, Mrs. Kendall. I’m glad to be back too.”
Hanging up, I fought with the decision to call the house number Mrs. Kendall had provided. As much as I wanted to do the big surprise thing, I also didn’t want to be left stranded on the sidewalk. So, with my heart racing, I punched in the number and held the phone tightly to my ear.
It rang for a few minutes before I was sent to the automated voicemail.
“Hey Landon…or maybe Mr. Sinclair. I, um, I’m on my way over to your house right now, so hopefully you guys are home and just haven’t gotten to the phone. Or you’re on your way home. Landon, if you get this before I show up…I, uh, I can’t wait to see you.”
I hung up and cringed. That could have gone better. Maybe I could delete it without them noticing when I came in. I felt my nerves weaken the closer we got to Landon’s house, but I shoved them away. The driver deposited me in front of a huge house. I stood there for a minute, taking it in.
Landon’s father was loaded. The house was almost a mansion, with two Washington pillars towering over an enormous lawn and a brick pathway. Large windows gave the place an almost museum-like appearance, and I would have bet a kidney the inside was all stainless steel, priceless art pieces, and stylish furniture.
And here I was, rolling up in my battered purple carry-on and fuzzy black coat. Every step to the front door built up more and more energy in my chest until I was on the edge of exploding. Even their door was fancy, with varnished mahogany wood and one of those golden knockers.
I rang the doorbell and waited, hopping from foot to foot. Maybe a minute or two of waiting, then I’d go find a nice spot of grass to sit on and wait, because there was nothing sexier than mud stairs on pants.
The lock clicked, and the door swung open.
“Um, Mr. Sinclair?” I inquired when I didn’t see anyone at the handle. But I was looking at the cutest little guest room I’d ever seen. Maybe they had one of those weird automated doors? A shy maid?
I entered slowly, hoping I wasn’t being intrusive. “Hello?” I called.
The door slammed shut. Before I could so much as hiccup, a pair of steel-band arms were wrapped around me, pinning my arms to my sides.
“We meet again, whore,” a voice said cheerfully.
Every cell in my body went on lockdown. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t. As much as I tried to reject my reality, it was impossible. My mind hadn’t forgotten the voice that had laughed as it threw me into an alley wall or terrorized months of my life. “How…how?” I whispered. This couldn’t be real. Maybe I was still on the plane. Maybe I’d fallen asleep watching the cresting mountains. Carter shifted a little and giggled. “How am I here?
Gee, I’m glad you asked!”
Shivers ran down my spine
“It’s actually a really funny story-like, the kind you tell at parties. So I’ve been keeping tabs on your favorite fuckwit, waiting for the right time to get him alone. Normal revenge to-do list, right? But then he and Daddy go off to spend some quality time together and rent a movie. Touching, right? So here I am, bummed that I have to leave and come back another time, when who decides to call but you?” He bopped my nose, making me flinch. “And you left a message! Your voice just suddenly filled the room, and I swear to you, little slut, I heard angels sing.”
My system had recovered from the shock and was now working at a million miles a minute, trying to find a way to make it out of this alive. Maybe if I kept him talking long enough, I could find a way to get loose and escape.
“Now this-this is much better revenge than killing the motherfucker. Thank you for your participation!”
With a shriek, I lunged forward, breaking free of his hold. I started to run, screaming all the while. I didn’t get far. Carter hit my side like a wrecking ball, one arm going round my swinging arms and the other holding a rag to my mouth and nose. Struggling against the vice of his grip was pointless. The towel had a damp, slightly sweet smell, and in the back of my mind I knew what was happening. It wasn’t long before my writhing lost its force and the fight slowly seeped out of my body.
Everything was numb and blurry. My eyelids weighed a million pounds, and I couldn’t remember how to move. My limbs were like dead weights on my body. I felt prickly little needles spread across my spine as I was dragged, head hanging forward uselessly.
The nice thing about being unable to move or think was that my panic felt a thousand miles away. I was detached and floating in a clouds of oblivion. Sounds were thick and broken, not quite penetrating the fog in my mind.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
Tingles started spreading from my toes to my neck, and I curled my fingers. With great effort, I forced my eyes open and blinked rapidly, clearing the blurry sheen in my vision.
I was staring at a sky full of stars.
Swallowing through a scratchy throat, I struggled to sit up, but my arms were tied behind my back and there was a weight on my left leg. I was laid out on grass on a sloping hill. Landon’s house was behind me, sliding door open wide. Arching my spine, I propped myself up on my elbows and tried to rotate my neck.
“Sleeping beauty awakens!” My head jerked painfully towards my feet, where Carter was crouched. He waved.
It was my first time seeing what he actually looked like. The alley had been too dark, and he had this funny habit of never showing his face when he hunted me. Carter Janson had wavy blonde hair falling to his chin and sharp cheekbones, giving him a European royalty appearance. He was lean and fit, with broad shoulders and a formidable height.
This was a guy I’d see on the street and glance twice at.
But there was a glint in his eyes, a cruel, calculating glimmer that would push me to walk away quickly, to look for a streetlamp or a crowd.
“Please,” I murmured, the words a dry croak. “Please let me go.”
Carter bit his lip. “’Fraid I can’t do that. This actually couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. You literally fell into my lap.” He slapped his knee, overcome with glee.
For the first time, I noticed what the weight on my leg was. A length of rope was tied from my ankle to a huge brick. It wasn’t until I stared down the slope of the hill that I realized what Carter’s intentions were and nearly vomited.
A still blue lake stretched a dozen feet from where I lay, a small ridge overlooking the dark waters. I’d seen something like it at the Kendall’s, but there was no fence around this one.
This was the spot Landon’s mother had killed herself. The place where Landon slit his wrists.
I was on Death Point.
“Oh, don’t look so scared. Of everything I could have done, this isn’t that bad. Drowning is pretty peaceful, once you get through the first few minutes. It’s like going to sleep,” Carter counseled, tying a second rope around my ankle.
“You think killing me will avenge your brother?” I demanded, anger replacing my paralysis. Carter froze, fingers hovering inches above my foot. “It was an accident. Landon tried to kill himself afterwards, for Pete’s sake! Do you really think, if he could go back in time, he would have ever hit Rex?”
In a nanosecond, Carter was inches from his face, a terrifying rage etched into his features. His eyes burned feverishly. “Don’t you dare say my brother’s name,” Carter hissed. “I don’t give a flying fuck what your precious little murderer would do. I lost my brother because of him. I buried my little brother because of him. And he gets off scot free? Daddy dearest gets his precious little boy free from the cops without a scratch while my brother is rotting in his grave! Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to find that son of a bitch and give him what he deserves?”
“Boo-hoo!” I screamed. Carter reared back, surprise flashing across his face. My sanity had taken a back-seat to the crashing fury I harbored for this monster. He’d terrorized me, sent me to the hospital, and mutilated my cat. I was done whimpering in the corner. If I was going down, I was going down swinging.
“You think you’re the only one who has lost a sibling? My twin sister is six feet under right now, and she wasn’t taken from me by accident, it wasn’t a clean cut. She was torn, piece-by-piece, until the cancer had its fill. People die, Carter! Could I have stalked the doctors that couldn’t save her and leave messages in mud on their door? Sure! But see, I’m not a RAGING PSYCHOPATH!”
Carter stood, towering over me. He sneered, unimpressed by my speech. “Your sister died naturally. You had a chance to say goodbye.”
He bent and hooked his arms under my shoulders, dragging me to a stand. My hands were tied expertly, and I couldn’t even budge my left leg an inch. Carter started dragging me towards the ridge.
“She died with her family around her. The last thing she saw wasn’t the face of her killer,” he grunted. The brick scraped at the grass, leaving a trail of dirt and red dust. My ankle was blazing with pain, blood wetting the rope digging into my flesh.
We reached the edge of the ridge. I stared down at the dark, unbroken surface of the water. My reflection looked back at me, hair a wild mess and expression tight with fear and regret.
My mind flashed back to a study night with Landon, when I’d nearly had a panic attack on the edge of the water.
“You never know what’s happening under there. You can’t breathe, you can’t see, you can’t hear. It’s like being suspended in time in an alternate universe.”
Carter appeared at my side, keeping a firm grip on my shoulder. As if I had any chance of getting away with a brick tied to my leg. “Nobody took your sister’s life. But I have to live knowing my brother is cold in the ground and the reason for it is living a happy life.”
He tilted my chin up, a melancholic smile touching his mouth. “The day your boyfriend killed my brother, he took my life too,” he whispered. “I’m dead on the inside, Sophia Michaels. I’m dead but I haven’t been buried.”
Moving behind me, he placed his hands on my waist and pulled my body into him. His breath brushed my ear. “I guess that’s why we’re so alike. You’ve been dead for quite a while too.”
And he shoved me forward.
I was flying in the air for a split second before hitting the water. I was suspended for an eternity in the freezing lake, caught in a darkness that wouldn’t clear no matter how many times I blinked. As I wildly clawed at the water, it occurred to me that Carter’s was likely the last voice I’d ever hear. What a true tragedy.
Then I was sinking.
Bubbles exploded from my mouth and nose as I plummeted. Struggling against my binding, I tried kicking with my free leg, but it was pointless. I was trussed up good and tight, without a single fighting chance against the lake’s depths. My lungs began to burn, and my sight was blurring. Despite the fire in my chest, my skin was numbing to the cold. My mouth opened, flooding my insides with the poison. Bubbles burst around my head as my body stood on its last leg.
I was expecting a Disney-esque move reel of my life’s greatest moments. After all, pretty much in every book and movie out there. But all I saw was colors.
The white of a hospital waiting room.
The blue of Landon’s eyes.
The worn black of Raven’s combat boots.
The green of Mom’s favorite sweater.
The orange of Poe’s fur.
With each new color, I lost a little more of a futile battle.
My thrashing weakened, my vision went dark. Carter was right. Drowning was almost peaceful, once you allowed the water to own you. As my body loosened, I realized I’d quit sinking and was lodged next to the rocks. It was my last conscious thought before the world went quiet.
And then I was floating, cutting easily through the water, floating over the ridge and grass until I was suspended parallel to the house. Everything was wavy, the world liquid and sepia, like waves rippling in an old movie. It felt nice, to be free of my troubles and my worries and my pains.
“You’ve always been a copycat, you know that?”
I should have been surprised. Elated. But it felt right, natural. Like one of life’s great inevitabilities had come to pass.
Turning, I smiled at the one still thing in a spinning world.