I held my trembling body, my back against the side of a building. The violent tremors in my body hadn’t stopped and I don’t think it will any time soon. I’d been hiding in this alley for what felt like an eternity and a day. I pulled my phone out to check the time, but when I pressed the power button – or any button for that matter – all it offered was a blank, cracked screen. I frowned then remembered I had been running and dropped it. I’d been so hysterical I couldn’t even remember when or why I bothered picking it up in the first place. It’s probably broken. I took a deep breath to calm myself. It worked until I screamed in frustration, then chucked it against the opposite wall. The glass of the screen shattered to pieces, showering the concrete below. Layers of the phone unfolded and scattered in front of me.
I felt hollow, like the heart of that bastard. My face wrinkled in pain again and I buried my face into the sweaty palms of my hands. Choking sobs and other inhumane noises came out of me and echoed through the alley. I could hear my own agony, taste my own distress. The hardest part of this is I haven’t registered what had happened yet.
I wasn’t crying over a size 0 dress that wouldn’t fit me, nor was I crying about a boyfriend who was holding hands with his ex in the park when he said he couldn’t hang out with me.
I was crying over somebody who isn’t coming back. That’s just it.
She isn’t coming back. Ever.
I had been fuming, overly enraged, and slightly guilty when I stormed towards the gas station Mom was working at. That gas station was her life. It was our own family heirloom. Something she wanted to pass down generation to generation like it had been before. I thought it was stupid because it was just a gas station. But she’d told me from time to time how she’d met Dad there, how she met so many wonderful people who became regular guests at our dinner table.
I was on my way there, when I saw movement all over the place. Hands flying up and glinting weapons being pointed. My first instinct was to run and I did run, but it wasn’t away from the chaos. I ran straight into the thick of it.
There was no way I could have entered the station without that damned bell ringing on the handle of the front doors so I had gone in through the back door. It took me a lot of willpower to force myself further into the station when a deep, urgent voice filled my ears. I instantly spotted my mom behind the counter as I crept through the side entry, her hand edging closer to the alarm switch. I’d never seen such fear cross her face in my entire life. She swallowed at a lump in her throat and cautiously flipped it, the small clicking noise barely audible from where I stood. Good, then there’s less of a chance that he heard it. There was a soft click behind me and I jumped, only to see the door closing. I let out a breath of relief and faced the inside of the station again.
“I SAID PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!” the intruder demanded, pulling his handgun up again. It wasn’t a semi-automatic or an AK-47, but it could surely injure… or kill. I felt the color drain from my face as my mom’s arms shook in the air. Anxiety was thick in my throat as I dove quietly behind a shelf of neatly stacked chips. What I was doing? I had no idea, but I had to do something, even if I died trying. My entire body glittered with sweat from both fear and the running. I knew she had seen me out the corner of her eye. I could’ve sworn her mouth almost twitched to a smile, but then again, knowing your daughter was now in the same building as an armed robber wasn’t. The man hadn’t seen me as far as I knew. He cocked his gun up again as if to silently threaten her and I let out a gasp when his finger slipped towards the trigger. He heard me. His hands were shaking. He looked like he was scared to hurt her. But then again, he could be scared of getting caught. I saw him turn to look at me for only a moment.
I clapped my hands over my mouth so I wouldn’t make another sound and lifted myself from the crouching position behind the chips. There was a click but no gunshot. In that moment I was supposed to die. Did he even know how to work a gun? I stumbled towards the opposite wall and took the opportunity to pull the fire extinguisher out. I pulled the pin and aimed blindly at his face as he neared me. He choked and sputtered, but ducked away from the spray, landing on the floor all the way across the station, near the glass front doors. I silently thanked everything in existence that today there would be no customers. But I had no time for thanks, not just yet. He cried out and brought both hands up to his face, the gun clutched loosely in his hand. After he got over the confusion of the foamy substance, he blindly pointed the gun at me.
Panic arose in me and I threw the empty extinguisher at him. It flew past his head and hit a shelf of baked goods. The shelf slammed back into the wall and ricocheted, landing on top of him. That wasn’t exactly what I intended on doing, but it bought me time.
I scurried to my mom and she caught me tightly in her arms, whispering a number of apologies and a couple other things I could barely understand in the tense atmosphere. She held my face between both her withering, fragile hands as tears spilled from her eyes. I just noticed then that I was crying as well.
“You’re a very strong girl, and I love you so so much. I hit the alarm switch and the police should be on their way here now.”
More hot tears sprang to my eyes and I enveloped her in a vice-tight hug, relieved it was over.
“You stupid bitch!” I heard from beside us. Before I could react, a loud bang reverberated throughout the station and shock sprung upon me. My mother’s body grew limp in my arms and blood was splattered across my shirt and the wall beside us. I dropped to my knees, refusing to let go of her.
She didn’t speak and her actions were weak but with all the strength she had left, she pushed me away gently as if to tell me to run. I couldn’t just leave her there. He didn’t kill her instantly, but he’d shot her near her stomach. The sight before me seemed to mark itself in my brain as a permanent pattern before I forced every cell in my body to cooperate and do what she’d want me to if she could speak and tell me herself. I stood up and broke into a sprint towards the back door, mumbling incoherently then practically yelling in panic.
I heard shouts behind me but I kept running. I dropped my phone, cried, screamed, shouted, panted, and sobbed, but I never stopped running until I reached the nearest alley.
My mind pulled back to the present and I took a guess at how long I’ve stayed curled up in this alley. I think I’ve been here for an hour. Two hours tops.
My eyelids were drooping but images from not long ago managed to keep me from falling into a pit of fatigue.
The things that have happened over the past twenty four hours crushed me and overwhelmed me to a point where my hands were clawing at the floor. I looked down at the blood on my shirt. It was turning a dark red and began to crust. It showed aging of the horrible event, but it was still fresh in my mind. Just like this morning was.
On 3am sharp, I walked through the front door of my apartment - not the first mistake I’d made that night but a big one at that. It’s as if I set off an alarm in my home when lights from all directions illuminated the dark I stood in. Whoop whoop, troubled teen has entered our home.
“I said be home by midnight.” My mother’s tone was relaxed as she spoke, her hand resting notably on the panel of light switches. This of course gave me an unsettling feeling only because I knew that when my mother was that relaxed, it was only wind before the gale. But I felt I needn’t worry myself any further.
The entire situation felt like de ja vu to me. It was routine. I would always stand there bored while my mother went on and on, rage splurging from her spastic movements and scolding shrieks. Nothing was new about this lecture except for the coldness in her voice – a thin, icy layer that had once been thick, but was now cracking under pressure.
I began nodding off on the spot I stood in and surrendering to exhaustion until something caught me off guard.
“Are you… drunk?”
My eyes snapped open and my lips parted in slight shock as if I had just been slapped. “How dare you?” Although I tended to come home late and party a lot, drinking, smoking, drugs, and sex were the farthest things from my mind when I went out. My main focus was on having fun with my friends and escaping the world’s choking grasp.
“You… You smell like alcohol,” she quickly defended herself.
I was quick to retaliate. “Yeah and you always smell like cigarette smoke after you come home, but I don’t question it.”
“I’m your mother, I don’t have to stand for this-“
“Then take a seat! We’ll be here for a while judging by the direction this conversation is going, Mother.” I spit out her title as if it were a fowl word; one you couldn’t speak in front of a religious teacher at school or a nice old lady with poor heart health. One of venomous origin.
“No.” She spoke the next words without thought, more stifled anger pouring from her lips. “I’m done with your ignorance, I’m done with you coming home late, I’m done with trying to get into that thick little head of yours, I’m done with YOU. I wish I was more like your father and had a little less self control whenever you pissed me off.” After she had said that, her eyes softened immediately and she cowered from her fierce stance. Regret laced her eyes and she reached out to touch me. “Rachel I didn’t mean that.”
I slapped her hand away and turned, a frustrating mixture of pain and anger bubbling inside me as I stalked off into the early morning. The air was crisp as I burst into freedom. Freedom being anywhere but near her.
Another stupid fight that was my fault cost me the last chance I had to say something she’d be happy to die with. Like, “I’m sorry I always ignore what you have to say and never tell you I love you.” Or, “I’m sorry I don’t appreciate you enough.” Or even better, time. I’m sad I didn’t have time to prove myself to her. To show her that the girl she raised isn’t a complete failure and that she was a great parent. I’m never going to get that chance and that stung. Badly.
I miss you.
I breathed in and heard another car pass by. But then I heard something else. The sound of a car crawling over gravel and halting caught my ear. My head snapped up and I was on alert like a trained police dog. It’s him. It’s him.
I started to make a break for it and disappeared into the alley, pulling myself deeper into the guts of the collective mass of buildings.
“Wait!” It wasn’t the man, but I was taking no chances. I pushed my legs harder and disappeared into an abandoned building. The darkness swallowed me and kept me hidden from my pursuer. Their voice was soft and high. It was easy to tell it was a girl. But what did she want?
“I saw you! I saw you sitting there crying and you looked awful. I was just worried.”
I refrained from saying something snarky back and just pressed my tired body further into the wall, hoping I could just melt into it and disappear.
“I’m here to help you.”
“My name’s Chelsea Brunner, I’m a senior at Clearwater High” – I’ve heard of that school before – “and I’m thinking of majoring in English when I go to university-“
“No offense but why are you telling me this?” I snapped then closed my eyes, knowing I just gave away my location.
“Got you!” She jumped into the building an extended an arm towards me. “I’m not gonna bite.”
“I’m not scared of biting, I’m scared of people I don’t know and therefore don’t trust.”
“Must be plenty awful being in public then.”
I mustered a weak smile even though she couldn’t see it in the dark and accepted her extended hand. She pulled me back out into daylight and gasped, her grip on my hand loosening. Judging by the horrified look on her face I obviously looked more of a mess than I tried to imagine.
“What... What happened?”
I only stared at her, my face completely blank, unlike my mind. It was racing. It was racing so fast that it physically hurt me. In that moment all I needed was someone and my someone had just been killed. So I did something I didn’t think I’d ever do just five seconds ago.
I lunged forward and when she staggered back in fear…
I hugged her.
Next thing I knew, we were in Chelsea’s car and on our way to her house. People always tell you not to get into a car with strangers, but as far as I was concerned, everybody is a stranger now. The friends I partied with just the other backed out on me the night I came home and fought with my mom - it’s like I’ve never even met them. I don’t know any relatives and even if I did, why would they take me in? Out of pity? The rush of thoughts that was going through my mind made me feel like I was driving myself insane. It was her that was crazy, inviting a stranger into her car. Unless she intends on raping me. I highly doubt it though.
My mind reeled back to earlier today.
By now the police would have showed up at the gas station and found my mother’s dead body.
My mother’s dead body.
Tears threatened to spill from my eyes but I didn’t make an effort to fight them. They dripped down to my lap, creating small noise as they splattered into my jeans. But I think I could hear everything now.
I could hear my heart rapidly beating.
I could hear my stomach begging for food.
I could hear my soul ripping open and crumpling to the pit of my stomach.
I quickly wiped the dampness off my face and sniffled, quickly covering it with a cough.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Chelsea’s mouth open, then close briefly as if she wanted to say something but decided against it. Even though I knew I wasn’t ready to retell the story, I opened my stupid mouth anyway.
“If you’re gonna ask me what happened again, go ahead,” I croaked out, locking my gaze out the window. My eyes focused on one object then moved onto another when it passed.
That’s how I felt life was. You see one thing and in a moment’s time, it’s gone before you can take another breath. At the thought, I inhaled deeply. I held the breath there until my lungs started to burn and my eyes teared up from the pain. I wish I could just hold my breath until my brain pops from lack of oxygen and I die in that instant.
But no, I can’t do that. She’d want me to go on.
But she’s gone.
Again, my mind traveled away from the thought and I laced my fingers together. She’d hold my hand when I was scared, even when I seemed too old for a child to need their mommy to hold their hand at night. When the darkness would creep in on me and steal my hours of sleep.
I hate the dark.
I always have actually.
Now I’ve been thrown into the dark and I don’t have her to hold my hand.
I peeled my gaze away from the window and glanced to Chelsea, who was sitting in an awkward position. A sigh rolled from me and her eyes met mine, but only for a moment until they returned to the road.
“I don’t want you to get involved with the police, Chelsea, I barely know you,” I blurted out.
The car halted suddenly and I jerked forward, my seatbelt stopping me from slamming my head on the dashboard. Luckily, no one was behind us and she quickly recovered, rolling the car along like nothing had happened.
“The police?” she hissed in a low whisper, as if now she suspected we were being spied on.
“Yes, the police.” I sat upright and turned to her in my seat. “Chelsea I have drying blood on my shirt, my hairs a mess, I’m caked in dirt, my jeans are torn, My face is ugly and puffy from me crying so much, don’t you think that suggests something criminal has happened?”
“My concern is if you’re the criminal,” she shot back, suddenly on guard.
She found a safe place to pull over and pointed out the door. “Get out.”
My jaw slacked and I stared at her dead in the eyes. “Chelsea, I’m not the criminal…”
“How would I know?” she asked, her hostile behavior dissipating within seconds. I managed to relax again, knowing she was reconsidering kicking me out of the only possible transportation I’ll ever be offered.
“My mom’s gas station got robbed and she was shot… I don’t know how but she survived long enough to push me to run.” I swallowed at a lump in my throat, my voice sounding strained and painful. It’s like my throat had been scraped vigorously with sandpaper then saturated with lemon juice. “She died on the spot and that robber - that murderer - stayed to do I don’t know what. Probably steal more money? That couldn’t matter any less to me right now though because he already stole everything from me. He stole my mom. He stole her before I could apologize to her…” I looked at her and there was sympathy clear on her face.
I felt my face and the tears had returned without warning.
I hated crying, especially in front of people. I couldn’t even stand crying in front of my mom. I knew it showed weakness and it bothered me. I didn’t mind crying in front of her in that one moment I still had her.
“Look all I was doing was trying to be nice and help you, but… I’m a straight A student, I have a good life, I have a gorgeous, wonderful boyfriend, and if helping you is gonna make me throw all that away, I’m sorry…”
I looked at her desperately, my lip quivering. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.
Hastily, I shoved my way out of the car. While inside her car, I didn’t realize I felt a sense of security. But when I stepped outside the boundaries of that car, a heavy weight fell on me and my stomach dropped down to my feet.
As I closed the car door, she drove away almost immediately, avoiding my saddened eyes.
Luckily, she left me in a place not too crowded but with a couple stores around. I looked around the plaza and headed for the first grocery store my eyes landed on.
An electronic ding made me jump as I entered through automatic doors. I hugged my sweater close to the blood stains on my shirt, careful that it won’t fall. All I focused on was getting home.
Is it really home anymore? Will I find my mother there giving me that disappointed look I got so used to? What about her fuzzy blue robe? Will it be hanging on the side of her bed like I find it every day?
I held myself so tightly as if I’d fall to pieces if I unwrapped my arms around my body and brush away with any wind that would pass. One of the cashiers glanced up at me and shot an apologetic look.
“Sorry, my shift just ended. Jackie’s available though, she’ll be taking over for me.”
I frowned and realized he thought I was gonna buy something. This is a grocery store after all.
I took in a breath and my fingers dug deeper into my arm. “Uh, I don’t need anything to get checked out. I just need a number to call a taxi.”
His apologetic look turned to one of concern.
“Well if you aren’t getting any groceries checked out, you sure need to get those scrapes and cuts checked out.” His attention seemed to drift off as he examined my bruised legs and arms.
“I’m fine. I just need a cab,” I reassured him.
“Well I’ll save you the trouble, you need to go to the hospital. I can take you there.” He gave me a sincere look but I grew frustrated.
“No, I just need to get home!” I uncrossed my arms in the heat of the moment and he grew pale.
Without another word, he tossed a rag I hadn’t realized he’d been holding behind the counter of his station and took my wrist firmly. He dragged me out into the parking lot and towards a red pick-up truck. He dug his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the truck, helping me into it.
Although I was practically letting him drag me into the truck, I was confused why he seemed so determined to get me to the hospital.
“I can’t go to the hospital,” I insisted coolly.
One of his hands rested on the wheel while the other slammed down to the armrest between us.
“Have you seen yourself?” he questioned in the nicest way possible. There was no hint of curtness in his tone.
I shook my head and he flipped down the visor, flashing the mirror at me. I almost jumped at my appearance. I reached up to touch my face and saw how smudged my make up was and how awful I really did look. When I first walked in, it probably took him a hell of a lot of effort not to scream bloody murder when he saw me.
“You have blood all over your shirt.” He reached over and flipped my sweater away from it. “Give me one good reason not to take you to the hospital?”
“Because the police will find me and question me. About what happened and why it happened, how it happened and I just don’t know! All I know is that my mother was killed by some greedy bastard who wanted an extra penny in his pocket for drugs or cigs or whatever. All I know is that I have gotten everything taken away from me today and I’m just drained both physically and emotionally and can’t handle any more pressure today. I’ll face the cops in a couple days. Maybe tomorrow. Just not tonight. Not when everything’s still raw and fresh.”
When I was done with my rant, his face was completely blank.
“Please,” I finally finished, releasing a breath.
He paused and clenched his jaw before nodding. “I’m not taking you home, though.”
“You said you can’t deal with the police today right?” I nodded timidly and he continued, revving the engine. “Well then where’s the first place they’d look for you? Home. And that’s where you want me to take you?”
I realized he was right and slunk in my seat. A part of me felt relieved that he was soaking in the situation so calmly, but another part of me questioned how he could possibly feel so calm about this.
“Then where are you taking me?” I hardly recognized the voice that came out of me. It was so small. So vulnerable.
“I’m taking you to my place.”
He held the door open for me as I stepped foot into his apartment.
“It’s… nice,” I mused.
That earned a low chuckle from him as he shrugged a jacket off and tossed it to a couch five feet away. I rubbed my neck awkwardly and noticed the nametag left on his uniform.
“Justin,” I mumbled. I didn’t even think he’d hear me.
He turned his head to me and his eyebrows rose in question. “Yeah?”
“I’m Rachel,” I finally introduced myself, extending a hand to him.
He grasped my hand and the strength of his grip startled me, but I reconstructed my expression as we shook hands. Justin released my hand briefly and I inwardly thanked him for not wiping the sweat that I probably slapped onto his hand from mine off on the side of his jeans.
“I’m guessing you already know my name,” he teased, a wry grin on his face.
I snorted. “Whatever made you think that.”
He laughed and nodded his head toward the couch. “Feel free to relax while I get you something to wear. If you want to wash off now, you can use the shower in my room over there.” His eyes pointed to a closed door and I nodded gratefully.
“I’ll leave some clothes on my bed.”
I trailed behind awkwardly to his room and hurried into the bathroom when I spotted him tugging his work uniform off. My back pressed to the door and I looked to the side, a reflection staring coldly back at me. My brows furrowed at the dead looking girl in the mirror.
A knock sounded at the door and I opened it wide.
Justin pointed to the shower. “I forgot to mention how dysfunctional this thing is.”
He passed me and started hammering something in the shower. I got a better view and my eyes trailed down his bare back as he kept pounding his fist to the shower valve. I swallowed and tried to peel my gaze away from his protruding shoulder blades as his arm swung back and forth. The veins in his neck bulged slightly and after what felt like an eternity, the spout sputtered and he pulled the pin. Water pattered from the showerhead and I gave him a tight-lipped smile, my nerves getting the best of me.
He probably would’ve liked a “thank you for everything” better.
Before he could close the door, I forced myself to speak. “Thank you for everything, Justin.”
Justin paused and threw a toothy smile, disappearing behind the door.
A scowl formed on my face and I examined what I was wearing.
I looked nothing less than horrible.
I tossed my shirt to the corner and let the rest of my clothes soon join it in a heap of tattered, bloody fabric.
Warm water pelted my aching back, pulling a sigh of relief from me.
All the pains of today stayed tense in my chest but my muscles almost screamed with joy as steam rose around me. I scrubbed away every last bit of dirt and carefully rinsed any cuts and scrapes I could find.
I pressed my fingers to the purple patches of skin starting to form and flinched.
I switched the tap off and stepped out, pulling a towel around myself.
Studying myself in the mirror again, I already saw a difference in my appearance.
Other than a few cuts and bruises, I looked pretty much clean and normal.
I frowned at my face and how bare it looked without make up. The sight was almost cringe-worthy but I decided not to beat myself up about my physically appearance at that moment.
I stepped out of the bathroom and almost let out a scream when I saw Justin standing there, still laying clothes out.
He jumped. “Oh uh- Sorry. I was having trouble finding something for you. Um. I’m sorry.” Justin bolted out of the room with a priceless look on his face.
I would’ve laughed if not for the circumstances I ended up here under.
After I dressed up, I found Justin in the kitchen, raiding his own fridge.
“I’m gonna take a nap,” I announced.
He turned to look at me and nodded, an apple lodged into his mouth. He kicked the fridge closed and cradled a haul of food to the sofa. Justin plopped down and spat the apple out to talk to me.
“You can sleep on the bed, it’s comfier.”
I opened my mouth to decline but he turned away, almost dismissively.
With a bit of reluctance, I dropped into his bed and went out like a light.
I half expected to wake up to the smell of my mom’s burning bacon and charred eggs coming from the kitchen but the scent I was picking up didn’t bring a distinct sting to my eyes – which worried me.
With my eyes half-open, I blindly stumbled out of bed and down the hallway. I hit a wall I don’t remember, waking myself up instantly. I rubbed vigorously at my eyes then realized I wasn’t home, mom wasn’t making breakfast, and I hit my head pretty hard on that wall.
As I veered closer to the kitchen, I jumped when Justin greeted me. “Morning, Rachel.”
I cleared my throat and rubbed at my pounding head. “Um, morning.”
There was a stool I managed to plop onto and Justin turned, lifting the pan towards a plate in front of me. “You can have the good egg.” He shoved a perfectly cooked egg onto the plate and then pulled another plate out. I watched him drop the one with the broken yolk on and felt slightly guilty about it.
I jumped at the same time two slices of toast jumped out of their slots then landed back into the toaster.
I was still disoriented as he buzzed around the kitchen, both our plates filling up with food as he went along.
I’m used to my mother buzzing around but most the time, everything was burnt. My orange juice had been burnt once too. That’s a different story though.
I felt a hollow aching inside my chest. Never did I think I could miss my mother’s burnt meals.
“Rachel, you’re going to be late for school again if you don’t eat right away,” my mother insisted, her superior tone getting the best of my nerves.
I rolled my eyes but she kept her ground. “Mom, can’t I just skip breakfast?”
“No, you need to eat before you go to school.”
Looking for a proper argument, I pulled out a five dollar bill from my boot. “I can just buy some breakfast over there.”
“What’s wrong with what I made you?” she pressed, hands propped on her hips.
I faked a smile. “Nothing, it’s just I need something quick.”
“If you think I’m a horrible cook, I would appreciate the comments instead of you trying to make me happy with a lie.” She plucked a dark piece of bacon from the plate and popped it into her mouth. Her face contorted into something like pain and she spat it out.
I flashed her a wide grin and she waved a dismissive hand at me. “Just go to school before I ground you.”
“For being a pain in my ass.” She returned my grin and threw out the rest of what she had cooked.
I gave her a peck on the cheek and left her to yesterday’s leftover take-out Chinese.
I felt nauseous just looking at the food in front of me, as if eating it would be a betrayal to my mother. But she also taught me it was rude to decline people when they offer you food in their own home. So with a bit of reluctance, I downed the whole plate, not realizing how hungry I really was.
When I was sopping up yolk with my last piece of toast, I caught Justin’s gaze resting on me from over the counter. My eyes locked with his and he didn’t bother breaking the stare.
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking at me seriously.
I only frowned and looked down. Am I okay? No, I’m far from it.
“Yeah, I am.” I set the toast down but kept my eyes there. “Why?”
“You were talking in your sleep last night. What I heard was pretty disturbing,” he replied in a solid tone.
I froze, my face draining of color. If I could see myself, I’d probably be looking at a paper-white face and wide eyes.
What did I say?
“You were shouting at someone, then kept flinching like someone was stabbing you or...”
Or there were gunshots.
“I’m fine. It was just a bad dream. I talk in my sleep all the time, so it’s nothing new.” Working up that lie felt like something natural to me.
“I don’t believe you.” He shrugged, dropping his plate into the sink beside him.
Justin turned on the tap water and I narrowed my eyes at his placid demeanor. Does he think he knows me or something?
“And why not?” I challenged, standing up.
He looked at me and his eyebrow cocked upward. “Why not? Maybe because of the fact that you were crying so hysterically and you kept shouting ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ on the edge of the bed. I had to run in and stop you from falling off and probably hitting your head on the corner of my bedside table. You hugged me and clung onto me until you stopped crying and fell asleep again. Do you honestly not remember that? The look on your face was horrifying. I almost wanted to cry for you.”
I couldn’t help but blush. I clung onto him.
I timidly tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and hugged myself – something I seem to be doing more often now – until my eyes closed and I felt another pair of arms wrap around me. I didn’t have time to question whether or not I should return the hug because before I knew it, my eyes were watering and my chest was heaving with sickeningly loud sobs.
And when I calmed down enough to speak, I told him everything.
What happened before the gas station, what happened during, and what happened after. He listened the whole time. Or, at least, I hope he was listening. Because that story isn’t going to anyone else. Not even the police. I know they’ll eventually get a hold of me, but I only answer questions they ask. The rest is for my mind, and for Justin’s.
“You should take me home, before I get you into any trouble.”
He nodded and we were on our way back to the second to last place I ever saw my mother.
They say home is where the heart is, but when I set foot back inside my apartment, my heart was still somewhere else. Somewhere shattered and lost. I sighed and shuffled to the switch panel, switching on all the lights. It was so bright, but I felt so awfully dim.
My goodbyes with Justin were swift and he gave me his number. I thought it to be useless considering my phone broke and I had chucked it into a wall, leaving it beyond repair. I accepted it anyway. It was the least I could do after all he’s done for me. He didn’t mind keeping me in his apartment for a night. He didn’t mind giving up the bed for me.
I turned around and screamed when I found myself staring at the barrel of a gun. Horror flashed through me. I felt my heart hammering against my chest as memories flooded my brain. Before I did anything stupid, the man in front of me flashed a badge in my face and I knew right away I could relax. Sort of.
Interrogation went well. They didn’t go to hard on me and I answered everything they had asked with everything I knew. They said I was free to go for now. They were talking to me about a foster home or any relatives who could take me in, but I refused and told them I have no relatives. I let them ID me and they figured out I’m 18 and am old enough to live on my own.
We had insurance and I found out my mom had left me two hundred thousand dollars. Two hundred thousand. I had gotten myself expelled from my old school about a week ago and haven’t been going to school for a while. My mom was trying to find a way to get us to live closer to a different school but to no avail.
And now, I think school would be a good escape for me.
Whispering students surrounded me as I treaded through the halls on my first day of school. I was used to being gossiped about so none of it used to bother me. Usually it was about how my hair was in a bun and not curled to perfection. Or how my boyfriend had cheated on me and so I broke up with him. Sometimes it was just girls talking about how ugly and fat they thought I was. But this was different. I kept my guard up and tried not to show any weakness. But there was one group’s discussion in particular that got me.
She’s the one who got expelled by bringing a knife to her school.
No, haven’t you heard? Her mom got murdered.
Maybe she’s the one who murdered her mom.
With her own knife, haha.
With a twist of my heel, I faced the group and snarled. “I didn’t kill anybody with my knife and I was protecting myself from a bunch of gossiping bitches like you all. Except they were dangerous. You’re all just cowards.”
I turned from them, whacking one of them in the face with a flick of my hair.
Sometimes you have to deal with people who don’t know how and when to shut up.
Of course, this caused even more whispers, but at least no one will be messing with me any time soon.
The ideal first day of school for me is that nobody notices me and I become one of those invisible people that read thick books in the corner of a hall alone with a brown paper bag and potato chips. But I tend to do things that cause a little bit of commotion around me.
Welcome to hell, Rachel.
Upon entering my first class, I spotted a couple getting cozy in the back. I heard a giggle and resisted the urge to throw up. There was a soft resounding smack and I realized they were probably kissing now.
The bell rang and more people started to flow into the classroom. Some looked bored and others looked like they just heard a good joke before they came in here.
“Everybody be seated.” The teacher was exceptionally young and kind of hot. “Guys, stop with the lovey dovey business in the back of my class.”
“Sorry, Mr.Groves,” the couple mumbled in unison.
I suppressed a smirk before pulling out my old binder. I had emptied out all the schoolwork from my last school and dumped it into the trashcan where I spotted the apple core my mom had eaten. I took out the trash to rid of its memory.
The final bell rang and everybody was in their seats, talking.
Mr. Groves began going through a list of names then stopped. “Um. Miss Manson? Is a Rachel Manson here?”
Then the whispering started again.
I raised my hand and gave a small wave.
He smiled and nodded. “Ah, I see. I was confused for a second there, I almost forgot you were new.”
Oh no, I can see where this is going.
“Class I’d like you to greet Rachel Manson. She transferred here just yesterday.”
Transferred. What a nice alternative for ‘she got expelled for bringing a deadly weapon to her old school.’
“Please stand up, Rachel.” Ok he was hot, but he was really pushing his luck.
I stood up and awkwardly took my place beside him.
But something worse than awkward first day introductions happened. When my eyes drew up, they locked with a familiar pair of brown eyes.
I realized that the couple making out in the back was Justin and…
` Couldn’t this get any better.
He was with Chelsea.
My face drained and I stood there with a heaping lump stuck in my throat. Wordlessly, I took my seat and Mr. Groves continued with the lesson. He obviously didn’t sense that tension, but the rest of the class did. It was evident in the way they stared back and forth between us incredulously.
The class dragged on and I was just about ready to kill myself right on the spot. I felt something hit the back of my head then plummet to the floor. I looked down and reached beneath my chair. I uncrumpled the balled paper I held, observing the distinct and angry scrawl across the paper.
Meet me after class and don’t you dare try to run.
Of course. Now I’m in deep shit.
With a heavy sigh, I crumpled the paper up again and let it drop to the floor, kicking it aside. No. I will most certainly not meet you after class and I will definitely dare to try and run.
When Mr. Groves was discussing tonight’s homework, the bell rang and cut him off midsentence, dismissing us to our freedom. I jumped out of my seat, thankful I took a front desk, and meshed in with the crowd, escaping Chelsea’s wrath. I surrounded myself with taller people, curling up into myself as I walked out of the huddle.
The halls were twice as filled as they were this morning and twice as many whispers attacked my hearing as I attempted to pass down the hall unnoticed. That was a complete, and utter disaster, but at least I escaped Chelsea.
“Have you seen the new girl?” an angry voice demanded.
I suppressed a terrified squeal and scrambled around the corner, near a dark janitor’s closet. A rough hand muffled my shout and yanked me into the closet. I heard the door slam shut and I was shushed by a taller figure. I licked their hand and they chuckled.
“That’s not going to do anything.”
I frowned and squinted into the darkness. My teeth dug into their hand and they shot it away, cussing under their breath. I recognized the rich tone of his voice.
“Justin?” I hissed in a whisper.
“Yes, Rachel, it’s Justin,” he replied, still grumbling angrily to himself.
“That information would’ve been helpful when you played rapist and dragged me into a janitor’s closet.”
I couldn’t see him clearly, but I could tell he was rolling his eyes at me.
“Please tell me all those rumors aren’t true, and what the hell are you doing in Clearwater High?” he muttered, his breath fanning out over my face.
I pushed him away lightly to get some space and sighed. “Depends on what rumors and because I got kicked out of my last school for bringing a knife. Or as lightly as Mr. Groves put it, I ‘transferred’ from my old school.”
Justin snickered briefly.
“So the ones about your mom being…” his voice trailed off and I spoke when I was sure he wouldn’t continue.
“Yes Justin, she died. She was murdered. But not by me if you heard that one already.”
Without warning, a pair of steel-strong arms curled around me and I bumped into his chest abruptly. I felt awkward at first but realized no one else would hug me and I really needed it.
I buried my face into his chest and he stroked my hair lightly. It was strangely comforting.
Half of me was expecting somebody to just blow the door open and catch us in this very suspicious embrace in a very suspicious location, but nothing happened and I just stood there, choking back the tears that I wanted to just let free fall.
I sniffled and stepped away, forcing his arms open again so I could be released. He kept his hands at my shoulders, not that I minded all too much.
“Now you wanna tell me how the hell you know Chelsea?”
I focused on his silhouette, my glare cutting through the dark.
“If that’s what you want.”
So I told him every detail of what happened after Chelsea had found me in the alley. He listened. I noticed that he nods slightly, almost absentmindedly when he’s listening. Or maybe when he’s not paying attention. I won’t ever be sure, but I did know the warm, heavy hands that hugged my shoulders gave me a reassurance I haven’t felt in a long while.
“You can’t avoid her forever,” Justin noted, walking to the courtyard. He stared out absentmindedly. After a long pause, he startled me with his voice. “It’s kind of flattering she called me gorgeous and wonderful.” He grinned to himself, popping his collar.
I managed to roll my eyes then drag them across the outer courtyard as we walked around, replying with a comfortable silence.
I thought we were going to stay in there so I slowed down but he gently took me by my elbow and started pulling me into the building again. I looked at him in confusion but he didn’t return my gaze. Justin stared straight forward, his fingers slowly uncurling around my elbow. I let my arm drop at my side and followed behind him as we entered a room.
I squinted into the dark.
My mind flashed back into when we were in the closet, how close we were in a small space. In the dark.
I cleared my throat and snapped back into the present, watching a darker shadow glide alongside a wall. Justin got lost in the dark and I took a step forward, squinting more.
“Justin?” I called out hesitantly.
There was a click and a burst of light stung my eyes. I squeezed them shut and a chuckle sounded from my right. I used my hands as a visor and pried my eyelids open, looking to the grinning figure in front of me.
“Should’ve warned you about that part.” He smiled cheekily and pulled my hands from my face.
I shot him a look. “But you didn’t and you also didn’t tell me where we are.”
“I call this the Abandoned Theatre.” He presented the room with a wide sweep of his arm.
My eyes prodded around the theatre and I realized the room was larger from the inside than it looked.
I spotted several rows of velvet-lined chairs rising up like bleachers. I soon found myself near them and my hand sliding up the smooth railing. My footsteps echoed and I could feel Justin’s beaming smile hitting my back. Something tells me he discovered this room and was damn proud he could show somebody something this great. I heard a metallic click of a deadbolt and I could tell he locked the door.
There were swirls, splatters, sketches, and patterns all across each wall and down the concrete floors.
To say it was amazing was an understatement.
Once I reached the stop of the steps, I soaked in all the images in front of me and spun on my heels.
The wind got knocked right out of me when I saw the stage, lit up and filled with random props and instruments. I saw Justin as he edged towards a grand piano, sitting on the sleek bench beside it. He cracked his knuckles dramatically and raised his eyebrows, looking to me with that same grin he wore when he first turned on the lights.
I watched in anticipation, taking a seat at the back row, right next to the steps.
“It’s sound proof. We can’t hear anything outside. Nothing outside can hear us.”
His long fingers hovered over the keys and before I knew what was happening, a string of notes glided through the theatre, my ears filling with note after complimentary note. I could feel the piano’s vibrations enveloping me in a big hug. I couldn’t help but smile and feel slightly surprised at how well he was playing. His eyes closed and when they opened back up, I saw something flicker across them. I think he was nervous. But he couldn’t have been.
A sour note struck me and he made a face.
His eyes locked with mine, his face still contorted and we burst into laughter, our shoulders shuddering almost in unison. I shoved up the armrest next to me and laid on my side, clutching my stomach as I laughed at the ceiling.
Rubber soles scuffed the concrete steps, double-jumping them and he dropped into the row below mine, kneeling on the cushioned seat. His body hung over it’s back and he snickered, watching me. I looked up to him, still shaking in laughter.
“Ok you can stop laughing at my mistake now, Rach.”
I felt a small shock from that nickname, but couldn’t stop smiling.
I haven’t been called that since Clary died.
My mom didn’t even call me that after the funeral.
But that’s a different story, for a different time.
Justin extended a hand towards me and I took it gladly. He helped me sit up.
His face turned serious and I felt anxiety boiling at the pit of my stomach. Justin stood up and sat beside me before turning to me. His hand rose and neared my face as I watched with a furious mix of emotions. It looks like he lost his nerve and let his hand drop back down. Oh right. He’s the wonderful and gorgeous boyfriend. He’s loyal. I can give him that.
The topic he brought up to swerve away from that awkward moment swayed me.
“What was your mom like Rachel?” he asked me, his eyes soft but smoldering with that curious flame.
Even though there had been pain, I smiled.
“Well for one, she was a horrible cook…”
I knew I’d have to face Chelsea even when I was telling Justin about my mom. I dreaded the moment I’d have to catch that angry glint in her eye but I guess I had to deal with it regardless of my fears.
We had a sub today so we could sit wherever we wanted. I chose in the place where nobody would look at me – in the back corner next to the window.
Light spilled in from outside and layered my desk. I sat back and rested my hands on the surface, thrumming my fingers nervously.
Justin and Chelsea walked in, his arm draped around her shoulders. It looked like a natural and gentle gesture. I sighed inwardly and they made their usual route to the back of the classroom, one of them acknowledging the sub. I could say I’m jealous of Chelsea. I assumed she had parents who love her and will be there when she walks through the front door. I guess I didn’t know for sure but it gave me something to hate her for as she has something to hate me for.
I looked out the window and spotted the benches we crossed leading to the theatre. He told me if nobody could find me, I’d know where to go. But I could see him. He was right there with Chelsea.
I sighed, but audibly this time and this earned me a couple weird looks from people. The student body hadn’t yet gotten over the fact that certain things happened to me and that they need to shut their mouths before I lose control and release my wrath upon each and every one of them.
The familiar rhythm of attendance began and I waited until the list neared the ‘M’s. I heard Victor Malory’s name be called then him mutter back a “here.” The sub stumbled across my name and I raised my hand.
“Rachel Manson,” he repeated, not looking up from the attendance sheet.
I shook my hand in the air, irritated.
“I guess she’s absent,” he muttered, checking something off – probably my name – on the sheet.
“I’m here!” I growled, sitting up in my desk.
He looked up at me and gave me a sharp smile. It startled me a little. It was a knowing grin, not just some sort of superior, I’m – the – teacher – and – you’re – not sort of grin.
“Next time speak up before it’s too late, okay?”
We shared one last heated look and he was back to calling names.
I glanced over my shoulder to Justin and he was looking at me with a confused look. I, on the other hand, was fuming.
My face was still red when I was saved by the bell. Where was Mr. Groves anyway? I must tell him he is not allowed to have substitutes ever again.
“Oh, Miss Manson, please stay behind.” Mr. Sub was fishing through papers littered across his desk. He didn’t seem to care where the papers were flying. He looked like he was looking for something important. Probably his manners. Something was so familiar about his movements.
I folded my arms over my chest and directed my gaze to the clutter of students still pushing each other to get out of this room. I don’t blame their extra urgency today, this guy was the face of creepy. He didn’t look creepy if he was doing normal people things, but he had this smile that made you think he was about to offer you some candy and a nice little ride around his white van.
I sighed and he paused his search, looking up to me to throw me a look.
“Are you gonna ask me to help you look for whatever it is you’re looking for? Did you lose your social security number somewhere in there? Maybe a key to a storage locker where you’ve kept the body of a child?” my snide comment didn’t seem to please him.
He chose a random handful of papers to stack into a neat pile and placed them on the corner of the desk, both the lines of the papers and the desk lining up exactly. My eye twitched.
“I trust you’ll treat me with respect while I’m here, Miss Manson,” he stated, staring intently at me.
He was young. Probably in his early twenties. His gaze made me uncomfortable and I felt my body shifting. His eyes flickered down to my shoes then back to me, as if he were sizing me up. His expression was unreadable but it was clear he had dismissed me.
I stalked out of the classroom and the strength of whispers around me was stronger than ever. With a soft sigh, I neared my locker only to be stopped by the faint touch of a hand.
I spun and met the hard gaze of Chelsea.
“I need to talk to you,” she spoke with a certain calm in her voice that just screamed danger.
My head – as if sensing my frozen distress – nodded itself and her eyes smoldered with satisfaction.
I exchanged some notebooks for one textbook and shut my locker, following Chelsea to what seemed to be the girls’ restroom.
She shoved the door open and offered a hard smile, keeping the door open for me. My feet dragged as I strolled into the restroom. There was a click and I winced. Just like the side door of the station. Before my mind could fish up the dark memory, there was a resounding smack that echoed through the restroom and a burning sensation on my cheek.
Tears began to fill my eyes but I refused to let her see me cry.
I gaped at her in shock, my fists clenching.
“What the hell are you thinking, coming into my life and hanging out with my boyfriend?” she hissed, her eyes turning to slits. She advanced towards me, her chest pumping noticeably with every hard breath she took. Her nostrils were flared and her body showed about every single sign of anger and hatred you could possibly pluck from your mind.
“After you dumped me on the side of the street, I went to the grocery store and asked a cashier if they had the number to a cab company. It was Justin and he helped me. He knew what happened and he didn’t question whether I was a criminal or not.” I had told her straight up what happened but she didn’t seem to believe a word of it.
“You… you stalker!” she cried in outrage. The vein in her neck was throbbing erratically. “How’d you know he was my boyfriend? How did he even help you?”
“I didn’t know until I came to this school and let me tell you, I had no choice. My mother was killed, Chelsea. At least have a little – “
“Oh don’t pull that pity bullshit around me, I want to know what kind of games you’re playing and I want it to stop.” My shoulder began to ache from how many times she’d been jabbing her sharp fingernail into it.
“I’m not playing any games, so there are no games to stop.”
“You’re just a pathetic little homewrecker, and if I ever see you anywhere near my boyfriend again, you will regret it. Don’t talk to him. If he tries to talk to you, tell him you’re late to something.”
My eyes narrowed this time, but out of sheer disbelief. “Are you threatening me?”
“I’m promising you,” Chelsea drawled in a voice as slow and thick as syrup.
I swallowed as she stormed out of the restroom, her face the pure image of rage.
It wasn’t long before I was in one of the stalls, curled up and sobbing into my knees.
After blowing my nose with bits of cheap toilet paper and wiping the leaks from my eyes with my sleeve, I’d built up the strength to pull myself up and hurry to the theatre so nobody would catch me. Yes, ditching is a bad thing. It was the last period of the day anyway. And what is the office going to do? Call my parents?
After the thought fully processed through my mind, I gave a small, sickened laugh.
The theatre was as dark as I remembered it, no silhouette there to find the lights for me. Closing the door behind me, I hugged the wall and began to feel across it, my back tingling. The dark. I hate the dark.
My fingers ran across a smooth, plastic tab and flicked it up, the buzz of electricity filling the room as well as bright lights.
I took the time to admire the art on the walls once again and moved towards the stage. Every step felt heavy as I neared the piano in the center of the stage, right where the spotlight would hit. It would be the center of attention along with whoever was there, playing it.
My dad had a piano.
I would play it and he’d watch me.
He looked so proud whenever I played a song fully through without a single mistake. Sure, I might be off tempo sometimes but my finger never slipped once, and that had made him look at me like the best child anyone has ever seen. The spark in his eyes when he watched made me feel happy. The sort of happy that took your breath away.
I rested my hands over the keys and lifted my wrists up like Dad had taught me. Straight back and feet rested on the floor, near the pedals. With a deep breath, I began to play my favorite song there is the play on the piano.
My humming matched the melody as I played River Flows In You.
I practiced this so many times that Yiruma would probably applaud me.
I glided past a note I’d missed so many times.
“No. Do it again. You did it wrong.”
I felt like a bag of crap that day. I disappointed him. I was just like Mom, he’d tell me. A disappointment.
The song shifted and my fingers floated across the keys in a warm grace. The music enveloped me in some sort of invisible hug. It was like how my mom hugged me.
“Your mother was with another man,” he’d said while I was playing. “The slut.”
I winced. I was 10.
Tears pooled in my eyes as I struggled to fight that disturbingly strong pinch at the back of my eyes.
I slowed, pressing down on the keys more lightly. I drew in a slow breath and closed my eyes, hot tears shooting down my face.
“Daddy, you smell like alcohol… are you okay?” I looked up at him with such concern. He was a tall, tall man with a very strong build. He was a tower compared to my small 13-year-old body.
He got down on his knee so he was at my level and rested his elbow there on his knee. “I’m fine, sweetheart. Go to bed.”
“But Daddy,” I protested, tears in my eyes. I was acting like a baby and I knew it.
“I said go to bed.” His tone was harsh and controlling, not at all parental or loving.
I started fearing for myself and couldn’t move.
My paralysis angered him further and he raised a hand at me. He brought it down on me and my squeaky, but strong voice cried out. My hands fell to where he’d hit me and more tears pelted the ground below me.
“Richard!” my mothers voice called from behind him.
He gave me a shove and ran to my room just in time to hear a scream.
I rocked back and forth on the floor, my hands creating walls over my ears.
It wasn’t enough to block it out.
My hands were now slamming down on the piano, every note shaking the foundation of this school. My breaths were ragged and I wheezed, trying to catch up with myself.
There was a long pause and there were three tear stains, each the size of my fist on my jeans.
Heavy notes drawled and I slowed again, my hands crawling up to the
highest key to end the song.
On that Wednesday, I decided that the rest of the week was going to be a lot harder than I had expected.
Tendrils of sun
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