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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Drama

What Doesn't Kill Us

 

Cover design by Christian Bentulan at Covers by Christian

WHAT DOESN’T KILL US © 2013 by Stephanie Henry

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distrusted, or transmitted in any form or by any means including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in the critical reviews and certain other non-commercial permitted by copyright law.

 

This novel is fiction. That means all of its content including: characters, names, places, and brands, are products of the authors imagination or used in a fictional matter. Any similarities to actual people, living or dead, places or events are purely accidental.

What Doesn’t Kill Us

Stephanie Henry

[_ Chapter 1- Drew _]

I lay under my bed where I feel safe. Although I barely fit anymore, it’s almost a tradition to slide underneath it when I hear my parents fighting. I feel like I’m four years old again. The carpet under me is itchy but I feel invisible here, almost like I don’t exist in this world. Amidst the yelling, I hear little footsteps running towards my room and without seeing her, I know that it’s Sissy. Knowing the routine, she crawls under my bed with me and I hold her tight.

“You fucking whore.” His voice is eerily calm.

“No,” she pleads, “Jim, it was before us. We hadn’t even met yet.”

“You’re a liar.” I can’t see him, but from the sound of his voice his jaw must be tight and stiff, never unclenching his teeth through the sentence.

“I’m telling the truth. You have to believe me. I never cheated on you. I would never do that to you.” I can hear the desperation in her voice.

“You’re nothing but a liar. Why should I believe anything you have to say? You’ve been lying to me for years,” he shouts, getting angrier.

Still holding onto Sissy, I close my eyes and picture my parents in my head, imagining what they’re doing and what they’ll do next. My mother is somewhere in our small kitchen, probably next to the stove. She’s either cooking or just finishing up because I can smell the garlicky scent of spaghetti sauce. My father is walking from the kitchen to the living room and back. I can hear the stomping of his heavy boots on the hardwood floors. That’s the thing with small houses, you can hear everything from every room.

Their fights are not uncommon. In fact, by the time my father comes home from work and places his coat on the rack, they’ve usually already began their perpetual cycle. Sometimes its little things, like my father getting frustrated for having to move Sissy’s toys off the couch where he wants to relax. Other times it’s a little more serious, like arguing over how they’re going to come up with the money to pay the electric bill that month and blaming one another on who spent more frivolously. They fight more often than what would be considered normal. But it’s always been our normal. This time it’s different though. I don’t know why it’s different, because I don’t know the whole story. But the way in which they’re fighting – their voices, the lack of sarcasm, the yelling, then whispering, then yelling again, both of their voices shaky – it’s unnervingly different. It’s so much worse.

“I’m sorry Jim. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry. Please, let’s just forget about it.” My mother’s voice cracks at the end and then she starts to outright sob.

“Forget about it? Are you fucking crazy? How am I supposed to just forget about it? I’ll never forgive you for this, Deb.”

I hear a crash that sounds like glass shattering on the hard floor. My mother is crying even harder now. And then suddenly, I hear a thud from outside my door. I’m confused for a moment, but then I figure out that my father has just kicked in Sissy’s door across the hall. I hear him rummaging through her stuff and calling her name. Now I’m terrified and I can tell Sissy is too. I hold her tighter, the both of us still under my bed.

From the time that I was seven years old and they brought Sissy home from the hospital I have been taking care of her, protecting her from our irrational parents. Now at four years old, Sissy relies on me more than anyone else. As her older brother, I know that she is my only real responsibility.

We hear another thud, but this time it’s closer. It’s my door.

“Sarah Elizabeth Delmont, answer me right now,” my father booms.

Sissy looks at me with tears in her eyes, and I try to give her a comforting look. I fail. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, why my father is looking for her, and only her. What did she do to make him so upset? And how can I fix it?

“Sarah,” he yells, opening the closet door, “I’m not playing. You get your ass over here right now!”

He’s becoming more frustrated with every second that he can’t find her. I look at Sissy and slowly nod my head. I inch out first, and Sissy follows. My father catches a glimpse of us and pulls Sissy out the rest of the way. With his hand wrapped tightly on her arm and his fingers digging hard into her skin, he drags her out of my room. I hastily follow behind, making sure that Sissy never leaves my sight. I’ve seen my father mad before, furious even, but right now he’s beyond enraged.

“Jim, you can’t just take her and leave,” my mother warns.

“You wanna bet?” he snaps back with a sinister grin on his face.

My mother turns and runs in the opposite direction. Fearing she’s giving in and allowing my father to take Sissy away with him, I jump in and try to stop him. I reach for his hand, trying to pull it off of Sissy’s arm but he immediately pushes me straight to the ground. As I hit the floor, I notice my mother behind me.

“Let her go, Jim,” she demands, with a gun in her hand, pointing it right at him.

He pauses, but only for a moment. “What are you gonna do, Deb? You gonna shoot me?” he says with a smirk, not believing she’ll pull the trigger.

“I said let her go. You’re not leaving here with my daughter.”

“Your daughter? She’s my daughter. And I’m not leaving here without her.”

She walks closer toward him, demanding again that he let Sissy go. He chuckles a little, showing no fear of her or the gun in her hand. My mother’s arms are stretched all the way out, with the gun pointing straight in my father’s face. Never letting go of Sissy’s arm, he stares my mother directly in her eyes, almost as if he’s daring her to pull the trigger. There’s a moment of silence that feels like an eternity. Then, almost as if it happens in slow motion, my mother falls to the ground, dropping the gun to the floor and sobbing heavily. Knelt over, she pleads with him not to take her. Although I can’t make out all of her words over her loud cries, I’m able to decipher “please,” “No,” and “Don’t do this.” I’m torn between reaching out and comforting my mom or trying to pull Sissy from my father’s grasp again. My father looks angrier with every cry that comes from my mom’s pleading. With no warning, and with Sissy’s arm still in one hand, my father reaches down and hits my mother clear across her face with the back of his free hand. The force from the hit causes her to swing sideways down to the floor. Sissy lets out a shriek of horror, and without hesitation my father turns around and starts to walk out of our house, dragging Sissy along.

I start to panic. I have to do something. I have to stop him or I will never see my baby sister again. I don’t know how I know that, that he’ll take her away for good, but I just know it. I know with clear certainty that if he walks out the door, he won’t be back. There will be no making up between my parents after this fight. I have to save my sister, not only because I love her but because it’s my only real job as her big brother to protect her. Before I can think it through, before I know exactly what I’m going to do, I reach for the gun. I walk directly toward my father with it pointed at him and before he can open the door to leave, I pull the trigger. It takes me a minute to realize what I’ve done. As the confusion lifts from my mind, I calmly think that it’s over. I did what my mother had wanted to do, but couldn’t. I lower the gun and let it slip from my hands, and I cringe at the unnatural sound it makes when it hits the hard floor. I hear my mother gasp from behind me, but I don’t turn around. My eyes are fixated on my father, waiting for him to die. I know that sounds heartless. Maybe that’s what I am. But I couldn’t let him take Sissy. I just couldn’t. He turns to Sissy, letting his hand slip off of her arm. But when he lets her go, she falls to the ground. Horror washes over me. No. This can’t be happening. I didn’t shoot my father. I feel sick to my stomach when I realize what I did. I shot my little sister.

[_ Chapter 2- Drew -SIX YEARS LATER _]

“Drew! Get your ass in gear!” my dad yells, hitting my door open with the palm of his hand.

Shit. Power must have gone out in the storm last night, I realize as I glance over at my alarm clock that is now blinking 12:00 A.M. “I’m up,” I answer back, jumping out of bed.

“Bus will be here in two minutes!” he bellows.

I run into the messy bathroom down the hall and begin brushing my teeth with one hand and splashing water on my face with the other. I run back into my room. I’m not even sure what time it is, since my bedroom clock isn’t working. I jump into some jeans and search for a clean t-shirt through the heaps of clothes on my bedroom floor. I hear the bus drive off. Shit.

It’s the last day of school, which means final exams. If I’m not there by eight o’clock, they’ll shut me out of the classroom, forcing me to take a zero on my first test of the day. I run down the hall and turn to my father whose sitting at the kitchen table in his uniform, leisurely drinking a cup of coffee.

“C-Can I get a ride?” I stutter asking.

He just laughs and goes back to drinking his coffee.

So I start jogging to school. It’s unusually humid for the beginning of June and by the time I reach the school, four miles from my house, I can feel the sweat pouring down my back. I make it with literally one minute to spare.

Sweaty and out of breath, I take my seat. I awkwardly sit with my head down because I can feel people staring at me and it’s extremely uncomfortable. I should be used to it by now, but it’s never an easy acceptance. The teacher hands out the exams and pencils. She begins to explain how to fill in the circles on the answer sheet and tells us that we have exactly one hour and fifteen minutes to finish the exam. I’m done in forty minutes, but I pretend not to be because I don’t like to hand my test in first. After two people have gone up to pass theirs in, I follow suit. She explains that anyone who’s finished should go into the room next door, as to not disturb the other students who are still concentrating. For fifteen minutes I sit in a room that quickly begins to fill up with students who are gabbing about parties, sports, hook-ups, and new juicy rumors. I don’t talk to anyone because I’ve never cared enough to make friends, or even engage in small-talk with them. To be honest, they’ve never cared enough to make friends with me either. I sit by myself and wait for the bell to ring so I can make my way down to my next class to take my next exam.

When school lets out, I choose to walk home. I figure it’s better than sitting on a bus full of kids who have no interest in me. And now that there’s no rush, I actually enjoy the trek back, taking in the town and its scenery. When I finally walk into my house, the first thing I see is the first thing I’ve seen for the past six years – the note on the table.

When my mother left six years ago, she just took off. It was two weeks after my sister died. There was no sad goodbyes, no waving to her as she drove off, no promises that she’d be back to visit. She just simply took off in the middle of the day. When I came home from school, all that was left of her was the note she wrote and one single perfume bottle she had probably forgotten to pack. The note was short and said everything it needed to say:

“I just can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be here. I can’t move on and pretend like everything is alright when it’s not. That night, you said that you couldn’t just forgive and forget. Well, I can’t either. How am I supposed to forget that our daughter is dead? How do you expect me to continue a life with you? How am I supposed to forgive? I just want to forget about the last twelve years of my life. I wish they had never happened.”

The thing is, I expected that from my father. I thought that he would have left, just like he was going to that night. I never thought my mom would leave. No, that’s not true. I did think she might leave. I just never thought she would leave me. But that night changed everything. She couldn’t forgive me for shooting Sissy. That, I was sure of. She wanted to run as far away from me as possible, and that’s what she did. And I don’t blame her. She wished I had never been born and I can’t say that I disagree with her.

My father left that note on the table for a month before I dared to throw it out. I crinkled it in my hand and walked over to the trash can. My father jumped up off the couch, raced over to me and grabbed my hand in his. He squeezed my fist hard, squinted his eyes, and with immense anger in his voice said, “Don’t you dare. You flatten that note and put it back where it belongs. You need to understand the consequences of your actions. You did this. Now live with it.”

My father and I have never really gotten along. In fact, I’m sure he hates me. Again, I don’t blame him. Not now. Not after that night. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that he stayed, because, well, he’s all I got.

I walk past the note, trying to fool myself into thinking that I no longer notice it. The truth is, it hurts no less than the first time I read it. Feeling unwanted and abandoned by your mother has got to be one of the worst feelings anyone could ever feel. Then again, being hated by your own father is a pretty close second.

I run upstairs to take a quick shower, and then I head over to Anna’s house. Anna is our elderly neighbor, who I became close with when I was nine years old. My mother had taken me and Sissy shopping with her. She had us wait in a certain area while she tried on clothes in a dressing room. When she was done, I watched her walk right out of the store. I yelled, but she didn’t hear amongst the busyness of the store. I tried to chase after her but couldn’t keep up with Sissy in my arms. I was nine and Sissy was only two. When I realized that I couldn’t catch up to her, a sting of panic burned in my stomach. I searched the store for someone who could help. Luckily, a well-dressed middle-aged woman noticed my panic-stricken face. When I told her what happened, she brought us over to the store manager, who let us into his office to call our mother. She didn’t answer. I felt a mixture of pure fear, rejection, and abandonment. And although I literally felt sick to my stomach, I ached more for Sissy who had started crying again once she sensed my elevating anxiety. The man who managed the store asked me if I had any other family members I could call. We didn’t have any family, other than our dad. Not wanting to call him, I told the manager that I could call my neighbor, Anna Lopez, but that I didn’t know her number. He paused for a moment and then pulled out a phone book.

Anna came right over to pick us up. She was a generous old lady who would often invite me in for milk and cookies and buy my sister little pink outfits. I think she liked us to visit because she didn’t have any kids of her own. My father had always hated her. He called her a ‘foreigner’ who should go back to where she came from. But he hated her even more after that day; the day I decided to call her instead of him. I don’t know why it mattered to him, but it clearly did. All I knew, on that panic-stricken day was that I had to find some way to get Sissy and I home safely. If I had called my father, we would have gotten home, but I didn’t know how he’d react and I didn’t want to take that risk. Ever since that day, Anna has, in a way, taken me under her wing. And six years ago, after the worst night of my life, she helped me more than anyone. Her home was like a secret hide-a-way for me. She let me hang out there, away from my father, and she talked to me like I was important. She helped me through the hardest time of my life and I will always be grateful to her.

I open the front door to the old faded yellow ranch because Anna never leaves it locked and she gives me a hard time if I knock. Her house always smells comforting, like something is continuously baking in the oven. There’s floral wallpaper everywhere, only varying in color from room to room. In all the years I’ve known her, her house has never changed. Not one piece of furniture, not one curtain or wall painting. There have been a few things added over the years, but nothing major enough to make a big impact on the overall appearance. It’s comforting, actually, to have that consistency in something. Her house feels more like home to me than my own. I peek my head into her kitchen and call out to her in order to make sure she’s home.

“Yes, dear. C’mon in,” she calls out, “I’ve just made a great big bowl of fruit salad. I just think it’s the perfect summer snack, don’t you?”

She has a thing about always offering me food. If I turn something down, she’ll offer me numerous different things until I finally take a bite of something. She smiles back at me and I can see the kindness in her eyes.

“Yeah, sure,” I answer, not really wanting fruit salad, but not wanting to disappoint her either. As I pull out a seat from her kitchen table, she grabs a big glass bowl out of her refrigerator and begins scooping some fruit from the larger bowl into a smaller glass bowl. She opens the refrigerator door again and pulls out some cool whip.

“Thanks Anna. You’re the best.”

She waves her hand, dismissing the compliment.

It’s almost a shame that she doesn’t have kids of her own since the role of ‘grandma’ fits her so well. She loves to take care of people. Or maybe she just loves to take care of me.

“So how did your finals go?” she asks.

“Good. I’m pretty sure I passed them all.”

For some reason, school work has always come easy to me. I just have a good memory, I guess. Most would think it’s a gift, but I long to be able to forget more than anything. It does have its advantages though. I get good grades without ever really trying hard and I can skip school when I want to, without worrying that I’ll fall behind.

“Well that’s excellent news!” she exclaims.

Anna and I talk about school for a while longer. Then, she talks about her day. She’s retired so she only went grocery shopping and to the bank today, but she still has stories to tell about both. I know a normal boy my age would be bored to death by Anna, but I’m just happy to have someone I can talk to. I stay there until quarter of six, right before my father comes home from work. I know it will only start a fight if he knew I was visiting Anna.

At home, I lay on the couch, waiting for my father to enter and complain about something I did or didn’t do. When he comes home, he swings the door open, throws his keys on a nearby table and looks over at me.

“You have nothing better to do than to lounge on the couch all day?”

“I went to school today. I took the last of my finals. I’m officially on summer break now,” I tell him.

“If you think you’re going to sit here all day long for the whole friggin’ summer, you’re in for a big surprise. Get your ass up and go look for a job.”

“It’s after six o’clock.” I raise my eyebrows, waiting for him to understand why it would be pointless to job search this late into the day.

“I don’t care. Find a job or get the hell out. You’re not a kid anymore.” He glares at me in a way that gives me chills and I figure I better just listen to him so that I don’t fuel his anger any more than I’ve already managed to.

I jump off the couch and walk straight out the door, not even sure of where I’ll go.

It surprises me that he wants me to get a job all of a sudden. I started mowing lawns two summers ago, for some extra cash, and he nearly ripped my head off when he found out. He pretty much forbids me to do anything that I could benefit from, other than school. And I’m pretty sure if he could forbid me to go to school too, he would.

The air outside is muggy, but there’s a warm breeze that wasn’t here earlier today. I walk down the street and turn onto a busier one. I keep going until I hit the downtown area. It’s only a ten minute walk and I’m used to walking since it’s been my only means of transportation, excluding my occasional rides from Anna. I could have asked her for a ride before I left, but I don’t like to bother her too much and I know I’m not going to find a job tonight. For one thing, I’m dressed in jeans and a John Lennon tee-shirt, not exactly interview attire. Secondly, I doubt I would score an interview at six-thirty in the evening. So I decide to go around to the places where I can simply ask for an application to take home with me. This will show my father that I’ve made an effort. First thing tomorrow morning, I’ll put on some better clothes and try to find a job that doesn’t consist of flipping burgers.

After I have a few applications from the local stores and restaurants – CVS, Downtown Convenience, Taco Bell, Pauly’s Pizza and our local grocery store, Albertson’s – I begin my hike back home. I only manage to get down the street from Albertson’s though, when I hear someone calling my name.

“Drew! Hey, Drew! Get your ass over here,” a deep voice yells out, “C’mon, come holla at me and my boys!”

Almost instantly, I know its Craig. Since the accident with Sissy, most kids my age either chose to avoid me or were forbidden by their parents to hang out with me. Craig was one of the only kids who ever talked to me at school, when he bothered to show up of course. He’s a year older than me and definitely more rebellious. He has dark shaggy hair that falls in his eyes and a lean, lanky stature. He contrasts my short hair and average height. He wears what looks like the same outfit every day, ripped jeans and a tight black shirt. I know he’s a trouble-maker, and he probably only likes me for my reputation as one too. Despite having a police officer for a father, everyone in town has taken it upon themselves to deem me a delinquent ever since that horrible night. But I’m not in any position to be picky about friends so I hang out with Craig from time to time even though we have nothing in common and I only pretend to be as rebellious as he thinks I am. Really, he’s not as bad as everyone thinks he is either though.

I cross the street to where the group is hanging out on the back wall of the 7-Eleven. Craig is in his usual wardrobe, smoking a cigarette and leaning against the building. There are two other guys with him. The one sitting on the cement, Shawn, has a buzz-cut, dark glaring eyes, and is dressed in baggy jeans and a red tee-shirt. The one standing by Craig, who I’ve never met before, has darker skin and slightly slanted eyes. He dresses the same as Craig and Shawn, with the required baggy jeans and dark shirt. I look at Craig and nod my head to say hi.

“Hey, man. You remember my buddy Shawn,” he nods to the guy sitting on the curb, “and this is Rod,” he says, looking at the guy next to him.

“Hey,” I respond a little uneasily. I’ve never liked Shawn and I have an equally bad feeling about the guy with him.

“We were just about to go party it up at Joe’s. You wanna come with us?”

“Nah, I should be getting back home. I was just out getting applications.” I hold up the packets in my hand. “The old man wants me to get a job.”

He scrunches up his nose in disgust. “Oh man, that blows.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll see you guys later.” I nod my head at them as I turn to leave.

“Hey, wait. Bum a couple sticks?”

I turn back to them. “Cigarettes? Nah, man. You know I don’t smoke.”

He laughs. “Oh yeah. That’s right, dude. Okay, see ya.”

“See ya.” I nod to them again and cross the street.

When I get home, my father is passed out on the couch so I walk into the kitchen to fix myself a sandwich for dinner. I’m careful not to make any noise that might wake him. I smell the turkey before taking it out of the plastic Ziploc bag to make sure it’s still good. I don’t remember when the last time my father or I went grocery shopping. I assume he must have went last and that it wasn’t too long ago because the turkey smells fine and there is even a new sleeve of bread on the counter. I wrap my sandwich in a paper towel and take it upstairs with me. I pull out Swiss Family Robinson and begin reading where I left off earlier until I eventually fall asleep.

I jolt awake when I hear a pounding on my door. I glance over at my clock, which only reads 6:55 A.M. I took all of my final exams yesterday and today is my first official day of summer break. Why the hell is my dad banging on my door? He doesn’t stop, but instead starts yelling, “Get your ass up!” so I figure I better listen. I walk over and open my bedroom door, only to find him walking away.

“Did you want something?” I yell back to him.

“I want you to get your ass up and get a job like I told you to yesterday!” he commands without turning around.

“Alright, I’m up.”

I watch him leave for work and I decide that I can go back to bed for a couple more hours before I actually have to get up and start looking for a job. I don’t know why he is so persistent on me getting a job for the summer, but like a lot of things, I don’t dare question it. I toss and turn in my bed for twenty minutes until I choose to just get up. I shower and get dressed. I figure since it is still early, I can hang out at Anna’s for a while before starting my job search, so I head over next door.

“Anna?” I ask, opening the door slightly. She’s always up early but I don’t yell too loud, just in case.

“Yes, dear. Come on in,” she responds. “What are you doing up so early when you don’t have to go to school today?”

“I’m supposed to be out looking for a job.”

“Oh, well come sit down. Did you eat breakfast? Let me make you something.”

“I’m okay, thank you though.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll just whip you up some pancakes. It’s no trouble.”

“That would be great. Thank you,” I tell her, assuming she won’t let me say no again if I tried. I’m grateful really. If it wasn’t for eating at Anna’s most of the time, I might go hungry with the exception of the occasional sandwich at home.

“So you said you’re looking for a job? What kind of job?”

“I don’t know. Something other than McDonalds, I guess. I can’t think of anything worse than working in the fast food industry, even with the free food.”

She chuckles a little, as she mixes up some batter for the pancakes. “Well, you know, I know of someone looking for help. “Maybe I could put in a good word for you, if you’d be interested in the job.” She turns and smiles, raising her eyebrows slightly, waiting for my response. I can tell that she is genuinely happy to be able to help.

“Sure, that’d be great. Where?”

“You know the bookstore off of Willow Ave? I know the owners and come to think of it, it’d be a perfect job for you. They need someone to organize and clean up the place a few days a week. I’m sure they’d let you borrow some books here and there too.”

Organizing books and cleaning up doesn’t sound bad at all. “Yeah, that sounds like a better option than most of the places I got applications from last night.”

“After you eat your breakfast, I’ll take you down to the bookstore and we can talk to Jane,” she offers.

“Jane? Is that the owner? How do you know her?”

“Yes, she’s the owner. She was a student of mine in high school.”

Anna used to be a teacher at our local high school, well before my time. She taught English, which is probably why we get along so well. We could talk about books for hours with each other. She has a way of bringing up questions that make me think about the books I read in a whole new light. I’m guessing she was a great teacher back in the day and I wish I had her instead of the teachers I always get stuck with, who seem more interested in passing the time with busy work. I eat the pancakes she makes for me and then we head over to the bookstore.

Its’ a little shop, nothing like the Barnes & Noble we have a few towns over, but it has a certain charm to it. It’s on a dead end street, so it’s probably quiet. But it has a little coffee shop right next door and it’s off of a busy road. It’s also the only book store in town, so it must have done alright in the past. I can’t see it thriving today though, what with all the electronic books and devices. I, myself, have never been in this store. Not because I have any kind of e-reader but simply because it’s cheaper to loan a book from the school library than to buy one. And since I never have much money for myself, that’s what I typically do. Anna lends me books often too. She also slips me money on occasion. She used to offer, but I’d always decline, so she started getting clever about it, dropping a ten dollar bill in my shoes by the front door, or stuffing a twenty in my jacket pocket. I hate taking money from her, so sometimes I get away with returning it without her noticing.

We enter through a door that rings a bell as we open it. It smells exactly like a library, minus the mustiness. I’ve always loved the smell of books. That might be weird, but there’s just something about the smell of ink on paper that reminds me of freedom. Because immersed enough in someone else’s story, you’re free from your own… for a while anyways. The walls are lined with bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling and since the ceiling has to be about twenty feet high, each wall has a sliding ladder on it. I’ve never seen one of them in real life before. The books aside, it actually reminds me more of a big open living room than a book store. There are couches and comfortable arm chairs, tables randomly placed throughout, and bean bags and pillows in every open space in between. The store has a deep purple and yellow theme; not at all my style, but it seems to fit the store perfectly. On the counter with the cash register is a stack of bookmarks with a sign on it reading ‘Help yourself.’

“Anna!” a lady from behind the counter exclaims. She looks to be in her mid-forties, with faint laugh lines and a hint of wrinkles. She’s of an average height with a slender figure and she has blonde hair, but I can tell that it’s dyed because her roots peek through at the top. She has brown eyes and wears a lot of eye make-up and even more jewelry.

“Hello Jane. How have you been, my dear?” Anna replies with a smile in her voice as well as on her face, as she walks over and gives the lady a hug.

“I’m great! How about you?” And then before she lets Anna answer, she looks over at me. “Who’s this?” She asks. But by the look on her face, I can tell she knows exactly who I am. When you make a mistake as big as I made, it’s impossible to find people who don’t know you in a town as small as this one.

“This is Andrew. He’s my neighbor and a very good friend of mine.” Anna puts one hand on my back and one on my arm, in a very endearing and maternal way.

“Hello Andrew. I’m Jane, an old student of Anna’s.” She smiles slightly, but I can sense that she is uncomfortable and I wonder if applying to work here is a bad idea.

“It’s nice to meet you.” I reply with a huge smile. I’m overdoing it, but I want to show her that I’m not all bad.

“Jane,” Anna begins, “I remember you saying you were looking for help the last time I was here. As it happens, Andrew is looking for a job and I think this would be a perfect fit. Are you still looking for someone?”

Jane looks trapped, like she’s looking for a way out. But clearly, there is no other employee in the store with her so I wonder what excuse she will find to decline Anna’s suggestion. She pauses for a moment, twisting one of her many rings back and forth on her finger, but then to my surprise, she answers with a simple, “yes.”

“Well that’s great!” Anna exclaims. “He doesn’t have any job experience, other than doing things for me around my house, but he can start right away, can’t you Andrew?” She looks over at me with a huge grin.

“Yeah, I can start whenever you’d like.”

“Okay,” Jane says, “If you’re not doing anything, you can help out right now.” I nod in response. “Alright, you can start going through that box of new releases that just came in. Our new release section is over there,” she says pointing towards the wall closest to the front door, “so just put these books where they should be, in terms of genre and alphabetical order, and I’ll get your new hire paperwork ready.”

“Alright,” I agree, nodding. “Thank you Mrs. …” I realize I don’t even know her last name, since Anna has only introduced her to me as Jane.

“Sorenson,” she offers.

“Thank you Mrs. Sorenson. Thank you so much for this opportunity. You won’t regret it, I promise.”

“If Anna Lopez vouches for someone, they’re usually worth taking a chance on.” She smiles at Anna and then walks into the back room to get my paperwork.

“Okay,” Anna says with a smile, “just call me when you want me to come pick you up. I really hope this works out for you. I think you’re going to like this job.”

“I can just walk, really. And thank you, Anna. I really appreciate what you just did for me.”

“Nonsense. There’s no need for you to walk that far when I’m home all day doing nothing of any great importance.” She turns to walk out, but stops just before opening the door. “And you’re welcome, dear,” she says just before leaving.

I get to work going through the box of new releases. I sort them just like Mrs. Sorenson said to. We never negotiated a salary, but honestly I don’t care about the pay. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure I’m going to like working here. It seems easy enough and it gives me the opportunity to get out of the house during the summer. Summers are usually extremely boring for me, since I barely have any friends and no means of transportation. I’d hang out with Craig and his crew sometimes, but I’d always take off early, not wanting to get into the trouble they’d eventually start looking for.

The bell rings as someone else walks in and I glance up out of habit, still enthralled in my own thoughts. But the moment I see her, time stops and I lose my breath. I know that sounds crazy but I’m not sure how else to explain it, other than I literally have to remind myself to breathe. And when I finally breathe in air, my heart skips a beat and then starts thudding out of my chest. I don’t know why I have this reaction to her. Maybe it’s because she’s beautiful… beautiful in an old-fashioned, timeless way. But then again, I’ve seen beautiful girls before. Maybe it’s love at first sight, although I never believed in that before today.

She has warm brown hair that has the slightest hints of gold throughout it. And she has a slender figure, but she’s not wearing overly tight clothes, simply a plain pair of jeans and a white flowing tank-top. Her nails aren’t manicured and her lips aren’t painted. She doesn’t look like a woman out of Hollywood. She looks more like your typical girl next door; refreshingly simple, yet equally as pretty as any woman I’ve ever seen in a magazine or a movie. And she has the most amazing eyes; the color of honey and dark around the edges. Our eyes only meet for a second, but it’s the most intense color of brown I’ve ever seen. She smiles at me and it’s like her eyes smile as well. I realize I’m probably staring but I can’t seem to help it. I’m completely entranced.

She walks behind the counter of the bookstore, so I know she isn’t a customer. Will I be working with her? She sits on the barstool behind the register and pulls out a laptop from her book bag. She must work here. But I’ve never seen her at school before and I wonder how that would be possible in such a small town. Everyone at my school knows everyone… hence, why everyone knows my story. Suddenly I start to worry that she might know. And I feel an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach at that thought. I know I shouldn’t care one way or the other. If she knows, she knows. I’ve never cared much to try to gain anyone’s approval before. I’ve always accepted what other people think of me. But for some reason, I really don’t want her, in particular, to know that I’m a murderer.

“Hailey,” Mrs. Sorenson yells, walking up to the counter, “did you pick up your cheerleading uniform from Sue?”

“Yeah, mom, I got it.”

The girl who literally took my breath away is Mrs. Sorenson’s daughter.

Mrs. Sorenson walks over to Hailey and they speak more quietly, so I can’t hear what they’re saying. I’m not sure if that was Mrs. Sorenson’s intent or not, but I figure I probably shouldn’t be trying to eavesdrop anyway so I go back to work organizing the box of new releases. When I finally look up again, Mrs. Sorenson is by my side.

“Alright, I’m going to take off for the day. When you’re done, please fill out the papers I left on the counter and then you’re free to take off. Come back tomorrow at two?”

I nod and thank her again. She gives a tight smile before walking out the door.

Suddenly I’m nervous to be alone with the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on. Should I try to talk to her? I’d probably say something stupid, so I decide against it. I finish organizing the books on the shelf and walk over to the counter to fill out the paperwork. Halfway into writing down my date of birth, I hear Hailey asking me a question and I snap my head up to look at her, happy that she’s actually talking to me.

“So you’re gonna be working here for the summer?” She bites her bottom lip while she waits for my reply.

“Yeah. I guess so.” I don’t know what else to say.

“What times?”

“I’m not sure. Your mom told me to be here for two tomorrow but I don’t know if it’ll always be two or if she wants to change it around from day to day.”

“Most likely it’ll always be two. That’s when I usually come in. When my mom is here, she likes to be alone. She calls it her ‘quiet time’ which makes sense because this place doesn’t come close to being busy. It’s mostly desolate, with the exception of a few customers here and there.” She shrugs like it doesn’t bother her. “She had errands to run today, that’s why I’m here early.”

“Oh. That’s good to know. Thanks.” I feel stupid, unable to make small-talk, not knowing what to say. Most people avoid me altogether so small-talk isn’t something I’m used to.

“Do you drive?” she asks.

“No, not yet.”

“Well, if you’re scheduled for two tomorrow, I can pick you up. You know, if you want. I just got my license a month ago. I’m always looking for excuses to drive more.” She bites her bottom lip again.

“Uh, sure, that would be really great. I’m at 52 Lyston.”

“That’s off of Hittinger Court, right?”

I nod. And then suddenly, I feel a braveness taking over me and decide to ask what I had been wondering since I first saw her. “How come I haven’t seen you at school before?”

“Oh, I don’t go to public school. I go to Regan Prep, two towns over.” She rolls her eyes as if she’s annoyed and I can’t tell if it’s the school or my question that causes her reaction until she explains. “My mom doesn’t like public schools. She thinks they only teach kids how to do drugs and have sex.” She looks down at the counter, blushing slightly. Then her cell phone rings and she picks it up, so I go back to filling out the paperwork Mrs. Sorenson left for me.

I can’t help but overhear Hailey talking, though. She sounds happy, like she’s talking to a good friend. There’s some mention of ‘dance routines’ and ‘tryouts in a few months’ so I assume they’re talking about cheerleading because I had heard her mother mention her uniform moments earlier. She finishes her phone call at the same time I finish my paperwork so I ask if I can use the landline to call Anna for a ride home. She slides her cell phone across the counter instead. I smile and thank her as I pick it up. I think about programming my home number into her cell, but the thought only crosses my mind for a moment. Other than the fact that I’m too chicken to actually do it, I can’t risk her calling and having my father pick up first.

While I wait for Anna to come, Hailey starts to ask me all about public school, as if she’s never known anyone who’s ever attended any school other than private.

“So is it true? That public schools don’t really have any rules?” she asks.

“We have rules.” I laugh.

“But you get to wear whatever you want, right?”

“Yeah. Within reason. You have to wear uniforms?”

“Yepp. Hideous uniforms. And we can’t tweak them at all. Our skirts can’t show any knee or we’ll be suspended. One time, some senior guy sewed some motorcycle brand patch onto his jacket and he got Saturday detentions for two months.”

I raise my eyebrows in surprise. “Wow. Strict school.” I knew private schools were harsh but I didn’t think they were that harsh.

“So, do you get to leave the school for lunch and free periods and stuff?” she asks, still intrigued.

“Sometimes. Not usually, though. I guess it depends.”

“Our school is a jail. It’s literally locked down from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon. You can’t get out the doors, even if you tried. It’s ridiculous.”

“Bet you’re glad to be on break then,” I smirk.

“Yes, definitely glad to be out of there. Do public schools –” She’s cut off by Anna beeping outside the store.

“Sorry, that’s my ride.”

She looks disappointed to see me go, but I figure it’s only because she has more public school questions.

“Okay, I’ll pick you up tomorrow?”

“You sure you don’t mind?”

“I told you I don’t. I need the driving experience. I’m still a rookie.”

“Okay. See ya tomorrow,” I tell her before walking out of the bookstore.

I eat dinner over Anna’s house after she picks me up from the bookstore. I thank her again for getting me the job and I stress how much I’m going to love it, but I don’t tell her about Hailey. I hurry home before my father gets back from work and I manage to avoid him completely for the rest of the night. I sit up in my room thinking about Hailey and how friendly she was. I decide that she must not have known anything about me or my past. And I’m grateful for that. I pull out my sketch pad and start messing around. I’m not a talented artist but I draw for fun from time to time. I try to draw Hailey but the picture on the paper doesn’t do her justice so I slip the pad back under my bed and decide to read some Walt Whitman until I fall asleep.

[_ Chapter 3- Hailey _]

I have to force my eyes to open in order to stop the maddening sound of my phone ringing off the hook. Who is calling me so early on the first day of summer break?! But even as I’m thinking it, I already know the answer. Valerie. It could only be Val. I take my time rolling out of bed, knowing the ringing isn’t going to stop.

“Hi Val,” I answer in a sleepy voice.

“Where have you been? I’ve called, like, a million times!” she screeches.

“It’s the first day of summer break. I was doing what any normal teenager my age, with the exception of my crazy best friend, would be doing- sleeping in!”

“Oh,” she says, clearly uninterested since I wasn’t doing anything noteworthy, “well, I need to talk about cheerleading tryouts. I’m freaking out a little. I need a ton of practice and we only have, like, two full months. I need help!”

“You made tryouts last year,” I respond groggily. “And we have all summer to worry about it. Tryouts aren’t until August.”

“I only made tryouts last year because there was no real competition, and you know it. The incoming freshman are going to be ahh-mazing. Have you seen them?! My mom’s best friend’s co-worker’s daughter was on that team and oh-em-gee, they are all going to make it onto the squad. I’m not even going to compare. I’ll be forced to watch you and the rest of the squad from the bleachers. Why didn’t my mom sign me up for cheerleading in the third grade like yours did?!”

I know she’s being overly dramatic, but she does have a point. She only started cheering in the 7th grade, whereas the rest of us on the squad have been lifers. As in, we started in the third grade, the earliest grade you could sign up. And I did hear that the incoming freshman cheerleaders were kind of amazing. I just hadn’t mentioned it to Val because I knew she would overreact.

“Okay, calm down. We’ll meet up and practice. You’re a good cheerleader, Val. I’m sure you’ll make the team, but if it makes you feel better, we can go over a few things you might be worried about.”

“Now,” she simply says.

“Vaaalll, I just woke up,” I whine.

“One hour. I’ll give you one hour and then I’m coming over.”

So that’s how I started my first day of summer. Val came over and we hung out outside, going over cheers, with me constantly straightening her arms and turning her wrists so she’d get them just right. We practiced tumbling and high-V jumps and dance routines until we were both drenched in sweat. And then we jumped in the pool to cool off. By the time I had to leave for the bookstore, I was exhausted. I’m actually looking forward to a relaxing afternoon at the store. What I would normally consider boring actually felt like a good thing for once. Quiet time, as my mom would call it.

As I walk into the bookstore, I notice someone out of the corner of my eye. I smile politely to the guy and then instantly realize who it is. Though I’ve never seen him up close, I recognize him anyway. Maybe it’s his stance. Maybe it’s the short but slightly messy hair. Maybe I’ve just always been aware of him, without ever knowing it.

I walk behind the counter and pull out my laptop, my savior that fights off boredom while I’m stuck here for hours on end. My mom comes over to ask me about my uniform that I had picked up from Sue, my cheerleading coach, before coming here. We’re all required to turn in our uniforms at the end of football season, but we get them back at the end of the school year so we can wear them while marching in our annual 4th of July parade. It’s a big deal to our school because it’s limited to just us private school kids. No public schools allowed. They go all out, probably trying to prove that private is better. More elite. More incomparable. More expensive. Like paying a ton of money to attend a school makes it so much better, I think sarcastically. My mom comes over and I try to whisper as quietly as possible so that the guy stacking books on the far wall doesn’t hear.

“Is that Andrew Delmont?”

“It is. He’s going to be working here for the summer.”

“Are you crazy? He’s disturbed, mom. Like, seriously, disturbed. And you’re going to leave your only daughter here all alone with him for hours, with absolutely no concern for my safety?”

“Hailey, don’t be so dramatic. Anna recommended him and you know very well I can’t say no to Anna. When Anna Lopez asks a favor, you don’t question it. Besides, we’re supposed to help the less fortunate. He’s certainly not an ideal employee, but he’ll make do for all of the odd jobs we have to get done around here.”

“I can not believe this.”

“Be nice Hailey. If I have to hear from Anna that you’re being anything less than courteous to him, so help me…”

“Yeah, mom. I get the message.”

When my mom leaves, I find myself staring at my new co-worker, trying to figure him out. I’ve seen him around town a few times with Craig Morgan. And by ‘seen him around town’ I mean I’ve seen him from a very far distance. Private school kids don’t typically hang out with public school kids. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t hear the gossip. Craig Morgan is the ultimate bad boy. If there was any sweetness under his rough exterior, he would almost be swoon-worthy. But everybody says he’s as cold as ice. Andrew doesn’t seem as bad, but if he hangs out with Craig, he can’t be all that good. I’ve heard a few rumors about him though, ranging from mean alcoholic to serial killer and a few things in between. None of them seem to go with the face of the guy standing in my family’s bookstore. This face looks too kind up close. His eyes are a pale light blue, so light they’re almost silver. And his dark hair is short but messy, but a cute messy, like he meant for it to be that way. He’s actually, well, kind of perfect. Andrew Delmont, unlike Craig Morgan, may actually be swoon-worthy. Which is a very bad thing for me. I can’t start to think of this guy as an attractive possibility. Not while he’s working in my family’s bookstore. Not while he goes to public school. Not while he could quite possibly be the serial killer most of my friends assume he is. Then it hits me. That’s it. It’s the mystery; the fact that I don’t know much about this guy at all. The mysterious bad boy is, after all, the ultimate attraction for most girls. So I solve it. I get to know him a little better so that he’s no longer a mystery. That’s sure to destroy any attraction I might have for this guy. Because there has to be some truth to the rumors. There has to be a reason he’s a social outcast. All I have to do is solve the puzzle that is Andrew Delmont and then there’s no way I’ll find him attractive afterwards.

[_ Chapter 4- Drew _]

My dad is screaming. That’s how I wake up the second morning of summer. He’s literally screaming at nine-thirty in the morning. Why is he still home? He didn’t go to work? I cringe when he gets louder and louder, knowing he’s coming towards my room. Before I see him, I know he’s been up all night on a bender. I can smell the JD from down the hall. I’m surprised he didn’t wake me up sooner. For the most part, my father and I avoid each other. He goes to work. I go to school. I don’t ask him for anything. He doesn’t give me more than a roof over my head and a minimal amount of food in the house. But the fact that he’s still here is enough. It’s more than I deserve. Our arrangement works for us, except on nights like this. Or mornings like this, in today’s case. Every once in a great while, he goes on a drinking bender. Maybe more than drinking. I wouldn’t know. And he starts to rehash everything and hate me all over again. I know enough by now to keep my mouth shut, to endure it until it ends. Sometimes he just yells. Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he’s so angry I think he might actually kill me.

This morning he starts slowly, pushing me off my bed.

“WHY?”

He grabs my arms tight to get me to my feet.

“Look at me, dammit!”

He gets in my face and yells for a while. I block out some of it.

“I loved her, you little bastard! You took her from me!”

A blow to my face. It stings, but I try not to show it.

“You no good son of a bitch!”

He pushes me against the wall.

“How can you live with yourself?!”

Another blow to my face. This time, I manage to block out the pain.

“Are you happy now? Are you happy you killed her?! Are you happy your own mother couldn’t stand to look at you?!”

He spits in my face. I don’t move to wipe it off. I know that would make him angrier.

He stares me down for a minute and then walks out. Out of my room. Out of the kitchen. Out of the house.

I take a deep breath and finally come out of the recluse place in my mind that I default to when I numbly shut down. Then I sink to the floor and sob like a baby. I have to shut my emotions off when he gets like that. It’s the only defense mechanism I have. I can’t fight back. Why would I when everything he says is true? I can’t cry or even apologize because it only makes it worse. I shut down so I can’t feel anything until he’s done. I become his punching bag. But, honestly, I deserve it. When he’s done, the numbness switches off and I feel everything.

[_ Chapter 5- Hailey _]

I pull up to Andrew’s house and beep the horn. I’m not sure if I should go in to get him or just wait for him to come out. Maybe this is a bad idea. Why on Earth am I so nervous? As I’m pondering how to proceed, he runs out the front door of his house and jumps into the front seat of my car. Despite the impending heat, he has a black hoodie on with the hood all the way up over his head, covering half of his face. He looks away from me, towards the window, as he mumbles, “Thanks for the ride.”

“No problem,” I respond, wondering why he won’t even turn in my direction. His mysterious bad boy image is going to be hard to crack if he wants nothing to do with me. I drive all the way to the bookstore without either one of us talking.

When we walk into the bookstore, my mom is nowhere in sight. Assuming she’s in the back room, I head over to the counter and pull out my laptop from my bag. Andrew walks up to the counter, looking unsure of what to do next. And that’s when I notice his face. He has a split lip and a black eye. Of course he does. If there was any doubting that Andrew Delmont is bad news, it was confirmed the moment he walked up to the counter looking like he’s just gotten into a huge brawl. He notices me staring at him and I pause for a minute, trying to decide how to proceed. Ask him what happened? Ignore it completely? But how could I possibly ignore his battered face? And saying nothing would be worse than bringing it up, because he’d know that I was purposefully not asking. It would be impossible not to notice. Luckily, my mom comes out of the back room, her purse in hand, getting ready to leave for the day. One look at him and she stops dead in her tracks with her mouth wide open. I guess I don’t have to bring it up after all.

“What on Earth happened to you Andrew?” She asks after a very audible gasp.

He shrugs his shoulders, like it’s not really anything worth mentioning. The eyes that looked kind yesterday look frozen over today. He looks like he could be Craig Morgan, cold as ice.

“Just a fight,” he says with a shrug when he realizes my mom isn’t going to let it go.

“Must have been some fight. You know you should press charges against whoever did this to you. Do you want me to call the police? Does your father know about this?”

He looks like he might actually laugh. He doesn’t smile at all, but I can see the dry humor in his eyes. “No, ma’am. I started it. And yes, my dad knows.”

She gives him a disapproving look and pauses for a moment, seemingly contemplating her next words. “I won’t have my daughter subjected to this kind of violence. I hope you’re personal life does not affect your work here. If the people you have trouble with start looking for you here, I’ll have no choice but to let you go. I won’t have my store bombarded by a bunch of teenagers looking for a fight. Especially not with my daughter here,” she states sternly.

“Yes, Ma’am. It won’t be an issue here, I can assure you.”

My mother looks at me once, probably wondering if she should have listened to me when I told her he was disturbed and that she should be concerned for my safety. Then she turns back to Andrew and takes a deep breath. “Okay,” she reluctantly agrees to drop it, then she gets right back to business. “I left a list for you on the counter. It’ll pretty much be your daily work, with a few changes from time to time. Makes sure all the tables are wiped down, vacuum the furniture and the rugs, sweep the entry way. Deliveries come in every Tuesday and Thursday between three o’clock and five o’clock. You’ll be responsible for signing off on them, going through the boxes, organizing them into the different sections, which are labeled along the walls, and alphabetizing them within each genre. When the trashes are full, you can take them out to the dumpster behind the store. Make sure you keep the bathroom clean. I’ll want you here Monday through Thursday and every other Sunday from 2:00 to 7:00. Is that alright?”

“That’s great,” he replies a little too cheerfully.

“Okay then. Hailey, I’ll see you at home.” She smiles tightly at me and then walks out.

Andrew and I stand awkwardly for a moment and then he grabs the list on the counter and starts doing the things my mom had listed off. I wonder what I’m supposed to be doing now, other than ringing up the occasional customer and ordering and inputting the new inventory. Not that I ever really did more than that anyways, but now it feels unfair, watching him do everything. Usually by the time I come in at 2, everything’s already been done. Obviously I’d clean up here and there, but not to the extent that my mom is asking Andrew to do. I don’t even know why we need extra help around here, to be honest. My mom always took care of the stuff she’s asking Andrew to do. And my dad would stop in on occasion, if my mom needed help with something major. Although, he hasn’t been around very much lately because of his busy job schedule.

“Can you tell me where you keep the supplies?” I snap out of it at the sound of Andrew’s voice.

“Um, yeah. There’s a closet in the back room. I’ll show you.” I walk out into the back room with Andrew following me. I squeeze past the stacked boxes and into the tiny closet space where we keep the vacuum, broom, paper towels, disinfectants, and various other things needed to maintain the store. He steps in behind me and his proximity makes my heart speed up. I justify that it has more to do with the claustrophobic space than with Andrew himself. And then without even realizing I was going to, I ask the one question I knew I shouldn’t be asking. “Andrew, who did that to you?” I look up at his face.

“What?” he asks, momentarily taken back.

“Nothing. Never mind. I just… forget it.” It was stupid of me to ask. I saw how his eyes turned to steel when my mom was asking about it. I shouldn’t have brought it up again. I try to squeeze past him out of the small closet but he stops me, placing his hand on my arm.

“Hailey.”

Why does the sound of him saying my name make my insides melt? We’re face to face, standing entirely too close for my erratic heart which feels like it’s about to beat out of my chest. I’m sure he can hear it and it’s more than embarrassing. But there’s something about our closeness mixed with my name on his lips. It’s disconcerting to say the least.

“Yeah?” I manage to ask, my voice sounding odd, even to myself.

He looks at me for what feels like minutes. Is he going to say something else? I should walk out, but he still has his hand on my arm and for some reason, I can’t look away from his intensely blue eyes.

“Please… call me Drew,” he says, in a quiet, rough voice.

“Okay.” I stare up at him for a split second longer and then finally tear away from his stare. I walk past him, out of the closet, and back to the counter.

[_ Chapter 6- Drew _]

I finish up everything on the list before the delivery truck pulls up in the front of the store around quarter of five. I meet them at the door, sign for the delivery and take the boxes, all two of them, into the back room. Not much to go through. I thought there would be more delivered than just this. But then again, it’s a quiet store and they don’t seem to sell that many books, so I guess it makes sense that they don’t order a ton of new ones. I sit back here in total quietness and sort through them, making piles as I go. This is nice. Easy work, if you ask me. When I come back out to the front with the first pile of books, there’s another girl behind the counter with Hailey. I glance over in their direction at the same time the other girl looks up at me and I can see her eyes bulge out for a moment before she tries to hide the reaction. I don’t know if she’s shocked to see someone else here or if she’s just shocked that that someone else is me. Or maybe it’s just my busted face that takes her by surprise. I start putting the books away on the wall to the left of where they stand behind the counter and I can hear the other girl whispering to Hailey, although I can’t make out what they’re saying.

Standing next to Hailey she looks like a smaller version of Hailey herself. She’s about 4 inches shorter, extremely petite, as Hailey isn’t all that tall herself. She has a much smaller stature, almost like she’s trapped in a 12 year-old’s body, except of course for her breasts. A twelve year-old wouldn’t have breasts like that. She has darker hair than Hailey does, although it’s just as long. Her eyes seem darker too, or maybe it’s just the dark makeup surrounding them. Other than that, they could almost be sisters. She’s wearing a tight tank top and a short jean skirt. She’s pretty. Probably more than pretty to most guys. But standing next to Hailey does nothing for her. A dandelion can be pretty on its own, but put it next to a rose and suddenly the once pretty dandelion is now just a weed.

I finish stacking the new shipment of books and walk around awkwardly, not sure what I’m supposed to be doing now. Honestly, I just want to get the hell out of here before Hailey’s friend asks me what happened to my face. Or worse, before Hailey asks again. Because if she keeps asking, I’ll have to make up a lie. And I’m not even sure what I’d say. I’ve never had to make up a story before. No one’s really been that curious. Teachers assume I’m in a gang or something. Craig assumes I’m a badass, only asking who I pissed off this time and laughing about it when I reply with ‘Who didn’t I piss off?’ Only Anna knows the truth. The first time my father got drunk enough to take his anger out on me, I avoided Anna until I was sure she wouldn’t notice. The second time, I wasn’t as lucky. She repeatedly asked me what had happened and got angrier and angrier when I wouldn’t tell her. I remember being more scared than I was when I was actually confronting my intoxicated father, because I had never ever seen Anna that angry before. By the third time, she had had enough. She knew without me telling her. She marched next door, even though I had begged her not to. I told her my father was sleeping, but she didn’t care. She walked right through the unlocked front door, without a knock or hesitation. She pulled my father up off of the couch where he was sound asleep. Or at least she tried to pull him up. At first, he was surprised. Then angry. They started screaming back and forth, while I watched wide-eyed, secretly praying my father wouldn’t hurt Anna.

“Who do you think you are Mr. Delmont? Laying a hand on an innocent child?! You should be ashamed of yourself!” Anna screamed at him with an anger I’ve never heard in her voice..

“Excuse me? Who do you think you are barging into my house making accusations?!” my father spit back.

“Don’t you dare deny it! If I see another mark on this child, so help me. I will go to the police myself!”

My father laughed. A pure belly laugh. “In case you haven’t noticed, I am the police.”

Anna pointed her finger in his chest. “You may be on the local town force, but you, yourself, are not above the law Mr. Delmont. I will go to higher authorities if I have to.”

My dad didn’t hesitate in his response. Still smiling, he asked, “Higher authorities, huh?” Then he got serious. “The same authorities that would ship you back faster than you could say my name?”

Anna looked like she was at a loss for words. She hesitated before saying, in a much softer voice, “If you don’t stop hurting this innocent -”

“Innocent? Really? Innocent? That’s what you think he is? You’re dumber than you look Ms. Lopez.” He said her name like it was poison on his tongue. “Now you listen to me, if you so much as dare to look at this house again, I will use every favor I have in the department to not only deport you, but to make sure they deport any other family members you may have here. And then I’ll make some calls to international departments and make sure your life back where you came from is a living nightmare.”

“I won’t sit back and watch this. I cannot sit back and watch you hurt this boy,” Anna said angrily, but unsure. I knew as well as she did that he had her. Report him and he’ll report her. She knew she was stuck.

Another girl around Hailey’s age walks into the bookstore and I snap back to reality. Her short bleach blonde hair is in complete contrast to Hailey and her friend’s. She doesn’t walk all the way up to the counter. “C’mon, Val! We’re leaving!” She yells up to them and then walks back out the door. Hailey’s friend, who I now know as Val, says something to Hailey and then rushes out the door.

After a moment, Hailey turns toward me. “That was my best friend, Val. I’m sorry, I guess I should have introduced you.”

“Nah, it’s ok.” I brush it off like it doesn’t bother me. And honestly, it doesn’t. I’ve never been interested in getting to know any private school girls before.

“Ok, well…” she trails off.

“Well, I think I’m done with everything,” I say, glancing at the clock that reads 6:30 P.M. “I’m here until seven, is there anything else I can do?”

“Nothing I can think of. We close at seven, so I’ll be leaving too. Want a ride home?”

I don’t, because I don’t want her to bring up my face again. But I don’t know how to politely decline so I just say “Sure.”

I stand there awkwardly, not sure what to do with the next half hour.

“Relax,” she says, “take a seat. Read a book. Take a twenty minute nap. Whatever.”

I look around the store and decide to walk over to one of the book shelves.

“I’ll be right back,” Hailey calls over her shoulder as she walks out the door.

I grab an old book that I knew they had because I stocked a newer one next to it earlier. I take a seat on one of the couches and open it up, passing the time. Hailey walks back in with two cups of coffee, offering me one. “Sure. Thanks.”

“No problem. I wasn’t sure how you took your coffee so I just got regular. I don’t usually drink coffee in the evenings but Vals been on a real coffee kick lately and it’s kind of contagious.”

I laugh lightly. “You didn’t have to do that,” I lift the cup up a bit so she knows I’m referring to it.

“No biggie. What’cha reading?” She sits down next to me and bends her head to see the book title. I tilt it up a little, without answering. “T.S. Eliot. Really?” she asks, like this is a huge surprise to her.

“Why not?”

“I just didn’t really figure you for the poetry type.”

For some reason, even though I know I don’t look like the poetry type, I’m insulted. I’m not usually this sensitive, so I’m not sure why it gets under my skin, but it does. “What, you think I’m more of the drugs and heavy metal type?” I bite back with more of an attitude than I meant.

“I…” she hesitates, turning her face away from me.

Now I feel like an ass. “Nah. Forget it. I know I don’t come off as the poetry type. It’s cool.” I try to blow it off, shrugging my shoulder like it doesn’t bother me at all. But she’s not fooled.

I see a resolve in her eyes and the shock fade away. She sits up straighter. “Don’t do that. Don’t make me feel guilty for being surprised you like poetry. I mean, c’mon, can you honestly blame me?

My eyes widen in response. Her honesty takes me by surprise, but I recover and reply honestly myself. “Yeah. I can. You were being judgmental.”

“Maybe. But isn’t that what you want?”

I scrunch my eyebrows in confusion. I have no idea what she’s talking about.

”You want people to judge you so you have something to hide behind,” She explains, like she knows it all.

Seriously? Who does she think she is? She’s known me for all of two days. Not even two full days. We’ve barely had any real interaction at all and she thinks she’s got me figured out? I cross my arms over my chest. “Wow. You just know it all, don’t you?”

She’s quiet for a minute, so I speak up, “Look at that, 7:00. Guess we can head out. I think I’ll walk.” I get up to leave but she stops me.

“I’m sorry.” She sighs. “You like poetry. I shouldn’t be surprised. And you’re not hiding. I was assuming.” She rolls her eyes. “Okay, judging. I was judging. And I’m sorry.” I look down at her holding my arm, stopping me in my tracks. When I look up, she’s staring straight into my eyes. “I really am.”

What am I supposed to do with that? She’s right. I know she is. Because she should be surprised that I like poetry. Who wouldn’t be? And she’s right about me hiding too. She’s right about all of it. I just don’t want her to be. But even if she was way off, I couldn’t possibly walk away from her, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen up close, when she’s looking at me like that. Like she’d be devastated if I walked away. “Okay.”

Her face relaxes as she exhales a breath. “Okay?” she asks, unsure whether to fully believe me or not.

“Okay,” I assure her. I nod and then smile to confirm we’re cool and she gives me a full on open-mouthed smile in return. She really is beautiful. How on earth am I going to work with her without downright drooling over her all the time?

[_ Chapter 7- Hailey _]

“So, can I still give you a ride home or do you hate me now?” I ask playfully, trying to lighten the mood.

“Yeah, I guess I can stomach to be in the same car as you, so long as it means I don’t have to walk four miles,” he answers playfully in return. And just like that, all is forgotten, or at least shoved aside for the time being. I laugh as we walk out into the summer evening air.

In my car, the mood changes. The playfulness disappears and we’re both quiet for a moment.

“So,” he starts, “your mom seems cool.” There’s no trace of sarcasm in his voice.

“Really? She kind of went psycho on you when she saw your face. That’s cool?”

“She was just worried. About you. About her store. I don’t blame her for that.”

“You’re not gonna tell me what really happened, are you?”

“Does your dad have anything to do with the store or is it just your mom’s thing?” He changes the subject in a not-so-subtle manner.

I’ll take that as a no. “It’s mostly my mom’s thing. My dad used to help out sometimes though. When my mom first bought this place, he helped fix it up. Then, later, he’d stop in and help my mom with heavy boxes and stuff. But it’s not like he’d be here all the time or anything. It was mostly just my mom. When I first started working here, he’d drop in every once in a great while and we’d just sit here and talk. Mostly we’d talk about my mom though,” I recall, smiling. My mom can be kind of crazy at times and my dad and I would always bond over making fun of her. Nothing too harsh, just normal venting.

“That must be nice, to have that quality time with him.” His voice is soft, and the statement comes out more rueful than I think he meant for it to.

“Yeah. It was nice.”

“Was?” He questions.

I hadn’t even noticed I was using the past tense, so it surprises me when he picks up on it. “Um, yeah, was. He hasn’t been to the bookstore in a while. In fact, I don’t see much of him at all anymore. It’s actually kind of weird.” I’m not sure why I’m telling him this, but it feels good to say it out loud. “I miss him. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but he’s been really distant lately. I mean, if it was just with my mom, I would think maybe he was having an affair or something. But I’ve always been a daddy’s girl. We’ve always been close. And it seems like he’s avoiding me lately too.”

He raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Wow. That sucks. Have you tried pulling him aside, maybe talking to him about it?”

“No. I mean, I guess I could. But I haven’t. Yet. Maybe you’re right though. Maybe I should just ask him what’s up.”

“Or not… You look scared.”

“Maybe I don’t want to know the answer. I mean, it can’t be good, right?”

“You never know until you ask. Maybe he’s just been busy and hasn’t even realized he’s been distant. Or maybe there’s something big going on. Either way, I’d wanna know.”

I mull it over for a few minutes and then I realize the car is really quiet. It’s not awkward though. It’s just quiet. I pull up to his house and he starts to get out of the car. “Drew,” I say, freezing him in place, “thanks. I mean, for listening, I guess. And for the advice. I didn’t mean to dump that on you. But thanks.”

He gives a half smile. “Yeah. Anytime. I mean it. Really. And thanks for the rides today.”

“Well, if you want, I can just pick you up and drop you off from now on. It’s kind of crazy for you to walk when we have the same shifts. And it’s going to be getting a lot hotter out soon.” As soon as I offer, I immediately want to take it back because judging by the look on his face, I can tell he wants to say no. He looks uncomfortable and unsure and I try to think of something, anything, to give him an easy out now.

***

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What Doesn't Kill Us

As a child, Drew tried to protect his little sister from his belligerent parents. Through the screaming and arguing, a tragic accident occurs; one that will forever define Drew's life. When he meets Hailey years later, he never would have thought that their lives could ever be entwined. Despite their obvious differences, they form a life-changing bond. But on a trip to visit Hailey's dad, they unearth a fateful discovery that changes everything. Can they survive uncovering decade-old secrets and learning the truths of their pasts? Or will the aftermath of their discoveries break the bond they've been desperately clinging to?

  • Author: AuthorStephanieHenry
  • Published: 2016-08-25 16:50:09
  • Words: 64295
What Doesn't Kill Us What Doesn't Kill Us