Paige sucked in a breath, counting backward from ten as she approached Lia and Sasha. The pairs’ frantic whispers grew quiet when Paige neared.
“Lia, do you have the article on Spirit Week?” Paige asked voice shaky. She knew they were talking about her.
Lia shrugged. “I think Devon put it in the filing cabinet,” she said. The Romanian girl pushed her jet-black hair behind her ears.
“Oh?” Paige looked between the two girls.
“The layout is done already, isn’t it?” Sasha said, piping up.
Lia nodded. “He finished yesterday.”
Paige lifted an eyebrow. “We were supposed to work on it together.”
“Maybe he wants to ‘work with’ his girlfriend?” said Sasha. Lia hit Sasha’s arm, failing to hide her own cackle.
Paige clenched her fists, her neck burning, tongue thick. She supposed she should have been used to it by now. The chuckles, the snide remarks… It’d been two days since Cristina ‘caught’ Paige and Devon together in room 203. The students in Journalism turned on Paige, most being in Cristina’s favor.
“No alone time this week, huh?”
Paige turned away, ignoring the insinuation in Lia’s words. She stormed back to her corner of the room, their murmurs and laughter chasing her like a wild dog.
Well, there was nothing for her to do if the layout was done. She tried to look busy by scribbling non-sense sentences on a piece of paper—
I’M NOT THE ENEMY. IT’S NOT MY FAULT.
Over and over again, pressing her pen hard against the page.
She felt a presence behind her and turned. Devon stood at her back, his face deeply furrowed. “You’ve been here for a while.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t like being laughed at.”
His eyes flitted over her paper. “What are you doing?” She flipped it over. “Come on,” Devon gestured with his head. “I think Garrett needs help.”
“Devon—I’m not sure if you noticed, but no one wants to work with me.”
“I can work with you.”
“You better not.” Lia and Sasha were looking in their direction, their high-pitched voices growing louder. What was this, third grade?
Devon followed Paige’s gaze.
“I think you should go,” she said.
Devon stood by Paige for a few moments, perhaps waiting for her to change her mind. Paige held her breath, listening to his footsteps move away from her.
She fought the weird, sinking feeling in her stomach and returned to her work.
Wednesday after school, Paige wasn’t in room 203.
Devon found her sitting on a chair outside of the library, shoulders slouched and head down. She tugged absently on the sleeve of her oversized jacket. She must have heard him approach because she looked up.
Hair up in a bun, skinny jeans, and unmade face—modest and understated, kinda like she was, but something about her smile made his heart beat faster anyway.
The beautiful smile faded when she noticed his expression. She stood up.
“I’m getting tired of avoiding you,” he said.
“The room was locked. I found the nearest chair to wait.” She paused. “Is Cristina very angry?”
“Oh.” Her gaze shifted to her sneakers, the outsoles worn and dirty. “I guess that’s what you came to tell me: our meetings are canceled?”
He didn’t say anything.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong, were we? She’s that threatened by me?” Her words were jumbled, just as distressed as downward corners of her mouth.
He still didn’t say anything.
She shuffled around a bit, pressing her lips together. “Devon…I’ve been thinking. Maybe this is for the best. It’s just causing trouble. Do you hear the things they’re saying about us in journalism?”
“But, what about your story?” he asked.
She looked up, her eyes searching his frantically before they hardened. “I guess it’s not important.”
“Is it important to you?”
“That doesn’t matter. Who’s to say that I would have won the contest anyway? It was a dumb idea.”
Devon swallowed against the flickering pulse in his throat. He could stop.
He observed her turning out her pockets and trying desperately not to look at him. She didn’t know anything from The Collection, of course she didn’t. She never had. Finding his binder had elicited more dollar signs than question marks for her. She was just another dreamer more allured to the Hollywood myth of writing a best-selling novel than writing itself.
But what would his stopping mean? Trying not to sneeze up his insides in room 203 alone? Wrestling with empty dreams, instead of being intoxicated by eyes that wrote hope over a thousand rejection letters?
Devon shook his head. “…No.”
“I made a deal with you Paige.”
“Devon—” She looked around.
“I know this is important to you. I promised that I’d stick to it and I will.”
Paige chuckled, mirthlessly. “You care about it that much?”
“Not really.” He admitted with a shrug. “But, I care about you.”
Her breathing became as shallow as his own, her pupils dilated. His heart pounded against his ribs like an animal thrashing in a cage. It would be so much easier to run away like he always did. But his feet remained glued to the ground. His mind screamed at him to go while there was still a chance.
She chewed on her bottom lip. “Um…what will you tell Cristina?”
He lowered his voice. “We’re not going to tell her anything.”
“I thought you said we weren’t doing anything wrong?”
She bit back her next words, letting out a stream of air through her nostrils. “No…”
“Then a promise is a promise.”
She found her way into his arms, holding him with what he was sure was relief. Quitting her story hadn’t really been an option, but more importantly, quitting each other was out of the question.
“I know I say it a lot, but thanks for helping me with my crappy story.”
Devon recognized the implicit fear in her words. Ten years old and standing in front of a teacher’s desk, legs trembling under her hard stare, he’d felt the same way. His five page story sat in her hands, ripped in two after she’d screamed at him for not following the instructions. He was supposed to write an expository essay on plants, not a nonsensical story on a ghost robbing a writer of his ability. She shoved it in his hands and commanded him to throw it away. He’d wanted to shit himself and he’d wanted to spit in her face.
Instinctively, he held Paige tighter, protectively at the memory. “Listen, nothing you write is crap. Stop saying that.” She rested her head on his shoulder and put her arms around his neck.
He bit back the words he wanted to say next. She wasn’t ready, and to be honest, he wasn’t ready either, for all that it meant.
This was bigger than hiding a family secret—this was bigger than murder. He was helping a girl he cared deeply about fulfill her dreams.
And he wouldn’t rest until it was done.
Lyn sat on the couch, hands folded in front of her. Sweat pooled under her arms, her pulse beat hard in her throat. Her eyes wondered around the living room waiting for their reactions.
Her mother sat on the burgundy couch, her legs crossed. Mrs. Connors looked at her daughter with kind eyes. Her right cheek still shone light purple, though the swelling had gone down. The police had left from the domestic call forty minutes ago.
“You stopped seeing this Rob person?” Mrs. Connors asked.
Lyn averted her gaze. “I’m trying to.” She swallowed.
It wasn’t easy admitting to your parents that you had a drug problem, and it was even harder admitting your ‘boyfriend’ was really your supplier.
Her father didn’t seem the least bit surprised at the announcement, but rather annoyed. Mr. Connors looked at the clock.
Lyn looked at her brother next to her. See? Devon nodded. She came out to him first. He coached her through what to say hours earlier.
Lyn cleared her throat. “What should I do?” she asked. Her focus flitted across the room, carefully avoiding her father and the picture on the wall behind him.
A Woman in Flames. More than likely where she would end up tonight if father had his way. Looking around the room, Lyn couldn’t help but remember a family meeting, years ago: one where they decided to lie about the dead bodies in their backyard.
“No one can know about this,” Mr. Connors interrupted his wife.
Lyn stared at Father. A short, fat man with a goatee. Contrary to the indifference he displayed at her confession, it was now obvious she had his attention the entire time.
He met her stare unflinchingly. His lips stretched into a white line. His forehead wrinkled. The room was silent, waiting for an explanation.
“I hope I have everyone’s understanding.”
“Garland...” Devon touched her shoulder, calming her.
Mr. Connors leaned back in the La-Z-Boy sofa. A lamp stood over him, casting harsh shadows on his face. His wedding ban stuck into the flesh of his finger, flashing silver in the lamp’s light.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Connors said, rubbing her cheek. “Shouldn’t we at least call a pastor or something?”
“I am a pastor,” Mr. Connors said. An ordained chaplain, in fact, which was precisely why they had to keep this quiet. “As for Garland, since she cannot keep from this young man, perhaps the best solution is that she is taken from him. From us.”
“What?” Devon said.
“Don’t interrupt me, son,” Mr. Connors said.
Devon’s mouth clamped shut. He exchanged a look with Lyn. Her face whitened.
Mr. Connors reached around the oak side table, past the box of military paraphernalia, and for his briefcase.
It was old leather, the surface worn by years of use. Popping the cover open, he removed an old, wrinkled ad. He stared at it briefly, his face contorting with regret mingled with sorrow. He handed it to Lyn. She took it.
“I went at a half-way house in Orlando last month. I had to meet with a next-of-kin there, cover some routine details for a funeral and other preparations. What would be done with the body…”
Lyn’s gaze locked with his.
Mr. Connors continued. “While there I met a woman at the front desk. I got her confidence, and decided to tell her about my daughter—Garland,” he corrected himself.
“The woman you were sleeping with?” Devon asked.
“Devon.” His mother chided. Devon looked at the carpet, preoccupied by the coffee mug near his feet.
“She suggested New Foundations, a school for troubled teenage girls.”
“And I’m ‘troubled’ now?” Lyn wanted to ball up the paper and throw it at him. She handed the paper to her brother. “Besides, it’s in North Carolina.”
Devon poured over the contents of the ad. His greatest concern came through. “And what about school?”
Mr. Connors came prepared for that. “There are dorms up there. It isn’t in the country, I made sure of that. It’s near the city. There are teachers on site so you can continue your schooling, if you choose. Or you can even start working. They have a work-study program, for culinary arts, among other things.”
Lyn stared at her hands. Blue and green veins contrasted harshly against her pale skin.
“It sounds more like you’re shipping her off.” Devon rested the paper on the seat next to him. “Like she’s an embarrassment. You’re writing her off.” Lyn rested a hand on his knee, shushing him.
Mr. Connors ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Look, it’s a good school. Garland will be safe there. She’ll learn a lot.”
Devon’s eyes rolled to the ceiling. “Including two church services a week? We’re not all into that Dad.”
Mr. Connors’s frowned, but he didn’t say anything. Lyn knew, secretly, their dad agreed with Devon.
Mr. Connors let out a breath. His shoulders slumped. “I think its best.”
Lyn lay on her side on a couch cushion. Her knees were drawn up to her chest. She stared blankly out the window.
Mrs. Connors rubbed her cheek again and observed her husband. Now would be a good time to leave. She was starting to feel fatigued, and couldn’t endure an argument between her son and husband.
“How much does it cost?” she asked.
Mr. Connors looked at his wife. “We can afford it.” He didn’t expound.
“Any price to wash your hands of her,” Devon said.
It was as if a switch had flipped inside Mr. Connors. “Shut-up,” he said. “You understand nothing. Nothing, you hear? You’re talking like a fool.”
Devon stood up. “I’m going in my room.” He headed for the stairs.
“Devon, I’m not finished!”
Devon did not stop.
Anger fumed behind his eyes, traced his every step. He couldn’t control it. Devon slammed his door behind him.
Sinking on his bed, he closed his eyes.
At least there was one good thing about days like these. He would never have to relive them.
When he opened his eyes, he saw her at the edge of his bed.
Or at least he saw her shadow.
The black form shifted back and forth in front of his vision. Devon stood. Fear licked the back of his mind. He walked toward his desk. She followed him.
The force behind him felt so powerful he knew he couldn’t get away, even if he wanted to. Shearing pain shot through the back of his head. His thoughts scrambled. The darkness behind his back grew, crawling up his flesh.
He knew what this was.
She was asking his permission to enter, to return. She would help him remember.
He didn’t want to remember.
All he could feel was anger.
The twisted freak had used his sister, struck when she was vulnerable, insecure. The Lyn he knew would never…
Knowing Rob, he was probably the one who first put the needle in Lyn’s arms.
The thought entered his mind with such violent force that Devon jerked forward. He glanced around. The only thing he could feel was her. Heat radiated from the inky, black apparition.
(KILL HIM, KILL HIM, KILL HIM!)
Devon could see her reflection in his laptop’s screen. His eyes froze. He couldn’t move them away. Her face contorted into a man’s. Olivia’s father. Devon couldn’t breathe. The face morphed again, this time into Rob’s. Red eyes stared into Devon. She laughed.
(KILL HIM, YOU BITCH)
There was a loud knock at the door. Once. Twice. She tore away from him. The knock sounded again. Devon stayed perfectly still, holding his breath. Was she really gone?
Mr. Connors opened the door and stepped farther inside. “Can I come in, son?”
You already have. Devon nodded. Shaking, he sat down on his bed.
Mr. Connors stood awkwardly in the room he hadn’t seen for months. He looked around, taking in the beige walls and nautical decorating motif. A picture of a boat lost at sea hung over the bedside table. There was another one of their family at Coral Springs.
He was already dressed for chaplainry. His white collared suit was pressed, and his hair slicked back immaculately. Mr. Connors ran a hand over his mustache. “Ah, where can I sit?”
Devon shrugged. “Anywhere.”
Mr. Connors chose the chair across from the bed.
He studied his son. It was as if the blood drained from Devon’s face. The pulse at his throat jumped visibly, even in the darkness. He looked like the son of the undead, not kin to humans. Eyes flitting across the room, Devon seemed unable to focus on one spot for long.
Mr. Connors eyes fell on an object on Devon’s desk. He stiffened. “I don’t want you drinking, Jay.” His nickname, supposedly a term of affection, but Mr. Connors only used it when he was pissed off.
Devon cursed heavily. His dumped the bottle into the wastebasket under his desk.
“What did you say?” Mr. Connors said. His gaze hardened on his teenage son.
“Your grandmother was an alcoholic,” Mr. Connors voice raised. “You remember that?” he snapped.
He grew up hearing the tale. Alison Maier, the Jewish woman who had given birth to his father, died of alcohol poisoning. She was found, babbling and incoherent, in a sewage drain two miles from her home in Pensacola. Drunk, she fell into the sewage where she stayed for two hours during a tropical storm. She died in the hospital of an eroded liver and pneumonia, leaving behind a husband and a two-year old son.
“I don’t ever want to see that in here again, you understand?” Mr. Connors said.
“I understand, sir.”
Mr. Connors nodded. “Good. I know you were upset in the living room.”
Devon hung his head. “It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not fine. Let me finish talking.”
His son gave an indifferent shrug of his shoulders. He turned back to his desk and closed his laptop.
“I love you and your sister both.”
Mr. Connors stared at his hands, deciding. “I want you to come up with a better solution.” Devon turned around in his chair. He stared at his father.
“I’m giving you a week,” Mr. Connors said.
Father nodded. “If you think she can stay here, great, but I want a detailed plan on what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it and how much it costs.”
Devon’s eyes looked to his window. “Sure.”
“And I want you to guarantee me that she won’t go back to her drug dealer.”
Devon refocused on the older man. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I can do that.”
Mr. Connors’ lips tapered down into a frown. His son was just as arrogant as ever. He supposed playing football could give anyone an unhealthy dose of confidence. But, one couldn’t control everything.
“Honestly, Devon, what do you want? What do you expect? Haven’t we all tried to help her before?” What makes you think you’ll be any different?
Devon contemplated for a moment. “I want Garland to stay with her family.” His voice was slow, measured. “To know that she is supported and loved, that we can work through this together. Not ship her off as if she’s a problem we can’t wait to be rid of.”
Mr. Connors brow knit together. He turned the watch on his wrist, thinking.
Devon’s irritation grew. “You and I both know she’ll never stay at that facility in North Carolina. She’ll walk. Here we can keep an eye on her. She can finish school.”
Mr. Connors palms were face-up. His mind had run into the same problems Devon was voicing. “It’s a chance we have to take.”
“It’s not a chance I am willing to take,” Devon said. “She’ll be safer here.”
Mr. Connors sighed, tired of arguing with his son. He stood and adjusted his jacket. Devon’s passion for his sister was admirable, but misguided. Mr. Connors brushed a hand through his hair, working the splash cologne through, putting the strands back into place.
“I’m going to talk to your sister before I leave,” Mr. Connors said. He stepped to the door. “If she expresses interest in New Foundations, would you support her then?”
Devon looked stunned at the idea. The moment quickly passed. His jaw set. “She wouldn’t.”
Mr. Connors held his hand on the doorknob. “I love you, son.”
“Yeah,” he called. “You too.”
Mr. Connors shut the door behind him.
He tried to be hopeful as he started down the hall to Lyn’s room. Perhaps he and his son had come to some type of understanding. After all, weren’t they both trying to help Lyn?
But he knew better than that. Devon was stubborn. He would do everything in his power to make sure that Lyn stayed with them.
Mr. Connors let out a breath at Lyn’s door. Maybe he would talk with Devon more tomorrow. Give the boy a chance to cool off? His sister seemed okay enough with the idea.
Mr. Connors pushed the door open.
Clothes were tossed over the floor. Boxes were knocked down and rummaged through. The bed sheets were ripped off the mattress in the corner. The window was thrown open and the curtains parted. A dismantled family photo leaned against the wall. Mr. Connors rushed to the picture. His image was cut out.
There was a note on the floor.
“Can I talk with you?”
“Sure.” Paige turned away from her locker to face Cristina. The girl was taller, older, and stronger. The toned muscles on her arms didn’t escape Paige’s notice. She flinched.
Paige wasn’t any good at fighting. She fought once in the fifth-grade, a twig-thin fourth grader who stole her signed Harry Potter book. Paige had gotten beaten to a pulp and was scared to go to school for a week.
Paige looked down the hall to the exits. If worse came to worse, she could always make a dash for it. Though being in track-and-field, Cristina would probably out-pace Paige’s slightly chubby frame in half-a-second.
Paige put her hands in her pockets to keep them from shaking. “Y-yeah?” Her voice was as wobbly as the school’s elevators.
“I know you like Devon.”
She opened her mouth to protest.
“Save it. I was angry about it before. Mad as hell. But if you two want to be together, have at it.”
Cristina hovered overhead, her Amazonian gaze down and her hands kneaded into fists. Paige backed away. “Okay…”
Cristina stepped closer. “I just want to warn you. Devon—he…he isn’t normal.”
Cristina must have caught Paige’s expression. “He’s addicted to drugs and got a drinking problem—guy has to take uppers just to stay away during the day. He hardly sleeps. And his family—” She paused. “They have a lot of things they would rather keep secret. They’re not good people.
Paige turned back to her locker and played with the combination, observing her chipped nail polish.
“You think I’m lying?”
She thought she was crazy. Lost a few screws. Or maybe one of those angry, jealous, bitter ex-girlfriends who implied creepy shit to ruin their formers’ lives. Kinda like they did in Lifetime movies.
“But none of that mattered when you were dating him, right?” Paige said, scoffing. Why was it suddenly important, if it was true?
The first bell rang. Students scuffled out of classrooms. “He has a book he calls The Collection,” Cristina said, speaking above the fray.
Paige’s face lit up with recognition.
“You’ve heard of it?”
“No,” she lied.
“If you see it. Read it. He’d never show you.”
Paige cleared her throat. She wouldn’t say she already read all of it.
And she still didn’t have a clue what Cristina was talking about.
Cristina studied Paige for a second, taking in her fly-away hair and beat-up shoes. “You think you’re so special. It was Dawn last year.”
The bell rang again.
“I have to go…” Paige said, uncomfortable.
Paige started for the doors, her fast pace matching the speed of her thoughts. Dormant for months, the questions that had nibbled at the back of her mind returned with fury. Devon hadn’t offered to help her win the contest for no reason. And her finding the binder had been the start of it all. There were stories in there, weren’t they? What had they been about?
There’s nothing in that binder. She shushed her thoughts with shake of her head as she opened the exit doors and stepped into the blinding sunlight.
Nevertheless, as Paige trekked through high grass to the paint chipped bench and bus stop next to the road, she had already determined one thing.
She had to read The Collection again.