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I dodge to the right of the stairs and swerve around the side of the house before she can insult me. The sun is lowering below the lines of the mountains that encase the town and stars sparkle across the sky like dragonflies. It's hard to see once the lights of the front porch fade away and my shoe catches something sharp. I fall down and my palms split open against the gravel. Injuries on the outside are easy to endure and I get up without hesitation.
I dust the pebbles from my hands, wincing from the burn of the scratches as I round the corner into the backyard.
"I don't give a s.h.i.t what the h.e.l.l you were trying to do," a male voice cuts through the darkness. "You're such a f.u.c.k up. A f.u.c.king disappointment."
I halt by the edge of the gra.s.s. Near the back fence is a brick pool house where two figures stand below a dim light. One is taller, with their head hanging low and their broad shoulders are stooped over. The shorter one has a beer gut, a bald spot on the back of his head, and is standing in the other's face with their fists out in front of them. Squinting through the dark, I make out that the shorter one is Mr. Owens and the taller one is Kayden Owens. The situation is surprising since Kayden is very confident at school and has never been much of a target for violence.
"I'm sorry," Kayden mutters with a tremor in his voice as he hugs his hand against his chest. "It was an accident, sir. I won't do it again."
I glance at the open back door where the lights are on, the music is loud, and people are dancing, shouting, laughing. Gla.s.ses clink together and I can feel the s.e.xual tension bottled in the room from all the way out here. These are the kinds of places I avoid at all cost, because I can't breathe very well in them. I move up to the bottom step tentatively, hoping to disappear into the crowd unnoticed, find my brother, and get the h.e.l.l out of here.
"Don't f.u.c.king tell me it was an accident!" The voice rises, blazing with incomprehensible rage. There's a loud bang and then a crack, like bones splitting into pieces. Instinctively I whirl around just in time to see Mr. Owens smash his fist into Kayden's face. The crack makes my gut churn. He hits him again and again, not stopping even when Kayden crumples to the ground. "Liars get punished Kayden."
I wait for Kayden to get back up, but he stays unmoving not even bothering to cover his face with his arms. His father kicks him in the stomach, in the face, his movements harder, showing no sign of an approaching end.
I react without thinking, a desire to save him burning so fiercely it washes all doubts from my mind. I run across the gra.s.s and through the leaves blowing in the air without a plan other than to interrupt. When I reach them, I'm shaking and verging toward shock as it becomes clear the situation is larger than my mind originally grasped.
Mr. Owens' knuckles are gashed and blood drips onto the cement in front of the pool house. Kayden is on the ground, his cheekbone cut open like a crack in the bark of a tree. His eye is swollen shut, his lip is ruptured, and there is blood all over his face.
Their eyes move to me and I quickly point over my shoulder with a very unsteady finger. "There was someone looking for you in the kitchen," I say to Mr. Owens, thankful that for once my voice maintains steadiness. "They needed help with something... I can't remember what though."
His sharp gaze pierces into me and I cower back at the anger and powerlessness in his eyes, like his rage controls him. "Who the h.e.l.l are you?"
"Callie Lawrence," I say quietly, noting the smell of liquor on his breath.
His gaze travels from my worn shoes to the heavy black jacket with buckles, and finally lands on my hair that barely brushes my chin. I look like a homeless person, but that's the point. I want to be unnoticed. "Oh, yeah, you're Coach Lawrence's daughter. I didn't recognize you in the dark." He glances down at the blood on his knuckles and then looks back at me. "Listen Callie, I didn't mean for this to happen. It was an accident."
I don't do well under pressure so I stand motionless, listening to my heart knock inside my chest. "Okay."
"I need to go clean up," he mutters. His gaze bores into me for a brief moment before he stomps across the gra.s.s toward the back door with his injured hand clasped beside him.
I focus back on Kayden, releasing a breath trapped in my chest. "Are you okay?"
He cups his hand over his eye, stares at his shoes, and keeps his other hand against his chest, seeming vulnerable, weak, and perplexed. For a second, I picture myself on the ground with bruises and cuts that can only be seen from the inside.
"I'm fine." His voice is harsh, so I turn toward the house, ready to bolt.
"Why did you do that?" he calls out through the darkness.
I stop on the line of the gra.s.s and turn to meet his eyes. "I did what anyone else would have done."
The eyebrow above his good eye dips down. "No, you didn't."
Kayden and I have gone to school together since we were in kindergarten. Sadly this is the longest conversation we've had since about sixth grade when I was deemed the cla.s.s weirdo. In the middle of the year, I showed up to school with my hair chopped off and wearing clothes that nearly swallowed me. After that, I lost all my friends. Even when our families have dinner together, Kayden pretends like he doesn't know me.
"You did what almost no one would have done." Lowering his hand from his eye, he staggers to his feet and towers over me as he straightens his legs. He is the kind of guy girls have an infatuation for, including me back when I saw guys as something else other than a threat. His brown hair flips at his ears and neck, his usually perfect smile is a b.l.o.o.d.y mess, and only one of his emerald eyes is visible. "I don't understand why you did it."
I scratch at my forehead, my nervous habit when someone is really seeing me. "Well, I couldn't just walk away. I'd never be able to forgive myself if I did."
The light from the house emphasizes the severity of his wounds and there is blood splattered all over his shirt. "You can't tell anyone about this, okay? He's been drinking... and going through some stuff. He's not himself tonight."
I bite at my lip, unsure if I believe him. "Maybe you should tell someone... like your mom."
He stares at me like I'm a small, incompetent child. "There's nothing to tell."
I eye his puffy face, his normally perfect features now distorted. "Alright, if that's what you want."
"It's what I want," he says dismissively and I start to walk away. "Hey Callie, it's Callie, right? Will you do me a favor?"
I peer over my shoulder. "Sure. What?"
"In the downstairs bathroom there's a first aid kit, and in the freezer there's an icepack. Would you go grab them for me? I don't want to go in until I've cleaned up."
I'm desperate to leave, but the pleading in his tone overpowers me. "Yes, I can do that." I leave him near the pool house to go inside where the very crowded atmosphere makes it hard to breathe. Tucking in my elbows and hoping no one will touch me, I weave through the people.
Maci Owens, Kayden's mother, is chatting with some of the other moms at the table and waves her hand at me, her gold and silver bangle bracelets jingling together. "Oh Callie, is your mom here, hun?" Her speech is slurred and there is an empty bottle of wine in front of her.
"She's out in the car," I call out over the music as someone b.u.mps into my shoulder and my muscles stiffen. "She was on the phone with my dad and sent me in to find my brother. Have you seen him?"
"Sorry hun, I haven't." She motions her hand around with flourish. "There are just so many people here."
I give her a small wave. "Okay, well, I'm going to go look for him." As I walk away, I wonder if she's seen her husband and if she'll question the cut on his hand.
In the living room, my brother Jackson is sitting on the sofa, talking to his best friend, Caleb Miller. I freeze near the threshold, just out of their sight. They keep laughing and talking, drinking their beers, like nothing matters. I despise my brother for laughing, for being here, for making it so I have to go tell him mom is waiting out in the car.
I start toward him, but I can't get my feet to move. I know I need to get it over with, but there are people making out in the corners and dancing in the middle of the room and it's making me uncomfortable. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. Move feet, move.
Someone runs into me and it nearly knocks me to the floor.
"Sorry," a deep voice apologizes.
I catch myself on the doorframe and it breaks my trance. I hurry down the hall without bothering to see who ran into me. I need to get out of this place and breathe again.
After I collect the first aid kit from the bottom cupboard and the icepack from the freezer, I take the long way out of the house, going through the side door unnoticed. Kayden's not outside anymore, but the interior light of the pool house filters from the windows.
Hesitantly, I push open the door and poke my head into the dimly lit room. "h.e.l.lo."
Kayden walks out from the back room without a shirt on and a towel pressed up to his face, which is bright red and lumpy. "Hey, did you get the stuff?"
I slip into the room and shut the door behind me. I hold out the first aid kit and the icepack, with my head turned toward the door to avoid looking at him. His bare chest, and the way his jeans ride low on his hips smothers me with uneasiness.
"I don't bite, Callie." His tone is neutral as he takes the kit and the pack. "You don't have to stare at the wall."
I compel my eyes to look at him and it's hard not to stare at the scars that crisscross along his stomach and chest. The vertical lines that run down his forearms are the most disturbing, thick and jagged as if someone took a razor to his skin. I wish I could run my fingers along them and remove the pain and memories that are attached to them.
He quickly lowers the towel to cover himself up and confusion gleams from his good eye as we stare at one another. My heart throbs inside my chest as a moment pa.s.ses, like a snap of a finger, yet it seems to go on forever.
He blinks and presses the pack to his inflamed eye while balancing the kit on the edge of the pool table. His fingers quiver as he pulls his hand back and each knuckle is sc.r.a.ped raw. "Can you get the gauze out of that for me? My hand's a little sore."
As my fingers fumble to lift the latch, my fingernail catches in the crack, and it peels back. Blood pools out as I open the lid to retrieve the gauze. "You might need st.i.tches on that cut below the eye. It looks bad."
He dabs the cut with the towel, wincing from the pain. "It'll be fine. I just need to clean it up and get it covered."
The steaming hot water runs down my body, scorching my skin with red marks and blisters. I just want to feel clean again. I take the damp towel from him, careful not to let our fingers touch, and lean forward to examine the lesion, which is so deep the muscle and tissue is showing.
"You really need st.i.tches." I suck the blood off my thumb. "Or you're going to have a scar."
The corners of his lips tug up into a sad smile. "I can handle scars, especially ones that are on the outside."
I understand his meaning from the depths of my heart. "I really think you should have your mom take you to the doctor and then you can tell her what happened."
He starts to unwind a small section of gauze, but he accidentally drops it onto the floor. "That'll never happen and even if it did, it wouldn't matter. None of this does."
With unsteady fingers, I gather up the gauze and unravel it around my hand. Tearing the end, I grab the tape out of the kit. Then squeezing every last terrified thought from my mind, I reach toward his cheek. He remains very still, hugging his sore hand against his chest as I place the gauze over the wound. His eyes stay on me, his brows knit, and he barely breathes as I tape it in place.
I pull back and an exhale eases out of my lips. He's the first person I've intentionally touched outside my family for the last six years. "I would still consider getting st.i.tches."
He closes the kit and wipes a droplet of blood off the lid. "Did you see my father inside?"
"No." My phone beeps from my pocket and I read over the text message. "I have to go. My mom's waiting out in the car. Are you sure you'll be okay?"
"I'll be fine." He doesn't glance up at me as he picks up the towel and heads toward the back room. "Alright, I'll see you later, I guess."
No, you won't. Putting my phone away in my pocket, I depart for the door. "Yeah, I guess I'll see you later."
"Thank you," he instantly adds.
I pause with my hand on the doork.n.o.b. I feel terrible for leaving him, but I'm too chicken to stay behind. "For what?"
He deliberates for an eternity and then exhales a sigh. "For getting me the first aid kit and icepack."
"You're welcome." I walk out the door with a heavy feeling in my heart as another secret falls on top of it.
As the gravel driveway comes into view, my phone rings from inside my pocket. "I'm like two feet away," I answer.
"Your brother is out here and he needs to get home. He's got to be at the airport in eight hours." My mother's tone is anxious.
I increase my pace. "Sorry, I got sidetracked... but you sent me in to get him."
"Well, he answered his text, now come on," she says frantically. "He needs to get some rest."
"I'll be there in like thirty seconds, Mom." I hang up as I step out into the front yard.
Daisy, Kayden's girlfriend, is out on the front porch, eating a slice of cake as she chats with Caleb Miller. My insides instantly knot, my shoulders slouch, and I shy into the shadows of the trees, hoping they won't see me.
"Oh my G.o.d, is that Callie Lawrence?" Daisy says, shielding her eyes with her hand and squinting in my direction. "What the heck are you doing here? Shouldn't you be like hanging out at the cemetery or something?"
I tuck my chin down and pick up the pace, stumbling over a large rock. One foot in front of the other.
"Or are you just running away from the piece of cake I have?" she yells with laughter in her tone. "Which one is it Callie? Come on, tell me?"
"Knock it off," Caleb warns with a smirk on his face as he leans over the railing, his eyes as black as the night. "I'm sure Callie has her reasons for running away."
The insinuation in his voice sends my heart and legs fleeing. I run away into the darkness of the driveway with the sound of their laughter hitting my back.
"What's your problem?" My brother asks as I slam the car door and buckle my seatbelt, panting and fixing my short strands of hair back into place. "Why were you running?"
"Mom said to hurry." I fix my eyes on my lap.
"I sometimes wonder about you, Callie." He rearranges his dark brown hair into place and slumps back in the seat. "It's like you go out of your way to make people think you're a freak."
"I'm not a twenty-four year-old who's hanging around at a high school party," I remind him.
My mom narrows her eyes at me. "Callie, don't start. You know Mr. Owens invited your brother, just like he invited you to the party."
My mind drifts back to Kayden, his face beaten and bruised. I feel horrible for leaving him and almost tell my mom what happened, but then I catch a glimpse of Caleb and Daisy on the front porch, watching us back away, and I remember that sometimes secrets need to be taken to the grave. Besides, my mom has never been one for wanting to hear about the ugly things in the world.
"I'm only twenty-three. I don't turn twenty-four until next month," My brother interrupts my thoughts. "And they're not in high school anymore so shut your mouth."
"I know how old you are," I say. "And I'm not in high school either."
"You don't need to sound so happy about it," my mom grimaces as she spins the steering wheel to pull out onto the street. Wrinkles crease around her hazel eyes as she tries not to cry. "We're going to miss you and I really wish you'd reconsider waiting until fall to go away to school. Laramie is almost six hours away sweetie. It's going to be so hard being that far away from you."
I stare at the road that stretches through the trees and over the shallow hills. "Sorry Mom, but I'm already enrolled. Besides, there's no point in me sticking around for the summer just to sit around in my room."
"You could always get a job," she suggests. "Like your brother does every summer. That way you can spend some time with him and Caleb is going to be staying with us."
Every muscle in my body winds up like a knotted rope and I have to force oxygen into my lungs. "Sorry Mom, but I'm ready to be on my own."
I'm more than ready. I'm sick of the sad looks she always gives me because she doesn't understand anything I do. I'm tired of wanting to tell her what happened, but knowing I can't. I'm ready to be on my own, away from the nightmares that haunt my room, my life, my whole world.