E X C E R P T
The center of town is teeming with reporters when we arrive. The mood is somber, self-conscious, even. Can an entire town be collectively self-conscious? They’re shy, that’s for sure. We don’t get a whole lot of visitors in Gun Creek. Certainly not ones who stick microphones in your face and blast you with questions while you’re still half-asleep.
Damon parks the patrol car right across the front doors of the police station, his face drawn and tense. It must be a fucking nightmare, being in charge of an entire town like this. Especially when something like this happens.
I can only imagine how bad things are going to get at home if they don’t find this girl soon.
“These people are fucking vultures,” he mutters, and I make a noise signaling my agreement. He gets out, opening my door for me.
I muster up a plastic smile as Damon holds out my purse, the strap dangling on his outstretched finger.
“Thanks,” I say, taking the bag and slinging it over my shoulder. I put my oversized dollar-store sunglasses on my face, the day already too bright for me to bear.
“You okay?” Damon asks.
“Always,” I reply, walking away from him before he can say anything else. I should ask him if he’s okay, but that would mean pretending that I care.
I have something important that I need, something immediate.
I’m an asshole because I know I should care about the fact that a girl I’ve grown up with is missing, but I have more pressing personal matters.
I need to take care of myself, first. I head for the diner, fifty feet away, already late for my shift. I push past reporters, hanging eagerly at the doors they’re forbidden to cross. They have to hover outside in the snow for their pound of flesh, their soundbites, their newsworthy quotes from Jennifer’s distraught friends and family. I see Casey Mulligan, a girl I went to school with, twirling a strand of long blonde hair around her finger as she musters up a couple of fat tears for a news camera, and it strikes me, just like last time, that the people who get the most attention in this world are the ones who least deserve it.
Still, I’m glad it’s not me. Last thing I want is a camera in my face. I slip by, unassisted, unseen, an invisible girl with a hollow spot inside me. I notice the crates of milk that get delivered to Dana’s every morning are still stacked out front and I grab one as I approach, throwing my purse on top and bracing my stomach muscles to carry the thirty-odd pounds worth of liquid weight. One of our regulars holds the door open for me and I smile in thanks, lugging the milk crate through the diner and toward the cold storage out back.
I’m making my way down the main entrance, past rows of tables and customers talking feverishly about Jennifer, my arms full of milk bottles when it happens.
I see him. Him.
My arms stop functioning. I drop everything; the milk crate, my purse, my practiced neutral expression. The purse wafts to the floor, the milk bottles hurtle down with an unceremonious crash, and blue plastic lids burst off and go skittering in every direction.
I sink to my knees, in shock. People are looking at me, but I don’t pay attention to them. I’m too busy fixated on the green-eyed ghost standing in front of me. The splinters in my knees sting like fire-ant bites, and I curl my legs to the side, coming to a sitting position.
“Shit!” Leo says, dropping his backpack to the ground and crouching in front of me. “Cass. Cassie. Are you okay?”
My entire body is alight, little pinpricks along my skin that make me dizzy. The feeling spreads like wildfire, across my chest and through my limbs until I’m overwhelmed and frozen on the spot, sitting on my ass in the middle of the diner, voices and whispers all around.
I watch in fascination as milk spreads in a puddle in front of me, like spilled blood. It rushes at me like a miniature tsunami as a painful buzz begins in my head.
“You’re gonna pass out,” Leo says, his words sounding far away as he reaches out a hand to help me up. “Jesus, Cassie, you’re white as a sheet.”
I hold my hand out, the conviction in my reach laughable, and it’s like that moment of electricity that people talk about. I can feel it build in my fingertips, that arc of some invisible thing that wants to join with his invisible thing, but then a hand wraps around my wrist and yanks my arm away before I can make contact with the boy — no, with the man — I thought was still in prison.
“Did he hurt you?” Damon’s voice in my ear breaks my dream-like state. I open my mouth to say something and decide against it, swallowing air instead. I shake my head.
“How’d you get on the ground?” Damon asks, shaking me a little.
“She fell down,” Leo says, his arm no longer outstretched. He takes a step away from me, and Jesus, it hurts. He looks anguished. “She dropped the milk and she fell down.” I can’t stop looking at him. I can’t bear to look at him.
The milk has reached me. It seeps across my right knee, curled underneath me; the backs of my thighs, my palms. It’s ice cold, and I can feel myself shaking.
Damon is crouched next to me, his hand on my cheek, diverting my attention to him. “Are you all right, Cassie?” he asks, helping me to my feet, his tone gathering more urgency with each question I don’t answer. Amanda is picking up the milk bottles beside us, piling them high in her arms as I continue to stare at Leo. He’s… different. He has tattoos now. He looks exactly the same but entirely reconstructed. He’s eight years older, I realize. A third of his life, gone. A third of mine. It feels like it’s been forever. It feels like it’s been no time at all.
Deputy Chris appears, looking between me and Leo with uncertainty. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How the hell did Leo just materialize from thin air in the Grill?
“Cassie,” Damon snaps, and I know he means business.
I nod. “I’m fine. I’m okay.” I think of where I was going before I saw fucking Leo. Pills. Purge. “I need a minute.”
“I’ll take you home,” Damon says, his hand on the small of my back as he starts to guide me toward the front doors. I panic, pushing him away.
“You have a missing girl to find,” I say quickly. “I’m fine, really. I just need some aspirin.” And a fucking gun, so I can put myself out of my misery.
“I’ll walk you there,” Damon says, ever the hero. If they only knew, I think to myself, as Amanda opens the staff room door and ushers us inside.
“Give us a minute,” Damon says, giving Amanda a concerned look. She nods, closing the door and waiting out in the hallway as Damon closes the blinds and twists the lock on the door.
“Didn’t think he’d have the balls to show his face in public,” Damon says, and that’s when I understand.
I feel the blood drain from my cheeks as I realize. He knew. He knew Leo would be here today. I ask him with my eyes, searching, imploring. His expression tells me everything.
“You could have warned me,” I whisper.
His eyes narrow. “I considered it. Figured it was better you didn’t know in advance.” He pauses. “Didn’t expect you to fall to your knees in front of him.”
“Fuck you,” I seethe.
Damon’s jaw twitches. “I’m sorry,” he offers, almost as if he’s suggesting an apology rather than delivering one.
I reach for the lock, twisting it and cracking the door open. The temporary quiet we’ve had is pierced by the excited noise of a diner who’s just witnessed the tragic reunion of two star-crossed lovers, or maybe they’re all just gossiping about the missing girl.
“Jennifer,” I hiss at Damon. One word. It works. He shakes his head, his blue eyes fucking burning with anger, but he leaves.
Holy shit. As soon as he’s gone, I close the door again. I don’t bother locking it — who’s going to find me in here? Leo’s long gone if he’s got any sense, and as much as I don’t care about anything, the thought of Amanda having to mop up the milk I spilled makes me so fucking guilty I can barely breathe.
Pills. Purge. Yes.
I go into the staff bathroom, a small tiled square off the main staff room, and start to throw up as soon as the door is closed. I don’t even need to stick my finger down my throat — I’m so full of adrenaline from seeing Leo, I just open my mouth and everything comes out. It’s the kind of vomit that gets in your nose and burns behind your eyes and makes you cry with the way it chokes you.
When I’ve emptied my stomach and I stop gagging, I clean myself up, my head feeling like it might split in two. I’m so hot I think I might burst into flames. I take off my cardigan, my fingers clumsy and damp, and use it to wipe my face.
Pills. Yes. I go back out to the staff room, seeking whatever pharmaceutical bliss I can rummage up from my staff locker. I didn’t switch the overhead lights on when I first came in, and the windowless cave is dim, the only illumination coming from the slightly ajar bathroom door and the fluorescent strips that line its ceiling.
The staff room is empty. Except… it’s not.
Leo. He’s here. Somehow, the only person here with me is the one person I shouldn’t be anywhere near.
He looks at me with eyes that have seen violence since I last gazed into them. I know because I recognize the hardness inside his soul; it matches mine.
My face is a blank canvas, but inside I’m screaming.
Not with fear. With longing. And shame. I want the boy who destroyed everything to pick me up and take me into the bathroom and put his hands all over me. I want him to erase every trace of the last decade. Under my shirt, my nipples stiffen, and shame pools in my belly.
I shouldn’t want to be anywhere near this boy after what he did, but I do.
“I’m sorry,” Leo says. His voice. Oh, God. I don’t remember his voice being that fucking beautiful. It’s deep and full and if it were a food, it’d be honey. He’s not a boy anymore. He’s a man now. A stranger.
His face falls as he gestures to my stomach, concerned. “You have blood on your shirt,” he says, pointing from a safe distance. “Did you cut yourself when you fell?” He looks remorseful. Like he thinks the blood on my shirt is his fault.
My heart sinks. I shake my head tightly, tears springing to my eyes.
“Not my blood,” I say, my voice coming out like a squeak. Leo looks confused.
“The dog,” I stammer. “Rox. She — she—”
“I saw her yesterday,” Leo says, his eyes wide as he looks from my eyes to the blood on my shirt. I didn’t even realize it was there. I’d been wearing my sweater until I took it off just now.
“She’s dead,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Leo takes a step back. Something passes over his face, a darkness, a fleeting suspicion. “How?” he asks.
I don’t know how to answer that. So I don’t. I push past him and start walking to the kitchen, as fast as I can, because I don’t have an answer for him. My shoulder burns from where I grazed his arm on the way out of the staff room. He might have ruined my life, destroyed my family, taken my future in one careless night — but Leo Bentley still makes me burn like hellfire.