Authors: A E Rought
“I told you it was running crappy,” Bree says from the Bronco’s driver’s seat, through the open door.
Of course it’s running crappy. It’s damn near an antique.
“Can you stop hating on my Bronco?” Jason snaps. “Just step on the gas when I tell you.”
“Y’know, it’s Bree’s birthday Christmas Eve,” Emma says, all muffled against my skin and clothes. “We’re going to the party, right?”
My father tried to kill her, and destroyed her home. Her mom’s an uptight control freak with mad skills in carrying a grudge. What could possibly go wrong with us attending a party on Christmas Eve?
I could choke on that bit of sarcasm.
“OK,” Jason grunts, then shoves a thumbs-up where Bree can see it. “Hit it, baby.”
Bree steps on the gas. Nothing much happens, just a click, and the smell of burning wires.
“Goddammit!” Jason slams the hood, wipes his grimy hand down the front of his Carhartt jacket. His shoulders jerk up in a shrug when Bree castigates him for cussing in the church parking lot.
He points at me with the wrench he used under the hood. “Can we get a ride, Franks?”
“No problem, Weller.”
“What is it, Gentry,” Bree asks, and pokes her head from the cab of the Bronco, “with guys calling each other by their last name?”
“No clue, Ransom,” Emma answers. A hard chill racks her and instinct guides me to wrap my arms tighter around her. I’ve given up wondering if it’s a Daniel-side-effect from surgery or if it’s me. “Can we just go already?” she says. “I’m going to freeze solid soon.”
“But I know how to warm you up,” I whisper. It’s one of my favorite things.
“P-p-please do,” she stutters with cold.
Emma doesn’t have to ask twice. I slide her hair behind her collar, and trace kisses from her ear down her neck. Her shivers stop, her skin warms under my lips. How can I deny her when she tips her jaw, inviting me further? The thrill of touching her, kissing her, heightens and races my nerves when her hand fishes into my jeans pocket. Now we’re both heating up. Electric currents track under Emma’s fingertips when she strokes my leg. Then she grabs my car keys. With a flick of her thumb, the Acura starts up by remote. Clever girl. It only makes me want to kiss her harder.
“Get a room,” Jason teases.
“Bite me,” I say, Emma’s T-shirt neck between my teeth.
“I thought that,” he says with a huge grin, “was Emma’s job.”
Tension flashes through her, and I know from experience she’s going to spin and give him the grief he deserves – she’s punched people for mouthing off before. I smile against her neck, nudge her with my nose and then release a fraction of the tightness in my arms.
“Don’t go there…” Em says as she faces Jason. “You bite, too.”
“Oh geez. Enough,” Bree huffs. “I bite, you bite, she bites. How about you, lover boy?” She pokes a finger at me. “Are you a biter, too?”
“I prefer lips to teeth, actually.”
Snow pours off the Ford’s roof in a thick wave when Bree slams the door. She and Jason natter back and forth about vehicles and transportation. Their words are background noise. I’m focused on Emma, her renewed shivers, and my driving need to take care of her. It’s been like that since I woke up in recovery. Emotions I didn’t build, dreams made of memories I wasn’t a part of, and all of them centered on her.
Once I found Emma at Shelley High, I understood. Stubborn and funny, short and pretty, possibly as broken as me. Daniel’s love for her brought us together. Now everything I feel for Emma is doubled, his old and my new emotions, a complex compound. With a little tug I pull her closer, squeeze out what’s left of the air between us. She snuggles tight to me for a better fit.
Our best friend counterparts walk ahead toward my Acura hybrid. A single set of footprints leads the way to my driver’s side door and ruins my high.
Little, with a narrow heel, barely there, like the maker danced over the snow rather than plodded through it. Suspicion creeps up, slick and sour. With the number of hours the car’s sat out here anyone could’ve done anything. But the marks are too new. Bree and Jason reach the car a couple seconds before us.
There, in the middle of the driver’s side window, two hand prints sit at angles, mushed together at the bottom to look like inverted wings, or a mangled heart.
She used to leave the same pattern on my steamed-up windows, mirrors, anytime she felt like reminding me of how we were supposed to be together.
Shoving her face into my quiet time with my new friends isn’t enough. She marred the perfect white snow with her handiwork. Just one more way for her to remind me she wants to keep her claws in me. At the car, I let go of Em long enough to fish the windshield scraper from the backseat and wipe the windows clear. Then I dig the keys from my pocket and toss them to Jason.
“What?” he asks. “I’m driving this skittish thing?”
“At least to your house. Someone has to keep Emma warm.”
“Oh, of course…” He huffs a breath. “Whatever, man. You better get snow tires by next winter.”
Houses wake up, lights coming on. They slide by as we stay cuddled up: Emma’s face above my heart and me holding her there. She wakes enough to wave goodbye when Bree gets out, and snoozes until Jason pulls into his snow-choked driveway.
“This is my stop,” he says. “You’re going to have to chauffeur your own butts home.” I open my mouth to thank him, but he cuts me off. “You would’ve done the same.”
“See ya Monday. A couple days, a few exams and then it’s Christmas break!”
“And Bree’s birthday party,” Em reminds us.
“Aw crap,” he mutters under his breath. Jason’s face falls, he seems to sink under an enormous weight. Em laughs, and climbs into the front seat. “You don’t have a gift for her yet, do you?”
“No,” he almost groans the word.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure Alex will go to the mall with you. Right?”
The mall. Days before Christmas. Packed with people. Shoot me now.
“Yeah, sure.” I can’t tell Jason “no” when he looks so hopeful. “I have some shopping to do for my Gran, anyway.” And a ton for Emma.
He puts his cocky smile back in place. “At least I won’t suffer alone, right?”
“Misery does love company.”
A whirl of snow obscures his retreating form as Jason hikes through the shin deep white stuff to his garage and disappears inside. I settle into the driver’s seat, and wait until he flashes the garage lights signaling he’s inside. Then I reach toward Emma. “Alone at last.”
She’s sound asleep again, sitting up, arms curled around herself, her head tipped to the side. My jacket catches on the steering wheel when I tug it off, then I tuck it around her. A shimmer of white skin at my wrist brings back all the horrors my dad put us through.
The memories are always worse when I’m alone. Who I was before the lab accident, and who I became after my father revived me. I’m not perfect, but I’m better because of it. Still, his choices, his crimes, will forever tarnish the miracle he performed. The guilt makes me sick at times, keeps me up most nights.
Pushing down gently on the gas pedal, I aim the Acura toward the apartment complex near the edge of town. The Gentrys are staying there while they recover from the fire that took everything. The fire my father paid to have set.
My grip tightens on the steering wheel until my knuckles crack. He left me with so much to atone for. Most of it I can’t change, or clarify. God knows we tried. The police grilled us, searched Ascension Labs, but all my father’s files were gone. I have the folder of what he did to Daniel, and how he remade me – Gran begged me not to give it up, Grandpa hid it so I couldn’t. Hailey alluded to stealing the lab’s files “for safe-keeping”, and replaced the true files with dummy folders incriminating Josh and my father.
Since the fire, I’d left the pharmaceutical division running. Despite Hailey’s bitching and investor’s complaints, I forced a shutdown of activities relating to my father’s research. It’s like putting a bandage on a puncture wound. The bleeding is contained, but the wound is deep and infected. If the authorities knew what my father had actually done, they would swarm the place, confiscate everything and any chances of my formula being produced would be gone.
Is it wrong to keep those things secret in the name of self-preservation? I battle with it daily.
The myriad far-reaching implications of my father’s research falling into the wrong hands are what terrify me most. He was obsessed with reviving me – he succeeded. This knowledge, in the wrong hands, could make the crimes he committed look like amateur hour.
My car nearly drives on autopilot while I mull over the debt I acquired when my father died.
Not monetary. Apparently mad scientist doctors with genetics labs make stupid amounts of money. I could never work a day for the rest of my life and live comfortably on my inheritance. He tied my hands, however, by ensuring I don’t get full access to it until I’m twenty-one. Family friend and Dad’s fellow scientist, Paul Stanton, is the executor of the estate until I’m of age.
Rather, it’s the sins-of-the-father kind of debts that keep me up at night.
A wake of destruction trailed my father as he searched through guys my age, hunting for the proper match to replace everything wounded or dead in me. He tried to kill Emma because she got in his way. He destroyed her home and all of her family’s belongings. We hardly escaped the blaze, rescuing nothing but an emergency backpack and her cat, Renfield. My grandparents would’ve taken them in, if there was enough room.
Not for the first time, I wish there was a way to rewind time. I would keep Em and I alive without my dad, but go back and give the Gentrys their house.
A light is just beginning to dawn in my head, a possible solution to some of the guilt gnawing at me, when we arrive at the West Shore Apartment Complex on Colby Street. Two long, two-story, brick-faced apartment buildings sitting in an L-shape, so common, so unlike the cozy home they lived in on Seventh Street.
“Where are we?” Em asks, her voice thick with sleep.
“Home,” I say, a lie she confirms by saying: “This isn’t home.”
“Either way,” I point to the upstairs window casting light onto the snowfall, “your mom is up there waiting.”
Mrs Gentry openly watches every move I make as I hop out and crunch along the packed snow to the passenger side of the Acura. A smile warms Em’s sleepy face when I open the door for her and extend my hand.
“You don’t have to keep opening my door for me, y’know,” she teases.
“And you don’t have to date me.”
“Yes,” she says, all sense of play gone. “I do.”
I take her hand in mine, guide her snug to my side, as though her mother’s glares are going to tear us apart if I don’t hold on. At her door, she nestles her head against my collarbone, pulling my jacket aside to remove one of the barriers between us.
A flicker of something darkens her eyes. Her smile droops, making her look sad and tired. “Text me later, OK? When you do, tell me something true.”
“What?” I’m an open book for her.
Emma slings a quick look at the door like she has X-ray vision and can see her mother, striding closer through the panel.
“It’s just… It sounds crazy,” she says, her bottom lip pouting a little like it does when she thinks about something sad. Em drops eye contact for a moment, fidgets with my jacket zipper. “I feel like we’ve always been together, but at times I feel like we’re just starting out.” She looks up and continues, “So, when you think of me, text something true about you I might never have known.”
“That,” I promise, “I can do.”
I steal a quick kiss when I hear the chains on the door being removed. Her mom throws it open, gaze narrowing to just short of a glare. My father might have been an emotional terrorist, but this woman scares me.
“Morning, Alex,” she says.
I notice a distinct lack of “good” in her greeting. “Hi, Mrs Gentry.”
She gestures toward the living area, and Em staggers past like she might drop and sleep on the carpet.
“Thank you for bringing her home,” Mrs Gentry says, then casts me a level, long look as she shifts between me and Emma. Em lifts a hand in farewell, and my heart clenches in the same weird stutter it does whenever I leave her.
The ache must be visible on my face. Her mom’s expression softens, and she tells me, “Have a good Sunday,” before closing the door.
“You too,” I answer, even though no one is listening.
212. My dad, in his madness, reduced their lives to Apartment 212.
The Gentrys should be living in a house, garden covered in snow, porch boards creaking as I walk away. Renfield should be peeking through the living room curtains. My right hand curls into a fist. It’s not right. Not in any world, in any life.
I want, in the worst way, to fix things for them, to make some kind of reparation for what my father did to them. I want to give them back their house. That’s when it dawns on me. Thanks to my inheritance, I am in the position to do something about it. Well, I can’t do anything involving my inheritance until I talk to the man left in charge of it. Like a subordinate, like my father always wanted me to be, I have to ask permission first.
I doubt Paul will agree to my idea, but I have to try.
Stairs click by mindlessly as I dig my cell phone from my pocket. Then I pause, a step from the bottom. My fingers hover over the keypad. What’s Paul’s number? It’s just… gone. Why can I see him, white T-shirt under a blue button-down and face all smiles, at a big Ascension Labs party before my mother died, but I can’t remember his damn phone number? My mind tries to recall it, but there’s a hole where it should be.
His number isn’t the only thing I’ve lost.
Frustrated, I go to my Contacts menu, scroll through to
and press the phone icon. The first ring is overshadowed by me opening the building door. The second ring cuts off in the middle, with, “Hello? Alex?”
“Hi, Paul.” Should I call him Mr Stanton? Calling him at all, especially to ask for money is so awkward. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”