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Authors: A E Rought

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BOOK: Tainted
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I’m going to have Emma almost entirely parent-free for the holidays. Paul’s idea of putting them up while their home’s rebuilt, is sending them on a vacation somewhere warm, sunny and away from here. There are rules, of course, curfews, check-ins, and her mother is bound to text her all the time – regardless of roaming or overage charges.

I wish he would work the same magic and get me out of exams.

“Thanks for taking me to see Renfield,” Em says, her lips soft and warm, and brushing my cheek. “I really miss him.”

“He misses you too.” I adjust around the console in the Acura, creating a better angle to press Emma to me. She leaves a trail of kisses across my cheek as she goes with my motion, and stops at the corner of my mouth. “He never fails,” I add, “to make me feel inferior to you, either.”

This nearly-kissing, teasing her, feeling her suck in a breath when I ride my fingers under the hem of her shirt is such a rush. She peers up at me through her lashes, that coy look she knows will make me crazy, and still reaches for the door handle. I can hit the door locks, and trap her here with me. Her mom can also look out the window any second and see us. One has high potential for steamed-up windows, one has high potential for a steamed-up mother.

Em gasps a little when I lunge in for a deep kiss.

“Now, remember,” I say, “You know nothing of what’s going on. Act surprised.”

“I am! They’re taking money from you, and my Dad’s taking a vacation? Are you sure Paul didn’t use some kind of Jedi mind trick on them?”

“I don’t think Paul knows Yoda…”

“Yoda’s dead, remember?” She gathers her backpack. “Unless Paul has a TARDIS…”

“Oh, sure.” When it comes to geekery, I can keep pace with Emma even if she’s mixing genres, and I don’t need a blue, time-traveling police box to do it. “I saw it in his basement once.”

“Ha.” Emma steps out, and a gust of wind brings her perfume to me. “Text me later, OK?”

I feign being shot in the chest. “You have to ask?”

“I promise I will answer this this time.”

With a wink from Emma, the door closes and she walks away. The odd, twisting farewell ache flashes under my ribs. It hurts like this every time. In some ways, I hate dropping Emma off after school. But, the way she rolls her hips when she knows I’m looking, I have to admit I like watching her leave.

Emotions simmer in me, some mine, some not, while Emma swishes her way up the stairs. Her hair floats on the wind, almost with a life of its own when she turns to wave goodnight. One last twinge in my chest, and she’s gone.


Tuesday was pleasantly pleasant on one the hand, sullen and uncomfortable on the other.

Hailey never called or texted, hence the pleasant. The awkward came from caving to Emma’s request to drive her parents to the airport in Grand Rapids. Emma rode shotgun, with her parents in the backseat. Over an hour of not knowing what to say, not knowing where to look other than the road, and the weird mix of grouch and grateful going on behind me.

Emma’s mother went over “the rules”, everything she expected out of Emma while they were gone, about fifty times. Even her husband groaned when she started again at the airport. By the time Emma and I made it back to White River, she had to check in with the Ransoms, and be ready for her mom to call. I have to admit, Mrs Gentry calling the Ransoms’ home phone is a pretty effective means of long distance control.

Snowflakes fracture light from the setting sun late Wednesday afternoon. The bright glints cut through my windshield when I drive away from Bree Ransom’s. Bree and Emma, and the Ransoms’ six-foot light-up snowman, shrink in my rearview mirror until the snowfall swallows them whole.

My knuckles tighten until they crack, and I indulge in quietly cussing Em’s mother.

Mrs Gentry only allowed Em to stay behind for two reasons: final exams, and the strict condition she stay with Bree and adhere to the 6pm curfew. Thinking my girlfriend might stay at my grandparents’ while her parents were gone was a fantasy I shouldn’t have entertained, even for a second. I wouldn’t be quite so ticked off if I hadn’t let a little hope develop. Frustration runs laps in my veins, jittery and hot.

Leaving the Ransoms’ neighborhood, I decide to push the limits of my fading electrical charge. Maybe I’ll be able to build up a resistance. Maybe I’ll run myself down quicker.

Either way, it will help burn off this grumpy feeling, maybe help me forget Hailey’s latest text insisting we meet up and “talk about things”. I know the “things” she wants to discuss, and not all of them are verbal. That kind of discussion with her is completely off limits. I’m never leaving Emma, never cheating on her, no matter what Hailey threatens.

Six cars back at the red light on Colby Street, I whip my cellphone out and text Jason, tell him to meet me at the gym. It’s time for running, for some sole therapy, as Em called it once.

Soon music thumps through my earbuds, helps drown out any thoughts surviving my grueling pace. Existence narrows to the rhythm of my footfalls and breathing, the sweat slicking my skin. A little faster, a little longer and I’ll hit the burn, where feelings char to ash in an adrenaline high.

Someone taps my shoulder, and I turn down my music.

“Jesus,” they say beside me as they start up the next treadmill, “What’s the rush?”

Damn. There goes my runner’s high…

“No rush. And Jesus,” I force between breaths, “has nothing to do with it.”

I shoot them a sideways glance. Trent Landry, my old antagonistic friend from Sadony Academy. He could never keep up – not in grades, in sports, in getting girls. Trent was always one step behind me and dating my leftovers. Even now, he can’t match my pace. He hasn’t changed at all since last spring: same dark hair, same dark eyes, same toothpaste commercial perfect smile. I used to want to punch him in his teeth, but that was months ago.

“Still going to Shelley High?” he asks.

“Still going to Sadony?”

Yes. And, yes.

“Hailey told me about your new girl...”

Chin forward, I ignore him and wish to hell these treadmills went somewhere.

“Blond, short, curvy. Goes to public school with you.” What the hell does he care? And what purpose would Hailey have to tell him? I refuse to acknowledge Trent and his arrogant grin, and we run in silence for a few paces before he adds, “She’s definitely no Hailey.”

And I’m done. I’m off the treadmill in a flash. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing bad.” His snobby air grates me – now. “She’s pretty from what I hear.” And she’s my girlfriend – which historically means just his type. The corner of Trent’s mouth twitches, and suddenly I remember why I used to want to smash his teeth in.

“And she’s very taken,” I remind Trent, and jab the power button on my treadmill.

A noncommittal, completely nonverbal grunt comes out of him. Trent jogs and watches me while I wipe sweat off and coil the cord of my earbuds around my phone. His focus shifts toward the door constantly. His expression says something more than curiosity, it’s devious, calculating.

“So, what did you do?” he asks, turning an insultingly confused look at me, “Just wake up one day and decide you were tired of the perfect life?”

The wealthy and elitist attend Sadony Academy. Posh parties and daddies with yachts. People from regular families attend Shelley High. Lock-ins, bonfires and big dreams.

“I like my life, thank you.” I pull down the sleeves of my work-out shirt, but there’s no way to hide all my scars.

“Right,” Trent says, pulls his gaze from me, slyly peers at the door again. “You’ll be back.”

No. I won’t. “You keep right on thinking that.”

His voice drops to slick, oily tones when he says, “See you at the Reindeer Games.”

“Excuse me?” I sling the towel over my shoulder. “I am not going to a Sadony rave.”

“Sure you are.” Again with that arrogant, piercing gaze. “I’ll see you and your girl there.” Trent’s confidence was irritating on my best Sadony days. Now? It pisses me off.

“Screw you, Trent.”

He looks at me, and his expression says it all. Eyes narrowing, and smile growing wider, head tipped at a cocky angle. Trent thinks he’s got me.

Then, the door swings open with a gust of winter-fresh air. Heads turn toward the tall, narrow frame sauntering in, and I don’t need to see her face to know who it is. The perfect, too clean, too high-fashion work-out clothes scream Hailey.

“Well, look at that,” she simpers, mincing across the floor to the coat hooks like she owns the place. “My two favorite boys in one place.”

Trent beams, a lap dog being praised. I risk the urge to roll my eyes and snort.

“What are you doing here, Hailey?” My patience is gone, my niceness used up.

“Working out,” she says, eyes innocent and round.

Bullshit. She’s never willingly exercised a day in her life. She steps on an elliptical machine, and can’t figure out how to start it. She fumbles around, then finally gets everything moving in the right direction. Slow, lazy loops. I bounce a look between her and Trent. Catty smiles, narrowed eyes. They’re up to something, and I don’t want to know what it is.

“Right, OK.” I turn toward the locker room. “You two enjoy your exercise.”

“Wait,” Hailey commands. Damn my feet for staying put, it’ll perpetuate her fantasy of having some control over me. “We need to talk.”

By the time I force myself to turn and face her, she’s inches from me. Her ice green eyes chill, the tilt to them almost predatory. One hand traces up my arm, and then she pats my shoulder. Too many ugly emotions swirl in me to sort and name. Even tall as she is, I look down at her.

“What?” I say, heavily layered with frustration.

“Apparently,” she responds, “you don’t hear me properly over the phone.”

“Oh, I hear you just fine.” A muscle ticks when I clench my jaw. “I just don’t listen very well.”

“You need to work on that, Alex. I’ve given you every opportunity to do the right thing, and you keep turning me down.”

“I won’t say I’m sorry to disappoint you.” A gulf opens between us when I take an obvious large step back from her. “I’m with Emma now. And you’re not getting Ascension. Nothing you can say or do will change that.”

Her eyebrows rise a fraction. Trent lets out a breath. Something in Hailey’s expression says, “oh really?”

“Then bring her to the Reindeer Games. All our old Sadony friends wonder what’s happened to you. If you parade your little army candy in front of them, maybe,
they’ll understand why you went crazy.”

“Touching story,” I say. “Not my problem.” Hailey is.

I stride past, refuse to respond to her little incredulous breath. Trent seems smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Not one pause or look back as I stride to the locker room. Slamming the door is childish, sure, but I feel a little better afterward.

In the locker room, I peel off my gear and take a quick shower. My phone, once liberated from the mess in my gym bag, flashes light into the confined shadows. Please let it be a message from Emma.

No such luck.

You can’t ignore me forever,
Hailey’s text reads.
Meet me Friday night or things will get ugly.

Why does she think threatening is going to work? It hasn’t yet.

I type back.
I have a party to go to with my girlfriend.

The only date Hailey will have is with disappointment. She’s not getting what she wants out of me. She’s brilliant, driven – some of the Ascension scientists called her obsessive – and not one for wasting her time. It makes no sense for Hailey to go public with what my father did. She worked too hard to hide it. If there’s one thing I know for sure, I need to figure out a way to shake her off soon, or things really
going to get ugly. Hailey will find a way to punish me for not giving her what she wants.

I’m fully clothed, and halfway to the door, still mulling over Hailey’s threat when the roar of Jason’s Bronco sounds above the gym noises. Figures. Only an hour later than he was supposed to show up.

Sidewalk salt crunches beneath my shoes after I push open the gym door and step out.

Jason jumps from the Bronco, his feet skidding when he lands on the packed snow of the gym parking lot. Despite not landing on his face, his pinwheeling arms peg him for the guy least likely to frequent a gym. With the lack of balance, motor oil on his clothes and dark blond hair, he’s the exact opposite of Trent Landry, and I’m glad he’s here. Even if he is late.

“Sorry,” he says, skating the last couple yards to me. “Damn Ford wouldn’t start.”

Fix or repair daily. Found on road dead. Fucker only runs downhill. I could go on.

“At least you made it.” I smack his shoulder.

“Just in time, apparently.” He shoots a look through the plate glass windows just as Trent flips me the bird. “Friend of yours?” Jason asks.

“Only in the sense of keep your friends close,” I say, and sling my gym bag over my shoulder, “and your enemies closer.”

“Which category does he fall in?”

“I believe our girlfriends would classify him as a frenemy.”

“Not sure which is more disturbing,” he says and falls in step behind me, “that you know that term, or used it.”

“Ha, ha, Weller. What time does the mall close?” I ask over my shoulder.

“The Lakes closes at 9pm.”

“Great. A couple hours of torture and we’re free.”

“I think,” he says, stopping at my Acura’s passenger side door, “I would rather go a couple rounds with your frenemy back there.”

“Trust me,” I say and fish my keys from my pocket, “it wouldn’t take that many.”

8.30pm, in the food court of the Lakes Mall and we both look like we went a few rounds in the ring. In Jason’s defense, the old lady in the bath stuff store was pretty pushy…

“Dude,” Jason says, with a groan, “why did we wait so long to shop?”

He slumps to a chair. His bags – all two of them – slide to the floor like he doesn’t have the strength left to carry them to my car. Inside, I’m beat, totally regretting my run, and my head is pounding from all the holiday bell-ringers. I’m Thursday-level sick and tired and it’s only Wednesday night.

BOOK: Tainted
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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