Authors: A E Rought
A ridiculous number of cars pack the neighborhood streets. With snow banks throttling the way, the parked vehicles narrow the roads to single lanes. Multi-colored Christmas lights hang in the Ransoms’ trees and line the walk to their front door. The windows of Bree’s house dump glowing kaleidoscope puddles onto the snow, the walls bleed music into the air. Somewhere in the backyard a girl lets out a high-pitched laugh.
A snowball whizzes at my head, well-timed with me opening the Acura’s door. With the extra wattage forcing my senses into overdrive, I easily duck out of the way. Jason appears, peeking around the Ransoms’ garage, then fades back into the shadows to pack another snowball, I’m sure. Eyes on the garage corner, I scoop snow from the hoods of the parked cars and pack my own ball as I walk toward Bree’s house, and Emma who’s somewhere inside waiting.
One house away from the Ransoms’, Jason pokes his head into firing range. I cock my arm back and lob the snowball at his head. Direct hit. The snowball explodes against his temple in a satisfying cloud of white.
“Fashionably late, Franks?” Jason teases, and shakes his head to dislodge the snow.
“Up yours, Weller.” I pat the little package swelling my coat pocket. “I had to stop at Ascension. I forgot my bags there last night.”
He arches an eyebrow, and needles me with a look full of suspicion. “Isn’t that your dad’s old lab?”
“Yeah. I inherited it when he died.” A familiar blond head peeps through the garage’s open side door and her face lights in a smile. My pulse kicks up a notch, and the welcome rush races through my nerves. She’s so much more than a girlfriend to me.
“Hurry up!” Emma commands again.
As if I could deny her. Snow brushes my jeans when I leap over the neighbor’s hedge. Landing on my feet, I glide through the white piling up on the grass. Drawing even with Jason I say in a whisper, “Remember that talk we had at the mall?”
How could he forget that picture, or how Hailey’s been harassing me?
Thankfully he nods. “And I’m sure you’ll explain later?”
People, in party clothes and winter jackets huddle around a space heater in the corner of the garage when we step in. Speech puffs up from them in wispy clouds. Tables full of cold fruit salads, candies, desserts, and a huge birthday cake line the garage walls. The sweetest treat stands shivering in a sparkly white dress.
Forgetting Jason at my side, the little birthday gift in my pocket, the whole damn party, I close the distance between Em and me. My heart beats harder, resonating within my ribs. Her eyelashes dip to half-mast, inviting me in. I take advantage of her unspoken invitation. Wrapping my arms around her, then sliding my hands over the curve of her butt, I scoop Em up by her thighs. She gasps a little, and clings to me as I lift her. She’s warm despite her shivering, solid and real in my arms. Taking a few steps, I prop her butt on a table’s edge and stand between her knees.
“Mmm.” She slips the fingers of her free hand into my hair. “I love your Friday spurts of energy.”
“Me, too.” Every little sensation is heightened, and she gives me so many.
I duck in for a kiss, but hardly feel the tingle of her breath on my lips before Bree appears in the breezeway door. “Really, Alex? Here? Now?”
“Wherever, whenever!” Em answers for me, curls her hand in my jacket and pulls me in for a deep kiss. A warm electric thrill runs through me when our lips meet. The heat spreads, settling, steaming… I slide my hands from her shoulders, down her back, bring her tighter to me. Em inhales when her slippery dress picks up a static charge.
“Enough you two,” Bree says. “You’re just lucky I’m well-adjusted and know how to share, Alex.” She hooks a hand around Emma’s cast and steers her toward the house.
I drift along, tethered to Em by linked hands. Bree, in full queen mode, waves like she’s on a parade float and weaves through the crowd. Inside, the house is a crazy mishmash of Christmas and birthday decorations. A huge tree dominates the living room, otherwise empty of furniture and full of people from school. Shouts of “Happy birthday!” and “Merry Christmas!” mingle with laughter and off-key singing. Presents litter a table beside the tree, all for Bree’s birthday judging by the girly packaging.
“Did you bring it?” Em whispers close to my ear.
“Yeah.” I reach to fish the package out of my pocket, but Em stops me. She locks those blue eyes on mine, and I stand transfixed, all of me alive, awake and waiting. Her hands are light, the right kind of teasing touch as she searches pockets she knows that box won’t fit. Her fingers dip into both front pockets of my jeans, she smiles, then finally takes the wrapped silver bracelet she insisted I pick up “from both of us” from my leather coat. Then she pops on her toes and kisses me.
This social thing isn’t so bad with a girl like Em.
She spins, her skirt flares and shows off her legs to tease me. Then Em swishes toward the pile of gifts and places the shiny silver-wrapped package atop the pile. I wade into the crowd, bent on getting my hands back around her, when an adult yells from the direction of the kitchen, “Emma! Six o’clock call from your mom!”
“Right on time,” I mutter.
“Painfully punctual,” Bree agrees near my shoulder.
“Merry Birthday and Happy Christmas.” I say, while I watch Em pace in the kitchen. “You and Jason have big plans tomorrow?”
“Depends on what you call ‘big’,” Bree says, making quotation marks in the air with her fingers. “He’ll be back over tomorrow after breakfast and gifts with his parents, and then will stay for dinner here.”
“Any idea when Emma will be allowed off the landline leash?”
“Never?” she teases, then says, “I have no clue. We do breakfast here, and then a fussy supper. So, most likely between 9am and 6pm? I can ask Mom if you can join us for dinner.”
I have a polite refusal ready, but can’t utter it. Something scrapes my nerves, a hint of perfume maybe, a flash of dark hair.
Suddenly my night hits the skids.
Why is she here? Why the hell won’t she leave me alone?
Black hair tied back, glasses framing the false smile in her eyes, Hailey’s all saccharin sweetness and artificial light as she walks up. If girls had hackles, Bree’s would be up from her nose to her butt. The girl is bristling, and doesn’t know why – I do, though. Hailey has that effect on other girls.
My ex-girlfriend reaches us just steps ahead of Emma. No chance for me to quiz her and find out what game she’s running now. She sweeps her dark ponytail over her shoulder and extends a hand to Bree, saying, “I heard it’s your birthday. An auspicious date, to be sure.”
Bree looks at her hand like she’d rather de-glove the flesh with her fingernails than shake it. “And you are…?” Bree asks, voice dark and unwelcoming.
“Didn’t Alex tell you?” Hailey says, and worms an arm under mine as Emma joins our tense little bubble of awkwardness. “I’m Hailey Westmore, a friend from Sadony.”
“Alex?” Emma says, eyes pinched in a questioning glance. “Who
The distance between me and Em rips open, a gulf of half-truths and things I should’ve told her. Hailey’s grip tightens on my arm as she extends the hand Bree didn’t take toward Emma.
“Hi,” Hailey sounds so kind and sincere. If you don’t know her. I do. And I know she’s not here on a social call. “I’m Hailey. Alex and I dated. I’m sure he told you?”
Emma gives her the same refusal to shake as Bree did.
“Yeah. He told me.” The fire lights in Em’s eyes. Her arms cross in front of her, cast on top, like she might swing it any second given the proper motivation. Em’s smart and she’s catching on to whatever Hailey is trying to stir up. “It doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“I was in the neighborhood.” Such a smooth lie, it sounds sincere coming from her. “I saw Alex’s car and thought I would stop and say ‘hi’.”
“Well,” I say, and try to pull my arm from her grip. “You’ve said hi. Time for you to go.”
“What’s the rush? Just one dance?” she asks. “For old time’s sake. Emma understands. Don’t you?” Hailey cuts her green eyes sideways in a sympathetic glance. She knows what Josh and my father stole from Emma, and the hell she went through.
The ploy works, snuffs the spitfire spark in Em’s eyes. The light goes out and my guilt floods up. My life has caused her so much pain, and here she is again, taking more pain because of me. Em shifts her gaze from my face, gives Hailey a nearly imperceptible nod, and steps back. I can’t stand to see her expression, the hurt I know is in her eyes and is my fault.
“Perfect,” Hailey says. “Thank you.”
I grab her arm, a tight angry grip, as I steer her far from Em and near the closest exit. I don’t care what song is playing. I can’t hear it for the rage buzzing in my head. One jerk of Hailey’s arm spins her to face me, and I pull her close.
“You are a heartless bitch,” I growl in her ear, “to play on Emma’s sympathies like that.”
Hailey giggles, and smacks my arm, pretending I said something funny.
I am not in a joking mood. I clench a hand on her shoulder.
“Careful, Alex. You know I can destroy you at any time.”
“You won’t.” I pull back enough to see her response. “You’re as dependent on Ascension Labs as I am. You won’t go public.”
“Don’t be silly!” she says in a loud, high-pitched, playful voice, and pretends to cuddle closer. “Ascension Labs,” she whispers, after she strokes the hair away from my ear, “isn’t the only way to punish you.”
A numb, questioning kind of shock sets in. What is she playing at?
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer, just takes a step back and looks to Emma first, and back to me. With a slow smile, Hailey grabs my jacket collar and yanks me down to her lips.
Em’s gasp cuts my soul like a knife.
I turn my head away from her, and grab Hailey’s shoulder. A good push forces her away and makes her stumble. But the damage is done. Em takes one last, aching look at me, and storms towards us. She tangles her cast-less hand in Hailey’s fancy scarf and uses it to drag her roughly toward the door.
“You’ve outstayed your welcome,” Em nearly spits, and then pushes the front door open.
“This has been fun.” Hailey straightens her scarf, smooths her hair, then runs a finger under Em’s chin and grins at her before waving at me. “I’m meeting Trent at the Papa’s Pizza, Alex. You should join us – much more civil company than your girlfriend here.” Then she strolls out the door.
An uncomfortable silence fills in the house. Hailey backs from the Ransoms’ driveway, and her headlights swing across the front of the house and then back toward town. Em stands, all anger and fire, her focus solely on me.
“Em,” I breathe, painfully aware that everyone is staring. “I didn’t…”
“Don’t.” She puts a hand up, warding off my reach, blocking my attempt to pull her to me. “You should’ve said ‘No’, Alex.”
Should and could aren’t the same. I should have never let Hailey get to me, but with what she’s holding over my head, I can’t risk seriously pissing her off.
Em widens the gulf between us, turning and taking everything good in my life with her when she grabs her set of car keys from the rack and walks out. I can’t let her leave. My heart is clenching so hard I can hardly breathe.
“Emma!” I shout. She’s on her way out, stomping through the driving snow toward the car her parents left for her.
“Dude,” Jason appears at my side, “I leave you for a few minutes to get food and everything goes to hell?”
“I don’t have time for this,” I huff.
“Don’t care,” he says, grabbing a jacket and following me through the garage. “You’re going to hear it anyway.”
By the time I reach the driveway, the heavy snowfall has nearly obliterated my view of Em’s car. But I know where she’s going. Where she always goes when she’s upset.
Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
“You want to bitch at me,” I snap at Jason, “then get in the car!”
He nods, and trudges behind me to the Acura. I sit behind the steering wheel and belt in. Em’s gone, no sign of her, and my heart hurts too bad to feel if she’s close.
The quickest way to Memorial Gardens skirts the Lake Michigan shoreline. I force the Acura into motion, smashing the gas pedal to the floor. The world has lost all color, nothing but smeared black and gray and white in the snowstorm.
Beams from the car’s headlights stab into the blowing white. Snowflakes rush at the windshield obliterating my view.
“Jesus,” Jason exclaims, and fumbles his hold on the dashboard. “Slow down!”
“Can’t,” and I don’t.
I trust my heightened instincts to get me there as fast as possible. A horrid, nameless fear has taken root, flung tendrils through me. They strangle my lungs, squeeze around my heart. Feelers reach in my brain, whispering brittle truths. Hailey knew we would be there. She meant to hurt Emma’s feelings while I watched. I can’t let the viper win and drive a wedge between me and Em. Everything that is Daniel inside me is screaming to fix this.
Through the driving snow I catch sight of tail lights ahead, near the dunes and the old restaurant close to the mouth of the river.
All of me, every nerve, every fiber knows it’s her. A breath of relief loosens the stranglehold on my lungs. Then another car, one I’ve never seen, flicks on its lights in the private drive across the street. The driver has their hood up around their face, and charges after Em’s vehicle.
“Who the hell is that?” Jason asks.
It happens so fast, like a knife in the back.
“Dammit!” I shout when the road dips and I lose sight of them. Adrenaline blazes in my veins, compounding my electric charge.
A collision shatters the night’s silence. Jason shouts something. I suck in a sharp breath. Tires squeal, an engine whines. The Acura can’t keep up with my heart rate, I need to be over the hill, make sure Em’s OK. I hold my breath until the car crests the rise. Ahead, one vehicle wavers on the road, rocketing toward the bridge, red from the tail lights leaving a blood trail in the snow. The other car, a ghost in the squall, flees, heading away from the shore.