Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Willows

The Willows
Krystal McLaughlin

Chapter One
There was blood on my hands.
My eyes stared, fixated on the red streaks as tiny rivulets splattered on to the ground at my feet. It was warm and sticky as it dripped through my fingers and just as fast as the bloodlust had hit me, it was gone. In its place was a nauseated feeling made worse by the metallic scent perfuming the air around me.
I hadn’t always been this way. There was a time when I had normal feelings, normal wants, and normal needs. Then the accident happened and with it had come the emptiness; the feeling of numbness that never quite went away. At least it hadn’t, until him.
I backed away from the body laid before me, mortified by what I had done, by what I had been doing. Who was I? What happened to me? What had I become? The answers screamed through my mind, threatening what little sanity I had left. I had to get away. I had to run, and running, I let my mind remember what it had felt like to be human…

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
It was the same words, uttered over and over again until I wanted to scream. On either side of me, my brother’s Mason and Jackson seemed so gracious and thankful. It irritated me that they weren’t more irritated. I mean, I knew people probably were sorry, but seriously, who can honestly say they know what we are going through? Every person reacts differently, plus I had never even seen half of these people. Why was it that when people died, they were more popular than when they were alive? It just wasn’t right.
An elderly man walked over to us. He stopped at Jackson first and held out his hand. Jackson, his eyes red rimmed and swollen, shook the man’s hand and murmured his thanks to the man’s whispered condolences. When he turned to me, I suppressed the desire to roll my eyes. Once again I didn’t recognize him. Once again I gritted my teeth when he leaned forward to hug me. Another question popped into my head, why do people shake hands with the boys and hug the girls? It was creepy, really, if you thought about it.
“Your parents were wonderful people, dear,” he whispered into my ear. His breath smelled of stale coffee and tobacco and I couldn’t help the shiver of disgust that worked its way up my spine. Luckily, he had already moved on to Mason and was slowly shaking his hand and offering the same condolences.
“You could try to be a little more respectful.”
My jaw dropped at Jackson’s words and I turned and glared at him. “I am.” I insisted stubbornly. I really didn’t need someone telling me how I should be acting, especially not my little brother.
He shook his head and rolled his shoulders. “Whatever.”
I gritted my teeth again. It was hard enough to get through the day without that added stress of someone judging me. It wasn’t my fault I felt the way I did. I wasn’t even sure how I felt to be honest. It was more that I didn’t really feel anything.
“Hey babe, how are you holding up?”
I was so irritated with my brother that I didn’t even notice my boyfriend Landon, until he was pulling me close into a hug. “I’m fine,” I answered, pushing him away from me.
He raised his eyebrows at my reaction and I sighed in frustration. Normally I would have been happy in his embrace. We’d been dating for almost a year. Something had changed since the news of the accident though, and it was like all emotion inside of me just got cut off. I was numb.
“O-kay,” he said, clearly confused by my reaction.
My two best friends, Jane and Emma, were behind him and I wasn’t oblivious to the look they exchanged. They had known me almost all of my life and I knew they were concerned. I couldn’t really blame them. I was too. In all reality, this wasn’t like me at all. I just didn’t know what to do to fix it.
Just then, the pastor saved me from having to say anything else. “It’s just about time.”
Mason nodded and turned expectantly to Jackson and me. “Are you guys ready?”
I took a deep breath and exhaled before nodding. “You guys better go and get a seat,” I said to my friends. Landon leaned in and kissed me on my cheek before I had the chance to move away from him. A gesture like that used to give me the tingles, in a good way, now it gave me the tingles in a very irritated please don’t touch me kind of way.
“We’ll see you after, Evie,” Jane leaned toward me and squeezed my hand, “we’re here for you.”
Emma smiled and I tried to return the expression, but I knew it fell flat. Landon waited for them to go ahead of him and then started to follow them inside the chapel before Jackson stopped him.
“Hey, Landon?”
He turned and looked at him, “yeah?”
“Could you guys please try and find Piper and sit by her? I didn’t see her come in and I am worried about her.”
Landon nodded and then the three of them walked into the small room. Piper was Jackson’s on again off again girlfriend. I had thought that they were off again, but by his concern, I figured that maybe I was wrong and they were on again. Who knew with everything else going on.
“After you,” the pastor gestured to us and one by one, with Mason in the lead, we walked down the aisle to take our place on the front pew.
Okay, so I have to admit that churches make me uncomfortable. It’s not that I have a problem with religion or anything like that, it’s just that our parents hadn’t raised us that way. There was an occasional service we attended when we were younger if we stayed the night with a friend who went to church, but for the most part, it wasn’t something I was familiar with at all.
Not only that, but I sort of figured that the first time I walked down the aisle of a church with almost every eye staring at me, it would be because I was dressed all in white with a veil hanging down my back and a bouquet in my hands. In a million years I never would have pictured walking down the aisle like this.
The floors were wooden and my barely worn heels made clicking sounds as I followed closely behind Mason. In the silence around us, it seemed like the sound was even more amplified and it began to pound in rhythm with my heartbeat. Thump, thump, thump. Click, click, click. I was wearing a black skirt with a black shirt that had little white and pink flowers all over it. I shivered when I sat down against the cool wooden bench and wished I had thought to bring a sweater or jacket with me. Strange the things you think about when your world was being turned upside down.
When the pastor began to talk, I decided that I was the most ungrateful heartless person in the entire world. No matter how hard I tried, I could not pay attention to him. My mind kept wandering in random directions. I noticed that right next to my knee, the wood of the bench had a heart shaped knot in it. I noticed that, next to me, Mason’s hairline was uneven. On the other side of me, I noticed that Jackson had a tissue gripped tight in a ball inside of his closed fist and that every few seconds he would clench and unclench his fingers around it.
After my immediate area was inspected, I moved on to the front of the church. The tapestries hanging from the walls were faded. Not only were they faded, but they were frayed at the edges. This saddened me. Were we so desperate to find someone to bury our parents that we had to choose a church that was so obviously struggling? At least they were struggling enough that they couldn’t afford their upkeep.
I heard the pastor say “Evelyn” and I looked up automatically. It took me a few moments to realize that he wasn’t talking to me but was actually talking about me. He was talking about all of us and how Mason had chosen to leave school in order to take care of his two siblings. I turned then, and studied my brother. He hadn’t told me he was leaving school. I thought about it harder. Actually I didn’t even remember talking about what would happen to Jackson and me now that our parents were gone.
Mason was looking ahead, just as I should be doing, but when he sensed me watching him, he turned and raised his eyebrows in question. I shrugged, not wanting to get into a whispering conversation with him, but knowing what he was willing to give up for us, sort of made me look at him differently.
Jackson nudged me, and I spun around in my seat, facing forward just as the pastor led us all in a closing prayer. I closed my eyes and lowered my head, but mostly I just chewed on my bottom lip and waited for the ‘amen’. When it finally came, I stood up, relieved that this part was over.
“Seriously Evie, what’s your problem?” Jackson asked softly.
I shook my head, “I wish I knew.”
We were like that, my brothers and I. Mostly we always knew what was going on with each other, kind of like sixth sense so I knew what he was asking me. Where were my emotions? Where was my focus? Where was I?
He hugged me close and then looked up at Mason over my shoulder. “You’re leaving school?”
It was the same question I had for him so I turned toward him, as I was just as curious for his answer. He gulped and took a deep breath, “look guys, there isn’t really another option.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve earned it Mason. You can’t just throw away a whole year of college.”
I turned back to Jackson, it was my turn to raise my brows, did my baby brother just sound more grown up than me?
“Who else is supposed to take care of you guys?”
Jackson laughed bitterly, “seriously? It’s not like we are babies. Evie’s seventeen and I’m sixteen, I’m pretty sure we won’t burn the house down.”
I turned back to Mason, it felt like I was at a tennis match with the constant back and forth between them. He nodded slowly, "I know, that's not what I'm trying to say."
Jackson groaned and threw his arms up in the air, "you can't do this. Mom and dad would have wanted you to stay in school." He walked up to Mason and put his hands on his shoulders, "they were so proud of you."
Mason gulped and leaned his head back. I thought I saw tears in his eyes, but when he looked at me, they were clear. "What do you think about all this Evie?"
I raised my eyebrows. Crap! I so didn't want to be in the middle of this. "I, um, I'm not sure."
Mason smiled slightly because Jackson rolled his eyes. "Come on, Evelyn, voice an opinion. You know I'm right."
Before I could answer, Mason hugged me and kissed the side of my hair. "It's okay, Evie, now isn't the time anyways. There are people waiting for us downstairs." With one arm wrapped around me, he used his other to pull Jackson close, "we'll talk more about this later, I promise."
Jackson sighed, but nodded. "Fine." Mason walked through the now deserted chapel and as soon as he was out of ear shot, Jackson turned and punched me in my arm.
"Ow," I mumbled, rubbing the spot he had hit.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I don't know, Jack. Just leave me alone."
I spun and took a few steps, walking quickly to get away from him. I was tired of trying to answer this question when I didn't even know the answer myself. I hugged my arms around my chest and wished I could cry, that I could scream, or laugh, or just lose it, but I just couldn't. The emptiness wouldn't let me.
It didn't take long for Jackson to catch up with me and he grabbed my shoulder. "Evie, wait." He cursed under his breath and I let him turn me around, chewing on my bottom lip. "I'm sorry." He ran his hand through his hair and let out a breath. "Everything is just so fucked up right now."
I gulped. "I know it is," I whispered.
"We can't let Mason quit school. Mom and dad would be furious if he did." He sat on the closest pew and lowered his head onto the back of the one in front of him. After a few seconds, he turned so that his face was towards me. "Help me convince him that we don't need him home with us."
My eyes began to sting and for a moment I was sure the tears were finally going to fall, but stubbornly, they remained dry. I sighed, feeling exhausted, and nodded. "Fine, we'll talk to him later, 'kay?"
He smiled and nodded before standing up. "Let's get downstairs before they come looking for us."
Together, but not talking, we made our way downstairs. The room was already filled with people eating and talking. Proving that it wouldn't take long for them to move on with their lives. I was pretty sure some of them had already forgotten why they had come here in the first place.
I sunk gratefully into an empty chair at the table my friends had taken over. They had been laughing about something and when I arrived, they all stopped suddenly and cleared their throats awkwardly. I wanted to tell them that it was fine. It didn't matter to me that they were amongst those who were already moving on, but I was just too tired to say anything.
Landon leaned over and tried kissing me, but I moved my head, causing the kiss to land somewhere between my cheek and my ear. He laughed uncomfortably and sat back in his chair. Then there was silence. Awkward hideous silence.
It was Emma who broke it. "Well that answers that question," she said cryptically.
My friends all turned and looked toward something behind me. "What?" I asked, only mildly curious.
"Piper," Jane whispered.
I sat up straighter. "What about her?"
"They were wondering if Jackson and Piper were back together." Landon answered, clearly not interested.
I laughed, "I'm guessing they are?"
To my surprise, Jane shook her head and whispered, "I don't think so. Look."
Trying not to be obvious, I turned in my chair. Piper was behind us, she was smiling, she was totally participating in some highly inappropriate PDA and she most definitely was not with my brother.
"Who the hell is that?" I whispered. Even whispered, it sounded loud to my ears and a few people from the tables next to us, looked over at me curiously.
Jane shrugged and whispered back, "no clue."
I watched, a nauseated feeling starting in the pit of my stomach, as the guy Piper was with leaned closer and whispered in her ear. She giggled and moved closer to him. I stood up, my chair crashing to the floor behind me. "That's just... sick."
At that point, I didn't even care if I was making a scene. I felt like I was going to spew right there in the middle of the buffet the ladies of the church had set out. The room was starting to spin and I was seeing red. My brother, my sweet little brother, didn't deserve that. How dare she bring someone else to our parents funeral? It just wasn't right.
"Babe, calm down." Landon whispered, standing up and trying to put his arms around me.
"How can you just stand there, like's it's okay?" I screamed at him.
Mason and Jackson made their way through the crowds of people and each one of them put an arm around me. "Come on, Evie, why don't we get home?" Mason asked, "it's been a long day."
I turned, sad eyes on Jackson, "I'm so sorry Jack."
He looked at me, confused, but didn't say anything. "It's going to be okay Evie. You just need to rest."
Jane and Emma were just standing there, looking at me like they didn't even know me. So much for always being there. Why wasn't anyone doing anything? Someone could have said something to Piper.
"I'm fine," I whispered, all of the furious energy seeping out of me again, "I just have a headache."
"Landon, can you help Jackson get Evie out to the car?" Mason asked, moving to drape my arm around Landon's neck.
I jumped back. "No." They all looked at me confused and I took a deep breath. "I can do it. I'll just call you later."
Pain flickered in Landon's eyes, but he nodded, taking a few steps back away from me. Emma moved forward and put her hand on Landon's arm, comforting him, but I didn't even care. I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to go to sleep.
Jackson walked with me through the crowds still standing there watching me, whispering behind their hands to one another. If I wasn't so tired, I'd be irritated. How dare they judge me? Instead, I walked, my head lowered and my dark hair hanging in a curtain around my face, providing some small bit of privacy for me. Hiding the fact that my hazel eyes were dry and empty.
When we got to the car, Jackson opened the back door for me and I curled up in a ball, laying on the seat under a blanket. I was shivering. I tired to thank my brother, but I was just so tired. Once closed, I just couldn't open my eyes again. I vaguely remember the light coming on when the driver's side door opened and Mason turning the key in the ignition, but that was about it. In the morning, when I woke up in my bed, I couldn't even remember how I got there.
Chapter Two
In the end, it took almost a week to convince Mason that we could survive without him. Adams State College wasn't too far away and he had agreed only on the condition that we call him whenever we needed him, he came home on the weekends, and our neighbor Oliver Gates checked in on us once a day to make sure we weren't doing anything we weren't supposed to.
For the most part, it didn't surprise me that he made the right choice. Jackson had been pretty adamant that our parents would have wanted him to stay in school and I had agreed with him. I also agreed that we were old enough to take care of ourselves. What did surprise me was that most of his hesitation came from his worrying over me. Me. Seriously? I was a few months from eighteen, so that just didn't make any sense to me. It made me feel confined, caged in a way that I wasn't accustomed to, and I didn't like it.
School was beginning to sort of make me feel the same way. It seemed like there were always eyes on me. Watching me, judging me, waiting for something to happen. It was stifling and most days I left there in a hurry, trying to suppress the feeling of tearing out my hair or screaming like a banshee.
October came, and with it, the air began to turn cold and the wind began to blow all of the leaves off of the trees. I was sitting on a picnic table outside for lunch when the first snow flakes began to fall. I was alone. I'd been spending a lot of time that way, but today, it was mostly because I was the only one stupid enough to sit outside in the cold frigid air.
Somewhere inside the school my friends were huddled together, eating and laughing, probably not even wondering where I was. Somewhere inside the school my brother was probably working in the library, skipping lunch because his education was so much more important to him. He was on the fast track to a scholarship and I couldn't help wishing that it was him graduating this year instead of me. At least he had a plan, at least he knew what he wanted to do when he left this place. I had no clue. The future should be an empty canvas for me. An adventure waiting to happen, a story waiting to be written. I'm sure that's how most people saw it.
I sighed, my breath fogging out in front of me and I rubbed my bare hands together to warm them. Pulling my cell phone out of my backpack, I checked the time right quick. I still had twenty minutes left for lunch. I laid my backpack on the bench and laid down on top of the table, letting the soft snow flakes melt on the heated skin of my face.
Against my better judgment, I closed my eyes and relished in the feeling of the cool moisture running down my cheeks. I had become so emotionally numb inside that it felt amazing to actually feel something physically. I tried to let my mind wander and create stories, scenes, fantasies like it used to, but it stayed stubbornly blissfully blank.
In those moments there was nothing to worry about, no questions to answer, no guilt dragging me into the ground. It was just me. So relaxing, so rejuvenating, these simple pleasures that I had taken for granted so many times before. What had I been doing with my time? With my life? It just seemed like none of it was important anymore.
Sometime during those first few moments I fell asleep. I didn't dream, I wasn't out long enough for that, but I knew I had slept because one minute I was thinking that life was almost peaceful laying there under the soft snowfall and the next I was cold, wet, and the sound of a bell ringing off in the distance alerted me that lunch was over.
I sat up quickly and grabbed my bag off of the bench. The snow had really started to fall and I had to brush a layer of white powder off of myself and my backpack. I slipped in my rush to get inside the building and almost fell. Instead, my bag dropped, spilling my books out onto the wet ground.
"Crap!" I shouted again.
I was so busy scrambling to pick everything up, I didn't notice that someone was walking down the sidewalk toward me until I knocked right into them. This time, I did fall. So did the person I ran into.
"I am so sorry!" I exclaimed, jumping back to my feet so I could help the person up. When I saw who it was, I dropped my hand back down to my side.
"You should watch where you're going," Piper mumbled.
I hadn't seen her since the funeral. Or if I had, I had ignored her. "You saw me too," I spat back rudely.
"Whatever," she said before slowly pulling herself to her feet.
There was something off about her. I wasn't concerned, and I totally didn't want her to think that I was, but I couldn't help my curiosity so the question just sort of spewed out, "are you sick or something? You look like crap."
She glared at me. "I'm fine." We stood there awkwardly for a moment before she pushed passed me and started walking back down the sidewalk throwing a scared look over her shoulder.
"Hey, wait!" I called after her, "are you ditching?"
Her eyes narrowed even more and she hurried back toward me. "Why don't you just announce it to the whole school, I'm not sure they heard you in the office," she said sarcastically.
"Whatever," I mimicked her, rolling my eyes. I turned and started back for the school, but a few seconds later, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"Evie, wait."
I turned, annoyed and was going to say something that wasn't going to be very nice, but there was something in her eyes that stopped me. She was chewing on her lower lip, something I did when I was nervous, and I couldn't help noticing that her lips were super dry and cracked. Her eyes were bloodshot, she was wickedly pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes.
"What?" I asked cautiously.
She rubbed her face with palm of hand and pushed her greasy hair back off of her forehead. "I just..." she took a deep breath and exhaled, lowering her arms to her sides, "how's Jackson?"
This time I cursed under my breath, I couldn't help it. "Seriously?" I shook my head, too furious to say anything else, I spun around on my heel and took a few more steps before turning back toward her. "Here's a question, how's your new boyfriend? Oh I'm sorry, I didn't catch his name when I saw him at our parent's funeral."
She swallowed like she was fighting back tears and took a deep breath. When she brought her hand back up to hair, it was shaking. "You don't understand. It's not... I mean... shit."
I laughed bitterly, "what? It's not what?"
"Nothing, never mind." She licked her dry lips and turned, jogging toward the parking lot.
I stood watching her until she was no longer in my view. Then, when I started shivering, I remembered that it was snowing and I was super late for class and I trudged the last few feet to the front door of the school. The halls were empty and my shoes made that squeaky wet sound as I hurried toward my class.

"At least you didn't get detention."
I glared at Jane and pulled my hair up into a pony tail. The snow had soaked through my hat and I knew that I was a mess. "Yeah, I guess so."
My math teacher, Mrs. Seely, hadn't been very happy about my tardiness and had made me stand in front of the class the whole hour working out equations on the board. My head was aching, my brain was tired, and my feet were cold and wet. I could only be thankful that this day was finally over and I could go home.
Landon snuck up behind me and kissed the side of my neck. "I really wish you wouldn't do that!" I snapped at him, moving away.
He threw his arms up. "Whoa, sorry I wanted to kiss my girlfriend. I won't let it happen again." He began walking away and guilt flared up inside of me.
"Landon, wait..." but it was too late, he was already high fiving one of his friends halfway down the hall. "I'm sorry," I finished lamely, with Jane the only one around to hear me.
"It will get better. Just give it some time."
I smiled at her and slammed my locker shut. "Yeah, maybe."
Jane walked with me, in silence, down the hall toward the front door of the school. I hadn't really been spending much time with Emma and I wondered idly where she had been and what she had been up to. The three of us used to be inseparable.
"I could come over," she offered, "if you want me to."
I smiled at her. "Maybe tomorrow. I'm just really tired."
She nodded, "okay."
It was easy with Jane. She was mostly quiet and when I was around her I didn't feel like she was going to judge me. There was nothing she expected from me. I found myself wondering if she had always been this way and I just hadn't noticed or if it, along with my personality, had changed.
We walked to the parking lot and then went our separate ways since we had parked on opposite ends. Jackson was already waiting by the car when I walked up. He took one look at me and laughed. "Want to talk about it?"
I punched him playfully in the arm. "Not really."
I threw my backpack in the backseat and climbed behind the wheel. I was already seat belted in before he even got inside the car. My head was throbbing and I rubbed absently at my temples, wishing he would just hurry up.
"Long day?" He prodded when we were finally pulling out of the parking lot and heading home.
"Yeah, something like that," I mumbled.
It had stopped snowing, but the roads were wet, proof that it had at least attempted to cover our little town. Thinking about the snow made me think about Piper. I had tried to push her from my mind all afternoon, but I hadn't been very successful at it. She had just looked so lost. It sort of made me feel bad that I had been so mean to her. A quick glance at my brother beside me though, brought all of my anger back and I bit my lip mulling things over in my head.
The shrill ringing from Jackson's pocket, had me jumping in my seat. He laughed at me, pulling out the phone and looking at the display. He frowned at whatever it was he saw and sent the caller to voicemail.
"Who was that?"
He cleared his throat, "Piper."
I opened my mouth to tell him about my encounter with her, but when I saw the brooding frown on his face, I thought better of it. "Oh," was all I said instead.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat. A few seconds later and his phone was ringing again. Without even looking at it this time, he sent the call to voicemail. Then he turned and looked out his window. I wondered what he was thinking about.
"Is there anything you want to talk about?" I figured it was the big sister thing to say. Even though I knew he would say no and I sort of didn't want to talk to him about Piper anyways.
He shook his head, not taking his eyes away from the scenery rushing passed us. "Not really."
I nodded, relieved, and then groaned when his phone rang again. This time he turned it off and shoved it back into his pocket. "I'm so over this day," he mumbled.
I laughed, "I'm right there with you."

He turned in his seat so that he was facing me. "Are you okay, Evie?" When I just stared blankly at him he smiled. "I mean really okay, about everything."
I closed my eyes, but only briefly, aware that I was driving. "I don't know."
"You can tell me anything, you know."
I smiled and reached blindly for his hand. When he wrapped his warm fingers around my cool ones I sighed. "I know. It's just that I don't really know what to say. I'm not at all sure how I am feeling and why I'm not really feeling anything at all."
He nodded. "It sucks. Life isn't fair."
"It's not, you're right. Sometimes I find myself wondering what the point of it is really."
He frowned, "what do you mean?"
I shrugged and pulled my hand back to place on the steering wheel. "Life." I ran one hand through my hair, forgetting it was pulled back, and then pulled the holder out, shaking the long curls loose and massaging my scalp. "What's the point of it? Clearly nothing really happens for a reason."
"Sure it does," he answered.
I turned and looked him in the eyes. "Really, Jack? You seriously believe that?" When he nodded, I laughed cruelly, "what was the purpose of mom and dad dying? What was the fucking point of that?"
He straightened back up and looked out his window again. "I don't have all the answers Evie, but I have faith."
"Screw faith."
"You can't mean that. Mom and dad wouldn't have wanted you..."
"Screw what they would have wanted Jack!" I screamed. "They aren't here anymore. You don't know what they would have wanted."
He shook his head but didn't say anything. I pulled into our driveway and turned off the car but neither of us moved to get out of it. I leaned my head back against the head rest and closed my eyes. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
"I'm worried about you Evie."
I snorted, "don't be."
"There are so many things to look forward to, you have to have faith."
He sounded so sincere, I opened my eyes and looked over at him. There was a very intense expression on his face and I busted out laughing, I couldn't help it. He rolled his eyes, but when I couldn't stop laughing, it made him laugh too. We were both having a hard time catching our breath we were laughing so hard.
Knock. Knock.
I jumped so hard the seat belt dug into my shoulder and my heart felt like it was in my throat. Naturally when I turned and we saw that it was Mr. Gates, probably come to check on us, Jackson started laughing even harder.
"Shut up, Jack," I mumbled.
"Dude, you should have seen your face, you were totally freaked out!"
I rolled my eyes, grabbed the keys from the ignition and got out of the car. Oliver Gates was probably at least seventy years old. He was bald on top of his head, with pure white tufts of hair on the sides and backs. He always seemed to be frowning and when I was little he used to scare me, but he was nice enough and I knew Mason appreciated him for agreeing to sort of keep an eye on us.
"Didn't mean to frighten you, Evelyn," he said after I retrieved my backpack from the back seat of the car.
"It's fine Mr. Gates, it was just a really long day."
Jackson got out of the car, finally, and smiled over at the older guy. "What's the haps Ollie?"
My brother was such a dork! I swear, we my have the same dark chestnut hair and hazel eyes, but that was where the similarities ended. Not only was he almost six foot tall next to my puny five foot four, he was brutally optimistic and had a personality that people gravitated towards. Even during my good days, I wasn't that charming.
Mr. Gates smiled and followed us toward the house. "I'm great Jackson, it's a beautiful day."
I looked at the darkening sky, the pools of waters from the melted snow, and the mud that it had caused and raised my brows, "beautiful? You've got to be kidding."
He laughed, "oh no, Evelyn, when you get to be as old as I am, you realize that every day is a beautiful day. A blessing just to be alive."
Ugh, I think I am going to be sick! Jackson actually started laughing again and patted me, roughly, on my back causing me to fall forward slightly. I spun around ready to swing, but he had moved back, putting Mr. Gates between us and was holding his arms up in front of himself in surrender.
"Evie has been contemplating the meaning of life today, Ollie. Maybe you can explain it to her."
I glared at my brother and Mr. Gates grunted. "Life is a precious gift, girl, one to be cherished, not taken for granted."
I nodded, not really feeling the need to get into it with him. "I think I'm going to go change my clothes." I was still a little damp and just wanted to change into sweats and a t-shirt and veg out for a little while. "Why don't you tell Jack all about life and he can share it with me later."
I laughed to myself at the look on Jackson's face. For all of his joking and humor, he knew as well as I did, that once you got him started, Mr. Gates was talker. He'd probably go over the meaning of life for the next few hours. Serves him right, I thought, as I escaped into the privacy of my bedroom.
We lived in one of those houses higher up in the mountains than the rest of the town. Secluded kind of, with Mr. Gates on one side of us and a rich family that had the house on the other side of us and used it as a summer vacation home. It was a ranch style house so everything was on one level.
My bedroom was on the back side of the house and I loved the three large windows on the back wall of my room. They looked out into the forest, and it wasn't an odd occurrence to see deer, rabbits and other wildlife running around outside. What was an odd occurrence was to turn on my light and see Landon standing outside by one of them.
After the initial shock, I hurried over and opened the window to let him in. "What are you doing here?" I whispered, afraid that Mr. Gates would hear me.
Instead of smiling, he climbed inside and sat down on the edge of my bed. When he looked up at me, he was frowning. "We need to talk."
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Do we have to do this right now?"
He threw up his arms, "when is good for you, Evie? I'm so sorry to interrupt whatever it is you were about to do."
His voice was starting to rise in his agitation and I hurried to my door, pressing my ear against it to see if anyone had noticed. "Fine, but you need to be quiet. If Mason finds out you were here he would freak out." I wasn't sure that was totally true, I was almost eighteen after all, but I also didn't want to test my theory. Not now anyways. Not when this whole new living arrangement was so new.
Landon sighed and patted the bed next to him, "come here."
Feeling like I didn't really have another option, I sunk down next to him. He reached out to take my hand and I let him. I was waiting for him to start, I had a feeling I knew what was coming and I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I didn't know what I wanted. He just sat there holding my hand, though, almost like he wasn't sure what to say.
"Look, Landon, I know that things have been... different. I'm sorry. It's just that I don't know where I am. I am not sure who I am anymore." The silence was killing me and I felt like I needed to say something.
He turned to me. Here it comes. He's going to do it. My heart was racing just waiting for the words to come. I was surprised when he leaned forward and kissed me. It was just a small peck at first, but when shock kept me frozen instead of moving me away from him, he took it as an invitation and leaned in again, this time running his tongue along my lips forcing them open so he could deepen the kiss.
Okay, I'm not going to lie here. Part of me knew that I would be relieved if had broken up with me. I just didn't have the energy to try to make someone else happy when I wasn't even sure how to make myself happy. When his lips moved against mine, though, and his hands moved up and tangled themselves in my hair, it felt good; and good was something.
I moved back on my bed, pulling him with me and laid back against my pillows. He laid partially on the bed and partially on top of me, pushing me further into the mattress. My breathing was coming hard and fast and I could feel his heart racing against my chest.
He moved one of his hands down the side of my face and cupped my cheek before moving his mouth from my lips to the side of my neck and back towards my ear. My body was aching, begging for something I knew I wasn't ready for. Something that Landon and I hadn't even gotten close to in the past. The hand on my face moved lower, brushing softly against my chest before pulling up the hem of my shirt and resting on the bare skin of my side.
I moaned softly and his mouth moved back to mine. "I love you, Evie," he murmured.
We had said the words before, but in this setting they sounded different, they sounded scary. I moaned again. Not wanting to stop and then wanting to stop. "Landon, please."
He misunderstood my meaning and moved his hand further up my side and around to the front, cupping me over the soft fabric of my bra. It felt so good. It felt so amazing as he began to caress me. It felt... terrifying.
I pushed away from him. "No, please, stop."
He wasn't a jerk. This wasn't one of those after school specials where I was afraid he wouldn't stop. This was Landon. This was my boyfriend, my friend. I had know him almost my whole life.
He rolled over and ran a hand up his face and through his hair. We were both breathing hard and when he turned and saw the look on my face he started laughing softly. "I'm not mad, babe. It's okay."
I let out a breath, relieved, "are you sure?"
In answer to my question, he pulled me closer to him and pushed my head gently down onto his chest. I could feel his breath on my hair before I felt him press a kiss onto the top of my head. "I'm sure."
We laid there like that for a long time. It could have been hours, it could have been minutes. I wasn't sure and I didn't care. All I knew was that when he finally got up and climbed back out the window, it was dark out. He stopped in the window and looked back at me. "I do love you, Evie. You know that right?"
I nodded, and satisfied, he left. It wasn't at all how I had expected his impromptu visit to go and when I looked at myself in the mirror, my hair was sticking up and my cheeks were flushed with heat. Maybe this was the key, I thought. Maybe if I started doing things that were different, things that weren't normal for me, I'd start to feel something again. I'd certainly felt something when Landon had his hands on me.
Confused and unsettled by my thoughts, I grabbed a pair of sweats and a shirt and went to go take a hot shower. Jackson was zombied out in front of the TV playing a video game and grunted a greeting when he heard me walk by. Mr. Gates was gone and I chuckled softly wondering how long he had stayed to talk to Jack.
Once in the shower and under the steaming hot spray of the water, I couldn't stop myself from thinking back over my day. It had been just like any other day since the accident. Until the end, that is. Until Landon. It wasn't surprising that he occupied my thoughts for the rest of the night. Jackson even asked me a few times what I was thinking about and then looked at me funny when I blushed.
I figured that when I went to bed, I'd be visited with images of what had happened and what could have happened between us if I hadn't stopped him. My heart was racing just remembering his hands and my skin tingled where he had touched me. Thinking about this should have made falling asleep and dreaming about him easy. So why was it then, that just before I finally slipped into oblivion it was Piper's face that flashed through my mind? In doing so, it wasn't the lovely forbidden pleasure of being with Landon that stole into my dreams, it was the image of Piper and the fear in her eyes that haunted them.
Chapter Three
Someone was knocking at the door.
At first I thought I was dreaming. It wasn't normal for someone to be knocking on the door this early in the morning. I partially opened my eyes and was instantly even more disoriented. It was dark out. I looked at the clock on my nightstand; five thirty a.m. What the heck?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Groggily, I pulled myself out of bed and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Flipping on my light, I opened my bedroom door just in time to see Jackson, standing much like I was, peeking out from his room down the hall.
"What the hell is that?"
I started laughing. "Don't you mean who?" He stared at me blankly so I motioned to the door, "someone is at the door."
I mumbled a few words under my breath and started walking passed him toward the living room. His arm shot forward and stopped me before I could pass. "That wasn't the door."
"Yeah, it was." I answered, clearly confused.
He shook his head and motioned for me to be quiet before pushing me behind him. "What's your problem?" I mumbled.
He turned and glared at me, "if someone was at the door they would have rang the bell." I raised my eyebrows, it wasn't unheard of for someone to just knock, was it? He held his finger against his lips again. "Get a clue, Evie, that sound came from the back of the house."
Now that he mentioned it, it had sounded closer to me then it would have if someone was at the front door. The two of us tip toed into the living room. My heart, thanks to my wild imagination, was racing and I was suddenly very aware just how secluded our house was.
"Just stay here," he said when we reached the front of the house. I nodded, not trusting my voice to speak. I was scared. I knew it was paranoia, but I was really scared. Just to humor me, I was sure, he unlocked the front door and looked outside. Seeing nothing, he turned back toward me, "stay here, I'll be right back."
I cowered behind the couch. My palms were sweating and my adrenaline was pumping. The injustice of having my baby brother go and check on things wasn't lost on me, and feeling a need to feel empowered, I hurried to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife from one of the drawers.
When I returned the front room, the door was still wide open, but there was no sign of Jackson. I crept toward the door and looked outside. I was blasted with a gust of icy wind, it had snowed through the night. Our house had a porch that wrapped around either side, so wrapping my arms around myself, I took a few steps out onto it. There was no sign of Jackson, but the sky was just starting to lighten, making it easier to make out the shapes around me.
"Jack?" I whispered it, and then laughed to myself realizing he wouldn't be able to hear me. "Jackson?" I called a little louder.
Off in the distance, it sounded like branches cracked followed by a loud crash. I jumped and then took off running around the side of the house. My first thought was for my brother. I wondered if something had happened to him. Fear was radiating off of me in waves and I was sure that I had never been more scared.
Just as I was about to jump off of the porch to walk around to the back of the house, an arm reached out and grabbed me. I screamed so loud, I figured it was just a matter of seconds before Mr. Gates would come running to see what had happened. The knife fell from my hand clanking to the ground, the sound echoing around us.
"Evie, Evie... calm down, it's me."
Jackson hugged me to him and laughed while he comforted me. Wrapped in his arms his body felt relaxed and normal. He wasn't scared at all. So I leaned back and punched him. Hard.
"What the hell was that?" I asked him, sinking into a nearby chair.
He leaned against the rail of the porch and rubbed his chest. "No clue. I didn't see anything."
That didn't really calm my already frazzled nerves. "That doesn't make any sense Jack. We both heard it, there was someone out here."
He shrugged, completely at ease with the whole situation. "Well whatever..." my eyes snapped to him and he held up his hands, "okay, whoever it was, they are gone now."
For some reason, one that I will never understand, the thought of it being a person was more comforting to me than the thought of an animal or... something else. We sat there for a little while longer, both of us just looking off into the forest and wondering what had caused the noise. When the sun had risen completely, I stood up. "I'm going to go take a shower and get ready for school." Jackson waved me away and then took my place in the chair.
An hour later, I walked into the kitchen. For the first time since the accident, my hair was fixed, my makeup was on and I wasn't just wearing ragged old jeans and a sweatshirt. Jackson looked up at me and his jaw dropped. "What's the occasion?" He asked through a mouthful of cheerios.
I blushed. I could actually feel the heat as it rushed to my cheeks. "No occasion." I wasn't about to tell him that the night before I had engaged in a rather invigorating make out session with my boyfriend and was maybe starting to feel back to normal. "We were already up. I had time to get ready."
He shook his head and smiled, but I ignored him. It was still pretty early, but after we both finished breakfast, with nothing better to do, we decided to go to school. The roads were a little slick anyways, especially for my beat up Cavalier, so I was thankful for the extra time.
In the seat next to me, Jackson was messing with his cell phone. It looked like he was scrolling through the text messages and he was frowning. "Piper?" I asked.
He nodded. "Yeah, like twenty times," he said, distracted.
I wasn't sure if he was exaggerating or not, but the look on his face made me not want to pry so I turned the volume up on the radio and let the music wash over me, mellowing me out. There were butterflies in my stomach when I thought about seeing Landon. It made me hopeful. I hadn't felt this way in a really long time and I was determined to hold on to it and enjoy it.
Rocky Point Colorado was small enough that pretty much everyone knew everything that happened. Still, when we pulled into the parking lot of the high school and saw the lights flashing from two cop cars in the no parking zone, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Something was going on.
Jackson sat up straighter in his seat. Both of us scanned the area for any clue as to what was going on, but there weren't a lot of people there yet. We were still really early. I pulled into a spot and we both jumped out of the car.
"I have a bad feeling about this, Evie."
I stopped walking and looked at my brother. "Why? This can't have anything to do with us."
He shook his head and I saw a shiver run through him. "I don't know. I just..." he turned intense eyes on me, "you know me Evie. Just don't forget that."
Before I could answer we were approached by two uniformed cops. "Jackson Magwire?"
Jackson gulped and nodded and our principal Mrs. Nelms joined us. "Really Officers, is this necessary?"
One of them, his name tag read Sutherland, nodded, "we just need to ask him a few questions. Is there someone we can call for permission to speak to you?"
"Our brother, Mason. He's our guardian now."
Not missing the 'our', Sutherland turned to me, "you must be Evelyn Magwire?"
I nodded, "what is this about Officer?" It was beyond my comprehension that Jackson could be in trouble for anything. He was an amazing student and had never been in trouble, well real trouble, a day in his life.
"When was the last time either of you spoke with Piper Graham?"
Piper? What the hell? I felt dizzy. I felt sick. If they were asking about her, did that mean that something had happened to her? "Yesterday for me."
Jackson nodded. "Yesterday for me too."
"What time yesterday?"
"Is she okay?" I asked instead of answering.
"Piper hasn't been home since yesterday morning." This was from the older of the two Officers. His name tag read Ives.
I looked sideways at Jackson and he had gone completely pale. "Jack, have you seen her?" I knew the answer was no, I mean he had been home with me, but I was still relieved when he shook his head no.

"Well all the same, we were told that the two of you were close. If it's okay with you, we'd like to get permission to speak with you." This from Officer Sutherland.
"Yeah, we can call Mason. I don't think he'll be in class yet." Jackson fumbled with his phone and it fell to the ground. His hands were shaking. I watched the officers look back and forth between each other and the look they exchanged made me nervous.
"Why don't we take this into my office?" Mrs. Nelms asked.
Officer Sutherland nodded, "I think that sounds like an excellent idea. Mr. Magwire?"
Jackson nodded, but I placed a hand on his arm, stopping him from leaving. "I'd like to go too, if that's okay."
They nodded and I linked my arm with Jackson's while we walked behind them toward the school. "Have you talked to her?" I whispered to him.
He shook his head, but there was something in his expression that led me to believe he wasn't telling me everything. "Those texts this morning. They were from her, right? So just tell the officers what she said and that you didn't get them until this morning."
He gulped, but didn't say anything. We walked the rest of the way to the office in silence. My mind kept racing to the last time I had seen Piper. She had been acting strange. Should I tell them that? I chewed on my lower lip. No. They'd think I knew something more than I did. I really didn't want to get involved. I closed my eyes. What if I was the last person to see her? Could I handle more guilt?
Once we were sitting, I used my phone to call Mason. He picked up after three rings sounding groggy, like I had woke him up.
"Evie? Do you know what time it is? What's wrong?" He sounded panicked and I wanted so very badly to tell him that I had called just to tell him good morning, but I couldn't. Almost immediately Officer Sutherland motioned for me to hand him the phone.
"Mason, don't freak out, but there is someone here that needs to talk to you."
"What do you mean? Who? What's going on?"
His voice sounded really freaked out and I looked at Jackson. He was staring out of the office window. His face was still pale, but completely blank. I had no idea what was going on in his head. I really wanted to grab his cell phone and read those texts, but I didn't want to draw attention to them.
"Mason Magwire? I understand that you are the guardian of Jackson Magwire?" A short pause. "No, he's not in trouble, we just want to ask him a few questions." Another pause. "Sure, I'll let you talk to him."
Officer Sutherland handed Jackson the phone and turned to me. "I'm going to have to ask you to wait outside, ma'am. Your brother is not in trouble, we just want to talk to him."
I nodded, feeling like I didn't really have a choice, but I was disappointed that I couldn't hear what Jackson was saying to Mason over the phone. I walked out to the receptionist part of the office and sat down by the door. Out in the halls, the noise level was increasing, a sure indicator that school was still going on like planned despite the news of Piper's disappearance. It was sort of sad. I'd like to think that she mattered. That we all did, but I guess life really does go on.
"What's going on in there?"
The school nurse had just walked in and asked the receptionist that question. They both looked in through the opened blinds of the office windows, but with the door closed, you couldn't really hear anything.
"I'm not sure, really," the receptionist answered.
"Is that Jackson Magwire in there?" The nurse whispered back. The receptionist nodded. "Oh that poor kid. What could they possibly need with him? He's such a good guy and that poor family has been through enough."
Hello! Didn't they see me sitting here? I wanted to scream at them. Luckily, the buzzing of my cell phone distracted me. I just hoped that when they realized who was sitting in the office with them, the were sorry for talking about "my family".
It was a text message from Mason.
What the hell is going on Evie?I wrote back: I don't know. Something about Piper.I waited for a response, but I didn't get one. I figured that, knowing Mason, he was running around his dorm room, throwing clothes in bags. It was Thursday so he would have been coming home tomorrow anyway. I just figured it was a good thing for him to come home. I wasn't sure how to deal with Jackson, or how he'd feel after this little discussion.

What about Piper?
She's missing.
Shit. I'm driving home today.
Probably a good idea. Jack's freaking out.

"Evie! What's going on?"
I jumped, but smiled slightly when I saw Landon's head peaking around the door. I stood up and walked out of the office. We stopped just around the corner from it. He pulled me into his arms and despite not knowing what was going on behind the offices closed doors, it felt good to be in his embrace.
"Piper's missing." I said into his chest.
He pulled away from me and looked down into my eyes. "Why are they talking to Jackson? Shouldn't they find that asshole she dumped him for?"
The thought hadn't occurred to me, even though it should have, and I could only hope that Jackson mentioned that. "Yeah, you're right. I don't know. He seemed scared though. I wish I knew what was happening."
The first bell rang. That meant he had exactly three minutes to get to class without being late. "Shit! I'll text you later, babe." He leaned down and kissed me briefly on the lips. "Love you!" He called over his shoulder when he rushed down the hall away from me.
I waved at him and then rubbed my hands over my face. I wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep and start this day over again. My emotional numbness was threatening to sneak back in and I rubbed my arms against it, much like I would rub the cold away.
Pacing had never been something I thought much about, but while I waited for Jackson, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the office. I was too keyed up to sit down. My mind kept bringing back Piper's face in high resolution and I twirled a piece of hair nervously wondering if I should say something.
The bells signaling the end of first period and the start of second, came and went. People looked at me curiously as the walked from one end of the school to the other, but no one said anything to me. Word had spread that I had sort of had a breakdown at my parents funeral and while you would think that would have people showing me some sympathy, it mostly had them steering clear of me.
Finally, just when I was making a list of all the things I could use to break through the glass of the office windows and rescue my baby brother, he walked out into the hallway.
"Jackson!" I hugged him, "are you okay?"
He nodded, but I noticed he was still pale and his eyes looked swollen like he had been crying. "They said we can go home for the rest of the day and wait for Mason."
"Is that what you want to do?"
He nodded. "I'm tired, Evie. I just want to go lay down."
I hugged him one more time, he stood unmoving in my arms, and then I ran back into the office just long enough to grab my backpack and car keys. "Let's get out of here."
The car ride home was just as quiet as the one going to school that morning. With the exception of an awkward uneasiness between us. I was actually relieved when I pulled into our driveway and put the car into park. Jackson was up and out of his seat in record time, leaving me to scramble to catch up to him.
At the door, I fumbled with the lock and cursed under my breath until Jack finally took my keys from me and opened the door. Once inside, he stood in the middle of the living room with a vacant expression on his face.
"Jack? Do you want to talk about it?" Inside I was boiling over. I wanted to grill him. I wanted to know everything they asked and everything he said, but looking at him, I knew he wasn't up for it and I wasn't going to pry.
He shook his head. "I just want to lay down." He started walking down the hall toward his bedroom and I followed him, deciding that lying down sounded great and I wanted to test my theory about going back to sleep and waking up to a different day. I had just passed him when he stopped me, "hey, Evie?"
I looked over my shoulder at him, "yeah?"
"I love you."
I smiled, "love you too bro."
He nodded, seeming satisfied with my response and disappeared behind his bedroom door. I stood there for a few seconds and then walked through my own. I stopped in front of my mirror and laughed at my reflection. "So much for getting ready today," I said out loud.
My sweats and t-shirt were still lying in a heap on my floor and I quickly changed into them. Then I walked down the hall to the bathroom and scrubbed the makeup off of my face and pulled my hair up. On the way back to my room, I stopped at Jackson's room, tempted to knock on it and make him talk to me. I even went so far as to put my hand on the smooth surface. After a few seconds, though, I thought better of it and went to go rest.
Who could have ever known that not forcing my brother to talk to me in that moment would be the biggest regret and the heaviest guilt I'd yet to encounter. Certainly not I, or my actions would have been so very different in those moments. Instead, I slept. Blissfully unaware that in the weeks proceeding this, I had only thought my life was over. In the weeks to come, it really would be.