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“Mom!” I bend double and stare in the empty fridge as though that will magic something into existence. “We’re out of milk.”
I get nothing in response. Nothing other than the muted click of her stapler in the den that’s been converted to her home office.
“Mom!” I abandon my quest to make hot cocoa and head toward where she’s holed herself up all night. “Did you hear me?”
“Huh?” Her hair is twisted up in a messy bun, a pen shoved through it to hold the knot in place. “Did you need me?”
“I need milk.” I frown. “Amongst other things.”
She collapses back in her chair, abandoning the newly created files on her desk. “Shit. Can I give you my card and you sort it out?”
“I don’t know what’s open this time of night.” It’s after eight on a weekday. I didn’t notice any chain stores down the main street let alone anything that looks like it’s open past five at the latest.
“The gas station on the outskirts will be.” She leans forward and shifts a stack of paper aside to find what she needs. “Take the car.” The keys sail through the air toward me.
I catch them with my right hand, and sigh. “I still have my learner’s permit.”
She scoffs out her nose. “And who cares around here?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” I roll my eyes. “The Sherriff?”
“He’ll be at home with his slippers on by now.” She waves me off, returning her focus to the work at hand. “Get me some trail mix or the like to snack on while you’re there, huh? My purse is on the counter, I think.”
It’s hanging on the hook in the foyer. Where I put it. “Fine. But if I get busted, you’re covering the cost.”
I backtrack to retrieve her card, Mom’s words drifting after me. “Thanks, honey!”
She can thank me when I’ve forced her to take twice as long away from her work because she needed to bust me out of the lockup. I snag her card, taking a ten-dollar bill as well for my trouble, and then head upstairs to change. I don’t care how small the town is, I am not wearing my pajamas down to the gas station.
A message notification awaits when I reach for my phone to shove it in the pocket of my newly donned jeans.
Did you make any new friends yet?
A laughing emoticon follows the short question from my one and only pal back in the city: Teasha.
You asked Michael out yet? I fire back while shoving on my boots. She knows damn well I don’t make friends easily—the reason why it took us almost a year in the same class before we even spoke to one another.
Touche, my friend. Touche. A pause, and then, For real, though.
I hesitate, slowly straightening before I send back, I met a few of the locals. But no besties yet.
She sends back a line of laughing faces followed by a sarcastic GIF: You can’t sit with us. She wouldn’t find the idea so hilarious if she knew how closely the locals resembled the goth barbies in that meme. I drag in a deep breath and adjust my ponytail before heading out the door.
It doesn’t matter how many towns or cities we’ve lived in; one thing was always the same.
People are judgmental assholes. The whole reason why I gave up on friends in the first place.
I pull up ten minutes later at the mom-and-pop gas store on the very edge of town. My mother wasn’t kidding when she said it’s on the outskirts. I barely needed the GPS on my phone for directions considering there were all of two corners to take. Dull blue neon decorates the sign, so faded from weather and age that they barely light the logo between. Wilderness peeks through the cracks in the cement, weeds snaking their green tendrils toward the trimmed and swept forecourt.
If they have more than milk available here, I’ll be surprised.
I lock the Honda and step out into the night, shivering from the chill that seems to have whipped up since leaving home. The opposite side of the street is completely overgrown, the trees bending and arching over the single-lane road. I feel as though I’ve walked into the set of a sci-fi horror.
“Milk, woman.” I mutter the directive to myself and move across to the top-lit door on the small service building. The shadowy figure of a sole attendant is visible behind the stacks of chocolate and candy at the counter.
I’ve barely lifted my hand to reach for the steel handle when the screech of tires sends my heartrate skyward and every fucking hair on my neck on end. Dazzlingly white lights sweep across the forecourt before they jolt up and down, the creak of a car’s suspension and the roar of the engine the only thing telling me what’s beyond the blinding glare.
“Motherfuckers.” I shake off the irrational fear that the hooligans were about to run me down and head indoors, heart pulsing hard against my ribcage.
The car shuts off as the door bangs closed behind me, but it does nothing to dampen the sound of laughter. Male laughter. More than one male, in fact.
And a young woman.
I relax after I catch the high-pitch titter of the female. Why my fucking brain rationalizes rapists wouldn’t travel with a woman, I don’t know. I mean, hello, there were females in the Manson clan. But there it is. Relief that I’m not about to be stabbed and dumped backwoods somewhere easing the vise-like grip I have on a packet of nuts.
I’ve been looking at way too many of Mom’s work photos.
“What are we here for?” the female asks behind me.
I tilt my head to one side, a frown tugging my brow while I wait to hear her speak again. Surely this shithole isn’t thatsmall.
“Stuff for later.” No way.
My shoulders drop and I do my best to create the miracle that is invisibility by stilling my movements. I’m not here for this. I want milk, maybe some cheese, and snacks for Mom, then I’m fucking out. The last thing I want is to be caught in the middle of Leo and Strawberry’s date.
“Like what?” she asks. There’s a pregnant pause and then, “Something to quench our thirst?”
I’m not looking at the bitch and I caught the sexual innuendo in that.
“Nothing for you.”
Every fucking muscle in my back contracts, shoulders curling inward to protect me. Jesus fucking Christ. You. Have. To be. Shitting. Me.
I slowly turn at Leo’s exuberant greeting and force a smile onto my face. “Oh, hey.”
“We gotta stop meeting up like this,” he teases, grin a mile wide.
I hate him for how it makes mine genuine. “You think I like it?” I chuckle. “Promise I won’t be here much longer.”
He glances behind him to where Shortcake pouts and Tristan throws daggers with his hooded glare. “Don’t sweat. We’re just picking up stuff for my sister.”
Leo’s eyes go wide. “You’ve met her?”
“Your brother didn’t tell you?” I arch an eyebrow. “Shame.”
The heartless fucker approaches, desperation clicking her heels close behind.
“Nope.” Leo glances toward his older sibling. “When did you meet Gina?”
Tristan arrives at our impromptu gathering and swiftly knocks half a dozen packets of crisps to the floor so that his elbow has somewhere to rest. “When I took Amy shopping.”
Interestingly he chooses our second meeting to share, not our run-in in the hallway. “After you almost ran me down in school.” Like fuck I’ll let him away with it.
“You’ve seen each other twice already?” Leo almost looks offended. “Weird you didn’t say anything.”
“Why? It’s not like she matters,” Strawberry states, focus on her nails where she stands behind Tristan.
“I’m sorry.” I step sideways to see her better. “What was your name again?”
Her glare narrows. “Funny.”
I wish it was. “Legit. I’ve seriously forgotten what your name is.”
Leo’s mouth curls up on one side. Tristan looks bored.
“Phoebe,” Strawberry Shortcake snaps.
“Like the ditzy one in Friends.” I wave my index finger at her. “That’s right.”
Leo hides his smirk behind one hand, cupping his elbow with the other to hold it in place.
“Are we getting this shit you guys need, or what?” Her mouth rests in a flat line, arms folded over her chest. I note she’s ditched the cheerleader outfit in favor of something more… revealing.
The guys, however, are dressed the same.
“Leo,” Tristan instructs. “Take your whore and get Amy’s stuff.”
“Sure.” The friendlier brother sets a hand on Phoebe’s shoulder and steers her toward the front of the store. “Catch you later, Gina.”
“See you ‘round.” I shift the nut packet in my right hand to the left and then turn away from Tristan to resume assessing what else is available.
He says nothing. Doesn’t move. Simply stands there with his elbow leaning on the shelving and watches me study the display.
I add a pack of candies to the haul in case Mom or I get cravings for chocolate and sugar.
“He trusts people easily.”
I still at Tristan’s odd statement, yet don’t look his way. “That so?”
“Sees the good in them first.”
“You two are quite the opposite, then, aren’t you?” I move around the racking to the next short aisle.
Leo glances at me from where he pays for a stash of chocolate, soda, and sweets. I ignore the apparent concern in his furrowed brow and return to finding what the hell I came here for. What the fuck do I need? My mind blanks as I stare at a row of cookies.
“I see people for what they are.”
Motherfucker. I set my free hand to my chest and take a deep breath. Tristan leans on the empty shelving his elbow occupied, staring at me over the short racks. “Look. Is there a point to this cryptic conversation?” I pop a hip and incline my head, meeting his steel gaze. “Because I’m just here to get supplies.”
“Didn’t ask why you’re here.” He rolls his jaw to one side. “Don’t care.”
“And yet there you are,” I sass. “Talking at me.”
“You’re hiding,” he says as though the concept bores him. I get the feeling a lot does. “Hiding yourself and hiding the truth.”
“Aren’t we all?” I mutter, deciding a packet of choc-chip cookies sounds like the ideal solution to this situation.
“Secrets don’t stay buried for long around here.”
“I’m shaking in my boots.”
He tracks me down the aisle, still on his side of the shelving, when I head for the chilled section.
“I don’t like people who think they can come here and stir shit up.” He rounds the end of the aisle and meets me at the glass door displaying drinks. “Act as though they’re above what we’re all about.”
I swallow hard, nestling the food I already have a little more securely in the crook of my arm, and do what he least expects: I front up to the asshole. He stiffens when I spin and take a single step forward, making it so our noses are a mere inch apart. “What exactly are you all about?” I grind out. “Because I’m over here minding my business and it’s you who’s acting as though they think they’re above everyone else.”
“I am above everyone else.” He reaches out to set his huge hand atop my stash and pushes down hard.
Cookies, candies, and nuts crash to the floor, a couple of the packets bursting open on impact. Not that the fucker cares. He’s halfway out the door before I have time to catch my next breath.
I stay rooted to the spot, glaring after the asshole as air heaves in and out of my lungs.
“Don’t worry about it,” the shopkeeper drawls as he lets himself out from behind the counter. “You’ll get used to them.”
My fists tighten as the car roars to life, obnoxiously loud. “I shouldn’t have to.”