Shattered Chapter 6-10

These are chapters 6-10 of Shattered, if you've not read the first five chapters, check them out here: Shattered Chapter 1-5

For those of you who are ready, let's continue!

Chapter 6

Hunter

After Lizzy left, I hung around the workshop a bit more, helped the group of people with their curtains and looked at some of the supplies that they have. Like Tamara said, they have a good range of things at the workshop—even if I can’t work with metal, they have good-quality clay, paint and thousands of pencils.

I remember the feeling when I used to come into the supply room. I was only a boy. It was almost magical, all those supplies, all the different pieces of art that could be made from them. All these tools, just waiting around until they would be used to make amazing art. I could almost feel the creativity in the room.

But then I went to boarding school for high school and was away from here for so long. A boarding school for gifted children. I had to basically beg my parents to let me go there. It’s where I met Tessa—we loved the same things and learned so many things together. And then Joey, my younger brother, got sick, so sick. I almost didn’t graduate and I turned down all colleges. I just couldn’t leave my parents to deal with Joey on their own. So many good things turned bad, sometimes I wonder why I’m even still here. I lost Joey, I lost Tessa. I lose everyone I love. In three years I went from a happy guy to… I don’t even know anymore.

“Hunter.” Tamara’s voice is quiet as she stands behind me. “Are you okay?”

I try to smile. I try to not make her worry. “I’m okay, just remembering the good old days.” And then the not-so-good days.

“Yeah, you were so young. I remember how you fought to get the metal for the bench under control.”

I roll my muscles. “There are some upsides with working with materials that aren’t as pliable.”

Tamara laughs. “Yeah, I can see that. Do you still have your workshop at your parents’ place?”

“Yeah, I can’t fit it in the studio apartment. Plus, I don’t think my neighbors would appreciate it.”

“I can imagine that.” She turns around. “These are all available—if you need anything else, tell me and I’ll try to get my hands on it. I don’t think working with metal would be best here, but I can do lots of other things.”

“Thank you.” This is as much of a safe haven as it is a creative space. I hung out at Tamara’s last workshop a lot before I just… stopped. After Tessa’s crash… I didn’t want to do anything anymore. Tamara understood, luckily. “Hey, I’m gonna go home. I’ve actually got homework to do.” Finish that damn book.

“That’s cool. Do you want me to get you a key to this place, or are you okay for now?”

“I’m okay. I’ll just make sure there are other people around when I want to come in. Maybe I’ll even socialize.” I joke, but I can see that Tamara takes it exactly as I meant it. I’ve not been very good with other people around, I know that she knows about the fights I’ve been getting into. I don’t want her to know. I want her to see me as something else, but I’m not. It’s my own fault.

“Just… Stay safe. And I’ll see you soon, I guess.” She lets out a small smile as she gets back to her other students.

Yeah, staying safe. I’m not sure how good I am at that these days.

* * *

I tip back another beer. It’s late and I know that if I want to get up on time tomorrow I should leave now. But the atmosphere in the bar changed a while ago. There is some nervous energy going around, something volatile. It makes my skin itch and I can’t leave here now. The beer in my system puts me on edge and I just want to do something.

A guy bumps into my back, and I twist around, grabbing him close. “What did you do that for?”

“Sorry,” The man slurs. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

“You don’t seem that sorry. You just kept walking on.” My voice rises and I know that people around us are now paying attention.

The guy’s eyes go wide and I raise my other hand, balling it into a fist.

“H.” A low voice tries to pull my attention away from the man in my hands. “Don’t do this.”

But it’s too late. My fist flies and connects with the drunken man’s nose. Blood immediately starts dripping on my hand and I let him go as I hear footsteps all around me. Then a fist collides with the side of my face. I try to mow the guy on my side down, but it only scrapes his shoulder. Another guy hits me right on my jaw and I blink, trying to make the stars go away. I did it again, didn’t I?

I take a deep breath and rush into the guy at my other side. If they’re going to take me down, I’m taking as many people down with me as I can.

The next moments turn into a blur until a police car and an ambulance pull up right next to me. When did I get outside? I try to stand up, but that doesn’t seem to work. I sit back down as two men walk to me. One of them is holding a pair of cuffs. Kinky.

“I think it’s time to spend another night in a cold cell, Hunter.” Now that they are closer, I recognize one of the officers. Oh, great. This is the fourth time in the last six months that he’s picked me up outside a bar. Because of fighting, naturally.

I try to stand again, but it’s not working—the booze and the adrenaline don’t make my coordination any better. The two cops pull me up and get me over to where the EMTs are looking at one of the other guys.

“Can you check him out before we take him in?” The guy who has taken me in before puts the cuffs on me. I try hard to remember his name, but I can’t come up with anything, and the blur in my head is not helping.

One of the EMTs starts poking at me and shining a light into my eyes. Then he steps back, a look of disgust on his face. “He’s fine, just drunk. He’ll be really sore in the morning, that’s all. Unlike some of the others.” The man walks away and the cop starts pulling on my arm.

“Let’s get you into the car and then into a cell. Even though I have no faith that it will help one damn bit.”

I’m roughly shoved into the car and then the door closes behind me. Another guy is already in the back of the car. He doesn’t look that good and I’m pretty sure he’s one of the guys I just fought with. Whatever.

I look out the window as the city passes me by. Unlike the bus ride a couple of weeks ago, this is something I’ve gotten a bit too familiar with. The city at night, passing me by in a blur of booze and adrenaline. Not the best way to view it.

* * *

I groan as I try to turn around in bed. Waking up in a cell this morning was such a bad idea. I grab next to the bed and find the glass of water. I down it before I sit up properly.

Luckily they let me go without getting anyone involved. I apparently broke a guy’s nose, but he is not pressing charges, which makes me very lucky. I know that some of the cops there would have gladly sent me to prison. And I’m not sure I can blame them.

I’ve slept through most of the day, not having slept very well last night. I check my phone but there are no messages, so the news hasn’t gotten to my parents yet. Maybe I can keep it that way. They don’t always have to know… I open my eyes fully and the sun shines straight into them, intensifying the headache that’s coming on. Ugh.

Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep drinking and then getting into fights? I used to be somewhat of a hothead. But last night… I just started a fight over nothing. Because I was bored, because I was upset, because I’m always angry inside.

My phone starts ringing. It’s not my mum, it’s Tamara.

“Hi.” I try to sound normal, but that isn’t really working.

“Hey, do you want to come with some of us to the museum tonight? They’ve got some modern sculpture, art, music, dance thing going on. I got a couple of free tickets.” She sounds so excited, but I’m not sure I should show up like this.

“Eh. I’m sorry, I can’t.” I close my eyes. I can hear from the pause in her breath that this was the wrong answer.

“What did you do this time?” The words are sad, and it makes me feel even worse. “Did you get into another fight?”

“Yes.” I try to say it as quietly as possible, but it doesn’t make the guilt any less.

“I thought…” She lets out a sigh. “I thought that you coming back to classes meant that you were over that.” That, fighting, getting in trouble, making trouble…

“I’m sorry.” I don’t know what else to say. I thought I was over it too.

“You need… I’ll see you next week.” She sounds so defeated, like I disappointed her the most I’ve ever done. And she has seen her fair share of my fuck-ups. “Just… Please feel well.” And she hangs up.

I put the phone down and a tight feeling in my chest threatens to overwhelm me. Why won’t I stop being stupid like this? Why do I keep messing up? I slowly get out of bed and make my way to the bathroom. I need to check the damage, and I definitely need a shower.

I take my shirt off and there is a big bruise blooming on my ribs, the dark purple not promising much good. There is a bruise on my jaw too and my lip has split. There are some random bruises on my arms and upper body, but none of them as dark as the one on my ribs. I think someone might have kicked me there.

I take the rest of my clothes off and step under the shower, the hot water easing some of the tension in my body. I put my face under the water and twitch as the first blast stings the bruises. Ugh, that is gonna stay for at least a week. Now I need to get to class with a bruise on my face. So not good. That’s not going to help my reputation…

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Chapter 7

Lizzy

It’s hot, and humid, and I’m in no mood to stay at home, so I grab my bag with tools and make my way down to the forest. Maybe being out in nature will ease the tension.

My parents were looking at me again. I apparently didn’t eat my dinner fast enough last night. Well, I was enjoying myself. Why would they be so uptight about that? I’ve been good, I’ve been really good lately, but still, that look in their eyes won’t go away. I even offered to step on the scale just so Mum would stop hovering. But she rejected it, almost offended somehow that I offered.

They don’t see me anymore, they see my illness. Ever since this started, they stopped seeing me as a person. Now I’m nothing more than my illness, a list of symptoms that need to be solved. I’ve become this thing to be fed, anything else I do no longer matters. Not my art, not that I’m a young woman who needs her freedom. Nope, just the food.

I walk down the main path through the forest, looking for the road less traveled. It leads to a nice secluded spot that has lots of sun and isn’t visible from the road. I like being there, especially during the summer months—the forest cools even the smallest amount of wind and there is a spot where the sun is perfect. I can sit there, the paper on my lap, and draw, draw for hours, not worrying about anything.

There it is, the clearing. It is hidden from the main road by some shrubbery and I haven’t been disturbed here before. People don’t like to walk off the path and when their dogs go off this far, they’re usually called back before they’re close to me.

I push the leaves aside and step into the clearing. The sun shines immediately onto my face and I smile.

Hello, sun, will you be my drawing partner today? Will you make the forest around me all pretty so I can draw it in its most glorious form?

* * *

The sound of hooves nearby makes me look up from my drawing. I’m not sure what is going on, but I don’t hear horses here very often, especially not this far away from the main roads. I slowly stand up and make my way to where the sounds come from. I can smell the strong scent of horse before I’ve even stepped through the curtain of leaves that protects me from the rest of the world.

Just a couple of feet away there is a man on a horse, like a prince out of a fairytale, only the horse is a dull brown and the man doesn’t look very prince-like. He looks like he might be in pain as he moves slowly. His broad back bulges under a tight T-shirt and his legs look like steel in the leather pants.

He hasn’t realized I’m here yet, and I don’t really feel like talking to people today, so I retreat back into the clearing.

A stick snaps under my heel and both horse and rider turn to me abruptly. It takes me not even a second before I recognize the rider. Hunter. He may not be Prince Charming, but he definitely is a Prince of Darkness. There are bruises on his face and I now also see them on his arms. He looks… broken. I freeze in my spot, not daring to move, too scared to set him off. If he looks like that, I don’t want to end up on the other side of his fists.

Hunter slowly gets off his horse, letting out a hiss as he lowers himself to the ground. Only when he is standing right in front of me does he say something. “Lizzy.” His voice is rough, quiet, then he reaches up, almost touching me.

That finally breaks me out of my trance and I step back, shaking my head.

A smile tugs at his lips, but then he looks me over and I see the clouds gather in his stormy eyes. Fuck. “What are you doing here?” he asks.

What? Out of everything, that is what he wants to know? “It’s the weekend, there is a lovely sun out. What else am I supposed to be doing?”

The question seems to surprise him. He shrugs and lets out a sigh. “No clue.”

We both fall quiet. I can’t help but stare at the bruises. They look so dark, and so painful.

Hunter reaches out, takes my hand, and puts it on his jaw. I want to pull back, but he holds it there. “I’m not scary, or dangerous.” His low voice is pitched even lower and something stirs inside me.

He is though—he is scary, and apparently quite dangerous to someone, if the bruises are anything to go by. But I know that isn’t what he means. He means that he is no danger to me. And I don’t know how I feel about that… “And yet you are.” I quickly close my mouth and look away. He finally lets go of my hand as he lets out a laugh.

“I just make stupid choices sometimes, usually when I’ve had a bit to drink.” He steps back and reaches out to the horse, who pushes against him slightly. He murmurs something at the horse and then looks back at me. “What were you up to?”

I shrug, suddenly extra self-conscious. “Drawing.” It’s nothing special, just a way to relax really. I step back through the curtain of leaves, back into the sunshine.

Then Hunter follows me, him and the horse. Just looking at them like this makes my heart race. I don’t know what is going on or why, but my body is responding to Hunter like crazy. This is yet another side of Hunter, a side where he cares for the horse so deeply, a side where even though I can see the proof of his aggression, it’s still hard to believe he would hurt anyone.

I turn around, back to where I sat, back to my drawing, putting a safe distance between us.

Hunter saunters into the clearing, then turns around and loosens the girth on the horse’s saddle. He drapes the reins over a branch and comes over to where I’m sitting. “What are you drawing?” He steps behind me and I can feel the heat of his skin, smell his musk. It makes my body run haywire.

I swallow hard. “Just, nothing really.” I’ve been doodling mostly, small images overlapping, twisting from one to the other.

Hunter laughs and I look up at him, frowning. I don’t like to be laughed at, especially not about little doodles that I make. He holds up his hands. “I like it, they’re cute. I like how it’s all to do with night and darkness.” He’s quiet for a moment, then reaches out and points at one of the doodles. “Did you really personify the moon as a biker?”

“Possibly.” It wasn’t really the moon I was going for, but I can understand why he’d think so. I hadn’t even realized that I was doodling a theme, but then again, I’m not really surprised by it either. It wasn’t really the moon or the night I was thinking of, more like… Hunter. I flip over to the next page, too aware of Hunter’s presence to keep working on the page. In a way, scared that he’ll figure out that the drawings are a lot more personal than what is going on around us.

“You’re really good.” He walks a bit off and stretches in the sun. His muscles ripple under the shirt and the leather pants, muscles that show that this guy is used to working with his body. And not the type of muscles that you get from going to the gym—the type of muscles that you get from working hard in construction or something like that. He, in a way, looks more like a model than an artist.

“You sound surprised.” I cock an eyebrow at him and Hunter grins as he looks at me.

“Not really. Surprised by your style though.” He reaches for the hem of his shirt and takes it off. He drops it on the floor and slides down next to it. There are more bruises on his back and sides, dark bruises, scary bruises. They look like they really hurt. But also… there are tattoos spiraling over his chest and around to his arm. I never expected that. Sure, with his look and attitude, I should have known. I just never really expected it.

“Like what you see?” Hunter has a satisfied grin as he looks at me through nearly closed eyes, a smile that makes my stomach do weird things.

“You look like hell.” Oh, damn. What a silly thing to say.

Hunter shrugs. “I feel like hell warmed over. But it’s my own fault anyway.” He lies back on the grass and closes his eyes. The sun shines off his amazing abs and I’m trying my hardest not to stare at him.

I return to the page in front of me, drawing, doodling, but even as I busy my hands, I can already see what is forming on the page. It’s not Hunter as he is now, instead it’s him with fists coming at him fast. I keep going, adding details, making the image clearer. The image of why I can’t be with him, why Hunter is bad for me.

Aggression, fights, getting in trouble… I don’t want a guy like that, I don’t need a guy like that. So why do I keep looking at him? Why can’t I keep my eyes off him? Why do all my drawings from the last weeks have something to do with him?

* * *

“Are you sure you’re fine?” Hunter walks next to me as we step out of the clearing, into the forest.

“Yeah, yeah. Just a little sunburn.” Sitting in the clearing, surrounded by the silence and totally focused on the image I was creating. I kind of lost track of time, and now I’m redder than a lobster.

“A little?” He shakes his head.

“It’s not like you’re much better.” I poke at his side and Hunter winces. “Oh, sorry, so sorry.” I’ve forgotten the bruises all over his chest and sides. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t break me.” And there is that smile again, the one that is so hard to resist, and still, I have to.

I roll my eyes at him. “You don’t have to walk me home, you know.”

He shrugs. “It’s not like I’ve got better things to do anyway. It’s nice to be out here.” He keeps his strides equal with mine, keeping the same pace.

“You’re a special kind of twisted, you know that?” I can’t help but sigh. He’s walking me home, even though he probably has better places to be. I’m on one side and the horse is walking on his other side.

“Yeah, I know. I’m fully aware.” The smile disappears, his eyes focusing on something far away.

And I’m totally crap at holding conversations… “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything bad by it.”

“You’re right though. I’m twisted. In bad ways.” There is something in his voice—a sadness, a determination—that stops me from asking any more questions. It’s that darkness again, that darkness I saw the first time I laid my eyes on him. That darkness that both attracts and repels me.

We walk side by side, first through the forest and then through the neighborhood where I live. The trees and fields give way to boring houses, row after row after row.

I stop when I’m in front of my door. The door to my own little place, that is, which was originally the door to the garage. “This is me.”

Hunter blinks as he looks around, then he smiles and nods. “For someone as creative as you, you live in a boring place.”

“I live in the garage. We converted it into a studio.” I do have some pride in where I live, especially since I’ve made it my own.

“Ah, cool. Maybe I’ll see it some day. For now though, I need to return home.” He looks me over. “See you tomorrow at lit class.”

I roll my eyes. “Ugh. I guess it can’t be helped, it’s not like I’ve really got a choice.”

“Nope.” He pulls on the horse’s girth, checking something, and then he pushes himself up into the saddle, trying to hide a groan that I still hear. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.” I look after him as Hunter rides off the way we came.

I let out a deep breath, trying to calm my heart. Why does it keep beating like that when he’s around? I don’t want it to. I can’t do this. But that doesn’t stop what is happening.

And the darkness in his eyes… I saw it again just now. I can’t deal with it. I won’t survive it if his gaze ever falls on me that way. He’ll rip me apart in more than ways than one. We’ll both be left behind, more broken than we ever were before.

Then why do I wonder what it will feel like?

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Chapter 8

Hunter

I hold the bright red dress out to Lizzy. Last night, after we spent the afternoon in the forest, I was inspired and had to make something. I stayed up almost the whole evening to finish it. “Come on. Please try it on. I don’t have someone to model it for me. I need to make sure I got the fit right.”

“Are you serious? You barely know me and you still want me to model a dress for you? Do you just expect me to drop my clothes right here and try it on?” She frowns, but at the same time, she’s trying to suppress a smile.

“You can change into it elsewhere, but yeah, I’m serious.” I make sure she’s looking at me. “It’s not like you didn’t use me as a model yesterday… and you didn’t even ask.”

Lizzy colors a beautiful scarlet, her eyes going wide and her mouth opening and closing. I love it when I can make her drop that indifferent persona she puts on, when I can make her react to me so beautifully.

“You didn’t think I wouldn’t realize what you were doing, right?” I grin and Lizzy lets out a breath.

“Fine. But if it doesn’t fit, I won’t come out.”

“That’s fair.” I step back as Lizzy takes the dress from me. “See you in a bit.”

Lizzy stalks off, her strides measured, her back straight. She’s convinced that she won’t fit into it, that it won’t look good on her.

I can’t help but smile. Of course, I didn’t care that she drew me yesterday—I was kinda flattered—but it made for great leverage. I step back outside and let myself fall onto one of the couches.

It takes a few minutes, but then I hear footsteps inside, coming towards the doors. When I look up, Lizzy takes my breath away. The sunny dress falls exactly as I imagined it would, just the right amount of tight up top and flowy at the bottom. It might have been better in yellow, but I didn’t have any yellow fabric on hand and I don’t think Lizzy would have worn it either. She puts her hands behind her back as she slowly shifts her weight from one leg to the other. Then she turns her eyes up to me, the azure tempered by fear and insecurity.

“Stop staring.” Her voice is quiet, very little certainty behind it. “It looks wrong, right?”

I shake my head. “It looks great. Exactly as I imagined it.”

Her short laugh is without humor. “How can that be? I’m nothing like other girls. Clothes for other girls never look right on me.”

I want to tell her the truth, I made the dress to suit just her, not other girls. Instead I make up a lie. “This shape is flattering on everyone.”

She nods, obviously still not sure about my answer. She carefully sits on the arm of the couch. “Did you make this over the weekend?”

“Nah. Last night. I was inspired.” I can’t help but grin. She inspires me. I don’t know why, but she does.

“Inspired how?”

“The forest, the light, the summer. It inspired me to make it, that, and it was way too hot to fall asleep.”

“Hmm.” She doesn’t say anything else. Instead she stands up and twirls around, making the dress flare out. A smile appears on her face and it’s like she’s a totally different girl. A much… younger girl.

“Hey.” Tamara steps out of the main work area and guards her eyes against the bright sun. “Can you help me for a moment?” She looks Lizzy over and then shoots me a meaningful glance. She knows it’s one of my designs, she’s seen enough of them to recognize one of them. But she doesn’t say anything.

“Sure.” I stand up and Lizzy nods as we follow Tamara.

Tamara walks to the corner with the white curtain that a lot of the photography students use to take pictures in front of. She stands in front of the curtain, her hands on her hips. “I need two models for some pictures for a new sculpture I’m making.”

“Eh.” Two models, that probably means something with touching, right? And I know that Lizzy hates that. I’m pretty sure that Tamara knows that too.

“What would we need to do?” Lizzy’s voice is small.

“I need Hunter to lift you up. It’s a bit ballet-slash-modern dance-like. It shouldn’t take long. Are you up for it?”

I look at Lizzy, who, after a few seconds, nods. Her whole body is tense, but she still agrees to do it. Brave.

“You two are my best choice for this, as I’m pretty sure that Hunter can lift you without much issue. Right?” Tamara looks at me.

“I guess. I’m still not sure what the plan is exactly.”

Tamara nods. “Let me make sure the camera is set up right, and I’ll tell you.” She grabs the camera from a chair and guides us to the middle of the curtains. “Just stand here.” She walks around us and fiddles with the settings on the machine. Then she comes back over to us. “Okay, so, what I want is for Hunter to lift you up, and Lizzy, you have to lean back. I want the line of your body to be an extension of Hunter’s arms. Does that make sense?”

I shrug and look at Lizzy.

Lizzy looks at the both of us, the uncertainty still in her eyes. “I guess we can try.”

I reach out to her, and she lets me put my hands on her waist. “You good?” I search her eyes for any discomfort, for any signs that she wants me to let her go.

Lizzy nods, though her body is tense in my hands. The little muscle she has is tightened and her body ready to fight. She meets my eyes and my heart starts to beat harder. There is such a vulnerability in her beautiful blue eyes, but also such a strength and determination. Her breath speeds up, but after a light frown, just a movement on her face, she forces it back under control. She is a force to be reckoned with, I don’t doubt that for a moment.

“Okay, Lizzy, if you step on Hunter’s knees, it will be easier for him to lift you up. Yeah?” Tamara breaks the spell and I let out a hard breath. Now Lizzy’s eyes won’t meet mine anymore, she just stares into nothingness.

I bend my knees somewhat, allowing a better surface for Lizzy to stand on. She starts to lean back in my arms, then she takes my shoulders and steps onto my knees, first one foot and then the other, slowly pushing herself up. She finds my eyes again, her breath controlled but her body straining. As she fully stands on my knees, she lets out one deep breath.

“Lean back.” The words are only whispered from my lips.

Lizzy doesn’t break eye contact as she nods and slowly lets go of my shoulders. She curves her spine and lets her head fall back. Then her arms slide down and all her weight is on me.

I slowly stretch my legs, pushing up, standing straight. I hold her waist tight and slowly I feel her trust in me grow, slowly she relaxes in my hold. It almost takes my breath away, how she can trust me like this, how she even exists in my life. Something stirs in my chest and I’m not sure if I even dare to explore it. I keep my eyes on her, trying to see if she is comfortable.

No, that’s a lie. I just can’t keep my eyes off her beauty, her strength, her power. This girl is pushing her own boundaries because someone she trusts asked her to, and she trusts me to not drop her. There is this force hiding in her small frame that I don’t think anyone can break.

Then why does she look so broken?

It takes me a moment before I realize Tamara is taking pictures of us, and when I feel Lizzy tense up even more I know she has also forgotten. The spell between us is broken, our private moment invaded by the sounds of a camera shutter. We stay as still as possible until the sounds stop.

“Thanks. You can put her back on the floor again.” Tamara speaks up as she steps away.

I bend my knees and Lizzy moves her feet until she is stable again. Then she lifts her head and looks at me. My breath catches at the emotions in her eyes. I pull her closer, giving her a better angle to get back down again. But she reaches out and wraps her arms around my neck, coming closer, pushing against me and hiding her face in the crook of my neck. I wrap my arms around her waist, pull her close and hold her tight.

Our breaths are ragged, my heart beats at an insane speed and I’m scared I’ll crush her if I hold on even tighter, even though that’s the only thing I want to do. I put my head against her shoulder and smell her scent, a combination of orange, something sweet and the residue of paint. Having her here is the only thing on my mind—for the first time in forever, my mind is in a place of calm. That realization scares me.

As soon as our breaths have calmed down, I slowly let her slide down, putting her on her feet, and when she finally lets go of me, I immediately and acutely miss her touch.

She steps back, blinking, her hands shaking. She glances around and only then do I become aware that Tamara has left us alone. Lizzy opens her mouth, but no sounds come out. She shakes her head and tries again. “We—we can’t do this.” Her whole body shudders as she gasps, her eyes going watery.

“Lizzy…” I reach out, wanting to touch her again, comfort her. But as soon as I move, she flees.

Crap.

* * *

It takes a few more breaths before I dare to move, before I’m sure that I can actually function. What the hell just happened? I turn around. Back outside. I need some fresh air.

Outside, Tamara looks at me as I step through the door, her eyes hard, but also troubled.

“Don’t say anything.” I sit down on the couch and grab my pack of smokes.

“You can’t do this.” Tamara’s words are like fists to my stomach.

“Like I said. I don’t need you to tell me.” I light a cigarette and stare into space. Like I don’t know this is a bad idea, whatever this is. I’m no good, and I can’t bring her into my messed-up world.

I know that Tamara wants to say more, but quiet footsteps make us look up. Lizzy is standing in the doorway, her hand on the frame as she looks at the both of us.

Tamara smiles, her eyes on Lizzy. “He did well on the dress, right? I haven’t seen this particular design before, but it suits you perfectly.” Tamara turns to me. “You did an amazing job.” Then she frowns as I try to covertly sign for her to shut up. Lizzy doesn’t know, and she doesn’t have to.

Lizzy’s eyes go wide, then she moves her hands over the dress, the way it captures her form perfectly, the way that it’s the perfect length. “This design? You mean that he”—she licks her lips, her voice unsteady—“he didn’t just make it, he designed it?” She looks at me, betrayal and panic rising.

“I just… I only altered a pattern. No big deal.” I can’t look at her anymore. Not when I know I’ve betrayed her trust in me. She trusted me, she trusted that this was not a big deal. I lied to her, all for egotistical reasons. I knew she would never agree to wear it if she knew the truth.

“You made this for me? Specifically? It wasn’t that you needed a model, you needed me?” Her voice rises.

I squeeze my eyes shut as I nod.

Quick footsteps move away over the floor as Lizzy flees once again.

“I’m… I’m sorry. I thought she knew.” Tamara tries to talk to me, but I can’t do this. I stub out the cigarette and rush after Lizzy.

I find Lizzy in the hallway, her shoulders shaking, her back to me. “Lizzy?” I keep my voice quiet, careful.

“You can’t do this, Hunter. You can’t keep doing this.” Her voice shakes as much as her body.

“What can’t I do?” I want to touch her, comfort her, but I keep to myself.

“Treat me special, make me things, and then lie about it.” She looks up at me, her eyes and cheeks wet. Even when she’s upset with me, she looks stunning.

Of course I can, I’m a free man. But I guess she has a point too. We’re supposed to be friends, and I’m totally overstepping my boundaries here. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not the right kind of girl for you.”

I bristle. Who is she to decide? But the look she gives me makes the words die in my mouth.

“I’m going to change out of this, you’re going to take it back, and we’ll never speak of it again.” She marches into the bathroom. Leaving me alone in the hallway. This girl is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

I thought that after Tessa, a girl would never look at me that way again—that combination of attraction and heartbreaking pain. A look that tells me that we need to stop doing this for our own good. That there is no way this will end well. That if we combine our dark pasts, we may never recover from it.

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Chapter 9

Lizzy

After everything that happened on Monday, I ran out of the workshop and immediately went home. I didn’t even go to American lit. Again… And then yesterday, seeing Hunter in our advanced drawing class was weird—he was even early, something he never is. In this short amount of time, just these last few weeks, I’ve come to expect his short and clipped words, his dry humor. But I know this can’t happen. Not for him, not for me. We need some time apart before we can see how we can interact in a normal friendly way. It all went way too fast. So, instead of sitting at the same side of the room, I took a seat as far away from him as possible. It wasn’t easy and actually it was quite lonely, but I need to do this.

I don’t want a relationship. I don’t need one. They never end well. At some point people always figure out I have an eating disorder, and either it freaks them out or they get turned on by it. I’m not sure which of the two I hate more, to be honest. There is just so much weirdness going on in my life. I can’t use the distraction now. I need to move on, I need to keep going, I need to focus on college and my art. That is all.

When I come up the stairs for art history on Wednesday morning, Hanna loops her arm through mine, glaring at Hunter. His bruises haven’t gotten much better and I feel bad for constantly ignoring him. He looks… hurt, more in pain than he normally does.

When Hanna realizes that I’m not planning go over to him, she decides that I’ve become her very best friend. Her friendly chatter is exactly what I need. Girl talk. Talking about things to do, things to see. Just normal life.

Luckily I’m swamped in coursework, so between the two classes I’ve got today and all the homework, I’m kept quite busy.

“Let’s go to the library.” Hanna pulls me along as we leave the lecture hall before Hunter can even pack his bag.

I let out a sigh, but I guess it’s better than the cafeteria, which she wanted last week. I pull my bag up high as I follow her. We’ve got just over two hours before our literature class starts and I’m pretty sure I haven’t finished the homework yet.

Even when I decide not to be distracted by a guy, I still get distracted by not being distracted. By not wanting to be distracted.

I’m hopeless.

* * *

I’m tired—no, exhausted. I couldn’t sleep last night and my mind has been all over the place. All over the place but nowhere useful. I’m not sure what it is, or why, but something dark has taken over in my head and it doesn’t look like it’s going to go anywhere any time soon.

As soon as I reach the classroom for art history, Hanna waves at me to come join her. But to do that, I need to walk past Hunter’s desk. I take a deep breath, swallow it down and then start walking.

I try to keep my eyes on Hanna, on the place where I need to go, but still, when I pass Hunter’s desk, I can’t help but look up at him.

His eyes are dark and I see my own exhaustion reflected in them. He opens his mouth to say something, but I quickly avert my eyes and walk on. I don’t want to talk to him. I can’t.

“Morning.” I slide down in the chair next to Hanna.

“Morning.” She looks at me and then back to her phone. “It seems you and Hunter still aren’t talking.”

“Nope.” I try to keep my voice light, but I know I’m not fooling anyone.

“Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Again, no.” I pull my books from my bag. “It’s not important.”

“And still, you haven’t talked to him all week. The same day you stop talking, he shows up with those bruises. You know, people start gossiping when that happens.”

I sigh. We’ve had this discussion before. “They have nothing to do with each other.” Though the bruises are an extra reason not to talk to him. I can’t stand people who are aggressive, and he basically admitted to being an aggressive drunk. I’m not doing that again.

My face heats up at the memory of his face so close to mine and my hand on his cheek. Damn. Just thinking about Hunter makes my body react in ways I can’t even describe.

“It’s still suspicious.” Hanna eyes me. “Just like your reaction every time I say his name.”

“Stop looking at me.” I try to glare at her, but I can’t help smiling.

“Want to go somewhere after class?”

“Where?” I’ve got the afternoon off anyway, and I don’t want to hang out at the workshop after the week I’ve had. I think some time away from the workshop and Hunter is a good idea.

“I was thinking of going shopping. The weather will be getting colder soon and I don’t really have anything cute to wear.” She shrugs.

Shopping is safe, sort of. At least it’ll probably be more fun than trying not to run into Hunter. “Yeah, let’s.”

Hanna smiles, and then the professor comes into the room. An hour of making notes and listening to the professor talk about dead artists. Fun. I may be an artist, but I’ve never had much interest in art history. I start scribbling notes, because no matter how much I hate it, I’ll still have to know stuff for the exam.

As the class winds down, I stretch and look around. I immediately wish I hadn’t, as Hunter is looking right at me. My heart makes a little jump and I look away quickly. I pack my bag and stand up, grabbing the table for a moment as my head whooshes.

Hanna is next to me immediately. “You okay?” She reaches out for me, but I straighten my back and step away, smiling.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just stood up too quickly. You said something about going shopping?” I flash her my best smile.

“Definitely.” She walks in front of me, starting a waterfall of chatter about the shops she wants to visit and clothes she wants to try on. I only half-listen, too busy counting what I’ve had today and considering if I maybe need to get a bottle of water and how I can sneak in a snack without anyone seeing it.

“You worry me sometimes.” Hunter’s low voice behind me startles me. He sounds… troubled.

My heart beats fast as my breath catches in my throat. Why? When I swivel around to face him, he’s already walking off, my only view his retreating back. The strong muscles that I had my hands on just earlier this week, the back that I clung to in a moment of weakness.

The one covered in big black bruises.

“Lizzy?” Hanna steps next to me. “What’s wrong?” She pulls my shoulder and turns me to her. “Are you crying?”

I shake my head. Of course I’m not. Why would I be?

But when Hanna reaches out, touching my cheek for a moment, and pulls her fingers back, they’re covered in black smudges.

Fuck.

“Liz…” She shakes her head. “Are you sure you’re up for shopping? We can go another time.”

“I’m not made of glass.” My voice comes out way louder than I mean it to.

“I never said you were.” She frowns as her eyes dart around. Of course, now I make her feel awkward to be seen with me in public.

“I’m sorry. Maybe it’s better if I go home.” I pull my bag up higher. “Talk to you later?”

Hanna nods. “I’ll call you over the weekend.”

I start walking away, to the bus stop, as I text Lola. Maybe she is off early and we can go home together, though I don’t expect it.

As I step out the door, Hunter is standing near the stairs, next to his bike. “Lizzy.”

His voice makes me want to do nothing but wrap my arms around him and disappear against his chest. But I can’t. I can’t be involved with him, for both our sakes. “No.” My voice is stronger than I feel. “Fuck off.” He doesn’t get to make me feel like this and then act like nothing happened.

I don’t look his way again, my focus fully on getting home. On hiding in my room all weekend and not having to talk to anyone. Silence, rest, all the good things.

* * *

Monday morning comes way too soon. I’ve spent most of the weekend at home, wrapped in a blanket, reading books and watching TV. Lola tried to get me out of the house at some point, but luckily gave up. It’s not that I didn’t want to do anything, but my mood wasn’t the best. I tried drawing and painting, but nothing happened other than lots of black pencil and paint, and I’ve made enough paintings of only black and darkness that I quickly quit when I realized where I was going.

I pull my clothes on and walk down the steps from my bedroom to my living space. I turn on the coffee machine and drop in a pod to maybe wake me up some more. Then I slump down in my chair and scroll through my phone, looking at images and texts on social media until the machine has stopped making sounds.

I carefully stand up again and grab the coffee before I shuffle to the couch and curl up there.

A knock on the door makes me look up. Lola.

“Is it okay if I come in?” She stands in the doorway, uncertain. I probably wasn’t the best sister this weekend.

“Yeah, come on in. Grab a coffee.” I try my best to smile at her, because it’s not her fault and she’s always trying to take care of me, make me feel better.

She tips a pod into the machine and puts a cup under it. We’re silent while she waits for her coffee to be ready, then comes over and sits down next to me on the couch. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” There isn’t really anything wrong. I’m just not really feeling up for the week.

“Have you had breakfast yet?” Her voice is careful, and while I love her, I hate her for asking it.

But I shake my head, a truthful answer. “Not yet. I just woke up.”

“You want me to get you something?” She’s nearly off the couch before I grab her.

“Not yet. At least let me wake up and have a coffee first.” I cradle the cup in my hands, the liquid still too hot to drink.

Lola sits down again, moving nervously.

“What’s wrong?” She’s normally not this tense, even if I’m not in a good mood.

“It’s just… You’ve been a bit distant lately. We’re worried.” She looks at her hands and I reach out, taking one of hers. We’re worried—code for, Our parents sent me here to check on you.

“I’m okay, it’s just been a rough week.” I hold her hand, squeezing so she’ll look up at me. “I’m really okay.” Just tired, tired of trying to avoid Hunter, tired of constantly feeling on edge.

“Okay. Is everything okay in class? Nothing bad?” College life, the easier subject to talk about.

“Yeah, homework is kicking my ass though. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken art history and literature in the same semester. Lots of reading.” I can’t help but smile. Even with one class fewer than the recommendations, I’m slowly drowning.

“If you need any help, I’m here, you know that.”

“Thanks. I know. It’s just… lots of reading and stuff like that. It’s not hard, just a lot.”

“It doesn’t help that you spend most days in the workshop either.” She smiles at me. “You still haven’t shown me what you’re working on there.”

She’s been wanting to see the workshop since the start of the year, but I’ve been avoiding it the whole time. The workshop is my place, my thing that others don’t know about. But maybe I need to share it with Lola—she’ll understand. “Fine…” I sigh and Lola grins.

“Finally.” She stands up, putting her cup down. “How about today?”

“Today?” I frown up at her. I don’t need to be in for class until two and I don’t really want to hang out at the workshop before then. I don’t want to risk running into Hunter. Not when I’ve got my beautiful sister with me. I may not be a good match for him, but she’d be perfect and I want to keep him to myself for just a little longer. Even when I shouldn’t. On the other hand, I guess that ripping the bandage off sooner rather than later may be the best idea.

“Yeah. I’m curious what you’re working on and I’ve got time before class.” She dawdles around the kitchen. “So, what are you having for breakfast?”

I close my eyes, taking a deep breath. I don’t really want any breakfast. I’m not feeling up to today really. But with Lola around, I can’t get out of it. “A banana and yogurt, please.”

“That all?” She starts pulling things out of cupboards.

“Fine, add some muesli.”

“That all, then?” Now I hear the smile in her voice.

“Yes, that’s all.” It’s perfectly acceptable for breakfast, about three hundred calories.

Lola starts measuring out the different ingredients. I trust her implicitly. I know that she won’t differ from what I would normally make and eat. So there is no harm in letting her make my breakfast for me. “You want to eat it there, or here?” Lola turns around, a bowl in her hands.

“There.” I prefer eating at the table. I slowly get up, and grab the arm of the couch. Whoa. Lightheaded.

Lola looks at me as I make my way over to the table. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” I sit down in the chair and look at the bowl and the banana in front of me. Then I put the spoon into the bowl and slowly start to eat. At the first mouthful, I already know that this isn’t going to be an easy day. Not by far.

Great…

I struggle through every bite, eating the breakfast even though I don’t want to. But I know that I can’t not eat breakfast, not just for my body, but also for my sanity.

“Lizzy…” Lola’s voice is careful. “Is everything okay? You seem… off.”

“I don’t really feel like starting this week.” Or today… But I guess I can’t get around it now.

“I know what that feels like.” She runs her hand over my back as she takes the bowl and the banana peel. “But it’s happening anyway.”

“Yeah.” I stand up. “I guess that I should grab my things then? See you at the car?”

Lola shows me a sad smile. “No car today, Dad had to borrow it. We’re going by bus.”

So that is why she wanted me to come along, she didn’t want to be alone in the bus. “Fine, fine.” It’s not that I don’t normally go by bus anyway. I walk around the place, grabbing things for class and other items I need to take with me. All the while, my stomach acts up and my energy drains instead of getting better. But I need to go, I can’t keep skipping classes. “Okay, I’m ready to go.”

We make our way to the bus stop, just a block from our house. Lola isn’t one to just start chattering and I’m not really in a talkative mood today either. So we walk along in silence. It doesn’t take long for the bus to show up and we get on. Lola sits down in a seat right next to the door and I sit down next to her. It’s the spot I always try to take, easy to get off the bus.

“So… can you at least give me a hint of what you’re working on?” Lola looks at me and I smile.

I’ve been working on a couple of things, mostly just paintings but also a couple of drawings, choosing to work on whatever inspires me at that moment. “Art.” I grin.

Lola rolls her eyes as she smiles. “Well, I assumed as much. I didn’t think you were working on boys in there.” Her voice is light, and I’m sure she meant it as a joke, but it immediately makes my mind go places it shouldn’t be going. Like Hunter.

The bus makes a turn and I tense, my whole body suddenly really aware of itself. I swallow hard, trying to keep my breath steady, but my heart starts racing. This is bad. I break out in a cold sweat and grab hold of my bag tightly. It’s only a few more streets until the university. Just a few more.

“Lizzy.” Lola reaches out and touches my face. “You’re looking very gray. Can you make it until the university?”

I nod. I have to, I don’t want to get off early, but the cold sweats are not going down and I don’t know if I can make it that far.

After another turn, when my stomach really makes itself known, I grab for the stop button. I need to get off now.

Lola grabs my hand, holding on tight, giving me her strength, giving me the strength to go on a little longer.

As soon as I see the bus stop I stand up, stepping closer to the door so I can get off as soon as possible.

The bus slows down and comes to a stop. The doors open, and I step out, but somewhere between the bus and the street, my vision goes dark, first at the edges and then fully.

My body collides with the rough concrete floor as I faint right in the street.

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Chapter 10

Hunter

I sit down on one of the chairs in the workshop’s main space, a drawing pad in my hand, a pencil playing between my fingers. It’s quiet, which is what I like about coming here on a Monday morning. My thoughts have been going back to last week the whole time I’ve been here. The dress I designed for Lizzy, the dress that is now hiding in the back of my closet. I couldn’t get rid of it—she looked great in it. So much more alive. I let out a sigh. I’m hoping that the weekend will have helped Lizzy. She looked a little rough last Friday, but I guess I probably didn’t look much better.

I know that I was overstepping a boundary, but this not seeing or talking to each other isn’t helping either, this isn’t a solution. When she comes here, we’ll have to talk. I can’t do this for another week. I like working together with her, I like being friends with her, and if that means that we need to set rules, I guess that can’t be helped.

The door opens and I hear Tamara come in, her block heels making a distinctive sound on the tiles in the hallway. Then she opens the door, looking around. When her eyes fall on me, she frowns before she fakes a smile. “Hunter.” Her voice is forced light.

“Morning.” I look at her, but she turns away, walking towards her little office. “Have you seen Lizzy yet? She’s normally in by now.” At least, she has been for the last couple of weeks. I hope I didn’t make her stay away… She seems to like the quiet Monday mornings the best too.

Tamara stills, which makes me look at her more carefully. “Um…” She turns to me. “Yeah, I saw her.”

“And?” Something is up.

“She, um, fainted as she got off the bus. I saw it happen. She’s fine otherwise, but I just drove her home.” Tamara doesn’t look at me, instead standing with her back to me.

She what? Lizzy fainted and that didn’t seem important? Or maybe it did, and that was why Tamara made a beeline for her office. “Did she say anything? Like, why it happened?”

“Not really. It just happens with her sometimes. Her being ill and all.” Tamara tries to shrug it off. But I know that it’s an act, and she knows I don’t believe her. “If she hasn’t talked to you about it, I’m not saying anything. You know that would be breaking my promise to her. The same promise I made to you.”

I nod, but my heart is racing. Lizzy is really sick. Of course, that was obvious from the start, but I guess I underestimated how much it actually influenced her. She’s been having those dizzy spells more often in the last week, even I could see that. And I never said anything. What if I could have prevented this if I had just talked to her, instead of being a smartass last week and messing everything up?

I stand up and put the pad and the pencils down. I can’t just stay here, I need to see her. Just knowing that she isn’t feeling well makes my heart ache. Dammit.

“Hunter.” Tamara is now close.

“I’m going to see her.” I grab my jacket and my bag.

“I’m not sure…” Tamara reaches out to stop me. “I don’t know if that is a good idea.”

“I need to make sure she’s okay.” That she isn’t alone.

“Her sister is with her, she’ll be fine. After last week, I’m not sure this would be the best idea.”

“I do think it’s a good idea.” The best idea I’ve had in a week. We can’t keep avoiding each other, and I know that, at least partially, this is my fault. I stalk out of the workshop, grabbing my bike that I parked right outside the door and push it closer to the road before I get on.

I kick off and speed as fast as is legally allowed down the street. I need to do this. There is no way around it.

It’s only then that I realize I’ve got no idea of her actual address. We’ve always met up on campus, and even when we ran into each other in the forest, I only saw it from the back. So, I guess I’ll need to drive around the edge of the neighborhood until I find the path that leads to her home.

I focus on the road. I can’t get into trouble now, not when I need to speak to Lizzy, not when I need to make sure that she’s okay.

After a couple of minutes I reach the edge of her neighborhood and I take the path that leads around the back, between the neighborhood and the forest. I slow down—this isn’t a road that’s meant for motorbikes. It’s mostly bicycles and a few cars that drive here. But most of all, I know that a lot of people walk their dogs around here, so it isn’t safe to speed. I slow down as I reach the path where Lizzy and I came out of the woods, where I can get into the neighborhood.

I kill the engine and get off, taking off the helmet. It’s quiet around here, just the sounds of the wind, the birds and a few dogs and kids. But other than that… It’s almost serene in comparison to my studio in the city. I start pushing the bike between the houses. It’s slow going—the bike is heavy—but I keep at it. I’m not leaving it out here, so I’ll need to take it with me.

After a couple of corners I see the house and the garage where Lizzy lives. In comparison to the house, the garage is only tiny. But I guess that doesn’t matter. She has a place of her own, a place where she can be alone and not surrounded by people. I get that need. I totally get it.

I park the bike and look around, then lock the bike and my helmet to it. It looks like it will stay dry and I don’t think it can do much harm out here. I make my way over to the door, knocking on it, only to find it open.

“I’m upstairs.” Lizzy’s voice weakly floats down the stairs.

I look around the place—it’s definitely a garage, or used to be anyway. The place is now separated into a living and a dining space, with a set of stairs going up to what I assume is her bedroom.

I put my bag down and shrug off my jacket. No use dragging those up the stairs. I slowly make my way up the stairs. There is a door, it’s slightly ajar. On the white surface of the door are a few multicolored letters spelling out Lizzy. I knock on the door. “Lizzy, it’s me.”

Lizzy gasps. There are some sounds, and then her voice. “Come on in.”

I open the door to a small bedroom. Lizzy’s bed is on one side and there is a little walking space around the edges of it, but not much. The whole room is painted a light lilac, which makes me smile despite myself. I never expected lilac in Lizzy’s room.

“Why are you here?” Lizzy doesn’t sound as amused. She sounds confused, and annoyed.

I look at her. She’s so pale, she looks so frail. “I heard you weren’t feeling well, so I came to see how you were.” I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the cause of this.

She just looks at me and I carefully make my way around the bed to a chair in the corner of the room, not too far away but also not right next to the door.

“You fainted on your way to class?” I glance at her. I don’t want to hurt her, but I also want to know she’s okay.

She nods, still that confused look on her face.

“Are you okay?”

She still doesn’t say anything, just nods. I’m imposing on her. She wants me out of here. But at the same time, the way she glances at me, it’s not all that she wants. And I’m obviously getting on her nerves.

“Is it because of… you know…” I move my hands. I don’t really know what I want to say. Because of me? Because I stressed you out? Because I said something wrong?

I can see the exact moment that her confusion turns to anger, the way her eyes narrow, the way that her jaw sets. “Because of what?” She lets out an impatient huff. “Say it.”

I realize that we’re not talking about the same thing. My wanting to know is a different need than her need for me to confront her. My need is selfish. I was only thinking of myself, not of her. Not of her pain, the pain that I’ve seen hiding in her eyes so often since I got to know her. “Because of your thinness.” I can’t look at her. This is definitely overstepping a boundary, but everything makes sense now. The way she won’t eat when people look at her, the way she dresses, her low blood pressure, the dizzy spells. The way Tamara told me that Lizzy was ill, like she assumed that I already knew what was going on.

“Say it.” Lizzy’s voice breaks on the last word.

“Your anorexia.” I can barely say the words—her pain, the hurt that she carries under all her bravado, the bad things that she tries to hide but that I can’t help but want to reach out to. I finally look up at her and my heart breaks all over again. The look she gives me, that pain, that pain is different. She expects me to run, she expects me to dump her right here. That is a look that comes from years of living with something that scares people. I know that fear so well.

“Go away.” Her voice is quiet now, all the anger lost, just surrender left. She’s resigned herself to the idea that everyone who knows about her illness will leave, but I’m not giving up that easily.

I can’t leave her, not now. A real friend doesn’t just go away when someone needs them. “Did you get hurt?”

“No.” Her voice betrays her. She answered too fast. It’s not easy to lie like this.

“Where?” When Joey was not at his worst yet, I saw him faint a couple of times, and Lizzy doesn’t look like someone who will just give up when she feels faint.

“I said no.” She glares at me, frustrated that I won’t believe her lie.

“I know you’re lying.” My eyes fall on her discarded shoes at the end of the bed, a scrape down the side that’s still fresh.

“Nothing happened. I fainted. End of.” She is nearing the end of her patience with me.

“Did you hit your head? Your hip? Your shoulder?” She moves uncomfortably under the blanket. “Did you slide? Scrape your hands?” I saw it happen with Joey once, the scariest thing in the world—seeing him slide as he tried to stay conscious, that last moment of fighting, that last moment of protecting himself.

“Shut up. Why do you even care?” She glares at me with such intensity, such a fighting spirit. I’ve hit a nerve.

Why wouldn’t I care? Does she think nothing of herself? Is there no reason for a friend to care for her when she’s not feeling well? “Because you’re a friend. Of course I care.”

Her eyes widen, but then her mouth sets in a sneer. “And how long before—”

The door downstairs opens and a voice interrupts her. “Lizzy, I got you something to eat.”

I recognize that voice, I would recognize it anywhere. But it has been years since I last heard it.

Footsteps come up the stairs and Lizzy looks between me and the door, slightly panicked. If this person is bringing food over, I’m not surprised that she wouldn’t want me to be here, though she seems to have gotten better at eating around me.

The door opens and a curvy girl steps in,. She wears tight jeans and a tight shirt, showing off her body. But it’s only when her eyes meet mine that my suspicion is confirmed.

Lola.

She’s the reason that I knew the signs of Lizzy’s illness. She’s the reason I could connect the dots of what was going on. And there is no one with eyes like hers, no one apart from Lizzy…

“H…” Lola frowns and I’m once again reminded of Lizzy. How did I never connect the two? I knew I recognized the look Lizzy gave me, but I could never place it. How did I totally miss this? How could I forget?

“Lola.” Seeing her after four years is strange. So many things have happened since graduation. We went to the same high school, we were really good friends, but after graduation we lost contact, which isn’t that odd. So many things happened, it wasn’t an easy time for us.

Lola’s eyes won’t leave mine. Just seeing her, the look she is giving me—we know. That connection we had years ago, it’s still there.

“You two know each other?” Lizzy speaks up.

Lola looks away, instead focusing on her sister, on her twin. How did I not connect the dots? I even knew what Lola’s sister was called, so how did I not see it? “Yeah. We went to high school together.”

“Ah, cool.” Lizzy smiles, but there is something there, something I can’t place. But it doesn’t seem to be happy.

As Lola puts the tray on the table next to Lizzy’s bed, I stand up. “I should be going. I’ll see you in class or at the workshop, Lizzy. It’s nice to see you’re well, Lola.” I walk out before either of them answers. I don’t need Lizzy to say it to know that she doesn’t want me there. And Lola…

I step out of the garage and as I’m near my bike, I lean back against the wall. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to face it. Face the world. How could I have been this stupid? Her eyes, her name, her illness… I should have known…

“H…” Lola is right next to me.

I turn to her. Her azure eyes are dark, uncertain. “Hey.”

She opens her arms and I take her in an embrace. There may have been years of not talking, but the friendship we had won’t just go away. She holds me tightly and I can feel the stress leave her. “Thank you for checking up on her,” Lola murmurs against my chest before she lets me go. “So, you’re the guy she keeps talking about.”

“Me?” I can’t help but smile. Lizzy was talking about me? I didn’t know that. It makes a little piece in my chest flutter, even though it shouldn’t.

“Yeah, you, you oaf.” Lola pushes at me, smiling. “Lizzy refused to give me a name, just that she met a guy who was also into art. And that she was spending quite a lot of time with him.” Lola lets out a breath. “You look good.” She eyes me up and down. “Finally filled out, I see.”

“Worked hard. You also look good.” Lola has always been curvy, something that used to make her insecure, but it seems that she totally embraces it now.

“Thanks.” She averts her eyes. “I’m sorry. About not staying in touch. About Joey. About Tessa.”

I swallow hard. I could have used a friend, but I also know that it has never been easy for Lola either. We both nearly didn’t graduate, not because we didn’t have the grades, but because we just couldn’t deal any more. We used to be such a tight group—me, Tessa, Lola and Blaze. And Lola and I had a tight friendship too, both with a sibling at home who was sick. A loved one we had to leave behind, so much time lost. I’ve seen her fight through the days as Lizzy had to be taken to a hospital or a clinic, over and over again. I saw her fight for both of them, fight to not lose her mind. And then… at the end… That was the worst. I reach out to her and she slides her hand in mine. “I’m sorry too. It must have been hell for you too.” I run my thumb over her hand. “Have you ever spoken to Blaze again?”

She shakes her head. “Not since the hospital.”

“Not even graduation?”

“He avoided me the whole time. I didn’t even really want to talk to him. My parents tried, but…” She shrugs. “It may have been for the best that way.”

For the best? There were many things that would have been for the best of everyone involved. Him leaving her on her own in the hospital wasn’t one of them. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She tries to smile. “It meant that I could stay with Lizzy.”

That surprises me. “You never left? You were even accepted at the university you wanted to go to.”

“I stayed here. I couldn’t leave my family alone. I realized that I never wanted to leave.” She shrugs. “Maybe in a few years, but not now.”

I nod. “So, you’re now in your last year?”

“Yeah, hopefully finishing up this year. You?”

“First year, again.”

Now it’s her turn to frown. “How?”

“I stayed at home and took care of Joey until the end. And then when I did start…”

“Tessa’s accident.”

I nod. The pain is still raw. There is nothing that can prepare you for a sudden loss like hers, though Joey’s wasn’t much better. “It makes it a bit weird, I’m quite a bit older than the rest, but it’s okay. People stay away from me anyway.”

“I’ve heard the rumors… if they’re only rumors.” The tone of her voice is questioning, accusatory, as she looks at my face. The bruises have faded mostly, but the worst of them are still visible.

“Some are true, others aren’t.” I shrug. “I guess it’s easier when people fear you, you don’t have to deal with them.”

“Apart from Lizzy.”

“She has no fear.” She may be scared, but she fights every fear she has.

“She has a lot of fear, anxieties, but she won’t show them. She can appear really strong. But inside… Her darkness scares me sometimes.” Lola’s voice drifts off, and then she pulls herself back. “On that note, I should probably go back.”

“Yeah. I loved seeing you again. If you’re free, come by the workshop. I’m usually there.” Now the new semester has started, I prefer the workshop over my own place or my parents’ place. It feels more like a future instead of a past.

“I might, if Lizzy is okay with it. It’s her place too.” Lola smiles. “She was supposed to bring me there today.”

“Well, that’s promising. Right?” I reach out to her and she wraps her arms around me. “See you soon.”

“You too.” Lola steps back, watching me put on my jacket and helmet. “Have a safe trip.”

I wave at her and turn on the bike, rolling down the side of the house, to the road instead of the forest. I should probably get here the normal way the next time.

If there is a next time.

If I didn’t just totally mess everything up with Lizzy.

 

Hunter has his flaws, but I guess caring for people isn't one of them…

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