I can’t hug him again and tell him it’s going to be okay. That would require me to be stable, and stable isn’t my strong suit. There’s a disconnection of emotion inside me as I step back…step away. It’s a dream. All of this is a bad dream.
Feet shuffle behind me, footsteps of people walking into Rachel’s room. I can’t go in there. I can’t. Gravity draws me and it’s not in the direction my family prefers. I move toward the pull and Ethan slams a hand onto my shoulder. “She wants to see you.”
I yank my shoulder out of Ethan’s grasp. “No, she doesn’t.” It’s safe to say no one here wants me.
My brother says nothing more as I head for the elevator. As I said before, Rachel deserves better…including better than me.
“Haley Williams chooses, once again, another form. Could this be the one, ladies and gentlemen?” Jax mock whispers beside me. “A hush rolls over the crowd as Miss Williams glances over the wording. Her eyebrows furrow. Is this it? Will this be the one?”
My cousin spiked his whitish-blond hair into a Mohawk this morning, meaning he’s feeling ornery. If he keeps up the running commentary, he’ll discover how ornery I can be.
From over the open bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, I glare at Jax. “Don’t you have something better to do?”
Jax and I sit on the floor, tucked away in the corner of the main office. We’ve been here for an hour and the receptionists forgot we exist, so they gossip freely. The stench of cafeteria coffee transforms into a film over my clothing. I shudder with the knowledge that I’ll smell like this for the rest of the day.
He cracks a wide grin. “Yeah. If you tell me what’s doing then I can go do my thing.”
The ghetto to English translation of “what’s doing”: what am I hiding about Friday night. I didn’t spill this weekend and I don’t plan on spilling now.
It’s Monday morning and I woke early and took the city bus to school so I can, once again, peruse the filing cabinet full of scholarship applications. I use the internet at the library, but trying to find applicable scholarships on there is like trying to search for a lost ring in a sand dune.
“Nothing’s doing, so go do your thang.” I waggle my eyebrows and give him a sly smile. “There’s got to be a girl around here who hasn’t been done wrong by you.”
“You’d think, but evidently girls talk to each other. Damn shame.”
“Damn shame,” I echo. I cram another useless application back into a folder and yank yet another out. “Do you think I could pass for Alaska Native?”
“Sure.” He bites into an apple he five-finger discounted from the cafeteria and dangles a piece of paper in the air. “Bet you could pass for a guy who’s ranked in tennis, too.”
I snatch the application from his hands and shove it back into the cabinet. “Funny. Just wait until next year and you’ll be doing the desperate dance.”
“No, I won’t. High school is as far as I’m going.” Jax is a year younger than me, seventeen, and a junior. When we were younger, we were inseparable, but then he grew up, I grew br**sts, he became interested in girls and I became interested in anything other than what I liked at ten.
“I’m getting a job,” he says. “And as far from Dad as possible.”
Amen to that. Guess we’re more alike than I originally thought.
A knock on the window that overlooks the main hallway grabs our attention. Kaden flips us off and mouths, “You suck!”
Jax laughs and flips the finger back. I giggle when Kaden shakes his head and stalks off. “You didn’t tell Kaden you were becoming my shadow today?”
“Nah, he knows, but I didn’t wake him when I heard you getting ready upstairs. He trained hard yesterday and needed the sleep. Kaden’s pissed he had to ride the bus by himself and I wasn’t there to act as shield with that freshman puppy dogging him.”
Kaden’s a year older than me, but he was held back in first grade. Because of that, we’re both seniors at Eastwick High. It’s hard on Kaden with the whole world knowing he’s in the same grade as his younger sister. At least I know it is. Back at a time when we were close, he confided in me. Repeating a grade, it’s why he fights hard in the gym, why he’s quiet in public.
“There’s still some time left before class,” I say. “Why don’t you go pester him?”
“Because I’m pestering you.” Another crunch of the apple.
Why didn’t I play an instrument in band? There’s an entire scholarship section devoted to that. “I’m not changing my story.”
“Don’t expect you to, but if I’m right—which, come on, it’s me and I’m not wrong—I expect the truth to reveal itself. Today. At school.”
My head jerks in his direction. Jax watches me with thoughtful green eyes. He reminds me of an owl when he does this and it makes me feel like a mouse, which isn’t a good thing. Jax’s family does kill things for sport.
“I’ve been living in this neighborhood a lot longer than you have,” he adds. “That drug addict little brother of your ex-boyfriend jumped you Friday night and you’re covering for him, aren’t you?”
Jax leans into me, his playful demeanor evaporating. “I thought you were over Matt.”
“I am.” The most truthful thing I’ve said to Jax in six months. What happened between Matt and me was unspeakable.
“Then why are you covering for his brother?”
Because they don’t play fair. The words tumble in my head, crashing into one another. Even when I was dating Matt, his younger brother carried a knife. It’s been six months. I cringe to think what Conner has graduated to. Jax and Kaden hate Matt and Conner. They’ve been enemies since I can remember.
“I kicked Conner’s ass at the last tournament, Hays, but you wouldn’t know because you weren’t there. I can take care of myself, Kaden can take care of himself and our job is to take care of you. If Conner thinks you’re weak prey, he’ll come after you again. You aren’t living in the middle class anymore. This is the streets and there are rules.”
And I’m the one who got jumped. “You don’t think I know that?”
“Is there a problem here?” I flinch when I notice our school’s in-house social worker, Mrs. Collins, standing next to me and Jax. She’s all blond and thin and middle-aged hip and, except for this moment, typically has a smile on her face. My grandfather attended the parent–teacher conference in lieu of my parents last month and he talked to her for way too long about his gym.