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The self-defense class had been a waste of sixty bucks.
The self-defense class had been a waste of sixty bucks.
Becca hadn’t felt like a victim going in, but she sure did now. When she’d seen the flyers around school advertising a three-hour session with a “women’s defense specialist,” she’d been eager to sign up. But the instructor—really just some college kid named Paul—had been texting half the time, happy enough to pocket their cash in exchange for halfhearted instructions about body blocks and eye gouges. She’d lose another Saturday scrubbing kennels to make this money back.
She’d left her cell phone in her locker, so after class she went to get it. Her best friend had left fourteen texts about some drama with her mom, so Becca stood in the shadowed corridor to write back. Quinn wasn’t exactly patient.
The night air bit at her flushed skin when she slid out the side door, making her wish she’d brought a heavier jacket—but at least the promised rain had held off. Darkness cloaked the now empty parking lot, and her car sat alone near the security lamp in the middle of the cracked concrete.
This was exactly the kind of situation Paul had warned them about: secluded and solitary, offering little visibility. But Becca welcomed the darkness, the silence. She almost wished she smoked, so she could lie on the car’s hood, flick a lighter, and make up names for the constellations while nicotine burned her lungs.
You should be so cool.
Her key found the lock, but the door handle to her aged Honda refused to release. She muttered the obligatory prayer, but nothing happened. Sometimes it took a curse.
Then she heard a muffled shout, a distant scuffle on pavement.
She froze, more curious than afraid. A fight? Here? She saw the combatants, just at the edge of the security light over by the east wing. Three guys fighting, two on one, it looked like. One caught another in a headlock, and the third swung a fist at the captive’s midsection while he struggled.
They weren’t saying anything, making the violence cartoonish and unreal, like watching an action movie on mute.
The kid in the headlock twisted free, his liberty quickly rewarded with a fist to the head, sending him into a stagger. Another punch brought him to the ground.
Then he didn’t move. One of the other guys kicked him in the stomach.
She heard that. And the sound made her remember that she was just standing in the middle of a parking lot, watching.
Becca dropped beside her car. Breath whistled into her lungs. She didn’t want to open the door and have the sound or the light draw their attention. She’d call the police. An ambulance. The whole frigging cavalry.
She thrust her hand into her bag for her cell phone.
Damn Quinn and her fifty bazillion texts. Becca swore and punched the phone against the pavement. The cover snapped off, skittering away under her car.
She peeked around the front bumper. The fallen boy lay in a crumpled pile.
They kicked him again.
“Get up,” she whispered.
She tried to make out who the kids were. Some senior boys got off on violence. She knew a few of them firsthand—some only by reputation. The Merrick twins, maybe?
They were circling now, like vultures. One nudged the fallen boy with his foot.
Then he kicked him. “Get up.”
“Yeah,” said the other one. “How’d you get rid of them?”
The voices were sharp, cruel. She held her breath, wishing she could help somehow. But what could she do? Run at them with her water bottle and the splintered plastic of her cell phone? Maybe she could practice that “confident woman’s walk” Paul had demonstrated.
If only she had a weapon, something to level the playing field.
You idiot. You do have a weapon.
Adrenaline made for a good ally. She’d barely thought it before she was crawling through the back door and climbing into the driver’s seat, driving straight at them.
She had the satisfaction of watching her headlights illuminate their panic; then they were scrambling, diving to get out of the way. Not the Merrick twins, not anyone she could make out at all. Her foot punched the brakes at the last second, jerking the car to an abrupt stop.
“I called the cops!” she shouted out the window, feeling her heart kick against her ribs. “They’re on their way!”
But the boys were already bolting into the darkness.
Her fingers refused to release the steering wheel for the longest moment. She finally pried them free, and, leaving the engine running, eased out of the car.
She wished she’d turned the car differently, because the boy was mostly in shadow, away from the headlights. He lay facedown, the thick dark hair on his head matted with blood at one temple. They’d done a number on his face: More blood glistened on his swollen brow. Abrasions scored his cheek in various directions, as though he’d met the pavement intimately, and more than once. His black hoodie had taken a beating, and his jeans weren’t much better, sporting a tear down the side of one leg. He was breathing, a rattle of air pulling into his lungs, ending on a slight wheeze each time.
She’d never seen someone beaten so badly.
“Hey.” She gave his shoulder a little shake. He didn’t move.
Those boys had run off on foot. She had no idea if they’d stay gone.
Now what, genius?
She left her car engine running, its headlights cutting a path in the darkness. She reached inside the door and pulled out her half-empty water bottle. She crouched beside him, feeling the cold grit of the pavement through her jeans. Then, using her hand to slow the flow, she trickled water down the side of his face.
At first, nothing happened. She watched in macabre fascination as the water pulled blood across his jaw, trailing over his split lip.
Then he came to with a vengeance.
Becca wasn’t ready for that, for him to explode off the ground in a fury, his fists swinging before his eyes were open.
She was lucky he was injured. She barely got out of his way.
His momentum didn’t last long, however. He staggered to a knee, planting a hand against the pavement. He coughed and it shook his body; then he spit what looked like blood.
Now that he wasn’t lying on the ground, she recognized him. Christopher Merrick. Chris. He was a junior, like she was, but she couldn’t think of two words they’d ever exchanged. He was the Merrick twins’ younger brother, the type of guy who’d slouch in the back of the classroom and stare at the teachers with disdain, daring them to call on him. People left him alone, but that’s how he seemed to like it. An outsider by choice.
“You gave me water,” he rasped, his head down.
His voice startled her, made her realize she was just standing there, clutching her water bottle so hard it made the plastic crackle.
“Yeah,” she said. “Those guys—they could come back—”
“Are you stupid?”
The derision in his voice was like a punch to the chest. “Funny. I was just asking myself that.”
“No. I just—I could have hurt—” Chris coughed again, then pressed his forehead to the ground, making a low sound in his throat. He spit blood again. She felt like she was standing in the middle of one of those cable crime dramas—the kind where the violence is too much for network television.
“Do you have a cell phone?” She cast a quick look out into the darkness, but the night remained still. “You need an ambulance.”
“I need a damn rainstorm.” He seemed to laugh, but it choked him. “A drizzle. Fog even.”
He was delirious. “Can you get into the car? I can drive you to the hospital.”
“Whatever. Climb in the car. Those guys could come back, and I’m not—”
A hand closed on her arm, hot and meaty and painful. A voice spoke from the darkness. “Did you think we wouldn’t wait and see?”
“Big surprise.” The other voice now. “No sirens.”
That hand swung her around. This guy didn’t go to her school. He looked older. College, maybe. Short blond hair framed a severe face, all angles and lines.
Something scraped on the pavement. “This is going to suck,” said Chris.
The other one was dragging him to his feet.
Becca knew how to swallow pain and keep emotion off her face. “Let me go. I didn’t call the cops, but he did.”
Those sharp features cracked into a smile. “We took his phone.”
“Good try,” said Chris. He coughed again. The other guy punched him in the side, and he dropped to the pavement.
The one on her arm shoved her up against her car. It hurt. She squealed before she could help it.
“You should have driven away, sweetheart.”
“Nah,” said the other, his dark hair making him look sinister. “That right there is dessert.”
Then she recognized his voice. Seth Ramsey. A senior. And part of the reason she’d been in that self-defense class.
His friend reached out to cup her chin. “Yeah. Dessert.”
Maybe it was Seth’s presence; maybe it was the implication in their words. Whatever, her mind didn’t think, her body just moved. The water bottle went flying and her arm swung.
Something squished under her fingers. He dropped her arm like a hot potato, shoving her away, flying back to put a hand to his face. “Bitch! You bitch!”
Holy crap! It works! She was choking on her breath, but she was free.
“Shut up, Tyler,” Seth hissed. “She might not have called the cops, but you’re gonna—”
“Freeze. Right there.”
At first she thought the cops had shown up. But it was Chris, her water bottle in his hand. He’d found his feet somehow, and though he looked a little unsteady, their assailants went still.
Chris drew a shaky breath. “Back off. Or I’ll mean that literally.”
Mean what literally?
“Yeah, right,” said Seth. “It’s one bottle.”
Chris shook it. The water sloshed. “Try me.”
He had to be out of his mind.
But they backed off. “Chill out, man,” said Tyler. “We’re just screwing around.”
“Yeah.” Chris gave that harsh laugh again, then swiped at his swollen lip. “Feels like it. Take another step back.”
She stared at Chris, as if her water bottle had somehow morphed into a gun, or a switchblade, or anything more intimidating than a plastic cylinder that read Aquafina.
“Becky,” he said. “Get in the car.”
“Becca,” she corrected automatically. Her voice was breathy, her hands still clenched in fists.
“For god’s sake—” His eyes slid left. “Just get in the car.”
She scrambled into the driver’s seat, her hands fumbling for the seat belt. Just when she wondered if he was going to get in, he yanked the back door open and almost fell into the car.
Her foot smacked the accelerator and the car shot forward, swerving toward the building. Her heart beat on the back of her tongue, and she yanked the wheel. The car fishtailed before straightening out.
Chris swore. “Drive without killing me.” He coughed. “I should have clarified.”
She swung the car out of the parking lot and onto the main road, accelerating like a bank robber. Her breath was loud in the confines of the car. Houses whipped by, but she had yet to pass another vehicle.
She barely hesitated at the stop sign at the end of Old Mill Road, screeching through the turn.
“Hey.” Chris’s voice was quiet. “Take it easy. Their car was on the other side of the cafeteria. You can slow down.”
She eased her foot off the pedal. “What did they want? That one guy doesn’t go to our school.”
“Not anymore.” He paused. “Thanks.”
She swallowed. What was the right response? “You’re welcome” didn’t quite seem to cover it. Then again, his “thanks” didn’t, either. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”
“Nah. Home.” His breath hitched, and she took a glance at him in the rearview mirror. His eyes were half closed, his voice ironic. “If you don’t mind.”
She didn’t think that was a good idea, but what was she going to do, wrestle him into the ER? “Aren’t your parents going to freak when they see you?”
That rough laugh again. “I’d probably freak if I saw them.” A peal of thunder interrupted his words. Raindrops appeared on the windshield. “Figures,” he muttered. “Now it rains.”
Maybe he had a head injury. “Where do you live?”
“Just north of the fire station. On Chautauga. We’re the blue house at the end of the court.”
She nodded, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. He fell silent for a while, and she glanced in the rearview again to find his eyes on her. Blue eyes. Nice eyes, she noticed, sharp and intelligent under that fringe of dark hair.
Then he smirked. With the cuts and bruises on his face, it made him look a little scary. “You’re probably thinking I owe you my life.”
She jerked her eyes back to the road. “No,” she snapped. “Just sixty bucks.”
“You charge for the hero act?”
His voice sounded light, but she still heard the wheeze behind the words. Another quick glance in the mirror revealed his head had fallen back against the seat.
“I really think I should take you to the hospital. You probably have broken ribs.” And a concussion. “They can call your parents from there.”
“Why? You think they have a Ouija board?”
She glanced at him worriedly, and his eyes opened fully. “My parents are dead, Becca. Do you think you could open a window?”
Maybe the fresh air would help. She pushed the button to drop his window a few inches, not wanting to let the rain in.
He sighed. “Thanks.”
He fell silent for a mile, and when they came to the red light by the community college, she turned in her seat. His eyes were closed.
He didn’t answer.
“Damn it,” she whispered.