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Unlikely Killer

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Lindy Zart

Published by Lindy Zart

Copyright 2014 Lindy Zart

All rights reserved.

Cover Design Copyright 2014 by Regina Wamba at Mae I Design and Photography

Formatting by Inkstain Interior Book Designing

Author photography by Kelley C. Hanson Photography

Edited by Wendi Stitzer

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Thanks to Kyle and Judith Frazee for pointing out my star errors—and if my information is incorrect, I solely blame them.

To Regina Wamba—thank you for the perfect cover.

I am much obliged to Wendi Stitzer—your set of eyes helps mine.

Nadege Richards—thank you for making the pages of my work beautiful.

Thank you to Crystal Ferrill Morris for the name suggestion of Delilah.

For the beta readers this run—Tawnya Peltonen, Judith Frazee, Kendra Gaither, Jen Andrews, Tiffany Dodson, April Stinson-Scott, Desiree Wallin, Megan Stietz, and Tiffany Alfson—your words made my words better.

This is for Michael and Diane Mecikalski. I even used a line of yours, Dr. Mike—something about telling kids to get off the lawn. I'll be sure to send you a royalty check.

In fact, it's in the mail right now.

WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I didn't understand that life was focused on what you had, what you looked like, and what others thought of you. The seventh grade showed me what reality was, and it was ugly. As I watch Rivers Young sit in his chair by the pool, I think maybe reality finally caught up to him as well. There is a slump to his broad shoulders I never thought I'd witness. Even with the distance between us, I can see that he looks broken. At least I learned at a fairly young age how cruel life can be—it took eighteen years for it to slap him upside the head.

What does it all mean?

It's a general question, but if you ask yourself it, you will already have the answer. You jus; t know, because to you, it's whatever is prevalent in your thoughts at the time. To me, the question is about life. What does it all mean? What's the point of it? Why do we endure this journey of perpetual heartache and loss? And pain—there is always so much pain.

It changes us. The duration of our mortality is spent having instances transform us, whether we want them to or not. We're molded into some form of us only to have another moment morph us into another variation of us. It is endless. When someone asks what made someone change, I always think, What didn't?

Sitting across the deck from me is the perfect example of that.

I wipe sweat dampened bangs from my eyes and shove my aviator sunglasses back up my nose. Turning 'Dark Horse' by Katy Perry up on my Samsung, I sing along while watering the plants lining the wood deck around the pool. Swirls of pinks, purples, and whites make me think of cotton candy formed into the shape of flowers. The deck wraps around the shimmering white-blue of the water like a glove, hugging it as though to keep it warm. The yard beyond is lush with emerald strands of meadow and shrubbery. I think the only thing missing from it being a perfect retreat is a large Willow tree with its thin branches hanging down in perpetual sorrow—or not. There's enough of that around this place.

Willow trees have a place in my heart and I am not exactly sure why. I guess because they remind me of my early childhood, but also because they look so woebegone. Their straggly green branches hang down like they are crying with their very being—I suppose that's where they get their name, Weeping Willow. A neighbor of ours has one in his backyard that my brother and I used to swing from the branches of many years ago. I haven't been near that tree in a long time. That was a time far in the past; a time I sometimes wish I could return to.

For most, life isn't just simple when you are young—it's innocent as well.

I make my way around the deck, dancing as I go. There's no worry about Rivers listening or watching me—he's in his own world most of the time. As far as he is concerned, I don't exist. I suppose I could feel bad for him, and a small part of me does. He was in a boating accident a few months ago that mangled his legs to the point where he is only recently using them again, and with difficulty. He'll always have a limp. He'll always be scarred.

The reason I do not feel worse for him than I do, is the fact that, yeah, okay, everything pretty much sucks for him right now, but he is alive. He is alive and every day that I see him sitting in that stupid chair with his dead eyes, I just want to shake him and slap some life back into him. I want to yell, “What do you have to feel sorry about? At least you're still breathing!”

Of course I don't. I'm just the hired help. Plus, I don't think it would register in his thick skull anyway. When his eyes touch on me, it is as though I am not there. There is no recognition, no acknowledgment. There is nothing. I think he is so lost inside himself that nothing and no one can reach him.

The scent of flowers and candy float over to me and I grimace as I recognize the smell, glancing over my shoulder. Riley Moss hovers near Rivers, her blue eyes large and troubled. She tries to reach him. According to his mom, after his accident she was over here daily, crying and fawning over him. Now it's more of a two times a week visit. Soon it will be one, then it will be every few weeks, and finally it won't be at all. I know Riley. When she cuts her ties with someone, she doesn't just cut them—she severs them to the point of being irreparable.

Where Riley is concerned, I think of cruel laughter, taunting words, and the flipping of long brown hair—all the things I remember about her from school. And I think of anger heating my skin, my retorts, and wondering how two beings could get to the place we were. Her tongue was an arrow, I was the target, and my heart was the bullseye. Did she ever miss? Not usually.

Even now, as I look at her, I am shot through with her verbal ammunition. I glance down, expecting to find holes in my chest.

"Did you get your clothes from a secondhand store? Or, wait...did you make them?"

"Your eyes are so weird."

"The only reason you get such good grades is because you have no friends to hang out with. Of course you study all the time—you have nothing better to do."

If I was a smaller person, I would hate her. Part of me does anyway, but the majority of me cannot. I can't hate something I understand. It would be like hating a bully that you know goes home and gets abused by their parent—it's impossible. In Riley's case, though, she's the only bully she goes home to. Her life, her world, her view of herself—she created it all. No one else had to tell her she wasn't good enough the way she was because she had already decided it on her own. She hates herself. I don't know if anyone else has realized that, but I have.

I decide it's time to water the plants near them—not because I am being nosy, although, okay, I sort of am. I casually stroll their way, careful not to look at Riley. I hum 'Timber' by Pitbull and Ke$ha as I pass by, my eyes sliding to her. Damn! Why did I look at her? When I see the pain and fear in her face, my chest tightens. And that pisses me off.

How many times did she make fun of me without caring about how her words affected me? How many times did she say or do something just to see how I would react? I guess if I had never seen the nice side of her, maybe seeing the horrible side of her wouldn't have pierced me so deeply. It's hard to face a monster staring back at you when you remember they once had good in them.

I think the cruelest thing she ever did, all her many spiteful words aside, was when she pushed someone in front of me so that I tripped over them. It was one thing to go after me, but to be mean to an innocent to get to me was going too far. I helped the boy to his feet, gave him his books, and walked away without looking at her.

The next day, there were flyers all over the school stating what she had done. I might have been the one to make them—I can't be sure. The boy was George Nelson; a sophomore with a minor form of autism. The kicker is, I don't think she realized who it was when she did it, but it didn't matter. No one likes people picking on disabled kids. For one solid week she walked the halls of the school in shame. Too bad it didn't last.

My goal for this summer was to be positively perky to the point of nauseating. I need to. I have to. Her proximity sort of messes with that, as does Rivers', to be honest. Rivers is easier to ignore, because, well, he ignores me too. And he was never outright cruel to me during school—he just acted like I wasn't there, even when I was right beside him. In school, it was Riley against me on a daily basis. I know why. I get it. But it's all so pointless.

“Hey, Del,” she says in a small voice.

“Yo,” I respond, glancing at Rivers.

His eyes are trained on the clear water of the pool. I wonder what he thinks as he watches it. Does he remember falling into the river water—how it wrapped around him and pulled him under? Does he think about his lower limbs being caught in the propeller? Does he wish he would have sunk into the dark abyss of the Mississippi River and forever remained there? You have to be careful on the river—the currents can be treacherous and you can get sucked under the water and never be seen again. It's taken children, dogs, and adults alike. The Mississippi River is greedy in its quest to acquire lives. Why did he think he was above all of that, that he couldn't be injured in those angry, unforgivable waters?

Because he thinks he's unconquerable.

Or he did.

“How long have you worked here?” she continues. I think the only reason she is talking to me is because there is no one else to hold a conversation with. It's clear Rivers isn't up for nonsensical chitchat, or even meaningful.

“A few weeks. You were here last week when I was working.”

“Oh. Yeah. My mind...sorry.”

I set the watering can down and narrow my eyes at her. Is she for real? “Did you just say you're sorry?” I mean, after everything we've been through, this is what she apologizes for?

A flush creeps up her neck, brightening her eyes. Pushing a lock of wavy brown hair behind her ear, she looks away as her small white teeth bite into her lower lip. “I...” Riley shakes her head and crouches next to Rivers. “I have to go out for dinner with Mom and Dad tonight. I just wanted to stop by quick and say hi.”

I pick up the watering can and walk away, but not before I see her rest her forehead against the side of his short black hair and hear her whisper, “Please, Rivers. Please talk to me.”

In an attempt to escape the empathy that slashes through me, I quickly slide open the glass doors that lead into the spacious white kitchen, and find Monica at the counter gazing at papers. I don't want to feel bad for Riley; she doesn't deserve it. And yet...

I set the watering can on the floor beside the door and walk over to Monica. When I first met Rivers' mother, I had a hard time linking her to him. With her pale blonde hair and gray eyes, her coloring is nothing like her son's—and neither is her personality. She is kind and generous. From what I've seen, Rivers—yeah, not so much.

I'm not really sure if she has a job or not. I know she goes to the gym in the mornings and does a lot of community-based meetings and fundraising meals, but whether or not she has an actual income is something I have yet to discover. As her husband is an accountant for some big business across the bridge in Iowa, I don't think she needs one. I mean, they have a pool. A lot of people in Prairie du Chien do not. The closest we ever came to having one was a blue plastic contraption big enough for me to sit in—and that was all I could do in it. I had to splash water on my upper body to pretend I was in water of any substantial depth.

She looks up with a smile. “Want to trade bills?”

“What bills? I have all of one. For my baby.” I pat my smart phone that holds an endless source of music and information. And okay, distractions. My favorite line: Google it. Anything, everything. You have to google it.

“Exactly.” Straightening on the bar stool, she nods toward the deck. “I'm grateful she continues to stop by, but...” She pierces me with her intelligent eyes. “I almost want to tell her to quit coming over.”

I grab an apple from the bowl on the counter and take a healthy bite, juice squirting out as I chomp down. I wouldn't normally just help myself to the food around me, but Monica tries to force it on me every chance she gets. It's as if she thinks I am constantly starving and thirsty. I may be slight of form, but it isn't due to lack of proper nutrition.

I chew slowly to bide myself some time before answering her, because I know she expects a response. She always does, even when there is no actual question. “Why would you want to do that?”

She looks at the back of her son and the sorrow on her face takes over until that is all she is—a throbbing mass of bleakness. My heart twinges in response and I swallow with difficulty. I can't handle this kind of serious, sad, emotional stuff. I just want to smile and laugh and forget there are any bad things in this world. I know—not very sensible.

“It isn't helping her any, seeing him like this, being treated this way. She needs to move on. This Rivers isn't the Rivers she knows. He just—he doesn't see anyone. He hardly talks at all. Nothing anyone says or does gets any kind of reaction out of him other than belligerence. It's been almost two months since the accident. He should be recovering faster. It's mental more than physical. The doctors say there is nothing keeping him from healing but himself. I keep waiting for the day when he wakes up out of whatever world he's stuck in, but I'm afraid that day might not come.

“College is starting in the fall. I understand why he's depressed. He's supposed to be going to University of Texas on a football scholarship. Obviously that isn't going to happen. I don't even know if he'll be able to run again. I know it's selfish, but I am okay with that, because at least he's alive. I am so thankful for his life, but I think all he sees is what he's lost, not what he still has. All he sees is a dream taken from him."

She pauses, and in that frozen instant, pain takes over her features, pinching them. It is the look of a mother who would give anything to help their child, but is unable to reach them. "Riley is going to Texas. They had it all planned out. She said she would stay here for him, but I forbade her to. Her life can't stop because of what happened, and she needs to think of herself and not just Rivers. I didn't say it, but I don't think there is anything left for her here anymore. I just wish...I just wish my son would somehow let me know he's okay. He doesn't have to be the person he used to be, he just has to be someone. That's all. That's all I want.”

“Hmm. Maybe some therapy would work?”

She snorts as she leans her palms against the glass of the sliding doors and it looks like she is trying to reach her son through the window panes. “He is in therapy. He doesn't talk.” Turning from the door, she says, “I feel like I'm paying you to listen to me moan and groan more than I'm paying you to do stuff around the house.”

“You're right. You are. I should get a raise.”

Soft laughter falls from her lips. “You're a good kid, Delilah.”

It's my turn to snort.

“Did you get everything done for the day?”

“I have Rivers' room left to clean and then I'm done.”

“Okay. I won't keep you. Riley's leaving anyway, so I'm going to go sit with Rivers for a while. Let me know when you're heading out.”

I nod, making sure I am not facing the backyard as I finish my apple. This whole place is enshrouded in sadness, making it hard to breathe at times. Watching Monica with Rivers is too much—the grief she feels rolls off her in waves of discontent, and I am constantly trying to duck out of its way. I chuck the apple into the garbage as my eyes trail over the stainless steel appliances, creamy white walls, and hardwood floors. Nothing in this room is out of place nor requires my non-professional professional touch.

The lines of my actual job duties are blurred. I was hired to do daily cleaning around the house, but I've sort of entered the role of errand-runner, babysitter, and confidant as well. I am saving up for a post-summer trip, so I need the money, and there are far worse ways to spend my summer days than in the Young house, mopey scene and all.

There is a reason I always leave Rivers' room as my last clean of the day. Now, standing in the middle of the room darkened by drawn curtains and tragedy, a chill goes through me. My brain has an enormously hard time replacing the Rivers I went to school with, with the Rivers sitting outside. And this room doesn't help anyone, least of all him. It's like a shrine to his previous existence.

The room is as big as my kitchen at home and has a high ceiling with two picture windows, milk chocolate walls, and gray curtains and bedding. The scent I associate with Rivers—sunshine and something sweet—lingers in the room. A flat screen television takes up a good portion of the wall facing the bed, and awards line the shelves on the other walls. Most of them are athletic, but even Solo Ensemble and Forensics are in the mix. The guy was sickeningly talented throughout his school career.

At one point, there was nothing Rivers couldn't do.

When I think of the boy I went to school with, I see dark eyes lit up with confidence and the easy-going manner of someone who knew anything they wanted, they would get. Did I ever see him frown? Did I ever see any hint of seriousness to his stance? He was floating on the conviction that he would never fail. It must have been something, going through school like that.

School was something I had to excel at so that I could have better things once it was over. It was about getting good grades so I had a set future. I endured it—I didn't enjoy it. I wasn't timid, but I was quiet, keeping to myself unless I felt the need to state my opinion. I was a contradiction in a way—I didn't mind public speaking, but I also didn't go out of my way to interact with my classmates.

Framed pictures take over the remaining wall space. Riley and Rivers' smiling faces stare back at me and I turn away. With her fresh-faced good looks and his dark handsomeness, they were breathtaking to watch together. Their relationship is legend throughout the Prairie du Chien school walls. They started dating freshman year and have regularly been on and off since then. In fact, I think they may have been in an off stage at the time of his accident.

I wonder if Rivers, instead of Riley, is going to be the one to tear down whatever bridge of shared history is between them, allowing Riley to fall down and away into the past. She's supposed to be the heartless one—the one that snips the ties that bind one being to another, but when it comes to him, it seems like her heart is an overachiever, and his is nowhere to be seen. The thought doesn't really brighten my day like I thought it would.

Rumors of cheating, physical violence on Riley's part, and Rivers' insensitivity have been whispered in their wake. Riley supposedly cheated, who knows why—insecurites, revenge, to make him jealous?

I saw her slap him once, in the dark corner of a hallway after school had let out. I'd forgotten a homework assignment in my locker and was walking down the dimly lit hallway when I saw it, the sound of it like a piece of something beautiful being ripped away in a bandage of vileness, the sight of it enough to make the air freeze in my lungs. And what did Rivers do? He walked away; a perfect display of indifference.

I guess if no one ever cares about what you do, you keep doing more and more bad things in the hope that something will matter to them. At least, I think that's how Riley's mind works. If someone doesn't care about anything you do, then they don't really care about you. So maybe Rivers was the worse of the two—acting like he cared, not caring enough, and yet stringing her along.

They were in a bubble of implied perfection, and that bubble popped—or maybe it exploded. The majority of the kids in school acted like they were something special. I knew they weren't, but then, I didn't exactly have people running up to me asking my opinion on the subject of them either. Determination straightens my spine as I pick up a shirt from the floor and toss it into the laundry basket by the door. It probably hurts Rivers to sit in this room and see what his world used to be like. I don't even like seeing it all, and I have never been a fan of his. In fact, the first thing I would do is take down all of their pictures, which my fingers itch to do anyway. I hate looking at them, particularly her.

I go about straightening the room, careful not to look at anything for too long. I feel like I am spying on a life I have not been invited to see. For the duration of my employment here, I have spoken nil to Rivers and that's okay with me. Although, had I immediately known it was his house I would be cleaning over summer break, I would have hesitated to accept the job.

I still would have taken the job, but I would have pondered it for a brief moment. I'd already had plans that, strangely enough, coincided with him. Funny how that stuff tends to work out. The despair and hopelessness in Monica Young pulled at my heart and I wanted to help her. I can't stand to see others in pain. Not her, and not even Rivers. I blow out a noisy breath, wishing my stinking inclination to heal everything wasn't so profound. Life would be so much easier if I didn't want to fix every broken thing I come across.

When I was a kid, I found an injured dove in the park near my home. It was in the grass beside a tree, just lying there. I knew something was wrong when it didn't try to fly away as I approached. It was pale gray with white—so exquisitely beautiful. It lay on its side, its eyes blinking, one of its wings broken. I couldn't leave it there, all alone.

With tears running down my face, I gathered grass and leaves, placing them in a notched out part in the base of a tree. I gently picked up the dove. It was still, quiet, and so trusting of me. I knew it was dying and my heart was beating so fast, it was as if it was trying to pump enough life force for me as well as the bird. I held it close to me, wanting to heal it and knowing I couldn't.

I sat against the tree, keeping it warm, waiting. The sky darkened, its chest barely moving with its breathing. "I'm sorry," I whispered. When dusk fell and I knew my mom would be worried about me if I didn't get home soon, I placed it in the bed of green foliage, giving it back to the earth as the earth once gave to it. I turned to go, not wanting to leave it and knowing I had to. Looking back once to see its chest no longer rising and falling, and with grief heavy in my steps, I walked home.

The next day, I went back and the bird was gone. At the time, I told myself it was lifted into the sky by the hands of God, taken back home to live in a dream-like world full of endless blue skies. Now I know it was probably eaten by an animal, but at the time, thinking what I did gave me peace.

Not that I can compare Rivers to a bird, but even so, my impulse to help him comes from the same part of me that wanted to protect that dying creature. In his case, he makes it simple to keep my distance with his silent glares and dismissive nature. His muteness is almost less welcome than his arrogant personality had once been, but at the same time it is a relief to not have to interact with him. I've always been a little nervous in his presence, which aggravated me in school and yet continued all four years anyway. He was just so much—his presence took up the school.

I tug the charcoal-toned sheets from the bed and find clean ones in the closet, remaking the bed as quickly and efficiently as I can. Even though he is not here, I can feel his dark eyes watching me from this room that embodies him. The pictures that line the walls, the awards that boast his talents, even in the framed painting of an ocean above his bed—they all remind me of eyes that are dark and layered in ice, as though winter has encompassed his whole being. I hurriedly finish up like the very air is singeing me the longer I am in the vicinity.

I leave my final touch on the room by opening the curtains and allowing sunshine in. It coats the room in streaks of gold, its fire glittering on the frozen banks of a barren climate. I know the curtains will be closed again tomorrow. They always are.

THE STARS FILL THE SKY with their light as I stare up at them, feeling small and insignificant. I lie on an old itchy blanket I found in the garage, ignoring how the rough fabric abrades my sensitive skin. This is what most of my nights consist of, but I like to do this. My mom has asked me repeatedly why I so often lie on the ground and watch the sky. I never have a real answer. It's peaceful, in a way, but it also reminds me of how majestic the world truly is, and how what happens to me and those around me doesn't alter anything in the sky. One day we will all be gone from this world, but the stars will still be here, no matter what. They are imperishable, even while we are not.

The tree limbs overhead sway with a gentle breeze, and around me are innumerable flowers in every shade imaginable. I love our backyard. It's my haven from the rest of the world. True, there are houses on either side of it, and even one farther behind it, but in the middle of it is a little piece of floral perfection. The uneven lines of trees and flowering bushes form a semblance of a natural gate around the yard, offering seclusion.

Not that I need it—the neighbors are used to my oddities and barely pay attention to me anymore. I don't think I could surprise them, with any of what they most likely perceive as shenanigans, if I tried. We live in an older community. I think the youngest neighbor we have is Mrs. Hendrickson, and she just turned sixty last week. I know because my mom had us take her a potted plant as a birthday present.

I close my eyes as a smile captures my lips. Focusing on my breathing, I draw air in and out of my lungs as my body melts into the lumpy ground beneath the blanket. Memories come to me in the sound of laughter, a feeling of contentment, and the scent of flowers on the breeze. That is what my childhood consisted of, and I miss it.

I may keep my distance from others, but I am in no way shy. I keep my distance because I've found that I am a better person when I have no one looking at me, making me feel like I need to prove something to them, like I need to show them I have worth. I know my worth and the only person I need to prove anything to is myself. I like to dance. I like to sing. I like to talk to birds and squirrels. And I don't care who sees it. I'm not saying I never cared, because when I was younger, yes, I cared. I cared too much and I was hurt because of it, but not anymore. In recent years, I embrace me, exactly as I am, and the rest of the world can screw off.

And isn't it weird that no one wants to change who they are, yet they aren't even trying to be themselves? Just a thought. We're all so focused on being somebody, and it's usually never the real us.

On the wind comes the crisp scent of growing vegetables. If green had a smell to describe it, that's what it would be—a garden of fruits and vegetables coming to life. It amazes me that a seed or a little piece of root can turn into something that keeps us alive. My mom likes that even vegetables and fruits produce flowers. Every summer we plant a garden. I watch it grow, nursing it, caring for it, and am reminded again and again how even something tiny can be needed to live. It's never about how much you have—it's about how much what you have means to you.

I suppose in answer to my mother's question about why I find myself lying under the stars whenever I am able to, surrounded by earthy beauty, my response would be simple. I fist my hands around silky strands of grass and close my eyes. It's so obvious, to me at least. Only within the arms of nature, am I truly free.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER SET OF closed curtains to open. Monica is out on errands, Thomas is wherever Thomas works, I'm assuming, and Rivers is glaring at me from the doorway of his bedroom. It's not as much fun opening his curtains when he's watching me do it. I do it anyway, revealing the fiery light, the green of the trees that brag of life, and the calming, motionless blue sky. Why would he want to keep all of that beauty out of his room?

I pretend I don't notice him, humming to myself as I grab the laundry basket of clean clothes by the dresser. It's not my job to fold and put his clothes away, nor would I feel comfortable doing it if it were. The thought of touching Rivers' boxer briefs—I only know he wears those because there's a pair of white and black striped ones staring at me from the top of the basket—makes my face warm and my breaths come a little faster. Weird.

I set the basket on the chest next to the dresser so he doesn't have to lean down so far to get the clothes out of it. Not that he'll appreciate it or anything. Maybe his mom will just do it for him anyway. I think everything he's ever had was either handed to him or came effortlessly to him—good grades, sports, good looks, girlfriends—he never had to work really hard at any of those things and yet he always excelled.

Or so it seemed.

The hand that clutches the door frame is white and there is stiffness to his body from the strain of trying to stand straight with uncooperative limbs. He wants so badly to be normal. I can tell. I see it every time he struggles to walk a short distance. I see it every time his eyes look through me and into the person he used to be. That's all he's seeing—his past he can never get back to. There is so much pain in his face, a lot of it physical, a lot of it mental.

I open my mouth to say something—I don't know what—but the look he slices my way halts any words from coming out. It was dismissive, cold, and vague at the same time. It was sort of eerie, and the chill that sweeps over my spine supports that assessment. Rivers is lost. I walk by him, my face forward, my eyes on the stairs in the foyer beyond, and I wonder how someone as lost as he is, can ever get back to themselves. And then I think, maybe it isn't about getting back to himself, but about moving forward and finding a new version of himself. I wonder who is going to help him out with that and then I get a mental image of me raising my hand.

Muttering to myself, I grab my tote bag and walk out the front door. I think it was settled the first time I saw him after his accident, actually. Me, the girl with no friends, yet who has the heart that wants to save everyone. Makes a lot of sense. The sunshine targets my pale skin and the hot air heats me as I hook a leg over my bike and pedal away. A warm breeze, scented with lilacs, caresses my face, and the strong brown limbs of trees sway with it. I smile, taking it all in. Some compulsion has me turn my head to see if the curtains of Rivers' room will once again be closed like I figure they will be, and my breath hiccups when I find they are not only open, but also that Rivers is standing on the other side of the window. It's creepy how intensely he's watching me, or something near me anyway. What has finally caught his attention enough to give him a small tug back into this world?

ICE CREAM SHOPPE IS THE place to be for ice cream lovers in the summer. I may have an addiction, but I am not admitting it to anyone. All flavors appeal to me, but as peanut butter is my first love—above ice cream even—I usually get a 'Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chunk Frozen Avalanche'. I fight the sunshine as I inhale my large melting cup of euphoria, eyes trained on the railroad tracks across the road. I could watch trains all day and night.

Although faint and faraway, I can even hear them from my house and they lull me to sleep at night. It has been ten minutes since the last one blared its way across the tracks. Most towns no longer use them as a prominent source of transporting goods, but Prairie du Chien seems to cling to that bit of the country's past. I find the town all the more appealing because of it.

The umbrella hovering over the table I am sitting at offers minimal shade and I am melting along with my ice cream. Perpetually pale-skinned, I have to lather myself in a layer of sunscreen every time I'm outside, or I burn. It gets to be quite tedious slathering the lotion on whenever I have the urge to go outside—which is often. I carry a bottle with me at all times 'cause I'm cool like that.

Chunks of choppy red hair have fallen out of my short ponytail and frame my face. The white tank top I'm wearing is damp with perspiration and my legs are sticking to the bench in an uncomfortably intimate way. “You love summer,” I remind myself.

“Look, she's talking to herself. Probably because she doesn't have any friends.”

I roll my eyes at the familiar voice and turn to face the Evil Duo. “You're exactly right. The selection around here is pretty poor.”

Avery is a shorter, curvier clone of Riley. They both have wavy brown hair, blue eyes, small features, and dress in clothes at prices unavailable in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. I don't understand why they would want to pay more for clothes, but then, I was never part of their crowd, so I don't know these things. Today Avery is dressed in a red sundress and Riley is in a white one. Whereas Riley looks slim and ethereal in hers, Avery looks plump and doll-like.

Eyes narrowing, she starts to say something else when Riley interrupts in a soft voice, “Leave her alone, Av.”

Confusion pulls her mouth down, and I have to think I have a similar look on my face.

“Come on, let's go,” Riley says, giving her friend's arm a tug.

I take a deep breath once they are speeding off in Riley's black Jeep with their hair floating behind them in ripples of silky brown. Something cold drips onto my knee and I realize it's my ice cream, forgotten in my raised spoon. I do not understand what just happened and that bothers me. The lines are supposed to be clear: Riley is a cruel bitch and I dislike her in a thoroughly therapeutic way. What does she think she's doing, melding black and white together like she is? And why? Maybe the whole Rivers scenario has softened her.

Right. No one ever really changes, do they? Not if they don't want to and not if they can help it. I'm no different. I like me. I like that I voice my opinions and I like that I am honest. I like that I know who I am and I am confident with that person. I like my funky hair and my mismatched clothes. I don't care what others think and I don't care if people like me or not. I will not change, not for anyone. I suppose that makes me as bullheaded as the rest of the world, and an easy target for ridicule. So be it.

At least I'm not a heartless wench.

I drop my empty cup in a garbage can, wipe my sticky hands on a napkin, and pop my ear buds in, beginning my mile-long trek home. 'Love Don't Die' by The Fray thumps through the wires. I have determined that music makes everything better, even this walk through air so humid that each time I breathe in it feels like I am inhaling steam. My feet criss-cross and I slide to the right, a smile on my face as I dance my way home. Vehicles speed by on the highway and I only hope I make someone else smile as I bust a move.

I feel the ground vibrate before I hear or see it, and I pause on the sidewalk beside the massive locomotive. It shoots by in greens and oranges, graffiti and logos flashing by. The horn is loud and vibrates through my teeth. I whoop and pump my fist in the air, grinning as the monster machine roars by. It's impossibly strong, and looks indestructible. I wonder if I could be sucked under it if I stood too close, the wind pulling at me even as I gaze at it. An image of Rivers being sucked under his dad's boat clouds my brain and I frown, shaking the mental picture away. It follows me, though, and I keep thinking about how scared he must have been, and how much it had to have hurt. I rub the chilled flesh of my arms and hurry my pace.

Something tugs at me as I pass by the road that leads to the Young house—probably that stupid bleeding heart of mine that makes me care about others, even if they don't deserve it. The list is long and includes everyone, really, that has ever had something bad happen to them. Whether I like them or not, I empathize with them. One word: Riley. It's ridiculous.

As I am thinking it's too bad I can't just listen to my brain instead of the beating organ inside my chest, I veer to the right and head down Winne Court. Most of the houses are large and newer on this street; a collage of whites, reds, browns, and blues. Everyone knows just by looking at them that the owners have money. The exteriors are pristine and the lawns are well-kept—no patches of dirt are allowed in these yards. Each tree and shrub is strategically placed for optimal visual enhancement. It's sterile, unnatural. I prefer a disorganized lawn of flowers, trees, and bushes to add character. I'm all about character.

I live in one of the poorer sections of town, more in the lower middle class instead of upper, like here. Not that the flowers around my home can't compete with any shown here—they so can. Flowers are my mother's life and even if there is no other beauty found on our street, there is the majesty of her blossoms to pretty it up. But whereas the yards around here are perfect and orderly, ours is like a super-sized floral bouquet. Janet Bana's motto is this: Flowers make everything beautiful. In keeping with that belief, she plants perennials in the yards of those who will allow her to, and she sets flower baskets on the doorsteps of those who will not.

I agree that flowers are pretty and everything, but I think they hide what is ugly more than make everything beautiful, if that makes sense. The ugliness is still there, merely muted. Sort of like laughter to hide tears, kisses to snuff out doubt, holding something close to make yourself believe it will never go away—you know, delusions. And I know why she's planted so much recurring life into the lawn surrounding our house. She's not just trying to cover up the ugliness—she's trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

My footsteps slow as the two-story white house with plum accents comes into view. It has a colonial feel to it, strong and simple with pillars that frame a small porch. Red, pink, and white flowers that I water five days a week line the sidewalk up to the house, and green bushes reside before the house. So far I haven't killed any of the plants or flowers inside or outside of the house, so I consider that a plus.

In the two weeks that I have worked for the Young family, I have seen Mr. Young a total of one time. I usually get to the house around eight in the morning and stay until four. I realize some working people wouldn't be home during those hours of the day, but I get the sense that he is gone a lot more than he is around. Call it the disillusioned look in Monica's eyes as she speaks about her husband, or the emptiness of his touch on any part of the house. I see pieces of Rivers and Monica in her sweatshirt tossed over the back of a couch, a book I've witnessed Rivers reading left out on an end table, the scent of his deodorant or the smell of her perfume, but Thomas Young? Where is he?

Thinking these things, it makes sense that he is the one that answers the door at my knock. Tall and rangy in build, his hair is black and thick, his eyes dark, and the slant of his mouth is thin, showing how often he doesn't smile. Rivers is a slightly shorter, more muscular version of him, though his lips are fuller like his mom's and the shape of his eyes are reminiscent of hers as well. He also doesn't make me apprehensive like his father does. I'm not sure why I am so uncomfortable around him—maybe it's the unfriendly, I-am-better-than-you, angle of his face.

His Native American heritage is plain to see in his features and coloring; which I know because his son did a report on it in eighth grade. I remember this mostly because I was jealous that he was one half Native American, and one half German—whereas I, on the other hand, am a mixed breed of who knows what. My report was inconclusive due to the fact that I stopped at four nationalities instead of continuing on—which are Irish, Norwegian, German, and English. Apparently I am snobbish while drinking, tell Ole and Lena jokes, and have a bad temper. Who knew?

“Hello.” There is a quizzical cast to his face, like he cannot fathom what one such as I am doing on his front step. Dressed in red swimming trunks and a sleeveless gray shirt, it's a good guess he is either about to get into some kind of body of water or just got out.

“Hey.” I nod.

“Can I help you?”

“I clean your house.”

“It's Saturday.”

“Yep.” I rock back on my heels. “Hence why I am not cleaning your house today. your wife home?”

He opens the door farther as he turns away, but I catch the suspicious cast to his eyes before they are hidden from me. He is wondering what I am up to, and he is positive I am up to something. “Yes. I was on my way out. She's in the sun room. I'm assuming you know where that is.”

“I clean it.”

“So you know where it is.”

My eyelids lower a little as I say slowly, “Yeah.” That was implied when I said I clean the room. If I didn't clean it, I wouldn't know where it is.

“Go on in,” he says, sounding exasperated.

“Got it.” I slide around him and into the entryway.

I pretty much love every part of this structure, but the foyer is my second favorite room of the house. It's spacious and has a bay window with plants resting along the ledge of it. The walls are alive with memories of the Young family and a well-preserved antique desk rests against one of them. Vibrant plants are scattered throughout the room. It has a sense of class and serenity, like the person who decorated it took a lot of care to make it soothing and appealing. It wasn't just an entryway to this person—it was the start of a haven. I imagine that person was Monica.

A partially open stairwell in white leads to the second floor, and directly across from where I stand is a level of the house, somewhat lower than the rest, that is made up of one massive entertainment room. It has a movie projector screen, gray leather furniture, a bar, a universal gym, and a pool table. I think it's technically Thomas' place to hang out because the interior is darker and more masculine than I imagine Monica would pick, based on the rest of the house. Whenever I want to find her, I always check the sun room first. She spends a lot of time in there, and I noticed Rivers does as well.

At first I found that odd because I figured the guys would band together to watch football and adjust themselves in the manly man room, but if I go by physical proximity alone, it seems like Rivers is closer to his mom than his father. It isn't like he really talks to anyone all that much. Although, I've at least seen him with his mother, whereas I don't recall ever seeing Thomas and Rivers near one another—not that I see much of Thomas anyway.

Throughout the house, the walls are painted in creams, grays, and whites, and there is an astounding amount of windows in every room to allow heaping doses of sunshine in, not to mention all the floors are wood. Putting all of that together, it has an open, sunny feel that has to fight with the melancholy seeping through the house in the form of beings. I still say the cheerfulness of the interior outweighs the dreariness of suffocating emotions.

A turn to the right is the living room and off of that is a small sanctuary—otherwise known as the sun room, and my most favorite room out of the whole place. I kick off my silver flip flops near the door and head in that direction.

Monica is curled up on a rust-colored couch with a book in her hands. She looks up as I approach, a smile taking over her mouth. “Delilah! What are you doing here? Isn't today your day off?”

“I'm a workaholic.” I sink into the recliner. “What are you reading?”

Pink floods her cheeks. “It's a book.”

“Got that part. What's it about?”

She tosses it across the room and I catch it. “'How To Get Your Child To Cope With Grief'.” I grimace. “You need a book to tell you how to do that? Can't you just, you know, hug him or something? Tell him everything will be all right? Make him soup?”

Sighing, she rubs her face. “No. Yes. Apparently. He isn't a complete mute, but he barely says a word to anyone. I don't know how to get through to him. You went to school with him, right? Maybe you could try talking to him.”

I hate to dash the hopeful gleam in her eyes, but I have to be upfront about this. I get to my feet as I say, “No. I can't talk to him. We weren't friends and we didn't talk in school. I don't think he even knows who I am.”

“But you're a friendly face at least. He has to remember you. Maybe it would work?”

“I'm really not a friendly face.”

“Oh.” Her shoulders slump. She picks at the couch with her head lowered. The hopelessness swirling around her is thick and potent. I unconsciously take a step back as though to keep from catching it. When she looks up, she asks, “Was he unkind to you?” Her eyes almost beg me to say no.

I am instantly and one hundred percent uncomfortable. I get an image of Rivers strolling down the hallway of the school with his posse, one arm carelessly slung around Riley's shoulders. She's smirking like she has something everyone wants and she isn't going to let it go. I hate walking so close to them, but the hallway is crowded and I just happened to fall into the mass of adolescent bodies after they passed my locker. Their scents of money and popularity waft over me like a toxic ailment, the sound of their voices loud and boisterous. He looks over his shoulder, glancing at me and away as though I don't exist, and says something to Kent McPherson. They both laugh and keep walking down the hall as my footsteps slow and I realize how truly non-existent I am.

I take a calming breath and shake the memory away. Just months ago that was my life. Now this is. The only attention I got was when I opened my mouth, and I didn't like to do that unless I felt it necessary, mostly as a form of defense—so any attention I got was of the negative variety. High school is recently in the past and that is where I want it to stay, although the fact that I am in this house, thinking that, seems ironic, and a little stupid. Plus, talking about the way I was or wasn't treated by a fellow student isn't really something I want to discuss with that student's mom.

“Um...” I blow out a noisy breath. “He wasn't exactly, no, but the people he hung out with weren't the nicest.”

“And he never made them stop?” she guesses.

“Nope. But I honestly don't even think he was aware of it. Look, it's not a big deal,” I hurry to reassure her. “You know how high school is. People make fun of people. It's just the way it is.”

“It shouldn't be that way. Did you make fun of people?”

I fiddle with my ponytail. “No.”

Nodding, she says quietly, “I tried to teach him about respect and manners, but somehow that all got lost when he began to listen to his friends more than me. And his father...” she trails off. She shakes her head, the clouds clearing from her face. “Anyway, since you're here, would you like some iced tea? I was just about to make some.”

I accept, following her into the kitchen. Along with the lines of my job duties blurring, so have our roles as employee and employer. We almost seem like friends, but that can't be. If anything, I think she is lonely and worried and doesn't have anyone to reach out to, so I fill the hole the lack of companionship has formed inside her. I don't mind. I like Monica.

“Where is Rivers?” I ask as I watch her mix water and instant lemon iced tea together in a pitcher.


I glance out the glass doors, but all I see is the chair he usually sits in—empty. “Are you sure? I don't see him.”

She turns to the door, a strange stillness to her. “I'm sure he was out there. Maybe he took a nap?” Even as she is saying this, she is striding from the room.

I have no such compulsion to search the inside of the house for him. I'm pretty sure I know where he is. I don't know how I know, but I do. Call it intuition. Call it understanding the workings of a person's broken mind. When you allow helplessness to take over your thoughts, you find yourself contemplating things you normally wouldn't, maybe even acting on them.

I sprint for the door and fling it open, racing toward the edge of the pool. The sun is instant fire on my skin, the air stolen from my lungs as the heat works away at me, instantly wilting me. I have time to think a single word—No—and then I am diving into the cool water. It's shockingly cold after being under the burning star in the sky. I find his form near the bottom of the deep end and my arms cut through the liquid in fast strokes. He isn't moving and I wonder how he is keeping himself weighted down. Then I see his fingers digging into a grate in the floor of the pool. Anger and sorrow rise within me, clashing against one another as I swim toward him. The water isn't that deep, but deep enough. Doesn't it only take two inches of water to drown? This is six feet of it.

He vehemently shakes his head as I reach him. I grab his arm and tug, and even though he is compromised, he is still stronger than me, easily eluding my efforts to rescue him. One hand shoves me away and the other refuses to let go of his possible form of demise. My lungs are struggling to expand and the chlorine is burning my eyes like liquid fire. I have always been a good swimmer, but my ability has never been tested like this before. I jab my finger up with my free hand, the nails of my other hand digging into his forearm. He jerks away and panic propels me closer to him.

I wrap my legs around his and squeeze as hard as I can, knowing this is a low blow, but I am desperate. My leg muscles are lean and strong from all the walking and biking I do and I use them in this moment without remorse. He spasms in pain, no longer resisting me. His fingers release the grate and I take advantage of his temporary incapicitation to wrap myself around him, and shove us up with only the muscles in my arms. They want to resist, feeling heavy and noodle-like, but I will not give up. It isn't even an option.

I navigate us through the water until we break the surface. I draw in a ragged breath of air, my chest heaving as I doggie paddle us to the shallow end of the pool. Rivers' heart thunders against my forearm. He is quiet and still against me. He's given up. Completely. Knowing that puts a sharp pain in my chest. I blink my eyes and refuse to think about it right now. My ears are plugged and it takes a moment for the shouts to sink in. Monica is wading into the pool, her arms outstretched.

She pulls her son from my arms. “What happened?” she cries. “What happened, Rivers? Are you okay? Is he okay?” She trains panicked eyes on me.

He tries to stand, but sways on his weak legs. I reach for him, firmly gripping his bicep within my hand. His eyes, usually so lifeless, are blazing with heat as they connect with mine.

Not breaking the visual connection, I tell his mom, “He fell.” His black eyes narrow, but otherwise there is no reaction to my words. I don't lie. Why did I just lie for him? Or was it for his mother? Maybe I lied for both of them.

“What? How? How do you know? How did this happen? I called the ambulance. I'm sorry. I didn't know. I was so scared.”

I blink water from my eyes and keep my tone even. One of us needs to be calm about this—my pounding heart tells me I am a better actress than I realized I was. “It's okay. It's good that you called the ambulance. They can check him out and make sure he's okay.”

Rivers' arm stiffens beneath my touch and I squeeze it hard. He will endure a physical examination so his mother can be confident he is truly all right—physically anyway. With the stunt he just pulled, he owes her that. It is also obvious that mentally he is not all right.

“Let's get out of the water. I think I hear the sirens. Why don't you meet them at the door, Monica, and explain the situation?”

She hesitates, her eyes locked on her son.

“It's okay,” I tell her soothingly. “I'll stay with Rivers.”

We manage to get Rivers onto the deck, and from there he struggles to a bench, each step slow and painful for him. Seeing his bare legs for the first time is shocking and I fight to not look away. I knew it must be bad, but I didn't know what to expect. He usually has them covered with a blanket, or wears lounge pants. Chunks of muscle are missing from the back of his left calf—jagged, mis-

matched areas of pink flesh the result of doctors patching his skin back up as best as they could.

The backside of his right leg has similar gashes of pale, angry flesh the length of his thigh with the skin around it puckered up in protestation of being sewn up in such a way. The consequences of being at the mercy of merciless boat blades is a collection of gouged-out flesh and scars that line almost every surface of his legs. The propeller made mincemeat out of his lower limbs.

He falls onto the bench and winces, maneuvering his body around so he can sit. That sympathetic part of me that I can't seem to shut off around him wants to help him and I clench my fingers against the urge. I know he wouldn't appreciate it anyway. I hate seeing people in pain and I finally have to look away from him. It literally makes me feel sick—my stomach gets all jumbled up and the urge to heave hits me, like now. It's like I can feel their pain with an empathetic knife into my very heart. I suck air through my lungs with jerky, shaky breaths.

Monica gently touches my shoulder, our eyes connecting, and then she walks toward the house to admit the EMTs. Her look was a silent thank you. I want to tell her I don't deserve a thank you for saving someone who doesn't want to be saved, for someone who won't even appreciate it because he doesn't appreciate his life. I want to tell her I didn't do anything to be thanked for. But she is already gone and my time is up.

I look at Rivers. His legs are straightened out in front of him and his features are twisted in pain, but even without the grimace on his face, it is contorted in ways it never used to be. He must have hit his head against something sharp as he fought for his life, maybe the underside of the boat or even a river rock—possibly an edge of a propeller blade. The left side of his face has a pink scar that starts under his eye and ends near the corner of his mouth. It's thick and angry looking, like the river was upset it didn't get more of him than it did, though it still managed to leave its mark. He's lucky. Two inches higher and it would have been his eye. Another healing gash goes from his left temple up to the crown of his head.

He isn't pretty anymore.

It has to bother him. The crowd he hung around with in school was all about looks. They had the right hairstyles, the right brand of clothes, the right faces and bodies. I'm surprised Riley even came to visit him with his body and face marred the way they are. Maybe she really does care about him. The thought causes me to blink and I shrug it off, turning my attention back to him. I wonder if he realizes how fortunate he is. I wonder if he cares. I sort of think he doesn't, what with tossing himself into the pool to drown and everything. And how shallow is that? To think your life is over because you don't look like you think you should. I wonder how I would be, in the same situation. Then I think of my current situation and I know I wouldn't be the way he is. I realize that is where we differ the most—I'm glad for every day I get, and he wishes the promise of a new dawn would fade into oblivion.

I lower my face so that we are at eye level. “The next time you decide to end your unwanted life, swallow some pills. Make it easier on all of us. Only make sure you do it when I'm not around so I don't have to try to save your ass again.” I stomp away, water trailing down my head to my legs as I move, leaving puddles in my wake.

I don't expect him to answer and his low words halt my footsteps. Not just his words, but the fact that he's actually speaking to me. Shock goes through me at the sound of his rough voice. It is the uneven timbre of a voice grainy with disuse.

“No one asked you to save me.”

Anger spins me around and I stare at him for a long time. I think about the gift he has; the gift he is willing to throw away, and the unfairness of it burns through me in shades of black. There are so many people who have no choice in whether or not they live—he was given another chance when he was pulled from the destructive clutches of the river, and yet here he is, not grateful for it. That sickens me in ways that make my stomach roil.

“I didn't do it for you,” I finally say.

His dark eyebrows lower and he looks away.

I pass by EMTs and a harried-looking Thomas as I decide my best exit route so that I do not get water all over the floors of their home. I can just imagine what nice things he'll have to say to his son—any time I've witnessed him talking to Rivers his words were clipped, his expression something close to disgust. The thought that maybe I'm supposed to hang around and give a statement or something goes through my mind, but no one stops me, so I keep moving, intent on getting out of here while I still have some form of control over my mouth. I'm thinking if I suddenly went on a screaming binge I might worry some of the people within the near vicinity and get hauled off instead of possibly Rivers. I hop from the deck and head for the gate of the wooden fence that surrounds the backyard.

“Delilah, wait!” Monica calls.

As I turn back around, I notice Rivers is staring at me, a flash of something in his eyes before he looks away. It almost looked like longing. For what? I know it wasn't for me personally. Maybe it was for my ability to walk without limits, or maybe it was for my ability to walk away from here.

Thomas stops beside him and Rivers immediately freezes, all expression wiped from his face. It is like witnessing a flower wither away to nothing as I watch. He looks down as his father says words I cannot hear, words I am sure I do not want to hear.

I turn to Monica. “I'm going to head home. You two should rest."

She looks away from her husband and son, wrapping her arms around herself as she shivers. Her face tells me she is worried about their exchange, but the smoothing of her features says she will pretend that isn't so. With her hair slicked back she looks young and vulnerable. Not surprisingly, her makeup is still in place. She must buy the good kind.

She says, “Thank you. If you hadn't asked about him...if you hadn't been here...”

“Lots of ifs there, Monica. I try not to think about those too often. It's the equivalent of giving power to something that you shouldn't. Doubts suck ass enough on their own without tossing ifs into the mix.”

A wobbly smile takes over her mouth. “You're right. How did you get to be so sensible?”

I shrug. “I grew up fast.” With a small wave, I open the gate and resume my walk home.

I've lived in the same house my whole life. It's dark blue with white shutters and a small porch—nothing outstanding about it, nothing to make it shine anymore than the houses surrounding it. Well, except for the flowers. They abound in all colors and varieties, lining the structure and haphazardly sprouting up throughout the yard like a minefield of blossoms. The house is worn down, but the natural beauty of the flowers pretties it up. I don't understand my aversion to it. Maybe it isn't so much the actual structure as the memories inside it.

I just know that, as I stare at it now, I don't want to enter it. My chest is tight and I am finding it hard to breathe. Once I cross the threshold it isn't so bad. It's just getting there. Quite possibly it is due to the image of a smiling dark-haired boy with golden eyes playing with trucks on the porch that freezes me in place, piercing my heart with overwhelming sorrow. A memory, but potent enough to shred my insides with loss. It doesn't happen all the time; these memories I want to forget at the same time that I never want to forget. I wonder how my mother does it, day after day. If I were her, I don't think I could.

My mom isn't home, but I didn't expect her to be, and I am actually glad for it. Things are more tense when she's home—I'm more tense. Not because of anything she says or does; Janet Bana is so purely sweet and I love her with every fiber that makes me who I am. I just, I don't know, put up so many invisible walls between us when I was younger that it seems impossible to tear them down now. And I don't understand that. How can something you can't even see, have the power to stop your tongue, turn your eyes away, and keep you from reaching out to the one person you should?

She's at her floral shop most waking hours. My mother lives and breathes her flowers, and I get why. They remind her that even in a world of pain and ugliness, cruelty and loss, there are still amazing things to cling to, to tell us not to give up, not to lose hope, and continue on to another day. There is life in death, always.

Sometimes I hang out with her there, cleaning and whatnot. Other times, like now, I want to be alone. I make myself a peanut butter, jelly, and honey sandwich and pour a large glass of milk. Sitting at the kitchen table with my snack, the sun heats my back through the window, drying my damp clothes. I tug the ponytail holder from my short locks and mess them up so they don't dry flat against my head.

I pull my sandwich apart as I eat, popping chunks in my mouth and chewing. The kitchen is painted a light shade of teal with yellows and creams added in the form of cabinets, furniture, and framed pictures. The trim along the windows and walls is white, as are the cabinets and appliances. My mother loves to decorate with light colors, as do I. They are like the sun shining in the form of hues, brightening the world, giving it a softer look. Green ivy plants hang from the ceiling by hooks, their vines trailing down in a waterfall of leaves. The room is smallish, and yet endless in its serenity.

I helped renovate it last year. We repainted the walls and furniture, added and removed decorative pieces, and rearranged where things sat. It was our summer project. It was also the first time in a long time that we worked side by side with nothing but the present in the room with us. I miss last summer in a way I do not feel comfortable examining. Lately, I long for it. Last summer was the final one spent untouchable by the past or the future. This summer I am suffocating in it. Everything is about time, and what I need to do with it.

The refrigerator hums and I focus on that as I eat my comfort food, feeling my body unwind and relax. I don't think about anything, because thinking about things makes me feels things, and right now, I want to be numb.

“WHAT?” I GRUMBLE INTO THE phone. My eyes are closed and I'm lying on my back, pretending I am still sleeping like I want to be.


I sit up and squint at the name and number on the phone. “Monica?”

“Yes. I'm sorry to call you so early and also on your day off, but...” She pauses and then says the rest in a rush. “Thomas' mother is ill. She has terminal cancer. She's been diagnosed for a while now, but it's rapidly progressing and they don't know if she's going to make it through the week. I have no one else to ask and, well, I would feel more comfortable leaving knowing you're around. I'm sure he'd be okay on his own, but just in case, I mean, with what happened yesterday—it should only be for a day or two and—”

“What is it?” I interrupt.

“Can you stay at the house with Rivers?”

“What?” I tell myself I misheard her, but then she continues and I know I didn't.

“We're trying to catch a plane immediately and Rivers can't travel like he is. I mean, he could, but it would be difficult. I need someone to watch over him, especially with the pool incident yesterday. I would feel better knowing he isn't alone.”

“I'm sure Rivers is all for that.”

“It doesn't matter what he wants,” she says sharply. Apparently they've already had a conversation regarding this. “It's for his best interest that someone be around while we're away and I trust you. All of our family is in California. We have some friends in town, but no one we consider close. I don't have anyone else to ask.” Her voice has taken on a pleading note and I am not immune to it. In fact, I already see myself weakening and saying yes.

“What about his girlfriend?” I ask in a last effort to keep from agreeing to her proposition.

“Rivers and Riley broke up before his accident. I think she was hoping he would want to date again, but...she came by yesterday didn't go well. He finally talked to her. What he said...” She inhales deeply. “I don't think she'll be visiting anymore.”

“Oh.” Not really sure how I feel about this. Sort of sorry for Riley, but sort of indifferent as well.

“I'll pay you.”

The selfish part of me wants to ask how much, but I can't do that without guilt eating at me, so I tell her, “I'll do it. For free. Well, I mean, I'll still be doing my normal job, so count it as part of that.”

“Of course. Help yourself to whatever you want. The fridge is fully stocked. The couch in the sun room pulls out into a bed, if that's comfortable for you. There is a spare bedroom upstairs too, but I would feel better if you were on the same floor as Rivers. Can you come over now?”

“Yeah. How long should I plan on being there?”

She pauses. “I'm not sure. A few days, at least, maybe a week. You can use the washer and dryer while you're here and anything else you want or need. If you need to go home, of course you can. I don't want you to think I expect you to be caged in here while we're gone. I appreciate this so much, Delilah. I know this isn't part of your job description, but I am grateful. Thank you.”

I end the phone call after telling her I'll be over in twenty minutes and flop onto my back to stare at the room enshrouded in the shadows of sunrise. I think I should have made a list of what my job duties were and were not, but I know it wouldn't have mattered. I would still be here, just like I am, saying yes all over again. The sun isn't even fully up yet. It is just wrong to be up before the sun says hello. Sighing, I blink my tired eyes and sit on the edge of the bed. There is no point wasting time grumbling about things. I could have said no. I didn't.

I heave myself from the bed and find my hot pink tote bag in the back of my closet. My bedroom always looks like a tornado has recently been through. I keep the butter-toned room clean with sweeping and dusting, but for whatever reason, I have a hard time keeping my clothes in the dresser drawers and hung up. I have piles of folded clothes on the wood floor, in laundry baskets, and on the foot of my cream and black swirled bedspread. It seems like such a waste of time to put all the many articles of clothing in their proper spots when there are better ways to spend the same amount of time. Or it could be I simply have too many clothes—or I'm lazy. I quickly toss that description away.

As I dig through my dresser drawers, the coolness of the wood seeps into my knees where I kneel. I think about spending multiple days and nights in the same house as Rivers. I'm sure we will talk so much we'll run out of things to say. We can discuss in great detail his total shun of me throughout the history of our association. It'll be fun. And him smiling at me all the time? I'll probably faint from the sheer wattage of it. I toss my lime green two-piece in the bag and grab random articles of clothing to shove in the bag as well. I decide I don't need to bring makeup or jewelry because there will be no reason to get glammed up while babysitting the former football star of Prairie du Chien High.

After a quick stop in the bathroom to take care of necessities and grab what I'll need for the duration of my stay at the Young residence, I follow the scent of coffee into the kitchen. My mom is standing at the counter near the coffee pot with her back to me. I take in her light pink top and white lounge pants and the way her long hair is pulled up in a perfectly symmetrical ponytail.

I'm five and a half feet tall, but my mom is closer to five feet eight inches. I'm naturally a brunette where my mom's hair is blonde—so blonde it seems silver in certain lighting. Her eyes are large and blue while mine are some strange mix between yellow and gold. In the summertime her skin bronzes to an attractive shade of creamy tan—I burn and go back to white. There is an overall kindness to my mother that is harder to find in me. Sure, I have a big heart, but I keep it hidden. Hers is bright enough for all to see.

“Janet,” I greet when she turns in surprise. I started the first name basis bit when I was six. Life happened and I thought I needed to act and think like an adult from that moment on, so in my mind she went from mom to Janet. At first she was upset, but she learned to adapt. I know it bothers her though, and yet, I cannot get that three-lettered—or six-lettered—word to form on my lips.

“You're up early.” Her voice is soft and lyrical, as is everything about her. My mom makes me think of a hummingbird—dainty, beautiful, and fragile. She's taller than me, so that brand doesn't really fit, except she is fine-boned and seems smaller than she really is. I think it's because of her bearing more than her physical appearance. And no one can argue that she is visually breathtaking.

“Yeah. You know me—early to bed, early to rise.” Except I wish I was still in bed.

I swipe hair behind my ear and reach for a mug above her head. She moves out of the way and sits down at the cream-painted table with its mismatched chairs of blue and green. My mother's decorating sense leans toward the antiquated, worn look. Nothing has to match; it just has to have character. My tastes tend to go the same way. I like the serene, vintage feel of it, almost like we are in another era where life was simpler and less hectic.

I pour steaming black coffee into the white mug with red lips on it. “Monica asked me to stay at the house for a few days or so. They have a family emergency and she doesn't want to leave Rivers alone.”

Her coffee cup thumps against the table. “You aren't trained to take care of an invalid.”

“He's not an invalid. He's just...semi-restricted.” I sit down at the table and blow on the coffee.

“Still. Why don't they hire a nurse? And how well do you know him?”

“He doesn't need a nurse. He just needs someone to keep an eye on him—a babysitter.” Two pale eyebrows lift at this. “I went to school with him. It isn't like we were friends or anything, but there's nothing to worry about. He's harmless.”

“Bring your can of mace.”


“Then carry Raid around with you. It's just as effective.”

I take a sip of strong coffee, feeling my brainwaves accelerate. I don't particularly like coffee, but on my tired days, I give in to the pull of its caffeine. Otherwise, I'm more of a juice and water kind of girl. “I would look pretty dumb with a can of Raid clipped to my waist on a hip holster.”

She blinks. “That's a great idea! Easy access.”

“No,” I repeat.

The sigh that leaves her is the sound of her giving in. “You're an adult. I can't tell you what to do. But please be safe. And please call me every day, okay?”

She probably could tell me what to do, adult or not. This is her house, her rules. I am grateful to her for not pushing the issue. I grab an orange from the chipped white bowl in the middle of the table and toss it from hand to hand, not sure if I should ask the question foremost on my mind. I do anyway, because I have to prepare her. She has to be ready.

A chill goes through me at the thought of the future, but I keep my tone merely curious as I ask, “What are you going to do when I'm not here?”

"What do you mean?"

I shrug, keeping my gaze averted. "You know, move out...pretend to be an adult, stuff like that."

She stiffens, her knuckles turning white around the mug she clutches within her calloused hands. True, wrinkles don't even think of marring her skin, but callouses do not have the same view. I think the rough patches of skin only make her more beautiful, really. “You don't have to move out.”

“Right. I get that.” I knew she was going to say that. I set the orange down and stand up, dumping the remainder of the coffee down the sink and setting the mug on the counter. I turn to face her with my hands on the edge of the counter top behind me. “But I am, hopefully by this fall.”

“There's no hurry, Del. Really. I like having you here. I mean, do you have any plans once summer's over? I know you aren't interested in college right now. Are you going to keep cleaning the Young family's house indefinitely?”

“It's just a summer job. They have a full-time cleaning lady, but she stays with her family in North Carolina for the summer. She'll be back in a few months. After that...” I shrug. “I don't know yet.”

“You can stay here for as long as you like. This is your home. It wouldn't feel the same with you gone. I realize you're eighteen and impatient to start life on your own, but you don't have to rush it. Life, adulthood, and responsibilities will still be waiting for you in a few months.” She doesn't know that, not for a fact. No one knows that.

I study my mom's pinched features and the strain around her mouth. I'm trying to help her here, but of course she doesn't see it that way. She sees it as her last child abandoning her. The thought of me not being in the same home as her really upsets her, but I am me, not the ghost of someone, and because of that, I need to not be in this house for any longer than is necessary. But on the other hand, how can I leave her, knowing what I now know? My insides twist up thinking about it all. I face the sink and quickly wash the cup, setting it in the strainer to dry.

“I'll be in touch.” I grab the orange, hoist the tote bag to my shoulder, and offer a weak smile. Hers is just as listless. With a small wave, I head outside.

My mood brightens considerably when the sun and warm June air greet me. I watch tree limbs and leaves move with the force of the wind, hear the chirping of birds, and smell the sweet fragrance of blossoms around me. I smile. Even nature is saying good morning and that today will be a good day, no matter what. I tip my head back at the cloudless sky and close my eyes, inhaling deeply. The sun tries to burn my eyelids and I cover them with sunglasses, striding toward the small garage with chipping white paint and an uneven door. I unchain my orange and cream-colored Huffy from a pole in the cool interior of the building and swing a leg over the bicycle.

It's time to ride.

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN IS THE second oldest city in Wisconsin. Its name is French and means "Prairie of the Dog”. I'm really not sure why it was called that, but I suppose the settlers who deemed it as such had their reasons for it. Maybe they brought a lot of dogs with them and let them run loose? When it was first settled in the late seventeenth century, it was known to be a trading post for fur trades. The city didn't become fully American until after the War of 1812.

The population is presently around six thousand, but the city is constantly expanding and growing as new businesses come in—something that saddens me but is necessary for it to survive. Without change, there is no advancement. The city is also well-known for the Mississippi River that hugs it and the fishing and hunting that comes along with the wooded areas surrounding it.

In 2001, Prairie du Chien gained brief national attention for its first annual New Year's Eve celebration, during which a carp from the Mississippi River was dropped from a crane over the downtown area at midnight. The "Droppin' of the Carp" celebration has been held every New Year's Eve since. I think all of the citizens have been to it at least once. My mother and I haven't missed a single year, no matter how cold it was or how much snow was on the ground at the time. Pain sweeps through me as I wonder if we will have the chance to watch it together this year, so I pedal my feet faster, trying to outrun what I cannot change.

I love this city. I love the large body of water that lines one side of it, the trains that blast through it and startle those unprepared for its booming horn, the beauty in the trees and flowers throughout it, and the history of it. I cut across the street that leads to the Young residence, the wind flitting over me like the brush of a warm hand. I hop off my bicycle and pull it up to the garage, kicking the stand down.

I hear Rivers' raised voice as I enter the house after knocking once on the screen door. It noisily swings shut behind me, effectively cutting him off. He and his mother are standing in the foyer, their stances stiff and the tension in the room overpowering. His head swings toward me, eyes dark with intense dislike. I smile brightly in return until he looks away. Monica looks flustered, her hands outstretched and entreating toward her unreachable son.

“Hello!” I set my tote bag down and walk farther into the room. I pretend I didn't hear Rivers saying he didn't need a babysitter, especially not me, just before I walked inside. I pretend I don't feel their discord in the air like a trap of negativity. I pretend I want to be here and am happy that I get to watch over a spoiled brat who can't even be glad he is taking oxygen into his lungs even now. “All set for the trip?”

Monica's hands drop to her sides. Her hair is pull backed in a messy bun and she is wearing jeans and a thin purple jacket. The expression on her face is a mixture of frustration and sorrow. “Yes. We need to leave in ten minutes in order to make the flight. Thomas is finishing packing.” Her voice is weary.

“Awesome! Just keep us updated on everything.” My voice is falsely bright and grating even to me, but I have to keep upbeat so I don't walk right back out the door.

Monica gives me a strange look I ignore and takes a deep breath. “I'm going to check on Thomas.” Her eyes flicker to Rivers and away as she trudges up the stairs.

His hair is sticking up in black spikes only a restless sleep could create. One hand balances against the wall to relieve pressure on the worst of his two legs, though he is trying to be nonchalant about it. A white tee with the arms cut out frames his muscular upper body and black lounge pants cover his legs. The strength of his arms is evident in the way they bulge and contract as he shifts his stance, the detestation he has for his legs is evident in the way he keeps them hidden. I'm surprised his vanity doesn't insist he wear a mask as well, or at least a baseball cap, to try to cloak the scars of his face.

“I don't need someone watching over me,” he growls, his face forward so that I can see the clenching of his jaw.

“I heard that. Don't worry, I agree. What you really is need a psychiatrist, maybe some meds—no, definitely some meds. But you got me instead.” I raise my hands apologetically. Then I smile sweetly as I say, “I'll take good care of you. Promise.” Well, I'll keep him alive anyway.

His eyes land on me and quickly lose interest in what they see. Nothing new there with Rivers. “You're so weird, Bana.”

I laugh. “You say that like I should be offended. I'd rather be weird than a clone of everyone else.”

It was a jab and he recognized it as such. He doesn't respond, but I notice the stiffening in his perfectly proportioned body. It's still a remarkable creation. His body may be filled with imperfect fissures, but all I see is something made more beautiful by tragedy. Like an ocean formed from a meteor. Something remarkable can always be the result of something devastating, if you choose to find that one positive in a nest of negatives.

And what is your positive? a little voice whispers in my head.

Shut it, I tell myself, not really inclined to examine all my positives and negatives at the moment.

I remove the orange I brought from my tote bag and raise it to my face, inhaling its sweetly citrus scent as I walk from the room. I'll eat it in a cheerier atmosphere. I used to wonder about names. Like, why is an orange called an orange? And why is the color orange called that? Of course I never got any answers, but it didn't stop me from wondering. Why is anything named what it is? When I was nine, I asked my mom why she chose the name she did for me and she said because she thought it sounded pretty.

I looked up the meaning of my name once and I wasn't really impressed. I was either some jezebel who did horrible things to the man who loved her, or I was something gentle. The two definitions completely contradict one another. Out of the two, I prefer the latter, although neither are particularly complimentary. I don't want my name to mean gentle. I want my name to mean something cool, like driven by fire, or something to that effect. Who was that first person, or people, who chose the names to mean what they did and why did they think they were appropriate?

I guess I think a lot about unimportant things.

I just popped the last of the juicy citrus fruit into my mouth when Monica appears in the kitchen. I straighten from the counter as she approaches. Without speaking, she hugs me. Too stunned to pull away, I awkwardly pat her back. She smells like lavender, which makes me think of my mom with all of her flowers, herbs, and vegetables. There is a tremble to her body that causes a pang in me.

Pulling away, she offers a wan smile. “Thank you. I know he's going to be difficult. can handle him. I know you can. If anything happens, call me, no matter the time. I'll have my cell phone. Maybe...” She hesitates. “Maybe you could try to get him to open up about some things? No one else has been able to, not even me.”

"If you can't get him to respond, why do you think I would be able to?"

She tilts her head as she studies me. "I don't know," she answers slowly. "I just think you might be able to think up some method I haven't been able to. Call it intuition." She smiles, brushing bangs from my eyes. "I'm really grateful to have you here this summer, Delilah."

I move back, shifting my eyes from hers. Those words warm me at the same time they cause me to go cold. Apparently my body is conflicted. “What do you want me to do?”

“I don't know. Even if he worked on walking more, it would help him. Anything. Or talking. You're so easy to talk to. I bet he would talk to you more than he is willing to with anyone else.” She pauses, chagrin flushing her features. “I'm sorry. I'm asking a lot of you and I feel like I'm being extremely demanding.”

“A little bit.” I smile.

“I'll make it up to you,” she promises, squeezing my arm. “I'll be in touch once we're settled in California. There's a credit card in a dish on top of the refrigerator. Use it for whatever you need or want. And thank you. You truly are a blessing.”

I salute her, following her from the room and into the foyer. Rivers and his dad are in the room, the span of it between them. I don't think that's all that stands between them, from what I've seen. I wouldn't call it animosity, but there is certainly discord among them. It's in the way they stand when next to each other, the way they avoid one another's eyes. The way they don't talk to each other unless they have to.

Mr. Young's lips lift and lower in what I'm assuming he thinks is a smile. I give a flash of my own. He looks at his son. “Stay away from the pool while we're gone—since you've apparently forgotten how to swim.”

Rivers' mouth tightens, but he says nothing as he looks down. Two things hit me. The first being that his dad must know his endeavor into the pool yesterday wasn't an accident. A glance at his mom's face shows she believes it as well, though she looks saddened by it instead of revolted like his dad. The second thing is, why would his dad say such a jackass thing to him? He was in a terrible accident while on the river—was that in reference to that and not the pool? My unease where Thomas Young is concerned turns to immense dislike.

The enmity in the room lessens astronomically once they are gone, but it is still here. I exhale slowly and look at him. “I know you don't want me here, but I am. This will go a lot smoother if I don't have to watch you every second of the day.” I pause. “Do I need to be worried about anything?” What I really mean is, is he going to be stupid again and put his life in danger.

His stoic silence is the only response I get, which isn't a response at all, but I think we understand each other. I'll leave him alone if he doesn't give me any reason not to. I decide to ignore Rivers like he normally ignores me and go about my usual stuff.

“Shout if you need me,” is all I say and start up the stairs.

It hasn't escaped me that being a maid for one of the most popular boys in my grade should be beneath me. It really is too. Only I didn't take the job for him, although, in a way, I guess I did. That and my post-summer trip. The reasoning for why I do the things I do is something I cannot fully explain, so most days I try not to. My subconscious knows, and that will have to be enough.

The young man I left below is a mystery. He in no way resembles the laughing, smiling jock from school. All I can associate with the Rivers from school and the Rivers downstairs is the obvious disdain he has for those not as physically and athletically gifted as he—meaning me. Other than my bright, and sometimes clashing, clothes and hair, I am pretty plain in appearance and I didn't play sports in school—I hated them, actually. They are too competitive. People get fanatical about them. Come on, they're games. I mean, playing sports for fun is one thing—that I get—but when people go nuts because you miss a shot or are not perfect in your pitch, well, that is ridiculous.

And why do there have to be winners and losers? Why can't everyone be winners, or at least tied? Why must the game go on until one team outscores the other? Telling someone they have to win is putting a lot of pressure on them, and then when they don't win, they feel bad about themselves. Losing is apparently supposed to make you feel so terrible about yourself that you won't give up until you win. It is an obsession. Anything less than first place isn't acceptable. What does thinking that way do to your self-esteem? I mean, it's good to strive to do well at something and we all need goals, but to think you're worthless because you aren't perfect is wrong, and to teach children to think that way is wrong as well.

I guess it's a good thing I never went out for any sports because it really doesn't make sense to me. I would have spent the whole time trying to get everyone to believe we can all be winners. I can just see myself; a lone figure on my campaign for equality in sports. I imagine I would have been sent to the dugout indefinitely for thinking like that. It probably was never even an issue for Rivers. I've seen him in action. I never understood all the plays that go along with football, but I could see the ease with which he moved, the fluidity of his limbs, the speed he ran with. Watching him was like watching art come to life.

Even I can mourn the loss of his graceful limbs, though I do not share the view that he is less than he used to be.

A small voice asks, What if that was Rivers' life? What if nothing he ever did was good enough? What if winning was the only way he knew how to get approval? I don't think Monica would ever put that kind of pressure on him growing up, but I could so see Thomas doing it. Again, an emotion I'd rather not feel scorches my insides, telling me the detachment I pretend to have toward him is a lie.

I'm wiping the master bedroom windows with a Windex-doused cloth when I hear a crash. I freeze, listening but hearing only the thumping of my heart, and then I scramble into motion. My first thought is that Rivers decided to break our silent agreement and tried to harm himself again. Anger and fear war within me. I sprint down the stairs, stubbing my left big toe in the process, and follow the sound of rushing water. I stop in the doorway of the white and cream bathroom and stare. Rivers is on the floor beside the tub, clad only in red boxer briefs. A mix of pain and shame has captured his features.

I give myself a shake and enter the room, careful to keep my eyes averted from his body as I say, “What exactly were you attempting to do? Take a nap? I suppose the bathroom floor is as good a place as any. The sound of the water is soothing too, if you like that sort of thing.” I lean over him, groping for the knob in the garden tub, and turn the water off while trying not to think about my chest being inappropriately close to his face.

He doesn't answer and I sigh, turning to look at him, struggling to keep my eyes on his and above his neck. My face has to be red because it abruptly feels like it is sunburned. “Well, let's get you up, shall we? Nap time is over.” I don't know why I'm acting like I don't know that he fell. I guess to spare him the embarrassment of me stating the obvious. Although, I don't think he appreciates my attempts, which is glaringly blatant when he talks.

“I can get up on my own,” he snaps as I reach for him, jerking his arm away.

“Yeah?” I step back and put my hands on my hips. “Be my guest.”

Something happens to me as the seconds tick by, turning into minutes as I watch him try again and again to maneuver his body into a standing position. He struggles to get up, but every time either his hand slips or his legs won't cooperate or he loses his balance. Over and over it goes. It isn't pity I feel, although I know he wouldn't want me feeling anything toward him—it's more like respect. He isn't getting anywhere. Sweat lines his face and he's panting, but he won't give up. I wonder how long he'll do this before admitting defeat. I almost think he won't give up until he is on his feet. Then I notice the trickle of blood starting to run down his forehead and I know it's time to end this. He can prove he isn't helpless another day.

I move for him, stating, “You're bleeding.”

“I don't need your help!”

“And I don't need your shit!” He blinks at the heat in my voice. I sit back on my heels and take a ragged breath. “Look, it's obvious you're struggling to get up, and your head is bleeding. You might have reopened a wound. Just let me help you up and look at your head, and then I'll leave you alone again, all right?”

“Fine,” he grinds out.

I put my hands under his armpits and haul him up with difficulty, his hands reaching for the wall behind him to help get him to his feet. He's heavy, especially when most of his weight is leaning on me. It is awkward and takes a prolonged amount of attempts, but between the two of us, we finally get him standing.

“Did you hit your head when you fell?” When he doesn't answer, I pull back to glare at him.

“I don't know. I guess,” he mumbles.

"How did you fall?"

"Moved too fast, leg spasmed."

He's against the wall, one hand on the top of the toilet, the other on my shoulder. Tired, we momentarily rest this way with my head lowered between us. My muscles are shaking from effort and a sheen of perspiration covers my skin. I wonder if this is going to turn into a routine thing—me, rescuing him. The longer we stand this way, the more I begin to notice things. He smells like sunshine and vanilla, which is sort of different for a guy to smell like, but I like it on him. It reminds me of a beach—sunscreen, the sun, waves. His skin warms my hands where they touch him and I can hear his heart pounding near my ear. When I realize I'm staring at his defined abdomen, I jerk my head up and clip his chin. He curses.

“I'm sorry!” I cry, feeling bad for further injuring him.

“You can let go of me now.” Annoyance forms crinkles in the corners of his eyes. I wonder if creases ever form there anymore from smiling.

I drop my hands and move back. “What were you trying to do?”

“Isn't it obvious?”

My back bristles. “What? That you're rude and belligerent? Yep. That's pretty obvious.” I cross my arms.

“I was trying to take a bath.”

“Do you normally do that on your own?”

“Take a bath? Yeah. I usually manage that on my own. Are you offering to join me?”

I press my lips together as heat whooshes through me. “I meant get it ready on your own. You know, I think I liked it better when you didn't talk to me.”

“I aim to please.”

“Next time you fall, don't call for me,” I declare, stomping out of the room.

“I didn't call for you this time!” he hollers after me.

“Maybe you should have!”

Grumbling to myself as I finish making the upstairs squeaky clean, it occurs to me that I am seriously irritated. That doesn't happen very often. I take slow, deep breaths as I work, finding my happy place once again as I focus on the sun streaming through the windows, the calming colors of gray, cream, white, and pale yellow that make up the upstairs decor, and the lingering scent of lavender. It takes a while, but my heartbeat returns to normal and the glaze of anger melts away.

When I get back downstairs, it's after one o'clock in the afternoon and my stomach is growling for food. On my way to the kitchen, I realize I forgot to check his head injury. How could I have let that slip my mind? I blame his belligerent behavior for my brain malfunction and yet, that doesn't relieve the guilt I feel. I'm supposed to be looking out for him and he's already injured himself within hours of my presence. Maybe Monica will fire me.

Shoulders slumping, I backtrack to his bedroom. The door is closed and low music sounds from within. I knock on the door and the volume of the music escalates. Glaring at the door, I contemplate whether or not I recall ever meeting such a childish person. I don't think so. I check the doorknob and when it turns I shove the door open. Rivers is lying on the top of his made bed—the bed I made—with his hands behind his head and his eyes on the ceiling.

Without looking at me, he mutes the music with a remote control long enough to say, “Go away.”

I note the closed curtains and stomp over to them, grabbing an end in each hand and throwing my arms open wide. Sunlight filters into the room and lands directly on him—light and darkness colliding to form a beautiful monster.

“Close the curtains.”

His tone is extremely arrogant and I want to punch him. Instead I put a hand to my ear and look at him with my eyebrows raised. “What? Can't hear you above the music. Too loud.” I shrug.

His jaw bunches as he sits up. He turns the music off. “Close the curtains.”

“Get up and close them yourself.”

"Isn't that part of your job?"

"To be your slave? No. I don't think so." Although, technically, has it ever really been discussed? Either way, he doesn't need to know.

“I didn't realize you were such a pain in the ass in school.”

The fact that he even knows we went to school together stumps me for a second. I figured I was one in a mass of insignificant people not noteworthy enough to matter to him. “That's the difference between you and me—I did realize you were.”

He clamps his lips together.

“Silent treatment time again? I'm cool with that. It'll make checking your head easier without you being a loudmouthed brat the whole time.” I walk toward the bed, watching him stiffen as I get closer. “Did you take a bath then?” I don't wait for him to not answer me, continuing with, “You must have. You don't stink anymore.” Not that he ever did. I can tell he bathed, though, because his hair isn't sticking up everywhere like it was this morning and the vanilla sunshine scent is intensified.

Surprisingly enough, he doesn't pull away or complain when I hover over him. I pause, staring down at his lowered head. Maybe he is finally resigned to me. Good. It'll make life easier for the next few days if he just accepts the situation. Once again, I am aware of the closeness of my body to his face, and my pulse picks up because of it. I gently touch the gash on the top of his head, his hair thick and soft against my fingers. The wound is scabbed over with freshly dried blood evident only in a small area of it.

Without thinking about what I am doing, I brush my fingers across the silken locks of short black hair, an unconscious part of me wanting to comfort him like I would anyone hurting. He is torn into a million different parts; none of them resembling who he used to be, and I do understand that, even if he is a pretty unlikable person. I've been lost before. I've lost myself, I've lost those I love. I think we all have. Tingles start at my fingertips and move up my arm as time freezes and spins by at the same time. I glance down and notice how still he is—only his chest moves in time to his breathing.

Snatching my hand away, I hurry to put space between us. I refuse to look in his direction because I don't want to know the expression on his face. “It, uh, it looks fine. Are you hungry? I'm going to make food. I'll the kitchen.”

I turn my mind toward filling my stomach with something, because that is something I do understand, and grab random things out of the fridge. I take in my stash—an onion, deli sliced turkey, garlic and herb-flavored wraps, spinach, and cranberries. One thing is missing. I open the freezer and search in vain.

I am about to give up hope when a voice says from behind, “She puts it behind a wall of frozen vegetables. She figures if she doesn't see it all the time, she'll be less likely to eat it.”

Without glancing over my shoulder, I ask, “Does it work?”

“Not really.”

I demolish the barricade made out of bags of frozen vegetables, uncovering a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream. I swear I hear the heavens rejoicing. Mint chocolate chip wouldn't be my first choice, but I'll take what I can get. I pull it out, the container cold and covered in a layer of frost, and set it on the counter. Finally looking up, I meet Rivers' gaze. It isn't exactly unfriendly, but it isn't open either—it's more of a guarded, wary look. He's lingering by the doorway like he isn't sure if he's welcome in his own kitchen.

I look down, finding it hard to swallow. “Want some?”

I make a sound of exasperation when he doesn't say anything and go about making us each a wrap.

His gait is methodical as he makes his way over, getting bowls, spoons, and an ice cream scoop out. The time it takes him to do this is drawn out to the point of being difficult to watch. I have two wraps made and two glasses of lemon iced tea ready by the time he procures the ice cream necessities. When that is done, he leans against the counter with his hands clenching it, his shoulders hunched and his head lowered.

I turn away, it is paining my heart to witness him struggling to make the broken pieces of his body work as a whole. “Why don't you sit down and eat?” I suggest, focusing on keeping my voice even.

“I'm...fine,” he answers slowly.

“You look it,” I say with a nod.

A scowl is his response, but it's better than nothing.

I don't really want to torture him further, but the thought of the two of us sitting on bar stools side by side is a little too farfetched, so I take the plates and glasses over to the table near the sliding glass doors. I scoop ice cream into the melon-colored bowls as I wait for him to make his way to the table, careful to keep my eyes down so he doesn't think I'm staring if he happens to look my way. When he is seated, I head over, sitting across from him.

The silence is awkward as we eat, neither of us looking at each other for long. I search my mind for conversation topics, deciding on the future. It's either that or the weather and that seems a little too overused. Everyone talks about the weather when there is nothing else easily thought of to talk about. I do it all the time when I'm at the shop and customers approach me. It's safe, non-invasive.

“Are you going to college in the fall?” It hits me that this was a poorly chosen question at the same time his shoulders tense. Should have went with the weather.


It's my turn to not reply for once, swirling my melting ice cream around with my spoon. I know why he isn't going, though his reasons are illogical to me. Just because he can't go to college on a football scholarship doesn't mean he shouldn't go at all. He could use his brain or something to get through it. He's smart. Even if the plaques in his room weren't evidence of that, I remember from school.

“I didn't graduate, not that I would have been able to use my football scholarship even if I had. I suppose I'll have to use my good looks to get by in life now,” he says, sarcasm lacing his words.

“You didn't get your diploma?”

“I was in the hospital or at the doctor most of the last month and a half of school.”

I frown. “Why aren't you in summer school then or working on getting your GED?”

He drops his spoon, it clattering against the side of the bowl. “What's the point?”

Anger builds inside my core. “Meaning?”

Leaning back in his chair, he replies, “Meaning I'm deformed. I can barely walk. I'm ugly to look at. What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? Sit at some desk job and talk to people over a phone?”