“So how come your family moved to Oxford anyway?”
Hayley whispered the words, because we were sitting in the library together. We’d walked over after school, telling our parents we’d be studying together. We might even do some of that. But mostly it was just so we could hang out.
Mom was picking us up at five. If she was sober.
I didn’t say that to Hayley.
Should I tell her the whole story? Might as well, I thought. A quick Google search would turn up our family history. “My sister was kidnapped two years ago, and Dad beat up her boyfriend, because Dad thought he had done something to her. Really bad. He went to jail for a while.”
Hayley’s eyes widened and her mouth opened. After she recomposed herself, she said, “Did she … did they find her?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t express the emotions I felt. “No. It’s been … well, she’ll be eighteen next week. So two years.”
Hayley leaned forward and took my hand. “I’m so sorry. That must make you really sad.”
I shrugged. Really sad didn’t express much of anything. Dead inside might come closer. “It’s hard for me to talk about it. I really loved her. She wasn’t just my big sister, she was my best friend.”
Hayley wasn’t finished asking questions. “So your dad went to jail for beating up her boyfriend? He must’ve really done the guy in.”
“Yeah,” I whispered. “I think Chase was in the hospital for a while. I don’t know for sure, but I know Dad was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. He went to prison for six months. The judge said it would’ve been longer, but there were extenuating circumstances. Because Dad thought Chase was the one who … whatever happened to Brenna.”
Hayley sank down into her seat, a lock of red curls hanging down over her eyes. “Do you think her boyfriend did it?”
“I don’t know. They never found her … they never proved anything with anybody. Dad got fired from his job while he was in prison and they couldn’t afford the house anymore. We stayed until the house got foreclosed on, and the cops showed up and threw us out. Eventually we ended up here.”
I thought for a minute. Not of Brenna or my family’s history, but of the Ashleys and Jake Fennells and Codys of the world. Then I said, “Don’t tell anybody. I mean they could find out but … I just don’t need any hassle from the popular kids.”
Hayley leaned forward, her eyes wide. “I’d never tell anyone anything. I swear to God.” As she said the last words, she made the sign of the cross over her shoulders.
That exposed yet another set of bruises on her forearm. I’d seen them earlier that day in class but hadn’t said anything at the time. Now I had to. “What happened to your arm?”
She scrunched her eyes together. “What are you talking about?”
As gently as I could, I touched her forearm with the tip of my index finger. “That’s what I’m talking about. Those are new ones … the last set of bruises were just starting to heal. Hayley, who did that?”
Her expression was painful to see. “No one did it. I’m just a klutz.” She said the words so quietly that it was clear she’d lost any confidence in her own lies. She whispered, “No one hurt me. Stop asking me.” Her eyes were wet.
“I can keep a secret too, you know. But I won’t bother you about it again.”
She closed her eyes, and whispered, “Thank you.”
“Can I tell you something?”
She nodded in response to my question.
“You’re the best friend I’ve had since my sister disappeared,” I said.
Her skin flushed almost as red as her hair, and her eyes darted away from me. I wish I could tell her the truth about me. But I still didn’t know her well enough for that. I didn’t know if I ever would. I mean … this was Alabama.
Sometimes, I tried to picture how people would react if I were to suddenly start wearing women’s clothing. Dad would be disgusted. I’d never forget, years ago, when he talked about how transgender people were mentally ill. Mom? Who knew? She’d probably just drink a little more to wash it away. Grandpa would probably suggest that I be forced to join the Marines to turn me into a man, and Grandma would turn up her imperious nose and look way down at me. I didn’t even think about what people from school would be like.
Don’t be ashamed of who you are, Brenna had told me once. You’re beautiful, inside and out. One day the whole world will see it just like I do.
Well, the world hadn’t seen me that way yet.
I missed her. I wished I could talk with her about Hayley. The bruises worried me. Was it her father? I bet it was. She didn’t have any siblings; it was just her and her dad, and she hadn’t lived with him very long.
“I used to have a best friend in Birmingham,” she said. “We still talk on the phone all the time, and online. But I won’t get to go back there any time soon.”
I swallowed. “So how come you ended up here?”
Hayley sniffed. “Mom’s … she got hurt last year. Hurt her back, and they gave her oxy, and … she got addicted. She—”
Hayley cut herself off, looked as if she couldn’t decide what to do, then she continued. “She overdosed on heroin about three months ago. She’s in a halfway house now, but the Department of Children and Families took me. They put me in an emergency shelter for a few days, then Dad came and got me.”
“Do you like living with him?”
She shook her head once. With finality in her tone, she said, “No.”
I swallowed. I wanted to say, you gotta tell somebody. You gotta ask for help. What if he hurts you for real?
I was afraid if I pushed it, she’d walk away. So I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, I just listened. And a couple minutes later, she broke down.
Her words were barely audible. “He did it. Daddy. He’s got a temper.”
I let a slow breath out.
“It’s not really his fault,” she continued. “I was being sassy. And … and … he didn’t mean to hurt me. Not really. He just grabbed my wrist.”
I nodded. Then I said, “You can talk to me anytime, you know.”
I was being sassy. No. I wasn’t willing to accept the idea that it was her fault her father had hurt her. That wasn’t right, no matter what she did. It brought back memories of vaguely heard discussions about my great uncle Bill. Things said behind closed doors, and now I couldn’t untangle that.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“Just … if it gets bad … call someone? Tell someone? What if he really hurts you?”
She shakes her head. “He won’t. He loves me.”
I closed my eyes but didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I was thinking about men, and rage, and what rage can do to them. I was thinking about Dad, and how he totally fucked up Chase, and ended up doing prison time.
By the time that happened, we were all falling apart. Dad had gone out, and we didn’t know where he was. Then the knock on the door, and it was Detective Hunt and Agent Wilcox again, and this time the news they had was just one more piece of hideous, awful news. Dad had assaulted Chase Morton and was in jail. He might be arraigned tomorrow, he might not.
You can’t really blame Mom for just falling apart. I mean … I understand why Dad did what he did. I completely understand why. But in doing that, he vanished right at the moment when Mom needed him the most. Our lives were already falling to pieces, and he wasn’t there to help us put them back together.
Those first days after Brenna disappeared, the atmosphere was frantic. The police interviewed everyone we knew at school, friends, family. They searched Brenna’s room twice. The entire time they were searching, I sat in my room shaking, wondering if mine was next. Thankfully that never happened.
I finally returned to school on the Thursday after Brenna disappeared. It was surreal that morning. Dad hadn’t been arraigned yet, so he was still in jail. I was used to early mornings when he would be bustling around getting ready for work, and Mom would be trying to get Brenna and me to eat breakfast before school. But he was gone, and she was asleep, and my grandparents had gone back home. It seemed like the house was haunted, as I shuffled around completely alone in the quiet getting ready for school. I almost woke Mom up before I left. I stood there at her door with my hand raised to knock, but then I decided against it. She needed to rest. I left a note on the kitchen table that I had taken the bus to school, then I left the house and walked to the bus stop.
Looking at Hayley now, that was one of the reasons why I was so reluctant to open up at all. From the morning I left for school that Thursday two years ago right up until school started this year, I’d been completely alone. The only time I ever felt needed or engaged in life was when I was online.
Hayley threatened to break that isolation, and I couldn’t decide if that was something I wanted or was terrified of.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.