"…done. I don't know what else to try… …hasn't made any progress. All this… …doesn't respond. Maybe… …tomorrow. Make sure you ask Mr. McNeill when he comes in. He'll…"
Through the darkness, the stairs loomed like a huge, gaping mouth, ready to swallow her up in one giant gulp. Five-year-old Kaitlin gripped the oak banister tightly. She hated the dark, especially when she could see the nightmares hiding. She counted slowly to ten, like Nicky taught her to do when she was scared. Her daddy was down these stairs and across the room, where the light glowed in the fireplace. He didn't like to be bothered after her bedtime, she knew, but it was Christmas, wasn't it? Hadn't her daddy just told her what a special time this was? She was sure he wouldn't be mad.
She eased her fingers from the railing and felt cautiously for the next step. Creeping down the stairs, she tried not to make any noise. Her mommy was sleeping upstairs. She was asleep a lot now and her belly was huge. Daddy said they would get a baby for Christmas, but Kaitlin wasn't sure she believed him. Her mommy's stomach was awfully big, but how would the baby get out? Nicky said babies grew on farms like carrots, but he'd laughed, so she wasn't sure she believed him, either. Sometimes Nicky teased her because she was little.
She stepped down carefully, afraid of tripping on her nightgown. It was too big, but Mommy said she'd grow into it. She lifted the hem out of the way and continued down the stairs. Her daddy had his back to her, staring into the fire. "Daddy?" she whispered loudly.
He didn't turn. "Go to bed, Katie," he answered, taking a long swallow of the pretty amber liquid resting in his hand.
"But…" she started to protest.
"Kaitlin Marie Fairchild, go to bed!" He finally turned, his red-rimmed eyes narrowing in anger. His eyes held a wild look Kaitlin had never seen before.
"Daddy…" she tried once more.
"Goddammit!" His hand jerked and the glass slipped from his hand, shattering against the fireplace. He whipped around to face her. "Why don't you listen?!"
His chiseled face remained mostly in shadow. To Kaitlin, he looked like the root of all her nightmares. His blue eyes were black in the light and his already thin mouth was drawn into a tight line.
Tears welled in her eyes. Head drooping, she trudged to the stairs. She'd barely taken the first step when she felt his strong hands wrap around her. Kaitlin felt a brief moment of panic.
"Oh, Katie, I'm sorry," he muttered. He picked her up carefully and carried her over to the couch, where he sat. She settled comfortably into his lap.
"I had a nightmare," she confided. "Mommy got swallowed by her belly and I couldn't find you and Nicky and I were in school and Mrs. R's scary Christmas tree was talking. It has a mouth and eyes and it moves."
"That does sound frightening," he answered. He stroked her long golden hair absent-mindedly.
"Well, it used to have eyes," she corrected. "But then Jason--he's the smelly boy on the bus--tripped on Mark's books and it fell over. Now it only has one eye."
Her daddy really didn't seem to be paying attention, so she subsided, laying her head against his shoulder. He continued to pet her, holding her tightly. "I love you, Daddy," she whispered.
He nodded, preoccupied. She leaned up and kissed him quickly on his lean cheek, then bounced out of his lap. "I feel better now. Will you read me a story?"
His eyes narrowed dangerously, then his anger disappeared, at least as far as Kaitlin could see. But his voice was clipped when he replied, "Not tonight, Katie. Go to bed. That's where you should be anyway."
Her face fell. "Night, Daddy," she whispered, turning to flee up the stairs. She glanced back once to see him sitting where she'd left him, his head resting in his hands.
"Still no… …with everything. She doesn't… … hasn't worked. I don't know what will. There's a… …or maybe that new drug out… …will take care of it. Don't forget to tell Mr. McNeill."
She turned, uncertainty playing across her face. Did she go in? The gaping doorway loomed before her. She knew she was supposed to be in homeroom, but she didn't see any hall monitors ready to give her detention. Anyway, she had an excuse. She was in the office checking the cast list for the school's production. If anyone asked, that's what she was doing, even though this classroom wasn't really the office.
Besides, she wanted to see Nicky, didn't she? She knew he had basketball practice after school, so she wouldn't get to see him then… Now was really the only time to tell him her exciting news.
Suddenly decisive, she squared her shoulders and marched through the doorway. The teacher didn't even look up.
Conversation died and every eye in the room fixed on her, except for those of the guys in the back. They were oblivious to everything but their own conversation. Oh, stop it, she chided herself. You're imagining it.
"Sophomore," she heard a girl's voice snicker.
Or maybe not.
Her eyes narrowing, she walked over to where he sat in his group of friends. She shifted her backpack into a more comfortable position, then perched on the top of his desk. Startled, he glanced up.
"Oh, hey, Kait," he said easily, as if sophomores intruded on the seniors' private world every day. He didn't seem to notice she was skipping out on homeroom. "What's up?
Her face lit up in a smile, her earlier reservations forgotten. "I got my role," she answered proudly. Her cornflower blue eyes sparkled with happiness. "I just checked the cast list."
He grinned back at her. "I knew you would. I told you that you'd make a great Cinderella."
"I was still worried," she admitted.
"I know. I've been hearing about it since tryouts, remember?" he reminded. He punched her playfully on the arm.
The noise and chatter disappeared around them. It stayed there in the background, but neither paid attention. Nick's friends were forgotten, their casual yet watchful attentiveness missed by both Nick and Kaitlin.
"I haven't been talking about it that much," she defended, scooting a little away from him. "Alex got the other lead role."
He rolled his eyes. She knew he hated hearing how "girly" his little brother was. Alex didn't play football or hockey or any of the sports Nick deemed "worthy." Instead, he was the sophomore class president, editor of the school newspaper, and acted in several productions, both in school and out.
"Good for him," he finally responded, without much interest.
She didn't understand him. Nick was one of the smartest seniors in the school, but he devoted no time or effort to anything class-related. Still, she would easily say he was going to be valedictorian or salutatorian, although the pocket protector crowd was fighting to prevent that. God forbid if the valedictorian wasn't one of them. She often wondered why he hassled his brother so much.
She'd bet it was the tights Alex had worn in the last Shakespearean play.
She looked up at him. He was still rolling his eyes with an awful look on his face. She changed the subject. "I think I'm going to have my costume made. You know, real eighteenth century."
His face brightened immediately. "Good, then you won't have to buy another dress for the prom."
"What?" she laughed, stunned. "Who said I was going?"
He raised one arrogant eyebrow, looking somewhat offended. "I asked you, remember?"
She glanced self-consciously around the monochromatic classroom. No one else seemed to be paying attention. They sat at their respective desks, clustered into exclusive groups, ignoring the outside world. Even the guys had involved themselves in some long and pointless discussion about football.
She hadn't thought he remembered. It had been so long ago, one of those promises made between childhood friends. She hadn't really expected him to keep it. He had Lauren, Kimberly, Teresa, or any one of the bubbly bimbo cheerleaders ready to jump off cliffs to go to the prom with him. Why would he want to take her? He'd been thirteen when they last discussed the dance. She couldn't believe five years later he was still serious.
She leaned toward him, murmuring confidentially, "Nicky, you don't have to take me. I'm not going to hold you to a promise we made that long ago."
"I want to take you," he retorted. "And I fully expect you to take me your senior year. That was the deal."
She cringed. Now he really did look offended. "I'll go," she said quickly, appeasing him. "I'm not saying I won't. I just didn't expect you to remember it."
"Good, but you knew damn well I'd remember it. Have I ever forgotten any of the promises we made?" he asked, waiting until she shook her head negatively.
He grinned at her. "I will never break a promise to you, my fair lady," he intoned playfully, bending to gallantly kiss the back of her wrist, a mockery of an age-old lord or prince. A bruise stretching from below her wrist bone almost to her forearm caught his eye.
He snatched up her arm to look at it more closely, then held it in front of her face so she couldn't mistake what he referred to. "What happened?" he asked sharply, all joking aside. She could see that protective gleam in his eyes again.
"Nothing," she snapped, jerking her wrist away. She placed it behind her back as if to hide the bruises from him, but it was too late. He'd already seen them.
His mouth tightened into a thin line, announcing his displeasure. His voice dripping with sarcasm, he asked, "You fell, right? Just like last time."
"Yes," she bit out. "I fell on the stairs last night. Jillie put too much furniture polish on them yesterday when Dad asked her to clean them."
She knew her answer hadn't satisfied him, but he pretended to accept it anyway. "Just be more careful. I don't want you broken for the prom," he declared, pushing her off the desk. She had to catch herself or fall in a graceless heap. "You can wear your Cinderella gown."
Steadying herself, she joked, "I guess that means I've been dismissed?"
He grinned back at her. "Nah. If you were dismissed, I would have slapped you on the ass with a 'thank you' and a fifty."
Her cheeks flamed crimson. She hated when he decided to show off. "Great, Nicky. I'm glad I'm worth that much to you." She shook her head, somewhat in awe of his self-importance, and started to stride up the aisle to the doorway.
"Hey!" he called after her. "Where are you going?"
"To class," she yelled back. She glanced back over her shoulder to see him watching her thoughtfully. Her head whipped back to face front and she hurried for the exit.
As she disappeared though the door, she could hear the guys erupt into conversation. "Man, why don't you try to get on that?" Chris yelped.
"You are getting a piece of ass, right? She's hot!" Jay agreed loudly.
Then Nick's response floated to her, just before she was out of hearing. "Leave it alone, guys. It's Kait. She's not like that. Besides," he added, "I've known her since I was four."
"I'm telling you, Nick, take advantage of the situation. Katie's a sophomore. She'd eat it up…"
And then she couldn't hear anything else, which she supposed made her lucky. She could feel her face flaming.
She squared her shoulders and raised her chin. She wouldn't let them get to her. Just because Nicky's friends were insensitive bastards didn't mean he was. He'd defended her, hadn't he? She was only reacting because she felt the ring of truth in their words.
She wanted Nick to think of her like he thought of Lauren or Kimmie. She wanted him to treat her like a girl, not like some kid sister he grew up with. He was the guy she always dreamed she would have, ever since he'd proposed to her when she was eight and he was ten.
Have I ever forgotten any of the promises we made?, she heard him ask.
Never, she answered silently. She looked down the nearly deserted hallway, debating whether she could afford to skip her next class. She'd feel secure again after loafing in the guidance office for a period or two. Deciding against it, she ambled down the hallway slowly, mulling her situation over in her head.
"Drugs aren't… …to work.... … why they've been trying them… …really nothing wrong. She doesn't want… …or she would. When she wakes up, try…"
Glass fell, twinkling in the firelight like stardust dropping from the sky. Kaitlin shrank back in her corner, hoping she wouldn't be noticed. She clutched her teddy bear to her chest tightly. She should have stayed in her room where it was safe. All she'd wanted to do was find her eighth birthday present, which her daddy had promised would be special.
She hadn't meant to end up here, crouching in the corner. At least she was hidden, between the two file cabinets set caddy corner to each other. The large leather and wood armchair placed before them provided ample protection, even if either parent moved directly in front of her.
"I saw you, Elena!" her father shouted, turning his back on the picture he'd thrown and its shattered frame. "Why are you lying to me?"
Her mother raised a hand to her impeccable chignon, patting an imaginary hair into place. She glided gracefully across the study and lowered herself into a chair near his desk. Kaitlin knew she was stalling. "I'm not lying to you, Ryan," she answered calmly.
His face flushed with anger. "Then how do you explain it? The 'lunch date' excuse stopped working a long time ago."
Her mother breathed out slowly, like she did when Kaitlin or Jillian exasperated her. "If it were an excuse -- which it's not -- then I wouldn't expect you to believe it. These lunches are business. Why do you think you have so many clients now?"
"Oh, you slept with all of them, too?" he asked cruelly. He moved to the bar, where he poured himself the Scotch that Kaitlin knew was his favorite drink. He tossed back a long swallow and turned to fix his wife in a long, displeased stare.
Another emotion Kaitlin easily recognized crossed her mother's face. Anger. This emotion was another she and Jillie saw often. As usual, her mother hid it well. With only a touch of bitterness, she stated, "You don't really think I'm cheating on you, Ryan."
This statement must have angered him, because he set his glass down abruptly and strode to stand in front of her. "Don't tell me what I think," he ordered acidly.
Finally a spark of anger flared in her mother's eyes. "You know damn well it's not what you think!" she snapped. "You just want some crime to use against me, whether it's true or not! I can leave right now if that's what you want!"
He slapped her. Her body jerked with the force. Kaitlin had to muffle a sob in her teddy bear's spiky fur. "Now look what you made me do," he complained. His mouth tightened scornfully. "The same thing you always make me do."
Her mother reached slowly to touch her cheek, then lowered her hand to her lap as if in slow motion. She watched him walk sullenly back to his Scotch. "I didn't make you do anything," she whispered. She looked like she was trying not to cry.
"Of course not," he said, his voice holding the derisive tone Kaitlin hated so much. "Just like you didn't do anything the night I caught you with Justin?"
"I told you what was going on!" her mother cried angrily.
He eyed her mockingly over the rim of his glass as he took another drink. "Right, and I was supposed to believe that? Planning my birthday present was a flimsy excuse."
Kaitlin was confused. Justin was her daddy's best friend. What were they talking about? Her mom had been caught with him? Doing what?
Her mother was shaking her head. "You're not going to believe me, no matter what I say. This conversation is over."
She rose from the chair and started to walk past him out of the room. He blocked her path. "Where do you think you're going?" he asked sharply. "This conversation isn't finished."
"It is finished, Ryan. It's been finished for a long time," she answered quietly. She tried again to walk past him. He grabbed her arm, holding her in place. She shrieked in pain. "Stop it! You're hurting me!"
"Listen to me," he growled. He jerked her arm once for effect. "You're done lying to me, Elena! I'm not putting up with it anymore. Try it one more time and see what happens."
Kaitlin shivered. She'd never heard her father sound like this before, even at his angriest. He yelled a lot, but never this much. Not like this.
Her mother tried fruitlessly to yank her arm from his grasp. "Look at you!" she shouted. "You're drunk! Again! We fight every single time you drink! Dammit, Ryan, it makes you violent!" Tears were rolling down her face now. She continued quietly, brokenly, "I've asked you to stop drinking. Every time we discuss it, you tell me you'll quit. You promise me. But every time, you do it again. You said you're not putting up with it anymore? Well, neither am I. I'm moving out tomorrow."
He stared at her, nonplussed. "You can't do that," he responded. He blinked once, then stated, "You're not moving out."
Kaitlin knew that tone. Her mother would obey it, just like Kaitlin always did when she heard it. They both knew the danger of ignoring it. She was surprised when her mother shook her head slowly, purposefully. "Not this time, Ryan," she said. "Not this time."
"You are not moving out," he repeated more forcefully. He punctuated every word with a vicious yank. "Do you hear me? You're not moving out!"
Her mother smiled, ignoring the way his voice rose with every word he spoke. "But I am," she answered. Kaitlin had never seen her so set about anything. She was so in awe of the new mother before her that she was unprepared when her father raised his hand and slammed it across her face. Angry red welts rose where he'd struck her. Kaitlin closed her eyes so she didn't have to see anymore.
"Why don't you listen to me?" he asked curiously. "If you would listen to me, I wouldn't have to hit you. But you don't. And I have to keep hitting you."
She heard the sound of flesh striking against flesh. Keeping her eyes shut, she cowered in her corner, hoping it would swallow her up. Hoping it would lose her in the shadows. Hoping it would do anything to take her away from this. Her mother's sobs started almost convulsively.
You're not really hearing this, she told herself. You're really upstairs with Jillie. You're just dreaming, right? You're not really here.
She repeated those words to herself over and over, almost believing they would be true if she said them enough. She nearly couldn't hear the sounds around her. She didn't hear the sharp stinging sound she knew or her father's violent words. It wasn't there. She was somewhere else.
Then it really did stop. She zoomed back to the present, listening to her father heave a disgusted sigh. Her mother sobbed harshly in front of the chair. Kaitlin didn't want to look. She knew what she would see. She clenched her jaw to keep from making noise. She didn't want to be found out now.
She stayed there, huddled behind the big leather armchair, while her father left the room. He slammed the door on his way out. Seconds, minutes, maybe even hours passed. Nothing moved and nothing but her mother's muffled sobs and the crackling fire made any noise. Eventually she realized even her mother had struggled out of the room. She was alone.
Remaining behind the chair, afraid to stay there but afraid to move, she rocked back and forth to comfort herself. Somewhere in the depths of her mind, she knew she should have crawled out to comfort her mother. But that part of her mind was far away. Right now all she wanted to do was hide, to forget what had just happened, to pretend like everything was okay.
She wanted her world to be safe again.
She didn't know how long she stayed there. The fire sputtered and died. Her world turned black and bleak and devoid of warmth. She trembled, cold, but couldn't bring herself to move. If she moved, she had to face what had just happened. She would rather stay here until she died.
She wasn't sure if dying would be preferable now, but she did know no matter how hard she wished, it wouldn't happen. She slowly unclenched her arms from around her knees and reached up to brush away the tears she hadn't known were there. An annoying sound repeated itself over and over like a broken record. What was that and why wouldn't it stop? Irritation rose while she tried to locate it.
She was just about to give up when she realized it was the sound of her own whimper.
"That didn't work, either." A sigh. "There's really nothing wrong with her, Mr. McNeill. She just won't respond. Her…"
She woke up shrieking. Her body lurched, so thin the lightest touch would break her in half, heaving gasps of terror. Her eyes held a brief, startling sanity that quickly disappeared, washed away like sand on the beach. Blankness returned to the brilliant blue void, the color sucking everything in while he searched for something, anything. He could find nothing. Her screams quieted to whimpers, then to nothing at all.
A tremor coursed through his body, so slight it was nearly unrecognizable. She missed it. Her eyes slid shut.
The dragon nurse pushed past him like a war-tank, destroying anything in her path. "You'll have to step outside, Mr. McNeill," she commanded firmly, fixing her stony glare on him. Millie only looked at him like that when Kait had one of her nightmares, when her dreams became her memories.
He shrugged helplessly and left the room.
Millie shook Kaitlin gently, trying to break her from her trance. "Here, Miss Kaitlin," she soothed, even though she knew Kaitlin didn't hear her. "I'm just going to give you this little shot and it will all be better."
Kaitlin didn't even flinch. She laid there, her dulled flaxen locks spilling over the pillow like golden spider webs. The strands trailed wildly across her face, caught in her heavy lashes.
Millie sighed, shrugged, and wrapped a thick rubber band around her arm to stop the blood flow. The needle slid in smoothly. One, two, three seconds and she was finished. The band unfastened with a snap and a pop, then blood flowed back into her arm.
Poor little thing, Millie thought. Such a sad situation… And she's only twenty-one. She clucked her disapproval.
"Such a pity," she murmured out loud.
She had a soft spot for this woman lying so still in the bed. Miss Kaitlin would have been pretty -- maybe even beautiful -- if there were any spark of life. She could almost see why that nice young man Mr. McNeill came to visit her all the time. He was so romantic, so loyal… It was a shame young girls had such a problem finding men like that these days. What could have inspired such devotion in him?
She only hoped he wasn't wasting his life away waiting for her.
She sighed. Well, she was done here. She gathered up Kaitlin's medicine carefully, then turned to walk out of the room, passing Mr. McNeill on the way out.
"Sorry about that, Mr. McNeill," she chirped. She awarded him a beatific smile. The tall, lean man radiated power in his crisp gray suit, but as always, he had that underlying aura of sadness.
"It's no problem, Millie," he assured her.
She looked at him more closely. Dear Lord, the man never seemed to think of himself. It was always Kait this or Kait that or what was best for Kait. She'd never once heard him complain because he had to go back to the office, even when she knew he only had an hour for his lunch breaks. That company of his ran him into the ground, especially since he'd inherited it in such bad shape. Being the CEO of such a large corporation had to be hard, although she guessed it had its perks, too.
Any other executive would have taken as much time as they wanted for their lunch, but not Mr. McNeill. Oh, no. That man was dedicated.
Millie had to admire his selflessness.
She beamed at him. "You have a nice day now, Mr. McNeill," she said as she walked away.
"You, too, Millie." He nodded at her, a semblance of a smile on his face. It never reached his dark eyes, which were still filled with haunted shadows.
As she walked down the hall, she saw him enter Kaitlin's room. Although she couldn't see him, she knew he went in and sat down by her bed. Maybe he held her hand. And maybe, just maybe, Kaitlin responded.
She sat at the elegant eighteenth century secretary her father had bought for her last birthday, trying to concentrate on the math homework she didn't want to do. Every once in awhile her eyes strayed to the mirror hanging above her dresser. She thought maybe the make-up was too heavy for a Thursday afternoon. She'd have to work on that. She had to give herself some credit, though, since it was the first time she'd tried using it. Dad couldn't even yell at her because she was thirteen now and he said she could start wearing it after her birthday. And today she had a reason. She glanced at the mirror again and smiled. She did look older.
Turning her attention back to the textbook open in front of her, she sighed. Whoever invented algebra should be crucified, if they weren't dead already. She needed a break.
As if on cue, someone knocked lightly on her open door.
Through the mirror, she saw Nicky enter the room. She pretended not to notice him. She wanted him to be surprised when he saw her. She flipped to the next page in the chapter, even though she hadn't read the last one. Hopefully it looked like she was concentrating.
"Hey," he said, coming up behind her. "What are you studying?"
"Math," she answered mournfully. Nick knew how much she hated this subject.
He grunted sympathetically. "Need some help? Math is something I can actually do."
She swiveled to face him, forgetting the make-up for a moment. "Actually, I just want a break. I've been working on this forever. Do you want to walk down and get ice cream or something?"
He didn't respond. He was too busy staring at her like she'd grown two heads. Suddenly self-conscious, she remembered what she'd done right before he came. She blushed, but didn't say anything. Let him bring it up if he was that shocked.
"What did you do?" he demanded suddenly. She got the impression he was angry.
"What do you mean, 'what did I do?'" She abruptly realized the make-up might make her look older. Maybe it wasn't as good as she thought…
He shook his head in disgust, moving across the room to sit on her pristine white bedspread. "You look like a two-bit whore," he finally accused.
Her face fell, dropping faster than a truck off the Brooklyn Bridge. A tide of hurt flooded through her, making her wish he had lied to her and told her she looked nice. He was nothing if not honest, she thought. Realizing this didn't make her feel any better.
"It was the first time I tried to put it on," she defended. "It's not that bad."
He snorted. "Yes, it is." He stood purposefully, then walked over to where she sat. "Come on," he said, holding out a hand. "Let's go wash it off."
She felt the first ripples of panic bathe over her. "No," she replied. "It's okay. I'll wash it off later."
His hand dropped heavily to his side. "Kait, please. I almost can't look at you. If you really do want to walk down and get some of that ice cream, wash off the make-up. If not for your sake, then for mine. I really don't want to be seen with you looking like that."
"I can't wash it off, Nicky," she whispered, stricken, her eyes widening with fear. "We don't have to get ice cream."
He rolled his eyes. Then, without warning, he hefted her out of the chair. He placed her firmly over his shoulder. "You're taking it off. Whether we go there or not, I still have to look at you."
She started to fight him, squirming and beating her fists against his back. "Put me down! I'm leaving it on!"
He ignored her, proceeding to the bathroom, not even phased by her weight. She was little compared to the guys on the football team and she knew he'd been tackled by more of them than he cared to admit. When she caught him on the side of his head with her elbow, he finally yelled. "Godammit, Kait! Stop wiggling! I'm not putting you down until the makeup is off your face!"
She collapsed against his back like a deflated balloon. Knowing he would have a fit, she was terrified of taking it off in front of him. How could she stop him? What would make him leave her alone? She quickly racked her brain, but couldn't think of anything.
Contrariness surged through her. If he wouldn't listen, fine. Let him see. She remained as inert as a rag doll. When he set her on the marble countertop between the sinks, he had to prop her up to keep her from tumbling to the floor. She earned a glare for that one. Obviously he wanted her to make it easy for him. She could have told him right then and there it wasn't going to happen.
He reached over to grab a washcloth, letting go of her briefly. She slumped down, sliding off the counter like the gooey putty or slime -- whatever the stuff was -- that they'd played with when they were younger. He jumped forward, catching her a second time. "Dammit, Kait," he muttered.
She didn't feel it was necessary to respond to that comment. She let him prop her against the mirror while he found soap and a towel to go with the washcloth.
Lifting her limp body until her face hung over the sink, he ran water until it was warm, then began scrubbing the gunk gently off her face. "I don't know how you managed to get all this to stay on," he complained, when the mascara left a streak across her forehead. "Do girls really wear this much?"
As much as she wanted to ignore him, she couldn't help but answer. But first she bestowed him with a withering look. "I wouldn't know, remember?"
He shrugged. "I thought girls were born knowing this stuff," he answered, then he grinned. "Obviously I was wrong."
She went back to ignoring him.
He'd swiped at the same spot several times before he leaned in to get a closer look at her left cheekbone. Pulling back, he turned her face toward the light, trying to see it better. "What happened?"
He must have gotten the last layer of foundation off, she realized. "Nothing," she replied sullenly. She slouched against the mirror of her own volition this time.
Nick wasn't letting her get away with that. His dark brown eyes were serious and concerned. "Bruises like this don't happen on their own."
Especially bruises like the one on her cheek. She knew it was ugly. It had taken her a good twenty minutes to find enough foundation in her mother's drawer to cover it. The foundation made her look so pale she'd had to use the blush and lipstick to give her face some color. Then her eyes hadn't looked right, so she'd needed mascara and eyeshadow. Eventually she'd ended up caked in just about everything.
Hopefully the bruise would fade some by tomorrow. After this failed attempt, she really didn't see herself wearing the make-up to school. And Nick was right. Questions would be asked, answers might or might not be believed. The bruise stretched below her eye almost to her jaw, flaring out in little fingers toward her temple and her nose.
"I fell out of bed," she lied. "I fell into my nightstand."
He continued talking over her as if she wasn't responding, setting the washcloth down. "Your dad hit you, didn't he? Don't try to lie, Kait. I know he…"
"Stop it!" she cried, interrupting him. "I told you! I fell."
He shook his head, denying her excuse. "You always fall," he accused, dropping to sit on the edge of the bathtub. He ran a hand through his spiked brown hair like he was trying to pull it out at the roots.
"I'm clumsy," she snapped defensively. She wrapped her arms around herself protectively. The sleeve of her shirt pulled up to reveal a different but just as ugly bruise on her forearm.
Nick noticed it immediately. "Let me guess… You hit your arm on the floor when you fell."
"No," she retorted. "Hayley checked me while we were playing hockey in gym class and I got slammed into a pole." She jerked her sleeve down to cover it.
"Kait, just tell me. Your dad's been hitting you, hasn't he? I know he's violent when he drinks."
"He didn't hit me," she repeated stubbornly. She reached down to twist the handle on the water, shutting it off since he'd forgotten, and then she slid off the counter. He was watching her with an obstinate look.
"I'm going to finish my homework," she announced, hoping he would get the clear message he wasn't being invited to stay.
His eyes narrowed. "Whatever. I have football practice."
He rose from his seat on the tub, marching past her like she'd done him some terrible wrong. She watched him slam down the hallway and down the stairs. Well, she supposed he'd gotten the message.
She sighed, walking back to her room. Why wouldn't Nicky take her at her word? She said her dad hadn't been hitting her; he should have left it at that. He was so stupid sometimes. She ignored the twinge of guilt filtering through her brain.
"…not this time. There's nothing… … should have worked. She doesn't want reality. She's awake most … …can't get a response. Leave her alone; let her… …wants to. Nothing else we…"
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, rising and falling like the bubbles in Jillie's lava lamp. Nick would be back today. She glanced down at the chic silver watch on her wrist. Actually, he was already back, but he wouldn't be over to pick her up for at least forty-two minutes. She knew he wouldn't be early -- early was something he just didn't do -- but she was hoping he would at least be on time.
"Katie?" Jillian peeked around the corner. "Do you want some help getting ready?"
Kaitlin smiled benevolently at her little sister. "Absolutely! Everything's pretty much done, but you can help me put on my dress if you want."
Both heads swiveled to look at the gorgeous full-skirted gown hanging on Kaitlin's closet door, then Jillie burst forward, standing on her tiptoes to get it down. She was careful not to accidentally step on the dress when she brought it back and laid it on Kaitlin's bed.
"Well, come on! Hurry up," she encouraged, anxious to see it on. She pulled the plastic covering away from the gown and slipped it off the hanger. Then she waited impatiently.
Kaitlin stripped off her robe and stepped into the dress. She drew it up, pulling the straps over her shoulders. Jillie zipped up the back. "Wait," she commanded before Kaitlin could turn and show herself. "Put on the jewelry Mom let you borrow first. I want the full effect."
Kaitlin acquiesced, the butterflies multiplying and plummeting to the pit of her stomach in turns. She was afraid she was going to be sick. When had she last been this nervous? Ever?
"You know," she said, as she removed her watch, "I thought I would never be as nervous as I was for Nicky's prom, but I was wrong. This is much, much worse."
She heard her sister stop dead behind her. In her mind's eye, she could see the disgust written all over Jillie's face. "It's Nick," she objected, as though Kaitlin's feelings for him should be equivalent to her feelings for their brand new husky.
"I know," she replied, "but it's my senior prom. I can't believe it's all over and next year I'll be in college. Everything's changing, Jillie."
Everything had changed, although she didn't know how to explain that to her little sister. She missed Nick terribly, more than last year even, when he'd first left for college. She'd grown apart from her friends at school, who still wanted to spend lunchtime sighing over Brandon Grenley, Wilson High's latest basketball star, or other equally unimportant things. None of them gave a damn about their future. Kaitlin, on the other hand, thought of nothing else.
Jillie didn't say anything, instead stringing the necklace around Kaitlin's neck and snapping the clasp closed. She pulled Kaitlin around to face her, her eyes welling with tears. "I'll miss you, Katie," she said, giving her a fierce hug.
Kaitlin hugged her back, realizing all of a sudden that she didn't want Jillie left behind, having to deal with everything all alone.
Then Jillian let go of her, dropping her arms as though they hadn't just shared something special. She flew to the window, pulling the gauzy white curtains back. Maybe she heard something Kaitlin hadn't. "Nick's here," she announced. "He rented a limo!"
Kaitlin raced to the window to join her. "Holy shit," she breathed. "He did."
Jillie glared at her. "I told you he did, remember?" She rolled her eyes. "I'll go down and let him in. That way he'll be surprised when you come down the stairs and I can keep Dad from attacking him with the camera." She paused. "Katie, you look gorgeous."
She spun and nearly ran out of the room, tripping in her haste. Kaitlin waited impatiently until she heard the door open. Then she suddenly remembered she'd forgotten her shoes. She hurried to the closet to get them. Lucky for her, only one strap needed to be fastened. She stepped into them, then pulled both straps tight, one after the other.
"Where's Kait?" she heard Nick ask. Taking one deep breath to calm her nerves, she exited her room and started down the stairs. She was petrified she would trip and make a fool of herself.
The steps curved around the corner and down to the first floor. When she rounded the bend, she heard everyone but Jillie gasp, but then Jillian had been prepared. Nick eyed her appreciatively from across the hall. He met her at the bottom of the stairs, handing her a large bouquet of pure white roses.
"You look like a princess," he told her gravely. There was something in his face she couldn't place, some emotion she couldn't identify. Her breath caught in her throat.
She blushed, touched. "Thank you." She looked down at her gown, a silvery blue creation with a wide, full skirt. Her long golden hair was done up in an elegant French twist, tiny tendrils trailing at her temples and the back of her neck. Her mother's expensive earrings and necklace complemented the dress beautifully and a matching bracelet graced her wrist. She certainly felt like a princess.
"I missed you," he whispered teasingly, for her ears alone.
She almost believed him until she saw the mischievous gleam in his brown eyes. Had her father not been aiming the video camera at them, she would have punched him.
"Smile, kids!" her aunt Sophia yelled gaily. Kaitlin winced when the camera flashed, blinding her.
"Go stand over there," her father directed, pointing at one of the flowerpots. They looked at each other, both knowing the other was laughing inside. Straight-faced, they walked over to where her father had pointed. The red button lit on the video camera, blinking in time with the flash of her aunt's camera.
"Kaitlin, you look beautiful!" Aunt Sophia exclaimed, snapping another picture. She walked over to where they stood, kissing the air on both sides of Kaitlin's cheeks like she'd been doing ever since she'd returned from the French Riviera. Kaitlin made a conscious effort not to roll her eyes.
Nick reached to snag the camera from Sophia's grasp. Kaitlin vaguely remembered telling him they'd said she could borrow that, too. "Thanks, Sophia," he said, pulling Kaitlin and her flowers to the door, "but we're going to be late. We'll take care of the camera for you."
They both waved at her father, then Nick practically shoved her out the door. "Nick, they only wanted a few pictures!" she yelped.
"They got a few pictures," he answered. "A few hundred of them."
Her mouth twitched. The chauffeur opened the door in front of them. The limo looked long, white, and very expensive. Kaitlin glanced up at him curiously. How had he afforded this? Why?
She finally asked, "Nick, how did you pay for this?"
"I've been saving up," he admitted.
Probably because he knew how the other people at school were, she decided. A limo was the thing to have for the prom. Still, that didn't explain nearly enough to satisfy her curiosity.
He helped her inside, keeping her skirts from rubbing on the greasy doorframe. He settled beside her quickly. The chauffeur slammed the door behind him and he smiled.
"I told you I always keep my promises, didn't I?" he asked.
She nodded. He was looking at her like he'd been looking at her inside the house. She was suddenly wary.
He leaned back against the leather seat. "So what happened to that Leonardo kid?"
"Lucien," she replied immediately. "His name is Lucien."
He brushed off her comment. "Whatever. Why'd you get rid of him?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. He just wasn't…" Her voice trailed off, but she realized what she'd been about to say. He just wasn't you. Oh, that would have gone over well.
"I've been thinking, Kait," he said seriously, not looking at her, his gaze traveling to the ceiling. It fixed itself there, away from her, avoiding her. She felt the engine start. He fell silent and Kaitlin was afraid to speak. She had an overwhelming fear that he didn't want to see her anymore, that their seventeen years of friendship meant nothing to him. That he had found another best friend to replace her. She conveniently forgot she wanted him to be more.
He looked down at his hands, then turned to face her. "Do you remember when we were eight and I hit you with the baseball? You started to cry. You told me I was trying to kill you and I said I couldn't kill you because then I wouldn't have anyone to marry. And you made me promise -- hell, you made me swear in blood -- that I really would marry you. Then…"
"Nick, I don't think I want to hear this," she interrupted. Her head moved to face the window.
She should have known better than to think she would get away with that. He pulled her around to face him. "Then in sixth grade," he continued, "I took Carrie Stevens out on a date. I thought you were going to castrate me when you found out about it, right then and there. Do you know what? I never wanted to date another girl again. But I did."
She could feel tears rising in her eyes. Nicky was the one thing she had to hold on to. Dammit, she didn't want to hear this!
"That Leonardo or Lucius or whatever his name is doesn't mean anything to you, does he?" he demanded suddenly.
"What?" she cried. "No! Why does it matter?"
"Because I still don't want to date anyone, Kait, and I don't want to date you, either." He looked away briefly and she was sure he didn't realize she was dying inside. "Kait, I've spent seventeen years of my life with you. If I needed to date you now, we'd never work."
She thought maybe she would stop breathing. She'd been so sure he was going to tell her to get the hell out of the car and walk -- although she wouldn't feel quite as bad since he'd wasted the money on the limo -- that she hadn't even wanted to hear it. Now what was she supposed to think? She had the feeling she was attributing emotions to him because that's how she wanted him to feel.
"What are you saying?" she asked finally.
He closed his eyes, which she knew meant he was exasperated. "I'm saying," he paused, then tried again, "I'm saying I want you to marry me. I'm asking you to marry me. Not right now -- I don't want to be married this young -- but eventually. Once you get out of college or when you're ready. Whatever works for you, just… someday."
Kaitlin didn't know how to answer him. She knew she wanted him; she'd known that since she was eight. But now that she was actually faced with the decision, she realized she wasn't really that sure.
Not that there hadn't been other guys… or that he didn't know about them. She couldn't count on two hands the number of guys she'd dated. After all, her association with Nick, then with Alex, had made her popular. There had been Lucien and before him, Jared, and before him… The list was too long to name.
Besides, who she'd dated wasn't the point. Whether or not she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Nick was. She was eighteen… and angry he'd asked her to make such an important decision.
And he was staring at her. She suspected he'd chosen the limo for exactly this reason: to butter her up, to get her inside, and to make sure she had no chance of escape. Dammit, this wasn't fair!
She sighed. "I don't know, Nicky. You kind of took me by surprise."
She watched his face fall. "You know it's your choice," he shrugged. Typical Nicky defense -- pretend it didn't matter.
She leaned against the plush seat, sighing. This was going to be a long night.
"…haven't seen him… … almost a week. He wasn't… …or maybe vacation… …don't know why he hasn't… …I'm starting… … and maybe not. We'll see what……tomorrow."
Kaitlin fought the voices away. They penetrated her foggy brain like icicles, their sharp tips filtering into her thoughts and chipping them away. Someone's gentle shaking was pulling her into that harsh reality where everything was real. She drew her thoughts around herself like a protective cloak, sinking deeper into them, opening flat, unseeing blue eyes and hiding her mind from reality. Only pretending to be there…
"It's time for your medicine, Miss Kaitlin," Millie declared cheerfully. She carried a small paper cup of syrup instead of a needle this time. "Open up."
Kaitlin didn't budge. Her eyes were still open, wide as a child's but empty, colored that impossible blue Millie envied. She pulled Kaitlin's gaunt body into a sitting position and propped her against the headboard. This was a familiar routine.
She reached under Miss Kaitlin's chin, grasping her just underneath the jaw. Her mouth fell open, just like always. Millie quickly poured the syrup into Kaitlin's mouth, sliding her hand up to cover it so she couldn't spit it back at her. Her only option was to swallow, which Kaitlin did without much interest. Or any interest, if Millie wanted to be honest.
"All done," she announced, smiling at Kaitlin's blank face. She patted her on the cheek, then slid her down until she was lying again. Pulling the regulation yellow blanket up to her chin, she picked up the used paper cup and tossed it into the garbage can.
She turned around, almost running straight into Mr. McNeill. "Well, hello there!" she exclaimed.
He nodded, acknowledging her solemnly. "No better?" he asked. He knew he shouldn't be expecting anything, but he also knew he couldn't give up hope.
"No," she lamented, "she's still unresponsive most of the time. Dr. Mills wants to try a new treatment on her, but Dr. Anderson just wants to leave her alone. Dr. Genner -- he's the head of staff -- says we don't have enough money to try anything on anyone and everyone keeps fighting."
Mr. McNeill's eyes snapped to meet hers. "They need money to try something for her?"
"No-o," she answered. "Not exactly. Everyone's fighting, so they don't know what they're going to do."
"But if they did decide to follow Dr. Mills advice, would they need more money?" he pressed. His eyes were intent on her face.
"Well, I suppose so," she affirmed uncertainly. "They could always use more money. "
He nodded, as if confirming what he'd been thinking. "The check will be in the mail."
Millie's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, then she remembered herself. Of course, Mr. McNeill would send money. Didn't he always? Ever since the insurance company had refused to give money because the situation wasn't covered in their policy, no one had known what would happen to the poor thing. Mr. McNeill had stepped right in and taken care of it. Miss Kaitlin was getting the best treatment they could offer because of that man. She couldn't imagine how much Miss Kaitlin had cost him just in the month she'd been here. Millie was willing to bet it was more than she made in a year.
He didn't even specify an amount, she realized, which had to mean the sum would be enough to cover anything they happened to think was needed.
She glanced down at the young woman lying in the bed again. Such a sad situation, she thought for the umpteenth time.
And especially sad for the young man standing over her. She sighed. "Well, I'm off to see my grandchildren. It's quitting time."
He checked his watch. "Are you leaving early today? It's only twelve-thirty."
She beamed, tickled he had noticed. "It's my youngest grandson's birthday," she bragged. "He'll be eight today."
He smiled softly. "Have a good time."
"Oh, you, too, Mr. McNeill. Have a wonderful day."
He nodded, watching her saunter out of the room, then he looked down at Kaitlin. He sat in the chair next to her bed, wishing that the blankets weren't so yellow, that the room wasn't so empty, and that Kaitlin would wake up.
Kaitlin sat with her chin propped in her hands, staring mournfully at the sky. The clouds were dark, overcast, and menacing. The wind blew briskly and she pulled her jacket closer around her. She chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully, never lowering her eyes.
She hoped it stormed. Lightning and thunder would match her mood.
She sighed, switching her attention from the clouds to the road. The house across the street -- Nicky's house -- was empty. He and his parents didn't live there anymore. Some lady had moved there and changed all his mom's plants.
It wouldn't matter if he still lived there anyway. He and his family were on vacation in Virginia. He wouldn't even be here for her eleventh birthday, although he'd promised he would make up for it. The last time he'd promised to make something up to her, he'd gotten a frog tangled in her hair trying. She almost didn't want him to make the effort this time.
Her mom was taking them to the mall and out to lunch before she left tomorrow. She had come all the way from California, where she lived now. Kaitlin wished she hadn't come back.
Gravel suddenly crunched under tires and she scowled at the rental car pulling down the driveway. Her mother stopped next to them on the steps, looking for something in her purse.
"Katie?" Jillie piped up.
Kaitlin glanced at her, then went back to glaring at the car. Her mom found lip gloss and applied it carefully. "What?"
"Who's that lady?"
"That's Mom," Kaitlin hissed, switching the glare to her sister this time. "Now be quiet."
Jillie sighed melodramatically and subsided.
Their mother rolled down the window, leaning out so she could see them. "Get in the car, girls," she said, gripping the steering wheel tightly.
Kaitlin honestly considered staying where she was. She knew their mom didn't love them. Why else would she leave? She didn't care and that meant Kaitlin didn't want to see her.
If she liked Justin that much better, she should have just stayed with him. She and Jillie didn't need her.
Their mother stared at her, waiting. With a disgusted sigh, she rose from the steps and stomped over to the car. She jerked the door open, then practically threw herself inside. Jillie got in behind her and closed the door. Her mom backed out of the driveway, starting in the direction of the mall.
Peering at them through the rear view mirror, their mother asked, "We're going to the mall first. Do you mind?"
Jillie nodded, hesitant, but Kaitlin didn't answer. She knew even if she said no, they'd still go to the mall first. She missed the disappointment veiling her mother's eyes.
Suddenly, she realized Justin wasn't with them. Good, she thought.
Still, that didn't stop her from antagonizing her mom. "Where's Justin?" she sneered. She'd heard her dad use the same tone last time he'd spoken about him.
"He had a meeting," her mother responded, ignoring the tone of her voice. She shifted her attention to Jillie. "You started school this year, didn't you, Jillian?"
Jillie shook her head, sending each of her golden ponytails to smack her in the face. "Uh-uh," she said, "I was in kin'rgar'n last year and now I have Mrs. Rice and she's got fish."
"Really?" their mom asked brightly. "What kind?"
Kaitlin's scowl deepened. Mom was trying to charm Jillie into liking her. It almost reminded her of Nicky's stories about those people in India who did the same thing with snakes, except that her mom was the snake.
She glanced out the window, ignoring their conversation. She didn't want to hear about fish. She wanted Nicky to be back from Virginia so she could be hiding in his room right now.
"Katie?" her mother prompted.
Kaitlin turned around, meeting her mom's eyes in the mirror. "Yeah?"
"I asked if you were still friends with that nice boy across the street," her mother repeated. "The one who came over all the time."
"That's Nicky," Jillie interjected. "He comes over, but he doesn't live across the street."
"He used to live across the street," Kaitlin corrected sullenly. "They moved to the other side of town. And, yeah, we're still friends."
"He seemed like a nice boy," her mom offered, trying to open up the conversation.
"He's a boy," Jillie interrupted, as if that said it all.
Their mom smiled. "He can still be nice," she answered. She flipped on her turn signal and turned into the mall.
"Idaknow," Jillie replied dubiously. "They smell bad and they're dirty. And Jimmy Stevens pulled my hair!"
Her mom pulled into a parking space and turned off the car. "That wasn't nice of him," she agreed. She grabbed her purse. "Ready, girls?"
Jillie nodded enthusiastically. She scrambled out of her seat and onto the pavement. Their mom offered her a hand, which Jillie took eagerly.
Kaitlin was still scowling. Jillie loved to be the center of attention. She just wished Jillie remembered that their mom had left them. She watched her mom lead Jillie away, pausing after a few steps to wait for her.
She got out of the car slowly, shutting the door behind her and trailing after them. She wanted to cry.
"…leaving her alone. It may have… …and she could. She seems to have made… …but still refuses to answer. I don't know if… …or maybe… …even. Mr. McNeill will be here… …ask him……record of this in her family. That should help us some…"
It was bright outside, sunny, and Kaitlin didn't want to go in the house. Nicky sat beside her on the ground, drinking the watery lemonade she'd made like it was going out of style. She knew it wasn't any good, but she appreciated his efforts to reassure her.
She flopped onto the grass, breathing in the green, green scent. It filled her nostrils. The colors seemed just a little more vibrant because of that smell. She sniffed again… And then she sneezed.
"Stop it," Nicky ordered. He looked annoyed and it made her want to kick him.
"I can't help it," she protested. "I'm allergic." As if to prove her point, she sneezed a second time.
He rolled his eyes, tossing a soccer ball into the air, then catching it. "You're such a girl."
Kaitlin wasn't sure if that was an insult or not. "I can still beat you at soccer," she pointed out, just to make him mad. Nicky hated to lose.
She saw his jaw set. "Soccer is a girl's sport," he retorted. He set his plastic cup down in the grass. "And you can't beat me."
It sounded like a challenge to her. "I did last time," she answered thoughtfully. "And the time before that."
He tossed the ball on the ground, standing up and towering over her. Nicky was tall for his age and much taller than her. "Then let's go," he suggested, gesturing toward the ball.
Kaitlin scrambled up eagerly. Soccer was the one thing where she could hold her own when playing. She was useless at basketball, baseball, football, and all those other sports he loved so much. And besides, Nicky got too rough when they played football. The broken arm she'd sported all last summer had attested to that.
"You're going to lose," he warned, dribbling the ball until he was a good fifteen feet away from her.
"Wait!" Kaitlin heard. They looked at each other and groaned. Jillie pedaled furiously down the street, her legs pumping and her two golden ponytails flying in the breeze.
She stopped abruptly when she was close, dropping the bike where she stood. Jillie never bothered with the kickstand.
"Hey, Jillian," Nick said, hoping to avoid the sibling battle he knew was coming.
"I wanna play," she said. She eyed the soccer ball stubbornly.
Kaitlin considered it. She really did. But… Jillie was only five and she was such a baby. Kaitlin knew she'd cry. "No," she decided. "Go inside and play with your Barbies or something."
Jillie's eyes flashed angry blue fire. "I don't wanna. I wanna play. Daddy said you gotta let me."
"No, I don't," Kaitlin snapped. "Go away! I don't want to play with you. Only Nicky and I can play this game."
Jillie's lower lip trembled. Kaitlin suspected the waterworks would begin at any time. She didn't cry, though. Instead, she jumped forward, tangling her hands in Kaitlin's thick hair. Then she yanked. "I want to play!"
Kaitlin screamed. It hurt. It hurt so much she didn't even think, she just swung at her little sister. "Let go of me!" she shrieked.
In response, Jillie tugged harder. She wasn't much smaller than Kaitlin, but she was excellent at staying attached once she'd gotten a grip on someone. Kaitlin should know, since she was usually the object of Jillie's anger.
She wished Nick would help her, but he was standing there with that resigned look on his face. He'd probably get Jillie off her after she didn't have any hair left. Grimacing, she twisted away and shoved at the same time, knocking her little sister to the ground. Jillie landed in the dust. One of her golden ponytails trailed in the dirt. She clambered up quickly.
"I'm gonna tell Daddy on you!" she threatened. She darted to kick Kaitlin before running into the house as though a swarm of bees was after her.
A thread of fear shot through Kaitlin. She stared after her little sister, hoping --praying -- she would come tripping through the door, demanding they let her play. Anything that would keep Jillie from telling Daddy. She shivered, even though it was about two hundred degrees out.
Nick dribbled the ball in the air, kicking it effortlessly from one foot to the other. "You promised me a game," he reminded her.
She glared at him. "You could have helped," she accused.
He actually laughed. "Jillian's like a monkey when she gets mad. I wasn't getting near her."
"Thanks," she acknowledged sarcastically. "Now she's going to tell Daddy and I'm going to be in trouble."
You don't even know how much, she added silently. She only hoped it wouldn't be too bad this time.
Nick looked surprised. "You didn’t do anything," he pointed out. "She was trying to kill you."
"Daddy always believes Jillie," she corrected. "Even when she's lying." She sat down on the grass, ignoring him when he offered her the soccer ball.
He dropped down next to her. "If she tries to get you in trouble, I'll tell him it wasn't your fault."
She pulled her knees close to her body and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on her forearm. "It doesn't matter," she said.
"Are you sure?" he asked, waiting until she nodded. "Okay, but I offered." He paused. "I guess you don't want to play anymore, huh?"
"Then…" his voice trailed off and he looked uncertain. She raised an eyebrow expectantly. "Could I have some more lemonade?"
"Yeah," she said. "Come on."
She rose, kicking the soccer ball away from him as she moved toward the house. Nicky followed her. She couldn't believe he'd actually asked for more. He'd just confirmed her opinion that he was crazy. Even she wouldn't drink the stuff, and she'd made it. She hoped he didn't die trying to make her feel better.
"…insists we at least… …gave all that money. She'll start… …left alone. Why not try it? Dr. Anderson still… …end of the week… …give him the card when … …lunch yesterday. Millie said… … and still no response. She wakes up screaming now…"
Kaitlin hummed quietly to herself, a piece of music she hadn't thought about in a long time. The music was Waltz of the Flowers by Tchaikovsky. It was her mother's favorite. She used to play it when Kaitlin couldn't fall asleep at night, sitting with her and holding her hand. Kaitlin had listened to it for a long time after her mother was gone when she needed comforted.
Her mother was back now, just for the weekend. It had taken a long time for Kaitlin to get over the sense of betrayal and abandonment she'd felt when her mother had left. She still didn't understand why she hadn't taken her and Jillian with her. Kaitlin buried that thought at the back of her mind. Her mom was here to help her celebrate both her birthday and her wedding, so at least Kaitlin knew she would be here for that. She honestly didn't know what she'd do if her mom hadn't come.
Her birthday party was tonight and it was going to be huge. After all, turning twenty-one was a big deal. Everyone was coming. Even Aunt Sophia and Uncle Ted. Uncle Theodore, she corrected. Aunt Sophia would have a fit if she heard Kaitlin call him Uncle Ted. Kaitlin grinned. It was so uncultured.
She stood in front of her mirror, brushing her hair. Her room hadn't changed in the three years she'd been at college. The snow-white bedspread still covered her bed and all her knick-knacks rested where she'd left them when she'd gone. It felt good to be home.
She ran the brush through one more time, then she set it down on her mahogany dresser. She needed to run downstairs and find her mom, assuming her father wasn't home and her mother had deigned to leave her room.
Practically skipping out the door, she headed downstairs. She skidded to a halt at the bottom, listening intently. She heard voices somewhere, probably from her father's study. Hopefully, her parents weren't in there together. She didn't want to listen to them fight today.
Frowning, she walked slowly to the door. It was ajar, something she hadn't seen in a long time. Her father's study was his sanctuary, a place no one but he ever entered. She paused at the doorframe, just out of view of whoever was inside. Sure enough, both her parents were in there. She sighed, knowing nothing good could come of this.
"Congratulations, Elena," he applauded. Kaitlin didn't miss the sarcasm in his voice. "You've managed to do it again."
"Yes, but you can't stop me this time," her mother said in that icy voice she always used when she had to speak to Kaitlin's father. "And if you try, Ryan, I swear I'll make you wish you hadn't."
Her father chuckled. "Aren't you a little old for this? You're going on forty-five, Elena. You can't be serious."
Kaitlin could see the glacial mask fall over her mother's face, even though she wasn't in the room. "I am serious," she said quietly, calmly, and just as icily as before.
"I'm not giving you a divorce," her father inserted abruptly. "And you will not marry Justin. It was bad enough when you moved in with him. It ruined our friendship."
Kaitlin wondered wildly what was going on. Her mother hadn't lived with them since Kaitlin was nine, not that she could blame her. The only thing she blamed her for was not taking them with her. For leaving them here in this house. She reminded herself not to think about that. Remembering wouldn't change the past. She knew her parents hadn't divorced, although she'd never understood why. More than that, why now? Her mom wanted to get remarried? To Justin?
"I didn't ruin your friendship," her mother corrected angrily.
"You did," her father stated flatly. "Things were fine until you moved in with him."
Her mother's voice rose. "Of course, they were fine. Until then he didn't know you were planning on firing him or that you were an abusive husband. Things weren't awkward until I moved out -- I'll give you that -- but this was your fault. Not mine."
"My fault, Elena?" his voice held that dangerous note Kaitlin knew too well. She suddenly remembered when she'd been eight and hiding behind the chair in fear. "None of this is my fault. None of this would have happened if you weren't a cheating slut."
"I never cheated on you." Anger and pride filled her mother's voice.
"Then what do you call what you're doing now?" he demanded. Kaitlin wondered if he realized he was shouting. "Living with the man who was once my best friend isn't cheating on me? Asking for a divorce so you can marry that man doesn't constitute cheating?"
Her mother yelled back. "I would have divorced you a long time ago if I had been able to! If you hadn't threatened me with Kaitlin or Jillian's safety every time I brought it up, I would have been out of your life forever! And I wouldn't have left them with you, either!"
Dimly, Kaitlin heard the sound of shattering glass, always -- always -- the prelude to something worse. She saw her father, standing at the fireplace, glass slipping from his hand. She saw a broken picture frame lying on the red brick. She saw her mother huddled sobbing on the floor.
This couldn't happen again, she thought, panicked. She leaned heavily against the wall. Not today. Please God, not today.
She peeked around the corner, seeing her father standing over her mother. She didn't know how she managed to look so cool and collected. Her mother had to know what was going to happen…
Her father was breathing heavily, like he'd just run five miles. "Tell yourself what you want," he told her, still angrily, but quieter this time. "Tell yourself you would have divorced me if you could have. We both know it's not true."
Her mother stood, looking him in the eye. "It is true," she snapped. "I hate you, Ryan! Do you hear me? I HATE YOU!"
Kaitlin saw it coming. Her father raised his hand and brought it down painfully on her mother's face. Her mom fell to the floor. Kaitlin could tell it was excruciating; she'd been the recipient enough times to know. She remembered again the night she'd hidden behind the chair. She'd wanted to help her mother then; this time she would. Just as she came to that decision, she saw her father pick her mother up by the hair and throw her against the desk. Her mother's head hit the edge with a sickening thud. She slid to the floor, a trickle of blood slipping down her temple.
"What are you doing?" Kaitlin shrieked, flying into the room and kneeling next to her mother. She struggled desperately to find a pulse, but she was too panicked to feel anything.
"Get away from her, Katie," he ordered. "Just get the hell out of here."
Drawing on the tattered shreds of her courage, she looked up at him. "No."
"I said get the hell out of here!" he roared.
Not this time, she thought. His face was bright red, the veins straining at his temples. Mutely, she shook her head. She reached down and fastened on to her mother's limp hand. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but they were tears of anger, not of fear.
He looked ready to kill her. He also looked like he didn't know what to do. Kaitlin had never defied him before. Not even once. "Get out," he repeated hoarsely, but they both knew she wouldn't. He reached down and grabbed her by the shoulder, dragging her away. Kaitlin instinctively reached up to shield her head, but it didn't matter. He tossed her on the leather couch.
"Why won't you listen to me?" he screamed. "You're just like her! Why do you make me do this to you? All of you!"
He reached out and backhanded her across the cheek. Kaitlin was used to abuse like this. She automatically tried to dodge it, but it caught her on the side of her head and she fell on the carpet with a thud. She was already scrambling away from the second blow she knew was coming.
Her father had the advantage. He reached out and grabbed her by the hair, towing her to where he stood. "You shouldn't make me do this," he rasped, backhanding her again. She tried to pull away.
She didn't stop fighting. "Let me go!"
"Let you go?" he asked, like it was a novel idea. Then he laughed a harsh, grating laugh Kaitlin had never heard. He slapped her again and again. She wondered when it would end. Eventually, her face stopped hurting and she couldn't feel anything. She stared at him defiantly through blurred vision, fighting him as much as she could in such an awkward position. Her hand came up to block a blow and she felt her wrist explode into pain.
Her vision continued to get fuzzier, but she still didn't feel any pain in her face. Her wrist stopped hurting. She struggled to hold on, to keep fighting…
And then everything went black.
"…Dr. Anderson is… …is right. We've exhausted… …everything. Now all we can do… …move her to a… …thank you for the… …I'm sorry it… …where is your choice. She needs…"
He stood in front of the bed, his hands deep in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. Millie's heart nearly broke in half watching him there, so defeated. Defeated, yes, but not hopeless. Why, that man never gave up hope!
"They're moving her tomorrow, right, Millie?" he asked suddenly, without turning around.
Millie jumped. She hadn't realized he knew she was there. "Yes, Mr. McNeill, they are. That place you picked out really is nice."
He finally turned, giving her one of his sad smiles. "I'm glad you approve."
Coming from anyone else, she would have thought that person was being patronizing, but not from Mr. McNeill. She beamed. "It really is a nice place," she assured him.
He nodded, turning back to Kaitlin. She felt tears well in her eyes. It really was such a sad situation, all of it. She couldn't even imagine what that poor girl had been through. And if she didn't wake up, that poor little sister of hers wouldn't have anyone in the world! Her father would be in jail for God knows how long. Millie hoped it was forever. As for her mother… She sighed, shaking her head and clucking sadly. It was such a shame.
"I just came in to get her chart," she informed him. She knew he didn't really hear her. All his attention was focused on the young woman in the bed. She moved around to grab it off the little table. He didn't even look up. She sighed again, then left the room. He deserved to be alone with her as much as he wanted.
Mr. McNeill's gaze was locked on her face, staring down at her. He remembered the way her smile lit up her face, brightening the blue of her eyes. He remembered the way the sun shone on the gold of her hair, shimmering in on a few flyway strands. He remembered the way she used to wrinkle up her nose when he'd done something stupid. But most of all, he remembered the way she used to be so alive.
His lips pressed together as he fought down a wave of anger. He'd wanted to kill Ryan Fairchild when he'd found her and her mother, both lying in the study like a twin set of broken dolls.
But he hadn't.
Instead, he'd called the police, anger churning in his stomach and boiling in his blood. He'd been so afraid she was dead at first. She'd been pale, paler than she was now, after a month and a half of being away from the sun. He'd thought of the fear he'd felt when she wouldn't wake up. It had almost been crippling.
The police had arrived and Ryan had been nowhere to be found. It had taken them a week to catch up with him, but they had. He was rotting in jail now, and if Mr. McNeill had anything to do about it, that's where he'd stay. Mr. McNeill had followed the ambulance to the hospital. As soon as the doctors had let him see her, he'd been in her room. He hadn't left her side for a week, but then he'd had to go back to work. He'd had no choice about it.
Everyday since then, he'd come to visit her on his lunch breaks, whenever he could get away. Still, she showed no response, no desire to pull herself from her dreams. The doctors said she was reliving her life in her head. He hoped not. Her life had been bad enough the first time around. He only thanked God Jillian had been at basketball practice.
He checked his watch. Time to get back to work. As usual, he didn't want to go. He just wanted to stay here with Kait, in case she woke up. She would wake up; he was certain of that. He couldn't think what he'd do if she didn't.
She shifted, twitching in her sleep. In the dim light, the ring shone upon her finger and winked at him, mocking him. His gaze traveled down to the third finger on her left hand, where she wore her engagement ring. He refused to let them take it off.
He glanced down at his own bare finger, where his wedding band should be. Something resolute rose inside him and he glanced down at her.
He moved closer to the bed, hovering near her ear, even though he knew she couldn't hear him. "I always keep my promises, Kait," he whispered fiercely. He straightened up, turning and walking away, knowing he would return tomorrow and nothing would have changed.
Pausing at the door, he looked back once, hopefully, waiting for something to happen.
Kaitlin opened her eyes.