I was slightly envious, or as envious as I could get since I wasn’t usually the jealous type. She had a small chin to end her perfect heart-shaped face, and her eyes were glittering and alive.
That had been the one moment when I truly was jealous of her. Life. She had what I didn’t. I wasn’t jealous of her looks, though if I’d had a different upbringing maybe I might’ve been? In a way, that was something I was thankful for. Life meant more to me than looks or things. It meant yearning for safety, smiles, the feeling of being loved.
The other girls had been jealous of her money. For a “rich kids” school, everyone seemed to be pissed about how much money they had. They always wanted more, and they seemed to know who had the most. I was toward the lower end of the wealthy crowd, but Brooke—as it had been whispered around school—was at the top.
There’d been other whispers, other looks, but we were twelve in our first year there. I didn’t understand what the word mafia actually meant. But it was used often as a taunt by our second semester at Hillcrest. The first semester there hadn’t been that kind of bullying. Some girls liked us. Some girls didn’t. A few hung out with us, and our room became known as the “hot guy” room. Not because we had guys there. Far from it. I would’ve died if a cute guy even looked my way. No, no. Our room had the name because of all the posters and photographs Brooke plastered all over our room. All gorgeous males.
It never made sense that some of her pictures didn’t look professionally taken, but the posters were real, and who wouldn’t drool over a full-length shot of Aaron Jonahson, the best football player in the United States—or the celebrity actor from everyone’s favorite television show, or the so-hot model that’d been a convict first. Brooke seemed to have all the guys covered, but some pictures seemed more like snapshots. Which was the truth.
I found out around the holidays: they were her family.
They weren’t celebrities—not in the sense that I understood back then—they were her brothers, all four of them.
Cord was the oldest at eighteen.
Kai was fifteen.
Tanner was fourteen.
Brooke was twelve.
And Jonah brought up the rear at nine years old.
Brooke was quiet about her family, really quiet. But when I found out those boys were her brothers, and their names, I was fascinated. I couldn’t lie about that. I just hadn’t known who I was becoming obsessed about.
Cord kept his hair short, almost a crew cut above his more angular face. Brooke told me he was usually the reserved one, and artsy. She almost hissed when she used that word, as if it was a curse, but then she shrugged. “It’s the truth. He wants to be a painter one day.”
Next in line hadn’t been Kai. She’d skipped over him and chewed on her lip, pausing before pointing to Tanner. As she did, her eyes lit up and a bright smile took over her face.
“Tanner has this shaggy hair that he bleaches blond, and sometimes it’s dark when I see him. He’s funny, Ry. He’s so funny, but he also has an attitude. All the girls here would die over him, literally just die.”
I still remembered all the emails she got from a tannerinyourmama—almost her entire inbox was emails from him.
When she’d gotten to Jonah’s picture, she’d quieted, but a fondness had shone through her. She’d spoken almost as if he were in the room and words could break him.
“Jonah’s the baby,” she said gently. “He worships Kai…” She’d paused and scratched at her forehead before continuing. “But he doesn’t look like the rest of us.” That’s all she’d said about him.
I’d inspected the picture of her and him together. She had pulled Jonah onto her lap, her arms around him, and his still-baby cheek pressed against hers as he smiled. His skin had a darker tone than the others, but they all had the most luscious facial features. All dark eyes.
Cord and Kai had black hair in their pictures. Tanner’s was lighter, and Brooke’s a lovely shade of dark copper. Jonah’s hair matched hers, with a twinge of curl in it too. Tanner’s was long and shaggy, sticking up all over. Kai’s was short, where a hand could run through it easily and it’d fall back in place—just a touch longer than Cord’s barely-there hair.
I returned my attention to the television now, coming back to the present.
In the photos on the screen, Brooke’s hair was still the length it’d been in school. She’d kept it trimmed just above her waist and had been adamant that no one would cut it. She’d whispered one night about a fight with her dad, that her father went after her with a pair of scissors. But her hair was still long when she told me, so whatever the fight, he hadn’t been successful. And like all the other times she talked about her family, she didn’t go into detail. She always said just enough so I knew what she was talking about, and then she would close up. Her shoulders would shudder before a wall slammed down, and that night had been the same.
A soft sigh left me as I continued to watch the images on the news.
Brooke had her chin up, proud, as her braided hair curved around her neck. In another she struck a sultry pose in a bikini. She could’ve been a model, except maybe she didn’t have the height—not like me. She’d been an inch shorter than me in school, though now I had shot up even taller to five ten.
They teased us about being sisters at school.
I had loved it, though I never said a word. I didn’t know if Brooke enjoyed it. She never spoke for or against it, but I could see now why people thought that way. We both had dark black hair. Okay. Maybe I couldn’t see why now. That was the end of our similarities. Brooke had a rounder face. I was fairer in skin. My eyes were more narrow. My face a little longer. And taller. I was always taller.
Brooke used to sigh that I could be a model, but she was wrong. She was the future model. I saw the proof now.
She looked like she’d gotten a tad bit taller too, maybe another inch, but that was it. It didn’t matter. Brooke could’ve been a model just because she had turned into a celebrity—which was also why the story about her being missing had been picked up by a news channel from New York City, where I didn’t think she lived.
“That’s her, right?” Blade prompted again. He shoved back his chair to stand as I heard the sounds of an approaching car outside.
We lived near Cowtown, but we kept to the forest for a reason. The cabin we were renting belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend of another friend, and there were probably three other sets of friends before we actually got to the owner. There was a reason for that, just like there was a reason Blade hurried to his computer, turning off the news as he brought up the feed from the electronic sensors outside.
A second later, he relaxed and flipped the screen back.
All was clear. It was our third roommate, Carol. But I wasn’t paying attention to her or to the sound I heard when the screen door opened and something dropped with a thud on the floor. Carol cursed.
My eyes returned to the screen, glued there because an image of Kai Bennett appeared now.
Just like the last time I saw my friend, the bile of loathing pooled in my mouth. Kai stared right at the camera, offering whoever had taken his picture the same look he’d given me before taking my roommate away so many years ago.
While I couldn’t remember the last look on Brooke’s face, I couldn’t get his out of my mind.
His eyes were dead, just like they’d been back then.
A shiver went up my spine. I’d only seen Kai Bennett in person once, but it was enough.
I hated him.
Thirteen years ago
I liked Mrs. Patricia. Most of our other instructors were mean, always snapping when they talked to us. Not Mrs. Patricia. She was nice, kind. She spoke in a soft voice, and maybe that’s why it took a few minutes before I realized she was calling my name.
We were taking a test. I was focused. Question sixteen was going to fail me. I knew it, but when I felt a tap on my shoulder from the student behind me, I jerked my head up.
Mrs. Patricia was standing at the door. The headmistress was beside her, and she was not wearing the same smile as my instructor. Wait. I sat up taller in my seat. The headmistress never came for me…and her forehead seemed pinched together, her always-disapproving mouth turned even farther downward now.
That’s when I took in Mrs. Patricia, really took her in. She wasn’t smiling at me. Well, she was, but it was lined with sadness and something else.
She motioned for me. “Can you come here, Riley?”
I started to feel the same numbness it had taken almost a year to shed as I stood from my desk.
Sympathy. I named her missing emotion then. She pitied me.
I felt a ball in my throat, and it grew as I started toward her.
“Bring your test, Riley.”
The headmistress barked, “Bring everything! You’re not coming back.”
That got everyone’s attention. Their heads snapped up like mine had—those who hadn’t already been watching.