His mouth twitched, and he nodded. “Got it.”
My mom turned back from the window, a smile on her face. “So, have you heard from Aspen?”
I raised an eyebrow. “They’re heading back to Fallen Crest this weekend.”
Her smile faltered. “The same weekend you’re moving here?”
I nodded, my throat tight. I missed my girl. A lot.
My mom and Stephen shared a look, but I knew what they were thinking.
The timing was suspect for sure, but I didn’t know what podium her parents could stand on. They’d been reserved about me at first, but somehow that took a turn for the worse. They really didn’t like me now. When I asked Aspen if she knew why, she hadn’t a clue. They weren’t sharing with her or me, so I was guessing maybe they were just being hypocritical.
Aspen said they were repeating history, thinking I was a bad influence. I didn’t know what she meant by that, and she didn’t seem inclined to explain. She started cursing, swearing they couldn’t control her once she got to college, and I’d lose her for a while on one of those tangents. I learned to pick my battles.
Her parents weren’t going to get between us. I wouldn’t let that happen.
But, they were Aspen’s parents, and they were giving a shit about her, and since I was trying to be a better person, I refrained from raising hell in the Monson household.
I also didn’t mind in one sense because they were caring. They were doing their job.
Didn’t mean I didn’t dream sometimes about going in and rocking the boat. Or that sometimes I wanted to upturn it, fling them into the sea, and only offer a paddle if they got off their high horses.
I mean, I felt that way when they picked their weekend to come back to Fallen Crest.
Still. Good guy. I was trying here.
I shrugged. “They can’t lock her in an ivory castle once she gets here.”
Stephen studied me. “You know, your mother knows people who know the Monsons. We could talk to someone if you wanted us to pull some strings.”
I shot him a look. “You think I need your help to see my girlfriend?”
His face went blank. “No, of course not.”
He turned away.
Marie’s eyes narrowed, resting on him before turning to me. “I have friends. I have connections. I can say one thing to Malinda Decraw-Strattan, and trust me, she could turn the Monsons’ world upside down.”
“Don’t, Mom,” I growled.
This was going from decent to nasty in a heartbeat. We were past the unpleasant level, skyrocketing past it.
“But why?” She stepped toward me, gesturing to Stephen. “Your dad—”
“HE’S NOT MY FATHER!”
I’d been quiet.
I’d been silent when I first found out about my real father.
And maybe it wasn’t totally the father thing. Maybe I was more pissed about Aspen’s parents than I wanted to believe, but I was here.
My control snapped.
I didn’t know why. Well, that’s a lie. I knew, but now she was better. Mom was getting better. She wasn’t so broken now, and I wasn’t alone.
“Hey!” Stephen turned back.
“No! You too—shut up.”
“HEY!” He surged for me.
I locked down, flinching, but putting a wall up.
I couldn’t help myself.
Griffith had come at me with punches. He’d rain down on me until he got a good punch in and I saw stars, and then he’d ram my head into whatever was closest—the wall, the corner of a piece of furniture. It didn’t matter.
When I went down, the kicking started.
I was instantly ready for an attack, and they both saw it.
Stephen froze, drawing in a breath. Horror flared over his face. “Son.”
“Honey,” my mother whispered.
I was cornered.
I needed an out.
I looked, but Stephen was blocking the doorway.
He saw where I was looking and drew in another ragged breath before swinging wide, out of the way. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just didn’t want you to disrespect your mother.”
I laughed, and even I winced at the sound coming from me, ’cause that was no laugh. I didn’t know what it was. It was heinous. It was harsh. It was empty.
It was tortured.
But I made the sound anyway, and I couldn’t stop. I shook my head, moving out of the room.
The walls were closing in.
The ceiling coming down.
The floor rising.
I was going to get crushed.
I had to get out.
Get out, get out, GET THE FUCK OUT!
I heard her behind me, but there was a rushing sound in my head.
I could see out the living room window into the parking lot, but I wasn’t really seeing shit.
I was seeing him.
Swinging at me.
Towering over me.
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t handle it.
But then it got worse. I drew in a sharp breath, and I couldn’t breathe.
There was no more air.
I could feel it—kicking, hitting. And I could hear him—the taunts, the threats, the mocking. That fucker liked to tear me down in every fucking way possible.
I could smell it. My skin.
I hadn’t smelled that smell in years. He only did it once, stopping because she caught me, seeing it. I lied, said it was a bully from school. He’d stopped doing it after that, seeing how pissed she got, how she tried to make me identify him at school.
But the scars were still there.
It was like he was still fucking with me. He was still in my head. He was still contaminating my life.
He could still take everything away from me.
I didn’t mean to.
Later I would understand that I’d been in a flashback, but in the moment, a hand touched my arm, and I turned.
I ducked. I grabbed the hand. I twisted, and then my fist was in his face.
It was Griffith I saw. It was Stephen I hit.
The screams didn’t penetrate, not at first.
Not until Griffith was on the floor. Even then I kept swinging.
My knuckles were red.
That got to me first.
They were red and bleeding, and I stumbled back. That wouldn’t be good, not for my first day of practice.
That thought gutted me.
I started laughing, and I fell to the ground.
I pulled my knees up, my elbows resting on them, and lowered my head to cry.
When was the last time I’d cried?
My mom’s voice filtered in, and I turned…I looked…I saw.
I felt nothing now.
I took almost a clinical assessment of the scene.
He’d been beaten to a bloody pulp. My mom went to him, and he pushed her aside.
His eyes were on me, or the one eye that could see.
Stephen pushed himself up. He crawled to me.
I watched him, detached from myself. What was he going to do? Try to hurt me? He was crawling. But then he moved to sit next to me, and he reached around me.
I was ready.
He could do it. He could hurt me. I deserved it this time.
He touched my shoulder and pulled me close—my head to his shoulder, his hand cupping the side of my face.
We sat like that.
I was frozen.
I was in shock.
I had no idea where my mom had gone.
This whole thing had happened in the blink of an eye.
I hurt him. Stephen. Not Griffith.
I’d hurt someone the way Griffith hurt me.
I was like him.
“I’m him,” I muttered.
“No, Blaise. You’re not.” Stephen shook his head, hissing from the pain. “You thought I was him, and you defended yourself. I shouldn’t have touched you. I should’ve read the signs, and I didn’t. I am sorry.”
No. I pushed him away, scooting over at the same time. “That’s fucked up. I just beat your ass, and you’re apologizing to me?”
“Blaise.” He started for me again.
I scooted farther.
It never occurred to me to get up, to stand to my feet.
He kept moving over, and I kept scooting away, kept shaking my head.
I stopped when I hit a corner and couldn’t go any farther.
He kept coming, though.
Finally, I folded in on myself, cowering, trying to hide.
I couldn’t hide.
I couldn’t disappear.
He was still here. Why wouldn’t the fucker go away?
“Blaise, you’ve been through trauma.”
He was still touching me, a hand to my head.
I wanted to shove him off, kick him away, but I didn’t have it in me. I was done. The fight was gone.
He could beat me now, and I wouldn’t raise a finger against him.
I heard crying —my mom. I recognized her voice.
And where was I?
Not a closet, or a room at the New York apartment.
I was in my apartment.
I was under the kitchen table, backed into the corner between the wall and the fridge.
Shit. How had I gotten in here?
“Blaise.” Stephen had crawled under the table with me.
“What are you doing under here?” My voice didn’t sound like mine. It was different, a stranger’s. I didn’t like it, instantly hating what I heard in my tone.
Stephen stared at me a second. “You came under here, so I did too.”
That shit didn’t make sense to me.