Relentless, page 1part #1 of Shattered Hearts Series
None of this would be possible without you.
Mom is too tired to play hide-and-seek. Her stomach hurts so she took some medicine to make it feel better. I don’t like it when she’s sick. Grandma Patty doesn’t know about Mom’s stomachaches and I haven’t seen Grandma in a few weeks, but I’m starting to think I should tell her.
Mom is asleep on the sofa; at least, I think she’s asleep. I can’t really tell the difference anymore. Sometimes, when I think she’s sleeping, I’ll try to sneak some cookies out of the cupboard. She usually hears me and yells at me to get out of the kitchen. Sometimes, she sleeps with her eyes half-open so I wave my hands in front of her eyes and make silly faces at her. She never wakes up and I always get bored after a couple of minutes. It’s no fun teasing someone unless there’s someone else around to laugh, and it’s just Mom and me in this house.
Her skinny arm is stretched out over the edge of the sofa cushion and I stare at the bandage. It’s too small to cover that big sore. One of those things she calls an abscess opened last night while she was making me a grilled cheese sandwich. Some thick, brown stuff oozed out of her arm. It reminded me of the glaze on maple donuts, but it didn’t smell anything like a maple donut. The whole kitchen smelled like stinky feet when she put her arm under the water in the sink. Then she wrapped a billion paper towels around her arm and I had to eat a burnt sandwich.
She didn’t want to go to the doctor. She said that if she goes to the emergency room and shows them her arm the doctors might make her stay in the hospital for a long time. Then I’ll have to live with people I don’t know, people who might hurt me, until she gets better. My mom loves me a lot. She doesn’t want anybody to hurt me the way she was hurt when she was nine.
Mom teaches me a lot. She isn’t just my mom; she’s my teacher. When she isn’t sick, she teaches me math and spelling, but my favorite subject is science. I love learning about the planets the most. I want to be an astronomer when I grow up. Mom said that I can be anything I want to be if I just keep reading and learning. So that’s what I do when she’s sick. I read.
She’s been asleep for a long time today. I’ve already read two chapters in my science book. Maybe I should try to wake her up. I’m hungry. I can make myself some cereal—I am seven—but Mom promised she’d make me spaghetti today.
I slide off the recliner and land on the mashed beige carpet that Mom always says is too dirty for me to sit on. I take two steps until I’m standing just a few inches away from her face. Her skin looks weird, sort of grayish-blue.
“Mom?” I whisper. “I’m hungry.”
Something smells like a toilet and I wonder if it’s the stinky abscess on her arm. I shake her shoulder a little and her head falls sideways. A glob of thick, white liquid spills from the corner of her mouth.
The memory dissolves as someone calls my name.
The cash register comes into focus as the rich aroma of espresso replaces the acrid stench in my memory. I’ve done it again. For the third time this week, I’ve spaced out while taking someone’s order. The last two customers were understanding, but this guy in his Tap Out T-shirt and veins bulging out of his smooth bald head looks like he’s ready to jump over the counter and either strangle me or get his own coffee.
“Sorry, about that. What was your order?”
“Wake the fuck up, blondie. I asked for an Americano with two Splendas. Jesus fucking Christ. There are people with serious jobs who need to get to work.”
I take a deep breath, my fingers trembling, as I punch the order in on the touchscreen. “Will that be all?”
Baldy rolls his eyes at me. “Yes, that’s all. Come on, come on. I gotta get the fuck out of here.”
“Hey, take it easy. She’s just trying to take your order,” says a voice. I don’t look up, but I can hear it came from the back of the line of customers.
“I already gave her my order three fucking times,” Baldy barks over his shoulder. “Mind your own fucking business.”
Linda comes up from behind me, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder as she sets the guy’s Americano on the counter next to the bag holding his multigrain scone. She doesn’t say anything, but the nasty look she casts in his direction could make an ultimate fighting champion piss his pants. Linda is the best boss in the world and one of the many reasons I still work at Beachcombers Café. All the other reasons I still work at one of the tiniest cafés in Wrightsville Beach have to do mostly with my desire to disappear after dropping out of UNC Chapel Hill ten months ago. But that’s a whole other story.
Baldy peels the lid off his coffee, rolling his eyes as he peers into the cup. “I said I wanted room for cream. Are you all fucking retarded?”
Before I could reach for the cup, a guy in a suit steps out of line, grabs the cup off the counter, and dumps the entire contents into Baldy’s scone bag. A loud collective gasp echoes through the café.
“Now you’ve got plenty of room for cream,” the guy says.
I clap my hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh as Linda scrambles to get some paper towels.
The rage in Baldy’s eyes is terrifying. “You motherfucker!” he roars as my white knight grins.
And what a sexy white knight he is. Even in his pressed shirt and slacks, he can’t be more than twenty-two. He has an easygoing vibe about him, as if he’d rather be surfing than wearing a suit at seven in the morning. With his sun-kissed brown hair and the devious gleam in his green eyes, he reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio in one of my favorite movies, Titanic.
Baldy charges my Jack Dawson, but Jack swiftly steps aside at the last moment. Baldy trips spectacularly over a waist high display of mugs and coffee beans. All six people in the café are now standing silent as Baldy spits curses at the cracked mugs and spilled beans underneath him.
I look at my white knight and he’s smiling at me, a sneaky half-smile, and I know what he’s about to do.
Before Baldy can get to his feet, Jack drops a few hundred-dollar bills on the counter. “For the damages.”
He winks at me as he steps on Baldy’s back then hurries toward the exit with no coffee, just a huge grin that makes everybody laugh and cheer. He gives us a quick bow, showing his appreciation to the crowd, and slips through the door as Baldy lumbers to his feet.
My gaze follows Jack as he slides into his truck, one of the newer models that looks like something conceived in the wet dreams of a roughneck and a Star Wars geek. He pulls out of the parking lot and disappears down Lumina Avenue.
I have a strong urge to whisper, “I’ll never let go, Jack,” but I’m pretty good at keeping my urges to mutter lines from Titanic to myself; especially when there’s a six-foot-two ‘roided out freak staring me down. Something snaps inside me as I remember what started this whole fiasco.
I step aside so Linda can take over and I skitter away through the swinging door into the stockroom. I unfold a metal chair and sit down next to a small desk where Linda does the scheduling. Pulling my legs up, I sit cross-legged on the chair, place my hands on my knees, and close my eyes. I take a long, deep breath, focusing on nothing but the oxygen as it enters my lungs. I let the breath out slowly. A few more deep breaths and the whole incident in the café never happened.
Some people are addicted to heroin. Others are addicted to coffee. I’m addicted to meditation. No, not medication. Meditation.
Meditation doesn’t just relax me; it helps me forget. It’s like a friend you can count on to say just the right thing at the right time when that thing you want them to say is nothing. Meditation is the friend who intervenes when you’re about to say or do something very stupid. Like three months ago, when meditation saved me from ta
I haven’t been to a party with my best friend Yesenia Navarro in ten months. The last time was the Halloween bash at Joey Nassau’s house where I got stuck talking to Joey’s thirty-something cousin who spent three hours attempting to convince me to go back to school. I want to go to tonight’s party at Annabelle Mezza’s house about as much as I want to eat a spoonful of cinnamon. Tonight’s party will be packed with all the people I have been successfully avoiding for ten months.
“I’ll be velcroed to your side the whole night,” Senia assures me as I gather my purse and a bottle of water from the kitchen counter.
Senia thinks I’m a freak because I never leave the house without at least one bottle of water. I’ve spent enough time avoiding the various other substances my mother abused. She could hardly call an addiction to water and meditating a bad thing. This doesn’t stop her from trying. And true to best friend form, every day when she comes home from work she still brings me a six-pack of my drug of choice. To say that I love living with my best friend would be a huge understatement.
“Whatever,” I mutter. “It’s just down the street. I’ll walk home if things get too uncomfortable.”
“Speaking of uncomfortable.” Senia cocks an eyebrow as she examines my outfit: faded skinny jeans, a plain white tank top, a green hoodie that’s three sizes too big, and a five-year-old pair of black Converse. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
Senia could be a supermodel with her perfectly tanned skin, dark tousled hair, and spot-on fashion sense. At five-ten, she towers over my five-foot-six frame in her four-inch heels. She has the perfect button nose and full lips that I’ve always dreamed of having. My blonde hair is too thin, my nose is too small, and my upper lip is too big. Senia says it gives me a sexy pout, but she only says that to make me feel better. I’m average and I’ve learned to not only accept it, I embrace it.
“Don’t make me say it,” I reply as I unscrew the cap on the bottle of water and take a swig.
She holds up her hand to stop me. “Please don’t. And, by the way, that has to be the worst motto ever adopted by any person ever in the history of all mankind.”
I pull my keys out of my purse to lock the front door as we make our way out of the apartment. “You might be exaggerating just a little bit.”
Her heels click against the pavement and I inhale a huge breath of briny ocean breeze as we walk to the covered parking spot where Senia keeps her new black Ford Focus. She isn’t rolling in cash, but her parents make pretty good money with the real-estate company where their entire family works. She works in one of their satellite offices in Wilmington while the rest of the family works at the main office in Raleigh. Her parents pay her half of the rent on our apartment, her entire UNC tuition, and she gets a new car every two years on her birthday. Nothing fancy, but new.
“I get it,” Senia says as she deactivates her car alarm and we slide into our seats. “You don’t want to be a shallow, vacuous piece of shit like Joanie Tipton. But that doesn’t mean that you have to dress for a party like you’re going to work on a fucking construction site.”
“Hey, I resent that. I left my tool belt at home this time,” I tease her and she rolls her eyes as she turns on the stereo to her favorite EDM station.
An Ellie Goulding dance mix blasts through the speakers and Senia immediately begins bobbing her head as she pulls the car out of the parking space. She maneuvers her car around the moving truck that’s half-blocking the exit out of the complex. Cora, our eighty-six-year-old landlord, must have finally found a tenant for the upstairs apartment.
“Claire!” Senia shouts as she pulls onto Lumina. “You need to renew your driver’s license!”
“Senia! I live four hundred feet from where I work and I don’t have a car. I don’t need a driver’s license just so I can be your designated driver.”
I sold my car when I moved to Wrightsville Beach two and a half months ago to pay for the first and last month’s rent on my apartment. Senia moved in three weeks later, once the semester ended. She claimed she did it so we could spend the summer together on the hottest surf beach on the East Coast, but I know it’s so she can help me with the rent for a few months. The summer is halfway over now and she’ll be moving back in with her parents in a month to go back to UNC. If I don’t find another roommate or convince Linda to give me more hours at the café, I may be homeless in six months—for the third time in my life.
As soon as Senia pulls up in front of Annabelle’s parents’ beach house, I smell the beer and hear the laughter. My chest tightens. I focus my eyes on the water bottle in my hand, forcing myself to think of nothing else as I breathe deeply and slowly. Senia is quiet as she waits for me. She’s used to my coping mechanisms.
The edges of my vision blur and everything but the bottle disappears. I think about how water is the essential element for life to flourish. I think of how it soothes and carries us, cleanses and quenches us. I imagine the water washing away every worry, every doubt about tonight and carrying it away to a clear, tranquil sea. I close my eyes and take one final deep breath as my muscles go slack and I’m completely relaxed.
I nod once and reach for the door handle. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
“I don’t know how you do that, but it’s kind of creepy and inspiring all at once.”
Senia and I stroll up the walkway arm-in-arm past the lush summer garden toward the blue, two-story clapboard beach house. I spot a group of five guys standing on the porch with red Solo cups and cigarettes clutched in their hands. From his profile, I recognize the short Indian guy leaning against the porch railing. He was in the sophomore Comp Lit class I dropped out of last October. I turn my head slightly as Senia and I climb the steps to the front door, hoping none of them will recognize me.
Senia pulls open the squeaky screen door and I choke on the sweet smell of alcohol and perfume. We step further inside and the first thing I see is a gathering of a dozen or so people huddled around the sofa where a guy with a guitar is playing and singing a Jason Mraz song.
This memory is too strong to fight.
I walk through the tall door into my ninth and final foster home. As luck would have it, the woman I called Grandma Patty eight years ago was actually just a neighbor. I had no family to take me in after my mother died. I’m only fifteen, but I’m already more jaded and cynical than my forty-something caseworker. She flat out told me that this would be my last placement. If I screw this one up, I’ll be sent to a halfway house until I turn sixteen in four months. The moment I step into the living room, I know I’ll be seeing the inside of that halfway house soon.
Three guys sit around a coffee table, two of them on the sofa and one cross-legged on the floor with a guitar in his lap. The one with the guitar wears a gray beanie and his dark hair falls around his face in jagged wisps. He’s humming a tune I recognize as a Beatles song my mom used to play whenever she cleaned the house: “I Want You.”
The thud of my backpack hitting the floor gets his attention and he looks straight into my eyes. “Are you Claire?” he asks. His voice is smooth with just a touch of a rasp.
I nod and he immediately sets his guitar down on the floor in front of him. My body tenses as he walks toward me—as my “training” kicks in. The reason I’ve been in and out of foster homes for the past eight years since my mom OD’d is because of everything she taught me.
From as far back as I can remember, my mother taught me never to trust men or boys. She was so honest and candid with me about the things her uncle did to her from the time she was nine until she was fourteen. She told me all the things to look out for, all the promises these predators would make. The most important thing to remember, she told me, was to never let them think you were a victim because that was when they pounced.
I followed my mom’s advice for eight years and I hadn’t been so much as hugged the wrong way. I’d kept mys
He grabs the handle of my backpack and nods toward the stairs. “I’m Chris. I’ll take you to your room.”
Senia shakes my arm and the living room comes back into focus. “Are you okay?”
I nod quickly and she gives me a tight smile. She knows what just happened, but she’s willing to shrug it off because she knows that’s exactly what I need tonight. No long talks about getting over the past or seeing a shrink. People have endured far worse than I have. There’s devastating famine and wars being waged across the globe. I have nothing to complain about—except the fact that I really don’t want to be here tonight.
I spend the entire night hiding my face every time someone I recognize enters the room or explaining how I dropped out because I couldn’t pay my student loans. No one here knows the truth. The one smart thing I did last year was drop out before word could spread around campus.
At twenty minutes past midnight, Joanie Tipton finally enters the living room and casts a lazy smile in my direction, and now it’s time to leave. Joanie is the only person here, besides Senia, who knows why I dropped out. I had to beg Joanie, on my knees, not to tell anybody. It was the second most humiliating moment of my life.
I grab Senia’s arm and whisper into her ear, “Don’t look now. Mr. Jones just arrived. I have to get out of here.”
Mr. Jones is the nickname Senia gave Joanie after she got a chin implant the summer before our sophomore year and we decided she now looks like a transvestite version of Bridget Jones. She even has Renee Zellweger’s scrunched eyes. It would be funnier if she didn’t hold my secret in her French-manicured hands.
“I’ll take you home,” she whispers back and I shake my head adamantly.
“No! I’m just going to sleep. You don’t need to come home for that. I’ll walk.”
Her eyebrows furrow and she nods. “Breaking all the rules tonight, huh?” She’s referring to the fact that I never walk the streets alone at night. “I know you’re sleeping in so I guess I’ll see you when I get back on Monday. Love you.”
I kiss the top of her head as I rise from the sofa and scoot past her. I glare at Joanie from across the room as I leave, though she isn’t looking at me. She’s already engaged in a flirtation with a guy who’s at least ten years older than us. God, I wish I had a secret on her.
I duck out of the house and pretend to adjust my bangs as I pass a couple making out next to a car in the driveway. The last thing I need is to be recognized as I’m leaving. As soon as I’m out of the couple’s line of sight, I pick up my pace. Our apartment is only two and a half blocks away. The only reason Senia drove here is because of her monstrous heels.
I rush out into the crosswalk, eager to get away from the party—and the memories. I don’t see the headlights until it’s too late.
The tires squeal, skidding across the asphalt as the truck plunges toward me. I’m frozen as I wait for the impact. I close my eyes and the first and only thought that crosses my mind is that this was inevitable. I’m finally being punished for my sins.
The squealing stops and my nose fills with the stench of burnt rubber. I open my eyes as I feel the heat of the engine against my arm. The grille of the truck is inches away from me and a cloud of smoke surrounds the front of the truck. I hear a car door opening, but I can’t see anyone approaching through the smoke until he’s right in front of me, Jack Dawson.
“Are you all right?” he asks. I’m shaking with adrenaline, but I don’t have a scratch on me. I nod and he grabs my arms. “You look like you’re in shock. I should take you to the hospital.”
“No!” I shout as I shrug my arms out of his grasp. “I’m fine. I just want to go home.”
“I’ll take you.”
“You almost killed me!”
He lets out a sheepish chuckle and it infuriates me. “Which is why you should let me take you home, so you don’t step in front of any more moving vehicles.”
“You think it’s funny that you almost murdered me?”
“It would have been manslaughter. And, hey, I saved you from that ‘roid junkie this morning. I guess this balances that out. Now everything is right with the universe.” I curl my lip in disgust and he smiles as he nods toward the cabin of the truck. “Come on. I’ve already tried to manslaughter you once tonight. I promise I won’t try again for at least another twelve hours. You’re safe for now.”
I roll my eyes as I walk toward the passenger door. He skips after me and opens the door for me to climb in. I step into the truck, using the handgrip to pull myself up, and bounce down into the seat. It smells like the coconut-scented sunblock I’ve had to purchase by the case since moving to Wrightsville Beach. He shuts the door and I flinch, still jumpy from nearly being mowed down by this monster.
He slides into the driver’s seat, but his hands make no move for the ignition. “Why were you running across the street in the middle of the night without looking both ways?”
“I was just walking home from a party. Can we go now?”
“A party? Are you drunk?”
“I don’t drink.”
He cocks an eyebrow as he studies me, as if his gaze is the equivalent of a Breathalyzer test.
“Hey, I’m not going to sue you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried.”
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