Vengeful, p.9

Vengeful, page 9

 

Vengeful
 



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  But as Sydney climbed the steps, her resolve wavered. She hadn’t been around this many people at once, not since she went to visit Serena at college. Right before everything went wrong.

  Syd closed her eyes, could see her sister leaning in the doorway.

  You’re growing up.

  Could feel the weight of Serena’s arms around her.

  I want you to meet Eli.

  The cold of the soda in her hand.

  You can trust him.

  The crack of the gun sounding in the woods.

  “Kawai’i.”

  Syd looked around and saw a dark-skinned girl in gladiator sandals perched on the front porch rail, long legs swinging as she smoked.

  “Or is it chibi?” she went on, nodding at Syd’s costume. “I can never remember . . .”

  The girl offered up the cigarette, and Sydney reached to take it. She’d never smoked, but she’d seen Serena do it.

  The trick is to hold the smoke in your mouth, like this.

  The tip of the cigarette had glowed red, Serena had counted on her fingers one, two, three, and then exhaled a perfect plume of white. Now, Sydney did the same thing.

  The smoke filled her mouth, hot and acrid. It tickled her nose, crept into her throat, and she quickly blew it out before she could start coughing.

  Her head felt cloudy, but her nerves were settling.

  She handed the cigarette back and stepped into the party.

  The house was teeming with students. Dancing, shouting, moving, sprawling. Too many. Too much. She felt jostled by elbows, shoulders, capes, wings, caught up in the sea of bodies, motion.

  Sydney stepped back, trying to get out of the waves, and collided with a man in a black domino mask. Her heart lurched. Eli. Her fingers flew toward her backpack—but it wasn’t him. Of course it wasn’t him. This boy was too short, too wide, his voice too high as he shuffled past her, calling out to a friend across the crowded room.

  Sydney was just starting to relax when someone caught her wrist.

  She spun around to see a tall guy in a metal helmet and skin-tight spandex. “How did you get in here?” He raised her arm, and his voice, at the same time. “Who brought their kid sister?”

  Sydney felt her face flush hot as heads turned.

  “I’m not a kid,” she snarled, pulling free.

  “Yeah, sure, come on,” he said, pushing her toward the front door.

  What Sydney would have given, in that moment, for Victor’s power instead of hers.

  The college boy shoved her across the threshold. “Go trick-or-treat somewhere else.”

  Sydney stood on the front porch, face burning, as the party raged behind her and more guys and girls started up the path to the house.

  Tears threatened to spill down her face. She fought them back.

  “Hey, are you okay?” asked a guy in a cape, kneeling beside her. “You want to call someone—”

  “Fuck off,” said Sydney, marching down the steps, her face on fire.

  She couldn’t go home—not yet. And she couldn’t bring herself to text June, either, so Sydney wandered the town alone for another hour, as the sticky heat finally cooled and the crowds in costumes thinned. She kept the backpack in her hand, the zipper parted and the gun in reach in case anyone tried anything.

  No one did.

  When she finally returned to the apartment, the lights were all off.

  She slipped off her shoes, heard the soft sound of a body shifting on the couch, and turned, expecting to see Mitch.

  But it was Victor, stretched out on the sofa, one arm across his eyes, his chest rising and falling in the slow, steady rhythm of sleep.

  Dol lay on the floor beside him, awake, eyes shining in the dark, tail swishing softly at her arrival.

  As Sydney padded across the apartment, the dog rose and followed in her wake, padding down the hall to her room and climbing up onto her bed without invitation. Syd eased the door shut and slumped back against it.

  A few moments later she heard the soft scrape of furniture, the sound of Victor rising, the soft tread of his own steps as he passed her door, and closed his own.

  He hadn’t been asleep, she realized.

  Victor had simply been waiting for Syd to come home.

  XVII

  FOUR WEEKS AGO

  HALLOWAY

  IT was late, but Sydney wasn’t tired yet—too much sugar in her blood, too many thoughts in her head—and besides, she needed to see the birthday out as well as in.

  It was tradition.

  A memory, like a splinter—of Syd trying to stay awake as the minutes ticked toward midnight. Serena poking her in the ribs every time she started to doze.

  Come on, Syd. You’re almost there. It’s bad luck to fall asleep. Get up and dance with me.

  Sydney shook her head, trying to dislodge her sister’s voice. She turned in a slow circle before the mirror, letting her blue hair fan around her face, and then tugged off the wig and undid the clips beneath. Her natural hair—a curtain of straight white-blond—came free, falling almost to her shoulders.

  Syd caught her reflection again, but this time out of the corner of her eye.

  Sometimes, if she squinted a little, she could almost, almost see someone else in the mirror.

  Someone with sharper cheekbones, fuller lips, a mouth tugged into a sly grin. The ghost of her sister. An echo. But then the illusion would falter, and Sydney’s eyes would come back into focus, and all she would see was a girl playing dress-up.

  * * *

  SYDNEY shed the red bomber jacket and unlaced the steel-toed boots, turning her attention to Victor’s gift. She took up the blue box and carried it to the room’s small desk. Dol watched from the floor as she carefully lifted the box’s lid, examining the contents. The bird’s small skeleton was immaculate, intact. It looked like something out of a natural history museum—knowing Victor, it probably was.

  Syd sat down, ran her fingers thoughtfully over the bird’s wing, and wondered how old it was. The longer a thing had been dead, she’d learned, the harder it was to bring back. And the less of it remained, the more brittle its life was. So likely to crumble, or break, and when it did, it was gone forever. No second chances.

  Nothing to grab hold of.

  Sydney glanced at the red metal tin beside her bed. And then she took up a pair of tweezers and began removing bones, erasing the bird one piece at a time, until only a few fragments remained. The long bone at the top of one wing. A section of the spine. The heel of one foot.

  She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, resting her hand on the partial skeleton.

  And then, she reached.

  At first she felt nothing beyond the bones under her palm. But she imagined herself reaching further, deeper, past the bird and the case and the desk, plunging her hand down into cold, empty space.

  Her lungs began to ache. The chill spread through her fingers and up her arms, sharp and biting, and when she breathed out she could feel the plume of cold, like fog, on her lips. Light danced—far off and faint—behind her eyes, and her fingers brushed something, the barest hint of a thread. Syd pulled gently, gingerly. She kept her eyes closed, but she could feel the small skeleton beginning to rebuild, the ripple of muscle, of skin, the blush of feathers.

  Almost—

  But then she pulled just a little too hard.

  The thread vanished.

  The fragile light behind her eyes went out.

  Sydney blinked, withdrew her hand, and saw the remains of the bird, its fragile skeleton now beyond repair. The bones—so carefully arranged in their velvet—were split and broken, the pile she’d set aside caving in, crumbling under their own weight.

  She still wasn’t strong enough.

  Still wasn’t ready.

  When she moved to touch the bones, they fell apart, leaving only an ashy streak on the blue velvet lining, a pile of dust on her desk.

  Ruined, thought Sydney, sweeping the remains into the trash.

  XV
III

  FOUR WEEKS AGO

  MERIT CENTRAL HOSPITAL

  I will ruin you.

  I will ruin.

  I will.

  I—

  Marcella opened her eyes.

  She was greeted by sterile fluorescent lights, the antiseptic smell of scrubbed surfaces, and the papery thread count of hospital sheets. Marcella knew she shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t even be alive. But her pulse registered, a wavering green line on the machine beside her head, inexorable proof that she was. She drew a deep breath, and then cringed. Her lungs and throat felt raw, her skull pounding even through the high-grade painkillers being piped into her veins.

  Marcella tested her fingers and toes, rolled her head gingerly side to side with calm precision and—she commended herself—startling composure. She had long ago learned to compartmentalize her feelings, shove the inconvenient and the unbecoming into the back of her mind like an old dress in a dark closet.

  Her fingers crept along the sheets, and she tried to pull herself up, but at the slightest movement she was assaulted by her own body—her bruised and broken ribs, her burned and blistered skin. Marcella had also learned to embrace the various stings and aches and sears that went hand in hand with maintaining her appearance.

  But this pain put those nips and tucks, those elected inconveniences, to shame.

  This pain made a home in her skin, in her bones, moved like molten fire through her blood, her limbs. But instead of cringing away, Marcella focused in.

  She once had a yoga instructor who compared the mind to a house. Marcella had rolled her eyes at the time, but now she imagined going room to room, switching off the lights. Here was fear, switch. Here was panic, switch. Here was confusion, switch.

  Here was pain.

  Here was anger.

  Here was her husband, that cheating fuck.

  Here was him slamming her head into the table.

  Here was his arm sweeping the candles.

  Here was her voice breaking, her lungs filling with smoke.

  Here was his back as he walked away, and left her to die.

  That light, she left on. She marveled at the way it grew brighter inside her head, at the warmth that came with it, rippling through her skin. Her fingers tightened on the bedrail. It went soft under her palm, the smooth metal rusting away, a red stain spreading along the steel. By the time she noticed, pulled away, a section the length of her forearm was already ruined, flaking onto the bed.

  Marcella stared, uncomprehending.

  She looked from her hand to the metal, and back, felt the heat still wicking off her skin. She clutched the thin hospital sheets instead, but they crumbled too, the fabric rotting away in the span of a breath, leaving only a patina of ash behind.

  Marcella raised both hands now, not in surrender, but in fascination, the palms turned up toward her face, searching for an explanation, a fundamental change, and finding only her own ruined manicure, a familiar hand-shaped bruise going green around her wrist, a white hospital band with the wrong name printed on it: Melinda Pierce.

  Marcella frowned. The other details were all correct—she recognized her age, her date of birth—but it seemed someone had entered her into the system under a false name. Which meant they didn’t want Marcus to know she was here. Or to know she was alive. A reasonable choice, she thought, considering the events of earlier that night. Or was it tomorrow? Time felt muddy.

  The wounds felt fresh enough.

  Without the sheets, she could see the bandages tracing their way up her legs, winding across her stomach, around her shoulder, the mirror image of a candelabra burned into her—

  A police radio went off, the sharp static setting it apart from the dozens of other hospital sounds. Marcella’s attention flicked to the door. It was closed, but through the glass insert she spotted a cop’s uniform.

  Slowly, Marcella managed to draw herself up from the bed, despite the various cables and cords connecting her to the medical bay. Her hand reached for the IV stand before she remembered the stretch of rusted steel, the crumbling sheet. She hesitated, but her palm felt cool again, and as her fingers closed around the plastic cord nothing terrible happened. Gingerly, Marcella disconnected the line and then, careful not to dislodge the heart monitor, she reached around and pulled the power cord instead.

  The machines went quiet, their screens black.

  Marcella’s hospital gown hung loose, a mercy given the contact with her tender skin, but also a hindrance: she couldn’t slip out wearing nothing but a sheet.

  A sterile white wardrobe stood in the corner, and she went to it, irrationally hoping to find her clothes, her purse, her keys, but of course it was empty.

  Beyond the door, she heard a gruff voice.

  “. . . still hasn’t woken up . . . no, we’ve kept it off the news . . . I’ve already called WITSEC . . .”

  Marcella sneered. WITSEC. She hadn’t designed this life, built a future from nothing, just to spend it hiding. And she’d be damned if she disappeared before her husband. Marcella turned, surveying the room, but there was nothing but the one door, and a window looking out over Merit from at least six stories up.

  One room, one door. One window.

  And two walls.

  Marcella picked the one opposite her bed, pressed her ear to the wall, and heard nothing—just the steady beep of more hospital equipment.

  She brought her fingers to the plaster, barely touching.

  Nothing happened.

  Slowly, Marcella pressed her palm flat against the wall. Nothing. She glared at her hand, the nails cracked where her desperate fingers had dug into the silk-threaded carpet, clawed at the wood floor—

  Her hand began to glow. Marcella watched the wall beneath her fingers warping, rotting, drywall slouching as if with damp, or gravity, or time, until a broad hole formed between the rooms, large enough to step through.

  Marcella marveled, then, at her hand, at the damage it had done. So it wasn’t a matter of force, but feeling.

  That was fine.

  Marcella had quite a lot of feelings.

  She drew the power back into her chest, as if it were a breath. There it burned, less like a fuse than a pilot light. Steady and waiting.

  Marcella stepped through the ruined wall, and into the next room.

  The door to the room was ajar, and the woman in the bed—Alice Tolensky, according to the clipboard—was three inches shorter than Marcella and a good thirty pounds heavier.

  Her clothes hung in the small, hospital-issued wardrobe.

  Marcella wrinkled her nose as she considered the slip-on flats, the frills on the collar of the flower-printed blouse, the jeans with their elastic waist.

  But beggars couldn’t be choosers. Marcella was grateful for the room in the jeans when she had to pull them on. She stifled a breath as the denim grazed her bandages, then turned her attention back to the closet.

  A knockoff leather purse slumped on the shelf. Marcella rifled through the contents and came up with a hundred dollars in cash and a pair of glasses.

  She finished getting dressed, tugged her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck, slipped on the glasses, and stepped into the hall. The cop in front of her door was picking at a bandage on his hand. He didn’t look up as Marcella turned and left.

  A queue of taxis waited outside the hospital.

  She climbed into the nearest one.

  “Address?” rumbled the driver.

  “The Heights.” It was the first time she’d spoken, and her voice was raw from smoke, a fraction lower and edged with the luscious rasp that so many starlets craved. “On Grand.”

  The car pulled away, and Marcella leaned back against the leather seat.

  She had always been good under pressure.

  Other women could afford to panic, but being a mob wife required a certain level of poise. It meant staying calm. Or at least feigning calm.

  At the moment, Marcella didn’t feel like she was feigning anything. There was no fear
, no doubt. Her head wasn’t spinning. She didn’t feel lost. If anything, this road she was on felt paved and straight, the end lit by a single, blinding light.

  And beneath that light stood Marcus Andover Riggins.

  II

  REVELATION

  I

  FOURTEEN YEARS AGO

  UNIVERSITY OF MERIT

  EVERYONE was shitfaced.

  Marcella sat on the kitchen counter, her heels knocking absently against the cabinets as she watched them stumble past, sloshing drinks and shouting to be heard. The house was filled with music, bodies, stale booze and cheap cologne, and all the other inane trappings of a college frat party. Her friends had convinced her to come, with the weak argument that it was just what students did, that there would be free beer and hot guys and it would be fun.

  Those same girls were lost somewhere in the mass of bodies. Every now and then she thought she caught a glimpse of a familiar blond bob, a high brown ponytail. Then again, there were a dozen of them. Cookie-cutter college kids. More concerned with blending in than standing out.

  Marcella Renee Morgan was not having fun.

  She was nursing a beer in a glass bottle, and she was bored—bored by the music, and the boys who swaggered over every now and then to flirt, and then stormed away, sulking, when she turned them down. She was bored by being called beautiful, and then a bitch. Stunning, and then stuck up. A ten, and then a tease.

  Marcella had always been pretty. The kind of pretty people couldn’t ignore. Bright blue eyes and pitch-black hair, a heart-shaped face atop the lean, clean lines of a model. Her father told her she’d never have to work. Her mother said she’d have to work twice as hard. In a way, both of them were right.

  Her body was the first thing people saw.

  For most, it seemed to be the last thing, too.

  “You’re think you’re better than me?” a drunken senior had slurred at her earlier.

 
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