2014: Valentine’s Day
Read any time.
Point of View: Multiple
Featured Characters: George Polk, Knucker Polk, Lexi Ryan, Jacob Ryan, Angela Mercy, Caleb Whelan, Michael Hightower, Tasha Gniewek, Leo Lanier, Ramona, Julian Hollinger
Word Count: 5835
Where was everyone on last Valentine’s Day?
There was hot pink glitter on Sheriff Polk’s favorite armchair.
“You,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at his son. A moment later, his opposite hand mirrored the gesture—this time at his son’s partner-in-crime. “And you. What did I tell you kids when I let you past the front door with all that crap?”
“Uh,” Knucker answered, freezing with the tip of his Sharpie hovering just above a sheet of red construction paper. Gee, thank god George had spent all that money on college application fees. It figured that Knucker could solve calculus and advanced physics equations in his head, but all he could say when he got in trouble was uh.
“I said keep it in the kitchen where there’s tile that can be mopped. Does this—” He waved one hand around his den, which was now littered in scraps of paper and a shitload of craft supplies, “—look like the kitchen to you two knuckleheads?”
“There’s not enough room at the kitchen table.” complained Lexi, gesturing her hands at their work station as evidence.
The pair had gotten together for the dubious endeavor of making Valentine’s cards. It didn’t seem to matter that the two of them were just months away from the end of their junior year, nor that the sole recipient of the silly things would be Knucker’s Nana. While Knucker was busy scribbling away on the traditional red and pink heart shapes, Lexi’s valentine project was a little more morbidly humorous. She’d gone all out with elaborate cutouts of black “lace” and tiny red bows.
“Besides, Dad said it’s easier to vacuum up glitter than to mop it.”
That statement came out just in time for Jacob Ryan to walk into the room, wearing the irritated look of a man just thrown under a bus. He held up his hands. (Well, a hand. The other hand was occupied with a couple of beers.)
“That’s when I thought this nonsense was going to be in MY kitchen. Sheriff’s house, Sheriff’s rules.” He spun a finger at their mess, the final warning for them to take it elsewhere. Jacob ignored Lexi’s huff of resignation and passed the Sheriff one of his bottles. When it came to teenagers, you had to pick your battles.
“Jesus,” George sighed as soon as the kids were out of earshot, taking the proffered beer and tipping it back. He shared a commiserating glance with Jacob. “Where did we go wrong?”
His mother kept telling him that he ought to have sent Knucker off to one of those wilderness camps. You’re too soft on the boy, said Nana. You spoil him. George’s mother was a veritable dragon, but maybe she had half a point. It wasn’t normal for seventeen-year-olds to be this into Kindergarten-level crafts.
He brushed glitter off the arm of his chair and chose his seat carefully. (The last thing the Sheriff needed was to show up with a sparkly uniform to the police station. Those chucklefucks would have a field day.) His other hand made a sweeping motion towards the faded plaid sofa.
“Pull up a spot and stay awhile. They’ll be all night.”
Lexi’s father had a lot of ideas about where he himself went wrong, but most of them involved a lot of unpleasant comments about his ex-wife that really didn’t apply to Sheriff Polk’s situation or to his dork of a son. Truth be told, if it weren’t for the boy, Jacob was certain Lexi would’ve been worse for wear. The girl was too much like her mother. If she wanted to spend the evening with the Sheriff’s son making valentine cards for a crazy old woman, the world was better off for it.
Jacob lowered himself down to the sofa with a creak of bones and a wince. He took a long swallow from his bottle, and then spent a good minute rotating his neck to work out a few more kinks. He wasn’t that much older than Polk, but hell, did he look it and feel it. There must have been something about raising daughters that aged a man ten years faster.
“Could be worse.” he finally said, “It could be their 8th grade middle school dance all over again.”
“Thank God it isn’t. That dance was a fiasco.” George remembered the evening all too well. He had actually had the night off and for some godforsaken reason had agreed to be a chaperone.
He also remembered the talk that he’d had with Knucker before that dance.
“…Do you think they’re ever going to hit puberty?” he asked, taking another long draft of his beer and easing back until his shoulder rested against the wall. He jerked his thumb toward the kitchen. “Because when they do, I have this bad fucking feeling that it’s going to be messy, Jacob. And a lot harder to clean up than glitter.”
The groan that escaped Jacob couldn’t have been comforting. He relaxed, spreading his legs out and tilting his head back against the sofa to stare up at the textured ceiling.
“If she’s anything like her mother, every son in Silent Pines is a dead man. Apologies in advance,” he admitted with a grunt, following it up by downing half his beer in one long swallow. When he dropped his arm, he was still holding the bottle by its neck and tapping the glass against his knee.
“She’s been calling again. Abbie,” Jacob said after a long stretch of silence. He wiped his hand over his mouth as if even saying the woman’s name left a bad taste. “She wants to visit Alexa this summer and I told her to eat shit. Maybe she needs her mom; I don’t know. Just can’t help but think it’s a shit idea.”
“It is a shit idea. That woman needs to stay out of Lexi’s life,” the sheriff growled. And Jacob’s life, for that matter. George didn’t believe for one moment that Abbie Thorne gave two shits about her daughter. She just wanted to screw with her ex-husband and leave his friends to mop up the mess again.
In the background, Knucker yelped.
“H-Hey! Lexi, give it back—”
George gave Jacob a sidelong glance.
“You know it’s too late for apologies in that department, right?” He pointed a finger square at Jacob’s chest. “And I feel like maybe I’m the one who should be threatening you with the shotgun.”
Jacob laughed. He did sound at least a little abashed, but mostly just wearily amused.
“What do you want me to do about it, Polk? Start planning a wedding?”
Jacob wasn’t an idiot. Everyone in town could see it written all over the Polk kid’s face every time he looked at the girl. Except Lexi herself. For as long as Jacob could remember, Lexi had always required something to almost literally hit her in the face before she got the picture.
Truth be told, he was kind of glad about that. Even if he ignored his ex-wife’s influence, no father wanted to see his daughter get mixed up with boys. As much as he liked Knucker Polk, Jacob still wasn’t ready to see his girl start hooking up with anybody. If she was too oblivious to realize she was becoming a pretty adult, that was fine by him.
Lexi’s hysterical laughter rang out and Knucker’s grumbling followed. Yeah, he was definitely fine with this.
“Didn’t take you for the sentimental type, George,” he teased, taking another swig of his beer. “They’re good kids. They’ll figure it all out.”
“Man do I hope you’re right about that.”
George didn’t think “sentimental” was the right word here. “Pessimistic” was more in the ballpark.
“Hey, Dad?” Knucker poked his head around the corner. There was a smudge of what looked suspiciously like black Sharpie on his cheek. A minute later, Lexi’s head popped up behind him. “Is it okay if I drive Lexi to go get burgers or something? The fridge is kinda… empty again. We’ll bring it right back here.”
Shit. Had he still not gotten out to the store this week? He’d better do that tomorrow. Knucker was a growing teenager; he couldn’t subsist on freezer pops and a jug of milk.
“Yeah, sure kid. Bring me back some fries.” A little self-inflicted guilt at his parenting skills never failed to motivate George to grab for the wallet and pull out a few bucks. Thank God Knucker hadn’t ever figured that out, and wasn’t the type to abuse it even if he did. Lexi might have been a concern with that devious curl of a grin creeping up on her features, but she shaped up the second Jacob glared squint-eyed at her. Knucker didn’t even notice.
“Oh, I didn’t mean—Yeah, okay. Thanks!” And off they went.
The honest-to-God truth was that Knucker was such a good kid. George didn’t know how that had happened, but he was eternally grateful.
“Let’s drink to our kids never hitting puberty, actually,” he commented, reaching over to clink his bottle against Jacob’s.
Yeah. George would be just fine with that scenario.
For the first time ever, Angela actually had a boyfriend for the most romantic day of the year: Valentine’s Day.
The problem was that Caleb Whelan was not exactly the most aggressive guy on the planet. She had to practically STALK him at first to get him on a date, and even though their relationship since then was nothing but sweetness and good times, Angela was starting to feel like something was missing.
Probably because she was SIXTEEN, her boyfriend was SUPER HOT, and they STILL hadn’t had sex yet.
Today she had the perfect plan to fix this. Operation: Seduce Caleb.
That was why, despite being right in the dead of winter, Angela Mercy was dressed in barely anything at all: just a trench coat wrapped around a flimsy little silk nightgown and a pair of spiky heels. She was perched on the hood of Caleb’s truck—and freezing her scrawny little ass off, but she looked hot as hell. What guy DIDN’T want to get a surprise like this? Angela even had a sack of goodies, complete with champagne stolen from Margrit, a box of chocolate-covered strawberries, and condoms. You couldn’t have a sexy night without plenty of condoms.
In hindsight, maybe she should have given him some kind of warning that she was showing up, because it was taking him forever to come outside. His dad could show up at any minute and then Angela would be in REAL trouble.
At long last, though, the side door of the house swung open and her boyfriend emerged. And oh man, he’d cleaned up for their date. Caleb’s short black hair was still wet from a shower and sticking to his face in places, and he’d actually put on a real button-down for once instead of one of the same ten t-shirts that he kept in his dresser. Angela suspected it might be a present from Silvia, because the sage green was just a little too sharp to have been Caleb’s idea.
He paused dead when he saw her, mouth hanging slightly open. His eyes were glued to her long bare legs. Success!
…Or maybe not.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, shrugging out of his own coat and literally throwing it at her. It hit her in the face along with the woodsy smell of his aftershave. “Angela! You’re going to freeze to death.”
That was not quite the reaction she was hoping for.
It WAS pretty much what she expected out of Caleb, though. Anybody that wanted to get their hands on a Whelan knew they were the good kids. The don’t-hold-hands-’til-you’re-going-steady, don’t-look-at-a-vagina-until-you’re-MARRIED kind of good kids. Angela had to crack the parental controls on Silvia’s phone just so the girl could access the internet, for Christ’s sake.
Angela had to admit, though, she kinda liked it. When it came to the hotness scale, Angela was no insecure wall mouse. She knew she was a fox and put a lot of work into it. She loved the attention. But being a hot girl came with a lot of shitty attention too. High-school boys were a bunch of sick perverts.
Caleb, though? He was an ANGEL.
“Ah, c’mon, honey! It’s just a little snow. Don’t you wanna see what’s under my coat?” She flashed him a pearly white smile and hugged his jacket. Angela kicked her heels and posed on the hood of his truck just long enough so he could get the full effect. (Plus she had practiced that pose a dozen times, so she wanted to use it.) Then she jumped to her feet. It was amazing how dexterous she could be in those six-inch heels, yet still cause a wake of clumsy destruction by other means.
“Do you want to guess what your present is, or do you want to be surprised?”
Caleb might have been a good kid, but he was definitely not nearly as sheltered as his little sister. From the look on his face—eyebrows knitting together, muscle in his jaw working overtime—he had a pretty good idea what Angela had in mind.
“I thought you wanted to go skating,” he said, avoiding the question. It might have sounded like an accusation, but the blush creeping up from under his collar told her that he wasn’t totally uninterested either.
He was still standing in the same spot, his feet glued in place, minus his coat and with damp hair. By all rights, he should have been freezing too. Luckily Caleb had always been like a furnace. Eventually he did seem to notice that snow was drifting out of the trees around them as it was displaced by the wind, and he stalked over to the driver’s-side door of his pickup.
“You—Get in the car.” He’d already pulled the keys out of his jeans pocket to unlock it and was climbing inside.
“I DO want to go skating,” Angela explained, trying not to sound exasperated. He could have at least kissed her. It was Valentine’s Day! The one day of the year when you were supposed to grab and kiss the daylights out of your girlfriend.
Angela snatched up her bag of goodies and rounded the truck to tug open the passenger’s side door. Instead of climbing in, she stood there for a second, giving him the very best of her suggestive looks. The one she’d spent hours practicing in the mirror, knowing it packed the perfect one-two punch of sparkling blue eyes and innocent smile.
“Buuut, I also thought we could… you know. Have a little fun before we go? A little less snuggle-cuddle and a little more kissy-grabby?”
She finally climbed in the truck after a good gust of wind went right up the underside of her coat and rustled the thin slip of silk she called a nightgown. That was just a liiiittle too much cold. Dropping the bag down by her feet, she rubbed her hands together to try and get the warmth back into her fingers. Maybe she hadn’t thought this through.
“I’m not making out with you where my sister can see,” he told her. And then he did grab her, hauling her across the parking brake and into his lap. And oh. Oh, okay, yeah.
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” he added—quite unnecessarily, at this point. “Don’t be dumb. You’re beautiful.”
Despite being the one to initiate this entire seduction, Angela still felt that flush of awkward shyness creeping up the back of her neck and tinging her cheeks. Unlike Caleb, though, she was a lot better at playing it off. Angela didn’t want to be the blushing virgin, especially not today when she had the most spectacular of sexy romantic plans. She shifted atop his lap until she was comfortable and brushed a soft kiss against his cheek.
He took her trembling hands, massaging them in slow circles to help heat them back up. He was silent, but she could tell something was on his mind. Caleb thought at high volume.
Angela sensed a but.
Angela always found it kind of funny how Caleb and Julian had such similar habits when something was troubling them. Julian would get silent like this too—but with Angela’s weirdo bestie, her thoughts were plain as day in her expression. Caleb was completely unreadable; you just knew he was thinking. Normally this wasn’t such a big deal; Angela knew he’d spill when he was ready. But lately Julian had retreated into this strange zombie-like box, and a tiny piece of Angela was scared that Caleb might pull away from her too.
Who would she have left? Margrit? Fuck that!
“Listen,” she started, pulling her hands from his so she could gently stroke along his jaw. Man, this dummy had no idea how hot he was. He was lucky that she considered herself a Lady and wouldn’t just straight-up jump him in his own truck. “I want to get you naked and test out how many different pages in the Kama Sutra we can do in one night. But… I’m okay if you want to wait. I mean, it’ll be a major V-day clit-block but it’s cool.”
Angela hesitated, brushing her thumbs over his mouth.
“You know you can tell me anything, right? I care about you. We can always talk.”
“…I don’t think today’s the right moment,” he answered, tipping his head back against the seat at last. “It should be the right moment.”
It seemed like maybe that was all she was going to get. His hands had fallen to rest on her thighs, which was kind of a good sign, but they also weren’t exploring or holding on very tight, which was not a very good sign. It was probably for the best that he’d pulled her over here in the first place or Angela might think the boy was a statue.
“I didn’t wait once before,” he confessed. “And I regretted it. I don’t want either of us to regret anything. Alright?”
“Oh. …Oh, well FUCK, Caleb! Why didn’t you tell me that before?!” Angela groaned, throwing her head back with a cascade of blond strands as her groan grew increasingly dramatic. Why was her boyfriend such an idiot?
Her sulking lasted all of three seconds before she grinned, tilting back up to pinch both his cheeks between her fingers.
“Sweetie, you’ve got to start spilling stuff a little sooner. I can’t read your mind.”
Now that this little nugget of useful information was out, Angela could more easily put all of this into context. Her not-as-prudish-as-she-thought boyfriend was a little gun-shy after his first fuck and didn’t want another bad experience. That was something she could totally sympathize with.
“It’s okay, we can wait. But be prepared. We’re gonna revisit this on your birthday. In the meantime, since I can’t get you naked… I’ll settle for this—” Her hands moved to her jacket lapels and very quickly flashed it open, giving him a peek at the silk nightgown she’d spent three weeks picking out. If she couldn’t bang him, she at LEAST wanted to show it off.
“Nice, right? Take a good look, because this is it! Sure you don’t wanna change your mind?”
His eyes widened for a split second before he jerked them determinedly back up to her face.
“I’m sure,” he muttered.
But when he leaned forward and kissed her, it was definitely the kind of racy kissing she’d been hoping for all along. His tongue slipped past her lips and slid against hers in a way that made her forget all about being cold. Holy fuck. That was not a prudish kiss at all.
…He still pushed her off a second later and told her to put her seatbelt on before she could even finish being stunned. But hey. If she couldn’t score a homerun, she’d settle for first base.
One small victory at a time.
A rapping at his bedroom door caused him to start and lift his head.
“Yes?” Michael called out, voice somewhat clipped by his surprise. Gears whirred in his head; he’d thought he had the apartment to himself. He flipped the letter he’d been writing over facedown on the desk, sliding his chair back across the carpet.
“Michael?” The door opened and a head of shining blond curls peeked around the frame.
He relaxed at once.
“Tasha,” he greeted her, a soft smile blooming on his face. “You came back early. I thought maybe… never mind.”
She slipped inside, smoothing out her pale green skirt and giving him an understanding smile of her own. Crossing the room, she came to sit comfortably on top of his desk, kicking her feet.
“He always goes out today, right? I wasn’t here last year, but… I’m sure he’s fine. He always is.”
“Weren’t you here?” Michael’s eyebrows drew together. Sometimes he forgot that he’d only come to know Tasha within the last year. She was such a part of his daily life now that the idea of her absence was almost… unthinkable. “That’s right. I met you just after Easter.”
“Mmhm. Saved your ass too, didn’t I?”
“That’s not quite how I remember it,” he answered drily.
“You wouldn’t.” Her laughter was teasing, but somehow he knew she wasn’t laughing at him. She would never do that. The laugh was intimate, a private joke shared between the two of them.
It made Michael feel almost… warm.
“Tasha…” he began.
“Oh, what’s this?” She’d spotted the letter, her blue-grey eyes blinking down with innocent curiosity as she scooted closer and reached to snatch it up. Quick as a flash, he pressed his hand down over hers—a little harder than he meant to. Their eyes locked as confusion and doubt began to set in on her face. Michael’s pulse started to pound as he struggled for an excuse.
“…Sorry,” he finally broke the silence. “That’s… private.”
“Oh! No, it’s fine. I’m sorry.” She looked down at their hands again. “Er. Can I have my fingers back?”
He withdrew at once, ashamed.
“I was only coming to tell you that I was going out again tonight,” Tasha went on, jumping back onto her feet. “I have a date.”
Michael went very still.
“A date?” he echoed.
“Yeah! You remember that group of werewolves who helped out last month while dealing with the nest that bumped over an ambulance?” Tasha walked over to the dresser, checking her reflection in the mirror and patting at her curls. “One of them’s been calling me and hounding for weeks. I wasn’t sure at first, but I ran into him on my way home and the boy had a huge bouquet of roses in his arms. I couldn’t take them back here, obviously, but I had to give him credit for remembering a dumb joke I’d made and calling my bluff.”
“Yeah. I said any man who was serious about me had better give me a dozen roses on Valentine’s because my vampire boyfriends would kill us both.” Puzzled, Tasha straightened up and glanced in his direction. “…Michael, are you feeling alright?”
“Of course,” he said at once. “It’s just Leo weighing on my mind still. You’re right though. I’m sure he’s fine.”
He rose, picking up the discarded letter and stuffing it into his pocket. As he approached to take her hand in his more gently, his eyes searched her face.
“I hope you enjoy your date,” he told her, smiling. “Tell—What was his name again?”
“Tell Colby he’s a lucky man and that he’d better treat you properly.”
“Oh, Michael!” Tasha spluttered a laugh, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. She threw her arms around him. Soft lips grazed his cheek. “You’re such a classic gentleman, I swear. Thank you.”
“You know me.”
Her grin widened. She squeezed his hand once and then turned away, her skirt twirling and curls bouncing as she flounced out the door.
“I might be out late! Don’t wait up.”
“I won’t,” he said, quietly enough that she wouldn’t hear. His fist tightened around the letter as he trudged back to his desk chair and reclaimed his seat. After a moment he pulled it back out and unfolded it, eyes skimming the handwritten words.
Dear Tasha, it began. Happy Valentine’s Day…
The warmth had left the room along with her.
Michael began to carefully and methodically shred the paper to pieces.
“Do you know why you should sleep with me?” he asked, propping his elbow on the bar and giving the pretty little brunette in the seat next to him a lazy grin.
“Let me guess. Because you’re going to rock my world,” she snorted.
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I will go down on you and not be an asshole if you wanna call it quits after that. You know, like your last hookup did.”
“Dude, too soon.”
“I told you that Greg was a fuckhead.”
“You did tell me Greg was a fuckhead,” she sighed. She flopped forward onto the bar, her finger tracing the rim of her glass. “Jesus, why do I have such shit taste in men, Leo?”
He shrugged, reaching for the bottle of rum that was sitting between them on the bartop. Blue eyes slid over her face and away as he poured each of them another shot.
“I’ve not got the best track record myself,” Leo reminded her. “That’s why I don’t date. Always down for a little fun between friends though.”
“What about that girl you live with? Tanya or whatever?”
He choked on his drink.
“No fucking way,” he told her between hacking coughs. “For one, Michael’s all sweet on her and I’m not that stupid. For another, Tasha’s not remotely my type.”
“What IS your type?”
“Feisty brunettes.” Leo smirked.
“Get out.” She lifted her hand to shove at his face, then shrieked when he licked her palm. “EW! No, get your gross vampire slobber away from me.”
“Whoa, hey now. Dogs slobber.”
“Call me a dog again and I’ll neuter you.” Blowing a stray lock of hair out of her face, Ramona sat up. She eyed Leo, and despite the protests, there was a spark of interest there that made Leo straighten his back and raise an eyebrow.
And then his phone buzzed in his pocket.
“What the fuck,” he muttered, and fished it out.
“Booty call?” taunted his drinking companion.
“God I hope not.” The text was from Michael. “What the fuck does he want? He knows not to bother me today of all fucking days. That’s the deal.”
“What the fuck even is the problem with you guys? You never talk about it.”
“My problem is he’s a grade-A dickweasel, Ramona.”
She held up her hands and watched as he pulled up the text and read it. His eyes progressively narrowed with each word.
r u out w that werewolf again
Fuck off, he replied.
Before he could pocket it again, another text bubble popped up on the screen.
i dont think u should. cant trust thm
Leo gritted his teeth.
Is that an order, DAD?
YOU @ 10 Seconds Ago
He waited a moment, but got no answer. Apparently even Michael knew he’d broached sacred territory here. Scoffing, Leo put his phone away and tossed down another shot.
“Jesus,” said Ramona. “That bad?”
“Look. You don’t want to talk about Greg, I don’t want to talk about Michael. Okay?”
“Fair enough.” She tapped her fingers against the bar, shifting in her seat. “I can understand wanting to forget about assholes on Valentine’s Day. Especially ones who, you know…”
“Dear god, please do not tell me you’re suggesting that I—” His nose wrinkled in disgust. “No.”
“Sorry, it’s just that sometimes he acts like he’s your jealous boyfriend. Makes a girl wonder.”
“He’s just my weird, clingy cousin, okay?”
“Well thank god you don’t want to fuck him, then, I guess,” she laughed. “Because that’d mean I have really shitty taste!”
Oh, well, there we go, he thought.
“Is that so?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.
“That’s maybe,” she mumbled, shrugging her shoulders. Leo’s eyes dropped down from her face to watch them rise and fall. Her bare, tan skin was shining copper in the neon light from the sign over the bar.
“What’ll make it a yes?” Leo leaned forward, grin widening because yeah. Yeah, she was definitely looking at him too, now.
“Give me one good reason,” breathed Ramona. Holy hell. She could more than hold her own in this flirting match.
Leo slid a little closer.
“It’s my birthday,” he deadpanned. “I think you’re contractually obligated.”
“Wow. That line has never, ever worked. I doubt it worked for Jesus.” Ramona collapsed in a fit of snorts and giggles. “It’s okay, Leo. Fake birthdays aside you’re cute as fuck and you know it. Let’s get out of here.”
“This isn’t a pity thing, right?” he asked, helping her up from her bar stool and holding onto her hand to lead her in the direction of the door. “I might be offended if this is a pity thing.”
“I’m not in a position to pity anyone. This is an ‘it’s Valentine’s Day and I want to get laid’ thing.” Ramona patted his shoulder. “And an ‘I want to wake up next to someone in the morning’ thing. You wouldn’t take off on me.”
“Yeah.” Now she was resting her head on his shoulder, snuggling up to the curve of his neck and taking a deep breath. “You’re actually a decent guy. Even under all your smug asshole facade.”
He swallowed, throat suddenly tight.
“Alright, no more booze for you tonight or I’m going to feel like a date rapist,” he told her flatly. “Should have warned me you get mushy. At least the drive will give you time to sober up. Your place?”
“Shut up, assface. Yeah, my place.” Together, they walked hand-in-hand to the Mustang.
Fortunately it wasn’t a far drive. She kept touching him, little teasing touches that were doing all kinds of damage to his ability to focus until he finally reminded her not to make him crash. The minute they pulled up to Ramona’s apartment building, she pounced.
“Come on,” she urged against his lips as they stumbled up the stairs in a tangle of limbs. “Come the fuck on, Leo. God, I lo—”
“Shh,” he cut her off with a kiss. He grabbed the keys from her shaking fingers and clumsily unlocked her door, pulling her inside the moment he got it open. “I know, sweetheart. I’m gonna take care of you.”
Leo was gone before sunrise.
There wasn’t any reason that she should be so exhausted. All Julian had done today was go to school and drop by the grocery store on her way home. But as she walked up the snow-covered driveway, the weariness hit her like a load of bricks. With every week it seemed to get a little bit worse. She didn’t even try to fight it anymore.
Her steps were careful on the porch staircase, avoiding the icy patches left by last night’s fresh flurry. Once she reached the cover of the awning, she set her bag of groceries down on a chair and dug around until she produced a single can of cat food. After pulling up the lid, she set it gently by the doormat and picked up an empty can in its stead.
Julian didn’t know why she still bothered setting the food out every day. It had been two, maybe even three months since she’d seen the ginormous mound of ratty black and white fur—so whatever was eating the food couldn’t have been her cat. Ray had always done his own thing, and cats were notorious for vanishing for long periods of time, but he went missing while she was in foster custody and Julian was worried that he may have gotten lost looking for her.
Of course, Ray wasn’t the only one still missing.
Julian snatched up the canvas tote bag and pulled her keys out in one swift motion. When she unlocked the door and pushed her way inside, she jangled her keys loudly then paused and waited. Twisting her mouth to the side, she glanced around at the empty foyer, to the right towards the living room and then to the left at the kitchen. Dead silent. Not a soul could be seen or heard. Just like yesterday, just like the day before. In the Hollinger family house, the only Hollinger left was Julian.
Another stark reminder was the empty kitchen table.
Maybe it was fifteen years of habit when she slung her backpack into her usual chair and automatically scanned the table’s surface for the silly little cards that usually appeared there every Valentine’s Day. Her dad liked to pretend that he wasn’t hopelessly in love with her Mum; he always made sure no-one ever saw him leave the gifts of flowers, candy, or cheesy romantic cards. He’d continued the tradition for Julian as well, starting when she was still just a blob in her mother’s stomach. The dork even started giving the cat one once he realized that Ray wasn’t going anywhere. Julian kept every single card upstairs in her bedroom closet.
It was fine. She was getting used to being alone in the house. Her therapist told her that eventually she wouldn’t even think about it anymore, so that was a plus. Julian emptied out the contents of her groceries on the island counter. A box of cereal, a quart of milk, more cat food, and some instant coffee. Somewhere along the way, though, it stopped being “fine”. With each box or can, the tightness in her chest increased until it was painful enough that she couldn’t breathe. Tears were threatening to well up at the corners of her eyes.
She moved quickly to her abandoned backpack and retrieved a small bottle of pills from the side pouch. The pills were another thing that her therapist said would help. Whenever she displayed one of the ten thousand symptoms the woman had described, Julian was supposed to take a pill. Not being able to breathe was definitely on the list. She twisted the cap off and popped one into her mouth, not bothering to fetch a drink of water to help wash it down. A few tense moments ticked by until finally, whatever pill-shaped magic it contained kicked in. The panic gave way to a much more workable hazy feeling.
Julian squinted at her bag. There was homework to do, but… the fuzzy fog creeping up on her was a little too strong this time. Pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead, she abandoned the kitchen to head upstairs for an early bed. She was so tired anyway.
Valentine’s Day was better left forgotten.