Tag Archive | Zachariah Ferris

Glitter – Chapter 6 – Summer Jobs

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Dakota twisted a strand of her long blonde hair around her index finger. She hummed softly to herself looking up every once in a while to see if her twin had closed her book yet. Twenty minutes later at the end of her patience she demanded “are you almost done?” She rolled from her bed to bounce on the edge of her sisters bed causing as much motion as she could.

“What is your problem” Montana asked sticking a finger inside her book to mark her place.

“I want to go out” she whined.

“Then go” Montana opened her book reading a few more paragraphs before her sister’s humming drove her to distraction. “Do you mind?”

Dakota gave her sister her best blank innocent look “am I disturbing you?”

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“Go away” Montana mumbled determined not to let her sister spoil her first day off from school. She was going to enjoy her downtime with a good book even if it killed her.

“I’m bored” Dakota whined bouncing up and down.

Then go do something and leave me alone” Montana said her nose buried in her book again.

“Come with me” she pleaded.

“I want to finish my book” she flipped a page determined to ignore her sister.

“That’ll take forever” Dakota wailed seeing the thick volume that must have had thousands of pages with hundreds of words on each one. The idea of reading all that made her head ache. “Please. Just for a little while.”

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Looking up Montana found her twin giving her large sad puppy dog eyes. “Fine” she sighed slipping a book between the pages before closing the book. Swinging her legs over the bed she said “remember your promise. This summer we get real jobs not like last summer.”

“We got paid didn’t we” Dakota demanded.

“It was babysitting” Montana rolled her eyes “we’re too old to babysit. We’re going to college in the fall.”

“What’s left” Dakota asked flopping backwards on the bed.

“Hollis Resort” Montana snapped her fingers to her sisters attention. “It’s perfect. We go there every summer anyway.”

Dakota sat up “I’m listening.”

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“Not to mention all the hot guys coming and going from the beach surfing” Montana enthused fanning herself.

“Don’t forget the girls” Dakota added eyes shining.

“Speak for yourself” Montana teased “you know I only look at the boys.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing” Dakota replied. “If we get jobs we’ll have to stay there for the whole summer and not just the few weeks we normally go for.”

“Yeah I know” she acknowledged. It was the only flaw in her plan.

“Do you think Daddy’ll let us go” Dakota asked no doubt thinking the same thing she was.

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“We’re both eighteen now. Daddy knows we aren’t little girls anymore.” It was kind of depressing to know she would be making her parents sad by being gone all the summer before college began.

“Don’t be sad” Dakota reached for her hand “they have to let us go sooner or later.”

“I know I just wish I didn’t know it was going to hurt him when we tell him” Montana wiped a stray tear away.

“Let’s talk to dad first” Dakota suggested “he’ll know what to do.”

“You’re right” Montana nodded despite her own misgivings.

“You’re not changing your mind are you? You’re the one who thought this was a good idea” Dakota pointed out needlessly.

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“That was before I realized I’d be breaking Daddy’s heart” she confessed.

“Let’s send in our applications first. See if we get hired” Dakota suggested “then we’ll tell them.”

Considering her sister’s suggestion Montana nodded. “Yeah let’s do that” she gave her a relieved smile “after all we might not get hired. Why make Daddy worry for nothing.”

Dakota laughed “you’re always worrying about him.”

“Well someone has to” Montana said.

Shrugging Dakota said “that’s Dad’s job not ours. Now let’s go out and have some fun.” She hopped off the bed grabbing Montana’s hand in the process pulling her towards the door.

***

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Montana was finishing drafting her thank you email to Charity when Dakota bounced into the room. “We have jobs” she announced.

“Awesome” Dakota clapped her hands “did we get the positions we applied for?”

“Well…not exactly” Montana said.

“What does that mean” her sister frowned at her moving towards the computer to read over her shoulder.

“It means we get something in the area of what we wanted but not what we wanted” Montana explained in a roundabout way.

“Meaning” Dakota tapped her toes willing her sister to come to the point.

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“Well you wanted to work with animals” Montana gazed up at her “your the new dog walker.”

“But I wanted grooming” she cried.

“Evidently you need experience and training before you can become a groomer.” Montana sighed sharing her sisters disappointment “don’t kill the messenger. I didn’t do much better.”

“Athletic supplies” Dakota read “what exactly is that?”

“It means I’m charge of keeping the gym stocked with fresh towels and stuff” she sat back in her chair with a wounded expression.

Laughing at her sister Dakota said “so much for being the yoga instructor.”

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“Evidently that requires experience too” Montana admitted “Charity said at the very least I’d need to be certified before I could instruct a yoga class.”

“Well it’s a start at least” Dakota sighed.

“And we have jobs that pay” Montana enthused.

“Plus we’ll gain some much needed experience” Dakota added.

“I guess that means we need to tell them” Montana said looking to her sister for support for informing their dads they’d be away all summer.

“It’s not going to be as bad as you think” Dakota assured her. Standing up she said “we better get it over with now. The sooner the better.”

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Reluctantly Montana followed her sister out into the living room were their parents were cuddling on the couch watching a romantic comedy. “Hey guys” Dakota said plopping herself in front of the TV blocking their view. “We have something to tell you” she waved towards Montana indicating she should take over.

“Can’t it wait” Waylon asked frowning at his daughters for interrupting their movie night.

“Honey” Zach patted his hand “they need to tell us something. It’s important.” He knew the girls had perfected this maneuver over the years. The only way to wrestle Waylon’s attention from the TV was to block it.

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Turning the TV off Waylon demanded “what’s so important it couldn’t wait?”

“We um got jobs for the summer” Montana announced her eyes darting from her parents to her sister.

“That’s great” Zach enthused “just remember to get the time off for the weeks we’ll be on the island.”

“Um well that’s the problem” Dakota said “the summer jobs we have are at the resort. We’ll be there all summer.”

“At least until we have to get ready to go to university in the fall” Montana added nibbling on her lower lip.

***

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Zach’s bottom lip quivered as he listened to his daughter’s excited voices telling them about their jobs. All he kept hearing was they were leaving him and he wanted to be happy but an oppressive sadness clutched his heart. They weren’t his little girls anymore. His heart lurched painfully in his chest as he pushed up off the couch. He gave each of the girls a hug. His mouth forming the necessary congratulatory words that he didn’t feel. He could see the worry in Montana’s eyes as he stepped away from kissing her cheek.

His lips thinned to form a caricature of a smile. For all he knew his life was ending. Grinding to a halt. He thought he had the summer to get used to the idea of them being gone. Stepping back he let Waylon have his time with the girls. Feeling heavy and light headed at the same time he slowly walked to his room. He heard Montana ask “is Daddy alright?”

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“Don’t worry sweetheart” Waylon assured her “he’s happy for you.”

“But he looks so sad” she protested.

“Give him time to absorb the news” Waylon reached a hand out to stop her from following Zach.

“Are you sure” Dakota asked her voice now just as worried as her sisters.

“I’m positive” he sighed “it’s just he had so many plans for the summer.”

“We don’t have to go” Montana offered.

“No sweetie” Waylon pulled her close “that’s the last thing he’d want. Take the jobs. You dad and I will adjust.”

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“Are you sure” she asked watching him closely.

“I’m positive” he kissed her forehead “why don’t you to out and celebrate.” He pulled his wallet out and handed them money “go shopping. See a movie. Have dinner.”

“You want to get rid of us for the night” Dakota surmised.

“I do” he glanced over his shoulder.

“Tell him we love him” Montana urged.

“Yeah” Dakota agreed taking her sister’s arm, pulling her towards the door.

“Bye Dad” the called from the door before they left.

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The silence of the house seemed somewhat oppressive if not mournful after they had gone. Turning Waylon went in search of Zach. He found him curled up on the bed softly crying. Gently Waylon sat on the bed beside him gently pulling him into his arms. He placed soft kisses on his neck and cheek. After a minute or so he felt Zach take his hand and squeeze it.

“I’m sorry” he mumbled “I should be happy for them. They’re such beautiful young women.”

“Yes they are” Waylon agreed “they know you’re proud of them and love them.”

“I’m a wet blanket on their parade” he sniffed trying to get control of himself. “I knew this day was coming. I thought was prepared but the nightmares…”

Waylon didn’t need to know what nightmares. They were always the same. “We’ve taught them well” he assured his husband “they’ll be ok.”

“I know it’s just I’m so scared” he leaned into Waylon for support “I just don’t want them to be like me. I want them to enjoy this time in their lives.”

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“They don’t have the same experiences you or I had when we were their age” Waylon said.

“Thank goodness for that” he cried “I still worry. I’ll never not worry.”

“They’ll be ok. They’re smart. Self-reliant young women. They have the tools we taught them to succeed.” Waylon could only hope his words were enough to reassure his husband.

“Thank you” Zach smiled stretching up to kiss Waylon’s lips “you always know what to say and do to make me feel better.”

“It’s because I love you and the little family we created together” he nuzzled into Zach.

Closing his eyes Zach felt himself relax “we should let the girls have the house while they’re on the island.”

***

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The twins stood in front of their families island home. “Are you sure Daddy” Montana asked turning towards the smiling blonde male.

“I’m positive” he nodded “you and your sister will need a place to stay while you’re here. Charity could use your help too at the resort.”

“Thank you” she squealed throwing her arms around him. Dakota followed soon afterwards. “We love you so much.”

“We love you too” Waylon asserted smiling down at his daughters.

“You’re still coming in August right” Dakota asked.

“Wouldn’t miss it” Zach assured her “unless you don’t want your old dads staying with you.”

“Don’t be silly Daddy” Montana laughed “we’ll always have room for you and Dad.”

“And you’re not old” Dakota asserted.

“Do you have everything you need” Waylon asked looking at the empty trunk.

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“We have everything we need” Dakota nodded.

“If not the house is stocked and we can buy whatever else we need” Montana added.

Looking at his watch Waylon put an arm around Zach. “Our flight home takes off in a couple of hours. We should be on our way.”

“Do you have to go soon” Montana cried hoping they’d change their minds and stay a  few days.

“I’m afraid so” Zach nodded “we couldn’t find anyone to watch the ranch while we were gone.”

“Oh” the girls mumbled together with dual disappointed expressions.

“Hey we’ll be back” Zach said hugging them both “you can’t escape us that easily.”

They giggled as they watched their dad’s walk hand in hand to their rented car. Briefly they waved as they drove away. “This is it” Montana said when the car was  out of sight. “We’re on our own.”

“Party” Dakota suggested.

Shrugging Montana suggested “call the boys and see if they want to come over for pizza and a movie.”

“If we call them you know Unity and Justice will tag along” Dakota said as she pulled out her phone.

“Let them” Montana shrugged “they’re good kids and it’s not it’s a date.”

“Eew gross” Dakota wrinkled her nose at the thought.

Chapter 5 – Everything Nice / Chapter 7 – Seek to Know Truth

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Hannah – Chapter 38 – The Truth Comes Out

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“How many times do I have to tell you?” Waylon asked his frustration evident as he looked across the small table at his interrogators. “I did not kill Dexter Gage. Hell I wanted to but I didn’t do it.”

“You don’t expect us to believe that do you?” the younger man snarled “Dexter Gage spent months stalking the man you love. Terrorizing him. You saw your chance and took it.”

“Unfortunately for you the river didn’t carry the body far enough” his partner continued “you should have weighed his body down so it would sink.”

“No doubt you lost your stomach by then or maybe Dexter had waded out into the river in an attempt to get away from you. The current carried his body down stream before you could do anything about it,” the younger detective concluded.

Bile rose from his upset stomach. Swallowing convulsively in an attempt to keep his stomach contents down Waylon leaned over vomiting on the floor. Watching dispassionately the older detective continued “we have an eyewitness that confirms you had blood all over your clothes the night of Dexter Gage’s disappearance. They quoted you as saying it wasn’t mine.”

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Lifting his head as the smell of his own vomit assaulted his nostrils. His stomach rumbled uneasily. “I…” he shook his head trying to keep the men’s faces in focus “it wasn’t mine” he repeated “it was Zach’s.”

The men exchanged interested looks “you don’t expect us to believe that.”

“I don’t care if you believe me or not. Forensics will prove I’m telling the truth.”

“What about the trace amounts of Dexter’s DNA we found on your clothes? Care to explain that” the younger detective demanded.

“Transfer from Zach. He and Dexter had been in a fi….” Waylon slammed his mouth shut “I want my lawyer.”

***

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The detectives got up and left the room “What do you think?” the older man asked his partner.

“I believe him” the man glanced over his shoulder towards the one way window “he didn’t do it.”

“Let’s have a talk with the boyfriend” the older man suggested leading the way to the next interrogation room. Opening hte door the young blond male jumped up startled. His blue eyes round with fear.

“Waylon wwwwouldn’t hurt any anyone ” he stammered.

“What about you?” the older man asked “would you hurt anyone?” His voice conspiratorial, almost gentle.

Zach shook his head vehemently “I didn’t mmmean to hurt hhim. We were frfriends once.”

Like a cate about to pounce on it’s prey the detective asked “how did you hurt Dexter?”

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“I…I” Zach stammered picking at the cracks in the old table top “I ddddidn’t mmmean ttto hurt him.”

The detectives exchanged eager looks like a couple of bloodhounds picking up a scent. “What happened Zach? Did you snap after months of being stalked? Did you acquire a gun?”

“No” Zach hastily shook his head pushing away from the table his chair scrapping loudly across the bare floor. “Dex had the gun…”

“You fought over the guy” the older detective asserted “you wrestled the gun from Dexter and Bang” his fist slams down on the table.

His voice echoed in the small space. Zach yelped curling into a tight ball on the floor, hands covering his face and ears. “No” he wailed “I I hit him. I refused ttto dddo what hhhhe wanted. I kkkept hitting him.” Tremors make his hands shake as he brought them down. He stared at his hands as if he had never seen them before.

The older detective jerked his head towards the door. The men quietly left the room to the sounds of Zach’s sobs.

***

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“I don’t know about you but that felt like I was kicking a wounded puppy” the younger man observed.

“Yeah” the older detective grunted “we should let the kid’s shrink in to see him. Maybe she can calm him.”

The younger officer gave his partner a sideways glance “You don’t think he did it do you?”

“No” the man sighed “I think somewhere inside him lurks the truth though.”

“His boyfriend?” the detective asked.

“Maybe” the older man rubbed his chin thoughtfully “if Dexter was the one who had the gun we need to figure out how he’s the one who wound up dead. Where did he get?”

“His roommate?” the younger man suggested “he has a record.”

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“Let’s get him in here for questioning” the older man barked “that guy knows more than he’s letting on.”

“Should I have the kid’s therapist try to get the kid to remember that night?” his partner asked concern in his voice.

“Worth a try” the older man agreed “be sure to record it for review later. We may not be able to use it during the trial but it might point us in the direction.”

The younger man nodded “this Dexter Gage character got what he deserved as far as I’m concerned.”

“I might agree with you” the older detective said “but we’re not judge, jury and executioner. That’s what get’s me in cases like this. Instead of trusting the system someone took the law into their own hands.”

“Maybe” his partner grunted “it that’s what happened here. The system doesn’t always work.” He jerked his head towards the door they just came out of “you and I both know there’s very little we can do about stalkers until things escalate into violence. By that time it’s too late for one or both of the parties involved.”

“I know” the man grumbled “something about this case stinks.”

***

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A couple of hours later Zach sat with his eyes closed shaking his head back and forth. “No Please don’t make do this…”

Ramsey put a reassuring arm around his son’s shoulder. Bruce had stayed home with the triplets as their youngest son was still in hospital after being in a car accident. “I now this is hard.” He added the one thing he knew might convince his son to commit to hypnosis “this is the only way to help Waylon.” He glanced over his shoulder towards his son’s therapist who nodded back confidently. “You want to help him don’t you?”

“Yyyes” his voice was small and low.

“Alright then” Ramsey plastered a fake smile on his face squeezing his son’s shoulder “then let the therapist help you remember.”

“Alright” Zach’s eyelids fluttered open. His light blue eyes filled with terror “don’t leave me.”

“I won’t” Ramsey assured him “I’m right here by your side.” Zach clutched his father’s hand fighting for breath. “Zach look at me” Ramsey commanded grabbing both sides of his son’s face “concentrate on me. Breathe. In. Out. Nothing else matters. Just me. Breathe. In. Out.”

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Tears ran down Zach’s cheeks as he did as he was told. Concentrating on his dad’s voice. Matching his breathing to his words. In. Out. One breath at a time. “Ok. I’m ok” he gave his dad a lopsided smile that did little to reassure either of them.

“Zach” the therapists voice had them both jumping dazed and anxious. “We’re going to begin now.”

“Ok” Zach nodded clutching his dad’s hand like it was the only thing keeping him from drowning.

Once Zach was in a hypnotic state the therapist asked “Zach when was the last time you saw Dexter Gage?”

“On the bridge” his voice sounded confused.

“Are you sure it was on the bridge?” the therapist’s soothing voice asked.

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“No…yes” his voice rose in panic “I was upset. I wanted to think. Waylon yyyelled at me. I…” he stuttered shaking his head his agitation rising. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Alright” she agreed marking it down to discuss later “what happened after you met Dexter on the bridge?”

“He…I…” he licked his lips “I tried to get away from him. Ran across the highway to the other side of the bridge.” He moaned as if he were in pain “I don’t…please don’t make me” his voice little more than a whimper.

Ramsey could feel his anger boiling inside him as he listened to his son recount what happened that night. If Dexter had walked into the room at that moment he knew he would wrap his own hands around his scrawny little neck. His troubling thoughts temporarily blotted out Zach’s voice.

“Alright Zach you’re doing fine” the therapist assured him “I want you to think about what happened in Dexter brought the gun out.”

“He he” his breathing becomes rapid gulps “the barrel is pointed at my heart. Dex says “if I can have you…..no one can have you.” He flinches as if expecting to be hit “I thought….I should be dead.”

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“He missed” the therapist said her incredulity think in her voice.

Shaking his head “something…” his face screwed up remembering “someone knocked be down. Ssssave mmmy life.”

“Ramsey found himself wanting to thank whoever that faceless someone was for saving his son’s life.

“Think carefully” her voice broke through the stunned silence “who saved you Zach?”

He pinched his eyes shut “his voice. Someone I knew. Familiar.”

“Was it Waylon?” she asked probing his memories.

“No” he shook his head “not Waylon.”

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Ramsey took a shakey breath glad it wasn’t Waylon. One less thing to worry about. His son’s life was already in shambles he didn’t need to think his boyfriend was a murderer too.

“Bull” Zach said “Bull knocked me down. Saved me.”

“Bull” she said the name a little confused.

“It’s a nickname he got playing football in high school,” Zach frowned “why would he save me?”

A look of consternation flitted across her face. “We’ll figure that out later. Right now tell us what Bull is doing after he knocks you down.”

“Yelling at Dexter” Zach said “he keeps demanding Dex give him his gun back.”

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“Can you see them?”

“No” he shakes his head “I’m too scared to move. They’re so angry. Yelling at each other.”

“Are they still arguing about the gun?” she asks him.

“No” he sounds puzzled “it sounds like they’re struggling with each other. I doesn’t make sense. Why would Bull save me? He hated me….I don’t want to talk about this.”

“It’s alright Zach” she soothed “you’re doing fine. Just a few more questions.”

“Aright” sounding like a small child.

“They’re struggling over the gun, what happens next?”

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“The gun goes off” he tries to cover his face with his hands “something splashes in the water. Someone screams. I…” He looks up eyes wild “I ran. Ran until I couldn’t breathe.” He gulped “Waylon….”

“What Waylon?” she asks

“He was looking for me” he frowns “I think he carried me back to the dorm.”

“Why would he do that?” she asked concerned.

“I think a fainted” he sounded confused “I’m tired. Can we stop now?”

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“You doing great Zach” she assured him “when I count to three you’ll wake up. I want you remember everything we talked about ok?”

She started counting on three Zach blinked. Turning to his dad “I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for” Ramsey assured him “I’m going to take you to the house so you can rest.”

“Can Waylon come too?” he asked his blue eyes pleading.

Ramsey turned to look at the officer who gave him a curt nod “yeah Waylon too.”

***

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“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Zach mumbled about a month after Waylon had been arrested.

“Does it bother you he’s dead?” Waylon asked concerned peering into Zach’s eyes.

“It should” Zach said honestly “no one deserves to be killed least of all because of me.”

Waylon shook his head dismayed “he didn’t die because of you. He died because he was a sick SOB that couldn’t take no for answer. Plus he took another psycho’s gun who would have let us take the wrap for murder.”

“I know but…”

“No buts” Waylon smiled gently pulling Zach close “none of this was your fault.”

Zach snuggled into Waylon’s comforting arms. The sunlight glinted off his ring. He couldn’t believe Waylon had proposed to him. Once Bull had been apprehended and Zach was no longer confused over what happened that night things in their relationship had progressed rapidly. “I wish I could believe that” he sounded wistful like he thought it was an unattainable dream.

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Waylon’s arms tightened around him like he was protecting something valuable, priceless. “It’s not your fault” he repeated “I’ll keep telling you that until you believe it.”

“Why?” Zach asked moving Waylon’s arms to peer into his fiance’s gentle eyes “why put yourself to so much trouble. I’m not worth it.”

“You are to me” he insisted leaning down to softly kiss Zach’s cheek.

Blushing under Waylon’s discerning eyes Zach moved away waddling a little. “It’s peaceful here” he said turning to smile at Waylon “I think I’m going to like it here.”

“You won’t miss the city?” Waylon asked concerned coming up behind Zach and slowly putting his arms around him “it’s not exactly exciting living out her in the middle of nowhere.”

“I’m tired of excitement” Zach turned leaning his cheek onto Waylon’s chest “this is where I want to raise our children.”

Our children Waylon thought with a smile. It sounded weird yet felt so right. “We’re going to be parents” squeezed Zach tight with a happy little smile forming on his lips.

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“You believe me now?” Zach asked raising his head a little to look up.

“Do I believe you?” he asked confused.

“That they’re yours and not his” Zach whispered hoarsely looking away.

“Of course I do” Waylon moved so he could put a hand on Zach’s protruding stomach.

“They’re mine even if they aren’t blood related. There’s more ways to being a parent than sharing DNA.”

Zach gave him a quick smile despite the troubled look in his eyes. Reaching up he stroked Waylon’s face “I know you mean well, but I know these are your babies” he bit his bottom lip “there’s no need for you to doubt that. I know what happened now. There’s no doubt in my mind and there shouldn’t be any in yours.”

“There isn’t” Waylon assured him “I just wanted you to know that even if they weren’t mine I’d still love them like they were. I love you.”

“I love you too” Zach smiled and this time it reached his eyes giving him a peaceful rested look “I feel like I finally belong somewhere.”

Chapter 37 – Letting Go / Chapter 39 – Second Chance

Hannah – Chapter 31 – Harsh Realities

Leaving Zach’s room Teasha went to the back porch. She stared into the darkening sky. It scared her to think of a world without her brother in it. She realized now he should have been in therapy a long time ago. When all of this started probably. He had been so fragile then. No one wanted to push the issue. Now if they wanted him to survive they had to push him. A tear rolled down her cheek. The last couple of months had been almost impossible to get through.

Worry for her brother. Concern for Phoenix. Coupled with the nagging suspicion Zach had done something really terrible. Dexter had gone missing the night he confronted Zach. What had happened between them? Had Dexter forced himself on Zach? Had Zach hurt him while he was fighting back? The police had questioned all of them before they left university. They came here to question Zach. So far they had made no arrests but the nagging thoughts persisted. She groaned audibly squeezing he eyes shut. She hated herself for even thinking Zach could be capable of hurting anyone.

The door opened behind her. She turned to face whoever it was who had come outside to join her. “Sweetie” Ramsey said his voice unusually gentle “you talked to Zach.” It was a probing inquiry. A hopeful request she could enlighten him as to what was going on inside his son’s head.

“I think he might be pregnant” she confided in him.

“Waylon’s or that….” Ramsey grimaced unable to say the other boy’s name “I’ll kill him.”

“I don’t know” she said deciding to be honest “it might be Zach’s way of making the situation more tolerable if he believes the baby is Waylon’s.”

“In other words he had sex with Waylon after whatever happened with….” he fell silent, hands balling into fists imagining what he’d do if Dexter were suddenly in front of him. “We can always do a paternity test” he conceded through clenched teeth.

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“Zach won’t like that” she pointed out “Waylon will no doubt back him up.”

“So what is this Waylon guy like?” Ramsey asked.

“He’s a good guy” Teasha smiled as she recalled how he would walk Zach to and from class. “He seems to understand Zach” she leaned her head to the side “it’s almost like he knows what it’s like to be hurt.”

Ramsey nodded looking out across the night sky “if he’s such a good guy why did they break up?”

“I wish I knew” she said quietly. She stepped forward hugging her dad “I’ll try to get Zach to open up more. You know how he is. He holds everything inside until he explodes.”

He snorted in response “we’ll all continue to try.” He brushed her hair from her face. He gave her a reassuring smile “we won’t let anything happen to him. I promise we’ll get through this.”

She nodded giving him a kiss on the cheek “I know dad.” She smiled before moving to go back inside the house. Leaving him to stare out into the growing darkness.

***

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She closed the door behind her. She expected to find the triplets watching some boring show on TV or playing video games. Instead Bruce was standing waiting expectantly for her. His light blue eyes reflected his worry. “If you’re looking for dad he’s outside” she offered feeling uncomfortable under his steady gaze.

“Thank you” he acknowledged making no move to join Ramsey outside.

“Is something wrong?” she asked becoming more certain something was up the longer they stood staring at each other.

He took a step forward engulfing her in his strong arms. “Sweetie I’m so so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” she demanded her voice rising “what’s going on?”

Taking her hands he led her to the couch. When they were seated he said “I received a call from my Aunt…..”

“The one with contacts in the military” Teasha asked feeling her pulse quicken. “Did they find him? Is he alight? Please daddy I need to know.”

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“His plane was found” Bruce confirmed “a couple of weeks ago.”

“He’s dead isn’t he?” she started to shake.

“They found him….alive” he watched her as she soaked in his words.

“Alive? He’s alive” she sniffed as fresh tears and shock swept through her. “Where is he?” she grabbed his arm clinging to him like he was her life-preserver.

“He’s in pretty bad shape” Bruce explained “he was injured from the crash, lost at sea with little to no food and water, no medical attention….” he sighed watching as the hope drained in her eyes “it’s a miracle he’s lived this long.”

“But he is….alive” she squeezed his arm.

“Yes he’s alive” he affirmed.

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“I have to go to him” she jumped to her feet heading towards her room.

“Teasha wait” Bruce called after her to no avail. He followed her into her room. Stood watching as she pulled out her suitcase and began filling it. “Honey slow down a minute. You can’t just leave.”

“Why not?” she demanded “you would leave if it were one of us or dad.”

“I would” he nodded “Phoenix can’t have visitors yet and even if he could you’re not married.”

“I love him daddy” she asserted undeterred by his comments.

“I know you do” he walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her. “My point is they won’t let you see him. You’re not family. You’re not even his girlfriend.”

“What am I supposed to do” she cried dropping the shirt she was holding to the floor.

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“Until he’s better and they allow visitors outside of family there isn’t much you can do.” He stroked her hair wishing there was something he could do to ease her pain.

“Except hope and pray” she mumbled against his shoulder.

“There’s plenty you can do around here” he suggested “we need all the help we can get with Zach.”

“Alright” she sniffed wiping her nose on the back of her hand.

“Use a kleenex” Bruce told her with a touch of humor.

“Sorry” she mumbled grabbing a Kleenex from the box on her nightstand.

***

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The next day she threw a box towards her brother where he lay on his back staring at the ceiling. “What’s this?” he asked inspecting it.

“What do you think it is?” she rolled her eyes starting to lose her patience with him. “I told you I was going to get you one. Now go take it.”

He stared at her a flicker of annoyance in his eyes. “I’ll do it later” he said laying it aside on his nightstand returning his gaze to the ceiling.

“No” she put her hands on her hips “you’ll do it now. You can’t pretend nothing is wrong.”

She hadn’t slept well and combined with her worry over Phoenix her patience was at an all time low. “Take the damn test Zach.”

He jumped at the sound of her voice. “I’m sorry” he mumbled automatically. Apologizing seemed to be what he did most now. It seemed he was always doing or saying something that required it. It was an automatic reflex to raised voices and perceived slights.

“Zach I’m not mad at you” she sighed trying to get a firm grip on her emotions.

“You are” he stood taking the test. He stumbled to the bathroom eyes focused on the floor.

“Alright I am” she affirmed “I’m sorry.”

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He nodded accepting her anger but not the apology. What else could he do? He closed the door behind him blotting out her face and words. Wondered what she’d do if he just said he took the test and didn’t? Several minutes later he took the damn test even though he already knew what the results would be. He’d been sick and nauseous for weeks now.

Minutes passed while sat slumped against the bathroom wall staring at the positive results. His ears were ringing as he wondered what his next move should be. He was going to be a father. Waylon was going to be a dad. He had to tell him. Would he be happy? Would he be like everyone else and assume the baby was Dexter’s?

He covered his face with his hands as an image from that night came to mind. Dexter knocking him to the dew drenched ground. The long grass concealing them from the casual viewer. Zach struggling beneath him getting in a few good hits. Dexter had been better at evading his fists than he had been. The punch that had Zach seeing stars, the weight of Dexter pinning him to the ground, the sloppy insistent kiss Dexter forced on him as his hands groped at his clothes. The sense of humiliation of what was about to happen. The helpless feeling he had at not being able to prevent it as Dexter’s hands slipped past the waist line of his jeans. The desperation that drove Zach to drive his elbow into Dexter’s nose. The blow that finally dislodged him allowing Zach to roll out from beneath him. He could still remember the way it felt as his fist connected with Dexter’s face, over and over again. Then the frightening moment when he thought he was going to die staring at the object Dexter had pulled from his jacket…..

“Zach are you alright in there?” Teasha’s voice broke through his daze ending the moment before he could remember what happened next.

***

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Vincent perched on the edge of his bed. His room was in the process of being painted. A half assembled baby crib stood where his stereo used to be. This time next year he’d be sleeping on the couch when he came home for the summer. What were his parents thinking? People their age shouldn’t be having babies.

When he said as much the hurt in his mother’s eyes reproached him. The disappointed tone his father used when they spoke had him regretting his ill chosen words.

Laying back on his bed closing his eyes he refused to believe he was jealous of a baby that wasn’t even born yet. He had wanted a little brother or sister for years. He didn’t want one now that he’d be almost twenty when it was born. He was old enough to be its father and his parents the grandparents. What were they thinking?

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He sat up wondering what his friends were doing. Teasha and Zach were out. He didn’t feel up to walking through an emotional minefield with them. Same with Divia. She spent most of her time at the hospital with her dad. He wondered about her sudden interest in her dad and the guilt she must be feeling. He had lived next door to the girl all of his life so he could only imagine what she must be going through right now.

He could call Ryan. He sat up pulling his phone out. Did he want to spend time with a guy who would do nothing but talk about his girlfriend? He was happy for the guy but he didn’t feel up to having his nose rubbed in it. Hannah? Not her either. She was just as bad as her cousin if not worse. She and Ryan were probably gloating together over their satisfactory love lives.

Feeling restless he ran up the stairs determined to find something to do other than feel sorry for himself. At times like this his thoughts always turned towards Trinity. He found himself wondering what she had wanted to tell him in the waiting room. When he had finally gotten to see the doctor she had been gone when he came out. He knew he had missed something important. After that he had gotten busy with writing term papers and studying for exams. She left soon after to see her mom in Monte Vista.

***

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“Where are you going son?” his father’s voice came from behind him.

“Out” he muttered. It sounded harsher than he meant it to. He was so tired of his parents hovering over him.

“When will you be back?” he asked.

Shrugging Vincent rolled his head from side to side. “When I get back” he replied evasively. “I’m not a baby. I can come and go as a I please.”

“For an adult you sure act like a child” Milo said.

Vincent squeezed his eyes tight. He could hear the gentle rebuke in his father’s voice. The disappointment as well as disapproval. Sighing he turned from the door. “I just have a lot of things to think about.”

Gesturing toward the table Milo asked “want to tell me about it?”

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Vincent hesitated before nodding “I don’t know what good it will do.”

“You’ll never know until you try” Milo said taking a chair and indicating for Vincent to sit down. Reluctantly his son moved to the proffered chair while Milo went to the fridge for drinks. Setting one in front of Vince he sat down opposite him. “What’s on your mind? I know you’re not happy about the baby. I have a feeling though that’s not the only thing wrong.”

Vincent stared at the soda in front of him. He reached for it. Popped it open. Took a several gulps hoping to stall long enough until his father lost interest. Setting it down he sighed “why aren’t I enough?”

Milo blinked sitting back tapping his finger tips on the table. “What gave you that idea? Your mother and I never meant for you to feel that way. We love you.”

Shaking his head Vincent could feel the same old frustration rising inside him. “No that’s not it. Yeah I was shocked, even jealous of the baby. It’s like I don’t belong here anymore.” He slapped his hand down on the old table they’ve had since before he was born. Milo got up for a cloth to wipe up the spilled soda from his overturned bottle.

“Your room” he said quietly.

“My room. That’s a laugh” Vincent crossed his arms pouting “it’s the baby’s nursery now. This time next year it’ll be full of baby things and I’ll be sleeping on the couch.”

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“Vincent” Milo’s voice was firm causing Vince to look up “you’re an adult. This time next year you could have a girlfriend. You could be planning to get married. You won’t be living here forever.”

Vincent stared vacantly at the smooth surface of the table. “I know it’s just….the only girl I want won’t give me the time of day.”

“Oh” Milo chuckled “now we’re getting somewhere.” He shook his head at the scowl his son was giving him. “Son if it were only the baby and the loss of your room I’d be worried we didn’t raise you right.”

Vincent slumped back in his chair with an air of defeat. “I’m sorry” he mumbled “I’ve been acting like a spoiled brat. I know you and mom don’t have a lot of money because of me…”

“Our financial problems aren’t your fault. The medical expenses were worth it. We chose to incur the expense because we wanted the best for you. We don’t regret it. We had to be frugal with what we had. We had to do without but not once have we regretted it.” He moved around the table “we would do it all again if we had to.”

“Thanks dad” Vincent looked up at his dad tears blurring his vision.

Over the next couple of hours he confided in his parents everything that had transpired while he was away at school.

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“Does she know how you feel about her?” His mom asked having joined them and moved them to the living room. She was curled up beside her husband on the couch.

Vincent shrugged from where he sat on the floor. “She told me from the start she wasn’t into relationships.”

“I think you’re missing something” Jillian persisted “she went out of her way to take care of you when you needed help.” She gave him a severe glare that said his drunken night out was going to come up again “she wanted to tell you something. I think it might be important and what you want to hear.”

“It’s too late” he whined “she’s in Monte Vista and I’m here. I’ll never know what it was.”

“Not with that attitude” she snapped “stop wallowing in self-pity and do something. If you want the girl figure something out.”

Figure something out. Easier said than done. He couldn’t just buy a plane ticket. He didn’t have the money and by the time he saved up enough school will have started. He could call but he couldn’t afford the long distance bill. Once again he could feel defeat pressing in around him.

Chapter 30 – Therapy / Chapter 32 – Missing You

Hannah – Chapter 30 – Therapy

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Divia sat alone absorbing the early morning sun. She had been home for over a month now. It had been touch and go with her dad for the first week. When he opened his eyes and stared without recognition at her and her mom it almost broke her heart. Divia thought she’d lose it. Where the strength came from to hold her mom as she wept on her shoulder she had no clue. Inside all she wanted to do was run away and never come back.

That was three weeks ago. His memory had improved since then. It was still fuzzy. Certain events he still didn’t remember like the accident itself. Divia thought that was a blessing. Who would want to remember something that traumatic?

She leaned back her eyes closed. Her face tilted towards the sun. A slight smile upon her face. Today was the first day of his physical therapy. She hoped her dad wouldn’t be difficult and argue with the therapist. She knew how temperamental he could be especially when he was in pain or embarrassed. When he was both who knew what he was capable of? Liono hated to appear weak in front of anyone. It was worse when it was his family and friends. For weeks his visitors had been tip toeing around his room afraid of saying or doing something wrong. Not an easy task Divia knew from experience. Depending on his mood anything might spark an argument.

“Excuse me” a soft exotic voice said above her head “is someone sitting here?”

“Oh” Divia murmured opening her eyes “sorry.” She scooted over making room for the someone else to sit.

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“Thank you” the voice said sounding grateful “sorry for disturbing you. I just really needed to get off my feet.”

“No problem” Divia was quick to say. She took a glance over at the person she was sharing a bench with. Her acquaintance was the exact opposite of what she imagined she’d look like based off her voice. The young woman had dark wavy hair tumbling past her shoulders. There were streaks of an unspecified color that may have been the result of a failed highlight job. It was the woman’s eyes that were remarkable. They were hidden behind thick dark frames but their soft mahogany glow shone through. Divia found herself staring longer than seemed polite.

The woman laughed breaking the spell Divia was under. “Do I have a booger coming out my nose or something?” the woman asked. Her smile was genuine as she self-consciously wiped a hand over and around her nose.

“No no I’m sorry” Divia mumbled as her cheeks grew hot.

“I’d prefer it if someone told me if there were” she flashed her a toothy grin “I’d hate to find out later I was walking around with a big old booger hanging from my nose. People may think its impolite to say something but it’s so much worse to let someone walk around like that.”

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Divia found herself relaxing around her and laughing along with her. Glancing at the time she sighed “I should be going. My dad’s about to start physical therapy and I have to be there.”

Frowning the woman stood up as well. “From my experience patients usually don’t want their family around.”

“I know” Divia shrugged glancing away. Her eyes moving around the serene garden like park wishing she could bottle the peace she felt there. “My dad isn’t very….cooperative. He may need me there to keep him somewhat civil.” Turning back to her companion she said “he wouldn’t want to appear weak in front of me.”

“Ok” the woman nodded seeming to have filed what she said away “I guess I’ll be seeing you later than.”

“You might” Divia agreed thinking the woman was there visiting another patient.

***

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Twenty minutes later Divia sat unobtrusively to the side while her dad went through the paces. He grunted in pain. Never once complaining. Maybe it was her presence or maybe the fact his therapist was young and pretty. Divia knew her eyes almost popped from their eye sockets when her acquaintance from outside came into the room in a lab coat introducing herself as Renee Hauske, physical therapist.

As the interns helped her dad into his wheelchair. Renee smiled brightly at her “I knew we’d meet again” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Divia swallowed as her hands suddenly felt clammy. She could feel the woman’s eyes watching her in a way that made her pulse race. Her mouth felt dry as she croaked out her own name in response.

“It’s nice to meet you Divia” the calm self-assured woman smiled again before turning her full attention to her father.

Divia’s ears perked up when she heard her dad’s deep voice ask “are you married?” Inwardly she groaned. Why did older people feel the need to ask personal information about someone’s relationship status upon meeting them?

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“I was engaged” Renee’s soft exotic voice replied “it didn’t work out obviously.” she laughed waving her empty finger around.

“His loss” Liono chuckled with her.

“We wanted different things” Renee sighed “she lives in Sunset Valley with her new girlfriend now.”

Divia held her breath leaning forward listening for her dad’s response. Would he be repulsed by having a lesbian therapist? She knew he had gay friends but for whatever reason he never struck her as being very accepting of them.

“Give it time” he advised her “you’ll find the girl eventually.”

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“It’s been almost three years” she objected “all I seem to attract are jerks.”

“Maybe you like jerks” Liono said with a grin and a sparkle in his eyes.

Laughing Renee shook her head “you might be right.” She helped him back into his chair.

“That’s all for today Mr Marx. You did excellent today.”

Liono smirked as he caught sight of his daughter watching them. “My daughter’s single. Maybe you could ask her out,” he suggested.

“Dad” Divia protested walking towards them cheeks blazing with heat.

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“What” he demanded innocently eyes shifting “did you think I didn’t know?”

“I” her eyes darted towards Renee “I never told you. How did you….”

“I’m not blind or an idiot” he grumbled but his eyes never lost their twinkle “did you think I wouldn’t approve?” Her silence spoke for her as he nodded in acceptance. “I want you to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Stepping back Renee suggested “maybe you’d like to take your dad to the garden where you can talk.”

Nodding Divia took her place behind her dad’s wheelchair. She didn’t knew what to say or even what she should be feeling. She felt somehow lighter like a heavy burden had been removed from her shoulders. Her dad loved her. He wasn’t mad like she expected him to be. To her astonishment he had tried to set her up with his therapist. Tears stung her eyes blurring her vision.

“Are you crying?” Liono asked his voice betraying his irritation he felt around anyone crying.

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“Sorry” she mumbled slowly pushing him towards the bench she had shared with Renee earlier that day.

“Divia I’m not upset I wish…” he sighed “I wish you’d own your feelings. If you feel angry be angry. If you feel like crying than cry. Don’t let me or anyone else dictate how you feel.” He fell silent while Divia sat down on the bench facing him. He reached over took her hand “I know I’ve been hard on you. I’m sorry. I thought if I pushed you enough you’d stand up for yourself.” He squeezed her hand “I guess that’s not what you needed and I’m sorry.”

Something broke inside her. Like a chunk of ice had fallen away from her heart. “Daddy” she cried throwing her arms around “I love you so so much and I’m sorry I doubted you.”

Hesitantly at first he raised his arms to hold her. “Does this mean I have a green light to set things up with Renee?”

“Oh daddy you’re impossible” she cried into his shoulder feeling she’d let him do whatever he wanted as long as she knew he loved her.

***

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Zach stared out the window. The busy sidewalk showed people going about their everyday lives. Some wore dresses, some were in business suits, others in t-shirts and jeans. Mothers with babies in strollers. Others were carrying multiple bags from their shopping excursions. All normal. Zach couldn’t help but wonder what was behind the smiles. What monsters lurked within? Who went home and hurt the ones they loved?

Shivering he turned away from the window. He found his therapist watching him. Her eyes following his every movement making feel conspicuous. He crossed his arms in front of himself wishing he were a turtle so he could hide within his shell. He watched her lips twitch as she jotted down something inside her notebook.

He watched the pen she wrote with. For a moment he wondered how she could write with her arm curled up like that. It seemed very awkward but a lot of left-handed writers appeared to write like that. It was something that he’d always noticed, had tried to copy but couldn’t.

When she was done she twirled the pin around, appearing to be in deep thought. “What were you thinking about when you gazed out the window?” she asked after several minutes of silence.

The sound of her voice caught Zach off guard. The intake of his breath was loud in the silent room. He shook his head slowly his hair flying around his face “nnothing” he stammered. He could feel her gaze on him making him squirm.

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“Zach if you want my help you need to talk to me” the woman’s voice was gentle to Zach’s ears.

“Are you really as nice as you appear?” he asked his voice low, cautious.

She raised her chin to acknowledge she heard his question. “What makes you think I might not be?” she countered his question with one of her own.

He pressed his spine into the hard backed chair he sat in. He glanced furtively around the room stopping on the exit door. His dad was sitting just on the other side of that door. All he had to do was get up and walk through it and this would all be over.

“Zach” her voice was low barely loud enough to catch his attention. “Do you think about what people are hiding behind their smiles?”

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Shocked he nodded “there’s a lot of evil hidden behind pleasant smiles.”

“It’s exhausting trying to figure out what someone’s hiding isn’t it?” she asked.

He nodded wondering how she knew. “You can’t tell” he mumbled. His eyes were vacant as he retreated further into himself.

He watched as she checked the time. She gave him a thin-lipped smile before placing her hands flat on top of her desk. “That’s it for today. We’ll see you on Friday” she said like a question giving him the option to say no.

He never did. He simply nodded as he moved towards the door wondering what if anything she learned about him and whether it was helping him or not.

***

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Later that night Teasha slipped into his room. “How did it go?” she asked sitting on the edge of his bed her light blue eyes watching him.

Sitting up he shrugged “I don’t like her.”

“Tell daddy and he’ll find someone else” she suggested.

“It’s not that easy” he drew his knees up wrapping his arms around them. “She makes me say things I don’t want to think about.”

She gave him a quizzical look “that’s kind of what she’s supposed to do. It’s the only way she can help you.”

“I guess” he mumbled “are you home for good now?”

Teasha nodded “at least for the summer. I wish you’d change your mind and come back to school with me in the fall.” She saw the terrified look in his eyes “it’s not the same without you.”

“Waylon won’t be there” he sighed resting his chin on his hands a shudder shaking his shoulders.

“Have you heard from him lately?” she asked ruffling his soft blonde hair with her fingers.

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“No” he almost wailed.

“He hasn’t called?” her voice sounded shocked.

“He has” Zach mumbled “I haven’t answered.”

“Why the hell not?” she demanded indignant on Waylon’s behalf.

Shrugging his shoulders he talked into his hands making his words hard to understand. “What’s the point? I’m here. He’s there. It’s over….”

She had to admit he did have a point. “You can still be friends” she said quietly.

“I don’t want to be friends” he closed his eyes images of their last night together replaying in his mind. A low moan escaped his lips as his body remembered the way Waylon’s hands ignited a fire within him.

“Zach you and he … you didn’t….” she gave him a piercing gaze “you did.” She was shocked. She wouldn’t have thought her brother would ever. Not after….”You didn’t just do it with Waylon because of Dex…”

He lifted his head up. Eyes blazing with hate “Dexter never touched me. He tried but I…” His throat constricted cutting off his voice.

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“Alright” she replied calmly wondering what actually did happen between him and Dexter. No one had seen Dexter after that night. No she mentally chided herself. Her brother would never hurt anyone. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. “At least tell me you and Waylon were safe.”

“Safe?” he looked at her eyes wide his tone confused.

“Yeah safe as in careful” she rolled her eyes at him “you know protection. Geez Zach do I have to spell it out for you.”

“Of course we…” his voice faltered he didn’t exactly remember. Had they used anything? “I don’t know” he admitted aloud “it’s not like we planned for it to happen. It just did.”

“Zach” she cried in exasperation “you’re an idiot.”

The magnitude of what he said started to sink in he asked “what am I going to do now?” His anxiety causing his voice to come out squeaky.

“The first thing you’re going to do is take a pregnancy test” she told him.

“Why?” he asked recoiling at the idea.

“Zach use your head” she bit her lip to keep from saying more. He was already in shock at the idea of being pregnant she had to be gentle if she wanted him to cooperate with her. “You know as well as I do you could be pregnant.”

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“I know” he cried as the enormity of it pressed in around him choking off his air “All I wanted was to feel better. To feel loved. I didn’t think…”

“It’s going to be alright” she soothed pulling him close rocking him in her arms like she did when they were kids and he’d had a bad dream “we’ll figure this out together. I promise it’s going to be ok.”

“I’m sorry that you always have to take care of me” he muttered into her shoulder “everyone would be better off if I had jumped off the bridge that night.”

“What? What did you say?” she demanded pushing him from her shoulder. Holding his face between her hands “don’t you dare think that’s an option. I’d be lost without you. Our dads would be devastated. How do you think Waylon would feel? He loves you.”

Tears streamed down his face “I’m sorry. I try not to think about how awful everything is. How people hide who they are behind smiles. I wonder what evil lurks behind those smiles. I just want peace. I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to die either. It’s just sometimes the dark thoughts surround me and I wonder if it’d be better to not have to think at all ever again.”

Shaking him she demanded “when these feelings come up call me. Call dad or daddy. Waylon or anyone else. We’ll drop everything and come to you. You’re not alone. You have people who care about you. Who want to help you.”

“I…” he turned away from her intense gaze “I don’t want to be a burden. You have lives to live. You don’t need me hanging around like a dead weight around your necks.”

“Then talk to that therapist. Tell her everything you just told me.” She pulled him close “you don’t have to suffer through this alone.”

“I’ll try” he said “I promise I’ll try.”

Chapter 29 – Don’t Need You / Chapter 31 – Harsh Realities

Hannah – Chapter 27 – Homeward Bound

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Wiping tears from her cheeks, Divia took a deep breath. He had to be alright she thought as she took off across campus. She made a list of the things she needed to do before she left. The professors she needed to contact regarding the papers that were due. It hardly mattered since she changed her major. Most of her classes she took this past year wouldn’t help her towards her goal.

Her feet seemed to have a mind of their own as she hurried towards her dorm. The peace she had found earlier was gone. A growing dread threatened to engulf her. What if her dad died? What if she was never able to tell him how much she love him?

She regretted all the years she had spent being in awe of him. Too afraid to displease him. She should have been more outgoing, more of the daughter he wanted instead of the one he didn’t understand. She had the uncomfortable feeling that she hadn’t been fair to him. She had been too ready to point the blame at him. To tell everyone how he didn’t understand her. She hadn’t tried to understand either. She may never get a chance to show him how much she cared about him.

She burst into her room. The door banging loudly into the wall behind her. Teasha jumped up eyes puffy and red. Identical to how Divia was sure she looked like. “What happened?” they cried together.

“You first” Divia said closing the door. Concern for her friend overriding her fears about her father.

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Teasha took a deep breath before opening her mouth to respond. Only sobs came out. Divia moved across the room wrapping her arms around the girl. “It’ll be ok. Whatever it is it’ll be ok.”

Shaking her head Teasha gulped “no no it won’t.” She clung to Divia. Her fingers digging into her back “he’s dead….”

“No he’s in surgery” Divia protested “mom would have told me if he had died.”

“I heard it” Teasha gulped “on the radio.”

Stuffing the panic rising inside her Divia frowned. “Why would my dad’s accident be on the radio?”

“What accident?” Teasha sniffed hearing Divia for the first time since she came home.

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“My dad” Divia repeated “was in a bike accident. He’s in surgery. He might not make it. I have to go home.”

“I’m so sorry” Teasha stammered “I didn’t know.”

“Who were you talking about?” Divia asked as dread filled her as Teasha pulled away from her. She could see the distress written all over her friends face. Holding her hand around the girls face “it’s not Zach is it? He wasn’t in an accident was he?” Panic filled her voice as a hundred different scenarios played out in her head.

“No not Zach” Teasha shook her head . “Phoenix his….” she gulped or air “his plane went down over the ocean.”

“Oh honey” Divia pulled her close letting Teasha cry on her shoulder “I’m so sorry.”

***

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An hour later Teasha raised herself from her bed. Sniffling she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’m coming with you.”

“What about class?” Divia asked from her side of the room “don’t you have a test next week?”

“I wont be able to concentrate” the girl complained.

“Honey don’t throw your education away” Divia said coming to sit beside the upset girl. Handing her a Kleenex she continued “going home won’t make you feel any better.”

“I know” she blew her nose “I wish there was something I could do.”

“The best thing you can do is to stay in school,” Divia said “I have to home. Mom needs me.”

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“You’re right but what if he’s…” she stopped shuddering. “I never got to tell him how much I loved him.”

“I know honey” Divia rubbed her friends back. “You have to accept this is why he broke up with you before he left. He didn’t want to put you through this pain.”

“It didn’t work” she sniffed. “I’m still hurting. Still waiting to know if he’s alright. I can’t just turn my feelings off.”

“Then prove to him that you can be a good military wife.” She spoke with a firmness she seldom showed. “Pull yourself together. Do what needs to be done.”

Teasha looked up through her tears “you’ve changed.”

Shrugging Divia glanced away, “not really. I’ve been to unsure of myself and what I wanted to be myself. It’s time I took control of my life. I can’t wait for someone else to hang the moon for me.”

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“You can’t give up on love either” Teasha protested letting concern for her friend rise above her own misery.

“Oh I won’t” looked at her hands “it’s just not a priority anymore. I have to find happiness within myself first before looking for it in someone else.”

“I’m sorry” Teasha mumbled getting up to help Divia pack. “I’ve been a terrible friend. So wrapped up in my own problems. I didn’t even ask you about Marzia.”

“There’s not much to tell” Divia said softly. “She left and I don’t know why.”

“I’m sorry” Teasha squeezed her tight. “I should have been a better friend.”

“Don’t worry about it” Divia sniffed “it’s not the end of the world.”

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“If you need to talk” Teasha offered “I’m here.” Looking at the boxes “how are you going to get home?”

“Rent a car I guess” Divia shrugged “I haven’t given it much thought.”

“I’ll drive you” Teasha said “no objections. Tomorrow is Friday. I don’t have class until Monday. I’ll go for the weekend. Visit my parents. Hopefully stay busy so I don’t think too much.”

“I accept” Divia said relieved that detail was taken care of. “You should tell Zach you’re leaving.”

“Maybe he’ll want to come with us” Teasha smiled “I doubt it though.”

“At least offer” Divia sighed wishing she had siblings to share in this crisis.

***

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Teasha knocked on her brother’s door. “Zach you in there?” she put an ear to the door listening for movement. Frowning she lifted her hand to knock again. It sounded like someone was crying or moaning. “Zach” she shouted pummeling the door “let me in.”

She fell forward when the door was jerked open. Waylon stood in front of her, hair topsy turvey, shirt untucked and ripped. “Is that blood?” Teasha demanded staring wide-eyed at his appearances.

“It’s not mine” he mumbled.

“Zach” she cried pushing past him “where’s Zach?”

Waylon slapped the door following her. “He doesn’t want a lot of fuss.”

“He’s hurt” she pointed at the blood stains on Waylon’s shirt “where is he?”

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“I’m taking care of him” Waylon glared at her.

“He’s my brother” she shouted whirling around confronting the man. “I want to know what happened.” She stared at the young man standing in front of her. The grazed bruised knuckles on his hands. The blood stains on his shirt. His insistence that Zach was ok made her wonder. What if this seemingly nice guy had hurt him. “I’m not leaving until I see him.”

“I didn’t…you think…” Waylon seemed to wilt in front of her. “I would never hurt him.”

“Why won’t you let me see him?” she demanded “he’s been hurt before by someone he thought loved him.”

“He’s in the closet,” Waylon waved towards the door “he won’t come out. He crawled in there as soon as I got him home.”

“What happened?” she demanded walking towards the door. She choked back a sob upon what she saw. The last time Zach had crawled into a closet and refused to come out was right after he came home from the hospital. She had found him in his bedroom closet crying. The closet had become his safe place. The place he retreated to when the world became too much to handle.

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“Dexter Gage happened” Waylon shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’m gonna kill him.” He strode towards the door slamming it shut behind him sending a few pictures crashing to the floor.

Teasha stared at the door stunned by the raw anger that washed over her. Turning back to the closet she knelt beside her brother who was curled up into tight ball on the floor. “Zachie” her voice squeaked as she pulled him to her.

“I want to go home” he mumbled “please take me home.”

“If that’s what you want,” she rubbed her hands along his back feeling the sobs rocking his body. “I’ll help you pack.” There was no point in arguing or demanding he talk to her. He would tell her what happened eventually in his way in his own time.

“Thank you” he mumbled following her out of the closet.

She gasped upon seeing his battered face in the light. Blood dried cake on one side of his face. His bottom lip was swollen. When he talked she could tell he hand some broken or loose teeth. “Did he do that to you?” her hands shook. She wanted to follow Waylon and make sure he gave Dexter exactly what he had coming to him.

Tracing a hand across his face Zach winced. “I’m ok,” his voice flat emotionless.

“No you’re not” she walked towards him “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“No” he jerked away from her. His words slurred from the swollen lip “home. I want to go home.”

“We’ll go home after you see a doctor” she took his arm “I promise we’ll go home tomorrow.” She steered him towards the door.

Shaking his head he started to back away “no. No I won’t go. It’s not safe.”

“Zach please” she pleaded as he retreated towards the closet. At least let me clean you up a bit.”

***

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Twenty minutes later she had gotten most of the dirt and blood removed from his face. In the back of her mind she hoped that Waylon had found Dexter and given him a beating within and inch of his life.

“I’m sorry” Zach said speaking for the first since she began.

“It’s not your fault” she assured him

He shuddered “if I had done was I was told.” He stopped glancing away.

Teasha wanted to shout at him to tell him to talk to her. She knew that would have the opposite effect on him. She willed herself to be patient. She had to let him tell her in his own way in his own time.

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“He he dragged me with the bushes” Zach began again shivering “he he….kkkkissed me.” He lifted his eyes. “I told him to stop.” Tears rolled down his cheeks “I begged him to stop.”

“I’m going to kill him” Teasha cried repeating the same words Waylon had as he ran from the room earlier. How could someone like that exist? How could he claim to love someone then terrorize them? It didn’t make sense. Her brother wouldn’t hurt a fly. He didn’t deserve this. No one did.

“I…I hit him” his voice broke through her dark thoughts “I wanted him to stop.” He stared at his hands. “I just kept hitting him and hitting him.” He took a gulp of air “I hurt him. I couldn’t stop hitting him.”

“Zach honey” Teasha took a mirror from her bag. “Look” she demanded holding the mirror out to him “it was self-defense. Dexter hurt you too. He would have done worse if you hadn’t stood up for yourself.” She watched him as he explored the bruises on his face. “It’s not your fault,” she repeated.

“I just” he swallowed “I didn’t think…”

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She could see the tears building behind his eyes again “it’s alright. It’s a terrible thing what he did to you. I’m so proud of you.”

His light blue eyes moved towards her “proud of me?”

Nodding she squeezed him tight “you fought back. You refused to be a helpless victim. You are so much more than you believe.”

He gave her a lopsided grin. He had never seen himself like that before. “Waylon…where is he?”

“I don’t know” she said.

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“He’s looking for Dexter isn’t he?” He staggered to his feet “we have to find him. He’s going to do something stupid.”

“Alright I’ll look for him” she assured him. She followed him towards the door.

“I’m with you” he asserted when she tried to stop him.

“Absolutely not,” she protested pushing him lightly towards the bed. “I’ll find you. You stay and pack.”

***

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Zach sat on the bed staring at the closed door. Mustering all his strength he staggered from the room. He had to find Waylon before it was too late. He couldn’t let him do something he’d regret for the rest of his life. Teasha meant well but she didn’t know Waylon the way he did. Didn’t know that Waylon would do anything to protect him.

Heart pounding Zach stopped on the edge of the dormitory grounds. He stared across the road towards the bridge. He took several deep breaths before venturing towards the dark unlit field across the street. He was following his instinct that Waylon would be out there looking for traces of Dexter. He wouldn’t find any. He was sure of that.

The long grass rubbed against his pants legs leaving them damp with dew. Closing his eyes he listened for sounds that he wasn’t alone. A rustling to his left had him jumping backwards until he realized it was a small rodent moving in the long grass. Taking several deep breaths he continued towards the river’s edge. The last place he had seen Dexter.

A loud splash almost had him running for cover. A familiar voice demanded “what the hell are you doing here?”

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“Looking for you” Zach squeaked as he felt Waylon’s arms wrap around him. Soon he felt Waylon’s lips softly caressing the nape of his neck. His breath caught in his throat as he choked out “I love you.”

Waylon gently turned so he could bring his lips to the blond’s mouth. Careful not to move too fast or to hurt him. A soft moan escaped from Zach when Waylon pulled back to gaze into his eyes. “I was afraid I had lost you,” he ran his fingers through Zach’s hair.

“I’m here” Zach whispered resting his cheek against Waylon’s chest.

“Don’t ever leave me,” Waylon pleaded.

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“I wish I didn’t have to” Zach closed his eyes regretting his poor choice of words. Waylon’s arms dropped from around him. Zach walked towards the river’s edge sighing. How cold was the water he wondered? It was still early spring. Would it be cold enough to give someone hypothermia before they drowned? “I’m going home. I can’t stay here….”

“I’m going home too” Waylon put his arms around the blond again. He moved slowly knowing how easily Zach was startled. “My Uncle needs my help on the ranch.”

“This doesn’t have to be the end” Zach said turning in Waylon’s embrace. “We still have tonight and I could come to visit.”

Waylon chuckled a little the sound a little sad in the cool crisp air. “You’d never survive on a ranch.”

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“I could try” Zach murmured “I’d try anything for you.”

“No” Waylon shook his head firmly. “It wouldn’t do for either of us making drastic changes for the other.” As much as they both didn’t want to say it. It felt like goodbye.

“I know” Zach sighed tentatively putting his arms around Waylon’s waist. I placed soft kisses along Waylon’s neck and jaw line. “I want you to love me.”

With a low moan of assent Waylon gently guided them to the dew drenched ground. He hovered over the blond seeing the desire and acceptance in his light blue eyes before he lowered his mouth to Zach’s lips.

Chapter 26 – Goodbye / Chapter 28 – Almost

Hannah – Chapter 24 – Bad News

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Waylon stared at the email. The words were blurry as tears formed in his eyes. He couldn’t believe this was happening not after all these years. He wiped his eyes dry as he heard the door open. His eyes widened as he watched Zach come into the room shirtless. He smiled as he watched his roommate sprint towards his dresser. Cheeks red as he pulled a shirt over his head. It was on the tip of Waylon’s tongue to ask what happened to his shirt. He held his tongue not wanting to add to the blonde’s embarrassment.

He kept his eyes averted to his laptop. The email swam before his eyes. How had this happened? His Uncle had always been so careful with his money. It was inconceivable that his Uncle was on the verge of bankruptcy. His Uncle and Aunt could lose everything they had worked for all their lives. When he came to live with them Waylon couldn’t ever remember going without.

He glanced over when he felt a presence near him. Giving the blonde a distracted smile he said “did you talk to your sister?”

Nodding Zach attempted to see what was so interesting on Waylon’s computer screen. From his angle he couldn’t see anything. “Is something wrong?” he asked his brows knitted together in concern.

Closing his laptop Waylon shook his head. He could feel the blonde’s eyes following him almost as if they could burrow inside him.

“I can tell something’s wrong?” Zach persisted “you’re always telling me to talk when something’s bothering me. Don’t you think you should do the same?”

“This is different” Waylon mumbled getting up to walk to the window.

“How?” Zach demanded.

Waylon half turned from the window shaking his head “you wouldn’t understand.”

“Do you think I’m too weak and feeble minded to help? Is that it?” Zach’s hands bunched into fists.

“No” he sighed “that’s not it at all.”

“Then tell me” Zach pleaded “let me help you.”

“That’s just it” Waylon yelled turning to glare at the blonde “you can’t help. No one can.”

Zach took a step backwards. He hadn’t expected Waylon to be so emotional. All the months they had roomed together Waylon had been nothing but a rock. Someone he could rely on. He could see it in Waylon’s eyes that something terrible had happened. “Please let me help you” he took a hesitant step forward touching Waylon’s hand. He flinched when Waylon jerked his hand away.

“I don’t need your help” he screamed stomping from the room.

Zach stared after him incomprehension written on his face. What had he done to provoke that? Waylon had never spoken unkindly or harshly to him in all the time they had known each other. He could feel himself begin to shake. He stumbled to his bed. Curling into a tight ball he let the tears fall as his mind replayed the events leading up to this. What had he done? He doubted it was his shirtless attire. Waylon hadn’t seemed to notice or care. That in itself had been a surprising disappointment. Zach had expected some sort of reaction. Some light-hearted teasing perhaps. Instead all he got was rejection.

***

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Waylon’s feet flew down the stairs. Two at a time. His breathing labored as he ran outside. What had he done? He had taken out his anger and frustration on Zach. He saw the hurt and bewilderment in the blonde’s eyes. He hadn’t wanted to do that. The more Zach tried to get him to talk the more he felt trapped.

Trapped into the same course of action he always took when things were too difficult to handle. He pushed those closest to him away. Images of himself as a twelve-year-old kid fighting everyone who had tried to befriend him after he lost his family. He had been so lonely but he hadn’t known how to stop it. All through high school he had longed for a friend. By then no one even tried to talk to him. They had all learned to leave him alone.

He leaned against a tree breathing hard. His mind replaying an episode from his past. He had been sitting in his self-imposed corner of solitary confinement when his bleak thoughts had been interrupted by screams and laughter. Looking up he watched in horror as a nearby trashcan burst into flames from someone’s idea of a joke. His eyes were riveted to the flames as they licked at the sides, leaping higher and higher into the air seeking something to consume.

That moment watching the flames Waylon was transported back in time. Twelve years old coughing on thick acrid smoke, every breath an agonizing ordeal. Lungs burning as the super heated air filled them. The smell of his own flesh sizzling as he gripped the door handle trying to get to his sister. Her screams begging him for help.

He brought his hands up covering his ears. The teachers were yelling at everyone to calm down. The fire was out. No damage done. For Waylon the nightmare was all too real. It was all around him. He bolted from his chair running for the door. He felt the curious eyes of his classmates following him as he ran. He heard the muffled sounds of the teacher telling to get back in his seat.

He ignored it all. He ran. Ran from the class room. Ran from the school. Ran until he couldn’t run anymore. He fell exhausted to the ground. It wasn’t until the whinny of a horse woke him from his daze that he realized where he was. His favorite spot in the world. The spot where his Uncle let the horses graze. He sat up as his horse Hershey approached him nuzzling his face.

Hershey had been born the summer he had come to live with his Uncle and Aunt. Hershey was his horse. His responsibility to feed, brush, train, everything. At first Waylon had resented the responsibility. The smell of mucking out a dirty stall. The flies that buzzed around his face. He hated all of it.

One day as he was going through the motions something happened. The way Hershey would follow him on his thin wobbly legs reminded him of his little sister. The look in his moist warm chocolate-brown eyes as Hershey gazed up at him as Waylon fed him carrots tugged at his heart. Hershey thawed a part of his heart that Waylon thought would be frozen forever.

Zach reminded him of Hershey. The way Zach needed him. There was a certain look in his crystal blue eyes that always melted Waylon’s heart strings. He ran a hand through his hair. He needed to apologize to the timid blonde. He took several deep breaths before turning towards the door.

***

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Hannah heard the soft cries as she passed by the semi open door. Stopping she approached the door pushing it wider. “Zach” she called stepping inside. Waylon’s side of the room was empty. Hannah wondered where the guy had gone. It was unusual that he would leave Zach like this. Unless…. Her breath hitched in her throat. She’d personally hunt him down if he hurt Zach in any way.

“Zach” she repeated her voice soft as she sat on the edge of the bed beside the weeping boy. “Zach what’s wrong? Did something happen between you and Waylon?” She bit her lip dreading the answer. She personally hoped it wasn’t that. She liked Waylon. Liked the way he protected one of her dearest friends.

“He hates me” he mumbled burying his face deeper in his pillow.

“No he doesn’t” Hannah contradicted. It was a gut reaction. She didn’t know for sure. Waylon could have grown tired of always catering to the special needs of someone like Zach. She reached out and gently stroked his hair. “Tell me what happened” she requested keeping the heated desire of needing to know from her voice. The last thing she needed was to make Zach feel pressured.

“He yelled at me,” he cried his voice muffled by the pillow “he’s never done that before. Not to me.”

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That was true Hannah thought. She had heard Waylon yell at Dexter whenever he happened by the dormitory presumably by accident. They all knew he hoped to catch Zach alone. For that reason they had all agreed that Zach would never be left alone in the dorm. Someone would always be there. She wasn’t sure how much of the protective canopy Zach was aware of but they hadn’t heard him complain it was confining or restrictive.

She pulled her thoughts back to what Zach was saying. “Maybe he received some bad news from home” she suggested.

“Maybe” he acknowledged sitting up wiping a hand across his red swollen eyes. “What if he’s just tired of catering to me? I know it’s not easy to be with someone like me. All my fears and insecurities.”

“Oh Zach” she gasped his words were eerily similar to her own thoughts. She didn’t want to consider how that would affect that would effect him. “I’m sure that’s not it,” she tried to assure him.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said forcefully pushing her away from him “I know what you guys are doing for me. I’m not blind. I know someone is always here watching out for me. Someone always walks me to class. I’m a nuisance to have around.”

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“That’s not true” she cried “we love you.”

“Why?” he demanded “I offer nothing in return. I just pull you all down.” He got up heading for the door.

“Zach where are you going?” she cried following him.

“Leave me alone” he yelled at her “I’m tired of being coddled.”

His outburst so unlike him stopped her in her tracks. By the time she had recovered her senses he was gone. “Zach” she called running down the stair knowing it was pointless.

***

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Waylon turned towards the door bumping into someone. “Excuse me” he mumbled not really seeing who it was he knocked over.

“Woe is something wrong?” Donovan asked picking himself up.

“What?” Waylon asked absently “I…I’m sorry.” He watched Donovan dust himself off grimacing a little “did I hurt you?”

“Naw” Donovan shook his head “just a bruise or two. Don’t worry about it.” He gave Waylon an appraising look “what’s up? I know something’s wrong so don’t bother denying it.”

“I..” he ran a hand through his hair “I got an email from my Aunt saying my Uncle’s going to lose his ranch.” He swallowed hard “he’s put everything he has into that ranch. I can’t believe he’s going to lose it just like that,” he snapped his fingers.

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“Did he make a bad investment” Donovan asked. His eyes had a far away look in them.

“He might have….I don’t really know” Waylon tried to think if they had mentioned anything to him. Shaking his head he said “I think my Aunt mentioned something about an investment last December. I just don’t know what.”

Grabbing his arm Donovan pulled him inside and towards a computer. “Keep a look out” he instructed.

Puzzled Waylon asked “what are you doing?”

“I’m going to do some research into your Uncle’s finances” he explained.

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“Your going to hack into my Uncle’s accounts” Waylon stated his brows knitting together in concern.

“I wouldn’t say that exactly” Donovan objected “I’m doing some innocent inquiries into his finances and investments. I’m not doing anything else.”

Feeling uncomfortable with what they were doing Waylon stood lookout as he grew more and more nervous. Donovan kept muttering and grunting to himself until Waylon had to ask “what did you find?”

“Your Uncle was conned out of his life savings,” Donovan told him “you see that” he pointed towards something on the screen.

“Yeah what is it?” Waylon asked.

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“Mr Reginald Cummings is the broker who foreclosed on my mother’s house” Donovan frowned “I could do some creative reallocation of Cummings funds” he glanced up at Waylon “but he doesn’t have enough in this account to cover what he swindled your Uncle out of.”

“Will it help him keep the ranch?” he asked eyes glued to the screen.

“It should” Donovan nodded “it’ll be tight but your Uncle should be able to keep things running if he’s careful.”

“Do it” Waylon said before he could talk himself out of it.

“It’ll take a while for me to set things up so that they can’t trace what I’m doing” Donovan told him “I need you to tell me if anyone comes. So that I have time to cover up what I’m doing.”

Nodding Waylon watched the room scanning the comings and goings of the students. His stomach twisted with worry. What they were doing was illegal. It was technically his Uncle’s money he had been conned out of. He shouldn’t feel bad but he couldn’t keep from jumping every time someone approached the door.

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“There you are” Hannah said bursting through the door and coming towards them “I have been looking everywhere for you.”

“I’m busy right now” Waylon told her hoping Donovan had enough time to hide what they were doing.

“You better make time” she glared at him hands on hips “Zach ran off and it’s all your fault.”

Waylon stared at her while a loud buzzing started in his ears. “What?” he demanded “what do you mean he ran off?”

“What do you think I mean?” she scoffed “he was upset. You yelled at him. I tried to calm him down but he ran off.”

“I have to find him” Waylon interrupted her running for the door. All thoughts of his Uncle gone.

***

Zach ran until he couldn’t run anymore. He leaned against the bridge breathing hard as cars sped past him. He hadn’t realized where he was going until he stopped. He had always had a fascination with bridges ever since he was little. This one had held his imagination ever since he came to university last fall.

Had it really been that long? He couldn’t believe the year was almost over and he’d be going home for the summer in six weeks. So much had changed and so much had stayed the same. He watched the water flow past underneath his feet. He let his mind wander imagining how it’d feel to jump from this height into the murky depths below. The water rushing over his head. Fighting the current to bring his head above water. Gasping for one last breath. The thoughts weren’t new just buried beneath a layer of happiness that he hoped would last. It hadn’t. Like everything else in his life it was ruined by his incessant neediness. Everyone would be better off without him. No one would need to babysit him. He climbed up on the girders of the old iron bridge leaning over mesmerized by the rushing water beneath him.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you” a voice said from somewhere close behind him.

He jerked losing his grip on the iron girder leaving him teetering in mid-air. A hand reached out to steady him. Climbing down he turned “thank you” his smile faded as the blood drained from his face “Dexter.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to talk to you alone” he said oblivious to the blonde’s discomfort “I’ve waited outside your dorm everyday waiting for my chance.”

In a bold, half desperate attempt to put distance between him and Dexter, Zach ran into the road. Ignoring the screech of tires and blaring car horns he kept running until he reached the other side. He thought he was going to make it. He could see the lights of his dorm not too far away. A heavy force knocked him flat forcing all the air from his lungs. A hand tangled in his hair. A harsh ragged whisper spoke in his ear “listen and listen good” Dexter hissed “you’re going to do exactly as I say.” Using Zach’s hair he cranked the blondes head back “understand?”

Zach winced in pain “yes” he gasped as Dexter’s weight shifted on his back.

“Good” Dexter smiled in the dark pulling the blonde towards a dark secluded area beneath the bridge.

Chapter 23 – Not What He Meant / Chapter 25 – Accomplice

Hannah – Chapter 23 – Not What He Meant

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Phoenix hunkered down in his seat, arms wrapped tight around himself. The noise from the engine of the air craft added to his sense of isolation. He closed his eyes only to be confronted with a pair of reproachful blue eyes. No matter how many times he said it it never made his decision any easier. He groaned aloud drawing the attention of those around him. Ignoring their stares he turned to the window. It was too dark to see anything below them. No doubt it was the ocean. Briefly he let his mind wander to what it’d be like to crash into the ocean. Would he survive long enough to feel the icy bite of the frigid waters? Would he become shark bate after struggling for hours to stay afloat? Maybe he’d be marooned on a deserted island talking to a soccer ball by the name of Wilson.

A small smile fluttered across his lips at the thought. He had watched that movie with his dad when he was little. He often thought it was silly to become that attached to a silly ball. Now it made sense. Now he understood the need for any kind of emotional support. Someone to talk to.

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He often felt like that guy marooned on an island alone except for Wilson. He had no one. No family. His mother refused to talk to him the last time he had been home. Crying the entire time as he told her about his deployment. The only thing he understood from her sobs were the words “oh that poor girl. That poor girl.” She repeated it like a scratched CD, incoherent eighty percent of the time.

In the middle of her breakdown his brother came home. “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded.

“What? No long time no see? Good to see you brother” Phoenix tried to lighten the mood.

“The hell” his brother mumbled eyeing him with anger burning deep within his eyes “you must be deploying.”

“What makes you say that?” he asked eyeing their mother who was sitting rocking herself back and forth.

“It’s the only time we see you” his younger brother stated “do you enjoy seeing what this does to her?” He pointed towards their mom softly weeping as she rocked.

“I’m sorry” Phoenix mumbled unsure what he was sorry for. For coming home. For upsetting his mom like this.

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“Oh that poor girl” his mother’s ramblings rose to coherent levels again.

“You have a girlfriend?” his younger brother snarled “does she know about your deployment?”

“Not yet” Phoenix admitted.

“Your just like the old man” his brother spat spitefully “never thinking about anyone else but yourself.”

“It’s not like that” he protested “Teasha understands what I do.”

“Sure she does” he sneered “just like mom did.” He went over to comfort the older woman who had gone through so much. “Get out” his brother shouted pointing towards the door. “Don’t come back unless your done with the military for good.”

He left under the baleful gaze of his brother. His ears still listening to the refrain of his mother repeating “oh that poor girl.” Standing outside his childhood home he sighed absorbing the pain. Just like that he was orphaned. No family. No place to call his own. It was like having an arm severed from his body.

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A sharp drop as the plane plummeted towards the ground brought his thoughts back to the moment. “What’s happening?” he asked the guy next to him.

“Air turbulence” the young man said having to yell over the noise of the engines.

He clutched the arm rests as the plane seemed to be tossed around in the air like a child playing. His mind despite the turbulence went to the last time he had been with Teasha. Her light blue eyes filled with unshed tears. He’d always remember her last words to him “it’s my choice not yours.” Brave words. Teasha didn’t know what it’s like to be waiting at home listening to the news knowing someone she loved was in the thick of a hot zone.

He hadn’t planned on telling her like he did at Marzia’s art show. He hadn’t planned on breaking up with her. If he hadn’t gone home to see his mom things would have ended differently.

He kept hearing his brother’s voice in his head telling him he was just like their dad not caring about anyone but himself. That wasn’t true. His dad cared about them. Not as much as he loved his country. He’d never put his family first not if his country needed him. Phoenix knew that. Accepted that he’d always be second or maybe even third. He loved his dad. Was secure in his love for him. His brother wasn’t. His mom tried to understand but it’s hard to be married to someone who was never around.

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That night as he held Teasha in his arms he realized something about himself. Something he wasn’t ready to admit. Instead of facing it he made a terrible mistake. He pushed Teasha away. He said it was to protect her but it wasn’t. It was to protect himself.

If he deployed knowing she was waiting for him at home all he’d do was worry. Worry about how she was coping. This way he thought he’d be free to do what was necessary to get the job done. No ties to home or anyone. It wouldn’t matter if he put his life on the line. He didn’t want the burden of questioning his decisions. He just wanted to do his job. Now all he wanted to do was survive. Go home beg Teasha to forgive him. Ask for another chance if she’d take him back.

He was asking a lot considering he had ignored her calls. Deleted her texts without responding. He thought it was the best thing for both of them. In hindsight it was him hiding. Hiding from putting someone in the same position as his mom. Maybe his chosen career wasn’t the one he wanted. Maybe it was chosen for him.

His dad always said he was a chip off the old block. His mom said he was just like his dad. He thought that meant he was supposed to follow his dad’s legacy into the military. This was the first time he ever had doubts. The first time he ever wondered if he could put country above everything else he loved. He had two more years left of this tour of duty. At that time he’d have to decide to either re-up or be discharged. Could he be a civilian? What would he do?

His thoughts came to an abrupt end as the captain started shouting orders for them to take crash positions. Shit he thought he was going to die without ever having the chance to put his life on the line in some heroic manner.

***

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Teasha wiped a tear from her cheek as she continued to stare uncomprehendingly at the page in front of her. She had been attempting to read her assignment for the past several minutes but had gotten no where. She hadn’t been able to concentrate on school since Phoenix broke up with her. When had that been? Three four weeks ago? She had tried to call him. Her calls went unanswered.

She knew he was going to ship out soon. Maybe already had. Another tear splashed onto the unread page. Damn she scowled as it smeared the words. Slamming the book shut she tossed it on the floor taking small satisfaction from the loud bang when it landed.

A soft knock on her door had her sitting up drying her eyes. “Come in” she called and smiled as Zach’s head appeared. His face a mixture of concern and hesitancy.

“Want some company?” he asked coming to a stop in front of her bed.

“Have a seat” she offered making room for him beside her.

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Frowning he sat on the floor instead “want to talk about it?”

Teasha sighed looking at her surroundings with fresh eyes. She saw the abundance of crumbs that infested her crumpled bed sheets. The unmade bed. She wondered if she looked as bad as her room did. No wonder her brother had opted to sit on the floor. Joining him on the floor she shook her head.

“You used to tell me everything” Zach smiled at her “what happened?”

Shrugging she looked away “I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”

“Teasha I’m your brother” he insisted “I want to help you.”

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“You can’t” she cried covering her mouth to stop the flow of words from dribbling out.

“He hurt you didn’t he?” Zach’s eyes flashed with anger “I’ll beat him up for you.”

“Don’t you dare” she grabbed his arm around the wrist “he’ll kill you. He’s trained in unarmed combat. You wouldn’t stand a chance against him.”

“Nice to know my own sister thinks I’m a wimp” Zach grumbled a look of defeat replacing the would be hero defending his sister’s honor.

“It’s not that” she was quick to deny “it’s just you don’t know how to fight.” It was the closest she had come to talking about what had happened to him “I don’t ever want to see you hurt like that again.”

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“I’m your brother” he growled “I’m supposed to protect you.”

“Since when?” she laughed “if I recall right I was the one always fighting for you.”

“Hey” he objected “that’s not because I couldn’t defend myself.”

“No of course not” she agreed “with a smile.” It felt good to tease him. It felt like old times when they were growing up. The times before the incident. She looked at him. He seemed to have acquired a new confidence with himself. “You never did tell me how your date went with Waylon.”

A frown marred his porcelain features “I made an idiot of myself” he grumbled recalling how he had gotten upset over a stupid movie.

540

“Want to talk about it?” she asked. Concern for her brother replacing her earlier melancholy over her breakup with Phoenix.

“Hey your trying to direct the attention to me instead of yourself” he shook his head “seriously sis I’m fine. What about you? Are you ok?”

“I’m the older sibling here” she protested “I do all the questions and probing not you.”

Snorting he shook his head “just because you came out first by a few minutes doesn’t make you my boss.”

“It was two whole minutes” she informed him “quality minutes I might add.”

541

Rolling his eyes he grunted “that argument might have worked when we were kids but it’s not the same.”

“I really liked him Zach” she gulped as tears threatened to fall.

“I know you did” he moved to pull her close “I’m sorry I’ve been walking around like some kind of zombie. I want you to know I care about you and you can tell me anything.”

“Thanks Zach” she sniffed wiping her nose on his sleeve.

“Eew that’s gross” he scowled at her “why’d you do that?”

542

“I don’t know” she smiled both of them knowing why. It was what she had always done when they were little. She knew it would irritate him and offend his fastidious ways. She sighed leaning her head on his shoulder “there’s something you’re not telling me.”

The room was silent except for their even breathing and occasional sniffle. “Phoenix before he left came by to apologize. I punched him. He put me in a headlock.” He chuckled a little “you’re right he knows how to defend himself.”

“He didn’t hurt you did he?” she cried her hands trying to pull his shirt up to inspect for injuries.

“No” he cried batting her hands away “I’m not that feeble or stupid.” Once she had calmed down enough to sit still he continued “he wanted you to know he was sorry for the way things ended. It wasn’t what he intended on doing that night.” He watched her closely as she clasped her hands. It was the first time he felt like the stronger twin.

“Why didn’t he tell me himself?”she demanded anger tinging her words making her sound bitter.

544

He looked at the floor then into her sad blue eyes “I think he was afraid if he saw you he’d change his mind. He really does care about you.”

“Did he want a second chance?” she asked hope filling her voice and eyes.

Zach shook his head “maybe. I don’t know. He really didn’t say. Did he tell you where he was being deployed?”

“No” she said slowly looking away “I got upset and walked away. It just felt so unfair like he didn’t trust me to wait for him.”

“Teasha that’s not the problem” he exhaled loudly “I think he knows you’d wait for him. Forever if you had to. I think that scared him. I think knowing he was going into a combat zone where the chances of him coming home was slim scared him. He felt he had to let you go.”

545

Her eyes grew large with fright “what?” she cried clinging to him.

“I’m sorry he didn’t want you to know until he left” Zach pulled her close holding her trembling body “I thought you’d want to know.”

“I was so mean to him” she sobbed “I walked away refusing to talk. I…” sobs cut her off. After several minutes Teasha took a deep breath wiping her eyes “what am I going to do now?”

“I don’t know” Zach smiled at her “one thing I know you’re not going to do is use my shirt as your snot rag.”

“Too late” she laughed as she wiped her nose on his sleeve.

543

“That’s just gross” he complained.

“You can wash it” she told him watching as he pulled his shirt over his head.

“You do it,” he tossed the shirt at her “it’s your snot after all.” He walked to the door “if you need to talk I’m here for you.”

“I know” she sniffed “now go let your boyfriend see you strut your stuff.”

Zach’s cheeks flared a deep crimson at her words. He hadn’t thought about how he was going to make it to his room without anyone seeing him.

Chapter 22 – If You’re Not Having Fun / Chapter 24 – Bad News