Echoes of silence unquie.., p.18
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       Echoes of Silence (Unquiet Mind Book 1), p.18

           Anne Malcom
 

  “Let’s get my girls inside,” a deep voice declared.

  Zane. I had forgotten he was even here. That he had driven us here. He gently grasped my arms, lifting me out of the car and setting me on my feet. Without hesitation, his huge arm went around my shoulders and directed me to the house, my mom was on my other side, clutching my hand.

  Had this been any other moment, my heart would have filled with joy at Zane calling us his girls, at him injecting himself seamlessly into our family unit, like he’d meant to be there all along.

  This wasn’t any other moment.

  Joy seemed like an abstract, distant concept. A fairy tale that would never be real. Not now. Not when I knew what the world could do. How could you feel joy when you knew what true pain was like?

  ****

  When I woke up, it took me a second to remember. I forgot. In those blissful moments between sleep and consciousness, I forgot. When I sat up, touched my feet to the carpet, grounded myself in the stark reality, I remembered. The pain wasn’t likely going to let me forget.

  I clutched my middle for a moment, trying desperately to hold myself together. You couldn’t feel this without splitting in two. Without falling apart. Tears streamed down my face as I remembered them. The last time I’d seen them. The last time I would ever see them.

  Ava kissed my head, her beautifully made-up eyes filled with tears. She squeezed my upper arms.

  I grinned at her. “Don’t cry, Ava. It’s only a short five-hour plane ride away,” I said. Then my own eyes filled with tears. I had never been further than twenty minutes away from Ava, my grandma. My second mom.

  She pulled me into her arms, and I inhaled her signature perfume that filled me with nostalgia and comfort.

  “We’ll come and visit all the time, I promise,” she murmured against my head. “I intend on being on a first-name basis with all stewardesses on the flight. I’ll be making the trip that often,” she promised, pulling me back.

  I smiled, wiping my eyes. “Probably easier to just buy a jet,” I deadpanned.

  She nodded seriously. “I’ll look into it.” She stroked my cheek. “Steve and I are so proud of you, honey. You and your mom both. Couldn’t be prouder if we tried,” she whispered.

  “Don’t say that,” Mom whined from behind her. “That’ll give her a complex, a big head. You’ve got to knock her down a bit, so she reaches her true potential.”

  Ava laughed. “Okay, Steve and I are only moderately proud of you,” she amended, playing along. She was well acquainted with Mom and my specific brand of humor. She should be, considering she was partly responsible for it. You wouldn’t think it. She wore her hair in a demure chignon every day, wore slacks and designer court shoes and sweater sets. It was part of the charm.

  “Stop hogging my little chickee,” Steve complained from behind Ava, putting his hands on her shoulders. His green eyes twinkled, and his tanned face stretched into a grin. He was almost completely gray, but his masculine face held hardly any wrinkles. Mom teased him constantly about it, saying he slathered it in expensive face creams to get that result. He took the ribbing in stride. Like I said, he was used to it; Ava was his wife. Mom was, for all intents and purposes, his daughter.

  Ava kissed my cheek, wiping the lipstick that no doubt transferred onto my cheek after doing so. “Love you, baby girl,” she whispered.

  “You too,” I whispered back.

  Ava gave my arms one last squeeze and moved to say her good-byes to Mom.

  Steve stood in front of me and ruffled my head. “You gonna keep your mom in line for me, chickee?” he asked.

  I grinned up at him. “I’ll try my best, but you know that’s a full-time job and I have to attend high school too.”

  Steve nodded. “Yes, I agree. She’s a lost cause, I fear,” he agreed somberly. “Just do your best. Make sure she doesn’t burn anything down, most importantly my hotel.”

  I laughed. “I can’t make any promises.”

  Mom and I were moving to Amber, California so Mom could manage Steve’s newest purchase, a boutique hotel on the beach. Steve owned many around the country, which was how Mom came to meet him and Ava almost sixteen years ago. She had left home, for reasons I didn’t fully know, and found a job with them. They took pity on the teenage mother and gave her a job and a place to live. They also gave her a family. Gave me that.

  Steve pulled me into his rough embrace. “I’ll miss you, kiddo,” he murmured in my ear.

  “Get working on that jet. It’ll make things so much easier,” I told him when he let me go.

  I had intended it as a joke, but he nodded, giving me a thoughtful look. “I’ll do that.”

  My eyes popped out. I shouldn’t be surprised, not only were Steve and Ava really wealthy, Steve would do anything for Mom and me. I wouldn’t put it past him to do something rash just so he could come and see us whenever he wanted. I didn’t think he was actually rich enough to buy a jet, but he’d spend his last dollar for us.

  “Regular air travel will do just fine,” I said firmly.

  Steve grinned. “Fine’s never good enough for my girls.”

  “Will Amelia and Alexis Spencer please come to the gate, this is your final call,” a voice called over the loud speaker.

  I turned to Mom, my eyes wide. “Mom! You said we had plenty of time,” I near screeched, gathering my bags.

  She shrugged, grinning. “We do.”

  I gave her a look. “We don’t. The lady on the speaker just said so. Why did you do this?”

  She hitched her bag over my shoulder. “I love it when they call your name. It’s like we’re celebrities,” she mused.

  I gaped at her. “We’ll be the most hated people on the plane,” I corrected.

  Mom didn’t look worried. I clutched her hand, dragging her away from Steve and Ava.

  Steve merely shook his head, pulling Ava into his arms.

  I gave them a distracted wave. “Bye!”

  Ava blew us a kiss. “Bye, babies.”

  I sobbed as I realized I was rushing. It was the last time I ever saw them, and I hadn’t even said a proper good-bye. I was too busy worrying about what a plane full of strangers would think of me. I didn’t even say I loved them, tell them how much they meant to me.

  My entire body shook. I could almost smell Ava’s perfume. But I knew I couldn’t. It was a dirty trick my mind was playing on me.

  The buzzing of my phone pulled my attention away from my sorrow for just a moment. With bleary eyes, I regarded the screen, looking at the time first. It was nearly 6:00 a.m. I had slept since yesterday afternoon. Why couldn’t I have slept for longer? Until the pain didn’t feel like it was going to destroy me?

  I had multiple texts and multiple missed calls.

  Most were from the boys in the band; someone must have told them.

  Sam: Shit, I don’t know what to say, Lexie. I’m crap with emotional stuff. I just wanted to let you know I’m sorry. I’m here and can get my hands on liquor from my dad’s liquor cabinet.

  Wyatt: Killian called me. So sorry, babe.

  Noah: Here for you. Just call if you need to talk. We love you.

  Killian: I don’t know what to say to make it better, Freckles. Wish I could take away all your pain. Call me when you can. I’ll be there as soon as you need me. I know you won’t want to talk. Won’t want the noise. I know you just need your music. Your soul.

  You’re my soul, Freckles. Listen to this and remember that. Always.

  Attached to his text was a link. I put my headphones in and pressed play on the song Killian sent me. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan. Of course. Bob Dylan was ours. When the song finished, tears streamed down my cheeks. I curled up on my bed and put the song on repeat.

  I couldn’t stay on my bed any longer. I couldn’t call Killian either. All I wanted was him to make it all better, to take it all away. I needed his quiet presence. But I also couldn’t stand the thought of it. Of presenting this raw, stripped part of myse
lf to him. I didn’t even know how to be around myself. So I shrugged my cardigan on and picked up my guitar, slipping outside into the brisk morning air. The walls might have been suffocating me inside, but I felt vulnerable in the open air. I curled up on one of our lawn chairs, jostling my guitar so it sat in a playing position. My hand hovered over the strings. I couldn’t think of what to play. It felt foreign in my hands. I was lost. Tears dripped down my face. Music couldn’t even fix it.

  I heard the door open and shut behind me. I didn’t move, didn’t flinch. I expected it to be Mom, to face her grief as well as my own. Zane’s huge form came to stand beside me instead. I expected him to say something, to ask if I was okay, to make me lie and say I somehow was.

  He didn’t. He didn’t say a thing. He just loaned me some of his strength with his silence.

  “I’m not going to wake up, am I?” I asked him, resigned. “This isn’t a nightmare. It’s real.”

  His large hand came up to the back of my neck and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s a nightmare,” he disagreed. “Not one that you’re going to wake up from, but one that’s going to end,” he promised, his voice rough.

  I blinked at his words, wishing, hoping I’d believe him.

  “Have you heard of dementors?” I asked finally, not looking up at him. I didn’t wait for him to answer. “I’m guessing you haven’t, considering they’re a fictional character in Harry Potter which you’re even less likely to watch if you haven’t even seen the Wizard of Oz,” I continued, flinching at the memory of the last conversation we had. Everything from this moment on would be split into before and after. Before was when I was under the illusion that life was easy, that bad things happened, but to others. My life was only sunshine. Bathed in the light of blissful ignorance, of a stupid happiness that I would never have again. Then there was the after. The now. When I knew the truth.

  “See, dementors are things that come along and suck every piece of happiness out of a person’s body. Strip them of every good memory until there’s eventually nothing left, making them believe the possibility of happiness is utterly impossible.” I paused. “That’s what this is,” I choked out.

  Zane moved in front of me, kneeling and grasping my neck so his gray eyes met mine. “Even in the cruelest of worlds, there’s not a reality where something would take away your possibility to be happy again. I’ll make sure of that,” he declared. “Not gonna lie to you; this is shit. It’s hard. Hopefully, the hardest thing that’s ever gonna scar your life. But scars fade. They heal. You’ll heal, girl,” he promised.

  I stared at him, blinking. Then I burst into tears, diving into his body and sobbing against his tee. He put his arms around me, letting me drench him with the ocean of my tears. He kissed my head and pulled back slightly.

  “How about we go and I’ll make my girls some breakfast?” he asked softly.

  I wiped my eyes. “Your girls?” I repeated. “Are we yours now, Zane? Are you here to stay?”

  Zane’s face turned hard. “You and your mom, that’s what you are. I’m not going anywhere, Lexie.”

  I smiled a sad smile, then got up to follow him into the living room.

  ****

  I sipped my second coffee of the day, watching Zane crack eggs into the pan. He had insisted he be the one to do the making of the breakfast. I leaned on the counter, watching him. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I didn’t want to be too far away from him. I felt safe with him. The demons behind his eyes understood the ones I had been introduced to.

  My mind flickered to someone else I felt safe with. Killian. I hadn’t replied to him yet. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say to any of them. If I wrote back, acknowledged their sympathy, that would make it real. Zane wasn’t giving me sympathy, which meant he didn't recognize my grief. He was giving me support and strength, but not sympathy. It was an important distinction. One it seemed my very sanity relied on.

  I regarded his profile. I had to look up to do so. Way up. Killian was taller than me, and I had to stand on my tiptoes to even come face to face with him. Zane towered over me. His entire body was a huge wall of muscles and vibrant tattoos. My eyes trailed the colorful designs covering his arm.

  “Do they mean anything?” I asked finally, nodding to the ink.

  Zane’s gaze flickered down to them. “They mean everything, Lex.”

  I screwed up my nose at him in confusion.

  His eyes did their smile thing, not before I noticed the demons lurking behind them. It seemed I could see them easier now that the film of innocence had been ripped from my gaze.

  “They’re reminders,” he added as if to clarify.

  It didn’t clarify much. “Reminders of what?”

  Zane’s body was tight. “Of life. Of death. Of everything in between.”

  I nodded into my cup. “Something permanent when everything in life seems so temporary,” I murmured.

  Zane’s head snapped up and his gaze locked on mine. There was something in his stare; it was almost... pride. “Sixteen years old and you’re wiser than 80 percent of the planet,” he muttered.

  I smiled. It was not a happy smile. If this feeling of heartbreak was what it took to be wise, to understand life, I’d trade it in a second for a lifetime of ignorance and confusion. For Steve and Ava. I’d give up my voice, my fingers, my ability to read, to sing, to listen to music for them. For a respite from this.

  “Do you think we should wake Mom?” I asked, worried about her state of mind. I needed to see her. To make sure she was still here.

  “We’ll let her sleep, Lex. She’ll wake when she’s ready,” Zane replied, his voice soft.

  I liked the way his face changed when he talked about Mom. The gentle way he spoke about her. I loved that for her. She needed that right now. We both did.

  “Either that or her body will go into caffeine withdrawals,” I attempted a joke, but I was afraid it fell dangerously flat.

  I wondered if I’d ever feel the same about joking again. About laughing. How could I laugh when Steve and Ava were dead? Gone.

  “Do you believe in heaven, Zane?” I whispered, desperate for someone to tell me that they weren’t just gone. Snuffed out of existence. That would be unbearably cruel.

  Zane’s body jolted at my question, and he moved the pans off the burner and turned to face me. His large hands cupped my cheeks, swallowing my face.

  “Not sure about God, girl. Don’t believe in something that would cause so much pain to people who deserve a lifetime of happiness.”

  My heart dropped at his words. I knew one person saying God wasn’t real didn’t make it so. But this person, Zane, I considered him to hold authority, more wisdom than my own. Because if pain equaled wisdom, he was likely to be Yoda in a cut.

  “But I do believe those people, those good people, go somewhere better, somewhere they deserve,” he continued, giving me a beacon of hope.

  I blinked away the prickles at the back of my eyes. “You think Steve and Ava are there?” I asked. Pleaded.

  “Know it, darlin’,” he told me with a resolution that had me believing.

  That’s what I clung to. That tiny beacon. It’d be my lighthouse in the blackened storm that was my tortured mind.

  ****

  “T minus twenty and we’re out the door, baby doll!” Mom shouted down the stairs. “That’s how long it’s taking Zane to acquire a ‘cage’—whatever in Channing Tatum’s name that is. I guess it’s biker slang for car. Why they don’t say car is beyond me,” she continued to yell.

  I wanted to smile. I really did. I even tried. But I think my face just turned into a weird sort of grimace like I was having a stroke or something. Mom was trying. Really hard. She was trying to hold it together so it was more okay for me to fall apart I guessed. Luckily, neither of us actually had the time to consider falling apart since, after our breakfast, Mom put the three of us on the next flight out to DC. Yes, three. Zane was coming too.

  He had declared there
was “no fucking way in hell” his girls were doing “this shit alone.” Yes, his girls. Mom hadn’t even said a word to the sheer amount of profanities in that sentence. I thought she was grateful to have him coming. I knew I was. I was terrified of what would happen if he left Mom and me alone with each other, mirrors of our grief. I was terrified of Mom not having someone to be strong for her, so she didn’t have to be the one doing it.

  “I’m ready, Mom!” I yelled back, sinking into the sofa, staring at my phone. I had bitten the bullet and messaged everyone back. I took the cowards way out and sent a mass text to all my boys, including Killian, informing them of my imminent and open-ended trip to DC. Everyone but Killian had texted back.

  There was a pause and Mom appeared at the top of the stairs. She had two armfuls of clothes and only one sock on. “How are you ready? Did you pack?” she asked in disbelief.

  I nodded. “Yes, Mom, I packed.”

  She scowled at me. “Seriously, how I spawned someone so organized is beyond me.”

  I tried my smile thing again. “Need some help?”

  A knock sounded at the door.

  “No, I’ve got a system. Your organized brain would mess it up,” she informed me. I knew for a fact her “system” was shoving as many clothes as possible in a suitcase and using sheer force of will to get it closed.

  “You get the door,” she nodded to the foyer. “It’ll be Zane in his ‘cage.’ Early,” she stated like it was a capital offense. “What kind of biker is punctual? Educate him on my utter abhorrence for that term while you’re there,” she instructed, turning on her heel.

  I sighed, abandoning my phone and hope for Killian’s reply for answering the door.

  I lost my breath when I opened it. I almost lost my knees. Killian stood at the other side of it, his eyes somehow confronting me with my own pain. We stared at each other for a couple of moments. Then, without even realizing I was doing it, I threw myself into his arms. They circled around me instantaneously, burying me in his chest. I sank into it, breathing in his scent and letting myself relax into the safety of his embrace and escape into the little world of limbo that he created when he was with me. His lips pressed into my hair.

 
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