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Poughkeepsie begins, p.6
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       Poughkeepsie Begins, p.6

           Debra Anastasia
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  Just how dangerous was Beckett? And why did that thought make her hot instead of scared?

  After school Candy made sure to slip into the bathroom to refresh her lip gloss. She also wanted to avoid having Zyler and Beckett come head to head again. When she walked out of the school, the lot had emptied. Beckett leaned against her car.

  “Thought you forgot about me,” he told her as soon as she was close.

  “Surprised you stayed awake this long.” She opened her car with the key and hit the unlock button. “Do you have a car or…?”

  He shook his head. “I come alive at night, baby. And no. I usually get a lift to and from. I can get a car here for us if you want.”

  “No. It’s fine. I’ll drive.” She motioned to her passenger seat.

  “Are you a safe driver, pink princess?” He pulled open the door.

  “You’re worried about safe? Huh.” She started the car, but made no move to drive it anywhere. It needed a good ten minutes to heat up before the power steering fluid was warmed.

  “Are we going to go? Or was this a ploy to get me alone?” Beckett started fidgeting with all the things she had—the cherry air freshener, the fuzzy dice.

  “It has to warm up.” She fought a smile.

  “Got to say, I expected a more impressive ride, judging from all the expensive shit you have.” Beckett turned in his seat to look at her.

  “You like judging a book by its cover there, Taylor?” She tried the steering wheel. Still locked up.

  “Sometimes that’s all you have to go by.”

  He was ready to spar. God, he could fill a damn space. She could hear her heartbeat.

  “Well, I’ve bad luck with cars. This is my third. We keep getting lemons.” She used the windshield wipers and washer fluid to clean up her view.

  “You crashing them?” He was going through her glovebox.

  “No. They just have horrible things wrong with them. The last one wouldn’t go uphill. So I’d drive, like, eighty miles per hour until I hit a hill, and by the time I got to the top I’d be doing five miles per hour with everyone honking behind me.”

  Beckett snickered, and she joined him.

  “And the one before that? If I didn’t run the gas while holding the brake, it would stall out. So at every stop I was revving the engine, and people thought I wanted to race them, which I didn’t.” She pulled on the steering wheel again. It felt a bit more responsive now.

  He slapped the dashboard as he laughed. She bit her lip and pulled on her seatbelt, giving him the evil eye until he put his on too.

  When she got to the light in front of the high school, she turned to him to see where they were headed. “You want to go to the library?” she asked.

  “I’m not allowed there.” He winked at her.

  “Who gets banned from a library?” The light turned green, but no one was behind her, so she waited.

  “I have a lot of skills, hot stuff.” He lifted his eyebrows.

  “Well, my house is out of the question. I can’t have boys over when no one is home. My brother has a doctor’s appointment, and my dad’s at work.” She kept pulling on the steering wheel so it wouldn’t lock up again.

  “Even for school purposes?” Beckett put on what she guessed was his best innocent look.

  “Even for school purposes. You’re a player too.” Candy leaned over and turned on the radio.

  “I’m offended.”

  “Says the guy who gets kicked out of libraries.” She tapped out the rhythm of the song.

  “I didn’t get banned for having sex in it.” He pouted, and now it was her turn to laugh. “Fine.” He sighed after a moment. “We’ll go to my shithole. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

  Candy was puzzled, but decided not to say anything. She’d see soon enough.

  He directed her and seemed to grow more somber with every turn. When he pointed out the house, it didn’t look like a shithole. The kids who played in the front yard were all clearly happy to see him. Two little girls with wild hair climbed him like a tree. He swung them both around with an obvious familiarity, and her heart swooned.

  “Is this your girlfriend, Beck?” one of them asked. “She looks like a princess.”

  He knocked a football away from her head as it flew between boys on the front lawn.

  “She does, doesn’t she? I think she’s the princess of crappy cars.” Beckett took each little girl by her hand and led them in the front door. He yelled over his shoulder, “You jerks have homework?”

  The boys replied in the negative, and he let them be. As they entered the house, an older woman came out of the kitchen and wiped her hands on a dishtowel. Beckett walked past her without introducing Candy, so she just waved awkwardly. The woman waved back.

  “Hey, can you do that fancy braid on other people? Or just yourself?” Beckett pointed to the two little girls.

  “I can try.” She wrinkled her nose at the two cute faces in front of her.

  Beckett dropped their hands and came to Candy, taking her hand and spinning her before she had a chance to know what he was doing.

  “She makes these, girls.” He stopped her so they could see the back of her head.

  They made happy noises and clapped.

  She repeated herself, “I can try.” She turned to face him. He basically had her in a hug.

  “That’s all I’m asking,” he said softly, just to her. His blue eyes danced.

  He pointed upstairs and held her hand as he took her to the girls’ room. It was so barren. Brown comforters that looked twenty years old covered twin beds. Candy thought of her stuffed animal pile. It was obscene. These girls had the smallest scattering of toys. Shame washed over her as she sat down on one.

  The girls introduced themselves as Summer and Wintery. They produced a brush and two rubber bands. Summer put herself into position between Candy’s legs first, and Candy got the idea that she was the more outgoing of the two.

  She brushed her hair as gently as possible and had to start the French braid twice before she got the rhythm down. Beckett sat on the floor as she worked, and Wintery climbed into his lap. Summer gave them the whole rundown of her day. Then she explained that they were going to a ranch, and she was really hoping there would be elephants.

  She moved her head around a lot while she talked. “And when we get back, then our class is going to the zoo, and Beckett told me we could go even though it’s really ’spensive.”

  Candy stopped braiding to look at him, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze. She finished up Summer’s hair, and the girl felt it with excited hands.

  Cole appeared in the doorway, and Wintery was out of Beckett’s lap and into his arms in a heartbeat.

  Summer stood up and danced around. “Look! Candy gave me princess hair!”

  “It’s amazing.” Cole nodded a hello to Candy and walked Wintery into the room.

  “I think your hair always looks like a princess. I love the curls.” Candy smiled at Wintery. Though she was shy, it was clear she wanted the braid as well. Cole sat next to her on the bed.

  “Is it hard to do?” Cole held Wintery’s hand.

  “No. Just takes practice.” Candy gently brushed her next customer’s hair.

  Beckett stood and flipped Summer upside down. “You want to see what yours looks like?”

  She started giggling. “Yes!”

  After they left, Candy explained the braid to Cole. He nodded and paid attention.

  “Do you know how to do a regular braid?” she asked him while she slid the rubber band in place.

  He shook his head. Wintery had the sweetest smile as she left the room, presumably to see her hair too.

  Candy unraveled her hair out of its own braid and ran the girls’ brush through it. She pulled it over her shoulder and showed Cole how to section it and weave it into a braid. He watched, and then she unfurled the braid and gave him the hair to practice.

  Beckett returned just as Candy told Cole he was doing a great job.

p; “You think you got it, bro?”

  She’d expected him to make fun of Cole for his turn as hairdresser, but there was only encouragement.

  Blake walked in and looked Candy in the eye as he said hello. “Rick’s on his way in,” he announced.

  She watched all the brothers tense. “We didn’t even go over the project,” she pointed out.

  Beckett offered his hand and pulled her off the bed. “Sorry, pink princess. If it makes you feel better, I got what I wanted from you.”

  “And what was that?” Candy slipped her jacket back on.

  “I knew the girls would love those fancy braids.” He ushered her back downstairs and walked her to her car.

  “I’m happy to help when they need that.” She was charmed by the girls and the adorable connection they had to the brothers. “But we need to get this project done.”

  “It’s awesome that you think that’s going to happen.” Beckett smiled. “Never lose that positive outlook.” He closed the car door for her.

  Her visit had been brief, so the power steering fluid remained warm enough to steer. Beckett waved at her as she backed out of the driveway. She didn’t like the way his charm slid off his face as he turned to go back into the house—like there was a losing battle to be fought inside.


  The Ranch

  TWO DAYS IN WITH THE CLAN at the ranch, Cole was grateful yet again that he hadn’t asked either of his brothers to go. The sunshine was inescapable, and the boredom was huge. Beckett did badly with free time.

  The ranch really was Rick’s mother’s place. He was a hard man for a reason, and maybe if Cole had cared—which he didn’t—he might have had some sympathy for his foster father after seeing his family dynamics.

  Ethel was a hard woman with biting words. Shortly after their arrival, it became clear that Rick, his wife, and the foster kids were there to “refresh” her old house. Everything would get a fresh coat of paint, and the huge yards were to be raked and weeded. They were essentially the maintenance crew. Ethel always had a criticism for the work being done and took no delight in the children. The fact that the kids were not biologically related to her was a huge failure in her eyes.

  At night the kids went outside to escape the bickering and harsh glances from Ethel. Cole took the time to try to master braiding on Summer or Wintery’s hair—whoever was willing to sit still.

  He definitely had the single braid down, but the French one that Candy had taught him was tough. The girls were sweet, though, claiming to love all the messy versions he came up with. He would excuse himself from the makeshift salon when Rick headed out of the house, pent-up rage on his face.

  Tonight he followed his foster father into the woodshed at the back of the property, hands in his pockets. Rick was more keyed up than usual, but luckily he was also exhausted from a long day of working on the ranch. And although the location had changed, Rick still had the worst, hateful words for him while Cole took the blows.

  It was obvious now: Rick sounded just like Ethel. Same phrasing even. They would make a great case study. But tonight, only the cracks of Rick’s fists on Cole’s flesh mattered. Inside his head, Cole felt like a sick freak because the pain made him feel alive. He was almost grateful to Rick for bringing him to his knees.

  Then Wintery cracked open the woodshed door, her eyes wide. Rick happened to be in between blows, so he stilled. Summer would have stomped right into the room, but Wintery shuffled, her rubber band tight in her fist like a ticket for entry. Cole stood and walked toward her.

  “Hey, did your braid come loose? I can help you put it back in a minute. Meet me at the house?”

  She nodded, somber eyes looking from him to Rick and back again. Despite his direction, Wintery didn’t move. Cole was slow because his headspace was so completely different when he was at Rick’s mercy. But finally he put it together. It was dark outside, and she was probably frightened to make the walk alone. She’d gotten here, but getting back would be tougher.

  As he turned to explain to Rick that he would be right back, he caught the man raising his hand in his peripheral vision. Wintery cowered as the shadow from his intended violence shaded her face.

  Cole caught Rick’s arm on its downward trajectory. He stepped between Rick’s feet and let his eyes go vacant. His lack of fear, lack of remorse was the scariest thing most adults had ever seen. If there were an image next to the words stone cold crazy in the dictionary, it would certainly be the expression on Cole’s face.

  “You will not.” His voice he kept calm for her. But Cole’s eyes held all the untamed violence he knew he was capable of.

  The whiskey scent rolled out of Rick’s mouth with every exhale. “She needs to learn. Just like I’m teaching you.” Rick focused on Cole’s nose, sweat making his skin slippery under Cole’s grip.

  “Cole?” Wintery gasped.

  He recognized it like a soundtrack to the cage where he’d spent so many hours. He let go of Rick and spun, picking up the little girl and stepping toward the door. “Let’s get you inside,” he whispered near her ear, ignoring the jabs of pain he normally nursed with help of Blake’s first aid.

  “I’ll tell you when you can leave.” Rick staggered toward them.

  When Cole was about to open the door, he saw Wintery flinch. He pulled her close to his chest as he turned, and the blow hit him in the center of his back. It took his breath away. The pain rippled through him, and Wintery whimpered, sounding too scared to even cry.

  Cole walked as Rick’s fists began their rain on his back. He opened the door to the shed, keeping Wintery firmly in the cavity of his chest. She yipped and gasped, Rick’s blow glancing her leg as it slipped from his rib.

  He turned her, pulling her legs from around his middle so she was a little ball in his arms. He began to jog as he hit the night air. After a minute he got her to the backdoor. “You hurt?” he asked.

  Wintery’s eyes were rimmed with tears as she pointed to her calf. He held her under the porch light and could see a bruise starting to form.

  “Can you go inside and put an ice cube on this? Just until it feels too cold, then take it off. When it warms up, put the ice back on.” He set her on her feet, and she looked over his shoulder, eyes wide. “Don’t worry about him. Okay? He won’t hurt you again.”

  He tried to usher her through the door, slapping the lights on inside. Wintery wouldn’t let go of his hand, shaking her head no.

  “I’m okay.”

  She shook her head no again.

  She was right. He was so far from okay it wasn’t even a joke. But he was about to slip into feral form, and he needed to know she was far away.

  “I’m stronger than he is. I promise.” Cole took to one knee and hugged her. “Do the ice thing. I’ll tuck you and your sister in in a minute. Okay?”

  The little girl knit her eyebrows together. They could have passed for brother and sister—or maybe even father and daughter. Wintery put her hand on his cheek. She didn’t say she understood. She didn’t say she believed him. She just looked at him with eyes that revealed her old soul. Despite the fact that she and her sister were carefree kids, they had known hardship. Disappointment. Unrest.

  He pushed her in through the doorway and closed the freshly painted door behind her. After she began trudging in the direction of the kitchen, Cole turned back toward the shed. As he drew close, he saw Rick on his way out, wiping his mouth. Cole walked up to him like they had a business transaction to complete. And they did. A delicate one. Two things needed to be understood by the end of the night. One, that the girls were never to be touched. Two, that the situation they had at home could not be changed. He and his brothers put up with Rick’s bullshit so they could stay together. The pain inflicted was the cost for the family they now had. And Cole was willing to pay it every night, every single night of his life if he had to. The woods behind the house were his new cage, but because of Blake and Beckett, he was never alone in it anymore.

  Cole was almost past Ri
ck when he grabbed the man’s throat and pulled him back into the shed, satisfied by the shock in his eyes. When the shed door closed, Cole let his sanity disappear into the recesses of his mind. He felt like his teeth got longer. His fists were laced with steel-tipped blades, in his mind anyway. The only danger was that without his brothers, he had no one to keep Rick safe.

  The next day, back at home, Blake walked through the woods quietly. He’d been off his meds for three days, and he liked how crisp the leaves were. Fall was his favorite. The colors reminded him of music—the harmonies of all the trees together, the outstanding solo of an all-red tree. He was so good at walking quietly that he sometimes got to witness the wildlife preparing for winter. He would stand absolutely still while an entire deer family fattened up by eating the last of the green leaves of a bush. He knew that to the rest of the world it looked like he was standing in silence. But he wasn’t. They just couldn’t hear the music he could hear. The soft backbeats, the soaring string lines—it was tremendous. And without the chemicals, he could hear them better.

  Of course that also meant the sun was worse. And the panic attacks about the whole situation were so embarrassing. The world didn’t get it. He’d been told by so many doctors and counselors that he was imagining it, that the sun wasn’t as revealing as he thought. But he’d seen it with his own eyes.

  It was as real as the music.

  He stepped closer to the train station. Lately he’d been drawn here. From this spot in the woods he could hear the percussion of the wheels. It fit. It fit with the composition he had going. The greens. The reds. The train gave the forest the heartbeat it needed.

  He pulled out his keyboard and sat on the cold ground. He tried to memorize the songs his fingers created in his head. He wanted to write them down, but all he had was his mind. He played the same tune each time a new train approached the station, trying to commit it to memory so it would last, so it would remain with him when he went back on the medicine and the edges of the panic were a little less sharp.

  It was a good session, but it could have been better. He needed the percussion to be louder. He wished he could sit closer. He stood. As the sun cleared a cloud, he watched the station fill with light. One spot under the stairs remained shaded. Maybe, maybe when he wasn’t so keyed up he could get there. If he watched the weather and made sure his timing was right, he could get to the shady spot and play this song.

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