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       Sustain, p.24

           Tijan
 
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  The car sped back up. As Elijah shut the fence, I was hauled to the corner to a clump of trees.

  This whole thing was wrong. Something was going to go wrong. I felt it in my gut, but I didn’t say anything. My body was in a cold sweat. It had been a discussion before, but now that we were here, it was real. Too real.

  “Was that a cop?” Elijah asked me, keeping his voice low.

  I just nodded. A big lump was sitting at the bottom of my throat. I knew I couldn’t talk, so I wasn’t going to try.

  “Wait, what?” Luke grabbed my arm. His eyes were fierce. “That was a cop?”

  I felt myself nodding again. My whole body was tense. I didn’t know how my muscles could move.

  He cursed under his breath. “You recognized her?”

  When it was too late. I wanted to say those words to him, but my mouth didn’t move. I couldn’t.

  “What’s your problem?” Elijah asked him as he pulled out a gun—a gun. My ex-boyfriend had a gun, and he was checking it for bullets, taking out the clip like it was the most natural thing in the world.

  I couldn’t look away from his gun as I heard Luke say, “My problem? Are you kidding me? If I’d known that was a cop, I would’ve forced Brielle to go with her. She doesn’t need to be here.”

  “Hey,” Elijah snarled back at him. I still couldn’t look away from his gun, even as he slid it back into the front pocket of his sweatshirt. He added, “Look, I didn’t know she’d be with you. I needed back up, and you’re good in a fight. I didn’t know. I thought,” his eyes darted to me, “I thought you had a different chick back there.”

  Luke growled at him.

  “I didn’t know the two of you were back on, but she’s here.”

  They were talking about me. I was there, but it was like I wasn’t. Elijah had a gun. I had a knife. I don’t remember what weapon he gave Luke… We were all armed. Somehow that should’ve been the start of a joke, but I wasn’t laughing. I couldn’t even talk.

  Elijah continued in a whisper, “And it’s Bri. Yes, I could’ve figured out a way to talk to you without her around, but you know her. She would’ve gotten it out of us somehow or just followed us like last time. Remember last time?”

  “Yeah.” Luke surged forward, getting in his face. “I remember last time. I remember Brute holding a fucking knife to her throat.”

  “Yeah, and she found us then, like she wouldn’t have done the same thing this time,” Elijah argued back. “She’s here. It’s done. She’s a good fighter. She can handle herself.”

  “I’m going to kill you,” Luke snarled. “If Brute doesn’t do it, I’m going to do it.”

  “Piss off. It’s done. You were all about helping me at your bar. Now you’re here, and you’re crapping your pants? My best friend’s in that house, and he’s dead if we don’t get to him.”

  Emerson was dead. Hearing those words centered me. All the fear started to ebb, and I could speak again. Moving between them, I touched a hand to both of their arms. They were like cement, glaring at each other. “Stop,” I chided quietly. “Emerson’s one of us. We have to get him out.”

  “What’s the plan?” Luke asked the question, and both of us waited for Elijah to answer.

  He hesitated and then shrugged. “It’s still morning. Most of Brute’s crew will probably be sleeping. I don’t know who they have in there, but the plan is to go in, start a fight, and try to run out with Emerson. He’s holed up in a bathroom. I told him we’re close. Once he hears yelling, he’s supposed to bolt out with us.”

  That was the plan.

  I glanced at Luke. I could sense a storm rising in him. “So…” he drew that word out. “We go in, wave a gun around, and hope that works?”

  “Pretty much.”

  Luke grabbed the back of his neck, his Adam’s apple moving up and down, as he continued to stare at Elijah. “That’s the worst fucking plan I’ve ever heard.”

  “You have anything better?”

  “Yeah,” Luke clipped out. His hand moved up to his hair, and he grabbed a fistful of it. “What bathroom is he in?”

  “Uh.” Elijah pulled out his phone and texted Emerson. A minute later, it buzzed back. “He said the second floor, south side of the house.”

  We all scrutinized the house, searching the second floor windows, and as we did, Emerson appeared in one of them. He was looking for us, too. We could see him, but he couldn’t see us.

  “Okay.” Luke pulled our attention back to him. “Text him and ask if he can open the window.”

  “You’re serious?”

  Luke shot Elijah a dark look. “Your plan sucks, and you’re questioning mine?”

  “Okay, okay.” His fingers moved over the buttons, and he hit Send. We waited. Another minute that seemed like an hour passed before Emerson replied. “He said he can, but he’s on the second floor—”

  “We’ll catch him,” Luke said before he could finish. “We’ll go over there and form a human ladder. Emerson can crawl down us. It’ll work. They just can’t see us. Does Brute have watchmen at all?”

  Elijah snorted. “At night, yeah, but not in the morning. His crew parties hard. Guaranteed most of them are still wasted and sleeping it off. Whoever’s searching for wires is in the house. They’re not going to expect anyone to sneak up to Brute’s house. He’s a drug dealer. If anything, people run in the opposite direction. I would know.”

  “Okay.” Luke was nodding, his eyebrows bunched together. “This might work then. Text him again. Tell him to open the window, and we’re coming to help him.”

  “Wait.” I grabbed Elijah’s arm. “What about an alarm system?”

  “Nope, Brute’s alarm is himself. His kitchen is stockpiled with guns.”

  That lump formed in my throat again. My eyes got big. He was going to make us go into that room? I retracted my hand. “Well, thank god for this second plan then.”

  Luke glared at Elijah again, and so did I. He looked between us and asked, “What?”

  “Kitchen. Stockpile. Guns,” Luke hissed. “If you were to take a guess?”

  “I was planning on guarding where he has the guns. I know the cabinets, and if I had a gun, I figured they couldn’t get to them.”

  “Oh, yes, that makes it so much better.”

  “Yes, my plan sucked, but this one’s not that much better. It’s a risk. Coming to Brute’s house is a risk in itself. Do you want me to text Emerson or not?”

  Luke gestured to the phone. “Get it done and let’s start heading up there.” He surveyed the back of the garage. “We can keep to the fence and move closer to the house this way. When we get there, we can crawl underneath the windows, staying as close to the house as possible, and then make the human ladder.”

  “On it.” Elijah was already texting. After he hit Send, he put the phone in my hand and squared his shoulders back. “Ready. Let’s go.”

  We started forward. Elijah led the way, and Luke went after me. As I moved forward, his hand touched my hip, and we shared a look. He was both worried and furious. He wanted to be anywhere but here. I got it. I did. Those same feelings were swirling inside me, but we were here, and Emerson needed us. There was no other way around it. He nodded, as if reading my mind and squeezed my hip before letting his hand fall away. I picked up my pace and hurried to where Elijah was waiting for us. The distance between where we were and where we had to go seemed to take forever. It would take one person to see us. One person to look out their window and notice our slow trek there. With each step, my heart pounded so loudly. I worried everyone else could hear it, but nothing happened.

  When we got there, Elijah got on his hands and knees. Luke climbed on top of him, and then I started up. Luke was holding onto a window frame to help steady himself. Stepping on Elijah’s back, I climbed up Luke and moved so I was sitting on his shoulders. Then I looked up.

  Emerson was gazing down at me. Worry lines had formed at the corners of his mouth, and there were bags under his eyes. “Shit,” he muttered u
nder his breath.

  I couldn’t talk, and my hands were sweaty, but I motioned for him.

  He nodded. “Okay, I can’t believe we’re doing this, but okay.” Kneeling on the window frame, he paused as he looked all the way down and then started to fall backwards. His hands loosened their grip on the window ledge, but I reached up and tapped his hand. He was that close to me.

  “Emerson,” I choked out. “Don’t look down.” I waved to get his attention. His whole forehead had a film of sweat over it.

  He jerked his head back to mine.

  I pointed at my eyes. “Look at me. Look here. Don’t look down.”

  “I just found out that I’m scared of heights, Bri,” he rasped out. Gone was the cocky jerk. This was my cousin, the one who had come to check on me when we were younger because I left and didn’t wait for them. He was the same cousin I used to love to horse around with. He was scared, and just like that, my fear was pushed down.

  A calm overtook me, and I lifted my hand enough to grab Emerson’s hand. I took hold of it and leaned close. “Emerson,” I said, my voice firm and steady. “We’ve done this before.”

  “That was when we were in the seventh grade. Times change. We’ve gotten fatter.”

  “Stop it. Look at me. Come on. You can do this. Just like before. Trust us.”

  Trust us. Those words echoed in my head. I had to trust Elijah and Luke, and Emerson had to trust all of us. We would get through this. I started repeating that mantra in my head, over and over again. I didn’t know if I believed it, but I had to. We’d be fine. We’d get through this. Then I could do bodily harm to my cousin, but only afterwards.

  “Come on. Turn around.” I waited as he did. His whole body was trembling. I said further, “Extend one leg, but keep a good grip on the window frame. You have to hold yourself steady. Use your back muscles. They’ll keep your body steady.”

  As I said it, he started to do it. He followed every command, and his leg came out in the air. I wrapped an arm around it, feeling Elijah and Luke suddenly become more stationary beneath us. They were holding both of us. As one leg touched Luke’s shoulder, his other leg did the same thing. Then Emerson lowered himself out of the window. Only his arms were resting on the window frame. Sweat rolled off him, and he started to shake again. He’d have to let go, but he was still holding on.

  “Emerson,” I murmured, holding onto the window frame myself. “Let go. You’re good. We’ve got you.”

  He nodded, taking gaping breaths. He couldn’t speak. Closing his eyes, he let go, and his whole body weight came down on us. Elijah groaned from the ground, but Luke reached up and grasped Emerson’s leg, that was now wound around his chest. All of us swayed against the house and then back out, but my fingers dug in, and I kept a hold on the window. Luke did the same, steadying us. He called up, “Emerson, start climbing down.”

  “Okay.” He moved slowly until he was close enough to leap to the ground.

  I clambered down right afterwards. The climb up was hard enough, but after enduring Emerson climbing down on me, scooting down Luke’s body until I was close enough to jump seemed like child’s play.

  Luke was slower getting off and Elijah needed a minute before he was able to stand to his feet. Emerson had to help him up, and he clapped him on the back. “I’ve never been so happy to see you guys as I am right now. I’ve never loved the earth as much as I do now either.” He bent down and kissed the ground. “Seriously, I owe you guys my life.”

  Elijah shook his head, wrinkles forming in his forehead. He tried to pull up the hood of his sweatshirt, but his hands were trembling. It took two attempts to pull it over his head, and then he hunched back down. “We still have to leave.”

  Luke touched my side as he moved to stand right behind me. He spoke for us, “Let’s go.”

  Then we heard something that made my blood go cold.

  “Not so fast.”

  Brute was standing behind us with a gun pointed at Emerson’s head.

  Breathe, little girl.

  People started yelling. Brute was demanding to know why Emerson was sneaking off. He wanted to know why Elijah was there and why the rest of us had come with him. There were no cops in the backyard. Not yet. A haze came over me. There was chaos everywhere, but I felt centered. Maybe I couldn’t handle what was happening, but I didn’t think that was it. It was something else, something I couldn’t explain.

  A voice in my head whispered, “Family. It’s all about family.”

  Ignoring the shouts, I left Luke’s side and took two steps forward. Brute was frowning at me, but that gun was still pointing at Emerson.

  “Yes, the cousin that hates me.” My own voice came to me—when Luke picked me up at the police station—and then a second memory was right behind it—when I accused Elijah. “It’s because of you my cousin went to rehab last summer, wasn’t it?”

  I swung my gaze to my ex-boyfriend now. He had denied my accusation, but I never believed him. I always blamed him. I’d been wrong.

  “What are you so goddamn worried about?” Emerson glared at me.

  “You might not want to start with me.”

  “Oh, really?”

  “Really.”

  He folded his arms over his chest, turning the same loathsome focus back on me. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because I’m fairly certain those guys are your drug dealers, and Elijah won’t like finding that out since you’re his best friend.”

  I’d been wrong. Again.

  Elijah had known. There’d been no way he wouldn’t have known. I thought I finally had ‘something’ on my cousin, but I hadn’t.

  “No! You don’t even know, Luke. I’m sticking up for you. For you, man.” He jerked a hand to Elijah. “And my best friend, too.” He looked to me. “Bri, it’s gone on long enough.”

  I looked at Luke. Emerson had been fighting for him. His hatred toward me had been about Luke and his best friend. I’d been the one who had been hurting them, and he knew the whole time.

  “I just found out that I’m scared of heights, Bri,” he rasped out. Gone was the cocky jerk. This was my cousin, the one who had come to check on me when we were younger because I left and didn’t wait for them.

  “Emerson,” I said. “We’ve done this before.”

  “That was when we were in the seventh grade. Times change. We’ve gotten fatter.”

  “Stop it. Look at me. Come on. You can do this. Just like before. Trust us.”

  He had. He listened to me, followed my instructions, and trusted me.

  I looked at my cousin one last time. His eyes were bleak, swinging back and forth between Brute and the gun. It was still pointed at him, but he wasn’t saying anything. There was yelling, either from Elijah or Luke. They were arguing for Emerson’s life. I felt someone tugging on the back of my shirt, but I ignored them.

  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had to do something.

  Brute was yelling over my head at someone behind me. His gun was waving in the air, up and down as he kept shouting. A vein was bulging out from his neck. Then I took the last step and moved, so I was standing in front of my cousin.

  I took his place.

  Breathe, little girl.

  It was my mother’s voice in my head. I could hear her again as she whispered into my ear. Plates had been shattered. The kitchen table was flipped upside down. Doors were ripped off their hinges. With each crash and roar coming from the other room, my little fingers had dug into her arm. That was the night he left.

  I thought nothing could get worse.

  I was staring down the barrel of a gun now.

  I’d been wrong.

  Then the gun went off.

  The crowd was cheering. They’d been chanting ‘Sustain’ for the last fifteen minutes. Our time was up. It was so close for when we’d take the stage, and I couldn’t move. Playing with them for small town gigs or at house parties was one thing, but this stadium filled to capacity was another level. My hands were sweat
ing and shaky. As a drummer, that was embarrassing.

  “Hey.” Luke slipped into the room, and the chanting grew louder. It was muffled as he closed the door behind him, but it didn’t matter. I could still hear them. They were in my head.

  I leaned forward, rested my elbows on my knees, and hung my
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