And then, with words so soft that I’d never forget them, his face shuddered as he said, “Your parents were in an accident.”
I hadn’t heard him right.
A strangled laugh from me. “What?” That wasn’t right. I’d just talked to Gail a few days ago.
I had told her—God. I had gotten upset with her. I’d been more heated than I should’ve been, and Dad—Dad.
I was shaking my head. That wasn’t right.
I must have heard him wrong.
He wasn’t looking at me like my old best friend. This was all totally wrong.
“Dust.” This one was even softer, filled with regret. And those eyes of his. The hostility was gone. Sympathy and something else? Mourning. NO! Who did he get to mourn?
No. No. Just no.
“They’re fine, right?”
They just couldn’t call. I hadn’t given my new number to anyone else but them. Stone had it, ironically. That’s why he was here.
He still wasn’t saying anything.
Whatever. I’d find out myself.
I went back to grabbing everything from my purse. I’d need all of that. And my emergency fund. I’d use that to fly back. I’d drop out of school. I’d have to. Then again, maybe they weren’t that bad. Maybe they weren’t even in a hospital.
I’d just have to call them.
Grabbing my phone, I tried Gail’s number first.
“Dust.” Stone stepped toward me.
I backed away.
“No, no. I’ll just…” She wasn’t picking up.
Okay. “Her phone was damaged. Is that what happened?” Okay. I’d try my dad’s cell, but he rarely used it. He hated the thing. He used Gail’s.
I pulled him up, hitting the call button.
“Dusty, stop.” Stone’s hand covered mine. He took the phone away from me, and then ended the call.
He had the update. That’s why he was here. I couldn’t avoid this anymore.
So I stopped and I stared at him, but I did not cry.
I would not cry.
Not in front of him, or in front of my housemates. In front of no one.
“Just tell me, Stone.”
He closed his eyes again, then opened them and I saw the tormented look flash there. It didn’t leave. It stayed and it just made this all that much worse.
“They were driving to see your stepbrother’s football game. Three deer were in the road. Right by Sidewinder Curve, you know the place.”
My chest was hurting, like really badly hurting.
I felt something squeezing in there, not letting go.
That curve was aptly named.
“Three deer?” I whispered.
He nodded. “I’m really sorry. One deer would’ve been a smashed-up car. But three—”
I winced as if he’d hit me. Three. I knew the damage three could do. It was rare, but not unheard of where we lived. Deer were everywhere.
“Their car rolled. Gail went through the front window. Your dad—”
I had to know.
I gutted out, “Say it.”
“Your dad was pinned under the truck. The steering wheel cut into him, and he died just as the ambulance got there. Gail died on impact.”
“No.” I slid down to my knees, right in the middle of all my things.
A part of my brain, the rational part, was watching from outside of me. It was telling me to get it together, go somewhere private, stop being entertainment for these people. But that part wasn’t controlling me right now. It wasn’t the irrational part either. Or the feelings part. It was a part I wasn’t entirely familiar with, a part that I’d only come to know one other time, so the tinge of familiarity wasn’t as strong.
There’s a pocket in your mind where you go when you feel unsafe, where you can’t handle whatever is happening in real life, and you lock yourself in there because you feel protected. Self-preservation.
I was there, but I wasn’t completely there.
And I couldn’t quite grasp what Stone was telling me. Not completely, but I asked, “Jared?”
“Your stepbrother is with friends. He has a best friend, Apollo?”
That was good. That was the best place for him. Apollo was like family to Jared.
“I know you don’t have any relatives in the area.”
He was kneeling by me, talking so gently to me, this was so not Stone.
“I need to know what you want me to do to help. I want to help.”
“Why?” A flash of anger burst in me. White. Hot. Seething. “Why are you still here? You delivered the message. Now go.”
His face closed off, but he didn’t stand up. He didn’t back away. He didn’t leave.
He stood now. A hand went to his jaw. “Dust—”
“I’m not Dust to you. That died a long time ago. My mom died, Stone! Your father fired mine so he didn’t have to pay the medical insurance and my mother died so your dad could keep more money in his pockets.”
He was backing away now. Flinching as I kept going.
“Then he blacklisted him, hoping we’d move out of town. He tried to run us out of town! In my senior year. But we stayed. They stayed. Because of me. I wasn’t ‘Dust’ then. I haven’t been ‘Dust’ since you were in sixth grade. Remember the last time I was ‘Dust’ to you? We watched a movie at the drive-in, shared a blanket, popcorn, and a soda, and then the next day you walked past me on the bike trail with Gibbons, Mark, Tony, and right then I was nothing to you. Remember? I do. You were laughing about Megan Parturges. You looked. Saw me. And then said, ‘Yeah, I’d fuck Parturges,’ and you kept walking by as if I were a stranger. That’s when this,” I pointed between him and me, “died. It died. And you gave me the message, now fucking leave me alone.”
“Dust…y.” His entire face shuddered. “Let me help you. I can fly you back.”
“Get AWAY FROM ME!”
I hated him.
I loathed him.
His entire family.
The power of his fame, how it could get inside a person and bring out their rotten insides. I especially hated that part of him.
I wanted him gone.
I wanted everyone gone, but he wasn’t going. They weren’t going.
I could see them back there, still watching, but I wasn’t looking. They were nothing to me, too.
Okay. So fine. No one was leaving, I would.
I came out of that protected part of my brain, moving into the irrational side that was now merging with my rational side, and I just felt pain. Gut-wrenching pain, but then—a blessed relief—numbness. I couldn’t handle what was happening and I was going numb. It was traveling up from my feet, so quickly, until it rose, blanketing over my mind, and silence.
Inside of me, total stillness.
Finally, I could move again. Finally, I could breathe again. Finally, I could function again.
I knelt and finished grabbing everything that had fallen. Piece by piece, I put it back in my purse. My backpack. It was as if Stone wasn’t there. As if no one was there. As if he hadn’t just told me how my life as I knew it had ended that day. It was as if none of those events happened, and standing, I just turned and went to my car.
“Dusty.” Stone came after me.
I ignored him.
Walking out of the fence, going to my car, I glanced up at him as I unlocked my car.
A stranger. That’s what he was to me now. And he saw it, too, because he reared back on his feet, a curse falling swiftly from his lips.
Then I got in my car, started it, and backed up, all the while staring at a stranger.
I kept backing up, and then I heard a shout before I felt the impact, followed by metal crunching, glass shattering, screams, and then blessed, blessed darkness.
The beeping woke me up.
Then the pain really woke me up.
I jolted, immediately screamed from the pain, but it was muffled and I realized I had something gagging me.
Reaching up, breaking off whatever was holding my arm in place, I reached for whatever was in my throat and I started to pull it out.
Then—out, and I was gagging. My body pitched forward. I was going to puke, but no, I was going to pass out. And then, air. My lungs drew it in, and I couldn’t see past the tears in my eyes.
“What—oh my God!” I heard the squeak of shoes coming toward me, then a harsh exclamation. Panic in her voice. She rushed to me and I felt hands going to whatever I was still holding in my hand. “Oh no, no, no. You need this!”
I didn’t. She didn’t know that, though. I was shaking my head, trying to tell her I didn’t want that, but then I heard someone come running and a, “Holy—get off her. Get off her.”
That someone shoved between me and the nurse.
It was a him.
He was helping me. “She’s good. She’s good. Look at her.”
It was Stone.
I froze, but I think I knew it had been him. I’d never be able to not recognize his voice, no matter how much pain I was in.