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“Because . . . because the cops were after you?”

“Not the cops,” I tell her. “We didn’t do anything wrong. No, it’s because of my dad. He escaped.”

“Yeah, I know, but I thought they caught him?” Dahlia’s eyes have gone wide, and she’s staring at me like I’m wonderful and tragic and terrifying all at the same time.

“No, they caught all the other ones who got out. He’s still out there. Somewhere.” I sigh. “That’s why I wasn’t supposed to text you, or call you, or anything. Because we’re trying to make sure he doesn’t find us.”

“So . . . should you be here?”

“Hell, no, and they’ll be super mad if they find out.”

“Oh . . . where are you staying?”

I want to tell her. I really do, and I would if it was just me . . . but telling her means putting Connor’s life in her hands, not just mine, and I can’t. I have to look out for him, especially since Mom’s . . . whatever she is now. “Around,” I tell her. “I can’t tell you, though. It’s not because I don’t trust you, it’s just—”

“No, no, I get it. I won’t say anything. I never saw you here.” She turns and looks at me directly, and it’s dazzling. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, Tana.”

It makes me catch my breath, and shiver, and I hope she doesn’t feel it. I change the subject again. “Who trashed the house?” I wave a hand back toward the hall, the kitchen, the damage.

“Oh. That.” Dahlia twirls a finger in her hair and tugs it down. It’s cute. “Yeah, well, you know that ass cancer Ernie, from town? Him and some of his baseball buddies from high school. They got run off by the cops two or three times. I’m sorry. I was going to come and clean it up, but I was scared I’d get arrested, too. My parents would never understand. They don’t understand most things.” She glances at me again, and there’s something in it that I instinctively know, and then I don’t, but I feel warm suddenly, burning up inside the smothering clothes I’m wearing.

“That’s okay. At least the cops got them before they did more damage. Hey, come inside,” I tell her. “I shouldn’t be out here where just anybody can see us.”

“I—” Dahlia thinks about it for a few seconds. I slide off the table and walk to the back door. She’s leaving, I think, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Bad, I think. I don’t know. When I look back, though, she’s following me. “Sure.”

I open the door and go inside, then lock the door after. “Sorry,” I tell her. “It’s a rule. Door’s always locked. I mean, you can get out and everything. I’m not holding you hostage.”

“Freak show, you realize there’s a great big hole in the window, right? What good does locking up do?” Dahlia coughs and makes a face. “Ugh. What’s that smell?”

“Ass cancer Ernie and his friends dumped food all over the floor. I cleaned it up. I guess the smell’s going to take a while to go away.”

“Ernie’s got your games and stuff, by the way. He’s been bragging about it all over town, like the strutting dick he is. God, I hate him. I’ve been thinking about slashing his tires.”

“Really?”

“All he talks about is how evil you are. I want to take a baseball bat to his windshield. I mean, slashing his tires is pretty mild, comparatively. Almost a good deed.”

While we’re talking, we’re moving down the hallway, away from the stench. Not like either one of us is planning it. I don’t feel so scared now; Dahlia always changes the world around me into something better, something almost normal.

My door’s still half-open, and I swing it back.

Ernie and his goons didn’t get this far, apparently, because it’s like stepping into a dream. Everything’s where I left it, and just as messy. I freeze for a couple of seconds, and Dahlia crowds in behind me; I feel the heat of her skin against my back, and the warmth of her breath on my neck as she says, “Oh God, is it trashed? Did they—”

I move forward, because I don’t know if she could feel me shiver, and I pick up stuff from the floor and stack it in the corner just to have something to do. Clothes, mostly. There’s my favorite black tee, and it smells like old sweat, but I put it aside anyway to take back with me.

I can hardly smell the rotten-food stench in here at all, and when I shut the door and open the window a little, it’s fine. I sit down cross-legged on the bed. Dahlia flops down next to me and hugs my pillow. I miss my pillow. Javier’s aren’t soft enough. Maybe I’ll take that with me, too.

“Hey, that’s mine,” I tell her, and she tosses the pillow at me with an expressive eye roll. I catch it before it hits my face. It still smells like detergent, which reminds me of Mom, and how she did the laundry twice a week, and I helped fold stuff. Sheets and towels, every week. Routines. Safety.

Why did she have to be such a liar?

I avoid the pain. Change the subject. “So, what are you doing today?”

“Heading up to the Rock.”

Oh. Right. The Rock is a big, jutting boulder that rests about halfway up the hill; it’s heavily graffitied, and a gathering place for local kids who want to smoke and drink and generally do stuff their parents wouldn’t like. I don’t go very often, but I know where it is. Everybody knows.

“Oh. So that’s where you’re hanging out now?” She hunches her shoulders forward, which sort of counts as a shrug that can’t be bothered. “You’re going to get busted if you keep that up.” I hesitate, then continue. “Were you meeting somebody?”

She grins suddenly, and I wish I hadn’t asked. I think. “Nobody special. I was just seeing who was up there, and if they had anything good to share. Sometimes Mary Utrecht has her mom’s Valium.”

“Oh, so now you’re into pills? I leave, and you go all dark side?” I throw the pillow, and she catches it in midair.

“Relax, it’s casual. It’s not like I go to pill parties or anything.” She sends me a quick glance. “Hey, how did you get here, anyway? I didn’t see your mom’s ride on the road.”

“Yeah, well, I walked,” I tell her, then immediately wish I hadn’t said that; if she tells anyone, they’ll know I’m living somewhere in walking distance of this house. I wish we were somewhere else. I love my room, but everything in it reminds me of Mom, of how she’s always been here, ready to give me a hug when I needed one, or fix a problem, or protect me with her life. Having Dahlia here helps, but it doesn’t stop the truth from coming through.

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