Olivia fell to Hero’s feet, gasping for breath, bundling into a knot of tightened muscle.
“Chag’ya.” He knelt down to her. “What’s going on?”
“I think I’m having a heart attack.” She clutched onto him, her eyes wide open, staring past him. Her fingers pulled his shirt into tight clumps. She put her hand over her mouth.
He helped her up. “Come on.”
He kept his arm around her and guided her to the bathroom. She wriggled for freedom as soon as she saw a toilet and threw her torso forward as the first wave of muck erupted from her throat.
Ace came in. “Fuck, is she alright?”
“What did you give her?” Hero said with a low and grinding tone, still holding his face steadily toward Olivia. He held her hair back with one hand and gently stroked her head with the other.
“It’s just bliss, man, she must have taken something else.”
“Whose bliss?” He was calm. For now. That calm was dangling pretty weakly from Ace’s silence.
“Wildcard got it from the table in the lab,” said Ace. “The shit you hadn’t locked up yet.”
Hero sucked his breath though his teeth, a strained attempt to retain composure. “Ace, that was the shit Stone confiscated from Crash. Who the fuck knows what it was mixed with.” He looked back at Olivia, still petting her through her every gut-wrenching push. “Piperazine, from the looks of it.”
Ace looked down. “Fuck, Hero—why didn’t you just throw it away!?”
“Too late now. Get me some water.”
Olivia grabbed Hero’s hand. “Hero… will you turn that off?”
Ace stayed in place to hear what she was talking about.
“Turn off what, chag’ya?” asked Hero.
“That sound… God… please… just make it stop…”
“What sound? What are you talking about?”
She squeezed him harder. “Can’t you hear it?” She cried, spitting tears and puke. “Why can’t anyone hear it but me!?” She hurled again. “I feel like I’m dying.”
Hero got some toilet paper and wiped her face. “Look at me. Okay? You’re fine. You’re not dying.” He tossed the used tissue into the toilet and got a fresh one to wipe her tears, calming her with a warm smile. “I’ve seen people OD before, alright? You’re just having a bad roll, but you are going to be fine. Do you believe me when I tell you that?”
She nodded, her face still twisted by the drug-induced agony. She pressed his hand hard against her face. “I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here. You have to get me out of here.”
“Alright, you want me to take you home?”
“No—no… My parents can’t see me like this, nobody can see me like this—I just have to get out of here—take me anywhere, please—” Her voice increased in volume and speed.“—just somewhere else—somewhere without that sound—I have to get away from these people, I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t know—I don’t know—please, can you get me out of here?”
Hero looked back at Ace. “Come back with a bottle of water and Stone’s keys.”
They took Stone’s Escalade out of the neighborhood and Hero held Olivia’s hand the whole time they drove. She kept her eyes closed, taking in deep heavy breaths between forced gulps from a water bottle as the warm breeze from the open window washed over her face. Hero kept his eye on the road, but looked back at her on occasion to make sure she was okay.
“Just think happy thoughts,” said Hero, stroking her hand with his thumb. “Think about all that money you won off Stone, huh? You can buy yourself something real nice with it.”
She didn’t say anything, she just focused on her breathing as if the ability to do so could end at any moment.
He parked the car on a nice, big grassy meadow with a hill that overlooked the city. It was a lovely view, and perfect to calm her down. Not his home, not her home—just somewhere beautiful, relaxing, and secluded.
Her chest grew and shrank in big dramatic waves. “Do you really not hear it?”
“Hear what, chag’ya?”
He looked at her. “What, you mean the smoke alarm? Is that what you were talking about?”
“I keep meaning to change the battery, been putting it off, I guess.”
“It’s not safe to ignore an alarm.”
He was a little thrown off by her fixation on something so trivial. “Sorry, I guess it’s just been low on my list of priorities.” He stroked her hair. “How are you feeling?”
She touched her face, tracking her own skin as if it were foreign terrain. “My eyes and nose are still all wet.”
“Hold up, maybe he’s got a tissue in here.” He looked around, and then reached to open the glove box.
Something small, silver, and sinister caught the moonlight and Olivia’s attention. It was Stone’s pistol, surely loaded and ready, and Olivia looked at with the fear of a child facing a wasp nest for the first time. She didn’t speak, she just made a tiny wheezing noise of fear, repeating a shrill, panicked cry with every contraction of her chest.
Hero could see her fear on the rise, and all his efforts to calm her were swiftly slipping into futility. “Olivia, hang on to me.” He clutched her arm. “It’s okay, alright?”
“No, it’s not okay—it’s not okay—it’s not okay…” The act of speaking opened the floodgates for tears. “I don’t know why I ignored it before—oh my God, what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me? What was I thinking—”
“Olivia, listen to me very carefully. I’m going to reach forward, I am going to take that gun from the glove box, and I am going to remove the magazine, okay? I am not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”
“I said I’m going to reach forward, I am going to pick up that gun, and I am going to remove the magazine. And I am not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”
She paused, stilted and horrified, but gave him the nod he needed anyway.
“Okay.” He moved very slowly, gripped the handle of the weapon, and pulled it toward him at an even slower pace. As promised, he removed the magazine, checked to make sure the chamber was clear, and tossed the magazine in the back seat. “See that? It’s totally safe now, nothing but a hunk of metal, alright? Now look at me.”
With the back of her head still pressed firmly to the seat, she did. He reached for her hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want you to be afraid.”
He put the gun into her palm and pressed her fingers tightly around the grip.
“Keep your finger away from the trigger and don’t drop it.”
She nodded, and looked down as if taking a firm mental picture of what a gun looked like in her possession. It seemed to calm her down.
“Okay, the feeling of that thing in your hand?” he began. “That’s power. That’s safety. And you shouldn’t be afraid.” He nodded slowly. “Okay?”
“Now put it back.”
She put the gun back into the glove box as if touching any wrong surface would make the thing go off.
“Now give me your hand.”
She held out her hand, watching it tremble, and Hero took it, securing it still. He held it with both hands, pressing it into a warm, heartfelt embrace, and pulled it to his body.
“You feel that?” he asked. “Me holding you?”
“That’s power,” he repeated. “That’s safety. And you shouldn’t be afraid.”
She nodded again, exhaling a long, slow breath. Her heart rate was easing into a healthy, steady pace. He felt that, and it made him smile.
She smacked her lips together a few times. “Um…”
He hung onto her silence with patience, leaning into her to invite her words.
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, she sounded normal. “…do you have any gum?”
He laughed. “Sure, I think I got something.”
Once Olivia had achieved minty freshness, Hero got a bunch of blankets and pillows from out of Stone’s car and set up a bed in front of an old, picturesque oak tree. It was the biggest, wildest tree there, its sprawling branches forming a striking silhouette against the navy blue night. He sat down, and with outstretched arms, invited her to sit with him. She took off her boots and curled up into him, letting him tighten the warm blanket against her.
“See?” said Hero. “Look at the moon. Isn’t it beautiful?”
She shrugged. “It’s just a cold, dead rock. It’s only beautiful because of the sun.”
“What? What’s wrong with you, talking about the moon that way? The moon moves the tide. The most abundant and important natural resource on the planet is totally whipped by the moon—it ain’t just a cold, dead rock.”
“But the moon needs the sun. The sun doesn’t need the moon.”
“How do you know? You ever asked the sun? Maybe it does need the moon.” He lowered his voice. “Maybe it needs the moon very much.”
She wiggled a little bit deeper into his embrace. “Well maybe the sun is a big grumpy mcgrump pants and never tells the moon he needs her.”
He laughed a little. “Maybe.”
They lay together a while longer, which guided her deeper into a state of relaxation.
“Chag’ya… you know how you never spend the night with me?”
His voice came out as muted grumble. “It really pisses me off.”
She laughed. “Wow, Hero, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“I think it’s the nicest thing I’ve ever said to anybody.”
“That’s pretty sad.”
“I know it.”
She turned her head his direction. “You know, you never told me why you like me. I think now would be a good time.”
He shrugged and let her win this round. “I guess… when I first met you, I didn’t think you had any morals. But when you stood up for Seneka, I don’t know, you didn’t have anything to gain from that. You just did it because you thought it was the right thing to do. So I think you do have morals, they’re just… a little different from everybody else’s.” He looked at her. “I think you and I are alike in that way.”
She fell into a small smile and let his words soothe her drug-choked nerves. His mouth was a mere few inches from hers, and her breath was sweet, with a scent of mint and femininity. His hand glided across her cheek and made its way through her hair, and now, it was his heart that was racing. Before his thoughts could catch up with his actions, his lips was on hers, taking them steadily from a harmless peck into a deep, lingering kiss.
The moisture of her mouth on his was spellbinding, and the gentle pressure of her tongue against his pulled him into a trancelike state unlike anything he had ever felt before. It was as if every movement of her mouth was pulling him into a warm, dark prison of pleasure—but he was still imprisoned, and that feeling of capture was just as alien as it was wonderful. Never before had anything so foreign felt so much like home.
Once they parted, a long time passed before she opened her eyes and looked at him again. “Uh oh.” She grinned. “We’re in real trouble now, aren’t we?”
He didn’t smile, but he wasn’t unhappy. “Yeah, I think so.”
She closed her eyes and nuzzled into his shoulder. He held her until she fell asleep.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!!”
Hero woke up to the sound of Olivia cursing, sitting in the driver’s seat of Stone’s car with the keys in the ignition. She was looking at the clock on the dash.
“Whoa, what’s going on?” He stood up and walked toward the car, trying to shake off the remaining remnants of his sleepiness.
“My phone ran out of batteries last night, so I couldn’t see what time it is – it’s 9:30!”
“So—I’m late for work! I’m so going to get fired… Shit—shit—shit—” She looked at him with puppy dog eyes. “I, uh… I need your help.”
He took her to a Wal-Mart to purchase and utilize a collection of toiletries and clothing so that she might throw together a somewhat presentable version of herself for work. At first, she didn’t want to let him pay, but he insisted, and he drove her to Barrington’s in good spirits.
She looked at him breathlessly before she got out of the truck. “Do I look okay?”
“You look great.”
“I’m so sorry about this. Thank you. Really, thank you so much. I don’t even know what to say.”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” He smiled. “Besides, we can’t have you get fired from two jobs today, now can we?”
She stared at him. “What?”
“Olivia…” He looked in her eyes. “You’re fired.”
Her heart stopped. “What? Why? Just because of last night? But—”
“I said you’re fired,” he said, looking out the windshield. “Now get the fuck out of my car.”
Whatever shock she felt was quickly replaced to wise, jaded cynicism. “You sure?”
“I don’t say things I’m not sure about, chag’ya.”
She shook her head, feigning amusement. “Wow. For a second there I thought there was a human being under that cold, badass exterior. How stupid of me.” She opened the door with a tiny hint of a shrug. “Tell Seneka and the boys I said bye.”
She closed the door behind her and didn’t look back when he drove away. She focused on suppressing the strange, burning sensation under her eyes. She refused to acknowledge it as a precursor to tears.
As she took her scolding for tardiness from the store manager, her brain was a million miles away. She looked passed him and counted the hangers on the on the rolling rack in the children’s section. When she was done she started making up random numbers in her head and figuring out their square roots—anything to keep her mind busy.
“Hey, Olivia,” said Erin in customer service. “You know one of your earrings is missing, right?”
Shit. “Shit!” She tugged at her ear. She must have left it on that hill—if she came home after a twenty-four-plus hour absence and was missing half of that John Hardy set, her dad was sure to feed her to the wolves.
She tried with all her might to remember where that hill was, starting from remembering the view. The weight of yesterday’s clothes was hanging over her shoulder in a Barrington’s bag, making her quest through the city barely manageable. Where was it? It had to be here—a tiny pocket of green near the freeway without the glamour of Monarch Hills, nor the urban degradation of Sequoia Grove. It wasn’t a park, nor was it vast untouched land. It was like a tiny island, forgotten by city developers—an oasis between heaven and hell. And Stone’s Escalade was there.
Her first thoughts were wildly psychotic, like maybe the past day was some drug induced dream and she and Hero had never left. When sanity returned, she wondered if Hero had come back to retrieve the earring, but how could he have noticed she left it if she herself hadn’t?
Then a piece of the puzzle came to her brain—it wasn’t Hero’s car. It was Stone’s. Maybe Stone was there.
She turned her head, and there under that same oak tree, the familiar blankets were laid out. And they were very much peopled. Her curiosity rendered her unable to turn away, and her most acute focus narrowed in on the participants of an evening romp on the grass, two people passionately coupled there, in a blissful pre-copulate state. But who?
Someone looked up. Asian, handsome, and unfamiliar. He made eye contact with Olivia, and hopped to his feet, running top speed to his car, a beat up orange truck across the way.
“Wait!” His partner—male—got up to follow, but it was too late—the stranger flew to his truck, and was driving away and his partner—his partner—
His partner was Stone.
Olivia froze with certain terror, dropping her bag to the ground. Stone was standing a few feet away, breathless, watching the man leave, and turning to Olivia with wide, desperate eyes. Neither one of them had any idea what to say.
“Who was…” Olivia just stood there, pointing in the direction where the truck had gone.
Stone said nothing.
“But…” She could only say the first words that popped into her head. “But… you’re so scary.”
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“No, you know what? I think I understand you more now.” As Olivia’s brain went to work, she nearly smiled upon the sheer thrill of realization. “No wonder you’re so good at hiding your emotions—you’ve had plenty of practice, haven’t you?”
“I don’t know what the fuck you saw, but you best forget about it.” Stone looked down, his shoulders sagging, his eyes glazing. He didn’t move.
“This is big, isn’t it?” As she spoke, fear was there, but it was a lazy fear. A hopeless fear. “Seeing what I just saw. This could get me killed, couldn’t it?”
She waited for an answer, but she didn’t get one.
“Stone, listen to me,” she said, raising her hands as a gesture of peace. “If you want to get rid of me, I understand. Really, I do. I understand the gravity of this. I can only guess what those macho Blades dickheads would do if they knew scary-ass Stone was gay. I’m just trying to say I get it. So I’m not going to tell anyone.”
He looked at her with a tight scowl.
“I’m serious,” she said. “I understand if you don’t trust me, but… I wouldn’t do that to you.”
He looked at her long and hard, but still remained as silent as death. He walked back over to the tree and bundled the sheets up into his arms without a word, like she hadn’t said a thing. Like she wasn’t even there. As still as a statue, she watched as he packed his truck.
He didn’t speak until he put his key in the driver’s side door. “Olivia?”
She looked at him.
“Daniel’s dead.” He pulled the door open. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
She watched him get in the car and drive away, trying to find the emptiness in her stomach that she knew was supposed to be there. It wasn’t.
When Olivia got home, she was prepared for a verbal beating. She tried to form some semblance of a story in her brain, but it was all a hopeless stupid-TV-teenager-cliché mess. She crashed at Penny’s? Okay, then why didn’t she call? The phone ran out of batteries. But why couldn’t she charge it at Penny’s? She left her charger at home. But doesn’t Penny have the same kind of charger? Maybe Penny needed the charger for herself—wait—why didn’t she just call with Penny’s phone?
She opened the door and got slapped in the face with an unusual image of her living room. There was a pile of clothes on the coffee table. Her clothes. Clothes that Hero had bought for her.
She felt a tight, hard squeeze around her upper arm and a vicious pulling. There was a sudden, sharp grip to her hair, forcing her head to look over the clothes, and her heart was suddenly forced back into its hyper-pumping, adrenaline infused state.
“Where did this shit come from?!” shouted her mother, gripping her arm even harder. “Where did it come from!? And you better tell me the truth!!”
“What!? Barrington’s!!” She heard her purse and bag fall to the ground beside her feet. “I got it at Barrington’s—what are you doing!?”
“From who?” Margaret cried, shaking her arm. “Who bought this shit for you!?”
Another presence joined the action. Penny. Her cheeks were flush as if she’d been crying. She and Olivia made eye contact, but Penny quickly looked away in shame.
“I bought it,” Olivia lied. “I bought it with the AMEX—”
“No, you didn’t,” bellowed her mother. “I looked over the charges. You’ve made one purchase since you started working there, that’s it.”
“I’m sorry,” said Penny, beginning to cry again. “No one knew where you were—they called me, and—Olivia, I didn’t know what to say, and we were so worried about you—”
“You better start talking,” said Margaret. “Whoever this piece of shit guy is you’re running around with, it’s over. Do you understand? It’s over.”
“I know it’s over,” snapped Olivia, breaking free of her mother’s grasp. She glanced at Penny with eyes aflame with disgust. She carried the animosity with her when she looked back at her mother. “On his terms, not yours.”
“You live in my house, so you live on my terms. You want to make your own rules? Get a real job and get the fuck out. Things are going to change around here, and if you think you can sneak around and lie to us, you better think again.”
“Well maybe if you and Dad weren’t such overprotective nut jobs, I wouldn’t have to lie to have a life.”
Her mother folded her arms. “Well maybe if you hadn’t fucked up my body so goddamn much when you were born, I could have had the son your father wanted.” She pushed out a snotty, tight-lipped grin. “Guess we can’t always get what we want.” She looked back at Penny. “Come on, I’ll take you home.” She glared at Olivia, her eyes burning with the kind of fury only a mother can possess. “If you’re not here when I get back, don’t bother coming home.”