“Don’t throw the controller.” Raine Czekalski barked the order to her little cousin a second too late. The wing-shaped game controller bounced off the brown sectional and plunged toward the marble tile of the family room floor. Ignoring the damage, her six-year-old cousin skipped to the long dinner table. Being ignored by the little brat was the same as before.
Before her teacher crushed a fellow classmate’s skull with a projector.
Before the Nerd Court put her on trial for minding her own business.
Before members of the Beaver Creek High baseball team attempted to use her head for batting practice.
Raine had heard things changed during Senior year, but she wasn’t a senior. Yet.
No. No. She couldn’t think like that. Holding her arms rigidly at her sides, she stomped across the tile. Just because so much was different than before, didn’t mean things wouldn’t return to normal soon. Her uncle had planned for a bad event, had set aside supplies for it. That was only supposed to last three days. Her uncle had never been wrong in the last ten years. Hadn’t made a mistake since he’d picked her up from Child Protective Services, after her parents died in an automobile accident.
Raine blinked, returning to the present.
Before the game controller slid into the chocolate lab snoring beside the TV stand, a tan hand caught it. Brown eyes crinkled behind a curtain of brown hair. “Got it.” After carefully setting the wing-shaped device beside the gaming console, Jason DeWitt winked at her.
He was an after. Definitely.
“Thank you.” For the last three years, Jason had been her rival in every class they took together. And there’d been at least four every semester. Like God, the universe, and fate all conspired against her.
But this was after he’d led her out of her classroom.
After he’d convinced the Nerd Court to release her.
After he’d confessed that he had no one waiting for him at home.
Raine shook out her clenched fingers. Jason wasn’t a bad after, but was it so wrong to want things to stay the same?
Jason loped toward her. The rolling gait not of the cocky know-it-all she’d once assumed, but of an accomplished gymnast. “I always wanted to be part of a large family.”
“Yeah.” Raine eyed her cousins, their friends, and her two best friends queueing up to the kitchen island to load slices of pizza onto their paper plates. That was kinda the same. The knot in her stomach unraveled a bit. In three days, everything would return to normal. She had to believe it.
The doorbell chimed in the hall.
Everyone froze in place.
Raine locked her knees to keep from collapsing. Please don’t let the crazy start again. Please don’t let the crazy start again.
Her oldest cousin, Ellen, unloaded an armful of soda cans onto the counter and headed for the front door. “We’re expecting the Zindells to return. It’s probably them.”
Her dark haired neighbor darted in front of her while pulling a gun from his waistband. “You gotta peephole to check?”
Raine’s shoulders relaxed a hair. That’s right, they were expecting Cheyenne’s folks.
“Of course,” Ellen crooked her finger at him to follow. “And cameras in the front.”
The knot of fear tightened in Raine’s gut. The gun was definitely an after. Even though she, her cousins, and her aunt had shooting lessons, Uncle Paul didn’t allow guns in his house. Raine chewed on her bottom lip. Oh, how, she wished her roly-poly uncle and stick-bug aunt were here, now.
Stopping in front of her, Jason rocked back on his heels. Blunt fingers combed the flap of dark hair out of his eyes, exposing the bruise on his forearm. “You okay?”
Her mouth opened and a strangled sound rasped up her throat.
“Yeah. It’s been a…” Jason shrugged. His eyes darkened for a moment. “You gotta believe they’re okay, right? I mean they’re old, but not so old that…”
Guilt made her skin tighten and itch. Her aunt and uncle were in familiar territory, traveling to see her grandmother. His parents were on a cruise. Were there any places to hide on a ship?
“I’m sure they’re fine.” Raine sucked cold air through her teeth. Nodding, she pinned the thought in place, guaranteeing it was the first thing she’d think of.
She jerked her head to the kitchen island. “I hope you’re hungry. My sister’s pizza is the best.”
Only her friends Cheyenne and Colton remained in line. With broken fingernails, Cheyenne peeled pepperoni off her pizza and dropped them onto Colton’s plate. Blond heads bent together, they debated the merits of which dressing to add to their salads—Italian or Ranch.
Jason nudged her shoulder. “You sure their new kissy-status doesn’t bother you?”
“As if.” Raine rolled her eyes. Colton and Cheyenne were a before.
Cheyenne rose on tiptoes and kissed Colton’s bruised jaw.
Okay, that was afterish. But these were her friends. Raine padded toward the open kitchen in her socks. Plus, they’d both assured her nothing would change; they’d still be the Three Musketeers.
“Good.” Jason’s fingers skimmed her back before hanging loosely from his sides.
Voices echoed in the entryway leading to the great room. The deep rumble of a man’s voice overrode the others.
The hair on Raine’s arms stood on end. Snatching a plate off the table, she held it like a shield in front of her. Please, don’t let anything bad happen. Please, don’t let anything bad happen.
On her right, Jason gripped the folding chair. His knuckles flashed white.
Cheyenne’s dad appeared first. His ice blue eyes slid off her, stuck on Jason then moved onto Rosa’s friend. Stepping inside the great room next, Cheyenne’s mother gestured in sweeping motions to a nodding Ellen. Ellen’s friend clung to the shadows painting the hall.
Raine shivered. The Zindells were a before. They’d often dined here. Heck, she considered them another set of surrogate parents. So why did this feel like an after?
Jason tugged the chair next to hers out from under the folding table. The long green tablecloth brushed the floor. “Do you want to sit and I’ll get you a slice of mushroom?”
How did he know she liked mushroom over pepperoni? How—
“Daddy!” Shoving her plate at Colton, Cheyenne bounded across the room. Her white-blond hair bounced around her oval face.
Mr. Brent opened his arms and grinned at his daughter. “Sweet Pea!”
Stomach churning, Raine turned away from the reunion. She would throw herself at her aunt and uncle just as soon as they returned home.
Colton grinned at her on his way to the table. One plate contained a pyramid of salad and a narrow slice of skinned bread with bits of cheese and sauce. The other had three oversized pieces on a bed of green glued in place by a pond of Ranch dressing. “Don’t worry, you two. There’s still plenty of mushroom left.”
Her friends’ appetites were the same as before. This situation was only temporary.
“There better be.” Raine growled. Reaching the counter first, she tossed down her plate then snagged the last two pieces of mushroom pizza. The warm dough sagged in her fingers. Cheese oozed toward the sides as heat transferred to her skin. She glanced down. Empty granite. “Where…”
With ninja skills, Jason snagged her plate, holding it opposite his own. “Trade you one plate for one piece of pizza.”
“That’s blackmail.” Hot cheese stretched over the sides of her slice. She shifted her hand, causing the glob to swing.
“Nah, blackmailers wouldn’t be happy with just one slice.” He shook the plates like tambourines. “They’d want one and a half to start, then force you to order more and more and more.”
The hot cheese splatted against her wrist. She hissed through the starburst of heat. “My uncle is a lawyer. He would advise me to stand strong against blackmailers.”
“Then consider this payback. You know the lunch ladies only make one mushroom pizza for second lunch. And you always have your friends save you a place in line so you can get the last piece.” Switching one plate to his other hand, Jason twirled his finger through the string of cheese connecting her to the pizza. He pulled the blob free from her skin, then stuck the wad inside his mouth. His eyes closed as he swallowed. “Mmmm.”
Her insides did a funny dance. Maybe not all the after things were bad. “This is ridiculous.”
“I agree.” Jason divided the plates into his hands. His brown eyes widened as if an app had made him deliberately look like a pathetic puppy dog. “Since you don’t like the idea of blackmail or payback. Think of this as charity. The only pizza I’m allowed is at school. You’re doing me a great service by allowing me to eat real pizza.”
Raine tore the slices apart, dealing each onto a plate. Once her hands were free, she blew on her red fingertips then wiped her greasy fingers on her pants. “You got a slice of my pizza. You can stop the act.”
He weighed the plates in his hands before shoving the smaller piece at her. “Who’s acting? My parents think processed foods are the Devil’s handiwork.” Shifting away, he stared at the untouched pepperoni pizza on the counter before selecting a corner piece. “I had my first Snickers bar on my first day at Beaver Creek.”
“Nuh-uh.” How stupid did he think she was? Raine snapped the salad tongs at him. “If you’re gonna lie, at least make it believable.”
“It’s true.” Jason held up his hand before pinching a blob of cheese left on the pan. “My parents are health nuts. I thought shakes were green and made from vegetables until I was six and discovered ice cream.”
She shuddered. Her cousin had made some dreadful kale drinks after doing a report on GMOs her sophomore year in high school. Even though Raine was six years younger, the lunch ladies had long memories and still gave her the stink eye—guilt by association.
Jason added another slice to his plate, glanced at the nearly empty salad bowl and shifted his plate away from the offending vegetables.
She dished two helpings of salad onto her plate, right over her slices of pizza, then drizzled the ranch over everything. Dropping the tongs into the lettuce, she pushed the bowl toward him. “House rule: you have to have a vegetable at every meal.”
He dropped two leaves onto his plate. “Satisfied?”
“Sure.” Especially since she just made up the rule. Turning, she stared at the table. Air left her lungs like she’d been sucker-punched.
Mr. Brent sat in her uncle’s seat.
The plate of food wobbled in Raine’s hand. It wasn’t right. He shouldn’t be there. He—
Jason brushed her shoulder. “I got you a Dr. Pepper. They’re kinda warm.”
She dragged her attention away from Mr. Brent. What had Jason said? Right. Soda. “They were in the garage. And we have cups with ice on the table.”
Her gaze skittered back. Her cousins chattered across the folding table; little Erin wiped the sauce from her rosy cheeks with the green cloth instead of the paper napkin crumpled near her milk glass. Ellen sat at the end, opposite Mr. Brent. Her neighbor hovered at her elbow. Skull tattoos grinned under his t-shirt sleeve as he popped the lid on the can of chicken noodle soup. Two plates filled the empty spot near Ellen—one with salad and the other with pizza.
A shadow stretched across the tile.
Ms. Kelly, Cheyenne’s mom, opened her arms wide. “I was never so happy to see anyone after my dear husband, than I was to see you, Cheyenne, and Colton safe and sound.”
Balancing her plate in one hand, Raine leaned into the other woman’s embrace. “It’s been quite a day.”
Which was like saying the Grand Canyon was a small ditch.
Ms. Kelly rubbed Raine’s back. Her wet hair tickled Raine’s cheek and the scent of soap drifted off her skin along with the foul scent of Mr. Brent’s cologne.
Raine wrinkled her nose, then ducked her head so no one could see her face. She wouldn’t hurt the couple for anything, but they should have better taste in perfumes. That stuff really stunk.
“You need to put a little meat on your bones, child.” Leaning back, Ms. Kelly squeezed Raine’s shoulders. “Here I tell you to eat, yet keep you from doing just such a thing.” Her attention slid off Raine to stick to Jason. Her brown eyes narrowed. “And who is this?”
Raine shifted; her toes clenched inside her cartoon character socks. After Cheyenne’s rape, the Zindells interrogated every new friend they brought home. Given Jason’s sex, this was bound to be worse. She dug out her manners from some closed portion of her brain. “Ms. Kelly this is Jason DeWitt. Jason, this is Cheyenne’s Mom, Kelly Zindell.”
Jason swiped his hand down his jeans before offering it to Ms. Kelly. “Mrs. Zindell.”
Ms. Kelly stared at his hand. After squinting for a moment, she forced a smile and pinched his hand in her fingertips. “Pardon me for not greeting you more warmly, but we’re very protective of my girls.”
“I understand.” Jason’s easy grin stiffened at the edges. “It’s been a day I never want repeated.”
And one Raine didn’t want to talk about. Ever. They only had two and a half days before things returned to normal. Resisting the urge to stick her fingers in her ears, she focused on the table.
Cheyenne and Colton sat in the folding chairs on Mr. Brent’s right. Cheyenne made certain her arm pressed Colton’s through his oversized dress shirt while holding her father’s hand.
Raine’s stomach clenched. She usually sat between her two friends. She didn’t like this after. She needed some things to be the same as before. She needed to be surrounded by her friends.
Jason nudged her toward the open chair opposite Colton.
Ms. Kelly’s attention shifted to her daughter. The skin around her eyes softened. “Did something happen at the school? The radio said classes had been cancelled, but didn’t mention anything… bad.”
Jason adjusted his hold on the two cans of soda. “There were a couple of things that happened.”
A couple? Acid burned the back of Raine’s throat. On numb legs, she stumbled to the empty seat. The metal creaked as she plopped down. When she looked down at her plate of food, her stomach bucked. “There was more than a couple of things.”
At the far end of the table, Ellen dipped her spoon into her bowl of soup. “Perhaps we could talk over the days events after we eat.”
Little Erin smacked her lips then set her empty glass next to her plate. Her pink tongue licked off her milk mustache. “My daddy was crazy. He tried to hurt me.”
Ellen winced. “Erin, sweetie…”
Mr. Brent leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on the curved wooden arms. “So it wasn’t just downtown that went nuts.”
Ms. Kelly set a plate of salad and two slices of pizza in front of her husband. “We tried listening to the news on the drive home, but only static played on the radio stations.”
Ellen’s lips thinned.
Raine didn’t want to hear about this morning’s events either. She reached for her plate.
Jason grabbed her wrist, pinning it to the table. “We all need to talk about it. Rehashing everything will minimize the PTSD later.”
She tugged on her arm. He didn’t release her. She didn’t want to talk about it. She wanted to forget it. If she could do that, she wouldn’t get PTSD now or later.
“He’s right.” Ms. Kelly abandoned her plate of salad to retrieve two long neck bottles of beer from the fridge. She handed them both to her husband to twist off the caps. “I read that talking about trauma, even as unpleasant as it is, will reduce the chances of PTSD later.”
Mrs. Kelly stared at her daughter.
Cheyenne chased a carrot around her plate.
Talking to the fancy counselor hadn’t helped Cheyenne. But they had talked about that night, over and over and over again until Raine sometimes dreamed she’d been the one held down by the quarterback. She wrapped her fingers around her fork.
Sitting between her and Ms. Kelly, Jason released her arm and picked up his slice of pepperoni pizza. “We were in English class when a student made a comment, and bam, the teacher just went off.”
Raine stabbed a piece of lettuce. Ranch dressing dripped off the edges. They were really going to do this? Now? She twirled her fork. “Several students pulled out their phones. I thought they were going to call the police. But they were recording it.”
Cheyenne’s red plastic cup shook in her hand. “They did that with a dog and a coyote who were fighting.”
Colton stretched his arm along the back of her chair. “The dog did get away.”
Cheyenne leaned into him then nodded.
Raine shoved down the stab of envy. Usually the three of them comforted each other. Now she was on the other side of the table.
On Raine’s right, her cousin Rafael swung his legs and bounced in his seat. Tomato sauce filled in the gap between his two crooked, front adult teeth. “My dad went nuts when mom came to pick us up.”
Ellen stirred the noodles in her yellow broth. “It was a deputy that set off the neighbors. They came after us because the deputy were there to talk to us.”
Ellen’s neighbor chewed his bite slowly. “Folks were a squirrelly before then, Dogooder and Dumbass just made themselves an attractive target.”
Mr. Brent cut his pizza into bite-sized pieces. “So there’s really no common denominator. I was thinking people were just fed up and targeting the government, but now…”
Now… Now, they were no closer to the truth and Raine didn’t feel any better. So much for talking about it.
Ms. Kelly stiffened. “What if it is a terrorist attack?”
Raine rolled her eyes. A terrorist attack? Her teacher wasn’t a terrorist. Neither were the kids in her class.
“It’s the food.” Her cousin Rosa dropped her crust onto her plate. “The changes scientists have made to the genetic code of our food has finally polluted our gene pool. The food is making everyone crazy. We have to consider leaving this city, this house. Forever.”