She’s dressed in a simple black sleeveless dress, and her dark brown hair has been dried straight and sleek, falling around her slender shoulders. Her face is clean of blood and mascara, her skin pale and beautiful, a hint of pink on her lips that she must have found in the Walmart stock, but her eyes are bloodshot, the look in them tentative, perhaps tormented.
Fidgeting, she runs her hands down her hips. “The bags actually had some makeup and a few hair products. I was shocked.”
“Nothing I’m sure you’d pick on your own.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” she says, clearly meaning to fill the awkward space, but still I get the impression she isn’t cowering from our obviously difficult sleeping arrangements. She’s tough, and yet somehow still feminine.
“Twenty-four hours from now you can shop for yourself, and we won’t be sharing a lumpy bed.”
“Where will we be in twenty-four hours?”
“You know I’m not going to tell you that.” I scoot over and pat the bed. “Come here.”
Her brows lift. “Right there. To that spot.”
“That’s right. To this spot.”
“Will it do me any good to argue?”
“You either get me up close and personal, or you get tied up again. I don’t want to do that to you.”
She inhales and walks toward me, tentatively sitting down on the bed. Before she even fully settles, I grab her and lay us both down, curling around her, one of my legs wrapped around hers. My arm comes down over the top of her and I scoot in closer, molding our bodies together so well that if she moves a muscle, I’ll know.
“Go to sleep,” I order near her ear, her freshly washed hair a silky tease against my cheek.
“The light is on.”
“The sun is coming up anyway.”
She’s silent a beat. “Most men would have—”
“Don’t fool yourself, Gia. I’m not a good guy. I never was, and I never will be. Now. Do as I say. Go to sleep.”
ONE MINUTE I’M LISTENING to Gia’s soft, steady breathing, and the next I’m fading into sleep and with it, the memory of six years ago, in vivid, damning detail, the scent of smoke teasing my nostrils.
I burst through the door of the house, screaming, “Mom! Dad! Lara!” and immediately I’m consumed by smoke, my lungs convulsing in protest. Coughing, eyes burning, I use my shirt to cover my face, fear for my family sending adrenaline shooting through me, making me shake. Sprinting forward, I cross through the kitchen—no fire in sight, and I know that means it’s all on the upper level. Rounding the corner, I reach the bottom of the stairs and see that flames cover the second floor landing. I launch myself up the stairs. “Mom! Dad!”
The sound of my mother’s voice is a relief, but the flames that greet me as I turn right toward her voice in the hallway blast me with heat. Panic overwhelms me. I can’t get to her. There are too many flames. “Mom! Mom, you have to go out the window!”
“I can’t! It’s covered in flames. Save Lara! Get Lara out of here.”
“Get something to cover yourself and go through the flames.”
“I can’t leave your father.”
My gut knots at her words. “What’s wrong with Dad?”
“He hit his head. Just get Lara out of here! I’ll figure this out.”
Tears burn my eyes, and not just from the smoke—I’m not sure my parents are making it out of this. Coughing, I cover my face and turn to the left, racing forward and around the corner, praying I can rescue my sister¸ but it’s impossible. Flames cover her doorway, eating a path toward me.
“Lara!” I shout, my voice raspy with smoke and desperation. “Lara!”
My mother’s bloodcurdling scream pierces the air and it’s like a sword slicing me in two. “Mom! Mom!” I turn back toward my mother, rounding the corner and scanning for something, anything, to get me through the flames. There is nothing. I’m shaking and coughing, and tears streak my cheeks because I know it’s too late.
Lara’s voice is a hard jolt as she screams, “Mom! Mom!”
Lara’s alive. She’s alive, and I’m keeping her that way. I turn back toward her room, rushing forward. “Jump out the window, Lara!” I shout, stopping at the very edge of the flames. Could I run through them to get to her? “Jump now.”
“Not without you and Mom and Dad!” she shouts back, sounding desperate.
“You see the flames, damn it!” I answer. “I can’t get to you.” Behind me, fire consumes the hallway I’ve just traveled, leaving me only one escape: the spare bedroom directly in front of me. ”I’m going out another window. I’ll meet you outside.”
“Mom’s okay?” Lara shouts. “Did Dad get to her? Did he get her out?”
“Goddamnit, Lara. How many times do I have to tell you to jump out the fucking window? I’m running out of time. Get out, so I can get out.”
She screams and my heart stops beating a moment; the helplessness of not being able to get to her is gutting me. “Lara!”
“I’m okay. Just get them out, Chad. Please. All of you get out.”
“Jump!” I shout, heat licking at my back. “Jump, damn it!”
“What about Mom and Dad?” she stubbornly shouts back.
“Do what I say, Lara,” I yell fiercely. “Jump!”