Page 103 of Runaway Girl (Girl 2)

Elijah’s chin snaps up, then all at once he looks weary. “Yes, I’ll tell her,” he says, attempting a smile, which I return. “Goodbye, Naomi.”

“Goodbye, Elijah.”

The door closes and I turn, floating down the steps. That’s how it seems. As if there are clouds under my feet, carrying me forward. Forward is where I need to go. Not back. I came here believing marriage to Elijah and a lifetime of posturing was my only option, but it’s not. It’s very clear he loves someone else, and thus, I am free. I’m free. Even my parents can’t maneuver past the love for another woman I just witnessed on Elijah’s face.

A bolt of lightning streaks across the sky and I look up, allowing rain to land on my cheeks and forehead. I laugh up into the storm, absorbing the power of it. My own power.

Jason will always hold my heart. I love him and I miss him, but we were driven apart by the choices we made. He didn’t ask me to stay in Florida. Wouldn’t. Not when his military career is the most important part of his life. I chose a different kind of duty. Duty that I’m relinquishing as of now, so I can prove my own capabilities, with no fallback money this time. No home to run back to if the going gets tough. Yes, Jason will always, always have my heart. But I have courage. I have me. And I’m ashamed of myself for forgetting that when I set my mind to it, I can stand on my own two feet. That’s exactly what I plan to do.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

ColdCaseCrushers.com

Username: StopJustStop

Well, it’s nice to see that sanity has returned to the Internet, but…

…an update on our Runaway Girl now that she’s home wouldn’t be too terrible.

ConspiracyCrowd.org

Username: IWant2Believe2000

Do not be fooled by New Naomi. She’s a plant.

That said, I wouldn’t mind an update, either.

Does she seem sad to anyone else?

Jason

It’s not until Birdie comes home from school with her graduation robe and cap that I check the calendar and realize I’ve been numb for a full month. Completely, sickeningly numb. If it wasn’t for Birdie, I’m not sure I would have had the wherewithal to get out of bed in the morning. Something went dark inside me when I walked off stage and Naomi wasn’t there. Like a candle being blown out in a dark room, leaving nothing behind but the baseline of silence.

My sister does need me, though. I don’t think I really believed I could be needed for anything other than protection, providing, until she smiled up at me on that stage. I’m more to her than I knew. She’s more to me, too. I never let that in, because it would mean staying. Operating outside my capabilities. When I came home, I treated my care of Birdie like just another mission. Maybe I still look at it that way, in a sense, because you can’t take the Army out of the man. But I do know my sister will always have been my most important mission.

And I wouldn’t have figured that out without Naomi. Wouldn’t have thought myself capable of living up to another person’s expectations, should they go beyond providing. Protecting. Who knew letting my guard down or being there for Birdie when she does the same…could be its own form of providence?

Maybe I’ve never really felt like a hero until now and I was searching for this feeling over and over on the battlefield, underwater, all over the goddamn place but at home.

It’s awful to have a sense of peace so deep, I couldn’t dive far enough to find it…while also being sublimely miserable. I don’t know which end is up anymore. Naomi came here and made everything so fucking right. But it was only right with her. Not without. Never without.

“Hey, bro.” Birdie tosses her graduation cap on the mantle, alongside her third-place trophy, which sits in a place of honor beside a picture of Natalie. “How long have you been sitting here?”

I look down at my hands. They hold a letter from my commander formally welcoming me back to active duty, beginning in June. “I have no idea,” I say in a voice rough from disuse. “A while.”

Over the last month, we’ve started making arrangements for my upcoming deployment. After graduation, Birdie is going to Dallas to stay with our parents until she starts college in the fall. I can tell she doesn’t want to go, but she isn’t letting on. She probably thinks I’m too fucked up over Naomi to handle her fears and I hate that she’s right. I barely got through this letter in my hands without dropping into mental blackness, replaying every single moment from the time Naomi knocked on the door to when she vanished into thin air. Jesus, I miss her. Half of me has been torn away, leaving the rest of me to rot.

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