The Problem with ForeverJennifer L. Armentrout
Dusty, empty shoe boxes, stacked taller and wider than her slim body, wobbled as she pressed her back against them, tucking her bony knees into her chest.
Breathe. Just breathe. Breathe.
Wedged in the back of the dingy closet, she didn’t dare make a sound as she sucked her lower lip between her teeth. Focusing on forcing every grimy breath into her lungs, she felt tears well in her eyes.
Oh, gosh, she’d made such a big mistake, and Miss Becky was right. She was a bad girl.
She’d reached for the dirty and stained cookie jar earlier, the one shaped like a teddy bear that hid cookies that tasted funny. She wasn’t supposed to get cookies or any food by herself, but she’d just been so hungry that her tummy hurt, and Miss Becky was sick again, napping on the couch. She hadn’t meant to knock the ashtray off the counter, shattering it into tiny pieces. Some were shaped like the icicles that clung to the roof during the winter. Others were no bigger than chips.
All she’d wanted was a cookie.
Her slender shoulders jerked at the sound of the wall cracking on the other side of the closet. She bit down harder on her lip. A metallic taste burst into her mouth. Tomorrow there would be a hole the size of Mr. Henry’s big hand in the plaster, and Miss Becky would cry and she’d get sick again.
The soft creak of the closet door was like a crack of thunder to her ears.
Oh no, no, no...
He wasn’t supposed to find her in here. This was her safe place whenever Mr. Henry was angry or when he—
She tensed, eyes peeling wide as a body taller and broader than hers slipped inside and then knelt in front of her. In the dark, she couldn’t make out much of his features, but she knew in her belly and her chest who it was.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped.
“I know.” A hand settled on her shoulder, the weight reassuring. He was the only person she felt okay with when he touched her. “I need you to stay in here, ’kay?”
Miss Becky had said once that he was only six months older than her six years, but he always seemed so much bigger, older than her, because in her eyes, he took up her entire world.
“Don’t come out,” he said, and then he pressed into her hands the redheaded doll she’d dropped in the kitchen after she broke the ashtray and rushed into the closet. Too frightened to retrieve her, she’d left Velvet where she had fallen, and she’d been so upset because the doll had been a gift from him many, many months before. She had no idea how he’d gotten Velvet, but one day he’d simply shown up with her, and she was hers, only hers.
“You stay in here. No matter what.”
Holding the doll close, clenched between her knees and chest, she nodded again.
He shifted, stiffening as an angry shout rattled the walls around them. It was her name that dripped ice down her spine; her name that was shouted so furiously.
A small whimper parted her lips and she whispered, “I just wanted a cookie.”
“It’s okay. Remember? I promised I’d keep you safe forever. Just don’t make a sound.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Just stay quiet, and when I...when I get back, I’ll read to you, ’kay? All about the stupid rabbit.”
All she could do was nod again, because there had been times when she hadn’t stayed quiet and she’d never forgotten the consequences. But if she stayed quiet, she knew what was coming. He wouldn’t be able to read to her tonight. Tomorrow he would miss school and he wouldn’t be okay even though he would tell her he was.
He lingered for a moment and then he eased out of the closet. The bedroom door shut with a smack, and she lifted the doll, pressing her tearstained face into it. A button on Velvet’s chest poked at her cheek.
Don’t make a sound.
Mr. Henry started to yell.
Don’t make a sound.
Footsteps punched down the hall.
Don’t make a sound.
Flesh smacked. Something hit the floor, and Miss Becky must have been feeling better, because she was suddenly shouting, but in the closet the only sound that mattered was the fleshy whack that came over and over. She opened her mouth, screaming silently into the doll.
Don’t make a sound.
A lot could change in four years.
Hard to believe it had been that long. Four years since I’d set foot in a public school. Four years since I’d spoken to anyone outside a very small, very close-knit group of people. Four years of preparing for this moment, and there was a good chance I was going to hurl the few bites of cereal I’d been able to force into my mouth all over the counter.
A lot could change in four years. The question was, had I?
The sound of a spoon clanking against a mug pulled me from my thoughts.
That was the third spoonful of sugar Carl Rivas had tried to inconspicuously dump into his coffee. When he thought no one was looking, he’d try to add two more. For a man in his early fifties, he was fit and trim, but he had one mean sugar addiction. In his study, the home office full of thick medical journals, there was a drawer in his desk that looked like a candy store had thrown up in it.
Hovering near the sugar bowl, he reached for the spoon again as he glanced over his shoulder. His hand froze.
I grinned a little from where I sat at the huge island, a full cereal bowl in front of me.
He sighed as he faced me, leaning back against the granite countertop and eyeing me over the rim of his mug as he took a sip of the coffee. His dark black hair, combed back from his forehead, had started to turn silver at the temples just recently, and with his deep olive-tone skin, I thought it made him look fairly distinguished. He was handsome, and so was his wife, Rosa. Well, handsome wasn’t the right word for her. With her dark skin and thick, wavy hair that had yet to see a strand of gray, she was very pretty. Stunning, really, especially in the proud way she carried herself.
Rosa had never been afraid to speak up for herself and others.
I placed my spoon in the bowl, carefully, so it wouldn’t clang against the ceramic. I didn’t like to make unnecessary noises. An old habit I’d been unable to break and that probably would be a part of me forever.
Glancing up from my bowl, I found Carl watching me. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Mallory?”
My heart skipped unsteadily in response to what felt like an innocent question, but was really the equivalent of a loaded assault rifle. I was ready in all the ways I should be. Like a dork, I’d printed off my schedule and the map of Lands High, and Carl had called ahead, obtaining my locker assignment, so I knew exactly where everything was. I’d studied that map. Seriously. As if my life depended on it. There’d be no need to ask anyone where any of my classes were and I wouldn’t have to roam around aimlessly. Rosa had even made the trip with me to the high school yesterday so I got familiar with the road and how long the drive would take me.
I’d expected Rosa to be here this morning since today was such a big deal, something we’d been working toward for the last year. Breakfasts had always been our time. But Carl and Rosa were both doctors. She was a heart surgeon, and an unplanned surgery had called her in before I’d even pulled myself out of bed. Kind of had to give her a pass for that.
I gave a curt nod as I pressed my lips together and dropped my hands to my lap.
Carl lowered his mug, placing it on the counter behind him. “You ready for this?” he asked again.
Little bundles of nerves formed in my stomach and I really wanted to puke. Part of me wasn’t. Today was going to be difficult, but I had to do it. Meeting Carl’s gaze, I nodded.
His chest rose with a deep breath. “You know the way to school?”
sp; I nodded as I hopped up from the bar stool and grabbed my bowl. If I left now, I would be fifteen minutes early. Probably a good idea, I guessed as I dumped the leftover cereal in the trash and placed the bowl and spoon in the stainless-steel dishwasher.
Carl wasn’t a tall man, maybe around five foot eight, but I still only came up to his shoulders when he moved to stand in front of me. “Use your words, Mallory. I know you’re nervous and you’ve got a hundred things going on in your head, but you need to use your words. Not shake your head yes or no.”
Use your words.
I squeezed my eyes shut. The therapist I used to see, Dr. Taft, had said that phrase a million times over, as had the speech therapist that had worked with me three times a week for two years.
Use your words.
That mantra contradicted everything I’d been taught for nearly thirteen years, because words equaled noise, and noise was rewarded with fear and violence. Used to equal those things, but not anymore. I hadn’t spent nearly four years in intensive therapy only to not use my words, and Rosa and Carl hadn’t dedicated every moment of their free time to erasing a past full of nightmares only to watch their efforts fail.
Words weren’t the problem. They flew through my head like a flock of birds migrating south for the winter. Words were never the problem. I had them, always had them, but it was plucking the words out and putting a voice to them that had always been tricky.
I drew in a breath and then swallowed drily. “Yeah. Yes. I’m...ready.”
A small smile tipped up Carl’s lips as he scooped a long strand of hair back from my face. My hair was more brown than red until I stepped outside. Then I turned into a living, breathing crimson fire engine of auburn awkwardness. “You can do this. I completely believe in that. Rosa believes in that. You just have to believe in that, Mallory.”
My breath hitched in my throat. “Thank you.”
They weren’t powerful enough, because how could they be when Carl and Rosa had saved my life? Literally and figuratively. When it came to them, I’d been at the right place at the right moment for all the wrong reasons in the universe. Our story was something straight out of an Oprah special or an ABC Family movie. Unreal. Saying thank you would never be enough after everything they had done for me.
And because of everything they had done for me, every opportunity they’d given me, I wanted to be as perfect for them as I could be. I owed that to them. And that was what today was all about.
I hurried to the island and grabbed my book bag and keys before I broke down and started crying like a kid who’d just discovered Santa wasn’t real.
As if he read my mind, Carl stopped me at the door. “Don’t thank me,” he said. “Show us.”
I started to nod, but stopped myself. “Right,” I whispered.
He smiled then, crinkling the skin around his eyes. “Good luck.”
Opening the front door, I stepped out on the narrow stoop and into the warm air and bright sun of a late-August morning. My gaze drifted over the neatly landscaped front yard that matched the house across the street, and was identical to every house in the Pointe subdivision.
Sometimes it still shocked me that I was living in a place like this—a big home with a yard and flowers artfully planted, with a car in the recently asphalted driveway that was mine. Some days it didn’t seem real. Like I’d wake up and find myself back...
I shook my head, pushing those thoughts away as I approached the decade-old Honda Civic. The car had belonged to Rosa and Carl’s real daughter, a high school graduation gift given to Marquette before she’d left for college to become a doctor, like them.
Dr. Taft had always corrected me when I referred to Marquette that way, because he believed it somehow lessened what I was to Carl and Rosa. I hoped he was right, because some days I felt like the big home with the manicured yard.
Some days I didn’t feel real.
Marquette never made it to college. An aneurysm. There one minute and gone the next, and there had been nothing anyone could do. I imagined that was something Rosa and Carl had always struggled with. They saved so many lives, but couldn’t save the one that meant the most.
It was a little weird that the car belonged to me now, like I was somehow a replacement child. They never made me feel that way and I’d never say that out loud, but still, when I got behind the wheel I couldn’t help but think about Marquette.
I placed my bag on the passenger seat. My gaze crawled over the interior, landing on the reflection of my eyes in the rearview mirror. They were way too wide. I looked like a deer about to get slammed by a semi, if a deer had blue eyes, but whatever. The skin around my eyes was pale, my brows knitted. I looked scared.
That was not how I wanted to look on my first day of school.
I started to glance away, but the silver medallion dangling from the rearview mirror snagged my attention. It wasn’t much bigger than a quarter. A bearded man was engraved inside a raised oval. He was writing in a book with a feathered pen. Above him were the words SAINT LUKE and below was PRAY FOR US.
Saint Luke was the patron saint of physicians.
The necklace had belonged to Rosa. Her mother had given it to her when she entered med school, and Rosa had given it to me when I’d told her that I was ready to attend public school my senior year. I guessed she’d given it to Marquette at some point, but I hadn’t asked.
I think there was a part of both Rosa and Carl that hoped that I’d follow in their footsteps, much like Marquette had been planning to. But becoming a surgeon required assertiveness, confidence and a damn near fearless personality, which were three adjectives literally no one would ever use to describe me.
Carl and Rosa knew that, so they were pushing me more in the direction of research since, according to them, I’d displayed the same aptitude in science in my years of homeschooling as Marquette had. While I hadn’t protested their urging, spending forever studying microbes or cells sounded as interesting as spending forever repainting the walls in my room white. But I had no idea what I wanted other than to attend college, because until Rosa and Carl had come into my life, college had never, ever been a part of the equation.
The drive to Lands High took exactly eighteen minutes, just as I expected. The moment the three-story brick building came into view beyond the baseball and football fields, I tensed as if a speeding baseball was heading for my face and I’d forgotten my mitt.
My stomach twisted as my hands tightened on the steering wheel. The school was enormous and relatively new. Its website said it had been built in the nineties, and compared to other schools, it was still shiny.
Shiny and huge.
I passed the buses turning to do their drop-off in the roundabout and followed another car around the sprawling structure, to the mall-sized parking lot. Parking wasn’t hard, and I was a little early, so I used that fifteen minutes to do something akin to a daily affirmation, and just as cheesy and embarrassing.
I can do this. I will do this.
Over and over, I repeated those words as I climbed out of the Honda, slinging my new bag over my shoulder. My heart pounded, thumped so fast I thought I’d be sick as I looked around me, taking in the sea of bodies streaming toward the walkway leading to the back entrance of Lands High. Different features, colors, shapes and sizes greeted me. For a moment it was like my brain was a second away from short-circuiting. I held my breath. Eyes glanced over me, some lingering and some moving on as if they didn’t even notice me standing there, which was okay in a way, because I was used to being nothing more than a ghost.
My hand fluttered to the strap of my bag and, mouth dry, I forced my legs to move. I joined the wave of people, slipping in beside them. I focused on the blond ponytail of the girl in front of me. My gaze dipped. She was wearing a jean skirt and sandals. Bright orange, strappy, gladiator-style sandals. They were cute. I could tell her that. Strike up a c
onversation. The ponytail was also pretty amazing. It had the bump along the crown of her head, the kind I could never replicate even after watching a dozen YouTube tutorials on how to do it. Whenever I tried, I looked like I had an uneven growth on my head.
But I said nothing to her.
As I lifted my gaze, my eyes collided with a boy next to me. Sleep clung to his expression. He didn’t smile or frown or do anything other than turn his attention back to the cell phone he held in his hand. I wasn’t even sure if he saw me.
The morning air was warm, but the moment I stepped into the near-frigid school, I was grateful for the thin cardigan I’d carefully paired with my tank top and jeans.