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The Year of Second Chances

Jessica Sorensen

  "Kai, this isn't your fault," she says after I stop rambling.

  "Yes, it is. I should've watched you more closely. After you got that text"--I glimpse in the rearview mirror at the road behind us, finding it extremely unsettling that they just turned around and let us get away after trying so hard to chase us down--"I should've protected you."

  Something's not right. There has to be more to it than this.

  Isa reaches over the console, takes my free hand, and threads her fingers through mine. "No, it's not." She chews on her bottom lip, mulling something over. "The guy who took me ... His voice sounded vaguely familiar."

  I trace the folds between her fingers, thinking of Kyler. Could this really be him? Is he that bad of a person?

  "You think you know the person?"

  She shrugs, strands of her long, brown hair falling into her eyes. "I think so. The woman sounded familiar, too." She leans back in the seat, holding my hand as she stares off into empty space. "I overheard them talking about how they disguised their voices."

  She's more relaxed than I expected, but I'm not sure if that's because she's in shock or just fighting back her emotions like she sometimes does.

  "Are you okay?" I squeeze her hand. "You went through a lot today. It's okay not to be okay."

  "I'm fine." Her bottom lip quivers as she stares down at her lap. "Or I want to be, anyway ... But I was so scared I wasn't going to get away ... alive." A tear falls from her eye, and she swipes it away.

  My chest constricts. "Everything's going to be okay. We're going to get you home where you are safe, and you'll never have to worry about this again. I'm going to take care of this." She starts to protest, but I cut her off. "Why don't you check our phones again? We're getting close enough to town that we should have a signal."

  She reaches for the cup holder and collects her phone. "Who should I call first? The police? Or my grandma?"

  "Call the police first," I tell her. "Then call your grandma."

  She nods, but then she pales as she reads something on her phone.

  "What's wrong?" I ask, turning on the headlights as the setting sun steals away the last bit of light.

  She swallows hard. "There's a message from the unknown number."

  My grip on the wheel tightens. "What's it say?"

  "We're watching you, so don't even think about calling the cops." Her voice trembles as she reads the text. "If you do, lover boy's going to pay." Her gaze meets mine. "Pay with what exactly--" Her phone pings. Gulping, she lowers her gaze to the message. "I have some video footage of Kai selling illegal files, doing drugs, and stealing a car. I bet the police would love to get their hands on it. So either you drop the flash drive off at Sunnyvale Stop and Grub Gas Station and forget what you saw, or we'll turn his criminal activities in to the police." Her eyes are huge as she blinks dazedly at me. "Holy crap, Kai. Is this true?"

  "It could be," I mutter, withdrawing my hand from hers.

  "Well, I think they should have to prove it." She moves her fingers across the buttons as she types a response.

  Moments later, her phone pings, and she frowns.

  "They sent a video attachment." She hits play, and sure enough, a video pops up of Jules giving me a demo on how to hotwire a car.

  I don't need to finish watching the video to know how it ends--with Jules and me speeding off in a stolen car.

  "How long ago did this happen?" Isa asks after the video ends.

  I shrug, feeling like the worst fucking person ever. "Not very long ago. It was actually right when you came back from your trip."

  She taps the screen with her thumb, closing the video. "Who could have known you were doing this?"

  "I don't know ... Anyone who was at the party we were at, probably. We were talking about doing it while we were there, and we weren't being very quiet about it ..." I suck in a breath and let it out. "I'm sorry, Isa."

  "Why? It's not your fault." The fading sunlight casts across her face, highlighting her pallid skin and her bloodshot eyes. "If anything, this is my fault."

  "No, it's not. I'm the one who made all of these bad decisions. I'm the one who helped Jules steal the car. If anything, this is my fault, and you really need to stop blaming yourself."

  "That's a two-way street, my friend." Contemplation crosses her face. "But what I'm really wondering is, whoever these people are, why would they go through all that trouble to get this flash drive? And how the heck did they know a couple of months ago that a video of you stealing a car would get me not to call the police? How would they know we would even be friends by then?"

  "Maybe whoever they are was going to blackmail me," I say. "Or maybe it was one of the few people who knew I liked you."

  She looks at me with her face contorted in confusion. "But that was back before you liked me ... I mean, I'm not saying you like me now; I just ..." An anxious breath puffs from her lips. "Anyway, it doesn't make sense."

  She doesn't get it, never has.

  "Isa," I start. "I've liked you since seventh grade. It might have been more of a friend's thing back then, but by the time we were juniors, I wanted you."

  She shakes her head. "There's no way that could be true."

  "Why not? Why is it so hard to believe that I could've liked you a year ago? And, FYI, I like you now ... a lot." Nope. Not even a lot. I love you.

  She nibbles on her lip. "Yeah, but that's different."


  "Because, back then, you were ... you"--she motions at me--"and I was a huge lose--"

  "Don't ever say that," I say before she can even finish. "You weren't a loser. Your stupid family just made you believe that."

  She stares at me, searching for something. For what, I have no damn clue. But, God, what I wouldn't give to know.

  "Thank you," she says quietly, "for saying that."

  "I'm just saying the truth."

  "Yeah, but sometimes, it's hard to see the truth unless someone else tells you it."

  Holding the steering wheel with one hand, I reach over and sweep her hair out of her face. "You're beautiful, kind, funny, smart"--my lips quirk--"and a complete weirdo sometimes, but I love that about you."

  Her lips start to turn into a smile, but then her phone pings, and the moment gets ripped away from us.

  "They want to know our answer," she says, skimming over the message.

  I return my hand to the wheel. "I say we tell them no."

  "No way. I don't want you getting into trouble. And besides, maybe we can figure out who it is if we think of everyone who could've seen you that night." She winds a strand of hair around her finger, thinking. "What I really don't get is why they're doing this. The messages warn of some game. Is that all this is? A stupid game? Someone messing with my head? Because it's a lot of effort just for that."

  I massage my temple, feeling a headache approaching. "I have no idea, but when I find out, they're going to pay for hurting you."

  She untangles the strand of hair from around her finger. "They didn't really hurt me. The guy was actually kind of gentle with me."

  I smash my lips together, battling back a raging storm stirring inside me. "I don't really give a shit if he hurt you or not. He did enough. He deserves to pay."

  I can feel her eyes boring into me, working to crack me apart and see what's hidden inside. God, what would she think if she found out how much it would've killed me if anything had happened to her?

  "I'd feel the same way if you got hurt," she utters, "so please don't do anything that will get you hurt."

  Does she understand just how much she means to me? How much I care for her? Does she feel the same way?

  "You should call the cops," I change the subject. "The sooner you do it, the better."

  She faces forward, setting her phone down on her lap. "I'm not going to. I'm not going to risk you getting into trouble."

  "I'll be fine. I'm sure I won't get into that much trouble."

  She stares me down. "Are you sure about that?"

  "Yeah," I lie thickly through my teeth.

  "You're lying." Anger flares in her eyes. "Just like you're lying about not being in trouble with this T guy."

  "You shouldn't be worrying about that. You shouldn't be worrying about any of this."

  "You shouldn't, either. You wouldn't even be dealing with this if you didn't know me."

  "I don't give a shit. I don't want to go back to the person I was before we started spending time together."

  We stare each other down determinedly, neither of us wanting to back down.

  "Isa, just think about this for a second." I soften my tone, trying to persuade her to listen to me. "If we don't tell the cops, then these people just get away with what they did."

  She folds her arms across her chest defiantly. "If we tell anyone, then you'll probably get arrested."

  Usually, I love her stubbornness, but right now, it's pissing me off. She needs to do this to protect herself. It's the only thing that's important right now.

  "I'll take that risk." I slow down as the speed limit drops.

  "Well, I won't," she says matter-of-factly. "And if you call the cops and tell them what happened, I'll say you were pranking them."

  "We have to do something," I plead. "I can't just let them get away with hurting you."

  "They didn't hurt me, only scared me."

  I steer the car with one hand while reaching over and grazing my fingers against her scraped cheek. "They didn't?"

  She winces, her face contorted in pain. "I already told you I did that to myself."

  I graze my fingers over her skin one final time before lowering my hand from her cheek. "What exactly happened when they took you?"

  Her anxiety shows as she brings her knees to her chest and gives me a recap of everything she heard while she was kidnapped. The longer she talks, the more my anger simmers.

  If I ever figure out who these people are, they will pay for what they did. I'll make sure of that, even if it turns out to be Kyler.

  "So, they liked to listen to classic rock." I make mental notes of any important details that could lead me to these people. "They wore masks--like the person I saw, which means they've been..." I gulp. "Watching you. And they have a cabin in the woods, and the guy might have known you."

  "He seemed like he did. And so did the woman." She rests her chin on her knees. "And the guy acted like he felt bad for doing it."

  "If he knows you, then I'm guessing you might have talked to him before."

  Kyler, Kyler, Kyler, if this is you, I'm going to kick your ass.

  "Maybe ... But, Kai, I don't want you going to look for these people."

  Fusing my lips together, I fix my attention on the road as my hands tremble with the overwhelming need to hurt the person who did this to her.

  "Kai, listen to me." She places her hand on my arm to get me to look at her. "I don't want you getting hurt."

  "Then we need to go to the police. Someone has to track them down and make sure they don't hurt anyone else." My unsteady voice reveals the storm rumbling inside me. "I asked my friend to tail me while I went after you, but I don't know if it worked since I told him to be there by six."

  I stop at a red light near the middle of town. Small stores line the streets that sell homemade items and souvenirs, along with a local bank and grocery store. People are wandering down the sidewalk, going about their business, enjoying their dull, boring lives.

  I remember I used to look at people who were so easily pleased and feel sorry for them. Didn't they want more out of life? Right now, I envy their simplicity. I would give anything for it.

  "Okay, here's what we're going to do," Isa says, wrenching me out of my pity-party trance. "We're going to wait until you hear from this Jules guy, and if he doesn't know anything, then we'll go talk to my grandma Stephy's retired police friend and see what he thinks. Maybe he can find out who did this to me without involving the police."

  "Okay, I think I can live with that plan." I drive forward as the traffic light changes green.

  "Good." Her gaze drops to her phone. "But what do we do about the flash drive? Do we just hand it over?"

  "I think so," I reply, taking the flash drive out of my boot and setting it in the console. "We'll pull in and drop it off. And if we pay our cards right, we should be able to hide out and see who it is when they pick up the flash drive."

  She worriedly chews on her fingernails. "And you think it'll be that simple? That after we give this to them, they'll just let us go?"

  "Yes." No. I don't think it'll be that simple at all.

  The only way this will ever stop is if I find out who took it and make them pay times ten.

  Chapter 13


  Nausea knots in my stomach as I gaze out the car window, watching stores blur by along with the stars and moon.

  When I ran out of the woods and saw Kai, I'd never been so happy in my life. He'd come for me, saved me, and that was all that mattered at the moment. All I wanted was to be close to him, and when I jumped in his arms, I never wanted him to let me go. Ever.

  Eventually, I had to get into the car where reality smacked me across the face as I realized the severity of the situation. I was kidnapped today. I was taken in broad daylight, driven out to a cabin, and tied up by people wearing masks. What happened will probably haunt my nightmares forever.

  I know I should call the cops, but after they threatened Kai, I can't bring myself to do it. I can tell he's irritated with my refusal to comply, but the idea of knowing I'd be risking him going to jail makes me want to seal what happened inside me and lock it away forever.

  I just want to go home, take a shower, and forget this day ever happened.

  As if sensing my worry, Kai tangles his fingers through mine. "We're almost there."

  I nod, grasping his hand, and rest my forehead against the cool glass until we pull into the Sunnyvale Stop and Grub Gas Station. The parking lot is mostly vacant, and the store light is on, but only the cashier appears to be inside.

  The instructions they sent us were pretty simple: text them when we get to the gas station, and they'll let us know where to leave the flash drive.

  Before we text them, though, Kai mentions he wants to call Jules first and see if he found out anything.

  Kai parks the car toward the back of the parking lot, turns off the engine, and calls Jules.

  "Come on, come on, come on. Pick up," he mutters into the phone, his knee bouncing up and down.

  When no one answers, he leaves a brief message on the voicemail then hammers his finger against the end button.

  "He didn't answer." His gaze travels to the starry sky above. "It's getting late. I guess we should probably text them and say that we'll give them the flash drive--"

  His phone pings with an incoming message.

  "It's from Jules."

  I unbuckle my seatbelt and lean over the console. "What's it say?"

  "He says he wasn't able to track them." He reads the text, tension flooding his eyes. "I guess we should probably just give them the flash drive and get this over with."

  I study him through the darkness of the cab. "Are you sure that's all it says? You look worried."

  He shakes his head, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth. "Yeah, what else would it say?"

  "I don't know ... but it seems like you're keeping something from me."

  "You're just being paranoid. Which is understandable considering what happened."

  That little liar.

  When he starts to put the phone into his pocket, I snatch it from him.

  "Isa, what the hell are you doing?" He reaches for the phone, but I shove open the door and dive out of the car, landing on my hands and knees. He hops out of the car with fury blazing in his eyes. "Isa, give me back the phone. What's on there"--he yanks his fingers through his hair--"that's not your problem."

  "It is, too." I back up across the dark parking lot, opening the message. "I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to k
eep something bad from me so I won't have an excuse not to talk to the cops."

  He slams the door and comes at me quickly, taking long, even strides. "That's not what this is about. I just don't want you getting hurt."

  I pick up the pace as he nears me. "How much more can they actually hurt me? I mean, I was kidnapped for God's sake."

  "Not physically hurt. Emotionally hurt." He quickens to a jog.

  "What are you talking about!" I whirl around and dash toward the grassy knoll behind the gas station where a lamppost is shining through the darkness.

  Kai rushes after me, his footsteps hammering against the asphalt. "Just let this go!"

  "No." I fumble to open the message.

  I'm pretty sure you were right about who did this. Just thought I'd let you know. If you need help taking care of the problem, let me know.

  Arms circle my waist, and I'm lifted in the air until my feet no longer touch the ground.

  "Isa, give me the damn phone back." Keeping his arm around my waist, he loops his other arm around me and tries to pry the phone away.

  "Tell me what's going on." I twist around, trying to duck out from underneath his arm. "You know who did this?"

  "Please, just let this go," he begs with desperation.

  I manage to get all the way turned around before I trip over his foot. I start to fall back and snag his shirt. Instead of stopping the fall, he loses his balance, and we topple to the ground. Fortunately, we land on the grass, a tangled mess of legs and arms as we wrestle each other for the phone.

  "I'll give you the phone back." I roll onto my back and stretch my arm above my head. "But only if you tell me what's going on."

  He flips over onto his stomach, his body over mine. "I can't do that. You'll only get hurt."

  "I'm already hurt." I push against his chest, but he holds his weight down as he reaches up and snatches the phone from me.

  He starts to push away from me, but I latch on to the hem of his shirt and force him to stay put.

  "This isn't fair," I say calmly and quietly, attempting to sound more rational. "We're in this together."

  He promptly shakes his head. "No, we're not. From now on, I'll be handling this."

  My heart misses a beat, and not in a fluttery, gooey, fantastically amazing way. "What're you going to do?"