The fifth novella in the prequel serial to The Ending Series.
A virus changed everything. This is how it began.
Clara's childhood was less than ideal, but thanks to her beloved fairy tales, she managed to survive. She also managed to hold onto the hope that, with a little hard work and determination, she would one day find her Prince Charming...her happily ever after. And for a little while, she thinks she has. But just as everything seems to be falling into place, a ghost from the past returns to haunt her.
The Ending Beginnings:
I - Carlos
II - Mandy
III - Vanessa
IV - Jake
V - Clara
VI - Jake & Clara (June 2014)
Without taking her eyes from her book, Clara reached for her chocolate milk, which was sitting on the laminate cafeteria table beside her tattered backpack. Lips pursed around the straw and her feet bouncing with happy anticipation, she took two long pulls of the rich, cold liquid until her straw made a slurping sound, and she set the empty carton back down on the table. All of the other students were out in the quad, fussing about their homework or gushing about boys or complaining about the teachers they didn’t like, but Clara had better things to do. She ignored the ceaseless giggling and chatter as it trickled in through the open cafeteria doors and lost herself in her book.
“It was very late; yet the little mermaid could not take her eyes from the ship, or from the beautiful prince.” She read each line with more passion and longing than was probably natural for a thirteen-year-old girl, but she couldn’t help it. Fairy tales…Prince Charming…happily ever afters…she loved it all. “He is certainly sailing above,” she read softly. “He on whom my wishes depend, and in whose hands I should like to place the happiness of my life.”
Clara thought about Patrick, about his dreamy black hair and his light brown eyes, which always seemed to be saying more than his words ever did.
She sighed and kept reading. “I will venture all for him, and to win an immortal soul…”
Clara smiled as she devoured line after line, every word resonating in her soul, giving her hope that there was another life out there, a life different from the one she had with her mom—a better, easier life.
After another sigh, she stretched her legs out under the table, wiggling her toes in her holey converse and crossing her legs at the ankles, and settled in for a few more pages before the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch.
“‘But if you take away my voice,’ said the little mermaid, ‘what is left for me?’ ‘Your beautiful form,’ said the witch. ‘Your graceful walk and your expressive eyes. Surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.’”
Clara paused and wrinkled her nose. Your form? Your graceful walk? That didn’t seem right. It sounded too much like something her mom would say.
With a shrug, she pushed her glasses up higher on the bridge of her nose and continued reading. The little mermaid was so passionate, so sure about the prince. Clara longed for the day when she felt that way for someone. Or rather, she longed for the day when someone felt that way about her…
Daydreams of Patrick flitted into her mind, and she closed her eyes, imagining what it would feel like to run her hand over his spikey hair. He seemed so mysterious. He was popular and seemingly untouchable, so she guessed that had something to do with it. But there was also the way he looked at her sometimes, his gaze lingering a little too long and his mouth curving into that tiny smirk he seemed to reserve for her alone. Clara was pretty sure he thought about her…at least more than not at all.
And there was that one time at the bus stop, when they’d been waiting under the awning to stay out of the rain. She could never forget the feeling of his soft skin, still tanned from a summer of baseball games played under the afternoon sun, as his arm had brushed against hers. Although she’d been freezing all day because she’d forgotten a coat, it had only taken that one moment, that single, fleeting contact, for her incessant shivers to seem completely worth it.
Clara giggled. Maybe Patrick was her soul mate, her happily ever after; he just didn’t know it yet. But as quickly as the thought fluttered into her mind, it fluttered away.
“Men are pigs, Clara Bear.” Her mom’s voice was grating in her mind. “They’re only as good as the size of their wallet.” Like sand in a windstorm, all of Clara’s whimsical thoughts of her Prince Charming blew away. Her mom clearly didn’t believe fairy tales, but then again, Clara often thought her mom was just an uneducated hussy. At least, that’s what she’d heard other people say about her…when they weren’t saying worse things.
The older Clara was, the more she heard and the more she understood. Part of her knew thinking mean things about her own mom was wrong, but she couldn’t help it. Eye rolling and hateful thoughts had become the norm for Clara when she was around her mom.
“Love is for blind fools, Clara Bear, and blind fools deserve whatever comes to them.”
Clara wondered if her mom had ever been in love. From the sound of it, Clara thought probably not. She knew her own dad was nothing more than a handsome face passing through town; her mom had said as much herself.
Clara resituated herself on the bench of the lunch table. The sound of squeaky soles on the polished floor behind her drew her attention away from her book. Pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, she looked over her shoulder at the cafeteria entrance. Patrick was heading her way.
“Hey,” he said, stopping at the end of the cafeteria table.
“Um…hey.” Clara smiled dumbly, her eyes darting to her beat-up lunch pail, the same Care Bears one she’d been forced to use since elementary school. She shoved it into her backpack.
“You working on Mrs. Larson’s homework already?” He hoisted his backpack up onto his shoulder and pointed to the open book lying on the table in front of Clara.
“Oh”—she held up the book of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—“yeah. Just trying to get a head start on the book report.” Although it was partially true, she really loved fairy tales, even if these versions were darker than the ones she was familiar with.
Patrick smirked. “We still have, like, three weeks.”
Clara shrugged. She refused to tell him she had nothing else to do. “I think I might be going on vacation next week,” she lied. “I don’t want to fall behind.” Clara couldn’t bear for Patrick, the boy of her dreams, her very own Prince Charming—even if he didn’t know it yet—to learn how boring and lonely she was. “Have you started yet?”
He shook his head, his smirk turning into a smile. His eyes flicked down to her book. “Any of it any good?”
Clara couldn’t hold back the grin that engulfed her face. “The one I’m reading now is pretty good,” she said, not wanting to go so far as to admit she was enthralled with The Little Mermaid. “But I love fairy tales, so…”
Patrick eyed her for a moment, then took a step closer. “Cool. Maybe there’ll be a story in there that I’ll like.”
Clara wondered why he’d stopped to talk to her, but didn’t have the guts to ask. “Maybe.”
“So…where are you going on vacation?”
“Oh, umm, I’m not sure…somewhere with my mom’s boyfriend, I think.”
Snickering and cackling broke into the stillness of the cafeteria behind her, and Clara and Patrick both started. Her heart began to race. No. Please, she silently begged. Not now…
Patrick peered over her head, his eyes narrowing. “What’s so funny?”
Clara squeezed her eyes shut, wishing Joanna Rossi, with her long black hair and crystal blue eyes, would just disappear already…forever. She was the most horrid girl at school and seemed to love torturing Clara more than anything else.
“She’s not going on vacation,” Joanna spat. “She’s such a liar.” Her voice grew closer with the sound of each footstep until she finally stepped around the lunch table and planted herself beside Patrick. She looped her arm through his, and her friends strutted up to the other end of the table to watch, like perched vultures waiting to pick away at what was left of Clara once Joanna was finished.
Why didn’t Patrick push Joanna away? Why wouldn’t he at least pull his arm out of hers? They weren’t together, were they?
Joanna’s eyes zeroed in on Clara. “You’re so pathetic. We all know your mom can’t afford to take you anywhere. She can’t even buy you new shoes.” Dropping Patrick’s arm, Joanna took a step forward and leaned down on the lunch table. “My mom said your mom sucked all the men in Bristow dry, so unless you’re moving somewhere else so she can find new rich men to suck dry, you’re full of crap.”
After another wave of boisterous laughter from her friends at the opposite end of the table, Joanna curled her lip and reached for Clara’s backpack. “Have you ever even gone on a vacation before?” As if she were holding a slimy worm, Joanna took the open flap of Clara’s pack between her fingers, pinky raised in disgust as she inspected the ratty state of the bag. Letting go, she wiped her hand on her pants.
“Yes, I have.” Clara snatched her backpack away from the evil witch, her skin flush as she scrambled to zip it up.
“Liar,” Joanna muttered.
Before Clara’s eyes began to blur with unshed tears, she grabbed her book, hugging it against her chest and left the remnants of her lunch on the table. “You’ll eat your words when I’m not here next week!” she screeched before running out of the cafeteria, down the hall, and into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind her.
The bathroom smelled of mold, soggy paper towels, and toilet water, but Clara didn’t mind. She couldn’t bear seeing Patrick again, not after he’d witnessed her utter humiliation.
Clara’s hands began shaking as her anger and embarrassment combined, resulting in the tears streaking down her cheeks. No one made her cry—not her mom, not her mom’s horrible boyfriends, not other students’ mean comments—and Clara hated that Joanna, of all people, had been the one to provoke the sudden onslaught.
Her horror quickly hardened into seething hatred. “Stupid bitch.”
But deep down, Clara knew it wasn’t just Joanna she was angry at. This was her mom’s fault. Bristow was one of the smallest cities in Oklahoma, so of course, everyone would know how horrible her mom was. No matter what her mom told herself and others, she wasn’t special or entitled to anything in any way—she was pathetic, and she was dragging Clara down with her.
If her mom had been normal, Clara knew she wouldn’t have to worry about stupid girls like Joanna; they’d have nothing to hold over her. Clara knew that, even though she was a little scrawny for her age and poor, she was pretty, or at least, she thought she could be if she tried. All she needed was a different past and newer clothes. If she had those things, she would be the one laughing at the others, she would be the one tormenting Joanna.
As Clara opened her book, she tilted it toward the dim, florescent light and began reading. With each word of hope, love, and happily ever after, she swore to herself that she would never ever be the butt of anyone’s jokes again. Ever.
And she’d do whatever was necessary to make sure of it.
“Earth to Clara…” Beth waved her scarred hand in front of Clara’s face.
Clara blinked herself back to the present, her mind a bit foggy and her head aching.
“What were you thinking about?” Beth blew her wild, black bangs out of her face. Her short hair swayed as she tilted her head to the side, and her wide, curious eyes and shy smile made her seem pitiably innocent. “Are you okay?”
Clara brushed the meek woman’s concerns away. “I’m fine. I just have a headache.” It didn’t matter that she’d woken a few hours earlier from a solid night’s sleep or that she’d eaten a hearty breakfast. It didn’t matter that Clara was sitting in a drab room with the blinds drawn over the barred windows or that no one was yelling or making obscene amounts of noise. In fact, all she could hear was the quiet humming of the incandescent lights shining overhead, mingled with the whispers of the three other women sitting around her. Regardless of all of that, her head still ached, and she still felt bleary-eyed and muddled.
Clara pulled her long, blonde hair out of its ponytail, letting it fall around her shoulders. As she took the ends of her hair between her fingers, she brushed them against her palm and stared down at the embroidered buffalo on the front of her University of Colorado sweatshirt. She didn’t like thinking about her past and wasn’t sure why she’d started to now. Most likely, her reminiscing stemmed from therapy sessions like the one she was about to start, which encouraged her to “dig deep” and “try to understand where the anger came from.” She sneered.
So much had changed for Clara during the summer between middle and high school; she had changed. After a complete makeover, she’d started freshman year at Bristow High with a completely new persona—no more glasses or hiding behind old, holey clothes, no more cowering, and no more innocence. Clara had decided to use her mom’s absence and frivolousness to her advantage by raiding her closet for posh, new clothes and by using her makeup and hair products just enough for Clara to accentuate what she already had.
The hands of the clock on the wall ticked, and Clara peered up at its white face. Their session was supposed to have started ten minutes ago; Dr. Mallory was never late. All Clara wanted was for group to be over already so she could crawl back into bed and sleep until the dull thumping in her head went away and the lead in her limbs dissipated. But the two hour session had yet to begin.
With a sigh, she shifted in the padded chair, positioned a little bit outside of a circle of mostly empty chairs. She pulled her sock-covered feet underneath her and rested her elbow on the arm of the chair, her forehead cradled perfectly in her palm…so perfect that she thought she just might fall asleep.
The sound of the hydraulic metal door swinging open, followed by the muffled sound of hurried footsteps, told her Dr. Mallory had finally arrived. She would have to wait for her nap.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, ladies. It seems that a few of our group members will not be joining us for today’s session. Many of them are in bed with the flu, so it’ll just be the five of us today.”
Glancing around at the circle of chairs, Clara was happy to see that four of them were empty and even happier that they would remain that way. It was her day to speak, and the less people to ask her questions, the better.
“Okay,” Dr. Mallory said, opening his briefcase and settling into his chair. “Shall we get started?”
He was actually pretty cute for a doctor. His hair was blond and always combed back away from his face. He was professional and young, too, and much better than Dr. White, who stomped through the halls, always smelling of smoke and his eyes yellowed with age. Dr. Presley was the only female doctor, but anyone under her supervision was screwed. From what Clara had heard, she was a heartless bitch. It made sense; she was beautiful and had a judgment about every movement her patients made, about every thought they had. Clara was glad she’d dodged that bullet.
“Let’s check in, ladies.” Dr. Mallory sat back, his warm brown eyes sweeping over his four patients. “I’ll start.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve had a very busy morning. With so many of the staff out sick with this flu that’s going around, I’ve been putting in some late hours, and quite frankly, it was difficult for me to get out of bed this morning. But…” he let out a deep sigh. “Here I am. I’m sorry to see that so many members of our group are also ill. But, I guess there’s nothing we can do except to focus on staying healthy in other ways.”
Clara felt Dr. Mallory’s eyes on her, and she met them with a bored glare. He definitely hadn’t forgotten that it was her turn to share today.
“Dr. Mallory,” Beth squeaked. Although Clara often chastised her for being so pitifully innocent, Beth was the sweetest, gentlest person Clara had ever met, and regardless of how annoying that was at times, Clara kind of liked her. At least, more than she liked the other women.
“Yes?” Dr. Mallory crossed his legs. “What is it, Beth?”
“I—I um…I think that I might be getting sick, too. But, I don’t know for sure.” She looked down at her fingers as she picked at them. Her nails were short and scabbed from being bitten too close to the quick. “I mean, I’m trying to get better, but I feel sick.”
“What makes you think you’re sick, Beth? Do you have a fever? Have you been to see Nurse Hadly?”
“Well…well, no I haven’t. But I know what’s wrong with me.”
With a unanimous groan, everyone settled in to listen to all the reasons why she was sick…again.
“You always think something’s wrong with you,” Alicia blurted and rolled her eyes as she smacked her gum. Clara wanted to slap her mouth shut to spare everyone the maddening sound of her disgusting molestation of the wad of gum for the next couple of hours.
Alicia was a tall, pale woman with a buzzed head and green eyes that Clara had once thought were pretty…before she’d actually met the bitch. One of Alicia’s many infuriating qualities was a compulsive need to always have something in her mouth—anything counted—and since gum was the only thing the staff would allow at all times, she had to make each piece last as long as possible.
“Alicia,” Dr. Mallory said. “Let Beth speak. You’ll get your turn soon enough.”
“I don’t need a turn,” she mouthed off. “I’m just saying…the idiot always thinks something’s wrong with her.”
“No name calling, Alicia.” Dr. Mallory rubbed his temple. “You know the rules.”
“But there is something wrong this time,” Beth whined.
“And what do you think is wrong with you?” Dr. Mallory was all patience and mock concern.
For some reason, Beth’s gaze darted to Clara before landing back on the doctor. “Well, I’ve been feeling dizzy and nauseous lately. I’m pretty sure I’m getting the flu…just like the others.”
“Alright, Beth, why don’t you go see Nurse Hadly after our session today…how does that sound? I’m sure she can give you something that’ll make you feel better.”
Everyone but Beth knew it wasn’t flu meds Dr. Hadly would administer to her.
As they continued around the room, checking in about their day and how they were doing since their last session a week before, Samantha chimed in. She was a short, gangly young woman with a bright smile but often down-trodden eyes. She told them about her sleepless nights, that her nightmares had been growing increasingly worse instead of getting better. It was nothing new.
And of course, when it was actually Alicia’s turn, she complained about everything that had irritated her during the last twenty-four hours. The list was very long and, though it included all the whining and commotion from some of the other patients getting sick, she complained most about the sound of the squeaking wheel on the laundry cart echoing through the hall at night when Devon was making his rounds.
“I don’t get any sleep because of it. Do you know what that does to my nerves? It’s like you people are trying to make me crazy. I can’t even eat without someone coughing on my food. Between all the crying and sniffling, it’s like I’m living with a bunch of goddamn kindergarteners.” Her eyes were wide and bloodshot, and Clara had half a mind to throw the water bottle sitting on the floor beside her chair at the woman’s gaunt face. Alicia was just as ridiculous as Beth, she was just too pissed off all the time to realize it. As the woman griped on, Clara thought of Joanna once more.
“Steven Quick,” Principal Sheppard called out. A scrawny, freckle-faced boy walked up to the gray-haired woman and accepted his middle school graduation certificate, smiling as he turned toward the photographer.
Clara stood in line, ecstatic that she was about to receive her own graduation certificate. After today, she would never have to set foot on her middle school campus again. And with any luck, Joanna would be going to a different high school, and Clara would never have to see the girl’s smug face again. Clara was actually proud of herself for making it through the school year relatively unscathed. She’d survived the most torturous years of her life—maybe not with as much dignity as she would’ve liked, but at least she’d survived.
“Anita Quincy,” the principal’s voice droned over the loudspeaker.
Clara allowed herself a satisfied grin. Anita’s dress wasn’t nearly as pretty as hers was. Clara’s mom had splurged and bought her a new summer dress to wear for the ceremony. Clara assumed it was because her mostly absent mom felt bad for not attending, but Clara hadn’t wanted her there anyway; she would only have been an added embarrassment. It was intimidating enough looking out at a sea of over a hundred faces—proud parents, older siblings, and beaming teachers. She didn’t want to see her mom’s face out there as well, pretending to be someone she wasn’t—a loving mother—when really she was the town whore.
“Oops,” Joanna said, bumping into Clara.
Clara turned around, the color draining from her face as she considered what scheme Joanna might try to play on their final day of school.
But to Clara’s surprise, Joanna offered her an apologetic smile and shrugged. “Sorry, I tripped.”
Clara’s eyes narrowed on her before she turned around. She hated the fact that the person she loathed most in the world had to stand beside her in the graduation line.
“Kevin Raymond,” the principal called.
Joanna tapped Clara’s shoulder. “Psst…”
Clara glanced behind her. “Leave me alone, Joanna.”
“Look…I just want to apologize for being so horrible to you this year,” she whispered. “I’ve been going through some crap at home and…well, the point is, I’m sorry.”
Clara searched Joanna’s eyes, waiting for the evil gleam to overshadow the unexpected softness.
“I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“Why are you telling me this now?” Clara asked, skeptical and more hopeful than she knew was probably wise.
Joanna shrugged again. “I just don’t want to go into high school being enemies.” She smiled. “I guess I was sort of hoping we could be, you know, friends.” Joanna looked down at her feet then out at the crowd…anywhere but at Clara.
“Are you being serious?” Clara asked, turning around completely.
Joanna’s head cocked to the side. “Of course I am, silly.” She nudged Clara’s shoulder with her own. “Why would I go to all this trouble if I wasn’t?”
A tiny smile tugged at Clara’s lips, and she was just about to agree to be Joanna’s friend when she heard her name over the loudspeaker.
Beaming and filled with a new sense of hope, Clara stepped up to the hunched-over woman on the small, creaky stage. She barely registered the snickers behind her as she accepted her certificate. In twenty minutes, the years of hell Joanna had put her through would be a distant memory.
“Congratulations,” Principal Sheppard said. Clara gazed out at the sea of faces, realizing that some of the people in the crowd were wearing strange expressions.
“Oh dear,” Clara heard Principal Sheppard mutter as Clara registered the muffled laughter in the line of students waiting to walk across the stage. “Clara, dear,” Principal Sheppard took a step toward her and touched her shoulder. “You have”—she spun Clara around—“you have a sign on your back, dear…”
Horrified, Clara flailed, reaching for the sign Principal Sheppard was struggling to remove. Feeling the paper between her fingers, Clara ripped it off her back. With shaking hands she read the bold, black print.
MY MOM IS A POOR WHORE.
“Why the hell do you shake your head every time I open my mouth?” Alicia seethed as she stared, wide-eyed, at Clara.
Clara had toned out Alicia’s droning, so she had no clue what she’d missed, but the anger revived by her daydreamed recollection made it easy to answer. “Why are you always such a bitch?” The word slipped out of Clara’s mouth before she could stop it. Her shoulders sagged with regret. She knew a one-way yelling match would erupt as a result of her provocation, and her head hurt too much to listen to Alicia’s tirade about how everyone was against her, especially Clara.
“A bitch? At least I’m not delusional. You think you’re better than us, don’t you? You think I don’t see through those big blue eyes of yours? You think you’re entitled, and you have since you got here.” She paused, waiting for Clara to argue.
Clara raised her eyebrows, feigning boredom.
“You’re the most tragic out of all of us,” Alicia continued. “You think there’s nothing wrong with you, that you’re unjustly in here. Well, guess what? The judge ordered your admittance; at least we’re here willingly. We can admit we’re losing it. And don’t think none of us haven’t noticed that you never have visitors, that no one cares that you’re in here.”
Clara tried to ignore Alicia’s derisive words, but the woman’s voice filled Clara’s head like acid, eroding her defenses. Her anger started taking over, creeping past her carefully constructed barricades and settling among the torrent of thoughts.
“…and all you do is sulk around and act superior to everyone else. You’re just as crazy as the rest of us. You’re even worse, because you think you’re not crazy. I know I have problems; I know I need help. Why the hell do you think I’m here? But you…you’re a psycho, a murd—”
Clara jolted up from her chair. “You want me to kill you, too?” She couldn’t help but lash back. The room fell silent and four sets of eyes settled on her. Clara might have at least been somewhat repentant had she not been too busy relishing the way the flush of anger was draining from Alicia’s face.
“Clara,” Dr. Mallory warned. “We don’t threaten each other. This is a safe space.”
Clara balked and turned to him. “Are you kidding me?” She pointed to Alicia, who was sitting back, quiet in her chair. “All she does is bully everyone, and you let her.”
His eyes narrowed. “Making generalized accusations isn’t fair either.”
“This is such a joke,” Clara muttered and plopped back down.
“Clara,” he said, exhaling heavily, “please…”
She rolled her eyes.
He ignored her. “It’s your turn to share today.” When he paused, she knew he was waiting for her to meet his eyes, but she refused. “Why don’t you tell us what you’ve learned since your admittance”—he scanned her file on his lap—“um…three months ago.”
Clara stared around at the three other women. Beth was watching her eagerly, interested to finally hear Clara’s story, just like they all had been since the moment she arrived at Pine Springs Hospital. Alicia had wanted to know Clara’s story so badly she’d started spreading stories throughout the ward, hoping Clara would refute them and tell everyone the truth.
Little did Alicia know that Clara preferred the whispered rumors over the truth. She liked that people thought she was crazy; she liked that they were scared of her. If the entire hospital thought she’d set her mom’s house on fire and that she’d enjoyed watching everyone inside burn to death, that was just fine with her. She wasn’t there to make friends, she was only there to serve her court-mandated time. When she had, she would walk away from all of them and never look back.
The doctor cleared his throat again, this time coughing before he said, “Clara…?”
“What?” She finally met his eyes.
“Start with what you’ve learned since coming to stay with us. What is it that you want for yourself? Share something with us, anyth—”
Suddenly, the door flew open, and Dr. Preston sauntered into the room. And like the flip of a switch, Dr. Mallory’s attention was no longer on Clara, but fixated on the six-foot tall brunette woman.
“We have a situation, Dr. Mallory. Can I interrupt your session for a moment?”
Dr. Mallory groaned as he rose from his chair, both hands clamped on the armrests for support. Unsteady, he followed her out of the room, grumbling something as he cleared his throat.
Beth leaned closer to Clara. “A ‘situation’?”
Clara ignored Beth and rubbed her hands over her face.
Beth continued to watch her, and Clara could tell questions were bouncing on the tip of her tongue, begging to be asked.
Clara sighed. “What?”
“Did you really set your parent’s house on fire?”
Clara’s eyes wandered to Beth’s. “No, I didn’t. In fact, there wasn’t even a fire.”
Beth looked relieved.
Clara narrowed her eyes. “You should know by now that everything out of Alicia’s mouth is a lie. Stop listening to her; she’s mean to you, and she’s not your friend.”
“Screw you,” Alicia said. “It’s none of your business—”
“That’s enough, ladies,” Roberta, the over-weight nurse, said as she stalked into the room. “You’re a bunch of rabid panthers today. I could hear you all the way out in the rec room.”
“What are you doing in here?” Alicia growled from her chair.
“I work here, miss snippy. Come on, group’s over.” Roberta made a shooing motion to get them up out of their chairs. “You’ll continue next week when everything around here has calmed down a bit.” When the four women stared at her, showing no signs of moving, Roberta pointed to the open door. “Let’s go. NOW.”
Alicia’s eyes were wild with fear. “But we’re not finished yet. We still have over an hour of group left, plus he was late, and—”
“Worried you’ll have to much time to consider killing yourself today?” Clara taunted, taking pleasure in the fact that Alicia wouldn’t have every part of her day accounted for and would most likely go mad from not keeping busy.
“I hate you,” Alicia spat as she pushed her chair back and rushed out of the room.
Roberta glanced between Clara and the empty doorway. “Was that really necessary?”
Clara shrugged and yawned, tired of being cooped up with a bunch of crazy assholes anyway. Pulling herself out of her chair, she headed out the door, leaving Samantha, Roberta, and Beth still inside. The hallway was mostly empty, with the exception of Alicia disappearing around the corner toward the rec room and Devon pushing the laundry cart toward the laundry room. Clara kind of liked the sound of the laundry cart’s wheels squeaking on the polished floor. Or, maybe she just liked knowing where Devon was all the time.
He gave her a curt nod before looking away as he passed. He’d kept his distance since the day she arrived, and he seemed to dislike her even though he was clearly attracted to her. For some reason, she didn’t mind him rejecting her advances. Maybe it was because playing with him was so much fun or because she knew he was trying to be professional. But either way, his mysterious aversion to her only piqued her interest more.
A shooting pain in the crown of her head made her wince, and her thoughts turned only to sleeping. Her sock-covered feet carried her silently past the rec room and down the next hallway toward her room. Since her roommate had been released a few days ago, Clara had the place all to herself. Her bed was still unmade, her blinds still drawn, and with an “oomph” she crawled under the covers and passed out.
The next day was no better. Clara still felt achy and tired. “I hate you,” she grumbled as Roberta threw her covers back.
“I don’t care. You’re here to get better, so you might as well try.”
With another grumble, Clara pulled her covers back over her body.
“You think you hate me, now? Miss Clara, if you don’t get up, I’ll lock Alicia in here with you, and then you’ll really hate me.”
“Fine!” Clara flung her blankets off, sat up, and turned to let her feet hang over the side of the bed.
“Come on,” Roberta said, picking up a wad of Clara’s clothes and stuffing them in the laundry basket. “Brush your teeth and get dressed. It’s time for breakfast.”
Clara cringed as her stomach did a summersault that nearly sent her into convulsions. With the way her insides were feeling, she would rather run a blade across her wrist than eat anything.
“I don’t want you falling into that black hole you were in when you first got here. You need to keep eating…for me.” Roberta batted her eyelashes.
Only because Roberta was the one faculty member who would make Clara’s life hell, Clara obeyed.
Fifteen minutes later, Clara was sitting in the white-walled cafeteria, washed in the morning sunlight pouring through the windows and pushing her food around on her plate. She could feel Roberta’s eyes boring into the back of her head as the nurse made her rounds through the dining hall. The squeak of the woman’s rubber soles on the polished floor practically echoed among the quiet chatter of the other women sitting in clusters at their own tables.
Holding her breath, Clara took a bite of eggs. She immediately regretted it. Food was not settling well with her today. She raised her napkin to her mouth, and as she pretended to cough, she spit the eggs out and wadded up the napkin.
Beatrice, the woman sitting beside her, coughed, but it was Beth who grabbed Clara’s attention. Sitting one table over, Beth was watching Clara too closely. With a knowing smile, Beth glanced down at her own plate and pushed her food around the way Clara had done.
Grateful for the woman’s silence, Clara winked at her, making Beth’s grin grow. As annoying as Beth could be, there was also something about her that was endearing. Clara hadn’t found that quality in anyone in a long time. Not since Taylor.
Longing for her best friend brought the sting of tears to Clara’s eyes, and she thought of the day Taylor ended their friendship for good.
It was summer break, junior year of high school, and Clara and Taylor had just walked into a deli in downtown Bristow. The moment Clara had stepped inside, she’d felt a combination of white-hot rage and exhilaration. Joanna Rossi, with her long, silky black hair—the hair Clara often dreamt about chopping off—was sitting with a boy in the far corner of the deli. It only took an instant before Joanna’s eyes met hers.
Clara enjoyed the look of dread that blanketed the other girl’s face. She knew she could turn around and avoid making a scene by leaving, or by simply ignoring Joanna’s presence, but Clara wouldn’t do that. It would be too easy and not nearly enough fun. Instead, she smiled. She would never give Joanna the satisfaction of a close call, not now after all of Clara’s hard work, after all she’d achieved.
Taylor pulled on Clara’s arm and cast furtive glances at Joanna’s table. “We should go.”
“We’re staying,” Clara nearly snarled and nodded for the closest booth.
Taylor lingered by the entrance. “I really don’t want to—”
“Stop being such a baby.” Clara grabbed Taylor’s wrist, tugging her friend toward the booth.
Clara made sure to sit facing Joanna. Weakness wasn’t an option when it came to her, not since the final straw at eight grade graduation. The power Clara wielded over Joanna now that the tables had been turned was emboldening, and Clara feared that if she let her defenses down for even a moment, that power would be snatched away. All of her hard work—her makeover, her rise in popularity, the boys she’d stolen out from under Joanna’s nose—would all have been for nothing, and Clara would be right back where she’d been three years ago.
“Why do you hate her so much, anyway?” Taylor asked, flattening a napkin in her lap. “It’s like you become someone else when you see her. It’s—it’s sorta creepy.”
Clara’s eyes shifted from Joanna to Taylor. “Gee, thanks.”
Her friend was a round-faced little thing with blonde, wavy hair, brown eyes, and nothing particularly notable about her; in fact, Taylor was even a little boring. But she was loyal and predictable, two traits Clara found immensely valuable.
“Well, it’s true. Why can’t we, just for once, take the higher road and leave instead of causing trouble? It’s like you like arguing with her or something. What did she do to you?”
“Are you serious, Tay? How can you not see what a conniving skank she is? She’s always watching, always plotting and planning…” Clara’s eyes shot to Joanna, and it gave her immense satisfaction to see Joanna fidget under the weight of her stare. “She’s made my life a living hell since I was in elementary school. I’m finally on top; why would I back down now? I won’t let her win.”
“But it’s not a game,” Taylor nearly shrieked. “Look, I know you guys have a past, and I know you have plenty of reasons to hate her, you tell me as much all the time, even if you don’t tell me exactly what they are…but don’t you think you go a little over the top sometimes? I mean, look at how excited you get when she’s around. I don’t—”
“You don’t what?” Clara narrowed her eyes at her best friend.
Taylor frowned. “I’m worried about you, that’s all.”
Clara’s glare softened, and a smile curved her lips. “Sorry, Tay. I just…remember how Joanna treated you when you first got here? The way she made fun of you in front of the entire school during your choir performance? I took you in as my friend because no one should be treated the way Joanna treats people.” Clara looked at Joanna, who was tossing her hair over her shoulder and batting her eyes at the boy sitting across the table from her. Clara grinned inwardly, excited by the prospect of another challenge.
Taylor cleared her throat, recapturing Clara’s attention. “See what I mean?” Taylor said, clasping her hands together and resting them on the Formica tabletop. “You’re not even paying attention to me, not really.”
Clara tilted her head to the side and let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m doing all of this for you as much as I’m doing it for me.” She shook her head and lifted her shoulder. “Joanna needs to be put in her place, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make sure she feels uneasy around me, just like I felt around her for so many years.”
Taylor’s brow furrowed. “You—”
“Besides, aside from stealing a few of her boyfriends, I haven’t actually done anything to her since freshman year.” She patted Taylor’s clasped hands. “I know you don’t like confrontation or whatever, but don’t you think there are times when standing your ground is more important than running away? She’s a bully and deserves to be knocked down a peg or two.”
Taylor bit her lower lip, a sure sign that she was coming around. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s just…you get sort of…scary.”
Clara laughed. “It’s just my war face, dummy. Come on, let’s order something with way too many calories, and then we can grab Slurpees and watch the guys at the skate park fall on their asses.”
A tentative smile spread across Taylor’s face, exposing the gap between her front teeth. Apparently content with the idea of fatty food and boys, she scanned the menu. When the waiter approached, Taylor ordered a strawberry milkshake and a cheeseburger with extra cheese, and Clara couldn’t help it as her eyes skimmed over Taylor’s frumpy clothes and curvy-on-the-cusp-of-chubby body.
“I’ll just have a Greek salad and a cup of minestrone soup,” Clara said, handing the waiter her menu.
Taylor straightened. “I thought we were ordering food with far too many calories?”
Clara shrugged. “I lost my appetite,” she said absently, watching as Joanna and the boy got up from their table and headed toward the exit—toward Clara and Taylor’s booth.
Although Joanna was clearly avoiding making eye contact, Clara couldn’t help herself. “Hey, Joanna.” She nodded toward the tall, blond guy walking next to her. “Who’s your friend? Are you going to introduce us?”
The boy’s phone rang, and he pulled his cell from his pocket and continued outside while Joanna stopped at the end of Clara’s table.
Clara grinned shamelessly. “You know, you might as well…”
Joanna’s crystal blue eyes fixed on Clara, and her lips pulled into a satisfied grin. “The fact that you have to steal my boyfriends instead of finding your own is a joke, Clara.” She watched Clara, waiting for her reaction, but Clara had spent years perfecting her Joanna game face, so she simply sat there, looking bored. “Of course, you wouldn’t care.” Joanna smirked. “Like mother, like daughter, only…you’re crazy and she’s just a stupid whore.”
Clara jumped up from her seat, shoving her index finger at Joanna’s chest. “Shut your mouth! We are nothing alike!” Realizing she’d made a bigger scene than she’d intended, Clara swallowed and glanced around at the handful of other deli patrons before narrowing her eyes back on Joanna. “You’re such a bitch. You think being mean to people makes you cool? Makes you popular? Well, how does it feel to be the one the rumors spread about now? You’re nobody. You’re old news. Just remember who did that to you.”
To Clara’s relief, Joanna seemed more than affected by her words; her nemesis’s eyes even blurred a little. “I was a kid.” Joanna said, her voice incredulous. “When was the last time I did anything to you?”
Clara laughed. “Oh, poor Joanna’s so innocent. Yeah. Right. Watch your back, Joanna, because payback’s a bitch.” Clara crossed her arms over her chest, staring Joanna down and loving the thrill of watching her squirm.
Finally, Joanna let out a deep breath and turned on her heel, heading out the door. Clara smiled triumphantly and turned back toward the booth only to find that, at some point during the altercation, Taylor had left, as well.
Beatrice, a woman Clara didn’t really know and didn’t care to, coughed beside her at the table. The pallid, red-haired woman was halfway finished with her meal when she stood and headed for the juice counter. Glancing around the more-empty-than-usual cafeteria, Clara leaned over and scraped most of her breakfast onto Beatrice’s plate, hearing Beth start giggling as she watched.
“Beth,” Roberta said.
Clara straightened, and her attention snapped forward again.
Roberta walked over to Beth’s table. “You seem to be enjoying your breakfast this morning.” She studied the giggling woman. “What’s so funny?”
Beth looked at Clara and then back down at her tray of food, sending Clara’s heart into a steady thud. Roberta in a bad mood wasn’t something she felt up to dealing with today.
“Um, Clara told Alicia off in group yesterday,” Beth said with another giggle. “You should’ve seen Alicia’s face…I—I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so shocked before.”
“Really?” Roberta glanced over at Clara and smirked. “Sorry I missed it.” She patted Beth on the shoulder and continued her rounds around the room.
As Roberta stepped further and further away from her table, Clara’s heartbeat slowed, and she smiled at Beth. After giving her a grateful wink, Clara pushed around the last bit of food on her plate, making it look like she’d at least made as sizeable dent.
“What’s wrong, munchkin?” Clara asked as she plopped down beside Beth on the red sofa. The instant she did, she regretted it. Her head was pounding, and she was short of breath. The afternoon light filtering in through the windows throughout the rec room was too bright, and the smell of cleaning supplies was too pungent. “I feel like shit,” she grumbled, leaning her head back against the overstuffed couch with a groan.
“I don’t feel good, either,” Beth breathed as she wrapped herself up in a brown, fleece blanket.
Clara’s head lulled to the left so she could see the other woman better.
Beth’s face was flushed, her bangs were matted to her temples, and her skin looked slick with sweat.
“Did you go see Nurse Hadly?” Clara asked. She would generally brush Beth’s health concerns away, but she could tell Beth really was sick, and Clara was feeling especially ill herself.
Beth’s rumpled hair swished against the back of the sofa as she nodded. “The door was locked, and the light was out. I think she’s off today.”
“Do you want me to get you some water or something?”
With a slow shake of her head, Beth said, “No, thank you. I just want to sit here and stay warm.”
Clara shrugged and reached for the TV remote, propping her feet up on the battered oak coffee table.
Beth pulled a book out from under her blanket. Its bright blue cover caught Clara’s eye, and she raised her eyebrows as a spurt of excitement overshadowed her headache…a little. “You like fairy tales, huh?”
“Yeah,” Beth said. “Well, actually I’ve never read any of them, not the real ones, but my grandma sent me this book last week.” Her fingers traced the gilt-embossed canvas cover. “She said she saw it and thought of me since I loved Disney movies so much when I was a little girl.”
Opening the book to the first story, Beth cleared her throat and began whispering as she read the opening lines of The Ugly Duckling. She barely made it through two sentences before she started coughing.
Clara snatched the book out of her hands. “I’ll read it to you.”
“Oh, um…thanks,” Beth whispered. She rested her head against the sofa cushion, letting out a deep sigh as her eyes flitted closed.
Tugging at Beth’s blanket, Clara pulled a portion of it over her own shivering body and settled in to read. She hadn’t thought about fairy tales since that night—the night she’d lost her prince. The memory was still too painful and infuriating, but secretly, Clara still yearned to prove her theory right. She wanted to prove that there was still truth to the stories everyone thought were mere fairytales.
After a few minutes of reading, Clara quickly fell back into an eager, fluid rhythm. Her voice became lighter, her thoughts less dismal.
“‘Ah, you ugly creature, I wish the cat would get you,” and his mother said she wished he had never been born. The ducks pecked him, the chickens beat him, and the girl who fed the poultry kicked him with her feet. So at last he ran away…’” Clara twirled her long ponytail around her finger, the anthology propped up on her lap as she flipped through, enthralled. She could feel Beth’s toes wiggling beneath the blanket as she listened, coughing every so often.
“That’s really annoying,” Clara said, looking at Beth and trying to school her growing aggravation.
Beth wore an injured look. “Sorry,” she said quietly.
Clara felt bad for the little thing. “Are you sure you don’t want to go lie down? You should probably get some sleep or something.”
Beth shook her head. “Not yet. I like the way you read…the way you do the voices.” A small smile tugged at her mouth. “I’ll wait until you’re finished.”
Clara was happy to hear that. She didn’t want to stop reading now, not when they were about to get to the good part; the part where the duckling became the envy of everyone who’d ever mistreated him.
“Have you read this story before?” Beth asked. “You seem to like it a lot.”
Clara nodded. “Fairy tales are like my bible,” she admitted.
“What do you mean?” Beth started biting her pinky nail, coughing on her hand as she chewed instead of covering her mouth.
Clara shivered. “Stop it,” she said and swatted Beth’s hand out of her mouth. “Biting your nails isn’t an attractive quality. Do you think any of these princesses”—she held up the book of stories—“ever bit their fingernails?”
Beth looked at the book in Clara’s lap, then up at Clara. “Well…probably not.”
“And they always get the prince, right?”
“Well, I suppose…”
“Right, and do you know why?” Clara strummed her fingers on the book impatiently.
Beth shook her head.
“Because there are rules if you want to be a princess like them, Beth, or at least a modern day version of one, and biting your fingernails is against the rules.”
“What do you mean, rules?”
Clara sighed. “They’re more like steps, actually,” she said, exasperated. “There are rules to everything, but no one ever thinks to pay much attention to them.”
“What are the rules?” Beth seemed enthralled, and Clara felt another spurt of enthusiasm.
“If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone. It’s a secret of mine, and I don’t want people like Alicia finding out about my secrets. Do you understand?”
Beth nodded emphatically, looking even more like a little girl than she usually did.
“Well…you know how there are rules whenever you’re playing a game? Like, you have to take certain steps to achieve your goal and win the game?”
Beth nodded again.
“It’s the same thing in life. Not everyone is born with everything they want, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fight for it.” Clara pointed to the book. “If you’re the ugly duckling, you can overcome that, but you have to work hard for it.” Clara thought about how hard work and determination had changed her life completely. She’d earned great grades in high school and taken the first scholarship she’d been offered to the University of Colorado in Boulder, finally leaving that hellhole in Oklahoma. Taking that step for herself had helped her get away from her mom and Joanna. She’d given herself a fresh start. She’d done it for herself.
“It breaks down like this: step one, the underdog can always come out on top.” Clara had proven that theory every time she’d stolen Joanna’s boyfriend. In the end, Clara’d had it all, and Joanna hadn’t been able to hold a candle to Clara’s popularity.
“Rule two, there just has to be a transformation.”
Beth’s eyes widened.
“Like the ugly duckling,” Clara said.
Beth sniffled. “But not everyone is a swan.”
“Not naturally, no, but there are tons of ways to change that.”
Beth cleared her throat. “Is that what you did?”
Clara tried not to be offended by Beth’s ignorance. “I had issues in elementary and middle school, and embracing the underlying messages of these stories made everything easier for me.”
Clara nodded. “Think about it. Who do you think wrote these?” She waved Beth’s impending answer away as the woman glanced down at Hans Christian Andersen’s name, written in gold script on the cover. “Yeah, Hans did, but he didn’t just make these up. The ideas had to stem from somewhere. I’m sure he had a little sister who was picked on or saw a little orphan girl on the streets back in the day and wrote about her in a way everyone could relate to. These stories were originally social commentaries, his observations of the world around him. He just wrote them in a way people would want to read them. It’s like subliminal messaging, and most people are too stupid to get it.”
“I don’t think—”
“For instance,” Clara continued. “What’s to stop someone from getting a makeover or moving somewhere new to start over, to be someone else? What’s to stop them from recreating themselves to become the swan? To become the princess?”
“But”—Beth shook her head—“shouldn’t people just be content with who they are?”
Clara glared at her. “Not unless you want to be pathetic your whole life, and you want people like Alicia to pick on you all the time.”
“Did someone pick on you when you were in elementary school?”
“Of course! Kids are horrible. Especially the rich, pretty ones. But there are things you can do to make things right, to turn them around. Nothing’s set in stone, Beth. Everything changes, the hierarchy in high school, your sheets, the government, a giant piece of glass can be broken into tiny shards…can you think of anything that never changes at all?”
Beth frowned and shook her head.
“Exactly. So popularity and social status…all of that can change, too. Buy a nicer car, and people will automatically see you differently. It’s easy to make things better for yourself.”
“What did you do to make things better for you?”
Clara let out a harsh laugh. “Everything I could. I stole my mom’s clothes so I didn’t have to wear my old, ratty ones…and I watched countless videos of how to put on makeup and what to say to boys. I read books, studied movies, and memorized lines from my favorite romances…” Clara let out a deep breath.
“Sounds like a lot of work.” Beth started coughing again.
“Yeah, well if you don’t put in the work, you stay at the bottom and continue to get pushed around. People are lazy, and they simply accept their lot in life, something I refuse to do.”
“Well, I think I’d like to try that when I get a little better.”
“Yeah?” Clara nudged Beth with her elbow. “I’ll help you, and then we’ll show them all that you’re not the pushover they all think you are.”
Beth smiled. “Maybe Alicia will start being nice to me.”
Clara smirked. “Oh, she will.” Clara leaned over to set the book on the coffee table. Strangely, her time with Beth had helped her shake the growing sickness, and she felt invigorated.
“What’s number three?” Beth asked, nestling down further under the blanket.
“You said there were three rules.”
Clara’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, there’s a third one…but it’s not as easily attained as the rest.”
“Why? What is it?”
Clara glared at Beth. “Something about the princess always getting the prince.” Her voice was cold.
“Why doesn’t it work?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Clara spat. “It’s not like you have a prince you’re trying to catch.” Pushing the blanket off her legs, Clara stood up and walked over to the window beside the wall-mounted TV. She gazed down at the snow-covered grounds, enjoying how pristine and icy everything appeared. The tops of the hedges lining the drive were barely visible, and the birds were restricted to leafless branches as they played in the sunny afternoon.
Nearly blinded by the glare coming off the snow, Clara closed her eyes. As much as she wanted to never think about him again, she couldn’t contain the whirlwind of memories.
Clara had been on her seventh lap around the track, unwinding from a tedious day of classes and keeping up appearances. As she came around the final bend, approaching the water bottle she was using as a mile marker, she knew that once she passed it, she would be done and could shower, put on clean clothes, and head back to her dorm to freshen up before going out for a night on the town.
She loved being in Boulder; it was so different from Bristow. There were possibilities here. She was finally away from all the drama and could be comfortable in her own skin and focus on her future. Boulder was her fresh start, and college was…promising. There were tons of cute boys and potential Prince Charmings. She loved it.
But while Clara was lost in frivolous thoughts, she misstepped and tripped, landing on the turf with a shooting pain in her ankle. “Shit.” A sprained ankle would ruin her plans for the night.
Clara pulled up the spandex of her jogging pants as a shadow was cast over her. She peered up and squinted into the sun, trying to see who was approaching.
“That looked like a bad one,” a young man said, his voice low and playful. “Are you alright?”
Clara tried to move her foot, cringing. “I think it’s sprained.”
He crouched down, his fingers pressing against the tender skin around her ankle. “You training for a marathon?”
Clara shook her head. “No…?”
“I’ve seen you out here almost every day since the semester started. I thought maybe you were training for something.”
“Oh. No, I just like to run.” Of course she wouldn’t tell him exactly why she liked to run, that being fit was one of the many things she had to do if she wanted to maintain her allure. “And you”—she craned her neck to see the soccer team running drills in the center of the field behind her —“play soccer?”
“Yep. I suck, but I love it anyway.”
He’d admitted to a weakness, something most men wouldn’t do. Clara couldn’t hold in her smile. “It’s the effort that counts, right?”
He shrugged. “I guess.”
Clara couldn’t help but admire his shadowed hazel eyes as he looked at her. She was suddenly self-conscious about being so close to him, sweating and smelling like a footlocker.
When she realized his stare was lingering on her, Clara thought she felt the ground shift a little, and her cheeks flushed.
Soccer Boy moved her foot around gently and cleared his throat. “You think you can stand up?” He rose to his feet and held out his hand.
She nodded, “Yeah, I think so.”
Bracing her hands on either side of her, Clara balanced on her good foot and tried to rise. She wavered, and big, strong hands clasped her upper arms to steady her. “Thank you,” she said, unsure how long she needed to play the injured damsel before he would ask her out.
“No problem,” he said, letting go of her arms. “You going to be okay?”
“I think so—”
“Alright, well, I better get back to practice.” And with that, he trotted away.
She watched him, dumbfounded. That wasn’t what was supposed to happen; he wasn’t supposed to just walk away from her. She glanced down at her chest; her cleavage wasn’t necessarily voluptuous, but no guy had ever complained about that before. She was wearing her compression pants, which made her thighs and butt look great. Other than the sheen of sweat coating her skin, there was nothing wrong with her.
“Try to watch where you’re stepping,” Soccer Boy called after her as she limped away.
Thwarted, Clara waved a hand at him without looking back and headed toward the locker room, ignoring the pain of her ankle as best she could. She didn’t understand why their interaction hadn’t played out the way it should have. There were simple steps to attaining a man’s attentions—she had the body, she’d made sure she had the look, and she’d even been the damsel in distress, but not so pathetic that she was crying about it. It had been the perfect scenario, and yet…nothing.
After convincing herself that she wasn’t really interested in him anyway and that she really hadn’t tried very hard to lure him in, Clara used her night at home to study instead of sulking, almost completely forgetting about Soccer Boy. She needed to focus on her grades, anyway, especially if she was going to keep her scholarship.
The next day, Clara was on her way to the library to continue studying for her Chemistry exam when she noticed him—the tall, shaggy-haired soccer player—out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning against one of the stone pillars in front of the library, talking on his cell phone.
As Clara approached the library’s glass doors, he ended his call and glanced up.
“Hey,” he said, walking up beside her.
Clara met his soft, hazel eyes fanned with dark lashes; she hadn’t been able to get those eyes out of her mind. “Hey,” she said.
“You have a study group or something?” He stepped in front of her and pointed to the library with his chin. Clara could smell his aftershave and see his barely-there shadow of facial hair.
Shaking her head, she pointed to her messenger bag. “Just need to study before my chemistry test this afternoon.”
His eyes brightened with interest. “Chemistry? So, you’re one of the smart ones, then. Do you tutor?”
Clara felt disappointment pull at her features, and her eyes narrowed. She pushed past him. As much as she wanted to shout, “find a different nerd, asshole!” she kept her mouth shut.
He matched her pace, his exposed, athletic arm brushing against hers as he tried to keep up. “Did I…did I say something wrong?”
His skin was warm and soft, but Clara did her best to ignore it. She walked faster. “Of course not,” she said as she pulled the heavy glass door open before he could reach for it.
He entered the library right behind her and stopped just as she had, peering around the cavernous study hall, crowded with people. Huge windows filled the room with warmth and light.
“I’ve gotta study, so if you don’t mind…” She scanned the long tables, willing a free seat to come into view.
Soccer Boy pointed to the table furthest to the right. “There are two empty seats right over there, at the end.”
Turning around, Clara said, “Look, I’m not smart, okay? I’m just trying to keep my scholarship. I can’t help you with your homework or anything like that, so please, just leave me alone.”
Before he could respond, Clara headed for the empty seat, and after a few steps, she realized that Soccer Boy had stopped following her. As much as she was relieved her plea had worked, she felt a twinge of anger, too. Of course the bastard only wanted her to help him with his homework. Stupid asshole.
She settled into the hard plastic chair at the crowded table but was no longer in a studying mood. She wanted to call it a day, get gussied up, and go out for a drink…or three. This was the second time Soccer Boy had gotten her hopes up only to let her down. She didn’t want to sit inside with a bunch of nerds, pouring over their textbooks with the incessant sound of highlighters gliding over paper, the scratching of diligent note taking, and the irritating throat clearing and sighing.
Drawing in a deep breath for a sigh of her own, Clara pulled out her chemistry book and opened it. She dug the flashcards out from the zipper pocket of her bag. She needed to memorize the elements, including their symbols, their atomic numbers, and their common uses. She started with the first one on her list, Argon, then moved on to Arsenic. Just as she set her “As” notecard aside to start the next element, Soccer Boy pulled out the chair beside her and sat down.
“Mind if I sit with you?” His voice was an enthralling whisper, and she hated herself for the glee it inspired.
Keeping a straight face, she said, “I already told you, Soccer Boy, I can’t help you with your damn homework. I have too much to do, and I’m not that smart, I promise.” In his silence, she shifted her gaze to him.
He was smiling at her. “You’re feisty.”
She glared in return, tapping the invisible watch on her wrist.
“Do I look stupid to you?” he asked, whispering closer to her ear this time.
Clara frowned. “Excuse me?” She tried to ignore his warm breath against her ear.
He licked his bottom lip, his smile unwavering. “I’m a law student. Your”—he peered down at her flashcards— “Arsenic notes won’t help me with my Regulation and Public Policy exam.”
Clara couldn’t help the heat that spread over her entire body. “Oh.”
“I’m Andrew Jensen,” he said, offering her his hand.
“Clara Reynolds,” she said, accepting it.
Andrew took a bite of a green apple and looked down at her flashcards. “You should be careful…chemistry can be dangerous.” He took another bite. “I blew up one too many things in high school. Once I even almost blew my face off and lit my parents’ house on fire. I stay away from that stuff now.”
Clara tried not to laugh. “You should really chew with your mouth closed.”
He only smiled and took another bite, but he did keep his mouth closed.
“What did you do?” Clara asked, moving her books over a bit so he could actually fit in the space beside her.
“What? Oh, when I nearly died?” He shrugged. “You know, made household bombs out of Drain-O and aluminum foil…made napalm and lit it on fire. Little did I know it was sticky as shit and hard to put out.”
With a tiny giggle, Clara felt herself getting sucked into his every word. “Sounds like you were a troublemaker.” Definitely a troublemaker, she thought, but he also seemed like a good boy; he had to be if he was a law student, after all. He had to be a hard worker, sort of like her. Clara liked that.
Andrew shrugged. “So, are you going to freak out again, or can I keep sitting here? Seats are limited, you know…”
Glancing around, Clara shrugged, feigning indifference. “Sure.”
Andrew wiped his brow with mock relief. “Good. You had me worried there for a minute.”
“Mail!” Roberta called from behind the nurses’ station, where she was sitting. The patients lounging around the rec room—playing board games, reading books, and staring at the walls vacantly—scrambled to their feet, scurrying to Roberta like cockroaches to a scrap of food.
Clara didn’t move away from the window, only rolled her eyes. They’re pathetic, she thought, but a pang of sadness quickly followed. Pulling a chair in front of the window, she sat down, her legs crossed and pulled up against her chest as she thought about Andrew. She wondered why she didn’t think of him more. She liked that she didn’t think about what had happened to them at the end very often, but still, she was surprised.
As the rest of the ward filled with chitchat, Clara couldn’t help but feel put-off. Granted, she and her mom had never been close, so there was no reason to ever expect her to write. And Clara hadn’t really talked to her at all since moving away, so it wasn’t the absence of her mom in her life that was a little heartbreaking. The fact that she never had a mom who cared much about her at all was the kicker. Clara picked at a string hanging from the hem of her gray, oversized sweatshirt, grappling with the encroaching, unwanted emotions.
A sickening rage rushed through her veins. Her mom had been questioned in Clara’s trial, so Clara knew she was aware of her situation, of the arrest and the judge’s sentence of a long-term stay in a psychiatric ward. Her mom had said, herself, it was best that Clara be locked away.
Well, her mom had always been a selfish bitch. Clara knew she shouldn’t be surprised that the woman was completely devoid of any mothering instincts.
“Shut up already,” Clara said over her shoulder to the ladies behind her, clamoring and crying for their letters.
“Miss Clara,” Roberta called. “You’ve got a letter.”
Clara’s eyes widened in surprise but only for an instant. She hadn’t received a single letter since she’d arrived at Pine Springs. Resentment and anticipation mixed together in the pit of her stomach. Who would write to her? Andrew? The thought was too much to hope for.
Standing, Clara took unhurried steps toward the nurses’ station, her slippers clacking languidly against the polished floor. Her insides were jittery.
Roberta cleared her throat. “You should be excited, darlin’.”
Was Roberta mocking her? Clara wasn’t sure, and her mood darkened again.
Snatching the letter from between Roberta’s ebony fingers, Clara headed back to her chair by the window, ignoring the other women’s giggles and tears as they read their letters aloud to one another.
More than curious, Clara flipped the envelope over in her palm, and her fingers tightened, crinkling it in her grasp. It was from the girl’s mother, she could tell by the perfect, cursive penmanship.
Unsure whether or not she cared what was written on the pages inside, something made it difficult for Clara to simply toss the letter aside. Blowing out a breath, she tore the envelope open, letting it fall to the ground as she unfolded the white printer paper. A short note was centered on the sheet.
I hope you’re happy with yourself. After nearly a year on life support, my Josie is finally at peace. Do you have any remorse about what you’ve done? Do you care that you’ve taken a young life from this world? I hope you know I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you never get out of there, ever, for my baby and for that nice boy, Andrew.
Peering out the reinforced window and down at the barren oak trees that lined the grounds, Clara wondered if it was remorse or relief that pulsed inside her. Although the day was bright and the sun was shining, she could only see red against a background of darkness. She could only hear her heart pounding in her ears and feel the sweat collecting on her brow and palms. The bubble of hysteria swelling in her chest made it nearly impossible to breathe.
After weeks of being inseparable, of Clara and Andrew going out and about and being seen together by everyone, Clara was convinced she’d finally found her Prince Charming. He was perfect in every way—handsome and smart, successful and funny. Everything was perfect, or at least it should’ve been.
On the way to Andrew’s house, Clara spotted someone who looked a little too similar to Joanna walking in his neighborhood. Way too similar. Clara was unnerved by the thought of Joanna being anywhere near Andrew…anywhere near Clara herself, and the more she thought about Joanna even being in Boulder, the darker her mood became.
Amidst Andrew’s channel surfing, he finally muted the TV and turned his attention to Clara. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head and offered him a weak smile.
“Tell me,” he said, turning to face her fully. “What’s bothering you?”
Clara peered at him, searching his face for answers to the questions she was too scared to ask. “You’re not seeing anyone else, are you?”
Andrew frowned. “What? No, why would you ask that?”
Clara shrugged. “I just…we never said we were official, so—”
He took her chin between his fingers and angled her face toward his. “There’s no one else. I spend all my time with you…how would I even find the time?”
Clara wasn’t stupid. She knew guys could always find time for a fling on the side, but there was truth in Andrew’s eyes. Why was she being so pathetic? She needed to show him why he should be with only her.
She leaned in and pressed her lips against his, needing him more than she ever had before, wanting to feel euphoria and bliss instead of doubt. His mouth was intoxicating, making her forget about Joanna and flooding her body with reassurance and heat instead of cold uncertainty.
With a grunt, Andrew came up for air, his passion-filled eyes searching hers. “Take off your shirt,” he rasped, pulling her bottom lip gently between his teeth. A thrill of excitement ran through her already electrified body.
Without hesitation, she broke their kiss only to remove her clothes and then climbed on top of him, wanting to explore every single inch of his body and feel his hands all over her skin. She wanted to consume him…for him to devour her. And as if her fairy godmother was watching over her, she was granted her wish.
Andrew took her readily, need making his grip tighter and his kisses rougher. Clara absorbed every sensation, committing to memory the pressure of his body against hers, the feel of his hot breath on her skin.
And afterward, they lay together, Clara holding him in her arms all night as he slept. There had never been anything in her life so real, so perfect. She felt completed by him in every way. All of her hard work, her determination to be something more than she’d been, had come to fruition. She’d worked so hard and had finally found her Prince Charming, and she knew that nothing short of death would come between them.
But the next night, things seemed to change. Just as Clara finished blow-drying her hair for a date night with Andrew, her cell phone rang. She ran for her purse and fumbled around in the bottomless pit. Finally finding her phone, Clara pressed ACCEPT, and brought it up to her ear. Her smile broadened when she heard Andrew’s velvety voice.
“Hey, beautiful.” Although upbeat like normal, he sounded somehow different.
“Hey, I was just about to head over.” Clara heard the sound of a door slamming on the other end of the line. “Are you just getting home from work?”
“No.” She could hear his car keys jingling. “I’m actually calling to see if you’ll take a rain check for tonight.”
Clara’s breathing grew labored. “Why, what’s going on? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just found out a friend of mine is in town. A group of us were going to go out for a few beers,” he said, oblivious to her mood change. “That’s all.”
“Oh.” Clara tried not to sound too disappointed that she wasn’t included. “Okay, well, maybe we can go out tomorrow night instead.”
“Yeah, maybe.” His truck roared to life on the other end, and Clara could barely hear him.
She frowned. “Maybe? Do you already have plans tomorrow night?” She felt an invisible weight on her chest.
“She’s only here for a week, visiting her brother, so I think we’re trying to get the group together as much as possible.”
She? “Well, then why don’t we all plan something together?” Clara didn’t like the high pitch or the slight waver in her voice, and she hoped he couldn’t detect it.
“Sure, I’ll talk to the guys tonight, and we’ll figure something out.”
Flopping down on her bed, Clara kicked off her flats and flung her free hand above her head. “Alright…” She stared up at her blank bedroom walls.
“Sorry, beautiful. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“You better. Call me when you get home, so I know you’re safe, okay?”
“Okay, have fun,” she said. “But not too much fun…”
He chuckled. “I won’t. Talk to you later.”
Pulling her hair back into a ponytail, Clara removed her best jeans and flowy top, replacing them with her favorite pajama ensemble—yoga pants and an over-sized sweatshirt she’d bought her first semester at the University of Colorado. She crawled into her bed, and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels until finally settling on a stand-up comedian who wasn’t very funny in hopes that he would make her feel less miserable as she lie there, alone. The longer she watched TV, the more tired she became, and the easier it was to forget about Andrew and the fact that he was out with a girl Clara had never even met.
Around three AM, Clara woke to someone jiggling the locked handle of her dorm room door. Her roommate worked nights, so Clara knew it wasn’t her. The knob jiggled again, and then there was a light knock from the other side.
“Clara,” Andrew whispered. “Unlock your door…”
Clara jumped out of bed and ran to the door. She eased it open to find her boyfriend propped up against the wooden doorframe.
She was beyond happy to see him, and a smile engulfed her face. “Hey, yourself. What are you doing here?”
“I missed you,” he said, stumbling inside as she opened the door wider. He was drunk.
“How did you get here, Andrew? You didn’t drive, did you?”
Shaking his head, he peered out the window, down at the complex’s parking lot. “Nope, Kenny dropped me off.”
When he turned around, Andrew wrapped his arms around Clara and started kissing her neck. She nearly melted in his arms.
“Did you miss me tonight?” he asked as he trailed kisses from her collarbone up behind her ear.
Steadily and with effort, Clara stepped away from him, causing him to stumble forward. “Why do you smell like perfume?” she asked, trying to keep her emotions in check.
“You reek of another woman,” she bit out. “Why do you smell like another woman?”
Andrew scrunched his face for a moment “Oh”—his eyebrows rose, and he smiled—“I was dancing with Jo.” He shook his head, like that explained everything.
“My friend from Oklahoma I was telling you about.” He sobered, registering the burning fury in her eyes. “It’s not like that. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Excuse me?”
Andrew hooked one thumb in his pocket and scratched the top of his head with his other hand. “You’re seriously going to freak out about this?”
“Of course I am, Andrew!” She turned away from him, trying not to lose it completely. “How would you feel if I sauntered over to your house in the middle of the night with men’s cologne pouring off me?”
Andrew heaved a sigh, watching her as she began to pace.
“Look, I’m sorry if I’m over reacting,” she said. “But it’s not like you to ditch me in the first place, and then you come here, smelling like another woman…a woman I’ve never even met.” Her voice was exasperated, but with great effort, she remained calm.
Moments of silence passed, and Andrew’s face was unreadable. Just when Clara was about to scream in frustration, Andrew took a step toward her and gently cupped her face in his hand, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “I wasn’t thinking, Clara. I’m sorry, but nothing happened. It’s not like that with Jo. She’s just a friend.”
His sincerity made Clara feel like a fool for doubting him. “Promise?” She hated herself for falling back into the complying, lovesick dimwit she’d once been, but she couldn’t help it.
A wolfish grin spread across his face. “I’ve been thinking about you all night,” he said and began trailing gentle kisses down her neck, his hands finding their way beneath her sweatshirt. He apologized, over and over until they were both bleary-eyed and too sore to move.
Everything was Joanna’s fault. Andrew leaving her. The Josie woman dying. Clara sentenced to a year in Pine Springs before she could be re-evaluated. It was truly poetic. After years of screwing each other over, Joanna had finally won.
Clara shook her head, wondering how long Joanna had planned it and how she’d found out about Andrew in the first place. Although Clara knew it was borderline paranoia to think her mom had been involved in any way, she couldn’t help but wonder if it was a possibility. Or if Andrew…
Bile rose in Clara’s throat as reality smacked into her. Had her entire relationship with Andrew been a ruse? Had any of it even been real? Had it all been part of Joanna’s elaborate, sadistic plan to get back at her? Questions and memories careened into one another, vying for space; everything began to make sense.
Clara trembled with rage. She fisted the letter in her hand, ready to explode. Her head was throbbing with surmounting emotions, emotions she didn’t want to think about, emotions she didn’t want to feel. She needed to numb them. She needed something to take the burning anger away…
Hearing the squeaky wheel of the laundry cart down the hall, she glanced over her shoulder in time to see Devon slip into the laundry room.
Determined, she stood and strode after him, away from the chattering girls and complaining orderlies. She could hear the strong but silent Devon whistling a slow, comfortable tune in the laundry room. Pulling her hair from its noose, Clara let the golden tendrils fall around her shoulders and into her face. With a quick rap of her knuckles on the laundry room door, she pushed it open and stuck her head inside. The room was steamy and smelled of detergent and bleach.
The whistling stopped. “Someone there?”
Clara felt a thrill at hearing the deep timbre of his voice. This would be a challenge, she thought, and then smiled with anticipation.
“Want some company?” she said as she stepped inside, clicking the door shut behind her.
Devon cleared his throat. “What are you doing in here?” His voice was detached, but Clara thought she detected a hint of desire. His features hardened into a mask of aversion.
She knew he was determined to turn her away like he’d done so many times in the past, but what he didn’t know was that she was determined to get what she wanted this time; she wasn’t simply flirting. Something about today felt…promising. Whether it was her sheer resolve to bend him to her will, or her need to be distracted, she was dead-set on making him worship her body. She needed to regain control over her life, the life she’d lost the moment she met Andrew. She was already in hell, so she might as well have as much fun as she could while she was there.
Clara flashed Devon a sultry smile.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he said, his body tensing as she stepped closer.
She glanced around the room and lifted her hand to the laundry cart parked beside the door. Running her fingers over the stacks of folded towels, she wondered what Devon’s skin would feel like against hers.
“You should go back to the rec room with the others.” His voice was strained and impatient, likely a result of the sexual tension flooding the room, she thought.
Clara’s smile grew, and she cocked her head to the side. “I should be doing a lot of things…” She noticed his eyes flick from her chest to her lips, so she licked them sensually in a silent offering.
A slight twitch gave Devon’s otherwise inscrutable emotions away.
Clara chuckled softly, letting her eyes scan the room as she wondered which corner they could stash themselves away in. “You intrigue me,” she admitted.
“Cut the shit, Clara. I already told you, I’m not losing my job over you.”
She frowned and walked around the shelves in the center of the room, dividing the machines and the folding station. She strolled toward him, her fingers trailing over the metal shelving as she passed. She felt a thrill of excitement as their gazes met and lingered between the riveted, steel uprights as she walked around the shelves.
“No matter how much you deny it, you know there’s an attraction between us. Why are you trying to ignore it? You work long hours…you deserve some fun, too.” She stopped a few feet in front of him, leaning against the shelving. “I won’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Judgment hardened his eyes, and Clara was growing impatient.
“You want me, Devon…admit it.”
But Devon’s expression was unwavering, and he remained silent, contemplating, his eyes boring into hers.
Undeterred, Clara stepped closer, leaving only a few inches between them.
Devon frowned. “I don’t know why I’m even considering this,” he muttered as he ran his fingers through his curly, brown hair. When his gaze rose to hers again, his eyes raked over her body with an intense longing he’d never let show before, like he had a hunger he could no longer subdue. “But for some reason I can only picture you…beneath me.”
Clara’s anger fizzled, and a tranquil heat flowed through her. She exhaled, schooling her smirk so not to upset him, but her triumph made it difficult. He was finally seeing things her way.
Pulling off her sweatshirt, Clara draped it over the laundry cart, knowing her white tank top covered little of her braless chest. Devon’s eyes studied the curves of her body like they were an offering meant only for him. She could tell his mind was reeling with possibilities, and she liked it.
Devon dropped the towel he’d been holding and reached for her, gripping her bare arms roughly and pulling her into him.
“Oh,” Clara squeaked.
Devon swallowed thickly. “You’re gonna get me fired,” he groaned. He sucked in a breath as she brought his hand up to cup her breast through the thin material of her tank top. There was something erotic about having such control over a man. It was heady and intoxicating. She closed her eyes and breathed out a keening moan.
Tugging on her arm, he led her into the back of the laundry room, tossed her down on a heap of warm, clean towels, and screwed her senseless until her body trembled with fatigue and her head ached so badly all she could think about was sleep.
After another night of being blown off by Andrew, Clara decided she would surprise him by showing up at the club he’d gone to with his friends. Turning her old Volvo onto First Street, where she knew she’d find Sparky’s, an old club in downtown Boulder, Clara searched for a place to park, grateful when she found a spot less than a block away, just a few cars past Andrew’s truck.
Clara readjusted the strapless top of her dress, fluffed up her hair, pursed her glossed lips, and headed toward the club. After batting eyelashes at the bouncer to no avail, she paid the $10 cover charge and strode inside.
Senses assaulted by bad odors, bright lights, and loud noises, Clara tried to focus on her surroundings. A DJ stood up on the balcony above the dance floor, his turntable illuminated by blue and pink strobe lights. The bar and standing cocktail tables were situated in the back of the warehouse-like space. She spotted some of Andrew’s friends clustered to the right of the bar.
Pushing her way past the gyrating bodies that crowded the floor, Clara bumped into one person after another, apologizing at first but soon growing so irritated that all she could do was glare and curse at them. Men were groping women, kissing their necks and grinding against their legs. Women were doing the same, some with men, some dancing with women. Sweat glistened on all of them, and there was a certain euphoria humming in the air that Clara strangely found alluring. For a fleeting moment, Clara wondered why Andrew had never taken her to a place like this, a place where they could be so close and intimate in public.
The blue and pink lights continued to flash around the room, bringing faces in and out of focus as Clara waded through the throng of sweating bodies. Dark, shadowed faces flashed around her. Smiling faces. Her face.
Joanna stood with Andrew’s friends, black hair parted to one side, her eyes narrowed, and a smirk on her face. She looked triumphant.
Clara’s stomach roiled, and she squeezed her eyes shut. It wasn’t possible. When she opened her eyes again, Joanna was gone.
Horror-struck, Clara felt her legs moving of their own accord as her eyes scoured the dance floor, searching for the one person she never wanted to see again. She pushed between sweating bodies, not registering the looks the dancers were giving her. She didn’t care; her mind was a tornado of puzzle pieces swirling around, and she was trying to reach for them, trying to put it all together.
Jo…Joanna. Visiting from Oklahoma. Andrew ditching her…
“No,” Clara nearly sobbed. Joanna was not going to take Andrew away from her, she was not going to ruin everything. Clara pushed through the crowd, desperate to find Joanna. She would do anything to make her disappear. Anything.
Clara shrieked as a hand clasped her shoulder and whirled her around.
Andrew stood in front of her, his eyes searching her face and confusion twisting his features. He leaned in, bringing his mouth down to her ear. “What are you doing here? Are you okay?”
Clara could barely hear him as the music reverberated around them.
Andrew pulled back, appraising her. “What’s wrong?”
Clara hated how innocent he appeared, and she tore out of his grip, making a beeline for the exit. She couldn’t stand the sight of him, not when she felt so vulnerable. What had Joanna told him? What did she plan to do?
Flinging the club door open with all her might, Clara ran to her car, her heels clacking against the pavement.
“Clara, wait a sec!”
She fumbled to find her keys in her purse. Hearing them jangling around inside, she grabbed them and was just about to unlock the door when Andrew’s hand wrapped around her wrist.
He pulled her around to face him. “Clara, what the hell happened?” Once again he scanned her body. “What are you doing here?”
Clara scowled. “I came to see you,” she said coolly. “I thought it might be a nice surprise.”
“It is, but you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Are you okay?” He wasn’t acting any differently, at least not yet, but she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t all for show.
“I was hoping to meet your friend Jo…”
His eyes widened. “Oh, well, it’s just me and the guys tonight.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Really?”
“Yeah, I told you that.”
“You said you were going out with your friends.” There’d been no mention of “guys only,” and besides, Clara had seen Joanna there. He was lying.
“What’s gotten in to you?” he asked, searching her face. Clara could tell he was getting annoyed.
Good. She was fuming. “Why don’t we ever come to places like this, Andrew? Are you keeping me a secret or something?”
He blanched. “What? No. Why the hell would you say something like that?”
“Because why come to a club with your friends, and not your girlfriend? Especially if Jo isn’t even with you guys?”
“Clara, Josh is DJing, that’s why we’re here. Why are you acting so crazy?”
She stilled. Crazy? Clara knew Joanna had said something to him…she’d poisoned his mind against her. “What has she told you?”
“What? Who?” His brow furrowed. “Are you drunk or something?”
She was infuriated now. “Never mind.” She needed to take a step back, to think. “I need to go,” she said. “I can’t do this right now.”
“Well, we need to talk about this, Clara. I want you to tell me what’s going on. I’ve never seen you like this before.”
Clara bristled. “This is the real me, or didn’t she tell you that already?”
Andrew’s face was scrunched with feigned confusion, yet again.
“Have fun with your friends,” she hissed and climbed into her car.
Jarring herself from sleep, Clara hung over the side of her bed and wretched until it felt like every single morsel of food she’d eaten over the last week was expelled from her body. Her throat was raw and burning, her stomach still churning, and her body quivering and covered with sweat.
She vaguely remembered someone’s cool hands on her forehead and a lukewarm rag wiping off the chills that were making her tremble. Her head was throbbing so badly she thought she might be dying.
After a few more futile heaves over the side of the bed, Clara lay back down, lost in a fog of swirling memories.
Pulling into the parking lot outside the gym, Clara searched for Andrew’s truck. They’d texted each other a little throughout the day, but they hadn’t really talked about the night before, not since she’d sped away. She realized now how outrageous she’d acted and wanted to set the record straight. If Joanna had told him anything, it would no doubt be lies to gain his sympathy. Clara needed to tell him the truth, and she was convinced that once she did, he would understand why she’d been so upset.
She had a couple minutes to find a place to park before he was done with practice. Spotting his truck a few rows down, Clara inched her way toward it, careful not to startle a man and woman walking with their backs to her. The woman giggled and pushed the guy’s shoulder, causing him to step into the light of the street lamp.
It was Andrew…with another woman.
Clara focused on the woman. She had long, black hair pulled back in a ponytail that swung back and forth as she walked and laughed.
“No,” Clara whimpered. Her stomach lurched, and a painful chill emanated from the base of her spine and raked over her body as reality hit her. It was worse than she’d thought. Andrew wasn’t just walking with some woman; he was walking with Joanna.
Seething hatred burned to life. That goddamn black hair. Clara’s heart seized, and she felt her fingernails gouging into her palms as she squeezed the steering wheel. Joanna hooked her arm through Andrew’s before resting her head on his shoulder. Leaning to the side, he kissed the top of her head. He was ruining everything…Joanna was ruining everything…
That arm Joanna was clinging to was the same arm that had been holding Clara against Andrew’s body only two nights before. That smile he was flashing her was the smile he reserved for Clara. He was hers.
Clara couldn’t breathe, and her jaw ached as she clenched it. All of the reasons she hated Joanna came back to her like rows of playing cards turning over with one quick sweep of the hand, revealing each and every one of the horrible memories Clara had tried so hard to forget.
This was her Prince…her Prince. Clara had worked so hard to find him, and he was hers, and they were happy…
A piercing scream filled the car and sent Clara into action. Pressing the gas petal to the floor, she felt a sense of liberation wash over her as Joanna glanced back, her eyes filled with terror.
“Josie, look out!”
Although Clara heard his voice, she was too enveloped by the sound of the revving engine and the sight of Joanna’s pretty little body hitting the Volvo with a solid thud. She was pinned against Andrew’s truck, hopefully dead, and would never be able to hurt Clara again.
The tension left Clara’s body, and a smile tugged at her lips. She was finally rid of Joanna.
Peeling her eyes open, Clara focused on her surroundings. The walls of her room were white, barren, the blinds on the window behind her were drawn, and the air smelled of vomit and sweat.
With a groan, Clara sat up, the ache in her head was duller than before, but it was still there. She felt different, lighter somehow. Glancing around the room, she noticed that it was in complete disarray. Her desk chair was on the opposite side of the room from the desk, her bedside table was moved further away from the bed, and the books that had been stacked on her desk had fallen on the floor; a mound of white rags, mostly stained with yellow and green, were piled in their place. There was puke on the side of her bed and a small garbage can against the wall filled with more vomit.
A loud bang emanated from the hallway.
Clara jumped, confused and immediately regretting the motion. As her hair swung into her face, a hard, clumpy mass of it brushed up against her jaw. She froze. Pulling at the strands with her fingertips, she cringed. Vomit was matted in her hair, and she stank horribly.
Gag reflexes kicking in and forgetting about the noise, Clara ran for the bedroom door, flung it open, and ran down the hall and into the bathroom. She made it to the toilet in time to empty what looked like water into the toilet bowl. Although there was nothing left in her stomach, she continued dry heaving, unable to stop. She felt like her insides were tearing apart, and her muscles were fatigued, barely able to support her weight.
Trembling and using the wall for balance, Clara inched her way toward the closest shower stall. She turned the nozzle with all her might until, finally, water starting streaming from the showerhead. Twisting the nob all the way to the left, she waited for it to heat from cold to warm to near scorching before stepping, fully clothed, under the falling water. She didn’t have the strength, nor the energy, to strip out of her soiled tank top and pajama pants.
Although steam filled the air around her, soothing her raw throat and prickling skin, her bones felt brittle with cold. Huddling in the corner, she sat on the tiled floor in a haze of heat and weariness. Beyond the sound of water pouring ceaselessly over her, Clara heard Roberta’s voice echoing in her mind. She felt the pressure of fingers and the discomfort of her muscles as they strained and moved. She felt the roughness of terrycloth against her skin and the biting cold as she was rushed out of the bathroom.
Words bounced around in her mind, but her eyelids were too heavy to open, her mind too numb to process.
Teeth chattering and body convulsing, Clara felt a soft pressure cover her, comforting her, and something malleable cradled her head.
“Sleep,” was the last thing she heard before her mind grayed and her thoughts were lost in darkness.
A crash and screaming woke Clara from a deep sleep. Her mind had been dormant, warm and safe in the fissures of her consciousness. But the crashing sound…it riled her awareness, and the cool air lapped at her exposed cheeks and her nose.
Annoyed, she sat up in bed. Her room was dark, and she glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand. 7:46 PM. Her stomach gurgled with hunger, and her mouth was stale and dry. How long had she been asleep?
Peering around her tidied room, Clara was confused. She remembered piles of rags and the stench of vomit. Now, her room was clean; the putrid smell was gone, and the rags and vomit-filled garbage can were nowhere in sight. All that remained was an empty wastebasket on the floor beside her bed, and a mountain of blankets covering her.
She remembered Roberta’s voice and the warmth of the shower. Clara shivered at the memory. She’d been so cold, so tired. She’d thought she was dying.
A clatter in the hallway startled her, and she threw the covers back and stepped onto the cold floor. Removing a clean sweatshirt from the bottom drawer of her dresser, Clara pulled it over her head before tugging on a clean pair of jeans.
Her head was still hazy, and she rubbed her temple with one hand as she opened the door to the hallway with the other. Maybe some food would help…
Stepping out into the empty hallway, she peered down at the bedrooms to the right. All the doors were closed. She peered to the left. The light of the television flickered in the darkened rec room, sparking a feeling of unease.
Where was everyone? Clara couldn’t hear chatter coming from the rec room, and it was Sunday, so there shouldn’t have been any group sessions. At least, she thought it was Sunday. Maybe everyone was in the cafeteria for dinner?
A loud crash startled her. It was coming from inside Alicia’s room, directly across from hers. Clara took a tentative step out into the hall. Another crash, closely followed by a bone-chilling scream reverberated through Alicia’s door.
“Alicia?” Clara rasped, her voice hoarse from disuse. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “Alicia?”
But there was no answer, only the sound of more crashing and screaming.
Hesitantly, Clara reached for the handle. The door was locked.
BANG. Clara jumped back, her hand clasping over her mouth as she tried to control her breathing. BANG. The door rattled and the handle jiggled as what sounded like snarls and growling emanated from the other side. BANG. BANG.
Fingers wrapped around Clara’s upper arm, and she spun around with a shriek. Roberta stood there, eyes wide with alarm. “That door stays shut.”
Clara exhaled a shaky breath and let Roberta lead her down the hallway toward the rec room.
“What happened? What’s wrong with her?” Clara asked, shocked and shaking.
Roberta glanced down at her watch, and then up at Clara. “You’ve been asleep for almost three days. A lot has happened.” She stopped outside of Samantha’s room and glanced at Clara. “Wait here for a moment.” Slowly, Roberta opened Samantha’s door, poked her head inside, and then entered fully before closing the door behind her.
Clara peered around the rec room. Most of the lights were off, and except for Greta, an orderly who was on the phone at the nurses’ station, no one was in there. A pile of blankets were folded tidily on the couch as usual, but as far as Clara could tell, everyone else was gone. In their rooms?
Clara turned back around, her eyes sweeping over all ten of the closed bedroom doors on either side of the hall. Was everyone in their rooms, sick like she’d been? The thought brought on a new wave of dread.
When Clara’s eyes landed on Beth’s door, she swallowed. There was a large X taped on it. After a few tentative steps, Clara pressed her ear to the door, held her breath, and listened. There was no sound. Beth wasn’t humming, like she often did; she wasn’t talking to herself or screaming and throwing things like Alicia was doing. It was completely quiet.
Clara tapped on the door gently. “Beth?” There was still no sound. Staring at the handle as if it might burn her, Clara reached for it to find that, unlike Alicia’s, it wasn’t locked. Throat dry and heart pounding, she turned the knob and inched the door open.
Beth’s room was dark and reeked of the foul stench of bile. Through the dim glow of the moonlight shining through the window, Clara could see Beth’s silhouette on the bed.
“Beth,” she breathed, willing the meek woman to answer.
The light flicked on, and Clara screamed. Beth was gray and covered in vomit.
She was dead.
“I told you to stay in the hallway,” Roberta reprimanded, pulling Clara out of the room and switching off the light before she closed the door behind them. “There was a reason, you know.”
“She’s dead,” Clara gasped. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Beth’s closed door.
“I know,” Roberta said, patting Clara’s shoulder as she walked her toward the nurses’ station. “Most of them are.”
Clara looked back at the doors, realizing how many of them had X’s on them. “But I’m—you’re…”
“You were sick, but you got better. Don’t ask me how,” she said as she wrote something in a file. “I have no idea how you recovered while everyone else is either dead or more insane than when they got here.”
“But, you seem fine.”
“I was sick too, but it passed quickly. I came into work two days ago and found you in the shower, covered in vomit, and some of the others were already dead from whatever the hell this virus is.” She paused, then added, “Alicia killed Devon and Beatrice.”
Clara blanched. “Why didn’t the police—”
“Greta and I called them hundreds of time, but they never came. The last time we tried to get through to anyone, the phone just rang and rang.” She set the file on the counter.
Clara couldn’t even blink, she was so overwhelmed. “What about Dr. Mallory and—”
“I haven’t been able to get a hold of any of them, either. It’s just Greta and me for now, until either someone comes to help us or…” She shrugged. “Who the hell knows.” Roberta’s exhaustion was evident. “What happened here and what little I’ve seen on the news is all I have to go off of.” She turned on the stereo they used as a PA system and pressed RADIO. “You should listen to it. I have to go get Samantha some clean sheets. I’m running low on everything…” Roberta continued to mutter to herself as she passed through the rec room and down another hallway.
Clara turned the volume up on the radio.
…is at war, yet our enemy is not one we can fight openly. Our enemy has swept through every nation, attacking discretely, killing indiscriminately. We lost thousands before we even knew we were under attack. Many have already fallen, and many more will fall. But we cannot give up the fight.
Clara wrapped her arms around herself, dread filling every ounce of her as she prepared for what she might hear next. She fingered the backs of her sleeves, drawing her arms tighter around herself.
Over the past century, through technological achievements, we made our world smaller. We made the time it takes to communicate across oceans instantaneous, and the time it takes to travel those same routes nearly as fast. We made our world smaller, and in doing so, we sowed the seeds of our own destruction: a global pandemic.
I regret to tell you that as of midnight on the 10th of December, over eighty percent of the world’s population has reported or is assumed dead. It is estimated that the death toll will continue to climb. This news is devastating, I know, but all is not lost.
Some of us are surviving. This is how we will fight our enemy—by not giving up, by being resilient and resourceful, by surviving. We are not a species that will go out quietly, so I task those of you who are still alive with one essential purpose: live.
If you believe in a higher power, ask for guidance. If you don’t, believe in your fellow man. You, the survivors, have the chance to start over, to build anew. Learn from our mistakes. Let the world remain big.
And most importantly, live.
God bless you, my beloved citizens of this great nation. God bless you, and goodnight.
Hearing another crash from down the hall, Clara started trembling. She couldn’t help it. She didn’t care if it meant she was weak and pathetic. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to lose herself to complete madness or get sick again. She didn’t want to turn into whatever Alicia had become. She’d killed Devon. Clara had been with him only days earlier, and now he was dead.
Absently, she walked toward the window, her mind racing with destructive, fearful thoughts of what might happen next.
Hurried footsteps bounded down the hall, too heavy to be Roberta’s. Cautiously, Clara turned from the reinforced window as a man rushed into the room.
When his eyes met hers, he straightened. “The nurse sent me in here…are you Clara?” He was holding a shotgun at his side, and his chest was heaving.
Reluctantly, she nodded.
“I need morphine and antibiotics. She said you’d know where I could find them.”
Clara continued to stare blankly at him. Who was he?
Taking an assertive step toward her, he inhaled deeply and pointed out toward the road. “There’s a man dying out there,” he said slowly. “I need meds.”
Clara nodded and showed him to Nurse Hadly’s office down the hall. As she suspected, the door was locked. “I don’t have a key—”
He kicked open the door like it was made of cardboard.
Clara flicked on the light and couldn’t take her eyes off of the stranger while he rummaged through the cabinets. He embodied strength and determination, and while she thought she should distrust this stranger, a man who’d wandered into a psychiatric ward, pleading for help and carrying a shotgun, she could only admire him. There was an air about him that made her skin tingle with excitement.
He would keep her safe, she realized. She just had to make sure that she stayed with him, no matter what. Maybe he was her real Prince Charming.