I glanced over my shoulder at her. “What?”
Her eyes were wide, a vibrant jade color. There was something in them that gave me pause. Unease unfolded in the pit of my stomach, making my hands tremble.
“I have a really bad feeling,” Olivia said, picking at a patch of glitter on her dress. “Like the one I had before… before Daddy died. Do you remember? I have that feeling again.”
Of course I remembered that feeling.
But Olivia had been three at the time of the accident, and I’d barely paid attention to any of the babble that’d come out of her mouth.
I still remembered, though.
She’d leaned across the backseat and grasped my arm. “Something bad is going to happen,” she’d whispered.
And I’d frowned at her and ripped my arm away, annoyed because our parents had been arguing again—arguing about her. Shaking myself out of those memories, I rubbed my forehead, feeling a headache starting in.
“Emmie?” Olivia gripped the back of my seat.
I forced a smile for her. “Nothing bad is going to happen. I promise you.”
She looked doubtful, and it was like a punch in the gut.
“We’ll be in and out, and then Adam will come over later. You like Adam, right?”
She let go of the seat, falling back. “Yeah.”
“Okay. Good,” I whispered.
Since Olivia had successfully freaked me out, the trip to the store took longer than before. I was extra-wary of stoplights and other drivers. I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled into the back of the packed parking lot.
Rain clouds had darkened the sky, causing several of the street lamps to flicker on. Fat drops splattered the dense woods surrounding the parking lot. I glanced at the clock on my cell, surprised to find it nearly seven o’clock.
Olivia hopped out the back, trailing behind me. “Can I push the cart?”
I welcomed the change in the mood. “Promise me you won’t run over any old people this time and it’s a deal.”
Olivia giggled as she wiggled between me and the shopping cart. There was no deal. She was death on wheels behind a shopping cart, but it helped me keep an eye on her and it would prevent another epic breakdown.
Old people, watch out.
Her head barely reached the bar as she inched the cart through the automatic doors. The place was packed for a Thursday, full of women in heels and men frowning at shopping lists.
Olivia rammed the display of bananas and then the back of my legs when I stopped to grab a bag of apples. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” She shrieked as she backed the cart up.
Limping over to the bread, I grabbed a loaf. My cell vibrated in my back pocket. Sticking the bread under my arm, I slid the beat-up thing out and flipped it open. It was a text from Adam. Any news?
Still at store. Will text u when done, I sent back.
Not even five seconds later I received, U SUCK. OK. Text me.
I grinned and headed back to the cart. I didn’t know what I’d do without Adam. It was hard to even think about it. I dropped the bread in the cart. “Olivia, what’s all over your face?”
She turned away quickly. “Nothing.”
“Whatever. There’s white powder all over your lips and—oh, my God!” I glanced around quickly, thankful no one was around us. “Did you eat the doughnuts again? They’re not free, Olivia!”
“You’re such a little liar.” I knelt down in front of her, wiping off her lips with the sleeve of my cardigan, trying not to laugh. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“They shouldn’t put them out if they’re not free.”
My mouth dropped open, and then I cracked up. “You are so rotten.”
Giggling, she squirmed out of my grasp. There were no more eating food incidents, thank God. I got everything on the list, and Olivia had chosen a bag of Oreos as her cookies of choice. That made me pretty damn happy as I could already taste them. A whole row already had my name on it.
I groaned as I spied the lines at the register. “It’s going to be—Olivia!” Too late. She lost control of the cart, smashing it into the back of a brawny-looking man. I grabbed the cart, blushing furiously as I yanked it back. “I’m so sorry! My sister didn’t… crap.”
Dustin Smith stared back at me, rubbing the back of his leg with one hand and holding a case of soda in the other. His brown eyes bounced from my sister to my face. “You should get better control of the brat.”
Anger rushed to the surface. It was one thing talking smack about me, but my little sister? I stepped in front of Olivia, blocking her. “Don’t talk about my sister like that.”
He smirked. “I can talk however I want to.”
I itched to take off my gloves. “Not about her.”
“This is rich.” Dustin laughed. “What are you going to do about it? Throw your food stamps in my face?”
I wished we qualified for food stamps, but I still flushed. “You’re a jerk.”
“And you’re a frigid freak,” he spat.
So many witty comebacks floated to the surface. None of them would be appropriate for five-year-old ears. I turned to grab Olivia and just walk around Dustin, but she dodged my gloved hand. She walked right up to Dustin, her little hands balled into fists.
She kicked him in the shin.
So shocked by the pint-sized terror, Dustin dropped the case of soda. Brown liquid exploded off the tile, fizzing and streaming in dirty-looking rivulets. The right side of his pants was drenched with sticky liquid. We hadn’t drawn any attention up to that point, but several customers turned and stared at the mess.
Part of me knew I should yell at Olivia for kicking Dustin, but the other part, the really immature one, was secretly gleeful for the red stain rapidly spreading across his face.
“Smooth,” I said. “Got beat up by a little girl? Wonder what your friends would think about that?”
Before Dustin could respond, I ushered Olivia and the cart to the register furthest away from the mess. I bit my lip to keep from smiling as I knelt next to her. “Olivia…”
Her cheeks were ruddy, eyes bright. “He was mean to you.”
“I know, but you can’t kick people who you think are mean.” Even if they did totally deserve that and more, I silently added.
I inched the cart up. “Because kicking people is mean, Olivia. And you don’t want to be a mean person like him, right?” She folded her arms, pouting. “No.”
“So, no more kicking?” I stood, pulling items out of the grocery cart. “Yeah. Okay.” She wiggled between the cart and a display of candy bars. “Can I have my cookies now?”
I shook my head, smiling. “In the car.”
Olivia smiled and giggled at the middle-aged woman ringing up our groceries, behaving like a precocious child instead of the ninja-child who’d kicked Dustin. That was my sister. She went from one extreme to the next within seconds.
I took over cart duty and pushed our groceries out to the back of the parking lot. It had poured while we were in the store, and Olivia insisted on jumping through every one of the huge puddles on the way to the car. I had her sit inside—with the package of Oreos—while I put the groceries in the back. She gabbed on about what she’d learned at school, something to do with words rhyming. It was dark and desolate in our corner of the lot by the time I shut the hatch and wheeled the shopping cart back to a nearby return.
I checked my cell, groaning when I saw the time. Olivia would need to go straight to bed when we got home, and I doubted Adam would still want to come over this late, especially when I had math homework.
As I shoved my phone back into my pocket, a tall, thick shadow stepped out from behind a large truck parked beside my Jeep.
I halted, my heart leaping into my throat.
Dustin stood between me and my car, the leg of his pants still soaked. For a second, I didn’t know what to do, but I decided to walk around him and ignore him.
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he called out, his voice hard.
I kept walking, my stomach filling with knots. Just a few more steps—that’s all.
“Hey! I’m talking to you, freak!”
I whipped around. “My name is not ‘freak.’ It’s Ember. You know that.”
Dustin laughed. “You’re whatever I call you. Freak? Bitch? Whore? Whatever.”
“I’m frigid and a whore?” I rolled my eyes, turning away. “So very clever, Dustin.”
A second later, Dustin grabbed my arm and spun me around. “I must’ve been on something when I thought you were worth my time, you know that?”
I yanked my arm free. “Is that supposed to insult me? Seriously?” “You think you got one over on me in the store? You’re going to be sorry. I’m going to make every day hell for you.” He laughed. “You can trust that.”
“Whatever.” I let my gaze drop. “Did you pee yourself?”
His arm struck out so fast I hadn’t even seen him move. My back slammed into the passenger door of the truck. Shock knocked the air out of my lungs.
“Emmie?” I heard Olivia’s soft cry from inside the Jeep.
Dustin got right in my face, a vein throbbing at his temple. “You’re nothing more than a scarred-up freak. Yeah, Sally told me how you’re all cut up.” He sneered. “You’re disgusting.”
It shouldn’t have hurt, but it did. Tears burned my eyes as I pushed off the truck and started around him again. I would not let him see me cry. Absolutely—
He grabbed my arm again as he dug into his pocket. “How scarred up are you? Sally said your whole stomach was covered.” Pulling out his cell phone, he laughed. “How about we do a little show and I tell the school? Better yet, how about I take some pictures?”
Over the blood rushing in my ears, I could hear Olivia crying out for me. “Don’t!” I wrenched back, but his grip tightened.
It was too late. Dustin grabbed the hem of my shirt, shoving his hand under it. Part of me wondered, in that brief second before his flesh touched mine, when Dustin had become such a bastard. He hadn’t always been this bad.
But then his hand was against my stomach, against my scars. The first time another human being had touched me in two years, and I wanted to puke.
His eyes popped open. The phone fell from his limp fingers, cracking when it hit the pavement.
Everything slowed down. A shiver slithered down my spine and coiled in my stomach. The sick sense of dread seeped into my veins like venom, familiar yet unwelcome. It reared, poised to strike, and then its sharp fangs bit deep. It was the same sensation I’d had right before I’d died.
Time seemed to stop.
Dustin’s eyes flared as the first wave of pain crashed into him. He went down on one knee, veins bulging in his forehead as his mouth worked in a silent scream. His hand was still against my stomach, as if he couldn’t let go.
I grabbed for his arm, but he started jerking like he was having a seizure. His normally tan skin turned sallow, and his hands spasmed.