* * *
Time seems to stand still, suspended above my head like an angry cloud as I stare up into the starless night through the windshield. It’s going to storm tomorrow. I can feel it in my bones. If it storms, I won’t have football practice. That means I can sit inside all day and jam with the guys. She’ll come for that. She always does.
She loves to watch us play.
“Keith,” she whispers, and I smile, turning to her in the passenger seat. She’s so pretty when she smiles it makes my chest flutter.
I haven’t seen her smiles in so long. Not the real ones anyway, which is what this is.
Her smiles haven’t touched her eyes in months. Maybe longer. I don’t even know anymore. But tonight feels different—it fills me with a burgeoning hope.
She had fun at the party. She laughed and danced with her friends.
Maybe she’s finally starting to get better?
I reach out and touch her face, the bones sharp yet fragile beneath my fingers. The hollow dip of her cheek is more pronounced than it was even a few weeks ago. I frown a little at that before I can stop it, a swell of anxiety filling up my gut.
She catches my expression and pulls away, staring straight ahead and out the car window. I take her hand instead, bringing it up to my lips, and press a kiss into her palm. I need to fix the mood I just soured and any time I open my mouth lately, I practically cringe, petrified I’m going to make things worse not better.
“Tonight was fun.”
She nods, turning back to me, and her face has more of that glow it had before I touched her cheek. “It was. I’m so glad I came out with you.”
“School starts in a week. Senior year.”
“And you’re leaving for California when that’s all done.”
I chuckle at her excited yet insistent tone. “If the Crimson Tide and my father don’t get their hands on me first.”
She shakes her head, her smile light and playful. “No way. You’re meant for the stage, Keith Dawson. Bright lights and drumsticks.”
“And you’ll be there front row.”
“No matter what, I’m forever and always your biggest fan.”
I stare into her eyes and kiss her palm again. Knowing she loves it when I do that.
“You should get in before your mama comes out here and tans my hide for keeping you out late,” I tell her though I hate the idea of her going inside and our perfect night ending.
White teeth sparkle as her smile widens, her pale blue eyes glittering against the sliver of moonlight that somehow manages to seep into the car. “She’s asleep. Both of my parents are.”
I laugh, bouncing my eyebrows suggestively. “Are you inviting me in then with you, babe?”
Her smile falters. “Not tonight.”
There’s something in her voice that tears at me a little, and I can’t understand what it is. Did I say something wrong? She hasn’t let me touch her in so long, and all I want to do is touch her. Show her how much I love her. Always.
None of that other stuff matters to me because I’m here with her to the end.
“Goodnight, Keith. I love you.”
I lean across the seat and kiss her lips. She opens for me instantly, her tongue sweeping against mine. Warm. Soft. Wet. “I love you too, babe. See you tomorrow, okay? Breakfast, right? I’ll be back early for you.”
“‘Night.” She steps out of the car, and it’s like she’s gone. Disappeared. Swallowed up by the blackness of night.
Streaks of her platinum blonde hair ghost across my face and I reach out, trying to grasp at the strands only to have them slip through my fingers one by one. My heart starts to pound.
I can’t find her.
I can’t see her.
I can’t feel her.
Now my heart is beating too fast. Slow down. But it can’t. I try to take a deep breath and a gasp ricochets through my skull. Is that me? No. It can’t be. It was her.
The room is abnormally bright. All the lights are on and it’s hurting my eyes. Why are her lights on? Dread clings icily to my skin as I drift toward her bathroom. I call out to her, but she doesn’t respond.
Come on, babe. Answer me.
Ring. Ring. Ring. The blaring sound scatters my thoughts, dragging me away from her room. Away from her bathroom.
I’m dreaming. I need to wake up. WAKE UP!
I don’t want her to die tonight.
My eyes snap open, my chest heaving in rhythm with the pounding of my heart. Cold sweat covers my body and I shudder, sitting up and blinking as I frantically look around.
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