“I love you.”
I’d stopped mid-motion as I rummaged through my duffle bag, my search for a clean pair of socks abandoned. But I didn’t turn around.
“It’s okay,” Collin had said. “You don’t have to say it back. I get it if that’s not where you’re at.”
I hadn’t been able to respond or even move for a moment or two, staring into my duffle bag, unseeing. Then, finally, when I stood up from my couch, I stared at him. “It’s not that I don’t,” I said. “It’s just… how can you even think about that right now?”
He leaned back into the pillows on Mallory’s bed and crossed his arms comfortably over his chest. We’d been about to get in bed for the night—the first night in days we’d slept in a real bed. The first night in longer than that that we’d had any semblance of privacy while we did it. We had Mallory to thank for this private moment: she and Megan—who had greeted us just hours ago with the business end of a shot gun—were sleeping in Leah’s parents’ bedroom.
“Me saying that I love you has nothing to do with any of this…this crap,” he’d countered, but then he’d shrugged. “Or maybe it does. Maybe all of this has just given me the balls to actually say it—I don’t know.”
I’d laughed a little and crawled onto the bed beside him. It felt funny to share a bed with him like this, almost like playing house. Like I expected a parent to come in and catch us at any moment. Even though I knew that was a sad impossibility.
“We just almost saw Leah get her head blown off,” I said, serious but half joking, too. It was true that that had just happened—but it felt ridiculous to say it nonetheless. “And I’m pretty sure Drake was about to implode or something. So…”
Collin had laughed. “Yeah, I thought Drake was straight up gonna puke for a minute there.” He looped his arm around my shoulders as I settled in beside him.
I listed to the side until my head fell to rest against his chest. “Let’s just…” I sighed and shook my head. “Life is too complicated right now. I love what we are—let’s not make that complicated too.”
He’d nodded and taken my hand, then brought the back of it to his lips. “Deal.”
Then words had leapt out of my mouth—as unexpected as they were completely true: “I do, though.”
The warmth that eeked from his skin to mine had kicked up a notch. He’d sighed a laigh, a low, private sound, and turned his face into my hair. “I knew it. But always with the thinking and analyzing.”
I had smiled as I turned and met his lips with mine. “It’s what I do, I guess.”
“Mm,” he’d sighed without removing his lips from mine. “And I love you for it.”
“We’ve established that.” My words had come out mumbled against his mouth.
“All this privacy…” he’d murmured.
“Should we analyze it?” I sunk down further beneath the covers, taking him with me.
He’d laughed in his throat and kissed me harder. “Definitely not.”
I had been uncertain of a lot of things over the past weeks—that night, however, left no room for uncertainty.
Collin always knew exactly what he was doing. When we kissed, his lips were the perfect answer to my unspoken questions; his hands were the gentle strength of silk—or the refined roughness of polished wood. He always said the right thing, the most beautiful things—reassurance when I needed it, lovely words when that’s what I wanted, and gently funny quips whispered into my ear when it was exactly the right thing to say. His body quenched a thirst and lit a fire in my veins. And the things he could do with it… every inch of him left me breathless.
“How many girls have you been with?” I asked him later that night while we lay together under the blankets, warm and comfortable. My bones had felt like jelly.
His smile had been begrudging. “A few. What about you—there’s no way I’m the only guy you’ve been with.” His eyebrow quirked with suggestive question.
I’d smiled. “You’re not.”
“You’re the only shifter I’ve ever been with.”
“What?” That had surprised me. I’d pulled my face back by a couple of inches so I could see him more clearly. I mean, he was the only shifter I’d ever been with, but that was hardly a feat. Collin on the other hand… well, everybody knew Collin. “Really?”
He’d nodded. “Being with another shifter always seemed…I don’t know—sharing the warmth always seemed more important than just a one-night-stand, I guess. And I never met another shifter that was worth it.”
That was the night I told him I loved him.
I opened my eyes into the darkness; my ears became full of the here-and-now, instead of the wonderful-horrible past. I was usually asleep by now. By the end of a memory, I was usually dreaming. But not tonight.
I heard Samantha roll over, changing positions on her cot as she slept. Then someone else do the same. I heard another sigh across the room.
The difference of the bed in that memory—warm, and peaceful, with the thrill of first I-love-yous—and the bed I laid upon right now was suddenly a stark, unforgiving study in contrast.
“I can’t sleep,” Samantha said suddenly, her voice nothing more than a low whisper like she was testing to see if anyone else was awake and willing to respond.
“Me neither.” That was Nina.
I sighed. “Same here.”
There was a long pause.
“Me too.” That was another one of the women in our room.
Only two were sleeping—that or they weren’t willing to speak up.
Samantha drew a deep breath. Then I thought I heard her whisper something to herself that sounded like a prayer.
Walking with an officer beside me the next morning felt even more stiff and anxious than it had before. Now, instead of just being troubling and uncomfortable, my cuffed wrists represented a serious lack of ability to defend myself—something I hadn’t really considered before watching one of them strike Collin across the face.
My chest got tight every time I thought about it. I hoped like hell he was okay.
The officer opened the door to Cecelia’s room and motioned for me to walk in ahead of him. The doctor I’d seen those days ago, who had given me the ultrasound and talked to me about “my options” was there checking on an I.V. bag that hung from a post beside Cecelia’s bed. She turned and looked at us when we came in.
“Hey doc,” said the guard.
“Good morning,” she replied, her voice and shoulders tight and squared. She smiled a little when she looked at me. “Ferris. How are you?”
I had to fight the instinct that still told me not to talk in the officer’s presence. “I’m fine.”
She eyed me for a moment, then looked to the officer. “While you’re here: The gentleman whose forehead I stitched up yesterday—you said he fell?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Huh. Did he fall on an object?”
“Nope, just took a spill.”
The doctor nodded but it was clear from the expression on her face that her nod wasn’t one of agreement.
“You good to watch the mimic?” the guard asked after a moment of awkward silence. “My shift is up.”
“Ferris will be fine. You may go.”
The officer turned and left the room, letting the door close behind him; the doctor went back to tending to the I.V. bag.
I stood where I was, handcuffed, not sure of what to do. I hadn’t felt this awkward yesterday.
“I’m afraid Cecelia might not wake up for you this morning,” the doctor said as she smoothed a kink in one of the tubes that hung from the I.V. bag. “She’s on a lot of pain medication—it makes her sleep.” She turned around and smiled. “The nurses are between shifts so I came to check on her.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry,” I replied, trying for casual and nice. “It was a rough night—I didn’t get much sleep.”
The doctor looked sympathetic. “Are you feeling sick? If so, that’s very common.”
She thought I had been talking about baby-bump stuff when I’d said it had been a rough night, I realized. I went with it—it wasn’t a complete lie, after all. “Yeah, sometimes. It’s okay though.”
“The nausea part is just temporary, I promise,” she replied as she gathered up a notepad and pen from a cart beside the door. “If you have questions, you can always ask to see me. Otherwise, I’ll see you in a few weeks for another check-up.”
Goodie. “Okay, yeah.”
She smiled. “In the meantime, try to get some rest, and eat as much as you can manage.”
She smiled at me once more like maybe there was something else she wanted to say but couldn’t manage to get the words out, then she left the room.
Once alone, I silently rounded the end of the bed where Cecelia slept and took a seat in the chair that sat alongside. Then I just sat there for a while. At first, I stared at my own hands, and at the silver of the handcuffs around my wrists. Then at the silver of Cecelia’s hair as it fanned out across the pillow under her head.
The red notebook was sitting on the table beside her bed.
Before I had consciously made the decision, I had the notebook in my hands and was awkwardly flipping pages.
“Knock knock!” A nurse came through the door. She stopped short when she saw me, perched on the edge of my chair with Cecelia’s notebook in my lap, mid page-turn.
She smiled after a split second pause. “Just checking on the patient.”
“Yeah, of course.” I sat back in the chair, closing the notebook and holding it on my lap. Jesus, was I really about to read Cecelia’s diary? I had been ready to crack it open and read the thing like it belonged to me. But I hadn’t been about to do it because it was sure to be a juicy read.
I was looking for answers. For reassurance that anything was ever going to be okay again.
My eyes stung and a tear went skating down my face, unbidden. I wiped it quickly away, but when I looked up, the nurse was giving me the same sympathetic look the doctor had given me.
“It’s hard to lose someone you care about,” she said.
God. It was like everybody here knew she was dying—everybody but the people it mattered most to. I thought of Leah and Drake who had no idea at all. At least everybody else knew Cecelia was in the hospital—Leah and Drake didn’t even know that much. It was such a tragedy that I was the one sitting with Leah’s aunt these last mornings. So unfair on so many levels.
The nurse went about checking the chart she’d carried in with her, then checking the I.V. bag, much the way the doctor had done when I came in. When she went to leave, she stopped and gave me another look. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m alright.”
She came closer. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I guess so… why?”
“Your knee,” she said, stepping closer. “It’s bouncing, and your fingers won’t stop fidgeting.”
I looked down only to see that she was right. I tried to stop but found that I couldn’t manage to keep my fingers from playing an imaginary piano against my thumb, or my knee from bouncing out a fast pace without a great deal of effort. “Uh… maybe I’m nervous? I don’t know.”
She eyed me for a second. “Have you taken any medication today?”
That was a weird question. “No. Not at all.”
She rounded the end of the bed and stood in front of me. “Look up at me.”
I did as she said; she reached down and gently tugged my lower eyelid downward. Then she took my wrist in her fingers.
“Your pulse isn’t fast,” she said after a moment or two.
“I’m, um… pregnant,” I said, having to force the word out. “Could that cause this?”
To the nurse’s credit, she didn’t bat an eye. “No, not really. You’re probably just tired or stressed. Likely both.” She smiled. “I didn’t mean to worry you. Just tell the doctor about it next time you see her if it persists, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce.
As soon as I got to class, my eyes and my skin were searching for Collin. Our eyes met but as soon as he turned toward me, he corrected himself and shied the right side of his face away—not fast enough to keep me from seeing his split lower lip.
It suddenly felt like I had rocks in my stomach, like I’d swallowed my heart. I had to fight to keep angry tears at bay as I took my seat.
“Slight change in routine today,” the scientist said as he came to the front of the room. “There’s a…” he paused and drew a breath. “Look, they’re making us tag you with RFID chips,” he said simply. “So they’ll know where you all are at all times.”
A quiet murmur went through the room. Collin and I exchanged a look: this did not bode well.
“It’ll be quick,” the nurse said from where she was sitting near the back of the room. I hadn’t noticed her there before.
It was easy to know everybody wanted to object, to ask questions, but nobody did. I wished someone would.
Five minutes later, Collin had managed to finagle himself a spot right behind me in line.
He took my hand in his as I stood in front of him, facing the front of the line like an obedient little shifter. “You okay?”
I chuckled under my breath without humor. “Yeah, sure.”
“Are you pissed?”
That was a weird question. I turned around so I could see him. “At you?”
“Shit, I don’t know,” he sighed. “At me. At everything.”
I dropped my voice. “I’m pissed at the guard who gave you that fat lip.” When I looked closer, I could see the purple-tinted skin across his right cheekbone. The anger in my chest flared. “And that shiner.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I know how to take a punch. I wish you hadn’t even seen it.”
“It’s hard to miss.”
“I know. That’s not what I meant. I just don’t want you to worry about it.”
My stomach was churning, but that’s not why I had to take a deep breath. I stepped in closer to him. “They hurt you,” I whispered. “I’m not worried—I’m fucking furious.”
Collin’s eyes flared, in response, I assumed, to my language. He had often joked that he thought it was sort of sexy when I swore—all the more sexy because I rarely did it. The rhythm his fingers were tapping out against my hip stilled for a moment when his eyes flared, then picked right back up.
It was then I realized that my own fingers were still drumming against my thumb.
I looked around. The girl in front of me in line was tapping her foot. The boy behind Collin was cracking his knuckles over and over again. I leaned out of line to find Val: she had her long ponytail over her shoulder and was running her fingers through it repeatedly though it was silky smooth, without a tangle.
“It’s Cecelia. Isn’t it.”
I looked to Collin questioningly.
“How was she this morning?” he asked, his voice low and private.
“She… slept the whole time. The doctor said she’s on pain medication that makes her sleep.”
Collin only nodded.
We were nearing the front of the line now, and it wasn’t until then that I saw what they were doing. “Are they piercing our ears?”
“Right ear only,” he replied. “Apparently that’s how they’re getting the tracking chips on us.”
Of course they were. “Yeah. Fucking furious.”