Erin dashed across the street. A car honked and she flipped it the bird, not glancing in its direction. Her eyes were searching the crowded sidewalk.
There. Half a block ahead of her. Dark hair, the back of a blue jacket, too light for the bitter wind that blew.
“Tyler,” she called out. “Tyler!”
He kept walking, but his shoulders hunched and she knew he’d heard her.
“Tyler!” she yelled again. “You owe her!”
He walked all the faster. Gritting her teeth so hard she could feel the pressure in her jaw, she began pushing through the pack of students between them. Didn’t these assholes have classes? Studying to do? A damn football game to go to?
But the football games were on Saturdays and it was Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she chanted, squeezing between warmly-dressed bodies in their down jackets and wool overcoats. Her own coat was ugly as hell, the lovechild of army camouflage and the stay-puff marshmallow man, and too big for her, but so warm that light beadings of sweat ran down the back of her neck even as her cheeks tingled, her eyes burned from the cold.
The light changed ahead of them and Tyler paused at the corner.
She caught up to him, but didn’t touch him. She’d grab his arm, but what would be the point? He outweighed her by a solid hundred pounds, every bit of it muscle, and could break away from her grip without batting an eyelash.
“I know you hate it,” she said to him, not bothering to keep her voice low. “I do, too. But we don’t have a choice.”
“I do,” he replied, not looking at her. “And so do you. You just won’t make it.”
“She needs our help.”
“She needs a shrink. A good shrink. And maybe some good drugs, too.” The bitterness in his voice was palpable. He still hadn’t looked her way.
She stepped in front of him, back to the street, trying to force him to look at her. “Unfair.”
He kept his gaze up, eyes over her head, watching the light.
“She believes in this, you know she does.”
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t.”
She put a hand up as if she could stop him, as if placing it on his broad chest would do something other than annoy him, then let it drop. “Tyler…”
“Don’t call me, I won’t call you,” he said as the light changed and the students around them began moving.
“Hey!” Shock, hurt mingled in her voice. Cara’s problems were one thing but she and Tyler went way back, friends since the awkward first days of sixth grade. He couldn’t dump her, not like this. Not like anything.
“I’m serious, Air. I’m done.” Now he looked down at her, and his brown eyes were colder than she’d ever seen them.
The burn in her own eyes was the weather, she told herself. It was the chill wind sparking the water that filled them, the frosty air that was making her nose start to run.
But his face softened and he sighed. He touched her cheek with his own frozen hand. “You need a scarf.”
“You need mittens.” She didn’t move away from his touch, searching his face for a hint of doubt, a trace of uncertainty.
“Gloves,” he corrected her. “Adults wear gloves.”
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “Come on, Ty. You don’t have to be a grown-up all the time.” But the words were sad. She could see in the resolute line of his mouth that she’d lost. And what was she going to do now?
He let his hand drop. “I do, yeah. Because I am. And you should be, too. Forget about Cara, Air. You don’t owe her a damn thing. What she’s doing is creepy as hell. Probably illegal. And definitely dangerous.”
Erin didn’t need to be told that. She wasn’t sure about illegal and creepy was maybe relative. But her arm ached and her legs felt wobbly, her stomach dizzy with a hunger that oatmeal wouldn’t cure. Erin’s strained student budget couldn’t support Cara’s fixation for much longer, not on her own.
“If you won’t do it for her, do it for me,” she tried, but she knew it was a long shot and she could tell when Tyler’s eyes moved away from her that she’d lost.
“Good-bye, Air.” The light had changed again but Tyler brushed by her and strode out into the road, rounding the slow-moving car turning the corner and dodging past the other cars with the ease of a running back facing a weak defense.
What now? Erin swallowed, her mouth dry. She couldn’t go back to Cara, not alone. Her friend’s temper, never the best, had grown increasingly desperate over the past few weeks. Of course, it was daytime, full sun, so she might be asleep. Maybe Erin could sneak into their shared room and…
… And what? Her thoughts got stuck there.
Eat the last few packages of their instant oatmeal? Scrounge through her dirty laundry for change, hoping to find a forgotten bill or two? Maybe even a five that she’d carelessly stuffed into a pocket? But that was just a fanciful daydream—she might have misplaced a quarter or two, but she would never have lost track of a five.
“Excuse me, miss.” The voice was lightly accented with that kind of generic European enunciation that merely meant English was not a first language, but the eyes that went with it were dark, dark as coal, dark as midnight, dark as the blackest nightmare Erin had ever woken screaming from.
Dark as blood.
Erin turned and ran.
The complaints floated on the air as Erin pushed through the crowd, going low, the bare treads of her sneakers slipping on the sidewalk’s rough surface. Her breath rasped in her lungs as she tore down the street, desperate, her heart already pounding.
Where could she go? Not home.