Chapter Three: A House of Cards (ALM)

Chapter Three: A House of Cards

Fen’s heart raced. 

What had she done?

She stared out the tiny window. The glass wasn’t as clear as it should be, not like normal glass. It looked thicker, layered. And was that a drop of moisture trailing down the pane? 

She peered closer. That water was inside the glass. That couldn’t be good. It had to be bad. Should she tell someone? 

But they must know. It was their stupid plane. Didn’t they have, like, checks? People who climbed all over the plane making sure it was safe? Oh, God, this was so not cool. 

She turned away from the window to look behind her. Two men in uniforms—maybe paramedics?—were carrying a stretcher on board, angling and lifting to get it through the door and into the aisle. The boy from the alley was on it, conscious and wearing a look of strained pain.

His glance caught hers for a few seconds as they moved past her down the aisle. He angled his head back as if to keep watching her and she heard him say, “Hey,” in a breathy voice before they reached the couch that had been converted into a bed and began strapping the stretcher down. 

Kaio followed them onboard. He didn’t sit, but stood in the aisle and watched the process with a brooding air. 

“Ah,” Fen started. 

“Yes?” He turned to her. 

“There’s water in your glass.” She gestured at the window. 

He glanced at it with disinterest. “It happens. Thank you.” 

Fen traced the pattern of the water on the glass with her finger. It happens. Okay, so that wasn’t saying the window wouldn’t shatter in mid-air, sucking all the oxygen out of plane and killing them all from abrupt decompression at thirty thousand feet—did planes fly that high?—but maybe he thought that was implied. And if he was letting his brother fly on the plane and he was going to fly on the plane, then okay, maybe he at least believed it would safe.

She swallowed. Her heart was slowing, settling down as she adapted to the idea that she was going to fly. 

Fly. On a plane. Okay, yeah, that was fine. People did it all the time. Not her, but you know, other people. And they mostly lived. 

So she’d probably live, too. 

But she wondered about the boy. 

She glanced back toward Kaio. His face was distant, not welcoming, but she asked anyway. “Is he going to be okay?” 

A muscle flickered in his cheek and she recognized the lie when he said, “Yes. He’ll be fine.”

After a moment more, the man at the front of the stretcher turned and gave him a thumbs up. Kaio nodded, before seating himself across from Fen. 

The brooding look on his face didn’t change as he gazed at her. It made Fen want to check her make-up, but she wasn’t wearing any. They’d come straight to the airport from the hotel. Instead, she tugged on the collar of her cardigan, drawing the sweater tighter around her neck. 

“Are you still cold?” Kaio asked. “Would you like my overcoat again?”

“No, no, I’m fine.” Fen hadn’t wanted his coat the first time, but he’d insisted she wear it on the short journey from the car into the airplane. She’d given it back to him so he could supervise his brother’s arrival. “But I am going to need a coat.” 

He raised a polite but questioning eyebrow. 

“I don’t have anything with me. No toothbrush, hairbrush, extra clothes, coat.” She flicked her fingers up and down, indicating herself, top to bottom. “Clothed now, nice, yes, thank you, but tomorrow’s another day.” 

“Indeed.” His lips quirked with half-hidden amusement. “An apt observation.” 

It seemed like an obvious observation to her, but she didn’t argue with him. “I didn’t imagine we were getting on an airplane. I thought… hospital. Private, secure hospital. Near Chicago. A quiet room where I’d hang out for a few days, probably watching too much television.” 

“Ah, I see.” He nodded as if her words made total sense. 

Fen wanted to hit him. One little tiny punch, just to make him take her seriously. 

She tried again. “I don’t have anything with me.” 

“You don’t have a passport, do you?” he asked, reaching for his seatbelt and drawing it around his waist. 

“What?” The word was a yelp, but the breathless torrent that followed sounded far more plaintive than Fen intended. “No, of course not. I don’t need a passport. I’m not leaving the country. I live here. I live here. This… No.” 

She reached for her own seatbelt. She’d buckled it securely around herself the moment she sat down. “This isn’t going to work. I’m sorry but I need to get off the plane. I’ll… I’ll… I don’t know what I’ll do. But I’ll do something else.” 

He tilted his head to one side. “You don’t have a coat.” 

“I know that,” she snapped. “That’s the whole point. I don’t have a coat. I can’t be on a plane when I don’t have a coat.” She was fumbling at the seatbelt. The damn thing didn’t work like real seatbelts, like car seatbelts. There wasn’t a button. It was some weird latch contraption, a piece that had to be lifted to separate the two halves. 

Kaio reached forward and put his hand over hers. She stilled at the feel of the warm touch. It was the first time he’d touched her. Even when he’d placed his coat around her, he’d been careful not to brush his skin against hers. 

The feeling in her stomach—that was queasiness. Fear. Panic from being on a plane, on an airplane, when she’d never flown on a plane before, never gone anywhere before. 

It had nothing to do with his touch. And the breathlessness—that was anxiety. She needed to get off this plane. Right now. Really quickly. Like ten minutes ago. 

“Listen,” he said. 

“Listen to what?” The seatbelt finally opened and she pulled the two halves apart with relief. 

“The engine.” 

She stilled. The engine was louder, much louder, and… she looked out the window. The ground was moving. Yep, the land was definitely in motion, sliding away beneath them as if they were on skates. 

And the feeling in her stomach? It was pressure, pushing her back against her seat. And then it was too late. The plane was leaving earth. 

Fen stared out the window as Kaio gently closed the seatbelt around her waist. That was the ground. Earth, going farther and farther away. 

It was turning into an impressionist painting, blurs of color, grey and green and dirt yellow and blue, and she blinked, blinked, blinked harder, willing the tears away. 

This was crazy. The whole thing. Twenty-four hours ago her life had been on track. All the broken pieces, she’d squashed them back together into a semblance of a life. 

And it was working. 

She was working.

The grey days outnumbered the black ones, not always by a lot, but they were definitely winning. And even on the black days, she held it together. Granola for breakfast, always. The safety and solitude of her own space. The store, grounding her. Customers who knew her name. The small pleasures. 

And at night, the focus—one class after the next, one set of readings following another. She was working. 

And now her house of cards was tumbling down.

“I need to go home.” 

“Think of this as a vacation,” Kaio said. 

Fen turned desperate eyes to him. “I need to go home.”  

“You will. This is temporary.” 

Fen could barely hear his words. The panic attack had her firmly in its grasp. She buried her face in her hands. 

He put his hand on her shoulder. “Breathe. Just breathe.” 

No one ever dies from a panic attack, a distant part of Fen’s brain reminded her. It didn’t help. 

Her heart was going to explode in her chest, burst into a thousand pieces, split apart and tear the rest of her apart with it. She was going to strangle, no air, her lungs quitting in disgust at her idiocy. 

Her brain, her useless, stupid, pointless brain, always telling her about the next danger, always warning, always criticizing, it was going to give up, just shut down and stop working, turning her into a zombie. 

“Breathe,” Kaio repeated. “One breath after another. Take your time.” 

“I don’t have a coat.” She gasped for air. 

“You won’t need one.” 

***** 

Fen stared out the window, feeling thoroughly humiliated. 

In kindergarten, Tommy Frazier wet his pants in front of the whole class. A dark spot growing on the cloth, a puddle growing on the floor around him. 

For the next fifteen years, that had been the pinnacle of embarrassment in Fen’s mind. 

As bad as Tommy wetting his pants? Nope. Okay then. 

But today she’d hit it. 

Having a panic attack in front of Amazing Voice Guy? Damn. 

She looked for the positive side. 

At least she hadn’t had a panic attack in front of the Perfect Asshole. That would have been worse. The thought caused her to choke on a laugh. 

God, yeah, that would have been worse. 

“Tea?” Kaio offered. 

Fen turned her head. 

“You seem to be feeling better.” 

“Not hyperventilating anymore, you mean?” she asked bitterly. 

His silence in response had Fen blushing, embarrassment deepening. He’d been perfect through the entire thing, not getting anxious, not asking questions or demanding information, doing nothing that would increase her stress level, simply waiting calmly while she blew a gasket. 

Why was she being a bitch? He didn’t deserve it. 

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked again. 

“No,” she said sullenly. And then she kicked an imaginary self in the seat of the pants. It was not his fault. None of this was his fault. “Thank you, though. And, if you have some, coffee would be nice. I prefer coffee.” 

He nodded and she turned her attention back to the window until a cup of coffee appeared before her. 

“This is… nice,” she said, gesturing inadequately to the cream-colored leather seats and spacious interior of the plane. “Not exactly how I imagined flying.” 

“Is this your first flight?” he asked. 

“Not obvious?” She took a sip of the coffee. Warm was all she needed, but it was rich and deep and packed with flavor. 

“You’ve been through a great deal in the past day. Distress is understandable.”

Distress felt like an understatement. Fen’s life had been ripped away from her. 

Except not literally. She could be dead right now. Drinking coffee in a ridiculously luxurious private airplane had to be better than being a slab of meat on a coroner’s table. 

She murmured something noncommittal and looked out the window. They were flying over clouds. It looked like a vast landscape, a snowy wasteland churned by waves, nothing she had ever seen before. Television didn’t do it justice. 

“May I ask you a personal question?” Kaio said. 

Fen’s eyes narrowed. Her instinctive response would have been an immediate no. She didn’t want him to know anything about her. But they might be together for days and she had questions of her own, lots of them. Perhaps some quid pro quo was in order. “Shoot.” 

He looked puzzled. 

“Go ahead,” she tried again.

“I couldn’t help but notice your art earlier.” He gestured toward his shoulder. “Does it have meaning to you?” 

Fen flushed. Had he been the one who’d removed her bloody clothes? But she was not going to think about that, about him touching her, seeing her almost naked. Nope, nope, definitely not thinking about that. 

“I apologize,” he murmured, dipping his head. “I had no intention of causing you embarrassment.” 

“It’s fine,” she said stiffly, not sure whether he was referring to the present moment or the morning. “No big.” 

“Most of our attention was directed to Luken at the time.” 

“That’s, yes…” Fen looked away, her cheeks cooling. Luken. That must be his brother’s name. Should she apologize for almost getting him killed? No, Kaio wasn’t the one she owed an apology to. “That’s understandable.” 

She lifted her own hand to her shoulder, brushing it against her neck. “My tattoo, this tattoo, is a phoenix.” 

“And its meaning to you?” 

“It’s nothing. It’s cheesy, really.” She actually loved her tattoo, the elegance and grace of the outspread wings on the fiery bird. But this guy didn’t seem like the tattoo type and she didn’t want to continue embarrassing herself in front of him. 

“It’s quite lovely,” Kaio said. “And a beautiful symbol. Rebirth and renewal, new life rising out of darkness. An interesting choice, though, for one so young.” 

“One so young?” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. He couldn’t be more than early thirties himself, maybe even late twenties. “I’m twenty-one, grandpa. Old enough.” 

He blinked at her, his dark lashes dropping over his bright eyes, before he said, “Of course.” 

She couldn’t detect any trace of a smile on his face, but the words felt somehow mocking anyway. “And how old are you?” 

“Old enough.” Now the amusement was clear.

Fen scowled at him, but before she could respond, one of the medical attendants interrupted them. 

“Sir?” the man said. “Luken is awake and asking to meet the young lady. May she come back and visit with him?” 

Kaio looked at her but Fen was already unfastening her seatbelt, more easily than the first time she’d tried, and standing. 

Luke, that was the boy’s name. She needed to thank him and she didn’t mind the chance to get away from his uncomfortable brother. 

Fen followed the attendant the few short steps down the aisle, past a row of seats, and paused by the stretcher. She crouched, avoiding the dripping IV line and other, more mysterious, equipment. 

“Hey,” she said. 

Up close and with time to look, he was older than she’d thought, at least sixteen or seventeen.

“Hey,” he whispered back. “You’re alive. I’m glad.” 

“Ditto.” Fen laughed shakily. 

His eyes, a greenish brown, reminded her of her hallucination, of the green blood she’d seen dripping from between his fingers, and her eyes drifted to his chest. He was bandaged, covered in blankets, no bloody traces showing. But of course it was the drugs she’d been on and the lack of light in the alley that made his blood appear green anyway. “There was a lot of blood. I didn’t think either of us was going to make it.” 

His hand fluttered toward his torso. “I should have been more careful.” 

“Probably, yeah. Not a great idea to confront the guy with the gun.”

“No.” A faint smile crossed his face. His eyes were still focused on hers, his look intent. 

“Next time, try 911.”

“911?”

“Emergency services? The people who send the cops and the ambulances?” 

“Ah.” His eyelids dropped. Where was he from that he didn’t know what 911 was? His English was perfect, not even the hint of an accent his brother had. “I’ll do that in the future.” 

“Are you planning to make a habit out of rescuing girls in trouble? Shouldn’t you have learned your lesson?” 

His eyes opened again. “I could do no less. When you called me, I would not have failed to answer.” 

“Called you?” What was he talking about? She hadn’t screamed. She’d wanted to. If she’d thought anyone would hear her, she would have. But she hadn’t. 

“You should sleep now, Luken.” Kaio’s voice interrupted them, and Fen started. She hadn’t heard him come up behind them, but there he was, hovering over her shoulder, a faint frown of disapproval woven across his forehead. “You need your rest. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to talk later.” 

She glanced back at his brother. The younger man was frowning, too, but he looked more confused than disapproving. “All right.” 

But as Fen moved to rise, he put out a hand to stop her. “Wait. What’s your name?” 

“Fen.” 

He repeated the name, as if testing it and liking the sound of it. “Fen.” He let his hand drop. A smile played around his lips. “Nice name.” 

“Thank you,” Fen said. Was he flirting with her from his hospital bed? Shouldn’t he be a little young for that? “And you? Are you Luke or Luken?” 

“Luken to family, Luke to friends,” he replied. 

“Gotcha.” Fen stood. 

Kaio stepped aside to let her pass and she started back to her seat. She’d only gone a couple of steps when Luke said something, a mutter she didn’t quite hear. She looked over her shoulder but Kaio waved her forward as if the words weren’t meant for her. 

But Fen frowned as she sat down again. It sounded as if Luke had said, “Which are you?”

That made no sense, though. Of course, nothing felt like it made sense anymore. She put her head against the chill of the window and closed her eyes. She wanted to sleep, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to, not with the way her mind kept churning. 

Zach. She’d stopped by Sunday night to see if he wanted to split a pizza, an impulse after a long day. It would have been a splurge for her, but shared she could swing it. 

She recognized what she’d walked in on right away. She hadn’t spotted anything obvious—no drugs, no guns, no money—but the tension in the room, the cold looks, and the vague menace of his visitors reminded her of uglier parts of her past, places she didn’t want to go again. 

Places she didn’t know Zach was visiting. 

Sure, he had an edge, but his eyes held no darkness, nothing saying he was in over his head. Nothing that made him as a dealer, at least not to her, and she should have known. 

But damn it, why hadn’t she kept her cool? What he did was none of her business. If she hadn’t gotten so flustered, his connections might not have thought they needed to kill her. 

And those connections… 

The guy from last night’s words kept playing and replaying in her head. “Your choice.” “This is just a job, miss.” 

Someone else called her miss recently. Who was it? 

Had she made the right decision? Luke wouldn’t have gotten shot if she hadn’t been such a coward. Was that her fault? But they were both alive, at least for the moment, so hey, that was better than dead, right? 

It was so weird, though. His blood really had looked green. Not bright green, not fluorescent or anything. It wasn’t the green of fake apple candy, but a deep, dark green, almost a muddy color. 

But it must have been the light. The lack of light. The darkness. 

How had Kaio found them? How had Luke found her? 

She needed to stop thinking. Just stop. Let the thoughts go. Leave it alone. Done was done and what had happened couldn’t be changed. 

And she had nothing to be scared of now. They were headed to a safe place. She was on an adventure. She should treat it like one. 

Hey, she was flying in a plane and that was cool. 

And she was on her way to an unknown destination with total strangers… Oh, lord, she needed to make her brain shut off. 

She wished she was home in her own apartment. She wanted coffee in her favorite coffee mug, curled up in her bed with her blankets over her, the television on low, and nothing planned for the day except to read a good book. 

She tried to imagine herself there. 

One deep breath, then another. 

She stirred when something changed. A sound? A vibration? Opening her eyes, she sat upright. A blanket draped over her hadn’t been there before and a small pillow fell to the floor before she could catch it. 

Kaio lifted his head from his laptop and glanced out the window. “Almost there.” 

Fen rubbed her eyes. Somehow she’d fallen asleep. She turned to peer out the window and her breath stopped in her throat. 

Blue. 

Intense, bright, vivid blue, like she’d never seen it before, blue with tips of white and deep reaches of green, with dark shadows and clear translucent patches where she could see all the way down, down, down to white sandy ground. 

“Oh, my God.” She managed to exhale. “That’s…” 

“The Caribbean,” Kaio said as if it were no big deal. 

No big deal. 

The fucking Caribbean. 

It was an ocean. 

That blue was water, more water than Fen had ever seen in her life, more water than she’d ever even imagined seeing. 

The plane started to slope downward.

“This is not real,” Fen whispered. “This is…”

Kaio closed his laptop, tucking it into a soft case that had appeared on the seat next to him. “Quite real.” 

She looked at him, her eyes wide. “It’s so blue.”

“Yes.” The smile accompanying the word was benevolent enough, but Fen lifted her chin in response. 

Inwardly, she cringed. Why had she said that out loud? Was she doomed to embarrass herself in front of this guy over and over again? 

She turned her gaze back to the window and stared out. She didn’t want to miss this. But as the plane got lower and lower, all she could see was water and more water. 

It was stupid to be scared because obviously, the pilot knew what he was doing—or she, might be a girl pilot, who knew—but that didn’t matter, because the plane dropped still lower until it looked as if Fen could reach out and touch the water and what the fuck was going to happen? 

She glanced back at Kaio. Shit, looking at him for reassurance as if he was some magic whiz authority. But hell, he’d done this before, surely he’d know if they should be grabbing for the life jackets. 

He looked perfectly relaxed, leaning back in his seat and watching her with an enigmatic expression. 

And then, out the window, white sand. And trees whizzing by. And the whole plane almost shuddering, with a push and drag and an abrupt slowdown like the pilot was hitting the brakes at a yellow light. Fen bit back the yelp, but her hands were tight on the arms of her seat, until finally, finally, the plane came to a stop. 

She breathed again. 

She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath, but she had. 

“Welcome to Caye Laje.” Kaio unbuckled his seatbelt and stood, slinging his laptop case over his shoulder. “You won’t need a coat.” 

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