by E. A. Blevins
Anna Margaretta Goode strode toward the old sports equipment shed, her short heels sinking into the soft post-rainstorm grass. When she couldn’t find her boyfriend, she knew to look for him here. He and his friends from the lacrosse team liked to hang out in there, pretending they were tough and disreputable. It smelled like old feet, but they didn’t seem to mind.
She slogged up to the door and pounded her fist against it. “Miles! Miles you jerk, I’ve been waiting thirty minutes on your sorry butt! The buses are gone, the humidity is destroying my hair, and I want to go the hell home!”
Miles opened the door a crack. She heard his teammate Abel’s voice from the room behind him: “Dude, put a leash on your girlfriend.”
“This isn’t a good time, baby,” said Miles.
Anna glared up at him. “When is a good time? When you say so? It’s five-thirty, practice is well over, and all my other ride options are gone. I’ve ruined my shoes coming out here because you decided I’m not as important as, what, smoking pot?” She planted a hand in the middle of his chest, gave a good hard shove, and squeezed in the doorway as he took a surprised step back.
“Goddammit, Miles, I told you to leash the bitch.”
Anna stopped cold at the sight of a swarthy young man tied and gagged with duct tape. He hung from a pull-up bar by his bound hands, face bruised and bloody.
And she went off. In Spanish, because she knew none of them spoke Spanish and it always pissed Abel off to no end. Anna was fluent thanks to her Mexican mother, and she used it to dress the boys up and down for being stupid violent assholes.
She targeted most of it at Abel, because she knew the others were just followers. This insane idea was his, no question.
He argued back some, mostly threats about gagging her and orders for Miles to shut her up. Miles did take her by the shoulders and try to tug her away to calm her down, but it was too gentle to be effective.
When she ran out of air, she switched to English and snapped viciously, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Abel rolled his eyes in disgust.
She turned to Rich and Jason, who sat by the window flexing their damaged knuckles. The brothers grinned sheepishly, and the expression made them look even more alike than usual. “Just welcoming the new kid. He’s a transfer from Summit.”
Abel gave their captive a shove. “Bastard thinks he’s better than us. We’re teaching him a lesson.”
Anna turned on Miles. “You’re going to get expelled if you keep letting him talk you into crap like this.”
Abel rolled his eyes. “Better hide your balls, Miles, before she cuts them off.”
Anna turned and snapped, “That’s funny, coming from a guy without any.”
Abel grabbed his crotch. “You wanna check?”
Miles slid his arms around Anna’s waist. “Calm down, baby, he’s just messing with you.”
She swatted his arms away. “You don’t get to touch me while I’m mad at you.”
“What did I do?”
“Did you forget about taking me home? Or is beating the crap out of some stranger more satisfying than having a girlfriend, because I swear to God . . .”
“Okay, I’m sorry already! Jeez.” Miles hunched his shoulders up around his ears.
Abel made a face. “Is there any chance you two can take this outside before my balls shrivel up from all this bitching?”
Anna tossed him a glare. “Not a snowball’s in hell.”
Abel let his head fall back. “I’m going to the vending machine. Don’t touch anything ‘til I get back. You guys coming?” The brothers followed him out, leaving Anna and Miles alone in the shed.
More or less.
Anna ignored their duct-taped audience and jabbed a fingernail into Miles’s chest. “You are going to go get your car, and you are going to bring it out here.”
“That’s against school rules, Anna. It’ll mess up the grass.”
She jabbed him harder. “So is everything you’ve ever done in this shed, so you are going to get your freaking car, bring it out, and pick me up because there is no way in hell I’m walking all the way back to the parking lot in heels.”
Miles hesitated, but she flung her arm up and pointed toward the door. “Go.”
With a scowl, he moved. “I’m going, I’m going. God, you’ve gotten bitchy.”
As the door shut behind him, she turned, pulled a lipstick out of her purse, and uncapped it. She deftly twisted the tube until a small blade appeared. Anna sliced through the duct tape on the boy’s feet, then went to work on his hands. When he dropped to the floor and rubbed his wrists, she put the knife away and crumpled the duct tape into a ball. “Use the window. Head straight for the trees. They won’t be able to see you from the vending machines.” She nodded toward a large window in the back of the shed.
The boy ripped the tape off his mouth and spat blood onto the floor. He was taller than her and had shoulder-length dark hair, but she couldn’t tell much about his face with all the bruising. He rubbed gingerly at his ribs and his shirt hiked up enough to show a patchwork of fresh bruises across his abdomen and sides.
She frowned. “You can run, right? Nothing broken?”
“I can run.”
“Then get out of here.”
He hesitated. “What about you?”
“They won’t hurt me.” Probably.
“I’ll be fine. Go.” With the same gesture she’d used on Miles, she pointed at the window.
Anna exited the the shed by the door and shut it behind her before Abel and the other two started back from the vending machines under the football stands.
“What are you doing out here?” Abel asked when they reached her. He had a cold drink in one hand and shoved the shed door open with the other.
“Waiting for Miles.”
“Where—” Abel paused, halfway inside the shed, then let out a vicious curse. He stepped back and grabbed Anna’s arm hard enough to make her gasp. “Where is he?”
“Getting his truck. He’s going to pick me up.”
Abel stared at her a second. “Not Miles, you stupid bitch. The guy that was there.” On the last word, he yanked her into the shed, nearly pulling her off her feet, and angled her toward the pull-up bar.
She snarled something in Spanish, pulling at her arm, and he twisted it so hard that she gasped and froze. She could have sworn the bone creaked.
“Did you let him go?!”
She willed herself to believe that the feeling in her stomach was fury and not terror. She dredged every ounce of bravado in her body, dragging it up from her toes to stare Abel straight in the eye. “Don’t try and blame your weak knots on me, jackass. Now let me go.” She tried to keep the pleading out of her voice when she added, “You know Miles doesn’t like you to touch me.”
Abel breathed heavily for a moment, pupils contracted, before he released her.
She raised her chin and held her injured arm but refused to examine it even though the pain made her want to cry.
Abel turned to Rich and Jason. “We have to find him. Come on.”
She watched them round the shed to look for footprints, which were easy to find in the soft post-rain grass. She watched them through the open window as they raced toward the trees in the distance. If she hadn’t cut the boy free, how badly would they have hurt him? Would they even have known when to stop?
Would they have refused if Abel decided to hurt Anna instead of the boy from Summit?
She doubted it.
Anna examined the angry red handprint on her arm and silently prayed the Summit boy had gotten enough of a head start. Otherwise, he was screwed.
Anna stayed silent on the ride home with Miles. He assumed she was angry at him, and that suited her. Truth was, she was scared.
She’d seen Miles and the others smoking and drinking, but they’d never done anything more serious in front of her until now.
Abel had gotten more and more unstable, but beating the crap out of a stranger just for being from Summit High?
Ice touched her spine.
She brushed Miles’s hand away as he pulled up in front of her apartment building. He tried to apologize again, but she got out and slammed the truck door before he could. She couldn’t even look at him, not with the stink of sweat and blood still lingering in her mind.
He’d get hold of her tomorrow, when she’d calmed down enough to put her girlfriend mask back on, and she’d forgive him.
She jogged up the three flights of stairs to her floor, dug her keys out of her bag, and entered. “I’m home!”
“Aquí, mija. How was school?”
Anna walked into the kitchen where her mother sat in her flowered bathrobe, a mug of coffee clasped between her hands. Anna dropped her bookbag on a chair at the table and sank into another. “Fine. You just get up?”
“Sí. I have to be at the hospice in an hour.”
“They need to give you a day shift.”
“They will as soon as I get seniority. You know how these things work.”
Anna took off her shoes and grabbed a paper towel to clean the grass and mud off of them.
Anna felt her mother’s bleary gaze on the shoes. “You want to wet those to get the dried dirt off. Not too much. Put dish detergent on it, too. The paper towel, not the shoe. Just a drop.”
“Should I just let you do it?”
Her mom snorted. “No.”
Anna grinned and got up to dampen her paper towel. She added a drop of Lemon Joy and rubbed gently at the mud on the white heels.
Her mother drained her coffee and got up to rinse her mug. “Going to the store after work. Anything you need?”
Her mother grunted and set her mug in the dish rack to dry. “I’ll get off-brand.”
Anna scowled but didn’t argue. Off-brand wasn’t as good, but it was better than the raisin bran, grape nut, and whole wheat crap her mom kept trying to push. Often with an attempted lecture on colon health.
Anna always left the room when colons came up.
Her mother went to get ready for work, and Anna had just finished with her shoes when her mom returned. Anna kissed her goodbye. “Have a good day.”
Anna locked up after her mother and went to her bedroom. She opened her window and set her shoes on the sill to dry, then got on her computer.
She typed in her password and opened a file that required a different password. In it, she wrote down everything that had happened that afternoon with Abel’s crew and the Summit kid.
She included the date, time, and location, then saved and closed the file.
She rechecked the locks on the door and all of the windows. Though she had no reason to think Abel would show up at her apartment, she’d also never thought he would talk the guys into beating someone up for fun.
Anna had trouble sleeping that night.
Anna didn’t see the Summit kid for over a week. He must have decided to stay away from school and recuperate, maybe let things cool down a little bit.
What surprised her was that no cops came around, no assault charges popped up, and no one got pulled into the police station. This didn’t calm Abel down, of course, and Anna kept close to Miles when she was with the four of them. Abel still wanted blood, and she’d be a fool to think he wouldn’t settle for hers.
Then, around two weeks after the assault, the Summit kid appeared at her locker.
“I have to talk to you.”
She took a step back and glared at him. “Four-thirty in the art room and don’t ever approach me like this again.” She slammed her locker shut and strode away.
“He bothering you?” Miles slung an arm around her waist as she passed, his gaze on the Summit kid.
“Not anymore.” She pulled him to walk with her but he kept glancing back.
“He does, you let me know.”
She nodded. “If I need you, I’ll let you know.”
It wasn’t agreement, but Miles didn’t seem to notice. He squeezed her waist.
Anna went through the motions for the rest of the day, only perking up in chemistry because they were learning how to make smoke bombs and making smoke bombs was on her list of things to learn in life. Or it should have been, had she thought of it.
At four-thirty, she arrived in the art room. The art club didn’t meet today, but sometimes a student would linger for half an hour to an hour after school, finishing up projects. They usually left by four, and Miles wouldn’t be out of lacrosse practice for another half hour.
They had time to talk unobserved.
Anna paused in the doorway, watching the Summit kid as he examined the student display by the cabinets. She’d gotten his name off a girl at lunch: Noah. Most of the kids she’d talked to knew he’d been jumped, but no one had any details.
She walked up behind him. “You wanted to see me?”
He turned. The damage to his face was still apparent, but she could see his features better now that he wasn’t covered in blood.
Instead of speaking, he looked at her, his expression bemused, like he was trying to figure her out.
She waited, then raised her eyebrows. “Well?”
“Why did you help me?”
She snorted. “Really? That’s it? That’s the big conversation?”
He frowned, annoyed. “You’re dating one of the guys who did this, and you don’t want to be seen talking to me. You had no reason to help me. So why did you?”
She searched his face, noted every green and yellow bruise, every healing cut. “I’m not a big fan of tying people up and beating them.”
His eyes bored into hers. “You could have gotten in trouble for what you did.”
“They might have hurt you.”
They had. Her arm hadn’t stopped throbbing for three days after the way Abel grabbed it, but now she just shrugged. “I can take care of myself.”
Noah’s eyes narrowed. “So can I. Usually. When it’s not four on one.”
He had a point. She refused to acknowledge it. Instead, she walked over to the sculptures and picked one up. The card read “Abstract Circles.”
“What’s that?” He stood at her shoulder.
“A piece of crappy art, as far as Mrs. Milner is concerned.” She slipped her fingers through the holes and made a fist. It fit perfectly. “As soon as I get to take it home, it’ll be a keychain or a purse decoration. Something I can remove with a sharp tug.” She glanced over her shoulder, then twisted and feinted a jab at him. Pulled her fist back and admired the pattern she’d painted onto the ceramic before she’d fired it in the kiln. “It’ll break after a punch or two, but it’ll give me that brief edge.”
A slow, disbelieving smile started to spread across Noah’s face. “You made your own brass knuckles.”
“You ought to see my pepper spray.” She slipped her art project off her hand and put it back on the display. “You need to start thinking like that. How to get away if you’re cornered again. How not to get cornered again. Stay in public places, near teachers, vary your path to classes, don’t go to the same bathroom every time. Actually, try not to go in bathrooms at all.” She glanced up at him, and he looked far too amused for the seriousness of the conversation. She roughly cupped the back of his neck, bringing his head down so she could better glare into his eyes. He looked startled. “Pay attention. They get you again, and I might not be there to help out.”
He blinked. “Would you?”
“Would you help, if they went at me again?”
“Yes.” She didn’t even need to think about her answer. “But it’d be better if you just avoided them.” Her frown deepened and she bit her lower lip. “I should get you their class schedules.”
“Why do you go out with him?”
Startled, she looked up.
And realized she’d been holding the back of his neck far too long.
She felt her cheeks heat, her eyes widen, and she started to let go.
He caught her hands and kept her close. “Go out with me.”
Anna pulled her hands free. “Um, no.”
“Come on, dump that loser and go out with me.”
She sighed and stepped away. “I can’t.”
“You’re that worried about your reputation?”
She flashed him a dangerous look. “I’m that worried about my health.”
“I wouldn’t let them touch you.”
“Let them?” She arched a brow and tugged on the bottom of the cross she wore around her neck. It detached, sliding out and revealing a short blade. “Which one of us carries the armory?”
His gaze flicked from the necklace to her purse, seeming to remember the lipstick knife that she’d freed him with. His lips quirked. “Fair point.”
She put her necklace back together.
Noah rubbed the back of his head and watched her. “Look, I don’t care. Don’t break up with the bastard. Just go out with me.”
“Because he and his friends won’t be extra pissed if he finds I’m cheating on him with you. The guy they already nearly killed.”
“What will convince you? Drive you to a different town? Should I wear a mask? Use a fake accent?”
She ignored the sarcasm and watched him pensively. “You’re serious about this.”
“I’m willing to antagonize guys who have already thoroughly kicked my ass, so yeah. I’d say I’m serious.”
He laughed. “You have to ask?” When she looked at him, he shook his head and started ticking things off on his fingers. “You’re cute. You’re brave. You cut me free without blinking, even though some seriously pissed guys could walk in any second. And you have a weird fetish for weapons that I’m strangely okay with.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Cute?”
He stepped closer. Loomed. “Like you make me feel like the big bad wolf to your kamikazi red riding hood kind of cute.”
Anna didn’t know whether he was teasing or not. She continued to watch him with narrowed eyes. “I’ll have their schedules for you soon.”
He tilted his head to the side and examined her. “Friday?”
“Maybe by Monday. I’ll try to work fast.”
“No, I mean—will you go out with me Friday?”
She met his eyes and sighed. “I have to go. Don’t talk to me in public again, okay?” With that, she left.
It took Anna a few seconds the next morning to remember her conversation with Noah. When she did, she closed her eyes with a groan and buried her face in her pillow before rolling out of bed and padding into the kitchen. Her lips quirked at the Lucky Charms on the counter. Her mom would be home and asleep by now, so Anna made as little noise as possible as she got ready for school.
Short skirt, cross necklace. Perfume bottle filled with pepper spray, lipstick knife. She glanced at her vanity, where an empty blusher compact lay open beside a disassembled disposable camera. She’d been trying to figure out the mechanics of the camera so she could combine it with the compact.
Maybe if she had a cell phone camera . . . but she couldn’t afford a quality one, and her mom would never approve the $200 high-def smartphone Anna was lusting after. Anyway, she still needed to increase her pepper spray range—a balloon filled with cayenne water would be about as effective. More effective, probably. Maybe she could tinker with the formula while she was working on range. She’d read some great things about pepper gel.
She grabbed her bookbag, considered what a cheap cell phone could be used for, and decided to do a web search when she got home that afternoon.
Miles arrived to pick her up late, as usual, but she wasn’t in the mood to give him hell for it. She just slung her bag in the cab of his truck and stepped in after it.
“Hey,” he said, not-so-subtly checking her out.
It reminded her that Noah had called her cute. Cute. Anna tossed her hair, lustrous waves of burnt sienna that lay halfway down her back, and jammed her seatbelt on. She had way more curves than “cute” deserved. Zero freckles. She was even above medium height, shorter than him but not altogether short.
“Cute” my well-rounded ass.
She turned to Miles as he stopped at a red light. “Do you think I’m cute?”
He got a deer-in-headlights look. “Uh . . . yeah.”
She stared at him.
He slid further down in his seat. “What’s the right answer?”
Someone honked. He saw the light was green and stepped on the gas too hard. They jolted forward. Once he’d evened his speed out, he glanced over at her. “Am I in trouble?”
She said nothing, not mad at him but not sure he needed to know that.
When they pulled into the school parking lot, Anna let out a frustrated breath and stopped Miles from opening his door.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so high maintenance lately.” She had reasons. Good ones. He’d physically assaulted a stranger, after all. Karma, right? “I just hate the way you’ve been acting lately. All the stuff those guys talk you into.”
“They’re my friends.”
“Yeah, I know.” She blew a puff of breath through her lips. “If you had to choose between them and me, I know you’d choose them.” She paused just long enough for him to protest, but he didn’t. In a softer voice, she continued, “Which is why I haven’t pushed the issue. I just wish you’d be a little smarter about some of the stuff you guys get up to.”
A grin spread across his face. “Aw, you’re worried about me.” He pulled her against him and kissed her.
She gave in for a minute, though she really didn’t like being grabbed, then broke away. “Come on. We’re gonna be late.”
She saw Noah in the halls but ignored him. He seemed to be taking her advice on trying to avoid the guys, and she started a list of their classes for him.
She saw him alone once, when she’d been running late for sixth period. He must have spotted her and lingered, because they were the last two in the hall. She started to pass him, but he got in her way.
“When can I see you again?”
She scanned the hall to make sure they were alone. “You’re seeing me now.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Look, I have your locker number when the schedules are ready. There’s no need to actually talk to me.”
“What if I want to?”
“Then you’re begging to have your ass kicked.”
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t think I’m stupid enough to get caught again.”
“I don’t remember saying they were the ones gonna kick your ass.” She pretended to crack her knuckles, which made him laugh.
So it went for the next two weeks. She ignored Noah until he forced her to pay attention to him, and she’d brush him off, but she found herself more and more reluctant to send him on his way. She finished the list of classes and gave it to him in person, along with a map of the routes the guys took. He teased her for being so thorough.
Most days after school, she went to lacrosse practice and sat with the other girlfriends. They gossiped and ogled the players, and Anna joined in with her own dry humor.
At home, Anna worked alternately on improving her pepper spray and designing a new project. She’d found how to bug a room with a cheap prepaid cell phone, but she also wanted to record conversations—preferably with something small she could drop in a backpack or slip into a wallet.
She decided on a keychain.
It took over a week to configure a simple bug that would save sound to her computer. Then she designed a keychain around it and asked Noah to take it on a test run. He obliged in exchange for getting to see her apartment.
More specifically, her room.
He came over after her mom left, per Anna’s instructions. He didn’t try anything while there, just sat on her bed and watched her tinker with the bug. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Give it to Miles,” she said.
He didn’t say anything.
She glanced at him. “What?”
“You’re bugging your boyfriend.”
“But you won’t dump him.”
“So you don’t trust him, but you want to stay together.”
She snorted. “I trust him not to fool around with other girls. He knows I’d have his balls for that. This is for something else.”
She sighed and set down her work. “You really want to know?”
She sat at her computer and opened the password-protected document. “A few months back, my mom heard about this new steroid. It’s undetectable by current drug testing, though they’re working on that, and it’s very popular among athletes.
“The problem is that it’s more potent than previous steroids, particularly when it comes to side effects. Like aggression.” She looked pointedly at Noah where he leaned over her shoulder. He met her gaze.
“You think Miles is using it.”
“I know he is. And Abel, and Rich, and Jason. They’ve always been asses, but they’ve changed recently. A lot. The way they used to be, they never would have thought what they did to you was okay.”
“So you . . . want to save him.”
She looked into his eyes. “Noah, I’m dating Miles to find the steroids. As soon as this is over . . .”
“You . . . don’t actually like him?”
“I’m not gonna say I’m happy about using him, but when it comes down to it . . . he’s the lesser of four evils.”
“So, once you catch him using steroids . . .”
Anna shook her head. “No. That would be easy. I want to find out who’s supplying them. The long term effects of this stuff is serious. It shouldn’t be out on the streets.”
He stared at her. Finally, he said, “You are so—”
“If you say cute again, I’m going to introduce you to my taser.”
She blinked, startled, and a little zing went through her stomach. “Oh.”
He rotated her chair so she was facing him, then bent and kissed her, slow and exhaustive.
When he drew away, he whispered, “You should be illegal.”
Her head was spinning. “Not since February.” His eyebrows shot up, and her head cleared just enough to glare at him. “Not gonna happen.”
He let out a breath that sounded like a laugh. “And on that note . . .”
She watched him grab his jacket and felt a well of longing that she tried to tamp down. When she locked the front door behind him, she let out a harsh sigh.
This was not going to end well.
The dry run with Noah went well, so Anna gave the keychain bug to Miles the next time she saw him.
“It's like, leather,” he said, examining it. “All twisted up.”
She'd braided and knotted thin leather strips around the bug in a macrame pattern one of the other lacrosse girlfriends had taught her. She'd banged it around a little and found that the leather casing made good padding.
She spent most of her free time going over the recorded audio, skipping past lectures during classes, and she started emailing half of it to Noah when he offered to help.
It wasn’t until the next Thursday that she got the hit she'd been waiting for. While combing that day's useless and often disgusting chats between the four boys, she perked up when a post-lacrosse-practice locker room chat turned from the typical banal crap to a plan to meet up on Friday night.
“He got new stuff in? I'm low.”
“Yeah,” said Abel. “Fresh batch.”
Anna took off her headphones and pounded her desk triumphantly. “Yes! Yes yes yes yes!”
This called for a celebration. She danced through her empty apartment to the kitchen and picked up the phone.
Noah picked up on the third ring. “Yeah?”
“I’ve got them. They’re meeting with their dealer on Friday.”
“Wow. Nice. What do we do now, call the cops?”
“We don’t do anything. I’m going to record the deal and turn it all in.”
“On your own.”
“If you say it like that, it sounds stupid.”
“It is stupid.”
“They won’t even know I’m there.”
“Fine. What’s your idea?”
“Call the police and let them handle it.”
Anna pressed her lips together. “Well . . . not everything I’ve done has been exactly . . . legal?”
“So, stakeout, huh?”
They hashed out a plan, and soon she could hear a sly smile steal into Noah’s voice. “So . . . what I'm hearing is that you're going to be single soon.”
She laughed. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“Go to a movie with me tonight.”
“Your mom’s working, right? She won’t know.”
She couldn’t help the smile in her voice. “Good night, Noah.”
Friday night, Anna crouched in the darkest corner of the boys' locker room with a digital camera she'd borrowed from a friend. She'd turned the screen off and would rely on the old-fashioned viewfinder. She'd also had to look up how to turn off the snapshot noise so it wouldn't give her position away.
As an afterthought, she'd tinkered with it until she knew all her photos would be time-stamped.
Noah had bunkered down across the hall in case she ran into any trouble which, now that she heard the rowdy voices of Abel and his boys coming into the locker room, might have been a terrible idea.
The sickening sound of fist against flesh made her sink with her belly against the floor.
They had Noah.
Abel took his lacrosse stick and swung it across Noah's back. Noah hit the tile and Abel handed the stick to Miles. “Go on, man.”
Miles seemed more worked up than usual, his cheeks flushed and eyes dilated. Was he high? Anna felt a sinking in her gut that turned sour as he lifted the lacrosse stick and brought it down on Noah's head.
She could see the blood now. She hoped it wasn't as bad as it looked.
Abel put his hands on his knees and grinned at the damage. “Come on, man. Beat his ass!”
“Whoo!” Jason and Rich lifted their beer bottles.
Oh, great. Drunk steroid-using assholes.
Anna had started to climb to her feet when the locker room door opened and a new voice said, “What the hell are you boys doing?”
She sank back down to the floor and grabbed the camera, taking about ten shots in the space of a few seconds.
It was the assistant lacrosse coach, Mr. Landers.
She peered over the camera at the scene. They'd stopped beating Noah as Mr. Landers sank to one knee beside him and checked his pulse.
“What is this?”
Abel looked a little less guilty than the others. “This Summit trash was sneaking around outside.”
Mr. Landers shook his head in exasperation. “Idiots. Rich, take this boy to my office. I’ll try to smooth it over so his parents don’t make a fuss.”
“C’mon, coach,” said Abel, striking a pose Anna supposed he thought was tough.
“Shut up,” said Mr. Landers. “Just shut up.” For once, Abel did what he was told. Once Rich and Noah were out the door, Mr. Landers heaved a sigh. “This is the last thing I need. You kids are going to wreck everything.”
Abel kept his chin high, even though his posture had slumped. “You got the stuff?”
Mr. Landers pulled a small packet from his jacket and handed it over. He didn't let go right away, which forced Abel to meet his eye and allowed Anna to get multiple clear shots of the exchange. “Cut this crap out before you get us all caught.”
“You've made your point. And then some. Just clean your act up and call it a day, okay? Before you get the cops involved?”
Anna took the sim card out of the camera and put it in her sneaker, then set the camera carefully down on the floor and waited for the assistant coach to leave, but he didn’t. Instead, Rich and Jason returned, anxiety dripping off them. “He got away.”
Mr. Landers went still. In a carefully controlled voice, he said, “What?”
“The guy. He got away.”
“Let me get this straight. The boy you beat half to death is loose.”
Mr. Landers asked “How?” with forced calm.
Rich, already flushed from drinking, turned bright red. “He tripped me and ran off. I looked, but—”
Rich went with Jason on his heels. Mr. Landers stopped Abel and Miles from following. “He might have come back and heard us.”
Abel shifted from foot to foot, obviously eager to join the hunt. “What should we do?”
“Bring him to my office. I’ll find out what he knows.”
“What if he heard us?”
“We’ll shut him up.”
Anna’s stomach tightened. Had she just heard what she thought she’d heard? This was way worse than drugs.
Mr. Landers left, and Miles grabbed a lacrosse stick, tossing it easily to Abel before nabbing one for himself.
Anna followed them, careful to stay in the shadows, but they never looked behind them.
A faint shout from a nearby corridor galvanized the boys to run, lacrosse sticks at the ready like they were at a game. Anna’s heart lurched into her throat. When she reached the room where they’re cornered Noah, her heart sank to her toes. The brothers stood over him as he tried to pull himself up using the teacher’s desk. Jason kicked at him, but his aim was off and he hit the desk instead.
Abel pushed the two brothers aside and just looked down at Noah. Anna could only see his back, but she thought he was enjoying the moment.
Miles stood closest to the door, only a yard away from her.
Anna didn’t hesitate. She charged forward and punched him under his arm, in the ribs. Her own fist couldn't do much damage, but the ceramic knuckles she'd grabbed from the art room earlier made his ribs give a satisfying crack.
Maybe she wouldn't have been so ready to hurt him if he hadn't still been holding the lacrosse stick—he hadn’t been the worst boyfriend ever—but, right then, he was armed, and she couldn’t take any chances.
Jason stared blankly at her, his eyes still a little beer-glazed, but the less-drunk Rich came at her. She swung her left hand around to mace him. Not her homemade stuff, either, but a bright pink police-grade pepper spray with a ten-foot range.
She then maced Jason for the hell of it, wrenching a string of screaming expletives from him as he covered his eyes with both hands.
She darted among the desks, very aware that she'd turned her back to Abel. When she whirled to face him, he used his lacrosse stick to knock the mace out of her hand. They circled, Anna staying just out of easy reach as she got closer to the front and Noah, and Abel smirked as he knelt to pick up the mace she'd dropped.
To the brothers, who were making a lot of noise about their eyes which had turned hugely puffy and red, Abel said, “Get out of here and wash them out. Milk works. Whole, not skim.”
“Been maced before?” Anna sneered. She’d maneuvered herself to the teacher’s desk so that she was practically standing over Noah.
Abel flashed her a smile and gave the pink mace in his hand half his attention. He turned it over, said “Cute,” and stuffed it into his pocket.
Wonderful. Abel had both of the ranged weapons, and Miles was picking himself up between her and the door. Even though he held his side, Anna knew that wouldn’t slow him down much.
As they flanked her, Anna's mind went blank with panic.
“Run,” said her brain, but all she had to do was look at Noah to know she couldn't leave him behind.
She decided to stall instead. “What are you going to do? Beat me? Kill me?”
Abel paused and glanced at Miles. “Told you she was a bitch, man.”
“Yeah.” Miles didn't smile. His eyes were still dilated, but he seemed calmer than he had in the locker room, and he kept staring at Anna like he expected her to explain her presence away as a joke.
“Regretting things now? Maybe think you shouldn't have messed with us?” said Abel.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Go to hell.”
Anna suppressed her reflexive sympathy. Miles was a violent thug. She might hurt his feelings, but feelings mended faster than bones.
Of course, she'd damaged those on him, as well. A moment of hysteria struck her as she thought she should maybe apologize for doing such a thorough job of injuring him, but the moment passed, leaving her cold and scared over the injured body of the boy on the floor.
She would not let these bastards win.
Abel swung at her with his lacrosse stick. She ducked the first strike, but the second caught her on the side of the head and made her stumble. Miles swooped in and used his stick to pin her against the blackboard, his movements dulled by doubt and whatever he’d taken earlier. She reached into her back pocket and wrapped her hand around the small flashlight she'd tucked there earlier.
She jabbed it under Miles' shirt and hit the button for just a second. He jerked back, and his eyes flashed pain and rage. Anna took the opening to charge Abel, who slammed his lacrosse stick into her legs and left her sprawling beside Noah.
He used the netting of his stick to scoop up the flashlight and examine it. “What the hell?” He reached in, and Anna started to get up. He kicked her back down, hard, and Miles charged her from the side, knocking her to the floor and landing on top of her. He drew back a fist, then hesitated, his rage abating into uncertainty.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Abel.
Miles continued to hesitate, face indecisive. “I've never hit a girl before.”
“First time for everything.” Abel switched the flashlight on and a zap of electricity crackled at the end. He laughed. “Is this a taser?!”
“Stun gun,” Anna grunted.
He knelt beside her. “How the hell did you get this?”
“I made it.”
Abel's eyebrows rose. He looked impressed. “Psycho bitch, huh? Shame you’re a lying slut; you would have fit right in.” His expression changed to something more disgusting than simple violence. “Hey, maybe you still can.”
She tried to pour every ounce of contempt she felt for him into her glare.
“Move back, man,” he said to Miles. “Let's see if this thing works.”
Anna felt a flash of fear. She went over her arsenal in her mind. She still wore her ceramic knuckles, but they'd cracked after the first strike and would only be good for one more. She had her knife, but she didn't think she had the stomach to use it on a person. If she pulled it out, the situation would go from dangerous to deadly in the blink of an eye. Right now, she could make the argument that Abel was just playing, having fun hurting people. With a knife . . . she thought he'd probably get real serious real quick.
Abel trailed the inactive stun gun along her neck, arm, and pushed her shirt up to bare her midriff. He turned it on. Her breathing picked up, and sweat sprang out across her forehead.
Abel seemed to enjoy watching her face as he held the stun gun near her skin.
Anna lost her breath when it connected. It felt like a punch to the gut with a jackhammer.
Three long seconds later, Abel stopped.
Her muscles continued to tremble.
“Like that?” he asked her with a smile that made her feel sick.
She gasped out the rudest thing she could think of, and he pressed the stun gun back into her skin.
This time, she grunted and started to shake. Her body felt so tense, she thought her bones might snap. Tears sprang to her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
“Come on, man,” said Miles. “We should check on the guys.”
“You go.” Abel zapped her again.
Miles put a hand on his shoulder. She’d seen his face when Abel hurt her—he’d flinched. “Dude.”
Abel swung violently toward his friend, stun gun brandished. “What?!”
Miles held up his hands. “Nothing, man. Just I think maybe she's had enough.”
“Enough? For being a lying little whore?”
Miles’ gaze skittered to the side. “She’s my girlfriend, man.”
Abel threw back his head and laughed. It was not a nice laugh. When he looked at Miles again, his expression was patronizing. “Have you even wondered why she's here?”
Miles looked doubtful, then glanced uncertainly toward Noah.
Abel shook his head. “No, man. She was already here when we dragged his sorry ass in. She was here. What for?”
“She's spying on us.”
“Duh, dude. Drugs.”
A lightbulb seemed to go on in Miles' head, and he looked at Anna. “Oh.”
“You're a bastard, Abel,” she whispered past the dryness in her throat. “A sad, sorry little bastard.”
“Bastard this, bitch,” said Abel, and he zapped her again.
She made a noise she'd never heard herself make before and hoped to never hear herself make again, and then the current of pain stopped. Someone stumbled against her, and when her vision cleared she saw Noah behind Abel, forcing Abel's hand and the stun gun in it into the soft underside of Abel's chin.
Miles tried to wrestle Noah off of Abel. Although Anna couldn't control her body very well after all those jolts, she placed her limbs in what she thought was the correct formation and jumped on Miles. She dragged him down, and he had to concentrate on her instead of Noah. Even though she was more dead weight than warrior princess, Miles had his own injuries to slow him down, so she managed to keep him busy until Abel dropped to the floor.
That was one problem with the lower wattage she'd had to settle for. A proper taser could take a guy to the floor almost instantly, but it took a lot longer with her homemade stun gun. It was more for quick strikes. Mace was better for quick-and-dirty debilitation. No one stood up to mace, and it didn't need a large amount of accuracy or reloading like a taser, or close proximity like the stun gun.
She must have been pretty loopy, because it surprised her when Noah knocked Miles away from her and started grappling with him on the floor.
Anna fumbled over to Abel and pulled her mace from his pocket. He tried to grab her, but she yanked and broke away.
“Noah,” she croaked.
Miles hit him, and he grunted and hit Miles back.
“Noah, I've got mace!”
Both boys stopped and looked into the eye of her mace, then Miles cursed, scrambled up, and took off.
She didn't blame him. Mace hurt. In a full body way, sometimes for over an hour.
Anna glanced at Abel, who was conscious but having trouble getting up, and reached out to grab Noah's sleeve.
He put his hand on hers, as much to steady himself as to steady her. “We need to get out of here.”
“The camera,” she said.
He held her up, and they staggered together out of the room. She held her pepper spray out in front of them and tried to ignore the way her hand shook.
The halls were dimly lit, and they didn’t see anything until a shout from behind drew their attention. Miles stood at the far end of the hall as Mr. Landers ran toward them.
Anna lifted her mace and hit the assistant coach full in the face. She didn’t stop until he was writhing on the floor.
Miles, a dark silhouette in the distance, stood and watched them. He looked ready to run, though she couldn’t tell if it was toward them or away. Maybe Miles didn’t know either. She felt a brief pang of guilt as they just stared at each other, but it dissipated as soon as the hulking figures of Rich and Jason joined Miles.
Noah yanked Anna forward, and they ran as three sets of feet pounded after them.
Adrenaline kicked in, and Anna’s limbs felt a little less like rubber.
“Damnit,” she panted as they reached the outside doors and slammed them behind themselves. They leaned up against them, taking a moment to recover. Her stun gun wasn’t weak, but she’d already seen how long it took to incapacitate Abel, and it had seemed to surprise Miles more than hurt him. The brothers were bigger than both of them. She should have accounted better for the steroids.
Noah shoved hard with his upper body and wedged his sneaker against the bottom like a doorstop as heavy bodies rammed them. Anna propped her back against the right-hand door and dug in the messenger bag on her hip. It took precious seconds to dig out a chain bike lock from the bottom.
“Hurry,” grunted Noah as the three boys rammed the doors again and he got shoved back a few inches. A small gap had opened, and he was eye to eye with Rich, who got a grip on the door’s edge and leaned into the gap.
Noah started to lose his grip on the left door. “Anna!”
She reached over and slipped the lock through the left door’s handle, locked it through the right door’s handle, then tugged Noah away. The doors snapped to a stop against the chain, and they stood for a second as the guys on the other side cursed viciously and tried to break the doors off their hinges.
Noah tugged at her shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Anna followed him in an unsteady run. It wouldn’t take long for the guys to find a different exit.
They heard yelling from the side of the school they were running toward. Noah pulled her into a dark crevice she hadn’t noticed, and they waited until their pursuers passed.
Anna peeked after them, then tugged Noah out to keep running.
If the jerks had turned around, they would have seen them, but Anna thanked God that steroids made them stupid. Or stupider. She couldn’t say how dumb they’d been before they’d gotten on the drugs because she hadn’t known them very well back then.
“You know how to wire a car?” asked Noah. The coach’s old Toyota sat about thirty feet away in the teachers’ parking lot.
“I wish. It’s on my list.”
“Things to learn.”
“I’d like to see that list.”
“I’ll show you later. Let’s head for those trees.”
Noah stumbled and grunted. “There’s a gas station behind there.”
Anna ignored the pain that their running jostled loose in her muscles. She would recover after she got some food in her, far sooner than Noah. She thought he might have a broken bone somewhere from the way his breathing came in short, pained bursts.
They'd almost reached the little copse of trees when Abel tackled Noah.
He hit Noah hard in the face, and she heard something snap. Anna couldn't use her mace that close without hitting both of them, so she grabbed Abel around the neck.
Abel shook her off. He drove a fist into her gut, and she fell back.
She tried to scramble up, but Abel was on top of her, his hands around her throat. “Nosy bitch.”
“Let her go,” growled Noah. He wobbled as he tried to get up.
Probably a concussion, Anna thought vaguely as spots entered her vision. She let one hand fall to her necklace and pulled the small blade free.
She jabbed it into Abel's thigh.
Abel roared and released her. She rolled toward Noah, picked up her mace from where she'd dropped it, and let loose on Abel at point blank range.
The others couldn't be far. She propped Noah up under his right arm and led him into the trees. He leaned on her harder than he had before, and he had trouble walking in a straight line.
“I think I'm going to throw up,” he gasped at one point.
“Go ahead. Just don't stop moving.”
They paused long enough for him to empty his stomach into a bush, then they made a beeline for the nearby gas station.
Miles stood in their way.
“Of course,” she muttered.
He spoke into his cell phone, then hung up and walked carefully toward them, hands up in a peaceful motion. When he was near enough to speak, he said, “Is it true?”
She raised her mace, but he didn't move out of the way. Just stopped where he was. “Is what true?”
“You played me?”
She searched his eyes, ready for him to attack, but he didn't. “I needed to find your dealer.”
“So none of it was real.” When her expression didn't change, he got mad. “You really are a bitch.”
Anna's temper snapped. She was stressed, she was hurt, she was worried about Noah, and Miles stood between them and safety. She helped Noah sit down, handed him the mace, and squared off against Miles. “You think not hitting girls makes you better than Abel? Better than any of them?”
He grabbed her left arm. “I don't hit girls, but in your case I think I'll hold you for guys that do.”
Anna bent her legs and shoved up with every intention to connect the top of her skull with his nose. It must have worked, because his grip on her arm loosened. She followed up with an elbow to the face and kicked him between the legs for good measure. “Stop acting like a victim, asshole. You've had plenty of time to walk away from all of this. You didn't. So anything I've done, I don't feel bad about it. Because I'm not the villain here. You are.”
She helped Noah up and across the street. The cold, unflattering lights of the gas station felt like the first rays of sun after a dark winter. At the door, as the alarmed cashier picked up a phone to call 911 (either for or about the bloody couple hobbling into his store; it didn't matter), Anna looked back. Three dark figures stared straight at her, their very posture menacing, but none of them came any closer.
Anna's skin crawled. She tried to ignore it and helped Noah settle on the floor against the counter.
The police took seven minutes to arrive, and the adrenaline that had kept Anna going slowly dissipated, leaving her exhausted and shaking uncontrollably.
The cashier gave them both some water, and Anna tried to focus on keeping Noah awake.
The fire truck arrived first with a set of paramedics who tended Noah's injuries and took a cursory look at hers. The police arrived then, and two officers went to find the boys who'd attacked them while the third took their statements.
“You stabbed him,” repeated the cop.
“He was choking me.”
“I got that part.” He looked like he wasn't sure whether to believe her story, but Noah's injuries were too obvious to ignore, and the paramedics had seen the burns the stun gun had left on her skin.
Anna dug the sim card out of her shoe. Her fingers left smudges of Abel's blood on it. “Here. Proof of the drug deal. Enjoy.”
The officer pulled out an evidence bag and had her drop it in.
Anna let her head drop back against the counter and answered a few more questions with her eyes closed. The paramedics had Noah, and all she wanted just then was her mom.
She asked if their parents were coming, and the officer said they’d been advised to meet them at the hospital.
Not long after, they were loaded into an ambulance and driven across town. Anna didn't know if the police had found Abel or the others. It stayed on her mind even as her mom enveloped her in a warm, anxious embrace.
“What have you been doing, mija?”
Anna didn't reply and simply burrowed deeper. She didn't have to be strong anymore. It felt wonderful.
She let her mom fuss over her and answered a few more questions from the police. The doctors discharged her two hours later with orders to eat, drink, and rest.
She tossed and turned that night, obsessing over the investigation. Had they looked at her sim card? Did they find the coach? Had Abel gotten far with a stab wound?
She fell into a fitful sleep and had nightmares she couldn't remember the next morning.
A detective came by after she woke up to ask her all the same questions she'd been asked the night before. She retold her story and thought it was a little more coherent after food and a night's sleep.
Her mom plied her with juice and eggs and fussed at the detective to let her eat. The detective seemed to understand mothers, because he acquiesced.
“Is there news on Noah?” Anna asked between bites.
“He should make a full recovery.”
She nodded. Good. “Did you find the others?”
“The investigation is ongoing, but we’re questioning everyone involved.”
She put her fork down. “What does that mean? They're not in jail?”
“They're in holding, but they'll probably be allowed bail.”
“Eat,” said her mother.
Anna took another bite.
Her mother looked at the detective. “How badly were those boys injured?”
The detective pulled his notepad out. “One broken thumb, one broken nose, seven stitches, and all but one had traces of pepper spray in their eyes.”
Anna couldn't help a small smile at that.
Her mother sat down as if she couldn't stand up any longer. “What will happen?”
“Due to the injuries your daughter and her friend sustained, no one is questioning that they're victims. Everything seems to line up with their story.”
Anna rubbed at the bruises on her neck. They didn't hurt unless she pressed on them, but she liked to remind herself that they were there.
“Tell me, Miss Goode. Why did you go after these boys in the first place?”
Anna let her hand fall. “I wanted to find their dealer.”
The detective took a long, slow breath, then let it out in a gust. He sounded intensely frustrated. “Do you not even care about your own safety? About what your mom would go through if anything happened to you? What do you think she’d feel if you hadn't made it out of there, if they'd done more than rough you up? What do you think she’s feeling now?”
Anna couldn't argue without it sounding like she didn't care about her mother or her own life, so she said nothing. Her mom had tears in her eyes, and it made Anna feel two inches tall.
“Next time you get a lead on something like this, you turn it over to the police. I’m not joking, young lady. I don’t ever want to see you doing something this stupid and dangerous ever again.” He stood up and nodded to her mom, polite in spite of his agitation. “I have enough for now, ma'am.”
Anna stared at her breakfast as her mom saw the detective to the door.
It was a few days before she saw Noah again. They'd both been brought in to view lineups.
Separately, of course.
Noah still had evidence of bruising, but he was walking better, and all of Anna's aches and pains were gone.
They weren't allowed to speak before the lineups, but Anna stopped with her mom to greet him afterward. He was there with his mom, who seemed uncertain about how to approach Anna. “I told her how we met, and she loves you for that, but she's still not sure whether to blame you for pulling me into a drug bust.” He shrugged. “She'll get over it.”
“I was there and I'm still not sure it wasn't my fault.”
“Like I've been telling my mom—I knew what I was getting into.”
She gave him a dry look. “You knew I'd get you beaten up and almost killed?”
He snorted. “They didn't need a reason to beat me up.”
She thought about it. “That's true. I learned something, though.”
“I need a bigger arsenal.”
His laugh rang out across the station.