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The room had no door. Even the frame had been ripped out. He’d taped up what looked like a garbage bag from the inside, probably to keep people out.
I tore it down and peered inside.
The room itself was astoundingly large. Larger than my whole house. The walls were flecked with cracks that resembled lightning. Pieces of wood and cloth were scattered all over the ground.
It was an alarming sight, but not alarming enough to stop me from rushing in. “Jase? You in here?”
I heard no reply, but I didn’t need one.
Jase was lying on the floor, eyes squeezed tightly shut. He shifted and quickly tucked one hand beneath his back before I could see it. The other rested in a pile of glass. It was twisted into a fist, the skin over his knuckles whiter than the ruined walls.
I stared at it for a long moment, feeling my lips settle into a frown. It did that of its own accord whenever I worried or panicked, and right now, I was doing both.
Practically wheezing with terror, I staggered towards him.
“Are you hurt?” I said, falling gracelessly to my knees at his side. I glanced over him, searching for wounds. I saw none, but the bottom of his shirt was wrinkled and bloodstained. “Oh my God! What happened?”
I leaned over him to fold up the shirt. I squinted down at his skin. No wound. I gasped with relief, relaxing a little.
“Delia,” he murmured flatly. “I’m all right. Please go.”
I winced. He didn’t want me here. “Look at me. Look at me, just once, and I will.”
I knew the request may seem stupid, but I wouldn’t know if he really was all right unless I saw his eyes. They fluttered open and slowly found mine.
Okay. He was not all right. But what could I do?
“Fine. You want me to go? Fine. I’m gone.” I stood up shakily, ignoring the stupid tears that blurred my vision.
Jase’s fingers curled around my ankle. He lightly but firmly tugged on it, and I fell onto him. He made a hissing sound, but his free arm hugged my waist.
"Are you okay?" I asked nervously.
"You're here, aren't you?"
"Well. There’s your answer."
“I thought you wanted me to leave.”
“I thought so, too.” He sounded so sad.
“Jase, did your stepfather do this to your room? Is that his blood on your shirt or . . . or your mother’s?”
I couldn’t ask if it was his.
If Jase stayed out of his stepfather’s way, the man left him alone. Mr. Miller usually focused his rage on Jase’s mom. But Jase never did stay out of his way. He tried to protect his mom even though it was pointless, because although he was strong, Mr. Miller was stronger.
Jase swallowed loudly. “No.”
“They’re gone. It doesn’t matter.”
His words confused me. Mr. Miller tended to go out after he got bored with hurting his wife. To drink, gamble, whatever. But he usually left her at home. I hadn’t seen anyone while I’d made my way up to his room, but Mrs. Miller had to be in the house.
When I’d first arrived and found myself standing where the front door should have been, my fear had not paralyzed me. It had forced me to move. I had found Jase’s room, remembering his complaints about its location, and nearly collapsed when I saw that it had no door either. The house was so ridiculously huge that I felt like I’d run a mile, or maybe seven, which, I probably had.
Something warm touched my bare forearm. I looked down at it. Blood. A pool of blood. I followed its trail. It was trickling out from below Jase!
I screamed and stumbled to my feet. “You’re bleeding!”
“Wait, it’s okay, I’m--”
“It’s okay? It’s okay? No, it’s not okay! I’m calling 911!” I glanced around helplessly. I hadn’t brought my cell.
Jase stood up a little too quickly. I grabbed his shoulder to steady him when he started to sway. I thought I heard a scraping noise as he got up.
“Don’t,” he said weakly, grimacing.
I wasn’t sure if he was asking me not to help him or not to call 911. He didn’t pull away, so I guessed that it was the latter.
“Where is the injury?” I demanded.
“Delia. . . .”
“Where is it?” I shrieked, feeling cold. I had either died or my blood had frozen into ice. “It’s somewhere on your back, isn’t it? Where? Where is it? I made it worse, didn’t I? I need to see.”
“Shh, Delia, please calm down. Slow your breathing. Try to pull that pretty mouth up into a smile.” He paused and gazed at me expectantly. “Come on, D. I’m fine. Slow, deep breaths. You can do it.”
I couldn’t do it. I realized I was breathing too fast to actually get any air. “’Slow, deep breaths’?” I asked, exasperated. “What, am I pregnant now?”
For one, brief second, Jase blushed, and he smiled sheepishly.
That was not the reaction I had expected. Jase was usually the one who teased. I had never seen him look embarrassed before.
He obviously felt like an idiot.
Then I blinked, and the smile was gone. His face was pale.
“Show me,” I said. “Please. I won’t freak out. I promise.” I breathed a few times, slowly and deeply like he had suggested. “See? Slow, deep breaths. Like a bulging pregnant lady.” I grinned so widely that my face hurt. “I’m even smiling,” I added stiffly, trying to talk without messing up the smile.
He stared at me, teeth jammed together, more stubborn than ever.
“Your hand,” I blurted, without knowing what I meant.
“What?” His face paled even more, if that was actually possible.
“Let me see it,” I said. I had noticed from the start that something wasn’t right. He kept trying to hide his hand. “Right now.”
“Delia. You don’t want to see it.”
“Then why am I asking you? I can handle it, okay?”
“Well I can’t. I should have let you go.” He glared up at the ceiling, obviously angry with himself.
I was angry, too.
“What did he do? Cut your fingers off?” I was probably hysterical. No, not probably. Definitely. “Bite them? Rip your nails out? Break your wrist?”
I reached out to him, but he leaped back.
“Don’t do this,” he warned.
I couldn’t believe it. He was pleading.
“Now,” I said. I needed him to be okay. I needed to be certain that he was okay.
“All right.” He started to nod in a way that made me think he was convincing himself to do something. “I guess I have no choice. I’m so sorry. I wish you would have listened. . . .”
Jase stretched out his arm towards me.
His hand was covered in blood. It didn’t look dry, though it must have been, because it didn’t drip down to the floor. It was bruised, bloated like a balloon, and his fingers were horribly contorted.
I yelped, appalled, as I spotted something else. Something his hand was coiled around, clutching as though unable to release it. Something silver and shiny. Something sharp.
“Oh,” I squeaked. My fear practically gagged me.
Jase loved me, I knew that. He would never hurt me. But this was not my Jase. He couldn’t be.
I took a step back.
“No, no, you can’t leave now!” Jase said, shaking his head. “You have to stay.”
“M-my p-parents will w-worry,” I stammered, taking another step back.
A part of me thought he would rather kill himself than cause me any harm. Another part of me--and this must have been the reasonable
part--thought that he had gone insane, that he was volatile. And one last part thought that it didn’t matter at all: whether he meant to kill me or not, that part would do anything to stop his pain.
And he was in pain, a lot of it, so much that his handsome face was slowly distorting into a horrific scowl.
“You’re afraid?” He sounded somewhere between hurt, offended, and shocked. “Afraid of me?” He said “me” like it was a foreign word.
“I’m sorry, but usually when people point knives at me, I can’t really help feeling afraid,” I snapped, then bit my lip immediately. Idiot, I thought to myself.
“Oh,” he said, looking down at the knife. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize I was pointing it at you.”
He let the knife drop to the floor. It clattered loudly, making me flinch.
“Ow!” he howled. Jase’s now squinting eyes stayed locked with mine. His good hand held the other one, which trembled violently. “My hand was clenched around the stupid thing. Hurt like hell letting it go.” He was pointing out the obvious. “Look, you have to stay, D. You can’t leave before I’ve explained everything.”
“What have you done?” I whispered.
“I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to! Please, please believe me. Mom didn’t believe me, and she was right there!”
“Where is she now?”
“At the . . . at the hospital. With Renold.” Renold was his stepfather. “He was going to kill her. She crawled into my room, her eyes so swollen that she probably thought she was going somewhere else. He followed her.” Jase turned his face away, but his voice stayed even. “Threw her into the walls. Trashed everything. The walls are weak, you know, old. I thought she would crash into one of them and get stuck.
“I was shocked at first, because usually he starts screaming at her before . . . before . . . anything happens. I did hear something break downstairs, but I thought maybe Mom had dropped a plate or something.
“He had that thing. The knife. He was waving it around. I took it when he was distracted. He wasn’t happy about that. He flew at me and clasped his hand around mine, the one that was holding the knife. He crushed all the bones, I think. Slowly. Very slowly. I heard it. . . .”
His whole body was shaking now. Or maybe it just looked that way, maybe it was me that was shaking.
“It was unbearable at first. I don’t know how, but it dulled eventually. A while after they left, I guess.”
I watched him, waiting. He didn’t say anymore. “That’s it?”
He turned back to me. “No. No, not all of it. Are you sure you want to hear the rest?”
I didn’t want to make him say it, to make him remember it. But I couldn’t stop myself from saying: “Go on.”
I was close to running to Jase and hugging him. If I did, I would never let him go again.
“I guess Mom heard it, too,” Jase continued. “That disgusting crunch of bones turning into powder. She cried out, and Renold was momentarily distracted. . . .
“I knew this time was different. He had finally snapped. I saw his eyes, flashing with contempt, his snarling mouth. I knew he would murder us both.
“So, forgetting to think, I plunged the knife into his shoulder. Stupid place to strike, I know. Had I taken one stupid minute to think it through, I wouldn’t have used the knife at all.
“I was sickened with what I had done. I jumped back, pulling the knife out. He squealed like a girl, or, more precisely, a pig. What hurt most, was hearing Mom scream more loudly, like she was dying, when she saw. . . .” He cleared his throat. “She was disgusted with me. Called me a murder, asked me how I could do such a thing. When I had tried--and failed--to protect her those other times, she had just cried. Never did anything else but cry, on and on. Anyway, she took him to the hospital, and . . . and, well, that was it. I stayed here, of course. She wouldn’t even look at me.”
I was quietly sobbing. “I’m so sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”
He walked over to where I stood and pulled me into a hug. “Please, don’t apologize for my mistake. Mistakes, I should say. I didn’t want to tell you, because you would be better off not knowing, you’d be safer that way, and because I . . . I didn’t want you to hate me.”
“I doubt I could ever hate you, Jase,” I said honestly. “Now, you’re coming with me. You can walk, right?”
“Yes,” he said warily.
“Okay, come on, then. We’ll go to my house.”
“Delia, maybe I should stay here. . . .”
“No! No. Please? Please, for me?”
He sighed. “Okay.”
I felt relief again. Dad would know how to take care of Jase’s hand, and Mom would figure out what we had to do next.
I led the way to the door. “Everything will be okay, Jase. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
“Good, because you have no reason to be. My parents will help, you know. They’re good people. Annoying at times, but good and caring.”
I heard that same scraping noise again. “Hey, did you hear that?”
I started to spin around, but something closed over my mouth. I felt a sharp sting somewhere in my lower back. A low voice in my ear that almost sounded familiar . . .
“You should have listened.”