I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my sweater. “I’m not so sure he is.”
When I got home, there were six messages on my machine. The first was from the school, calling to find out where I was, and the next five were all from Ava, her tone growing more and more worried with each message.
Even though I was exhausted, I called Ava back. It was good to hear her voice, despite her being as annoyingly cheerful and talkative as ever. She blabbered on enough for the both of us, and she didn’t seem to mind that I barely said a word. Even though James seemed sure nothing would happen to her, I couldn’t shake the worry that something might. Even though I’d only known her for a few weeks, after the incident by the river, I felt responsible for her. I couldn’t do anything to help my mother, but if something happened to Ava because of me—I couldn’t bear it.
“Ava?” I said as we were about to hang up.
“Yeah?” She sounded distracted.
“Do me a favor and take care of yourself tonight, okay? Don’t do anything stupid like climb a ladder or pet a lion.”
She laughed. “Yeah, whatever. I’ll call you in the morning. Say hi to your mom for me.”
After hanging up, I couldn’t sleep. Instead I watched my clock tick over from 11:59 to 12:00, and a sick sense of dread filled me. What if something happened to Ava? What was I supposed to do then? It’d be my fault. Against all odds, she had become my friend, and I was supposed to protect her from that sort of stuff, not deliberately antagonize the man who apparently thought she owed him her life. Or thought I owed him mine.
I didn’t want to think about Henry. I didn’t want to think about how he’d brought her back that night at the river, and I didn’t want to think about his offer. I tried to picture my mother’s face, but the only image I could come up with was the one of her lying in the hospital bed and dying.
I rolled over and buried my face in my pillow. There wasn’t anything I could do now, and feeling this helpless was gutwrenching. But I’d already made my decision, and I was going to stick to it. If I had it my way, I would never see Henry again.
Half past seven I awoke to loud banging on the door. I groaned, having only fallen asleep shortly after four, but I couldn’t ignore it. Throwing open the door, the string of curses on the tip of my tongue disappeared. It was James, looking like he hadn’t slept since the day before. I opened the door, running my fingers through my mess of mousy brown hair.
“James? What’s going on?”
The rumor around town was that she’d had a brain aneurysm, but I knew better. As James drove past the school on our way to the hospital, I saw the entire student body huddled together in the parking lot, hugging each other and sobbing. I couldn’t look away. “Turn around.”
“I said turn around, James. Please.”
“And go where?”
I stared out the window, unable to tear my eyes from their faces. Even the kids who’d hated Ava were crying. I breathed in shallowly, struggling not to do the same.
It was my fault. Ava was seventeen years old. She’d had her whole life ahead of her, and now she was dead because of me. If he was going to take somebody, why hadn’t he taken me? I was the one who’d stupidly brushed his warning aside, not her.
I squeezed my eyes shut once we passed the school, the image of the crowd mourning together burned into the back of my eyelids. Was this how it was going to be my whole life? Everyone I knew dying? Would James be next, or would it mercifully be me?
Anger swelled up inside of me, engulfing my guilt until I was clutching the armrest so tightly that my nails created permanent half-moon indents in the worn leather. Ava didn’t deserve this, and no matter how much Henry had disliked her for the prank she’d pulled, that didn’t give him any right to do this to her, to her family, or to this town. And for what? Because I didn’t believe him? Because I didn’t want to waste half of the rest of my life catering to the desires of a lunatic? Is that what he did when he didn’t get his way—throw a tantrum and kill someone?
I ignored the little voice in the back of my mind that reminded me Henry was the only reason she’d survived that night by the river in the first place.
I couldn’t do anything to help my mother, but I could help Ava. And I would fix this.
“Kate,” said James softly, reaching across the seat to set his hand over mine. “It’s not your fault.”
“The hell it isn’t,” I snapped, yanking my hand away. “She wouldn’t be dead right now if it wasn’t for me.”
“She would’ve died weeks ago if it hadn’t been for you.”
“No, she wouldn’t have,” I said. “She’d have never tried to pull that stupid prank if I hadn’t agreed to go with her. She wouldn’t have hit her head if I hadn’t moved to Eden. None of this would’ve happened if I hadn’t come here.”
“So because you moved here, it’s all your fault.” His grip on the wheel tightened in irritation. “Ava was the one who dove headfirst into that river. You were the one who agreed to give up half of the rest of your life to keep her alive. You gave her more time, Kate, don’t you get that?”
“What good are a few more weeks?” I spat, wiping my cheeks angrily. “It’s pointless. None of this should’ve ever happened.”