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Authors: Melissa Pearl

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BOOK: Betwixt, Before, Beyond
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Chapter Fifteen

 

The morning does not come in a hurry; neither does my return to Dale. I lay in the darkness, my mind flashing from terror to desperation. It's hard to hold a coherent thought for long. My brain keeps drifting down a murky path of nothingness before abruptly clearing, only to let the terror back in.

The bitter cold engulfs me and all I can do is will the sunshine to lighten the sky. When I think I can't take it anymore I start wishing for Dale again. I don't know how long my mind screams his name, but I eventually open my eyes and find him lying next to me.

I jolt upright. Jester is lying at Dale's feet. His nose pops into the air and he let's out a low bark then his tongue flops out of his mouth as if he's smiling. A few sniffs later and he's burrowing his way up the bed, trying to squish his head beneath my hand.

Too bizarre.

I gently stroke his fur, almost fooling myself into thinking I can feel it. It's probably just my mind telling me what I should be feeling. I sniff my fingers, but only smell pine and dirt.

Too, too weird.

Jester does that shaky-shiver thing dogs do when they're stretching, then lays his head, literally, in my lap.

I glance over at Dale. He is stirring with a soft groan. Opening his eyes, he looks at his clock. He slowly sits up and rubs his face then musses his curls. A big yawn stretches his mouth wide before he goes still and looks around the room. "Nicole?"

"Yeah, I'm here."

He smiles and turns in the direction of my voice.

"Good morning." He almost looks awkward that I'm sitting on the bed next to him, but not in a bad way, like a happy, blushy type awkward.

My eyebrows bunch together. "Hey."

He throws back the covers and gets out of bed. Grabbing a band off his nightstand, he pulls his hair back into a ponytail. It looks really good that way. I mean, sure you can see his scar pretty well, but with that ponytail... he kind of looks hot.

I bite my tongue and frown. This accident is so screwing with my brain. I must have hit my head pretty damn hard.

In spite of my scolding, I still can't help watching him move around the room.

"Are you okay?" His head pops through a fresh t-shirt. "You seem really quiet."

"Yeah, I just... it took it me a long time to get here. I guess I'm just tired."

"Weren't you at home?"

Dale pulls his jeans out of the closet and slips them over his Ironman boxer shorts.

"I was, but then I went back to my body. I was there most of the night and
..." My shoulders go taut as I remember my nighttime visitor.

"And what?"

Tears rush up from nowhere, making my voice wobble. "I heard footsteps."

Dale whips around to face me, hope lighting his eyes. "Did you call out to them?"

"I couldn't."

"Why not?"

I do three short sniffs and let the tears come. "Because my Dad went and saw the sheriff and he was talking about someone trying to hurt me intentionally and it freaked me out. What if that person who was there last night just came to finish the job? What if they really want me dead?"

"Okay, shhhh, it's okay." Dale sits down next to me on the bed. I sense if he could see me, that he'd be wrapping me in a hug right now. I ignore how badly I want that to happen. "Nicole, you're talking a little crazy. I'm sure the car that hit you was accidental. Didn't you say they seemed drunk?"

I mumble a quiet yes.

"Look at me."

"I am."

"In the eyes."

I do as I'm told. His deep brown gaze is intoxicating. "Promise me that if you hear footsteps again, you’ll scream your lungs out."

"Okay."

"Promise?"

"Yes."

"Alright." Dale looks away from me, breaking contact and shattering my little magical moment.

I clear my throat and stand up.
"I think the person got a call."

"Yeah?"

"It was a really unusual ringtone, almost like someone whistling. I don't know, maybe we can keep an ear out for it or something."

"Good idea." Dale throws his things in
to his bag and grabs the map book. "Come on, let's go do some more scouting before school."

We spend an hour or so driving further along the road we tried yesterday. Dale peppers me with questions about ringtones and I finally give in and hum it to him. I think it's pointless. We'll probably never hear it again anyway.

As we drive to school, I once again complain that we've just wasted our time and Dale once again reminds me that we have crossed off another section of road.

I roll my eyes at his optimistic attitude.

"Maybe we'll have some luck at school. I might go chat to Amber and Penny, see if they can shed some more light on where you might have gone."

"They're not going to tell you anything."

"Would you stop being so negative please, you're messing with my morning vibe."

I groan. "Uch! You're a happy morning person, aren't you?"

"And let me guess, you're a night owl."

"Maybe." I try to squash my smile.

He pulls into the parking lot and finds a spot near the concrete stairs. Getting out of the car, he leaves his door wide open while hitching his bag onto his shoulder.

"I'm out."

He slams the door and we start walking up the stairs together.

I turn to survey th
e crowd, looking for my friends. Instead I spot Adam Hutton getting off the bus. He's looking frazzled, his blond locks scruffier than usual.

"
Adam's catching the bus."

"Huh?" Dale looks over his shoulder. "His mom must have his car again today."

"But don't you think that's weird?"

"Why would it be weird?" Dale mumbles out the side of his mouth.

"Well, how long does a car take to get fixed?"

Dale frowns then veers left, opening a side door and leading me into an empty classroom. "What are you saying?"

"I don't know, I was just wondering..."

"Don't. If her car is waiting for a part, it takes time to come in."

"Yeah, I just have a feeling."

"Don't have a feeling, it's not him."

"How do you know?"

"He's my friend, Nicole. I know he wouldn't drive drunk. I know if he
did
hit you he would 'fess up straight away. He's a good guy."

Dale's face has taken on a granite quality. His eyes swirl dark brown and I swear his scar is pulsing. I look down at my nails and remind myself that he's helping me and that Adam is possibly his only friend at this school.

I clear my throat and shrug. "You're right. I guess I'm just feeling on edge after last night."

He steps towards me. "I'm gonna find you. I won't give up, okay?"

I smile at his sweet expression.

"Just stop coming up with wild hunches about my friends."

"Okay, fine." I nod and follow him out of the room.

On the way to his locker, we spot Amber and Penny heading towards the dance studios. Dale veers right and follows them. He waits until they are dumping their bags by the floor before approaching them.

Amber scrunches up her nose. "What do you want?"

"Hey girls."
He smiles at Penny and her politeness forces her to fire one back at him. "I was just wondering if you'd heard from Nicole."

Penny steps forward with a sympathetic look. "I'm really sorry, buddy, but she's kind of with Trent. I don't think she's into you."

Dale frowns. "I'm not into her."

Ouch! Why does that sting?

"I'm just asking where she is."

"We don't know." Amber shrugs.

"But you’re her best friends. Hasn't she called you?"

"No, Mr. Busybody, she hasn't."

"Why aren't you guys more worried?"

"Look, Nicole is an independent girl. She flits off whenever she wants to and she never thinks about anybody but herself. I don't know where she is right now and frankly, I don't really care."

I feel like Amber's just punched me in the gut. I gaze at her with an open mouth, unable to put words to the anger and hurt bubbling in my system.

"Okay, so kind of harsh." Dale frowns.

"What do you know, Scarface? Like you have any friends. Consider yourself lucky you avoid the drama."

Dale's skin pales as he listens to Amber.

Penny shoots him an awkward glance. "We have to get ready, so bye now."

His jaw clenches tight. "I know she left with Trent. Where would he take her?"

"He said he took her home."

"I think he's lying."

"Think what you like." Amber crosses her arms and stands in front of him. "But do it somewhere else."

Sensing the inevitable, Dale shoots them a hard look and walks away without another word.

I follow him in simmering silence until I can't hold it in anymore. "I can't believe they just treated you that way?"

"It doesn't matter."

"Yes it does. They were really rude."

Dale screeches to a halt in the now empty corridor. "You've treated me like that before too."

"I know and I hate that I did. You don't know how many times I wish I could've taken it back."

Dale shakes his head and lets out a scoff. "It doesn't matter anymore. I'm used to this. Don't waste your anger on Amber. I'm fine."

"I so don't get you."

Throwing his hands in the air, Dale stops and turns to face me. "Look, all people see is the scar and they label me straight away. I don't care. I know who I am and if two prissy rich chicks don't like it, I don't give a shit."

"You're lying. How can you not hate that scar? It's ruined your life."

A slow smile pulls Dale's face out of shape as he points to his face. "This right here, I wouldn't change it for anything."

He turns away and heads to class, leaving me standing in utter confusion.

Who talks like that?

I'm about to follow him and ask when I see Adam scuttling around the corner.

Why isn't he in class? Mr. Goody-good skipping out? That's not possible.

I glance at Dale's retreating form then move to follow Adam. He walks the corridor with his head down. His hands are shoved in his pockets. Where's the usual confident strut he does? Does he seriously rely on his car that much?

His car.

I frown.

Why can't I shake this feeling?

We near the office and I almost bang into him when we round the corner and he jerks to a stop.

"Dad? What are you doing here?"

"Hey, son." The Sheriff slides his shades into his shirt pocket and approaches with slow steps. "I promised Mitchell Tepper that I'd come down to the school and see if there's been any news on Nicole."

"Oh." Adam nods. "Anything?"

"Nope." The sheriff smiles politely at Miss Walters as she glides past. "My guess is she's doing a runner. But if she hasn't shown up by tomorrow morning, I'm going to need to be a little more forceful with my search."

His eyes are cold and blue. They narrow slightly as they drill holes into Adam.
"Why aren't you in class, son?"

"I um, I have to pick
up an assignment sheet from Mr. Simmons. Extra credit."

His Dad nods.

I don't know what it is, but his movements seem slow and intimidating. 

"I think it's best you come stra
ight home after school today...on the bus. No getting rides with that Finnigan kid."

"Dad, he's a good guy."

"He has a past. I don't want him distracting you from your studies."

"Dad—
"

"Adam." His pointed look makes Adam swallow his next words.

"Yes, sir."

His father gives him a hard look.

"I know, Dad. Tonight...I mean, after school...straight away. I'll be there."

"Don't be late."

The sheriff pulls out his shades and slides them on. I have no idea what just happened, but I can sense Adam's fear. He runs a shaky hand through his hair and picks up the pace as he walks to Mr. Simmon's class.

I watch him stride away and the feeling I can't shake grows.

I need to talk to Dale.

Spinning on my heel, I head back to where I last saw him, realizing that I have no idea what his next class is or where I am supposed to find him.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

I impatiently wait by his locker, but he doesn't come by after his next class. I'm not sure what to do, so start randomly hunting the school for him. I walk from class to class, peering into windows and scanning faces. It's a futile task. By the end of second period, I still haven't found him. I head back to his locker and lean against it. Students buzz past me as they make their way to their next class.

I'm studying their faces when Dale walks through me.

"Ugh!"

Students nearby stop and look in Dale's direction. He gives them an awkward smile and they slump away with confused frowns and whispers of his weirdness. He waits until they're gone before sharply whispering, "I asked you not to do that to me."

"Hey, I was facing the other way, I didn't see you coming."

"Where have you been?"

He looks irritated, which for some reason makes me antsy.

"I just—"

"Don't keep ditching me. If you're not following me then say so."

"Well excuse me."

"I thought
you were ignoring me again...not to mention the fact I looked like a complete idiot whispering to no one the entire way to class."

"Don't you look like that even when I am here?"

He fires a dark glare in my direction.

"You said you didn't care what people thought."

He shuts his locker a little too hard. "Follow me, please."

I spin on my heel and walk outside with him.
"Shouldn't you be going to class?"

"Free period," he mumbles over his shoulder.

We head towards the isolated end of the field. I can tell he's making a beeline for the bleachers. It's a good idea. We'll be able to talk in private.

Once we're standing beneath the tiered seating he spins around to face me.

"Did you go back to your body?"

"No, I...
I saw Adam and decided to follow him."

"Why?"
Dale's eyes narrow.

"I don't know." I throw my hands in the air. "I just wanted to see why he wasn't in class."

"And?"

I sigh. "He was just picking up extra credit work from Mr. Simmons."

"I told you he was a good guy. Stop being so suspicious of everybody."

"I'm sorry, but something doesn't feel right."

"Stop thinking the worst of my friends."

"I'm not! This has nothing to do with your friendship. I just think his car story isn't solid."

"It's like a brick. You're just reaching for something that isn't there."

I step back with a huff and try to kick the dirt. This was getting us nowhere. I flick back my bangs and peer through the bleachers at the field. "His Dad creeps me out a little."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. He's pretty strict. I don't think he likes me much."

"I can tell. He told Adam not to get a lift with you today. Said he's worried you'll distract him from his studies."

"Oh yeah?" Dale shakes his head. "What else did he say?"

"That you have a past."

Dale looks down and skims his shoe over the dirt.

"What does he mean?"

"Look it's nothing, okay. Just don't take off without telling me again and stop thinking my friends are bad."

"I'm..."

He starts walking away before I can get my words out. What is his problem?

I stomp after him and am about to yell at him to stop when someone else does it for me.

I grimace as Trent approaches with long, angry strides.

"What the hell have you been saying about me?"

Dale steps away from the juggernaut and puts his hands in his pockets.

"Why are you still looking for Nicole?"

"Because he's not a moron like you," I fire at my EX-boyfriend.

Trent steps forward, leaning down to get in Dale's face.
"You think I did something to her? You think I hurt her or something?"

He shoves Dale, causing him to stumble back.

"Tell him to get lost, Dale."

"I didn't touch her, man." Trent's aggression is pulsing out of him. "She got out of my car. I asked her to get back in, but she wouldn't. None of this is my fault."

"Bullshit, you little turd. If you'd just taken two seconds to listen and control yourself none of this would have happened," I yell.

"I didn't do anything wrong."

Dale gives him a stone cold glare that says otherwise.

Before I know what's happening, Trent bunches his fingers into a fist and hits Dale
square in the face. Dale tumbles backwards.

"You asshole!" I push Trent away from Dale, but my hands go straight through him. He doesn't even flinch. Instead he bends over Dale's fallen form and points a finger at him.

"Leave it alone, Scarface. She's gone and no one gives a shit."

I drop to my knees beside Dale as Trent stalks away.

"Are you okay?" I try to move his hands so I can see his face.

"Don't touch me." He rolls away from me and takes his time sitting up.

Blood is streaming from his nose and running into his mouth.

"Why didn't you say anything? How could you let him do that to you?"

"It's not like I had much choice." Dale stands up and flicks the blood from his nose with his finger.

Gross.

"Besides you mouthing off every two seconds was hardly helpful."

"Well, I'm sorry, but you weren't exactly doing much to stand up for yourself."

"Maybe if I'd had a second to think, I could have!" Rummaging in his bag, he pulls out his PE shirt and uses it wipe up the blood.

"It's not my fault you're a slow thinker."

Dale chucks the stained shirt back in his bag and stands up straight. His nose is throbbing red and he still has a smear of blood under his chin.

I point to it. "You've still go
t—"

"I don't have to be doing this, you know. If I walk away, you've got no one."

I step back from his abrupt statement. Why is he saying this to me? Why is he becoming like everybody else?

Tears sting my eyes as my voice rises. "I'm a very popular person."

"Who no one gives a shit about! You just heard him say it." Dale points to where Trent was standing. "Do you honestly think if anyone else could hear you, they would take the time to listen? I'm the only person at this school willing to do anything."

"That is SO not true!"

"Isn't it?"

I don't know what to say.

"You know why people don't like you? Because you act like a bitch. You say awful things and you treat people like crap. That's why no one's mourning you."

"Why are you saying this to me?" I swallow. "I said sorry about the Scarface thing."

"It's not about Scarface. It's about your attitude towards everything. It's about you suspecting one of the only friends I have at this school." He points to his nose. "It's about being punched in the face by your asshole boyfriend who thinks he can treat you like a sex slave and get away with it."

Dale's breathing like a bull ready to charge.

I cross my arms and can't help joining him. My breaths begin to spurt through my nostrils as I shake my head.

"Don't you dare stand
there judging me. What the hell do you know? Have you ever watched someone die? Have you ever listened to their screams of terror? That noise is impossible to get out of your brain! So don't stand there telling me that all my choices have been wrong. All I've been doing is trying to survive this hell!"

"You don't think I understand tragedy?" He pulls back his hair, showing me the scar in all its glory. "I spent five hours trapped in a car listening to my friends die around me and just praying that I'd make it out alive."

My anger flees the scene in record time. My arms drop to my side as I swallow down the lump in my throat.

"I know how hard that sound is to ignore, but at least I haven't chosen to throw away my life on a bunch of bad decisions. I'm trying to help you,
Nicky. But your screwed up life keeps getting in the way."

He lets out a long sigh.

"Fine." I lift my chin. "You're better than me. Congratulations."

"I didn't mean—
"

"Don't talk to me again." I shake my head. "I don't want you to waste your time looking for me, I don't deserve it anyway."

"Nicole, don't be like that."

I turn and start walking away. I don't know what's just happened, but the thought of spending another second near Dale Finnigan is too painful.

"I still want to help you!" he calls after me.

I keep moving.

"Nicole."

The people beside me turn to look at Dale.

"Who the hell is he talking to?" one guy mutters.

"Beats me, the guy's weird."

I cover my ears and keep walking. Blending with human traffic, I squeeze through doors as they open and eventually make it out of the school. Wrapping my arms around myself, I turn down Maple Lane and start walking home.

I have nowhere else to go.

Dale's words run through my head.

All I can think is... he's right.

My sins are finally catching up with me.

I deserve this.

No one will ever find my body, because I deserve to die.

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