All I’ve ever wanted is to fit in. But no one can ever see past how weird I am. Bright lights? Can’t stand them. Loud noises? Definitely sends me over the edge. And touching? Forget about it. At least, until I met Drake. From the moment I walked into that nightclub, I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. And when Drake touched me, it didn’t send me into a tailspin of sensations that I couldn’t stand. It actually felt…nice. Like something I could get used to. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s probably the hottest guy I’ve ever seen. But now someone wants to close the club down. And since I promised Drake that I’d help him keep it open, I’m going to have to find a way to tap into whatever that inner strength thing is that everyone always talks about. And fast. But what happens if I can’t? AVAILABLE NOW!
I knew I’d end up in a psych ward. A building with white walls, lumpy beds, harsh lights, and the smell of Clorox. But I hadn’t predicted the psych ward would be abandoned, sold off to the Community, a family of misfits.
The front doors opened, and a bitter New York wind swept through the lobby, bringing two Straight Edge Community Brothers with it. One in a Yankees cap, the other in a tight black T-shirt.
I didn’t know their names.
I didn’t want to know their names.
I never bothered with names. It made things easier that way.
“Hey, Scarlet.” Black T-shirt Guy waved.
I glanced over them but avoided connecting, as always. I stared at the Straight Edge poster. The large XXX provided an eye-contact safe zone, one that didn’t make me jittery.
The poster was mocking me. No drugs. No alcohol. No promiscuous sex. They forgot one line. No life. Only an existence of rules, rules, rules. But that wasn’t life, it was safety.
Yankee plopped down on the yellow couch. His forty-eight-hour-strength cologne surged over me like a noxious tsunami. “Did you land a job yet, Autistic One? You gonna crunch crazy numbers in your head like Rain Man?”
I swallowed my snark. “No. I’m waiting for our mighty ruler to return.” Okay, a little seeped out.
Yankee rubbed his pitiful attempt at a beard. It looked like long bug antennae dangling from his chin. “Cut Ton some slack. He saved you. He saved all of us. Who else would take on druggies? You would’ve been dead before your fifteenth birthday.”
Grateful. Yes, Ton gave me life and a roof over my head. A priceless gift for an orphaned, abused teen who didn’t like to be touched without a heavy dose of street drugs. No one had ever cared until Ton. “I’m nineteen.”
“Your skinny ass don’t look over fifteen,” Yankee said.
Black T-shirt walked over, getting too close, invading my well known no-intruding zone. “Don’t listen to him. You’re clean. And with your mad math skills, Ton’ll have you working some high-paying finance job, or have you do his books for his electrician company.”
Yankee shifted to the edge of the couch, his knee against my chair, threatening to touch my thigh. “She won’t last a day in a job outside the Community. Those numbers done rattled her brain.”
“Stop being an ass. Leave her alone,” Black T-shirt said, his voice taking on an I’m-going-to-protect-this-crazy-runt tone.
I’d been protected, isolated, confused, and imprisoned long enough to choke the life out of an orca. Still thankful, but still choking on rules.
How would I ever know if I could deal if I lived in an overprotective, structured, decisions-made-for-me home. Was I better, or just controlled?
His knee grazed mine, causing my crazy to awaken. A lice-infested, tiny-legs-crawling sensation claimed my scalp. With my anxiety reaching critical levels, I bolted from the common area to wait for Ton’s return in the safety of my room. A haven with no stench of bad cologne, mocking posters, or people. People expected things, like interaction. I wasn’t good with interaction.
I wanted to be better. I tried to be better. But I worried I’d never be more than a recovering street rat.
My fingers ached to pound piano keys, to lose myself in music, but the only thing available was my iPod. I slid my earphones in and cranked Mozart’s Symphony Number Four in D Major. The notes carried me to another world. A world of color, mystery, promises, love, loss… My world.
I tossed my sweatshirt on my bed and crawled onto the mattress. The stiff springs groaned from age. Closing my eyes, I listened to the music and lost myself in it.
Two songs later, a nudge to my forearm ripped me from my happy place. I opened my eyes and found Ton hovering over me, the bald, barge-sized, tattooed dictator with heart. A young girl stood in the doorway.
I stared at her, confused. She had the same dark hair— minus the purple streak—same willowy frame, and large eyes. The same strung-out druggy blank stare.
I tore the earphones out and pushed past him, but the stench of sweat and vomit halted me. I lifted my arm over my nose to shield from stench and sensory overload. “What’s she doing here? Why’s she in my room?”
Ton moved between us, the thick skin on his forehead crinkling. The movement brought the lion tattooed on the top of his head to life. Two fangs slid down from his hairline, as if feasting on his anger…on my fear. That was why he was nicknamed Ton. A ton of tattoos, a ton of attitude, a ton of terror. “This is…”
Ta-ton, Ta-ton, Ta-ton. My heart sprinted and I shrunk into myself like cornered prey. Mozart’s symphony played over in my head, each note taming my thrashing heart, dimming my fear.
“Did you hear me?” Ton blew out a large sigh, his cheeks collapsing.
Oh, shit. I did it again, faded out before the most important words could reach my brain. “Sure,” I said, my voice
recoiling faster than my body.
Ton rubbed his scalp as if taming his inner lion. His eyes softened, and he leaned against my desk. “She’ll be rooming here with you.”
My lungs tightened and my stomach clenched. My adrenaline revved, heating my skin to habanero hot. “Are you insane? I can’t room with anyone. I don’t want to smell her. I don’t want to hear her. I don’t want to know her. I want a job. I want a place of my own. I want out of here.” Guilt threatened to shove me back into submission, but I needed this. I needed to know if I could survive beyond the great white walls of protection.
“How do you think you’ll do at a job when you can’t even share a room? It’s time for you to take the next step in the process. I know you’re…sensitive. You admitted to me from day one that you needed drugs to handle sounds, lights, touch. I’ve talked to a professional, and he offered—”
“No. No shrinks. I’m ready. I know you want to protect me. You want to protect everyone, but I’m ready to stand on my own.”
He lowered his head as if to find the answers on his work boots. “I tell you what. You make it a month sharing this room with her and I’ll find a job for you.” He stuck his face inches from mine.
I chewed the inside of my cheek and curled my toes but resisted the urge to shrink away from him. He was playing dirty now. I’d be damned if I’d let him win. “Prove it.”
“That there’s really a job. I told you I wanted out of New York and you agreed. There’re too many bad memories for me here. I’m ready to start over.”
He flinched but recovered quickly. His entire six-foot four-inch frame of solid muscle froze. All his tattoos―the dragons, vipers, and scorpions―froze.
All I heard in the silence of the building was my pounding heart.
“I have a friend in Atlanta,” Ton said finally. “He’ll hire you.”
“Call him. Call him now.” I rose onto my tiptoes and forced my gaze to meet his. The second hand on the wall clock behind me ticked twice, the longest I’d managed to hold eye contact.
His authoritative stare ordered me into submission and my gaze dropped to his forearm. That damn clock ticked ten more times. Ton’s hand fisted, the scorpion’s tail arching to strike me. Dizziness took hold, as if its poison had already entered my system, but I stood my ground.
“If I call the guy, will you chill? No more outbursts, no more attacks that would send you back under the bridge I pulled you from?”
I cringed. Ton would do anything for anyone, but he’d never soften the truth. Every word hit like a punch to the gut.
What gave me the right to disrespect him? Yankee was right about one thing. Ton had saved me. He’d picked me up out of the gutter, sat by my side while I detoxed, held my head when I was married to the toilet for days, clothed me, fed me, talked to me, but did that mean I had to remain a slave to the Community for the rest of my life?
I swallowed the dryness of regrets and nodded.
Ton slid his cell from his pocket and dialed a number before turning his back to me and holding up one finger to the girl still trembling in the doorway. It was time to stand on my own and stop mooching off Ton and the Community he’d created. This girl, and others, needed food and shelter.
“Hey, man. It’s Ton.” He rubbed the back of his neck, as if to rub away his fears of letting me go. The large X on the back of his neck rippled.
I nudged closer.
“I’ve got a girl here, Scarlet. She needs a job. You think you can find something for her at your place, the Midtown Diner?”
I held my breath, listening, hoping, willing the man on the other end of the line to say yes, but I could only make out muffles.
“No worries about stealing. She’s more the artistic type than criminal.”
“Yep, I’d consider it a favor.”
“Great. I’ll drive her down when I can. I’ll see you then.” Ton lowered the phone and faced me. “You’ve got a job. Give back to the Community and help this girl detox, be her clean buddy for a month, and I’ll drive you to Atlanta myself. Show me you can handle dealing with another person before I send you out into the world on your own.”
“Ton, I’m not ready to help anyone, especially a girl on the brink of destruction. You’re asking too much from me.”
“You can and you will,” Ton commanded, using his addiction-police voice. “If you want me to call in favors and get you set up in the outside world, you show me you can handle life.”
“It’s different. I’ll serve food, wipe tables, not rehab my former self.”
Ton pushed from the desk, but instead of calling his inner warrior that made people obey, he leaned close, without touching me. “You can do this. I believe in you.”
Believe in me? No one ever believed in me. I didn’t believe in me, but I had to try. “Fine.” To hell it was fine. One look at my doppelganger and I knew I’d never make it. I would never survive playing the sober sister role. It was asking too much. I wanted to help. To pay back the community and all they’d done for me. To help the former me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t be the soft, sensitive, strong support person she needed.
“Great. Find her some clean clothes and get her bathed. I’ll be back to check on you both before dinner.” Ton gently placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “You’re safe here.” Then he left. Left me to repay the debt I owed the Community, one I had hoped he’d never collect on.
Unable to look directly at her, I kept her in my peripheral vision. “Come on. I’ll heat up the shower. The handle labels are backward.” I headed for the bathroom down the hall, but I wanted to go farther, beyond the restrictive walls of the psych ward, to a new life.
But if I ran away, I’d be shunned by the Community. I’d be blacklisted, never allowed to come back. I’d be alone.
Perfect. I’d leave tonight, a few hours after Ton called lights out.
I eyed the girl trailing behind me. The world of pain and debilitating emotions she faced required strength and understanding, not a mess of a person who would resort to hiding in the corner with her hands over her ears. If only I wasn’t…me. I would help and be a functioning member of the community. Paying back the love and support they’d given me. Save the next soul that stumbled through the double doors into a white-walled welcome wagon of support.
Ton had a new project now. Hopefully she wouldn’t be a disappointment.