“Hads, you know there’s no way she’s going to let you go.”
I leaned back against my bed and cradled the phone against my ear. “I think I can convince her.”
Jenna was silent for a moment before speaking. “I know you’ve got megapowers of persuasion, but your mom is on another level.”
I didn’t need my best friend to tell me that. I lived with my mother’s overprotectiveness every day. No, overprotective wasn’t the right word. It was paranoia.
“I’m going to go talk to her now. I’ll call you back when I’m done.”
“Okay.” Doubt dripped from Jenna’s tone. She’d watched me go down this road too many times before.
But I wouldn’t let her doubt get to me. I was holding on to hope. I pushed to standing and started for the door. I paused as I pulled it open, listening. I could hear voices wafting up from downstairs and moved in that direction.
“It sounds like a herd of elephants is invading,” my dad called as I pounded down the stairs.
“Just one daughter,” I told him, rounding the corner.
He had a baseball game on mute as my mom worked on hand-stitching a quilt.
“Where’s Shiloh?” I asked.
Mom’s jaw tightened, and I knew I’d already made a misstep. I shouldn’t have asked. My dad gave me a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. The kind I’d seen far too many times during the past eight years. “She needed some air, I think. She’s in the barn with the horses.”
My sister practically lived out there these days. And every time she ran off, a muscle in my mom’s cheek fluttered, or her knuckles bleached white—as they were now.
I didn’t know what to say. Not when we were already starting here. Instead, I shuffled from foot to foot, rethinking my approach.
Dad patted the couch cushion next to him. “Take a seat and tell us what you’re working through in that big brain of yours.”
His words had my mom lifting her gaze from her stitching and eyeing me carefully. I swallowed as I sat, my throat seeming to catch on the movement. I tucked a leg under me. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“Go ahead,” Dad said.
I toyed with a loose thread on the couch cushion. “Jenna is going to a party at Toby Jacob’s house tonight. I know you’re not crazy about parties, but I really want to go. I promise I won’t drink anything but sealed bottled water. You can breathalyze me if you want. And I’ll text you every thirty minutes, so you know I’m okay. I’ll stay with Jenna the whole time.”
Mom’s knuckles lost even more color. “Hadley—”
“Are his parents going to be home?” Dad cut her off.
“Um, no. But they know he’s having the party. They’re in Portland this weekend.”
My mom tossed her stitching onto the coffee table. “I can’t believe the Jacobs would be that irresponsible. Letting a bunch of kids run wild in their home while they’re away. Drinking. Probably drugs. Anything could happen.”
“Now, Julia,” my father began, but Mom cut him off with a glare.
“Anything, Gabe. Absolutely anything could happen.”
“But not to me. I’ll be so careful. I promise.”
Mom’s gaze shot to me. “You might be careful, but you could still get hurt because of someone else’s reckless decision. I won’t risk it.”
“Please, Mom,” I whispered. “Everyone in my class will be there. I don’t want to be the freak anymore.”
She stiffened. “You are not a freak simply because your parents want to make sure you’re safe.”
But I was. Everyone whispered. The girl whose sister had been kidnapped. The girl whose parents practically kept her locked in a bubble. The girl who never got invited to anything anymore because people had given up. Jenna was my only friend, but I could feel even that relationship waning. It was too hard for her.
I looked at both my parents. “I only have one friend because no one wants to put up with the insanity it takes. I have no life. It’s pathetic.”
“Hadley,” Dad warned. “You’re not pathetic. And you have a wonderful life. You ride horses, we go to the lake, go on hikes. That would be a pretty good life to some people.”
“But what about the life I want? To go to a party. God, maybe even on a date. To ride the bus to away games like everyone else. But, no. All of those things are too dangerous.”
“Stop it.” My mom’s voice lashed out like a whip. “How can you be so selfish? You know what we went through with your sister.”
“Newsflash, Shiloh’s fine. It’s awful what happened to her, but it was eight years ago. Please don’t steal my life because of it.”
“Go to your room, right now,” my mother barked.
I turned on my heel and ran. But not upstairs. I went out the front door. The house walls felt too claustrophobic, my parents bearing down, everything closing in around me. I tried to suck in air as the door slammed behind me. But I couldn’t seem to get my lungs to obey.
I started towards the paddocks as tears streamed down my cheeks, and I willed my lungs to cooperate. As I rounded the corner of the barn, I collided with a solid form.
Hands encircled my arms to steady me. “Shit, Hads. Sorry, I didn’t see you.”
I tried to get out my own apology, but no words came. The fact that I was struggling to find my voice only made it harder to breathe.
“Hads? What’s wrong?” There was a slight panic to Calder’s voice. “Want me to get your mom and dad? Hayes?”
I shook my head quickly, but the movement was jerky. I didn’t want my older brother, and I certainly didn’t want my parents.
“Okay. I won’t get them, but I need you to slow your breathing, okay? You’re going to pass out.”
He would know the facts about that. While my two older brothers had gone to college, Calder had only had eyes for the fire department. He’d done both fire school and EMT training but opted to focus on being a firefighter.
He guided me towards a bale of hay and eased me down onto it. “I’m going to count. Just follow me. In for one, two, three. Out for one, two, three.”
My lungs burned as I struggled to hold the inhale and exhale for his counts. Then he upped the count to five. Then eight. Then back down to five again. I couldn’t figure out the rhyme or reason for the pattern, but the burn slowly receded, and it no longer felt as if my rib cage was crushing my lungs.
“Thank you,” I croaked.
Calder’s dark eyes searched my face as he stayed crouched in front of me. “What brought this on?”
I stared down at my boots, thankful the darkness would hide the worst of my splotchy face. “Fight with Mom and Dad.”
“Having a life. What else?”
Calder pushed up and leaned against the fence. “You know they went through a lot when Shiloh was kidnapped. It’s hard for them to loosen the reins now that you’re all home and safe.”
“It’s been eight years. Am I really supposed to give up everything because of it? I have no one because there isn’t a soul who’s willing to put up with my parents. And, sometimes, it’s just too much. I just want a little normal. I want to be able to breathe. To feel alive. Just once.”
He stared at me for a few moments and then pulled out his phone, tapping a couple of buttons. “Hey, Gabe, it’s Calder.” Pause. “I’ve got Hads with me.”
I stiffened at that. If he told my dad where I was right now, I’d knee him in the nuts.
“Yeah. Listen, can I take her to blow off some steam for a bit? I’ll be with her the whole time.” Calder chuckled. “No, I think I’m a little old for high school parties. I’m just gonna take her for a drive.” Silence. “I’ll call if we’ll be later than ten-thirty.”
He hung up and then slid his phone into his pocket. “Let’s go.”
I scowled at him. “You know you were in high school three years ago. It’s not like you’re forty.”
“True enough. I’m still not taking you to that pipsqueak Toby’s party.”
“Fine,” I grumbled but pushed off the bale of hay.
Calder beeped the locks on his SUV. “Hop in.”
I climbed into the passenger seat and waited as he started the engine. “Where are we going?”
We were both quiet for a bit as he drove. The darkened fields and forests blurred until it almost looked like a painting.
“They love you. You know that, right? It’s where all of this comes from.”
“I know.” A fire lit along my sternum, a potent mixture of guilt and the desire for more. For a life. For freedom. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m going to crawl out of my skin. Like I’m drowning and burning up all at the same time. Just once, I want it to be okay for me to be whoever I want.”
His gaze flicked to me for a brief moment before returning to the road. “Sometimes, it’s worth it to stand your ground and fight for that.”
“Like being a firefighter?”
His mouth curved, but I saw a hint of pain behind his eyes. “My dad was never crazy about the idea, but I knew it would make me happy.” He paused, his hands tightening on the wheel. “You should fight for your happiness, Hads. Even if it ruffles feathers.”
I looked out the window as the mountain drew nearer. “I don’t think I’ve really had a chance to find out what makes me happy.”
Calder turned off the two-lane highway. “Let’s see if we can’t find you some of those things.”
I searched the stretch of road in front of us. “I thought this was closed for the Fourth.” It led to the top of the peak, where they set off the fireworks each year.
“Good thing I know the code to the lock.” He slowed the SUV to a stop and hopped out. Heading to the gate, he punched in a code on the lockbox and opened it. He hurried back to drive us through and then locked the gate behind us.
Silence reigned again as Calder guided his SUV up the winding, paved road until we reached the overlook. It was a beautiful spot, looking out over the valley below. The stars felt as if they were close enough to touch.
Calder shut off the engine and turned to face me. “You want to feel alive?”
“Yes.” I wanted it more than anything. No more of this half-life I was living. If almost losing Shiloh had taught me anything, it was that nothing was guaranteed. I wanted to live every moment to its fullest.
We climbed out of the SUV, and Calder rounded to the back, raising the hatch. Two bikes and helmets were back there. I recognized one as belonging to Hayes.
“Are you guys going mountain biking?”
“Tomorrow. But I don’t think Hayes will mind if you borrow his tonight. I just need to lower the seat.” Calder had me stand next to the bike as he pulled out tools and made some adjustments. Then, he motioned for me to climb on. “How’s that feel?”
“Good, I think.”
“Okay.” He picked up a helmet and put it on me, adjusting the straps.
My breath hitched as the rough pads of his fingers grazed my skin. Every time he got close to me, my heart took up acrobatics in my chest. But this was more.
Calder jostled the helmet. “Feel secure?”
I cleared my throat, ignoring the heat I felt in my cheeks. “Yup.”
“Okay.” He flicked on a light at the front of my bike. It was a lot brighter than I expected, illuminating at least twenty feet or more in front of me.
Calder pulled on a helmet and climbed onto his bike. “Want to fly?”
“You wanted to feel alive. There’s nothing like taking a bike down a mountain.”
My heart rate picked up speed. We were going to take these bikes down that windy road in full dark?
He looked me in the eyes. “Remember, you’re in control. Check your brakes before you pick up too much speed.”
“I’m going to follow behind you, so if you get scared, just stop.”
“I’m not scared.” I was terrified. But I wouldn’t let Calder know that.
“There’s no shame in fear. It’s how you tackle it that counts.”
I met his gaze. “Let’s go.”
He grinned. “Lead the way, Little Daredevil.”
I guided my bike towards the start of the road. Giving myself a few good peddles, I checked my brakes as Calder had instructed. They were nice and strong.
I gave a few more rotations, and the bike picked up speed. The wind made my hair whip out behind me, and my adrenaline cranked up a notch.
“That’s it,” Calder called.
I grinned into the night and went faster. I leaned into one turn after the other. It was as if I were made for this. My body instinctively knew what to do.
The wind stung my eyes and cheeks, but I didn’t care. My heart pounded in my chest, but for once, it wasn’t because I was angry at having to sit yet something else out. It was because I was alive and truly living.
The light from the stars blurred overhead as I went even faster. The trees beside me lost their shape. I was flying.
For the first time in forever, I felt completely free.
I lifted my mountain bike onto the rack on the back of my SUV. As I tightened the straps holding it in place, my phone buzzed in my back pocket. I slid it out and unlocked the screen.
Mom: Will you be at dinner tomorrow?
There was nothing especially unique about the text. Nothing rude or harsh. But I could feel the silent pressure of the words. The weight of the judgment I’d face if I went. I should’ve done what my eldest brother, Beckett, had. Run. Escaped to some far-off country without cell service. Of course, Mom always welcomed him home with open arms. I doubted I’d get the same treatment.
My fingers hovered over the screen before I typed out a response.
Me: Sorry, I have a shift.
I waited, knowing it wouldn’t be long.
Mom: I don’t ask you for much, Hadley. But I’d like my family together for Sunday night dinners.
I didn’t begrudge her that. Yet, if Hayes had a shift at the sheriff’s department, or Shiloh took off on another of her trips, they wouldn’t get chewed out. I was the only one who was a massive disappointment. There was nothing I could say. Instead, I powered off the phone and climbed into my SUV.
Tossing the device into the cupholder, I started the engine. That telltale itch started at the back of my neck. Soon, my skin would feel too tight for my body. I needed to move. To feel that hit of adrenaline. The rush that reminded me I was free, and no one could steal that freedom from me.
I started down my dirt drive and headed for national forest land. The trip didn’t take long, less than thirty minutes. But by the time I pulled into the makeshift lot, my hands were trembling. I shook them out, hoping it would make them stop. I needed every ounce of control I could find if I were to pull this off.
I turned off my SUV and climbed out. A whistle sounded from my left. “Easton,” Toby called.
“Hey,” I greeted as he made his way to me.
He pulled me into a back-slapping hug. “You ready for this?” Toby’s massive grin told me he couldn’t wait.
“Always thinks she’s such hot shit,” Jinx said as he walked up.
Calla followed him, finding her way to Toby’s side.
I rolled my eyes at Jinx. “I learned from the best.”
“Damn straight.” He grasped my hand and pulled me into a half-hug.
I sent Calla a smile. “Sorry you had to put up with these two alone.”
She ducked her head. “They are kind of annoying.”
“Hey,” Toby complained, pulling her into his arms and kissing her soundly. “That’s not nice.”
I scoffed. “It’s the truth. It’s a miracle Calla hasn’t left your ass in the dust.”
Jinx sent Calla a wink. “You could always leave that loser and take up with a real man.”
Toby clutched his chest. “You assholes wound me. You’re supposed to be my best friends.”
I chuckled and bumped his shoulder with mine. “Don’t worry. I’ll never leave you. I need your camera skills too much.”
Jinx barked out a laugh. “And because we know all your secrets.”
They didn’t know all of them, but they certainly knew one of the biggest—this double life I’d started living the moment Calder had taught me how to fly. Just the thought of that night had a fissure of pain slicing through me. I shoved away the avalanche of memories that could fall with the barest breath.
I didn’t need him. Because when Calder had bailed on our friendship, I’d found other people to fill the void. I’d found Toby and Jinx while riding this very trail. And Toby had brought Calla home with him after college last year. They were the friends I needed. The people who let me be whoever I wanted to be and cheered me on the whole way.
I met Jinx’s gaze. “Is the drone charged?”
“This ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I mumbled.
Toby motioned for us to follow him. “I’ve been checking out the angles, and I think this is where I’ll set up.”
There was a clear line of sight to the dip where I’d be pulling the trick. “Looks good to me.”
Calla shuffled her feet. “What can I do?”
She wasn’t as into all of this as the boys and I were, but she was supportive and rode with us for fun. But Calla’s fear kept her restrained. If you wanted to soar, you had to let go of every what-if that held you back. It was the thing I loved the most. There was no space in your brain for all of the weight life threw at you—it forced you to be fully present and alive.
“I’ve got an extra GoPro in my SUV. You want to shoot from the opposite side of the trail?” I asked.
“Sure.” She paused for a moment. “And maybe after, you can walk me through how you did it.”
I could do my best to explain my approach, but you just had to go for it at some point. There wasn’t a perfect step-by-step guide. “I can do that. And we can all take the south trail after, do a little freestyle.”
Calla smiled. “That’d be great.”
Toby clapped his hands. “All right, let’s get this show on the road.”
I walked back to my SUV and unhooked my bike from the rack. Resting it against the side of my vehicle, I opened the hatch. The first thing I went for was an old cell phone. I didn’t have it hooked up to get service anymore, but it held a ton of music. I popped in my earbuds and turned it up to a decibel that would block everything out.
I couldn’t talk to anyone now. I needed to drown out the whole world as I checked my bike and pulled out all my gear. My bike didn’t really fit in any one camp. Part mountain bike, part BMX creation, it had everything I needed to pull tricks in whatever environment I wanted, but I could also do straight-ahead trail riding.
Once I checked it over, I moved on to my gear. I slid the knee pads over my leggings. Then the shin guards. And, finally, I wrapped braces around each ankle. The movements were almost meditative. I was so practiced now. I could find that bit of peace as I went from one piece of equipment to the next.
I pulled my Kevlar pants on over everything. The last thing anyone wanted was road rash or to be impaled by a branch. The final two touches were my neck brace and helmet. I slid my earbuds out just before I put the helmet in place.
Toby walked up to me and slapped my helmet. “Ready?”
I nodded and climbed on my bike. “I’m taking the full approach.”
He rolled his eyes. “You and your Zen zone.”
“Don’t knock it.”
I took off down the trail. I didn’t need to do the complete loop for the approach. All you needed was a good hundred yards to pick up speed, but I didn’t like missing any part of the journey. It was like life. There were peaks and valleys. Times to slow down and appreciate the beauty around you, and times to ride like hell.
I picked up speed as I headed down the trail. Inhaling deeply, I took in everything around me. I could get lost here, the trees engulfing me with their branches. The scent always helped ground me—that mixture of pine and something that was uniquely Wolf Gap. As much as I’d tried to fight it, that smell would always mean home.
I pushed myself harder, bouncing my bike off a log and then back onto the path. My muscles strained as I climbed, and I knew I’d pay for it later, but an ice bath cured just about anything.
The peak of the trail called out to me just ahead. I didn’t have time to stop, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying as much of the view as I could. The blanket of forest that gave way to a meadow. The creek below, flush with spring rain.
I jerked my gaze back to the trail at the last possible second and started the decline. Each second, I picked up speed, jumping dips in the path and launching myself off tree roots in my way.
I could just make out the telltale sound of Jinx’s drone and knew he’d found me. I grinned. It was time.
I picked up even more speed. There was only me and the trail. Everything else faded away. My friends. Work. My mother’s texts. As I barreled down the path, I was free again.
My gaze zeroed in on the sort of half-pipe the trail made just before the parking lot. I’d run through all kinds of possibilities in my head as I’d talked things out with Toby and Jinx. But now, I had to let it all go and trust that my body knew what to do.
I dropped into the dip with all the speed I could muster. The world slowed around me as I propelled up the other side. And then I truly was flying. I leaned back, letting go of the handlebars, my hands falling free above my head as I balanced the bike with my feet. There was a blur of sky above me as I rotated in a complete flip.
It was magic. I wasn’t worried about how I might land or dinner tomorrow night. The only thing I left room for was how alive I felt. I wanted it to last forever.
Far too soon, I landed with a jolt. The action jarred me from my ankles through to my spine and up to my molars. But I stayed upright. After a few seconds, I heard whoops and hollers.
I skidded to a stop, pulled off my helmet, and let my hair fly free.
“Holy shit, Hads! You did it!” Toby ran over to me and hauled me off my bike and into a hug.
“That was so seriously dope!” Jinx hollered as he enveloped me in another hug.
Calla’s face was a little pale as she hurried over. “That was…I don’t even know what to say.”
“It was freedom.” That was the only way I could describe it. Only seconds had passed, but that high would stay with me for days to come.
The sound of a car door slamming echoed in the forest. And then a figure stormed towards me. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Calder. His dark eyes blazed, making them appear almost amber in the afternoon light. His anger poured off him in waves, grating against my skin. The man who had once been my partner in crime. The person who had taught me how to tune out the world and let it all go. But he wasn’t that anymore. Because everything had changed four years ago. Now, he didn’t know me at all.
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