Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2)(8) by Aly Martinez

I took it from his hands. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.” I flashed my gaze back to Eliza, who continued our secret conversation.

“And,” she mouthed.

Shaking my head, I looked back at Till. “And can I have the keys to the van?” I mumbled.

His eyes lit, and a huge smile grew on his face. “She must have some serious dirt on you if you agreed to take the money and the van. Jesus, that woman is good.” He let out a loud laugh, looking over his shoulder at Eliza, who innocently shrugged.

“That she is,” I confirmed.

“Come on. I’ll show you all the stuff I had added to it. The hand pedals are super easy to use. Let me grab the keys and I’ll meet you out there.” He squeezed my shoulder and walked toward the garage.

I started after him, but just before I made it to the door, Eliza stopped me.

“Hey, Flint.”

I turned to face her.

“Come back, okay? Take some time and get your head straight. But please, just come back.” She smiled tightly, tears once again flooding her eyes.

“I promise.” I swallowed hard, praying that it was one I could keep.

Armed with a bag of clothes, a check folded in my pocket, and a handicap-equipped minivan, I pulled out of Till and Eliza’s driveway. As I watched the mansion disappear in my rearview mirror, I had absolutely no plans of going back—despite whatever promise I had made Eliza. I couldn’t even conjure a day where that place wouldn’t send me into a tailspin.

My first stop was the college. I spent hours filling out paperwork: admissions, financial aid, and housing. Fortunately, they’d extended the acceptance I had received before the accident. Unfortunately, there was actually a two-year wait list on the handicapped dorms. The best news I received all day, though, was the fact that being broke had its advantages. The financial counselor set me up with enough loans and grants to cover tuition, with money left over to cover housing too. It would take several weeks to get the money, but that was okay. I still had the difficult task of finding a place to live first.

I left the college feeling marginally better. At least that was a step in the direction of getting my life back on track. After hoisting myself into the van, I drove around aimlessly. I considered calling Slate to see if I could crash at his house, but that would pretty much guarantee a conversation about why I didn’t want to go home and probably an appearance from Till when Slate no doubt ratted me out.

Eventually, I found myself in an all-too-familiar rental office, begging for the keys to one specific door.

AFTER MOVING TO MINNEAPOLIS, WE only spent a few months in a two-bedroom trailer before moving to an extended-stay hotel on the outskirts of Chicago. Finally, we landed a sweet, run-down house in the slums of Indianapolis. Such was my life. However, of all the places I would ever live, Indianapolis became the golden standard against which everywhere else would be judged.

When I turned sixteen, my father started letting me drive. I had no idea why he’d made me wait; it’s not like he took me to get my driver’s license or anything. But I definitely didn’t argue when he handed me the keys one night and asked me to go pick something up for dinner. And even though he didn’t offer a single penny in cash to pay for said dinner, I still snatched the keys from his hands and ran out that door before he had a chance to change his mind.

He and the step-witch loved alone time. And I loved not being there during alone time. There were some things that even a set of earbuds blaring Taylor Swift couldn’t cancel out. I took off at every opportunity I got.

With newfound freedom, I was able to branch out, and within a few weeks of being in the new city, I had actually made some friends.

True friends.

“Slumber party!” I yelled, dropping my bag onto the ground. “All right, which one of you is painting my nails?”

“Not me,” Max declared, swiping the pillow from my arms.

“Okay. Donna, you’re up,” I announced, handing her a blanket and a bottle of polish.

“Honey, I ain’t no damn manicurist,” she snapped.

“Well, you two suck. Worst BFFs ever.”

It was a total lie. They were the absolute best BFFs ever. Mainly because they were the only ones I’d ever had. Since the first night we’d literally run into each other on the street outside my favorite grocery store to shoplift from, they had always been there for me.

“You sign up for school today?” Max asked, opening the pizza box I had just deposited onto his lap.

“No. My dad’s an asshole.”

“They usually are,” he replied, offering the box for me to take a slice.

“No, you two go ahead. I have to watch my figure.”

“What figure?” Donna snarked before snagging a piece of pizza.

“I’ll have you know I have excellent boobs. It’s all the other stuff I have to worry about.” I rubbed my stomach and glanced over at Max, who was shaking his head in defeat. He hated it when we talked about girl stuff, but as the sole penis in our club for misfits, he had to deal with it a lot.

Donna rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll give you that, but some pizza on those hips wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“Well, aren’t you in a mood tonight? What has your panties in a bunch?” I asked, motioning for Max to hand me a piece of pizza. I really was starving.

“Same shit, different day,” she answered, snapping her fingers until I passed her a napkin from my purse.

“No way. It has to be more than that.”

Max filled in the blank. “Her sister stopped by today.”

My eyes grew wide. “Oh my God. What the hell did that bitch want?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. Just seeing her face was enough to ruin my entire fucking night.”

Max shook his head again, taking another piece from the box and saying, “You should have talked to her.”

“Oh hell no! I’m not talking to her. You think for a single second she feels bad about getting me kicked out of my own mother’s house? Horseshit. I know her better than that. She’s scheming for something.”

“Like what?” I whispered.

Donna’s family drama was exactly why I loved her so much. It was always something. I mean, I had a shit-ton of drama at home, but it was so much fun listening to someone else’s problems for once.

“Who the hell knows!” she yelled. “That witch is up to no good. I’m positive.”

“Good lord.” Max rolled his eyes, not nearly as excited to hear about Donna’s family issues as I was. “Ash, what’s your pops’s excuse for not letting you sign up for school this time?” he asked, changing the subject.

“No excuse. He just laid down the law.” I sucked in a deep breath, pulling my ponytail over my forehead in a mock comb-over, and put on my best Ray Mabie voice. “‘Ash, I said no. School will get you nowhere in life. Street smarts are what you really need.’”

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Donna said smugly, reaching for her water bottle.

“Oh, I forgot! I brought you guys a present!” I dug to the bottom of my overnight bag then revealed a bottle of vodka.

“Now we’re talking!” Max clapped.

“Where the hell did you get that?” Donna asked, dropping her pizza back into the box before snatching the bottle from my hands.

I shrugged. “Stepmommy dearest.”

“You don’t think she’ll notice?” he asked, taking it from Donna and twisting the cap off.

“Oh please. I’ll divide one of her other bottles into two and tell her she drank it the night before. She’s a dumbass.”

“Cheers to the dumbass!” he lifted the bottle in the air before tossing it back for a long pull.

Donna slapped him on the chest. “Hey, Ash scored that shit. She should have had the first shot.”

I curled my lip. “Ew. No, thank you. That stuff is nasty as hell. Give me some more pizza though.”

“Fair trade.” Max laughed, passing me the entire box and then tipping the vodka back for another gulp.

“All right, slow down.” I snatched the bottle from his mouth mid sip. “I’m not washing the puke off your clothes again. Besides, I brought some more cards. I have serious intentions of winning back my money from last week.”

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