Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2)(9) by Aly Martinez

He let out a loud laugh as I passed the bottle to Donna. “Oh lord, Ash. I spent my winnings about ten minutes after they landed in my pocket.”

I huffed. “Fine. I’ll loan you ten bucks, but I’m taking that back tonight. I still think you cheated somehow.”

“Nope. You’re the only magician around here, sweetheart.” He gave me a knowing glare that made me burst out laughing.

I’d hustled the shit out of him the first night we’d hung out. I’d immediately returned his money, but he hadn’t found it humorous in the least. Luckily for me, and thanks to Donna, I’d found out he had a soft spot for food and booze. It had taken me a full two weeks of “apologizing” to get back in his good graces.

“Laugh it up,” he said seriously, but an unmistakable smirk grew on his face.

“Oh, I will,” I shot back, almost falling over in hysterics.

Donna quickly joined me while Max sat watching us, unimpressed.

“Okay, okay.” I sat up before bursting back into laughter. I wasn’t even sure why I was laughing at all. But God, I loved that feeling.

Finally sobering up, I retrieved a deck of cards from my bag.

“Hey! Guess what?” I said as I began shuffling the cards.

“Hell no! Don’t try to distract me. I’m watching you to make sure you don’t stack that deck. You know what?” He reached forward, plucking it from my hands. “Let me shuffle.”

I laughed but willingly let him take it from me. “No, I’m serious. So, apparently, Ray’s wife has some kids. I overheard them talking about going to get the youngest tomorrow.”

“Wait. How long have they been married? And you are just now finding out that she has kids?” Donna asked.

“A few years. And I mean, I knew she had kids, but I just assumed they were all older. She doesn’t talk about them or anything. I know one of them is some big-time boxer, but the little one is only, like, fourteen.” I shrugged, taking the two cards Max had dealt me. “I think his name is Corey or something. Anyway, I’m freaking stoked. It’ll be fun having a little brother.”

Donna quirked an eyebrow. “What if he’s an asshole like his mom?”

“No way. He’s gonna be awesome! I can feel it. I had a dream last night—”

“And here we go,” Max moaned.

“Shut. Up. Don’t be mad because I’m clairvoyant,” I lied.

I wasn’t even close to being able to see the future. I actually didn’t have dreams at all. Every night, I would fall asleep, but never once did my traitorous synapses fire off during REM, leaving me unable to dream. I’d tried though. Hell, I couldn’t even give myself a nightmare. I had always heard that dreams were inspired by a person’s emotions or real-life experiences, so I decided to make up my own. I had a sneaking suspicion that what I created was a hell of a lot more fun than the dreams my brain would have made. Loneliness and robbery probably didn’t combine to make glitter and unicorns.

“Trip Queens,” I said, dropping my cards.

Max let out a loud curse.

“Just be glad that was a warm-up.” I winked. “Anyway. This kid is going to be awesome. I can’t wait to introduce him to you guys.”

They both groaned, but it did nothing to suppress the giddiness I felt inside. Sure, he was a little younger than I was, but I was stoked about having some company around the house. A girl could never have too many friends, right?

FOR SIX MONTHS, I MANAGED to avoid my family. I’d wanted a fresh start, and that was exactly what I’d gotten. For the first two weeks, Till had blown my phone up with texts wondering where the hell I was. It had taken a month before Eliza had started messaging. I’d never engaged their conversations, but I had at least let them know that I was fine and okay. I understood why they were worried, but I was committed to my new life.

Alone.

I’d severed every possible connection they’d had to me. They didn’t know where I lived, and I had even stopped going to the physical therapy sessions Till paid for each week. Instead, I’d started working with one of the PT students at the college. It was only once a week, and I knew I needed more if I ever wanted to walk again, but my head and heart were what needed the most healing.

Living in Eliza’s old apartment had its perks. The memories were abundant, and they carried me through more than just a few lonely nights. However, it also had its downfalls. It wasn’t wheelchair accessible, so it made even the simplest of tasks extremely difficult. I also had all of those memories haunting me but absolutely nothing tangible to ground me.

I missed her.

I missed Till.

I missed Quarry.

I missed Slate.

But most of all, I missed Flint Page.

I was wasting away. Hell, I’d thought I was half a man months earlier; I wasn’t sure there was even a proper fraction to describe myself anymore. It wasn’t just my physical appearance, either. My desire to fight was gone. Once my nemesis, wallowing became a way of life.

The only thing I was actually doing well in was school. Despite my advisor’s recommendation, I was taking the maximum amount of hours allowable for a freshman. I fucking loved the distraction. School was probably the only aspect in life in which I didn’t have to struggle. It had always come easy for me.

My life might have been a mess, but it was at least simple. I had a schedule that drove my day. Wake up, go to school, come home, do homework, study, go to sleep. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

However, with a single knock on my front door, everything I had worked so hard to maintain crumbled in front of my eyes.

But like a second bullet to the back, it also changed my life.

“About fucking time,” Slate said, pushing me out of the way as he strode inside.

“What do you want?” I replied with an attitude I never would have dreamed of using with Slate before that moment.

“Did you join a cult?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.

“What? No?”

“Then what the hell is that dead animal on your face?”

I rubbed the scruff on my chin. “Did you come here to critique my grooming habits?”

“No. But I would have brought you a razor if I had known you were having such a difficult time getting your hands on one.”

I rolled my eyes. “How’d you find me?”

“Leo followed you from class about six months ago.”

“Awesome,” I mumbled.

“Till got worried after he knocked on the door of every dorm on the first floor of the entire fucking college. Don’t worry. I didn’t tell him where you’re living. Your secret’s safe. You really should have given him your address. That was a dick move.”

“Why? So he could have busted in here like you? I’m doing my own thing right now. I needed some space.”

He walked over to the couch and flopped down, stretching his long legs in front of him, crossing them at the ankle. “So let me get this straight. You decided to just disappear and take some space. To hell with your family. Flint’s the only one who really matters, right? You’re more important than the people who love you and miss you, right?” He popped a knowing eyebrow. “It must run in the family. Seems to me that’s exactly what your mom and dad did to you.”

My head snapped to the side, and rage boiled my blood. “That’s not at all what I did! I am not my parents!”

“Could have fooled me.” He shrugged. “Just for future reference, you can have space and family. Phone calls and the occasional visit wouldn’t fucking kill you. But this little disappearing act you pulled is killing them.”

I shook my head. He didn’t get it. And short of spilling all of my dirty laundry at his feet, he never would.

“Awesome. Good pep talk. You done?”

“Nope, not even close.” He smiled and pushed to his feet. “Your brother has been blowing up your phone this week for a reason.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Well unbusy yourself. Your mom showed up at Till’s with the cops on Monday and took Quarry.”

“What!” I yelled, never wishing that I could fly to my feet more. “She can’t do that!”

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