Chapter 3

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I was really getting tired of not knowing when it was whenever I woke up. My eyelids fluttered open to a small, blonde boy and it took me a minute to sort through my disoriented state.

"M-Mattéo?" I asked groggily. I tried sitting up but I winced at the pain that lanced through my body.

His jade eyes blinked at me. He whirled his blonde head. "She's awake," he called.

Someone's figure leaned against the doorway. I rubbed my bleary eyes, but my stomach plummeted when I saw who it was. My blood boiled. Chet.

He crossed his arms. "I can't come in," he pouted.

"When were you one to follow rules?" I said, rolling my eyes.

"Good point," he said and he sauntered in with an arrogant puff to his shoulders. He scooted a chair from the table to beside the bed. "How are you?"

I rolled my eyes, but just as I was about to make a sarcastic comment, my mouth snapped shut. Don't speak. Don't encourage casual behavior. Once you're able to move, you're leaving. That mantra seared itself across my brain and I averted my eyes. "Fine," I muttered. My left hand fingers plucked at the fibers of the blanket over me as I leaned back against the pillows.

"Did Feyna tell you not to talk to me? Because I won't make you leave again," Chet said, his hand snaking across the bed, towards mine.

I stealthily wormed my hand under the blankets, tucking it next to my side before he could grab it. Abort all friendship, I thought.

Don't burn bridges, my father's voice piped up.

I squashed it. This was Chet. I had no bridge to burn.

He retracted his hand awkwardly. "Are you feeling any better?"

Yes, Chet, I'm feeling like a bloody millionaire. I sewed my lips shut in order not to respond. He took in a deep breath. I still hadn't looked into his eyes yet. I was afraid my defenses would fall.

"Do you need medicine?" he asked. I saw him duck his head in my peripheral vision, trying to catch my eye.

I glared at the opposite wall. They had very nice paint chips falling off. Are you my mother? I screamed mentally. Stop pestering me!

"Cicly, I know I hurt you and I'm sorry-"

My temper ignited like a flare and I couldn't contain it. "You're sorry?" I snapped, whirling my head. My eyes flashed dangerously. "You're sorry for making me nervous in front of your relatives and having me freak out and maybe you're sorry for chasing me when I first got here when I was in excruciating pain? You're sorry for jarring me when you found me in the woods?"

My brows knit together and my left fist started shaking under sheets. "I realize you're sorry, and thanks, but that doesn't really matter to me, Chet. A few bumps and bruises and maybe a break, but I've been through this before. The one time I lose everything and you make fun of me. You've taunted me from day one about my freaking dead family and you're sorry for making me pass out? After all the offensive slurs about my dead family that only you knew about?" My voice was tight and strained. I blinked back tears. No. I would not cry. Not here. I sucked in a breath, preparing to expel all my pent-up hate. "You imprudent, vain jackass."

Distress and disbelief crossed his face like I'd just punched him. His body deflated with the insult and I could see his entire being die each every second that passed. His eyes left mine and his lips parted. His hands curled and uncurled as he tried to grasp what had just happened.

Chet stood up abruptly, knocking the chair over. His mouth flapped, trying to form words, but he looked so wounded he couldn't. He didn't. His anguished green eyes met mine and speared me in the chest, stealing my breath.

I felt horrible now. I felt really, really wretched. I'd just-heartlessly-destroyed this boy in front of me and I wasn't even taking it back yet.

"I . . ." I started, but when his damaged eyes impaled my soul again, my words were squelched.

Don't burn bridges, my father's voice reminded me.

Now my throat was stuffed with cotton and I couldn't breathe. I was watching Chet rip into pieces, and I couldn't even apologize.

You shouldn't have to! A voice screeched. He'd insulted your family for so long, he deserved to hear that!

He didn't deserve to hurt that much. My chest was hurting with guilt and remorse already. "Chet . . ." I tried again. "I didn't-"

I didn't get the chance to finish. Chet stormed out of the room, his shoulders hunched. He slammed the door behind him and my stomach roiled. I could've thrown up from the regret that had started to eat at me. I hated Chet-I always had-but knowing I'd destroyed him was too much. All I had done since I got here was hurt him.

I would be gone by tonight.

I didn't see Chet the rest of that day. I was glad. And for that matter, I didn't see anyone for the rest of the day. As lonely as it was, it was easier to pack up. I'd rummaged through the medicine cabinet and gathered four pill bottles on the counter. I'd picked through the other cabinets and drawers and discovered my old clothes. They were ratty, grungy, and smelly, but they were a part of me. I just wanted to forget this whole thing had ever happened.

Painstakingly, I switched clothes and folded the white dress on the bed. In the afternoon, I changed my mind and ripped it to tie in the shape of a sack. It wasn't too efficient, but it would do until I reached my tree.

My tree.

How was I supposed to climb up? I was in incessant pain and I couldn't climb with one arm. Look what happened the last time I tried that. I grumbled to myself as the sun set behind the horizon and shed orange light into the room. I'd sleep in the caves tonight and then go to work tomorrow.

Who was I kidding? I couldn't go. I'd have to explain my injury and how I live alone. No. I wouldn't go there. Carolina would probably fire me for missing so much work, but as soon as I healed up, I would get to hunting.

My throat clogged. I'd probably have to start stealing for necessities, since I wouldn't have any money. My clothes would never be as fresh as the dress I was tearing up and I would never have any respect anywhere in town. Carolina would hate me, Ian would despise me, and Sara would never talk to me again.

Sara.

My chest tightened. I should've told her everything from the start. I should've gone to her for food and help and money and shelter. I should've told her my dad died and my mom was gone and that I lived in the woods, freezing and starving in the winter; blistering hot and dehydrated in the summer. I should've told her that Chet hated me and I hated him.

I sat on the bed and sighed. This would be the last time I got a chance to sit on a bed like this. I would be forever alone from now on. No one would pamper me, the nasty, homeless, penniless, kinless girl.

My lips pressed together and my thoughts whirled around solitary living for the next hour. I didn't know how late Chet's family worked in the study downstairs, and I didn't want to be seen. By anyone.

My stomach rumbled.

"Now you're hungry," I muttered. "You've had real food for once." It growled at me in response.

I sighed again and took a pain reliever. I lay on my back slowly and drummed my fingers on my stomach lightly. My ribs would be a real problem. Feyna had said I needed lots of water and lots of rest.

I grunted wearily. It was six miles to my cave from here.

Another hour passed with plans of rest stops, how to gather water, and how to slip by town unnoticed. By the time the room was only lit by a strip of moonlight, my eyes were bleary and yearning to close for the night. Instead of sating them, I got to my feet and breathed heavily.

I made my way through the searing blackness to the sink and got a glass from the cupboard. I downed two cupfuls before snatching my bag and heading towards the door. I held my breath as I quietly turned the silver knob. No one was in the hallway. Good.

I inched my way down the spiral staircase and gasped minutely when I saw blonde hair splayed across a desktop. Arms were propping the head up, but I could guess that Chet's Aunt Lydia was fast asleep. Even knowing this, I tip-toed past her, almost not breathing. My heart was pounding so loudly I was afraid it would wake her.

This stillness, this quietness, was nothing like the forest. There were still animals moving, owls hooting, winds blowing, trees groaning and leaves whispering. This silence was ear-splitting and created a ringing in my ears that I didn't like. I made it to the doorway this time and I stepped on a plush, maroon rug as I faced a two-way split.

I had no idea where to go, but I had a couple hours. If it took me that long, so be it, as long as no one stopped me.

Along the hallway there were behemoth windows that went from the ceiling to the floor. Their heavy drapes were tied back, so moonlight was lighting up the hallway like a stage in pale, blue light. On the window-less walls there were paintings, depicting people and landscapes and, in a few, large family gatherings. I could see how many doors there were, and I could see a turn at the end of the hallway to my left.

I prayed they were stairs. Or a kitchen. Or something that would keep me going. Chet's house was three stories up, so I still had another staircase to find. In any case, I hurried toward on my toes, grateful for the silent rug beneath the soles of my feet. I was the wind itself, moving through their house.

Cautiously I approached the turn. If there was someone behind there, I would be in big trouble. I peeked my head around, cursing the darkness and blinking several times to adjust my vision. I sighed softly. It was stairs, leading down to what looked like a kitchen from the tiles. I descended the stairs like a shadow, gripping the railings to balance myself.

At the bottom, I faced an empty, barren kitchen. Stainless steel appliances lined the walls and I bristled. I had never seen so much steel in one place. My parents had always cooked with wooden or ceramic or metal materials. They had been fine.

Jealously leaked into my brain as I stepped across the white tiles. I spotted a refrigerator and paused. I needed food. I hadn't gotten any today. Afraid the fridge would make a noise if I opened it, I scanned the countertops for to-go food. I saw some fruit and I stashed some bananas and apples in my bag. I had six miles to trek.

Tying the knot again on my make-do bag, I continued through the kitchen. I avoided the islands and opened the swinging door that led out, peeping my head out. I saw a window and I gaged the altitude. I was at ground level. Time to find a way out.

Those windows look promising, I thought and I quietly snuck out the swinging door, setting it back in place to keep it from making whooshing noises if it swung. That was the last thing I needed. I pawed at the windows, looking for locks or openings. These weren't the full-wall windows, so they should've been easy to get out of.

That is, if I could reach the lock.

"Dammit," I muttered and I furrowed my brow. This wasn't going to work. I'd have to keep-

A yawn interrupted me and I dropped to my knees, an instinctive reaction. I crouched behind the soft couches and watched a short, brunette walk into the kitchen.

Taylin, I thought. I quickly leapt to my feet and rushed toward the arch that led out of the living room. I tore into the dining room, but slammed on the brakes when I nearly ran head-first into the biggest dining table I'd ever seen. There must've been at least fifty chairs-twenty-so on each side.

My eyes widened. His family must be huge. I ran to the left so I wasn't visible from the kitchen or from the living room. I hurried to the next archway, but my blood turned cold when a little voice stopped me.

"Cicly?"

I winced and froze.

"Cicly, why are you leaving?"

I turned around slowly, plastering a gentle cursory smile on my face. I walked over to the six year old girl whose lip was pouting. "I . . . I'm all better now. I don't need to stay."

Her eyes landed on my slung arm. "Then why are you still wearing that?" Her words blubbered out over her lip.

"Just in case," I said. "I have to go home, sweetie. Can you keep this our little secret? Don't tell anyone you saw me." I winked encouragingly and the friendly gesture felt alien.

"Okay," she said.

"Thanks," I said and I ruffled her bedhead hair. "Can you tell me where the front door is?"

"Yeah," she said sleepily and she walked in front of me. She led me out of the dining room and to the left . . .

. . . it was right there.

Taylin unlocked the door and held it open for me. The cold, bitter wind flooded in the house and danced through her hair.

This is it. Your very last bridge. My thoughts were sour as I walked towards the door, breathing shallow. I stepped over the threshold, but stopped when a little hand grabbed the side of my pants. I faced Taylin.

Her eyes were big and sorry. "Will you come back?"

I patted her hair down. "Maybe," I answered. I forced a smile before turning back around. I walked down the trio of steps and onto the paved sidewalk. The forest was to all sides of me, but I had to get to town. I had to find my way back to my tree, and then to my caves.

The familiar hooting and leaf conversations were homey. They were normal. I liked them. The moon poured down on me and I walked across the soft, plushy grass. Right before I slipped into the forest, I turned around to make sure Taylin wasn't watching.

My heart nearly stopped in my throat. Taylin was propped on Chet's hip and he was watching me with a pointed face. Taylin's arms were around his throat and he was standing angrily, feet apart. His eyes seared into my soul and I grappled for breath.

He'd gone from being broken to being pissed. Lovely.

I swallowed and turned back around, facing the forest with a blank face. My heart screamed at me to apologize, but my head battled with the logic of just leaving him alone. He was angry, he wouldn't want to listen to me.

But I'd hurt him so much and the regret was killing me.

I whipped my head around to see if he was still there, but I faced a closed door.

In true solitary fashion, I marched into the cold, lonely woods with my head low. I'd missed my chance.

…..

It took nearly half an hour to reach town. I threaded in and out of the buildings, and when Carolina's Cake Shop came into view, with its salmon-colored walls and perky sign, I sighed. I needed to go back. It'd been a week. It was time I got my life together.

I went to the back and found a nice spot in between crates and the trash bin. I leaned against the wall, and though it took me an hour or so, I eventually found sleep.

"Cicly?"

My eyelids fluttered open to a pair of hazel eyes and auburn hair. The pink face was contorted with confusion and when my eyes cleared, I recognized Carolina.

"Hi," I said groggily, yawning.

"What are you doing here?" She held a hand out and I took it, lurching to my feet, flinching. "What happened to you?"

I blinked at the morning sunlight. "I was climbing trees and I fell. And I got into a fight last night with my parents and I got kicked out," I lied. My breath was hoarse. "I figured I needed to come to work today, so I stayed here."

"Goodness gracious!" she exclaimed. "A messenger told me you were at the Stevenson's! I didn't know what to think!" She started walking towards the front door and I followed. I didn't have a choice. She was still pulling on my hand.

"That was a lie," I said. "I was never at the Stevenson's. It was just a prank."

She looked at me like I was a madwoman. "Obviously! If you had stayed at the Stevenson's, I don't think you'd smell like-" Her lips popped shut. "Sorry," she muttered. "I just meant . . ."

Sunday

"It's okay, Carolina. I know. I need to take a shower."

She gave me a sympathetic look. "I won't make you work out front today if you want," she said.

"Thanks," I replied. I half-smiled.

We walked into the shop and I changed into my work garb, carefully tugging clothes on and off my tender body parts, and rinsing my face and arms with paper towels. I would have to bathe in the river to clean my hair. I left the bathroom and hid in the kitchen, frosting cakes and baking pastries.

Ian came in, but didn't say hello. I don't think he even noticed I was there. That was okay with me. The day passed quickly with normal activity and before I knew it, I was changing into my stinky clothes.

"I hope your parents let you stay home tonight," Carolina said sympathetically as I hung my clothes up on the hook in the employee quarters.

"I'm sure they will," I said. Yes. Because they are rocks.

"What did you get into a fight with them about?"

I lowered my eyes to the ground. "I'd rather not talk about it," I said.

"Oh," she quietly and silence fell upon us once more.

I left and she left, waving goodbye in the fading sunlight. As nice as she was, I felt friendless.

…..

The next couple days were very similar in pattern. I trekked all the way from my cave early in the morning to Carolina's, worked in the kitchen-even though I had washed my hair-and didn't really talk to anyone. There was no sign of any of the Stevensons and I was grateful. I wouldn't have been able to look any of them in the eyes.

Sunday

On the following Sunday, two weeks from when I had fallen in the woods, I was feeling much better. Granted, my bones were still broken, but I didn't have to take as many pain pills. The ache in my right femur had gone, and my collarbone was hurting less. It still screamed at me whenever I moved too much, so I still had to be careful. My right arm was always so close to my stomach it could've been sewn there. My ribs ached whenever I moved too much as well, but gritting my teeth was an easy fix to the brief pain.

Speaking of, I grit my teeth as I stood up straight. I'd just spent the last hour icing a cake with small, delicate flowers. My entire body was sore and bent like a floppy doll. I held my stomach with my left arm as I stood straight up and gasped when pain lanced through my torso. Tears budded in my eyes, but I held my breath and waited for the pain to pass.

When it did, I stole a look at the clock. It read 7:36pm. One and a half hour to go, I thought miserably. Work was becoming unbearable these days. But I had to come. I would have no money for food if I didn't.

Ian bustled into the kitchen then, stealing a tiramisu from the fridge. Our refrigerator was white and felt like plastic compared to the Stevenson's.

"Hey," I said, trying to be friendly.

"Hi," he said, looking at me briefly. "Nice cake."

"Thanks," I said and I forced a smile.

He left with the cake and I found myself alone again. I put the cake in the refrigerator and fixed myself some water. I took a lunch order from Ian and made the turkey sandwich and put a cookie on the plate. I gave it to Ian a minute later and he vanished from the kitchen, leaving me with nothing to do.

An hour later, I had made twenty-three dinner plates and when Ian came in for the twenty-fourth time, I was prepped to go.

"Next order?" I asked, holding out my left hand. I was surprisingly efficient with my broken body.

"In a minute," Ian said and he walked closer to me.

I backed up. His eyes reminded me of how Chet's looked whenever we were in the arena. Lethal. Villainous.

"I'd like it now," I replied, keeping my tone even. I felt my dagger in my boot. If it came to it, I would use it.

He walked closer, only a foot away and making me bump up against the counter.

I snatched a knife from behind me. I didn't want to give away my dagger. My blood was ricocheting around in my veins, but my hands were trembling. I held the serrated knife up.

He laughed a bone-chilling chuckle. In an instant, his hands had thrown the knife from mine and his body was pressing mine up against the counter. I could feel every point his body touched mine and I craned back over the counter, my ribs screaming at me.

"Tsk, tsk," he said, "I don't think you should be doing that in your condition." His large hands wrapped around my torso and I gasped at the hot flashes of mind-numbing pain.

"Come at me," my dad said.

"I don't want to," I said. As an eleven-year old, that didn't seem inviting. Ever since my mommy had died, my dad seemed crazy about training me. I guessed it had something to do with mom's death, but I never asked. He never seemed fit enough to tell.

"Cicly, if a bad man ever attacks, I want you to remember," he said, taking my small shoulders in his large hands, "kick him in his groin. Punch or elbow the sternum," he said, drawing a line down the center of his chest with his finger, "or use the heel of your hand"-he motioned to the bottom half of his hand-"to thrust up his nose."

"You told me doing that nose thing will kill somebody." I was terrified; I didn't want to kill anybody!

"Sometimes, sweetheart, it might come down to that. Now try."

My left elbow flung out toward his chest and struck him squarely on his sternum. He gasped and leaned back, his hand flying up to his chest. Ian struggled for breath and I used my hand to push him even farther away.

At my contact, his hand whisked out and grabbed my wrist, twisting it. "Gonna have to try a whole lot harder than that," he sneered. His other fist flew up and crashed into my jaw. I stumbled back against the counter and my left wrist could've caught fire with the amount of pain I was in.

I yowled in agony and my foot flew up into his crotch. He groaned in immense pain and crumpled to the ground, releasing my hand to grab his prized possession. Ian moaned on the floor. I must've kicked him harder than I thought.

Good, I thought fiercely. What a despicable man! I stepped closer to the empty stranger below me, holding my torso.

"Try this hard, you mean?" I asked and I kicked him in between the legs again. If that's where it hurt the most-ha! I'd go for it every time. He groaned, his eyes rolling up into his head. Profanities streamed from his mouth and my lip curled.

"You are a rotten, despicable, disgraceful human being," I said and I spat in his face. I was breathing hard, whether from exertion or rage, I didn't know. I hated Ian. Hated him with a passion. I scowled at him again before leaving the kitchen.

My face burned and was extremely sensitive to the touch. I touched it and hissed in pain. My collarbone ached and my ribs were blistering with scalding pain. I turned my face away from the register as Carolina put some money in it.

"You okay, honey?" she asked.

"Ye-" I stopped. "No," I said, whipping up a lie. "I got sick-it must've been the fish I had last night-and I need to get home. Can I make up on Tuesday or another day?" I plastered on my best ill stricken face I could muster, not showing her the left side of my face.

"Of course!" she said, looking extremely understanding. "You go home and get better, all right?"

I grinned, though it looked more like a grimace. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," she said and I headed for the bathroom once I had retrieved my clothes from the employee's quarters.

I avoided her when I hung the clothes up and even more so the customers as I walked out. I caught a few people's eyes, but I looked away quickly. I noticed Ian was back at the counter by the time I reached the door, and I caught his glare, his evil, snaky glare.

I said nothing and left.

That night, I soaked myself in the nearly-hypothermic river, trying to dull the pain everywhere. The moon was high in the sky by the time I slipped on my clothes and shoes and the owls hooted at me as I trekked to my cave. I buried myself in the far back, avoiding the bitingly cold wind at all costs. I had no blankets and no mattress and no pillows, so I had to make do.

Eventually, I fell into a slumber so deep, I didn't wake up the next day until noon. My body was burning with soreness and I washed my face in the ice-cold water of the River, wincing when I touched my bruise. I hoped it would disappear by tomorrow. I didn't need Carolina asking questions.

I used the tip of my knife to scratch pictures on the rocks and then I used a freehand rock to sharpen the blade. Always keep your blade sharp and your weapons ready. You never know when you may need them, my dad's voice said, filling the void in my brain.

I was still reeling over what had happened with Ian. I had never seen that coming. Even though I had known he wasn't the most trustworthy person just by his looks, I never would've guessed he would try to-

I shook my head, my eyebrows bending together. I didn't want to think about it. I mentally thanked my dad. Without what he had taught me . . . I didn't even want to go there.

The day was cold and lonely. I dumped out the contents of the dress-bag I had and draped it over my shoulder, cold as ice. I ate several pieces of fruit and curled up in the far most corner of the cave, hiding from the icy weather. Winter was coming too fast.

And this time, I wouldn't survive.

…..

Thankfully after three days, the bruise faded into a pink spot on my face. It was Thursday, one of my off days at work, but because I had missed so much, I decided to go in. It took me roughly an hour to get there, and when I did, I didn't see Carolina. Sandra and Jocelyn worked today, but Carolina worked every day so not seeing her was bizarre.

"Morning," I said to Jocelyn. She was Indian and had the most beautiful, big, brown eyes I'd ever laid eyes on. They were even more gorgeous then Tessany's.

"Good morning," she replied. She was at least a foot shorter than me.

"Where's Carolina?" I asked.

"Her brother sprained his ankle terribly, so she's spending the day taking care of him," she replied.

"Oh. Well I work on Friday through Monday, but I've missed a lot of days from injury and illness," I said, gesturing to my sling, "so I wanted to come in today to make up for some of it. Is there anything I can do?"

She hmmed and disappeared into the kitchen. She brought out a broom. "Mind sweeping?"

I looked around the nearly empty café. "Not at all," I said and she handed me the utensil over the counter. At once, I set to work. After sweeping, I washed some dishes alongside Sandra, a friendly towhead. She and I didn't say much, but that was okay with me. I made some sandwiches during lunch and bustled around, handing platters out to people. I washed more dishes and wiped some tables.

When the day ended, I bid Jocelyn and Sandra goodbye, with their reassurance they'd tell Carolina of my make-up work. I kept my eyes peeled for Ian, but I never saw him.

I went into work the next day and spent most of my time in the kitchen, alone. Carolina was back, but she often made trips to her nearby home to check on her brother. Ian didn't say a word and I kept knives out on all the countertops just in case. I wasn't worried about him pointing one towards my face-I was as excellent as I was with a dagger as I was with a sword. In other words, he didn't stand a chance.

He didn't approach me again, and I slipped home without any problems. I still hadn't seen any of the Stevensons, and though I was glad about it, I was sort of confused. I wondered about why they weren't coming to town all of sudden-it couldn't have just been me, though I bet Chet was still pissed.

I slept soundly again, dreaming wistfully, oblivious to the havoc tomorrow would wreak.

….

A/N: Part trois! What do you think of it so far? Thanks for reading (and not stealing!)! -Shannon :)