Book Four

Of

Jade leeman's story

Chapter One

Cold

The air was cold and stiff as if it was still winter. It was an unusually cold day for spring. Amber's high-heeled black boots clicked softly across the cement sidewalk as she walked quickly toward the city bus-stop. There was no one there, but as Amber sat down on the bench, she still felt uncomfortable. She shifted the handbag that hung over her shoulder and then peered between the side panels at a couple who were walking across a parking lot to their minivan. The woman pulled open the door, glanced back toward her man and then laughed with him over something he had just said.

Amber turned back toward the street at the cars that were passing by. Surely it wouldn't take too long for a bus to arrive…

She glanced again through the paneling at the couple. They were getting into their car and soon they would be gone. She sighed and wished suddenly that she could go around with Jade in that same way. But somehow, that never happened. Jade didn't like her, and she was unable to push him around as his father could.

"Yeah, there's something wrong with that *****," Amber said softly to herself. Jade wasn't looking for a girl at all. Amber had always had an eye for guys. She had had her first boyfriend during the first year of highschool. Then she had had her second near the end of highschool, but she had broken up with him before she had finished. Neither of them attracted her attention nearly as much as Jade did, and it made Amber frustrated that no matter what she did, she could not get his attention.

"Amber?"

A voice startled her out of her thoughts, and she turned instantly to see Jude Durrace standing over her, looking down at her.

"Amber! Never thought I'd see you 'round here. What're ya up to?" Jude Durrace pulled an apple out of his pocket and took a bite out of it.

"Just…just waiting for a bus," Amber said, quickly getting over her surprise.

"Saw your car down the road, but I wasn't sure for sure if it was really yours," Jude said sitting down beside her.

"It was—it's having troubles, so I walked up here to wait for a bus," Amber explained. "Why are you here? Your car got trouble too?"

"Na," Jude Durrace said with a shrug. "Just like walking in cities."

"You're nuts!" Amber exclaimed. "Somebody could shoot you down in an instant."

Jude shrugged again. "Na, if they were after somebody, I recon it would be Rudurhans or Jade—or maybe you. But nobody wants me, so I get walk around in cities."

"You're still nuts," Amber decided. "How many people do you have to talk to on each of your 'walks'?"

"Huh? Oh, uh…na, not many people know me—like there was one cashier up by the grocery store, but aside from that…I mean—why would somebody recognize me? I'm not standing on a stage, I'm just walking down the road. Suppose people would recognize Jade 'cause he doesn't look—you know, like…normal and he wears makeup when he goes out—and Rudurhans has that Mohawk-thingy. But me? Huh. I'm just sort of an ordinary-looking guy, you know? Suppose I could use a haircut myself, but…with all those duck-dynasty people walking around, I fit in pretty good, I'll say."

"Duck dynasty is made up of a bunch of old men with gray hair and gray beards. Plus their hair is way longer than yours," Amber said with a slightly amused expression. She felt a little relieved that Jude was here, now. Still, she shot a nervous glance over her back all the same.

"Oh, yeah, that's true, huh?" Jude rubbed his chin. "Gotta wait a few years for the gray beard, then…"

"Well, you're lucky," Amber sighed.

"Why?" Jude asked.

"You're so confident. I hate bringing security with me, but when I don't, I hate it just as much."

"Oh. Security. Yeah, you oughtta try being Jade for a day. Rudurhans told him not to go anywhere public without security. Can you believe that?"

"Well, I know for a fact that he doesn't bring security everywhere he goes. In fact, the only time I ever see him with security is like for a show or something," Amber said. She was relaxing now.

"Well, I don't know, but that's freakin' weird, if you ask me."

"Why do you keep on mentioning Jade, anyway?" Amber asked suddenly.

"Oh, I don't know," Jude answered. He was turning the half-eaten apple around in his fingers. "You like him?"

"Like him?" Amber asked with a fake laugh. "I don't dislike him…I mean, he's a band member."

"No, I mean, like him as a person—not just 'cause of what he does," Jude said. He was staring into space, the apple still turning slowly around in his fingers.

"Well…I guess I don't know him too well," Amber said hesitantly.

"Me neither," Jude agreed tonelessly. He glanced at Amber. "He attacked you with that gun or was it an accident?"

"Oh, that's where this is going," Amber said, rolling her eyes.

"I was just thinking that I…couldn't really see him shooting you unless you were…I don't know…" Jude shrugged.

"It was an accident, I told you before," Amber said quickly.

"Yeah? Rudurhans seems pretty sure he shot you purposefully. Thing I don't get is…I don't know…" Jude shrugged again. "Would you know if it was purposeful?"

"Yeah—I would. I do know," Amber said shortly.

"Well, Rudurhans thinks he shot you on purpose. Strange thing is—well, actually, there are two strange things. One is…Well, Jade doesn't like you."

There was silence for a while.

"How…do you know that?" Amber asked.

"Well, it's not like he's told me or anything. I can just tell. Thing is, I can't see him…you know, playing around with you to the point that…he accidentally shot you. And he knows how to handle a gun. I know he does. He's got a good aim, and he knows what he's shooting at. I can't see him playing around with a real gun…and if he did, it seems he wouldn't have had an accident," Jude sighed. "But if he wanted to shoot you—I don't know why he would. He's not the murdering type as far as I've seen. He seems…like a good guy—and if he did mean to shoot you, it seems he would have…hit and…killed you, I guess…And if he didn't mean to kill you, then he must have just been…I don't know—warning you or trying to stop you from doing something…" Jude glanced down at the apple in his hand. "Sort of leads me to believe…"

"Leads you to believe what?" Amber asked a little too harshly.

Jude was silent for a while. He glanced at Amber and sighed. "Well…that I don't know him very well."

"Well, that's for sure," Amber said softly. "That kid's a jerk."

"What did you invite him over for to begin with?" Jude asked.

"Oh, I…didn't invite him—he just showed up to ask for something…" Amber said uncertainly.

"What?" Jude asked.

"Pills."

"Pills?" Jude asked. He shook his head slowly. "Dang, I didn't know he was doing drugs."

"Yeah, he has been for a while," Amber said distantly.

"I wish he wasn't. He's too young for that stuff, you know?"

"He's my age, Jude," Amber said darkly.

"Oh, yeah, that's right, isn't it? But you're like a year older? I don't know. All the same—it's like he's younger in the inside. Like you grew up super fast, and he's still just a kid. I don't know why. Guess it's just his character."

"Aren't you the psychologist," Amber muttered.

"Say, I just remembered something," Jude said after a moment.

"What?" Amber asked.

"It's the 30th of the month, isn't it?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Bus line isn't running today."

Leeman, we can talk about this, ok? We have a fan-meeting scheduled for Friday so if you show up early, we can talk—me, you, and Amber.

"Talk about it?" Jade asked in a whisper as he stared down at the text message he had just received from Rudurhans Kakaya. "What's talking about it going to do? You're never going to believe me."

He lay back slowly on his bed and sighed, his eyes drifting to the ceiling. It was just hard to go on living. He had nothing really to do—until Friday—yet he was stressed out all the same. His heart hurt and his mind ached. Thinking was so painful, a knife would have felt better. But Jackson still banned Jade from all sharp things. The mirror in the bathroom had been replaced, but that was the only sign Jade had been given that things were getting a little better.

But even if Jade was getting any better whatsoever, he was coming out of it scarred. He had lost weight—so much that when he looked at himself in the mirror, he could see it clearly. Eating was still hard, but it was ok, now. Jade found he could use the pain in his head to dull his senses and then just eat without noticing.

And then Friday would be Jade's first day out since Jackson had shut him up in his room. Jade was sick of where he was, but he wasn't sure he wanted to leave anyway. Fan-meetings were draining. They were draining every single time. Performances could sometimes be better. But fan-meetings were the living nightmare, despite the fact that they were during the day and they were almost always just a one stop trip rather than connected with a tour.

Still, as Jade turned over onto his side, dread filled his heart. And what would Rudurhans Kakaya wish to talk about? Was it really talking he wanted to do? Or was it just more accusations and punishment?

Chapter Two

Just a Joke

When Jackson came in on Friday morning, he found Jade awake, lying on his bed staring up at the ceiling.

"So you gotta go to that thing today?" Jackson asked sitting down on Jade's bed.

The teenager sat up and sighed.

"Feeling ok?"

"I'm ok."

"You sure?" Jackson reached out and touched Jade's shoulder gently. The teenager flinched.

"Yeah, I'm ok—I'm going to be ok," Jade said, trying to make his voice sound firm.

"I…I really worry about you, Jade…" Jackson said in a soft voice.

The teenager's eyes rose slowly toward the window. "Please don't…there's…there's nothing you can do…that you haven't done already…"

"I don't want them to hurt you, Jade," Jackson said certainly.

"I'll be fine," Jade said quickly.

"You sure you're ok?" Jackson asked again. "You look so tired and worn."

"You know…it's like he said…" Jade said, his voice dropping to a pained whisper.

"Like who said?" Jackson asked.

"My…my dad…" Jade said. He slid back against the bedpost and leaned against it. "He said…he's always going to be with me. Whether he's there or not. And…and he is…I can't…I can't get it out of my head. It's stuck there. It hurts so much. I can't forget it."

"Yeah…" Jackson sighed. "I can't imagine how much that must hurt…"

"Do you think I'm ever going to get better?" Jade asked softly.

"I hope so, Jade. I pray your life will heal and you'll find joy," Jackson answered.

"And if I don't? Would you let me die if it didn't work?" But Jade didn't wait for an answer. He let his eyes close. "It won't. I know it won't." Then he was crying. "He raped me—he raped me! My—my own father…just…And Amber and all those other girls—all they want is just—just…"

"It's not going to happen anymore, Jade," Jackson said certainly. "Tell me if they say things. Call me. I'll help you."

"I don't know what to do!" Jade cried. "I don't know who to trust anymore! I don't know who to turn to…I want…I want to trust you, and I tell myself that I will, and then I…I can't! I still hate you touching me—but when I think back on it, I realize it felt good. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't…I can't live…Nothing is normal or real anymore…Nothing is the way it should be. I'm so…I'm so messed up. It's like, before I even started everybody knew I was going to lose. I…I was going to lose, but I tried anyway, and it broke me up inside. You know? You know, it broke me…It broke me so hard—so hard inside…" He raised his hands to his chest and pressed them there as if he was internally bleeding. He folded over and hid his face in his knees. "I'm so…I'm so sorry…"

"Jade, none of this is your fault," Jackson said gently. "Forgive…yourself…"

"I'm so embarrassed," Jade whispered.

"Yeah, sin is always shameful, Jade," Jackson said. "Even sometimes when it's not your own—sometimes it's shame caused by other people's mistakes. But you know, that's why we believe in a God, Jade. That's why we follow the example of a man who died a shameful death. Where did all that shame come from? It came from everyone's mistakes. He never made any mistakes of his own, but he was willing to take on the shame from everybody else's mistakes. He freed us from eternal punishment when he gave his life for us."

"Yeah—yeah, I've heard some of that," Jade sighed. "But it's not real. It's just that fairytale that some people believe in to make themselves happy. It's like drugs…except drugs are easier to believe in."

"It's truth, Jade. There's a long history of Christianity. There's proof of it. There really was a man who died for us," Jackson said softly. "But we don't need to talk about it now. Jade, I just want you to know that this wasn't your fault. This shame isn't yours. It's your father's."

"But he's not ashamed!" Jade cried. "He doesn't care! He never will! In his eyes I'm just a piece of ****** ****! He just wanted pleasure out of me—I'm never…I'm never going to forget…or…or…let it go…"

"Jade…"

"I would have done better as a prostitute," Jade said in a drained voice. "Just looking at the number of people who want to have *** with me…and I didn't even ask anyone."

"Don't degrade yourself like that, Jade," Jackson insisted.

"But that's what I am," Jade whispered. "I don't know how…how I turned out that way…I don't know what I did wrong…I don't know why I have to be different from everyone else…"

"Jade, you're physically very attractive," Jackson said gently.

"Yeah—sick-attractive. What is it that makes them want to get so close when they don't even know me? Is that why they come to the concerts? Is that why I have to wear tight clothing for shows—because Eclipse knows they come to see my body?" Jade let out a shaky sigh. "Well, that's all there is. There's nothing inside. I have nothing inside. So take what's there. That's all I have. I'm sorry."

Jade left the apartment without eating anything. He wasn't hungry. He felt sick and suffocating inside. He drove out to the Tech building and refused to let himself think. But when he parked his Mini Cooper in the parking lot before the Tech Building and got out, fear seized him. He had taken a shower and tried to clean up his appearance as much as he could. But he still felt insecure and self-conscious.

Jade walked in the front entrance and met face to face with Jude Durrace.

"Oh, hey, Jade!" Jude cried in a lively voice. He was obviously in a good mood. "I believe our dear band-leader was asking after you just a minute ago—he's in the com room now."

Jade passed him without a word and headed silently down the main hallway to the computer room. However, when Jade entered the office-size room, he saw that Rudurhans Kakaya and his daughter were present.

"Ah, there you are," Rudurhans said, looking up from a magazine.

"Hot one of you," Amber said, snatching the magazine out of her father's hands and flipping it around to show a picture of Jade, stretching so that his rather short shirt rose above his waistline. He was staring off into space and wind was lifting his hair slightly.

Rudurhans lifted the magazine away from Amber and tossed it onto the computer desk beside him. "Sit down, Jade—close the door, first."

Jade obeyed. He shut the door and then walked quietly over to a chair opposite Rudurhans and his daughter.

"Now…" Rudurhans said, folding his hands together. He leaned back. "Since both of you are here, I thought we would get everything ironed out right now. I want…truth, and just truth. No lies—no complicating the point—just the simple truth of what happened on that day labeled 'the gun accident'."

Amber shot Jade a cold stare.

Jade looked at her, glanced at Rudurhans, then finally fixed his eyes on the floor.

"Leeman?" Rudurhans asked.

"Will you believe me?" Jade asked lifelessly.

"Truth, Jade—that's all I'm looking for," Rudurhans spelled out. "No questions. Nothing beside the point. Just what happened."

Jade shifted nervously and glanced at Amber. He fixed his eyes on the floor again. "She blackmailed me," he whispered.

"Go on," Ruduhans instructed.

Amber was as silent as stone.

"She…she…then she…" Jade pressed a hand against his own forehead and tried to organize his thoughts. He just had to say it. That's all he had to do. He could worry about the rest later. He glanced at Amber again.

She was staring at him fixedly.

"She—she…"

"She what?" Rudurhans asked. But there was no tone of impatience in his words. He only sounded…tense…"

"She wanted ***!" Jade broke out at last. "She said she would tell the press about my dad if…she…if she…" Jade shot her another glance and swallowed hard at her frozen stare. He was shaking and sweating and he didn't even realize he was. "If she didn't get it," he finished.

"And?" Rudurhans prodded.

"So I…I agreed…at first," Jade said hoarsely. He shot Amber yet another glance, but then fixed his eyes on the floor and told himself inwardly not to look at her again. "But then I couldn't and…" Jade's voice faded. He was rocking in his chair, and his discomfort was plain on his face.

"And what?" Rudurhans asked, impatience sounding for the first time in his voice.

Jade took a breath. "And then she…" the eighteen-year-old hesitated again. "She…she—I got scared. I couldn't do it, and then I grabbed her gun and pointed it at her—told her to let me go—swear that she wouldn't talk to the press—she wouldn't stop coming closer—shot her," Jade said in one desperate breath.

"What the heck?" Rudurhans asked. "She walked up to you and you shot her?"

"I—I couldn't think!" Jade cried. "I thought she was—I thought she was going to force herself on me! So I—when she kept coming closer, I shot her!"

"You filthy *****!" Amber suddenly exploded. "He's lying! He's ******* lying! I can't believe this—"

"What made you think she was going to force you into it?" Rudurhans asked, ignoring his daughter.

"I—I…" Jade began, but he couldn't even think of why.

"Because he's been raped by his ***-**** father," Amber filled in. "I mean—his father literally slept with him, and that's what the police affair was about. Now he has made this illusion for himself—now he thinks everybody's after his pretty body."

Jade lower lip quivered. He couldn't stop shaking.

"Your father raped you?" Rudurhans asked, his voice completely emotionless, but his eyebrows lifted slightly.

"P-please…" Jade whispered hoarsely. "Please, I don't want to talk about this…"

"***, Jade why the **** didn't you say something?" Rudurhans asked, real surprise showing on his face. "That's why you left your old house?"

Jade was frozen silent.

"He's half insane now," Amber said. "Thinking everyone's after him—he's such a jerk, you know?"

"Hush, Amber," Rudurhans ordered, glancing at her. He turned back to Jade. "He really raped you?"

"Please…" Jade whispered. His face was deathly pale.

"I wouldn't have objected to you moving if I had known he raped you," Rudurhans said, shaking his head. He still looked stunned.

There was a long moment of silence.

And then suddenly, Jade let out a tense sigh. "Can I go?"

Rudurhans seemed to consider the request for a moment. But then he gave Jade a short nod. "For a little to get control of yourself. Then come back."

Jade stood up quickly and left the room. He headed down the hallway toward one of the one-room bathrooms of the Tech building. However, just before he reached it, he crashed into Jude Durrace again.

"Oh, sorry," Jude said quickly. He caught Jade before he tripped, but the sudden jolt sent Jade off guard and he burst into tears. "No, no, no!" Jude gasped. He bent down so that he was eye-level with Jade and stared into his face. "Did I hurt you?"

"No! Let me go!" Jade cried he tried to shake Jude's hands off his shoulders, but Jude wouldn't let good.

"No, no, I'm sorry! What did I do?"

"Just let me go!" Jade screamed. He yanked himself free of Jude's grasp and then ran the rest of the way to the bathroom. He got inside and then slammed and locked the door behind him.

Jade walked weakly over to the sink and leaned over the rim letting his tears drip down into the drain. He should have lied. He should have played along with Amber's game. Now everything was exposed. Jade felt as if someone had written his life story up on a billboard for the world to see. Now everyone could stare. Jade slammed his fist down onto the sink rim, and sucked in his breath. He dropped down onto the floor by the wall and tipped his head back against the wall.

It was too late now. The mistake was made and now there was nothing he could do about it. Rudurhans had been surprised. The expression he had made had stabbed Jade to the heart. Why was it that the things Jade wished were invisible were always the things people took the most interest in? And Amber knew she could torture him by telling her father the story right in front of Jade. His abuse was magnified to the highest extent while Jade himself went on unnoticed and completely unwanted. They wanted to stare at his body. They wanted to hear about people using his body. They wanted to use his body themselves. But they cared nothing for the real person. They didn't care how he felt about it. Everything Jade could give had already been taken. More than that had been stolen. And still, people had to keep on taking. How much could be taken before there would be nothing left and Jade would cease to feel?

But Jade knew he couldn't stay in the bathroom forever. He had to go back and when Rudurhans had said "for a little" he had meant for a little. Jade pulled himself back up onto his feet and rinsed his face with cold water. He dried it and then forced himself to stop crying.

Then, when he felt he had some control over himself, he left the bathroom and headed back toward the computer room.

Rudurhans and Amber were waiting for him. Jade shut the door and sat down again, the feeling of being trapped in familiar torture welling up inside him.

"Jade, Amber and I talked a little while you were gone, and she seems pretty certain that you have imagined that she intended to get close to you at all. Is it possible you were…mistaken?" Rudurhans asked.

He sounded just like a trained interviewer.

Jade shook his head weakly. "She wanted it," he whispered. "That's why she told me to come. That's why she threatened me." It was too late to play her game. He had to stand up for who he was or he would be crushed yet again.

"What makes you think that's what she wanted?" Rudurhans asked, crossing his arms across his chest.

"She…she—she said it…" Jade said and suddenly he started crying again. He dropped his head in his hands and let his fingers slide into his hair.

"She told you she wanted that?" Rudurhans asked.

Jade nodded.

"And she wasn't joking?"

"She put her hands up my shirt…and got on top of me…" Jade choked.

"What do you have to say about that?" Rudurhans asked, tuning to Amber.

"I was…teasing him a little…" Amber said hesitantly. "But I never got on top of him…"

"Jade?" Rudurhans asked.

"Please, please if…if you want to believe her, then believe her and stop asking me questions," Jade said in a drained whisper. "I never would have tried to get to her…I never would have…after my father hurt me so much…after…after all of this, I can't…I can't possibly…"

"I believe you," Rudurhans said suddenly. He turned to Amber. "I think my daughter was doing some serious flirting with you that she…intended to end in ****** ***********."

Amber opened her mouth to protest, but Rudurhans turned back to Jade. "It won't happen again, Jade. None of this will happen again," he spelled out and he was speaking to Amber as well. "Alright. You both can go."

But Jade remained motionless. He couldn't stop crying. Rudurhans had believed him, and it was almost as if for the first time, Amber's exploits became reality. He heard her walk passed him—with quick, certain footsteps that spoke a harsh warning. A moment later, he heard Rudurhans walk by as well. But before the band leader passed, Jade felt him touch a hand to his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Jade. It won't happen again. Go to the stylist to get cleaned up, yeah?"

But Rudurhans did not wait for Jade to answer, and then he was gone.

Of course "cleaned up" meant a professional make-up job, nail polish, and hair dye. Jade sighed and wished he didn't have to see Jessie Colby. She understood him too well and could see right through him. She would take one look at him and know something was wrong, but Jade wouldn't be able to say what it was, and she wouldn't ask, because they hadn't spoken in so long.

But Jade knew he didn't have a choice. He again forced himself to stop crying, dried his face, and then got up and started off toward where Jessie Colby's shop was.

And it was just as Jade had feared. Jessie didn't say a word to him as he walked in and dropped into the chair. She started re-dying his hair without even greeting him. Of course she wouldn't say a word to him. He hadn't said a word to her the past several times he had seen her. He had let her know without opening his mouth that their friendly connection was over. Not because she had done something wrong, but because Jade had. It was always Jade's fault. And now, he was too afraid of rejection to try to rebuild that relationship.

Jessie worked in silence for a while. Neither said a word. And then Jade suddenly couldn't take it anymore. "You were right about everything," he whispered. "When you said I shouldn't, I shouldn't have and when you said I should, I should have."

"I never gave you advice you had to follow," Jessie said softly.

"But I should have. I should have, and now I've paid for it."

"What do you want? You want me to tell you what to do now?" Jessie asked plainly.

"I want…I just want everybody to stop hating me…"

"You wanted that last time. I don't hate you, Jade."

"But I feel like you do. Because we don't talk—and it's my fault we don't talk anymore."

"I thought you didn't want to talk anymore."

"I can't talk," Jade sighed. "I can't tell you anything, but I still wish we would talk."

"What happened that you can't tell me?" Jessie asked.

"I can't talk anymore," was all Jade answered.

"This thing with Amber? Is that what you're talking about?" Jessie asked quietly.

So she did know. That meant all the behind-the-scenes workers knew. Jade had expected as much. When Amber was mad, she hurt people just as much as she possibly could. And when it was Jade she was mad at, she certainly knew how to make him hurt. She had likely had a big explosion—loud enough to ensure that even the behind-the-scenes workers heard everything.

"I didn't attack her," Jade whispered.

"I know you didn't," Jessie sighed. "I didn't believe it, but what really happened? Why did you shoot her?"

"She…she attacked me," Jade said softly.

"Really?" Jessie said. She sounded disappointed and Jade wondered what she thought he possibly could have done.

"My life's ****," Jade sighed. "It's all messed up, and I can't change it. I left home, and the guy in charge of the apartment…" Jade sighed again. "He wants to help me but…I just can't…I can't let him in, you know? He's one of those Jesus-people who believe in that fairy world. I don't…I can't see him ever really understanding, you know?"

"Yeah, but those Jesus-people, believe it or not often have most of their heads on their shoulders. He might understand more than you think," Jessie said. She ran her fingers through Jade's hair, straightening it out.

"I don't trust him," Jade admitted softly. "I don't trust anybody. I can't. I just can't. I don't know why, but I'm afraid he would turn away the moment I needed him most…"

"No, not those Jesus-people," Jessie contradicted. "They're very certain of their promises. You can depend on that."

"But he can never fix me, anyway," Jade sighed. He lifted his feet onto the chair and locked his arms around his knees. "It won't ever go away. None of it will. Dad still hates me. He's never going to care. He never will."

"Yeah, but it's time you leave your family behind, Jade," Jessie said. "You're eighteen now, and you can grow out of it."

"But they're all I had! They and Eclipse were all I had! And suddenly I'm losing both…"

"Why don't you tell Mr. Kakaya what happened?" Jessie asked.

"I did, and he believed me," Jade sighed. "I never thought he would, but he did. Still, I just feel like this is glued to me—like…like everything else. Some of them will believe my story, and some will believe hers. I don't want them to believe either! I just wish it had never happened! I wish it would disappear and everyone would forget about it, but they won't…they'll remember it forever, and I will too."

"Things like that happen, Jade. You just gotta forget it. Yeah, you can't let go immediately. You shouldn't, probably because forgetting too quickly builds frivolousness, but you shouldn't hold on forever. Eventually, you need to let go and allow yourself to move on."

"If they start calling me a rapist…" Jade whispered. "You would speak up for me?"

"Jade…I already have—I've been speaking up for you since the story first came out. I never believed it," Jessie said. She finished with his hair and began putting the bottles away. Then she lifted some scissors out of a drawer and trimmed the hair that hung over Jade's face. She put the scissors away and shut the drawer. Then lifted his hand onto the counter and began painting his nails black.

"Thanks," Jade whispered at last.

"Kind of ironic, you know," Jessie said after a moment.

"What?" Jade asked quickly.

"That you're the one everybody wants to be. And then you come here and have your own things to whine about," Jessie observed. "Probably more than most people."

"Yeah, well people who want to be me don't know me at all. Everybody who knows me would rather avoid me than anything else," Jade sighed.

"Except Amber," Jessie pointed out.

Jade didn't answer.

"Why don't you get a girl, Jade?" Jessie asked.

"Amber?" Jade gasped.

"No, not Amber. Some other girl. Some girl who will take real care of you," Jessie answered.

"Yeah? And what am I supposed to do for her in return?" Jade asked softly. "Give her ***. Give her money. Keep her happy. Man, I don't understand what love is supposed to be. It's sick! You know? It's just ******* sick! Why would you pay someone to be with you? And if you don't pay them, why the **** would they stay? Is my brain messed up or what? Is that what the problem is? There's something wrong with me, and that's why I can't see why people like this? And then this Jackson guy comes up to me and tells me he cares, and I don't see a reason under the sun for him to care, but he does anyway—or so he claims. He says he doesn't want anything from me, he just cares with no explanation. And that's the way I always thought love was supposed to be. But then when I feel it myself, it's so wrong, I don't like it. Then what am I after? What am I living for? Am I seriously just alive because every time I've tried to kill myself some ***** or ******** stopped me?"

"I don't know, Jade," Jessie sighed, shaking her head. "When you put it that way it…does sound kind of strange. But I don't think love is supposed to be a payment with things. I think it's supposed to be a payment of persons. You're the payment. If a person's gonna love you, they're going to have to love you. Not just your money or your body or anything else like that. It's gonna have to be you, or it doesn't work."

"Yeah, I guess that makes sense…" Jade said after a moment. "Just I'm ****, and everybody with half a brain knows that. That's why nobody likes me. That's why they all ******* hate me."

"You could find someone. If you looked," Jessie said. She finished Jade's fingernails and began putting the little bottles away. Then she took a comb out and began running it through his hair.

"How do you look?" Jade asked. But then he shook his head. "There's no one. And even if there was, I don't think I want a girl. I know I don't want a girl. I don't know what I want."

"You want a family, Jade," Jessie answered for him. "And the only way you're going to get a family is if you get a girl. Marry her, and start your own family."

"I don't want that!" Jade cried. He clenched his fingers into a fist and slammed it on the counter in front of him. "Just because I look like a stupid girl doesn't mean I am a stupid girl or I want a stupid girl! Why does everyone look at me and decide that I want a stupid girl!? Man, stop just deciding for me what I want! If I say I don't want a stupid girl then—then **** don't you think I ******* don't want a stupid girl!?"

"Sure, Jade," Jessie shrugged. "There's no need to get all blown up about it. What do you want then? Everyone to adore you? Everyone to fall down at your feet and kiss your toes? You have that. What else do you want?"

Jade was silent for a while. Then he slowly shook his head. "I don't know…I don't know what I want…Maybe I just want to die and be done with life. I guess I'm not like you. I can't live just 'cause I'm alive. I need purpose. I need something real to hold onto. If I forget my past then…what do I have left? Nothing, really…"

"What's in your past that's worth having?" Jessie asked.

"My family…" Jade sighed. "That's all I have. That and Eclipse."

"Then why don't you live for Eclipse?" Jessie asked. "You used to like showing."

"That was before I knew what showing was really about," Jade said softly. "Because all it really is…is just a show. It's just a stupid show, and I'm the centerpiece. I don't get anything real out of it. I don't need money. There's nothing I need. I have everything I need."

"Then why aren't you happy?"

"I don't know." Jade dropped his hands into his lap and stared down at them. "How am I going to face them today?" he asked softly.

"Who? Your fans?" Jessie asked.

"Yeah. Those…those…*****-"

"Jade," Jessie cut him off. "Just do it the way you always do. Just smile and let yourself go for a while. What's different about now?"

"I don't know," Jade said with a shrug. "Too tired, I guess. Just too tired. I can't do it like I could before."

"You haven't tried," Jessie pointed out. "And from the way things look to me, it appears you're gonna have to—like it or not. Unless you wanna have a pathetic show in front of them. That would be cute too."

"What is it!?" Jade gasped suddenly. "You sound just like them! That's what it is—'go get a girl' 'put on a pathetic show' 'that would be cute'. ****, I am finished!" Jade got to his feet, ran a hand through his hair and started for the door.

"Where are you going?" Jessie asked. "I haven't even started styling your hair."

"I don't ******* care!" Jade yelled. He left her workshop and slammed the door behind himself. The teenager started back in the direction of the main entrance, kicking at the floor as he went. Nothing worked out anymore. He and Jessie used to get along so well. She used to understand him so well…What had changed?

"I changed," Jade sighed. He slowed his pace. He had changed. It had happened slowly, but when his father had put hands on him and decided that the old abuse was no longer enough, it had been the last straw and Jade had taken the rest of a jump he hadn't exactly been ready for. Now everything was different. He had left home. He had quit school. He had broken up with his old friends. And how was Jessie supposed to know that? How was she supposed to know how suffocated he felt when he couldn't even tell her what was going on? She probably didn't even know why they had gotten in a fight to begin with. Maybe it hadn't even mattered much to her. There were probably a lot of people who liked Jessie. There just weren't very many people who liked Jade.

The eighteen-year-old walked over to the hallway wall and dropped down onto the floor beside it. He didn't know what he was going to do now. Eventually, he would have to go back to Jessie. Too bad. He was sick of her. He was sick of himself. Jade dropped his head into his hands and shut his eyes.

"Hey, Puppy!" Fentra's bold voice startled Jade and he looked up quickly. "Sulking or something?" the sandy blond-haired guy asked. He was standing in the middle of the hallway staring down at Jade with a belittling grin. "What's up? Broke up with a girlfriend?"

Jade didn't answer.

"Come here," Fentra ordered suddenly, his voice hardening slightly.

Jade didn't move.

Fentra rolled his eyes and started on down the hall. He passed Jade and seemed to be about to continue on his way when suddenly he changed his mind and turned back. He strode up to Jade, grabbed his arm, and yanked the teenager to his feet. Fentra turned Jade to face the wall and then shoved him against it. Before Jade could catch his fall and regain balance, Fentra slipped his arms around Jade's waist and dropped his chin onto Jade's shoulder, pulling him close.

Jade gasped and went rigid.

"This feel familiar?" Fentra asked with a smirk. "This what your daddy does?" He pulled up Jade's shirt a little and ran his fingers over Jade's hips.

"No…no, you don't want this…" Jade gasped breathlessly. "Let me go…please, you don't want this—you don't want this."

"Well, your dad seemed to like it," Fentra pointed out. He couldn't hide his open smile. "Maybe I would too—you never know…" He pushed Jade firmly against the wall. "Think I could try—right here? Nobody's watching. Does it even matter if anybody's watching?"

Jade craned his head upward for air. He sucked in a sharp breath. "Let me go!" he screamed suddenly.

Fentra burst out laughing. He released Jade, and fell backward against the opposite wall, still laughing.

And then Jude came running up. "What's going on?" he asked, slowing to a stop when he saw Fentra.

"The darn…the darn…" Fentra could barely breathe, he was laughing so hard.

Jade was leaning against the other wall, still too stunned and scared to move.

"The what?" Jude asked, looking from one to the other.

"The darn ***** seriously thought I was gonna **** him!" Fentra gasped at last.

For a long moment, Jude continued staring at Fentra with his mouth gaping. At last, he slowly shut it. "You made him think you were going to rape him."

Fentra was laughing so hard, he was crying. He nodded and pointed across the hall at Jade. "Look at that face! Look at—he thought I was really gonna seriously ride him!"

"Course he did," Jude muttered, obviously not amused. He turned away from Fentra and walked slowly over to Jade.

But the teenager lifted out a pale hand as Jude stopped beside him. "Don't…touch me…" he whispered faintly.

"He was just playing with you," Jude sighed. "He didn't mean it." The dark haired drummer shot a glance over at Fentra who was still laughing. Then he turned back to Jade and carefully reached out and touched the eighteen-year-old's arm.

Jade flinched away and started crying.

Fentra was finally able to stop laughing and he pulled out his phone and took a picture of Jade. Then he put away his phone. "That makes my day, Jade," he said and he started on down the hallway, still grinning.

"Darn Fentra," Jude growled, glaring after him. He turned back to Jade. "He won't hurt you, Jade. He was just…being mean…"

Jade buried his face in his arms and didn't say anything.

"Jade…" Jude sighed.

"Just leave me alone," Jade whispered softly.

"Ok, but…are you ok?" Jude asked.

Jade closed his mouth and turned to stare at the floor.

Jude let out a long sigh, but finally stood up and left.

When he was gone, Jade pulled out his phone and before he had time to change his mind, he called Jackson Gillahend.

Jackson answered almost immediately. "Hello, this Jade?"

Jade opened his mouth, but the only sound that came out was a sob and he slipped a hand over his lips to keep everything else back.

"You ok, Jade?" Jackson asked after a moment.

"No," Jade managed after a long pause.

"You going to tell me what happened?" Jackson asked.

Jade was silent for a while. "No, I guess not," he answered at last. And he knew he couldn't do it suddenly.

"Why not?"

"I don't know," Jade sighed. "It's too hard to talk about. Sorry about bothering you." He drew the phone away from his face and lifted a finger to hit the end button.

"Jade, no—come back. Tell me. I want to hear. I'll listen," Jackson called.

Jade sighed and lifted the phone again. "It's too hard to talk about," he whispered.

"Would you rather text me?"

Jade was quiet for a while. "Jackson…I don't know…" he sighed again. "There's…nothing you can do about it, anyway."

"So? You want to talk and I want to listen. Just talk to me," Jackson encouraged.

"I can't," Jade whispered. "I'm sorry I bothered you." He slipped the phone away from his face and ended the call. Why did Jackson want to listen, anyway? This didn't concern him. It would only take up his time.

Jade put away his phone but for a long moment, he remained where he was. Fentra wouldn't hurt him. Fentra had just been teasing him. But he had still touched Jade, and the teenager couldn't get the feeling out of his mind. Fentra had pulled up Jade's shirt just far enough to touch his skin, and that was not something the eighteen-year-old could just forget. It was as if Fentra was really going to do it. But then he hadn't. Then suddenly it had been a joke, but Jade was still afraid. He didn't care whether or not Fentra had intended to do it. He had still touched Jade and Jade feared that Fentra might decide to make his joke again. Only next time, it might go a little further. That was what people thought of things like that, anyway. Their love was fake, and their jokes were destructive. But they loved and laughed anyway.

"I never—never want to be loved if this is what love is like," Jade whispered. He pulled himself to his feet and decided he had better go hide somewhere less obvious until he had gotten control of himself. Then he would have to let Jessie get him ready. And then…he would have to see the fans.

Chapter Three

Real Love

"You look…stunning, Jade," Amber said with a smile as she held the door to the stage entry open for him.

Jade, however stopped and gave her a stare. "You go first," he ordered softly.

"Jade—I'm holding the door open for you. Go, silly," Amber said.

"I can hold the door for myself if I need to," Jade declared, tilting his head slightly. He had been dressed up to the hilt, and he still felt awful.

"What? You mean I can't stare at you as you walk in?" Amber asked with a childish frown. But she started through the doorway herself. "Aww, Jade, I would kiss you if I could."

Jade waited until Amber was all the way through the door before he entered through it himself. Two security guards tailed him from just through the doorway, and Jade made his way up a short stairway to the stage.

The place was a concert hall for all practical purposes—just a small one. But very few people here would remain in their chairs. Jade didn't have to get off the stage, but he would have to go up to the edge of the stage and interact with fans. The place was packed and completely racket-filled. Rudurhans was running the show—welcoming everyone and explaining what was going to happen.

Jade stopped a little to the side and then watched Amber chat up several fans who were pressing rather close to the edge. She smiled with ease because she liked what she was doing. Jade wished he could like it. But to him, these meetings always seemed so superficial. He came here to pretend he liked these people while at the same time he had two security guards with him to make sure that the crowd didn't hurt him.

Then Rudurhans was done with his introduction. He walked off to the right and jumped off the stage. The band leader started off through the crowd, touching hands and raising spirits. He could do that. Rudurhans was a tough guy who could bulldoze his way through a crowd of people and make each person in the crowd feel special and happy.

Jade could hear people yelling his name, but he felt frozen where he was.

Fentra and Jude were together by one side of the stage. There were a bunch of things those two disagreed about, but they got along well, anyway. That was something about them that Jade rather envied. He wished he could get along with people he disagreed with. He wished he could be like Jude and let things go as fast as they came. But he couldn't. And he wasn't like Jude or Fentra.

"Hey, Jade!" somebody in the crowd yelled above the rest, and Jade turned to see a guy with a red Mohawk reaching above his neighbors to be noticed. "What are you doing? Standing there just out of reach to tantalize us? Come over here!"

Jade obeyed slowly—not because he cared to satisfy the man's request, but because he knew he would get in trouble later if he stood around the whole time.

Several screaming girls pushed forward and reached up toward him, but Jade stopped several feet from the edge of the stage. They seemed disappointed when he stopped, but it made them more desperate and they pushed toward him even harder.

Jade sighed and wished he could disappear.

And then Amber walked over to him. "What's wrong with you, Jade?" she asked and then shoved him all the way up to the edge of the stage and over it.

Jade sucked in his breath hard as he fell, but his fall was caught by reaching hands. Then he was in among them. Fear shot through Jade, and he struggled to stand up. For a moment he was dragged down, but then suddenly hands reached out and pulled him up onto his feet. Then they were all over him. Somebody was yelling for the crowd to back off and give Jade some space, but nobody listened. A girl threw her arms around Jade's neck and hung onto him like a parasite. "I love you, Jade," she whispered, and then she kissed him on his ear.

"Nice babe," a guy commented. "Do you actually know her?"

Jade spotted the speaker—a tall guy with messy black hair. "Get her off," he choked breathlessly.

To his surprise, the guy grinned and then obliged. And then the security guards began making space for Jade. He made his way slowly around to the stage steps and then got back onto it. He didn't understand how Rudurhans could willingly go down there. Jade could still feel panic pulsing through him.

But things went better from then on out. Jade never smiled. He couldn't manage smiling. He felt too stiff and frozen. But he survived the rest of the meeting. When it was finally over, Jade made his way directly to the bathroom to get himself cleaned up.

But the trouble of that night was not over.

Just as Jade was drying his face after rinsing it, the bathroom door opened and Amber walked in.

Jade's face paled slightly when he saw her and he dropped the towel in his hand. "Get out," he whispered.

Amber smiled and shut the door behind herself. "What? Am I not supposed to be here?" she asked as if she didn't know.

"Amber, this is not funny," Jade said. He pointed meaningfully to the door. "Get out."

"What are you gonna do?" Amber asked. She stepped closer to Jade.

"Amber—you don't belong here. Get out—or I'll…"

"You'll what?" Amber dared.

"I shot you last time you were too confident," Jade reminded her.

"You haven't got a gun," Amber pointed out. She was still smiling.

"I'll tell your father," Jade said.

"You'll be too preoccupied by the time you leave," Amber decided. She closed in on him, driving him back against the wall. And then she put her hands on his shoulders, leaned forward and began kissing him on the mouth.

Jade pushed her back, but they were only apart for a moment before Amber reclosed her position. "I can't help this anymore," she said, taking his hands in hers. She pulled him down to his knees. "Every time I look at you I get thirsty. You promised before I could have everything, but you never gave it to me. Just—just once, Jade?"

"No—no—you need to go," Jade insisted. He started to pull himself back up again, but Amber suddenly slapped him in the face and pushed him all the way down onto the floor. She got on top of him and unzipped the jacket he was wearing.

"Get off!" Jade screamed. He tried to sit up, but Amber shoved him back down and pinned his hands to the ground. She pulled up Jade's shirt and then released his hands, placing her own over Jade's hips.

"**** me, Jade. Let's have *** now. Please. Do this now, and I'll never bother you again. I promise. I need you, Jade. I need your body. You're too attractive. I don't care what my father says." She began rubbing her hands over Jade's skin.

Her fingers rubbing him sent a sick chill through Jade, and he couldn't struggle. His breathing slowed and a wave of sickly heat blew over his mind.

"Please, Jade…just let's have ***, now. I'm so tired of just watching you. I want you," Amber pleaded. She didn't stop rubbing him.

"Let me go," Jade whispered. "I don't want this. I don't love you. You don't love me. Just let me go home. Find some other guy. Please. My father's hurt me enough. Let me go."

"If your father did it…" Amber said with a smile. "What's stopping me from doing it? Why can't I just force my way like he did, huh? You're underweight, Jade. You're sick. I could force you. I could. I could force you into giving me your ***."

"No! No, please let me go!" Jade gasped. He grabbed her shoulders and tried to push her off.

But Amber locked her legs around Jade's waist and didn't budge. Her movement made Jade gasp and he released her.

"There's nothing you can do," Amber observed with a cruel smile. "I am so dying to have all of you, Jade."

Jade suddenly half turned over and lunged for the sink. He grabbed onto the sink rim and pulled himself to his feet. But Amber was still gripping onto him. Her feet slipped to the ground, but she didn't let go. She locked her arms around his neck the way the girl in the fan crowd had and then began kissing him roughly on the mouth again.

Jade fell backward and hit the wall with Amber still holding onto him. "You know your body wants this, Jade," Amber said. "Let me do it. Just let me do it. It's effortless on your part. Stop fighting me all the time. Let me have your body."

"Stop! Stop, let me go!" Jade screamed. He tried to push her away again, but he felt so weak, he could barely stand.

And then someone knocked on the bathroom door.

Jade froze and Amber took her chance to press herself against him again.

"Hey, Jade, are you in there?" It was Jude's voice, and Jade's heart sank. But he couldn't have answered even if he wanted to. Amber pressed her lips onto his again. She pulled herself onto Jade and he collapsed. Amber sat down on Jade and began rubbing his body again. She positioned her hands on Jade's hips and then she was kissing him again. The teenager couldn't hold out much longer, and he knew it. He was sweating. His body felt tight and weak. He knew Amber was just going to do what she wanted. He couldn't defend himself like this.

Jade threw his head back, yanking his lips free for a moment. "Jude!" he gasped in a barely audible voice. "Help me!"

The door had to only open a crack before Amber leapt off Jade, kicked him hard in the ribs and then left the bathroom, pushing past Jude who stood stunned in the entrance for a long moment.

But then he ran up to Jade. "What's wrong? What happened? What was she doing in here?"

"Please…" Jade gasped weakly. "Don't…tell…anyone…please, Jude…please don't…"

"I—I won't," Jude hurriedly promised. "Jade, what's wrong? Should I call an ambulance?"

"No…I just need to get home…" Jade answered in a drained voice. He started crying. "I can't get up, Jude…I don't know what's wrong with me…"

Jude took Jade's shoulders in his hands and pulled the teenager up into a sitting position. He leaned Jade against the wall. "Just breathe," he instructed. "I'll take you home in my car…was she…she wasn't forcing herself on you, was she?"

"Please don't…please don't ask," Jade begged. "Don't tell anyone."

"I'm gonna take you home in my car," Jude insisted. He stood up and pulled Jade up onto his feet with him. "Gosh, you're light," he exclaimed softly, and then led Jade out.

There was no one in the hallway, but Jade would have been too dizzy to see them anyway.

However, when he was sitting in the passenger's seat of Jude's BMW, Jade's head cleared. "Jude—Jude, no, I've got to go home alone…I—I have my own car back at the Tech building."

"But you can't possibly drive!" Jude gasped.

"No, no—I feel better now," Jade insisted. "Thank you for…for saving me, Jude, but…I—I need to go home in my own car…"

Jude let out a reluctant sigh but then unlocked the door for him and let him go.

Jade walked unsteadily across the emptying parking lot to the Toyota Camry he was supposed to take back to the Tech building from the show place. He pulled open the door and dropped inside it.

The eighteen-year-old pulled away and started back toward the Tech building.

Jude had saved him. But he may not be able to next time…Next time it might really happen.

"There won't be a next time," Jade whispered hoarsely, but he knew he had no way of really stopping it from happening. Unless…he tried again…and really killed himself this time.

But that never worked. There was always someone watching. There was always someone waiting to save him.

But there was no one around now.

Jade glanced around the car. There wasn't a gun in the vehicle. Nothing sharp—nothing that could poison him. There was nothing.

Jade turned back to the road suddenly as a car honked at him from the opposite lane. He had to watch where he was going.

But the thought made Jade suddenly hesitate. Why did he have to watch where he was going if he was looking for a way to die, anyway?

With purpose suddenly seizing Jade, he stepped on the gas. The Camry accelerated from 65 mph to 85.

Jade shot a glance at the speedometer and pushed a little faster. But when the speedometer hit 90 mph, that was as fast as Jade dared to go.

And then suddenly he saw his target. A large old maple tree was growing by the edge of someone's property. The road was dark and empty. No one would see it happen. They would find the wreck afterward and they would have no way of knowing that the crash had not been an accident. Jade started to switch into the opposite lane as the tree rapidly grew closer.

He was almost there. And then suddenly out of nowhere the unmistakable face of a young child appeared illuminated in the beams of Jade's headlights. It was there for just a minute and then it was gone like it had never been there.

Jade sucked in a sharp gasp and slammed on the breaks, swerving hard to the side. The car skidded, and suddenly Jade lost control of it. The Camry slid across the pavement and struck the old maple tree's trunk. The teenager was thrown forward, his head slammed into the suddenly inflated airbag, and he instantly lost consciousness.

"It was definitely a suicide attempt," the doctor said, shaking his head as he walked into his office and sat down at his desk. His gray-blue eyes searched the face of the guy before him—Jackson Gillahend—the only person who's number was on Jade's phone who had claimed any relation to the teenager. "The tire tracks show he started braking within a dead line of hitting that tree and after he started breaking—that's when he lost control of the car—not before."

"Then why did he brake at all?" Jackson asked.

"He changed his mind, probably," the doctor shrugged. "That happens a lot. Anyway, it most certainly would have killed him upon impact if he had hit that tree at the pace he had been going before he braked."

"It's not very like Jade to decide he wants to kill himself and then change his mind," Jackson said softly.

"Well, I don't know him," the doctor decided. "I'm just describing the situation as it appears to me. Anyhow, the kid is fine for the most part. He's in shock—and taking a rather long time to come out of it, but he's not seriously hurt."

"Can I see him?" Jackson asked.

The doctor hesitated for a moment. "Yes, I suppose," he said at last. "And you might be able to do him some good, too. As soon as he comes out of shock, he can go home as far as I'm concerned. He'll have a bad headache so give him some Tylenol or Ibuprofen when you get home." The doctor stood up and opened the door to his office. "Mary!" he called and a nurse walked in.

"Yes, Mr. David. How can I assist you?" she asked.

"Take this fellow up to Jade Leeman's room—the kid we just saw," the doctor instructed.

"Yes, Mr. David," the nurse answered. She beckoned to Jackson and then started back the way she had come. Jackson got up and followed her.

"And see if you can't try to calm him down a little," the nurse said as she left Jackson by Jade's door. "He's quite panicked."

Jackson watched her disappear back down the hall. Then he entered the room.

It was a small hospital room, but Jackson barely looked around before heading quickly up to the bed in the center of the room. Jade had a ventilation mask on, but he was certainly conscious. A heart-rate and blood pressure monitor was wrapped around his arm. And the nurse was right. He looked quite panicked.

"Ay, take it easy, Jade," Jackson encouraged. He took Jade's hand in his but the teenager jerked back. He raised a hand to the mask on his face and his finger began trying to pry it off, but his hand was shaking too hard.

"Easy, Jade," Jackson repeated. "Listen, I'll take off the mask if you promise to calm down. Deal?"

Jade nodded and Jackson gently slipped the mask off.

"J-Jackson!" Jade gasped. He clutched Jackson's arm with pale fingers. "There was a kid—there was a kid! Wh—wh—what h-happened to the kid?"

"What kid?" Jackson sighed and shook his head. "Calm down, Jade."

"Th—there was a kid—I-I swear! He was r-r-right there! I—I think I h-h-hit him!" Jade exclaimed. His breath was coming too quickly and he could barely speak.

"Calm…down…" Jackson said slowly. Jade had started to partly rise, and Jackson pushed him firmly back down.

Jade fell silent and only stared up at Jackson with wide, frightened eyes.

"You're ok, yes?" Jackson said comfortingly. "You're going to be just fine."

"Jackson, I…I hit a kid…" Jade moaned weakly.

"You couldn't have, Jade. There was no kid there," Jackson said gently. "You must have just missed him."

"But he was so small—I-I nearly killed him!" Jade gasped and he began panicking again. "H-h-he couldn't have gotten out of the way! He was too s-small!"

"Listen, Jade, we'll talk about this," Jackson decided. "But right now you need to calm down, ok?"

Jade started crying and didn't answer.

"I know you're scared, alright?" Jackson sighed, reaching out and placing his hand on Jade's shoulder.

"I just wanted to die—I just wanted to finally be gone…and I saw that kid—It couldn't have gotten out of the way and I couldn't have slowed down fast enough. I should have just kept going. It wouldn't have mattered. I probably killed him and I didn't even kill myself…" Jade sighed.

Jackson shook his head slowly. "What happened today that you were so upset about but you couldn't tell me?"

"So much happened," Jade answered weakly. "It's been…a really bad day. I don't want to talk about it."

"But you do," Jackson contradicted. "You do, Jade. You're just afraid to speak. Don't be afraid."

Jade let out a long sigh. But he was gradually calming down, and Jackson could see it. "I thought Fentra was going to…get on me…" Jade sighed at last. "He made me think he would…"

"Rape you?" Jackson asked in disbelief.

Jade nodded. "But it was just a joke. He put his hands on me like he was really going to and then he just started laughing and I realized it was just a joke…He took a picture of me—he's probably going to tell everyone or post it on facebook or something…awful…"

"That's really…really nasty of him…" Jackson said in disbelief.

"And then I had to go to that fan meeting and Amber shoved me into the crowd," Jade went on in a strained voice. "And then afterwards she walked into the bathroom while I was in there and started trying to have her way with me…"

"Jade, you really need to leave Eclipse," Jackson said seriously. "These people are insane if they think they can just treat you like that."

"But they can!" Jade cried. "And I can't do anything about it! I'm so sick of people mentioning ***! I'm so sick of people wanting everything private out of me! My father was just the first one! I thought he was the only sick one—but no! Now I hear that this is the way life is supposed to be! I don't wanna be loved if this is love! I just want to be left alone! I want to die! So I tried to kill myself, but I never made it—I never make it!"

"Jade, that's not love," Jackson said softly. "That's lust. That's empty greed for one's self. It's not love. Love is when you care about someone and there is no way someone who loves you is going to force you into intimacy you don't want."

Jade fell silent. His fingers clasped the sheet that covered him. Then suddenly he looked up at Jackson again. "Do you…love me?"

"I do, Jade," Jackson said softly. "I really do."

"And that's why you don't hurt me? Because you really do love me? And you love me with real love?" Jade asked.

Jackson nodded.

"Why do you love me?"

"I don't know," Jackson said with a slight shrug. "I just learned to love you. That happens. You meet someone and then you get to love them for who they are—and care about them. And then it makes you sad when they're sad, but it fills you with joy when they smile."

"I don't know how to smile," Jade whispered. "I don't think I'm a very good person to love."

"What do you mean you don't know how to smile?" Jackson asked.

Jade sighed. "Nothing to smile about. I guess I just sort of stopped smiling and now…I don't know…I can't. Can't love anybody, either. I don't think I ever have except my sister…"

"You'll learn to love, Jade," Jackson said softly. "After your life has calmed down and you have a little of your own space."

"I can't quit Eclipse," Jade said suddenly. "They're all I have now. All I have from my old life. I need to keep them. Don't you see I need to hold onto something?" He looked worried and desperate.

Jackson reached out and caressed his face gently. "No, Jade. These Eclipse people are hurting you too much. They're not worth all this. If you stay there, they're just going to keep breaking you down further. You need to leave Eclipse, Jade," Jackson said certainly.

"But—they'd kill me!" Jade cried.

"They won't, Jade, they can't," Jackson said. "They can't kill you after you've left. But they're killing you while you're there."

Jade sighed weakly. "And then what am I going to do with the rest of my life?"

"You don't have to quit making music," Jackson pointed out. "You have a lot of talent you could bring somewhere else. You could even start your own band."

"Nobody else would want me," Jade was certain.

"That's not true, Jade," Jackson contradicted. "You have so much talent. Anybody would want you. You're the top member of the top rock band and not just any hobo can get there. But you did. You got there. You are there, and there will be plenty of people who want you. Please trust me on this, Jade—and leave Eclipse."

"They would kill me if I left," Jade repeated softly. "And the media…I don't know…how I would explain…"

"Then don't," Jackson decided. "The media doesn't need to know. They'll make up stories about it, but who cares? They can't prove anything."

"I'm scared of the media," Jade whispered. "And what if Eclipse decides to get back at me? They know about my father! They know everything! What if they told the media?"

"Jade, you can't live in fear of blackmail," Jackson said. "I understand that it's uncomfortable for you. But at the stage things are in, old information being revealed is really nothing compared to new information being created."

"What?" Jade asked, confusion plain on his face.

"It's not worth it, Jade. It's just not. You need to leave Eclipse. They're getting too violent with you. If they're going to treat you like garbage, they're going to have to lose you. That's just the way it is. You can't keep going on like this. I mean—for pity's sake—it's driving you to the point of suicide. It's time they wake up to what they've done. You aren't a lifeless toy," Jackson said darkly.

There was silence for a while. And then Jade broke it. "Can I go back to the apartment? I'm really…tired…"

"Yeah—yeah, the doctor said you could come home as soon as you got over the shock," Jackson agreed. "I'm going to go talk to the nurse to get you all checked out and stuff."

Chapter Four

Daughter of the Band Leader

Jade slept in late the following morning. But when he did finally wake up around noon, Jackson was sitting by the window waiting for him.

Jade sat up quickly when he saw Jackson was in his room. But he froze when his head started hurting again.

"Slept well?" Jackson asked, turning from the window.

"I—I thought you would be at work…what time is it?" Jade asked, a look of confusion on his pretty face.

"I thought I would take today off," Jackson explained with a soft smile. "How's your head?"

"It's…fine…" Jade said dully.

"Well, that's good," Jackson said giving Jade an encouraging smile. "Do you want breakfast?"

"No," Jade said. He lay back slowly and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Then do you want to talk about what's going to happen next?" Jackson asked.

"What's going to happen?" Jade asked. He reopened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling.

"You need to leave Eclipse, Jade," Jackson said gravely.

"I can't," Jade said simply. "Look, I was…overreacting last night, ok? I don't even really remember exactly what all happened. I was just upset."

"No, Jade—you weren't overreacting," Jackson contradicted. "Jade, what are you waiting for? How much is it going to take before you realize that those people are never going to treat you better. They're just going to get more and more abusive—just like you said—because they can."

"Don't see what that has to do with you…" Jade said distantly. He lifted a hand to his hair and began twisting a lock of it absently.

"Don't be difficult," Jackson warned. "Listen to me. Listen to me now before things get worse. Get out of Eclipse before they hurt you even more. Jade, what are you expecting out of them? Yes, that Amber girl will force herself on you. Do you need to wait for that? Or do you need to wait for her to dump you after you've been through all the use?"

"Where am I going to go?" Jade asked. He sighed. "Look, I…I appreciate you going out to that dumb hospital and taking me back here. I really appreciate that. I appreciate you listening to me complain and not…uh…you know…thinking I'm a baby…But we really don't…I mean—have charge over each other. We're not relatives, we're just sort of…friends, you know? But…you're not a life for me…"

"What's your life, Jade?" Jackson asked softly. "Suicide attempts and self-hate? Do you enjoy watching your life fall apart because you have so little self esteem? Does that bring you some sort of satisfaction when you see yourself suffering and abused?"

"Shut up," Jade said quickly. He turned over on his side and stared at the wall.

"Jade, forgive me for saying it, but—that's not a life for you, either," Jackson said earnestly. "Are you waiting for the strings to break? Are you waiting for that Eclipse girl to rape you? Is that what it's going to take to wake you up? Or are you just biding your time for when you can make another attempt at your own life and hopefully get away with it?"

"Yeah—ok, you gave your speech. Now leave me alone," Jade said in a drained voice.

"Jade, you're life is a mess," Jackson went on. "We both know that. So why don't we start cleaning it up rather than watching it develop into a bigger and bigger mess?"

"I'm not living at home anymore," Jade said softly. "How much more uncomfortable do you want me to be?"

"You're eighteen years old, Jade," Jackson pointed out. "You can make a new place home. You don't have to go on holding on."

"You just want me to leave everything behind, don't you?" Jade sighed. "You want me to grow up and stop being a kid. I know. But it hurts too much, ok? I don't have a dad. I don't have a sister. I don't have anyone anymore. Please just…let me exist, ok?"

"But you want to kill yourself. You don't just want to exist," Jackson sighed. "If you really did just want to exist, I wouldn't mind so much—but you don't. You're intent on destroying yourself."

"And? What do you have to lose?" Jade cried. He turned to give Jackson a glare. "I don't understand why you need to go after me when you could just—go help someone else!"

"Jade…just cooperate, now. There's a problem, you see that?" Jackson asked.

"Of course there's a problem," Jade groaned, rolling his eyes. "I'm not an angel, and I never will be."

"You're my angel, Jade," Jackson said with a slight smile. "But that's beside the point. You don't have to be perfect. I'm just referring to the…disasters. And if you see that there's a problem, then obviously you need a solution, right?"

Jade shrugged.

"Now look at this realistically, Jade," Jackson said seriously. "Is Amber ever going to really just lay off you? Is she going to quit?" Jackson sighed and then answered his own question. "No, she won't. And the reason I know that for sure is because she's gone this far. She pulled the first trick with the blackmail and both of you got into trouble. Well, that was a first time, and for all we knew, she might just stop after that."

"I knew she wouldn't," Jade broke Jackson off in a lifeless voice.

"Well I thought she might," Jackson decided. "And if you knew she wasn't going to, you should have said something. Anyway, she won't stop now. She's just going to go on harassing you until you're too broken down to keep resisting and then she'll take what she wants. Jade, your only option is to leave Eclipse! And all this other stuff those people are doing to you? Jade, this is downright abuse. Not one of those people is treating you right, and they never will. All they want to do is throw you around and make you into the toy they want you to be. You can't let them go on trashing you like this. Leave the band and cut off connection with them."

"I don't see why having *** with her should bother me…" Jade whispered. "I don't understand why I need to care at all…it won't really hurt me…"

"It does hurt you," Jackson said, shaking his head. "It would hurt anyone. You're not a lifeless thing, and meaningless love hurts people."

"I was willing to give myself to my father to stay home…" Jade sighed in a voice full of hurt. "But it wasn't enough. He was willing to use me, but he forced me out of the house, anyway…I wish I was home. I wouldn't feel so bad if I was just home. Miss home so much…"

"Aww, Jade…" Jackson sighed. He stood up and walked over to the teenager's bed. He sat down on the edge of it and put his hand down onto Jade's shoulder. "What is it you miss about home?"

"Just…I don't know," Jade sighed and glanced uncomfortably up at Jackson. "Used to come back from every tour eager to be home…now it's like I don't have a home at all. Just kind of live nowhere."

"I wish you would trust me, Jade," Jackson said softly. "I really care about you. All I want is to just heal all those hurts and scars."

"You can't really," Jade said, lifting a hand up to his face and shielding it from view partly. "They're just there. They won't go away. There's no magic that will ever make them disappear."

"I love you, Jade," Jackson said gently. "I want you to stay with me. I don't want you to leave. I want you to quit Eclipse and make a new life. You could do it. You're just scared…"

"I am scared," Jade agreed. "I don't think I could live without Eclipse."

And then suddenly Jade's phone started vibrating on the bed where he had left it the night before after Jackson had given it back to him. The eighteen-year-old sat up slowly and picked up the phone. "It's Amber…" he sighed and then answered it.

"Hey, Puppy, how's my **** *****?" Amber greeted. Her voice was careless and casual as always—but loud enough to be heard by Jackson who still sat on the edge of Jade's bed.

"What is it?" Jade asked in a worn voice.

"What's wrong with you?" Amber asked. "Got a hangover or what?"

"Amber, you know I can't get drunk…" Jade whispered.

"Oh, yeah—I know that," she laughed. "Jade…" and then she sobered. "Don't even think about reporting what happened last night—because I will have you, and after it happens, you will be so embarrassed, you'll wish you hadn't breathed a word about it. You're way to **** for me to just leave you alone, anymore. We're gonna get together, and we're gonna be like this until I'm done with you, got it?"

Jade was silent.

"Which probably won't be for a while," Amber smirked. "Because I am so thirsty for you, it's killing me. You've got a perfect body, Jade. You just gotta let me have it."

Jade lifted a shaky hand up to his lips and said nothing.

"So you gonna come willingly or am I gonna have to rape you like your father did?" Amber asked.

"I…" Jade began, but suddenly Jackson snatched the phone out of his hand.

"Uh, hello, is this Amber?" Jackson asked.

"Who the **** is this?!" Amber yelled.

"This is Jackson Gillahend—I happened to be overhearing this conversation and it sounds like you're trying to threaten a friend of mine into some sort of relationship. Well, you don't need to deny anything, because I heard it all. I was just going to say that before you 'have at' Jade, you're going to have to walk over me first, and I'm not exactly very small so that doesn't quite make me easy to walk over. I'll just put it this way—maybe you'd better watch yourself."

"What the ****?" Amber asked. "Dude—whoever you are—I don't know who the heck you are, and I don't care. Jade's mine. I can do what I want with him. I will do what I want with him, and if you try to get in my way, I'll call the cops on you. He's got a body and it's about time he learns how to use it."

"It's about time you go home and listen to your parents for once," Jackson decided. He ended the call and handed the phone back to Jade who had been watching the whole proceedings with a look of frozen horror on his face. "You've got to leave Eclipse, Jade," Jackson said certainly. "That girl is seriously insane."

Jade spent a tiring day in the apartment. He did his best to eat something and then lay down again. He stayed there for the rest of the day—alone. In his heart, he knew Jackson was right. He didn't want to be raped by Amber. He didn't want to have anything to do with her. But he was afraid to leave Eclipse. He was afraid to detach himself from everything he had ever called his and try to make a new life for himself somewhere else. And would anyone really treat him better? Jackson had always treated Jade well, but he was the only one.

"I don't want to lose myself," Jade whispered to himself as the sun set that evening. But he was losing himself—either his freedom or his life. He couldn't hold it together anymore. Either he would have to give in and give them everything they wanted or he would have to live somewhere else. Eclipse could go on without him. They would. They wouldn't stop just because he left. But Jade couldn't imagine his life without his family or Eclipse. He would look for a job somewhere else—and find one even if it had to be a minimum-wage job like the ones he had had before he had found Eclipse.

And he would go on living here, because he couldn't live alone—until Jackson and Luke got sick of him and threw him out. And then he didn't know where he would go. Jade realized that he just wanted to keep Eclipse. Things were changing too fast. Everything was changing. The world was suddenly a different place, and Jade didn't know who to trust. He wanted to trust Jackson and let the black guy reshape his life and tell him what to do, but at the same time, Jade feared that Jackson would come to a place where he was no longer interested and he would abandon Jade in half a wreck that could have been something but wasn't.

"Can't go on like this," Jade told himself softly, and he knew it was true. But Jackson was right about something else, too. Jade didn't just want to exist. He wanted to die. In Jade's eyes, the only relief was in death. That was the only relief. He was tired of struggling so hard. He was tired of fighting and then watching what he fought for slide through his fingers like polished sand. He wanted to rest, but the water kept sweeping him downstream and if he stopped fighting, he would be swept away. If he died, there would be nothing to fight for. There would be nothing to lose. There would be nothing.

"Hungry, Jade?" Jackson asked as he opened the teenager's door and stuck his head into the room.

"No," Jade answered, giving Jackson a startled look. He sat up quickly.

"Mmm, figured not," Jackson sighed. He walked into the room and shut the door behind him. Jackson walked over to Jade's bed and sat down on the edge of it. "What are you thinking about?" he asked after a moment.

Jade shrugged. "Just wondering what's going to happen to me."

"What is going to happen to you?"

"I don't know. Just die, maybe."

"Na, don't die," Jackson decided. He slipped his arm gently around Jade's shoulders. "Stay with me. Leave Eclipse. Rest for awhile and stop worrying."

"I don't want everything to change," Jade whispered. "I'm tired of things changing…I just want them to stop."

"I know, but this would really help you," Jackson said certainly. "Jade…do you trust me to take care of you?"

Jade sighed deeply. "Not…really…I just feel like you'd get tired of me…You would get tired of me. I miss things the way they were. I miss home. I miss taking drugs…"

"Then stop thinking about it," Jackson suggested. "Make a new home for yourself. Would you feel better if we moved into a house?"

"We?"

"Yeah—you, Luke, and I," Jackson said softly. "I want you to come with us."

"Luke doesn't like me," Jade whispered. "If you move into a house, I'll go somewhere else. Luke and I would be seeing too much of each other in a real house…"

"You can learn to get along," Jackson decided. "Luke doesn't dislike you as much as you think he does. He's really cooled down about it. He just misjudged you."

Jade sighed again and passed a hand across his eyes. "How do I know you wouldn't just dump me when you're sick of me?"

"I promise I won't dump you," Jackson said with a slight smile. "I'll never get sick of you."

"How do you know?" Jade asked.

"I know because I know you," Jackson said. "I know you better than you do, and you have an open heart. You're scared and you're uncertain, but you do want to learn—most of the time."

"And what about the rest of the time?"

"The rest of the time? We'll just have to ignore each other," Jackson decided. He reached out and took Jade's hand in his. "Trust me, Jade. I really care about you. I love you. I want to help you."

Jade took a deep breath. "What should I do? Tell me what to do."

"Leave Eclipse—right now, and never go back. Never look back," Jackson instructed softly. "Never think about them again. Put them into your past and leave them there for good."

Jade sighed. "Where would I work?"

"You wouldn't work—for a while," Jackson said. "You would stay home and sort out everything else…"

"What other things?"

Jackson passed a finger over Jade's forehead. "Your mind, Jade…Learn to forgive…And I want to teach you about Christianity."

"And are you going to be mad if I still won't believe in your thing?" Jade asked softly.

"Of course not, Jade," Jackson said. "But I want you to give it an honest shot, ok?"

"I'm scared to leave Eclipse."

"Do you want me to talk to them?"

"No…no, it's not that…It's…just after it's gone…I could never go back." Jade sighed.

"I don't want you to go back," Jackson said softly. "I want you to start a new, safe life for yourself. You can live, Jade. You can love and be loved. You're life doesn't have to be made of so much pain and hurt."

"Everything you say…" Jade sighed. "Just sounds so nice…but I don't want to…to lose everything…I'm scared I wouldn't like it—I would want to go back, but it would be too late."

"Change is hard, Jade," Jackson said softly. "But you can do it. You can start over and rewrite the rest of your life. It doesn't have to be more of this. Trust me. That world out there is never going to offer you any slack. It's just going to go on pressuring you more and more and more. It wants you to put down your guard and give in—it wants your body and your heart. It wants to crush you and make you into a toy it can parade around for its own profit. It wants to rob you of your freedom, Jade. Your freedom to choose who you are and who you want to be. It wants to abuse you."

"How is leaving Eclipse going to protect me from the whole world?" Jade asked.

"It's the first step, Jade," Jackson said. "And the hardest. It will get you away from the spotlight for a while. It will free you from all these expectations and you can start wearing clothes when you go out in public."

Jade rolled his eyes and then turned to glare at the floor. "I'll think about it."

"Good," Jackson said, giving Jade an encouraging smile. "Think about it, Jade." But then he sobered. "Sure you're not hungry?"

"Yes."

"Jade, I'm worried that you're still losing weight," Jackson sighed. "You eat so little and you're so thin as it is…"

"I'm ok," Jade said certainly. "If I get hungry, I'll eat something."

Jackson nodded. "Take care of yourself, Jade. I love you." With that he stood up and left Jade's room.

The eighteen-year-old watched him go and his heart sank. Everything was slipping away. There was nothing he could do about it. Jade longed to go back in time to when he was living at home with his father and sister. He had been miserable, but he had been able to live. Now, all he could think about was death.

But Jade found he couldn't really bring himself to do it. Yes, Eclipse was destructive and yes, the other members were hurting him, but he couldn't leave. His life was rooted too deeply into the Eclipse routine, and Jade couldn't imagine his life without it. The heaven Jackson described seemed way beyond Jade's reach. It sounded nice, but it couldn't really be realistic. Jade wanted nothing better than to be loved with real, true, concerned love, but he couldn't imagine it. Real love seemed too magical to be true. So Jade gave up hope of finding it and decided he would have to do his best in the life he lived. He could talk to Rudurhans about Amber—beg for protection, and then just try to stay with the crowd and lock the door when he went into the bathroom even just to wash his face. He wanted to keep singing and being the rockstar people screamed about. It wasn't really who he was, but it was all he was, and Jade just wanted to hold onto the few moments of joy he actually got—all of which came when he was on stage. It was too risky to abandon what he had and jump for something more. It could all disappear and Jade desperately didn't want to be left stranded with nothing.

So the following morning, Jade quietly told Jackson that he wasn't going to leave Eclipse and there was no point in moving to a real house for him because he wasn't ready to live the life Jackson wanted him to. Jade used the words "not ready" but in his heart he felt for certain that he never would be ready. A rockstar was just all he was, and he could never play the life of a normal kid living in a normal house with normal people.

Jackson had given Jade an encouraging smile, but Jade had seen the disappointment in his face and it had stabbed the eighteen-year-old to the heart. But he felt trapped. He didn't think he had much of a choice, so he had not changed his mind.

And then Amber texted him and told him Eclipse was going to start recording again. So the next morning, Jade slipped out before dawn to meet the other Eclipse members in the Tech building.

"Oh, hey, Jade!" Jude called across the empty parking lot as Jade got out of his Mini Cooper and started slowly toward the front entrance. "Doors are all locked, and I forgot my key, but you can hang out with me!"

Jade shrugged and made his way over to the wall where Jude stood, an apple in one hand and a book in the other. Jade had his key with him, but what was the purpose of mentioning it? Jade was not eager to start that day and as far as he was concerned, the longer he was able to put off going into that building, the better.

Jude closed his book as Jade stopped beside him. "How're you doing?" Jude asked.

"I'm fine," Jade said quickly. He folded his arms across his chest and shivered slightly. It felt cold that morning…

"You know, Jade…" Jude began and his voice told Jade that something bad was going to follow. "Remember that time right after the fan meeting when—"

"Yeah, what about it?" Jade asked hurriedly.

"I don't know," Jude sighed. "I mean, I haven't told anyone…And I could just forget about it if you say I should, but…"

"But what?"

"But it bothers me, Jade…" Jude sighed. "And that thing Fentra did to you, too—that joke he played."

"I just want to forget about all that," Jade said, turning away.

"Yeah, I know—I mean I figured—but…Jade, see, all this and then your father too, it's…it's really been bothering me…" Jude said uncertainly.

Jade said nothing.

"I care about you, Jade—and I worry that…I don't know…I don't get why they've all suddenly started harassing you, I guess…" Jude sighed helplessly.

"Me neither," Jade agreed completely unemotionally.

"You think it's 'cause you're eighteen, now?" Jude asked softly. "'Cause you're older and you're a lot cuter than you were before?"

"Just shut up," Jade sighed. "I haven't the slightest idea. Just forget about it, ok?"

But Jude didn't. "Amber's got pictures of you all over her wall. I was there last night with Fentra…She's really gotten obsessed with you, suddenly…"

"Just stop talking, Jude," Jade said darkly.

"Yes, but these are things I think you should know!" Jude exclaimed. "I don't want her to hurt you! She's like…she's really obsessed with you, and I think…I don't think that's a good thing…"

"I know it's not a good thing," Jade groaned. "But I can't change her mind, can I?"

"No, but just so you're aware…" Jude said softly.

"You think I wouldn't be aware?" Jade asked in exasperation. "After she tried to get on me? You think I'd still just be blissfully ignorant?"

"No, I didn't realize…"

"What else did you think she was doing in that bathroom!?" Jade cried.

"Jade, I thought maybe that was what she was doing, but then I thought maybe she was just flirting with you," Jude backed off.

"I hate her," Jade sighed. "I ***-**** hate her."

Jude shot the teenager beside him a worried expression. "I'm not sure she's gonna stop at anything, Jade…"

"I'm just not going to go off by myself while she's around," Jade decided softly.

"Yeah, I can stay with you," Jude offered.

There was silence for a while. "Yeah, thanks, I'd like that," Jade said at last, letting his breath out slowly.

"She'll get over it eventually," Jude said, trying to shape an optimistic view of things.

"Maybe," Jade sighed. He didn't want to talk about it anymore. But he knew Amber wouldn't stop until she had gotten what she wanted.

The two stood in the cold morning air by the wall of the Tech building in silence for a while.

And then, Amber herself arrived.

She got out of her car and walked straight up to the two guys who still stood by the wall of the Tech building.

"Hey, Puppy," she said, stopping right in front of Jade. But before he could even react, she leaned forward and kissed his neck.

Jade flinched away and moved toward Jude.

"Amber…" Jude began hesitantly, but Amber cut him off.

"What? I love him, and he doesn't love me. Too bad for me, right?" Amber grinned. "Just gonna have to force my way, then."

"Amber, he doesn't like it," Jude spoke up quickly. "You're just harassing him and he doesn't like it. Leave him alone."

"Not until he gives it to me," Amber decided, still smiling. She reached out and grabbed Jade's wrist, pulling him towards herself.

Jade pulled back, his face as pale as snow, but he still said nothing.

"Amber, don't you think this is a bit inappropriate?" Jude asked uncomfortably after a moment.

"Well, then don't watch," Amber decided. She stood up on the tips of her toes and, holding Jade's face in her hands, kissed him on the lips. "Besides," she decided. "I'm dying for every drop of this boy's poison. He's intoxicating."

Jude shifted slightly. And then suddenly he pulled out his phone and, after dialing in a number, lifted it up to his face. "Uh, yes, hello? Yes, thank you—well, two problems, actually. One is that the Tech building is locked up and we can't get in—and the other thing is that your daughter…uh, Amber is uh…"

But he didn't finish. Amber slammed the phone out of his hand with such force, it flew several yards away.

"Hey!" Jude cried, and he started after it.

But Amber grabbed the back of his shirt and held him back. "And what the **** is that supposed to mean!?" she demanded. "If I'm doing private things with Jade, then don't you dare go blabbing to any who-knows-who about it on the phone!"

"It's your dad," Jude defended himself. "Not any who-knows-who, and besides that, I don't see what's so private about what you're doing if you're doing it in a public parking lot right in front of me!"

"Oh, shut up!" Amber yelled. "I don't know who the **** you were talking to or ******* why you were talking, but you're gonna shut up now and stay shut up—for good!" She turned back to glare at Jade who stood frozen by the wall where she had left him. "I don't care if he doesn't want to. I'm sick of his attitude and all I want is his body, anyway. It won't hurt him." She started back towards the frightened teenager, but she froze when another car drove up into the parking lot. It was a black Mitsubishi Sports Eclipse.

The driver's door opened and Rudurhans Kakaya stepped out. He didn't look happy. "What's going on?" he demanded simply as he walked up.

Amber gave him a quick shrug. "Nothing—we were…just waiting for the door to be unlocked…"

"Don't any of you have a key?" Rudurhans asked.

"Well…I…left mine at home…accidentally—I don't usually have to bring it, I mean usually someone else is here before me—" Jude began to explain, but Rudurhans cut him off.

"And why doesn't Jade have his key?" Rudurhans asked, giving Jade a glare.

"I…I do..." Jade said in a faint voice. "Jude and I were just…hanging out…"

"Then why the heck was Amber waiting around?" Rudurhans asked. "What's really going on here?"

"Well, as I tried to say," Jude began. "Over the phone…"

"He knows nothing," Amber cut in, shooting a glare at Jude.

"Shut up and let him talk," Rudurhans said darkly.

"Well…" Jude began, giving Rudurhans an obliging smile. "I was just calling you because Amber kept harassing Jade, and he wanted her to stop, but she wouldn't listen to either of us—I was going to tell you that, but she knocked the phone out of my hands and wouldn't—"

"What kind of 'harassing'?" Rudurhans broke in.

"Well, uh…" Jude shifted and shot a glance at Jade. The teenager's face was frozen. His copper eyes were pleading Jude not to go on. "She was uh, like…" Jude lifted a hand and rubbed his chin. "Uh…sort of…kissing him …"

Rudurhans gave Amber a quick glance. "What else did she do?"

"Well…not much of anything else…" Jude answered hesitantly. "Just touching him and…kissing him…"

"Amber, I can't believe you," Rudurhans said, turning to his daughter finally.

"Uh—he's lying," Amber said suddenly. "He's a filthy liar!"

"No, he's not lying," Rudurhans declared simply. "You've been flirting with Jade again—exactly what I told you to stop doing." Amber started to back away, but Rudurhans grabbed her shoulders and glared down into her face. "What do you want, huh!? You want to get pregnant with him!? Huh!? You want to get pregnant with street ****!? With an abused ***** like Jade Leeman!? Is that the kind of guy you want to have kids with!?"

"Jade's not—" Jude began, but Rudurhans ignored him.

"Think, Amber, think! You have a life! You can get married and have a good, respectable family! But going after a ***** like Jade is going to ruin it for you!"

"Dad—" Amber gasped.

"We'll talk about this later," Rudurhans decided, releasing Amber and giving her a shove toward the Tech building door. Then he turned back to Jade. "You stay away from her," he ordered coldly. "I don't want to catch you having anything to do with her, do you understand me!?"

Jade nodded weakly.

Rudurhans turned and headed after his daughter without another word.

Jude turned quickly to Jade. "You ok?" he asked softly. But his question was answered when the teenager fainted.

"You're putting way too much pressure on him!" Jude Durrace yelled. He was standing in the middle of the room, his finger pointed and his face flushed. "Amber was harassing him! It wasn't the other way around! You can't put all the pressure on him! You can't put any pressure on him! But instead you add this to his record—something he didn't cause—something he tried to stop and act like it's just as much his fault as it is Amber's! What do you want him to do!? He can't please you! He has no choice but to offend you one way or another because that's just part of existence!"

"And what do you expect me to do?" Rudurhans asked. "Let him run off with my daughter and disappear beyond the moon—watch him get her pregnant and then abandon her?" They were alone in Rudurhans' equipment room of the Tech building.

"Jade doesn't want your daughter," Jude spelled out. "He told me so himself. We were talking about it before she showed up this morning—and you can see it on his face for pity's sake! He doesn't want a thing to do with her! He's afraid of her, and I would be too! She acts like he's hers to dispose of and what can he do with her hands all over him all the time!? I've seen it—I've seen it! She attacks him! It's downright harassment! You need to control her! You need to protect Jade—recognize that no, he doesn't have the most spotless record with his father and all—but he is a human being and he doesn't want to get himself hurt anymore. Your daughter is trying to hurt him!"

Rudurhans sighed. "Ok, I respect your opinion because I recognize you wouldn't give it unless you have a very good reason to…But I don't have much of a choice. I'm not going to let her go off with him, and he's going to have to feel some pressure too."

"It's not his fault," Jude sighed. He walked back over to his chair and sat down in it again. "He needs a break, you know? I know you don't care a whole lot about him, but it just seems to me that he's had it hard."

"He has and unfortunately it's made him into a piece of ****," Rudurhans spelled out.

"Yeah…just imagine being raped by your own father…" Jude said in a hushed tone.

"I don't care very much to imagine it, Jude Durrace," Rudurhans answered. He stood up. "My father died sixteen years ago and I'm perfectly content to let him remain where he is. Is there anything else you would like to say?"

"Yeah—" Jude agreed. "Protect him—protect him from your daughter because he's a human being and he deserves it even if you hate him. He still deserves it."

"I will do my very best to keep them apart," Rudurhans answered dully.

"Keep her out of his hair," Jude said quickly. "Not the other way around. "Don't take this out on him."

Rudurhans gave Jude a concluding glance and left the room.

Jude sighed and slowly rose to his feet. Did no one have respect for that poor kid?

Chapter Five

Switchblade

"Had trouble with the vacuum cleaner today," Luke muttered as he walked over to the sofa and sat down on it beside Jackson.

"Do we need a new one?" Jackson asked in a dull voice.

"Not yet…but soon, maybe," Luke answered. His blue eyes rose to meet Jackson's dark one. "Well, I don't know what it is, but it's not vacuum cleaners right now," he said with a slight smile.

"What is what?" Jackson asked quickly.

"What you're thinking," Luke answered, giving Jackson a nudge.

"Oh…just the usual…" Jackson answered tonelessly.

"Jade?" Luke guessed.

"What are we going to do with him?" Jackson asked, tipping his head against the backrest.

"What's wrong with him? Is there a problem with just kind of…letting him be?" Luke questioned.

"I'm worried there might be," Jackson sighed.

"You worry about him too much, Jackson," Luke decided. "Don't forget this is the life he's used to. He grew up on abuse and to him…a normal life is kind of…what we would call…awful…"

"But he needs a normal life, Luke," Jackson said certainly. "He's too riled up—he needs time out. He needs to sort out of his life. He's just a mess."

"What do you want now?" Luke asked.

"I want him to leave that rock band," Jackson sighed. "I know it's a lot to ask out of a kid who's got nothing, but they're really killing him—they aren't giving him any space!"

"Yeah, well…he's rather easy to fit into tight spaces if you know what I mean," Luke sighed.

"Easy to push around?"

"Yeah. He's a little guy, you know."

"He's scared, too," Jackson said softly. "He can be pressured into stuff and yeah—just controlled. But see, that's what makes me so worried because I feel like he's got his own rules, you know? He has lines and limits, but nobody respects them so he's just…I mean, what good are limits if people keep walking over them?"

"You can't change his world, Jackson," Luke sighed. "I mean…you've done so much for him already…there's only so much you can do."

"All he needs is someone behind him—someone who can help him," Jackson said softly.

"Yeah, and that's who you are. So stop worrying," Luke said.

"But am I actually helping him?" Jackson asked. "Or am I just telling him how it could be and leaving him to stare at my picture? How can he possibly know to trust me? He's never trusted anybody much…I don't think he understands trust—or love, or any of this stuff! You ask him what love is and he'll tell you sex. You ask him what trust means and he'll say it's when you can't defend yourself. How do I show him that these things have honesty and…feeling attached to them—when all he sees is the outward motions and everyone's trying to convince him that if he wants to be loved, he has to give his body first." Jackson sighed. "I mean, that's what they're all trying to tell him! He is being pressured into these situations and he makes stupid mistakes because he doesn't understand the concepts! I want to show him what this stuff means, but should I? Is that my place? And if it is, how? How do you tell an eighteen-year-old something he should have started learning about since he was born?"

"I don't know, Jackson," Luke said with a shrug. "Sounds like you need some professional help to me. Just sounds like too big a job if you really want to change him."

"And if I do nothing? Who's going to help him, Luke?" Jackson sighed.

"I don't know. Seems like if he wants help, he'll look for it."

"Not if he doesn't know where to look—and he is so ashamed, Luke—he does feel wrong about all this, he just doesn't know why," Jackson said quickly.

"Jackson, I guess you really know him better than I do…" Luke said giving Jackson a smile. "I just don't think you should sweat over it so much. He's not living with his dad anymore and…if you're lucky…" Luke rose to his feet and touched Jackson on the shoulder. "He won't kill himself any time soon…"

"And what does that mean?" Jackson called after him as he started toward the kitchen. "That it's a hopeless cause or what?"

"It crossed my mind once or twice," Luke answered from the kitchen.

"Ok, sure," Jackson said with a shrug. "You're very encouraging."

"Jackson, this is the life he's used to," Luke said, walking back into the living room. "Seriously. This is the way he lives. You can't yank the carpet out from under his feet—even if he's going to land on the floor when he finishes falling."

"So I should just take it slowly?" Jackson asked softly.

"Yeah—really slowly…maybe take a break for a while and let him just…be," Luke suggested. He tilted his head slightly. "Jackson…what do you want for supper?"

"Whatever," Jackson answered. He gave Luke a glance. "Jade's still not back yet…that's fishy…"

"He's got a phone, ya know," Luke reminded him. He started back to the kitchen. "And I'm gonna make some type of soup…like one of those weird, creepy recipes you got from that grouchy guy…"

"Mr. Thompson is not grouchy," Jackson defended. "He's just…you've just got to know him, is all."

"Mmm-hmm—or he'll bite off your head," Luke answered.

Jackson sighed. He pulled out his phone and looked at the time. 7:12. Oh well, Jade was just taking a long time coming back. He hadn't said when he would come back, anyway. There was no reason to worry. Still, Jackson decided to send Jade a quick text. It couldn't hurt…

When you b back?

Jackson sent the text and then waited. Only a moment later, a respond came.

On my way.

Jackson breathed a sigh of relief and then stood up and walked into the kitchen. He leaned over the recipe page Luke was apparently working with and then wandered back out of the kitchen. He walked into his bedroom and sat down on his bed. Jade would be ok. Everything would be ok. He just had to make a plan—decide what he was going to do.

"Hey, Jackson!" Luke suddenly called. "Could you get the door please? I got ma hands full!"

"Who is it?" Jackson asked as he stood up and started back toward the living room where the front door was.

"Jade, probably," Luke muttered.

Yes, that made sense. Jade didn't have his own key. Jackson walked up to the door, unlocked it, and pulled it open.

But he froze when he saw it was not Jade but an atrociously dressed girl with a hood pulled over her face. "Jade Leeman lives here," the girl stated without once showing her face. "Where is he?"

"Uh…he'll be back soon, actually…would you like to wait for him?" Jackson asked, disgust evident in his voice.

"I do. Where's his room?" the girl asked.

"Uh…may I ask how you know him?" Jackson asked suddenly.

"Business connections," the girl answered. "Where's his room?"

"Right this way…" Jackson said. He turned and led the visitor down the hall to Jade's room. He opened the door and held it for her. "He'll be back in a moment."

"Who was that?" Luke asked in a hushed voice as Jackson walked back into the kitchen.

"I don't know—someone who wants to see Jade—asked to wait in his room," Jackson said, but even as the words came out of his mouth, it first clicked in his mind that the stranger had indeed requested to wait for Jade…in his bedroom.

And then there was another knock.

"Probably him," Jackson decided and he started away from the kitchen and walked back over to the door. He pulled it open and let out a sigh of relief when he saw it was Jade.

"Wh—what's wrong?" Jade asked uncertainly the moment he saw Jackson's face.

"Uh, somebody came to see you," Jackson answered, deciding to get right to the point.

"Who?" Jade asked quickly.

"Some uh…girl…she asked to wait for you in your room," Jackson answered. He took Jade's arm and started leading him toward his room, deciding suddenly that he didn't want Jade to go in there alone.

"Did she say what her name was?" Jade asked, holding back.

"No—she said she knew you through business connections," Jackson answered.

"Business—but I don't—what did she look like?" Jade asked, anxiety showing openly in his face.

"Uh…she never showed her face," Jackson said. "Medium height, I guess—very skimpy outfit…"

"I don't know anybody like that," Jade decided quickly and he started pulling away from Jackson, shying away from his door as if there was a beast on the other end.

"So what should I tell her?" Jackson asked, tightening his grip on Jade.

"T-to go away!" Jade cried.

"And what if you do know her?" Jackson asked. "Jade, can you just—give her a glance?" Jackson decided.

"Ok…" Jade sighed. He slipped out of Jackson's grip and walked up to his door. He hesitantly pushed it the rest of the way open.

"Ah, there's the pretty boy," the girl said as Jade appeared in the doorway. She was sitting on the windowsill, and she didn't turn as he walked in. "Mind if we talk for a minute?"

Jade shot a glance back at Jackson. "I—I don't know her," he said quickly.

"Of course you don't," the girl agreed. "We've never met before. I came only for a short business conversation."

"About what?" Jackson asked.

"Business," the girl answered vaguely. "I need only…three minutes…can't you spare that long?"

"I don't see why not…" Jackson began, but Jade cut him off.

"No, I can't. I've very sorry, you'll have to come back some other time," Jade said hurriedly. "Very sorry for the inconvenience."

"Oh, you can spare three minutes. I promise that's all I need," the girl insisted, but her voice portrayed absolutely no emotion.

"Well, what if I don't want to?" Jade asked.

"For the sake of common courtesy," the girl decided. "Give me three minutes. Three minutes of private conversation."

"Is there something wrong with three minutes?" Jackson asked Jade, giving the teenager an expression that told him Jackson himself would make sure the conversation lasted no more than three minutes.

"I guess not…" Jade sighed, though discomfort was still evident in his features. Jackson nodded and left the room, closing the door behind himself.

Jackson let out a sigh and then walked back into the living room. He lifted the blinds over one of the living room windows slightly and peered out. But the girl didn't appear to have brought a car. That was strange. But who knows? She might have parked it across the street or somewhere else. It still seemed strange that she wouldn't park it here, all the same, however. This was an apartment parking lot and it certainly wasn't full.

Go back in there, something suddenly told Jackson and it was a strange feeling that made him shiver slightly. He glanced up at the clock on the wall across from him. But three minutes weren't up yet. It had barely been one minute.

Go back in there now, the voice insisted. Jackson turned slowly away from the window and looked down the hall. He shivered again and then quietly started back toward the door. It couldn't hurt to stand right outside it, anyway.

Jackson stopped outside the door to Jade's bedroom. He couldn't hear anything—not that he should be able to hear anything, that would be eaves dropping and Jade had a right to private business conversations when he wanted them.

Maybe he ought to knock…

Jackson reached out slowly and tapped softly on the door.

Silence answered.

Jackson put his hear against the door. Maybe they had gone out? Out the window was the only way they could get out…

Jackson drew back slightly and knocked a little louder.

Just go in, the same little voice told him.

"Na," Jackson said and he turned back toward the living room. Who knows what they were doing. Jade would call for help if he wanted it. But then why was it so quiet?

Jackson couldn't help but feel uneasy about the situation. And then he gave in and walked back over to the door. He pushed it open and walked into the room. It was empty. Jackson bent down and glanced under Jade's bed. He looked in the bathroom. Both Jade and the girl were gone.

"Drat it," Jackson breathed. He should have suspected something like this. She would pressure him into leaving the apartment altogether—and she had known she only needed less than three minutes to do it in. The window was open.

Jackson walked over to it and stuck his head out into the chilly night air. Gone. There was no one in sight. Both were gone.

Jackson straightened again and pulled out his phone. He found Jade's contact and hit the call icon.

For a moment, there was silence. But then Jackson suddenly heard the distinct sound of a phone vibrating from somewhere close by. So Jade had left his phone behind…But then Jackson realized that the sound was not coming from somewhere within in the room, but from the ground right outside the window.

Without further hesitation, Jackson slipped out the window himself. He picked up the phone, dismissed the call, and looked around.

"Jade!" he yelled.

But only the sound of wind in the leaves of the trees answered.

She hadn't had a vehicle too close—surely they couldn't already have disappeared. Jackson started toward the road. But he stopped again when he caught sight of a figure standing alone under a street light. It was the girl—her hood was still pulled over her face, and she was on her phone.

Jackson cautiously slipped through the dark up behind her. She was absorbed in her phone and obviously didn't see him coming. Jackson took a quick breath and then took his chance. He grabbed the girl's hands and twisted them quickly back around the light post.

"What the ****!?" the girl gasped. She dropped her phone and stared up at her captor in complete shock.

"Where is Jade?" Jackson demanded.

"****-why would I tell you?" the girl asked.

"Tell me where he is and I'll let you go," Jackson said, but he was relieved that at least they weren't together…

"The bushes! The bushes!" the girl exclaimed. "Get your dirty hands off me, *****!"

"The bushes?" Jackson asked frowning. He suddenly wondered if the girl was high or drunk. "Show me where Jade is," he ordered firmly.

"****, ****, no! Think I'm gonna—" The girl began, but Jackson tightened her arms around the light post, and she fell silent for a moment. But then she gave in. "Fine—loosen up some—I can't ******* breathe!"

Jackson did, but he did not release either of her hands. The girl gave him a hard glare and then led the way back to the apartment. She stopped beside Jade's open window and jerked her face in the direction of several bushes that lined the complex. "In there," she said vaguely.

Jackson started toward them, but the girl wouldn't budge. "I showed you where he is—now let me go!"

"Show me more…precisely," Jackson demanded and he forced her over to where the bushes were. But what he saw made him gasp and unconsciously release the girl. She shook herself free of his hands and instantly disappeared into the darkness.

"Jade…" Jackson gasped and he dropped down beside the teenager. Jade's face was pale, his lips were slightly parted and his pretty copper eyes were closed as if he was sleeping. The hilt of a switchblade stuck out of his chest.

Jackson reached out numbly and touched the handle. But then he suddenly drew back his hand and pulled out his phone. It took him only a moment to call 911 and briefly explain the situation. Then Jackson quickly pulled Jade's head up onto his lap. The teenager was still breathing very softly, and Jackson could feel a weak throbbing through the side of his neck. Jackson closed his hand over the hilt of the switchblade and yanked it out with one smooth movement.

Jade sucked in his breath so hard, his body shook. But the pain seemed to have revived him and a moment later, his eyes opened. Jackson slipped off his own jacket, wadded it in his hands, and pressed it firmly over the wound.

Jade gasped again and suddenly coughed up a mouthful of blood.

"Hang on, Jade…" Jackson said softly.

And then they could hear sirens.

Jackson pressed his hand over Jade's forehead and caressed his face gently. "You're gonna be ok," he whispered. But it wasn't until the ambulance came and took Jade away that Jackson realized the teenager had been gripping his arm in a deathly hold.

"Yes…uh…tell me again what happened…" the police officer said, fingering his pen and notepad.

Jackson sighed. "She came to the front door, I opened the door, she told me—"

"Wait, wait—did the other guy see this lady?" the police officer broke in, glancing at Luke.

"I…saw her," Luke said with a shrug. "But I don't know anymore about what she looked like than Jackson."

"And uh…describe her again for me…" the officer requested.

"She was medium height, wore a hood over her face, skimpy outfit," Jackson answered.

"Any…tattoos, piercings, body markings?" the officer asked.

"Not that I saw," Jackson said with a shrug.

"And you absolutely never saw her face?"the officer asked for the fifth time.

Jackson shook his head. "I never got a look at her face good enough to describe anything for you."

"Did you notice hair color?" the officer pressed.

"No."

"Mmm…and then they went into the room and—"

"No, she was waiting for Jade in the room—and then he went in," Jackson corrected.

"And then when you went back in, the room was empty and the window was open," the police officer finished. "But there was no blood on the carpet or anything?"

"No. There was nothing," Jackson confirmed.

"And you have no idea who would want this Jade Leeman person killed?" the officer asked.

Jackson shook his head.

"Do you know any of his female friends?" the officer questioned.

"This was not one of his friends," Jackson said certainly. "He told me specifically so before he went in."

"And you say he seemed…nervous…about going in alone?" the police officer asked.

"Nervous about going in in general—with or without someone else," Jackson clarified.

"But he claimed he didn't know who she was?"

"That's right."

"Do you think perhaps he was lying and he did know who this lady was?" the police officer asked.

"I wouldn't think so because I trust him, but I honestly don't know for sure," Jackson said. "It seems to me that he would not have feared this person unless he didn't know that this person was safe—in which case he told the truth and he didn't know who she was—or he knew she was dangerous in which case I believe he would have refused to go into the room alone with her."

"Does it not strike you as strange that he would be afraid of meeting with someone—anyone? Is he…used to violence and perhaps acquainted with persons of questionable character?" the officer asked.

"Well, he certainly has a life involving a fair amount of violence—I think that's why he was nervous about meeting her—but not because he thought she might be someone he knew from his violent acquaintances—more just because he has developed a general distrust for strangers."

"Mmm…I see," the officer sighed. "Thank you very much Mr. Gillahend. I know this must have been a little tedious—I keep on asking you to repeat yourself and all. But I think I have everything I can get now. Thank you for your time."

He started toward the door, but Jackson caught his arm. "Do you think you'll be able to find her?"

The officer sighed. "You know, the description here is very vague—we really have no way of knowing exactly what type of crime this is—it could be anything from…an organized assassination attempt…to a fan who found out where he lived, talked to him for three minutes and then got mad and…stabbed him—it's just as likely to have been a hater who planned to stab him from the beginning…He was given a hard blow to a vital area, but the way she just left him half dead sounds more like this was just sort of a spur of the moment thing. Still, it could just be an amateur assassin. We have no idea and unfortunately we know very little of what she looks like," the officer explained. "We'll look out for her and we'll search the area for anyone who could fit her description—I would also suggest Mr. Jade Leeman keep a bodyguard on him if he intends to remain in this area." The officer smirked. "I really can't imagine what he was thinking living in these parts with absolutely no security. I mean, the place is terribly exposed—if someone found out he was here, they could blow up the entire complex with no trouble at all."

"You don't sound very optimistic," Jackson observed.

The officer nodded. "I'm afraid I'm not. This is a bad place for a celebrity to live. It's completely exposed. Of course the police won't release this information to the public, but if one newspaper finds out, then there is no possible way he could go on living here—I mean, somebody obviously already knows he's here. What's the point of staying? It's basically an open invitation for an assassination attempt. Good night, Mr. Gillahend."

Jackson sighed as the officer left. He turned back to Luke who stood frozen by the sofa. "I…guess I'll go see Jade if I can…"

"Jackson, maybe we should just go to bed and try to get a night's sleep," Luke said in a hushed voice.

"Don't think I could really sleep," Jackson sighed, but he dropped onto the sofa.

"Me neither, I guess…" Luke sighed. He sat down beside Jackson. "What do you think that girl was up to?"

"I don't know," Jackson sighed. "I keep wondering if Jade does."

"Thought you told that officer you didn't think he did," Luke pointed out.

"I…don't think he did…but now…I'm wondering if he does now…" Jackson sighed. "I mean, who would want him dead?"

"She stabbed him with a knife—it could have been a spur-of-the-moment action like the cop said…" Luke said softly.

"I don't really think so," Jackson sighed. "The way she only wanted three minutes—and then she just parked out there by the light post to do something on her phone—that's not something an inexperienced murderer would have done—I can't help but be drawn to the conclusion that this was planned out—as an action by organized crime enactors. I don't think she knew the first thing about Jade—just had his name and description. I think she was told by someone else to kill him so she stabbed him—to attract less attention—and then she dragged him out the window and dumped him outside. Then she started on her escape—maybe she was going to be picked up by someone by the light post—but the way she was so nonchalant about the whole thing—two things struck me from that. One, that she's done things like this before. And two—that the success of this job didn't matter to her much at all."

"But what manager of organized crime would want Jade dead?" Luke asked. "They obviously didn't want us—they just wanted him."

"A drug gang, maybe—I don't know," Jackson sighed. "He had illegal connections somewhere—who knows how far they ran."

Luke let out a long sigh. "Guess you'd better go see him, Jackson. No good leaving a kid in a hospital alone."

Jackson glanced at him. "You wanna come?"

"Don't think he'd appreciate me coming too much," Luke said hesitantly.

"But maybe you don't want to spend tonight in this apartment either?" Jackson guessed.

Luke sighed. Then he nodded. "Yeah, I'll come."

"No, no, he's doing really well," the nurse assured Jackson as she led the way to Jade's room. "He's been holding out really well and we never had to put him out. He's been conscious the entire time and there is almost no vital damage. His right lung was torn a little, but the doctor's got most of that cleaned up now. It's really—forgive me—but if you ask me, you've got a miracle on your hands," the nurse gave Jackson a warm smile. She stopped in front of a door and pushed it open for Jackson and Luke. "But he needs to rest all the same, so don't take too long."

"Thank you," Jackson said and he walked into the room. Luke, however lingered in the doorway.

Jade was conscious, and, although it looked as if he might have been crying—perhaps from pain—he looked far more alive than Jackson had expected.

"You feeling ok?" Jackson asked softly, going up to Jade and taking the teenager's hand in his.

"I can't feel anything," Jade whispered.

Jackson nodded. "Well, they've probably got you on some sort of pain killer. But you're ok aside from that?"

"Why did you come?" Jade asked, his voice still a whisper.

"What do you mean why did I—I came to see you," Jackson said, his encouraging smile disappeared into a look of concern. "I care about you, Jade…"

Jade shook his head slowly. "I don't understand why…I'll never understand…"

"Na, you will one day," Jackson said softly. "I'll show you why. I'll help you understand."

"I just remember waking up and you were there," Jade said weakly and a tear ran down his face. "And I thought…he's back…he's back again…He's always here…he's always there when I need somebody…I don't know why he's there, but he's always there…He always comes…He always knows…"

"I don't know how I knew," Jackson said softly. "Something told me—God, maybe."

"Is it your God that makes you care so much?" Jade whispered.

"Well, he gave me love," Jackson said. "So I suppose you could say that."

"Would he make me care?" Jade asked weakly. "Would your God save me from this emptiness and show me how to love like you can?"

Jackson gave Jade a smile. "If you let him, Jade."

"How do I let him?" Jade pressed.

"Open your heart to him…believe in him—meet him in church and let his love come into your heart. Trust him," Jackson answered.

"Who is he?" Jade asked in a faded voice.

"Well, the nurse told me not to take too long," Jackson said. "But I don't think she'll mind if I just tell you…a few stories…"

"Tell me," Jade whispered.

Jackson pulled a foldable chair over to Jade's bed and sat down on it. He took Jade's hand again and let out a long sigh. "Well, there are a bunch of mysteries, Jade," he explained. "But there are also a lot of things we know. Like that God created man—out of love—he made us creatures of love, and that's why you feel so empty when you don't have love. Thing is, God is love. That's not something we humans can really understand, but the first thing you need to know about God is that he is love. Yeah, we like to shake our fists at God and complain about things that happen in our lives, but God actually never lets anything purely destructive happen to us. He's always watching over us, and he keeps a close eye on what happens. Yes, there are bad things that happen—many bad things because sin and selfishness came into his creation. Have you heard the story of Adam and Eve?"

"That thing about the apple?" Jade asked softly.

"Yes—see, God wanted man to be happy," Jackson explained. "So what did he do? Well, he created them in a paradise. He told them he would put them in that paradise to live out their lives there and then when they had been through their test, they would be proven worthy to join him in his kingdom and live with him forever in his paradise. The test was to obey God's one commandment—not to eat from that forbidden tree. A lot of people ask why there was a tree at all. The answer to that is to make a test. Why would humans deserve eternal happiness if they didn't go through a test? So God made them a test…and…they failed it. They ate from the tree because a serpent—the devil—tempted them into it. That devil told them that eating from the tree would make them like God, and Adam and Eve were so selfish, they wanted to be like God. So they ate the fruit from the tree. Turned out the serpent had lied…And they weren't like God. But they did see the difference between right and wrong and ever since they ate that fruit, there has been evil in the world—selfishness that gets passed on from one person to the next—over, and over, and over again. We're all descendants of Adams and Eve and we all share in that selfishness."

Jackson gave Jade a smile. "See, God let them eat that fruit and he let them make the sin that would lead to everyone else's evil. But the thing with God is that he allows evil to happen, but he always brings good from it. A kid might fall and scrape his knee and then guess what? He'll cry and make a fuss, but next time, he'll be stronger and it won't bother him as much. Well, after Adam and Eve sinned and brought evil into the world, God decided to send his son, Jesus to live among us. What Adam and Eve did was wrong and very destructive to all their descendents—including us—but if they hadn't done it, we never would have received Jesus among us. Not to say what they did was good, but God brought good out of their evil. We can resist the good he brings out of evil. We can say that because Billy hit me on the nose, I'm going to hit him back. Or I can say that I'm going to forgive Billy and strengthen my character."

"I think most people get revenge," Jade said softly.

Jackson nodded. "That's just because they don't have God's love in them. But if they did, they would have the strength to forgive."

Jade sighed and closed his eyes. "I don't know how I'm supposed to believe all this…"

"Why is that?" Jackson asked.

"You grew up with this…so it makes sense…this is what you think is truth," Jade said softly. "But to me…this sounds like rubbish. Maybe it all happened—maybe it didn't. I don't ****** really care. I don't understand how you can believe in these crazy stories and be happy for the rest of your life."

"What do you think happens to you when you die?" Jackson asked.

Jade sighed. "Nothing. You die. You stop feeling…I mean…I don't know. Nobody knows."

"That's right, Jade. Nobody knows. So how do you know what I'm saying isn't true?" Jackson questioned.

"Honestly…I just think this is some story somebody a long time ago made up because…they're afraid of nothingness," Jade decided.

"Well, Jade, even non-Christians believe there was a man named Jesus who lived. There are records of it from various places in history. So, that would mean that this ordinary man called Jesus was the one who made up the story, right? Well, he was certainly willing to die for it. And so were his followers. They all died for their faith. If it was just some story Jesus made up, then why would he die for it—if he knew that after he dies, all that's really going to happen to him is nothingness. And what about all those miracles? Things happen in this world that have no scientific definition, yet if there is no God, then all you have is scientific law. And then you have the problem of right versus wrong. If there's no God, then what's the point of behaving? Well, it benefits other people right? Only problem is, what about the relationship between you and your father?"

"How about we don't talk about that," Jade said quickly.

"Jade, I hate to bring it here, but you need to understand this," Jackson said certainly. "So allow me a little space, please. You look up to your father because he's your father. You watched him ever since you were little and you've only ever wanted to please him and be accepted by him. Then he turns around and looks at you like you're a piece of trash. He honestly cares nothing for you and to him, you're just this pleasure toy that's a pain to take care of, but at least you can offer him some pleasure. That's all you are to him. So, stepping into his shoes, what says that he can't abuse you? Nobody has caught him so far, so he's not going to pay for it. He doesn't care how you feel about it."

Jade's hand was slowly closing more and more tightly around Jackson's.

"So what's holding him away from abusing you?" Jackson asked. "He wants to do it, and as far as he's concerned, there are no consequences. So why not? What's stopping him. Nothing. That's why he abused you. And as for you? Jade, you're life is wrecked because he has abused you and rejected you your whole life. But he's stronger than you, so his standards hold as law and yours are as good as dirt because you can't enforce them. Well, that would be the only way things are if it weren't for the fact that someone even stronger than Mathew Leeman also has standards, and that's God. That's why there's a right and a wrong to begin with. Without God, the world would go to chaos. A few strong people would control everyone else, and nobody else would have any say in the matter."

"Then why did my father abuse me?" Jade asked, an uncanny hardness growing in his voice. "Why didn't your God protect me?"

"Because there is evil in the world, Jade. I can't tell you why he let all these terrible things happen to you. I don't know. I'm not God. I don't see what sort of good could possibly have resulted from all the abuse your father gave you, but that's not for me to decide, either," Jackson explained.

Jade turned away slowly. "I want to believe in what you do, because you believe in it…But it doesn't make sense."

"You're closed up to it," Jackson pointed out. "You have to open yourself up if you want to understand."

"How?" Jade asked. His voice sounded tired and strained.

"You know, Jade…" Jackson said after a moment. "I think for now, you should rest and get over this…"

"Why'd I have to be stabbed by a stupid girl!?" Jade suddenly gasped. He tightened his grip on Jackson's arm. "Ask your God that! Ask him why they're all after me! Ask him why my father was abusive! Was that my fault!? Did I somehow mess every **** thing up before I was even ******* born!?"

"You're getting way to excited, Jade," Jackson decided. "Just calm down, ok? I shouldn't have brought up your family. I'm sorry, I just wanted you to understand this concept."

"Yeah, I get it," Jade said in a weak voice. "I get it, you can go home."

"That's not what I meant, Jade," Jackson said certainly.

"No—I mean I get it!" Jade cried.

"No, you don't," Jackson contradicted. "You don't get it until you believe it, and you know, that takes some time, so it's ok that you don't get it yet."

Jade let out a long sigh. "Fine. I don't know. I'll never understand it. This will never make sense to me."

"If you let it make sense, eventually it will," Jackson said softly. He pulled his arm out of Jade's grip and lifted the teenager's hand in his. "Jade, I gotta tell you something, yeah?"

The eighteen-year-old turned and stared into Jackson's eyes.

Jackson sighed. "Jade, I'm not a…uh…lawyer—I don't have a talking job, and there's a reason for that. I'm afraid I just don't have a very good way of explaining things…or convincing people…or arguing them down, you know what I mean?"

Jade nodded silently.

"So, uh…I'm a bit…" Jackson gave Jade a slight smile. "Scared I might just confuse you more if I keep talking…So maybe, if you would allow me to…" he paused. "I would get some reading in before I try to explain this again."

Jade sighed. "So you can argue me to the ground? Jackson, I don't even know what I believe…"

"Yeah, yeah, that's fine—I just need to know how to…explain what I believe," Jackson said. "I'm not an official debate person, and if you told me you wanted to do this like a debate then…" he smiled. "Think I'm gonna have to get Luke to do that for me…" He shot a glance behind him at Luke who still stood by the doorway.

"I don't want a debate," Jade whispered. "I just want to understand, that's all. I want the answer. I want to know why. I want to…to be happy…and full…like you…"

Jackson pursed his lips together. "Mmm…I don't know about so many answers…but as for happy and full…" He paused again. "No, scratch that—as for full, I think we could arrange that—maybe."

"You don't sound very hopeful…" Jade sighed. "Am I too messed up for your God?"

"No, no, not him," Jackson said softly. "Jade, it's me, you know? I'm a human, and I just need to organize…my beliefs…into something that you can hear and understand…" Jackson let out a sigh. "Gonna have to do some reading, you know?" He reached out suddenly and pressed his hand against Jade's neck. "Why're you sweating?" He straightened slightly. "Should I go ask the nurse to turn down the temperature?"

"What did the police say about the girl?" Jade asked in a whisper, changing the subject.

"Oh…the police?" Jackson leaned down again. "They uh…said they'd look around…"

"But they don't know who she is?" Jade asked in a drained voice.

Jackson shook his head. "Never heard of her."

"I think…" Jade sighed. "I think she was a Dragons member…I think they want me dead, Jackson…"

"They?" Jackson asked. "So you…you know who's behind this?"

"The drug gang—the drug gang I was with," Jade whispered. "I thought she looked like one of them when I first saw her."

"Which is…why you didn't want to talk to her?" Jackson guessed.

Jade nodded.

"Jade, why didn't you tell me that?" Jackson asked. "I wasn't going to force you to talk to her. You could have just given me a thumbs down, and out she would have gone! I didn't like the look of her either, I just thought three minutes couldn't hurt anything. Why didn't you say something, Jade?"

Jade took a sharp breath and suddenly he was crying again. "Thought you had it all planned out," he whispered. "Just wanted to go through with it—not mess up anybody's plans. I thought you were mad she was there, and since she had come for me—I-I knew I had to get rid of her!"

"And why do they want to kill you suddenly?" Jackson asked.

"I didn't…keep renewing my ID," Jade sighed. "The person in charge warned me about that, I think…So now they want to kill me—because maybe they think I'm trying to turn them in."

"Well whose life do they think they're controlling?" Jackson asked harshly.

"They do that," Jade sighed. He lifted a hand to his face and tried vainly to dry his eyes. "They control everything. They keep track of everyone…mark them, and never lose sight of them—I just forgot, I forgot…"

"Don't worry about it now, Jade," Jackson said quickly. "We'll get everything sorted out when you're better, ok? Rest now, please, Jade…" He started to stand, but Jade gripped onto his hand.

"Please don't leave," the teenager whispered. "I—I hate hospitals so much…"

"O-ok," Jackson said softly. "Then I'll make arrangements and see if I can stay overnight, ok? Is that alright? Can I go make arrangements?"

Jade slowly released Jackson, but there was despair in his eyes.

"I'll be back in a moment," Jackson promised, reaching out and touching Jade's shoulder. "Don't worry."

But Jade's eyes openly portrayed his distrust. "You're never going to come back for me," his beautiful copper eyes read plainly. Those silent words made Jackson further resolved to make arrangements and stay overnight with Jade.

Chapter Six

Hate Hospitals

"Mom, I'm really alright, ok?" Jackson said. He smiled slightly into his phone. "No—they won't kill me—mom—thanks…" Jackson shot a glance over at Jade, sleeping on the hospital bed only a few feet away. "No, he's fine too…Yes, the nurse said he would be—I mean the doctor and the nurse said he would be fine. He's really in good shape—yes, he was conscious and I did talk to him." He paused, balanced the phone between his face and shoulder and leaned down to tie his shoe. "Thanks, Mom—I really need that right now…You know, he's a sad kid—everything he's been through and all…"

But Jackson's phone conversation was cut off abruptly when Jade suddenly half sat up with a scream.

"Hey, Mom—I'll call you back in a minute," Jackson said hurriedly and he hung up. He stood up and walked quickly over to Jade.

The teenager leaned forward slowly, his breath gone. He lifted a hand to his head and hid his face for a moment. And then the tears started. They came with frightened gasps like a child who had woken up after a nightmare.

"What's wrong?" Jackson asked. He took Jade's hand in his and pushed the teenager back down onto the bed.

"Nothing," Jade choked and he turned away.

"Was it a bad dream?" Jackson asked softly, unsure of what else it could be.

Jade nodded slowly. But he said nothing.

"What was it about?" Jackson asked. He pulled his chair over to the bed and sat down again.

Jade sighed and didn't answer.

"Talk about it, Jade," Jackson encouraged. "You're still scared."

"It was just a dream," Jade whispered. His voice was tight and wavering.

"Tell me, Jade," Jackson pressed. "Just talk."

Jade let out a tense sigh. "Back home," he whispered at last.

"Back home?" Jackson asked. "What happened back home?"

"I left home, remember?" Jade asked. His eyes kept darting about the room, and he could not focus on Jackson.

"Yes, you live in the apartment now," Jackson agreed.

"I left!" Jade cried.

"Yes, Jade," Jackson said in a quieting voice.

"I left and he took everything out on her!" Jade gasped. His fingers closed around the sheet that lay over him. "I saw her—I saw her—she was hurting so much and—and it was because I left!"

"Your sister?" Jackson asked.

Jade didn't answer. He went on in a feverishly rapid voice. "There was blood on her face—and she was crying—I've never seen her like that before…She couldn't speak! She was hurting so much! He had hurt her so much." Jade suddenly pulled himself back into a sitting position. "I need to go home!"

"Jade, it's not real, yes?" Jackson said quickly. "It never happened. Your sister left home—she's found somewhere safe to live with a friend."

Jade seemed somewhat quieted by this and he lay back slowly. "Yeah…yeah, she did…I thought she did…" he whispered.

"She did, Jade," Jackson said softly. "She's safe. You just had a bad dream, but it's not real, alright?"

Jade sighed and wiped his sleeve across his face. "It was so real—I thought it was happening…but I knew it was a dream…" A sob escaped his lips. "I can still see it…I can still see her—like it was real!"

"It wasn't real, Jade," Jackson assured him.

"But what if she's not safe?" Jade whimpered. "What if she went off with some guy and all he's going to do is abuse her? What if she can't get out?"

"Your sister's a smart girl, Jade," Jackson said sadly. "I'm sure she'll know what she's doing."

"She…she is smart…" Jade sighed. "But what if she was feeling bad when she left and she wasn't thinking?"

"No, she had a plan," Jackson said certainly, though he had no idea. "She went to go live with one of her friends, and it's a girl-friend. They're going to have a nice time together, and they're going to get jobs and live good lives, ok?"

Jade wiped his face again. Then he just stared up at Jackson with sad copper eyes. But there was trust in them—as if Jackson could possibly know where Jade's sister was.

"You're both going to be ok," Jackson said. He turned away, unable to keep meeting Jade's eyes, suddenly. How could he worry about his sister when he was the one who had been abused for years on end? How could this make him cry when all of his pain had been bottled up all his life? "Go back to sleep, Jade," Jackson whispered.

Jade woke up exhausted. He opened his eyes and instantly pain welled up in his chest. But he swallowed it into the back of his mind and turned to see if Jackson was still there.

He was. The black guy looked up quickly from his phone and gave Jade a warm smile.

"What time is it?" Jade whispered.

"Almost 6 A.M.," Jackson answered. He reached out and placed his hand over Jade's.

"When can I leave?" Jade asked.

"I…I think you need to get a little stronger," Jackson said softly.

"How long?" Jade asked, and he couldn't keep the plaintiveness out of his voice. He couldn't sleep well here, and the hospital surroundings made him uncomfortable. The nightmare he had had the night before still clung like torn shreds over his mind.

"A few days, Jade," Jackson said. "Not too long, I hope."

"Can't I finish getting stronger back at the apartment?" Jade asked weakly. But he already knew the answer. Jackson didn't know how hospitals were for Jade, and the eighteen-year-old didn't have the energy to explain it. Jackson would never understand, anyway.

"You need to rest, Jade," Jackson said quietly. "Travel really wouldn't be very good for you right now. Just rest and stop worrying."

"I just want to get out of here," Jade moaned. He turned away, frustration boiling up in him. His guard wavered and the pain came through to the front again. Jade felt himself gasp on it, but he swallowed it back down as quickly as it had come up. He was fine. This wasn't going to kill him, and even if it was, Jade was not afraid of death.

Jackson reached out and touched Jade's shoulder gently.

The teenager flinched slightly.

"Jade, I think it's best if you stay as long as the doctor says you should," Jackson said after a moment. "I know that's hard sometimes, but…I don't want you getting sicker. I just want you to recover as quickly as possible, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Jade whispered. He refused to meet Jackson's eye—afraid that if he did, he wouldn't be able to hold the pain to the back. But a sudden thought struck him, and he turned quickly—a little too quickly. "You—you need to go to work today, don't you?"

"Yes, Jade," Jackson said softly. "But I'll come back tonight to see you."

"Please just take me back to the apartment," Jade whispered. "I don't want to stay here alone—I hate hospitals."

"Jade, but you aren't strong enough!" Jackson exclaimed. "Look at you—you're still having trouble breathing, you keep going into these sweats, and you're so weak you can barely talk."

"Staying here won't make me better any faster," Jade said softly.

"You wouldn't have pain killers back at the apartment," Jackson pointed out.

"It hurts anyway," Jade sighed. "I would rather take the pain than have to stay here…alone…"

Jackson let out a long sigh. "I guess…I'll ask the doctor about it…But then we'd have to address the question of—if you're really safe at the apartment…"

"I will be—I'll be fine," Jade said in a voice as steady and certain as he could manage.

"And what if that girl finds out you aren't dead and goes after you again?" Jackson asked. "It seems risky enough to me that Luke spent the night in that place, but—"

"Did he get attacked?" Jade broke in.

"No…"

"Then I'll be fine too," Jade said quickly. "If that girl didn't come back at all, then she won't come back after I go back. She'll either assume I'm dead or decide it's too risky now—I-I could even get a security guard!"

"What's wrong with staying here?" Jackson asked.

A tear ran down Jade's face and he swallowed hard. "I just hate hospitals."

Jackson sighed. "Jade…I…I really don't feel very comfortable with it…I feel like you would be safer here…"

"Please let me go…" Jade whispered.

"And a security guard?" Jackson sighed. "Have some stranger invade your life and follow you wherever you go? I don't like that idea either."

"Please?" Jade begged.

Jackson sighed again. "Listen, alright…" he said at last. "I guess we'll just trust God's judgment—but if the doctor says no, then the answer is no."

"I don't think your God would protect me," Jade said softly.

"He controls everything, Jade," Jackson said, more confidence sounding in his voice. "If that girl comes back, I guess it was his will—I hope they capture her for all our sakes, though…" He stood up. "I'll ask the doctor, alright?"

Luke gave Jackson a pained expression as the black guy walked back out of Jade's bedroom, shutting the door behind himself. "Too bad you don't have a lunch break," he said softly.

"Not one long enough to come back here anyway," Jackson muttered. He lifted his wallet off the sofa and slipped it into his pocket. "Luke, all you gotta do is check on him—just look in on him—ask him if he wants to eat something…which he won't, so you probably don't even need to ask that…"

"I just never did feel very comfortable with your friends," Luke said, crossing his arms.

"Luke…" Jackson reprimanded, giving the blond-haired guy a glare.

There was silence for a while. Then suddenly, "Nope. I can't do it," Luke said, dropping down into the sofa.

"Luke, are you scared of him?" Jackson asked.

"No—I just don't feel comfortable with him like you do—I mean—that one time he puked all over the table—that was one thing. I could sort of deal with him then—you were right there and all I had to do is dump him in his room—"

"All you have to do is check on him in his room," Jackson broke in.

"Yeah—well, I don't like that," Luke said, stamping his foot down onto the carpet to make his point. "You aren't here—I mean, he's like your kid! When you get married and have kids—uh—I am not going to babysit them for you! Except—this is creepier! I mean, here's this half-starved celebrity-kid who…technically we don't know at all…I mean, every time I hear the name 'Jade Leeman' I go 'Oh, that guy.' Well now—huh—'that guy' is living in my home! This sick-looking genderless creep!"

"So you are scared of him?" Jackson asked with a sigh.

"Yeah, I guess you could say that," Luke decided. "I mean—think about how I feel—it was bad enough he had to live with us. Yeah, ok, he's got a bad past, he needed some immediate help at the moment—and then boom. Suddenly we…know this guy? Nope. But he's still gonna live with us."

"I know him, Luke, and I promise he won't bite you—just don't threaten him, and he will cooperate with you just fine," Jackson said.

"No—no!" Luke gasped. "I don't want—any cooperation! No cooperation! And what exactly constitutes as threatening? I mean—remember that time he pulled a gun on you for…no reason? Oh, I'm sure he thought you were threatening him, alright, but what if he suddenly decides I'm threatening him? By, say…asking him if he wants a banana?"

"Well, you don't have to worry about him pulling a gun on you," Jackson said. "He doesn't have a gun or he would have put a bullet through his own head long ago. I'm pretty sure I cleared out all his knives, too. So you really have nothing to worry about."

"Oh—that's very comforting," Luke groaned. "And what do I do if he does decide I'm threatening him? Go run out of the room and call 911 for the psycho control because I just accidently set off a maniac?"

"Luke, he won't think you're threatening him, ok?" Jackson said. "And he's not a maniac—no, he's not a hundred percent in some places, but he's really not as mindless as you think he is."

"Guarantee that he won't maniac on me, and I can do this," Luke decided.

"Well, if you decide to make him sit on your lap, he will go maniac," Jackson said distantly.

"Jackson—don't be ridiculous," Luke spelled out.

"Alright, Luke, tell you what," Jackson said at last. "Don't talk to him about his past—don't mention his past at all—and don't physically touch him. He won't go maniac."

"You guarantee that?" Luke pressed.

"I guarantee that," Jackson agreed. "Gotta go to work now. See you tonight."

"Yeah—if your maniac hasn't killed me," Luke said softly. He stood up.

"Be nice to him, Luke," Jackson said as he pulled open the door and held it for Luke.

"Try," Luke agreed as he exited the apartment and strode up to his silver Toyota Camry. "Terrible fate to have a longer lunch break, huh?"

Jade spent a miserable morning alone in his room. He was tired, but he couldn't sleep. All he could do was think, and thinking was painful. He was glad he wasn't in the hospital anymore, but he felt uncertain about being alone in the apartment all the same. If that girl had been from the Dragons, then the drug gang wanted him dead. And if they wanted him dead, it seems like they would not stop until he and everyone who tried to stop them was dead. But if she wasn't from the Dragons, then who was she?

Either way, Jade felt uneasy. He wasn't really afraid to die. He wouldn't mind being dead. But he feared how it would happen, and he feared the pain before it happened.

Jade told himself not to think about that and tried instead to focus on the things Jackson had spoken about when he had come to see Jade in the hospital. Deep inside, Jade really did want to believe in a God who kept order and divided the right from the wrong. But when he looked into his own life, all he saw was chaos, and the chaos he saw seemed to openly contradict what Jackson believed. But maybe there was a God who held order and justice. He only held it for the people he liked. And for some reason, that God had decided Jade was not one of the people he was going to like. He had made Jade as a pet—not a person. He was just a toy to be used by the other people and keep all the other people happy.

Jade sighed and turned over onto his stomach. The position was painful, but Jade ignored the pain and stared blankly at the bedpost opposite him. He half-heartedly wished the girl had been successful in killing him. But only half of him wanted to die, now. Not because much of anything had gotten better—just because Jade found that in a serious way, he didn't know what was going to happen to him when he died. What Jackson had said was true. Only a lunatic would die for a story they had made up. And if Christianity wasn't a story, then did that mean Jade would go to hell when he died? Yes, likely. Jade wasn't a Christian. He lied a lot and he wore tight clothes. He had done drugs and yelled at his sister plenty of times. He was a bad person in Christian standards. And what was hell? Could it be any worse than his father's abuse? Jade couldn't imagine anything being worse than his father's abuse, but surely there were things more painful.

"I'd be dead," Jade whispered. "I don't think I could care about being raped. I don't think I could think. Maybe hell is just where you die and don't feel anymore whereas heaven is just a place where you go on living…" The idea made Jade want to go to hell. He was tired of life. Heaven was supposed to make people happy—happier than all those Christian people who lived in bubbles were. But Jade couldn't imagine life being happy for him. He was just incapable of really being happy. He had been born that way. There had been times when things had been manageable, but life had never been good. And it had always gradually gotten worse. Things never got better. Life always got harder and more painful.

And then there were people like Jackson Gillahend and Luke Sunthrow who knew absolutely nothing about the constant pain and hurt. They were happy. They lived lives full of hope and ambition and meaning and purpose. They never wondered who they were or if they should exist. They had people who liked them and cared about them and needed them. They didn't know what it meant to be unwanted or rejected.

But Jackson seemed to care about Jade. In a strange way, Jade believed that Jackson cared about him. He didn't know how or why. It seemed ridiculous and impossible that one of the perfect people—Jackson Gillahend—could care about Jade who everyone else dismissed as a piece of worthless trash that stained people's lives and ultimately should be avoided at all costs.

"I do mess up people's lives," Jade sighed. He had heard what the perfect people said about him. Many times he had heard the phrase, "violent music" and "corrupting our youth." Many times he hadn't cared. They didn't know what life was like for him, and they didn't care to know. But other times it had hurt because it was true and Jade wished it wasn't. All he really wanted was to be like them, and it seemed as if he had the money and fame and popularity to be anything he wanted to. But he didn't. Somehow he couldn't buy a life for himself. He was trapped in the mistakes he made and the mistakes made by others.

People looked at Jade and talked about how lucky and talented he was. But Jade stared back and wished with all his heart that he could have one day in their shoes—just to relieve all the tension and pain for a single day—even a single moment.

But he was trapped as himself, and he couldn't escape who he was. He was Jade Leeman. The trashy, violent rock star who people screamed about and adored. He was the person everyone admired, everyone blamed, and everyone smeared their mistakes upon.

"Just not a hero…" Jade sighed.

Luke let out a very long sigh and then slowly walked up to the front door of the apartment he shared with Jackson—no, of course. Now there was a third person. He stopped before the door and stared at it for a moment. Then he pulled his phone out and looked at the time. 12:14. Lunch break ended at one o'clock. It took him a little less than fifteen minutes to travel between work and home. He could stretch that to fifteen minutes. That meant he could leave at 12:45. That meant he had to be here for half an hour. Not too long in principle…

Luke reached out and pressed his key into the lock on the door. He turned it and then opened the door. He walked into the apartment and then slowly closed the door behind him. Luke paused in the living room and then slowly, silently started toward Jade's bedroom door.

"Just have to check on him quickly," Luke muttered softly to himself. He stopped in front of Jade's door and stared at it for a moment. Jade could be asleep…

Luke let out another long sigh and then quietly pushed open the door. But Jade was awake, and he half sat up in surprise when the door opened.

"Hey…Jade…" Luke said uncertainly. He shifted.

"I thought you guys wouldn't be back until the evening…" Jade said in a drained voice.

"Oh, uh…Jackson didn't tell you I was coming to check on you over lunch?" Luke asked, slightly surprised and inwardly ready to punch Jackson dead in the nose.

Jade shook his head.

"That dud," Luke muttered under his breath. "Well, uh…do you…need anything?"

"No, 'm fine," Jade said softly. He lay back slowly.

Luke shifted again. "You want to…eat anything?"

"No, I'm fine," Jade answered in the same faded voice.

"Sure?" Luke asked, feeling as though he should. It did seem strange that Jade hadn't eaten all morning and he still didn't want to eat…

Jade nodded.

Maybe he had overheard what Luke had said that morning. It wasn't like the living room was very far from Jade's bedroom. Maybe Jade just felt uncomfortable with Luke because he knew this was a job Luke didn't really want to do. Still, he had seemed surprised that anyone had showed up—and he hadn't seemed to know that Luke was coming over lunch.

Still, feeling slightly guilty, Luke lingered. "I could get you anything—if you need anything."

"Actually," Jade said, and he sat up, gripping hard onto the bedpost. "Could you hand me my phone?" He pointed to the electronic device that lay on the top of his dresser.

"Oh, yes…" Luke said. He walked quickly over to the dresser, lifted the phone off it and then carried it back over to Jade. Remembering what Jackson said about touching Jade physically, he kept his distance from the teenager and held the phone out to him with an outstretched arm.

Jade didn't seem to think that was strange and took the phone from Luke with a soft "thank you."

"Is there…anything else I can get you?" Luke asked, backing away a little to allow Jade even more space.

"No, thank you," Jade whispered with a smile that somehow looked forced. He looked unsteady sitting up.

"You…you ok?" Luke asked.

Jade nodded. "I'm fine."

"You…you don't want…water or…food or anything?" Luke pressed. Jade looked so awful, he couldn't help it. The eighteen-year-old seriously looked as if he belonged in a hospital.

"I'm fine, thank you," Jade said again. But he seemed too tired to keep up his act, and his smile faded. He gave Luke a wan stare and then turned away.

"Jade, uh…I have half an hour…I mean…I can do something if you need it…" Luke said softly.

"I'm fine. You can go back to your work or whatever," Jade said exhaustedly. He didn't meet Luke's eyes.

"Jade, uh—what I mean is…" Luke began, but then he wasn't sure what to say. "What I mean…is…" Luke sighed. "You don't have to pretend you're all tough just because I'm not Jackson."

Jade glanced at Luke. "Do I look tough?"

"No," Luke said simply. "You just look like you're putting a lot of useless effort into trying to."

"You still think I'm a piece of ****, don't you?" Jade asked softly. He stared down at his hands—lying lifelessly on the blanket before him.

"No, Jackson changed my mind about that," Luke said.

"Then why do you still hate me?" Jade asked. "Still bitter that I never did well in school and I missed so many classes—more than I had to?"

"I don't hate you," Luke said bluntly.

"Whatever," Jade sighed.

"What are you trying to do, huh?" Luke asked suddenly, his temper firing slightly. "Trying to pick a fight? You want to fight me—because you know you can't win and you just want to look more pathetic? Or do you really think you can beat me."

"See?" Jade said with a smirk. But he still didn't meet Luke's eyes. "That's what you think of me. That's all you can imagine me doing. I'm just a piece of **** in your eyes—but you got that right, so don't let anybody change your mind."

"You are so aggravating!" Luke exclaimed. "I mean—you seriously don't want to be helped!"

"Would you want to be helped?" Jade asked softly. "Would you want someone to come into your life and try to change everything? Even if it was hurting like ****? And then what happens? It just hurts more…"

"I'm not going to feel sorry for you," Luke said, tilting his chin slightly.

"I'm not ******* asking you to!" Jade screamed suddenly. But his effort stole the breath from him, and he had to gasp before continuing. "Why don't you just shut the **** up and listen for once? How can you continually—"

"Oh, you can just close your mouth," Luke said, his voice rising, his finger pointing directly at Jade. "Because I'm not going to stand for any of your—"

"Continually judging me," Jade persisted. "When you can't even lower yourself to imagine what it's like to be where I am!?"

"Yeah? I don't care how it is for you," Luke said simply. "Because I know exactly how you celebrity-people see the world. You can't lower yourselves to imagine what it's like to live in somebody else's life! You—you're liars, you're thieves, you're jerks—"

"And…this person just denied hating me," Jade said, rolling his eyes. "But I won't ask who was just lying—I won't ask. It couldn't have been the ***-**** Jesus-freak."

"You call me that one more time—"

"Oh, you can't scare me."

"You'd better be glad Jackson took you in to begin with! I can't even imagine what he was thinking!"

"Now you're going to try to make me feel guilty? Go to ****. Just go to ****!"

"Thanks—I didn't even know you believed in hell."

"I don't—so keep your—all your **** ideas to your ****** self."

"That—" Luke raised his hand. "That is so it." He started toward the door. "You're going back to the hospital—or wherever you came from—you can go out on the street for all I care—I am so done with this!" He stormed toward the door. His hand seized the knob, about to throw the door out of his way.

"Wait—Luke…" Jade cried suddenly.

The blond-haired guy froze.

"I'm sorry…I didn't mean all that—I didn't mean to say any of it," Jade said quietly. "I'm just fed up with my life and I'm tired of being sick and lying around all day…I just…I lost my temper, I guess…I didn't have a right to yell at you—or say anything to you after all the trouble I've caused for you and Jackson…"

For a long moment, Luke's mind fought between storming out of the room to call Jackson and complain about Jade—demand his removal…and just…letting it go…

Luke let out a long sigh and turned back slowly. "Scared I'm gonna be able to convince Jackson to kick you out?"

Jade's copper eyes were fixed on Luke with an earnest plea. "I'm not afraid to die," he whispered. "I'm just tired of people hating me."

"You know, I really don't understand you," Luke sighed. He turned away from the teenager and wandered over to the window. He leaned against the frame and stared out. "One moment you're all up in arms and fighting like I'm trying to kill you, and then the next moment you're like some little angel—like really like some little angel to the point that you can cut your own head off and apologize."

"I didn't mean to say all that," Jade whispered. "I honestly didn't mean to…"

"Yeah, I believe that now," Luke said, glancing at Jade. "But what about two minutes from now? You gonna be yelling and cussing at me again? If you had a gun a minute ago, you would have shot me."

"I would have," Jade agreed slowly. "Because I was angry."

"What made you suddenly decide you weren't angry anymore?" Luke asked.

"Nothing," Jade said softly. "It's just…I wasn't mad at you and…it didn't really have anything to do with you, so why would I keep yelling at you?"

"Who are you mad at then?" Luke asked with a shrug. "I don't see anybody else around."

"Myself, I guess…" Jade sighed.

There was silence for a long moment. Luke lifted a hand and ran it along the length of the windowsill. "Yeah, it shouldn't have happened," he said finally. "Guess I lost my temper too—for no reason, really. I mean, what are cuss words to you? They're just…adjectives. Guess I'm just not used to being called ****** and…I don't know…have a bit of a temper, I guess…" He turned back to Jade. "I don't want this to happen again, yeah?"

"I'm sorry," Jade whispered.

"What I mean is—I want to quit fighting with you," Luke spelled out. "It's senseless, anyway. I mean—Jackson wants to help you and he's my friend. I don't agree with everything he decides, but…it seems stupid for us to keep fighting while he's trying to bring all the ends together peacefully."

"I'll try not to lose my temper," Jade whispered.

"No, that's not what I mean," Luke spelled out. "Accidents happen, and we're still going to get into fights just because…well, we don't get along super well…But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about us being enemies, and we can't go on living in the same place and still be enemies. You know what I'm saying?"

"I guess…" Jade sighed.

"So let's decide now to just…be friends, I guess…" Luke decided.

"Don't see how you can be friends with me when you obviously still hate me so much," Jade whispered.

"I'm going to get over it," Luke said simply. "For now because I care about Jackson, and hopefully later because I care about you."

"One person can cause a lot of strain, I guess…" Jade sighed.

"What do you mean?" Luke asked.

"You're going to pretend to be friends with someone you hate for the sake of a friend—because of me," Jade answered softly.

"I didn't say pretend," Luke corrected. "I said 'be'. And I mean be."

"Still don't see how you can be friends with me if you hate me so much," Jade said in a worn voice.

"Ok, but it will happen," Luke said certainly. "But I need you to be open to it, and that's why I'm mentioning it at all."

"I don't make friends very easily," Jade said distantly.

"So you want to go on living in misery like this?" Luke demanded. "You want us to keep hating each other fighting around every turn and glaring at each other?"

"I don't!" Jade gasped. "But I—I don't trust you, ok? I won't. I can't learn to trust people at the snap of a finger!"

"I'm not asking you to," Luke said, tension growing in his voice. "I'm asking you to try."

Jade shot Luke a glance. He sighed. "Yeah—yeah, I can try."

"Honest try?" Luke asked. "Not just slop-together?"

"Yeah—honest try," Jade agreed. He lay back slowly, and his body seemed to relax as he did as if it had been a great effort to keep sitting up.

"Alright," Luke decided. He walked up to Jade's bed and held out his hand toward the eighteen-year-old.

Jade stared at it for a moment, and then looked up confusedly into Luke's face. "What?"

"Come on, Jade," Luke said rolling his eyes. "Stop being such a sop and shake on it, huh?"

"O…K…" Jade said. He held out his hand and let Luke grasp and shake it.

"Nice dead-fish shake," Luke smirked. "Sop."

Jade stared up questioningly at Luke, but the blond-haired guy did not explain himself.

Luke gave Jade another grin. "So…now do you need anything?"

Jade shook his head.

"Very well," Luke decided. He pulled the door open. "So long." Then he left the room and closed the door behind him.

Chapter Seven

Take Back

"How you feeling, Jade?" Jackson said softly as he walked into Jade's bedroom that evening. He walked over to the teenager's bed and sat down on the edge of it.

Jade lifted a pale hand and touched Jackson's fingers. "Hurts," he whispered in a dry voice.

"What does?" Jackson asked, his eyes showing with concern.

Jade touched his chest.

Jackson reached out and placed his hand gently on Jade's chest. "Can I look at it?" he asked softly.

"No," Jade whispered.

"Ok," Jackson said. But he didn't move his hand. "Can you eat something?"

"Think I would just throw up," Jade answered. His copper eyes wandered.

"You feel sick?" Jackson asked.

Jade nodded silently.

"Did you eat anything when Luke came by?" Jackson asked.

Jade shook his head.

Jackson reached out and put his hand gently against Jade's face. "Have you drunk anything?"

"Jackson…I feel sick," Jade whispered.

"That means no?" Jackson guessed.

Jade didn't answer.

"I'm just not sure," Jackson said with a sigh. He drew his hand back. "Maybe you need to go back to the hospital, Jade. Not eating or drinking is no good…"

"I couldn't eat there, either," Jade whispered.

"They have IVs there, Jade," Jackson said softly. "If you really couldn't eat."

"Just want to stop being sick," Jade sighed. "I hate hospitals…I hate having to lie down for so long…"

"I know how that is, Jade," Jackson assured him. He let out a long sigh. "But if you won't eat, I think I need to take you back…"

"Ok, I'll eat," Jade said suddenly. "Just don't take me back."

"I don't want you to throw up, Jade," Jackson said gently.

"I'll eat," Jade repeated.

Jackson nodded. "I'll go get you something."

He left and was gone for a little while. Jade turned and stared at the wall. He already knew he wouldn't be able to hold any food down. It used to be he could always eat. Now, there were just times when he couldn't. But throwing up was worth it if that meant he may not have to go back to the hospital…

Jackson returned with a bowl of soup. "Kind of left-over stuff," he explained, giving Jade a smile. "Luke and I eat left-overs a lot so we don't have to cook every night."

Jade nodded and pulled himself slowly up into a sitting position. But he froze when he saw that Jackson was staring at him with a rather aghast expression on his face.

"Gosh, Jade, you look terrible…" Jackson breathed.

Jade glanced at him, but then quickly took the bowl from him. He said nothing, but in his mind, he was desperately wondering what looked so awful about him. Jade wished he had a mirror so he could find out. But he didn't.

The teenager looked down at the soup in the bowl. The very sight of the food made Jade feel sick to the stomach. But he lifted the spoon and took a bite anyway.

"Just take it easy," Jackson said softly. "And if you need to stop, then stop…" he stood up and wandered over to the window.

"I'm going to hold this down," Jade whispered to himself under his breath as he took another bite. He wished Jackson would leave. But he didn't and that meant Jade couldn't throw up. He had to hold it in.

Jackson shot Jade a glance, and the teenager felt it. But Jackson said nothing.

Jade kept eating.

And then the eighteen-year-old suddenly knew he couldn't go any further. He leaned back against the bed post. Fear gripped his mind, and he forcibly slowed his breathing. He could hold it down. He had to hold it down. There was nothing wrong with this food.

But he certainly couldn't finish the bowl.

A sickly warmth welled up in Jade's body. His chest was hurting. Suddenly everything was sore. He put his head back against the bedpost and shut his eyes.

What was wrong with him? He couldn't even hold down regular food anymore? He would have to. He had to. If he threw up now, Jackson would take him back and at this point in the evening, that would mean another night in a hospital.

"No you don't. You can spare a few hours, can't you? Yeah, you can. ***** doesn't need to go yet," Mathew said certainly. He pulled Jade away from the door and over to one of the living room easy chairs. He sat down on it, and then pulled Jade down onto his lap. The teenager went rigid, but Mathew didn't seem to notice. "I've missed you," Mathew said, grinning. He pulled Jade closer and then let his fingers climb up under Jade's shirt. "I miss the feel of your skin…" he said. "That's what I miss."

"I hate hospitals," Jade said hoarsely. And then he threw up.

Jackson turned instantly from the window and moved quickly over to Jade. He put his hands on Jade's shoulders supportively, just as the teenager threw up a second time.

"Don't take me back!" Jade gasped when he finally got his breath back. There was sweat running down his face and dripping down the back of his neck, but he was shaking from a sudden chill that had crept over his body.

"You gotta lie down," Jackson said softly. He pulled Jade back against the bedpost and then pulled the blanket off him. He carried it into the bathroom and left it in the bathtub. He found a bag and carried it back to Jade. "If there's any more, put it in there," he said.

"Please don't take me back," Jade said desperately.

"Don't—don't worry about anything right now," Jackson said quickly. He picked it up the bowl and left the room for a moment. When he came back, he had a new blanket. Gently, he spread it over Jade. "Lie down," he said, but as the words came out of his mouth, Jade slowly lifted the bag and threw up into it.

Jackson sighed and took several steps backward. He dropped into the chair and put his head in his hands for a moment.

Then he stood up again and took the bag from Jade. He disposed of it and then gave Jade another one. "Listen, you have to lie down and not get back up, you understand?" Jackson asked.

But Jade made no move to lie down. He lifted a hand weakly to his chest and started crying.

With a sigh, Jackson pulled Jade forward and made him lie down. Then he spread the blanket over him and left the room for a moment.

A few moments later he returned again. He sat down in the chair and dropped his head into his hands.

There was silence for a while.

"Please don't take me back," Jade whispered.

Jackson raised his head and stared at the teenager. "Jade, I…I don't know what to do," he sighed. "You…you need to go back…"

"Please, no," Jade moaned. "I'll get better tonight. I'll be able to eat tomorrow."

"Yes, but you should have eaten today, and today is gone!" Jackson exclaimed.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Jade gasped and then he was crying again.

"Jade, listen…" Jackson said, standing up. He walked over to the bed and put his hand on Jade's shoulder. "Jade, I don't want you to stress over anything, ok? That's just making you feel worse, you know?"

"I don't want to go back!" Jade cried. But then he sat up and threw up again.

"Jade, there's nothing left!" Jackson breathed. He sat down beside the teenager and gripped his shoulders gently.

When Jade was done yet again, Jackson pulled the teenager back slowly against himself. Jade stiffened slightly, but then he just let his head fall back against Jackson's shoulder.

"Listen, you're gonna be ok, yeah?" Jackson said softly.

Jade didn't answer.

"You're going to get through this no matter what happens," Jackson promised. Then he stood up and gently put Jade's head down against his pillow. "Rest, Jade," he said gently.

"Don't take me back," Jade whispered. "Please don't take me back…"

"I'll give you a night, yeah?" Jackson said. "Get better tomorrow…"

Jade nodded and then slowly closed his eyes. Jackson took the bag from Jade's pale fingers and then carefully pulled the blanket up to the eighteen-year-old's shoulders.

Luke suddenly leaned into the bedroom. He glanced at Jade and then turned to Jackson. "Sop ok?" he asked.

Jackson nodded slowly. "He's going to be fine."

But that night, Jackson woke up to Jade screaming. He sat up immediately and glanced at the digital clock that stood by his bed. It was nearly midnight. Jackson threw off his blanket and left his room. He entered Jade's room and turned on a lamp.

The teenager lay on his bed, the blanket on the floor, clutching his chest as if his heart had stopped beating.

Jackson let out a fearful breath and walked quickly up to Jade. He dropped down beside him and brushed sweaty hair out of Jade's face. "What's wrong?" he asked softly.

Jade moaned, then reached out and grasped Jackson's arm

As Jade's fingers closed around his arm, Jackson froze. Jade's hands were bloody.

"Where did it come from?" Jackson gasped, but even as he asked, he saw. The front of Jade's shirt was soaked in blood.

"What the heck is going on?" Luke asked, rubbing his face as he walked into the bedroom.

"I don't know," Jackson said frozenly.

Luke sighed, blinked, and then stared blankly at Jade. The teenager lifted a hand weakly and passed it across his own forehead, smearing blood across his face.

"Help me with this," Jackson said, suddenly melting into movement. He turned Jade onto his back and then began carefully pulling up the teenager's shirt.

Jade screamed again and seized one of Jackson's wrists with his hands. He clamped down on it, letting his fingernails sink into Jackson's skin, but the black guy ignored him.

Luke walked over and pulled Jade's hands away, then watched as Jackson finished pulling up Jade's shirt.

Jackson reached out and touched the bandage that had been pulled over the switchblade wound. But then he drew his hand away. "He's torn it off," Jackson whispered. "It must have been hurting him and he pulled it off—tearing up the skin around it."

"What now?" Luke asked, still holding Jade's hands firmly in his.

"We—we've got to take him back," Jackson said numbly. He stood up and went into Jade's bathroom. A moment later he returned with several towels. He slipped one under Jade and wrapped it around his chest.

Jade cried out every time Jackson's fingers brushed against his skin.

"And pray Sop doesn't remember anything when this is over," Luke said, giving Jackson a bitter smile.

"Yeah, that," Jackson agreed. He pulled Jade's bloody shirt back down and then lifted the teenager carefully into his arms.

"Should I drive?" Luke offered.

Jackson nodded and Luke led the way out of the apartment and over to his Toyota Camry. He unlocked one of the back doors and then pulled it open. He threw another towel over the bench and then went around to the driver's side while Jackson carefully laid Jade in the back seat.

"Probably should have gone in my car—it's older," Jackson muttered as he pulled on a seatbelt and then gently positioned Jade's head on his lap.

"Na, whatever," Luke dismissed the idea. He started the car and pulled away from the apartment.

There was silence for a while.

Then, at last, Luke broke it. "He ok?"

Jackson sighed. "It's not bleeding too much, I don't think. It kind of soaked his shirt, but it had already started healing before he pulled off the cover and I think it's really slowing down, now."

"And uh…he's still breathing and everything, right?" Luke asked.

"Yes, he's going to be fine," Jackson said. His fingers were slowly stroking Jade's hair.

"Yeah, let's not lose him," Luke said softly. "He's a nice Sop, really…"

"Um…he must have…pulled pretty hard to get that bandage off—I don't really think it could have been an accident, actually," the doctor said, tilting his head slightly as he stared across his desk at Jackson and Luke. It was morning now, and both were very tired.

"He was sick—he probably wasn't thinking," Jackson said in a voice so dull it could have put a baby to sleep.

"Well, whatever the case was, I don't suggest taking him back out of the hospital for…maybe a week or two," the doctor decided.

Jackson nodded slowly. "I think I'll be back this evening to see him."

"Ah, yes, that's fine," the doctor said with a nod. "Now go home and get some sleep, eh?"

"Actually…" Jackson sighed. "We've got to go to work…"

"How do you feel?" Jackson asked as he walked into Jade's hospital room that evening after work. He dropped into the chair by Jade's bed and stared into Jade's pretty copper eyes.

"Awful," Jade whispered.

"Pain or just awful?" Jackson asked.

"Just awful," Jade sighed.

"Did they get you to eat?" Jackson questioned.

Jade shook his head. He raised his arm slightly to reveal a clear tube that ran along his arm and disappeared under some tape around his wrist.

Jackson sighed. "Any idea why you're having trouble eating?"

"I just do sometimes," Jade whispered. He took a quick breath. "How long can you stay?"

"I don't…know, Jade…I guess…" Jackson let out a long sigh. "I could stay the night…"

"But you don't want to?" Jade asked softly.

"Jade, uh…" Jackson rubbed his face with his hand. "I'm actually…really…tired…"

"Then you can go home," Jade said weakly. "Go home and sleep."

"What about you?" Jackson asked sadly.

"I'll be fine," Jade whispered.

"Jade, but you hate hospitals so much and there won't be anyone—"

"I'll live," Jade broke Jackson off. "You've done so much for me already…I was the one who kept you up so late last night…"

Jackson sighed. "Don't blame yourself over this, Jade…"

"I'll be ok," Jade whispered.

"Ok," Jackson said at last. "Thanks, Jade." He took Jade's free hand and squeezed it gently. "Sleep well," he said softly. "And may God watch over you."

Jade watched as Jackson left the room and shut the door behind him. Despair sank into his heart and a tear ran down his pretty face. He was afraid of the night. He feared sleeping in a hospital alone. He hated waking up to the beeping of the machines in the room. He hated waking up alone and knowing that he was at the mercy of the nurses and doctors. He hated staring up at the ceiling because every other direction he looked, he saw contraptions of sickness. And he hated feeling sick.

But he wanted Jackson to go home, because he did blame himself over Jackson and Luke staying up late. He was ashamed that he had thrown up and been sick and then had to be taken to the hospital and Jackson and Luke had to do all the clean up and work. He could do nothing to repay them. He could only try is best not to make his debt any bigger.

It would be a long night, Jade knew as he turned slightly and saw a large black screen that displayed the pattern of his heartbeat. A machine not far away had a little flashing blue light, and Jade was fairly certain it was that machine that was making the dull beeping sound. But in a room full of contraptions of sickness, one could never tell for certain.

Jade closed his eyes to block it out and tried to pretend he couldn't feel the tube attached to his arm. He had to sleep. That was all he had to do. He just had to sleep and it would all go away…for a while, at least…

Chapter Eight

Sop

Jade got better very slowly. He wanted to get out of the hospital, but he didn't have much of a will to get better. He felt passively despairing. Jackson tried to be encouraging and even Luke came into the hospital room and shot him a smile occasionally.

But Jade saw everything as though it were all a TV show he wasn't really interested in. He didn't try to put on an act. He just watched things go by in emptiness.

And then one morning, six days after Jade had come back to the hospital the second time, the doctor said he was healed enough for the bandage to be removed. Jade cried when the nurse pulled it off—not because it hurt, but because she had to pull off his shirt to do it, and she didn't seem to understand how much he hated her touching him.

But that was the way nurses and doctors were. They didn't know and they didn't care to know. They never understood, and they didn't have the time to understand.

But that left Jade to spend one more night in the hospital and then the following evening, he went back to the apartment. It was a Friday evening, and Jackson and Luke had the day after off.

"See? You'll be strong again soon," Jackson said gently as he pulled a blanket over Jade. "Just rest and try to eat three meals a day, alright?"

Jade didn't answer. He stared back at Jackson with a blank emptiness in his eyes.

Jackson sighed and sat down on the edge of Jade's bed. "It's almost over, Jade," he said softly.

Jade still said nothing. But he blinked when Jackson reached out and touched his face.

"You're going to be strong again soon," Jackson repeated. "Then you won't have to be lying down all the time. You can move around again and do what you want. You won't be stuck in a room all day." Jackson paused and took Jade's hand in his. "Say something, Jade…"

"What do you want me to say?" Jade asked in a whisper.

"Something to tell me you're still alive," Jackson said sadly. "Because every time I look at you, I can see the death inside."

"It's better to be dead than in pain," Jade whispered.

"Pain means healing, Jade," Jackson said gently. "It means you're going to live again. I want you to live again. I don't want this to kill you."

"This isn't what's kill me," Jade said in a voice so soft, it could barely be heard.

"What's killing you, Jade?" Jackson asked, tightening his grip on Jade's hand.

"You can't stop it," Jade sighed, and he turned toward the wall.

"I'll crush it, Jade…I just want you to live again," Jackson said.

"Me," Jade answered. "Then crush me, because it's me."

"Aww, Jade, don't say things like that…" Jackson said gently.

"You actually think I'll be able to eat real food?" Jade asked suddenly. He grasped Jackson's arm. "You really think I won't throw up?"

"I don't understand why you would, Jade," Jackson said quickly. "Do you still feel sick?"

"I don't understand why I did to begin with!" Jade cried. "But I just did! I'm just…I'm sick…I don't know what's wrong with me…I guess maybe I'm not even sick—this is just natural for me."

"Maybe…you have an eating disorder," Jackson suggested, gently reaching out and pressing a little of Jade's hair back out of his face.

"I don't have an eating disorder," Jade declared with vehement certainty.

"Jade, I didn't mean that as an insult, I'm just suggesting that it's possible," Jackson pointed out.

"Why would I have an eating disorder?" Jade demanded. "I don't want to be thin—I just—I just ******* want to be normal! And now I have an eating disorder?"

"Jade, I don't know that you do," Jackson said quickly. "It just…seems possible because you're having so much trouble eating—I mean, not something common or as serious as anorexia, or anything…just some internal trouble…You do get really depressed, Jade."

"So does everybody else," Jade dismissed the idea with a flick of his hand.

"Some people get depressed more than others, Jade, and you have pretty bad depression sometimes," Jackson stated.

"Ok, whatever…" Jade sighed. His fingers began toying with the surface of his blanket. "I just don't have an eating disorder."

"I hope not," Jackson sighed. He lifted Jade's hand off the blanket and pressed it gently between both of his. "I just want you to get well again, Jade. And then we'll talk about what you're going to do…I really want to help you, Jade. You've been sick for a whole week, and you must be dying to be well again."

"I don't know," Jade said softly. "That would mean I have to face Eclipse again…and all those things you want me to do…and the question about the security guard…Maybe it's better if I just stay sick for the rest of my life. At least I'm out of the hospital."

"Sounds like something Luke would say," Jackson muttered. "If you dread having to deal with Eclipse, then why don't you just leave the band?"

Jade's copper eyes rose slowly to meet Jackson's dark ones. "I don't know…" he said softly. "I don't really know what's holding me to them anymore…I have as much—or more—from you as I have from them…I guess maybe I'm just afraid you would disappear at some point, and I would be left helpless."

"I'm not going to disappear, Jade," Jackson said seriously. "I'm going to stay right here—and even if you don't quit Eclipse, I'm always going to be here for when you need me."

"I don't know," Jade sighed. "And you still want me to believe in all that God stuff, too."

"Yes, but that can be discussed over time," Jackson decided.

"And if I never believe in your God?" Jade asked. "What if I never convert? Then you would decide you don't like me anymore."

"No, Jade. I like you because of you—I don't like you because I think I can convert you," Jackson said certainly.

"You would get frustrated and then dump me," Jade insisted. "Then I would be alone—without even Eclipse. And where would I go? I would have nowhere to go. But there wouldn't be anyone to stop me from killing myself, either, so I guess…"

"I would never dump you, Jade," Jackson said. "I'm always going to like you. You hooked me, and I'm hooked. I care about you and I want to help you. I will always want to help you no matter how frustrating or ridiculous it gets. I'm always going to be open to you, and you are always going to be welcome to live with Luke and I."

"Luke doesn't like me," Jade said softly.

"Luke…really doesn't dislike you," Jackson said. "He's kind of neutral right now, but I would say he almost likes you."

"Last time we talked, we yelled at each other," Jade said in a drained voice. "Then he said something about pretending to be friends with me because of you."

"Well, I guess the act is turning into reality," Jackson said with a shrug. "But I can tell you one thing—Luke doesn't come up with nicknames for people unless he likes them."

Jade frowned. "What does he call me?"

"Sop," Jackson answered, unable to hide his smile.

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Jade demanded, still frowning.

"Well, it actually comes from an old British nickname for someone who's sour," Jackson explained. "I'm not exactly sure where Luke heard it, but he calls sour people sops, and I suppose he decided you were so sour, you became the sop."

"That's not funny," Jade decided and he turned back toward the wall.

"It's just a friendly name," Jackson said gently. He lifted his hand to Jade's shoulder and rubbed it gently. "He likes you, Jade. Sort of a subtle liking—maybe for bad reasons, but it's a start. Don't turn him a cold shoulder."

"I won't," Jade said distantly. "I was never the one who didn't like him."

"Good," Jackson said with another smile. "Then don't worry about him not liking you, because he does like Sop."

"Don't call me that," Jade said darkly.

"Ok, I won't," Jackson agreed. He smiled suddenly. "But Luke will."

The next morning, Luke walked into Jade's room. He seemed cautious at first, but then when he saw Jade was awake, he relaxed. "How you feeling, Sop?" he asked, a smile playing across his lips.

"My name is not Sop," Jade said in a faded voice. He gave Luke a hard glare.

Luke walked over to the chair Jackson always liked sitting in and sat in it backwards. He placed his chin on the top of the backrest and stared back at Jade. "Don't you ever get tired of being called 'Jade Leeman'? I mean, a lot of people came up with different names to be their public names, because…well, it gets tiring seeing your name everywhere. But not you, huh?"

"If you don't want to call me Jade, then you can call me Alex," Jade said. He lifted a hand and threw his blanket back a little to reveal his tee-shirt was sticking to him with sweat.

"Alex is boring," Luke decided. "And that is totally not you, anyway. Alex is a name…like for some book-reader. Some kid who likes school."

"Well, I don't see how Sop fits me any better," Jade decided.

"Well you're acting like a sop right now," Luke said, tilting his head comically. "In fact, you always do—every time I walk in here. Don't even know if there is anything in you but sop—"

"Yeah, I heard about that, actually," Jade said. "But I don't like it, so don't call me it."

"Na, you don't get to choose your nicknames…somebody else gets to do that," Luke stated. "If you want to call me something, you can."

"Why would I call you something? Your name is Luke, and that's just fine with me," Jade said with a shrug.

"Well…Jackson calls me 'White Trash' sometimes…" Luke suggested. "And when we first met in highschool, he called me Ken. I think after that it became Kennedy, but that wasn't really part of it…"

"I don't know how the **** you can stand being called ridiculous things like that by your own **** friend," Jade muttered.

"Because it's silly," Luke spelled out. "I actually really hated Ken for a while, but you get used to it. Jade, I'm not going to tell TV12 that I call you Sop, ok?"

"Frankly I wouldn't ******* care if you did," Jade said softly. "Worse things get said about me all the time—and a lot of them are a lot less true."

"What? Like you're father's abusive?" Luke asked in a dull tone. "Sure heard that one a lot…Co-workers were all panicky when it first came out."

Jade's head shot up.

Luke glanced at him, but then turned to stare out the window. "It's funny, Sop—all these perfectly sensible people out there who just…" he smirked. "Just wanna help that poor Jade Leeman. Reason they don't is…because they wouldn't. They have this image of you—this immaculate image, and that's what's locked in their heads. This little twirling dancer who's willing to take off all his clothes for their entertainment. It's locked in their heads—you're just this…this lust object—"

"Stop!" Jade gasped suddenly.

"But if they saw you like this," Luke sighed. "Throwing up and being sick and losing your temper sometimes…they'd all back off, because that's not the thing you look like on stage."

"Yeah, I know that ok?!" Jade cried. "Is that my fault that that's what they decided I am?"

"I never exactly said it was," Luke said softly.

"Then why do I need to pay for it?" Jade asked.

Luke opened his mouth to answer, but Jade lifted a hand and broke him off.

"Yes, I know—I know. It's because I got a job with a rockband—everything that goes with that ******* job! You're going to complain about the clothes I wear—how I have a shirt that's unbuttoned most of the way down when I get on stage—I know that. But open your mind for a moment, and see how it really is! I hate crowds! They yell, and they scream—but that's not the worst of it. If you get too close to the edge of the stage, they will grab you and pull you down into the crowd. But you can't panic—you have to act like this is all part of the plan—and it's just like you said. They see me as a toy—and now finally they get to put their hands on this toy that they've only ever been able to see from a distance. And **** will they touch you!" They'll try to feel you through your clothes—they-they run their fingers through your hair—until some security guards can finally get you out of there. And no, you don't get to chose what to wear for a show! That's all decided for you. And if your designer wants to see more of your body herself, then you're going to end up wearing something tighter."

"Then why do you still have that job?" Luke asked. "Why don't you just quit?"

"Because it's all I can do!" Jade exclaimed. "The only way I can get a job is using my face. It doesn't matter where I go—Sonic, a horse barn, Eclipse—they all want me mostly because of my face! And then, I have to pay all the backlash. Amber needs to try to get close because of my face—she doesn't really give **** about who I really am. My dad needs to—to take everything. And everyone around me is just telling me to play along! 'Go get a girl.' 'You'd look cuter if you dropped a few more buttons.' 'Everybody has a crush on Jade Leeman.' Then all I can do is drug myself to death and hope that I don't feel most of it!"

"Jade, why the heck have you stayed this long?" Luke asked in disbelief.

"I can stand it more than you could," Jade said in a softer voice. "I grew up that way."

"Well, I don't know…" Luke said in an aghast voice. "But Jackson sure is right about you needing to leave that rock band."

"Maybe I will," Jade whispered.

There was silence for a while. Then Luke stood up. "Cheer up, Sop. Jackson's determined to make everything right in the end."

Jade gave Luke a decisive frown as the blond-haired guy left the room, but Luke merely smiled.

"Hey, Luke," Jackson called as the blond-haired guy passed Jackson's bedroom doorway.

"What's up?" Luke asked, stopping in the doorway.

Jackson was sitting at his desk in front of his laptop. But he leaned back and turned the computer to face Luke. "Just got to get an idea of how sick this guy is…"

Luke walked over, and then stopped. The screen displayed a high-resolution picture of Jade—huddled at the end of a bed, his face hidden in his hands—without a shirt on. The caption read, "My drugged-out ****** son. It's been a bad week…"

"What the heck is this?" Luke asked, leaning closer.

"Mathew Leeman's facebook page," Jackson said, tipping his head against the backrest of his chair.

Luke grabbed the mouse and scrolled further down. There were several pictures of Mercedes cars and some shots of Champaign labels—the label pictures all consisting of some sort of argument about brands. Then there was another picture of Jade—taken at the same time as the first, only with Mathew leaning over the teenager, his arms wrapped around Jade's neck. Jade's face was visible in this picture, and he was obviously crying. "Everybody knows that being a rockstar is a depressing business. Money pouring out of his ears…so stressful…" He still didn't have a shirt on.

"What the heck?" Luke gasped again. "This guy is openly…"

"I know," Jackson said softly. "I thought he would have at least tried to cover things up a little more."

"I mean—isn't it obvious there is a problem in this picture?" Luke asked, scrolling down a little further, but then returning to the second picture of Jade.

"Well, check out the types of people who put comments on it," Jackson said. He clicked on the picture and then scrolled down through the comments. "Jerry Defeel said, 'mount him, Mathew—he's too female to be male,'" Jackson read off. "Dennis Rellwel said, 'teach the' blank 'to' blank 'up his own life and' blank blank 'well keep a' blank 'shirt on while he's crying about it.' Then we have another one here from Peter Cosky—he said, 'heck, I wanna slap him so bad.' Wendy Darkwin said, 'my' blank 'if you won't ride him, I will. He is so' blank blank." Jackson leaned back with a sigh. "This is disgusting. This guy is so…sick."

Luke wandered over to Jackson's bed and sat down on it. "Bet you Jade doesn't know about any of this."

"No, and we won't tell him," Jackson said, closing Mathew's facebook page. "But that's why you don't have anybody complaining about pictures like that on Mathew's facebook—because everyone who sees it wants to abuse Jade just as much as his father did."

"I can't believe…people say things like that…" Luke said in a dazed voice.

"Yes, and the thing that drives me nuts is Mathew knows exactly what he can get away with. In that picture, the first thing you notice is Jade—Jade is the center of attention in that picture, and he doesn't have a shirt on. If he did, then I guarantee you that there would be more of 'what are you doing with that kid? I thought you didn't like him and now you're all love-love with him?' But the center of attention is Jade's exposure. They look at that and forget about pretty much everything else. There was only one comment on there that I saw that referred to anything but Jade's body. And yet at the same time, this Mathew guy has gotten his point across perfectly. Now everybody will go home and be thinking, 'that poor Mathew—he has to live with that failure of a son.'"

"Jade's got to leave Eclipse," Luke said softly.

"I know, but so far, I haven't really convinced him to even think about it," Jackson sighed.

"Well, he seems to be thinking about it now," Luke said. "I mean it's still a 'probably not' but there is a maybe in there too. I would really keep talking to him about it, because he needs to get out of there."

"You could talk to him," Jackson suggested.

"I did, sort of," Luke answered. "Just don't have too much of a way with explaining things like that as you do, though…"

"Still, the more people who tell Jade to leave Eclipse, the more likely he is to really start thinking about it," Jackson said certainly.

"Poor Sop," Luke muttered after a moment.

Jackson grinned slightly. "You know, he really hates that name."

"I know, but it fits him so well," Luke said, shooting Jackson a glance.

"It does, actually," Jackson said with a smile.

Luke lay back on Jackson's bed. "He needs to feel a little real love—not just all this physical stuff."

"Yes, and he wants to," Jackson said. "He's just so distrustful—I mean it is amazing how distrustful that kid is. All this time he's been with us—all the times I've taken care of him, and yet when I touch him the wrong way, he'll tense up like he doesn't know me. It's gotten better definitely, but I never would have dreamed that—"

"That someone who walks on stage with skinny pants could care if someone touched him on the shoulder," Luke finished for him.

"Yeah," Jackson agreed.

"You know, Jade doesn't look anything like his dad," Luke said suddenly.

"Except his eyes," Jackson answered.

"What? Same color eyes or something?" Luke asked.

"Yes, they've both got those unusual goldenish-copper eyes," Jackson said.

"Well, I don't know, but I'm thinking Jade must look a lot more like his mother than his father," Luke said thoughtfully.

"Yeah, you can bet on that one," Jackson said, smiling slightly.

"I wonder if we saw his mother somewhere—just somewhere random—if we would recognize her because of Jade," Luke said. He sat up again. "That would be really weird…"

"What's even weirder is that he wouldn't know her, but she would know him," Jackson said.

"How's that?" Luke questioned.

"Well, you can't really get away from hearing about Jade Leeman. Wherever that lady is, she's got to know what happened to him. I mean—she must be watching him become a rockstar and stuff, but he has no idea where she is."

"If she still is," Luke pointed out.

"It's possible she died, but it doesn't seem likely," Jackson said.

"She might have remarried," Luke said softly. "Maybe it's a good thing Jade doesn't know where she is."

"Maybe," Jackson agreed.

Chapter Nine

Dream

By evening, Jade had woken out of his frozen state. He grew bored and finally sat up in his bed and began playing random tunes on his acoustic guitar.

"Sounds good," Jackson said as he walked into Jade's room some time later, a bowl of food in his hand. He set the bowl down on the chair and then moved over to Jade. "Can I sit down?" he asked.

Jade nodded and scooted over on the bed, leaving Jackson…plenty of room.

Jackson sat down on the bed and gave Jade a smile. "So you can just play a guitar like that—one song to the next without notes?"

"Anybody can," Jade muttered with a shrug. "I was just fiddling."

"Can you actually fiddle?" Jackson asked suddenly. "I mean—play a violin?"

"A tiny bit," Jade sighed. His eyes dropped to his fingers, rubbing the sides of the guitar.

"What else can you do?" Jackson asked, smiling.

Jade shrugged. "Keyboard. That's all."

"So keyboard, guitar, and a little violin?" Jackson asked. He reached out and gently placed his hand on Jade's shoulder. "You're a really talented guy, Jade."

"Anybody could do it if they wanted to," Jade whispered.

Jackson shook his head. "Not many people, Jade—not at the pace you learned all that. How long have you been with Eclipse?"

"Almost two years," Jade sighed.

"You joined them when you were sixteen?" Jackson asked.

"I don't want to leave them," Jade said as if Jackson had asked a different question. "I'm so tired of things changing—I don't want anything to change. I just want it all to go back to the way it was before. I want to go home. I want to have a home."

"Well, you can decide where your home is, Jade," Jackson pointed out. "You don't have to be homeless."

"I don't really belong anywhere anymore," Jade sighed. "The only time I belong now is when I'm with Eclipse."

"Why? Because that was part of the old life?" Jackson asked. He let out a long breath. "You don't have to be so against changing your life around, Jade."

The eighteen-year-old lifted a hand and ran it slowly through his hair. "You're never really going to understand," he said, his voice again dropping to a whisper. "You haven't been here, so you'll never really know. But maybe you can imagine it a little. I don't want to be born all over again. I don't want to start over and pretend that nothing happened. I don't want to start from scratch and write new history for myself. I'm not afraid of the mistakes that would come. I'm afraid of the emptiness. I'm afraid of signing off everything I ever did so that when I look back at my life, it's useless. I'm afraid to admit and—and declare that all my life has been a waste. I want something to come through. I don't want to look back at all that pain and struggling and realize that it was all for nothing. And what good would starting over do? I'm still the same person. There are marks on me that can never be erased—no matter how many times I tell myself that I'm starting over. All that would carry over—all those scars that can't be erased. Yes, I would let go of some of the bad things—but the worst things, the things that keep me awake all night—those would be the things that I would bring with me. And so long as those things remain—those things that define me and make me a person—then I'm just going to keep making the same mistakes I always have. If I start over, my new life is going to get dirty just as fast—maybe faster because I don't even have the good things I have now."

"What good things do you have?" Jackson asked. He moved his thumb slightly across Jade's shoulder, and the teenager flinched suddenly.

"M-memories," Jade muttered, sliding a little further away from Jackson. "Things I remember. Things about my sister—and my family—and the times when there was happiness. The times people smiled at me—the good things—the things people said that made me know they cared…Everything before it all just fell…"

"It fell when you joined Eclipse?" Jackson asked.

"It was falling before that," Jade sighed. "When I first joined Eclipse, that was the bright spot in my life—it really…it really made me happy. But…I don't know, then the pressure started, I guess. Eclipse changed me. I wasn't what I am now when I first joined them." Jade sighed again and shrugged suddenly. "Never dyed my hair…never dreamed I'd get my ears pierced…You couldn't have paid me to take drugs."

There was silence for a moment. Then Jackson stood up and walked over to the chair. He lifted the bowl off it and carried it back over to Jade. Jackson placed it in Jade's hands and then sat back down, a little closer to the teenager this time. "Leave Eclipse, Jade. Stop torturing yourself with that life. You don't have to pretend it didn't exist—you just need to stop it from happening."

Jade stared silently down into his bowl for a while. Then he raised his head slightly. "Seems like I ought to trust you without question. Seems like after all this, I should just do whatever you say…"

"It's not my decision what to do with your life, Jade," Jackson said softly. "I just want to help you—I want what's best for you."

"And leaving Eclipse is really best for me?" Jade asked in a worn voice. "Trap myself here until I can get another job? What would I do with all my time?"

"Relax, Jade," Jackson said quickly. "Stop worrying about life and all the trouble in it. Jade, put God in charge of your life, and he will take care of it!"

"How do you do that?" Jade asked. "I thought he was in charge of everybody's lives. He certainly hasn't taken care of anything for me so far…"

"That's because you're still steering," Jackson pointed out. "You want to know why Christians seem so perfect? You want to know why they seem so much happier? It's because they have God behind the steering wheel. Yes, sometimes, we push him out of the way. Sometimes God steers us in a direction we don't want to go in, and then we push him aside and drive ourselves for a while. But it's always the same thing—we always end up having accidents, getting in crashes…we can't drive, Jade. That's just the way it is. We're meant to be happy, but it turns out human beings are stupid and simply can't find happiness on their own. So we have to take our hands off and let God drive. We make mistakes and make a mess of ourselves, and then we go back, heads hanging and say, 'Ok, God, I'm sorry…guess you can drive again, 'cause I really don't know what the heck to do with myself, anymore.' He waits for us to hit rock bottom, because he knows that that is what it takes to wake us up—to snap out of our selfish fancies and realize what's real. Then we give our lives back to God and try to stay with him…until we yank the wheel again. Jade, we really aren't perfect. We go back and forth. But the important thing is that over all, we move forward—it's really like driving. You can get lost as many times as you want, but that doesn't mean you can't get there in the end. Yes, every time you get lost, that means it's going to take a little longer to get to your destination, but that's ok. You just have to keep trying and not stop."

"Sounds so simple the way you say it," Jade whispered. "But my life isn't simple…it's a mess. I don't know what to do with my life—but I don't have a God to go back to. I didn't grow up with a God. You make it sound like there's hope and purpose to everything, but…" Jade shook his head. "When I look into my life…all I see is mess. There never was a purpose. There never was a meaning. I don't really have anything behind me, really…it's all just waste and…and wreck…"

"Jade, but you are somewhere," Jackson said softly. "You have been going somewhere—you've been running in a lot of circles—going back and forth between the same things, but even now—you could be heading forward. You could be listening to me—and even just thinking about it—and there you go. You're already started forward."

"If I had met you when I was six years old…" Jade whispered. "When I was four years old…when I was three…" Jade's finger moved slowly across the rim of the bowl. "If you had been there when they started fighting…when the first explosion was…when she first mentioned leaving…"

Jackson reached out slowly and touched Jade on the arm.

"When she got into her car and drove away…when Dad started drinking…when he hit me the first time…" Jade's voice gradually dropped lower and lower. There was a lost look in his eyes, and everything before his face blurred into a mixture of random colors. "When I was so little and so helpless…when I didn't know who I was or what was going to happen to me…when I didn't care because I didn't even know how it was supposed to be…" A tear ran down Jade's face and dripped into the bowl. "When nobody was there and I spent nights outside because I was afraid…"

Jackson closed his fingers firmly on Jade's arm.

"The first time I realized I hated him," Jade whispered. Another tear ran down his face. "When Jenny told me I should never say that because he was my father…When I started using cuss words…just the way my father said them, even though I didn't know what they meant…" Jade's finger suddenly tightened on the bowl. "If you had been there…if you could have showed me the way before it was too late…Before the first time my father lay down beside me and put his hands up my shirt…Before I took the first pill…Before I cut the first gash…Before the first time I made myself throw up…" Jade was gripping the bowl so tightly, his fingers were white. "If you had just been there!" Jade suddenly screamed. He gasped, and then dropped his head, his shoulders trembling with sobs. "All I needed was a few words! All I needed was someone to tell me where to go! Tell me where safety was! Tell me how to live while the life was being sucked out of me!"

"It's not too late," Jackson said softly. "It's never too late to go back, Jade. It's never too late to rebuild and heal." He took the bowl from Jade and set it carefully on the floor. "You need to rest for a moment," he said, pulling Jade gently down onto the bed. He lifted Jade's guitar off the bed and leaned it against the bedpost. "Rest, and when you feel better, eat," Jackson instructed. He pulled Jade's blanket over him and then leaned down close to the teenager. Gently, he brushed Jade's tears away. "Don't cry anymore, Jade. You're going to be fine. It's never too late." Then he straightened and left the room, closing the door behind himself.

When he was gone, Jade turned over on his side and stared at the wall across from his bed. People like that would never understand…They were always hopeful. They always acted as if it was so easy—all that needed to be done was make one decision and say one word. They didn't recognize that other's people's lives could be complicated. Their lives were so simple—they couldn't imagine what it was like to actually live as someone else. That was ok. They only had to live their own lives.

Still, Jade found himself wishing that he could just abandon himself to Jackson's judgment. He wanted his life to be like Jackson's. But he feared that it couldn't be and he would never really be able to let go of everything that had happened and heal from all the wounds he had received. He didn't like Eclipse—it was another one of those parts of his life that made him miserable. But he still felt it was the last grip he had to his old life, and if he let it go, he would lose the old life forever. All same, even with Eclipse, there was no way to go back. And things even within Eclipse were changing. They were getting more demanding—more demanding in things they had no right to demand. And what about the Dragons? Jade was almost certain the girl who had tried to kill him was one of them, and if they wanted him dead, then he would end up dead. The Dragons was one of those gangs that always got what they wanted They were too big and powerful to be turned aside by anyone.

Jade sighed and wondered if he cared whether or not he ended up dead. Jackson didn't want him to die—he had saved Jade's life—again. The eighteen-year-old didn't realize why Jackson wanted him to live. He didn't see why Jackson cared at all. But it gave him hope. Hope that he might be worth something, and that one day maybe someone would find him worth really liking.

But from where he was, hope seemed a long way away. He was sick again…too sick to get up much. He was able to hold food down, at least, but Jade didn't feel that that was much of an accomplishment. He didn't even know why he had started throwing up in the first place. That had never happened before. Maybe it had something to do with the drugs. Maybe now that he had quit drugs, it would go away and never come back. But somehow, Jade doubted that. It was just like Zach Velation had said. If he didn't eat enough, he would get an eating disorder. Jade didn't know how that was supposed to happen, but it had. Too late now.

"It's not an eating disorder," Jade whispered to himself. "It's just some sort of bug or something that's taking a long time to get over." Maybe it was some type of bacteria that needed to be cleared out with antibiotics.

And then Jackson walked in again. "Jade, Jade, Jade…" he sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed beside the teenager. "You're gonna be ok, yeah?" he asked.

The eighteen-year-old flinched as Jackson ran his hand along Jade's back over the blanket.

"Do you want to come with Luke and me to church tomorrow, Jade?" Jackson asked after a short silence.

"Why?" Jade asked in a faded voice. "You trying to convert me again?"

"Think maybe you ought to meet God, Jade," Jackson said softly. "He's really a good friend to have around."

"You talk about him like you can see him and talk to him and stuff," Jade said, rolling over onto his back. "But he isn't real like that. You just imagine what he says back. I know how it is. He's like this magic fairy and he isn't really real."

"He is real, Jade, and you can hear his voice if you listen," Jackson answered certainly.

"I've never heard him," Jade said quickly. "Why wouldn't he speak to me if he was real? Because he doesn't care about me and he just cares about other people? Or because he doesn't exist?"

"He exists, Jade," Jackson answered. "And he cares about you. He loves you. He wants you to open your heart to him."

"Some people say that if you try hard enough, you can see hallucinations," Jade said softly. "Maybe if you try hard enough you can hear voices, too."

"It's not like that, Jade, and you know it isn't," Jackson stated firmly. "Or do you think I'm insane?"

"I don't think your God cares about me," Jade said simply. "You think he's so good—you're so certain that he's good. Well, if he's good, then why did he wait until my life was wrecked before he had anybody mention him?"

"Maybe…because you wouldn't have listened until your life was wrecked?" Jackson suggested.

Jade fell silent. Then, in a much more subdued voice, he spoke. "You think it would help if I went to your church?"

"I do, Jade," Jackson answered.

"What if somebody there knows me?" Jade asked.

"That seems likely to happen," Jackson agreed. "But does that matter?"

"Yes," Jade said definitely. "I don't want people making up stories about me."

"Like what, Jade?" Jackson asked. "That you're converting to Christianity? Or that you have friends who are Christian and you went to church with them? What can they say, Jade? And who would say it? You think any of these church-goers are going to report something about you to the papers?"

"I don't know!" Jade cried. "But I do know that when people see things out of the ordinary, they make up even stranger things about it! One time, somebody asked me if I liked chewing gum and I said that I had had it once and never again—and then several days later I heard this rumor that I had chewed the same piece of gum for years straight and when I was finally done with it, I never had gum again! The things they say are insane! They hear two words and make them into fifty! They don't need to see something interesting—they'll just make it up!"

Jackson raised his eyebrows. "That is pretty ridiculous," he muttered.

"Ok, then I can't go," Jade decided with a sigh.

"Jade, I can promise you that nobody in that little church is going to make up stories about you and spread rumors, ok?" Jackson said. "It's a church. It's not a bar full of drunk people!"

"I wasn't in a bar when that rumor was made up," Jade said distantly. "They don't need to be drunk. They just need to want to do it, and there are plenty of people who do…Jackson, I just don't know about this…I guess I could wear a mask or something—I do that sometimes when I go out in public, but…"

"A mask?" Jackson asked.

"Yeah—a hospital mask thing," Jade answered.

"To cover your face?" Jackson asked in disbelief.

Jade nodded. "Look—I don't want rumors!" he suddenly cried. "I can just wear a stupid mask, and nobody should mind! They'll just think…I'm afraid of getting a flu, or something."

"Well, I guess it's better than not going at all…" Jackson sighed.

"Why? What's wrong with wearing a mask?" Jade asked softly.

"I don't know, Jade," Jackson answered. "Just seems like a lot of hassle for no real reason."

Jade groaned. "You don't understand!"

"Well, it's a start," Jackson decided. "So it's ok, alright? You'll come?"

"I guess…" Jade muttered. "I'll just feel really stupid, because I'm going to a church, but I'm not Christian."

"You're going with a friend," Jackson said with a smile. "Non-Christians do that all the time, you know."

"I don't know," Jade sighed. "I really don't know."

"Well, about time to find out, huh?" Jackson asked with a smile. But then his smile faded. "You feeling ok, Jade?" he asked gently.

"I'm fine," Jade muttered, and he moved an arm over his eyes.

"Alright," Jackson sighed. "Take care of yourself, yeah? I care about you."

The grocery store was empty—strangely empty, as Jade walked through it. There weren't even workers anywhere to be seen. The question of how he was supposed to check out when he finally found what he wanted crossed Jade's mind a few times, but something else told him not to worry for now because it would take a long time for him to find what he wanted.

So he started searching. And that voice in his mind was right. He looked for hours and hours and still, he couldn't find what he wanted. There were no workers anywhere, so he couldn't ask for what he was looking for. He wasn't even sure he knew what he was looking for, but what he saw, he knew he didn't want.

Frustration began to boil up in his heart, and Jade grew more and more tired of looking. But he couldn't sit down and rest. He was tired and sweaty, but he had to keep looking until he found it. He never questioned the possibility of what he was looking for not being there. He was certain it was there. He just couldn't find it. Though, he realized, it was possible someone had gotten to it first and the store was sold out.

But there were no customers. There was no one in the store. Every time Jade looked through one of the store windows, he saw the parking lot was packed. But there was no one inside—almost as if they were there, they were just invisible.

And then Jade did see someone. It was a woman with long dark hair. She was pushing a shopping cart, but one look at her face told Jade that she could not find what she was looking for either. She had two small children in the cart she was pushing—a little girl and a little boy. They looked like twins, but somehow Jade knew they weren't. They played with each other silently—never noticing anything around them—not even the woman whom Jade presumed was their mother. But maybe she wasn't. Maybe she was just taking care of them because nobody wanted them.

The woman's eyes searched the shelves desperately from top to bottom, and then suddenly she turned, pointed, and gasped, "There!"

It was the first word Jade had heard in years and it surprised him that he knew that it meant. He turned to look where she was pointing, but froze when he saw she was pointing at him.

He shook his head, slowly—telling her that he was not what she was looking for. But her face was full of joy. She left her cart with the two little children still playing with each other and noticing nothing else. She ran up to Jade, and grabbed his shoulders. She smiled into his face, and lifted a hand to touch his cheek.

But Jade shook his head again. She was mistaken. She was not looking for him.

"I don't know who you are," he whispered.

"You are what I'm looking for!" the woman cried. She clasped his hands in hers. "I found it! I found it! I've looked for so long! I found it! Half my heart is back again!"

"No—I don't know you. You are wrong," Jade said certainly.

And then the woman suddenly became desperate. She seized Jade's shoulders and began shaking him hard. "You do know me!" she cried. "You do know me!" She repeated those words over and over again, growing louder and more desperate as the moments passed. Still, the two little children in the cart never once even looked up.

"No, I'm sorry, I don't know you," Jade insisted. He lifted her hands off his shoulders and began to move away.

"You do! You do!" she screamed. She suddenly seized his face in hers. "I am your mother! I am your mother!"

Jade stared at her for a long moment. Then slowly, he shook his head again. "You aren't. You're confused. Your son is somewhere else."

"You are my son!" the woman screamed. She pointed to the children playing in the cart. "That is my son!"

The little boy in the cart suddenly stopped playing. He turned slowly to face Jade, for the first time showing any recognition that there was anything else out in the world aside from the little girl beside him. And his eyes were copper.

"You've kidnapped him," Jade whispered in horror. "Who are you? What have you done?"

"He's my son!" the woman screamed. "He's mine! Nobody will take him from me!"

Jade turned back to stare at the boy just as the child slowly lifted his little hand. He was smiling, now. His finger pointed toward Jade. He giggled. "That's me!" he cried. And then suddenly he was laughing.

Jade stood frozenly staring back at him. "This is not what I wanted," he whispered. "This isn't want I came here for! I don't want this! This is not what I'm looking for!"

"We are! We are!" the woman screamed. She grabbed Jade's face in her hands and pressed her lips together. She started blowing into Jade's face like a mother might do to a baby to make him laugh. Jade screamed, and tried desperately to fight her hands off of his. "Stop it, stop it, you can't take him from me!" the woman screamed. She suddenly reached out and grabbed Jade's shirt. "This is what you wanted! Wake up! Wake up! Just—just wake up! It's just a dream! It's just a dream!"

"It's not a dream, it's not a dream," Jade gasped. "I don't want this! You aren't what I'm looking for! I don't know him! I've never seen him before! I've never seen either of them before! Let go!"

"Wake up, Jade." Her hand lifted and touched him gently on the side.

Jade gasped, and suddenly she was blowing into his face again—blowing everything out of his mind. He felt himself forgetting what he was looking for. The grocery store disappeared, and suddenly Jade was in his bed in Jackson and Luke's apartment with sweat running down his face and neck.

"It's just a dream, yes?" Jackson said. He was sitting on the edge of Jade's bed with his hand on Jade's side and Luke was standing nearby. The light was on, and the air felt hot and moist like something of a summer day was still slowly blowing through the room.

Jackson pulled the blanket off Jade and brushed his sweaty hair back out of his face. "You ok?" he asked softly.

Jade took a quick breath and nodded.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Jackson asked.

"I know you're just concerned," Jade said, pulling himself up and dropping his feet onto the floor. He stood up unsteadily and headed for the bathroom. But before he disappeared inside, without looking back, he muttered, "But I'm not a baby anymore."

Luke shot Jackson a quick glance. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"His guard's up," Jackson answered. "He was probably a little startled when he woke up and found us here. We should probably just wait for him to cool off a little."

"Dang, he woke us both up screaming at the top of his lungs and then he just walks off like that," Luke muttered, scratching the back of his head irritably.

"He probably didn't know he was screaming," Jackson muttered. He stood up off Jade's bed and pulled the blanket off. He shook it out and then spread it back over the bed. "I think I'm going to just stay up in the living room. I doubt Jade will be able to go back to sleep, and I want to be up in case he decides maybe he does want to talk."

"What are you going to do? Just wait around all night?" Luke asked.

"I'll read or something," Jackson decided.

"Don't see why he would want to talk, anyway," Luke muttered. He kicked at the carpet. "He's right, you know—he isn't a baby."

Jackson shot Luke a grin. "Even baby Luke needs to talk sometimes."

"Oh, very funny," Luke smirked. He watched as Jackson left the room, and then turned toward Jade's window. But he did suddenly wonder what someone like Jade dreamed about. What did his good dreams consist of? What could they consist of? He had everything in real life that anyone could possibly dream about. Except a family…maybe that's what his good dreams were about…Or maybe he just never had good dreams. Jackson had said several times before that Luke laughed in his sleep sometimes, and often those times correlated with a good dream Luke had had. But it was strange…the relationship between dreams and reality…

Luke looked up quickly as the bathroom door opened slowly and Jade slipped out into the bedroom. He shot Luke a wary glance. "You guys…you guys don't mind if I take a shower now, do you?" he whispered.

Luke shrugged. "Sure, I don't care. And Jackson said he wasn't going back to bed, anyway."

Jade walked over to his closet and opened it. He began looking through the clothes he had hung up in his closet, but every so often, he shot another glance at Luke. The blond-haired guy was watching the eighteen-year-old through the reflection on the window.

Jade finally found some clothes for himself. He turned back toward the bathroom door, but he stopped midway to it and glanced back at Luke. "You just…just going to hang around the whole time?"

Luke turned to face him. "Why? You don't like me here?"

"No," Jade said uncertainly. "It just…seems kind of strange…"

"Well, for your information," Luke said with a slight grin. "I wasn't actually planning to leave right about now." He started for the exit of the room, but glanced back before he left. "Say hello to Jackson before you go back to bed—he mentioned he wanted to have a talk with you."

Jade's face visibly paled, but he didn't say anything and only watched as Luke left the room. Then he quickly turned and disappeared into the bathroom—silently locking the door behind himself.

Jade took a long shower. He didn't feel like rushing. And when he was done, he hung around in the bathroom for an unnecessarily long time. He ran his hand through his wet hair and stared at himself in the mirror. He tried to get the dream out of his head. Then he sat down in a corner of the bathroom and stared at the wall. A few moments later, he stood up and stared at himself in the mirror again. Maybe Jackson would get tired and go to bed…

But Jade wasn't sure he wanted him to.

He walked back over to the corner and sat down in it again.

Maybe it was better to get the talking over with. If Jackson wanted a talk, he would get it and there wasn't anything Jade could do to stop him from getting it…

But Jade wasn't sure he wanted to have a talk with Jackson any sooner than he absolutely had to. In fact, he probably would want to put it off just as long as he possibly could.

What did Jackson want to talk to him about? The dream? But by the way Luke had said it, the situation sounded more as if Jackson had wanted a talk for some time at this point.

That would mean he really had something to say, and Jade didn't like the sound of that.

But after spending nearly half an hour in the bathroom after taking his shower, Jade finally decided that it was better to get this talk over with. He stood up off the floor and slowly left the bathroom. He ran his hand through his hair—already half dry—and walked out into the hall.

There was a light in the living room, so Jade headed that way. But he stopped just out of sight, and again, he was uncertain as to whether or not he really wanted to do this now. What if Jackson wasn't expecting him? Well, the way Luke had said it made it sound as if he was. Then what was he doing now?

Jade decided to risk a peek. He silently stepped out into the living room just long enough to see what Jackson was doing, and then quickly ducked back into the safety of the shadowy hall. He was sitting on the sofa—reading.

Jade took a quick breath and told himself that he had to get it over with. He was this far now. Besides, he wasn't likely to be able to sleep anymore. The nightmare he had had was still locked in his mind like a closely looming danger.

Jade heaved a sigh and then walked unsteadily into the living room.

Jackson didn't notice him immediately, but when he looked up, he gave the teenager a smile. "Can't sleep?" he asked.

"Luke…uh…Luke…" Jade fumbled for his explanation. "Said you wanted to talk to me, or something."

Jackson frowned, and Jade's heart froze for a moment. "Did he really?" Jackson asked a painfully long pause. He gave Jade a smile. "Well, I didn't really have anything to say—I just mentioned that I would be up in case you wanted to talk."

"A-about what?" Jade asked uncertainly.

Jackson shrugged. "Anything. I didn't figure you would be able to sleep after all that, and I wasn't really tired, so I thought I would just…" He glanced down at his book. "Read for a while, and be around in case you needed company." He glanced at the sofa beside him. "You could sit down if you wanted to."

Jade walked numbly over to the sofa and dropped quietly into it—leaving a good foot and a half between himself and Jackson.

The black guy gave Jade a smile and then turned back to his book. "Don't work yourself up so much, Jade. Just relax." And then, as if Jade was just another one of his friends, over for a night or two, Jackson turned back to his book and continued reading.

Jade watched him very carefully for a while. But then his eyes began to wander. The heat was gone from the air, and Jade found himself chilled. But he made sure not to shiver, because he knew people like Jackson noticed such things.

But after Jade stopped watching Jackson so warily, his thoughts began to wander as well. His mind again drifted off to what he had dreamed. It bothered him. It had been frightening, disturbing, and frustrating. But at least it wasn't real. It had only been a dream. That woman wasn't really his mother—and she didn't think she was his mother. She didn't exist. She was just a piece of a dream—a face Jade had imagined somewhere in the back of his mind. It didn't exist.

Jade tried to think about something else, but his mind kept returning to the dream. He knew that when morning came, he would think nothing of it anymore. That always happened. But for now it clung to him like a snake. It was still dark outside. Jade didn't know what time it was, but it was still night. Maybe a long time from morning…

"Jade, do you want a blanket or something?" Jackson asked suddenly. "You don't have to sit there and just shiver."

The teenager looked up quickly. Of course. He had started thinking about other things…

"Jade?" Jackson asked again.

"I'm fine," Jade sighed, and he turned away again.

Jackson closed his book and placed it on the little table beside the sofa. "Nightmares usually shake off by morning," he said as if he could tell exactly what Jade had been thinking.

Jade shot him a glance but said nothing.

Jackson shrugged and smiled. "Guess that's why they're called nightmares. They always leave by morning." He leaned back slowly, still smiling. "Strange things people's brains do, you know? Subconscious…"

Jade still said nothing.

"Is it still bothering you?" Jackson asked after a moment.

"It's nothing," Jade muttered.

Jackson sighed. "Jade, you…you don't have to be so closed up to me all the time. I'm not going to bite you if you open up a little, I promise."

"Promises mean nothing," Jade said lifelessly.

"Why do you say that?" Jackson asked, his face sobering.

Jade didn't answer. He didn't know why he had said it.

"Jade…" Jackson pressed.

"I don't know!" Jade cried. "I just said it, ok?"

"I'm not blaming you for saying it," Jackson said, raising his hands slightly. "I'm just wondering what gave you the inspiration to say that—because to most people, promises don't mean nothing."

"Guess I'm not like most people," Jade said softly.

"I didn't really expect you were," Jackson said. There was silence for a while, but then Jackson spoke again. "Jade, do you really still not trust me? Why can't you talk to me? Why do you have to keep hiding everything and putting your guard up against me like I'm an enemy?"

"I don't have anything to say," Jade said softly. "I don't know what you want me to say!"

"Just talk, Jade," Jackson said quickly. "Just tell me what you're thinking—tell me what you feel. Tell me what made you say those words, because whatever it was is hurting you, and I can tell."

"Well, I don't know what it is," Jade said, running his fingers through his hair to keep it back out of his face. "It just made sense, and I don't care about promises, so I said it."

"Why don't you care about promises?" Jackson asked.

"Because they're worthless!" Jade cried. "People make a thousand promises and break most of them! I promised my sister I would never do drugs—after I had already started them. My father…when he gets drunk…he talks a lot, sometimes—a lot of the time he tells me that if I go up to him, he won't hurt me—but I know that the only reason he wants me to go up to him is so that he can hurt me. People just give promises to each other—kind of like comfort lies. To make people feel better at no expense. So that other people can believe something better than the truth and it can give them comfort until they run into the truth. Whatever. I don't care."

"So you think I'm giving you a comfort lie when I tell you I won't hurt you if you open up to me?" Jackson questioned.

Jade sighed and dropped his head into his hands. "Don't know what to think," he muttered.

"Jade, I have never intentionally hurt you," Jackson said in a low voice. "What else can I do to prove to you that I will never hurt you?"

"People change their minds all the time," Jade said softly. "How do I know you won't decide one day that you're tired of being my friend—maybe you'll dump me, or maybe you'll beat me up like my dad does."

"Did, Jade," Jackson corrected. "That's not happening anymore. And no, I will never dump you or beat you up."

"What makes you so sure?" Jade asked. "How do you know you won't get tired of me? How do you know you won't get sick of it all like everybody else has? You haven't known me very long. You don't know all the details. You would learn more and more slowly. Would you like what you discover? I don't know…"

"I don't know that I won't get tired of it, Jade," Jackson said softly. "I don't know that I won't get sick of it. But I do know I will never turn my back on you because I will always know the truth, and the truth is that there is a God, and there is a right and a wrong and taking care of you is the right thing to do."

Jade looked up slowly. He stared at Jackson for a long time. Then he sighed. "I see now…" He shook his head. "I get it. I understand…I get what this all has to do with each other…I…I get it, now…It's all…it's all attached to your faith."

Jackson nodded. "That's right, Jade."

"So when you tell me you won't hurt me if I open up to you…you aren't just promising…you're swearing on your God," Jade said. His eyes never left Jackson's face.

"I don't quite like the word swearing, but…"

"You're telling me that as long as you believe in your God, you will never hurt me. You haven't known me all your life, but you have known your God all your life…" And then suddenly Jade started crying. He dropped his head into his hands again. "Why didn't I see this before?" he gasped. "Why didn't I understand that it was all connected?"

"Jade…" Jackson sighed. He slipped over to the teenager and gently put his arm around Jade. "You're…you're really tired right now…"

"No! No, I get it!" Jade cried. He raised his head again and met Jackson's eyes. "I understand—you won't give me up until you give your God up—and that's how you know you'll never quit! That's why you Christian people can keep your marriages together! That's why everything works out for you! Because when you make a decision, you're basing it on your God—you're guiding yourself through your God! It's like what you said about the guiding…You hold yourself responsible to your God, and it keeps you going in a straight line, because those standards never change—so you never go in circles…"

"That's right, Jade," Jackson agreed.

"Gosh, show me how," Jade whispered and he dropped his head against Jackson's shoulder.

Jackson Gillahend moved his arms carefully all the way around Jade. The eighteen-year-old flinched, but remained relaxed, and then Jackson was holding him close. He felt Jade's hand close tightly onto his arms. The teenager was so small. For having lived eighteen years, he was incredibly small—both in height and thickness. But that was ok. He was Jade. He was Jade Leeman, but not the celebrity so many people thought he was. He was just a kid—a lost kid looking for warmth, a home, and safety. He flinched when he was touched, but he didn't stiffen because he was not afraid. One day, he would grow used to being touched and he wouldn't even flinch. One day, he wouldn't be afraid. One day, he would live a rebuilt life. One day, he would heal and all the scars would begin to fade.

"I'm scared to move, what are you going to do?" Jade asked in a soft voice after a moment.

"I'd let you move if you wanted to move," Jackson answered with a smile.

"Just feels weird," Jade whispered, and a shiver ran through his body. "But…I guess I don't."

Chapter Ten

Failure

"Hey, sleepy-dude!" Luke called through Jackson's door. He knocked again. "Loser! It's almost seven thirty! If you want to eat breakfast before we go, you gotta get up now!"

"Come in, Dud," Jackson's voice came through the door.

Luke opened the door and walked in.

Jackson was sitting up in bed, rubbing his face with the palm of his hand. "Luke…I think…I'm going to catch the 10:30 mass, ok?"

"Why? 'Cause you stayed up too late last night?" Luke asked in a high voice, giving Jackson a little girl expression.

"Yeah…" Jackson said with a grin. "Luke, I seriously am going to fall asleep during the service if I go now…But you can go."

"Na, I'll stick around," Luke decided. "Go back to sleep, then, loser." He started to leave, closing the door behind himself, but Jackson called him back.

"Luke, is Jade still on the sofa?"

"What the heck? I don't know," Luke said, giving Jackson a quirky expression. "Why's he on the couch?"

"Well, I was wondering if he was still there," Jackson said. He slipped off his bed and stood up, stretched, and walked over Luke. "We had a rather long talk last night."

"Oh, yeah?" Luke asked.

"Yeah—think I have you to thank for it, too," Jackson agreed, giving Luke a nod. "He said you told him I wanted to talk to him."

Luke shrugged. "Thought you did."

"Yeah, I did, but it wasn't like I had something planned to talk about," Jackson said with a smile. "Anyway, it worked out well."

"Yeah? What'd you talk about?" Luke asked.

"God," Jackson answered. "He let me hug him last night."

"Really?" Luke asked, giving Jackson a skeptical glare.

Jackson nodded. "I think we're really getting somewhere," he said softly. "He's a really sweet kid inside."

"Mmm…kinda hard to see the inside when he's always showing off the outside," Luke commented. "Yeah, and that was the other thing I was going to say," the blond-haired guy said suddenly. "I don't think too many people are going to care if he wears shades and a hood and stuff, but he is not walking into my church with skinny pants on."

"Yeah…" Jackson muttered. "I'll mention it…"

"Don't just mention it—" Luke declared forcefully. "Make sure it happens."

"Well, I'll talk to him about it," Jackson decided. "But if he hasn't got anything, I really don't want to put any extra pressure on him."

"Blah," Luke groaned. "You're going to have all the girls in that church trying to guard their eyes, and I don't like it."

"Luke, girls aren't like guys—seriously," Jackson muttered. "Yes, it's a problem, but it's not a desperate problem. I want him to go to church with us this morning, and if we put too much pressure on him, he's going to back out. Trust me, I know." Jackson let out a sigh. "I'm going to see if he's still on the sofa, and then—I'm going back to bed, if you don't mind."

"Sure, loser," Luke muttered. "But I'm going to eat breakfast."

Jackson walked quietly into the living room. Jade was still on the sofa where Jackson had left him the night before. But the blanket Jackson had put on him was on the floor.

Jade was still obviously asleep, and he didn't react as Jackson picked up the blanket and gently spread it back over him.

It was for the better, putting off mass, anyway. Jade was still tired, too, and Jackson wouldn't have had the heart to wake him.

Jackson smiled at Jade through the mirror and placed his hands on the teenager's shoulders. They were in the bathroom attached to Jade's room. It felt strange standing there—just the two of them together.

"Not really going to get dressed up," Jade muttered softly, his copper eyes fixed on the mirror as well.

"You don't need to, Jade," Jackson said. But Jade was so good-looking as it was. He had combed out his hair, and despite the fact that it could probably use a trim by typical opinion, he looked good. Jackson pressed Jade's shoulders softly and gave him another smile. "Luke prefers no skinny jeans," he whispered. "And probably the rest of the congregation feels the same…"

Jade shot a glance at Jackson through the mirror. "I…I don't know what your standards are…" he said uncertainly.

"Just wear whatever you have that's most lose," Jackson said. "It'll be fine, for now."

Jade sighed and looked down at himself. Then his eyes again rose to the mirror. "You're so tall…" he whispered.

"Don't worry about it, Jade," Jackson encouraged. He smiled yet again. "But look at you, Jade. You're getting better already. You held down all your food yesterday and breakfast this morning."

"I feel a lot better," Jade sighed. "Because I have you. I feel like I could go on living forever, as long as you stay with me."

"Then go on living forever," Jackson said softly. "Because I'll always stay with you."

Jade suddenly broke free of Jackson's grasp and left the bathroom. He returned a moment later and held out a pair of black jeans. "What about this?" he asked softly.

"Yeah, that looks good," Jackson agreed. He gave Jade a nod. "What size do you wear?"

Jade looked down at the jeans in his hands. "I don't really know, I guess…" he sighed.

"Those don't have a tag?" Jackson asked.

"I always just wore what fit—I never did much of my own shopping after I joined Eclipse…then I…ripped out all the tags of the clothes I got…"

"Why?" Jackson asked in surprise.

"Guess I didn't really want to see what size I wore…" Jade said in a soft voice. "Didn't want to see whether it was for a girl or a boy…Just wanted to wear it, 'cause I had to, and I didn't want to think about it."

He looked like a child confessing he had broken something. Jackson couldn't help it, and reached out. He grasped Jade's shoulders and pulled him into his arms. "Don't worry about it, Jade," he whispered when the teenager was pressed against him. "You're gonna shake off Eclipse, and then you're gonna start wearing real clothes. We're gonna take it slowly and change slowly, alright?"

Jade nodded silently and rested his head against Jackson's arm.

Jackson couldn't help but feel as if he were talking to a child. Jade was so short and cute. He had seen every single horror of life, yet he still had a strange honest innocence that before their conversation during the previous night, Jackson never would have dreamed he would discover. And all Jade wanted was someone to tell him what to do—help him do it—and lead him along. He wasn't stupid. He wasn't insane. But he still wanted guidance, because his life was a mess and he knew he couldn't fix it alone.

"Alright," Jackson said, stepping back. "Now go get ready. Do you want to go in your own car or come in Luke's with me and him?"

"Guess I'd better go in my own," Jade muttered.

Jackson smiled and rubbed Jade's shoulders. "Alright. Get ready, yeah?"

Jade nodded.

"I'd better get ready myself," Jackson said with a smile. He released Jade and then left the teenager standing in the bathroom alone.

Jade shut the bathroom door and then walked over to the mirror. He stared at himself in the mirror for a long time. He felt sad and empty. But he could keep going because he had hope. He had never trusted anyone as much as he trusted Jackson. He had never let a stranger so close. He had never had so much hope before.

"I'm going to be ok," Jade whispered to himself, shoving aside all the worries and pains that plagued his mind. For just a moment he wanted to be free of them.

But as Jade pulled off his shirt and saw both the still-healing switch knife wound on his chest and the branded dragon on his shoulder, it all came crashing down on him again.

He was still bleeding. And if someone didn't come to rescue him soon, he would still die. Just because he felt more hopeful now that he heard help coming, didn't mean Jackson Gillahend could really stop the bleeding…

Following Luke's silver Toyota Camry to the Catholic church he and Jackson went to was not hard for Jade. The eighteen-year-old had followed cars before—even over very long distances. But he couldn't help but feel nervous about how the actual church part of the trip would go. He had a raincoat-style jacket with a hood on, and he was planning to wear the same type of face mask a hospital worker might wear—only for a reason very different from personal hygiene. But Jade still feared that someone would recognize him. Jackson had seemed certain that nobody in his church would spread rumors about Jade even if they did recognize him, but Jade couldn't be sure.

When the two cars arrived at the church, Jade pulled his Mini Cooper into the parking space right next to Luke's Camry.

And that was something he hadn't thought of. If people saw him with his Mini Cooper, then they would be even more certain to recognize him. The little blue and white car wasn't exactly inconspicuous. Jade let out a long sigh and then turned the rear-view mirror towards himself. He ran his fingers quickly through his hair and then slipped the hospital mask on over his face. Then he pulled on his hood and zipped the jacket up all the way.

Finally, Jade pushed open his door and got out. One glance around the parking lot told him that the people getting out of their cars and heading up to the church were all minding their own business. Nobody was paying attention. That was good.

Jade walked quickly around his car to the Camry which Jackson and Luke had already gotten out of. Luke was checking the doors to make sure they were locked.

Jade shot a quick glance around again, but still no one seemed to have noticed him or his car.

"Don't worry," Jackson said, seeming to sense Jade's nervousness. He put a hand on the teenager's shoulder and led him up towards the front entrance. "Nobody's going to yell at you for attending their church."

Jade let out a tense sigh. "I've never attended a church service—that I can remember," he whispered. His voice was muffled by the mask, and Jackson gave him a smile.

"That's alright. All you have to do is sit there and open your heart, yeah?" Jackson squeezed Jade's shoulder and then released him.

A young man in front of Jackson and Jade held the door open for them and gave them both a warm smile—an unknowing smile, and it gave Jade comfort.

"See, a good number of these people don't even know me," Jackson whispered as they entered the church. "Not all of them, but a good number of them don't. People don't always notice each other. It's not a Baptist church where everybody knows everybody. You say hello to somebody one day, and don't see them for two weeks after that. By then you've already forgotten them and you get to meet them all over again."

Jackson genuflected suddenly beside a pew and then slipped into it. Jade quickly followed, though the genuflection movement looked a little too complicated for him to copy without looking rather awkward.

Jackson pulled out a kneeler from beneath the pew in front of them and knelt down. He shot a glance at Jade. "I'm just going to say a few prayers, alright? You can sit down."

Jade did, and a moment later, Luke moved in on the other side of Jackson. Jade glanced quickly at him, but Luke only met his eye momentarily before kneeling down himself.

Jade shivered and then looked about the rest of the congregation. Everyone was doing about the same thing—either kneeling or sitting—mostly praying, but a few were quietly greeting their neighbors. This wasn't exactly like the other few church services Jade had seen before. In those, the congregation greeted each other loudly—laughed, talked, and joked with ease. This was…different.

But Jade knew that even if this was like the other services he had seen, he would still feel just as awkward. He couldn't help but feel out of place. He didn't know how to "say a few prayers" so he just sat there. He tried not to look at other people because he knew that encouraged other people to look back. But he couldn't help but continually glance around himself, expecting any moment to catch someone staring. He was pretty well covered up, yes, but that certainly didn't mean nobody would recognize him. He had been recognized before, even after a more careful cover-up job. None of those times had been too bad. Someone had asked for an autograph. Another person had taken a picture of him and then quickly disappeared. But suddenly, Jade was desperate to not be recognized. A grocery store or a mall or even a theater was one thing. But being recognized in a church—the church Jackson and Luke went to—was somehow entirely different.

Jade finally found himself staring blankly at a man in the pew across from his. He was a gray-haired man—kneeling down with his elbows on the backrest of the pew in front of his. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed. His lips moved as if he were speaking very sincerely to someone, but he wasn't making a sound.

And then out of nowhere, a little girl suddenly appeared. She touched Jade on the shoulder and he turned quickly. She held a few sheets of paper, all folded into what looked like a mini unglazed magazine, out to him. "Would you like a bulletin?" she asked softly.

Jade glanced quickly at Jackson who met his glance and gave him a nod. Jade lifted a shaky hand and took the pages from her.

The girl gave him a smile. "Are you a dentist?" she asked in the same soft voice.

Jade shook his head quickly.

"Oh, I was just wondering because my little sister and I went to the dentist recently, and the dentist asked me if she could wear a paper thing like that on her face—or if it was too scary." The girl smiled proudly. "I told her it wasn't too scary."

Jade nodded because he thought he should, despite the fact that he couldn't process a word the girl had just said. But then she was gone, anyway—going up along the row of pews, offering bulletins to the parishioners of the church.

Jade shot a glance at Jackson, but the black guy had returned to "saying a few prayers" and was no longer paying attention. Then Jade again found himself staring at the man in the pew across from his. Something about that man riveted Jade's attention. He was someone completely outside of Jade's life—completely detached from the battle Jade was going through. And yet, the man obviously had his own troubles. Whether he was praying for himself or someone else was unclear, but he was praying about something, and whatever it was, it really mattered to him. Yet, he was fully trusting God to give him whatever he needed. He wasn't panicked. He was calmly but fervently explaining his need—because he firmly believed that God would do for him what was best no matter what the situation was.

And then a bell rang from somewhere in the church and the entire congregation rose to their feet. Jackson and Luke stood up as well, and Jade quickly followed suit. Next, a young boy holding a tall cross started up the aisle in the center of the four rows of pews. He was followed by two more boys bearing burning candles. And then came a lady holding a large red book above her head. Finally came the elderly pastor—or "priest" as Jackson explained to Jade in a whisper. He also told Jade the book the lady was holding was a Bible with the four gospels in it.

Jade didn't quite understand how such a huge book could be filled with only part of what was contained in other far smaller books. But it didn't matter. And the procession began the mass—a complicated and rather strange "celebration" of something called a "Eucharist" which the parishioners of the church—including Jackson and Luke—believed contained their God.

Jade found that stranger than superstition, but the serious look on Jackson's face told him that the black guy was not trying to fool him.

Jackson tried to convince Jade to go up with the others to the front of the church and receive a blessing while the members of the church received this strange "Eucharist" which looked to Jade like a circular piece of plastic. But Jade absolutely dismissed the idea. The service was getting too strange, and anyway, he definitely wasn't going to walk out in front of the entire church—that was simply asking for attention.

So he remained sitting in the pew.

However, shortly after the congregation received their pieces of circular plastic—and ate them—Jade began growing hot and uncomfortable. He pulled off his hood, and then placed his chin in his hands and stared at the floor. This service was just too strange for him to follow anymore. Jackson had a lot of explaining to do when this was over. But Jade feared he wouldn't understand it anyhow. It didn't make sense that these people believed their God was embodied in this plastic-looking material. And even if he was—why were they eating it!?

Jade ran a hand through his hair, unintentionally throwing it into a messy version of a style Jessie Colby often did for him, and continued to stare at the floor. He told himself he wouldn't look up again—or do anything—until the service was over. No—it was a mass. At least, that was what Jackson kept calling it.

Jade suddenly felt like crying he was so confused. He was tired of not understanding things. He wanted to hold onto Jackson—he wanted to keep the new-found understanding between them alive, but this looked terribly confusing. God was one thing. But this version of God seemed ten times more complicated than Jade had ever imagined any god could possibly be. He was absolutely certain that Shad Theton's church services were done in honor of a different god. At least Shad had never mentioned these strange circular things.

And then finally, the service was over. The same procession that had come into the church left it, and then the congregation began slowly dispersing. It apparently was not the way of this congregation to have their socialization inside the actual church, so it was easy to get out of the building fairly unnoticed. But once outside on the concrete area just off the parking lot, ground became sparse.

Jade was desperate to just get back to his car and disappear. He had made it this far unnoticed, and all he wanted to do was escape the church grounds safely and get back to the apartment.

Jackson took Jade's hand and started him through the crowd. But…they didn't get far. An elderly black lady caught Jackson's arm, and pulled him to a stop.

"Jackson Gillahend!" she cried. "How's your father doing?"

Jackson gave her a smile that told Jade…this was going to take a while. "He's doing really well, actually."

"Oh, that's always nice to hear. Mr. Peterson has been in the hospital, did you know that?" the lady went on.

"No, Ma'am," Jackson said. "What happened to him? I hope he's alright…"

"Oh, he'll be fine like the old man always is," the lady smiled. "He fell on some stairs and broke his ankle pretty bad but the doctor says that it's gonna heal up just fine…" And then she turned and her eyes fell on Jade. "Well, who is this?" she asked.

"Uh, this is a friend," Jackson said with a smile.

"And what's your name?" the old lady asked, giving Jade a smile.

Jade hesitated and then shot a glance at Jackson. But Jackson gave him a nod. Jade lifted a hand and slipped the mask just below his mouth so he could speak. "Jade," he whispered hoarsely.

"Oh, nice to meet you," the woman said. She snatched Jade's hand and shook it heartily. "Is this the first time you've been here?"

Jade had replaced the mask over his face, and he nodded.

"He's a little shy," Jackson said softly, giving the woman another smile—perhaps a hint to find someone else to chat up...

She smiled back. "Oh, I'm sure he'll get to know everyone and feel quite at home," she said certainly. The lady gave Jade a smile. "You know, we have an excellent youth group here. You ought to come sometime and meet some young people your age."

"Actually," Jade said, again pulling down the mask so he could speak clearly. This old lady wasn't going to recognize him, anyway. She likely hadn't even heard the name Eclipse. "I'm eighteen—I'm not a youth."

"Oh, the youth group goes from age fifteen to twenty-one," the lady explained. She gave Jade a wide smile that showed her perfectly white teeth. "You're not too old."

Jade was just about to answer when suddenly, something else caught his eye. There were several teenage-looking people standing around his car—looking at it. Jade forgot what he was going to say and hesitated, his attention still grasped by the people beside his car. What were they doing?

"Won't you come by sometime?" the lady pressed, tilting her head slightly, still smiling.

"I—I…" Jade tore his eyes away from his car. "S-sure…I mean—no—I mean, I-I—I'll think about it."

"Well, do come over," the lady encouraged. Her smile never left. "It is a wonderful group." She turned back to Jackson. "Well, I'll see you next Sunday?"

"I do believe so," Jackson agreed with a nod and a smile.

"Alright. Bye now. Take care of yourself, you hansom boy," the lady told Jackson. "And tell your father I said hello."

"I sure will!" Jackson called after her as she started slowly away.

The moment her back was turned, Jade seized Jackson's arm, and pointed to his car. "Wh—what are they doing?" he asked.

"I don't know—talking, I guess," Jackson said vaguely. He wore an expression that was rather out of it, and Jade got the feeling he wasn't paying much attention to Jade's car at the moment. But then he turned and, taking Jade's hand in his again, started back toward the Camry and the Mini Cooper.

Luke had apparently beaten them to the place and was already seated in the driver's seat of the Camry.

Jade, however, was producing a drag on Jackson. He was eyeing the teenagers with apprehension. He didn't like the look of them—and they weren't just talking. They were obviously examining his car—reading the license plate and walking slowly around it—looking inside it. There were five of them—and a moment later, two others joined them in the examination of the Mini Cooper.

If Jackson noticed anything out of the ordinary, he didn't let on.

And then, just as Jade and Jackson were reaching the cars, one of the teenagers noticed them. "Oh, my, gosh…" she gasped, and then they all saw Jade.

It was too late now, Jade knew. He pulled away from Jackson, sucked in his breath and strode straight up to his car. He reached it, shoved the keys into the door of the car, unlocked it, and that was as far as he got.

A guy—perhaps about Jade's age, but somewhat taller, seized Jade by the shoulders and turned him around. "Dude—you got to be kidding me," he gasped. "You're like…"

"No," Jade said decisively. He pulled the mask down over his chin. "I don't know what you're going to say, but don't say it."

"Heck, no kidding!" The guy exclaimed. "You are really that Jade Leeman guy! You're the screamer kid from that rock band! You are! I mean, look at you! If you aren't him, then you sure done an awesome impersonation!"

Then they were all crowded around him. Jade backed against his car.

"What are you doing here?" another guy asked, pushing through the others. "I didn't know you were Catholic."

"Actually, I'm just visiting a friend and—" Jade began, but he was cut off.

"Who?" a girl asked incredulously.

"Uh…that guy, right there…" Jade said turning over his shoulder to see that…Jackson Gillahend was talking to yet another person and was apparently paying no attention…

"That guy?" one of the boys asked. "Who's he?"

"That's Jackson Gillahend," a girl from the rapidly growing group announced. "He's like some nobody-engineer or something."

"Yeah, how do you know him?" another guy asked curiously.

Jade slipped a hand behind his back and gripped the handle of the driver's door. He gave an uncomfortable grin. "I…"

"Man, what's it like to be a rockstar?!" somebody suddenly yelled. "You're just like so much of a normal guy like this, and yet you're this super famous guy! Don't you go around with security guards or something?"

"That's a good question," Jade said, forcing another grin. "But see…I didn't bring a security guard with me today because…" he smirked. "I was counting on this exact thing…uh…not happening…"

"What? Getting swamped?" somebody else asked.

And then a very short girl suddenly pushed her way to the front with a, "Let me see him!" She stopped a few inches from Jade and looked straight up into his eyes. "No kidding…" she muttered. "That's really Jade Leeman, ain't it?" She had a funny northern accent and obviously dyed black hair. "At least you sure look a lot like him," she added. "Even got the same…nervous grin."

Jade took a quick breath and then suddenly waved his arms out. "Ok, enough! I have to go! You had your show, now—"

"Dang, and you must be freakin' rich," someone else said.

Jade's caught a glimpse of the speaker—a red-haired guy. And then it was really enough. He stepped backward into the crowd, yanked open the Mini Cooper's door, and dropped into the driver's seat. He slammed the door shut and locked it.

Someone ran forward and started pounding her fists on Jade's window, but the teenager paid no attention. He started his car and pulled out of the parking space—slowly, because he didn't really want to hit anyone, but he didn't stop. If somebody was there, they would have to get out of the way on their own. Jade was not going to wait a second longer.

But he would have to. A tall man with black hair suddenly ran up right in front of Jade's car, waving his hands for him to stop.

Jade stepped quickly on the brake and sighed. He couldn't just run over this guy, no matter how much he wanted to.

The man ran around to the side of Jade's car and knocked on the window. Reluctantly, Jade rolled down his window and looked up at the guy.

"Welcome to our church, Jade," the guy said lifting his hand toward the teenager.

Jade took it silently and gave the man a limp handshake.

"You know I really don't want the kids to overwhelm you," the man said quickly. "They're excited to see anyone and everyone who's new, you know?"

"No, your kids got all upset because of me," Jade said certainly. "So I'll be leaving, and you won't have to worry about me ever returning, alright?"

"You know, that's exactly what I am worried about, because I want you to feel welcome here, despite the fact that everyone knows your face and everything."

And then Jackson walked over.

Jade gave him a very paled expression and completely lost any hope of thinking of a reply to the tall man.

But it didn't matter. Jackson took the situation over. "Nat, he's very people-shy and he gets overwhelmed easily," Jackson explained. "I think we all ought to go home and take a break for a while before next Sunday. Enough excitement for one week, huh?"

"Uh, Jackson, that's just the thing, you know?" Jade said, giving one of his fake stage smiles. "Because I am not coming back. I mean—this is exactly what I said I didn't want to happen, so—"

"The kids get excited sometimes," the tall black-haired guy broke in. "But you can't let that chase you away! I mean, you've got to be used to crowds, being who you are."

"No, no—what I am," Jade corrected darkly. "It's not who I am. It's what, and I'm afraid I don't enjoy the company of a crowd full of people who just care about what I am. Look, mister, there's a difference between my public life and my private life and I hope you understand how aggravating it becomes if the two start to mix."

"Oh, yes, I can see that, but there's nowhere you can really go without causing a first-sight shock," the man said quickly. "And I promise they will have gotten over it by next Sunday. Please come back. Do you live nearby?"

Jade let out a long sigh. "For…now…"

"Jade, he's right, you can't get scared off by a bunch of crazy kids," Jackson said. "If this is going to frighten you, then that's going to be yet another wall that's going to entrap you."

"Yeah!?" Jade exploded suddenly. "Well that's not all there is. There's also all this weird—superstition junk—man, what the ****!? What the ******* ****!?"

The tall man visibly paled as the obscene words came out of Jade's mouth, but the teenager didn't even notice. His eyes were fixed on Jackson who was staring steadily back.

"You can't **** around that much! I mean, how can you believe your magical God is…is embodied in this piece of ****!? And then you ******* eat that thing!? What the ****!?" Jade went on.

"Alright, alright, close your mouth, Jade—you don't know what you're saying," Jackson said quickly. "You're upset so you're just exploding but that's no good, ok? Just head back to the apartment and…calm down…" He reached in through the window and dropped a key into Jade's hand.

"Yeah? I will, *****! This is what you got me into!" Jade screamed. "It's your own **** fault! You said this wouldn't happen!" Jade hit the switch that rolled up his window and then slammed on the gas. He barely missed a woman in a pink dress and sped out of the parking lot.

"I'm really sorry about his language," Jackson apologized the moment the Mini Cooper was gone. "He's just grown up that way, and when he gets upset, he doesn't know what he says."

"Well, I can see that," the tall man muttered. He gave Jackson an uncertain smile and rubbed his forehead. "Have a nice weekend."

"Dang, I've never heard anybody with a mouth like that," one of the teenagers muttered.

"How did that guy just talk to Jade Leeman like that?" someone else asked. "I mean—that guy is really brave. Most people don't just go commanding around celebs with money pouring out of their ears."

"Don't think he's really that rich," someone else said. "Otherwise, he'd have a real sports car, not just that cooper thing."

"Na, it's taste," another person decided. "He's got money pouring out of his ears, no denying."

Jade ran two red lights on the way back to the apartment. There was nobody on the crossroad, anyway. It didn't matter, and Jade was too frustrated to stop. He slammed into a parking space in front of the apartment complex. He got out of his car and slammed the door shut behind him. The eighteen-year-old strode up to the apartment and unlocked the door. Then he threw open the door and walked in, slamming it behind him.

Jade threw the key down onto the kitchen table and then walked into his room. He closed the door behind himself and threw the chair Jackson always sat on in front of the door. Then for a moment he stood silently in the center of the room, his anger turning to frustration.

Of course it hadn't worked. Nothing ever worked. It had been ok in the beginning—descending throughout, and then at the end it had become a nightmare. Despair clutched at Jade's heart and suddenly he ran into the bathroom, knelt down beside the toilet and shoved three fingers up his throat.

Jade threw up and then slowly sat back against the bathroom wall. He felt better now, having taken something out of himself. Still, a long gash up his arm would have felt even better. But it was a good thing he hadn't had a knife nearby, because forcing himself to throw up was a lot more obscure form of self-harm, and it was something Jackson and Luke never had to know about. But they would have found a cut. Cuts were…hard to hide forever.

"I'll just do this every time," Jade whispered exhaustedly to himself. "Every time it hurts too much."

But Jade's feelings weren't the worst of it. He knew that the worst of it was the very fact that this hadn't worked out. He had had hope—he had known ahead of time that the service wouldn't be fun. But he hadn't meant to lose his grasp on it so entirely. And what had happened in the end that had blown him off so hard? It was the teenagers—the same type of people that swamped him during concerts. Jade realized slowly that although he had been fearing that he would be recognized, he had never expected to find the same type of people at the church that came to his concerts. He had expected more of a morbid disapproval from these perfect church people. But instead he had been attacked with the almost the exact same interest that fans came to his shows with.

So there was no way to escape them. Jade couldn't just crawl into a corner and hide the rest of his life—hide from the celebrity he had always tried so desperately to be. He couldn't just leave Eclipse and leave the public life behind at the same time. It would always follow him because there was no corner of society that didn't know him. There was no place he could run to where people would look at him as a person rather than a thing.

And Jade hadn't expected that. He had looked at Jackson and Luke and seen that they were so different from everyone else. Then he had assumed that the people at their church would be different as well. And some of them were. The gray-haired man who had sat in the pew across from Jade's had been different. Even the tall man with the black hair had been different. But the teenagers weren't. They were the same—the same people who would talk about his money, his job, his talent, and his body. No, they weren't as open about it, but Jade had seen the thoughts through their faces. That was what they had been thinking. They had singled him out as being different because of his job. They had looked at him as something very different from themselves because his face appeared on billboards. And they had been shocked that he wanted to act like them and be unnoticed. They had been shocked that he would show up to a church, because he wasn't really human to them. He was this god-like creature that couldn't possibly live a human life.

Jade sighed and let his head hang. Why had he not thought of all this when he had first decided to audition for Eclipse? Why had he not realized that once he joined, there was no detaching from it? He had wanted it to last forever back then. He had only seen a glimpse of a sudden opportunity—a chance to rise above the bullies on the school bus and become something more than Jade Alexander Leeman who was small and looked like a girl and never did well in school. And he had become more. He had transformed into a god-like creature with a body and a voice but no humanity. He had lost his humanity in only two short years. Now, all he wanted was to go back to being little girly stupid Jade Alexander Leeman. He didn't want to be the celebrity anymore. And yet, despite the fact that he had money pouring out of his ears, he couldn't. He had lost that chance. Now it was gone and he was a celebrity forever. Trapped in a fake identity that he had paid so much to buy.

And then Jade heard the front door of the apartment open. A moment later, he could hear Jackson's and Luke's voices in the living room.

Jade pulled himself up onto his feet and walked over to the sink. He rinsed out his mouth and then stared at himself in the mirror for a moment. He didn't look too much like he had just thrown up. He looked upset, but ok. And ok was good enough.

Jade ran a hand through his hair and then walked back into his bedroom. He dropped onto his bed and then just waited. Maybe Jackson would come to see him, maybe he wouldn't. But Jade didn't have anything to do, anyway. If Jackson had something to say—which likely he did—he would say it. Though he might wait a while…

But he didn't wait. Only a few moments later, Jade heard someone knock on his door. The eighteen-year-old stood up slowly off his bed and walked over to the door. He opened it, and sighed. It was, of course, Jackson.

"Still mad?" Jackson asked softly.

Jade shook his head.

"Good. Then can we talk?" Jackson suggested.

Jade nodded silently and walked back over to his bed. He dropped onto it and let his hands fall limply onto the mattress beside him.

"Are you still intent on never going back?" Jackson asked as he walked into the room and stopped a little away from where Jade sat on his bed.

"Why?" Jade questioned. "Because if I am, then you'll try to convince me to change my mind?"

"That's right," Jackson agreed simply.

Jade sighed. "I just thought maybe they'd see me differently. But I was wrong. They're exactly the same as everyone else."

"They're kids, Jade," Jackson said firmly. "They don't know any better. Imagine if Batman came to visit you."

Jade rolled his eyes. "Batman doesn't exist."

"That's right," Jackson agreed. "And to them, you don't exist either. You're this magical guy—just as remote and…and exotic as Batman—and then suddenly you show up to their twerpy little church. It's just as if Batman visited them, because you're this person who they see and hear about everywhere. You're this really good-looking guy with amazing talent that everybody at school talks about and people fall in love with, but nobody's really seen for real and then suddenly you come to their church!"

Jade let out a sigh and dropped his head into his hands. "There's nothing magical about me. I can't be what they're expecting."

"So? It's still a shock," Jackson pointed out. "They're still surprised, and then when they see you out of nowhere, of course they're knocked off their feet! You can't possibly expect anything else! If Batman showed up at your doorstep, you'd want to get a look at him too—see if he's real, and so on. That's just natural and because these people are just kids, they don't think beyond their own curiosity. They don't think about what it must be like for you as a person—not the celebrity. They can't get outside their worlds because they're just kids, and they don't think about that stuff. They aren't bad people, it's just their instinct to get a good look at something strange."

"Yeah, well I don't like people getting a good look at me," Jade said simply. "That's why I don't want to go back there."

"Jade, they didn't think about it. But if someone had told them ahead of time, they wouldn't have reacted the way they did. Those kids are going to go home and their parents are going to explain how you must feel about it, and they won't do it again," Jackson said. "No, you can't control their original reaction, but they meant no harm, and you can't act like they did!"

"Well what if I do?" Jade demanded stubbornly. "And it's even worse if someone talks to them, because I know what's going to happen! Then they won't openly stare at me, they'll just quietly keep glancing at me and hope to get a seat behind me so they can stare at me without me noticing, and that's even worse! Jackson, the fact is, I don't belong there. I never will. I never can. I'm not a church-goer and I never was. Somehow, it's labeled on me. Whatever. I don't ******* care, ok? I just won't go there, because it doesn't work for me. I wish it did, but it doesn't. It works for you, and that's great, but it doesn't—it never will—work for me."

"Jade…as I said before, it will work if you open your heart to it," Jackson said with a sigh. "No, it's not going to be easy. It's not going to be fun. But it will get you where you need to go."

"I'm tired of trying to do things that I don't even know will work," Jade announced. "I'm tired of all the effort, ok? I need a break…"

"You're not going to find a break anywhere else," Jackson said calmly.

"They're not giving me a break there!" Jade cried, throwing his hands up. "They act just like a concert crowd!"

"There are always going to be people who act like a concert crowd," Jackson said dully. "You can't ever get away from that."

"Then what's the use of going to your church?" Jade asked. "Man, I don't even believe in this rubbish!"

Jackson let out a long sigh and then shook his head. "You're still really upset about this, Jade. This is nothing to be upset about. You need to calm down, and I can see you need a little more time to do so." With that, he left the room.

Jade tore his hands through his hair in frustration. He stood up and walked over to the window. Then he paced back towards his bed. A moment later, he turned and walked back to the window. He stuck his hands in his hair again.

Life wasn't working.

Life never worked.

He didn't really see the point of trying.

And yet, he was still alive. Why?

"I'm free, I can kill myself if I want to," Jade told himself. He wished he had a gun. But he didn't, and he certainly didn't want to go back to the Dragons to get one. Too bad. Putting a bullet through his head was really the fastest, least painful way of dying. "Unless I cut my own throat," Jade muttered. But he didn't really know how fast that allowed people to die, anyway. He could break the mirror again…But he knew that if he was going to kill himself, it was more likely to be successful if he did it away from the apartment.

And then there had been the time when he had decided to run purposefully into that tree. But then he had seen a child—a child who was standing too close to his path to not have been hit, yet there was no sign of the child afterward. Maybe Jade had been half insane. That would make sense. When he got depressed, he became desperate, and then he could think of nothing but relief.

"I have nothing," Jade sighed, and he knew it was true. He didn't have an escape. Jackson had locked him into his life, and now he was stuck there. He didn't have drugs and now Jackson was determined to cut him off from Eclipse as well.

But deep inside, Jade knew that it was for the better. He couldn't live half a life. Either he had to live or he had to die, and Jackson wanted him to live. Jade found that he trusted Jackson extensively. But still, he hesitated, and he didn't know why. Jackson had come this far with him—always encouraging, always wanting to help. Yet Jade still hesitated because all of this was so new to him.

And Jade found himself wishing desperately for the time before everything had changed. He wished he still lived back at home and everything was still as it had been for years and years—all his life…But then it had all started falling. The thought made Jade suddenly wonder if he could pay his father to let him stay home. But what was the point? Jenny wasn't there. At least, she hadn't been when Jade had gone back looking for her. And he couldn't think of a single reason why she would return. She had many friends and if one wouldn't help her, she could go to another. Jenny was pretty and a nice. People would be glad to help her.

Jade walked slowly over to his bed and lay down on it. Maybe he should try to sleep. He was tired. Not just exhausted. He was tired of life and sometimes sleep offered him a little relief. Yet other times, it only brought nightmares…

Chapter Eleven

The Dragons

Jade woke up to a strange squeaking coming from somewhere nearby. He sat up and found to his surprise that it was quite dark. He realized slowly that he must have slept a long time which was quite rare for him. But he decided that was a good thing. The teenager lay back down slowly. After all, he had slept through lunch and dinner after vomiting up breakfast. Jade hated being underweight, but it was a good feeling to starve himself all the same.

But the sound that had woken Jade bothered him slightly. It had sounded like the squeaking metal made when it was rubbed slowly against rubber. It was possible he had just imagined it, but something told him he hadn't.

Jade thought about getting up and turning on the light for just a moment—just to reassure himself that there wasn't anything alive in his room. But at first, he felt too tired.

However when a sudden memory of his father sneaking into his room at night came back to the teenager, he sat up—a little too late. Something cold and hard hit Jade in the head and he was knocked out instantly.

Jade woke up when freezing water was thrown into his face. And just like waking from a happy dream to find that he was living in a nightmare, Jade opened his eyes and saw that he was in a place he didn't recognize whatsoever.

His head shot up quickly to see a thickly built black guy holding a bucket in one hand. The guy gave Jade a cold glare and then grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet.

Jade's head started pounding and for a moment his vision blurred. But when it cleared, he saw that the black guy was leading him toward a stairway going up. Jade realized that he was in what looked like a cellar or a downstairs pantry. The walls were completely bare and the only two things in the room were a bare light bulb suspended by a wire from the ceiling and a drain in the center of the floor.

But Jade had little time to look about the small room before he was shoved up the stairway. "Wha—where am I?" Jade stammered in the strongest voice he could manage. But he had a fear he already knew.

However he was rewarded for his question with a hard slap in the face, and the question went unanswered.

Jade nearly blacked out completely and decided to keep his mouth shut as the black man continued dragging him up the stairway.

They reached the top and Jade saw he was standing in the living room of what looked like an ordinary house.

They only stood there a moment before someone else came down another stairway. Jade instantly recognized her. She was the same person that the drug gang the Dragons unanimously referred to as, "the boss." And at that moment, Jade's fears were confirmed. He might as well go ahead and take himself for dead. He didn't even bother to try to figure out why she was here and not in Crement where he had first met her and where the Dragons apparently had the center of their business.

The short skimpy-outfitted girl had some sort of cigarette in one hand and she stuck it between her lips.

"So," she said in that same chirpy voice Jade remembered her having before. "How've you been?" She shot Jade a glance and then slipped her hand into her jean pocket and pulled out a cigarette lighter.

Jade made no answer. He wasn't even entirely sure she was talking to him.

The boss lit her cigarette and then slipped the lighter back into her pocket. She pulled the cigarette out of her mouth and blew a mouthful of smoke into Jade's face. "Can't talk?" she asked.

Jade still didn't answer.

The boss shrugged. She took another breath on the cigarette and then went on. "So I made a mistake with you," she said firmly. "I sent an amateur assassin after you—it was only her second job, and the ***** didn't know what she was doing." The short girl smirked. "So she was fired." She lifted her hand into the shape of a gun. "Like this." The boss smiled. "And you…" her voice trailed away and suddenly she walked up to Jade and yanked his shirt up.

The teenager instantly struck his hand out to shove her back, but the black guy beside him grabbed both his arms and twisted them behind his back.

Jade gasped, but he was too frozen to scream.

The girl pulled his shirt all the way up passed the scar from the switch blade. She brushed her finger across it. "She missed your heart," the boss spelled out. She gave Jade a meaningful glance and then took another breath on her cigarette, letting Jade's shirt fall. "Amateur. Never should have sent her after someone as complicated as you." She shrugged. "But now that you're here, I was thinking I would go ahead and get what I wanted before." She gave Jade a smile. "Remember?" she asked.

"Wh—what?" Jade stammered breathlessly.

The boss grinned. She reached out and passed her finger across Jade's lips. "A little love, baby…"

"What—b-but we don't even know each other!" Jade gasped, his face paling with horror.

She shrugged. "That doesn't really concern me. I know your name, at least…that's better than a lot of girls do…"

"You—you're insane!" Jade gasped. He was starting to hyperventilate and the man holding him was supporting more and more of his weight as he grew more faint.

"Yeah? What if I am?" the girl asked with a careless shrug. "I like your build, Jade. That's enough. I don't need to know every guy I sleep with. Now we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way."

Jade shook his head desperately, but could no longer find any words.

The boss shrugged and turned to the black guy beside Jade. "Tie him up in there," she ordered, jerking a finger toward a door to the left. She gave Jade a sick smile and then stepped away from him.

The black guy, still twisting Jade's arms behind his back shoved him forward toward the door. He threw the door open and with his foot and then dragged Jade into the room.

It was a bedroom and suddenly Jade's insides were crawling with fear. He couldn't stop shaking as the black guy led him up to the bed and then suddenly threw him down on it. However before Jade could even recover his breath, the man strapped Jade's left wrist to the bedpost above him.

The teenager panicked. He slammed his free fist into the black guy's arm and then began scratching him madly.

However he was rewarded with another hard slap in the face. The man twisted Jade's other arm around behind his back and fastened it to his left arm at the elbow.

Jade gasped with pain and the black guy smirked. "You give me trouble, *******, and I'll pull this tighter," he said in a low voice. As if just to prove he could, he gave the strap a yank. Jade's foot shot out suddenly and hit the man hard in the leg, the metal toe of his boot striking the man in the knee Obviously stunned, the man quickly backed off, gave Jade a dark glare and then left the room.

Jade gasped and tried to breathe, but fear and sudden pain were suffocating him. He didn't see any possible escape. He knew what she wanted. He couldn't slow his breathing. He was breathing so fast, yet every breath he took seemed to drown him more than anything else.

And then the boss walked in. She smiled down at Jade and then tossed her cigarette into an ash tray nearby. "Don't struggle," she advised in the tone of someone who had complete and absolute control. "Because you won't escape this," she spelled out.

Jade threw back his head and screamed when she crawled on top of him and sat down on him. But it only made her giggle. "Don't worry, pretty boy," she whispered, leaning down close to his ear. "If I don't like this enough, you'll be dead in the end, anyway. Your girlfriend will never know you were cheating on her. Poor thing..."

"Leave me alone!" Jade yelled. The words took all the breath out of him and he was left gasping.

"Aww, did she leave you already?" the boss asked. She took Jade's face in her hands and traced it with her fingers. "That's really a pity. Why's that?"

Jade refused to answer. Even if he had had something to say, he wouldn't have had the breath to say it. He turned away from her and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Oh, don't do that," the boss said. "You'll want to see this, 'cause feeling it is just part of the fun." She reached out suddenly and undid the strap on Jade's left arm. She took a firm hold of his hand and drew it towards herself. She pressed it against her chest and then smiled as Jade's head shot up. "I'm surprised at you," the boss chided. "I would have expected better out of a rockstar, you know?"

But in Jade's panicked mind, one sane thing came through—the unmistakable shape of a small handgun through the boss's shirt.

Fear was a strange thing. It could blind a person just enough so that they never make it out alive. But it could also sharpen the senses to the point of unimagined ability. Jade was too scared to want anything else. He was too upset to realize anything else existed. But he knew what he wanted then—it was as clear as if he was alone staring through a spotless window. All he had to do was reach out and pick it up and then it would be his. He told himself silently that this time he wouldn't wait. This time he would take his moment and there would not be enough time for anyone to stop him.

The boss gave Jade the most satisfied smile—a winning smile that portrayed a snake about to kill her mouse. "Or maybe not…" she said softly.

Jade's finger brushed against the metal. She didn't know. She didn't know what he was doing, and that was why she was smiling. She was a fool to trust so much someone she knew so little. Jade promised himself that this time he would not hesitate.

And then he had it in his hand. It was real, and it was there. Much more real and far more there than his life had ever been. His fingers found the cock, pulled it back and then with his one free hand he lifted it to the underside of his chin. He squeezed his eyes shut again—this time perfectly ready for what was about to happen. He sucked in a quick breath he promised himself he would never need.

And then suddenly the small child's face flashed right before Jade's mind. Those wide eyes—with such perfect detail it made Jade freeze.

That kid was dead. That kid had been killed in a car accident. A car accident Jade had purposefully caused. There was no way that kid had really made it out alive.

And then the gun was slammed out of his hand. Jade's eyes shot up again, but the boss had leapt off him and backed toward the door. "Why the ****!?" she gasped. Her hand was over her heart and she looked so frightened, one might have thought Jade had been pointing the gun at her.

He hadn't. He told himself he hadn't been pointing the gun at her, but suddenly he wasn't sure. Confusion crashed over Jade's mind like a wave falling from the sky. He couldn't remember what had happened. He didn't know what was happening, and he was suddenly unsure of where he was.

He couldn't slow his breathing…it kept coming and coming…

The boss turned and pushed the bedroom door open. "Flecher!" she yelled and a moment later the black guy appeared in the doorway. The girl pointed at Jade, still with the same paled expression. "Untie him—put him out in the street—get him out of here—get him out…"

"Shoot him out in the street?" the black guy asked in confusion.

"No! Let him go!" the boss cried. She started for the doorway, but then turned back to look at Jade again. "I can't kill a thing like that—I can't have his blood on me!" she cried. "He's nothing but a broken piece of ****, anyway…He won't ever mess with us, he's scared out of his wits…" She stumbled towards the doorway again.

"S-set him free?" the black guy asked in surprise.

"*****! That's what I said!" the boss exclaimed. "Get him out of here—and then scratch him out of the database—I don't ever want to see his name again…"

The black guy gave a quick nod and then walked over to Jade. He loosened the remaining strap and then pulled Jade off the bed and yanked him toward the door. The boss gave Jade one final pale glance and then disappeared.

Jade was yanked out through the front door of the house and then dragged down to the end of the driveway. The black guy threw him into the road, kicked him over onto his side, and then left him in the middle of the street—gasping for breath, still hyperventilating, and about to lose consciousness.

He was lying in the middle of the road like some dead creature. And Jade hardly even realized where he was. Burning memories tore at his mind, but he couldn't place them. He remembered the boss…trying to encourage him to let himself go with her, threatening to force him into intimacy if he didn't give it willingly. And then the gun…the gun he had almost shot himself with…until the child had returned to again laugh in the face of his suicide attempts.

Jackson woke sometime in the night to an uncanny, unhealthy feeling in his stomach. He sat up slowly and wondered vaguely if he was coming down with a flu. That was rather what it felt like. For a long moment, he sat up in bed, staring into the darkness with an empty mind. And then he lay back down and closed his eyes. If he was sick the following morning, he'd have to call in sick to work. But more likely this was just one of those middle-of-the-night discomforts that would go away by morning.

But half an hour later, sleep hadn't come. Jackson finally decided to get up and get a drink of water. Sleepiness was draining away from him, and he didn't think he would really get back to sleep.

As Jackson stood up, the sick feeling fell away from him. That was good. Jackson quietly left his room and walked into the kitchen. He turned on the light and lifted a water bottle off the counter. He took a drink from it, and then leaned back against the counter and stared into space in silence.

Too bad about Jade. Jackson had been hoping things would work out with the church service. But they hadn't. It was to be expected, really. Looking at it realistically, it really had gone a lot better than it should have. This was, apparently the first service Jade had really attended—and Protestants were far more easy for atheists to understand than Catholics. Not so much through the history side of things, but simply for the doctrines. Poor Jade had been completely confused.

But Jackson was resolved to do his best to iron things out. It had been a bad Sunday. And after the service—after he and Jade had had their explosion, the eighteen-year-old had gone to bed and slept right through the rest of the day. Jackson was glad to see the teenager get the sleep, but it worried him that he hadn't eaten anything aside from breakfast. The black guy was no fool and he could tell that Jade didn't like talking about his weight, so Jackson did not mention it, but Jade was seriously underweight, and it really was an issue that ought to be addressed. Or at least taken care of…

Jackson sighed and wondered if Jade was still asleep. It wouldn't surprise him at all if the teenager was sitting quietly in his room passing time alone quietly because he couldn't sleep anymore. After all, only babies could sleep an entire afternoon and then stay asleep through the night as well. And as Luke had pointed out, Jade really wasn't a baby.

Jackson smiled at the thought and wondered if he ought to check on Jade. If the eighteen-year-old was awake, this might be a good time to try to get things ironed out. After all, Jackson no longer felt tired at all, and he highly doubted he would be able to go back to sleep. It was nearly three in the morning, anyhow—it wasn't like it was still the middle of the night.

Jackson put the water bottle back onto the counter and straightened slowly. Then he left the kitchen and headed down the hall to Jade's room. He quietly opened the door and looked inside the room. It was dark and rather hard to see, but it almost looked like…

"Jade?" Jackson asked softly.

He took a step closer to the bed.

He was right.

Jackson walked back over to the door and turned on the light. The bed was empty—the blanket was on the floor. And…the window was open.

Jackson ran up to it and leaned out of it. "Jade!" he called. Only the rustling of wind in the leaves of the maple trees beside the apartment complex answered him.

Jackson moved slowly back into the bedroom. His heart was beating wildly. That assassin girl had never been found. And she knew where Jade's room was in the apartment. She also knew where his window was.

Chapter Twelve

Fenton's Gang (Three Hours Before)

There was a guy with a do-rag driving. His best friend with an Afro was in the passenger's seat. And their buddies were crammed into the back of the old Ford SUV. It had been a good night, and Fenton was taking his buddies back to his house where they would all spend the night—probably after staying up a good length longer, however…

Draco, in the passenger's seat turned up the hip-hop tune playing through the SUV's radio and shot Fenton a grin, nodding and sliding to the music.

Fenton grinned back. Covele was singing loudly in the back seat to the tune and the other guys were clapping. It had been a good night—a good night without drinking because Fenton's grandmother had always warned him against drinking whatsoever. Draco drank sometimes, but he was a respectable guy and never got drunk. The rest of them…Fenton smiled to himself and started unconsciously nodding to the music. They were all good guys.

"Slay 'em leave 'em laying on the paper-back paper bank!" Emo suddenly yelled at the top of his lungs. And then the whole back seat burst out laughing.

"Nigger!" Covele cried. "What ya thinkin'? Those ain't tha words!"

"I know, but it fit," Emo pointed out, and he leaned over laughing.

"That's a totally unrelated song," Draco pointed out, leaning into the back seat and letting his long arms tackle the other guys playfully. "And those ain't even the words to that song."

"Uh-uh," Emo fired back. "That's what I always thought it was."

"Paper-back paper bank?" Draco asked, grinning. "Bro, you's sure crazy, man. What's they gonna be singing about paper-back paper banks fo? There ain't no such thing!"

"There ain't no such thing as unicorns, but thay go singing 'bout them," someone else pointed out.

There was more laughing.

"Brother," Draco spelled out. "Those ain't da words! Da words, man? Where yo from?"

Fenton was laughing so hard he could barely see clearly. The road was empty of traffic, and that was probably a good thing. It was nearly midnight and it was quite dark outside.

"What's the paper-bank song, anyhow?" someone else asked suddenly. "I never heard that."

"Yo ain't never heard dat?" Covele asked, leaning over so he could see into the bench behind him. "I don't believe dat, bro. They's playin' dat one on tha radio—all the time."

"All the time," someone else repeated.

"I ain't never heard that en ma life!" the same guy exclaimed.

"Don' believe ya," Covele said simply. "You gotta heard it somewhere—say, where you been all yo life, huh?"

"En ma life!" the same guy insisted. He broke out laughing.

And then suddenly Fenton slammed on the brakes and the SUV jolted to a stop, throwing all its passengers forward slightly. "Darn—heck, what the heck was that!?" Fenton gasped.

The car fell instantly silent and Draco turned off the radio.

"Uh…what's up?" someone from the back bench asked uncertainly.

For a long moment Fenton continued staring out the windshield with a perfectly frozen expression. Then, in a deathly serious voice, he spoke. "I coulda sworn I just saw something in da road—something big."

"What the heck?" Draco asked. "There ain't nothin' in da road!"

"I think I ran it over," Fenton said slowly.

"Na, somethin' big? Covele asked. "We woulda felt dat."

"Or heard it," someone else put in.

"Well it ain't in front of us," Fenton said soberly. "So it's gotta be under us."

Draco leaned forward and stared carefully out the windshield. But the yellow beams of the SUV's headlights clearly portrayed an empty road.

"Uh…Fenton, say'z you imagined it?" Draco suggested uncertainly.

"No, it was big!" Fenton insisted. "Like da size of a bush deer—like a dead bush deer!"

"Ain't no bush deer 'round here," Covele said quickly.

"Coulda been a white tail fawn," someone in the back seat pointed out. "I know there'z them things in these parts—my Daddy hunt 'em."

A long silence followed.

And then suddenly Draco unlocked his door and pushed it open. "Mightas well not sit around."

And then they all got out.

Draco and Fenton, followed by the others, walked around to the front of the car. And there they froze. Right below the bumper—but not so close so that the front wheels touched it—was the body of a human.

For a moment it remained a lifeless corps. And then suddenly a hand shot out and pushed against one of the front tires as if trying to push the entire SUV back. A moment later the hand dropped back against the pavement.

"Gosh, I didn't hit him, I didn't hit him!" Fenton gasped. "I swear he weren't standing in the first place—he was just lyin' there!"

"Na, an' we woulda felt it if ya hit somethin'," Draco agreed. He dropped down onto his hands and knees and touched the body on the shoulder. The thing flinched, and Draco's hand shot back just as quickly. "He's still alive, anyhow," Draco commented. He reached out again and grabbed onto the thing's jacket. He pulled it out from under the car, turned it over on its back and then quickly stepped away, leaving the body in clear view through the light of the blazing yellow headlights.

"Dang, it's a girl!" someone gasped.

"She pretty banged up," Covele said, dropping down beside the person. He touched a bloody scrape on the side of the person's face.

Fenton remained frozen where he was.

Several others began crowding around the body that now appeared to be completely lifeless.

"Wait a sec," someone gasped. "This is a boy!"

And then there was suddenly a foot radius around the guy.

"My ma gave me a good piece of advice once," one of the guys said after a moment of silence. "She said, 'Hon, if there be a black boy lyin' dere on the ground like 'at—you gotta take 'im home, 'cause he been in a brawl, and he don' know where his life at. He need a good talkin' to and some pastor help, too. But if you see a white boy lyin' dere on the ground like 'at…you leave 'im right were he was.'"

"Where yo been raised at?" Draco asked suddenly. "Dat no way to treat a human puson!"

"Well, how'd he git here?" Fenton asked suddenly. "He jus layin' in da middle of da road like he's dead!"

Draco scooted a little closer and leaned over the body momentarily. He shook his head. "Dis boy ain't dead. He still breathin' and beatin' like he's just out for a nap or somthin'."

"Where'd he git dat scrape?" one of the others asked, pointing at the bloody wound on the body's face.

"Looks like a concrete scrape to me," Draco decided. "I'll bet he jus fell or somethin'. Got some sorta disease and he ain' suppose'da be out alone."

Fenton moaned suddenly. "We gotta take 'im back to da house! We can' jus' leave 'im here! Even if I ain't got nothin' ta do with layin' him out dere."

"Dat's right," Draco agreed. "We gotta take 'im back and find out who he is—git him back to where he belong."

There was a unanimous agreement, even from the guy with his mother's advice.

Draco effortlessly lifted the body and carried it around to the back bench of the SUV. "Someone's gonna have to double up," he said as he dropped the lifeless body into the back seat. He put the seatbelt over the person—more to hold the body upright than for protection, and then shut the door. "Now git in, all o' y'all!"

When Fenton and all his friends were back in the SUV—with the addition of the unidentified and rather unconscious person—the trip back to Fenton's house continued. In absolute silence.

When they reached the apartment, the guys got out of the SUV quietly. One of the ones from the back seat pulled the unidentified person out and carried him into Fenton's house.

"Put 'im on da couch dere," Fenton instructed as he and his friends walked into the living room.

The guy holding the unidentified person dropped him onto the sofa and then quickly backed off. Several others crowded around, staring. Draco walked over and began searching the person for anything that might serve as some sort of ID.

"Nothin'," Draco sighed at last, standing up. "No license, no phone—nothin'."

Fenton was pacing the floor, but he stopped when Draco spoke and let out a sigh. "What y'all think we should do now?"

"Shouldn't have picked him up, mayba," someone suggested. "Mayba jus' shoulda left 'im dere ta be picked up by someone who know where he belong."

But just as the words were spoken, the unidentified person's eyelids fluttered and then lifted.

"Look, he's come to!" Covele exclaimed, and he pushed to the front of the group. Covele dropped down beside the sofa and put his hand onto the person's shoulder. "Hey, mister, we jus' picked you up off da road an' we don' know who you is, so we'z thinkin' you could tell us."

The person visibly paled, but he said nothing.

"Yo speak English?" Covele asked after a moment. "We gotta find out where ya live, so we can get ya home," he explained, waving his hands emphatically.

Still, the unidentified person said nothing. His face showed no realization of what Covele was saying.

"He don' speak English," Covele decided at last, standing up again. "How we gonna tell him we gotta know where he live?"

"Google translate," someone suggested.

"Yeah, but we don' even know what he do speak!" Covele exclaimed. "I mean…he look like a white boy, and they could speak any o' them languages that white boys speak. I dunno."

Draco moved over to the sofa and knelt down beside it. "Where yo home at?" he asked.

Still, there was no response.

"I dunno, I can't believe he'd be out round here and still not speak English," Draco muttered. He rubbed his chin. Then he turned back to the stranger. He turned a finger around in a circle by the side of his head. "Yo understand?" he asked. He glanced back at his friends. "Man, maybe he jus' can't talk or somethin'."

But right then, the stranger suddenly pulled himself into a sitting position. "Wh—who are you?" he asked.

There was silence for a long moment. The guy's voice sounded completely worn out as if he had run a long way from something he feared and then had given up running because he was too tired.

"I'm Draco Marlodawn," Draco introduced himself after the moment ended. "We saw you in da road, but we don' know where ya belong."

"You—you—" the stranger began, and his eyes filled with fear. "Where am I?"

"Maccom Villa—thirty-first street 112," Fenton answered over the others' heads.

"What?" the stranger gasped. "I—I have—I have no idea where that is."

"Do ya remember what happened befo you ended up on dat road?" Draco asked after another pause.

The stranger took a quick breath. "I—I was…I was in a house with…some people…Who are you?" he suddenly demanded again.

"Well, I tol' ya, I'm Draco Marlodawn," Draco repeated. "What else you wanna know?"

"Do you…know…the Dragons?" the stranger asked hesitantly.

"Uh…dat uh…club or somethin'?" Draco asked. "A band?"

"No—no, I mean…I…" the stranger hesitated again. "Do you…know Jade Leeman?"

Draco leaned back slowly. "Now dat do sound familiar…" He glanced behind him at the others standing around. "Who dat, people? I know dis…" He snapped his fingers a few times, as if trying to draw up the information. "Like some uh…"

"Weren't she a singer?" someone asked suddenly.

"I was gonna say dat!" Draco exclaimed. "But den I was like…well, dat don' make sense…" He turned back to the stranger, huddled on the sofa like a lost puppy. "Who dat? A friend o' yours?"

The stranger quickly shook his head. "No—uh…" he stuck out his hand suddenly. "I'm Alexander—Alex for short."

Draco shook his hand and gave him a warm smile. "Well dat's nice. Ken you tell us where ya live?"

"You know, I don't have the address memorized," Alexander answered slowly. "And I…don't have my phone with me, but…It's in Dwarfline, and if you get me there, I could find my way back to the apartment."

"Sounds simple enough," Draco decided, shooting a glance behind him at Fenton.

Fenton gave him a nod.

"Alright, you hurt anywhere aside from yo face?" Draco asked, turning back to Alexander.

The white guy shook his head quickly.

"Alright, den I recon we'll get dat scrap o' yo's washed and treated…" Draco said. He started to rise, but Alexander caught his sleeve suddenly.

"Oh, that's not necessary," he said softly. "I can do it myself when I get home…it's really not necessary…I'm so much of a drag on you as it is…"

"Oh, kid—don't yo worry 'bout dat!" Draco exclaimed. "It'll only take a moment."

"Yeah, but thanks anyway," Alexander said in a quick tone that told Draco instantly that all Alexander was interested in at the moment was getting home.

"Well, ok—den me 'n ma friend Fenton will drive yo up to Dwarfline—I think I know where dat es," Draco decided. He plowed away through the others and Alexander quickly stood up and followed him.

He was a short guy, the white boy. He looked just like a white girl—short with a prettyish face. But white boys were strange like that sometimes. The important thing at the moment was that this white boy got home safely.

"So you don' know how you ended up on dat road dere?" Draco answered as he, Fenton, and Alexander started out toward Dwarfline in Fenton's old Ford SUV.

Alexander shook his head. "I was dumped there, I think."

"Somebody beat yo up?" Draco asked.

Alexander shrugged. "Something like that…"

But it was rather clear that the queer kid didn't really want to talk about it. Likely the story was attached to some sort of trouble-making on his part, but it wasn't extremely important. Even black boys ended up flat on their backs in the middle of the road after a brawl sometimes. The only mystery was how someone as small as this Alexander person could possibly get wound up in a brawl while he obviously wouldn't stand a chance in one. Who knows? Maybe he was trying to steal something. Life became a dirty business if you didn't watch it closely to make sure it stayed clean. And there were both black boys and white boys who ended up leading dirty lives. One thing was for sure, though. No black boy was going to sit a white boy down and give him a talking-to. That was for white boys to do. It was necessary sometimes to take care of emergencies on the other party's behalf, but no further.

Fenton smiled slightly to himself. At least he hadn't hit the kid. He had braked at just the right time—just a little later and this kid's head would have been split open by the SUV's front wheels. It had been just on time—a lucky call, and Fenton hadn't hit the kid at all. Turned out he was only helping him. No need to ask too many questions…

It was a good two hour drive to Dwarfline, but once they entered the city limits, Alexander was able to direct Fenton to an apartment complex off to the edge of things. It was a decent place, and Fenton parked in front of it and decided to wait until Alexander got into his apartment before driving off.

Fenton and Draco watched in silence as the short white kid walked up to one of the doors, paused in front of it, and then raised his hand and knocked on it.

Fenton glanced at Draco. "He live with somebody else."

Draco gave him a nod and then they continued watching.

The kid waited for a moment and then raised his hand, about to knock again when the door suddenly opened.

A tall black guy stood in the doorway a moment before running towards Alexander and throwing his arms around him. "Oh, my goodness, Jade!" the guy gasped.

Fenton and Draco exchanged glances.

"He tol' me 'is name was Alexander," Draco muttered.

"I'az thinkin' it's funny that he ask us if we know Jade Leeman an den dis guy call 'im Jade," Fenton pointed out.

Draco turned back to the scene before the Ford SUV. "You suppose 'is real name is Jade Leeman? I thought that 'uz a girl's name…"

"But I'm almost certain that name's connected with some singer person," Fenton said. "And that would be the only possible way we possibly could have known dat name, anyhow."

"You think this guy's a singer?" Draco asked in shock.

"I dunno. Maybe," Fenton answered with a shrug. "But he's gone in now, so we can jus' take off." He pulled the SUV out of the apartment parking lot and onto the road again.

He was a strange kid…and why he had been lying on the road was even stranger…

Chapter Thirteen

Safe

"Jade!" Jackson gasped again. He pulled Jade into the apartment and shut the front door. "I was so worried about you—I called the police," Jackson heaved a sigh and sat Jade down on the sofa.

Luke came into the living room from the kitchen and stood by the wall, watching.

"What happened?" Jackson asked. He raised a hand to the scrape on Jade's face, but didn't quite let his fingertips touch it.

"I…I don't exactly know," Jade sighed. "I think I was kidnapped—I was knocked out by something and then I woke up in a house—and I saw the…the leader of the drug gang I was part of…"

"What did he do?" Jackson asked softly.

"It's a girl," Jade said in a faded voice. "She said that I hadn't been killed because the assassin she sent after me was an amateur. I thought she was going to kill me but…" Jade's face paled, and he shot a glance at Luke. "She wanted to sleep with me instead."

"What happened?" Jackson asked quickly, unconsciously grasping Jade's arm.

"I stole her gun," Jade whispered. He wavered slightly, and Jackson quickly steadied him. "And I was going to kill myself with it…But I wasn't fast enough…and she knocked the gun out of my hand…and then she let me go…"

"She didn't hurt you?" Jackson asked.

Jade shook his head. "I don't really know what happened…I was so…so dizzy…Her guy threw me out onto the road, I guess…then these weird people picked me up—I must have fainted or something because I don't remember being picked up. I just woke up in their house—like a ton of guys all living in one house. But they claimed they didn't know the gang and just wanted to help me…they drove me back here…"

"The gang leader let you go?" Jackson asked softly.

Jade nodded silently.

"God was protecting you there, Jade," Jackson said breathlessly. He stood up. "That scrape needs to be cleaned up—it looks awful. Does it hurt?"

Jade raised a hand and lightly touched the bloody abrasion. "It just…stings a little, I guess," he whispered.

Jackson stood up and left the living room—leaving Jade alone with Luke

The blond-haired guy shifted slightly and then spoke. "Pity they're all after you like that."

Jade shot him a glance and then let out a long sigh. "No need to talk about it…"

Luke shrugged. "Comes of all your skimpy outfits, I suppose…"

Jade didn't answer.

"Nice scare you gave us too," Luke commented. But when Jade still didn't respond, he turned and left the living room.

Then Jade was alone for a moment before Jackson returned with several paper towels and a bottle of some type of liquid. He took Jade's chin in his hand and gently turned his face so that he could easily reach the scrape on the side of Jade's face.

The eighteen-year-old flinched as Jackson cleaned up the abrasion and washed it with a little of the liquid from the bottle.

"Listen, Jade," Jackson said when he was done cleaning the scrape. "I'm gonna call the police station and explain that you're back, alright?"

"I don't want to answer any questions," Jade said quickly.

"I don't think you'll have to," Jackson said softly. The black guy hesitated. And then suddenly he sat down beside Jade and pulled the teenager into his arms. "Jade, I was so worried about you," he whispered.

Jade leaned his head against Jackson's shoulder and closed his eyes. It felt so good to be close to someone he trusted. He felt safe. He didn't know what the difference was between Jackson's hold and anyone else's, but it was different somehow.

"I thought I'd really lost you," Jackson said softly. He lifted a hand and gently touched Jade's hair.

"Don't worry about me," Jade whispered.

"I worry about you because I would really miss you if you were gone," Jackson sighed. "You just never realize those things until you almost lose what you love, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Jade answered. "I just don't understand how you can care about me…"

"You're a really nice guy, Jade," Jackson said. "It's just all bottled up in there, so nobody gets a chance to see it."

"Don't see what you like about me," Jade whispered. He shivered slightly. "But I don't think the Dragons will ever come back after me."

"I don't care," Jackson said, pulling Jade a little closer. "Luke and I agreed that we're going to move into a house somewhere. We're going to get out of here—go to a place where you can live without those gang people and Eclipse knowing where you are. You need to be able to live in safety, Jade—without a security guard."

"Nobody ever bothered me when I lived in Takist," Jade muttered.

"I don't like that broken-down place, Jade," Jackson said softly. "You need a good, safe place to live, yeah?"

"You shouldn't have to move out of your apartment just because of me," Jade sighed. "I can live here…besides, Eclipse is just going to figure out where I live. They always do."

"It's about time Luke and I move into a real house, anyway, Jade," Jackson said. He sighed. "You know when I got out of college—we had agreed to live together in an apartment. See, I'm three years older than Luke," Jackson smiled at the memory. "So when I got out of college, I got an apartment—and then two years later, he joined me—it was two years because I was in college a year longer than he was because I did engineering—and then we lived in this apartment, both of us imagining we would sort of get a start and then move apart—maybe one of us would get married. But it never happened. We get along well, and I can't see us moving apart any time soon unless he gets a girl."

Jade shot a glance at Jackson's face. "What about you?" he asked.

Jackson shook his head. "Don't think I'm going to get married, but Luke is a fine guy, and he really oughtta get married."

Jade sighed and pulled away from Jackson. "Hate girls," he muttered.

"They aren't witches, Jade," Jackson said softly. "I know you've just seen the worst side of them, but there are decent girls out there."

"I'm not gay," Jade said suddenly and he pulled away from Jackson's grasp and stood up.

"I didn't think you were, Jade," Jackson said seriously. "But you're scared of girls because of what they've done to you."

"I'm not scared of them, I just hate them!" Jade cried. His heart suddenly started pounding in his chest and he didn't know why. "They—they abandon you—or abuse you—they—they're cheaters and liars and all they want is just—just—"

"Jade, they aren't all like that," Jackson spelled out. "You can't judge all girls based on what you've seen of some."

Jade shrugged. "Whatever. I'm going to go lie down."

Jackson nodded. "That's a good idea, Jade. You look tired."

The eighteen-year-old didn't answer as he turned away and started back to his room. He was tired. He felt weak and exhausted. That made sense, of course. It was still night and the day before, Jade hadn't held down any food. It was as good as if he hadn't eaten anything all day.

Jade walked into his room and lay down on his bed without bothering to even shut the door. He was too tired, suddenly. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his head. But the thoughts and memories wouldn't go away.

Yeah, Luke Sunthrow was a nice guy. Never scarred. Never ruined. Never broken into shards. He could make something of his life. He had a lot of future and a lot of hope.

But Jade Leeman was different…

When Jade woke up, he found himself weak and shivering. The air seemed cold and heavy and when he sat up, he felt dizzy and sick. Jade lay back and ran a hand through his hair—only to find that his forehead was damp with sweat.

"I'm getting sick again," Jade moaned. And then, without really knowing why, he started crying. He was too tired—too sick of life. Everybody he saw around him was always happy and carefree. Their lives seemed vastly above Jade's and he couldn't ever imagine being as free as they were. He was trapped in the shreds of a life that he could barely even call his own.

For nearly two hours, Jade lay silently on his bed and tried to stop thinking. But then he was pulled out of his mind when his bedroom door opened and Jackson walked in.

"You ok?" Jackson asked immediately.

"I'm fine," Jade said, turning toward the wall. He hoped to give Jackson the hint that he just wanted to be left alone.

But Jackson didn't leave. He sat down on the edge of Jade's bed and gently touched his back. "What's wrong Jade?" Jackson asked.

"You really want to know what's wrong?" Jade mumbled. "Or are you just asking so you look like you want to know?"

"Jade, I really want to know," Jackson said with a sigh.

Jade turned over slowly to face Jackson. "Please don't ask," he whispered.

Jackson reached out and gently touched Jade's burning forehead. "Talk to me, Jade, I hate to see you suffering like this."

The teenager sighed. "I failed," he whispered. "I just feel like life is never going to work. Your church didn't work for me. That gang leader almost raped me. I don't feel safe anywhere. Threw up yesterday."

"You threw up yesterday?" Jackson asked, anxiety obvious in his worried eyes.

"It was on purpose," Jade whispered, and he didn't know why he had just told Jackson that. Maybe it was just too hard to keep on holding everything in.

"You…you made yourself throw up?" Jackson asked softly. "Because you were mad at me?"

Jade sighed and a tear ran down his face. "I don't know why. It…it just hurt, so I did it. I don't know why."

"Jade, you really gotta stop hurting yourself," Jackson said softly.

"I can't," Jade whispered. "I can't stop. I need a way out. I can't—I can't keep going on with nothing to hold onto…nothing to fall back on. Besides, I…I hate my life. I hate myself. I've messed up my life. It's all my fault. I cause people trouble all the time. I'm sick of myself. I'm sick of the pain. I hate myself, Jackson. I'm just tired of…of being me."

"You need a counselor," Jackson said softly. "You need someone to explain all this stuff to you…someone who can explain it right."

"I don't want to keep going!" Jade cried suddenly. "I wish she had killed me. I wish the boss had killed me. I wish it was over. I wish I had killed myself—I'm sick of life! I'm sick of life! Please listen to me, please don't keep ignoring me," Jade gasped. "You don't know what it's like. You aren't me. You—you have a life. This is all…this is all…" Jade's voice dropped to a whisper. "This is all I want, Jackson. I don't need all this effort—I don't need all this help. I don't need to eat. I don't need doctors or hospitals or counselors. I—I just need you to—" The eighteen-year-old choked on a sob and broke off for a moment. "I need you to turn your back for just—just a night. Leave me alone for just a night, and let me go…"

"Turn my back so you could kill yourself?" Jackson asked softly.

"Please!" Jade cried. "Don't you realize this is never going to get any better? Why do you keep ignoring me? I know what I want! I know who I am! I'm so—I'm so—Jackson, I'm starving!" The teenager grasped Jackson's arm. "Look at me, Jackson, Look at me! This is scarring me! Don't you see this? I'm scarring myself every moment—every step I take—I can't stop—I can't protect myself. I'm breaking further. I'm just picking up more that I'll remember—more that will haunt me for the rest of my life—I can't escape the damage. I can't live through it anymore. I can't just keep going on!"

"I can never let you go, Jade," Jackson said softly. He wrapped his fingers around Jade's hand. "You're the most beautiful creation of God, Jade. You're a human being. You're the summit of everything he's made. You need to eat, Jade. You need to stop hurting yourself. You have no idea how much this hurts me when you hurt yourself like this."

"Jackson, I can't—"

"Jade, you can," Jackson cut the teenager off. "You can, you're just afraid. You don't have to be afraid. You can come to me when you're hurting. You don't need to keep responding to pain with hate. You can respond with love. Love drowns that feeling so much more easily. Come to me, Jade, please."

"I'd rather be abused than feel so purposeless," Jade sighed. "I thought that once I got away, I could live. I thought I could be someone real. I thought I could rebuild myself and start living like all of those other people. But I was wrong. There's nothing in it for me. There's nothing. It's just going to bring me more pain because I'm trying so hard. But it doesn't get me anywhere."

"Jade, let me be there for you," Jackson pleaded.

"I don't see what you can really do for me," Jade whispered. "You can't take away all the pain." The teenager turned away toward the wall again. "I don't even know why it hurts."

"Please leave Eclipse, Jade," Jackson sighed. "Trust me. I really want to help you. But things like Eclipse are holding you back."

"They'd kill me," Jade whispered. "I could never tell them."

"Jade, they don't even deserve that you tell them, I'm afraid," Jackson said softly. "Just give them a call. Or send them a text or something."

"They would think I'm joking," Jade said softly. "I'd have to tell them in person or they would think I'm joking. They—they never take me seriously!"

"That's why you need to leave them," Jackson pointed out.

"So they can get mad at me?" Jade whispered. "So they can beat me up?"

"I will go with you if you want me to," Jackson said quickly.

"I could never drag you in there," Jade sighed. He sat up slowly, wavered for a moment, and then leaned back against the bedpost. "It's hell, Jackson, it's hell in there. You can't really live. It'll just kill you—they—they're hardly human…they don't recognize humans. They survive because they're always tearing people down below themselves. And if you can't do that…you won't survive…"

"I'm not afraid of them, Jade," Jackson said certainly. He sat down on the bed beside Jade and slipped an arm around the teenager.

"Maybe…maybe you should be," Jade sighed. "I want to leave…I just…I can't."

"You can," Jackson insisted. "I'll help you, Jade. I'll go with you if you need me to."

"No, no—I would go alone if I did it," Jade whispered. "I could never drag you in there," he repeated. But he knew it wasn't because he feared the Eclipse people would hurt Jackson. Jackson had said he wasn't afraid and Jade knew he wasn't. He had nothing to be afraid of. But Jade feared that by going there Jackson would unveil another part of Jade's life that the teenager would rather keep deeply hidden from him.

"Do it, please, Jade. It would be so much better for you," Jackson promised. "You would be so much more free—free to heal."

Jade shrugged. "Don't see how I can heal when even without them, I'm still falling apart."

"You're stressed out, Jade," Jackson said softly.

"How can I be stressed?" Jade asked. "I don't have any work to do."

"You're stressed with what's coming, Jade. Leave Eclipse. Let them go. Cut them off," Jackson encouraged. "You don't need them. They're only hurting you."

"Sometimes I want to," Jade sighed. "Sometimes I really think I could. Sometimes I just want to go up to the Tech building and tell whoever's there that I'm getting what I want from my storage room, and I'm never coming back. Sometimes I just want to do that, because I want to be free of them. But other times…I realize that even the things that cause me pain…are still a part of me and when I cut them off, I bleed. They might not be healthy. They might make me more sick. But I still bleed." Jade leaned his head back against the bedpost. "I always bleed."

"Cut it off," Jackson pressed. "Just cut it off."

Jade raised his hands helplessly. "What should I do? I'm sick again. ****, I'm sick again! I'm so **** sick of being sick!"

"Jade, you…you know you wouldn't get sick so often if you took better care of yourself," Jackson reminded him.

The teenager sighed. "I know…But I can't help it. Why would I take care of what I hate? I don't want to keep it. I'll never want to keep it. I don't even want it. Wish I was dead."

"You are dead, Jade," Jackson said suddenly. "You aren't living. You have to throw off the parasites and start to live again. Leave Eclipse. Let me get you a counselor for a few weeks—and then just rest and heal."

Jade blew a sigh. "And what about the media? What are they going to say if Jade Leeman suddenly leaves Eclipse?"

"Don't worry about the media," Jackson said seriously. "They can say what they want, but their words will never hurt you as much as Eclipse's touch."

"Touch?" Jade asked softly. He closed his eyes for a moment. "Why am I so scared?"

"I'm here for you," Jackson reminded him. "They'll have to walk over my dead body to hurt you."

"Except when you're not standing in front of me," Jade sighed.

"Let me stand in front of you, then," Jackson decided.

"Then I can't see."

"Then go blindly and trust me to lead you."

"Where will you take me?"

"Somewhere safe. Somewhere without security guards, without Eclipse, and without gang members."

"Somewhere to sleep…"

"Yes, Jade."

"Somewhere I can sleep and not worry…"

"Trust me."

"I do trust you…just not…I don't know if…that much…"

"Why not?"

"Because maybe you don't know me well enough."

"Eclipse thinks you're an animal, Jade. I know you're a human. Yet you trust Eclipse more than you trust me?"

"They don't…know me at all."

"That's right, Jade."

"Ok. Lead me. What should I do?"

For a moment Jade's copper eyes met Jackson's dark ones.

"Spend today just getting better," Jackson said softly. "Then tomorrow, go talk to them. Pick up your stuff and never go back."

"That's all? And…and I just walk out like that? Wait for their reaction? Wait for the media's reaction?" Jade sighed. He shivered suddenly. "Ok. I won't look. Just…just tell me what to do."

Chapter Fourteen

Last Day of Eclipse

Jade didn't feel much better the following morning. But he had told himself that from here on out—at least until he wasn't so lost anymore—he was going to do exactly what Jackson said. He didn't trust Jackson's God, but he knew deep inside that he could trust Jackson. He could trust Jackson far more than he could trust even himself.

So when Jade woke up the following morning, he dragged himself out of bed and walked into the bathroom to get ready. He took a shower, changed into black jeans, a black tee-shirt, and a black leather jacket. He combed out his hair and threw it into some sort of shape with his fingers and a bit of hairspray. He changed his studs and then put on a little makeup.

Last day of Eclipse, he reminded himself inwardly. Maybe this would be the last time he would wear makeup. Maybe it wouldn't. But it was the last day of Eclipse.

However, even as he told himself that, his heart began pounding. What would they say? What would the media say? Would the media ever leave him alone about this? What if Eclipse decided they wanted revenge like the Dragons had?

"Go blindly," Jade whispered softly. "Let him lead."

It was Jackson's idea. It wasn't even Jade's. But Jade knew that Jackson knew better. Jackson had taken care of him this far. Jade owed him his life. Not that Jade necessarily wanted to keep it, but he still owed it. "Just going to do what he wants," the eighteen-year-old whispered.

When Jade was done, he pulled some tall black boots on and then left the apartment without telling anyone he was leaving. The faster he got out, the better. The less time he had to think about what he was about to do, the less likely Jade was to change his mind and get too frightened.

But the thoughts came, anyway. It was a long drive to the Tech building from Dwarfline, and in the silence, Jade couldn't help thinking.

He was effectively cutting himself off from everything he had ever known—in a sudden decision to fully trust a black guy he had met no more than a few months ago. He may well be throwing his life away—abandoning himself to someone who would tire of him in just half a year. Maybe less.

But what choice did Jade have? He was sick of fighting for himself. He had tried many times to kill himself, but he had always failed. He failed in everything—even self-destruction. He was helpless. His life was a mess and he was in mental torture. Something needed to change—and not just get worse. So far, all the time Jade had been in charge of his life, things had done nothing but get torturously worse. Now it was time to do something different. Time to abandon control to someone else—someone who had managed to get his own life straight. At least he had done that. No, that didn't mean he could sort out the immense wreck of another person's life, but it still meant something.

"Just going to go blindly," Jade repeated to himself, and he tried to just focus on that mindset for the rest of the drive.

But as Jade pulled his blue and white Mini Cooper into a parking space in front of the Tech building, he was feeling far from certain—especially when he saw Amber Kakaya's red Chevy Camaro parked right in the front. Would he have to talk to her?

Jade had been hoping he could talk first to Jude Durrace. He would likely have to talk to someone else afterward, because if Jude told the other Eclipse members, they weren't likely to take him very seriously and such a move was likely to set off a far larger explosion later in time. But at least Jude could have served as a confidence booster for Jade—and maybe even a little support. Of course Jude wouldn't want Jade to leave. But he would understand.

However Amber was here—and Jude's blue BMW sports car was nowhere to be seen.

Oh well. He had to go blindly. Jade pushed open his door and stepped out. He unlocked the passenger's door, opened it, and then slid the passenger's seat forward so it would be easy to get to the bench in the back. He would put his stuff there—everything he wanted to take from his storage room in the Tech building—which probably would not include most of it. But he knew he ought to take most of the show equipment. It was expensive stuff, and it did actually belong to him.

The eighteen-year-old sucked in a quick breath and then walked up to the Tech building door. He unlocked it and then walked in. Judging by the number of cars in the parking lot, Jade decided that there must be a fair amount of behind-the-scenes workers doing something—something interesting enough to make Amber, but nobody else important, show up.

Jade let out a sigh and then turned down the basement stairs. He got down onto the basement floor and then flipped on some lights. There was nobody in the main room which likely meant there would be nobody in the entire basement. That was ok. Jade could get his stuff into his car and then talk to Amber when he was done.

Feeling slightly guilty about putting off the conversation he dreaded having, but too desperate to change his mind, Jade walked down a long hallway and turned off into the room in which most of his Eclipse stuff was stored. However, as he pushed open the door, he was surprised to find that the light was on and the lady who kept all the junk clean and organized was inside, slowly walking down the rows of racked clothing.

She looked up when the door opened and gave Jade a mildly interested expression. "Ah, Jade Leeman—didn't expect to see you today. Are you looking for something in particular?"

"Yeah, just everything I want to keep," Jade said without thinking, quickly getting over his surprise at someone being in here.

"What's that?" the lady asked, looking up quickly.

"I…I…" Jade stumbled for an explanation. But did he really need to tell her? No. "I'm just looking for some of the more expensive stuff—to uh…take back to my house for a bit."

"Mind if I ask why?" the lady asked, raising her eyebrows. "Or is that something you don't wish to talk about?"

"Rather not," Jade said, giving her a fake smile.

She shrugged and turned back to the racked clothing. "Just let me know if I can assist you with anything…"

Jade nodded and then walked over to several empty cardboard boxes stacked in the corner. He knew he really ought to go through all the clothes…

So Jade began a quick job of scanning the racks. He found several leather jackets he definitely wanted to keep, pulled them off their hangers, and then threw them into a box. He continued moving down the racks. And, he ought to take all the ordinary clothes at the end.

"Uh, you know I just ironed that," the lady said suddenly as Jade tossed a black tee-shirt into the box.

Jade tilted his head very slightly. "Well, that's ok, because you won't ever have to deal with it again," he decided with just a little annoyance sounding in his voice.

The lady gave Jade a frown, but then turned back to her searching of the racks—for who-knows-what, and Jade decided not to ask what.

When Jade finally finished going through the clothes, he had set aside two boxes of clothes that he felt he ought to keep. Then he went through the equipment. Jade set aside two more boxes of equipment he wanted to keep.

Then he started going through the other various things in the storage room including jewelry and makeup.

"What are you doing?" the lady asked suddenly. "I mean, suddenly you're just like moving out or something." She had her hand on her hip, glaring at Jade.

Jade sighed. "Just mind your own business."

"Well, I do rather consider this my business," the lady pointed out. "All this time, I've been in charge of all this rubbish you keep in here. And now all of a sudden, it's none of my concern what happens to it!"

"Well if it's none of your concern, then don't be concerned about it," Jade answered smartly. "And as a matter of fact, it is none of your concern. You won't ever have to deal with any of the stuff I'm taking away—ever again, so don't ******* worry, **** it."

The lady shrugged. "Sure. Haul off all your garbage. Just don't ask me to clean it up when you bring it all back messy and in need of organization." She let out a huff and then left the storage room, slamming the door behind her.

Jade shrugged it off and then continued going through the stuff he had stored in the room.

In the end, Jade had five boxes. He lifted one and started up back toward the parking lot where he had left his car. He would finish hauling the boxes into his car and then he would go look for Amber and talk to her.

Again, he was putting it off…But Jade couldn't help it. How could he say it? He didn't have words for it. And what would she do to him after she knew? The moment she knew? She would be furious. No, at first she would be certain he was joking. And then after he repeated himself a thousand times and finally convinced her that he really wasn't joking—then she would be angry. Uncontrollably angry.

But on the other hand, it was better to talk to Amber than Amber's father. If Rudurhans Kakaya had been the only one here, then Jade wouldn't be able to talk at all. Even Fentra Scale would have been easier to deal with.

Jade finished hauling the boxes and putting them into the back seat and trunk of his Mini Cooper. And then there was really nothing else to do but to go find Amber. And tell her…

Jade sucked in a deep breath, told himself that this really was best for him, and then walked back into the Tech building after locking up his car. Jade had figured out where Amber must be based on the noise coming from somewhere down the upstairs hallway. So he headed that way and shortly after starting down the hallway, Jade found an open doorway with noise and commotion coming through.

One glance inside revealed Amber Kakaya talking with the fashion designer. So that was what she was doing. Likely she was discussing some outfit she was going to make him wear. Jade knew for a fact Amber spent considerable time designing all his outfits. He had never liked to think about it, because he didn't like to imagine himself wearing something Amber had put together. But this was one outfit he would never have to wear. The thought gave Jade a little comfort. He would be free of Amber's fashion taste.

Still, fear gripped Jade's heart, and it made him linger just out of eyeshot from anyone in the room. What was he doing? Was he really helping his life situation or was he crushing the life out of it?

"If I leave this band now," Jade breathed softly. "I'll never be able to come back. Never. Never, I'll never be able to come back. I'll never be able to recover this." And he feared it was true. He feared Jackson didn't really know what he was doing with Jade's life. And how could he? He wasn't Jade. He hadn't been through the same torture. He didn't really know how messed up Jade was. He knew nothing, in reality. How could he? He had no experience. He thought he knew what he was doing, but what if he didn't? Anyone could make a mistake. And if this was a mistake, it might very well cost Jade most of what made his life slightly bearable.

"Just do it, anyway," Jade told himself quietly. His copper eyes were watching Amber still. What would she think of him? Her puppy—her stupid little puppy was making an even bigger mess out of his crack-life. And she would look for revenge, Jade knew that. Amber was the type to look for revenge. The only thing that might save Jade was Rudurhans' better judgment. But would that stop her? She had tried to blackmail Jade into having a relationship with her that her father had obviously banned. She didn't care what her father thought. She would get away with as much as she possibly could, and would Rudurhans really be able to stop her from doing whatever she decided to do to get her revenge on Jade? Probably not—at least not soon enough to save him. And Rudurhans wouldn't care to save him, anyway. The band leader would be just as mad as Amber—if not angrier because this was his band and he was actually in charge of it.

The ordeal with the Dragons had been a very close scrape. Honestly, Jade didn't know how he had really survived it. Jackson seemed to have been convinced that his God had somehow been involved. But it didn't make a difference how Jade had survived it with relatively no injury. He had. But it wasn't likely something as remarkable as that would happen twice.

The teenager lifted a hand and touched the scrape on his face. It was healing. But it was still there. It hadn't all been a dream. Yes, it would disappear—if it was given time. But Jade just wasn't sure he could get as lucky if such a thing happened again. He didn't really have a way of defending himself. He could hire his own security guard, but what good would that do? Besides, Jade hated security guards. He would rather be shot through the head with a bullet than be forced to drag a security guard around with him just so the security guard could take the first bullet and leave the second one for Jade.

It was no good, and there was just no way around it. Jade found himself slowly backing away from the doorway. He couldn't do it. He just couldn't do it. Maybe if Jude had been here today. But Jude wasn't, and Jade found he didn't have the strength to go up to Amber and tell her. He couldn't leave Eclipse. He was tied to them. He was bound to them like a puppy was bound to his master. He couldn't leave. He had lost his freedom when he had taken the job. No, he hadn't known it then, but he knew it now and it was too late. He couldn't bring himself to sign off the kingdom he had made for himself—even if it was a false kingdom. Even if it made him more miserable than happy. He couldn't do it. He couldn't just walk up to Amber and tell her. He desperately wanted to be free of Eclipse, but he couldn't cut himself lose. He couldn't live through that moment—that moment right after he said the words and Amber would give him that glare—that annoyed look that she might give to someone who had just made a stupid joke.

It wouldn't work.

Jade turned away from the doorway and walked back down the hall. He just wanted to get out of the Tech building—walk away quickly from yet another failure—yet another renouncement on his ability to control his own life. He could come back tomorrow and put the boxes back into the storage room for that grumpy lady to find. It was ok. Life would go on as it had been before. There was nothing he could do, now. It was ok. Everything was fine.

Yet Jade was not surprised to find tears streaming down his face as he dropped back into his Mini Cooper and started back toward the apartment.

When Jade walked up to the apartment door, he found it was unlocked. That was something good, anyway. The eighteen-year-old didn't feel like knocking. He didn't feel like seeing anyone. And now he would have to explain to Jackson that he hadn't left Eclipse. He was still an Eclipse member and there was nothing he could do about it because he was a complete slave to what he had become. What he had done?

Jade passed a hand across his eyes, took a deep breath, brushed his hair back out of his face and then walked into the apartment. Jackson and Luke were in the kitchen talking. Jade could hear them. They sounded happy and carefree—and unaware that he was back.

It was better that way.

Jade silently shut the door behind himself and then quietly made his way down the short hall, slipped passed the kitchen entrance, and entered his room. The eighteen-year-old shut the door carefully and then walked over to his bed. For a moment, he stared down at it, unsure of whether to lie down or try to somehow relieve himself of the aching in his mind.

At last Jade dropped his phone and his keys onto the bed and walked into the bathroom. He dropped down onto the floor beside the sink and pulled open the cabinet door below it. And there was another small good thing. Jackson had put some of the things back into the cabinet—among them was a pack of razors.

Jade lifted the pack slowly and stared at it for a moment.

A cut could never be hidden forever.

But if he made himself throw up, they might hear him.

He had to stay silent. He had to keep it bottled up inside. He had to keep it swallowed and contained so that none of it showed.

Jade bit his lip and tried to hold back tears. His copper eyes wandered to the wall. He knew perfectly well he shouldn't do this. He should leave himself alone.

And how would he explain to Jackson that he hadn't left Eclipse—because he couldn't? How could he explain that he had set out to the Tech building with a purpose and he had failed.

"Can't," Jade whispered, shaking his head. "Just can't."

He ran a hand through his hair and sat back against the wall, the razor pack still in his hand. He knew Jackson was right—right about taking better care of himself. But how could he go on? How could he just keep going on with all of this tearing at him? What could he do? Lie down and try to go to sleep? How would he explain!?

Jade stifled a sob and then tore the pack open. He lifted out a razor, tossed off the cover and then slipped his fingernail into the underside of the razor. He ran his fingernail along the side, loosening the tiny tabs that held the blade in. And then he pushed and the blade popped out with ease as if it was meant to do that.

Jade lifted the tiny blade between two of his fingers, and then dropped his head back against the wall. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his head of the panic that was drowning out all his common sense. He felt so guilty. He was doing everything Jackson had told him not to do.

"I won't kill myself," Jade whispered. "It won't hurt. Just a little blood. It can't hurt. It can't hurt anything." He tried to make the words comfort him, but they did little of anything.

Jade lifted his sleeve above his elbow and then slowly began cutting little slits all the way up his wrist. This was all he had.

Jade drew aside the blade for a moment and watched as little streams of blood ran around his arm and dripped off onto the floor. This was all he had. This was all that was going to keep him alive. He was suffocating, and he had to breathe. He needed air.

He put his head back against the wall again and stared at the ceiling. He could just picture it—that worried, anxious expression Jackson made when he was startled and…and disappointed.

"I couldn't do it," Jade whispered. "There was nothing I could have done. I couldn't do it. I failed. It was impossible, and I couldn't do it."

It wouldn't be impossible in Jackson's eyes. He wouldn't understand. He would think it's strange and foolish and ridiculous. "Jade, why did you go all the way out there, load everything up into your car, and then just leave without even doing what you set out to do in the first place?"

That's what he would say. And if he didn't say it, he would think it. And Jade wasn't stupid. He would see it.

"I don't know why I couldn't do it," Jade whispered. He passed a hand over his eyes again. "They just tied me up. I belong to them. I can't even control my own life anymore."

But he couldn't stay there forever. Afraid of being caught in the act, Jade stood up, cleaned up the blood from the floor, and still unable to stop crying, he pulled his sleeve down over his bloody arm and then lay down on his bed.

Maybe he could sleep. Sleep, and forget his life for a little…

Jade sat up instantly when his door opened suddenly. Even as his heart began pounding in his chest, Jade knew who it was. And sure enough, Jackson froze in the doorway to Jade's room.

"Gosh, I didn't know you were here, Jade," Jackson said after a moment of surprise. "Did I wake you?"

"No, no…" Jade said automatically. He brushed his hair out of his face and stared back at Jackson with wide copper eyes.

"Something wrong?" Jackson asked softly. He walked slowly over to Jade and sat down beside the teenager, placing a folded bed sheet on the bed beside him.

"No," Jade said, turning away quickly and sliding his sleeves down over his wrists.

"Where did you go this morning?" Jackson asked.

And here it was. Jade bit his lip. It was only a matter of moments, now. He couldn't bide his time for an eternity. And what was the point of coming up with a story? Jackson would find out in the end. It wasn't worth it. "I went to the Tech building," Jade whispered.

"To talk about quitting?" Jackson asked.

Jade swallowed. He nodded.

"And?"

"And I couldn't," Jade said in a hoarse voice.

"You couldn't…what?" Jackson asked softly.

"I couldn't quit," Jade answered. He couldn't meet Jackson's eyes.

"You asked if you could quit and then said you couldn't?" Jackson asked tonelessly.

"No. I never asked," Jade whispered. He automatically tensed, somehow instinctively expecting to be struck in the face in the next moment.

But when Jackson spoke, his voice was surprisingly gentle. "You were scared to talk about it?" he asked.

"I couldn't do it, I can't leave," Jade whispered. "I couldn't do it. I failed."

"What made you back off?" Jackson questioned, slipping a gentle arm around Jade's shoulders.

The eighteen-year-old flinched. "I…I just couldn't…I just wasn't…I wasn't sure…I was…I was afraid."

"You need more time to think?" Jackson asked softly.

"I…I don't know…" Jade sighed. He dropped his head into his hands. "I was so sure you'd be mad about this…"

"Jade, why would I be mad?" Jackson asked softly. "I recognize that this is a hard decision for you. I…I see how painful this is for you, yeah?"

"Just wish I could have done what I set out to do…" Jade sighed. "I wish I could have done it…I was so close, and then I couldn't. I'm stuck with them. I'll never be free."

"It doesn't have to be that way," Jackson said gently. "Maybe you can try again tomorrow."

"I don't want to try again!" Jade suddenly cried. He threw Jackson's arm off himself and stood up. The teenager strode over to the window and leaned against the frame. "It doesn't work. I can't talk to them. I'll never be able to. I'm messed up, ok? I'm sick. I know you don't see that. You just don't see. You're blind to it, and that's lucky for you, because it…it's hideous…but I'm stuck. I can't move. I can't tell them I'm leaving. How could I?" The eighteen-year-old sighed. His fingers rose along the side of the frame and picked at a rough spot in the wood. "You just don't understand. This is my life. It's been my life since I was sixteen years old. I can't suddenly leave it behind. I'm tired of things changing. I'm tired of change. Just want everything to stop. I need to figure out where I am."

"I know what you're talking about, Jade, I'm not an angel who has just never been through all that," Jackson pointed out.

"You're perfect, anyway," Jade whispered. He leaned his head against the window frame and stared at Jackson through the corner of his eye. "You live such a perfect life. You're not…you're not a mess like I am."

"Everybody's a mess, Jade," Jackson said softly. "Just different messes."

"Would you be saying that…" Jade said in a faded voice. "If you knew I had been cutting just…an hour or two before you came in here?"

Jackson sighed. "You've been cutting again?" he asked.

Jade sighed and turned to stare at the floor. "Just not the cleaned up kid you thought I was…"

"Let me see the cuts, Jade," Jackson said seriously.

"Why?" Jade asked. "So you can chew me out about it? Convince me that it's ungodly? Make me feel miserable and guilty? ****, I don't even know why I told you. I did. I did. I'm just going insane, now. Guess I knew you would find out some time, so there's no use in putting it off…****, I just want to stop hurting so much…"

"Then why do you go on harassing old wounds?" Jackson asked sadly. "Can't you just let it heal, Jade? You say you're hurting, but then you need to go on torturing yourself as if you aren't hurting enough. Can't you at least be on your side even if you refuse to let anybody else on your side with you?"

"Maybe if nobody helped me, everyone would just forget about me," Jade whispered. "Maybe I could forget about myself."

"Yes, that's what I'm afraid of," Jackson said suddenly. "You're blaming everything on yourself, Jade. You're tearing yourself down over other people's problems. Honestly, do you want to know why you aren't feeling any better? Because you believe what the wrong people tell you, Jade. You believe everyone out there who happens to want to blame their trouble on someone else. When that Amber girl tells you it's your fault you're messed up, and your fault her day went badly, and your fault you have too much of a good conscience and protected mind to want to see her without any clothes on—you believe her, Jade. And then you assume that there's something wrong with you—something you have to change, but they're lying to you."

"Yeah, and that's what all you people say!" Jade suddenly cried. "Like I have some sort of cloak over my mind! Like I can magically be looking away every time something happens, but that's where you're wrong! You always act like I have this miraculous innocence, but I don't. You can't see that? No, I haven't ever had ***, but that doesn't mean I don't know what it means! I'm not an idiot! I'm not blind! What do you think I don't know? ****, I am eighteen years old! I'm not a little kid—I'm not a little puppy that just doesn't know anything! I know that's what you want me to be, but it doesn't work, ok!? I'm not your puppy!"

"Somebody been calling you a puppy, Jade?" Jackson asked, leaning back slightly.

"What, you haven't heard it?" Jade asked in exasperation. "That's Amber's 'pet name' for me, and naturally the others had to pick it up too."

"And you're just going to let her go on calling you that, Jade? Like you're an animal?" Jackson asked. "These are the types of people you want to keep working with? These are the types of people you want in your life?"

"No! I don't want my ***-**** ****-****** ******* life!" Jade screamed. "You think there's no—what the **** do you think I am?! An idiot?! A ***-**** idiot!? Don't you think there's a reason I've tried to kill myself so many times!?" Jade slammed his fist into the window frame. "You—you think I'm not serious!? You think I'm playing a kid's game!? You think I'm nuts!? You think it's fun to hurt!?"

"Jade, I'm not an idiot. I know you're hurting," Jackson said firmly. "I see that, I'm not blind. But you are hurting yourself when you reject yourself."

"Shut up!" Jade yelled. "Just shut up! You don't know! You don't ******* know! I'm messed up, ok!? You can't fix me! You tried your little miracle-Jesus thing, and it didn't work!"

"You're frustrated and upset," Jackson decided, standing up. "You've got to calm down." He started for the door but stopped midway to it and turned back. "And do I need to take the razors back?"

"Leave me a way out for your **** God's sake!" Jade cried.

"Well, it that case I will," Jackson decided. He walked into Jade's bathroom for a moment and then came back out with the pack of opened razors in one hand. "Let me know when I can trust you, and you can have these back," Jackson muttered and he left the room.

Jade kicked bitterly at the wall and then walked over to the door. He slammed it and then walked over to his bed. The eighteen-year-old dropped onto it and yanked up his sleeve. The cuts were still there. Of course they were. They wouldn't disappear. They wouldn't magically fade away. But Jade wished they were still bleeding. He needed to bleed. He needed relief. He felt trapped and cornered.

"Can't control my life," Jade sighed, and the words released a little anger with them. "I'm just so done with life."

Jade stood up again and walked back into the bathroom. He knelt down beside the toilet and shoved three fingers up his throat. He threw up a few times and then got up and went back over to his bed. He sat down on it and leaned over, dropping his head into his hands.

Life was nothing but pain. He didn't understand why torturing himself more relieved some of that pain, but it did. That was the way his life was. His messed up life. It was his fault, anyway. His pain, his life, his future, his body. He had messed up his parents' marriage. He had messed up his life. It was all his fault. His very existence had destroyed people's plans. He would be better off dead. If Jackson would just let him go, then Jade could do the whole world a favor and rid it of himself.

But there was always someone standing in his way. There was always someone standing in the way of helping the world and relieving himself. There was always someone there to block his moves, force him into a corner, and remind him constantly that he was helpless in a world that looked up to him. If only he had been taken away from his family as a kid—moved to a place where he couldn't cause so much havoc.

It was too late. It was too late for anything, and Jade hated himself for everything he had done, everything he had decided, and everything he had caused. So he forced himself to suffer more, because it felt good. It felt just, maybe. It didn't seem as if anyone should care, anyway.

And then suddenly, Jade's phone began vibrating. His copper eyes drifted to the bed where it lay—shoved to the edge and nearly off. To the edge and nearly off, just like his life was. Had he just pushed it a little further, maybe it would be over.

The phone continued vibrating. Jade reached out slowly and picked it up. The caller ID told him it was Amber and Jade slowly swiped the answer icon and lifted the phone to his face.

"Hey, Puppy, how's my **** *****?" Amber greeted. But she didn't wait for Jade to answer. "How do you feel about modeling today? Dad said we were going to meet for studio work tomorrow all day, so today's the best day to do it."

"Not today, Amber," Jade sighed, suddenly feeling sick to the stomach because he had just thrown up and now he was trying to think clearly.

"Oh, did I forget the part where…I don't really actually care about what you think about it?" Amber asked with a laugh.

Jade suddenly drew the phone away from his face and ended the call. He was sick of it. He was sick of it. He couldn't take any more of this. Was this what he was trying so desperately to hold onto? Some bratty, bossy, self-imposing girl who was dying to tell her puppy what to do all day? Her puppy. He wasn't even a human to her. He was just an animal—a cute animal to be used and abused at will.

Jade opened a text message.

I'm done with your ****.

He wrote the words out rapidly, but then paused and erased what he had written.

I'm human, I won't stand being bossed around all the time. I'm not your puppy anymore.

But again, Jade hesitated and erased what he had written. For a long moment, Jade stared silently at the blank bubble on the screen. And then he wrote it slowly—as simply as he could possibly express himself.

I'm quitting Eclipse. I'm not coming back.

Then he opened his contact list and tapped Rudurhans' number. He had hardly ever texted Rudurhans. This wasn't a joke. This wasn't something he was going to take back. This was really it. He was really, really finished with Eclipse. He was done being the lust toy on stage. He was done being Amber's puppy. He was done being Jade Leeman.

For a moment longer, Jade remained staring down at the screen. And then he hit the send button. Finished. Let them yell, let them cuss him out, let them tell the media, he was done. He wasn't Amber's puppy anymore. He wasn't her love partner. He wasn't going to be pushed around into selling his body and mind away while breaking his heart to shards. He was done, he had quit, and it was over.

Jade shut off his phone and then hurled it across the room. He watched it hit the opposite wall and then fall to the floor. It landed there in the corner and stayed there, silently.

Jade bit his lip and suddenly found burning tears of anguish in his eyes. He lay down and pulled the blanket over himself—more to hide himself from the light than to keep himself warm. He pulled the blanket over his head and cried until he couldn't breathe. Then he threw the blanket back and cried himself to sleep.

"And then the **** ***** just hung up on me!" Amber Kakaya exclaimed. She was still doing something on her phone, glaring at it in frustration.

Her father glanced up at her across the table at the deli. "You're too attached to modeling, Amber. It's not your focus."

"I don't ****** care," Amber answered. "I enjoy doing it, and he is going to be there or I will hit his ***** *** so hard he will remember it for the rest of his life. I mean—the son of a ***** can't just hang up on me! That is so **** rude! I was in the middle of a conversation and then suddenly the line goes dead!"

"Maybe he'll call you back," Rudurhans muttered. He turned back to the magazine he was flipping through.

"Dad, it's been like five minutes," Amber spelled out. "He would have called back if he meant to. But he didn't. He just decided he felt like being sassy today, and he will not get away with something like this."

Rudurhans' phone vibrated a text suddenly and he lifted it out of his pocket with one hand.

"I mean, that kid is so ****** sometimes," Amber went on. She was still glaring at her phone. "And I will go up to that ***-**** place of his, and if he is not ready, he will get in trouble. Simple as that."

"I don't think so, Amber," Rudurhans said suddenly in a voice that made her freeze. The band leader of Eclipse slowly placed his phone down onto the table. "He's just left."

"Left…left what?" Amber asked with an impatient wave of her hand.

"He's quit the band," Rudurhans answered tonelessly. He turned to stare out the window.

"What the ****?" Amber exclaimed. "He just texted you or something?" She snatched up her father's phone and examined it. "Dad, he's joking, ok? I mean…"

Rudurhans shook his head. "He means every word of it."

"He can't just—" Amber began, but Rudurhans cut her off.

"I don't see what's stopping him. Why would he stay? Of course the ***** isn't happy. ****, wish I had seen this coming…"

"Dad, but he's joking," Amber insisted. "I mean, he's not going to just send you a text if he's quitting. At least he'd show his shameful face."

"Jade?" Rudurhans smirked. "Jade Leeman?" He shook his head. "No. I told you he's a piece of ****. If he decided to quit, he wouldn't tell me in person. He's be too scared."

"So you…really think he just…" Amber began, but her voice trailed away.

"He has," Rudurhans said certainly.

"Dad, what are…we going to do? We can't just let him walk off like that."

"Do you see a contract somewhere?" Rudurhans demanded. "No. There is absolutely nothing holding him on. He left. He just left, and it was as easy as that."

Amber bit her lip. "That little *****…What the **** is wrong with him? Needs the whole world to know there's something wrong with him. He's quite an artist—oh, he'll paint a nice pretty picture for the media. A ***-**** artist. A crash artist. He won't get away." Her eyes darted up to meet her father's. "That crash artist won't get away with this."

T he End.

For More Books by Merle Blackbird: user/MerleBlackBird

For Video Media on Jade Leeman's Story (credited to Ripped Gold Video Edits): channel/UCoWUIzfr8ICXRDP-ll-Sghw

Email: thelittleblackbird1