Chapter 25

Kate's fingers tightened on the cold tile of the sink as she stood in the small bathroom. She had escaped to the space for a moment of solitude in an attempt to regain herself enough to halt the unraveling that was rapidly occurring. She had become fixed on the box that had sent the recent events into motion, but now it was more than its contents that had her heart racing. She had not noticed that the necklace had another pendant on the strand. When she separated it she realized it was a ring. A ring that was not hers, but the design had her complete attention.

She broke her concentration enough to grip the sink's handle and turn it towards the cold temperature, hoping she could shock herself into a sliver of control. The sudden heavy rush of the running water cascaded down from the spout. She ignored the violent splashing of the liquid as it careened along the sides of the bowl before it twirled and descended down the drain. She instead stared into the mirror and followed her finger as it traced the jagged series of scars that led from her stomach, across her abdomen, and disappeared around to her back. She paused her movement to study the dime-sized brand just below her hip. There a carbon copy of the simple design was the vivid reminder of the moment she had been sent hurtling into a hellish abyss of darkness. She closed her eyes and leaned further into the sink. It had taken her what felt like lifetimes to be able to look at the scars and not have them trigger an overwhelming emotional response.

His voice clearly played in her head, a sound she had blocked out but would never forget. His melodic and deep tone described in detail to what the simple geometric shape meant as he pressed the white-hot metal into her flesh. Now as she clung to the edge she found that all of her tools to cope were failing. Just like the sudden recurrence of her nightmares, she felt herself slip back into the swirling void of pain and suffering. When she managed to look back up she fought peering into her own eyes. Dark circles enveloped them from the fact that sleep had become a luxury she no longer had. Her forced insomnia caused them to be bloodshot and dry. It was a consequence she was willing to endure to avoid the evil that waited for her in her dreams. Her mind wanted to remain hidden from any truth, but the boxes she had expertly filled and bolted closed were now unlocked and overflowing. No matter where she was it felt like the walls were creeping in wanting to consume her as they collapsed all around.

Kate bent forward to cup the cold water into her hand and splash it across her face. Her hope that it would bring her to the present was fleeting. The frigid water had little effect and barely pierced through her disconnection. She bowed again towards the faucet to repeat the action when a sudden shadow and movement to the side had her jerking upright. She blew out a breath as the door pushed towards her and the dark muzzle of Rontu emerged between the gap that was created. The relief was short lived when she saw Alex pausing as she passed by. The brunette couldn't help her eyes from drifting to the exposed scars.

"Sorry," she apologized, and quickly looked away in respect for Kate but didn't retreat as fast.

"I thought you were still with Hazel," Kate said with a turn of her back when she realized she couldn't shut the door past Rontu's bulky frame.

She blindly reached for the shirt that had hung loosely on the towel rack. She threw her arms through before she tugged it down over herself in haste, but it was too late. Alex had known of the damage done, but Kate had never allowed the scars to be seen. As vulnerable as she felt at that moment it was nothing to the feeling she had deep in her gut.

Kate slammed the handle to shut the flow of water off and snatched up the cardboard box. With eyes down, she swiftly maneuvered around Rontu and past Alex. She felt herself holding her breath for the questions that were bound to arise. None came at that moment, but she knew Alex wouldn't be able to hold her tongue for long. She fought her desire to squirm in discomfort to the burn from the stare that followed her escape back down to the bar.

Once on the lower level, Kate paced along the dust-covered wooden floor in an effort to try and alleviate the anxiety that filled her. The only sound within the room was the ticking of the large grandfather clock behind the bar. Its rhythmic beat did little to calm Kate's pounding heart and spinning mind. Each minute that passed created a new level of anxiety. She had only stopped pacing long enough to pour a drink in hopes the alcohol might reduce the slowly rising panic. So consumed in her thoughts and worries that she barely realized her actions as the liquid moved from the bottle to the glass and almost overfilled it. She recovered in time and hastily set the bottle to the side before she lifted the generously filled tumbler. Kate drew in a mouthful of the clear spirit and looked over the rim to the door of the bar. Frustrated with the degree of unease that flowed through her she set the glass down with a force that caused violent waves within the vessel to crash over the sides and settled into small puddles on the table. She ignored the minimal mess and finally swallowed the liquid she had just taken in and felt the burn make its way down her throat to her stomach. Its effect did little to relax her at first. She was on edge and the lack of control was sending her to the brink.

As the singe of the alcohol subsided it was replaced with the familiar deep-rooted anger; the same anger that had built her up to fight back. She reminded herself of the battle she had fought. The blanket of hopeless gloom that shrouded the skies had already held her for so long that she was numb to the desire of it to pull her down further and remain under its control. She had nothing to lose or fear any longer. Any worries that had once consumed her had come to fruition, so now she stood fearless, a danger to those who upturned her once vibrant world.

"Are you okay?"

The soft voice had Kate spinning in a start. She had forgotten that Hazel was there.

"Fine," she forced out and lifted the glass again.

She pulled the barstool across from Kate out and at the same time she sat she reached for her hand. "Alex told me."

"She did, huh?"

"I wouldn't give her anything for the pain until she did."

With the statement, Kate chuckled and looked over to Hazel. Her kind eyes were watching her cautiously.

"I'm going to be fine. Someone's just playing a prank."

"I'm pretty naive and fully admit that, but Alex doesn't go charging into the lion's den for a prank."

"Hazel, you're anything but naive."

"At least I like to pretend to be." She smiled and pulled Kate's glass towards herself. After taking a small sip she cringed at the strength and set it back in front of Kate. "You're insane drinking that straight."

Kate shook her head and squeezed Hazel's arm. "Please, don't ever change."

"That's what Alex said."

"How is she?"

"Stubborn." Hazel sighed.

Kate nodded in agreement. "Of course."

"She'll be sore, I don't think there are any broken bones. It's not like she'll let me get an x-ray."

"That's true."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No, you taking the time to come out is more than enough."

Hazel stood and circled around the bar and drew Kate into a hug. "I'd prefer it be a social call next time."

Kate graciously returned the embrace. "I promise."

Kate watched Hazel leave and tried to smile when her friend paused and looked back. She wanted to pretend she didn't see the worry behind her eyes. There was nothing she could say or do that would make any of it better. Pretending. She was getting good at that.