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Echo

By:A. Zavarelli

Echo





A Bleeding Hearts Novel

by

A. Zavarelli

Prologue

I stared at my face in the mirror, steeling myself with another deep breath.

The glass was cracked down the middle, a direct reflection of how my heart felt in that moment. The girl staring back at me was fractured, and would probably never be whole again.

I swiped some more powder over my blotchy skin to hide the fact that I’d been crying. My pale skin always betrayed me, and beneath the crappy orange glow of the lights in our trailer it looked even worse.

My brother would be pissed if he knew if I was in here mourning him already. There would be plenty of time for that later.

My eyes were bloodshot, and there wasn’t much else I could do about that. So I swiped on some strawberry lip gloss and practiced my fake smile. My lips hurt already.

I smoothed out the wrinkles in my ivory lace dress and frowned. I’d made it myself, and it was one of my favorite pieces. After tonight, I doubted I’d ever want to wear it again. Just like everything else, it would be tainted by this memory.

My mom told me I should wear something nice tonight, for Brayden’s last hurrah. This was the only nice thing I owned, and she insisted the white looked good with my red hair. While I would never turn to Norma for fashion advice, she was right.

White was the color of light and goodness. And I needed as much of those things as I could get in my life right now.

Someone banged on the door, and I cringed when I heard Brayden’s voice.

“I know you’re in there, Brighton. Come out please.”

He’d caught me hiding, and I immediately felt guilty for it.

I’d have tomorrow and every day for the foreseeable future to wallow in my despair. But tonight I needed to entertain my brother’s friends and pretend that everything was okay. That he wasn’t going back to court tomorrow and most likely not coming back.

I opened the door and gave him a nervous smile. He was my twin brother, but the differences between us were night and day. He got all of my father’s Italian features, whereas I was a reflection of Norma’s Irish ones.

He shook his head and gave me that disappointed look. The one I hated. I could handle that look from anyone else, but not Brayden. He was my rock. The only solid thing in a world that felt like quicksand. But I was losing him too.

My smile widened, and it hurt my face. Inside I was crumbling, but I couldn’t show him that.

He gripped me by the arms and held me steady as he spoke, his strength as unwavering as it always had been. “It’s going to be okay.”

My lip wobbled, and I tried to look away, but he wouldn’t let me.

“You’re tougher than you think, Brighton,” he said. “In a couple of years, you’ll be able to get out of here. Go anywhere you want.”

“No, I can’t,” I argued. “I don’t want to leave you… I don’t want…”

“You have to, goddammit.”

I flinched away, shocked by the ire in his voice. His eyes filled with regret a moment later, and I thought I saw a flash of the warmth that used to lie in their brown depths. So much of that warmth had disappeared over the past year.

“Listen.” He blew out a breath. “You can’t stay here, Brighton. This place… its poison. And you’re too good for that. So you have to promise me… promise me that you’ll take the first opportunity you get to leave.”

It wasn’t a fair fight. Brayden knew I was in no position to deny him such a request. For him, all of the opportunities were over. He was a sixteen-year-old boy being charged with the crimes of an adult. Something I still couldn’t wrap my head around. There were too many charges to count. Too many atrocious things that I knew he wasn’t capable of.

“It was just an accident,” I whispered. “They can’t take you away from me, Brayden. They can’t. They’ll see. The lawyers will show them you didn’t mean to do it.”

Brayden sighed in frustration. We’d been over this a thousand times, but I didn’t care. I needed to believe this wasn’t happening.

“Everything they say is true, Brighton. I know you don’t want to believe it, but you have to. I killed that family. I ran them off the road, and then I left them there to die. And now I’m going away because that’s what I deserve.”

My chest constricted, and I fought for air as I forced my gaze to the ground. It wasn’t true. I hated him for saying these things. I knew it couldn’t be true. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run away and take him with me. Away from the horrible media and all of the darkness that surrounded us. But I couldn’t.

“You need to let go of whatever hope you’re holding onto,” he said softly. “I need you to promise me that you’ll be strong, and you will do what I asked.”

I couldn’t be strong. But I didn’t need him worrying about me anymore. Brayden would need to worry about himself where he was going.

“If that’s what you think is best,” I said. “I’ll leave as soon as I can. I promise.”

He nodded and glanced around the room, no doubt looking for our absent mother. “And one more thing,” he said quietly. “I’m not asking you to take care of Norma-Jean, but will you just… try to look out for each other?”

I swallowed down the lump in my throat and nodded. Norma-Jean was all I had left now. Talk about depressing. “You know I will.”

He released me with a sigh and gestured to the back porch. “Why don’t you go do your thing, get some fresh air for a bit. These guys won’t be here too much longer.”

I gave him a watery smile and retreated on wobbly legs to the door. Escaping the acrid stench of cigarette smoke and sympathetic glances would do me some good.

As I stole onto the deck, the summer air clung to my skin, pungent with the aroma of Lilacs in full bloom. Two rickety lawn chairs and a small table were all that adorned this space. But if I had a favorite place in the whole world, this would be it.

This was my thinking spot. Where I’d spent countless hours questioning and evaluating my life and all the people in it. It was my safe haven, my sanctuary. I didn’t have anything else like it, and I was fiercely protective of it.

So when I caught someone else sitting in my chair, playing with my Rubik’s cube, I came to a dead halt. I didn’t recognize him, but I assumed he was one of Brayden’s friends. He had to be if he was here tonight.

Why he was touching my cube, or sitting in my chair, I didn’t know. But it irritated me. Didn’t he realize this was the only good thing I had in my life?

His masculine fingers moved the pieces of the cube around with a precision and grace that disarmed me. After having that cube for six years, I’d still never figured it out. I lingered awkwardly in place, one foot still paused mid-stride as I debated my next move. His concentration was so focused on the game, I doubted he knew I existed at all. I was half-tempted to tell him to go inside, but that would be rude. And I was never rude.

I was the good girl. The glue that held the family together. The peacemaker. The one who kept her thoughts to herself and never stepped out of line. That was my role, and I’d accepted it long ago. But for just one night, I wished I could be someone else. Someone who spoke her mind and didn’t care if she hurt someone’s feelings.

Could I do that to a complete stranger?

 I stole a glance at the man’s profile, trying to make out his features in the shadows. He wore nice clothing. The kind of blue jeans and soft grey tee shirt that were artfully faded to look casual. They weren’t fooling me, though. I may have lived in a trailer park, but even I knew what those clothes really smelled like. Money.

None of Brayden’s friends had money. But this guy did. It was clear he didn’t belong in a Podunk township south of Chicago. And yet he was perfectly at ease, touching my things and taking no notice of me as I lingered just a few feet away. He adjusted the last remaining pieces of the game and set it on the table. But before he pulled away, he performed an odd ritual of aligning it to the blunt edges.

And then his eyes shot up to mine.

I drew in a sharp breath. Because now that I could see them, they were seriously blue and seriously intense. And he was looking at me like I was a shiny new toy.

Nobody had ever looked at me that way. I swallowed the gallon of sand lodged in my throat as I gestured to the cube.

 “How did you do that?”

A slow smile crept across his face as he rose up to his full height, cocking his head to the side.

“It’s Brighton, right?”

 “Um, yeah.” I gave an awkward shrug.

“I know your brother,” he said. “And it’s all just a matter of knowing how to play the game, Brighton.”

His eyes raked over me, and nerves I never knew existed flared to life. I had to tell myself to remember to breathe when he took a step closer. Something predatory lingered in that gaze. Something that told me I should leave, right now.

“Do you know how?” he asked.

“I don’t…” I stuttered over the words, trying to find something intelligible to say. My default setting was awkward and shy, and my experience with men was limited. But the way this one looked at me made me feel like a woman. Like a woman whose world he wanted to set on fire.

“I could teach you,” he offered. “In fact, I think it would be quite entertaining.”

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