An all-new angsty romance is coming next week from Helena Hunting, writing as H. Hunting, and I have a sneak peek for you.
“Where are Lavender and River?” I ask, passing BJ the bag of chips.
“Probably watching a movie with the littles,” Mav says, swiping through pictures on his phone.
“So you found them?” I press. That prickling feeling under my skin spreads, blanketing me.
“Yeah. I found River where he always hides.”
In his room, under his covers. He only plays because we force him to and because Lavender likes hide-and-seek, even though she always picks the most obvious places to hide.
“And Lavender was with him?”
“Huh?” Maverick looks up from the screen.
“Lavender was with River?” I repeat. “You found her too?”
“No, but she always hides under the bed, so there was no point in checking.” He rolls his eyes, annoyed with his siblings’ predictability.
“Right.” I can’t swallow. My throat is suddenly all locked up. My palms sweat, and my hands ache. I push out of the chair and head for the door.
“Where you goin’?” Mav asks.
“Just to check.” I pad down the hall to River’s room, but he’s not in there. I check under the bed, in case Lav fell asleep while she was hiding. It’s happened before.
I move on to the next room and knock on the door before I peek inside. Lavender’s room is peaceful chaos. Her artwork is tacked all over the walls, and her sewing machine sits in the corner, a pile of fabric on the table beside it.
Lavender is beyond talented. Everything she feels she puts on canvas and paper or binds together with a needle and thread.
But she’s not here, and that horrible itch under my skin grows until I want to claw myself out of my own body. I run down the hall, taking the stairs too fast and sliding down the last few on my butt. I sprint to the media room, grip the doorjamb, and scan the seats and mats laid out on the floor where all the littles are. My baby sister, Aspen, is curled up facing the movie screen, but her eyes are closed. My younger brother, Dakota, is right beside her.
River is sitting in the front row, but there’s no Lavender. I spin around and head for one of the other places I might find her—the art room. I take a deep breath to prepare myself for the overwhelming visual stimuli before I flick on the light. Every surface is covered in her ideas. Her thoughts are laid out in vibrant colors, pretty paintings, and designs that swirl and blend together. She told me once it’s what she feels like inside most of the time, but usually darker.
I call her name and cross over to the closet because the door is open a crack, but it’s empty too. Panic makes everything tight, and I try to think about where else she might hide, what her other favorite places are in the house. I rush back upstairs to the spare bedroom at the end of the hall that looks like it belongs to a princess, and push the door open. It slams against the wall with a startling thud as I call out, “Lavender, the game’s over. Are you in here?”
A sound so feral, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end comes from the other side of the room. It’s followed by an aggressive slam that makes the closet door rattle on its hinges.
I slide across the hardwood floor and try to turn the knob, but it’s jammed or locked or something because I can’t get it to turn. “Lavender? It’s Kodiak. I think the door is stuck. I’m gonna get it open, okay?”
She wails from the other side, sounding more animal than human. I don’t want to think about how long she’s been stuck in there. Lavender hates the dark; she’s afraid of the things she can’t see. Ever since she was taken three years ago at a carnival. A lot of things changed after that night.
Lavender isn’t just quiet anymore, she’s something else—missing, even though she’s here. She doesn’t really remember what happened, but dark and small spaces make her nervous. And sometimes she has bad dreams that make her look tired.
I keep trying to turn the knob, but it won’t budge. Once my baby sister locked herself in the bathroom, and I had to figure out how to get her out. I run into the bathroom and yank open the vanity drawer, searching for something I can use to pick the lock. I find a safety pin and prick myself trying to straighten it out. My hands are shaking, and the door keeps rattling, like Lavender’s slamming herself against it. I try to jam the pin into the tiny hole, but it’s hard with how slippery my hands are. I finally manage to slide it in, and I hear and feel the faint click and release.
I turn the knob and Lavender tumbles out, knocking me down. We land on the floor with a thud and an oof.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I repeat, sitting up and rearranging her stiff, shaking form. She curls into a tiny ball, her entire body convulsing with silent sobs.
Her hands are fists, and I can’t see her face. Her auburn hair is a wild, tangled mess. I try to smooth it with my palm, like I’ve seen my mom do with my baby sister when she’s upset. I register the wetness in my lap, the smell of urine and something metallic. I wrap my arms around her and rock her, telling her she’s safe—reassuring myself as much as her.
Lavender is nine.
I’ve known her my entire life.
She is my secret best friend.
We’re the same but different.
We’re connected by invisible threads. I always seem to know when she’s sad or scared. But no one really understands, so we don’t try to explain. I feel sick with guilt that she was stuck in that closet with the monsters in her head.
Her panic is so big, it fills the room and seeps into me too. I rock with her, trying to make it better with my words, but that’s not fixing it.
I shift so I can tip her head up and ask her to look at me, like my mom does when I have a hard time settling my bad thoughts. Her eyes are wild, distant, and filled with fear. Tearstains streak down her cheeks, her lids puffy and red from crying. But that’s not the part that scares me the most. It’s the streaks of blood on her cheeks and across her forehead. It’s the teeth marks that have cut through the skin in her bottom lip and the fresh blood seeping from the wound, trickling slowly down her chin.
Dread wells inside me. I’m terrified they won’t let us all hang out together anymore because of this, scared they’re going to take her away from me, scared she’s locked inside her head forever and I’m never going to get my friend back—that she’ll be here, but totally gone now.
But I lock all the panic and the fears down in the box in my mind, like my therapist tells me to, because right now, Lavender needs me to be stronger than my fear. I take her blood- and tear-streaked face between my palms, wishing I knew if the cut on her lip was the only place she’s hurt.
“Lavender, look at me. I’m right here,” I whisper. “You’re safe now.”