I’d always avoided looking at myself, especially immediately afterward, and then through the many skin grafts that came afterward. Like I said—years since I looked at my body in the mirror. It was just something that I didn’t allow myself to do.
I bit down on my lower lip as I forced myself to really look. Not a glimpse, and my next breath lodged somewhere between my sternum and my throat.
My collarbone was okay, a peachy cream complexion. I had a great skin tone, perfect for piling on makeup and showing it off. My upper chest was smooth. Then my gaze dipped.
Everything looked like a f**ked-up Picasso painting from there.
The same kind of scar that screwed up my face had gotten a hold of my left breast, slicing right over the top of the swell, across the areola, narrowly missing my nipple. I was lucky. Having only one nipple would suck. Not that anyone saw either of my ni**les, but still, I didn’t want to think of myself as One Nipple Calla. My other breast was fine. Both were decent sized, I thought, but the skin between them was discolored, a lighter color. Second-degree burns. Scarring was just pigment changes, but then there was my stomach.
I looked like an old couch that someone had used different flesh tone fabrics to piece together. Seriously. Third-degree burns were no joke. None whatsoever.
Patches of the skin were a deep pink, other parts faded to a rose color, and otherwise smooth, but the edges of the scars along my side were raised. I could see that in the mirror. Kind of looked like a birthmark, but when I twisted around and craned my neck, I saw my back. From just above my rump and all the way across my shoulder blades, it matched my front, except the scars were worse, rugged and puckered skin, almost wrinkled in some areas, and a much deeper color, almost brown.
There had been no skin grafts there.
Dad had left by that point, disappearing into the drama- and grief-free great unknown. When I graduated from high school, with the help from Clyde, I’d managed to track down my father.
He was living in Florida.
He didn’t have any kids.
And after one phone call with him, I knew he didn’t want to rekindle any father/daughter bond.
So he’d been gone when it came time to do the skin grafts on my back, and Mom . . . well, I guessed she’d forgotten about the doctor appointments or stopped caring or something.
The back of my eyes stung as I forced the air to become unstuck. The pain from the burns had been the worst thing I’d ever experienced in my life, at least physically. Many times, even as young as I had been, I had wanted death in those hours and days afterward. The scars didn’t hurt now. They just looked like crap.
I closed my eyes as I turned back around, but I could still see myself. That hadn’t been pretty. Could’ve been worse. When I’d been on the burn floor, I’d seen worse. Little kids that played with fire. Adults in fiery car accidents. Skin literally melted. And then there were the people—the kids—who didn’t survive fires, be it the heat or the smoke. So I knew it could’ve been worse, but no matter what I did, no matter how far I traveled or how long I stayed away, the night of the fire had left its mark on me, physically and emotionally.
And it had done a number on Mom.
I bit down on my lip until I tasted blood.
Kissing was stupid. Crushing on Brandon had been dumb. Kissing Jax Johnson was even dumber. Everything was dumb.
Hurrying away from the mirror, I changed into a pair of cotton sleep shorts with a long-sleeve thin shirt. For some reason, no matter the time of year, this house always stayed cool and could get downright chilly at night, so I pulled on a pair of long socks to keep my toesies warm.
I headed into the kitchen, tummy grumbling, but the trip was pretty pointless because all there was in the pantry was saltine crackers. Grabbing the box, I promised myself that no matter what condition my car was in, I was going to the grocery store and spending some of that fifty dollars on oodles and noodles.
Taking a packet of what I hoped wasn’t stale crackers and the leftover tea I’d had last night into the living room, I came to a startled stop when I heard a knock on the front door.
I dropped the packet of crackers on the couch cushion and turned to look at the clock on the wall. If the time was accurate, it was almost one in the morning, so what the hell?
Standing still, I winced when I heard the knock come again. Nervous, I spun and hurried quietly to the narrow and short hallway. Stretching up, I peered through the peephole.
From what I could see, no one was there. Pressing my hands against the door, I stared through the peephole. The porch was empty.
“What the hell?” I muttered.
Thinking I might be going crazy, I rocked back and unlocked the door. Opening it up about a foot, I immediately recognized my mistake. The porch hadn’t been empty. The guy had been sitting down and he rose suddenly, causing my heart to throw itself against my ribs painfully.
What I could see of the guy in the dim light wasn’t good. Tall and really skinny, he had shoulder-length blond hair that was stringy and greasy. His face was gaunt and lips chapped. Yuck. I didn’t want to see anything else. I inched back, clutching the doorknob, about to shut it when he slammed a large hand into the door.
“I need to see Mona,” he rasped in a scratchy, dry voice.
“She’s n-not here. Sorry.” I started to shut the door again, but he got one leg in and then pushed—pushed harder than I thought he could, flinging me back. I bounced into the wall, cracking the back of my head. There was a flare of pain that quickly spiked when the door flew at me, smacking into my forehead.
“Holy crap,” I gasped.
The greasy guy stepped inside, glancing at where I was smashed like a gross bug. “Sorry,” he grunted, hauling the door off me and kicking it closed with a scuffed-up biker boot. “I need to see Mona.”
I blinked a couple of times as I pressed my palm against the side of my head. For a moment, I think I saw birdies.
“Mona!” the man shouted, moving down the hall.
Wincing, I dropped my hand and straightened just as the guy walked into the living room, still shouting my mom’s name like she was going to magically appear out of thin air.
I hurried down the hall, still somewhat in a daze. “She’s not here.”
Greasy Guy stood in front of the couch, his shoulders hunched. In the brighter light, I really didn’t want to see what I saw. The man was dirty—his shirt and his jeans. His arms were bare, the insides of them covered in red, puckered marks.
Greasy Guy was strung-out.
“Mona isn’t here,” I tried again, my heart kicking into high gear, which caused the ache in my temple to feel like a miniature jackhammer.
He turned to me, his jaw working. “She owes me.”
Shit galore everywhere and on my shoes.
Greasy Guy turned to me, and his eyes were a pale blue, unfocused. I wasn’t sure he even saw me. “She’s got shit here. I know she does.”
My eyes widened. There had so better be no shit here.
Without saying another word, he brushed past me, heading for the bedroom. My heart lurched in my chest. “What are you doing?” I demanded.
He didn’t respond as he went straight for the bed, ripping off the clean sheets and blankets.
“Hey!” I shouted.
Still, he ignored me as he slipped his hands under the mattress and then flipped it over. When he found nothing, he let out a string of curses.
Oh, this was so not good and quickly spiraling out of control.
I started toward him, but he threw out a jacked-up arm and growled, “Stay the f**k back.”
My stomach tumbled, and I stayed the f**k back as he went to the dresser, pulled out my folded clothes, and then went over to the closet. Out of some small miracle, he didn’t go for my purse after demolishing the room I’d straightened.
Then he stopped at the entrance to the bathroom, his back straightening. A strange look crossed his face. “Damnit.” Greasy Guy turned and jogged out of the bedroom, aiming for the stairs.
Oh no. Where in the hell did he think he was going? Hands shaking, I whirled around and got in front of him, blocking the stairs. “I’m sorry, but she’s not here. I don’t know where she is or what you’re looking for, but you need to—”
He planted a hand in the center of my chest, pushing me back, and then he got right up in my face. His teeth were yellow, some completely rotten out, and his breath smelled like days-old garbage. Bile rose in my throat.
“Look, I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a f**k. But I don’t have a problem with you,” he said. “So, don’t make me have a problem with you. Okay?”
I forced a jerky nod. I did not want to have a problem with him. “Got it.”
He stared at me a moment, and then his gaze narrowed over my left cheek. “You’re Mona’s kid, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer because I wasn’t sure if that would mean I’d have a problem with him if I did.
“Shit sucks for you,” he said, and then dropped his hand. Greasy Guy climbed the stairs.
Against common sense, I followed him up the stairs and into the loft bedroom—my old bedroom. Greasy Guy knew what he was looking for. He went straight to the closet and ripped the door open so hard I was surprised it didn’t come off the hinges. Then he dropped to his knees and leaned into the tight space. Holding my breath, I crept behind him, debating if I should go for the lamp on the nightstand and knock him out.
Greasy Guy reached in, brushing shoe boxes out of the way, and then I couldn’t see what he was doing when he grunted and jerked back. He tossed a piece of the wall aside—a piece that had been cut out, which probably hid a cubbyhole.
“Fuck yeah,” Greasy Man breathed as he scuttled back out of the closet, stumbling to his feet. “Jackpot. Motherfucking jackpot.”
I didn’t want to look, but I had to. Greasy Guy was holding, not one, but at least eight Ziploc bags in his hands—bags full of something off brown that reminded me of clumpy brown sugar.
“Oh my God,” I whispered.
Greasy Guy didn’t hear me. He was staring at the bags in his hands like he was seconds away from ripping one open and shoving his face into the crap.
My knees felt weak. There had been drugs in the house, drugs hidden in a secret spot in the closet of my old bedroom. Not pot or something else relatively harmless, but something I bet was real bad and real costly.
Greasy Guy seemed to forget that I existed, which was okey-dokey fine with me. He headed down the stairs, and then a few seconds later, I heard the front door slam shut, causing me to jump.
I don’t know how long I stood in the bedroom, staring at the open closet door before I forced my feet to move. I went downstairs and into the bedroom, dragging my cell phone out of my purse. My hand shook as I called Clyde.
He answered on the third ring. “You okay, baby girl?”
It was late, and he was probably still at the bar. “Some guy was here.”
There was a pause, and then his voice got real low and real serious. “What happened?”
I told him everything in a rush, and then he told me to make sure the door was locked—good point—and to hold still. He was coming over. There wasn’t anything he could do now, but I appreciated it. Admittedly, I was freaked-out. Way freaked-out.
I made sure the closet door in Mom’s bedroom was closed, reapplied my makeup even though it was only Clyde, and then the next twenty minutes or so, I sat on the couch, clutching the phone to my chest until there was a quick, loud knock on the front door.
I checked the peephole again, and this time I saw someone out there—someone that sent my already overworked heart into cardiac arrest territory.
Jax was standing on the other side of the door.
“What the hell were you thinking?” was the first thing out of Jax’s mouth when I opened the front door.
I had a better question. “What are you doing here? I called Clyde.”
“And Clyde told me, so I’m here.” He pushed inside, pulled the door from my grasp, and pushed it shut, locking it. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Having not come to terms with the fact that it was Jax that was suddenly standing in the foyer, I blinked slowly. “What question?”
“Why in the hell did you answer the door in the middle of the night?”
“Oh. I checked the peephole first, you know.”
Jax stared at me.
“And I didn’t see anyone,” I added in my defense.
He folded well-defined arms across his chest. “So, let me get this correct. You heard knocking on your front door, went and actually used the peephole, but when you didn’t see anyone, you thought, Oh, what the hell, I’ll just open the door? Did it ever occur to you that someone could’ve been hiding?”
Oh wow, he looked and sounded pissed, but he could kiss my rosy red behind. “The guy wasn’t hiding. He was sitting down.”
His dark brows flew up. “Did you know that when you opened the door?”
“Well, no, but—”
“So, why in the hell did you answer the door?” he demanded again, eyes turning dark.
“Look, I get that answering the door was stupid.” My hand tightened around my cell phone, and I sort of wanted to slam my other fist into his chest. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“No shit,” he growled.
My eyes narrowed. “I get it. I don’t need you to keep pointing it out.”
“Jesus Christ, Calla, I’ve told you about the kind of shit your mom was messed up in, and I told you not to stay here. The least you could do is not answer the door in the middle of the night.”