My face hurts.
Sander rubs his thumb over my bruised knuckles. His touch is gentle, so it doesn’t hurt.
I also have cuts along my wrists where I was handcuffed. I don’t know how long it will take those scars to go away. Maybe they won’t ever go away.
Because of Sander Soto, I am safe. He protected me when nobody else could. He rescued me. I have no doubts that without him, I would be dead right now. And dang, it felt good to fight back against the guys who had taken me.
Since the first time I was kidnapped, back in April, my life has turned completely upside down. I have had to give up everything—my family, my home, my life. Yet, I can’t bring myself to regret any of it, because it brought me here.
“You ready to head back to East Raven Academy?” Sander asks.
Am I ready?
But then again, maybe I need to be there. At least I was safe there. Nothing bad ever happened inside the walls of the school. Out here, in the ‘real world,’ everything is more complicated. Here, I am an easy target.
Well, not so easy anymore. Sander hasn’t taken his eyes off of me since he rescued me yesterday.
“Yeah, let’s go back,” I say. I try to smile, but my face doesn’t really cooperate. Maybe because I’m so tired. Or maybe because I just straight up don’t feel like smiling.
When we go back to East Raven Academy, Uncle Matty and Jake won’t be there. Somebody leaked the address of the safe house. And I don’t think it was either of them, but the fact is, it could have been. And I don’t know who to trust. So, I trust the one and only person that I can... Sander.
Sander opens the passenger side door of the black SUV for me and I get in. I am thankful for the blacked-out windows today. I don’t want anybody to see me. I don’t even want Sander to see me. I am pretty sure I look as bad as I feel, which is really bad.
He starts the SUV and we take off. I look at the GPS and sigh when I see that we have a four-hour drive back to the school.
“How did we get so far away?” I ask.
“The safe house was an hour from school,” he says. “The guys who kidnapped you took you another two hours away. And then I took you another hour to get to the doctor.”
“Oh,” I say.
I couldn’t see just any doctor. Sander took me to a doctor who works for the same organization as he does. He did it for my safety, and for that I am grateful.
Honestly, a four-hour drive in the car sounds nice. I’ve been inside the school for so long and once we get back, I probably won’t be allowed to leave again. So, this is exactly what I need.
“How are you feeling?” Sander asks.
“Do you know how you feel after you work out for the first time in months?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he answers.
“It’s like that... I’m so sore everywhere,” I say.
“I don’t think the men who took you were gentle. I think you got tossed around a lot,” he says, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.
“I’d say not,” I say. “I even have a giant bruise on my butt.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s my fault.”
“No, it’s not,” I say. “You saved me.”
“You should never have been taken in the first place,” he says.
I’m not sure what to say to that. I don’t think it’s his fault, but I doubt I’m going to change his mind about it. So, I just leave the conversation at that because I am tired of talking about it.
I just want life to go back to normal.
But if it were back to ‘normal,’ would that mean Sander would have to leave?
He’s not really a high school student. He’s only here to protect me. Is it selfish to want this to last a little longer, just to have him be a part of my life?
“I know it won’t happen again,” I say.
“No, it won’t. Because I’m not going to let you out of my sight long enough to let it happen,” he says.
I smile at his words.
What the heck?
Even my face hurts!
I pull down the visor and look at myself in the mirror. One side of my face is slightly swollen. I groan at my reflection.
Sander reaches over and shuts the visor.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.
“My face is swollen,” I say.
“In a few days, you’ll be back to normal,” he says.
But I wonder if I will.
The first time I was kidnapped, I don’t remember a thing. This time, I remember everything. So, will I truly be back to ‘normal’ in a few days?
Somehow, I doubt it.
Four hours later, we arrive back at the cabin. Sander wants me to stay there with him tonight, but being here makes me miss Uncle Matty and Jake even more.
“I told Charlie we were coming back today,” Sander says, as we walk inside. “He’ll probably come by after school.”
“Did you tell him what happened?” I ask, hoping he says no.
“I had to, Phoenix,” he says. “And if I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure he would’ve figured it out.”
I know he’s right, but I still wish Charlie didn’t have to know.
“I’m going to get a shower,” I say, walking towards the bathroom. I just want to take the longest shower of my life and forget that yesterday even happened, if it’s possible.
I walk into my spare bedroom and look around. Everything looks the same as it did before, yet it feels different.
I go to my closet and grab a hoodie and pair of sweatpants to put on. I just want to be comfortable, and I want to cover up the marks on my wrist. There is no need for Charlie to see them. He will only worry more. Plus, it’s probably good to hide them from Sander. On the drive home, I saw him glance over at my hands several times. I know he’s mad. And he should be mad. I’m mad. But being angry doesn’t change anything.
About thirty minutes later, I come out of the bathroom, showered and finally clean. I leave my wet hair down so it can air dry.
“You feel better?” Sander asks, when I walk into the living room.
His hair is wet, too, so he must have taken a shower when I was.
“Much better,” I say.
“Good,” he says. “You want something to eat? I’m not as good of a cook as Jake was, but I could try to cook something.”
“Actually, I really want something super greasy and unhealthy,” I say.
“It’s because you didn’t eat yesterday. Your body just wants calories. I will call somebody and have them pick up something,” he says.
“I want a chocolate shake,” I say.
“Okay,” he says.
There is a knock on the front door of the cabin and Sander goes to look outside. When he opens the door, Charlie comes through.
It’s so good to see my brother.
“Charlie, hey,” I say, as he comes over to me.
“I’m going to give you two some privacy,” Sander says, walking from the living room to a room in the back.
“Phoenix, what happened to you?” Charlie asks, looking at me.
I pull down at my sleeves, just to make sure he doesn’t see the marks.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Honestly, I’d rather not talk about it.”
He nods, but I know he isn’t pleased with my response. I can’t blame him. If our situations were reversed, I’d want to know what happened to him. But I just can’t bring myself to tell him.
We sit down on the couch together.
“How has school been?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “I honestly haven’t been able to think about anything other than you since I heard the news last night. I’m almost glad I didn’t know until you were rescued.”
“You didn’t know?”
“No. Sander was busy finding you,” Charlie says. “I guess I can’t fault him for that. Especially since he found you and rescued you.”
I push a piece of hair behind my ear.
“Though, maybe you would’ve been fine on your own,” he says, grabbing my hand. “You fought back.”
“I did,” I say, pulling my hand away. I pull my sleeve down again.
“Good,” Charlie says.
“Does anybody at school know what happened?”
“No. Everybody is kind of used to you disappearing, actually,” he says. “It’s not your fault. You just... have to miss a lot of class.”
“I’m sure Mr. Anderson was thrilled I was gone,” I say.
Charlie laughs. “He did seem quite annoyed at your absence today.”
“Great,” I say. “Not even being held captive by a group of terrorists is a good enough excuse for him.”
Not that he knows. He doesn’t. Not many people in this school do—not just for my safety, but for theirs, too.
“Are you okay? Really?” Charlie asks.
I nod. “I’m fine. I just need time. My whole body is sore, I’m exhausted, and I feel like I could sleep for the next few days.”
“Maybe you should sleep then.”
“I probably will after I eat something,” I say.
“Good,” Charlie says.
Charlie and I chat for a bit, mostly about mundane stuff, until our food comes. He leaves after I eat so I can get some sleep.
Honestly, I don’t know when, or even if, things will go back to normal, but I do know that I hate feeling the way I do right now.
I will never allow myself to get kidnapped again. And if Sander has his way, I know I won’t.