This is the night I make my escape.
The silver balloon shoots up from the net like a diver swimming the hell away from an undiscovered deep-sea animal—too fast, way too fast, fast enough to get the bends—and hurls itself against the steel rafters, exploding like a shot.
At least, I assume it sounds like a gun shot. I can’t hear anything over the deafening roar of the music at this party. It’s so loud that it thrums through my ears and into my jaw, rattling my teeth.
It’s time to go.
For one thing, I’m crashing this party.
For another, the balloon release is the signal.
The birthday girl, according to the signs in the lobby, was born at exactly 12:05 a.m. Perfect timing.
I have no idea why she wanted to ring in her freshly minted adulthood at this second-rate club—with a balloon release, no less—but her friends are still screaming their congratulations when I unfold myself from the booth, gather my purse, and begin wending my way to the doors.
Justice Danes is out.
Out of this party.
Out of Manhattan.
And out of all the awful things I’ve done.
All the awful things my family has made me do.
But did they really make me, or—
Now’s not the time for debate—not if I want to follow through with this plan and flee the city for somewhere better. Somewhere that doesn’t make my skin feel stained from the past.
My heart picks up the pace the closer I get to the narrow cast-iron stairs leading down to the main floor. The plan itself makes nominal sense, in that I know my personal security guard, Andre, loathes this kind of party. An hour ago, I pouted at him until he agreed to wait in the car.
I’m never going back to that car.
The first floor of the club is a sea of people who should be too young to get into a bar, much less be this drunk. I wouldn’t mind a buzz at this point, but I have been fucking steadfast. Not even a sip of a vodka cranberry has graced my lips this evening. I left the entire thing sitting on the table as a kind of sacrifice to the gods of getting the fuck out of here.
In the hallway leading to the bathrooms—and beyond that, the kitchen—a clutch of drunk high school seniors descends upon me.
“Oh, my God,” one of them trills. “Chelsea.” My name is not Chelsea. “I fucking love you. You used to be so fucking ugly. Get in the picture.” She flops her arm around my neck and presses her slobbery lips to my cheek. Somewhere in front of us, a camera flashes. There’s a 50-50 chance it captures my blank, horrified expression.
“I love you, too,” I tell her, digging my fingers into her arm and twisting it off of me.
“Like, ow,” she says, narrowing her eyes to glower at me. Then her face lights up. “Are you going to get drinks?”
“Yeah.” I paste on my biggest, brightest smile. “What do you want?”
She tips her head back like she’s in the throes of a halfway decent orgasm, her hair all ruffled on one side from dancing. “Like…anything with Red Bull.”
“Got it. I’ll be right back.”
“Love you, Chels,” she calls after me.
I will not be right back.
For appearance sake, I pause outside the bathroom and pretend to look inside my clutch. The posse of drunken teens is gone when I look up, so I don’t have to waste any more time. I head past the bathrooms, take a hard left, and stride with confidence toward the swinging kitchen door.
It’s a sturdier door than I thought, because when I push it open and step over the threshold, the volume of the music drops. Or maybe it’s just so quiet in here that it sucks up all the sound and folds it into the silence.
A door creaks open to my left.
“I’m on my way out,” I tell whoever it is.
“You’re not allowed to be back here.”
“I don’t want to be back here.” I risk a glance. You can never be too careful when you’re making an escape. It’s a lanky guy with a dark shirt and an apron, and he’s balancing a stack of metal bowls in his arms.
“They’re always drunk,” he mumbles, and I push open the back door and step out into the alley.
My first inhale of the night air smells more like a rancid garbage dump than freedom. It’s disgusting back here. Not that I needed another reason to walk out onto the sidewalk.
It’s the part of the block nobody’s supposed to see. Paper tumbleweeds grown from shredded posters blow up to the foot of the one street light. The bulb is blown out, so I have to navigate my way under the light pollution that hangs over Manhattan.
Soon, I’ll be…elsewhere.
Destination so far unknown, but a few of the details are nonnegotiable. Clean air. Sheets of an appropriate thread count. And an address my family knows nothing about. Where my father and brother can never find me again. For all I know, my brother Hector is already in charge, has already stepped up to take my dad’s place. Maybe they celebrated the promotion tonight. Either way, I want to be gone by the time they realize they need me again.
Maybe I’ll finally have a chance to find my sister.
But I have to push Patience out of my head along with everyone else. Tonight isn’t about them. It’s about me.
I have enough money tucked into my purse to make it to where Tripp is waiting, and then some. Once I had a nanny who drilled it into me that I should always carry some cash. In case of what, I didn’t know. Why would I need money when Andre was everywhere I went?
The fall breeze swirls around the points of my heels, and I hurry faster.
Three blocks—that’s all it is.
A car goes by one block behind, and I tuck my head down and walk faster. I look like an idiot out here without a coat, but I couldn’t carry one inside the club without tipping off Andre. I could have stolen one, I guess, but then one of those wasted 18-year-olds would be freezing her ass off out here.
I might be the black sheep of my family, but I try my best not to be a bitch. Enjoy your coat, drunk girl.
I wait for the traffic signal—which, why?—and go quickly across the crosswalk.
That’s when I feel them.
Someone’s watching me.
No. Nobody’s watching me. It’s late, it’s cold, it’s October—nobody cares what’s going on at midnight. Nobody knows I’m here, anyway. Nobody knows what my plan is or where I’m going with Tripp. Nobody knows how done I am with this life, with my father, with all of their bullshit.
Nobody knows how done I am waiting for the shoe to drop.
“They don’t know,” I repeat to myself out loud, the words swept away from my lips by the wind. “Nobody knows.”
Nobody knows, except Tripp.
There’s no realistic reason to think that anybody’s watching or following me. That’s fucking paranoid.
Those are not footsteps that I hear.
Other than mine, those are not—
I stop abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk, and two heavy footfalls echo off the brick buildings to my left.
My heart rockets up into my throat. It’s two more blocks. Fine—two and a half. I can run if I have to, but I’m not going to run. Running only makes people take chase. But I move faster—as fast as I can without breaking into a jog. My ankles ache from the sheer height of my shoes.
I throw myself out into the street without waiting for the light, and someone behind me breathes audibly.
It’s one inhale, the sound of someone who maybe doesn’t believe I can walk this fast in heels, and a fresh wave of goose bumps rises at the back of my neck.
Somebody else is out here, looking for a cab. Hurrying home. Probably escaping that party, too. No reason to think—
They break into a run,.
I know it from the first scrape of their shoe on the sidewalk, know it from the way I’ve got one and a half blocks to the car.
Run. Run. Run.
Half a block to go. The short, sequined dress that was supposed to be so perfect to blend in at the club rides up to the bottom of my ass, letting the cold air sweep between my legs. It freezes me to the core.
My right heel catches.
It just…catches in the crack of the sidewalk. I scramble to get upright, scramble to keep my balance, but my ankle twists and I go down hard to the left. Pain scrapes up my left elbow and Jesus, that hurts as much as it did when I was a kid. I shove off and up, breath ragged, and this is it—this is the final sprint, everything I’ve got, half a block, half a fucking block—
I reach the corner.
The entire intersection is soaked with the yellow glow of a flickering street lamp.
The entire intersection is empty.
There’s no car here, no one is here waiting for me.
I don’t have time to figure out the answer.
I lurch forward, ready to run across the street, ready to try one more time, and that’s when the hand closes over my mouth—gloved. Andre never wears gloves. It’s not my bodyguard. I take one heaving breath through my nose and I’m met with silence, not Andre’s exasperated scolding.
That’s when I know I have been caught.