Eight years ago
I glare at the little imp outside my window, half-tempted to not open it and leave her out there.
As if I ever would.
I’m so pissed at her for climbing that tree again and putting herself in danger, yet looking at her is the first spot of happiness I’ve had all day.
Storming up to my window, I slide it open, lean out, and practically fling her skinny little butt against me.
Kira squeals and wraps her arms tight around my neck.
My heart is about to explode and it won’t slow down until I have her inside and safe.
Once I do, though, my heart is beating harder than ever. And when I put her on her feet and she doesn’t let go, moving closer and hugging me tighter instead, I swear I’m going to have a heart attack.
Damn, she always smells so good.
Swallowing nervously, I push her back and glare down at her. “You’re the most annoying ten-year-old in the world.”
She slaps me in the chest hard. “And you’re the most antisocial, thirteen-year-old jerk alive! Why have you been ignoring us all day?”
Shrugging, I turn away from her and walk to my bed.
She follows me, of course.
She’s always following me.
It should annoy me.
Despite what I said, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
How weird is that?
Whatever. She’s my best friend. Of course I want her around, even when I’m too embarrassed to show my face.
The lights are off in my room though, and I have no plans of turning them on.
She doesn’t need to see.
No one needs to see.
My face is still red from earlier. I was freaking crying and I’d rather die than let anyone know that.
“Brayden.” Kira climbs on the bed next to me. “What’s going on?”
“Your mom is going to flip if she wakes up and realizes you aren’t in your room.”
“You were ignoring us all day. And I know what it means when you do that.”
Of course she does. She knows me. All of me. There’s nowhere in the world I could ever hide from this girl, including inside my own self.
“It’s nothing, Kitty. I just wanted to be alone.”
“You never want to be away from me, so stop lying.”
I glare at her cocky, adorable ass, wondering why I put up with her.
Her hazel-green eyes turn soft. Man, I hate when she looks at me like that. It makes me feel like both a king and a peasant at her feet. Like I can take on the whole world, but at the same time like I’m weak and powerless in front of her.
I don’t get it. I know I love her. I’ve loved my best friends since I met them. Both her and her brother. And I have no problem admitting that.
But why does what I feel for her feel so different than what I feel for Ryan?
“They were fighting again, weren’t they?” she asks me softly.
The question makes me itchy. Literally itchy. My skin crawls at the reminder and it’s a struggle to remain seated.
She’s ten. I don’t want her knowing about bad things like this.
But of course she knows. Ryan knows. Sometimes it feels like the whole world knows. There’s no way the neighbors don’t hear the epic blowouts.
My mom accused my father of cheating today.
He denies it up and down.
She told him that if she ever catches him, that’ll be the day she leaves him.
There was something weird about the way she said it. As if it were something that had happened before.
But of course it hasn’t. My mom would have left him if it had.
My throat closes up at the thought. I know my mom would be better off without him. That I would be, too.
But I must still be a stupid little boy, because thinking of them separating hurts.
Please. Please. Don’t let my dad cheat on her . . .
Kira places her small hand on my cheek and I jump. She’s caressing me, that soft, loving expression aimed at me, and I want to melt into her.
How does she do that? How does she make everything okay in my world just by touching me?
The understanding in her eyes is too mature for a little girl like her.
“Did he hit you?”
Her question surprises me. “Why would you think that?”
“Because I’m always waiting for it to happen.”
So am I, actually. All the time. I walk around here waiting for the day that he aims that rage at me.
But that’s another line he knows he can’t cross. My mother made it clear. Touch me and she will end him.
Damn. My life is so fucked up. How many kids’ mothers have to warn their fathers not to hurt them?
“He didn’t,” I assure Kira, grabbing her hand and holding it in mine. We twine fingers and just look at each other in the dark.
“Brayden, I’m going to ask you something but don’t get mad.”
I sigh. “You know you tell me that every time right before you ask me something that ends up making me really, really mad, right?”
She giggles then goes back to being serious. Placing her other hand on my cheek, she stares sadly into my eyes. “You were crying, weren’t you?”
I let her hand go and turn around so my back is facing her and I’m sitting with my legs dangling over the edge of the bed.
I hate being seen as a weakling. My father already treats me like I’m pathetic.
Kira comes up behind me and shoves her legs underneath my arms. She curls them around me, crossed over my lap, and her arms come around me too.
I feel her press her cheek against my back as she hugs me from behind.
I’m angry at her for bringing up the fact I was crying, but I can’t push her away. She’s the only thing in this entire world that can comfort me.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles. “I just had to know.”
“Yeah,” I whisper.
“Yeah . . . I was.” I can’t even add in the last part, crying. The word gets stuck in my throat and I can’t get over how bitter it tastes.
Kira curls around me tighter, like a baby boa constrictor.
She’s so tiny. I wonder sometimes if she’ll always be. I’m only thirteen and I’m already almost a foot taller than her.
“I hate that he makes you cry. I wish I could hit him with a lamp right in his nose.”
I burst out in a quiet laugh. “Me, too. Trust me.” I reach up and hold one of her arms in my hand.
“There has to be something we can do, Brayden.”
We. She always talks like that. Makes me feel like a part of her family. Her brother is the same way. They act as if they have never imagined a life where I won’t be a part of it.
I freaking love them for that.
“There’s nothing we can do, Kira. I just gotta grow up and move out.”
She tenses all around me and somehow squeezes me tighter. “Without us?”
“No, silly. We’re all going to be together. Always.” I realize some people would think it’s dumb that I’m promising her that without knowing the future for sure.
Screw that. Somehow I’m keeping that promise. Kira, my mom, and Ryan are all I truly have.
“I wish your parents would break up now so you and your mom could be happy.”
Her comment hurts me. I don’t reply. I’m ashamed of the fact that them possibly breaking up brings tears to my eyes again.
Damn. My father might be right. I am weak.
Kira let’s me go.
I hate it so much that I fling around without thinking, searching her out so I can bring her back to me.
She urges me to relax back against the headboard. Then she lays her upper body on my lap, facing away from me.
Instantly, I start caressing her hair. I love her hair. Don’t know why, it’s just hair, but I do.
“Brayden, you need to start calling us when these things happen.”
I say nothing. What can I say? I know I should. That they’re my best friends and are there for me no matter what.
I don’t know why I isolate myself when things like this happen. Maybe it’s just that I hate anyone seeing me emotional.
Kira pinches my leg.
“Ow! What the heck?” I tug lightly on her hair. “Why’d you do that for?”
She doesn’t turn around. Just snuggles back into her comfortable position on my lap. “You’re not promising. Promise it, Brayden.”
Lying to her kills me. Unless we’re playing a prank on her, I can’t deal with lying to her. I hate it for some reason I can’t explain. “I’ll try my best,” I promise honestly, smoothing my hand down her hair.
It’s good enough for her. I can tell by her content silence. Kira believes in me. Thinks I can do anything.
I hug her from behind. I should leave it alone. She’s happy with my response. The conversation should end here.
“Hm?” She mumbles sleepily.
It’s eleven-thirty at night. We both have school tomorrow. Of course she’s tired.
“I need you to promise me something, too.”
She turns a little bit on my lap and stares up at me with those sleepy, big eyes. “Anything.”
Kira has a direct connection to my heart. Everything she does speeds it up. It’s so weird that it disturbs me sometimes.
I ignore it and focus on finding the right words to explain what I need from her. In the end, all I settle for is, “Please don’t push me away.”
She blinks up at me, confused. “Brayden, you’re never getting rid of me. BFFs for life, remember?”
I shake my head, frustrated with the tight knot in my throat. Why is asking her for this so hard? “You don’t get it. One day, I might be a huge jerk to you.”
That makes her sit up and face me fully. “You’re always a jerk to me.”
I’m still shaking my head. “No. I mean, worse of a jerk.”
Her little brow furrows. “Worse?”
She’s not getting it and this is harder than I imagined. I’m asking her . . . Damn, I’m asking her not to abandon me.
Even though one day I have a feeling I’m going to give her a good reason to do so.
Kira places her hand on my cheek and I instantly fall still. “Brayden, you annoy me all the time. But I’m your friend. I’ll always be your friend. Forever. I mean it.”
“What if I hurt you one day like my dad is always hurting the people around him?” The words leave me fast, real fast, but at least I finally got them out.
She seems offended on my behalf. “You’re not like him, silly.”
“I am,” I admit in a low voice. I’ve felt that violence stirring inside me. It’s there, waiting, like a dark shadow on the edges of my vision.
She slaps me on the shoulder and I hiss. “Don’t you ever say that again. It’s not true. You’re my bestest friend in the world and you wouldn’t be that if you weren’t awesome.”
I throw her against me and crush her in a hug. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t force the words out to let her know what that comment means to me, even though I’m screaming the words in my head.
“Can’t breathe, dummy,” she says against my neck.
She doesn’t sound like she’s suffocating, so I don’t let her go.
“Don’t ever push me away, Kira. I mean it. I won’t let you.”
“You’re never going to give me a reason to push you away.”
But I am. No matter what I do, one day I’m going to mess this friendship up just like my dad ruins everything around him.
I’m wired to do it.
And no matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to avoid it.