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Winner by Belle Brooks (1)

Prologue

 

 

A thick fog rolls like ashen-clouded smoke through alleyways—alleyways nobody in their right mind would step foot in this early in the morning on the west side of Hoffman. To a lost traveller, these streets resemble a well-designed set from a horror movie. To me, it’s the place I’ve always called home. If I had the ability to part the protective veil of thick air coating my current surroundings, I’d see crime being committed by a mob of vile and unforgiving vermin who lurk, armed with a need to destroy the lives of others. They are relentless. They show no mercy, and they didn’t bat an eyelash before they snatched Penny’s life from my fingertips.

I wish I could have held on to her tighter. I wish I wasn’t the loser I am ... then she wouldn’t have even been in this place to die.

There will never be justice for Penny, and I’m surprised if many will remember her here—where she came from, though, is a different story. There will always be a gold shrine with her name engraved in her home town. I should have sent her back home.

I bet her killers are out there, laughing at my expense. After all, the one who lunged the long steel blade into her neck told me to look away. I couldn’t. My love for Penny meant my vision would stay on her until she took her very last breath. From that day three months ago, everything changed. I’ve changed.

Walking this part of town in the dead of the night is a daily occurrence for me. I no longer sleep. I no longer eat. I’m barely existing.

Chilled air laps my cheek, and my nose is numb from the frost, but I keep walking aimlessly in the hope I can remove the images plaguing my memory. They taunt me. They are relentless.

It’s deep laughter at first, hauntingly deep, yet I don’t jolt or stop in my tracks—I’ve no fear, for if death were to greet me, I’d accept it with open arms. I miss Penny.

“You’re a loser.” A short cackle follows.

I can’t see him, but I sense him everywhere. He’s dancing in circles around me.

“What shall I do to you?”

It’s deathly quiet as I turn on my heels. I’m unable to see an inch in front of my nose, but I hold my hands up in protection of my face.

It’s a sudden loud cracking of my spine as I’m hit hard from behind in the arch of my back. The noise echoes, invading the silent night, and I lumber until I fall flat on my face. The pain wraps around my sides and meets at my belly button, causing me to hold my breath to ease the agony.

“Take his shoes. Check his pockets. Look for jewellery.” There’s more than one voice, and there are more than two hands yanking at my body. I should get up and fight, but I’ve no fight left in me. It’s laughable really when you take my size into consideration. They don’t call me Tank for any other reason than that I’m built to protect.

Two hard kicks land into my rib cage, and I gasp as my eyeballs fill with pressure to the point where they feel as if they’ll pop out of each socket. There’s tension around my ankles, and when my legs begin to lift I close my eyes and see Penny for the first time, not as she was when she was dying, but how she was when living. Cerulean eyes as deep as the Pacific Ocean are welcoming, and when her full lips stretch wide into a smile, I feel as if I’m where I belong—home with her.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

The sound rings out like fireworks before it’s replaced with fast-paced footsteps growing nearer with every millisecond.

“Fuck off. I’ll put a cap in your arses. I’ll fucking kill you.” It’s a familiar angered voice, one I heard for the very first time when I was eight years old and I was laid down against my will on a pavement like the one my cheek is resting on now. “Tank. Shit, Tank. You’re all right, mate. We’re here. Come on.”

“Blocker,” I groan.

“You’re lucky I heard you leave the house and woke the boys up ... Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

I grunt.

“Boys! Come on, help me lug his big arse home.”

The four lads surrounding me have had my back since the first day they saved me from my virgin mugging. It seems befitting they are here doing the same for me now.

“You’re a dickhead walking these streets, mate.” Rance is not wrong. I am.

“Can you stand?” The first face I focus on is the one belonging to Tardo, his narrowed lips and eyes to match express his obvious disappointment.

I’m used to being a disappointment. Hell, we all are.

They take turns holding me upright and helping me stumble home to the place we’ve shared since we graduated from high school together.

Falling into one of the tattered mismatched chairs at the kitchen table, I’m relieved to have these four faces in front of me.

“Penny wouldn’t want you doing this to yourself, Tank.” Sailor presses an icepack against my swollen cheek.

“I tried to save her. I tried to stem the flow of blood. She was so limp. It didn’t work. Nothing worked.” My throat tenses as I relive the final moments of Penny’s life for what will be the hundredth time today. Her arms, restrained behind her back at the hands of another. A silvery knife pressed to her throat. Penny’s eyes screamed her fear. I couldn’t do anything but watch the blade draw back and then lunge deep beyond her skin.

“You did everything you could.” Sailor’s dark brown eyes look into mine. “You need to stop blaming yourself.”

“She was shaking uncontrollably, and no matter what I do I can’t forget the fear in her eyes. Why didn’t we make her go home?” I pause, awaiting a response from Sailor. I’m not offered one. “It was selfish of me to think I could …” I stop, clenching my jaw shut from my anger. “I didn’t help Penny—I destroyed her.”

“You keep believing this, Tank, and you’re going to end up in the mad house. Pen was where she wanted to be, free from the controlled life she was born to lead. You know she’d want you to be out there making a difference in the world, not in here replaying what happened,” Tardo says, pulling my shirt up at my side.

“How are we meant to make any difference? We’re nobodies. We’re nothing. We’re losers. Nobody would piss on us if we were on fire. Dirt poor with not two cents to rub together.” I grimace from Tardo’s fingers prodding my rib cage.

“It’s time, Tank. You need to pack up and leave. You aren’t going to survive and see your twentieth birthday if you stay here.” Blocker’s steel grey-blue eyes search deep within me. “You need to find your strength again and go where you’ll get back on the right path. You know where that is, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I breathe, and I hate that he’s right. Deep down, I know that in order to do Penny’s memory proud, I need to leave. It’s just taken this mugging for me to see clearly.

I’ll go.

I’ll go back to the only place I’ve ever felt safe, even though it scares me like nothing else ever could. I must be accountable for my future. I must find my way.

This will be my only chance.

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