Chapter Twenty Four

I sat there, frozen, for ten seconds before getting the courage to turn around and look at who had spoken to me.  When I did, I tried to sight with relief and suck in a startled gasp at the same time.  The result was a weird mewling sound in my throat.
 
“Stacey," I said, after clearing my throat.  She was there, standing behind my bench with a worried look on her face.  She looked exactly the same as the last time I'd seen her, but it felt like that had been a hundred years ago.  I swallowed hard and tried to act natural, “W- what's up?"
 
“I should be asking you that," she said slowly.  “Where have you been the past few days?"
 
“Oh, just," I waved my hand dismissively, “you know, around."
 
“Around," she echoed back, sounding unconvinced.  I gritted my teeth and unconsciously tightened my hold on Kimberly.
 
“Yes," I said.  “Around."
 
Stacey put her hands on the back of the bench, leaning on it.  “Your house collapses in the middle of the night, nobody can find any trace of you or your mom, and you want me to believe you've just been around?"
 
I jumped a little when she said this, feeling like somebody had dumped a bucket of ice water on me.  My house was collapsed?  I knew Hendricks had shaken it, but I'd had no idea he'd actually knocked the whole thing down.  What was I going to do now?  Where would Mom and I live?  I was snapped out of my thoughts when I realized Stacey was still talking.
 
“And now I find you sitting in the mall holding a little girl like nothing's wrong?"  She paused, and leaned in closer to look at Kimberly.  I tensed up, ready to jump to my feet and run when she demanded to know why I was holding a girl who was supposed to be dead.  “Who is she, anyway?"
 
My heart was hammering in my chest so hard I was surprised it didn't wake Kimberly up.  When I glanced down, I understood why Stacey hadn't recognized her.  Kimberly was still fast asleep on my shoulder, and her long hair hung down to cover the sides of her face.
 
“She's my niece," I answered after a moment's hesitation.
 
Stacey raised an eyebrow.  “I thought you didn't have any family in the state."
 
Crap!  Why did she have to remember this kind of stuff?
 
“Yeah, well, I do," I said lamely.
 
Stacey was quiet for a few seconds, searching me and Kimberly with judgmental eyes.  Part of me, the paranoid, irrational part that had started speaking much louder than it normally did, was screaming that she knew.  Why else would she be asking so many questions?  No, no, what little bit of rationality I still had insisted.  She's your friend.  Your house collapsed.  You and your mom both disappeared.  She's just worried about you!
 
“Amber," she said at last, “what's going on?"
 
“It's…" I stuttered. “It's really hard to explain.  I'm not allowed to say much."
 
It wasn't a total lie.  After all, if I told her the entire story, she would either run away screaming, or call the loony patrol.
 
Stacey frowned, and stood up straight.  “Fine, then," she huffed.  “If you don't want to tell your best friend, then fine.  Bye!"
 
She turned and marched off towards the nearby Hot Topic, her stiff movements revealing how pissed off she was.  It wasn't an act.  Watching her go, I tried to feel bad for lying to her, but instead I could only feel resentment.  She had no idea what I'd gone through over the past few days.  It wasn't that I didn't want to tell her, I couldn't tell her!  The least she could do was… I dunno, not act like I was stabbing her in the back or something!
 
“Huh?" Kimberly groaned, shifting a little as she woke up.  “Whuz goin' on?"
 
“Nothing," I said reaching up to run my hand through her hair.  “Everything's all right."
 
She moved, and I let her go so she could sit on my lap.  She yawned, rubbing her eyes.  She'd been asleep less than fifteen minutes, but the past couple of days had caught up to her.  That probably felt like a full eight hours to her.
 
“Feeling better?" I asked, speaking softly into her ear.
 
She stiffened for a moment, and then sniffled pitifully.  She held it inside her, though, and nodded.
 
“Good girl," I said, hugging her.  “That's my big, strong girl."
 
“I'm not your big, strong girl," she said stubbornly.  “You're not my mom."
 
I sighed.  At least she wasn't punching me anymore.
 
We sat there for a few more minutes before I suddenly became aware of someone's eyes on me.  My skin crawled, just like it had back at the funeral home, but this time I didn't really feel threatened.  I turned to look, and was surprised to see Tyler standing at the other side of the hall, a whole head taller than everybody around him.  D.K. was nowhere in sight.  When he saw me looking, he slowly began to make his way over.  I stiffened, but his movements were relaxed, and I got the feeling he wasn't going to hurt me.  Even so, Kimberly pressed herself closer to me, like she thought I would be any protection at all against a brute like him.  When he got to the bench, he bent over so he was whispering into my ear, his breath hot on my cheek.  It smelled like cigarettes.
 
“You shouldn't talk to people outside the pack.  D.K. wouldn't like it."
 
I gulped.  “Did you hear anything?"
 
He stood up and shook his head.  “No.  I won't tell D.K.  Just be careful."
 
With that, he turned and lumbered back in the direction he'd come, leaving me alone with Kimberly again.  I watched him go, confused.  D.K. was evil, Kaylie was evil, but Tyler almost seemed decent.  Almost.
 
I shook my head.  If D.K. told me himself not to speak to anybody outside the pack, I would have no choice but to obey.  But if all I ever heard were warnings from Tyler, I was under no obligation to listen to them.  It was a little scary, disobeying my alpha, even if it was indirectly.  On the other hand, I can't say I didn't like the tentative excitement that blossomed in my stomach when I thought about it.  I could get in serious trouble, but… I dunno, maybe it was worth it?
 
I had my mind made up even before I realized there was a decision to be made.  Tonight, I would sneak away from the pack and look at my old house.
 
 
 
NEXT TIME: You've all been saying she needs to grow a backbone.  Could this be her chance?

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