Her hands shook a little as she started unwrapping the box. Then she stopped, and took a few deep breaths. For a moment, she almost tucked it away again. Her eyes closed. He’d bought this there in town, hiding the bag and actually blushing a little when she’d caught him at it. Told her not to go peeking, that she’d spoil the surprise.
Slowly, she unwrapped the box. A note slid out when she opened it, followed by a small black box. With trembling fingers, she opened the note.
I know it’s early. Maybe too early. Maybe I’m an idiot. But I’ve watched too many things go by, and I don’t want you to be one of them. I don’t want this to be a fling, Stasya. Just think about it, alright?
Tears fell as she read it over and over again. Then she folded it in half again, and gently put it back in the box. It took her three tries to work up the nerve to open the small black box.
Inside was a necklace. Silver with a green stone, delicately wrought on an intricate chain. It was, quite possibly, the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Stasya fastened it around her neck, then tucked the little black box back into the larger box along with the carefully folded wrapping paper, and placed all of it back into her case.
One more deep breath, and then she squared her shoulders. She had a job to do. Stasya glanced one more time at the envelope sitting in the passenger seat, then she started the car.
Another F. She sighed, crumpled the test up into a ball, and tossed it into the trash before putting her head down on her desk. The bell rang a few minutes later, signaling an end to yet another bout of mindless school-related boredom. Coraline grabbed her backpack, and headed out the door.
Once upon a time, she’d taken the bus. That had been before. Her mother was waiting at the curb, and she didn’t miss the look of relief in her mother’s eyes the moment they caught sight of her. Two years, and her mother still had to take meds in order to let Coraline out of her sight. “How was your day, sweetheart?”
“Same as usual.” Failing five classes and only passing the sixth because Mrs. Greenberg couldn’t bring herself to flunk the little sister of her favorite student.
Her mother sighed and patted her leg before putting the car into reverse. “That bad, huh?”
Despite herself, she smiled. Then she shifted to pull her braid over her shoulder so she wasn’t leaning on it. Coraline started chewing the end of the thick black braid as they drove through town. “The principal called me in today to talk about the memorial. So, uh, you’re going to be getting a call.”
“I’ve asked you not to cuss at the administrators, Coraline.” Lidia sighed.
“I said I didn’t want to talk about it.” She shrugged. “He kept talking, then he asked what I thought. So, I told him.” She slouched in the seat. “Shouldn’t ask me what I think if he doesn’t want to know.”
“I…” Lidia nodded. “That’s actually what I told him last time he called. Are you suspended or is it just detention?”
“Neither, actually.” She flicked the end of her braid. “Mrs. Greenberg told him I wouldn’t have called him an asshole if he wasn’t being an asshole and spirited me out before he could do anything.”
“I always liked Wanda.” Lidia pulled into the garage, and they got out of the car.
Sean, her dad, greeted them both with kisses on the cheek when they entered. He worked at home now. None of them really went out anymore. She headed up to her room, passing both closed doors. A reporter had recently tried to come in to take pictures, but when her father had learned the man was from that sensationalist rag that had tried suggesting Adam was the killer he’d physically thrown the man out of the house. The unsolved slaughter and missing persons case was still big news around here.
The fucktard principal had pushed Adam to the side of the memorial. He hadn’t come right out and said it, but he was still one of the ones that thought the brother than had gone missing was the one responsible for the brother that had been killed. The bodies of Adam and his girlfriend had never been found. There had been no evidence of either taking part in the crime, and one of the cops had found footprints running into the swamp. What had happened was clear. Someone had killed her brother and his friends, and her other brother and his girlfriend had gotten away from the initial attack. For days, they’d hoped Adam and Wren would emerge, safe and sound. Some days she still did.
The house was two-story, and vaguely gingerbready. A massive oak tree dominated the back lawn, with a tire swing on one side and a bench swing on the other. The tree house in its middle branches was sturdy if crude, and from this vantage point she barely needed binoculars. Something carved into the bark caught her eye, and she leaned in. A heart, with AW + WT carved in the center. Stasya smiled at it bitterly before turning her attention back to the house.
Two cars pulled up to the front. Sooner than anticipated, but perhaps that was for the best. She started moving.
Coraline frowned at the men in the living room. Her father was clearly nervous, and her mother was all but wringing her hands. “Look, I really don’t know who you people are, but this is ridiculous.” Sean shook his head. “My daughter isn’t going anywhere with you.”
The gray-haired man who was clearly in charge of the other four sighed, then shifted his jacket to reveal he was carrying a gun. “Mr. Wu, this was not a request. She can get in the car and you can wave goodbye…” He narrowed his eyes. “Or we can shoot you and throw her in the trunk.”
Lidia grabbed hold of Coraline’s arm and shoved Coraline behind her. “You’re not taking my daughter.”
“Enough talk.” The man started to draw his gun and there was a loud popping sound. The back of the man’s head went away, splattering the two men behind him. Before the others could turn, two more of them were shot by a woman stepping into the room. The man nearest her grabbed her wrist, and the woman twisted. She kicked the side of his knee, making it bend in a way it was never meant to, then twisted so the man took the two bullets his friend fired before putting another round into him from her own gun. Then she let him fall before straight up kicking the gun out of the last guy’s hand, then coming in to grab the guy by the face and snap his neck. The last man dropped.
Coraline stared, then looked up at the woman. “Are you Sarah Conner…” She shook her head. “Or are you looking for her?”
The woman shrugged, and in a thick Russian accent said, “come with me if you want to live.”
There wasn’t a lot of family resemblance in the shape of their features. Coraline took after her mother, while Adam had clearly taken after his father. But she’d seen enough of Adam’s paintings to recognize them all. The problem was they weren’t moving. Adam’s father was having a minor freak out, talking about calling the police. Stasya pulled the cell phone out of her pocket, then pressed play on the video before tossing it to him.
All three of them went still at the sound of Adam’s voice. “Mom, Dad, Coraline, you need to run. Now. The people coming for you are not people you want to mess with. The police can’t help you. The woman who brought you this video can. I can’t explain now, there isn’t time, but Stasya will as soon as you are safe. Dad, these people were involved with the one who killed James and the others. I’m trying to… Look, just go with Stasya, please. You can trust her. She’s my friend, and she’s the only person in the world I trust. But she’s not bringing you to me, and I’m not coming to you. I’m not… I just can’t. I’m sorry. Whatever happens, know that I love all of you.”
She looked at the pale faces, watched as Adam’s father played the video a second time. Then he looked up at her. “You will explain?”
“When there is time.” She hesitated. “Your son is good man. Know that.”
“I do know that.” He stood, then turned to look at his wife and daughter. “Pack fast.”
The woman driving the car didn’t relax until they’d been on the road nearly an hour. Coraline was starting to doubt even a chainsaw could cut the silence when her mother finally spoke. “Where are you taking us?”
“Safe house. Operation was short notice. Need to get you new identities still.” The woman apparently hadn’t put on the accent for the one liner. Or if she had, she hadn’t dropped it yet. Then again, Stasya did sound like a Russian name.
“And then you can take us to Adam?” Coraline leaned forward. Her brother was alive. Adam’s face and voice on the video. His hair had been longer, and his face had slimmed a little, but it had been Adam. Her brother was alive.
“No.” Stasya kept driving.
“Miss, my son is —”
“Adam was very clear in his request.” Stasya shook her head. “I am to get you safe, get you started on new lives, and protect you. I am not to bring you to him. There is to be no contact. Is risk he cannot take.”
“My son is in danger.” Sean narrowed his eyes. “Ma’am, I…”
“Your son is brave man. If choice was his, he would be here. Choice is not. He sent me to protect you. Orders are clear.” Stasya’s face looked sad before she composed it again, and she touched the necklace she was wearing. “And I made him a promise.”
“You and my son are friends?” Lidia looked up.
“For past…” Stasya nodded. “More. He is my family. And he asked me to protect his. To keep you safe, even…” She exhaled. “From him. I will explain when we are far enough away.”
“I…” Sean shifted in the passenger seat. “What’s he doing now?”
“I hope…” Stasya’s smile was fierce. “Payback.”